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Beholder's Eye

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Beholder's Eye

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Author: Julie E. Czerneda
Publisher: Science Fiction Book Club, 1999
DAW Books, 1998
Series: Web Shifters: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

They are the last survivors of their race, beings who live on and communicate through energy, who are capable of assuming the shape of any other species. When their youngest member is assigned to a world considered safe to explore, she is captured by the natives. To escape, she must violate the most important rule of her kind, and reveal the existence of her species to a fellow prisoner - a human being.

Now her race is in danger of extinction, for even if the human does not betray her, the Enemy who has long searched for her people may finally discover their location...


Excerpt

Out There

YOU could die here. Repair shops and the law were a week away, translight. And the hazards of the Fringe arrived in the blink of an eye: a blocked air hose, a cracked panel, a visitor tempted by opportunity.

Of course--flip side of risk--you could strike it rich. You could even live long enough to enjoy it. So you cared for your equipment--and tried for crew that valued their own hides.

The crew of the starship that nestled against the mid-sized asteroid, sharing its skewed orbit around sister stars, knew all this. They lay awake in their bunks, counting on their future, listening to the ship's mauler as it chewed into the metal-rich rock like the teeth of a lamprey into the body of a hapless fish. Few more weeks--the ship's stomach would be full, and they'd all be rich.

Counting on a future in the Fringe was dangerous. That asteroid night, Death came in along the ecliptic, undetected until it cracked the starship's hull and began to hunt.

"Mayday... May--" The screams for nonexistent help ceased almost at once.

The mauler didn't pause. It ground its way deeper, the rich ore tumbling into the holds, that growl the only sound echoing in the empty corridors.

The corridors where Death searched, still hungry.


1: Moon Morning

"ESEN-ALIT-QUAR." Those with mouths chanted my name for the third and last time, echoes rattling down the cliff like loose stones.

Welcome home.

I tried to savor the moment, then gave up. There were too many new memories intruding on the familiar. Maybe it was the aftermath of all that had happened, not the least being the return trip from Rigel II. I'd gone from barely escaping with my life to almost being enlisted in a war. About the only good thing had been the relief of being anonymous again.

So now I was home, which to some species meant a birthplace. To me, and those with me, home was wherever the Web gathered. Today's home was Picco's Moon, early morning, and bitterly cold.

Everyone present, except Ersh. I suspected glumly she'd sent the meeting call from her rocky moon the day I'd left on my disastrous mission to Kraos.

"Esen-alit-Quar," intoned the voices again, as if impatient.

"I'm ready," I mumbled, which was technically true.

I stood, tongue loose and panting, and watched the members of my Web take their places around me. Ansky was over to my left. She was agitated enough to be midcycle, more rainbow than flesh, likely radiating heat as she fought to control the energy waiting to be released by her every molecule. No support there. Still, I found it reassuring one of my Elders could be in such a state. Whenever we cycled into other forms, it required a sacrifice of our mass into energy to distort and bend our essential structure, energy that in part remained within that structure, a potential like the compression of a spring. Releasing form, like releasing that spring, had its inevitable results. Learning to return to web-form without damaging the neighborhood with pyrotechnics was the first, basic lesson of our kind. If Ansky was struggling with this, I decided uncharitably, maybe my own recent performance wasn't so bad.

As usual, Mixs had been late, scampering to her place on the six legs of her preferred form. Personally, I found her about as compassionate as the Hive species she lived with most often. There's one who wouldn't forgive a loss of control.

The other two, Skalet and Lesy, stopped chanting my name, abruptly in web-form. They looked revoltingly cheerful. As if none of the others had ever made mistakes, I thought to myself, making sure the memory remained private.

Where was Ersh?

The wind was damp and stank of sulfur. The Web met where Ersh decided; today's decision did not bode well for me. I avoided the cliff edge, knowing from experience that its jagged plunge made me queasy. There wasn't a scrap of vegetation in sight, not that Picco's Moon was overly life-endowed; what there was huddled in the immense cracklike valleys girdling the equator. The rising bulge of Picco itself on the horizon was its usual eye-straining orange and purple. When fully exposed, the giant gas planet's lurid reflection did truly nauseating things to the local landscape. The distant white sun gave up the struggle to produce color except during the occasional eclipse.

But the place was old with tradition. The footsteps, or whatever, of the Web had worn the path up to this rocky pinnacle smooth during the last millennia. It was remembered by all of us as "the peak where truth is shared." There were other, nastier connotations, but I refused to remember them.

A soft thump and shuffle. Then a wheezing sound. The sequence repeated, growing louder. Louder to me, anyway, since I was the only one currently with ears. I watched the edge where the worn stone stairs led to the top.

First the knobby end of a stick appeared, thump, then the wispy gray-haired head of the very, very old Human female using it as a cane. Her breath wheezed in, fluttered as if stuck, then wheezed out again. Her feet shuffled along the rock as if reluctant to part from it.

There were reassuring gasps, twitters, and color changes around me. Ersh, in Human form? She hadn't used it in at least three hundred years--certainly never in front of me. When I was very young, I used to wonder why. When Ersh judged me old enough to share her memory of Humans, I knew.

Ersh's years didn't translate well as a Human. Her steps were as labored as her breathing. She was naked despite the wind, her skin hanging like tatters of cloth on her bones as she made her slow way to the sixth and last place in the Web.

Her bright black eyes found and impaled me. I felt my ears go flat against my head and my tail slip between my legs; I panted as my body temperature soared, an instinctive dump of energy as I fought the urge to cycle. To lose form because of an emotional response would not impress Ersh.

Those eyes were anything but feeble, despite her form. And the other message about Ersh and the Human species was plain before us all, aimed at me, no doubt. Form-memory was unforgiving. Her thin right arm ended halfway above the elbow in a smooth blunt tip--a reminder that as a Human Ersh had sacrificed her flesh rather than cycle before aliens.

No, this wasn't going well. I straightened up. "I'm ready to share, Senior Assimilator," I said as steadily as I could. I released my hold on the molecules of my body with relief, cycling back into my web-form, feeling echoing releases of energy warm the air as Ansky and Mixs did the same. I concentrated on maintaining my outline in the proper flawless teardrop.

No touch, no hearing, no sight, no sense of smell. Yet in my web-form I was exquisitely sensitive to other, rarer things: the complexities of chemical structure, the dizzying spin of stars and atoms, the pervading harmony of electromagnetism. The gravity of the planet was like a deep throbbing heart above me, the moon's a soft counterpoint.

The wonder of it all usually took me a moment to grasp. Today, I almost ignored the change, busy interpreting information about my Web. Skalet and Lesy were struggling to keep their shape integrity, losing it once or twice. Typical-- they were easily rattled by Ersh. Then Ersh herself, next to invisible to me as a Human, became clear in all the perfection of her web-form.

I tasted her message in the wind. Share.

This was it. I shunted my private memories deeper within. There was no point taking chances with Ersh in this mood. Then I spread, elongating myself from teardrop to five reaching arms, offering one to each of the other web-forms, keeping central only the minimum mass I needed to maintain personal survival. I sensed their mouths form and open wide, tooth ridges sharp and uneven. They closed in and began to feed.

For an instant, I wondered what beings of other species would think if they could see us now, like this. Could those outside the Web possibly understand? We had no equivalents for words like agony or pleasure. In sharing, the giving of mass has more to do with endurance than pain, and certainly is more like duty than ecstasy. Even for us, being consumed is a fundamental threat to life, and the instinct to cycle and survive has to be fought. How could I explain that winning that battle, to offer life in trust, brings a wonderful joy, an intensity of belonging and acceptance? Without this understanding, all that would be seen was the horror of their feasting.

Why had I thought horror? The urge to flee suddenly threatened to overwhelm me. I kept myself whole by remembering the joy and belonging from other times, holding it like a shield against each hungry bite, each slice of tooth through my flesh.

I'd never had so much to share. Their feeding seemed to go on for hours. So, by the end, there was very little of me left. For a time, I sensed extinction and wavered, wondering if this was Ersh's judgment.

Then the command came. Feed. I found the strength to form a mouth of my own somehow, but not to move. Feed. Substance in my mouth. I bit down and ripped a piece free, chewed. Ersh-taste. Ersh-memory. I felt myself grow, enlarged my mouth, ate faster. Ansky-taste, now Skalet. One after another, my kin gave me their mass in exchange for mine, the transfer precise and totally satisfying.

At some point, they left me. I huddled, alone on the rock, to assimilate what I had been given. It takes a while to weave the threads of five other memories, to take living pieces of five other lives and work them into your own. I struggled to detach information from personality, to hold what was Esen intact and free of the influence of those others, respectfully shedding what I dared not keep as moisture to the air, each evaporating droplet a spark of cold on my surface. Ersh, as Senior Assimilator, had always fed from them first, then given all to me presorted. I supposed, having got myself into so much trouble, Ersh felt I'd grown beyond such pampering.

I wasn't in a hurry anyway. I knew what the others were assimilating in turn. My memories of Kraos. And my adventures with the Humans.

2: Planet Day

KRAOS. My first mission. I had been so proud, so sure of myself. Too sure, as things turned out.

Ersh's warnings, which I in my wisdom ignored, were all variations on the same theme: "It's different on your own, Youngest." Different? Of course it would be, I'd said to myself. I'd at last be free of their advice, their decisions, and, most importantly, their belief that as youngest, I was least.

Or did Ersh think I was a fool? I knew how essential it would be to maintain shape on Kraos--to think and be what I appeared. Or did she (and the others) simply expect me to fail? Well, I was confident enough for all the Web. Especially when I learned the camouflage best suited to my mission was the canidlike Lanivarian, my birth shape. It would be no real test of my skill to cycle and hold shape, if that was all I had to be. I suspected Ersh had chosen my assignment in order to give me that advantage--implying I'd need all the help I could get.

Unfortunately, Ersh was right. I hated that.

My rude awakening had come the instant the clouds overhead consumed the shuttle, leaving me alone on the Kraosian mountaintop. I'd panicked, releasing my shape integrity so quickly it was a wonder Skalet didn't pick up the heat signature from orbit. I'd quivered and oozed in web-form, tasting the alien wind as it tried to coat me with dust.

My next coherent act was to lodge myself out of sight. Exposing web-form to alien eyes was forbidden. This wasn't difficult, given Skalet's choice of my drop-off site. There was a small, hard-to-find cave nearby for me to hide in, though Skalet had expected me to use it to hold any artifacts I decided to collect.

In the cave's womblike darkness, I argued, pleaded, begged, and threatened myself--to no avail. Every few hours, I would gather my nerve, sacrifice mass into the needed energy, summon form-memory, and cycle into Lanivarian form. I'd set my paws on the path out of the cave, ready to take the road down to the city where the subjects of my work waited.

And I'd revert to web-form in a blaze of exothermic energy. The cave was soon black with soot.

I had nightmares about a curious Kraosian peering in at me. Forget the potential for disaster inherent in my virtually exploding at the beginning of any conversation; I had to worry about the result if the poor creature survived and witnessed my resulting cycle into web-form. Kraos was an untouched world, without even literature to hint at the possibility of extrakraosian life. I could start some.

But Skalet wouldn't be back for another ten planet years. How long could I stay locked up by my own stage fright? My Lanivarian form began to fray at the thought; I cycled back to web-form just in time to stave off another cataclysm.

I recalled Ersh's advice when I had left her. If I couldn't sustain my form, she'd said--the mere suggestion of which I'd found offensive at the time--go back to basics and retrain myself. Really going back wasn't an option for the next ten solar orbits. I settled in my cave to relearn from my own memories.

The teardrop web-form is the original, root-shape of my kind. Changing shape--cycling--to match our molecular structure to that of our surroundings is an instinctive response to danger. Fortunately, this instinct is so far back in the Web's past that it happens only rarely. As Youngest, I could testify that it is very humiliating to have one's edges trying to match a curtain or floor under stress.

Harnessing this instinct to cycle from one form to another involves learning fine control. Acquiring this control, I'd found, has less to do with being taught than it has to do with being tormented by one's peers. It is like humanoid children who taunt one another to see who can hold their breath longest.

I, of course, am not and have never been a child. I may be Recent, but then, that's our way.

Copyright © 1998 by Julie E. Czerneda


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