To save their world, the most powerful of the Om’ray left their homes. They left behind all memory of their past. Calling themselves the Clan, they settled among Humanity, hiding in plain sight, using their ability to slip past normal space to travel where they wished, using their ability to control minds to ensure their place and security.
They are no longer hidden.
For the Clan face a crisis. Their reproduction is tied to individual power, and their latest generation of females, Choosers, are too strong to safely mate. Their attempt to force others to help failed until Sira di Sarc, their leader and the most powerful of their kind, successfully Joined with a human, Jason Morgan, starship captain and telepath. With Morgan, Sira forged the first peace between her kind and the Trade Pact.
But it is a peace about to shatter. Those the Clan have controlled all these years will rise against them. Her people dying around her, war about to consume the Trade Pact, Sira will be left with only one choice. She must find the way back. And take the Clan home.
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. With seventeen (and counting) novels and numerous short stories in print, she’s also written acclaimed fantasy. Her Night’s Edge series (DAW) began with A Turn of Light, winner of the 2014 Aurora Award for Best English Novel. A Play of Shadow followed, winning the 2015 Aurora. Julie’s edited/co-edited sixteen anthologies of SF/F, including the Aurora-winning Space Inc. and Under Cover of Darkness. Her most recent anthology is the 2017 Nebula Award Showcase, to be published May 2017. 2017 will also see the completion of Julie’s Clan Chronicles, with the conclusion, To Guard Against the Dark, in stores October 2017. Please visit www.czerneda.com.
Read an Excerpt
FINGERS, four and a thumb, tapped the metal edge of the vent. The fingers were dark blue from tip to second joint, as if dipped in paint.
Or pox blood.
The fingers gripped and pulled. The covering grate came free without sound or resistance, revealing an opening twice the span of those fingers spread wide.
The right hand led the way, scrabbling into the pipe. Body parts, riding on tough fleshy limbs and careful of clothing, followed in turn. The head produced eyes to survey the shadowed rooftop, but didn’t tarry. It ducked through the opening, canting forward so its well- ecured hat went first.
The left hand did what it could to pull the grate into place behind it, breaking a nail. Regardless, it subvocalized a chuckle.
At last, their time had come.
Barrels waited on their racks, the more costly brews festooned with cobwebs and dust. A pair of aged portlights hovered near the rafters, their fitful glow doing little to dispel the gloom. The cellar’s chill suited only one of those gathered around a table made from two empty barrels and a sheet of real wood, and only one felt sufficiently at ease to sit on a stool.
Board Member Theo Schrivens Cartnell, representative for the Human species in the conglomeration of mutual interests known as the Trade Pact, trusted he appeared at ease and not exhausted. To reach Stonerim III unremarked, he’d traveled in a succession of starships, each more decrepit than the one before. In the last, he’d had the choice of being crammed together in a cabin with itinerant Lemmicks or Turrned Missionaries. He should have gone with the missionaries. After vomiting most of his insides at the stench, the rest of the journey had passed in a haze. He’d staggered into the first portcity hotel for a bath and change of clothing.
And the last of his stims.
What mattered was this gathering; typically, an important member wasn’t here. Late, he hoped, or waiting to make an entrance.
Risky, with such as these. Cartnell lifted his glass in a gloved hand and pretended to admire the bubbles rising through the tawny liquid as his stomach roiled in protest. “Rare, this,” he said. “Sure you won’t join me?”
The other Humans in the room, a slim woman with her face hazed behind a vis- hield and an even slimmer man, his face pocked and scarred, didn’t move. “Time’s wasting,” she said, her voice distorted. “You called us. Get to the point.”
“I accept and gladly.” A callused palm engulfed a glass, ivory- tipped fingers clicking together like castanets. The contents were drained in a single swallow. As Brill went, the male was almost dainty, no bulkier than a very large Human. Still, he’d opened his coat with an exclamation of relief. Warmth was a trial, given those layers of blubber and thick leathery skin, and the land above the cellar was in the midst of a tropical summer.
It couldn’t be helped. This was their first—the only—chance to meet. They couldn’t do so for long.
Not with the aliens known as Clan on all their worlds.
Not with what the Clan could do.
Cartnell put down his glass and stood. No more codenames.
“Cartnell, Board Member.” He pulled a datadisk from his pocket and set it on the table.
“We know who you are.” The other Human male touched finger to forehead and smiled without humor. “Sansom Fry, Deneb Blues.” Fry put a second disk by the first. “My contribution.”
The woman passed her hand in front of her vis- hield, shutting it off. Tiny black spiders spilled across her forehead and along her right cheek to her chin, tattoos that shifted and seemed to crawl with each movement of her lips. “Ambridge Gayle. Grays.” Without hesitation, she tossed her disk on the table; it tumbled to meet the rest.
“I never thought to see Deneb’s syndicate heads in the flesh, let alone in the same room. If you can do this, friend Cartnell, I am confident of wonders!” The Brill smacked his thick lips, then struck his chest with a curled fist. “Manouya!”
Fry’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Who?”
“You know him as the Facilitator.” Gayle raised a brow, spiders scurrying in accent. “Whom I never thought to meet. Greetings.” A gracious nod, during which her eyes didn’t leave the others.
“You?” With deliberate disbelief. “Behind every major smuggling ring within Human space?”
“Why not me?” The Brill hit his chest again. “We’re smarter than any of you. Who do you think got you here, safe and secret? Who’ll get you back?”
“Is that a threat?” Gayle said, her voice like the flow of silk over steel.
He’d be lucky if they didn’t kill one another first. Cartnell coughed. “If we could move along, please?”
Manouya chuckled. “Here’s my share.” A fourth disk landed on the table.
He’d planned for five. There should be—
So be it. Cartnell pushed aside the tray with its offerings and replaced it with a reader, outwardly typical of its kind. “This will copy across, once each disk is activated. As agreed, what we’ve brought will be shared with all.”
“And better be worth this nonsense,” Fry said, gesturing to their surroundings. He smiled unpleasantly. “Or someone dies.”
If not “worth this,” nothing was. Cartnell loaded the disks into the reader, their stubby ends protruding. “Then I’ll go first. As you know, the Clan’s advantage is that they can pass as Human.”
“And there are more of you than anything else,” grumbled Manouya. “There are,” he stated as the others glared at him. “You’re everywhere.”
“It’s not coincidence.” Cartnell licked a finger, touching its damp tip to the disk end. An image glowed above the table, brighter than the portlights. It was a chart of the richest, oldest Human- ettled span of the Trade Pact, the so- alled Inner Systems.
What drew those viewing it an involuntary step closer, staring, was the red staining most of those worlds. “I give you the Clan.”
The Brill rumbled in dismay.
Fry’s fist rose, then fell to his side.
“Caraat claimed his kind were everywhere. Inescapable. That foul—” Gayle cursed, tattooed spiders writhing along her lips. “I shouldn’t have come here,” she finished harshly, but made no move to leave.
“ ‘Caraat’?” A Clan name. Cartnell frowned, withdrawing his hand from the map. “Our arrangement’s full disclosure. Who is he?”
“Yihtor di Caraat,” Fry said heavily. Gayle shot him a dire look; he spread empty hands. “You didn’t think the crasnig was exclusive, did you? He dealt with anyone who could afford him.”
An unfamiliar name, itself a shock, but what twisted inside Cartnell’s gut like fire was the realization of who this Yihtor must be. Had to be.
Three Human scientists had succumbed before anyone made the connection. They’d been in different systems; their projects, classified at the highest levels, in different fields. None knew the other, yet all three had been found curled in a fetal position, their once- rilliant minds ripped apart and barely functional.
One of them, Sarran Coffler. His Sarran.
They’d studied together as young men, Sarran’s intellect like radiance itself. Fallen in love as fiercely as only first love could and might have been lifemates—should have been, Cartnell thought with that old and ugly pain—but for work they loved more. Oh, they’d kept in touch over the years. Always, they’d kept in touch. By vid, lately, being busy. Lazy. He should have visited. Made the time.
Too late. Seeing the name in the newsfeed, he’d cleared his schedule in frantic haste, tracked Sarran not to a hospital, but a hospice. There’d been a window. Flowers. Air rank with piss. He’d stood, looking down. At a body still fit and cared for. At a face, slack and drooling. Into brown eyes, terrible, empty brown eyes...
Cartnell swallowed bile.
He’d walked away, each step burning aside grief to leave one goal: to find who’d destroyed Sarran and how. Locking himself in his office, he’d sat at his desk and, for the first time in his career, used his executive codes to override protocol and privilege. Anything about Sarran’s case—cases—came to him. Nothing led back. No one would be allowed to stop him.
Reports flooded in, of no use. Cartnell’d widened his search and there it was: a neglected, overlooked message from a lowly Port Authority constable, suggesting a link: all three scientists had been sensitives—their minds not telepathic but receptive, making them vulnerable to those with full abilities. The usual precaution, keeping away Human telepaths, hadn’t been enough, the message went on to claim, because the culprit might have been Clan.
Cartnell’d followed any and every rumor, building a startling profile of an alien race living among Humans, as Humans. A race defined by wealth and power—being telepaths of unknown ability—without a single official document to confirm their existence, nor a single complaint registered against them, anywhere, ever, until this one Port Jelly sent her message.
His searches had an echo. The Port Jelly was slipping through channels, way outside her pay grade or clearance, hunting news of the Clan. Cartnell made a decision. Working from the dark, he arranged for the curious constable to be offered a post as a Trade Pact Enforcer, entitled to work offworld, then made sure she was assigned Sarran’s case and any like it. Any request she made was granted, including the implantation of experimental mind- shields in her and those working with her.
Soon he had a report on his desk detailing rumors of a Clan renegade—or group—who’d flouted the laws of their kind and sold their Power. Nothing proven.
Nothing ever was, but whatever else had been suspicion about the Clan became fact, insofar as he was concerned. They existed. He had them under scrutiny. As for Sarran’s destroyer? He’d taken comfort there’d been no more minds lost.
Freed from a meaningless career digging through musty cargo holds, the former Port Jelly—with Cartnell’s now-public endorsement—advanced to Sector Chief, with a ship of her own and a reputation for results.
A shame he hadn’t realized what else she was. “Are you still in contact with him?” Cartnell asked quietly. “Yihtor di Caraat?”
Gayle stiffened. “No. And I don’t plan to be.”
“Caraat’s dropped from sight.” Fry stared at the map. “He wouldn’t like this. He wouldn’t like this at all.”
“I don’t.” Manouya’s wide shoulders hunched. “So many Clan. Too many!”
“Too few,” corrected Cartnell. He fought a wave of familiar dizziness. It would pass. He’d time. “Don’t let this fool you. The Clan are scattered. Each of these—” he pointed at a red world “—has but one. At most, a small family.”
“Fool us? I think you’ve been fooled, Cartnell.” Gayle nodded at the map. “Caraat paid for ships to deliver luxury items, nothing but the best. Furnishings. Food. You name it. For more than a family, believe me. Where’s his world on your map, Cartnell? What about Acranam?”
The name of the Clan’s remote and solitary colony, a colony for which they’d offered no explanation. So much becoming clear at once—calm, he told himself. Calm and control. “Acranam’s different, yes. There are twenty-nine families living there.” He paused for effect. “Less than two hundred Clan.”
She stared at him. “That’s—that’s not possible.”
“Might be.” Fry stuck his thumb in his mouth, then pressed it to his disk. A vid appeared, showing a wide street ending in dense jungle. The image moved from side to side, picking out buildings with windows but no doors. The viewpoint soared up, and foliage met over rooftops, hiding them; beyond, foliage stretched unbroken to the horizon. “Scans are useless—traded top of the line blockers to him myself— so I had my people drop a ’bot—what?” at Gayle’s shake of her head. “Caraat disappeared mid- ontract. For all I knew, the whole place had been wiped out. Besides, I wanted some leverage. In case it wasn’t.”
“It’s always tech with you.” Gayle spat tidily, catching the moisture midair with a finger’s tip, touching that to her disk. “Now this is leverage.” Numbers stacked themselves in tidy rows, then clustered. Lines drew between certain groups, names appearing in color along them. “While you took pretty pictures, my people uncovered those managing Caraat’s offworld finances, as well as those of other known Clan. More than a few remain—how shall I put it?—free agents. Accessible.” Spiders danced to her smile. “I’ve left them be, for now.”
“I’d say that beats you, Blue.” Manouya chuckled at Fry’s dour look, then wiped sweat from his cheek, dripping the result on his disk. Green ripples appeared in Cartnell’s chart, seemingly random until they converged around three points. “The Clan can’t be tracked,” the Brill said, “but lately they’ve drawn attention.” An ivory nail went to the first point. “Plexis? Fair enough. Who doesn’t shop there?” It moved to the next. “Ret 7. Some nasty business there, I’m told, but all’s been quiet since.” The final point. “Camos, however, remains active. Why?”
“Their ruling Council met there,” Cartnell supplied. “Probably still does.”
Predators in the wild gained that intent focus.
When Cartnell didn’t elaborate, Manouya shrugged. “The Clan might be tricky to spot; not so a heavy cruiser. I found it fascinating, Board Member, how often Sector Chief Lydis Bowman, one of your Trade Pact Enforcers, has taken her ship to a world with a confirmed Clan presence.”
Fascinating wasn’t the word he’d use. Cartnell held his tongue.
Fry’s eyes sharpened. “I know that name.”