Ten years is a long time. It’s long enough for a new writer to practice and learn—hopefully. It’s long enough for a career as a writer to take hold and grow. By the time I completed the second book about Sira and Morgan,
Ties of Power,
I knew the Clan’s problem couldn’t properly be explored and resolved in a three-book story arc. By the time I finished the third,
To Trade the Stars,
Sheila and I were talking about my move to hardcover with another project entirely,
my most ambitious work to date.
It was then I realized what I really wanted to do. When the time was right, I would go back, not to Sira and Morgan, but to the Clan itself. I would show how they became what they are by the time
A Thousand Words for Stranger
begins. I would use all the notes and thoughts I’d had over ten years, and put everything in motion. Thus the two books of Stratification,
Reap the Wild Wind
Riders of the Storm,
where I show not only how the Clan became divided, with some coming to live among Humans, but why.
After that . . . it’s time to finish. In the two books of
which I’m presently writing, I’ll return to where I started as a writer. To Sira and Morgan. I’ll pick up their story and weave it into that of the Clan. And I will end it, at last.
Ten years. A memorable birthday for my first novel and my career.
The opportunity to write the true beginning and end of the story that started it all.
I’m so excited. You’ll have to excuse me.
It’s time for Sira and Morgan again.
Julie Czerneda Orillia, Canada
THE sign was rain-smeared and had never been overly straight. P’tr wit ’Whix spared one eye to read it as he passed, then chuckled to himself: “Fabulous Embassy Row? Tours daily?” Then again, he thought, why not? After all, Embassy Row was about the only thing worth touring on Auord.
The necessities of a shared government meant interspecies embassies on every Trade Pact world, no matter how insignificant the world—or the species. And convenience clustered the embassies together, hence Embassy Row, a street along which building styles ranged from the unlikely fluted domes of the Skenkran, barely anchored to the ground, to the lumps of plas-coated imported mud favored by ambassadors from Ret 7.
Tonight, however, the tour cars sat as empty as the street itself. The first rains of the season had arrived early, setting up a cheerful cacophony from the chimes Auordians strung from every lamppost and door, whether allowed to or not. But a chill wind had slipped in with the rain, and the benefits of seeing and being seen were apparently not enough for most to brave the cold dampness.
Which was a shame, ’Whix thought. He himself was not fond of uncontrolled water, yet he appreciated that other beings would find the effect quite attractive. Reflectedlights sparkled over the buildings and their grounds, lifting each from the dark. Along the avenue itself, the lamps lining the walkways on either side cast circles of brightness that danced across the wet pavement, transforming its surface into a mosaic of gems.
’Whix’s momentary fancy quickly turned to a muted but shrill curse in his native tongue, as his three-clawed foot landed with a splash in one of those light-begemmed puddles.
It would have to rain on his shift, not his partner’s. It had to be ’Whix out in the drizzle, feeling water flattening the feathers of his crest; ’Whix the one with icy drops sliding under the upraised collar of his uniform, soaking the feathers of his back.
Muscles twitched maddeningly in a reflex, and ’Whix shuddered with the effort not to shake out the moisture. He knew from experience his magnificent crest would only stick out wildly in all directions, like a chick’s, until the rain matted it against his head again.
Proper grooming was the only answer, combined with a good rub under a dryer and probably some of his hoarded supply of bertwee oil. All things considered, there was a lot to be said for a space assignment.
’Whix rolled down one eye to check his wrist chrono, keeping his other eye faithfully fixed on the pair he followed. His vision, even under these conditions, was keen enough to let him keep a block and a half behind the two—which was why night surveillance fell to him and not his Human partner, Russell Terk.
The walkway lights were spaced to provide convenient pools of darkness between them, room enough for packages to be exchanged unnoticed, or for a walking couple to slip in and out of sight. ’Whix swung both his eyes forward, and details of the two ahead jumped into clear focus.
Reflected light played over the female’s elaborately jeweled headpiece—an alluring object of apparel, ’Whix decided, as well as practical. The headpiece covered most of the female’s face as well as her hair. Her male companion was bareheaded—caught, like ’Whix, without protection from the change in weather. His hair was either black or darkened by the rain. The richly dressed pair could have passed for Human, if ’Whix hadn’t known they were Clan.
Which was why he trailed them. And why he trailed them at a distance. The Clan were not members of the Trade Pact, being uninterested in alliances of any kind. No Clan Embassy sparkled here in the dark; not surprisingly, since there was no Clan world to represent. The few Clan known to live within Trade Pact space kept to themselves and by themselves, living alone on their isolated estates on Human worlds, preferring the established inner systems where their wealth could be spent in privacy. The latest estimate, doubtless as inaccurate as it was secret, placed their number at a mere thousand.
So to see one of the Clan on a fringe world like Auord was unusual. To see two together sent alarms ringing through any Trade Pact Enforcer who knew them. ’Whix clicked his beaked mouthparts together thoughtfully. His commander knew the Clan better than most. Which was why applicants to her personal staff were offered a choice: accept a still-experimental mind-shield implant or work elsewhere. ’Whix had to admit the surgeon had done an excellent job of preserving his feathers. It remained to be proved whether the device could protect him from the Clan.
True telepaths were rare among Humans, scarce at best among the three other Trade Pact species who claimed that power, and completely absent in most. The Clan, rumor had it, were all telepaths of extraordinary ability. Rumor also said that they disdained mental contact with any species other than their own. ’Whix hoped that was true. But like any rumor, the source was suspect.
Trailing at a distance did have its disadvantages. When a tight group of figures boiled from the darkness of a side street, ’Whix was too far away to do more than bleat a bulletin into his throat com as he started running. Almost as suddenly, he hesitated, slowed to a walk. His orders were specific: to observe the Clan, not interfere.
But it was hard to only watch.
’Whix made out six assailants closing in on the two, now halted under one of the streetlamps. The attackers seemed unarmed, but he doubted it. At a minimum, each probably carried one or more impact clubs, the easily concealed but deadly device popular among hit-and-run criminals on Auord.
’Whix saw the Clansman step quickly in front of his companion, drawing a force blade from his belt. He waved its blazing tip slowly, expertly. For a moment, all was frozen and silent except for the rain drumming on the sidewalk and the drops hissing to steam on the white hot blade.
’Whix admired the Clansman’s choice of defense. Knowing the Clan’s avowed dislike of technology, the blade was a nice compromise. And most criminals of ’Whix’s experience vastly preferred a stunner headache to losing body parts. Still, force blades were uncommon— their use took skill, not to mention that they were illegal on most worlds. ’Whix found himself looking forward to the battle.
A cry from the darkness cracked the tableau and launched the attack. Four figures moved toward the Clansman while two others tried to dodge past to reach the Clanswoman he protected. Screams echoed amid the snap-crack of clubs.
A groundcar, sirens whining, wheeled around the corner. Port Authority, ’Whix knew immediately, not his backup. Commander Bowman would not be pleased if the locals interfered. ’Whix clicked his beak, thought longingly of hot oil, and broke into a run, spreading his arms for balance.
Meanwhile, the battle was hardly one-sided. Four bodies already sprawled amid the pools of light, blood spreading to mingle with the puddles and rain. The Clansman stood facing the remaining two, his blade lifted like a dare.
Something rose, hung for an instant in the air, then plunged toward the Clansman. ’Whix squawked a warning as he threw himself flat. A sear of heat, accompanied by a whomp of sound, signaled the explosion of the blast globe.
’Whix cautiously tried each of his joints. The Port Authority car slid to a stop beside him. He ignored the shouts from its occupants as they spotted him and ordered him to wait. Their waving lights made a distracting flicker along the dome of his eye lens.
’Whix tossed his head, feeling his blast-dried feathers lift and settle into their proper regal positioning. Shame it was still raining. He made sure his Pact insignia was in his hand as he trotted over to the heap of scorched and broken bodies. No ground authority would interfere with a Pact Enforcer—in theory, at least. The Trade Pact, and its Enforcers, protected the rights of all signatory sentient species. But Auord’s Port Authority was known to be touchy.
The blast had been confined, relatively minor, which made sense if capture, not murder, was the intent. It had, however, killed the two who had—to that point—survived the Clansman. The Clansman himself, remarkably intact, lay half under one of those bodies.
The attackers were all native Auordians, ’Whix noticed without surprise, Auord being a world where morals rarely put food on the table. He sniffed delicately. Tolians had lousy noses, if truth be told, except for a fine sensitivity to dead flesh, fresh or rotten—a talent the Tolians wisely chose to keep to themselves when off-planet.
He swung his head up, catching the sound of doubled footsteps echoing in the distance—the globe-tosser and accomplice making their escape.
’Whix immediately dismissed the notion of giving chase. He knew what Bowman would have to say if he left the Clansman for Port Authority.
’Whix eased back on his haunches to pick up a scrap of something that caught the light. It was the jeweled head-dress the Clanswoman had worn. But where was she? ’Whix straightened, looked around, but saw no body, or piece of a body, that belonged with the jewels in his hand.
Wait. His eyes swung forward, straining to see. There she was, down the street, a small figure just visible through the sheets of rain. Somehow she must have escaped the worst of the explosion, possibly thrown or pushed clear. ’Whix watched her until she stumbled into a side street and was gone. He activated his com again.
The two corpsmen bustled up, hoods pulled up against the rain. “We’ll take over, Enforcer.”
’Whix didn’t answer until he had finished transmitting his message. “Trade Pact jurisdiction,” he said then, his trill automatically translated into a tinny Comspeak that issued from a device embedded beneath the feathers of his throat.
The two from Port Authority exchanged glances before looking at ’Whix again. One, a stocky Auordian, actually put her hand on the stunner strapped to her leg. “This looks local to us,” she said in a no-nonsense voice. “You know something we don’t, I suggest you share it. Otherwise, head back to the shipcity where you belong, flyboy.”
’Whix rocked back on his powerful haunches, ready for action, his long clawed feet on either side of the now-groaning Clansman, although this meant stepping in a spreading pool of warm red. “This is a Trade Pact matter,” he repeated.
“He doesn’t have to, Corpsman,” said a harsh voice from above their heads. ’Whix didn’t bother looking up, slightly exasperated, as usual, by his Human partner’s dramatics. No need to wonder about Terk’s timing; he loved a grand entrance. It was part of what Bowman referred to as Terk’s exceptional gift for annoying the local law. ’Whix was supposed to use his cool, methodical approach to balance his partner’s excitable nature. After five years, ’Whix hadn’t so much made progress as learned to cope.
The aircar, a sleeker and far more deadly vehicle than anything permitted Port Authority, touched the sidewalk in a master’s landing. Terk hit the floods before disembarking, driving back all the shadows and forcing the corpsmen to shade their eyes.
Their dismissal was complete when Terk waved a strip of plas under their noses. “Here’s our permit to take these beings into our custody,” the big man announced. “I’ll be sure to mention your helpfulness to our commander.”
Once the disgruntled pair drove away, Terk prowled over to his partner. His apparent size was deceiving. Shorter by a handspan than the slender Tolian, Terk’s mass was bundled up in a deep chest and shoulders wide enough to need a custom-fitted uniform. Even so, he always looked as though his clothes pinched. “A simple surveillance,” the Human said with disgust. “This is quite the foul-up, ’Whix. Any of them alive to take into custody?”
’Whix had already begun sorting the injured from the dead. He tagged the Clansman and one of the assailants with med signals and watched the stabilizing field encompass the injured beings within its purple glow. “These two. Forensics can have the others.”
Terk nodded, taking a moment to use his wrist com to summon the med transport and a forensic team. Then he considered his partner. “You’re a mess. Want to head in? I can take this from here.”
’Whix dipped his beak to each of his shoulders in turn, his approximation of a Human shaking his head. “No. I’ll dry out when I make my report.” He focused both eyes on the unconscious face of the Clansman. “I am concerned, Partner Terk. I think our commander may be wrong about this one.”