Excerpt from To Guard Against the Dark
by Julie E. Czerneda
published by DAW Books 2017
Seeking that which stole from AllThereIs, the Great Ones felt neither strain nor effort as they
reached along the bridge, crossing Between into NothingReal, the space occupied by beings of
Until they reached through the portion where Between had begun to rot.
They faltered, impeded. Experienced dislocation. The universes had an order. They were part
of that. Disrupting it had consequence--
But their task was unfinished. They reached with FORCE.
Uncounted Great Ones winked from existence, leaving gravity holes to warp AllThereIs,
Others were created, cataclysms of wild, vibrant energy to fill and alter what had been.
The Dance changed. The change took place before the Singers could perceive it. If they
could. To them, AllThereIs was the fabric of the universe and eternal.
But the Watchers saw. They learned a new and terrifying truth about the order of universes.
All things begin.
And all have an end.
At the same instant, in the universe where the lifecycle of stars and their planets were predictable
and of note mainly to astrogaters:
On Cersi, an Oud had died, having crawled to its final rest. Unlike other Oud, this one had
stuffed its ventral pouches with objects that were not Oud, but when iglies swarmed to consume
the corpse, as was their role, there was nothing left inside.
On Deneb, a Human inner system, in the fortified hillside estate of the new leader of the Grey
Syndicate, a gem-encrusted raygun disappeared from where it had been tossed in a drawer, its
new owner frustrated the thing didn't work.
In the well-protected vaults of the First, the aging collective of species who'd begun the
search for the Hoveny and remained transfixed by its mysterious sudden collapse, cases filled
with artifacts emptied. Those thefts went unreported; the fortunes of the First were scant enough
in this era of peace within the Human-inspired Trade Pact.
Little did they realize the theft was happening on every world gifted by the Hoveny
Concentrix with its technology, for everything once able to rob AllThereIs of its living energy
had been, finally, removed from existence.
A handful of archeological sites emptied; most remained unaffected. Still, panic could have
spread, for such happenings had no precedent--
--but they were over as soon as they'd begun. In the aftermath, few wanted to admit what
they'd lost, fewer still what they hadn't. Curators on several worlds retired their costly "Hoveny"
displays and looked for new jobs.
What had happened? Speculation was rampant, whether secret or in public. The Hoveny built
with materials no one in the First or the Trade Pact yet understood, but if they'd a finite lifespan,
where were the products of that decay? If, as Turrned missionaries preached, the former Hoveny
Concentrix was cursed, why this consequence? And why now?
Unknown to the rest, heedless to the order of universes and consequence, was another opinion
Trade Pact Space
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 beneath 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--plopped 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--he 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. Gleaming black eyeballs, each on
their stalk, lined the opening between the gently pulsing disks that served as a head. Unblinking
eyeballs. 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, sombre grey 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 refocussed. "What?" He tried not to
snap, wearily grateful Huido bore with his tempers and accepted his silence. He wasn't ready to
They hadn't spoken in what might be days, come to think of it.
Something was different. He blinked. His friend's massive carapace 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 moult, 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 yourself."
Morgan reached up. After a second, the centremost cluster of eyes parted, and deadly needle-like 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 normal
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
single 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 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 worse
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 concentrate: pick up the wipe, return,
clean the mess.
Eyestalks twisted, following his slow progress. "You need a moult too."
"Wish I could." Something about moulting--"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-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'd 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. "Tomorrow," he announced.
One eyestalk swivelled 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.