In The Company of Others

 

Earth prepared new worlds for settlement.
The Quill took them all,
Stranding thousands on the great stations.

Twenty years later, an Earth ship returns,
Its mission, to steal those worlds back.

Is it too late?

First Published in 2001 by DAW Books Inc.
ISBN 0-886779995
Cover art by Luis Royo
Finalist for the 2001 Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction
Winner of the 2002 Prix Aurora Award, Best Long-form English

Winner of the RT Reviewers' Choice Award, Best Science Fiction Novel


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There had to be another way to hide the thing, Gail grumbled to herself as she looked into the mirror and used a micro scalpel to make a small, precise incision in her scalp, just beneath the hairline and above her right eye. She’d numbed the area with ointment, but there was no way to numb her revulsion about slicing her own skin.

Gail pressed her finger behind the bloodless cut, her other hand at the ready. Got it. She surveyed the long, thin shard captured in a crease of her palm, less than pleased to have to rely on black-market tech. But the device had passed her tests on Earth.

Time to see if it had done the job she’d asked of it out here.

She slipped the tiny object into an almost invisible slot in a disk that otherwise looked perfectly normal. When done, Gail slipped the disk into a pocket. Before leaving the washroom, she took a second to run a bead of skin sealant along the incision, surveying the result critically before nodding to herself with satisfaction.

Gail’s quarters were larger than standard, although standard on the Seeker would have been generous enough. There were fancier staterooms, but they were reserved for visiting dignitaries or sponsors – potential or present. Gail’s meticulous habits in her office and lab were here, in precious privacy, tossed quite literally aside. The floor was buried under clothes and overflow paper. Her bed was blanketed in reports and note-covered scraps. Carpet showed in a serpentine path from the door to her bedside and to the washroom -- Gail’s concession to the needs of the cleaning stewards.

Gail found a reasonably clear space on her bed to sit cross-legged, viewer in hand. In case the FD’s latest sweep had missed one of Reinsez’s little spy-toys, she made a point of holding up a disk with an easily-read label as if considering it – something fact-heavy she might be expected to review before sleeping. Dozens such hung in the storage bags suspended from her ceiling. Then, she palmed the one and inserted the other from her pocket, bending forward so even someone standing beside her couldn’t see past her shoulder and hair to the screen.

It had worked. While image quality varied from remarkable to adequate, depending on the lighting and her proximity to taller others, Gail held in her hands a visual record of her trip through the station, including the time wasted in meetings and meals. She sped past the latter, then slowed the playback to a crawl beginning with her first look inside Mr. Leland’s dim, smelly bar, easily marked by the change in brightness as she’d removed her veil to assist the vid.

How could so many fit inside? Gail asked herself again. The washroom of the campus faculty club offered more floor space. She remembered the smooth feel of the bar in the club’s main lounge, all sculpted wood, designed to give every patron a choice between total privacy or the subtle hint of others nearby. The maximum that spacious room had ever held was probably half of those crowded into Sammie’s. Nothing like this -- overwhelming physicality. Gail shuddered.

Those on Thromberg Station didn’t seem to mind. Despite the fact that several of Sammie’s customers were definitely the worse for the local brew, they’d all seemed healthy and happy enough, given most were at the extreme lower end of the normal range for body mass. Forester had boasted about the success of their ration distribution system. Gail supposed the line between preventing starvation and providing adequate nutrition had blurred for all of them years ago.

There was no audio, but Gail didn’t require it, confident of her ability to recall anything said that mattered. It was her eyes she didn’t trust, knowing the tricks they played on memory: the way the brain stored images that were like averages of what was really there; the way fleeting glimpses were lost before you could notice what you’d seen; even the way one eye was maddeningly blind to what the other saw at any moment in time.

She adjusted a control. Too close a view of Sammie’s mismatched teeth panned outward to the crowd behind. Gail halted the image.

That man. Huge, long-armed, the face of a god, and a standing shock of red hair that must cause trouble in a ‘suit helmet. He’d be striking in any group on Earth; here his massive frame was so out-of-place she remembered him vividly. What she hadn’t remembered seeing was this.

He wasn’t looking at her.

She’d had the rapt attention of everyone from the moment she’d lifted the curtain. The proof was in this recording. Yet, as Gail advanced the playback second by second, she saw this one man had glanced away from her and back towards the bar.

It was a quick, furtive glance. Gail would never have caught it without the vid. So, she asked herself, what or who were you looking at, my giant friend?

A half an hour later, Gail removed the disk, surreptitiously sliding in the one she’d pretended to watch into the viewer before tossing it aside. She dropped back on her piles of reports and blankets, legs still crossed, feeling the stretch burn pleasantly along her lower spine and outer thighs.

She’d found him. The direction of the big man’s glance had helped, but once she’d known where to look, it had been easy. His clothing betrayed him. The figure ever-so-briefly glimpsed from behind one of the aproned bartenders didn’t belong there, being dressed like every other customer in shabby stationer gray.

Gail had stared at his face -- what the image revealed of it -- so long that now, when she closed her eyes, she could still see it. Intense, she judged it. A little scared, but too curious to stay hidden, like a young fox she’d encountered during a camping trip. Not handsome by Earth standards – there was something not right about the cheekbones, close under the skin, an unusual angle to his oddly large eyes, or maybe the chin was too firm for the rest of the jaw. Not an ugly face, Gail decided, but different. If he were smiling, her tired mind went further than she planned, it might be quite a nice face.

Which was irrelevant, Gail told herself firmly, pushing out her legs to clear some sleeping space. She was willing to bet she’d now seen Aaron Luis Pardell in the flesh and equally sure traditional methods weren’t going to find him in person.

A good thing, she yawned, Pardell had such an easy-to-find friend.

 

Excerpt from In the Company of Others © 2001 Julie E. Czerneda, DAW Books Inc.
Used with permission.
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Glassware from Sammies, no two alike, and thoroughly field tested. They hold beer most admirably. (Prototype by J'sBF)

 

Sammies glassware
Case PDF The Franshise
Pen
Third person, an ensemblé cast of main characters (one dead), near future, pre-first contact, riots, mayhem, survival, space suits, and straw -- this book was new territory for me, even if its premise lies in my first love, biology.

I've been fascinated for years with what happens when we introduce a species where it's never been before, an experiment underway all over the Earth, now and in the past. Sometimes the results are predictable; more often than not, life surprises. I love that.

Another interest? How might we, as a species and society, expand outward from this world, and with what consequences. I don't doubt our will or ability. I do think leaving home will test us in ways we can't imagine yet. Put the two together? The result, this story, surprised me. I love that, too.

- Julie