- Finalist for the 2001 Philip K. Dick Award
- Winner of the 2002 Aurora Award for Best Novel
- Romantic Times Reviewers Award for Best Science Fiction Novel
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of its publication, an all-new trade paperback edition of Czerneda’s Aurora Award-winning sci-fi novel. With an introduction by Tanya Huff and the finale short story “The Franchise”.
When the terraforming crews introduced the alien Quill to worlds where they did not belong, they saw them only as a mindless form of fungal life. But the Quill multiplied and mutated until they were no longer harmless. In the ensuing chaos, many of the stations built to house immigrants to those worlds failed. For the survivors, their only hope rests in finding a way to wipe out the Quill…
“In the Company of Others tells deeply personal stories against the grand scale of traditional science fiction—not just good writing, but great storytelling.”Tanya Huff, author of Valor’s Choice
Excerpt from In the Company of Others
Titan University Archives
Excerpts from the personal recordings of Chief Terraform Engineer Susan Witts
Access Restricted to Clearance AA2 or Higher
…The first seeds arrived today, Raymond. I couldn’t resist the urge to touch them. Dry little flecks of nothing that will change a world. The Stage One engineers can keep their comet-shifting launchers. The Stage Two’s are welcome to their landform machines and atmosphere purifiers. I’ll accomplish as much or more with these. One day, you’ll see.
What a relief to be off the transit station! I don’t care how big they are, or how modern, they still make me feel like I’m breathing yesterday’s air. They’re building more all the time. Eventually, there’ll be enough stations to handle the passenger and freight traffic to all the systems with terraformed worlds. Glorified bus stops, crammed with customs officials and other bureaucrats. I suppose the stations have their use. But you won’t catch me staying in one any longer than I must.
While I’m away, you’re going to hear things on the news about me and this project. Don’t worry. They’ll be good things. We have a lot of support back home. Sol System is more than ready for this–Earth herself is bursting at the seams with people eager to start new lives some place that isn’t a mining dome or station. We’re making those places. I’m making those places, Raymond.
I hope you’ll be proud of me. I hope you know how hard it was to take you back to Earth and leave you with Grandpa and Grandma. We’ll be together again. We both have to be patient.
I know that’s hard, too. Back home, some people don’t understand why they have to wait for Stage Three, my stage. They want these beautiful worlds now, seeing only that sixteen planets have gained blue skies and flowing water. But they have to wait, just like you and I. Right now, the land is barren. The cycling of nutrients through water, soil, and air hasn’t even begun. They’ll wait and be glad, Raymond, because I’m going to bring life to these worlds, life that will welcome and nourish the people who come here.
What a dream we’re living! Humanity–prosperous, at peace, and ready for adventure–about to expand as never before. Within the next fifty years, the first worlds will receive their immigrants–maybe your children, Raymond–while terraformers like me will have already moved on to the next set of planets ready for Stage Three, then to the next. We’ll be like waves sweeping outward until human beings are living on every suitable world we’ve discovered. Until we own this entire sector of space.
Not that everyone is happy about the terraforming project. You’ll hear complaints, I’m sure. Not too loud or too many–it isn’t fashionable to question humanity’s Great Dream. But you’ll read in your history books how this is a relatively new dream for us, and some people still hold to an older one. Is anybody out there? We all had it, you know, in one form or another. Since well before I was born, Earth and the system Universities were sending deep-space expeditions in all directions, searching for others like ourselves. True, they found life almost everywhere, but nothing with intelligence.
We’re alone, Raymond.
By the time I was old enough to join such an expedition, our mission had changed. If we wanted company, we were going to have to provide our own. We were to locate worlds with the right kind of sun, the right elements, and no indigenous life. Stage One engineers were pelting planets with ice even before we’d finished cataloging all the possibilities. It was…
Drat. McNab’s on the comm. Sorry, Raymond. I’ll add to this later.
Be well, my son.
And think of me out here, making you a brand new world.
“What about the next world, Jer?” Gabby asked with a careful lack of interest. Her hands were sore, having been clenched together too long under her sweater.
Her companion — business partner, captain of the Merry Mate II, and husband — keyed her request into the boards, his stubby fingers sure and quick. From where she sat, Gabby could see the red band staining the readout. “Posted,” the man said, the word merely echoing what they both expected. “They’re everywhere, Gabby. We’ll have to move on.”
Gabby opened her throbbing fingers, pressing them over the roundness they guarded. The ship was no place to give birth, not if they wanted a future for their child. She’d known the risks in this search but they’d all seemed so distant in the beginning, the possibilities so endless. Time had a way of narrowing options. She gazed at her husband, seeing past the shadows of beard and fatigue to his gentle, round-cheeked face, and sighed softly, letting some of her tension out with her breath. “We could try a station — just for a little while.”
Jer Pardell winced, then covered the motion with a cough. As though she wouldn’t notice. But of course she had. They’d been together too long, were so closely linked as a working team that one was forever finishing the sentences the other had begun. “There’s no such thing as a ‘little while,’ stationside,” he said almost harshly, but it was his fear for her. “Stations here would strip off our cargo and then make us pay for air rights — might even impound the ship. You know that, Gabby. They’re as hard up as the rest of us, since the Quill.” He scowled at the red-stained screen, clearing it with a stab. “Stations don’t need more people. You heard Raner, last stopover. Earth’s clamped down — put holds on all travel vouchers and transports. Who knows how long that will last? And if you try to stay onstation? Head tax, sterilization for permanent residents, dowries to keep immigrant status…” he took a deep breath. “We can’t live like that. Our child won’t live like that. Our baby will be born a citizen, under a sky.”
Despite her concern, Gabby’s spirits rose a little. A sky. The ship, now home and livelihood, was supposed to have been temporary, merely their passage to a glorious new world. They were the lucky ones, to still have this much freedom when most had none. Jer’s doing. He’d seen the way things were moving and kept independent, protecting them from the increasingly desperate hordes clinging to the stations and fading hopes.
If you were planet-born, she reminded herself, as she had so many times in the past months, you already had a home. A citizenship no one could strip away.
Gabby rubbed her thumb in little circles against a protuberance firmer than the rest, smiling to herself as the push became harder and then disappeared with a tremble like a laugh. “What are they like?”
“The dreaded Quill?” Jer leaned back in his slingchair, relaxing himself, perhaps recognizing her familiar preoccupation. “Probably three meter giants with googly eyes and long tentacles.”
Gabby raised one eyebrow. “That’s not what you said yesterday.”
He chuckled. “I’ll have a new one tomorrow, guaranteed correct, and just as wrong.” Speculation was a familiar game; the wilder the better. Not that anyone out here would dare claim to have really met a Quill, face-to-whatever — the mere suspicion of such contact guaranteed a ride out the nearest airlock.
Everyone knew what mattered: the sudden, fragmented reports … the stunning news that a non-Terran lifeform – the Quill — had accidently been released on the terraformed worlds … the way those reports had ceased almost immediately. Then, worse, the terrible discovery that rescue teams sent to those worlds died as well. Everyone did, whether they landed or hovered at low altitudes.
But what turned a reasonable fear of an unknown danger into outright hysteria was that no one, learned or otherwise, could determine the cause of death. Any bodies recovered by remotes appeared to be perfectly healthy, unblemished by attack or contagion.
It was as if their lives had simply been stopped by the Quill.
Gabby shuddered. “I didn’t believe they’d been spread so far. Not to the unfinished worlds. But it must be true — Earth’s posted this world! Does this mean the Quill can survive where we can’t? What hope’s left then, Jer?”
Jer reached across the distance between them and laid his hand on her shoulder. Gabby pressed her cheek against its warmth for a moment. “They can’t spread on their own,” Jer reminded her. “All the xenos say so, Gabby. They’re harmless now.”
“Harmless?” she echoed, unable to keep a rare bitterness from her voice. “How can anything be harmless that’s ripped the very ground from under us? This was to be a human sector, Jer. More than a hundred new worlds being made ready for us — for our babies — not for those mindless things!”
Jer withdrew his hand, an unhappy look on his face. Gabby understood. They were a team, but, until now, she’d been the one always able to see through a tangled problem to its roots. Her loss of control obviously flustered him as much as it surprised her. Jer didn’t know what to say or do to comfort her. Neither did she, she sighed to herself.
“There are other worlds,” he offered finally. “No one would transport a Quill now. They aren’t going to spread any further, Gabby. Earth was wrong to pull in the deep exploration fleet – everyone says so. There are other worlds out here,” he repeated, as if stating it made it so.
She eased herself from the slingchair with a practiced roll; Jer had tried to lighten the gravity in the ship from Earth-normal for her, but Gabby had detected his tampering and insisted her husband restore it. He trusted her judgment, Gabby thought, though it was her first child. Not his first, not technically. He’d contributed to three offspring according to his biospecs, born of women who opted his sperm, probably drawn by his ship-suited smallness and childhood resistance to lar fever. Women were practical that way. She’d be practical, too.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said calmly, stooping for a quick kiss. “Call me if something comes up.”
Jer Pardell watched Gabby waddle out the doorway to the passage with a mixture of pride, concern, and a hope he wouldn’t let go. It was different when you saw it happening, he thought, when the signs of new life were inextricably wrapped in the one life more important than your own.
When she was gone, Jer turned back to the console. He called up the nav-tapes, grunting as he reviewed the painstaking course they had followed over the past weeks, threading their way through space that was supposed to belong to humanity and now seemed exclusively the property of something else. He asked for alternatives, checking and rejecting courses based not on trade prospects or fuel, but on the timing of an event beyond their control.
Nothing. Jer thought glumly of the stations, built to service the expansion of humanity and now bursting with homeless settlers. He shook his head once, hard. Then he unlocked a set of tapes older than the others — junk really, family records of no interest to anyone else. He began to read.