There’s a fine line between survival and cruelty…
We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt for E.K. Johnston’s Aetherbound, a story of survival and self-determination set on a mysterious remote space station—publishing May 25, 2021 with Dutton Books.
Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston’s latest is story of survival and self-determination.
Pendt Harland’s family sees her as a waste of food on their long-haul space cruiser when her genes reveal an undesirable mutation. But if she plays her cards right she might have a chance to do much more than survive. During a space-station layover, Pendt escapes and forms a lucky bond with the Brannick twins, the teenage heirs of the powerful family that owns the station. Against all odds, the trio hatches a long-shot scheme to take over the station and thwart the destinies they never wished for.
E. K. Johnston is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of several YA novels, including the L.A. Time Book Prize finalist The Story of Owen and Star Wars: Ahsoka. Her novel A Thousand Nights was shortlisted for The Governor General’s Award. The New York Times called The Story of Owen “a clever first step in the career of a novelist who, like her troubadour heroine, has many more songs to sing” and in its review of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, The Globe & Mail called Johnston “the Meryl Streep of YA,” with “limitless range.” E. K. Johnston lives in Stratford, Ontario. Follow her on Twitter at @ek_johnston.
Pendt wasn’t used to the weight of this much hair. It pulled at her scalp and ghosted along her neck, and even though she’d done her best to make it grow straight, she hadn’t known what to do with it when she had it. She wasn’t exactly in style, but she hadn’t known what style was when she started this, so there wasn’t really anything she could do about it. Almost everyone she’d ever seen before had the same hair: short, blond, and eminently practical. It’s one of the reasons she’d picked something more elaborate for her escape attempt, and she didn’t regret it for a second, even if she had no idea what to do with it.
She also wasn’t used to this much sound. The Harland was an old ship, but it was solid and well constructed, and it ran smoothly, thanks to generations of gifted engineers. The engines’ hum could only be heard in certain parts of the ship, and the walls were enough to mute raised voices and all but the most disastrous of mechanical failures. Here, there were people everywhere, crushing through the corridors as they walked between the docking ports and the service area on the station. She’d never seen so many kinds of bodies. They came in all shapes and sizes, and it was hard not to stare at the un-Harlandness of them all.
Most were dressed in jumpsuits, though the colours of these varied widely, and most had the same short hair Pendt was used to seeing on the Harland. There were a few, though, who were different. The women wore clothing cut to highlight the shape of their bodies, and then men dressed with sharp lines and hard corners, as though they could change their shape with fabric. They were clearly not on their way to buy engine lubricant or barter for additional berth-space on the docking ring.
The station boasted any number of places where food, alcohol, and various entertainments were peddled, and Pendt imagined that it was to these places the interestingly dressed people were headed. Looking down at her plain jumpsuit, she realized that she would stick out if she followed them, and since sticking out was the last thing Pendt wished to do, she withdrew into a corner to consider her options.
She was not going back. She didn’t care how she was dressed in comparison with everyone else. They would get her back on the Harland when she was dead, or they would drag her kicking and screaming. She had already crossed the line, hoarding her rations and expending them on her hair and nails. That would earn her the punishment to end all punishments. There was nothing else they could do to make it worse.
Her calculation had been very precise: enough change to look different, but enough saved that she could change herself back. That was the first rule, and the one by which the Harland flew, only spending what a thing was worth, and never a fraction more. Food, oxygen, clothing, it didn’t matter. She had only ever had exactly what she needed to survive. She could alter herself further, she had the calories for more æther work, but then she’d be stuck unless someone bought her a drink. Pendt did not like to rely on other people. Other people were usually awful.
Or, at least, her family was awful. Maybe here it would be different. She could smile and make conversation and hope for the best. Pendt wasn’t used to hoping for much of anything at all, but, well, she had already come this far. She could go a little further.
She looked out at the crush of people walking past the little oasis she’d found in the corridor.They were all moving quickly, eyes forward, target acquired. No one was watching her. She could do whatever she wanted. So she closed her eyes, and reached inside.
The jumpsuit was made of plant fibre, harvested from the hydroponics bay and treated so that it was tear-proof and fire-retardant, but it was still a plant. She tightened the weave of it around her stomach, hips, and below her knees. It was nowhere near as eye-catching as the people she’d seen, but at least she no longer wore a shapeless bag. Next, she changed the colours: deeper green for the bottom half and lightening until the collar around her neck was white. She detached the sleeves and stuffed them into her bag; it went against her nature to discard things.
And then, using the last of her expendable calories, she added the slightest tinge of green to her newly darkened hair. It was ridiculous, a useless reason to put forth the effort, but she found she didn’t care.
Pendt rejoined the crowd and followed the crush down to the level where the entertainments were. Down was an awkward concept for a space traveler. It was possible that she was traveling sideways and standing on the wall. Still, her mother had once told her that it was best to take advantage of direction while she had it. Pendt usually ignored most of her mother’s advice, but this particular idea would probably prevent an existential crisis, and Pendt was all about preventing crises today.
Brannick Station thronged with people. They were loud and they had little respect for one another’s personal space as they jostled through the wider colonnades of the station’s public market area. Pendt knew from the blueprints she had stolen out of her brother’s desk that the station had more than one public sector. This one was simply for the most itinerant travelers. If you wanted to stay, you needed to go up a few levels and submit an application. If you were rich, there was another level altogether.
Pendt put her hand on the wall and felt the quiet rumble of the structural integrity generators. They, like all the rest of the station’s life support, were tied to the Brannicks, making them lord and master of everyone and everything on board. Pendt didn’t imagine she would ever come to their attention. She had no lord or master now and didn’t plan to ever again.
There were a few details to work out, of course. She would have to find a job and a place to live. She wanted to be independent of the Harland, and she had to bet on them leaving before they missed her. Once they were gone, there was no way her aunt would expend fuel to come back for a useless member of the crew. The negligence that had caused her so much pain as a child worked to her advantage now. She just needed to stay away long enough for them to go, and then she would be free. Surely someone on this station would have need of a cook. Pendt looked down at her bare arms. It didn’t seem likely anyone would hire her for her sense of fashion.
The colonnade seethed around her and she moved along with the flow of the crowd. There were shops selling everything Pendt could imagine and more than a few things she couldn’t. She’d never seen so many things before in her entire life. The Harland ’s sharp austerity seemed colder than ever. This was probably the reason her aunt forbade anyone from leaving the ship the rare times the Harland was docked somewhere. Her aunt walked a hard line and forced everyone to walk it with her. She said it was necessary for space, which was dark and death and completely unforgiving, but Pendt was starting to wonder if maybe she just hoarded her family as much as she hoarded their calories.
Speaking of calories. It was time she found some, before she started to feel light-headed. She hadn’t done this much æther work on purpose in her entire life, and she had no idea what the aftereffects were going to be.
She picked the establishment playing the loudest music, because it made her stomach rumble with something other than hunger, and she found that she liked the sensation quite a bit. She observed, circling the dance floor like a cat, as people at tables drank brightly coloured concoctions that smoked or bubbled or frothed, or sometimes did all three at once. Placed along the bar at regular intervals were tiny dishes filled with round tabs that Pendt thought might be edible. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw a woman with spacer-short hair and a bright red bodysuit take a handful of them, and eat them all at once.
Pendt’s mouth watered. She didn’t even care what they tasted like. She had never seen anyone eat anything so carelessly, ever. Even when her brothers tormented her by flaunting their larger portions of food in her face, there was a sense of desperation, of gratefulness, to their behaviour. To eat and not care who was watching or how much you chewed or how many calories were left for others was a dream. Brannick Station was some kind of paradise.
Pendt slid up to the end of the bar, hoping to avoid the server’s notice for as long as possible, and helped herself to one of the tabs. It was salty, but more than edible, and Pendt took a handful to put in her pockets in case the servers chased her out when they realized she didn’t have any money. These would give her enough calories to hold on until she found a more reliable source. A little voice whispered that she could change back, if she wanted. That it wasn’t too late, and she could go home, but she didn’t listen. Home was behind her now. She was never going back to the Harland again. She ate four more of the tabs in a single mouthful, breaking them with her teeth and dragging the sharp edges along her tongue.
She was so focused on the little cup and the balls that she didn’t notice the two figures that came to sit beside her until they were perched on the stools. They didn’t flank her, so she didn’t panic entirely, but they definitely noticed her, and Pendt didn’t like what followed when people noticed her, particularly when she was eating. They were between her and the main exit, but she thought that she could lose them on the dance floor, if she needed to. She was smaller than they were, and had spent a lot of time moving through small spaces. She took a quick glance sideways to get a better look at them.
One of the figures had an open face—the sort of mark that her aunt liked to trade with—and was already smiling, half lost in the music. It was striking, to see someone so relaxed. Pendt didn’t think she had ever been that comfortable in her life, let alone in a crowd. A part of her ached, wondering what her life would have been like if she hadn’t always been so afraid. She was going to change that now too.
The other boy was all lines and angles, his nose like the prow of a grounding-ship and his face shaped to cut through atmosphere with no resistance. He had the face of someone who was listened to, but unlike her brothers, he didn’t seem made cruel by it. Neither of them looked to be much older than Pendt’s seventeen years, and she hadn’t made herself look older when she changed, so maybe they just thought she would be good company. For some reason.
The first boy was looking straight at her, the way her aunt did when she was about to administer a judgement. Pendt was no stranger to direct confrontation; it just always went badly for her. She braced herself for something terrible, but when the second boy spoke, his words held none of the venom she was so used to taking. “Now tell me,” he drawled, helping himself to the tabs Pendt had left in the cup, “what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Excerpted from Aetherbound, copyright 2021 by E.K. Johnston.