We’re excited to share an excerpt from Stephen Leigh’s Amid the Crowd of Stars, an innovative sci-fi novel that explores the potential impact of alien infection on humankind as they traverse the stars and find themselves stranded on new and strange planets—publishing February 9th with DAW.
What responsibilities do we have to isolate ourselves from the bacteria, viruses, and other life of another world, and to prevent any of that alien biome from being brought back to Earth?
What happens when a group of humans are stranded for centuries on another world with no choice but to expose themselves to that world? After such long exposure, are they still Homo sapiens or have they become another species entirely?
These questions are at the heart of this intriguing novel, explored through the complicated lives and the viewpoints of the people who have come to rescue the stranded colony, the members of that colony, and the sentient alien life that dwells on the planet. Difficult life and death choices will be made by all involved.
“Put your bio-shield on now,” the ensign instructed her, “and I’ll open the inside air lock door. Once you’re in, the outside door will open as soon as the pressure’s equalized. Your flitter’s the one in the middle; I’ve already made sure that the flitter can see your AMI and pair with it. All you have to do is instruct your AMI to take the flitter to Dulcia.”
Ichiko nodded that she understood. She put on the belt of the bio-shield; a mild tingling surrounded her momentarily as it activated. The ensign touched the contact on his own hand to communicate with his own AMI; a moment later, the base-side air lock door opened with a hiss. Ichiko stepped inside the air lock chamber, and the door swung shut behind her. She looked back and saw the ensign waving encouragingly. A few breaths later, the outside door to the flitter bay opened and she stepped outside—for the first time surrounded by Canis Lupus’ atmosphere. She felt herself unconsciously holding her breath. It’s okay. You’re safe. She inhaled deliberately; the bio-shield’s air tasted coppery and metallic
She wondered how the air of this world actually tasted, what it smelled like, or how the wind or the humidity might actually feel. You’ll never know that. You can’t ever know such things if you want to go home again.
She stepped into the flitter, the control panel illuminating as soon as she sat down. The bio-shield was like a gelatinous membrane extending a millimeter or two from her skin and clothing, a bulky, invisible suit between her and anything she tried to sit on or touch. Her boot soles didn’t quite contact the floor plates. The belt of the bio-shield felt warm around her waist, and she could swear it made a low hum that lurked irritatingly just below the range of her hearing. She touched thumb to ring finger, pressing a little harder this time. <AMI,> she thought, <take me to Dulcia.>
She heard fans engaging as the flitter lifted, settled, then moved forward and away from the base. She looked back to see the bay doors closing.
The ride down from First Base, set on a high plateau, to Dulcia nestled in its harbor, was nearly as bad as the shuttle descent.
The rain and wind remained a constant presence, smearing water across the windshield of the vehicle that blurred the violet-tinged landscape outside. The flitter rocked from side to side in the gusts as it hovered over the terrain. At least, she didn’t have to actually drive the damn thing. Her AMI did that for her though there were manual controls that would extend from the dashboard to use if she wished. She didn’t.
And the light… Canis Lupus was tidally locked to its star, Wolf 1061, with one hemisphere always facing Wolf 1061 and the other always facing starward: one side eternally hellish, the other eternally glacial. The planet’s habitable zone was a 1,000-kilometer–wide swath along the terminator strip between the two sides, where water was liquid and the temperature moderate. That also meant the sun never quite fully rose or fully set. The inhabitants lived in a perpetual, reddish twilight—when they could see the sun at all through the cloud cover. Even though the Odysseus kept shipboard lighting at similar levels and coloration, this world never seemed quite bright enough to Ichiko.
<How long?> she asked AMI, double touching her contact this time so that she’d have continual access for the trip. <Oh, and what’s the weather like down there?>
<We should arrive by 1053, ship-time. And it’s raining, though it’s not as windy as it is at First Base up in the mountains.>
<If you like rain, it might be. At least, you can’t get wet.>
The flitter banked left over a ridge of the mountain, and there, suddenly, was Dulcia laid out before her, stretched along the interior edge of a narrow inlet of the aptly named Storm Sea and protected by a headland on the other side of the harbor. Closer to the flitter, there were cleared farm fields planted with rows of purple-, pink-, and orange-leafed crops that Ichiko didn’t recognize and couldn’t eat even if she did. A few of the fields were occupied by the six-legged, round-bodied, and extraordinarily hairy ruminants that the locals had dubbed “sheepers”—a portmanteau word combining “sheep” and “spider”—raised both for meat and for their pale, woollike hair.
The flitter passed over the farms cut into the lowering slopes of the mountains before finally descending into the town proper where, through the rain, Ichiko saw a strange amalgam of stone buildings, some with thatched roofs, others with roofs of slatelike stone, but all of them small and none that looked to be more than two stories tall. A quay stretched the length of the town’s center at the water’s edge. Ichiko glimpsed fishing boats moored here and there, rocking gently with the gray-green swells.
There were people in the streets, staring at the flitter as it passed above them. Ichiko noted what she already knew from the records on Odysseus: the people here were far more homogenous than the crew of their starship, whose crew was deliberately multinational and multiracial. That had not been the case for those who had crewed the original exploratory ships before the Interregnum. The crew for those first starships had been chosen because they all spoke the same language and shared the same general culture: British Isles, North American, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, German, and so on.
<There appears to be a greeting party near the quay. Minister Plunkett is among the group,> AMI said.
<I see them. Set us down there.>
The flitter shivered as if cold. The sound of the wing fans grew louder as the flitter slowly settled to the ground near the gathering, wafting down as gently as an autumn leaf—though there were no deciduous trees on this world where the climate remained largely uniform throughout the year. The hatch opened as Ichiko unbuckled her seat harness and a short set of stairs extruded from the hull. A burly man in a woven flat cap beaded with the rain stepped forward, a fringe of unruly white hair curling out from underneath the cap and several days’ growth of beard on his chin. He walked with a limp as if his hips or knees pained him. His hands were thick and obviously used to manual labor: broken fingernails with dirt caked underneath. He was missing an upper incisor; the gap showed as he smiled. “Dr. Aguilar?” he said, nodding to Ichiko as she stepped from the flitter. He extended his hand toward her, then pulled it back before she could respond as if he understood that she couldn’t actually shake hands. “I’m Minister Plunkett, but please call me Hugh. Welcome to Dulcia.”
In the case of Canis Lupus, the original crew had been drawn almost entirely from the British Isles—their common language had been British English. From the recordings Ichiko had heard, their accent sounded like an odd blend of Irish and Scottish with a touch of Midlands and Welsh thrown in, and their idioms and even vocabulary sometimes drew on the older languages of the region: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton.
“Thank you, Min…” Ichiko stopped and smiled. “Hugh,” she finished. “And please call me Ichiko.” She looked around the harbor. What looked to be a translucent, huge slug was passing along the street, though she could see the half dozen stubby legs on which the creature moved. On its head was what looked like the folded starnose of a tardigrade, set below two huge eyes that moved independently, one looking at Ichiko and the other trained on the group of humans. The beast—called a capall, Ichiko knew from the database—was hitched to a cart filled with bricks of local peat and driven by a young woman, prodding the creature with a long stick.
Ichiko could feel the small crowd behind Hugh staring at her. Waiting. They were all heavier and thicker than nearly any of the Odysseus crew: an artifact of the heavier gravity producing increased muscle mass. She made a mental note to look for other bodily changes wrought by the environment. Nagasi Tinubu, the head of Ichiko’s sociological/archeological/biological team on Odysseus and the person to whom Ichiko reported, had blood and skin samples; by now they’d have run DNA tests. She’d have to ask AMI to send her those later.
“Dulcia is so…” Ichiko began, then stopped. <Charming,> she heard AMI suggest. “… charming. It reminds me a little of a village I once knew in France, on the Atlantic.” Except that there were horses there, not capall, and the sky was such an incredible blue, and the light from the sun was so strong I had to wear sunglasses against the glare…
“It’s not so much, compared with what you have on Earth, I’m certain.” Hugh shrugged, as if he’d guessed what Ichiko was thinking as he watched the capall and cart lurch past. “But it suits us. We’re comfortable enough here, and better than when all of our ancestors were crowded into your First Base.” Ichiko decided she loved the accent, with the subtle rolling of his “r”s, the sibilance, and the shortening of words (’Tis not s’much, compared wit wat yeh have on Eart… ), though the speed of his speech required her to listen carefully. She’d also have to look into how much their language and idioms had changed over the centuries of isolation. “What is it yeh be wanting here, Ichiko?”
“I’m an archeologist, sociologist, and an exobiologist. That should give you an idea of my interests.”
“That’s a bleedin’ lot of schooling yeh must have, then.” Hugh cocked his head appraisingly. “Yeh don’t look old enough to have studied so many subjects.”
Ichiko laughed. “I’m older than I look, and there’s only so much room on a starship, even one like Odysseus. Almost everyone has more than one area of expertise. I’m here to try to understand the society you’ve put together—without any judgment or prejudice. Your survival here is… well, it’s nothing short of remarkable. We’ve learned that too many of the other bases and settlements left behind on other worlds didn’t survive at all—they died just like your people on the southern continent. But you’ve managed to live and thrive. I want to understand why.”
“And will the answer to that help those of us who might be thinkin’ of returning to Earth? Meself, I’d love to see County Clare in Ireland one day; that’s where me own ancestors came from.”
<Ah, there it is. The question they’ll all have for you.>
Ichiko could only shrug at AMI’s comment. “I’m afraid that decision’s not in my hands,” she told Hugh, “and nothing that I’m doing here is likely to affect it. I’m just a researcher exploring and recording the culture and society you’ve put together here.” The lines of the man’s face tightened, and his cheeks grew more flushed. “I know that’s not the answer you wanted,” Ichiko hurried to say.
“It’s the one I expected yeh to give me. Can’t have any of those wicked alien bugs in our bodies making it back to Earth. Not until yeh know if yeh can kill ’em. It’s why yer wearing what yer wearing, after all.” Hugh sighed before she could make a rejoinder, moving away from the gathered crowd, which was growing larger and noisier. “Why don’t I give yeh a little tour of Dulcia from yer flitter first, and afterward yeh can walk around as yeh wish.”
* * *
“I have to say, it was lashing out there while I was waiting for yeh,” Hugh said once he was inside the flitter. “At least it’s dry in here.”
“Glad you like it.”
“I hope yeh don’t mind my taking yeh off private-like, but some of the others were getting restless,” Hugh said as the flitter lifted from the ground. He pointed to the west, and AMI obediently headed the flitter that way, moving slowly along the quay toward a cluster of buildings at the end of the town. “Truth is, we’re all a little suspicious of yeh Terrans and I didn’t want any of ’em bothering yeh and asking questions yeh couldn’t or can’t answer. Given that Earth abandoned us once, I suppose yeh can understand. I thought it better if we could talk here alone for a bit.”
“Is this where you warn me to watch what I say or do?” Ichiko asked. “Or are you suggesting I should bring a few marines with me next time?”
Hugh chuckled. “Nothing’s quite so dire that yeh need armed guards, I’m thinkin’. But aye, yeh should watch what yeh say. Everyone’s going to be trying to decipher the subtext.”
“And if there’s no subtext at all?”
“Then it’s even worse since everyone will just make up their own. ’Tis the way it is with people here.”
Ichiko nodded. “Point taken, and I have a question for you, Minister. Were any in the crowd back there Inish?”
Plunkett’s thick eyebrows climbed his head under his cap. “Inish? Neh. There was no one from the archipelago. Why would yeh be askin’ that?”
“As a sociologist, I’m curious about the island folk and the way they live. I want to learn about them as well as your townspeople.”
Hugh gave a scoffing laugh. “Good luck with that. The Inish ain’t the friendliest folk in the world, and if yeh think Dulcia is backward compared to what yer used to, just wait until yeh see their compounds on Great Inish. Even so, being a fair man, I made certain that yer people took a couple Inish up to yer ship with the other volunteer clanfolk so yer people could see if they can get rid of the local bugs and diseases and let us go back to Earth if we want. Of course, Clan Plunkett sent the most volunteers to yer ship because… well, because I made certain of that. But the Inish…”
“What about them?”
Plunkett shrugged. “Inishers like things the way they always were. They even claim yer technologies won’t work out on the islands. And I don’t think they give a damn about Earth. If you ask me, they’re all as mad as a box of pishmires.”
<A local insect pest,> AMI answered before Ichiko could ask. “Is that true?” Ichiko said to Plunkett.
“Truth is a slippery thing with the Inish,” he answered. “Worse of all, they like those nasty arracht.”
“The what?” AMI sent Ichiko a mental image, evidently a painting by a local artist, of a sea creature with a hooded hard shell over its head, six limbs ending in a tangle of muscular tentacles, and the end of the body ending in a large horizontal fin.
“The arracht. Generations ago, all the clans used to hunt them for food and for their fat, which we could boil down to a useful oil. Dangerous work, that, but worth it. Or it was until the Inish stopped it, back in the mid-1800s. The arracht killed quite a lot of the fisherfolk from the other clans during that time. It’s old history, but the clans remember all too well.” He pointed ahead. “Yeh can slow down a bit. That’s Market Street just ahead. That big building right at the end of the quay is Fitzpatrick’s, the fishmongers. The butchers are there as well, and you can see the stalls for the farmers market; it’s open every 18 cycles—once a year.”
“Is that a pub at the end of the street, next to the bakery?”
“’Tis. Clan Murphy runs that one; there are four taverns in Dulcia,” Hugh answered. “Two more up on High Street, and another down at the far end of the harbor, which me own clan owns. One thing yeh can say for this place, our grains and water do produce some damn fine whiskey and beers. Dulcia has the best of any of the towns, and Clan Plunkett brews the finest liquor of all. My own tenth great-grandfather Robert Plunkett was the very first person to distill a batch of local grain poitín here on Canis Lupus. Too bad yeh can’t sample any…”
In the next several ship-hours, Ichiko would learn far more about the genealogy and history of the Twenty-Eight Clans, as the matriarchal family lines were called, and especially about Clan Plunkett as they cruised slowly above the town’s lanes—the majority simply unpaved paths, though Plunkett said nothing more about the Inish. By the time Plunkett had finished his guided tour of Dulcia, Ichiko was already exhausted. She decided to make her first day on-planet a short one and dropped off the minister back at the harbor.
“Thank you for the fascinating tour,” she told him. “I appreciate your being so helpful and open with me, and I promise I’ll be back soon.”
“If I can give yeh any assistance, just call at me office,” he answered. “Yeh know where it is now, so yeh can skedaddle aff if yeh wish.”
“I must, I’m afraid.” Or at least AMI will remember for me, she thought. “Give my best to your clan,” she told him, then closed the door of the flitter. She leaned back on her seat, closing her eyes.
<Let’s get back to First Base,> she said to AMI. <As they’d say here, I’m positively knackered.>
Excerpted from Amid the Crowd of Stars, copyright © 2020 by Stephen Leigh.