This innovative sci-fi novel explores the potential impact of alien infection on humankind as they traverse the stars and find themselves stranded on new and strange planets.
Amid the Crowd of Stars is a grand scale science fiction novel examining the ethical implications of interstellar travel, a topic rarely addressed in science fiction novels. 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.
Release date: February 9, 2021
Print pages: 352
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Amid the Crowd of Stars
An Arrival In Clamor And Fury
The ride downworld from orbit on Odysseus' shuttle was far rougher than Ichiko expected, despite what she'd been told beforehand. Shivering rivulets of pale pink rain like diluted blood streaked the monitor above her seat, relaying the view from the craft's nose camera. The rain was tinted by the red dwarf star around which Canis Lupus orbited. The shuttle descended between coiled, airy ramparts of towering thunderheads stretching to the horizon as the craft shook like a toy in an angry child's hand, buffeted by strong winds that Ichiko imagined she could hear screaming outside. She felt her stomach lurch as the shuttle suddenly dropped several meters and swayed before settling momentarily. The seats and flooring chattered metallically, making Ichiko grateful for the invisible grip of the field-harness holding her in her seat, though Ichiko still found herself clutching the armrests with whitened fingers.
The two other passengers in the shuttle-she'd been introduced to them before they left Odysseus but had forgotten their names-were a pair of uniformed ensigns assigned planet-side for duty rotation at First Base. They both seemed entirely untroubled, relaxed in their seats across the aisle, eyes closed; the male had his mouth open as he snored. Ichiko could only shake her head, unable to envision sleeping through this ordeal.
Ichiko pressed her thumb against the contact embedded in the pad of her left hand's ring finger; a blue glow emanated from between where finger and thumb touched, indicating that the direct thought-connection to the Autonomous Mnemonic Interface implanted in each member of the Odysseus crew-her AMI-was active. Is this normal? she asked. Please tell me we’re not going to crash. Ichiko lifted her thumb, and the contact went back to its nearly invisible skin color again.
This is entirely normal for shuttle craft to the surface, the implant's voice answered in her head. When the AMI chip had been placed at the base of her skull back on Earth, she'd had them program it to speak to her in Japanese, providing the engineers with a sample of her mother's voice as well as the parameters of her personality. That was a choice Ichiko now doubly regretted, though she'd yet to actually edit the programming. She loved her mother, but there were times when hearing the voice that had both soothed and scolded her in her childhood felt distinctly wrong. The probability of crashing is very low, AMI concluded with the false sincerity of a mother soothing her child.
The shuttle shuddered like a fish caught on a line, and Ichiko stifled an alarmed shout as she again touched thumb to ring finger. That’s so comforting.
I’m glad you feel that way, AMI replied. Your comfort is what I live for.
With AMI's statement, in her mother's soft voice, Ichiko pressed her lips together. Sarcasm? That’s what you’re giving me? Really?
I do understand sarcasm, you know, AMI replied. You employ that modality yourself, when you think it useful. The voice in her head changed to Ichiko's own, playing back Ichiko's own thoughts in her own voice. That’s so comforting . . .
Ichiko lifted her thumb from AMI's contact as a memory swept over her: being on the beach near her parents' vacation villa in southern France-while her mother was Japanese, her father was French-and picking up a jellyfish stranded at the tidal line. The gelatinous strands underneath the animal stung her badly and she ran wailing to her mother, who looked at Ichiko's swelling hands and shook her head. "How many times have I warned you that you shouldn't pick up jellyfish?" her mother intoned in her heavily accented and poor French-she always believed in speaking the local language if possible. Her mother sighed and grabbed Ichiko by a sand-sprinkled wrist. "Well, it's done now. Come along; we need to get you to the clinic . . ."
When I get back to Odysseus, I'm definitely going to wipe this AMI. Ichiko sighed, feeling a momentary stab of guilt. Then she toggled the connection on once more. Sorry, she thought to her AMI. No, the AMI wasn't her mother, but apologizing felt right, even to an artificial intelligence.
Not to worry. I take no offense at anything you say. Ever. You needn’t apologize, but I hope I did briefly take your mind away from your flight. You should find things smoother now— look at your monitor; you’re below the cloud deck and the rough air.
A glance showed Ichiko that her AMI was right. The monitor's view was still streaked with the bloody rain, but through the watery distortion the world had gone dark with gray-black clouds sliding past and massed overhead. Below was a curve of shadowed, vegetation-clad shoreline, outlined by an erratic line of pale white where waves crashed against a shore. The shoreline was interrupted by the mouth of an inlet leading to a narrow bay with a cluster of buildings set on the landward side; Ichiko wondered if that was the town called Dulcia. Beyond the land, an expanse of empty gray-green ocean eventually blended into rain and cloud. Ichiko tried to peer through the mist for a glimpse of Great Inish or the other islands in the archipelago off the main coast, but they were either too far away or lost in the storm.
She could feel the pull of the planet's gravity now. Canis Lupus had a radius 1.5 times that of Earth and the rotation of Odysseus' living quarters had been set to mimic its higher than Earth-normal gravity. Still, experiencing the reality seemed somehow different and uncomfortable. Ichiko felt too heavy for comfort.
Arrival at First Base in five minutes. The announcement, in a bland and somehow genderless voice entirely unlike her AMI's, sounded in Ichiko's head and in the heads of the two ensigns as well; they both opened their eyes and sat up, looking around sleepily with a nod in her direction. The shuttle banked sharply, Ichiko's ears clogging with the quick change in air pressure; she yawned, and her ears popped. A green-and-purple-clad slope was sliding by the monitor, while ahead was an unassuming, squat gray building set halfway up its flank with a fast-flowing stream foaming white among the stones alongside it: First Base, Ichiko presumed.
The ship banked again and settled; she heard the landing jets scream as the shuttle came to a shivering halt in midair, now descending slowly toward the roof of the base as rain dripped from the wings and fuselage. As they touched down, Ichiko saw two halves of a dome rising to enclose them. Harsh lights clicked on inside the dome as the shuttle's voice spoke again: Decontamination underway. An orange spray enveloped the shuttle, hissing hard against the outside of the craft and blurring the lights until a fierce wind from the fans ripped the fluid away, leaving the shuttle dry. They began to descend into the base itself, into what Ichiko assumed was the shuttle's bay. The descent ended with a jerk. Outside the window, Ichiko saw the squared end of an air lock extend toward them and latch onto the shuttle's hull. A few moments later, there came the audible pop of a pressure change and the shuttle's hatch opened, letting in a waft of air that smelled of antiseptic. A woman's head appeared in the opening, arranged somewhere between smile and frown. Ichiko could see the lieutenant's insignia on her uniform work shirt, and the brass nameplate that gave her surname as BISHARA.
"Welcome to First Base," she said. "Grab your gear, people." She nodded to the ensigns. "You two report to Chief McDermott on Level Two. You know the way." They saluted her, pulled their duffels from the overhead compartment, and were off through the air lock. Bishara's pale, almost colorless eyes found Ichiko. "Dr. Aguilar, you can come with me."
Ichiko grabbed the handles of her own duffel and swung it down, then followed Lieutenant Bishara through the air lock tube and into a room inside the base; the tube slowly accordioning in behind them as they walked. She somehow felt heavier here than on Odysseus. It’s just in your head, AMI commented, and Ichiko glanced quickly at her ring finger and saw the contact glowing blue-probably she'd accidentally double-tapped it, leaving AMI open to her thoughts.
Maybe, but that’s not where I feel it, she answered, then immediately touched her finger to the contact again to sever the open connection. The lieutenant closed the hatch to the shuttle bay end of the flexible corridor before moving to open the other, allowing them to descend a small set of stairs. The astringent smell was stronger here, and Ichiko wished she already had on the bio-shield she'd need when she ventured outside. Bishara waved to two men behind a glass-walled compartment, giving them a thumbs-up, then led Ichiko to a door and into the base proper. Ichiko couldn't help but think that First Base was hardly hospitable. It was like walking into a construction zone.
They could certainly use a decent interior decorator, AMI commented. Ichiko started at the unexpected comment in her head. She glanced at her fingertip-it was still glowing a soft blue. She tried severing the connection again, but the fingertip continued to glow. AMI? she thought.
I was just agreeing with you, came the answer. The place looks a total wreck.
Ichiko pressed the contact again, harder this time; finally, the azure glow underneath her skin faded. She shook her head. I need to get this checked the next time I'm up on Odysseus. I don't want or need AMI accidentally listening to everything I'm thinking.
Since Odysseus' arrival, First Base had been under reconstruction after being largely abandoned for almost three centuries. That restoration work was still ongoing. There were people in military work fatigues all around them, intent on their tasks. The walls were open to conduits and electrical relays; large wires snaked over the floor, requiring Ichiko to watch where she was stepping. The building's interior smelled of paint, grease, and arcing connections; the lighting panels were mostly working, but there were occasional shadowed spots, and several of the holo arrays intended to make up for the lack of windows on the outside wall remained stubbornly black.
Still, after surviving the shuttle descent, it felt good to have something solid under her feet again.
Ichiko had studied the records from Canis Lupus on Odysseus' five-year-long journey here. She could only imagine what it had been like for the original inhabitants of First Base during the Interregnum-the time after the meteor strike on Earth that devastated the homeworld and left abandoned the half dozen new worlds that had just begun to be explored by humankind. Ichiko knew that the first years on Canis Lupus had been especially hard, as those stranded here realized from the initial erratic communications from Earth that they were now effectively marooned and on their own. Bereft of factories, spare parts, resources, and skilled personnel, those on Canis Lupus couldn't repair their machinery and technology as things inevitably broke down.
The bio barriers put up around First Base (as well as Second Base, on the southern continent) failed in the first few decades; the colonists had no choice but to expose themselves to the local viruses and bacteria. New and untreatable diseases stalked them, with infant and senior mortality rates especially high. Their technological level quickly dropped back to nearly preindustrial times. The colonists had to learn what native crops they could grow and eat, what native animals they could eat or use as work and farm animals. Everything boiled down to answering the question, "Will doing this or not doing this help us or will it kill us?" They had no research labs to search for cures for the new diseases that stalked them, no hospitals able to treat serious injuries. Out of contact with Earth, for all they knew they might be the last humans anywhere in the universe. Reproduction became an imperative; monogamy had been the first social casualty. For several decades, it wasn't certain any of them would survive at all. That prognosis had become a somber fact for those on the southern continent: Odysseus' surveys had shown that they'd all died within a few years of Second Base being open to Canis Lupus.
But for those here on the northern continent, things had been marginally better. There were now small towns outside First Base, with everyone several generations removed from the original humans who had come here. The population was now over 300,000 and rising. Ichiko's assignment was to learn all she could of these people, undoubtedly changed from their long exposure to their world.
She wondered if these descendants were now more Homo lupus than Homo sapiens-and, if they were, whether those of the United Congress of Earth would or even could ever permit them to return to their original homeworld.
"I've sent word to Commander Mercado that you've arrived safely," Lieutenant Bishara said to Ichiko over her shoulder as they walked through the construction and into a section that looked somewhat more finished. Ichiko had the feeling that Bishara wasn't entirely pleased with her role as escort. "He said to give you his best wishes and to let you know that he'd try to contact you around 1600 ship-time, if you're available." The appraising glance Lieutenant Bishara gave her told Ichiko that the lieutenant was also aware of the relationship between Ichiko and the commander, though that was hardly surprising; it was difficult to keep secrets aboard the ship. Bishara looked like she was eager to be about her normal duties and no longer having to nursemaid Ichiko.
Still, Ichiko felt a stab of irritation, knowing that Bishara was undoubtedly judging her. If she is, it's your own damn fault. You made the choice. You continue to sleep with Luciano, after all. The internal accusation burned in her head, as it often did of late.
Her AMI stayed silent. That, at least, was a small blessing. She could unfortunately imagine what her mother-analogue might have said.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Ichiko told her; it seemed the safest reply. "Is my transport to Dulcia ready? I'd like to see the town so I can start to familiarize myself with it. Satellite photos and data reproductions . . . well, they're just not the same."
Bishara smiled briefly at that-probably because it meant that Ichiko would be quickly out from underfoot. "Understood. And having been to Dulcia once myself, I'd agree. I think you're going to be surprised by what you find there."
"Pleasantly so?" Ichiko asked, and Bishara laughed.
"It depends on what you're expecting and what you're looking for," she answered. "But yes, your flitter's waiting outside, and you can leave as soon as we've gone over protocol and you've been shown how to use your bio-shield. Your AMI can provide guidance to the town; it's about twenty minutes away, ship-time; you may have seen it from your shuttle as you came in."
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