Henley’s father is dead
But returning home from her studies abroad, the crown princess of the planet D’marc discovers that his absence isn’t the only thing in her life that’s been turned upside down: her mother has already remarried, passing the throne to her new husband, the uncle Henley once adored. And there’s the ghost: a bold but enigmatic apparition, wandering the cold, metal corridors of Elsinore Station, seeking justice for the unjustifiable.
Betrayed by her own family and unwilling to involve the woman she loves, Henley is left with only the trust of her best friend and a fierce determination to expose the truth of her father’s death: for her home, for herself, for the people she cares about. Even if that truth calls into question everything she has ever believed in—even if it stretches the very limits of her mind.
Excerpt – Chapter One
Hortensia Moretti wrapped her oversized canvas jacket closer about her and shivered.
“Is it always this cold?” she asked, her work boots thudding on the brushed metal of the corridor.
Captain Bernadette glanced back over one broad shoulder, the white-streaked hair of her severe bun never quivering; the patch of metal that housed her right eye gleamed in stark contrast to her dark skin.
“Atmospheric controls have been glitchy,” she said, turning back to the corridor without breaking stride. “Been working with the MechDrones, but no cause has yet been determined.”
Tensie shivered again. The Cynet head of security for Elsinore Station was not exactly an endearing woman, with her terse manner and almost robotic precision, but one couldn’t fault her for vagueness.
Tensie glanced out the porthole windows; the panoramic view beyond played out with the rapid succession of an old-world projector show. She could just glimpse the horizon of the planet below, common red clay pocked with splashes of violet and dusky gray—the quintessian mineral deposits that had transformed the insignificant border world of D’marc into an invaluable system asset. It was a fairly recent discovery, only twenty-five years old, and engineers and physicists alike were still exploring the seemingly limitless potential of the new element. But its most immediate, exciting, and profitable application was in space travel. The mineral, when put through a rigorous chemical transmutation, gave the people of the Europa system their first real possibility of achieving faster-than-light speeds. The discovery had been groundbreaking, and the previous king of Elsinore Station had made good use of the resources and income provided by the sudden demand for the material.
. . . the previous king.
Tensie shuddered again and tucked a strand of shiny black hair behind her ear.
Captain Bernadette made a sharp ninety-degree turn, and Tensie nearly crashed into the larger woman’s shoulder before she realized they had come to a halt. She edged out from behind the security chief, like a small child peeking from behind her mother’s skirts, and pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her narrow nose. A drone biped stood at the entrance to the corridor, which was now carpeted in deep crimson.
“SecDrone 112,” Bernadette barked, “Francis, report.”
Though the drone did not possess any human features on its bland metallic frame, it turned what might have passed for its face toward its commander.
“All quiet on patrol, Captain.” The buzzing, emotionless voice scraped against Tensie’s ears, and she had to work hard not to wince. “No anomalies to report.”
“Access record 235 for night cycle and report anomalies,” the captain ordered, in a sort of vindictive tone, like someone about to prove a point.
“Processing . . .” There was a whirring sound and a click as the drone twitched its eyeless, mouthless head to the right. “Record two-three-five, night cycle, anomalies reported: seven.”
Another whirring and a loud click. “First anomaly reported 21:34:17—disturbance detected in Section 32A, resolved—”
“Detail unresolved anomalies,” Bernadette rephrased, sounding as though she were trying not to grit her teeth.
Tensie settled deeper into her jacket, its faint scent of green things and soil both familiar to her and foreign in these surroundings. She couldn’t have been certain, but she thought it was actually getting colder. Pinpricks of starlight flitted through the windows in her peripheral vision, and she tried not to think of the empty chill of space seeping through the riveted seams of the station, stealing the warmth and the air.
Two loud clicks made her jump, but it was just the SecDrone reprocessing the command.
“Second anomaly reported 23:12:67—sudden drop in temperature detected in Section 25C. MechDrone dispersed. Currently unresolved.” Click. “Fifth anomaly reported 26:54:03—sudden vent of nitrogen in Section 26F, decreased visibility warning. MechDrone dispersed. Currently unresolved.”
“26F?” Tensie asked, perking up. “But my room is in 26E, and I didn’t—”
Captain Bernadette held up one thick finger, her fawn-colored eye rolling toward her in its metal socket.
Tensie shut her mouth and was still. The drone whirred and clicked one more time.
“Seventh anomaly reported 00:09:78—Section 29B. Unidentified. Security dispersed. Currently unresolved.”
Captain Bernadette turned fully to Tensie and crossed her arms, the two metal fingers of her left hand tapping against her elbow impatiently as though she were waiting for Tensie to figure out something she had already proven.
“Okay . . .” Tensie said slowly, “so . . . what’s ‘unidentified?’”
The older woman gave her a look so bland that it rivaled Francis.
“It means there is no identity.”
Tensie bit her lip and hunched further into her coat, resisting the urge to scuff a boot on the floor.
“Right, I get that,” she said, “but what does that mean? Don’t you have coding categories to reference? What about vid records? You’ve got console bulbs every ten feet—”
“Vid feed disabled from 00:10:03 to 00:14:48 for this section,” Francis intoned unhelpfully.
Captain Bernadette gave Tensie what might have been a smug look if she had been capable of that range of emotion. Tensie adjusted the leg of her glasses behind her ear.
“And this happens every night?”
“Every night,” the captain said. “Two months I’ve been getting these calls. Always at some dust-damned hour, working through the Twenties wing with nothing to report but a big, fat ‘unidentified’ and a bunch of static.”
“Different guards on duty?”
“All this model?”
“Listen, your ladyship,” Captain Bernadette said, managing to make the honorific sound simultaneously sincere and condescending. “I didn’t bring you out here in the middle of the night cycle because of a maintenance mix-up. My drones may not be the latest models, but I assure you they’re reliable.”
“So why did you bring me here?” Tensie asked, truly curious. After all, this was not her station. This wasn’t even her section. She was supposed to be on a transport back to Witten right now.
Captain Bernadette stiffened—something Tensie wouldn’t have thought possible, given the woman’s already rigid posture—and her mouth set in a hard line. A light started blinking red and green at the edge of her hairline, reflecting in the white strands.
“Because you’re in Tech,” she said. “Witten Technical Institute, the definitive school for mechanical engineering and computer programming in the Europa system, studying advanced coding and programs, with full payment-on-merit courtesy of the Vitali government, and top of your class.” She recited all this as if reading from a dossier she had memorized. Which was completely possible, now that Tensie thought about it.
“Your princess is every bit the student I am,” Tensie said, smiling tentatively, “and she’s familiar with the station, its quirks. Why not go to her?”
Captain Bernadette’s expression relaxed the tiniest fraction. Tensie couldn’t honestly say that it softened, but it was close.
“I cannot, in good conscience, bring this to young Henley,” she said, sounding almost ashamed of this tiny bit of humanity. “Not without trying first to resolve it, or provide explanation.”
“Good conscience?” Tensie asked. “Captain,
There was a loud hiss and Tensie jumped with a squeak, reminded with sudden vivid clarity of her terrible imaginings, the vacuum of space gradually encroaching—but would it would be all at once now instead? Depressurization was a painful process. Would they freeze first, or . . . ?
White mist swirled past her ankles and down the hall in roiling waves.
“Nitrogen,” the captain said, tugging her brown and gold uniform jacket straight and clasping her hands behind her. “Cooling vents. Shouldn’t be long now.”
Tensie pushed her glasses up with shaking fingers. “Until what?”
A light flickered at the far end of the hallway and her head snapped toward it, but it was gone. The silence was broken only by the fading hiss of venting nitrogen, the swirls of white undulating softly around their ankles. There was another flicker of light and a shape.
Tensie took an involuntary step back, pressing her back to the metal wall, the rivets digging into her shoulders. The light winked out, blinked, came on again—and this time there was no mistaking it.
It was the soft white outline of a man, tall and very stiff in his layers of lordly robes. He turned his head, modeling his profile: sharp, chiseled, what might have passed for handsome had he any more substance to him. The mist did not swirl around him, but rather passed through him.
His gaze swept the corridor, passing over Tensie with no more acknowledgment than he might have granted a fly. Then he began to walk, striding toward them with what might, in any other circumstances, have been stately purpose.
But in this incorporeal ether, the steps were devoid of weight or emotion, and the mist at his feet took no more notice of his tread than he had taken of Tensie. There was a loud whir, a series of rapid clicks, and Francis began to blat out a warning.
“Anomaly detected in Sector 28H—Warning—Anomaly detected in Sector 28H—Warning—”
Tensie barely heard it. Her eyes were fixed on the brilliant creation before her: so intricate . . . so complex . . . so unequivocally—
“Can you talk to it?”
Captain Bernadette’s voice at her elbow pulled Tensie out of her fascinated reverie, and she gave the captain a glance. The other woman’s skin had taken on a gray pallor, though her expression and posture showed no other sign of distress. The metal plates on her face were lit with a series of blinking lights, and her golden eyes shot Tensie with a look that might have been grudging respect.
“It won’t talk to me,” the captain said. “Too advanced, way beyond my expertise. I thought, being from Tech . . .”
Tensie turned back to the transparent man taking gliding strides toward the corner where they stood. He had not so much as given them a glance. Clearly, he was looking for something specific, a trigger of some kind. Would he react to other outside stimuli? Would he, in essence, behave like a human?
He reached the corner and started to turn. Tensie stepped in front of him.
The apparition stopped. His eyes narrowed, and he scanned her from top to bottom, hovering the longest on her eyes. Tensie adjusted her glasses and took a steadying breath.
“Identify program,” she said in her best programmer voice. “Detail purpose and place of origin.”
The hologram—for that’s what it was, unprecedented on this scale, but what else could it be?—held her gaze for a full five seconds.
Then, without so much as a blink, it walked straight through her.
She tensed, as if for an impact, but of course she didn’t feel anything. It was only a program made of light and code even less substantial than the fog swirling around the toes of her boots. She whirled and watched him go, striding with those determined steps, never wavering from whatever goal his programming had dictated to him. He paused, turned another corner, and was gone.
She ran to the end of the corridor and peeked around, but there was no trace of him.
King Henley of Elsinore Station had vanished.
Emily Selleck is an author who lives on the internet, but whose physical form resides in Southeast Texas. She has a boyfriend who might be imaginary, a cat who is possibly of demonic origins, and two dogs with polar opposite personalities. Sometimes, she writes.