Today, I have a fabulous treat for you. A superb story by a fabulous author. I review it, and you're going to love it! But first, Let's have Sharon tell you a bit how she came to write this story...
Why I wrote Ghost Planet
I used to write fantasy, and as a young adult, I wrote two novels and several short stories. I submitted to a few publishers and magazines and got some encouraging feedback, but eventually I gave it up because … well … life.
After the birth of my daughter, when I turned 40, I decided I could no longer put off doing the thing I had known I wanted to do since I was 6. I wrote a handful of fantasy stories for the Writers of the Future Contest, and I kept getting honorable mentions but couldn’t get any further. I thought I might have a better chance with a sci-fi story, but I didn’t know how to get started.
After a few days of thinking about it, the title came to me, and I started wondering what would a story called GHOST PLANET be about? It all got going from there. First I wrote a short story, which was basically the novel’s first chapter. I received yet another honorable mention, and a rejection from a well-known sci-fi magazine whose editor “did not find the story compelling.” But that story wouldn’t die, so I continued writing until it was a novel, submitted it for a romance contest instead, and was nominated for an RWA Golden Heart Award, and later a RITA.
2013 RWA RITA finalist for Best First Book . . .
A world in peril. A bond deeper than love.
Psychologist Elizabeth Cole prepared for the worst when she accepted a job on a newly discovered world--a world where every colonist is tethered to an alien who manifests in the form of a dead loved one. But she never expected she'd struggle with the requirement to shun these "ghosts." She never expected to be so attracted to the charming Irishman assigned as her supervisor. And she certainly never expected to discover she died in a transport crash en route to the planet.
Reincarnated as a ghost, Elizabeth is symbiotically linked to her supervisor, Murphy--creator of the Ghost Protocol, which forbids him to acknowledge or interact with her. Confused and alone--oppressed by her ghost status and tormented by forbidden love--Elizabeth works to unlock the secrets of her own existence.
But her quest for answers lands her in a tug-of-war between powerful interests, and she soon finds herself a pawn in the struggle for control of the planet...a struggle that could separate her forever from the man that she loves.
A uniquely original sci fi. I loved every minute of it!
For the humans who land on the planet Ardagh they must deal with a ghost attaching to them. The psychological damage of having a ghost caused them to establish the Ghost Protocol. The protocol required the human to ignore the ghost attached to them. Never to speak to them. Ignore their needs.
Thus, most ghosts were half starved, sad creatures.
But then the creator of the Ghost Protocol, Grayson Murphy, meets a young woman, Elizabeth, just arrived on the planet, never realizing she was not human, but a ghost, and an affection, a bond is created before either discovers the truth.
Can love exist when one partner has all the power? Elizabeth refuses to accept the rules for the ghost. She will not be ignored! So she turns her efforts to discover what is really going on in the planet and what did she have to do to break away from Dr. Murphy. Until then, she has to tag along with him wherever he goes.
Unlike any ghost before her, Elizabeth is determined to understand this planet and the symbiotic relationships between all living things on it.
What if nothing works properly if powers are unbalanced?
On Ghost Planet the ghosts and the living personify the problem. Will they find the solution?
Fabulous twists to the very end.
Now, for the longest excerpt ever created:
I gave you the Review first so you actually have incentive to read through the entire excerpt below.
The tarmac was deserted. Foggy and disoriented, I wondered how long I’d been standing there, listening to the evergreens groan in the wind and dreading my first encounter on this new world. Would it be human or alien?
I breathed in the crisp, impossibly clean air, trying to clear my head. My gaze traveled around the landing pad, hemmed in by towering conifers, and came to rest on the transport terminal, oblong and silent under a slate-gray sky.
I had the unsettling feeling I was the only person on the planet—Ardagh 1, more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth. Inexplicable things happened here. The planet itself was a study in the impossible.
Finally the terminal doors slid open, and a figure stepped out onto the tarmac. A half-dozen others spilled out behind him, and a transport whined into view, landing about thirty meters away.
The presence of the other passengers eased my sense of isolation. But that first man out of the building—he was headed right for me. My heart beat out a warning, and my mind snapped back to the original question: Human or alien?
“Elizabeth?” He raised his dark eyebrows, and my gaze locked on his startling eyes. Piercing, round, and the lightest shade of blue, like sky behind a veil of cloud—clean cloud, not the brown smudges that passed for clouds back on Earth. Something about him tugged at my memory, but I found this the opposite of reassuring.
“Yes?” I answered, uneasy. If he wasn’t human, I was minutes on the planet and already breaking the rules. It was dangerous to talk to them. There were institutions back on Earth devoted to caring for people who’d done so. I’d met some of those people.
“My apologies,” he said, offering a disarming smile. “I really hoped to be here earlier. I see your transport has already left.”
Irish. Very charming, and also not surprising. The Ardagh 1 colonies, and the Ecosystem Recovery Project itself, had been founded by an Irishman.
I now felt more confident he was human, but he wasn’t the person I’d been expecting.
“I’m Grayson Murphy,” he offered, coming to my rescue. “Lead psychologist at the New Seattle Counseling Center.”
Lifting my eyebrows in surprise, I shook the hand he held out—his grip was warm and solid. I understood now why he seemed familiar. Grayson Murphy was the father of Ardagh 1’s Ghost Protocol. He was also the highest-ranking psychology Ph.D. on the planet.
“Haven’t frightened you, I hope?” he said with a smile.
More like dazzled than frightened. “Not at all. It’s just that I didn’t realize—”
“I know.” He nodded. “You were expecting Katherine Katz. I’m afraid some unforeseen circumstances have led to a change in your assignment, Elizabeth. You’ll be coming to work with us in New Seattle.”
He watched me closely, and I strove to keep my disappointment from showing in my face. I’d left Earth with the belief I was headed for a residency at a counseling center in a smaller colony to the north. I was long overdue for a break from academia, and there would be no escaping it in New Seattle. The larger counseling center employed three of the four Ph.D.s who’d worked on the Ghost Protocol: a policy that prohibited interaction between colonists and the planet’s indigenous inhabitants.
“I see.” A less-than-enthusiastic response, but it was the best I could manage. “Could I ask about the circumstances?”
A sudden gust of damp wind blew right through me and I gasped, hugging my arms around my chest. I didn’t have on enough clothing for the late-winter weather.
“Let’s get you inside. I’ll explain everything.”
As I matched his brisk pace across the tarmac, he continued, “I’m really sorry you’ve been shuffled around like this. I’m at least able to deliver the happy news that your container arrived as scheduled, on yesterday’s cargo transport—nothing short of a miracle considering the dodgy state of our transport service.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, grateful to have been spared knowledge of the “dodgy state” of transport service prior to my departure from Earth.
Then something occurred to me that hadn’t at first—and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
“Dr. Murphy, are you my new supervisor?”
Again he smiled, and I liked the way the smile took over his whole face. “Afraid so. But please call me ‘Murphy.’ Everyone does.”
Amiable as he appeared, it was hard not to be intimidated by the idea of reporting to him. And hard not to contrast this ambitious young psychologist with earthy, Birkenstock-wearing Katherine Katz.
“I hope everything is okay with Dr. Katz,” I said. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d changed her mind about me.
“Dr. Katz is fine, but the counseling center . . . ” Murphy hesitated, and the skin on the back of my neck prickled. He stepped inside the terminal. “We’ve reassigned you because the Cliffside clinic was badly damaged in a tremor a few days ago. We don’t expect it to reopen for several months.”
I froze outside the sliding doors, staring at him across the threshold.
“I—that’s awful. Was anyone hurt?”
“Miraculously, no.” The wind lifted the ends of his fine, dark hair.
“Is that sort of thing . . . a regular occurrence?”
He frowned as he studied my face. “I’m going about this all wrong, aren’t I? I used to be primarily a researcher, and I’m told my bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. Let me buy you lunch and I’ll explain everything.”
I took a deep breath and propelled myself inside.
“Don’t worry, Elizabeth, we’re going to take good care of you. And regardless of the circumstances, we’re happy to have you. You’re desperately needed.” As if to prove his point, his phone made a shrill bid for attention. He fished it out of his pocket and glanced at it before shutting it off.
Though the terminal was warm and comfortable, the rows of skylights made it feel open to the elements. My gaze settled on a small crowd gathered around two monitors at the end of the service desk. A woman broke from the group and strolled toward us, stopping short a couple meters away. She was rail-thin and pale, and she seemed to expect something from us. I waited for Murphy to speak to her.
Instead he turned and guided me toward the exit, fingertips lightly pressing the small of my back. Glancing behind us, I saw the woman following. Her eyes met mine, and suddenly I understood.
She was an alien. This was Murphy’s ghost.
Fresh from relocation training, I knew what I was supposed to do—the Ghost Protocol dictated I ignore her. Forget her, if possible. But as I turned away I couldn’t help guessing at whom she might be—a sister? A friend? Wife, even?
As we left the terminal, I wondered how long it would be before I met my ghost. They’d tried to prepare us in training, requiring us to list and describe the people we’d known who had died, so it wouldn’t come as such a shock. But I had never lost anyone—not a family member, not a friend, not even a pet.
I had no idea what—or who—to expect.
* * *
The street side of the terminal was less blustery, but it was now raining—a mopey, noncommittal Northwest rain, just like back home in Seattle.
Murphy stopped and turned. Tiny drops of moisture collected in his hair, and mine.
If everyone had a superpower, those eyes were his. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit with him in a therapy session. Then it occurred to me I might very well find out—all colonists were required to attend daily counseling sessions as part of acclimation.
“Feeling okay?” he asked.
I had no trouble reading the subtext: Are you up to this? Are you frightened? I was grateful for his concern. But I was also eager to make a good impression.
“Yes,” I assured him. “I’m fine.”
“Good. There’s a café just down the street. The salmon eggs Benedict is amazing. What do you say?”
I had never eaten salmon. Salmon had long since exited the food chain on Earth. The last farm had shut down before I was born, pulled under by antibiotic-resistant disease.
My stomach grumbled resentfully—and audibly—at the memory of the stale pastry I’d eaten on the transport. Murphy smiled.
“Shall I take that as a yes?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, flushing. “I’m starving.”
He turned down the street and I followed. “It’s only a few blocks, so I thought we’d skip the tram. Unless you’re cold?”
“It feels good to be outside.” Not to mention the fact I got queasy just watching the tram whoosh back and forth above the pedestrian walkway.
As we headed down one side of the double row of four-story, modular buildings, Murphy asked, “Did you come here directly from Seattle, Elizabeth?”
“I did. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you don’t seem to have the cough. I wondered if you’d been on holiday.”
I gave him a quizzical look. “The cough?”
“Everyone coughs for the first few weeks, until their lungs clear out. I don’t think people on Earth even notice it anymore. But you’ll notice once you’ve been here a while. You can always pick out the new arrivals.”
“Huh.” Then, right on cue, I sneezed, and both of us laughed.
“Gesundheit. Maybe you’ll turn out to be allergic to clean air.”
“Maybe I’m more evolved than the rest of you. You know . . . adapted to pollution.”
“Ah, that’s going to be a problem. Though I suppose we could fix something up for you. Burn some garbage in your flat, if you like.”
“Perfect. I’ll feel right at home.”
Again we laughed, and I felt the tension easing from my body. This wasn’t so bad. New Seattle was shiny and clean, and outfitted more like a vacation destination than a scientific outpost—we’d passed two coffee shops and one gourmet grocery store in the two blocks we’d walked. The planet was green and beautiful—I’d never seen so many gigantic, thriving trees in my life. And perhaps even more important to my day-to-day quality of life, my new supervisor had a sense of humor.
But this comfortable sense of optimism evaporated as I studied the faces passing by in the street. It was easy to pick out the colonists—they all looked fit and were dressed in subdued, earthy fabrics. And they all appeared oblivious to the aliens that shadowed them. I couldn’t help wondering if over time they really had become oblivious, or if it was all just good acting. Then it struck me that Murphy’s ghost had been following us for two blocks and I hadn’t given her a second thought. I resisted the urge to glance back.
The ghosts themselves varied in age and appearance, but they all wore the same haggard, vacant expressions. Colonists were not permitted to speak to them, and as far as I could see they didn’t speak to each other. Creepy as it was to watch them slogging along behind the colonists, to me they looked more beaten down than threatening. And that had been the purpose of the protocol—to subdue them through neglect, and end the epidemic of psychological disorders sparked by their sudden appearance.
“I understand you and your colleagues have really helped to turn things around here,” I said, trying—but failing—to extend the cheerful note of our earlier exchange.
Murphy gave a tentative nod. “No question the protocol and the counseling program have improved the colonists’ ability to adjust to life here. But it’s still too early to say. We’re incredibly lucky our patron has remained committed to the project through all the controversy.”
Our patron—he meant green technology investor John Ardagh. When scientists aboard a U.S. explorer discovered the planet, Ardagh consulted his crystal ball and moved in quickly, securing a ninety-nine-year lease on what appeared to be a desolate rock with a few sterile puddles of water. But from the moment scientists set foot on the planet, impossible, wonderful—and profitable—things had begun to happen.
“Our Global Recovery Pact investors, on the other hand, have grumbled pretty loudly. The costs associated with the lawsuits alone have been astronomical.”
Murphy stopped in front of a glass door with a sign that read Café Tulipe. The hand-painted lettering and floral flourishes added a touch of warmth to the sleek building front. He waved the door open and gestured me inside.
“Looks to me like you’re managing to keep the lights on,” I observed, as we scanned the busy café for an empty table.
“Indeed,” he said, chuckling. “That’s thanks to our self-sufficiency.”
The interior was warm and brightly lit—sunlight simulators, I suspected, for dosing the dreary-weather blues. The rainy climate took its toll in depression, as did the more obvious risk factors: The ghosts lined up like surplus wait staff along the walls of the cafe, obscuring a mural of giant pink and yellow tulips.
Murphy’s ghost had remained outside, and was now peering in the window with the rest of the ghost overflow. Her eyes fixed on Murphy with such an expression of hopeless longing that I shivered and looked away—though not before discovering the resemblance. A family member, then. I wondered if they’d been close.
We made our way to a table in the back, and Murphy slipped my chair out for me before taking his seat. It was stuffy in the small, overcrowded room, and both of us peeled off our sweaters.
Resting his folded arms on the table, he gave me a bright smile that melted what was left of any first-meeting tension. The fact that my new supervisor was both charming and handsome was now quite literally staring me in the face, and a new kind of tension took hold.
“I can’t get over the feeling we’ve met before,” he said. “I saw your picture in your file, of course. But I don’t think that’s it. You seem . . . familiar.”
Now that we were sitting close, talking face-to-face, I had the same feeling. But it didn’t make sense. “Have you ever been to Seattle? Or the university there?”
Murphy shook his head. “I haven’t. I was only in the states once, when I was a boy. How about you? Have you visited Ireland?”
“Yes, I . . . ” As I continued to study his face, it came to me.
His eyebrows lifted. “Do you have it?”
It seemed an impossible coincidence. “Did you go to Trinity College?”
“Did you do tours there? For visitors, I mean. Tourists.”
“Yes!” Murphy’s eyes went bright with recognition. “That’s it! Wow. Small universe, eh?”
“No kidding.” I had total recall now, though it was nearly ten years ago. I remembered finding him attractive, in a brainy, old-world sort of way. And I had been a sucker for his accent. But it hadn’t been an option at the time. Nor is it now, I reminded myself.
“I remember you very well, actually.” His gaze lifted to the top of my head. “Especially your hair.”
I laughed, blushing from my hairline to my toes. “That’s all anyone ever remembers of me.” My unruly mass of blond curls, which must be quite a spectacle now after the assault by wind and rain.
“Not true. I remember you asked interesting questions.” He grinned. “Loads of them.”
This did nothing to cool the heat of my embarrassment. At this point I also managed to swallow my tongue.
“I’m fairly certain I invited you and that surly looking fella you had with you to the pub after the tour. But you raced off to catch a bus.”
My heart stirred in hibernation, giving a heavy thump of protest. I folded my hands in my lap and smiled thinly. “He wasn’t always surly. He didn’t travel well.”
Was I ever going to stop making excuses for Peter? Old habits. I had to keep reminding myself he wasn’t my fiancé anymore.
Mercifully, a pixie-like waitress with spiky, lavender hair appeared with menus. I studied mine without really seeing it, haunted by the metaphorical ghosts of my old life. I wasn’t likely to see any of them—my parents, my friends, Peter—for several years, maybe longer. Like all prospective immigrants to Ardagh 1, I’d been required to undergo both physical and psychological evaluations back on Earth. My counselor had expressed concern that I was running away—accepting a job far from home to make it impossible for me to take Peter back. I remembered the look on her face when I told her she was absolutely right, and that I didn’t see how it made any difference. As a Ph.D. candidate in psychology I’d had my fill of psychoanalysis. I’d wanted them to stamp my forehead and let me go.
“What looks good, Elizabeth?”
“Um . . . ” I glanced from him to the waitress, who wore the long-suffering smile of forced tolerance that was a hallmark of her trade. “You said the salmon was good, right? I’ll have that.”
“Two house specials, and”—he looked at me—“coffee?”
I was only an occasional coffee drinker—though I consumed tea by the potful—but the heavy, nutty aroma of espresso was impossible to resist. “Cappuccino?”
“Great idea—two cappuccinos. I think that’s it.”
The waitress gave him a grateful smile and snatched up our menus. As she headed for the kitchen with our order, I saw a teenage boy seated against the wall near the doorway, arms folded around his sharp knees. Pale and almost skeletal, with dark depressions under his eyes, he tracked her with his gaze.
It sent another shiver through me.
“It’s okay to be afraid, Elizabeth.”
My eyes snapped back to Murphy. Despite his lack of counseling background, he was having no trouble reading me.
“It doesn’t matter how much they prepare you.” His expression was warm, and genuinely concerned. “It takes getting used to.”
“I am anxious about it,” I admitted. “I’m not sure what to expect.”
“Maybe I can help with that. Do you have an idea about the form it will take?”
I shook my head. “I thought I would have it easy because no one close to me has died. But now I’m not so sure. The idea of a stranger following me around everywhere is pretty unsettling.”
Murphy’s eyes hadn’t left my face. I fidgeted under the directness of his gaze. “It’s important to remember they’re all strangers. Aliens. In that sense, it doesn’t matter who it is. Any reaction, whether the face is familiar or not, is yours alone. It’s purely affective.”
“You’re saying it’s all in my head,” I said wryly.
He broke into a grin. “I suppose I am. Sorry.”
“I do see what you’re saying, Dr. Murphy—Murphy. And I agree, to a point.” Fifteen minutes into getting to know my new supervisor and I was about to start arguing with him. “But they’re all different, with distinct personalities, right? Or at least with the same personality as the person they’re mimicking. An abusive, alcoholic husband is going to be much harder to deal with than an ancient, dotty grandmother.”
“Absolutely. But keep in mind our new screening program weeds out anyone with a dead, abusive spouse, just like we weed out those who’ve lost young children. And no matter the ghost’s Myers-Briggs personality type, strict adherence to the protocol typically yields results in one to two weeks. At that point they’re all pretty much the same as what you see here.” He waved his hand at the room.
We paused as the waitress delivered our lunch. I inhaled the steam coming off the plate and my stomach growled again. I took a bite of the egg/salmon/hollandaise mixture and experienced a moment of sensory ecstasy.
“No wonder people stay here,” I murmured, watching a trickle of bright-orange egg yolk.
Murphy laughed. “I love being around new arrivals. Helps me remember not to take the good stuff for granted.”
We exchanged few words as I wolfed down my lunch. The waitress brought our cappuccinos and cleared away the empty plates.
“I wanted to ask you about Cliffside,” I began. “You said no one was hurt?”
I watched the tiny spoon going around the rim of his cup as he replied, “Yes, we were lucky. Because of the instability here, all of our structures adhere to the strictest earthquake and severe weather standards. But the damage was pretty extensive.”
I sipped my cappuccino and wiped foam from my mouth. “I understood the planet was geologically stable for several years before colonization began.”
“That’s true. But we’ve seen some changes in the last year.”
My hand shook a little as I set down my cup. I waited for him to go on.
“I know they’re not talking about this at the academy,” he said gravely, “and my colleagues and I have made our views about that known. We don’t think people should come here without having all the facts. But here you are.”
“I’m afraid you are frightening me now, Dr. Murphy.”
His mouth relaxed into a smile. “Then I’ll preface the rest by saying I don’t believe we’re in any immediate danger. If something catastrophic were to happen, all colonies stand ready to evacuate. The changes I’m talking about have been, for the most part, gradual and subtle. Shifts in weather patterns, the occasional tremor. The more alarming aspects involve the ecology. We’ve seen accelerating rates of disease, and decreasing fertility. Many of the specimens we’re sending back to Earth end up flushed into space, either dead or dying.” He sighed, rubbing at one side of his jaw. “It seems we no sooner got over our first major difficulty than we came right up against another.”
I was beginning to view my reassignment to the larger colony in a new light. I had to admit I had romanticized the Cliffside residency, its remote location overlooking the sea. The facility there had been established for colonists who’d succumbed to depression, a sort of last attempt before sending them home. New Seattle gave me a sense of safety in numbers. And its proximity to a major transport hub didn’t hurt.
“I’m guessing you’re thinking about transport schedules and return trips to Earth.”
I glanced up, answering Murphy’s searching look with a smile. “Not yet.”
“Well, if I can’t scare you away, no one can. Not even them.” Again his gesture indicated the ghosts, so I glanced at the window. I couldn’t see Murphy’s ghost anymore, but quite a crowd of them had gathered out there.
“Do you mind me asking who she is?”
Before he could answer, the waitress reappeared with our check. Murphy turned on his phone and aimed it at the payment scanner until it beeped acceptance.
“Not at all. My Aunt Maeve. She died when I was a boy, and I honestly don’t remember her very well.” As he tucked his phone away he seemed to reconsider, and added, “I remember she smelled like roses.”
A fond, very human detail. I couldn’t help asking, “Does she?”
He looked to the window and back again, seeming startled. “You know, she does. I never thought of it until now. How strange.”
Spooky, I would have said.
Murphy picked up his sweater. “If you’re ready, I thought I’d take you to the counseling center so you can see where you’ll be working.”
“I’d like that.”
“We’ll also meet up with my colleague, Alexis Meng. It’s standard procedure for new arrivals to stay with someone until the ghost situation gets sorted out. It’s a buddy system we’ve worked out, and it does seem to help people adjust. No one expects you to work today, of course. Lex will take you to your flat and you can pick up some of your things.”
As I was rising from the table, he came over to pull out my chair. I wondered how he’d come by such polite, antiquated manners.
We made our way to the door, emerging from the sunny café into the drizzly gray reality of New Seattle.
“It’s about five blocks,” he said. “Do you want to take the tram?”
I cast a dubious glance at the nearest tram platform. “I’m fine walking if you are. To be honest, I’m easily motion sick.” Losing my lunch in my new supervisor’s lap was high on my list of the most horrifying things I could imagine happening at this point.
“I prefer to walk, myself,” he agreed. “Not very gentlemanly to insist on it, though, is it?”
We started together down the street. “Well, you are the boss.”
Murphy groaned. “Let’s put a stop to that kind of thing right now. All of us at the center consider each other colleagues. We’re very informal here—you’ll see.”
Though I appreciated the sentiment, I knew the reality. There was a pecking order in facilities like these, and as the new resident I was decidedly at the bottom.
“One thing I’m curious about, Elizabeth. I read your profile. With your academic accomplishments you could have gone just about anywhere. What made you decide to come to Ardagh 1?”
All of my family and friends had asked me this same question. Peter had asked me repeatedly—assuming, perhaps, that if he stuck with it I’d eventually give an answer he could understand.
“Would you buy that I was trying to escape from my doctoral thesis?”
Murphy laughed. “I would. Unfortunately for you I’m going to be hounding you about that.”
“Terrific.” I cut my eyes at him. “Seriously, though—all of this is in my fitness evaluation. I assumed you would have read that too.”
He shook his head. “I don’t consider that my business. Your relocation counselor will have access to that information, of course.”
The knowledge that he wasn’t going to be counseling me came as a huge relief. He was too close to my own age. Too charming. Too good looking. And already reading me far too accurately as it was.
“All right,” I said, with a sigh. “You know they send recruiters around to all the campuses.”
“Well, they give it the hard sell, and they play the ghost thing down as much as possible because they know people are freaked out by it. It’s like army recruiters focusing on exotic travel, or money for school, and glossing over the fact people may be shooting at you. I was really curious though, and I kept interrupting with questions.”
“Oh?” Blushing at the mock surprise in his voice, I whacked his arm lightly with the back of my hand. Realizing he might interpret this as flirting, I blushed even deeper.
“Anyway, I think the guy smelled blood in the water, and once he got me away from the others he was happy enough to talk to me. He emailed me a bunch of forms and brochures, and I applied to the academy that same day.”
“You’re saying you came here because of the ghosts, not in spite of them.”
I nodded. “They’re the first aliens we’ve ever encountered. I’m fascinated by the way they cling to us. The problems they’ve caused without even seeming to be aware of it. I want to understand why they do what they do.” I paused a moment, and when he didn’t reply right away, I added, “I know that’s not my purpose here—I have a job to do, and I assure you I’m committed to doing it. But I’m hoping to get approval to write my dissertation on your aliens.”
As the creator of the Ghost Protocol, I knew I was taking a risk in telling him this. I worried he would view my curiosity as disrespectful to the hardships the colonists had suffered since the ghosts’ arrival.
After chewing on my answer for a minute, he said, “I appreciate your candor, Elizabeth, and I admire your enthusiasm. If you do get approval for your thesis topic, I hope you’ll consider including me on your committee.”
I beamed at him. Sometimes risks paid off. “I’d be thrilled to have you on my committee.”
“You say so now. Wait until I start nagging you.” He winked at me, and my heart flopped over. A man that good looking, who also happened to be my supervisor, had no business doing such a thing.
“Can I ask how you ended up here?”
Murphy exchanged a nod and hello with a man who passed us, and I realized my attention had been so absorbed by our conversation I’d noticed little else around me.
“Same as most people,” he replied. “I came here because I wanted something from the planet. The scientists see resources we need back on Earth. The contractors see money to be made. I thought that as a young postdoc I’d have an easier time making a name for myself where there was less competition.”
His explanation was like me saying I came here to avoid writing my thesis. “Interesting. Now tell me the real reason.”
He laughed. “I suppose I’m not as mercenary as that—yet. I met John Ardagh when he visited Trinity College. I found him incredibly bright and persuasive. He believes completely in Ecosystem Recovery, and he made me believe in it. I thought what a terrible waste it would be for the project to fail because of the psychological suffering caused by the ghosts, and John felt it was an area where I could make a contribution.”
I stared at him. “You’re telling me John Ardagh personally recruited you.”
Murphy stopped suddenly, and I drew up short too. He turned to glance behind him. I remembered that my ghost would be materializing any moment, and my gut tightened.
“What is it?” I asked, scanning the people who passed us.
Then I realized—no Aunt Maeve. Murphy’s ghost was nowhere in sight. I wondered about the fact he’d seemed to know she was missing before he turned to look.
We both stood dumbly, continuing to scan the others around us.
“Does this happen often?”
Murphy shook his head. “Let’s go on. We’re almost to the counseling center.” We started walking again, but I couldn’t help peeking a couple more times over my shoulder.
The New Seattle Counseling Center was several times the size of the modular, nearly identical structures lining the streets. These uniform buildings were what had earned the Ardagh 1 colonies the nickname “cities in a box”—the materials arrived on huge container transports, ready for assembly, and they went up almost overnight. The counseling center was the first building I’d seen constructed of what looked like local materials: massive wood beams still fragrant from cutting, and rounded river stones in every imaginable shade of gray and brown.
We trotted up half a dozen steps and were passing through the glass doors when Murphy said, “We’ll be scanned by security just inside. I hate them being here, raising people’s anxiety level in a place where we want them to feel safe. But all new arrivals pass through here, and someone decided it was a good idea.”
Thinking about the illicit-substance-and-weapons scans in all the airports and public buildings back home, I raised my eyebrows. “What’s it for?”
“To get a sort of fingerprint on everyone,” he explained, walking through the doorframe-shaped scanner. “Just to make sure we know who’s who. They can’t do it at the transport terminal because no one has ghosts when they first arrive.”
I followed him through the scanner, and a long beep sounded somewhere off to my left as I joined him inside. Murphy’s head jerked toward the sound. His eyes moved to the glass doors we’d just come through, and slowly back to me. He glanced at the security desk on our right.
“Where is it?” Murphy called to the guard, whose fingers were flying over his keyboard. The guard’s ghost leaned against the wall behind him, little more than a shadow.
The man stopped typing and looked up. “I’m sorry, Dr. Murphy?”
“I heard the alert go off, but I don’t see her. My ghost, Simon,” Murphy added, growing impatient. “Do you see her?”
The guard blinked at him a couple times. Then he cleared his throat. “She’s standing right next to you, Dr. Murphy.”