Scattered: #writephoto

Thanks to Sue Vincent for a beautiful photo prompt. I went a little off-world on this one. Hope you enjoy.

*

“I’ll take the risk.” Captain Galles scratched the stubble graying his jaw. “If something happens to me, Corso’s in charge, not that you’ll have any decisions left.”

No one argued. What was the point? Forty chrons without food and water, we ran shy of options. We’d searched the black bowels of the alien freighter, a salvage operation by the looks of it, and found nothing but twisted and charred metal, every scrap incinerated clean. Our damaged shuttle lay on its side amidst the sea of relics.

The exception to the vast darkness was a panel of fractured light, a patterning of sublime beauty suspended over a polished dais. Our mechanical captors had wedged the unit against the compartment’s grated wall shortly after we found ourselves prisoners. Primitive cyborgs, the aliens lacked facial articulation and translation capabilities, the robotic language in all forms indecipherable. All our words and gestures proved futile, and our captain’s demands for basic sustenance went unheeded. They’d installed the contraption and left, its function a mystery.

The eight of us stood at the fringe of light as Galles stepped onto the dais. The array of lights above him hummed in a slow spin and increased in speed until they appeared to hurl backward. His mouth gaped in a silent wail, eyes pooled with terror. He struggled to escape the machine, hammered fists against an invisible barrier he couldn’t break. The lights blurred into a white star and he froze like a holograph set on pause.

His body began to disintegrate, clothing and skin breaking apart and floating like mist, then deeper, his whole shape loosening and scattering. He dissolved into swirling vapor, a haze of bright particles. A burst of blue current blinded me, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I gasped and licked my parched lips, stifling an urge to vomit. Someone to my right heaved a dry sob. We sank to the floor where we’d stood, doomed. A day or two, we’d all be dead.

***

Amak studied the monitor. An unexpected reaction. It appears they are unfamiliar with teleportation. The fear response was extreme.

They are primitive. Rohla absorbed a wave of compassion emanating from the companion. They lack translation capabilities and do not understand the most basic of trinary languages. Their arithmetics are rudimentary. We have no means of communicating with them.

They choose death over the unknown. Amak shared the bafflement, their logic incomprehensible. Are we certain of the teleportation coordinates?

Without question. They were retrieved from their ship’s logs prior to processing.

Thoughts?

Rohla’s aura went silent, and Amak ceded to the desire for contemplation. Once completed, Rohla opened a channel and set the dilemma forth. Either we honor their choice as sentient beings and let them die, or we defy them, apply force, and save their lives.

Trump’s Bone Walls

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This post is dedicated to Donald Trump and the many walls he attempts to build between us and within which he resides. An excerpt from my post-apocalyptic book The Bone Wall, it’s an oral history told by a disabled woman named Shy who keeps the stories of the People.

***

“In ancient days,” Shy begins, “old books told of gods and angels, devils and deceivers, of the making and breaking of the world.” Her small hands glide though the air as she talks, as if she would paint for us a picture of the words she perceives. She appears not to blink, the light voice of a child smoothly echoing an ancient tale imprinted in her memory long ago. “Prophesies came to pass, books burned to ash, gods and devils long ago dead.” She pauses to swivel her misshapen head, her eyes goggling at Riverwalkers and descendants alike.
*
In the beginning, the greatest of gods created into the formless and empty void, the heavens and earth. Of his eyes, he made the sun and moon, which he set among the white stars that he might behold his creation by light of day and dark of night.
*
He toiled to set the clay to spin, the sky to blue and storm. Of his blood, he spilled the rain to carve the rivers and sate the sea. Of his body, he sowed the seeds of life and from his flesh burst a fecund world of plant and tree, laying over the land between the seas a verdant green. He gazed upon the work of his hands and saw it was good.
*
With his breath, he breathed life into the waters of the sea and set it teeming. Breathed life into the winged birds of the sky. Molded with his fingers and breathed into the living creatures that roam the land, each according to their own natures. He gazed upon the work of his heart and saw it was good.
*
And of his thought, he created man in his likeness and woman that he might live in companionship. To them he gave the seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. To them he granted mastery over the fishes in the seas and birds in the sky and every wild creature that crawls and runs upon the land, that they might shepherd this new world. He gazed upon the work of his dreams and saw it was good.
*
Thus in seven days the heavens and the earth were fashioned in all their vast array.
*
In the beginning of the end, what was done would be undone.
*
For man in his covetousness forsook the gifts of the great god and bowed to the deceivers who feared not to speak evil of grace and charity, believing themselves their own deceivings. They with feigned words made man a slave of his desires, promised him liberty, when they themselves were the servants of corruption.
*
In pride and greed, man closed his eyes to the shelter of the sky, thus the sun was set to scorch with fire and the moon to chill with ice. In gluttony and sloth, man poured his foul in the rivers and springs of water that flowed to the sea, and every living thing in the sea died and the land dried. In envy and lust, man scourged the life of the fields and forests, and disease broke out on man and beast; thus the land was plunged into plague.
*
In wrath and fear, the deceivers shouted their righteousness into the air. Forsaken and astray, zealous with false beliefs and dread to hope, man took up sword and shield. Flashes of lightning rent the sky, peals of thunder shook the mountains and the great cities of the nations crumbled. Every island drowned as the seas rose up in mighty tides. From the sky, huge hailstones, fire, and ash fell on the People.
*
Thus in seven days the heavens and the earth were broken in all their vast array.
*
The deceivers, laden with plunder, sought to escape the pollutions of their creation. In secret voices, they whispered among them: “Let us build these Gardens and stand walls around them. The glory is ours, for we are the righteous and chosen of God; rewarded with license on every side. Why else be blessed with such bounty, but by God’s desire.”
*
Then in slow procession, one for every ten thousand men entered within the walls. One for every ten thousand women abided within the walls. One for every ten thousand children sheltered within the walls. So they found peace within their walls and security within their strongholds, no violence in their land, nor ruin or destruction within their borders.
*
Beyond the walls, the tens of tens of tens of thousands trembled, for terror and fear lay upon the whole land. The fields went fallow, and beasts bore no calves or lambs. The rivers ran with fire, and seas belched up their foul and bloated bodies. Plagues and pestilence befell man and his descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering wars. And the people came to the Garden walls and begged for entrance.
*
And so said the deceivers onto the gathering hordes: “Mighty God, bless us. Saved are we by our devotion to your laws and renunciation of the wicked. We offer no succor among the righteous but cast the sinful from our gates. We deny the tainted and corrupt safe harbor within our moral ranks. We are the merciless sword of your justice, keepers of the covenant, the Saved.”
*
The people in the parched and broken world rose up in fear and desperation, and descended onto the Garden gates. A great horde of fury marched on the mighty walls, those in back pressing blindly on those at the fore until bodies leapt in screaming pillars of flame. They could not save themselves from the power of the walls; just as fire consumes the forest and sets the mountains ablaze, so were they devoured.
*
Ten-thousand times a thousand men blazed upon the walls. Ten thousand times a thousand women flared upon the walls. Ten thousand times a thousand children perished upon the walls. And the white bones clattered and rattled and formed mountainous bone walls around the Gardens of the deceivers so they would be reminded of their own ruination.

Passage #Writephoto

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Gabby tapped a finger on the holo-tab, scrolling through the checklist. She mumbled to herself to combat the interminable silence, “Done. Done. Done. Done.” Her shift was winding down, but she could squeeze in one more scan without a problem. Her team had been troubleshooting the anomalies for six shifts without a clue. Not one fritzed wire or crossed link, no cute little rodents sizzling in the circuits, or hideous viruses spewing garbled data.

“All systems operable,” the maintenance system announced. “Do you wish to proceed to level thirteen, mod seventy-four?”

“Not if I can help it,” she muttered, heading for the lift-port.

“Repeat,” the disembodied voice instructed.

“Yes. Mod seven four.”

“Proceed to the lift-port.”

“Obviously.” She pinched her fingers together in the air, minimizing the program. Trying to have a normal conversation with Opie, the ship’s original Operations AI, was like cooking with nutri-sims, the epitome of unsatisfying.

She hummed through the silence in the lift and exited on the thirteenth level – gray walls, gray floor, gray ceiling, same as every other level. Tracking the numbers on the doors, she strolled the corridor, the shipboard sounds muted, peaceful, sedate, boring. She’d just turned twenty-five, a fifth of her lifespan ticked off. Done. Done. Done. The thought of another hundred years of checklists punctuated by the same telebooks, revolving holofilms, and regurgitated musi-tunes tempted her to hack the entertainment database for some merciful sabotage.

At the panel to mod seventy-four, she punched the code into the slanted access plate, but the door didn’t budge.

“Greetings, Gabriela.” The pleasant voice of the modernized communications system chimed, breaking the ship’s silence.

“Hi, Darling.” The annoying name made her wince every time she said it.

“I’ve detected an anomaly. Do you still wish to enter?”

Gabby hesitated. She raised her hand and spread her fingers, opening Opie. “Safety analysis.”

“Perfectly safe,” Darling replied.

Opie ran through his data protocols. “Recommend initiating Safety Code SC-Six.”

“He’s a worrywart.” Darling sighed. “Of course, I understand if you’re anxious about missing the shift’s nutri-sim offering. Turkey and stuffing.”

“Open it.” The panel glided into the wall, and Gabby peeked in. At first glance, the mod’s interior appeared normal – a quietly blinking octagonal room, ten feet across, each gray wall dominated by a thin plasteel door that shielded the circuitry.

“Straight ahead,” Darling said.

“Don’t sound so giddy.” Gabby entered the mod and tapped the code from the plasteel door into Opie’s scanner.

The holo-tab blinked. “Anomaly detected.”

“How irritatingly repetitive.” Darling huffed. “Is he always like this?”

“Usually.”

“Well, are you going to open it?”

Gabby aimed her loc-key and hit the switch. The hidden pins clicked and the door released. She tugged it open and inhaled.

Beyond the gray portal the anomaly stretched forward in a rough passage constructed of actual stones and washed in gold and blue from the peculiar lights. At the end of the corridor, a cerulean brightness drew her eyes, a color seen only in images of a lost Terran sky. Yet neither sight could compete with the beauty of the sound. Beyond the elegant arches, voices and music soared, a sacred chant that welled in her chest, rose to her throat and caught in her lashes.

“Safety Code SC-Two Initiated,” Opie announced.

“Well, there you go,” Darling tsked. “He’s called security. You’re going to have to decide.”

“Decide?” Gabby stared down the length of the anomaly, the sapphire light and harmonies beckoning.

“To stay or go,” Darling whispered in her ear. “How much time do you have?”

“Seventy-three seconds,” Opie replied.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Opie,” Darling chided him. “One hundred years, Gabriela. You have a hundred years.”

Gabby stepped into the golden passage and closed the door behind her.

***

Many thanks to Sue Vincent of the Daily Echo for her #writephoto prompts that spark the imagination. She posts them on Thursdays. Join the fun!

Broken Sign

Broken Sign

First off, thank you to everyone who offered suggestions on my dragon book covers. Once again, I’m grateful to the lovely bloggers who people this virtual world. I can’t describe my gratitude for the friendship and support. 🙂 I tried every single idea and used most of them.

Special thanks to Nick (better known as Babbitman) not only for encouraging me to design different dragons for each cover but for actually doing one of them when I felt overwhelmed by the mere thought! He came through gloriously, and after he finished one, I was able to dismember and reassemble the rest.

Nick’s short story “Broken Sign” is a favorite of mine. Original, clever, quirky, and entertaining. I’ve closed comments. So just relax, read on and enjoy!

Broken Sign

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the dangers of artificial intelligence with luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk warning that AI could be “more dangerous than nuclear weapons”. Science-fiction has been banging this particular drum for decades: from HAL 9000 to Skynet in the Terminator movies, there are dozens of examples of artificial intelligence going rogue. Which is why it probably comes as a shock to learn that the first truly self-aware artificial construct was an overhead electronic variable message sign on the northbound A46, a few miles outside Nottingham. (continued….)

Reader Surveys by Genre and Gender

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I’m one of those kids that learns by doing. Who needs research when you can tie your legs together, jump into the lake, and try to swim like a mermaid? With nine books under my belt and four more in progress, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to do a little research on who my readers are. Hey, the lightbulb eventually turns on; it just might take a while!

I found some interesting data on Statista about readers and made a few charts. The survey was taken in 2015 with 2,273 US readers.

The survey asked readers to identify the type of books they’ve read in the last year by genre. (Note that this is a survey of interest not volume. So, someone who reads 20 romances and 1 fantasy novel will check both boxes “yes.”) As with all surveys, take this one with a pinch of salt).

% Readers who Reported Reading Fiction

% Readers who read fiction books by genre

% Readers who Reported Reading Non-Fiction

Non-Fiction Readers by Genre

My genre, Sci-fi/Fantasy, is only read by about 25-26% of adult readers. Congrats to you Mystery/Thriller/Crime writers at 47%! This data won’t make me change my genre preference, but it intrigues me enough to explore the stylistic elements of that popular genre(s)!

The next chart looked at the same data divided by gender.

Reader Genre Preference by Gender

Genre preferences by Gender

I was curious as to whether most of my readers are male or female and discovered that Fantasy is one genre that’s almost evenly matched. In this sample, Sci-fi is statistically read more by men.

The reason for this tidbit of research is my book Sunwielder – though women do enjoy the book, men seem to give it the best ratings. It’s a time-travel (sci-fi staple) fantasy with a strong historical-ish component. The slight sway toward male readers makes sense when I look at the charts above.

I don’t expect any of this to change the way I write, but I did find the info interesting. The world of books is as varied as the readers who inhabit it, which is one thing I love about writing.

As a reader, do these statistics apply to you?
As a writer, is there anything here that intrigues you?

Ghost Ship (Sci-fi Short Story, Final)

Ghost Ship 4

I continue to plug away at NaNoWriMo this month, despite having contracted a case of flu. The great thing about the flu is that it’s relieved me of all responsibilities for everything and given me plenty of time to write. I’m bedbound and a little loopy on cough syrup, but the word count is soaring. My husband says I’m milking it. Well, okay, maybe a little.

By now, you’ve surely noticed that my blogging presence has dwindled, but I will be back to into the full swing of things in a very short while as November gallops to a close. I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving and happily offer the conclusion of my short story, Ghost Ship.

If you missed the first 3 installments and are interested, you can download the entire thing in one fell swoop HERE . Otherwise, I offer you the links to the previous posts.

Ghost Ship Part 1 
Ghost Ship Part 2 
Ghost Ship Part 3 

Without further ado: Part 4 (Final)

Ghost Ship (Part 4)

“Will you toss another log on the fire?” Juliette asks. Quinn gazes at her from the mantel where he sips his Artemisia, his face aglow in the warm light. She laughs at the wonder in his eyes and rises to join him. “You Earthlings are so bound by your artificial environment; you retain no memories of ordinary planetary life.”

“I understand fire,” he says, an indignant smirk on his face as he rests his goblet on the mantel. “I’ve just never tended one.” He picks up a log and awkwardly places it within the hearth, careful not to burn his fingers.

“Now use the poker to shift the wood and coals beneath,” she instructs. “That will shake off the ash suffocating the flames.” He picks up the iron poker, studies the contraption’s hooked end, and stabs at the wood.

The flames leap to life, and he smiles as he turns to her. With his fingers, he traces the tails of falling stars that curl and shift in her arms even as he touches them. She looks up into his dark eyes and threads her fingers in his black hair, drawing his forehead to rest against hers. She loves these humans so effortlessly, so completely, their entire beings suited to her need for connection. She is symbiotic, incapable of living in solitude, as though they embody her sustenance, her breath, the lifeblood of her being.

They are capable of immense love, devotion that consumes, that ignites the cells and nerves of their bodies as it radiates in limitless light. Yet, all the while, their incredible power lies entangled with fragile innocence, the naiveté of a new species with an insatiable urge to explore boundaries and test their wills. Their love is veiled with fear, and in that pairing, she beholds the poignancy that fills her with such hope and sadness.

“I haven’t eaten anything like that before,” he says. “It was real, wasn’t it? Real food.”

The galaxy beneath her skin glitters as she laughs, her face lifted for a kiss. “Your mind lingers on food?”

“Everything, Juliette. I’m mesmerized, enchanted by you and your world. I could stay here forever, for the rest of my life.” He picks her up easily, and she wraps her legs around his waist, the sheer panels of her silk shift, leaving her legs bared. Her hands clasp behind his neck as he carries her up the narrow stair and sinks to the edge of her bed. With a smile, he reclines, her slender body straddling his.

“Your captain no longer wishes to erase me?” she asks, leaning over him, her quicksilver hair falling forward into a molten pool by his head.

The peace in his face falters. “I wouldn’t say that,” he admits. “But I have no intention of losing you. I can’t. I love you.”

“Do you trust me?” she asks.

“I love you. I trust you completely.” He draws her down, his lips to her neck and chest. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” she replies, without a choice, the betrayal never guaranteed.

On the bed of gray fur, she engages in a dance of souls, offering him the sensuous experience of flesh that Earthlings so desire. She is responsive, radiating, probing the networks of his physical body with tendrils of light and energy. Subtle ripples of electricity activate the neurons in his skin, pulse with his blood, and breach the barriers of his brain. She surges through his thoughts, leaving his mind open, present, without the limitations wrought by fear. He is so terribly thirsty for love that she streams it into him, his soul expanding, flooding first the room, then blasting through the tower windows in a torrent of bliss. He is enraptured, uncontained, and borderless, one with the entire galaxy. She dances in him, thriving in his power, enriched by his love, her essence pure white light.

A shift in his presence draws her into her body, waking her. The sheer webbing draped from the smooth branches billows as the door closes. On the windowsill, the candle has burned low, wax puddling and dripping in a long, bubbled strand down the wall. She rises and treads silently down the staircase, the light in her opalescent body darkening as she recognizes once again the looming end.

He stands by the hearth, the ruby coals casting crimson shadows across his naked chest. In his palm, he holds the box, its lid already removed and resting on the mantel. His eyes dart up as he senses her presence, an expression of guilt or agony contorting his face. “I’m not betraying you,” he insists, desperately, stepping away from her. “I’m saving you.”

“I beg you,” she whispers. “Don’t remove it. You don’t understand what you do; you don’t understand what you risk. Please, Quinn. Trust me, I beg you.” She slowly approaches him, her hand reaching for the box.

His eyes shift to the clock, trying to discern the time, to make the intricate conversions. He retreats from her reach, backing toward the wall and the port. “We’re going to purge the virus from the ship,” he explains. “But I have a friend who’ll clean your data-crystal and give it back to me.”

“No. You don’t understand,” she implores him, following after him. “I’m not a virus. You need me. Please, I’ll tell you everything I know. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Her words scarcely seem to register, his mind closed to all but his desperation. “I love you, Juliette. I have orders, but I won’t do anything to harm you. I love you.” He glances uselessly toward the clock face and then looks through the port. When she takes another careful step, his fingers reach into the box, the warning stark on his face.

“Quinn, wait.” Her hands up, she retreats and sits on the chaise, calming the swirling light of her skin, the color muting to a soft blue. His tension eases and she breathes with him.

“What do you mean, you’ll tell me the truth?” he asks quietly, his eyes on the ark’s rotating rings.

“I love you, Quinn.” She smiles, her face softening. “I love you all and plead for the lives of every soul on this ship. I’m not a ghost, Quinn. I’m not a holo,” she whispers. “You’re—”

Outside, the port-lights blink out. Quinn startles, fear rife in his eyes as he plucks the gem from the slot.

“—the ghosts.”

Box and crystal clatter to the marble floor.

Utterly alone, Juliette sits in silence for what seems an eternity. Slowly her form relaxes into its alien shape, a luminous mass of dancing light, a prism without hard edges, enclosed in an ethereal skin. Her castle is unchanged, candlelit, rich in detail, a sensory paradise. And devoid of all life but hers. She rises from the chaise and moves fluidly, rippling like water to the port. Outside the galaxy glimmers like diamond dust on black silk, and in the dim light of distant suns, she can make out the ragged edge of one broken ring on a dead ship.

She flows toward the data-crystal, examining it and finding what she expects, a faint crack through its center, the world inside irreparably corrupted. Two centuries ago, she discovered the interstellar ark of corpses, her own ship damaged by the same spraying debris of a white dwarf gone supernova. Phasing her command module into the holocell took mere moments, but accessing the ark’s memory, making repairs, and encapsulating the data took more than twenty-four Earthling years. She didn’t have any data-crystals large enough and improvised, using sixty teardrop crystals from the chandelier she found in the ship’s amphitheater. They serve, but far from perfectly—each works only once.

She sighs and smiles, human gestures she’s no longer free of, among other habits collected over time. She resumes her human shape, better for climbing on the chair that she drags to a spot below the chandelier. From the hearth, she retrieves the fireplace poker, and then standing on the seat, she reaches up to hook and retrieve a crystal, one of five large teardrops remaining.

With the poker returned to the hearthstone, she picks up the ivory box, relieved to find it intact. She walks to the port, and with trembling fingers, inserts the crystal in the slot. Before her eyes, the slowly rotating rings reappear, their pearls of light sweeping slowly through a dark void. With a sigh of relief, she quickly returns the box to the mantel and pours two crystal goblets of Artemisia.

The portal chimes and glides open. Outside, in the corridor, light-nodes glow softly on the tan walls and the ventilation system hums. A pair of wide-eyed crewmen in blues, gape at her with chins hanging. Between them stands a handsome young man, tall and broad-shouldered with sparkling blue eyes and a long mane of chestnut hair.

A smile crosses her lips as her heart leaps ahead. In the center of the vaulted room, in her sheer silk shift, she lifts the goblets and offers one.

The captain steps into the room and waves a hand across the sensor, the door clipping the noses of the gawking crewmen as it closes. “You’re not exactly what I expect to find when investigating a virus.” He accepts the goblet.

“I’m Juliette.”

“Captain Caspar Chevall at your service.”

The End

Five Elements CoverThis short story was my contribution to Five Elements Anthology, a collection of stories written by members of my writer’s critique group. Each story had to include 5 elements: a ghost, an alien, a spaceship, a conflict with a boss, and a fireplace poker. If you want to read more… the ebook is available on Amazon for $0.99. All proceeds benefit Books for Kids, a children’s literacy program sponsored by Willamette Writers.

Ghost Ship (Sci-fi Short Story, Part 3)

Ghost Ship 3

Mid November and NaNoWriMo continues to provide a daily word-count challenge. I thought this was going to be easy – ha ha ha ha ha. Silly me. Whatever was I thinking? I’m keeping up, but my eyeballs are drying out and my neck needs a cracking. I’m a recluse, spending every second of free time plastered to the keyboard. I could use a shower and a meal, to be frank. I live in my pajamas.

You’ve probably noticed that this month my blog is offering a short story in 4 installments. You can also download the entire thing in one fell swoop HERE and ignore me for the next couple weeks.  Or if you missed a previous post, the links are below:

Ghost Story Part 1 

Ghost Story Part 2 

Without further ado: Part 3

Ghost Ship (Part 3)

Hands behind his back, Quinn stands before Captain Landry’s desk, giving his oral report. Placards and framed memorabilia dug from the ship’s archives checker monotone walls, every indication that Caspar Chevall existed neatly erased and replaced. The thought depresses him well beyond the surface presentation.

A first-class prick, Landry doesn’t offer a seat or cup of kava. He doesn’t glance up once from the graphic submission Quinn tendered earlier that morning, the report scrolling down a holo-screen at the desk’s corner. Quinn isn’t sure the man’s even listening. “In summary, Sir, based on the innocuous nature of the virus and our long history of coexistence, I recommend we take no action to purge it.”

“It’s a holo, Lieutenant.” Landry taps the screen and it vanishes. “A fabrication. A program with a flaw, a serious flaw.”

“I appreciate your reasoning, Sir,” Quinn states, careful with his words. “The ghost acknowledges the virus and insists it’s dangerous to us only if we try to remove it.”

“Ghost?” Landry barks a laugh. “You sound like Chevall.”

“I understand his word choice.” Quinn meets the captain’s steely eyes. “The holo isn’t your typical data-point; she’s too multi-dimensional, too real to have been invented. I believe she was modeled after a living alien.”

“And your ghost says she can’t control this cataclysmic event that will occur if we shut her down. How convenient for her.”

“I have no reason to assume otherwise.”

“How do you know this virus isn’t a chrono-bomb set for some future date?” Landry raises a blond eyebrow. “With or without the holo’s knowledge? The thing has infiltrated the ship’s major systems including defense, Lieutenant.”

“How do we know it isn’t symbiotic at this point, Captain? We could be interdependent.”

“You reason she was a living alien. That implies this holo is an alien program, an implant. What if it’s waiting for outside activation?”

“An invasion?” Quinn doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. That thought never occurred to him, but why would it? He trusts the ghost, believes her, and in some marvelous, mysterious way, he’s in love with her. “Captain, it’s been over a hundred years since we even discovered the infection.”

“How long is that to an alien species?” Landry narrows his eyes, the smirk on his lips cold.

“Captain, she’s not dangerous. I’m certain of it. She has no reason to destroy us or herself.”

“She’s a fucking holo, Lieutenant. Of course, she’d destroy herself. Why not, she’s a program. Programs are programmed.”

“She’s more than that. She’s—” Quinn’s jaw clenches as he clamps down on his emotions.

The captain leans back in his chair, studying him with eyes sharp enough to cut. “You’ve come under her spell, same as Chevall.”

Quinn forces himself to engage the captain’s gaze, though the urge to look away borders on irresistible. He exhales a slow breath. “There’s something happening here we don’t fully understand. I urge you to reconsider. Go meet her, spend a few intervals in her company and make an assessment for yourself. It’s imperative, Captain, that you choose the correct course here. Our lives depend on it.”

“Is that an order, Lieutenant?” Landry asks, his icy demeanor taking on a pall of threat. “Chevall was a fool to keep this ghost alive. He risked the ship and everyone on it. You’ll go back there, Lieutenant, and this time you’ll obey my orders or start a three-year stint in lockup.”

“Yes, Sir.” Quinn’s back stiffens, further argument pointless.

“Good.” Landry taps the air and the holo-screen reappears at his fingertips. “Portence, Systems Engineering and Integration.”

“Captain, Portence here.” The feminine voice clicks on, all business.

“Lieutenant Morales is in my office. Explain the action.”

“Heya…” Quinn hears her catch herself before she slaps him with a droll greeting. She flips swiftly to operational details, “At exactly 17:00, we’re shutting down the entire ship, everything, and I mean everything, Quinn, uh, Lieutenant—respiration, rotation, communication—you name it. We’ve got eight intervals before life-support becomes a concern, so no problem there. Having communication and circulation down is inconvenient, but we can override locally if necessary. It’s the loss of sim-grav that’s going to be a nightmare right from the start. The whole place is going to lift off, so the quicker we get this done, the better. How much time do you need to deactivate the holo?”

Quinn’s hand scrapes through his hair in an attempt to conceal his fury, his report an exercise in futility. He wouldn’t be shocked to learn Landry began planning this before Chevall died. “Fifteen minutes,” he replies. “I know where she keeps the data-crystal.”

“We’ll give you thirty,” Portence states. “Then we reboot and restore with our purged back-up. No sweat.”

“This is a go, Ensign. No second chances here,” Landry warns her. “We’re taking this holo’s threat seriously.”

“Yes, Sir.” Portence practically snaps a salute over the com.

The captain taps her out and looks at Quinn. “Don’t screw this up, Morales.”

“I’ll handle it, Sir.”

“Where does she keep the data-crystal?”

Quinn pauses. “An ivory box on the fireplace mantel.”

“I’m putting a security unit outside the holocell as backup.”

“Yes, Sir.

“You have a problem, Lieutenant?”

“No, Sir.”

“Then get the fuck out of here and do your duty.”

“Yes, Sir.” Quinn salutes, turns on his heel, and strides from the office. He marches around the corridor’s bend and punches the wall, his blood on fire. He wants to throttle the man. Technically, the order makes sense—a realization that burns him. It’s almost risk-free unless the threat is hardwired or somehow cloaked, or external, or…it all just seems so improbable. The peril Juliette presents is most likely a ploy, whether she knows about it or not, a holographic self-preservation program, or something odd like that. Perhaps the designer couldn’t bear to see his creation destroyed, which is exactly what would happen if the ship died. So why kill the ship?

His back to the wall, he hangs his head. He’s in love with a holo, a ghost of an alien, after only a few intervals. Another rush of anger surges through him, jealousy of Chevall’s position as captain, his freedom to choose for himself, to live an entire lifetime with his love regardless of what or who she is. Chevall hadn’t cared and neither does he.

Yet, if he doesn’t follow orders, someone else will. He can see Landry charging in there with a security detail, blind to the beauty, bent on destruction. The bullish man will put an end to Juliette, her candles and clock, her tapestries and spinning globe, her sparkling crystal chandelier, and all the intricate details of her world. He can’t let that happen.

Eyes shut, he rests his head back, calming his rampaging feelings and slowing his heart. He hauls in a breath and lets it slowly blow through him. He spent a magical night in her tree bed, bathed in the light of twin moons. Not engaged in what he ordinarily defined as sex but in a sublime sensory rapture, every nerve in his body alive with…love. It was an experience beyond ecstasy, an immersion in sound, color, smell, taste, and touch, the swell of emotion pulsing through him in rhythm with the waves of her alien sea. She was luminescent, almost translucent, the galaxies within her body rippling with light, her eyes emerald fire. She played him like music, all parts of him in perfect harmony, until the final crescendo erupted from his soul and—

“You alright, Quinn?”

His eyes pop open to find Portence looking up at him.

“Right as everyone else, Selene.”

The cute redhead rolls her eyes, a commentary he fully understands. “He’s an ass. We’ll work around him.”

“It won’t be easy,” Quinn warns her. “The captain’s no fool.”

“Whatever. I could kill Chevall for dying on us.” She quirks her lips and punches his bicep. “You good with this plan?”

“No. Yes, it makes sense and it’ll work. But no.”

She crosses her arms. “It’s the holo, isn’t it?

A shrug lifts his shoulders.

“Chevall couldn’t fool me and neither can you. Longrow and Wilton have been slathering over her since they first started holodeck duty. Talk about cushy detail, by the way. So, she’s something else, isn’t she?” When he doesn’t reply, she smiles knowingly. “We all fall for holos, Quinn. I have my own little pirate program that’s good for a romp. Sex in a hammock; I swear I’d lose my mind without it. So, I get it.”

“She’s not like other holos, Selene.”

“Yeah, that’s what we all say, lover-boy.”

“No, I’m serious. I’d swear she’s…sentient.” He glances down the hall, his suspicions demanding a voice. “What if she is conscious? What if she’s—”

“Quinn,” Selene interrupts him. “She’s a holo. She even showed you her crystal.”

His head drops back with a sigh. “You’re right. Forget I asked. I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

A sly smile dimples her cheek as she leans in and lowers her voice, “Listen, after the deed is done, bring me her data-crystal. I’ll stay up way past my bedtime, back her up, wipe the anomalies, virus, whatever is screwing with the ship, and reload the whole program. You can have your own private love nest—and owe me big time.”

“You can do that?” The possibility staggers him, and he can’t imagine why he didn’t think of it.

“Give me a break.” She twists her face in disbelief. “You command officers probably think dark-matter warp-drives are high tech. Ever think of joining the twenty-eighth century?”

“Why didn’t Chevall have you do that?”

“He was pretty sure it’s alien, the crystal larger than ours for one, and he didn’t want me to mess with it. I offered.”

“She says shutting her down will destroy us.”

“Listen, we’ve got it covered.” She glances down the corridor toward the captain’s office. “I need to run. Bring me that data-crystal. If it can be fixed, I’ll fix it.”