Authors: Sharon Lynn Fisher
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You have stars in you, my love.
May their light ever shine from your heart.
They say it about raising kids, and it’s true for books too: It takes a village.
My humble gratitude to two brilliant women who are no longer with us—they guided me without ever knowing it: author Madeleine L’Engle, for providing a safe port and for waking the writer inside me, and biologist and author Lynn Margulis, whose sense of wonder and respect for every living thing—no matter its size or purpose—was truly inspirational.
Thanks to the Writers of the Future contest. I never won the dang thing, but it gave me a goal and kept me writing, without which I would not be here. And a very special thanks for the amazing support of Romance Writers of America, without whom I would not have been connected with three groups of smart, talented, supportive Golden Heart® finalists: The Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood (2009), The Unsinkables (2010), and The Starcatchers (2011).
For writing a book that provided light in a very dark hour (and also gave me a crash course in neuropsychology): Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.
For championing a fellow author’s work: Linnea Sinclair, Kat Richardson, and Skyler White.
For feedback that advanced my craft: agents Beth Miller, Becca Stumpf, and Cameron McClure, as well as the many contest judges who read and commented on my work.
and for being two of science fiction romance’s greatest cheerleaders: author and blogger Heather Massey, and author, blogger, and highly valued critique partner Laurie Green.
For believing in me, for listening to me, and for seeing things clearly when I cannot: my fabulous agent, Robin Rue, backed up by the equally fabulous Beth Miller, and my lovely and talented editor, Whitney Ross.
For love, ongoing support, and encouragement: Dominic Groves, Melissa Alexander, Lisa Polec, MaryEllen DiGennaro, Jennifer Lesher, Donna Frelick, Vanessa Barneveld … and the many others who took time out of their lives to read and/or offer words of encouragement.
For wielding big, scary, talking whips that say things like “how long you gonna make me wait for that next chapter?”: Debbi Murray and Laurie Green—my biggest fans, Patronuses, and very dear friends.
For daily reminders (whether I was paying attention or not) that life is about NOW: my sweetheart of a girl, Selah.
And a final dedication to Mom, Dad, and Clint, and to all of the Fishers and Bateses, whom I love and think of often despite the distance that stretches between us. Especially to Lance Bates, without whom all those monsters and mountain lions would have certainly gotten the upper hand.
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. Half a 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—
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
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. One of only two European nations to refuse sacrificing sovereignty on the altar of centralized government, Ireland had suffered a lesser degree of cultural homogenization than its fully incorporated siblings.
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 portable 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
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
—not a family member, not a friend, not even a pet.
I had no idea what—or whom—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.