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By Sharon Lynn Fisher
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Sharon Lynn Fisher
All rights reserved.
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—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. 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 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 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.
"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."
Excerpted from Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher. Copyright © 2012 Sharon Lynn Fisher. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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