Some books, you only need to hear a one-sentence premise, and you’re sold. With The Ghost Line, a new space opera novella coming this summer from Tor.com Publishing, and we really needed was the subtitle: The Titanic of the Stars. A doomed interstellar voyage? Sold.
Get an taste in the exclusive excerpt, just below the official summary, and lock in your tickets now: the book arrives this July,
The Ghost Line is a haunting science fiction story about the Titanic of the stars by debut authors Andrew Neil Gray and J. S. Herbison that Lawrence M. Schoen calls “a delicious rush of the future and the past.”
The Martian Queen was the Titanic of the stars before it was decommissioned, set to drift back and forth between Earth and Mars on the off-chance that reclaiming it ever became profitable for the owners. For Saga and her husband Michel the cruise ship represents a massive payday. Hacking and stealing the ship could earn them enough to settle down, have children, and pay for the treatments to save Saga’s mother’s life.
But the Martian Queen is much more than their employer has told them. In the twenty years since it was abandoned, something strange and dangerous has come to reside in the decadent vessel. Saga feels herself being drawn into a spider’s web, and must navigate the traps and lures of an awakening intelligence if she wants to go home again.
From fifty kilometers out they could finally see the ship they were going to break into. The Martian Queen gleamed in the sunlight, a brilliant white fleck in the darkness between Earth and Mars.
“This better be worth it,” Michel said.
“It will be.” Saga called up a magnified view on the big screen on the Sigurd’s bridge. Even if her husband wasn’t excited, she felt the familiar buzz of anticipation. It wasn’t just the thrill of a new target. The liner before them was intact and untouched. Not holed, half-melted, or long since abandoned and stripped bare. This job felt like a luxury. Which was fitting, given the ship’s history.
Everything about the Martian Queen was ostentatious, from her hull paint to the rows of windows that stitched her sides. If her designers could have found an excuse for funnels, propellers, and an anchor, no doubt they would have welded them on.
“Form should follow function,” she said. “No wonder they went bankrupt.”
“Ha!” Gregor, the Sigurd’s pilot, had lived in the asteroid belt for twenty-five years, but his Russian accent was as thick as the day he left Novosibirsk. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “You think it was just a way to get from one planet to other? Main function of this liner was to separate people from money.”
An old brochure glowed in Gregor’s hands. “Two casinos. Two! Plus steam room and spa. Stage shows. Recreation ring. Even had Michelin-star chef.”
Saga saw a line of dancing girls kicking up their heels. The narrator’s voice issued from the brochure, followed by tinny orchestral music. She reached over and folded the bright rectangle, turning it off.
“Hey,” Michel said. “I was enjoying that.”
Saga snorted. “They’re probably not even real. Who can kick that high?”
Gregor winked at Michel. “That is good thing. If dancers were synths then maybe they are still in storage. We could have party.”
“No parties.” Wei floated into the room. The woman who’d hired them wasn’t much for entertainment, let alone slacking off. Wei was in her forties, her black hair cut in a belter bob, the short haircut favored by people who spent a lot of time in pressure suits. She wore simple grey coveralls and the strained expression of someone who had reached the limits of her patience. “You have to get inside to have a party.”
“Problem?” Gregor said.
“Yeah, this is a worthless piece of shit.” Wei threw a small object at Gregor. Surprised, he watched as it pinged off his shoulder.
Michel plucked it out of the air. He looked at the data stick that contained Wei’s intrusion package. “We knew this was a possibility, right?”
“And we did warn you,” Saga added. When they’d first met her, Wei revealed she had the chance to buy a software back door into an unnamed mothballed ship, untouched for twenty years. They’d told her not to waste her money. Saga had sung her and Michel’s praises, their ability to insinuate their way into the toughest systems.
But Wei had gone ahead and purchased the package anyway. She shot them a sour look, then pushed off and was gone, back to her room.
Saga looked at her husband. She grinned. “Care to do some hacking?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
* * *
The Sigurd slid under the belly of the Martian Queen. Up close, the sheer size of it was apparent. Their sleek cutter was like a lifeboat in comparison.
“Less than one hour,” Gregor said. “How did you do it?”
“Just fly the damn ship,” Wei snapped.
“Ship knows how to dock herself.” Gregor turned to Michel. “I would like to know how you got in. I have all ears.”
“We buy old data,” Michel said.
“From auctions,” Saga continued. “Bankrupt companies sell off assets to pay back creditors, right? Everybody wants marketing information and mineral surveys. Nobody cares about the maintenance logs and system manuals. We get them for almost nothing.”
“Ah,” Gregor said. “So you have your own back doors.”
The Sigurd slowed as it reached the stern of the Martian Queen, aiming for the service docking port near the wedge of reactor shielding.
“We almost never find actual programmer back doors,” Michel said. “Mostly it’s just regular holes. We know every system, every subsystem. How often they were updated. The software hasn’t been patched for years, so we had our choice of exploits.”
“The one we used was a buffer overflow in the LIDAR sensors,” Saga said. She looked at the display in her contact lenses, the interface to the liner floating in front of her face. Cracking the ship’s software had been foreplay, a thrill that promised greater rewards to come. When she’d been back on Earth, it had been fooling alarm systems and picking locks. Either way, the goal was the same: breaking in. Turning an abandoned place into a playground.
The Sigurd slid closer, cautiously. A meter from contact the service port extended its clamps in welcome. A moment later, with a clunk heard through the ship’s hull, they were docked.
“No need to explain more,” Gregor said. “I would not understand anyway.” He turned to Wei. “You have your ship now.”
* * *
It was almost a day until they left the Sigurd. After all her hurry to get there, Wei seemed reluctant to take the next step. She ordered Saga and Michel to remotely explore the security systems inside the Queen, to make sure there were no hidden alarms. Then she spent several hours in her cabin, uncommunicative. When she finally emerged, Saga and Michel pushed, but she wouldn’t budge. “You two have been exploring for years,” she said. “You should know better.”
“But you haven’t even cleared our survey bots,” Saga said. “The Queen’s systems all say it has full pressure. We’ve told it to raise ambient to room temperature.”
“We’re ready when I say we’re ready,” Wei growled.
So they sat in the galley. Gregor came by once for a bulb of tea, which he slurped noisily, but otherwise they were alone.
“You could get started from here,” Michel said. “With the Queen’s internal cameras. You could put together a rough model in half an hour.”
Saga shook her head. Long blond tendrils floated in front of her eyes with the movement. She’d taken a shower and washed her hair while they waited. “The resolution would be too low. And you know I need to see a place with my own eyes first. We spent two months getting here, we can wait a little longer.”
Michel slapped the table in frustration. “Goddamn it; waiting is all we ever do.” The motion pushed his slim body up and he floated toward the ceiling. He waved his arms, reaching for a handhold as Saga laughed. He shot her a look and pushed himself out of the galley.
She gathered her damp hair, fixing it into a bun at the nape of her neck with an elastic from her wrist. He’d be back eventually, apologetic. Of the two of them, he’d always had the shorter fuse, but his anger burned itself out quickly.
In the meantime, she would check her mail, which should have loaded by now. Since this was a dark mission, she’d had to route her request through several anonymous relays scattered around the asteroid belt. What should have been a twenty-minute operation had stretched to three hours.
There was the usual clutter: Comments and suggestions from people who subscribed to her interactives, which she let her concierge software answer. Some sponsorship updates. A few trip proposals from the daredevils and interactive artists who, like Michel and herself, explored the derelict stations, ships, and asteroid habitats that littered the solar system. A request for a private guided tour of a famous wreck from someone who was almost certainly bored and wealthy, looking for an unusual amusement.
And, finally, a note from her aunt.
That one she avoided for a while. She made more tea. The galley could print butter biscuits she particularly liked, and she ate two as she contemplated the liquid in her squeeze cup.
She sighed and opened the message. Aunt Yrsa always began with inconsequentials: they’d had a month of gluggaveður—window-weather—in Reykjavík. As if being stuck inside mattered to someone like her; she hadn’t lived in a place with a climate for nearly ten years. That was followed by news of the extended family, their various adventures and domestic dramas. Finally, Yrsa got to Saga’s mother, Hanna, and the new therapy Saga was paying for. The treatments had already regrown connections and brain tissue, untangled some of the muddle that was her mind. But they’d completed only the first stage, and modern medicine still had its limits.
“She was asking for you,” her aunt said. “She thought you were in the next room. Hanna didn’t understand she was in a care facility. She kept saying someone had stolen her curtains.”
Saga winced and rubbed her temples. She closed the message window, blinked away the interface. There were many things she would prefer to do than think about her mother, a hundred and fifty million kilometers away, believing her only daughter had just stepped out for a moment.
* * *
At first, Wei had sounded like just another rich tourist. She’d proposed a visit to an unnamed abandoned ship. Michel had replied to her message, telling her sorry, but they were taking a break.
But Wei had been insistent, offering a generous fee. When that didn’t work, she’d visited them in person, showing up at the site they were exploring—a failed attempt to hollow out an asteroid habitat. When her ship appeared on their navigation displays, they’d been stunned: nobody met face-to-face in the belt if they had other options. But here Wei was, in the flesh. After a brief exchange, she’d invited them on board the Four of a Kind, the ship she was going to use for the expedition.
Michel gave a low whistle when they entered. The ship was an order of magnitude better than anything they’d used before. Faster, larger, much more comfortable.
“This is seriously yours?” he asked.
“My employers provided it,” Wei said. They were sitting in the ship’s galley, drinking very passable espresso. “They have considerable resources. They’ll even pay for a professional pilot. So I need to know: Will you accept the job?”
Saga shook her head. “We already told you we’re taking a break.”
“This ship’s fast. We can be in and out in under four months. Then you can have your vacation.” Wei mentioned a higher fee, a bonus structure.
“Starting a family is not a vacation,” Michel said.
“Hold on.” Saga took her husband aside. “The money’s good. Better than good.”
“So? We’re doing okay.”
“I’m not just thinking about us. What about my mother? This could really help her.” She hesitated for a moment. “We could even afford to thaw two. Maybe spend some time raising them on Earth with their grandmother.”
They had stored a dozen frozen embryos in a radiation-protected vault deep inside Ceres—a belter wedding tradition. Once they’d done it she’d put them out of her mind. Insurance against a future she wasn’t ready to think about. But Michel came from a large family of French-Guianese Catholics. Every time they went back to Vesta he mooned over his nieces and nephews, dropped unsubtle hints. He had finally convinced her.
She felt a pulse of guilt at the sudden brightening in his eyes.
“Maybe,” Michel said after a moment. “But we can’t agree to this unless we know all the details first.”
They went back to Wei. “Who pays what you’re paying just to wander around on an abandoned ship?” Michel asked.
Wei glanced around the small room as if someone could be listening in. “I do,” she said. “There’s a nondisclosure agreement for you to sign, and then I’ll tell you all of it.”
“One last request,” Saga said. “If we take the job, I want you to change the name of this ship. Four of a Kind is . . . Well, she deserves something more adventurous. We all do.”
* * *
When they left the Sigurd, they went in pressure suits, Wei in front, followed by Michel and Saga. Gregor, who’d been off duty since they docked, was still in his cabin; he hadn’t bothered to come out while they organized to leave. It was an open secret that when he wasn’t working, Gregor had a taste for the vodka he’d hacked the ship’s bioreactor to brew. He’d always flown sober, so nobody pushed him on it.
They passed through the air lock and bumped into Wei, who’d stopped abruptly. She appeared to be scrutinizing the Queen’s service bay, a midsize room. It was empty, spotless. After a long moment, Wei pushed herself forward and pulled open one of the cases she was carrying. Saga recognized a high-end chemical sampler.
“It’s all green in here, Wei,” Michel said. “Do you really need that?”
Saga blinked her suit’s environmental interface into life. The readout showed a normal nitrogen-oxygen mix at Earth-standard pressure. A little chilly at fifteen degrees Celsius, but warming up.
“There’s still the possibility of contamination,” Wei said, not looking up.
“From what?” Michel said. “The Brie going off twenty years ago? The Queen was mothballed, right? I don’t see anything odd on the suit sensors.” He looked around. “No mold on the walls.”
Wei didn’t respond. She’d been crystal clear in her briefing before they came through the lock: suits on at all times, no matter what. She strapped the sampler to her chest and folded the box away. She pushed against the wall and floated down the service corridor without looking back.
Saga shared a glance with Michel as they followed her, each carrying an equipment case. Our boss is an odd duck, he sent in a private message.
She caught his eye, winked, and got a grin in return.
The service corridors were utilitarian, doorways marked in standard ship-script, the letters followed by machine-readable codes for the robots that would have loaded and unloaded supplies and equipment. Wei led them through the warren without hesitation. They had to scramble to keep up, pushing off from walls and handholds, using quick bursts from their suit jets when necessary.
Finally, Wei paused at a set of doors, tapping at the control panel beside them.
“First thing we do,” Michel said, breathing heavily, “is we get the gravity back on. Wei, can we at least take our helmets off?”
Wei turned toward them. Her face wasn’t visible. She had blanked her helmet’s faceplate completely. It gave Saga a momentary shiver, a reminder of those old stories of empty suits prowling abandoned ships.
“I told you, no,” Wei said. “The air checks out down here, but we still have the passenger areas to test. That’s where contamination is the most likely.”
No it isn’t. Michel’s private message appeared in Saga’s field of view. We all know aft is where anything dangerous would have been kept.
Just indulge her, okay? She’s paying the bills.
They entered the passenger section of the liner, and everything changed.
Unlike the service areas, which were designed for zero gravity, the passenger section was clearly meant to be used under spin. Carpeting on the floors, recessed lights in the ceilings. Wood panels with intricately patterned inlays on the walls. Saga couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Decaying structures and damaged ships had so much more character. On previous expeditions she’d imagined ghosts lurking around dark corners, connected with haunting memories of economic collapse or terrible accidents. But here? They could have been in a fancy hotel back on Earth. It didn’t even look abandoned. The lights were still on.
She kept her thoughts to herself as they passed down three wide corridors, then found themselves at a plain-looking door marked Crew Only.
“Bridge access,” Wei said. “You didn’t think it would be up front, did you?”
Saga caught Michel’s disgusted look. As if they would make such a rookie mistake. Assuming that a luxury liner was essentially a cruise ship with a rocket engine attached to its stern was something Earth tourists would do. As with all spacecraft, the bridge was buried in the middle of the ship, the safest location. She knew from their research that the bow had an observation bubble, but it was covered with shielding to protect against dust grains and micrometeorites.
They floated upstairs to the ship’s inner level, through a set of security doors that Michel bypassed with a couple of minutes of work. Then they were inside the bridge: a plainly decorated room with two sets of consoles and a group of chairs fixed to tracks on the floor.
“Okay,” Wei said. “Time to earn your keep.”
“You’re not sticking around?” Michel asked.
“I have things to do.” Without another word she turned and jetted away, her suit light flickering as she descended out of sight.
Michel set up their gear. Here we are, he messaged. Alone at last . . .
Saga smiled. They might have a paranoid and peculiar employer, not to mention a semi-alcoholic pilot. But when it came down to it, at least they still had each other.
* * *
Even with the ship’s manuals and logs, which they’d spent weeks reviewing during the trip to the Queen, it still took almost half a day to bring basic systems back online. She’d been mothballed properly, everything kept nice and cool in a low-humidity, low-oxygen environment. Reactor barely burbling along. A few systems reported minor faults, and some cameras and sensors were unresponsive, but the vast majority of the complex and interdependent ecosystem that kept an interplanetary passenger ship humming along was still functional.
Finally, Saga started up the spin mechanisms that provided artificial gravity for the passenger sections. Weight returned slowly, the guest suites settling at a hair above Mars-normal gravity, while the bridge, closer to the liner’s center, was less than half that. Saga finished double-checking that the spin systems were all healthy, then looked over at Michel.
“What the hell?” she said. “Why did you take your helmet off?”
He grinned and ran his hand through his close-cropped curls. “I’m not an idiot. I checked all the environment logs first: everything’s fine.” He made a show of sniffing the air. “It’s better than fine. Definitely a step up from my suit.”
“Should we be so quick to trust the life support? It’s been off for twenty years.”
Michel shrugged. “I trust it.”
Wei had explained the situation that evening back on her ship after they’d signed her NDA. The Martian Queen wasn’t a derelict—she was a ghost liner. The company that built and operated her went bankrupt when Earth-Mars traffic collapsed a quarter century ago. The new owners bought her cheap and kept her running so they could hold their claim on passenger services on the orbit, waiting until the economy improved. The law was that as long as the company had a ship making regular runs between Earth and Mars—even if it carried no passengers or crew—they had control of one of the most efficient routes between the two planets. Apparently there were still ghost trains in Europe that did the same thing, traveling empty from city to city.
“That’s not what you told us earlier,” Saga had said, watching the espresso slosh around in her zero-gee cup. “You said it was abandoned.”
“It is abandoned.” Wei slapped the console in front of her. “Nobody has used it for twenty years. Nor do they plan to. But I’m sure you’ve seen the news: things are looking up on Mars. There’s a market in taking people there.”
“But not rich tourists.” Michel peered at her, a look of comprehension on his face.
“Correct. The people I work for want to send colonists. Lots of them. Minimum cost. They’re going to hibernate most of the way; nobody needs a casino and a spa.”
“They can’t just buy the Queen?” Michel asked.
Wei shook her head. “It’s cheaper to make a new ship than refit one that was never designed for hundreds of hibernation beds. My employers’ ships will go slow: no need to rush if everyone’s asleep, right?”
Saga got it before Michel did. “You want us to do something to the Queen, don’t you.”
They were to hack the ship. Tweak her course at apoapsis to continue on past Mars into a different orbit, leaving the route open for another company to claim. They’d be doing many honest, hardworking people a favor. They had a responsibility. And Saga could create one of her famous interactives at the same time, though she wouldn’t be able to release it until the statute of limitations had passed on their little adventure.
Now they were here, at the helm of the old liner. Saga surveyed the Martian Queen’s control systems. Layers of interface floated in her contact lenses, rendered in colors that mapped their functions. Michel was right: environmental control and life support were running flawlessly—the ship had a perfectly safe atmosphere.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m just so used to things being ruined. It’s weird to have it all working.”
“Not all working.” Michel gestured at the display in front of him. “We only have low-level control. We still have to break into the nav system without waking up the ship’s mind.”
That was going to take time. Saga sighed and started opening display windows.
Michel looked at her with a small smile. “You should go,” he said. He gestured to her expedition case. “Explore the ship.”
“Don’t you need me here?”
“We have time. Take a couple of hours; when you’re back you can help out.”
Saga touched the case, hesitated.
“Go!” Michel said.
* * *
The cameras buzzed through the air like a swarm of bees. A quick gesture and the eight little spheres spread out in a cloud in front of Saga; then she pulled them back until they circled her head like a halo. Another gesture and they flew in a line back into the case.
Tempting as it was to record everything right away, she was going to explore without video for now. It always took a while to absorb the feeling of being somewhere that had been empty for years, decades. The echoing spaces of mines, bulk haulers, holed habitats. Dioramas of human existence, frozen in time. Eventually, they would speak to her, these places. They would speak and she would begin to create the narratives her fans paid for.
She placed the exploration case on the floor of the corridor and blinked its interface to life, then stood back as the mapping bots emerged. They bumbled and bounced in the low gravity, heading off in all directions to create the submillimeter-scale rendition of the ship she’d use to house her narratives.
“Mapping’s on,” she said over her suit radio. “Open all the doors for them, will you, Michel?”
She watched as a group of the bots rolled up to the carved wooden doors that led to the ship’s bow. The doors opened silently and the bots passed through.
Instead of following them, she went aft, to where the passenger area of the ship began. They’d come in through the service entrance, like servants or coal deliveries in the old days of country houses. The main entrance was where the quality would have boarded the Queen.
Finally, a place that wasn’t bland and forgettable. Even on a luxury liner, space was at a premium, but the designers had done wonders with what they had. Marble tiles on the floor. Real wood in sweeping curves. An actual crystal chandelier, hung with glittering stars around blue-white and red blown-glass orbs at the center, symbolizing the two planets the ship connected.
She imagined the entrance in her narrative. A user would wander the dark and empty corridors, then suddenly find themselves back in the ship’s heyday. The laughter and chatter, the clink of champagne glasses. Passengers and crew channeling the luxury liners of old. Rockefellers and Astors and oysters on the half shell. Something unusual would happen then; she didn’t know what yet, but it would come to her.
As she turned, wondering if the chandelier would need enhancement, she caught movement in her peripheral vision. She peered down one of the corridors that led from the entrance area. It felt as if someone had just been there. It felt like she had been observed.
She called over the open channel. “Wei?”
Wei’s voice crackled in her ears. “Problems?”
“That wasn’t you, was it?”
“What wasn’t me?”
“Are you at all near the entranceway?”
“I’m back on the Four—I mean the Sigurd,” Wei said. “Aren’t you and Michel supposed to be hacking the navigation system right now?”
Saga turned up the magnification and light amplification on her suit visor. No one was there. “Michel has it under control. I’m just getting my bearings for the interactive.”
“You’re counting chickens is what you’re doing.” Wei sounded sour. “When you should be sitting on eggs. You can play after you hack my ship. Is that clear?”
“Crystalline,” Saga said. She imagined Michel back in the control room, perched on an ostrich egg, and snorted.
There was a moment of silence on the line, then a click as Wei disconnected.
She examined the corridor before heading back. It was empty, but again she felt as if her presence had interrupted something. She had wandered onto a stage being set for a play. Around her there were nooks in the walls for vases of flowers, art panels to display paintings. If she concentrated, she could almost hear the fading echo of a violin. On the maiden voyage there had been a string quartet to greet passengers. How much money would it have cost to send four musicians to Mars and back, just to provide pleasant background noise?
She came to a set of doors. More carved wood. Luxury hiding the necessity of pressure doors. She touched them, but they remained closed.
Saga traced the carving, a bas-relief of battling galleons, clouds of smoke rising from the cannons in their sides. Then she saw something strange: a twig protruded from the wood, its bark a dark grey. A tiny brown oak leaf dangled, no bigger than her thumb.
She touched the twig and it bent under her gloved finger, the sensors in her suit conveying its pliant feel. When she stroked the leaf, it broke off and spiraled slowly to the floor. “Shit,” she muttered. If there was anything she hated, it was thoughtless vandalism. Finding a derelict site with graffiti sprayed across surfaces, objects destroyed for no good reason. It always made her furious. And now she’d damaged something on the Queen.
She picked up the leaf to inspect it, using the magnifier in her faceplate. As far as she could tell, it was an actual leaf. An autumn leaf, growing from a real twig.