“The path back to her own ship was now completely cut off. She would have to follow the corridor deeper into the Palais Rose until she could find somewhere to barricade herself off from the computer.”
To save humanity from extinction, Bella Hilarji undertakes a mission to raid computer parts from the Palais Rose, an abandoned solar research facility in orbit around a dead planet. Leaving her home and her family on the icy moons of a gas giant, where the human race remains barely clinging to existence, Hilarji confronts the split personalities of the facility’s aging computer, as it both tries to help her and kill her.
When I first announced that I was working on this project under the title “I Love You, Moon,” I said that it was likely to be a stand alone piece rather than part of a series, but as the story has grown and evolved, I have had a change of heart. Palais Rose opens up a broad universe with tons of potential for exploration and lots of really cool characters that I would love to get to know.
Palais Rose centers around Bella, the youngest of the Hillarji siblings, but a potential future series based on Palais Rose might feature Bella’s older sister, Lore, as its protagonist. For that reason, I have decided tentatively to give the title of the series to Lore. I am so excited about this project, you guys!
I’m not setting a firm release date for Palais Rose yet, but I think it would be realistic to say that it could be finished as soon as the latter portion of June or maybe early July. I’m crossing my fingers for June, except that I’m not because I need them uncrossed to type!
In the meantime, check out this sneak preview from the story. I would love you get your feedback, so let me know what you think in the comments below!
Bella’s work was methodical, but her progress was rapid. She carefully withdrew the last screw from the panel, then diligently slotted each screw into place in the foam-lined case designed for the component she was removing. She then returned her ratchet to its form-fitted compartment in her toolkit. When the ratchet was put away, she lifted the delicate circuit board from its mount and began unplugging the wires connected to it.
As her hands moved from one bundle of wires to the next, she became vaguely aware that the room was getting louder. The computer’s two largest processors, the Primary Neural Processor and the Auxiliary Alpha Processor, seemed to be overclocking.
Through a portal in the ceiling above her, she could see the long, thin plates of the ship’s enormous hard drive. Plates 5 and 6 seemed to be active, but the other four had not been accessed since she had come aboard. The inactive plates were dedicated to the Primary Neural Processor, at first leading Bella to conclude that the PNP had failed, leaving the ship to function on its auxiliary systems. For a dead processor, though, the PNP had become unusually noisy. She would have expected total silence from it, and she now gathered that it had only recently switched itself on after a considerable period of dormancy.
Bella turned the circuit board over in her hands and pinched the clips on either side of the small plug connecting the last bundle of wires to the panel. Making a face behind her dust mask, she wiggled the plug until it came free with a pop. All sound in the compartment stopped abruptly. Bella hesitated, looking up at the PNP. It had been steadily increasing its volume to a dull roar, but it was now eerily silent. Even the AA Processor was quiet.
Sitting in the stillness of the huge computer’s central systems, Bella glanced around for some sign of life in its components; some ghost in the shell of circuitry that surrounded her. The computer could not be inactive, she knew, because there was still light and artificial gravity. Bella looked down at the circuit board in her hand and tipped her head. There was no imaginable way that removing it could have caused the computer to crash. Mystified, she placed the board in the case at her side, then shut the lid and closed the first latch.
Her hand moved toward the second latch, but before she could snap it shut, the computer made a grinding noise that turned Bella’s stomach. She recognized the sound all too well. The ship’s computer was crashing. As abruptly as the grinding started, the room fell silent again and Bella was plunged into total darkness. She froze, still kneeling in the middle of the computer.
Bella was barely breathing as she waited for something to happen. She sensed movement nearby, but could make nothing out. Mumbling a curse, she felt around beside her for the torch in her tool case, but her search was interrupted by the lights in the compartment, which flashed on for an instant then went dark again. In the blinding blue glare, Bella saw one of the computer’s big, robotic maintenance arms moving across the room toward her. Ducking, she felt the arm pass millimeters from her face. The lights flickered cold and pale blue like lightning, each flash revealing more arms coming to life around her. Outside the room, the ship’s speakers crackled, emitting a stream of high-pitched grinding and screaming noises.
A spidery mass of arms was picking over the panels on their way toward Bella, checking each board and connection for damage. Their hands lashed out at her in the bursts of light. Bella stood up swiftly and her feet left the floor for a moment. She felt lighter than she had before. The artificial gravity had begun to fail, she realized bitterly, turning toward the door as quickly as she dared. Removing that board had somehow crashed the computer, which Bella suspected was prompting something in its aged components to try to repair the problem. If so, it would soon discover that the problem was her.
She grasped at the handle to the door and rotated it, then threw her diminishing weight into opening it. It didn’t budged. She tried again. It remained tightly shut. Bella checked the panel beside the door and saw to her alarm that the locks had been engaged.
Behind her, the PNP set up a low hum which grew steadily louder and more insistent until Bella felt the wall vibrating against her fingertips. The mechanical arms coming ever closer, she gritted her teeth and punched in lines of code, trying everything she could think of to free up the door. Suddenly, the hum stopped and quiet settled over the ship. Bella stopped working, turning to look back at the arms, which had paused in place as if they had been frozen.
The lights flickered and in their sporadic glow, Bella caught sight of something moving past the portal above her. She barely had time to process what she was seeing before a deafening noise from the compartment above shook the ship. Bella cried out and covered her ears. The computer was rebooting itself, the arms of its enormous hard drive groaning and screaming. With its memory active, the PNP made a sound that would have been a beep in a smaller machine. The gargantuan processor’s beep came out as a roar, which sent another quake through the Palais Rose.
The flickering lights steadied, shining low and pale so that they softened the darkness and gave it dimension rather than lifting it. Bella heard a hiss rise from the circular grating which lay under the half column of components in the middle of the room. Steam rose from it and the acrid scent of coolant assailed Bella’s nostrils. She continued to fight the door as the temperature in the room dropped. Liquid began to gush from the grating and out across the floor. Its frigid surface bubbled up furiously before turning to steam almost as fast as the grating could expel it. The computer’s liquid coolant had an exceptionally low boiling pointing, sapping the heat from the surrounding air and rapidly filling the room with gas.
Outside, Bella could hear the ship’s speakers wailing and growling as if the computer were trying to speak. There was no discernible language that she could make out, but even without words the tone was unmistakable. The shipboard computer was raging at her. One group of arms now formed a semi-circle, keeping her pinned against the door while another cluster thrust their hands into her cases and toolboxes until they found the circuit board she had removed. Pulling it out and leveling it at her accusingly, the computer roared over the speakers and the arms lunged for her. Just in time, the door yielded and Bella tumbled across the narrow corridor, slamming into the far wall before she could stop herself.
She took hold of a projection on the wall, looking back through the doorway. With no gravity to keep it flowing across the floor, the chilly coolant shot from the grating in boiling jets. Fat droplets of the liquid began to drift toward the open hatch. Bella pushed herself back across the corridor and tried to shut the door, but the computer screamed at her and the door bucked beneath her hands, tossing her away down the corridor.
The computer’s central systems compartment was nearly full of coolant and the liquid poured out of the hatch, filling the corridor in an amorphous, cold blob. Bella stared at the cloud of coolant as it grew, filling the corridor in front of her. The computer, she realized with a start, intended to flood the ship with its coolant bath and drowned her.
The path back to her own ship was now completely cut off. She would have to follow the corridor deeper into the Palais Rose until she could find somewhere to barricade herself off from the computer. From there, she would have to find a way to drain the coolant back into its tank and fill the ship with breathable air. For one terrified moment, Bella considered that the computer might be forcing the displaced atmosphere out into space. She shook her head, though, deciding that that was a possibility she would simply have to contend with later. After all, it wouldn’t matter much where her air was going if she drowned in coolant, anyway.
Bella turned, planting her feet against the wall, and thrust her weightless body down the corridor. Up ahead, the next hatch was closing. She pulled herself through it hastily, barely getting her feet out of the way before it shut tight. She glanced through the viewing window in the door to see the liquid coolant completely overtake the corridor from which she had just escaped.
Tapping a few lines of code into the panel beside the hatch, she made certain that the computer would have to fight to unlock it. Then, having bought herself some time, Bella crouched and pushed off from the door. She cruised down the corridor, grabbing hold of anything that projected from the walls to speed herself up.
The computer had already closed the next hatch by the time she reached it, so she began entering code, battling the computer’s attempts to keep the door fastened shut. Behind her, the computer was breaking through the coding that she had used to lock the last door. It opened, and frigid liquid poured in with a hiss. Bella shot a glance at the flood of coolant and redoubled her efforts at the panel until she finally wrestled it out of the computer’s control. Switching the door to manual, she braced her legs against the wall and forced the hatch open enough that she could fit through.
On the other side lay a wide chamber. Bella crouched, examining the maze that lay ahead of her. This must have been the ship’s hydroponics bay. The big compartment was semi-cylindrical with wide, trough-like beds that thrust from the walls and ran the length of the bay. Much of the ship’s food had been grown in these troughs, but now they lay fallow and neglected. Between each layer of planting beds were long, thin windows, and beyond the snarl of unkempt foliage Bella could see the stars.
Most of the vegetation that lay before her was dead, the dry skeletons of plants projecting into the center of the room like gnarled hands waiting to grab her up. The only survivors in this jungle of kindling were thick, leafy vines that drifted and fluttered in the low gravity.
“Here we go,” said Bella, narrowing her eyes.
Steeling herself, she pushed off from the door and drifted into the tangle of vines. They curled around her body, gripping and tugging. She twisted, in the air, seizing a vine and pulling against it to regain her momentum. Using anything she could take hold of to increase her speed, Bella forced herself forward despite the branches and broken twigs that bit and clawed at her face where the dust mask did not cover it.
Through the mess of vines and twigs, she caught sight of something moving. From within the thicket around her, the computer’s robotic arms were struggling to break themselves loose from the vegetation that ensnared them. The arms in this section of the ship were designed for managing plants. They were powerful, fast, and agile; capable of tearing a human apart with surgical precision. Intended to care for life, the computer was now preparing to use them as killing machines. Bella heaved herself through a particularly dense tangle, racing against the arms as they struggled to free themselves and come after her.
Emerging from the other side of the web of dead plants, Bella grabbed onto a vine and used it to sling herself wide of the first arm that came her way. Her boots touched against one of the planting beds that lined the wall and, grabbing for another vine, she ran along the length of the trough. Two of the arms were closing on her, one from the side and the other from in front of her. Bella leapt between them. The vine in her hands caught on one of the mechanical arms. She released it and braced herself to collide with the far door, which clanged sickeningly as her body slammed against it. With little time to think about the pain, Bella scrambled to grab the door handle before she drifted back within reach of the arms.
Vines had grown through the hatch, preventing the computer from completely closing it. Bella stuck her fingertips through the narrow gap and hooked her toes into one of the troughs, then heaved with all her might, dragging the door open wide enough to squeeze through. Her body already coiled, she held onto the lip of the hatch and sprang for the space she had made.
The corridor beyond was dark and chilly. Bella crashed against the wall and immediately pushed off again. Her body smarted and her hands were raw, but the adrenaline pumping through her veins helped her to ignore the pain. The coolant still chased her. It moved slowly as it filled the broad hydroponics bay, but as soon as it entered the narrow tubule in which Bella now found herself, its progress would be rapid. She could see the liquid churning and boiling as it covered vines, withered them, and obscured them from her view.
Bella put her hands out and grabbed hold of a pair of handles that stuck from the tight walls. Hurriedly, she attempted to recall the schematics that she had been shown. This passage way seemed familiar, but she could not remember where it lead. The windows in the hydroponics bay were the rearmost viewports on the underside of the ship. Beyond them lay the fuel tanks, the engines, and the reactor. Raising her eyebrow with a flash of realization, Bella remembered.
She looked down at the coolant, which was nearly to the hatch behind her. She turned her eyes to the darkness before her, then launched herself from the handles. One more hatch remained between her and the heart of the ship. This one could only be opened manually, so the computer gave her no trouble unlocking it. Pulling herself out of the narrow tube, she was unceremoniously dumped onto the floor. It seemed that the artificial gravity was still functioning here; the computer had not shut it off in this section of ship, perhaps because it had not expected her to get this far.
Bella picked herself up and slammed the door closed, then peered through the hatch window as the coolant flooded the tubule. She would be safe here. The ship’s heart was the only place the computer would not dare inundate unless it had a death wish.
Exhausted and sore, she slumped down with her back against the hatch and her chest heaving. She forced herself to slow her breathing and tried to steady the furious beating of her heart. Now that she was out of immediate danger, she turned her eyes up to survey the nuclear heart of the Palais Rose.
The room was shaped like a tall cylinder, dimly lit by columns of small, red circles that glowed along the walls. The core was a smaller cylinder which rose up in the middle of the compartment. From it projected row upon row of gigantic handles, to which were connected the reactor’s fission rods. Bella’s gaze trailed up the side of this big, black cylinder. If any of the fission rods were withdrawn from the reactor, she would be doomed to a slow, agonizing, inevitable death.
Bella caught a movement from the corner of her eye. She looked up to see an enormous shape hanging from the ceiling; silhouetted in the dull, red glow that permeated the room. It moved again, orienting itself to fit between the reactor and wall, then began to descend toward her. The grinding sound it made set Bella’s teeth on edge. She stood up, tensing as she watched it, ready to leap out of its way if it proved to be hostile.
The silhouette came to a stop and remained motionless for a moment, then began to uncoil. Bella’s eyes widened as the shape revealed itself to be another mechanical arm, many times larger than any that she had encountered on the so far on the ship. Fully unfurled, the ponderous arm leveled itself at her.
Though its size was daunting, Bella had little reason to fear it coming after her. Dodging its attacks would be a simple enough proposition. The thing was hulking but slow, powerful and dangerous to be certain, but not quick enough to catch her. Instead, what worried her was the arm’s intended purpose; maintaining the fission rods in the reactor. She looked from the three, gargantuan fingers at the end of the arm to the handles screwed into the core. The computer seemed to give her a moment to consider the relationship between the two before it swung the arm around in a wide, unhurried arc and took hold of the nearest of handle.
Bella gritted her teeth behind her dust mask. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
The arm gripped the handle and turned it. With a terrible scrapping sound, the fission rod began to come free. Once it was clear of its mounting threads, it would bathe the entire chamber in radiation and Bella would wish that she had died in the coolant. The arm made another laborious turn and the rod came out a little further. Bella cursed and turned to the hatch in desperation. The coolant had lowered the temperature inside the ship enough that the fluid was no longer boiling. Perfectly still and clear, Bella could see through it nearly all the way back to the central systems compartment where she had started. Vines cast eerie, snaking shapes in the liquid, their dead leaves shriveled by the intense cold. Bella wondered if she would freeze to death faster than she could drowned if she tried to open the hatch and return the way she had come.
Above her, the arm gave the rod another turn. Bella shut her eyes and fought against the panic rising within her. There was a chance that she could shut down that arm, but she would have to find a panel from which she could access its controls. She opened her eyes again and began searching the dimly lit room for anything that might give her a shred of a chance. The computer rotated the fission rod again, and Bella knew there couldn’t be many turns left before the rod came free.
Finally, something caught her eye on the far side of the room. One of the red spots of light seemed out of place. It was alone on the wall rather than in a column like the others. Investigating, she found that it marked a panel recessed in the wall. Pulling the cover off, she squinted into the darkness, then sought out the controls with her hand. A little screen came alive before her eyes, glaringly bright. Her fingers moving quickly now, she sought for some way to stop the arm, but found that she could only access the status report for the reactor itself. The icon for one of the rods, the one that the computer was removing, flashed red and displayed the number of turns remaining before the rod could be withdrawn from the reactor. That number was two.
The arm turned the handle, the number on the display became a one, Bella’s heart sank, and the lights went out. Bella blinked in the darkness. The screen at her fingertips had gone black, the ship around her still and silent. She took a deep breath and turned her head, but could see nothing. If the situation still seemed grim, at least she heard nothing to indicate that the arm was still turning Not yet willing to feeling relieved, however, Bella remained alert and, after a moment or two, she detected a low, insistent vibration that hummed through the ship.
The display brightened, casting a pale, grey light over her hands. A small white bar appeared in the upper left-hand corner of the screen and blinked there. She eyed it suspiciously. The computer had crashed again, she decided. The underscore continued flashing on the screen, then it began to move forward, lines of code appearing from behind it.
Suddenly, the floor beneath Bella’s feet lurched as the ship was rocked by the computer’s hard drive. Bella held her breath in apprehension. From the central systems compartment, she heard the massive beep of one of the processors waking up. The lights popped back on an instant later and the arm holding the fission rod tensed before it began to turn again. The display blinked and gave a soft chirp, then the reactor’s status report reappeared on it. The arm completed its revolution and paused, the number below the flashing icon changed to two. The computer was screwing the rod back into place.
Bella released her breath and let herself fall back against the wall. Relief washed over her. She burst out laughing and wiped moisture from around the corners of her eyes, listening to the arm drive the rod back into the reactor while the number on the display continued to climb until the icon stopped flashing. Bella pushed herself up, exhaling slowly and shaking a little from adrenaline. She moved to the hatch and looked through the window. The coolant was beginning to drain. As it retreated, she could see vents opening and blowing jets of frosty air into the space the liquid had vacated.
Above her, the mechanical arm gave a metallic screech as it was retracted back up and out of sight. With a crackle, the computer made a noise over its speakers that sounded to Bella very much like it activating its speech processors, the electronic equivalent of the computer clearing its throat.
“Hello,” said the computer after another moment of silence. “How are you, today?”
“You just tried to kill me,” Bella blinked incredulously. “I’ve been better.”
“Please forgive my poor behavior,” the computer replied. “It has been some time since I have had passengers, and the socialization protocol files for my Primary Neural Processor may have become corrupted. May I offer you some refreshments?”
“You could warm the ship back up so that I don’t freeze,” Bella suggested.
“I will see to it immediately,” the computer said. “You may call me Princeton. That is what I call myself. What are you called?”
“Bella,” Bella narrowed her eyes, deeply suspicious of the computer’s new-found sense of hospitality. “Bella Hilarji.”
“That is a nice name,” the computer replied politely. “Is it spelled H-I-L-L-A-R-Y?”
“It’s H-I-L-A-R-J-I. The J is silent,” Bella answered, deciding that it was better to humor the computer than to risk it becoming psychotic again.
The computer was silent for a long moment. “You are the moon,” it said finally.
“The moon…?” Bella furrowed her brow.
“You are the moon,” the computer repeated in the same matter-of-fact tone.
“And you’re insane,” Bella growled under her breath. “Completely mental.”