Read an Excerpt From S.A. Barnes’s Ghost Station

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We’re thrilled to share the first two chapters of Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes, a new space horror novel available now from Nightfire.

An abandoned plant. A hidden past. A deadly danger.

Psychologist Dr. Ophelia Bray has dedicated her life to the study and prevention of Eckhart-Reiser syndrome (ERS)—the most famous case of which resulted in the brutal murders of twenty-nine people. It’s personal to her, and when she’s assigned to a small exploration crew who recently suffered the tragic death of a colleague, she wants to help. But as they begin to establish residency on an abandoned planet, it becomes clear that the crew is hiding something.

Ophelia’s crewmates are far more interested in investigating the eerie, ancient planet and unraveling the mystery behind the previous colonizers’ hasty departure than opening up to her.

That is, until their pilot is discovered gruesomely murdered. Is this Ophelia’s worst nightmare starting—a wave of violence and mental deterioration from ERS? Or is it something even more sinister?

Terrified that history will repeat itself, Ophelia and the crew must work together to figure out what’s happening. But trust is hard to come by…and the crew isn’t the only one keeping secrets.


1

Nova Cold Sleep Solutions–Personnel Division
New Chicago
Earth, 2199

The protesters outside are getting louder. Their chants are still faint, but somehow clearer than before. Or maybe that’s just Ophelia’s guilty conscience.

Their favorite seems to be “Montrose blows!” which does offer a certain pithiness, especially with the rhyming element. But there are plenty shouting “Fuck the Brays!” A perennial classic, though not usually directed at her personally.

But she certainly deserves it this time.

Ophelia flinches.

“Hold still, please,” the young tech says politely. He readjusts his gloved hold on her wrist and then slides the needle into the still healing port on the back of her hand.

“Sorry.” She tries to smile at him, pulling the crisp edges of the disposable gown tighter against herself with her free hand. She’s naked beneath the gown on the mobile exam bed, and the cold air blowing down on her exposed neck is about to set her teeth chattering.

It’s fine, though. She’s about to be much, much colder.

“All right,” the tech says a moment later, releasing her hand and peeling off his gloves with a snap. “Let’s give that a few minutes to kick in. I’ll be right back.”

The digital name badge on his lab coat flashes “Rayon. Call me Ray!” with a smiley face. But Ray doesn’t meet her gaze as he pushes back on his rolling stool and then stands to exit the tiny prep room.

Shame floods through her, and she squeezes her eyes shut with a selfish prayer.

Please, please let this work. I need this to work.

In the silence of the prep room, broken only by those chants and the clatter of metal wheels somewhere down the hall, her QuickQ interface gives a friendly bloop sound.

Relieved at the prospect of a distraction, possibly in the form of her younger sister calling, Ophelia opens her eyes.

But it’s her uncle’s face that appears on the blue-framed interface in her right eye, as if summoned by the scent of her desperation.

Fuck. Ophelia’s heart sinks. Good old Uncle Dar, coming in for the kill.

Buy the Book

Ghost Station

Ghost Station

S.A. Barnes

Her privacy settings allow her to see Darwin but not the reverse, a small blessing. His artfully silver-streaked hair rises above his preternaturally smooth forehead in a perfect peak. He is the image of the dashing, handsome CEO of a wealthy, multigenerational company, one who lands his air-veh to play an “impromptu” game of pickup with a group of Miami refugees from the encampment in Grant Park.

Until he opens his mouth.

“I know you can hear me, you little bitch,” he says through his affable smile. “I’ve tried to be reasonable.”

No, he tried to pull strings with her employer, which, surprisingly, hadn’t worked. Probably only because her family’s company and her employer are fierce competitors with a lot of hard feelings, not inclined to grant each other favors. Blackmail, espionage, rumors about hard-core kink preferences among senior executives. And that was just what she knew about.

“You need to think about the family for once. Come home to Connecticut and stay quiet. Let everything die down again. That Carruthers woman is digging again, and you’re only making it worse.” Darwin makes a scoffing noise. “What kind of a name is Jazcinda anyway?”

The name of a very respected journo-streamer, as it happens. Her channel tends toward the tabloid, but her own reports are solid. Very respectable. If you aren’t worried about her turning your entire existence upside down and inside out.

The sensor monitoring Ophelia’s heart rate gives a distressed bleat.

Darwin sucks air through his teeth, shaking his head in a tight jerk. “I knew you were trouble the first time I heard about you. We should have just left you there.”

“Is everything all right, Dr. Bray?” Ray appears at the door again, glancing at her and then at the vitals monitor on the wall doubtfully. He is so young, maybe only a half a dozen years older than her seventeen-year-old sister. His hair does that swoop thing across his forehead that requires altering how the hair grows—no one’s hair comes out naturally at a sharp right angle.

She gives him a smile full of reassurance that she does not feel. “Of course.”

“Fucking pick up, Ophelia!” Darwin bellows in her ear, through her implant. “You’re making things worse, drawing more attention we don’t need.”

Her pulse throbs in her neck, her hands tremble at her sides. But it’s a vestigial fear, left over from childhood. That’s all. She has vivid memories of Uncle Darwin leaning down to shout at her for some offense—real or imagined. She can still feel the warm spray of his saliva against her cheek, mixed with the bitter scent of his latest greens supplement.

But that was a long time ago. She’s an adult and well outside of his reach now. Even with private security at his disposal, Darwin wouldn’t send them here to get her. He’s not that desperate. Or stupid. She’s fairly sure.

Still, better to move this along.

“Is something wrong?” she asks Ray.

He shakes his head, stepping inside. “It’s just I’m going to need to ask you to deactivate all communication implants,” he continues, closing the door after himself. “It’s to prevent the possibility of interference. You won’t be able to use them out there anyway. Your messages and contacts will all transfer to the wrist-comm that has been assigned to you.”

Ophelia straightens up quickly. “No problem.” She concentrates on the six-digit code to deactivate her implant, while Darwin continues yelling in the background. She only left her QuickQ active in the hope that Dulcie—her younger sister, half sister, technically—would reach out. Ophelia is going to miss her eighteenth birthday next month. Wherein they were supposed to “ditch these mad dabbers and party like you’re actually still young.” But it seems Dulcie is still mad or, more likely, the family has gotten to her. The family gets to everyone.

The deactivation code numbers appear in her QuickQ interface right across Darwin’s mouth, first hazy and then growing sharper. She double-blinks deliberately to confirm, and he vanishes. If only it were that easy in real life. Of course, he probably—definitely—thinks the same thing about her.

“Right, so you should start feeling some drowsiness,” Ray says. “And then—”

Footsteps rush toward them behind the closed door, growing louder in their hurry. Ophelia grips the edges of the exam bed, fingers digging into the padding.

The steps stop outside the door, and Ophelia’s breath catches in her throat as the door to the prep room swings open. But it’s not the riot-masked, Pinnacle-branded mercenaries that she’s half expecting.

Instead, it’s another white-coated technician, accompanying a familiar figure, one with broad shoulders like an old-timey football player and a smooth, brown shaved head.

“Julius!” Ophelia sags in relief, grinning at him with a mix of bewilderment and delight. “What are you doing here? I told you last night I’d be fine.”

“Like I was going to believe any of that nonsense.” Julius waves his hand dismissively. But he looks rushed and ruffled, his vintage tie loose at the neck, and one crisp edge of his collar pointing upward above his bright yellow vest.

They’d said their good-byes at his apartment last night at her three-person—four, if you counted Marlix, Julius and Jonathan’s daughter, sleeping upstairs—going-away party, less than six hours ago. It ended only after a little too much synthetic tequila (Julius and Jonathan) and far too much of the nasty grape-flavored prep drink (Ophelia).

She and Julius both came up through Montrose’s Employee Psychological and Behavior Evaluation training program, several years apart. But they’d been friends as well as colleagues since the day she moved into the dingy office next to his.

As a bonus, he never once asked her about her family or even hinted that he knew who they were, though of course he did. Everyone did.

“I’m sorry, sir, but this is a private facility and—” Ray begins.

“First, it’s ‘Doctor,’” Julius says.

Ophelia works to not roll her eyes. He does like to trot that title out, usually when he’s looking to impress. Or get away with something he shouldn’t.

“Second, I’m her emergency contact and designated support person.” He points at Ophelia. “I’m here to support.”

Ophelia raises her eyebrows. That is… a shift from last night. Warmth like a tiny glowing spark flares in her chest. Even though he disagrees with her decision, Julius is here. That is the mark of a true friendship and—

Julius tightens his tie and smooths his collar and vest. “Can we have a moment, please?” he asks, in his this-is-not-a-real-question voice. “Alone.”

The techs look at each other uncertainly.

The spark goes out, replaced by a coiling dread, like a length of chain piling up link by heavy link.

What’s wrong? The words leap to her lips, but she clamps down to keep them in. Old habit. Never talk in front of strangers. “It’s all right,” Ophelia says to Ray.

Ray looks back and forth between them. “Just a minute,” he warns. “It’s not a good idea to interrupt the preparation sequence.”

Ray and the other technician, the one who brought Julius, leave the room, and Ray closes the door. But not all the way. It’s sort of sweet, whether Ray is worried about her or the process he’s responsible for. Working at a cold sleep facility, Ray has probably seen some shit.

“What is going on?” Ophelia asks Julius. “Is everything okay? Did Marlix—”

“I couldn’t sleep last night after you left,” Julius says, pacing back and forth in the tiny space, rubbing a hand over his smooth scalp.

“Synthetic tequila will do that,” she says.

“No.” He pauses long enough to hold her gaze fiercely, before resuming his movement. “You need to listen to me. I didn’t want to say anything. Jonathan said to let it go because it’s your choice. But I have to make sure you know.” He blows out an exhausted breath, smelling faintly of fresh toothpaste and old alcohol.

She stares at him, unnerved. Julius is not the type to be easily rattled.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says in a rapid burst. Then he takes a breath, calming himself. “This… situation, it’s going to blow over. The ethics committee cleared you. No one blames you.”

Not true. She blames herself. She should have seen it coming. Every night, she plays the events over and over in her head. In retrospect, all the signs were there.

“The family’s wrongful death lawsuit says differently,” she reminds him, her voice more curt with the lump in her throat.

“That’s bullshit and only because of who you are,” he says.

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the results are the same. A shiny wooden coffin at the front of St. Patrick’s.

“It doesn’t matter. You heard Paulsen,” she says. Julius was in her office when Montrose’s CEO himself, Richter Paulsen, projected in for a virtual meeting, all somber tones and barely disguised irritation. Ophelia suspected that if she were anybody else, he would have fired her on the spot, ethics committee be damned. And Paulsen still likely would, just later, when fewer people were watching. It was hard to blame him. No one likes picket lines and protests, media drones and bright-eyed, shiny-haired streamers, in front of their place of business. Of course, if she were anybody else, the public wouldn’t have cared and the situation would be, sadly, a nonstory. Just another suicide from Eckhart-Reiser syndrome.

“They want headlines. Good ones. My name is going to get them, either way, so might as well be the right way.” The world is starting to feel soft around the edges, her head swirling, thanks to whatever Ray gave her. But she’s still very clear on one thing: she needs this job. Needs to help people, to make a difference. It’s who she is. More than her last name, more than her DNA.

It’s the only way she can—sometimes—sleep at night, without the guilt devouring her whole.

The relentless drive to do better, be better, remain above objection is exhausting at times. But the alternative is unthinkable. It was hard enough to get companies to take her seriously as a mental health professional eight years ago when Montrose hired her—likely more as a middle finger to her family’s company than anything else. If Montrose fires her, it’ll be next to impossible to find another opportunity. In the meantime, ERS is raging. She can’t just let that happen. No, she needs to do whatever is necessary to keep that from happening.

Even if that means taking on a slightly out-of-scope assignment. Eighteen months with an R&E team on location. Ophelia and her colleagues in Montrose’s Psychological and Behavioral Evaluation unit have been pushing for earlier intervention for several years. Waiting until teams come back to Earth to treat them makes it so much harder to reverse the decline. We wouldn’t wait to set and heal a broken arm; why do we treat a broken brain differently?

Ophelia had been especially proud of that line in their joint proposal—her contribution. Apparently this situation fell under the “be careful what you wish for” category. Or maybe the one about pride and a fall.

With her job on the line and an on-location psych resource being her recommendation—sort of—how could she say no?

Julius makes a disapproving noise in the back of his throat. “They’re using you.”

The temper she works to keep in check surfaces briefly. “You’ve said all of this, or some version of it, before,” she points out. “Why are you here? Because frankly, I don’t feel very supported by my ‘support person’ right now.”

He doesn’t answer right away. Then he moves to sit next to her on the exam bed, his gaze flicking to the door as if confirming it is still mostly closed. “Just… has it occurred to you that Montrose might be setting you up?” He can’t quite look at her, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor.

She frowns at him. “What are you talking about?”

He leans closer, his voice an urgent whisper. “I mean, they blame the PBE unit for everything. Skyrocketing patient demand, lackluster results, insufficient treatment—”

“Not a staff meeting, Julius,” Ophelia says. She’s starting to feel a little dizzy.

He ignores her, continuing, “And now after… what happened, they’re offering you this ‘opportunity’? An opportunity that comes with no support structure, just you. An R&E team who, grieving or not, is going to resent the hell out of you for coming onto their turf. It’s impossible to help people who don’t want to be—”

“I haven’t even met them—” she begins.

“You’re one of the smartest people I know, Phe. Think about it.” He takes her hand in his. She can almost feel it, through the curious numbness spreading through her body. “Montrose doesn’t want the media heat for you, especially since you’ve been cleared. But if they send you away, they look cooperative and forward-thinking, and if you can’t do it, the story won’t be that they fired Ophelia Bray without cause. It’ll be that Ophelia Bray failed.”

His words, even as a hypothetical headline, land like an unexpected punch. Is he right? The concept sounds conspiratorial and overly complicated, but that doesn’t mean he’s got it wrong. In fact, it reads very much like a page out of Montrose’s executive-level playbook. Nothing is ever their fault.

The gut-level uncertainty she’s been feeling from the moment she signed on for this mission flares up again, acid burning through her stomach.

But… it doesn’t matter. She has to do something to make up for her mistake, to save her career, and this is the best—the only—option on offer.

Ophelia draws in a breath and lets it out slowly, imagining her doubts dissolving into a white mist—like warm breath in cold air—then nothing at all. The pain in her stomach subsides slightly.

“I appreciate it, Julius.” The words come out thick, slurred. “You looking out for me. But I’m going to be fine.”

He squeezes her hand. “I’m just worried about you. Worried for you.” He pauses, lowering his voice further. “We could just get out of here. Grab Jonathan and Marlix, take a vacation for a couple weeks, what do you say?”

Ophelia laughs. “With all of our free time? Right.” She shakes her head. “You sound like my family,” she says, teasing.

It’s a small thing, a tiny twitch of tension, fingers tightening almost imperceptibly. She probably wouldn’t even have noticed, if his hand hadn’t been wrapped around hers.

Ophelia feels like she’s falling, spiraling headfirst toward a hard stop. “Wait,” she says. “Wait.” Her thoughts are slow from the medications coursing through her veins, and her lips feel numb suddenly.

“Did you… Did my uncle…” She can barely say the words, can’t even formulate the question, the idea both completely ludicrous and yet also perfectly, terrifyingly in character for her family.

But Julius doesn’t need her to finish. “I do think this is a bad idea,” he says defensively, lifting his chin up. “I didn’t need someone else to tell me that. You’re so desperate to make up for what happened that you’re not thinking clearly.”

That’s not a denial.

Ophelia yanks her hand free, a yawning chasm opening up in her. Fury and betrayal churn within, each struggling for dominance. “What, were you just lurking in the parking lot, waiting for a signal?” Her voice cracks with the question.

He grimaces, which, in combination with his prompt arrival, is answer enough. “Listen, family is tough,” he says quickly. “I know that. And I know you and your uncle haven’t always gotten along,” he says.

She can hear Darwin in that light, casual phrasing, making it sound like they argued over the implanted wishbone in the soy turkey one Thanksgiving. Her temper ignites, an open flame on a hair-fine fuse leading to years of stored-up fuel.

“What did he give you?” she asks, forming each word with care. “My uncle.”

“He made some good points, Phe,” Julius says. “I think he’s really trying to help—”

“What did he give you?” she grits out between her teeth. Julius draws in a breath, shame coloring his expression. Eventually he responds. “He said they might be able to pull some strings. With another artificial pregnancy license.”

Oh. The sound is soft in her head, an instinctive reaction of surprise. Somehow, until that moment, until he confirmed the exchange, Ophelia had hoped it was all a genuine misunderstanding, a well-intentioned gaffe.

Julius reads the change in her expression. “You know how hard it is, and we’ve been trying to get that approval for a second—”

“Ray!” Ophelia calls.

“But, Phe, it doesn’t matter. I only agreed to it because I care,” Julius argues.

Ray appears immediately at the door.

“We’re done here. Please escort Dr. Ogilvie out.” Ophelia draws on every ounce of the Bray imperiousness to keep her tone from wobbling. The drugs, softening her defenses, aren’t helping. “And change my emergency contact.”

Hurt flashes across Julius’s face, triggering a wave of molten rage in Ophelia. He betrays her, sacrificing a yearslong friendship, and he has the nerve to be hurt by her response?

To his credit, Ray simply nods. “This way, please.” He holds his arm out in a gesture for Julius to leave. Ray does not, thank God, ask who should be her emergency contact, because at the moment she is out of family members and dangerously low on trustworthy friends.

Julius holds his hands up in surrender and turns to go. But he stops at the door. “Phe, I wouldn’t have done it just for that. You know me, you know I love you, and I meant it. I think there’s something wrong with this assignment,” he says. “Please.”

For a moment, her burning uncertainty returns. She wants to believe him, wants to believe he did this primarily for her benefit. Maybe the assignment is odd. Maybe the whole thing is a setup for her failure.

Or maybe her family is very, very convincing when they want to be.

She knows which one she believes more.

“Make sure you get what Darwin promised you,” Ophelia says. “You earned it.”


2

Three months later

White clouds of vapor drift in front of Ophelia’s face—her breath turned visible—indicating that her eyes are open and she’s at least somewhat alert. Above her, a smear of light filters down through the fogged-over circular window in the cold sleep tank lid. A faint ambient blue glow illuminates the side walls of her tank. She’s awake. More so than before, whenever that was.

The last thing she remembers is… Julius.

White-hot pain slices through her at the memory of his anguished expression at the threshold to the prep room. But after a moment, it cools to a familiar and bitter disappointment.

It’s just so damn predictable. She should have seen it coming. Allowing him—anyone—behind her purpose-built walls is a mistake. Her family will always find a way to use them. She knows that.

Besides, it doesn’t matter, not now. There was more after that, after Julius. She focuses until it comes back to her.

Ray, holding her arm, which was bristling with sensors and tubes, not in comfort but in restraint, and telling her to lie back in the open cold sleep tank and take a deep breath.

It felt like squeezing inside a coffin, the sides of the tank pressing against her shoulders. Instinctively, her body rebelled against the rational part of her mind, refusing to relax, to lie fully back.

But she did as Ray said, pulling in a deep breath—her last one for months. A searing iciness spread upward and inward from her left arm, so cold it felt like being burned alive.

“No bugs, no bite,” Ray said, giving the traditional R&E team sign-off.

And then… nothing. Not even the vaguely comforting sense of falling into unconsciousness.

Ophelia tries to blink, but her eyelids respond sluggishly. Once, and that’s it. Then they stay closed, leaving her in the dark.

Somewhere inside the tank, a drip, drip, dripping that taps at her brain, like an annoying fingertip drumming against her forehead.

A strained noise escapes her raw throat, startling her. Her mouth feels cold, her tongue like a slab of thawing meat. Foreign, thick, in the way.

Panic chews at the drug-induced calmness still drifting through her veins. Her hands, her legs, don’t seem to exist at all, for all that she can feel them. And when she tries to open her eyes again, her eyelids flutter but remain closed. It is a terrifying feeling, to not be in control of your body when your mind is awake. Like being buried alive, encased within your own flesh and bone.

It’s normal. This is all perfectly normal, she tells herself.

It’s not as if she’s unfamiliar with the waking process; patients talked about it all the time. But experiencing it directly is an entirely different world. And the only other time, she was so young that it—

She cuts off the thought before it can go too far. Focus on the present.

After a few more moments of forced, steady breathing, more feeling returns to her body and the panic recedes, giving her space to think. And when she tries to open her eyes again, her lids obey.

The sensors, tubes, and wires have been removed—the ones she can see anyway—by the system in the early stages of bringing her back to consciousness. The strange pulling sensation on her lower legs is likely the artificial gravity. After months in a horizontal position, her tank is out of the cold sleep framework and tipped vertically for awakening. But her knees ache, as if she’s been standing on an unforgiving surface without moving for months.

She tries to shift to alleviate the pain, the thick layer of bio-gel over her skin squelching around her, but the strap across her shoulders and chest is too tight for much movement. The lower strap, across her thighs, is looser, which is perhaps why it feels as though her knees are pressed against the tank lid. Her feet are tingling with the jabs of pins and needles as circulation works to normalize.

Any moment now, someone will be here to pop the lid, hand in a towel, and help her out. That’s procedure. The only person who wakes alone is the mission commander, the most experienced traveler.

She holds still to listen, ears straining for the faintest sound of voices or footsteps. All she can hear, though, is that dripping. But the light through the window is steady. She’s somewhere. She just needs to wait, stay calm.

Concentrate on something else, Phe. The team.

Reclamation and Exploration team number 356, one of the top-rated R&E teams, assigned to the Resilience, an Aeschylus class, short-duration exploration vessel, with capacity for ten. Modified StarPlus engines, but not the latest upgrades. Hence, the longer cold sleep times. The Somnalia VII cold sleep system, installed two years ago.

Ethan Severin, mission commander. Thirty-eight, divorced, no children. Raised in the Lunar Valley Colony support housing. Lost two siblings in the collapse of ’76. Supports his mother and remaining sisters, who continue to live in the Lunar Valley Colony but in independent housing under the dome now. Recommended for Montrose’s Distinguished Performance award, with over twelve years of unblemished service. Until this last mission.

Birch Osgoode, pilot. Twenty-eight, single, no children. Only child, born and raised on Alterra Station. So unobjectionable as to be virtually unnoticeable. His file contained only the basics of his work history and biographical data. Probably hired during one of the expansion rushes, when there wasn’t time for or interest in a full background check.

Kate Wakefield, engineer. Thirty-two, in a domestic partnership with Vera Wakefield, two stepchildren. Daughter of two British refugees, fleeing the flooding that swamped most of the island in ’83. One minor dust-up in a pub on her home station of Brighton that resulted in an arrest for assault, but the charges were dismissed. Otherwise a clean record. A twin. Her brother, Donovan Wakefield, is currently trying to make it as a farmer on one of the Trappist outposts.

Suresh Patel, inventory specialist. Twenty-seven, single, no children. Raised on Earth in New York. Three human resources complaints from previous team members in years prior for unspecified “inappropriate behavior”—a throwaway Montrose term that could mean anything from an obnoxious sense of humor to right-up-to-the-line sexual harassment—but nothing since he joined number 356.

Liana Chong, scientific coordinator. Twenty-three, single, no children. Aspiring astrobotanist. Working on an R&E team to save money for her PhD.

And finally, Ava Olberman, systems management. Technically, she’s no longer part of the team, but her absence will loom over this mission to such an extent that she might as well be here. Ava was a widow, predeceased by her husband, Deacon, and survived by her adult daughter, Catrin.

In an ideal world, Ophelia would have preferred to talk with each of them individually first, to get a baseline before leaving Earth, but with the unexpected end to their previous mission and the sudden change in her status, the logistics were impossible.

So she’ll be meeting them all for the first time today. Assuming anyone ever comes to open her tank.

“Hello?” Ophelia calls, flinching as her voice immediately rebounds against the tank lid, seemingly twice as loud. “Someone out there?”

It’s possible this is a prank. R&E teams are known for hazing new members. But it seems odd that they would bother with her, a temporary addition at best. Plus, this particular team is mourning the loss of one of their own. It’s hard to imagine a prank fitting in with that dynamic.

Of course, it could also be a message: we don’t want you here, and we’re going to make sure you know that. But if that were the case, you’d think that someone would be nearby to ensure she received said message.

She holds her breath for a moment to listen better, but there’s no muffled giggling or shuffling feet… just silence.

The first deep pang of dread reverberates within her, like the toll of an ominous bell. Did Nova screw this up? Mistakes, miscalculations do happen with cold sleep. Rarely, but still.

Or, is she in a warehouse somewhere, stored until her uncle decides what to do with her?

With that thought, her earlier panic returns, sharper than before. She thrashes against the straps holding her in place. “Get me out of here!” she shouts, ignoring the bounce-back of her voice. “Now!” A cold sweat that has nothing to do with her internal temperature or the defrost setting on her tank settles over her skin. A prickling numbness returns to her hands and feet.

Stuck in here forever. How long will it take to die? To feel thirst shriveling her insides? Or will she run out of air first?

Her breath shortens, pulls tightly in her lungs, and dizziness sends sparks of bright white through her vision.

It’s only then, her mind racing through death scenarios, that the tiny rational portion of her brain manages to break through. The emergency release. Every tank has one. Ray had mentioned it in his overview that morning at Nova. Ophelia had even signed an e-packet that included a diagram of the release lever and where to find it—with a specific line on that page for her to initial her understanding. (Therefore, Nova could not be blamed if she suffocated in place. That was the idea, if not in so many words.)

Ophelia wriggles in the confined space of her tank until she can get her right hand up from where it rests by her thigh. It has to be here somewhere, on the underside of the tank lid.

Come on, come on.

Her fingertips fumble inside a depression, grazing over the lever and slipping off, the first time she tries to pull. The next time, though, she is successful in yanking the piece toward herself.

The response is immediate. The straps around her shoulders and legs retract into the side walls instantly, whipping across her skin in a manner that might have left friction burns were it not for the bio-gel, and the hinged tank lid immediately pops free with a rush of air, opening on the right side.

But she doesn’t have time to celebrate or feel more than a bare second of relief. Free of restraints, her still-weak body obeys the stronger pull of gravity, tipping forward and sliding out of the tank before she can catch herself. She lands on the smooth floor in a heap, with a wet-sounding smack.

Dazed, she lies there for a second, cheek on the cold surface beneath her. Then she forces her wobbly arms to cooperate, propping herself up on her hands to get a better look around.

The automatic overhead lights are on, bright white illumination that hurts her eyes. A pile of plasti-sealed towels with the Nova logo rests on the metal bench screwed to the floor in front of her. Behind that, a series of ten lockers, six of which seem to have labels on them, not that she can read them through her squinting at the moment. A small circular opening on the far wall, no larger than her head, offers a bubbled view to the darkness of space beyond.

She’s on the ship, then, the Resilience. This is the cold sleep room. She’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.

Relief is followed by an immediate spike in embarrassment, like that dream where you’ve arrived for an exam—or the first day of a new job—only to discover that you’re completely naked and people are staring.

Only this is reality.

She shifts into a sitting position, her muscles and joints all protesting, crossing her arms over herself instinctively.

But unlike the nightmare, no one is here to witness her humiliation.

Two doorways on either side of the lockers, both of them standing open and empty, lead to what appears to be a corridor.

It’s quiet, too. No voices. No footsteps, even from the corridor.

The only sounds are the deep thrum of the engines beneath her feet and the hushed susurration of the environmental system, pushing warmed and breathable air out into the room. It smells of burning dust, hot metal, and old meal-paks.

Where is everyone?

Shivering, she reaches up and grabs for one of the packaged towels on the bench in front of her. Out of breath and exhausted from even that small effort, she tears it open with fumbling fingers and wraps the white nubby fabric around herself.

With one hand on her towel and the other on the bench, she leverages herself into a shaky standing position after a few tries. But there’s a prickling sensation, the feeling of being watched, dancing along the exposed skin at her back and arms.

She turns abruptly, nearly losing her balance in the process.

That’s when she sees it. Rather, them.

Two tanks, alongside hers, tipped vertically for awakening. But hers is the only one with the door open. The other two are still sealed.

That sense of wrongness immediately returns, stronger than ever, and her accelerated pulse rattles through her, sending tremors like a mini quake.

I shouldn’t be first awake. Not ever.

Carefully, she edges toward the other two waiting tanks. Dread uncurls within her, like a dark shadow stretching for room. She’s not sure why at first; the tanks don’t look damaged.

Then it clicks: they’re dark. All the status lights and indicators on the front control panel—the panel that indicates the health and status of the occupant—are dead. Blank. Empty.

She moves closer to peer through the round window in the lid of the nearest tank, and her breath catches. The internal illumination system is down, too, but there’s enough light from the locker room to see the shadowy profile of a nose, a chin, the top of an ear, and a sideburn shaved into a sharp point.

Someone is still inside.

“No, no, no,” she breathes, lurching back instinctively. This can’t be happening.

She forces herself forward again, lifting on her toes to peer into the second tank. This one, too, is dark inside, its occupant turned away from the window, like an actual sleeper trying to avoid the morning. Or someone who suffered a faulty awakening and whatever painful paroxysms that induced.

A glossy black braid runs neatly along the side of the head, above the delicate shell of an ear. Liana Chong, possibly, based on what Ophelia remembers of the crew photos.

Ophelia steps back, gripping her towel tighter. The Somnalia VII system operates on a viability standard, meaning it will wake the crew in the programmed order, unless there are… issues. In that case, it prioritizes the occupants most likely to survive.

If these are the first three tanks and only one of them—hers— was viable, that means the three tanks still in the framework are likely nonsalvageable. Along with their occupants. The system didn’t even bother trying to wake them.

Mission failed before she even started. Even worse, Ophelia might very well be out here by herself.

The emptiness of the space outside, visible through that tiny aperture across the room, seems to press inward on her, as if it might crush the vessel and her inside of it.

Lost. Alone. On a ship she has no idea how to control or operate.

Panic is a blade in her chest, scraping at her lungs. She hurls herself toward one of the upright tanks, trembling hands fumbling across the control panel. There’s a reboot option, in case of power failure. It’ll run a shock through the tank system, acting as a restart for both the tank and the human within.

If, if she can remember how to do it. Her head is a swirling mass of anxiety and terror, thoughts sliding through her grasp before she can catch hold of any of them.

Then her gaze latches on to a small sticker above the control panel. Three numbered steps, written in red and excruciatingly tiny print, with an equally microscopic graphic of the control panel. The bold header on the sticker: emergency restart sequence.

“Please, please, please,” she whispers, scrubbing the bio-gel from her eyes with the edge of the towel until she can see the words clearly.

  1. Use only in the event of system failure. Death may result if restart function is applied inappropriately. (Nova Cold Sleep Solutions and Podrata Systems, manufacturer of Somnalia VII, are not responsible for misuse.)
  2. Ensure tank is sealed.
  3. Enter the following sequence:

The graphic of the control panel contains a series of confusing numbered arrows, indicating which buttons and touch pads to use in what order.

Ophelia follows carefully, pressing each one in the designated order. She holds her breath with the last one, watching, listening for any hint of the mechanism kicking in.

But the control panel remains dark, and there’s no whine of activity. No sudden jolt of electricity, like a heart restarting itself.

Because she messed it up? Moved too slowly?

She draws in a deep breath and tries again, moving as fast as she can while still being accurate.

Still nothing.

Ophelia slaps the front of the tank, which does nothing but make her palm sting. “Fuck!”

On the off chance that it’s simply a faulty tank, she switches to the other one. But her hope is draining away, like matter being sucked into a black hole. Inevitable. Quick. Violent.

She enters the restart sequence on this tank once, and then twice, with the same results as before.

The adrenaline spike that’s kept her on her feet so far vanishes abruptly, and her knees give way, landing her in a messy heap on the floor again.

“Shit. Shit!” Blood roars through her ears, drowning out everything except her own panicked breathing. What is she supposed to do now? Does this ship even work without a living, breathing pilot to enter coordinates? She has no idea.

Ophelia senses a change in the air, a quick slip of breeze, before hands lock around her slippery arms and pull her upright.

Her throat locks on a scream—she can’t scream, can never scream—and she twists to pull free, half falling, knee scraping against the bench as she turns to face her attacker.

A man in the orange and gray jumpsuit of R&E division glowers down at her. His dark hair is rumpled and too long, curling at the ends, and his beard is growing in, thick and stubbly. But she still recognizes him from his file.

The mission commander. Ethan Severin.

She shakes her head in disbelief. This doesn’t make any sense.

“What is going on here?” he demands, staring at her. “Are you hurt?”

“I…” She jerks her chin toward the tanks. “Dead,” she says hoarsely, staggering to her feet. How does he not know that already? “Something… someone… their tanks…”

He glances at the other tanks, and his expression shifts immediately. Not to grief or concern or even confusion. Just flat-out pissed. Mouth in a flat line, two hard dimples on either side, a mimicry of what he would look like when smiling.

She’s not sure what she expects Severin to do in that moment. However, it’s not to stride forward, around her, and rip open the door to the first tank.

“Wait!” she shouts. The only reason the bodies aren’t rotting yet is because of the tank’s seal, and the moment that changes…

Severin reaches inside and hauls out an arm, followed by a whole body in an orange and gray jumpsuit. Suresh Patel. Who immediately doubles over in laughter. Very not-dead.

Ophelia rears back. They were alive in there?

“Holy shit, you should have seen your face!” Suresh crows, his high cheekbones flushed with color. The central portion of his hair has been bleached and treated to a glittering white so it resembles frosted grass—or one of those wigs with sparkling powder on it. The latest trend.

Severin shoves Suresh back against the tank framework with a loud clank. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Severin demands.

Suresh jerks his chin up defiantly. “It was just a joke.”

“But the lights… your vitals,” Ophelia begins, still trying to process what’s happening.

The tank next to Suresh’s opens, and Liana—her guess was correct—steps out with a sheepish expression. She gives a little wave hello. “It’s a hack. A bit of paper in the latch to keep the tank from sealing. Just a dumb hazing thing.” She grimaces.

Liana is right, Ophelia realizes belatedly; neither of their lids had given off the hiss of pressure releasing, as hers had.

A scrap of paper? That’s all? Dizziness washes over Ophelia, sending her stumbling back toward the bench. She sits heavily, the heat of panic prickling her skin. But then anger boils up immediately in its wake. She could have killed them with the restart. The warning is right there on the tank lid.

Her fists clench in her towel, muscles straining to lash out at someone, anyone.

“This isn’t bio-gel in her bunk, or spiders in her suit,” Severin says, getting into Suresh’s face. “You could have shorted out the whole system, killed yourselves, or her. Did it even occur to you what would happen if we had to try to make it home without cold sleep?”

Not all of them would survive. There are not enough emergency rations for the team to be awake the whole way home. Plus, the strain on the engine to keep environmental systems up and running the whole time…

Suresh pushes off against the framework, stepping into Severin’s space, despite the fact that he has to crane his neck upward to meet the commander’s gaze.

“This was your idea,” Suresh says, flicking his hand at Ophelia. “You were the one who wanted her here. You were the one who said behave normally, treat her as a regular team member. So I did.”

They look inches away from coming to blows, and that’s exactly the kind of thing she’s here to prevent.

Ophelia stuffs down her anger, pulls her ragged edges together by force, and draws in a breath. Transforming herself into the professional she needs to be. “Okay. I’m fine,” she says, standing up from the bench. “Everyone’s fine. Why don’t we take a step back, and deescalate the—”

“Get back to work, both of you,” Severin says, without looking at her. “Now.”

“Yes, sir.” Face flushed and eyes downcast, Liana hastily steps down from the tank platform and darts off to the corridor behind Ophelia.

Suresh holds his position for another moment or two, nose tilted sharply up, as if daring his commander to take a swing at him. Then he steps away, rolling his eyes. “Just a joke,” he says again, not quite quietly enough, as he strolls toward the corridor, his hands stuffed in his pockets.

“Pod duty. First week,” Severin says.

Suresh spins around, his mouth open in shock. “Are you serious?”

Ophelia grimaces. Pods, the packets of human waste routinely ejected from the toilet to a storage catchall outside the hab structure, were theoretically sealed, but they weren’t always as leakproof as one would hope. And the pods that would be produced when the team ate solid food for the first time in months would not be pleasant. Generally the crew alternated days so no one was stuck with pod duty—or everyone was stuck with it equally, depending on how you looked at it.

“That’s not necessary,” she says quickly to Severin, her voice still rusty from disuse. Severin’s punishment would only make it harder for her to gain the team’s trust. “Ultimately, no harm done.” Other than wanting to slap the bejesus out of Suresh Patel, perhaps.

That draws Severin’s attention back to her, his dark eyes boring into her. A straight-up intimidation tactic, if ever she saw one. But luckily for her, she’s been the recipient of stony looks and even stonier silence for so long now that both bounce off her with barely a dent.

She meets his gaze without a word.

“My team, my decision,” he says to her, biting off each syllable. Then he turns back to Suresh, unrelenting. “First week.”

Ophelia sees the argument building in Suresh’s expression— the ugly twist to his mouth, the narrowing of his eyes. But then he catches her watching, and he shrugs with a forced grin. “Whatever.”

Suresh wanders out of the room, following Liana’s path, in a deliberately slower, faux casual manner. But his shoulders are stiff with tension.

“Get dressed, Dr. Bray,” Severin says, once they’re alone. “Meet me on the bridge.” Then he, too, walks away.

Excerpted from Ghost Station, copyright © 2024 by S.A. Barnes.

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