Chapter 39 Part 5 of Beauty In The Bones

Back after a brief hiatus, the continuation of Beauty In The Bones Season 1 Finale is now up! In this installment, Lady Selketh undertakes an arduous ritual before Octavia, to prove herself a trustworthy ally. The truth cuts deep and sharp. Selketh begins to unveil the snarled trenches of her past in war-torn Hepslovia, and how she met the treacherous former Lady of The Order, Eleiana Blevasnya. Read free on Wattpad:
 

Scene 1 Chapter 4 of Ruby Descent–The Defiant Philanthropist

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The first draft of Scene 1, Chapter 4 from “Ruby Descent” is up 🙂 Castor Blane is the Director of Martian Enterprise for the powerful water purification corporation Everblue, and the younger brother of its mad and despotic CEO, Silas Blane. Castor and Silas are the sons of the late Richard Blane, who was the first Executive Officer of the Administration, and one of the most influential leaders to unite the solar system under one banner of freedom and equality after the War with the Pruessian Empire. They are two of the most powerful and famous celebrities in the known worlds as a result. Fifteen years after the War’s end, a new form of empire has emerged through corporate corruption. Silas has manipulated and violated his way to ultimate control, and Castor is one of a defiant few who dares to take a stand against it. Castor knows everything his brother has hidden from the public, and with the help of some skillful and experienced friends, he’s about to take the ultimate risk, to expose Silas and bring true freedom to society once and for all. The trouble is, there are many personal difficulties facing Castor as well. His beloved wife, the popular holo-cinema actress Ethlyne, has betrayed his trust, and broken his heart. Can the pieces of a shattered dream ever be mended to their original happiness?
 
***
 
“The smallest voices are the most important, my friends. Every living thing wants to be heard, to be acknowledged, even those which seem the most insignificant. When we bend an ear to listen, the most beautiful words spill from the mouths of those underfoot, the ones who wait on the sidelines, who labor crushed and weary. No more will they be ignored! This is a new day, and we will rise on the harmony of all beings, all songs, every breath drawn in the name of liberty and triumph for our human family.” — From the Inaugural Speech of Richard H. Blane, first elected Executive Officer of the Administration
 
***
 
Castor hunched over a cold stainless steel desk in the passenger cabin of the shuttle, scratching a pen across paper. Forehead resting on one palm, his dark brown undercut curtained loose and uncombed around his cheekbones. Thoughts flurried like a showgirl through the shadowed circus of his mind. The words on his page rambled, a desperate attempt to grasp his feelings in verse. He paused a moment to read the progress.
 
“One painted mask concealed another,
 
A veiled veneer;
 
Can a lover be merely a brother,
 
And a fractured heart still sincere?”
 
Rubbish. He’d never been a good poet, though laying lines on a blank surface usually soothed him when he was troubled. Not this time. With a sigh, he crumpled the paper into a tight, furious ball, and hurled it into the trash bin.
 
He twirled the pen between two fingers and stared at the display screen above the desk. The timer monitored the shuttle’s progress. They’d departed the hideout in the Belt twenty-nine hours ago. Eight hours remained to rendezvous with Thomas and Joan’s contact, and only a few hours after that until the Ruby’s descent. Soon he’d have to face his older brother again, and the reunion he dreaded most of all–meeting his wife once more. His gut performed a queasy leap into his throat when he pictured Ethlyne’s face. Old anger surfaced, and he bent the pen until it snapped in two. The pieces lay split on the desktop, ink spilling like dark blue blood between them. The sight satisfied him somehow, and he delayed wiping it up.
 
The Everblue party was the most important event in the solar system, but not for the reasons most assumed. The truth about Mars would soon prevail, and the ingenious Goodridger device would be given freely to the worlds, away from the despotic grasp of Silas. Castor chuckled to himself. It would be the ultimate revenge. Silas would have no way to evade this trap, not when every Net channel in the solar system would be tuned in for the revelation. The very weapon his brother wielded in blatant manipulation of the masses would soon backfire.
 
If only their late father had survived to see this. Things might have turned out very differently. After Richard Blane’s death in a horrible car accident, Silas had lost his common sense, and had now become a monster. Once, years ago, Silas had been courageous and honorable, his goals aimed at humanitarian efforts, such as helping Father unite the off-world colonies and bring an end to the Great War fifteen years ago. As a boy, Castor had loved his brother, and had idolized him in many ways. Now, there was no one else in the worlds whom Castor detested more.
 
Painful emotions returned when Castor thought of his brother and his wife together, bringing up so many tortured questions. Why, Ethlyne? It could have been with any other man in existence, and I might come to understand, and even forgive you. Why did you consort with the very beast we’re up against?
 
Betrayal of the most devastating kind had driven a rift between Castor and the woman he cherished. Everything was confused, tangled into a labyrinth of half-hopes and suspicious assumptions. His state of denial had done nothing to cover the torment. He wished he was a stronger man, able to open up and face the consequences. Unfortunately, his resolve wilted every time he thought about it.
 
Every time he tried to confront Ethlyne, his feelings boiled into a convoluted mess, and the right words to ask her eluded him. Even now, as he tried to write them down, an immense wall drove him mute, making him a fool. He’d never had an easy time expressing himself when his emotions unraveled, and Ethlyne had never done anything so treacherous as this before. It was like an assassin’s strike in the middle of his happiest dream, a shock so complete and profound that his very existence had fragmented. Only pieces remained, and he didn’t know how to begin putting them back together. Broken, like this pen, like the glass which had shattered across their bedroom floor on that awful, fateful morning.
 
It had been barely two standard months ago, yet it seemed as if years had passed, so far had Castor distanced himself from the memory. He’d departed for a week of meetings and conferences on Farswept a week prior to the tragic discovery. As the Director of all Martian enterprise for Everblue, Castor’s job kept him on the move, thus he was often away from their estate on the surface colony of Secundis. It had never been an issue before. Ethlyne was a solitary person, preferring the company of her horse and her dog to most other people. Castor never had reason to worry about her being alone, or to distrust her in any way. Their living arrangement had worked well.
 
He now wondered how long the deception had been going on behind his back.
 
It should have been a joyous morning. He’d taken a leave of absence from work and come home early from Farswept. It was Ethlyne’s birthday, and he’d brought a special gift for her.
 
He walked into the bedroom. She usually liked to sleep in, but he wanted to surprise her. Giddy with eagerness, he told the light to come on, cradling the gift in his hands. It was an Indolasian fighting fish. Fish were often difficult pets to maintain, the cost of water being too high for most people, but this one was in a small ornate bowl, and required little upkeep. Most women preferred flowers, or jewels. Not his darling wife. Ethlyne lit up in the presence of anything that had fur, scales, or feathers.
 
He’d found the fish at a market stand in the spaceport on Farswept, and it made him think of her. It was pretty, its long black fins, edged with vibrant red and orange.
 
The light turned on, illuminated the scene before him, and burned it forever into his mind. Their bed. Their room.
 
Ethlyne sat up, clutching the covers to her bare chest. Her vivid blue eyes squinted in the sudden brightness.
 
It wasn’t his wife that surprised him and caused him to drop the fish, drifting so lazy and content in its tiny aquatic world. It was Silas–naked. In bed. With his wife.
 
These three realizations had struck Castor like the tones of a loud, brash bell, jarred his skull, alerted him to the absurd and shameful truth, as the fish flopped and gasped among broken shards at his feet.
 
Ethlyne saw Silas, and cried out in terror. She scurried off of the bed, pulling the blankets with her, and crouched in the corner.
 
Silas, his lean, tattooed body exposed entirely by the move, merely shrugged and smiled.
 
For a brief moment, he wanted to drive his fist through his older brother’s face. But it was quickly overcome. Disgusted, bewildered, in a daze of disbelief, Castor left the room as quickly as he could. He ignored Ethlyne’s anguished sobs, and didn’t look back.
 
For three weeks afterward, he’d isolated himself. Ethlyne called him every day at first, swearing she didn’t know how it had happened. Her messages were tearful, frantic.
 
He deleted them all.
 
She’d then become angry. At Silas, and at herself most of all. These messages he hadn’t even bothered to listen to all the way through. Deleted, every last one of them. Never had he been so alone, so humiliated, so torn. He even began the process for a divorce.
 
Only one thing stopped it. Ethlyne sent him a letter–a real, handwritten letter, such as in the days before the Net. She knew him as well as he knew her. He loved anything old-fashioned, having a passion for genuine nostalgia from simpler times.
 
“I don’t know what happened,” the letter read. “Please, believe me. I miss you, and I love you. Come home to me. I’m waiting. I’m sorry.”
 
He wept for an entire afternoon. He’d been hiding among his various offices on Mars, applying himself to his work with unnatural obsession. His employees surely hated him for micro-managing things, but he didn’t know what else to do.
 
Her letter had weakened his pride, and he went to visit her on Secundis. It was tense, awkward. Neither of them had much to say, and only stared at each other. She’d reached for his hand over a quiet, terrifying breakfast table. Her pale fingers drifted like soft clouds onto his own.
 
He wanted to touch her again, to believe her, but he couldn’t yet. With an icy glare, he’d shoved himself away from the table, and departed in a sullen rage.
 
Ethlyne had up to that point been his partner in every way, sharing in his plans to overthrow Silas before the travesty of her infidelity. It was too late to reverse events, even if she had betrayed their scheme to Silas. Things were already in motion. The Goodridger was in the hands of Castor’s secret allies and companions, the mercenary spies Mr. Thomas Knolls and Ms. Joan Hunter. Their goal to deliver it to the homeworld rolled forward now, as he rode this shuttle with them to undertake the most dangerous venture of his thirty-three years of life.
 

Chapter 3 Scene 3 of Ruby Descent: “Even Robots Have Bad Days”

The final scene of “Ruby Descent” Chapter 3 is up just in time for Camp Nano!  Trouble in Security! Walter and Lily rush to assist Mr. Paynter with the crisis, while the mystery of the strange code fragment still troubles their minds. Having a staff that’s 99% robotic has its pros and cons. In this scene, the cons explode into mayhem. The latest model of Sentry units have been known to glitch out before, much to the dismay of their human managers. Luckily, the valiant crew of the Ruby are well-accustomed to rampaging robots. Mr. Paynter also reveals interesting information, despite his reputation as a crass scoundrel who always gets away with nonsense.

***

They rushed down a back stairwell and through a staff door to the third guest floor, where the Security headquarters awaited. The polished arches of the red-walled corridor and guest cabins seemed to stretch on forever. A pair of Lily’s Custodian units trudged by on a maintenance duty, greeting her and Mr. Marlow with a crisp and standard ‘good day’. Trailing behind these, a General Utility Steward scampered on spidery chromed legs, a room service tray balanced upon its versatile effectors.

“I find it odd that we haven’t received any alerts from Zora in tandem with Mr. Paynter’s,” Mr. Marlow said.

“It’s possible the system is still delayed after the shutdown.” Lily shook her head. “All I can say is, this had better be a genuine emergency, and not another crap-shoot of Mr. Paynter’s. I’ve got more pressing things to do than chase his trifles around.”

Mr. Marlow smirked. “If he exaggerates, you can be certain I’ll discipline him accordingly.”

“I know you will. It’s Cunningham who always dismisses Mr. Paynter’s goddamn hogwash.”

“Now, Miss Fairpoole, you mustn’t–” Mr. Marlow’s reprimand ended in abrupt alarm when a crash and clatter echoed down the hall.

They quickened their pace. The Security office occupied a niche just ahead, beside the locked steel gate which cordoned off the steerage level. Only staff or hotel management could open or pass through the gate. The steerage passengers—mostly off-world miners these days—stayed separate from the more refined passengers in first and second class.

The office door was open, the interior dark and ominous. Fragmented lights sputtered within. The warbled banter of a robot, another crash, and Mr. Paynter’s startled shout foretold trouble.

Mr. Marlow peered in the door. “Mr. Paynter?”

Mr Paynter answered. “Back here, sir. I hope you’ve brought that little robot death-stick of yours.”

“I’ve got mine,” Lily said. She patted the deactivation rod on her tool belt. Mr. Marlow had given it to her when she was first hired, and taught her how to wield it, as her job involved dealing with unruly robots more than anyone else’s.

Mr. Marlow nodded, brow lined in concentration. “Good. Keep it ready as a last resort. I’ll go in first.”

The pungent odors of cigars and old coffee wafted from the small, dim room. A huge desk was shoved aside, piled with haphazard stacks of paper and several half-filled mugs. The walls flickered with dozens of display panels, monitoring every level, door, and incident aboard the Ruby. On a side table, a wireless terminal blinked green and red, communicating to all of Mr. Paynter’s robotic patrols. The lift’s robots had their own private language, and its static blips and pulses formed a hypnotic rhythm through the tense, smoky air.

Lily covered her nose against the smell as she followed Mr. Marlow inside, noting the ashtray crammed with cigar butts on the edge of the desk. “He’s been smoking in here again. Didn’t you report him to upper management for that months ago?” The Royal Crown’s anti-smoking policy was strict, but somehow Mr. Paynter always got away with it.

“I did, but that’s not important now.” Mr. Marlow crept toward the bulkhead dividing the detention center from the main office. He raised a hand to Lily. “Stay back for a moment.”

The robot’s garble continued. “Good day? Patrol 23 reporting, sir…down, left face, red alert. All units, observe corridor B-7. B-7. Halt, intruder!” Its looping trill ended in a sharp crackle, like a drunk madman with an electronic voice.

Mr. Marlow entered, and Lily poked her head in after him.

“Watch out,” Mr. Paynter said. “It’s gone haywire.” He stood in one corner, a lean figure in his black and red-trimmed Security overcoat, plasma rifle drawn and aimed. His dark blue eyes twitched under the brim of his uniform cap.

A Sentry unit swayed alone near the far wall of the detention cell. Its durable red casing gleamed in the dingy overhead lighting, oblong optical pane glaring red. It muttered an inquisitive bleep, jerking its smooth, domed head to watch Mr. Marlow and Lily. 

Lily unclipped her deactivation rod and grasped it tight. Being the Head of Engineering and Tech, it was her job to manage malfunctioning units, often a rough-and-tumble affair.

“Sentry, state your identifier and your patrol,” Mr. Marlow said, cautiously approaching the robot.

“Affirmative,” it said. “Patrol, round twenty-three. All access clear. Data breach, corridor B-7. Engage and subdue.” It stepped forward and raised its arms. The plasma cannon and retractable shield extended from its effectors, and snapped into place. Mechanisms within the brilliant metal hull hummed as the weapon charged.

Mr. Marlow blanched. “Oh, damn. Get back!” He ducked behind the bulkhead with Lily.

The bright, hot plasma beam sizzled and struck, and left a blackened crater in the wall.

“Seize the crazy bastard,” Mr. Paynter said, dashing at the Sentry.

The robot swiveled its torso and swung one heavy arm, thumping Mr. Paynter in the skull. Mr. Paynter clutched the side of his head, dropping his weapon, and stumbled against the wall. Blood flecked the floor with a soft patter.

No time to think, only act. Lily and Mr. Marlow charged in as one. Her mind focused to sharp clarity, time slowing. She dove low, avoiding the Sentry’s reverse spin.

Mr. Marlow dodged the robot’s cold, hard punch with a fighter’s precision. Fists raised, he feinted and slid, quick as a hawk on the swoop. He grappled the Sentry around its upper body, sweat dripping from his face.

The robot struggled. Gears and actuators ground against the strain, but Mr. Marlow’s strong pin held it. Another plasma charge swelled to fire.

“Now, Miss Fairpoole,” Mr. Marlow shouted. “Get the switch.”

Lily swerved behind the robot, and reached for the power switch at the back of its neck. Robots were programmed to defend this vulnerable spot, a vital security measure. She wished it wasn’t so vital at this moment.

“Engage,” the Sentry said, pivoting away from Lily. “Subdue intruder.” It rotated its body again in a deft 180, and slammed Mr. Marlow against the floor.

Mr. Paynter muttered to his wristcom. “All patrols, dispatch nearest units to headquarters. Repeat, nearest units to headquarters immediately.”

Lily pressed the button on her deactivation rod. The slim metallic rod warmed beneath her fingers.

The plasma weapon chimed ready, and the robot pointed it at Mr. Marlow.

“Shit!” Lily cursed and leaped onto the Sentry’s back, distracting it, and wrapped her arms and legs around it.

The Sentry thrashed and clawed, trying to dislodge her in vain.

Time for the last resort. With a firm stab, she thrust the deactivation rod into the robot’s neck joint, and pushed the trigger. She withdrew the cylindrical applicator and stepped back.

Beeping in a pathetic wail, the Sentry unit groped the back of its neck. Too late. Thin coils of chemical fumes snaked from the rod’s deadly insert. The small dose of white phosphorus burned into the inner circuits. Within seconds, the robot wobbled and slumped into silence. The plasma weapon shut down with its host.

Mr. Marlow scrambled to his feet, glancing about wide-eyed. “Is everyone alright?”

“I’m fine, but this bucket of bolts will need a complete overhaul, now.” Lily kicked the defunct Sentry in the leg, and slipped the empty deactivation rod into her belt.

Mr. Paynter groaned, hobbling forward. A trickle of blood stained his jaw and graying whiskers. “Nice job, Miss Fairpoole. Faster than a wildcat, and a thousand times prettier in the kill.”

Lily crossed her arms. “Really? Prettier than a wildcat? Is that all you can say to me when you’re dripping blood, and Mr. Marlow nearly got fried? You’re an ass.”

“Calm down, please,” Mr. Marlow said. He drew a deep breath, and brushed the wrinkles from his coat. “This is no time to argue. Mr. Paynter, how severe is your injury?”

Mr. Paynter removed his cap, the cut oozing along the edge of his balding scalp. “Feels like just a scratch. It stings some, but I’ve had worse.”

“It looks terrible,” said Mr. Marlow. He activated his wristcom. “I’ll alert Mrs. Colby to come and tend you.”

They returned to the front office, and Mr. Paynter sank into his chair. He flung his cap onto the desk and buried his face in his hands. “Wasn’t that a load of fun? Fifteen minutes to docking, and already a Sentry bugs out. I really hate these new 5G units. They’re shiny, but they’ve been nothing but a headache ever since management introduced them.”

“I agree with you on that,” Lily said. “Do you think Cunningham will ever let us go back to the older model like I asked, Mr. Marlow?”

Mr. Paynter interjected, chuckling. “Heh, not a chance. Cunningham thinks the 5Gs are superior. Once that old codge gets a notion about aesthetic improvements, he’ll never relent. It’s all about appearances in his opinion.”

“The last time I inquired on the subject, Mr. Cunningham refused,” Mr. Marlow said. “We have to do our best with what we’re given. Though I admit, this incident doubles my own reservations against these machines. I’ll raise the issue again when I meet with Cunningham at the Crown.”

Two of Mr. Paynter’s dispatched Sentries plodded into the office at that ironic moment, their opticals flaring white in preparation for orders. Mrs. Colby arrived right after, with a slender medical assistant unit pacing behind her.

“What in blazes happened here?” Mrs. Colby asked, her tranquil blue eyes rounding. “And what’s that awful stench?”

“Deactivation fumes,” Lily said. “One of the Sentries wigged out again.”

“Merciful stars, those things are glitchy,” Mrs. Colby said. “If I had my way, I’d boot them all to the compactor.” She noticed Mr. Paynter’s wound, and set to work at once. The medical robot popped open its hull, revealing the plethora of bandages and supplies it carried.

Once Mr. Paynter was disinfected and bandaged, Mr. Marlow sat on the edge of the desk. “So, Randall, give me a complete rundown on this encounter. What you know of it, that is.”

Mr. Paynter grinned at being referred to by his first name. Everyone knew Mr. Marlow meant business with such informality.

“I’m at a loss as to the cause, sir,” Mr. Paynter said. “I finished my docking reports, and was about to come to your office like you’d asked earlier, when that crazy contraption wandered off its patrol, and came in here babbling nonsense. I’d guess it’s an isolated incident, as you can see the other units are functioning fine. I suggest you turn the investigation over to Miss Fairpoole from here on out.”

“Agreed,” Lily said. “I can begin a thorough inspection and diagnostic on the Security network right away, Mr. Marlow.”

“Please do,” Mr. Marlow said. He stood, and cracked his knuckles, a habit when he was agitated, or preparing for an onslaught. “I wanted to discuss the delayed shutdown notice with you, Mr. Paynter, but it’ll have to wait. Docking is imminent, and I must return to the desk.”

“Before you do, sir, there’s something I should mention,” said Mr. Paynter. He folded his hands over the desk, and dipped his grizzled chin. His gaze was like stone.

Mr. Marlow straightened his bow-tie and nodded. “Go ahead.”

“The entire crew should know, as a matter of fact.” Mr. Paynter’s tone fell to all solemnity. “Cunningham warned me, when I met him for lunch last week, that strange things would occur on this upcoming descent.”

Lily coughed and raised a hand to her throat. “Um, what did you just say? Repeat that please. I nearly choked.”

“I said, Mr. Cunningham himself warned me things might be…complicated during this descent.”

Mr. Marlow’s professional suave gave way to rare fury. He balled a fist, and strode to Mr. Paynter, his face flushing red. “Why would Mr. Cunningham tell you something like that, and not me, when I’m the one who should know first?”

Mr. Paynter’s eyebrows arched, and he tilted his profile. “I’ve never told anyone this, but Cunningham and I go way back, brothers in arms. Met him when we were both young grunts, during year eighteen of the War. Long before all you kids were born. Anyway. If you want to know, I trust the old bastard, and he confides in me. He knows things. We both started working for the Royal Crown the year it opened. He’s climbed his way up to the top, and he has an ear full on how things really run at this hotel. He told me that the Admin isn’t the only authority keeping us under surveillance. Everblue has this coming descent under a watchful eye, and they might even tamper with Zora to meet their agenda.”

Goosebumps pricked Lily’s smooth brown skin. So that’s how Mr. Paynter got away with so much. He was Cunningham’s old war buddy. It all made sense, and she shared Mr. Marlow’s outrage.

“You two-faced scoundrel.” Mr. Marlow raised a shaking finger in Mr. Paynter’s face. The lock which always fell loose from his tonic knifed over his enraged glare. “All this time, and you’ve never confessed you were in with Cunningham. What the hell else has he told you? And what have you been hiding from me?”

Zora’s chipper voice crooned over the Ruby’s public channel. “Good day, ladies and gentlemen. We are ten minutes to docking with the orbital platform. Please collect all of your personal belongings, and prepare to debark at the most convenient exit.”

Mrs. Colby placed a gentle hand on Mr. Marlow’s shoulder. “Sir, we’re out of time, and we must attend to the guests. I’d recommend we discuss this matter with the rest of the crew on the shuttle.”

Mr. Marlow tugged his lapels into place, regaining his composure. “A sane idea. Let’s all resume our posts. Mr. Paynter, be prepared to relate every detail of this conspiracy, and what you know about Everblue’s involvement. If you conceal anything, I’ll go above your doting friend Cunningham’s position, and I’ll ensure that your lying head rolls from the highest peak in the company.”

Mrrr-aow?” An inquisitive cry broke the tension, and Mr. Vincent sauntered in. He jumped onto the desk, and gazed at everyone with regal disdain.

Mr. Marlow scooped the cat up into his brawny arms, a look of boyish distraction softening his features. He glowered at Mr. Paynter one more time, then stormed out of the office without another word, hugging Mr. Vincent to his chest.

“Always that damn cat, lording it over us like he’s the king of the known worlds,” Mr. Paynter said.

Lily sneered. “You’d do best to respect Mr. Vincent. He has more honor in his furry little paws than you do in your entire smug-scummed body.”

Everyone rushed back to their duties, leaving Mr. Paynter to ponder the concept of feline wisdom.

New Decopunk Central and Interview with Aimee Brooks!

I’ve begun a center for all things decopunk here on my blog, which will feature interviews, articles and tons of information on this fantastic sub-genre! To kick things off we have an interview with amazing and talented decopunk artist Aimee Brooks! Learn more about her and her awesome urban fantasy deco creations here!

https://hollygonzalez1.wordpress.com/aimee-brooks-decopunk-costumer-artist-writer-and-urban-fantasy-visionary/

Chapter 3 Scene 2 of “Ruby Descent”

The next scene of Ruby Descent Chapter 3, “The Canary In Coveralls”, is up and ready 🙂 In this segment, Lily meets Mr. Marlow to discuss the alarming discrepancy she’d found in Zora. While she struggles to contain her growing attraction and fondness for her dashing boss, a new crisis arises in Security.

****

She hummed to herself as she walked, her footsteps keeping time with the music in her head. Songs always welled up from a place deep inside of her, a gift she’d possessed all her life. During the dark, grim years of the Great War, when she and her family had been prisoners in the water ration camps of the Kaezer, singing had often been her only hope and relief. Music elevated her to a better place, where somehow everything seemed brighter. Even sad songs moved joy within the often restless corners of her heart. The melody to her latest piece strengthened her, and helped straighten her mind in spite of the troubling news she carried to Mr. Marlow.

The lobby swarmed with the hustle of pre-docking. Lily smiled and said ‘good day’ to each guest she passed, as was proper. She’d prefer to say ‘hello’, believing it more natural and genuine, but she stuck to what Cunningham and hotel management wanted. When she reached the concierge desk, she tapped her access code into the security panel beside the staff door, and strolled in.

As soon as she stepped into Mr. Marlow’s office, a streak of silver fur and robotic titanium flashed toward her in a single leap. The static sputter of an electronic purr greeted her. Mr. Vincent pranced in a circle, tail caressing her. He hugged her legs with his small, agile body, almost tripping her in his enthusiasm.

She knelt to scratch his ears, grinning when he rubbed his face vigorously against her hand. “Good day, Mr. Vincent. I’m excited to see you, too.” She reached into her coveralls pocket and unwrapped the napkin of salmon she’d brought.

The cat meowed as if it were a feast of the gods, swatting for the treat with an eager paw.

“That’s right, Your Majesty, I know what you like.” Lily laughed, and fed Mr. Vincent his seafood addiction.

Mr. Marlow entered from the guest service area, and chuckled when he saw Mr. Vincent scarfing down the fishy prize. “You spoil him far too much, Miss Fairpoole, though he loves you for it.”

“Good day, sir.” Lily stood and wiped her fingers on the napkin, then tossed it into the nearby wastebasket. “Have to keep the boss satisfied, as I’m sure you know.”

“Don’t we all?” Mr. Marlow grinned and shook his head. “But on a more urgent note, I received your message with the code from Zora. What’s this discrepancy you’ve found? I’m not very savvy with all of your programming jargon.”

“I’ll explain, but you won’t like it.” Lily sat in the desk chair opposite of Mr. Marlow’s, and activated the holo-display on her wristcom.

“I’d appreciate it. Please proceed.” He leaned against the desk and folded his arms, stroking his clean-shaven chin in thought.

He was so dashing, so tall, and his kind, soulful eyes were sweet as honey. She put on a focused scowl to disguise the warm flush which rose at his closeness. The holo-display flickered an inch above her slender wrist, her red canvas sleeve bunched at the elbow. With a swipe of one finger through the image, she accessed the suspect code and magnified it.

“This here’s what we call a rogue fragment. A loophole, if you will, which allows certain diversional commands to manipulate the system. If the user has the proper clearance, that is. Currently, only you possess the executive pass which might allow someone to insert this shifty little worm into Zora. Either you, or someone snooping around our mainframe, would have to physically plug this snippet into an access terminal. Now you see my concern. If it wasn’t you, sir, then who the hell has been messing with the Ruby?”

“I can assure you I had nothing to do with this.” Mr. Marlow stiffened his posture and paced a few seconds. His features lined sharp in concentration. “This is most strange, and unsettling. There is one other who has such high access to the lift’s database, and that’s Mr. Cunningham. But why would he create a loophole to direct our sub-set of Zora?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, sir.” Lily turned off the holo-display, and scratched her head as she pondered the possibilities. “Has there been anyone in upper management aboard the Ruby between our shifts lately? The code must have been inserted within the past week, as it wasn’t there when I did the mandatory status scans after our last descent. This was likely installed during the down-time before launch.”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Mr. Marlow’s hazel eyes studied her, melting her to the core. “I’ve an appointment to meet with Cunningham when we arrive at the Royal Crown. I’ll ask him if he knows of any unscheduled access. Perhaps it’s merely another oversight on the part of a lazy programmer, failing to log their work properly. We both know it wouldn’t be the first inept person to forget such a crucial formality.”

Lily sighed and lifted her thin black brows. “Unfortunately, you’re right. Well, I’ll wait to hear from you once we land. Thanks for putting heads together with me over this one, Mr. Marlow. I really appreciate your insight.” Putting heads together…what would it be like to actually do so, his arms around her, and have a taste of those enticing lips? It had been a good while since Lily’s last lover. After her Daddy had died, she’d wallowed in grief and solitude for almost three years. Mr. Marlow was the first man to catch her fancy since she’d climbed back into the good side of life.

Nope, don’t even go there. He’s your boss, and formal courtesy is how he wants it to stay. Still, the way Mr. Walter Marlow fidgeted at the slightest hint of flirtation made her wonder if he liked her as much as she liked him. Lily could never contain the desires of her heart for long. She lived by the moment, and flew by bold expression, dancing uninhibited with every breath she drew. Maybe someday she’d risk the chance to find out what he felt for her.

Mr. Marlow coughed, averting his gaze, and returned to his position behind the desk. “Will you and your companions be performing again on this descent?” he asked.

She caught her breath. “We are. Lily and The Hard Knocks will play for the not-so-elite in the Steerage Lounge, while the creme of society carouse in the Scarlet Ballroom for Everblue.” She paused, and tossed her most coquettish sideways grin and glance. Just testing the waters again. “Will you come and watch, Mr. Marlow? You promised you would one of these times, but you’ve never seen us. All the other crew members have. I’m startin’ to feel disappointed.”

His jaw clenched, muscles in his throat dodging as he gulped. He adjusted his sparkling red bow tie and tossed his capable shoulders. “I’ll be there, Miss Fairpoole. What time will you go onstage?”

“Early, since the party will take all my time after the drop,” she said. “I plan to take my first break three standard hours in. Think you can manage that?”

“Certainly,” he said, and rested his arms across the desk. Even under the stiff sleeves of his tuxedo jacket, his muscles were a tempting sight. “I’ll make it a point to attend this time. I apologize for not coming sooner. I lose myself far too often in my duties.”

“It’s alright, sir. Your dedication inspires me…” It was an awkward comment. She regretted it and bit her lip, turning to the door. “I better get back to work. Thanks again, Mr. Marlow. Keep in touch when you find out more from Cunningham.”

Before he could reply, a loud ringtone jarred on his wristcom. A simultaneous warning notification beeped on her own–an emergency signal from Mr. Paynter. Her attention slammed to the new crisis while Mr. Marlow answered the call.

“Marlow. What’s the situation, Mr. Paynter?”

Mr. Paynter’s voice sounded calm on the hologram, but his furrowed face foretold trouble. “Better get down here to Security on the double, sir. This isn’t good.”

“I’m on my way.” Mr. Marlow hurried toward the door, smoothing a floppy strand of hair back into his well-combed set.

“He needs me to go, too, according to this alert,” Lily set, her pulse thumping.

“Roger that. Let’s hurry, Miss Fairpoole.”

They departed to the lowest guest level, matched in steady stride.

Episode 39 Part 4 of Beauty In The Bones

The next installment of “Beauty In The Bones” Season Finale is live! A magnificent Yule Eve party at the Blane estate of Highveld brings revelry and revelation. While some aspire to greater heights, others seek new alliances amid suspicion and doubt. Loyalty will be put to the test, and secrets laid bare as the most desperate hour draws near.