The Little Queen Extract (Long)

Another excerpt from my ongoing revising of The Little Queen, this time a long scene from Chapter Two. I’ve paused working on the sequel for a little while to work on this, although revising has given me lots of thoughts and ideas to use in that too. Anyway, enjoy:

In the lighthouse, Jennifer had set up an experiment. She
put on her goggles and noise canceling headphones and crouched with a remote
control behind a transparent panel. Five such panels formed a little pentagon
in the middle of the floor, above the center of which the robotic arm hovered,
a tiny capsule held very gently between its fingers.

“Ready?” Jen asked.

“Ready,” Hull’s disembodied voice confirmed.

“Okay,” she said and pressed the button. The hand rose
slightly then flicked the capsule straight at the ground. There was a blinding
flash, and seconds later the lighthouse door opened and Jen stumbled outside
coughing and choking. She collapsed against the stone wall, sliding down it as
she tried to wave away some of the white smoke that had followed her out.
“Okay,” she panted, “well, that works.”

The goggles were now useless for seeing through, so Jen
pulled them off, blinking when she did. Through the fog she saw a pair of legs
which she was reasonably certain weren’t hers. They were female, but were
longer and more muscular than hers, and she usually wore stockings or tights
with a skirt, whereas these legs were covered by beige pants. Following them up
she saw a whole beige suit on an athletic dark-skinned woman who looked
bewildered by what she saw.

“Doctor Sarkis!” Jennifer cried and jumped to her feet. Jana
Sarkis was an old family friend, which was why Hull allowed her to approach the
lighthouse without the whole spooky noises and ground vibrating business. She’d
started working at Stag Corp as an assistant to Jen’s father and still came to
check up on her every couple of weeks or so.

“Jennifer, what are you doing?” The doctor asked. “Why is
there so much smoke?”

“Well, because I was making a smoke bomb, or capsule. You
know like… like ninjas,” Jen stretched on her tiptoes, making arches between
her fingers. She suddenly realized that, in hindsight, it all sounded a bit
silly.

Doctor Sarkis half closed one eye as she looked at her.
“Why?” She asked.

“Because… y-you never know when a ninja will strike? And you
might have to get away yourself in a hurry…”

“I don’t think ninjas exist.”

“I’m sure they do, or did,” to be honest, Jennifer hadn’t checked
any reliable historical sources on that. “It hardly matters anyway – the idea
exists. And once an idea exists, people can make it real. This one might need a
few more tries though,” she admitted. The smoke was going to take a long time
to completely clear.

“Let’s just go into the cottage,” Doctor Sarkis suggested.

Once inside, they went to the kitchen so it could make them
tea. As it was being prepared Doctor Sarkis went to examine the tarpaulin that
covered one side. “You have a hole in the wall,” she observed.

“Yes,” Jennifer nodded.

“There wasn’t a hole last time I was here.”

“No.”

“So how did it get there?”

“I, um,” Jen shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “There was a
small accident,” she said, but Doctor Sarkis stared and obviously wanted a more
complete explanation than that. “I was making a vortex cannon.”

Sarkis rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why I bother to keep
asking but, why?”

“F-for science, and,” Jen dropped her shoulders as she
exhaled. “Because I was bored.”

“Well that’s honest at least. You’ll have to call some men
to come and fix this.”

Jennifer hated that idea. She hated the thought of strange
men being here, or just strangers in general. If they were down here working,
then she would be trapped in her room all day unable to come outside to look
them in the eye or anything. “It’s okay,” she said as she hopped to the hole.
“Yakko, Wakko and Dot will fix it. See?” Jen pushed aside the tarpaulin to
reveal three human sized robots with cylindrical heads bearing a single eye,
boxy bodies, and long flat arms, standing on tank-like tracks. There was a pile
of bricks and a cement mixer nearby, but the bots were all completely still.

“They’re not very animated,” Doctor Sarkis pointed out.

“No – they’re just analyzing the problem and working out the
best way to go about mending it. You see intelligence is being able to solve a
problem without being shown how, so I’ve given them this task but they have to
work out how to do it, so they can start to build their own framework with
which to understand the world.”

“And how long have they been doing that?”

“Since last night. They’ll figure it out soon. I’m sure of
it,” Jennifer said and skipped back to the table where the tea had been served.

“You know,” Doctor Sarkis sighed as she joined her, “I’m
worried you spend too much time alone here.”

“I’m fine,” Jennifer shrugged. “I have lots to keep me
occupied.”

“Yes, you’re very good at keeping occupied. But you must get
lonely. Don’t you ever want to go outside and meet people?”

Jennifer didn’t like this discussion. They’d had this
discussion before and it always made her uneasy. “I have Hull to talk to,” she
insisted, “and I have the robots.”

Doctor Sarkis held the tea mug between her hands and leaned
forward to ask a little uncertainly, “what about a boyfriend?” She looked, but
Jennifer gave nothing away. “Girlfriend?” Still nothing. “Romance of any kind?
Sex?”

“Well,” Jennifer looked sideways, “I have…”

“Please don’t say what I think you’re going to.”

“Okay,” Jen complied and said nothing further on the matter.

“I know you must get annoyed by me always bringing it up,”
Doctor Sarkis sighed, “but when your father left, I promised I would look after
you. It breaks my heart to think of you spending the rest of your life alone.
And you’re still young, and bright, and pretty, so it is just wrong on many
levels.”

It did annoy Jennifer whenever it was brought up. But she
would miss it if it wasn’t as well. Doctor Jana Sarkis was like family to her.
Like an aunt. But that was why Jennifer could never tell her the truth. “You
don’t have to worry about me,” she said. “I’m fine. I don’t have to worry about
money and can do what I want here.”

“But are you happy?”

Jennifer didn’t know. She didn’t remember what that felt
like. She certainly didn’t feel miserable or suicidal. She just… was. “I’m not
unhappy,” she said.

“You know that’s not the same thing,” Doctor Sarkis. “Have
you thought about joining a club? There are bound to be places you can meet
people with same interests as you.”

“Okay,” Jennifer nodded. “Where can I meet people who are
interested in low-temperature quasi-zero-dimensional mesoscopic electron
systems?”

Doctor Sarkis only had to pause and think a moment. “The
University. There will be people there interested in all your ideas and
experiments.”

It was a good answer. Jennifer realized her attempt to be
clever may have just backed her into a corner in this conversation. “You can do
degrees online now,” she said. “I already have five of them.”

“Qualifications aren’t the real reason for going to college.
It’s part of it, but really it’s about making connections with people, maybe
even friends.”

And those people would expect her to go to parties and other
loud headache inducing affair where it was impossible to speak to anyone about
anything anyway and where bad things happened, usually to her. No, Jen didn’t
like this idea either. “I always hated school,” she reminded the doctor.

“I know,” Sarkis smiled sympathetically. “But you’re an
adult now. And you would be with adults who would be more understanding of your
peculiarities.”

She was probably right but still it was risky and Jennifer
was, if she had to put a word on it, afraid. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Okay,” Doctor Sarkis said patiently. “Just think about it
while I’m gone.”

The doctor left shortly after, Jennifer waving as her car
drove off down the hill. There were times, Jen would admit, that she wished she
had other places and people to go and visit as well. Jen hadn’t said goodbye.
She’d waved both her mom and dad goodbye once and they never returned. It had
taken her until now to accept that they probably never would.

So now the cottage was quiet again, except for little creaks
and noises as she wandered through it, pausing to look at all the little
snapshots of her life scattered on the bookshelves and above the fireplace.
There was a photo of her mom and dad and a little blonde girl who, she
believed, had actually been happy, holding onto her giant easter bunny. But
that was another time and unlike a point in space there was no going back to
it. Those people were never coming back. There was another photo next to it of
two little girls; the blonde one that Jennifer hardly recognized anymore, and
Kaya. They had been best friends once. Kaya had been her only friend, but after
mom and dad disappeared, so did she. Not physically – she just wasn’t
interested in being friends with a girl who was sad all the time. Apparently it
was better to be friends with people who caused others to suffer for their sadness
than someone who just suffered alone. And so she wasn’t coming back either.

But all this melancholy was getting Jennifer down. There
were people far worse off than her. She had the financial freedom to do
whatever and go anywhere she wanted – it just happened that she quite liked it
here. She just needed to find something to do. The smoke should have cleared
from the lighthouse by now so she could go and tweak the formula a bit before
another test.

She left the cottage, a cool breeze whipping around her as
she treaded over the courtyard and she noticed that the gate was open for some
reason – Hull was supposed to have closed it after Doctor Sarkis left, so
unless she’d come back for some reason there was no reason for it to be open.
There was no one else he’d been instructed to just let in. Then she heard an
engine – a very small engine chugging and struggling to make it up the hill.
Jennifer tilted her head curiously as a scooter rolled and stopped just inside
the gate, the rider a woman wearing a backpack and dressed in dark, torn denim
and leather and green motor cycle helmet. Maybe Hull had ordered her food, but
it didn’t look like a usual delivery person.

The rider hesitated, staring back at Jen for a moment before
reaching up to lift the helmet off, shaking loose her multi-colored hair. She
squinted then said, “Jennifer?”

Jen’s eyelids slowly peeled back, her pupils dilating.
Putting aside the hair, this person was unmistakable. Jen squeaked, then bolted
straight for the lighthouse. The other woman jumped off the scooter and pursued
her, shouting, “Hey! Jen Air! I need to talk to you!” Jen made it inside and
tried to slam the door behind her, but the scooter-punk was faster and managed
to get her shoulder on the door before it could close. “It’s me, Kaya!”

“Oh, I know who you are!” Jen growled back, straining her
whole body to push Kaya out. “Go away!”

As she had always been, Kaya was a bit bigger and much
stronger than Jennifer so despite the efforts of the later she was able to
force her way inside, a big shove sending Jen flying across the floor. Jen
quickly scrambled to her feet, grabbing the nearest object she found to defend
herself with which turned out to be a spare mechanical arm.

But Kaya was no longer paying attention to her – she was
momentarily transfixed by all the screens and monitors and flashing green LEDs.
“What the hell is all this?” She boggled.

It would have been a perfect moment for Jennifer to strike,
but to be honest the arm was just for show. She didn’t want to risk seriously
hurting anyone, not even someone who had hurt her so much. “This is my place,”
she stated. “You need to leave. Now.”

Kaya’s gaze slowly turned back to her. “So you’re the
witch?”

“Witch?” Jen asked, befuddled. “Who says I’m a witch?”

“Kids in town. They think a nasty old witch lives up here in
a tower.”

“Oh,” well that did explain a few things at least. She
supposed the spooky sounds didn’t really help – they were actually drawing in
more children with too much curiosity.

“Also, why is there a lighthouse up here anyway?”

“Google it,” Jen suggested. “So is that why you’re here? You
came to see the witch? Well now you have. You can go now. Bye.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” Kaya said. “Well, it kind of is,
but…” she breathed and composed herself. “I don’t know why I came up here. I
saw something, and I guess I was just hoping to find someone who could help.”

Jennifer sighed, “if someone’s put on a hex on a you I’m
afraid I can’t do anything. But just don’t think about it and you’ll probably
be fine. Curses only work if you believe in them.”

“That’s not really why I’m here either. Look,” Kaya nodded
to the mechanical arm Jen was still brandishing. “What are you going to do,
tickle me with that thing? Put it down and let’s talk. I saw something that was
just impossible.”

She wasn’t going to leave until Jennifer heard her out, it
seemed. So Jen sighed and turned away, putting the arm down on the workbench
and seating herself back on her stool. She didn’t want to look at Kaya, and might
as well get some work done while she was listening. “Well if you saw something
it can’t have been impossible,” she sighed. “The question is what, really, did
you see?”

Kaya was pacing a little behind her. “It was… well, first
there was a dead guy. His eyes were gone, scooped out of their sockets. So I
ran to my car, and then it was in the trees. It was invisible at first – I only
saw it because of the rain. Then it came after me. I think it was a faerie.”

Jen arched one brow. “A fairy?”

“Faerie, with an ‘e’. It wasn’t like a cute Disney fairy –
this thing was mean. Evil. Jen, it flipped the car over and sent me rolling
down the hill with just one hand.”

“And what were you doing before all this happened?”

“I was sleeping. In my car.”

“And before that?”

“I was at The Mill.”

“I see,” Jennifer found her hand was trembling as she held
her tweezers, trying to connect some jumpers on a little circuit board. “And
you don’t think there’s any possible way you could have imagined all this?” She
asked with a bitter tinge of sarcasm.

“I hadn’t drunk anything,” Kaya protested. “And I hadn’t
taken anything either. It was real, Jen. A man died.”

“So go to the police.”

“They’d never believe me.”

Jennifer wasn’t sure she did either. She wasn’t convinced
this wasn’t just a trick to lure her somewhere so that Kaya and her new friends
could do something horrible. It wouldn’t be the first time – once, when she was
fifteen, Kaya had convinced her to come along to look at something she’d found
in the school library and Jen went, thinking it was a peace offering and they
were going to make up and be friends again. Instead she was ambushed by Candace
and Ashley who wrote the word ‘Airhead’ on her forehead. Speaking of whom, “why
don’t you ask Candy or your parents for help?”

“They wouldn’t know how to deal with any of this,” Kaya
answered, still pacing. “Besides, I can’t risk leading that thing to all of
them.”

“But you’ve no problem leading a supernatural serial killer
to me? Well thank you. Thank you so very much.”

“I didn’t know you were here. But since you are you’ve got
to help.”

Jennifer didn’t see how that logically followed at all. But
fine. “Look, maybe you found a body, and maybe someone came after you, but you
were half asleep and you panicked. Your imagination filled in the rest. So go
to the police – they can help you, not me.”

“You’re not listening,” Kaya groaned in frustration.
“Remember when you were little you wanted to go all over the world looking for
creatures and mysteries? Well there’s one right here, Jen, you just have to
believe…”

Jen pressed too hard with her tweezers, the jumper popping
out and flying off to she saw not where. She threw the tweezers away and
slammed her hands on the table, pushing up out of the stool. She was still
trembling, every muscle in her whole body tensed. “No,” she said through
tightened lips. “It’s not enough just to believe. People can believe very
strongly in all kinds of things that are wrong and even dangerous, like ghosts,
or miracle cures, or white supremacy,” Jennifer turned and glared at Kaya, who
suddenly recoiled from all the pain and anger in her old friend’s eyes. “I was
thirteen when my parents left on that expedition, and I believed every day that
they were going to come home, but they never did. I believed that you were my friend
and wouldn’t abandon me, but I was very wrong about that as well, wasn’t I?”
Kaya kept backing away, all the way back through the door and outside as Jen
kept on coming. “You think that I should help you, but where did you go when I
needed you, Kay? Where?”

Kaya seemed to have no answer. She just avoided Jen’s eyes
and swallowed and stammered, “I-I…”

“You wanted to be a part of group? Join a clique? Okay –
that was fine. But did you and your new friends have to make my life hell just
so you could feel a little better about your own?”

“I was still just a kid too, Jen. I didn’t realize how much
we were hurting you.”

“Well you never were bright,” Jennifer huffed. She had just
about exhausted herself.

“I know,” Kaya nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“I believe you,” Jennifer said, then shook her head. “But it
doesn’t change anything.”

“Well,” Kaya flapped her arms, “at least I got a chance to
tell you.” She turned away, heading back to the scooter she’d arrived on. She
paused, thinking a moment before reaching into her jacket for a phone, turning
it back on, then she slipped off the straps of her backpack. “Here,” she said,
tossing it at Jennifer’s feet. “Take a look. My number’s in there too, in a
little notebook. If you change your mind, call me. Or if I turn up dead, you
can take what’s in there to the police if that’s what you want. Goodbye, Jen.”

Jennifer wouldn’t say goodbye. She just watched as Kaya got
on her bike and went away again. Only when Kaya was gone did she bend over to
pick up the pack then went back inside, her hands still trembling. She hadn’t
even realized how angry she still was. “Hull,” she said, her voice lower than
usual.

“Ma’am?” The computer boomed.

“Wh-what was that? Why did you let her into the house? You
didn’t even warn me anyone was coming!”

“My emotional recognition systems suggest that you are
upset, ma’am.”

“No flippin’ kidding!” She snapped. But there was no point
in taking out her frustration on a machine, so she paused and took a few
breaths. “I’m not upset,” she lied, “I just need to understand what went
wrong.”

“This response was not expected.”

“Not expected?” Jen sighed. Talking to a computer was
frustrating at times, as you needed to know exactly the right question to ask
to get an answer that made any sense. “I just want to know why you let Kaya
inside the gate.”

“I am programmed to anticipate your needs and ensure your
well-being.”

“And what has Kaya Cade got to do with my well-being?”

“You are lonely.”

Well that was… she really didn’t understand why Hull would assume
that. “Who… who told I was lonely?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Have you
been talking to Doctor Sarkis?”

“You did, ma’am. Journal entry one three five seven,
December twenty-fifth…”

“Don’t play it!” Jennifer ordered. She remembered it anyway.
It was Christmas and she’d had some whiskey. She should have deleted it – even
she thought it was maudlin. “I still don’t understand why you thought Kaya
would help.”

“Beside your immediate family, Kaya Cade is the individual
referred to most often in your journals.”

“Maybe, but most of those entries are me remembering some
horrible thing she once did to me.”

“Incorrect, ma’am. The majority of entries recount
adventures you had together when you were children. The time you investigated a
crop circle; the time you caught a ghost; the cat you rescued; the time you
went to Lake Temesis and made a raft…” he went on for some time.

Jennifer stopped shaking and a small smile appeared. “They
were good days,” she sighed. She still had the backpack, so she opened it and
found inside first the notebook Kaya had mentioned, and then something wrapped
in towels. It was a broken blade covered in what looked like blood. She wasn’t
sure what it was made of – it didn’t seem like metal. Of course it wasn’t proof
of Kaya’s story, but the idiot should really have just shown her this first.

She sighed again – if her father was here, he would tell her
that being a good scientist meant having to humble yourself. Don’t believe –
never assume you already know all the answers because nature had a habit of
surprising people. Keep an open mind, investigate, and go wherever the evidence
led.

“Ma’am,” Hull said, “do you wish Kaya Cade to be forbidden
from entry in the future?”

“No,” she sighed again. “Do we still have the gene reader?”

“It is in the basement, ma’am, next to the space-capsule.”

“Get it ready.”

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