Attack and Defense
Sita’s restless fingers stilled on the console. Her face in profile, she opened, then closed her lips. Finally, she blurted, “Bianca is…is beautiful.”
“Ay, she is,” Max said, his voice clipped.
She took a deep breath. “She looks just like Ana.”
“And Devi looks just like you.”
“Except for her eyes,” she whispered.
“Ay, those are all mine.” Silence fell for a long, terrible moment. Then he opened his mouth, and the question he had not yet asked her finally shot out of him like the round from a gun. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Max focused every mil of his concentration on her, searching her face and body for any minute clue to the truth. But Sita had obviously been waiting for him to ask this question, because she turned to face him fully, and answered without a missed beat.
“I would have told you if you had ever asked. But you didn’t. I wasn’t hiding from you, Max. You could have looked me up at Anderson any time you wanted to. But you never cared enough to try.”
“I cared! I cared too much!” he nearly shouted. He jerked away from her, pacing a few steps away before he got control of himself. He ground his teeth together and turned back to look at her, trying to take on her splendid beauty without flinching.
Feck, she had no idea what she had put him through, did she?
After their terrible fight at the StarLine party, he had been too angry to talk to her for several days. But even when he learned that she had resigned from the company and left Pavonis, he didn’t for a moment imagine that her break with him was serious. She was young and impulsive, after all, and he was Max Ross! Surely she was just throwing a temper tantrum. Surely, once she realized he wouldn’t be manipulated in such a way, she would come back, appropriately chastened. He would forgive her, rehire her, and they would continue on as
they had been before.
But days turned into weeks, and she hadn’t come back. Gradually, the his self assurance had crumbled and the cold reality of her rejection had settled over him, hardening his heart into a solid block of ice that had never thawed since.
Tightly controlling his tone, he continued, “When you ran away without a word, I was so furious and—and hurt, I couldn’t face you. I kept waiting for you to come back and then when you didn’t, I just wanted to forget you. Forget I had ever been stupid enough to fall for a woman who would leave me without so much as a wave goodbye!”
Sita’s carefully held expression cracked. “I left you? Max, you shucked me off like yesterday’s suit liner in front of the cream of Martian society!”
That set him back on his heels. “I didn’t—“
“You sent me away!” Sita’s boot heels rang on the composite floor as she started to pace back and forth, sharp, agitated movements betraying her feelings. “Do you even remember what happened that last night? The night you told me to go home, and then left me standing in the middle of a roomful of people who absolutely hated me so you could go schmooze politicians with Ana?”
He stared at her, aghast. Is that really what she thought had happened? “I wasn’t trying to send you away permanently! I just wanted to get you out of the way!”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You embarrassed me in public. I was trying to mitigate the damage to the prospects of the space elevator!”
“Ay, that’s all I was to you. Damage. An embarrassing concubine,” she flung at him.
“You weren’t my—my—“
“I wasn’t your wife. I was never going to be your wife, was I? Ana was the wife you needed and wanted. Every one of your so-called friends knew it, and said it practically to my face. I was nothing but your scheming huli jing. Did you know I was accused of poisoning Ana, giving her leukemia?”
Max froze in shock. But Sita wasn’t done. Her dark eyes blazing anger, she said, “Did you know that nest of snakes you wallowed in practically threatened to assassinate me? Was I supposed to gamble my safety, Devi’s safety, on the possibility that you might care what happened to us?”
“I…I would never have let anyone hurt you—“
Sita’s bitter laugh cut him off. “’Nothing is more important than the elevator.’ Your words, Max. How was I to know you would bother to look after the vulgar duster you were drilling when the space elevator was all that really mattered to you?”
“I didn’t know about any of this,” he bit out. “Is this what you meant when you were talking to Bianca? These threats? These stupid rumors?”
“Ay, those stupid rumors. Not only was I a connie, I was a murderer, according to your friends. Why wouldn’t you believe the worst of me when you were already ashamed of me?”
Max was nearly panting in fury. How did she manage to turn this on him? He was the wronged party here, feck it all! “I –“
But now she was fully roused, decades worth of pent up acrimony pouring out of her. She was pacing around, her hands making little movements to punctuate every word she said. “And was I supposed to meekly tolerate being shunted aside for the political marriage everyone wanted you to make? Was I supposed to keep sleeping with you after you after you married Ana? No, by hell. I couldn’t do that to Ana, or to me and Devi, for that matter.”
She wheeled on him, her eyes blazing, magnificent in her righteous fury. “What’s more, I couldn’t let your friends and business associates turn us into pawns to play their power games. I saved my daughter from the dangerous life she would have led as your bastard and gave her a normal childhood instead. I protected her from assassination attempts and kidnappings and intrigues for forty years. And If I had to do it over again, I would do it in a nano.”
Max heaved a deep breath. “Are you done?”
She swallowed, and nodded sharply.
“I would have married you. I would have protected you. I would have loved you and our daughter, if you had trusted me,” he said, and to his own astonishment, every word he said had the ring of truth. Ana had been an admirable woman, the respected, expected choice for his wife. But he wouldn’t have chosen her over Sita in a million years.
She went still, then her head bowed, obscuring her face with a fall of shining black hair. “And then what?” her voice came softly. “Your allies would have deserted you, your company would have foundered, and your elevator would never have been built. You would be stuck with a heap of broken dreams and the awful wife and unwanted child responsible for destroying them.” Her breath hitched. “I loved you. But love wasn’t enough to save us.”
“You can’t know that!”
Sita just made the slightest movement of her shoulders.
Max was suddenly exhausted. “You may have had your reasons for what you did. But the fact remains that you stole my child from me.” His child. His greatest responsibility in life, and he had failed in it because of Sita.
He said, “I never knew my child because of you. And I don’t know if I will ever forgive you for it.”
Sita lifted her head to him, her dark face ashen. “As Heaven knows, I was trying to do my best for Devi. But…” her dark eyes filled with tears. “Sometimes there are no good choices. I am sorry, Max.”
“So am I,” he grated. He had to get out of here before he said or did something unforgivable. He lurched toward the doorway and hit the control pad. He could hear her sharp breathing behind him but refused to look back at her.
When the door opened, he stepped into the hallway only to be immediately pounced upon by one of his junior political aides. Espiranza, he thought the bloke’s name was.
“M’Ross, there’s been a delay with our departure from Earth orbit--”
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said, striding down the hallway toward the lifts.
Hurried footsteps pursued him. “But M’Ross, Captain Lopez wants to speak with you in person. You can’t just ignore the captain,” the man persisted, his voice taking on the coaxing tone that never failed to drive the spike of a headache into Max’s skull.
“I certainly can. I chartered this sunship with the understanding that I wouldn’t be bothered with operational details. Take care of this problem. That’s what I pay you for.”
Max stepped into the lift, putting a hand on his assistant’s chest to push him back when the man showed signs of following him. As the lift doors shut, he said, “Tell the captain she can wait until after my zeeball game, or she can go to hell.”
Zeeball Court, Sunship Exalt
Max drifted in zero gravity, his eyes closed as he searched for the familiar, calm center within himself, the fixed point in the universe around which he would orient his universe. There was no up or down, no right way or wrong way. There was simply himself, immutable. He lifted his lids slowly, and the zeeball court came into focus around him, a pattern of diamonds enclosing him in a small, contained world.
He was floating in the center of a geodesic globe, the sixty-four facets of the play space surrounding him in their familiar diamond pattern. This was a small court, only suitable for one-on-one games, but even a small court was a luxury on a sunship. This was why he had chartered the Exalt in the first place. Not every ship would make room for zeeball.
Interplanetary ships like the Exalt were built on the classic wheel pattern, the spin of the outer rim providing centrifugal force that simulated gravity. But the hub of the wheel remained gravity free, a vast space that could be put to all sorts of recreational uses. In the case of the Exalt, a great deal of that space was taken up by this zeeball court.
Max clasped the large, high mass ball to his chest. His hands, sheathed in cling-gloves that would fasten on to every surface, grasped the dull red globe securely. He breathed deeply to center himself. Today he was playing against the court’s General Intelligence program, since there was no human on this ship willing or able to give him a decent contest.
Max had been playing zeeball for most of his ninety-three years of life, and as the game required not only physical strength and agility but also strategy and intelligence, there were few who could match him.
He could have forced one of his aides into partnering him, but he didn’t have the stomach for it today. Not only were none of his staff up to his level of skill, he just couldn’t face any of them now. He needed to be alone, letting the physical and intellectual challenge of the game to work him into numbness.
Numbness. He peeled his hands off the ball, letting it float nearby. Was that really what he wanted? To feel nothing?
He had been numb, emotionless, lost in his own mind for so many years already. All his life, in fact, except for those brief, mad few weeks when Sita was his. Her vibrant sensuality and cheerful irreverence had melted a woman-shaped hole through the cold, structured life he had lived since he was a child and touched the hot, needy core of him. She had lured him out of his thoughts and into the light of a world he never even knew existed. And then she had left him and taken the light with her.
In his fury and hurt he had shut himself back into his familiar shell of science and ambition, and nothing had really touched him since. Until Bianca had almost died, and then Devi and Sita herself. Within a few months his calm, quiet world of mathematics and physics had shattered around him, letting the emotions in once more to tear at him.
Aside from his work, Zeeball had helped to quiet his mind all these years. But he didn’t think it would work now, not with the disruptive force of Sita near by, pulsing in his awareness like a star.
Briefly, he considered taking up a serious drug habit. Ay, that might work to anesthetize his brain, for a while. The Earthers liked their drugs well enough.
Martians, as a rule, frowned on all but the mildest of recreational drugs, but the Earthers Max had seen had no such compunction. If drugs were as successful at drowning out memories and feelings as they seemed, maybe the Earthers were on to something after all.
A few meters away, one of the diamond goals suddenly clicked open, hinging into the room. A pale golden head appeared within the opening, followed by a pair of massive shoulders and a broad back.
Speaking of Earthers, his new fecking son-in-law Jacques Tallinn had decided to pop in on him.
Devi’s husband turned his head as he looked around the court, revealing a face startling in its masculine beauty. When he caught sight of Max, he grinned insolently. “Ni hao, Da.”
Max’s lips peeled back from his teeth. “Tallinn,” he growled. “What in hell do you think you’re doing here?”
Jacques pushed himself all the way through the door, gaining a cautious foothold on the wall of the court with the cling-soles on his boots. “Thought I’d drop by, see what all this zeeball is about—“
“Cut the shite,” Max bit out. He hadn’t lived all these years without learning how to tell when a hard sell was coming his way.
The Earther’s gray eyes narrowed. “All right then, here it is. I’ve decided to stage what we Earthers call an intervention.” He took a few tentative steps, then paced toward Max along the wall, seeming to gain more assurance with each second. “Frankly, Max, your personal life is one of the most fecked up I’ve ever seen. And I’m a fan of Chinese soap opera, so that’s saying something. Now, me, I simply find it entertaining--”
“My personal life none of your fecking business, kit.”
Jacques stopped, an armlength away. “Ah, you’re wrong there. Anything that upsets my wife is my business, mate. And my wife is upset by the most cracked shite, like blokes fighting with her mother--”
“Sita is my problem, no one else’s.”
Jacques just lifted his blond eyebrows.
“She kept my child from me!” Max roared.
“And a good thing she did. You were a terrible father.”
Max gaped, astounded that the bastard had gone there.
“You ignored Devi’s sister while she was growing up, then left her at the mercy of that insane murderer you married. Seems to me Sita had every reason to not trust you with her own daughter.”
Max drew a furious breath to say…something. But nothing would come out. Jacques’s assessment was no less than what he had already told himself. The guilt, never far away, almost crushed him where he floated in midair.
Damned if he was going to let the Earther fei ren know that, though. Scraping up his pride, he snarled, “And what reason do we have to trust you with Devi, when you kidnapped her and then let her get stabbed by a maniac? I’m the one who saved her life, not you. Me, the terrible father.”
The younger man’s face instantly fell. Max had the uneasy feeling that his jab had been petty, but still. His accusations were nothing less than the truth. Jacques had a lot to answer for where Devi was concerned. The only thing that reconciled him to Jacques’s place in his daughter’s life at all was the undeniable fact that he was sickeningly in love with her.
And also that he had singlehandedly saved planet Earth from destruction by an apocalyptic cult. Like it or not, that achievement carried some weight.
“I realize I’m going to spend the rest of my life proving myself worthy of Devi,” Jacques said slowly. “But what about you Max? Are you going to try to fix the damage you’ve done?”
The corrosive shame unleashed by Jacques’s simple question snapped the last thread of Max’s temper. Never had anyone criticized him so bluntly. Never had anyone made him feel so small. “I’m ninety-three years old,” he ground out. “I’m the richest, most important man on Mars. I built two space elevators, and I could buy and sell every atom in your body two hundred times over. I’m not going to be lectured about my obligations by an Earther fei ren like you! And how did you get past my aides, anyway? I expect to be able to play some zeeball without being interrupted by whining Earthers, but here you are!”
Jacques, unimpressed by his temper, coolly lifted his hands to the collar of his suit and opened the seal down the front from his neck to his waist. “Ay, here I am. Don’t blame your aides, I bullied them. Nothing they could do. So let’s play some zeeball. I scanned the rules.”
“You scanned the rules?” he echoed incredulously. “Have you ever even been in a zeeball court before?”
“Not as such.”
Max snorted. “I don’t have time to school juveniles.”
“No, you never did, did you,” Jacques shot back. “I realize I’m too much for you to handle, but don’t be afraid. I’ll take it easy on you.” With that he stripped off the top half of his suit and liner, revealing his massive Earther muscles.
Stripping off his suit wasn’t necessary. Carbonsuits were completely flexible, skintight, temperature regulating and self-cleaning. This was about something other than freedom of movement and comfort. This was a blatant masculine display of strength, the likes of which might ordinarily make Max raise an indifferent eyebrow.
But now his eyes were narrowing, his blood hissing in his ears. He yanked open his collar and peeled his suit and liner off his long arms and down to his lean, flat waist, showing his own muscles honed into thick cables from long hours playing this game.
Jacques flicked him an assessing glance, then the bastard’s too-handsome face broke into a grin.
Max growled in his throat. This kit thought he could buck into his game and talk shite. He was going to find out different.
Max snapped his feet onto the wall. Grabbing the floating clothes, he shoved them through the diamond opening and kicked the door closed. Then he flipped through the air, launched off one wall, stretched his long arm for the floating ball and caught it with the tips of his fingers. With a twist of his wrist he flicked it toward a waiting goal, the nanofasteners in his gloves peeling off the ball’s skin in response to the minute movements of his hands. The ball shot straight past Jacques’ head, so fast that even his son-in-laws reflexes couldn’t block it in time.
The ball hit dead on the center of the diamond. The panel glowed with red light, the signal of a goal scored. Max grinned at Jacques’ almost comically astonished face.
“Not bad old man.”
“Not bad? You’re getting dusted, infant.”
The force of Max’s throw had sent him in the opposite direction. Flipping through the air he caught himself on one of his designated territory diamonds by the cling-soles of his boots. With a flex of his feet he launched himself into a race up along the wall of the court to intercept the ball as it rebounded off its target. Jacques was scrambling up the opposite side of the globe to get the ball first, but Max flung himself off a diamond for an interception. Missing Jacques’s fingertips by a centimeter he caught the ball against his chest and used its momentum to throw the ball in one direction and himself in another.
The objective of zeeball was to isolate an opponent by scoring goals and claiming territory. Players had to block the goals physically, launching off their designated territory panels to capture the ball as it followed its trajectory through space. If a player didn’t catch the ball and redirect it to his own goal, he would quickly be surrounded and overwhelmed by his opponent.
Max and Jacques caught, threw, ran, leapt, scrambled along the wall by their fingers and toes, hurled themselves through space, and slammed the ball into their goals again and again.
Jacques had very little experience in zero-gravity, but he was strong and fast, with lightning reflexes and nearly perfect instincts. He was also extremely intelligent, which meant that his strategy was sound. He was the most ferocious competitor Max had faced in years, and Max had a few moments of true fear that he was outmatched.
They fought it out for more than four hours, but slowly, Jacques’s territory was reduced to a few isolated blue diamonds. After a brutal series of blocks and throws, Max slammed the ball into the final defensive diamond. It glowed red, and he was once again the gasping, sweating victor.
Wrung out, he floated by the wall, anchored only by one cling-gloved hand. He panted into the cool air, letting the sweat dry on his scalp.
Nearby, Jacques floated against a wall, sucking in oxygen, his fair skin beading with perspiration. “I don’t believe it,” he gasped. “How does an old bloke like you manage that?”
“I tolt you,” Max panted, “I been doin this six decat. No Earther fei ren got a chance agint me.”
He snapped his jaw shut, shocked at the way he had slipped into Martian patois.
But Jacques just grinned, lifting his head to look at him. “You know, mate, when you get all jacked up, you’re not as much of an android as people think. In fact—“ He never finished his sentence.
* * *
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