Max had never played a game against an insane opponent before. Obviously, Xu’s thought processes and motivations were so far alienated from reality that he had become unpredictable. This…would require a new strategy.
Maybe he’d been overthinking the problem. Maybe he needed to take a more direct approach. Ay. What he needed to do was get hold of Xu and beat the shite out of him before he could command the virus to attack the people in the Exalt. Simple.
He studied the little man for a moment. He had moved to a console next to the cryobox he planned to put Max inside and was fiddling with various instruments, occasionally shooting a satisfied smirk at him.
Xu had always carefully maintained enough distance between them so that Max couldn’t attack him before he carried out his threat. But he seemed distracted now.
He wanted to talk, a gruesome eagerness to show off his accomplishment practically radiating through him. Max could use that. If he could keep him talking, he might be able to get close enough to the man before he realized it.
First, flattery to soften Xu up. If he could remember how. He cleared his throat. “This is certainly an impressive…collection,” he said, stumbling over the last word. “It’s hard to imagine one man could accomplish so much by himself.”
“Oh, ay, it was all my own effort. Can’t risk any one else finding out or they might try to steal my specimens again, like they stole Eva” he said, his face darkening.
So Max’s suspicions were right. Xu had no crew to help him. The only other people on this station were in these tanks.
He took a few idling steps toward the other man. “How do you keep people from coming to, er, steal them? How do you hidden from law enforcement, or their families? There must be people looking for them.”
Xu flipped his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Whenever I acquire a specimen I arrange it so that they appear to have died by accident while on transit somewhere else. A bit of muddled data and some cash applied in the right quarters usually suffices. I may need a slightly more elaborate ruse in your case, since you’re my most high profile capture, but I should be able to sort it out.”
Max tried to make an admiring noise, though it came out more like a growl. He focused on the ghastly contents of one of the nearby tubes. A brown skinned man. A Martian, it looked like. He suppressed a shudder.
“How did you get all of these people here in the first place?” he asked, moving slowly down the row of cryoboxes.He stole a look out of the corner of his eye.
Xu was frowning thoughtfully at something on his console. He said, “Some of them were donated by Enrique Kurtz. He sent a lot of specimens to me, but unfortunately most of those weren’t of the best quality and had to be culled.”
Culled. Max swallowed bile. You cracked fecking zazhong.
Xu went on, “Some I acquired the same way I acquired you—by luring them in and entrapping them with meticulous planning. A few of them led me on quite the hunt, didn’t you my darlings?” he crooned, apparently to his sleeping victims.
Max bit back a snarl and moved nearer. “So Kurtz knew you were doing this. What about Aurora?”
“Of course. My collection began as their pilot initiative. And then it just took off from there!” He smiled reminiscently.
“What was the purpose?” Max asked, easing closer.
Xu threw him a startled look, and Max went still. “What do you mean?”
“What reason did Aurora have to collect people and keep them frozen like this?” Max said tightly.
“Well, some of them wanted to begin a select genetic pool for the interstellar colonization effort. Others wanted to preserve humanity’s finest members to repopulate the Sol after…” he trailed off.
Xu smiled coyly. “Let’s just say that the bioweapon I used on your ship can be put to a far greater purpose. Some of my former associates think that it should be.”
Max swallowed. Is he implying that the Aurora project is considering unleashing a bioweapon to wipe out the population of the Sol? Ay, I believe he is. Shite. Every time he thought this situation couldn’t get more horrific, he was immediately proven wrong.
He took another careful step toward Xu. Almost in his reach, just a step above him on the platform, only partially shielded by his med console. “But you don’t have any larger purpose in mind, do you?” he said softly. “Your only ambition is to build your collection.”
Xu blushed in what appeared to be genuine pleasure. “That’s it exactly! You do understand! I knew we spoke each other’s language, Max.”
Max smiled. “Ay. I understand you perfectly, Xu.” He shot out a hand and grabbed the man’s sticklike arm above his cuff in the same crushing grip he used in zeeball. He twisted hard, yanking the thin body off the platform.
Xu shrieked and slammed into him hard, his free hand flailing at Max’s face.
A white-hot prickle seared his cheek, and he jerked away with a gasp. But it was too late.
A fecking knock-out injector. As the drug flooded his system, his numb hands clutched futilely at Xu as he pitched to the floor.
Two little feet stumbled into his dimming vision. “Shame on you, Max. I’m going to have to teach you a lesson, aren’t I,” Xu panted above him.
Guess the direct attack wasn’t such a good move after all, he thought. Then darkness slammed down.
Sunship Exalt, medical deck
Ichiro Espinoza. Ichiro Espinoza. Sita drummed her fingers on the console absently as she waited for the analysis of her newest test culture. It had been thirty-seven hours since Jacques’s collapse. Almost that long since her last, terrible com with Max, when he'd mentioned that name.
She’d had little food or sleep since then, surviving on catnaps and strong tea as she labored on the virucide that would save Jacques’s life. She’d been focused to the exclusion of all else, but… Something kept tickling at the back of her mind. It was only now, when she had a few moments of empty time while waiting for test results to come in, that she could allow the nagging thought to surface.
Ichiro Espinoza was a name she knew very well. She had been so devastated by Max’s cold rejection that she hadn’t even noticed when he said it. But now she had to wonder why Max had mentioned the name of the most infamous bioterrorist in the history of Mars.
More than four decades ago, Espinoza had infected a space station with a weaponized virus, sickening nearly a hundred people and killing ten. The only reason the epidemic hadn’t been worse was because the patho had been detected early by the sensor filters that Sita herself had designed and patented.
In fact, it was this incident that first brought her work to the attention of StarLine, and eventually to Max Ross.
Every Martian of a certain age would know who Ichiro Espinoza was, and Max would definitely know. So why had he confused him with his aide? The chances that the two men simply shared the same name were unlikely, to say the least.
The back of Sita’s neck was prickling. A deep tremor of uneasiness was replacing the devastation in her heart. Devi was right. Something about her last conversation with Max was very strange. And she needed more data.
Hesitantly, she lifted her cuff and touched in a com to Max’s cuff. It went directly to his voice messages, as she had suspected it would. Max never answered a direct com on his cuff…
Then a memory shot across her mind’s eye. Max raising his hand to rub his forehead, and on his arm, nothing but the dark band of his sleeve where a cuff would normally attach.
In all the time she had known him, Max had never, ever, gone without his cuffs. The only time he had voluntarily taken them off was when he was in the cleanser, or in bed with her.
Dread mounting, she quickly put in a com to Max’s aides. After several chimes, a young, vaguely familiar looking Martian man answered. “StarLine President’s office,” he said, sounding harassed.
“Ni hao. I’m Sita Chandra.”
A speculative gleam appeared in the aide’s eyes. “Oh…ay, of course.”
Sita wondered how much the man knew, or thought he knew, about her. She had avoided contact with StarLine personnel on the ship, but she was certain that gossip had been rampant. It always was when it came to her and Max.
Forging on, she said, “When he commed me to inform me of his plans he told me to speak to one of his aides, a M’Espinoza—“
“It’s Espiranza,” the man snapped. Then he seemed to remember himself, and forced a smile. “Three years working for M’Ross and he still can’t remember my name,” he said, as if he were merely amused by his boss’s eccentricity. But Sita could see resentment lurking beneath the surface.
She said, “Are you sure he meant you? He doesn’t have another aide named Ichiro Espinoza?”
“No, it’s just me, Frank Espiranza,” the man said, his smile fading. “What can I do for you, M’Chandra?”
Doubt wavered in her. Max could have mixed up the names. Perhaps she was chasing another fantasy. But she’d tugged on this thread, and she would follow it to the end. She asked, “Do you happen to know if Max left his cuffs here or took them with him?”
Espiranza peered at her as if he found her question strange. “Of course he took them with him. He’s never without them.”
“But he isn’t answering his personal coms.”
The man raised an eyebrow and his look turned condescending. “He rarely does, unless he finds the person on the com particularly interesting.”
Ignoring that not-so-subtle dig, she said, “What about his other personal effects? Did he take those as well?”
“Na, he left before he packed. He instructed us to ship his things to him on the automated shuttles returning to the space station. May I ask what this is about M’Chandra?”
“I…find it very strange that Max would drop everything and go off to work with a partner he just met.” As she spoke, she realized how ridiculous the whole notion really was. Until this moment, she had been too tangled up in hurt feelings from decades ago to see it clearly.
Now, she shoved aside her last painful exchange with Max and remembered how hard he had been trying to connect with Devi and Bianca, and even with Jacques, in his own brusque way. How seriously he took his responsibility as the engineer for the Mars and Earth elevators. And how much he had wanted her—no, needed her in the zeeball court, body mind and spirit.
No, the Max she had seen these last few weeks wouldn’t throw all that away for anything Xu had to offer. Her eyes went wide. Not unless he was forced.
But the aide didn’t seem to share her realization. “This new whim of his is no more strange then dragging us all off to Earth and then turning around and dragging us back to Mars.” He turned a falsely sympathetic expression on her. “That’s just M’Ross’s way. He doesn’t explain his decisions to anyone. Not even his…er…friends. Now, was there anything else?”
Sita clenched her jaw. She had clearly been relegated to ‘clueless ex-lover who couldn’t accept being dumped’ status in the man’s mind, and any more doubts she expressed would just be dismissed. She was about to cut the com when another question occurred to her.
“One more thing. When you spoke to Max, did anyone tell him that Jacques Tallinn had died?”
“Na, we never spoke about Tallinn at all,” he said impatiently.
So Max’s staff hadn’t told him that Jacques was dead. Sita certainly hadn’t. It was possible that Captain Lopez had given him that impression, but unlikely, since she knew Jacques was alive and had a commercial interest in keeping him that way. So why had Max seemed to believe that Jacques had died? And who might have told him that?
“All right, thank you,” Sita murmured and cut the com, the aide already forgotten. Her thoughts were flying over the implications of what she had learned. The true picture of what had happened was resolving. And it was horrifying.
Max had somehow lost his cuffs that he was never voluntarily without. Someone had told him that his son-in-law was dead. He had left everything and everyone he cared about on a tissue-thin premise. And he had intentionally dropped the name of a bioterrorist who had tried to infect an entire space station with a deadly bioweapon.
The memory of Max saying, “I have no choice. Do you understand?” rang in her ears.
She shot up out of her chair and scrambled for a blood sampler, cursing herself for a fool. She steadied her shaking hands enough to draw a dark red line of her own blood, and rushed it into the analyzer complex.
There was something deadly there, something that everyone had missed. Just as they had missed the warning in Max’s message.
But no one, not Lopez or Max’s staff, would believe her conclusions without hard proof.
Sita had to find that proof, and find it fast. The last shuttles from the Advent were unloading their cargo already. In a few hours, they would return to the space station, and then the Exalt would leave for Mars, stranding Max in whatever devious trap he’d fallen into, and dooming the rest of to a fate she could all-too-easily guess.
Space Station Advent
Max’s head was stuffed with rocks. Heavy, razor sharp rocks. He groaned and peeled his eyes open. A dimly lit composite ceiling swam into focus. Too low to be his stateroom on the sunship. Looked like the standard dimensions for an Earther space station.
He rolled over, got his arms underneath him, and shoved himself upright. The world rocked sickeningly around him, but when it finally settled down he found he was sitting on a pallet on the floor of a three-by-four meter room. A rudimentary lav unit with a cleanser and a vac occupied one corner. Sensor units studded the walls and ceiling. The door was reinforced, with a small viewport, but no touchpad to open it from the inside. And that was all.
This is bad.
He looked down at himself. He was naked. Very bad.
The idea of that sick fecker stripping him while he was unconscious sent nausea roiling through him again. He frantically checked himself over to make sure he hadn’t been messed with, but all he discovered was a thin, gray metal band around his left wrist.
A shock cuff. A simple and effective method of delivering a jolt of pain to a prisoner who got out of line. They’d been outlawed on Mars for decades, but obviously, he wasn’t on Mars anymore.
Was this supposed to be his punishment Xu had threatened? Or…
He staggered to his feet, and shouted, “Xu! Get in here and face me you fecking crazy little shite!” His voice echoed in the shadowed room as he glared around at the sensor nodes surrounding him like a multitude of faceted black eyes. He knew, absolutely knew, that the little freak was watching him right now.
As he turned his head he caught a glimpse of a reflection in the window of the door, the ghostly image of a haggard face and wild eyes. He stopped and stared. That couldn’t really be him, could it?
He held his hand up in front of him, and it was shaking. Shaking. The drugs in his system, the constant stress and emotional turmoil had cracked him. His rational, calm shell was in tatters.
Enough. Get a grip, tamade. You’re Maxin Ross.
“I’m Maxin Ross,” he whispered aloud, as if his name was a talisman. No matter what Xu took from him, he was still Max. And Max was a cool, emotionless bastard. Everyone knew that.
His harsh breathing evened out, his hammering heart slowed. He held out his hand again, and saw it steady as a bot’s. The tremor had moved back inside him, where only he could see it.
“Such an excellent specimen,” came Xu’s caressing voice from a com panel in the door.
His gaze shot to the window.
Xu’s thin face was peering at him through the glass, his eyes running possessively over Max’s body.
Max faced him squarely, refusing to cringe away from that degrading stare. Dropping his hand, he his face fall into its usual arrogant lines. Fecking done with games. “I am not your specimen.”
Xu scowled. “You’re being obstinate. You have to learn to accept your new reality, Max. In fact, you ought to be taught a lesson for that trick you tried to pull earlier. And I did promise to activate the virus on your sunship if you didn’t obey me.”
Max clamped down hard on the panic that threatened to break him again. “What have you done to the Exalt?” he said, his voice harsh but steady.
“Why do you still care?” Xu asked, sounding oddly sullen. “None of them appreciate you, or understand you. Not the way I do. With me, you’ll have your place as the crown jewel of my collection. I’ll take such good care of you, Max. You’ll see.”
Max strode forward to stand in front of the door. He stared down into Xu’s face, only a few centimeters and the window separating them. Deadly quiet, he said, “I will tear this space station apart with my bare hands before I ever let that happen.”
Xu blinked, and then, as if Max hadn’t even spoken, he said, “I’d advise you to stay back from the door. Touching it will trigger your cuff. It delivers an extremely nasty shock, I’ve found. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Don’t you?” he gritted.
“Why no,” Xu said. The zazhong actually had the gall to sound wounded. “My entire effort is to preserve and protect superior humans like you, not to harm them. Why do none of you understand that?”
“Because it’s absolutely fecking insane?”
Xu sighed. “I can see you’re in no mood to be reasonable. Let’s change the subject. Here.”
A thin slot opened beneath the window. A packet of clear gel slipped through the slot and fell to the floor. “We need to clear your digestive tract, so you’ll be on a diet of gen medium until it’s time to put you in your box.”
Max stared down at the packet at his feet, sudden thirst seizing his throat.
“Well go on, drink it. We can’t allow you to become dehydrated. And you’ve been unconscious for more than a day.”
A day. He’d already lost a whole day. Leaving the gen medium where it was, he switched his gaze back to his captor. “Is it drugged?”
“Oh, no. When I want to drug you, I’ll simply flood your chamber with knock-out gas. But right now, I need to establish a baseline for your bioreadings that isn’t influenced by drugs. That’s why I allowed you to regain consciousness.”
“And how long do you intend for me to stay conscious?”
“Until the sensors have provided me with the biodata needed to make the final adjustments on your cryobox. Sixteen hours should be sufficient. So!” Xu stepped back from the door and smiled brightly. “Drink up and get some rest. You need in the peak of health before you begin cryosleep.” He turned to walk away.
Max called out, “You never answered my question. What about the people on the Exalt? You said you weren’t going to hurt them!”
Xu paused, looking over his shoulder. “My dear Max, their only use to me was in keeping you in line. Now that you’re mine, what purpose do they serve in this universe?” With that, he vanished into the shadows of the hallway beyond the door.
“Xu!” Max roared. But only the echoes answered him.
* * *
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