Space station Advent, laboratory deck, specimen ward alpha
Max was pacing around his cell once again when the cel-lights flickered. He smiled. The hour thirteen gremlin he had unleashed was causing the station’s systems to fail much faster than he expected. At this rate it wouldn’t be long at all before emergency protocols opened his cell door. And when it did, Xu was going to learn who he was really dealing with.
If only he could have done it before Sita arrived at the station.
Dear Heaven, what was happening to Sita right now? It had been twenty-eight minutes since Xu had left, presumably to meet Sita at the shuttle dock. Twenty-eight minutes of queasy dread roiling in his stomach as he imagined what might be happening to her while he was trapped here, helpless.
He hadn’t told him if he was going to spare Sita’s life or not. Ignoring all of Max’s curses and demands, he had hummed thoughtfully, blacked out the window of his cell and left without a further word.
Of all the torments Xu had devised for him, this was by far the worst.
“Max, I’ve returned. And I have a surprise for you,” Xu’s voice buzzed from the com panel.
He whipped around to face the cell door, but the window was still blacked out.
“Turn around and place your hands against the back wall of the cell.” His voice sounded merry, as if he were playing a game.
“What have you done with Sita?”
“Do as your told and you’ll find out,” Xu said, his playfulness dimming.
Max ground his teeth and obeyed, stepping to the back wall of the cell and bracing his hands on the cold black composite.
“Good. Stay right there. Don’t move until I tell you, or I’ll be forced to use the shock cuff.” There was a hum and click of a door opening and shutting, and quiet footsteps behind him. His shoulders went taught.
“All right,” Xu said. “You can look now.”
He spun around, and there she was. Sita. She really had come for him. The impossible…beautiful…little idiot. How dare she put herself in danger like this? He wanted to kiss her senseless and then throttle her.
Then he registered her appearance. She was naked, except for the shock cuff on her wrist.
A surge of the most visceral fury he had ever known possessed him. He dared? He dared to do this to my woman?
Sita’s eyes were huge, her mouth trembling. “Max,” she whispered, and ran to him, hands outstretched.
Max took two steps and caught her to him, crushing her soft, slender body to him as if he could hide her inside his heart and keep her safe there. Ciel, Sita.
He swung her away from the doorway and pulled her face away from where she had buried it against his chest, searching her eyes. “Did he hurt you?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Just shocked to fecking hell and back.”
Max huffed out a relieved breath. There’s my foul-mouthed girl. She really was all right.
“He…he showed me those people in the cryoboxes. Kept telling me how well I’d fit into his collection.”
“And so you will, my dear. I’ll even put you next to Max. You’ll like that, I know.”
They both looked over at the door to the cell. Xu had cleared the window, and was peering in at them, bright-eyed and twitchy as ever, but with a strange, hectic glow on his sallow cheeks.
“But that’s for later. Right now, I’ve put you together for a different purpose. You see, occasionally I like to observe my specimens engaging in coitus. But I rarely have the opportunity, you understand. So I’d like you two to mate. Right now.”
In his arms, Sita stiffened with shock, as Max's face went hot with fury. He snarled, “You disgusting little freak--”
“Don’t get into one of your snits, my dear,” Xu interrupted. “Oblige me with a demonstration, or I’ll shock Sita while you watch instead.”
“I can’t. I’ve never been less in the mood in my life,” he said. Though, to his chagrin, he found that wasn’t strictly true.
Sita’s soft skin was rubbing all along the length of him, her full, firm breasts pushing into his chest. He found his heart was pounding, his breath rasping in his throat. Despite the horrible circumstances, her closeness was provoking the same reaction in him as she always had, since the first moment he had set eyes on her. Not now tamade! he thought, desperately willing his hot flesh to behave.
But then Sita wound her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear, “It’s all right. I have a plan. Kiss me, Max.”
He ground out, “Sita, if you think I’m going to put on a show for that perverted lunatic out there you’re cr—“
Sita jumped up and sealed her soft lips over his.
Max instinctively opened his mouth and her tongue slipped inside, pushing a small, hard tablet between his lips.
Max froze in surprise as Sita ended the kiss and moved her lips to his ear. “It’s the cure for the virus. Bite down and breathe in.”
Obeying, he crushed the tab between his teeth. A sharp burst of aerosol flooded his mouth and nose, and sucked it into his lungs.
Sita drew back and smiled up at him.
“You really are a genius aren’t you?” he said, wonderingly.
“Why did you stop?” Xu’s plaintive voice sounded through the com panel.
Max looked over to see the thin face in the window wearing a petulant frown.
“I’ve accomplished what I came here to do,” Sita said cooly, stepping away from Max to face the door. Her expression was as collected as if she were in a medical conference, except for the betraying color in her cheeks. “I’ve just delivered a dose of virucide to Max that will neutralize the pathogen you used to infect us.”
Xu gaped at her. “You…the virus…you found a cure?”
“Ay, and the people of the Exalt have it now. You can’t threaten them anymore.”
“But my sensors didn’t detect anything on you—“
Sita smiled grimly. “I probably designed the prototypes for those filters, years ago. I know how to get around them.” She put her fingers in her mouth and pulled out a thin sheet of synth skin. She held it up for Xu to see before tossing it into the vac.
His face went red. “You tricked me!”
“Xu, listen to me. A sec team from the Exalt is coming to rescue us. They already have enough evidence to arrest you for bioterrorism. And when they get here find those poor people you kidnapped—“ Her voice shook slightly, but she gathered herself and went on, “Let us go, and turn yourself in peacefully, and maybe you can work out a deal of some sort.”
Xu bared his teeth. “No one will ever take my collection from me! I have other defenses in place. Targeting comps in the shuttle bays, gas dispensers--”
“You can’t count on those any more,” Max broke in with immense satisfaction. “I released a gremlin into your GenIe networks when I reset the sensor. The physical systems on this station are breaking down already. Haven’t you noticed the lights and the heat exchangers bugging? This station will be unlivable within days.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sita throw him an admiring glance. His mouth ticked in a half-smile. “Let us go, Xu. It’s over. You lost.”
Xu stared at him, then at Sita, his face gone deathly pale and stiff. Then wordlessly he raised his arm and tapped his cuff.
Lightning struck Max, contorting his body in agony. He fell to the floor, his roar of pain mingling with Sita’s high, tortured scream.
“…contingency plan,” came Xu’s voice from far away.
Then the hiss of gas filled the room, and blackness fell.
* * *
When Max fought back to consciousness again, his entire body throbbed in agony, as if he had been beaten to a pulp. Xu…that fecker had shocked him again. And Sita... She was screaming…
He pried his eyelids open. The dusky red emergency lights filled the air with unnatural shadows. He tried to muster the strength to roll over, but only managed to turn his head. There she was, lying a meter away from him, her slender brown limbs sprawled on the floor. Her eyes were closed, her face pallid, but she was apparently unharmed.
He lifted his head up to peer around, and saw that the door to the cell was finally open. The hour thirteen gremlin had done its work. The space station was now in a state of emergency, protocol automatically unlocking all doors so that station inhabitants could access the lifepods.
When the door had opened, the gas Xu used to keep them unconscious must have diluted. Sita would be waking soon. Then they could get out of here, get the fecking cuffs off, and get Xu.
But first, he had to get up.
He tried sitting, but a wave of dizziness had him flopping back to the floor. It wasn’t just the lingering gas in his system, he suddenly realized. He was off balance, lighter. Something was wrong with the pseudogravity. The station must be slowing its rotation. That gremlin had done even more damage than he thought possible. He shoved that worry aside for later. No time for lolling about thinking. Xu could show up at any moment. And as long as they had these shock cuffs on, the little madman had the advantage over them, whether they were locked up or not.
As he was gathering his strength for another try at sitting, a skittering step echoed in the corridor. Too late. Xu was only a few seconds away.
Only one thing to do. He relaxed back to the floor and closed his eyes to slits, peering through his lashes.
Xu’s slight form materialized in the doorway, a grotesque imp in the red emergency lights. And he wasn’t alone. One—no, two med bots tracked along behind him, each with stretcher prongs extended. He intended to put them in those stretchers and cart them off to Heaven knew where. He hadn’t given up his deranged obsession, not at all.
Xu pushed the door all the way open and stepped into the cell, frowning thoughtfully. He stood several paces away, watching them for a moment.
Max kept as still as the dead.
After an eternity stretched out his every last screaming nerve, Xu finally bounced through the low gravity to stand at Sita’s side. He began crooning in that same, eerie chatter Max had heard him use when talking to his victims in the tubes. “Now my dear, no more tricks from you. You’re coming with us, yes you are…”
Only an arm’s reach away. One lunge, and he could have the bastard in his grasp. Max tensed with anticipation, waiting for the perfect moment.
The little man bent down to touch Sita, perhaps checking her pulse. But as he reached for her arm, Sita moaned and flailed at him feebly.
Xu shrieked, jumping backward, and jabbed a fingertip at his cuff. Instantly, Sita’s back bowed in a terrible contortion, her breathless scream of pain wrenched from her as the shock cuff triggered.
Max's pain and weakness vanished in a flash of blinding white. With a roar he levered off the floor and flung himself at Xu, grabbing the thin arms before the man had a chance to react. He twisted and shoved, lifting Xu a meter into the air and flinging him across the cell.
Xu landed against the wall with an audible crunch of broken bones, and another shriek, this time of pain. Before he hit the floor, Max had braced his feet as if he were on the zeeball court and leapt at Xu again, one bound in the low gravity taking him across the room. He caught himself on the wall, grabbed the other man like a ball, and threw him headfirst into the ceiling. Another crunch, another shriek.
He was beyond civilized thought, rage flooding through every vein like liquid fire.
He hurt Sita—kill him— He braced to launch himself at Xu again.
“Max! No!” Two slender arms wound around his waist and locked like metal bands. Shocked out of his haze, he looked down to see Sita’s upturned face. She was on her knees, her whole body shaking with reaction to the shock. Her eyes were streaming tears in the low red light.
Just as a new wave of fury at seeing her cry was about to engulf him, she said, “You have to stop! You’ll kill him, and we need him alive!”
* * *
Sita stared up into Max’s eyes, two dilated pits of black with thin rings of blue. A primal thrill of fear shot through her, as if she were facing down a wild animal.
Hanging onto him doggedly, she said, “Listen!” Over the harsh sounds of their breathing, a high, rhythmic whistle pierced the air. “The emergency siren Max!”
She used his body to haul herself upright, standing on her shaking legs. Max automatically helped steady her, though his long, hard arms still quivered with barely leashed violence. Talking fast, she said, “We have to evacuate this station, and we need to get the people in the tubes out. I don’t know how to handle the cryo tech by myself. We have to make Xu help us.”
Max turned his black stare on Xu, and Sita followed suit. The little man lay crumpled on the floor where he had fallen, half-conscious and moaning. Blood streamed from his broken nose in a red flood, and his clearly broken arms moved jerkily.
As a doctor, she knew she ought to be rushing to his side to check his injuries. But all she could muster up the will to do was prevent Max from killing the bastard. And even that was more for Max’s sake than Xu’s.
She shot another careful glance at Max, but the feral sharpness in his face had eased a fraction. Her logic must have gotten through to him. She swayed on her feet in relief.
Max caught her elbows, steadying her again. The last of the deadly gleam left his eyes as he ran his gaze over her. He moved one hand up her arm to cup her neck, tilting her head up at him. “Are you hurt?” he rasped.
“No, just shaken up and…sore. That shock cuff--” She cut herself off as a spark ignited in Max’s eyes again. “Let’s…let’s just grab Xu and get to his cryo lab.”
“Ay,” Max said roughly, letting go of her. “I’ll grab him, all right.” In one graceful step, he bounded across the room to Xu’s side, easily navigating the low gravity. He stooped to tear the man’s cuffs off his arms one after the other, ignoring his weak screams. Then he fisted Xu’s collar in a ruthless grip and straightened, hauling his limp body up off the floor with one hand.
Holy Heaven, Sita thought, gaping at him. Even aided by the low gravity, the sheer power in him was stunning. With his pale, naked skin gleaming in the lurid red light, his hair floating wildly around his head, he was a fearsome, primal being, stripped down to his essence.
“Which way to the lab?” he grated.
She blinked, forcing herself out of her bemusement. “Er, just down this hallway to the right.”
Max nodded and moved past her in long, bounding strides, dragging Xu behind him like a big cat carrying its prey off to devour it.
Sita awkwardly flailed along in his wake, her body seemingly growing lighter by the minute. The station was losing gravity fast as the spin slowed. And the air was growing hot and stale, the ventilation and heat exchange systems failing. Even though she was still naked, sweat was beading on her skin. She took this to be another very bad sign. They had to get the people in the cryoboxes, and themselves, out of here before the station went critical. There was no time to wait for a rescue from the Exalt now.
They were in a short corridor off the main lab, and a few meters and another open door later they were in the midst of the racks of cryoboxes.
Max dumped Xu on the floor and looked around, narrow-eyed. “Sita,” he said over the sound of the emergency whisle, “Look. Xu’s been moving the boxes already.”
Sita caught the edge of one of the racks to steady herself, and followed Max’s gaze. He was right. There were gaps in the ranks of ‘specimens’ Xu had proudly displayed to her horrified gaze earlier. Cargo bots were idling in between the racks of tubes, seemingly in the middle of transporting them.
Sita bounced clumsily over to where Xu half-lay, half floated at Max’s feet groaning quietly. “Where have you taken them?” she demanded.
Max prodded Xu with one foot. “Answer her.”
Xu peered up at them, his eyes blank and distant. “Put them…in the long-distance shuttle. Emergency plan for…the collection,” he said, blood bubbling at his lips. “Always had…a last resort.”
“Right, that saves us time,” Max said. “We’ll finish loading them into the shuttle and take them to the Exalt and thaw them out there.”
Xu drew a long, whistling breath and started mumbling, “E, V, A, one, one, eight, seven, three—“
A horrible premonition spiked through Sita as Xu droned a string of numbers. “Stop! Max—“ she shouted.
Max dove for him, but it was too late. Xu’s voice raised into a scream, “seven, five, terminate!”
A weird hum joined emergency whistle filling the air. Xu dangled in Max’s grasp, smiling up at him beatifically. “No one takes my collection,” he crooned as the first explosion tore through the room.
* * *
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