The Mating Net
A soft snick at the door to the court alerted them both. The diamond-shaped hatch swung open, and then Devi and Sita both poked their heads through the opening, their faces turning back and forth between Jacques and Max like pair of curious emrats. Devi’s expression warred between admiring glances at her husband and concerned glances at Max. Sita looked inscrutable.
At the sight of his wife, Jacques instantly went on alert. He shot upright, every muscle in his body coiled, like a predator readying to pounce on his prey.
Devi’s gaze locked with her husband’s, her golden skin blushing as bright as a ripe berry. She cleared her throat and assumed what she must imagine was a ‘professional’ expression. “Dr. Tallinn, I’m working on a certain…erm…medical problem, and I’d like to consult with you, if you have a moment,” she said, her voice exquisitely calm.
Seeming to shake himself out of a trance, Jacques said, “Certainly, Dr. Chandra.”
Devi nodded and pushed herself sedately out the door.
Jacques shot a wide grin at Max. “Sorry Ross, I’ll get my revenge against you later. I have to, ah, consult with your daughter for a while.”
Max dove for the ball, but the little Earther bastard made it out the door before Max could whip it at his head.
“I’m going to throw him out an airlock before we even get out of Earth orbit,” Max growled as the ball rebounded against the door frame.
Sita, who had stepped all the way onto the court before the ball went flying, was biting her lip, obviously trying not to laugh. She always did have a weakness for bawdy humor, he recalled. It was one of the things that attracted his attention when he first met her. No one in the rarified circles of the Martian elite would stoop to such crudity.
Max sank down on his haunches, resting on the wall as if he were sitting with his knees bent in front of him. He positioned his arms on his knees, clasping his hands loosely, and watched Sita as impassively as he could.
Sita touched the door closed gently, shutting them in the room together. Then she carefully put one cling-booted foot in front of the other, walking up the curve of the wall to where he sat. Her hair drifted around her head in a gleaming black cloud. Every slow step was a sinuous dance of luscious curves. He wanted to look away from the compelling seduction of her approaching body, but it was impossible for him. His mouth watered. He was just simply fecked.
When she reached him, she didn’t stop but paced around behind him. The subtle perfume of her skin caressed him briefly as she passed, like a fleeting touch. He swallowed hard and tipped his head back, keeping his eyes locked on her. Her face was turned away from him again. Guilt, anger and lust warred within him, and he tried desperately to shove them all away. “Why are you here, Sita?” he gritted out. “Haven’t we said all there is to say?”
The black hair shifted slightly as she turned her beautifully shaped head toward him. “Maybe we have said all there is to say about the past. Either we forgive each other for our past mistakes, or we don’t. But like it or not, we still have to discuss our present and future.” She fell silent, continuing around the wall of the zeeball court, each footfall sending a pulse of blood to his hardening rod, her succulent hips swaying, riveting his gaze. Eventually her strutting steps brought around the globe until she came to a stop directly across from him. She tipped her face toward him as if she were standing on the floor, looking up at him sitting on the ceiling, her eyes deep black pools of sensual danger.
Breathing hard, he said roughly, “All right, enough with the cryptic shite. What in the Sol are you on about?”
Sita didn’t seem put off by his surly tone. Rather, her full lips quirked in a wry smile. “We’re going to be living together in a confined space for the whole six months this ship will take to get to Mars. Avoiding each other for all that time isn’t really an option. If we don’t want to end up at each other’s throats on a regular basis, not to mention making the other passengers want to kill us, we’re going to have to come to some sort of understanding.”
Unperturbed, Sita continued, “And even after we get back to Mars, there’s Devi to consider. It wouldn’t be fair to her to make her life a battlefield.”
“It wasn’t fair to her to keep her father from her all her life,” Max snapped peevishly.
Sita’s stubborn jaw hardened a fraction, but she didn’t rise to the bait, waiting him out.
“So how do you propose we accommodate each other?” he finally asked.
“Well, we can’t start over, and we can’t take up where we left off. But…” She hesitated for a moment, then with a supple flex of her legs, she launched herself off the wall, flying through space toward him. She flipped over in midair with a rippling twist, reaching for the wall near him with her toes. She landed next to him, a pace away, bobbling a bit.
He arched an eyebrow to show her how unimpressive he found her zero gravity skills. Then he hauled the eyebrow right back down, ashamed of himself. She obviously hadn’t spent much time in zero gravity, but she was here, on his turf, making an overture. He was skeptical, to say the least, but it was something.
When she had found her footing, he met her eyes with his usual emotionless mask in place. “But?” he prodded.
“But I thought maybe we could talk to each other about our new dreams.” Her dark eyes met his without a flicker of deceit or guardedness, just like she used to. It had been a long time since he had encountered such directness.
He gazed into her face, the same beautiful face he saw so many times in his own dreams, full of anger and hurt and…and love. He swallowed. “All right, I’ll bite. What are your supposed new dreams?” he asked, trying to force sarcasm into his voice.
She said easily, “I want to build a hab of my own on the rim of Hellas crater back home on Mars.” She grinned at him, dark eyes twinkling. “I have the land already. One day, when the terraforming is finally done and the crater is flooded with water, it will be a beachfront home on the Hellas Sea. I keep changing the architectural designs, you know, but…I can hardly wait to get started building.”
Max was stunned. The Sita he knew was carefree and rootless. Architecture would have been as foreign to her as ancient English. “But…“
“But how can I afford such luxury?” Sita said, her voice slightly edged. “Well I’m not as rich as you, obviously, but I’m not a poor duster anymore, either. My biotech patents have raked in a lot of points. I’ve accumulated enough cash to build something really nice, just where I want it.”
Ciel, he had never known she was so sensitive about cash before. “I didn’t mean that,” he said tightly.
“Of course.” Her voice was lightly insincere. Just like the flunkies that always surrounded him. He ground his teeth, because he knew she was mocking him in her own Sita way.
“What about you, Max?” she said, tilting her lovely face toward him. Her hair swirled at her movement. “What are your new dreams? You’ve succeeded at your life’s ambition, to build a space elevator. You’ve succeeded twice, in fact, on Mars and Earth. What do you want to do now?”
“I…don’t know,” he said. The words echoed hollowly around him, like a curse. He hadn’t even thought the question until she asked him.
Max had been consumed with the Mars and Earth space elevators for his entire adult life, but now both of those engineering problems had been solved. There was no more challenge to either of them.
Granted, the destruction of the Earth elevator had provided him with a great deal of interesting work lately, getting the elevator space station in a stable orbit and safely disposing of the pieces of the broken cable. But that wasn’t a grand project that would consume him the way the creation of the elevators had done. What was he going to do to fill up his ravenous mind now? Anxiety he hadn’t even known he was facing suddenly sized him.
With her usual emotional sensitivity, Sita saw his feelings, and took pity on him. “Stupid of me. You got so much to do right now, with the chaos the Earth elevator is in. There’s no need to borrow trouble from the future. I’m sure it will find you on its own, soon enough.”
“I hope you’re wrong. I’ve had enough trouble this past year to last me through the next century.”
“Ay, we all have.” Her black eyes pierced him, sparking with intensity. “But you know, I think a bit of trouble might be good for you now and then. Only a bit, of course.” The sparkle deepened into a genuine smile.
He thought about that, and decided she may have a point. Uncomfortable and horrifying as the events of the last year had been, they had at least shocked him out of his frozen, lifeless existence. Until then he had never been terrified or infused with rage. But he had never been happy either.
Could he be now? Could he be happy at all? He didn’t even know. Perhaps it was out of the range of possible emotions for him. The only time he had experienced what he thought might be happiness was during the brief few weeks when Sita was his. But since then, that side of his nature had withered and died. Hadn’t it?
Sita was still smiling at him, patiently watching, waiting to see what he would say, what he would do. As an experiment, he tried smiling back at her. His cheeks almost stung at the unfamiliar movement. Silence stretched as they looked at each other, the subtle pulse of awareness between them growing slowly deeper.
Sita really has changed. Her vivacity was still there, but it was mellowed by responsibility, her brashness tempered to mature confidence. And he had changed too, he suddenly realized. His single-minded ambition had been blunted by experience and success. Would they both have changed so much if they had somehow stayed together?
There was no tech powerful enough to turn back time, and even if there were he wasn’t sure he would use it. But ciel, he was tired of carrying so much anger and resentment around. And so much guilt.
He blurted out, “You know what Jacques just said to me? He said you had every reason to keep Devi from me. He said I was a terrible father.” There it was, bald and bleak. His worst crime of all.
Sita’s lips pursed. He knew she didn’t entirely approve of Jacques. One of the few things he was certain they had in common. “He was out of line.”
Didn’t mean the bastard wasn’t right. “Bianca grew up without me just as surely as Devi did. I was no father to either of my children.
“Max, that’s not true.” Her boots tapped sharply against the composite as she came to stand directly in front of him. Her big, firm breasts lifted as she took a deep breath, momentarily distracting him from his guilt. But he pulled himself free of their hypnotic effect and forced himself back to their conversation. “I know I told you I kept Devi from you to keep her safe, but in the end it wasn’t me who saved her life when Kurtz was threatening her. It was you. You were her father when she needed you most. And I can only be grateful to you for saving her. And for giving her to me in the first place.”
Max said nothing, trying to swallow past a strange ache in his throat.
Sita continued, “If you want to be her father, then all you have to do is accept her. And Bianca too.”
“It’s too late,” he mumbled.
“It’s not! “ Sita sank down to sit facing him, her posture mirroring his, hands clasped over her bent knees. The toes of her boots were almost touching his.
“Max, it’s not too late for anything. You have so much life ahead of you, and so much to give the people who love you. Just…let them. Let them love you.”
It couldn’t possibly be that simple. “I don’t know if I can. I don’t… know how. It’s been a long time since anyone tried to care for me.” Since you left, in fact, he thought but didn’t say.
“That can’t be true. Bianca loves you. It’s obvious from the way she talks to you.” Shame weighed his head down. What had he ever done to deserve her love?
Sita continued ruthlessly, “Devi loves you too. Why else would she follow you all the way from Mars? And against my advice, too?” she added wryly.
Ay, the preponderance of evidence suggested that his children did in fact care about him. Since they were both intelligent women, he couldn’t ascribe their actions it to stupidity. But he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why they should.
Sita continued, her voice carefully nonchalant, “And of course Ana loved you--”
“Ana only really loved my mind,” he said roughly. His first wife had been too refined, and then too sick to indulge in much physical or emotional intimacy.
“And Victoria?” Sita whispered, as if she were afraid to ask.
“Victoria loved nothing and no one but herself. And after she started drilling everything with a rod, I stopped drilling her.”
“You knew she was rolling with all those men?”
Max cast her an impatient look. “Contrary to what everyone thinks, I am not an idiot savant. I am sufficiently aware of my surroundings to know when my wife is bed hopping.”
It was Sita’s turn to look exasperated. “Why didn’t you dissolve your contract with her then?”
“It was just easier,” he muttered.
That was the way most marriages among the Martian elite worked. Why disrupt a perfectly good business arrangement for something as trivial as a failed relationship? Victoria had been a skilled politician and businesswoman. If she hadn’t also turned out to be an evil murdering puta from hell, he might have kept her around indefinitely.
Suddenly that seemed to be the stupidest rationalization in the history of stupid rationalizations. Exactly the kind of Martian elite ratshite Sita despised.
“And there’s been no one else at all?” Sita’s voice broke in to his self-recrimination.
“Na. No one who actually gave a damn for me. It got so disheartening, I haven’t even tried for a woman in years.” Years…had it really been that long since he’d had sex? Ciel, it really had. Every single woman he met regarded him as either a prize acquisition or an asexual android. And, he realized with a curl of disgust, he had actually preferred it that way because that too was easier.
He shoved his past idiocy aside. This kind of self-pity did no one any good. He nudged Sita’s foot with the toe of his boot. “What about you? Do you have anyone to love you?” An unnamable surge of emotion had him clenching his jaw as he waited for her answer.
She shrugged a little. “I dated a few men now and then, mostly as Devi got older. Had a companionship contract with a very nice synthchem researcher for a several years. We ended it amicably when I decided to leave Mars and follow Devi to Earth.”
“This synthchem researcher… he was ‘very nice’?” Max growled.
“Ay, nice. That’s all.” She sounded sad, he thought. “I could never have anything more than ‘nice’ since…”
As her voice trailed away, echoes of feelings, unspoken words filled the silence, unbearably loud. “Since?” he grated.
She met his eyes directly, that dark, shining gaze he had never forgotten. “Since I fell in love with you Max. I never got over you. I still haven’t.”
* * *
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