Max paced around his cell like a trapped animal, his bare feet shushing across the plaz floor. With each circle of the room the walls pulled tighter and tighter around him, pressing in on him until he could barely breathe.
He had to get out of this room before he went insane, find the cure for the programmable virus, and get it to the Exalt in time to cure Jacques and whoever else might have fallen ill. And he had to do it all before the sunship finished loading the cargo and left for Mars without him.
He tried to focus on the problem with the same crystal-sharp intensity he used to crack an engineering problem, but for the first time in his life, his concentration was shredded.
He would have an idea, and reach for his cuffs to do a quick calculation, only to remember with a jolt that his cuffs were gone, along with his clothes and his dignity. Or sometimes, a horrible vision would burst up out of the depths of his mind, of Sita or the others dying, cursing him for leaving them with their last breaths. Then the shaking would start again, and he would have to tamp it back down, gather up his calm and patience, and begin all over again.
Think. Think! What good is it being a genius if you can’t even think your way out of a locked room?
He was ready to howl in frustration. His fear for Sita and Devi and all the other people on the Exalt was a constant gnawing pain in his gut. His complete helplessness was infuriating. And his hunger and thirst were growing unbearable. He paused in his circuit of the room to eye the packet of gen medium, still lying on the floor by the door where it had fallen.
Never had a blob of tasteless goo looked more appetizing. But still, he hesitated to drink it. Xu’s claim that he hadn’t drugged it sounded plausible, but the man was too devious and too plain crazy for Max to trust anything he said.
He tore his gaze away from the packet and resumed pacing. Around and around the cell, from front to back and side to side.
He paced for two hours and forty-two minutes, until his steps started to waver. He stopped in the middle of the room, swaying on his feet. Forty-three hours and twenty seven minutes since I’ve eaten. That’s no good. His head turned unwillingly back to the gen medium. It might be drugged, but if he passed out from thirst he would be helpless anyway. He had to take the risk.
Before he could convince himself otherwise, he strode over to the square pouch on the floor and snatched it up. He tore off one corner and sipped the viscous fluid, using all of his control to drink slowly.
Instantly, his muscles loosened and his head cleared. He couldn’t detect any drugs, so perhaps Xu had been telling the truth, for once.
Still sipping, he went back to the mattress and sat, leaning his naked back against the cool plaz wall. His eyes gaze drifted across the wall opposite him until it caught on one of the small, square sensor nodes. With nothing else to look at, he studied the sensor idly, noting the configuration of the biometric scanners, and the two-centimeter exchanger…Wait.
His eyes narrowed. That looked like a Martian sensor rig, not Earther make. And not the most advanced model, either. Five years old at least, based on the slip slot configuration. He looked carefully around the room. Ay, all of the sensors were the same, Martian, somewhat older. They must still serve their purpose well enough that Xu hadn’t needed to replace them, and so he just let it slide.
If Xu wasn’t even able to fully maintain his medical realm, the one area he had an interest in, then it would be impossible for him to keep up the maintenance and replacement schedule that a well-run space station required. Hell, Max had seen the general disorder of the Advent for himself from the moment he set foot in this damned hulk.
When maintenance got this bad, Max knew it was only a matter of time before something went seriously wrong with the station. Either structural damage, or some gremlin getting loose among the General Intelligence programs that ran everything was sure to doom this place.
Thoughtfully, he finished the last of the gen medium and wadded the empty pouch in his fist. He started to throw it into the vac unit, but then something stopped him.
Slowly, he unfolded his hand and stared at the crumpled pouch. It was clear and plain, with no packaging design. But in one corner was a sigil—a bar character imprinted on the flimsy plaz to contain readable data like expiration date and factory of origin, as well as to monitor the freshness and purity of the product. In other words, it was a tiny computer slip with a tiny battery.
An idea was gliding just under the surface of his conscious thought, and patiently he focused, waiting for it to surface.
His eyes went once again to the sensor nodes all around him, judging their positions. There was one within arm’s reach of the door.
His mind lit up, the idea fully formed. It might take a long time before it worked. It might not work at all. And it was certain to be excruciating, he thought with a wince. But he had to try it. Methodically, he tore the little sigil out of the plaz of the empty gen medium pouch and fisted it in his left hand. He had a weapon.
Sunship Exalt, medical deck
Sita hurried into the critical ward, almost reeling with fatigue before she caught herself against the door. She had been cloistered with the analyzers and the culture vats for hours, but now she was ready to share her news, the good and the horrible. She clutched the datastick and the injector cartridge in her hands tighter, and roughly called out, “Devi!”
Devi appeared from behind a matrix tower near the Correction chamber where Jacques still lay, fighting for his life. The soft glow from the room’s various consoles illuminated her ashy skin and hollow eyes as she strode forward. Neither of them had slept at all in the two days since Jacques had fallen ill.
“Mum! what do you have for us?” Devi said, her desperation more pronounced than ever.
Sita passed a shaking hand over her forehead, trying to think where to start. Her mind was a tangled mess of fear, anger, and exhaustion. “You were right,” she blurted. “Xu forced Max to go to the Advent with him.”
Devi blinked. “But…how do you know? Did he contact you?”
“No, no. I deduced that Xu told him that he had infected us all with a virus, and he would kill us if he didn’t go with him. Because we are. We’re all infected.”
Devi went even paler, but she didn’t seem surprised. “Tell me what we’re dealing with.”
Sita breathed deeply, and forced her tired mind into the lecture mode she used back when she taught classes back at Anderson Biotech. “It’s programmable. A programmable virus that can respond to transmissions. The reason all of our tests for patho came back negative is because it mimics a common benign virus, except that it spreads phenomenally fast. Once it’s infected a host it lies dormant until it’s activated by a comp signal. Then it transforms into a virulent pathogen and attacks.
“I believe Xu triggered the virus in Jacques in order to pressure Max into going with him.”
Devi snarled, but Sita continued “He could have chosen to make any one of us his example. And he still could. He’s taken this entire ship hostage with this virus. I have the proof here.” She pushed the datastick she held into Devi’s hand. “Results of the tests I designed for a random sample of the ships passengers and crew. Every one was positive.”
Devi glanced at it quickly before shoving it in her hip pouch. “Can we stop it?”
“Ay. That’s where this comes in,” she said, and held up the prepped injector cartridge. “I’ve finished the virucide.”
Devi’s eyes lit with hope. “Heaven bless you,” she said, snatching the cartridge out of Sita’s hand.
She followed Devi as she strode the Correction chamber’s injector arrays to insert the cartridge. They waited a few tense moments in silence, but when Jacques’s first preliminary readings came back indicating a slight reduction in virus levels, they both sighed in relief.
“Thank Heaven,” Devi murmured, sagging against the console.
Sita said, “I have more of this preparation programing in the culture vats, enough for everyone on the Exalt. It’s crude yet, but it will at least keep us all alive.” She reached out to clasp her daughter’s shoulder. “Devi, I need you to see to it that the virucide is distributed throughout the ship.”
“You aren’t going to oversee it yourself?”
“No. I’m going to the space station.”
Devi’s jaw dropped.
Sita hurried on, “I need to get this cure to Max as fast as possible. The last shuttle for the Advent is leaving within minutes, and I have to be on it. If I try to go through the Captain or Max’s aides, it may take too long, and I can’t risk that.”
Devi found her voice. “You can’t possibly go confront Xu by yourself!”
Sita dropped her hand from Devi’s shoulder. “I won’t be by myself for long, not if you convince the captain to send a security team after me to get us both out of there. Can you do that?”
“Of course I can do that. But, this is cracked! We don’t know who these people are, or what they’re capable of. We don’t even know why they took Max. You’d be flying in blind!”
“I know all that! And it doesn’t matter!”
Devi stared at her, eyes wide.
Drawing herself tightly under control, Sita said, “If I don’t go now, it may be too late for Max. I left him once before. I’m never going to do it again. I can’t. Do you understand?”
Devi’s gaze went to the window in the Correction unit where they could see Jacques’s still, gray shape behind the glass. Her head bowed. “Ay, I understand.”
“Then you’ll do this? You’ll get the virucide distributed and send the ship sec to rescue us both?”
“Ay, mum,” Devi said, her voice wavering.
Not trusting her own voice, Sita gave her daughter a swift, tight hug. Then she turned on her heel and strode back through the door and down the hall to the lift that would take her to the shuttle dock.
Hold on Max. I’m coming for you.
Space station Advent, laboratory deck, specimen ward alpha
Max stood studying of the sensor node by the door, a twelve-by-sixteen centimeter box projecting slightly from the wall. It was a standard Martian design, the casing in two pieces clipped together with thin tabs.
He frowned thoughtfully. Carbon matrix plaz, even thin plaz like this, was a very durable material. But it could be broken with just the right amount of force at just the right place.
Narrowing his eyes, he drew back his fist and slammed two knuckles into the lower corner of the box, exactly where one of the plaz tabs attached.
Shaking out his hand, he studied his work. Sure enough, a hairline seam had appeared in the smooth gray surface of the box. He worked his nails under the seam, pried the faceplate off, and tossed it aside.
The thing squawked an annoying alarm chirp at the intrusion. Max estimated he had only four minutes until Xu came to check on him personally, since that was how long it had taken him to appear before when Max had first woken up. Ignoring the alarm, he peered inside the unit to find the one element of the sensor he was interested in—the timer.
There it is. A small black cylinder with the numerals 01:38 glowing blue on the side. Max released a breath. He had cut the timing of this move more closely than he thought.
Now for the next part of his plan. This was going to suck the dust off a rod, but there was no alternative. Resolutely, Max placed the shock cuff encircling his left wrist directly on the timer. Then, releasing a slow breath, he stretched out his right hand to touch the door.
Instant, white hot agony racked him as if his muscles were trying to wrench themselves off of his skeleton, his throat locking so that he couldn’t even scream.
The next thing he knew, he lay sprawled on the floor, his limbs jumping from the residual shock.
Feck. Fecking shite. That shock cuff did not mess around, he thought hazily. He lifted his head up, his muscles screaming from the violent spasms they had just endured. He ignored the pain and sat up. Only two and a half minutes left. Slumping against the wall, he pushed with his shaking legs and clawed up to stand in front of the open sensor again.
The timer had absorbed some of the shock from the cuff, and the blue numerals were now blinking in rapid confusion. Max had only a short window before it reset itself.
One by one he forced the cramping fingers of his left hand open. On his palm lay the sigil he had peeled off the drink pouch, which he had been keeping clasped in his fist. He pinched the tiny computer, not much thicker and wider than a hair, between his fingers.
Steadying his hand, he raised the sigil to the timer and touched it to the port where a comp repair needle would go, and tapped in a code.
The timer didn’t respond. One minute left. He continued on steadily, inputting the code again as the numbers on the plaz surface flickered madly. The sigil battery couldn’t possibly last much longer.
Then the timer flashed once more, and settled into a steady blue glow, the numbers now reading 13:41.
Did it, by hell. He collapsed against the wall and slid down it to sit on the floor below the sensor, finally able to cradle his throbbing left hand against his chest. Wincing, he probed the skin under the shock cuff, but it seemed whole, though searing shivers of pain still ran up his arm with every touch. Never mind. If this works, it will be worth every second.
“You touched the door. You hurt yourself,” Xu’s voice echoed through the room speaker, an anxious, distressed little squeak. “Why did you do that?”
Right on time. “Dust off, you little cockroach arse,” Max muttered. He levered himself to his feet and staggered to the pallet on the floor, where he slumped, exhausted. But he found enough energy to lift his head to stare defiantly at the window in the door.
Xu peered through the diamond lattice at him, a frown creasing his thin face. “Profanity is beneath you, Max.”
“You keep thinking you know me, but you have no fecking clue what I really am, Xu.”
Ignoring him, Xu said, “What were you doing to the sensor?” He frowned down at his cuff, as if taking readings. “You used the shock cuff to jolt the unit. What did you think you were going to accomplish? If you were trying to interfere with the data collection in an attempt at stalling your cryosleep, you were unsuccessful. I’ll have to disconnect the sensor you were tampering with, but the others will still give me enough data.”
Max just shrugged.
“I could shock you again, you know, with one touch on my cuff,” Xu said quietly. “I’m going to ask you one more time, Max. Tell me what you did to that sensor.”
Max smiled. “I reset the clock to Martian time.” It was the truth, but Xu wouldn’t know what it meant.
Because Mars’s day was thirty-eight minutes longer than Earth’s, Martians had an extra hour programmed into all their clocks, commonly called hour thirteen. But Earther tech typically could not accommodate this extra hour. This became a problem when the time data in Martian tech and Earther tech refused to integrate, because slowly and inevitably the dissonance would drive the General Intelligence programs that ran everything mad.
His daughter Bianca had discovered this phenomenon when she had nearly been caught in a catastrophic accident in a Martian mine. Realizing how dangerous the hour thirteen gremlin was, Max and Bianca had taken steps to insulate their own tech and space stations from it. But the Advent hadn’t seen those kinds of upgrades in years, rendering it vulnerable to a very simple bit of sabotage.
The poisoning of the station’s GenIes had begun the instant the sensor connected to the larger system. Soon the data problems with the GenIes would start, and the mechanical failures would follow. When the emergency protocols kicked in, the door to his cell would open automatically. After that, he just had to neutralize Xu. His hands flexed at that thought, as he imagined exactly how he was going to be neutralizing the little shite.
He was going to get out of here. He just needed it to be soon, before the Exalt left. Please, Heaven, let it be soon.
“You shocked yourself just to reset the clock to Martian time?” Xu said skeptically. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I was extremely homesick,” Max said drily.
Xu was about to speak again, when his cuff chimed. He glanced down at the message with a scowl, but when he looked up again, a strange light glittered in his eyes.
All the triumph drained out of Max in a rush, leaving dread in its wake. This is going to be bad.
His face twitching again, Xu said, “Sita Chandra is aboard the last of my shuttles, and is requesting entry to the station. What should we do with her, I wonder?”
* * *
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