StarLine Complex, Pavonis City, Mars, year 280 after colonization
Like any red blooded young Martian, Aksita Chandra loved a good party.
Theoretically, the party she was at now should qualify as a good one. The food and drink were plentiful--though trying to consume any of the protein and sweet sculptures rather than just admire their exquisite presentation was a bit daunting. And the grand atrium of the brand new StarLine company complex was an undoubtedly magnificent place to hold a gathering.
It was a huge, diamond-lattice dome, clinging to the rim of Mars’s extinct Pavonis volcano like a soap bubble on the rim of a bowl. The star-spattered indigo sky rose infinitely far above the dome, and below it, the vast purple circle of the volcano caldera sank through the planet’s crust into impenetrable shadow. Inside, the enormous chamber glowed with mosaic stone floors and lush indoor gardens. Throughout the towering jungle of bamboo and tree ferns there were scattered decorative “ruins”, from a rotted wooden Shinto temple to a rusted American skyscraper.
All in all, a brilliant setting for a rollicking bash, Sita judged.
But alas, a bash was nowhere in sight tonight. The guests, an extremely glamorous and high-powered set, were more intent on back-slapping and back-stabbing than on having a good time. Floating about the room in outrageously colorful clothes, their motions were a calculated dance, their conversations designed to further the getting and keeping of power. They ranged in age from thirty to nearly two hundred, though it was difficult to tell how old each one was. As native-born Martians, all these people had grown up with Correction treatments, medical technology that both protected them from Mars’s intense radiation and allowed them to extend their youth and lifespan far beyond that of their Earther ancestors.
Sita herself was only thirty-five, barely out of adolescence in Martian terms, so she was already at the bottom of their social ladder. What’s more, she was a mere duster out of Hellas Basin, not bred by the great families in Anderson or New Beijing, just an ordinary Martian chic who had got ahead through sheer brains and talent. In her case, a talent in virology.
Sita was, unquestionably, one of the best pathologists the Anderson Biotech Institute had ever produced. She had developed a reputation as an enfant terrible of sorts, but one who had earned the Institute a lot of money and prestige. The bioscanners she designed had already thwarted a patho attack by a madman on a sunship. That success had secured her place as a consultant for StarLine’s biosecurity, one of the hottest assignments a tech could hope to snag.
Because StarLine was building the biggest, grandest, and most important structure ever to be attempted by humanity—the engineering project that would put all the relics of earlier civilizations crowding this atrium to shame. The Mars space elevator.
The vision and creation of Maxin Ross, the most brilliant scientist Mars had ever produced, the space elevator was the reason for StarLine’s meteoric rise. A carbon fiber cable fifty meters in diameter would anchor on the equatorial mountain of Pavonis and run hundreds of thousands of kilometers up into space to terminate at a space station in orbit above Mars. Elevator cars, like vertical train cars, would run up and down the cable, making expensive rocket launches out of the planet’s gravity well obsolete. The benefit to Mars’s economy and its technological achievement would be unfathomable.
And StarLine, Sita’s employer, would reap a huge percentage of that wealth and power.
Therefore, despite Sita’s lowly family background in the Martian Outback, she had earned her place in the higher echelons of Martian society. She could go to their parties and let them bore her stupid if she damn well wanted.
Exchanging nods and civil words with her few acquaintances in the crowd, she wandered toward an attractively weathered Egyptian column that she suspected might actually be a real artifact imported from Earth. It was surrounded by a miniature jungle of palm trees, and as she passed by, two long arms shot out of the greenery and dragged her underneath the palm fronds. Before she knew it, she was being pressed against a stone column and ruthlessly kissed.
Max. She smiled against the lips hungrily devouring hers, suddenly remembering why she had come to this dreadful party in the first place. She wrapped her arms around his lean waist and kissed him back, hard.
After a long, hot moment, he eased back from her, his breathing ragged. She smiled up into his face. Keen blue eyes pierced her, all intensity. A hank of his thick, sandy hair had fallen across his high forehead. She raised her fingers to brush it back and studied him appreciatively. His long, straight nose, blunt cheekbones and hard jawline gave a haughty, craggy appearance of his face, as did his wide mouth bracketed by creases in his lean cheeks.
Her gaze moved down his sinewy neck to his broad, rangy shoulders, his cabled arms and squared off fingers, down farther to his flat stomach and his long legs and feet. He was dressed, as always, in a carbonsuit programmed to a vague gray, an outfit not the least bit fashionable but tight fitting enough to set off his fine physique to perfection.
With a shiver of appreciation, she raised her gaze back up to his most devastating feature, his magnificent electric blue eyes. Framed by lashes and brows a few shades darker than his hair, they were brilliant and intense, like the man himself. Ciel, there was nothing like Max Ross when his focus was switched on. He looked at her as if she were the only thing that existed in the entire Sol, the most precious, fascinating being he had ever imagined.
“I missed you,” she said.
He grinned. “It’s only been twenty-one hours and twelve minutes.”
She pulled his head down for another quick kiss, taking all the love she could get from him before someone found them. She had only been involved with Max for two months, and they had both taken pains to keep the affair discreet so far. The cream of Martian society chattering just a few meters away didn’t need to know that Maxin Ross, the principal and visionary of the StarLine space tech company was playing hooky from his own party in order to snog a duster nobody from Hellas.
Not that Max cared about such social distinctions, she thought fondly. Like her, he distained the political games of his colleagues because he could compensate for his social deficiencies with pure talent. That was one of the reasons she had fallen for him. He might live and work among these high-bred snakes out of necessity, but she knew that he had nothing in common with them beyond his ambition to get his beloved space elevator built.
At only fifty years old, Max was poised to be the youngest Martian ever to reach the pinnacle of status in society, business, and government, if only he could secure the final agreements to proceed with his project from the power mongers of Mars. Hence, this party.
Sita wanted to support him in his efforts, but she hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about it, other than to simply love him whenever he had the time to be loved. She was just wise enough in the ways of the Sol to leave the political jockeying that surrounded him to the professionals, such as his StarLine CEO, Ana Vandelft.
But her low-key approach to this relationship wouldn’t serve for much longer. She had an extremely important bit of news to tell him, one that would surely change all his plans, just as much as it had changed hers. But telling him about it had to wait until she had him alone.
Tonight, after he was done with this party, she would serve him a late meal she would cook herself, pleasure him with several hours of their usual athletic and inventive sex, and then…then she would tell him.
Ceil, she could picture the stunned, elated look on his face already, like the one she had seen on her own face in the mirror this morning. In spite of herself, she found a silly grin edging onto her lips.
Max smiled down at her in return, his eyes sparkling with delight. “You look at me that way and I have a mind to take you straight out the door and into the nearest bed,” he said, running his hands up her still-trim waist.
She patted the column behind her. “Oh, I don’t know if we need to go that far. This pillar seems sturdy enough.”
He groaned and pressed his forehead against hers. “Don’t tempt me. Please. I have four hundred people out there I need to impress tonight. I can’t go around poking an erection at them.”
“Well it impresses me,” she murmured, brushing her body against him.
With a laugh, she relented. “Then you’d better get out there and schmooze instead of molesting random women in the shrubbery, you greenie.”
He raised his head, his face gone serious. “You’re no random woman, Sita. I’ve never felt…” He didn’t seem to know what to say next.
Quickly she kissed the grave look off his face. “I know. We have a date for later? After you’re done talking to these people?”
“Ay. That you can count on.”
That was when a voice came from beyond the leaves concealing them. “M’Ross, M’Vandelft is looking for you.”
Instantly, Max’s muscles stiffened under her hands. Sita groaned to herself. Anam, Max’s fecking bodyguard who glared at her every time he saw her, was standing just beyond the leaves.
“You should go now,” Sita said.
He nodded and kissed her once more, and then straightened, his gaze narrowing, taking on a faraway gleam. She felt a pang to see it. Max had shifted his focus, and as she well knew, he was a man who could only concentrate on one thing at a time. When his ferocious intelligence was engaged, there was no distracting him from his single-minded pursuit of his object. Sita might occupy a certain portion of his mind, but the rest of it was dedicated to mathematics and engineering, and his paramount obsession, his space elevator. She knew she had to accept this fact about him, but it was never easy.
She said bracingly, “Go get them, space cowboy! Let them see who they’re dealing with!”
He smiled a bit distractedly and said, “I’ll see you in a few hours.” Then he was gone, ducking out of the palm branches and striding away toward a knot of important looking guests.
Beyond the palm fronds, Anam shot a searing glance at the place where Sita was standing against the pillar, then turned to follow his boss. Sita gave it a few minutes and then fought her way through the greenery in another direction.
For more than an hour she circulated among Max’s guests, exchanging a few stilted words here and there and ignoring the large number of people who were pointedly ignoring her. She accepted a cocktail tube when one was shoved at her by a bored flunky, and settled against a crumbling marble wall to keep a covert watch on Max.
He was standing near the diamond laminate viewport wall overlooking the vast well of purple shadow that was the volcano caldera. Behind him on the southern rim of the crater was the construction site for the terminal collar that would hopefully anchor the elevator cable, a rust colored hole bristling with bots and comp towers. It was an arresting visual image. But Max was characteristically unaware of the magnificent view. Instead, he was talking earnestly to some tall thin brunette woman in a deeply impressive royal blue suit, once again expounding on his vision for the Mars space elevator. Beside him was Ana Vandelft, his CEO. It was her job to explain the glory, power, and wealth that the space elevator would bring those who made Max’s vision real.
Sita hid what must be an addled expression by pretending to sip her cocktail. Stuck at the worst party in the history of Mars, and she couldn’t even drink away her annoyance. But she had no choice. With an effort she kept her free hand from straying to her still-flat stomach, a betraying gesture if ever there was one. She would let none of these people guess at her secret until she spoke to Max.
He might not believe it himself, at first. Who could? The Correction treatment that kept all Martians young and healthy also prevented conception. All pregnancies had to be artificially induced. Except for this one instance.
A miracle from Heaven. A one in five hundred billion chance. She had run the numbers herself. Almost impossible, and yet, it had happened. And she would take no chance with this marvel that Heaven had granted Max and her.
And it was just as well she couldn’t get blasted. Heaven knew what unpleasant trick this assemblage of well-dressed thugs would toss at her if she didn’t keep her guard up.
She looked around for a server bot to take away her still-full cocktail tube, but it seemed even the robots were ignoring her tonight. She stuffed the tube into a nearby potted bamboo and folded her arms, waiting for Max to finish his pitch so she could sidle up to him and politely demand he get her the feck out of here
“Looks like Ross and Vandelft are as thick as always. Perhaps your data was wrong, my bird.”
“Na, my data is good, never doubt it.”
Sita jolted, surprised by the voices coming from directly behind her, their owners obscured by the wall she leaned against. Then she stilled, attention caught.
“Ross is enraptured by his pretty little virologist,” the second voice continued.
“Simply shocking. And after his engagement to Ana Vandeft was practically a done deal.”
Max was almost engaged to Ana? Ridiculous! She may have only been involved with Max for a few weeks, but in that time he had never once in word or deed given any hint that his relationship with his CEO was anything other than professional.
“Oh, he’ll still marry Ana, I’m sure,” the snide voice said. “Max would never let a low class duster huli jing get in the way of a marriage contract with a family that would secure his precious space elevator for him. No, he’ll just keep his piece on the side, like everyone else.”
The feck he will! Sita almost snarled. She was no man’s concubine.
The first voice said, “Ay, but to be flaunting his bit of fluff in front of Ana, right after she was diagnosed with leukemia…”
Ana has leukemia? Sita’s gaze flew across the room to the StarLine CEO’s beautiful, serene face. She was listening to whatever Max and the brunette woman were saying, an intent frown on her brow. Sita had heard rumors of Ana’s health problems before, but cancer? That disease was almost unheard of on Mars.
“Ay, Ross does look a heartless wretch, doesn’t he? But that’s not the worst of it. I’ve heard…”
“What? Don’t be a tease, Vicki. Tell me!”
“Well, I’ve heard that the virologist might be angling for more than a place in Ross’s bed. Her swooping in to snag Ross just as Ana fell sick might not be a coincidence at all.”
“No! You don’t mean the doctor…caused Ana’s disease?” The last words fell to a near whisper.
“It makes sense. Who better than a doctor to figure out how to give someone cancer?”
“Almost untraceable too. There would be no way to prove guilt—or innocence.”
“She had better hope Ross doesn’t hear this. Just think—to be caught panting after a potential murderer! It would destroy his credit. Why, it could even cost him his elevator, if his affair hasn’t done it already.”
“Ay, and the chic had better hope that no one on the Council believes she poisoned Ana. What if someone took her example to heart? If she can get rid of Ana, then what’s to prevent someone from getting rid of her? A few people are already eager to do the deed.”
“People like you, Vicki?”
“I? Never!” Vicki said in a patently false voice. Both of them tittered in amusement.
Sita couldn’t stand it any longer. She whipped around the corner of the wall and looked the vicious gossips in the face, her body vibrating with anger.
A long, saturnine man and a beautiful blond woman stood before her, mouths gaping in horror at what she had obviously heard. She drew breath to furiously denounce them and their foul rumors, but then she saw the eager glimmer in their eyes.
They wanted me to overhear them, she realized, a sick feeling boiling in her stomach.
Without a word, she turned on her heel and marched across the atrium to Max, blowing past knots of these hateful people and leaving their scandalized whispers in her wake.
“…the anchor GenIes are secured. The possibility of an accident will be so small as to be meaningless,” Max was saying.
Sita came up next to him, tucking her hand under his arm for comfort. He glanced down at her with a startled flick of his blue eyes, as if he had forgotten her until she was right before him. From Max’s other side, Anna shot her a disconcerted look.
She plastered a smile on her face. “Ni hao! Sorry to intrude.”
The brunette in the royal blue suit, who looked vaguely familiar to her, cast her a supercilious glance. “A friend of yours, Max?”
“Ay. Malia, this is Sita Chandra. Sita, Malia Volkov.” He, and Ana, looked at her as if she should know who this woman was and should care.
“Nice to meet you,” Sita rattled out. “Max, could I speak with you for a moment in private?”
Max stared at her, his jaw dropping. Feck. If even Max Ross, social naïf, was embarrassed by her manners, this must really be bad. She began to flush.
Volkov’s deep, overly cultured voice said, “Well Max, I see the rumors are true. You are besotted with an infant. Not the most clever move for a genius.” She laughed, a sound as brittle and biting as broken plaz.
Embarrassed and furious, Sita’s temper, stretched to its limit, finally snapped. “All right snakeskin, that’s enough from you. Go be nasty elsewhere. I have important things to discuss with Max.” Turning her shoulder to the other woman, she tried tugging on Max’s arm to get him to move to a more private location. But Max wouldn’t move, apparently frozen with horror.
Volkov made an incredulous noise and stormed off.
Ana’s worried gaze cut between the woman’s retreating blue back and Max’s stunned face. “I’ll go fix this,” she said, and hurried after Volkov.
Finally, they were alone. “Max—“ she began.
“Do you know who that was?” Max said, still staring after Volkov. Ana caught up with her, talking earnestly.
“No, actually, and I don’t care. Listen, Max—“
“That was the Undersecretary for Martian Surface Settlements!”
“Huh. I thought she seemed familiar. Think I like her better on a vidscreen, though. Listen to me, Max—“
“Do you not understand what you just did?” Max said, rounding on her, his voice vibrating with fury. “You insulted the person responsible for issuing the permit for the elevator cable anchor site at Pavonis!”
Apparently an infant had indeed taken possession of her tongue, because Sita said, “She insulted me first! Max, we have to talk. Can you forget about your stupid elevator for five minutes?”
The instant the words left her mouth, she knew she had made a mistake.
Max’s face went hard and cold, his eyes burning into her like blue flames. “Stupid. My life’s work, the effort of thousands of people, the all the power and wealth the elevator will bring to Mars, is stupid?” He was furious, she knew, but also hurt.
“No, Max…I…that’s not…” she stammered.
“Leave,” Max said.
Sita didn’t comprehend the word for a moment. “Leave?” she said, a witless echo.
“You obviously can’t be trusted to behave in a civilized manner, so you’ll have to go. Anam will take you home.” He raised his arm to summon his sec chief.
“No!” Sita dragged his arm down. “Are you cracked? The last thing I want is your beastly bodyguard manhandling me into my habsuite!” If any of the people who surrounded Max truly wished her harm, Anam would be the one. The big, burly man stared at her with out and out hatred whenever Max’s back was turned, though he seemed fiercely loyal to Ana. Now, finally, Sita could guess the reason behind his animosity.
“I’m cracked as well as stupid,” Max said, his face white with anger. “Go home, Sita, before you make things worse.”
“All right,” she said, cold searing down to her bones. She was shaking. She didn’t know what to think, what to do. She blurted out the one last question she had to ask. “Tell me something before I go. Are you going to marry Ana?”
“I’m not discussing this here.”
It wasn’t a denial. Heaven and hell, he wasn’t denying it! Her throat closed, but she forced herself to nod. “Then we’ll discuss it tonight.”
Max’s face had lost all expression. He took her hand off his arm and dropped it, like a maintenance bot dropping a piece of trash in the recycler. “No we won’t. I’m going to be here all night helping Ana clear up the mess you just made of my company.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, trying one last time. “But I really do have to talk to you about something important.”
“Nothing is more important than the Mars space elevator,” Max said flatly. He spared her one last cold glance before striding after Ana, leaving Sita standing alone in the middle of the atrium, her heart shattering into small pieces in her chest.
Dozens of avid eyes focused on her. Laughter and whispers hissed through the air around her. She was standing here bleeding and these predators could all scent it.
They wouldn’t hesitate a second to hurt her, socially, or physically if they could get away with it. She knew that now. It made her furious, made her want to fight them all with her fists and her words. Ay, a good brawl would be just the kind of low-class, duster behavior they would expect from the likes of her. She was tempted to give them what they wanted.
But she couldn’t think just about herself anymore, not when she had another precious life to guard. And would Max take her side, help her, guard that life? Terrible doubt seized her. Max had chosen his elevator over her already. Would he choose it over his child as well? Did she dare risk it?
She watched as Max reached the two women and stood next to Ana, who was listening to a furious Volkov jabber at her. Then she saw Ana’s fingers move slightly, as if to grasp Max’s broad hand. Sita’s eyes shot to the other woman’s, dark, almond-shaped, and full of yearning. Then she knew. Ana was in love with Max.
How could she not be? She shared Max’s passion for engineering, she had helped him build his dream from the very beginning. She shared his fierce, ruthless ambition. What’s more, she belonged in his world in a way Sita never would. She knew how to handle these people, knew how to play their game just as Max’s partner would have to do.
And now Ana had leukemia. She needed Max in a way Sita didn’t. And just like that, Sita’s decision was made.
Numbly, she turned away from them and walked away. Step after careful step, growing colder and colder as she left Max and his world behind forever. At the towering gilded doors to the StarLine grand atrium, she stole one last look at the rangy back of the man she loved, and then stepped through his doorway for the last time.
She went to her Pavonis flat, packed up and left for Anderson Biotech institute that very night. Only days later, when she was settled back in her old flat, ready to start her old job, did she curl herself around her unborn baby and cry.
That was the last she saw of Max for years, until the day her worst fear came true and the world she had left behind reached out to drag her and her child back into mortal danger.
* * *
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