Space Station Advent, shuttle dock four
A great calm had settled over Max during the shuttle ride from the sunship to Xu’s space station. Strapped into his shuttle berth under the little man’s bright-eyed stare, he came to the realization that this was simply another game of strategy. He had been thrust into the middle of the match before he even realized he was playing, and that had cost him dearly. But he would win yet. He had to. He simply had to wait for the right opening.
For now, he was playing defense. As the shuttle’s autopilot docked with the station with a barely perceptible shimmy, he looked over to where Xu sat in the pilot’s sling, and met the other man’s eyes. “What now?” he said, keeping his tone just short of a challenge.
Xu tapped one finger on his wrist near his cuff pad thoughtfully, as if debating whether or not to punish him for daring to ask a question. Boosted by the shuttle comps, his cuffs could easily send a signal triggering the virus infesting the Exalt, even at several kilometers distance. But he answered Max instead. “Now I show you your new home.”
New home my arse. “It won’t be long before my people figure out where I’ve gone, and with whom. They’re not going to just let you hold me indefinitely, virus on no virus,” he said, trying to sound reasonable.
The little man’s twitchy grin reappeared. “But I won’t be holding you, not as far as they’re concerned. You’re going to com your staff, and the captain, and your family. You’re going to tell them that you have accepted the consultant position with the Aurora project and will be staying on this station. You’ll direct the captain to continue on to Mars without you.”
“Not one single person in the Sol is going to believe I would do something so ridiculous.”
“Of course they will. You’ve divested yourself of most of the responsibility for running your company, you have no close friends and you’re estranged from your family. The whole Sol knows that science is your consuming obsession, Max. Convincing your people that you’re abandoning them to work on a new project shouldn’t be difficult at all.”
Max just barely kept from flinching.
“And you had better convince them, Max, because if they don’t believe you, if they display so much as a hint of suspicion, I’ll simply end the charade and kill them all. I’d prefer to avoid a ship full of corpses stirring up messy questions, but I will risk it if you force my hand.”
He took a deep breath and changed the subject. “Exactly what is this project you want me for? If not the Aurora starship, then what?
“You’ll see.” Xu reached out to tap on the pilot console and the hatch in the side of the shuttle slid open. “Get up and go through the docking lock. I’ll be right behind you. Don’t touch anything, or…” he gestured to the virus control on his cuff.
“You’ll kill everyone,” Max muttered.
Max unhooked his harness and floated up in the zero gravity, then launched himself through the hatch and into the gravity lock, Xu following him just out of arm’s reach.
When the gravity lock matched up with the station’s spin, Max’s feet settled to the floor. The door to the space station proper snapped open revealing a bay that was dark, filthy, and empty except for the derelict shell of a maintenance bot.
“Ciel,” he muttered in disgust. No spacer worth his air would neglect the space station he lived in like this. When life depended on a carefully maintained environment, one fecking carefully maintained it.
A suspicion sparked, and he shot a look at Xu. “Is this about ransom? Because if you need cash to fix this place up we can come to an agreement.”
Xu frowned as if disappointed in him. “Don’t be pedestrian Max. I have all the material wealth I need.”
Max looked around at the grimy composite surfaces of the barren chamber. “I can see that.”
Then another thought struck him. “Where’s your crew?” The other people who lived on this station had to know what their boss was up to, so why hadn’t they met him at the lock to take over guard duty? Xu couldn’t possibly think he could keep physical control of him for any length of time without their help.
“You’ll meet them shortly,” Xu said, an odd smile in his voice. “No more questions. We’re going to a com console now, so that you can say your farewells to the people on the Exalt. And remember, Max, make it convincing. Bleeding from every orifice is a painful way to die, I’m told.”
Sunship Exalt, medical deck, critical ward
“Hot green hell.” Sita straightened up from her hunch over her analysis console, groaning as her tense muscles released for the first time in hours.
Across the room, Devi looked up from the Correction tank where Jacques lay, clinging to life. Devi’s eyes were sunken in shadows, her beautiful face lined with strain. “Do you have something?” she asked, a desperate note in her voice.
“Ay, I think so.” She picked up a datapad with a summary of her latest findings and threaded her way through the clutter of medical equipment to stand at her daughter’s side. Handing Devi the datapad, she looked grimly through the Correction chamber’s viewport at her son-in-law, a still, gray figure floating in smart gel and shrouded in injection arrays.
Jacques was stable, for now. She and Devi had rushed him into the Correction treatment the instant he had collapsed on the loading bay floor, arresting the progress of his disease. But Correction was only a stopgap measure.
The smart drugs were shielding and repairing his cells, but unless they could find a way to kill the pathogen attacking him, his life was down to days, maybe hours. Even Devi, one of the most talented Correction specialists in the Sol, couldn’t fight the progression without the right virucide.
That’s where Sita came in. It was up to her to her to analyze this virus and find a way to destroy it. Gesturing to the datapad she had given to Devi she said, “I’ve modeled what we know of this virus, and I’m optimistic that I can design a successful virucide. Jacques’s immune response has given me a place to start working from. Fortunately, his family introduced some very sophisticated disease resistance into his genetic code. This pathogen is so fast and so lethal that he wouldn’t have had a fighting chance otherwise.”
She hesitated, reluctant to burden her daughter with even more trouble. But she had to know. “Devi, This virus—it keeps shifting, attacking different kinds of cells in different ways. Every time Jacques’s immune system gets a handle on it, it mutates slightly. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a bioweapon. It has to be.”
Devi’s eyes kindled. “Xu. The Aurora project. They’re responsible for this, somehow.”
“That’s my guess. Hopefully Max has found out some information about these bastards from Xu.”
“You haven’t heard from him yet?”
“No,” Sita said, frowning. Now that she thought of it, why hadn’t Max come to see them, or even commed them? Surely his meeting with Xu was over some time ago. Someone must have told him what had happened by now.
“Xu needs to be questioned by law enforcement!” Devi said fiercely. “If he’s involved in this in any way—“
“Involved in what, exactly?” said a voice behind them. Sita and Devi turned to see Captain Lopez standing in the open doorway to the ward, leveling a corrosive look at both of them.
“Captain! What brings you here? I thought you and the stevedores were being tested for patho,” Sita said.
“I was. All test results were negative, including yours, you’ll be happy to know. No one has been infected except him,” she said, nodding toward Jacques lying in the tank. “How is he?”
“Critically ill, obviously,” Devi snapped. “Captain, We have reason to believe that Jacques’s illness is the result of a bioweapon possibly released by Xu. We need--”
Lopez cut her off. “What we need is some perspective, not baseless slanders.”
Sita took one look at Devi’s brittle expression, and strode toward Lopez, saying, “Captain, could I speak to you for a moment?” She crowded the other woman through the doorway and into the corridor, and touched the door closed behind her with a snap.
Lopez, only momentarily taken aback at what must be the unusual experience of getting hustled out of a room, immediately commenced looming and scowling. “Xu is a valued business partner of Arescorp, and I won’t tolerate anyone starting ridiculous rumors that he released bioweapon on this ship.”
It took everything in Sita not to roar at the woman, but she forced her voice into a reasonable tone and said, “My analysis of the virus indicates quite clearly that it has been weaponized.”
“That may be, but it wasn’t weaponized by Xu. My med techs have tested every person who came into contact with both Tallinn and Xu and every one has come up patho negative.”
“What about the cryotubes? Jacques was examining one when he fell ill.”
“They’ve gone over every mil of the cryotubes with every sensor known to humanity. The cryotubes are clean. Tallinn must have picked up some filthy Earther disease while he was living in some filthy Earther slum.”
“That isn’t possible,” Sita ground out.
“It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“We need to examine Xu himself before we can rule out any explanation. You have to freeze the shuttle transfers from his space station until we know where this disease came from.”
“Out of the question. Unless my med techs can give me compelling grounds for believing the Advent is involved, we are finishing the cargo load and then we are burning for Mars. This episode has already pushed our schedule past acceptable levels. I’m not letting an isolated medical incident delay this ship one second longer than it has already.”
Sita narrowed her eyes. “I’m taking this to Max Ross. He’s the one who chartered this ship and he’ll have a say in this decision.”
“He already has,” Lopez said, frowning. “Didn’t he tell you yet? I was under the distinct impression that you two had a personal relationship.”
“I…What? Tell me what?”
“That he’s staying on the Advent space station for a work sabbatical with Xu’s group. He released the ship to resume the journey to Mars without him.”
“What? That can’t be right. I’m going to talk to him.” She started down the hallway, but before she’d gone two steps, Lopez said “He and Xu have already left for the Avent.”
Sita spun on her heel to stare at the other woman. “I don’t believe it!”
Lopez shrugged. “Com him yourself.”
At that instant, as if Heaven was listening to her conversation, a com chimed on her cuff. It was Max. And the origin of the signal was indeed the space station Advent.
“Excuse me, I need to take this,” she said, her voice uneven.
The captain merely raised an eyebrow and strode away down the hall.
Her heart unnaturally loud in her ears, Sita answered the com.
Max’s face appeared on her cuff, his expression as remote as if he was on a tabloid vid being interviewed by a stranger. “Ni hao Sita.”
“Max, what are you doing on the Advent? Are you trying to find out more about Aurora?”
“You don’t need to concern yourself with Aurora any more, Sita. They’re a perfectly legitimate space research group. In fact, I’ve decided to take up their offer to consult on an extremely important engineering project. I’m not at liberty to say much about it, but it involves interstellar space mechanics. I’ll be staying behind to work on the Advent for an extended period while the Exalt continues on to Mars.”
Sita stared at him mutely as a black chasm yawned open inside her. A thousand thoughts whirled in her head, but when she opened her mouth, the one that came out was, “I thought you said we weren’t over.”
Something flashed across Max’s face, too quickly to interpret. Then he said, “We had a pleasant encounter, and I would be agreeable to another one at some point in the future. But that’s of no significance right now.”
She flinched as if he had reached out of the vidscreen and slapped her.
Max continued in a monotone, “This project will affect the entire Sol. I can’t afford to be distracted from it by personal concerns. It’s simply too important to the future of humanity.”
“What about the future of the actual humans who need you here? I may be nothing but a ‘pleasant encounter,” she said, her voice cracking. “But Devi needs your support right now. Jacques is sick, Max. Did you not know that or did you just not care?”
Max started to say something, then paused. “Jacques is alive?”
“Ay, barely. Max, we think that this is a bioattack, and that Xu might be behind it—“
“Enough!” Max raised a hand to rub his forehead as if goaded beyond patience. “Xu is not responsible for Jacques’s illness. He’s a cryo designer, not a biotech.”
Dropping his hand, he met her gaze, his eyes as blue as ever, but flat and cold. Just like they were the day he threw her out all those years ago. “Look, I’m sure you and Devi have Jacques’s treatment well in hand. As for the rest, talk to my aide Ichiro Espinoza. He has all the relevant details about the cash you and Devi can expect to get from my estate and so on, if that’s what has you so concerned.“
“Dust your cash points,” she snarled. “Why don’t you talk to Devi yourself, Max? Why don’t you tell your daughter that you’re shoving her off onto some aide because she’s a distraction?”
Max’s eyes flicked to the side, as if he were looking at someone standing outside of the vid range. Then he said, “No. I’ve communicated my intentions to you. That should be sufficient.”
Each icy word sank into her like a thin blade. His stony face wavered in her vision. “Don’t do this Max, please,” she whispered.
“This is too important Sita. I have no choice. Do you understand?”
Her eyes burned with the effort of keeping the tears at bay. “Ay, I understand, now. You were always a heartless bastard. And I was always a fool.”
“I have to go. Goodbye,” he said shortly, and cut the com.
Stunned, Sita stared at the blank screen on her wrist, not wanting to believe what had just happened. But slowly, inexorably, the cold truth twisted in her heart. The man she had loved, who had looked at her as if she were the most important thing in all the Sol, had never existed. He was simply a construct of her own wishes and self-delusion. He had shown her that once already, decades ago, but she hadn’t learned her lesson. Then as now, she had mistaken solipsism for loneliness and reached out touch him, only to find emptiness. The one thing between them that had ever been real was Devi.
Devi… Numbly, she fumbled for the door panel and got it open. She stumbled inside.
Devi looked up from her console. “Mum? Mum, are you all right? What happened?”
For a moment Sita couldn’t answer her, the dammed up tears in her throat choking her into silence. Finally, she got out, “The captain and Max are convinced Xu knows nothing about Jacques’s illness.”
“You spoke to Max? Where is he? What did he say?”
“He’s staying with Xu on his space station to work on this top secret project.” Briefly, she relayed what Max had said to her, trying and failing to keep a grip on her emotions.
As Devi listened her expression went from blank incomprehension to dawning temper. When Sita finished, she snapped “This is ratshite. There’s something going on here that we’re not seeing. He’s been trying to reach out to us, to me. He cares about us. He wouldn’t just run off on us without an extremely good reason.”
Sita just shook her head. Devi simply couldn’t understand that Max cared more about engineering than he ever would about people. It had taken Sita this long to figure it out, herself.
Devi strode over to her and grabbed her shoulders. “Mum, listen to me. Something about this isn’t right. We have to talk to him again, talk to Xu.”
“What good do you think that will do?”
Devi let go of her, frustrated. “I don’t know. But we need more data. This setup stinks, Mum. It stinks to Heaven!”
Sita tried for a calming breath. “You may be right. As we have a cure for Jacques we’ll figure out exactly what the hell is wrong with your father. But Jacques only has so much time left. We can’t afford to be distracted. We focus on this virus, we beat it, and then…then we figure the rest out.”
Devi’s eyes went dark again. Nodding silently, she turned back to the machine keeping her husband alive and pressed her forehead against the viewport.
Sita blinked the sudden haze out of her eyes and moved back behind her workstation. Of all the mysteries in this situation, this virus was one she knew she could crack. Setting her hands on her console, she got busy saving a life.
Space Station Advent
Max’s vidscreen went dark, but the pain and anger he had seen on Sita’s face lingered like an afterimage seared onto his retinas.
She hadn’t understood his warning. Neither had the captain, or his aides when he had spoken to them. Under Xu’s sharp-eyed stare, he had played cold and arrogant for all he was worth, and at the same time tried to subtly alert them to their danger. But no one had looked below the surface of his words.
Just as Xu had foreseen, everyone in his life had taken it for granted that he would easily abandon them. Even Sita, the woman he had just made love to hours ago, the one person in all the Sol who could claim to know him best, had believed Xu’s lie.
He pushed the pain of it down deep along with all the rest. He had earned it over a lifetime of neglect, hadn’t he. Right. He was just going to have to save himself, and everyone else, without any help.
At least he had found out that Jacques was still alive. That was a weight off his mind. It would kill Devi to lose him. And Max…kind of liked the bastard as well.
Xu, standing to one side where he could both watch Max and stay out of the vid picture, said thoughtfully, “So that Jacques is still hanging on. Well, the Tallinns always were talented geneticists. They must have done good work on his resistance. A very unique specimen, for all his negative qualities.”
He paused, then muttered, “A missed opportunity for me.”
Max frowned in confusion at that last bit, but focused on the information Xu had just let drop. “So you did know what the Tallinns were working on for Aurora.”
Xu nodded absently, his thoughts still far away. “They were developing neural therapies for Eva’s interface. Kurtz wanted Eva’s codes, all of them, and he thought the Tallinns had them. Kurtz didn’t know that Eva was here all the time, with me.”
Max was completely lost. “Who’s Eva?”
Xu was silent for a moment, then he crooned, “Eva was my everything. My perfect, perfect specimen.”
Max’s flesh started to creep again. “What do you mean your specimen?”
Xu blinked, his focus hardening on Max’s face. “I’ll show you,” he said softly. “Get up. We’re going to my lab.”
They made their way through a series of lifts and corridors, each more deserted and decayed than the last. The air was stale as well, and too cool for comfort. The only sounds Max heard echoing through the dim chambers were the skittering footsteps of his kidnapper behind him. Max had no imagination to speak of, but he couldn’t shake the icy, creeping dread that grew more pronounced the deeper into the space station he traveled.
Finally they arrived at what appeared to be the medical deck, and here, at last, there were signs of cleanliness and order. A maintenance bot moved along the floor and the air cleansers hummed placidly as they passed through a short corridor to a reinforced door.
Xu touched it open and called out, “We’re here my loves,” in an odd, sing-song voice. Standing back, he gestured Max to enter.
An unnamable sensation spiked in him when he stepped through the door and raked his gaze over the room beyond.
Rows of cryoboxes lined the chamber, larger and more elaborate than the models loaded onto the Exalt. There were dozens of them. And they were occupied.
Dim shapes suspended in cloudy liquid showed through the viewing windows in the sides of the tubes. Naked, hairless, faces slack and limbs as flaccid as death.
Max had viewed demonstrations of cryosleep before. But somehow, this tableau managed to be the most grotesque thing he had ever seen.
He clamped down ruthlessly on a shudder and turned to face his captor. Xu’s manner had undergone another transformation, his body twitching, his eyes blinking. Not with nervousness, Max judged, but with excitement. A hectic flush stained the thin face as the black eyes met his, and then ran over his body with a blatantly greedy stare.
Max grated, “Who are these people?”
“These are my specimens!” Xu said, a ring of pride in his voice. “The foremost collection of human specimens in all the Sol. Aren’t they magnificent?”
The little man paced down the room between the rows of sleepers toward a platform set at the far end where another cryobox stood, empty and open. “Scientists, artists, athletes. Talent and beauty from across the spectrum of Homo sapiens. Wonderful, isn’t it?”
Max couldn’t speak.
But Xu didn’t seem to need an answer. He went on, “My cryoboxes are perfectly calibrated to keep each unique specimen perfectly preserved for eternity. Or close to it. You’ll see.”
He reached the platform and turned to look at Max, gesturing toward the open tube with a beatific smile. “Just a few more adjustments, and this one will be ready for you, Max.”
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