Sita had only ever seen Captain Lopez of the Exalt from a distance, but she remembered her as a tall, spare woman with dark brown skin and a world-weary expression who kept to the ancient custom of spacers by depilating all her hair, including that on her head. Most spacers and Martians these days kept their scalp and eyebrow hair, but Lopez, it seemed, did not hold with such modern decadence. Her skull gleamed under the cell lights as Sita, Max and the others advanced on her position at the railing of the walkway overlooking the ship’s loading bay.
Standing next to the captain, and completely overshadowed by her commanding presence, was a man. He was thin, dull-skinned, and despite his narrow frame, he had to be an Earther because he was nearly half a meter shorter than the Martian Lopez.
This can’t be Xu, Sita thought. This man seemed like a harsh look might bowl him over, certainly not the kind of personality able to wrangle a meeting with one of the Sol’s most important people. Or to have any influence with a secretive and powerful group like Aurora.
But then, you never know how deep the ice goes until you sound it. Sita resolved to make no snap judgments. That’s what had always gotten her into trouble in the past.
As they approached the comically mismatched pair, the captain spoke to Max, ignoring the rest of them. “Thank you for coming,” she said, pursing her lips as if she wanted to add ‘finally’.
Max, who seemed to have resumed his default attitude of distracted arrogance, snapped out, “You’re welcome,” and then looked sharply down at his cuff pad as if some life-or-death engineering emergency was streaming in.
Sita had to bite her lip to keep from smiling as the captain’s expression soured farther. She had to hand it to Max--no one in the Sol could match him for impressing people with a sense of their own insignificance.
“M’Xu has been waiting for you,” Lopez ground out, gesturing to her companion.
“Ni hao,” the man said, his voice a thin little sound. His gaze darted around at all of them, until finally settling on Max. “M’Ross, An honor to meet you si.” He held out a slender hand for an Earther style handshake.
“Ni hao,” Max responded curtly, his larger Martian hand swallowing up the other man’s fingers as he clasped them. He looked like nothing so much as a golden lion shaking the tiny paw of a mouse in some ancient Earther fairy tale, Sita thought in a moment of whimsy. She reined what had to be a fatuous expression as Max introduced her and the others. Everyone exchanged polite nods with Xu, except for Jacques, who watched the little man with narrow-eyed suspicion.
“Now that M’Ross is here, may we begin loading the cargo?” Lopez broke in. “We have a schedule to keep and this detour has already taken more time than expected.”
“Ay, certainly! My apologies for delaying you Captain, but you see, my superiors were adamant that I use every means at my disposal to ensure I could speak to M’Ross,” Xu said with an ingratiating smile. Delicately, he tapped a few commands onto his cuff pad.
Lopez just grunted in reply, tapping on her own cuff.
Below them, the inner bay doors slid open and a line massive loading bots trundled through them into the cavernous space, racks of long, white cryoboxes clasped in their prongs. A few stevedores paced alongside the bots to oversee the cargo loading, their yellow-programmed carbonsuits garish sparks against the gray composite of the bulkheads.
“Thank you for this opportunity M’Ross,” Xu said, dragging Sita’s attention away from the movements of the machines and people below. “My associates are anxious to consult with you about a certain ongoing project. Could we—“
“Ay, well, we have a few questions about your associates,” Max interrupted, with all his usual finesse. “Tell us about the Aurora project.”
Xu’s mouth gaped open. “Tell us? Here? But…I wasn’t expecting…that is, I’m not authorized talk to anyone other than you about this consultation M’Ross,” Xu said, casting a furtive glance over the circle of people around him. “Forgive me, but the Aurora group requires complete confidentiality on this matter.”
He looked so pathetically confused, Sita was impelled to say, “We’re not here to discuss your project, M’Xu. We’re looking for general information about Aurora.”
Xu stared at her, blinking rapidly.
Sita tried a coaxing smile. “Aurora is primarily a biotech research group, is that right?”
“Ay, one could say that,” Xu mumbled.
“They were on Earth about twenty years ago, working with a med tech team in the Arctic,” Jacques broke in. “The Tallinn group. My family. Enrique Kurtz destroyed them and the Arctic Federation to get his hands on that research. What was it they were working on?”
At his side, Devi folded a supportive hand around her husband’s arm.
“Ciel, this is very distressing,” Xu replied. “I was on my space station at that time. I don’t know what might have been happening on Earth between Aurora and Enrique Kurtz. You have to understand, Aurora is a large group, with a heavy emphasis on security, even internally. I’m merely one of their med tech designers. This political and business nonsense—its all quite out of my area of expertise.”
“I find it very difficult to believe you,” Jacques said coolly. “You worked on Kurtz’s space station for decades. No one survived that long with Kurtz without getting covered in his shite.”
A strange gleam lit Xu’s small, black eyes for an instant as he stared at Jacques. Then he blinked rapidly and it was gone. “But you see, my division was kept entirely apart from other projects as part of the joint arrangement with Aurora. I never even met Enrique Kurtz in person.”
“But you have met the principals of the Aurora project, surely?” Devi said.
“Yes, but it was a long time ago—I mean, in person, not a long time ago that I talked to them. Depending on what you think of as a long time, obviously. I mean…that is to say…” He stuttered to a stop, his head twitching as he looked back and forth between all of them.
“They must know you well enough to entrust you with this plan you want to show me,” Max said impatiently.
Xu turned to him in evident relief. “Ay, that’s it exactly. They know I’m the man to approach you with their offer. I speak your language, M’Ross. Pure science, not foolish politicking. We’re just alike, you and I.”
Max didn’t look overly enthused about Xu’s claim of kinship with him, but he said, “Maybe you should show me your project, and then we can discuss these other matters later.”
“Certainly! Certainly!” The little man nodded vigorously and edged back toward the door of the loading office standing open a few meters away. “I have everything set up in here. I’ll just…” His voice trailed off as he backed into the room.
Jacques shifted in agitation.
“Max—“ Sita began.
“We’re not going to get anything out of him if we all question him at once,” Max said to them. “I’ll go in, listen to his pitch, and when he’s calmer, I’ll ask him about Aurora.”
Jacques looked like he was going to protest, but Devi drew him aside, speaking quietly.
Sita glanced at the wispy man peering at them from inside the office. He appeared so utterly harmless, it was hard to take him seriously at all. But something gave her pause. Perhaps it was Jacques’ hostility to him, or her own bitter experience with intrigue and deceit.
She touched Max’s arm. “Jacques doesn’t trust him, and whatever you think of Jacques, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to shady people. Be careful.”
Max’s blue gaze pierced her for a moment, and then he nodded and walked away toward the office.
Lopez, who had been tapping on her cuff and ignoring them all this while stalked off in the other direction without a word, leaving Sita, Devi and Jacques alone.
Devi said, “I want to go take a look at those cryoboxes. Mars hasn’t invested much in cryotech research lately. I’d like to see what the latest developments are.”
“Good notion, Doc. It might give us some clue as to what Xu’s real game is,” Jacques said thoughtfully.
“You’re certain he has one?” Sita asked.
“Trust me, I know his type very, very well,” Jacques growled.
They made their way down the stairs to the loading bay floor where the bots were stacking three-meter high racks of cryoboxes.
Devi bent over the interface panel on the side of one of the long, smooth tube while Jacques peered into the viewport above where the face of the occupant would be. He made a comment too low for Sita to hear, though Devi chuckled in her throaty voice.
Sita stood back and watched them absently, using this moment of calm to decipher the feelings swirling inside her. With everything between Max and her so unsettled, it was like she was adrift in space, not knowing which way was up or what to do next.
She cast a glance over her shoulder toward the office on the upper level, where she could see his tall, shaggy-headed shape through the window as he bent over a datapad. Just catching a glimpse of him unaware made her heart stutter, the same way it did years ago when she threw herself headlong into love with him.
The sense of possibility, anticipation and excitement at what might happen was a giddy tumult in her heart, just like it had been back then. At the same time, a black note of dread pulsed through every thought, the certainty that fate was playing another cruel game with her, ready to snatch Max away once again just when her hope was highest.
No. It’s going to be different this time. I’ll make sure of it.
A low gasp drew Sita’s attention away from the office. She turned back to see Jacques swaying on his feet next to the cryobox. His handsome face had gone unnaturally pale, sweat beading on his forehead. “Are you all right?” she said.
“I don’t…feel well. Devi…” He staggered against the rack of boxes.
“Jacques!” Devi ran to clasp him around the waist, her blue eyes wide.
* * *
“This is the secret project Aurora wants to consult with me about?” Max said, frowning down at the schematics scrolling over the datapad in his hands.
It showed a huge spaceship built inside an asteroid one-thousand kilometers in diameter. According to these plans, the asteroid was to be spun on its axis to provide Mars-standard pseudogravity, and equipped with a small biosphere, a fusion cell generator and a mass drive propulsion system. From a cursory glance, the plans for the ship were both ambitious and well-designed, but only roughed out in practical terms. Very intriguing, but… “This looks like an interstellar ship.”
“Ay, it is an interstellar ship,” Xu answered him.
Max transferred his frown to the other man. He was lounging in a chair across a low table from him, looking much more relaxed now that they were alone together. In fact, the smile currently spread across his thin, sallow face looked almost smug.
For some reason, Max found this attitude even more irritating than his previous twitchy diffidence. He set the datapad on the table with a barely restrained snap.
Xu just raised his sparse eyebrows.
“The concept is interesting,” Max said grudgingly. “It’s supposed to be a colony ship, I take it?”
“Exactly. You see, this is what the Aurora project was originally founded to do—to fulfill what they saw as the destiny of our species by colonizing the greater galaxy.” He made a dismissive gesture and continued, “That was a long time ago. Since then they’ve branched out into…tangential fields. But a strong contingent of the group still believes that establishing an interstellar colony should be Aurora’s overarching goal.”
Max grunted in surprise. There had been various idealists and start-up companies dedicated to interstellar colonization over the years, both on Mars and on Earth, but every one of them had fallen down at the concept stage due to the overblown budget demands such a grandiose idea demanded. Certainly none of them had achieved any of the financial and political clout this Aurora group seemed to have.
And none of them had been steeped in secrecy like Aurora was, either. There was simply no reason for them to be. Interstellar space ventures weren’t illegal, or even mildly scandalous. They were considered flaky and impractical, sure, but hardly something that needed to be veiled in layers of security.
He narrowed his eyes at Xu. There was obviously much more about Aurora that the little man hadn’t told him yet. Like exactly which ‘tangential fields’ they had been branching into. And why they were involved with bioengineering scientists like Jacques’ family, who had nothing to do with space tech at all.
The involvement of a cryo researcher like Xu he could understand. Every colonization plan Max had ever seen included cryonic suspension of the colonists for long stretches of the journey.
Even at the top speeds achievable by modern spaceships, it would take hundreds of years to reach the nearest star system containing a habitable planet. Colonization experts had long agreed that a small group of humans isolated in the closed environment of a ship for generations would probably end up killing each other off before they ever got to the target planet, if they didn’t accidentally wreck the the ship first.
The best solution to the problem was to pack up hundreds of thousands of colonists into cryosleep and only thaw them out when they had an entire planet to spread out on. But the longest anyone had lived in cryosleep to date was two decades, not nearly long enough for an interstellar trip.
Unless Xu had had a breakthrough in cryotech design. Maybe that was why Aurora had wanted bioengineers like Jacques’s family, Max thought. They could have a great deal of input in a cryotech project. But if that was the case, why keep it a secret?
And what in the Sol could a space elevator engineer like himself contribute?
He said, “I fail to see how my expertise could apply to building or maintaining an interstellar ship. I specialize in space elevator design—megastructures under planetary gravity stress effects. I have no particular insight into mechanical applications in interstellar conditions.
“Granted, my status as an engineering genius may bring some cachet to this program if I were associated with it,” he said thoughtfully, “But I would have limited practical input. So why is Aurora so interested in me?”
That annoying smile played over Xu’s thin face again. “I’m afraid I was less than direct with you before. In fact, Aurora has no particular use for your expertise in this matter.”
“Then what matter do they want me for?” Max said, his temper kindling. A sudden suspicion made him growl, “Is this about Victoria’s dealings with Aurora?“
“Na, nothing like that. I suppose I should be more clear. This offer of a consultation with Aurora was simply a ruse in order for me to get you alone,” he said, his tone almost kindly. “Aurora actually has no interest in you at all. I am the one who intends to acquire you.”
When Max decided he had actually heard the man right, he didn’t know if what he was feeling was bemusement, outrage, or just simple rage. He grated out a laugh. “Acquire…you…do you think wasting my time is some kind of joke?”
Xu shot a quick glance down at his cuff, and then he smiled, even wider than before. “It’s not a joke at all. Look out the viewport at your friends examining my cryoboxes.”
A cold tendril of dread pierced his fury. His head turned unwillingly toward the viewport overlooking the cargo bay. Down below, two small, black haired figures were crouched over a larger, blond figure sprawled on the floor. A group of dockworkers stood in an uneasy semicircle around them, the tall, dark shape of Captain Lopez gesturing at them furiously.
Max shot up out of his chair.
“Stop,” Xu said quietly.
Something in his tone caught Max’s attention. Instead of running through the door and down to the loading floor, he spun on the little man. “What have you done?”
Xu stood up, peering steadily at him with shiny black eyes. “I’ve infected every person aboard this sunship with a programmable virus. One of Aurora’s side projects I mentioned before. I can trigger the virus within any individual I choose with one command on my cuff.” He raised his left wrist to display his computer cuff, a cutting edge model much like the ones Max wore on his own forearms.
“As you see, I’ve already directed it to kill that bloke Jacques who spoke to me so rudely. It works fast, doesn’t it? At this very moment, every cell in his body is rupturing.”
In a flash of white hot rage, Max started for the little man.
Xu scuttled back, waving a skinny finger over his cuff pad. “Stop or I’ll kill everyone!”
Max went absolutely still.
“If you don’t do exactly as I say, you can watch daughter and her mother die, along with every other person on this ship. Do you understand me Max?”
“Bastard!” Max grated.
“You do understand. Good. Take off your cuffs.”
“Why are you doing this? What do you want?”
“Ask me another question and your daughter dies. From now on, you speak only when spoken to. Now, take off your cuffs. Slowly.”
Max stared into that sharp little face for a long moment, his own harsh, even breaths the only sound in the room. There had to be a way out of this. He just had to figure out what it was. Almost absently, his fingers found the seals on his cuffs. Steadily, he opened them. One by one, they dropped to the table.
“Turn around and face the door.”
Max did as he was told, his skin crawling at having that creature at his back. He heard a slight rustle behind him. Xu was gathering up his cuffs. He tensed to whip around and make a grab for the other man.
“Ah-ah. I wouldn’t risk it if I were you,” Xu said.
“We’re going to my shuttle now. Out the door, down the hall, into the lift, and through the shuttle lock. Walk slowly, in front of me. Keep your hands at your sides at all times. If you try to speak with anyone, I will trigger the virus and that person will die. You don’t want some stevedore’s death on your conscience do you, Max? Answer.”
“Of course not. Now walk.”
Max walked, his steps steady and even.
Looking quickly over the railing into the cargo bay, Max saw that a medical team had arrived. Within moments they were rushing Jacques away on a medcot, Sita and Devi hurrying in their wake. No one so much as glanced in his direction as he walked slowly toward the lift. Even if they had, Max knew he would seem exactly as cool and self-possessed to them as he always did.
It was only on the inside, where the bastard behind him couldn’t see it, that he was shaking himself apart.
* * *
What did you think of Game Of The Red King, Chapter Six?
Want to read more of the Once Upon A Red World series?
Want to read more of the Once Upon A Red World series?