“Why is Sita Chandra attempting to trespass on my station Max?”
“I don’t…know,” Max said stupidly. He was reeling with confusion, elation, and sheer terror. Had Sita figured out that he needed help after all? And was she out of her mind to come here alone?
“Hm. You obviously weren’t convincing enough when you broke off relations with her, my dear. I need to punish you for that. And I can’t have her causing a disturbance on my station. Perhaps I should kill her right now, just to be safe,” Xu said, tapping his cuff thoughtfully.
Max lurched to his feet and got himself to the door before he knew what he was doing. “Do it and I’ll rip you to pieces,” he rasped, staring through the window at the little demon on the other side of the glass.
Xu didn’t even dignify his empty threat with a reply. “On the other hand, perhaps I should question her first,” he mused. “If she simply wants to change your mind about staying with me, I might yet allow the rest of the passengers on the Exalt to live. But if she suspects anything more, and has passed those suspicions on to others…then I’ll be forced to make more sweeping action. Either way, Sita will have to die, of course.”
Max’s mind raced, trying to come up with some ploy that might deflect a ruthless madman intent on murder.
“Ay, I suppose that’s what I’ll have to do. Capture, interrogate, then liquidate,” Xu said, as if making up a list of household chores. He started down the corridor.
Say something! “She’s the only woman on Mars ever to conceive a child naturally!” Max blurted.
Xu spun around mid-step, his eyes bright and blinking. “What did you say?”
Max licked his lips. “It’s true. Our daughter wasn’t the result of an induction. Sita’s fertility isn’t affected by the Correction treatment. She’s a totally unique…specimen,” he said, the word sticking in his throat. “And she’s a genius level research scientist, and physically perfect as well. She’d make an excellent addition to your collection. Just…just think!”
Xu’s eyes narrowed. “This is a transparent attempt at manipulation.”
“I just want to keep Sita alive,” he said baldly. “You don’t have to kill her. She’ll be in no position to hurt you if she’s in cryosleep. But if you kill her, you’ll miss out on another superior acquisition. You don’t want to do that, do you?”
Xu blinked at him, greed warring with paranoia in his shiny black eyes.
Max held his breath, and waited.
Space Station Advent, shuttle dock four
As the shuttle shimmied and hummed in its docking maneuver with the space station, Sita tried to gather her nerve to face whatever would meet her when the shuttle lock opened.
She shifted in the word passenger seat and tapped her tongue against the synth skin patch on the roof of her mouth, trying to reassure herself. Concealed beneath the patch was a pellet of the virucide, her one and only surprise weapon against Xu and whatever underhanded scheme he was working. No matter what, she had to get this cure to Max.
“Shuttle lock engaged,” a simulated voice sounded through the shuttle compartment. “Prepare to disembark.” So far, no actual humans from the space station had tried to communicate with her, Sita realized. Yet another unnerving element of this entire horrible situation.
With a quiet hiss, the outer lock door opened. She unlatched her seat harness with trembling fingers, then pushed herself up and floated into the gravity lock. Then, a few terrible moments passed as the lock sensors scanned her for threats. If the sensors were only checking for harmful agents she should be in the clear, but if they were looking for concealment, she might have a problem. She ran her tongue nervously over the patch again. It was good, but not good enough to fool the best sensors.
Finally, the chime sounded, and the sim voice pronounced her clean. She let out a long, slow breath as the lock spun up to match the pseudogravity of the station. Her feet settled to the floor, and the inner hatch snapped open. She forced her unwilling steps through hatch and into the station proper.
She found herself in a tiny, cold and sour-smelling chamber. Behind her, the hatch snapped shut. She looked around a little wildly, but all she could see was one other closed door, no doubt locked. She was trapped. And there were still no signs of other human souls. Just dust, and one derelict maintenance bot in the corner. Ciel, this place is like the set of some ghastly horror vid show. Except the horror was real.
For a moment, a panicked thought crossed her mind that she was too late and everyone on this station had been killed by the virus. Then, a familiar, thin little voice sounded from the com panel near the inner door. “Dr. Aksita Chandra.”
Sita jumped violently. Then she went still and blanked her face, as there was no doubt a cam trained on her. “Ni hao, M’Xu.”
“I hadn’t expected to see you again so soon after we parted on the Exalt. What brings you to my space station?”
“I came to speak with M’Ross,” she said to the com panel, keeping her voice dead even.
“Did he not make his wishes sufficiently clear when he spoke to you before?”
“Ay, but his family—I—would like him to reconsider his decision to stay here instead of returning with us to Mars.”
“You’ve discussed this with his family? Or his aides, perhaps?”
Instinct flared. “No,” she lied. “I confess I’m here on my own behalf. Please, I’d like to see him now.”
There was a long pause. “That can be arranged,” Xu finally said. “But first you’ll have to remove your cuffs. This is a highly restricted research facility, you understand. Security demands it.”
Sita had expected something like this. Unsealing her cuffs, she looked around for someplace to put them before gingerly laying them on top of the dead manitenace bot.
“Good,” Xu said. “Now, if you will look at the floor in the middle of the room you will see another cuff. I’ll need you to put that on.”
Sita looked down, scanning the floor around her. Then she saw it. Lying amid a welter of footprints in the center of the dusty floor was a dull metal band the size of a human wrist. She picked it up and stared at it, puzzled. Then, with a fresh thrill of fear, she realized what it was. “A—a shock cuff?”
“Ay. It’s part of my security protocol. Put it on and I’ll take you to Max.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I’ll be forced to employ my other security measures,” Xu said, all hints of superficial politeness gone from his voice. “For instance, the gas dispensers in the ceiling nodes could render you unconscious within seconds. And of course, the targeting comps have been training guns on you since you stepped through the lock.”
Sita swallowed. This was a horrible mistake, but it was her only option. Slowly, she closed the cold, slender band around her left wrist. The click of the fastener echoed in the dead air.
“Good,” said the voice. “Now take off your suit and liner.”
“I require a detailed inspection of every person who boards my station, for my own particular research.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Never mind. In a moment I’ll give you the same grand tour I gave Max when he first arrived, and all will become clear to you. Now stop stalling and remove your clothing. I don’t want to have to use the shock cuff so soon in our association, Sita.”
Sita had been afraid before, but now true dread crept through her body. Even though she was a duster born, and had no shame at nudity, she found she simply hated the idea of exposing herself in this ghastly, dangerous place.
But to get Max out of this, she would do whatever it took. He could be just a few meters away, maybe sick, dying... Her hands went to her collar to open the seals. With a few quick, efficient motions, she stripped off her suit and liner and draped it over the bot along with her cuffs. She turned away from the forlorn length of peach colored fabric and stood stoically, not letting her bare feet cringe away from the cold composite floor.
“Ay, Max was right. You are an excellent specimen,” Xu’s voice purred.
Goosebumps instantly covered her bare flesh. “Specimen?” Had she heard him right?
There was no answer except a low hum as the door unsealed. Xu stood framed in the opening, a slight, unremarkable man with the most disturbing look in his eyes that Sita had ever seen. It wasn’t lust, not exactly. It was more like…greed. Revolting cockroach. I can’t believe I thought he was harmless. This ought to teach me to feel sorry for anyone ever again.
She tensed further as he stepped into the room. Cuff or no cuff, if he tried to touch her she was going to break every single one of his skinny fingers. But Xu made no move to come closer to her, just standing a few meters away, staring at her in silence.
“Can I see Max now?” she said through gritted teeth.
Xu blinked rapidly, as if she had woken him from a trance. “Ay…yes, We’ll go see Max. I apologize for my lapse in attention. I’ve just had an idea.”
Sita was absolutely sure she didn't want to hear what that idea was. But before he could say anything further, the cel-lights in the ceiling flickered. She and Xu both looked up in confusion. Cel-lights simply didn't flicker. Not once in her life had she ever seen it happen. What in hell is wrong with this place?
Xu frowned thoughtfully, then seemed to dismiss it. Moving aside from the door, he gestured for her to precede him into the shadowy corridor beyond. “After you, my dear. Let us begin our tour.”
Sunship Exalt, communications deck
Devi was by nature a nonviolent person, but as she scanned the people ranged around the com deck conference table with her, she was extremely tempted to grab the nearest neck and start throttling. And the fact that the nearest neck happened to belong to Captain Lopez made the idea doubly appealing.
Lopez was saying, “It’s impossible for the ship sec to mount a rescue mission for Ross and Chandra. We have to burn for Mars and get out of range of the signal that triggers this bioweapon. I can’t in good conscience stay here and endanger all of our lives just to rescue two people.” The words sounded noble, but the beads of sweat on the captain’s bare scalp betrayed the cowardice at their root.
At least the woman was finally taking the threat seriously, Dev thought. She had persisted in denying that there was a problem at all, until Dev showed her the dormant virus in her own blood sample. That was all it took to make Lopez order ship-wide inoculation. The Exalt’s med team was even now distributing Sita’s virucide to the passengers and crew.
But Sita’s cure was not enough to inject any courage into Lopez, or anyone else, it seemed. Dev glanced around at the others seated at the conference table—two of the ship’s officers and three StarLine senior staff. Not one was objecting to the captain’s plan to abandon her parents to Xu.
Lopez went on, “We’ll alert to MarSec and the Earther authorities. They have the personnel and equipment to deal with bioterrorists.”
Dev looked around at the officers and the aides, who were all nodding in agreement. Unbelievable. She had no allies in her push for a rescue attempt, except one.
She shot a glance to one side of the conference table where a vidscreen displayed Bianca Ross’s still image, a cold, almost arrogant expression on her beautiful face.
When Dev had contacted her half-sister to tell her what had happened and get her support, the shy, warmly smiling girl she had met earlier had instantly vanished, and in her place a ruthless executive had appeared, demanding to be included in the plans to rescue Max and Sita.
But Bianca was still millions of kilometers away on Mars, and all her coms had to go through a twelve-minute relay. Which meant that Dev was as good as alone in this fight.
Grappling for calm, she replied to the captain. “There is little significant risk,” she said for perhaps the fiftieth time. “The virucide we distributed throughout the ship will provide immunity from the patho. My husband is already recovering because of this treatment.” And I need to be at his side when he wakes up, not wasting time arguing with these idiots.
She turned to Max’s aides. “You have to see that we can’t wait for a response from either MarSec or the Earther authorities. It would take them weeks or months just to get here. Xu has attempted one murder already. StarLine sec has to act now, before he succeeds in killing someone.”
The aides shifted uneasily. “The StarLine sec on this ship have no protocol for this situation,” an older man said. His name was Ringle, the sec officer for the StarLine personnel on the Exalt. “Our mission is to maintain order and security for StarLine personnel and assets, not to act as Ross’s bodyguards.”
“You’ll operate as bodyguards now, since it was partly due to our gross negligence that his abduction happened in the first place!” Dev snarled.
Ringle puffed up in offense. “Dr. Chandra, let me remind you that though you may be Ross’s daughter, you are not a StarLine executive, and you have no authority over us. We—“
“I’ve heard enough.” A voice from the vidcom cut through the room like a blade. Every head snapped around toward the vidscreen where Bianca’s image was finally leaning forward to speak. The first few minutes of their conversation had made it through the relay to her, and now her return message was coming through at last.
“Let me make this absolutely clear, Captain Lopez,” she said, her pale, perfect face set in an icy mask. “If my father and Sita Chandra are not on board the Exalt when it arrives at Mars, I, as acting President and CEO of StarLine, will hold Arescorp in breach of contract. None of your ships will be allowed to dock with the Eris space elevator, or use our repair and refueling services, or load or unload cargo.”
Devi heard an audible gasp from one of the officers. The space elevator was the fulcrum on which the entire Martian economy turned. If Bianca blackballed Arescorp, it would cripple the company, destroying it within days.
“Moreover, I will make sure that my friends in Mars Security are aware that you are personally responsible for allowing a bioterrorist to infect your ship and abduct two of your most important passengers, so that they can charge you with criminal negligence.”
The captain’s face went ashen.
She turned a cold, dark gaze on the StarLine aides. “And as for the StarLine personnel—I order you to retrieve my father and Dr. Chandra and return them to Eris elevator station unharmed. If you fail, you will be fired, sued for dereliction of duty, tried for conspiracy to defraud your employer, and sent to the Asteroid Belt. Is that understood?”
The aides nodded frantically.
I think I love being related to this woman, Dev thought.
Bianca continued, “I am deputizing Devi Chandra-Ross as my agent in this matter. You will obey her as if you were obeying me or my father. Now, stop wasting time get started outlining a rescue plan.” The message ended, and her image went still again.
The room lapsed into silence. Devi raked her gaze over the cowed faces around her before stopping on Lopez. She raised an eyebrow. “Well, Captain?”
After a long, sour silence, Lopez said, “It appears the ship sec and StarLine sec will be making a joint rescue mission.”
Devi nodded sharply. “Damn right we will.” If it isn’t already too late.
* * *
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