Sita threw her arms up to shield her face as the racks of cryoboxes at the far end of the chamber burst into a fiery conflagration. Before she knew what was happening, Max had grabbed her, throwing her over his shoulder.
He bounded away from the noxious clouds of smoke reaching out to swallow them and ran down the rows of cryoboxes, Sita jouncing on his back. The cryoboxes exploded behind them one after another in a chain, the heat and concussion chasing them down the aisle until they burst through the door at the end of the long chamber.
Max didn’t slow, but kept running down the corridor to the lifts. The lift doors opened with a touch, and he flung Sita inside, crowded in behind her, and jabbed the doors closed.
Sita staggered against the wall, her head spinning from shock. Max stood with his hands braced against the door, his head bowed, shoulders heaving. They listened for a few moments as muffled booms vibrated through the walls of the lift. Eventually, silence fell. An acrid stink wove through the air, the wretched smell of burning comps and unnamable substances vaporized in the conflagration.
She reached out to put her hand on Max’s shoulder, and he jumped a little, turning to look at her with a furrow between his brows, as though bewildered.
“We…should we go back, check for survivors…” she started to say to him. But as his eyes turned empty and bleak, she already knew his answer. There wouldn’t be any survivors. Her heart squeezed tight in her chest.
Ciel, those poor people. Heaven accord them all.
Max said in a monotone, “We need to get to the shuttle. The other cryoboxes will be there. It’s already prepped. We need to get to the Exalt as soon as possible. This station will only destabilize further now.”
She nodded. Without another word, he touched in the cargo deck on the lift pad. Fortunately, the lift still worked, for now, though an ominous tremor was pulsing through the composite decking beneath their feet.
Max stood stiffly in the middle of the lift, looking so lost and devastated that Sita couldn’t bear it. She wove her fingers with his, clasping his hand tight. He stared down at their joined hands for a moment, and then back into her eyes, a poignant edge to his usual intensity. “It could have been me back there. In one of those boxes.”
“I would never let that happen Max,” she said simply.
The rhythmic pulse of the alarm whistle faded away as they held each other in their shared gaze.
Then the chime sounded, and the doors opened on a new nightmare.
The wide bay doors were flung open, allowing them to look right in to the cavernous cargo bay. Stalled out bots were scattered across the loading floor, the twisted, smoking remains of long, white tubes clasped in their prongs. More smoke whisped out of the shuttle lock itself. Xu must have implanted a dead-man-switch in all of his cryoboxes, damn him to hell. There would be no one on board the shuttle left to save.
Anguish rent through her again, but she suppressed it ruthlessly. They had to get themselves to safety before they could properly mourn the dead.
After a long moment, Max said roughly, “I don’t want to risk the shuttle. The explosions may have compromised its integrity.”
“The lifepods. But first, we need to get into space suits.” He half-floated out of the lift and into the death-filled chamber, making for the open hatch at one end which separated the lifepod dock from the larger shuttle dock. Devi drifted along behind him, trying not to breathe the rancid air too deeply.
They entered the lifepod dock and took their bearings. On one side of the smaller chamber were a set of lockers, and on the other were lifepod bays holding small emergency craft. In between was the emergency hatch, a direct access door to the vacuum of space. Out of superstition, Sita kept her distance from bulk of the emergency hatch, though she knew it wasn’t dangerous. She would have to break a security membrane and crank down on a manual lever before the reinforced door would open.
Max went right to the lockers and pulled out space suits and air pacs, glancing over each article and assessing it with the ease of long practice.
Apparently deeming the gear acceptable, he tossed a set to her, which she promptly fumbled. The helmet and airpac floated gently to the floor as she grasped at the slick bulk of the space suit.
In a blink, Max had donned his own suit and helmet and attached the pac to his back, closing the seals with swift, certain movements. He had obviously done this hundreds of times before.
Sita copied him, much more slowly, dredging up every memory of the refresher course on space survival she had taken on the Exalt.
Max cast a sharp look at her as she struggled with her airpac. “Do you need help?” Even as he spoke, his gloved fingers continued to fly over the attached comp cuffs on the suit, bringing the systems on line.
“No, I’ve got it,” she said, trying to position the pac harness across her chest.
Max stepped in front of her and brushed her hands aside, and before she knew it, her pac was fastened and her helmet was sealed on, the readout scrolling in one corner of the visor telling her that her suit was in full operation.
“How’s that?” his voice buzzed over the short-range com link in her helmet.
She took an experimental breath of the cool air from the airpac, and peered up at him. She could only see a dim outline of his face behind the gold of his visor. Though his gloved hands rested on her shoulders, she couldn’t feel their weight through the thick shell of her suit. He looked utterly alien and distant, but she could feel his tense concern radiating from him like heat from an open flame.
She opened her mouth to reassure him that she could handle herself in space, when she caught a glimpse of something over his shoulder. Her breath froze in her throat.
Past the doors to the lifepod chamber, a grotesque shape writhed and lurched in the red-lit shadows of the shuttle bay. Its skin was blackened and bloody, its clothing in shreds.
One of its twisted arms cradled a small, gleaming device. As she stared, the raw, red oval of the face tilted to meet her gaze, and the tattered lips pulled into an appalling parody of a smile as it lifted the device toward her, as if offering a gift.
Sita couldn’t move from shock, but her numb lips formed the word ‘Xu’.
Behind his visor, Max’s eyes widened. He didn’t waste a fraction of a second looking over his shoulder, but instantly scooped her up once again and leapt for the emergency hatch. With a jab of his hand he ripped through the membrane covering the hatch release and cranked down on it with a ripple of strength.
The inner door slammed down between Max and Sita and the terrible apparition, leaving only an image of its mouth gaping in a scream of fury and loss. Then the outer hatch burst open.
* * *
Max clutched Sita in an iron grip as the air from the emergency bay roared out into the black void, carrying them with it. He tangled his arms and legs around her as they tumbled through the emptiness, away from the doomed hulk of the Advent.
As the darkly gleaming station whirled past his vision, he saw a searing light flare from the dark composite mouth of the hatch they had just jumped from.
Xu. From the look on Sita’s face, it could only have been him. Somehow, he had survived the explosions in the lab and followed them to the shuttle dock to finish off his murder/suicide with one last bomb.
Crushing Sita to him, he hit the command for the jets in his suit pac. They shot away from the station, the huge curving black wall falling away beneath their feet. Again and again explosions blossomed along the Advent’s composite flanks, silent in the vacuum of space. The only sound in the universe was the crackle and buzz of their harsh breathing over the shortrange as they sped into the void.
Max pushed his thrusters to their limits, desperate to get them both out of range of the debris from the explosions that would be speeding outward at deadly velocity.
Long minutes passed in adrenaline haze as he focused on piloting them both away from the disaster, until at last he risked another glance down past their twined feet to the station below.
They were far enough away from the Advent now to see the whole of the great wheel-shaped structure, still ponderously spinning against the starfield. The explosions had ended, but the destruction of the station was only just beginning. As he watched in horrified fascination, the big outer panels peeled off the supporting framework one after another, flying away into the blackness.
“Ciel,” Sita’s voice whispered in his ear. He tore his gaze away from the Advent to look at her. She had lifted her head from where it had been shoved against his shoulder to peer down at the station unraveling below them. Her face was ghostly behind the gold of her visor.
Max untangled himself from her enough to draw a tether out of his waist pouch and attach one end to each of their suits, securing them together. Sita barely seemed to notice, her haunted gaze still riveted to the spectacle of the space station tearing itself to pieces.
He tapped the emergency beacon on his helmet, and reached up to do the same for Sita. The Exalt would have seen the death throes of the Advent, and would certainly be sending salvage and rescue crews this way. They would pick up their powerful emergency beacons at any moment, and make contact over the long-range com link. All he and Sita had to do was wait for the shuttle to pick them up. That could take hours, though. Unless…
“Sita, you weren’t bluffing when you told Xu there was a sec team coming to rescue us, were you?”
“N-no,” she said, as if in a daze. “I left Devi in charge of organizing the rescue mission. There’s no question that she sent the ship sec after us.”
Max found himself accepting her certainty so easily it was astonishing. Of course his daughter would come for them. Of course she would. They wouldn’t have long to wait for rescue after all.
They continued to fly away from the wreck of the Advent for several more minutes, watching the silver-black wheel delaminate until it was nothing but a skeleton of spokes amid an expanding cloud of debris.
“Xu’s bombs couldn’t have done that by themselves,” Max eventually said, his voice unsteady. “That gremlin I let loose must have put so much stress on the structure that the explosions were all it took to just…shatter it.”
Sita’s helmeted head snapped up, her arms wound tight around his shoulders. “This was not your fault, Max. None of this was your fault. It was Xu’s fault. And…and mine. I should have understood your warning sooner, and made everyone listen to me. I should never have left you with Xu in the first place,” she said shakily.
“No,” he said, pressing his visor against hers. “You believed in me when it mattered most. You saved me.”
In the shadows of her helmet, Sita’s mouth curved in a trembling smile. “You saved me more.”
“We saved each other, then.”
They fell silent for a long moment, floating in the blackness. “Sita…”
“What is it, Max?” she said softly.
“Uh…We’re alone, now.”
She glanced around at the endless void, empty of everything but a few stray hydrogen molecules, and lifted her brows. “Ay, that’s true.”
“I meant to work some things out with you, after this was over and we were alone.”
Her eyes widened, but she stayed silent, waiting.
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had a goal, one that had been forming in his mind since their tryst on the zeeball court. Hell, if he were honest with himself, since the very moment she had first set foot on his sunship. But how to achieve his goal?
Think! But there was no way to think himself through this, not with Sita. No clever tech or devious plot was going to get him what he wanted now.
Words. Emotions. Those were the only pieces that had ever been in play with her. The very things he knew least about. Deep inside, he was shaking again, as badly as he ever had on Xu’s station.
He must have paused for too long, because Sita said nervously, “Max, if you say one word about a sexual companionship contract I swear to Heaven that I will cut you loose right here and let you fly back to Mars in your suit--”
“Marry me,” he blurted.
Her mouth fell open. “What did you say?”
He swallowed thickly. Here goes. “Listen, I know I’m…I’m a mess. I’m distant and arrogant, and I obsess over engineering problems. I don’t know how to connect with people. I forget faces and names. But I’ve never forgotten you. Not for one second in all these years. How could I? You were the most radiant, most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. You still are. You’re the only one I’ve ever loved, in all my life. You are love to me, Sita.”
Her lips parted, but he rushed on, “Marry me. Never leave me again. Please. I need you. I can’t go on the way I was. I can’t live my life without you any more.”
He looked into her eyes, darkened with the shadows of all the space and time between them, willing her to answer him. This had to be the play that would win her, because every word he said was true. She had to love him. Didn’t she?
Silence fell and stretched out, seeming to fill the whole void around them, and a sliver of ice worked its way into his heart.
* * *
Sita had never wanted to say ‘yes’ so badly in all her life. His incredible words, words she had never imagined he would say, pounded through her heart and rushed through her blood, confusing, ecstatic, and terrifying. She was coming apart like the station below them.
She anchored herself to his rangy shoulders and tried to get her bearings to figure out what to think, how to feel.
She knew that she loved him. Of course she did. She always had and always would. She wanted to be with him always. And she had already sworn never to leave him again. But…marriage? A full marriage contract? With Maxin Ross? The mere concept stunned her.
Since this ordeal had started, she hadn’t given one second of thought to the future, she realized with chagrin. From the moment she had seen Max again she had been acting purely on impulse, never with forethought. But now she had to take a hard look at what he was asking and force herself to think instead of just feel.
And she had to face the fact that the same problems that stood between them the first time still existed now. As Max’s wife, the life of comfortable obscurity she had known would be gone in an instant, the eyes of all the Sol on her at all times. The vindictive whispers of the Martian elites and the envious stares of everyone else would follow her wherever she went. Her past would be raked up and scrutinized from every angle.
And then there were the potential threats to her life to worry about, like the one they had just escaped. Xu may have been in a class of crazy all by himself, but Max’s fame and power would always make him a target for obsessives and greedy arses alike. And she would share in that danger.
She thought with longing about the house she had planned on building in the Hellas basin, designed just the way she wanted it. Then she thought of her chance to build it, gone. Her satisfying career of teaching and researching, over.
Grasping for any way to give herself some breathing room, she said, “Max, the timing of this is…is…”
“It’s terrible, I know,” he said. His arms were still wrapped around her, and she imagined she could feel them, hard and warm through the thickness of her suit. He continued, “It’s always been the wrong time for us, somehow. But Sita, there will never be a right time unless we make it. I don’t want to risk it being too late again.”
“I…” she said, and stopped. The moment lengthened, and his expression hardened, bleakness growing like frost crystals in his eyes. He let go of her, drifting away a little. And suddenly it was as if he had placed not just a few centimeters but the whole universe between them.
She couldn’t let that happen. Never again. Her lips moved to shape his name.
Then a harsh voice blared across the long-range com. “This is Exalt sec team one. We’re picking up two spacewalker emergency signals. What’s your status, spacewalkers?”
They both jumped enough that they would have themselves flying in opposite directions if they weren’t tethered together.
Sita was the first to recover. “This is Sita Chandra and Max Ross,” she said, her voice uneven. “We are the only survivors of the Advent, in immediate need of rescue.”
“Scanned, M’Chandra. Please maintain your present coordinates. We’ll rendezvous with you in approximately twenty minutes. Continue long-range communications until then.”
“Understood,” she said. She locked eyes on Max, but his face was turned away from her, hidden behind the reflective gold of his visor. She wanted to scream in frustration. They weren’t alone any longer, and it was too late to give him her answer after all.
* * *
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