The King Hunt
Forty-three Years Later…
Far Earth Orbit, Delpin-Kurtz Space Station Advent, Year 323 after colonization of Mars
The scientist was puttering contentedly in his lab when the traffic alert chimed. He had been bending over the batch of biomatrix lovingly modified to his unique specifications, but at that rare, precious little sound, he shot up straight, his sleek head cocked and his black eyes wide, like an emrat hearing a chime in its food dispenser. A ship was approaching his space station.
It couldn’t be an automated supply shuttle. Supplies were only delivered to the Advent station twice a year. And it was no small, unimportant hopper. The alarm indicated a big ship, a sunship suitable for interplanetary journeys between Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt.
He flickered a glance along the walls of his lab, stacked with the big white tubes that housed his precious collection of specimens. “Who could it be?” he asked them in a sharp, high-pitched voice.
The scientist, whose name when he needed one was Xu Huxing, often talked to his specimens. There was no one else on this station to talk to. They never answered back of course, but then they didn’t have to. He knew what they would say. With a touch to his comp on his wrist cuff, he accessed the General Intelligence programs that ran his space station and had them discover what was coming—a threat, or an opportunity?
A fraction of a second later, the GenIes told him the answer. “It’s the sunship Exalt, from Arescorp,” he said aloud. “You know, the Martian space travel company. It seems that our old partner Enrique Kurtz sold Arescorp some of our cryogenic boxes before he died. They’re here to collect their cargo. But don’t worry,” he crooned to the gleaming white cylinders, “They just want the old, outdated boxes, not your lovely homes, my dears.”
Xu was not surprised at this new development, since had long ago learned the gist of Kurtz’s business plans. Kurtz must have unloaded his more antiquated cryo boxes on the Martians, with the intent to obligingly sell them contents for the boxes—hundreds of thousands of Earther slaves. Earth’s surplus population was to have been harvested, sent up Kurtz’s newly built Earth space elevator, and packaged in cryosleep. Then the hapless Earthers would have been sent off to Mars or the asteroids to work themselves to death for the less numerous but more powerful spacers.
Unfortunately for Kurtz and his business empire, this plan had failed spectacularly. The Martians had refused to reinitiate the slave trade between the planets that had sputtered to a stop eleven years ago, no matter what intrigues Kurtz employed. And then Kurtz’s space elevator had been destroyed in a terrorist attack, while Kurtz himself had been murdered, ironically enough by a mob of the very Earthers he had meant to box up and sell to Mars.
However, it seemed that Arescorp, perhaps burdened with fewer scruples than the other Martians, intended to salvage something from the wreckage of the Delpin-Kurtz company. Though what use the boxes might be now that there were no slaves to put inside them only the Martian point-pushers knew.
Xu didn’t care. Nor did he care about nonsense like slavery and murder, though he did try to keep aware of such goings-on in case they might impact his work.
“How typical of Kurtz not to tell me about these arrangements,” he complained. “Just as well he’s dead. He was disruptive, and we need our routine, don’t we?”
Xu had made many unique arrangements in running the Advent over the years, and he hated anything that might disturb them. The space station was nearly autonomous, running smoothly under the direction of its General Intelligence programs. Its mission, and indeed its very existence, was shrouded in layers of secrecy and misdirection.
Anyone aiming sensors at the Advent would detect nothing but a rotting hulk still limping through space long after it should have been recycled. The wheel-shaped station still rotated to provide pseudogravity for any inhabitants, and heat signals indicated tech in use. The standard traffic signals still bounced through space around it. But it looked all but derelict. Its virtual presence in the DataCloud would offer the same illusion. No casual observer would guess the truth about the state-of-the-art equipment and priceless research the half-darkened structure contained.
The legal ownership of the space station was also a question sunk in a welter of deliberate confusion. Though it had originally belonged to Kurtz, Xu had slowly but inexorably drawn the Advent into his legal control.
“There’s no reason for anyone to disturb us,” he said fretfully. “But Kurtz getting himself killed so stupidly makes everything uncertain. The Martians…they could be a problem. Martians are always a problem.”
His delicate hands moved restlessly over his cuffs, his shiny black eyes narrowed in thought. “But this could also be an opportunity, couldn’t it? I haven’t added to the collection for so long.” His high voice wavered in distress. “A chance to acquire more specimens might not come our way again for some time. I need to think. I need more data.”
He went quickly toward the lab’s console array, his small feet scuttling on the composite floor. The half-light of the cells lining the ceiling cast twilit shadows over the stacks of large white tubes lining the chamber—the most advanced cryogenic suspension modules in the Sol, developed by himself.
Xu had been researching cryo tech for more than a hundred years, slowly building on his work, reaching for the elusive goal of perfect suspended animation. He had modest hopes that he had finally achieved something like it. If his recent tests continued as they had been, these latest models of his cryo boxes would keep a human body alive for a thousand years or more. As he passed he ran a thin hand along the tubes’ plaz lengths and gazed fondly into the viewing windows where the slack faces of their occupants could be dimly seen suspended in cloudy fluid.
His magnificent collection. The most perfect human specimens he had yet discovered, each uniquely gifted in intelligence, beauty, health, and talent. None of them, not one, had wanted to become part of his collection. They never understood how important it was for their unique qualities to be preserved, kept pristine and timeless in his cryotubes. Xu had been forced to use guile and even violence to acquire each of his subjects. And, of course, it had been regrettably necessary to cull and dispose of the unfit specimens that had fallen into his hands now and again. But the resulting assemblage of was worth all the trouble of the hunting and capturing. Viewing their sleeping faces was the only thing that could console him after his terrible loss to the Aurora traitors.
Twelve years ago, the Martian med tech group called the Aurora project, which he had been foolish enough to get involved with early in his career, had robbed him of his most precious possession. A genetically engineered female, the most intelligent and most physically beautiful human being ever to live. His perfect specimen.
Xu had his treasure for only a few short years before the Martian thieves absconded with her back to Mars. But that painful loss had taught him valuable lessons in secrecy and security. No one would be allowed to steal his precious subjects again.
“I’ll keep you safe and sound, my dears,” he sang to them as he passed.
As he approached the console array he gently chided, “Now, we can’t get too excited. There could turn out to be nothing of value on the ship. Earther fei ren criminals deported to the Asteroid Belt, or common Martian merchantmen.” Nevertheless, a thrill of anticipation ran over him as his spy GenIes drew up the passenger manifest of the Exalt.
He scanned the thousand or so profiles of the passengers and crew, and then he stopped, twitching in sudden, overwhelming excitement as one incredible name caught his eye. “Who would have thought that he would stray into our path?” he squeaked. His heart was pattering in his thin chest harder than it had in a decade.
This one addition to his collection would take him far toward his ultimate goal, replacing what the Aurora project had stolen from him all those years ago. He had to have him.
“But we have to be careful about getting him, my dears. Very careful.” His prospective new specimen was one of the most important people in the Sol, and that made him dangerous prey. The man had already escaped one trap by Enrique Kurtz, and, his ignominious death notwithstanding, Kurtz had been a cunning and powerful opponent.
“We need to devise a trap even the most brilliant man in the Sol couldn’t escape.” He scanned the data he had on his potential subject for a bit, various plans twisting through his mind. Scrolling over tabloid headlines from the past year, he began to smile. The trap was already half built, he realized. The man’s emotions would be the bait, and his reputation for lacking emotion would cut off his escape.
Xu cast a keen glance at a long white tube at the end of the row nearby, its window dark and empty, for now. “My dears, we’ll soon have a new addition to the collection!” he crooned happily. With a few flicks of his fingers he sent two maintenance bots to pick up the empty tube and load it into the cryo platform. The blocky, two-meter tall shapes of the bots trundled forward from their docks, prongs extending to grip the tube.
With a satisfied twitch of his head, he left the bots to their work and scurried down a corridor to open another lab, which had lain unused since the Aurora project left the Advent. Though pathology was not Xu’s area of expertise, he had kept the Aurora patho lab intact all this time because he knew the contents might be handy one day. That day had now come.
Inside the lab he settled behind a console crammed between towering culture vats and cooling units and began to design the perfect snare for his prey.
Sunship Exalt, Interplanetary Communications Deck, Year 323 after colonization of Mars
Maxin Ross was stunningly brilliant, unfathomably rich, and unquestionably powerful. Within a period of only fifty years he had designed and built both the Mars and Earth space elevators, the most magnificent man-made structures the Solar system had ever seen. He had recently faced down an interplanetary tyrant and an apocalyptic disaster without flinching.
But the three women in front of him made him want to run and hide behind the nearest computer console he could find.
Not that any of them were paying attention to him at the moment. One, his daughter Bianca, was there only virtually. In reality, she was millions of kilometers away at her home on Mars, where she was acting as engineering executive and general executive of the Mars space elevator. Her dark, almond shaped eyes, just like Ana, her dead mother’s, were wary as she looked out of the vidscreen at his…other daughter, Devi Chandra. The daughter he hadn’t even known existed until a few weeks ago, when she had slammed into their lives like a meteor.
Devi was peering back at the image of her half-sister, equally cautious. But her eyes, though as blue as Max’s own, also held a sparkling vivacity that she owed entirely to her own mother’s genetic legacy. Her talent as a medical doctor was her mother’s contribution as well.
Though they were half-sisters, the two women were amazingly different. Bianca was pale skinned and dark eyed, quiet and reserved, an engineer devoted to her home on Eris, the Mars space elevator station. By contrast, Devi was dark skinned, blue eyed and lively, a medical doctor with an acute case of wanderlust. Na, his daughters had almost nothing in common, except for the fact that they had both been forced to face terrible threats because of their father’s bad judgment.
“…And so that’s what my life has been like for the last year,” Bianca was saying. “Absolute chaos. I’ve been training to run the Mars elevator all my life, but Victoria left a lot of heavy problems with the company before she…died.”
Victoria, Max’s second wife and the former CEO of StarLine, had in fact been killed in a suspicious ‘accident’ after a spree of slave trading, torture, and murder, culminating in kidnapping and assassination attempts on Bianca and her new husband.
Bianca went on, “She made secret deals and promises with the Martian elite, alliances with criminals, cash manipulations with everyone. We still don’t know how far her corruption went. Victoria had been deceiving us all for a very long time.” Her eyes shot to Max, but her gaze was sympathetic, without any hint of blame.
Max flinched anyway.
Devi replied, “Ay, I know what you mean. Enrique Kurtz played those games too. We still haven’t untangled all the legal problems he raised with us, and me in particular.”
Max flinched again as Devi continued, outlining the terrible things that had happened to her over the last few weeks. Kurtz had been his partner in building the Earth space elevator, but that ended when he tried to use Devi to further his megalomaniacal pursuit of power in the greater Solar system. He had almost succeeded in capturing her before he was killed by a mob of his enraged Earther victims.
Devi and Bianca had been going on like this for nearly an hour, telling each other how the people Max had thought were his closest friends and allies had put both of them in danger. He listened in stoic silence, each word reminding him of how stupid he had been in giving his trust, and how utterly he had failed to protect either of his children.
It was excruciating. And the conversation was rendered even more lengthy and awkward by the twelve-minute delay in communication through the deep space satellite relays between the spaceship Exalt and Mars. But since Max was the one who set up this meeting, he was determined to stick it out to the bitter end.
The one thing he hadn’t counted on that made this moment almost unbearable was the withering presence the third woman in the room, who had invited herself to this conference--Devi’s mother Aksita Chandra. Famous virologist, extraordinary beauty, ruthless liar, and the female he was currently considering sending on a one-way trip to the Asteroid Belt. The woman who had kept his child a secret from him for decades, not to mention leaving him and tossing his heart in a recycler as she went.
The people who had persecuted his daughters were both dead now, and past punishment. But this woman was not. And a dark corner of his spirit wanted her to pay for her part in this mess, like he was. Max ground his teeth together, eyes narrowed on her.
Sita hovered behind her daughter, not speaking, her face turned away from him. But he knew what she looked like. He knew what every centimeter of her looked like.
Shining black hair rippled in a sleek bob that grazed her neck, framing a face breathtaking in its beauty. Rich brown skin over elegant cheekbones, a small, straight nose and a delicate, dimpled chin. A wide, rose-colored oval of a mouth, with a pronounced dip in the upper lip. He knew her eyes were large, liquid brown heavily framed with black lashes and arching black brows.
What little he could see of her expression was inscrutable. Her otherwise smooth brow was creased with a slight frown as she watched her daughter, her slender arms folded over a bosom shaped to make men cracked. She shifted uneasily, her high, firm bottom swaying slightly as she moved her tapered legs. Legs Max could remember to this day, wrapping around him as she surged hotly against him.
He stared at her slender back, a choking rush of furious emotion boiling in his chest. Anger, frustration, hurt both old and new, and Heaven help him, a dose of lust. Lust just as strong as it was all those years ago, the day she had blazed into his calm, orderly life and incinerated every scrap of intelligence he had.
Damn her. His fists clenched at his sides and he heard his blood pounding in his ears, as it did with regularity these past few days.
He was pulled from his fuming by Bianca’s quiet voice. “Da, while I have you on the com, I wanted to let you know that I’m sending you the StarLIne files on the last quarter. I really wish you would review the housing and recreation subclauses of the new car/cable maintenance crew contracts…” Max promptly tuned out, letting Bianca’s voice drone on until she was done with whatever human resources do-gooding she was on about this time.
He had made Bianca the StarLine CEO so that he wouldn’t have to deal with distractions from his engineering. He had spent enough of his life kissing arses and compromising just to get the Mars elevator built. He would be damned if he let petty politicking take any more of his time.
Max had long since given up the administration of StarLine to his CEOs so that he could concentrate on his scientific projects. His first wife, Anna the long suffering angel, and his second wife, Victoria the insane puta from hell, had both dealt with the practical concerns of the elevator without bothering him about it. Certainly Bianca could handle it without his involvement. She had inherited Ana’s preternatural ability to rule the city-state that was the elevator complex. He trusted her instincts. And he didn’t want to argue with her now.
So he simply nodded to her image. “l’ll look over everything you send me right away,” he lied. “But I wouldn’t have made you CEO if I didn’t think you could handle these issues by yourself. I have other claims on my time, as well. The Earth elevator and its space station still need my support to get stabilized.”
A couple of weeks ago, an apocalyptic Earther cult had attacked the Earth space elevator that Max had spent so many years designing and building. The fanatics had broken the cable, but he and Devi’s new husband Jacques Tallinn had managed to sever the cable at its anchor point on the equatorial mountain of Quito, saving Earth from the devastation of thousands of kilometers of massive carbon fiber cable crashing down on the planet.
Ever since the terrorist attack, Max had been working ferociously to stabilize the space station that had tethered the cable in Earth’s orbit. The station was now in an orbit around Earth’s Moon, but he was still fielding panicked coms about it and the cable fragments from everyone in Earthspace. All of this would have been an interesting engineering project, if it hadn’t been so harrowing.
On the vidscreen, Bianca’s soulful gaze was still peering out at him, demanding his response to her plea. He cast about for another excuse to fob her off with. “And…and I’m still researching the Aurora project you asked me about,” Max said, inspired.
After Victoria’s death, Bianca and her husband Cesare had found cryptic notes in her personal records about an obscure Martian group calling itself the Aurora project. Victoria had left only a few vague though unnerving hints about the group, but they did uncover a connection between Aurora and the disappearance of Cesare’s mother and younger brother and the valuable asteroid they had been prospecting on two years ago. Bianca had asked for Max’s help with the investigation, but since he had no personal knowledge of the group, he hadn’t made much progress. However, the prospect of being roped into going over labor contracts was more than enough to spur on his inquiry.
“I assume your, uh…” he couldn’t make himself say ‘your husband’ yet. He forged on, “Cesare must still want all the information he can get about Aurora. Jacques Tallinn’s family was involved with them briefly. He’s given us some valuable new leads I want to follow up. And I’m looking into all of the data I can access from Kurtz’s sources, though the Earthers are being cagey. I’m depending on you to take care of the Mars elevator while I’m working on all this,” he finished triumphantly.
Though she couldn’t possibly see or hear his reaction for several more minutes, Bianca cast a skeptical, narrow-eyed glance in his direction before turning her attention back to her sister, gearing up to end the transmission.
“Devi, it was…good…to meet you, uh, at last.” A strained pause. “Next time we talk, I’d like to introduce you to my husband, Cesare.” Her pale skin blushed fetchingly as she said his name.
“Ay,” Devi replied gamely. “I want you to meet Jacques, my husband, as well. But I’m glad we got the chance to meet you alone first.” Her blue eyes looked sideways at her mother and Max, as if just realizing that she wasn’t alone. But she smiled bravely, soldiering through her discomfiture. “I think we’ve all had as much drama as we can handle for now, ay?”
Sita stepped forward and said, “Bianca.” Devi tensed a little at her mother’s voice, but she didn’t try to silence her. “Before you go, I’d like to tell you directly that my relationship with your father ended months before he married your mother, and I had no further contact of any sort with either of them until now. I knew and respected Ana and I would never have done anything to hurt her. In fact that’s why I…well, never mind.”
What in hell is she on about? Max wondered, confusion adding a new ingredient to the witches’ brew in his head. Why would she protest she wouldn’t hurt Ana?
She lifted her small, firm chin. “I thought you should know the facts, in case anyone should start dredging up old gossip. There are people who might try to make you believe differently. But your father will confirm what I’ve said.” She shot a swift glance at him, her dark eyes fiery.
Mystified, Max could only nod. He hadn’t seen or heard from Sita since the moment she ran out on him forty-three years ago.
Sita turned back to the screen. “I’m glad you and Devi got to meet. And I’m glad I got to meet you, too.” She nodded in farewell, a bittersweet smile on her face, and stepped back again.
After Sita’s speech, there seemed nothing left to say. Devi and Max both offered subdued farewells, and then they all three waited in tense silence for the twelve-minute relay to bring them Bianca’s response.
Bianca looked confused and perturbed by what Sita had said, but she bid them all a polite goodbye before cutting her transmission, her glowing smile seeming to leave an afterimage on the screen.
“That went well,” Devi said, a false note of brightness in her tone.
“As well as could be expected,” Max muttered.
“Mum?” Devi said, the brightness wobbling.
Sita’s head was bowed, as if in thought. She took a deep breath. “Ay. Better than I could have hoped.” She lifted her head, her beautiful eyes locking with his. A charged silence fell.
Devi looked back and forth nervously between her parents. “All right then, I think it’s time to find Jacques and fill him in on the latest news. Coming mum?”
“Na, Devi, I think Max and I need to have a private word,” Sita said steadily.
“Right then…ah…I’ll see you at dinner?” Not waiting for a response, Devi scurried for the door and vanished, leaving him alone with her mother.
Turning away from him sharply, Sita went to the vidscreen console. her fingers flicking restlessly over the controls until she had called up a starscape, displaying the cosmos on the vidscreens around them like viewports into the wider Sol.
Max studied her as she bent over the controls. He had been wrong, he decided. Sita had changed since he saw her last. Not in her looks, since Correction treatments had kept her in the same physical state she had been in since she reached adulthood. No, the change in his former lover was deeper. She had drawn a cool veil of watchfulness over her emotions where once her brash confidence, her exuberance and enjoyment of life were plain to see.
The memories came thick and fast. Sita grinning from behind her faceplate as she stood on the rim of the Pavonis volcano, looking out at the vast red expanse of Mars. Sita purring seductively at him over a meal she had cooked herself. Sita talking in her vivid, sparkling way about a new push in viral research, her elegant hands gesturing as she spoke. Sita rolling with him, her mouth clinging to his as she pushed her breasts into his hands and wrapped her legs around his back.
Ciel, she had been the hottest woman he had ever had in his bed. He had had women before he met her and he had had women after, but Sita was the memory he kept coming back to. His first wife Ana had been beautiful, but fundamentally uninterested in sex. His second wife Victoria had had expertly honed skills in the bedroom, but not only had she demonstrated those skills far and wide, there had been an edge of cruelty to her lovemaking that had quickly palled.
And the other women before, after, and between his marriages…he couldn’t fool himself into thinking that any of them were interested in him for more than his wealth and status. No one ever had been, he thought with chagrin. Except for Sita. She had never cared about his money and she actively scorned social hierarchy. No, Sita alone had wanted him for his personality and his body, and she never pretended otherwise. That, he realized now, was what had made her desertion so hard to bear.
It was also what made her reappearance in his life so infuriating. He had gotten used to being alone after all these years, and now with one flick of her black hair she reminded him of everything he had lost when she ran away.
Why, damn you?
He stepped close to her, thrusting his physical presence in front of her in a way he rarely even considered doing to any one else. He had no problem shoving his intellectual achievements in front of the Solar system’s best and brightest minds. But now, he refused to let his body be ignored. He grated, “You wanted to say something to me?”
* * *
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