True, Lily had been
absent-minded lately. She’d misplaced her com-tablet. She’d thought she left
her microscope on her desk in the office, but found it in the lab the next
morning. She even did the whole accidental swap of the milk and her mold
samples, barely stopping herself before taking a swig.
But she’d never
leave research samples in disarray. That was too far-fetched to believe. Her
slides were lined in neat two-inch rows. She slid the fungi section out sample
by sample. It was subtle, but she always organized the samples by domain, then
kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. The pathogenic fungi
section, particularly the pucciniales
order, had been alphabetized.
She held up one
slide to the artificial night-light. A thumbprint, larger than her own, hovered
like a ghost, smack in the center.
“Mamăe?” Mateo’s voice croaked through
the intercom from his bedroom. “Where’d you go?”
“I’m right here, filho,” Lily called. She set the mystery
aside for another time. Mateo needed her. Lately, his needs came before work.
Had it really been
two weeks since Mateo had first collapsed? She forced an easy smile and
deliberately appeared calm when she entered the room. Sure, it was difficult to
ignore the flickering machines and the vibrations sent to her tablet on her
hip—his half-hour updates. An hour ago the specialist teleconferenced the
latest results. The lead on a similar case in the penal colonies came back a
bust. The assigned doctor recorded it as space sickness, possibly meningitis.
Dr. Adal didn’t trust the report and vowed to research the case further, but
Lily didn’t want to chase a remote possibility. She wanted to find an answer
She ran the tests
again. After all, she was Lucky Lily. Even though she hated the nickname and
implication that she didn’t work hard for what she earned. Every time a door
closed three more opened for her. Rejected from the top school for
biochemistry? She got into the second-best school, and within a year of
attending, it became the number-one. Collide with a stranger at a station stop,
dropping her tablet and destroying the device? The stranger turned out to be
the funding behind the Sargasso Exploration Initiative and within days she got
her team on the Basilisk a bid for a
second official attempt to break the Sargasso Grid Barrier. Then she got
pregnant and it looked like she’d miss her huge opportunity, only to land a
better position at the Mars Space Station as Lead Biologist. And the Basilisk met a tragic end. It turned her
childhood friend, Victor, the sole survivor, into a complete mental mess. Maybe
she was lucky, but not the people around her.
vibrated, a soft hum against the tense silence.
“What is that, Mamăe?” Mateo’s eyes opened to slits,
focused on her fingers scrolling through the results.
“It’s nothing, filho.”
And it was a
Full body MRI and
PET. No mass detected.
Viral load. Normal.
A stream of
negative and normal all down the row, until she hit kidney function, which was
elevated. He was entering the beginning stages of organ failure.
She placed a
request to speak with the specialist again to see what could be done. Although,
the doctor had warned her this was coming. She crawled next to Mateo on the bed
and curled next to him. She’d never wanted a test to come back with something,
anything, but now she begged for it. Please let him have something that they
could identify and then they’d have a disease to treat.
To keep her mind
off the medical stuff she sent a security report to Avery.
I think someone’s been going through my lab
samples from the Mars surface.
Avery: Matty entertaining himself?
Lily dug her
fingernails into the screen and bit down on her lower lip hard. Idiot. Mateo
was awake for only a few hours a day and usually only minutes at a time. He
hadn’t left his bed all week. And if he did, he knew the rules about not
messing with the samples.
No. I don’t think, so. I’d like someone to
come down and take a look.
Avery: Sure thing, Lil. I’ll send a guy in a few
hours. We’ve got an important shipment coming through the station right now.
She didn’t want to
wait a few hours and her name was Lily not
Lil. Someone had broken into her lab and there were only thirty or so staff on
the space station. If Mars eased up their regulations on unapproved species she
could have set up on the surface. They would have taken a breach or possible
contamination seriously. Avery treated her like an afterthought. They were a
science station, a cargo hold, a pit stop, not a military base. But they could
still be a little more professional.
If Mateo got better
… she stopped herself. She stiffened with guilt over her mistake. Of course
he’d get better. It wasn’t an “if,” it was a “when”—When he got better she’d
start the process again to get her lab transferred to the surface. She rubbed
small circles on her son’s back. “I love you, filho. You’re going to get better. Maybe tomorrow.”
She almost believed
Mateo floated off
back into dreamland, but Lily stared at the ceiling, preparing for another
Lily snatched the
nutri-biscuit and ripped at the packaging. The corn-plastic crinkled loudly.
“Mateo, you have to eat. This will help your body fight this bug.”
“No, Mamăe! Marcus says not to eat that. He
says it will make me sicker!”
Lily squeezed her
eyes shut, breathing deeply, willing her patience to step forward. “I’ve told
you that your invisible friend doesn’t know what will make you better. He’s not
invisible! He is real.”
“Is he a doctor?”
Mateo broke eye
contact and suddenly became very interested in the fold of his sheets. His face
flamed with anger, his lips pressed in a line.
“It’s called a
hallucination …” How did she explain it to an eight-year-old? At first she
missed the early signs of the disease because she’d thought having invisible
friends and vivid daydreams was part of childhood.
“He’s real,” Mateo
mumbled under his breath.
Lily let out a
heavy sigh and propped her butt on the edge of his bed. “Well, according to
Marcus, what can you have?”
Mateo’s brows furrowed,
stubbornly holding on to his irritation. “Broth,” he bit out. “Rice or fruit if
it’s from Earth or Mars. Nothing from Ceres.”
Lily made the
order. “Ceres doesn’t grow fruit trees. The penal colony is limited on what
they can grow. Remember how we talked about the solar and gravity limitations
in the ag domes?”
She tapped through
the food selections for items Mateo might try. She had thought she’d never have
to deal with food pickiness. Mateo was always good about trying anything. “What
about carrots? Fresh from Mars this morning.” Well, as fresh as
flash-frozen-carted-through-space could get.
No answer. He’d
fallen asleep again. Lily eased him back into a more comfortable position and
watched his chest rise and fall. She unwrapped the nutri-biscuit, but couldn’t
bring herself to eat it. The taste reminded her of cardboard, metal and plastic
with vanilla flavoring. Mateo used to eat several a day, and being one of the
only few on this floating box who could stomach them, he had a lifetime supply.
She held the bar between her fingers while she stewed.
It was the silence
she hated. The moments where the what-ifs crept in. She’d called down to the
Mars surface again. No cases reported. On the space station, Mateo was the only
one showing symptoms. There were around thirty inhabitants on the station and
they’d not taken many precautions at first, so she’d have expected at least one
other illness, if not her own.
A zing of anxiety
shot through her. If she were to get sick, she wouldn’t be able to care for Mateo.
She brought the protein biscuit to her lips, paused, remembered Mateo insisting
it would make him sicker, then tossed it on the counter to test. Nobody else
who’d eaten them had shown symptoms. Yet.
Might as well not
take any chances.
The room chimed,
alerting her that someone was requesting access. She scanned her tablet to see
and a “maintenance” symbol appeared, but no picture of who had been sent. Not
exactly protocol, but not unheard of in the small station, where things were a
bit more lax.
She tucked a can of
sanitization spray into her pocket, keeping her fingers touching the seam where
it hid, and clicked “allow.”
The door opened.
The man stood in the entry for a minute, observing the room with a slow scan of
his gaze, and tilted his head as if he were used to smaller spaces. He flicked
his eyes to Mateo’s room before landing on Lily. “You had a break-in?”
Lily nodded. Unable
to speak for a minute, she didn’t recognize the man. And on a station where
there were only thirty or so staff, that raised her awareness to be cautious.
Some of the men circulated to the surface for some duties and he might be new
to the rotation. However, he had a badge, an ID number clearly printed, and his
name reflected off the holographic display as “M. Jones.”
“Yes. My files were out of order. I left them as I found them.” She motioned to
the rack where she kept her bio-samples from the surface.
He scratched at his
close-cropped hair, scanning the rows of samples. “Any particular ones?”
Lily pulled out the
tray of fungi in question.
He pulled out
several granola bars from his pocket, setting them on the counter, and produced
a pair of latex gloves from a sealed bag. “You have an impressive collection of
rust, Mrs. Silva.”
Her lips twitched
at his correct fungus identification, layman as it was. “Just the ones we can
grow on Mars. Unfortunately, most are banned now for obvious reasons of
wreaking havoc on the crops, hence my lab being on the space station. I monitor
the samples they send me from here.”
“Could someone have
opened the cases and exposed the station?”
“No, they’re sealed
tight. It would have compromised the sample and obvious signs of tampering
would be evident.”
“So they just
reorganized?” He held up the sample with the thumbprint. He frowned as if he
saw something he didn’t like.
“Are you saying
this is unimportant? Someone—unauthorized—entered my lab. My quarters are
attached. My son—”
“Mrs. Silva,” the
man held a hand out to calm her. “I take the break-in very seriously.”
“Do you—” Lily
pressed her lips together, keeping her frustration in check. It would do her no
good to argue further. The man had convinced her he was sincere in his concern,
but Avery had sent some new guy. Obviously he didn’t feel it was important
enough to come himself.
The man placed the
sample in a plastic bag and set it in his pocket. “I’m going to run this
through the data systems. In the meantime don’t open this door for anyone until
I get back.”
Lily crossed her
arms at the sudden seriousness of the man’s tone of voice.
“For anyone,” he
reiterated and backed away from her to the entry.
She slammed her
flat hand against the wall when he left. Damn him. Damn people who ordered her
around. She wasn’t some staff member, she didn’t have an army rank, she was her
own boss. She could leave her own quarters if she wished.
She felt the
feather-light brush against her hand. “I heard yelling.”
Lily looked down
into the widened amber eyes of her son. She squeezed her eyes shut and massaged
her forehead. “You’re not supposed to be walking around, Mateo.” She sighed,
patted his hand, noting the improved color. “It was just a maintenance worker.
He’s gone now.” She absently checked his numbers; they’d improved slightly. She
tamped down the relief, not wanting to hope.
“Oh.” The little
boy’s faced scrunched up in confusion. “I didn’t mean him. I meant the ones in
my dream. They say to stay away.”
If it wasn’t
imaginary friends, it was imaginary aliens. She wondered for a moment if she’d
followed Brandon and forced him to be more of a participant in their son’s
life, if she’d be dealing with this now. It was a brief, very brief, moment of
guilt and she dashed it away just as quickly. That asshole Brandon didn’t do
much beyond the first few unsatisfying moments of conception and sending money
when he docked from expeditions. Weren’t scientists supposed to be stable nerdy
types who made wonderful partners? Brandon’s charming personality and addiction
to danger should have been her first clue he’d make a horrible husband.
avoided that and Brandon was more than willing to adhere to her idea of how
they should proceed after the accidental pregnancy.
more granola bars!” Mateo snatched the bars the man had left from the counter.
“No, those are the
service worker’s. Don’t touch.”
She gently pulled
them from his grip. Mateo’s face reddened and scrunched into the horrifying
mask of a child about to succumb to the fits of a tantrum. Always, when he was
sick he’d regress. Her normally easygoing child was replaced with a stubborn,
She sent a note to
Avery. I think your worker left his
granola bars on my counter. I’d like to get them out of sight before Mateo eats
The worker? I’m sorry, it must be Mateo’s
granola stash or he took some from the kitchens and didn’t tell you. I’ve been
tied up on another emergency. We’ll get someone down there soon.
A chill started
from her neck, ran down her spine, and settled in her gut. She set the controls
on the room to monitor and turned on every camera, set the alarm on her door.
Nobody would enter without setting off every bell and whistle in this corridor.
She hoped to be back before Mateo’s nurse came on duty in fifteen minutes.
“Mommy is going to
run an errand. Do not leave the room, Mateo, do you hear me?”
The little boy
nodded solemnly, the seriousness of her tone jerking him out of his would-be
fit. He flipped a tablet onto his lap. She heard the soft sounds of a cartoon
in progress. Good boy.
First she checked
the security office and didn’t see the man who’d been in her room. The other
officers gave her a passing glance.
Avery pushed aside
his sandwich. “Can I help you, Lil?”
A number of smart
replies came to mind, for one that lunch was less important than her security concern,
but instead she narrowed her eyes and said, “It’s Lily.”
He brushed his
hands on his pants, a half-grin on his face while he glanced at the younger
officer in the room. “Anderson, go run a check on Lily’s room. And stick around
until she gets back. The kid will get scared if he wakes up and she’s not
She moved sideways
for Anderson to slide by.
Avery turned his
full focus on her. “Yesterday it was a sound in the air ducts. Day before that,
a loose grate in the hallway. And a dozen other complaints just in the last
week. I know you’ve been keyed up lately …”
“Someone was in my
room about ten minutes ago. He said he was from Maintenance and I didn’t
Avery dismissed her
concern with a wave and bit into his sandwich. “They get new people rotating in
all the time,” he said around the hunk of food in his mouth. “This is a station
orbiting Mars. We’re not a place for frequent stopovers and our crew is small.
It would be difficult for an unauthorized person to sneak on board.”
“Difficult, but not
impossible. Can you at least check into it? His badge read ‘M. Jones.’ That
shouldn’t be too hard to look up.”
He blew out an
exasperated breath. “Sure, Lil—Lily.” He stretched out her name to make a
point. “Look,”—his tone softened—“I can tell we’re rubbing each other wrong
right now. And you coming in while I’m in the middle of lunch, makes it look
like I didn’t take your concerns seriously, but I do. We’re all worried about
Mateo. We got clearance for another doctor from the surface to come up and take
a look. Nobody’s going to stop until we figure this out.”
Lily nodded. As
much as Avery’s personality grated her, he was concerned about Mateo as much as
anyone else. “I should get back.”
“I’ll have that
name check for you in a few.”
She doubted it, but
left without stating her skepticism.
The worker had said
he was going to run a data check on the thumbprint. The only system capable of
scanning prints was located in the security room, but Avery didn’t have the
slide on his desk or seem to be aware of the order. Where else on the station
was there an open computer? One hidden in a place where nobody from the station
would disturb the man’s work?
She jogged down the
corridor until she came to a T, and on a hunch she headed toward the storage
unit. On the way she peeked into the maintenance quarters and didn’t see the
man who’d been in her room. Lily glanced at her tablet, checking the security
controls on her room. Nothing. And the camera positioned in Mateo’s room showed
him back in bed sleeping.
The storage section
hummed. This area of the station boasted the largest square footage, but little
manpower. Cargo units were lined along the walls and middle of the room. A maze
of plastic boxes, rejected shipments yet to be returned to their home. Mars
enforced strict regulations on what items could enter its borders. As a small
but independently run entity, they flexed what little power they had,
especially against Earth’s continued attempts to open the borders and allow
more aggressive colonization. Bottom line: Mars’ developing ecosystem couldn’t
handle the increase in population. It currently housed a number of ag domes run
by various science interest groups. A scientist’s heaven.
Lily moved along
the aisles, creeping forward with careful steps. The faint hiss of the air
pressure gauge and the steady vibration from the gravity ring were her only
company. The computer station was empty. It hovered in the corner, pulled from
the wall where someone had forgotten to put it back, but the screen was black,
indicating it hadn’t been used recently. Her mystery man wasn’t here. Lily
backed away from the cargo, retracing her steps to the nearest entry.
She was nearly to
the door when she saw a wrapper trapped in the vent. She bent, inspecting the
foil packaging. Granola bar.
She shivered, and
not because the environmental controls had been set too low. She twisted,
backing against the wall. Every hair follicle on her body tingled with that
someone’s-behind-you feeling. This time she made her rounds along the
passageway with a different eye for detail. The unlatched panel exposing the
air conditioner ducts, the whiff of recently warmed bean and cheese burrito
(Mateo’s staple dinner), and the off-kilter, oversized freight container in one
of the walkways.
Lily stepped away
from the freight and fumbled in her pocket for the sanitization spray. She
needed a better defense.
She held it with
both hands pointed at the container. “Come out. Hands where I can see them.” In
a zing of anxiety she realized she should have called security, but if Avery
wouldn’t take her real break-in seriously, then he wouldn’t come running on a
There was a cough
in the container, a short throat-clearing sound. “All right. I’m coming out. I
don’t have any weapons.”
“I’m supposed to
The freight door
squeaked and the cropped mousy brown hair of the man who’d been in her room a
few moments ago crawled out. When he was clear of the opening, he stayed on his
knees and held up his hands.
“What would a
maintenance worker be doing in a freight container?”
“I’m legit—” he
said. Lily could see the sweat dotted around his forehead and mouth.
“You can look me
up, but I’d rather you not, because it will alert the wrong people that I’m
still on board.”
“That doesn’t sound
legit at all.” Lily readjusted her spray and tugged on her tablet.
“I’d rather you not
do that.” The man motioned to his side. Lily snapped her hands back to the
spray. “Whoa! Hey, I’m not armed. I told you the truth. I’ve got a little cut
on my side. My patch is coming off.”
Lily lowered the
spray. “Keep your hands up. I’ll look at the patch.” She gave him a level look.
“I’m a fourth-degree black belt.”
“I won’t hurt you.”
His gaze was so
sincere she believed him. The way he spoke slowly and quietly, the way he held
himself. He didn’t show any signs of danger.
The guy remained
still, a small smile hung on his lips. Lily lifted his shirt, revealing the
clear, pocked silicone patch over a three-inch wound just below his left rib.
“It looks a little red. Did you get some antibiotic on it?”
“Right after it
happened, but not when it reopened. I jammed the patch back in place. I didn’t
get a chance before you found me.”
Lily gently pulled
the patch off and the man was good on his word. He didn’t budge. “This reopen
while you were in my room?”
“Being a burglar
has its disadvantages.” She applied the antibiotic cream and slapped on a new
“I wasn’t the one
who broke into your room, but I’ll find out who did.”
Lily grabbed her
tablet, hesitating over the call button. The guy’s smooth talking had convinced
her to trust him, even for a moment longer while she got some answers.
“What does the ‘M’
stand for? Marcus?”
“I didn’t enter the
room. I was crawling through the vents when I heard your kid calling out. He’d
seen me going by the panel in his room. It’s right above his bed. I was
cleaning out the ducts. The robot broke down and we had to send someone to do
it by hand. We had a few conversations. I was curious when I’d heard he was
“You gave him
became more solemn. “How’s he doing?”
“How frequent are
“I’m not going to
talk about him with you.” Lily kept the sanitization spray close. “Tell me what
you were doing in my room and why you’re hiding here. I’m calling Avery in five
minutes.” Lily didn’t mention she wasn’t about to turn him over until she found
out why he told her son to stay away from food from Ceres and if it was
connected to his numbers improving. She didn’t like coincidences, but first she
wanted to know if he was a threat.
dropped. “I came on the station two weeks ago from the belt. They had an
opening in Maintenance and I took it.” He lowered his eyelids long and slow.
Something about what he was saying wasn’t right.
“Two weeks ago.”
There was one memorable dock from a few weeks back. A ship that limped in from
Ceres carrying a paroled prisoner. “What day?”
He paused, his
fingers absently going to the cut on his side. “The reason I ask about Mateo is
because where I came from we had a similar outbreak. I think I can help.” He
motioned behind him and Lily gave a small chin jerk, letting him know she was
willing to listen.
He reached behind
him and pulled out a plastic-wrapped cornhusk. “It’s from Ceres. Rust infection
as far as I can tell, unlike any I can identify.” He handed it over. “But you
can. If I’m right, the answer to Mateo’s illness is right there.”
Lily secured the
husk under her jacket. He had to know that a sure way to get her to listen was
to promise her son’s returned health. “How do I know you aren’t trying to get
rid of me?”
“I don’t need to
get rid of you. My time is limited either way. I’d like to help Mateo before
the time’s up.”
Lily reserved her
concern. He could be playing on her sympathy, but she had to see if what he was
claiming was true. “If what you tell me is a lie, any of it, if this sample is
just some average pucciniales, then
no duct on this station will hide you.”
“I swear on my
sister’s life.” And the intense look he shot her made her stumble as she turned
to run from the cargo hold.
Dr. Adal shook her
head in disbelief. So far the conversation had consisted mostly of brow-raising
and hesitant optimism.
“A fungal infection
would explain why we had trouble pinning down the diagnosis.”
lined up the samples on her lab counter. “It was in the nutri-biscuit from
Ceres. I put in a recall order. I’ve already got a culture responding to an
amphotericin mixture. It’s stopped the reproduction and is killing the fungus.”
“We can’t give it
to Mateo, not until—”
Lily slammed the
door to her freezer unit. “We don’t have time for a full trial. I have a sick
kid in my home now!”
“Don’t ‘Lily’ me!”
Her body shook, and she took a deep breath to rein in her temper. “I have
reason to believe that the outbreak was caused by contamination in the food
supply on Ceres. We’ll need to alert the trade commission on Earth.”
“I’ve done that,
but we don’t want to cause a panic.”
“You want me to
conduct a clinical trial first? Fine. Call up the penal colony. I’m betting
that outbreak you mentioned yesterday will have a few subjects who’ll
“I didn’t get an
update on that lead. But we did receive word—”
“Great. Tell them
I’ve got a prototype ready to go.”
“The penal colony
is under quarantine. Complete pandemic. We don’t have any word on survivors.
Chances are there are none.”
Lily stopped then.
Dr. Adal couldn’t have smacked her across the face any more than with those
words. Lily dropped onto the lab stool. “How long?”
Dr. Adal’s gaze
dropped. “There’s some evidence that some of the victims had been suffering for
months, others only a few days. It seems to affect each person differently.
There is a drug on the underground market that seems to have cropped up with
similar effects, not as severe though.”
“Who’d take this
willingly? Mateo is a kid. His body mass and immune system …” Lily’s cheeks
prickled with the lack of blood, her pulse hammered in the vein of her neck.
Mateo was just a little guy. He didn’t stand a chance. She had to do something.
“There’s no way to
know if we can develop a working cure in time.”
Lily shot up from
her seat. “I have to go.” She didn’t wait for the doctor to respond; she
flipped off the telecom.
Mateo sat up in his
bed, the side of his face heavy with red creases and his hair standing straight
up on one side.
hard. “Are you hungry? I have some broth.” She tested the liquid she’d set
aside in anticipation of him waking. It had cooled, meaning more time had
passed since she’d met Marcus this morning.
“They don’t want me
to stay away anymore.” Mateo’s eyes were glassy and unfocused. “They said I
have to come. Mamăe, I have to go.”
Her door chimed.
Lily checked her tablet. Avery. She released the locks on her door.
“I need you to
describe the Maintenance worker to me. I ran a check. M. Jones is scheduled to
return to the Mars surface, but he hasn’t checked in.”
“Don’t you have video surveillance?”
“We don’t have
enough storage to keep video from all areas of the station. What do you
remember about him?”
Marcus had told her
the truth about the fungus. What if it were true that he was also in danger if
he were found? She needed to contact him again to be sure. She needed more
information about the fungus, how it spread, what other symptoms to expect. The
more she could gather the faster and more efficiently she could help Mateo and
She scratched her
forehead, attempting what she hoped was a thoughtful expression. “I don’t
really recall. I remember he was average height, medium brown hair. It could
have been light blond.” She shrugged as if that was all she could recall.
“So he’s average
height, and has the same color hair as the majority of the people on the
station.” Avery gripped the lab counter. “Can you give me anything else to go
She glared. “I
don’t know, Ave, maybe if you’d asked me after it happened I’d have remembered
He blew out a
breath. “Okay, that’s fair. I almost deserved that. You call me right away if
you find this guy. It looks like he’s an ex-con, possibly dangerous. If you see
him, send an alert on your tablet directly to me.”
“I will.” She
smiled, forcing herself to relax and appear as though she’d forgiven him.
He left. She
gathered her samples to start another test, twirling around to just barely miss
Mateo at her heel. She let out a squeak.
“Marcus is in
trouble.” The rings around his eyes made them appear as huge as sand dollars.
“You have to help him.”
“Honey, those are
hallucinations. The people talking to you are not real.”
“Marcus is real. He
needs help.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her to his room.
She looked around,
half expecting the man to pop out of a corner. The room was empty. She sighed.
“Why don’t you get some rest, I’m working on a medicine—”
A rustle from above
cut her off. “Keep looking at Mateo.” Marcus’ voice whispered through the vent.
“Don’t look up. Pretend to be talking to the kid.”
“Don’t hurt him.
Whatever you want, I’ll—”
“I don’t think
you’re in danger. The rust you have in your lab isn’t the same rust that’s
growing on Ceres. I have reason to believe he’s working for the people who are
“And who is that?”
She fussed with Mateo’s pirate jammies, willing her fists to unclench. “Never
mind, you’re a thug, of course you have people after you.”
“I didn’t commit
any crime. Well,”—she detected humor laced in his voice—“at least not the one I
was sent to prison for. It was a deal. My brother-in-law owed a large sum of
money to the local mob. The mob boss’s son had committed a minor crime they
wanted me to confess to and serve his time. It was a clean deal. They just
didn’t expect for me to get out so soon; they think I ratted them out.”
“No …” There was a
creak and light tapping sound, as though he were adjusting his position. “I
hacked the penal colony’s system and tacked on work hours to get released
resisted the temptation to scowl; she was looking right at Mateo who stood
still as a deer listening to the conversation between them. “And the prisons
are always full of innocent people.”
He chuckled. “Not
on Ceres. As far as I could tell.”
“How am I supposed
to believe you?” Although she did. Damn him.
“You don’t need to.
I just need your help to make sure a shuttle is docked in the loading bay. I
have to get back to my sister. They’ve already found me here and on Mars.
You’ve already got the word out about the rust. I need to go back to her.” His
voice changed to pleading, and from the sound of stifled desperation and
loathing he didn’t do it often.
Lily had just
gotten a glimpse of hope that Mateo would get better. Now Marcus was implying
that Avery worked for the mob in some way. Did he really expect that she and
Mateo would be safe if they stayed here? Did he really expect her to risk her
own career if she were caught helping him?
“Mamăe, you’re hurting me.” Mateo
She released her
tight grip on her son’s arms and pulled him into a hug. “It’s okay, filho. I’m sorry.” She scooped him into
his bed, his body going limp. She ran the back of her hand down his face when
his eyes rolled back in his head, another attack coming on. She swallowed the
lump in her throat from keeping the tears held at bay. When Mateo’s spasms
slowed, she kissed his forehead.
All at once the
choice was clear. Marcus offered hope of a cure. She’d get him a goddamn
“One hour.” She
shot a gaze to the vent and caught his nod before he crawled away.
Lily wrapped her
son with the grey wool blanket her mother had given her, tucking the ends with
care. She’d rolled him like this as a baby when he’d wake in the night, fussing
and hungry, but he didn’t fuss or squirm now. She only had a small window of
time. She didn’t have to fake the blotchy skin, the bags under her eyes, or
sticky tracks where her tears had streaked her face.
She’d hefted her
son in both arms, cradling his body close to hers as the small bag of luggage
she’d packed in haste rolled behind them. She kept her head down through the
silent gasp of disbelief. She averted her eyes when the close-knit staff
stopped their work to watch her walk by. Their expressions of grief and sorrow
and pity because of her small lie were too much to bear.
It was Amil, the
chemist she worked closely with on projects for the surface, who broke the
ranks and rushed to her side. “When?” The older man rested a shaky hand on the
blanket that covered Mateo’s face.
Her chin wobbled.
She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t lie to the degree she’d planned. “Not yet.”
Her voice cracked with emotion. “But soon. I want to take him to my mother in
Brazil.” The tears came freely, following the familiar trail along her cheeks.
“She’s never met him.” And, god, she should
have taken him sooner. That was not a lie. After her son had gotten sick she
realized how pointless her job had become. It was not what she’d imagined when
she’d signed on.
“I’ll call down to
the surface,”—Amil backed away, not looking her in the eye this time—“make the
arrangements for the project, let them know you’ll be gone.”
“Thank you.” Lily
set Mateo into the shuttle next to the bag of medical supplies that would last
them the trip.
Amil peeked into
the hatch. “We heard about the fungus. There was nothing that could be done?”
The blinking eyes of the crew gathered behind him; it seemed Amil was serving
as their voice. Nobody was sure of what to say to the woman who was about to
lose her child. And she would if they didn’t let her go soon. She was doing a terrible
job of creating a distraction.
She drew the group
away from the shuttle, pretending concern for the paperwork. A service worker
rushed to her side, grabbing the tablet. “I’ll take care of this for you.”
“Then, I …” Lily
fumbled for her luggage and another man swooped in and took it from her. She
caught the handle as the luggage was lifted away, clutching it hard, not
letting it go. Inside were the medical supplies she needed for Mateo.
“Ma’am?” the man
angled his face and she recognized Marcus at once. Fake ID tags, but his
service uniform helped him blend into the crowd gathering.
Not wanting to draw
attention to him, she released her hold. “I’m sorry. I’m a little distraught.”
Marcus faded into
the shuttle with her luggage. She turned to the group. “I don’t know what to
say. I, uh …” she stuttered over her real inability to come up with a
sufficient and believable good-bye and allowing for Marcus to hide himself in
the shuttle before they took off.
Those whom she’d
been friendly with over the year reached in for hugs. Others stood a distance
away, their expressions hollow.
“I should go.” Her
muscles felt thick as though she were walking through mud. The stress of the
past weeks had caught up to her. At least she didn’t have to fake that. The hatch
closed with a hiss.
“This was not the
plan,” Marcus whispered from the corner near Mateo’s makeshift bed. “You only
had to make sure the shuttle was in place. I would have done the rest.”
“And how did you
expect to fly it out of here? How would you have convinced the dock control to
open the doors?”
“I’d have hacked my
way in. I got out of Ceres; this would have been a cakewalk.”
She spun to the
controls, typing in the flight plan. “And leave me here with Avery. I don’t
think you thought through what a risk you put me in.” She finished with the
computer. “I don’t want to be here anyway. I should have left a long time ago.”
“You were not at
risk. He was only looking for the rust—”
“You mean the rust
that is pumping through my son as we speak?”
“He was looking for
something he could make into a drug, not the contaminated nutri-biscuits or the
infection.” Marcus gently unwrapped the wool blanket from Mateo’s face. “What
did you give him?”
“I put him in an
induced coma.” She snapped from the control panel and slid next to her son,
untangling his wrist from the blanket, and injected another drug into his IV.
“What’s going on? The doors should be opening?”
The shuttle buzzed
and a voice came in through the speaker. “Lily, I need to inspect the shuttle.
Marcus removed a
panel from under the bed and folded himself inside, draping the wool blanket
over the opening when he couldn’t get the panel back in place.
Lily flung the
hatch open. “Avery, are you serious. My
son is dying.”
His lips pressed
together in a line. He kept his voice low, so no one would overhear. “I saw the
security videos of you in the cargo hold. Lily, this is a dangerous man.”
“One I hope you
find soon, but it has nothing to do with me.”
“Then let me in.
Don’t make this hard. Everyone is watching.”
should have been paying closer attention. What were you doing in my room?”
He glared. “I can
enter the room of any resident—”
“Shove it. If you
don’t let me go right here and now, I’ll report you for an investigation.” She
was going to anyway, but he didn’t need to know. She had him and he could do
nothing. She had it all set up. As soon as she was scheduled to be far enough
away from the station the investigation message would be sent. Avery was on
this. You don’t know who you’re messing with.” He stepped away from the hatch.
“I hope you arrive on Earth safely, Mrs. Silva.”
She locked the
hatch back into place and the bay doors slid open.
“They won’t talk to
me anymore.” Mateo frowned, kicking the blanket from his legs. “I’m hot.” He
rolled to his side away from Lily and Marcus. “Leave me alone.”
“At least he’s
feeling better.” Marcus pulled the blanket over her son when his even breathing
had indicated he’d fallen back asleep.
Lily shook her
head, rechecking the flight information. “We’re headed the wrong direction.”
“My sister lives
near Jupiter. I let you enter the coordinates for Earth to throw them off. I’ve
made contact with a Nikki Dark; she works with the Space Patrol. I think we can
help them get the rust situation under control. What about Avery?”
“He’s not going to
be a problem anymore. In fact, he’s probably being arrested as we speak.” She’d
also found other evidence that pointed to Avery being in contact with the mob
to seal the deal. She rubbed her forehead. “I’m not good at this.” Then she
laughed. “Oh my god. It’s finally happened.”
Marcus shot her a
“My son hates me,
I’m running from the mob, I don’t know if I have a job anymore, and my travel
mate is a convicted felon who I probably shouldn’t have trusted. I think my
luck may have finally run out.”
She crossed her
arms and stared at the corner of the shuttle, nowhere to go. She’d really
gotten herself into a fine situation.
Mateo stirred in
his sleep, turning so she could see his oval face and pixie features, his brown
hair a twisted mess. The color of his skin had been restored, no signs of
infection in his system; her treatment had worked. She’d found a means to ward
off a possible epidemic. And she had information that could potentially bring
down a drug ring. She’d probably have her pick of jobs anywhere she wanted.
Marcus tipped an
eyebrow at her, noticing her change in posture.
“Damn.” Her grin
spread wide. “I’m still freakin’ Lucky Lily.”