Exalted on Bellatrix 1 by Eric Brown

SNEAK PEEK EXTRACT:

Eric Brown

Hendrick stood before the wall-window and stared out across Paris.
The lights of the city scintillated like an incandescent galactic cluster. Firefly air-cars threaded their way along colour-coded air lanes, zipping past Hendrick’s penthouse apartment in a flash of sleek coachwork and running lights. To the south, at Orly, the Telemass station stood tall on its tripod of scimitar legs. As he watched, a brilliant white beam of light arched through the night and hit the translation pad, delivering a cargo of demolecularised passengers on their multi-light year journey from the stars.
It was five days since he and Mercury Velasquez had returned to Earth from Alpha Reticuli II. In that time Mercury had followed mind-leads all across Paris in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of Hendrick’s ex-wife and daughter. On arriving on Earth, Mercury had forecast that she would have a viable lead within two days, but she had come up with nothing so far. Hendrick was experiencing mood swings, the euphoria of his new-found love for the telepath alternating with despair that he might never again see his daughter.
His wrist-com chimed and his heart skipped. Every time he heard the distinctive double note he expected Mercury with good news.
A grey-haired man in his sixties stared up from Hendrick’s metacarpal screen.
“Thierry. How’s things?”
Every month his lawyer, Thierry Duvall, contacted Hendrick with the latest news. More often than not, there was no latest news.
“Sit down, Matt.”
Hendrick moved from the wall window and lowered himself into a foam-form, feeling a little sick. “Bad news?”
He’d hired Duvall five years ago to liaise with Europe’s top research labs and notify him if there was any breakthrough in the quest to discover a cure for his daughter’s condition. He lived in hope but always, on receiving Duvall’s monthly call, feared that the labs had declared Sam’s condition incurable.
Mercury had chided him on this point. “Brighten up. The companies won’t give up. Research is ongoing. They want to cash in on the Euros, no?”
“I was contacted by Omega-Gen a week ago,” Duvall said, “while you were off-world. I would have contacted you as soon as you returned, but I wanted to be sure.”
Hendrick leaned forward, his heart beating fast. “Be sure?”
“That what Omega-Gen told me was a one hundred per cent, nailed on certainty. So I took a flier down to Madrid and talked to the medics myself. There’s no doubt, Matt. They’ve found a cure for Sam’s condition.”
Hendrick stood up, choking. He strode to the window and stared out. He’d lived for this moment, anticipated his reaction, for  years. The lights of Paris blurred beyond his tears.
“The Piserchia team made the breakthrough a month ago,” Duvall went on. “It’s something to do with telomerase reversal and chromosome replacement. I don’t really know – they blinded me with science. But Dr Gonzalez is flying to Paris tomorrow and he’ll tell you all about it then. I’m so happy for you, Matt.”
Hendrick shook his head. “Thanks… I mean, thanks, Thierry, for everything you’ve done.”
“Things is,” the lawyer interrupted, “you any closer finding your daughter?”
“Mercury’s working on it,” Hendrick said. “She expects to find something pretty soon.”
Duvall nodded. He looked suddenly grim.
“What is it?”
“Just one thing…” Duvall hesitated. “This isn’t going to be cheap. The cure, it comes at a cost.”
“I never expected anything else. How much?”
“I think you should sit down again.”
Obediently, Hendrick returned to the foam-form. He had a couple of million stashed away, and was confident he could raise double that it need be. How much, after all, was his daughter’s life worth?
“Okay,” he said, “I’m ready.”
“We’re talking about staggered payments. Omega-Gen know you’re a private individual, not some corporation or government body. So they’re trying to make it manageable for you.”
“How much?”
“They suggested three payments over a couple of years. An initial deposit of five million Euros, then five million on completion of the treatment – which shouldn’t take more than a week – and then, a year later, a final payment of five million.”
Hendrick swallowed. He felt as if something very heavy and painful had hit him in the stomach.
“Fifteen million Euros?” he said.
“I know, I know… It’s a hell of a fee.”
Hendrick tried to compose himself. He didn’t want Duvall to see his shock and intuit that there was no way he could raise such an amount. “You’re telling me. Okay…” He let out a long breath. “Okay. I need to talk this over with Mercury. We’ll find some way…”
“I’ll be in touch about tomorrow. Gonzalez is due in at eleven. I suggest we meet over lunch.”
“Sure… that’s fine.” He thanked Duvall again and cut the connection.
He moved to the window and stared out. He raised his wrist-com and tried to get through to Mercury, but she wasn’t taking calls. He turned and strode across the lounge, back and forth, working off nervous energy. They had a cure for his dead daughter, a miracle that would bring her back to life.
He closed his eyes and felt the little girl in his arms again; she was five years old, on the colony world of Landsdowne, alive and looking forward to going to the zoo.
And a year later his daughter was dead, sealed into a coffin-like suspension pod against the day when medical science might discover a cure for her ailment.
Hendrick’s insurance didn’t cover the cost of the cure, and barely covered the monthly fee of the suspension pod. He’d saved over the years, juggled investments and lived frugally – a regime not helped by having to pay Telemass fees in order to race from world to world around the Expansion when his ex-wife absconded with the pod in a hare-brained attempt to find a cure herself.
Now a miracle had happened. His daughter could be cured. All Hendrick had to do was find Sam… and fifteen million Euros.
His wrist-com chimed. Mercury looked up from his metacarpal screen, her tricorne askew and stray strands of jet hair pasted to her sweat-soaked forehead. She looked out of breath as she grinned at him.
“Done it, Matt.”
His heart missed a beat. “You found her?”
“Well, I found out where your ex and Dr Hovarth fled to.” She peered up at him. “Hey, you okay?”
He hesitated. “Fine,” he said.
“You don’t look fine.”
She had the amazing facility, when her tele-ability was switched off, or when speaking to him over the net, of being able to discern his moods. She’d honed the skill of subliminally reading the facial tics and mannerisms of a subject so that, even when she wasn’t reading the mind in question, she was able to discern temperament and mood.
“Well done,” he said. “So where are they?”
“They led me a hell of a dance,” she said. “I thought it’d be a cinch to pick up mind-trails leading from the Orly station, but I was wrong on that score. Every one finished up in a dead-end. Thing was, Maatje and Hovarth didn’t know themselves where they were heading after Paris.”
“So how…?”
“I haunted the station every day this week, reading every worker there. No one knew anything, until I came across a wisp…”
He smiled. “A wisp?”
“That’s what I call them. Not really conscious thoughts in the head of a subject, but subconscious visual memories. Wisps, lasting a fraction of a second – fleeting images. I was reading this receptionist at the station when I caught a fragment – the visual of your ex and Hovarth in conversation with a short, stocky off-worlder. From the woman’s memories, I worked out the meeting had taken place four days ago. So I backtracked and read the heads of everyone working at the station that shift, and hit pay dirt. Someone knew the off-worlder: he was a Telemass agent working for the Berlin station, with an office in Montmartre. So off I went, staked out his office, and read him when he came in a couple of hours ago.”
“Go on.”
Mercury clicked her jaw sideways, skewing her lips. “Ah… I found out where they went, Matt, but I’ll tell you when I get back, right?”
“There’s a problem?” he said, his spirits sinking.
“I’ll tell you later.”
Hendrick closed his eyes.
“Matt,” he heard her say. “What’s wrong? You’re holding something back…”
“That’s the trouble with being in love with a  telepath,” he said. “They know damned near anything.”
“I wish…” she said. “So, spill.”
“I just had a call from Duvall. Gonzalez at Omega-Gen has found a cure.”
Mercury stared at him with her big, Spanish eyes. “But that’s… great,” she said. “But there’s a problem, hm?”
“You said it.”
She sighed. “Look, I’ll be back in thirty minutes. We’ll trade problems then, okay?”
“Sure…”
“Fix me a long, ice cold G&T, would you, Matt? See you then.”

* * *

Every time he set eyes on Mercury Velasquez after an absence – not that there had been many absences in the two weeks he’d known her – he marvelled anew at the fact of their love. He also experienced a retroactive sense of dread at the thought of how, but for the twist of chance that had taken him to a certain bar at a certain time, he might never have met the woman.
He heard the roar of turbos as the taxi-flier landed on the roof of their penthouse, and thirty seconds later the door swished open and Mercury padded across the thick-pile carpet. In a form-fitting black one-piece and tricorne, she looked like a cross between an attenuated matador and a catwalk model. She was forty-two, severely slim, and heart-stoppingly beautiful.
They embraced, and Hendrick handed her a long, ice cold gin and tonic. She frisbee’d her tricorne across the room, stretched out on the sofa, and lodged her bare feet on his lap. He massaged her insteps.
She took a sip, closed her eyes in bliss, then said, “Hokay, Matt. Your problem first.”
“You’re not reading?”
“I’m not reading, but let me guess…” She studied his face. “They have a cure… but it’s damned expensive, yes?”
He stared at her. “You’re amazing, Ms Velasquez, you know that?”
“Well, wasn’t much else it could be. So they want… what, three million Euros? Five?”
“No.”
She looked aghast. “What? Eight?”
“Try again.”
“Ridiculous! Ten…?”
He shook his head. “Fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” She was on her knees now beside him. “That’s extortionate. Hokay… We can do this, Matt. I can raise a couple of million if I sell all the artwork I’ve squirrelled away over the years, And I have half a million in savings. You?”
He sighed. “A couple of million saved, and I reckon I could raise that much again.”
“That’s six and a half…”
“There’s no way anyone would loan us more than eight million,” he said. “Anyway, I’ve arranged to meet Duvall and someone from Omega-Gen for lunch tomorrow.”
She reached out and stroked his five o’clock shadow with her knuckles. “We’ll work something out. Maybe they’ll be amenable to a deposit and spread payments.”
“Duvall said they want five million up front, same again at the time of treatment, and five million a year later.”
“The bastards.”
He laughed, without humour. “He said Omega-Gen realised I wasn’t a corporation, so they’d make it manageable for me.”
“Manageable? That’s generous!”
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? Duvall informs me of a cure, and you find out where Maatje’s fled to.” He looked at her. “So… let’s hear your problem.”
She finished her drink, uncurled herself from beside him and crossed to the bar. “You want anything?”
“A beer.”
She returned with the drinks and sat beside him, a hand on his thigh.
She said, “Maatje and Hovarth left Earth early yesterday morning, from the Telemass station at Berlin.”
“Headed to?” He sipped his beer.
“A planet called Beltran, orbiting the star Bellatrix in Orion, around two hundred and fifty light years from Earth.”
“Do you know if they had the suspension pod with them?”
“They did,” she said, and went on, “Beltran is home to the Vhey, to give the shortened version of their name. The most secretive race of ee-tees known to humanity.”
He sat up, spilling his beer. “Just a minute… I’ve read that access to the planet is limited.”
“It is. Very limited. You can’t even Telemass straight to Beltran, but to an orbital station. From there you take a shuttle down to the planet’s surface.”
“And they’re secretive, I recall reading, because they’re a civilisation perhaps ten thousand years more advanced than the human race?”
“That’s the reckoning, Matt.”
“So…” He shook his head. “Why have Maatje and Hovarth been allowed onto the planet?”
She rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “They paid, and paid a lot.”
“They wouldn’t do that just to get away from us,” he said. “Perhaps Maatje’s on another alien-race-can-cure-my-daughter kick?”
Mercury sipped her drink and considered. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “But we might find out more tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?”
“When I learned where they’d skedaddled to, I pulled in a favour with high-ups at the Hague. We’re meeting with a couple of suits tomorrow afternoon who, I hope, might be able to pull a few strings and get us to Beltran.”
“Not only are you beautiful, Mercury Isabella Velasquez, but you’re a genius.”
She stood up, reached out with both hands, and pulled him to his feet. “I’ve had a hell of a day and I’m dog tired. But not too tired, Matt…”
Later, he stared up at the stars through the diaphanous roof and wondered how he might have gone about the daunting task of locating his daughter all by himself. The thought made him shiver.

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