When Mira opened her eyes, Jupiter spread below her feet. Bands of cream and red crept past, rippling like hazy scarves. Despite the silhouetted mesh of stylized leaves and vines that reinforced the thick stack of shield glass between her and the planet, Mira's head lazily pirouetted and she clutched the arms of the wing chair on reflex. Then the floor swept to black from left to right and the silhouetted leaves and vines reflected the interior lights again, turning brassy against the dark background. Seven and a half seconds, and the view of Jupiter returned as the habitat tube swung back around, spinning to give her the illusion of earth-like gravity when the icy rock outside was, in fact, Ganymede. Hypnotically, Jupiter swept the black aside, from left to right, the stripes fooling the mind into imagining they had progressed. On her lap, her cat Cyto opened her eyes a fraction, twitched her whiskers but paid the massive planet no mind.
"I've locked the hard liquor cabinet," the disembodied voice of her p-dac announced from the room's ambient speakers. The only light came from the text window suspended in the holographic entertainment array, and the glare washed the faux mahogany and dark tapestry upholstery in icy blues.
"Just one bottle of tequila, Max." She put her glass down with the last swallow of margarita still in it, meaning to nurse it as long as necessary. "There should've been more ice cream. You owe me for that."
"I'm sorry, Mira, but I can't let you. You've got protein assays to analyze in ten hours," he said, impervious to guilt. "You can't be passed out on the floor when the growth cycle's finished."
"Plenty of time to sleep it off," she muttered, wanting to be good and drunk when she broke out her collection of toys so she could hallucinate about handsome celebrities worshiping her lonely body until the orgasms exhausted her. "Asshole."
Mira leaned her head against the sleekly rough tapestry of the chair's wing, the warm light from Jupiter glinting on the tears in her eyes. After a discreet minute, Max said, "I hope you mean Jake. I'm only trying to distract you with what I know you love more. He didn't even remember your birthday, so you shouldn't miss him at all."
Her hand stroked over Cyto's spine and the cat purred, claws sinking through Mira's white cotton nightgown. Wincing, she looked back to the hologram, where the plain-text message still hung on the screen. "He couldn't even call and tell me eye to eye. Just a damn it's-not-you-it's-me letter. Why'd Jake have to be such a prick?"
Picking up on that spirit, Max said, "He never even came to visit, not once." Nobody came to the laboratory. She'd last seen Jake when she went home for Christmas.
"And he made fun of my butt." Mira's voice fell further and she picked up the margarita, finished it off without thinking. Living alone, it was easy to let the exercise schedule slide. She wasn't a skinny little undergrad anymore, but she liked to think she'd matured into a more curvaceous beauty. Jake preferred skinny undergrads, she suspected.
"And he left wet towels on the floor."
The corner of her mouth picked up a little, at that. "And Cyto hated him, didn't you, sweetie?" A scratch under the chin and the tabby was ready to agree with anything. Cyto's ears perked up and her head lifted from Mira's hand abruptly. A glance to and fro, and the cat leaped down from her lap and swiftly slunk out of the room. Mira watched her go, disappointed.
Considering her empty glass, she sucked on the ice cubes. Mira's last research partner, Dr. Freese, had quit months ago after a final heated argument over dirty dishes and crumbs left on the sofa. They'd never gotten along well, and it had been a relief. Her faraway supervisor had promised to hire replacements, but apparently there was a shortage of medical bioengineering postdocs willing to work in an isolated, unofficial lab on an ice field on Ganymede. The secrecy was for her own protection. Her bioengineering evolved virophages targeted against the very latest and nastiest of manmade bioweapons. From her lab, the potential cures moved quietly into more official laboratories where they began the long process of testing. The catch was that possessing more than a tiny sample of any weapons-grade plague was illegal, under interplanetary law, for nonmilitary citizens and corporations. Down in the freezers, Mira had gallons of the stuff, all cataloged and labeled. New samples, begged, borrowed and stolen, arrived constantly in secret compartments of supply crates brought by robot-driven trucks. Such a collection was not only illegal, it was priceless.
Had it not been so secret, postdocs would be clawing over each other for the job. Mira had seen her name in print, in the appropriate research journals, but buried in a list of et al's under the article's byline. She had seen, on the news, the announcement that the entire strain of a certain bioweapon had been declared a failure because of the cure that had come from Mira's lab. That had been her proudest moment. She'd kept a single vial of that virus as a trophy, in the depths of the freezers.
She considered her empty glass glumly. She wasn't drunk enough. The vibrators would have to do the job without the aid of fantasy hands and ghostly kisses.
"Mira," Max said, breaking the silence, "I think we have an intruder."
Fatigue evaporated. "Where?" she asked, straightening in the chair.
"I don't know yet. I'm starting the opaquing sequences."
Mira got up from the chair as Jupiter swept into view again, her pulse rising in her ears. She was alone, tipsy, and wearing only her plain white nightgown, not the best condition to meet the sort of intruders that broke into secret laboratories full of bioweapons. There were pistols and tasers hidden in cupboards throughout the habitat tube and she'd trained with them, but her hands shook at the thought of using them. There had been two other intruders in the two years since she'd taken up hermitage on Ganymede. Max had dealt with them, and she hadn't asked how. Those two intruders had been agents working for governments that wanted a head start on their stock of weapons. Those sort, nobody missed if they didn't come back. Those sort didn't have to answer to anybody for murder, either. She shivered, hands clenching each other.
"I've got him," Max announced, and Mira exhaled at last.
"Thank God. I'm really going to need that tequila now, Max. You scared the life out of me."
"Shall I dispose of the intruder?"
As it was a medical bioengineering lab specializing in virulent plagues, the recycling tanks could digest nearly anything down to its component atoms. Special agents would know, she supposed, the dangers of their jobs when they were assigned to steal diseases. Max was no slouch in security. No amateur could've gotten in unnoticed. He had to be after something. "What part of the freezers was he in?" she asked, idly curious. He'd have gone straight for the airborne viruses.
"Freezer Three," Max replied.
Looking toward the holographic screen, Mira frowned. "Freezer Three?"
"Yes," her p-dac confirmed.
"But those are cures. Was he lost?"
"There's a case he left on the floor in Freezer Three which looks to have two or three vials lying on the top." Mira was walking already, out of the living room and down the hallway. Max's voice followed, jumping from speaker to speaker. "I would surmise the case has a culture incubator in it. And you really should put a robe on, Mira."
He said that last as she pushed the laboratory door open. Max obligingly turned on the lights, forcing her to squint a moment. Below, the floor was the same black-and-brass. The rest of the laboratory foyer was sleek and squeaky-clean, as it should be, glossy faux mahogany shelves and desk-high work surfaces, the holographic display running the evolution simulator as she'd set it to. Stick-and-ball models of phages grew, folded and re-folded in midair. A wall of glass looked into the clean room, full of anonymous white equipment. The airlock into it was closed and undisturbed. The brushed-steel doors of the freezers lined up adjacent to the clean room, the third one swinging shut under Max's control.
In the middle of the foyer, the intruder hung by his wrists and ankles, belly toward the floor, caught in Max's strong, black braids of webbing. Melting frost dripped from the seamless catsuit that encased him like a wet skin of glistening, charcoal-gray paint. He was reduced to a generically human shape by a surface intended to foil both echolocators and infrared, and with the heavily tinted goggles and the mouthpiece incorporated into the hood he could see in any light, breathe without disturbing the air, and was even safe in a hard vacuum like that outside for a few hours. Max had found him by turning on the sprinklers and detecting the water that hit the suit.
Mira walked around him once. She'd never seen a suited agent in person before. He hung about level with her shoulders, chest pulsing but not making the slightest sound. Curious, she put first two fingers, then her whole hand to the surface and stroked along his back. The stuff was effortlessly slick and no warmer than the air around it. Her skin tingled, in ripples. "Who is he?" she asked.
"I have no way of knowing," Max answered. "I doubt he brought any ID."
Muscles shifted under her hand as she stroked back up to the curve of his shoulder. Beside his featureless head, she stopped and met the gaze of black-tinted, round lenses. The catsuit could hide no secrets. This agent was the lithe and wire-muscled variety. And definitely male. Her eyes couldn't help lingering on the sleeked-over package between his legs. "You can hear us, can't you?" she asked, and the agent nodded but couldn't answer, with the mouthpiece still on. And he couldn't take it off or spit it out, since it was integral to the hood and he was spreadeagled in the air. She'd been afraid of him, a few minutes ago, but now he was more than helpless. "How tough is this stuff?" Mira brushed a finger along the damp catsuit, smirking this time, wondering what he looked like underneath. And wondering what, of many options, to do with him once she found out.
"It's a patent-protected mix of polymers," Max answered helpfully as she went to the nearest desk and opened the top drawer. "IR and UV are nonreflectively scattered, as are most sound and energy waves... oh, I see." He paused as she found a foil-wrapped, disposable scalpel. "I understand they're not fragile, of course, but they're not armor either."
He was watching, arms tensing against the ropes of web, as Mira unwrapped the sterile blade and its plastic handle. "Well, let's see, then." She smiled as she took his ankle in one hand. "I didn't get but one present on my birthday." Mother had remembered, Jake had forgotten. And now a sort of present had just dropped out of the Jupiter-filled sky, wrapped in mysterious gray. The sharp little blade bit into the polymer and it parted as she drew it up the side of his calf. She nicked him once by accident before she got the pressure just right. It was easy. Skin the light tan of someone who didn't always live in well-enough shielded habitat tubes appeared in a pale line up his leg, over his hip where she found a fabric strap, along his ribs to skim inside his armpit and turn right along his nicely muscled arm. At the wrist, she stopped and realized she'd set her teeth on her lower lip, held her breath the entire long whisper of parting plastic. Now Mira could really see there was a human in there, see his skin under the cut she'd made. The peek of plain white fabric on his hip intrigued her. "So you are wearing something under that? Why, does it chafe after hours of wearing it?" she asked, flicking a finger along his smooth thigh as she surveyed her handiwork. He still couldn't answer. Or resist. It was a delicious feeling, after Jake's cursory goodbye.
"The suit maintains a surface temperature matching the surrounding environment," Max explained, "by dissipating body heat very efficiently and discreetly. One might expect he'd freeze, wearing nothing underneath."
"Oh, but wearing long underwear would just ruin the silhouette, wouldn't it?" Mira put the scalpel to his other ankle and cut a second long, silky-smooth line up to his wrist. Her fingertips tingled over the polymer, setting off an echo in her pussy. The agent couldn't do any more than tense, breathing erratically and silently. Sidelong, she glanced at his crotch again, and was a little disappointed to see no difference, arousal or intimidation. Making a cut across his chest from shoulder to shoulder, she freed a broad stretch of the suit and it fell open to his waist revealing an entire anatomy lesson's worth of cleanly defined muscles. She couldn't help licking her lips, briefly. "He's turning into a nice birthday present, Max. You're so sweet to remember."
"I'm far nicer than that asshole Jake," her p-dac agreed, smugly.
With the scalpel, Mira cut a loop around each ankle above the shackles and pulled the entire suit off up to his shoulders, where she freed it around each wrist and the neck, leaving him in just a hood, gloves, socks... and a jock strap with a cup. He was sensible, at least. Chuckling, she slid the scalpel under that strap and cut. The agent tensed again as it came loose and fell.
His penis hung straight down, indecisively half-firm, and his testicles tried to retreat closer to his body. At least, it looked half-firm. Mira dared cluck a finger along its length and he throbbed out of his foreskin, confirming that he had some growing yet to do. "But not bad," she mused, under her breath. "Maybe I'll keep him a little while after all."
"He didn't bring a weapon?" Max asked. "Was he really after cures?"
She was tempted to give that cock a proper massage, but Max was right. "Time for him to answer some questions," Mira agreed, "and time to have a look at him." A cut from the back of his neck to the top of his head, and the hood came off in one piece. She tossed it and the scalpel into the sink at the end of the workbench with a clatter. "So who are you?"
Candy-apple hair tossed as he looked up, and her brows perked again. His brown eyes were probably their natural color, and the pensive-fox cast to his face was just imperfect enough to convince her it wasn't artificially sculpted. She would've thought an agent would have the ego to pay for the synthetically perfect look or be too plain to notice in a crowd. The half-loop through his right eyebrow made for an extra exotic detail.
"I go by Shen, mostly," he answered, with a twitch of one shoulder.
"Shen," she echoed. "What're you after? Who're you working for?"
Without taking his eyes off her, he pulled on the ropes and his elbow joint shifted. "Treatments for ES94."
Mira knew that virus. She'd sent up three prototype virophages six months ago, and news had trickled back that one was looking to be a good cure. "That's a nasty one."