The Corominas family owns a small planet system, which consists of one gaseous planet and four terraformed moons, nicknamed the Four Sisters. Phillip Coromina, the patriarch of the family, earned his wealth through a manufacturing company he started as a young man and is preparing his eldest daughter, Esme, to take over the company when he dies.
When Esme comes of age and begins to take over the business, she gradually discovers the reach of her father’s company, the sinister aspects of its work with alien DNA, and the shocking betrayal that estranged her three half-sisters from their father. After a lifetime of following her father’s orders, Esme must decide if she should agree to his dying wish of assembling her sisters for a last goodbye or face her role in her family’s tragic undoing.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.70(d)|
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Star’s End NOW
He was dying.
The restaurant hummed, soft murmuring voices, the rattle of silverware, a cobwebbed overlay of music.
“What?” Esme said.
Miguel balanced his fork on the edge of his plate and made a show of wiping his hands on his napkin. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. It was a tell she had warned him about when he first joined the company.
“He’s dying?” Esme said.
Miguel nodded. “He went in for testing three days ago—”
“Yes. It’s galazamia.”
The word was sharp-edged, like a knife. Galazamia. Aina Mitsuke’s disease. Zamia. It had a hundred different names but the results were always the same: you wasted away until you were nothing. It was not a disease Esme would ever have associated with her father.
“I’m sorry he didn’t tell you himself. He asked me not to, but—” Miguel twisted in his seat. “It didn’t feel right, keeping it a secret from you.”
Esme closed her eyes. Her body hummed like a live wire. She thought about the last time she had seen her father. It had been less than twenty-four hours before. He’d been sitting across the table from her at an investor’s meeting up in the space station, lightscreen glowing while Steve Bajori rattled on about this season’s financial reports. She hadn’t paid much attention to him, having other things on her mind, but she did remember glancing at him halfway through the meeting to catch him staring out the window at Coromina I, at the fine-hewn golden-red swirls of its surface.
Her father wasn’t one for looking out windows.
Esme opened her eyes. Miguel was staring at her, leaning into the table, looking concerned.
“I’m sorry if this was an intrusion—” he began.
“An intrusion.” Esme shook her head. “No, it’s fine.”
“I felt bad keeping it from you.”
“I understand. It’s fine.” Esme looked down at her half-finished meal. She didn’t have the appetite to finish. “He seemed healthy the last time I saw him.” She said this more to herself than to Miguel.
“It’s in the early stages.”
Esme laughed, shaking her head. She didn’t mean to but it slipped out anyway. “The early stages,” she said. “What else do you know?” She looked up. Miguel looked away. “Come on, Miguel, it sounds like he really opened up to you.” It came out more bitterly than she intended, but bitterness was impossible to avoid when Phillip Coromina was involved.
“Not much.” Miguel sighed. “Just that that it’s galazamia, that it’s in the early stages, that he’s already started treatments.”
“How long what?”
Esme clenched her jaw, teeth grinding together.
“Oh. How long till he—” Miguel shook his head. “God, Esme, I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. I don’t know why he told me about the zamia in the first place.”
“He likes you.”
Miguel blinked at her in surprise, his eyes big and dark. Her father did like Miguel. Esme liked Miguel too, which was why she had brought him on as her assistant almost fifteen years before. But it had been her father who’d been impressed with his work, who promoted him to senior vice president. Esme outranked him on the corporate ladder but not, apparently, on personal matters.
“Esme, I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me get lunch.”
The muscles in Esme’s face tensed into something like a smile. She didn’t know what Miguel was apologizing for—the fact that her father told him first, or the fact that her father was dying at all. Maybe both. Maybe it didn’t matter.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, a response that would fit either circumstance.
Miguel smiled at her, a sad smile, tactful and appropriate. Esme poked at the salad on her plate, then dropped the fork and drained her glass of wine. Miguel watched her, his face blank. Nonjudgmental. That wasn’t the reason she hired him, but it was the reason she went to lunch with him.
“I’ll get the check now,” he said, and lifted one hand in the air.
• • •
Esme clicked off the holo and stared at the bluish haze the image left behind as the light faded. Another call finished. This one had been with the lab out at Starspray City on Catequil, the heart of the Coromina Group’s weapons manufacturing. She’d been on three such calls in the two hours since lunch, and with each one she’d smiled, she’d soothed, she’d promised her employees that the Coromina Group was looking into their concerns about the whispers of anti-corporate rebels hiding out in the system, about the possibility of a containment breach. She didn’t let any of her colleagues know that her father was dying.
Esme pushed away from her desk and walked over to her window. Her office was on the seventy-fifth floor, high enough that she could almost make out the ocean sparkling in the distance, the water that bright emerald green that was one of Ekkeko’s many trademarks. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her reflection moved in the glass. Her father was in a meeting; at least, that’s what his assistant Lucia had told her when she rang her up on the holo, right after she had returned to her office. No telling when he’d be out.
Esme leaned against the glass. Wind whistled around the building but down on the ground the jacaranda trees and tall silvery-green sea grass were unmoving. This wasn’t the first person she’d lost in her life—her mother had died in a war in the Iaon system a few years earlier, doing what she loved. And of course Esme’s sisters were gone, a fact she had come to accept a long time ago. But her father was different. He was three hundred years old. He’d been taking rejuvenation treatments since before they were safe. He was the sort of person you wanted to die and so you knew never would.
The holo trilled on Esme’s desk.
She pulled away from the window and sank down in the chair. She ran one hand over her hair before switching on the holo. It was a reflex. She hardly even knew she did it.
Lucia materialized in miniature on the top of Esme’s desk. “Good afternoon, Ms. Coromina.”
“Lucia.” Esme said the name carefully, not wanting to give away any of the turbulence spilling around inside of her.
“Mr. Coromina is out of his meeting, if you’d still like to speak with him.”
“Love to.” Esme forced a smile. “I’ll be right up.”
“Very good.” Lucia reached forward with one hand and then her image vanished. Esme took a deep breath. She’d told Lucia this was about the contract with the Spiro Xu Military Alliance. It was going to be a surprise when he found out it wasn’t. As much of a surprise, perhaps, as Esme learning from Miguel Lee that her own father was dying.
Esme rode the elevator to the top floor. She wore a lightbox around her wrist to look official, but no one was in the elevator with her, so she just leaned against the cool, sleek metal and closed her eyes. Her heart fluttered. It was like she was a teenager again, an intern, afraid to look her father in the eye. She hadn’t felt like this in years.
The doors slid open. The warm honeyed lights her father favored made Esme’s eyes hurt, but she stepped off the elevator with graceful strides. Only she knew how hard her blood was pumping through her system, how hard she found it to breathe.
Lucia glanced at her. “You can go on in.”
Esme nodded. The orchids flanking the big wooden door leading into his office were new, replaced since the last time Esme had been up there. White petals speckled with red. And as a little as Esme knew about galazamia, she knew the early symptoms involved coughing blood. Red on a white handkerchief.
For God’s sake. Even his decor knew before she did.
She went in without knocking.
Her father sat at his desk, lightscreen up. From Esme’s perspective the screen was nothing but a display of neo-minimalist red flowers (more red, more blood), transparent enough that she could see her father staring at whatever file he had pulled up.
He swiped his hand across the screen. “So, what’s this about Spiro Xu? I thought we had that one in the bag.” Another flick of his hand. The red flowers rippled.
“We do.” Now that Esme was there, in his lush, golden-lit office, her words had drained away. The window behind his desk took up an entire wall. You could see the ocean from there, easily, but he kept the glass dark.
“So, what’s the problem?” His focus stayed on the lightscreen. “Don’t you usually have Will deal with these military guys? That’s why we brought him on board, remember? You know how those assholes are; they think anybody who didn’t—”
“It’s not Spiro Xu,” Esme said.
“Then what is it?” Her father finally looked up, staring at her through the lightscreen. The glow fell across his face, turning his eyes unnaturally blue.
She hadn’t meant to say it so directly; she’d meant to build to the moment, to massage him. She’d learned how to manipulate people from him, after all.
Her father went still.
“Excuse me?” he said.
Esme walked up to his desk, reached over, and switched off the lightscreen.
“I had lunch with Miguel this afternoon.”
“You told him,” Esme said, her voice tightening like a wire, “before you told me?”
“I’m your daughter.”
Her father sighed. He folded his hands across his desk. “He wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“You couldn’t expect him to keep a secret like that.”
“I just wanted to—” Another sigh. “You’ve got a lot on your plate right now, especially with the potential breach issues.”
Esme bristled. “I’ve been handling the breach issues just fine. That’s no excuse for you to keep this a secret from me.”
Her father rubbed his forehead, and Esme’s anger lurched inside her. He was all she had left. Even Star’s End was gone, burned away in the war that made them trillions. She should have known better. It was too much to expect him to even realize that. To even care.
But she didn’t tell him any of this. Her father was not one for public displays of emotion.
“You weren’t supposed to find out that way,” her father said, as if that was all she needed to know.
Esme knotted her hands into fists. Even as spacious as the room was, the walls seemed too close, the ceiling too low. She wished the glass in the window was clear, wished she could see straight on through to the ocean.
“Then you should have told me.”
He looked up at her then, and Esme felt herself falter. She expected him to be stern, forceful, the way he’d been her entire life. But there was a sadness in his features that caught her off guard. She didn’t know what it meant.
“I’m telling you now,” he said.
And like that, the moment was gone. He reached down and switched the lightscreen back on. “Go back to work, Esme. Your first concern needs to be with the security breach. And don’t worry about me.”
Esme stared at him, her throat dry. Her eyes itched and she thought she might start crying. It seemed absurd, to cry over him.
“Go,” he said, and she did.
• • •
The next morning, Esme rode to Hawley Laboratory, her head pressed against the window’s glass. The car’s engine hummed, a low soft song that flared when the driver directed the car out into the highway. The scenery blurred, like stars on a hypership. Esme’s stomach roiled. She closed her eyes.
Today, her father’s illness felt like a strange dream, something left over from her adolescence, when she still thought she might become someone else. But she hadn’t dreamed last night. Her sleep had been deep, fathomless, the sleep of comas and sickness.
The car slowed as it wove through the woods surrounding the lab. Esme looked out at the greenery already curling up in the heat. They were coming into the dry season. Everything was dying.
“What entrance would you like to me to drop you at?” The driver spoke with the mechanical cadence all drivers did when they were hooked into a car, their mind and the car’s engines twisting together into a dance really too complex and elaborate for chauffeuring Coromina Group executives around. But the technology hadn’t been developed for cars.
“The main entrance is fine.” Esme could see it up ahead; Will was waiting for her, standing in a soldier’s stance, feet planted wide apart, arms crossed. It was a stance that had been engineered into him almost thirteen years before.
The car stopped, and Esme thanked the driver and stepped out into the bright morning heat. Will waved at her. She wondered if he knew about her father. Probably not. He was one of the R-Troops—part of that first batch, actually—and although he had been trained after the war to work alongside the upper tiers of the Coromina Group infrastructure, he was still a soldier to most of them. Still a bioengineered piece of weaponry.
“Morning,” he said, giving her that drama-star grin of his. It faded quickly enough, though.
“Aw, come on, Esme,” he said. “You know this is just the scientists worrying about nothing.”
It took Esme a moment to realize that he was talking about the possible containment breach and not her father’s illness. She sighed. “I had a bad night.” They walked toward the entrance, the lab doors sliding silently open for them. Cold air billowed into the heat. “A bad afternoon, yesterday.”
Will frowned, turned his dark eyes to her.
“I shouldn’t talk about it here,” she said.
“Later,” he said. “Promise.”
“Promise.” Her father probably didn’t want her telling Will—his rank was too low for personal matters—but she told Will things she wasn’t supposed to all the time. Will was her only friend in a world full of colleagues and underlings.
They walked side by side down the narrow entrance hall. Invisible scanners washed over them, reading the microscopic chips embedded in both of their bloodstreams, ensuring that they were supposed to be there. Esme only knew the scanners were installed because she was ranked a Ninety-Nine, the highest rank you could have within the Coromina Group.
A lab assistant materialized up ahead, stepping out of one of the side rooms—Esme couldn’t remember her name, only that she was a transfer from the lab on Catequil, that she came highly recommended by the program director there.
“Ms. Coromina, Mr. Woods,” she said. “Right this way, please. The new recruits are set up in one of the meeting rooms, as you requested.”
“Has there been any more trouble?” Will asked.
The lab assistant shook her head. “Not since the report we filed, no. And just between you and me”—she smiled sweetly at Will—“I don’t think it’s anything major. But Dr. Goetze was part of the team that had been affected by the last breach, so he can be paranoid about these things.”
“He’s conscientious,” Esme said. “That’s why I hired him. Let’s just hope you’re right about this being nothing.”
Their shoes clicked across the slick tile of the laboratory hallway. The meeting room was set off from the main corridor. The windows hadn’t been tinted and Esme could see the three soldiers she had read about yesterday morning. Before her world broke open. Before she found out about her father’s illness.
They went inside. The soldiers stood to attention. None of them had Will’s face. Five years ago, Esme had requested that it be phased out. She didn’t like seeing a man who was Will and not Will at the same time.
“At ease,” she said. “Have a seat.” She slid into the chair at the head of the table. Will settled into the one on her right, and she surveyed the three soldiers, looking for outward signs of trouble. They were obedient, bright-eyed. One of them smiled nervously at her. She wondered how old he was. At least a year, but if they were new recruits, they wouldn’t have been going through training for long.
“None of you are in trouble,” she said in the calm, clear voice she used when she wanted control. “And none of you are at fault. This is simply an inquiry to ensure that the Radiance aren’t attempting to break through the boundaries again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” murmured the soldier who smiled at her. The other two nodded.
“Good. I want you to know you can be forthright with me and Mr. Woods. Mr. Woods comes from your same background, so he’ll be asking most of the questions.”
More nods. Esme turned to Will. This routine came easy to her these days, even if this particular inquiry left her feeling anxious. The two of them had interviewed R-Troops on all four planets in the system, looking for defects, for problems, for solutions. The information they dealt with was too sensitive to trust to lower-ranked employees, so even though she held the title of Vice President of Genetics, she spoke to the R-Troops herself, with Will at her side. This was especially true when there was a chance that the Radiance might be trying to break through to the world again. They had last tried almost five years before, reaching out to a squadron of new recruits, manipulating the minds of the R-Troops, using them to work their way back to the world. The Coromina Group had caught it early, though, and now upper management all knew the signs. Dreams. Disloyalty. Insubordination. Two reports of suspicious behavior had come in recently: one here at Hawley, and another out on Catequil.
No, Esme told herself. Don’t start worrying until we have definitive proof.
Will activated his lightbox, a curtain of light coming up between him and the three new recruits.
“Have you had any unusual dreams in the last week?” he asked, lifting his gaze toward them.
The recruits shifted in their seats, glanced at each other—they never expected this question, which was why Will and Esme had decided it was best to always lead with it. Just in case it was one of the R-Troops who was helping the Radiance.
“No, sir,” the first one said, and the others agreed.
“Do you remember any of your dreams from this time period? Can you describe them to me?”
Another uncomfortable pause. Esme leaned back in her seat, trying to make herself as nonintrusive as possible. She needed to be there to hear the answers; it was her decision, ultimately, if further action needed to be taken. She might consult with Will, because he understood better than she did. But everything came to her in the end.
Two of the recruits shook their heads, but a third said, “I always remember my dreams, sir. I dream in tandem with the rest of our unit. Recycling the day’s events, that’s what they tell me dreams are.”
“That’s exactly what dreams are.” Will smiled, gentle and fatherly. “And yes, you’re all dreaming in tandem with your unit, even if you don’t remember. Tell me”—he thumbed his lightscreen—“Private Woods-33, do you recall any dreams that featured any of the following?”
He coughed, cleared his throat. Private Woods-33 blinked expectantly.
“An unfamiliar language?”
“Images of black feathers or scales?”
Private Woods-33 frowned. “You mean animals, sir? I think I dreamt of a cat one night, since there are cats all over—”
Will waved his hand dismissively. “Not a cat, no. By inhuman I meant”—here he glanced at Esme, and she nodded once, giving permission—“alien.”
Private Woods-33 went very still. One of the other recruits turned pale and ashy. “A breach,” he muttered. “This is about a breach.”
“We’re here to determine that,” said Esme. Her voice seemed to startle him, and he jumped, glanced over at her suspiciously. “But so far, that doesn’t appear to be the case.”
“I agree,” Will said. “Have any of you experienced daytime hallucinations?”
They all shook their heads no, much more fervently now. They understood the ramifications of what the questioning was about.
“Have you noticed any strange behavior among your unit?”
Here, though, was a hesitation. The R-Troops were designed to be loyal, both to each other and to the Coromina Group. Sometimes, these loyalties conflicted.
Esme leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. “If a soldier has been acting strangely,” she said, “he will be treated with dignity and respect. A breach is not the fault of a soldier. It’s the fault of the Radiance.” Unless the soldier was helping the Radiance, of course, a possibility Esme dreaded dealing with a second time. But she didn’t say this to the new recruits. “They’re locked away in their dimension, and you are the most vulnerable point of entry.” She smiled, having worked with new recruits long enough to know when it was necessary for her to become motherly, the way Will became fatherly. “Your greatest strength—your connection with each other—that’s how the Radiance will find their way in. If we can stop it before it gets too far, it works out much better for everyone.” She paused, and then said, with a dry tongue, “Radiance included.”
This soothed them, the way it always did. She settled back in her chair. “That’s good to know,” said Private Woods-33, “but I haven’t noticed anything strange. Truly.”
“Me, neither,” said one of the others, and the third nodded in agreement.
“No strange thoughts?” Will asked. “No whispers in an unfamiliar language?”
Perhaps Dr. Goetze had overreacted after all. The R-Troops were safe, and the Radiance were still tucked away in the strange, poisonous dimension where they’d been contained thirteen years ago. The year of the attack at Star’s End.
The year Isabel went away. Then Adrienne, a year later, disappearing when she went off to college. And then finally Daphne, a few months after that. All three of Esme’s sisters scattering across the system, vanishing the way the Radiance had. Fading into an alternate reality.
“Thank you for your time,” Esme said. “The Coromina Group appreciates your cooperation. If you ever noticed any of things Will mentioned, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Dr. Goetze can give you my information.” She smiled, one dazzling corporate smile, and the recruits returned it, nervously.
Will did his part, thanking them, shaking their hands as if they were war-brothers. Then Esme and Will filed out into the hallway. The lab assistant waited for them, wide-eyed.
“Everything appears fine,” Esme said. “But keep an eye on the unit. Watch for sleeping troubles especially.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The assistant scurried into the meeting room to deal with the recruits, and Will and Esme showed themselves out, back into the thick heat of the forest.
“I told you, we’re worrying about nothing,” Will said.
“Well, I still have to investigate Catequil, so we’ll see. Do you want to share a car back to the office?” Esme looked over at him. “I hope you’re right, though.” She thought about her lunch with Miguel. Your father’s dying. Maybe this was her father’s doing. What had happened with the Radiance had been his biggest fuck-up, even if he’d managed to turn it around in the end, with the cover-up, the containment, the R-Troops. She wouldn’t put it past him to try a do-over. One more fight before his body gave out.
She shivered in the heat.
• • •
That night, Esme dreamt of the garden at Star’s End. Rows of pineapples and acacia trees and a maze built of genetically engineered plumeria plants. The grass wet and soft beneath her bare feet.
Isabel, whispering into her ear: Ms. Coromina. Ms. Coromina.
“Ms. Coromina, you have a visitor.”
Esme’s eyes flew open. For one delirious moment, she thought she was in her childhood bedroom. But then the familiar walls of her apartment swam into view, stark and empty, and the voice of the apartment’s AI system grounded her in the present.
“Ms. Coromina, you have a visitor.”
“I heard you the first time.” Esme pushed herself up and tossed her blankets aside. “Who is it?”
Esme’s chest constricted. All the bleariness of sleep blinked away. “Are you sure?” She slid off the bed. “What time is it? Why is he here so late?”
“It’s nearly midnight. I told him you were asleep, but he insisted I wake you.”
This sounded like her father. It was a relief, really, to know that even dying couldn’t change him completely. Esme ran her fingers through her hair, blinked the sleep out of her eyes. “Send him up, but put him in the parlor while I get ready.”
“Very good, Ms. Coromina.”
The apartment fell silent. Esme went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. Her hair was mussed from sleep, and she brushed it out and pulled it into a knot at the back of her neck. Then she changed out of her sleeping clothes, pulling on an old Coromina Group uniform shirt, a pair of loose pants.
When she walked into the parlor, her father was waiting.
“Did I wake you?” he asked.
“You know you did.” Esme perched on the edge of a chair, keeping her posture straight. They regarded each other in the silent emptiness of her apartment.
“Miguel wasn’t supposed to tell you,” her father said, after a time.
“Yeah, you mentioned that.”
He sighed. “This is a complicated matter, Esme.”
“It’s really not,” Esme said. “But I guess I shouldn’t have expected better from you.”
He didn’t react. She hadn’t expected him to.
“There are some things life prepares you for,” he said. “And some things it doesn’t. This is one of the latter.”
Esme looked away, at the light painting hanging above the unused fireplace. An ugly thing, streaks of blue on a gray background. An old boyfriend had bought it for her. It was supposed to show the tumult of psychic connection. She got rid of the boyfriend but never bothered with the painting.
“I wanted to tell you myself,” her father said.
“Then why didn’t you?”
He stared at her, face blank. “I was waiting for the right time. When you weren’t investigating Dr. Goetze’s concerns. I told Miguel because, I don’t know, I needed to tell someone. Some secrets are too . . .” His voice trailed away.
Esme didn’t move. This was the closest to vulnerable she’d ever seen her father, and for a moment he was no longer Philip Coromina, prospector and visionary and billionaire, but a man who was dying.
“I need you to do something for me,” he said, and the moment was lost. “Since you know anyway.”
Esme glared at him. “You’re not going to apologize.”
“I only apologize to clients,” he said, “and I never mean it.”
Esme sighed. Of course.
“How much did Miguel tell you?” he asked.
“You mean you don’t know?”
Her father shook his head. She choked back her surprise. Odd, that he didn’t go intel-gathering before he showed up at her apartment.
“I wanted to hear it from you. Wanted to—to talk to you.”
Esme gave him her iciest businesswoman glare, trying to mask the treacherous warmth that flared when he said he wanted to talk to her.
“How much did he tell you?”
She didn’t want to answer. She wanted to answer. Nothing was ever cut and dried when it came to her father.
“Only that you’ve been diagnosed with galazamia.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “That you got the test results back three days ago. That he didn’t know how much time you had left.”
“Yes,” her father said. “I kept that information to myself.”
Esme had never seen her father visibly unsettled. She had never seen him undone.
A coldness spread through her veins.
“How long?” she said.
Her father gave a brief, short laugh.
“Not much. Six months. A year at most.”
“Six months!” Esme sprang to her feet, panic forcing her into movement. “Six fucking months! Most people with galazamia live six years from the time they’re diagnosed, and you—”
“Most people are diagnosed early,” her father said softly. “Then they take the medications and they undergo the treatments and they drag it out as long as they want.”
“How could you—lord, Dad, how could you miss the symptoms? The coughing up blood and the dizziness and the—everyone fucking knows that, Dad! Everyone.”
“I’m nearly three hundred years old, Esme. I thought it was just my time.”
“Bullshit,” said Esme. Her father had always seen dying as a form of giving up. Lots of people took youth treatments if they could afford them, but most didn’t do it for three centuries. He had. He was that self-involved. That controlling. Three hundred years old so he didn’t have to give up leadership of his company.
Her father watched her, taking in the situation, weighing the pros and cons like it was a business meeting. She stared right back. She’d been through this before.
“You always did know me the best,” he said with a smile.
“Why the hell did you ignore the symptoms?”
A pause. A hesitation. Then he said, “I thought my youth treatments would counteract the worst of it. So, I set the zamia aside. Powered through.”
There, that was the answer she expected. He despised weakness. In some ways, it was startling to hear him confess he was sick at all.
Her father shifted on the couch. He didn’t look sick. Old, yes, the rejuvenation treatments could only do so much at three hundred, but not sick. Not dying.
“I don’t regret it,” he said. “I only wish I could have done it longer.”
“What, pretended you didn’t have fucking zamia?”
“That language, Esme, really isn’t becoming.”
She glared at him.
“There’s no point in wallowing in self-pity. No one’s found the cure for death yet.” Her father laughed, hard and bitter. “As you well know.”
Esme sighed. The Coromina Group’s search for immortality had been the subject of rumors the last few years, mentions of a new high-clearance project popping up on the different news streams. She had spearheaded the project herself, although not for the reasons her father thought. She knew immortality was impossible. But medical advancements—that was something she wanted for the company. Make people better rather than killing them.
“It’s a shame we weren’t successful,” he said. “You could move out of this penthouse to your own planet system. And I wouldn’t have to die.”
“You’re not planning to shut the project down, are you?” She hoped not; otherwise she would have to go behind his back to get it up and running again. And that was not something she wanted to deal with, not when she needed to investigate these reports alerting the company to signs of a potential security breach.
“No, of course not. There just won’t be anything for—for me.” He looked down at his hands, and Esme felt a quiver of pity deep inside her chest. She hated it. She’d seen the damage his secret projects could do. It was fitting that he wouldn’t benefit from this one.
“So, this is why you show up at my apartment in the middle of the night?” she snapped. “To tell me you failed at living forever?”
He stared at her, eyes dark and piercing. “I need a favor from you, Esme.”
“What?” This, she hadn’t expected. “A favor? Right now? I still have one more security breach report to investigate!”
“Yes.” Her father took a deep breath, his slumped shoulders rising and falling. “The timing is bad, but you found out earlier than I intended.”
Typical of him. One urgent assignment piled on top of another.
“I know you learned well from me, Esme. Never do a favor without expecting something in return. But this isn’t business. This is family.”
Esme looked at him. She was stunned into silence.
“I have to achieve my immortality the old-fashioned way.” He smiled at her, although it was a cold, empty smile. “With you. And your sisters.”
Esme didn’t say anything. She’d never thought of children as a continuation of self. She’d never thought of children at all.
“A year from now, I’ll be gone. And I want to—” He closed his eyes. In the parlor’s thin white light, he was unsettlingly pale, like he’d already become a ghost. “I want to see them again. The others.”
Silence rushed in. Esme couldn’t move. She thought she might strangle on the shock of his words.
“All of them?” she said carefully.
Her father jerked his head up. “Yes.” His voice was like stone. “All of them. Adrienne. Daphne.” A pause. “Isabel.”
They won’t want to see you, Esme thought, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud. For all her attempts at it, she had never been as skilled at cruelty as her father.
“I know we parted on bad terms. I’m not an idiot. But it’s been over a decade since I talked to—to any of them.” Vulnerability flashed across his features again. The second time today. Esme found it disturbing. She found it sad. “I can’t go tracking them down myself. I’ve got my affairs to attend to, and they wouldn’t listen to me, anyway.”
“You think they’ll listen to me?”
He looked at her. “I don’t know.”
Esme sighed. It’d been years since she’d spoken to Daphne, and Daphne was the last sister she’d spoken to—over the holocomm, not even face to face. The connection had been bad, Daphne’s face stretching out as if she were made of liquid. She was living on Catequil at the time, working at one of the cooperative wind farms. Four years ago, maybe. The Light Solstice. It had fallen during summer that year, at least on Ekkeko. Daphne hadn’t said what season it was on Catequil. And what they’d talked about had been even more frivolous than the weather.
“I thought about hiring someone to track them down,” he went on. “A PI, you know. But since you found out about it anyway, I decided I’d rather keep it in the family.”
Esme sighed. He kept saying family as if it meant something.
“I’m not sure how much of a family we are.”
For a moment, Esme thought she saw her father recoil. But she couldn’t believe that was possible, that those particular words could hurt him that much.
“Am I to take that as a sign that you’re not interested?”
Was she? The request was so absurd, after everything that had happened, and all the time that had passed. She wondered what he really wanted from them. There had to be another reason beyond hoping to simply talk to them, to see them again. There always was with her father. “It’s not—I guess I just don’t understand why you want to do this.”
He looked almost confused and Esme didn’t expand on what she meant, what she really wanted to say—that she understood why someone would want to do this, she just didn’t understand why he would want to do this.
“They’re my daughters,” he said, his voice quiet. It was the same tone he used whenever he fired someone. “I want to see them again before I die.”
The parlor was shrinking, drawing in closer and closer, sucking out the air.
“I still don’t think they’d listen to me.”
“They’ll listen to you before they’d listen to me. And an investigator could only find them. He couldn’t bring them home.”
“I don’t know why you think I could.”
Her father looked away, toward the fireplace. Neither of them spoke for a long time. But eventually he said, “You were closer to them than I was.” His gaze snapped back over to her. “You’ll of course have access to as much money as required to track them down, as well as any diplomatic contacts that may prove necessary if they left the system.”
“I didn’t say I’d do it.” But even as Esme spoke, she knew she couldn’t say no. She was reeling from the idea that she and her sisters had been close—because they had, hadn’t they, all those years ago? Sitting in the gardens at Star’s End, eating formal dinners in the grand dining hall.
But more than that, she couldn’t say no, because it was her father who asked her. He wasn’t just her father; he was her boss. She was the one sister who stayed behind, because at the core of it, she’d spent her entire life trying to please him in a way the others hadn’t. She’d done everything he’d ever told her to do. This request wasn’t any different.
He knew it too. Maybe the promise of dying made him vulnerable, but it didn’t make him stupid.
Esme toyed with her hair. It was already coming loose from of its bun. “How secret does this need to be?”
“Treat it like a Ninety-Nine-level project.”
Of course. She sighed. “Can I at least get help from Will? We’ve worked together on sensitive projects before, and he might be useful . . .” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to talk about her sisters like they were clients.
“Yes,” her father said. “I agree that Will might be a help in all this. With his connections.”
They sat for a moment, and Esme considered her options. She could contact Daphne, no doubt still windfarming on Catequil. Daphne’d be the easiest to convince to come home. She was always the most easygoing, the most peaceable. And Esme needed to go to Catequil anyway as she followed the trail of security breaches across the Four Sisters.
“I’d like you to keep me informed of your progress,” her father went on, although he was unfolding himself from the chair, a signal that the conversation—the meeting, because Esme knew damn well that’s what this was—was coming to a close. “Weekly reports, let’s say? And feel free to let me know if you uncover anything significant.”
Esme murmured a note of acquiescence. Rubbed again at her aching head. Her father stood up.
“Thank you, Esme,” he said, and he was staring down at her, and he meant it, he actually fucking meant it.
“Why don’t you keep me informed,” she said, “of your progress, too.”
His mouth tightened into a slash of disapproval. “Very well.”
They stared at each other for a moment longer, and then her father left the parlor. Esme dropped her head against the chair and listened to his footsteps echo against the tile in the foyer, listened to the chime of the apartment as it called the elevator for him.
After five minutes or so had passed, she asked, “Is he gone?”
“Yes, Ms. Coromina,” the apartment answered.
Esme stood up and stumbled out of the parlor into the big empty space she called the living room. Night had fallen and the room was lit with the pale electric lights she’d had installed last spring. But even they seemed too bright, and the air in the apartment was stifling and hot. She went out onto her balcony. The wind whipping off the ocean was damp and unseasonably cool, which was exactly what Esme wanted.
She leaned against the railing, breathing in the scent of the sea. Lights twinkled down below, from the Coromina Group housing complex, from the village ringing around it. A few boats out on the water, bobbing like lanterns.
It was cloudy, too cloudy for stars. But all three moons were visible. Catequil, cleaved in half. Amana, a sideways smile. Quilla, a sideways frown. Esme had visited all three. They were company moons. The Coromina Group, under the direction of Esme’s father, had terraformed them all, as well as Ekkeko, long before Esme was born, when her father was a young man through natural means and not artificial ones.
And her father was where Coromina I got its name, of course, the big gas giant the color of fire. There wasn’t much of it tonight, only a sickle of burnished gold. Four satellites, four colonies. The Four Sisters, people called them. A name they’d been given before Phillip Coromina had four daughters.
Esme had never thought that was a coincidence.