The call was waiting for Quinten in the morning, bounced off his carefully constructed piggyback network of commercial feed points, scientific arrays and even—like a tongue childishly stuck out at the Republic—some military outposts. He might be described by most people as grim but, underneath the scar tissue, Quinten had a sense of humour. And it made him twist his lips in cynical amusement when he read the entire message, pieced together by the bitcrypt spiders while he slept.
“So the pirate kids want to meet.”
He wondered what they wanted. His last trade with the Neon Red cartel had been more than a year ago. He found them a skittish lot in general, too nervous to deal with goods of any real value, and ill-suited to the lifestyle of freewheeling racketeers. At times, he felt that the purchases he made from them amounted to little more than charity, a way of hurling some tiny needles to occasionally prick the Republic’s tough hide.
“And maybe that’s enough,” he muttered, knowing that—at one time—it hadn’t been. Knowing that, when he was young and idealistic, the only goal he had in mind was the complete subjugation of the Republic. But that had been years ago, and that idealist was now gone, leaving behind the shell of a man who had long ago outlived his usefulness and was now reduced to consorting with pirates.
He commanded the ship to prepare the return message, indicating a rendezvous near Port Tertiary in six hours’ time. That would barely give the Perdition time to get there but, if it was going to be a rush for him, then hopefully it lessened the chances of the Republic staging an ambush. And if the cartel couldn’t make it in time…well, he wasn’t in this for the popularity. Quite the opposite.
With the order received and in processing, there was nothing left to do until the ship entered normal space near the rendezvous point. Quinten looked around the cockpit of his pride and joy. The command centre had been originally created with many more staff in mind—eight, to be exact. In the five years since he’d acquired the Perdition, he’d made extensive modifications to the original battle-scout design. He installed expensive, black-market AIs, paid handsomely for a string of labour-saving modifications, and incorporated the latest in shielding and sensor technologies. It might still resemble a Republic ship from the outside, but the Perdition’s innards were pure Quinten Tamlan.
Although officially classed as a “light combat scout”, the ship was almost one hundred metres long, a knobbly, clumsy-looking vessel that effortlessly cleaved through the vacuum of deep space and dished out death with ease. Its primary cockpit was just forward of centre, up near the skin, beneath a bump that housed three transparent panels but was normally obscured with metal shielding. A secondary cockpit was situated in the rear, buried deep to minimise the chance of sensor feeds getting cut during an attack.
Other, more bulbous protuberances marred the ship’s surface. They previously contained the accommodation quarters, ship’s canteen, and two cargo bays. Quinten converted those areas to hydroponics, general storage and used one cargo bay to receive the rare, and only ever invited, guest.
As part of his renovations, he had cut through bulkheads, forming two long thoroughfares from the tip of the scout to its stern. The resultant arrow-straight corridor was easier for his crippled body to navigate. He knew it would also enable enemies to quickly barrel through the ship, but if that ever happened, he was in no physical shape to give them much competition. If the Space Fleet, or an ambitious cartel with delusions of grandeur, was ever in a position to set an armoured foot on the Perdition, then the game was over, and he was probably already dead.
Restless, knowing the time had come for him to exercise, Quinten muttered a quick curse and rose slowly to his feet. Some days were better than others, but this wasn’t one of them. He thought he heard his body creak as, aching and already weary, he willed it to move to the back of the cockpit and descend heavily to the ship’s main corridor. There was experimental surgery available that—for an astronomical sum—could give him a cyborg body, but the procedure was risky. From time to time, Quinten would re-examine the option, stare at the analysis that concluded an eighty per cent fatality rate, then flick the screen off. He wondered why he still cared about staying alive, but couldn’t come up with a reason that made sense.
The rumble beneath his feet changed tempo as the ship executed his commands, heading for a hyperspace crease he knew was only a light-second away. The tenor of the vibrations told him that they were accelerating, the shudders became a jolt, then the jolt disappeared and an unnatural smoothness took its place. The Perdition was now in hyperspace. It would take more than five hours, and four jumps, to make it to Port Tertiary. The journey would entail a litany of trembles, judders and the absence of movement completely, leaving him with little to do except trust the navigator to do its job while he worked his body into some semblance of suppleness.
His limbs were stiff, as they were most mornings, and he limped badly. Part of one cargo bay had been turned into an exercise area, and he had deliberately chosen the one closest to the stern so he would need to walk some distance to get there.
It took him almost five minutes to walk the forty-metre distance and enter the gym, but he tried to keep the bitterness out of his thoughts. It could be worse. He could be floating in a bowl somewhere, condemned to a half-life peering at the universe through a mist of pastel rejuv-gel. He could be on Bliss, the Republic’s hell-hole prison planet, knowing he would never be allowed to leave. Or he could be dead. All those options made the agony of fifty sit-ups insignificant. With gritted teeth, Quinten disrobed, sliding his gaze past the one mirror in the room, and began his regime.
He worked out for an hour, and was shaking and sweating profusely by the end of it. It took effort to lift his body from the exercise chair, and the steps to his quarters were truncated and staggering. He knew he could fall—had had done so several times in the past—but he refused to give in to his body’s frailties. Not yet. If he couldn’t exercise a small degree of self-discipline on his own body, then it was no use being alive.
He turned the shower on as hot as he could stand it, letting the steamy heat massage his aching muscles and wash away the stink of his sweat while he supported himself against the slick wall. The water streamed over a bare chest, criss-crossed with surgery scars, a pale shadow of the muscled bulk he used to carry with pride. His arms, once bulging, were withered remnants, his legs—well, to call them maimed would have been a compliment. The only things that remained in perfect working order were his mind and his damned libido.
His mind, to force his body to do his bidding, and his libido, to remind him of all he had lost.
He remembered an ancient joke. If you lie on your hand for a while, it’ll get numb and feel like somebody else’s. Even without that temporary anaesthesia, the fingers that touched his scarred body—on the rare occasions when he gave in to the itch—didn’t feel like his. Nerves at his extremities had been destroyed in the explosion that had almost killed him, and it was more a robot limb that enfolded him and brought him to unsatisfying relief. But who else would have him? An attractive woman, of her own volition? He grinned savagely as he laboriously dried himself. They would run parsecs in the opposite direction the moment they saw his unadorned form. He could pay for sex—he appreciated the no-strings aspect of a commercial transaction—but could never be sure that while the women sold one part of their anatomy to him, they weren’t using another part to betray him to the Republic. That only left his hand, thin yet loyal.
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