- It was about five... yes, five years ago. Back then I was still in UMC, taking part in beacon hunt. Federation scientists were moving their equipment to Troy. Imperial command decided that it was probably some kind of weapon prohibited by the Trilateral Pact. We were hired to provide navigation, the other guys were there to stop us. Business as usual. Shooting and fun. I got hit thrice: once by the beacon, the second time — when I tried to help out my buddy Iroot (for some reason he rushed at a guard frigate alone) and finally — when I myself rushed at a long-range. But the fourth time something went wrong. You know how the system works for the Imperials, right? You get hit, and a second before your untimely demise an implant sends all your memories back to the station. They clone you, put you on a new ship and send you back into battle. The whole process is a matter of seconds, and you do not even notice that you’re living in a new body. Therefore, the ships are not equipped with rescue capsules.
- It’s standard practice. Old but reliable. We're also using it - said his interlocutor, pacing around the room. He was a young man, very tidily and stylishly dressed. His face was adorned with a beard and a jagged scar.
- Only this time everything went wrong - continued Henry. - I was shot down by the beacon again. Ten seconds later, I was there again. And do you know what I saw there? Do you? Myself. The ship exploded and the system worked perfectly. But the pilot survived. I saw myself alive, but helplessly dangling in space. Oxygen was spurting from the suit, which meant there was little time left. Through the windshield, I watched my replica die, I watched myself die.
- What did you do?
- Tried to save myself, of course. But what I got was a torpedo hit in the port side. The long-range had his revenge. My ship was torn to pieces, just like me. And a moment before that my guys had taken a beacon. Its signal blocked our navigation, and I had to hang in there thirty-six seconds. Thirty-six. I literally saw him choking, drowning in infinite space. I spoke to myself, hoping he would hear: ‘Hush, hush. That's it, a little bit more, and the pain will go away. You’re going to fall asleep.’
There was a moment silence. Baron turned to the observation wall — a huge window with a view of the nearest star. Its orbit was the location of the pirate station. Henry took a sip of coffee. Somehow he was not in the mood to argue about the virtues of this drink brewed from genuine beans.
- After that, I started flying carefully, counting each death, - he continued. - But I could not take it any more at the twentieth death. I stopped all flights, cancelled subscription to cloning, sold all the ships except one. Even with all the rebates and taxes there wasn’t enough money even for a modest life. I had to work as a technician in the hangar. But you know how a pilot feels without space. So I started smuggling.
- Now I know why she chose you, - the Baron said staring at the void - you’ve got something to lose. Without subscription you are mortal. This means you have to take care of your life, your ship, and your cargo more than any other captain in the galaxy.
- Never thought about it in this context, - Henry grinned, - sounds like a good slogan.
- If we come to an agreement, you won’t have to think about it.
- It’s out of the question - Henry declined once more. He was not going to give up the cargo to pirates. He knew he’d been spared only because Baron did not want to damage the black box. This was the reason he had not hit him then by the asteroids. Realizing this, Henry activated all of the remaining mines on board. They were set up to activate if anyone set foot inside apart from himself.
- You can not even imagine how dangerous she is. How dangerous are those who stand behind her.
- What do you know about Summer? - Henry did not bother with pleasantries and that seemed to amuse the Baron.
- Not much more than you do. Nobody saw her in person. Her agents penetrated into all power structures. And I'm not just talking about the Empire. The tech that she possesses can’t even be compared to the waste that we have. Whoever stands behind Summer has tremendous power. They were here long before you and I, long before the invasion. They existed in the days of Direktorium, and perhaps earlier. Do you see what I mean?
- Revenants are a myth.
- Yes. And a very scary one.
Baron remained by the window for some time, and then returned to the table. Henry once again noticed the young looks of the man. And it was amazing - the Baron had an old scar, which meant he’s had a long history in this body. Henry unwittingly ran his hand over the stitches on his face. When the wound heals, scar tissue will remind him that he is still alive.
Meanwhile, the Baron finished messing with the desktop terminal. He took a chip and threw it on the table in front of Henry.
- Money? - the smuggler asked.
- And much more - pirate smiled - although there’s enough standards to buy a small fleet. Or Imperial citizenship and a plot of land. Remember my vessel? That’s ‘Nyx’. The new model, fresh from, the docks of Naberia-392. It’s yours. And the chip - is your pass through the station. We've got a lot of interesting stuff here. The doors are open for you.
Henry picked up the chip and meticulously examined it from all sides.
- So I can take this ‘Nix’ fly it to hub worlds and never engage in smuggling again?
The Baron shrugged.
- Do whatever you want. Just give us Summer’s cargo.
Henry looked at his companion. He was still smiling, but there was hatred in his eyes. Sooner or later, the pirates are going to deactivate the mines and take the load. The Baron put his right hand on the table. Despite his relaxed demeanour, it was clear that he was always ready to grab a gun and shoot the tough smuggler himself. Why the theatrics then? Why make a proposal? The Baron only needed Henry to save time. He was afraid of something and was eager to rush things. You can’t say ‘I’ll think about it’ and play for time, you can not refuse.
- Looks like a great idea to me - Henry put the chip into his breast pocket.
The Baron leaned back in his chair. His smile took a natural shade.
- My head’s spinning - Henry added - I could use some food, a drink...
- Of course. Just don’t take too long.
- I already realized that I’m not going to sleep today.
The Baron just nodded and silently pointed to the door.
Once he was alone, Henry decided to wander the corridors of the pirate station. He needed to think. This station was so old it had probably seen the Direktorium. Its original function was impossible to guess. Most likely, it was a fleet resupply dock or the central mining structure for the nearest asteroid belt. The one where the rendezvous had been scheduled. Strange... why did Summer chose a venue so close to a pirate base? As if she wanted Henry to be caught...
Another door opened in front of him, responding to the chip in his pocket. Naturally, the chip had a sewn-in beacon. He couldn’t escape with it. But abandoning the beacon was out of the question - he had to use it for a diversion. But how? He couldn’t just throw it in the pocket of some pirate, could he? Reflecting on the possible ways of escape, Henry went into the hangar’s viewing corridor. Through the armored glass he looked at the hundreds of pirate ships: arriving, preparing for the raid, receiving maintenance. ‘Turtle’ was on the far side of the hangar. Apparently, in order to minimize damage in the event of an explosion. ‘Nyx’ occupied a place befitting only a Baron’s ship, on the central podium.
Maybe he could throw the chip into one of the departing ships? Or leave it on the ‘Turtle’, and himself... no, no... ‘Nyx’ was not going to fly without a chip.
He had to come up with something. He needed some kind of distraction.
He approached the next airlock door leading into the hangar, but it did not open. Henry swiped the chip on the door lock. Nothing happened. Suddenly, a small screen on the lock panel came alive and showed the familiar outlines of a beautiful stranger.
- Henry - sounded the voice belonging to Miss Summer - our contract is still in force. I'll help you escape. Go to the medical bay and put on a light full cycle spacesuit. Get on the ‘Turtle’ and fly away. My men will meet you at the rendezvous point. And one more thing: good luck, Henry.
The screen got dark and the door opened. The smuggler turned on the spot and hurried towards the medbay. He knew where it was - that’s where he’d got the stitches. If Summer had told him to put on a suit, then he had to do it, as soon as possible. Of that he was certain. The rest remained a mystery. For example, how did she establish a comms channel with the station to send a message, or how did she know that his ship was called ‘Turtle’?
He thought about it all the way to medbay. But no worthwhile thought in his head came to light. The small bay was empty. Few people use the services of autodocs when you can just clone a new body next door.
Once inside, he went to the lockers with spacesuits. They were stored there in the event of a quarantine. At the same time, the light in the room blinked and turned back on a moment later, but in red. A twang of the siren was ringing in the corridors.
Henry suddenly realized everything that had happened, all that needed to happen, and that he needed to do. Then he lost consciousness.
To be continued...