Soldier of Fortune-Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 

Morton Barrens
Maximum Security Penitentiary
February 9, 1449 AL

* * *

Gideon Quinn considered the cards in his right hand. Since said cards were so faded he could barely see the original suits, and since what was visible tended to waver in the glare of the setting suns, they required some serious considering.

While he considered, his opponent—a Nikean the outside world had known as Dr. Ephraim Rudd, but in Morton answered to Doc, Prisoner 64326, or, “Hey, You!”—shot one finger out to catch the drop of perspiration sliding from his nose, and brought it to his tongue.

Gideon, long since sweated dry by the day’s labor, tried not to envy Doc the pittance of moisture.

The two men were perched on opposite sides of the sandstone slab which served as their table. Both were near in height, though Gideon topped Doc’s lanky frame by an extra few centimeters. Both were also tanned by the unrelenting suns of the Barrens, and both bore touches of silver in their hair, despite the fact that Gideon was at least a decade younger than Doc.

Though they shared the genetic trait of blue eyes, Doc’s were of a soft, lake-like hue, while Gideon viewed the world through eyes as sharp and dangerous as live crystal.

They both also had the look of men who lived on the prison’s notorious rations, but where the doctor merely looked underfed, Gideon’s spareness was of a harder, more feral nature, as if all excess had been burned away by the same suns that left him covetous of another man’s sweat.

“I’ll see your bet,” Gideon said once said sweat was safely recycled, “and raise.”

“Raise with what?” Doc gestured to the pot, composed of two cigarettes, one and a half rolls of toilet paper, and nine salt tablets, piled haphazardly between himself and Gideon on their slab-slash-table. “Since I’m fairly sure I see all of your worldly goods before me. Unless you’re willing to put Elvis in the pot?”

Hearing his name, the draco, currently stretched on the hot sandstone next to Gideon’s thigh, raised one of his lids.

“Elvis is off the table.” Saying this, Gideon scritched his reptilian companion between the folded wings until the half-open eye closed again. “Okay, technically he’s on the table but—you know what I mean.”

“Being a fairly intelligent sort, yes, I do know what you mean,” Doc replied with a vague smile.

Gideon always found it something of a wonder that the doctor managed to retain a sense of humor, despite having been incarcerated a good five years longer than Gideon.

It no doubt helped that Doc didn’t work the crystal fields, where the subharmonic thrum of that volatile silicate could, and often did, drive those harvesting it to pure, frothing insanity.

No one knew when, or if, the madness would strike. A con might harvest crystal his entire sentence and remain untouched, while some drone, fresh off the barge, would be hearing voices and gnawing at his own arm in a week. Sensitives—those with high psionic ratings—were particularly susceptible, to the point the Corrections Board sent only the worst of the worst Talents to the Morton Barrens.

In six years, Gideon had seen two sensitives come through Morton’s gates. One disappeared into the desert a month after her arrival.

The second…

Well, he tried hard not to think about the second.

But Doc, being possessed of a top-flight medical degree from Chandrasekhar, spent his days tending to the sick, injured, and mad inside the prison walls, sparing him the potential loss of self so many of his patients suffered.

So yes, maybe his good temperament was a direct result of his removal from the crystal veins, but there was also a chance Doc’s serenity came from accepting his incarceration, as a man guilty of murdering his wife might do.

Not that Gideon had ever asked. One didn’t ask such things in Morton.

In fact, there were a lot of things one didn’t ask about in lockup, along with Did you do it? Are you gonna eat that? And Mind picking up that soap? 

The end result of this universal ban on curiosity was that, even after six years. And even though he counted Doc as a friend, Gideon knew next to nothing about the man. Or, nothing beyond his having once been a famed neurophysiologist, currently an overqualified prison medic (this last gleaned from the many times he’d stitched Gideon up over the years), and an exceedingly sharp card player.

Doc, unaware of Gideon’s musings, nodded at the pot. “As Elvis is, at least metaphorically, off the table, what do you have to bet?”

Gideon glanced about. Satisfied they remained unobserved, he drew from his shirt pocket a thin sheaf of grubby, many-times thumbed over pages. “Got chapters six through nine of Curse of the Amazons.” He made sure Doc got a good look at the pages before tucking them back into his pocket. “Good enough?”

“Honey from the keepers,” Doc judged. “Call.”

“Quinn!”

Gideon’s eyes darted up to spy not one, not two, but three corrections officers approaching. Dust puffed like smoke from all six feet as they crossed the yard, making it appear, in the red light of the setting suns, as if the entire prison were on fire.

“Prisoner 66897,” the foremost CO called out, not quite looking at Gideon. It was one of the tricks all the screws were taught—don’t make eye contact with the prisoners because if you make eye contact, they might remember they’re human. “You are requested in the warden’s office.”

Elvis, waking, hissed.

“Can’t it wait?” Gideon soothed the draco with one hand and waved his cards with the other. “We’re in the middle of a game, and I’m sitting on an apiary that’ll net me enough TP to last out the month.”

“You’re sitting on a full hive, at best,” Doc reproved mildly.

“Only one way to find out,” Gideon said with a grin

“Cut the crap, Quinn.” The second CO, a long-timer by the name of Finch, spoke with the weariness of familiarity. “You know what day it is. The review board is waiting.”

“You didn’t say it was your anniversary,” Doc said, surprised. “You should go. I’ll watch Elvis.”

“And take a peek at my cards?”

“I wouldn’t dream—”

“That’s enough, Doc,” the third CO cut in, not even tilting his head in the older man’s direction. “And you?” He grabbed Gideon by the collar. “On your feet, drone.”

And then the third CO, a de-mobbed airman who’d not been on the job in Morton long enough to know any better, was on the ground before he knew what hit him.

The first CO, on the other hand, knew exactly what hit him, as he moved to subdue Gideon and ran neck first into Gideon’s rising elbow. A heartbeat later that same CO was bent backwards on the slab-slash-table, gulping for breath with Gideon’s hand tightening around his throat.

For a moment the only things that moved were Elvis, flapping to safety atop of the yard’s enclosing wall, and one roll of toilet paper, leaving a white trail through the red-tinted dust as it made its escape.

“You’ll want to back off, Quinn.” Finch’s shock stick hummed to life even as the sirens began to wail lockdown.

Wordlessly, Gideon released the gaping CO and dropped to his knees with his hands on his head.

“Guess that’s the game,” Doc said, joining Gideon on the ground as yet more guards flowed from the inner gates.

“Dammit, Quinn.” Finch shook his head at the prisoner. “Are you trying to tank your chance at parole?”

“Grow up, Finch,” Gideon said flatly. “They’re never going to grant me parole.”

* * *

“As of this day, 9 February 1449 After Landfall, it is the determination of this august board that Prisoner 66897, Gideon Michael Quinn, be granted parole, effective immediately.”

Gideon stared at that august board. “I have to say, I did not see that coming.”