“Welcome aboard Le Nautille, Mr Sterling,” said the cheerful blonde woman stationed at the foot of the gently sloped gangplank. She gave Bond a bright smile and returned his false passport, under the name of Richard Sterling. As he tucked it back into his pocket, she gestured him up the gangplank.
Le Nautille was a ten thousand tonne cruise ship owned by Charles Brinstead, a dot-com millionaire from San Diego. According to the intel provided by MI6’s Technical Services Section, or TSS, Le Nautille ran charter cruises up and down the west coast of the Americas. This was a similar venture, a thirty-day cruise from Portland to Alaska and back, except that this cruise was limited to invited guests.
Because of the exclusivity of the trip, the gangplank wasn’t crowded, allowing him to see ship’s sleek, modern lines. There were three levels of passenger staterooms and suites that he could see. Large lifeboats — hopefully adequate for all those aboard — hung from winches on one of the upper decks, aft. The comms array of antennas and dishes above the bridge seemed comfortingly modern.
This trip was Bond’s last hope of running down an Eastern European crime syndicate involved in the black market sale of Ministry of Defence munitions. The last known link had been Pyotr Iakovich Marakov, who had died while being interrogated, leaving Bond with a sketchy paper trail and few leads. So far, every one of them had been a dead end.
As far as Bond and TSS could determine, the cruise was a cover for a high-priced human trafficking operation under the codename ‘Marketplace’. Just thinking about it made Bond’s hands itch for the feel of a gun, but he’d chosen to go in unarmed. He had no idea what security measures he’d face. At the very least, he expected that the two stewards carrying his luggage would search his belongings, most likely under the guise of stowing everything away for him.
Christ, he loathed human trafficking. He could deal with almost anything else, but the denial of basic human rights — of freedom — was anathema to him. The only thing worse was when the victims were children.
Icy anger settled over him at the thought. He looked up at the sleek, luxurious ship and decided that if the victims of this particular ring were children, he’d trap the responsible parties onboard and sink the ship.
When he reached the deck, another uniformed attendant gave him directions to the atrium for check-in, though it was just a formality. He already had a suite reserved, and the stewards broke off with his luggage while he made his way to the centre of the ship.
The atrium was a multi-storey open gallery surrounding twin spiral staircases. Two lifts were tucked forward of the staircases, with the purser’s station, reception desk, and destination services aft. Bond headed for the reception desk, pausing only to take a glass of champagne from one of the stewards circulating through the crowd. He wouldn’t drink — he wanted his wits about him — but he preferred to blend in.
As it was, his last-minute decision to keep his own wardrobe of bespoke suits had apparently been wise. The guests he saw were all in high fashion, many with ostentatiously displayed jewellery. They were an unusually eclectic group for an American cruise; as Bond made his way to the reception desk, he heard snatches of a dozen different languages. He noted that several stewards wore flag pins that most likely indicated the languages they spoke.
There were a few passengers ahead of him at the reception desk, though the queue seemed to be moving quickly. That was the advantage, he supposed, of a small luxury cruise, rather than some massive floating city: there were enough attendants to give everyone personal service, which seemed an odd consideration for human traffickers. Typically, human trafficking involved warehouses, seedy brothels, and back-alley dealings, not this sort of glamour and hedonism.
As he waited, he kept a surreptitious eye out for security guards but saw none, and most of the stewards didn’t look capable of handling themselves in a fight. Their uniforms were black trousers for the men, skirts for the women, and blazers over white shirts and black ties. Oddly, all of them wore necklaces pulled out over their ties and shirt collars. Bond wondered if the gold and silver curb chains denoted rank or duties among the staff.
Probably not, he decided as he reached the reception desk. The woman who smiled at him from behind her computer wasn’t wearing one over her uniform. “Good morning, sir. Welcome aboard Le Nautille.”
He gave her a friendly smile, wondering if she knew about the human trafficking ring or if she was an unsuspecting corporate employee. “Richard Sterling,” he said, handing over his ticket and passport.
She typed briefly, and then said, “You’re booked in suite one, deck five, starboard. If you’ll sign here?” She offered him a tablet computer and a stylus. “If you’d like to link a credit card to your room key for convenience, I can do that for you now.”
Normally, he would refuse, preferring to have as little of his cover identity available for scrutiny as possible. Now, though, he needed to establish his financial credentials. He handed over a black credit card under his cover identity, glad he’d thought to have TJ, his TSS contact, construct a rich financial history for Richard Sterling. The operation had been thrown together at the last minute, so Bond had ended up authorising use of his own funds, but TJ had exceeded expectations.
The guest farther down the counter finished her check-in and looked over at Bond. She looked to be in her late fifties, though she was dressed in a black Dior trouser suit designed for a trendy woman in her twenties. She picked up the folder offered by her reception attendant, but instead of leaving the desk, she walked over to Bond.
“Buying or vacationing?” she asked with an educated British accent.
The question surprised him. Well, not the question so much as the questioner. Experience had taught him that appearances could never be trusted, so he shouldn’t have dismissed this woman despite how his instincts urged him to believe she was harmless. Up close, she looked even older, but only in the lines around her eyes and mouth. She dressed young and had a lively air about her, stripping the years away from the subtle physical signs of her age.
“Browsing,” he said, keeping his voice smooth and calm despite the instinctive distaste that rose up in him at the thought.
“I haven’t seen you before.” She transferred her folder to her left hand and extended her right. “Margaret Farnsworth.”
“Richard Sterling,” he said over a handshake. He gave her his most charming smile, trying to reconcile the thought that she could be involved with human trafficking. Really, none of the guests in sight had the sinister mien of people who would so casually destroy innocent lives for their own pleasure or profit, and the dissonance had Bond’s nerves even more on edge than normal. If not for the intel he’d got from the last step in the smuggling chain, he would’ve imagined this to be nothing more ominous than a luxury vacation cruise — perhaps adults-only, given that he had yet to see any families with children.
“I’m browsing as well. I do hope we don’t end up competing,” she added with an entirely inappropriate sparkle in her eye. “These regent auctions don’t happen very often at all.”
Regent auctions? he wondered. The clerk interrupted before he could ask: “Mr Sterling?”
“Sorry.” He took the folder offered by the clerk; it was identical to the one Margaret held. “All set, then?”
“Yes, sir. There’s a schedule of today’s events in the front pocket. Muster drill is mandatory for safety, so please plan to attend. Have a pleasant voyage,” she said with a sunny smile.
Before he could step away, Margaret claimed his arm. “These trips are lovely, Richard. You’ll have a wonderful time,” she promised.
“I’m certain,” he lied smoothly. He pretended to sip his champagne and considered just how useful Margaret could be. Obviously their shared nationality gave him a connection he could play on, and she was far less distasteful than most enemies he’d interrogated. “You were saying? Regent auctions?”
“Their slaves are always the best,” she declared in a chillingly casual tone. “The regents are world-class trainers.”
Bond wanted to ask about the slaves — specifically what kind of force was guarding them and how they were tracked so he’d know best how to take down the organisation without undue harm — but M had been clear: the money trail was his priority. “The regents are in charge of the organisation, then?”
“Well, not in charge,” she said, her words maddeningly vague. She crooked a finger and one of the crew hurried up to offer her champagne. “It’s strictly a voluntary certification, but really, everyone knows that if you want quality, you buy from the certified trainers, if not the regents themselves. Not that you can’t find a gem in the rough, of course. Have you owned before?”
Repressing his flinch, Bond shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m new to the organisation.”
“Oh, this is a perfect introduction, then,” she assured him with a pat on his arm. Then, thankfully, she let go so she could take one of the glasses of champagne, without a word of thanks or even a smile. “What are you looking for?”
“A personal assistant — someone skilled with computers and organisation. I have my doubts, though. I need far more than a secretary,” he explained, hiding the discomfort in his voice.
“I wouldn’t write them off yet. Any slave trained by the regents will have basic household management skills, and every one of them can learn.”
Bond took a deep breath, told himself not to grit his teeth, and said, “I wouldn’t want to chance it.”
“Ah, you really are new, aren’t you?” she asked, giving him a sly smile.
He pushed aside his panic. “What makes you say that?”
She winked knowingly. “If you’d experienced a regent-trained slave, you wouldn’t be doubting. It’s quite all right.” She patted his hand. “You’ll see.”
He managed a polite nod and a smile. “I’ll trust your judgement,” he lied somewhat extravagantly. “But I should go and settle in.”
“Oh! Of course.” She gave him another pat before releasing his arm. “I’m just upstairs from you, suite three, deck six, if you need anything. And I’m certain we’ll see each other at dinner.”
“I look forward to it.”
Bond let himself into the suite’s small foyer, which opened into a living area off to the left. Sliding frosted glass doors ahead and to the right led into a bedroom. From the bedroom, a door led out onto a small private balcony with a bistro table and two chairs. He also had a tiny office off the bedroom with a writing desk; his laptop had been set atop the desk and plugged in to charge. A small folded card atop the laptop listed instructions for accessing the ship’s wifi.
He loosened his tie, went back to the wardrobe in the foyer, and saw that someone had already unpacked his suitcases. What was a courtesy in many high-end hotels felt like an intrusion here.
He hung his jacket and tie before he went to the bar. He’d intended upon staying sober, but the civilised face these people had put on their crimes had turned his stomach. As he’d requested, the bar was stocked with an excellent selection of scotch, as well as both tea and a sleek silver espresso machine. For now, he poured himself a scotch and picked up the passenger information card. He read the first entry with growing horror:
Do not leave a bound slave unattended. All slaves are to be free of restraints during the muster drill and in the event of an emergency. For safety reasons, all doors are designed to be opened from the inside even when locked. Should you require secure confinement for your slave, please request a bunk or cage in our attended barracks on deck three.
This was a bloody nightmare. Every instinct screamed for Bond to take decisive, violent action, but he couldn’t risk it. All too often, attempting to rescue hostages or prisoners ended with their death. He needed to be careful, to dismantle the operation with the finesse he’d bring to defusing a bomb. Cut the wrong wire and innocent lives would be lost.
Worse, this wasn’t even his primary objective.
Taking deep breaths, he turned away and went into the office next to the bedroom. From his laptop bag, he removed a standard-looking mobile phone that appeared to have a loose battery. He popped off the back case and pretended to try and repair it. As he did, he used a fingernail to flip a switch hidden under the battery. The device powered up immediately, and he wandered through the suite, pretending to look for the best mobile signal.
The bars on the display remained reassuringly flat, and Bond felt a measure of tension leave his shoulders. If the device had uncovered surveillance cameras or mics, he would have left them in place and acted unaware to bolster his cover story. But living under full-time surveillance was exhausting, and he was relieved that he’d be able to consider the suite a sanctuary.
After the electronic sweep, he did a thorough search-and-secure that anyone else might have considered extreme. He searched the undersides of the furniture, inside every electrical fixture, anywhere he might hide a recording device. If necessary, he would later use low-tech means to detect intrusion: talcum powder on door handles, single hairs laid across drawers, and so on. Now, though, he was satisfied that the room was secure.
According to the schedule, he had another forty minutes before the mandatory safety and muster drill. He considered trying to skip it, but he wanted to see what provisions were being made for the slaves. Afterwards, there were ship tours, which he would skip in favour of his own exploration, followed by an auction preview in the aft lounge, which doubled as a theatre. According to the schedule, the slaves being offered by the regents would be sold tomorrow night, not at the end of the cruise, as he might have expected. That made the thirty-day duration seem that much more excessive, unless people actually were interested in touring Alaska.
He thought about the hacker-proof computer system that surrounded the Marketplace. Technical Services Section had put its best techs on the task of cracking its security, and they’d failed. What the hell not only required that level of computer security but also needed thirty days of isolation at sea?
With luck, he’d have a chance to interview some of the slaves and find out more: who they were and where they’d been taken. He’d also surreptitiously take photos, if at all possible, to send back to MI6 for facial recognition whenever he had the opportunity. Then he could work on finding the connection between this human trafficking ring and Marakov’s contacts.
The aft lounge was an intimate space, with small tables instead of theatre-style seating, all angled in towards a round centre stage, currently unoccupied. They were seated according to their rooms, with passengers in suites having priority seating, which meant Bond was at the same table as Margaret and six others. He played up a level of anxious anticipation regarding the upcoming sale, excusing himself from too much small talk. Quietly, he listened, memorised names and details, and surreptitiously scanned for security guards — and found none.
The muster drill, meant to teach passengers how to reach the proper lifeboat in the event of a crisis, had been professionally handled but nerve-wracking all the same. Bond hadn’t seen a hint of the victims; they might well be locked away below, left to drown if the boat were disabled, which made the ‘safety’ text on the passenger information card all the more grotesque. He wondered what other illusions of propriety helped convince the buyers that this was somehow acceptable.
After the stewards cleared away the dinner dishes, the house lights dimmed. A man and woman stepped up to the centre stage; he wore a Henry Poole tuxedo, and Bond guessed she wore Alexander McQueen. The applause from the audience was warmly respectful, not merely polite, silencing only when the man lifted his hand.
He spoke with an educated, refined British accent at odds with a boyish grin that made him seem closer to thirty than forty. “I think they know us, darling,” he said, addressing the woman.
She visibly rolled her eyes and smiled. “On behalf of the regents, thank you all for attending this special event,” she said. Her accent was working-class, though soft and attractive, rather than grating. She held out her hands and looked around as though attempting to make eye contact with everyone in turn. She was charismatic, even captivating, and Bond immediately assessed her as the more dangerous of the pair.
“For those of you who don’t know us,” the man continued, “I’m Philip Harrington. This is my wife, Angelique. We have the privilege of representing Britain to the regents.”
Angelique took over the welcome speech, but Bond was distracted, his mind suddenly racing. He leaned close to Margaret and very softly asked, “Harrington — as in Lord Southerby?”
To his shock, Margaret nodded. “Yes. They’ve been regents, oh, for the last five or six years.”
Bond nodded and sat back, resisting the temptation to order another martini. He picked up his espresso instead, hiding his surprise that peers would so openly associate themselves with the Marketplace. Just how deep into English society did this human trafficking go?
The welcome speech was brief, ending with Angelique saying, “We know none of you are here to see us. We’ve done our time on the block —”
“I thought we were doing that later tonight, darling,” Philip said, raising his brows suggestively after her.
“And if anyone would like to discuss the private sale of a slightly used Baron, please do come see me,” Angelique said smoothly, to the rich amusement of the crowd. “For now, though, this season’s finest offerings, every one from a regent-certified trainer!”
She and Philip left the stage as the house lights changed, focusing on the arching rear stage. Almost thirty men and women stood there, grouped in mixed pairs — one standing, one kneeling. All of the standing ones were in formal wear, holding leashes. The men and women on their knees were dressed in an eclectic collection from formal suits to leather bondage harnesses.
Bond forced his expression to remain calm as he looked them over. The fourteen kneeling ones had to be slaves; presumably the ones who were standing, holding the leashes, were the regents.
After giving the audience a moment to view the tableau, one of the standing women stepped forward. She was in her mid-thirties with an exotic mixed heritage that even Bond, with all his experience, couldn’t quite place. Her skin was the colour of pecans, her face heart-shaped. Rich black hair was elaborately pinned up in a soft style that framed her face and trailed down her neck, where she wore a single diamond pendant bigger than Bond’s thumbnail.
As soon as the leash went taut, her slave — a young, pixie-like woman with blond hair and huge eyes — rose, smoothing her hands down her short black cocktail dress before she clasped them behind her back. Together they walked a slow circle around the centre stage; a spotlight followed them. Both women had such an air of sensuality about them that the audience was held breathless.
There wasn’t a hint of reluctance in the slave’s demeanour. If anything, she seemed calm and confident despite the deferential way her eyes were lowered, as if she didn’t need to look around to know the effect she had on those who observed her.
Once they’d made a complete circle of the centre stage, the handler led the slave up to kneel at the back, by the stairs. Offstage, Philip’s voice said, “Number One, presented by Regent Chandra, of Ninon’s lineage,” and the audience applauded even more loudly than they had for Lord and Lady Southerby.
“Who is Regent Chandra?” Bond asked Margaret quietly as the second pair stepped off the rear stage for a circuit.
“She’s a trainer from Los Angeles. Ninon trained her.” With a faint sigh, Margaret added, “Ninon only trains one or two slaves a year — out of even my price range, I’m afraid — but Chandra’s are just as good, or so I’ve heard.”
He nodded, feigning interest in the next two slaves, but Number Four set off alarms deep in his subconscious. He sat forward, nerves prickling as he watched, momentarily thrown by the man’s supposedly docile appearance. He was a good four stone heavier than his trainer and three inches taller, reminding Bond of a tiger held on a leash of string.
“Who’s that?” Bond asked, fingers itching for a weapon.
“Regent Ira Lewis. He trains security specialists,” Margaret whispered. “Bodyguards, drivers, security guards, that sort of thing.”
Bond held back the urge to ask how — not how they were trained, but how any of these people could possibly feel safe with a bodyguard who’d been coerced into slavery. And Number Four wasn’t the only one; the slave behind him was also a bodyguard, this one female. What leverage did their trainers have on them? Bond frowned, thinking it had to be a threat to a family member or close friend.
His silence encouraged Margaret to talk to the others at the table, allowing Bond to observe everything in relative peace. He felt distinctly uncomfortable at the sight of a male slave who’d been so tightly trussed in leather straps that he could barely shuffle, though that was better than the man who crawled behind his trainer, hands bound up in fake leather gloves shaped like paws, face obscured behind a canine mask.
By the time the spectacle was nearly complete, Bond was debating finding a way to escape. But then the last slave rose from where he was kneeling, and Bond sat forward, protective instincts roaring to life.
Number Fourteen was slender — possibly unhealthily thin, though it was difficult to tell. Instead of something gaudy or revealing, he wore neat grey pinstripe trousers and a matching waistcoat properly buttoned over a long-sleeved light blue shirt. Instead of a tie, he wore the same thick silver curb chain collar as the other slaves for sale, with a leash attached. His head was bowed, causing a long, dark fringe to fall against his black-rimmed glasses. He was young, barely into his twenties by Bond’s best guess.
His trainer was a short, older man in a perfect dinner suit, though he wore a straight black tie rather than a proper bow tie. To Bond’s surprise, he had a chain collar visible over the tie and shirt collar —
And only then did Bond twist around to look for the nearest waiter to confirm... yes, he was wearing a similar chain, though the pattern of links was slightly different. He closed his eyes, thinking back to the ship’s stewards he’d seen everywhere, during embarkation and the muster drill, every one of them wearing a chain collar.
God, were they all slaves?
It couldn’t be possible. Christ, they outnumbered the guests. Why the hell didn’t they seize the ship? Most of them were roaming free, with access to weapons — silverware, if nothing else.
He turned back in time to watch the last slave walk by. He had his hands behind his back — not bound but simply clasped there, left hand around his right wrist. Bond had to force himself to watch, though every instinct was screaming at him to intervene.
As the thin, dark-haired slave was led to the last empty spot on the round stage, near the back, Philip’s voice announced, “Number Fourteen, presented by Regent Chris Parker on behalf of Tetsuo’s House, from the lineage of Imala Anderson!”
After a startled moment, the crowd began to applaud almost as enthusiastically as they had for Chandra and Number One.
Bond forced himself to applaud, though he couldn’t bring himself to feign proper enthusiasm. Instead, he studied the kneeling slaves, wondering what they were thinking. None of them seemed distressed. Tense, yes — that much was obvious — but none seemed ready to bolt in fear. Rather, they were surrounded by an air of excitement and anticipation.
“Why such enthusiasm?”
“Chris is the founder of the regents.” Margaret eyed Number Fourteen thoughtfully. “He’s definitely not my usual type, but if he really was trained by Chris Parker... Hmm.”
“What would it mean, exactly, to be trained by Chris Parker?” he asked. He shoved away his initial distaste at the thought of ‘training’ the beautiful young man kneeling near the back of the stage.
“Chris has been in the Marketplace for his whole life, practically — well, since he was of age. And he trained with Anderson.” She looked at him, brows raised. When he shook his head, she said, “Oh. Oh, darling, if you like boys at all, go have a talk with him. If Chris brought him out, he’ll be perfect.”
Bond thought about the fact that he would actually have to go through with at least attempting to purchase one of them in order to stay on the ship for the rest of the cruise, though the fact that they’d be auctioned meant he could conveniently lose. “I’ll consider it,” he said — and a part of him was considering it, though solely for the purpose of rescuing the poor boy.
A few audience members had gone up front to examine the slaves or speak with their trainers. Bond found himself staring at Number Fourteen again, wondering what would happen to him after tomorrow night. He expected to be sold; that much was obvious.
Margaret stood, interrupting his thoughts. “Well, I’m not interested in playing coy. Excuse me,” she said, putting her napkin down on the table. She gave Bond a smile and walked right to where Fourteen was kneeling in isolation. As if her open interest was a cue, several others rose and made their way over, attention fixed on Fourteen.
Bond wondered how many of them were interested simply for his body, how many for whatever talents he might have, and how many because of Chris’ reputation. He sat back, watching, waiting for the crowd to thin a little before going up himself. It was with some shock that he realised almost no one was taking to Fourteen himself — they were all directing their questions, attention, and complimentary remarks to his handler. In fact, all Fourteen got were admiring gazes.
Unacceptable, he thought, momentarily stunned by how nonchalant these people were about violating simple human courtesy and respect. He stared at Fourteen for a long moment, furious on his behalf, before his view was finally obscured by the crowds gathered around the other slaves.
Number One had drawn the most attention, with five people clustered near her, though none were actually speaking with her directly — just as with Fourteen. The man wrapped in leather straps was being put through a display routine, held at each pose by small carabiners moved between the D-rings at every joint. Beside him, a sleek-limbed woman knelt, head bowed, while one of the audience lifted her skirt to reveal a soft cock and balls dangling between her legs.
As if this were a signal, the crowd seemed to grow more curious and intense in their examinations. They were touching now or ordering the slaves to stand and move and pose. Their trainers never moved farther away than the leashes would allow, but they obviously weren’t there to protect the slaves from the potential buyers.
Bond’s discomfort grew as the audience’s mask of propriety slipped. A handful of people moved in on Fourteen, blocking him from Bond’s sight, causing alarm to rocket through him. The idea that they could be pinching at him as if he were supermarket fare being tested for ripeness...
Before he could quite explain to himself what he was doing, he was on his feet and striding purposefully towards where the crowd was gathered around Fourteen. When Bond chose to display his displeasure with something, people tended to pay attention — and he had no trouble pushing through the crowd to stare down at Fourteen. He seemed unharmed.
Bond glanced back up at Margaret, who was still there, eavesdropping on the conversations with Chris. “Couldn’t resist after all,” he said in his best authoritative tone.
Margaret smirked at him and patted his arm. “He’s definitely not my type. A shame, really. Can’t hurt to have a quick look at the others, though,” she advised, and left his side to go through the crowd, circling the stage.
Up close, Fourteen looked even younger. Save for a few dark freckles, his skin was flawless and pale, without a hint of stubble at his jaw. With his arms now folded behind his back, his shoulders were drawn out, highlighting the way his chest rose and fell in a quick, light rhythm. He knelt back on his heels with a curious tension, as though any touch, any provocation could cause him to bolt for cover — but only out of surprise, not fear.
“Hello,” Bond said gently.
Quietly, Fourteen said, “Good evening, sir.” To Bond’s surprise, he was British — and educated, judging by his accent.
“What’s your name?” Bond asked, before thinking that it might be some sort of violation of the organisation’s rules.
Still without raising his eyes, Fourteen said, “Q, sir.”
Q? What the hell kind of name was Q? That was no better than a number. It certainly wasn’t any sort of expression of the fragile young man’s individuality.
Feeling sick inside, Bond studied Q’s posture, searching for any hint of fear or pain or even narcotics — any sign of why he was so docile. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” he finally asked.
“Not at all, sir. I would be pleased to answer, if I can.”
“What do you —” Bond hesitated, suddenly realising he had no idea how to politely ask what Q was expected to do, as a slave. With most of the others, it was obvious. Finally, he asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a computer specialist, sir. Programming, database design and management, network design and security, cryptography —”
“Wait,” Bond interrupted, glancing at the man holding Q’s leash. He was talking to two other potential buyers in low tones. “Network design? What about web design? The internet?”
Bond stared down at Q’s bowed head, wondering. Had Q’s internet use been carefully monitored? Had he been on a restricted network? Why wouldn’t he have sent a message for help?
One of the other passengers approached, and Bond moved to block his access to Q. He thought fast; he needed to express his interest as a potential buyer, not a rescuer. Stay on mission, he told himself.
“I often work remotely,” Bond said quietly, wishing Q would look up at him or react in some way. He hadn’t moved, though, reminding Bond uncomfortably of the self-discipline required for a military inspection. “It’s difficult to ensure a secure, encrypted connection to the office. What could you do to assist with that?”
“I’m adept with all commercial grade encryption, sir, but my own private methods are far more secure,” he said confidently. “All I’d need is to deploy the proper software and data transfer system, and any device on the network with my app would not only communicate with full encryption but would be itself encrypted. Unfortunately, it would require connectivity to the network to decrypt, so there wouldn’t be any offline use. However, most people find that security is a small price to pay for the inconvenience, sir.”
Bond smiled at the self-assured tone of Q’s voice. Apparently he wasn’t completely broken — and that was very, very reassuring. “So you’ve been doing this for a while, then?”
“All my life, sir.”
“And in the Marketplace?” Bond asked more carefully. He wanted to give Q the opportunity to reveal any sort of information that could help Bond uncover his true identity.
“My first sale was seven years ago, sir.”
“Seven —” Bond cut off, reaching thoughtlessly for Q’s face. At the first touch of fingertips, Q allowed Bond to lift his chin, though he kept his eyes cast down.
Up close, he was even more beautiful, with high cheekbones and dark, expressive lips. When Bond’s thumb slipped over smooth, soft skin, Q’s eyes closed, and he pressed into Bond’s hand with a subtle tilt of his head.
The spike of arousal that shot through Bond’s body was at terrible odds with his inner horror. Seven years? Q couldn’t be older than twenty-five, if that.
“How old are you?” he asked.
Twenty-eight. Seven years in the Marketplace, with how many more years to prepare him for this sort of controlled, disciplined behaviour? How many years of training, subjugation, and brainwashing did it take to reshape a person into this sort of calm, complete surrender? Call it between two and five years, which meant Q had been taken as a teenager.
A decade or more. It was a deeply uncomfortable thought. No wonder he’d been trusted with access to computers. Bond looked past Q to the bodyguards, both dressed in tight spandex shorts and sleeveless shirts to better show off their muscular bodies. He thought about things he’d heard and encountered in the field — rumours of training programs designed to break soldiers and reshape them into mindless, obedient killing machines.
He looked back down at Q, reminding himself that he couldn’t save all of them — not yet. But Q... He looked so fragile, so young despite his age. Where had he been before his training? Had he grown up with a loving family that missed him? Had he been taken from the streets, perhaps after trying to sell his body to the wrong person?
Bond’s hand slipped back to touch Q’s hair, and Q bowed his head as he leaned subtly forward as though seeking the comfort of Bond’s touch. The silver chain leash swung forward, and the man holding the other end of it glanced over, attention drawn by the movement.
Every instinct screamed for Bond to take Q and escape. He mapped out exactly how it would happen, how he’d unsnap the leash and incapacitate — hopefully kill — the man holding the other end, how he’d pull Q against him and run for the nearest exit. The ship was hugging the coastline north of Portland; Bond was an accomplished swimmer. He could easily make it to shore despite the chill of the North Pacific waters.
Stay on mission.
Frustrated, he let his hand drop. Q eased back into his perfectly disciplined posture. He looked so small, so vulnerable.
“Will you stand?” Bond asked him.
With a soft, “Yes, sir,” Q rose, never once moving his arms from behind his back. He just leaned forward and stood with the kind of grace Bond hadn’t seen outside of Japan, where sitting or kneeling at a low table was still common in some places.
His head was still bowed, however, and his long, beautifully messy hair hid his eyes, making Bond frown a little. Very slowly and gently, so as not to frighten or startle Q, Bond brought his hand up to tap under Q’s chin.
Immediately, Q lifted his face, though he didn’t raise his eyes more than necessary. Bond must have imagined the way Q’s breath caught, and he couldn’t help but but run a thumb reverently along the edge of Q’s jaw, just for a second. Q’s eyes closed too long for it to be a blink; otherwise, he went perfectly still, not even breathing.
Regretfully, Bond pulled his hand away, and Q leaned forward just a bit, as though chasing the touch. No power in the world could have stopped Bond from giving Q what he wanted for just a moment longer. He gently stroked Q’s cheek, watching with delight as Q pressed against his hand. Q’s eyes were hazel, Bond saw in the instant before they closed again.
Bond decided that it wouldn’t be wise to let a talented hacker get bought by the sort of vile character who would actually want to purchase a slave. He had plenty of cash in the account attached to his suite’s keycard, and he could transfer more from his other personal accounts. Whatever kind of trouble Q was in, Bond could get him out.
Bond finally stepped back, nodding with what he hoped was assurance. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Q,” he promised.
“I look forward to it, sir.” The words might have been a formula, a meaningless courtesy he’d been trained to repeat, but Bond was too experienced a liar not to hear something genuine in the way his voice broke.
Bond turned to leave, unwilling to watch as the other ‘guests’ started their own interrogations. At least Q was standing this time, so he wouldn’t have to look up at anyone.
Q steadied his breath and tried to find his inner calm, but his heart kept skipping at the memory of the British man’s touch. The man had driven away the other potential buyers for the moment, which meant Q could take advantage of the lull in interest. Deferentially, he lowered his head and closed his eyes; that much was permitted, though his posture was otherwise dictated by tradition. The darkness helped, though not as much as he’d hoped.
“Breathe,” Chris said suddenly, standing unexpectedly close, and Q nearly flinched. A small, strong hand clasped the back of Q’s neck for a moment, helping to ground him.
As the seconds ticked by, Q’s racing heart slowed. There was no rational reason for him to be so rattled by a buyer’s interest. He had no illusions about finding romance in slavery; it was the service itself that he craved, not the specifics of the person who commanded him. He was afraid he’d be sold to someone who wouldn’t use him for his expertise — that he might end up purchased for sex or domestic work and never touch a computer except during his contract-specified hours. Thankfully, that hadn’t happened with his past two owners, but that didn’t make him any less nervous.
Before his first auction, a small affair with only four slaves and thirty-three potential buyers, he’d spent hours talking to his first trainer about the paralysing fear, but he hadn’t understood it until he’d actually stood on the display table. Because of his stubborn, desperate desire to be owned, he hadn’t lost his nerve and run, and his resolve had paid off. His low minimum bid had been met, and he’d been bought and used, tentatively at first, and then with greater trust. But most of the work had to do with maintaining a website, and that was the sort of thing any college student could handle. He’d declined a contract renewal and gone back to the auction block.
The second time had been even harder — a massive auction held outdoors, at a French countryside farmhouse under the hot evening sun. He hadn’t ended up sunburnt, but the crowd of owners testing him left him dizzy and overwhelmed, sunk so far into himself that he hardly knew what commands he was obeying. His second owner, a man from Texas, had been a coldly logical businessman who’d made Q his senior IT department manager. Then he’d casually pointed at the IT department and ordered him to ‘fix that fucking mess’. The challenge had been everything Q had ever wanted, complete with a contract renewal for another two years. But he’d done his task too well, and his admittedly expensive contract hadn’t been renewed again once he had a successor trained.
This was his third auction, his third time on display. Each time it was terrifying, though this had to be the worst. Most auctions lasted only a handful of hours; this one wouldn’t be over until late tomorrow night, cruelly prolonging the anxiety even the most experienced slaves felt. Tomorrow during the day would be a bit better; he’d be interviewed at the ship’s computer centre, and while one of the buyers could do or ask anything, Q anticipated most of tomorrow to be focused around his computer skills. Tomorrow night, though, he’d be back on display, and the buyers would be caught up in a bidding frenzy.
“Stop,” Chris ordered, his voice sharp but low.
Q opened his eyes in surprise, his serenity shattered for a moment before he recognised what he was doing to himself. There was no sense in thinking ahead. He only needed to concentrate on right now, and not on the possible buyer who had left.
Slowly, he began to relax. He bowed his head just enough that he could lower his eyes and look down at his feet, rather than scanning the room.
He breathed as Chris had taught him, letting his mind drift into a state that had taken him weeks to master, leaving him aware enough to recognise commands without actually paying attention to his surroundings. His place here was simple: Until he was directly addressed or commanded, his only duty was to hold his position.
Subtle shifts of his muscles kept his spine supple. He breathed and felt each beat of his heart. By the time the next buyer approached, he was centred and at peace once more.