Eleven Standard Years Ago
Asphodel Portal City Lockup
“Sir, you can’t go in there!”
Andrei Solace didn’t bother looking up. Not that he’d have been able to see much with one eye swollen shut from the butt of the rifle he’d taken to the face. The pain had subsided to a dull, all-consuming ache, but the anger burned, low and steady, in his gut. Enough to get through another day.
The outsider spoke again, his tone nearly amused, partly chiding. “I’m afraid you’re incorrect about that.”
Andrei did risk a glance, curious about who spoke to a jailer that way.
Andrei expected another social worker. Gods knew he’d seen enough of them over his lifetime. Instead, what he got was the biggest man he’d ever seen. It was enough to have Andrei ignoring the pain from his injuries to swing his legs from the narrow cot to stand and edge closer.
“Look, sir, I’m sure you think you’re entitled to all sorts of things with your shiny shoes and soft hands. But this is my lockup, and I’m telling you there’s no entry to the cells without the proper paperwork.”
The big man looked down his nose, not a difficulty. Andrei committed the expression to memory as the man looked as if he’d smelled something awful. So much was communicated without a single word. Smart.
The jailer inched, just a tiny bit, when the big man reached into his pocket and pulled a sheaf of papers from it. “Will these do?” He opened a portfolio to show the jailer.
The jailer read, his lips moving, until he paled and stumbled back. “I had no idea, sir. I…”
“Now that we’ve taken care of the formalities, I’d like to see the prisoner.”
With a new target for his anger, the jailer sent Andrei a glare over his shoulder as he led the big man through the hall, unlocking as he went. Andrei didn’t want to appear weak, but he really had to sit down again, so he made his best attempt at nonchalance and strolled back to his cot to sit.
Wilhelm Ellis, newly minted Comandante of the Federation Military Corps, came to a halt just outside the boy’s cell. Andrei was a mess of bruises and bandaged wounds, one eye swollen shut. His eye, the good one, held a quiet, burning anger.
Barely eighteen standard years, and he was hard. Harder than most adults, even those Ellis dealt with in the corps. Hard wasn’t a bad thing. Especially out here. It could be a very good thing indeed, especially in a soldier.
Sighing with annoyance and no small amount of disgusted anger, he rounded on the jailer, pinning him with a glare. “Has he been seen by medics? I was under the impression he’d been here for two weeks.”
“Two weeks and four days. Not that I’m counting.” The jailer sent a sneer toward the boy that had Wilhelm clenching his fists
Instead, he kept his voice very, very calm. “Care to explain the state of his face?”
Finally, the jailer understood. He stumbled back, his gaze on the ground. “He has anger problems. Always attacking. Seven hells, sir, he was brought in here after nearly killing a man. He’s been picked up on assault and theft charges multiple times in the last years.”
“Did. You. Give. This. Boy. Those. Bruises?” Wil wanted to punch this petty little bully for the damage he’d done. Instead, he bullied with his size and position. He rarely did, but sometimes it was necessary to scare the spit out of a man before he got the picture fully.
“With all due respect, sir, the boy attacked one of my men. He’s the reason why we have to chain him like a horse in a pasture. The boy is garbage. A dirt rat just like his mother was. If he’d had a father around to instill some discipline, he wouldn’t be here. I don’t think you can come in here and second-guess when you’re not up to sp…” The jailer’s words died away when the boy jumped toward the bars, held back by the shackle on his ankle.
“Fuck you. You don’t talk about her,” he snarled, yanking on the!chain so hard Wil wondered if he’d break his ankle. This was some will. A good sign if it could be channeled correctly.
“Unlock the cell and the chains and get out of my sight before I show you some discipline myself.” Wil kept his eyes on the boy as he spoke to the jailer.
“He’s dangerous. Didn’t you hear what I just said? He attacked an armed man. Why don’t we get you a chair and you can interview him on the other side of the bars? Safer that way.”
Wilhelm touched the personal comm on his wrist. “Operative Haws, inside with me, if you will.” He didn’t look at the jailer as he spoke. “I’m quite capable of handling myself. Do as you were ordered, or you can join him in the cell next to this one.”
The jailer appeared to begin to mumble, but Wilhelm sent him a look so severe, he clamped his lips together, unlocked the cell and shackles and got out.
“Get out of my sight.” Wil walked past and into the cell, towering over the boy who shook with his desire to lash out. At Wilhelm, at the jailer, at anyone. Wil knew that expression, having seen it in the mirror enough as he grew up.
He sat on the rickety chair they’d provided, stretching his legs before him, purposely taking up as much space as possible. Daniel would have his back. And most likely he’d learn something from a boy he’d been not too long before that. It’d be good for Daniel to see how far he’d come. How much discipline had straightened his life out.
This one. He shook his head as he took in the wild-eyed Andrei Solace. “Why are you so angry, Mister Solace?” Slowly, taking the!boy’s measure, he pulled a pouch from his pocket and rolled a smoke.
The boy tried to hide behind an uncaring facade. Keeping his mouth closed, choosing a shrug.
Wil inhaled the rich heat and exhaled, enjoying that moment very much. “This place is a dump, Andrei Solace. This ‘Verse, this cell, your life, all a fucking dump.”
He enjoyed the ” are of anger in Andrei’s eyes, the tension of his muscles as he trembled with the effort not to punch Wilhem right in the nose.
Wilhelm nodded, satisfied when the fists unclenched and the spine relaxed slightly. “Good. See? You can control yourself. When you want to. I’d wager you were simply never taught any discipline.”
With a dismissive wave, he went back to the smoke, wondering how long it would take to get Solace to speak. The boy now had about a 30 percent chance of making it back to Ravena with him.
Each interview he’d done over the last four years as he’d built his special teams had been different. Some he knew before he even saw the person if they’d be a yes. Other times, he’d been convinced one way or another and had his mind drastically change at the last minute.
Andrei Solace was, at first glance, another in a long line of kids from rough backgrounds who fell into violence and criminal activity from a young age. Not unusual at all. This one, though, had scored off the charts on his testing. The way he’d reacted when his family had been insulted indicated a sense of loyalty. Loyalty when given by a boy like this one would create a bond for life.
“Your silence is interesting. I’m going to take it as you wanting to hear more about why I’m here, shall I?” He narrowed his eyes at Solace, who stared back stonily without, speaking or moving. Inquisitiveness was something he wanted to see in one of his people. He had no room for people without intellectual curiosity. He’d always found candidates who thought critically operated at far higher level of functionality, especially in the field.
Wilhelm stood, straightening and brushing the front of his uniform.
The percentages were dwindling.
“Yes.” Andrei said it, and the word sounded as if it were dragged from him.
“Progress.” Wilhelm sat again. “My name is Wilhelm Ellis. I’m the Comandante of the Federation Military Corps. I might be in a situation to ease you from this place and set you on a new path. One that won’t end with you in permanent hold.”
Andrei watched him with careful eyes. He wasn’t an idiot; he knew the giant blocking his escape was more than capable of felling him in one swipe if Andrei made to run. He also noted the man’s power.
Something underlined when he introduced himself. Gods above and below! This guy was the top guy of everything. What the fuck was he doing on Asphodel in a lockup cell with a delinquent?
He had some suspicions. “I don’t like men like that.”
Ellis paused and then snorted a laugh without much humor.
“You all say that. Each time I hear it I’m torn between rage that you all have been so preyed upon your first assumption is that I’m out to bugger you, and amusement. I’m not after your bum, boy.”
“Then what? What do you want from me?” He loathed the small spark of hope this man had lit in his belly. Hope was weakness.
“Operative Haws.” Ellis spoke and a man—no, Andrei looked again at the male who’d stepped into the corridor—he’d be a man in a year or two, but he wasn’t much older than Andrei was.
Ellis, despite being as massive as he was, still managed to appear graceful as he rolled another smoke. Andrei didn’t know what their game was, but he was smart enough to listen. Just in case.
“Have you ever considered military service?” Ellis asked, lighting the hand-rolled smoke.
“How about I answer you when you’ve shared those with me?” Andrei tipped his chin toward the pouch.
Ellis’s face darkened a brief moment. “No. You’re too young. How about you answer me, or we can finish this right now?”
Andrei clicked his teeth, clenching his jaw. His mother had told him he had good intuition, and that intuition told him Ellis would simply walk out if Andrei kept silent. His gut also told him this could be something important.
So he gave up his words. “No.”
“Why not? Is the idea of a real bed, a job and some credits in your pocket so terribly unappealing to you?” Ellis waved a hand at the surroundings. “This is better?”
“It’s the same thing. I’m a prisoner either way.” He shrugged, nearly believing his reply.
“Is it, boy?” Gone was his name, and Andrei felt… bereft.
Anger surged that he’d care. He preferred it to the sadness.
“What do you know about it? Sitting there with your soft hands and your medals. What do you know about struggling?”
Ellis’s mouth tightened and then curved into a rueful smile. “Ah, the hubris of the young to imagine they’re the only ones who understand. I suppose the answer is, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I know what it’s like to be chained in a cell, beaten for trying to retain my humanity.”
It was the way he said it that broke through the anger. He snuck a look to the other one, standing, seemingly at ease on the other side of the bars. Deceiving. There was no ease in the coil of muscles and the quick sweep of his gaze around the area.
“Why is he here?”
Ellis didn’t bother looking back to the other soldier. “He’s got my back. It’s always good to have that. Do you?”
When Andrei didn’t answer, Ellis simply went on. “The question is—the real question—are you satisfied with this? Are you so lazy and without vision that you’d allow yourself to be guided toward a lifetime of stints in lockup and an early, probably violent death? If you are, just say so and I’ll be on my way. I have work to do.”
Andrei took a look at the man outside the bars.
He made eye contact and grew very still as the soldier took him!in but remained silent. Andrei was off balance and feeling cornered. Anger and frustration, his diet it had seemed, filled his veins, making him feel trapped.
Which, he supposed, he was. But he sure as seven hells had no plans to willingly enslave himself to the Federation.
“I can see by your face that you’re arguing with yourself.”
“Look, Comandante, I don’t know you. I don’t know why you’re here. I’m no soldier. I’m just—”
“Another kid in lockup for the fifth, seventh, thirteenth time.”
The soldier outside the bars spoke quietly, intensely. “You planning to make a career out of that? That all you ever want to be?”
“What do you know about it?”
“Enough that I’m going to do you a favor you probably won’t believe you deserve. This is a dead end. There is nothing for you here. Nothing. Stop making excuses not to leave.”
“Tell me more,” Andrei said with a sigh, hope still a tiny ember in his belly.