When Commander Rhys “Rest In Peace” Rykus walked back into her life, Ash smiled because she knew it would piss him off. He was an intimidating SOB, always had been, and it took an effort not to give in to habit and stand to salute him. It helped, of course, that her wrists were shackled to the arms of her chair.
Rykus didn’t say anything when he entered her gray prison, so Ash echoed his silence. The room’s low ceiling accentuated his height and broad shoulders. He outweighed her by thirty, maybe forty pounds now that he’d completely gotten over his old shoulder injury and packed on more muscle. The way his crisp, black uniform embraced his frame drew her gaze, but she was a bit disappointed he was clean shaven. She’d always liked it when stubble shadowed the planes of his face. She’d told him as much once during training, and he’d sent her on extra weighted runs as punishment. Though she’d ended up sore, stiff, and tired as hell, it had been worth it to get under his skin.
She had to get under his skin now because she could already feel his presence scraping away her resolve. The Coalition wanted her to talk, and she’d been programmed years ago to respond to Rykus’s voice. She had to escape soon – now – because if she didn’t, he’d trigger that brainwashing and command her to give him the cipher the Coalition so desperately wanted.
Keeping her smile in place, Ash turned her attention to the two men flanking him. The first waited beside the door, his gaze locked on her, his hand resting ready on his gun. The other man wasn’t armed. Instead of a weapon, he carried a bio-scanner and med-sack. He dropped the sack on the data-table in front of her, yanked out a blue aerosol bottle, then sprayed both his hands with liqui-glove. With short, rough movements, he treated the cut on her temple.
Ash lowered her gaze to the table, but Rykus’s stare drilled into her. She didn’t have to look up to imagine his expression. After two years of training under his command, she’d memorized the harsh set of his jaw and the dark, I’ve-been-to-hell-and-back depths of his eyes. The force of his scowl could shatter heat shielding if Rykus was so inclined, but he usually kept his anger in check. Usually. Ash had a talent for setting him off.
He sat in the chair on the other side of the data-table, the only piece of furniture in the cell besides her chair and the sleep-slab now folded up into the dull gray wall. She took a moment to steel herself against the loyalty training then met her former instructor’s eyes. “It’s been a while, Rip.”
When the medic went still beside her, she forced a laugh. “Guess the commander doesn’t go by that name much around here, does he?”
Ah, there it was, the tell-tale tightening of the skin around Rykus’s eyes. No one else called him Rip – at least, not to his face – but she was the one who’d given him the nickname back when she was his cadet. She figured she might as well use it, especially if it would piss him off. For the Coalition’s loyalty training to fully kick in, Rykus’s words had to be spoken in a precise tone and cadence. When he was angry or – dare she suggest it – aroused, his voice dipped. It was a slight, almost unnoticeable change, but it was enough to let her fight and occasionally overcome the compulsion in his commands.
“Still,” she said to the medic, “he is the only man in the entire federated military to show up alive and well to his own funeral. He never told us anomalies how he managed that.” She tilted her head to the side and pitched her last words as a question.
Rykus just sat there staring through her. Her faith in her plan wavered. Maybe she shouldn’t push him away. Maybe he could help her. If he ordered her to report what happened on the mission to Chalos II, maybe she could break through the telepathic stranglehold preventing her from explaining everything.
But as soon as the thought entered her mind, her heart clogged her throat. She could almost hear her subconscious speak, cautioning against the idea. Something bad would happen if Rykus commanded her to speak. She was certain of it.
She made her tone casual, her expression unconcerned. “Tell me, Rip, how are you liking this plush new command?”
Still, he said nothing.
“Not much for conversation these days, are you?”
He didn’t even blink. When had he become so fucking impenetrable? Used to be, she could make him angry with a few take-me-to-bed glances, but maybe his triggers had changed. Or maybe since she was no longer his cadet, he didn’t give a damn about her anymore.
Her stomach twisted like a transport on a bad re-entry into atmosphere. She blocked out the sensation, the odd little mix of hurt and devotion. It was just the loyalty training urging her to please him. It didn’t mean anything. Never had, never would.
The medic finished treating the cut on her head then swabbed the broken skin on her knuckles. Even though her escape attempt had failed, she’d managed to land a few solid hits before she went down. Rykus had taught her well.
The medic put away the disinfectant and picked up a bio-band. He stared at the device then frowned at her chair-shackled wrists.
“You can unbind me,” Ash told him, innocence dropping from her tone like coolant from an engine. “I won’t try anything. Promise.”
He glared, shook his head, then stepped back to look at her bare feet. She’d regained consciousness without her boots, and without the knife she’d confiscated from one of the guards she’d taken down during her transfer to the ship.
He strapped the device to her ankle and switched it on. It wouldn’t do him any good. Her physical injuries were superficial and she’d already been scanned a dozen times since her arrest. The bio-band didn’t tell the doctors what was really wrong with her, and she couldn’t tell them herself. She’d tried. Over and over again, she’d tried, but James, the deceitful, manipulative bastard, had screwed with her head.
“I didn’t train a traitor.”
Rykus’s voice rebounded off the dull gray walls and struck Ash in the center of her chest. She kept her focus on the medic, hoping the bio-band didn’t pick up an increased heart rate.
“Tell me what happened.”
He didn’t command her to speak, thank God. He never did at first. If his habits hadn’t changed, he’d ask her once more before he tried to force a confession.
She made her hands loosen their grip on the chair arms. “Guess you’re not as good at reading people as you thought.”
A low blow, one that should have hurt, but Rykus didn’t even twitch. Damn it. Had she lost her touch?
“You need to start talking.” His tone turned brutal, bruising. “The Coalition is sending their best man to interrogate you. He won’t be gentle.”
Ash saw her opening and made her voice a low purr. “You know I like it rough, Commander.”
A sharp and sudden inhalation was the only sign he’d heard her words. Ash kept her half-smile plastered on her face despite the painful twist in her stomach. She’d already lost her comrades, her career, her reputation, everything. She might as well act like the arrogant bitch he always thought her to be.
Rykus leaned forward. “This is the last time I’ll ask. Tell me what happened.”
“Tell me what you believe.”
She hid a grimace when the words left her lips. She didn’t want to know if he believed the accusations. If he did, it would hurt. If he didn’t…well, it would make it that much harder to push him away.
Rykus jabbed on the data-table.
“Let’s start with your team,” he said, and their images appeared on the table’s surface. The universe pitched into an angle that was all wrong. It didn’t feel like they were dead. It felt like she could call them any time, especially since the pictures were captured weeks ago, just days before they’d left for Chalos II.
“You’re accused of executing five men each with a single shot to the head. You worked with them for the last year, some even longer than that. Yet, when asked why you murdered them, you gave no comment.”
Emotion scraped Ash’s throat raw. These men were her family. She would have given her life to save them. Instead, they’d given their lives to save hers.
Rykus flattened his hand on the table and the images changed to show a series of decoded transmissions. “Your file contains over thirty records of communications with known Saricean agents. In them, you reveal classified information. Your leaks ranged from incidental supply shipments to the name and coordinates of a shuttle carrying Senator Ben Playte.” Rykus pinned her with one of his destructive glares. “Playte was assassinated three days after the Sariceans received this document. When asked if any of these were forgeries, you gave no comment.”
He swiped his hand across the table’s surface, flinging her service record in her face.
“Since your graduation, you’ve received top reviews from every commander you’ve served under. They’ve stated that you’re ‘a superb soldier’, ‘unwavering in your mission’, and ‘dedicated if a bit cheeky’. He looked up. When she raised her shoulders in a shrug, his expression hardened. “There are some blips in your attendance the past six months. Times when you didn’t answer your summons, showed up late to debriefings, or didn’t make an appearance at routine, required meetings. When your interrogators asked your whereabouts, you gave no comment.”
Six months ago. That’s when this started. That’s when she’d met James and become a fool.
“You still have no comment?” Rykus asked.
She stared at the table. She’d deny it all if she could, but she knew better than to try. She couldn’t speak of anything that had happened since she met James. When she tried, she blacked out. No one noticed. She always stayed upright, her eyes never blinked, never lost focus, but seconds, maybe minutes passed before her brain started functioning again. If someone was interrogating her, they assumed she was ignoring their questions.
“Do you know why you were brought to the Obsidian?” Rykus asked.
She pressed her lips together. The Coalition wanted the information her team copied from the Saricean databanks on Chalos II. That had been their assignment, and they’d completed it without a hitch. It wasn’t until after they withdrew from the planet that Trevast, her commanding officer, had sat down and analyzed what they’d stolen. He’d cursed. Then he’d looked at his team and told them telepaths existed, and that they’d infiltrated the Coalition’s government.
She’d laughed. They all had.
Telepathy was a fiction, a farce, a fabrication for the gullible. It didn’t exist.
She looked back at Rykus. His mouth tightened into a frown, a frown which gave her flashbacks to the harsh, hellish days training under him on Caruth. “Did you change the encryption on the files, Lieutenant?”
The truth clawed at her throat. A private yacht had intercepted her team’s shuttle before they made it to the rendezvous point. It hadn’t broadcasted an ID or a mayday, and they hadn’t been near any mapped routes. There was only one reason for the yacht to be there, and when it fired upon them without any provocation, Trevast had shoved a com-cuff with the stolen data into Ash’s hands. He knew she was an anomaly. He knew what she was capable of doing. He knew she was the only person on the team who could re-encrypt the Sariceans’ files with a different cipher before their attackers boarded, and that’s exactly what she’d done. It was in her head now, and both the Coalition and James would do anything to rip it out.
“You’ll be charged with treason if you don’t cooperate.” Rykus’s words were softer than his expression, and the loyalty training pulled at her again. She was damn sure the medic’s bio-band picked up the thudding of her heart now. She had to get control of this conversation and get rid of Rip Rykus.
She leaned forward as far as her restraints would allow, waited until Rykus did the same, anticipating her confession. Their heads almost met in the center of the table and Ash breathed in deep, exhaled slowly.
“I’ve always loved the smell of your aftershave.”
Rykus exploded, launching his chair across the floor. The medic scrambled out of the way when he rounded the data-table. “I’m the only person in the Coalition who wants to help you, and you’re playing your goddamn games.”
His hand went to her throat and shoved with enough force to send her and the chair toppling backward to the ground. The impact knocked the breath from her, and she choked trying to re-inflate her lungs.
Rykus kneeled beside her, pinned her. “Give me the cipher.”
She sucked in a breath as the compulsion snaked through her. She’d been successful, though. His pitch was a little off, his voice a little too tight. She fought against the need to obey him – battled against it – but he hovered above her. His eyes demanded the truth, and her control began to slip. Desperate, she worked enough moisture into her mouth to spit in his face.
She saw his chest rise and fall, heard the huffs of his angry breaths. Slowly, he stood. He said nothing as he wiped his face with his sleeve, nothing as he bent down to heft her upright. In fact, she was pretty sure he wouldn’t have said anything at all if a guard hadn’t entered with a tray of food.
Rykus stopped the woman, stuck the knife, spoon, and fork in his pocket, grabbed the tray, then dumped its contents across the table, effectively ending Ash’s next escape attempt before she had the chance to implement it. “She can eat like a dog.”