Rykus didn’t say anything when he entered her stale-aired prison, so Ash echoed his silence. The room’s low ceiling accentuated his height and broad shoulders. He outweighed her by forty, maybe fifty 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 that 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 a year 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 that was now folded into the dull gray wall.
She took a moment to steel herself against her 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 telltale 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 throw him off-balance. 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 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 reentry 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 dripping from her tone. “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 wouldn’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 Jevan, the deceitful, manipulative bastard, had screwed with her head.
“I didn’t train a traitor.”