This is going to be a rough story in some ways, but I swear there will be plenty of moments of light as well!
Title: Redstone, Chapter 8, Part 2.
Robbie Sinclair, unbeknownst to most people, was a hell of an actor.
It was an odd skillset for a career soldier to have, he knew that. Weapons expert, yeah! Close combat aficionado, definitely. Even linguist, those who were acquainted with him could get behind. Most people didn’t bother learning any languages other than Federation Common these days, because it was the lingua franca of the human-inhabited universe, utilized by every central system planet and most of the Fringe for doing business. Hell, most people didn’t even know what language lingua franca had originally referred to anymore; it was a dead metaphor.
But Robbie, well, he was old school. Old blood. His parents were Martians, for heaven’s sake; that was as old system as you could get. He had learned French and Spanish from his mother, Russian from his grandfather, and had taught himself three other languages in his youth, all without the help of mods. It was…cute. Quaint. An interesting skillset, if not necessarily a useful one. But acting? Why would a career marine need to know how to act?
Only to ensure his own survival. In a universe that was increasingly insular and xenophobic, coming into a situation as an outsider was dangerous. Staying an outsider could mean anything from pain to death to, even worse, harm coming to someone he loved. That meant Robbie had to be a chameleon, had learned to be one from the moment he woke up out of cryo-sleep and realized that half of the people who had come with him from Mars had died, their cryo-pods malfunctioning. His parents had died. His peers were diminished. Robbie was an immigrant without a support system, and if he didn’t want to be dismissed into some menial position, he needed to appear as Central as he could, as quickly as possible. And he had, and he’d survived. Thrived, even.
The only person who’d understood this aspect of him from the very beginning was Garrett, probably because Garrett was just as familiar with the high stakes of blending in as Robbie was. Not that Garrett blended in, really, but he was resolutely dedicated to a persona that was light-years away from his true self. Wyl…well, Wyl was always himself, but Robbie could be anybody. It was a good thing that Wyl was used to seeing Robbie slip in and out of different skins depending on their circumstances, because the one he’d have to wear here was particularly slimy.
“You go in in force, and you stay together if you’ve gotta be down in the pit,” his new commander, Loven Cray, explained casually as he and Robbie looked at vidscreens depicting different areas in the prison. “Can’t let them get you alone, ‘cause they’ll try to strip the armor off of you first thing. Like fuckin’ animals, they are; buncha cannibals who’ll eat you alive just to trade your liver to some other animal for a piece of kidney.”
“They ever get a guard before?” Robbie asked, squinting a little as he examined the screens. Internally he was absorbing everything: plotting points, entrances and egresses and taking count of how many inmates were lounging where.
“Almost. Last guy in charge before me, he went down in there to teach somebody a lesson but he only took bots with him as backup, no people. The bots use strictly non-lethal countermeasures, which,” Cray snorted, “is complete fuckin’ bullshit, but that’s what’s written in the charter. Guy was swarmed, bots torn apart and he was almost choked to death before his crew could get in there. Three inmates were killed, but they got him out.”
“You’re tellin’ me.” He shook his head. “These are the worst of the worst. I know you’ve done a stint at Caravan, but that’s a fuckin’ paradise for prisoners compared to this place. Those are little lambs, while we’ve got the wolves. This place ain’t about rehabilitation, it’s about containment.” Cray scowled at the screens. “There, you see that shit?”
Two inmates were getting into an argument, which quickly turned into a fight. A short, vicious fight that ended with one of them on the ground, bleeding from his head, and the other…
Robbie took a slow, deep breath and didn’t let any of the horror he felt show on his face as a man was rolled over, bound with his own clothing and viciously raped on vid, right in front of him. “Not gonna send bots in to stop that?”
“Nah.” Cray tapped the section indicator in the corner of the screen. “That’s in the back half of the pit; it would take a bot too long to get there to do any good. If the inmate doesn’t get up afterward, well, we might go in and get him so he can do some time in a Regen tank, but he shouldn’t have started that fight. He’s going to be that guy’s bitch for the rest of his time here. Which for that particular prisoner,” Cray consulted his personal tab, “looks like another fifteen years.” He smiled widely. “That’ll teach him a lesson.”
“Reckon it will.” Robbie kept his gaze forward but let his eyes go unfocused. “When do we go in, then?”
“Gotta go in case of murders, or really sick shit.” Robbie wondered what qualified to this person as “really sick shit” if violent rape didn’t. “We go in force, though, and we activate the blackout mode on our headgear so they can’t identify us individually. You don’t want these animals knowing who you are, they’ll just try to play games with you. Lure you in, set a trap. Some of these little fucks are cunning as shit, and there are issues with illegal mods, but as long as they only use them on each other we don’t bother too much with it.” Cray laughed suddenly. “Lemme show you one of my favorite vids. Love this one.”
He pulled up a video on his tab and activated the hologram a few feet in front of them. The scene was Redstone prison’s dining hall, crowded with people. “Watch that skinny little fucker there,” Cray said, indicating someone in the bottom left corner. Robbie glanced at the man, then almost did a double-take. That was Isidore. And that was a person creeping up behind him, reaching out and grabbing a fistful of his hair before giving it a vicious backward pull.
Robbie’s abdomen clenched with adrenaline even as he kept his face impassive, watching the scene. If Isidore had been hurt, if he was already out of the game before they’d even arrived…
But, no. Isidore went back, but his attacker was already reeling away, clutching his pulling hand with the other and staring at the blood that welled there in horror. It didn’t end there, though. Isidore turned to look at his attacker with hard eyes, then reached up to the very base of his scalp and plucked what looked like a single hair. He stood up from the table, advanced on the man and had the hair wrapped around the guy’s hand before his attacker knew what was happening. And then, he yanked it tight.
Blood. Screams. Not a complete severing, the hair wasn’t tough enough for that, but some blood vessels in the guy’s wrist had definitely been severed. He fell to the ground and Isidore let him go, watching him like he was a curiosity, and not the man who’d just tried to take advantage of him and paid so dearly for it. He was detached. Dissociated. If that was acting, then Isidore was even better at it than Robbie.
“I love it,” Cray said with a chuckle. “I mean, obviously it’s an illegal mod, but look at that shit! You can’t ask for better free entertainment than that. Plus, little guys need all the help they can get, right? It keeps things fair.”
“I hear you,” Robbie said easily. “My guy’s kind of the same. Small, but he earns his respect.”
“Yeah, your guy.” Cray let the hologram dissolve. He actually looked a little uncomfortable. “Look, about your guy…see, the guards working here are good guys, yeah? They are. But this can be a rough place to be for long periods of time, and they get kinda…stir crazy, every now and then. The line blurs a little. I’m just saying, it might be best if your guy spends most of his time in your rooms. Yeah?”
Or else these sadistic motherfuckers will go after him with just as much joie de vivre as the inmates go after each other. Robbie could read between those lines. He’d be damned if he was going to tell Wyl to restrict himself to their fucking rooms, which meant a demonstration might be in order. Wyl could take care of himself, but after seeing this… “I get you,” Robbie said. “Wyl’s no fool, he’ll do what’s best for himself. Keep out of the mix.”
“Good.” Cray nodded. “You’re in the system now, and you’ve got the basics of the schedule down. Your shift starts in four hours, so you’ve got some downtime before then. I’ll be your crew leader for the first few days, so just ask if you’ve got questions.” He held out his hand. “Welcome aboard Redstone, Sinclair. I think you’re gonna do okay here.”
Robbie smiled sharply as he shook Cray’s hand. “I expect I will.” I expect that someday I’ll drive my fist so hard into your gut that it tickles your spine.
Getting to the central living room for the guards was easy. Getting there to see two of them banging on the door that Robbie knew led to the rooms he and Wyl were assigned to was almost enough to drop a red curtain across his vision. Three other guys were there, lazing around on couches or playing games on the holosystem, but not doing anything to stop the other two. Robbie ambled his way to the second level and closed in on the men, who were joking with each other as they yelled through the door.
“This ain’t the way to make friends!” one of them shouted with a grin. “Come on out, sweetheart, come meet your new friends!”
“The last wife we had here was a swinger,” the other one called. “You like to swing, baby?”
“That’s a husband, not a wife,” Robbie said calmly once he was close enough. Both guys swung around to look at him. “My husband, actually.”
“Yeah?” The younger of the two, a man a little taller than Robbie with stubbly black hair shaved to look like a demon was glaring out of the back of his skull, grinned manically. His buddy, a little more measured and definitely more intelligent, took one look and backed a few steps up. “Do you share?”
“Nope.” Robbie popped the “p” in the word. “I didn’t come to this shithole to share my piece of ass with every motherfucker in the joint.”
The man pouted dramatically. “That ain’t the way to make friends, man.”
“Neither is this. And trust me, you’re gonna want to be my friend.”
The man’s grin didn’t falter as Robbie drew a little closer. “Why’s that?”
“Because.” Robbie lowered his voice to something hard as diamonds. “If you’re my enemy, I’ll throw your dumb ass over this fuckin’ balcony and break both your legs, or maybe your back. And when you get outta Regen, I’ll do it again. And again, and again, until you decide you do want to be my friend. And being my friend means leaving my husband the fuck alone. Got it?”
For a moment Robbie thought he’d have to throw the guy over the wall right now; he was still grinning, something challenging in his amber eyes. But after a moment he held up both hands. “No worries, buddy! Let’s be friends!”
“Let’s,” Robbie agreed. He let the men ease past him before opening the door himself and going inside. He resisted the urge to slam the door shut as hard as he could, and leaned back against it instead. Their apartment was tiny, and strewn with parts and half-unpacked bags of clothes. He saw Wyl in the corner, fiddling with something, one of Redstone’s bots standing patiently at his side.
“Hey!” Wyl said as soon as he noticed Robbie. “I got the array set up, so communications are a go. I also adopted a pet; his name is ZeeBee. Say hello, ZeeBee!”
“Hello, Christopher Robin.”
Wyl appeared to be waiting for something. When Robbie said nothing, he frowned. “What, no groan? No threats of bodily harm for teaching the robot to call you—oof!”
Robbie couldn’t take it anymore. Not the distance, but especially not the thought of Wyl and threats. He was across the room and hugging Wyl to his chest in an instant. Wyl got with the program fast, turning into the embrace and hugging Robbie back as hard as he could.
“Hey,” Wyl said gently. “What is it? What happened?” He kissed Robbie’s collarbone. “Baby?”
“We’re going to have to be careful,” Robbie said softly. His voice broke on the last word. “So fucking careful.” He couldn’t put the horror of the past few hours into words: what he’d learned, what he’d seen. Luckily, Wyl didn’t need him to.
“We will be,” Wyl whispered. “I promise, I swear, Robbie. We’ll be careful. I’ll be careful.”
Robbie sighed heavily. “Good.”
It was a start, at least.