"It's an impossible life with the Dominion running the show. First the red tape, then the abolishment of personal supplies, and within two months they had to press-gang half the colony into the mines just to keep the malcontents contained underground for fourteen hours a day. My brother was forced along with them; then he went missing."
The warden nodded. "So you did something about it."
"I went to the magistrate to ask a couple questions. He didn't want to hear about it, so I asked louder. When he threw me out of his office, I managed to tip over a bottle of his scotch on his shirt. His grunts went to work on me, and I woke up on the shuttle to the Icehouse."
Warden Kejora stared in disbelief. "That's it?"
"You don't believe me."
"I believe that a colonial lackey would want to send someone here just for messing up his suit. I just don't believe he could." Kejora seemed lost in thought. "It's not easy to land in the Icehouse, Feltz, and you don't fit in."
"Sorry for lousing up the place, sir. What do you plan on doing about it?"
Kejora smiled. "Nothing."
"The Dominion needs reapers. That's enough for me."
"That's… Sir…" Gabriel sputtered.
"Cut the throttle, inmate," Kejora said. "We build reapers out of nothing. Most of your neighbors down in the cellblock aren't worth the transportation costs to get them out here, but we give them a chance anyway. Maybe ten or fifteen percent of them rise to the challenge. The rest don't. No big loss.
"But you," Kejora continued, "you have more than half a brain. Until today, you backed down from the fights you couldn't win. Raw power isn't everything. If you can square up to this, you'll be one of the finest assets in the service. My reapers have received commendations from the most respected commanders in the Dominion. My reapers put the fear of the devil in our enemies every moment in combat, and do you know why?"
"We do what we must," Gabriel whispered.
"Damn right." Kejora stood up. "Take that to heart. If you want to live, train and fight like the others and get through my program."
"That simple, huh?"
Kejora ignored the absence of a "sir." "You'll be fit for training in two days. I suggest you start making friends who can fend off more beatings."
Gabriel waited for Kejora to walk to the door. "I'll do what I must, sir." Something in his tone made the warden turn around.
* * *
Gabriel felt the cameras and sensors tracking him at all times. He managed to avoid any more confrontations with Polek, and the Lisk helped scare off attacks from others.
After three months the adjutant ushered them to a room they had never entered before. It was the closest thing to a treat they'd had in the Icehouse. The long, narrow room was lined with a series of armored suits. Smaller and leaner than a marine CMC, each bore a large jetpack on its shoulders. The suits, inert as they were, looked ready to leap. The Lisk smiled at the sight.
When the adjutant ordered the inmates into the suits, there were no jokes. Just eagerness. Within minutes, the next phase of training began, and the Icehouse managed to get worse.
The first challenge was the jetpack. The inmates initially had no control over the boosters; it all belonged to the adjutant, which seemed to delight in igniting the things at the worst moments, launching men into ceilings and walls until they learned to steer. Concussions were common. Two recruits died from skull fractures.
They began training with new weapons. The "Scythe" P-45 gauss pistol was a small spitting monster, the suit barely compensating for the recoil. The shooting range was torn to shreds. Several men were cut down by fellow inmates.
When they finally reached seventy-five percent accuracy, the adjutant congratulated them. Then it asked them to use two at once.
Last there was the D-8 explosive charge, designed to blow apart structures. It had more than enough power to plaster the less attentive against the wall. Bomb prep and disposal were the objectives, but the conditions were extreme and relentless: loud noises, total darkness or blinding light, rooms where gravity was suspended. Injuries and fatalities stacked up quickly.
The inmates battled on. Some died in action; others were found dead like Henisall; a few were suicides. Gabriel kept going. There wasn't a choice.
* * *
Kejora had a new addition to his routine. Before lights out, he would review the training footage of Gabriel Feltz. He couldn't explain why. Well, he could, but he wasn't ready to admit it.
These last two years in the Torus system had been productive and satisfying. Once out of the Icehouse, the reapers went where they were needed, safeguarding Dominion interests with fire and death. Medals and accolades, many of them posthumous and classified, trickled back to the Icehouse, the names of the receivers joining a growing list of success stories.
But never before had an innocent man been subjected to the Icehouse, so Kejora watched and worried. It was a threat, a very simple one. What if someone found out? What if the story of Gabriel Feltz, the colony boy with a streak of incredibly bad luck, hit the nightly news on UNN? Even those talking heads would risk wrath from up the ladder for a lead that good.
The notion of a leak wasn't unlikely. Somebody had already violated protocol: Feltz should never have been sent here. Kejora still hadn't tracked down the person responsible. The magistrate hadn't returned his calls, and the computer logs suggested that nobody had actually given the order to have Feltz transferred.
The notes from the techs weren't helping, either. Feltz's character was the center of plenty of debate. His behavior had changed. The loner attitude was gone. Instead he'd established some bonds with others, especially Lords—the one who called himself the Lisk. The two ate together at every meal and teamed up during exercises and sparring matches. To most observers, they had become fast friends.
Kejora let the technicians speculate; he hadn't told them about the advice he had offered to the recruit. Feltz knew getting close to the scariest man in the Icehouse kept less friendly attention off him.
Still… Feltz was improving. Dramatically. Moreover, he was showing an unusual aptitude for tactics and strategy. Leadership potential. What if he joined the ranks of the reapers?
He would be a successful test case, Kejora realized. Feltz would be living proof that the reaper program needed skilled, intelligent recruits, instead of just squeezing the last few drops of value from the defective dregs of humanity. The reapers were already widely sought for frontline action, but if they could be even better, every commander in the Dominion would demand that Kejora receive a better class of recruit.
In short, if Feltz was victorious, he'd usher in a new age of Dominion warfare.