"Taking your previous profession into account, we decided to assign you to a single cell," the chief warden was saying, leading a poker-faced young man down a high-ceilinged corridor, with an armed guard bringing up the rear.
His voice echoed in the cavernous space along with his and the guard's footsteps, so loud that no one noticed the fact that the prisoner was not making any sound at all. "You can say it's a special consideration for your services, but to be honest, it's just safe for everyone that way."
The chief stopped in front of a cell and turned to face the handcuffed young man, who slowly looked up at him. "Li Wuxing," the chief said and paused for a few seconds to make sure he had the prisoner's whole attention. "You are no longer an officer of the Seven Stars Special Forces. This is the Alpha Sector of the High-Security Prison of Badu Island, and from now on, you are prisoner number 42960. Do you understand?"
Li Wuxing did not respond and simply looked back at the chief, his face still an expressionless mask. The prison guard took this as an offence and grabbed his baton threateningly.
"It's fine," the chief said, putting up a hand to stop the guard. He studied Li Wuxing with pity; anyone who had lost everything in the span of a single night would look as bedraggled as the young man did, in spite of his attempt at putting up a brave face. But the kindest thing the chief could do now is to quell any ideas or hope of escape.
"Prisoner Li, I hope you won't give us any trouble while you're here," the chief said, part friendly advice, part warning. "As long as you behave, you will have an easy time of it." As easy a time as one could get in a place infamously known as the Devil's Den anyway, the chief thought.
Li Wuxing still didn't respond, but the chief didn't expect him to. He patted the poor lad on the shoulder and then signalled the guard to lead Li inside.
The bars clanged shut with finality, and Li Wuxing watched the chief warden and the guard leave. He didn't move until their heavy footsteps faded, and then he turned around to look at his surroundings.
It was a small cell, just roughly eight square meters of dank space. There was a single bed by the wall and a toilet and sink in the corner. He placed his knapsack on the bed and approached the sink.
He stared at the haggard face looking back at him in the mirror. With bags under his narrow-set azure eyes and three days worth of facial hair, he looked like he had aged ten years overnight. His cheekbones jutted out on his square face more prominently than usual, and his coal-black hair was a mess.
Although he hadn't slept for over thirty hours, his eyes were focused and alert, as befitting an officer. He took off his new prison shirt, muscles rippling as he stretched out his arms and broad shoulders.
Li Wuxing stared at himself in the mirror once again, and for the first time felt something akin to despair. "Fuck...Is this how my life will end? Sentenced for life in a high-security prison?" he cursed under his breath as he sat on the bed and rubbed his hands over his face. He tried to recall what happened in the last two days, piecing together the events that led him into this hellhole.
Everything started on his twenty-second birthday two days ago. Wuxing normally didn't like celebrating his own birthday, but his squad completed a well-paid mission that day so he decided to throw a party as a reward.
He was also in a good mood because he would officially become a one-star captain when they returned to headquarters. This promotion meant he would be able to take more high-risk missions, which would earn him more contribution points and allow him to advance faster in the ranks.
Wuxing never drank alcohol even off-duty, but that night his teammates kept trying to make him drink. He didn't find it suspicious because they did that stunt all the time whenever they were out for a drink and liked teasing him about it.
He was trained to detect normal sleeping pills, so he could only assume that they used an odourless, tasteless sleeping powder on his soft drink — something that he hadn't encountered before. The sudden drowsiness caught him off-guard, and he could barely manage a word as he fought for consciousness.
Rui Feng, his right-hand man, sighed and crouched down to look at Wuxing with pity. "Because...you are so damn perfect," Feng said, slowly emphasizing the last three words. "...boss," he added as an afterthought. "Look...you're only twenty-two, and they're already promoting you to one-star captain. Don't you think that's a little too fast?"
Feng straightened up and averted his eyes as Wuxing tried unsuccessfully to steady himself against the bar counter. "Yes, we were promised promotion for this job. Officer rank," Feng admitted, although Wuxing didn't ask. "We don't expect you to understand since you climb the ranks easily enough. But we would be stupid not to accept this kind of offer."
"Who?" Wuxing demanded with a growl, but the spurt of energy that came with his anger was short-lived and he collapsed to the ground.
"It was General Long. His son would be demoted to officer rank when you get promoted, so, of course, he didn't want that to happen," Feng answered candidly, which surprised Wuxing in spite of the fog in his brain. Later, Wuxing would realize it wasn't pity or guilt that made Feng confess — it was only because he didn't expect Wuxing to ever get out of prison that he felt it safe enough to tell him everything.
"There were many others who were involved. Those who were threatened by your achievements. Major Mu, Major Gong…"
But Wuxing didn't hear the rest as he finally lost consciousness and succumbed to the darkness.
Wuxing woke up sputtering as cold water was poured on his head. He found himself tied to a chair in the interrogation room. A bright lamp light was pointed at his face, which disoriented him further.
He was treated exactly like the criminals he used to apprehend — he was interrogated in extreme conditions for over twenty hours, with only short breaks to give him water. They tried to make him plead guilty, but in the end they couldn't make him utter a single word to incriminate himself.
So they produced evidence of his crime — photos of him lying drunk on the ground next to a bottle of whiskey and the lifeless body of a young woman whom he hadn't seen before that moment. They claimed that she was killed with his gun, as indicated by the recovered bullet that matched the ones in his pistol and the traces of gunpowder on his hand when he was arrested.
Even if he were to claim that he was innocent, Wuxing knew that the evidence was enough to find him guilty in every court.
Unsurprisingly, Wuxing was convicted of first-degree murder by a private judge without any witnesses. The next day, he was transported to Badu Island — to the highest-security prison in the United Nations' Confederation territory, called by many as the "Devil's Den", where only criminals with life sentences were incarcerated.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck…" Wuxing cursed repeatedly under his breath. He couldn't believe he was done in by them so easily...by people he trusted with his life.
Trust. Maybe that was the problem. It was his fault that he trusted and got betrayed. He thought of the woman he idolized, General Crimson Devil — a lone wolf who liked to work on missions alone.
Promoted to general rank at age twenty-five, Crimson Devil didn't have a team but cleared all missions by herself with one hundred percent success rate and perfect marks. Even Wuxing's own record — already considered outstanding with ninety-five percent success rate while working with a team — could not compare. Wuxing not only idolized her but thought himself hopelessly in love with her.
Now Wuxing understood why she always kept her distance and preferred to work alone. By not depending on others, she risked no chances of being betrayed.
If only he had realized this sooner, he wouldn't have ended up caged in this cold prison cell, surrounded by hundreds of criminals, most of whom he had personally captured and put into this very hellhole. He couldn't imagine the welcome he would receive from those prisoners.
"When I leave this place...I swear to all the gods, I will hunt you bastards down and make you pay a hundred times over…" Wuxing vowed under his breath, determined to get revenge.
He knew it would be difficult, but not impossible. He had been in several dead-end situations before but he always managed to find a way out.
This time, he would make sure to find a way out. Or die trying.