Axira Episode One
I sat on the transport, staring at the wall. My charge was next to me. I paid as little attention to him as I could manage.
I just wanted this mission to be over. But then, as soon as it was, there would be a new one. For the past 450 years of my internment, I had not rested, I had not slept, I had simply done the bidding of my master.
“These fools won’t know what hit them,” my charge growled from my side.
I did not reply. Even if I had wanted to, I could not. The two pock-marked bracelets over my wrists would not let me.
They locked me in. Though they were not attached to shackles, they fed straight into my body and mind. They translated the orders of my master straight to my brain. I did as he bid, and only as he bid.
I was a spacer.
One of the strongest. The jewel in my master’s crown. Along with my sisters and brothers, we had assured him dominance over his section of space for centuries.
“I cannot wait to see their faces puff up like jelly in the depths of space. We will push them out the airlocks,” my charge continued.
He was a repulsive character. From his figure to his voice, if I could have, I would have recoiled. Instead, I sat there, close to his side, eyes staring ahead, hands rested on my thighs.
Soon it would begin. My master had sent me here to ensure my charge’s safety, to ensure his mission ran according to plan.
The plan and the mission were as nasty as my charge. He would take over this transport, kill the crew and passengers, and take their cargo as his own.
Soon it would begin. I felt nothing but disgust. It was strange I could still conjure the emotion; for centuries I had completed missions like this and worse. Yet still there flickered a sense of disgust at the things my hands did without my permission.
One day I would break free, I promised myself. I had been promising this same thing for centuries.
One day I would find the key to breaking the shackles that kept me aligned to my master.
At approximately 07:34, the attack began. My charge and his mercenaries produced their pulse weapons, and with gleeful expressions, overran the crew.
I sat there.
I stared at the wall.
At one point a member of the crew rushed up to me, mistakenly believing I was immobilized by fear, that I was one of the passengers and worthy of protection.
He placed his hand on my shoulder, his face, plastered with sweat and contorted in terror, coming close to my own. “Get out of here, get to the escape pods. I’ll keep them distracted.”
My arm moved up. Faster than the crewman would have been capable of seeing.
My hand latched around his throat.
I was still looking at the wall.
I threw him effortlessly against it.
There was a thud and a snap. He lay still.
I could not rush to his side to see if I had killed him; the bracelets locked out all control of my body. All I could do was watch the blood slowly trickle down from his nose.
From that point on, I did as my master dictated. Activating a subspace pocket, I pulled out my energy blade. The pocket opened up before me like a black hole. I alone could push my hand inside to retrieve my weapon. The subspace distortions would have ripped apart a human or any other soft-fleshed alien race.
Walking forward, wielding my blade, I helped my charge overcome the transport. Though the crew had fought valiantly up to that point, managing to pin the mercenaries in the engine room, their fight was over as soon as I arrived.
There was nothing they could do. There was nothing I could do either.
I watched as I decimated them.
Then I walked calmly through the destruction to the bridge of the ship.
There I found my charge pawing over a control panel.
I stood by his side, leaning on my weapon, which was as tall as I was with a glaive-like blade at the end. It crackled and charged with energy that rippled down my arm, seeping into my skin with nothing but a tingle.
Below me, it singed the hull.
“They’ve put out a distress call,” my charge snapped. He was from a race of boar-like creatures. Two prominent, pointed tusks stuck out from his mouth, always dripping with saliva as his long tongue flicked over them. Compound, yellow eyes blinked out at the world, and a shaggy mass of black, dirt-flecked hair fell from his shoulders.
“Commander,” one of the mercenaries looked up, unmistakable worry creasing his brow, “A ship is responding. It is already in the system. It will be here in minutes. We should accelerate to light speed.”
My charge, the commander of this unit, laughed. Slobber spluttered out of his mouth and landed on the panel he still leaned over. “Let them come.” He turned to me, his eyes glinting.
I still stood exactly where I had come to rest moments before. My blade still crackled in my hand. I still stared at the wall.
There I would remain until my master told me otherwise.
“Let them come,” my charge roared louder, his voice shaking through the small bridge room.
His call was picked up by the other mercenaries, and they all smashed their hands down onto the panels and railings before them, stamping their feet, roaring, and preparing for battle.
But the battle would not be theirs, only the victory would be. The fighting would be all mine.
I could not shift my gaze. I could not turn to face the main computer screen. I could not find out what ship was coming to the transport’s aid. I would not know until it arrived. I would not know until I saw their faces. Seconds later, I would claim victory over them.
I had no choice.
As the time to their arrival neared, my charge snapped up from his chair. He had lodged himself in the central command seat, but his bilious form was too large for the arm rests. As he jumped up, he ripped off one of them, and it struck my leg, resting against my foot.
I felt it though I could not see it; I could not look down.
They all rushed past me.
“Where are the passengers and the rest of the crew?” My charge roared, licking his tusks as he headed for the airlift that would take him from the bridge to the rest of the ship in seconds.
“In the hangar bay.”
“Be ready to open it once they arrive.”
With that, they left the room.
They knew better than to turn to me and order me to follow them; I did not work for them.
My master had loaned me to their mission for one reason: to curry their favor. And if their favor was not to be had, I would receive orders to turn on them.
A favor from my master was a dangerous thing.
If their actions did not please him in the future, my sisters and brothers would be sent after these mercenaries. No matter where they escaped to in this galaxy, my sisters and brothers would hunt them down.
I stood there, staring at the same section of wall I could not turn from without a direct order.
As I did, the onboard computer beeped in warning. “Ship approaching, speed one quarter light speed. Estimated arrival 23 seconds. They are establishing communication. Re-routing now.”
I saw the reflected light of the main computer screen change color. No doubt it had just flickered on to show the ship that was soon to come to this transport’s aid.
“This is the Coalition Ship Zeus. We have received your distress call. We have scanned your vessel. We are picking up 8 Barbarian Mercenaries and 1 unknown life form. Please respond.”
No one would respond.
“If you do not respond, we will have to board your vessel.”
I stood there and stared at the wall.
“This is Coalition space. Under the Pax Accords, all transports traveling through this area are—”
I reached out. I brought my blade down into the panel closest to me. It cut through it with ease.
My master did not wish to hear the rest.
Sparks erupted from the panel, flames licking up and tracking over the broken glass and metal.
I walked toward the airlift.
I tried to close off my mind. Withdraw. I did not want to witness what I would do next. But I could not close my eyes, and there was nowhere to run to.
I was a prisoner in my own mind.
The ship shook as I exited the airlift.
I knew that the Zeus must have latched onto the transport with its docking clamps.
Soon its security officers and troops would board.
I felt the subtle vibrations in the hull under my feet. They had boarded two floors up.
I did not rush. I kept the same steady pace, my unblinking eyes staring ahead as I held my blade by my side.
I passed injured passengers and crew.
I passed the destruction the mercenaries had brought upon the transport. Panels had been ripped from the walls, conduits had been pulled from the floor, like guts from an animal.
Everything was charred, seared with black streaks from the blasts of pulse weapons. The acrid smell of burnt flesh and metal filled my nostrils. I could not have coughed against it even if I had wanted to.
I heard my footsteps, gentle and rhythmic, as they echoed through the broken corridor.
The ship gave another shake. I did not lose my balance even though a section of bulkhead nearest to me groaned and fell away from the wall, smashing through the floor, exposing a set of sparking circuits that crackled and danced.
I walked right over them.
They could not damage me. Their excess energy merely translated up my legs, through my body, and into my blade.
When I reached the end of the corridor, I turned toward an airlift.
It was broken. A woman lay inside, burns to her face and arms, her simple black tunic ripped and tattered.
The panel above her head had been shot, its sparks still churning out, falling toward her and singeing her hair and clothes.
One of her arms was stretched out toward it. She had obviously been shot seconds from escape.
I couldn’t shed a tear for her. Instead, I walked in. Using my boot, I pushed her legs forward so the door could close. Then I leaned over to the panel and placed my hand flat against it. The exposed wires and jagged metal could not hurt me. No doubt they had killed the woman, but they did nothing to me. Instead, I pushed into them until my bracelet was flush with what remained of the panel.
Energy and data transferred from the scratched and marked gold over to the panel. Within seconds the airlift lurched and began to ascend.
I stood there, bracelet still flush with the panel, wide eyes staring out at the seared wall.
The airlift shuddered to a halt.
I saw them.
The security team from the Coalition ship. They wore the classic Coalition uniform; neat tunics and pants with trim collars and pips. They came from every race. From the humans to the Bakarians to the Paranians. Every race that had joined the Coalition.
The man closest to the lift brought up his weapon. There was a moment where he stared at me, and maybe compassion softened his features. Then his gaze flicked down to the woman by my feet.
“Surrender your weapon,” he snapped.
He was human.
In seconds the other security officers around him all brought their regulation pulse rifles up too.
They pointed them at me.
I waited. Not because I wanted to, not because I could see the concern on their faces and appreciate why they were here. Only because my master decreed it. He was toying with them.
“Surrender your weapon,” the human shouted again.
He was their captain. I had met Coalition forces before, I understood their command structure, and I knew to look for the pips on their collars or stripes on their shoulders.
“You will die, human,” I said.
My voice was distant. It always was. Every word I had spoken over the past 450 years had always been a surprise to me. I spoke only what a creature beyond my mind dictated, never what I chose to.
I walked forward.
Reluctantly they opened fire. I recognized their hesitation; I saw their captain’s face. I appreciated the confusion and sorrow.
Their bullets slammed into me.
Each one fed up my body and into my blade. Without knowing it, they were making me stronger.
I pulled my blade up, swinging it around, aiming for the captain.
An ensign jostled into him, knocking him to the side.
My blade, crackling with energy, slammed into the ensign instead.
He was blasted back down into the corridor. He skidded along the floor, coming to a rest meters away, body limp, clothes covered in black marks.
“Fall back, fall back,” I heard the captain plead.
They kept shooting at me.
I walked forward. My footsteps were calm, even, paced. I chose to hear them above the screams and fire.
I brought my blade around, catching another crewman closest to me.
They did not have a chance.
“Our bullets aren’t having an effect; hold your fire, hold your fire.” The captain grabbed the woman to his side and pulled her back, pushing her out of my path.
“What the hell is she, what is she?”
“We can’t leave Mathers behind.”
“He’s dead, we have to get to the passengers.”
I heard their screams. I watched their faces contort in horror and anguish at their fallen comrades.
“Running scans, Captain, I have no idea what that weapon is, but it’s definitely absorbing our blasts,” a lieutenant shouted as he ducked behind a broken section of bulkhead that had come away from the wall.
“Fall back, head for the other lift.” The captain, though he was out of my immediate reach, still looked right at me.
Brave and stupid. Couldn’t he see that there was nothing he could do? Couldn’t he see that his forces were hopelessly outnumbered? If he wanted to protect his crew, he had to fall back.
I could not share with him my thoughts, all I could do was shout them silently in my mind.
When every one of his crew had reached the airlift at the opposite end of the corridor, he closed it using a device on his wrist.
As the doors hissed closed, one of his crewmen jumped forward. “What are you doing—”
The captain pushed him back, the door closing over a section of his sleeve. He yanked it out, his uniform ripping up his arm.
“She’s after me,” the captain answered, even though his crew were now safely locked in the airlift and out of earshot.
Yes, I was. My master believed you should always cut off the head first. Without a commander, a crew falls apart.
I walked toward him. He backed away, always facing me.
He brought his arms up. “Let us help them, please, just let us help them.”
“You will die, human,” my lips moved of their own accord. My words chosen by my master. They were beamed right into my mind.
He kept his arms in front of him, dirt and sweat dripping down his brow. “We’ve still got people in there. Please, you can take the transport. Just let us get them out.”
My arm moved up, my energy blade held firmly in my grip. I twisted it around until I held it out straight, blocking off the path behind me. The tip crackled and spat, energy arcing down and traveling through the handle and into my arm. It did not hurt; I could hardly feel it save for the lightest of tickles.
I looked on at him passionlessly. I saw the desperation eating away at his features, yet he still stood. The pulse rifle was still in one of his hands, his ripped sleeve dangling over it.
He did not give up.
“Please, we can’t leave them. Just let us save them. You can take the god damned ship.”
“You will die, human,” I repeated.
The section of corridor we were in was damaged, and as I stood there emotionlessly, my arm stretched out from my side as I blocked the path behind me, one of the conduits above exploded. Pipes and circuits erupted out of it, slamming against my face and shoulders.
Though they burnt, I did not move. I could withstand so much more.
I saw him double back, bring his arms up over his face to protect himself from the blast and crackle of the steam and circuits.
He flinched as his exposed arm burnt.
Up to that point, I had been wearing a hood. Black, it covered my face and body. Only my boots and arms were bare.
The captain brought his gun up and shot at the conduit above me.
There was an explosion this time. It slammed into me from above, ripping my cloak off my shoulders. It pushed me down onto one knee, the metal of the floor buckling underneath me. I jumped forward before I could fall through it.
I flipped, twisting in the air, landing behind the captain, bringing my blade forward.
There was a moment just after I landed where he stared at me. Stumbling back, his eyes grew unmistakably wide. I saw the whites, saw the pupils all but shake with terror.
“Spacer, you’re a spacer,” he choked out.
The room was filling with dark, foul smoke from the exposed conduit. He leaned forward and spluttered into his hand, coughing heavily, torso heaving as he did. But as soon as his fit was over, those startled eyes locked back onto me.
“What are you doing here? This is just a simple transport. There’s nothing here but cargo.”
My master would soon be done playing with this man.
The captain kept shifting back, movements jerky as he coughed and spluttered against the smoke.
“There’s nothing here for you,” he repeated, desperate.
“But your death,” I said.
He shuddered. But he didn’t turn to run from my promise. His eyes drifted over me, those pupils still shaking.
I caught my own reflection at that moment in the swinging panel of a service duct that had come loose from the ceiling above.
My skin was covered in lines, channels of energy that would glow in the dark. Patterns that shifted like wind across sand. I wore white armor, and the channels from my skin tracked across it too. Covering my eyes was a visor, opaque to the captain, it offered no hindrance to my view.
“Just … just let them live.” The Captain ran out of corridor. His back slammed up against a door. It was half jammed open, but the space it left was too small for the man to fit through.
He should have been like an animal trapped in the corner, except he did not lash out and neither did he crumple to his feet and shake in fear.
He faced me.
I brought my blade forward.
I did not want to kill this man. I understood what he was doing. I understood his sacrifice. I knew how loathsome those mercenaries were. I knew the horror my master had in store for all.
I had never wanted to kill anyone, but I could no longer count the number of times I had wielded my blade.
Just before I brought it forward, his face slackened, not with surrender, but compassion. “You don’t have to do this.”
My blade stopped.
No, I stopped it.
I had done this precious few times over the past 450 years. Overridden my master’s orders.
If I had not experienced it, I would not have been so sure that escape was possible, that one day I would finally be able to shrug off my shackles.
He hadn’t sucked in a breath since my blade had stopped just against his chest. I was close to him, my arms ready to tense at any second and plunge my weapon through his chest.
He looked into my eyes.
I have no idea what he saw.
At that moment the pain began. It stabbed into my mind.
My master trying to reassert his control.
I had never lasted this long before. My other brushes with freedom had lasted for fractions of a second. Long enough to know it was possible, but nothing more.
The captain, those shifting pupils still locked on me, began to move. He shifted to the side, my blade scraping across his uniform and cutting it easily. Shimmying, he managed to squeeze past it.
I heard him take several steps then he tapped something. “Lock weapons onto my coordinates. Prepare to space this section, that’s an order.”
It would kill him. If the weapons of his cruiser obliterated this section of the transport, it would kill the captain instantly.
It would not kill me. I would be lost in the rubble as I drifted out into space, but I would find a way back inside the ship. I would finish what I had started. He would be buying himself precious few minutes.
“Captain, you’re still there, we can’t—” someone snapped over the captain’s wireless com line.
“That’s an order.”
My master still fought me. The bracelets I wore sunk into my skin like hands around my wrists, exerting their control, sending their tendrils further into my body, sending their messages to my brain, trying to override my control to claim me again.
Somehow I still fought.
Then I felt it. The energy surging toward the ship.
I moved back, brought up my blade, and slammed it forward. As I did, it created a shield. It arced, beautiful and blue, all around me and down into the corridor.
The ship rocked back, the hull in front of my shield suddenly erupting in an enormous, bright blast.
Sections of hull melted in seconds, others tore free, ripping conduits, pipes, and panels out and sending them slamming away into the dark space beyond.
My shield held.
Every bone, every muscle, every fiber of my being.
I could only keep it up for seconds. It would tax me of my energy, shut me down.
As it weakened me, my master struggled harder to gain hold.
I lasted long enough for the captain of the Coalition Ship Zeus to fall back, run to the nearest airlift, and leave the level.
Then I shut down, I succumbed.
Blackness claimed me, but as it did, one thought settled in deeper than the rest.
I had claimed many lives, fought many battles for a master who cared only for destruction.
Yet that day, for the first time, I had fought back long enough to make a difference.
I had saved that Coalition captain.
It gave me the faith I so desperately needed to believe that one day I could save myself.
Five years later
The sun shone through the plate glass windows of my apartment. I stood there, one hand resting on the glass as I stared out at the city beyond. With her tall spires, sleek buildings, and energy beams, she was beautiful.
I stepped back and walked toward the table. Clutching up a portable holographic pad, I smiled as I entered the kitchen.
It had been a little over four years since I had freed myself from captivity. As I placed my holo pad on the kitchen bench, heading over to the food synthesizer, I let out a satisfied sigh.
Food had become one of my pleasures. Standing in grass, wet with dew, my toes curling against the cold and damp sensation had become another one. Standing and staring at a view another again.
After 450 years of serving my master, I was free.
There were still days I couldn’t believe it. There were still nights where I spent hours on end staring down at my scarred wrists, tracing my fingers over the dents that had remained once my bracelets had been removed.
“Water, cold, a twist of lime,” I spoke into the com panel of the food synthesizer as I placed a glass into the slot before me. In a second it was filled with what I had ordered.
“This is your 20-minute alarm,” the holographic panel on the bench reminded me, “You must leave for your appointment in approximately 4.5 minutes.”
I didn’t respond. Instead, I mulled over my drink as I turned to stare out at the view again.
Four years. For four years I had wandered the galaxy. At first, the freedom had been intoxicating. To think and feel and move on my own was a dream I’d barely entertained during my incarceration. Now it was a reality.
It had not been easy, though. To break free, I had faked my own death. My brothers and sisters thought I was dead, if indeed they still thought. Perhaps their souls had been crushed long ago.
“In order to prepare for your appointment, you must dress in your uniform. This will take approximately two minutes. It is suggested you begin now,” the audio unit of my holo pad reminded me.
I glanced over to it. It was folded neatly on the table by the windows.
I couldn’t believe I was doing this.
I’d made my decision. I was joining the Coalition Forces. The same people I’d fought for hundreds of years. I could not even conceive of how many of them I’d killed, how many ships I’d destroyed, how much damage I’d done to them.
It was time to repay the debt. But more than that, the Coalition were the only force I could think of who could take him on. Master.
I could not do it alone. If I acted against him, he would realize I was still alive, and he would track me down and enslave me again.
It left me with one choice. Join the Coalition Forces, become one of their recruits, and help them as best I could. I could not, however, ever risk letting them know who I really was and what I had been. If my secret was ever revealed, my master would come for me.
“You now have approximately 40 seconds to dress,” my holo pad chirped.
I reached for the uniform.
I pulled it on as I stared out the windows.
This would not be easy. I was about to embark on a journey that would take years, if not decades. If I really wanted to help the Coalition, it could not be done in a day. I would have to guide them in secret whenever the opportunity would arise.
I walked backward, still staring at the view. I assessed that beautiful cityscape until I identified the silver spire in the distance.
The Earth Division of the Coalition Academy. In approximately 15 minutes the initiation ceremony for new recruits would begin. I would be there.
“Alright people, move off to your respective teams. Your year reps will come and show you your dorms.” An officer waved us forward.
I was standing in a group of new recruits. It was a different experience for me.
They were chatting excitedly, talking amongst themselves, even giggling.
I’d met Coalition recruits in battle before, and they usually had not babbled this much.
I stood straight, arms behind my back, head held forward as I stared at the officer barking out his orders.
Nobody else maintained such discipline. Instead, as a large human male walked past, he elbowed me in the face. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he walked off, another recruit at his side.
Before I could react, I was jostled again, and then again.
As a group, we all seemed to surge forward and through the massive doors before us. Despite the crowd pressing in on me, I took the opportunity to stare up at the building as we entered. It was so high it seemed to go on forever from my vantage. Just a stretch of sleek silver metal and windows, ending with a pointed white spire 50 floors above. It was one of the many buildings that made up Coalition Headquarters. It was also a place I would be spending the next five or so years. The Coalition recruitment program was long and arduous; there was a lot to train for, after all. Space was huge. And as I could testify, full of enemies. For every race of explorers, you could find a race of warmongers ready to exploit the weak for their own gain.
“Which dorm are we heading to? Um, hello, does anyone know where new recruits assigned to Omega Team are meant to go?” A young woman in the crowd called.
People appeared to ignore her; everyone streaming off in different directions, heading to their respective dorms to begin their orientation.
“Ah hello, are you in Team Omega?” She latched onto the sleeve of a passing Tamarite.
“Team Beta,” he snapped as he moved past.
“Oh god, I’m going to have to call my brother, aren’t I?” She mumbled to herself as she screwed up her cheeks in apparent anguish.
I watched with interest.
Something the past 450 years had taught me was how to observe. I could stand in a room and stare at a wall for hours on end; I’d done it countless times before.
This time, however, it was a mistake. As the crowd thinned, she made eye contact with me. In fact, it seemed as though she latched onto me with her eyes.
She half ran up to me. “Do you know where Team Omega are meant to meet?”
“Second floor, just outside the engineering lecture hall.” I turned to walk away.
“Okay … do you know where the engineering hall is?”
“It has engineering written on the door,” I replied.
She began to blush, her neck dipping back. It appeared I had emotionally affected her. “I’m sorry to be a pain, of course it does. I’m just not good with directions.”
I opened my mouth, ready to tell her that a lack of spatial awareness indicated she would be a poor recruit.
“Elle, what are you doing? You’re meant to be heading to your team,” a man said as he walked up to us.
We were now the only people left in the hall.
I watched him as he approached. It took me a moment, but I recognized him. Jason Singh. Son of Admiral Singh. I had read his publically available file when I’d done my research on the Coalition Recruit Program. He was a decorated graduate, and he headed up an elite unit which operated under the watchful eye of Admiral Forest.
“Brother, I’m so glad you found me. I have no idea where I’m going.” Elle, as I now knew she was called, flopped a hand over Jason’s arm and leaned into him.
That was a lie; I had told her seconds before where she was meant to be going.
“Damn it, Elle, I thought I already told you that this morning. I’ve walked you through these halls countless times, how have you forgotten already?”
“I’m so nervous.” She flapped at her face and winced at him.
“Alright, I’ll take you there, but we’ve got to hurry. I just found out your Team leader is Lieutenant Ma’tovan. And trust me, he isn’t going to like you being late.” Jason suddenly turned to look at me. His brow dented up. “What team are you? Are you lost too?”
“Omega,” I replied evenly, “No, I am not lost. Your sister engaged me in conversation.” With that, I turned, nodded at them, and proceeded to walk down the corridor.
“Follow us, I know a quicker route.” Jason waved me forward as he turned sharply on his foot, his regulation black boots squeaking on the polished floor.
I hesitated for a moment. I had already memorized the blueprints of the Coalition Academy compound. I doubted his way would be any quicker.
I followed nonetheless.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry for making you late.” Elle turned to me as she jogged behind her brother. Her face was already flushed with exertion.
I had seen Coalition officers run far quicker and for far longer without showing such signs of exhaustion.
“What’s your name, recruit?” Jason dropped back, grabbing at his sister’s arm to pull her quicker.
I could have easily sped up and headed to the engineering lecture hall on my own. I knew the way, and Elle was holding me back. I doubted it would be a good idea to do so in front of Jason Singh, however.
I knew that I had to keep a low profile. During my training and into the years to come, I had to keep my head down. Elle was apparently the daughter of Admiral Singh, the very same Admiral who headed up the recruit program.
“Em,” I replied easily. Though we were jogging, my voice was unaffected.
“I haven’t heard that name before, you human?” He asked.
“No.” As I jogged my gaze darted around the corridor noting every detail I could. It was part of my nature. I logged every fact I could find. From the shape of the doors to the height of the windows, I made an internal map of every room we passed and every corridor we jogged through.
“You kind of look human,” he noted as he ushered us up some stairs.
I did. But in my case, looks were deceiving. “I am Taskarian,” I lied. I had already assessed that my bio scans were closest in resemblance to that race. There were differences, of course, but I knew how to mask them. I had spent the past two years tracking down a subcutaneous device that would make my biosignatures mimic that of a Taskarian. The device was apparently impossible to detect. Without it, I would never have been able to join the Coalition. With it, I had the opportunity to finish my training with the secret of who I was fully intact.
“Wow, we don’t get many of your kind joining the Academy. Why did you join?”
To bring down an ancient master who had enslaved the last of my kind to wage a never-ending battle with anyone who disputed him.
I, of course, did not share this with Jason. Instead, I looked ahead, noted that the engineering hall was right before us, and I nodded toward it. “It appears our team has already left.”
“Oh great,” Jason sighed, his breathing still relatively unaffected by his pace. His sister, however, had already fallen behind. “Come on, Elle, we’ve got to find out where they’ve gone. Knowing Ma’tovan, he’s probably taken everyone straight to the training ground.”
“Oh no … how far away is that? We’re going to be in trouble, aren’t we?”
“I’ll take you there—” Jason began but was interrupted by the soft chime of the device he wore on his wrist.
It was a personal computer. It acted as a communication device, a scanner, it monitored bio readings, and could be used as an intrastella beacon in cases of distress. I had not received my own yet. When I did, I would be unsure how long it would take to convince myself to put it on my wrist.
It would feel too much like my shackles had.
“Singh, report to the armory, we’re running a test on the new matter disrupter rifles,” a voice emanated from Jason’s wrist device. “On the double.”
“Yes, sir,” Jason replied.
I watched as his smile dented. He looked at his sister and shrugged expressively. “You are going to have to get there on your own. Now, the training ground is—”
“Approximately 500 meters from the 2nd Dormitory Block,” I interjected, pointing in the correct direction, despite the fact we were inside and there were no windows around us.
“Yeah, yeah it is. Damn, I’m glad you know where you’re going. Can you take her there?” Jason smiled hopefully.
I looked at him, blinking, then nodded.
This was not how I had expected my first day as a recruit would go. Though I had understood I would not be doing anything to fight my master straight away, shepherding admiral’s daughters had not been on the agenda.
“Okay, I’ll come see you as soon as I can.” Jason backed off, turning at the last moment. “Just try to stay out of trouble. Oh, by the way, I’m Jason Singh, forgot to introduce myself.” He waved at me.
“I know who you are.” With that, I nodded at his sister, informed her to follow me, and ran at a pace she could handle down the corridor.
If I had not been with her, and I had known the coast was clear, I would have done a subspace jump. To do one, I simply had to open a subspace pocket, jump inside, and then reopen the pocket wherever I needed to be.
The move had a limited range; I could usually only travel within 50 meters of where I was standing, more if I had a visual lock on where I needed to be.
It was one of the only abilities still available to me, one of the few that was virtually undetectable. I could not, however, hope to pluck up my energy blade and start swinging it around; it had a unique signature that could be easily detected. If it was detected, he would find me.
“Oh my god, I’m really, really sorry for making you late,” Elle puffed through a shaky breath.
“You have already said this.”
“I’ll let Lieutenant Ma’tovan know this wasn’t your fault. Hopefully, he’ll only punish me.”
“Save your breath; run faster,” I commanded.
She did not heed me.
She continued to talk to me. I believe the humans called it chatting. It was inane. She talked about everything from the weather to who her bunkmate would be. She told me her mother was an admiral – recently promoted from captain – and that she really didn’t want to let her down. She told me her father was a biophysicist who was working on organic matter transportation. She also told me she wanted to specialize and become a doctor.
I refrained from pointing out that medical professionals were usually less flustered. In fact, I refrained from talking full stop. She provided all the chatter, I simply listened.
“Wow, you are hardly out of breath. How fit are you?” She stumbled at my side as she spoke, knocking into me on several occasions.
I could finally see the training ground ahead. I saw a large crowd, and as we neared, I recognized several of the recruits from Team Omega.
“You’re not even sweating. Do Taskarians sweat?”
“Taskarians sweat. I suggest we sprint; our group is just ahead of us. We can make it in under 30 seconds if we increase our speed by a factor of 2.5.”
Once again she ignored me. Rather than increasing her speed, she practically ground to a halt. Collapsing her hands on her knees, she heaved in breath after breath. “My brother told me there would be a lot of running about in the training program, but I didn’t think it would start so soon.”
I looked from her to the training ground. I knew enough about Coalition discipline to understand that we would both be punished for arriving late to orientation. We would also become known.
I could easily have left her behind. For a moment I hesitated, turning on the ball of my foot to calculate the advantage. I would be punished less, surely, if I arrived sooner. However, it would involve leaving the Admiral’s daughter behind.
She looked up at me with a pleading face.
I recognized that look. I had seen it many times before. I had never been able to do anything about it, though.
I reached out a hand, grabbed her shoulder and hauled her forward. I could have carried her, but it would have brought even more attention.
Instead, I pulled her forward, careful not to let my fingers sink too deeply into her arm.
“We are almost there,” I assured her.
What was I doing? What was the point of pulling this human forward? It was clear she was not suited to becoming a recruit. In helping her, I could compromise my own, far greater plan. I did not need to be reprimanded so early in the game; I knew that with enough official reprimands you would be expelled from the Academy.
Still, I hauled her forward until we reached the training ground. I had hoped we could merge with the back of the group without anyone noticing, but I quickly saw the man in the lead turn to face us.
He was Ravang, a warrior-like race renowned for their physical strength and resilience. They were also renowned for their inability to forgive.
Ravang were huge, and Ma’tovan was no different. At eight-foot tall, he towered over most of the other races in the crowd. He had broad, bulging shoulders, and thick black skin punctuated by skeletal ridges. His piercing yellow eyes seemed to glow all the more in contrast to his dark skin.
“Our two remaining recruits,” he spat, “Finally, you have joined us.”
“It’s my fault,” Elle began.
I kept my hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. It was an easy move, and she spluttered a little as she nearly lost her balance.
She was no doubt about to tell him her excuse. A Ravang would consider an excuse nothing but an insult.
“We acknowledge we are late. We are prepared to be disciplined,” I remarked.
And that was it. I didn’t claim innocence, I did not choose to distance myself from Elle. I stood there and maintained eye contact, not with the Ravang, but at a point just under his left shoulder blade.
He snorted. “You will not be disciplined, yet,” his voice rang on the word yet, “But you have just volunteered.”
“Oh god,” Elle groaned from behind me.
She said that phrase too much.
Before I could point that out, Ma’tovan pointed us forward toward the track at the center of the training ground. It looped around in a circle, and the turf was made of a yellow gel-like substance that I knew could differ in the resistance it gave. Should you fall, it turned soft, should you run, it turned into rock. “This is your first day. This is your orientation,” Ma’tovan’s rigid mouth moved around his words. His voice was guttural and deep. “I will now orient you to the most important fact in the life of a recruit. Danger. If you wish to succeed in your training, you must face it. The Coalition fights many battles. We are under constant threat, no mission is ever safe.”
I was sure not to make eye contact as I walked toward the track. I did, however, let my eyebrow raise a notch.
The Coalition did many other things. It did not just fight battles. It studied and protected the cultural heritage of countless systems, it explored, it invented, and yes, it protected. Within the Forces was a security division, yes, but not every recruit would be destined to join it. We would all go through the same undergraduate training program for two years until we specialized.
“There are races out there that have sworn to destroy us. Forces you will come up against. From Barbarians to Kore assassins to spacers, this galaxy is not safe,” he continued.
I did not flinch. Not on the outside anyway. At the mention of Spacers, a wave of cold pushed through my chest. The memories returned in a flood, but they did not drown me.
It was why I was here.
I couldn’t forget that.
“Spacers,” a recruit beside me sniggered, “They are a myth.”
A mistake. Though the recruit was probably sure he was out of earshot, he was apparently unfamiliar with the auditory acuity of a Ravang.
“I have faced one,” Ma’tovan’s voice dipped low, quiet. It was not a gentle move; it felt like he was getting ready to pounce. “And I have faced no myth. This galaxy is full of danger, and if you wish to succeed in this program, you must show me you can handle it. If you are not capable, you will only be a liability. I will assess you all over the next five years. If at any point I believe you are unfit, you will be cut from the program.”
I was aware of Elle as she trembled beside me.
She would be cut from the program; it was the reasonable conclusion. She clearly had never faced danger, and she clearly was not capable of doing so now. Currently, the prospect of being late to class seemed enough to turn her into a trembling mess.
I straightened up, hooked my arms behind my back as I had seen many Coalition Academy recruits do before, and I did not shift my gaze from Ma’tovan’s shoulder.
He turned back to Elle and me. His stiff lips crinkled up into a sneer. “You will run around this track until you are exhausted and you fall. A Coalition Forces crewman will face exhaustion. If you cannot handle it, you will be cut from the program.”
“Oh my god, he can’t do—” Elle began from behind me.
I shifted in front of her and cleared my throat loudly, drowning out the rest of her sentence.
Ma’tovan’s nostrils flared. “Recruit, do you question my orders?”
“Exhaustion training is a standard element of the recruit program,” I interrupted before Elle could answer.
Why was I still protecting her?
I knew she would be cut from the program, and frankly, I thought that would be for the best. She clearly was not capable of performing at the level required. And though I disagreed with Ma’tovan’s methods, I personally understood how dangerous it could be out there in the galaxy. I understood, because I had been responsible for making it that way.
“Correct, now engage in it. You will run around this track until you drop. You will be given no water, no food. You will start now.”
I turned from him, nodded low in a standard salute, and began to run. Elle stood there, eyes wide.
She was clearly horrified. She would also clearly not last long.
Physically weak and mentally unprepared, I estimated she would only be capable of running around the track ten times before she collapsed.
The feeling of the air rushing through my hair and pushing against my uniform stilled my mind. The movement of my body, free and of my own choosing, could still cause me elation all these years on. Right now it focused me.
I needed to calculate how long I should run for. Too much and I would appear unusual, not enough and I would be under threat of being cut.
I needed to tread a fine line. In order for my plan to succeed, I needed to come out of this program in a position of trust. If I barely graduated, it would be harder to guide the Coalition Forces against my master. If I, on the other hand, gained a reputation for being too competent, I would come to the wrong people’s attention. Questions would be asked. My physiology would be examined.
Approximately 3.5 hours, without water, at my current speed and, considering the current ambient temperature.
Once I had completed my calculation, I settled into my gait, allowing my mind to relax.
I passed her several times. Each time I did, she looked more exhausted than before. Her face was bright red.
She would not last as long as I had predicted.
While we ran, Ma’tovan gave other tasks to the remaining recruits. None of them lasted that long, and soon several of them were back on the sidelines, watching us.
As time wound on, several more appeared.
It took approximately 32 minutes until Elle fell to one knee and then crumpled.
She let out a whine as she did.
Despite the fact she was the Admiral’s daughter, I assumed she would be cut that afternoon.
With her head hanging low, she all but crawled off the track. Then just before someone reached out to steady her and hand her some water, she turned back to me. “Come on, you can do it,” she cheered, despite the fact she could hardly draw a breath.
I turned to face her as I ran past.
“You can do it,” she repeated as she swallowed gulps of her water.
Why was she cheering for me?
I ran another lap. She was still there when I returned. In fact, she stayed right there by the side of the track, sitting of course, cheering me on when she could.
Suffice to say, I did not understand. It was hard to tune her out, but eventually I settled back into my gait.
As time passed and the day drew on, the temperature increased by at least 5 degrees centigrade. It did not affect me.
Despite how long I would run for, I would not sweat, and neither would I become dehydrated. Though my people could partake in food and drink, we drew our sustenance from the subspace field. As long as I was connected to it, I could continue. I simply had to be mindful to time myself so I dropped out when it seemed reasonable to do so.
As the hours drew on, I was mindful of the fact that more and more people returned to the side of the track. Some had gone away only to return.
Were they bored, had they been ordered there, or was there something entertaining about watching me run?
Elle had not moved. In fact, her brother had now joined her. He was crouched low next to her. No doubt they were discussing whether her performance would result in her exclusion from the Coalition Academy Training program.
Though I could fake an injury and pretend to be out of breath, I was limited in how I could display my exhaustion. I could not make my face red, and neither could I sweat.
I hoped my acting would be good enough to hide these facts. Plus Taskarian biology would be unfamiliar enough that no one would question my apparent lack of symptoms too much.
At approximately 3:21 I halved my pace. At 3:41 I reduced it again by three-quarters. And finally at exactly 3 hours and 50 minutes, I stopped. I mimicked exactly what Elle had done: I dropped to my knees, hung my head as if I was struggling for breath, and finally turned to face Ma’tovan.
People started to cheer.
Elle jumped to her feet, despite the fact she staggered and clapped wildly. “I can’t believe you ran for that long!”
I took a deliberately shaky step forward.
Someone rushed up to me and offered me a drink. It was the same recruit who had elbowed me that morning. He now considered me with a wide-eyed look of wonder.
I took the water.
“Stop,” Ma’tovan, who had been standing at the side of the track with his colossal arms crossed, stepped forward.
The crowd’s cheers ceased immediately.
“You have run for approximately 3 hours and 50 minutes,” he bellowed.
It had been exactly 3 hours and 50 minutes, but I knew enough not to correct him.
“In 30-degree heat, with no water, in substantial humidity,” Ma’tovan continued.
My head ticked to the side as I considered that fact.
Humidity. I could not feel humidity; temperature was relatively hard for me to detect, let alone humidity. I had not factored it into my analysis.
I had run far, far too long. I understood why the rest of Team Omega looked so shocked now.
Humans, Taskarians, any softer race that required water to live … would not have been able to run that long.
I had just made a grave mistake.
“You have lasted more than 3 hours longer than your friend.” He nodded down at Elle.
She was not my friend; I hardly knew her. I did not clarify this fact.
I waited. What would he do? Would he send me to the medical facilities immediately for some thorough tests? Would he question me as to how a woman of my size and race could last that long in this kind of heat and humidity? Now I understood it was humid – I could see the sweat lingering on nearly everyone else’s brows. Just not on mine.
I had been very, very stupid.
I could have just ruined my mission before it even began.
If I had to, I could immediately do a subspace jump and retreat. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but that escape plan was always a possibility.
As I hardened myself to what would happen, Ma’tovan smiled. “You’ve passed the exhaustion test, but can you succeed at teamwork?”
My head ticked to the side in confusion. It was a habit I had picked up in the past four years.
“If you can run for another 3 hours and 50 minutes, you will save Recruit Elle Singh. If you can’t, she’ll be cut from the program. Only you can give her a second chance.”
I stared over at Ma’tovan.
Was he serious?
I’d been expecting him to order me toward the nearest sickbay at once to undergo invasive biological scans to find out my secret.
Elle sucked in a deep breath and snapped to her feet. “You can’t make her do that; she’s exhausted!”
“I can do as I see fit. I am your commanding officer, and I am carrying out the training program of the Coalition Forces.” He turned his attention back to me. “This is your decision, Recruit Em. Will you push past your exhaustion to save a fellow recruit?”
I understood what he was doing. While handling exhaustion was no doubt necessary training for the Coalition Forces, teamwork was more important. If you could not push past your own pain to save another, you had no place aboard a ship full of crew.
Space was unforgiving. Unless you looked out for each other, you did not live.
“It’s your decision,” Ma’tovan repeated.
The track had suddenly become very quiet. All eyes were on me.
I still held onto the water I’d been handed. I understood implicitly that if I took a sip, I would forfeit the challenge and Elle would be cut.
She deserved to be cut.
“Don’t do this, you don’t have to do this for me.” She shook her head, her cheeks still red. She had a mop of curly, red-brown hair that fell across her face.
She seemed sincere. I had been manipulated and controlled for centuries; I knew how to spot it.
I also understood that I was her only chance.
She was not Coalition Forces material, so my decision should have been an easy one.
She looked up at me. Her eyes shifted, and they filled with tears. “It’s okay. Take your drink. Don’t go out there for me. You’re exhausted.”
I wavered. I’d seen that look so many times before.
I had never been able to make a difference in the past.
This choice, however, was up to me. No one else controlled my legs or my mind.
But if I chose to continue my run, would I not seem even more incredible? Wouldn’t everyone’s suspicions run wild at why I was capable of such physical feats?
“Recruit,” Ma’tovan snapped, “Don’t just stand there. You have ten seconds to make your decision.”
She should be cut. I should not add to the suspicions people no doubt already held.
I took a step back and placed the glass on the ground.
This decision should have been an easy one. There was only one reasonable choice, only one path that would further my ultimate goal. And yet despite that, I did the one thing I should not have, and I turned and continued to run.
As soon as I did everyone erupted into cheers.
I could have run all day and into the night, but I didn’t have to. As soon as I had made it another five laps, Ma’tovan marched onto the track and snapped at me to stop. The challenge was over, apparently, and I had passed.
I had never been cheered before. I’d heard screams of terror and despair, but never anything like this.
Elle ran up to me and looped her arms around my neck, even though she had to jump to reach.
“Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you, I can’t believe you did that!” She screamed in my ear.
It was lucky I was not human. Otherwise her shrieks would have caused considerable pain.
“Wow.” Jason walked up to me and handed me a water canister.
Then the rest of the crowd flooded forward.
I realized that I should not stand; a person undergoing my level of supposed exhaustion should collapse, so I made my way to my knees in an appropriately jerky fashion.
Instantly Jason leaned forward and cupped my arm. “Steady there, don’t want to do yourself an injury. We should get a medical scanner out here,” he said louder.
“Singh,” Ma’tovan stalked up behind him, “If you are finished giving orders to my recruits, I will take over from here.”
“Ha, ah, sorry, Lieutenant.” Jason snapped a salute.
“Medical scanner,” Ma’tovan roared, and his baritone voice shook twice as loud as Jason’s had.
I sat there on the track until Ma’tovan ordered the rest of the recruits to back off and head to their dormitories for a tour. Though I could have joined them, I stayed there until a medical officer darted out to us, ran some scans, and declared I was fine.
At that point, I was more than thankful for my subcutaneous device. Not only would it confuse all sensors into thinking I was a Taskarian, I could manipulate it to give the physical readings I chose. I could force it to show that my double Taskarian heart was beating at three times the usual pace, that my body was dehydrated, and that I was suffering from all the appropriate exhaustion symptoms. Nothing that would require intervention, but something appropriate for the situation.
“For someone who has run for 4 hours in this heat,” the medical officer shuffled around in her case, “You are holding up fine. Taskarians must be hardier than I thought.” She grabbed up a device and pushed it against my neck. It released something into my system.
My subcutaneous device would eliminate it immediately but would show the appropriate readings that it was working.
“I … used to be a marathon runner,” I lied.
“Oh.” The medical officer nodded. “That makes a lot of sense.”
“Marathon runner, ha?” Jason Singh was still by my side. “We could use you on our track team.”
“I’m so happy you’re okay.” Elle grabbed my wrist and shook it warmly.
I reacted immediately. I jerked it back.
It was automatic. Anything closing around my wrist reminded me of only one thing.
I practically tugged her off her feet. Her brother had to rush forward to stop her from falling over.
The medical officer doubled back, surprised.
They all looked to me for an explanation.
“I apologize … I have scars there, they are painful,” the admission was honest enough. When I had pulled my bracelets off almost four years ago, it had not been an easy task. They had been connected to me; tendrils had lodged through my skin, traveling up my arms and throughout the rest of my body.
Pulling them out had been anguish, and it had almost killed me.
Though the rest of my body had healed, my wrists never would. Those tendrils had been lodged in them for 450 years. They had done their damage.
Now I was left with scars that ran the diameter of my wrist, with deep pockmarks interspersed at even angles.
I often wore long sleeves to hide them. I had, however, already come to terms with the fact I would not be able to hide them forever. They could be explained away anyway.
I pulled back my sleeve and revealed them to the medical officer. “I sustained them in a subspace field accident. The matter around them is unstable, and cannot be healed,” I clarified quickly before she could point out a simple dermal regeneration paste could fix them up, “The instability cannot spread, but I must live with the scars.”
With that, I rose to my feet.
The medical officer followed, gaze locked on my wrist. “Sounds nasty. I’ve only treated a few subspace field injuries in the past, and it’s never turned out well.”
“I was fortunate enough to sustain my injury on a Taskarian transport. My people are adept at dealing with these injuries.” I pulled my sleeve down.
No one challenged me. They all, apart from Ma’tovan, looked sympathetic.
“I’m so sorry for touching your wrist, I didn’t know.” Elle put her hands up, and she crushed her bottom lip between her teeth. “I really hope I didn’t hurt you.”
“It’s irrelevant.” I turned back to the medical officer. “Am I fit to leave?”
“By the look of your scans, you’re fit to run at least another two laps. But I really don’t suggest it, Recruit; you’ve got to leave some reserves for the rest of your training. If you ever have any trouble with your subspace injuries, come and see me and I’ll see what I can do.”
“Actually, there is something.” I half turned from her to Ma’tovan. “I request leave, if it is possible, not to wear a wrist device. I would prefer something higher up the arm.”
The medical officer responded first. She smiled through a laugh. “I reckon we could do that for you.”
“It is not standard procedure,” Ma’tovan began.
“The electromagnetic interference from our wrist devices would disrupt her injury. I’ll get your medical leave signed, and I’ll let the guys in the armory know you’ll need something different. Good luck, Recruit.” With that, she walked off.
Apparently, the discussion was over, because Ma’tovan did not argue. He did, however, snap at Elle and me that we had to head to the 2nd Dormitory to be assigned our quarters immediately.
He walked off.
That had gone better than I had expected. No one, to my knowledge, suspected me of anything other than being a hardened Taskarian marathon runner with an old subspace injury.
I went to jog to our next destination.
Immediately, Elle stepped in beside me and looped her arm carefully around my arm, careful not to touch my wrist.
“You must be exhausted. Let me help you, it’s the least I can do.” She smiled up at me.
Her cheeks were still flushed. Her breathing had not yet fully returned to a calm rate. It had been over four hours since she had stopped exerting herself.
And yet she had stepped to my side to offer me help.
I did not understand her. Yet I let her help me toward the 2nd Dormitory.
I looked at the snippet of view through my dormitory window. I was in my room, sitting on the corner of my bed, head tilted as I considered the clouds racing beyond.
Outside in the main room of my apartment, my flatmate was having a party. Despite the sound-proof door and walls, I could hear every footstep, every word, and every breath.
I’d been invited to join; I’d refused.
I knew that I could not distance myself too much from my colleagues – I understood the Coalition valued comradeship – but it was unwise to socialize too soon. I was starting to realize I was not as prepared for Academy life as I’d hoped. My mistake this morning on the track was all the evidence I needed that I had to study harder – learn every quirk of soft-fleshed biology and behavior – to fit in.
Yet rather than study, I was staring at the view.
I wasn’t emotional – I couldn’t be. 450 years of internment had scraped every care from my body, leaving nothing but cold hard efficiency.
Despite that fact, I couldn’t ignore I was … feeling something. It was inside my chest somewhere, or up near my throat, or buried in my cheeks. I didn’t know what the feeling meant.
I flicked my gaze down to my bare wrists, letting my eyes settle on my scars. Occasionally, when the light came in at a certain angle, you could see them glimmer. I hadn’t lied to the medical technician this morning – they were unstable. I hadn’t told the full story, though – they were continually painful, like knives sticking into my hands.
Ordinarily, I wasn’t one to brood. I was one for action. So why was I sitting on this bed staring at the sky again?
I sipped at my drink, wondering why I was here. Okay, I knew: this was my best friend’s little sister’s welcoming party. Still, wasn’t I a little too old for this?
I saw a recruit bounce in from the corridor. He looked fresh out of high school.
I was way too old for this.
I tried to sidle toward the windows to hide behind a large pot plant. It was the only cover I could find.
I’d stick around for a few more minutes, then make a discreet exit.
“How’s she for company?” Someone asked.
I turned to see Mason – my best mate – sidle up with a smile painted on his face.
“Ah, who are you talking about?”
“Your date in the corner there.” He gestured toward the pot plant beside me with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
“Can you please not say the word date in here?” I coughed into my drink. “I’ve suddenly realized how young everyone is. Why did I agree to come here again?”
“Because it’s my sister’s first day at the Academy, and this is her first party – and I want to shoot any potential suitors a real clear warning that if they break her heart, I’ll break theirs.”
“You mean you’ll date them, string them along until they think it’s serious, and dump them?”
“Ha, ha. Now shut up, drink your drink, and look menacing.”
I rolled my eyes and laughed as I took another sip. “Don’t drag me into this. You can do all the menacing on your own. Do I really need to be here?”
“Yeah, Mandy wants you here. By the way, she has a crush on you,” Mason pointed out with a casual shrug, which he followed up immediately with a stiff waggle of his finger, “But if you—”
I spread my arms wide in surrender. “Dude, she’s your little sister. That’s never going to happen.”
“That’s a good answer – I like that answer. Now return to your drink, and start looking menacing already. I know you have it in you – I’ve seen you take on Kore assassins. A couple of upstart spotty recruits shouldn’t be too hard.”
I shook my head and wondered when I’d be getting out of here.
Before I could sidle back to the comfort of my plant, Mandy bounced up, playfully hitting Mason on the shoulder then shooting me a red-cheeked smile. “I’m glad you could both make it. It’s so exciting. I mean, I know it gets serious tomorrow when the classes start, but it’s great to get a chance to meet everyone today.”
“Yes, it is,” Mason agreed as he shot a tall young recruit a warning look as the guy walked up to Mandy with a drink in his hand. The recruit – clearly smarter than he looked – quickly turned and gave the drink to someone else.
Mandy turned her red-cheeked smile on me, and I found myself sinking further toward the plant.
Realizing I couldn’t stand there in silence, I cleared my throat. “Ah, how are you settling in? How’s your flatmate?”
Mandy’s broad smile faltered. She shot the closed door on the opposite side of the room a quick look, before leaning in and whispering, “She is so weird.”
“What do you mean?” Mason asked protectively.
“She wouldn’t come out for the party.”
“Maybe she’s just shy,” I offered. “What race is she?”
I paused, drink halfway to my lips. “The woman from the track this morning? The one who ran for four goddamn hours in 30-degree heat? Her?”
“I wasn’t at the track this morning, but a few of my friends were. Yeah, it’s her.”
“Wow,” Mason looked interested, “I heard about that. Damn, I want to meet this woman.” He looked excitedly over his shoulder at Em’s door.
I remembered her name – Em. You don’t forget someone like that. News of her exploits this morning had already spread halfway around the Academy. By this time tomorrow morning, the whole track team would be lined up outside her door begging her to join.
“Go and get her to come out,” Mason encouraged his sister. “Jason is probably right, and she’s just shy.”
“Nah,” Mandy refused. “She’s … weird. Her reactions aren’t normal. It’s like she doesn’t know what you’re saying half the time. She always tilts her head at you in this weird way.”
I knew that head tilt – I’d seen it this morning.
“Mandy, this is a big wide galaxy, full of many, many aliens. Not everyone is like you. And the first lesson you need to learn at the Academy is how to get along with people from other species and cultures. Now go ask her to come out so I can meet her.”
“No way am I going in there,” his sister resisted.
Maybe I would stick around this party for a little longer. I wanted a chance to talk to Em and thank her for what she’d done for Elle. Without Em’s incredible efforts on the track, Elle would have been cut already.
Before I could go and do something brave like actually knock on her door, she came out on her own.
Several mingling recruits scurried out of her way as her statuesque form cut between them. She was less like a body and more like a scythe slicing through the air.
Without a word or a smile, she walked toward the doors, as if in a daze. No, daze wasn’t the right word – she didn’t look confused, just focused.
“Go make an effort; she’s your flatmate. And bring her over here,” Mason demanded as he pushed his sister forward.
Mandy reached Em before she could walk through the doors.
I walked closer to hear their conversation, Mason at my side.
“Ah, don’t leave – you should join us,” Mandy offered awkwardly as she gave an uncomfortable, toothy smile.
Em looked at Mandy blankly, as if she had no idea what to do next.
“Ah, have a drink.” Mandy gestured to a full bottle of Caskcar – one of the most intoxicating drinks in the galaxy.
Mason had confiscated it after an idiot recruit had offered Mandy a shot.
Em gave the bottle a quizzical look, returned her gaze to Mandy briefly, then tilted her head at the bottle. Without a word, she reached forward, plucked it up, and poured it down her throat.
Without passing out.
The whole party went silent, several people dropping their drinks. Mandy made a wheezing sound as she sucked in a long breath of air.
Em finished, without spilling a drop, and returned the empty bottle to the counter. “I’ve finished your drink. I have enjoyed this party. We should do it again sometime. Goodbye.” She turned and walked for the door.
Mandy stood there with her mouth wide open. “Y-you weren’t meant to finish the drink. T-that’s really alcoholic.”
Em paused. She tilted her head. “I apologize. You offered it to me. I misunderstood. If you require compensation, I will oblige.”
“No, I mean are you okay? You just drank a whole bottle of Caskcar.”
Em’s expression changed. Slightly. You had to be looking at her as closely as I was to even pick it up. Her gaze quickly darted over the shocked, awed crowd. “I am fine. Do not worry about me, I used to … drink professionally.”
“You … what?”
“I am fine. I should leave now. Enjoy the rest of your party.” With that, Em walked away, shot the empty bottle a calculating look, then promptly exited through the stunned crowd and into the hall.
Mason leaned close to me. “Holy shit,” his voice shook, “Who the hell is that woman? Did you see that?”
I saw it alright.
“How can she be standing? I mean, I know Taskars are different to humans, but dammit, Caskcar is some of the most lethal shit this side of engine plasma. Do you think we should go and check on her to make sure she’ll be fine?”
“I’ll do it,” I offered bravely, moving through the party before Mason had a chance to go in my place.
I left Mandy standing in a sea of her friends, all madly discussing what Em had just done.
Wow, the woman had only been here for a day, and she was already the talk of the Academy.
What would she get up to tomorrow?
I needed to be more careful. I appreciated that now. As I sat down to my first class and registered the awed expressions of my classmates, I understood I had made another mistake.
I could hear them all mumbling amongst themselves – even the ones still out in the corridor. They were discussing the fact I had imbibed one of the most intoxicating drinks in the galaxy and that I was still standing.
I briefly considered faking some kind of illness but thought better of it. It would be worse – in my estimation – to end up drunk in the med bay on my first day than to endure rumors.
I lifted my chin and stared at the podium at the front of the hall, waiting for the lecture to begin. Before it could, someone sat next to me. This was unusual, as thus far every recruit had gone to extreme lengths to sit as far from me as they could.
“Hey, I thought you could use some company.” Elle Singh sat, somehow out of breath even though she’d only climbed ten steps to reach me.
I looked at her impassively, then quickly realized a rumor I was unfriendly and weird was also spreading, and I tried to smile.
I wasn’t used to smiling. I felt like I was hanging my cheeks up on nails.
If Elle noticed something strange, she didn’t say anything. “So, how was your first day yesterday? I decided not to go to any parties last night, and hit the books instead.”
I refrained from pointing out a wiser plan would have been to hit the track. If she did not increase her physical fitness, she would be expelled before her first test.
“What did you get up to?” She smiled. Her smile was natural, effortless.
I tried to copy her move but quickly gave up as the unnatural feeling spread through my cheeks. “I … walked.” It was true – after my incident at the party, I had walked, though I would have preferred to space jump – using my ability to open subspace pockets to dart from one point to another. It was a true pleasure – something my body was made for.
“That makes sense. I overheard this weird rumor that you downed a whole bottle of Caskcar. I didn’t believe it of course. Those recruits are all young and excitable – they make stuff up all the time.”
I refrained from pointing out she was also young and excitable.
“Anyhow, ignore them,” she continued to counsel me, “They’ll grow up soon enough. Just keep your head down and study – that’s what my mom says.”
I had not forgotten her mother was Admiral Singh. Elle was a dangerous cadet to associate with. If I was smart, I would politely excuse myself and sit somewhere else.
Despite my better judgment, I remained where I was.
“It was the delivery.” Mason pressed his fingers together to emphasize his point. “With a totally blank expression, she told the whole room she was a professional drinker, then walked out. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m telling you, she’s the coolest recruit to come along since that Hegar who could eat flies through his nose.”
I leaned against the window and tried to ignore Mason as he commanded center stage – as usual – filling in our assembled friends on last night’s antics.
“Wait, I can’t believe this. Sorry, but as if someone – even a Taskarian – could drink a whole bottle of Caskcar and walk out of anywhere.” Camit – a half-human half Bakarian – tipped her elegant head back and shook it incredulously.
“Well, lucky for you a whole party full of witnesses saw it.”
“Maybe it wasn’t really Caskcar,” Camit suggested.
“I smelt the stuff after some idiot tried to offer some to my sister. It almost burnt my brains out of my skull.” He stabbed a finger at his head. “It was Caskcar alright.”
“So what happened to her?” Nordan asked as he leaned in and looked interested.
“Fine,” Mason shrugged expressively, “She was totally fine. She came back and went to bed. My sister said she got up this morning and Em was already eating breakfast.”
I’d tried to look for Em last night, and I’d seen her, but I hadn’t managed to catch up. She’d walked off before I could call out to her.
I’d only met the woman yesterday, but she’d already taken up a fair chunk of my time and thoughts.
“I think she’s going to be a great inclusion into E club. Hell, I reckon they’ll be using her for missions before she has even graduated,” Mason predicted.
“Aren’t we jumping the gun?” I heard myself ask, finally turning from the window, “It’s only her second day. Sure, she is great on the track, but she may not be so great when it comes to studying.”
“Look at you being the voice of reason. I saw how impressed you were last night. Shut up, you totally agree with me – Cadet Em is going to be the new golden recruit of the Academy. Now, how long do you think we should wait until we ask her to join our group?”
I had to snort. Not because I found it funny, but because this was ridiculous. “We don’t know anything about this woman. Maybe we should let her settle in before we demand she joins us.” I was speaking mostly for my own benefit. I’d barely had a conversation with Em – and though I burned to know her secrets – I should probably let her settle in before my interrogation could start.
“You’re being such a kill joy. Anyhow, aren’t you meant to be doing something today?” Mason leaned back and shot me a pointed look.
“I haven’t forgotten,” I replied dryly, “This is only the most important day of my career.”
“What do you think your mission will be, anyway?” Mason questioned.
Despite the conversational tone of his voice, I knew I had to be guarded. I also knew I had to lie. “I don’t know, something boring, knowing Forest.”
Mason snorted. “Yeah, sure, Admiral Forest is known for sending her favorite soldiers out on dull missions – she’s renowned for it in fact. She’s certainly not known as the hardest admiral in the Academy. What do you really think your mission is going to be?” Mason pried again.
I shot him a stiff-lipped smile. To be honest, Admiral Forest had already briefed me. She’d also let me know not to share details of my operation with anyone – which included my assembled friends.
“Just give it a rest,” Camit fobbed a hand at Mason. “He’s probably not allowed to tell us. Now can we please speak about something else?”
“Sure, I’m going to find out when Cadet Em will be training on the track again,” Mason began.
“Something else,” Camit snarled.
Mason lifted his hands in surrender.
I took the opportunity to say goodbye and leave.
Mason was right – I should probably be spending more time wondering what Forest would tell me today, and less on the curious Cadet Em.
“Combat class?” I looked at Elle. “Already? I have been told that does not begin until our third week.”
“The curriculum has changed. We’re going to start today. I’m soooo nervous. My brother has been trying to teach me, but I’m not a quick study – at least not when it comes to this kind of stuff.”
I looked at Elle, controlling my expression – which wasn’t hard, considering I had worn nothing but a blank expression for 450 years.
If an accomplished admiral and her equally accomplished son weren’t capable of training Cadet Elle Singh, perhaps she should take that as an indication she wasn’t suited for this program.
Again, I held my tongue.
We walked with the rest of our class toward the combat hall.
“Do you reckon they will be teaching us how to use TI objects?” One of our classmates asked their friend.
“Nah, that comes later. Plus, ever since some incident five years ago or so they really restricted their use in the cadet program. I heard from a mate who is in third year that the Barbarians and Kore have found ways to circumvent TI implants, they can even gain control of them. I doubt we’ll ever be taught at this rate,” his friend answered.
From what I understood, TI objects and TI implants were indeed being restricted. There were races and technologies out there that could now take advantage of them. I was one such example. If I wanted to – which would only happen under my master’s murderous influence – I could clamp a hand over some poor soul’s TI implant, send a subspace burst into it, corrupt it, and watch as every TI object in range crushed them.
It was a changing galaxy. Indeed, over the past four years ever since my escape from my master, it had been changing faster and faster, quickening toward a strange new future.
I began to draw in, concentrating on my thoughts. This was a habit of mine – of course it was – my thoughts, for 450 years, had been all I had control over.
It was still completely natural for me to turn off, stare at a wall, and draw inwards. I could not, however, do that while there was an excitable, chatting cadet by my side.
“You look tired? Are you tired?” Elle asked quickly.
“I am not tired,” I assured her.
“I suppose it wouldn’t matter with you, ha? I bet you’re really good at combat. You will be able to pass this class easily. You’ll probably get top marks. Me,” she patted a hand on her chest, and I noted it left a slightly sweaty imprint over the tight weave of her uniform, “I just want to pass.” She gesticulated wide. “Pass,” she emphasized.
“You will have to do more than that,” somebody growled from behind us. I recognized the voice and pitch as belonging to Lieutenant Ma’tovan. He stalked past us, his towering form casting a shadow over Elle and making her shrink toward me.
I held my ground but did not make eye contact.
“I’m so sorry, sir, of course I will try my hardest,” Elle said effusively.
I latched a hand on her arm and pulled her forward. Ravangs never liked platitudes. They didn’t want to hear that you would try your hardest.
“We will sacrifice,” I said simply.
That’s what a Ravang wanted to hear – that you would give up everything, from your mental well-being to your physical strength to your very life. Everything to them, from battle to simple training, was a test of determination.
The lieutenant looked placated, at least mildly, and marched off to harass some other new cadets.
“You seem to know how to deal with him, how do you do that?” Elle turned to me, an excited expression reddening her cheeks.
“You need to study the Ravang,” I suggested.
“I have. I read everything about his race that I can. And I thought I was doing a good job.”
“Books will teach you nothing. You must meet them and learn from your mistakes.”
“Wow,” Elle shot me another impressed look, “How much have you traveled? It sounds like you’ve been all over the galaxy. The Ravang home world is close to the Borderlands, isn’t it? Have you ever been there?”
Yes. I’d been there. I’d plundered it several times. I’d also met countless Ravang in battle. I wasn’t about to share that detail, though.
“You know, I don’t know much about you, other than the fact you used to be a marathon runner and you are like the only friend I have here,” Elle admitted.
Friend? That word threw me.
It was wrong. Patently wrong. I was not her friend. I had just met her, and to-date our interactions had revolved around me saving her.
Before I could point out the error in her reasoning, we arrived in the combat hall, and Ma’tovan bellowed at every cadet to shut up.
I had to be careful. Of course I had to be careful. While every other cadet in this hall would try their hardest to impress Ma’tovan, I couldn’t possibly try my hardest. My hardest would involve a subspace blade and the ability to jump from point to point, let alone display strength far, far above anything a human could produce, even when assisted with armor.
I needed to calculate exactly how much effort to put in. I could not afford another mistake like yesterday; I was starting to realize that running for four hours in high humidity at the pace I’d managed to achieve was startling.
No more startling anyone today, I concluded firmly.
“What do you think this will involve?” Elle leaned toward me, trying to keep her voice low.
It wasn’t low enough. The lieutenant spotted her and growled in our direction. “I see we have some more volunteers. Cadet Singh and Em, please come to the front of the class.”
It seemed the more I allowed this human to hang out with me, the more I was drawn into her troubles. As we approached the lieutenant, I made a firm determination this time to abandon her once we were finished here.
“The galaxy is changing,” the lieutenant turned from us to growl at the assembled cadets, “It’s not the same place it was five years ago. Our battles and enemies have changed. And they continue to change, racing toward a future we can’t allow them to create. We – the Coalition – are the only force that stands in the way of the Barbarians, the Kore, the spacers, you name it. Every scumbag in the Milky Way who rejects our principles, tramples on freedom, and oppresses the weak.”
I didn’t move. Not even a twitch. At the mention of my race – the spacers – I stiffened my face as if I’d passed it through concrete.
“There was a time when we could churn out recruits who could get by with simple combat skills. That time isn’t now. The reality is, once you get out there,” he pointed one stiff finger up to the ceiling, indicating space beyond, “You will be expected to fight. It may not happen in your first week, or your first month, or even your first year, but your ship or your planet or your station will be attacked. Maybe it will be the Barbarians, maybe it will be Kore assassins, maybe it will be some enemy we haven’t even met yet, but unless you learn now,” he pointed his stiff finger at the ground, “Here, today, you won’t be able to rise to the challenge.”
The assembled cadets puffed their chests out, clearly thinking that they were up for the challenge.
Elle, however, knotted her hands together and let her shoulders hunch in.
I was now surer than ever that she wasn’t suited to be here. As much as I didn’t agree with the patriotic tone of the lieutenant’s speech, the content was accurate. The Milky Way certainly was changing. And he was right: in the past five years, the Coalition had faced more enemies than it had in the past 20.
My master had referred to it as the quickening. A time when history seems pushed through a funnel, pushed toward some future like a boulder gathering speed.
He would never tell me what that future was, but I knew it would involve him in some insidious, murderous capacity.
“Today, we’re going to learn simple combat techniques. I expect you to master them by the time we leave this class,” he stated flatly, “Because tomorrow, we move on to harder stuff. And the next day, harder stuff again. If you can’t keep up, you will be left behind.” The lieutenant’s gaze darted to Elle and lingered there until she shifted back awkwardly. “So now I’m going to demonstrate what you have to do.”
I was hardly paying attention now. The lieutenant’s words were affecting me, pushing me back into my memories.
I hadn’t been kidding when I’d said I was good at distracting myself. 450 years of being locked inside my own consciousness had made me very comfortable with my thoughts.
As I stood there in the front of the class, eyes locked on some innocuous patch of dirt on the ground before me, I thought again about how I could help change the future.
That’s why I was here.
To guide the Coalition against my master, to take him down before he could do more damage.
Before I was aware of it, Lieutenant Ma’tovan reached in, clapped a hand on my shoulder, and shoved hard.
His muscles strained, his feet skidding against the floor, but he couldn’t push me over.
In a second, I snapped back to reality, my body taking control as all those years of training snapped through my muscles.
I dropped the shoulder he was shoving, twisting to his side just at the right moment and letting his momentum pull him forward.
I was half a second from snapping toward him – from attacking.
Then I stopped myself.
In fact, I stopped myself when the lieutenant straightened up and shot me a challenging look. “It seems Cadet Em here already has some combat training. Well, that may be the case with some more of you,” he turned toward the assembled crowd, “But you’re going to have to forget what you learned and learn to do it the Coalition way. The correct method of deterring such an attack,” he whirled on his boot and addressed me once more, “Is this.” He demonstrated by ducking forward, rounding his shoulder, then shoving hard.
It was a waste of energy. My move was more efficient. I kept that fact to myself as I looked past his left shoulder and mimicked his move.
He straightened up and nodded toward Elle. “Push her,” he said simply.
I turned and tried to calculate how hard I could push Elle without shoving her right through the floor.
She cowered away from me, wincing, but eventually nodding. “I’m ready.”
I shoved her.
She fell over. Hard.
I’d used approximately the same force I would use to open a door.
I moved down to help her up, but the lieutenant growled at me that she had to learn to get up on her own.
As the lesson continued, I tried hard to control myself. I took cues from the cadets around me, imitating their behavior, even their reactions as they failed.
The lieutenant kept teaching us moves, and while some of them made sense, others didn’t. I was reminded of the failings I’d witnessed in Coalition soldiers – failings I’d once capitalized on to overcome them.
I tried to keep myself contained, and aside from my initial mistake with the lieutenant, I did. I measured my performance based on the average of the other recruits around me. By the end of the class, I was neither the best nor the worst. I was considered competent enough.
That didn’t stop the lieutenant from pulling me aside as everyone else was leaving. “Why do I get the feeling, Cadet, that you were holding yourself back during that class?” He crossed his enormous arms in front of his chest, the muscles practically bulging through the fabric of his uniform.
I considered him in what I hoped was a non-challenging way, ensuring my gaze was directed at the floor by his feet.
“You resisted my initial throw like a professional, Cadet. You clearly have experience with combat techniques,” he continued. “I saw your feat of endurance on the track yesterday too. Do you know what I hate more than a cadet who tries hard but fails?”
I didn’t shift my gaze.
“One that won’t try hard at all. You may think you can breeze through this Academy course. You may think your past life – whatever it involved – has set you up to get through the next five years without a challenge, but I’m here to tell you that isn’t the case. I will learn whatever your limits are, and I will push you beyond them. Now, never do that again. Never show up to one of my classes and hold back. Do you understand that?”
I offered a sharp salute.
Ma’tovan glowered into my eyes and dismissed me with a snarl.
I turned and walked out, containing the frown that wanted to spread across my face. I was starting to learn that Academy life was far more complex than I’d envisioned. Rather than do a subspace jump and flee my new life, I resolved to try harder.
The lieutenant was right, and I had held back, but he was wrong too. He would not find out my limits and push me beyond them. I would increase my efforts enough to get him off my back, but I would never show him or anyone else at the Academy my full potential, not until the day I had Master in my sights. Not until the day I could finally dispose of him and his wretched legacy against my people.
The next few months passed without incident. I learned to control my strength and speed, though there were still a few slip-ups. Enough that I had a reputation around the Academy. I had already rejected offers from the track team, the wrestling team, the advanced combat team, and even a curious elite unit called E Club. By and large, people left me alone. They waited until I was apparently out of earshot until they started mumbling about me.
There was one exception. Of course there was one exception. Cadet Elle Singh. She had latched onto me that first day, and no matter how hard I tried to shake her, she would always return. There was a part of me that admired her tenacity, but the rest of me kept reminding myself she was the daughter of Admiral Singh and was a dangerous acquaintance.
She wasn’t the only one of Admiral Singh’s children showing interest in me. It seemed her brother would make up any old excuse to see me.
I ensured my grades in all my classes put me in the top percentile but never the absolute top of the class. I had to maintain good marks and good discipline if I was to graduate in a position to influence the Coalition. Yet I had to keep reminding myself I couldn’t be too good. Too good would bring undue attention.
For someone who had endured 450 years of internment, I found the prospect of having to wait for the next five years before I could begin to make my mark on the Coalition torture. I wanted to make a difference today. I wanted to start absolving my sins right now. But unfortunately I had to head to class.
Today there was a surprise guest lecture. I hadn’t bothered to look up details of what it would be about. It was in xenobiology class, and I could pass that particular unit without attending a single lecture. There wasn’t a race in the Milky Way I hadn’t met before, nor one I hadn’t fought.
I walked up the steps of the lecture hall, spying an empty seat off on its own. I didn’t take it. Instead, I quickly ascertained where Cadet Elle was, and I walked over and sat beside her. There was no point in sitting on my own. Elle would simply move to sit next to me.
I’d learned over the past several months that she was irrepressible.
She offered me a large smile as I sat down and an unnecessary wave considering I was right next to her. I returned the smile. It was getting easier, or at least around her it was. You tended to get a lot of practice with smiling around Elle Singh. It was about the only thing she could do right.
Somehow she was still in the Academy, and in many ways, that might have something to do with me. While she tended to be okay on the academic side of her study, her physical fitness was still below par. I had helped her out where I could, even teaching her simpler throws and attacks more suited to her size and weight ratio. This had only reinforced to the cadet that I was her best friend. A term I couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
“Oh my God, this class is going to be so exciting. I heard from my brother the guest lecturer is Doctor Ing.”
I looked at her blankly.
“You know? The Academy’s foremost expert on spacers?”
I didn’t move a muscle, at least not outwardly. Inside, I clenched like someone had hit me in the gut. I forced a smile. “That sounds interesting,” I said in what I hoped wasn’t the fakest tone in the galaxy.
“Interesting? Are you crazy? It’s going to be amazing. You know what a spacer is, right?” She questioned me. “It’s just that some people still think they’re a myth. I don’t know how you could actually think that, considering how much damage they’ve done. I suppose they’ve been operating for so many years that they’ve become legendary to so many races.”
I didn’t say a word. I sat there and concentrated all my energy on maintaining a blank, controlled expression. Fortunately, soon enough the class started. If I had known we’d be discussing my race today, I wouldn’t have come. I would have concocted some infection with my implant so I could skip the lesson.
I couldn’t change that now, and I judged it would be more conspicuous if I suddenly stood up and raced out. So I would have to endure this.
I settled my eyes somewhere on my desk, and I did not raise them even when the lecturer entered the hall.
“It’s just this way, Doctor,” I said in a polite tone as I gestured toward the lecture hall. The students were already seated, half of them looking bored and the other half were ecstatic. Clearly, word of the surprise guest lecture hadn’t spread through all the recruits yet. If the assembled cadets knew they were about to get one of the most interesting talks of their careers, they’d be bouncing off their seats.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” the doctor said in a polite tone before waving and walking out onto the podium.
Kluver, who’d helped me escort the doctor, leaned in to stare past me. “How come you’re stuck on escort and babysitting duty?” He asked as he watched the doctor launch into his introduction.
I shrugged my shoulders, trying to keep my true reaction to myself. Why was I stuck on escort and babysitting duty, showing guest lecturers around the Academy or shepherding dignitaries through town? It was a very good question, one I couldn’t answer. The fact was, my true mission was going nowhere. It had been several months since Admiral Forest had pulled me into her office and given me my new directives. Directives even my mother didn’t know about.
While the rest of my friends thought I was an ordinary member of the combat forces, I wasn’t. I was the latest recruit to Admiral Forest’s top secret intelligence program. While her spies were often sent out to the Borderlands or to the colonies or anywhere else they could gain information on the Coalition’s ever burgeoning enemies, I was still on Earth. Not because the admiral doubted my ability. Far from it. According to her, she’d given me one of the most important missions to come across her desk.
There was a spy on Earth, possibly even in the Academy, and they were passing top secret, highly sensitive information about the Coalition’s capabilities and defenses onto the Kore Empire or anyone else rich and obliging enough to pay for it. My job was to track that spy down, to catch them before they could do more harm. The problem was, there were no leads or at least none that had led anywhere, other than to dead ends.
It could be anyone with sufficient clearance – absolutely anyone. That’s why Forest had entrusted this mission to me and me alone. Apparently, she even suspected people in the upper echelons of the Academy. Technically, babysitting and escorting lecturers and dignitaries was part of my mission – the Admiral wasn’t kidding when she’d said it could be anybody with a connection to the Academy. And any one of the VIPs I kept showing around could be a contact or a potential customer.
Doctor Ing continued to introduce spacers, his voice booming out across the auditorium as he spoke of how insanely dangerous they were.
Fortunately, I’d never faced one. I knew people who had, though – my mother was one of them. She’d almost lost her previous ship – the Chronos – to them. According to her firsthand report, they were one of the most brutal, mindless enemies she’d ever confronted, and she’d been at the forefront of the Rebuilders saga a few years back.
“There is little we know about the spacers. Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to capture any to study them. Alive, anyway,” the doctor continued in a rumbling tone that would have captured the cadets’ attention even if he wasn’t talking about one of the most fascinating topics in the Milky Way. “What we’ve learned is fascinating. They appear to be a race of subspace aliens.”
“What does that mean?” One enterprising recruit piped up.
The doctor, far from being put off by the interruption, seemed thrilled.
This guy was clearly big on theatrics.
“They have some biologically mediated method of interacting with subspace. From eyewitness reports, we know they are capable of point-to-point transportation over a limited distance. It’s nothing compared to an actual matter transporter aboard a cruiser, but it is still a significant feat for a biological entity. They can also store things in subspace, or at least that’s my theory.”
“Why are they so adversarial?” Another recruit asked.
“Now this truly is a fascinating question.” Doctor Ing slowly placed his hands together as if he were praying, and shot the whole crowd a meaningful, serious look. “It’s my theory they are mindless weapons being controlled by some external force. Some of my colleagues don’t agree with my belief, but they have not studied spacers as extensively as I have. From the dead members of this race we’ve been able to study, their armor and accessories have all been different, save for two metal bands that wrap around their wrists.” The doctor brought up his hands and cupped his wrists as an example. “We have no idea what kind of technology those bands are, but from dissections we know they send incredibly fine biological wires throughout the spacers’ whole body, congregating in their brain and up their spine. While some of my colleagues believe these bands and biological wires are methods the spacers use to control their subspace interactions, I disagree. Though their biology is alien to us, there are enough similarities with other races to conclude that these wires proliferate in such a manner as to suggest they exert control over everything from speech faculties to movement. Which begs the question. If spacers are one of the most powerful enemies you are likely to face as a Coalition soldier, just who or what is behind them? The rare report from agents within the Kore Empire suggests that for the right price you can hire a spacer.”
“From who?” The talkative cadet asked.
Doctor Ing shrugged his shoulders. “I must admit that these are mostly rumors, but if the sources are correct, and if you had the money and gall, you could hire a spacer from the Hole Sect.”
A low, worried murmur crossed through the cadets. They wouldn’t know too much about the secretive Kore Empire yet, but they would have heard about the Hole Sect. A shadowy group of criminals who many believed controlled the Empire like puppeteers. Their influence supposedly poisoned that whole region of space and even spread out into the Borderlands and the Barbarian sectors.
To be honest, anything said about the Hole Sect was hearsay. There was no evidence about that group – just stories. In fact, a large chunk of Doctor Ing’s lecture was hearsay. His theory about the spacers being controlled was unique in the field. Most of his colleagues felt there wasn’t enough evidence to assume anything other than the fact the spaces were one of the most dangerous enemies the Coalition faced. Though they weren’t on the level of the Barbarians or the Kore Empire, they were still a massive threat. Thankfully, however, they were rare. If you cobbled together all reports of spacers, it seemed as if there was little more than 50 of them. If there were a whole race of them, no doubt they’d have control of the whole galaxy. But at a little under 50, they were a terrifying if manageable threat.
After a dramatic pause, Doctor Ing moved on to discussing the individual spacers in turn.
He started with her. The one spacer everyone knew, because she, more than any other of her kind, had done the most damage. Even if you didn’t know what a spacer was, you knew her name. In some circles, it was like invoking the angel of death.
“Axira,” Doctor Ing’s voice thundered through the auditorium, “Is the worst by far. Though I should say was – there hasn’t been a single sighting of her for over four years.”
I stood a little closer to the door, watching the show.
“Where’d they get this guy from?” Kluver said, wrapping his hand on the datapad he held. “I don’t remember having lectures this exciting when I was a recruit.”
“Hmm?” I wasn’t listening. My eyes quickly skipped over Ing as he practically danced across the stage with enthusiasm. Instead, I searched the crowd. Soon enough I found her – the curious Em.
She was sitting next to Elle – or more probably, Elle had sat next to Em. The elusive Em didn’t strike me as the kind to willingly sit next to someone as talkative and excitable as my sister.
“Axira,” Doctor Ing continued, “Was a scourge throughout the Kore Empire, Barbarian Space, the Borderlands, and even the Coalition. She has arguably taken more lives than any other Spacer, downed more ships, claimed more planets, and destabilized more star systems.”
“Hey, Jason, what are you looking at?” Kluver leaned closer and searched the crowd over my shoulder, his bright green face scrunching up in concentration. “They’re just first-years; they’re all too young for you,” he joked as he leaned back and patted me hard on the shoulder.
His move shook me out of my reverie, and I straightened, compulsively neatening my tunic as I did. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, okay,” Kluver sniggered, “Anyhow, we’ve escorted the great Doctor Ing here. I really don’t think the top brass expect us to hang around for the whole lecture.”
“You can head off – I’m kinda interested.”
“In the content or whoever the heck you’re staring at in the crowd?”
“Both,” I answered honestly. I gave Kluver a brief wave as I focused my attention back on Em. She wasn’t paying attention to the lecture. While everyone around her was staring at Ing in interest – this being the most interesting topic they would have come across yet – she was staring at the desk in front of her.
Though she was far away, she wasn’t that far that I couldn’t see her desk was bare.
“I like to make these lectures interactive,” Ing’s voice became louder as he stopped pacing the podium long enough to pause in one spot, “So, any questions yet?”
One kid in the front row stuck his hand up. “Are we ever actually going to come across any spacers, sir?”
Ing paused dramatically before offering a stiff puff of a laugh that echoed like a gun blast. “If you’re lucky, son, no. You never want to meet a spacer. If there was a spacer in this room with us, not a single person would escape. Heck, I imagine one could take out the Academy before we could mount a decent defense.”
“If they’re that powerful, why don’t we hear more about them?”
“They mostly stick to the Borderlands and the border of the Kore Empire. You do hear reports of spacers operating within Coalition space, but rarely.”
Every member of the audience was staring at Ing in rapt attention, several cadets practically leaning out of their chairs in their enthusiasm to get closer.
Except for Em. She was still staring at the table. Though I couldn’t be sure from this distance, it looked like she didn’t even blink.
Either there was something mighty interesting carved into the smart metal and glass of her retractable desk, or she was distracting herself.
By the end of the lecture, as the cadets filed out, I wanted to rush forward and say hello, but I knew I couldn’t. Lately, I’d been finding any old excuse to see the elusive Em. I wanted to learn more about her, but I didn’t have the guts to ask outright. Then again, neither did anyone else. Without technically being rude, she was the least approachable cadet on campus.
Before I could search her out of the crowd all pouring out the door, Doctor Ing walked up to me and asked, “How did you like the lecture?”
“It was good,” I stammered as I glanced quickly over his shoulder.
Em was walking past, Elle chirping around her like an excited bird. As Em passed the lecturer, she shot him an extremely cautious look, one the lecturer didn’t pick up on as he gesticulated wide and waved my way.
“If you ask me, it is one of the most fascinating topics in all of the Milky Way. A true mystery. If I ever have the chance to meet a live spacer, I won’t give it up.”
That odd comment threw me, and I lost Em again in the crowd. “Ah sorry, Doctor, but if you ever meet a live spacer, presumably the meeting won’t last long.”
“Quite right; good point. But one of these days it is my life ambition to get to the bottom of their mystery.”
I smiled at the doctor encouragingly and nodded down the corridor. “I can take you back to your office.”
The doctor continued to chat to me about his studies, shooting off some pretty interesting theories. I walked him all the way back to his office and didn’t object when he invited me in for a further chat. It gave me all the opportunity I needed to scan his office for intelligence devices. When he got up and went to the bathroom I even snooped around the datapads on his desk.
Nothing. Of course there was nothing; I doubted Doctor Ing had anything to do with my mission. I was rapidly running out of targets. Several months had passed, and what had I to show for my efforts? Absolutely nothing but a gut full of frustration. Maybe that’s why I’d allowed myself to be distracted by Em so much – she was a thankful diversion from a task it seemed I could not complete.
I remained quiet through the next several lessons, lost deep in thought. Doctor Ing’s lecture had surprised me. I hadn’t been prepared for a frank account of my race and the devastation we’d wrought through the Milky Way. Though of course I was aware of it – I had first-hand experience of what a spacer could do, as the hands that had done those deeds were still attached to my wrists. But it was the act of listening to somebody else describe my atrocities that shook me.
“You’re kind of quiet. I mean, more quiet than usual,” Elle said. “Are you okay? You’re not getting sick, are you? I can take you to the med bay if you’re feeling poorly,” she offered before I had a chance to breathe, let alone speak.
I shook my head, pushing the long black and blue tendrils that constituted my hair over my shoulder. I took care in neatening them, allowing my fingers to distract myself from my thoughts. Rather than talk about the lecture, Elle bounced happily by my side, discussing her plans for the weekend. Despite how clueless she seemed most of the time, I fancied she could be capable of quite astute conclusions, as it appeared she’d figured out I had no intention of discussing the spacer lecture. Hopefully, she couldn’t guess the reason why.
“Do you know what lecture we have next?” She asked in a rhetorical tone.
I shook my head.
“It’s our first introduction to telepathic attacks. It’s a completely new unit, one they’ve only introduced this year. It seems they’ve had too many telepathic attacks on Coalition soldiers of late, so they’re trying to teach cadets how to fend them off. I have no idea what the class is going to be like, but I’m already super nervous.” She showed me her hand, which was shaking. There was little in this world that didn’t make Elle’s hands shake.
I forced myself to flash her a smile and say patiently, “You’ll be fine,” while my thoughts centered on what she’d just said. Telepathic defense? I hadn’t heard about this. If I’d heard about this, I would have pretended I was sick. Again. It seemed this morning was jam packed with things I did not want to face.
Unlike most of the other cadets streaming into our next lecture hall, I had faced telepathic attacks. In fact, in many ways, my 450 years of internment had been one. My mind and body had been laid bare to another. In comparison, whatever stupid tricks we’d learn today would be irrelevant.
Still, I didn’t like the idea of someone poking around in my mind. And considering the content of our previous lecture, I was rattled. So it was no surprise that as I sat down with Elle, I hardened my expression, tipped my head up, and deliberately stared out of the window.
I tried to formulate a plan of what I would do once it was my turn. If I were in a better mood, it would be easier, but my thoughts kept slipping back to Doctor Ing and his theories. It seemed he was alone in this galaxy in thinking spacers were there to be pitied as weapons and tools of some other creature far darker and far more hateful. Alone, that was, apart from me. I knew the truth of his theory as fact. A fact gouged into my wrists and mind.
As soon as I was finished with Doctor Ing, I had more babysitting duty. This time I had to admit it was a whole lot more pleasant.
I nodded at the mindair before me. A member of an elegant telepathic race, she had incredibly large pretty eyes that invited you to stare at them all day long. I coughed uncomfortably and tried to neaten down my short hair. “It’s just this way, Hendra,” I stuttered over her name.
“Thank you so much for assisting me, Lieutenant Singh,” she said, my name rolling off her tongue like the tinkle of a bell.
I gave an awkward cough and uncontrollably walked a little faster.
I had no idea what group of cadets I was taking her to, but as soon as we reached the right lecture hall and I leaned my head through the door, I realized it was the same class as this morning. Her class.
I tried not to stare, though a couple of times my eyes strayed and picked her up out of the crowd.
The mindair sat before the class, her golden robes billowing around her, offsetting her luminous blue skin as the sun shone in from the windows behind. “It is important to understand this is just an introduction. This class is intended to introduce you to the world of mind-reading and telepathic powers. For the unfortunate fact is, enemies of the Coalition are now using these grand abilities as weapons against us. Unless you have the opportunity to meet these powers in a safe setting, so that you can learn ways to overcome them, you will be a target.”
I stood by the doorway, my arms crossed as I stared in, watching the class. Though my gaze was usually locked on Hendra, more than once it drifted across the classroom, and of course it drifted toward her. Cadet Em was sitting with my sister, all the way at the back of the class. She looked preoccupied with something, as she always did. If I didn’t know her scores, I would say from her usual complete lack of attention that she was the worst recruit in the Academy. The fact was, she was one of the best, if not the best. Indeed, in many ways, I often felt as if she was measuring her effort, as if she was capable of more, but didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.
As Hendra continued to introduce the class, the rest of the recruits continued to look fascinated.
Back in my day, we’d never had an introduction to telepathic attacks. Then again, back in my day, the galaxy had been a simpler place, hadn’t it? These days it seemed cadets had to be prepared for the absolute worst the Milky Way could throw at them, and then some.
Hendra continued to sit in her chair, the streaming sunlight playing across her golden robes as she brought up her hands and gestured wide. “Today I will offer you a unique opportunity. My race has been known for centuries as healers and counselors. We can enter people’s minds, dredge up fears, and resolve them. And it is the conquering of these fears that will make you not only better recruits but more resilient to future psychological attacks.”
I’d had a few mindairs poke around in my thoughts before, and it was a singularly bizarre experience. I’d also been forced to endure telepathic attacks, but I wouldn’t use the word bizarre to describe them. When a creature tried to force its way into your mind to destroy or harm you, it was one of the most horrible experiences the galaxy could throw up. It was like having a gun forced inside your skull.
All the cadets murmured amongst themselves. Excited at what was about to happen. Well, everyone except Em. She continued to stare off through the windows, looking blank. Either she was paying absolutely no attention and didn’t have a clue what this class was about, or the thought of training in telepathic defense bored her. Indeed, as the class continued, and the first few recruits were asked to join Hendra at the front of the stage, Em didn’t once glance down, despite the potent experience of fellow cadets reliving and conquering past fears. Em was far too focused on the view through the window until it became her turn. When Hendra selected her from the crowd and waved her forward, the usual hubbub of the class stopped. In fact, there was a general sense of awe as Em slowly and carefully took the stairs down to Hendra.
I watched Hendra shoot Em a curious look. “You are guarded, Cadet,” she commented. She hadn’t made this comment with any other recruit, and nor had she used the same curious tone. “Please sit,” Hendra offered as she gestured to the chair in front of her.
Reluctantly Em sat, undoing her arms and letting them rest by her sides. Though her body looked relaxed, her expression wasn’t. It was tight and hard.
The mindair tipped her head to the side, more curiosity flashing through her gaze. “This will only work if you are relaxed.”
Em looked as if she wanted to say something. She was never rude. Brief, yes, but never rude. Yet now as she considered Hendra, it looked as if Em either wanted to walk out or snap some insult. Instead, she went through all the motions of relaxing: pushing her shoulders down, opening her palms, and letting her knees fall slack as she sat in the chair.
“You must relax your mind,” Hendra said as she took a deep breath, gesturing with her hands as if encouraging Em to do the same.
Em didn’t move.
“If you do not relax your mind,” Hendra began.
“You won’t be able to force your way into it,” Em finished. “It’s when you drop the walls that you allow a telepathic attack,” she continued in a curt, professional tone.
Hendra blinked quickly.
“This class is meant to teach you how to withstand telepathic attacks,” Em cut in, “And I’m withstanding yours.”
Hendra looked thrown. “Cadet,” she began in a warning tone, or at least as warning as a graceful, kind mindair could ever be.
Em didn’t let her finish. “I don’t see how letting you in will help me learn how to keep you out.”
“You must open up to me,” Hendra continued. “I don’t want to push my way in.”
“You don’t want to, or you’re not allowed to?” Em questioned quickly.
I’d never seen her like this. She was challenging Hendra, cutting her down at every opportunity.
Should I do something? Should I walk into the room and tell Em she was out of line?
All this class had to do to pass this unit was learn to keep Hendra out. And it seemed, as I watched Hendra’s hands grip tighter on her lap, that Em had already passed.
“I am here to help you,” Hendra tried again, her frustration peeking through her voice.
“How could an experience like this help anyone block a telepathic attack? You’re creating channels that will make it easier for them to get attacked again. I know how these things work – the first time you let someone like you in, you make a hole. You make it easier for telepathic attacks to occur in the future. So what exactly is the reasoning behind letting you in in the first place?”
Hendra looked completely flustered now. “This class is designed to help you become familiar with telepathic attacks and ultimately help you learn how to rebuff them.”
“Then it’s badly designed,” Em said flatly. “I’ve faced telepathic attacks before, and the last thing you want to teach is how to open up your mind to them.” Em blinked as she said she’d faced telepathic attacks before, and as soon as the words were out of her mouth, it was clear she regretted them. It was clear she’d let something slip. And for a woman usually as controlled as her, that was a surprise.
Her admission made Hendra hunch, her pretty eyes blinking quickly as she directed them to the floor. “Yes, I can feel that you have experience. But what I am offering you is the opportunity,” she continued, “To benefit from the healing powers of confronting your fears, of confronting past demons.”
Em’s expression, if it were possible, hardened even further. Her face looked as if it had been cast from steel. She didn’t say anything; she stared at Hendra.
Hendra rearranged her hands on her lap, and I watched her eyes half close. It was clear she was trying to break through Em’s defenses. But as several seconds turned into a minute, it was also clear she couldn’t do it. After a few uncomfortable blinks, Hendra shook her head. “Very well, if you are going to be difficult, Cadet, I will note this in my report.”
Em stood up. “That’s your prerogative.” She turned and walked away, returning to her seat and somehow ignoring all the stares the other cadets shot her. Elle immediately leaned in and patted her comfortingly on the arm.
I stared. What had that been about? Em had faced telepathic attacks before? Where and how? What exactly had she been before she’d joined the Academy? If she were any other recruit, I’d find the fact she had experience with telepathic attacks hard to believe, but it almost made sense when it came to Em. She had more experience than any of the other recruits, a keener battle sense, and generally better skills.
What was her secret?
I was thankful for one thing and one thing alone: Elle. Though it sounded crazy, as I’d spent the last several months trying to shake her off. But today she was being comforting. She hadn’t mentioned my inability to interact during the spacer lecture and nor had she mentioned my episode with the mindair. Instead, she was chatting happily, as always. Trying to distract me with a midday walk through the grounds.
It seemed nothing phased her. I had just bordered on insubordinate in the way I’d dealt with Hendra, the mindair, but Elle didn’t seem bothered. Or if she was bothered, she had the compassion not to speak about it.
“We should go away this weekend. Some of the other recruits are planning a training session in the mountains. You keep on saying I need to get some experience in different terrains.”
I smiled at her and said, “I’ll think about it.”
To be honest, the only thing I was thinking about today was how I’d been incapable of controlling myself, twice. To be fair, both times I hadn’t expected my classes to cut so close to the bone. If I’d thought the spacer lecture was bad, the mindair was worse, far worse. I’d felt her try to push her way in through my mind, and it had reminded me – reminded my whole body – of him. Of the control he’d exerted for so many centuries. It was a surprise I’d only been snide and hadn’t leaped up and pushed her off her chair. I’d wanted to. Okay, maybe I hadn’t wanted to use violence, but I had wanted to run away. At the first hint of her trying to wheedle her way past my defenses, I’d wanted to space jump right out of the room and up into the sky.
Fortunately, I’d held myself together. And while that had been a personal feat, my inability to control my reaction to her would likely attract a reprimand.
Even though the mindair was not a tenured member of staff, and nor was she technically a member of the Coalition Forces, I was still insubordinate. I was still rude. And yet I was still within my rights. For that entire lecture and the entire unit were a waste of time. I was right: it was a bad idea to teach recruits how to fend off a telepathic attack by making them learn how to open up for one. I knew better than most that as soon as you created tracks in your mind – doors by which the telepathically possessed can travel – you invite them in.
It was yet another example of a growing list of inefficiencies the Academy had in its training program. If I were in charge, I would overhaul the whole thing. There was little wonder that their cadets were insufficiently prepared for this rapidly changing galaxy. When they weren’t taught useless theory, they were taught a watered-down method of combat that would not prepare them for the true brutality of the galaxy.
“I keep seeing my brother popping up everywhere. It’s already been several months, and I can’t believe he’s still checking up on me,” Elle suddenly said.
At the mention of her brother, I tuned in subconsciously, his name coming to the forefront of my mind. “It seemed as if he was escorting our lecturers. Perhaps you are mistaken, and he isn’t checking up on you, but rather doing his job,” I defended Jason Singh, and I wasn’t sure why.
Elle shook her head vigorously and flopped a hand at me. “You don’t know what he’s like. He’s like my mother. Once they think they’ve found a problem with something, they won’t stop until they fix it. And look at me,” she grabbed the sleeves of her uniform and pulled, “I’m just full of problems. I’m a middling recruit with a family who expects she can do so much more.”
My lips crunched up into a smile of their own accord. “Your academic grades are sound.”
Elle brought up a finger and waggled it at me. “And yet my combat grades are the worst in the class.” Though she was reprimanding herself, she still had a smile on her face. It seemed that no matter what got her down, she would always bounce back.
Me, on the other hand, I was still trapped in the whirlwind of my thoughts, hating the fact I hadn’t been capable of controlling myself. Considering I didn’t sleep, I knew I would be spending the whole night staring up at my ceiling, ruminating.
“There’s a party on for the first years at Barney’s Bar tonight,” Elle suddenly pointed out, “Everyone has to go.”
“That doesn’t sound like a party; it sounds like an assignment,” I pointed out dryly. Several years ago, even several months ago, I’d been incapable of humor. But the more time I spent with Elle, the more I adapted to it.
She offered a light chuckle. “Tell me about it. Our superiors are going to be there. Apparently, it’s meant to be a chance to mingle outside of classes, a chance to create camaraderie. Because this is the Coalition Academy, and loyalty and camaraderie are the glue that keeps us stuck together.” She waggled her finger again.
I considered it as I considered her.
I didn’t want to attend this party. I didn’t want yet another chance to mingle with my peers. Though I understood the truth of what she’d said, and knew for a fact that the Coalition valued loyalty and camaraderie above all else, I could not deny I was a solitary creature. Socialization was a lesson I could not excel at, and one I had completely failed, aside from with Cadet Elle Singh.
“Anyhow we should go together. What’s that saying? Safety in numbers?”
I doubted Elle could provide me any more safety than I could provide for myself, but I nodded nonetheless.
Fortunately, the rest of that day passed without further incident. Which, in a way, simply meant I had more time to ponder what I’d done and whether, in fact, I was cut out for this.
Babysitting wasn’t a duty I could get used to. When I joined the Academy – especially after spending a life with my mother – I’d assumed it would be all adventure, all dashing through the stars, saving planets, protecting the weak, and keeping the galaxy safe. Well, right now I was standing in a bar with a mindair trying to be dutiful and keeping a watchful eye on her while letting my mind wander.
I had a lot to think about, a lot to do. I was getting nowhere with my mission, and that fact should be commanding all my attention, yet it wasn’t. My thoughts kept twisting back to her. Christ, she’d barely been at the Academy a few months, but it seemed as if she’d been here as long as I had.
I watched Hendra walk lithely through the crowd, her long, elegant body swaying this way and that as her golden robes dragged over her bare feet. There seemed to be some unwritten rule that all mindairs had to be drop-dead gorgeous. Hendra was no exception. There was something uniquely beautiful about her gaze – fragile in the same way a glass statue was and yet at the same time you knew if it broke on you, it would shatter and cut you to pieces.
I tried to let that be my distraction, but it wouldn’t last. All too soon I found my head tipping back as my eyes scanned the crowd for her. She should be here, right? This was a gathering of team Omega, and I’d known from day one which team she was on.
Before I could shirk my duty and start pushing through the crowd to find her, Hendra stopped abruptly in front of me, her face contorting with pale-cheeked concentration.
“What is it?” I approached the mindair, smiling in a comforting way. “You look worried.”
“I… am thinking.” She pressed two elegant fingers into her brow. “I… someone’s memories are resurfacing.”
“What are you talking about?” I frowned in interest.
“From this morning – from the class. That woman.”
My back stiffened as nerves leaped across my skin. “Cadet Em,” I supplied, knowing immediately who she was referring to.
The mindair nodded, her fingers still pressed into her brow.
With a darting look, she tipped her head back and surveyed the bar. It was clear she was looking for Em. She started to push forward, and I was forced to walk by her side, lest I lose her in the crowd of babbling, chatting recruits.
It didn’t take long to find Em. She was always such a statuesque figure, rising above the recruits even if someone was taller than her. It wasn’t her height – it was everything else, from the way she held herself to the look in her eye. It was clear she wasn’t some simple recruit.
As soon as Hendra spied Em, she walked right up to her. Rather than tap her lightly on the shoulder, she reached out and clutched Em’s wrist. I’d seen my sister do the same, and I’d seen Em’s response – a quick, almost violent tug to the side to release the painful subspace wounds gouged under her skin.
Fortunately, Em didn’t yank Hendra off her feet. Em’s body did stiffen, though, and I watched as her eyes slid toward Hendra, that same cold dead expression escaping over her face that I’d seen this morning in class. “What are you doing?” Em asked through gritted teeth.
“Cadet, I am continuing what you did not allow me to finish this morning.”
Em stiffened even more. I didn’t think it was possible – she’d already looked like a rigid poll, maybe some reinforced smart metal you use to hold up a ship, not a person.
Em didn’t say anything. She was seconds from tugging her wrist back, I reasoned, maybe seconds from walking out. Then Hendra said something. She looked up into Em’s eyes, and she asked three little words: “Who is master?”
Em stopped. Her face froze into the coldest, hardest expression I’d seen her show.
The room fell silent. Em’s exact expression and body language commanded attention – they practically sucked it toward her like a black hole.
The mindair kept hold of Em’s wrist.
“This master – he has been significant in your life. The memory of him has a great psychological hold over you. You must challenge that hold, find some way to move on. No matter your experience—”
I reached forward and slowly pried Hendra’s grip from Em’s wrist, then I pulled her back.
Em did not move. She didn’t even breathe. She hadn’t said a word either. Her face looked locked in the coldest emotion I’d ever witnessed.
For a mindair, Hendra seemed clueless. She might be able to read minds, but she clearly hadn’t paused long enough to actually look at Em.
I looked up at her, trying to make eye contact with Em as I continued to pull Hendra back.
Em remained frozen for several more agonizing seconds, her expression still as deadly cold. Then she snapped out of it, her gaze snapping around to the silent crowd as they stared at her.
Without a word, she walked out.
Hendra moved to follow, but I kept hold of her. “Leave her,” I said.
“She has a psychological wound,” Hendra protested. “She kept it blocked from me in class, but now I feel it. If she wishes to pass this test and become the best recruit she can be—”
“Drop it,” I counseled in a hoarse breath, eyes darting up to stare at the closed door.
“All her classmates went through the process this morning. It is transformative,” Hendra countered.
Transformative? Perhaps for some. Dredging up the past and conquering the memory of deep-rooted fears and traumas worked for the lucky few. If your past was filled with too many monsters, the battle to conquer them would take a life, not a morning.
“Just leave it,” I said one last time, finally dropping Hendra’s wrist.
Slowly the crowd around us started to relax, almost immediately bursting into conversation about what had just happened.
I tuned them out and turned to the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Em outside. She wasn’t there.
I’d give her a few hours to settle down, then go find her to check on her.
Despite the fact I had my own mission to attend to, all my time these days seemed occupied with her.
It took me all night to find her. She was on top of her dormitory roof, sitting beyond the safety railing, her legs dangling down, her blue and black tendrils flaring behind her in the wind.
At first, I thought she was getting ready to jump. My heart leaped into my mouth as I opened the door to see her sitting there.
As I inched closer, bringing a hand up against the wind, I saw her expression. It was thoughtful as she stared at the city below her. If it weren’t for the wind, it would be beautiful up here. At night, the city was a cluster of gem-like light – a dazzling sea against the dark gray and black of the land and water.
I didn’t want to surprise her, so I edged toward her carefully. Before I could even make a sound, she announced, “I know you’re there, Jason.”
She hadn’t even looked my way.
“Come back over the safety railing,” I said in a forced light voice. “It’s kind of windy on the edge of the roof there.”
She didn’t say anything.
My heart leaped back into my mouth. When I’d been looking for her, I’d toyed with the idea of asking who ‘master’ was. Maybe she needed the chance to unload. Now as I stared at her, her torso a small shadow against the bed of lights below, I realized I couldn’t dare utter that word.
This wasn’t a trauma I could deal with. Whoever ‘master’ was, he wasn’t some petty fear to Em.
I approached, lacing my fingers through the safety fence as I got as close as I could. I didn’t stop there, though, I started to climb the damn thing.
She finally turned, eyeballing me as I hauled myself up the fence.
I comforted myself with the thought that should one of us fall, the Academy’s sensors should detect the sudden acceleration of our wrist devices and beam us to safety. I ignored the fact that didn’t always work.
There was the thinnest lip of smart concrete running around the edge of the building, just beyond the safety fence, and it was this lip that Em sat on, dangling her legs in the air as if she was casually sitting in a chair.
I climbed down the opposite side of the fence, carefully pressing my foot into the lip of concrete as I turned and sat down.
A few times I almost fell but latched my hands onto the fence in time. Eventually, I managed to make it to her side.
She barely looked at me.
I kept one hand pressed into the fence behind me, my fingers looped into the metal as I stared at her.
Now I was here, I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to get her to come back to safety with me, but I didn’t know where to start.
“You do not need to worry, Lieutenant Singh – I have no intention of jumping to the ground from here.”
“Ha, you could have told me that before I climbed all the way out here,” I tried for a joke.
What the hell was I doing? I quickly realized now as not the time to joke.
This woman was on the edge, literally.
Or was she?
Her expression was calm as she assessed the city, not contorted with pain.
“You’re a good recruit,” I suddenly supplied, “One of the best. You’ve got a great career ahead of you.”
It’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to point out that Hendra had been way out of line. She should never have pushed the issue. She should never have confronted Em about this ‘master’ in public.
“I’ll be quitting the program tonight,” she said.
“Wait, what?” What do you mean?”
“I have realized I am not suited for Academy life.”
“No, no you can’t quit. You’re great. Ignore what Hendra said,” I mentioned her name, swallowing as I did. Sweat laced my brow, my heart beating hard in my chest.
I’d trained for a lot in my career, but I had no idea how to deal with this.
“Just… just come back onto the roof with me, and we can discuss this.”
“I have told you – I have no intention of reaching the ground by jumping. That is why you Coalition races invented stairs.” She stood, swiftly.
I balked, reaching toward her and grabbing a hand on her leg.
She ignored my hand, turned, and climbed up the fence. She was over it and jumping down to the other side before I had a chance to blink.
I turned, stunned, and followed. I had to concentrate hard not to fall. I also took a lot longer than Em had to reach the safety of the roof again.
She stood tall, staring past me at the city.
I clamped a hand on my knee and breathed. I wasn’t out of breath – I was rattled. I’d just been on the wrong side of a safety fence.
Soon enough I pushed myself up and considered her. My heart was calmer now we weren’t on that ledge. Calmer, but not completely calm. It still beat with an erratic thump as I considered what to do next. “You shouldn’t quit,” I managed.
“I am not suited for the Academy,” she repeated.
“You’re strong, fast, and smart. You’ve also clearly traveled the galaxy – you’ve got a massive head start on the rest of the recruits. If anyone is suited for the Academy, Em, it’s you.”
She didn’t look at me.
I was going to lose her, wasn’t I? I mean, the Academy was going to lose her. Just one look at the cold, calm determination spreading over her face told me she’d already made her mind up.
Well, I wasn’t about to give up. I cleared my throat. “We need you,” I said bluntly, “A person with your skills could save a lot of lives.”
Her gaze darted toward me. I hadn’t thought my chest-thumping, patriotic speech would work, but on the term ‘save lives’ she focused on me.
“You could make a difference,” I continued. “You’ve already made a difference. Ignore… what happened with Hendra. I’ll smooth it over with your teachers. Maybe you can get out of that class.”
“I thought this would be easy,” she said, appearing distracted.
“… It’s meant to be one of the hardest training programs in the galaxy.”
“A Kore darma assassin is kept in total darkness for 20 years and taught to fight in the ice-cold caves of the Markan System.”
“Okay, so it’s not the hardest training program in the galaxy – but the Academy is meant to push recruits to prepare them for the dangers of space.”
She drew silent.
“Why… did you join in the first place?” I asked. If the most I could do was keep her talking, that was what I was going to do. I was no counselor, but I had the feeling she needed company.
She looked at me now. Her expression was unreadable. Empty. “To fix things.”
I swallowed. “You mean to make a difference?”
“You can still do that. No one is going to want you to quit. The only person who’s going to get in the way of you making a difference is you. I told you, I can smooth everything over with Hendra. She won’t be bothering you again.”
Was that hope flickering in Em’s gaze? It was hard to tell – she was one of the most guarded people I’d ever met.
She wasn’t running away, though, which was a good sign.
“I can talk to your teachers tonight, make sure you never have to go near that class or Hendra again.”
“Lieutenant Ma’tovan will object,” she said.
I clutched hold of her statement as proof she was considering my offer. I practically burst into a smile. “I’ll do what it takes. Plus, he’s not that scary once you get to know him.”
She shot me a look that told me she knew I was bluffing.
“Em, just stay,” I said, strangely emotional as the words tumbled from my mouth.
“I do not believe the building maintenance staff would be happy with me remaining on this roof all night.”
“I meant at the Academy,” I clarified through a short laugh.
Had she just made a joke?
I smiled, awkwardly, but hopefully.
“Very well, you’ve convinced me.”
I let out a massive breath of relief. “Wow, now, we should really get off this roof before our ears freeze and fall off.” I cupped my ears and winced.
She looked fine. Maybe those thick tendrils of hair protected her, or maybe she was ten times tougher than I’d ever be.
Scratch that – 100 times. She walked off the roof with her head held in the air, her statuesque form cutting a powerful shadow against the light filtering in from the door.
I stood before Admiral Singh, assuming the correct posture of erect professionalism.
The Admiral sat in a large chair behind her desk, sunlight streaming in from the windows behind and lighting up the five brass stripes on her collar.
“Hendra has been disciplined. This is her first assignment with the Academy. She clearly hasn’t learned correct decorum yet. You will not have to complete that component of this course.”
That was it?
Had Jason done it? Had he convinced his mother to ignore what I’d done last night?
While I had not become violent, I’d been aware of how threatening my expression had become. When I’d stared at Hendra, I’d done so with the cold hatred of 450 years of slavery.
I hadn’t been prepared for her to blurt his name out.
How she’d pried it from my mind, I still didn’t know. Somehow I’d left myself unguarded. A mistake I wouldn’t make again.
“Rest assured, Cadet, this situation has been resolved.” Admiral Singh nodded low and respectfully. “I apologize if this has interrupted your studies.”
I kept waiting for the Admiral to say but. To tell me to report to counseling, to ask me who master was.
“Since this incident, I am beginning to question the wisdom of using a mindair to prepare recruits for psychological attacks. Though, please understand that I believe Hendra’s heart was in the right place. Her behavior, however, was still unacceptable.”
I was still waiting for the Admiral to demand I tell her my story.
“If you wish to see a counselor,” the Admiral began.
I stiffened. My body hunched as if preparing for a subspace jump.
And maybe I was. If the Admiral’s questions became too invasive, I could always leap right through the wall and escape.
I didn’t have to. With a nod, the Admiral continued, “One can be arranged for you. You are under no obligation, however. As far as I and the Academy are concerned, this issue is resolved.”
Apparently, Jason had kept his promise.
“Lieutenant Ma’tovan,” I began.
“Follows orders,” the Admiral cut in, “Now, Cadet, get back to classes. Your teachers are happy with your performance. I’m sure the next time I see you in my office it will be to give you a commendation. Good luck.” She turned from me and considered something on her desk.
It was clear the conversation was now over.
I stood there for a little too long until the Admiral stared pointedly from me to the door.
I snapped a salute and walked out.
I continued walking until I reached my next class.
At any point, I could have done a subspace jump to leave the Academy and to leave this life far behind.
Last night, after the incident, I’d convinced myself that was the right thing to do. I clearly wasn’t ready for this.
Yet I was still here.
I would give this place another chance – give myself another chance.
Jason was right – if I stuck around, I could make a difference. I had 450 years to absolve.
I could not run away now.
I caught sight of her heading to class, and I smiled to myself. At least that was one thing I’d managed to get right. My mother had listened to me – especially when I’d stressed Em shouldn’t be forced to get counseling. She wasn’t the kind of person you could force to endure someone poking around her head. She’d run, for sure.
If you wanted to make progress with her, it would have to be with baby steps.
My mother wasn’t stupid, though – Em would be watched and assessed. Any more episodes like last night and someone would step in.
Not of course that Em had done anything last night. It was just the look she’d shot Hendra.
I burned to know exactly who this master character was. I didn’t want to stop there, though – I wanted to learn everything about Em. I had never encountered a more intriguing recruit.
But I had to concentrate on my mission. With every day that passed and every day I failed to find out who the spy was amongst our ranks, the Coalition bled more secrets. And now was not a time in history where we could afford to lose intelligence. There were strange movements across the Kore border, not to mention the usual dangers posed by the Barbarians.
I had to find the spy.
I was walking through the corridors, about to attend to another VIP, when I came across Hendra. She was standing with her hands clasped in front of herself as she stared out of one of the massive windows that showed a 20th-floor view of the city below.
She turned as I approached, before my footfall could have roused her, and she smiled. “I felt you coming near. Such a welcome presence,” she said as she nodded her head low.
I pretended to scratch the stubble along my jaw. It was that or admit to the fact I’d just blushed at her words. “It’s nice to see you too, Hendra,” I said. “How are you going?”
She offered me a strained smile, which was an unusual move for someone as calm and poised as Hendra. “I’m afraid I received a reprimand today. I’ve been working for the Academy for four months now, and this is the first time something like this has happened.”
I swallowed. Of course she had received a reprimand – I knew that already. I’d just walked into this conversation when I should have turned away and walked out.
“You believe it was fair, don’t you?” She asked perceptively as she offered me another small smile.
I choked, hiding it with a cough. “I… can’t comment,” I managed.
She blinked prettily then turned back to the view. “I was just trying to help. I sensed a heavy wall in Cadet Em’s mind, a wall so vast and large I couldn’t see through it. And yet there were cracks,” she said as she brought a finger up and traced it down in front of her, as if she were playing with a vision in her mind.
I swallowed again. I knew I shouldn’t be discussing Cadet Em with Hendra. Yet, as bad as it was, I wanted to find out any insight Hendra could give me.
“She’s a strange woman. I’ve never met anyone like her. And her mind,” Hendra shook her head, her gaze becoming distant as if she was staring at something far off through the windows, “Is cold,” she finally finished.
A shot of nerves punched up my back, flashing over my skin and making my arms shake. “What do you mean?” I kept telling myself to shut up, turn around, and walk away. It wasn’t fair to learn about Em this way. In fact, I could guarantee that if she found out I was talking to Hendra about her, she’d throw me through a window.
“She has monsters,” Hendra said as she brought her hands up and rested them on her arms. “Of all the cadets I faced yesterday, she was the one who could benefit from my help the most. But I failed to make her see that. Even Admiral Singh couldn’t see that I was just trying to help,” Hendra said in a quiet tone.
I pressed my lips into my teeth and tried for a commiserating smile. “I’m pretty sure Admiral Singh knows that. And as for Em…” I trailed off. She had to be left alone – I wanted to say. Em couldn’t be pushed.
Yet that’s not what I said. Even though it went against every one of my morals, I asked in a quiet tone that couldn’t travel into the corridor beyond, “Who is master?”
I shouldn’t have asked it. I shouldn’t have asked.
I had sat with Em last night on the edge of the goddamn roof until she’d agreed to come back to safety. I knew that whoever master was, he or she or it had hurt Em. Plus, I had no right to pry. No right at all. Yet that didn’t stop me from standing there and waiting for Hendra’s answer.
For a few seconds, Hendra didn’t look at me. Her brow compressed with confusion and she brought a hand up and pressed it into her lips. “I can’t say, but I can tell you that whoever master is or was, they exerted a strong influence over Em. For a very long time,” she emphasized. “The memory of master is all through her mind. The only reason I picked up on it is because it’s so strong. Otherwise, I have to admit, Em would have kept me out.”
I felt sick as I listened. Not just because of what I’d learned, but because of the fact I’d asked to learn it. Granted, I was a spy, but you weren’t meant to spy on your friends.
“What are you doing?” Somebody asked from behind, tone terse.
I turned to see my sister standing there, her arms crossed.
My cheeks chilled. “Elle? How long have you been standing there?” I questioned.
“Don’t even bother – I heard everything. You shouldn’t be discussing my friend. Her past isn’t any of your business.” Elle’s angry gaze shot from me to Hendra, then back to me. “That wasn’t the point of the class yesterday, right?” She challenged.
Hendra dipped her head low. “I am sorry for this indiscretion,” she said, “I was simply discussing something—”
“That was none of your business,” Elle said.
I knew my little sister, and my little sister was never rude. Unless you pushed her. Or, more importantly, pushed one of her friends. She could endure any number of hardships, but if she saw someone she cared about being downtrodden or abused, she would always step up. It was one of her redeeming features. But right now she was using it against me.
“Look, Elle, I’m sorry, you just came in at a bad time in the conversation. We were discussing—”
“Yep, you were discussing Cadet Em. But you’re gonna stop now, because you have no right to learn something about someone they don’t want you to know. She hasn’t done anything wrong, and she doesn’t deserve to have us snooping behind her back.” She shot me a challenging look.
Before I could say anything else, she turned and walked away.
Hendra’s cheeks were flushed blue with embarrassment. “Oh dear, I fear I have created yet another problem.” She brought her palms up and laid them flush against her cheeks.
I knew that a peculiarity of her race meant that when they were embarrassed or stressed their cheeks became cold, not hot. She was clearly trying to warm them up again.
“Look, it’s okay; I’ll smooth things over with my sister. Plus, this was my fault; I shouldn’t have asked,” I admitted in a serious tone.
“Do not blame yourself, Lieutenant Singh. You are a good man. I know your question came from the heart,” she said in that amazing lilting tone that could have made a battle cry sound like a lullaby.
I tried not to blush again. I took several steps back, nodded at her, and said goodbye.
She waved, then turned back to pensively stare out at the view.
I was going to have to catch my sister and explain this before she said anything to Em. I’d managed to foster a scrap of trust with her last night, and I didn’t want to lose it already. I wanted Em to know that I was on her side. So I rushed faster until my feet pushed into a jog.
I was being forced to endure far more stares than usual today. It seemed that my classmates were now more convinced than ever that I was the greatest curiosity in the universe. I heard a few of them whisper that word – master – but none of them were brave enough to walk up to me and ask who or what he was. Which was a good thing, because I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do if someone did.
I was beginning to realize I wasn’t as controlled as I’d thought I was. I’d left it four years before joining the Academy, not just because I’d enjoyed the feeling of freedom, but because I’d known there was a lot to learn. From customs and behaviors to discipline. I’d accepted this would be a hard task. Yet I was rapidly learning I’d underestimated how hard it would be.
I walked through the grounds to my next class. I was somewhat disappointed to find out it was combat, and Elle would not be there. She was still attending the introductory class, and I’d moved up very swiftly to the elite course.
Lieutenant Ma’tovan was waiting at the track for us, his enormous form casting a long shadow over the grass. He growled at us, as he always did, and instructed us in today’s lesson.
Before I could pair off with a partner, he walked up to me. “I’ll be your partner today, Cadet Em,” he snarled. The man couldn’t say anything without growling or snarling it. He probably even roared in his thoughts.
I dutifully snapped a salute and took up position.
The lieutenant shot me a wary, angry gaze. “I’m not gonna lie, Em: you’re one of my best combat recruits. But I don’t need to tell you that, nor do I need to tell anybody else. You take one look at the way you hold yourself, and anybody knows not to mess with you.”
My brow crumpled in confusion. I wanted to ask what he was getting at, but I was smart enough to know he’d reach his point when he was ready.
“They told me what you did yesterday. They told me you were verging on insubordinate in your telepathic defense class, let alone what you did when that mindair confronted you at the party last night. Now I’ll be honest with you: I hate telepaths, myself. I can’t stand the thought of them prying around my mind. I once broke a Kore assassin’s nose because he had the hubris to get between me and my thoughts. But I had every right to attack him, because he’d been attacking my crew.”
I stared at a point just below the lieutenant’s left shoulder. I controlled my expression.
“Admiral Singh wanted me to drop this, and I am dropping it; you aren’t going to be reprimanded. And I agree that’s a good move. But we shouldn’t ignore this, because it demonstrates something I already know about you, Cadet.”
I looked up. I shouldn’t have; you weren’t meant to meet a Ravang’s gaze, but I couldn’t stop myself. Nor could I control the particularly hard edge of my expression.
“You can’t control yourself,” he supplied. “Don’t get me wrong – you’re the least troublesome cadet I’ve ever met. You don’t get into bar fights, you don’t get into trouble, and you haven’t wound up in the med bay once. But don’t think I don’t know what’s going on in your mind when you look at me like that. You want to stick your fist right through my face. I’m a Ravang, and I know just how to spot that particular desire.”
I remained silent, but I couldn’t drop my gaze no matter how hard I tried to force myself to.
“You might think you’re controlled, but what you are is bottled up. You try to manage your environment so you don’t come across anything that truly pisses you off. Because if you do come across something that truly pisses you off, you’re not sure how you’ll react. Right?”
I still didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t stop my left hand from clutching into a fist.
The lieutenant let his gaze dart down to it before it slowly returned to my eyes. “One day you will make one hell of a Coalition soldier. One day I would be happy to go into battle with you. But not today. I don’t doubt that you could run faster and hit harder than any of the other recruits.” He jammed a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the rest of the class who were thankfully well out of earshot. “But that’s not gonna make you a protector. That’s gonna make you a killer.”
I reacted. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. But I jerked back as if I’d been slapped, my face contorting with emotion.
My entire life was predicated on the fact that I had not been in control when I’d been Axira. I was not responsible for what I’d done. And now I was free of my master, I would never have to do those horrible things again. Yet here the lieutenant was, casting doubt on that belief.
I took several jerked steps back from him, pressing a hand over my eyes.
He didn’t move. “I’m not gonna ask what you did in your past, because all that matters is that you’re an Academy recruit now. But I am gonna tell you this: if you want to be nothing more than a glorified killer who wears a Coalition uniform and pips, then continue doing what you’re doing. Your orders – no matter how brutal – will be an outlet for all that anger. You’ll twist every mission so you can wield your strength and power, do anything to make yourself feel in control. But if you want to be a guardian,” he brought one of his massive hands forward and stabbed a finger my way, “If you want to protect, if you want to only kill if it means the difference between saving someone’s life and condemning them, then you need to learn how to control yourself. You need to learn how to deal with all that anger before it continues to control you.”
I couldn’t cry; I wasn’t capable of it, but my face could still twist with emotion, my eyes still shake as terror and grief gushed from me.
“The Admiral didn’t want me to confront you, thought I should treat you with kid gloves. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my hands are far too big for those. I know how to deal with people like you, because I happen to be someone like you. Now, why don’t you take the day off and think about what I’ve said? Go for a run. Not one of the measured runs you always give me when you hold yourself back. Sprint. Push yourself to the limits. Make your muscles and bones scream until they can’t take any more. Then, when you’re tired – if you can ever get tired – sit down and think. Consider your future, Cadet Em. Consider what I’ve said. Figure out whether you want to be a killer or a guardian. And when you’ve decided, report back to me.”
With that, the lieutenant turned sharply on his heel, the sun glittering over his black skin as he stalked off to shout at the rest of the cadets.
I stood there, mouth open, eyes wide with shock. In that moment I was feeling more emotion than I had in years, maybe my whole life. It spilled out of me like it was gushing from a wound in my chest. I brought a hand up and clutched it over the fabric of my uniform, digging the fingers in as if I were looking for the injury. Eventually, I managed to force myself to turn. Then, with my body still shaking, I did as I was told and pushed myself into a run.
There was just enough reason left in my mind to ensure I didn’t go all out, that I didn’t run so fast I tore the boots from my feet. Yet I didn’t control myself completely. I let my body move.
I kept running until I made it all the way out of the Academy grounds. In fact, I ran right out of the city, keeping a pace that would have killed most of my classmates. I ran until I reached the forest. And when I was there, I jumped, reaching a glen amongst the trees. I let my body disappear from one point and travel through subspace until I reappeared somewhere else.
With a scream that cut the air, I kept subspace jumping as if I were crazed. Darting around the glen from one tree to another, from the sky to the ground – just jumping and jumping and jumping until finally I could start to feel the fatigue emptying out of my body.
With another scream as if I’d been shot, I fell to the ground. I slammed my fists into the dirt, one after the other, obliterating any stone or twig that was underneath me until finally I stopped. Dirt covered me, and scraps of wood were scattered around my feet. I rested back on my haunches and stared up into the sky.
Though the ever-present paranoid part of my mind told me it was over, and that it was time to leave the Academy, I didn’t move. Instead, I did as I was told, and I started to think. Think about what the lieutenant had said.
Did I honestly know the difference between being a mindless killer and a guardian?
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” I sighed into my drink and shook my head.
Another night wasted, I thought.
I’d had a lead. One of the teachers from engineering – Emma Carrington – had come to my attention recently. Too many private encrypted messages and too many holidays away from campus. Well, now I was sitting two seats across from her as I realized her secret was less of the treasonous kind and more of the romantic tryst kind. To be honest, I kind of felt happy for her, as she’d been single since her husband had died in a Barbarian attack. Still, this was another night wasted.
I paused, slammed a hand on the bar, then drowned the rest of my drink. Returning the glass to the table, I smiled at the bartender and walked out. Shoving my hands into the pockets of my civilian jacket, I warded off the chill by rounding my shoulders and receding into my collar.
Admiral Forest was understandably getting twitchy. Three months, and what did I have to show for it? Nothing but dead ends.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. It felt like I’d canvassed every single member of the Academy, but I still couldn’t find out who the leak was. It wasn’t as if our spy had run away either – we knew from leaked documents that they were still at it. But who they were and where they were, was still a mystery.
How the hell was I meant to catch them?
Shaking my head and grating my teeth together, I walked down the treed boulevard. When I realized it was too full of cadets and teachers from the Academy, I walked down a few side streets instead.
This area of town was beautiful. Wide thoroughfares offset with mature oaks and elms that led down to cobbled laneways with well-kept median strips. There were even old-style lampposts and wrought iron chairs. It was exactly the section of town you went to if you were on a date, and I had to congratulate Emma for her good taste.
“You’re not getting anywhere,” I moaned to myself, shoving my hands further into my pockets. I rounded a corner into another laneway, and that’s when someone ran into me – smack bang into me. It felt like being hit by a cruiser.
I fell flat on my ass. “Jesus,” I said as I brought a hand up to check my back.
Then I blinked. It was Cadet Em. She was dirty, the front of her uniform muddy, her sleeves caked in earth. Her hair, which usually sat in sleek lines of thick tendrils down her back, had the occasional leaf and twig sticking out of it.
“Christ, are you okay?” I jumped to my feet to take a better look at her.
She tilted her head to the side before nodding. “I’m fine. Sorry for knocking you over.” She turned to walk away.
I held a hand out to her. “No, wait.”
Reluctantly she came to a stop.
As I saw how stiff her body language was, a wave of cold dread spread through me. Had my sister told her what I’d been discussing with Hendra this morning?
My mouth quickly became dry, and I struggled to suck in a breath. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened this morning,” I said, realizing it was better to man up to it even if my indiscretion wasn’t the cause of Em’s current mood.
She blinked hard. “There’s no need to be sorry; Lieutenant Ma’tovan was correct.”
“What?” My brow knotted together.
“I lack control,” she remarked in a weak voice.
It was my turn to tilt my head in confusion. I remembered my mother promising me that no one was going to say anything to Em. None of her teachers were gonna push her, regardless of how rude she’d been to Hendra. But now it sounded as if Lieutenant Ma’tovan had ignored that order.
My hackles started to rise. Em was clearly not in a position where she should be pushed, so what the hell was the lieutenant doing pushing her anyway?
Perhaps Em could sense my growing ire, because her eyes flashed up to mine. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with, Lieutenant. I apologize for knocking you over.” She turned to leave.
I reached out a hand again. “No, look, you don’t have to leave. We could … walk back to the Academy together,” I suggested in a halting voice that sounded like I was asking her out on a date. I really wasn’t; I was trying to keep her talking so she didn’t do something stupid like quit the Academy. Yet I couldn’t convince my shaking voice and trembling heart to stay still.
She considered my hand. At first, I was certain she was going to reject it and walk away, then she shook her head and got a far-off look in her eye. “Fine. I suppose I could do with some company.”
I took a relieved breath and nodded. I started to walk with her as I brought a hand up and began patting the dirt from my jacket. There was a stabbing pain emanating from my left gluteus all the way down my leg, but I wasn’t about to rub it. I could check for an injury when I got back to the Academy; I didn’t want Em thinking she’d hurt me.
I glanced down at her muddy uniform. I wanted to know what exactly she’d been doing and why it looked as if she’d taken on a forest, but I held my tongue.
“I was angry,” she supplied. “I took a walk amongst the woods to let off steam.” She brought a hand up and pulled a twig from her hair, flicking it behind her.
“Oh,” I said in a weak voice. I could have and should have come up with something better than ‘oh,' but what was I meant to say? I wasn’t a counselor, I kept repeating to myself, and it was clear that Cadet Em’s problems weren’t the kind that assailed the usual recruit. She wasn’t steaming because she’d failed to pass a class or crying because some guy or girl she’d liked had rejected her.
“Why don’t you just ask me?” She said all of a sudden.
I was halfway through scratching my chin. I stopped as if she’d injected liquid nitrogen into my arm. “Sorry?” I stuttered.
Still walking, she turned her head to me. “Why don’t you just ask me what happened?”
My cheeks twitched. I couldn’t answer that the reason I didn’t want to ask her what happened was because it looked as if she’d either hit me or run away. Still, she’d challenged me, so I took a breath and asked, “Are you okay?”
“That’s not what you really want to know. You want to know why I’m covered in mud and why I couldn’t keep myself together last night when that mindair pushed her way into my thoughts,” she said through a struggling swallow. “And most of all you want to know who he is.”
“Sorry?” I asked, my voice shaking.
She stopped and turned to me. “Master.”
I stopped. I was cold. It wasn’t just because there was a chill wind blowing on the back of my neck – it was because of her expression. It wasn’t as hard as it had been last night when Hendra had challenged her. If anything, it was fragile, but fragile in a determined way. Like someone who knows their weakness and for the first time is ready to confront it.
I let my lips drop open. “Who is he?” I heard myself ask.
“A monster,” she answered.
I felt sick at her admission – the kind of sick that bypasses your gut for your heart, making your blood thin and chill. “I’m sorry,” I said. Those three little words were the only utterances that could make it past my dry throat.
“So am I,” she said as she brought a hand up and briefly covered one of her eyes before letting her fingers drop slowly down her face. “Lieutenant Ma’tovan confronted me this morning. He said I couldn’t control myself.”
“That’s not fair,” I quickly jumped to her defense. “Okay, maybe you were a little rude to Hendra, but she was way out of line. Any other cadet would have done the same or worse.”
She shifted her gaze to me, considering me silently for a few seconds before saying, “He’s right; I’m not controlled. I’m contained,” she said the word with so much emotion hidden under the surface, I thought her face would crack.
Contained. Why did I suddenly get the feeling that word summed Cadet Em up perfectly?
I swallowed. I wanted to say something – something pertinent, something useful, something that could reach out and help her. But I had no idea what that would be. Instead, my lips crumpled up into a commiserating smile.
She brought her hands forward and stared at them, even pulling back her sleeves to glance at the permanent scars dug into her wrists. It was the first time I’d ever had a chance to get a good look at them. They were holes covered over by scar tissue interspersed at even sections all the way around her wrists.
As she shifted, the light caught them, and I saw that occasionally they shimmered, indicating they were no ordinary scars. She’d already said they were permanently painful, and as I gulped, I realized that was probably an understatement. From what I’d read up about subspace scars, they could be agonizing. They sent some people mad.
I gulped. For a man trained in one of the best combat programs in the galaxy, I sure did gulp a lot. Then again, there was something about Em that would make even the hardest warrior show signs of nervous worry.
“I’m sorry,” I said suddenly. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing about, but it was relieving to see her expression soften as she flicked her gaze away from her scars and toward me.
“We should return to the Academy; it’s getting late,” she said.
I nodded. It was getting late. While I had special dispensation to be away from the Academy grounds for as long as I pleased, I knew Em didn’t. People would be looking for her.
We hurried along, or at least she did. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with her determined stride. She wasn’t taller than me, but the way she held herself and the way she moved served to make me feel like a child.
I raced along with my hands tucked firmly in my pockets, trying to ward off the chill. She strode freely as if the biting wind was no hindrance whatsoever.
“Let’s go down this laneway,” I suddenly said, “It’s a shortcut.”
“This way is quicker.” She ignored me and pointed ahead between several buildings.
I wanted to point out that I’d been here longer than she had and knew this city far better than a first-year recruit, but I held my tongue. For all I knew, Cadet Em had already studied blueprints of the city or run the whole thing in under an hour flat.
I followed her lead and soon enough we were walking down a very narrow alleyway between one old style heritage building and a newer far more modern structure made of sleek white metal and blue tinted glass. It was when we were halfway through the alley that she abruptly stopped.
I watched, a slice of moonlight striking her face, as her eyes narrowed. Her head tilted to the side with a quick twitch, and it was obvious something had caught her attention.
Before I could whisper, “What?” or draw a step closer, I heard something too. Just above us, along one of the sheer walls of the new building, there was some kind of scrabbling noise. Slowly I tipped my head back, my neck muscles practically creaking at the move. There was something above us. It wasn’t a bird, and it wasn’t a section of the building giving way. It was—
I jerked backward into Em, trying to latch a hand around her wrist to pull her toward the shadows and out of sight. She didn’t move. Instead, she brought her own hand up and anchored me to the spot. She wasn’t looking upward at the creature – whatever it was. Instead, her gaze was locked in the shadows to our left.
Nervous energy sparked along my back, feeling like a rush of cold water tipping down my collar. Before something could happen, before I could say or do anything, I heard the creature above us move. There was a scraping as if claws were being retracted from glass, and a swish as something fell toward us. I tried to ram forward, but Em wouldn’t let me. She kept me in place with one of the strongest grips I’d ever endured.
It was then that I saw what she could. As the clouds above shifted, and several shafts of moonlight shone between the buildings, I saw the light glint off something sleek, long, and coiled deep into the shadows of a recess.
There was a clunk as something landed behind us.
Adrenaline exploded through me, hitting my bloodstream and lacing through it with all the speed of light. I wanted to slam backward, drive my elbow around, and dive to the side. Do something. Start fighting. I knew I had seconds.
Em wouldn’t let me move. She hadn’t once made any indication that whatever the hell was behind us had caught her attention. Instead, her head was locked toward the sleek coiled object between the buildings before us.
I didn’t know what to do.
I heard something make a swooshing noise behind us.
This was it. It was all over.
Before I could prepare to have a blade sliced through my middle, Em finally acted. She shoved my shoulder so hard that she sent me skidding to my knees.
She whirled on her foot, leaped into the air, and grabbed the creature who’d been behind us, just as it slammed toward her.
A part of my brain picked up on the movement – whatever region of my addled mind that wasn’t shaking with nerves and adrenaline. I saw how graceful she was, how agile. She looked like she was attached to a wire, or moving in half gravity. When the creature leaped at her, she twisted in the air, slamming one knee into its head as she used the flat of her leg to push it toward the ground.
All this happened in an instant – in half a second. As soon as the creature slammed into the ground, I twitched, whatever short reverie that had afforded me time to note her grace ending with a bang.
I leaped to my feet, lunging forward to help.
I still didn’t know what we were fighting.
“Get down, Jason,” she bellowed, angling a kick toward me and slamming her foot hard into my shoulder as she pushed me back.
Again I was driven to my knees. Just in time. The coiled creature finally reacted. It unfurled itself like a snake on fast forward. Something whipped out toward me, slicing through the air where I’d been standing moments before.
Em had already dodged, falling to the ground and rolling before springing up to her feet in a neat summersault.
Clouds covered the moon again, cutting out what brief illumination they’d given. We were plunged back into the dark, only the scantest light there to illuminate the bodies of our enemies.
As far as I could tell, we were fighting two modified Kore assassins. One was a coiled, whip-like robot, essentially an antenna on legs. A deadly antenna. They were a type of communications device strapped onto the body of a robot assassin. The coiled whip could just as easily be used to slice through an enemy as it could to extend like an antenna to deliver its intelligence using hardly-detectable encrypted signals.
As for the other enemy, that was also a Kore assassin. A biological one, covered in sophisticated armor. I say biological, but it’s questionable whether there was enough of the original creature under those glittering plates of armor to satisfy the definition of alive.
I had no idea what two Kore assassins were doing on Earth, but I didn’t have the time to question either. And unless I helped Em, she would be dead. We’d both be dead.
Somehow she managed to keep on her feet, always darting back from both foes, even when they combined their attacks. She was offering so much of a distraction that neither of them had turned on me yet, which gave me the opportunity to tug my wrist up and activate my device. Or at least I tried to. As soon as I jammed a thumb into the electronic screen, it blinked back with an ominous red flash. One that meant all signals were being jammed. I didn’t have the time to breathe, to swear, to scream. In that moment that coil-like whip came swinging around and slammed into my shoulder. This time Em wasn’t there to save me, and I had to buckle to my knees, lest the whip continue and slice my head right off.
I ignored the pain that exploded through my arm, lancing down into my shoulder and up into my neck like sparks through my blood and flesh. Rolling, not caring that I jarred my shoulder again and sent splatters of bright red blood over the cobbles, I came up hard. This time I was ready to fight. As the whip sliced toward me, I ducked just in time, slamming one hand into the cobbles then using it as purchase to whip my leg around and use it to kick the coiled whip. If I’d been wearing my armor, that move would’ve made a difference. As it was, it barely reverberated down the whip and into the base of the coiled creature.
It did buy Em some time. I watched her double back, race toward the wall, and actually climb up it before flipping backward and landing behind the cybernetic assassin. She didn’t pause, she moved so quickly and so efficiently it was like watching a programmed hologram go through their paces. She lurched forward, rounded her shoulder, and slammed it into the middle of the cybernetic assassin’s back. Either she knew just where to attack it, or there was so much concentrated force behind the move that the metal plating along its back actually dented and it was sent tumbling forward. It slammed into the cobbles, its hands instantly scrabbling against them, digging into the stone as it tried to force its way back up.
It was murder keeping my attention split between the cybernetic assassin and the antenna. At any moment if I allowed myself to be distracted by either one of them, the other could pounce. If I let them near me, I’d be dead.
I knew my face was covered with sweat, I knew it trickled down my brow, collected along my chin, and dashed against the collar of my civilian jacket. I knew my face was contorted in fear and desperation too. I could feel the muscles pulling tight and twitching.
That wasn’t the case for Em. Her expression was calm, maybe even detached. Her eyes were open and focused, and her lips pulled into a thin frown. But that was it. Sweat didn’t drench her brow, and neither did her expression contort with fear.
It looked as if she’d done this before. As if the prospect of walking along a calm, purportedly safe street right outside the Academy only to face two Kore assassins was something that couldn’t possibly throw her.
Something else that couldn’t possibly throw her was the cybernetic assassin. With the help of the coiled antenna, it got to its feet, the antenna pushing its whip into the back of the cybernetic assassin until it thrust it forward.
The cybernetic assassin reached Em and wrapped an arm around her middle. For the briefest moment fear pulsed through me, it felt as if it was some kind of sun lodged in my throat. Before it could burn through my resolve and send me tumbling to my knees, Em resisted.
The cybernetic assassin didn’t have time to pull one of the weapons from its holster. It didn’t have time to bring up one of the electro blades lodged permanently into its arm. Em bent her knees, twitched forward, and sent the both of them hurtling toward the ground. She managed to flip, and landed on the cybernetic assassin’s body, before ramming both her elbows backward, collecting it in the guts, and rolling off.
She was amazing, incredible, but she couldn’t keep this up. Neither of us could. We had to get help, get help before these two assassins killed us and moved onto God knows who next.
Theoretically, the Academy and the whole city around it had a security net. Sensors that permanently scanned the surroundings for any danger. Clearly, they weren’t working. Whatever technology the Kore assassins were using to jam my wrist device was obviously also working on the security sensors.
That meant I had to raise the alarm some other way. I didn’t want this fight to spill out onto the street, even though that would presumably alert the whole city to what was going on. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t let us die alone here in the darkness of this cramped alleyway.
Thoughts flashed through my mind faster than blasts from a plasma gun.
We had to end this.
I didn’t have any weapons.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
As Em fought, she did so with one hand, using the other to type something into her wrist device. Though with her it wasn’t latched around her wrist – it was further up her arm, just above her elbow.
Sinking her feet into the ground and shoving her shoulder hard just as the cybernetic assassin whirled around to attack her again, she kept one hand free to keep typing something into the wrist device.
I had no idea what she was doing. Presumably, her device was just as jammed as mine.
But maybe I was underestimating her.
The cybernetic assassin twisted toward her, its massive clawlike feet sinking into the cobbles and making them crack and shatter to powder.
Em was a first-year recruit, but she didn’t bat an eyelid. She didn’t scream, not even when the cybernetic assassin brought both its hands forward, electro blades slicing from the claws and catching what remained of the light as blue pulses arced across them.
The cybernetic assassin’s face didn’t contort with rage; it couldn’t. It was essentially dead. Here and there flesh fell off it in green slimy chunks. Any skin that would be lost in this fight would be replaced with genetic therapy.
The glassy, dead look in its white rimmed eyes could not be replaced, though.
I watched the coil-like assassin suddenly spring toward Em, making its whip rigid like a knife.
I darted forward before my brain could think, going completely off instinct. I reached the coil assassin and kicked it, drawing on strength from somewhere to send it skidding backward.
This apparently bought Em the time to do what she did next. She wrenched her wrist device off her arm then chucked it toward me. “Wrap it around the coil,” she shouted.
I did what I was told. There was something about the exact shaking tone she managed to achieve that bypassed my reason and reached far down into my training. She reminded me of an admiral barking orders from the bridge.
As I skidded forward toward the coil, I turned my back on Em. The next time I twisted around to see her, the assassin was lying motionless at her feet.
Before I could register that, I somehow grabbed hold of the coil and slammed Em’s wrist device onto it. I didn’t clutch hold of that sleek, twisting metal for long; I knew it could become electrified at any moment and blast me backward or singe me to a crisp.
It was long enough, though, to secure the wrist device.
Then something kind of incredible occurred.
The coil assassin stopped. It twitched as if some electrical pulse passed through it, then buckled, crumpling to the floor and falling to my feet like a dead snake.
My heart beat so powerfully in my chest it was a surprise my head didn’t bounce off and start jumping over the floor like a live wire. My hands were drenched in sweat, and my jacket and shirt stuck to my back.
My breathing was so short and sharp it felt like my lungs had been chopped in half.
But it was over, right?
It was over.
Before I could question that, I heard Em move slowly to my side, her unhurried footfall matching her casual stance. “It’s over,” she mirrored my thoughts.
I let out a stuttering sigh. No, it was more of a groan as I brought a hand up and tugged down the torn fabric of my jacket, revealing the massive slice along my arm underneath.
Before I could become too distracted with my injuries, I immediately turned to survey our enemies. “We need to contact Academy security.”
“They will already have been contacted. The coil assassin is no longer jamming the security net. Trust me, the Academy is on its way.”
As if to prove that fact, I suddenly heard an alarm blare from across the city. I knew the pitch, and I knew the toneless melody. That would be the citywide yellow alert klaxon. You barely ever heard it. I’d only witnessed a security breach three or four times during my entire career.
“Are we sure they’re down?” I asked as I pivoted on my foot to stare at the cybernetic assassin.
It wasn’t moving, and neither was the other one.
“They will not get up again,” she answered.
“What … did you do? How did you manage to use your wrist device against it?”
“Our wrist devices have the capability of being used as weapons. We learned that in the first week,” she counseled me.
“I know that. But goddammit, that’s a coil assassin,” I stabbed a finger toward it. “How did you do that?” I couldn’t keep the surprise from reverberating through my voice. It shook and rippled through it like thousands of stones thrown into a once calm pond.
“I modified my wrist device,” she answered, “To send out a strong, repeating electrical field, timed to make it through the coil assassin’s rudimentary shielding.”
I stared at her, my mouth open, surprise apparent for anyone to see.
“I don’t know what that means,” I admitted.
“It doesn’t matter. It worked.”
I kept staring at her as if my eyes had been locked onto her with targeting sensors. “And what about that guy?” I nodded at the cybernetic assassin.
“I managed to get him off guard, and disconnected the primary command circuit from the back of his neck,” she answered smoothly.
I drifted into silence. I couldn’t find my breath, let alone force any more words through my tortured dry throat.
The alarm was getting louder, and now I could hear the steady drumbeat of boots approaching.
“I have no idea how we lived through that,” I said as I fixed the coil assassin with a glassy stare and wiped a hand down my mouth.
“That’s not the question you should be asking. The question you want to ask,” she tipped her head back to stare at the scrap of sky between the two buildings, “Is what an intelligence team was doing so close to the Academy.”
“What?” My brow crumpled.
“Have you forgotten your lessons on the Kore Empire?”
My mouth continued to march its way down my chin.
She pointed behind me at the two downed assassins. “They constitute an intelligence team. The specific grouping of assassins the Empire sends out when it is gathering intel.”
My gaze slowly drifted from her and locked on the assassins.
My mind was coming back to me now as the sound of a security detachment sprinting toward us calmed my nerves.
She was right. The two specific assassins we’d encountered did constitute an intelligence team. The cybernetic assassin could protect the coil and feed it secrets to send back to the Empire.
This was it, wasn’t it?
Christ, I’d just stumbled across my lead. Sure, maybe this intelligence team didn’t have anything to do with my mission – maybe they were gathering secrets about something else. But I doubted that.
Just as the security team rounded the laneway and a cruiser suddenly darted up high between the buildings and shone a light down onto us, I pushed forward and dropped to my knees next to the coil.
“I wouldn’t touch it,” Em suddenly warned me. “If you are looking for the information the coil would have been transmitting, it’s too late. It would have been destroyed as soon as the coil was taken down. They have a backup mechanism, a safety feature to ensure captured coils can’t divest their secrets.”
I swore. I knew that. Everything she was saying was common knowledge.
I planted a sweaty hand into my head just as the security team reached us.
I quickly explained what had happened, and the team secured the area, taking us and the assassins back to the Academy.
I was separated from Em as she was taken to the med bay. I didn’t think she needed to be taken to the med bay. Frankly, I was far more injured than she was.
Still, I was glad she was fine. Ecstatic, in fact. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have made it through that. Heck, if it hadn’t been for her, we wouldn’t have taken a shortcut down the alleyway and we wouldn’t have found those assassins in the first place.
But, as incredible as this lead was, was I actually any closer to finding the leak? Both the coil and the cybernetic assassin had wiped their memory banks. There was no information – no clue about what they’d been doing.
Or so I thought.
I found myself standing before Lieutenant Ma’tovan.
Considering what I’d just done in that alleyway – how I’d fought off two Kore assassins essentially on my own – I shouldn’t be standing here. I should no longer be on Earth, in fact. I should have taken the first transport to get away. To get away from the rumors that were about to spread about me.
Instead, I was standing here, with my hands behind my back, considering a patch of wood on his desk.
“What did it feel like?” He asked staring at me directly. “To make a difference? Jason Singh may be one hell of a lieutenant, but if you hadn’t been there, Cadet, he wouldn’t have lived through that. So what did it feel like to be the difference? The difference between someone living and someone dying?”
The lieutenant already knew all about what had happened in the city. Heck, all the upper brass did, and soon enough, the rumor would probably spread through the cadets. Though I fancied the teachers would try hard to keep on top off it.
The fact a Kore Empire intelligence team had been kilometers from the Academy headquarters, undetected, and clearly running some kind of mission was not one the top brass would like to spread.
I considered his question.
Because that question was the only reason I was still standing here.
How did it feel to have made a difference?
Right. It felt right.
“It felt good, didn’t?” He answered his own question.
“You helped protect the Academy tonight, Cadet. Something none of the other recruits will do until they graduate. You saved Lieutenant Singh, heck, it sounds as if you saved that section of the city too. I probably don’t need to tell you, but if those assassins hadn’t been rumbled, they could have gone on to destroy a good section of the city before self-destructing.”
I kept staring at that same section of wood.
“You’re questioning why you’re still here, aren’t you?” He asked perceptively. “You’re still here because you can’t run away anymore.”
I looked up at him now.
“You have your first taste of what it feels like to protect, and it’s going to be like a drug. It will be the only thing that controls the demons in your mind,” his eyes blazed as he spoke.
I held his gaze. I shouldn’t have. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t drop it. He didn’t take it as an insult. He smiled, a section of his top lip crinkling into his slit-like nose. “You missed your combat class this morning, but let’s say tonight made up for that. Tomorrow,” he leaned forward, planting his large hands on his desk, “Your real training begins.”
I didn’t blink. Nor did I look away. “Real training?” I asked.
I was envisaging more combat training. Perhaps the stuff they reserved for the elite forces.
I was wrong.
“Tomorrow you begin learning how to control yourself.”
I couldn’t control the tension that spread across my features.
“That’s scaring you, isn’t it? Two Kore assassins can’t rattle you, but the prospect of learning to control yourself scares you senseless, doesn’t it?” He took a lot of pleasure in what he was saying.
I didn’t speak. Did I have to? My answer was etched in every worry line digging into my cheeks and brow.
“You will report to me in the morning. First thing.” He leaned back and crossed his arms.
That was clearly my invitation to leave.
Something kept me riveted to the spot. A question slowly burning in my mind. A question that had been burning since my incident in combat training yesterday. Slowly I let my lips draw open. “Why are you doing this?”
“I thought I made that clear: to make you the best recruit I can. That’s my job.”
“No, why are you really doing this?”
“Because I can see right through you. I don’t know anything about your race, but I don’t need to. I had you pinned the second I saw you. Do you know much about my species?”
I nodded. I had fought countless Ravang over the centuries.
“We are warriors. Proud, disciplined, honorable. But we’re still warriors. Our inclinations will always be to fight. Now, we can either fight to kill or fight to protect. Over the history of my race, it was always the latter rather than the former. Ravangs were kidnapped by the Barbarians, by the Kore, by anyone willing to use our strength and speed for their own nefarious purposes. Even when we joined the Coalition, we were always used as soldiers. Because that’s what we’re made to do. And even in this Coalition,” he stabbed a finger at his desk, “The soundest, most just, most worthy group in the galaxy, there are still people who will use you. If you prove yourself to be a competent soldier, they will use you to fight their wars. Your hands will be asked to kill for them, while your mind and your morals will be shunted to the side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the Coalition. I understand this is a hard galaxy now, and we have to fight to live. But I know what it’s like to be a mindless soldier. And even in this Coalition there will be people who take advantage of that fact. Do you want to be a mindless soldier?” He suddenly questioned me.
I couldn’t answer. My mind was awash with memories. Memory after memory of killing, destruction, of serving master for 450 years.
I made no attempt to control the glazed, horrified expression crossing my face.
“I have a feeling you already know what it’s like.”
Again, I couldn’t answer. Which was answer enough.
“I have a feeling you don’t want a return to that dark place. I’ve been there too, and I know the only way to stop yourself from sliding back into that place is to learn the difference,” he suddenly rumbled, “Is to keep your head on your shoulders. But most of all is to protect. The culture of my race is steeped in the myth of a warrior. But the problem with warriors is they always need an enemy. Without one, they’ll do anything and follow anyone who will lead them to the next foe. But you need to get rid of the idea that you’re a warrior. You are a protector, a guardian. When you realize that, everything will change. You’ll stop looking for people to fight, and start looking for people to protect.”
I no longer had any idea how I appeared. I’d lost all ability to feel my expression, to even feel how stiff and rigid my body was as I stood there in front of him and I concentrated on his words.
I could have subspace jumped at any time, gotten the hell out of here for good. But I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. His words were like the strongest force in the galaxy. It was like encountering magnetism for the first time; it locked me on the spot.
“Alright, Cadet, dismissed.”
I saluted, but it wasn’t as stiff and perfect as usual. I couldn’t control my body for some reason. With a stumble, I turned and walked off.
I caught a glimpse of the lieutenant’s expression in the shiny panel of the door.
He wasn’t staring at my back with hatred, even though that was the most common expression you’d see on a Ravang’s face. Rather he considered me with something that bordered on compassion.
That made me walk faster, in fact, once I hit the corridors, I ran. People had to dart out of my way, and I didn’t slow down until I reached it. Not my room, but the roof above. After checking there were no witnesses, I subspace jumped out onto the lip of concrete beyond the safety fence, and I let my legs fall out from underneath me. I sat heavily, crumbled my hands into my lap, and let my eyes close.
What was happening to me?
The Coalition Academy was meant to be easy. This was not easy. This was torture.
Yet I was still here.
I was enduring it.
And I would continue to endure it, I decided as I lifted my head and stared at the sparkling cityscape beyond.
Because tonight I had made a difference.
I brought my wrist up and considered my subspace scars.
I would continue to make a difference, I suddenly decided with a firm determination that cascaded through my body, stiffening my posture and lifting my chin even further until I stared up at the stars above.
Jason Singh and the rest of the Academy would be unable to find out what the Kore assassins had been after.
Nothing could stop me.
They were spreading Academy secrets. I was going to find out what they were, and I was going to bring a stop to it.
I walked to class the next day, focused. Not on my studies, on my self-appointed mission.
I was still filled with the certainty that I could do something – make a difference.
It gave me the will I needed to hold my head high and ignore the stares. Though I was sure information on my exploits last night would not have spread too far, I was equally certain a watered-down rumor had spread. My classmates may not know exactly what had happened, but they knew something was up. The fact I was pulled from class several times over the day to debrief with various admirals was proof enough.
As I walked through the corridors, sunlight streamed in through the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the wall. They showed an unrivaled view of the city beyond. If you cared to, you could let the sleek white and gray buildings pulling down to the water distract you.
I ignored the view.
Holding several datapads, I kept my head straight and my gaze straighter. I fixed it on the floor as I thought of my next move.
Though I was determined to help find the information leak at the Academy, I also knew I had to be careful. I couldn’t immediately start zipping around the place, doing subspace jumps or pulling my energy weapon from my subspace pocket.
I had to be subtle.
Grasping one hand into a fist, I walked past a group of cadets who were discussing something animatedly amongst themselves. As soon as I approached, they changed topic. They’d assumed I was out of earshot – they were wrong.
They’d been discussing me – as almost every group of people I passed were.
For someone who’d tried to stay inconspicuous and silent, I was turning out to be one of the most talked about topics in the Academy.
As I marched along, my footfall always measured and precise as my tall form cast a long shadow toward the wall, I noticed the extra security. I felt it too. Not only were there more thin-lipped officers scouting the halls for trouble, but there was a distinct new hum in the air – no doubt the sound of the Academy internal sensors operating at full as they continually scanned the grounds for more trouble.
It wouldn’t work. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. I could guess.
I knew the capabilities of the Coalition. I knew how hard it was to pry past their defenses. There was a reason my master had never pushed into their space – it wouldn’t be worth the risk. Get a good, unflappable crew with a good ship, and you could take on a spacer.
Master was content to lurk in the shadows, deep within Kore space, biding his time, only ever selecting jobs that secured his further dominance, not risked it.
Despite his prudence, Master was one of the most powerful forces within the Kore Empire – if the most shadowy. So the mere fact that someone within the Empire had the gall and resources to run a successful, undetected reconnaissance mission right in the heart of the Coalition – at the Earth Academy – was deeply worrying.
There was only one group I knew who’d try it – the Caste. A group of desperate, powerful, resourceful warriors situated deep within the Empire. They were one of the ruling forces of the Hole Sect. They were also adept at creating willing, mindless soldiers.
Utilizing everything from brain-washing techniques to mind-control to complete cybernetic refitting, for every soldier of the Caste you took down, two were created to replace them.
I reached the end of the hall, and turned to the left, down a staircase that would lead me toward the recreation floor.
I had no reason to use the facilities.
I should be heading to class, yet I calculated my current detour wouldn’t make me late.
I had five minutes to get to class. It would take me two to do what I would do next.
“We’re running out of time,” Admiral Forest said, her voice a hurried hiss as she stood in the middle of the room. There were no windows, and the walls were reinforced with inch-thick carbo-steel.
It was a room designed to keep things in. Currently, it had four inhabitants, and only two of us were alive.
I took a step forward, forcibly keeping my gaze locked on the Admiral rather than the two dead assassins secured in containment fields behind her.
Blue light flickered through the room in time with the pulsing, humming shields. It washed over the cold gray floor and up the drab walls, it even played against the side of the Admiral’s jaw as she angled her head toward the assassins. “We don’t know how much data they managed to send before you interrupted them.” She shrugged her shoulder at the assassins on the word them.
I cleared my throat and straightened.
“This is deadly serious,” she said in an ominous tone that matched the cold, dark room perfectly.
I knew that.
God did I know that.
“Admiral, I’ll try—”
“Lieutenant, I don’t want excuses, not now. I want answers. I don’t care what you have to do and what you need to do it, but find me that leak.”
I didn’t recede in the face of her blunt anger, but I should have. It felt like standing in the path of a spewing volcano.
I knew the Admiral wasn’t directing her belly-shaking rage at me – it was the impossible, unsolvable situation.
The lives of everyone hung in the balance here. They had no way of knowing how much information those two assassins had managed to glean and send to their masters before they’d died.
It was like knowing you’d hurt yourself, but having no idea how badly. The Academy could have sustained a light wound or a fatal blow.
I gulped, my throat pushing against my tight collar. “Have we managed to learn anything about the assassins?”
The Admiral shook her head curtly. “Nothing. Their memory circuits were scrambled the moment they shut themselves down.”
He hung his head.
“Don’t blame yourself, Lieutenant,” the Admiral commanded, her piercing eyes blazing like twin blasts, “If you hadn’t brought down those assassins, they would have sent even more information. They could have gone berserk and taken down a section of the city too. You did the right thing.”
“You mean we.” I leveled my gaze at the ground.
I was only starting to process how incredible Em had been during that fight. She’d moved like… Christ, I had no comparison. Competent, lethal, graceful, efficient – like nothing I’d ever seen outside of a holo movie.
I found myself gulping.
“I’m well aware of the Cadet’s contribution,” she assured me.
She’d won that battle while I’d stood around and tried not to get killed.
“Her skills have come to my attention before. Moves will be made to accelerate her program. She’s an asset we can’t afford to lose at this time,” the Admiral said thoughtfully.
A flashback of Em sitting on the wrong side of that safety fence blinked into my mind.
I agreed wholeheartedly with the Admiral – we couldn’t afford to lose Em. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to keep her. Every day it seemed she encountered some new emotional dilemma. I didn’t know what was lying under the surface of that Cadet, but I wanted to help. I just didn’t know how.
I didn’t share a single one of these thoughts with the Admiral. Instead, I straightened up and kept my stance stiff.
“We need to accelerate this investigation. I don’t care what it takes,” she repeated, “Just find our leak. No one is off limits. Scour this entire Academy and find me our spy.”
I snapped a salute.
“It could be anyone,” she emphasized. “Anyone.”
“I’ll get them,” I assured her.
“Soon,” she warned.
Because if I didn’t find our leak soon, it would drain the whole Academy dry like a hole in the heart.
I waited until I could sense there was no one in the room, then I jumped. I opened up a hole in subspace with my mind, traveled through it, and appeared within a dark, cold space flickering under the reflected light of two powerful force fields.
Instantly I made a fist, sending a burst of energy slamming through the room. It wasn’t enough to blow the roof off or crumble the walls – I wasn’t trying to destroy anything.
It would interfere with sensors, block this room from being scanned and my presence detected.
I had about 60 seconds until it stopped working.
I did another subspace jump, this time appearing right next to the containment field holding the cybernetic assassin.
I tilted my head to the side and assessed the field. I sensed the energy, quickly gauging it wasn’t strong enough to keep me out.
I jumped again, this time appearing inside the field, alongside the slab that held the cybernetic assassin.
A flash of fatigue crossed through my body, but I ignored it as I leaned down to work. Jumping through containment fields was a tricky and tiring business.
I yanked the assassin up, turning it over as my eyes darted toward the back of its neck.
I was looking for its information processing circuit.
I spied it and plucked it up, snatching it from the lock it formed with the reinforced metal ring running around the assassin’s neck.
The crack of metal echoed through the room.
I rolled the circuit until it was flat against my palm. I closed my eyes.
I sent energy winding across my skin and into the circuit, connecting to it in a rudimentary fashion. I no longer wore the sophisticated wrist devices that had once been my shackles. If I had, I could have learned this circuit’s secrets instantly. Instead, I had to use other senses.
The cybernetic assassin had deleted its memory banks, and I wouldn’t be able to recreate that information.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t find out anything useful.
I knew that cybernetic assassins were equipped in different ways depending on their intended mission. If their masters wanted them to gather intel by physically hacking computer systems or remotely accessing feeds and signals, their bodies would be implanted with sophisticated information extraction equipment.
This assassin had none of that gear. Instead, as I assessed the circuit, I found what I was after.
Telepathic residue. I could feel it. I may not have been a telepathic creature myself, but I could sense the particular fields such skills used.
This circuit still tasted of them.
I opened my eyes and quickly assessed the rest of the assassin’s body. Sure enough, there were other circuits and antennas embedded in the creature’s body that would be capable of picking up telepathically transmitted information.
Indeed, as I pried back sections of the assassin’s armor, I ascertained its race was one known to possess telepathic abilities.
I had my answer. The cybernetic assassins had received its information telepathically.
It made perfect sense. The Academy was too well guarded to allow its main computer banks or encoded signals to be hacked. While there were other methods of gaining and transferring data, none were as hard to detect as telepathic transmission.
All you required was someone powerful and skilled enough, and someone capable of receiving. Such a method could not, however, be used over long distances. They didn’t have to be. The few kilometers from the Academy’s heart to the alley I’d found this assassin in were enough for the ability to work.
I returned the circuit to the assassin, flipped him over, and jumped back into the main room.
My time was up. Soon the Academy sensors would be able to detect me. So, with one final fleeting look at the cybernetic assassin, I jumped away.
Step one of my mission was complete. Now all I had to do was find the telepathic leak. And I knew where to start.
I was getting nowhere, and it was killing me. Stress hung off me like a shadow, haunting my every step. I couldn’t let it get to me – couldn’t let the sweat continually collecting between my fingers and shoulders distract me.
“You should try to relax,” Mason said as he walked by my side, “I’ve never seen you more stressed. Still don’t have a date for the upcoming E Club ball? Because you could ask any single person in the Academy, and I’m sure they’d say yes. Son of an Admiral, decorated lieutenant – what’s there not to like about Jason Singh?”
I could pick up a few faults in my character – primarily my inability to complete this mission – but I wasn’t going to share that with Mason. Instead, I muttered an uninterested, “Hmmm.”
“Is there somewhere else you’d rather be?” Mason asked perceptively.
We walked around a corner, and I suddenly stopped. There were a group of first-years waiting for a class. She was standing off to one side, her head angled to the sky as she stared through the windows. With her long neck extended like that, she looked regal. Not haughty, just noble.
I swallowed all of a sudden.
“Or is there someone you’d rather be with?” Mason continued, his voice descending into a low chuckle.
It took me a moment to follow his conversation. As soon as I got his point, I spluttered.
I didn’t defend myself, I just spluttered.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Mason said knowingly. “But, honestly, when I said you could have your pick of anyone at the Academy, I didn’t include her. You might be the bravest guy I know, but somehow I doubt you have the balls to ask her out.”
“Shut it,” I warned.
Em turned from the window and made eye contact with me, even though I was certain she was well out of earshot.
“Damn, she’s like a targeting drone – you don’t think she can hear us, do you?” He asked with a chuckle.
Technically, no – she shouldn’t be able to hear us. She was a fair distance away, and there was a sea of chatting recruits between us.
Then again, Em had a habit of surprising me.
“So, I suppose you can’t tell me what happened last night,” Mason changed topics as another surge of cadets crossed down the corridor, blocking our view of Em.
“That’s the first right thing you’ve said all day. I can’t tell you a word. So don’t ask,” I added quickly.
“There’s a rumor it had something to do with her.” Mason shrugged through the crowd toward Em. “There anything to that rumor?”
“Nope,” I answered.
“I thought you said you couldn’t tell me anything?”
“I’m not – I’m just confirming she wasn’t involved.”
“What else can’t you tell me?”
I decided it was best to ignore Mason. If I was lucky, he’d get bored and go away, or something else would walk along and distract him.
I shouldn’t have wished for as much.
Just as the crowd thinned as a group of cadets entered a classroom, I saw someone walk up to Em.
The last person I wanted to see anywhere near her. And no, it wasn’t a potential suitor – it was Hendra.
I pushed off through the crowd just as Hendra reached a hand out to Em.
By now news had traveled of the last time Hendra had approached Em. An expectant silence spread through the corridor as virtually every cadet turned to watch.
Hendra had a hand flat on Em’s arm. Fortunately, Em didn’t turn, yank it off, and throw Hendra out the window. In fact, as Em turned, her expression lacked all sign of emotion. I was ready for the same cold, barely contained hatred to spread across the Cadet’s features, but they didn’t.
She looked calm. No, maybe that wasn’t the right word – she looked as though she were concentrating.
“Cadet,” Hendra began as I reached them.
“Hendra,” I said, trying to keep my voice quiet so it didn’t reach the ears of all those listening cadets.
Hendra ignored me. “I may be overstepping my bounds, but I have a moral imperative to. I believe I can help you. Please, just hear me out.”
To my astonishment, Em didn’t walk off, snap, or do anything even remotely rude. Instead, she stood there and stared at Hendra impassively.
It was like I was staring at a completely different Em. The power of her reaction when Hendra had confronted her the first time still reverberated through my muscles. If had forced her to climb outside the safety fence. Yet now she looked entirely unbothered as she replied, “I’m listening.”
I was seconds from telling Hendra to get the hell away from Em. I knew she’d been given a direct order from the Admiral.
My words stuck in my throat as Em turned to me and said, “It’s alright, Lieutenant. As Hendra said, she only wants to speak to me. I’ll hear her out.”
“You will?” I couldn’t keep the disbelief from shaking through my tone.
Hendra smiled with relief, the emotion so strong, you could feel it lapping off her in waves. “I knew you would come around. My race is renowned for their abilities to heal mental wounds. You will benefit so much from my help.”
Em smiled. Or at least I think she did. She moved her mouth muscles in all the correct ways, but there was no warmth in her move. “Yes, I know about your race,” she answered. “I am well aware of your capabilities, and I accept your help.”
Hendra looked ecstatic, her beautiful lips rounding into an incredible smile. Though the smile wasn’t directed my way, it still made me feel giddy. Not for very long – after a few seconds my gaze was magnetically drawn back to Em.
Why was she doing this?
Should I be worried about her sudden change in behavior? Should I let the Admiral know? She’d gone through a hell of a lot recently – especially considering what had happened last night. Her erratic behavior could be down to stress, or worse – a pending mental breakdown. Yet as I gazed at her face more critically, I couldn’t see any sign of strain. Just that same determined concentration.
She looked like she was trying to catch something. Or was that an emotion I was transferring onto her? I was trying to catch a spy, and yet all I was doing was standing here and staring at her.
“I have classes until the end of the day,” Em volunteered. “Perhaps we can arrange something for this evening?”
“Yes, that will be perfect – I’ll be waiting in my office.”
Em tilted her head to the side. It was her signature move. I’d watched her do it enough times to realize it was a sign of her calculating something.
Why was she accepting Hendra’s offer?
Before I could ask, a teacher bellowed from behind us that class was about to start. All the waiting cadets, spell-bound by Em and Hendra, all scurried off.
Hendra bowed low, smiled at both me and Em, and walked away.
It gave me a few seconds to stare questioningly at Em. I didn’t know if I had the kind of relationship with her where she’d confide in me, but that didn’t stop me from leaning in and asking, “What was that about?”
“I have changed my opinion. I am interested in seeing what Hendra can do,” Em answered plainly.
I opened my mouth to ask her what had changed, but she nodded low and walked off, leaving me staring at her in surprise.
“You look like you’re trying to park a cruiser in that big wide-open mouth of yours,” Mason noted as he reached me and patted a hand on my shoulder.
I pressed my lips closed and ignored him.
What was Em doing?
I knew I shouldn’t be letting her distract me, but I couldn’t help it.
It was more important than ever for me to track down that spy, but instead I was standing here staring at her.
What was wrong with me?
I moved. I let myself go. Not completely, but more than I usually did. It felt good to push the energy through my muscles – to spring and jump and roll.
To pull off the shackles that usually bound me.
I leaped over another obstacle, just as it formed underneath me. I was in the training circle – a specialized track studded with holographic generators that could throw obstacles and enemies at you with all the speed and control of the Academy’s best computers.
A hole formed under my left foot, but I pivoted, placed weight on my free leg, and rolled to the side. Just as I did, an enemy formed above me, the snarling face of a Xerk appearing centimeters from my nose.
I jerked forward with my foot, slamming into its stomach as I brought up my gun and shot it in the chest. The hologram blinked out, only to be replaced with two more.
It was frantic, or would have been for an ordinary recruit. Objects and enemies flashed in and out of existence with such rapidity and speed, it would have left a normal, soft-fleshed race with a headache for a week.
“Work with your fatigue,” Lieutenant Ma’tovan suddenly counseled me from the sidelines. He was standing with his arms crossed, his massive chest puffed out, his black scaled skin catching the sun.
The training zone didn’t have a roof – though weak shields could be turned on if the weather turned inclement. Considering the size of some of the enemies the training zone could conjure, you couldn’t afford to have a roof. Right now that meant glorious midday sunshine was streaming in from above. Bright and warm, it lit up the zone, glinting off me and the track, but not interacting with the holograms – they were made of light, after all. The fact the sun couldn’t shine along the holographic Xerk’s armor, or glint along the barrel of my holographic gun gave this scene a dreamlike quality.
“Respect the tiredness in your muscles,” Ma’tovan continued.
I was measuring my effort, slowing down at intervals to make it appear as if I were weakening through fatigue, when in reality I could do this non-stop for a month.
“More than that, respect the tiredness in your mind,” he counseled in a booming voice. “That’s the first thing you need to watch for. Your limbs know when they can’t continue – they tell you. They get heavy, hard to move. The mind can’t signal its fatigue like that. I’m not talking about headaches or lack of attention – you know what I’m talking about.”
I did. This was not a training session to test the capabilities of my endurance – it was meant to teach me to listen to my moral compass.
I didn’t think it would work. How could fighting possibly teach me how to learn when not to fight?
“You need to learn to temper your strength, to learn when to fight and when to stop. Most of all, you need to learn when to let go. If you can’t master that lesson, then you’ll be nothing more than a pit of rage carrying a gun around.”
I appreciated what he was doing. Despite his blustery nature, Ma’tovan was one of the few people on campus I could relate to. He hadn’t shared with me his exact life story, but I knew it mirrored mine. He’d once been a mindless soldier following orders too. The extent of his enslavement couldn’t truly compare with mine, but the similarity was enough that I was receptive to his help.
“Most of all, Cadet, I want you to learn to trust yourself. Not just your battle instincts, but your moral ones. Only when you learn to trust yourself will I trust you.”
His words echoed around the training ground.
I trusted myself. I knew how to move my body, knew it would never let me down.
But my mind? Could I honestly learn to trust that?
I was happy for the Lieutenant’s help, but deep down I was doubtful it would work. The only thing that would ever truly assuage my guilt and soothe my moral conscience would be to defeat my master. Only when the galaxy was free from his insidious influence would I rest in peace.
I leaped over an obstacle, just as it formed in front of me. I grunted, the noise echoing around the small training ground. I would have liked to be in one of the larger grounds, but the main one was currently being used.
I needed to let out steam. I needed to feel effective, even if it was only for a few minutes.
I punched to the side, pitching my body to the left and rolling heavily as a projectile slammed past my shoulder.
I let another grunt rip from my throat. Sweat dripped down my brow. I’d only been pushing myself for ten minutes now, but it had been nonstop. My body pumped with so much adrenaline, my hands would shake and my teeth would chatter if I had the time to stand still.
An enemy suddenly formed in front of me, the hologram flickering here and there as dust particles passed through the light matrix.
I threw myself forward, just as the Xerk warrior rushed toward me. He opened his perpetually snarling mouth, his beady eyes glinting like far off stars.
I shoved my shoulder hard into his gut, using my momentum to drive his massive form backward.
The Xerk stumbled, but almost immediately spun around with a backhand, walloping his huge arm across my shoulders.
I absorbed the force by ducking down, but the arm still impacted hard – so hard it would have left a massive contusion and a few broken bones, if this weren’t a holographic fight.
I couldn’t be injured during this simulation, not unless I was dumb enough to trip over and skin a knee. That or push myself too hard and strain something. The holographic enemies couldn’t shoot, maim, stab, or beat me to death. Instead, any damage they did was registered with the computer, showing my virtual life rapidly dwindling with each blow I received.
I only had a few bars of health left, and I had to use them wisely.
Pivoting on my foot, I shunted backward, falling to the ground and angling my feet up as the Xerk rushed me again. I pushed my feet together and punched them forward, striking the Xerk in the knees.
It was enough to make the holographic alien stumble, enough to give me the time to roll to the side and follow my move up with a well-placed kick to the back of the knees.
The Xerk stumbled. Before he could get up, I grabbed the gun in his holster and turned it on him.
“All enemies defeated. Your score for today’s training program is below average.”
I swore. So much for making myself feel effective. Even the computer thought I wasn’t up to much at the moment.
Dropping the holographic gun and watching it disappear before it could strike the ground, I wiped the back of my sweaty hand over my even sweatier face. Pressing my fingers into my lips, I forced several calming breaths.
Enough training. It was time to find that spy.
I glanced up at the afternoon sun above. A few more hours until evening, I realized.
A few more hours until Em would voluntarily accept Hendra’s help.
I let the thought distract me as I exited the training ground and got cleaned up.
What was Em really up to? Had she changed her mind? Or was this erratic behavior evidence she was at the point of breaking?
“How was your special training session with Ma’tovan?” Elle asked as she walked by my side.
She had a reassuring, friendly smile on her face. One she wore permanently in my company.
“Fine,” I managed as I directed my head forward to ignore the collective stare of a group of muttering cadets.
“She’s so unpredictable,” one of the cadets whispered.
“That’s one word for it – unstable is a better one.”
“If you spent less time muttering and more time studying, you wouldn’t have to put down others to make yourself feel less inferior,” Elle snapped at the cadets.
I was starting to learn that Elle – despite her incredibly sweet nature – was as protective as a mother rock warrior.
“It’s fine,” I said quietly. “Let’s just hurry along.”
“It’s not fine,” she said passionately. “They’re making stuff up about you. You’d think the Academy would require its cadets to have a certain level of maturity. Even my brother can’t keep his mouth shut, and he’s much older than me.”
I attempted to control the interest that tried to crumple my features. “Your brother?”
Elle looked sprung. “Never mind. I just caught him talking to Hendra about you, that’s all.”
My jaw stiffened. I had to pretend to swallow – that or let the tension shatter my skull. “I see.”
“It’s okay to get angry with him,” she assured me, “He had no right to talk to her about you. None of them have any right to talk about you.” Elle swept her angry gaze over the crowd.
“… It’s okay. You don’t need to put anyone offside because of me.”
Elle turned to me, that same smile back on her face. “That’s what friends are for. They defend each other in times of need.” She waggled a finger at me.
I returned her smile and tried not to think of what I’d just learned.
Not that I should be surprised. I knew Jason was curious about me, and considering yesterday’s events, he would only be more curious.
Or maybe he’s not curious, my suspicious mind suddenly offered – maybe he’s suspicious.
Last night I’d fought off a Kore intelligence team essentially on my own. Today I agree to have a “Session” with Hendra, even though I’d made it crystal clear I didn’t want to have anything to do with her.
Perhaps he even thought I could be the source of the intelligence leak.
“We should go away somewhere this weekend – get out of this place for a while,” Elle offered as she skipped ahead.
I would be busy this weekend.
It was time to catch a spy.
“Thank you for coming to see me,” Hendra said as she nodded low, her bare skull glinting in the sunlight streaming in from her office window.
“What’s up?” I asked as I returned her nod and walked into her well-appointed office.
“When I saw you in the corridor earlier you felt stressed,” she noted. “I’m sorry if this is an intrusion, but I wanted to help if I could.”
From anyone else, it would be an intrusion. But you couldn’t fault Hendra. Aside from my sister, she was about the sweetest person I’d ever met.
I didn’t make eye contact, though. My gaze darted to the floor as I scratched my chin uncomfortably, my fingernails snagging over two days of unshaved stubble.
Hendra smiled prettily again, and it was enough of a distraction that I let my hand drop.
“I can help take away your stress.” She nodded low once more. “I will follow the telepathic code, and at no point will I look into your memories,” she assured me as an uncomfortable expression crossed my face. “Plus, I sense that you have a strong will. You must be trained, and you would be more than capable of keeping your memories locked away from me – not that I would ever pry. I’m just trying to—”
I put up a hand quickly. “Put me at ease. And thank you. I suppose…” I trailed off as I considered whether I wanted to go ahead with this.
The truth was I did want to get rid of this stress. It hung heavy in my limbs, robbing me of sleep and generally souring my life.
I also knew I’d be able to do a better job of tracking down the spy if I wasn’t so tired and worried.
Hendra smiled hesitantly. “Please say no if you are uncomfortable. I wouldn’t push my help on anyone.” She patted a hand emphatically on her chest, her long elegant fingers ruffling her golden robes.
“… Okay,” I answered, surprised the words stumbled their way out of my mouth.
Was I actually okay with this?
As Hendra shot me another one of her trademark incredible smiles, I relaxed. Yeah, this would help me, wouldn’t it?
“Do not fear, Lieutenant; I’ve been offering my services to many of your colleagues. Just relax. Take a seat and close your eyes.”
I was early for my appointment with Hendra. I was eager to get this over with. Plus, if she wasn’t in her office right now, I would be able to subspace jump inside and investigate it.
I approached her door. That’s when I heard people within. Their voices weren’t muffled; not to my ears.
It was Lieutenant Jason Singh and Hendra.
“Just relax,” Hendra encouraged.
She was prying into his mind, wasn’t she?
This was how she did it, right? She canvassed the higher-ups of the Academy, either offering them sessions with her or gleaning what secrets she could as she walked past them in the corridor.
If my theory was right, Hendra was a very powerful telepath. Then again, I already knew that, didn’t I? If she’d been able to push past my considerable defenses to find out the memory of my master, then she was far, far more powerful than she pretended to be.
The Kore Empire must have trained her to keep her considerable abilities disguised. Perhaps she had a number of well shielded cybernetic implants that would hide the level of her abilities from other telepaths, letting her true power go undetected.
If the Academy were aware of how powerful she was, they wouldn’t let her walk around the grounds, let alone be in the same city as so many admirals.
I didn’t stop. I jammed my thumb into her intercom. “I’m early for my session,” I said loudly.
If she didn’t answer, I was ready to call Jason Singh on his wrist device. He’d given me permission to if I ever needed help. Hopefully, it would be enough of an intrusion that Jason would snap out of whatever spell Hendra had put him in.
I concentrated and heard Hendra stand up, her robes rustling distinctly as she walked over to the door. There was a beep, and she opened it.
I controlled my expression, wiping away the anger that had formed there.
“I wasn’t expecting you for another half-hour,” Hendra said politely.
Was there an edge to her expression?
Some kind of anger? Aggression maybe?
If I were anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to spot it. But I had seen so much aggression over my life that I knew how to detect it.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Jason stand up, a little shaky at first as he pressed two fingers into his brow. Then he blinked, saw me, and offered a smile.
I didn’t return it.
Idiot, I thought. Fool. He was being pulled in by Hendra’s act, and he’d just let the woman poke around in his mind. Who knew what secrets she’d managed to pry out? And who knew how many more she would have pulled from his mind if I hadn’t interrupted.
I diverted my gaze from him and concentrated on Hendra. I gave what I hoped was a good attempt at a smile. “Something’s come up later this afternoon. Is there any chance we can get this done now?”
“Of course.” She bowed low.
I didn’t return the move. Instead, I walked into the room, again ignoring Jason’s gaze. In fact, I didn’t look at him once until he gave an awkward cough. “Okay, then, I guess I will see you around.”
Hendra shot him the kind of smile she’d likely been taught by the Empire. Just the right curve of her full lips, just the right glitter in her eyes – it would gain the attention of any man or woman fool enough to fall for it. “We will continue this soon.”
“Thanks. Goodbye, Cadet Em,” he added, shooting me another look.
I ignored him, concentrating on Hendra instead. “Are you ready?”
Jason walked out, and the door closed behind him.
As soon as it did, Hendra’s expression changed completely.
It was like someone had thrown a brick at the forced facade of gentle calm she always wore. Her lips cracked up into a grimace. Her gaze changed too – it became hard, cold, victorious.
I had not expected this.
She gave a soft laugh. Then she reached a hand into her robe and pulled out a small device. “I wonder how long it would take someone like you to injure someone like me?”
I froze. “What are you talking about?”
She thumbed the button on the device. She brought it up to her face and pressed it flat against her cheek. Suddenly, there was a jolt as the device slammed into her, breaking the skin over her cheek and causing her to jolt back.
My eyes widened in alarm. “What are you doing?”
She smiled, ignoring the blood trickling down her cheek. Then, with a powerful grip, she tore one of her sleeves to reveal more bruises and cuts. All of them looked as though they were the result of a beating.
I took a jerked step toward her.
I figured it out.
I understood what she was about to do.
She tilted her head and smiled. “You should have stayed out of this.” Then she turned on her foot, screamed, and ran out of the room.
I stood there and stared.
I was a spacer, the most powerful creature at the Academy, apparently, and yet I’d lost this battle.
I’d underestimated my enemy.
But as my enemy was about to find out, she’d underestimated me too.
I was still standing around outside Hendra’s office. I wanted to leave – I should leave; I had no reason to be here – but I couldn’t convince myself to walk away.
Em hadn’t made eye contact with me once. She’d ignored me completely.
There was something wrong with her, wasn’t there?
Hendra’s office was located along a very wide hallway that was always busy with traffic. In other words, I had a large audience to watch me as I stood there and awkwardly watched the closed door.
Just as I convinced myself to walk away, something happened.
The doors burst open, and someone flung themselves out. I was standing so close that they hit me. I held out my arms, catching them.
It was Hendra.
Her cheek was bleeding, the sleeves of her robe torn. “She attacked me. She attacked me,” she cried, shaking in my arms.
I looked up, slowly, as if my neck muscles had frozen.
Cadet Em was standing in the middle of Hendra’s office staring at Hendra. Her expression….
“I just wanted to help her. She attacked me. She’s insane.” Hendra gripped my collar, her hands still shaking as she pulled her head from my chest and looked up into my eyes.
Em didn’t move.
By now word was spreading through the corridor. I heard somebody call for security.
Em still didn’t move, she just stared at Hendra.
With a jerky move, Hendra turned her head toward Em. Then, clearly overcome by emotion, nestled her head back against my chest.
I brought my arms up to support her. “It’s okay.”
Em crossed her arms.
I … couldn’t believe it.
As security came rushing down the corridor, the sound of their boots echoing through the halls, Em walked out of the office.
She wasn’t hurried, in fact, she almost looked bored.
“She attacked me,” Hendra repeated.
“She attacked herself,” Em replied.
“I … I can telepathically share my memories,” Hendra said through sobs.
“You can also create them,” Em pointed out with a blank expression.
Em put her hands up.
She didn’t look remorseful.
She had just attacked Hendra, and she looked… like she didn’t care.
Hendra started sobbing again.
Em gave out a soft laugh.
It chilled me to the bone.
“Keep acting, telepath. But don’t forget, when you create memories of our so-called interaction, that I don’t have any of your DNA on my hands.” She waggled her fingers as one of the burly security officers grabbed her hands and pinned them behind her back.
“You could have coated your knuckles with a DNA inhibitor,” Hendra continued to sob into my chest.
“Hmm, now why would I have done that if I was prepared to attack you virtually in public?” Em shrugged a shoulder to the assembled crowd in the corridor.
“You’re insane,” Hendra wailed.
“We’ll see about that,” Em answered ominously.
Hendra continued to shake, the blood from her cheek splattering over my uniform. “Please take her away.”
I nodded at the security guards.
Em didn’t say another word. She shot Hendra a look, though – one colder than I’d ever seen. Her face contorted with a frozen kind of concentration. She also ticked her head to the side.
“Take her away,” I said, my voice shaking.
Em didn’t resist.
The security guards hauled her away, leaving the rest of the corridor in stunned silence.
I kept my arms around Hendra until she pulled away. A massive bruise was forming over her already swollen cheek. “Thank you,” she said in a broken voice.
“It’s okay,” I managed as I stared past her in the direction they’d taken Em.
God, I couldn’t believe this.
I’d been wrong about Em. So wrong.
I was dumped in the brig.
Every cadet or officer I passed stared at me with disdain. News spread so quickly through the Academy, there was little need for faster-than-light communication.
I let myself be placed in a shielded cell.
I could have fought back at any moment.
I could have left this all behind.
Instead, I sat there with my arms crossed as I stared at the ceiling. My back was rested against the wall, with my feet pressed into the edge of the cot.
It was time to decide what to do next.
Hendra had outplayed me. Which meant, somehow, she’d found out that I knew about her.
Had I underestimated how powerful she was? Could she have gleaned my suspicions just by walking past me?
She was turning out to be much more dangerous than I could have predicted.
So what to do next?
Technically, I could jump away and forget the whole thing. This was the Academy’s problem. I could leave Earth and start somewhere new.
There were other ways to further my task. The Coalition Academy were not the only group who could help me take down Master.
Yet that didn’t feel right – abandoning them. It didn’t’ sit well. It felt like a lump I couldn’t swallow.
I’d already put months into the Academy. And though it was hard to admit, I’d already learned a lot.
There was a hope kindling within me that I could not only defeat my master with their help, but I could change, learn maybe.
My self-view was changing, however slowly. I was no longer a loner. I had somewhere to belong.
I had somewhere to belong.
If Hendra was as powerful as I now suspected, she wouldn’t stop.
I could reveal my true powers. I could subspace jump out of this cell and find her, but I wouldn’t be able to hide who I was.
There were two guards watching me from beyond my cell, more security officers flitting between them.
What should I do?
What had she done?
I was standing in the corridor, in a fresh new uniform, reeling.
I’d known Em was capable of this, right? I’d known she was unstable, so why hadn’t I intervened?
She’d just ruined her career. She’d get a criminal charge too. Serve some time on a prison asteroid somewhere.
This hadn’t been some spur-of-the-moment attack. It had been premeditated.
I winced as I remembered the memory Hendra had shared with me. Utilizing her telepathic powers, she could share her experiences with others.
So I’d seen it. In every goddamn gritty detail. The way Em’s face had spread with hatred, pleasure even.
I shook, planting a hand over my mouth. The memory wasn’t mine, but it still felt like I’d endured it. Every terrible second of the violent beating.
I almost wanted to confront Em, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I’d been an idiot. I should have seen all the warning signs that there wasn’t something quite right with that cadet.
By now the news had spread, through the goddamn city let alone the Academy. It wasn’t every day there was an assault like this on campus.
I pressed a hand hard into my brow as I tried to banish Hendra’s memory of Em’s contorted face.
I jerked my head up and concentrated on the view. I stared at the campus grounds, looking for some kind of solace.
“Lieutenant,” my wrist device suddenly rumbled with the voice of Admiral Forest. “Report to my office.”
I let her sharp tone cut through my mood.
I turned on my heel and half-ran to her office, thankful for the excuse to use my limbs – to chase away the muscle memory of Em’s attack.
When I reached the Admiral’s office, I was surprised to see Hendra sitting there.
Her face had been fixed up, but her usually bright expression was subdued, gone even.
She looked like someone who’d suffered a significant trauma.
I made a fist. I’d let that happen, right?
“Lieutenant, you need to hear this.” The Admiral nodded toward Hendra.
Hendra clasped her hands tightly in her lap, and I could see they were glistening with sweat. “I just thought you should know what I found out about… that woman. When she a-a-attacked me,” Hendra had trouble forcing the word out as her voice shook, “She left her mind unguarded. The situation was so intense that I couldn’t help but pick up on her thoughts.”
My stomach clenched.
“She’s been sharing Academy secrets. She was sharing them with two Kore Empire assassins.”
“… Em’s only been in the Academy a few months,” I pointed out. I shouldn’t have said it, but the words came tumbling out. Was I trying to defend her? I couldn’t be – what she’d done was inexcusable.
“Em lived in this city for several months prior to joining up,” the Admiral supplied.
“She is a very skilled agent,” Hendra continued, her hands still shaking, “She used her abilities to break into offices and steal secrets.”
I felt cold now. Totally cold. Like I’d been ejected from an airlock and sent spinning into the void.
Em? All this time, it had been her.
It made sense. She had skills far beyond the average recruit.
It also made sense that she’d been able to overpower those two Kore assassins; they’d let her do it. In order to keep her cover, they’d sacrificed themselves.
I pressed two fingers hard into my brow, drawing a harsh breath.
I couldn’t understand how I could have been so naive.
“We will interrogate the cadet,” Forest began.
“I’ll be able to help you.” Hendra suddenly released her hands and pressed forward until she was sitting on the edge of her chair. “I… want to do this. For the Academy,” she added.
“Under ordinary circumstances, considering what she put you through, I would decline your offer. But as you are the most talented telepath we have on campus, I’m afraid we’ll need your skills.”
I shot the Admiral a quick look.
She clearly picked up on it as she stiffened. “Ordinarily, I would never consider using telepathic interrogation. However, considering the number of secrets that could have been leaked…” she trailed off and swallowed hard. “We need to find out what she’s done.”
I felt sick. Sick about everything. I knew the Admiral was right, but… telepathic interrogation was the kind of thing the Kore Empire would do.
Hendra caught my gaze. Despite her own considerable distress, she made eye contact and shot me a commiserating smile. “It’ll all be okay,” she promised.
The heavy, ominous feeling in my gut told me that was unlikely.
I knew she would come to see me.
I doubted he would. I’d seen Jason Singh’s face after he’d believed Hendra’s lie that I’d attacked her. He’d looked at me like I was a monster.
I’d been a monster for centuries, I could be one for another few days. Until I sorted this.
I still didn’t know what I should do. I was still torn between revealing my identity now and proving Hendra’s treachery, or waiting to see if another option would arise.
Right now I pushed to the edge of my cot as Cadet Elle Singh approached me.
There were two security guards with her, even though I was behind a containment force field. After she assured them she’d be fine, they wandered off, just out of earshot but not out of sight.
“I heard what happened,” she said.
I waited for her to tell me I was a monster, to reject me, to do something other than offer a commiserating smile.
“And I don’t believe it for a second,” Elle continued.
I couldn’t contain my shock.
By now I knew Hendra would have spread ‘memories’ of my attack.
If she was as skilled as I now suspected, I imagine she would have also planted ample evidence.
So why would Elle still believe me rather than the apparently substantiated allegation?
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Elle continued. “She’s hiding something.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
I couldn’t speak, though – I didn’t know what to say.
This was the first time someone had ever defended me like that. The first time someone had chosen to believe I wasn’t a monster, even though there was ample evidence to prove I was.
I stood up. “Thank you,” I managed after a substantial pause.
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m not going to stop until I prove you’re innocent. I’m going straight to my mom—”
“You don’t need to get in trouble for me,” I counseled quickly.
“If you can’t get in trouble for your friends, who can you get in trouble for? Plus, I wouldn’t still be in the Academy if it weren’t for you. The least I can do is return the favor and prove this is wrong.”
“Thank you, Elle,” I repeated.
“First thing I’m going to do is work on my idiot brother. I cannot believe he bought Hendra’s act so quickly. All he needs is one pretty smile, and he’ll forget all his training and sense.”
I didn’t comment.
“You just sit tight. Trust me, I can do this. Hendra’s going to assume everyone believes her. I’m going to have an advantage as the only person in the whole Academy who isn’t so goddamn gullible.”
Despite the situation, I let out a small laugh.
I’d underestimated Elle, hadn’t I? Sure, she couldn’t run fast or fight well, but that did not mean she wasn’t a formidable warrior.
“Sit tight. Next time I see you, I’ll get you out of here,” she promised. She offered me a friendly wave, a brave smile, and even a sloppy salute. Then she walked out.
I stood there and stared.
I didn’t know how I felt. Before Elle had walked in, I’d been plotting how to take Hendra down. I’d been after revenge.
Now my attitude had shifted.
I didn’t want revenge – I wanted to protect Elle and the rest of the Academy, even if she was the only person on the entire campus who had any sense.
This was what Ma’tovan had been on about, I suddenly realized. The difference between being a warrior and a guardian.
A lesson I was about to learn.
“I cannot believe you are such an idiot.” My sister rounded on me. She’d found me in the corridors. Now she practically pinned me against one of the walls with her fury.
“Elle, what are you talking about?”
“All it takes is a pretty smile, right? Some girl offers you one of those then you don’t stop to think.”
My jaw hardened.
“She didn’t do it. I can’t believe you even think she’s capable of something like that.”
“… Elle, just calm down.”
I knew my little sister liked to protect her friends, but this was ridiculous. There was no doubt Em had done it. I’d seen every awful second – by proxy, but it still felt as if I’d endured it myself.
“No, not until you come to your senses.”
“Elle, I saw it myself. Hendra shared her memory with me,” I heard bitterness twist through my tone as my heart pounded harder in my chest.
“No, brother, what you got was a complete fantasy. And what you’re feeling now – all that rage and shame – that’s a fantasy too. She planted it in your mind. She’s a telepath – she can do that. I can’t believe you were stupid enough to accept her memory. It’s influencing you when you should be stepping back and realizing what’s actually going on here.”
“Elle,” I tried to use a soothing voice.
“Jason,” she shot back with a snarl, “Listen to me. Think about this. Why would Em agree to a meeting in public, then go into Hendra’s office and beat her up? You think Em is that stupid? If she wanted to punch that idiot telepath in the nose, she would have just done it. This makes no sense. Why would someone plan an attack like this? There would be no way to get away from it.”
“Elle, Em is… unstable. She would have seen it as an act of power, of dominance. She would have thought she could get away with it, because in her mind she’s untouchable.”
“Oh my god, I can’t believe you are this stupid. You know telepaths can create memories, right? Manufacture feelings.”
“Hendra isn’t that powerful.”
“How do you know that?”
“She was tested before she was brought onto Academy grounds – all telepaths are. It’s dangerous to have a powerful telepath walking around; they can glean secrets from passersby…” my voice trailed off.
“Em already told me that Hendra is telling everyone she’s been leaking Academy secrets. Hendra is using Em as a scapegoat while she’s the one spreading secrets.”
“… Em told you this?”
Elle nodded her head resolutely. “Just before Hendra beat herself up and ran screaming into your arms, she confessed to Em. Told her she was going to use her as a scapegoat, took pleasure in the fact no one would ever believe Em. Hendra is the psycho, not my friend.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Think about it, brother. How would Em be able to discover so many secrets? She might be a really good runner and great with a gun, but the Academy has incredible security. She wouldn’t be able to walk into someone’s office and snoop through their computer, not even if she was the best hacker in the world.”
“We’ve already found experimental hacking equipment in her quarters,” I countered. I shouldn’t have – that was a secret my sister didn’t need to know. Yet I wanted to make her see she was wrong.
Em didn’t deserve her protection.
“Which would have been planted there by Hendra.”
“Elle, you just need to accept—”
“I don’t need to accept anything. We’re going to find proof.”
“The assassins you have in cold storage – we need to check them.”
“What? How do you know—”
“The rumor is all over the Academy, brother. Now listen to me. I’ve been doing a bit of research on Kore assassins – actually, it’s been for a project, and I think I’m going to ace it. Anyhow, aren’t they modified depending on their task?”
I stared at my sister mutely. Where was she going with this?
“They are,” she answered her own question. “What’s more, there are certain assassins that can receive telepathic information, right? There are,” she answered her own question again. “Now, all we have to do to clear Em is to walk into cold storage and check those assassins. If we find evidence of telepathic ability, then we’ll know Hendra is lying.”
I couldn’t reply. I wanted to point out the numerous flaws in her reasoning, but I was too stunned by what she was suggesting…. And worried.
Could it be true?
I shook my head as soon as I thought that.
Elle leaned in and grabbed my arm. “Come on. You owe it to her to try.”
I felt cold at her statement.
Did I owe it to Em to try?
“Elle, I don’t have time for this right now,” I protested as my sister all but dragged me along.
I wasn’t lying. Hendra would begin interrogating Em soon. The Admiral had requested I should be there.
“You owe it to her,” Elle repeated firmly.
I found myself melting at that.
I… did owe it to her, didn’t I?
“Okay, but you can’t come into cold storage to look with me,” I said. “You don’t have clearance.”
Elle turned as she continued to tug me along. “Good.” She nodded firmly.
I pulled my arm free and kept pace with her on my own.
We turned into a wide corridor that acted as a thoroughfare.
I paled as I saw Hendra walking along with Admiral Forest.
At first, Hendra’s expression warmed as she saw me. Then a strange thing happened – her eyes slid toward Elle.
Was that suspicion briefly crumpling Hendra’s perfect blue face?
“Lieutenant,” she said as she greeted me with a low bow.
Was it forced? Was that strain tightening her neck muscles?
“Lieutenant, we’re ready to begin.” The Admiral gestured down the corridor.
Hendra’s gaze slid toward Elle again.
Maybe it was paranoia, maybe I was crazy, but I didn’t like the quality of that gaze.
“Admiral… something urgent has come up,” I found myself saying. Once the words were out, I couldn’t retract them. Nor could I get rid of the feeling that accompanied them.
I owed it to Em to follow up on this.
Hendra’s gaze darted to mine.
I could no longer ignore it had an edge to it.
“Don’t think you’re going to get away with this,” Elle snapped – despite the fact an admiral was standing barely two meters away.
“Cadet,” the Admiral snapped.
“You’ll have slipped up somewhere,” Elle continued unabated. “Did you remember to alter the Kore assassins in cold storage to remove evidence of telepathic abilities? Did you remember to cover your injuries with Em’s DNA? Did you remember Em’s DNA shows signs of subspace instability due to the scars on her wrists?”
The admiral opened her mouth to shout at Elle.
Hendra’s demeanor changed completely. I watched as fear crossed through her eyes and her cheeks stiffened.
It was one of the most visceral experiences of my life.
“You didn’t remember, did you? Proving you’re guilty is going to be easier than I thought. You realize a simple DNA scan of your so-called injuries will show you faked her DNA, right?”
I wasn’t expecting it, neither was the admiral. She shoved hard into Forest’s chest, and she whirled toward Elle.
Before I could do anything, she locked an arm around Elle’s throat and slammed a palm against her face. “If any of you move – or even think of moving – I will completely destroy her mind. I will ensure she’ll do nothing but drool for the rest of her life.”
The admiral warily picked herself up.
Everyone in the corridor stopped moving.
“Don’t call security,” Hendra suddenly screamed, staring at an officer off to her left. “I know what you’re about to do, boy. I can read your mind,” she said viciously. “Now, I’m going to walk out of here. Prepare me a cruiser.”
“… No,” the admiral said. “You’re not getting out of here.”
I winced. The move so bitter I felt like throwing up.
I knew Coalition policy…. But this was my sister.
“I’d rethink that, Admiral. Once I’m done with the admiral’s daughter, I’m going to move onto everyone in this corridor. I have enough power to fry your minds without touching you.”
A chill silence spread through the corridor.
The silence was so complete it was easy to hear footfall echoing from further down the corridor.
A group of four people rounded the corner.
It was Em with her security team.
She was detained, her wrists locked together with sophisticated magnetic restraints.
At first, the three guards with her paused. They soon caught up to the situation. All you needed to look at was the stiffness in Admiral Forest’s expression as she stared warily at Hendra.
The security team already had their guns drawn, and they lifted them at Hendra.
“Don’t you even dare think of firing,” Hendra spat. “I will destroy her mind and take out everyone near me if you so much as put a finger near those triggers. Now drop your weapons and kick them away.”
With one look at the admiral, they complied.
There were three clangs as their weapons hit the floor.
“Now,” Hendra tugged Elle around violently, as she moved to stare at Em, “Why don’t you join us? I’ve been looking for the chance to get in your head.” She pressed her hand harder against Elle’s head in a clear threat.
Em walked forward.
Her expression was… controlled.
No, it was more than that. As her slow footfall echoed through the corridor – everyone’s eyes on her – she gave off the feeling that she could handle this. Everything from her stance to her expression seemed to suggest she wasn’t the one in trouble – Hendra was.
“You shouldn’t have started meddling. I would have left you alone if you hadn’t gone and found my team. Actually, who am I kidding,” Hendra let out a bitter, echoing laugh, “I wanted to rip into your mind the second I saw you. Full of secrets. I can feel them. You know what else I can feel?”
Em reached us. She stopped by Admiral Forest’s side. “What?” Em asked.
“Those tracks.” Hendra brought a hand up and ran a stiff finger down her face. “Deep, deep telepathic tracks left in your mind. A lifetime of control. It makes it easy to read your mind.”
“If it’s so easy, why haven’t you ripped into me yet?” Em asked, stance alert but expression blank and unreadable.
Hendra’s lips kinked to the side. “I haven’t focused before. I haven’t had the chance. When I’m finished here, I will.”
“Why wait? Do it now. Let Elle go – I’ll be your hostage. Then you can tear my mind to shreds,” Em offered.
“No. No one moves. Things stay as they are now.”
“How do you plan on getting out of here?” Em asked, making brief eye contact with Elle and shooting her a brave, comforting look. The only time she’d lost the hard, blank stare.
“I am much more powerful—” Hendra’s voice rang out with bravado.
“You’re a dead woman walking. The Hole Sect don’t like failure. They’ll strip you down, get rid of your personality, and use what’s left of your body.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hendra hissed.
“Are you sure?”
Hendra stiffened, her nostrils flaring as she stared viciously at Em. “Why are we talking about me? You’re going to accompany me out of here. You can be my second hostage.”
Em looked from Hendra’s feet to her face. “I’m not a very good hostage,” she warned in the most threatening tone I’d ever heard.
“For the sake of this pathetic excuse for a cadet, you’re going to learn,” Hendra threatened as she tightened her grip around Elle’s throat and made her choke.
Em didn’t reply.
“Now, you’re going to do everything I say. I’m going to be your new master,” it was clear Hendra took sick pleasure in saying that word.
“Master,” Hendra taunted Em with that word, her palm still flat against Elle’s head. “I know a few masters from the Empire – and I know you’re from the Empire. I’ve seen it in the few glimpses I’ve caught of your memories. I wonder who it is? Which sect do you belong to, Cadet Em? Did you run away, child? Did you escape? As soon I’m done here, I’ll find out where you belong, and I’ll make sure they come and take you back.” Her lips curled into a cruel smile. “And that is why I haven’t outlived my usefulness. I have a feeling someone back home is looking for you. When I deliver you, I’ll be rewarded.”
Em’s energy changed. It darkened. No… that wasn’t right. It intensified. It looked and felt as if she was a star – ready to explode – but barely controlling itself.
“The sects aren’t kind to those who escape. I shudder to think what they’ll do with you,” Hendra continued with a sing-song laugh.
Elle started to shift. Up until this point, she’d been stock still, her eyes rammed open by fright. Now she fought against Hendra.
“Stop struggling,” Hendra snapped.
“Em, get out of here. Don’t go with her. Just let me die. Don’t let her get away. She knows all the Academy’s secrets. And she’s lying – she can’t attack anyone else. She’s not that strong.”
Hendra hissed, tightening her grip so hard around my sister’s throat, she started to choke her.
“You… she… telepath – she can be overcome with… strong memories,” Elle managed between wheezes.
I watched as Em’s head ticked to the side, some realization fixing her gaze and tightening her jaw.
“Don’t bother,” Hendra snapped her gaze back to Em. “I’m no ordinary telepathic. The emotional power of your pathetic memories won’t affect me.”
Em stared at Hendra for one more second, her head still tilted to the side as she clearly calculated something.
She came to her decision.
If her energy had changed before – if it had intensified a few minutes ago – now it exploded.
She was just standing there, but in that second everything about her changed.
It was like she dropped a wall. The wall I’d always suspected held back the real Em.
I wasn’t telepathic, but I swear I felt a rush of something as she half closed her eyes.
Hendra gasped, her jaw becoming stiff and moving jerkily around her breath. She started to shake, too.
Briefly, her gaze darted up to make eye contact with Em. A word shuddered on Hendra’s lips, stuttering out of her mouth in a whine, “Deus.”
Em moved. In a blink, she rammed her shoulder into Hendra, broke her grip on Elle, then pivoted.
Em brought her fist back and punched Hendra in the face.
It was a powerful, decisive move, and it saw Hendra fall to the ground, her robes splaying around her unconscious body.
For a single second, Em stood over Hendra’s form and stared.
Though the moment was brief, I swear it dragged on.
“Get a security team here now,” Admiral Forest snapped. “Stun Hendra again. I don’t want her coming around until we have her in a containment field that will block her abilities.”
Em took a step back, closed her eyes for a brief moment, then turned to face me.
Elle threw herself at Em and hugged her, before darting her head up and grinning. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for saving me.”
Em blinked in surprise. “Ah… you’re welcome.”
“Get this place cleaned up now,” the Admiral continued snapping orders. “Cadet Singh, report to the med bay. You,” she stabbed a finger at a nearby officer, “Accompany her.”
The officer snapped a salute.
“Hold on,” Elle complained, “I want to see if Em is okay. She saved my life.”
“We know that, Cadet – we were all here. Now, get to the med bay; you can say thank you later.”
I watched Em turn and stare at the admiral.
The admiral raised her head and returned the stare. “Come with me, Cadet. Lieutenant, you too.”
I had a brief moment where I managed to make eye contact with Em. I softened my expression, as much as I could.
I wanted her to know how sorry I was.
I didn’t know what to expect. What would the Academy do with me? A lot had slipped about my past during the altercation with Hendra. They’d know I’d come from the Kore Empire, know I’d been forced to serve one of the Sect Masters.
So what now?
I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. I was taken straight to a briefing room. Both Admirals Forest and Singh were there, as was Jason.
They sat me down in a chair.
Admiral Singh was seated behind a desk, her expression looking a measure of calm. I knew it was forced, though – her daughter had almost died.
“A lot just happened, Cadet,” Singh said as she nodded gravely my way.
I was ready to flee if I had to. But I didn’t want to.
Despite the fact a few hours ago I’d been the pariah of the Academy, I now felt more connected to it than ever.
To Elle, to Jason, to the lot of them.
Because I’d protected them.
I almost broke eye contact with the Admiral to stare at my hands.
“The first thing I want to know is how much you knew about the security leak.” Admiral Singh looked directly at me.
I could pretend I knew nothing, that Hendra had accused me of being the spy because I was an easy target. That would of course raise the question of why I’d agreed to have a “Session” with her.
I lifted my chin. “When I fought that intelligence team, I realized they were stealing Academy secrets – there would be no other reason for them to be here. I also realized based on… previous experience that they must be receiving their information telepathically. The cybernetic assassin was from a telepathic race. It was also outfitted with certain information circuits that would strengthen its abilities and allow it to receive telepathic input from relatively far distances. Far enough that Hendra would be able to communicate with it from safe within Academy grounds. I surmised Hendra must be the leak, as she’s the strongest telepath at the Academy. I went to her office this evening to look for evidence.”
“Why didn’t you bring these suspicions to us, Cadet?” Admiral Singh leaned forward in her chair.
“I… have a past,” I answered. “I used to be… I have a past. The kind of past where I know how to identify a Kore intelligence team. The kind of past where I know how to flush out a telepath. The kind of past I thought would get me kicked out of the Academy if it ever came to light.”
Admiral Singh shared a look with Admiral Forest.
“We surmised you had a past, as you call it. No one joins the Academy with your skills without… previous experience. You should have still come to us.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I used to do?” I challenged. I wanted to know right now what they planned on doing with me.
“This is a conversation for later, Cadet,” Forest answered. “You will be asked to divulge the details of your previous life. For now, you should return to class.”
I blinked in surprise, incapable of controlling my genuine shock. Really? They were going to let me go back to class? “I… I thought—”
“Without your assistance, we would not have found out about this security leak. You should have come to us sooner, granted – and we will note that in your file,” Admiral Singh continued, “Right along with your commendation for bringing down a Kore intelligence team on your own, incapacitating Hendra, and saving my daughter.” The admiral’s lips twitched.
“These are strange times,” Forest added, “Now more than ever we need to keep the Academy and the Coalition safe. We need people who can do that.”
Forest’s implication hung in the air.
I straightened my back and stared at them both.
“You have a lot to learn, Cadet,” Forest continued, “And we’re going to make sure you learn it.”
I was confused. Shocked. Maybe the interrogation would come later. Maybe they’d change their minds and stick me in prison. Or maybe, just maybe, they’d accept me back into the Academy.
I couldn’t stop my gaze from darting around. It settled on Jason. He was standing by the door, his arms crossed. Before I could worry that he was still angry at me, he let them drop as he shot me a warm smile. “Don’t worry; there’s plenty of us here to help teach you. And I reckon you could help teach us a thing or two as well.”
Us, or him?
I snapped my gaze back to the admirals. “Is this… it?”
“We do want to know what you used to be,” Singh admitted, “But don’t think you’re the only person to come to this Academy with a dark history. And don’t think you’re the first person to use that history and experience to save lives. From the sound of Hendra’s taunting, you used to be indentured to a Kore Empire Sect. We know the Empire has powerful methods to control their indentured. You aren’t the first indentured who works for the Academy, either. Ma’tovan is one example.”
“There’s a place for you here at the Academy,” Forest added. “If you want it.”
A silence spread through the room. All eyes were on me.
Did I want to stay?
Yes. I did.
I saluted. I let that be my answer.
Singh and Forest exchanged relieved looks, and Jason looked as if he could barely contain his enthusiasm.
“Dismissed, Cadet. You will be given private quarters while this mess is sorted out. I imagine the last thing you want to do right now is answer the thousands of questions the other cadets are going to throw at you. Lieutenant Singh here will take you to your room.” Admiral Forest nodded at Jason.
Jason straightened up.
I stood. “What happens next?”
Admiral Singh consulted the computer embedded into her desk. “Your next class it tomorrow – Introduction to Engineering, I believe.”
I smiled at her answer and left with Jason.
By the time we made it out into the corridor, he couldn’t contain himself anymore.
“I am so sorry,” he blurted as the doors closed behind us. “I can’t believe I fell for Hendra’s lie.”
“… It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. If Elle hadn’t come found me to convince me to look into things, I would have left you to rot. I… I just can’t emphasize how sorry I am. I’ll understand if you don’t want to have anything else to do with me.”
I considered him.
I could walk away, tell him to leave me alone, pretend his lack of faith had been more injurious than it had been. Those weren’t the first words to come to my lips. “How is Elle? You have a… curious sister.”
“Ha, curious is one word for it.”
“You know, you aren’t at all alike,” I pointed out.
Jason’s expression stiffened. “I’m sorry for not believing you,” he repeated, clearly thinking my observation had been an attack. “Elle may not be the best recruit, but we could all learn something from her about loyalty.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean your sister is… at first, I thought she was weak. I thought she’d be cut, and I believed it would be for the best. Now I realize I was wrong. She sees things others don’t see.”
“Yes, she does,” he agreed more somberly. “She has a habit of telling me off when I can’t see what’s right in front of me. If she hadn’t convinced me that Hendra was trying to use you as a scapegoat for her own spying, I don’t know what would have happened.” He sighed expressively. “Hendra might still be out there. It was only when Elle confronted Hendra that Hendra snapped.”
I paused. “How did Elle know Hendra was using me as a scapegoat?”
Jason looked surprised. “Elle says you told her. She says Hendra told you all about her plan before she left her office…. Right?”
I thought quickly.
I forced a nod. “Sorry, yes. Today has been… unusually busy. I briefly forgot. To be honest, most of the past few hours is a blur.”
He smiled at me, understanding and commiseration smoothing his brow. “I’ll bet. Now let’s get you to your quarters. You want to rest up before you resume classes tomorrow.”
I returned his smile and followed.
There were a lot of questions running through my mind.
How had Elle known those things?
What story should I concoct for Admiral Forest when she questioned me on my past? … Or should I tell the truth?
Was it safe to stay at the Academy?
All those questions and more swirled through my mind as I walked with Jason.
“I can bet you’re probably ruminating over what happened,” he observed as we reached my door. “My advice is to just wait and see what happens tomorrow. Oh,” he paused as he opened the door for me, “And know you can count on your friends.”
Yes, maybe he was right.
“Good night, Lieutenant.”
“See you tomorrow, Em.”
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