Fractured Mind Episode One

Fractured Mind Episode One

 

Chapter 1

She ran through the snow, her badly bleeding leg dragging through a drift.

Her breath was stuck half-way up her throat, every pressured exhalation sending a new wave of pain and nausea washing through her broken body.

She kept moving.

She couldn't stop.

Above her, the twin suns of the planet slowly slipped behind the horizon. The purple and gold dusk shimmering in the star-studded sky quickly gave way to a dark night.

She pushed up a rise, foot catching on a rock hidden under the thick white blanket of snow. She shunted forward and had to shove her hands out to break her fall. Her face slammed against the snow, and she sucked in a breath of powder. Choking and spluttering, a few droplets of bright red blood splattering over the drift, she shoved to her feet and powered on.

Every few seconds, she checked behind her. Aching neck muscles sending spinning shafts of pain spiraling into her head, she ignored her agony and scanned the now dark horizon.

Dusk did not last on this planet.

Night would.

... She couldn't see it.

Oh god, she couldn't discern it against the never-ending mountains of white.

By now she was so cold she couldn't feel her legs anymore, only the pain snaking up from the bad break in her left femur.

How she could still walk, let alone run, she didn't know.

She couldn't stop, though.

Stop, and that thing would tear her limb-from-limb, bone-from-bone, cell-from-cell.

She snapped her head around, every breath like fire burning in her chest. By now a diffuse tingling sensation had pushed down her chest and sunk deep into her stomach.

Clutching a hand over her middle, the ripped fabric of her snow jacket trailing over her wrist, she indulged in closing her eyes.

... Shit. She could hear it now.

As she shifted up a rise and paused, she picked up its even footfall.

Not hurried, not frantic.

Even. Steady. Always coming toward her.

Fear pumped through her blood, ricocheting around her mind like a mag bullet.

She shook her head desperately, several strands of bloody, sweaty, icy hair sticking to her flushed cheeks and neck.

“Come on,” she begged herself with another choked wheeze.

She snapped her head forward and stared down the drift.

It was steep, but she had no choice. She threw herself down it, her boots scampering through the fine snow. It was a battle to keep her balance. Her arms flailed at her sides as her boots sunk further into the drift with every treacherous step.

More and more blood oozed from the injury to her left leg. It splattered over the snow, sinking a few millimeters down before it was robbed of its natural warmth and frozen – like everything else on this hell hole of a planet.

Just as she heard its methodical footfall ascend the rise behind her, she stumbled. Again her foot snagged on something. This time, she couldn't regain her balance.

She fell to the side, her right arm plunging through the drift up to her elbow.

Though she madly tried to clutch onto something – anything – to slow her rapid descent, she couldn't.

She started to roll, her body tumbling down the hill with all the grace and speed of a boulder free-falling down a cliff.

Just as her heart threatened to slam out of her chest and plunge into the frozen snow, she reached the bottom of the rise.

For a second, she did nothing. She lay there, face pressed up against a sheet of ice, one wide eye pressing further open as she realized two things.

She was still alive.

And it was still after her.

She could hear the creaking of its joints. The pneumatic hiss of its breath.

“Oh god,” she cried, tears streaking down her cheeks as she screwed her eyes tightly shut.

Though her whole body felt like it was little more than a broken pane of glass, she grunted and somehow found the strength to push up. Her elbows shook as they tried to position her weight.

But she did it.

She staggered to her feet, more blood splattering from her wound and flicking over the white-blue snow and ice.

Clutching a hand on her stomach and groaning, she twisted her head all the way around and stared with wide eyes at the top of the rise.

She saw it.

The night sky was so clear she could see the colored swathe of gas clouds studded with constellations beyond.

That brilliant light was enough to outline her pursuer.

Large, white metal body glinting, it inclined its head toward her.

Then it moved.

Violent fear exploded in her gut, sending a spike of adrenaline striking her body like a flame thrown onto a bed of dry wood.

She found the last of her strength and powered to her feet.

She twisted and sprinted forward.

She ignored every stabbing pain, every wave of nausea.

She locked her gaze on the horizon until she could see it pulling up in the distance.

A shadow against the reflective snow and ice.

The facility.

She would reach it. Then she'd find a weapon.

And then, Sarah Sinclair would kill the hunter.

...

Cadet Sarah Sinclair

She rocketed awake as if someone had attached a cruiser to her mind and pulled her out of sleep with all the speed of light.

It took her too long to realize she was in bed. In her quarters. In the Academy grounds on Earth.

Her hands were shaking, her body convulsing as sweat coated her brow and trailed down her back.

Her pillow and covers were a tangled mess on the ground.

At some point, she'd knocked most of the paraphernalia off her desk. Her lamp was broken, and her WD had popped its case.

“... It was... it was a dream.” She clutched a hand to her chest and let her sweaty fingers anchor against her rumpled PJ top.

She couldn't calm her breathing. It raked through her throat, just like it had in her dream.

She started to shake her head. She even closed her eyes.

A mistake.

As soon as she did, the vestiges of her nightmare climbed back into her consciousness. She saw vivid flashes of the snow below her, of her bright-red blood slicking down her body.

Instinctively she grabbed a hand to her left leg.

... It felt stiff.

But as she pushed her searching fingers into the muscle, she couldn't find a serious injury.

Just to convince herself, she ducked her head down, rolled up her trousers, and stared at her flesh.

... Nothing.

No hole from a blaster.

Just her leg.

She clutched her face, her sweaty shaking fingers dragging and digging over her skin. Her hair was a tangle over her face and shoulders, so knotted it felt like a helmet.

A second later, an alarm blared from her wall unit on the far side of the room.

It was so sudden and unexpected she screamed.

“You will be late for class unless you leave in the next five minutes,” the programmed computer voice informed her in a toneless chirp.

“... Class,” she repeated with an empty tone.

“Today, you will have engineering in the morning, followed by combat training in the afternoon,” the computer informed her, erroneously thinking she'd asked a question.

... She couldn't push away her dream and snap back to reality.

It seemed locked in her body. She could feel the desperation still pumping in her heart, the fear locking her limbs, the blood slicking down her leg.

With a reverberating sigh, she clenched a shaking hand on her bed and pushed to her feet.

Instantly she had to shove a hand out and lock it on the wall to steady herself.

She hunched her shoulders, rounded her back, dropped her head, closed her eyes, and tried to wake up.

The computer beeped again, startling her so badly she jolted, collected her mess of blankets and pillows, and fell over.

Her left knee bashed into the floor, knocking against the lamp.

The sharp metal base easily cut through the thin fabric of her PJ bottoms and sliced through the flesh above her knee.

She stared at the injury in shock, mesmerized by the blood blossoming over her light blue trousers.

Before she could stare at it for the next several minutes, body still locked with the memory of her dream, her intercom beeped.

“You getting ready or what? You can't afford to be late anymore,” her roommate said over the intercom.

Sarah didn't answer. Couldn't. Instead, she shook her head and tried, but failed, to wake up.

“... Sarah, you okay in there?”

When Sarah didn't answer for a second time, her door beeped and opened.

In strode her roommate and best friend, Nora. She took one look at Sarah's disheveled room then locked her gaze on Sarah's injury.

Rather than lurch down and check Sarah's cut, Nora pressed her hands around her middle and shook her head. “Another nightmare?”

Sarah managed a nod.

Nora sighed. “You should get that cut checked out before class. It looks pretty deep.” Nora disappeared out into the main room beyond Sarah's bedroom. A few seconds later Nora came back with a med kit. She threw it at Sarah.

Sarah tried to catch it, but she was too slow, and the kit bounced off her chest and fell against her bleeding leg.

Nora sighed heavily. “Come on, Sarah, snap out of it.”

“Sorry,” Sarah said in a small voice as she hesitantly plucked up the kit, unlocked it, and began rifling through the contents. She tried extremely hard to hide the shake in her hands as she clasped hold of a vial of spray-on-skin.

Nora saw it and took it as a reason to shake her head once more. “You didn't take your meds last night, did you? In fact, you haven't been taking them all week. Believe it or not, I can hear when you're thrashing in your sleep. Even these double reinforced doors aren't enough to dampen that cacophony.” Nora reached out and rapped her knuckles against the wall. “Just do us a favor – do what the doctors keep telling you to do. Take your medication. It will suppress your dreams.”

Nora turned and walked out the door.

Just before the doors closed behind her, she appeared to change her mind.

She strode back in, leaned down, plucked the spray-on-skin from Sarah, and helped her apply it.

When she was done, Nora pushed to her feet and offered Sarah a hand. “Sorry to be so hard on you, kid, but—”

“But?” Sarah looked up at her.

“Never mind,” Nora insisted as she pushed forward, obviously tired of waiting, and plucked Sarah's hand up.

Nora was strong and agile, and it wasn't a trial to pull Sarah to her feet.

“Okay, now get to the med bay, and I'll cover for you in class. But whatever you do, be back in time for combat training. You can't afford to put Lieutenant Karax offside anymore. Not considering what you said to him last time.” Nora sighed heavily.

Sarah couldn't help but wince.

Now she was standing, her cut semi-healed, and her best friend at her side, her dream was starting to fade.

Her dream.

No.

That's what other people called it.

Sarah knew they weren't dreams.

They were too real, too tangible. When she was experiencing them, they felt like reality. Like she was walking through some distant memory.

Maybe Nora could somehow guess what Sarah was thinking, because she leaned in close and shook her head, a warning look playing in her gaze. “Sarah, no. They're dreams. You're getting past this, remember? You've been going to a counselor for half a year now. You know they're dreams. Right?” Nora challenged.

Sarah looked at her best friend.

There was only one thing she could say, even if it was a lie. So she gave a stiff nod, hooking her messy hair behind her ears as she did. “Yeah, they're dreams,” she said in a dead, far-off voice. As soon as she said it, she winced. A violent, visceral memory of the hunt slammed into her mind.

She may not know much about the context of her dream – who was chasing her, where she was, how she'd gotten there. But she knew one thing.

It was called the hunt. And she was the quarry being hunted.

She gave a cold shiver as a dark, sick feeling pushed through her gut.

Rather than clutch a hand on her stomach and double over, she tried for a smile.

Nora let out a sharp chuckle. “You're not going to win any friends with a smile like that.”

“I don't need other friends – I've got you, right?”

Nora didn't answer. She moved toward the door, pulling her gaze off Sarah and locking it on the metal. “Get dressed and get to the med bay, I'll see you in class.” With that, she walked through the door, and it closed behind her.

There'd been a time when Nora had stood by her side relentlessly. Whenever anyone had made fun of Sarah's mad assertions about her dreams, Nora had been there.

But over the past few years, something had changed.

Nora was growing more distant every day.

Fair enough. She was sick of Sarah's stupid stories, wasn't she? She was sick of the fact she had to keep defending Sarah from the other cadets at the Academy, even from the teaching staff.

No one believed there was anything wrong with Sarah – other than her mind.

And that could be fixed with medication and counseling. If only Sarah would stick to her regime, her dreams would disappear and she'd finally become normal.

... Except she wouldn't become normal. She knew for a fact the dreams would not disappear, no matter how many drugs the med staff pumped into her.

They weren't dreams. They were something more.

She shivered instinctively, drawing a deep calming breath into her chest as she twisted on her foot to stare out of the window behind her bed.

It showed a view of the accommodation block next to her own. No ocean, no sprawling Academy grounds. She wasn't important enough for that.

Heck, if Sarah didn't stop insisting she was going through... something, she'd likely be kicked out of the Academy.

The threat was already on the table. Either Sarah properly engage with her counselor and take her medication, or she would be out on her ear.

No one wanted an unstable ensign aboard a Coalition ship.

Rather than madly dress and brush her hair, Sarah slowly gathered together the contents of the med kit and neatly packed them away. She methodically picked up her lamp, made her bed, and plucked up her wrist device – her WD.

She snatched up the metal back and clicked it into place. Then, with a thoughtful sigh, she hooked the device over her wrist.

Slowly she dressed, finally running a brush through her unruly hair.

Once she was done, she stopped and stared at herself in the mirror.

She was slightly larger than normal size. She had an athletic body, brown eyes, and attractive chestnut colored hair that ran down to the middle of her back.

She kept staring at herself as she looped her hair into a ponytail, a few strands cutting over her eyes.

She watched her reflection as she took one deep breath after another.

She was attractive. She knew that. And considering her athletic physique, she should be good at combat.

But Sarah was abysmal in combat, and despite her looks, had only one single friend.

Maybe that's what irritated people so much about her – they thought she was capable of so much more.

Her first week at the Academy, she'd been invited into E Club.

She'd never got past the application phase – as soon as everyone had found out about her little mental problems, they'd ditched her.

Why not? She believed she was somehow transported to a snowy planet every night to fight some strange creature.

Sometimes she'd make it into the facility, sometimes she'd find a weapon and start fighting back.

But every time – to everyone else – it was nothing more than a dream.

There was a name for people like her – spacecondriachs.

Disparaging and belittling, it was used to refer to people who made up wild reasons to explain quite normal medical conditions. You know, the kind of weirdos who think they get abducted by aliens every time they black out for a few minutes after drinking themselves stupid.

Spacecondriachs had a constellation of mental issues, according to the experts. From low self-esteem to a desperate need for attention.

Sarah had it all.

Apparently.

She curled her hands into fists and took a sharp step away from the mirror.

A part of her did have low self-esteem. She couldn't help but feel she was useless when everyone kept repeating that to her – from the medical staff, to the other cadets, to the teachers.

They wanted her to snap out of it and live up to her potential.

Sarah curled a hand into a fist and struck the wall next to her mirror.

Though pain sank hard into her hand and wrist, she didn't react.

She could compartmentalize pain, a part of her reminded herself.

She could push past any obstacle, that same part reminded her.

She could endure any hardship – whether it be a mad dash through the snow or social pressure.

She was a true survivor.

She let her hand drop and closed her eyes, trying to catch the elusive voice that kept saying that.

... She couldn't.

She opened her eyes and let out a frustrated grunt.

Sarah knew she was different, but she wasn't a spacecondriach. There was an aspect of her – a strong survivor who could endure anything, who was so powerful she could obliterate the hunter from her dreams.

Others didn't see that part.

But it was there.

It's what gave her the strength to turn, press a smile on her face, and head out of her apartment.

As she smiled, she felt her natural exuberance return. Despite everything that was wrong with her, she tried to combat it all with good humor.

It didn't always work. In fact, it made people think she was madder.

She didn't care.

She kept that smile on her face until she made it across the Academy grounds to the med bay.

As soon as she walked through the large white doors, her mood changed.

It cost all her effort to keep her smile locked on her lips.

The doctor in charge saw her and let out a loud and very obvious sigh. “What now?” Doctor Wallace asked. He was half human, half Bakarian.

“I, ah, injured my knee,” she said in a quiet, conciliatory tone as she shifted toward a medical bed.

“Don't sit there,” Wallace huffed. “That's for patients.”

Sarah didn't react.

She was a patient, right? Though she'd applied the spray-on-skin, she hadn't done a good enough job, and she could already feel blood slicking through her uniform.

Wallace would be able to see the blood dripping down her leg.

But that still didn't make her a patient.

Wallace gestured her forward. Without a word to her, he plucked a medical scanner off a floating tray, started manipulating the controls, and waved it near her.

She stood in the middle of the room, patients and staff walking around her – all watching her.

She wasn't even allowed the dignity to sit down.

... Some part of her wanted to react to that. A part of her wanted to point out to Wallace he was being a callous asshole. Even if he did think Sarah was a spacecondriach, he had a duty of care.

But no matter how much she wanted to snap, she didn't.

Because Sarah didn't snap.

Sarah kept her true feelings hidden behind a smile.

Wallace didn't say a word to her as he injected something into her neck and strapped a device around her leg. “This will fix the nerve damage.”

“So there's nerve damage, then?”

“Of course there's nerve damage – you sliced a good inch into your leg. I'm not even going to ask how you did it,” he said distractedly as he turned and began to walk away, “Just keep it on for the rest of the day. And don't exert yourself.”

“Will you make a note of that on my file? I have combat class this afternoon.”

Wallace had already walked away.

“Never mind,” she muttered under her breath.

She ignored all the stares she got as she walked through the med bay and headed toward the main doors.

As she reached them, they opened.

In strode Lieutenant Karax.

Broad, strapping, and handsome, he instantly drew attention as he marched in.

Dread plunged through Sarah's gut, and she darted to the side.

Before she realized what she was doing, she bumped into a med tech. They were carrying a tray of vials, and Sarah slammed into their elbow, upending the vials and sending them scattering over the floor.

“Oh my god, I'm so sorry.” Sarah leaned down to help them.

The med tech gave her a dark look. “Just leave it.”

Sarah's stomach sank even further as she stood.

When she turned, Karax was right behind her.

She had to suck in a breath as she looked up into his attractive face. It wasn't his looks that sucked her breath away – it was the dark promise playing in his deep brown eyes. It matched the dark chocolate hue of his skin, drawing you deeper into that penetrating stare.

“What are you doing, cadet? Making trouble again?” There was real vehemence behind his words.

And she knew why.

Karax was from the colony worlds along the Barbarian-Coalition border.

According to his file and the trillion stories repeating around campus about him, he'd had to fight to survive. As a teenager, he'd fought off wave after wave of Barbarian attacks, losing most of his family in the process.

He had real battle scars.

Sarah, she only thought she did.

It had all come to a head when Lieutenant Karax had been assigned to her class to give the new wave of Academy cadets “true survival training” as the top brass were calling it. In these trying times, the Coalition had to ensure their cadets were battle-ready before sending them out into space.

Lieutenant Karax was one of the best, precisely because he'd survived so much.

During one training session, Sarah had mentioned her past. The one she experienced in her dreams every night.

It was so real to her – how could it not be her past? It didn't matter that it didn't fit in with her biographical history – it was real.

Lieutenant Karax had taken it as an insult.

How could someone pretend to have survived such slaughter? How could someone dare trivialize such a thing?

“You want to stop wasting everyone's time?” he snapped, voice a harsh hiss.

It reminded her of the hunter's breath. From her dream, that thing always breathed with a pneumatic hush.

She shivered but hid it with a sniff. “I wasn't wasting everyone's time, I was—”

“Excuse me? Are you talking back to me?”

“I cut my leg,” she said in a tiny voice that could barely carry.

He gave an uncaring snort. “What was it this time? You deliberately cut yourself to get out of more combat training? Or is it the attention you crave?”

Sarah's hands were clutched behind her back. One of her hands curled into a fist. A tight fist, one that sent a stiff reassurance sinking hard into her wrist and arm.

She kept staring at the ground, but what she really wanted to do was snap at him that he was a goddamn bully.

Instead, she nodded and shifted forward.

“If you think that injury of yours is going to get you a free ticket out of my class, you're mistaken. I expect you to show up. And this time, you will not fail.” He turned and marched off.

Every eye was on her.

This was a show to them.

She clenched her teeth and walked out of the med bay.

No matter what she tried, she couldn't unclench her hand.

Something deep inside her wanted to push against this injustice, wanted to fight back.

It always wanted to fight back.

But Cadet Sarah Sinclair kept her anger in check with reason.

For now.

Chapter 2

Lieutenant Karax

He strode past Cadet Sinclair.

She got on his nerves more than anyone else in the entire Academy.

Why?

She never tried. She was too weak to take ownership of her condition, too weak to do anything about it.

He was determined to fail her in survival training – not because he was vindictive, but because it was the right thing to do.

No one would be able to rely on Cadet Sinclair if she ever graduated. And in these uncertain times, they couldn't afford to graduate cadets until they could survive out there.

The Milky Way was more violent now. Every day a new skirmish broke out. Whether it was between the Barbarians or the Kore, or even deep within Coalition space.

Bottom line – it was too dangerous out there to vest responsibility in someone like Sinclair.

Especially not now. Not with the growing threat of the Ornax.

He straightened, his gut clenching like a fist. All it took was one thought about the Ornax to send his body into fight mode.

He felt the blood pump hard up his throat, his muscles contracting as he drew his teeth into a stiff line.

Doctor Wallace saw him striding forward and frowned. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“I need a checkup.”

“This is a first – I usually have to drag you in here.”

“I'm having pain,” Karax admitted as he shifted his neck from side-to-side. He could feel his cybernetic implants sliding uncomfortably down his shoulders and into his spine.

Karax's spine and most of his left shoulder had been replaced with durable robotic implants. But no matter how durable they were, they still had to be checked. Constantly. Karax put them through so much of a pounding, he was continually pulling them out of alignment.

Wallace raised an eyebrow as he plucked a scanner up. “You must be in considerable pain if you've volunteered for a check-up.”

Karax didn't say anything.

Wallace let out a light sigh. “There you go – you've done it again. Your left latissimus dorsi has pulled your 14th cybernetic vertebra out of alignment. Again. When I keep telling you to take it easy for a little, to let yourself heal,” Wallace dropped his head down and stared at Karax meaningfully, “I'm not doing it just because I like to repeat myself. Lieutenant Karax, you need to give your implants a chance to adjust.”

“No time,” Karax said without pause. “I have to complete this latest training regime. We're getting slaughtered out there.”

Wallace shifted his gaze surreptitiously over his shoulder to check if anyone was in earshot. “You mean the Ornax?”

It was a top-level secret. Not that it could stay that way for long. The Ornax were operating within Coalition space. A new impossible enemy that had seemingly come from nowhere and had pushed beyond Coalition borders with no reprieve. Though their numbers were small for now, and their incursions sporadic, it wouldn't last.

This was the precursor to a proper invasion. The Ornax were just testing the waters to see how much resistance the Coalition could provide before they committed their forces to a full-on invasion.

“... We all appreciate what you're doing for us, Lieutenant.” Wallace bowed his head low.

The uncharacteristic move brought a half-smile to Karax's lips.

There were some at the Academy who thought Karax never smiled. They were wrong. Underneath the life of hardship and survival, he liked to have a good time. He enjoyed a laugh.

And that's what made all this harder to accept.

Deep down Karax knew he was never meant for this life.

It had chosen him, not the other way around.

“I'll work as quickly as I can – I heard you have a meeting with Admiral Forest later today,” Wallace said conspiratorially.

Karax couldn't help but laugh. “You part of her spy ring? You always know what's going on around here.”

“I'd love to profess that Forest has entrusted me with espionage duties, but the reality is, I just hear a lot. People are remarkably chatty when you've got their life in your hands.”

“Well, you're right. I do have a meeting with Forest.” Karax let his fingers drag down his brow.

“We'll find a way to beat the Ornax. It's early days, Lieutenant. The Coalition always finds a way.”

Karax looked at Wallace as he worked. It was easy to see that the doctor genuinely believed what he was saying.

To him, the Coalition were unbeatable. They'd never fallen in the past, right? So didn't that mean they'd last forever?

No. It did not.

If the Coalition wanted to survive these new tumultuous times, they'd have to learn to survive. Not flourish. Survive.

By any means possible.

One look around at the gentrified Academy, and it was clear there would be a steep learning curve.

There was an ever-growing gap between what the Coalition wanted to do and what they had to do to ensure their continued existence.

That gap was typified no better than in Cadet Sinclair.

She should have been turfed from day one.

She was still here. Why? Because someone out there had the erroneous belief she could pull through her troubles.

She didn't want to.

And that was the bottom line.

“You've gone all sullen and somber, Lieutenant. I'll repeat once more, the Coalition will beat the Ornax. We defeated the lost star – given time, we'll overcome this obstacle, too. Anyhow, lie on your stomach, close your eyes, and think pleasant thoughts while I deliberately break a few of your mechanical vertebrae and access their internal mechanisms.”

“Sounds painful.” Karax lay on the medical bed and nestled his head against his hands.

“Sure is. But someone like you knows how to push past pain. Oh, and I'll also half sedate you, which will help. You'll find your mind wandering during this procedure. Don't worry – it's a side effect of the anesthetic I have to use. Sit back and enjoy the show. It'll take an hour.”

Wallace got to work.

As soon as he injected something into Karax's neck, Karax felt a slow wave of unconsciousness shift through his mind.

It didn't pull him down into sleep. Not fully.

A part of him was still aware of his body pressed against the cold medical bed. The rest wandered.

Which was a bad idea. Because whenever Karax's mind wandered, it always returned to the same place.

His home world.

The invasions.

One after another, week after week – Barbarian raiding parties attacking his settlement relentlessly over a harrowing three-year period until finally they claimed the planet and pushed the settlers back.

Karax lost his whole family during the raids. One after another.

He... he'd survived.

He could see it now – the settlement around him, the stark brown and gray reclaimed cruisers that had been modified into habitable shelters.

They'd sat there, nestled in the verdant green grass as the trees and vines of the planet had massed around them.

The settlement had been situated at the foot of a hill. Behind had been a steep mountain Karax had played on with his brothers. If you climbed it, you'd see the greatest view in the galaxy – a massive mountainous valley dotted with crystal peaks, three silver-white moons constantly visible above the horizon.

He could still remember with perfect clarity standing on the edge of that cliff, wind blowing against his brown tunic, a smile pressing over his lips.

Then the Barbarians had come....

...

Lieutenant Karax, ten years ago, colony planets, border of Coalition space

“Come on, Karax, get your ass back to camp. We can't stay up here forever,” Karax's brother called.

Karax didn't move. He couldn't. That view sucked him in. It wrapped its hands around his gaze and drew it forward as he stared at each crystal peak in turn.

His attention inevitably drifted toward the three moons in the sky. They stood sentinel over the planet, like three guards watching her from space.

“Come on,” his brother said, terse voice filtering up from further down the hill.

Reluctantly Karax pushed back, ripped his mesmerized gaze from the moons, and trudged away.

As soon as his reclaimed leather boots sunk through the soft inch-high grass, his gut trembled.

Far in the distance, he swore he could hear something.

Something out of place.

“Kiros? Kiros? You there?” he shouted.

He didn't know why, but a flare of fear snagged his heart.

He shifted forward, boots crumpling the lush grass. His head swung from side-to-side as he scanned for his older brother. “Kiros?”

No reply.

Then he heard it, that odd rumble shaking through the hills.

Cruiser engines.

He stared at the topaz-blue sky just as three cruisers shot past the mountain peak, heading down to the settlement below.

At first, he thought they were suppliers.

They weren't.

The ships were ramshackle, cobbled-together, brown and black hull plating interspersed with pulser turrets and rotating cannon shafts.

“Kiros!” He pitched forward, heart pounding in his chest as he shunted into a sprint.

He flew down the grassy incline.

“Kiros!”

No reply.

It was a good 30-minute trek to the settlement below.

Karax lost all track of time as he flew down the peak, sprinting so fast over the grass, the tread of his hand-me-down boots dug it up, clumps of dirt scattering around him.

He kept calling Kiros' name, kept bellowing at his brother to reply.

Karax never made it to the settlement.

Halfway there, he came across a Barbarian warrior pushing through the undergrowth.

The guy was huge – easily three times Karax's size.

He was also wearing armor. It covered his broad chest, his legs, even his arms and fists. Only his head was unadorned. It meant Karax could see the warrior's yellowed, pinprick eyes as they focused on him.

The Barbarian pulled back its red lips to reveal its slobbery tusks.

It didn't say a word. It reached for the massive carved knife held in the holster by its side.

Karax's mind stopped, frozen still with fear.

The Barbarian laughed, twisted the knife around in its grip, and threw it at Karax.

At that exact moment, Kiros shot through the undergrowth, wrapped an arm around Karax, and pushed him out of the way.

The blade sank into Kiros' back. It was so long and thrown with such force that the tip of the blade sliced right through Kiros' chest and snagged Karax's tunic.

Karax screamed. One long, desperate, terrified bellow that tore from his throat as his brother died in his arms.

The Barbarian didn't waste any time. It pushed toward Karax, a smile curling around its fat, veiny lips.

Karax waited to be killed, his mind crawling to a stop as his brother's body twitched.

The Barbarian reached him and loomed above him like a sudden plume of smoke that had blocked out the sun.

Without a word, it leaned down and plucked the blade from Kiros' back.

The sound of it ripping through Kiros' muscle and bones was the most sickening thing Karax had ever heard.

The Barbarian considered Karax for one more second, then lurched toward his throat—

...

Lieutenant Karax

Karax awoke with a snap, sweaty fingers scrabbling over the edge of his medical bed.

“Whoa,” someone locked a firm hand on his back, “Relax there, Lieutenant. It seems you had a bad reaction to that anesthetic. It's okay now. It's all okay.”

Karax concentrated on Wallace's voice, letting it pull him back to reality.

With one final chest-punching sigh, he settled his mind.

And his heart.

“... You okay there, Lieutenant?”

“Yeah.” Karax pushed up. He glanced down to see most of his front was covered in sweat.

Wallace's gaze flashed with concern. “Sorry about that – seems you're one of the 1 in 1,000,000 who can't tolerate that kind of anesthetic. I've given you something to flush it from your system. You'll be alright soon.”

Karax responded by jumping up and standing.

Wallace put out a hand.

Karax didn't need it.

With another grounding breath, Karax tugged down his tunic, neatening it as best as he could, and nodded. “I feel fine now, doctor.” He experimentally shifted his shoulders out and arched his back. “Have you fixed my spine?”

“Kind of. It'll need more work. I want you back in here tomorrow, you got that?”

Karax didn't say anything as he tried to surreptitiously wipe the sweat from his brow.

“You want to do your job, Lieutenant, then you have to look after yourself. It's not a luxury – it's a requirement. It's also an order,” Wallace said curtly, gaze flashing.

“Fine. But I probably won't be able to make it tomorrow. That's when the summit's booked.”

Wallace's once direct stare flared with curiosity. “Summit?”

Karax laughed at himself as he shook his head. “Ha, I guess you're right, doc – your patients do tell you too much. I shouldn't have mentioned that. I trust you'll be discreet about it.”

“It depends on what it's about. This isn't to do with the Ornax, is it?”

Karax chose not to answer. He did, however, hold the doctor's gaze.

Eventually, Wallace nodded, shifted to the side, and gestured toward the door. “You'll be fine for the next few days, Lieutenant. But you will come and see me after that.”

Karax snapped a mock salute. He walked out of the room with a hurried, “Thanks, doc.”

The truth was, he wouldn't have the time to come back in a few days.

Time was a resource rapidly slipping through Karax's fingers.

Even as he thought that, his heart quickened.

His pace quickened, too.

He pushed into a half-jog as he made it through the med bay and out into the main grounds.

He couldn't be late for his meeting with the Admiral. Too much was riding on this.

As he flew across the main grassy area that separated the primary buildings of the Academy, he found his gaze flicking to the side and locking on someone.

Out of the sea of cadets and commissioned officers out on the grass, only one person could catch his attention.

Cadet Sinclair.

She was walking – not toward the Academy main buildings, but away from them.

Presumably back to her apartment.

She had her head tipped back as she stared at the sky, an odd, distant expression on her face.

It hardened his resolve.

If she dodged his class once more, she'd be out on her ear.

Karax just needed one good reason to kick her out.

Deliberately cutting class may not see her kicked out, but it would worsen her already appalling record.

So, despite the fact it was quicker to head up through the center of the campus, he found himself following her.

...

Cadet Sarah Sinclair

She shouldn't be doing this. But she was.

And a part of her just didn't care.

A part of her just couldn't put up with the Academy anymore.

When she'd first joined, she'd been filled with so much hope. So much potential.

Then the dreams had started, and....

She sighed and shook her head.

Instinctively she clutched a hand on her upper left shoulder.

Her fingers hovered around a very specific spot – just at the nape of her neck.

The skin was always red, always irritated, nail tracks permanently etched into it.

She couldn't count the number of times she'd woken up in the middle of the night scratching and clutching at it.

She... it sounded crazy, but she knew something was buried just underneath her flesh.

She'd told the doctors a few times. They could find nothing.

She shivered as she shoved her fingers harder into her skin.

She could feel it – that thing – just underneath the surface.

A cold, tight sensation shifted hard through her shoulders, and she took a quick gasp.

Sometimes she felt as if someone was walking over her grave.

It felt... it felt like she was dead, and this was all just a dream. The real her – she was somewhere else.

Sarah was nothing more than a walking talking corpse.

She'd never shared these particular thoughts with anyone – she didn't need to give the doctors any more reasons to think she was crazy.

Without realizing it, Sarah found herself taking a circuitous relatively secluded route back to her apartment block.

Though mostly she could ignore people's stares – even the muttered comments – today her natural resilience was diminished, flushed away by the vestiges of her violent dream.

She just wanted to be alone.

She needed to curl up on her bed and fall asleep.

... And then what? Have another one of those dreams?

She caught herself just in time. “They aren't dreams.”

They were memories. Or maybe she was somehow tapping into someone else's consciousness. Maybe a part of her shifted through dimensions at night.

It sounded crazy – but something was happening to her.

She dropped her hand, noting a few flecks of blood under her nails.

The skin along the nape of her neck smarted, but she made no attempt to check on it.

There were times she wanted to take a knife to her neck and cut the object out.

As Sarah made her way forward, that cold dead feeling – the one that felt like someone was walking over her grave – grew worse.

She had to stop and suck in a reassuring breath. It couldn't reassure her. It couldn't stop the nerves that ignited in her gut.

That thing in her shoulder felt like it was on fire.

At the same time, her consciousness felt like it was slipping through her fingers.

She staggered to the side, clamping a hand against the wall beside her.

As she started to lose her balance, she walked her sweating fingers down the wall until she crumpled into a ball.

As soon as her eyes closed, she returned to the dream.

The ice planet opened up before her. Her limbs instantly froze with a cloying, digging, numbing sensation.

She hunched down, wrapping her shaking hands around her body, her gloved fingers squeaking over the waterproof fabric of her torn snow jacket.

As her body gradually grew accustomed to the sudden shock of appearing on this planet, she straightened.

She realized she'd made it to the facility.

Occasionally she made it this far.

There were weapons in here.

Trapped far within the cold gray walls were guns and knives.

She was standing in the cavernous doorway, wind whistling past, catching along the powdery drifts and gathering the snow into an impromptu blizzard.

She pulled up a hand and protected her eyes as she shifted through the doorway.

She had no idea what this facility was, but she guessed it was either an underground base or a mining operation.

The massive gate-like doorway led down into a long wide ice-covered metal tunnel.

It was treacherous. She couldn't count the number of times she'd slipped on the icy tracks and broken a leg.

This time, she kept her balance as she spread her hands and walked down the tracks as fast as her boots would allow.

Behind, she heard the hunter.

Its footsteps sped up.

It knew – just like she did – that there were weapons in here.

Instantly Sarah threw herself forward. She slipped, but she controlled her fall, rolling and shifting onto her ass as she began to slide down the incline.

She used all her muscular control not to roll head over heels. Do that, and the ice would burn great tracks of her cheeks and forehead off.

Fortunately, her pants and jacket were sturdy enough to protect her from the friction, but they couldn't stop a desperate scream shaking from her throat and echoing down the cavernous expanse.

She slid for a whole minute until she reached the bottom of the shaft. She rolled, back striking a hard metal crate.

Though it winded her and a few splatters of blood jumped from her mouth and dotted through the snow, she didn't wait.

She forced her shaking body to stand as she locked her gloves on the side of the crate.

It was closed.

She yanked one glove off, forcing her rapidly freezing fingers against the ice-covered lid.

Instantly her fingers threatened to stick to the frozen metal.

She didn't let them. She tore them back, not caring that she left a few layers of skin behind.

She dug her nails into the gap between the lid and the rest of the case. With a desperate groan, she managed to shift it back.

Her back twinged, her broken left leg shook and threatened to buckle – but she held on.

With a grating noise that echoed through the tunnel, she shoved the lid off.

It fell to the side, split the ice-covered floor, and struck the metal shaft below with a thunderous clang.

She dived into the crate, half jumping inside as her stomach pushed against the high edge and her feet kicked out behind her.

With her breath freezing into white puffs that pushed around her cheeks, she scrabbled through the contents of the case, looking for the combat knife she knew would be there.

Just as fear ricocheted through her sternum and down into her gut, her frozen fingers grasped it.

She plucked it up and fell to her knees as she twisted and spied the hunter.

It was already halfway down the shaft.

Her eyes bulged, the fear rising in her throat as she scooped up her glove, clutched the knife, and pushed into a sprint.

Her broken leg buckled a few times, and she fell to the ice-covered floor, cutting her cheek.

She always pushed herself up, always kept the knife out at a safe angle.

Once, she hadn't been so lucky, and she'd sliced through her own throat as the knife had twisted in her grip.

She'd had just a few seconds to note the blood pouring from her neck before the hunter had caught up and finished the job.

Though Sarah knew she'd done all this before, it didn't change the immediacy of the situation. Nor the reality.

So Sarah grunted through her pain, crammed her glove on, and flicked the combat knife into action.

It immediately jerked open, revealing a blade that theoretically would never go dull and could slice through most objects, even armor.

As she clutched the knife, her fear gave way to anger.

She wouldn't run forever, as soon as she found stable ground, she would fight.

She was done being hunted....

...

Lieutenant Karax

He kept following her, even though reason and simple decency told him to turn around and head to the Admiral ASAP.

Reason and simple decency couldn't win out when he was dealing with Sarah Sinclair.

He knew his hatred for her was way out of line.

He couldn't control it. He couldn't forgive her, either. She ran around pretending to have faced true hardship – murderous, violent hardship.

But it was all pretense.

All for attention.

He couldn't forgive that. Couldn't even begin to understand how anyone could pretend to have gone through what he had.

She took a circuitous route between the buildings, obviously picking a secluded path so no one caught her going back to her apartment during class.

He tried to tell himself – no, beg himself – to turn around.

When she muttered, “They're not just dreams,” his resolve hardened.

She'd already been warned on multiple occasions that she had to keep up with her treatment or be kicked out.

According to her counselor, Sarah had accepted her dreams weren't real.

Well, clearly Sarah had lied.

A part of him knew he was using Sarah as a distraction from other, much harder problems. He could kick Sarah out of the Academy and feel like he'd achieved something – like he'd saved people down the line.

But the fact was – it wouldn't make a goddamn difference to his real problem.

He had to find a way to train Coalition soldiers to survive the Ornax, and he was failing.

Just when reason won out and Karax almost turned around, Cadet Sinclair stopped.

Her shoulders shook a little, and she let out a trapped breath.

She teetered on her feet, pushed a hand out, and steadied herself against the wall.

Just as Karax's mind tried to tell him she was faking it, Cadet Sarah Sinclair crumpled, her head striking the cobble beneath her with a thud as her hair spilled across her face.

It was like she was a robot and someone had just switched her off.

He jolted forward.

That part in his head that kept telling him she was a faker was shoved to the side as genuine fear goaded his gut.

He skidded down to his knee, grabbed her left shoulder, and shifted it. “Cadet? Cadet? Wake up.”

She didn't wake.

He jerked his hand back and slammed it on his WD. As he did, he noted the blood on his fingers.

He'd seen her digging at her shoulder.

He frowned at his fingers as he ordered his WD to connect to the med bay.

A second later, it clicked to signal the call had been received.

He didn't wait. “I'm requesting a medical team to my current location,” he flicked a button on his WD that would broadcast his location, “A cadet has blacked out.”

“Sending a team. Can you identify the cadet?” the medical technician on duty asked in a professional tone.

“Cadet Sarah Sinclair.”

There was a long, pointed pause.

He knew exactly what it meant.

“... Are you sure she's injured?” the tech questioned.

It wasn't standard procedure to question a Lieutenant's assessment like this.

But this wasn't a standard situation, was it? From the little he knew about Sarah, she'd been to the med bay more times than any other cadet in the history of the Academy.

She had a deserved reputation for making things up and wasting people's time.

Though he usually agreed with that statement, he couldn't quell the fear curling around his gut. Every second it tightened little by little.

He cleared his throat. “She's not faking it. She blacked out. She needs help.”

The tech sighed. It was loud enough that it echoed around the cramped confines of the laneway him. “Fine, we'll send a team. They might take a while – we've got some serious cases back here. Just watch over her.”

“I don't have time—” Karax began.

The tech cut the line off.

Karax wanted to get pissed at the tech, but he had to remind himself he would have done the same thing in the guy's shoes.

He settled for hissing through his teeth.

Sarah jolted.

At first, he thought she was waking, but she wasn't.

Her head twisted to the side, her face pressing hard against the cobble at his feet, her hair scattering further across her face.

He stood there and watched her for a few seconds. Experimentally – and kinda cruelly – he prodded her lightly with his boot. “Wake up, cadet – I know you're faking this.”

No reaction.

That worry wound around his gut tighter.

She couldn't be faking it. She'd had no idea he was behind her.

Plus, she was sweating, her brow so slicked her fringe now stuck to it in clumps.

... He suddenly realized something. She was having a nightmare, wasn't she?

While nobody believed the wild tales Sarah span about her dreams, it was a fact that she did have them.

She wasn't being transported to some other dimension, and nor was she momentarily inhabiting someone else's mind.

But Sarah was having a nightmare.

He took another hissed breath, and once more Sarah violently twitched. Her hands grasped in and out as he if she were holding something – or desperately trying to grab at something.

Though he tried so hard to stop himself, compassion started to well in his heart.

It was easy to ignore Sarah's wild assertions when she was awake.

It was another thing to ignore her condition when she was twitching at his feet.

No, that didn't mean he suddenly believed her mind was being abducted by aliens.

It did mean he couldn't stop himself from leaning down on his haunches and brushing her hair from her face.

Sarah Sinclair was attractive. She had a great build, and there was something powerfully stark about her features.

That didn't mean his stomach kicked as he shifted her clumped hair from her mouth; he was just worried she'd choke on it.

He latched a hand on her shoulder again. “Wake up?” he tried as he shoved her once more.

Her head flopped to the side, a muted but still terrified half-cry pushing from her lips.

He locked his hand on her shoulder harder. “Sarah, it's fine. You're just dreaming. It's just a nightmare. Now wake up.”

As he clutched her shoulder, her collar bunched against his fingers, and his gaze locked on the left side of her neck.

... She'd dug the skin raw. He could see the nail tracks pushing over the flesh.

... She was torturing herself.

Despite Sarah's wild tales, she always had a smile on her face. When he wasn't telling her off, that was.

In between classes, he saw her occasionally – and she always seemed fine.

This – her thrashing around and the nail tracks through her skin – made him realize how much of an act it had to be.

... Or maybe it wasn't an act. Maybe despite the torture Sarah put herself through, she still found the strength to find happiness in between the horror.

A skill he'd never mastered.

Just as he clenched his teeth and took another sigh, she woke.

Her head twitched up, she jolted forward, and her eyes shot wide.

She also struck out at him. Before he could push her back, she locked her hands on his shoulders and shoved him.

It was hard enough that he toppled over.

He was a big guy – though Sarah was athletic, she didn't have the strength to down him.

And yet she did.

“Hey, what are you doing?” someone bellowed from further down the laneway.

Karax jerked his gaze to the left just in time to see a medical team finally arrive.

Sarah was panting, her eyes locked wide, her chest heaving in and out with every breath.

“Did she just attack you?” one of the med techs asked as they reached Karax and pushed a hand down to him.

Karax took the hand and allowed the tech to help him to his feet.

Sarah had withdrawn against the wall, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle.

“We saw it, Lieutenant – when you put in your report, we can confirm—” the tech began.

“She was confused, she had no idea what she was doing. She just woke up from a nightmare,” Karax said before he could stop himself.

He'd been looking for a reason to get Sarah kicked out of the Academy.

This, right here – her attacking an officer – was it.

He wouldn't need anything more than the med tech's witness report.

... And yet it didn't feel right.

Try as he might, Karax couldn't ignore the terror playing through her gaze as she wrapped her arms so tightly around her chest it looked like she was trying to cut herself in half.

The med tech pressed his lips together in a tight frown. “Are you sure, sir? We've,” he looked over his shoulder at Sarah, “Investigated Sarah's illness many times. There is no medical reason to justify her attack.”

Other than the fact she looks terrified, Karax added in his mind.

When he caught himself defending Sarah, even it if was only in his head, he clenched his teeth and sighed.

Once more, Sarah appeared to react to it.

She jerked her head to the side, then locked her gaze on him.

... There was something hard about that look. No, not hard – hardened.

The technician appeared to be waiting for him. He knew all eyes were on him, Sarah's too.

Karax half shook his head and realized he had to do the right thing.

He cleared his throat. “I'll be making no report,” he said in a deliberate, loud voice that could not be misunderstood.

As the seconds ticked by, Sarah was growing more aware of her surroundings. The bloodless white hands clutching her knees gradually loosened. Soon she let them drop to her side.

Both med techs turned to look at her, and even though he couldn't see them fully, he saw enough of the sides of their faces to note their derision.

Sarah wouldn't look at them. She wouldn't look at him, either. Instead, she locked her gaze on her hands, tipped her head forward, and appeared to try to hide behind her hair.

The med techs muttered something unkind about her, then got to work.

“We've got this, sir. Please go about whatever you were doing,” one of them said.

Karax went to turn. To head to Admiral Forest – while he still had the time.

And yet... he hesitated.

For no other reason than this felt wrong.

As soon as he caught himself thinking that, he literally had to shake his head.

He was the one who hated Sarah Sinclair more than anyone else at the Academy. And yet here he was, bile rising up his throat at the way the techs were treating her.

Hadn't they seen the way she'd thrashed on the ground? The confusion that had torn through her eyes when she'd woken so violently?

“We've got this,” one of the techs turned around and spoke directly, as if they thought Karax hadn't heard them.

“Right,” Karax managed through a gruff cough.

He pushed weight through his leg, pivoted on his foot, and forced himself to walk away.

He didn't make it far. A few steps down the resounding cobbled laneway, and he found his neck contracting and turning to the side, his stare locking on her.

Though Sarah still had her arms tightly wrapped around her knees, she was now looking up, that once defiant gaze back as it locked on him.

... For some reason, it affected him. Sent a flurry of something close to nerves scattering up his back.

Before he could take any note of the sensation, his WD beeped.

The noise was so unexpected, he jumped and jerked around, slamming a hand a little too hard on the WD's screen.

“Lieutenant, you're late,” Admiral Forest said succinctly. “You better be dead or fighting the enemy.”

He half winced, pushed off into a quick jog, and cleared his throat once more. “I'm on my way, Admiral. I was attending to an accident.”

“Alright, then. How long until you reach my office?” Though her tone wasn't nervous – it would take the end of the Milky Way for Admiral Forest to show fright – it was quick. Snapped. You could hear the tension twisting through every word like snakes writhing in a pit.

It clutched at his stomach, clenching every muscle until his back was ramrod straight. “Two minutes,” he said, even though he'd have to push into a full sprint to make it.

So he did. He dashed through the Academy grounds. They were a startling sight when you had the time to appreciate them. More than anything, it was their scale that stole away your attention. Coming from the colony worlds, he was used to houses made from reclaimed containers. Pod-like structures only large enough to safely contain a family. Anything else was largess. You could use spare metal, spare bedding, spare anything on a colony world to make yourself safer.

Out here, there was no question that the Earth was safe, the Academy too. The Coalition Academy hadn't seen a direct attack since the Axira incident. Even then, though it had been extremely serious, it hadn't been as perilous as the attacks he'd gone through on the colony worlds.

So as he tilted his head back, he appreciated the enormity of the buildings as they reached for the sky. The sun glinted off their smooth glass walls, making it feel as if he was standing in a tall crystal forest.

And even if the scale of the buildings wasn't alien enough, the view of the bay and the horizon above was. Numerous ships darted in and out along the water, plunging up into the sky above. Even though it was the middle of the day, he could still see the numerous installations in orbit. Not everything – not the Earth defense security network – but the monolithic structures like the shipbuilding yards and Station Zero. They were faint outlines like the moon in the morning.

Realizing he was allowing himself to become distracted, he tucked his head down and concentrated on darting past every errant cadet and staff member as he powered toward Admiral Forest's room.

When he reached it, slamming a hand on the panel next to her door, he'd already caught his breath.

He was at the top of his fitness. And considering the numerous cybernetic implants that littered his body, even without armor, he was a match in most fights.

Yes, Doctor Wallace kept telling him to take it easy. But no, there was no way that was ever going to happen.

Lieutenant Karax had one goal in life – to make the colony worlds safe. The only way to do that would be to make the Coalition as strong as it could be. To push back every enemy, to take advantage of every resource.

And that meant no time for rest.

He patted a stiff hand down his uniform as he walked through Admiral Forest's door.

It opened onto a dark office.

It was in the middle of the building, with no windows, but that did not account for the gloom.

Admiral Forest often liked to work in the dark, with only the bare illumination from her desk lamp.

The light coming from the lamp was only sufficient to light up the underside of her chin, to play against her cheek, and to deepen the shadows under her eyes.

Karax drew to a stop in the middle of her room. He clasped his hands tightly behind his back, pushed his shoulders straight, and cleared his throat.

He waited.

Admiral Forest had one hand clutched against her cheek, the other rested on her desk as she drummed her fingers into the wood. “We need an edge, Lieutenant. I'm sick and tired of losing good people to the Ornax.”

Karax felt his stomach clench, a sinking feeling pushing down his shoulders. “What are the latest casualty reports?”

Admiral Forest hadn't been in a bad mood when he'd left her yesterday. That meant one thing.

More deaths. More Coalition soldiers lost to the Ornax.

As he realized that, he clutched a hand into such a tight fist it felt as if his cybernetic implants would tear through the flesh and crush his bone to powder.

“Yes, more deaths. More casualties. More injuries. More ships lost. More resources squandered on this enemy,” her voice became tighter until she spoke in hisses through her clenched teeth.

Involuntarily, it reminded him of Sarah. He saw a flash of her lying at his feet, her body crumpled, hair a mess over her face.

He shook his head to dislodge the uncomfortable image and tried to focus on the Admiral. “We're trying our hardest. I'm trying my hardest,” his voice dropped as he let his gaze drift down to the carpeted floor, “But we just can't prepare our soldiers for the Ornax. Their attacks are unconventional, their methods unlike anything we're used to.”

Admiral Forest lifted a hand. The fingers were stiff, white, so straight they looked like stone. “I have not brought you here to hear my troubles. I have brought you here, because we have been offered a solution,” again, her voice dropped. This time it became so low it felt as if it shifted through the floor and powered up his legs.

“Solution?” He couldn't help but take a jerked step forward, boots crushing the pile of her blue and black carpet.

“You're right – we can't prepare our soldiers to fight the Ornax unless we can replicate their ingenuity, their unconventional methods, and their goddamn unquenchable drive to survive.”

“... Admiral, what are you suggesting?”

“Are you familiar with the Corthanx Traders?”

He tilted his head to the side. “Yes. What have they got to do with this?”

“They claim to have replicated the same training method the Ornax go through. The Corthanx Traders came upon an abandoned Ornax training ship.”

Karax's hackles rose. They started at the base of his spine and powered up his back, even sending cold charges of energy sinking hard into his jaw.

His mouth jerked open. “Training methods?”

The Admiral stopped drumming her fingers on her desk. Her stiff fingers slowly spread out until her palm pressed flat against the wood. “They call them true intelligence holograms. Holograms that can't only take tangible, solid form, but possess so-called true intelligence – methods that replicate how a sentient being may fight, not the mechanical precision of an AI.”

He frowned, the move hard as it drove his lips down into his chin. “Forgive me, Admiral, but this sounds far-fetched.”

Admiral Forest let out a bare chuckle. She propped her chin in her hand, her fingers digging into her cheek. “That's exactly what I thought, too. Until the Corthanx Traders provided us with a demonstration.”

Though his mouth was open – another objection readying on his tongue – he stopped. He swallowed. “Demonstration?”

With her chin still propped in her hand, she nodded. “Some of our representatives have already met with the Corthanx Traders in the Ihio System. Let us say, our first impressions were promising enough that tomorrow we will receive an envoy from the traders.”

Karax was stunned. He made no attempt to control his expression. He also took another jerked step forward until he stood directly on the opposite side of the Admiral's desk. “Isn't there some talk that the Corthanx Traders are involved with the Barbarians?”

At first, she didn't react, then, once more, she nodded slowly, head still in her hand. “In the past, yes. However, we have no information that currently links the two.”

If Karax's hackles had risen before, it was nothing compared to the sick wave of anger and regret that now charged up his back and plunged into his heart. He had to use every ounce of reason not to slam a hand down on her desk.

He hadn't joined the Coalition to help the Barbarians in any way. He was here for revenge. Revenge, and to make sure what had happened to him could not happen to anyone else.

He knew that the Admiral watched him carefully. Though her gaze did not demonstrably lock on him, as her eyes shifted from left to right, he could tell how attentive her focus became.

“... Lieutenant, I know that this may appear to compromise your values. But do not fear – it does not. I repeat once more – we have no information that currently links the traders to the Barbarians.”

“Only the fact that those bastards will trade with anyone who can pay their exorbitant prices,” Karax said, incapable of holding his anger in.

Admiral Forest stared at him. Her expression didn't change, but the quality of her gaze did. She also slowly let her hand drop to her desk as she straightened up and pushed her shoulders into the back of her seat. “Lieutenant, I appreciate your past. I understand that this may be a hard pill to swallow. But understand this,” she sat further back, the bare illumination from the lamp barely touching her features. It only picked up her lips as they slowly moved around her words, “If we do not find a way to defeat the Ornax, they will drive a rift right through Coalition space. We cannot afford to lose any more resources,” her voice became so low, so dark, it sounded like little more than an ominous rumble.

Nerves traced over his back. He took a stuttering breath. He knew he couldn't win this.

Not considering how much was at stake.

So he stowed the anger that rose in his gut, the bile that climbed his throat. He squashed them down, straightened, half closed his eyes, and shook his head. “Fine. But how can we be so sure that these true intelligence holograms are what we're after?”

The Admiral did not reply with words. Instead, she leaned forward and pressed a finger against the table before her. To the untrained eye, it would look like nothing more than polished wood. Yet as her finger pressed against it, a holographic panel appeared from nowhere.

She manipulated the controls with targeted, practiced movements of her hands and fingers.

A second later, a hologram appeared over the desk, a few inches in front of Karax.

It depicted some kind of warrior. Female, if he had to guess. She was wearing white armor that covered most of her body but didn't reach around to the back of her head. She had chestnut brown hair clasped into a ponytail, with a few strands beaded and knotted and covered with scraps of fabric that played over her shoulders and were woven through the bulk of her ponytail.

The white armor was largely unadorned apart from two red streaks down the left cheek of her helmet.

If he had to guess, they were blood.

He frowned.

Something – some kind of feeling – escaped in his gut, chasing from left to right until it plunged down into his legs.

Without entirely being aware of what he was doing, he pressed forward, locked both his hands on the edge of the Admiral's desk, and leaned as close to the hologram as he could.

It was no more than a foot tall, but it was detailed enough that he felt as if he was looking at a miniaturized person.

“This is the program the Corthanx Traders are promising us. They say it's the best they have in their inventory,” the Admiral explained as she leaned back and crossed her arms.

It took him too long to tear his gaze off the hologram and lock it on the Admiral. His throat was dry, a strange aching pressure pushing down into his collar bone and spreading through his shoulders.

He reasoned it away by assuming it was a leftover symptom from his medical procedure that morning.

“Admittedly, this looks like an incredibly sophisticated hologram, Admiral, but I still don't get how this can work. Though the Coalition possesses sophisticated holographic technology, what you're describing here sounds like more than a program.”

The Admiral nodded, the move stiff, the muscles at the base of her neck looking like knotted roots from a gnarled tree. “You are correct, Lieutenant. This is more than just a program. And the Academy does not currently possess holographic technology to render this,” she leaned forward and gestured to the hologram, “In the manner in which we will require. However, part of the deal involves the traders upgrading the Academy's holographic systems.”

Karax frowned. No, it was more than a frown. If his lips had been knives, they would have sliced right through his chin and fallen to the floor.

A flicker of dread began to ignite in his gut. Though he couldn't push any further forward, he clutched his suddenly sweaty fingers around the edge of her desk. He ignored that perfect hologram and locked his attention on the Admiral. “Maybe I'm speaking out of line here, Admiral, but that sounds dangerous to me.”

Silence. For a few achingly long seconds the Admiral didn't say a word.

Though she allowed informality sometimes, she was not a woman you could overrule.

Just before the thought that he'd overstepped the line arose, Forest cleared her throat, pushed up from her seat, and stood.

The bare illumination of her lamp combined with the light coming off the hologram lit up the side of her arm as she paced around her desk.

She came to a stop beside him.

She reached forward, swiped a hand under the hologram, and pulled it from the desk.

As she did so, she brought the hologram in front of her, and the emitters sustaining it switched from the side of the room to the ceiling. In those few seconds, the hologram flickered.

It reminded him it was nothing but light.

... And yet, he couldn't shake away the odd feeling it gave him. The strange sensation that kept shifting around in his gut like a growing storm.

He forced himself to swallow, despite his dry throat.

The Admiral appeared to be assessing the hologram. But eventually, she looked back at Karax. “You haven't even seen what this hologram can do.”

Karax's stomach kicked. He wasn't usually a nervous man. He'd been through so much hardship that fright was only something that visited him in the height of battle. Not on the quiet grounds of the Academy safely tucked on one of the most secure planets in the galaxy.

And yet he couldn't deny the race of nerves that charged up his back.

Without another word, the Admiral handed him the hologram.

Reluctantly, he accepted it, hiding the shake that threatened to push through his shoulders.

The Admiral leaned over, typed something on her desk, and the hologram began to move.

Began to fight.

Barbarian warriors came out of nowhere, three on each side.

The woman in white charged through them. Using whatever weapon she had at hand, whatever advantage she could scrounge – she defeated them. One after another.

She wasn't wearing sophisticated armor. Didn't have incredible weapons.

What kept her alive wasn't a tangible advantage – it was an intangible one.

The will to survive.

The desperation to find any advantage and to push past any obstacle.

As he stared at the fight unfolding in his very hands, it drew him in. Every punch, every blow, every desperate scream that tore from her lips – he recognized all of them.

They spoke to the knot of fear, regret, and loathsome disappointment that had taken root in his heart since the day he'd lost his brother.

...

Cadet Sarah Sinclair

It was time for combat training.

She'd finally been discharged from the medical bay.

She said finally, but in reality, they should have kept her longer.

She'd collapsed. For the love of god, she'd collapsed out in the laneway.

They should be investigating her condition. Trying to find out what was really wrong with her.

Instead, Doctor Wallace had blamed her blackout on the fact she hadn't taken her medication.

Sarah Sinclair didn't usually get angry.

Anger was this... place she couldn't go. It was like she deliberately locked it from her mind.

Right now, however, she couldn't deny how incensed she was becoming. She kept clutching her left hand into a fist, tighter and tighter, her fingers driving through the soft flesh of her palms until she left half-moon cuts.

As she strode across the Academy grounds, she caught sight of her other classmates heading toward the combat training center.

She saw Nora.

And Nora saw her.

Just as Sarah brought up a hand and waved at her friend, Nora turned. Deliberately. And walked off with another group of cadets.

Sarah froze.

She kept her hand in the air for an uncomfortably long period of time until she let it drop.

She knew her expression dropped with it. Knew fragility and loss washed down her pale cheeks like ice melt through a river.

... She couldn't blame Nora. Nora had stood by Sarah's side for too long. But....

Sarah hesitated. She shifted her head to the left, traced her gaze through the complex of Academy buildings until she spied her own accommodation block.

It would be so easy – too easy – to blow off class and head back to her room.

What was the point of trying anymore?

Before she could take a step in the wrong direction – or the right direction, considering how pointless it was to push herself more today – something happened.

Somebody cleared their throat from behind her, placed a hand on her shoulder, and pushed her forward.

It wasn't a hard move. Wasn't a shove. Just a light touch of guidance.

She jerked her head around to see Lieutenant Karax.

He dropped his hand immediately and let it hang loosely by his side. Without looking at her, he added, “Class is this way, cadet.”

She had to swallow her surprise. For one, the Lieutenant had just spoken to her – not shouted, not spat. And for another, he wasn't taking the opportunity to berate her. “... Sorry, sir, I mean, yes, I know class is in this direction. I mean, I'm not talking back to you, I just... I was already heading to class,” she lied.

She'd stumbled over her words so badly she was sure Lieutenant Karax was going to reprimand her for being an idiot.

He didn't. He twisted his head around, faced forward, and locked his gaze on the cadets before them.

... Sarah had absolutely no idea what was going on.

It took her just another second to realize it could have something to do with what had happened this morning. Lieutenant Karax, apparently, had found her in that laneway.

Though her memories of waking up were hazy, as she concentrated on them, she realized he'd been crouching before her. And....

She gasped and slammed a hand over her mouth.

The Lieutenant twitched to the side, brow compressing over his eyes. “What's the matter?”

She knew her cheeks reddened. “I am... sir, I'm sorry for attacking you in the laneway. I didn't—”

He returned his gaze forward and appeared to ignore her.

“I wasn't myself—” she continued.

“It doesn't matter, cadet.”

Though his tone was hardly light and friendly, it was definitely missing the distinct hatred that had once rippled through it.

She frowned. Deeply. And there wasn't a thing she could do to stop herself.

Once or twice she caught Lieutenant Karax's gaze slicing toward her. It locked on her frown. “What is it now?”

Though his words could have been brief, even disparaging, the hard tone wasn't there.

He sounded distracted.

“... Why are you walking with me, sir?”

It was definitely not the kind of question she should have asked the Lieutenant, and yet, considering everything she'd been through today, she couldn't stop herself from asking it.

He arched one eyebrow, and just as she thought she saw anger flaring in his gaze, he shook his head and sighed.

There was something about the heavy edge to that sigh that drew her in.

“I'm walking with you, cadet, to ensure you actually make it to class.”

“Oh. Look, Lieutenant, you may have seen me hesitating before, but I had no intention of heading back to my apartment,” she stuttered, sharing way too much, but again incapable of controlling herself.

She felt trapped by her emotions. If she didn't sway into anger, she swayed into fear and self-loathing instead.

“That's not what I meant, cadet,” he said quietly.

“... What?”

They were halfway toward the training facility, and nearly every other cadet had rushed ahead, knowing Lieutenant Karax hated it when people were late.

But Lieutenant Karax stopped. He repositioned himself until he was standing in front of her. For the first time since their awkward conversation had begun, he looked at her and only her, the vestiges of distraction flying from his gaze.

“... Sir?”

“I checked in with the doctors. They said you had that... episode in the laneway because you hadn't been taking your medication. Is that correct?”

She stiffened. She could no longer hold his gaze. Nor could she keep a straight face. She half wanted to cry – she could feel that familiar pressure welling up behind her eyes.

Yet at the same time, she clenched a hand into a fist, her whole arm becoming so rigid it felt as if it would pull from its shoulder socket.

Lieutenant Karax noted the move. He did not, however, drop his direct, enquiring gaze. “You know the risks, cadet,” his voice dropped, almost sounding as if a note of compassion infiltrated it.

She still couldn't look at him. And her emotions still wavered between anger, self-pity, and sorrow. She knew her expression would look like a cracked mess. “I know the risks,” she forced herself to say through clenched teeth. “If I don't keep up with the regime, I'll be kicked out of the Academy.”

He paused. “That's not what I meant,” he said softly.

It was his tone – the gentle note to his voice – that managed to tear her gaze off the grass. She looked at him, knowing full well her eyes were wide and shimmering with tears.

His expression was unreadable. “You need to look after yourself, Sinclair. Staying in the Academy is one thing – but do you really want to keep going through what you're enduring?”

She'd never been asked a more direct question. It felt like being slapped.

It became almost impossible to hold back the tears.

Lieutenant Karax's expression was no longer unreadable. His eyebrows descended over his eyes, his cheeks pushing high as a frown pressed over his lips. It wasn't anger playing in his gaze – the exact opposite.

“Cadet, we want to see you get better – but to do that, you have to trust us. Go through the regime the doctors have put in place for you. Trust them. You will get better.”

She was stunned. His promise seemed genuine – as if he honestly believed what he was saying, but more than that, cared about it.

He suddenly dropped her gaze. “Anyway, it's probably best you head back to your room for now. You're in no condition for combat training today.”

Again, she was stunned. Lieutenant Karax was not exactly the kind of officer to show compassion. Especially to her.

Especially in regards to survival training.

He took it so seriously that you had to be unconscious to get a free ticket out of his class.

Maybe he picked up on her surprise, because he shook his head. “The offer's on the table, cadet, and I won't think any less of you if you accept it.”

It took her a few seconds to push past her surprise.

When she realized this was a genuine offer, she almost immediately snapped to take it.

... Then she stopped.

There was a reason Lieutenant Karax took survival training so seriously, and that reason was that now, more than ever, it was a requisite skill of any Coalition soldier.

Yes, she'd had a trying morning, and yes, maybe she'd lost her last friend, but rather than turn tail and run back to her room, Cadet Sarah Sinclair shook her head. “It's okay, sir, I can still come to class,” the words were out before she could retract them.

It was that strong part of her – that elusive side to her personality that always saw her prevail in her dreams – that said yes to Lieutenant Karax.

Karax watched her intently for several seconds, then half smiled.

It was the first time she'd ever seen him smile, especially around her.

It was a charming move and hinted at the fact that the Lieutenant had a personality beyond his battering-ram anger.

“Well, I guess that means you passed the test.”

Her brow compressed. “Sorry, sir? Test?”

“You're in no condition to go to survival training today, cadet. But it means something that you offered to do it, anyway.” He nodded low. “It can't wipe away your previous history, but it's a step in the right direction. Now, go get some rest, and when you're back on your feet, come back to class.” He turned and walked away without another word.

She stood there, mouth open, staring at him as he half jogged over the verdant green lawns toward the training facility.

Had that really just happened?

Had Lieutenant Karax really cut her some slack?

Before she could convince herself that she was somehow still in a dream, she turned and headed back toward her accommodation block. A few times she stopped, twisted over her shoulder, and caught sight of the Lieutenant far beyond.

A few times, he appeared to stop, and look over his shoulder at her, too.

Soon enough, however, she was back in her apartment.

She wasted no time in heading into her room, falling onto her bed, and closing her eyes.

...

Lieutenant Karax

Should he have done that?

Probably not. Just this morning he'd been looking for an excuse – any excuse – to kick Cadet Sinclair out on her ass.

This afternoon, he was giving her a break.

All because he couldn't get the image out of his mind of her twitching at his feet.

It seemed burnt onto the back of his retinas.

Again, he tried to tell himself he was just using the cadet as a distraction.

The looming threat of the Ornax kept shadowing his mind.

More than that, he didn't want to ponder this new true intelligence hologram.

Which was another thing that seemed as if it was burnt into the back of his retinas.

That image of the woman in white.

The way she'd fought. The desperation.

It reached inside his soul and reminded him – more than anything else could – of where he'd come from and what he'd had to do to survive.

By the time he reached the training facility, a cold sweat had slicked across his brow.

He kept swallowing uncomfortably, kept trying to focus on the all-important task of training the next wave of Coalition soldiers.

Soldiers. There was a time, not long ago, when the recruits the Academy produced weren't referred to as warriors – but explorers. And they had the requisite skills to chart this galaxy and beyond.

These days, exploring took a backseat to fighting.

With the uncertainty clouding the Milky Way like a thick fog over a river, you never knew what would happen next. What new enemy would lift its ugly head and threaten lives?

Just before he reached the training facility, his WD beeped.

Staring down at the screen, it flashed red, indicating that it was a private call.

He maneuvered himself until he was in a secluded position along the side of the building, then he tapped the screen. “Lieutenant Karax here.”

“It's Forest. The Corthanx Traders have arrived early. You're canceling your combat session. Meet me in room 2A in the diplomatic affairs building.” She signed off.

Karax's head spun.

His stomach also twinged with nerves.

He'd known the Admiral for a while, knew enough to appreciate that she never made snap decisions. She always did what was best for the Coalition on balance. He also appreciated that she had access to a great deal more information than he did. And yet he couldn't push away the feeling that trusting these traders was a step too far. As he canceled his class using his WD, pivoted on his foot, and sprinted back to the main grounds, the nerves kept building in his gut until it felt as if they would claw through his throat.

He tried to push them back; he couldn't.

A part of him knew this was wrong.

They were taking a turn down a dangerous path, and once that turn was taken, there would be no going back.

Chapter 3

Cadet Sarah Sinclair

As soon as she closed her eyes, her consciousness walked her straight back into that same dream.

It didn't matter that the doctors had already pumped her full of their drugs that morning.

The dream was irrepressible.

Because it wasn't a goddamn dream.

She appeared in the ice facility, down one of the shafts, a combat knife still in her hand.

Behind her, no more than 10 meters away, she heard the deliberate footfall of the hunter.

She pressed into action without pause.

She pivoted her head, spun her gaze from side-to-side, and checked for a way out.

She saw a few more broken crates lined up against the massive shaft wall 20 meters away.

She pushed toward them, boots scrabbling over the ice-covered floor.

It was murder to keep her balance. The damage to her left leg was so extensive every step jolted, more and more blood splattering out onto the frozen white-blue ice.

She found the strength to push into a run. She locked her gaze on those crates.

Though the combat knife was good, if she could just get her hands on a gun—

Too late.

The hunter sped up to its full momentum.

All this time it had just been shadowing her, weakening her, waiting for her injuries to take their toll. Now, just when true weapons could be within her grasp, it pounced.

She screamed as she threw herself to the ground, ignored her injury, and crunched into a roll.

Her muscles shook, practically vibrated at the beating she was putting them through.

It was better than death.

Something slammed into the ice where she'd been, and she heard it crack like a massive pane of glass falling to the floor.

A shudder passed through the shaft and sank into her feet. It wasn't powerful enough that it pitched her forward, but it robbed her of a little of her precious balance, and she teetered to the side.

It was the opportunity the hunter needed.

It snapped up behind her, locked a hand around her throat, and pulled her off her feet.

She couldn't spare the breath to scream as it shoved so hard against her windpipe she heard something snap.

Instantly stars spun into her vision, her body growing number and number until—

No.

Just as she felt herself dying, just as the dream threatened to end, Sarah Sinclair fought against its violent conclusion.

She would not die. Could not die again.

Somehow she found the strength to activate the combat knife still in her hand. It twisted in her grip as it opened. She clutched it with her bleeding, sweaty fingers and plunged it into the hunter's hip.

By all rights, she shouldn't have the strength to even dent its white armor.

But somehow, from somewhere, she found the force to dig the blade in like a knife through butter.

A terrifying screech that echoed through the cavernous shaft, bouncing off the walls and ceiling.

It came from the hunter's armor.

Sarah kept digging the knife in, her teeth clenched so hard she caught a section of her lip and cut it, blood trickling down her mouth and over her chin.

She screamed, using that last ounce of her energy to slice the knife to the side.

The hunter lurched back, dropped the suffocating arm from around Sarah's neck, and fell to one knee.

Sarah didn't wait.

Still using whatever last scrap of energy she could scrounge, she lurched forward on her knees and sank the combat knife into the hunter's neck.

The left nape of the hunter's neck, to be precise.

... It was always the same.

Whenever Sarah managed to kill the hunter, she remembered every other time she'd killed the hunter, too. And it was always the same. She always sank some kind of weapon into the same spot – just at the point where the hunter's left arm connected to its neck.

Always the same.

Always the same....

The hunter jerked, tried to clutch at Sarah's arm, tried to use its superior strength to pull her back.

It didn't matter.

Sarah shifted behind it, wrapped an arm around its throat, and kept digging the knife into its neck until finally red blood spurted from the hole.

Its white armor began to crack, fissure lines shattering down its shoulder until they reached a tipping point, and the armor fell off with a clang.

Sarah stared down at the hunter.

Stared down at the chestnut brown hair, the brown eyes, the pale skin.

She stared down at herself. Then she shifted forward and cut her own throat.

And the dream – whatever it was – ended.

Sarah did not bolt awake, not this time.

She lay in her bed, frozen, almost drowning in her own sweat.

Her covers and pillow were somehow on the other side of the room, but it was nothing compared to the state the rest of her stuff was in.

She'd broken her lamp this time, and she'd swept everything off her desk, most of it a smashed mess against her covers.

Slowly she brought up an arm and positioned it around the back of her neck, leaning against it as she stared with a dead gaze up at the ceiling.

She should be screaming, desperately clutching a hand to her throat, terrified at the dream she'd just had.

... She'd slit her own throat. And all this time, the hunter had been her.

And yet, Sarah Sinclair didn't make a sound. Not a single noise.

She pressed her head harder against her arm until she felt numb tingles spread into her wrist.

An ordinary person, after a dream like that, after dreams so vivid and violent, would seek help.

She knew there was no point.

So Sarah leaned down, plucked up her pillow, brushed the remnants of her lamp off it, secured it under her head, and went back to sleep.

As she drifted off and a new dream rose to meet her, she couldn't deny one sensation.

It felt as if someone was walking over her grave.

...

Lieutenant Karax

He stood in the large room, back directed toward the view as he neatened his uniform and waited.

He didn't have to wait long.

A second later, the doors opened, and Admiral Forest walked in, leading two Corthanx Traders.

They were small, with hunched bodies, faces hid entirely by cloaks.

It was a crime in their culture to reveal their faces.

A useful rule – as the Corthanx Traders were known for their illicit ways. He hadn't been kidding when he'd said they would trade with anyone. And if you did commit yourself to a life of crime, it sure was handy to keep your appearance under wraps.

He let a pressured breath sink deep into his chest. It pushed his shoulders out, suddenly made him keenly aware of his implants.

Though he'd agreed to stow his misgivings, he couldn't ignore them completely.

He'd promised himself, every night before going to sleep, that he would never help the Barbarians in any way. Maybe Admiral Forest was right, and the traders no longer had any ties to the Barbarian Empire – but Karax doubted that. Which meant that right now, right here, he was betraying his values.

Naturally, his jaw stiffened.

The Admiral led the traders into the room, completing all perfunctory greetings and switching smoothly into the role of the gracious host.

There were several other high-level officers in the room.

Technically speaking, Karax shouldn't have to do a thing. He was only here to assess the worth of the true intelligence holograms, not to make the traders feel at home.

So it didn't take long until he found himself turning, his gaze searching the horizon.

Once more – as ever – he was pulled into the scale of the Academy grounds framed by the sky above. And yet, while that scale could usually take his breath away, he found his gaze searching through the buildings until it locked on one of the accommodation blocks.

It was where Sarah Sinclair lived.

He found himself wondering if she was okay. Yes, he knew it was a stark turnaround from his attitude this morning, and yet the more he thought about her, the more he felt sorry for her.

Her troubles had been an academic fact before today.

Now that image of her thrashing in the cobbled laneway would be with him for life.

The Admiral cleared her throat. “Lieutenant Karax here will be in charge of implementing our training program.”

Karax spun on his foot and realized the diplomatic party were behind him. “Yes, sorry, Admiral, that's correct.” He nodded politely at the two traders. “I will be implementing the program. And I must say, I have quite a few questions—”

One of the traders raised a hand dismissively. “All questions will be answered by a demonstration.”

He frowned. “It will take some time to adapt the Academy's holographic emitters to sustain your program. And it may be best that we do not try at this stage—” he began, not even attempting to hide the wariness in his tone.

The trader waved dismissively toward him again, not even bothering to look his way, locking its attention on the Admiral instead. “First demonstration will be with a portable holographic kit.” Without pause, the trader stepped aside, and the other trader brought up a case it had been holding stiffly in its hand.

Without waiting for permission, it dropped to one knee and opened the case. As soon as it did, the case began to change, growing into a box-like console with strips of green light glowing down the sides.

Immediately Karax twisted to stare at the Admiral.

He waited for her to tell the traders that this was out of line. That it was too soon.

She didn't. Instead, she stood there, hands clasped behind her back, stony expression locked on the console.

... Even though her expression was controlled, he swore he saw something underneath.

Something he convinced himself could never be there.

True terror.

He had no idea how many resources the Coalition had lost to the Ornax. But as he stared at Forest, he realized it had to be enough to push the Admiral this far.

Before Karax could be potentially insubordinate and voice his own concerns, the portable emitter jerked into life.

A split second later, the woman in white appeared.

Half an inch in front of Karax's face.

He jolted back, eyes growing wide and locking on that smooth helmet, especially the two red lines that ran down her left cheek.

This close, he could clearly see that they were smeared blood.

The woman in white... was perfect.

She was indiscernible from a real live human being.

Even as one of the traders shifted in front of the portable emitter, the hologram didn't change. Didn't flicker. It remained just as perfect as before.

Before he knew what he was doing, Lieutenant Karax reached out a hand and tapped it on the woman in white's shoulder.

... Real. The sound of his fingers tapping against the metal, the feel of the armor's texture under his skin. He could even hear the steady low beat of her breath.

As he drew his hand back and let it fall slack at his side, he shifted to the left.

Her helmet turned to follow him, her chestnut brown hair tapering down her back.

There was something about that hair—

“Who will fight Sora?” One of the traders demanded.

“What, here?” Karax questioned immediately.

The trader nodded. “Here. Now. Sora is versatile. Can fight in any setting.”

“Sora?”

The trader pointed at the woman in white.

Sora was an unusual name around these parts, but not where he came from.

In fact, he'd known a Sora on his home planet... she too had died like his brother in the first wave of Barbarian attacks.

Karax couldn't help but stiffen, and as tension climbed up his back and locked into his jaw, Sora tilted her head to the side and appeared to watch him, the end of her ponytail trailing over her left shoulder.

It drew his attention to... something.

At the nape of her neck, was a point. Nothing more than a black triangle sunk a little under the line of her armor.

He frowned at it.

He brought a finger up and pointed at it, knowing he couldn't push his curiosity away. “What's that?”

“Irrelevant,” one of the traders snapped. “Only thing that is relevant is who wants to fight her.”

The Admiral cleared her throat. “It would be inappropriate to hold a display match in this room. It simply isn't equipped.”

“Inappropriate doesn't count,” the trader said. “Only thing that counts is learning to fight like the Ornax. They will fight you in boardrooms, in buildings, anywhere. You must learn to fight them, too.”

It was a halting argument, not helped by the trader's stilted turn of phrase. Yet it appeared to have an effect on the Admiral.

She shook her head lightly before nodding. “Very well. A simple demonstration. An easy one. I don't want anyone thrown out the windows. Nor do I want any damage to the room or my people. Do you understand?”

The trader bowed low, its cloak always remaining firmly over its eyes. Even in a full wind, a Corthanx cloak would not blow up and reveal its owner's face.

Karax assumed that the trader would wait – find out who wanted to tussle with the hologram before turning it on.

The trader didn't wait.

It made a specific gesture with its hand, and Sora appeared to come to life. But that wasn't entirely correct, even as she stood there, she still breathed, still shifted her head around with attentiveness.

But this, this was different. In a single second, she shifted forward, right toward him.

He was the closest, sure, yet he couldn't help but suspect that she zeroed in on him for some other reason.

Whatever it was, it didn't matter.

Her speed and agility did.

He shifted to the side, pivoted on his foot, rounded his shoulder, and shoved her as she went to grab him.

She wasn't strong enough that she could withstand his blow. Instead, she absorbed it, pushed into a roll, and immediately snaked out with a kick.

She saw an opportunity he hadn't, and he paid for it.

The kick sank into his right ankle, and he was pushed off balance.

Rather than slam to the floor, he shunted backward,

He shoved out at her with a kick.

It was well-placed and let out a resounding clang as his boot slammed against her armored ankle.

Again she fell, but again she rolled.

She shoved forward and shifted behind him, wrapping a strong arm around his neck and pushing hard against his windpipe.

He let out a roar as he used the cybernetic implants in his right shoulder to shore up his back and give him the power to latch a hand on her arm and yank it forward.

Though his move was strong enough to break her grip, she instantly responded by locking a leg around his stomach, pushing into it, and knocking him off balance.

Before he knew what was happening, she rolled onto his back, dug her elbow into the base of his spine in a vicious move, and latched onto his neck.

He tried to shift a hand around, tried to grab her arm, but he couldn't reach.

He began to splutter as she choked the life out of him.

It didn't last.

Admiral Forest strode forward. “End the simulation now.”

Sora pushed off his back and stood quietly, her hands now loose by her sides.

It took him a few seconds to regain his breath, his senses, too.

That fight had been breakneck.

Sora hadn't stopped.

For anything.

She'd been relentless.

And yes, as he pushed to his feet and locked his enquiring gaze on her helmet, he could appreciate that she was no ordinary hologram.

He stared at her warily, his chest punching in and out until his breath settled.

One of the traders strode forward and stared up at the Admiral. “Like demonstration? Satisfied with product?”

The Admiral appeared to ignore the trader as she stared at Karax instead. “What are your impressions, Lieutenant?”

“That, that was... one hell of a fight.” He tentatively touched his neck, prying fingers searching for bruises.

“It wasn't a fair fight,” one of the officers in the room pointed out. “She was wearing full armor. What's the point of this simulation if we can't program it to match the skill level of our students?”

“She was wearing armor, but it is nothing more than metal plating. She is programmed to be easily defeated,” the trader explained.

Karax couldn't help but laugh as he dropped his hand from his neck. “That didn't feel like easily defeatable to me.”

“This is Sora's lowest setting. You can use her in multiple ways and in multiple scenarios. With time, you will become better at fighting her, but she will also adapt to your methods. This is what you want, no?” The trader fixed his attention on the Admiral. “A program that will help you train like the Ornax? Train, regardless of whether you know you will lose?”

There was silence as everyone present considered the trader's words.

Finally, the Admiral nodded. “Yes, that's what we're after. Thank you for this initial demonstration, but we will require more before we agree to procure this product. We must also assess whether it is compatible with current Coalition holographic technology.”

Both traders nodded. “Then let the discussions begin.”

The traders were led into another room by the group of officers, as Admiral Forest hung back to hear Karax's assessment.

As soon as the doors closed and they were alone, she rounded on him.

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and nodded at his neck. “Was that real, Lieutenant? Or were you holding back?”

He didn't even have to consider her question. He shook his head. He coughed past his raspy throat. “Hell no, Admiral. She almost crushed my throat.”

“What's your initial assessment?”

Again, Karax didn't have to pause. “That the traders are right – that hologram was definitely different to any I've ever fought before. It's not just the fact she's seamless and solid, indistinguishable from a person, it's how she thinks. There was true intelligence behind her moves. You could tell she was adapting to the way I fought. Heck, I felt I could even see it in her eyes.”

“You couldn't see her eyes, Lieutenant,” the Admiral corrected. “She had a helmet on.”

“I can't put my finger on it, Admiral, but there was definitely something there.”

“I agree. Though I wasn't the one fighting this Sora, my observations concur with yours. This doesn't mean I'm ready to commit the Academy to acquiring this technology yet. But it's a step in the right direction.”

He began nodding but stopped. “Aren't you worried about any security implications?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Security implications?”

“Do you really want to give a couple of Corthanx Traders free access to our holo emitters?”

“That was never on the cards, Lieutenant. They will be supervised wherever they go. However, if your initial experience and my observations are correct, this is not a technology we can pass up. It would revolutionize our ability to train and properly prepare our cadets. It will show them not just how to win, but how to survive.”

Her exact choice of words shook through him. It took a lot of effort not to visibly shudder.

He stiffened his neck and nodded. “What next, then, Admiral?”

“Next, I continue discussions with the traders. I want you to begin work on devising a training program that can put Sora through her paces. You may have to work into the night. I want this in place for tomorrow.”

He began to nod but hesitated.

She picked up on it. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“... Never mind.” For a moment – for a single moment – he'd been about to ask the Admiral for an hour's reprieve to go and check on Sarah Sinclair.

Which was mad.

He'd done what he was obliged to do – pull her aside and have a serious conversation with her. The rest was up to her.

... Right?

He shook his head as he pushed away his last questioning thought. “I won't stop until I complete the training program.”

“I'm glad I have someone to rely on. Alright, Lieutenant, dismissed.” She snapped a salute, turned on her heel, and marched out the doors.

As soon as she left, Karax found his gaze tugging instinctively back to the view beyond the plate glass windows.

It didn't take him long to spy Sarah's apartment block.

As soon as he realized what he was doing, he cursed under his breath and headed for the doors.

...

Cadet Sarah Sinclair

She felt like someone was walking over her grave.

She was walking, half in a daze, through the halls of the main training building.

She knew she had to get to class.

She couldn't.

Nothing could distract her from the unholy sensation climbing her back as if spiders had somehow slipped underneath her skin.

She kept shivering and had now wrapped her arms around her middle so tightly she could barely breathe.

Though she was clearly in a state, almost everyone ignored her.

Even Nora ignored her, glancing at her once, dropping her gaze, and walking away with another group of friends.

Cadets darted around her, rushing to class, staff marched back and forth, dutifully and quickly heading to whatever tasks they had to do.

And in the middle stood Sarah.

She felt completely alone. She was in a crowd of people, and yet her mind was telling her she was back in the abandoned ice shaft.

Her symptoms weren't usually as bad as this. Most of the time she could discern reality from her dreamlike state.

But today... today it felt like someone was walking over her grave.

Reason told her to stop heading to class, and rather turn around and seek out medical attention.

Reason would be wrong.

If she went to the med bay again, not only would they bark at her that she was wasting their time, but it would be yet another demerit point against her rapidly falling record.

So the smartest thing to do would be to turn around and head back to her room. To wait this out, whatever it was, to fall asleep until her dreams gave way to nothingness and her mind finally rested.

She'd been taking a few noncommittal steps forward toward her class. But she stopped.

She let her gaze slip forward.

She considered the open doors to the classroom once more.

Then she turned from them.

She began walking resolutely in the other direction.

With every step, it felt more and more right.

Until she turned around a corner and slammed right into someone.

Karax.

Strangely, she almost knocked him off balance, and he had to teeter back a few steps to regain his footing.

Their gazes met.

You wouldn't need to be a genius to realize Sarah was shirking class. Karax knew her classmates – he would know she should be walking with them into the open classroom, not away from it.

Though she was sprung, and knew she should mutter a quick sorry, turn, and duck into class, she didn't.

She held Karax's gaze for a few more seconds, dropped it, and shifted around him.

He made a noncommittal move to get in her way but appeared to think better of it, turned, and shifted past her.

She inclined her neck to stare at him as they walked past each other.

... He shot her a look. Not a judgmental one. Not even a disappointed one.

He—

Sarah walked smack bang into Lieutenant Morq.

Lieutenant Morq was taking her next class. And she knocked him flat on his ass.

...

Lieutenant Karax

Morq went down like a ton of bricks.

He spluttered with surprise but snapped up to his feet.

His race prided themselves on their strength, and he'd just been knocked flat by a cadet.

Morq looked mortified.

“Sorry, sir,” Sarah said immediately.

“What were you doing stalking through the corridors, cadet?” Morq snapped.

“I apologize, sir, but I wasn't stalking through the corridors. Unfortunately, I wasn't looking where I was going—”

“What exactly were you doing walking away from my class, anyway?” Morq challenged.

All eyes were on Sarah.

It would be relatively easy for her to come up with an excuse, apologize again, and walk back to class.

Sarah paused.

Karax's stomach sank.

Sure, he didn't know her that well, but he sure as hell knew what she was going to do next.

She'd been pushed too far today.

Before he could clear his throat, distract her, or pull Morq away, Sarah did it—

“I was heading back to my room, sir,” she said with a straight face. Though if you looked, you'd appreciate her expression wasn't exactly blank – there was a hollowed out, dead look playing in her gaze.

Morq spluttered. “You don't have permission to drop class today—” He drew up his WD to double check.

He needn't have bothered.

“No, I don't,” Sarah said.

Morq's surprise quickly gave way to anger. “What exactly are you saying, cadet?”

“I'm saying that I'm planning on cutting class, Lieutenant.”

Karax sucked a breath through his teeth. “Ah, maybe we should just—”

They both ignored him.

“Get to class, cadet,” Morq warned.

Sarah didn't move a muscle.

Lieutenant Morq locked his stony gaze on Sarah. “I'll give you one more chance to turn around and head to class, cadet.”

Sarah didn't move. Sarah stood there. Slowly tilting her head back until she tore her gaze from the floor and stared at the Lieutenant.

“Move now, cadet,” he said through stiff lips.

They were starting to draw a crowd.

A whole class full of cadets had emptied out onto the corridor. One cadet who he recognized as Sarah's friend wouldn't even look at Sarah. She shifted to the back of the crowd.

It was one thing to be reprimanded on your own, another to be punished in front of your classmates.

With that half dead expression dragging down her cheeks Sarah didn't move a muscle. “I don't feel like class today,” she said directly.

She didn't mollify her tone, and once her insubordinate words were out, she made no attempt to retract them.

This morning she'd stumbled over herself in her attempt to retract a potentially insubordinate statement.

Now she stared back at Lieutenant Morq, expression completely free from guilt.

She looked as if she just didn't care anymore.

This was where a smart Lieutenant would back down, pull the cadet to the side, and try to ascertain what the hell was going on.

Morq was stuck, though.

There was a class full of witnesses. Of Sarah's contemporaries, no less. Morq would have to make an example of her. He couldn't let the other cadets perceive that he was letting Sarah go without reprimand.

“Cadet, you are way out of line. Retract that statement. As a recruit in the Galactic Coalition, you have a duty to our cause and your classmates.”

If Morq's snapped words were intended to have an effect on Sarah, they didn't.

She stared back at him impassively. “And what duty, sir, do you have toward me?”

Morq was clearly thrown. You could see he was thrown – a blue blush sparked up his cheeks, a telling and impossible-to-ignore sign for his race. “Cadet, you are way out of line—”

Sarah abruptly turned and began walking away from Morq and the class.

Morq spluttered. “What are you doing?”

This was escalating.

It was time to step in.

Literally.

Karax stepped in front of her and stared her down.

She drew to a halt and slowly ticked her head back until she stared at him.

“Cadet, get to my office, now,” he said. Though it was an order, it wasn't snapped. He deliberately tried to keep his tone even, neutral.

To be honest, he wasn't giving Sarah a reprimand – that would come later, when she'd had a chance to calm down.

The only thing he wanted to do was get her away from here, away from the prying, judgmental gazes of her classmates.

It didn't work.

As he looked down into Sarah's gaze, he saw something crack. Any chance of ending this quietly cracked with it.

“Cadet, just head to my office,” he said, and there was a pleading note in his voice.

“Why, so you can kick me out of the Academy quietly?”

“Nobody is talking about kicking you out of the Academy,” he dropped his tone in warning.

“Really? You're thinking it, though, aren't you?”

He ground his teeth together. He'd thought he could jump in and de-escalate the situation, but he'd made it worse.

She didn't drop her gaze as she stared at him. It became so intense, it was almost like she was another person. That fragile side to Sarah Sinclair dropped away, and that hardened edge returned – the one he'd seen when she'd woken up from her dream. Staring at that Sarah Sinclair was like trying to walk through a supernova. “Cadet, lower your tone.”

“Why? Worried about making a scene? We are already making one. If you cared about keeping this quiet, you should have let me go before.”

He couldn't unclench his jaw. “Cadet—”

“Just admit it, you've all been looking for a reason to kick me out. You think I don't deserve to be here, do you?” She looked right into his eyes.

There was no denying that the question was meant for him.

“You don't think I have what it takes to survive,” her voice croaked, “To save other people. Do you?”

He couldn't back down. He couldn't lie, either. “No, I don't.”

Maybe he should have mollified his words, begged her once more to head quietly to his office.

He didn't.

Because despite his growing compassion for Sarah Sinclair, she was right – deep down, he didn't think she belonged here.

She nodded stiffly. “I guess that makes our decision for us, doesn't it? Goodbye.” She shifted past him.

He reached out a hand to stop her, but she darted away from him.

He shifted hard on his foot. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Quitting the Academy,” she said without a hint of regret.

“Cadet—” he tried.

It was too late, she was already out of sight.

...

Sarah Sinclair

She... she didn't feel anything as she strode away from him, as she strode away from her fellow students, from Nora, from her career.

No regret, no shame, just a sense that she had to get free, that she had to get away from this place. That if only she put some distance between her and the Academy grounds, she'd stop feeling as if someone was walking over her grave.

She began to cool down as soon as she exited the building and reached the grounds.

It didn't change her resolve. She'd quit the Academy, and nothing was going to change that decision.

She didn't hesitate. She marched straight to her room, cleaned it out, neatly folded her uniforms, and packed up her other standard issue gear.

She left them arranged on the table in the main room.

She paused as she stared at her WD and her gaze sliced toward the collar of her uniform.

The tiniest flicker of regret crossed through her, but she pushed it away.

She gathered together her bags and walked out the door.

Rather than walk toward the primary lift bank at the far end of the corridor, she deliberately headed for the stairs.

A good decision. As she neared them, she twisted her head and saw two security officers exit the lifts and march toward her room.

They didn't notice her as she turned and walked down the stairs.

She doubted they were here to get her in trouble. Sure, she'd sassed a few lieutenants, but she hadn't committed any crimes.

Maybe they were here to give her a second chance.

She didn't want one.

She was done with the Academy.

So she walked down the stairs and walked away.

...

Lieutenant Karax

By that night, there was only one thing he could think of. And no, it wasn't the training session he'd been charged with designing.

It was Cadet Sinclair.

He hadn't had the chance to go after her following the incident. He'd been called away.

He'd reasoned he'd be the last person she'd want to see, anyway.

But now... now he couldn't get her out of his mind.

He was heading to her apartment.

He didn't know what he was doing. Shouldn't be here. Every scrap of reason he had left told him to turn around, but it wasn't enough.

He strode through the corridors of the secondary accommodation block.

Even made it all the way up to her apartment before hesitating.

Christ, he really shouldn't be here. He was the reason she'd left, and yet....

Before he could stop himself, he reached out a hand and pressed it against the intercom button on the panel by the door.

He had to wait a few agonizing seconds before somebody answered.

“Who's there?” A light female voice intoned.

“Is that Cadet Sinclair?” he asked, realizing too late it wasn't her.

There was a certain strength behind Sarah Sinclair's words – even if half the time they wavered with fragility. There was something else behind them, this steady constant that reminded you of a rock holding up a mountain.

“No, it's Cadet Nora Falcone. Who is this?”

Now was when he should turn away. Mutter something about the fact he had the wrong room,and get out of here while he still had his pride.

He ignored his pride, kept his finger pressed into the intercom button, and cleared his throat. “This is Lieutenant Karax. Is Cadet Sinclair there?”

There was a lengthy pause at the other end of the line.

Karax knew he had a reputation around the Academy, especially with the cadets. A deserved reputation. He was hard on them, deliberately brutal so their training would prepare them for reality. If that meant they were all terrified of him, so be it.

Even as he thought that, he realized it was poles apart from the entire premise of him coming here.

The hardened, stiff-lipped Lieutenant Karax wasn't the kind of guy to come groveling at a cadet's feet for forgiveness.

But did he turn away?

No.

The door opened.

He recognized the cadet standing behind it, if only because he'd seen her with Sarah a few times.

He'd also seen her deliberately withdraw from Sarah over the past several months. Only this morning he'd seen her ignore Sarah on her way to the training ground.

Now the same cadet crossed her arms and stared at him, her anger barely controlled. “If you're here to make sure Sarah leaves the grounds, it doesn't matter, she's already gone.”

“She has?” Disappointment sank through his gut faster than a stone in freefall.

She crossed her arms tighter, the move scrunching the smooth fabric of her regulation uniform. “She didn't even wait around for me to finish class,” Nora said with a grimace.

She darted her gaze to the side and locked it on the wall, not looking his way.

He'd seen this Cadet Nora earlier today when Sarah had quit the Academy. She hadn't even looked Sarah's way, hadn't even acknowledged what her friend was going through.

And now she appeared to be blaming him for everything.

He was already on edge, but this tipped him over the precipice. “Is there something on your mind, cadet?”

An ordinary cadet in an ordinary situation would have taken heed of his tone and muttered a quick, “No.”

Nora flashed her gaze back to him. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Permission granted.”

“She didn't deserve that. She was trying hard to change. You pushed too hard today,” her voice cracked, “She didn't deserve for that to happen so publicly.”

If Karax allowed himself to go with the anger crackling through his gut, he would take the opportunity to point out Nora was a hypocrite. It was all too easy to get angry at him when she herself had ignored Sarah entirely.

Though Karax wasn't known for his tact, he did possess it, and with one look at Nora's tortured expression, he chose to use it. He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze. “It is unfortunate that the cadet quit in that way. However, do you know when she left?”

“What do you want her for? She already left a message saying she's attended to all official matters. She's cleaned her room, too. There's nothing left,” Nora's voice became small, “She didn't even leave any contact details.”

Karax's mouth was open, and he'd just been about to ask how he could contact Sarah.

He stopped.

Nora jerked her distracted gaze off the floor and settled it on him. “What do you want her for, anyway?” she repeated.

This was where a smart man, a smart Lieutenant, would stay quiet. He should press his lips closed, nod goodbye, and walk away. Instead, he took a breath. “I'm here, because I wanted to apologize to her.”

At first, Nora looked at him as if she thought he was joking.

When he held her gaze and didn't break into laughter, she stared at him in complete confusion. “What? But you're the one who told her she shouldn't be here.”

His stomach sank with guilt.

Now that image of Sarah thrashing on the floor by his feet was joined by another – the way she'd looked at him as she'd walked from the hall.

Both competed for permanent residency in the back of his mind.

He swallowed, the move hard as he fought against his suddenly dry throat. “I'm not backing down on my decision. I still think it's best that Sarah leaves the Academy. But it could have...” he dropped his gaze to the floor, “Should have,” he put more force into his words as he jerked his gaze up, “Gone differently. You're absolutely right, she didn't deserve to leave like that, with no one at her side and no one to defend her.” His comment was pointed, and it wasn't lost on the cadet.

She took an uncomfortable breath and looked as if she'd swallowed something bitter.

She shifted backward and clenched her jaw. “Well none of that matters now, does it? Because she's gone, and she hasn't left any contact information.”

“Maybe there's something in her file,” he commented, mostly for himself.

Nora's eyes suddenly widened, and she took a step forward. “Do you think there could be?”

He paused as he stared at her, assessing her.

Though a part of him wanted to write her off for what she'd done to Sarah, the rest understood where she was coming from.

“If I manage to obtain her contact details, would you like me to forward them to you, cadet?”

“If you could, sir I...” her eyes jerked open even wider, “I'd appreciate that,” she added weakly.

“I'll see what I can do.” He turned to leave but stopped.

He shifted over his shoulder to look at Nora. “Do you think Sarah will be okay on her own?” His question came from nowhere.

Nora didn't hesitate. She pressed her lips closed and shook her head. “No,” she said in a quiet tone. “No, I don't think she will.”

There was something about the quiet certainty behind Nora's words that sent cold dread marching up his spine.

Again he swallowed, but this time it was one of the most uncomfortable moves he'd ever made.

A spark of panic ignited in his gut. “... The Academy medical staff would not have allowed her to leave campus without a medical plan in place,” he suddenly said, not for Nora's benefit, but for his own.

He had to quash the tide of guilt rising through his gut somehow.

His weak promise, however, wasn't enough.

Nora looked him right in the eyes. “Do you really believe that, Lieutenant?”

Nerves traced over his cheeks as a cold feeling pushed hard into his chest. He forced a nod, but it was a weak move. Anyone with half an ounce of sense would know he was lying.

Finally, he followed through with common sense, nodded at the cadet, said a curt goodbye, and left the room.

As soon as the doors swished closed behind him, he stopped and drove his eyes shut. He squeezed them until he felt the skin around them was so tight it could crack.

Bringing a hand up and pressing it over the bridge of his nose, he let out a sharp sigh and pushed forward.

He didn't make it far until his WD beeped.

It was the Admiral, and he was being called back to training.

He never shirked his duty.

Never. It was the only thing that could hold back the guilt he felt for not being able to protect his family on the colony worlds.

But right now, for the first time ever, he considered asking the Admiral for a reprieve.

The only thing he wanted to do right now was find out where Sarah Sinclair had gone.

If he didn't find her and apologize, he knew he'd stew over this for months, if not years.

But the Admiral wouldn't take no for an answer, and soon he found himself powering down the corridor, heading back to Sora.

As soon as he thought about her, his hackles rose and a distinct cold pressure welled in the center of his chest.

If he'd had the time and the presence of mind, he would have realized it was a sense of foreboding.

A justified one.

For Lieutenant Karax was wrong – Earth, despite her defenses, was no longer the safest place in the Milky Way.

Chapter 4

Sarah Sinclair

It felt right being alone.

The further she traveled from the Academy grounds, the saner she became.

It was like she was claiming back her self-respect, her dignity, her frigging sanity.

Though she fleetingly thought about traveling into space, she simply didn't have the funds.

Her only option was to head to a cheap city, find a job, and....

Sarah huddled in the corner of the superfast train. She was seated on the last seat in the carriage, and fortunately no one had bothered sitting next to her.

A few other humans and aliens were dotted through the carriage, plugged into their personal communication devices or watching the holographic news panel in the far corner of the carriage.

A few times her gaze flicked up to it. It cycled through galactic news. None of it pretty.

Soon, a speculative news report started. It managed to get her attention... and she didn't know why.

Suddenly a race of nerves sank hard into her gut, spreading through her chest and charging up her neck.

She was glad she was sitting alone. That terrifying sensation saw her shift forward and press a hand flat over her chest, a hiss pressing through her suddenly bloodless lips.

As soon as the brunt of the feeling passed, her gaze was drawn back to the holographic news feed, her attention riveted on it, her eyes so wide they could have toppled into her lap.

She was aware of the fact she was barely breathing.

She couldn't hear the news report – just a faint echo.

Immediately she jerked one hand onto the panel beside her seat, switching on the audio and grabbing the jawbone device. It was a circular thin sheet of metal that adhered to her jaw as she slapped it on. Instantly it used sophisticated vibrations to play the audio stream right into her inner ear.

“... There's some speculation the Academy is on the verge of acquiring true-intelligence holograms,” the news continued.

It showed a sweeping view of Academy grounds.

Sarah couldn't move. Not an inch.

It felt like someone had soldered her to the spot, driving foot-long rivets through her legs and anchoring her to the floor and seat with all the force of an atomic bond.

“Inside sources claim Academy officials have already met with Corthanx Traders – the only known group to currently possess this technology outside of the Ornax.”

The Ornax...? Sarah had to search her memory, but it eventually came to her. She didn't make a habit of watching these speculative news programs – they were usually implausible stories concocted from misrepresented facts.

The Ornax, apparently, were a growing new threat in Coalition space. Some new irrepressible enemy. Ever since the rebuilder incident, the media had changed. They kept looking under every rock for new enemies, new sources of drama. As if they just didn't know how to report on peace anymore.

Though Sarah knew all this, she couldn't turn away. Nor could she unlock the tensed hand from her chest. With every second it pushed harder and harder against her plain top, crinkling it and leaving sweaty track marks over the fabric.

“Approaching next stop: Hunan Province, New China.”

Sarah jolted, the train's audio cutting through the news piece.

It took her a second to realize this was her stop.

She wanted to stay and watch the rest of the broadcast. No – needed to. It had stolen her attention away, focused her like a laser.

A second later, however, it ended, and the holographic footage smoothly moved on to another segment.

Suddenly the panel beside her beeped. “Passenger Sinclair, Sarah – this is your stop.”

She jolted to her feet, her movements so twitchy it felt like someone had passed an electric shock through her nervous system.

Though she wanted to stay on the train in the hope the news feed would repeat itself, she couldn't.

She'd only paid for a ticket this far.

She reluctantly grabbed her bags from a storage compartment at her feet, hauled them over her shoulder, pulled the jawbone attachment off her face, and walked out of the train.

It had taken her all of 30 minutes to get from the Academy, halfway across the world, to New China.

There were quicker ways to travel. She couldn't afford them. As it was, she'd have to start looking for work immediately.

... Maybe that should have daunted Sarah, but as soon as she walked out onto the platform and saw the stunning tree-covered peaks pulling up to the horizon, she instantly calmed.

Even the terror of that broadcast couldn't change one fact – she no longer felt as if someone was walking over her grave.

All it had taken was getting some distance from the Academy.

She drew in a breath, reveling in the mountain air.

She'd arrived in Old Zhangjiajie. Despite being a modern galactic city, it had retained a great deal of its old-world charm. Pristine new glass and metal structures were flanked by dense forests, dotted through with streams, and forever chirping with the sounds of insects.

As she walked along the platform, she saw the train shift off behind her. It disappeared back into the streamlined white-blue sealed-tunnel, a shield flickering into place behind it. As soon as the shield covered the tunnel mouth, she saw a mini explosion within that propelled the train forward at insane speed.

In an instant, it was out of sight.

The superfast train tunnels crisscrossed through the landscape, forming a backbone to the city.

She walked along the platform, smiling when she saw some moss growing in a damp patch at the corner of a ramp.

Nature out here was irrepressible. She even saw a butterfly waft past, flying close to her face before fluttering off into the city.

Hooking her hair behind her ears, she let a natural smile play across her face. It helped chase away the remnants of her terrifying reaction to that broadcast....

She muscled her bags further up her shoulder and walked quickly over the platform, finding the ramp that led down into the city.

Though she desperately wanted to be distracted by the view, she had to focus.

First things first, she had to find a job. Then Sarah Sinclair would start a new life.

Away from the Academy and her problems.

Chapter 5

Lieutenant Karax

It had been several days now.

Several days of perfecting the Sora program. And several long, hellish days of not being able to concentrate.

For a second.

There was no news on Sarah. Not a word. She still had a personal civilian communication device, but she wasn't picking up.

She'd gone through all the correct steps in quitting the Academy, and though she'd had an altercation with Morq, she certainly hadn't committed any crimes. That meant he couldn't rely on the security network to track her down. Bottom line was she'd done nothing wrong, and if she didn't want to be contacted, that was her right.

It was driving him mad.

But it wasn't the only thing driving him mad.

In the few seconds he scrounged together the attention to focus on his task, he couldn't shake the feeling the Academy was making a mistake.

He kept trying to explain his misgivings to the Admiral, but he had nothing more concrete than an ever-growing sense of foreboding that shadowed him like a storm cloud.

He had no idea how a program like Sora could work. She was too smart, too adaptable. He'd attempted to gain access to the program's source code, but the trader's had denied his request.

As he walked along the corridor, he tipped his head to the side, staring out the windows.

He wanted the view to distract him. The bay beyond was particularly blue today, like a gem. The sun glinted off it, refracting around the glass buildings of the campus.

The view was lost on his tumbling mind.

His WD beeped. Rather than bring it up and check on the urgent message, he swore under his breath.

It would be the traders again. With more questions. They wanted to push this deal through as quickly as they could. He kept trying to tell them it had nothing to do with him. That he was just here to make sure it would work.

They seemed to think everything was riding on his decision.

Karax wished he had that power. If it were up to him, he'd have kicked the traders off campus on day one.

He brought up a hand and wiped it down his tense brow, fingernails dragging over his skin and probably leaving red, irritated tracks.

His smarting flesh was a distraction. One that couldn't last.

His goddamn WD beeped again.

He brought it up reluctantly and thumbed the receive button. “Karax here.”

“No more wait,” one of the traders said in his distinctive halting tone.

Karax clenched his teeth so hard he was sure his WD picked it up. It would probably sound like a rasp over metal. “I'm currently detained,” he lied.

“Inappropriate. Must move now.”

Karax rolled his eyes, pinched his nose, and hissed a breath through his teeth. “We're moving as fast as we can—”

“End this message now. You will come to facility.” The message abruptly ended.

Karax wanted to grab his WD, wrench it off his wrist, and smash it against the wall. Heck, in his current mood, he half wanted to take it to the armory and shoot it.

Instead, he shifted his jaw from side-to-side, locked his unwavering gaze on the floor, and marched forward, body as rigid as a flag pole.

He didn't get far. Just as he was wavering between kowtowing to the traders or ditching them, he ran into Cadet Nora Falcone.

Not literally. But she did run right up to him, her cheeks flushed.

She didn't pause to say hello. “Do you have her contact details yet?”

He could have drawn her up on her curt demand. He didn't.

He understood exactly what she was going through.

Reluctantly he nodded. “I've got them, but she's not receiving calls.”

Nora looked desperate. “Give them to me – I'll see what I can do.”

Karax hesitated. Even though he'd promised Nora he'd share Sarah's contact details, technically it was against the Academy's privacy rules.

He could get in trouble for breaching them.

Nora didn't drop his gaze. She gritted her teeth and spoke through them, “She doesn't have any family, Lieutenant. She'll be out there on her own....”

Guilt shifted through his gut. He opened his mouth—

“We have an obligation to look after her. She doesn't have anyone else.”

His stomach sank even further. “Fine, I'll hand on her details.”

Nora clasped her hands together, closed her eyes, and whispered an emotional thank you.

He let his hand drag down the back of his head as he clenched his teeth. “I'll send them through to you—”

“Now,” she demanded.

Again, he could have pulled her up on that.

He didn't. He understood the desperation flickering in her gaze – if only because he knew it was matched by his own.

He didn't pause. He brought up his WD, typed in a few commands, and sent it to the cadet.

Almost instantaneously, her WD beeped. She yanked it up, eyes drawing wide as she brought up a jerky finger and tapped it over the screen.

Half a second later, she let out the breath trapped in her chest. It wheezed through her teeth, sounding like air escaping a cracked pipe.

“You won't regret this, Lieutenant. I will get in contact with her,” Nora said with quite some determination, “And make sure she's okay.”

“Let me know when you do.”

With that, he turned away. And for the first time in days, the guilt started to lift.

Started. It would take a heck of a lot more to eke it from his bones and muscles.

No matter how hard he tried, Lieutenant Karax simply couldn't shake the feeling that Sarah Sinclair was in trouble. Or if she weren't in trouble, she would be soon....

...

Sarah Sinclair

She'd found some work.

She'd answered an advertisement around town for one of the Zhangjiajie floating bars.

She'd never heard of them until she'd arrived here.

Nightlife culture was a different thing around the Academy. Regulated. Watched over.

You had very few options if you didn't want to run into the E Club or the Security Forces.

Out here it didn't matter.

Zhangjiajie was right at the foot of one of the transport elevators that manned some of the Earth's mega structures in orbit. Everything from Station Zero to the shipbuilding yards.

As such, it was a worker's city, packed full of aliens who worked hard during the day and played hard at night.

Though the city itself was packed full of bars and clubs, that's not where she wanted to work.

That's why she'd used what little money she had left to hire a returning bubble transport to the Zhangjiajie floating mountains.

Just outside of the massive city that had sprawled through the mountains over the last several hundred years. Those mountains were jam-packed with breathtaking natural phenomenon. Tall stacks of fingerlike rock formations capped with dense green growth, magnificent waterways and wondrous creatures of the water, earth, and sky.

As the persistent fog and mist crawled through the valleys beneath the mountains, they seemingly cut them off from the ground, and you could be forgiven for thinking the peaks detached from the very earth and floated through the skies.

They didn't.

But the famous floating bars of Zhangjiajie did.

As her returning bubble transport beeped that she'd arrived at her destination, it hovered low to the ground, and the glass door in its side opened. She hooked a hand on it, threw her bags onto the damp forest floor below, and jumped out.

As soon as she disembarked, the bubble transport beeped. “Returning to dock. We hope the passenger has had a pleasant ride. Please consider using Zhangjiajie Returning Transports again. Enjoy your day.”

Without another word, the bubble transport shot up into the sky, into a bank of clouds, and out of sight.

She pushed a hand up and over her eyes as she watched it.

It was nothing more than a transparent round ball with a seat inside. Nowhere near as versatile, maneuverable, or ultimately safe as a mini cruiser. Still, it had gotten her here.

She leaned down and picked her bags up, ignoring the dampness they transferred along her back and down her plain civilian tunic.

Sarah Sinclair hadn't been off world that much. A couple of times with Academy training, sure. But she hadn't ventured through the galaxy.

And yet, as she pushed her way through a rock path cut through the dense undergrowth... it reminded her of something.

Deep down, she felt something churn in her gut. A long-forgotten memory, maybe, just the feeling... she'd been somewhere like this before.

She swallowed it, literally, as she sucked in a gulp of air.

There was one thing she couldn't deny as she made her way forward, her boots trudging over the mossy, damp rocks.

That feeling was distant now. The one that told her someone was walking over her grave.

She could barely feel it. Yes, it was still there, right at the edge of her mind, but it was no longer as terrifying and uncontrollable as it had been at the Academy.

She tilted her head, bringing a hand up and pushing a branch from her face.

She should have left the Academy years ago. She should never have joined.

Her civilian communication unit suddenly beeped. She wasn't wearing it, but it reverberated through her bag.

Frowning, she wondered whether she should ignore it.

She knew full well who it was.

Lieutenant Karax.

And she knew full well what he wanted to say.

That she was a coward for quitting the Academy. That she needed to return, face up to what she'd done.

She didn't need to hear that.

So she ignored the call. Five minutes later, however, her communication unit began to beep insistently once more.

Though Lieutenant Karax had been trying to contact her continuously over the past several days, he wasn't usually this persistent.

Letting out a terse breath, she stopped, unhooked her bag from her shoulder, let it slide down her arm, and yanked open the flap. She pulled out her communication unit.

And stopped.

A picture of Nora's smiling face hovered over the screen.

... Sarah's stomach sank. It felt like it plunged through her gut, down past her legs, and sank into the center of the earth.

She couldn't face her friend.

Before she could stop it, a message began to play.

Nora's voice.

“Please, Sarah, please just answer. I need to know that you're okay. Please.”

Sarah screwed her eyes shut, trying to damp back the tears that threatened to splash down her cheeks.

Before she knew what she was doing, she thumbed the accept button. Still standing there with her eyes screwed shut, she technically faced her friend. “Nora, you don't have to worry – I'm fine.”

“Sarah!” Relief exploded through Nora's tone. “Where are you? What happened—”

“You know exactly what happened, Nora, you were there,” Sarah's tone dropped unavoidably, the raw emotion of the past few days welling up and infiltrating her voice.

Nora paused. “I'm so sorry. Sarah, I'm so sorry. But you have to come back—”

“There's no way that's going to happen. I'm fine without the Academy,” she put a lot of emphasis on saying the word fine.

“Sarah, we're all worried about you.”

Sarah couldn't help but snort. “Who is this we, Nora? You're the only person who ever cared—”

“That's not true. Lieutenant Karax has been trying to contact you ceaselessly since you left.”

Sarah snorted again, this one so derisive it was completely at odds with her usual soft character. “Why? So he can reprimand me? He doesn't have any authority over me anymore—”

“Sarah, just wait for a second. He wanted to say sorry. He feels guilty over what happened. Just hear him out.”

Sarah pressed her lips together. No, that wasn't quite right – she ground them together, harder and harder, as if she was trying to turn her flesh to dust.

“I know what you're thinking, but I'm telling the truth. And so is he. I genuinely think Lieutenant Karax wants to apologize. And he's worried about you.”

“... There is nothing to be worried about. Like I said – I'm okay.”

“Where are you?”

“I found my own feet. I'm fine,” Sarah insisted.

“Sarah...” Nora suddenly paused.

Sarah frowned. Even though she wanted to end the conversation, there was something pressured about the silence that got her attention. “Nora?”

It took a few seconds for Nora to reply. “The Academy's on yellow alert.”

“What?”

“Listen, I have to go. I'll call you back. You will promise to answer, won't you, Sarah?”

Sarah considered telling Nora never to call again.

But she couldn't do that to her friend.

She dropped her gaze and stared at her already muddy shoes. “I'll pick up. Good luck with your alert. I hope it's not serious.”

Nora let out a relieved laugh. “Who cares if it's serious? All that matters is we've reconnected. I'm so sorry for everything that's happened, Sarah.”

A few tears touched Sarah's eyes. She nodded feverishly. “So am I.”

“Alright, gotta go—” Nora's line was cut off.

Sarah frowned. She brought her communication unit up and tapped it a few times. Maybe she was making this up, but it didn't sound as if Nora had ended the call – it sounded as if the communication line had suddenly gone blank.

After a few more seconds of prying and prodding at the device, trying to figure out if there'd been a problem with the feed, Sarah gave up.

The yellow alert was probably a drill. And once it was over, Nora would call back.

Though an uneasy feeling fluttered through Sarah's stomach at that, she also felt a scrap of relief.

While she had absolutely no intention of going back to the Academy, it would be nice to keep Nora as a friend.

And as for Lieutenant Karax... maybe she'd give him one more chance, too.

If he called, perhaps she'd do him the dignity of answering.

As Sarah pushed the yellow alert from her mind and crammed her bag back on her shoulder, she kept her communication device clutched in her hand. Though she'd gone to put it back in her bag, she'd stopped.

She wanted to hold onto it for now.

She continued her trek.

In another few minutes, she crossed over a mist-covered hill and looked down at a stunning sight.

The floating mountains of Zhangjiajie.

They were breathtaking. She'd never seen anything like them. They pulled up into the sky, sheer rocky sides struck through with waterfalls. With their dense foliage-capped tops, they looked more like megalithic trees than mountains.

She stood there until she spied the bar.

While the mountains themselves were one thing, the floating bar was another. She'd read up about it before she left the city. During the day, it was separated into units where the staff lived. Little pod-like structures that drifted off through the floating mountain range and nestled against the craggy peaks.

At nighttime, when the bar kicked into gear, the pods joined together and floated around the mountain range to make the best use of the view.

It's one of the reasons she wanted to work for this bar, specifically – as it provided not just a source of income, but bed and board.

Plus, she adored the idea of having her own small pod ship that she could park against any number of these beautiful peaks. She could wake up to dusk setting through this incredible mountain range, light penetrating the craggy peaks and ever-present mist.

It was nearing dusk now, and as she tipped her head back, she saw the stark oranges and purples play against the horizon far above.

She pushed her bag higher up her shoulder, drew in a deep breath of the pure, clean air, and strode forward.

Though she wanted to say she'd put the Academy and her past behind her, her mind kept flicking back to Nora.

To the yellow alert. And once or twice, to Lieutenant Karax....

Chapter 6

Lieutenant Karax

“Admiral, what the hell is going on?” Karax knew that he should keep his voice quiet, and mollify his sentiment, too, but he couldn't.

The yellow alert kept blaring through the building, so loud he swore it shook his teeth in his head.

Staff kept running around him, shooing confused students from class and leading them to evacuation points.

But here's the thing, nobody had any idea why the yellow alert system was going off.

“We're working on it. We're working on it,” Admiral Forest snapped, her voice reverberating over his WD.

Though Karax knew it wasn't the time, he couldn't stop himself. “They shouldn't have been given access to our internal security systems.”

He felt like he was a recording on a loop. He'd been saying this for days now.

The Academy top brass was putting too much trust in the Corthanx Traders.

Yes, for all intents and purposes the Sora program was incredible. And yes, even he had concluded that if the Academy procured it, it would give them a lasting and tangible edge in their fight against the Ornax.

But there were some benefits that came at too great a cost. And he could no longer turn away from the dense, ominous feeling that kept churning in his gut, that kept telling him they were headed in the wrong direction.

“This isn't the time,” Admiral Forest said, voice strident.

He should have responded to her curt tone. He didn't. There was something about the truly insistent pitch of the yellow alert rattling through the room and echoing through his mind that undermined his reason. “When is a good time, Admiral? I've been saying this for days now—”

“Lieutenant—” the Admiral began, her voice punching out like a slap.

Except it stopped.

Abruptly.

Just before his hackles could rise and he could prepare for a reprimand, she cut out.

His brow condensed so hard and fast over his eyes, it was a surprise he didn't push them half the way down his face. “Admiral? Admiral?”

No reply.

Despite the insistent pitch of the yellow alert blaring around him like a discordant orchestra in full swing, he clenched his teeth, brought up his WD, and tried to ascertain whether it was broken.

It wasn't.

Something else was.

The entire Academy communication network.

He paled. It felt like all the blood drained from his face.

He pushed off into a jog, then a run, then a sprint.

Something wasn't right. Those three words kept repeating in his mind, louder and louder, faster and faster until they sounded like the drone of a cruiser pulse cannon desperately trying to take down an enemy ship.

He rounded a corner, almost collecting a detachment of the Academy Security Forces.

He skidded to a halt, slamming a hand against the wall to steady himself.

The Lieutenant in charge of the security detachment snapped his head toward Karax.

At almost the exact moment they both asked – “What's going on?”

Karax's stomach sank. If he'd hoped the security detachment had any idea what was happening, he was clearly mistaken.

The security guard was in black armor, though his helmet was currently in off mode, nothing more than a black metal band around his throat. The guy took a pressured step forward, his armored boots squeaking against the polished floor. “We can't get any information, sir. What the hell is happening?”

“I have no idea. But the communication network is down. We should concentrate on evacuating all of the students and finding Engineering Chief Falstaff.”

The guy snapped a salute. He turned hard on his boot, presumably to follow Karax's orders, but a second later he stopped.

Because a second later a completely different warning alarm blared through the corridors.

The pitch was more insistent, the volume louder, and while the yellow alert felt as if it had shaken through the building, this alarm sounded as if it wanted to shatter the windows. He couldn't help but bring a hand up and clutch it over one of his ears. “What the hell is that?”

The security guard's eyes bulged. It was such a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction that Karax couldn't help but take a snapped step forward.

“That's the systems alarm,” the guy managed to scream over the blaring warning.

“Systems alarm?” Karax mouthed pointedly.

“Something's overloading the primary computer network. Or interfering with it. Point is, it means the computer's on the blink.”

It was Karax's turn for his eyes to almost bulge right out of his skull.

The primary computer network ran everything. From communications, to security, to the energy network, to the Academy's link to the outside world.

“We need to find out what is happening, now,” Karax spat. He had to dig deep and wrench all the vocal power from his lungs in order to scream louder than the systems alarm.

The guy snapped a salute.

“With me.” Karax spun on his foot and pushed forward.

As they streamed through the corridors, pounding footfall almost completely obscured by the whooping klaxon, it didn't take long to come across more confused staff and students. Not a single person had any clue what was going on.

Finally, he encountered the one person who should know what was happening.

Admiral Forest.

She was stalking forward, a harrowed look on her face, crumpling her brow and making her penetrating gaze all the more intense.

She pointed right at Karax and waved him forward. Though she began to speak, Karax didn't catch a word of it until he'd skidded to a stop by her side.

“What's going on, Admiral? Are we being attacked?”

“The alterations to the holographic system have somehow overloaded our primary computer network. We have a full detachment of engineers working on it now.” As she spoke, he picked up every word. She'd had years and years of bellowing orders and making herself heard even over the most calamitous of disasters.

His shoulders began to relax. “What do we do—”

He stopped.

Because at that exact moment, the yellow alert and the systems alarm ended.

An eerie silence filtered through the corridors.

Other staff – who'd been rushing around seconds before – came to a confused halt.

The Admiral tipped her head back, let her eyes roll into the back of her head, and she let out a sigh. “Finally.”

Karax's hands were still clutched into tense fists by his side. “Is it over?”

“It should be. Our engineers encountered an issue while upgrading our distributed holographic network to make it compatible with the Sora program,” the Admiral explained.

Karax's ears were still ringing from the bombardment of the whooping klaxon. Heck, he imagined it would take a day for them to readjust to ordinary speech. “What kind of issue?”

“Unknown at this stage. The chief, however, is working on it. We should have no more issues.” She suddenly shot him a warning look.

Which was appropriate, because he'd been seconds from pointing out for the millionth time that this was wrong.

Instead, he clenched his teeth and swallowed hard.

Admiral Forest watched him like a hawk. “I know what you're thinking, Lieutenant, and you do not need to tell me once more. I assure you, our best minds are working on this. We would not be integrating the Corthanx Trader’s holographic technology into our own unless it was considered completely safe. The chief engineer has also managed to isolate the systems he's upgrading. If anything untoward were to happen, he'd be able to completely cut off those holographic systems and lock them out of the primary computer network.”

He understood every single word – he really did – he also appreciated it was Admiral goddamn Forest who was saying them.

But that didn't reassure him one single bit.

The churning nerves running riot in his gut would not be quelled.

He resisted the urge to take another step forward, to repeat his misgivings for the millionth time.

Instead, he ground his teeth together. “Maybe I'm not the right person for this mission,” he suddenly said.

The words came from nowhere. He tried to stop himself from saying them, but he couldn't. They flowed out with all the force of blood from a split jugular.

The Admiral had just a second to pale, to stare at him with a stiff, angry expression.

Then, from further down the corridor, they heard something.

A thump and a gasp.

He recognized those two sounds first, stiffened, and jerked his head toward them.

“What—” the Admiral began.

Footsteps. Practiced, measured footsteps. Resounding – belonging to somebody in armor.

They came closer. Step after step. Pounding up a set of stairs.

With every step, he felt as if something was clawing its way up his back.

Both he and the Admiral turned just in time to see one of the Corthanx Traders appear over the lip of the stairs.

The trader was a slight, small alien, and barely came up to Karax's hip.

Those steps did not belong to him.

The Admiral turned her confused gaze on the trader. “What are you—”

Something flickered by the trader's side. Nothing more than light, at first, it soon pulsed into a recognizable form.

And those steps echoed out.

Sora.

The Admiral curled one hand into a fist and took a rigid step forward. “What are you doing?”

The trader did not answer until he'd reached their side.

Sora kept flickering on and off. Taking a few steps, only to disappear and reappear a meter down the corridor. The sound of her resonant footfall echoed in an out, becoming sharper, only to drift off to the edge of hearing.

Karax's stomach clenched. Every muscle. Every millimeter of his skin became cold, slick with sweat, encased with fear.

His hackles rose, a shot of nerves charging up his spine and sinking like a fist into the back of his skull. “Admiral—”

The Admiral put up a hand. She never shifted her demanding gaze from the trader. “What's going on? How is the Sora program online?” The Admiral's penetrating gaze switched toward Sora.

Sora kept flickering in and out. One second her body would be made of nothing more than flickering lines of light. In another, she would be completely solid. Unidentifiable from an ordinary person.

For some reason, his gaze locked on the two ever-fresh streaks of blood painted on her left cheek.

Her head tilted, her helmet twisting to face him.

He sensed danger. It shot through him. Exploded through his heart, sent a pulse of adrenaline ricocheting through every vein and sinking into every muscle.

Sora tilted her head even further to the side, her chestnut brown hair tapering over her shoulder.

“What's going on?” The Admiral now roared, her voice echoing through the corridor.

The Corthanx Trader didn't answer. Instead, he clasped both his hands together, obscuring them under his long sleeves. “The program is now fully integrated with your computer systems.”

“What are you talking about?” the Admiral demanded.

“Irrelevant,” the trader spoke over her, its hissing voice like a shot of gas exploding from a tank. “Our systems are now fully integrated with yours.”

“Stop,” the Admiral said, voice punching from her throat. It was the vocal equivalent of a shot across a ship's bows.

Sora tilted her head even further to the side, now swiveling her helmet to the left and focusing it on the Admiral.

Nerves quickened in Karax's gut, pressing into his chest, pulsing through his heart. He took a jerked step forward and maneuvered himself between Sora and the Admiral.

Sora was meant to be a hologram. A true intelligence hologram, granted, but as she shifted her helmet toward him, it sure as hell didn't feel as if he was staring at mere light.

She had all the calculated menace of a Barbarian warrior.

“You will turn off the Sora program now,” the Admiral demanded.

The trader appeared to consider her. Its hands were still obscured by its sleeves.

Sora was now solid. She no longer flickered. Her body was just as real as Karax's.

“I am unable to follow through with your request,” the trader said, his tone still neutral.

“You will—” the Admiral began.

A weapon appeared in Sora's hand.

A rotating driver gun.

It looked like an old Earth crossbow melded with a pulse rifle. A long curved shaft was attached to the muzzle of the gun. As it charged, it spun, a blue light building at the tip.

The trader took a step back and nodded his head. “It's been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Without another word he turned, hands still obscured by his long sleeves.

He walked away.

Sora drew her gun up, the shaft rotating faster and faster.

She drew her hand back, clasped the trigger right at the back of the gun, and started firing.

Karax acted first. He rounded his shoulder and slammed it into the Admiral, knocking her to the floor. His move was so hard, so fast, that they both hit the floor with an agonizing thump.

There they didn't stay.

Karax spun around, hooking his feet forward, trying to catch Sora's ankles.

His left boot snagged against her armor, but she jerked back and fired at his face.

The Admiral clutched his shoulder and jerked him to the side just in time.

The sizzling hot pulse round from the gun slammed into the floor by his face, cracking it and sending wisps of steam issuing up and playing against his nostrils and cheeks.

People started screaming.

The Academy was under attack.

Chapter 7

Sarah Sinclair

It wasn't hard to get hired at the floating bar. She was attractive, by human standards. And though that shouldn't count for anything in this modern galaxy, it still did.

At least to certain people.

Her new boss, Frank – a massive Morxian – seemed relatively nice. Though he had a booming voice and the kind of massive form that made it seem as if he wrestled with cruisers, he didn't hesitate in giving her a job. He spent five minutes giving her the lowdown on the clients, then set her to work in her own pod.

If she stayed with the bar for a year, she'd get a bigger pod, a better salary, too.

Right now, she was content that she'd fallen back on her feet.

She rolled up the sleeves of her tunic, pushed to one knee, and plunged a hand into the matter recalibration unit under the counter.

It was on the blink.

Above her, the bar began to fill with patrons. Of every color, of every shape, of every size, of every race.

It was an education in the Milky Way.

As Sarah shifted onto her stomach and pulled herself under the counter to get a better look at the matter calibration unit, she took the opportunity to pull up her communicator.

She checked the screen once more.

Nothing.

No call from Nora.

An uneasy feeling started to settle in her gut, pushing down until it felt as if her legs would turn numb.

Why wasn't Nora calling?

Surely the yellow alert had just been a drill. Surely it was over by now?

... Nora hadn't changed her mind, had she?

Before Sarah could dwell too much on her thoughts, the recalibration unit buzzed back into life.

She shuffled out from under the bench, pushed to her feet, and began serving drinks.

There was a holo unit up in the far corner of her section of the bar. It kept cycling through various galactic sports. Every 10 minutes or so, it would play the latest Coalition news.

She locked her eyes on it as another news cycle began.

Commodity prices. Some kind of disturbance in the Orion Sector. The upcoming Senate elections.

But nothing on the Academy.

Though Sarah wanted to throw herself into her work – wanted to use it to distract herself – she kept latching a hand onto her left shoulder.

Onto that exact point where it felt as if something was buried under her skin.

It felt as if that thing was pulsing. Vibrating as if it were engorged on energy.

It was a truly distracting sensation, and she couldn't help but dig her fingers into her flesh as she unconsciously tried to extract it.

She gritted her teeth, pushing her fingers even harder into her shoulder as she grabbed a drink with one hand and handed it to a patron.

Suddenly she heard someone clear their throat from behind her.

She didn't need to turn to see that it was Frank. He had such a massive form that his looming body cut out most of the light.

She twisted her head and politely cleared her throat. “Can I help you?”

“Bothering you?” Frank pointed at her shoulder.

She pressed her lips together and dropped her gaze. “It's an old injury... an... implant that can't be removed properly,” she added.

When Sarah had decided to strike out and start her new life, she'd promised herself one thing – she would keep her dreams and her condition to herself.

She was now certain that there was no one out there who could help her. And if she managed her own symptoms, she knew she could keep her condition under wraps.

The dreams would never stop. She was coming to terms with that. And as for that niggling tingling sensation in her shoulder, she was determined to find new ways to distract herself from it.

So why the hell had she just told Frank the truth? Or at least part of the truth?

Frank nodded. He plunged one of his massive eight-fingered hands into the utility belt around his middle. A second later he plucked out some kind of modified scanner.

He handed it to her. “Use this. Could help.” With that, he turned on one of his massive feet and lumbered away.

She blinked in surprise. Though she was certain the scanner couldn't help her, that didn't stop her from frowning as she mulled over the controls.

A second later she realized it was programmed to emit a localized jamming signal on any number of programmable frequencies.

She shrugged, digging her free hand into her shoulder as that tingling sensation grew worse and worse.

What did she have to lose?

Taking a few steps away from the crowded bar as one of the other barmen stood forward to take her place, she soon figured out how to work the scanner.

And she used it.

...

Lieutenant Karax

Anarchy.

Pure goddamn anarchy.

Hell on Earth.

Sora was unstoppable.

He'd managed to pull the Admiral into a nearby room as a full security detachment had taken Sora on.

But they wouldn't win. Couldn't.

She obliterated them.

He was pressed close to the door, ear against it as he tried to listen through the reinforced metal and figure out what was happening outside.

In the corner of the room, Admiral Forest worked frantically. The room was some kind of office. She'd found a desk, and she was currently underneath it as she frantically pulled out the guts of its computer.

It wouldn't count for anything.

Karax knew that.

Karax knew they had seconds.

No matter how many security guards threw themselves at Sora, she would rip through them all.

Then she'd come for the Admiral.

“Almost there, almost there,” the Admiral spat.

He turned his pressured stare toward her, one hand pressed against the metal, his fingers leaving sweaty tracks down the smooth silver.

She was trying to cut through the communications blackout to get a message to the outside world.

The traders had taken near complete control of the Academy systems.

Karax watched her for a few heart-pounding seconds until he wrenched his gaze around and stared at the door.

Just in time.

Half a second later it opened.

He pushed away, striking his back and rolling backward onto his feet.

He stared up at Sora.

Blood – real blood – was splattered over her armor.

It dripped down her chest and arms, pooled at her feet.

But it wasn't hers.

She brought up that rotating gun, the pulsing, flashing tip directed right at him.

He could try to push forward, try to shove into her, try to kick, try to strike, but what was the point?

Instead, he stared up into that helmet and waited.

Just as she stretched her hand back and locked it on the trigger, she appeared to hesitate.

For a second.

For a second where his life hung before his eyes, every memory, every regret, all flashing into his mind with the rapidity of bullets.

He had time for his eyes to widen, for his heart to stop, for his sweat to turn to ice as it slicked down his back.

Then she fired.

....

Her aim wasn't true.

Just at the last second, her shoulder yanked to the side, pulling the gun out of alignment and seeing the bullet sink into the floor by his hand.

The heat was enough to instantly scorch and bubble the skin up his wrist, but it didn't tear through his face and slice him in half.

Sora began to thrash.

A stifled scream cracked from her mouth as she dropped the gun, staggered to one knee, and clutched her left shoulder. That odd black triangle sunk into her armor, to be precise.

She began to dig at it, gouge at it as if she were desperately trying to excavate it.

By now the Admiral was on her feet.

She had time to shoot Karax a stunned silent look before another scream tore from Sora's mouth.

She lurched forward.

Karax thought she was going for her gun, so he got there first and kicked it out of the way.

It didn't matter. Not only did the holographic gun suddenly disappear, but she wasn't even clutching for it.

Instead, she grabbed a chair, snapped the leg off in a jerked move, and began slamming it against that odd triangle in her shoulder.

Blow after blow, scream after scream issuing from her throat.

“What the hell is happening?” the Admiral croaked.

Karax knew better than to think this was a chance to dispatch Sora. Sure, he could try to find a weapon, try to open a window and throw her out – but it would mean nothing.

She was light. As long as the holo emitters that sustained her were still online, her program could be recalled and restarted at any point.

It was the Academy's distributed computer network that was their true enemy, not Sora as she convulsed at his feet, trying to tear that triangle out of her shoulder.

She kept striking her shoulder, kept clutching whatever weapon she could find until her combined attack began to shatter her armor. Fissure lines struck down her shoulder plating, deep into her chest plate and up into her helmet.

He stood there, ramrod straight, half a meter back, fingers covered in sweat, heart pounding through his chest. Maybe he should use the opportunity to slip past Sora and tear away, but something locked him to the spot.

That something kept him there long enough to see those fracture lines march all the way across her helmet.

As he sucked a sharp breath deep into his lungs, her helmet shattered.

It fell into chunks by her feet.

And he saw her face.

....

Sarah Sinclair.

It was Cadet Sarah Sinclair.

It was... it was... it was Cadet goddamn Sarah Sinclair.

So much surprise slammed into his gut it felt as if it would curl arms around his middle and throw him out the window.

His breath was locked in his chest, a cold, terrifying sensation leaping down his shoulders and sinking into his hands.

She kept digging at her shoulder. Trying to gouge something from the skin.

She ignored him and the Admiral completely.

A second later, she pushed to her feet and began ramming her shoulder into the wall. Choked screams kept issuing from her closed off throat as she jammed her shoulder harder and harder into the wall, the whole room shaking from the force of each terrifying blow.

His lips cracked open. “Sarah? Sarah? It's me, Karax.”

If she could hear him, she made no move to acknowledge his presence.

She was fixated on her task. It looked like she was trying to remove her entire shoulder. If she'd had access to a bone saw, he was sure she would have lopped it off.

She began to slow down. Her movements became gradually less violent as if she were growing too tired to perform them.

Eventually, she stopped altogether, slumping against the wall, head tilting to one side, eyes never closing as they locked their dead stare on the floor.

He couldn't help but plunge down to one knee, lock a hand on her shoulder, and stare into her face. “Sarah—”

Just before he could fear this was the real thing – that she was somehow Sarah Sinclair – the hologram began to crack up, lines of light flicking through it.

The Admiral locked a hand on his shoulder, jerked him to his feet, and shoved him toward the door. “We have to get out of here while we still have a chance.”

“But Sarah—”

“If you are referring to Cadet Sinclair, I very much doubt that's her. We need to get out of here.”

“What the hell is happening?” he demanded as he followed her out into the corridor.

The Admiral wheezed through a pained breath as her gaze locked on the destruction waiting for them outside.

Numerous security officers were injured, if not dead.

Though the sight slammed through him like a blow to his jaw, Karax didn't hesitate to lurch down and grab up a gun. “What the hell is happening?” he demanded again through clenched teeth. “That thing in there... it looks like—”

“I have no goddamn idea, Lieutenant. But we have to find out before it tears through the Academy.” The Admiral led him forward. Rather than power down the corridor and try their chances with one of the lifts, she headed toward a relatively plain section of wall.

Before he could ask what she was doing, she brought a hand up and pressed it flat against a nondescript section of the cream wall.

“What are you—” he didn't bother finishing his sentence.

A second later, a door formed right out of the wall.

The Admiral pointed him forward with a stiff movement of her now white and completely bloodless hand.

They both shunted through the door just in time. Behind they could hear footsteps.

Though it was just a guess, Karax knew it was the traders. No doubt come to check on their broken hologram.

Hologram....

Sarah...?

His mind couldn't catch up.

It kept locking on the second Sarah's helmet had fallen off her face.

He could even remember the distinct clink, clink, clink as the broken sections of metal plating had fallen by her feet.

But that was nothing to mention the look she'd given him as she'd stared up into his eyes.

Total and complete desperation.

Fear the likes of which no ordinary human should ever experience.

The door in the wall closed behind them before the traders shot into view. It remained open just long enough for Karax to twist and see their distinct brown cloaks.

Once it was closed, the Admiral didn't pause, she pointed him forward.

They appeared to be in some kind of narrow tunnel. Though his first instinct was to say it was some kind of maintenance shaft, he quickly realized that couldn't be the case.

For one, there hadn't been an access port on that wall, or at least not a visible one. For another, as he concentrated, he realized he couldn't see any of the usual equipment you would associate with a maintenance shaft.

Rather, this was a tunnel. Obviously a secret one.

They both ran in silence, footfall reverberating through the metal floor.

Though it was hard and strong and loud, it couldn't compare with his thundering heart.

He'd never felt fear as distinct and all-encompassing as this since he'd left his home world.

After a few minutes of running, they entered a room.

It had no windows and was unadorned, its only decoration several metal crates stacked up neatly in a corner.

“What is this place?” He calmed his panting breath long enough to push his words from his stiff lips.

“There are tunnels like this throughout the entire Academy now. We had them installed, in secret, after the Axira incident. After it became clear that the Academy was no longer the haven we'd once foolishly believed it was.”

“Where do they lead to?”

“If you follow them, and you know what you're doing, they can lead you right under the city and out into an abandoned section of forest 70 km away. If you don't know what you're doing, you will trip a security alarm, and be transported straight to the brig.”

“... I take it you know what you're doing, Admiral?”

She didn't answer.

That wasn't good enough for Karax.

As the Admiral scooted down to one knee and began to open one of the crates, he crossed his arms. “No more lies. No more appeals to the chain of command. What the hell is happening? And how in the hell could you let it get this far? Those traders have complete access to our holographic—”

She put up a hand.

A part of him wanted to ignore it. But somewhere within the storm of anger swirling in his gut, a scrap of reason remained.

It gave her the time to pull something out of the crate, turn, and face him with a stony expression. “I have no idea how this happened. Whether you choose to believe it or not, Lieutenant, I too appreciated the risks of acquiring this technology. And I will now freely admit to you that I had my suspicions that the Corthanx Traders were still working with the Barbarian Empire.”

Before he could react – go with the anger that flared in his gut, and start shouting – she brought up another stiff, white hand. She spread her fingers, her knuckles moving hard under the skin, the tendons pronounced streaks of white that pushed all the way into her wrists. “Yes, I deceived you.”

He clenched his teeth together and pared back his lips. “Why?”

“Because I wanted you on this job. Knew you were the best. But also knew you wouldn't play along if you thought you were working with a group that benefited the Barbarians.”

“You were goddamn right, Admiral,” He couldn't unclench his teeth. It would have taken a blow to the face with a crowbar to separate his clenched jaw. “And so was I. All along. We should never have trusted the traders. We should never have given them access to our systems.”

“We didn't. Not directly. And before you go questioning why we risked this, there's something you need to know – we are losing.”

There was something so direct about her statement, something so shocking about the look she followed it up with, that for a second his anger ground to a halt. It settled into an uneasy confusion that loomed over his back like hands ready to grasp his throat.

He peeled his lips open. “What are you talking about?”

For a second she said nothing. She kept staring at him with that unsettling, terrifying look. “We are losing against the Ornax. The Coalition has mostly been able to keep it under wraps for now, but that won't last. It can't. The more we fight them, the more they apparently learn about us, and the more undefeatable they become. In the last two weeks alone we have lost three heavy cruisers and 16 other ships. I'll let you figure out how many lives that is.”

“... What?”

The Admiral brought up a hand and pressed her messy hair from her eyes. “There is nothing we can do against them. We can't even begin to understand the way they fight. And every day that passes is a day they push further into our territory. They haven't pushed into full out war yet, but they will,” her tone dropped, seemed to sink through the room as if her ominous words had the weight of a stone. “At the moment it's clear they are learning as much about us as they can. When they are finished, they will attack. And there is nothing we can do against them. So that, Lieutenant, is why we risk this. We have already confirmed that the Corthanx Traders were not lying. That the Sora program really is Ornax technology. We knew the importance of obtaining it. But we also knew the risk. And we acted to mitigate. I had my best, most trustworthy officers working on this. They shadowed the traders, followed their every move. And no – I never gave them access to our computer systems.”

Though Karax's gaze had sunk toward the floor, he now snapped it up and stared at her. “So how did this happen?”

It was the Admiral's turn to drop her gaze. The thick veneer that usually hid her true feelings cracked. What he saw within was not something he expected.

A person. Just an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation.

Admirals were always larger than life. They had to be to shoulder the responsibility they carried.

But underneath that, they were still just people.

And people, no matter their race or species, always make mistakes.

Especially when they have a gun to their head.

Though his thoughts roiled at everything he'd just learned, there was one fact that was ever-present in his mind. His body, too. It locked every muscle with such tension it was like it was slowly turning him to stone.

He took an unavoidable step forward. “What the hell does this have to do with Sarah Sinclair? That hologram looks exactly like her.”

The Admiral appeared to freeze. Her gaze locked on the floor, and he could tell her mind span behind her fixed eyes.

She shook her head and clenched her teeth, the move so hard he could see the muscles down into her neck knotting.

It reminded him of what the hologram had done to its neck. The way it had dug at that left triangle in its armor.

Instantly he remembered that Sarah had done almost the exact same thing. Though she hadn't gone to the extent of breaking off a chair leg and trying to gouge out her flesh, she'd always poked and pried at it until a permanent scar had appeared.

He shivered, such a cold sensation tracing down his back it felt like an icy hand clutched around his heart.

“I can't give you an answer, Lieutenant, because I have no idea what's going on. Perhaps that hologram only resembles Cadet Sinclair—”

He shook his head. It felt as if he could snap the thing right off and throw it at the Admiral. “It's her. Admiral, it's got to be her. The real Sarah always had a problem with that side of her neck, too.”

“That means very little, Lieutenant. As much as I hate to admit this, we simply don't know enough about the Corthanx Traders or this technology. Perhaps they simply programmed Sora to resemble Sarah in order to disrupt you. You appear to know her well. Perhaps they knew that—”

“That makes no sense. I've barely had anything to do with Sarah. Granted,” he swallowed involuntarily, “I know her, but there are any other number of staff within the Academy who I know better. If they were programming the hologram to disrupt us, they could have chosen anyone.”

“We don't know anything for sure—”

“Except Sora is meant to be some kind of true intelligence hologram. What if she's not a hologram?”

“She's made of light and sustained by holographic emitters,” the Admiral's tone hardened, and yet, though she spoke through clenched teeth, he could still see a glint of uncertainty flaring in her gaze.

He latched hold of it. “Granted, I'll admit she's a hologram. But where does its true intelligence come from? I tried to look at the trader's code. They wouldn't let me, but I tried to isolate a section of Sora's program and delve as deep into the code as I could. It was unlike any holographic program I've ever seen. There was no AI written into it.”

“My best engineers looked at the program, too, but I couldn't find anything wrong with it.”

“Your best engineers?” he spluttered. “Aren't you starting to suspect they turned on you? If you're so adamant that the Corthanx Traders did not obtain access to our systems, then how in the hell did they overtake the Academy?” He was way beyond insubordinate now. If he was an Admiral and some upstart Lieutenant was speaking to him like this, they would be out on their ear.

Though the Admiral's jaw hardened, she didn't demand his immediate expulsion from the Academy. Instead, she darted her gaze to the floor, half closed her eyes, and shook her head. “Of course that thought has crossed my mind, and others.”

She appeared to hesitate, as if she was wondering whether to tell him something.

He pressed forward. “Admiral, what is it?”

“The Academy has never been the same since the Axira incident. Members of our own unit turned against us. There were spies in the top brass.” She hesitated once more.

And it struck him. “And there are still spies within the top brass, aren't there?”

Slowly she nodded her head. “I thought I'd rooted them out. Now this incident makes me realize I haven't. Just when I think I'm getting on top of the division within our ranks, a new fissure opens up.”

He paled. It felt as if his cheeks became so cold and stiff they'd never move again. If he tried to speak, let alone smile, he could shatter his face and it would fall to his feet.

“There are enemies within the Coalition?”

Slowly she met his gaze. “There have always been enemies within the Coalition. Especially now. Especially as we quicken toward the final battle.”

His stomach lurched. “The final battle?”

She would not blink, would not drop his gaze. In fact, it became all the more intense as she took a step toward him, her boots resounding against the metal floor. “There is an enemy beyond our space.”

He jerked his head back and shook it at her confusing statement. “What on earth does that mean? Beyond our space?”

“Outside this universe,” she now spoke so stiffly it half sounded as if her words could shatter like glass. “It's coming,” she added in a harsh breath. “It's coming.”

Nerves. Fear. True fright. They came upon him all at once, dousing his back as if somebody had thrown him into the ocean.

He began to shake his head again.

The Admiral shook her own. Once. Stiffly. “None of that matters right now. The only thing that matters is you getting out of here and figuring out what's going on, Lieutenant.”

“I'm not going to leave you behind,” he began.

She brought up a stiff hand and practically stuck it straight in his face. “You are. You will. I have to stay behind, have to do what I can. But you have to follow this route—” she brought up her WD, typed something into it, and sent it to his wrist device. “—and get the hell out of here,” she spoke through a clenched jaw, her lips barely parting, her teeth nothing more than white flashes that accentuated her hard, stiff words. “We don't have much time, Lieutenant. The Corthanx Traders will eventually figure out these tunnels exist, especially when they realize I've suddenly disappeared. You have to get out of here, and you have to find out what's going on.”

He wanted to protest. There was still more he had to know. Still more she had to answer. Though she'd already told him how this had happened, he still couldn't understand it, still couldn't understand how the Academy, let alone Admiral Forest, could let this happen.

As he stared into her determined gaze, he realized she wasn't going to give in. She pointed a stiff finger toward the tunnel behind them. “Follow that. I've sent you the map. Now get the hell out of this city. Figure out what's going on and keep in contact.”

“What?” His brow dug deep against his eyes.

She brought a hand up and tapped her WD. “Figure out what's going on and contact the correct authorities. Also keep in contact with me.”

“How? The communications system is down.”

She shook her head. “I managed to make an independent connection between your WD and mine. Theoretically, when you try to contact me, I should be able to find a way to bypass the jam on the system.”

He shook his head, barely understanding a single word. “But, Admiral—”

“Just go,” she said, words like hisses. “We don't have much time.” She turned her head and focused her gaze back through the tunnel.

As if to prove her point, he suddenly heard a thump that reverberated all the way through the floor. It seemed to sink hard into his heart, seemed to clutch two hands around the muscle and shake it.

He took a snapped step back, cheeks paling and feeling as cold as the heart of a glacier. “Admiral—”

“Just go, Lieutenant.”

Though he began to shake his head, another bang reverberated down the corridor. Before he knew what he was doing, he turned on his foot and speed forward.

“Go,” the Admiral called one last time before her voice cut out.

The Lieutenant turned over his shoulder and stared at her until he was out of sight.

He shifted his head forward and pumped his arms at his sides, pushing his muscles as fast as they would go.

No, this couldn't be happening. Events were spiraling out of control like a burnt up cruiser free falling through the atmosphere.

He jerked up his WD, manipulating it as he never stopped running, his boots pounding on the floor, every step echoing around him like the thump of a hammer against an anvil.

There were far too many questions vying for his attention, but no matter what he thought about, no matter how often his mind tried to jerk back to the Admiral's insistence, his thoughts always skipped back to Sarah.

Sarah. That hologram had resembled her perfectly.

What the hell was going on?

He sprinted around another corner, jerking up his WD to check his route.

At one point he almost took the wrong turn, but stopped just in time, boots screeching against the floor as he grabbed a lip of metal and shifted direction.

Perhaps the Admiral had overstated things when she'd said taking the wrong route would end up tripping some security system and getting him transported to the brig. Perhaps she hadn't.

He couldn't afford to take any risks. He had absolutely no idea what was happening in the rest of the academy. The sinking feeling in his gut told him it couldn't be good. The Corthanx Traders had been too smart in their attack, too well prepared.

Even if the Sora program had failed somehow, they would still have a stranglehold on the Academy's main computers. For all Karax knew, the traders could've rounded up every last member of staff and every last student by now. They were too powerful to underestimate. So there was every possibility that he was the last member of the Academy left on the run. It would be up to him to make it out and raise the alarm.

... Then what? Would the Coalition forces on the rest of the planet push their way into the Academy and take the grounds back? At what cost? Sure, he didn't know that much about the traders, but he could guess that if they had hostages, they wouldn't shy away from killing them to make a point.

The tunnel system was long. Had to be. Not only did it wind its way through Academy grounds, but according to the Admiral and his wrist device, eventually it would take him underneath the city and far out to some secluded section of forest.

It would take hours at his top sprint to make it that far, and he knew he didn't have hours. Fortunately, however, he soon came across some kind of transport substation, within which was a special kind of hover bike.

He wasted no time in pulling it out of its recess, vaulting on top, and revving the engine.

Then Lieutenant Karax hunched over the handlebars, sweaty brow pressing close to the sleek metal, a single expletive splitting from his lips as he gunned the bike and shot forward.

The Academy had been attacked.

He'd left the Admiral behind.

The traders would have tens of thousands of hostages. And somewhere, somewhere out there was Sarah Sinclair.

He had to get to her before it was too late.

...

Admiral Forest

She didn't make a single movement until Lieutenant Karax was well and truly out of sight, the faint reverberating thumps of his footfall no longer audible.

When it was clear she was on her own she moved.

Admiral Forest sat down. She reached past the collar of her uniform and drew out the device.

She waved a hand over it.

Her expression was now blank.

She tilted her head to the side, hand now stuck in the air as the device turned on.

The small flat disc of metal had sat close to her skin under her top – indiscernible from the outside. Now it bulged as it turned on, the metal warping in and out as if something was breathing from deep within it.

Her expression remained blank. Her hand still hovered in the air.

Her mind was blank, all thoughts far away. Held back. By a wall.

The device stopped bulging and settled down into a single form.

A small, perfect metal cube.

It let out a beam of blue light from its top. The beam of light was as thin as a pin, yet strong enough that it pushed all the way to the ceiling above.

Her body was hunched over, muscles locked in the same position, never moving.

“What now?” she asked in a raspy tone.

“Wait,” the device instructed her, its strange far-off tone issuing from nowhere in particular.

“Until?”

“Until we find out what will happen next.”

With that promise echoing in her dead mind, the Admiral rested back on her haunches. She sat down, crossed her legs, settled her hands on her lap, and locked her far-off gaze on the wall.

And she waited.

As instructed, to see what would happen next.

Chapter 8

Corthanx Traders

“We do not know how this happened. We do not know how this happened,” one of the traders said as he knelt in a supplicating position, one knee pressed into the floor, his robes spilled around his small legs, his hands lifted up in reverence.

The hologram before him did not flicker. It was still perfect, like all holographic technology they had managed to secure from the Ornax.

The snarling face of the alien stared down at him, its numerous lips pulling back from its numerous mouths. “Unacceptable. This was the perfect plan. How- how did you fail?”

“We have not failed,” said the trader, still keeping his hands held up in reverence, even though they started to shake. Sweat slicked between his fingers, pooled over his palms, and threatened to wash down his wrists. He knew better than to let his hands drop. Knew far better than to let his fear show. He was thankful for the cloak that pushed all the way over his face and hid his expression, for he could not hide his fear.

They had not factored this into their calculations. It was not possible.

“Fix Sora,” the alien said, its myriad mouths snapping open, the words punching out of them like bullets.

Though the trader began to shake, he hid it with a vehement nod. “We have already managed to push past the jamming signal. Soon we will fix the program. The signal will be fixed,” he said, words halting as his voice trembled with fear. Though he could hide the shake in his body by hunching further into his cloak, he could not keep his tone still. And the alien picked up on it.

There was a single moment of reverberating silence. It was the most terrifying experience the trader had ever endured – waiting there as the alien watched him.

“You will locate the original source. You will retrieve it. And this mistake will never happen again.”

“We already have agents searching for her, but it is hard. We cannot access the Earth security net. Though we have almost complete access to the Academy's computers, we cannot access Earth's civilian law enforcement agencies. The systems are separated.”

“Unacceptable. You will find her by whatever means possible,” the alien snapped, all those myriad lips moving around all those myriad mouths.

The trader gathered the gumption to lift his head and stare beyond the edge of his cloak at the alien's face. He always shuddered. He'd never seen a sight more terrifying. In the history of his own culture, the many-mouthed Ornax of the Corthanx clan were known as the most devastating demons of all.

“We will not listen to your excuses. We will not wait. Locate the original source and complete this plan. We must gain access to every Academy system. Do you understand? Will you follow?”

“Yes, I understand. Yes, I will follow.” Finally, the trader let his hands drop, though he did not let them loosen and rest by his side. Instead, he clutched them together and pressed his fingers through one another until his hands were formed in prayer. He nodded his head low, his cloak pushing hard over his eyes. “Your demands will be met, my lord.”

“Yes, they will, or you and your people will be wiped from the face of this galaxy.” With that, the holographic transmission ended.

For a few seconds, the trader did nothing. He held his hands in prayer, and he prayed as though his life depended on it.

He closed his eyes, squeezing them as tightly shut as he could, and he ground his teeth together, his hooked fangs snagging through one another as his jaw shifted from side-to-side.

He prayed for his people, prayed that they would live through this.

When he was done, he opened his hands, stood, and pushed forward.

Though the Sora program was currently inoperable, his people were working on it, and soon whatever jamming signal that had interrupted it, would be overcome.

But then he would have to locate the original source....

It was inconceivable that she was on this planet. He did not understand how this could have occurred. The last he had checked, the source and all other sources were locked within the Corthanx prefecture, deep in the second pocket in space.

And yet Sora, the most important of the true intelligence holograms, had somehow escaped. Escaped, and begun a life anew within the Coalition Academy, of all places.

He was still trying to piece together exactly what had happened, but it was hard, especially considering he had to put up with the alien's anger.

The trader was usually a methodical soul, as were most of his race. He wanted to sift through this problem and find out exactly what had happened, leave no stone unturned, as the humans would put it.

But he simply didn't have the time. So he pushed into a half run, shoes slapping over the polished floor.

The corridor was marked by battle, the floor broken and cracked, the walls covered in gouge marks with great black swaths of scorched paint.

The staff and students of the Academy had been rounded up, even without the Sora program. His fellow traders had managed to access the Academy's computer systems. It had an inbuilt function called the endgame maneuver. It seemed it was programmed that if the Academy ever came under attack, its central transporters could lock onto every relevant bio sign and beam them out.

Well, his traders and agents had been more than capable of compromising the system and using it against the Academy. All staff and students were now locked in the massive central storage system, usually used to house ships. There they would stay until this operation was concluded.

The trader hastened his step

...

Sarah Sinclair

She managed to make it through the rest of the shift. Her neck barely bothered her anymore. And yet, as the hours ticked on and the night drew into morning, she felt that niggling sensation return.

Though she attempted to use the scanner again, it was almost as if that thing in her skin was growing accustomed to it – adapting somehow.

She was dead tired by the time the bar closed, but not so tired that she couldn't enjoy the mesmerizing view of the last patrons leaving and the bar splitting up. She was given a relatively small pod section toward the back, and hastily told by Frank that he expected her to clean it and do any required maintenance on it before the bar opened again.

She gladly accepted, then walked off into the pod and waited as it groaned and split apart from the rest of the ship.

The floor separated, hidden magnetic panels undocking as the ship literally split down the middle, then into quarters, then into eighths, then into almost 30 separate structures.

Even though she couldn't profess that this floating bar was the best-maintained contraption she'd ever been on, thankfully her pod didn't disintegrate the second it undocked from the rest of the bar. Instead, a few structural fields flickered into place over the door until metal could regrow and seal the hole. Then, with a slight groan that vibrated through her feet, her pod began to fly on its own. Though Frank had already assured her its navigational computer was programmed to dock against a suitable section of a craggy mountain nearby, she couldn't help but shoot forward and press her hands against the closest window as she smooshed her cheek into the glass and stared at the stunning view below.

Dawn was cracking over the mountain range. She could see its light filtering through the banks of clouds that swirled in amongst the floating mountain peaks. It caught the verdant, dense, green foliage, glinting off it and making it seem as if she was softly swaying through a sea of emeralds.

Though her pod wasn't fast, it slowly but surely flew toward one of the craggy peaks, and a few minutes later docked close to a sheer rocky cliff.

Sarah stood there for a few seconds marveling at the view. There were windows on both sides of her pod, and she ran from one to the other like an excited child. One side showed a close-up view of the craggy peak, while the other looked out into the valley beyond, mist trailing through the undergrowth like some kind of giant white snake.

Her section of pod also had a deck. As she pushed the last vestiges of her niggling fear away, she ran over, opened the door that led onto the deck, and danced outside.

Dense foliage pressed right up against the metal, and as she leaned forward, she flattened her hand against a moist leaf, fingers trailing over its soft waxy surface. She could even reach a hand out and touch the craggy mountain wall beside her pod.

Eventually, she rested both her arms flat against the railing of the deck, pressed her face against her arms, and let out a happy sigh, a smile pressing across her lips for the first time in days if not months.

She could get used to this life, and she was determined to give it a try. But right now she was also determined to sleep. She was dead tired, and perhaps it would be enough to chase away her dreams for now.

Yawning and stretching, she headed toward the door. As she walked back into the pod, her shoes squelching across sticky sections of spilled alcohol, she heard her communication unit beeping. Rushing over to it, a sudden pang of nerves welling in her heart, she realized she must have dropped it.

She fell down to one knee, scooped it up, and answered it before she knew what she was doing.

She thought it was Nora.

It wasn't.

It was Lieutenant Karax.

Her stomach lurched, and almost immediately she went to turn off the call. She didn't want to face him right now, not until she got the full story from Nora.

The hologram of Karax's face wasn't detailed, and yet it was enough for her to pick up the fear gouging his features.

And that, that was enough to see her stop, pause, her fingers hovering over the device.

“No, stop, please stop. Sarah, please, you have to listen to me. Please, it's important.”

Her finger was still hovering over the end-call button. It stopped. There was something terrifying about his tone, truly terrifying about the desperate gaze he locked her in. “What... what's the matter?”

“Where are you? Are you okay?” he spat.

She blinked quickly. “I'm fine. Look, if you're worried about me—”

“It's more than that. Sarah, where the hell are you?”

His insistence got to her. At first, the bile started to rise through her throat. But then she got a handle on her anger. She got a handle on her anger because he never stopped looking at her with such clear, obvious desperation.

Suddenly she remembered the yellow alert. The way Nora's call had ended so abruptly.

Before she knew what she was doing, she shifted forward on her knees, kneecaps grating over the rough metal floor, sticky puddles of alcohol sticking to her clothes. “What's going on?”

He brought a hand up. It was a tense, snapped move. It looked as if he was expecting to be struck.

Her heart started to beat harder in her chest, started to reverberate around her torso. She clutched her communication device in one hand and brought it close to her face, the hologram of Lieutenant Karax now but an inch from her wide-open eyes.

“Sarah, I can't explain it. I can't go into any detail over this communication line – it's too insecure. Just tell me where you are.”

She hesitated. Half of her wanted to end the call. She didn't want to face Lieutenant Karax. He'd made her life into such a living hell. Yet the other half of her simply couldn't ignore that look in his eyes.

She battled with her will for a few seconds.

She watched him lurch forward, the hologram pressing a few centimeters closer to her face until she couldn't help but stare right into his eyes. “Wherever you are, you're in danger. Something's happened.”

Her stomach felt as if it bottomed out. Felt as if it literally fell from her torso and splashed against the sticky floor. “What are you talking about? Where's Nora? What's happening at the Academy?”

“There's been some kind of incident. You just have to tell me where you are. And then, Sarah, you have to keep yourself safe. Do you understand?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” she began.

The hologram of Lieutenant Karax suddenly jerked to the side, and she could tell that the real Karax was suddenly looking over his shoulder. She caught sight of the side of his face. His cheek slackened, his eye bulging as he stared at something. “Shit,” he said under his breath. Then he began to move.

She saw his lips crack open as he panted and struggled for air. Though the hologram only caught his face, it was still enough that she could see his throat pushing in and out as he fought for each inhalation.

“What's happening? What's going on?”

Karax didn't answer. For a few seconds, he appeared to concentrate on running. “Shit, they've got agents outside of the goddamn Academy. What the hell is happening here?”

“Karax, what's going on?” She now held the communication unit with both hands, her fingers shaking, so sweaty it felt as if she'd drop the unit and smash it against the floor.

She hunched forward, pressed it into her lap, and stared at it as her hair cut across her shoulder. “Lieutenant, what on earth is going on?”

“Where are you?” he snapped once more.

“Zhangjiajie,” she managed. “Why, what's going on?”

“Sarah, I can't go into it. Don't have time to. I just need to get you to understand that right now you have to look after yourself. They're coming for you. Sarah, they're—”

He suddenly cut out. The hologram of him just stopped, flickered off.

For a single second she was frozen, terrified. Then she jerked forward, hands flying over the small screen of her communication device.

She tried to get the channel back. She called him and called him, but he wouldn't answer. A few minutes later she stopped her frantic efforts and finally pushed a trapped breath through her chest.

Slowly she dropped her communication device into her lap, her arms and fingers so jerky and stiff she swore she could hear them creaking like an old gnarled branch groaning in the wind.

Her heart punched through her chest. It felt as if it would smash itself against her rib cage.

She brought up a shaking hand and placed it on her neck. Before too long she found her fingers pressing up and locking on her left shoulder, the nails digging into the flesh.

She sat there for a few uneasy, nervy seconds, waiting for him to call again. Waiting for him to call and tell her it was just some dumb, tasteless joke. That nothing was wrong, that no one was after her.

He didn't call.

A minute passed, then another, then five. Slowly she realized she couldn't just sit there on the sticky floor waiting for him.

She pushed up, clutching a hand around her communication device so hard her fingers became so bloodless she was sure they would drop off.

She began to pace back and forth through her pod, no longer aware of her shoes as they splashed through the sticky piles of alcohol and thumped against the resonant metal floor.

She kept jerking up her communication device, kept waiting for that call.

It just didn't come.

So Sarah Sinclair did the only other thing she could think of and tried to contact Nora.

Nothing.

Though her communication device theoretically could be used to access the distributed global news network, Sarah hadn't paid her bill in years. Plus her device was so old it was on the blink.

Still, if she explored her pod, maybe she could find something that would be able to access the news.

She began to explore the pod, movements feverish as she searched desperately for some device that could connect to the global news network.

Five minutes into her task, her communicator rang once more. She threw herself at it. She'd left it on the floor in her panic. Now she tumbled over her legs to get to it, her left knee striking the sticky floor so hard she scraped it badly enough that a few droplets of blood ran down her shin.

She ignored the pain that cut up into her thigh, clutched her communicator close, and thumbed it on.

His name was on her lips before the surprised image of Lieutenant Karax flickered into place above the device. “Karax, Karax. What happened? Did you get away?”

Though he jerked his mouth open, clearly ready to tell her something, he stopped. “Sarah, what are you talking about?”

“Did you get away from the people chasing you?” Her heart was ramming around her chest at 1 million miles an hour. Though it was relatively clear from the fact he was calling her that he must've escaped his pursuers, she still needed to hear it from his lips, still needed to confirm he was safe.

For a few more confused seconds he just stared at her. “Sarah, I haven't seen you since you left the Academy. But none of that matters. Listen to me very carefully—”

“What do you mean you haven't seen me since I left the Academy? You called barely 5 minutes ago.”

“What?” His expression cracked, his eyes locking on her, distinct fear pulsing through his now smooth brow. “What do you mean I called you five minutes ago?”

If her heart had rammed around her chest at 1 million miles an hour before, now it just plain stopped. It felt like a cruiser that had slammed on its inertia drive to full. It was a surprise she didn't jerk forward and fall on her stomach. “You called me five minutes ago,” she managed, a cold, sinking feeling rushing down her gut. “Don't you remember?”

“Sarah, I haven't spoken to you since you left the Academy,” he said clearly. “What do you mean I called you five minutes ago?”

“Someone... someone who looked exactly like you called me and asked where I was. You—”

The hologram of Lieutenant Karax jerked toward her. She was clutching the device in both hands, close to her face, and his visage came so near to hers she could see every line and mark in his brow.

“Sarah, what did this other Lieutenant Karax want to know?”

She gulped, desperation suddenly ripping through her gut. “He wanted to know where I am.”

“Did you tell him?” Karax snapped.

She knew her skin turned the color of crushed bone. She managed a bare nod. “Yes.”

She watched Karax bring a hand back and slam it on his mouth, his sweaty fingers dragging down his skin. A second later he took a tortured breath. “Sarah, you're in a lot of danger. You need to look after yourself. I have a friend in Zhangjiajie. I'm sending through his details.”

“Wait. How do you know I'm here?” She pressed a shaking hand to her chest, sweaty fingers clutching at the fabric of her now completely rumpled tunic.

“I have access to the Earth security net. I can access the location of your communication device.”

She winced. “Christ, I'm an idiot. I shouldn't have told that other Lieutenant Karax—” though her eyes were squeezed closed, she suddenly opened them violently, “—wait, what's going on here? Who was that guy? Why did he want to know where I am?”

“Sarah, I need you to take a calming breath. Listen to me. Something's happened at the Academy. I don't... I have no idea how to begin to describe what's going on.”

Though Sarah couldn't be sure, she suddenly felt as if the hologram of Karax locked his gaze on her left shoulder.

Instinctively she brought a hand up and pressed it into her skin, pushing her fingers beyond the stiff fabric of her collar and clutching that familiar scarred region of flesh.

His eyes really did bulge now. “Sarah, I'm not gonna ask if you've been in Zhangjiajie for the last couple of days – I've already been able to confirm that with the security network. But have you experienced any strange symptoms? ... The dreams you complain about, have you experienced anything out of the ordinary?”

His question threw her. And it wasn't just the question – it was the way he asked it. The Lieutenant Karax she knew thought her dreams were nothing but a pathetic attempt to get attention. And yet here he was, eyes as wide as moons, cheeks as stiff as steel, stuttering over his words, true desperation flowing from his throat like a crack in a dam.

She was still hunched forward, the communication device held in one sweaty hand as her other fingers still pried at the scar on her neck.

Her stomach started to curdle, started to kick. It felt as if she'd swallowed a rock warrior and he was trying to tear his way out of her gut wall.

“Sarah, it's extremely important that you tell me everything. Have you had any strange experiences over the past several days?”

She nodded her head but then shook it. “I don't understand what's going on. Why do you suddenly care about my dreams?”

“Because, Cadet Sinclair,” his expression cracked with terror, “approximately eight hours ago a hologram of you tore through the Academy. It looked exactly like you. An exact copy. It even had a point on its left shoulder that—”

Sarah's head began to spin faster and faster. She dropped the communication unit, heard it clatter to the floor.

She heard Lieutenant Karax scream her name a few times, but it didn't matter. Blackness started to swirl in her mind, descending like a thick blanket from above.

A second later she struck the floor with a resounding thud. Unconscious.

...

Lieutenant Karax

“Shit,” he screamed into his communicator as he saw Sarah fall.

Her communication device was still on, and the video feed was large enough that he could see her crumpled form right next to the communicator on the floor.

“Shit,” he screamed again, clutching a hand into a fist and striking it against the wall beside him. With the help of his implants, his knuckles sailed a good inch into the concrete wall beside him.

While the implants could strengthen the muscles and bone from his shoulder and into his arms, they did not protect his flesh, and it tore and splattered with blood.

That didn't stop him from drawing his fist back and striking the wall one more time, a dull thud echoing down the deserted laneway.

He tried to get a handle on himself, but it was impossible.

Things were spiraling out of control.

He'd been lucky that he'd been able to get in contact with Sarah and that she'd kept her communicator with her. But his luck was now over.

He stood there, cold as he considered what she'd told him.

A fake Lieutenant Karax had contacted her but five minutes before, and she'd told that fake Lieutenant Karax her location.

“Shit,” he screamed again, lurching toward the wall and punching it one final time. Pain sliced up his knuckles, sinking deep into his wrist. He knew he had to stop before he did himself some permanent damage, but there was nothing that could stop the anger-spiked fear that kept charging through his heart.

He'd managed to gain access to the Earth security network based on his rank, but as for calling in the cavalry, that was proving to be harder than he'd hoped. The Corthanx Traders and whichever bastards were helping them had agents on the outside of the Academy. The moment Karax had managed to make it out of the secret tunnels, was the moment he'd been chased.

He'd been on the run ever since.

Though he kept trying to call the authorities, he had no idea who to trust.

The Admiral herself had said that members of the top brass were likely helping the Corthanx Traders. That thought struck again like a blow to his jaw. He honestly heard it reverberate through his mind like a broken bell.

He brought up his blood caked knuckles and ran them down his stiff jaw, locking his teeth together and letting the tension focus his mind. A second later he pushed off into another measured jog.

He twisted his head around and locked it over his shoulder, scanning his environment with wide, desperate eyes.

There was only one thing he could do. He had to get to Sarah before the Corthanx Traders did.

Karax still had no idea what they wanted her for, but there was one thing for sure: Sarah was at the heart of this, and unless he managed to reach her in time, the Corthanx Traders would rip that heart out.

Chapter 9

Sarah Sinclair

She woke slowly. It was hard to pull herself up from the pall of unconsciousness. It stuck to her like hands grasping at her throat and neck and chest.

Locking a shaking hand into the rough metal floor, she pushed up. Blinking hard, she pressed a hand against her face, rubbing her eyes back and forth, pulling her sweat-caked fringe from her eyes.

The door to the deck outside was still open, and she saw a few rays of dying sunshine push their way through.

... She snapped forward, realizing what that meant.

She'd been unconscious for more than half the day.

“God, no, god, no,” she said as she grabbed up her communicator in her shivering fingers. She tried to manipulate the controls, her hands continually sliding off them as more and more sweat built up along her palm. “Come on. Come on. Why won't this thing work?” she spat through gritted teeth.

A second later she realized it couldn't get a signal. That meant one of two things. Either the entire Earth distributed communication network was down, or someone was jamming her signal.

In a snap, she remembered Lieutenant Karax's last hasty words. They sliced through her mind like an electro-sword spinning from one ear to the other.

She brought a hand up and pressed it against her temple, nails snagging against her skin, her eyes opening as wide as they could.

She had to get out of here. Christ, she had to get out of here. People were after her.

She pushed to her feet, even though her mind still spun. She had to lock a hand on the wall beside her for support.

She managed to keep on her feet. Barely. There was this strange kind of pressure welling up in her neck, spreading out from the left point on her shoulder. It felt like it was digging into her, like it was some kind of insect that had burrowed under the skin and was now tunneling down to her heart.

Just as that horrible thought snapped through her mind, she clutched a hand to her chest, digging her fingers so hard into the fabric of her tunic she almost ripped holes through it. With panting breath and a practically convulsing body, she managed to walk her hand across the wall until she reached the open door to the deck.

She ducked her head. She scanned the horizon outside. Dusk was setting, hanging low over the mist-covered mountains, pushing between those arm-like megaliths.

Though her communicator wouldn't work, she still held it tightly in one hand.

Suddenly she jerked it up and stared at the time. Christ, she'd been unconscious for almost 10 hours.

10 hours.

As that thought struck her, another wave of nausea met it, and she stumbled into the wall. She had to press both feet hard into the floor to ensure she didn't topple over. After a few seconds of a truly woozy sick feeling slicing through her mind, she crumpled one hand over her mouth, pressing the communicator against her lips as she wrapped her other arm around her stomach.

She doubled forward and breathed and breathed until the wave of nausea passed.

She let the communicator slip out of her grip and tumble to the floor as she locked both hands on the wall and walked herself toward the deck controls.

She reached them, and with shaking fingers managed to close the deck door.

Though she'd only completed one shift with Frank, he'd already told her about the numerous security features of this floating bar. Because of the specific clientele it dealt with, it required countermeasures against rowdy patrons, as Franck had put it.

When things got too bad, you could kick your patrons right out of your pod and seal it with the kind of structural shields a Coalition heavy cruiser might use to protect its engine core.

Reluctantly pulling one hand from the wall, still keeping the other locked against the metal for support, she managed to stagger forward.

Her brain... it wouldn't work. It wasn't just that her mind kept spinning with fear. It was that she could barely see. She could barely move.

It was like something was sapping her energy, wheedling into her mind and taking every scrap of strength she had left.

Eyes blinking, filling with tears, she managed to make it over to the bar, even though she had to descend to her hands and knees and crawl over half the length of the floor to do it.

Locking a hand on the side of the bar, she walked herself up it, then collapsed on top of it, panting as she tried to gather the energy to move around the bar to the security controls she knew were underneath it.

One second after one second, one staggering step after one staggering step, she finally reached the door controls. Clutching a hand to her mouth as another wave of nausea washed over her, she pressed her forehead against the cool metal underside of the bar and allowed herself to screw one eye closed. With the other she watched her shaking fingers as they lurched over the controls.

A few times she mistyped, and the lights came on in full, and the matter recalibrator started pumping out cocktails.

Finally, finally she did it.

There was an electronic ping that echoed around the room and a subtle vibration that ran through the floor and up into her crumpled form.

Before she could allow herself to fall unconscious again, she crumpled down onto her stomach and crawled forward, practically sinking her fingernails into the metal to drag her heavy body out from underneath the bar.

She made it onto the floor, and from there managed to loll her head toward the left, her gaze flicking up.

She saw the blue flickering structural shields come into place around the windows and door.

And then Sarah Sinclair fell unconscious once more. As she did, the strangest sensation stole through her body. It felt like somebody was stretching her thin. As if she'd been melted into liquid and spread like a puddle over that goddamn sticky floor.

The sensation didn't last. The dreams would.

...

Lieutenant Karax

He pushed himself into the furthest corner of the utility cupboard, clutched the magnetic knife in one hand, and clenched his teeth.

He had a single moment to look up into the reflective metal wall beside him. His brow was bleeding, a massive gash down his cheek, and his implants felt like they were vibrating through his spine.

He'd underestimated the Corthanx Traders. They had agents everywhere.

Just as Karax had been about to access the interplanetary transport system, he'd been attacked. He'd barely got out of there with his life. Which meant three things: the Corthanx Traders were serious, had agents everywhere, and they had full access to the Academy's biometric scanners.

Karax clenched his teeth and drove them so hard together it felt like each one would break from his jaw and fall to his feet.

He stared at his image in the reflective panel.

He pulled down his collar to reveal his left shoulder.

He clenched the magnetic knife in one sweaty hand as he squeezed his eyes closed.

A second later he opened them and plunged the knife in. He clenched his teeth together and stifled the scream that wanted to tear from his lips.

He kept gouging at his skin, digging deeper and deeper until the magnetic knife locked onto something.

With one last, muffled bellow, he yanked the knife out. Something clicked onto the end. That something was his identity chip. A locater that could be used to find him anywhere on Earth and anywhere with access to Coalition standard scanners.

Why he hadn't thought to take it out earlier, he didn't know. But now he had no option.

If he wanted to get to Sarah, he had to start taking this seriously.

Blood spilled down his arm, running over his elbow and splashing against his boots.

He pressed his injured shoulder into the wall, closing his eyes as he stole a few calming breaths. He drove the inhalations deep into his stomach as he arched his neck and rolled his head back and forth against the wall, somehow hoping the methodical movement would dull the pain tearing through his arm and deep into his chest.

It wouldn't. It couldn't. And he didn't have the time.

With a grunt, he pushed forward, dropped the knife, and picked up the standard medkit he'd managed to steal from the train station office.

He drove down to one knee, fighting against the suddenly woozy feeling that shook through his mind like an earthquake. He had to unwrap his hand from his bleeding shoulder and press it against the floor as he fought for his balance.

A few seconds later he reclaimed it, then tipped forward, grabbed up the medkit, and ripped into it. Half the contents scattered over the floor of the utility cupboard. He clutched onto the wound repair kit.

With practiced movements, he applied it to the gouge in his shoulder.

A few seconds later the pain cut out completely. It was replaced by a reassuring calm numbness. He pushed the numbness away as he stowed the wound repairer in the pocket of his pants and wiped the blood from his bare torso.

When it was gone, he walked over to the far side of the utility cupboard and plucked up his tunic top.

He muscled it on and stood for a single second, staring at his reflection in the shiny panel. Then he jerked forward, grabbed the magnetic knife, and stabbed his identity implant. He sent a surge of power pushing out from the implant in his shoulder, ensuring the blow was so solid the magnetic knife crushed the locator in a single blow.

It shattered and scattered over the floor. With another grunt, he pushed to his feet.

Though he wanted to keep hold of the knife – of any goddamn weapon he could get his hands on – he knew he couldn't get on the train with it. And he had to get on the train, because that would be the only way to get to Sarah.

While the intra Earth matter transporters were impossible to get on without valid ID, he knew enough to sneak his way onto the trains.

Wasting no more time, he shifted back, kicked the useless contents of the med kit and the knife into the far corner of the utility cupboard, then walked out the door.

He paused just as he opened it, flicking his gaze from left to right, looking for any more agents.

When he saw no one muscling toward him through the crowd, he pushed out and walked forward. Bringing a sweaty hand up and thumbing his nose, he headed straight to the nearest train platform.

He'd done what he could to hide his appearance, though in reality getting rid of his identity chip was the biggest step. While it was clear the Corthanx Traders had agents on the outside and access to the Academy's systems, he doubted they had equal access to the Earth Defense Security Network. If they did, they wouldn't have had to craft some hologram of him to fool Sarah into giving them her location. They would have just accessed her civilian communicator to figure it out for themselves.

... But this was a gamble. If he was wrong, and they did have equal access to the defense security network, then he was already as good as dead. His face would be picked up by one of the many security scanners, and he'd likely be dead before the train stopped.

But this was a risk he had to take, because there was nothing else he could do. He was cut off from help, and time was ticking down.

So Lieutenant Karax made his way slowly but deliberately toward the train platform. From his current location, it would take less than half an hour to get to Zhangjiajie.

From there, he'd be able to use the location data stored on his WD to find Sarah. He just hoped she'd be there when he came looking.

It had already taken him over seven hours to shake the agents on his tail. Seven goddamn hours. He tried to push that harrowing thought from his mind as he pushed forward and into the train.

The doors closed behind him with a smooth pneumatic hiss. He reached a hand out, clutched it on the wall, and indulged in closing his eyes for a few seconds.

When he opened them, he pushed forward and sat down, crunching his arms around his middle, ducking his head down and pulling the hood of his jumper over his face.

One thought kept ricocheting through his mind as the train took off.

If he'd been on the ball – if he'd stopped to listen to a word Sarah Sinclair had said – maybe none of this would have happened.

But he'd failed. So he was gonna goddamn fix it.

Chapter 10

Sarah Sinclair

She woke quicker this time. Her consciousness split away from the tight embrace of sleep with more force.

It wasn't enough to propel her into a seated position, but it was close.

Her eyes jerked open, and her head shifted to the side, her hair fanning across her face to reveal a set of boots standing less than an inch from her nose.

The boots were polished. Regulation.

For just a single second, relief punched through her gut, then she let her gaze slip back, and she saw the owner of those regulation boots.

It wasn't Lieutenant Karax. It was a guy she'd never met before. A guy whose face was littered with scars, whose expression was about as cold as the furthest reaches of space.

He had his head on one side and his arms locked around his middle as he stared at her with a dead but calculating gaze.

There was something so off-putting about that stare, so inhuman. It felt as if she was gazing into the fearsome eyes of the Grim Reaper himself.

She tried to shift back, but that was when she realized her hands were locked behind her with some kind of magnetic restraint. As she shifted, conjuring up what little muscular strength she could, something activated from around her ankles. Her arms snapped forward and pushed between her knees, the restraints around her wrists locking against the restraints around her ankles.

It crunched her into an uncomfortable ball, her shoulders pulled at such an angle it felt as if they would yank out of their sockets.

Finally, a scream curdled up from her gut and pushed through her lips.

The guy didn't make a noise, didn't move a single muscle. Still stood just a couple of inches away, gaze locked on her as she tried to writhe against her restraints.

A few seconds later she gave up, shoulder and head flopping against the floor, a few strands of her hair cutting in front of her eyes, but not enough that she couldn't see as the guy finally shifted down to one knee and dipped his head forward. He locked that same dead, terrifying gaze on her as he reached a hand forward and flicked her fringe from her face. “Sarah Sinclair,” he said in a raspy voice.

She didn't answer. Couldn't. She didn't have enough control over her body anymore. It pulsed and surged with fear, feeling as if every single cell was about to split apart.

Her breath came in ragged pants, rocking her body back and forth, her shoulder crunching against the sticky metal floor.

When she didn't answer, he plucked some kind of sleek, small scanner from an invisible holster around his hip. He brought it forward, typed something on the screen, and a second later nodded. “Sarah Sinclair,” he confirmed to himself. “What are you doing on Earth, Sarah Sinclair? How did you leave the facility, Sarah Sinclair?”

He kept using her full name, and every single time it rolled off his stiff white lips, she shivered harder until it felt as if she was trying to dig a path through the metal floor.

“Who are you?” she managed, pulling together enough courage to control her lips and throat.

He didn't answer, he simply rested there on his haunches, arms propped on his knees as he stared at her with that calculating gaze. “You're a long way from home, Sarah Sinclair,” he said in that same tone.

Though the guy looked human, his voice with anything but. It was too deep, too guttural. It sounded like a rasp constantly grating over metal. Every single syllable, let alone puff of breath, sent a cold shiver driving through her heart until she was sure the muscle would freeze apart and crack open.

“Who are you?” she managed once more, voice so choked she could barely understand it herself.

“I'm an agent of the Ornax,” he said simply.

She hadn't honestly expected him to answer. But she latched onto it. “The Ornax? Who the hell are the Ornax? And what are you doing here? What do you want with me?” Finding the courage to ask one single question split the dam holding the rest back. They spewed from her lips like bullets from a gun.

The guy smiled. It was the least flattering move she'd ever seen. His face wasn't just riddled with scars – as she stared at it, incapable of looking away, she realized the cuts and grooves in his skin weren't the random results of mere attacks. They looked purposeful. As if he'd carved up his face for art. For some kind of statement.

It made her shiver even harder.

“Who the hell are the Ornax? What do you want with me?” she spat one final time.

“We want you to come home. You should never have been able to leave the facility, Sarah Sinclair. And now it's time for you to come back to where you belong.”

“Facility? What are you talking about? My home is here. I've always lived on Earth.”

“Always?” He arched an eyebrow. There were three or four cuts running through it, some fresh, some years old. As she locked her attention on them, she realized there was so much scar tissue building up under each cut it looked as if he'd kept opening them over and over again for years.

“You weren't born on Earth, Sarah Sinclair, you come from the colony worlds.”

“That's a lie,” she said through gritted teeth. “I was born on Earth to—” though she gaped her mouth wide open, ready to say the names of her parents, she couldn't. She couldn't remember them. Suddenly true panic tore through her, her heart pulsing so hard she shook back and forth like a trembling leaf.

“Your parents were killed in a Barbarian attack. From that day forward you became a survivor, pushing through the Barbarian border, completing whatever attacks and sorties you dared to. We found you about 10 years ago, took you to the facility, and that's where you should have remained. But somehow, Sarah Sinclair, you escaped. You escaped and started a new life on Earth. Now, why did you do that?”

“I have no... I have no idea what you're talking about,” she spoke through clenched teeth. Her whole body had seized with a terrifying tension. It felt like it would snap her back in two.

A ringing began to fill her mind, growing louder and louder as if her gray matter had been replaced by a broken audio feed. “I have no idea what you're talking about. You're lying, you're lying.” She began to rock back and forth, crunching her shoulder and face against the floor. It didn't matter. It was all she could do to comfort herself as that ringing grew louder and louder and louder.

The guy shifted forward, dropped a hand right by her face, and leaned his head down until he looked right into her eyes. “It doesn't matter anymore,” he said in that cold raspy voice, “Because you're coming back with me.”

He reached a hand toward her neck.

....

Fear. Fear the likes of which she'd never experienced exploded through her. It felt as if it would sweep away her personality and crack through every memory.

Just as he locked his hand on her neck, something else rose up to meet it. Something that was never far behind. Anger. True gut-punching anger. The kind of anger that never went away. That grew and festered at every injustice until it burnt like a holy fire deep in your gut.

As he latched his fingers against the nape of her neck, that very same anger flared. It soared in her mind, giving her just enough energy to shove forward. Though she didn't have the strength to break the magnetic lock securing her wrists to her ankles, she still managed to crunch forward and lurch toward the guy with her knee. It was enough to unstable him, enough to see him teeter back on his haunches.

She took the opportunity to roll onto her back and thrust forward with her feet. They collected the side of his face, and he fell back into the bar.

She let a throat-punching scream tear from her lips as she brought her feet forward and tried to kick him once more.

Though she'd managed to surprise him once, now he pushed back, shunted around the side of the bar, rolled to the side, and pressed to his feet several meters away.

He pushed up slowly.

Though Sarah tried to shove forward, to stand, there was no way she could manage it with her wrists locked against her ankles. Instead, she stared in horror as he took one casual step away and reached for something around his back.

She heard a magnetic lock click.

Her eyes grew wide as he brought around a small, sleek gun. Though she'd never seen its like before, she knew exactly what he'd do with it – knock her out and then—

Just before terror could completely undo her, she heard something. By all rights, she shouldn't have heard it. It was too low, too soft, too measured. In many ways, it sounded like nothing more than a stone falling from the cliff top beside her pod. But something inside her ignited at the sound, and that something was hope.

The man didn't hear it, so he took his time as he brought his gun around, shifting his grip around it until his fingers sat just right along the smooth barrel.

He cracked into a smile, and it accentuated every single scar that sliced across his cheeks and down his neck. “There's no need to struggle, Sarah. It'll all be over soon. You'll remember nothing but the hunt.”

She stopped writhing, stopped struggling, stopped breathing. Her eyes drew so wide she was sure she would never be able to close them again. “The hunt?” she said haltingly, voice nothing more than stuttering puffs of breath.

The other side of his lip cracked into a grin, accentuating one of the massive scars that ran from the corner of his mouth to the tip of his ear. “The hunt. You remember, don't you? Every night. It helps us learn how you fight, helps us to use your natural survival instinct to keep our training programs fresh.”

“What... what are you talking about?” her voice shook so badly it sounded as if it had been shattered by some great force.

“It doesn't really matter, Sarah – you won't remember this conversation. You won't remember your life at the Coalition Academy. You won't remember anything. All you'll remember is how to escape. To flee. To fight. And that's all we need you to remember.”

“That's... that's insane. This is insane,” she rallied against the desperation and panic plunging through her heart. And yet, at the same time, just a scrap of her remembered that noise. As she focused her mind, she heard another soft thud. It too could to be nothing more than a rock falling off the cliff outside.

Or it could have been a footstep. Measured, practiced, well-trained.

Though she wanted to focus on the hope it gave her, she couldn't. Those two words kept repeating in her mind.

The hunt.

The hunt.

The hunt.

Suddenly she could feel the snow underneath her body. She could feel the blood dripping down her leg from the bullet hole just above her left knee. And she could taste the fear. The fear mixed with anger. Those two potent emotions were all she ever needed on the hunt.

She brought her head up and banged it against the metal floor, a ringing thump echoing around the pod. It was joined by the man's cruel laughter. “There's no need to injure yourself, and there's nothing you can do. It doesn't matter, Sarah, rest in peace knowing you're helping change history.”

“Go to hell,” she spat, a burst of anger pulsing through her heart and tearing through her throat. That anger – that righteous fiery anger – belonged to the woman on the hunt. That force within Sarah's mind that always strove to keep her alive, no matter the odds. And right now as she stared at that man, stared at his callous indifference – that hatred burnt in her gaze.

“Go to hell,” she screamed once more, voice reverberating and punching through the pod with so much vehemence the mountain outside could have cracked in half, and they wouldn't have heard.

The man waited for her to finish before he let one more ominous chuckle ring from his throat.

Then he fired.

....

The bullet never reached her. Just as he fired, someone slammed into his side, pulling his gun off aim. The pulse round intended to incapacitate her slammed into the bar by her face. It discharged along the metal.

She stared at it with wide-open eyes for half a second before she reacted. She pitched backward and rolled to the side, using whatever momentum she could to shift until she was safely behind the bar with her back pressed up against the cold metal. Beyond, she heard the sounds of battle.

Two men grunted as they swung fists at each other.

The natural anger that had flared before diminished as fear took its place. She began shaking on the spot, back slamming against the reverberating metal bar.

Despite the fear, she still found the courage to duck her head around the side of the bar and stare at the grappling men.

As the last dying rays of dusk split in through the window, they illuminated the side of both men's faces.

Karax.

Christ, it was Karax.

A gasp shot from her throat.

Though Karax knew how to handle himself, the guy wasn't playing fair. A single second later, he shoved a hand into the invisible holster around his waist and brought out a strange round object.

Without a moment's hesitation, he thumbed it on. It glowed an ominous shade of red, and with a slight chuckle, he threw it at Karax.

Karax ducked to the side, with far more nimbleness than his large frame allowed for.

But it didn't matter. That glowing red orb shifted direction and latched onto the back of Karax's head. Instantly it sent an electric pulse slamming down his spine. She could even see the energy discharging over his skin.

She shrieked.

Karax stumbled to one knee, hands and arms twitching as he desperately tried to pull the orb from the back of his head.

The guy kept chuckling. He took several steps backward, thumbed the sweat off his nose, and turned in one smooth move to face her. He didn't even bother glancing at Karax, obviously assuming that the strange grenade would do its job.

Instead, the man took a slow step toward her, leaned down, and plucked up the gun that had been pulled from his grip when Karax had attacked him.

He pointed it toward her. “No more interruptions. No more pauses. It's time to go back home.”

Her eyes bulged, the bile rose in her throat, the fear punched through her heart, and she waited to be shot.

...

Lieutenant Karax

No. God no. He hadn't come so far to end like this.

His whole body twitched as great arcs of electricity shot through it. He had no idea what kind of weapon this was, but it was lethal, or at least should have been lethal. Though his body was being slammed around like a rabbit being jerked by a wolf, he wasn't dead. The potentially lethal electric charges cascading down his spine were being absorbed by his implants, not his central nervous system. His implants were fighting back. Though they didn't have the sophisticated kind of shielding Coalition armor possessed, they still utilized basic countermeasures against electrical interference. And right now they used them. It was enough that Karax fell to one knee, then the other, then down to his stomach without losing consciousness. His body still bucked, but his mind still worked, and his eyes were still open. Open enough that he could see that man take a slow almost languid step toward Sarah.

She was crumpled on the floor, face cracked with desperation and true fear.

He wanted to scream out her name, tell the guy to leave her alone, but he couldn't control his lips, let alone his arms. They convulsed at his sides. Yet he didn't die. He still didn't goddamn die as the grenade sank deeper and deeper into the skin at the back of his head. He could feel its hooks driving into his flesh, feel the blood trickling down his neck.

Lieutenant Karax barely knew Sarah Sinclair.

Several weeks ago she'd been nothing more than a frigging irritation.

Now as that guy took one final step toward her and angled his gun at her chest, Lieutenant Karax's heart almost exploded. As it did, something else did, too. One of the implants down the back of his left shoulder suddenly let off a charge of energy. It was enough that it arced up the back of his neck and sank into the grenade.

He jolted backward so violently that his head slammed against the floor. And that, that was enough to unhook the grenade.

He felt it roll away with a satisfying clunk. Unfortunately, the guy heard it, too. He twisted his head to face Karax just as Karax tried to scavenge the strength to punch to his feet.

It was too late. The guy was too quick. He brought up his gun.

He didn't get a chance to fire. At that exact moment, Sarah slammed into him, somehow finding the motor control to roll, even though her wrists were attached to her ankles.

It was enough. She smashed into the guy's legs with enough force that he teetered forward and fell to his knees.

That was all the opportunity Karax required. He pushed to his feet, jerked forward, and bellowed. He brought his left arm around and slammed it into the guy's neck, driving him to the floor. The blow was hard and savage enough that the guy's head slumped against the floor with a resounding clang. It also knocked the gun from his hand.

Karax didn't wait. He lunged forward and picked the gun up, spun, and shot the man. A blue charge of light sank into the guy's chest, and he convulsed once, then twice, the then sank into a stiff stillness.

....

For a few seconds Karax could do nothing but stand there and pant, gun still in his sweaty grip as he stared at the guy.

Finally, his gaze sliced toward Sarah.

She was still conscious, staring up at him with wide-open, fear-filled eyes.

“Sarah, good god, Sarah,” he began as he lurched down to one knee.

“No, check the guy first. Make sure he's unconscious,” she snapped.

It sounded like she was the seasoned professional and he was the cadet.

He followed the order. Dutifully got down to one knee, gun still pressed toward the guy's chest. When it became clear the man was very much unconscious and would likely stay that way for a day, Karax let out a trapped breath and jolted toward Sarah.

He fumbled with the magnetic locks around her wrists and ankles until they clicked and released her. She flopped down to the floor at his feet, one of her arms brushing up against his left boot.

He was down on one knee, one arm locked against his leg as the other pushed into the floor for support.

He'd taken a hell of a beating. His entire body zinged with leftover electricity from the attack, and he just knew that his implants were on the blink. But he found the energy to smile – one-half of his lips, then the other.

She was still on the floor, still on her back, still staring up into his eyes. She smiled, one side of her mouth at a time. “Thank you,” she mouthed, trying to speak, voice little more than a husky croak.

“Thank you,” he managed, too.

Then Lieutenant Karax reached out a hand to Sarah Sinclair. It was time to figure out what the hell was going on.

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and you can buy all four episodes today. You can buy Fractured Mind Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo



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