Ouroboros Episode One

Ouroboros Episode One



Chapter 1

Cadet Nida Harper

The planet around her was dead. Not a single thing remained alive. There were no trees, no plants, no life. Just the cold colors of rock, stone, and metal.

Nida took a step forward, forcing a deep and reassuring breath as she did.

The rest of the team was behind her somewhere, and she indulged in a moment of solitude.

She stared up at the horizon. Dusk was settling in, and with it, a stunning array of colors lit up the sky. There were a few scant clouds scooting through the oncoming darkness, and their undersides lit up with vibrant oranges, purples, and golds.

Beyond the clouds, the first few stars were blinking on, like lights in a darkened city.

It was beautiful, especially when you considered how different it was to the stark, cold view of the planet around her.

This was one of her first missions away from the Academy, and she hadn’t expected it to be so… confronting.

She could see the outlines of buildings in the dusty valley below her, hints at what this planet had been long in the past.

Apparently, a great civilization had once inhabited this world, and now all that remained was the dust, rock, and rubble.

Sighing at how sad it was, Nida soon shook her head and realized she had to get back to work.

Pushing off, her regulation black boots kicked through the dust until she made it down the short incline in front of her.

“Hey, Nida,” someone called from behind.

It was J’Etem, her good friend. The young woman was not human and was rather from an alien race known as the Barkanas. She had lustrous golden hair flecked with flashes of orange and red, like flame licking through a field of summer hay.

“What are you doing so far from the group?” J’Etem asked with a semi-cross look crumpling her smooth brow. She had perfectly even and shiny skin. Not a mark, not a wrinkle, nothing but silky black flesh.

Nida made a face and quickly looked behind her, checking to see whether she was about to get in trouble again. “Is the commander around here? Did he tell you to come get me?”

J’Etem shook her head. “Nope, I just saw you wandering off and figured it was a good idea to come and get you before you get in even more trouble than usual.”

Nida gave a small laugh, then nodded at J’Etem before turning to follow her back to the rest of the group.

“Isn’t this planet fascinating?” J’Etem pointed out after she gulped in an excited breath. “I mean, how cool is it that we’re getting the chance to go on an actual mission? With Carson Blake, of all people,” she added in what could only be called a squeak.

Nida had to laugh at that. She already knew J’Etem was a major fan of Lieutenant Blake. Because, seriously, who wasn’t? He was a living legend at the Academy, and every cadet, man or woman or somewhere in between, loved the guy to bits.

“It’s cool,” Nida managed after a lengthy pause.

“Come on, I think you can muster a bit more excitement than that. The Academy is finally trusting us with a bit of responsibility. And considering your track record, that’s a really good sign,” J’Etem added subtly.

Nida had to laugh; J’Etem was totally right. Nida had one of the worst records of anyone in her class. She was barely scraping by. But she stuck with it. Though she could have quit the Galactic Coalition Academy many times, she found herself coming back every year.

Soon she would graduate, then a lifetime of missions in space would welcome her.

….

Which was what she wanted, right? It’s what everyone at the Academy wanted. They all worked toward the same goal: space exploration, and the honor of forming the group of men and women that kept this galaxy safe.

“You’re doing it again,” J’Etem announced as she offered Nida a pointed sigh.

“What?” Nida looked up sharply.

“Thinking. You always get that look of profound consternation on your face when you are deep in thought, and I have to say, it reminds me of a Nagar toad about to squirt poison on you.”

Nida laughed. It felt good, but even that couldn’t chase away the melancholy that had descended over her.

With a quick move, she looked over her shoulder again at the view. Specifically, the small ridges and bumps that hinted at the remains of some building destroyed long ago.

This planet had once been thriving with people – with real, live things – and now it was nothing more than a testament to destruction and death.

Okay, so it had sat desolate for over 2000 years according to archaeological reports, but that didn’t matter. It felt wrong to come here and dig up the place looking for its secrets without mustering just a little respect for its previous inhabitants, no matter how long ago they’d existed.

“What’s the matter?” J’Etem asked again, pressing her perfectly plush, purple lips together as she gave Nida a knowing look.

“Just… thinking about the people that once lived here,” Nida answered truthfully as she gestured to the planet with a sweep of her arm.

“What’s there to think about? Nothing but the occasional blob of bacteria has inhabited this world for the past 2000 years. All that remains now is dust and a couple of old buildings. I’ll grant you, some of the archaeology is interesting, and Blake clearly thinks this planet is important for some reason. But apart from that, this place is nothing more than dust and stone.”

Nida offered her friend a smile and remained silent.

Then they both made it back to the main group, and Nida carefully walked over to a deserted corner, trying to pretend she’d always been there when a few people glanced her way.

“Don’t make me go find you again,” J’Etem whispered under her breath as she strode past.

Nida nodded, then leaned down on her haunches.

She didn’t have much to do, to be honest. Both her and J’Etem were only here as observers. Neither of them were out of the Academy, and they certainly couldn’t be trusted with any real work. Okay, J’Etem could – she had fantastic scores when it came to xenobiology and the study of alien civilizations. Nida, on the other hand, didn’t. In fact, she was only here because J’Etem had somehow managed to convince the commander to bring her along.

Just sit tight and don’t get in trouble, Nida thought to herself as she brushed her fingers through the dust.

She wasn’t wearing armor or an environmental suit; she was merely dressed in the usual garb of a Galactic Coalition Academy recruit. A standard black and blue uniform with absolutely zero pips on her collar, because she had no rank, and considering her lackluster abilities, would likely never get one.

Dragging her fingers through the dust, Nida enjoyed the distinct feeling of it tracking over her skin. It scratched and played at the edges of her fingernails.

Looking up, she glanced at the rest of the team. Everyone seemed locked in some important task, their collective expression one of concentrated work. And yet here she was, actually playing in the dirt like a three-year-old.

Scrunching her lips together and feeling perfectly silly, she stood up, turned her head to the sky, and stared at the clouds pressing in from the horizon. Dusk was beautiful. The colors were so vibrant and exquisite. It was such a contrast to the dull gunmetal gray and black of the planet. It was almost as if all the life of this place had drifted up into the sky.

With that philosophical thought ringing in her mind, she turned to stare behind her.

There was a large broken-down building there, and it stretched for almost 200 meters on one side. It had a low, flat roof, and several large, sweeping sets of stairs leading up to it.

A small, flat path ran around the outside of the building, and even in the dwindling light of dusk, she could make out five people standing on it.

She recognized all of them. Every cadet at the Academy would. Hell, most citizens of the United Galactic Coalition would too.

Lieutenant Blake and his incredible team.

They were called the Force, and they were always sent on the most important and dangerous missions.

And, for some reason, they’d been sent down to this planet. Though Nida wasn’t ranked high enough to know the details, she could imagine it was fabulously important. Otherwise, it wouldn’t demand the attention of Blake and his Force.

She stared at them as they stood there, their bodies stiff with concentration as they listened to Blake.

He was resting with his back against a broken statue, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He was too far away for her to see his expression, but she could bet it was one of disciplined concentration.

The other four members of the group were Piya, Travis, Sa’oq, and Bor. All the best in their respective professions.

They were the top of the top. The absolute cream of the Academy. When they weren’t running off saving the galaxy, they occasionally popped in for guest lectures, or to assess the up and coming recruits to see if any were worthy enough for entry into the Force.

Nida, needless to say, would never get a tap on her shoulder and an invite into that selective group. She was way more likely to get a smack on the back and a swift kick in the butt instead.

Pursing her lips together and breathing through them, she turned on the spot again, surveying the whole scene before her.

The other ten or so members of the mission to this planet were all dotted around, doing their respective tasks, all against the backdrop of these incredible ruins.

With dusk coming down, the shadows that had built up along the building and under the stairs of this ruined compound deepened.

Though it wasn’t cold, Nida found herself shivering.

She wanted to be back on the ship. Though ostensibly it was exciting to be on a real mission, she felt a little like she was walking across someone’s grave. Who cared if no one had inhabited this planet for 2000 years? It still felt wrong to walk all over these ruins without a hint of compassion or respect.

Just as Nida looked around for a place to sit, a man cleared his throat gruffly behind her.

She turned to see none other than Commander Sharpe.

An enormous man of half human and half Yara build, he was like a brick wall on legs. He also had a particularly stony expression to match. “Cadet,” he said, the word sounding exactly like a shot from a gun, “what are you doing?”

“Ah,” she swallowed hard, “I haven’t been assigned a task yet,” she managed.

Sharpe’s eyes narrowed, and he regarded her with a look that could melt steel. “This is an important mission, and you need to treat it like one,” he began.

She nodded, for some reason bothering to throw in a salute, even though it was completely unnecessary.

Sharpe rolled his eyes. “Don’t just sit there,” he said, breathing through his teeth.

“Yes sir,” she snapped. Then she shuffled her feet slightly. “Um, should I go back to the shuttle?”

Sharpe grumbled under his breath.

This was not the first time Nida had come to the unwanted attention of Sharpe. In fact, he was the bane of her existence. He threatened her every other day with expulsion from the Academy for being the worst recruit in 1000 years. So he was fully aware that not only was this her first mission, she really didn’t have the skills to be here; hence, she was standing around and staring at the sky.

“Look, take this,” he handed her one of the spare scanners from his belt, “and do a mineralogical survey of the ground,” he suggested.

She took the scanner silently and didn’t point out that there was no point in doing a mineralogical survey, as it had already been done.

“Just stick to where I can see you,” he added harshly. “And even if you aren’t doing anything useful, for god’s sake, look busy. The Force is here, and you could at least try to pretend you’ve earned the honor of being here with them.”

She didn’t react to that cutting remark. Instead, she nodded, adding another needless salute.

Rolling his eyes, Sharpe walked away, muttering something under his breath that sounded exactly like “worst damn recruit in a thousand years.”

Nida desperately wanted to point out that the Galactic Coalition Academy had only been running for the past 450 years, but she didn’t. Instead, she bit her tongue, turned on her foot, and picked a random direction. Then she turned the scanner on and wandered off.

She had no idea how long this mission was meant to last. Presumably until the Force had done whatever they were meant to do. But Nida really didn’t like the idea of spending the next several hours walking over the same section of dust, scanning it for no other reason than to appear busy.

As dusk settled darker around her, she found herself walking further away from the compound.

She reasoned that if she’d been tasked with a mineralogical survey, she might as well do a thorough job, and the geology seemed to be different the further away she walked from that ring of ruined buildings.

Once she was safely out of earshot of everyone else, she began humming to herself.

She liked it when she was alone. There was no one to point out she was a failure. Plus, she could explore space the way she felt it ought to be explored. By taking the time to stare up at the stars above and to revel in their mystery and beauty. In fact, it was when she was doing just that, that she tripped over something.

Her head was turned up to the heavens as she walked along, the scanner held steadily in her hand, but when her boot snagged on some rough piece of stone, the scanner went flying and so did she.

Her body slammed against the uneven and dusty ground, her chest smacking into a rock that pushed the wind from her lungs.

“Ow,” she managed after a short pause.

Then she scrambled to her feet to seek out the scanner. Usually, they were hardy, but Nida was a particularly unlucky soul and seemed to have a talent for breaking everything.

And Sharpe would be seriously unhappy if she came back with a shattered scanner. As he kept on telling her, a good cadet looked after their equipment.

She pushed herself up, then she stopped.

She could see the scanner. It was several meters in front of her, down a set of dark stairs that led into a room sunk low underneath the earth.

“What the hell?” she breathed wildly. “Where did that come from?” she pushed back on her knees, getting to her feet.

Her heart pounded in her chest, the powerful thump of it reverberating through her clenched teeth.

She had already wandered around this compound, and she hadn’t come across this set of stairs before.

How had she missed it? Had she been so busy staring at the sky that an enormous, gaping hole in the ground had failed to grab her attention?

Scrunching her bottom lip in and biting it earnestly, she turned over her shoulder to see if anyone was in earshot.

They weren’t. In fact, she couldn’t even see the rest of the group.

They were hidden by a slight rise in the ground.

Damn, she thought bitterly. Sharpe had told her specifically not to walk out of sight, and here she was, completely hidden from the compound and the rest of her team.

“Right, just go get the scanner, then get back to the group,” she told herself firmly.

Then she could return triumphant to Sharpe, and let him know she’d found… a random set of stairs that hadn’t appeared on the scans the ship had done from space.

Her gut twisted with fear.

Before the team had come down to the planet, they’d all been forced to attend a briefing. In it, Lieutenant Blake and Commander Sharpe had explained what they were all to do. They’d also shown everyone an in-depth interactive hologram based on a blueprint of the ruins.

This set of stairs hadn’t appeared in that hologram, she was sure of it.

“Right,” she managed, taking a deep breath.

So this was good, yeah? She’d just found something no one else had. Something that had somehow failed to appear on the numerous scans that had been done of this planet.

Sharpe would be proud of her discovery. Perhaps it would even raise his estimation of her.

….

Yeah right. As if that would ever happen.

“Get the scanner, stop stalling,” she told herself firmly.

With a deep breath, she stepped forward, her black, standard-issue boots reaching the first step.

It was firm, like all steps, and felt like stone under her tread. And that was it. It didn’t turn into a monster and consume her whole, and neither did it disappear as it was replaced by a seething spatial anomaly.

Because it was just a normal frigging step, and there was nothing to be worried about.

“Come on, get over it,” she commanded herself.

Sighing, she walked down the stairs.

The scanner had fallen a fair way down, and she had to travel quite far into the shadow of the stairwell until she leaned down to pick it up.

Her breath was shallow, and she couldn’t seem to force enough air through her dry throat.

Her heart kept pounding dramatically too.

She held onto the scanner with a firm, almost terrified grip, then she turned sharply on her foot to race back up the stairs.

A part of her was objective enough to realize she was being seriously pathetic here. For Christ’s sake, she was on an alien planet, granted, but one that had no life, no secret weapons, and no malevolent mercenaries – in fact, it had nothing more dangerous than a few treacherous holes that could trip you up. And yet the prospect of descending a set of darkened stairs had her adrenaline pumping as if she were about to dive into the sun.

She tried to roll her eyes at her own pathetic lameness.

Suddenly, she stopped.

She felt something.

A vibration.

Slight, and coming from behind her.

Her scanner started to beep dramatically.

She frowned, glancing down at it.

It was registering some kind of energy source.

Which was impossible; there were no energy sources on this planet. It had already been scanned multiple times, and no one had ever come across anything more powerful than a particularly mighty piece of dust.

Yet as the scanner beeped, she couldn’t deny her eyes.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “Time to go tell Sharpe what you’ve found.”

She took another step up the stairs.

Hesitating, she stopped.

She turned over her shoulder to look back down the darkened stairwell and into the tunnel below.

She’d been instructed to do a mineralogical survey, but she knew Sharpe just wanted to keep her occupied, or at least the appearance of occupied, so the Force didn’t question why he’d brought along such a soppy and hopeless cadet.

Sharpe thought she was more than useless, and he expected her to come back with nothing worthwhile.

….

So what would he do if she returned with some incredibly valuable information?

What if she found something really important in this tunnel?

That would shut the belligerent Commander up.

So what was the harm in going and investigating this tunnel herself?

If she found anything, she could really use the brownie points.

As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she shook her head resolutely.

No.

It wasn’t safe.

With that, she ascended the stairs.

Dusk had settled even darker around her by the time she emerged.

With a sigh and one final glance over her shoulder at the stairwell, she made her way quickly back to Sharpe.

When she reached him, he was locked in what looked like a seriously important conversation with none other than Blake.

“There’s something more on this planet, I’m sure of it. I don’t think we should leave yet,” Blake said quietly.

Sharpe was about to say something, then he looked up to see Nida loitering around behind them. “Yes, Cadet? Is there any reason you’re eavesdropping?”

Nida knew her face blushed bright red at the allegation, and she even sucked in a startled breath. “Um, what? No,” she answered ineloquently.

“Then what is it?” Sharpe snapped.

“Um, I found something,” she managed, wondering how to explain her story in a way that didn’t sound dumb.

Sharpe sighed heavily. “Leave it to the report.” He turned back to Blake, shooing her away with a sweep of his hand as he did.

She didn’t move off. Instead, she gritted her teeth. “Ah, sir, I found something you should probably see,” she managed again.

“I don’t care about the mineralogical survey; it can wait,” Sharpe snapped again. “Now go away, Cadet.”

She knew she should leave before he gave her a reprimand for ignoring an order, but she stood her ground nevertheless. “I found a set of stairs that lead to a kind of tunnel under the ground. They aren’t on the blueprint we got from the ship,” she forced her words out in a string of nervous mumbles.

Sharpe turned his attention back to her, and this time Blake glanced her way as well. He narrowed his startling violet eyes. “Sorry, what?” he questioned quickly, straightening up as he did.

“Ah, over there,” she pointed randomly over her shoulder. “Or was it over there?” she put more thought into it, turned around, and surveyed the rapidly darkening compound to figure out where the stairs lay.

“Where?” Sharpe asked angrily.

“Oh, ah,” Nida surveyed the compound, looking for a landmark or anything that could help her get her bearings.

“Just use your scanner, Cadet,” Sharpe hissed.

“Oh yes,” she mumbled quickly.

She was flustered.

Really flustered.

And for some damn reason, she couldn’t use the scanner. After several mortified seconds of trying, she looked up at Sharpe and shrugged. “Um….”

“Give it here,” Sharpe snatched it off her. Then he poked at the thing. Slowly he turned it over and realized there was a long crack up one side. “What have you done to this?”

Oh damn, she really had broken it. God, she was the unluckiest girl in the universe.

“Oh, that, I fell over, and the scanner tumbled down the stairs. That’s how I found them – the stairs,” she added meekly.

Sharpe sighed.

“Sir,” Blake said, proffering a hand to Sharpe for the scanner.

Sharpe handed it to him while shooting Nida a withering look.

“Let’s have a look here,” Blake muttered as he typed something quickly. Then he pulled the operating chip out of the back, stared at it with a frown, and shot her a quick glance. “It just fell down the stairs? Are you sure? It looks like it’s been landed on by a cruiser.”

Nida pressed her lips together to stop herself from saying something stupid.

“I think I can still…” Blake trailed off, clear concentration crumpling his brow. Seconds later, he grinned. “Alright, got it. Thanks, Cadet,” he nodded her way affably, then headed off through the dark compound, Sharpe at his side.

Sharpe shot her another disdainful look but didn’t say anything as he marched off.

Which just left Nida alone. So much for the stairs winning her brownie points. Now she would have to explain broken equipment to Sharpe… again.

Damn, everything she touched turned to dust.

With a truly rattling sigh, Nida wandered back into the compound.

She intended to find a nice flat rock to sit on. Sharpe would no doubt shout at her for being lazy when he returned from the mystery stairwell, but she was already in trouble, so Nida didn’t really care if she added another nail to her coffin, as old humans would say.

Just as she sat down, she saw the unwelcome sight of Sharpe marching up to her.

She jumped to her feet, stumbling awkwardly as she did.

“Cadet,” he spat, “you really screwed up that scanner. It’s given us messed up coordinates.”

Damn it. “Sir,” she winced, “um, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, yet,” he added ominously, “just come and help us find those stairs.”

Nida scurried forward, Sharpe striding along at her side.

Soon they both reached Blake. He was standing there, frowning down at the scanner. “I thought these things were meant to be tougher than this,” he muttered as he hit the bottom of the scanner with the base of his palm.

“Alright, find the stairs, and you better not be mistaken about this,” Sharpe added under his breath.

Dread coiled up her spine, and Nida grimaced into the darkness. It would just be her luck if the stairwell had disappeared as quickly as it had formed. Sharpe would kill her for wasting his and precious Lieutenant Blake’s time.

She ran forward, twisting her head this way and that as she looked for any sign of a familiar landform.

Just as genuine worry sliced through her belly, she saw it.

A familiar lip of shadow.

“There it is,” she breathed through her monumental relief. “Just over here,” she added in a far stronger tone.

She led the two men forward to the dark opening of the stairwell.

“What the hell?” Blake peered down into it, checking his own scanner as he did. “This was most definitely not on the blueprints.”

“There’s an energy reading too,” Nida remembered, bringing a finger up as she pointed it out, almost as if she was an excited child reciting some recently learned fact.

“What?” Blake snapped his head around. “I’m not picking up an energy source.”

“Cadet Nida is likely mistaken,” Sharpe insisted at once.

She hadn’t been mistaken about the stairwell, though, had she? She wanted to point out. Instead, she bit her tongue and peered past Blake at the dark shadow in the ground.

Her stomach twisted as a kick of fear passed through her.

There was something… not right about that tunnel.

“Alright, let’s go,” Blake waved them forward.

“Shouldn’t we wait for the rest of your team?” Sharpe asked.

Sharpe was a commander, and Blake was a lieutenant, Sharpe very much outranked the guy. And yet, like almost everyone else at the Academy, Sharpe held this sense of awe for Blake that meant the lieutenant was treated like a freaking admiral.

“We’ll just do an initial check.” Blake shrugged his shoulders. “The scans suggest everything is fine.”

“Alright,” Sharpe agreed. “Cadet, go back to the compound,” he added as he turned from her and headed down the first few steps.

“Yes, sir,” she managed easily.

Though she’d found the stairs, she really didn’t mind being told to head back to the compound.

While she was technically meant to be an explorer, she didn’t want to explore that dark shadow in the ground.

“Hold on,” Blake put a hand out in a stopping motion.

A spike of fear rushed through her as she worried whether he was about to suggest she come along with the two of them anyway.

He didn’t. Instead, he handed her his scanner. “It’s getting pretty dark out there, and considering yours is broken, you’re going to need something to see by,” he held it there until she took it from him.

She offered a stuttered thank you, then he nodded, gestured toward the tunnel, and walked off with Sharpe at his side.

She stood there for several seconds, watching the both of them descend into the shadows. Though Sharpe turned on the light source in his scanner, and the little device threw out powerful illumination, it didn’t feel as if it could do much to the darkness. It was so damn cold and black down there.

Nida gave a sudden shudder as they both walked out of sight.

Then she realized how dark it was out here, and fumbled with Blake’s own scanner until she managed to get the light source working.

Turning your scanner’s light on was a basic lesson at the Academy, and happened somewhere around the first day, and yet she had to try hard to remember how to make the little device work properly.

She really was the worst cadet in 1000 years, she realized as she slowly turned and made her way back to the compound.

She didn’t make it.

As she walked along, once again she stared at the beautiful night sky above. There was absolutely no light pollution on this planet, so the starscape had nothing to compete with, and shone with astounding brilliance.

She could even pick up the colorful swathes of constellations and gas clouds. She took several steps as she stared above, and once again tripped over something.

This time she went flying, and she didn’t hit the ground.

She tumbled down an incline instead.

Her body beat against something that felt suspiciously like steps, and she rolled down and down until her back thumped hard against a cold and unyielding floor.

She lay there and gasped for several seconds, feeling pain ripping through her body.

Yet after she sucked in several calming breaths, she realized she was still alive. With an enormous groan, she tried to sit up, and she promptly checked herself for broken bones as she did.

Everything seemed to be okay. Yes, she was in a great deal of agony, but she couldn’t find any puncture wounds, and she seemed to be able to move all of her muscles satisfactorily.

She groaned again as she realized she’d let go of the scanner.

In fact, she couldn’t see it anymore.

Because she couldn’t see anything. Wherever she was, it was completely dark down here. There was barely enough light to make out the shape of the stairs directly to her left.

Stairs.

Hold on, seriously? Had she just found another set of random steps?

Before she could realize what a stupid coincidence that was, she began crawling around on the floor, searching for the scanner.

Clearly, it had tumbled from her grip as she’d fallen, and somehow it had turned off its light in the process.

That or it was broken.

….

Knowing her luck, it was most definitely broken.

Great. She had just stuffed up Carson Blake’s own personal scanner.

Crawling around, she searched and searched, but she couldn’t find it.

She sat back on her haunches, swearing as she did.

Then she turned her head, angling to what she thought were the stairs.

After her fall, she’d lost her sense of orientation, and she realized with a pang of fear, she didn’t know which direction up was.

So she crawled until her fingers finally brushed against the reassuring incline of a step.

She began to pull herself up. Though she could stumble to her feet to stand, knowing her luck, she would trip and fall back down on her ass again.

With every step she clambered up on her hands and knees, she realized just how much her side hurt. It was hard to breathe, and with a groan, she realized she’d probably bruised her ribs.

Fantastic.

She was never going to be allowed to go on a mission ever again. She’d broken two scanners and herself.

Sharpe was going to go mental.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe she could pretend she accidentally lost Blake’s scanner, and she could lie about the fact she’d fallen down another set of stairs, pretending she’d bruised her ribs by just… breathing too hard.

At that completely stupid thought, she let out a little pitiful laugh.

Then she realized how damn dark it was down here, and a new flurry of fear escaped over her back, chilling the skin as it went.

Crawling faster, she finally reached the top of the stairs.

But she didn’t reach the world outside.

The beautiful starscape didn’t sparkle down to greet her.

Instead, the looming shape of a room did.

One that was lit softly by a faint, blue glow.

Oh dear.

The fall had disoriented her, and somehow she’d climbed up the wrong set of stairs.

Clearly, the tunnel she’d tumbled into had more than one set of steps leading up.

Great. Now she had to climb down again and head up the other set of stairs, still in the dark, and still on her hands and knees.

Before she turned and headed back down, she slowly surveyed the room.

There weren’t meant to be any energy sources on this planet, she remembered, but whatever was making that blue glow clearly wasn’t natural.

She narrowed her eyes and tried to figure out what it was.

Some kind of statue.

She could make out the shape of a body, carved out of stone, on the far wall.

The room was completely empty apart from that statue and several dark, shadowy recesses that suggested other stairwells leading down into more dark and treacherous tunnels.

She gulped.

“Turn around, head down the stairs, and get back to the group,” she said aloud, flinching as the sound of her voice reverberated around the empty room.

The architecture down here was completely different to the compound above ground, quite possibly because this room was not ruined.

And now that she could see the smooth walls and the delicate lines of the statue, she appreciated what this planet must have once looked like.

It was a beautiful sight, mesmerizing even.

Yes, that’s the right word, mesmerizing.

Before she could stop herself, she took several steps forward, and then another, and then another. She ignored the pain stabbing through her ribcage, and strode confidently toward that statue.

It was as if the thing was reeling her in.

The closer she got, the more astounded she was by its beauty.

It was the shape of some alien woman, dressed in a flowing gown, with beautiful lines of hair tapering across her face and shoulders.

She had the kindest of smiles, and her hands were held out in front of her, clasped around some kind of blue orb.

The orb was glowing – the sole light source illuminating the room – and the nearer she got to it, the more the glow caught her attention.

Something appeared trapped in the orb, something that danced and writhed like bodies through smoke.

She reached the statue.

She stared up at it, her mouth agape.

In an instant, she forgot all of her pain and agony.

She stretched a hand toward the orb.

On the very first day at Galactic Coalition Academy, they told new recruits two things. Never leave your team behind, and never do anything stupid.

Space is, quite frankly, not a safe place.

Given a chance, it would throw everything from spatial anomalies, to menacing aliens, to booby-trapped planets your way. So if you wanted to survive, you had to live by the rules – stay with your team, and most of all, be smart.

Now, she knew it wasn’t smart to reach her hand out to touch the orb.

It was glowing with such a peculiar energy that even a newborn baby would realize it wasn’t something you should touch.

Yet she couldn’t stop herself.

Her fingers were drawn toward it.

Then, as she turned her face up to look at that beautiful smiling statue, she touched it.

She stood there for a second before anything happened.

Her fingers registered no heat. In fact, her fingers registered nothing at all. It was as if she wasn’t touching anything. As if the blue orb was nothing but a hologram.

Then something happened.

She heard a crack, almost like a rip in space.

Then something slammed into her chest and forced her backward.

It had more force than anything she’d ever felt.

As soon as her head struck the floor, she lost consciousness.

But just before she did, she thought she saw a blue light bursting out of that globe and rushing down toward her.

It sunk into her chest as her mind turned black.

Chapter 2

Carson Blake

Well, that had been a waste of time. Though he’d been excited at finding that staircase, it hadn’t led anywhere. Through a couple of hallways and to a few empty rooms, sure, but he certainly hadn’t found what he was looking for.

Still, it was interesting that the stairwell hadn’t appeared on the blueprints. Before the mission had come down to this planet, their ship in orbit, the Orion, had done an extensive survey. In fact, this planet had already been mapped by several other teams. And none of them had ever located this staircase.

So of course he’d been hopeful when that awkward cadet had mentioned she’d found it.

But the reality was it didn’t contain any secrets. Just cold stone walls and sparse, empty rooms.

He indulged in another sigh as he walked up the last step and stood on the dusty surface of the planet.

Commander Sharpe was beside him, holding the scanner and checking over the results. “Nothing interesting, I’m afraid,” he said curtly.

Blake hardly needed the report; he’d been there. But he nodded politely anyway.

“I guess this planet really doesn’t have any secrets anymore,” Blake managed as he tipped his head back and looked at the glorious night sky above. You could see every damn star, every constellation even. If he’d had the time, he would have sat back to enjoy the view.

He didn’t.

They’d already been down here long enough, and they had absolutely nothing interesting to show for their efforts.

It was time to head back to the ship.

“It’s not a complete loss,” Sharpe tried from his side.

Blake had to smile at that.

Sharpe was not a compassionate man. He could in no way be referred to as nice. In fact, he was the terror of the Academy. Back when Blake had been a fresh, new cadet, he’d unfortunately had a few run-ins with Sharpe. But now the two of them got on well. Though Sharpe was hard on the surface, if you earned his respect, he was your friend for life.

“Yeah, sure, we got a couple of mineralogical surveys,” Blake quipped.

“And a broken scanner,” Sharpe added with a sigh. “Cadet Nida Harper is the worst recruit in 1000 years, I swear. I have never come across someone as incompetent.”

“You mean the woman who found the staircase?”

Sharpe sighed laboriously. “Yes, that’s the one.”

Blake smiled.

It was clear from the overwrought frustration twisting through Sharpe’s tone that he had problems with Cadet Harper. And Blake felt very sorry for the woman.

“She found the staircase, though, and that’s something. Even though there was nothing down there, it is interesting that it didn’t appear on any of the scans,” Blake said, feeling he should try to defend her, even though he didn’t know her at all.

“That’s a particularly charitable description of events, Carson. By the sounds of it, she was walking along, not looking where she was going, and she tripped down those stairs. That’s hardly a fact to be proud of,” Sharpe shot back.

Blake just chuckled under his breath.

They were heading back to the compound, and though the night wasn’t completely pitch black, considering the starscape above, they still had to navigate by the light of Sharpe’s scanner.

While the scanner threw out bright light, wherever its illumination could not reach, it only served to make the shadows longer and darker.

If Blake hadn’t already seen the reports confirming this planet was completely devoid of life, he would have been sure to survey his surroundings far more carefully. He would have also taken some proper armor down to this planet.

But as it was, it was clear this place no longer had any secrets.

This mission had been a wild goose chase to begin with, and nobody would be particularly surprised he hadn’t found anything down here. Still, it was disappointing to go back empty handed.

“Ready to get back to the Academy?” Sharpe asked perceptively from his side.

“Something like that,” Blake said.

Then something caught his eye.

A dark lump of a shadow about 10 meters to his left.

“Come on,” Sharpe mumbled over his shoulder as Blake slowed down.

“Hold on,” Blake took several steps toward the shadow, his eyes narrowing.

Then he took several more steps, and then another.

Slowly he realized it wasn’t an ordinary shadow; the closer he got, the more the dark shape resolved into the hunched form of a human being.

He ran the last several meters, sliding to his knees when he reached it.

As he scrambled around in front of the body, he realized it was Cadet Harper.

She had a particularly memorable head of messy dark hair. And right now, that hair was splayed around her, covering her cheeks and arms and back.

“Cadet, are you alright?” he snapped as he reached her, placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

She didn’t move, and she didn’t answer.

“Sharpe, get that scanner over here,” Blake barked as he checked to see if she was alive.

“What is it?” Sharpe ran up. He dropped to one knee. Then his eyes practically bulged out of his head. “Harper,” he moaned, “what the hell has she done to herself?” He brought the scanner to his face, typed something into it, then huffed. “One broken rib, a concussion, a sprained ankle, and several cuts and abrasions,” he quickly answered his own question, letting out a relieved sigh as he did.

Even though Sharpe clearly didn’t get on well with Cadet Harper, the man was responsible for every recruit under his command, and Blake knew he cared for them all, even the crappy ones.

“So she’s alive, then?” Blake found himself confirming needlessly.

Sharpe gave a hard nod. “Yes, she is, but she’s going to have one hell of a headache when she wakes up.” Then he leaned right down to Harper’s ear. “Harper,” he shouted.

She stirred slightly.

“Harper,” Sharpe snapped again.

Blake watched as she slowly blinked her eyes open.

For the briefest of seconds, he fancied he saw a light flashing deep in her pupils. But he dismissed it.

Because it was impossible. Nothing more than a trick of the dazzling starlight above.

Even though he didn’t know the woman, he let out his own breath of relief and shifted back, removing his hand from her shoulder.

She tried to sit up, but immediately groaned and latched a hand to her chest.

“You have broken your rib,” Sharpe noted with disdain. “Given yourself a concussion, sprained your ankle, and sustained numerous cuts and abrasions. What exactly happened?”

She stared at Sharpe, her lips parted gently, her eyes out of focus. Then she shook her head.

“She is confused,” Blake said quietly to Sharp. “Let’s just get her back to the cruiser. Once the doctor has checked over her on the Orion, you can question her then.”

“Question her? Who am I kidding? I don’t need to question her to know what happened,” Sharpe pushed a breath through his clenched teeth. “She fell over. She is a basket case. She’s in the infirmary every other day for scrapes and bruises,” he added as Blake got to his feet.

One broken rib, a concussion, and a sprained ankle from falling over? Blake doubted it, but then again, he didn’t know Harper.

From the brief interaction he’d had with her, she did appear to be pretty clumsy and awkward, though, so maybe she could injure herself that much by simply tripping over a stone.

She tried to get up on her own, but quickly fell flat on her butt when she put weight on her ankle.

“Here, I’ll give you a hand,” Blake offered as he leaned down and helped her up by the shoulders.

“I’m fine,” she squeaked in a high-pitched voice.

“You are not fine,” Sharpe noted curtly. “Now get back to the cruiser before you trip over and lop your head off.”

She let out a little sigh, then hobbled forward.

Blake pushed his shoulder into her, supporting her as best he could. When he offered to pick her up, considering how slow her progress was, she squeaked a no.

Soon enough they made it back to the compound, and several people walked over to see if they were okay.

When the rest of the team asked what was wrong, and Sharpe blatantly pointed out that nothing was wrong, and Cadet Harper had just fallen over again, his comment was met with several knowing laughs.

Blake felt Harper tense against his shoulder, and she shook her head slightly.

“I’m fine,” she said one last time, now pushing away from his grip.

Though she swayed, she stood, and he watched as she stared solidly at the ground, ignoring everyone as they continued to laugh at her.

Again, he found himself feeling sorry for her.

Okay, so she didn’t exactly seem to be Galactic Coalition Academy material, but she’d just injured herself badly, and surely deserved people’s sympathy.

Instead, Sharpe snapped at her to get to the cruiser.

Soon Cadet J’Etem came rushing up to Harper to give her a hand.

J’Etem was stunning. She was Barkarian, and she was beautiful from her lustrous blond hair to her plush purple lips.

She smiled down at Cadet Harper, and the two of them leaned on each other as they made it over to the cruiser.

Well. Hadn’t this been a royal waste of time?

Not only had Blake found nothing at all, but one of the cadets had injured herself too.

Dipping his head back, he forced a steeling breath as he stared up at the stars above.

This planet was meant to hold secrets. That’s why he was here. Though he didn’t know the full story – as his superiors hadn’t deemed to share it – his mission brief was to search this barren rock for any signs of the civilization that had once existed here.

Though it wasn’t unusual to be sent on missions were his superiors only partly told him what was going on, he really felt like this was a wild goose chase.

What the heck was meant to be down here that could garner the full attention of the Force?

Barbarian warriors? Powerful alien weapons? Some spatial anomaly?

Well, currently he’d found nothing but dust.

And more dust.

Feeling despondent and downright disappointed, Carson quickly made his way back to the shuttle.

Occasionally he glanced over to see Cadet J’Etem administering to Cadet Harper.

Harper seemed okay now, and smiled and chatted with her friend, but occasionally she would get a far-off look in her eyes, and her brow would crease with worry.

He wanted to know what had happened, how exactly she had fallen and hurt herself that badly, but before he’d been able to ask, the rest of his team had distracted him.

Plus, Blake had bigger problems to worry about. He always did.

Chapter 3

Cadet Nida Harper

“Holy crap, I am late again,” she realized as she sat up straight in her bed, her pillow bouncing out from underneath her and slamming onto the soft carpet below.

She glanced over at the holographic clock in the corner and swore.

Jesus Christ, she’d slept in for an hour. A whole fricking hour.

Her alarm was blaring, and somehow she’d managed to snooze through it, even though it sounded like a red alert klaxon in her ear.

She raced over to the alarm, waved her hand above it, and instantly it cut out.

Then she swore even more as she threw off her clothes, grabbed her uniform from a pile on the ground, and clambered into it.

God, she’d already missed half of her morning’s lecture. And unfortunately for her, the lecture was being run by none other than Commander Sharpe.

Her nemesis. A man who hated her and wanted nothing more than to kick her out of the Academy.

Great.

Now he would have yet another reason to reprimand her.

Once she was done dressing, she ran her fingers through her matted, black, compact curls, and grabbed a simple clip off her bedside table. She wrestled her hair into some kind of bun, clasped it, and ran out of her bedroom door.

She reached the kitchen, chugged down a glass of water, patted her lips, and headed for the door.

The room was a mess.

It was always a mess.

Though she did genuinely try to keep it clean, her flatmate – Cadet Alicia Arquette – only ever bothered to help when they had guests coming around.

Beyond the immediate mess, though, it was a lovely apartment. And it had the best view. It was halfway up one of the numerous high-rise blocks that were scattered around the Academy’s main grounds, and if you stood at the plate glass windows that occupied one wall, you could see all the way over the city to the ocean far beyond. It glittered there, a sliver of tantalizing blue.

Blue.

For some reason, the mere thought of that color jogged something in her memory, but she couldn’t recall exactly what.

She found herself pausing, though, just before she anchored her palm onto the panel on the wall by the door.

Shaking her head, she finally pushed through her reverie, then ran out into the corridor.

She made double time, heading down to the Academy grounds and her lecture hall as fast as her feet could carry her.

Then she snuck in the back way, sitting down in one of the chairs in the last row as quietly as she could.

Though she hoped no one had seen her, she saw Sharpe look up from the lectern far below and narrow his gaze her way.

Oh boy.

No doubt, he was pausing to take a mental note to make her life hell after the lecture.

She locked her teeth, closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and wondered if now was just a good time to quit and cut her losses.

“As I am sure you are all aware, it takes years of rigorous practice to make full use of your telekinetic implants,” Sharpe continued with the lecture.

Every member of the Galactic Coalition Academy had a telekinetic implant. Even she did. In fact, she took several seconds to bring her hand up and tap the small, hard device lodged just a few centimeters below the base of her throat.

She’d remembered being so excited when she’d received it.

In her mind, she’d hoped it would let her make objects fly across the room, catch cruisers as they fell from the sky, and generally wield the power of a modern god.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple.

Not only were the implants hard to use, some people simply never got the knack of them.

And she was one of the unlucky few who had zero talent. Totally zip. Nothing.

She could do precious little with the implant. She’d been able to pick up a cup with her mind once, but that was it. She hadn’t succeeded in using any of the specialized telekinetic weapons, and she’d certainly never caught a cruiser as it fell from the sky.

She was, in other words, truly useless.

“It is rare to find a true master of these implants. Not only does it require years of work, but a natural talent and understanding of the underlying dynamics involved,” Sharpe said. “So we are very lucky to have a true master at the Academy.”

Nida sighed as she continued to tap her implant.

J’Etem was a marvel when it came to the use of telekinetic power. In fact, nearly every other member of Nida’s class had real talent for it.

Nida, on the other hand, had come to the realization she would never be able to use her implant properly.

No matter how many hours of practice she put in, she never improved. Lifting a cup was sure to be the height of her less-than heady success.

Staring at her hands glumly as she allowed them to rest back on the table, she wondered whether she could just sneak out of the lecture. She was already in trouble, so it would hardly matter if she added a fresh, new mistake to her enormous list of misdemeanors.

Pressing her lips together, she deliberately tuned out as Sharpe continued lecturing the class on the correct and effective use of their implants.

She already knew the material anyway. Heck, every recruit did; the rest of her class was simply being politely attentive as Sharpe reminded them yet again how powerful yet dangerous telekinetic implants were.

She appreciated the point, but it was hardly as if she needed to heed the warning; coffee cups aside, Nida was never going to be able to wield a telekinetic weapon, so there was no point in learning the correct way to use them.

As she tuned out, her mind wandered over what she had to do for the rest of the day, then she mused about whether there’d be any hot dogs left in the cafeteria after the lunch rush.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a blue flash. The cadet sitting next to her wore one of the standard-issue Academy watches and had clearly just received a message – hence the sudden pulse of light.

But even though she saw blue flashes like that every day, this one caught her attention.

And held it fast.

A kick of nerves traveled blindingly fast up her back, and she twitched forward as if she’d been struck.

A memory played at the edge of her mind, toying with her.

The cadet next to her turned, frowning at her odd behavior. “Are you okay?” he whispered.

She forced herself to nod, pretending her leg had just cramped. Then she turned around and tried to listen to the lecture.

She couldn’t. That memory kept on beckoning her. And it had something to do with blue light. In fact, now she paused long enough, she realized she’d been fascinated by blue light ever since she’d returned from that rather ill-fated mission to the barren Remus 12.

It had been several days now, and she’d made a complete recovery. Somehow, some precious how, she’d fallen over in the dark, cracked a rib, sprained an ankle, given herself a severe concussion, and cut her fingers and cheek.

She still didn’t remember how she’d done it, though.

All she could recall about that day was being sent back to the compound by Sharpe after she’d led Blake to the mysterious stairs. Then she recalled nothing until she remembered waking up onboard the Orion.

Everyone was sure she’d just fallen over, and to be fair, she was one of them. She knew first-hand how clumsy she could be, and considering she’d already broken a scanner that day on the planet by tripping over a rock, it wasn’t so much of a stretch to imagine she’d broken herself by tripping over another rock.

….

So she tried to ignore the lights. Those flashes of blue.

It was just her memory playing tricks on her.

Concluding that, she got back to the important task of ignoring the lecture.

While the cadet next to her had a rather rapt look of attention on his face, she didn’t, and she couldn’t muster the energy required to try.

Sharpe already knew she was a complete disaster when it came to the use of her telekinetic implant.

While everybody in her class had moved on from coffee cups to actual weapons, she hadn’t, and she never would.

She didn’t, apparently, have the concentration and control for it.

Telekinetic implants worked by allowing you to control certain objects that had been impregnated with a specialized magnetic material. The implant was hooked up to your central nervous system and right into your motor cortex. With just a thought, you could command the implant to put out a field and manipulate any material nearby with that necessary specialized magnetic substance inside.

It was incredible technology and was one of the reasons the Galactic Coalition Academy had become as powerful as it was.

It couldn’t be used everywhere, though, and it certainly couldn’t be used on anything; implants only worked on objects that had the right magnetized material in them.

Feeling satisfied that she clearly already knew everything she needed to, Nida indulged in closing her eyes and forced a quiet, careful breath.

Then she waited, listening with only half an ear as the lecture continued. In another hour, it was over.

She carefully and discreetly made her way out of the back entrance, hoping that Sharpe wouldn’t have the time to race around and catch her.

He didn’t, and with a small, satisfied smile, she hurried along the corridor.

In fact, she ran so fast she rounded the corner before checking to see if anyone was coming from the other direction.

Someone was, and she bumped straight into him.

Swearing softly, she jolted back, then looked up to see none other than Carson Blake.

He blinked at her, muttered sorry, then moved to walk off. Then he stopped. “Hold on, you’re Cadet Harper, from the mission to planet Remus 12,” his pupils widened with clear interest.

She winced. “Yes, that would be me. Are you going to get me in trouble for losing your scanner?” she babbled quickly, searching for a reason to explain his sudden interest.

“My scanner… oh, yeah, we did leave that behind, didn’t we?” He looked thoughtful as he muttered a soft “ha.”

She breathed a sigh of relief when she realized he wasn’t about to add another complaint against her to Commander Sharpe.

“How are you?” he asked with genuine interest.

She blinked back her surprise. Why did he care? She was just a walking accident and the worst recruit in 1000 years, and he was Carson Freaking Blake.

He smiled at her encouragingly.

He didn’t look like he was acting, and with a quick look around her, she realized there was no one around he could be trying to impress by compassionately asking after her.

“Ah,” she mumbled, realizing her pause had become uncomfortably long, “fine. I mean, they fixed me up,” she added awkwardly.

“Do you remember what happened?” he now asked, dropping his tone as several cadets walked past them.

She stopped.

She was about to say she’d just fallen over, and it was nothing to worry about, but as she opened her mouth, the words wouldn’t come out.

Instead, sudden blue flashes filled her mind, like fireflies dancing frantically at the corners of her vision.

She shook her head when she realized she couldn’t just stand there with her mouth open looking dumbstruck, and offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “That kind of stuff always happens to me. I’m really sorry,” she added, “about your scanner.”

He laughed. It was an odd move. It was as if he wasn’t sure whether he should chuckle at her, but couldn’t quite stop himself. “It’s okay. It wasn’t exactly mine. I had another one built as soon as we got back to the Orion.”

She smiled, sucking at her teeth as she did in what was perhaps the geekiest move she could make.

She couldn’t help herself.

Because, well, this… was weird. And awkward, really, hideously awkward.

“Sorry again,” she managed, backing off, realizing she had to get away before she tripped over her own legs and crumpled at his feet.

Then she heard a voice behind her.

One that rumbled up like a volcano splitting the earth.

Commander Sharpe.

She winced again, this time as if she were about to be chopped in half.

Because likely she would be.

She turned to see him march up beside her.

“Late again,” he said tersely, “do you deliberately go out of your way to earn reprimands from me?”

She wanted to ask whether he deliberately went out of his way to torture her, but she held her tongue. “No, sir,” she answered, knowing exactly what he wanted to hear. “I just…” she trailed off. She could come up with all sorts of outlandish excuses, like being chased by mercenaries, or waking up on a foreign planet and having to find her way back to class in a jiffy. They were all lies, though. But at least they’d hide the truth, because the truth was truly pathetic.

She’d overslept.

“Don’t bother,” Sharpe sighed heavily, “just report to detention, again,” he spoke to her with a long-suffering tone and shot her a look that made it clear he was sick of dealing with her antics.

She turned around glumly, barely noticing as Blake offered her a friendly, commiserating smile.

Her heart sunk at how much trouble she was about to get in.

What was worse, she had a mound of assignments. It had taken her longer than usual to bounce back from her fall on Remus 12. The broken bone had knitted quickly, and the medical team had dealt with the concussion as fast as Coalition doctors could. But it had taken her several days of rest until her mind had come back to her.

For those several days, a strange fog had descended over her, and the doctors had explained it away by theorizing she was just tired and stressed.

Now, she was even more tired and even more stressed.

Walking to her next class, she settled into a melancholic slump.

The rest of the day passed, thankfully without further incident, and soon enough she found herself back in her quarters.

She didn’t enter her apartment to peace, however, for Alicia was running around frantically.

As soon as Nida entered, Alicia snapped up, her expression filling with relief. “There you are. I was worried you would never return. Now you can help me clean,” she announced at once. “This place is a tip.”

Nida stood there for a moment, raising her eyebrow slightly. She didn’t exactly have the gumption to point out to Alicia that there was nothing stopping the woman from cleaning up after herself. Because one look around this room would confirm that every dirty dish, mound of clothes, or pile of datapads on the couch belonged to Alicia. Nida cleaned up after herself, hell, she’d even managed to do it over the past several days while she’d been convalescing.

“Don’t just stand there,” Alicia announced, her irritation clear as she whisked a hand toward the couch and pointed at an enormous pile of clothes. “Help me move those into my room.”

Mutely, Nida walked over, grabbed the clothes, and marched them into Alicia’s pigsty of a bedroom.

“Why exactly are we doing this?” Nida asked as she walked back into the main room.

“Boys,” Alicia answered clearly.

Nida rolled her eyes. Why had she bothered to ask? There was only one thing Alicia cared about, and that was men.

There was also only one thing she ever bothered cleaning the apartment for. Men, again.

Usually, Alicia didn’t invite any guys back to their apartment because it was such a tip, that and Nida hated walking in from a long hard day at the Academy to find her flatmate rolling around on the couch with her latest catch.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Alicia actually stamped her foot. “They are just coming here before we go out. We’ll be out of your hair pretty quick.” She fobbed a hand Nida’s way as she walked over to the enormous pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

“They?” Nida asked as she narrowed her eyes. “You mean, you have more than one date?”

Alicia harrumphed. “No, I’ve organized a double date.”

For a moment, Nida stood there, stock still, fear rising through her belly like a tidal wave.

Alicia clearly saw Nida’s shocked expression, and she tipped her head back and laughed. “Oh my god, not for you, not for you,” she emphasized as she chuckled even harder. “For Bridget. Don’t be an idiot,” Alicia walked past her and clasped a hand on her shoulder, “I would never organize a double date for you.”

Nida didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted, so she decided ignoring Alicia was best, and she picked her way through the open kitchen toward her room.

The apartment was split into three rooms. The enormous shared living space in the middle that had a lounge, kitchen, and a big table directed at that enormous view through the plate glass windows. On either side of that room were Alicia and Nida’s bedrooms. Both bedrooms had their own bathrooms, personal computers, beds, and storage spaces.

If it weren’t for Alicia’s mess, this place would be beautiful, but you didn’t get to pick your roommates at the Academy.

“Hey, what are you doing? Come back here and help me clean up this mess,” Alicia demanded.

“Look, I’ve had a really long day, and I’m still feeling kind of… funny,” Nida managed with a swallow.

“Oh, get over it. I know you fell over and bumped your head,” Alicia gave a surprised laugh, clearly amused that someone could do themselves so much damage by tripping up, “but that was several days ago, and the doctors gave you the all clear yesterday. Now you have no excuse, so help me clean up your mess.”

“My mess?” Nida challenged in a rare moment of bravery.

Alicia opened her mouth to say yes but clearly thought better of it. “Our mess,” she tried instead. “Now hurry.”

“Why? When will they get here?” Nida turned to look at the door, ready to see several bright and handsome cadets sweep in to vie for Alicia’s attention.

Alicia was stunning. The kind of stunning that knew it was stunning, and leveraged every favor from that fact.

“Oh, they’re not coming tonight; they’re coming tomorrow night. But I have to go out soon, so we need to clean now,” Alicia announced.

Nida closed her eyes for a moment, pursed her lips, and blew a breath of air against her ragged fringe. “I’m tired, and I need a shower. I’ll clean up later,” she winked one eye open to see Alicia standing there with her hands on her hips.

“No, we’re cleaning now. You can shower later.”

With a fresh new groan at how terrible her life was, Nida didn’t complain any further and got to work. While Alicia faffed around, Nida did all the real work, and soon enough the apartment was sparkling.

“Okay, fantastic,” Alicia clapped her hands together. “Everything is ready for tomorrow.”

Nida walked toward her bedroom door but paused before she opened it. She turned around to consider her flatmate. “Why exactly do you care so much? You go out on dates all the time. Why are these guys any different?”

Alicia’s eyes sparkled with a particularly frightening fervor. She took on such a strong and powerful and triumphant stance that it looked as if she were about to preside over the conquering of the galaxy. “They are graduates. Full lieutenants, in fact,” she said, that smile of hers reminding Nida of a rabid dog.

Rolling her eyes, Nida now understood.

“Oh, whatever,” Alicia snapped. “Now go have your shower. And if you can make yourself scarce tomorrow night, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Nida shook her head. “I promise you, I have no intention of coming out of my room tomorrow to interrupt your double date with Bridget and a pair of lieutenants,” she noted sharply as she walked through her door and it closed behind her.

Reaching her bed, she gave her pillow a firm, almost petulant punch. Then she hugged it in both arms, squished her face into it, and groaned. Loudly.

She was lucky that these rooms were relatively soundproof. Otherwise Alicia would be pounding on the door and screaming at her to shut up.

After several minutes of punching her pillow and groaning into it, Nida finally grew a backbone, sat up, and told herself it was time to get over it.

Yes, she was unlucky, yes, she’d gotten in trouble today for sleeping in, but what help would moping about it do?

The answer was it wouldn’t help at all.

Forcing herself at least to try to do a few of her outstanding assignments, it wasn’t long until Nida finally went to bed.

She slept like a log, as always. But every now and then throughout the night, she would wake, her eyes forcing themselves open as if the lids had been dragged apart by speeding cruisers. And though she couldn’t tell it, little flashes of blue light erupted deep within the pupils with the brilliance of supernovas in a starless sky.

Chapter 4

Carson Blake

He was bored. Completely and utterly bored. He couldn’t think of anything worse than preparing for a lecture.

He had never once considered a career as an academic, yet for some damn reason, they continually invited him back to give talks to the undergrads.

As he paced in front of the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows in his apartment, he tried not to look at his reflection.

Because he looked like an idiot.

“Okay, class,” he began in his fake teacher-like tone, “the correct use of your telekinetic implant takes time. But with the following exercises, and a lot of diligent practice, you will soon find yourself getting better,” he gave a fake smile, then made the mistake of glancing at his reflection and realizing just how dumb he looked.

Swearing, he took a step back, flopped a hand at the window, and walked over to the couch. With a groan, he let his knees buckle, and he fell with a soft thump onto it. Reaching for one of the cushions, he banged his head against it.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he whispered aloud, his voice croaky and smothered by the soft fabric around his mouth.

Though he understood the importance of teaching the new wave of cadets coming through the Galactic Coalition Academy, surely his skills could be better utilized elsewhere?

Like back on that damn planet, Remus 12.

When the United Galactic Coalition Council had put together the mission, they’d called it a simple exploratory operation. But that was clearly crap, because you didn’t send the Force along to something as wimpy as an exploratory operation.

Not unless you expected trouble.

….

So why exactly had the United Galactic Coalition Council sent the Force to that remote, desolate, wasteland of a planet then?

It had been a waste of everybody’s time, and that random cadet with the unruly black hair had injured herself.

Had injured herself….

How?

Not for the first time and not for the last, he pushed himself up and pondered that fact.

She’d received a broken rib for god’s sake. How exactly did you give yourself one of those by tripping over?

While everybody else had been willing to accept the probability she’d just fallen over, he wasn’t. Because it didn’t make any sense. How exactly did you break your rib and give yourself a serious concussion by tripping yourself up?

Cadet – what was her name? Cadet Harper, yes, that’s it, Cadet Harper – seemed like a serious klutz, granted, but she’d fractured the back of her skull and had broken her rib just below the sternum. How had she done that? Had she rolled down a rocky incline? Had she taken a tumble off a cliff?

No – he’d found her on flat ground, with nothing but dust all around her.

….

Blake shook his head.

He had a lecture to prepare for, and the United Galactic Coalition Council had hinted they were about to send the Force on an extremely important mission. Yet here he was, wondering how a simple little cadet could beat herself up so bad.

“Get over it,” he growled at himself.

Then the computer in his room gave a beep and reminded him in a bored, electronic tone that he had half an hour to finish preparing his lecture and get to class.

He swore loudly, and he fancied the sound of it bounced off the walls.

Standing up, he raced over to his room and selected a dress uniform from his wardrobe.

Yep, a dress uniform. He was giving a lecture, and yet they expected him to look as if he was about to entertain an ambassador or sign a galactic treaty.

Grumbling even more, he pulled on the uniform then strode out into the main room. Catching his reflection in the glass, he grimaced.

Now he would look even sillier while giving this dumb talk. Because, let’s face it, while he could defeat mercenaries and terrorist factions, he had zero talent for teaching.

He would be an awkward mess. Yet, with a steeling breath, he still forced himself to walk out of his apartment, down to the closest lift, and out into the glorious day.

The stroll across Academy grounds to the main teaching building was a short and pleasant one.

There was a lovely breeze picking up off the bay far away, and he could smell just a touch of fresh, salty surf in the air.

Enormous trees lined the thoroughfare between the apartment complexes and the Academy headquarters, and their leaves rustled in the slight wind.

If he hadn’t had a lecture to get to, he would have kicked off his shoes, found a nice quiet section of the grounds, and taken a nap under one of those grand old oaks.

He didn’t have that luxury, though. Plus, the place was already filling up with students, and he watched them all scoot around him, smiling or chatting happily as they did.

He was a bit of a celebrity around here, he knew that, and though he’d once loved the attention, it was starting to wear thin.

During his undergrad years, being popular had been a boon. He’d been invited to all the parties, he’d always had a date, and he’d generally had one hell of a time. Yet now, things had changed, because now he had responsibility. In fact, with every day, he had more and more.

Now he wanted people to get out of his way so he could do what he had to. He didn’t want cadets stopping him in the street to ask for holo photos, and neither did he want undergrads running up to him every second to ask for tips on telekinetic implants and deep space combat.

“Get over yourself,” he whispered under his breath, realizing how arrogant he must sound.

With renewed vigor, he finally made it across the grounds and into the Academy headquarters. Then he set his jaw hard and forced himself to find the right lecture theater.

As the class started to fill with cadets, he tried not to look at how excited they all seemed.

Okay, so he was relatively competent when it came to the use of his telekinetic implant, but for god’s sake, he wasn’t the expert everyone kept calling him. If all of these kids put in as much effort as he had, and practiced for as many hours, they would be able to do everything he could.

All too soon, Commander Sharpe came bustling up to him, and the lecture began. With a short introduction, Carson found himself thrust into the spotlight, literally. He had no problem with public speaking, but he couldn’t help but feel like a fraud as he stood there and pretended he had the right to be teaching anybody.

Still, he put on a good show, strengthened his resolve, and got through it.

Thankfully, halfway through, they turned off the spotlight and gave him a bunch of telekinetic weapons to demonstrate instead.

This part he loved; this part he could do in his sleep.

There was something so invigorating about the use of his telekinetic implant – or the TI, as most people referred to it.

When he was commanding it, and seeing objects fly across the room with little more than a thought, he felt so in control.

Yet even as he demonstrated a powerful TI weapon known as the 10-pointed blade, it didn’t stop him from looking up to see a particularly late cadet creep into the back of the lecture hall.

Though he couldn’t see them perfectly from where he stood, he could see their hair.

Harper.

He almost dropped the 10-pointed blade, but with a quick thought, held steady.

She was 45 minutes late.

And that was pretty late considering this lecture only ran for an hour.

Pushing on with the rest of his talk, he soon finished, and before he could get away, he was inundated with questions.

Though technically the class was over, and everyone was free to leave, nobody did.

Nobody except Harper.

He flicked his eyes up to see her surreptitiously slip out the back of the lecture hall.

Ha.

Had he been that boring?

Clearly not, considering every other cadet in the hall was practically fighting each other for a chance to ask him something.

It took a long time to wade through everybody’s questions, but eventually he did it, then he finally found himself free and quickly scooted away from the lecture theater before any more cadets could pick his brains.

As he half jogged through the halls, intending to get back to his own office before anybody could waylay him again, he kept his eyes peeled.

For Cadet Harper.

He now had two things he wanted to ask. Why had she been so late for his lecture, and how in god’s name had she injured herself?

He rolled his eyes as he realized he should just drop it. The medical staff aboard the Orion would have already questioned her, and if they’d thought there was anything suspicious, they would have looked into it.

He told himself firmly to get over it, but the more he tried, the less he succeeded.

Though he wanted to run into her, he didn’t, and soon enough he reached his office. With a massive sigh, he considered the enormous mess of datapads and old, ruined TI weapons that were strewn around the place. He knew he should clean it up, but always told himself he didn’t have the time.

So instead of bending down and picking up the junk littering the floor, he pushed his way over to the windows. Then he looked down at the unrivalled view of the Academy grounds below.

Before too long he found himself scanning the lawns, checking every corner for a hint of curly black hair.

When he realized what he was doing, he shook his head.

“Get over it,” he commanded himself one last time, “you’re just trying to distract yourself from bigger things.”

Which was true.

Carson had far larger problems to consider, and just maybe he was using the not-so-mysterious injuries of Cadet Harper to procrastinate.

After he finally convinced himself that was the case, he turned, and he got back to work.

Chapter 5

Cadet Nida Harper

Dammit, she’d done it again.

She’d been late for class. She’d just overslept. Despite the fact her alarm was set diabolically loud, she’d somehow snoozed right through.

Was there something wrong with her?

She had to get to her next class, but as she walked across the enormous, green grounds in between the Academy complex, she found herself slowing down.

Before she knew it, she angled toward a tree on the far edge of the lawn, and promptly sat underneath it, pressing her back against its girth.

She loved this tree, and she loved sitting exactly here. Because if you huddled yourself up just right, nobody could see you. It was just you, the tree, a slice of blue sky visible through the leaves, and relative silence.

“Get to class,” she mumbled under her breath, admonishing herself as she did. “You can’t afford any more reprimands,” she added with a grimace.

But no matter how sternly she told herself to move, she couldn’t. She just hugged her arms around her knees and rocked back and forth.

She’d had some pretty weird dreams last night.

Strange and deeply unsettling ones.

She rocked back and forth harder and harder, her shoulders banging into the trunk behind her with a rhythmic thump, thump, thump.

Every single dream had been about that planet. Remus 12.

And all had featured odd, dancing, writhing blue light.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force the memories from her mind, but it wouldn’t work.

Impressions kept on forming there, like shapes in the clouds above.

“Come on, get to class,” she clenched her teeth hard.

But she couldn’t.

She just couldn’t move.

She felt immobilized by the flashes of her half-remembered dreams. Impressions, thoughts, visions. They swept around her, curling in and in like a rope wrapping around her middle.

“It was just a dream.”

Yet no matter how much she tried to convince herself it was nothing, her body twitched and stiffened under the flashing visions of her nightmares.

Eventually, she rested her head back, closing her eyes as she did.

After several minutes of fighting against the sensations haunting her mind and body, she felt herself drift off.

All thoughts of getting to class were forgotten.

Soon enough all she was aware of was her slowly thumping heart and a beautiful, warm ray of sunshine filtering in through a break in the leaves above. It played against her face like the touch of a gentle hand.

Then, before she knew it, she fell asleep.

Just as soon as unconsciousness took her, she drifted straight into a dream.

She was standing back on the surface of Remus 12. It was night. The stars glittered high above her, dancing and flickering and glimmering.

She reached a hand up to them, but then, with a stab of shock, she realized blue light traveled across her skin. It jumped up from her wrist, curling around and pushing its way into her fingernails. Then it traveled deep down into her palm, caressing each bone and pushing its way through every vein, until it erupted again through her palm, twisting around every centimeter of her flesh as it burnt bright blue.

She stared at it, fear and surprise coalescing in her heart until it felt as if she would pop.

She tried to bat the blue light away, tried to push that dancing, writhing energy off her hand, but she couldn’t move.

“Help me,” she said under her breath, barely capable of opening her lips. “Help me,” she said again, panic rising in her heart like a lick of flame growing brighter and brighter.

She looked up again, tearing her eyes off the terrible energy forcing its way through her, and she saw the starscape above.

It was different.

The stars, the constellations, everything had changed.

And then, in a moment of primal instinct, she knew why.

It was old.

This was old. The planet, the stars, the energy.

Old.

That knowledge built up in her with a horrible, pounding certainty.

As it did, she began to feel ancient. All of the youth and vibrancy in her body washed away, and centimeter by centimeter, second by second, she began to stiffen. Like stone.

She was turning into a statue.

Returning to the earth. Returning to the ancient, dark reaches of time.

She tried to scream. She couldn’t. She tried to breathe, but her chest no longer moved up and down. All that shifted was that blue energy as it continued to rise through her arm, up into her neck, and deep, deep into her chest.

Chapter 6

Carson Blake

He was at a loss. He’d given his lecture that morning, and then he’d gone back to his office to finish off whatever paperwork he’d been avoiding for the past few weeks. Now he had nothing to do. Which was unusual, because he was the head of the Force, and they existed to be busy. But right now, he was between missions.

And it felt like hell.

It gave him way too much time to think.

And he really didn’t need that right now.

So he picked himself up and decided it was time for a walk instead. Trundling across the grounds, he found himself staying to the relatively unused paths. He really didn’t want to be stopped by any undergrads for photos today. So he walked along the sides of the buildings, staying under the large trees, and enjoying the shade of their canopies. It was when he was slowly strolling past one enormous oak with a fantastically large trunk that he saw a cadet sleeping underneath it.

He chuckled under his breath as he walked past, then he stopped.

He recognized the black, unruly, spring-like hair.

Cadet Harper.

While he obviously didn’t know much about her timetable, he could bet she was meant to be in class, and not snoozing under a tree.

He cleared his throat.

She didn’t wake up.

In fact, she looked deeply, deeply asleep. Apart from her soft, percussive breathing, the only thing that moved was her left hand. It slowly twitched, as if she were trying to hold onto something.

She had an unnatural, restless silence about her, and he couldn’t help but frown as he stood there and watched.

Then she whispered something.

He couldn’t hear it properly, as it was little more than a mumble, but the quality of her tone lifted the fine hairs on the back of his neck and arms.

Realizing he could hardly stand there and watch her sleep when he knew she should be in class, he cleared his throat again. When that didn’t work, he shifted forward and pushed the toe of her boot with his own.

She snapped up as if she’d been struck.

Planting her hands next to her and pushing her back off the tree, she jolted forward with a full-bodied twitch.

He actually jumped back, and as he did, he stared at her eyes as they shot open.

For just a second, for one simple second, he thought he saw something dancing in her pupils. Something that shouldn’t be there. A flash of blue.

But again, he dismissed it immediately.

She looked completely disoriented as she stared down at her hands, around her, up at the tree, then over to him.

“You were sleeping,” he supplied with a cough.

“What?” her voice was far off, and she quickly turned from him, staring down at the hand that had been twitching during her slumber. She appeared to consider it as if it somehow didn’t belong to her.

“Are you… okay?” he tried slowly.

Eventually, she shook her head, looked back up at him, clearly realized who he was, and started to blush. “Oh… god… sorry, Lieutenant Blake.”

“I think you should probably get to class,” he managed after a long and extremely awkward pause.

“Class?” she asked, her confusion apparent. Then realization clearly struck her, and she bolted to her feet. She swore loudly.

He could have reprimanded her for it, but he didn’t. Instead, he swallowed a small smile. “Didn’t you sleep properly last night?” he asked, realizing the question was lame, but figuring he had to say something.

“I…” she looked at him, then turned around, glanced at her hand, and shook her head. “I have to get to class.” She brushed the grass off her uniform, then turned around, staring at the buildings behind him as if she were trying to get her bearings.

When he realized she was about to rush off, he pushed a hand out. “Hold on,” he began, realizing this was a perfect opportunity to ask her some questions, “there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

She didn’t glance his way as she brought up her wristwatch and typed something into it. She clearly had no idea where she was meant to be, but with another particularly bitter cuss, she began to rush off across the grounds.

“Hold on,” he repeated as he jogged to catch up.

“Oh no,” she muttered under her breath, “he’s going to kill me.”

“Who’s going to kill you?” Carson easily kept pace beside her.

“Commander Sharpe,” she groaned. “I am already on reprimand. Oh dammit, why the hell did I go to sleep under that tree?” She searched around herself frantically, as if she’d forgotten her way.

“Where are you meant to be?” he asked helpfully.

“Training Centre Alpha-2,” she looked down at her wristwatch again for confirmation. “I’m not very good with directions,” she added needlessly, “and I’ve only been in the training center once before.”

“It’s this way,” he said as he waved her forward.

He really didn’t know why he was helping her get to class. He’d just caught her napping under a tree, and knew it was his duty to reprimand her for shirking off one of Sharpe’s tutorials. Instead, he led her on, confidently walking through the halls as she awkwardly strode beside him.

Occasionally he would glance her way to note that her expression swung periodically between embarrassment and something… else.

Fear.

Panic of some description.

She kept looking at her left hand too. Pumping it back and forth as if she’d lost circulation to it.

“What were you dreaming of?” he found himself asking suddenly and possibly a little rudely.

She blinked as they entered the long corridor that led directly to Training Centre Alpha-2. “Sorry?”

He cleared his throat. “Before, under the tree, you looked like you were dreaming. You even said something under your breath…. So I was just wondering… never mind,” he grimaced at how dumb he sounded.

“I wasn’t dreaming,” she answered with an almost dead tone. “And thank you for directing me here, Lieutenant,” she nodded, even offering a salute. And though every other move she made was ungainly and uncoordinated, the salute was snapped, sharp, and proper. For some strange reason, he felt compelled to give one in reply.

Then she scooted off without another word.

He desperately wanted to know what she’d dreamt of, and what was wrong with her left hand, and, come to think of it, what exactly had happened to her down on Remus 12, but she turned and ran to class without even glancing over her shoulder at him.

He stood there, staring at the enormous black doors of the training center she’d just run through.

“Ha,” he muttered under his breath. “This is just weird,” he admitted objectively. Then he shook his head, realizing he had other things to do, and forced himself to walk away.

He didn’t get far.

Just as he rounded the corner, Sharpe came marching up toward him. “Blake, just who I’ve been looking for. My other tutor for this session is sick, and I need somebody to stand in right now. You don’t look busy. Are you busy?” he asked pointedly.

If it were anybody else asking that question, Blake would have brushed them off. He was the leader of the Force, after all, and could easily come up with an excuse to get out of most things.

But Commander Sharpe was Commander Sharpe, and Blake owed it to him. So, with a groan, he admitted he wasn’t, and Sharpe took him by the arm, turned him around, and shoved him forward. “I know this is a little bit below your level of expertise, Lieutenant, but I need you to help me demonstrate class I TI weapons to some of my students.”

Blake’s eyebrows twitched up. “Class I?”

“Yes, yes, I know, child’s play for you, but just humor me. I can’t find another tutor, and I really don’t want to cancel the class. I’m late as it is.”

As Sharpe marched him forward, Blake quickly realized they were headed to Training Centre Alpha-2.

With a soft chuckle, he smiled.

Cadet Harper was in there, and if Sharpe was late, the class hadn’t started yet, which meant she wouldn’t get in trouble.

Lucky for her.

And the poor cadet really looked as though she could use some luck right now.

Once Sharpe marched him through the doors, Blake’s presence was met with instant and excited muttering.

This training center was an enormous complex. A room of about 200 meters by 200 meters, it had enough space to allow budding cadets to learn the intricacies of TI weapons. It also had enough defensive parameters in place to stop them from doing harm to themselves or anybody else.

Because TI weapons, in untrained hands, were dangerous things.

“All right, listen up,” Sharpe announced as he walked into the center of his class, “today we are lucky enough to have a true master with us,” he gestured toward Blake.

Carson forced himself to lift a hand and wave to the class, but he winced as he did. Why did people always refer to him as a master? He was just a guy, for god’s sake.

The class practically gave a collective cry of joy. Well, almost everybody did.

Carson found himself focusing on one cadet standing a little way from the group, shuffling her feet and staring at her left hand.

Cadet Harper.

She had such a confused expression on her face, and again it seemed that she was staring at her palm as if it didn’t belong to her.

“Alright, class, spread out, you know the drill,” Sharpe snapped. “Everybody pick up their class I weapons. Harper, you’re with me,” Sharpe added tersely at the end.

Harper looked up, her expression crumpling with obvious disappointment.

As her shoulders slumped, she walked past Carson without another look, heading toward Sharpe.

Carson turned on his foot to watch Harper and Sharpe head over to a different section of the training hall, where the far simpler TI objects were kept. The stuff they used for the first-year cadets, the kids who had only recently received their TI implants.

Was Sharpe simply reprimanding her by not allowing her to use the weapons, or had she never progressed?

Considering that question briefly, he came up with the answer all too readily.

She’d never progressed.

Though she seemed friendly and sweet, she really didn’t come across as a competent cadet.

All too soon Carson found himself demonstrating class I weapons, and the students around him did their best to follow his example.

He was admittedly distracted, though.

He kept staring over at Sharpe as he tersely snapped at Harper to try harder. She was barely capable of shifting a small TI block off the floor. Though her face was deeply furrowed with concentration, no matter how hard she appeared to try, she just couldn’t do it.

Sharpe looked practically apoplectic and kept telling her she was worse than she usually was.

Though Carson kept half an eye on her, he knew he couldn’t allow himself to become completely distracted. Even though he was only dealing with class I weapons, he had to watch the rest of the students in case they had any accidents.

That being said, they all appeared to be quite talented, and one in particular was a cut above the rest.

Cadet J’Etem.

He recognized her from the Remus 12 mission. She was a friend of Cadet Harper and had already been selected as a potential recruit for the Force.

Her command of class I weapons was astounding.

Without any tutelage from him, she managed to pick up three blocks and spin them around herself with impressive speed. Though he could easily thrust out a hand to catch one, with practice, she’d be able to propel the blocks so fast they’d be able to crash through walls.

The blocks were about 30 centimeters square and made of completely smooth gunmetal-gray stone. Well, he said stone – in reality, they were pure telekinetic magnetized material. The very stuff TI implants operated on.

Still, even though they were only class I weapons, Cadet J’Etem had a good handle on them.

“That’s great,” Carson managed as he smiled at her.

Demurely, she offered a shy smile of her own. “Thank you; I’ve been practicing hard.”

“That’s great to hear,” he said, realizing he’d said great twice as if he didn’t have the brain cells to think of another word.

Someone sniggered at his side, and he turned to see it was Sharpe.

“How’s it going, tutor?” Sharpe asked with a pointed look.

“Fine,” Blake said.

“Cadet J’Etem here is one of our finest TI specialists,” Sharpe pointed out needlessly.

Carson already knew that, though he liked the polite smile J’Etem gave at the compliment.

“It’s nothing, really,” she managed, “I’m nowhere as good as I should be.”

“Don’t be humble, Cadet; you’ve put in the hard yards, and it has paid off. Unlike some,” Sharpe said as he shot Cadet Harper a stern look over his shoulder.

Harper, for her part, looked as if she’d given up. Several training blocks were strewn at her feet, but she didn’t appear to have the ability to shift even one of them.

“You know, I could try to give her a hand,” Carson offered as he nodded Harper’s way.

Sharpe gave out a laugh like a bullet blast, “don’t waste your time,” he said simply.

Though Carson already knew Sharpe had a temper and a personality like a bulldog, he bristled at that. Yes, Harper appeared to be particularly incapable, but she didn’t deserve everybody’s ire. She wasn’t incompetent on purpose. She simply appeared to be flaky. Yet before Carson could point this out, he watched as Cadet J’Etem reached down and managed to activate four blocks by her feet all at once.

He was impressed, and he offered her a smile that conveyed that.

Then, with perfect timing, she managed to make them spin around her.

She really was good, and he realized that before too long, she would undoubtedly make her way into the Force.

He could use good TI practitioners like her.

Yet, just as soon as those four blocks began to spin, one of them darted off.

Quickly.

In fact, blindingly fast.

He had time to stumble forward as surprise slackened his brow before the block shot across the room with the speed of a bullet.

It slammed into Harper.

She turned briefly, and he saw her eyes widen as the block smacked into the center of her chest, sending her flying as it did.

There was a crack, and it most definitely sounded like bone.

The block didn’t just knock her off her feet. It pinned her to the ground.

Sharpe was the first to react. The Commander sprinted toward her, then reached forward with his hand, spreading his fingers and activating his implant. A faint yellow energy played across his fingers as he used as much power as he could muster to pull the block off Harper.

It should have been an easy task for somebody like Sharpe. For all the times he claimed Blake was a master, Sharpe was one of the best TI practitioners at the Academy. Yet as he reached Harper, it was clear he was having trouble pulling the training block off her chest.

It still pinned her to the ground, pushing down with all its weight against her chest.

“Come on,” Sharpe hissed under his breath.

Then, with a snap, the training block finally released, and Sharpe managed to yank it off the cadet.

Carson now sprinted to his side.

“Oh god, Harper,” Sharpe said under his breath. His anger was obvious, but so was his compassion. With one look at the man, you could see his features were pale and drawn. He immediately used his wrist device to check her vitals, then made a quick call to the medical bay.

Harper was unconscious.

Her head lolled to one side, her hair a mess over her shoulder as the clip that had fixed it lay broken beside her.

With a powerful kick of fear, Carson noticed a trickle of blood trailing down the side of her parted lips.

She’d just been struck by a speeding training block.

She was lucky to be alive.

“Blake, you deal with my students,” Sharpe snapped as he stood over Harper protectively, waiting for the medical team to arrive. “And figure out what just happened,” he growled under his breath.

Carson wanted to point out he could take Harper to the medical bay, but he soon realized Sharpe had no intention of letting him. For all Sharpe’s apparent hatred of Harper, he clearly felt responsible for her too, and right now, he looked exactly like a protective father. So, silently Carson stood back, watching as the medical team rushed in, placed Harper on a hovering stretcher, and took her away.

For far too long Carson stood there staring at the doors as they closed behind Sharpe.

Then he shook his head and forced himself to turn.

“Oh no, what did I do?” Cadet J’Etem croaked as she clapped her hands over her lips. Her eyes were wide and trembling with tears.

He turned to her and slowly glanced out at the rest of the cadets.

Everyone looked surprised.

And fair enough, though you often did have training accidents, that had been… terrible. That block had shot off toward Harper with unfathomable speed.

It could have killed her.

If Sharpe hadn’t managed to disengage the block and pull it from her chest, it would have.

“What did I do?” J’Etem whimpered again.

Even though Cadet J’Etem was a particularly skilled TI practitioner, Carson knew she hadn’t caused the accident. She didn’t have the power or the skill.

“It’s fine,” he tried, giving J’Etem what he hoped was a commiserating nod, “she’ll be fine,” he added under his breath.

“What happened?” one of the other cadets asked, walking over to the offending training block. It still lay exactly where Sharpe had dumped it after pulling it off Harper’s chest.

Frowning, Carson walked up to it and looked down. He lifted it up and turned it around in his hands.

It looked and felt normal, and as he quickly scanned it with his wrist device, he realized there wasn’t anything overtly wrong with it. “It’ll have to be tested. It’s probably just… an imbalance in the magnetized material,” he tried, realizing his explanation sounded implausible. Right now, he couldn’t come up with anything better, though.

“I’m so sorry,” Cadet J’Etem said, her hands still gripped over her mouth as her stunning eyes widened further.

“It wasn’t your fault. This was an accident,” Carson told her with a firm nod. “Now, I’m canceling this class. Return to your rooms, and head to your next class when it’s time.” With that, he nodded at Cadet J’Etem once more, hooked the training block under his arm, and headed for the doors. He’d take the block to one of the labs, to see if it really was malfunctioning in some way. Then he’d head up to the medical bay to see how Harper was.

Unfortunately, something came up, and by the time he reached the medical facility later that afternoon, Harper had already been discharged. Though the training block had broken several of her ribs and given her extensive internal bleeding, the wonders of modern medical technology had fixed her up immediately.

Apparently, she’d already been sent home.

Feeling disappointed that he hadn’t been able to see her, Carson promised himself that at the next opportunity he would get, he would drop in to see how she was.

And yes, this time he would find the time to ask exactly what had happened down on that planet and what exactly she’d been dreaming of.

Chapter 7

Cadet Nida Harper

She sat on the edge of her bed, pressing her fingers into her ribs.

They’d been fixed, but they still tingled.

Unpleasantly.

In fact, her whole body vibrated with pins and needles.

Pressing her lips together, she indulged in a groan.

Wow, hadn’t today been one for the books.

She was usually unlucky, but this was extreme, even for her.

Not only had she overslept again, only to fall asleep under a tree rather than getting to class, but she’d also been knocked out in the training center.

At least that hadn’t been her fault, though.

It had been an accident. One that no one was able to explain to her. Nobody had made that block go scooting across the training center to wallop her on the chest, so the prevailing theory was that the block itself had malfunctioned.

She’d never heard of TI blocks malfunctioning, but she wasn’t exactly the most knowledgeable cadet out there.

Pushing herself up, she let out a breath, being careful not to extend her chest out too much as she did.

Though her muscles didn’t ache, it felt weird to move them.

Because every damn thing felt weird.

Again, for about the millionth time, she brought up her left hand and stared at it.

She was still dimly aware of the terrible dream she’d had under the oak tree that morning. But it was fading.

She could recall that writhing blue energy biting its way into her palm and fingers, though, and it made her shudder.

“Come on,” she told herself through gritted teeth, “you have to do your assignments.”

She couldn’t put them off any longer. She was getting further and further behind. What was worse, she’d missed all afternoon due to her injury.

She slowly slouched over to her desk, neatened what she could, then stuck her tongue out as she considered the display on the hovering holographic computer screen. It sat about several centimeters above her desk, tipped at an angle so she could see it properly. Right now it displayed an enormous list of stuff she had to catch up on.

She tried closing her eyes, but when she opened them, the assignments hadn’t disappeared.

The last thing she wanted to do right now was work. She would prefer to make herself an enormous bowl of ramen and fold up on the couch watching holo movies. She couldn’t, though. She had to catch up.

So she sucked in a breath, stiffened her back, forced her chin to jut out, and got to work.

She did what she could, keeping the boring tasks until last.

And the boring tasks were always the same for her.

TI practice.

Ah, she hated it.

No matter how hard she tried, she never progressed. Everyone – including Sharpe – believed that with just enough sweat and tears, anyone could master their implant. Well, she’d sweated and she’d cried, but she was still at the bottom of the pile.

She stood up, marching over to her bedside table and picking up the tiny, itty-bitty TI cube she was meant to use for practice.

Fresh new cadets learned to master the use of this itty-bitty cube in their first week.

She still had trouble lifting it out of its case.

Sitting roughly on her bed, she shot the cube a merciless glare as it sat there, offending her by its mere existence.

Contrary to popular belief, Nida was not lazy. She tried her hardest. It just so happened that her hardest was never good enough.

She hadn’t given up yet. And that was something. But it was still seriously demoralizing every time she had to face her utter incompetence with the use of her TI.

“Okay,” she breathed dramatically, tipping her head back and rolling her eyes at the ceiling as if it agreed with her that all TI blocks were lame. “Come on,” she reached forward and pressed the button that would disengage the TI block from its pedestal.

There was a slight beep then a flash of yellow light.

Yellow light.

She knew it was yellow.

Yet for a heart pounding instant, she thought it was blue.

She blinked, even pressing her fingers into her closed eyelids. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she muttered, winking one eye open to confirm the light was most certainly yellow.

“You’re tired, you’re stressed, and you spent the afternoon being coaxed back from death,” she answered her own question. And it was a pretty good answer. There was nothing wrong with her, other than that which she’d already stated.

Feeling relieved at that conclusion, she leaned forward and spread the fingers of her right palm over the top of the TI block. Her hand hovered several centimeters above the block, and with a commanding thought, she tried to force the block to jump up into her grip.

It didn’t work.

It never worked.

But before she could give up and flop back down, something incredible happened.

The block began to spin.

Fast.

Blindingly fast.

In fact, the force of it rattled the bedside table.

“What the…?” she began, pushing herself back on her bed.

Then the block shot toward her.

She had just enough time to push her hand out to grab it before it slammed into her chest.

Then she held it.

Surprise slackened her jaw.

Had she just… moved the block on her own?

She slowly brought her palm out, opened the fingers, and stared at the little cube.

With a gulp, she set it back on her bedside table, then she pushed her hand out again. With a silent command, she imagined the block jumping up and flying into her grip.

It did.

Fast.

In fact, the speed of it threw her backward until she banged against the wall behind her bed.

“What?” she gasped, staring at the block tightly clasped in her fist.

Then she offered a quick, nervous laugh.

She tried it again.

She set the block down, she commanded it to come to her, then it came.

And the more she tried it, the quicker it came to her until she had to stop. Pain stabbed through her arm and hand from catching the speeding block, but she paid no attention to it.

Instead, she jumped to her feet, and she laughed.

Happily.

Wow. She’d done it.

She’d mastered the training block.

It had only taken her years and years of practice. But right now, that little fact didn’t matter. Nida let out a relieved laugh and skipped around the room.

She had to show somebody.

She had to prove to someone else at the Academy what she’d just been able to do. Otherwise she wouldn’t believe it herself.

With another happy little laugh, she opened her door and practically danced out into the living room.

She expected to see Alicia there, eating in front of the TV, looking bored as usual.

She didn’t.

Instead, she glanced over to see two men sitting on her couch.

She’d seen one off the Academy bulletins, and she knew the other personally.

Lieutenant Carson Blake.

In her apartment. Sitting on her sofa. Staring at her TV.

….

What the hell?

He looked up, and so did the man beside him, Lieutenant Travis.

They both appeared surprised, and she quickly realized she was in nothing more than a pair of flimsy black shorts and a singlet.

“Ah… what are you doing here?” she squeaked as she positioned herself behind the kitchen bench.

Blake actually looked flushed, but his friend just shrugged his shoulders. “Your flatmate Alicia is in her room. We’re just waiting for her.”

“Oh,” Nida muttered, quickly realizing that Travis and Blake were clearly the two lieutenants Alicia had mentioned last night.

What with one thing and another, Nida had completely forgotten Alicia had invited guests around. “Ah, right,” she managed, turning around to head back to her room.

She realized she was being rude, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to get back into her room before she blushed an even more incandescent shade of blue.

No, red.

She meant red.

God dammit, blue was on her brain.

As she shook her head to dislodge the thought, Blake got to his feet.

“How are you?” he asked quickly. “I didn’t get a chance to see you after the accident.” He looked genuinely concerned, and as he crossed from the lounge toward the open kitchen, he appeared to assess her for any sign of injury.

Which was kind of embarrassing considering she was still in her pajamas.

“What?” she asked stupidly as she tried to hide behind the bench.

“You’re accident,” he said slowly as if he were talking to a child, “in the training center. The block.” His eyebrows knit together as he took a swallow.

“Oh, that? It’s fine.” She flopped a hand at him.

As she did, a small drop of blood flew from her palm and landed on the clean white bench before her.

“Hey, are you cut?” Blake took several sharp steps up to her side.

“No,” she answered automatically, then brought her hand up to stare at it.

It was bruised, cut, and blood was dripping down her palm and fingers.

….

The cube.

Jesus.

Every time she’d caught the training block, it had been moving with such force, it had lacerated her hand.

Yet… she hadn’t noticed.

The excitement of being able to move the cube had somehow blocked out the pain of injuring her hand.

“Um,” she managed dumbly as she continued to stare at her palm.

Looking up to see Blake’s clear shock, she quickly cleared her throat, closed her hand into a fist, and nodded. “Um yeah,” she managed. “Just a little. It’s fine,” she added.

He was looking at her askance as if she were mad. “That looks pretty bad.”

“It’s fine,” she squeaked.

“How did you do it?” he kept trying to shift around the bench to get a closer look at her, but she wouldn’t let him. She just ducked further around the bench to keep her threadbare shorts from view.

“Ah… fell over?” she tried, knowing her questioning tone was unconvincing.

Before Blake could call her bluff, the main doors opened, and Alicia’s friend Bridget walked in.

She gave Nida a pointed look.

It was time for Nida to make a discreet exit before she could get in any trouble.

“Right,” she squeaked, “enjoy your date.” With that, she turned and practically threw herself at her door.

Once she was through it and it closed behind her, she leaned there, shaking her head as she did.

“Oh… oh, that was just… perfect,” she managed sarcastically.

Carson Blake of all people had been in her living room. What was worse, she’d acted like a complete idiot by not realizing she’d cut herself.

With a heavy swallow, she brought up her right hand and stared at it.

It was badly bruised now. She could see the familiar mottled pattern of purple, black, and murky red.

The bleeding was slowing at least.

She took a breath as she poked her injuries with her good hand.

They didn’t… hurt. Not like they should. A dull ache radiated from them, sending a mild cold sensation pushing through her wrist, but that was it.

She’d bruised herself before, and she’d cut herself – multiple times – and it never felt like this.

It was almost as if her brain was preoccupied with something else. Like her central nervous system was too busy processing the tingles burrowing into her flesh to bother with the pain from her latest injury.

She grated her teeth back and forth, still poking at the bruise, then she pushed up from the door and stared over at her computer.

She wondered whether she should try to contact one of her doctors, just to let them know what was happening to her… in case it was serious. But with a sigh, she realized there was no point. They’d already checked her over thoroughly, and she had a reputation for being a walking accident – one she didn’t want to keep adding to.

Still, as she turned her attention back to her hand, she decided she would definitely see someone in the morning if her weird symptoms persisted. Right now, however, she would have to bandage her hand.

She walked over to her bedside table, grabbing a top from it and holding it tight against her bleeding hand.

Then she glanced at the training block.

She’d placed it back in the cradle once she’d finished practicing with it.

It sat there, locked in place by several strong metal clamps.

She felt sick as she looked at it.

In fact, horrible nausea started to lift through her, making her shiver and sweat.

As she stared at the training block, she swore she saw the yellow light on the cradle flash to blue.

Then the intercom on her door beeped.

She jumped, letting out a yelp.

“Ah, Harper?” someone asked hesitantly.

It was Carson.

She was thankful for the soundproof walls. She didn’t need him thinking she was any more pathetic than he already did.

“Harper?” he tried again. “Are you alright?”

She clenched her teeth and sucked a breath through them.

She shook her head.

She was starting to realize that just maybe she wasn’t alright.

She couldn’t feel her hand. The pain… it just wasn’t there.

And those flashes of blue….

She shook her head again, the move sharp and desperate.

“Harper?” Carson asked once more.

She stood up.

She had to go back to the medical bay. Okay, so the doctors would likely tell her she was just being a hypochondriac, but she had to check.

She walked to the door.

Alicia and Bridget would kill her for coming out and interrupting their pre-date, or whatever it was, but Nida didn’t have a choice.

Plus, if Alicia didn’t kill her, this cold, stone-like sensation would.

Reaching for the door, Nida was about to open it before she realized she was still half dressed.

“Woops,” she mumbled to herself as she cast around for her clothes.

She walked over to where she’d dumped her uniform.

She didn’t reach it.

“Harper?” Carson tried once more. “Seriously, are you alright in there?”

There was a crack.

A loud one.

She had just a second to look up as she saw the training block tear from its cradle.

It shot toward her.

She stumbled backward, throwing herself at the wall and pushing out her hand to catch the block.

She managed to catch it, but the force of it bowling into her served to slam her against the door.

It also broke her wrist.

She could hear it, but she couldn’t feel it.

Then the block kept on moving.

Though she’d caught it, it didn’t stop.

It twisted in her grip, flinging her with it as it smashed into the door. Her knuckles slammed against the unyielding metal of the door frame, and she screamed in horror as blood splattered from them.

She still couldn’t feel it, though.

And the block still didn’t stop moving.

Yet no matter how hard she tried to let it go, she couldn’t.

It felt as if her fingers had turned to stone.

Chapter 8

Carson Blake

Come on, Carson,” Travis said from the couch, “she clearly doesn’t want to talk to you. Just leave her alone.”

Carson turned over his shoulder to shoot Travis a silencing glare. “She is injured,” Carson said clearly.

“She’s always injured,” the woman called Bridget laughed. “Travis is right. She’ll be fine.”

Carson looked at them both, then he promptly turned around, jammed his thumb into the intercom button by Cadet Harper’s door, and asked to be let in again.

“Carson, come on,” Travis tried as he finally got up from the couch.

“Nope,” Carson answered clearly. “You guys can go, but Nida is injured, and needs to go to the med bay. Plus, after the accident today, I owe it to her to check,” he added under his breath.

“What accident? You mean the one in the training center? Did that happen to her?” Travis asked conversationally.

Carson didn’t bother to reply.

Then he heard something.

A thump.

A loud one.

It came from Harper’s room.

He stood back sharply.

Then he snapped forward and jammed his finger back into the button. “Harper, Harper,” he snapped, “open the door. What happened? Are you alright?”

“She probably just tripped over,” Bridget tried from behind him, but her voice wavered.

Travis now walked quickly to his side.

There was another resounding thump from Harper’s door.

“Okay, this isn’t right,” Carson breathed quickly.

Then he did something he probably shouldn’t.

He invaded Cadet Nida Harper’s privacy by overriding the lock on her door.

It was easy, especially with his level of clearance. All it took was several codes typed into the panel on the wall.

The door opened.

With a swish.

And Nida flew out.

He had time to duck to the side, furling an arm out to grab her around the middle.

Her torso slammed against his grip, as something propelled her forward.

Everything happened so damn fast.

He kept his arm around her, but he had to use every gram of his strength not to let her go.

Then, with a crack that sounded like bone snapping, something erupted from her hand.

Small and black, he realized it was a training cube. The tiniest and easiest of the training cubes in fact.

Well, it sprung from her grip like a bullet, then shot across the room.

He had barely a second before it changed direction abruptly and headed straight back for Nida, traveling at blinding speed.

Travis jumped forward, grabbing the cube as he did, his right arm exploding in yellow energy as he turned his TI onto full.

Though he managed to catch the cube, he couldn’t stop it, and it dragged him forward, his boots squeaking dramatically across the floor.

“Turn it off,” Carson commanded, spitting his words desperately.

“I can’t,” Travis spoke through clenched teeth, tension making every muscle in his neck protrude outward. The tiny training cube in his hand kept pulling him forward, right toward Harper.

“Turn it off,” Carson now screamed. He still had an arm around Harper. She was practically limp in his grip, her right arm hanging loose against his, blood covering it and splashing against his boots.

“I can’t,” Travis said, yellow energy cascading up his arm, indicating his TI was at full capacity.

It would ordinarily take little effort for someone like Travis to turn off a TI cube, let alone such a small one.

But he couldn’t, and he clearly gave it everything he had.

The cube kept dragging Travis forward as it forced itself toward Harper.

If or when Travis let go of it, the little cube would punch forward with such speed, it would likely rip through Harper’s chest.

Realizing that in a cold wash of dread, Carson thrust Harper back and through her open bedroom door. Then he reached up and closed it.

He watched the doors swish shut with a whispered hiss.

He stared at them.

He had barely a second to turn toward Harper. She lay still, his free arm still pinning her to his side.

She was awake and breathing erratically, but her right arm was a bloody mess against her stomach.

Before he could reach down to check on her, something slammed into the closed doors, forcing them to buckle forward.

He jumped, doubling back.

He watched the metal bend and twist as a small cube-shaped dent appeared in it.

The training block was forcing its way in, right through the closed, reinforced doors.

He swore loudly, then snapped his attention back to Harper.

She couldn’t be doing this. Not only did she have precious little ability with her TI implant, but she was also practically out cold, and yet the block was still moving.

He stared at her quickly, realization dawning on him.

Her implant.

It had to be malfunctioning.

It was the only thing that could explain what was happening and what had happened earlier today.

He reached down, just as the doors gave a groan.

As quick as he could, with sweat covering his brow and building up between his fingers, he pushed the top of her singlet down.

All TI implants were embedded just below the throat, and he quickly found hers with trembling fingers.

He then commanded his own implant with a quick and powerful thought, sending a pulse of yellow energy through his palm. It pushed down against the small, round, silver implant that was flush with her skin.

He would try to turn it off. And if that didn’t work… Christ, he’d have no option but to rip it from her throat.

It wouldn’t kill her, but unless he stopped that training block, it would rip through her like hail through a spider web.

He waited, unable to breathe, barely capable of thinking, and poised with so much tension raking his body his bones could have shattered.

He waited for the implant to turn off. With a click, it did.

But the block didn’t stop.

He turned his head in a snap to see the doors still buckling under the cube’s force.

He stared at the sight, surprise ripping through him.

Then, just as the doors threatened to give way, the groaning stopped.

Silence filtered in.

He heard Travis swearing from the other side, and with a heavy breath, Carson realized it was over.

“Are you alright?” Travis screamed at him.

“Fine,” Carson shot back.

Then he turned.

And he stared at her.

She was still awake, but only barely.

She was on her back, her body twisted in an uncomfortable arrangement, her head lolled to the side as she stared at her bloodied right palm.

“It’s okay,” he dropped to his knees beside her, his palm hovering over her badly injured arm.

She looked up at him, wheezing as she laboriously turned her neck.

She would be in incredible pain.

“A medical team will be here soon,” he promised her, then he sat back and screamed at Travis to get the door open and get a doctor here now.

When he returned his attention to Harper, he saw how strange her expression was. It wasn’t twisted in agony, only confusion.

“You’ll be okay. Your implant malfunctioned. I’ve turned it off. You’ll be okay,” he repeated, possibly for his own benefit. “Just lie there and try not to think about the pain.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” she answered, her voice filled with a far-off quality.

He bristled, the hair on the back of his neck standing straight. “What?”

“I can’t feel it,” she mumbled, still breathing hard. “I can’t move it,” she added, still staring at her hand.

“You’ll be fine. You’re just injured,” he promised her.

“It feels like stone,” she managed.

He shivered.

There was a horrible, sorrowful edge to her tone.

“Hey,” he leaned down, ducking his head close to hers, trying to distract her, “the medical team is coming. Everything is going to be fine.”

She looked up at him, her hazel eyes wide.

Her expression stilled him. No, it reached into him and imprinted itself upon his mind. If he closed his eyes, he’d still be able to see her horribly pale cheeks and drawn, thin, blue-tinged lips.

“It’ll be alright,” he said one last time.

“No it won’t be,” she whispered.

Then she blacked out, her head slumping to the side.

He checked her, confirming she was still alive. Then he stood up and stared at the door.

It was destroyed.

Completely warped.

In a second, there was a thump, then another, and it buckled in.

Travis came rushing through, a medical team just behind him. “What the hell just happened?” Travis stared at Carson with pale shock slackening his usually confident expression.

Carson placed a hand on his mouth, locking it around his lips. It took him too long to realize his fingers were covered in Nida’s blood, and it was only the distinct tangy smell of iron that made him shiver and pull his hand away.

The medical team set to work immediately.

Carson was struck with the realization this was the second time he’d seen Harper packed gently on a hover stretcher today.

This time, however, he was going with her.

As a thin-lipped doctor surveyed her arm, she stood and nodded at him to get out of her way.

“Hold on, I’m coming too,” Carson announced. Before the doctor could protest, he put his hand up and shook his head. “That’s an order,” he said simply.

“What the hell is going on?” Travis breathed heavily as he stood out of the way and let the stretcher and doctor pass. He shot Carson a pleading look. “I couldn’t stop that training block. I mean, I used everything. I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t even slow it down.”

Carson tried to nod, but he couldn’t. Instead, he stood there and shivered for a moment. “It was her implant. It malfunctioned,” he said, but his voice sounded hollow.

“Implants don’t malfunction,” Travis croaked back, “not the new ones.”

“Well, this one did,” Carson swallowed, his Adam’s apple pushing hard against his high collar. “That block only stopped once I turned her implant off.”

Travis looked sickened from his shock, but he finally nodded and pushed a trembling hand through his hair.

It was his right hand, the one he usually used to manipulate TI objects.

It probably hurt like hell, Carson realized. “You should get that checked out,” he nodded at Travis’ hand.

Travis looked at it, then nodded. “I intend to. But right now, I need a real stiff drink.”

Carson gave a sharp, bitter laugh. “So do I. But it can wait. You stay here and—” he began.

“Explain to anyone that asks what happened to that door,” Travis nodded at the badly warped metal.

“Yep,” Carson nodded. “I’m going to go to the med bay with her. I want to be there when she wakes up,” he added needlessly.

He didn’t have to be there when she woke up; Carson barely knew Harper, and their interactions to-date all revolved around her injuring herself.

But that didn’t matter; he wanted to be there anyway.

Travis shrugged his shoulders and shot Carson a knowing look. “Alright then. You run off, and I’ll deal with the aftermath,” he mumbled as he poked the warped door with his boot.

With that, Carson gave his friend a quick nod, then picked his way out of Cadet Nida Harper’s room.

As he did, he briefly glanced around at it.

It was neat and clean, or at least it would have been before a training cube had smashed it up.

There were several paintings on the walls, and a holo photo of Nida with a smiling man and woman who were probably her parents. She had a big, friendly grin on her face, and her arms were scooped around the both of them.

He turned away from the photo sharply, realizing it was an invasion of her privacy, and walked out of the room.

Alicia and his date – Bridget – were standing in the lounge room, their faces ashen with fright.

He barely knew them, and he’d only agreed to accompany Travis on this double date because the guy had twisted his arm.

Still, he offered them both a sedate smile. “We’re going to have to cancel,” he said quietly.

“What… what happened?” Alicia asked quickly, her words barely audible as she spluttered through them.

“Accident,” he mumbled, his tone reserved. “Everything will be fine. Harper… is going to the medical bay, and Travis will stay here to clean things up. Everything will be fine,” he added needlessly as he backed away through the room.

“What, you’re leaving?” Bridget asked through a quick blink.

“Sorry, I’m going to see how she is,” he answered briefly. He lifted a hand in goodbye, then practically ran from the room.

Then he headed as fast as he could to the main medical bay of the Academy.

There he waited as doctors saw to Cadet Nida Harper.

He had a lot of time to think.

Yet all he could think of was the moment she’d burst from her door, straight into his arms, blood covering her right arm as her hand had clutched that speeding cube.

It seemed to take longer than usual for the doctors to fix Harper up, and the hours drew on and on.

But he didn’t leave.

He just waited until she finally woke up.

Chapter 9

Cadet Nida Harper

She woke with a start.

She’d been dreaming again. That same damn dream. She’d been back on the planet, her hand covered in writhing blue energy.

As her eyes shot open, she stared at the ceiling, breathing hard.

It took her way too long to realize the ceiling wasn’t hers.

Then she heard someone stand sharply by her side, their shoes squeaking on the floor.

She turned to see Carson Blake.

She blinked back her surprise.

“You’re in the medical bay,” he said clearly and slowly, “you were injured. You’re fine now, though,” he actually sighed with relief as he noted that.

“What? What do you mean I’m in the medical bay?” she asked, her tone high with disbelief.

Then she realized with a quick glance past Carson that she was indeed in the medical bay. She’d been here enough times to recognize it easily.

“It’s okay,” he reached her side, then his hand hovered awkwardly above her shoulder as if he wanted to rest it there reassuringly. “There was an accident. Do you remember what happened?”

She stared at him, trying to push past the remnants of her dream. They still fogged up her memory, making everything else seem indistinct and far off. But slowly it came back. “The training center,” she managed. “That block that hit me.”

He nodded, but he pressed his lips together hard, the flesh crumpling and turning white and blue. “Yeah, that happened, but do you remember what happened in your apartment?”

She stared at him.

She tried to recall something, anything.

After a pause, she shook her head. “No.”

His shoulders sagged, and he grabbed his mouth, breathing hard through his fingers. “Okay, one of the doctors should probably tell you this, but they aren’t around. You… um… your implant malfunctioned,” he managed.

She couldn’t do anything but stare at him. She knew she looked like a complete idiot, but she couldn’t help it. “What do you mean?”

“It malfunctioned,” he breathed uneasily, “the doctors have confirmed it. It sent… a training block,” he stopped, clearly trying to select his words carefully, “you had an accident with a training block,” he shook his head.

“I don’t understand,” she answered truthfully.

“You don’t remember what happened in your room? You don’t remember the small TI block you keep on your bedside table?” he tried hopefully.

She went to shake her head. But she stopped.

A thrill of excitement raced through her, almost immediately followed by dread.

She remembered sitting on her bed and succeeding for the first time in her life at controlling her TI block. She recalled commanding it to come to her, and the small thing zipping through the air with incredible speed.

Then, with a terrible chill, she remembered the block slamming into her hand and bashing her against the door.

She collapsed her fingers over her mouth and whimpered.

He winced. “It’s okay. Everything is fine now. Nobody got hurt. I mean… nobody but you,” he corrected awkwardly.

She kept her fingers pressed hard against her lips, forcing the warm flesh against her teeth. Then she jerked it back as she realized it was her right hand.

She stared at it in horror.

“They fixed you up,” he assured her. “No permanent damage. And your implant has been recalibrated. It won’t malfunction again.”

She clutched her right hand into a fist, closed her eyes, and tried to control herself.

Carson Blake was standing by her bedside after having saved her from another training accident, and here she was, falling apart like the pathetic cadet everyone thought she was.

Blinking one eye open to see him still staring at her compassionately, she cleared her throat.

“Thank you,” she managed.

He laughed. It was a frustrated, disbelieving move, and not one of mirth. “Don’t thank me. I should have realized there was something wrong with your implant after that incident in the training center,” he admitted, his tone tight with guilt.

She looked at him, assessing him as carefully as she could.

He didn’t look like he was lying, which meant he somehow genuinely thought this was his fault.

“Why?” she asked suddenly.

He considered her, his surprise evident. “I just should have realized. That block in the training center checked out as normal… so I should have at least considered the possibility your implant had malfunctioned.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” she told him evenly. “None of the doctors thought my implant could be acting up, and neither did Sharpe,” she added quickly, “and Sharpe thinks of everything.”

Carson considered her quietly, then offered a half smile.

“So you can hardly blame yourself, not unless you want to blame Sharpe too. And let me tell you, he’s faultless. Blaming that man will get you nowhere.”

Carson laughed. It was a soft move, and the sound of it echoing through the empty room was a welcome one.

Briefly, it made her forget what had just happened to her.

But its effect didn’t last.

All too soon, she brought up her hand to stare at it again.

But it wasn’t her right hand – the one she’d damaged in her room – no, it was her left palm.

The one that danced with energy in her dreams.

She frowned at it, considering the marks in her flesh and the whorls on her fingertips.

“What is it?”

She let the hand drop and tried to ignore it. “Nothing. I’m sure it’s just stress. The doctors keep telling me I’m just stressed,” she closed her eyes, “because I’m so far behind on my assignments and so damn unlucky and accident-prone.” She laughed bitterly. “And now I suppose I’m going to miss tomorrow’s classes and get even further behind.”

“Today’s classes,” he corrected gently.

“What?”

“It’s 6 A.M. in the morning,” he pointed out, gesturing to a window behind him.

She stared at it dumbly.

She could see dawn streaming in through the glass.

“How long have I been out?” she croaked.

“10 hours, 45 minutes,” he answered, his tone tight.

“Wh… what?”

“They had trouble rousing you,” his cheeks twitched as he spoke. “Your injuries were more extensive than they first thought,” he reasoned.

“Oh…she managed after a lengthy pause. “Right… okay,” she forced a smile, “so it’s tomorrow already, and I get the day off, again,” she couldn’t hold her smile, “which means Sharpe is going to be on my case for missing too many classes,” she groaned.

“No he won’t be,” Carson said immediately, “he knows what happened here. I told him myself.”

She blinked as she looked up at Carson Blake.

With a few rays of light filtering in from the window behind him, he looked almost otherworldly. He stood with such poise and confidence, it seemed he could take on the world.

Carson Freaking Blake.

The finest graduate of the Galactic Coalition Academy in years.

The most popular man around.

And he was standing in her hospital room, trying his hardest to reassure her everything would be fine.

What exactly had she done to deserve this? How exactly had she captured the attention of someone like Carson?

Despite the rumors, Nida was not soppy, and neither did she have particularly low self-esteem. Though she appreciated Carson was popular and realized he was objectively handsome, that was it. She wasn’t the kind of girl who would go pink at the prospect he’d smiled at her.

Instead, it just confused her deeply.

Girls like Alicia commanded the attention of men like Carson Blake, because they were made for each other. And she hoped they’d be happy together.

Nida, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to keep up with someone like Carson. He was too flashy, too important, and too well known.

She liked a quiet life. Or at least she usually did, when she wasn’t tripping over and almost dying, that was.

But still, she had to wonder what the hell he was doing in her hospital room looking so deeply and genuinely concerned.

“They’ll let you go soon,” he promised, sighing as he did. “But I’m going to get them to check your implant one last time.”

“Okay,” she answered, incapable of thinking of anything else to say.

Was this the bit where she was meant to throw herself at him and thank him for saving her? Well, of course she was grateful, but she wasn’t going to do it.

Someone like Bridgett might do it, but someone like Bridgett would want the attention of Carson Blake.

It just made Nida confused.

With a sigh, she shifted her head back until she stared up at the ceiling. Then she closed her eyes.

“You’re probably tired,” he muttered.

“Hmm,” she answered.

“You should get some rest. I’ll have one of the doctors look in on you later,” he promised.

“Ah ha,” she managed.

“You’ll be okay,” he said one last time.

It was as if he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He’d repeated that exact same phrase like ten times already.

Realizing she shouldn’t be rude, she muttered a quick thank you, then let her head sink back down into her pillow.

She felt sleep creep toward her again, drawing a sheet of perfect black over her mind as it did.

And there, within the black, she saw a glint.

A blue flash.

Light, like water lapping and trickling over stone, washed around her, escaping from her left hand and plunging deep, deep into her chest.

….

Chapter 10

Carson Blake

Without another word, she turned around and promptly fell asleep.

He blinked back his surprise.

Then he saw it.

Her left hand.

It twitched as if it were trying to catch hold of something.

The move was slight, but it was there.

His expression compressed with confusion and suspicion.

Just what was wrong with her?

How had her implant malfunctioned?

And what exactly did she keep dreaming of?

Before she’d woken up, he’d sat dutifully in her room. As he had, he’d seen her dream.

It had been fitful. Her hand had kept clutching back and forth, catching nothing but air.

He’d pointed it out to a passing doctor, but they’d dismissed it as random nerve activity.

Carson couldn’t dismiss it, though.

He couldn’t dismiss anything. All he could do was sit there and remember – in perfect, agonizing detail – what had happened in her room.

He tried to reassure himself her implant had just malfunctioned, but it was a small and bitter consolation.

He wanted a better reason.

He wanted this to be more than an accident.

Yes, that was it. That was why he couldn’t ignore her twitching hand. That’s why he couldn’t pull himself from her side, even though she was asleep again.

He needed this not to be random.

Though he didn’t really know why.

….

With a heavy blink, he realized he was very much tired, and very much confused.

He’d had one hell of a night, and he couldn’t realistically spend the rest of the day sitting by a random cadet’s bedside.

Because, seriously, he hardly knew her.

People would start to talk.

Reluctantly, he got to his feet.

He tried to make it to the door, but he couldn’t.

Instead, he turned, and he sat back down again.

Her left hand kept twitching as she slept.

Again, a restless silence descended on her, and he sat there uncomfortably on the edge of his chair as he listened to it.

She shifted her head to the side, sighing heavily.

She didn’t wake up, though.

A part of him felt wrong for watching her while she slumbered.

In fact, again he pushed to his feet.

This time he walked toward the door resolutely.

He didn’t reach it.

She whispered something.

“Help me.”

Just two little words.

He could barely make them out.

And they locked him to the spot.

She shifted again, her left hand clutching harder at the air.

He stood there in the doorway, staring at her, waiting to hear it once more.

Just as his heart started to calm, she whispered those two little words again, “help me.”

She was still unconscious; the computer panel lodged into the wall above her bed confirmed that.

She was just talking in her sleep.

She said it one last time, then she shifted, rolling over, wrapping her arms around herself.

She stilled.

Her left hand stopped clutching at the air, and she didn’t whisper another word.

It took him a long time to leave. In fact, it wasn’t until a doctor walked in beside him that he managed to shift back from her.

He told the doctor she’d woken up, then he backed out of the room.

As he walked through the corridors of the medical bay, he felt numb.

Her whispered words kept echoing in his head.

She’d been asleep, and they had meant nothing, but he couldn’t stop them from reverberating through his mind.

It took a long time to shake off their effects, but he couldn’t forget them, no matter how hard he tried. Work, however, got in the way. And soon enough Carson found himself pulled into one distracting task after another.

He didn’t get a chance to go back to see her that day. In fact, by the time he went to check on her, she’d been discharged again.

This time he didn’t wait to chance upon her naturally. He went straight to her apartment.

True, he hardly knew her.

And, yeah, people might start to wonder why he was paying ‘the worst recruit in 1000 years’ so much attention.

But that didn’t stop him.

Chapter 11

Cadet Nida Harper

She tried to concentrate during her classes, but she couldn’t. Her attention kept on drifting.

She swore she was seeing things. She even rang the medical bay to mention this to one of the doctors, but they reassured her it was nothing.

She just needed rest.

They’d released her about midday, and though she’d been given an order to return to her apartment for some bed rest, she’d ignored it.

It hadn’t been a direct order, and she really couldn’t afford to miss any more classes.

So she’d headed to her next lecture instead.

She’d slipped in the back of a lecture hall, yet again, just as Sharpe was finishing up some prosaic talk on the history of telekinetic implants.

She’d tried to pay attention to him, she honestly had, but all too soon, she’d realized that the people around her had stopped listening and had turned to stare at her instead.

She was no stranger to attention, but it only ever coincided with when she was making an idiot out of herself. Other than that, all the other cadets ignored her.

Well, they weren’t ignoring her now. She could feel their collective stares concentrate on the back of her neck with all the force of an anti-matter laser.

She tried to ignore it and focus on Sharpe, but she couldn’t. Not only was it seriously hard to brush off everyone’s gobsmacked gazes, she simply couldn’t focus. It felt as if her mind had been replaced with fog.

Once the lecture was over, she jumped up and scooted out the back before anyone could ask her questions.

Clearly, news about what had happened last night had spread.

She didn’t want to answer any questions, because she doubted she could give a satisfactory reply.

She had no idea why her implant had malfunctioned, and that was a question only someone way smarter than her would be able to answer.

Though she tried to get away, it was hard, and she had to race past quite a few curious cadets to get to safety.

She quickly ducked down several corridors, feeling a little like she was running away from the press.

Then, finally, when the coast was clear, she felt a sudden burst of pain stab hard through her chest.

She doubled over and planted a hand on the wall beside her, breathing hard.

“Harper,” someone snapped.

She looked up to see Sharpe bearing down on her.

“Oh, umm,” she straightened, thankful her shooting pain lasted only for a few seconds.

Sharpe shot her a withering look, but it didn’t last. With a shake of his head, he sighed. “What are you doing?” he asked, his exasperation clear.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” she tried, patting at her uniform, trying to make it neat. “I had a little accident last night.”

“Little?” he gave a disbelieving laugh, “it was a major accident. And I know all about it.”

She winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” she began.

“It was hardly your fault, Harper,” he said.

“It wasn’t?” she asked stupidly.

He gave a long-suffering sigh. Then he shooed several cadets along as they walked up the corridor, gawking at her.

She was silently thankful for his help. And it felt weird to be thankful for anything Sharpe did.

Then he returned his burning gaze to her, and she felt like withering up and dying on the spot.

“I thought your doctors told you to go back to your apartment to get some rest,” he enquired with a snap.

“Um, no, they suggested it. When I asked whether it was a direct order, they said it wasn’t,” she managed bravely.

“Ha. So you thought you’d ignore their suggestion,” he stressed that word, “and come to class. Well, I admire your sudden enthusiasm, but do us both a favor, and just go home.”

“I can’t,” she swallowed hard, muscling up some courage as she did, “I’m too far behind.”

“You can catch up later,” he snapped.

“No. I’m fine,” she said with a firmer tone. “I can do this.”

“Harper,” he looked at her menacingly, “the doctors might not have ordered you back to your apartment, but I’m going to. Go back now,” he said each word slowly, “before someone has to carry you back,” he added under his breath.

She was used to being insulted by Sharpe; it happened nearly every day.

She usually didn’t react; she would just tuck her chin in, nod her head, and mutter a “yes, sir.”

But this time she didn’t.

Blame it on the fog in her mind, or the power of the dreams still haunting her, but she looked directly into his eyes. “You can’t do that, sir. You can’t override a medical decision; you aren’t a doctor.”

Sharpe looked shocked for a second, then his eyebrows descended darkly over his eyes. “Are you challenging me?”

“No,” she choked, now realizing this had been a bad idea, but also realizing she couldn’t back down yet, “I’m just asking you to cut me some slack for once,” her voice wavered.

Dammit.

She hated showing weakness in front of Sharpe, because Sharpe treated weakness as an excuse to harass you even more.

He looked ready to shout at her, but he stopped.

He stood back.

He took a breath.

He shook his head. “Fine, you can go to class. But take it easy,” he said each word slowly as if she were especially hard of hearing, “and if you black out, I will use this as a personal excuse to kick your ass. Do you understand?”

She nodded.

Had… she just won?

Had she stood her ground against Commander Sharpe and actually managed to get him to change his mind?

“Be careful,” he snapped as he turned away from her. “And, Harper, I’m glad you’re alright,” he added as he walked off.

….

What?

Sharpe was glad she was alright?

Was he just messing with her?

Was this an alien mind game?

No, she realized as he walked off stiffly.

He was glad she was alright.

Because although he spent his life making hers hell, she knew deep down he didn’t hate her.

Oh, he loathed her weakness and general incompetence, yes, but he didn’t hate her.

Surprised at that realization, she quickly ran to her next class, though she was careful not to push herself too hard.

Though the other cadets all stared at her and tried to ask her questions during her break, she managed to avoid them.

Then, eventually, she made her way back home.

She was exhausted.

Really, really exhausted.

When she got in the door to her apartment, she greeted the place with a shaking sigh.

She wanted a steaming hot bowl of pasta topped off with mounds of cheese. And she wanted it now.

She also wanted to curl up on the couch and waste the night away watching crap on the holo TV.

She wouldn’t get the chance.

As soon as the doors closed behind her, Alicia was on her feet, marching up to Nida’s side.

“What the hell happened to you?” she looked Nida squarely in the eyes.

Nida gulped, shrugging her shoulders as she brought her hands up to wave Alicia off. “I’m fine.”

“Fine?” Alicia spoke the word with all the force of a slap. “What do you mean? Have you seen your bedroom door?”

Nida turned to look at her door. “It seems fine.”

“That’s because it was replaced,” Alicia huffed. “After that training cube of yours obliterated it.”

Nida blinked her eyes closed.

She didn’t want to remember what had happened last night.

“Okay, this is too weird. But what are you doing just standing there?” Alicia snapped again.

“What should I be doing?” Nida asked warily.

“Go and sit on the couch, girl. Put your damn feet up. You almost died last night. I mean, you totally ruined my double date with the most eligible bachelors in all of the Academy, but you still almost died. And I’m a pretty forgiving soul.”

Nida looked at her flatmate askance. “Are you being nice to me?”

“Yes,” Alicia said defensively, taking Nida by the arm and leading her toward the couch. She even fluffed up a pillow.

“Why?”

“Because you almost died,” Alicia pointed out peevishly. “And I’m not a total bitch. And damn you for thinking I am,” she waggled a stiff finger at Nida. “Now, what do you want for dinner? Wait, no, I already know. One of those enormous bowls of pasta with cheese, right?”

Nida nodded happily.

“You’re so predictable,” Alicia sighed. “Now tell me what happened when you got to the med bay? I’ve been trying to contact you all day, but you’ve been in classes. And what’s up with that, by the way? What are you doing going to class after you almost died?”

It felt strange to hear Alicia repeating that fact.

Nida had almost died.

If it hadn’t been for Carson and his friend, Travis, she would have.

She felt cold and gave a tight shiver.

Alicia saw it and immediately walked over to the panel on the wall, turning up the heat.

“So,” she asked after an almost polite pause, “what happened in the med bay? Or can you not talk about it?”

“Ha? I can talk about it,” Nida answered, confused at Alicia’s suggestion.

“Really? I thought they’d be keeping this under wraps until they know exactly what happened to your implant. I mean, TIs aren’t meant to malfunction. They used to in the bad old days, but one hasn’t malfunctioned in years. So I just figured they wouldn’t let you talk about it until they are damn sure what went wrong, so they can allay everyone’s fears.”

Nida’s lips dropped open.

She hadn’t thought of that.

In fact, she’d barely considered why her implant had stuffed up.

It was, strangely enough, the least of her problems.

Her dreams, however, commanded her full attention.

“So what happened?” Alicia prompted again, clearly eager to get the full story.

“Ah, nothing much. They recalibrated my implant, apparently, and fixed me up. When I woke up this morning, Carson told me what happened. I fell asleep again, and then they discharged me, and I went back to class. I’m afraid that’s all I know. They didn’t tell me anything more.”

Alicia turned, her mouth dropping open dramatically. “Sorry, what?” she asked excitedly.

“They recalibrated my implant,” Nida suggested hesitantly. “Do you think that means it malfunctioned? Do you think it’s serious?”

“I’m sorry, skip back to the bit where you said Carson Blake told you what happened. Did he go to see you?” Alicia asked excitedly.

“Ah, no; he was there when I woke up.”

Alicia closed her eyes, then opened them wide. “What? He stayed with you the whole night? Are you serious?”

“Ah, I don’t know. He was just there when I woke up. I think he’d been sitting in the chair in my room, waiting for me to regain consciousness.”

“Carson Blake?” Alicia questioned. “The Carson Blake?”

“Yes,” Nida managed quietly.

“Oh my god, Bridgett is going to kill you,” Alicia chuckled as she bit her lip.

She didn’t sound malicious, and Nida scrunched her lips together. “It doesn’t mean anything. I think he just… wanted to see if I was okay.”

“Yeah, so he spent the whole night sitting next to you, when he could have easily gone home to sleep, and check in on you later,” Alicia laughed harshly. “Because that makes so much sense.”

“Ah… I don’t know if he stayed there the whole night,” Nida said, getting defensive. “Maybe he just popped in to see me. I don’t know.”

“This is incredible,” Alicia continued, clearly ignoring Nida.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Nida tried again, her frustration building.

“What? Are you getting angry because the most eligible bachelor and popular guy in the Academy heroically saved you and spent the whole night at your bedside?” Alicia ticked her head from side to side.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Nida snapped again, “and why should I care if he’s popular?”

“You are so weird,” Alicia rolled her eyes and let out a heavy sigh. “It’s Carson Freaking Blake, man. It’s Carson Blake,” she repeated slower.

“And he’s just a guy,” Nida sat back, crossing her arms, knowing she was right. “I’m not interested in him,” she added.

Alicia guffawed. “What do you mean you’re not interested? Are you blind? Have you ever seen him?”

“Yes,” Nida said, wanting to add she’d seen him up close several times as he’d saved her life.

“And you don’t like what you see?” Alicia rallied.

“He’s not an object,” Nida noted with a harrumph.

“Yeah, okay, he’s not an object. But you’re nuts. You can’t seriously pretend you’re not even a little bit interested,” Alicia laughed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Nida tried, “he’s not interested in me. I’m not his type. Bridgett is,” she pointed out evenly.

“Ah ha, you are interested,” Alicia confirmed triumphantly, “and you’re right. Bridgett is so his type – that’s why I set them up on a date.”

Nida huffed. “He’s just a guy,” she tried one last time.

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time,” Alicia turned and fobbed a hand her way. “Now how much cheese do you want on your pasta exactly?” She walked over to the food oven. It was a small, oblong box nestled into the wall. In one of the cupboards underneath it were stacks of silver foil nutrition packs. If you upended one of the packs into a bowl and loaded it into the oven, you could program the oven to make any of thousands of dishes.

“Lots,” Nida answered resolutely.

“Lots it is,” Alicia programmed the food oven, then stood back and waited for it to turn the simple contents of the foil bag into a steaming, hot bowl of pasta.

“Is Bridgett… really mad at me?” Nida asked, hating how pathetic she sounded.

“Who cares,” Alicia answered flatly. “You’re injured, so you get to do whatever you want,” Alicia stated as the food oven finally pinged. She opened it, pulled out the bowl, set it down on the bench as she realized how hot it was, then grabbed a spoon from a drawer.

Soon she delivered the hot bowl to Nida and nodded firmly as she took it. “Good, now you’ve got your food, you can put your feet up.”

Nida laughed.

Alicia was rude, belligerent, and pretty darn arrogant, but sometimes she was nice too.

“Hey, don’t laugh at me,” Alicia whirled on her foot and returned to the food oven, selecting her own pack, “I’m allowed to be nice to you once in a while.”

“Why only once in a while?” Nida asked around a steaming mouthful of pasta.

“Don’t speak with your mouth open; it’s unattractive,” Alicia pointed out properly. “And yeah, okay, so I should probably be nicer to you,” she admitted.

Nida actually set her bowl aside as she stared at Alicia warily. “Are you sick?”

“No,” Alicia snapped indignantly, “I just got the fright of my life yesterday when I saw that training cube try to slice you in half,” her tone pitched up and down.

Nida stopped teasing. “I’m sorry,” she managed quietly.

“Ha, god, you’re so nice,” Alicia walked over to the oven and grabbed her food out, “you’re not the one who’s meant to be sorry, kid. I am. For being a monumental bitch all the time. So take the damn apology, and shift over,” Alicia announced as she reached the couch.

Nida moved to the side.

Even though Alicia was all of several months older than Nida, Alicia always referred to her as kid.

Nida would just let it slide; she let everything slide.

She didn’t stand up for herself, because it was easier to ignore everyone instead.

But now she didn’t have to ignore Alicia; in her own brusque way, she was being nice.

“What do you want to watch? Oh, oh, I know! There’s a new Arcacian Slave movie out. How about that?” Alicia practically jumped up and down.

Nida laughed. “Sure.”

“Now, are you warm enough?” Alicia cast an appraising glance her way.

“I guess I could do with a blanket,” Nida tried, not really expecting Alicia to get her one.

“Right,” Alicia marched up, pulled one from a storage cupboard, and threw it at Nida. “Blanket. Food. Movie,” she pointed at the holo TV.

Nida smiled.

She couldn’t help herself.

People were being nice to her. Sharpe, Alicia, even Carson.

Then again, now she paused to realize it, Carson had never been mean to her.

She still didn’t understand why he was hanging around, though. Okay, maybe he felt it was his duty, but next time she saw him, she would assure him it wasn’t. He’d done what he had to, and he could get back to his normal life.

Taking another bite of her pasta, Nida laughed as Alicia stole a corner of the blanket.

Then they both settled down to watch TV.

Chapter 12

Carson Blake

He walked up to her apartment feeling like he was going on a first date.

Which was dumb, because he wasn’t.

He was here to check she was fine.

She’d almost died yesterday, twice.

He owed it to her to confirm she was okay. He also needed to put her mind at ease about her implant. He’d spoken to the technicians that afternoon, and they’d assured him they’d recalibrated the implant.

It wouldn’t malfunction again.

Which just left the truly unsettling question of how it had become scrambled in the first place.

The technicians had taken scans, though, and were trawling through the data. The prevailing theory was that at some point, her implant had received a damaging blow that hadn’t been noticed by anyone, including Harper herself.

That wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination when you considered who Cadet Harper was. He’d already confirmed for himself that she was extremely clumsy.

Still, it was unsettling that no one had ever detected the damage to her implant; all TIs had internal diagnostic tools that were meant to alert their user of any problems immediately.

Well, according to the technicians, for some reason the internal sensors of her implant had screwed up too.

It was extremely unlucky, as they’d put it, but not completely impossible.

Though Carson had accepted their explanation, it sat heavily with him.

Nothing about this whole damn scenario felt right.

Still, he forced himself to walk along the long corridor that led to her apartment.

Then he paused in front of the door.

And he waited.

He waited a damn long time until he built up the courage to press the intercom and ask to be let in.

Nerves were kicking in his stomach, and he quickly flattened a sweaty palm over his mouth, trying to unstick the stupid smile that had frozen there.

Then, all too quickly, the door opened.

He looked across to see Alicia.

For a woman who barely knew him, she gave him a knowing wink. “Are you here to see our patient?”

Carson cleared his throat properly. “I just wanted to check on Harper… is she in?” he asked, trying to lean past Alicia to get a look at the apartment behind her.

He hadn’t liked the way Alicia had winked at him.

Bridgett wasn’t here, was she?

“Come on in,” Alicia stepped to the side, gesturing to the large room behind her with a grand sweep of her arm. “You’ve mortified my flatmate by showing up uninvited, but she’s just in her room. She’ll be out in a second.”

Carson coughed again.

Alicia was blunt.

Which wasn’t a problem; he was used to blunt women. But at her quip about mortifying Harper, he knew his cheeks reddened. “I just wanted to check on her,” he clarified, “put her mind at ease about the implant,” he added.

“And what exactly was wrong with her implant? Have you heard the gossip doing the rounds?”

He looked at her sternly. “It was an isolated malfunction, nothing more.”

“Oh, right, of course it was. People were taking bets, and my favorite was that Harper somehow ran into some crazy alien technology that altered her implant and made her even more accident prone than usual.”

Maybe Alicia was expecting a laugh, but she didn’t get one. Instead, Carson considered her stonily. “Your flatmate almost died yesterday,” he said, his tone severe, “I think maybe you should be a little more respectful of that fact.”

“It’s okay,” Harper said, appearing at her bedroom door and calling out to them.

It was so strange to see her standing there. It was also damn strange to see her door fixed. The last time he’d laid eyes on it, it had been a warped mess.

“Nida, I mean Cadet Harper,” he coughed, realizing he was hardly on first-name terms with her.

Alicia appeared to swallow a smile, then walked off to the kitchen, no doubt to lean against the bench as she watched the show.

Nida kept standing in her doorway, apparently unwilling to walk further into the room. “I’m okay,” she said firmly.

“Ah… yeah. Look, I just thought you ought to know that your implant is fixed. It was just an isolated fault,” he stumbled over his words.

Christ, he really did feel like he was on a first date. Except he really, really wasn’t.

So, with a comforting breath, he nodded firmly. “You should be okay now. It’ll never happen again,” he managed, but toward the end, he choked on his words.

Because he remembered something.

When he’d promised Harper everything would be fine just after he’d turned off her implant and saved her, she’d told him in a haunting tone that it wouldn’t be.

Hot on the heels of that unpleasant memory, he recalled the two little words she’d whispered that morning as he’d watched her sleeping.

Help me.

God, his skin still crawled at how harrowing it had been.

He’d faced mercenaries, violent alien races, terrorist factions, and the worst scum of the galaxy, but those two little words and the tortured way she’d whispered them had terrified him.

He tried to reason that it had just been a dream and that she hadn’t really been asking for his help.

She didn’t say anything, and with a glance over her shoulder, appeared ready to retreat into her bedroom again.

He didn’t want to let her go. He wanted to stand there and stare at her until he confirmed that there really wasn’t anything wrong with her anymore.

“Ah, you should be able to go back to classes soon,” he tried, stalling for time as he thought of something smart, if not actually useful to tell her.

“I went today,” she admitted.

“Sorry? Really? I thought the doctors told you to go home,” he pointed out quickly. Possibly a little too quickly, as she recoiled at his tone.

“They said it was my decision. Plus, I can’t afford to miss any more classes. I’m woefully behind as it is.”

He pressed his lips together and nodded. Then he looked up.

The words were on his tongue before he could think them through, “I could help you, you know. Help you catch up,” he clarified with a truly awkward cough.

Alicia made a sound that was most definitely a strangled laugh.

And Harper, well, her eyes opened wide with surprise. “Don’t you have more important things to do?”

He’d done a great job of putting himself on the spot here. The truth was, of course he had more important things to do. Though he was between missions with the Force, he knew a crucial operation was currently being planned. He should be preparing for it, or at the very least trawling through his paperwork. Yet here he was offering a no-hoper cadet a hand with her homework.

He caught himself as soon as he thought that.

She wasn’t a no-hoper. That was a cruel way to put it. She was just… challenged.

Realizing that was hardly more polite, Carson simply decided to stop thinking about it.

Then he realized she needed a response, so he shifted his shoulders and offered a shrug. “I think it’s the least I can do,” he managed slowly, coming up with an excuse on the fly, “considering I almost got you killed.”

“We’ve already talked about this,” Nida sighed, “and it wasn’t your fault. Nobody, including Sharpe and the doctors, noticed my implant was malfunctioning. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Yeah, but he hadn’t done anything right. He should have realized something was wrong after all the things he’d seen. That block in the training center had veered off toward her with frightening speed, and he should have figured out why.

Nida rolled her eyes. “You’re not guilty. Nobody is. And you don’t really want to help me catch up with my classes; you have other things to do, with far more important people,” she added. “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep checking up on me. You’ve done your duty.” She offered a brief if unsure smile, then took a step back. “If you don’t mind, I’m kind of tired. Thank you again,” she said quietly as she walked back into her room and closed the door behind her.

He didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Though he could have overridden the lock on her door easily, he didn’t. Not this time.

She’d made her desires clear, and it appeared she didn’t want to see him.

He stood there understandably shocked.

He hadn’t been rude, right? Had he come across as belittling at all? Had he insulted her by offering to help with her homework?

“Oh, just ignore her,” Alicia remarked, “she’s very tired. And when she gets tired, she gets grumpy. Really grumpy,” she emphasized with a bob of her head.

Carson doubted that.

He couldn’t imagine Nida getting grumpy at anything.

Well… except him.

He’d come here to check on her, and he’d somehow upset her along the way.

He felt like a fool.

Then he realized he could hardly stand there staring at Nida’s door morosely.

Not with someone like Alicia watching him.

He straightened. “She’s going to need to head to the technicians so they can check her implant again in the morning. It’s just a precaution before she begins classes again,” he told Alicia firmly. “And keep an eye on her,” he added as he shot Nida’s door one last look.

“Oh, I’m really busy,” Alicia stated flatly. “I don’t have the time. You’ll have to do it yourself,” she added, her tone tightening with interest.

“Find the time. She’s your flatmate. You need to check on her regularly,” Carson snapped.

“I know, and I will. But I won’t be able to do so during the day,” Alicia pointed out quickly, the tiniest of smiles lifting her lips and making her eyes sparkle. “I’m not in the same classes. So you’ll have to do it yourself,” she repeated.

He knew very well that she was manipulating him. He would not budge, though. “Harper has made it clear she doesn’t want me checking up on her anymore. I need to respect that.”

“She’s grumpy,” Alicia repeated as she flopped her hand at him dismissively. “Don’t pay any attention to her. And I’m serious, if you want to know how she’s going, well, you’re just going to have to go find her tomorrow and see.”

Carson knew he wasn’t going to win, so he mumbled a brief goodbye and left promptly.

Then he stood outside of the apartment door as it swished closed.

He stared angrily at his feet.

That hadn’t gone well.

With a grimace, he ran a hand over his head and forced himself to walk away.

He didn’t like leaving things broken. That included everything from machines to relationships.

Not that he had a relationship with Harper of course.

….

He just knew her. And for some damn reason, she occupied his attention. He couldn’t get the image of her slumped on her bedroom floor out of his mind. Neither could he clear her whispered, “help me” from his ears.

But the point was his natural inclination was to go back and try to reassure her he hadn’t meant to be insulting.

He hadn’t always been this conscientious and polite. That had come with age and a little bit of hindsight.

He’d been a right card as an undergrad, and he now cringed at some of the things he’d done. He’d had a new date every other week, and he’d hardly cared about anyone’s feelings apart from his own.

That had all changed, though.

He’d grown up.

And the terrible thing about growing up was that the older you got, the harder it became to ignore your responsibilities. Right now, he had a responsibility to patch things up with Harper and assure her that a) he didn’t have more important people to see, and that b) she wasn’t some kind of duty for him. She wasn’t a mission or some task he could complete and get a commendation for.

She was a person. She’d needed help. He’d given it.

He had the awful, haunting feeling she still needed it too.

But he couldn’t march back in there and demand she talk to him, so he made his way back to his own apartment instead. Then he sat there on his couch, staring at the view.

Maybe Alicia was right, and he ought to go find Harper tomorrow, just to check on her.

Okay, he was damn sure Sharpe would keep a watchful eye on his ‘worst recruit in 1000 years,’ but Carson would just drop by occasionally to confirm she was fine.

Yeah.

That’s what he’d do.

With that conclusion calming him, Carson finally settled down for the night.

He had a restless sleep, though, and every time he woke, he found himself wondering just what Cadet Nida Harper would be dreaming of.

Chapter 13

Cadet Nida Harper

Alicia was still being nice to her, or at least a certain kind of nice.

In Alicia’s own brusque way, she was caring for Nida, and it was a welcome change.

“Now you better not fall over or get into any kind of trouble today, young lady,” Alicia said as she pushed a slice of toast over the counter toward Nida.

“Yes, mom,” Nida grabbed up the toast and took a bite.

“Excuse me? What? You think I’m old enough to be your mother?” Alicia pretended to be mortified and clutched her skin, apparently looking for wrinkles.

Nida laughed. “So are you going to check up on me today? Sneak into my classes just to see I’m not lying dead under the seat?”

Alicia didn’t laugh. In fact, her expression became stony. “Now, that isn’t a funny joke. And to answer your question, no, I’m not going to check up on you. Carson Blake is,” she pointed out with a wink.

Nida paused, halfway through a bite. “Sorry?” she mumbled. “I thought I told him to leave me alone?”

“No,” Alicia pointed a finger at her, “you told him he could leave you alone. You told him he didn’t have a duty to look after you anymore. And he’s clearly decided to ignore you,” she pointed out gleefully.

Nida didn’t know what to say.

She suddenly felt angry.

Very angry.

She didn’t need someone like Blake checking up on her, because every time he popped his head around a door to see if she was fine, he would be wasting his time.

He had much more important things to do.

“Oh, don’t look like that,” Alicia snapped. “And you were rude to him last night. You should have seen the puppy dog eyes he gave your door when you left him without a goodbye.”

Nida stiffened, giving up on the toast and returning it to the counter. “No, he didn’t,” she said, sounding exactly like a child denying the obvious.

“Ha, yeah he did. You didn’t see it, but I was there. I know what I saw, and I can remember just how disappointed everybody’s favorite lieutenant appeared when you rudely dismissed him. He saved your life, remember?” Alicia pointed out needlessly.

“Yes, I remember. It only happened two days ago. But the point is I don’t need him checking up on me. He shouldn’t waste his time on someone like me.”

“Well, he clearly doesn’t think it’s a waste of time,” Alicia purred, then she looked at Nida sternly, “and what do you mean someone like you? I’ll admit, you’re no Bridgett, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. Somehow, and for some reason, you have caught the eye of the beloved Lieutenant, and you should be proud.”

Nida felt her cheeks redden. “It’s not like that. He doesn’t like me,” she forced a laugh, “he just thinks it’s his duty to look after me for some reason. I thought I told him last night it wasn’t, but he clearly didn’t get the message.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’d get it if you got up real close and whispered it in his ear,” Alicia laughed.

Nida rolled her eyes.

She wasn’t having this conversation.

She grabbed up her toast, shot Alicia a chilly look, then walked for the door.

“Have a good day,” Alicia waved to her cheerily.

Nida opened the door.

“And don’t forget to send the lieutenant my love,” Alicia added with a cackle.

Nida walked to class in a foul mood. Well, half a foul mood. She was still feeling atrociously ill.

Every move she made was laborious and usually accompanied by a heavy, pathetic sigh.

She was approximately one year away from graduating, but despite the pain she’d pushed herself through to get this far, she started thinking seriously about quitting.

Like today.

She could go up to Sharpe, tell him to get lost, and be on a transport home by the afternoon.

With that thought to distract her, she made it through the grounds to her first class. As she walked across the lawns and through the halls, she half expected to see Carson Blake shadowing her. Perhaps he’d be leaning out of the 20th-floor window, following her with a holo camera. Or maybe he’d be up a tree, watching to see if she’d die underneath it or something.

She expected him to be around every corner.

….

But he wasn’t.

First period she had advanced engine design – a core unit that she was most definitely going to fail. After that, she’d attended astrophysics, then maths, and finally more TI theory.

She really expected to see Carson snooping around at some point, but she didn’t.

Not once.

Either he was particularly stealthy, or he’d lost all interest in her.

Perhaps he’d gotten the message that she didn’t need someone like him looking after her.

Apart from checking for Carson under every seat and behind every door, the day was mostly a blur.

Nida spent her time avoiding her classmates. Their sudden interest in her was unnerving.

They all wanted to know the same thing.

What was wrong with her TI? Had it been fixed? Could other TIs malfunction in the same way?

When cornered, she always muttered the same reply: she didn’t know.

Needless to say, everyone found this unsatisfying, and they kept pressing her for more.

So she found herself running away a lot that day.

In fact, by the time she made it home, she was totally and utterly spent.

She had a pounding headache, her chest felt half frozen, and her right hand tingled uncomfortably.

All she wanted to do was head straight to bed.

She didn’t get the chance.

She made it in the door when the apartment’s computer chimed with a message.

Dreading it was Carson calling to check on her, she slowly made her way up to one of the large holo panels on the wall. After a tight breath, she accepted the message.

Instantly a face popped up on the panel.

It wasn’t Carson, though.

It was Alicia.

….

Nida had to swallow something that tasted suspiciously like disappointment, then she tried for a smile. “Yeah?”

“I need you to come help me now,” Alicia said dramatically.

Before Nida could worry whether her flatmate was in serious trouble, Alicia took another overwrought breath.

“My other friends have canceled on me. Left me in the frigging lurch, the bastards,” Alicia spat.

“Ha? What’s the problem?” Nida asked, realizing she was definitely being roped into something, but she was too tired to do anything about it.

“How are you feeling?” Alicia asked, her eyes darting up and down as she appeared to assess the image of Nida she’d be receiving on whatever panel she was using to make the call.

“Ah, a little like hell,” Nida admitted.

There was a lengthy pause. “How much like hell?”

“Where is this going?” Nida asked perceptively.

“Basically, I need a hand. I’ve been asked to help out with an event for the E Club, and now I’m roping you in too.”

Nida stood there and let her expression reveal all.

She was not going.

The E Club? Was Alicia out of her mind?

Apparently, because she shoved her face right up close to the holo panel. “You’re coming,” she said with supreme finality.

“Alicia, are you nuts? The E Club… and me? Yeah, that’s not going to work. I’m going to walk in the door and be dumped right back out on my ass,” Nida crossed her arms sternly.

“They aren’t that bad,” Alicia pointed out with a huff.

“Not that bad?” Nida questioned after a lengthy pause. “They’re snooty elitists. The best of the best at the Academy. The popular, the smart, the beautiful, the strong, and the talented.”

“You’re point?”

“I don’t belong there. No,” Nida corrected quickly with a strong shake of her head, “I don’t want to go there. I have better things to do with my time.”

“Yeah,” Alicia’s voice was strained. “Of course you do. But you’re coming to help. Because not only do I need a hand, I also want to keep an eye on you. I don’t like the idea of you being in that apartment all alone. Something could… happen,” she took a step backward, her whole face coming into view. Her usually confident, if arrogant expression became fractured with worry.

Nida was ready to say there was no way she was coming, but she hadn’t been prepared for that.

Alicia didn’t look as if she were acting.

Still, Nida wasn’t about to abandon reason and voluntarily attend an E Club function. That would be like putting your hand up for several hours of crippling social embarrassment. “Ah, I’d like to help,” she lied, “but I feel terrible. I just need to sleep.”

Alicia appeared to be calculating something. Perhaps she was getting ready for a second assault, or maybe she was pausing to think of an even better excuse to manipulate Nida with. Instead, she sighed. Loudly. “God, you’re right. Of course you are. Never mind. But I’ll call occasionally to check how you’re going.”

….

Really?

Alicia was going to give up just like that?

“Go and get some rest,” Alicia smiled. It wasn’t even a bitter move; she looked genuinely friendly as if she’d dropped all attempts at manipulation.

“Ah… okay,” Nida pushed her fingers into her collar and pulled it away from her skin. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. You need rest. Now go get it. I’ll tell you all about this event when I get home,” Alicia announced happily.

“Right, okay. Have fun,” Nida managed as Alicia signed off, leaving nothing but a black screen.

Nida blinked at it for several seconds, closed her eyes, winked one open, then shrugged her shoulders and moved off.

That had been strange.

Alicia was usually as determined as a pit-bull, but she’d changed her mind with little protestation from Nida.

Muttering to herself as she walked away, Nida paused to stare out at the view briefly.

It was a glorious afternoon and looked as if it would lead to a light and breezy night.

While everyone else in the city would be out enjoying it, she would be wrapped up in bed.

It was a little disappointing, but only a little.

All Nida had to do to confirm going out was idiotic was to look at her right hand, then over to her left one.

While her right hand had received the injury, it was her left hand that perpetually felt… odd.

It just didn’t seem right, almost as if it wasn’t entirely hers anymore.

As she struck upon that thought, she realized it summed up what she was experiencing perfectly: her left hand didn’t feel entirely her own. Which begged the question – who or what else did it belong to?

Shivering at that extremely unsettling thought, Nida walked into her bedroom, changed, and settled down on the couch.

Before she knew it, she dozed off.

And, like usual, she dreamt.

This time she wasn’t on the planet; she was walking through the halls of the Academy. As she wound her way along, she stretched out her left hand, or rather, it stretched itself out. As it did, blue energy cascaded over it, twisting and writhing as it played over every centimeter of flesh.

She pressed her fingers into the wall, and immediately the blue energy shot into the smooth metal, burning and blistering it.

She kept walking along, humming some kind of tune.

She reached a classroom.

There were people inside.

She kept walking past them, but as she did, the blue electricity shot from her hand, plunging into their chests.

There was a snapping noise. Then screaming. Horrible, continuous screaming.

She couldn’t see their faces.

She didn’t pause to watch them fall.

She simply moved on.

She kept walking the halls.

Then security came.

They ran toward her, guns leveled.

They screamed at her to stop.

She simply kept walking forward.

She couldn’t stop.

They went to shoot her, but they didn’t get the chance. With a swipe of her left hand, every man and woman in the team lifted into the air.

She watched their faces contort in shock.

Then she pointed one finger upwards. As energy crackled over her skin, the floating security team shot upwards. With terrible, resounding cracks, they slammed into the ceiling.

She didn’t wait.

She didn’t stop.

She kept on walking.

As she moved underneath them, little droplets of blood fell from the ceiling onto her cheeks and hands.

….

She could not stop herself.

No matter what she did.

She kept on walking forward, destroying everything in her path, until the real Nida screamed herself awake.

Chapter 14

Carson Blake

He was at a total loss. He knew where he had to be tonight, but that wasn’t where he wanted to be.

He was standing on the lawn between the accommodation buildings, staring up at them glumly.

It didn’t take much effort to figure out which window belonged to Nida.

Which was creepy, right? Standing on the lawn and staring up at her room. Yeah, that was kind of stalkerish.

“Come on,” he whispered to himself, “get to the party.”

He tried to coax himself forward. There was an E Club event, and he had to attend. His friends would kill him if he didn’t.

The problem was it was all the way on the other side of town. It definitely wasn’t in Nida’s room.

“Come on,” he begged himself again. But no matter how much he coaxed his body to turn and head to the nearest transport hub, the damn thing wouldn’t pay any attention.

She’d outright told him last night not to bother her anymore. She, apparently, didn’t need anyone checking up on her.

He should respect her wishes.

….

But try as he might, he couldn’t. Because, despite her protestations, he didn’t believe her.

He couldn’t shake the feeling she needed help.

Sometimes his friends accused him of having a hero complex. This was different, though. Nida wasn’t his duty as an officer of the Academy. And neither did he still feel guilty over failing to prevent the accident in the training center.

No, none of that explained how he felt.

All he could say was that he had this burning desire to check on her. He knew it didn’t make sense – the doctors had cleared her, and so had the technicians – but it didn’t matter.

Soon he couldn’t stop himself anymore, and he angled toward her apartment block.

With every step toward it, he felt more and more guilty. She would likely throw something at his head when he popped up at her door uninvited, but at least he’d be able to confirm she was fine.

Yeah, that’s all he had to do. Check to see that she was okay.

With that decision offering him resolve, Carson made it all the way up to her level.

Then he paused outside her door.

It took several painful seconds to muster up the courage to press that intercom button.

Finally, he jammed his thumb against it.

Yet before he could speak, the doors opened, and someone barreled out.

Nida.

She stumbled right into him, and he had to catch her before she fell back. “Whoa,” he managed.

She pulled herself from his arms, locked a hand on the door frame for support, then blinked back her surprise.

Her face was ashen. Her cheeks were slack, and there was a drawn, almost vacant look in her eyes.

“Hey, are you alright?” he’d been about to make a joke about her running into him all the time, but it died on his lips.

She looked haunted. Yes, that was the right word – haunted.

She pushed a hand into her mouth, breathing through the crooked fingers. Slowly she nodded.

“You look terrible,” he told her truthfully.

“I’m…” she began.

Then she stood there and appeared to make up her mind.

“Nida?” he prompted slowly.

“You need to take me to the med bay,” she managed through a swallow. “I mean, can you please take me to the med bay.”

He didn’t pause; he just nodded. “Sure. Come on.”

She walked past him, the door to her apartment closing with a swish. Then she stood there and took a very deep breath.

Her left hand was clutched into a fist. In fact, clutched wasn’t the right verb to describe it; crumpled was better. The fingers were closed so tightly, it looked as if she caged something in place against her palm.

She caught him looking at it. “I… I don’t really know what’s going on. Just need to go to the med bay,” she mumbled.

“Can you walk? Do you need a transport?”

“No, I can walk,” she managed in a quiet voice, then demonstrated her ability by turning and heading off down the corridor.

Her shoulders were hunched forward, her left hand still clutched into a fist by her side.

He rushed up beside her. “What’s going on?”

She didn’t answer right away. She simply stared at her feet as she walked.

“Nida?”

“I don’t know,” she wouldn’t turn to face him.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t call a transport?”

“I can walk,” she whispered again.

He fell into step next to her, and soon they made it to the lifts.

There were a few other cadets in the lift, and they all looked at Carson, their surprise evident.

Then, almost as one, their attention shifted to Nida.

She wasn’t looking at anyone. Instead, she stood in the corner of the lift, staring at the wall, her left hand so tightly clutched by her side it seemed as if she would snap her arm.

Carson took a step in front of her, trying to block everyone’s view. He cleared his throat properly.

A few cadets tried to ask what was going on, but he blew them off and quickly marched off with Nida when the lifts arrived at the ground floor.

He desperately wanted to know what was going on with her, but there were too many people around to ask.

Plus… he doubted she would tell him.

She appeared to be focusing all her attention on reaching the med bay. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he should call a transport anyway. He didn’t, though. Instead, he monitored her, ready to step in if she needed him, but content to walk by her side for now.

Soon they reached the hospital. It took up an entire building. It didn’t simply house the clinics of the Academy, but the medical research labs too.

Well, as he walked in the front door, he grabbed the first doctor he could see.

Soon Nida was whisked away into a room.

He still had no idea what was wrong with her.

As he stood there in one of the sparsely decorated waiting rooms, his wristwatch beeped with a message.

He glanced at it, noting with a grimace that it was Travis, admonishing him for being late to the E Club Event.

Carson technically could leave the hospital and head straight over, but he had no intention of doing so.

He was going to stand in this room and wait until someone could tell him what was going on with Nida.

Which could be a long time. Heck, it could take all night. But he wasn’t leaving. After a moment’s pause, he messaged Travis back, inventing some story about work. When Travis called immediately, Carson didn’t accept the message. Travis would know Carson was lying, but that didn’t matter.

He wasn’t leaving.

With a tight sigh, Carson finally found a seat and sat down roughly. Locking his arms against his chest, he stared at the clean white walls.

And there he remained.

Chapter 15

Cadet Nida Harper

She hadn’t expected to see Carson hovering outside of her door. She’d been glad for his company, though.

He’d walked with her, in thankful silence, all the way to the med bay.

Though he’d asked what was going on, he hadn’t pushed when she’d failed to reply.

Now she sat on the edge of the hospital bed, wondering just how much to tell the doctor by her side.

“I’m sure your… dreams are simply a result of stress,” the woman tried.

Nida shook her head. “You don’t get it. I don’t feel right. Something is wrong.”

The doctor tried for a smile, but it was clear she was sick of Nida’s stories.

Because that’s what people thought they were. Stories.

The doctors thought she was making this up. That she was overacting. That she was a hypochondriac.

But she wasn’t.

Something was happening to her.

“You’ve been seriously injured recently, multiple times,” the woman pointed out slowly and clearly, “you need rest.”

Nida shook her head.

Rest would not help her.

She had to find out what was happening.

Ever since her return from Remus 12, something had been building within her.

The flashes of blue, the dreams, the accidents. They were all connected. But when she’d shared that theory with the doctor, the woman had dismissed it out of hand.

Because it didn’t make sense.

Nothing had happened to Nida on Remus 12, and none of the numerous tests done on her revealed anything out of the ordinary.

She was making it up.

She was stressed.

“You just need rest,” the doctor spoke through a heavy, rattling sigh. “Everything will be fine once you give yourself time to calm down.”

Nida didn’t reply.

She simply sat there.

She had convinced herself to come to the med bay because it had seemed like the right thing to do. Sitting there and suffering in silence had been stupid. And while Nida was a lot of things, she wasn’t dumb.

But the doctors couldn’t help, because to them, nothing was wrong.

“Just go home,” the woman tried to offer a reassuring smile. “Everything will be okay tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Nida managed, realizing she couldn’t just sit here like a surly teenager.

“I can give you something for the dreams. It’ll stop you from experiencing them,” the doctor said as she walked up to Nida and administered something to her neck with a syringe gun.

Nida felt the injection, but almost immediately the sensation became indistinct as a flood of tingles surged toward it. It was almost as if they were nullifying the effects of the syringe….

Nida didn’t say anything to the doctor. Instead, she stood up, thanked her, and walked out.

She strode from the med bay, her mind a mess.

She had no idea what to do.

Every time she closed her eyes, all she saw were flashes of her latest dream.

If you could call it a dream.

The way she’d walked through the Academy halls, killing people….

She buckled forward as she recalled the screams and blood. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she kept stumbling forward, though, determined to get back home.

She would try to sleep, and hopefully the medication the doctor had administered would stop the dreams.

….

Except Nida doubted it would. She knew instinctively that nothing could stop them. They would simply become worse with every passing day.

She went to go home, but she stopped. As she walked across the lawns between the Academy buildings, she realized she couldn’t go back to her stuffy room.

She just couldn’t do it.

The thought of sitting down on her bed felt like opening up to the shadows.

….

The shadows that apparently did not exist.

Everyone was telling her she was just stressed, that the dreams were nothing more than figments of a fatigued mind.

And maybe they were right.

Maybe she just had to distract herself and wait for it to pass.

Strolling across the grounds, she paused and looked up at the accommodation buildings before her.

Then she turned and cast her gaze toward the city. It sat there glittering, promising distraction with every twinkling light.

Nida paused, stared down at her left hand, then pushed forward.

Not toward her apartment, but away from the Academy compound and into the rest of the city.

She could ignore her headache – it wasn’t that strong anymore. The doctor at least had fixed that.

And if she really tried hard, she could ignore that cold, stone-like feeling creeping up from her left hand.

Because it was just her imagination.

….

It was just her imagination.

Chapter 16

Carson Blake

He was starting to get worried. Nobody had come to see him, nor had Nida reappeared.

He stood sharply, the chair behind him toppling as he did.

“Right,” he muttered as he strode from the waiting room. He caught the first person he could find, asking them for some information on Nida.

He was shocked to find she’d already been discharged.

Too shocked.

Figuring the nurse had been wrong, he checked in with the hospital’s records himself – something he could do with his rank – and confirmed the news.

She’d left without him.

And worse than that, she’d been discharged.

When he’d taken her to the hospital, she’d appeared in a bad way. Yeah, capable of walking, but he’d seen the pallid, sickly hue to her skin, and the horrible, tense way she’d clutched her left hand.

….

But they’d discharged her. Apparently, nobody could find anything wrong with her, well, physically wrong. According to the records he’d accessed, the doctor who’d seen her had made a note about stress and possible hypochondria.

In a way, he couldn’t believe it. He’d expected the doctors to find… something.

Because there was something wrong with her.

He shook his head as he marched forward.

He headed back up to her apartment.

In fact, he reached the lift at the bottom of the building at a jog and didn’t wait when a cadet rushed up and told him to hold the lift.

Instead, Carson crossed his arms and waited for the lift to shoot up to the right level. When the doors opened with a resounding ping, he sprinted through them.

He didn’t stop until he reached her door.

Then he jammed his thumb into the intercom button. “Nida? It’s Carson. Open up,” he demanded.

No reply.

He kept his thumb on the button. “Nida, come on. Open up. You left without saying a word. I just want to check up on you,” he couldn’t keep the frustration from his voice. He couldn’t keep it from tightening his chest and crawling its way up his throat.

She still didn’t answer.

“Nida? Oh, fuck it,” he took a step back, coming to a quick and hasty decision as he did. Without pause for reason, he overrode the lock.

The door swished open, and he ran in.

She wasn’t in the main room. “Nida,” he announced as he strode over to her door.

It wasn’t locked, and he walked in, hesitating and even bothering to knock first.

….

She wasn’t in there.

She wasn’t anywhere in the apartment in fact.

After he had searched it, he rested one hand on the kitchen table and swore again. Loudly.

Where the hell was she?

She’d been discharged a little under an hour ago.

Anger rushed up his belly, and hot on its heels came worry.

She may have been discharged – and that was a questionable decision, as far as he was concerned – but she was not in any state to be rushing around town at night.

“Where the hell are you?” he muttered under his breath as he took a step forward and considered the view.

He saw the rest of the Academy complex and the city stretching out beyond it. Everything was drawn in shades of midnight blue, set off with the sparkling lights of the city.

In the gaps between the buildings, he could see a thin stretch of the bay with a luminescent night sky glittering above.

It was beautiful.

In some ways, he found his home planet far more amazing than the rest of the galaxy combined.

But no matter how startling and still the night appeared, it couldn’t distract him.

He’d already broken the rules by overriding the lock to Nida’s apartment, but he wasn’t done yet.

He accessed the private Academy communication lines from his watch. As a lieutenant, he had certain privileges, and as the head of the Force, he had even more.

Usually, you had to have a very good reason to look up a cadet’s personal contact details, and Carson never abused that power.

Today, he didn’t even hesitate as he dug up the number for Nida’s communication device.

He called it. Without pause.

She didn’t immediately answer.

When the call finally went through with a click, he pushed his head back and sighed with relief. “Where the hell are you?” he snapped immediately.

“Ah, whose wrist device is this?” someone answered.

It wasn’t Nida.

“It belongs to Cadet Nida Harper. Now, who the hell are you?” Carson spat.

“Ah, I just found this on the street,” a man answered.

Carson froze. The hand holding his wristwatch to his mouth stiffened to the point of turning to stone. “Where?”

“Ah, I’m in the 4th District,” the guy answered.

“Return this watch to the closest Academy cadet or officer you find,” Carson commanded.

“I am one. I mean, I’m a cadet,” the guy said with an awkward cough. “And you are?”

“Lieutenant Carson Blake,” Carson barked. “Take this watch back to the Academy now.”

“Whoa, Carson Blake,” the guy’s pitch changed from one of mild shock to reverence.

“Just take the watch back to the Academy,” Carson demanded. “And what’s your name?”

“Cadet Ye Lai, sir.”

“Well, cadet, you have your orders,” Carson took a step back and closed his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” Lai answered properly.

“Hold on, where exactly in the 4th District are you?” Carson asked pointlessly as he checked the location of the call on his own watch.

“Just outside of Barney’s Saloon, sir,” Lai probably snapped a salute.

“Right. Do you know Harper? Can you see her anywhere?” Carson asked, realizing how dumb the question was just as he asked it.

“Ah… who?”

Of course Lai didn’t know Harper. Otherwise he would have handed her the watch.

Shaking his head and sighing, Carson again told Lai to return the watch to the Academy and ended the call.

“What the hell is she doing?” he asked as he whirled from the view and headed for the door.

You didn’t just lose your watch. It couldn’t fall off. It was built to sit there on one’s wrist through alien incursions, ship explosions, and apocalypses.

Nope. Nida would have taken her watch off. But why? It was drilled into you at the Academy that you left the damn things on. They were communication and location devices, not to mention rudimentary scanners and computers.

Yet she’d clearly taken hers off… for some reason.

Carson swore again.

He’d taken her to the hospital, and he’d seen how freaked out she’d been.

“Goddammit, Nida,” he said aloud.

Then he blew a breath of air through his tightly clenched teeth.

Just because she’d taken off her wristwatch didn’t mean he couldn’t locate her.

Every cadet and officer at the Academy were micro chipped. But it was a big deal to access the system that could locate them. He would have to put an official request in. And to do that, he would have to be explicit about why he needed to track Nida Harper down so badly.

He would have to tell people she’d taken off her wristwatch, and that could get her into some serious trouble.

But it couldn’t be helped.

Just as he lifted his wristwatch to make the call, someone called him instead.

Flustered, he answered before checking who it was.

“And what the hell are you doing?” Travis asked without even a hello.

“Travis?” Carson groaned. “Just get off the line. I’m busy.”

“Yeah, of course you are. Too busy to attend this E Club event, even though in many ways it was organized on your behalf to celebrate all of your incredible achievements.”

Carson groaned again. “I told you, something really important has come up.”

“Yeah, of course it has,” Travis laughed. “You’re too busy to come and help your buddy. Here I am, sitting at the bar, in desperate need of a wingman so I can make my move on the lovely Alicia. But you’re busy.”

The name Alicia grabbed Carson’s attention. “Alicia’s there?”

“Yeah, with her flatmate.”

“Sorry? What did you just say? You mean… what’s her name? Bridgett?” Carson took a startled breath.

“Yeah, no, I mean her flatmate. Nida. I think I remember the difference between them,” Travis said, his voice straining as he did. “I may have the lovely Alicia as a distraction, but trust me, I will never forget her flatmate. Nor will I forget what happened to her bedroom door.”

For a second Carson did nothing but stand there.

He couldn’t believe this. But Travis was right – he wouldn’t be mistaken, and if he was making this up, Carson would kill him.

“What? You’ve just gone all quiet on me. Are you finally realizing what you’re missing out on? Because Bridgett is here too,” Travis began.

“Listen to me, go find Nida and check on her,” Carson said quickly and sternly.

“What, why? She just got here. She’s helping Alicia out.”

“An hour ago I took her to the hospital, then she walked out without a word. She’s also taken off her wristwatch. Some guy called Cadet Lai found it, and I’m having him take it back to the Academy,” Carson couldn’t get through his words fast enough. “Just go find her and keep an eye on her until I get there.”

“Wait, what’s going on?”

“I have no idea. Just go check on her. I’ll be as quick as I can,” Carson practically skidded for the door, plowing out of it as it opened.

Then he ran, as fast as he could, to the closest transport hub.

It took him approximately seven minutes to cross town.

Then he found her.

Chapter 17

Cadet Nida Harper

She didn’t know what she was doing here. Well, looking for a distraction, clearly, but beyond that, this was social suicide.

Not only was she the worst recruit in 1000 years, but the story of how her implant had stuffed up was hot gossip.

Still, when she’d walked in, Alicia had immediately shuffled her off into one of the back rooms.

“I can’t believe you actually came,” Alicia said with a chuckle as she clapped a hand warmly on Nida’s shoulder. “I mean, you actually came.”

Nida nodded. “I love a good chance at embarrassing myself. And as the room out there is filled with the Academy’s best and brightest, I figured it was a great opportunity to really maximize my humiliation.”

Alicia rolled her eyes expressively. Then she did something odd.

Really odd.

She folded her arms around Nida and hugged her.

When Alicia pulled away, Nida was left dumbstruck. “What was that for?”

“You looked as though you could use it,” Alicia answered perceptively, “plus, I’m really proud of you. I know these kind of parties aren’t your thing, but you still came to help me out. I have a feeling you’re a better friend than all my other so-called buddies.”

Nida smiled.

She didn’t, however, take the opportunity to point out to Alicia that the only reason she’d come here was to take her mind off stress-induced dreams and a terrible bout of hypochondria.

“Okay, so, what would you like to do? You could serve drinks or help out with the entertainment,” Alicia began.

“Ah, not the entertainment,” Nida answered immediately. “But hold on, why are we serving drinks? Aren’t people just going to order their drinks from the computer?”

“We’re going with the human touch for this event. Plus, there’s nothing like a pretty, smiling cadet behind the bar,” Alicia winked at her.

“Well then, I guess you’d better ask Bridgett,” Nida joked.

“Bridgett? Oh, don’t get me started on Bridgett,” Alicia spat.

“What?”

“Never mind. Forget I said anything. But, you, my dear, will be perfect,” with that, Alicia proffered an arm and waited for Nida to hook her own around it before she led them both from the room.

It was strange work to be behind a real bar and set with the task of handing out drinks.

But, oddly enough, Nida started to enjoy it.

It was simple enough work. Someone would ask for a drink, then Nida would find the correct bottle under the bar and pour a glass.

It was also strangely soothing.

She was rushed off her feet and simply didn’t have the opportunity to worry about how cold her left arm felt, or whether her dreams would return that night.

Plus, no one seemed to recognize her. Or if they did, they were too busy to say anything.

Just as she relaxed into her work, someone she recognized walked up to the bar.

Bradley Marshall. He was from her year, and once upon a time, they’d had classes together, before he’d been selected for the training program into the Force.

Whereas everyone else had stood a respectful distance away, he rested his elbow onto the wood, leaning as far in as he could. At first, he had a flirtatious smile curling his lips, then he blinked quickly, clearly recognizing her. “Harper?” his tone distorted with disbelief. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Serving drinks,” she answered blankly. “Now what do you want?”

“This is an E Club function, right?” he looked around, then back at her. “You do know where you are?”

She pressed her lips together but didn’t answer.

He laughed at his own mean joke. “Apparently not. Or did they let you in because they’re trying to keep you quiet?”

Her lips pressed tighter together.

“What exactly happened to you, anyway? You’re the talk of the Academy. Carson Blake had to save you from yourself,” Bradley let out a snap of a snide laugh. “Apparently if he hadn’t been there, you would have impaled yourself with a frigging training block.”

“Hey, do you need a drink?” Alicia walked up behind Bradley and hit him on the shoulder.

Bradley turned around and shot her a suggestive smile. “Yeah, you offering?”

“Oh, god no,” Alicia shook her head, “but I am offering to kick you out, how does that sound? You either shut up and ask the bar mistress for a drink, or you leave.”

Bradley spluttered. “Excuse me? You can’t order me around.”

“No, but I can,” a man said as he walked up behind Alicia.

It was Travis, Carson’s friend.

He shot Nida an odd, worried look, then turned his attention back to Bradley. “Stop being a dick, and that’s an order. Now get a drink and piss off,” Travis shot Bradley a stern look.

Though Bradley looked indignant, he didn’t say anything more. Neither did he order a drink. He simply walked off muttering to himself.

“Oh, look at you,” Alicia giggled as she smiled at Travis, her appreciation as bright as a thousand suns, “you’re a hero.”

“Thanks,” Travis laughed. Then he turned that worried glance back to Nida. “Are you okay?”

“Ah, yeah. He wasn’t really bothering me,” she shrugged her shoulders.

Travis looked uncomfortable. He also appeared to assess her closely; his darting gaze crossed over her face and settled on her right wrist. “Um, you sure you’re feeling okay?”

“Ah… yeah?” she managed.

“Are you trying to spook her?” Alicia crossed her arms.

“Not really,” Travis answered, still clearly uncomfortable, “I’m trying to figure out if Carson is playing games with me.”

At the mention of his name, Nida pressed a hand to her mouth.

Carson.

Damn.

She’d left him in the hospital.

She’d walked out without a word.

He was probably still there.

“What’s he talking about?” Alicia glanced at Nida, sudden excitement lighting up her smile. “Has Carson come to see you?” her voice dipped with interest.

“Oh… ah,” Nida began.

“He said he took you to the hospital,” Travis said, still looking confused as he assessed Nida, “but you appear to be fine.”

“Hospital,” Alicia’s voice became sharp, all playfulness gone. “Nida, what’s going on?”

Nida took a step back, enjoying the fact the bar had little lighting compared to the rest of the room. Maybe if she descended far enough into the shadows, people would forget she was there.

“Nida?” Alicia snapped again. “What’s going on?”

Before Nida could answer, she heard someone call her name.

A man.

He marched up to the bar.

Carson Blake.

She swallowed hard.

He reached the bar and didn’t pause – he jumped right over it.

The move was smooth, fast, and coordinated.

With a thud, he landed right next to her.

She gave a soft yelp in surprise.

“Are you alright? Why did you come here when you left the hospital? And why didn’t you say anything? And why the hell did you take off your watch?” he snapped, irritation arcing through his voice.

She blinked, still pushing a hand into her mouth.

Even under the dim light of the bar, she could see his expression. He was shocked and angry, very angry.

“Why did you take off your watch?” he repeated, lowering his voice as he glanced around him.

People were starting to stare. Which was fair enough, as Carson had just made a stellar entry by marching in, jumping over the bar, and shouting at the bar mistress.

Though she was shocked, she had the presence of mind to pull up her right sleeve, intending to show him her watch was still very much there.

The only problem was it wasn’t.

She clutched at her skin, dragging her fingers across it, confirming with a shudder she’d lost it.

“Are you going to say anything?” Carson asked, eyes still flashing.

“Hey, buddy, keep your voice down,” Travis leaned over the bar and hissed.

Carson shot him a look, then cursed under his breath. “Nida?” he asked through gritted teeth.

Everyone in the room had now stopped what they were doing to stare at the show.

Suddenly, the low lighting behind the bar couldn’t hide her anymore, and she felt completely exposed.

She backed off. Without a word, she jogged toward the door behind the bar, opened it, and ran through.

He was hot on her heels.

So were Travis and Alicia.

There was a long dark hallway that branched off into various rooms, and she kept striding down it until Carson actually grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back.

A flood of emotion followed his move as she realized she couldn’t run from him.

“What are you doing?” he snapped again.

She put her hands up, hating the fact tears started to well in her eyes.

“Hey, Carson, calm down. Just let her speak,” Travis waded forward, putting a hand on Carson’s arm.

She didn’t want to speak.

She wanted to get the hell out of here.

This had been a monumental mistake.

Then again, it had all been fine until Carson had shown up.

But before she could transfer her anger onto him, she had to remind herself she’d begged him to take her to the hospital, only to leave him in the lurch afterward.

She swallowed, or at least she tried to. Her mouth was so dry it felt as if she’d inhaled a whole desert planet.

“Nothing happened at the hospital,” she finally managed, her voice weaker than it had ever been, “they told me it was all in my head. So I…” she trailed off, not wanting to tell Carson she’d forgotten about him completely.

“So you went out, rather than going straight back to bed. Then you breached Academy rules by taking off your wristwatch,” Carson’s words were bitter and sharp.

“I didn’t take it off,” Nida tried to defend herself, her already flushed cheeks becoming redder with every word. “It must have fallen off.”

“They don’t fall off,” Carson spat. “They’re designed to stay on, no matter what.”

“I didn’t take it off,” she replied, voice shaking with anger.

Carson took a step back, swearing into his hand as he half covered his face. “Of course you didn’t.”

His tone got to her.

He clearly didn’t believe her.

In fact, as she cast her glance at Travis and Alicia, she realized they didn’t believe her either. They were staring at her with a mix of worry and surprise. And why wouldn’t they be? Even the freshest cadets knew wristwatches couldn’t fall off.

….

Yet hers had.

She hadn’t taken it off.

Suddenly, she felt alone, completely alone.

Nobody believed her. Because what was happening to her didn’t make sense.

The dreams, the watch.

And the blue light.

She shivered. It was a full-bodied move, more like a violent twitch.

She watched Carson’s already worried glare intensify. “You need to go back to your apartment,” he lowered his voice, the anger and frustration lessening.

He went to reach a hand out to her, but she jerked back.

She didn’t want to be touched.

Because she knew instinctively her skin was as cold as stone.

She could feel it again. The prickles jabbing their way up her wrist from her left hand.

They felt crippling.

Each tingle felt like a blade of ice stabbing harder into her flesh.

Then they reached her bloodstream, and in a surge traveled up her arm and into the point below her throat, exactly where her implant sat.

She screamed, clutching at the implant with her good hand.

It pulsed, throbbing with a vicious, cold power.

“Nida,” Carson skidded to his knees just as she fell to hers.

She couldn’t breathe. She could hear herself trying to inhale, but all she could do was wheeze.

“Jesus, she’s cold,” she heard Carson spit.

Then she felt it.

A surge.

Like a wave.

Coming straight at her.

She froze, just as Carson ignored her icy touch to bring his arm around her shoulders.

Something clanged in a room to her side.

Then with a thump, thump, thump, it rolled toward the door.

Everyone in the corridor looked up to see a thin, metal pole roll into view.

Even though the pain still ate into her chest, and Carson still had an arm collapsed around her, they both looked up to see the pole tumble toward them.

There was a moment of silence, sweet and quick, before the pole started to vibrate.

“What the hell?” Travis began.

Then the pole shot forward, straight at Nida.

Carson threw his arm to the side, his hand lighting up with the glow of his implant.

He caught the pole and brought it to a stop less than a centimeter from her throat.

She let out a silent scream, opening her mouth wide, but unable to force anything out.

Carson grunted as he tried to pull the pole back. “Travis,” he screamed.

Travis dashed forward, grabbing the pole behind Carson.

It was happening again.

….

It was happening again.

The pole was a special kind of telekinetic device; she could tell from the unique stamp all TI devices had.

“God,” Travis groaned as both he and Carson were dragged forward.

She couldn’t do anything.

She simply sat there and stared at the tip of the pole several centimeters from her throat.

“Don’t just sit there, move,” Alicia screamed as she latched a hand on Nida’s shoulder and gently shifted her along the wall until the pole no longer pinned her to it.

As soon as Nida stood, the pole shifted to face her. With Carson and Travis still holding onto it, they too were moved around, their boots squeaking against the floor.

“Get her out of here,” Carson choked through his words, “go.”

Alicia grabbed Nida’s arm and tugged her back toward the bar.

“It’s her implant,” Carson called after them. “Turn it off. Turn off the implant.”

Alicia pulled her forward. She opened the door to the bar and shoved Nida through.

Nida lost her balance, falling to the floor as fear washed through her.

She couldn’t feel her body anymore. Only the cold, stone-like sensation.

“Get up,” Alicia screamed as she barreled through the door, grabbed Nida, and shoved her against the bar.

Nida could hardly move her limbs, but somehow she turned and scrambled up the bar. Rolling over it, she fell off the other side, hitting the floor with a thump.

The whole room stared at her. Then Alicia powered over the bar, grabbed Nida up, and shoved her in the back. “Clear the room,” she bellowed, “there’s been an accident. Get out now.”

Though Alicia was not senior enough to be ordering anyone around, it didn’t matter; everyone moved.

And to help matters along, there was a sudden resounding bang, as something struck the door behind the bar.

The pole.

With a horrified gasp, Nida saw the thing start to protrude through the closed doors.

It was an exact replay of what had happened to her several days before.

“Come on,” Alicia screamed in her ear as she shoved her forward. “We have to get you somewhere safe to turn off that implant.”

The implant.

It felt… like it was crumbling inside her.

The cold from her arm continued to sink into it. Only the pressure of the situation kept her running forward rather than crumpling to her knees in terrified agony.

Alicia shoved her out of the main door to the bar.

As Nida barreled through it, she was met with a blast of night air.

It was cool, and there was a tang of the sea mingling with the sweet scents of food.

She had no time to enjoy it.

People were rushing around, understandably freaked out, all asking Alicia what the hell was going on.

Without a word to any of them, she grabbed Nida by the arm and led her down the side of the building to a small square. It had several benches and two lovely ash trees.

She’d come here once or twice, but not recently, considering this was the favorite haunt of the E Club.

Alicia kept checking over her shoulder.

Reaching one of the park benches, she shoved Nida down, then, with two hands on Nida’s collar, Alicia ripped it open to get to the implant.

Alicia gasped, her forehead disappearing under her thick, stylish fringe. “What the hell is that?”

Nida paled. Then she mustered the courage to look down.

It was blue.

Her implant was pulsing blue.

It wasn’t a dream. She could see it, and so could Alicia apparently.

With a stiff, steadying breath, Alicia brought up her trembling hands and tried to touch the implant.

She couldn’t.

Something rebuffed her.

An invisible force of some kind.

Alicia tried again, but as her hand neared the implant, it slowed down, as if encountering heightened gravity.

With a gasp, she gave up and stepped back.

“What the… hell is going on?” she shook her head and took another step back.

Then there was a bang from the club behind them.

It was so loud that it shook the ground. It almost sounded as if one of the walls had fallen down, and with a shot of panic, Nida realized one probably had.

Somehow, she was attracting that TI pole toward her. Somehow, her implant was malfunctioning.

If she didn’t shut it down….

“What the hell do I do?” Alicia rocked back on her feet, jerking her head toward the club as another bang shook the ground.

Nida didn’t have an answer.

She felt cold.

Bone cold.

It was as if her blood had been replaced with the frozen expanse of space.

She started to fall backward. No, that wasn’t right; she was still sitting on the bench. But somehow, she felt as if her body was pitching into a void.

“Nida,” Alicia rushed forward and grabbed Nida’s hand, then she let it go with a yelp. “Nida, Nida,” she kept calling.

Nida didn’t answer. Instead, she watched as visions started to spread through her mind like wildfire. She would see patches of the planet, then a flash of the blue energy infesting her hand, then finally the statue.

Yes, the statue. She could remember it now.

“Nida,” she heard Alicia call one final time.

Then Nida blacked out.

She dreamt, almost immediately. The scraps of visions became a whole.

She was standing back on the planet, staring at the dust under her feet.

Except it wasn’t dust.

It was buildings, plants, and people that had been crushed under the force of immense power.

She stared at the dust, watching the wind push it against her bare feet and legs.

As each speck drifted past her, she could see trapped within it the history of a tree or a house or a flower or a child.

She stumbled to her knees. She pushed her hands into the dust and brought it up to her face.

As she stared, she understood.

She’d done this.

She had caused this destruction.

The energy in her hand….

It was responsible.

Nida screamed, but there was no one to hear. She cried too, but she couldn’t even feel the tears trickling down her numb cheeks.

All she could do was stare at the destruction she’d wrought and that which was yet to come.

Chapter 18

Carson Blake

He stood there, and he tried to understand.

He couldn’t.

He couldn’t understand how this had happened. He couldn’t understand how no one had stepped in to stop it. He couldn’t understand how no one had figured out what was wrong.

But more than anything, he couldn’t understand why he’d been so slow.

Something was wrong with Cadet Nida Harper, very wrong.

As he stood over her, staring down at her comatose body, guilt crawled up his spine, burning up his ego as it went.

He was meant to be a hero. He was meant to be head of the freaking Force, yet he’d been unable to do anything for her.

He was a so-called master of the telekinetic implant, yet he’d been unable to stop that pole.

In fact, the only thing that had stopped its indomitable attack was Nida falling unconscious.

And unconscious she remained as an entire team of medical personnel fussed around her as she was prepped to be loaded onto a transport.

Occasionally doctors snapped at him to stand back, but he just snapped he was going to keep standing right here.

He couldn’t shift away. He couldn’t move from her side. He just knew if he did, another TI object would come shooting her way, and he had to be here to catch it.

“Come on, Carson, it’s not your fault,” Travis said in a tired, gravelly voice.

Carson didn’t turn.

“She’s in good hands now. Come on, they’ll figure out what’s going on,” Travis said, but the note of confusion and uncertainty shifting through his tone was undeniable.

“Right,” Carson managed.

“They’ll have everyone working on it,” Travis tried again.

“Yeah,” Carson mumbled.

“It wasn’t your fault,” someone else said. It wasn’t Travis; it was Alicia.

Carson finally turned to face her.

She looked shocked; her eyes were hooded, her gaze glassy as she stared at the medical transport. It was parked off toward the side of the square.

Carson couldn’t say anything; he simply stared at Alicia, and when that became too uncomfortable, he pushed off and started walking around the square.

TIs don’t just malfunction, certainly not twice.

What was happening to her?

“They’ll be able to remove it, right?” Alicia stepped forward, her gaze pleading.

“Remove what?” he wasn’t following.

“The implant. They’ll be able to get passed that… blue energy and remove it.”

Carson pressed his lips together and shot a look at Travis.

Alicia had been the only person with Nida when she’d passed out. Alicia claimed to have seen some kind of blue energy building up in Nida’s implant. It sounded outlandish and implausible.

“We’ll just let the doctors and technicians figure it out,” Travis suggested diplomatically.

Alicia turned on him sharply. Her usual fiery determination flared in her eyes. “You don’t believe me? What, you just think I’m stressed too? I’m telling you what I saw. There was some kind of energy building up in her implant, and it forced me back when I tried to touch it.”

“We know what you said,” Travis tried.

“No, what I saw,” Alicia corrected angrily.

“Look, we’re all tired,” Travis smiled at her carefully, “and we have no idea what happened. We’ve just got to wait for the doctors to figure it out.”

Alicia crossed her arms and stared at him stonily. “She was freezing,” she pointed out through a stutter.

“What?” Travis shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“Nida. I could barely touch her. It felt like I was shoving my hand into deep space.”

Carson let his arms drop loosely by his sides as a chill escaped over his back. “I felt it too.”

Alicia looked up sharply. Though at first, she had a challenging glint to her gaze, it soon mellowed. “So what the hell does it mean? Humans shouldn’t feel that cold.”

“What are you two talking about?” Travis looked between them both, and though it was clear he wanted to keep his objective mindset, the edge of his jaw steadily slackened. Then he swallowed. “Maybe she was just… sick.”

Both Carson and Alicia shook their heads at the same time.

“No,” Carson practically whispered, his voice hoarse and croaky. “No, this was freezing.”

“Come on, man, that’s not possible,” Travis tried.

“You mean like it’s not possible for a TI to malfunction, let alone twice? And how, in god’s name, did it generate enough power to pull that weapon toward it? Nida doesn’t have that kind of power, and an implant is only as strong as the wearer is. No, something is happening here,” Carson turned his head, watching the medical transport as it finally took off, hovered over the ground for a few seconds, then shot up into the night sky. Its downdraught rustled the two trees of the square, sending a few leaves scattering down. Two of them dashed against Carson’s boots.

“She’s been screaming in her sleep,” Alicia suddenly said, her voice distant and cold.

Every hair on Carson’s back stood on end. “What?”

“I just put it down to the stress. She said she’s been having nightmares,” Alicia stared at her hands as she answered.

For the usually confident, if sometimes-arrogant woman, she now looked wracked with guilt.

It was an emotion Carson could identify, as it now crippled him.

He’d done so many things wrong. And the worst, above all, was not asking her sooner what exactly had happened on Remus 12.

Because this all went back to Remus 12, didn’t it?

“The doctors have checked her multiple times, though, right?” Travis tried, his usually confident demeanor wavering. In fact, he looked ten years younger, all authority gone as his shoulders crumpled in and he stared at Carson from under a heavy brow.

“Yeah,” Carson forced himself to answer, “but maybe they didn’t know what they were looking for. And maybe I should have tried harder to force them to see something was wrong.”

Alicia sighed. It was a tight, clearly aggravated move. “It’s not your fault,” she snapped. “God, if it’s anyone’s, it’s mine. She’s my freaking flatmate, and I should have been keeping an eye on her. Instead, I invited her to this stupid function.”

“Come on, you didn’t know something like this would happen,” Travis walked up to Alicia and tried to place a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged away.

“Don’t even try to make me feel better. I don’t deserve it.” Alicia hissed.

“Look, guys,” Travis raised his voice, his exasperation clear, “you both need to stop standing here blaming yourselves. You two clearly have your own theories about what happened, and maybe I need to see more evidence before I can agree with you. But I can tell you one thing: you aren’t going to achieve anything by standing here and wallowing. Nida’s being taken straight to the Academy hospital. I assume she’s going to want someone there when she wakes up. I can stay here and deal with security, again,” he added with a sigh, “and you guys can go. Alright?”

Though Alicia still looked pissed off, she softened at Travis’ offer. “Fine,” while she kept her arms crossed, she did shoot Travis an appreciative smile.

“Yeah,” Carson added.

“Alright, go,” Travis pointed behind him in the direction of the Academy.

Carson nodded, then strode off, Alicia at his side.

They walked in total silence.

Though he kind of knew Alicia, this was the longest time they’d spent in each other’s company, and the silence between them dragged. He couldn’t ease it, though – he didn’t want to chat about the weather or the next E Club event. He just wanted to find out exactly what was happening to Nida.

So they simply walked together without sharing a word. When they neared the Academy grounds, however, he got a call.

Feeling flustered, he answered with a huff. “Who is this?” he snapped, not recognizing the number.

“Ah, sir,” a man squeaked in a clearly worried tone, “Cadet Lai.”

Carson had to search his memory.

“I found that watch before,” Lai supplied helpfully.

“Yes… why are you calling me?” Carson asked bluntly.

“There’s… something not right with it.”

“What do you mean?” Carson slowed down.

“Well, it started making weird noises. I thought that maybe there was something wrong with the processor – so I popped it open to have a look. I’m a pretty good technician, sir; I fix wristwatches all the time,” he explained.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” Carson demanded.

“Yeah…” Lai took a heavy breath that rumbled over the communication line, “the insides are… warped.”

“What?”

“They’re warped, sir. I can’t explain it. Something really, really weird has happened to it. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like this, and I must have cracked open over 2000 of these in my time. It’s almost like it has got too close to a black hole or something,” Lai reasoned, curiosity brimming through his tone.

Carson felt cold.

He’d slowed right down, and now he stopped, Alicia pausing right by his side. She looked up into his eyes, tension making her expression appear poised on the edge of panic.

She’d clearly heard what Lai had said. “He’s talking about Nida’s watch, right?”

Carson nodded.

“I mean, I’ve never seen a malfunction like this,” Lai continued, “whatever happened to this watch appears to have happened over time. Otherwise its internal diagnostics would have picked up on it. As it was, whatever damaged the rest of the watch damaged them too. Slowly. Or at least I think it did; I won’t be able to tell until I get it back to the lab.”

“Hold on,” Alicia stepped in, raising her voice. “Cadet Lai, is it? I know it’s a long shot, but can you tell me whether the watch was taken off, or whether it fell off?”

“Ah, I don’t know,” Lai answered after a pause, “but with this much damage, the thing could easily have fallen off. I mean, I know they’re designed to stay on, but something has taken this little watch way beyond its operating parameters. Why do you want to know?”

Alicia looked right up into Carson’s eyes. “My friend said she dropped it, and I told her she was lying. In fact, I gave her a pretty hard time about it. But I guess I was wrong.”

Carson knew the message was meant for him.

“Yeah, I suppose,” Lai admitted, “ah, you said this belonged to Nida Harper right?” his voice tightened with interest. “I looked her name up, and isn’t she the one who was almost killed—”

“Alright, I have somewhere to be,” Carson cut in immediately, “thanks for your information, Cadet Lai. Take that watch directly to a lab and run as many tests as you can think of. Just do everything. I need you to find out as much as you can.”

“Yeah, okay. I mean, I am meant to do a project for Commander Bayu,” Lai began.

“This is an order. I’ll contact Bayu and tell her you’re working for me now. I want you to contact me – day or night – as soon as you’ve got anything. Alright?”

“Sure. I mean, yes, sir,” Lai snapped.

With a brief goodbye, Carson ended the call.

Then he made the mistake of glancing Alicia’s way.

“We were wrong,” she said in a voice crippled with guilt. “Jesus, her watch really did fall off.”

Carson didn’t say anything; instead, he walked as fast as he could toward the Academy complex.

Alicia hurried to keep up. “What, aren’t you going to say anything?”

“What do you want to hear? That I was wrong about that too? Yeah, well I have made multiple mistakes here, and that’s only one. You don’t need to rub my nose in it; I’m already doing a perfectly good job of that myself.”

“I’m not trying to blame you,” Alicia began.

“Yeah, you are,” he countered quickly.

“Fine, I am, a little. But that’s not the point. Didn’t you hear what that guy said? Something warped her wristwatch, causing it to fall off – something we were both so sure couldn’t happen.”

“What’s your point?”

“That the same thing probably happened… or is still happening to her implant. It keeps malfunctioning, and maybe the same thing that stuffed up her watch is causing that malfunction.”

Carson stared past Alicia at the city stretching out behind her. It should have been a distracting sight. He could have forced his attention to focus on the smooth, clean lines of the buildings stretching high into the night sky. He could have turned his head up to stare at the sleek, shooting shapes of ships zooming far above.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he let her words settle in.

She was right; it did make sense.

“We can’t just stand here on the street while you think about this,” Alicia twitched her head in the direction of the Academy.

“Yeah, I know that,” he noted in the most patient voice he could manage, considering the circumstances, “but, not to be rude,” he began, about to say something very rude indeed.

“But what? You want to know why I suddenly care about my flatmate, is that it?”

Carson nodded. “Yeah. Granted, I don’t really know you, but you don’t strike me…” he trailed off. There was no polite way to put this.

Nida was nice. Alicia wasn’t. End of story.

Alicia raised an eyebrow slowly. It was more of a twitch actually. A challenging one. “What?”

“You appear to come from different ends of the social spectrum,” he gave a quiet cough.

“Yeah, so do you; what the hell is your point? I’ll grant you, I don’t really have much time for her. And, to be honest, I used to think she was nothing more than a ditz. It was a mild embarrassment to be sharing an apartment with the worst recruit in 1000 years. But hey, she almost died a couple of days ago, and that had the odd effect of forcing me to realize I was being a total bitch. She’s quiet, she’s understanding, she keeps the apartment clean, she doesn’t argue, and she hasn’t once stitched me up or ditched me, which can’t be said for any of my so-called friends.”

He didn’t interrupt Alicia’s tirade, and when it was over, he pressed his lips together and shrugged his shoulders.

“What, that’s it? This is the sum total of Carson Blake’s emotional depth? I just admit to you I’m feeling guilty about how I’ve treated my flatmate, and you stand there mutely and shrug your shoulders?”

Alicia was speaking too fast. Her lips practically jerked around her words in her efforts to cram everything out as quickly as she could. Her cheeks were blotchy too, and she kept on balling her hand into a fist and tapping it against her stomach.

Which made sense. She’d just seen her flatmate almost die. She’d just helped Nida run from the club, and then Alicia had watched – unable to do anything – as Nida had faded into unconsciousness.

A tight, cold blast of a shiver shot across his shoulders, forcing him to tuck his arms in and his head down.

If Alicia was stressed and shocked, he wasn’t doing any better.

All he could do was tap his open palm against his thigh, remembering how tightly he’d held onto that TI pole, but how it hadn’t mattered in the end. It had slipped from his grip as if he’d possessed little more strength than a child.

“We should just drop this and hurry up. Travis is right; she’ll want someone there when she wakes up,” Alicia started marching forward.

Carson jogged to catch up.

Alicia was right, but she was also wrong. As hard as they were both trying, neither of them were really Nida’s friends.

She’d want her family. He didn’t, however, have the authority to call them in; that decision would rest with the Academy Board. If there was something radically wrong with her implant, they would want to keep all news of it under wraps for now.

He could call Cadet J’Etem, though. So he did. Pulling back a little from Alicia, he sent a quick message to the Cadet.

Then he hurried forward.

He might not have known Cadet Nida Harper for all that long, but he was determined to find out all he could about what was happening to her.

Determination, however, would not be enough.

Chapter 19

Cadet Nida Harper

She woke up. Slowly.

It took a long, agonizing time to open her eyes, let alone differentiate the sounds and feelings swirling through her blackened consciousness.

In fact, the first sensation to resolve was a deep, powerful tingling right in the center of her chest.

With all the energy she could muster, she brought up a hand to touch it.

“She’s awake; registering conscious activity, but it’s still pretty low,” a woman said from her side.

Nida tried to open her eyes, but the effort almost sent her back to sleep.

She groaned. At least that she could manage.

She felt like hell. No, worse than hell – she felt as though she’d been plunged into some gut-wrenching realm of pain and agony from whence there was no return.

“I don’t like those readings,” someone snapped from her other side, “get one of the technicians in here. This field needs to be strengthened.”

….

Field needs to be strengthened? Readings? Where was she, and what was happening?

She rallied to open her eyes again but gave up with another groan.

“We need to move fast to secure that thing before it sets off another one of those pulses,” the woman spoke again.

Suddenly, a blast of tingles surged in her chest, and Nida sucked in a gasp.

“It’s ramping up again. Where the hell are those technicians? We need that field doubled, now.”

The tingles in her chest kept building and building, pouring into a single point.

She tried to clutch a hand to it, but she couldn’t lift her arms.

“Come on, come on, come on,” someone snapped.

With a twitch that traveled violently through her shoulders, back, and arms, she screamed. But her voice was far off, distant, and no longer sounded like her own.

In fact, with a wash of detachment, the tingles raking over her skin began to fade as she fell back into unconsciousness.

It was the most welcome sensation she’d ever felt.

Then, almost immediately, the dreams began.

She walked through the halls of the Academy, forcing the walls to buckle with a single outstretched hand. Then she made it to the grass. It withered and died under her feet. Then, with a glance up to the sky, the ships high above stopped, shuddered, and fell to the ground in burning chunks of metal.

It was horrible. Terrible.

Flash after flash of destruction.

Yet eventually it stopped, and she was back on the planet.

She stared at the dust below her. She leaned down, picked some up, and let it trickle between her fingers.

She watched as the wind caught it and blew it away, the fine particles tumbling into the distance until she could see them no more.

She looked up, tears filling her eyes, misting her vision as she stared at the stars above.

One by one, they blinked out.

Twinkle by twinkle, they flickered off like dying fireflies.

With every star that disappeared, she twitched. Her body rocked back and forth as if she’d been shot.

Then it started.

She felt that by-now familiar sensation.

An energy building in her left hand and shooting through her arm and up into her chest.

She barely had time to gasp before the dust by her feet kicked up into the air as if caught by the strongest of gales.

Then it pushed toward her, swarming down toward her chest.

She screamed, swatting at it.

Then she saw through it. To the world around her.

Gradually everything lifted into the air.

From the barren rocks to the destroyed buildings. They floated up from the ground, then hung in the air for several amazing seconds.

They didn’t stay there, though. With a crack like a world being broken in half, they shot toward her. All of them. Every rock, every crumbled-down ruin, every pile and heap of dust. All of it. It all shot toward her.

She backed away, but there was nowhere to go. In every direction, dust and rock and debris swirled.

With one last scream, she stumbled to her knees. In a flash, she saw the sky above.

The lights of the stars were back.

But there was something wrong.

They were bigger, and growing bigger at an alarming pace until, with a violent shudder that felt like it snapped every bone in her body, she realized what was happening.

The stars in the sky, the planets, the constellations, all were drawn toward her.

The night was dark, lit only by the incredible color of the starscape above. But with every nanosecond that passed, that light grew and grew.

The swirling dust and stone cascaded around her but didn’t touch her. It merely twisted and spun around her body, less than a few centimeters from her face, chest, torso, and legs. But it left enough of a gap for her to stare at the night sky.

The stars kept getting closer.

She could feel their heat. She could see the trails of light they left streaking through the black sky.

Second by second they neared, and second by second the debris slashing around in front of her closed in too, until she could see nothing but the tightly packed stones and dust.

She fell to her knees and waited for the sky to fall and the world to crush her.

Chapter 20

Carson Blake

No one had any idea what was happening.

Not the doctors, not the technicians, not the specialists being brought in from the TI research facility. No one.

And that included him.

He was still at the hospital, for all the good it would do him. He wasn’t allowed to see her – he didn’t have the clearance.

He’d been right about one thing, at least – the Academy was keeping this under wraps. Nida’s parents most certainly hadn’t been called, and though he’d told Cadet J’Etem to get to the hospital, she’d been turned away.

His rank provided him with the authority to be in the building, but that was it.

Even Alicia had been turned away, something she’d reasonably been none too pleased about.

Now he sat there, for the second time that night, staring at the same damn sparsely decorated waiting room.

With his arms crossed and his body stiff, he leaned against the wall. Occasionally he tried to close his eyes and think, but nothing made sense. No matter how he tried to analyze events, he could see no reason, no pattern, no clue.

With a heavy, almost hopeless sigh, he pushed up from the wall, did a short tour around the room, then rested back against the same spot.

There was nothing to do but wait. Though multiple people had suggested he simply go home, he couldn’t.

He wanted to be right here. Even if he couldn’t see her and apparently didn’t have the authority to find out what was going on, he couldn’t walk away.

At one point, he’d gotten the bright idea of calling Cadet Lai back to ask about Nida’s watch, but Lai hadn’t answered. A senior technician had, and the woman had promptly informed Carson that this matter was no longer his concern.

The Academy had found out about Nida’s watch, clearly, and was treating it with as much secrecy as everything else.

Though Carson knew there was objectively little he could do while standing in this terribly drab room, it would take an admiral to pull him away.

He would happily stand here assessing the situation from every conceivable angle until it finally made sense. Yet he didn’t get the chance. For, several minutes later, the door opened, and low and behold, an admiral did walk in. Admiral Lara Forest, to be precise.

It took Carson entirely too long to straighten up, snap a salute, and greet the Admiral.

Forest marched in, her hands clasped tightly behind her back. Her usually stern expression was even stonier than usual, and Carson fancied that if she scrunched her lips any tighter closed she would shatter her teeth and jaw.

“Admiral,” Carson nodded low.

Forest didn’t return the nod. “What are you doing here? Go home,” she commanded with a grumble.

Carson had a relatively good working relationship with Admiral Forest. Sure, she was frosty, but that could be said for most of the admirals he’d ever met. You didn’t get to climb the ranks that high by being sweetness and light. Forest was efficient and to the point, and right now she growled at Carson once more to leave the damn hospital and go back to his apartment.

Though he should have immediately snapped a salute, turned from her, and followed her direct order, he didn’t. Despite his years of training, he simply stood there, his lips parted in surprise.

“You heard me,” Forest grumbled. “There’s nothing you can do from this room. Nobody will answer your questions; I have told everybody in this hospital not to answer anybody’s questions. From the press, from her parents, from friends, from cadets, from anybody. This situation is now locked down,” Forest brought up a finger and pointed at the ground with so much finality it was a wonder the concrete didn’t shatter into dust.

Carson swallowed hard, and he had to use every ounce of self-control not to tell her he had no intention of following her order.

Forest pressed her lips together and considered him in silence for several seconds. “You have done all you can. We have got it now.”

“So I’m just meant to return to my apartment… and what? Pretend nothing happened? Get on with my life? Forget this… whatever this is?” Carson pushed his questions out, even though asking them was against his better judgment. While he did objectively have a good relationship with Forest, she was an admiral, and he wasn’t. He was just a lieutenant, and he had absolutely no right to be peppering his superior with demands. She would tell him just as much as she believed he needed to know, and no more. That was how the chain of command worked.

But right now, he chose to forget that as he squared off his shoulders, locked his jaw, and stared down at her, demanding an answer.

Forest held his gaze like the true professional she was, then she arched an eyebrow slowly. “For god sakes, man, there’s nothing more you can do here. And no, you aren’t meant to go home and forget about this. We will keep you in the loop, but right now, there isn’t much of a loop to keep you in, and you aren’t doing anybody any favors by sitting grumpily in this room. We have our best people working on this, and right now, you need to go get some rest. Because we never know when we might have to get the Force involved,” she added under her breath.

Carson’s eyebrows crumpled at that. He couldn’t help it; it was an instinctive move. At Forest’s mumbled comment, his belly kicked with nerves, and panic cascaded up his back like a cold, frozen wash of ice, freezing him as it went. “What is that meant to mean?”

Forest looked up at him sharply. She appeared to consider her words before she answered, “we need to find out what is happening here, we also need to be prepared in case things get worse.”

“Worse?” Carson took a step toward Forest, even though it was an intimidating move, and she was the kind of woman who could not be intimidated.

Sure enough, she didn’t stand back or shut up, she simply hardened her gaze and shot him a look that told him he was nothing but a boy compared to her. “We have no idea what has happened to her implant, none. But it’s clear that whatever it is, it cannot be controlled and is very, very dangerous. We need to act to find out what is going on and to ensure that whatever the trouble is, it won’t spread,” Forest’s voice became croaky as a burst of desperation constricted her throat.

Despite himself, Carson shivered. “Spreads? How could it spread? The last I heard, the technicians told me that the damage to Harper’s implant was likely due to some kind of impact.”

Forest considered him in silence, then she shook her head. She had closely cropped brown hair, and for a moment, she forced her fingers through it, the knuckles white with tension. “That was just a theory, and now it has been superseded by another,” she said diplomatically.

“Tell me.”

Again, Forest arched an eyebrow at him. “I will tell you as much as I believe you need to know, and you should not push me for more information.”

Carson slammed his teeth together, swallowing whatever insult came to mind.

She was right.

“But as for this, you will likely find out about it soon anyway,” she sighed, and it was a particularly heavy, fatigued move that suggested she was far more tired than her steely gaze allowed for. In fact, it was likely the Admiral wouldn’t get a chance to rest any time soon; the entire Academy and every member of its council would be awake until this situation was solved.

Carson withdrew into silence, allowing her the opportunity to answer at her own pace. It was hard, though; he wanted to rush up to her, beg her – no shout at her – to tell him everything right now.

“There’s some kind of… energy attacking the implant,” she managed.

Carson felt cold. Colder than before. In fact, the chill that passed across his skin was so perfect and complete it felt as if the blood had been pumped from his veins and replaced with nothing but powdered snow. “Energy?” He repeated in a husky tone.

Forest nodded, closing her eyes briefly as she did. When she flashed them open again, she appeared to double her efforts at composing herself. “We have kept it in check so far with a stasis field, but we cannot say what it is and where it has come from.”

Carson doubled back. “What do you mean by energy?”

Forest shrugged her shoulders, momentarily looking completely lost. Admiral Lara Forest was not the kind of woman who ever looked lost; she knew how to handle herself in every single situation, and it was usually with forthright power and determination. Yet now she brought up that same white-knuckled hand and forced it through her short hair. “We don’t know. Something is attacking the implant. It could be an entity; it could be some form of radiation we have never encountered. All we know is that there’s some kind of blue, cascading light that appears to be… well, destroying the implant,” Forest managed with a brief shake of her head.

Carson stood there and waited for her to explain. Because what she’d said made no sense. None at all.

An entity, blue energy? It sounded like pseudo-science from 1000 years ago. And then he remembered something. Something that sent a powerful shudder shooting up his spine as if somebody had slammed a sledgehammer into it.

Blue light.

Several times, he’d sworn he’d seen a flash of blue light in Harper’s eyes. Right in the depths of her pupils. Each time he’d dismissed it, because, frankly, it had seemed impossible.

Now it chilled him even more until he felt like nothing more than a body carved from ice.

“The short of it is, simply, that we do not know. We are still doing tests, and that is why we must be very careful. We need to keep this under wraps,” Forest’s determination returned to her, and she pointed another stiff knuckled hand at the floor, “we can’t let word of this get out until we know what we are dealing with. There could be panic.”

Carson didn’t need Forest to explain that; he understood the sentiment completely. At the mere mention that Cadet Harper’s implant had malfunctioned several days ago, the Academy had buzzed at the gossip. Telekinetic implants, after all, did not malfunction. But what was now happening to Harper and her implant… went beyond that. It went several thousand light years beyond that. Something was attacking her, and nobody, including the smartest minds in the galaxy, had any idea what it was.

Panic, in fact, would be an understatement. The kind of furor this news would create could cripple the Academy. Every single cadet, officer, lieutenant, captain, and admiral had a telekinetic implant. You received it on your first day at the Academy, and you wore it until you died. It was integral to the use of the United Galactic Coalition Army’s technology.

If something threatened that… god, it practically threatened the future of the United Galactic Coalition.

For the first time, he realized how serious this was, and he took a step back, slapping a hand on his open mouth and drawing a breath through his sweaty fingers.

Forest watched him carefully. “No news of this can get out,” she repeated.

He nodded. “But…” he began, searching for something to ask that would force this situation to make sense, “what do we do now?”

“We let the doctors and technicians work,” she said clearly, false calm infiltrating her voice. It was false, because there was no way anyone, even Admiral Lara Forest, could be calm under circumstances like these.

“Is she…. Do you think she’ll be okay?” he stuttered.

….

It was the dumbest question he could have asked, especially in the Admiral’s presence. A) she didn’t know, and b), it wasn’t her primary concern. As harsh as it sounded, Cadet Harper’s life wasn’t the reason for Forest’s dismay; it was the implant.

Forest considered him silently, then shrugged, the move so tense her neck muscles protruded. “We are doing everything we can,” she managed.

Carson just nodded, then he took another step back, and another, and finally he snapped a salute. Well, he tried to snap a salute; what he managed was more of a limp, sloppy wave, but at least Forest returned it.

“Go back to your apartment, and you will be contacted when we have any information to share,” Forest assured him once more.

He nodded at the Admiral. Then he turned, heading toward the doors. Before he reached them, he paused. He twisted his head, considering her from over his shoulder. “This all started on that planet, you know, Remus 12,” despite himself, his voice shook as he repeated the planet’s name.

Forest looked up sharply. “We can’t be sure of that.”

Carson swallowed a bitter laugh. No, they couldn’t be sure of that, but they could be relatively certain nonetheless. According to what he knew of Cadet Harper, she’d been nothing but the worst recruit in 1000 years before she’d ventured to that planet. Now she was quite possibly the greatest secret the Academy had.

He shook his head stiffly. “It all started on that planet,” he repeated.

“Unless you have solid evidence to prove that, I suggest you leave the theorizing to the technicians.”

Though the Admiral’s tone was aggressive, Carson didn’t react.

He knew he was right. Dammit, he just knew he was right. Her dreams hadn’t started until she’d returned from Remus 12, right? And she certainly hadn’t harbored the ability to cause TI objects to go nuts around her before her mission to that world. If she had, Commander Sharpe would have said something about it.

No, he knew it had started there.

Suddenly, he stiffened.

He forced his mind to go through everything he knew about that planet, and as it did, it brought up one single fact and one single memory.

Just after Carson had seen Harper on his return to Earth, she’d apologized for losing his scanner.

She had left it on the planet.

….

Carson looked up, and he knew what he had to do. He took a single determined step into the room, and his footfall echoed loud and clear. “We have to go back to Remus 12. I am almost certain that whatever happened to Cadet Harper can be tracked down to how she received her injuries. The broken rib, the sprained ankle, the concussion. Everybody assumed she’d fallen over, but I’m telling you, whatever caused that probably caused what’s happening to her implant,” his voice became unstable toward the end, but with a stiff breath, he managed to finish his words.

Forest looked at him, a strange mix of concern, disbelief, and anger flashing through her gaze. “I told you, unless you have some evidence,” she began.

He put a hand up in a commanding, authoritative move that could easily get him a reprimand. “I do. My scanner. Cadet Harper lost it on the planet. Presumably, it’s still there.”

Slowly Forest narrowed her eyes. “That’s it?”

Carson swallowed uncomfortably, but he pushed on nonetheless. “Those scanners are hardy, and I’m damn sure it will still be there. If we’re lucky, it will be able to tell us everything about what happened to her.”

“And if we are unlucky, it will tell us nothing, and we will have wasted a trip to Remus 12,” Forest shot back immediately.

Carson took a frustrated, ragged breath. Planting his hands on his hips, he pushed his shoulders out until he felt the reassuring rigidity travel up his back and stiffen his legs and jaw. “It’s worth a try. You said yourself, we have no idea what is going on here. And if we have no idea, we must be sure to gather information from every possible source. You may not believe me that this all began on that planet, but give me the chance to prove it. Remus 12 isn’t all that far away using priority Coalition transport routes. I could be there and back in a week.”

Forest didn’t say anything. Instead, she stood there, looking as stiff-lipped and severe as a statue of a vengeful goddess. But finally, she nodded her head. It was a quick move, but it sent a thankful wave of hope rushing through him.

“It could be the only chance we have to find out,” he continued.

It was Forest’s turn to put a stiff hand up in a stopping motion. “Enough, Lieutenant; you have already convinced me. And you are right; in a situation as uncertain as this, we must look to every possible clue. I will clear a priority transport route for you, but I will not clear your whole team. You will have to go alone. I do not want the Force to leave Earth, not now,” she added in a far-off tone as she stared past Carson at the door.

Carson didn’t want to know what she was thinking about. He could guess, though.

With a shiver, he snapped another salute, and this time it was firm and perfect. “Thank you, Admiral.”

“Don’t thank me, just prove me wrong. Bring me back that scanner from Remus 12, and shed light on this rapidly darkening situation. I want to know what that blue energy is, and I want to find out if it can spread.”

“And you want to save Cadet Harper’s life,” Carson added.

He shouldn’t have, he really shouldn’t have. Forest had just given him what he wanted, and now he was subtly correcting her.

But he had a point. A terribly good one.

While everything else was critically important, they couldn’t forget that a cadet’s life was on the line.

Far from reprimanding him, the Admiral nodded. “Yes, we need to do everything we can to save her life. Now you are dismissed. Go back to your apartment before I have a security detail escort you there.”

With that threat ringing in his ears, he turned on his heels, didn’t bother to offer a goodbye, and half jogged from the room.

As the doors closed behind him, he closed his eyes too and gave a brief prayer of thanks.

It felt good to have a plan; it felt better to have the permission to go ahead with it.

As he strode through the hospital corridors, he couldn’t help but notice how many security guards were dotted around the place.

And not just your average security guards; he recognized the specific black armor and red insignia of the Academy Elite Forces.

He knew some of those men and women, and he nodded at them as they passed.

Though they returned his greeting, they did not seek to engage him in conversation. Instead, they stood there, looking supremely watchful and powerful, their weapons ready at their sides.

The other thing Carson noted as he strode through the hallways was the lack of staff and patients.

It appeared they had all been shifted to another floor of the building.

Of course they had.

If he were in Admiral Forest’s position, maybe he would have done the same thing. She had to keep this under wraps, and the best way to do that was to minimize how many people came in contact with Harper.

With every step through those halls, it dawned on him how terribly serious the situation had become.

It seemed like only a few minutes ago that he’d caught Harper slumbering under that oak tree. Well, now she was in a locked down hospital, under some kind of stasis field, while every senior member of the Academy tried to figure out what was going wrong.

As he finally made it out of the hospital doors and into the cool, pleasant night, he couldn’t even muster a smile for the gentle breeze and the brilliant night sky above.

Even though this city had a great deal of light pollution, you could still see the stars glittering down from on high, and it was one of Carson’s favorite pastimes to stare up at them and indulge in their unique beauty.

Well, right now he didn’t have the time. And the only feeling he could indulge in was guilt. Guilt that he hadn’t seen what was happening. That he hadn’t figured it out. And that he hadn’t, importantly, stopped it.

Though he made it back to his apartment in short time, as soon as he walked through the doors, he was at a loss.

Though he wanted to take off his clothes, shower, and grab some food, he couldn’t.

He simply ground to a halt in the center of his lounge room floor, within reach of his couch, but without the energy to walk over to it and flop face-first into the cushions.

So instead, he simply stood there and slowly surveyed his house.

There was artwork on the walls and on the tops of the furniture. Tribal masks, intricate boxes and vases, holographic pictures of alien planets. All souvenirs he’d brought back from his travels.

They drew the eye, trying to distract him with their intricate and unique beauty, but again, there was nothing he could fix his attention on other than Harper.

….

He closed his eyes. Pressing his thumb and forefinger hard into his eyelids, he watched stars cascade through the dark.

Though he wasn’t a child and knew better, he kept on pressing and pressing until his eyeballs hurt and the flashes of light merged like glowing trails squirming in the dark.

It took a long time to force his hands to drop to his sides, and even longer to walk over to the couch.

Then he sat. He rested his head against the high back of the couch, eventually managing to close his eyes.

Now he would have to wait. It sounded like a simple enough task, but he was not naïve and knew it would be almost impossible.

And so it was. He spent a restless, truly horrible night in his apartment until early the next morning he finally received a call.

Chapter 21

Cadet Nida Harper

She was awake now, if you could call it awake. The doctors were keeping her so drugged up, she could hardly slur a sentence together, let alone keep her eyes open long enough to assess what was going on around her.

And there was a lot going on around her.

Anarchy, in fact.

She’d realized some time ago that she was back in the hospital.

With a brief stab of anxiety, she’d worried they’d brought her in for being a hypochondriac. Perhaps the doctors of the Academy had finally grown weary of her constant visits and had decided to admit her on psychiatric grounds.

Quickly that particular worry died. And hard.

All she had to do was look up to see the incredible, crackling, glowing force field in place around her bed to realize there was something far more serious going on.

She could feel the power of the field; it set her hair standing on end, and sent hot, dancing tickles crawling over her skin.

The force field flashed between orange and blue, and it was one of the most distracting sights she’d seen. Though she worked for the Academy, and had certainly viewed holograms of stasis fields like this before, it was her first direct experience of one.

….

Which was just as unnerving as it sounded. For, even though she couldn’t remember her lectures on the technology of stasis fields that well, she could remember one fact: they absorbed enormous amounts of power, and you only ever bothered using them if you had to.

As dismay poured into her mind, clutching at her throat with a frighteningly tight grip, she tried to reason why she would be trapped in a stasis field.

Then the doctors came.

But not too close.

With a brief look around the room, she realized she’d never been to this part of the hospital. There was an enormous amount of equipment around her, and as far as she could tell, she was occupying the only bed right in the center of the room. It was a cavernous expanse, too, and you could easily fit about 40 beds in here.

….

She shivered, and as soon as she did, several of the doctors working on a console a few meters to her right looked up sharply. She could see them peering at her even through the crackling arc of the field. The oranges and blues and reds dancing over the surface of that energized bubble made the faces of the doctors colorful and garish.

It didn’t, however, obscure their expressions.

Grim didn’t even begin to describe how serious they appeared.

She tried to speak, but quickly realized she couldn’t control her tongue and throat. Everything felt limp and wobbly. But, nonetheless, she kept trying until she managed, “what…. What’s… happening?”

She heard the doctors mumbling, but their voices were too indistinct, and the crackle of the force field was too loud to hear over.

She repeated her question, trying even harder to control her uncooperative lips and vocal cords.

They wouldn’t answer. They simply kept muttering amongst themselves, their voices quiet, but the tone of worry ringing through them painfully obvious.

If she wasn’t already nervous, she now became powerfully anxious.

The force field, the stern-looking doctors, the cavernous room with only her in it…. Something was very, very wrong.

Then she remembered.

In an excruciating, crippling flash that felt like a flare going off behind her eyes, she recalled the club.

She remembered Carson shouting at her, something about her taking off her wristwatch…. Then that pole. The TI pole that had shot toward her.

Shaking now, the memories came faster and harder, slamming into her as if they were more substantial than mere thoughts, and somehow had the force of fists and insatiable, groping hands.

She remembered collapsing on that park bench; she remembered Alicia saving her from the club….

Then finally, Nida remembered the rest.

The dreams. The horrible, horrible nightmares.

The visions that had raged through her mind while she’d remained unconscious.

In striking detail, she recalled everything she’d seen, from how she’d walked through the Academy crushing it, to the horrible destiny she’d faced on Remus 12. She remembered every scrap of dust and rubble that had whirled around her like a tornado with her body as its eye. She even recalled the stars going out, only to reignite as they streaked through the sky, plowing down on her as if she were the gravitational center of the galaxy.

She shook more violently now, and she couldn’t stop it. Her body convulsed with terrible, involuntary shakes.

She heard the doctors speak louder, their tones coalescing into a collective note of panic.

Then she felt something dart up from the base of the bed. With wide, shocked eyes, she saw a robotic arm twist up with a syringe gun clutched in its metallic fingers. Without pause, it injected the gun into her neck.

Immediately she felt a powerful numbing sensation wash through her. It felt as though she’d just been injected with detachment, in its purest, most distilled form.

Her body stopped shaking, and the horrible flashes of her nightmares no longer strangled her mind.

She simply lay there, her body forced into a false calm, induced by whatever powerful drug the syringe gun had injected into her neck.

She waited for unconsciousness to take her, but it didn’t. Only the numbness did.

Then, finally, she was aware of somebody walking up to the edge of the field.

She struggled to turn her head, and eventually managed it.

“What’s… happening?” she tried again, and this time she had to put in herculean effort to force her numb lips to form the words.

The woman on the other side of the field didn’t answer. She simply looked at Nida carefully, calculatingly, and coldly.

“Please,” Nida managed.

The woman’s previously stony expression softened. “You are stable,” she answered.

Nida struggled to repeat the word, but she couldn’t. Instead, she stared imploringly through the force field at the woman.

“You’ve had an accident,” the woman said in a low, firm tone, “and you are being looked after.”

Despite how much energy it took, Nida shook her head.

There had been no accident.

She could remember exactly what had happened, and it wasn’t as if she’d simply tripped over her own feet and smashed her face into the pavement.

It was the light from that planet. From Remus 12.

Nida didn’t pause to wonder how she knew that, instead she shook her head again. “Take me home,” she now announced, her voice far more controlled, every note of fatigue dropping from it as if Nida had returned to full, vibrant health.

The woman on the other side of the orange and blue crackling field narrowed her gaze. “You must remain under medical observation.”

Nida shook her head repeatedly, and it didn’t matter that her ears and the side of her face kept bashing up against the hard edge of her bed; she couldn’t stop. “Take me home before it is too late. Take me home,” she demanded, her voice trilling with a certainty her addled mind and body should not possess.

“Cadet Harper, you cannot go home. You have been in a serious accident, and we must… do what we can to help you,” the woman paused, appearing to choose her words carefully.

“I know I wasn’t in an accident,” Nida managed, all certainty and command gone from her tone.

She felt like herself again.

“You need to rest,” the woman began.

“I have to go back to Remus 12. Now. Before it’s too late. I have to go back,” Nida repeated, again her voice brimming with energy and authority.

The woman’s eyes narrowed even further. “You are confused. We will do what we can to look after you. But you need to rest.”

“I need to leave,” Nida looked at the woman, trying to convey her desperation with every flicker of her dancing gaze.

“You need to calm down,” the woman countered, “there are only so many drugs we can pump into your system, especially with your… specific injuries.” The woman stared at Nida’s chest.

Nida looked down, following her gaze.

The implant.

She could remember the terrible rush of tingles like knife pricks in her skin. That horrible sensation had rushed up, pushing into her implant, and now she brought up her trembling fingers and placed them on the smooth metal surface jutting out from her neck.

It was dented as if somebody had bashed it with a hammer or pounded on it with their fist.

It was also blue. A faint, persistent glimmer glowed across its surface.

Stranger than that, there were thin tendrils of glowing, bright blue light branching off from the implant, through her skin, up her neck, and down her chest.

She bucked with panic, clutching at her flesh, pulling down the thin collar of her hospital gown as she tracked the pattern penetrating further down her body.

“Calm down,” the woman pressed closer toward the crackling veil of the force field, her eyes growing wide.

“What the hell is this? What is this?” Nida clutched at those blue, glowing, branching veins, dragging her fingernails across them. But no matter what she did, no matter how hard she pressed or groped, the glow would not fade. In fact, at her frantic attempts to remove it, it only blazed brighter.

“Calm down,” the woman shouted, her voice pitching into a scream. It echoed around the room, and the tone of her sudden desperation was so clear it alone made Nida stop.

She turned and stared at the woman.

“You’re being transported to the Jupiter Substation,” she noted, incapable of blinking as she stared at Nida with a frightfully complex, calculating gaze.

“What?”

“As soon as we find some way to stabilize these fields, you will be transported,” the woman repeated.

“To the Jupiter Substation?” Nida finally stopped trying to rake the blue energy from her veins, and instead let her trembling fingers clutch into fists.

The Jupiter Substation was one of the Academy’s most secure facilities and was used to house its most dangerous experiments.

“You need to calm down and let us handle this. We know what we are doing. Now just rest back, close your eyes, and try to go back to sleep,” the woman commanded, but there was a distinct pleading note to her tone.

“Sleep?” Nida repeated the word, flabbergasted it could be suggested.

She couldn’t sleep. She had to find out what was going on to her…. No.

No.

She had to get back to her home.

To Remus 12.

That thought impressed itself upon her with all the power of a supernova.

Yes, she had to get back.

With that certainty offering her a rare calm, she closed her eyes, lay back down, and waited.

She didn’t know what she waited for; all she knew was that sometime soon she would act.

Yet it was not Nida that knew that fact. Rather the certainty belonged to that overpowering sense that told her she had to return to a planet barren and devoid of life, yet one that held the key to everything.

Chapter 22

Carson Blake

When he received a call from Admiral Forest early in the morning, he answered immediately. He had barely slept the night before, and the little fitful slumber he’d managed to take only served to make him all the more tired. Nonetheless, he managed to answer with a curt “hello.”

Admiral Forest didn’t bother with pleasantries; she told him immediately that his ship had been cleared, and that a priority-one transport lane had been opened up for him. True to her promise last night, she was going to send him to Remus 12.

Then Forest cleared her throat, and an unusual, hesitant silence descended over the line.

Carson stood there, ramrod straight, his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the computer panel in his lounge room.

“We are moving her to the Jupiter Substation,” Forest suddenly announced.

Carson lost all of his hard-won composure, and his hands fell hard at his sides as surprise slackened his features. “What?” he stuttered, all control lost from his voice too.

“We need to isolate her. We also need to study her properly, and the only way to do that is by taking her to the Jupiter Substation. We simply cannot run the risk that… she has been infected by something that can be transmitted to other telekinetic implants. It’s the safest thing to do,” Forest added in a firm voice that told him she would not compromise on her decision.

Slowly he clamped his teeth together, concentrating on the sensation of compression and tension rather than what Forest had just said.

“We must isolate this,” Forest repeated, but it was unclear what this referred to. Was it the situation as a whole… or was it just Nida?

They were treating her as if she was diseased, like the strange effects ailing her implant could be picked up by somebody else.

He wanted to tell Forest that was cold, almost inhuman, but he didn’t. Because deep down under his swirling and turbid emotions, he could understand her point.

The Academy couldn’t run the risk of this spreading, so right now they were treating it like an infection. And the first thing you did with an infection was you isolated the patient. Hence the Jupiter Substation.

Still, the thought that Nida would be transported there made him cold with worry. The Substation was where the Academy took all of its most dangerous subjects. From unknown alien life forms, to confiscated technology, the Substation was built to withstand danger.

This was yet another signal that what was happening here was now deadly serious.

And yet, all Carson could think of was how downright innocent, if awkward, Nida seemed. She didn’t deserve to be at the center of this. In fact, it just seemed plain odd that she was. Odd, and unlucky.

“Carson,” the Admiral abruptly used his first name, “are you paying attention?”

With a quick blink, he realized he’d zoned out, and he cleared his throat and nodded his head. “When do I leave?” he asked, deciding to concentrate on the one thing he could achieve. He had absolutely no chance of stopping Nida from being transported to the Jupiter Substation, but he could return to Remus 12. He could look for that scanner, and he could bring it back and find out what secrets it held.

That thought alone strengthened his resolve more than all of the weapons in the United Galactic Coalition could.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Forest announced.

Carson nodded, then realized he ought to offer a salute, and snapped his stiff hand to his brow. “Thank you, Admiral. I will be in touch.”

“As will I. This is…” she trailed off, and briefly, she stepped away from the viewscreen, as if she no longer wished to be seen. Then, with a resounding sigh, she came back into view. Her eyes were hooded in shadow, and it was clear she hadn’t slept a wink last night. “Lieutenant… Carson,” she used his first name, “good luck. God knows we need some good luck right now.”

The Admiral looked as if she wanted to end the call, but Carson stepped forward. “What else have they found out? Have they been able to remove the implant?” His questions were probably stupid considering the Admiral had already told him Nida was being transferred to Jupiter Substation. And the Academy would hardly bother transferring her unless there was still a damn good reason to do so.

The Admiral shook her head, and it was a bitter move. “We have been unable to remove the implant. Whatever is… attacking it, will not let us. The Cadet is currently inside a stasis field, and as soon as we stabilize it, she will be transported. And, before you ask, no, we do not know anything more. We have no idea what that energy is, we have no idea where she picked it up from, and we have no idea what it will do to her or the implant.”

Carson didn’t know how to reply, and even if he’d thought of the best and sagest wisdom to impart at that moment, he wouldn’t have been able to force himself to speak. He was rendered to the spot with surprise and deep, deep, bone-shaking shock.

With a brief goodbye, Admiral Lara Forest ended the call, leaving Carson alone in his apartment, staring at nothing but an empty computer panel.

His gaze fixed on the spot where the Admiral’s face had once been, and he slowly blinked, squeezing his eyes as tightly closed as he could.

“This doesn’t make sense,” he told his empty apartment in a hesitant, wavering voice.

“Energy? A blue light attacking her implant?” he said aloud again. “Someone must have some idea what’s going on.”

For a brief, paranoid moment, he wondered if they really did. If Forest and the other heads of the Academy knew exactly what had happened to Nida, but for now, they were keeping that information to themselves.

As Carson pondered that fact, he quickly realized it couldn’t be true. Forest was stalwart and hardy, even under immense stress, yet right now, she was visibly cracking. No, she didn’t know what was happening any more than he did.

In fact, none of them would find out until and unless he returned to Remus 12 and found his scanner.

It held the key.

He knew it did.

Clutching his once loose and sticky palms into tight fists, he rammed them against his legs and blinked. Then he whirled on his foot and headed for the door. He didn’t even bother collecting any personal items; he simply strode through the halls of his apartment block until he reached the nearest lift. Then he rode it down to the ground floor and made his way across the Academy to the main ship dock. There he found the small cruiser the Admiral had set aside for him.

He quickly scouted out the engineer refueling and restocking his ship, and once Carson confirmed his vessel would be ready within five minutes, he finally started to relax.

But only just.

He couldn’t deny this incredible sense of impending doom that was descending on him from above like the thickest, blackest, and most stifling of clouds.

He was running out of time. Which was a terrifying concept considering he didn’t even know how much time he had left, let alone how quickly he was running out of it. Yet he couldn’t deny that with every second he stood there and waited for his ship to be ready, it felt as if he were throwing away the most precious resource he had left.

He tried to distract himself with watching the ship dock around him. Usually, it was a startling sight. An enormous ring-shaped building with an open roof that led straight up to an unrivaled view of the picturesque blue sky above.

Within the building itself were multiple levels, all made of enormous, reinforced metal floors that could slide back into the sides of the building to allow ships docked on the lower levels to leave.

It was a testament to technology, and it showed just how powerful the Galactic Coalition Academy was. There was no other ship-docking complex like this on Earth, and the majority of Academy traffic came through here.

Well, at least the majority of the spaceship traffic that actually landed on Earth. The larger vessels, from the enormous Coalition cruisers to the gigantic survey ships and resource transports, never landed on the planet. They always remained in space, only ever taking up orbit around the world, but never descending to the surface.

Still, the small cruisers and reconnaissance vessels that were currently housed in this building were impressive enough.

In fact, one of them in particular caught his eye as he stared across the expansive, glistening, white metal floor in front of him.

There was a sleek-looking, blue and black cruiser about the size of a house, but narrower and with a long, almost elegant, pointed nose.

It took him a moment to recognize the design, and he quickly realized it was one of the Academy’s newest and most experimental of ships. It was fast, it was powerful, and as an engineer gestured toward it, Carson realized it was his.

He swallowed his shock as the engineer marched up and told him he could now take off.

When Admiral Forest had given Carson the go-ahead to return to Remus 12, he’d assumed she’d done so only out of loyalty, not because she genuinely thought it was a good idea. Yet as he stared at the experimental vessel she’d chosen for him, he had to reassess his assumption.

“She is called the Farsight,” the engineer said as he scratched grease-covered fingers over his stubble-rayed chin.

“Damn,” Carson couldn’t keep the surprise from his tone.

“Yeah, I know, right? Beautiful, but that being said, don’t scratch it,” the engineer grumbled. “The controls are easy enough; the same as all Academy light cruisers. This one is armed to the teeth, though. So if you get in a fight, remember that. It’s a pretty big vessel for one person, but the Admiral told me you’re going on your own, so be sure to set the computer to automate all engine and systems maintenance,” the guy continued.

Carson nodded his head, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the vessel. It wasn’t just that it was an objectively incredible sight, and clearly the pinnacle of current Coalition technology. Oh no, what commanded his attention was what it meant.

….

Why the hell was Forest giving him this ship? Especially when she thought he was going on a useless mission.

Something wasn’t right here, but he didn’t have the luxury of time to try to find out what it was. Instead, he snapped a salute at the engineer, then walked across the cavernous, echoing room toward his vessel.

The closer he got, the tighter a knot formed in his stomach, until he finally reached the vessel, and it felt as though he would double over from the nerves welling within him.

He kept walking, though, and finally reached the open hangar door at the back of the ship. Walking up the reverberating ramp, he was struck by how sleek everything was inside. It was composed of smooth, elegant lines and forms, and everything was colored in shades of clean white, shiny silver, and matte black.

Once he made it into the belly of the vessel, he walked over to the nearest lit up panel, and he pressed several buttons in sequence, causing the hangar door to close. It didn’t creak and nor did the ship shudder; everything moved smoothly and with perfect precision.

Realizing he could hardly stand there and stare boggled eyed at this marvelous technology, he quickly whirled on his foot, headed out of the hangar bay, and into the rest of the ship.

He briefly toured the major rooms: the compact engineering bay, the small but well-serviced galley, the main quarters, and the bridge. Feeling satisfied that everything was in order, he finally sat down in the captain’s seat. Then, with several brief commands to the computer, the ship hummed into life. It didn’t roar or rumble like a Coalition heavy cruiser; the sound of the engines as they pulsed into life barely registered.

Offering a brief smile at how incredible this ship was, he settled into the back of his seat and watched the viewscreen as the cruiser took off.

It was so automated that he didn’t have to offer the computer another single command; the ship simply followed a set exit protocol and flew itself out of the narrow aperture of the Academy main dock. It shot into the air, and as it burst free from the open-ceiling, swathes of blue sky and white cloud surrounded it. With a single blink, the view of the city transformed from an enormous, sprawling, well-lit metropolis, to nothing but a dot on the edge of a continent. The ship moved that fast.

Carson chuckled to himself, then with a swallow, he realized how serious the situation was, and he stiffened his smile into a frown. “Come on,” he said under his breath, begging the universe for some much-needed luck, “come on,” he repeated one last time.

Then he settled back, and he waited. He did what he could, running through the ship’s diagnostics to confirm that everything was working. Then he double-checked the navigation coordinates, to ensure he was on track for Remus 12.

Then… well, he kicked his shoes off, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.

There was nothing more to be done.

Soon he would reach his destination, and he knew he should take the opportunity to rest now.

But rest he would not, for though Carson didn’t appreciate it, at that moment, a surprise was headed his way.

Cadet Nida Harper, to be specific.

Chapter 23

Cadet Nida Harper

She couldn’t sleep.

Neither could she talk.

In fact, she could barely think.

Because something was happening to her. Something terrible.

The pain in her chest kept building and building, and as she stared down at her hand, with a surge of incapacitating terror she saw blue tendrils of energy driving under her skin.

She tried to bat at it, tried to grab it and pull it from her veins, but it was too insubstantial to touch. Yet she could feel it as it wiggled its way through her flesh.

She wanted to cry out, she wanted to scream and tell the doctors what was happening to her, but she couldn’t move her lips. They were numb. No, worse than numb – they felt as stiff as the carved mouth of a statue.

That particular image stuck in her mind, and couldn’t be dislodged even as another surge of panic washed over her.

She was still in the same cavernous hospital room, and the doctors were still trying, apparently, to stabilize the stasis force field that enshrouded her.

Occasionally she watched the flickering orange and blue light, but now the only light that held her attention was that which had invaded her bloodstream.

The doctors no longer seemed to pay much attention to her; they had grown used to the fact they couldn’t calm her down, and now barely glanced up every time she tried to scrape the luminescent blue energy from her body.

No matter how many drugs the robotic arm injected into her neck, they had no effect. She would feel their cool rush as they entered her body, but the tingles from the blue energy would soon surround and obliterate the drug.

With every passing second, a sense of desperation grew within. Doom and malaise and terror pressed in on her, reminding her exactly of how the rubble of that planet had swirled and pitched and circled around her crumpled body.

She tried to beg for help, but again she couldn’t move her lips, and neither could she force her voice to ring aloud. All she could do was beg over and over again in the confines of her mind.

It was truly horrifying, agonizing even, terrifying on a level she’d never experienced before. And with every passing moment, it grew until she felt she would break, the fear carving her in half.

She could no longer listen to the scientists as they muttered and debated how to strengthen the field. All she could do was lie there and ride it out.

Just as it seemed as if she could take no more, something happened.

Her body calmed, her limbs drawing still as a last, small jerk passed through them.

Before she could wonder whether the robotic arm had just injected a far more powerful drug into her body, something happened to her mind. It began to fill with this warm, comforting presence.

As it did, she was immediately reminded of a sight she’d once seen. A beautiful statue of a smiling woman with a long dress and stunning hair carved in flowing lines around her.

It was the smile more than anything – the remembered angle of the lips and the compassionate edge to the statue’s gaze – that finally calmed Nida enough to stop trying to tear the blue energy from her veins.

That presence filled her mind. It built and built, expanding into every crack of fear that had broken her will, until the anxiety lost all hold of her.

We must return home,” the presence spoke. Though it had no voice, somehow its meaning and intent solidified in Nida’s mind.

Home.

They had to return home.

To the barren wasteland of the world the humans and Coalition referred to as Remus 12.

Nida concentrated on that fact, and she let that glowing, warm presence calm her.

We cannot stay here any longer; we will corrupt, we will destroy,” the presence said, again its voice little more than solidified thought.

Nida had to struggle to understand the words; she was losing all sense of herself, and could barely concentrate for more than several seconds at a time.

But slowly she understood.

Slowly the pieces started to fit together.

And with it, a final memory slammed into place like a key being shoved into a lock.

Nida remembered exactly what had happened to her on Remus 12.

She recalled coming across that second set of stairs and falling down it. She’d broken her ribs, done something to her ankle, and she’d lost Carson Blake’s scanner in the dark. Then she’d clambered up the wrong set of stairs, only to find herself in an enormous room, completely empty save for a startling statue.

As Nida lay there following her memories, she recalled, in perfect detail, how she’d walked up to the statue, marveled at its unique beauty, and then… she’d reached out a hand to touch the blue, glowing orb it had held.

That was when everything had started. That was when the energy from the orb had exploded and rushed into Nida.

She remembered it so clearly it was as if she was experiencing it anew.

As that memory ebbed, and she again became aware of the hard medical bed below her, she opened her eyes.

As she did, she felt something build up behind them, and she saw the world cast into a curious blue glow.

With a disconnected certainty, she realized the energy from her left hand had possessed her eyes. In fact, as she glanced down at her body, she now realized she glowed from head to foot.

Glancing up at the stasis field above her, she stared on in mild curiosity as the thing began to flicker. Great arcs of energy passed across it, and the orange glow became incandescent, flecks of fiery red cracking across it like plumes of lava spilling up from fissures in the earth.

She heard the scientists screaming now. Their voices were distinct, and yet Nida didn’t have the concentration necessary to understand them. Instead, she marveled at the feeling flowing through her.

She no longer felt pain, no agony, no sickness.

With the memory of what had truly happened to her on Remus 12, the mystery of the energy no longer haunted her.

She understood what it was. She knew where it belonged. And as she slowly pushed herself up from her hard bed, she realized she had to take it home.

That disembodied voice in her mind once again repeated that they had to leave Earth before they became corrupted.

Nida didn’t understand what corrupted meant, but in a flash, she saw herself walking through the halls of the Academy again, destroying everything in her path. Taking sadistic, horrible pleasure in crippling and crushing everybody that stood in her way.

“The stasis field is failing,” she heard one woman scream.

“Jesus Christ, the generator is buckling,” another man noted with a keening cry.

As Nida sat up, she stared through the malfunctioning field at the rest of the room.

The machines that generated the energetic veil holding her in place were starting to warp. The metal was stretching, buckling, and groaning as it shifted closer toward the field as if pulled by an invisible hand.

“We have to do something,” someone screamed.

Nida didn’t hear them answer.

Instead, she stood up. As she shifted her weight to her feet, again, she found herself staring down, and she watched that distinctive blue energy trace its way over every centimeter of her skin.

This time she didn’t flinch, though. She no longer brought her fingernails up and dug them into her flesh as far as they would go, trying to root out every last scrap of that energy.

Instead, she opened herself up to it.

She surrendered to that soft, welcoming presence in her mind that told her in sweet, reassuring tones that as long as she returned home, everything would be fine.

Everything would be fine.

Nida took a step forward. She wasn’t entirely in control of her body; it was only in concert with the presence in her mind that she managed to move her limbs.

Though everything she knew about stasis fields told her not to reach out a hand and touch one, she did it anyway. And as her blue, glowing fingers pressed against the side of the field, it failed. In an incredible, gushing ray of sparks, the machines that manufactured it exploded.

People screamed.

She wanted to tell them it would be okay, but she couldn’t.

Instead, she took a labored step forward, her movements jerky.

She felt like a puppet being pulled along by strings, but nonetheless she made her way across the room.

With every step she took, the devices and machines around her shifted closer toward her body.

They grated across the floor, no matter how big nor heavy they were. Some even lifted into the air as if they had canceled out the effects of gravity.

Though they circled her, she didn’t fear they would rush toward her and crush her body.

She simply ignored them and took yet another strained step forward.

She was no longer aware of what the scientists were doing. She simply concentrated on the door on the other side of the room.

She could hear some kind of alarm blaring, and the part of her that still remembered her Academy training knew it was a red alert.

Red alert…? That was serious. That would call the Academy’s combined security force.

She would not be able to get out of here. They would put every single obstacle in her path until they slowed her down. If that wouldn’t work, they would likely kill her.

Despite that realization, she didn’t stop. It didn’t really affect her. With the warm, reassuring presence in her mind, little could.

She finally reached the door, and as she did, it opened.

A team of black-clad security guards brought up their weapons and pointed them right at her.

She should have doubled back; she should have put her hands over her head and begged for mercy.

She didn’t.

She simply took a shuddering step forward.

The man directly in front of her was wearing a helmet that matched his black armor, but it only half covered his face. She could see his mouth, and right now, she watched as it dropped open in unmistakable fear. “Don’t move,” he cried, and that same command was picked up and repeated by every member of his team.

She took another step forward, staring at the barrel of his gun as he pointed it at her.

She realized how dangerous it was, but again, that realization had little of an effect on her. It felt more like some curious fact she’d learned long ago in school, rather than the unmistakably important reality she now faced.

Without another warning, the man ducked back, and he fired.

She watched the pulse of red light tear from the muzzle of his gun.

Then it seemed as if time itself slowed down.

Or perhaps it didn’t.

The bullet did.

As it shot toward her, it slowed, and then, like the metal objects had in the room, it began to circle around her.

The security guards doubled back, shouting amongst themselves, and then they fired again.

Seven more bullets ripped toward her, but rather than striking her and blowing her off her feet, they simply slowed and began to circle around her as if they were feathers or leaves trapped in a gently moving eddy of air.

She took another unsteady step forward, and then another.

She had to get out of here.

The problem was she’d never been in this particular corridor. She also knew, academically, that unless she did something, security would lock this entire building down.

Just as that realization dawned on her, Nida found herself leaning down.

Her knees didn’t buckle out from underneath her; slowly her body descended until she planted one hand on the flat, smooth, cold floor.

Blue energy rushed down into the concrete, cracking it into a fine powder as tendrils of the light spread out further and further.

The security guards behind her screamed, but she had no idea what they were saying.

And when they tried to shoot her again, the bullets only slowed down and circled around her, joining with the other pulses of light that were already there. In fact, as Nida sent tendrils of blue energy into the cracked concrete floor, dust from where she’d broken it reached up, lifted into the air, and joined the bullets as they all circled her.

As more and more energy pumped down from her hand into the floor, she watched it snake its way up into the walls and ceiling. She saw it shoot forward, following an erratic path, like droplets of water streaking down a windowpane.

As the energy raced across the white walls, the presence in her mind thinned.

Then she saw flashes.

Flashes of the rest of the building.

She saw rooms and doors and panels and the faces of doctors and technicians and security guards. She saw the basement, she saw the roof, and she saw the beautiful blue sky above.

Concentrating on the vision of a panel in a secure room, filled with other softly glowing technology, she watched the blue light power into it, encasing it in tendrils of glowing energy.

Do not worry,” the presence in her mind commanded her. “We will escape. We will escape,” it repeated.

She simply knelt there on the floor, her palms still locked onto the cold concrete as her eyes stared, unfocused at the blue energy branching through the walls.

Then she felt it. The presence returned to her, and in a snap, the branching energy infecting the hallway returned to her too.

The blue light just shot back into her body as if it had been attached to a tether she’d just yanked.

She stumbled to her feet, her hands now glowing even more than they had before.

All of a sudden the red alert klaxon stopped.

And she knew, without question, that it had been her doing. No, it had been the presence.

The entity in her mind had turned it off.

We have disabled the security of this building,” the presence told her in its soft, disembodied voice. “We have found an escape. We will make it off this planet,” it concluded.

That fact made Nida’s heart sing.

Without the ability to stop herself, she walked forward, her movements still jerky and lumbering as if she were a doll being moved by a child.

As she walked through the corridor, doors opened for her, the handles rattling or the panels sparking as more energy shot out from her and infested them.

As she stumbled forward, the presence guided her, and somehow it ensured her route was clear. She didn’t pass another single security guard, and nor did she see a doctor or technician.

Perhaps they were all trapped in some room, or maybe they had fled the building. It didn’t matter. All that counted was that nobody stood in her way.

The buildings of the Academy complex were connected by underground tunnels, and some of them even had over ground bridges that connected the skyscrapers.

It was for one of these bridges that she now headed.

No matter how far she walked, and through how many halls and corridors she passed, she didn’t meet another soul.

Nor did she come across any resistance at all.

Still, it took her some time to figure out where she was headed.

The ship dock.

It was an enormous building, and it was where the Academy kept all of its light cruisers, the heavier stuff always remaining in orbit and never descending to the surface.

As she walked, she still moved like a puppet being jerked around on a string. Her shoulders would twitch to the side as her legs took fumbling steps. This process repeated itself until she finally reached the space dock.

Usually, this building was full of engineers and technicians and cadets and officers preparing for missions.

It was a hub of activity 24 hours a day. The lights were never off.

But now the lights were off as she entered the building from the ground level. And there was nobody to be seen.

The panic tried to punch through the calm that had descended through her, yet it couldn’t. She appreciated the fact she was alone and that it was unusual, but that was it.

She lumbered forward and soon reached a lift. In the blink of an eye, it took her to the top level of the building.

Above her, the mid-morning sun smiled down, and it would have been pleasant to lie flat on her back to watch the shapes in the clouds as they drifted on by.

She didn’t.

Instead, she staggered across the deserted platform toward a ship on the far side.

It was small, barely several meters square, and she recognized the design as a standard fast cruiser.

It was built for maximum speed and nothing else.

She had no idea how to prep the ship for flight; she’d never been particularly good in flight school, and she’d certainly not been taught how to master a light cruiser yet. Especially on her own.

But that didn’t matter.

She made her ungainly way toward it. As she did, light bled from her hands and feet. It danced into the clean, smooth, white metal floor, and shot toward the waiting vessel.

The sight was incredible, unbelievable, in fact, as that blue glow ate up into the sides of the ship, plunging into the metal as if it were nothing more substantial than air itself.

She didn’t stop walking toward it until finally she reached it. As she did, the small hatch at the side of the ship opened with a hiss.

She made her way inside and sat in the single seat surrounded by panels at the front of the tiny vessel.

As she sat, the hatch closed, and in a blink, the panels before her all turned on. Seconds later, she could hear the rumble as the ship’s engines engaged as well.

Without a command from her, the vessel lifted up with a jerk and hovered several meters above the white, gleaming floor of the hangar bay.

She ticked her head up, considering the startling view of the clear blue sky above.

Then, without warning, the vessel pitched to the side and shot upwards.

Nida was not thrown back into her seat; all spacefaring vessels had internal gravity and could dampen the impact of inertia at all but the fastest speeds.

But she did find herself slumping against the back of her seat, her limbs incapable of movement.

In fact, as she forced her eyes to scan her hands, she noted that the blue energy was now pushing back into her left hand, receding down every one of her muscles and bones until it rested once more in her palm.

She blinked at it, sudden lethargy taking hold.

Slowly she faced the view before her and noted that the ship had already passed high above the cloud line, and she could see space glittering a distinct navy-blue through the final levels of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Soon she would punch through and make it out into orbit. Then, she would be in space.

And she would head home, she added as an afterthought.

Home.                                          

….

She rallied to stay awake; she rallied to take hold of her concentration.

Though it was terribly, painfully, mind-bogglingly hard, she managed to scrape together enough awareness to realize what had just happened.

And the fact of it stilled her with perfect terror.

She’d broken her way out of the Academy, and she had no idea how.

The halls had been empty, and the ship had been waiting for her.

Where had everyone gone?

And more to the point, were they safe? Had the presence – the blue energy residing in her left palm – hurt them in some way?

As soon as she questioned that, the presence in her mind returned. It seemed to caress her with invisible hands, drawing her close and embracing her, filling her with reassuring calm.

They are fine,” it told her, “and we are going home.”

Too tired to fight that thought, she relaxed into it. And as she did, sleep reached up to take her.

Chapter 24

Carson Blake

He awoke to the computer going ballistic.

Practically falling from his seat, he shook himself awake, then commanded the computer to tell him what the hell was going on.

“Priority one message from the Academy,” the computer noted in an electronic tone, “there has been a Level Four incident.”

Carson blinked back his surprise. Level Four? What was that…? Alien incursion?

It took a while to remember what it was, because, in all his years at the Academy, it had never come up.

The Academy was part of the United Galactic Coalition, and the United Galactic Coalition was by far the most powerful force in all of the galaxy. It commanded almost 60 percent of the solar systems of the Milky Way, and there were very few entities that dared disturb it. Made up of over 90 different races, the United Galactic Coalition had been peaceful for over 100 years. Yes, there were the occasional wars with various alien races and empires, and yes, there was always a persistent problem with terrorists and pirates, but for an alien race to attack Earth? To attack the Academy?

He couldn’t believe the computer. So he jumped to his feet and rushed over to the nearest computer panel. Typing in several codes, in a flash, the enormous viewscreen before him lit up with the face of Admiral Forest.

“Priority one message received,” the computer told him in a bored voice.

“Admiral,” he shouted, “what’s going on down there? My computer just told me you’re suffering an alien incursion. What the hell?” He wasn’t exactly being eloquent, but how could he be in a situation like this?

The Admiral’s expression was drawn, and her eyes were even more hooded with fatigue, but she didn’t look as if she were currently engaged in an epic battle with an alien empire. She just looked… shocked.

Yes, that’s it, shocked.

Carson rocked back on his feet, waiting for her to reply.

“I don’t know how to… begin,” she brought a hand up and scratched at her throat, the move distracted and completely unlike her.

“Admiral?” His eyes drew wide in reaction to her clear and unmistakable confusion.

She shook her head. “We have had an incident. Cadet Nida Harper has escaped.”

“Escaped?” he repeated the word as if he couldn’t understand it.

“That… thing… the entity – whatever is infecting her implant – it was far, far more powerful than we accounted for. It infected our computer systems. It locked us out. Somehow it controlled her body. We don’t know how. It broke out of the hospital and played havoc with our systems. It somehow initiated an Endgame Maneuver,” the Admiral shook her head as she spoke as if she couldn’t even believe her own words.

And if Admiral Forest couldn’t believe what she was saying, what hope did Carson have?

Because what she was saying, was impossible. “Endgame Maneuver?” He repeated, completely dumbstruck.

He expected her to shake her head, and explain she’d just been joking. But she didn’t. “The entity managed to have every single person in the Academy compound transported out of it. No matter where they were and no matter who they were.”

Carson jerked back as if he’d been struck.

He had never, ever actually seen an Endgame Maneuver. Because he’d never had cause to.

The Academy had multiple strategies to deal with various scenarios. Ranging from the likely, right down to the apocalyptic. And an Endgame Maneuver was what you did when all else was lost. If the Academy compound itself was ever compromised, the computer system would eke out every scrap of power from every single generator and use it to transport all Academy members off the premises.

It was what you would do if an alien army were assaulting the compound. It was what you would do if a powerful weapon was about to destroy the city.

And yet, according to Admiral Forest, Cadet Nida had just performed one. Or, if not Nida, then whatever infested her implant, as the Admiral had put it.

Carson stood there for god knows how long, staring up at the picture of Admiral Forest, waiting for her to tell him how this all made sense.

She didn’t, though. She simply stared back at him, his own fear reflected in her contorted, sorrowful, deeply confused expression.

“Admiral,” he said through a croaky voice, “how…?” he trailed off.

“The entity, as we are now calling it, is far more powerful than we guessed. It can travel through material. From concrete to metal to reinforced nano fibers, it doesn’t matter. And it can infect systems. It can imbue them with power. That’s what it did. It managed to infect our computer cores, and it triggered the Endgame Maneuver, transporting every single soul off the premises. Then, as far as we can tell, it took Nida to the space docks and stole a ship. According to the Earth’s security satellites, it left almost half an hour ago. We had no hope of stopping it; we only made it back to the compound five minutes ago.”

Carson didn’t know what to do, so he found himself turning around, heading over to the captain’s seat, and sitting slowly. It was that or falling down.

When he faced the Admiral again, she finally appeared to have controlled her expression. She stared at him with thin-lipped anger. “I can’t believe we underestimated it.”

It.

The entity, as they were now calling the blue energy that had infected Nida’s implant.

“This is…” the Admiral said, but she didn’t finish her sentence; instead, she squeezed her eyes shut. Carson could see from the skin stretching tight around her eyelids just how pronounced and pressured the move was.

“Have you sent ships after her?”

The Admiral finally opened her eyes, and it was to shoot him an extremely terse look. “Of course we have. But you, quite possibly, are closest. Your vessel is equipped with a specialized relativity drive that will enable it to get there faster than anything we already have on her tail. I am ordering you around.”

“What are her last known coordinates?” Carson asked through a choked breath.

“We do not know. The Earth security satellites tracked her out of the atmosphere, but that’s it. Beyond that, we have lost all record of her. It is reasonable to assume that the entity has somehow shielded her vessel from detection.”

That was a very hard statement to swallow.

Not only was this entity a terribly amorphous and ill-defined force, but how exactly could it snap its immaterial fingers and hide an entire cruiser from sight?

The Admiral appeared to realize just how strange her statement had been, and she shook her head. “We know nothing about what is going on here, nothing. It doesn’t make sense. I know that,” she said through gritted teeth, making each one of her words akin to a snake’s hiss. “But we may never find out if we let that vessel escape. Our priority is to capture it.”

“And Cadet Harper?” He found himself asking, his voice little more than a light whisper.

“Our priority is the entity. We need to capture it, study it, and find out just how much of a threat it is,” the Admiral snapped, answering his question without answering it.

Carson wanted to say something in Nida’s defense, but it was useless.

She was no longer anyone’s priority, as harsh as that sounded. If the Admiral was telling the truth, and she had no reason not to be, then this situation had just become perilously dangerous.

He sat back hard in his chair, forcing his shoulders as far into the yielding leather as they would go.

The Admiral considered him with a tightly closed mouth and a brow smoothed with worry. “Fix this,” she suddenly commanded. “You have my permission to do what you need to, to fix this.”

He straightened. “Admiral?”

“You are the head of the Force, Lieutenant Carson Blake, and right now, I’m giving you a blank check to get this sorted. Alright, not a blank check,” she clarified, “but I am extending your powers and upgrading your authority. I have a feeling that there will be no easy solution to this, and I doubt throwing torpedoes and plasma blasts its way can solve anything. This is going to take tact, diplomacy, and investigation. So, Lieutenant, I repeat my order: fix this.”

It was unlike any order he had ever received. There were no clear operational parameters. There was simply the amorphous fact that the Admiral was asking him to fix what was wrong. Which was particularly hard considering the sheer number of things that had stuffed up here.

But he understood the gist of her request.

“Though we are sending the entire Fifth and Twelfth fleets to intercept that stolen cruiser, I doubt their efforts will come to much. We haven’t yet tapped the abilities of this entity, and to be honest, I don’t want to provoke it any further. If it could infiltrate our computer system and initiate an Endgame Maneuver without any authority from the Council, then I shudder to think of what else it is capable of. It can clearly manipulate technology at a distance, and it can also protect itself. When the Cadet broke out of the hospital, a security team tried to force her back. According to their reports, though they shot at her, no bullet landed. Some kind of force sent every object that neared her spinning around as if trapped in a vortex,” the Admiral’s explanation was choppy, and she paused for breath after almost every word, but once she was done, she turned her pleading, but still commanding gaze, back onto Carson. “Do what you have to, Lieutenant. Try to intercept that ship, but if it doesn’t work, head back to Remus 12. If that’s what you think is best. You’re closer to this situation than I am. I’m relying on you, so is the rest of the Academy.”

Wow, so no pressure, then? A rebellious part of Carson’s mind thought.

Then he shook his head and really pondered what the Admiral had just told him.

He was on his own here.

“We don’t have time to send you reinforcements, and you certainly can’t return to Earth. You need to use the Farsight to its utmost potential. Figure out what’s going on,” she repeated.

Figure out what’s going on?

Him?

He didn’t deserve this task.

He’d failed already, after all.

He’d suspected there was something wrong with Cadet Nida for the past several days, and yet he hadn’t had the intelligence to do anything about it. Though he realized he was being slightly unfair to himself, considering how often he’d tried to look in on her, it didn’t matter.

He should have tried harder.

He could have prevented this.

“We will be in contact. You will have the full resources of the Academy and the United Galactic Coalition Army. This must be contained,” the Admiral said one last time.

He nodded his head. As he stood up to salute, the Admiral ended the call without a goodbye.

That left him in silence. There was nothing to distract him save for the constant, dull hum of the ship’s engines.

Without hesitation, he strode over to the navigational panel and checked his course.

Though he could have sought out the locations of the Fifth and Twelfth fleets, and navigated his ship to rendezvous with them, he didn’t.

As the Admiral had already said, nobody knew where Nida’s ship was. Somehow, it had dropped out of sensor range. Which meant it had already left the solar system, or that, indeed, the entity had some way of hiding an entire vessel from the very sophisticated sensor net of Earth.

Clutching a hand onto his chin as he tried to think this problem through, it took a long time for Carson to decide what to do next.

He would head to Remus 12.

That was the only strategy that made any sense. Yes, the Admiral had ordered him to try to track down Nida’s ship, but she’d also extended his authority and essentially given him the power to choose what he would do next.

And this was what he would do.

He would return to that planet, he would find his scanner, and he would finally ascertain exactly what had happened to Cadet Nida Harper all those days ago.

Though it was good to have a plan, this time it offered him no resolve. Because this time he truly understood there was no room for failure, and worse than that, he couldn’t afford to waste even a nanosecond of his time.

With Nida in a stolen ship infected by god knows what, the United Galactic Coalition was relying on him.

With that heavy thought, he briefly closed his eyes and then sat down roughly in his seat.

He waited.

But this time he didn’t fall asleep.

He sat there, and he thought, and he planned, and he pleaded with the universe for things to turn out right.

Chapter 25

Cadet Nida Harper

She kept falling in and out of consciousness. But it didn’t seem to matter. The presence in her mind commanded the ship, and there was little Nida could do but simply sit there and watch.

Yet as time passed, slowly her attention returned to her. In scraps at first, and it was hard won, but eventually she could string together enough concentration to really consider what had just happened to her.

She’d broken out of the Academy hospital, stolen this vessel, and was now traveling at many times light speed, back to a planet she’d only visited once but now called home.

The more Nida pondered those facts, the more they scared her.

Who knew what forces were after her, and far more chillingly, who knew what the presence in her mind had really done to everyone at the Academy. Yet whenever she questioned that fact, the presence always reassured her that nobody had been hurt.

But the fact was she had left the Academy and Earth far behind her now.

She was on her own in this tiny cruiser.

Nida had very rarely traveled in spaceships. She’d certainly been in her fair share of hover transports over the years, but she’d never had cause to embark on interstellar travel. In fact, her recent mission to Remus 12 was the furthest she’d ever been from Earth.

Yet now, as she stared at the viewscreen before her and the black depths of space streaked with the lines and speckles of stars, she felt as if she’d seen this exact sight millions of times before.

It was such an alien sensation that it didn’t take her long to realize it was not hers.

It belonged to the presence in her mind.

Home. All it wanted was to get home.

That one word seemed to calm her more than anything else could, because it focused the presence in her mind. And when the presence was focused, its influence on Nida lessened.

She tried to talk to it, but there was little it would say beyond the fact they were returning home. Yet occasionally, and quite frighteningly, it would point out that if they didn’t return fast enough, they would become corrupted.

At the word corrupted, she would always see the same visions flash before her eyes. Walking through the halls of the Academy, destroying the building as she passed. Or standing on the surface of Remus 12 and watching the entire planet break up into dust and stone, and swirl around her in a vortex of destruction.

That was what the entity meant by corrupted.

And it scared Nida senseless.

As time wound on, and the days ticked by, slowly she learned more about the entity.

It seemed it could only speak certain words, and when it tried to convey other information, it did so with half-remembered dreams and contorted imagery.

So, in a fugue of dreams, visions, and sleepy hours spent staring at the viewscreen, time wound on.

As it did, she truly awakened as her natural faculties returned to her, until the sharpness of her attention and focus rivaled that which it had once been.

Yet with her intelligence and focus came a fear far more exquisite than she’d experienced before. Now she had the faculties to understand exactly what was happening to her, it crippled her.

All she could do was sit there and stare at the viewscreen and wait, wait for the ship to reach Remus 12.

She had to get there. She had to return the entity to the statue.

She had to do it before they became corrupted.

Occasionally Nida tried talking to herself, or humming, or listening to music, but nothing would distract her.

She did try, however, to use the ship’s communication functions to get in contact with the Academy, or to scan all frequencies for any news.

She couldn’t do it.

The computer would block her out, and all too soon, she realized the entity in her mind didn’t want her to make contact.

Because it couldn’t be stopped.

If she tried to reach the Academy, they would find out where she was. If they found out where she was, they would stop her. They would prevent Nida and the entity from returning to Remus 12.

Feeling far more trapped than she ever had in her life, Nida somehow managed to soldier on.

As the minutes ticked by into hours, she didn’t crumple her hands over her eyes and burst into sorrowful tears.

She simply sat there, and she tried to think about what would happen next.

After she got to the planet. After she returned the entity to its home.

Then what? Could she go back to the Academy?

Though Nida had always been an optimistic and hopeful girl, she doubted it.

In fact, she could paint an almost perfect picture of what would happen to her. She’d be remanded into custody, studied, and quite possibly kept in a laboratory for the rest of her life.

Okay, the Academy was a lot more ethical than that, but her future would not be bright.

Trying not to think of it, she distracted herself by reading the navigational data displayed on the ship’s primary console. It charted a path through the various solar systems they were yet to traverse on their way to Remus 12.

She remembered from her time aboard the United Galactic Coalition heavy cruiser Orion that Remus 12 was very close to the outer border of the United Galactic Coalition. In fact, it was in an area that had once seen very heavy activity by the Kore Empire.

While the United Galactic Coalition was by far the most powerful group in all of the galaxy, it still had adversaries. Though thankfully there had been no open hostilities for years, occasionally there were skirmishes, and areas like the solar system Remus 12 belonged to, were not considered 100 percent safe.

Occasionally you could run across Kore scouting ships. Far more frightful, though, very occasionally you could run into the Barbarians.

The Barbarians were a tightly organized alliance of about 10 alien races from the far rim of the Milky Way. Though they were a small group, they were incredibly powerful.

While the Kore were the primary threat to the United Galactic Coalition, the Barbarians, in many ways, were far more dangerous. They had an insatiable desire for technology, and would often engage in industrial espionage, peaceful or violent, to glean the secrets of new Coalition devices.

Worse than that, the Barbarians were not above capturing passing transports and survey vessels to kidnap the crew, steal the cargo, and strip down the vessel for parts.

They were vicious, underhanded, and desperate. By all means, a deadly combination of traits. And when you factored in that the two main races of the Barbarians were two of the most violent alien species in all of the Milky Way, you would begin to understand how truly and terrifyingly dangerous the Barbarians were.

Still, when Nida had been aboard the Orion, she’d learned there hadn’t been any Barbarian or Kore activity in this system for a very long time.

She held onto that fact now. Tightly. The last thing she could put up with right now was another surprise.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she said to herself, her quiet voice nonetheless echoing through the small cockpit of the ship.

Though the ship barely had any amenities, and just enough to keep one person alive, that fact alone didn’t bother her. She didn’t seem to need much food; the blue light infesting her palm somehow kept her energized.

Still, incapable of distracting herself further, Nida pushed up from her seat and walked all of about a meter to the tiny receptacle that manufactured food. She pressed several buttons and soon got a glob of gray substance known as a complete nutritional mass.

She stood with her back pressed against one of the cramped walls as she nibbled at the unappetizing food, picking at bits of the lump with the tips of her fingers and considering them with little enthusiasm before popping them in her mouth.

As she stood there, the presence stirred, and for about the millionth time it told her they were heading home.

Home.

That one word lifted Nida’s world, and suddenly the terrible food she was eating tasted like the very ambrosia of the gods.

Her levity would not last.

For despite the entity’s assurance, they would not get home.

Chapter 26

Carson Blake

The past several days had been hell. He’d paced this enormous and lonely ship looking for answers. Searching his mind, searching the computer’s records, doing whatever he could to come up with a strong, airtight plan. But the problem was, his memory could only tell him so much, and computer files could tell him even less.

Though of course there were various mentions of peculiar entities over the years, nothing like the thing that now resided in Nida.

At least there were occasional mentions, though, and Carson whiled away the hours by poring over them, separating out each fact and analyzing it as if it held the secrets of the universe.

When he wasn’t accessing the computer’s scant knowledge of strange entities, he was using the gym. He ran, he lifted weights, and he distracted himself by keeping fit.

It was somewhere around the third day, when they entered an area bordering the Remus system, that the computer alerted him to a glitch with the scanners.

Frowning, he checked the readings on the panel in his armrest.

Immediately he jumped to his feet. “Computer, upgrade defenses now,” he snapped.

“No immediate threat has been detected,” the computer countered in a dull, electronic tone.

“Upgrade defenses now,” he snapped again.

The computer didn’t question him this time; it simply set the ship on a yellow alert. The usually bright light of the bridge glowed with a yellow tinge, and a warning tone filtered through the room. He could also hear the hum of the engines change as their output increased.

“The ship’s defensive plating has been activated. Localized force fields are in place, and inertia barriers have been generated.”

“Inertia barriers?” Carson questioned.

“This ship is equipped with an experimental device designed to alter its gravitational properties and exploit these to increase or decrease inertia, affecting any incoming objects.”

He blinked, impressed, then he returned to the ever-present task at hand.

Swiping at the sweat collecting over his brow, he stared up at the viewscreen.

And he waited.

“No enemy vessels have been detected, neither have the scanners picked up any spatial deformities,” the computer explained to him patiently.

“Just keep the defenses upgraded,” he snarled back.

“Yes,” the computer responded.

He could take the time to explain his logic to the computer, but it wasn’t necessary. It would only follow his orders, and though it seemed to question him now, he could turn that function off with a single command.

Taking several stiff steps back, he whirled on his foot and walked across to one of the sleek panels embedded in the wall. As he typed something into it, he frowned at the readings that played across the panel’s small screen.

Though the past several days had convinced Carson there was so much he couldn’t do, there were still certain things he’d mastered.

And this was one of them.

Even though the computer remained convinced there was nothing out there, Carson knew better.

He’d seen scanner malfunctions like this before, always in areas on the rim of Coalition space.

He knew what they meant, and it wasn’t that the scanner array needed recalibrating.

His few years as a lieutenant and the commander of the Force had brought him against the Barbarians before, and he knew what to look for.

The alignment of the scanners was off by 0.5 percent, enough for the effects of the misalignment to be almost negligible. But that wasn’t the only fact that now saw Carson rush over to a panel that gave him direct access to the ship’s weapons.

No. The scanners were picking up a greater concentration of particles throughout the system. Worse than that, the readings from his engine core indicated slight interference in the magnifying coils.

All of these three things combined reminded him of when the Barbarians had snuck up on ships in the past.

So right now, he acted with lightning speed to bring the Farsight’s defenses online.

As soon as the weapons were charged and those new, nifty inertia fields were in place, he allowed himself a single moment to relax.

Then he saw it.

Only several kilometers off the bow of the Farsight, a ship materialized. In a cascade of green particles that darted off the emerging ship’s hull, a long, sleek vessel came into view.

Carson doubled back, but almost immediately he commanded the computer to lock weapons on the vessel.

“Prepare countermeasures for any incoming attack,” he spat, “keep the plasma turrets charged.” He didn’t need to command the computer to do those things; it was doing them anyway, it was part of the defensive upgrade he’d ordered. But the sudden pressure of the situation meant he had to do something.

The long sleek vessel that had just materialized was unlike any design he’d ever seen. But that wasn’t much of a surprise, not when you considered the Barbarians were involved.

They hunted out new technologies voraciously. Though they were rarely brash enough to penetrate deep into Coalition space, they often ran sorties to planets they could safely reach, obliterating laboratories and research facilities, and stealing what they could. Which often included the scientists themselves.

Of all the United Galactic Coalition’s enemies, the Barbarians were by far the most fearsome, even if they were not technically the most powerful. What they had was a desire, a never-ending drive to capture whatever power they could, and that was what made them more dangerous than any other race or empire.

Carson had no doubt they were now after his ship. The Farsight was the cutting edge of the Academy’s technology; it would represent an incredible prize for the Barbarians.

As he stood there, waiting for them to make the first move so he could capitalize on it with the Farsight’s superior speed and weaponry, his mind raced with the possibilities.

There weren’t many technologies in existence in the Milky Way that could hide an entire vessel from view. And the ones that did exist were enormous, taking up half a planet.

Yet the Barbarians had clearly managed to get their hands on some kind of technology small enough and hardy enough to be used on a spaceship.

That fact alone was truly unnerving, but it gave way to a far more worrying thought.

With technology like that, the Barbarians could have infested multiple solar systems, lying in wait with their hidden vessels until something they wanted drifted on by.

Yes, that’s probably what had happened here. That Barbarian vessel had been hiding out in this system for god knows how long, waiting for something juicy enough to fly past and into their trap.

But, with luck he hardly deserved, Carson had seen through the trap before he’d mindlessly wandered into it.

Suddenly, the computer beeped, and it told him in its never wavering tone that the ship was receiving a message.

A visual message.

The Barbarians were clearly trying to contact him.

“Go ahead,” he commanded the computer. Seconds later the view of the vessel was replaced with the snarling face of an alien.

A Xerk, to be precise. One of the most militant, dangerous races in all of the galaxy.

Carson had fought them before, and he could point to more than a dozen old injuries they had inflicted on him.

This Xerk, as was characteristic of his race, had three large sunken eyes that were the yellowed color of jaundiced skin. Slit-like, black pupils now focused wide as the alien stared at him.

It was not large. By rule, Xerks weren’t. They were a little smaller than your average human was, yet they had more strength, more agility, and more speed than a human could ever wish to enjoy. And worse than that, Xerks had no morals, no compunctions, no voice in their head telling them to hold back. Their brutality went to a level that was beyond description. Think of the very worst criminals and despots of Earth’s history, and combine them into one snarling face equipped with tusks for teeth and ragged, tendril-like brown locks for hair.

That was a Xerk. They never blinked, they never slept, and they never stopped hunting you.

Well right now this one smiled, the fat, purplish flaps of skin that accounted for its lips drawing over its tusks with a slobbery, wet slap. “Downgrade your defenses.”

That was all it said.

Carson didn’t even bother to answer. Instead, he crossed his arms and stared at the alien.

“We have your vessel in our sights. We will destroy it. Downgrade your defenses.”

“And I have you in my sights,” Carson snarled, “you may be equipped with some kind of invisibility technology, but this ship is still faster and more powerful.” As Carson spoke, he let his lips spread thinly over his clenched teeth. Though the move was not nearly as disgusting as the Xerk’s had been, he hoped it was equally as intimidating.

“This vessel is equipped with weapons you can’t detect,” the alien continued, never blinking as it locked Carson in the gaze of its jaundice-colored eyes.

“Bullshit,” Carson answered simply.

The Xerk laughed, and it was a truly horrible sound. It was relayed through Carson’s speakers, and it echoed through the bridge with startling clarity as if the alien stood right behind him.

Still, Carson didn’t twitch. He simply stared back into those terrible yellow eyes. “This isn’t going to be a negotiation, and you aren’t going to manipulate me into downgrading my defenses. You are illegally trespassing in Coalition space. This vessel belongs to the United Galactic Coalition Army, and I am a lieutenant. You will be dealt with under the current Coalition treaty outlining the treatment of hostile foreign entities.”

The Xerk’s horrible eyes grew wide until they appeared to be two round, glistening yellow orbs of hatred, surrounded by a truly fearsome face. “Lower your defenses, human,” it spat, “and we won’t feed your guts to our younglings.”

Carson didn’t even blink. “Computer, lock port turrets on the Barbarian vessel.”

The alien snarled again, then slowly began to laugh.

Well, Carson was going to cut that laugh short. Without an audible order, he raised his hand in a specific position, and the computer knew exactly what it meant.

Immediately the Farsight’s gun turrets burst into life and fired round after round at the Barbarian vessel.

For the briefest, smallest fraction of a second, Carson worried that the Xerk was telling the truth and that somehow its vessel really did outgun and out-maneuver the Farsight.

Yet in a blazing moment of destruction, as the Farsight’s shots ripped into the Barbarian vessel, he realized it had been a ploy.

The Xerk screamed at him, his insults lost in translation.

Carson simply repeated his warning. “You will be dealt with under the United Galactic Coalition treaty that outlines the treatment of hostile foreign entities,” he stood back, typing something into the panel next to him.

Instantly the viewscreen switched back from that close-up view of the alien’s face, and once again displayed the Barbarian ship.

Though it shot several volleys from its own guns toward the Farsight, the inertia shields saw them slow down enough that the Farsight’s computer could track and shoot them down with blasts from her own turrets.

If or when Carson got the chance, he would have to thank the Admiral from the bottom of his heart for clearing such a stupendous vessel for him.

But just as he managed a smile, the computer blared a warning.

“Another vessel is entering the system,” it said in its usual bored tone.

“Who does it belong to?” he snapped, sudden terror pulsing through his veins at the thought the Barbarians could have back up.

While the Farsight was indeed a powerful ship, if the Barbarians amassed enough firepower against it, it too would fall.

“Galactic Coalition Academy,” the computer pointed out, “it is a light cruiser registered under the number R5 912.”

“Academy?” he snapped. “What’s an Academy light cruiser doing out here?” he began.

He stopped.

Realization dawned on him, and it felt like an anchor had been tied to his gut and sent sinking through the floor.

Nida.

Jesus Christ, it was Nida.

“The vessel is damaged,” the computer announced, answering a question Carson hadn’t even had the time to think of.

When Nida’s vessel escaped Earth, the entity had somehow found a way to shield the ship from the Earth’s sensor net. Yet now the Farsight’s computers could clearly pick it up.

And the reason why, was the enormous, trailing plume of smoke gushing out of its port engine. Automatically the Farsight’s computer narrowed in on it, and the picture on the viewscreen showed chunks of blackened hull battered with gaping holes.

“Can you detect any life signs? Can you detect any life signs?” Carson shouted at the computer.

“Negative. Sensors cannot penetrate the hull. An unusual, unknown energy source is blocking all attempts to scan,” the computer replied.

Before Carson could take a second to think, the embattled Barbarian cruiser turned toward Nida’s ship.

“Intercept,” Carson barked, lunging forward and clapping his hands on the panel as he stared with wide, focused eyes on the viewscreen. “Disable the Barbarian vessel’s guns. Now,” he croaked.

Then, in a flash, he caught up to the situation, or at least his instincts did. Though he’d only been a lieutenant for a handful of years, in that time he’d seen more than his fair share of combat. And though he always relied on his training and knowledge, instincts, more often than not, were the single factor that kept him alive.

And now they roared in his mind that, once again, he was wandering into a trap.

Nida’s vessel was damaged, but what in the hell had damaged it?

In a flash, he understood there was another Barbarian ship.

“Pull back,” he screamed at the computer, “increase the inertia field.” He had no idea whether he could do this, but right now, he was desperate.

Then, in a flash, he saw it.

Another Barbarian vessel materializing right on the other side of his ship, blocking him off from Nida’s badly damaged cruiser.

“Countermeasures,” Carson had time to spit before both Barbarian vessels opened fire on him.

The Farsight was squeezed between both ships like the fillings in the center of a sandwich.

His ship’s engines now powered up, shaking through the floor, and causing him to wobble where he stood.

The view on the main screen now showed flash after flash as both Barbarian vessels shot everything they had at the Farsight.

The ship shook, but so far, the inertia field was holding, and the computer was shooting each charge out of space before it could impact with the hull.

It couldn’t last, though.

He either had seconds or minutes, but that was all.

As the floor below him began to shudder even more, he pressed something on his wristwatch, and his boots magnetized to the hull, helping him keep steady as he ran for one of the panels.

His fingers darting across it, he tried to use what power he could draw from other systems to scan for Nida’s ship.

“Come on,” he choked, briefly glancing up at the viewscreen to see those two ships circling him, biding their time, firing, and waiting for his countermeasures to fail.

“Come on,” he screamed louder.

He couldn’t find her. The Farsight scanners simply couldn’t detect Nida’s ship anymore. Whether that meant the vessel had blown up, succumbing to its irreparable damage, he didn’t know.

But in a flash of fright, as the ship lurched violently to the side, he realized that his vessel would be next.

“Damage detected,” the computer said, still in its bored electronic tone. It didn’t speak louder, and its voice did not register even a single note of terror. It just listed the damage sustained to the Farsight as if it were reading nothing more interesting than a maintenance log.

Right.

It was time to prepare for an incursion.

Battle.

He knew enough about the Barbarians to know they would not shoot a ship as sophisticated as the Farsight out of space. They’d simply board her, remove him, and take the vessel.

“Computer, prepare for an incursion. Release an armor unit,” Carson spat as he took several steps into the center of the room.

“Armor unit released,” the computer noted.

He whirled on his foot to watch as the small arms locker in the wall unlocked, and the door disappeared into the wall, revealing rows of neatly stacked red and yellow boxes.

He lurched over to it, grabbing up one of the red boxes and opening it.

Inside were two heavy gauntlet-style gloves. Without hesitation, he crammed them onto his hands. Then he slammed the palms together and watched in silence as metal plating shot out from the gloves, zooming up his arms, over his back, down his body, and finally over his head. The plates clicked into place, and once the full-bodied armor had formed, a zap of electricity passed over it, sealing any cracks or holes.

This wasn’t the first time Carson had used an armor unit, and it wouldn’t be the last. Battle was part of his job.

He preferred, however, to use the specially crafted, uniquely designed armor sets the United Galactic Coalition heavy cruisers usually outfitted their security teams with. While the Farsight could manufacture one, Carson simply didn’t have the time. A fact he suddenly rued. He had wasted three perfectly good days where he could have taken his specifications, and spent hours perfecting a strong, snug-fitting set of the most powerful armor the United Galactic Coalition could manufacture.

But god dammit, he hadn’t for a second thought he would run into the Barbarians. And though he’d considered the possibility of coming across Nida and the entity, he’d quickly realized that no matter what level of armor he was wearing, it wouldn’t matter. If the entity could hack sophisticated systems like the entire Academy computer, then the onboard processor of all Coalition armor would be an easy target.

Now he had several precious seconds to rue his decision.

Pulling a yellow box toward him, he opened it, and quickly turned it inside out. Then he selected the correct code and stood back as the box morphed into a gun.

A hefty, heavy-duty plasma rifle that should be able to do more than a little damage to the Barbarians.

Then Carson stopped, briefly, to turn over his shoulder and stare at the viewscreen.

As he did, he swore he saw an enormous torpedo heading straight for the Farsight.

He locked his magnetic boots onto the floor just before the entire ship shuddered violently to the side.

Gritting his teeth, he swore through them, then he waited.

The computer ran through its damage report, and Carson grimaced at how many systems were down.

He’d hardly had this ship for three and a half days, and he’d already broken it. The Admiral would kill him. In fact, she would probably kill him twice, because not only would he lose the Farsight, he’d already lost Nida.

….

Nida.

That thought was far too uncomfortable to process, so he pushed it from his mind.

“Come on,” he said under his breath just as the computer warned him that all countermeasures were spent.

He half closed his eyes, latching a hand onto the wall just as the Farsight lurched so violently several armory boxes fell from the cupboard, onto the floor, and scattered in every direction.

Then he heard it – that very specific sound that told you a Coalition ship was being boarded.

He’d heard it before, and it always had the exact same effect on him.

It froze him and moved him at exactly the same time. It stilled the emotional side of his mind and forced his instinctual half into action.

Carson threw himself forward, locking the rifle against his shoulder and ducking his head close to its sight.

“Come on, you bastards,” he hissed, his voice coming out in a modulated drone, altered by the mic of his armor.

With another terrible shudder and one last warning from the computer, he realized the Barbarians had boarded.

He had no idea how many there would be, but he knew there was only one of him. So he could bet the odds were not on his side.

Flinging himself forward, he commanded the computer to lock down all systems under a class VIII encryption code that could only be unblocked by him. Then he made it to the bridge doors and sealed them.

Though he’d once thought this ship was big, it now seemed as small as a prison cell.

He could hear boots, and he fancied he could even smell that distinct scent of Barbarian mercenaries. Unwashed bodies, dried blood, and pure, distilled hatred.

He didn’t stay in the corridor long; instead, he ducked into the main quarters. His stuff was still all over the floor and bed. A pair of standard, regulation gray nightclothes, several datapads he’d manufactured, and a pile of dirty dishes from the galley.

As silently as he could, he took up position beside the bed, ducking down low behind the girth of the mattress and grabbing a feather pillow as he did. With a good aim, he threw it until it struck the door and bumped off onto the floor.

Feather pillows were hardly standard in the Academy; he’d manufactured one on board. He hated sleeping with those ergonomic foam ones and far preferred something that he could mold under his neck. And right now his particular proclivities were about to come in handy.

As he hunkered down and waited, he heard the sounds of the incursion. The running feet, the small explosions, the screams, and the continual warnings of the computer.

But none of it could trump how loudly his heart beat in his ears. It thumped and drummed and pounded like an entire army of warriors hammering against his skull and chest.

He ignored it, though. He drew on his years of training and dived further and further into his instincts until he practically shut down the analytical, objective side of his mind.

Now he was nothing more than a set of ears, eyes, nostrils, and hands.

Seconds later the door to his quarters opened.

Immediately Carson shot the feather pillow, and the hot, blinding white bullet from his gun burst the outer casing of the pillow and set the feathers alight, causing them to rush up in a shouldering, and thankfully distracting, cloud.

Without waiting, Carson rolled to the side, firing again, and he was gratified to hear the heavy thump of a body.

Yet before he could cheer, there was a clink, clink, and he looked down to see a stun grenade roll into the room.

He shot it.

With barely a nanosecond to spare.

If it had been anybody else, maybe they wouldn’t have managed to do it, but Carson had spent an unknown number of hours practicing his combat skills, and that included taking impossible shots.

Capitalizing on the surprise, he dropped to his knees, rolling again, finally coming into line with the open door. As he punched to his feet, he ran through it, blasting away with his gun in a wide, wild arc.

He heard another thump, then a growl right beside his ear.

A Barbarian mercenary jumped toward him, pulling an enormous electrified knife from the sheath on his side.

Carson just had enough time to double back, then the blade came slicing toward him.

Though the armor he was currently wearing was good, a few strikes from that electrified blade, and he would feel it.

He’d also likely lose a limb.

The mercenary growled at him again, and even through his armor, Carson could smell the stench of the creature’s breath. It didn’t just remind him of rotting meat; it had a foul, curdled-milk edge to it that made his stomach turn.

Doubling back again as the mercenary swiped for Carson’s head, he tried to get off a shot, but the mercenary was too close, and the barrel of Carson’s gun was too long.

Though he could turn and run back into his quarters, Carson didn’t want to be pinned down. He had one advantage: surprise.

There was another soft clink, clink, and in his peripheral vision, he saw another grenade tumble across the floor toward him.

The Barbarians were not a particularly caring bunch, and loyalty was not something they lived by. If one Barbarian could benefit by the sacrifice of another, then the sacrifice was made.

Reacting immediately, Carson shot at the grenade, but as he did so he gave the mercenary with the electrified blade an opportunity to strike, and strike he did. The man was not a Xerk. He was from a race called the Mascar, and he was enormous. Easily two-and-a-half-meters tall, he towered above Carson. Concentrated within the creature’s enormous barrel-shaped chest and tree-trunk-like arms was astounding strength. Well, right now the alien used it to slash the electro blade as hard as it could into Carson’s arm.

Carson was forced to his knees as pain shot through his shoulder and deep, deep into his chest.

He screamed out, but that didn’t stop him from jerking forward and clutching both his hands around the hilt of the blade.

His gun clattered to the floor, bouncing off his knee and onto his boot.

With a terrifying, blood-curdling scream, the alien managed to rip the sword from Carson’s grip.

Then he brought it down toward Carson’s neck.

Immediately Carson reacted. He flung himself forward and into the Mascar’s chest. He thrust forward with all the power his armor could give him, and it was enough to throw the alien off-balance. Then Carson dug his feet into the ground, pushed back, and flipped. His hands landed, one onto the ground and one over his gun, and as he flipped back onto his feet, he brought the gun up and shot.

The bullet landed dead center and flung the mercenary against the wall.

Turning just as another two mercenaries rounded the corridor, Carson backed away, shooting as he did.

He was running out of time.

He had no idea how many Barbarians there were, but he could guess he hadn’t even dented their numbers.

With that horrifying fact dawning on him like the coldest of winter days, he shuddered.

They would find a way to kill him, and if they were feeling particularly generous, they would simply take him into captivity and sell him as a slave to the Kore Empire.

It would be a sorry way for the leader of the Force to go.

As all of these thoughts flashed through his mind, another followed them.

He would never find out what had happened to Nida.

Not only had her ship been destroyed, and her body likely obliterated by the explosion, he was about to join her.

Ducking and weaving and shooting, he managed to dispatch those two mercenaries, but again he heard more powering down the corridor.

He backed off toward his room, ready for his final stand.

It wouldn’t come.

At least not today.

Chapter 27

Cadet Nida Harper

They had attacked her ship.

Out of nowhere, a vessel had materialized by the side of her cruiser and had started firing.

The presence in her mind had taken sudden and immediate control of her body, sending pulses of blue light into the panel of the cruiser, but it had been too late.

The enemy ship had already disabled every system and had overloaded the engines. There was a gaping hole in the side of the ship, which Nida was only protected from by the enclosed and sealed cockpit.

Without the time to question or worry, the entity controlling her had screamed.

An incredible, unbelievably powerful, sorrow-filled scream that had vibrated through every single centimeter of Nida, filling her with the most agonizing panic she would ever experience.

Then, just before the enemy ship had finished them off, it dematerialized.

Nida blinked in surprise as the image of it simply disappeared on her crackling, badly fractured viewscreen.

Then more blue light had escaped her palms, traveling deep into the arcing console before her. Without a command, or at least a verbal one from her, the ship turned and continued along its original heading.

Even though the engines were badly damaged, the blue light pouring from her hand seemed to sustain them, and they traveled on.

Until they reached another system and found another of those terrible ships.

In a series of incredible events, she watched the ship that had attacked her materialize and go after an experimental vessel she quickly realized belonged to the Galactic Coalition Academy.

The United Galactic Coalition ship had no chance, and after a dizzying attack from the two enemy ships, its gun turrets failed.

She watched, unable to do anything, as the two enemy ships squeezed in on the United Galactic Coalition vessel.

Though she was quite new to space travel, even Nida could recognize the ships were preparing to board.

Just before she could scream in terror, something happened to her own ship.

With a commanding beep, the computer told her the cockpit was about to lose integrity.

Time seemed to slow down, and she had a few precious seconds to realize what would happen.

Then it happened.

The side of the ship just blew open, and everything inside was pulled into space, including her.

At first, she tried to fight it.

Then she couldn’t.

….

She waited for the vacuum of space to pull her inside out, but it didn’t.

She was alive.

Dear god, somehow she was alive.

With a glance down at her body, she now realized it was pulsing with the blue glow of the entity.

She shifted her arms around, she stared at her fingers, then she looked out at space.

She was in space.

She was not wearing a spacesuit, she was encased in nothing but that light. Yet somehow, it kept her safe from the vacuum and cold.

But she couldn’t stay here forever; she instinctively knew that.

She didn’t know what she could do, though.

Her hands, however, appeared to have information she didn’t, and she soon found herself turning, angling her body until she clasped hold of the side of her broken ship. She pulled herself into it, grabbing onto the seat and muscling her body down until she sat. Then she grabbed the harness from the side and locked herself in position.

The blue light pulsed from her, absolutely surging as it shot down from her hands and into every single centimeter of the ship.

She had no idea what it was doing, but within seconds what remained of the engines began to pulse, and the broken panel before her blinked back into life.

The ship began to move. Slowly, but it still moved. Toward the embattled Coalition cruiser.

Within minutes she reached it, and as she approached, her body shuddered as blue light shot from her and out into space, coalescing against the side of the United Galactic Coalition cruiser.

She felt cold. Dreadfully, awfully cold. It felt as though her blood had been replaced by liquid nitrogen.

Whimpering as she closed her arms around herself, drawing her body in as far as it would go, she waited.

The completely broken cruiser she was in inched closer and closer to the embattled Coalition ship, and then, just before it arrived, something incredible happened.

The hangar bay doors at the back of the vessel opened.

Then the blue light returned to her, snapping back into her body and bringing with it that comforting presence and reassuring heat.

Nida was thrown back against her chair by the power of it, and when she forced her eyes open, she realized her broken ship was angling toward the open hangar bay doors. Within 40 seconds, it was inside. Then, briefly, a surge of blue energy left her, and seconds later, the hangar bay doors closed.

Then Nida slumped. Her body fell limp against the harness holding her, and it took an enormous amount of energy to draw up her hand and unclasp the harness.

She fell forward, slamming against the console, falling off it, and thumping onto the ground.

Just as she tried to get her breath back, she turned to see something.

Something truly terrible.

Barbarians.

Xerks and Mascars. They streamed in from the door on the opposite side of the room. Their faces drew slack, and they hesitated for a moment.

She understood why they paused.

She’d just boarded this vessel in a half broken ship.

Oh, and she was glowing blue.

Their moment of hesitation ended, and they drew their weapons and fired.

Once again, the bullets never reached her. They slowed down as they neared, and the closer they got, the more they bent until they were pulled into a twisting vortex around her body.

She heard screams and surprised shouts, but they didn’t last.

Nida stood.

Then she walked forward. She pointed a hand to the roof.

She didn’t know what she was doing, but the entity within her did.

Every Barbarian in the room lifted off the floor, their bodies floating no matter how heavy they were or how much armor they wore.

She had a moment to register some of their expressions, then their bodies shot toward the ceiling of the hangar bay. She heard several resounding, bone-crunching thumps, and she walked on.

She tried to scream, but she couldn’t control her throat.

She reached the door that led to the rest of the ship, and it opened before her.

Though her movements were more coordinated this time, every step was still heavy and unsure, as if somebody had attached ropes to her limbs and tugged her forward without reprieve.

When she reached the corridor, she saw more Barbarians.

They fired at her, one even released a grenade, but it didn’t matter; the bullets simply swirled around her, and the grenade warped, crumpling in on itself.

Then she did it again. She took a single step forward, raised a pointed finger at the ceiling, and watched in silent horror as every single Barbarian in the corridor floated slowly off the ground then sped up and slammed against the ceiling.

She walked underneath them, aware that several spatters of blood rained down on her shoulders and hair.

As she took another step, she turned to her side and saw that the airlock several meters away was open, leading onto another ship.

Through it, a group of Barbarians ran, but they didn’t get very far. With a click of her fingers, they were slammed against the wall, pinned there by an invisible force that squeezed them closer and closer to the metal until they started to scream.

She walked toward the open airlock, every footstep heavy. She reached it. She took a step into the other ship. She dealt with any Barbarians that came streaming toward her, then she slowly knelt down, planting both palms onto the floor. A shot of blue energy released from her hands, snaking across the metal, up the walls, and into the ceiling. She waited there several seconds, suddenly seeing flashes of the rest of the Barbarian ship. The engine room, the galley, the quarters, the prison, everything. Then the entity appeared to find its mark and plunged deep into the engine core. Seconds later a red alert klaxon blared, and a computer voice warned that the ship was undergoing a catastrophic systems failure.

Nida rose to her feet and walked backward out of the airlock. Then she closed it. She turned, and she continued walking through the corridors. Soon enough she found yet another open airlock on the opposite side of the ship, and she repeated the same procedure. She dealt with Barbarians, then dealt with their ship, finally closing the airlock after herself.

While her body kept moving forward and the power kept surging through it, Nida herself was beyond terrified.

She wanted to close her eyes to block out the gruesome sights and shut off her ears to the horrifying screams, but she couldn’t.

Instead, she was forced to watch and listen as the entity dealt with every Barbarian it could find.

Finally, she pushed further into the United Galactic Coalition cruiser.

She came across one last group of mercenaries.

She rounded the corner that appeared to lead to crew quarters, and she saw them clustering forward toward a black shape.

It took her barely a second to recognize the distinctive coloring and style of Coalition armor.

Then she did it, one last time. She simply pointed to the ceiling, and every single mercenary lifted into the air.

But it wasn’t just the mercenaries – the man in the black armor did as well.

Though Nida had resigned herself to her total lack of power in this situation, suddenly she screamed; suddenly she fought as hard as she could against the entity.

“No,” she commanded, “no, he’s from the Academy, just like me. No.”

The mercenaries and the United Galactic Coalition soldier were still suspended in the air, floating there as if gravity had lost all hold of them.

Then there was a snap.

They slammed upwards against the ceiling, and again she heard the crunch of bone.

But the man in the black armor did not.

He simply floated there until slowly his body returned to the ground.

She stared down at him, and though she couldn’t see his face, she knew he stared up at her.

Then she walked backward, the entity turned her body, and she strode along another corridor until she reached the door that led to the bridge. She forced her hand out and against the locked door, and in several seconds, it unlocked and opened.

With one brief look around, she confirmed it was the one room in all of the ship that still lay untouched.

She took several heavy steps in, then she heard it.

Somebody calling her name.

Her real name.

“Nida, Nida,” the man screamed.

Despite the entity’s control of her, she turned, and as she did, the United Galactic Coalition soldier sprinted into the room. Then he stopped several meters from her, and rocked back on his feet as if he didn’t dare get any closer.

“Nida?” he asked in a shaking voice.

She couldn’t recognize it, because it bore the same distinctive electronic monotone of anybody who spoke through armor.

“It’s me,” the man said.

Before he could say his name, she knew who it was.

Carson Blake.

Sure enough, he reached a hand up, touched something on his wrist, and his helmet opened revealing his face.

And his shock.

His intense, horrible shock.

She knew what it was directed at.

Her.

What she’d done to the Barbarians.

Suddenly, control returned to her body, and she clamped a hand over her mouth. She lost all balance, crumpling to her knees, and she wheezed in a breath as tears soaked her cheeks faster than they had ever come in her entire life.

“Nida?” he asked one last time as he finally took a step closer to her.

She shook her head.

He slowly brought a hand up. “It’s okay,” he said in a falsely calm tone. But the calm didn’t extend to his expression; his eyes were wide, his mouth pulled tight over his teeth, his cheeks slack, pale, and sickly white.

She shook her head again, over and over, not caring that she strained her neck muscles.

What had she just done?

Those Barbarians…. She’d clicked her fingers or pointed at the ceiling and then….

She pushed her fingers even harder into her teeth, choking around them.

“You’re alive,” he pointed out disbelievingly. “You’re alive,” slowly the palpable shock lifted from his face and thankful surprise replaced it. “How the hell did you survive?”

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

Instead, she turned, stumbled over to the wall, rested her back against it, and fell down to her knees. Then she crumpled her arms forward, tucking her head down.

Silently she rocked back and forth.

“Nida,” he spoke her name so softly it seemed he’d forgotten the terrible things she’d just done. “It’s okay,” he took several steps toward her.

She shook her head yet again. “What did I do?”

“You saved this ship,” he said in a firmer tone. “Now just wait there,” she heard him turn and dart over to one of the consoles. “We need to get the hell out of here.”

“Remus 12,” she found herself saying, the entity taking control of her mouth as she did.

“Sorry?” Carson questioned.

“Remus 12,” she said in a far more forceful tone, “we need to go back. We need to go home. Remus 12.”

An almost electric silence spread between them, then she heard Carson type something on a panel. “Okay,” he said simply.

That single little word sent incredible relief rushing through her, and she let out a whimper.

“Nida, it’s going to be okay,” Carson tried again. “Whatever is happening to you – we will figure it out.”

She finally tipped her head back, looking at him. “I know what’s happening. We have to return home. Remus 12.”

He regarded her with pale cheeks and a drawn, tired look to his gaze. Then he nodded. “We are going there now. You disabled… I mean the entity disabled those Barbarian vessels. It looks like they will not be able to follow. It even took out their communication relays, so they won’t be able to get off a message to any of their friends. I would send a communication back to the Academy letting them know that the Barbarians have violated our territory again, but there’s something wrong with our communication relay too.”

“It has been disabled,” Nida pointed out plainly, her voice calm and even.

Carson turned back to her, a very careful look on his face as his gaze darted all over her. “What?”

“You must not contact anyone. No more interruptions. Remus 12.”

He took a long moment to consider her, swallowed hard, then nodded. “Don’t you worry; we will get there. But… just leave her alone,” he managed.

Nida knew who he was talking to. The entity.

“We can get you back there. I’ll give you my word, but leave her alone,” he said, now speaking through gritted teeth.

“We do no harm. Remus 12,” Nida said again, the entity speaking through her.

“Yes,” was all Carson could manage. Though he turned back to the computer panel before him to type other things into it, eventually he turned, and he faced her once more.

His eyes were wide, and he appeared to be trying to take in every single centimeter of her. “Are you still in there?” he asked softly.

Though the entity had intermittent control of her, she managed to nod. “I’m fine,” she said in a tight whisper. “We just have to get,” she began.

“To Remus 12. We are on it. It’ll be a couple of hours. Then we will be there. Now I just have to…” he took some time to turn around and survey the bridge, “find some way of fixing the rest of the ship.”

“This ship will make the distance,” Nida pointed out in a cold and efficient tone, “we will keep it running. You must do nothing but wait with us.”

Carson opened his mouth, appearing ready to say something, but whatever it was, it died on his lips.

Then silence came.

Sick, cloying silence that stretched between them and stifled the scene like choking smoke from above.

Nida was the one that broke it. She couldn’t take it anymore. The stress, the horror. She tried to get up, but she couldn’t. So instead, she turned her sorrowful gaze on him. “I’m sorry,” she croaked. “I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t control myself.”

He looked up at her sharply, and somehow, despite what she’d done, there was no blame in his eyes. Just concern. Incredible, powerful concern. “Nobody will blame you,” he said slowly.

“It just needs to return home,” Nida said as she finally unhooked her arms from around her knees and stared at her hands. They were still bright blue, and if she concentrated, she could see those flashes of energy pull up from her skin only to sink further down into her palm and fingers like worms rising up from the earth only to wriggle back down again.

“Why?” Carson asked. “Why do you need to return home?”

“Because if we do not, we will become corrupted,” Nida answered. Her voice was half her own and half the entity’s. Half completely shocked and half completely sure of itself. Suffice to say, her tone shook up and down, and her voice rattled in her chest.

But that didn’t stop Carson from understanding her words apparently, because his eyes drew wide. “Corrupted? What does that mean?”

“We are not from this place. We are from beyond. We must return to our home. If we stay here, we corrupt.” Nida still sat with her back pressed up against the wall, and she was thankful for the reassurance it gave her.

“But what does corrupted mean?” Carson pressed again.

“Broken, changed, contorted, twisted, corrupted,” Nida said.

It was clear Carson couldn’t understand, because he simply shook his head, finally pressing too grimy fingers to his brow and sticking his fingernails into the skin. He was clearly stressed, tired, and from the way he held his left shoulder, it appeared he was injured too. “Please, try to help me to understand. I’ll do whatever you need me to, but I need to understand. How do you mean you will be corrupted? What will happen to you?”

“Do not ask what will happen to us, ask what will happen to you,” Nida found herself saying. The entity had full control of her voice now, and the calm it used to speak its words made them all the creepier.

Carson dropped his hands from his head, no longer massaging his brow, and instead staring at Nida with a clearly worried expression. “Sorry?”

“We will break your space. We do not belong here. If we remain, we become corrupted, and we corrupt everything around us, twisting it toward us, changing it,” Nida explained.

Carson stood a lot straighter, and the look in his eye became almost terrifyingly attentive. “You mean that was what was happening to Nida on Earth? That’s why those TI objects were being attracted to her?”

“Yes. Our presence within her distorts her implant, causing what you call TI objects to pull toward her. But this effect will eventually extend to all others. We cannot control this. We do not belong here. We must get home. Remus 12,” Nida added again needlessly.

Carson nodded, but it was clear that what he really wanted to do was shake his head and shout about how damn insane this was. “And once we get to the planet, you will… leave?” He stared at Nida, but it also appeared as if he was trying to look through her, quite possibly at the entity.

“Once we reach our home, we will leave,” Nida confirmed.

Carson looked ready to sigh, but just as he began to, he pressed his lips tightly closed. “And Nida? Will you leave her alive? Will she be okay?” His tone was pressured, quick, and sharp.

“There will be no damage,” Nida noted in the calm voice of the entity, “but the longer we remain, the longer we corrupt. We must return home soon.”

Carson nodded, and finally he sighed. “Well, all you have to do is hold on for several hours. Can you do that? Or are you going to start… corrupting the rest of the ship? Are the panels going to be ripped from the walls and sent flying toward you?”

Nida shook her head. “We can control ourselves. The closer we return to Remus 12, the easier it will become.”

Carson actually closed his eyes, planted a hand over them, and took several enormous, deep breaths. “That is the first piece of good news I have heard today. Right, we’ll just ride this out. Nida, we’ll get there soon. Don’t worry,” he added quickly.

“I’m not worried,” she said in her own voice.

Carson dropped his hand and blinked an eye open. “Really?” There was an incredulous note in his voice.

“I’m completely freaking out,” she clarified.

He gave the briefest, smallest of half smiles. “So am I. But it will all be over soon,” he promised.

That promise was like a warm hug, something to center her, something to calm her, and god knows she needed that right now.

Then she remembered something very, very important. “Earth, the Academy, is everybody okay? What did I do?”

Carson put a hand up to stop her. “Everybody is fine. Nobody was hurt. You… the entity managed to exploit the Endgame Maneuver. Basically, it infiltrated the entire Academy secure computer network, pumped the thing full of power, and transported every single person off Academy grounds, giving you the opportunity you needed to escape. Nobody got hurt,” he repeated.

Slowly Nida let her mouth drop open. “Endgame Maneuver? I did that?”

“No, the entity did,” he said pointedly. “Nobody is going to blame you for anything,” he added.

She wanted to believe that, but she didn’t know if she could. Carson seemed to be ready to trust in her and to believe in her, but she wasn’t so sure the Admiralty would agree.

Still, perhaps now wasn’t the time to worry about that. Her attention had to be focused on one thing: returning the entity to Remus 12. Everything else could wait.

Or perhaps it couldn’t. She jumped to her feet. “The Barbarians, god, what did I do to them? Are they okay?”

Carson looked at her very carefully. “They aren’t going to bother us,” he said diplomatically.

She pushed her head to the side as she stared at him askance. “You mean they all retreated back to their ships?” she asked naïvely.

“No,” he said simply. “You dealt with the threat,” he added opaquely.

She started to feel sick, very sick. “Where are they?” She turned to head off the bridge.

Carson took several steps toward her, and went to reach out a hand to grab her arm, but stopped. Instead, he strode around her, planting himself firmly between her and the bridge door. “The threat has been dealt with. The Barbarians are vicious, vicious enemies. They were going to take this ship and kill the both of us. The entity dealt with them,” he said simply. “Nobody will blame you,” he added.

She receded, staring at that very careful look in his eyes. “I killed them,” she whispered harshly.

He didn’t move a muscle and neither did he say anything.

“I killed them,” she repeated. “Jesus Christ, I killed them.”

“Nida, if the entity hadn’t intervened, this ship would have been stolen by the Barbarians, and both you and I would either be dead or on our way to be sold into slavery. And I really don’t want to go into how horrible the life of a Barbarian slave would be. The problem was dealt with. You didn’t attack their ship; they attacked ours. They started this. They were not willing to compromise. The entity dealt with it. That’s the end of the story.”

She shook her head.

God, it felt like the only thing she could do. It felt like simply by shaking her head she could make everything go away.

But she couldn’t.

She couldn’t deny the reality.

She had killed the Barbarian attackers that had boarded this ship, she’d severely disabled the two Barbarian vessels, and god knows whether she’d left them life support.

“Nida, don’t be so naïve,” Carson said through clenched teeth, “you are in the Academy. When you graduate,” he said, hesitating on the word when as if he really wanted to say if, “you will become a full member of the United Galactic Coalition Army. You will devote your life to protecting those of others. And that comes with a price. You don’t get to pretend to be nice anymore. You don’t get to hang back when somebody else is in danger. You have to put your life on the line, and sometimes your peace of mind, to do what has to be done. If the Barbarians got hold of this vessel, it would equip them with what they would need to complete far more devastating attacks. And if they had got their hands on the entity,” he said in a far quieter voice, “I can’t even imagine what would have happened.”

She understood what he was trying to say, she really did, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t get past the fact that she’d murdered people.

And yes, she was a member of the Galactic Coalition Academy, and yes, she knew that if she graduated, she would become a full soldier in the United Galactic Coalition Army. But somehow, she’d never put the two together. Somehow, she’d never really appreciated how dangerous space travel could be, and how it couldn’t only threaten one’s life, but one’s moral integrity too.

She felt so very sick that she found herself rocking backward, and then, without warning, collapsed to her knees.

Carson rushed forward to help her, but he seemed too hesitant to actually touch a hand to her shoulder and arm. Instead, he hovered beside her, concern igniting in his gaze as he searched her own. “Everything will be fine once we get to Remus 12. Nobody will blame you,” he repeated.

She tried to nod, but she couldn’t. Instead, she swallowed hard. Her hands were shaking, and so were her arms and legs, and no matter what she did, she couldn’t stop them.

“Everything will be fine,” he said one last time through gritted teeth.

“I dreamt this,” she suddenly said.

Carson paused, his once determined expression faltering. “Sorry?” He was still sitting on his haunches, a good half meter from her side. Concern flashed through his gaze. “What do you mean?”

“Back on Earth, I dreamt of this. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I see it was a warning,” she noted in a far-off voice.

Though she tried to focus on a patch of clean, white floor just past Carson’s left knee, she darted her gaze up to meet his.

He looked… freaked out. But that didn’t stop him from inching a little closer. He still apparently didn’t have the gumption to touch her, but now he was right by her side. “What did you dream of?”

“It just started off as blue light. I would be standing on the surface of Remus 12, and I’d look down to my left palm, and…” she remembered how horrible the dreams had been at the time, how hard she’d tried to get that blue light out of her hand. But now she was covered in it, and now she’d surrendered to what it was. But that didn’t stop her from remembering how terrifying the dreams had been. Taking several even breaths to calm her voice down, she continued, “and then the dreams started to change. Do you remember several nights ago when you came to my room and I demanded you take me to the hospital?”

He gave a low, bitter chuckle. “Yes,” he pointed out dryly. “I’m not sure I will ever forget.”

“I forced myself to go to the hospital because of what I dreamed, but the docs just told me I was stressed,” she noted as she brought her hands up and stared at her fingernails.

Finally, Carson touched her. He brought one of his own hands out and covered hers, pushing them down lightly, centering her attention as he did. She looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers.

“What did you dream of? It’s okay; I’ll believe you,” he added with a light chuckle. “After what I’ve seen, I’ll believe anything.”

She wasn’t quite sure whether that was meant to be reassuring, yet she couldn’t help but smile.

Nor could she help but feel calmer, and safer than she had before.

Because she wasn’t alone.

While the entity still remained in her mind, the sudden connection she felt with Carson was completely different.

He didn’t blink once and neither did he drop his gaze; he simply nodded at her to continue.

He still had his hand on top of hers, and the warmth that translated down his skin into hers was astoundingly pleasant. It gave her the strength she needed to finish what she’d started, “I dreamt I was walking down the Academy halls, buckling the walls. Then people would come up to try to stop me, and I would,” she wheezed, “I would,” she couldn’t say it.

“Kill them?” he suggested softly.

She choked, tears swelling in her eyes. But she managed to nod nonetheless. “Yes. I would do to them what I did to the Barbarians. Just point a finger at the ceiling, and they would go slamming into it. I’d hear the crunch of bones, and blood would drop on my face as I walked underneath them, and,” she choked again, more tears streaming down her face. “I was terrified that it would really happen. The dreams were so vivid. That’s why I went to the hospital. But nobody would believe me.”

“Hey, I believe you now,” Carson took one of her hands in his and held it firmly. He no longer appeared scared of the blue light darting over her body. In fact, he didn’t even glance at it; he only stared into her gaze. “We’re heading to Remus 12. We will solve this. Together,” he added.

She nodded.

“Now there’s something I have been dying to ask you for over a week,” he began.

Her stomach involuntarily twitched with nerves.

Not the kind of terrifying, panic-filled nerves that had been assailing her ever since she’d left Earth, but a different kind entirely.

She fancied she even blushed, not that anybody would be able to tell considering how blue and glowing her skin was.

“What happened to you on Remus 12? How did you sustain those injuries?” he finally asked.

Oh, she felt like saying. That’s it?

Instead, she nodded her head. “It took me a long time to remember, but I do now. I found another set of stairs. When you and Commander Sharpe sent me back to the compound, I was walking in the dark, and I tripped down another set of stairs,” she admitted with a cough.

Carson gave a small smile.

His lips pressed in, and his chin dimpled. It was categorically one of the cutest, most charming moves she’d ever seen.

“Shut up,” she said under her breath, even though he hadn’t said a thing.

“You fell down a set of stairs,” he prompted, serious this time.

“Yes,” she sighed. “That’s where I lost your scanner. Anyway, it was really dark, and I got turned around, and when I went to crawl up what I thought was the right set of stairs, it led me somewhere else. Into this room,” her voice tightened.

“What was in the room?” Again, his gaze darted around, searching hers.

“Nothing… except a statue. It was holding a blue orb,” she managed.

She watched as the skin around his eyes slackened. He had mesmerizing eyes. They were large and violet. They were the kind of eyes you could happily stare into without ever getting bored.

“A statue?” he prompted.

“I walked over to it. I don’t know. I felt like I was drawn toward it. And then, before I knew what I was doing, I touched it. Some kind of force erupted from it, I fell on my back, and…” she couldn’t say the rest.

“Nida? What happened next?”

She finally withdrew her hands from his, and she tapped her chest. “The light rushed inside me. And then I don’t remember anything else. Somehow, I got back up to the surface of the planet, and that’s where you and Sharpe found me. And well…” she trailed off.

“I know the rest,” he nodded. Then he sat back, finally falling from his haunches, and landing onto his butt with a thump. He brought his knees up in front of him, and loosely held them with his hands. “Right,” he managed as he scratched his eyebrow distractedly. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it anyway, Academy recruits are taught fairly early on not to touch weird looking glowing objects on alien planets.”

She pressed her lips together, letting them crumple in. “Shut up. Plus, I told you, I felt like I was being drawn toward it.”

He smiled. “I know. I was playing with you.”

Despite the situation, she laughed.

It felt strangely good. It felt that with just a little bit of humor it could make all the desperation and panic and agony simply drift away.

….

It couldn’t, at least not really.

As she sat there in silence, she felt cold, terrified, and overcome.

“What do you think will happen to me once we return to Earth?” she finally asked in a falsely even tone.

Carson didn’t immediately answer.

She looked up at him sharply.

“I’ll do what I can. Once the Admiral understands what happened, nobody will blame you,” he tried.

“You don’t really know that, do you?” she asked perceptively. “It will all depend on what they believe. And hey, let’s face it; they’re probably going to lock me up on Jupiter Substation for at least a couple of months as they run tests.”

He winced, and he went to shake his head, but he stopped. “I’ll fight for you,” he said. It was a simple enough statement, but it felt like it was out of the blue.

She ticked her head to the side, feeling awkward. She tried to push her hair behind her ears, only to realize how oily it was.

Yuck.

She was in desperate need of a good shower, a good sleep, and a good eat. As if to confirm that, her stomach gave a rumble.

While the entity appeared able to sustain her with its own energy, perhaps the fight with the Barbarians had left it running on empty.

Carson heard her stomach rumble, and he raised an eyebrow. “I take it you’re just hungry, and you don’t actually have a bear in your stomach,” he quipped.

It was a bad joke, but it made her laugh. Possibly a little too much, because once again, it felt incredibly good to laugh.

Carson joined in, and when they petered out, he finished off with a smile.

She stared at that smile for entirely too long, until she finally asked something she’d wanted to for the past several weeks. “Why are you helping me?”

He looked momentarily taken aback, then he shook his head in disbelief. “Because you have an incredibly powerful entity inside of you that must be returned to Remus 12 before it corrupts space-time,” he said very clearly as if she’d forgotten everything.

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Back on Earth, before anybody really knew what was wrong with me, you were the only one who seemed to… I don’t know, care. Why?”

It appeared to be an uncomfortable question for him, and he receded a little, dropping her gaze and staring at his hands instead. “I don’t know, really, I just…. You caught my eye,” he tried.

She really did blush this time, but once again, you would have required a microscope to see it past her vibrant blue skin.

Her expression changed, though, and Carson clearly saw it. He put a hand up. “Sorry, that didn’t come out right. I mean to say…. I don’t know. You were just acting so strangely. And I couldn’t help but be intrigued by what happened to you down on the planet. We found you lying in the dust with a broken rib, a severe concussion, and a sprained ankle. And everybody just seemed so content to believe you had fallen over. How in the hell does anybody damage themselves that much by falling over?” His voice became impassioned, and he gesticulated widely with his hands as if he was sharing some grievance that he’d been holding onto for a very long time.

“I once fell over when I was walking down the street as a child, and broke my hip. And then, when I joined the Academy, in my first year, I received two broken bones, four concussions, and an untold number of abrasions. To be fair to everybody else on the mission, they just knew me better than you did,” she admitted quietly.

He looked at her as if he didn’t want to believe her, then gently pressed his lips together. But his silence didn’t last. “It still didn’t make any sense. My instinct told me that something else had happened on Remus 12. So yeah, I kind of… followed you around I guess. I wanted to get the chance to talk to you, to ask what had really happened, but then… other things started occurring,” he admitted.

Nida didn’t need to ask him to clarify what those other things were.

The accidents with the TI objects.

Carson looked cold, and even though he was wearing his armor, he brought up his hands and tried to rub some warmth back into his shoulders. Then he winced.

She stared over at him, her gaze darting across the large dent in his arm. “You are injured. You should fix yourself up,” she commented.

“Yes, I should,” Carson noted as he shrugged his shoulders, “but we’ve still got three hours, and I kind of… want to finish talking to you first,” he managed awkwardly.

Nida had no idea why he was being so uncomfortable, and she wasn’t sure whether she should blush again. Instead, she settled on clearing her throat. “What else do you need to know?”

“Nothing much. It just seems that I’ve been waiting for the past two weeks for a chance to talk to you, and it feels damned foolish to cut it short now.”

She sat there in silence waiting for him to ask a question, but when he didn’t, she felt itchy and a little flushed. Scratching at her arms and sighing, she turned around to check the consoles and panels of the bridge. The ship seemed to be running itself, despite how damaged it had become in the Barbarian fight.

Still, it looked incredibly sophisticated. “What kind of ship is this? I’ve never seen one before.”

“It’s an experimental vessel,” Carson said, his voice quick with excitement. “It’s incredible. If I hadn’t been surprised by that second Barbarian vessel, I would have been able to overcome the both of them easily,” he added with a chuckle. Then he stopped. “Which brings me to my next question: how exactly did you get from your ship onto the Farsight?”

“Is this ship called the Farsight?” she asked.

He nodded.

She paused. She searched for a way to explain what had happened to her without it sounding… totally and utterly impossible.

“Well?” he prompted.

“My ship depressurized,” she finally blurted. “The cockpit ripped open,” she admitted.

His eyes drew wide. “Jesus Christ, how did you get out alive?”

“Well….”

“Did you get into a spacesuit quick enough?”

She shook her head.

“The entity protected me. Somehow… space didn’t affect me. The cold, the vacuum – it didn’t matter. The entity just kind of, well, controlled the remnants of our vessel, and managed to make it to the Farsight.” When she stopped, she looked carefully at Carson to see whether he would burst into laughter.

He didn’t. Instead, he swallowed heavily. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. That thing can do incredible things, and this is just another feat to add to its growing list of impossible abilities. Wow, I’m sure every single scientist in the Milky Way would want to get their hands on it to study that thing,” he added.

Nida stiffened. She didn’t do it on her own. And suddenly her eyes narrowed. “We will return to Remus 12.”

Carson immediately put his hand up. “It was just a comment. It was just a comment. We are returning to Remus 12. You have my word.”

Slowly Nida relaxed.

She even let a tight breath of air through her clenched teeth.

Carson whispered a “sorry” and winced at his mistake.

Then silence descended between them again. She wondered whether he’d finished asking his questions, but he didn’t appear ready to leave her alone yet. He just sat there, occasionally running a hand down his armor, then shooting her a surreptitious look when he thought she wasn’t watching.

In a rush, she realized how lucky she was. If Carson hadn’t shown so much interest in her, things would have ended very differently, wouldn’t they? For one, she would have been killed by multiple flying TI objects. For another, the Barbarians would likely have destroyed her ship.

She wanted to say something to him, but she didn’t know how to frame her statement without sounding sappy.

Carson finally pushed to his feet, touching the slash in the side of his armor as he did, his lips drawing into a thin frown. “Well, I suppose I should probably do something about this before the next surprise comes slamming our way.” He turned to walk away.

She punched to her feet.

He stopped and looked at her slowly over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” she blurted.

“For what?” He shot her a curious smile.

“For bothering me even when I told you not to,” she managed.

He chuckled. “Are you trying to say thank you for saving your life from the TI objects? Because if you are, you’re not doing a particularly good job.”

She shuffled her feet, and when she looked up at him, he was still staring at her unblinkingly. “Okay, fine, thank you for saving me. If you hadn’t shown so much… interest, I’m sure I would be dead by now,” she choked over her words.

He took a step back, then he did something strange. He bowed. “You are welcome. And I suppose I should return the thanks. If you…” his voice shook on the word you. “If the two of you hadn’t boarded the Farsight when you had, I would either be dead or a Barbarian slave. I think we’re even. Now, I really need to get this armor off and see to my damn arm.”

“Do you need some help?” She walked forward awkwardly, not because the entity had control of her – it didn’t – but because… well, she simply felt awkward.

Carson considered her and appeared to pay special attention to the blue glow encasing her skin, then he shrugged. “Okay.”

For a brief moment, she wondered if anybody else would have done and said the same thing in his position. She convinced herself they wouldn’t. The doctors and scientists back at the hospital had been scared of the entity and had been scared of her in the process. But Carson…. He was different.

Yes, Carson Blake was different.

He was also injured, however, and she was going to do her best to help him.

They had several hours left until they reached Remus 12, and they would need them.

Yet, at that moment, she couldn’t appreciate how much they would need them. Waiting on Remus 12 was a terrible, terrible surprise.

Chapter 28

Carson Blake

Things were working out far better than expected. When Admiral Lara Forest had given him the seemingly impossible task of fixing everything, he’d imagined it would take a herculean effort and ridiculous, ridiculous good luck.

But it hadn’t. No, things just seemed to be… working out. Nida had found him, and the powerful entity residing within her had dispatched the Barbarians with terrifying ease.

And now they were all returning to Remus 12.

In several hours, this whole sorry chapter would be over, and he could return to the Academy with Nida at his side.

And though she was sure she would get in trouble or be transported to Jupiter substation for a lifetime of tests, he would be true to his word, and he would fight for her. He would do everything he could to convince the Admiral that she was not a problem.

Because she wasn’t. Nida herself was not dangerous. She was… well, nice, sweet, and yes, very awkward, but underneath that remarkably practical.

He couldn’t imagine anybody else surviving what she had with such resilience. There was an enormously powerful entity within her body, sending her terrifying dreams and visions, and yet she was still capable of smiling and functioning normally.

He wanted to say that he was proud of her, but couldn’t think of a way to do so that didn’t sound sappy and really, really pathetic.

He kept telling himself that he hardly knew her.

Okay, so they’d gone through some particularly harrowing events together, but still, he didn’t even know her middle name, let alone how many years she had left at the Academy. The majority of her life was just a big question mark in his mind, and he longed for the opportunity to find out as much about her as he could.

First, they had to get to Remus 12, though. Everything else could wait.

Well, apart from his injury.

His arm throbbed. It had been throbbing ever since the Barbarian had attacked him, and it had only gotten worse while Carson had been talking to Nida. But he hadn’t dared interrupt the conversation.

Because finally, finally he’d gotten the answers he’d been looking for.

Her dreams…. They now made sense.

And the injuries she’d received on Remus 12, in fact, everything was starting to fall into place.

Though Carson wanted to head to engineering and the primary armory locker that was there, he didn’t want to walk Nida through the rest of the ship. He couldn’t let her see the Barbarians.

He had already confirmed with the computer that there were no life signs other than himself and Nida, and as he’d rushed through the corridors following her to the bridge, he’d seen what she’d done. No, he corrected himself, what the entity had done.

To put it succinctly, it had been effective.

The Barbarians had been neutralized.

That was the only way he wanted to describe it, because if he delved into the true facts, it would terrify him, and he really, really didn’t have the opportunity to be terrified right now. He had to stay strong, at least for the next several hours.

So instead of heading down to engineering, he simply walked over to the armory cupboard on the side of the bridge.

He rooted around in it until he found a set of tools.

Then he ran his hand over his damaged shoulder again.

Assessing it, he finally realized it was probably easier to take the armor off, and brought up his wristwatch, typing something into it.

Instantly the armor receded from his body and back into the gloves it came from.

However, when it came to his injured shoulder, there was a strange beep, a crackle, and that section of armor simply fell off and tumbled to the floor.

“Well, that answers that question,” he muttered under his breath.

“What?” Nida asked from his side.

“Whether I had broken this armor or not. And the answer is yes. This one is stuffed. Luckily enough,” he pointed to the open armory cupboard, “I have a supply to last me a lifetime.”

Nida leaned down beside him and picked up the broken section of armor. Little tendrils of blue light escaped from her skin and played over the surface of the cracked plating as if they were exploring it.

Now completely distracted from his task, he stared at it, and he stared at her.

She didn’t appear to be aware of what she was doing, or at least not of what the entity was doing. “I can fix it. Is it important to you?” she asked.

Her voice was not her own.

It was the entity’s. It was calm, it was sure, and it was ancient.

Terrifyingly ancient. There was no other way to describe it. The sense you got when you listened to it was one of incalculable age.

He swallowed, trying to control his reaction. “It’s okay,” he answered clearly. “It isn’t important.”

She looked up at him sharply, and her already blue eyes flashed with a far more vibrant spark of color. “We do not know what is important until it is important,” the entity commented.

“Okay,” he answered dumbly.

Really? Okay? He had been schooled in how to deal with alien races. Diplomacy, cultural sensitivity, and yes, negotiations. And yet here he was acting like a freaking three-year-old around one of the most powerful entities the United Galactic Coalition had ever discovered.

He swallowed nervously.

Then the entity appeared to withdraw, and Nida shrugged her shoulders, letting the broken armor plating go, and throwing it lightly to the floor. Then she looked up at his shoulder and winced. “That looks really painful,” she pointed at him.

For the first time, he looked down and considered his injury.

Damn cheap prefabricated armor sets, he thought bitterly. If only he’d gone to the trouble of creating his own set of armor before the Barbarians had boarded, he wouldn’t have this injury. “It’s okay,” he managed in a falsely light tone, “it will fix pretty quick,” he added as he reached further into the armory cupboard and grabbed a first aid kit.

“Do you want me to run to the infirmary to get better equipment?” she offered.

“No,” he said too quickly and too loudly.

She blinked, her shock obvious.

“I mean, there’s no point,” he said as he coughed, forcibly calming his tone. “This will do fine,” he added, trying to smile at her.

Though she still looked a little shocked at his sudden reaction, she shrugged her shoulders.

He didn’t want her exploring the rest of the ship.

She’d appeared overcome by what she’d done to the Barbarians, and he couldn’t let her go and remind herself by seeing the bodies.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do this in the infirmary?” she asked carefully, “I mean, take it from someone like me who gets injured all the time, you can do some pretty miraculous healing with the right equipment.”

He laughed, but it was really awkward, and it petered out to a wheeze. “Yes, you can. But I’m really not that injured. Plus, I don’t want to leave the bridge, and I don’t want you to leave the bridge either,” he added quickly when she looked ready to offer again. “We should just stick together until this is over,” he said firmly.

This appeared to convince her, and she nodded.

“Right,” he managed, lumbering over to the captain’s chair and sitting in it roughly as he opened the first aid kit on his lap. Shifting through the contents, he finally found what he wanted. A long dressing made of a specific type of nano fiber that would release nanoparticles into the blood that were programmed to heal everything from a bruise, to completely shattered bone.

“This will do,” he muttered as he took hold of the bandage. Then he awkwardly tried to pull up the sleeve of his uniform.

“It’s not going to roll up that far,” she pointed out lightly. “I can turn around if you don’t want to take your top off in front of me,” she managed with a little cough.

His cheeks immediately flushed with heat. “No, I, umm…” he trailed off.

Well, damn, wasn’t this awkward.

She looked intensely uncomfortable at his reaction, but he couldn’t tell whether she was blushing; her skin was incandescent blue, after all.

“I have no problem,” he supplied, realizing that was possibly the most awkward thing he could say, and quickly admonishing himself silently.

“Okay,” she said in a high-toned voice.

To demonstrate his point, Carson now proceeded to take off his tunic top. It was the same uniform he’d been wearing since the Academy. Though he could have changed into other clothes aboard the Farsight, he hadn’t bothered yet. Well, now he pulled it off, realizing his skin really was flushed as he did.

Trying to ignore it, he dumped the top on the floor by his chair and quickly distracted himself by tending to his wound.

With the top off, he could see just how bruised he was. His shoulder was purple and blue, and in places, black. He had received a considerable blunt trauma. While the armor had stopped the blade from cutting into his skin, and it had disbursed the impact, it hadn’t protected him entirely. And now he clamped hard on his jaw as he palpated the injury.

“Why don’t you just give yourself a localized anesthetic?” Nida asked, her voice still high pitched.

He glanced up at her. She was standing several meters away, with her hands clasped very properly in front of her, staring at her feet.

“I… well,” he began.

“Look, I have done this many times before. Let me do it,” she announced, taking a jerky step forward.

He wanted to tell her not to bother, but he didn’t get the chance; she stumbled over to him, grabbed the first aid kit off his lap, and started administering to his wound.

Very quickly and very professionally. Because she was likely right, she’d done this numerous, numerous times before.

She gave him a localized anesthetic, then discarded the nano bandage he’d selected, and rummaged around until she found one to her liking. “Those other ones absorb into the skin and leave a dreadful tingle,” she announced, explaining her decision, “these ones don’t.” She carefully applied the bandage, patting the edge of it down until it stuck completely.

It took him awhile to realize he was holding his breath.

And he didn’t know why.

Okay, maybe he did; there was a glowing blue woman attending to his wound, and that wasn’t something that happened every other day.

Now she was up close to him, he could see how alive the energy encasing her was. The light didn’t simply glow; it moved, it danced, it jumped up from her flesh, traveled several centimeters, then dived down again. It was a lively, engaging pattern, and before too long, he found himself staring at her neck, then her hands.

She cleared her throat. “It’s all finished.”

He doubled back, trying to pretend he hadn’t been staring. “Great, I mean, thanks,” he added as he brought up his good hand to check the bandage.

He had to admit, she’d done a pretty good job. If the Academy didn’t work out for her, then maybe she could go into the medical sciences. He could see her as a nurse or doctor…. Okay, maybe he couldn’t. She would likely trip over her patients and fly head-first through the window.

She took several steps back, clasped her hands in front of her again, then looked over at the viewscreen.

It took him a moment to realize she was waiting for him to put his shirt back on.

He cleared his throat, feeling like a complete idiot, then practically jumped off the chair, snatched it up, and crammed it over his head as quickly as he could.

“Thanks,” he said again.

But she didn’t turn to him, and she didn’t respond. Instead, she stared, without blinking, at the viewscreen.

“Nida?” he asked in a quiet, cautious tone.

Again, she didn’t reply. That blue light in her eyes flashed, and he knew the entity must be taking hold.

“We will arrive there shortly,” he reassured it.

Now she turned. Now she faced him. “I hope it will be that easy,” the entity said.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and a fresh wash of fear rushed through him. “It will be. This is Coalition space, and though we ran into those Barbarian ships, there won’t be anymore. Plus, I don’t think they will be bothering you again,” he added, his voice shaking with disbelief. He could remember, in perfect detail, how the entity had dispatched those Barbarians.

With bone-chilling efficiency.

Whatever the entity was, it was powerful. Yet if it was right, it was also incredibly dangerous. If it stayed much longer in this space-time, it would corrupt. And from the brief explanation Carson had been given, corruption didn’t sound like a good thing.

Taking a breath and re-engaging his resolve, he nodded at her. “Everything will be fine,” he promised once more.

The entity stiffened, then he realized it wasn’t the entity anymore – it was Nida. She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then shook her head. “It’s very strange… having something in your mind that can control your body,” she admitted.

He wanted to laugh and point out that was an understatement, but he didn’t. Instead, he watched her in silence, then gave what he hoped was a commiserating nod. “We’re almost there,” he pointed out uselessly. God, he felt like he was simply repeating the same empty statements over and over again. It will all be okay; we’re almost there; everything will be fine soon. He probably sounded as if he’d hit his head.

“I think I might… have a shower,” Nida announced.

Carson went to say sure but shook his head. He didn’t want her going into the rest of the ship.

She saw his movement, and her eyebrows crumpled down. “It’s okay,” she began,” I can…” she trailed off.

“The Barbarian bodies,” he took a long time to say the word bodies, “are still out there,” he finally admitted to her. “Maybe you should stay in here.”

Even under the blue, incandescent glow of her cheeks, he swore she paled. Her gaze drifted down to the ground, and she stared at her shoes. Then she shook her head. “I… am okay,” she began. “What am I saying? I killed those men,” she brought her hands up and stared at them.

Once he’d been hesitant to touch her, but now that didn’t seem to matter anymore. He crossed the distance between them, grabbed her hands, and pushed them down.

She didn’t jerk back, but she did shift her head up until she looked at him.

“Just don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything until we get to Remus 12. And I know you want a shower and maybe a fresh change of clothes,” he mumbled as he looked down at her. Firstly, she was wearing a hospital gown. Secondly, it had blast marks over it, and there were holes peppered here and there. “So just wait… until I… deal with the stuff outside,” he gestured over his shoulder to the rest of the ship.

She looked as though she would be sick.

“You didn’t kill them,” he said through clenched teeth, his words sounding far more dismayed than he’d intended.

Though her gaze flashed with guilt, she eventually closed her eyes. “I could have stopped it,” she admitted, “I managed to stop it from killing you. Which meant that if I had tried just a little harder, or cared a little more, I could have stopped it from killing the Barbarians too.”

He spluttered. He couldn’t help it. “Listen to yourself. If you had stopped the entity from killing the Barbarians, the Barbarians would have killed you. They aren’t nice, caring people, Nida. They are violent, homicidal, vicious psychopaths. Do you want me to go through the number of crimes they have committed? Would you like me to list the number of worlds they have ransacked? Should I tell you what happened a couple of years ago when they managed to get their hands on a Coalition heavy cruiser and all its crew?”

She shuddered back, but he still held hold of her hand.

“I know this is hard, but really, just don’t think about it. And thank you,” he added in a husky voice at the end.

This made her look up. She locked her shifting, wavering gaze on him. “For what?” she mouthed the words, clearly incapable of saying them.

“For saving me. For stopping… the entity,” he managed.

It was so strange to speak of the entity while it was right there inside her and could take control of her at any moment. But it didn’t matter. He wanted to reach out and communicate with Nida right now; he needed to reassure her.

Though she didn’t look happy and guilt still flashed in her eyes, she finally took a deep breath. “You shouldn’t have to deal with the… bodies on your own,” she whispered.

“No,” he said firmly, “I will deal with them on my own. I need somebody here to look after the bridge,” he added, coming up with a quick and very effective excuse. “Academy regulations state that when a crew consists of two or more people, there should always be at least one manning the bridge. And that, Cadet, will be you.”

She opened her mouth, clearly ready to argue the point.

He shook his head, finally dropping her hand. “I’m afraid that’s an order,” he said in a lower tone close to a growl, but nowhere near as angry.

She pursed her lips together and finally nodded.

She took several steps away from him, pushing her hair behind her ears as she did.

It was such a dramatic sight to see her encased in that blue light.

It was easy to allow himself to be fully distracted by it. To be completely mesmerized.

He wanted the time and opportunity to assess that light, to watch it as it danced over her skin. He of course would not get the time, and he certainly wouldn’t get the opportunity. Things were awkward enough between them as it was without sitting there and staring at her face for several hours.

Gulping at his own uncomfortable thought, he finally turned around and walked out.

As the doors to the bridge closed behind him, his heart closed with them.

He had seen dead bodies before. It was part of space travel.

Yes, things were safer now than they had been in the past. Ships didn’t decompress as much; the technology was vastly superior to the bad old days of initial interstellar travel. There were also fewer wars and violent disputes. But that didn’t mean that every Coalition soldier would always be safe.

So yes, he’d seen his fair share of death, and unfortunately, he’d meted it out too.

But it never made it easy.

Especially dealing with the aftermath.

With a heavy breath and heavy footsteps, he toured the ship.

He didn’t even want to count how many Barbarians there were. Instead, he attended to the grisly task of dealing with their bodies.

At some point, the entity had stopped pinning them to the ceiling or the walls, and they were now all flopped face first on the floor. There were several bodies, however, that he was responsible for, and as he walked up to the Barbarian he’d shot outside of his bedroom, Carson had to slam a hand on his stomach not to throw up everywhere.

The stench was… simply indefinable. It was on a scale the human nose was not designed to tolerate.

It made him gag.

But somehow, he pushed through.

Though the Barbarians were, by definition, barbaric when it came to the disposal of enemy bodies, he worked for the United Galactic Coalition. And he respected the rights of the dead.

It took almost half an hour, and by the time it was over, he felt heavy and cold all over.

He also realized he couldn’t return to the bridge. Not looking and feeling like this. So instead, he set about the task of assessing the damage to the ship. He also took the opportunity to remove all TI objects he could. He didn’t want any on board with Nida. So he gathered them up and locked them deep within one of the armory cupboards.

He simply couldn’t run the risk of another accident. Plus, even if the inconceivable happened, and more Barbarians attacked, the TI objects and weapons would be of no use; the Barbarians all possessed technology capable of blocking TI fields. There were only certain races who couldn’t block TI fields, and unfortunately, those brutes weren’t one of them.

Nonetheless, it would be an inconvenience; TI objects could be used to make many ship processes more efficient.

Still, if it meant stopping more accidents, he’d throw those damn objects out of the airlock. He simply couldn’t put up with another TI block or pole trying to impale her.

Gathering up all the TI objects on the ship, he soon made it to the engine room.

As he entered, he expected to see a mess.

What he saw instead was a strange, pulsing, blue light flickering around the dual engine cores.

He recognized at once that it was the entity.

It had already told him that despite the damage this ship had received, it would get the Farsight to Remus 12.

He stood there and stared at that blue light dancing and wriggling and jumping around the engine cores.

It was strangely relaxing. It helped him forget what he’d just done.

He couldn’t tell how long he stood there staring at them, waiting for the warmth and emotion to return to him.

Then he heard a soft voice behind him. “Carson? Are you okay?”

He turned to see Nida standing in the doorway.

His immediate reaction was to shout at her to get back to the bridge. He hadn’t wanted her to see any of the destruction her entity had caused. But he’d already dealt with the bodies, and frankly, there was no way he could repair the ship on his own.

He was aware that she was staring at him, and as he briefly glanced her way, he noted just how sorrowful her expression was. “I’m sorry you had to do that on your own,” she said in a raspy voice.

He shook his head, trying to appear strong, but it was a poor, pathetic effort. He closed his eyes instead, actually fearful he might shed a tear.

Then he felt a soft, small hand on his arm.

It was Nida.

“We’re almost there,” she said in a quiet voice. “It’s almost over, right?”

Though he wanted to keep his eyes still firmly closed, he opened them. She was right there in front of him, and he could see that incredible light playing across her skin like the reflected glow of a brightly burning fire.

Just as the light of the engine cores had calmed him, the blue glow encasing her comforted him also. Or maybe it wasn’t the glow; maybe it was Nida herself.

“You should go back to the bridge,” she tried, “otherwise you’ll be breaking Academy regulations.”

Despite how cold he still felt, he raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one breaking regulations. I ordered you to stay there.”

“When you didn’t return, I got kind of worried,” she admitted in a quiet voice, “plus, I’m pretty sure there’s a counter regulation that states when a crew member has been out of contact for an extended amount of time, you are permitted to leave the bridge to look for them.”

Somehow, he managed a smile. And somehow, that smile made everything feel just a little bit better. It didn’t wash away what he’d just dealt with, but it made it seem a tiny bit easier to bear. “I guess you’re right, Cadet. But I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be telling me what to do,” he managed, forcing a half smile again.

“Are you sure? I do possess an entity of unfathomable power,” she tried.

He wanted to laugh at her joke, but it fell flat. It touched far too close to the bone. Instead, he patted her shoulder and stepped away.

Yep, he patted her shoulder, as if he were some kind of overbearing father figure.

He wanted to cringe at his own behavior, but he didn’t have the time. “I will return to the bridge, and you should be okay to have your shower now,” he announced.

“Okay. But maybe you should…” she began.

“Yes?”

“I don’t know, but maybe you should put your armor back on,” she suggested.

This made him frown. “You don’t like my uniform?”

She didn’t laugh. “I don’t know what we’re going to find down on Remus 12,” she stated, her voice becoming croaky, almost to the point that he could no longer understand it.

He frowned deeply now, and the move reminded him of just how cold he felt. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t really know. I just get this sense… that things might not be over yet. I think you should return to the bridge and put your armor on. I think we should be prepared before we go down to the planet.”

He considered her quietly, then nodded. She was right. “I’ll do one better; I’ll manufacture a proper set of armor for myself. If you give me your specifications, I’ll make one for you too,” he began.

She shook her head. “We will not be constrained,” the entity interrupted.

Carson opened his mouth to protest but stopped.

He wasn’t dumb enough to argue with the entity. Instead, he nodded. “Okay, no armor. You can have your shower now,” he suggested, watching carefully to see whether the entity would be placated.

With a confused blink, the real Nida appeared to return. Giving an awkward wave, she walked out, mumbling that she would be quick.

He watched her go.

Then he sprang into action.

And it felt good.

Action was the one thing that could stop him from thinking about the horrors he’d just witnessed.

He would build himself the perfect set of armor, and he would be prepared. For what, he didn’t know, but he would be as prepared as he could be.

That strengthened his resolve, and immediately Carson set to work.

Chapter 29

Cadet Nida Harper

It felt unbelievably good to have a shower. It felt like she was washing the past away.

Once she’d dried herself and dressed in a clean but overly large Academy uniform, she felt ready to face Carson again.

Before she did, she reminded herself firmly to stop acting like a complete freaking idiot around him.

She was being a total goose, and she didn’t know why.

Okay, that was a lie; she knew exactly why.

Carson was turning out to be different from the man she’d assumed him to be.

And that was throwing her off guard.

He was kinder and funnier and subtler and gentler than his reputation allowed for.

As she walked onto the bridge, he turned to face her. He was standing in the center, with his hands clasped firmly behind his back.

He was also wearing a particularly incredible set of armor.

It was black with gold and red trimming, and the insignia of the Academy on his left breast, with the insignia of the United Galactic Coalition on his right upper shoulder.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but she knew he could force the armor to produce one with nothing more than the press of a button or a single thought.

“You ready?” he asked with a flash of a smile as she entered. “And where did you… find those clothes? They are about three sizes too big for you.”

She looked down. Yes, okay, so the sleeves hung over her hands, and the pants trailed a little bit past her boots, but she just shrugged. “This was the smallest size I could find in one of the lockers.”

“You’re going to trip over your pants,” he announced with a snigger.

“Then I’ll tuck them into my boots,” she retorted as she got down on her knees and tucked the hems firmly into her socks.

This elicited a chuckle from Carson. “Fashionable,” he teased.

She finished tucking her pants into her boots and stood. She stared at him and crossed her arms. “I really don’t think it matters whether I’m fashionable, do you?”

He shrugged, clearly conceding her point.

Then it happened again.

The awkwardness set in.

It was coming fast and thick every time they spent more than a couple of seconds in each other’s presence.

He went from looking sure of himself to looking like a lost puppy. He brushed his fingers through his hair while rapping his other hand on his armored thigh, then promptly distracted himself with a panel several meters to his side.

She didn’t know what to say, so she simply stood there, twiddling her thumbs.

Yes, she was actually twiddling her thumbs.

She was about to return the entity to Remus 12 before it became corrupted, and here she was playing with her fingers.

She felt remarkably like a child, and not at all like a cadet of the Galactic Coalition Academy.

“We’ll be entering orbit soon,” he announced, his voice dipping low.

She stiffened.

Every single muscle in her body tensed.

And then she heard it – the presence in her mind, the entity – it practically sang to her.

It chanted an indescribable tune, yet it was the most pleasant sound she’d ever heard.

It occupied her attention, and after a long pause, she glanced over to see Carson staring at her curiously.

“Are you okay?” he asked quietly.

It took a lot of effort to nod, but she managed it. “I’m just…” she trailed off. There was nothing more to say.

She was almost home.

No, the entity was almost home, but sometimes it was hard to distinguish where she stopped and the creature began.

“We’re going to enter the planet’s atmosphere in approximately five minutes,” he announced.

She turned sharply on her foot and regarded him as surprise shot through her flickering gaze.

They were that close already?

“Is there anything else… you need to do?” Carson asked. There was a different note in his voice, a far more diplomatic one, and she quickly realized he wasn’t talking to her.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, realizing that if the entity really did want to do something, it would do it without asking.

Again, silence descended, but this time it was less awkward and far more expectant.

The past several weeks had been leading up to this point, and now it was almost here.

It would all be over soon.

“I’ve been careful to scan and rescan this system to ensure there aren’t any surprises,” Carson typed something on a panel then pointed at the screen. “Though I doubt the Barbarians have too many more of those ships, we can’t be too careful.”

She nodded, feeling a little ill as she did. She placed a hand on her stomach, pushing her fingers hard against the loose fabric of her uniform.

She stared fixedly at the viewscreen.

It showed space, flecks of stars, swathes of colorful constellations, and then, in a flash, a planet.

Remus 12.

Home.

She started to shake.

Her whole body convulsed.

She couldn’t stop it.

“Nida?” Carson pushed away from the console he was working on and ran to her side. “Are you okay?”

It took her a long time to answer yes. “I think the entity is just excited,” she tried.

“Right,” he answered slowly. “Right. Well, hold on. I just engaged the landing sequence, and the computer should take everything from here. I’ll set us down in the same compound we were investigating two weeks ago.”

She nodded.

Then she waited.

And it was, categorically, one of the hardest things she’d ever done.

The closer they neared the planet, the more frantic the energy within her became.

She could feel the entity’s desire to return home. And it was unfathomable.

She kept on shaking until finally Carson reached up and actually wrapped an arm around her shoulders, standing by her side as he did. Together they stared at the viewscreen.

She could feel the bulk of his arm pressing into her back, and it was strangely reassuring. Though she still shook, it no longer bothered her.

“Nearly there,” Carson said needlessly.

He kept saying the same statements as if simply repeating them would make the situation more manageable.

She didn’t point this out to him. Instead, she let him stand there and hold her in place.

As the ship plunged into the atmosphere, her eyes drew wide.

The scant clouds on the skyline rushed around the Farsight as it rushed toward the surface of the planet, and they reminded her exactly of her dreams. Standing on Remus 12, all of that rubble and dust swirling around her in a powerful vortex of destruction.

….

She forced her eyes closed.

As if on fast forward, she saw a replay of every single vision the entity had ever given her.

Soon it would be over, she told herself.

Then she would see them no more.

With that reassuring thought, the ship gave a shudder, and she snapped her eyes open to see that they had landed.

“Come on,” Carson said from her side, giving her arm a squeeze.

If she’d been her usual self, she would have pushed him away and pointed out she was perfectly capable of standing and walking on her own.

She wasn’t though, and she enjoyed his presence far more than she was willing to admit.

Together they walked from the bridge, through the halls of the ship, and toward the hangar bay.

Once they were in the hangar bay, Carson took a moment to shake his head at the completely broken Coalition cruiser she’d flown into the Farsight.

It was still sitting there in the center of the hangar bay, leaning on one side, an enormous gaping hole in the cockpit.

He appeared ready to say something, but he quickly pressed his lips shut, and concentrated on opening the hangar bay doors instead.

As the doors opened, Nida couldn’t help herself anymore.

She ran forward, straight at the barren wasteland of Remus 12.

The dust and rubble were like open arms, waiting to embrace her.

“Nida, wait up,” Carson commanded from behind.

She heard him jog down the ramp; his heavy, armored boots making the whole thing shake and reverberate.

Soon he was by her side, but he didn’t pull her back; he simply matched her pace.

“Where are we going?” he asked eventually.

She couldn’t answer.

All she could do was search for it.

Home.

That one word was all she could think of. Home.

Home.

She stumbled forward, searching.

It was dusk on Remus 12, and slowly the day gave way to night. Above her that beautiful, almost luminescent starscape glittered.

She stared at it as she ran forward, and as she did, she felt something.

She understood something.

Something terrible.

The stars were not right.

They were different.

She stumbled to her knees.

Instantly Carson leaned down, trying to help her up. “Nida?” His eyes flickered with concern. True, genuine concern. “Are you okay?”

She couldn’t answer.

Instead, she began to shake again.

“Nida?” He drew his arm around her shoulders once more.

The move appeared to be easier for him now. She could still remember when he’d been hesitant to touch her – now he did it with ease.

“Something isn’t right,” she finally managed to move her lips and make her voice rattle from her parched and constricted throat.

“What are you talking about? Is there a problem with the entity?” He shuddered, but still held an arm around her shoulders.

“This planet…. Something isn’t right,” she managed again.

Carson pulled away from her, typing something on his wristwatch. Then he turned a full circle, surveying the dust and rubble around them. When he faced her, he simply pressed his lips together and shrugged. “I’m not detecting any enemies. It’s just you and me. No other life forms, no buildings, no other ships, no other power sources. We are alone.”

She wanted to be reassured by his words, but she couldn’t. Because he didn’t understand.

“They aren’t right,” she pointed up to the sky.

He followed her move, then narrowed his gaze. “The stars?”

“They don’t match the ones I saw in my dreams. Something’s wrong,” she flattened her sweaty palm over her implant protectively.

He placed a hand carefully on her shoulder, looking into her eyes as she finally raised her head. “We’ll find that statue. We’ll return the entity. Come on.”

She let him pull her forward.

They walked and walked, looking for those stairs that led down, but they couldn’t find them.

As dusk settled into night, desperation kicked in. Nida stumbled forward, pushed on by the frantic fear of the entity.

Though Carson was by her side and picked her up every time she fell over, there was nothing he could do.

Just as it appeared she would never find the stairs, she found them.

She did so by tripping over a stone, landing on her knees, and rolling.

“Nida,” Carson called from behind, lurching forward and grabbing her arm before she could roll face first down the stairwell.

He tried to help her to her feet, but as soon as her eyes locked on the dark, descending shadows of the stairs, she lurched forward.

“Be careful,” he begged.

She didn’t listen.

She ran down.

It didn’t matter that it was dark down here; she was glowing, after all.

She saw the other set of stairs.

She ran up them as fast as she could.

She made it to the room.

It was dark in here now. It wasn’t how she remembered. It was different because the blue glow that had encased it now encased her.

Carson called her name again, then finally ascended the stairs to stand next to her.

For several seconds he was silent.

Then she began to walk forward, and he immediately reached out to grab her shoulder. “We need to be careful,” he hissed.

She simply shrugged out of his grip.

Then, once again, she was drawn toward the statue. It was as if invisible tethers were pulling her closer.

She reached it.

The glow from her body was now as vibrant as it could be, and it threw out so much light it lit up the room completely.

The statue stood before her, but in a moment of powerful confusion and fear, she realized it was different.

It was falling apart.

Whereas once it had been beautifully carved, depicting a woman in vibrant health, her hair and dress flowing in an invisible wind, now she could barely recognize the form of a head, torso, and several crumbling hands.

“What is this?” Nida gasped.

“How do you return the entity?” Carson asked quickly from her side.

She couldn’t.

She simply couldn’t, because something was terribly wrong.

“Nida?” This time Carson seemed hesitant to place a hand on her shoulder, and he ducked to the side, bringing his head down until he stared into her eyes. “What’s going on?”

It took all of her effort to draw her gaze off the statue and onto his. “Something happened to the statue. It’s… broken.”

His expression crumpled. It was clear he didn’t understand. Quite possibly because she had no idea what she was talking about herself.

But she understood one fact as clear as day. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.

“What do I do?” she whispered – not for Carson’s benefit, but for the entity’s.

She tried to reach out to it; she tried to conjure up its presence.

But all she felt was its shaking, palpable, terrible fear.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked the entity out loud.

Then she started to twitch again, but this time pain shot through her body as she did. With a terrified gasp, her knees gave way from underneath her, and she fell down.

She didn’t strike the cold, carved, stone floor; Carson caught her.

This time he wrapped both arms around her and stared directly into her gaze. “Nida, what’s going on?”

She tried to answer. Tried to cobble together an explanation that would make sense.

But she didn’t get the time.

For, at that exact moment, something rumbled on the surface of the planet high above.

Chapter 30

Carson Blake

He had her in his arms, and he could feel how violently she was shaking.

It was agonizing to watch; he just couldn’t do anything to help her.

She kept repeating that something was wrong, but he had no idea what it was.

Then he heard it.

The rumble.

For a split second, he wondered whether it was an earthquake. Then he understood what it was.

And he froze.

A ship.

A large ship was landing on the surface of the planet above. And, if he was any judge, it was close, damn close, quite possibly exactly above this hollowed out, cavernous room.

He stiffened.

Could it be the United Galactic Coalition? Had Admiral Forest already sent reinforcements?

There was one way to find out.

His scanner.

He’d picked it up several minutes ago when he’d found it at the bottom of that mysterious stairwell.

True to its design, it was still working. Okay, so it had several scratches and a big dent in its side, but it could function. And right now, he brought it out of the magnetic holster on his hip and stared at it.

If the ship above was Coalition, it would be sending out a standard Coalition greeting on all frequencies.

He would also be able to pick up a specific energy signature that all Coalition vessels had.

….

The ship above was not Coalition.

His heart sank, faster than a bullet shot from a gun.

He jerked his head up. “We need to leave,” he snapped.

She stared at him, her mouth open, but no words coming out.

“Nida,” he hissed again, “it’s the Barbarians,” he said the word, but his voice shook like a child’s as he did.

Though his scanner was small, and couldn’t penetrate too far above to the planet’s surface, the readings it managed to relay confirmed one terrible fact.

There was a Barbarian ship parked right above them.

“We have to do this now,” he whispered again, his voice barely registering above a tight breath, “release the entity. We have to leave.”

Nida didn’t appear capable of understanding him. She simply stood there, staring past his right shoulder and up at the crumbling statue.

He shifted his hands around until they were placed heavily on her shoulders. “Nida,” he gave her a little shake. “Please.”

That word seemed to wake her, and she finally looked at him. “This is the wrong time,” she said simply.

It was such a strange statement considering the circumstances, and he gave a bitter, harsh laugh. “Yes it is, but we can’t exactly go up there and tell the Barbarians to wait.”

She shook her head, staring at him with a dull gaze that told him the entity was half in control. “This is the wrong time,” she spoke each word slowly as if every syllable had the import of a magic spell or incantation.

He went to say that he understood, but he stopped.

Because maybe he didn’t.

There was something about the quality of her gaze and that terrible certainty shaking through her words.

“Nida?” he whispered.

“We have arrived at the wrong time,” the entity said.

“What do you mean the wrong time?” he asked breathily. Though he was hardly running around engaging in combat, he felt winded. He stood there, panting, still holding her shoulders, trying to understand what was happening here.

“Space-time has distorted. We are trapped,” the entity said.

His hands fell away from her shoulders. “What do you mean?”

The entity stepped forward. Or rather, it forced Nida’s body to step forward. As he was standing right there in front of her, she simply pressed into him. Then she brought a hand up and placed it flat on his chest.

Before he could shift back, he felt something.

And then he saw it.

Flashes of a vision.

The planet around them, the statue, and a strange, impossible sight of stars compressing down into a single point.

So much information was relayed to him at that moment that he simply couldn’t comprehend it.

Then she shifted back.

She took her palm from his chest and let her arm drop to her side.

“What was that?” He clutched at his armor, dragging his fingers across the strong, cold plating. “What was that?”

We are running out of time,” the entity said.

At that admission, Carson glanced up.

The ceiling of the room was shaking, and fine particles of dust were drifting down. They covered his boots, alighted on his shoulders, and several landed on his upturned cheeks and lips. He brushed them off. Then he snapped his gaze back to her. “Tell me how to free you,” he spoke only to the entity now. “Tell me where you have to go. I will take you there.”

“I am not from your space-time.”

“Not from my space time…? Do you mean dimension?” he spluttered.

Nida appeared to consider him. “Yes, dimension. I am not from this realm,” she brought up her hands and considered the light racing across them. “We are from a dimension close to your own. Too close. Sometimes one leaks into the other. That is how I have come to be here. But I cannot stay,” the entity returned Nida’s gaze to him, and deep in her blue-lit eyes, he saw an even more powerful burst of light. “If I stay here, I will destroy myself and I will destroy others with me. I must go home.”

“How do we get you home?”

“This planet is a bridge. It is a point that aligns with my dimension. At certain times, it forms a bridge between our worlds.”

Carson nodded, though he was having trouble keeping up. Other dimensions? Bridges between worlds? This sounded a lot more like the plot of a particularly unscientific holographic movie, and less like reality.

But he didn’t dare interrupt.

“To return home, I must go to a time when the bridge is active.”

Carson took a breath. He could understand that… kind of. Then he abruptly shook his head. What was he thinking? Was the entity suggesting time travel?

“We must find a bridge,” the entity continued.

“Okay, but how do we do that?” Do we just wait here… for one to form?”

The entity shook Nida’s head. “Remus 12 has unstable time,” it answered cryptically.

“What does that mean?”

He wanted to know everything the entity had to say, but, for the love of god, Barbarians had landed on the planet. He had no idea how long it would take them to find this room. They couldn’t stay here.

Just as that realization formed, Nida put up a hand. “We are safe in this room for now,” she answered as if she could read his mind.

“Fine, but what do we do now?” he asked through a pressured hiss.

“We must find a time gate and travel to another point in Remus 12’s history,” the entity announced.

Carson just looked at her. Slowly. Because what she’d just said made absolutely no sense.

“We must continue to use the time gates of Remus 12 to search for a bridge to my dimension.”

….

“Sorry, what?” Carson wiped a hand across his mouth. He’d been on his fair share of strange missions – space wasn’t a simple place, after all – but what the entity was suggesting was insane.

Time travel simply wasn’t possible.

For the first time, he wondered whether it was playing a game. Whether, just maybe, it had never intended to free Nida. Whether it had simply brought them down here to entertain itself.

His jaw stiffened at that thought, and he regarded the blue light dancing across Nida’s face with new eyes.

Maybe the entity sensed his suspicion, because Nida took another step toward him, flattening a hand on his chest.

He wanted to catch it and pull away, but he couldn’t.

Again, he saw flashes.

Vivid, lifelike visions filled his mind.

He saw Remus 12 as a planet bustling with life. He saw its marvelous technologies, he saw its people, and then he saw the war that ended it all. A terrible civil war that pitted one continent against another.

He saw their cities crumble, their fields and forests burn, and their seas evaporate as a weapon of incredible power destroyed everything on the surface of the planet.

He wanted to shake back, he wanted to cry out in fear and panic, but he couldn’t.

He was still in the vision.

Then that image of destruction ended, and he saw Remus 12 at a point further back in its history. Its cities were less developed, its technologies much simpler, and its people happier.

As these visions intermingled, he got a strange sense of the entity in his mind.

It seemed to be sharing with him, in part, how it understood reality.

It had no theory of time. No understanding of the progression of one point to another. It lived beyond linear causality and explanations and in some realm far too confusing for him to understand.

Then Nida took a step back. Again, she removed her small palm from his chest. This time it felt as if she took away a part of him, and he stumbled forward.

“Do you understand yet?” the entity asked, its usually calm tone flaring with passion and haste. “You must find the time gates. You must travel to different points in this planet’s history. You must discover where the bridge to my dimension has shifted to.”

All Carson could do was nod. The visions were still raw in his mind, and he instinctively knew it would take him weeks if not months to process them all. But he didn’t have weeks or months. In fact, he didn’t have any time at all. “How do we find the time gate?” he asked in a rasping voice. He didn’t know if he believed the entity – he didn’t know if he could conceive of time travel as possible – but right now he realized it didn’t matter.

Barbarians had landed on the surface of the planet, and at some point, they would make their way down to these tunnels. He had to do something, and if that meant playing along with the entity for now, so be it.

“There’s one in these tunnels.” The entity said. Then it turned Nida around, and she walked with strange, jarring steps toward the opposite side of the room. Together they traveled down a new set of stairs, and if it weren’t for the incandescent glow of Nida’s skin, Carson would have needed a light to see by.

Though the ceiling above him kept on shaking, and small, fine particles of dust kept on landing on his head, he tried to ignore it. He focused on following Nida.

He also tried to ignore the latent tingle in his chest from where her hand had touched his armor.

What was the entity? What was it capable of?

More to the point, where was it taking him?

They finally reached another room, and this one held yet another statue.

It wasn’t broken, though, and with a small stumble, Nida threw herself forward toward it.

Wordlessly, Carson followed, ready to pick her up if she fell over again. The entity didn’t appear capable of completely controlling Nida’s body. Every movement she made under its influence was ungainly and wobbly as if she were nothing more than a doll being walked along by a child.

As they reached the statue, Carson looked up at it.

This one depicted a man of indiscriminate race and age.

His face was covered by a hood, but that wasn’t the distinctive feature.

What he wore on his wrist was.

It was a strange black metal device with intricate symbols carved across it. It wrapped around the wrist, but also sat over the back of the hand, straps of metal wire securing it to the palm.

As he neared, he noticed the device was giving off a faint red glow. “Is this the time gate?” he asked.

“No,” the entity replied as she reached up and, without hesitating, took the device from the statue’s hand.

“What is it then?”

“It is yours,” the entity handed it to him.

He didn’t accept it. He simply stood there and looked at it. “What the hell is it?”

“You will need it.”

“Why?” He stared into her eyes.

They flashed with blue. “You will need to fight the corruption. If we stay on Remus 12, the effects of the corruption will slow, but they will not stop. You will need this to fight them,” she held it toward him.

He still didn’t take it from her. “How will it fight the corruption?”

“It will hold things in place and force them back,” the entity answered cryptically.

“Not good enough. I need to know exactly what that thing does before I accept it,” Carson began.

“Please,” Nida said. It wasn’t the entity speaking. In fact, it was the first time Nida herself had said a word for countless minutes. She looked up at Carson, and he saw how terrified she was. “Carson, please, just take it. We can’t stay here any longer. We need to find the dimension bridge; we can’t waste any time.”

“But what is the entity doing?” he asked, his voice shaking with desperation.

“It’s not a trap,” she choked over her words, “please, believe me – take it. If you wear it, you’ll be able to stop me when…” she trailed off and took a steadying breath, “when the entity loses control, like it did back on Earth when I kept having those accidents with flying objects. You’ll be able to stop them with this,” she handed the device to him.

He didn’t want to take it. His objective, trained mind told him not to. But his instincts saw him reach out and pull it from her trembling grip.

As soon as his fingers clasped around the device, he felt its power, or rather his telekinetic implant did. The thing vibrated in his chest, actually rattling his rib cage. Before he could say anything, Nida turned and ran from the room. “Where are you going?” he called after her.

“We have to find the time gate before the Barbarians make it down to these tunnels,” she screamed at him.

He ran after her.

He actually ran after her. She was talking about time gates and devices that could counter the entity’s terrible power, but he still followed.

Because a part of him was starting to believe. No matter how strange the entity’s explanation had sounded, the pressure of the situation told him he couldn’t afford to be skeptical forever. He had to proceed with an open mind, and yes, he had to do everything he could to help Nida.

Everything. He suddenly made the decision that, no matter what it would take, he would fix this. Not because the Admiral had told him to, but because he owed it to both Nida and himself.

So he ran forward. As he did, he turned the device around in his hand until he fixed it to his palm.

As soon as he put it on, he felt its power.

Its incredible, astounding power.

A power he would need far more than he could appreciate at that point.

For he was about to be thrown through time with nobody but the worst recruit in 1000 years to help him, the both of them plunged into a desperate and terrible quest to save the entity before it was too late.

Chapter 31

Cadet Nida Harper

She had to find the time gate before it was too late. Soon the Barbarians would make it into this tunnel. And though she could fight them, it would come at a terrible cost. The more she used her power, the more the entity would be corrupted.

She hadn’t told Carson that yet; now wasn’t the time. Plus, she didn’t know how many blows he could receive and still remain standing. It was a miracle that a) he’d dealt proficiently with both the Barbarians and the entity, and b) hadn’t left her owing to the fact this entire mission sounded crazy.

Because she understood that none of this made any sense. Or at least it shouldn’t make any sense. But with the entity in her mind, it did. In flashes, she could see the world through its eyes; she could understand everything with its ancient wisdom. There was no time, there was no distinction, just the eternal flow of energy. That was the dimension the entity came from, and it longed to go back there with such sorrowful power Nida wanted to cry.

To think, that less than a week ago, she’d been terrified by the existence of the blue energy in her dreams, and now she was prepared to do anything to protect the entity.

So much had changed.

Yet thankfully, she wasn’t alone.

Again, she turned to see that Carson was still there.

He now wore the device on his hand, and when he wasn’t staring around in thin-lipped worry, he was gazing at the device, his surprise and wonder obvious.

He would need it. She knew that, because the entity knew that. As time wound on, it would corrupt more and more, and it would lose control of itself. Objects would be pulled toward her, sucked into the vortex of the entity’s power.

But if Carson could master the device, and if he could act quickly enough, he would be able to save them both.

As they ran through the darkened hallways, finally they found a room.

Carson slammed to a halt in the doorway and tried to pull her back.

“What the hell?” he screamed.

The room was full of floating stones, dust, and the cracked bodies of statues.

“Is it happening again? Is the entity losing control?” Carson called out to her.

No.

It was not losing control.

Slowly Nida walked forward and into the room.

The dust and stones in the air lightly struck her body as she pushed through them.

“Nida? What are you doing?” Carson called to her.

“This is the time gate,” the entity spoke through her.

He replied with silence, then, seconds later, she saw him moving through the floating rubble up to her side. “What do we do?” he croaked.

She stared up at the rubble slowly swirling around her.

It was a miraculous sight.

“What do we do?” he questioned again, his voice louder. “We need to act now; those Barbarians will make it through soon.”

As if to confirm that fact, there was a sudden resounding boom from the hallway behind them.

He ducked forward, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her down to the ground.

He yanked his scanner from his waist holder, stared at it, then returned it wordlessly. “They are here,” he whispered into her ear. He still had an arm locked around her middle, pressing her to the floor.

She started to shake.

“Open the time gate,” he pleaded with her, “open the time gate,” he repeated.

“It will take time,” the entity answered through her.

“How much time?” Carson asked as he reached around to his opposite hip and pulled out a small but powerful plasma handgun.

“Several minutes,” the entity answered as it bent Nida down to kneel in the center of the room. She placed both of her palms on the ground. Then she simply closed her eyes. And she didn’t appear capable of opening them, no matter how hard she tried.

A slathering Barbarian could have been standing right above her, and she wouldn’t have had a clue.

“Nida?” Carson called her name frantically, but when she didn’t answer, she heard him stand and walk right in front of her.

She wanted to shout at him to take up a defensive position, but she couldn’t. All she could do was kneel there and feel the power of the entity pour from her hands.

Again she started to shake, but this time it wasn’t just the entity leaving her body; it was the fact of what was about to happen. The room they were in was about to be attacked by Barbarians, and there was nothing she could do to help.

It would all be down to Carson Blake.

Chapter 32

Carson Blake

She clearly couldn’t move or say a word. Nida just knelt there, her hands flat on the ground as the blue light of the entity poured out of her and onto the floor.

It had told him that it would take several minutes to open the time gate. The only problem was they didn’t have several damn minutes. They didn’t even have several damn seconds.

Because he could hear it.

The thumping footfall that pounded up through the floor.

He fought the instinct to duck to the side, to roll, and to take up a position out of the view of the doorway.

Nida was behind him, and she couldn’t move. And if she couldn’t move, it meant that he wouldn’t move.

He would protect her.

With the sound of a cruiser coming into land, an enormous Mascar warrior came plowing around the door.

Carson had just enough time to shoot at it before it shot at him.

But that wouldn’t work again. Now the rest of the Barbarians would know exactly where he was standing.

He lay down cover fire, simply blasting round after round at the doorway, hoping that none of the Barbarians would be ballsy enough to jump through anyway.

He was wrong.

Two rounded the doorway, and though he managed to blast one in the center of the chest, the other was far agiler, and ducked into an immediate roll, then sprang up and slashed at Carson with an enormous, long, glowing electric blade.

Carson tried to shoot the alien in the chest, but the creature was too quick and twisted to the side.

At the beginning of the battle, with nothing more than a silent command, his armor had grown over his head, forming a perfect helmet in less than two seconds flat.

Well right now, he was more than thankful for it, because as the Barbarian swiped his way with the electric blade, the tip of the weapon sliced past Carson’s armored nose, and would have carved off a chunk of his face if it weren’t for the ablative plating covering it.

The Barbarian snarled at him, pouncing forward with the blade.

Though Carson tried to get off a shot, the creature was too quick and ducked forward, slamming into Carson and knocking him off balance.

As Carson fell, he revealed Nida behind him.

Before that, she’d been largely concealed by the bulk of his form. Now she simply knelt there, in the center of the room, with nobody to protect her while at least four more Barbarian warriors rounded the door.

“No,” he screamed as he grappled with the Barbarian that now had him in its grasp.

He watched, almost in slow motion, as two of the Barbarian warriors reached up to their belts, grabbed concussion grenades, and hurled them with perfect aim at Nida. They fell right into her lap.

It would take less than two seconds for them to explode, and they would likely take a chunk of Nida’s torso with them.

It was clear the entity couldn’t protect her while it was trying to open the time gate.

It was down to him.

It was all down to him.

Carson punched forward with sudden and incredible speed that came on the wings of his pounding desperation.

As he did, he brought around his right hand. The device strapped onto it surged with power.

He threw his hand forward, and an invisible wave of energy shot out, blasting the Barbarian off him, and throwing everything else in the room against the far wall.

Everything save for Nida.

The entity had somehow locked her on the spot. But the two concussion grenades on her lap were not that lucky, and they slammed against the far wall, shattering under incredible force.

Even the rubble and dust circling the room cascaded forward, and in a sudden moment, everything cleared, and he could see the room in full.

Then several more Barbarians rounded the doorway.

They shot toward him, and he ducked to his knees, rolling as quickly as he could. Then he slammed a hand into the cold floor, pushed up into a flip, and landed right in front of Nida.

One of the Barbarians lurched forward with an electric dagger and threw it with perfect aim right at Carson’s chest.

Carson’s hand lurched up, and with a blast from his device, he slammed the knife back, and it shattered against the opposite wall.

He heard the Barbarians scream and shout amongst themselves, but he didn’t waste the surprise he’d just given them. Instead, he grabbed another gun from his holster and blasted their way.

Though they threw several more grenades in his direction, every time one rolled toward him, he simply flung his right hand out, and the device sent a powerful and invisible wave crashing into them, either obliterating the grenades on the spot or hurling them against the far wall.

“Almost there,” he heard Nida say from behind him. And it was Nida; it wasn’t the entity. Her voice shook, and he wanted, more than anything, to collapse to his knees and throw his arms around her shoulders. But he couldn’t. Instead, he stood there and defended her against the relentless attack of the Barbarians.

If there was one good thing that could be said about them, they were dauntless. They didn’t give up, no matter what the odds. And that’s what made them such a fearsome enemy of the United Galactic Coalition.

Even though the Barbarians would have figured out by now that Carson was too powerful to be defeated by a head-on attack, they didn’t stop.

And they wouldn’t stop.

They would continue to throw warriors against him until he made a mistake. Because all he had to do was make one single mistake.

“Come on, come on,” he begged her.

He wanted to turn – he wanted to find out how close she was to opening the gate – but instead he simply brought up his right hand and blasted out another wave of power.

He was starting to realize he was getting weaker, though.

Either the device was running out of juice, or it was tiring him out in a way he’d never felt before.

But he didn’t give up. He just brought up his plasma handgun and used that instead. He fired round after round, trying to protect her while he waited… and waited… and waited.

And then he heard it.

At first, elation filled his heart as he thought Nida had finally achieved it, and had opened the time gate. Then he realized he was wrong.

There was a loud, grumbling, hissing noise issuing from further down the tunnels, and as it grew louder, it shook the walls and floors.

It would be some kind of Barbarian weapon.

And knowing the Barbarians, it would be barbarically effective. “Come on,” he now screamed to her, “please,” he added in a final act of desperation.

He heard something round the doorway.

Then he saw it.

A set of heavy mechanical armor with a Barbarian seated inside.

The suit was enormous and had such thick armor it was clear it had been repurposed from a mining planet. Turrets rested on its shoulders, and the rest of the bulk was dotted with various other high-powered weapons.

He brought his right hand up, forcing it forward while trying to fling another blast of power toward the mechanical suit before it could fire.

But the device wouldn’t work. Though Carson could throw a little power, it wasn’t nearly enough.

He saw the mechanical warrior lift one of its turrets. The thing started to glow red.

Carson knew what would happen next.

So he did the only thing he could. He crumpled to his knees, he wrapped his arms around Nida, and he collapsed his body forward, protecting hers.

Then he waited.

For death.

But death did not come.

Instead, something opened up underneath them.

Light. Movement. Color. Form. Charge. Weight. It seemed to take on every single property of matter.

Indescribable, indefinable.

And it pulled them through.

With his arms still collapsed around her shoulders, they were sucked down into the void.

And then, instantaneously, they reappeared.

They didn’t travel through a tunnel; they didn’t hurtle along some kind of energy pathway. They simply reappeared in a completely different room in a completely different building, and if the entity was to be believed, in a completely different time.

Carson had no idea how long he knelt there with his arms wrapped around Nida, and it wasn’t until she shuffled back slightly, staring up into his eyes, that he finally let her go.

Then he collapsed.

He grabbed his right hand, realizing how much it ached. “What did I do to myself?” he groaned.

“It will take some time to get used to the device,” the entity told him, “and you must be careful to conserve your energy,” it warned.

He stared at it. “I want to speak to Nida,” he announced.

“I’m here,” she shifted forward, her expression changing as the entity lost hold. “I’m here,” she reached out a hand to him.

Without hesitating, he grasped it in his own. Then he just sat there, breathing very heavily and waiting.

Waiting for some other terrible, frantic event to happen. When it didn’t, he finally took the time to stare around them.

They were in… well, he supposed it was a house of some description. It was simply furnished, and the walls were made of stone, not metal.

“Where are we?” Nida asked, combing her fingers through her hair.

“I think you should ask when are we,” he croaked through his words, barely capable of believing them.

She looked at him sharply, then she closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. “Oh my god, we traveled through time.”

Yes. They’d traveled through time.

They both sat there processing that fact, and it wasn’t until Nida finally rose to her feet to investigate the house that Carson mustered up the courage to follow.

Silently they assessed the building, and then they returned to the same room.

They stood there, about a meter apart, and assessed each other silently.

“What now?” she asked in a quiet voice as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

“We find the dimensional bridge,” he managed in an even quieter voice. “Do you know where it is? Do you know how to find it?” He took a step forward and looked into her eyes, trying to see past her to the entity within.

She stared back at him mutely and shrugged her shoulders.

“Ask the entity,” he suggested through clenched teeth.

She drew silent for several seconds, then shook her head.

She looked pale.

And suddenly he understood why.

The light that usually danced across her skin was slowly withdrawing into her hand.

“It’s weak,” she announced, “opening the time gate has left it weak. It needs to withdraw. It can’t tax itself or…” she trailed off.

He nodded. He understood. If it allowed itself to grow weak, presumably it would corrupt all the quicker.

So instead, he stood there and took a massive breath.

“We can… do this,” he promised.

She considered him quietly, then finally nodded. “We don’t have any choice.”

Her words were soft but bitter, and they made him feel sick.

But she was right.

They didn’t have any choice.

They were both stuck in the past with a critically important mission to complete.

When Nida had touched his chest and the entity had transferred visions to him, he’d seen what would happen if or when it became corrupted.

Destruction. Destruction on an incalculable scale.

Something he couldn’t let happen.

“We will find that gate,” he said in a stronger, authoritative tone.

She gave a slight smile. It was a small and sad move, but then her lips twitched to the side as if she found something amusing. “Is that an order?”

“You bet you it is,” he snapped.

That kinked smile grew. “Well, there’s only one problem: I’m not sure if you are still my superior.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. It was a practiced move. The kind of surly, challenging look he would shoot an insubordinate underling.

She just smiled cheekily. “Don’t look at me like that; it’s a legitimate question. The Academy has never detailed what happens to the chain of command when you’re taken into the past. I mean, technically, you aren’t a lieutenant anymore, and I’m not a cadet, because we don’t exist in this time yet.”

He now raised both his eyebrows, and he clapped his hands on his hips. “I’m still a lieutenant,” he said pointedly.

She gave an overly dramatic sigh. “Then I guess that still makes me the worst recruit in 1000 years.”

He couldn’t help it – he laughed. They had narrowly escaped a Barbarian attack with their lives. They were in the past, and they were shouldering an impossibly difficult mission, and she was worried that she was still the worst recruit in 1000 years?

It took a while for him to stop chuckling, and he only laughed more at Nida’s challenging look. Then he stopped, and he held his hand out to her. “Come on.”

She looked at the hand carefully. “Is that an order?”

He shook his head.

….

She took his hand.

They walked out of the building and into a new time.

They had a mission, and he would do everything he could to complete it.

He knew that Nida would do everything she could too. And as he turned his head to consider her, he realized that, as strange as it sounded, he wouldn’t have anybody else by his side. Not Travis, not another member of the Force, not the best recruit in 1000 years.

He kept that thought to himself, though.

Then they opened the door to a new time and a new place.

They walked out together.

Thank you for reading Ouroboros Episode One. This four-episode series is complete. You can pick it up at most ebook retailers today.



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