Vira Episode One

Vira Episode One

 

Prologue

Lieutenant Park

“Get back here,” he screamed.

Vira ignored him.

She jerked her hand to the left, activating her armor. In a hiss of moving metal and a blast of blue-green energy, it sailed over her.

“Vira,” he bellowed. “Don’t go after him.”

Vira didn’t even bother to answer. She flew up the side of the sheer mineshaft, her black armor almost indistinguishable from the dark night above. Her subspace swords weren’t, though. As she pulsed both hands wide, two swords appeared out of subspace pockets behind her. They leaped into her hands, glowing as brightly as trapped supernovas.

In a flash, she was out of sight.

“Vira,” Park bellowed her name once more.

Nothing.

Sweat slicked his brow as he took a jerked step backward, clamped a hand over his mouth, and thought.

The body of Princess Me’ac was still behind him. As he took a careless step backward, his boot banged up against her lifeless form. Her sticky blue blood now practically covered the bottom of the shaft.

This mission had gone to hell. He should never have accepted this role in the first place.

He didn’t have the skills to control Vira – no one did. She was overpowered and undertrained, and Admiral Forest should never have let her out.

But Vira was out.

And unless Park could pull her back before the Coalition staff on the moon above caught sight of her, then everything would be over.

“Dammit,” he spat.

He whirled on his foot, searching for any way out of here. The assassin had already destroyed the hover elevator that usually serviced this pit, and Park could bet that the backup flotation packs had been removed, too.

Didn’t matter.

Park caught sight of a low gravity rock grinder. They were designed to float along the sides of walls, buffing off preprogrammed stone layers so you could reveal archaeological finds beyond.

Park dashed over to the nearest one, skidding down on his knees, not caring that it aggravated the wound along his leg and up across his hip where the assassin had tried to slice him in half with a rotating electron sword. Blood might have scattered over the rock by his knees, but it didn’t goddamn matter.

Nothing would matter until he found Vira.

Gritting his teeth, ignoring the pain, Park threw himself at the sheer wall to his left, activating the rock grinder.

It kicked into life, shuddering in his hands and jerking forward as it made a mag lock with whatever magnetized ore was in the wall.

The rock grinder was meant to work on its own – following whatever program you keyed into it.

It was definitely not meant to act as an impromptu elevator.

With his thumb, Park activated the swipe control that would dictate the loadbearing on the grinder, shifting it to its maximum setting. It still wouldn’t be enough to carry his weight for long, but all Park had to do was make it up the 50 m to the surface of the moon above.

“Come on,” he spat as the rock grinder powered into life, latching onto the surface of the wall as it began to shift upward. Rocks scattered out everywhere, dust erupting around the grinder but quickly being sucked into the air vents along its side. It meant Park didn’t suck in a lungful of rock dust every time he took a jerked, shuddering breath, but this wasn’t easy, either. As he held onto the grinder for dear life, it shuddered as if it had the trapped force of a tornado. His fingers slicked with sweat and his wrists hurt like hell, but he didn’t let go.

Above, he could hear the sounds of battle.

He had no fear for Vira’s life. She’d already proved she could take on an army if she had to. But that wasn’t the point.

Vira was far too valuable to be used on any old army. No, Vira had to be kept for the Force.

By the time Park was 10 m away from ground level, his shoulders felt like they would be wrenched from his back. But he held on.

Just five more meters, just four.

Just one.

With a scream, Park’s grip finally failed. Just before he could fall, he scrabbled against the almost completely sheer, smooth rock face, pressing the points of his regulation Coalition boots against the rock as he threw himself up the last meter with every scrap of strength he had.

He just made it. His shuddering, weak fingers latched onto the edge of the pit. Before they too could fail, he shoved his boots against the rock and he pushed with all his might.

A genuine, gut-wrenching scream splitting from his lips, Park rolled onto the dark gray, pockmarked ground.

He lay there for a single second, arms practically convulsing from the beating the rock grinder had put them through.

But Park couldn’t give himself the time he needed to recover.

He shoved up hard and ran.

The assassin had tech Park had never seen. Though it had looked Artaxian, appearances had been misleading. His gut told him it was from the Force.

And though Vira was a lot of things, if that Force technology was strong enough, even she could be overcome.

He didn’t bother bellowing her name or using the constant lock his wrist device had on her – all he needed to do was use his eyes to discern where Vira was.

She was 100 m away and 50 m up, fighting in the sky.

Even from this distance, Park could follow the fight easily. Though both the assassin and Vira wore jet black armor, Vira’s blue swords gave her away.

Park had no weapon. All he had was his goddamn voice, his uniform, and his wrist device.

Oh, and the kill switch.

The one built right into Vira’s brain. The one Admiral Forest had made Park promise he would only ever use in the direst of situations when Vira either went completely off the reservation, or acted in a way brazen enough to reveal her secret to the rest of the galaxy. Because he knew if he used it, it would cost him something he’d spent the last three weeks painstakingly cultivating – Vira’s trust.

Park’s eyes had never been wider as he tilted his head all the way back and stared up at the two fighting figures.

It was like watching a star fight a black hole. The assassin’s pitch black armor made its darting body look like it was nothing more than a shadow against space, while Vira’s bright swords looked like the flashing tails of comets.

As they fought, they got higher and higher.

The surface of this moon – like most moons – was completely pockmarked from space debris impacts. Fortunately, the area they were in was in a low valley. But above the rise to his left and past a small mountain ridge was the primary research facility. Though Vira’s armor was specifically manufactured to be completely undetectable to standard scanners, anyone with a functioning set of eyes would be able to see her. If she got any higher, she would come within view of the research facility, and she would blow everything.

“Goddamn you, Vira,” Park spat through clenched teeth as he tried to make the toughest decision of his life.

His thumb and finger hovered over his right wrist. Not his wrist device – but the implant that had been grafted onto his wrist bone. His wrist device, after all, could be removed. Short of cutting off Park’s arm, the implant couldn’t be.

The implant did one thing. It maintained a continual subspace connection to the kill switch in Vira’s mind.

All Park needed to do was activate it, and Vira would fall unconscious.

She continued to fight the assassin. Her movements were graceful and yet the deadliest he’d ever seen. But whatever armor the assassin possessed was fending her off for now.

Forever? Park doubted it. He knew in his heart of hearts that Vira would succeed. Eventually.

But he couldn’t give her any more time.

“Goddamn you, Vira,” he repeated, voice more bitter than it ever had been before. Once upon a time, Lieutenant Park had thought he had a switch in his own mind. Not a kill switch, mind you, but one that, if he flicked it, made him into a passionless, emotionless, perfect soldier. The kind of man who followed orders and never got involved.

But Park was wrong, wasn’t he?

Because he’d finally met his match – the one person in all of the Milky Way who could press his buttons.

And right then and there, he pressed hers. Without a single moment’s hesitation, Park rammed his thumb and finger against his wrist implant.

Vira fell from the sky. In an instant, she lost consciousness.

The assassin didn’t take the opportunity to try to kill her. He wisely turned tail and ran, flying vertically right up into the atmosphere.

Park threw himself forward.

He didn’t reach Vira before she crashed into the surface of the moon, her two spinning blue subspace blades slicing into the ground by her side.

She struck the ground with such force, he could feel it even 10 m out.

With a burst of speed, completely ignoring the injury to his leg and side, Park finally reached her.

Her head was at an angle, her body limp, the light from the starscape above catching along her glinting, smooth black armor.

Park fell down to one knee by her side. He reached a hand up, propped his elbow on his knee, and pressed his fingers into his sweat-and-grime caked brow.

He didn’t need to use his wrist device to scan her to know she was okay. That didn’t stop him from opening his mouth one last time and spitting, “Goddamn you, Vira.”

Chapter 1

Lieutenant Park, three weeks before the incident on the Second Moon of the Falax Expanse

He stood in front of the Admiral, his arms crossed.

She was looking better than she had in weeks, and that was saying something, considering Admiral Forest had gone through hell at the hands of the Force.

Park had gone through hell, too, but hell was something Park always courted. Maybe Admiral Forest had back in her day as a combat specialist, but she was an Admiral now, and it wasn’t up to her to gun-sling and save the galaxy. Maybe from behind her desk, but definitely not from the front lines.

Which was the Admiral’s point.

She shifted back in her chair, the neural link on her temples catching the low light of her enclosed room.

The neural link was two glistening metal pads that sat either side of her head – constant reminders of what the Force had done to her only several months ago during the Circle Trader attack – constant reminders to the rest of the Coalition of what could have happened if Admiral Forest hadn’t been strong enough to force them back.

According to reports Park had learned of, Forest would now have them for life. The Force, it seemed, were not kind to anybody’s mind they inhabited. Not only would the neural links allow her brain activity to be constantly monitored, but, theoretically, they’d never allow the Force to inhabit Forest again.

According to what Park had learned through his many contacts, the medical team at the Academy were learning more about the Force every day. And what they learned they did not like. Everything from the ability to replace humans with almost perfect biological and mental clones, to the ability to invade someone’s mind and control them, just as they’d done to Forest. The Force were categorically unlike any enemy the Coalition had ever faced.

And that was the point of this meeting.

Forest rested back in her seat, the yielding fabric creaking as she shifted her head all the way back, jutted out her chin, and faced Park. “I’m going to give you one chance to tell me you’re not up for this. This is not an ordinary mission,” she said, voice pitching down low, unmistakable seriousness crumpling her previously smooth brow. It made the two neural links either side of her temples shift in as the skin crinkled.

Park stood straight. Didn’t move a muscle. You see, Park had two modes. Everyone who’d known him long enough appreciated that fact. There was the wild Park, the fun Park, the Park who owned the party scene at the Academy. And then? There was the professional Park. There was a switch in his mind – honestly, there was. And if he flicked it, he could switch off his empathy, switch off his fun, switch off everything until he was nothing more than a man behind a gun who followed orders.

So Park didn’t shift. He simply stared at the Admiral.

“One chance,” she said as she brought up a hand and slowly raised a single finger. Her movements lacked the grace and competency they’d once had – the burden of having the Force pry into her mind truly had been costly, and she might never fully recover, even with advanced Coalition medical tech.

Park didn’t shift.

“As I’ve already stressed several times before, this is no ordinary mission, for she is no ordinary Coalition asset,” Forest pointed out, her voice wavering for the first time during the conversation. It only trembled on one word. She.

Despite the fact Park had that switch in his mind, despite the fact he had a reputation for being one of the best Coalition combat specialists because he could shove aside all emotion, his stomach pitched. But it was the slightest of sensations, one he could easily ignore as he locked all of his focused attention on the Admiral. “We’ve been over this, Admiral, and I’m ready.”

The Admiral simply arched an eyebrow. “I will not deny your service record, Lieutenant Park. It’s exemplary. And out of all my assets, I chose you for this mission. But if for a second you don’t think you’re ready—”

“I’m ready. You’ve stressed she is no ordinary asset before. I’ll deal with it. I’m adaptable,” he said.

For the first time, Admiral Forest allowed a smile to crack over her lips. Again it was slow, and her bottom lip wobbled a little, but that didn’t take away from the import of the movement. She reached her hands forward and clasped them on the desk. “Yes, you are adaptable – that’s why you were my first choice. Because Vira is….” The Admiral ticked her head to the side quickly – the first time she’d managed a move that wasn’t slow, laborious, and well thought through. It seemed whenever Admiral Forest spoke of Vira – whenever anyone spoke of Vira – they changed. Became nervous, unsure, and yet determined.

Vira.

That’s all Park had been hearing about for the past several months. All he’d been prepping for. And yet, he hadn’t even met this mysterious Vira.

He knew several things – she hadn’t gone through the Academy, at least not formally. And she was one of the greatest assets the Coalition had.

And what was she?

Part Spacer, part other.

Park had little experience with Spacers. He’d been offworld during the Axira incident. But hell, he knew about them. Any combat specialist would. They were built for one task – war. Whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial, it didn’t matter. They were the pinnacle of modern conflict, even if they dated from a time long, long ago.

But this Vira? She wasn’t just a Spacer. No, she was other, and whenever Park tried to push – whenever he tried to find out exactly what that other was – no one would tell him.

He didn’t need to know.

All he had to do was watch her and help her, and, more than anything, keep her secret safe.

Though Admiral Forest chose to remain seated for most conversations these days, it was a testament to the import of this situation that she rested her hands flat on her desk and laboriously stood. Her muscles jerked and twitched, but she just re-gripped the desk and clenched her teeth.

A few times she looked as if she would fall. Maybe someone else would’ve reached a hand out, tried to grab her elbow or shoulder, tried to shore up her stance – Park didn’t.

If she wanted to stand, then let her stand. If the cost of trying was falling over, that was the Admiral’s cost to take.

Park just stood there as straight as he could, his gaze as even as it could be.

Last night, he hadn’t managed to get a wink of sleep – he’d been out celebrating with some of the Academy maintenance and security staff. It had taken two full months, but finally the Academy main buildings had a clean bill of health – every single holographic emitter had been pulled from the place, and the computer cores had been completely flushed and rebuilt.

The Academy was back to operating at full capacity.

And Park? He’d been the life of the party.

Now? He didn’t blink. “Admiral, I assure you, I’m up for this task. I’ve dealt with some… difficult personalities before, and I can do it again.”

A strange kind of smile spread across the Admiral’s face. “Trust me when I say you have never dealt with anybody like Vira.”

Again Park’s stomach kicked, but again it was a minuscule sensation. Maybe it was hunger or the consequence of partying all night. But ultimately, it was irrelevant. Because if Park wanted to be ready for this mission, he would make himself ready. It was as simple as that.

When Park had gone through the Academy, he’d gotten a reputation in his first week. None of the other Academy staff or students had ever met a recruit like him. He didn’t need to be browbeaten to take orders. He just did it. No complaints. He rose to any occasion, no matter how dire.

Adaptable Park, that’s what they called him. He also had a reputation for being able to scrounge a solution from any problem. He was just as good when it came to engineering and jury-rigging weapons and tech from broken machinery as he was with combat.

And he was fully aware of this fact. Which led to another nickname – Arrogant Park. Some people would care about that – some people would be ashamed. Park wasn’t. It fit him to a T.

He was aware of the fact the Admiral hadn’t blinked in the last minute – like she was using her eyes to scan his very mind. “I’m going to stress once more that this is unlike any mission you have ever been sent on. And she is unlike any asset you have ever worked with. I’m also going to give you one more chance.”

“I’m not going to back down,” Park said firmly.

“Let’s wait until you meet her. Remember, your responsibilities during this mission are simple—”

“Do everything I can to ensure the mission is a success,” Park spoke over the top of the Admiral.

Forest paused for several seconds, her gaze hard. “The mission will be a success depending on whether you can control Vira. Plain and simple. This is not a standard combat affair. You will not be going in there guns blazing – she will. All you must do is keep her secret from other Coalition assets and the general public at large. Do you understand?”

Park nodded automatically. To be honest, he didn’t understand. Perhaps mentally, but not physically. He was used to taking charge in any combat situation. Sure, there were combat specialists out there who were brawnier, stronger, agiler, but nobody could push themselves as hard and as far as Park.

Maybe there was something about his gaze that alerted the Admiral to the fact he wasn’t truly comprehending the import of her statement, because she let out a low growl. “Follow me. You’ll decide once you’ve met her.” Without another word, Admiral Forest pushed off from the desk.

She’d been fitted with a discrete biomedical exoskeleton that would help her maneuver and retain balance. They were several connected joints that sat flush against her skin underneath her uniform. But as Park fell into step behind her, it was clear she wasn’t using them. Because Admiral Forest was a woman who chose to do everything the hard way.

Stumbling, she made it to the door, swiped her wrist to the left, then to the right, and activated the invisible sensors in the smart metal.

Park heard several mechanisms shift within the wall, some so deep, they made the floor shudder.

When Park had walked into the Admiral’s office, he’d done so through the basement level hallway.

But now, as the doorway peeled open in front of him, he was met with a completely different sight.

He was on one of the lower basement levels. Though once upon a time Park wouldn’t have had the security clearance to travel deep below the command building and into the numerous sub-level basements, that had all changed during the Circle Trader incident. And since the incident, so had the sub-level basements. They’d been rebuilt completely, fitted with new security systems that, theoretically, would stop something like the incident ever happening again.

You see, the Coalition desperately needed to tighten security at the Academy, throughout the rest of the Coalition states, too. For something was coming – and that thing was the Force.

Though Park usually had a cool, calm affect, at the thought of the Force, his stomach kicked. Again, it was such a slight sensation that he could barely notice it, but by God, it was there. For good reason. If all of the high-level intel he’d learned about the Force was correct, then the Coalition would have to pull out every stop to prevent them from spilling into the Milky Way. And if the Force were allowed entry into the Milky Way, that would be it. There would be no fighting them. Even if every single race in the Milky Way joined together – from the Coalition to the Barbarians to the Kor – it simply wouldn’t count. The Force, at the fundamental level, consumed energy, and they would greedily lap up every single source of energy throughout the entire galaxy, from biological to technological. They would leave nothing but destruction and dust in their path.

Admiral Forest strode through the new hallway. As she did, it changed actively around her, the wall panels never sitting still as they grated and ground on invisible tracks. It wasn’t some mere distraction or a strange form of decoration – as part of the new security protocols, the new sub-basement levels were in constant movement. It didn’t mean any of the scientists and officers working in any of the numerous labs would suddenly be crushed as Admiral Forest decided to willy-nilly create a hallway to her destination – the constant movement was monitored and kept in check. It simply meant that if the situation dictated it, and a serious security breach occurred, the entire subbasement system could be changed. Incoming combatants could be cordoned off and key personnel could be kept safe. It was just one of the many new systems the Academy had been forced to put in place as the threat level in the Milky Way just kept getting higher.

And that, if you believed the briefing he’d had, was why the Academy was finally letting Vira go.

This wouldn’t be easy. Though Park was always full of bravado and happy to take on any mission, no matter how unlikely it was to succeed, even he could appreciate this was out of the ordinary. He’d never seen any of the usually stiff-lipped, competent Admirals like this. Whenever they spoke of letting out Vira, he imagined they had the same grim, slightly terrified and yet awed expressions soldiers on old Earth would have had whenever they spoke of using nuclear weapons.

Despite the fact she still wasn’t using her exoskeleton, as the Admiral neared a door that suddenly appeared through the ever-changing hallway, her back straightened, and for the first time, her stance became strong.

She paused at the door, coming to a full stop as her shoulders tightened and she sucked in a deep breath. For a woman who had a reputation for never being rattled, she looked just as scared as a brand-new recruit.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

Park wasn’t sure whether the question was meant for him or her, but he settled on uttering a, “Yes.”

That statement would haunt him for life. For, though Park couldn’t appreciate it yet, he’d never been less ready for something in his life….

Chapter 2

Lieutenant Rogers, the Apollo

He sat there hunched over the pin gun, his stiff fingers stroking the smooth metal.

Beside him on the small console of his equally small quarters, his burnable communication device sat. His gaze slid methodically between the gun and the device as he waited.

Waited. And waited.

Finally the small electronic screen of the communication device lit up, casting a red glow against the underside of his face in this otherwise dark room.

Rogers lurched toward it, left-hand banging into the pin gun and almost sending it spiraling off the console and onto the floor.

He caught it just in time, teeth clenching.

That could have been bad.

The communication device beeped again, and even though the electronic tone was emotionless, Rogers’ fragile, paranoid psychological state told him it had a sense of urgency. As if this little device could appreciate just how important this was.

With a stuttering breath, he snapped up the device, first pressing his thumb against the tiny biometric reader against the side of the device, then tapping the top of it in a prearranged set of movements.

He waited half a second, then the device finally registered that it was him.

It switched on.

A minuscule hologram no larger than his palm appeared over the device.

Admiral James Jones. The leader of the revolution.

As soon as Rogers thought that – as soon as he allowed the promise of the revolution to swell in his mind – his back stiffened, his head angled down, and his breath stilled in his chest.

“Are you in position?” Jones spat.

“I’m in position,” Rogers said as he even snapped a salute.

Jones didn’t react. He simply kept his unblinking gaze locked on Rogers. “I’m relying on you – the Coalition is relying on you,” he added.

A cold, quick, prickling sweat slicked across Rogers brow, descending and collecting between his shoulder blades. “I will not fail.”

“Make sure you don’t. Are the traps in place aboard the Apollo?”

“The bomb is set.”

“Don’t hesitate to use it if you have to.”

Rogers didn’t pause. Perhaps he should have. He’d served the Coalition all his life – he should have more loyalty for it than this. But that was just the thing. What Rogers was doing was loyalty. It was the highest form, in fact. For he was seeing beyond the closed minds of the Admirals to the storm that was brewing. He would not let that storm consume the Milky Way.

“I will not hesitate,” Rogers said without further pause.

Jones nodded, made brief, calculating eye contact, then ended the feed.

Rogers sat there in the dark, reaching a hand out to his left and letting his stiff, cold palm and fingers rest against the pin gun.

He was ready to do what would need to be done.

Park

The Admiral didn’t question him again. She shifted forward, brought her hand up, spread her fingers wide, and lifted her arm from left to right. It activated an invisible scanner in the door. The scanner wouldn’t simply be picking up biometric readings from the Admiral, but would be analyzing the Admiral’s unique patterns of movement.

It took several seconds, but finally there was an audible click and a buzz.

The door opened.

It was no ordinary door. It didn’t slide easily into the recess allotted for it in the wall. It grated, and as it did, countless sub shields and mechanisms switched off.

For some damn reason, it was the door that finally hammered home to Park how serious this mission was.

Atmosphere and unidentified gasses spilled from the sides of the door until finally it opened in full.

And out walked a young woman.

Vira.

… Park didn’t know what he’d been expecting. But it wasn’t what he got. When Admiral Forest had mentioned that Vira was a Spacer, Park had envisioned Vira would be decked out in subspace armor, with one of the long subspace weapons the Spacers were renowned for.

That’s not what he got.

He got what looked exactly like a cadet.

An ordinary, bog standard cadet.

She was human – or at least had the full appearance of a human. She wasn’t particularly tall, wasn’t particularly short, and was of average build.

As for her general looks, they also were average. Nothing was particularly special, and nothing would make her stand out from the crowd. She had drab brown hair, equally drab brown eyes, and nothing that would usually catch his attention.

Except for one fact – she’d been standing behind that door. A door that looked as if it had the requisite thickness and technology to withstand a heavy cruiser slamming into it.

And that fact made Park swallow.

Vira? She noticed. With the quickest, slightest move, her head ticked to the side, her ponytail brushing over her neck. Her gaze darted from left to right, up and down as she looked Park over completely.

Park remained still.

Admiral Forest let out a hard breath. “Vira, this is Park.”

“I know,” Vira said. Her voice, just like the rest of her, was completely ordinary, if a little sweet and innocent. Definitely not the kind of voice you would associate with what everyone was telling him was one of the Coalition’s greatest assets.

“Introduce yourself,” the Admiral said after a pause.

“I’m Park,” Park said automatically, “Lieutenant Park. I’ll be—”

“He won’t do,” Vira said flatly as she turned around and walked back into the room.

For the first time, Park caught a glimpse of it. He expected some kind of laboratory, or a small med bay maybe.

What he got was a well-appointed living room. There were several couches, a massive bank of screens, various paraphernalia, and even an old-school bookcase.

Vira walked right over to the couch, flopped down, crossed her arms, and stared at the bank of screens as they suddenly turned on.

She’d given no verbal or physical command to switch them on, but that didn’t matter.

“Vira,” the Admiral said, letting out a trying breath as she shuffled into the room, “we’ve talked about this. The Admirals have selected Lieutenant Park here—”

“Well select another,” Vira said flatly.

Though Admiral Forest had walked into the room, Park remained in the doorway. Firstly, it didn’t feel right to enter what was obviously Vira’s room. Secondly? Apparently she didn’t want him.

Park had been prepared for a lot of things, but he hadn’t been prepared for Vira flat-out refusing to work with him.

… Seriously? He’d been prepping for this mission for the past two months. Why hadn’t the Admirals seen to it that he’d met Vira earlier?

Still sitting on the couch, Vira unhooked one of her arms from around her middle and pointed at Park. “He’s becoming angry,” she pointed out.

“Vira,” the Admiral’s tone was angry but guarded – lacking the usual bluster it had whenever she was correcting a junior, “we’ve talked about this. You can’t use your abilities to point out people’s mental states. It’s rude.”

Vira didn’t reply.

Park? He kept his feelings in check. Though Admiral Forest had pointed out Vira’s considerable physical skills, she’d obviously left out the fact that Vira had psychic abilities. He doubted they were full-blown – doubted she could actually read the contents of his thoughts – but that wasn’t much comfort.

Combat specialists like Park who were sent on sensitive missions were always given extensive mental training to ensure they could guard their thoughts from races with psychic abilities. You never knew when you would come across a Mindair, and you had to have the ability to close your thoughts off with a flick of a switch.

And Park did that. Easily. He’d topped the class when it had come to mental defense.

Though Vira hadn’t looked at him since she’d flopped down on the couch, for the first time, she arched her head to the right. “He’s attempting to block his emotions from me,” she pointed out. She still had that somewhat sweet, innocent voice, and suffice to say, it didn’t match her cold, objective statements.

The Admiral snorted. “Of course he’s attempting to block his emotions off from you. Lieutenant Park, like all senior-level combat specialists, has gone through extensive mental training. He topped his class, in fact, and has one of the highest mental defense scores of any recruit to have ever gone through the Academy.”

“I have the highest score,” Vira pointed out.

Park wanted to think that there was a bratty quality to what Vira was saying, but that wasn’t quite right. It had that immediate innocence of someone who’d never been taught social skills.

And something clicked in his head.

This was what the Admiral had meant.

Perhaps the Admiral could read his mind, because she made momentary eye contact. “You can back out if you choose to. As I’ve already said, this will be no ordinary mission.”

“I won’t work with him,” Vira said flatly once more as she went back to watching the screens.

The Admiral looked at Park meaningfully. She also nodded to where she was standing. “Enter, Lieutenant, and convince Vira that she will be working with you.” From the quality of the Admiral’s tone, to her stare, it was obvious that Forest was testing Park.

If he failed? He’d lose the mission. If he succeeded?

… Park hadn’t signed up to be a combat specialist to babysit brats.

But he could hardly walk away yet. He took several steps into the room. It was far more spacious than he’d been able to predict from outside. It extended far in both directions and to the left headed down into some kind of training area. It was massive.

Of course it was massive – Vira was a Spacer.

Park had been through some pretty tough training situations in his life, but he couldn’t even begin to imagine how Vira trained.

But that wasn’t the point.

He cleared his throat. The Admiral’s eyes were on him, and so were Vira’s.

“Why am I not appropriate for this mission?” he asked Vira directly.

She narrowed her eyes at him. He could tell it wasn’t just in irritation. No, she would be using whatever extended senses she had to continue to assess him. And even though he was technically using all of his skills to guard his mind against psychic intrusion, she would still be able to garner plenty of other information from his stance, to his heart rate, to the size of his pupils.

Park stood his ground. “Answer,” he said.

“You don’t have the requisite mental control,” she said.

Park could have played this several ways. He chose to let a wry, albeit small smile spread his lips. There was many a woman around the Academy who would blush at that exact move, but he wasn’t at all surprised when Vira remained unaffected.

“As the Admiral already said, I have some of the top marks in mental defense that have ever been recorded at the Academy,” he pointed out.

“I have the top marks,” Vira said once more, almost sounding like a petulant child. Almost. Because the look in her eyes wasn’t petulant. She didn’t look as if she were rubbing his nose in anything – she simply looked as if she were earnestly trying to tell the truth.

“You didn’t attend the Academy,” he said.

“Yes, I did,” she snapped back.

Park slowly let his gaze dart around the room. “Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but you’ve been residing in this room for the past 20 years.”

“I attended the Academy,” she said, and there was a note of defensiveness about her tone.

The Admiral finally intervened. She took a step toward Vira. “We’ve gone over this before, Vira. Though you watched classes,” the Admiral gestured toward the bank of screens in front of the couch, “and you were technically graded, you were never an official Academy recruit.”

They’d made her watch classes? They’d even graded her? Why bother? Wasn’t she just some glorified weapon?

Park momentarily allowed his mental defenses to slip.

Vira sliced her gaze toward him. For the first time since the conversation had begun, she looked at him darkly. “I know what you’re thinking. And I’m not some kind of weapon,” she spat.

His eyebrows peaked slightly. “She can read minds?” he asked the Admiral. “A heads-up would’ve been nice.” Though he would never usually be so informal to an Admiral – especially Forest – this was already getting out of hand.

One thing was clear – Vira, despite her technical combat skills, had the emotional maturity of a child.

“I am not a child,” she snapped.

Dammit, he’d done it again.

She rose. There was a sharpness to the move, one that could have indicated danger, but before he could worry that the Spacer would call on her subspace weapons and slice him in half, she crossed her arms together and got a decidedly haughty edge to her expression. “You may think I have the personal affect of an infant,” she said, her tone no longer sweet and certainly no longer innocent, “but you are mistaken. You have wandered into a situation you do not have the skills to understand. And now you should wander right back out.” She pointed stiffly at her door.

Park couldn’t stop himself from snorting.

Admiral Forest took a trying breath as she brought a hand up and distractedly scratched her brow. “Vira, you can’t order him out of here. The rest of the Admirals and I did not make this decision lightly. We only chose Lieutenant Park after vetting every other combat specialist we have.”

“He’s not ready,” she defaulted to saying.

“Why not?” the Admiral said, her exasperation clear.

Vira darted her gaze up and locked it on Park. Though he’d already judged her appearance to be pretty ordinary, obviously he hadn’t gotten a good look at her eyes. Because right now, as he did, he could appreciate that her gaze was about the most goddamn penetrating thing he’d ever seen. He got the impression she could pick up more about you than one of the Academy’s subatomic biological scanners. “I’ve seen him around the Academy,” she revealed.

Park didn’t take the opportunity to point out that she’d never been out of this room. He narrowed his eyes. Where was she going with this?

“He’s irresponsible,” Vira said. “Do you know he didn’t sleep last night? I believe he was out with members of staff and the E Club imbibing himself.”

Though Park could have easily laughed at the concept he’d been imbibing himself, he let his gaze jerk toward the Admiral. He desperately wanted to ask just how much of his mind Vira could read.

And, more to the point, why exactly Forest hadn’t pointed this out before the meeting had begun. He sure would have liked to have been alerted to the fact that Vira was psychic and painfully immature – which was a frankly horrible mix.

As he thought that, he was careful this time to ensure his mental defenses were perfectly in place. And either Vira chose not to comment – which he doubted – or she didn’t pick up what he was thinking.

The Admiral let out a sigh. “I assume you know the Lieutenant didn’t sleep because of his biological readings. And I assume you know that he was out,” for the first time Forest slid her gaze momentarily toward Park, and there was a judgmental quality to it, “all night,” she stressed all, “because of your privileged access to security information. But I shouldn’t need to remind you, Vira, that access to that information should be used to keep people safe – and before you point it out, you are keeping nobody safe by putting Lieutenant Park on the spot.”

“You expect me to travel to the Falax Expanse with this man with no other supervision to hunt down fallen Force technology. I haven’t left this room in 20 years. He will be my only guide. He knows this. And yet, the night before the mission is meant to begin,” it was Vira’s turn to swivel her judgmental gaze to Park, and unlike the Admiral, she didn’t discreetly look away, “he chooses to drink all night and socialize rather than gaining the requisite rest his human body requires.”

Park swallowed.

She had him on that one. But if she thought she’d won this conversation, she was dead wrong. Before the Admiral could try to bring Vira into line again, Park took another step forward, his stance easy. His smile was too as he flicked it at her. “You’re right, I did stay out all night last night,” he said as he brought a hand up and casually scratched at his nose, “because I’m an adult,” he emphasized the word adult. “I also know my limitations. And while, technically, the mission is meant to start this afternoon, it hasn’t started yet. Though I am duty-bound not to,” he let his smile spread all the way around his perfect white teeth, “imbibe myself while on an operation, I wasn’t on an operation last night. I have an unimpeachable service record, and I don’t appreciate anyone calling into question my abilities.”

Anyone else in Park’s position wouldn’t dare to say what he’d just said. He didn’t need to stare at the training ground to his left to appreciate that Vira could crush him in an instant. He also didn’t need to stare to his right to appreciate that the Admiral would be judging his every move. If he couldn’t control Vira now – while she was safely in her room in the lowest level of the Academy basement – what hope did he have of controlling her when they were off-world? Because she was right – he would be her only guide on this mission, and not only had Vira never left this room in 20 years, but she was a goddamn handful.

Vira crossed her arms again. “He’s not ready,” she returned to saying flatly. She also swiveled neatly on her foot. But rather than walk back to the couch and flop back down, she floated right off her feet, suddenly completely unaffected by gravity. She shifted over to the couch and lightly sat back down before she swiveled her gaze toward him.

He wasn’t an idiot. She was posturing. His basic combat intelligence told him that.

The Admiral gave a long-suffering sigh. “How many times do I have to tell you, Vira,” she began.

“Showing off won’t win you this argument, Vira,” Park spoke straight over the Admiral. He hadn’t forgotten the original parameters of this test. Unless he – and he alone – could bring Vira to hand, he would lose. And though Park was beginning to seriously question whether he wanted this mission in the first place, he hated losing. Better to prove he was worthy and capable and back out gracefully later.

His comment got Vira’s attention. Her arms tightened around her middle. It brought his attention to her ordinary physique once more. Honestly, from one look at her, you couldn’t tell that she was technically one of the most powerful assets in the entire Coalition. And that? That was the point.

He took a solid step forward, making sure his Coalition boots rang out on the smooth floor. “You said you went through the Academy, ha? Prove it. What’s the one most important thing a recruit must learn?” Though Park personally hated lecturing, and he did so infrequently, he was good at it. It came hand-in-hand with his natural arrogance. Park knew he was capable, just as he knew when the people around him weren’t. And Vira was a lot of things, but it was obvious she would be a terrible soldier. She would be a force of chaos, not order.

“Vira, answer him,” the Admiral prompted when Vira did nothing.

Park arched an eyebrow. “Don’t like to listen to people, do you? You know that’s what children do, don’t you?” He deliberately goaded her. Judging by her previous reaction to his thought that she was nothing more than a kid, it was obviously an emotional button for her.

Sure enough, she reacted to it, her cheeks stiffening. “I am fully capable of listening. In fact, I think you’ll find my abilities to hear outstrip your own by a parsec. I can hear your stomach, for instance, as it tries to rid your weak biological form of the poison you consumed in large quantities last night.”

He flicked her an amused smile. It only curled one side of his lips and revealed a slice of his clenched teeth. “There’s a difference between hearing and comprehending.”

“I am fully capable of understanding what you said.”

“Then tell me – what’s the most important thing a Coalition recruit should learn? The one thing that keeps the Coalition Army working – the one thing that keeps the Coalition safe,” he said, and as he spoke, he let more passion filter through each word until they rattled through the room.

Admiral Forest didn’t stop him – she simply watched.

Vira raised her chin and looked at him, a defiant look glinting in her eyes. “The ability to forge peace,” she answered.

Park smiled. “Wrong,” he said, voice just as flat as the one she’d been using to point out he was the wrong man for this mission. “The most important trait for any recruit is the ability to follow orders. It is that alone which sustains the chain of command. And the chain of command,” he said, words hard, “is what keeps the Coalition safe. The first thing you learn on your first day in the Academy is that you do not have all the answers,” he emphasized the word you. “You don’t have all the strength, you don’t have all the ability – you are simply a necessary rung in the chain of command. Maybe you’re stronger than the average recruit,” he conceded before she could point that out, “but you alone are not the Coalition. You alone do not have the resources, the intelligence, or the strength to keep all of the Coalition safe. So you must rely on others. To do that,” he gritted his teeth, “you respect the chain of command.”

Vira continued to watch him. “… Is that it?” she said after a lengthy pause.

Park stopped himself from reacting. If Vira really had been an ordinary recruit – as she kept on stating – she wouldn’t have dared to speak back to him like that.

This time, the Admiral didn’t pull Vira up on her inappropriate behavior. Park could still feel the Admiral’s gaze as it locked on him. She was obviously willing to give him one last chance to pull Vira into line.

“Why? Do you think there should be something more?” he asked Vira.

“When we are out there, there will be no chain of command. There will be no one above you. There will simply be you and me. You wanted to know before whether I can listen – and the answer is I can. You also wanted to know whether I can comprehend and follow orders – again, the answer is yes. But that’s not the question you should be asking – it’s whether you have the right to give me orders.”

If she’d pulled a stunt like that on Commander Sharpe, he would’ve eviscerated her. Hell, any commanding officer would punish a cadet for sassing them like that.

Park had to take another track. He was adaptable, after all. “My head is clear.”

“You’re hung over. Before you say you aren’t – I can see you are,” she emphasized the word see as she looked him up and down. “Somebody who has the right to lead must be able to shoulder the responsibility. If you can’t control your own desires long enough to prepare correctly for a mission, then I do not trust your abilities to control yourself while on a mission.”

“That’s rich coming from someone who’s never seen any active service and hasn’t left this room in 20 years. But let me open your eyes to the reality of missions. You need to test yourself in every way, be prepared for every damn thing that could go wrong. You’re right, I didn’t sleep last night – you’re right, I drank, too. But you’re wrong – that doesn’t make me less capable of going through with this mission – it makes me more capable. I can operate under stress. Without a wink, with a goddamn fuzzy head – it doesn’t matter.”

“If you are likening partying all night to the stresses that come up on a mission, that’s a stretch. Also, you’re wrong.”

Park didn’t want to point out that he wasn’t following and he had no idea what he was wrong about. So he waited.

Sure enough, Vira ticked her head to the side, her hair trailing over her shoulders. “I have seen combat.”

“I’m not talking about training,” he said dismissively as he waved a hand to the left.

Her gaze changed. He was starting to appreciate that she had a complicated personality, and that while, at times, she sounded like a child, at other times, she sounded like an erudite Admiral. Now?

For the first time, he caught a glimpse of the soldier. “Neither am I.”

… Had the Coalition sent Vira on missions in the past 20 years? Was that just another fact the Admiral hadn’t bothered to share with him before this meeting had begun?

“No, not in the last 20 years. Before then,” Vira said, her tone… strange.

Shit, he’d done it again – left his thoughts unguarded. But though he could admonish himself, he was too distracted by her expression.

He was good at reading people – but he had no idea what that far-off look in her eyes meant.

Though Park had already asked the Admiral where exactly Vira had come from, he’d been flatly told that he didn’t have the security clearance to know.

That question suddenly burnt brightly in his mind as Vira shook her head slightly and dismissed that far-off quality to her stare. “You have lost this argument, Lieutenant Park. You are inappropriate for this mission.”

“You don’t get to decide when the argument is over.”

“I think you’ll find as the physically stronger and mentally more capable individual that I do,” she pointed out.

“Are you threatening me?”

She opened her mouth.

He got there first. “No, you’re not threatening me. I think you’re a lot of things, Vira,” he said, and it was his turn to let his gaze shift up and down her body, “but I don’t think you’re needlessly violent. While it seems your minders have failed to drum into you the necessity of proper social skills, I would say you fully understand the consequences of using your strength without reason.”

For the first time, he brought her down a notch. It was just a notch, and as soon as she looked crestfallen, she straightened her back. But it gave Park the hope he needed.

He took another step toward her, now half a meter from her and the couch.

She looked up at him.

He looked down.

“What do you need to go on this mission?” He suddenly changed track completely, realizing he would need to radically shift this conversation if he had any hope of convincing Vira.

She looked confused. And that? It brought her down another notch. Park suddenly felt as if he were trying to chop down a redwood with a tomahawk. But Park was a seriously determined man, and even if it took him the rest of the day, he would bring Vira to task.

He didn’t explain himself; he waited.

Sure enough, though it took several seconds, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“You want assurances,” he answered for her. “You want assurances that not only do I have the skills to guide you on the mission, but that the orders I give you will be fair, just, and in line with the Coalition’s needs. The answer is I can’t give you those assurances.”

He allowed her a moment to look satisfied. She pushed up from the couch, and considering he was close, that meant she stared up into his eyes. She may have been several inches shorter than he was, and that could’ve momentarily fooled his body into thinking she was no physical match for him, but the look in her eyes reminded him she could blast him right into space without a second’s thought.

She opened her mouth, obviously to tell him to leave. He got there first. “You will never get any assurances that a mission will go to plan. Assurances won’t save you, Vira – only adaptability will. You want to know that I’m the right man for this job. But you have no way of knowing because you’ve been stuck in this room for 20 years, living your life vicariously through those screens,” he added.

Though he’d brought her down two notches so far, that comment was like a sucker punch. He wasn’t expecting it to be that powerful, either – it had just been a throwaway comment. But boy did it affect her.

Though she’d been staring defiantly up into his gaze seconds before, she jerked her head down and looked away.

The strength of her reaction made him pause, but not for long. If he wanted to win, he had to attack now. “Despite your superior senses and the fact you can tell from one frigging glance that I’m hung over,” he admitted, “you still don’t have enough information to assess whether I’m the right man for this job. And that, Vira, comes back to my original point. You may be technically powerful, but you’re not everything. You’re part of the Coalition,” he emphasized the word part, “and you have to trust that every other member of the Coalition wants peace just as much as you do. That trust, however, comes at a cost. Maybe Admiral Forest doesn’t have a subspace weapon and she can’t transport of her own volition, but she doesn’t need to to be able to make good decisions. Neither do the other Admirals. They’ve given their lives in service to the Coalition, and they will continue to give their lives in service. You may think you’re stronger and better than everyone, Vira, but I hope you appreciate that that comes at a cost. You may not value your own fragility, but the people without your skills do. To the admirals and captains, lieutenants, ensigns and cadets of the Coalition who have ordinary, fragile biological bodies,” he said, emphasizing fragile just as she had, “combat costs more. To us ordinary individuals, we cannot afford to make snap decisions. We must act only on the best information and with the strongest morals. So trust,” his voice punched out on the word trust, “that the Admirals have made the best decision. You don’t know me,” he went back to repeating, “you don’t like me,” he added, “but you need to trust me.”

Vira looked confused, and it was quite a sight. She’d recovered from his throwaway comment about her living her life vicariously through screens, but she obviously didn’t know how to reply to his impassioned speech.

Her gaze cut toward the Admiral, and that was all Forest required.

She cleared her throat. Though she’d been watching the conversation until now, she took several steps toward them. “Vira, everything Park said is correct. We did not make this decision lightly. We have looked at every combat specialist we have, and we have come to the decision that Park is the most capable for this mission. Will you work with him?” she asked simply.

Park wanted to point out to the Admiral that she was giving Vira too much latitude. It wasn’t a question of whether she wanted to work with him – she was part of the chain of command, and if the Admirals chose, then Vira did.

Park didn’t dare mutter that out loud, and he was careful to keep control of his thoughts so Vira couldn’t pick them up.

He waited.

The Admiral waited.

And Vira, with one more confused glance between the two of them, allowed her shoulders to deflate. She also took a step backward. There was nowhere to go – the couch was right there behind her. That didn’t matter as her body simply gracefully bent, hovered for several seconds, then fell down with a thump. She allowed her hands to drop into her lap and her head to slouch forward. “Fine,” she said in a defeated tone.

The Admiral looked relieved.

Park had won, technically, but he still wasn’t willing to bow out yet. “What did you say, Vira?”

Slowly, she let her head rise up. With her hands still limp in her lap, she shot him one more penetrating look. “I’ll go on the mission with you,” she said in a clearer voice.

That hadn’t been the comment he was fishing for. Park had wanted her to say “yes, sir,” just as any standard cadet would when following an order. Obviously her vicarious training through the Academy hadn’t been that great.

But he knew not to push this time.

He stood there, looming above her for several seconds until finally he took a stiff step back, then another.

Admiral Forest followed suit, coming to rest beside him. She didn’t say anything but shot him a look that conveyed she was thankful. And relieved.

It was a powerful emotion, too. Park didn’t have the psychic abilities Vira did, but he didn’t need to as he appreciated that the Admiral wouldn’t have known what to do if this conversation had gone differently.

Park controlled his expression and nodded.

The Admiral took a moment to compose herself. “Lieutenant Vira,” she said, “you will board the Apollo in approximately four hours with Lieutenant Park. At that time, you will fall under his complete command.”

Vira didn’t react. She was still slumped on the couch, her hands limp in her lap, her expression unreadable. No, wait, it wasn’t entirely unreadable – it was… sad. Or was it vulnerable? Could a creature as powerful as Vira ever show true vulnerability?

Maybe it was just an act. Maybe she really was a truculent child who was annoyed at the fact she hadn’t won this argument.

Or maybe Park had no idea how a woman who’d been trapped in this room for the past 20 years and who had the hopes of the Coalition resting on her shoulders would think.

“Do you understand?” Park said.

“I understand.” Vira made eye contact. He swore he saw it again – this grain of… sad uncertainty. For some damn reason, it reminded him of a bird in a cage. He imagined it was the kind of look a canary might give before it was taken into a coal mine.

But as soon as he thought that, he dismissed it. Vira was no canary. And though she’d been kept in this room for 20 years, it had been for her own safety. And now? Technically? She’d be free. Or at least as free as he would allow.

Admiral Forest motioned for him to leave the room. As he followed her out, something struck him. The enormity of this mission. If he accepted it – and it really didn’t seem he could back out now – he would be responsible for shepherding Vira through this mission. This wouldn’t be a simple shoot-and-grab. Wouldn’t be some standard combat mission. This would be the most complex operation he would ever go on in his life. For to win this, he wouldn’t have to understand his enemy – he would have to understand Vira, perhaps the most complicated woman in all of the Milky Way.

And Park really didn’t like complicated women.

Admiral Forest didn’t say anything until they strode out into the corridor and the massive door closed behind them. As the atmosphere discharged around her ankles and was sucked into invisible vents along the floor, she tilted her head up. “Are you ready?”

Park looked at her. His expression was as guarded as it could be. Because inside his head, a nightmare was playing out. To get to the location of the mission – the second moon in the Falax Expanse – they would have to endure a two-and-a-half-week voyage on the Apollo. He would have to keep Vira controlled all of that time. Worse? She would be a Lieutenant – the same rank is him.

He swallowed. “Admiral, this—”

“Before you back out, appreciate we don’t have anyone else. We also don’t have any time.” There was a true note of desperation in her tone, one that was matched by the flickering look in her eyes as she stared at him.

Park’s stomach sank.

“I appreciate this won’t be easy.” Before Park could snort derisively, the Admiral added, “I appreciate this will be the hardest mission you ever go on. Just as I appreciate that it will be no ordinary mission. Not only will you have to keep her under control while on the Apollo, but you will also have to control her when you arrive at the research facility on the second moon. But beyond that,” the Admiral’s jaw stiffened, and for the first time, so too did her gaze. Park saw a flicker of… a hardened determination that looked as if it had been forged by the hottest fire, “You must assist her in attempting to find the hidden Force technology under the surface of that moon. The Artaxan Prime has revealed to us that that moon was a key site in the original conflict between the first races of the Milky Way and the Force. You need that information. Whatever facts you can dig up from the past – we need them,” her words became short, sharp, constricted. “Devices, weapons, anything. The galaxy needs an edge,” her hard words became whispers, “before they come.”

He didn’t need to ask who they were.

All he had to do was stand there and appreciate the blunt force of her emotion. When Park had pointed out that her determination had looked as if it had been forged by the hottest fire, he suddenly appreciated that it had been. This – the Admiral’s unchecked emotion – came from her experience of the Force. Though to Park the Force were nothing more than an operational and historical fact, to the Admiral, they were a wound. One that would never close.

Park knew he was good at switching off his emotions, and he could have done so now. He didn’t. Instead? He nodded. He also snapped a salute. “I’ll do it,” he found himself saying before he could stop himself.

Once the words were out, he could not retract them.

Hope engulfed the Admiral, and for a second, it almost robbed her of her balance as she teetered sideways. Before she could fall over, her exoskeleton clicked into gear.

Park also shoved out a hand as quickly as he could and locked it on her shoulder, shoring up her stance. A part of him realized the irony of that. Back when this long meeting had first begun in her office, she’d almost fallen over too. And back then, he hadn’t moved a muscle.

Now?

Crap, now everything had changed.

When it became clear she could stand, he took a step backward, blanching. He made no attempt to hide it. Why bother? He’d just accepted an impossible mission straight from Hell.

The Admiral could obviously perceive Park’s contained terror. She took a solid breath. “Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you.”

“Demote her,” he said flatly. “Or at least change her rank, considering she’s not really in the Army in the first place,” he found himself babbling. “Point is, I don’t want her to be the same rank as me while we’re on the Apollo. I need to have perceived chain-of-command control over her.”

The Admiral listened with an even expression, but once he was done, she shook her head. “We’ve already thought about this. Your time aboard the Apollo may be the hardest part of this mission, because it will be when you must forge trust with Vira.”

“It’s when I’ll have to control her the most,” he snapped right back. “And I can’t do that if I don’t have seniority.”

“If she’s an ensign, it will make her too vulnerable to the commands of others,” the Admiral said, picking over her words carefully.

Park’s brow descended with a click. “What does that mean?”

The Admiral’s expression stiffened. She also clasped her hands together in front of herself, which was a telling move indeed.

“Let us say that Vira will… take things literally.”

“What does that mean?” Park began, but then something started to click. He might have already blanched at the realization that he’d just taken on the mission from hell, but now a cold prickle escaped hard up his back.

“Vira is in a unique position. She is extremely powerful. And though, on some level, she appreciates the necessity to keep her secret hidden from the rest of the galaxy until we are ready to reveal it, the rest of her wants to,” the Admiral looked over Park’s shoulder, locking her suddenly distant gaze on the wall, “act,” she said. There was such a specific quality to her voice on the word act that it sent another cold charge of nerves dancing down Park’s back.

For a man who very rarely felt nerves, this situation was throwing him for six.

He took a hard swallow, trying to use the muscular tension to shore up his stance, trying to convince himself that no matter how goddamn impossibly hard this seemed, he was Adaptable Park, and he would find a way.

The Admiral didn’t expand, and she didn’t have to. Though Park certainly wasn’t some overpowered Spacer with the ability to physically fight unrestrained and unprotected in space, he was a highly trained combat soldier, and he could understand where Vira was coming from. Not, of course, that he would ever admit that to her face. But Park had felt frustration whenever he’d been forced to sit on the sidelines. And his cool down between missions was always short. What about Vira? With the power to literally change the course of massive wars with nothing more than her hands, she’d been forced to sit behind that megalithic metal door for the past 20 years.

He swallowed again. This time it felt as if he were trying to digest his throat. Heck, why not swallow the rest of his body while he was there? Get this all over and done with before this mission inevitably ended with his head on a plate.

The Admiral obviously caught sight of Park’s desperation, and she took a sigh that leveled her shoulders down a good inch. “It won’t be impossible, Park,” she said.

Though Park could have assumed that the Admiral had read his mind, Vira’s display hadn’t made him paranoid. Admiral Forest was just an extremely good officer, and someone who had made a fine art out of perceiving people’s emotions.

Though this was goddamn Admiral Forest, that didn’t stop him from snorting. It was a defensive, complicated, and confused move, and suffice to say, Park was seriously not a defensive, complicated, and confused man. Or at least, he hadn’t been until he’d accepted this fool’s mission.

“Vira just needs somebody to guide her. She is fully capable of understanding that her secret, at this stage, is more important than saving… the occasional life,” Admiral Forest said, leaving a significant pause between saving and the occasional life. It was a hell of a thing to say, after all. Here was an Admiral, tasked by the Coalition Senate to do everything she could to hold the peace and save every life of every Galactic citizen she could. And yet, she was pretty much saying that people’s lives were expendable, as long as Vira’s secret didn’t get out.

Park’s stomach didn’t pitch with disgust. He understood. It wasn’t a concept your average Galactic citizen could comprehend, but your average Galactic citizen wasn’t forced to make life-death decisions every day. More than that, they weren’t forced to make life-death decisions for whole groups of people going into the future. Yes, you could save one man today, but if saving that one man condemned a city five years down the track, then as hard as it was to accept, you let him die.

The Admiral took a breath. “While you’re aboard the Apollo and while you’re at the research facility on the second moon you need to stop,” her lips stiffened, “Vira from taking her orders literally. Try to never leave her side, try to ensure that no one who outranks her ever gives her a categorical command. Because she’ll follow it. If someone tells her to do whatever she can to save the ship,” the Admiral’s expression changed, her cheeks becoming white, “then she will do whatever she can to save the ship.”

Park winced. Not the most elegant of moves, and certainly not something a hardened combat soldier should do, but to hell with controlling his emotions. “So you’re essentially saying that I’ll have to tail her every second of every day. Can’t we just let the Captain know what’s going on?”

At that suggestion, the Admiral’s eyes blasted wide. “No one else can know about Vira. We’ve been holding onto her secret for too long. If it gets out,” the Admiral’s teeth clenched hard, “and the Force find out that we’re finally utilizing her, they will send everything they have to kill her. She is our ace in the hole, Park, and if we lose her…” the Admiral didn’t finish.

The weight of the world, no, the weight of the whole goddamn galaxy descended on Park’s shoulders. He was a strong man, but he wasn’t this damn strong.

Before he could turn right around and tell the Admiral to find someone else, she suddenly switched her gaze to his right wrist. His standard Coalition issue wrist device was on his left wrist, so he had no idea what she was looking at.

“We have approximately four hours before you will board the Apollo. You need to head to the med bay. Not the standard med bay,” she added quickly, “the one on the third basement level. Doctor Shavar is waiting for you.”

“Why?”

“Because we need to fit you with her kill switch,” the Admiral said.

Park’s stomach might not have recoiled at the prospect that the Admiral was happy to sacrifice the occasional life for Vira’s secret, but now it pitched. “Sorry?”

“We’re not going to leave you completely defenseless against Vira’s whims, Lieutenant. We need to ensure if she contravenes one of your orders in such a way that she will reveal her secret, you will be able to shut her down. And that’s what the kill switch will do. It will maintain a continuous subspace connection between the implant Shavar will graft onto your right wrist bone and Vira’s mind. If you need to – and only if you need to – you’ll flick it.”

“What will happen?” Park paled. He got it – Vira was one hell of a powerful and potentially uncontrollable weapon, but the very idea that the Coalition had put a so-called kill switch in her head? It didn’t feel right. And that was coming from Adaptable Park who’d never had a problem accepting a single order in his life.

“Don’t worry – she will simply fall unconscious until you flick the kill switch again. It’s a last-ditch measure, though, and you mustn’t use it until or unless you have to. It will cost you Vira’s trust,” she added. “And trust me, that isn’t easy to earn.”

For the first time since this serious conversation had begun in the corridor, Park chuckled. It was short, sharp, and to the point. “No, I imagine it’s the rarest thing in the whole damn Milky Way.”

“You can do this, Lieutenant. I wasn’t lying back then when I said that the rest of the Admirals and I vetted every single combat specialist under our command. We chose you.” She half bowed her head.

Park wasn’t usually one to feel a swell of patriotic pride, but there was nothing to stop the warm, powerful feeling from spreading through his chest. It made him stand a little taller, made his head angle down, and, more than anything, made him wonder if he had a shadow of a chance to get through this impossible mission.

The Admiral suddenly snapped a salute. She made enduring eye contact. “Head to the med bay, Lieutenant. And good luck.”

He’d need it.

Chapter 3

Doctor Paxar, research facility, second moon of the Falax Expanse

“I don’t care how much energy it takes – redirect more to the structural shields.”

Her second-in-command looked at her, but he knew enough about this situation to keep his exasperation in check.

The Chief Engineer of the research facility, however, did not. And her brow crumpled down, covering her expressive eyes. “Sir, with all due respect,” she began.

Paxar’s second-in-command cleared his throat gruffly. “That’s an order, and you will follow it.”

“But it’s a completely unnecessary waste of energy. Whilst I agree that the seismic activity on this moon is substantial, a level II shield is more than enough—“

Paxar leveled her gaze at her engineer. The woman was a competent scientist, and even better engineer, and had been hand-picked for this operation. But, despite her exemplary record, she was not privy to the secret. The secret of why this archaeological dig was occurring in the first place. To the outside world, it was a hunt for information on the original race that once inhabited the Expanse. To the Doctor and four other members of her senior staff, it was a hunt for the Force. For the Force had been on this moon – millennia upon millennia ago. But if the Prime Queen of the Artaxans was right, shadows of their technology still remained.

And it was at that word – shadows – that the Doctor’s back stiffened. A tight, racing chill cascaded down her back. At the same time, as if on cue, the structural sensors throughout the research facility gave a warning beep. Not a blare – a programed voice did not tell them to rush for cover. Just a beep to indicate that the structural shields had stopped another massive earthquake from tearing the facility right out of the rock in which it was embedded.

The Doctor’s second-in-command arched an eyebrow as he looked pointedly at the Chief Engineer.

The Chief Engineer arched an eyebrow right back. “Before you say that little tremor his justification for wasting yet more energy on a stronger structural shield—“

“You do not need justification,” the second-in-command said pointedly. “You will increase the shields.”

Though this research facility was primarily run by Coalition Army crew, Doctor Paxar wasn’t in the Army. Her second-in-command – Armpal Singh - was. And the Chief Engineer, obviously realizing she’d been given a categorical order, straightened up. She didn’t look pleased, but at least she no longer argued.

She also ticked her gaze toward the massive windows that sat behind the Doctor’s desk. They offered an unrivaled view of the gray, barren wasteland of the moon stretching out as far as the eye could see.

Though the Chief Engineer probably thought she was a hardened woman, she shivered. Perhaps it was a conscious move, perhaps it was subconscious. It didn’t matter.

Because Doctor Paxar knew what caused the Chief Engineer’s wariness, even if the woman did not. It was the same thing that kept everyone in the research facility on edge. The same thing that had seen the facility’s medical bay inundated with cases of insomnia, nightmares, and sleep disturbances. The same damn thing that haunted Paxar every second of every day she remained down on this godforsaken moon.

And what was that?

The shadow. It permeated the rock, the dust, the crevasses, the air, everything. It was all around her, all the time, and if the least she could do was waste a little more energy needlessly increasing the structural shield in the hopes it would block some of that dark energy out, then she would do it.

Because this shadow could and would turn minds. Apparently the Coalition higher ups were sending a superweapon to deal with it. Paxar just hoped she would get here in time.

Vira

She was finally free. Finally out of her prison. Not that Admiral Forest and the other select few top-level Academy staff would see it as a prison. They saw it as a protective cocoon, or maybe a vault, one where they stashed their greatest prize.

Vira couldn’t begin to describe the rush of joy she felt as she strode through the upper level of the command building toward the hangar bay.

She could feel air, smell a trillion different scents, sense all the movement, hear all the sounds around her.

It was mesmerizing.

Though technically Vira had seen the hangar bay before – in fact, she’d seen every single aspect of the Academy, no matter how top-secret – this was different.

It was real. This wasn’t her living vicariously through her screens as Lieutenant Park had put it. This? This was her finally doing what she’d been built to do.

Admiral Forest strode by her side, and without turning her head, Vira could appreciate that all of the Admiral’s attention was locked on her.

Forest was scared. Though Forest was completely conversant in hiding her thoughts from Vira, Vira didn’t need to read the Admiral’s mind to know that Forest was terrified that this mission wouldn’t work. Hell, Forest was terrified Vira wouldn’t even make it to the Apollo, let alone to the second moon in the Expanse.

Forest, just like Lieutenant Park, didn’t think Vira could control herself.

They were both wrong.

Vira had been doing nothing but controlling herself for the past 20 years. All that time, whether the Admirals chose to believe it or not, Vira had been nothing more than a bird trapped in a cage. A powerful bird, granted – one who could very possibly hold the fate of the galaxy in her hands – but a trapped one nonetheless.

During all of those critical incidents, during all of those unimaginable breaches of Coalition Academy security, Vira had simply been forced to sit there and watch. At least the Admirals had allowed her that. Without the immersive holographic screens in Vira’s cage, she would’ve gone mad years before. The screens had connected her to people, even if they’d never realized it.

Park had insisted that Vira hadn’t gone through the Academy. He was wrong. She’d attended every class, even combat classes. She’d been right there in the first week when terrified recruits met Commander Sharpe. She’d been there through first-year and second-year as recruits were turned into competent cadets. She’d graduated, too.

She’d simply never been there in person. But she’d seen people, from lecturers to cadets, to security staff, to yes, even Lieutenant Park.

She knew them all by name, all by face. She even thought of some of them as her friends, even if they’d never technically met her.

So Park was wrong.

She hadn’t lived her life vicariously through those screens – she’d connected to people in the only way the Admirals had let her.

As Admiral Forest strode across the smooth, new floor of the hangar bay, she drew the stares of every maintenance personnel and officer on duty. People stopped to gaze at her. Why not? Admiral Forest was a hero ever since the Circle Trader incident. Though, technically, most people didn’t know exactly what she’d done. To the standard, low-level Coalition officer, Admiral Forest had simply been instrumental in protecting the Academy and ending the incident. To those in the know, she’d fought back the Force and saved Vira.

Vira had a complicated relationship with the Admiral. In a way, Forest was Vira’s surrogate mother, not that Forest would see it that way. Forest more than anyone always attempted to correct Vira’s behavior. Which was precisely what she did as Forest stopped in front of the standard troop transport, turned, and shot Vira one last, long look.

Though Forest always kept her thoughts hidden from Vira, she suddenly opened her mind in full. Obviously she didn’t want what she would say next to be heard by the inquisitive maintenance staff of the hangar bay. “I know I’ve told you this a thousand times,” she thought, “but I’m going to have to repeat it once more.”

Vira knew what was coming. She stifled a sigh.

“You want to get out there and make a difference. And you will. But for now, you must keep your secret safe. If the Force find out that we’ve let you out, there will be hell to pay. Beyond that, if the rest of the galaxy find out you exist, it will change the balance of power. The Barbarians will come after you, the Kor, everyone. I know you don’t want to hear this again, Vira, but please, for me, just listen. Trust Lieutenant Park. Follow his every order.”

Vira didn’t reply. She couldn’t with her thoughts, anyway. Though she could send her thoughts to a telepathically receptive race, despite the neural links the Admiral wore, she still wouldn’t be able to pick them up. No, while Vira could hear the thoughts of others, she couldn’t let them hear her own thoughts. And that? Seemed to sum up her existence perfectly. Someone who was aware of everything, but someone who could not reach out and interact. So as not to look conspicuous, the Admiral was conversing with Vira in her mind, Forest was distractedly manipulating the controls of her wrist device.

“But more than anything,” the Admiral continued, briefly looking up and making eye contact with Vira, “you must make this mission a success. You must find out every secret that moon holds. If there’s Force technology, you must gather it. And if there are enemies the Force has left behind,” again Forest made eye contact, but this time it was enduring, pleading, too, “you must deal with them.”

Though Vira had been technically listening up to that point, now she locked her full attention on the Admiral.

For this – this was what Vira had been built for. This mission, and any ensuing mission the Coalition sent her on, was the reason she’d been trapped in that room for 20 years. It would make up for all that loneliness. It would finally give meaning to a life that had been so trapped and insignificant.

Though Vira knew she should attempt to remain conspicuous, she got the urge to salute.

She’d never had anyone correct her on her salutes. Who cared if the overpowered weapon knew how to salute properly? The only thing that mattered was if she knew how to shoot properly. But Vira had practiced. She’d practiced every little rule, every little tradition a recruit should know. Because even if no one else truly believed she’d gone through the Academy, in her heart and mind, she had. They might have seen her as a weapon, but she saw herself as a person, just like any other graduated cadet. She might’ve had far more skills than your average graduate, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was part of the Coalition, part of something bigger. And though she’d already decided she didn’t trust Lieutenant Park, she’d only accepted to go on this mission with him because he’d referenced that same concept. Maybe he’d only said it to get her on side, but that didn’t matter. Because it was a concept that Vira needed to believe in. That, fundamentally, regardless of her skills, a part of her was normal – because a part of her was a part of the Coalition.

Before the Admiral had brought Vira here, she’d already pointed out to Vira not to make excessive contact while they were in public. Admiral Forest, after all, was perhaps the best-known face around the Academy. Suffice to say, she did not have the time to hang around with ordinary officers. And Vira – to everyone else in the hangar bay – was completely ordinary. No one would know her face. And from her physique and general appearance, she would not stand out.

But Vira saluted. Because this was important to her.

And she was surprised when the Admiral saluted back.

The Admiral went against her own rule and muttered out loud, “Good luck.”

The troop transport was loading behind them, filling with officers, ensigns and cadets who would be ferried up to the Apollo in orbit.

“Last call,” one of the flight engineers said from the other side of the transport. “The Apollo’s on a tight schedule. If you’re meant to be on this transport, get on now. If you don’t make it, then you don’t come.”

“Where’s Park?” the Admiral muttered to herself.

Vira extended a hand toward the hatch to her side. “He’s already on the transport,” she said.

She hadn’t seen him board, but that didn’t matter. She could smell him. Sure enough, a second later, he darted his head out of the transport. The hatch he was using didn’t have a ramp that led to the ground. Crew were boarding on the opposite side of the transport. This hatch was obviously just being used for maintenance purposes, probably being checked before it was sealed and the flight could take off.

The transport was quite a large one, but that didn’t stop Park from latching a hand on the open hatch door and jumping down.

He fell a good meter, but rather than try to absorb the shock of the fall by rolling, he simply landed solidly on his feet.

Vira’s eyes locked on him, and he swiveled to her.

He cleared his throat. “I’m here, Admiral,” he said, voice quick.

Park had accused Vira of showing off back in her room when she’d floated onto her couch. But what he’d just done was worse. On the last level of the basement, in the safety of her own room, only Forest and Park had been there to witness Vira. The bustling hangar bay now stopped to stare at the renowned Lieutenant Park as he needlessly jumped from a transport.

Vira’s lips stiffened.

She’d been right. Lieutenant Park was the wrong man for this mission. Though he seemed to know the right thing to say when he needed to, fundamentally, he had an uncontrolled mind.

The Admiral nodded at Park, and her neck muscles were tight. “You could’ve stayed on the transport, Lieutenant. Unless you have something to tell me,” the Admiral added sharply.

Park shook his head. It was a smooth move. He had a reputation for being smooth, didn’t he? Though Park didn’t appreciate this, and Vira wouldn’t point it out to him anytime soon, she’d tracked his meteoric rise through the Academy on her screens. Hell, she’d even been to some of the same classes as him. So she knew full well that Park considered himself a charmer. And right now, he smiled at the Admiral. “We are good to go,” he said in that same smooth voice.

The Admiral took a tight breath. “Then good luck.”

She turned back to Vira. The Admiral’s gaze was conflicted. Perhaps Forest was trying to hide that fact from Vira, but momentarily, Forest’s usually considerably strong mental defenses slipped.

Vira’s stomach kicked. In her head, she’d always assumed that the Admirals viewed her as nothing more than a weapon. A necessary weapon to protect peace, but a weapon nonetheless. But the exact quality of the Admiral’s gaze, and the few confused, swirling thoughts that Vira could pick up, suggested something different. Forest now looked at Vira like a mother sending a daughter off to war.

The maintenance engineer responsible for scheduling the departure of the transport bellowed, “We’re leaving. If you’re not on board—”

“Belay that order,” the Admiral spat.

“Ah, yes, sir,” came the surprised engineer’s voice from the other side of the transport. Though he hadn’t caught sight of Forest, there wouldn’t be a staff member on the Academy main grounds that wouldn’t recognize her strict tone.

Forest took another sigh and returned her attention to Vira. Forest did it again – looked like she was sending a daughter off to war – and that made Vira’s stomach pitch.

“Good luck,” the Admiral managed as she gave a long, low, respectful nod.

So much for not putting on a show.

Vira felt the gazes of almost everybody in the hangar bay lock on her and the Admiral. While Forest’s behavior had demonstrably changed since the Circle Trader incident and her injuries, she was still a hard woman. She was still one of the most competent, efficient, and objective Admirals the Academy had. But she wasn’t shooting Vira an efficient or objective look.

Before the scene could go on for too much longer and draw any more unwanted attention, Park cleared his throat. “Admiral,” he said carefully, finally dropping that irritating, smarmy, apparently charming and smooth quality to his voice, “the Apollo is on a tight schedule,” he reminded her.

The Admiral appeared to pull herself together as she straightened and sniffed. “A good point. Good luck to both of you,” she said. With one last low bow, she shot Vira a lingering look, turned hard on her heel, and strode away.

Vira turned over her shoulder to watch the Admiral go.

“The transport can depart now,” the Admiral added as an afterthought, her booming voice easily traveling back to the transport.

“You heard her. Everyone get on who’s going to the Apollo. Last chance,” the engineer said.

Vira was distracted. There was more to think about now, wasn’t there? Admiral Forest did care for Vira. Vira wasn’t making it up. She didn’t have the luxury of making things up. She’d been able to read the Admiral’s thoughts – or at least the ones that hadn’t been hidden by Forest’s mental defenses.

… Maybe she’d always been more than a weapon to Forest?

Distracted, Vira shifted toward the open hatch. It was a meter up, but to her, that was nothing. She reached toward it. She didn’t get the chance to push up and grab it, though. As quickly as his human body could allow, Park snapped forward and snatched a hand around her wrist. He shot her a very pointed look. “You board around the other side… Lieutenant,” he added after a lengthy pause.

“Oh,” she said. And then she followed Lieutenant Park around to the boarding platform.

He was angry. He may have purported to have obtained some of the best mental defense scores in the Academy’s history, but he was inconsistent in his mental defenses. She could feel his frustration – sense his rising heartbeat, hear the blood rushing faster through his body.

Vira might have just found out that Admiral Forest truly cared for her, but one thing was clear – Park did not. To Park, Vira was nothing more than an uncontrollable child. A hassle, an impossible mission, the flighty bird who’d finally been let out of her cage.

Chapter 4

Lieutenant Park

Christ, this was not good. She’d almost climbed up through the open hatch. While technically he’d jumped down from it, and that had been a little impressive, who knows what Vira would have done? She could’ve transported right in, cut off the effects of gravity and floated up, or simply used her incredible strength to pull the transport over and climb right inside.

This is not good, he thought to himself once more.

He was seething as his mind desperately tried to come up with the likelihood they would get to the Apollo without her secret being found out, let alone all the way to the second moon in the Expanse.

And that would be when he reminded himself that he really needed to keep his thoughts in check. The Admiral had already admitted that Vira’s psychic abilities were considerable, and when matched with her ability to scan your biological condition, from your heart rate to your blood flow, it was criminally easy for her to predict what you were thinking.

He had to pull his head in, keep his growing desperation to himself.

Vira walked up to the first seat she saw and sat down in it. It was along the row that was reserved for the senior command staff.

A Commander was seated beside her, and he slowly tilted his head around and shot her a pointed look.

Vira ignored it. She seemed to be in her own little world. The interaction she’d had with the Admiral had obviously confused Vira. To be honest, Park had been surprised, too. Because the Admiral had shown real emotion. It had almost been touching.

Park didn’t know what was going on in Vira’s mind right now, and to be honest, he didn’t care. He just had to keep her in line.

Park cleared his throat. “Sorry, sir,” he said as he leaned down and tapped Vira on the shoulder. “She’s been off-world for a long time. Not used to transport decorum.”

Vira didn’t react. She really was in her own little world.

Just great.

When she didn’t jump up, apologize to the Commander like she should, and scuffle over to the right seat, Park allowed his jaw to stiffen. He also allowed his thoughts to open.

“Get the hell up from that seat, Vira. This row is reserved for commanders. You’re not one, so jump up before you make a scene.”

Finally she reacted. Park didn’t honestly know how extensive her psychic abilities were, and he couldn’t tell whether he’d just done the thinking equivalent of shouting at her, but at least it worked.

She got up, turned around, snapped a salute, and began to walk off.

“Apologize to him,” Park thought as loudly as he could. “I’m sorry for the intrusion, sir,” he added, realizing he would have to script her a way out of this.

Surprisingly, Vira did exactly as he ordered. “I’m sorry for the intrusion, sir,” she said. She shifted away.

Park tried to ignore the judgmental stares of the other crew aboard the transport.

Great, Vira now had a name for herself, and they weren’t even aboard the Apollo yet.

He shadowed her to the right seat this time and pointed to it.

She sat.

It took several seconds until people stopped staring at her and the crew started to chat amongst themselves.

Vira started to play with her fingers. For someone he was relatively sure always had a comeback for every comment, she was being suspiciously quiet, and he could easily predict it was because of whatever the hell had passed between Vira and Forest.

Some part of him appreciated that it wouldn’t be easy for Vira. Trapped in her own little world with barely any human contact for 20 years. But as soon as he conceded that, he shoved the distracting thought away. All he had to do – all he damn well had to do – was keep her in line. Which would be a hell of a lot harder now she already had a reputation. The Commander she’d disrespected turned around in his seat and shot her a long, calculating look, probably taking a mental picture of her face to ensure he could keep an eye on her.

Just fantastic.

The transport finally took off.

There was an electronic countdown at the front of the compartment. It gave a live estimate of how long it would take until they arrived at the Apollo. It was a rough estimate, though. Though this transport had full access to the Earth security and scanner satellites, and could use the constant meteorological data from them to predict how long it would take for the transport to shift through the upper levels of the atmosphere and reach the Apollo, it couldn’t be predicted exactly.

Several ensigns and lieutenants seated behind Park and Vira began predicting just how long it would take. It was a tradition of sorts amongst crew who were joining a new ship. Whoever predicted the exact transport time down to the closest microsecond would get free drinks at the bar.

“2 minutes, 54 seconds, 29 deciseconds,” one of the Ensigns said.

“Come on, this transport is way faster than that. 2 minutes, 54 seconds, and 19 deciseconds,” one of the lieutenants rebutted.

They all gave their guesses.

Park grinned. He loved this game. He was great at it, too. He had a natural ability to estimate time and distances.

Though Vira had been the one to take the limelight when they’d entered the transport – for all the wrong reasons – he knew most of the crew had recognized him.

He heard one of the lieutenants clear his throat in the seat behind. He shifted forward. “Lieutenant Park, right? It’s great to have you aboard, sir. My name’s Lieutenant Edwards. What’s your prediction, sir?”

Park grinned again as he turned around in his seat. “Sorry, kids, but you’re all wrong – 2 minutes, 54 seconds, and 11 deciseconds.”

“We’re all happy to be corrected,” Lieutenant Edwards said with a chuckle.

“Very well. You’re all wrong,” Vira said flatly in that same innocent voice she always used when she was pointing out what was obvious – at least to her. And though Park was starting to understand her better, to everyone else, it would sound outright rude. “We’ll encounter turbulence in the upper atmosphere. It will take precisely 2 minutes, 45 seconds, 45 deciseconds, and 34 centiseconds, 12—”

“Enough,” Park thought loudly.

Vira stopped.

What had begun as a light interaction with the crew behind them ended with a fizzle.

Park was still half turned around in his seat, and he saw the lieutenants and ensigns shoot each other looks.

He tried to smooth things over with a chuckle. “She’s a little pedantic. Means well though,” he said.

He heard Vira open her mouth. No doubt to correct him.

“Don’t say anything; just let me smooth things over, for God’s sake,” he thought loudly.

Fortunately, Vira just shrugged.

Wait, no – she didn’t just shrug. As he caught sight of her face, she looked confused again. Why did he suddenly get the overbearing impression that Vira was just like the awkward kid in the playground who really wanted to interact with the other kids but just didn’t know how?

As Park shifted back into his seat, he saw just what he didn’t need to – the Commander Vira had been rude to. He was shooting her another calculating look, obviously appreciating that she wasn’t just rude to commanders, but she was rude to junior staff, too.

Just fantastic.

Fortunately Vira didn’t say another word as the transport continued its short trip up to the Apollo.

Park found himself staring at the time on the countdown dash. Though technically it did show the estimated time of arrival right down to the nanosecond, nobody could predict that far. The tradition of the game dictated you predicted down to the decisecond, no further. Why did he get the impression that if he hadn’t stopped Vira, she would’ve predicted down to Planck time?

Park wasn’t at all surprised, though mightily irritated, when the transport finally docked with the Apollo and the time of arrival was precisely what Vira had predicted.

The ensigns and lieutenants in the row behind, however, were flabbergasted. No one had ever predicted down to such a precise unit of time before. And though, technically, Vira could have just guessed – the crew behind him would be relatively conversant with statistics, and the likelihood would be small.

So much for getting to the second moon of the Expanse and finding out what the Force had left behind. Not for the first time, Park found himself wondering why the Admiral simply hadn’t loaded him and Vira onto a reconnaissance vessel and sent them straight to the Expanse in private. It would have cut down this nightmare. He already knew the answer to that. That would make Vira too visible. She had to simply look like an ordinary Coalition officer. Let her out of the Academy and start sending her on high-level recons, and the Force’s spies within the Coalition would start to predict who she was.

To be honest, Park didn’t agree with that, but maybe he didn’t fundamentally understand how much the Academy top brass was willing to do to keep Vira’s secret safe.

And beyond that, to keep her safe at the same time.

To be honest, right now Park didn’t care.

Because as the troop transport landed and people started to shuffle off, he had to maneuver himself between the oblivious Vira and the freaked out ensigns and lieutenants behind.

They all shot her the kind of looks you would give someone who could predict a transport arrival time better than a goddamn computer with access to the Earth meteorological net.

Park found himself grinning. There was a lot a well-placed charming smile could do, after all.

“Is she bionic or something?” Edwards asked.

Park let out a snort. “No, just lucky. She’s been playing that game for years. Statistically, you’ve got to get it right once in a while.”

Edwards seemed slightly mollified.

Though not many people appreciated this, Park let his combat skills govern his social interactions. And right now, though Edwards’ suspicion of Vira had been slightly injured, if you will, Park needed to go in for the kill.

“You’re Henry Edwards, right? I think I worked with your brother on a mission recently – Stanley, right? Great guy.”

Edwards’ face lit up. “You know Stan?”

“Sure do. Great engineer. Which class are you?” Park asked, even though he had a functioning set of eyes and could tell that Edwards was an engineer, based on his uniform, that wasn’t the point. Distraction was.

Sure enough, Park’s questions and generally charming, chatty nature managed to distract most of the crew until they filed off into the hangar bay.

Though Edwards tried to continue the conversation, Park slipped straight back into responsibility mode.

He had no choice.

Vira took a look at one of the exposed energy cables that ran along the floor of the hangar bay toward a ship that was being kept in stasis with a shield. Any ordinary cadet – hell, any ordinary recruit – would know that you wouldn’t wander up and touch one of those cables. Not only was there a permanent warning set of lights demarcating it along the floor, but hello, it was pulsing with energy. So why did Vira suddenly reach a hand out?

Park cleared his throat and darted forward. He slapped a hand on the back of her shoulder in what everyone else would interpret as a friendly pat. “Keep your hands to yourself, for God’s sake. Touch that cable, and it will kill you. Sorry, would kill you if you were ordinary,” he corrected as he thought to her.

She reacted. She shifted forward, breaking his grip on her back. Fortunately, however, she did not continue to reach toward the cable. Instead, she tugged down on her uniform and shifted her gaze until she locked it on the floor.

What had he said?

It took him a second, then he realized – it was the comment about her not being ordinary, wasn’t it? What was with this woman? She was a Spacer, for God’s sake. She wasn’t ordinary. In no stretch of the imagination. She would know that. So why pretend she was anything else?

Fortunately, he was smart enough to keep those particular thoughts to himself.

The Commander she’d pissed off strode halfway through the hangar bay, then promptly turned around.

Though several of the crew from the transport had been shifting past him, immediately they stopped.

Though the Commander didn’t need to say it, obviously he was about to give everyone an impromptu speech.

Park didn’t recognize the guy. Nor had he been listed on the troop transport. Obviously he’d been a last minute add-on.

The Commander cleared his throat.

As one, without further order, the crew from the transport began to assemble in front of him.

“Stay right beside me and do exactly what I do. Make eye contact with him. Don’t blink,” Park thought. “No, wait, blink a little. As much as an ordinary human would if they were trying to maintain steady eye contact. Maybe… 6 times a minute,” he added, realizing he would have to give very specific instructions. Maybe he was going overboard, but it sure as hell didn’t feel that way. Vira might technically know some of the traditions of the Academy and the Coalition, but it was becoming abundantly clear that there were massive holes in her knowledge when it came to proper decorum. Of course there would be. She treated the Admirals like they were nothing more than irritating parents. And worse, the Admirals allowed her to do that. If Vira had been his charge, he would’ve dealt with her completely differently.

“Yes, you would have run away, Arrogant Park,” Vira said.

Crap. He hadn’t guarded his thoughts again.

Worse?

The Commander heard.

“Sorry, what did you say, Lieutenant?”

Vira looked nonplussed. “I apologize. I wasn’t speaking to you.”

“Sounded like you were. My name, as I was just about to tell the assembled crew here, is Commander Park Jameson. Not Arrogant Park,” he said, lips as stiff as they could possibly be.

The rest of the assembled crew stiffened, some of them wincing, all of them knowing what would come next. Except for Vira, of course.

An angry Commander was bearing down on her, and she looked as if she couldn’t care less.

Crap.

That only pissed Commander Jameson off more.

From the exact ruddy color his cheeks turned, it was clear he was going to dress Vira down in front of everyone. And it was becoming abundantly clear that Vira had no freaking clue how to act contrite, let alone how to appropriately treat senior members of staff.

Park cleared his throat. “She was speaking to me, sir. My name is also Park. I have a nickname around the Academy – Arrogant Park. I apologize – I appreciate that seemed bad. Lieutenant Carlisle apologizes too,” Park added.

Commander Jameson ignored him. He zeroed in on Vira. “Carlisle, you do not need another Lieutenant to speak for you and defend you on your behalf. I expect you to apologize directly for your own mistakes.”

It took Vira a moment to react.

“You’re Carlisle, remember – Lieutenant Astrid Carlisle,” Park thought at her as loudly as he could. “Now you do exactly as I say. Repeat after me – Sir, I apologize. I recognize my poorly chosen words were offensive.”

It took Vira a moment. “Sir, I apologize. I recognize my poorly chosen words were offensive,” she said, and fortunately she didn’t sound as if she was simply repeating something. Even more fortunately, she almost looked sorry. But anyone who was looking at her carefully would realize she looked far more confused than contrite. Why wouldn’t she? Vira had never been dressed down by anyone in her life. And the only arguments she’d ever had were with the highest-level Admirals in the Academy.

Jameson didn’t look pleased, but fortunately, at that moment, the doors on the opposite side of the hangar bay opened, and in walked the Captain.

“Just don’t say a word unless you’re spoken to,” Park thought quickly. “And if you are spoken to, pause politely until I tell you what to do.”

She didn’t reply. Apparently she couldn’t. Though she could pick up people’s thoughts, as the Admiral had described it, unless someone was from a naturally psychic race, they wouldn’t be able to hear hers. Fortunately, she gave the slightest nod of acknowledgment.

Park’s shoulders relaxed, but only a little. He wouldn’t be relaxing until they were down on the second moon. And that? Oh God, that would take two and a half weeks. Two and a half weeks with one seriously pissed off Commander Jameson keeping an eye on her.

This would be absolute bloody murder.

Fortunately, the Captain’s speech was over quickly, and he dismissed all new crew to their quarters to settle in. But while that was a blessing, the Captain also pointed out that Commander Jameson was a special placement who’d been brought in to shake up the security division of the ship. The problem? Park was part of the security division, and considering he had to keep a permanent eye on Vira, she was in security, too.

Park’s skin crawled with dread as he walked out of the hangar bay and waited for his turn with one of the lifts that would lead to the accommodation deck.

There was one thing he had to admit was pretty handy. Though it creeped him out that Vira could technically read his mind when he wasn’t guarding it, at least it meant he could give her instruction and converse with her without anyone else knowing. Though it reduced the effectiveness of this secret communication that she couldn’t talk back to him, in another way it was a massive blessing. Because at least it meant she couldn’t argue.

When Vira went to push past people at the front of the line to get to the lift, he sent her a quick thought, “Wait your turn.”

She ground to a stop.

People were looking at her. Some of them were the crewmembers who’d been sitting behind Park and Vira on the transport, the rest of them had seen Commander Jameson’s epic dressing down of her.

There were always one or two castaways who would come on a new ship – cadets who’d just scrounged through the Academy, or unlucky souls who got on the wrong side of their XO when they came aboard. They were never usually lieutenants, though. Bad apples were usually picked out by the time they climbed the command chain.

Vira looked to be in her own world as the lift opened and it was their turn to enter. He had to clear his throat. “Are you coming?” he said, this time out loud.

She took a moment to make eye contact.

He doubted she was still thinking of the Admiral’s peculiar behavior before they’d left Earth.

No, she looked confused and… kind of crestfallen. Not ashamed, exactly, but like someone who was being pushed out of a social circle.

And it struck him.

She was reading the thoughts of the crew around them. While Park could predict that everybody was intrigued by her, Vira would know exactly how they felt.

Worse? She would’ve been able to read Commander Jameson’s mind. Again, Park could predict based on his years of experience with men exactly like Jameson how Jameson was planning to treat Vira – Vira would know with firsthand experience of the man’s thoughts.

That thought sat with Park like an un-digestible meal until finally they got in the elevator, quickly reached the accommodation deck, and found their rooms. Fortunately, they were side-by-side. It would’ve been murder if Vira had been out on her own. And, come to think of it, fortunately Admiral Forest had had the foresight to make Vira a lieutenant – meaning she would have her own room. Park couldn’t even begin to imagine what would happen if she had to share.

Park desperately wanted to go into her room so he could have a verbal conversation with her. But there were too many people around.

“Dammit,” he thought to her. “Just head into your room and wait a bit. I’ll come in a second when the coast is clear.”

She walked up to her door, opened it, and strode through.

Had she gotten that? Was she just blanking him?

Park teetered there for several seconds, wondering if he should follow her in before she did anything stupid.

He decided it would look too dodgy. The last thing he needed was to get a reputation that he was dating her. Not only did you have to explicitly tell your Captain if you formed a relationship with any of the crew, to ensure it didn’t jeopardize your duties, but, hello, Vira was Vira.

Park eventually walked into his own room.

And Vira was already standing there with her arms crossed.

Fortunately she wasn’t in eyeshot of the doorway, and as it closed behind Park, he looked surprised. Then he frigging reminded himself who he was dealing with. “You can’t just transport willy-nilly – the Apollo’s sensors may be able to pick you up,” he growled.

“They can’t,” she said simply.

“How do you—”

“I understand my limitations better than you do. I have also trained for many different scenarios. I am aware of the standard scanning protocols of every single class of Coalition ship, and I know how to hide my tracks from all of them,” she said flatly.

He opened his mouth but paused. He had to remind himself who he was dealing with – he kept saying that, but he kept forgetting exactly what Vira was. She wasn’t an ordinary Spacer, for God’s sake. Though he had no idea what this so-called other part of her was, it was enough that she had been kept like a crown jewel in the basement of the Academy for 20 frigging years, and only the most senior staff knew about her existence.

He swallowed. “You need to be damn careful. Also, you can’t just read anyone’s thoughts,” he said, quickly returning to the original point that had been bothering him since the hallway. “It’s a massive invasion of privacy,” he snapped.

She simply looked at him, her arms crossed.

“You should be aware that anyone with psychic abilities in the Coalition needs to ask permission to read somebody’s mind. I know you can’t appreciate this with your history of limited social interactions, but people’s thoughts and their emotions must be kept private unless they explicitly tell you you can access them.”

She still didn’t say anything.

Which just made Park even angrier. “You don’t get it, do you? I know it was tempting to read Commander Jameson’s mind to try to figure out what he was planning, but it’s wrong. And as for reading the minds of all of the other crew who came aboard – it’s even more wrong. Maybe they… maybe they didn’t think great things about you,” Park said, momentarily losing his eloquence as he tried to pick his way around a sensitive topic, “but you can’t judge them for that. People’s minds change. You can’t just read them whenever you want to. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I comprehend what you’re saying. However, you do not understand. It is not an ability I can turn off. It was never designed to be turned off. It allows me to predict what my opponents will do next. It also allows me to glean valuable security information.”

Park stopped, losing all his steam in an instant. “You can’t turn it off?” His eyebrows peaked.

She shook her head.

“But surely… you have to actively listen for it?” he tried.

“I do not have to actively do anything. What you understand as my senses are not human and have little resemblance to how you experience the world. I receive constant combat data, and I cannot switch it off,” she said blankly. There wasn’t an ounce of emotion in her tone. Nothing.

Park didn’t just lose his steam, he lost a little of his calm as he tried to imagine what she was saying. Technically a human couldn’t turn off their senses, and if a sound or feeling or taste or something was strong enough, it got their attention. That’s how the brain worked. But what Vira was suggesting sounded like a constant, unstoppable assault of information.

“As for Commander Jameson, you are wrong. As for the rest of the crew, you are right,” she said.

“… You mean you read their minds?”

“I mean I experienced their thoughts. They were…” she trailed off. He saw it again. That flicker of social exclusion. Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?

Park had to break eye contact before he got too drawn in by that thought. Because even Arrogant Park could appreciate that there was something cruel behind that. Here was Vira who’d lived vicariously through screens for 20 years, and this was the first time she was getting to interact with anyone who could potentially be a friend, not a minder, and they’d all already turned against her.

It was sad. But he couldn’t forget that it was also irrelevant. She wasn’t here to make friends. She was here to save the galaxy.

He opened his mouth to point that out, then he stopped. “Sorry, what do you mean about Commander Jameson?”

“He was actively filtering his thoughts through the entire conversation. Ever since I arrived on the transport, I was unable to hear what he was thinking.”

A part of Park wanted to point out that it sounded as if she’d been searching for his thoughts – and that his original point had been right. Surely she could just actively not listen? But then what she was saying struck him.

His eyebrows clunked right down low. “You didn’t get anything from him? Is that unusual?”

She shrugged. “To people who are truly capable of filtering and defending their mental states, it would not be impossible.”

He could have bridled at the word truly. It was clearly directed at him. But Park pushed that away for a far more worrying thought. “Why would Jameson be defending himself mentally all the time?”

She shrugged. “For any number of reasons.”

Park’s back began to itch.

“You’re worried he knows about me and you?” she said.

Park’s eyebrows clunked down. “I thought I was hiding that thought.”

“You were. It is simply logical. Though I think, at this stage, it is unfounded. Though I was incapable of reading his emotions and mental states, it’s obvious to assume that Jameson is paranoid. Not only does it fit his personality type and the interactions I observed with both myself and every other member of crew, it would also fit the reason he was brought on board. It would require a person who can focus on and predict unlikely catastrophic situations to be able to overhaul the security system aboard this ship,” she answered eloquently. Gone was the child, back was the computer.

Park brought up a hand and scratched at his suddenly itchy and sweaty chin. He didn’t like this one bit. Sure, what Vira was saying made sense – there was no reason to jump to conclusions yet. But Park’s gut told him one thing – he had to keep an eye on Jameson.

Great. That just meant there was more to do.

“You’re becoming overwhelmed,” Vira pointed out.

He sliced his gaze toward her. “Stop prying,” he said.

“I already told you, I can’t turn it off.”

He sighed, still scratching at his chin. “Then just don’t share it,” he tried.

Vira blinked and pressed her lips closed. She waited there, either expecting further instruction, or… what? He doubted she slept. Why would you have a perfect soldier that needed to go through basic, irritating, wasteful recuperation like sleeping?

Which made him wonder what exactly she did all the time. Did she… what, read books? Watch the rest of the Academy on those screens of hers and try to pretend she wasn’t a trapped bird in a cage?

Park caught himself thinking that, and he pushed it away.

She wasn’t a goddamn bird in a cage. To him, she was simply a secret he had to keep safe until this mission was done.

He took a step back, let his arms drop, and for the first time ticked his gaze around the room. “I’m assuming your room is the same as mine?”

“There is a multitude of differences,” she began.

“Basic size and layout,” he corrected.

She shrugged. “I guess the answer is yes,” she said, obviously unsure of her answer.

There was something about her uncertainty that made him arch one eyebrow and smile. It wasn’t charming, it was just amused. If you stripped Vira back of all her history, there was something cute about her forthrightness.

Fortunately, he kept that mental observation to himself. He also cleared his throat. “We need a plan to keep you away from Jameson.”

“I could transport out onto the hull,” she said.

He blanched. “Absolutely not.”

“It was a joke,” she said, tone completely even.

He did it again, slightly arching one eyebrow, except this time the resultant smile was unsure. “You can joke?”

“Yes,” she said flatly like a child reciting all of the skills they’d learned at school.

Park wisely decided not to go down that path in case Vira got even more distracted. “Other than transporting onto the hull, we need a solid plan to ensure Jameson doesn’t have too much access to you.” As Park said that, the Admiral’s warning flashed brightly in his mind. Vira would have a tendency to take her orders literally. All concept of being a bird trapped in a cage aside, she was a soldier with incredible skills and responsibility who’d been deliberately kept on the sidelines for the past 20 years. You wouldn’t even need basic psychological skills to appreciate that she would be champing at the bit, ready to get out there and do something.

He needed to control that sense of urgency, and he needed to do it now. He also needed to find out exactly who Jameson was.

He took several steps away from her, rubbing his chin as he walked around the room.

“Why do you touch your chin or jaw when you’re thinking?” she asked, her tone back to that sweet innocent one that fooled you into thinking she couldn’t wrench your head off with a single flick of her finger.

He glanced at her. “Just a habit.”

“You should reduce obvious patterns of behavior – they make you an easier, more predictable target,” she noted, again sounding as if she were reciting a lesson.

Both his eyebrows peaked now. That specific move was either one he used when he was trying to charm the hell out of a girl, or when he was flat-out confused. It was pretty easy to predict which one it was now. “You haven’t really had many casual conversations with people, have you?”

She ticked her head to the side, that same look of confusion crumpling her brow. “Is this casual? I thought we were discussing a viable plan to ensure that Commander Jameson does not have too much access to me.”

Park gave out a light chuckle. “Okay, you’re right. It’s not casual. But the point is—” he began. He shook his head. There was no point.

“What’s the point?” she said, and there was a keen earnestness to her question, as if she genuinely wanted to learn.

That did it again, made Park imagine Vira sitting there on her couch, watching those screens, trying to vicariously live a real, ordinary life. Trying to imagine friends, trying to imagine something other than being a trapped super weapon that couldn’t be let out until her minders dictated it.

He pushed the thought away, but it was getting harder and harder to do.

When he’d accepted this mission, he’d known it would be hard. But now he was appreciating that there was a different dimension to it. One Arrogant Park wasn’t used to dealing with.

He swallowed.

“What’s the point?” she asked again, that same earnestness almost making her seem like a puppy that just wanted to know what the rules were.

His shoulders caved. “You have a tendency to say some pretty strange stuff,” he said. “Back in the transport when you pointed out that the crew behind us were wrong and you went on to state the exact time of arrival – yeah, that’s not something an ordinary officer would do.”

She reacted a little on the word ordinary, but she never lost that keen earnest quality of her gaze. She obviously wanted to learn.

Seriously? Was this babysitting job going to turn into a decorum class as well? Would he have to take Vira up to the bar and teach her how to make jokes, how to relax, how to relate to people?

Jesus Christ, he was the wrong man for this job.

Her expression changed.

Crap, he hadn’t guarded his thoughts.

She took a step backward, except there was a floating quality to it. She began to turn around. “I will leave you alone to think. I will come up with my own plans. Though I appreciate that you’re currently my senior officer and that the Admirals want me to do whatever you say, I ask that you take into consideration my own wishes before you decide what we will do in this situation.” With that, she turned around, and rather than walk toward the wall, she floated toward it.

“Hey. Stop. I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean what I just thought. It’s just… this is not an ordinary mission. I’m a little out of my depth here.”

Still floating, she turned over her shoulder. “Then you shouldn’t have accepted the mission.”

She went to float right through the wall.

Park rushed up to her. Rather than try to grab her back, he simply put on a burst of speed, spun around her, and put himself between the wall and her.

She stopped several inches in front of his face. Though she was several feet smaller than him when she was standing, right now she was floating, and they were eye to eye.

She was well within his personal space, or was he well within hers? The point was, she didn’t do the decent thing and shift backward.

So he got to see it again – the only thing about Vira’s appearance that was truly out of the ordinary. Her piercing gaze.

Again, Park could have played this many ways. He could’ve slowly raised his hands, pretended to surrender, and looked earnestly into that piercing gaze.

He didn’t. He just shrugged. Letting his own gaze tick from side to side as he obviously assessed her face, he shrugged again. “This is how humans react to stress, Vira. I know it’s hard to understand, but it’s true.”

He made no effort to explain what he was saying, nor did he make a segue from the original topic.

That was the point. Though his experience of Vira was a little limited, it was enough to understand how she thought. And the only way to get her to stop – which she desperately needed to do now before she could leave this conversation angry – was to confuse her.

Sure enough, her brow crumpled and her head ticked to the side in that knowing move. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about us,” he said as he brought up a hand, made a fist, and tapped it on his chest several times. “Us soft-fleshed weak races,” he said, letting his voice vibrate down low on the word weak.

Her expression twitched. “What do you mean? Are you inferring that I am—”

Before she could finish accusing him of saying that she was soft fleshed and weak, he grinned.

He ensured it was slow, ensured it was charming, and knew it irritated the hell out of her. “Of course not. I’m talking about the rest of the crew on the Apollo. Everyone who’s not endowed with your incredible skills.”

She shook her head, looking mightily like a confused cat who didn’t understand which hole the mouse was about to dash from.

At least she didn’t shift right past him, or worse, transport out of the room.

She was still floating, though, and from the exact effortless way her body remained there several inches off the floor, she looked like an apparition.

She was very much real, though.

Park could have swallowed, could’ve shown any other sign of stress, but he reeled all of that in as he gave another affable shrug. “Do you think it’s easy for us, Vira?”

“What are you talking about?” she demanded again, her words quick and tight with confusion and stress.

“We live in a world that’s too big for us. In a galaxy that could rip us to shreds, tear us apart at the molecular level, plain irradiate us to death, or, you know,” he shrugged again, “allow the Force to completely consume all of our energy. It’s hard,” he tapped his chest again, “for weak biological forms like us to make our minds up. It’s hard to deal with the uncertainty. And you know what that means? It means we often have to change our minds.”

She shook her head once more, her hair trailing over her shoulders. No matter what happened, though, not a single strand of it fell from the tight ponytail she wore. Was it even hair? Or was it some kind of hologram that had been specifically designed to look like hair? Had the Admirals even chosen that mousy brown, dull color? What did it really look like underneath? Park had seen images of other Spacers, and they were completely out of the ordinary.

Before he could allow his mind to become fully distracted by these thoughts, he gritted his teeth and continued, knowing the only way to win this verbal battle was head-on. “We change our minds, plain and simple. Because we have to.”

She jerked her head to the side, now letting it rest on a judgmental angle as she narrowed her eyes. “If this is you trying to distract me, get out of my way.”

“I’m not trying to distract you, Vira – I’m trying to teach you. That’s what you want, isn’t it? You want to know how to socialize, how to interact with others, how to make friends,” he added in a guarded tone.

His tone may have been guarded, but her resultant expression was anything but. He watched as her cheeks stiffened, as her eyes darted wide only to half close and narrow in distrust. “If you think—” she began.

“Doesn’t really matter what I think. At least not now. I’m getting to know you, Vira, trying to figure out how I fit in, and, more than anything, how I can accomplish the mission given to me by the Admirals.”

“I heard your thoughts, Park,” she said with an angry expression. “You are ruing the fact you decided to go on this mission. You are becoming overwhelmed. You have no idea—”

He put his hands up and spread the fingers wide, but his joints were stiff, his skin pale, and this was not a move of surrender. “You keep talking over the top of me. Don’t you want to find out what I have to say?”

“I want you to get out of my way so I can return to Earth,” she said flatly.

Park could have snorted. The Apollo had already left space dock. Short of stopping the ship, grabbing one of the cruisers in the hangar bay, and somehow convincing the Captain that she could leave—

She tilted her head all the way to the other side. “I would simply transport there. Not in one go. But it’s irrelevant. I’m perfectly functional in zero gravity as I am perfectly functional in zero Kelvin environments,” she said simply.

… Okay. That was a hell of a statement. And, on some level, Park should be freaking out right about now, because he hadn’t even thought of that. Vira could simply transport back through space? He had no idea how far they’d made it through the solar system yet, but the Apollo wasn’t a slow ship.

Her eyes narrowed again, and she floated a little closer to him. “You’re out of your depth. You haven’t even bothered to go over my skill set, have you?”

“No, Vira, I wasn’t given it,” Park spat back, doing the one thing he knew he shouldn’t – reacting to her. Worse, he was revealing how little the Admirals had told him about Vira’s complete abilities.

She made a slight huffing noise, then she went to shift around him.

Park got there again, backing off, opening his arms wide, trying to stop her in the only way he could. Sure, technically he could dart a hand out and try to grab her arm, but what exactly were the chances that she wouldn’t rip his hand off? Okay, he was pretty sure of his original assessment of Vira – she wouldn’t use violence unless she had to. But there were many, many other ways to get away from Park.

“Please, just wait,” he said, and he didn’t change track this time. His voice wavered with true emotion, but it wasn’t because he chose it to. He just lost that cool, calm, arrogant façade that always separated him from what was going on around him.

For some reason, that got Vira’s attention.

He let his arms drop. “I’m being honest, Vira. It might be easy for you, but it’s not easy for us. I want to make this mission a success. But to do that, I need your trust.”

“To have my trust, you must earn it,” she said, and there was a… haughty quality to her tone. No, that wasn’t exactly right. She didn’t put Park in mind of a queen informing a subject they were far too insignificant to interact with her. No there was… something guarded.

Park didn’t bother to control his expression as he stared at her and tried to figure out what that thing was.

Vira crossed her arms in front of her chest and tilted her head to the side, breaking eye contact.

“… I get it now,” he said, voice stuttering as he just let the words flow out. No mouth filter, no nothing. The first thing that came into his head, he would share with her – because he was starting to appreciate that unless he was completely honest, Vira was going to go through with her threat and just leave.

She swiveled one eye toward him then the other. “You get what now?”

“I keep saying it’s hard for me. But it’s harder for you, isn’t it?” His voice was quiet.

He didn’t really expect what he was saying to have an effect on her. He was wrong.

Vira’s cheeks completely stiffened. Her eyes widened, too.

She may have been the one capable of psychically reading people’s minds and emotions, but all Park had to do was watch her expression to understand what was going on in her head.

“You’re more trapped than I am,” he commented.

… Park wasn’t entirely sure he believed what he was saying. Yes, okay, she’d technically been trapped in her room for 20 years. But fundamentally, she was still a Spacer.

She still had power that could outstrip every other single race in the Milky Way. She wouldn’t have to worry about ordinary age and sickness, violence and war. She was a match for all of those.

But there was something else he hadn’t appreciated since the moment he’d met her.

Vira had been floating until now. With two soft thumps, she landed. She also unwound her tightly clenched arms from around her middle. “It took you a long time to appreciate that,” she said, voice softer than his had been.

His lip twitched. He wanted to go with his initial reaction – the one that told him Vira was a spoiled brat who was simply too overpowered to appreciate the weakness inherent in other beings. But he overrode that reaction and went with the suspicion forming in his gut instead.

“I get it,” he managed. “Trusting me… is going to be hard. Because if I’m wrong—”

“Then many, many other people will die.”

Park’s stomach kicked. It was far, far more violent than the kick it had given back in the Admiral’s office when she’d started speaking of this mission. Hell, it was one of the strongest emotions that Park had felt in months, if not years.

“It took you a long time to understand this,” she said flatly.

Again, just for a flickering second, Park wanted to react. That part of him that wanted to believe that Vira was a stupid, sheltered child the Admirals had never had the balls to discipline reared its ugly head. The rest of him? It was being cowed by her direct, fiery look.

“If you are not up for this mission – if you cave into the uncertainty you say all you soft-fleshed races experience,” she said, copying his tone, “then many, many people will die.”

It felt like a punch in the guts. He wanted to reel, but there was honestly nowhere to go. His back was already flush against the wall between his and Vira’s room. Plus, Vira was a goddamn Spacer – if she wanted to continue this conversation, she could hunt him down to the ends of the Earth.

So Park faced her, no matter how uncomfortable it was.

“So tell me, Park, why should I trust you?” Her question was direct, out of the blue, and felt a heck of a lot like being pinned up against the wall.

He swallowed. He also paused, which was a mistake.

She shook her head in disappointment.

She also shifted past him. When he tried to dart in front of her, she simply gracefully floated to the side. She also half disappeared through the wall – one of her arms, one of her legs, and half of her torso.

“No, wait,” he began. “I’m adaptable,” he spat, and there was a truly defensive note to his tone. A note that simply shouldn’t be there. Because it was one he’d never had to use before. Park wasn’t used to having to use his emotion – instead of his physical, intellectual, and charming skills – to win arguments. Suffice to say, he was rusty.

But he wasn’t willing to give up yet. “You can’t go back to Earth. Vira, if you leave the ship, they’ll ask questions. Plus, Admiral Forest needs us to succeed,” he begged. Yes, that’s right, Arrogant Park begged. “I know you know how serious the threat of the Force is. Admiral Forest and the other Admirals wouldn’t have imagined letting you out if this mission weren’t important.”

She still remained there, half in the wall. She darted her gaze toward him. “It’s critical,” she pointed out, tone blank.

“Then don’t leave. If you transport off this ship,” he said, voice shaking at the very thought of it, “people will ask questions.”

She stared at him. “I have no intention of transporting off this ship,” she said.

He twitched. “But you—”

“Yet. I’ll give you another chance, Park. As you say, it’s hard for you soft-fleshed, weak races to make up your minds. When you’ve made it up, tell me.” With that, she finally left, and there was nothing at all Park could do to stop her as she floated right through the wall.

… Shit.

They’d barely made it out of space dock, and he’d already essentially lost.

Not only had he allowed Vira to read his thoughts and find out that he felt desperately underequipped for this mission, but far worse, she now knew his weaknesses. If he’d had any hope of controlling her, he knew that would’ve been through the chain of command. Because even if the Admirals had mollycoddled her, she did have a basic understanding of hierarchy.

Now?

Shit.

It was essentially all over.

Park walked toward his bed, flopped down on it, brought his hands up, covered his face, and half screamed into them.

But he didn’t allow it to last.

Several seconds later, when the brunt of his anger had burnt away, he forced his hands down. He clenched his teeth, and he started to plan.

There would be a way to salvage this. All he had to do was find it.

Chapter 5

Vira

She didn’t understand him. But she was sure of one fact – he had been the wrong man for this job. Though, on some level, she respected the decisions of the Admirals, obviously their desperation had forced them to come up with the wrong decision. She understood they were eager to do everything they could to combat the Force before it began its full-scale invasion of the Milky Way, but that desperation was leading to poor decision-making.

It didn’t matter.

Vira was fully capable of going through this on her own. She didn’t need a minder. Though she could admit that… there were holes in her understanding when it came to appropriate personnel decorum, she could learn them. All she had to do was open her mind and follow the other people around her.

Though she’d threatened Park that she would leave the ship, she had no intention of doing that. She would make it to the Expanse, and then? She would scour that moon clean. If she found Force technology, she would return it to the Admiral. If she found Force soldiers?

She would engage them.

She appreciated the seriousness of her secret. On some level. If the other races of the Milky Way understood what she was, they would covet her. From the Barbarians to the Kor, they would send their secret agents to capture her.

But Vira was not weak. She was also prepared. And, fundamentally, she understood the cost of keeping this secret too long. The day of reckoning was coming, faster with every moment. The Force had been attempting to push into the Milky Way with greater frequency. And every time they did, they got a little closer. And the closer they got, the more it whet their appetites.

They would not be stymied for much longer. Someday soon, they would activate all of their sleeping forces in the Milky Way, and they would start a war.

The Coalition needed to know that it had weapons strong enough to combat those forces. Weapons like Vira. And though, on any other day, she hated thinking of herself as a tool, when it came to peace, she would gladly accept that responsibility.

She looked over at the clock, though she didn’t need to. She could estimate time perfectly in her own mind. She began to count down the seconds.

She rose from her chair, neatened her uniform for the thousandth time, ticked her eyes toward the clock, then finally strode toward the doors.

She could feel Park doing the same from his quarters.

It was time for their first duty shift to begin.

Park had a distinct energy. A curious emotional cocktail, if you will. It made it very, very easy to keep track of him, even through a solid titanium and farian wall. She could’ve switched off that function in her mind, but she chose not to.

Whether Park realized this or not, the success of this mission would not come down to his ability to control her – it would come down to his ability to control himself.

She reached the door. Rather than push out a hand and tell it to open, she simply forced it to open with her mind.

Though, if Park had been aware of what she’d just done, he would’ve pointed out that it was an unacceptable risk, and that computer logs could be used to prove that she’d used a mental connection she shouldn’t have, he was wrong.

She could hide herself from all scanners. She had been training for 20 years, after all.

The door opened, and she walked out several seconds before Park did.

She turned hard on her foot, not bothering to wait for him, and strode toward the elevators at the far end of the accommodation deck.

She didn’t like to walk. It seemed inefficient. She could see the elevators approximately 45 m away, and it would be far quicker and far less boring to simply transport into them.

Do that, and dear Park would have a heart attack.

By the time she was 5 m away, he finally exited his room.

“Hey, wait up,” he said immediately, rushing up to her side.

She didn’t slow down her pace.

She passed several other crew members coming and going from their rooms.

Their thoughts swamped her.

Though some of them simply thought about their duty shifts, other crew, and mission specific details, several of them became distracted by her.

She felt their intense curiosity. Obviously, word of her had spread. And it wasn’t word of how she had been able to predict the exact arrival time of the transport. No, they kept thinking one thing – stuff up.

Apparently, she was the ship’s new stuff up. She didn’t know what that meant, but she could tell from the exact emotional vibe of their thoughts that it wasn’t kind. And yet, as soon as the same crewmembers saw Lieutenant Park, their emotions changed. They were happy to see him, even if they didn’t know him.

Vira’s jaw hardened.

“I said wait up,” Park said, tone becoming exasperated as he finally rushed to her side.

She felt his gaze on the side of her face. It was obvious he was attempting to assess her emotional state, trying to figure out if their argument last night had affected her.

She heard him swallow, could even feel the shift in blood flow as the fine muscles of his throat accommodated the move. “Did you… sleep well?” he attempted.

She opened her mouth to point out that of course she didn’t sleep.

“Just say yes,” he thought back to her. “It’s a standard question you ask a friend. Okay? It’s for the benefit of the rest of the crew.”

She paused. She didn’t like it when he ordered her in her mind. It was loud and rude and invasive.

And yet, something made her nod. “I slept fine,” she commented.

That comment alone seemed to deflate Park’s shoulders. Perhaps he erroneously took it as evidence that she’d forgiven him.

“Our shift starts in five minutes,” he thought to her as they finally reached the elevator.

There were several crew in front of them, and she could feel as his muscles shifted and constricted in his hand. He was obviously getting ready to reach forward and stop her should she attempt to muscle past the crew and get into the lift first.

She’d learned her lesson.

Apparently, you needed to wait for anyone in front of you.

Park took another tight breath. Though, to anyone without the ability to finely assess a person’s biological state, his stance would have appeared easy. Park was many things, but she was starting to appreciate that he was good at controlling his outer appearance. To anyone but her, that was.

“This is going to be our first duty shift, so I’m pretty sure it will be a shakedown.”

She seriously didn’t want to reveal to him that she had no idea what he was talking about. Also, as they entered the lift with several other crew members, she could hardly start conversing with him verbally while he thought in her mind.

Instead, though she wanted to ignore him, she looked at him inquiringly.

Again that sent a pulse of relief through his body.

Park, according to the rumors she’d heard about him, was meant to be a man who had a switch in his head. When he was out partying and imbibing himself, he would flick the switch off, and he would become the life of the party. But when he was on a mission – just like this – he would rein in every emotion and become nothing more than a soldier taking orders. But this was a mission, and either he hadn’t flicked that switch, or he’d never had it.

“Commander Jameson is going to attempt to see what we can do,” Park continued to explain in her mind. “He’s going to put us through our paces,” Park started. He shook his head, but it was a light enough move that the other crew members in the elevator wouldn’t have noticed it. “That means he’s going to attempt to see what our skill sets are,” Park thought more simply.

She understood the term ‘putting someone through their paces.’ And yet, she didn’t understand why Commander Jameson would do such a thing. They would have all come from the Academy with clear service records and aptitude test scores. Why bother re-creating what was already on file?

“It’s because he needs to see how we adapt to different environments,” Park explained.

Vira blanched. Had he just read her mind?

Park reacted. Eyebrows clunking down low. “What’s the matter? You look seriously pale.”

The elevator stopped, and the two other crew members walked out, but not before a young Ensign turned on her foot and awkwardly smiled at Park. “Sir, um, this might come out of the blue, but those of us who are new aboard are having a get together later tonight in the mess hall. We owe,” she uncomfortably shifted her gaze toward Vira for several seconds, “you and the Lieutenant here a round of drinks.”

Park’s stance and expression changed in an instant. His smile widened, and somehow, his eyes sparkled. “We’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Good luck on your first duty shift,” he added with another flash of that smile.

The Ensign blushed and walked out.

The doors closed.

Vira couldn’t stop herself from turning to Park. “Why did you answer for me? It would be an inefficient use of my time to attend—” she began.

Park took a moment to swivel his gaze toward her, his eyebrows peaking. “Because you estimated the correct time of transport, and as tradition dictates, everyone else must buy you a round.”

“I cannot become inebriated,” she said blankly.

“That doesn’t surprise me. But the tradition, however, will still stand.”

Though she didn’t want to show vulnerability, especially considering she had already come to the conclusion that Park was the fragile element in their team, she couldn’t stop her eyebrows from pitching low. “Considering my… less than… appropriate dealings with members of crew so far, I do not think it is a wise choice. Plus,” for some reason she swallowed, “though that Ensign technically invited me, she did not want me to come.”

Park pressed his lips against his teeth. It was a strange expression. He also guarded his thoughts, and she had no idea what he was feeling.

“The crew have been thinking about you again, ha?” he said.

She tried to control her expression. “Yes,” she said as if she was simply reeling off the facts of a mission.

“They’ll do that,” he said, voice somehow kind. “Like I tried to explain last night,” he spoke carefully, his expression careful too as he obviously tiptoed around the topic, “it’s going to take a while for them to get used to you. You’re unusual,” he pointed out plainly, “but you have to give them a chance. Nobody can make friends instantly,” he added.

She wanted to point out that she wasn’t here to make friends. Instead she shook her head. “Except for you,” she said.

“Sorry?”

“None of the members of crew you have interacted with so far know you, and yet, from their interactions and thoughts, they already adore you.”

Park smiled at the word adore. Then he quickly controlled his expression. “That’s different. I have a reputation. They may not know me directly, but they know me indirectly. For them, you are a complete unknown.”

“Incorrect, I am a stuff up,” she said automatically.

Park gave a half amused frown. “Sorry?”

“The crew I passed in the accommodation deck all thought the same thing – I am the Apollo’s new stuff up. What’s a stuff up?”

Park swallowed carefully. “Ah… never mind.”

“Answer.”

He shot her a look then shrugged. “Fine, a stuff up is somebody who can never get anything right. Statistically, you always have one on large cruisers like the Apollo. It’s an unkind term,” he shrugged again, “but some people aren’t cut out for this life. Maybe they didn’t get the greatest scores in the Academy. Maybe they’re simply not made for space travel.”

She opened her mouth.

Park got there first. He let out a slightly amused chuckle. “Before you point out you had the top scores in every single Academy class and that, fundamentally, you’re made for real space travel,” he said, emphasizing the word real, “you’re preaching to the converted.” He patted his hand on his chest.

“You’re a convert to me?” She was confused.

Park just laughed again.

For some reason… that laugh changed things. When she heard it, she forgot about Park’s ineptitude, if only for a second.

He opened his mouth. Then his eyebrows clunked down. He twisted his head and locked his suddenly wary gaze on the door. “Why haven’t we arrived at the right deck yet? This lift should have taken seconds—”

“I am actively slowing it down,” she pointed out.

Park’s eyebrows practically shot off his face. “Sorry?”

“This is an important conversation. We cannot allow any other members of crew—”

“Speed the lifts back up,” Park spat. “Now.”

“Why? We’re halfway through—”

“Because the engineering scanners are going to pick this up,” he said, exasperated.

She blinked several times and shrugged. “They won’t. But very well.”

Park opened his mouth. She could see it again. His innate frustration at her.

A second later, however, the lifts finally arrived, and the doors opened with a ping.

In an instant, as if a hologram had been transmitted over his face, his expression changed.

Back was the charming Park.

Before he turned and exited the lift, he made direct eye contact. “Never do that again,” he thought at her. “It’s very dangerous.”

It wasn’t. There was a concept he was having difficulty understanding – Vira hadn’t simply been built to fight the Force. She’d also been built to hide from the Coalition, from everyone. When she wanted her activities to be hidden from scanners, she knew exactly how to do that.

Park was obviously being overcautious.

Further evidence that he wasn’t the correct man for this job.

She brushed past him and exited the lift.

“Don’t get too far ahead,” he thought at her.

She toyed with the possibility of breaking into a run. It was a brief thought and one she quickly controlled, and yet it was one she did not understand.

Though she’d had contrary desires to what the Admirals had ordered her to do in the past, this was different. She wanted to do the opposite of what Park was saying because… because why?

To see his expression? To hear his angry, frustrated, overwhelmed thoughts?

There was one lesson that had been drummed into Vira since the day she’d arrived at the Coalition. And yet, it was a lesson they shouldn’t have bothered with. For it was part of her personality and could never change. She must not use her abilities to harm unnecessarily. She must not be cruel. At her heart, she was a peacekeeper, and she should never use her power as a weapon against the innocent.

So she knew it was wrong to rile Park up.

She quickly dismissed the thought and strode down the hallway.

From the mental chatter she was picking up, she could appreciate that the other new security staff were assembling in the room to her left.

She quickly walked toward it and began to connect directly with the door panel to open it.

Somehow Park knew what she was doing. As quickly as he could, he reached forward, locked his eyes on her, and swiped his hand toward the door panel.

He shot her a very meaningful look.

… How had he known what she was about to do?

He looked right at her. “I can’t read your thoughts, Vira. But I don’t need to to figure out what you tend to do when you’re distracted. Now, for the love of God, don’t get distracted in there. Commander Jameson is going to go after you. Plain and simple. Follow my every lead. And,” he thought quickly as they heard several crewmembers heading toward them down the corridor, “keep your wits about you.”

She looked at him, confused.

“We need to figure out if you’re right – and Jameson is just paranoid, or if there’s some far more nefarious reason as to why he permanently keeps mental defenses in place.”

For some strange reason, Vira found herself straightening.

Park took the time to nod at her curtly before the door opened.

They walked in.

Though Vira had gone through many varied, hard training scenarios in her life, she got the feeling whatever would happen next would be new.

Chapter 6

Park

Christ, this was not ideal. Not only had Park stopped Vira from using her thoughts to open the door, but now they would have to go through a shakedown with Commander Jameson. And one look at the man told Park everything he’d suspected was true. Jameson locked his angry gaze on Vira, and it was clear the Commander wanted to pick her apart.

Park couldn’t read people’s minds – though he was getting a heck of a lot better at predicting how Vira would react. He didn’t need to as he gazed around the room and stared at the other new security staff. They flicked their gazes straight over Park and locked them on Vira.

Though Park had to admit that it had been kind of amusing in the elevator when Vira had referred to herself as a stuff up, he could appreciate that she was right. The rest of the crew clearly thought she didn’t deserve to be on board.

Oh, how wrong they were. Park didn’t have the ability to point that out, though.

He stiffened.

“Come to a stop beside me. Stand up straight. Don’t make eye contact unless he starts speaking,” Park thought at her.

Vira did as she was told.

The room they were in was clearly some kind of training facility. It had precious little furniture, and though there were several security consoles on the far wall, the floor was almost completely clear.

There were also sensors and shield emitters embedded in the floor plating.

Before Park’s stomach could kick, he reminded himself of one fact – no biomedical scanner, no matter how advanced, would be able to pierce the veil of Vira’s true form. According to Admiral Forest, Vira possessed the continuous ability to hide herself from detection.

That was a blessing.

Commander Jameson sure wasn’t as he walked in front of the assembled crew and stopped right in front of her.

“Make eye contact. Blink approximately every 10 seconds,” Park commanded her in his mind.

She complied.

Jameson stared at her. It was clearly a move of intimidation, and though it would have worked on most recruits, Vira simply complied with Park’s orders, and stared back, blinking precisely in 10-second intervals.

“Try to look slightly more natural,” Park thought.

She began to slouch.

“Not like that.” Christ, this was impossible. And the training hadn’t even started.

But then, without warning, the training started. Jameson threw himself at Vira.

He wrapped an arm around her back, kicked the back of her legs, and tried to throw her.

Jameson was a big man. He was also quick and clearly highly trained. With that amount of muscle powering down on even the strongest lieutenant, few in the Coalition security division would have a chance.

Vira didn’t budge.

She stood completely still, her back straight, blinking every 10 seconds just like Park had told her to.

Jameson began to struggle.

Everyone else stared in confusion.

“Shit, yield,” Park thought desperately. “Let him throw you off your feet.”

In a snap, she yielded. But Jameson had been using so much damn effort to try to throw her from her feet, that as Vira yielded, Jameson barreled into her. He slammed her against the floor with enough power to shake the plating.

Her head jerked back and struck the metal floor.

And Park’s stomach kicked. It twisted. It felt as if someone had just grabbed their hands around his intestines and tried to squeeze the very life out of him.

He opened his mouth to scream her name, to ask if she was all right.

Then reality kicked in.

She was a goddamn Spacer.

Jameson looked shocked, picked himself up, and locked his gaze on Vira.

She remained precisely where she was.

“Ah, is she okay?” one of the less inhibited security staff asked. “She cracked her head pretty bad.”

“Stand,” Park thought quickly. “And look a little shaky, but don’t appear injured.”

She complied. Her hands jerked around, and her knees buckled, but her expression was completely even.

Not what he meant.

She looked traumatized.

All the assembled security staff looked between themselves as Jameson took a step back. “Lieutenant, are you—”

“Uninjured,” she commented.

She, however, continued to shake.

“Stop shaking,” Park thought as quickly as he could. “Stand straight. Just try to look as normal as you can.”

She complied. Except she didn’t frigging look normal.

Jameson looked thrown. Despite the situation, Park could appreciate that. And he logged it away as important evidence. Park had tried to do some research on Jameson last night – as much as he could through shielded Coalition communication lines to try to figure out exactly who Jameson was. Park hadn’t come up with much, though. Jameson was a career security officer, and he had an impeccable record. He also had a talent for shaking up security systems. He had several commendations on his file for stopping potentially catastrophic events on ships, and everyone was pretty sure he would become an Admiral one day.

As for why a man like him would shield his thoughts every second of every day? Nothing. He hadn’t had a stint in any of the psi cores, and though this wouldn’t be on his record, there was no information to suggest that he had anything to do with the intelligence division.

But this – his pale cheeks and slack brow suggested he hadn’t meant to hit Vira that hard, and he was regretting it.

With a quick move, the Commander brought a hand up, ran it along his jaw, and looked at her seriously. “You need to go to the med bay—”

She shook her head. “I’m uninjured,” she said again simply. “I was surprised by your attack. Next time, I will be ready.”

Momentarily, Jameson looked as if he had no idea how to handle this situation. Then he quickly gained control of himself and cleared his throat. “You should head to the med bay. You hit your head pretty hard.”

Vira opened her mouth.

“Just head to the med bay,” Park thought at her. “It’s a bonus. It will get you out of here before this can get any weirder.”

She cast her gaze toward him momentarily. “Why don’t you simply use your wrist scanner to see if I have a concussion?” she suggested to Jameson.

Park twitched. She’d ignored his order.

Jameson paused, then shrugged. He brought up his wrist device, typed several things into it, waved it close to Vira, then blinked.

“As you can see, I’m fine,” she pointed out. “I am fully capable of finishing this training session. Do you wish to spar with me again?” she added as she brought her arms up, shifted one foot behind her, and took up a defensive position.

It was strong. Okay, Park knew full well she was a Spacer, but to anyone staring at Vira for the first time, they would be able to appreciate that she was highly trained in combat skills.

Maybe Jameson saw this too. He shrugged. “Very well. I apologize for hitting you so hard,” Jameson said.

“No need. An enemy would’ve hit me harder. If you can’t train for realistic scenarios, then you are not training at all,” she pointed out, and Park got the feeling she was repeating something the Admirals had told her time and time again.

… For a second, Park wondered just how hard they’d trained her. Though he wanted to believe they’d used kid gloves on her when it came to modifying her social behaviors, he could bet those gloves would’ve come off in training. She was a super weapon, after all. You couldn’t mollycoddle someone who was meant to go out there and fight the Force.

He found himself paling, if only a little.

Jameson made eye contact with her. He might have been capable of hiding his thoughts, but right then and there, his emotions shone through. It would be clear to anyone that Jameson was reassessing Vira.

Jameson shrugged his shoulders, scratched his chin, and nodded. “Very well. The training session will continue. Lieutenant, try to knock me over. It’s your turn.” He took up his own defensive position.

“It is highly unlikely that someone of my own size would be able to knock you over without the element of surprise,” she said.

“You want me to turn my back?” Jameson suggested.

“No need,” Vira commented.

Park freaked out. “No. Don’t—” he began.

He didn’t get the chance to warn her. He didn’t need to, either.

In a quick set of competent moves that displayed training but not the Spacer beneath, Vira shifted to the side, curled her shoulder, knocked it into Jameson’s shoulder, overbalanced him for a moment, looped an arm around his middle, and knocked him onto his back.

Unlike he’d done with her, she kept that arm around his back, controlling his descent, ensuring he didn’t slam into the unyielding metal floor with too much force.

Vira held him there for the precise allotted time used in regulation Academy combat training classes, then stood, took a step back, and held a hand out to him.

Jameson raised an eyebrow.

Without accepting the hand, he got to his feet.

He pulled down on his training vest. “That will be all, Lieutenant. Take up position,” he added.

She complied.

Park? He just watched.

This situation – which could have potentially turned into a nightmare – had just been salvaged. If Vira had followed Park’s advice and gone to the med bay, she would’ve been the talking point of the security team for the rest of the mission. Now? Everyone – including Jameson – had obviously changed their opinion of her. More than that, Vira hadn’t let her secret out. She looked strong, competent, and from the way she spoke, well-trained.

Park’s shoulders deflated slightly.

For the briefest moment, he got the urge to think at her and point out that she’d done a good job. He controlled that urge.

Jameson cleared his throat. “With the changing nature of the Coalition, with the changing nature of the forces lined up against us,” Jameson began, launching into a speech.

Park found himself stiffening on the word forces. It was obviously an innocent choice of words. Jameson would have no way of knowing what the Force was. His security clearance simply wouldn’t allow it. That didn’t stop Park from reacting.

He felt Vira’s gaze slip toward him.

He made eye contact with her.

Though she couldn’t send her thoughts to him, he got the impression that she was attempting to tell Park to calm down.

He wanted to snigger at that. He’d gone into this situation fearing that he would have to control Vira, and now he was the loose string.

Jameson continued. “Now more than ever, we need to ensure that the security division of every single Coalition ship is ready for the unknown,” Jameson’s voice dropped all the way down low on the word unknown. “Forces are aligning against us,” he said, again repeating the word forces. And again, it had the same gut-shaking effect on Park. “And we must be prepared to do whatever we can to bring peace to the Coalition and the other races of the Milky Way,” Jameson added.

It was unusual for anyone in the Coalition higher ups, let alone a security Commander, to talk about bringing peace to the other races of the Milky Way who were outside the dictates of the Coalition. Why bother? The Barbarians and Kor, after all, were usually vehicles of unrest and violence. They were who the Coalition fought against to bring peace, and not races who were ever destined to share that very same peace.

Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue, perhaps Jameson thought differently. And perhaps? That was something Park needed to note. Jameson had shown a little humanity during this training session, but that hadn’t tamed Park’s suspicions much.

Jameson still obviously had a secret.

“We need to be prepared,” Jameson said, and before he finished his sentence, he turned hard on his foot and attacked another random member of the security team. The guy wasn’t ready for it, and Jameson threw him to his back easily.

This time Jameson controlled the throw, and Park could tell, considering what had happened with Vira, that Jameson deliberately didn’t use his whole force.

He kept the Ensign pinned for several seconds until Jameson pulled up, offered the guy a hand, and pulled him to his feet.

Jameson spun hard on his regulation boots and continued to walk down the line. “I’ve been brought aboard the Apollo to shake up security. And I intend to do just that. Due to the changing nature of the Coalition’s never ending battle for peace, we must be prepared for attack,” he said, and in a blisteringly quick move, he pivoted on his foot and threw himself backward 2 m, attacking the Lieutenant several people down the line.

The guy had visibly relaxed, obviously thinking that Jameson would only attack people closest to him.

A mistake.

Jameson barreled into the guy’s chest and knocked him to the floor.

He held the guy down for the regulation time, then shifted up and pulled the man to his feet. “If we’re not ready,” Jameson continued, “then we’re useless. The threats that will come our way are changing,” he said flatly, “and we must be on guard every moment of every day.”

Jameson had walked several meters away from Park.

But Jameson turned and threw himself at Park.

Park was ready for it, and pivoted to the side, fully expecting to dodge the move. Just at the last moment, Jameson changed direction and managed to wrap an arm around Park’s middle.

Park’s combat skills kicked into gear, and he bucked back, planting his feet hard into the surface of the metal floor.

The two men began to grapple. Jameson was strong. Quick, too, and though Park hated to admit this – the two of them were on par.

Jameson attempted to throw Park down several times, and Park did the same, but after a few tries, Jameson broke free.

Park knew better than to continue the sparring match.

He straightened up, let his arms drop to his sides, and looked straight ahead.

Jameson offered a curt nod as he shifted backward, neatened his training vest with his hand, then turned to the group. “You must never turn it off – that part in your mind that expects attack. Because as the security division of this ship, you are in a privileged and yet terrible position. If anything happens to the crew of this vessel, it will ultimately be your responsibility. You’re not responsible for the engine. You’re not responsible for the meals getting onto the tables in the mess hall in time. You’re not responsible for piloting this vessel. But you are responsible for the crew. If you sense danger, go toward it. If the cost of saving someone else is your life, then I ask that you give it. Because ultimately, though we do not make the ships and dictate the orders, we are the force that drives the Coalition forward. Because ultimately, we are the last line of defense.”

Jameson was a good speaker – Park would admit that. But Park had gone through many chest-punching orations in his life, and they ultimately meant little to him.

Vira?

She was standing straighter. The look in her eyes was different, too.

Park’s stomach sank. The Admiral’s warning slammed into his mind – that Vira would take her orders literally. She’d been cooped up for too long, and like any good soldier, all she wanted to do was get out there and act.

“So here is my order,” Jameson continued, “each and every one of you must protect this crew. And ultimately, you must protect the Coalition. You must do whatever it takes. And you must never, never drop your guard.” Jameson spun, heading toward Vira once more.

He brought his fist up, angling it toward her jaw.

Vira dodged back.

It all happened in an instant, but that flash of time was more than long enough for Park’s stomach to do it again – to twist as if someone were tying a noose around his intestines. At the sight of Jameson trying to punch Vira, Park’s anger surged.

But again, he needn’t have worried.

Though Jameson pivoted direction quickly, showing the same seriously quick agility he had during his sparring match with Park, Vira was prepared for him.

She dodged back again just as Jameson attempted to land a kick to her knee.

“Whatever you do, don’t take him down too hard,” Park thought at her desperately.

Either she followed his thought, or she didn’t need to. Rather than attack, Vira competently dodged.

Thankfully, she didn’t float into the air, transport, or call on her subspace weapons. She simply pivoted, snapped back, and leaped to the side, showing speed that was unusual but certainly not impossible for a competently trained security officer.

Jameson kept sparring. “And here’s my final lesson, my final order,” he said as he brought his arms up in a boxing position and swiped toward her once more, “we can’t always be on the defensive. At some time, we have to attack. Peace isn’t won by building walls between us and our enemies – it’s won by breaking down our enemy’s defenses and ending the fight.”

Vira took the order literally. Park had just enough time to see her eyes. And he saw it – the cooped-up soldier.

Just as Jameson shifted direction in a blisteringly quick move and attempted to wrap his arms around Vira’s middle, she twisted out of the way. Before Jameson knew what she was doing, she was behind him. She shoved him hard in his back, set him off balance, kicked at the back of his knee, and sent him toppling.

She landed on top of him, wrapped one arm underneath his neck, locked the other on the back of his left wrist, twisted it around, pinned it against his back, and tapped his wrist device twice.

In combat training, that was the equivalent of pointing out to the loser that they were down. If this were a real fight, Vira could have used the wrist device to lock him down.

She held him for several seconds, then jumped up. She offered him a hand.

Jameson stared at her eyes for several seconds, but this time rather than getting up on his own, he accepted her hand.

She pulled him to his feet. She wobbled a little, though, and had to shore up her stance – looking exactly like someone of her size would as they were attempting to haul a heavy man like Jameson to their feet.

In other words?

Vira looked normal.

And Park? He blinked back his surprise.

That had all happened so damn quickly.

Jameson tugged down his vest several times. He nodded at Vira. “Whoever trained you did a good job,” he commented.

Park’s back stiffened. Was that a throwaway comment? Because surely every other person here had been trained by the same people that had trained Vira – the standard Academy combat teachers.

Vira snapped right back into line, holding her hands behind her back and ensuring her stance was even, her stare steady. She no longer blinked precisely every 10 seconds like a robot – it was much more natural. And as Park paid attention to her, he saw every now and then as her gaze darted and locked on the eyes of the other lieutenants and ensigns in turn.

… She was starting to model her behavior off them, wasn’t she?

Which meant she hardly needed Park’s ineloquent orders blasting through her mind, he realized with something that suspiciously felt like regret.

Jameson swiftly ended his speech and ordered the assembled security staff to spar amongst themselves.

Though Park desperately wanted to be paired with Vira, he didn’t get his wish. He was paired with an athletic, pretty damn attractive Ensign he’d seen on the transport.

If this were an ordinary situation and Park didn’t have to keep his eyes on the super weapon lest she crush someone to smithereens, he would’ve enjoyed this particular pairing. The Ensign offered him a particularly nice smile, after all. But Park barely paid attention.

He focused everything he had on Vira, twisting to stare at her whenever he could, hoping like hell she wouldn’t momentarily forget her strength and slam someone through the very floor.

… She didn’t. Again she looked competent, well-trained, but not epically strong.

Jameson strode between the sparring crew, correcting people’s techniques every now and then.

He had comments for every single member of the crew – even Park – and yet none for Vira.

Park had a reputation, for not just being the life of the party, but for being one of the best combat specialists in the Coalition. And yet, Jameson still tried to correct Park’s technique.

If Park hadn’t been sparing all of his attention for Vira, he would’ve taken offense at that. Jameson had no right to make suggestions to Park – Jameson hadn’t been able to get Park off his feet.

Park knew better than to look pissed.

He was more than thankful when the training session was finally over. It took up the entire duty shift, and though the crew could have complained that that was an unacceptable length for a sparring match, he got Jameson’s point. Or had it been Vira’s point? Because the exact way she’d phrased it had stuck in his head. It wasn’t training unless it prepared you for real battle.

Despite his skills, by the end of the eight-hour shift, Park was spent. As was the rest of the crew. Of course, except for Vira. And yet, she was making an effort to mimic everybody else’s reactions. Though she wasn’t sweating – and probably couldn’t – she attempted to stoop and slouch, though she didn’t go as far as to complain about her aching muscles. Which was wise, because as soon as some of the ensigns did it, Jameson rounded on them.

Once they were all let out of the room, everyone staggered toward the lifts.

Park caught sight of Vira’s face several times, and her expression was different. She looked calmer than she had since they’d come on board. She looked focused, too. And hey, while that could have been cause for celebration, it made his stomach sink. Because he could understand fully why she looked so focused. Jameson had given her a categorical order, essentially a blank check to do whatever she could to keep other people safe.

As soon as they were alone together, he would really need to qualify that order and remind her that the best way to keep the Coalition safe for now was to ensure nobody knew who she was.

The new security staff staggered their way toward the elevator at the end of the hall, some of them so oblivious that they didn’t see as Jameson strode up behind them.

Vira was not oblivious. And though she’d been the first toward the elevator, she swiftly turned, stood out of the way, and locked her hands behind her back, giving up her position for Jameson.

He looked at her briefly as he strode past, nodding.

Though Vira didn’t make eye contact, she nodded too.

Jameson walked into the lift, turned around, and brought his hand up, spreading his fingers wide in a move that the elevator computer would recognize as an order to pause. The doors didn’t close, and Jameson cleared his throat. “We’re going to have another session like that tomorrow. And to make up for it, some of you are going to need to go on duty right now. Any volunteers?”

Nobody volunteered.

Except for Vira.

She put up her hand.

Jameson looked at her calculatingly. Though Vira had done pretty damn well during that training session, and the assembled staff would no longer think of her as a stuff up, if she became too eager, they’d think of her as a suck-up instead. Someone who was willing to do anything to gain the favor of their commanders.

Her expression, however, was completely neutral.

Jameson narrowed his eyes for half a second, then shrugged. “Very well. Your sacrifice means the rest of the crew here can celebrate.”

“Ask politely where your shift will be,” Park thought to her.

She nodded her head. “Where will my shift be?” she asked in a competent voice.

“In the mess all.”

Though any ordinary member of crew would point out the mess hall didn’t require security, Vira snapped a salute.

As hard as it was to admit, Park had to appreciate one fact – despite the massive holes in her training, her salutes were perfect.

Jameson cleared his throat. “Aren’t you going to ask why you’re being stationed in the mess hall?”

She held her salute and let it drop. “I was waiting for your order, sir.”

Again the delivery was perfect. Jesus Christ, yesterday when Vira had boarded the ship, she’d looked like a complete stuff up. Now she was learning faster than a sophisticated artificial intelligence designed specifically to mimic people.

Park wasn’t an idiot, either – it wasn’t coming from his tutelage or his desperate warnings in her mind. She was watching the crew and adapting.

He could appreciate the irony – he was the one who was called Adaptable Park, and more than that, back in her room in the Academy he’d told her that the secret to a good mission was adapting. Well, she was leaving him in the dust.

“There have been several violent incidents on the Apollo recently. Altercations between the crew. Nothing serious. And I want to ensure it doesn’t get serious.”

Though it was usual for there to be minor altercations between any crew, considering the stresses of being in space on an enclosed vessel, Park got the feeling this was slightly more serious.

He frowned, too. Why hadn’t the Admiral pointed this out?

“Who are the crew involved?” she asked competently.

“It will be on your duty shift notes. Access them. And good luck.” With that, he straightened up and cast his glance toward the rest of the security staff. “Though you will not be on duty, in many ways, from this point forward, you will never be off-duty. If you observe a security incident, you will intervene.” Jameson swiped his hand to the left, and the lift doors finally closed.

It took only several seconds for another lift to arrive on the deck and the doors to open. Though Vira was technically first, she took a step back and nodded to the first person in line.

Crap, she looked distracted.

What the hell was she thinking?

At the revelation that the crew were fighting, was she going to secretly transport through the rest of the ship, read everybody’s minds, find the ring leaders, and deliver them to the brig by the end of her shift?

As Park freaked out, he failed to appreciate one thing. As the rest of the security staff filed past Vira, several of them smiled and said, “thank you.”

Though a few of them were obviously just saying it to be polite, one or two sounded genuine, and Vira looked surprised.

… Really? She was making friends already? The cynical part of his mind pointed out. Then he pushed that away and focused on the task at hand.

Park deliberately waited until everybody else had gone in the lifts, then he strode up to Vira’s side.

“Don’t say anything until we’re in the lift,” he thought to her.

She complied as the lift arrived and they strode in. As soon as the doors closed, he took a breath.

“Do that thing again where you slow the lift down,” he thought at her.

She shot him the kind of look he deserved – one that pointed out that only eight hours ago he’d shouted at her for doing the same.

She shrugged.

Park waited several seconds – the same amount of time it would take for a standard lift to arrive at its destination anywhere in the ship. When it didn’t, he let out a sigh. “Can we speak freely?” he thought to her. “I mean, can you block scanners in case anyone is listening in?” He had no idea why he was being so overcautious. He’d spoken to her freely on several occasions before now, but there was something about what Jameson had just said that had rattled Park.

She nodded. “I am capable of outputting an unbreakable jamming field. Even if there were listening devices in this lift – which there aren’t – they would not be able to pick up nor record anything we say.”

He let out a sigh. He brought a hand up and quickly pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he slid his gaze toward her warily.

“You’re about to chastise me for what just happened, aren’t you?” she said.

With his fingers still clamped against the bridge of his nose, he snorted. “Just the opposite. You, Vira, did good.”

She didn’t look as if she knew how to handle that comment. Confusion crumpled her brow. “Good?”

There was something so cute about the move that Park dropped his fingers from his nose and laughed. It felt good, for half a second, until he remembered all of his worries.

When she predictably looked as if she had no idea how to deal with the fact he was laughing at her, he straightened up and cleared his throat. “You acted well during that incident,” he said, sounding exactly like the competent Lieutenant he should be. “But now we need to prepare you for what comes next.”

“A standard duty shift? I’ve already accessed the notes. I comprehend my task. I will fulfill—” she began.

As Park’s hackles started to rise, he brought a hand up and spread his stiff fingers wide. This – that competent, eager look in her eyes – was exactly what he’d been worried about. He should have damn well volunteered for that duty shift. Then again, that would have left Vira alone to party with the rest of the crew, and though she was obviously getting better at mimicking them, he knew that the rough, curious Vira was underneath.

She blinked. “You are regretting the fact that I volunteered for this duty shift. I did so for two reasons. I knew it would mean I didn’t have to socialize with the rest of the crew, and I also recognized it would provide me with an opportunity.”

Park had been about to point something out, but his lips froze against his teeth. He swallowed. “What are you talking about? You can’t forget the parameters of our original mission. All we have to do is wait out the next two and a half weeks until we make it to the Expanse.”

She nodded. “Which I will do. However, it provides me with an opportunity to go through with the secondary mission you have already given me.”

His eyebrows crumpled. “Secondary mission?” He couldn’t remember ordering her to do anything but stand up straight, keep her mouth shut, and not blast through Jameson as if he were nothing more than a sheet of old human paper.

“Though you have yet to come up with a plan, loosely, you have ordered me to figure out why Commander Jameson permanently has psychic defenses in place. This will give me that opportunity.”

Park’s eyebrows descended. “I don’t see how.”

“It is my belief that Commander Jameson will come to the mess hall to observe his new recruits. He will also come to observe me,” she added easily. “And it will give me ample opportunity to observe him.”

Park shifted his jaw from side to side, considering what she’d just said.

“It will also give you an opportunity to offer him a drink,” she continued. “Though I doubt it, considering the particular quality of mental defenses he has in place, perhaps if you—”

“Draw him into the party,” Park said as an explosive grin spread across his face, “Jameson will drop his defenses, and you will be able to pry around his mind.”

Vira arched an eyebrow. “We have discussed this; I do not pry. I simply experience.”

Park kept the grin locked on his face. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is you’re right. That being said—”

She brought up a hand and spread her fingers wide. “You do not want me to make a scene or otherwise do anything to garner the suspicions of the crew. I assure you I won’t. Ever since you pointed out… that I have been awkward, I have been attempting to mimic the natural reactions of the crew around me. I believe it is working.”

Park let out another laugh. It was slow, it was short, but it released a lot of the tension that had been riding his back since this mission had begun. “You’re right on that one. You did good… again,” he added, realizing too late how awkward he sounded. He shrugged it off, literally. Then he arched his head toward the left. “You sure no one else will be able to pick up that this lift is slow?”

“Yes,” she said flatly.

If it were anyone else – hell, even if it were himself – Park would put that tone down to arrogance. With Vira? Heck, even though he was only starting to appreciate this, he was starting to trust her.

The important question was, was she starting to trust him?

They’d find out in the mess hall.

Chapter 7

Vira

Perhaps Park could be salvaged, after all. Though it was clear that he wasn’t the perfect man for this job, maybe it was starting to dawn on him how serious this was. Perhaps it was also starting to dawn on him that Vira wasn’t some useless child who’d been accidentally let out by the Admirals.

She sped the lifts back up, and several seconds later, they found themselves striding toward the mess hall.

Vira’s senses were peeled, as usual, for there was no physical way to turn them off.

Unlike a human, she could not close her eyes and eliminate visual data. It came in anyway.

Having open eyes was simply for appearances’ sake. It was the same with her hearing, her sense of touch, and the thousands of other senses that soft, biological races couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

That being said, right now, she paid more attention.

Because she’d read the notes on the duty shift log, and she didn’t like them. True, she’d never been aboard a Coalition ship before, and yet, she could appreciate that there were always likely to be skirmishes amongst the crew. But what she’d read on the notes was different.

There were rumors of weapons going missing, of people being assaulted and the victims being unwilling or incapable of pointing out the culprits.

This went way beyond skirmishes.

This felt planned.

And as soon as the duty shift was over, Vira was going to look into it. Discreetly, of course. And she may or may not tell Park.

For there was a fact that both he and Admiral Forest hadn’t fully appreciated. Though they assumed that getting to the Expanse would be predicated on controlling Vira and ensuring no one else found out about her secret on the Apollo, weren’t they forgetting that incidents could occur on the Apollo itself?

It didn’t sound impossible. Perhaps several years ago before all of the incursions by the Force had occurred, you would have assumed it was impossible. Back then, Coalition ships had been tightknit communities, all those soldiers under the one roof, sharing the same objective.

Now?

The Coalition was still healing. First, it had been the Axira incident on the Academy campus, then the Circle Trader debacle. Both had involved large-scale deep incursions into the Coalition higher ups.

And those incursions?

They hadn’t been stopped, and they hadn’t been flushed out. And current intelligence suggested that more incidents would happen.

Hell, there could be one happening right now.

Credible information suggested that some kind of security breach was looming on the horizon. Though this technically wasn’t part of Vira’s remit, if it affected the Apollo, then it affected her ride to the Expanse.

… All of this information flashed through her mind as they made it to the mess hall, and briefly, briefly she thought of pulling Park aside and sharing her suspicions with him.

She sliced her eyes toward him, and though he’d been looking somewhere else, his heart rate and blood pressure increasing no doubt in preparation for the party ahead, suddenly he darted his gaze toward her.

Though she was sure she had a completely controlled expression, obviously he could see through that.

His eyebrows flattened slightly. “What is it? I don’t like it when you get that look in your eyes,” he thought at her.

Look in her eyes? Vira knew exactly how to keep her expression completely neutral, so how the hell could Arrogant Park see all the way through to her tumultuous thoughts within?

He kept looking at her, obviously assessing her, and though he was shielding his thoughts, she could tell that he was rapidly coming to the decision to back away from the mess hall and find somewhere to talk.

They didn’t get that opportunity. As he opened his mouth, several of the ensigns and lieutenants from the transport spied him.

Their faces all shone with joy as they shooed him into the mess hall.

Instantly, Park became the life of the party, going through all the right movements, making all the right smiles. And yet, at the same time, he thought to her seriously, “If there’s an issue, you need to tell me. I can’t read your mind, Vira, but for some reason I get the impression you’re holding something back. For the love of God, just don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

She briefly made eye contact with him, and though she didn’t want to, she found herself nodding.

This seemed to relax him, but only a little. And somehow, despite the fact no one else would notice as Park quickly became the center of attention, he still kept most of his attention locked on her.

Vira took up position.

She didn’t need Park to tell her what to do. She’d since accessed the full duty shift manual for lieutenants in security detachments, and she kept the information front and center in her mind as she took up position on the far end of the mess hall. With her back to the wall and facing the rows of neatly aligned tables, packed with celebrating staff, she watched. She listened. She used every single sense she could.

If there were psychic races on board that hadn’t been vetted by the Coalition and were communicating with their minds, she would know. If there was someone with a secret communication device using shielded networks, she would know. She would not, however, be able to access the communication without finding the device, but she would still be able to sense it.

As Vira stood there, she went into full detection mode. She had to remind herself to blink, and rather than do it precisely every 10 seconds as Park had told her, she mimicked the people around her.

And she waited.

For she could tell something was coming.

Chapter 8

Park

He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Which was damn hard, because everywhere he looked there was someone offering him a drink. People were partying, and they had every right to do so. Because this would be the last proper party they would have until they went off ship for recreation in four weeks. Though the Captain of a Coalition vessel never allowed frivolities on board, that restriction was lifted when a new contingent of crew came. It was seen as a necessary bonding exercise.

And hey, on any other day, Park would’ve been happy to do that necessary bonding. Now he found it seriously difficult to navigate through all the excited ensigns and lieutenants while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on Vira.

As for Vira? She looked like a damn hawk. She’d set herself up at the back of the room with a complete view of everything going on. Her hands were clasped behind her back, her stance was even, and, fortunately, she blinked naturally.

… What was she picking up? Was she somehow simultaneously tracking the biosignatures of every single entity in the room? Just how much data could she hold in her head at once? These questions and more assaulted him from every angle. Though once upon a time the only thing that would intrigue Park about Vira was how the hell the Admirals could have allowed her to become such a child, now his curiosity burned him up from the inside.

And yet, it was a curiosity he would never be able to quench. He’d been told by Admiral Forest as much as he needed to know of Vira’s abilities, and he was not allowed to ask for more information. Though it was his responsibility to shepherd her to the Expanse and through the second moon, he did not need to know the intricacies of the Vira Project. Because after this mission was over, that would be it. He would likely never see Vira again.

That thought… distracted him. Long enough that as a Lieutenant leaned over and offered him another drink, Park simply stared right over the top of it.

The guy cleared his throat. “Kind of distracted, sir?”

Park doubled back, smiled, grabbed the drink, and wolfed down a gulp.

The party was in full swing, with old and new crew of the Apollo getting to know one another.

Vira had been wrong, though – Jameson wasn’t here.

Or at least, he stayed away for the first half hour. Then the shadow of the Commander loomed in the doorway.

Most of the other partying staff didn’t even notice. Park did, because as he watched Vira, her eyes sliced toward the door.

Sure enough, there was Jameson.

Park stiffened, but should he relax? The truth was, he just had no idea who Jameson was. One thing was for sure – he was a competent security officer. Judging by how inefficient the other new security detachment personnel were in combat training, they damn well needed a shakeup.

But Park couldn’t help feeling that there was much more to the Commander’s story.

Jameson spent several seconds in the doorway, surveying everyone, keeping a good chunk of his attention for Vira. Though she made eye contact briefly, she went back to watching the rest of the crew.

And the crew, in part, watched Vira. Park didn’t think it was because of the unusual novelty of having a security officer on duty in the mess hall. Nope, Park definitely couldn’t read minds, but he could sure as hell pick up mutters, and he heard easily as several of the new lieutenants talked about her. Some of them mentioned her pinpoint accuracy in predicting the exact arrival time of the transport, but most of them gossiped about the fact she was the stuff up. Park could’ve intervened, but he didn’t need to. Several of the people who’d been in the combat training session with him pointed out she was a hell of a combat officer.

Park understood gossip. It was a necessary part of most crews. You shove enough people of different sizes, different races, different beliefs, and different ranks in a tin can and send it through space at unbelievable speeds, and you get gossip. It’s a natural reaction to the stress of being cooped up. As long as it didn’t get out of hand, it didn’t bother him. And yet, as people talked freely of Vira, fully within earshot of the super weapon, and within thought shot, too, his back stiffened. His jaw clenched, and he left his drink completely unattended.

He wanted to turn around, grab the ensigns who were gossiping about her, and stick them in the damn brig.

He darted his gaze up and stared at Vira, knowing she would be crushed by what she was hearing, both with her ears and with her mind. But Vira was stiff, and she certainly wasn’t darting her gaze toward the gossiping ensigns.

Instead, her had was at an angle, her gaze locked straight past the primary tables to one at the far end of the room.

There was such a fixed look of concentration on her face that an electric charge of fear jolted up Park’s spine.

He tried to shift around in his chair to see where she was staring, but there were too many people in the way.

He could have ignored it and tried to get back to the party, but there was no damn way he would do that.

“Vira? What’s the matter? What are you looking at?” he thought at her, even though he knew she wouldn’t be able to reply. Heck, considering all of the rest of the mental chatter in this room, she may not even be able to discern him.

She took a step forward, for the first time pulling her back from the wall.

“Hey, you can’t be leaving already?” Edwards said as he handed Park yet another drink.

Park could barely manage a smile. “Just heading to the bathroom,” he commented.

Park deftly shifted to the side, his back still crawling with nerves.

He glanced toward the doorway, too, and Jameson was still there. He was stiff, his arms crossed, a watchful look on his face as he darted his gaze between Vira and whoever the hell was seated at the far end of the room.

Park finally darted his head to the side and realized what they were both looking at. A nervous looking Ensign who was fiddling with his wrist device.

The guy was a full Creyole, a massive warrior race. Park hadn’t seen him in the security division, and with a brief look at the guy’s collar, it was clear that was because he wasn’t from security. He was part of the scientific detachment that would be dropped off in the Expanse. Which was damn strange, considering Creyoles to a T were warriors.

Though Park would have dismissed the guy, he couldn’t. Because this was Vira. She was a lot of things, but if she thought someone was suspicious, that wouldn’t be because of some wild assumption based on inaccurate instincts. It would be because she was a bloody Spacer with access to so much incoming data, it would make a ship’s long-range scanners blush.

Park tried to put on a burst of speed, hoping to reach the Ensign just before Vira did, but Vira was competent and quick, and though the mess hall was packed and many people got in her way, she simply gracefully twisted around them, never letting her attention deviate from the Ensign.

She strode right up to his side.

She looked down at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked, tone neutral.

“Vira, what’s going on? What’s that guy doing?” Park thought desperately. Though he’d been happy that she’d been incapable of replying to his thoughts previously, now that fact goaded him. Park was never usually a man to feel fear, but tell that to his racing heart and shaking stomach as he finally reached her side.

The Ensign looked up, and for the briefest second, a flash of anger crumpled his brow. But it really was for the briefest second, and unless you’d had the specialized type of combat training that Park had gone through, you wouldn’t have noticed it.

“I repeat, what are you doing?” Vira asked.

Park had no idea what to do. Clearly this guy was up to something, or Vira wouldn’t be bothering him, but Vira was starting to make a scene, and that was the very last thing Park could let her do.

People seated at the closest tables around the Ensign started to turn around, frowning. The guy hadn’t done anything, after all. He’d just been sitting there silently playing with his wrist device.

“Hand over your wrist device. Security Ordinance 29 A,” she stated as an afterthought.

Park didn’t need to rack his brains to figure out what Security Ordinance 29 A was – it gave security officers powers to search and detain objects of suspicion anywhere on the ship. It was what you used when you suspected someone was a murderer or a traitor – not what you used on a guy who was just seated in the mess hall messing around with his wrist device.

Shit.

Everyone was looking at them now – Park could feel it.

And as for Jameson? He’d been leaning against the door, but now he straightened up.

Park cleared his throat. He was torn, completely torn in two. Vira wouldn’t be doing this for no reason, and yet at the same time he simply couldn’t allow her to make a scene. “Ah, Lieutenant, what’s going on?” he tried easily.

Vira held out her hand. She looked right at the Ensign. “Hand over your wrist device,” she said slowly.

The party had stopped. Completely. Everyone was staring.

Jesus Christ.

To them, it would look as if Vira had gone off the reservation. She had no evidence against this man.

Park cleared his throat again. “Vira,” he tried.

She kept her hand held out, and from the look in her eyes, it seemed as if she were willing to blast through the hull of the ship to get that man’s wrist device.

For the first time ever, Park became aware of the kill switch embedded in his right wrist.

Just a flick. That’s all the Admiral had said. Just a flick, and Vira would lose consciousness. She would stay unconscious until he flicked it again.

But to do that, the Admiral warned, would likely cost him Vira’s trust. It was a last-ditch failsafe, never a first port of call.

And yet, it was one Park kept thinking of as people started to mutter behind them, asking what the hell she was doing.

The Ensign looked from Park to Vira. “I haven’t done anything,” the man said.

“And yet I still have the power to seize that wrist device. Hand it over, now. And you will accompany me to the security station, and that wrist device will undergo a full forensic communication scan,” she said.

Park’s back itched. Just what the hell had this guy been doing with his wrist device? Forensic communication scan? That was the type of stuff you did when somebody had been sending and receiving blocked messages. Was this guy a spy?

Did it matter?

Unless he was the Force embodied, Park had one single remit, and that was to keep Vira’s head down. This was very much not keeping her head down – one of the more senior security lieutenants – Walker – was now heading through the mess hall toward her, and though Park kept saying he couldn’t read minds, he could bloody well tell what that guy was about to do. Clap Vira around the head and drag her off duty to remind her that she couldn’t accost the crew without evidence.

The Ensign paled. At talk of forensic communication scans, he stiffened like a rock.

Park’s back straightened and hardened, every muscle becoming rigid.

“Vira, no matter what this guy’s done, you need to back away now. You’re making too much of a scene,” Park began.

The guy finally latched his hand on his wrist device, his thumb stiffening.

Creyole’s had amazing grips. Their bodies were so powerful, that with just one squeeze that guy would be able to break the outer casing of his wrist device. It wouldn’t be enough to completely crush the tiny data chip within, but it would be a start.

Vira acted.

She shoved hard into the table, hard enough that it scooted over and slammed into the Ensign. He may have been Creyole, but the move was more than enough to knock his hand before he could crush his wrist device.

“No, Vira, wait,” Park began.

She ignored him.

She shifted around the table quickly, smoothly, gracefully, and with deadly efficiency.

She grabbed the Ensign just as he locked his hand desperately on his wrist device. She wrenched his hand off it, somehow unclipped the wrist device, and pulled it away from his wrist, all in one smooth, continuous move.

She took a step away from him and held the wrist device up.

The Ensign stared at her, shocked. It was almost as if it took him a moment to realize what had happened, a moment to appreciate that his wrist device had been taken from him.

“What the hell is going on here?” The pissed off Lieutenant Walker reached Vira. “You can’t accost members of crew,” he began. “Give me that,” he said as he snatched the wrist device off Vira.

Something appeared to snap in the Creyole’s mind. Desperation. Park saw it as it burnt away in the man’s pupils, brighter than a dying star.

The guy jumped to his feet and jerked toward Vira.

Park got there first, pivoting and ramming his shoulder into the Creyole. Park was a lot of things, and he was a talented combat officer, but for God’s sake, the Creyole was twice Park’s size. Park still managed to knock the guy off course.

The Ensign slammed against the table, upending it with his massive body. It tilted, twisted, and fell to the side, sweeping into Lieutenant Walker’s legs. The man didn’t have a chance and fell roughly onto his side.

The Creyole went for the wrist device.

Park got there first.

He managed to wrap a hand around it just as the Creyole snatched his hand over Park’s. Before the guy could crush every single bone and tendon in Park’s hand, Vira wrapped an arm around the Ensign’s middle and wrenched him to the side.

They powered into the table.

Park scrambled to his feet just as Lieutenant Walker did. The guy quite rightly looked as if he had absolutely no idea what was going on – a shocked and terrified expression that was shared with every other member of crew in the mess hall.

Park still had hold of the wrist device, and he wrapped his fingers around it protectively.

It took a moment for Lieutenant Walker to appreciate that he was one of the security chiefs, then he dashed forward and tried to help Vira restrain the Ensign.

Even though this situation was unfolding as quickly as an explosion, Park could appreciate one fact – Vira was doing an astounding job of looking competent but not incredible. She was winning the fight, but she wasn’t doing it outright with one of her subspace weapons.

Together with Walker, they both restrained the Ensign, though neither of them, technically, were strong enough to wrench him to his feet.

By now, other security personnel in the mess hall had rushed over to help. It took five grown men to pull the Creyole to his feet.

The man was wild now. All pretense of innocence was gone, his face practically cracking up with anger. “You can’t stop us. You can’t stop us,” he spat. “The end is coming. And any fool who doesn’t do everything they can to stop the harbingers of doom will help bring about the Coalition’s destruction.”

Park had seen a lot of things, been through a lot of security incidents, and heard a lot of crazy, but there was something so very unhinged about the guy’s look, and more importantly, what he was saying.

Park unavoidably paled.

Vira wisely allowed five burly members of the security team to control the Creyole as she got to her feet.

Her hair sat perfectly around her shoulders, and there was barely a rumple in her uniform, but at least she was making an effort to look out of breath.

Park locked eyes on her, and he grinned.

Vira?

She looked right over his shoulder, and she paled.

Without warning, she knocked into his shoulder, shoving him right out of the way.

It was just in time.

Somebody came up from behind, filtering in through the crowd.

Park felt something slice past his shoulder. It caught several centimeters of flesh, nicking it, sending blood splattering over his arm and over the previously clean floor by his feet.

He landed hard on his side, twisting immediately to see a man with a pin gun.

Pin guns weren’t used in sewing clothing, nor were they allowed in the Coalition. They were violent weapons. They shot tiny bolts of metal that moved so quickly, they could tear through a bulkhead.

Fortunately the pin had only nicked Park’s arm, and it hadn’t blasted through anyone else before it had slammed through the mess hall wall.

As Park had fallen, he’d lost hold of the wrist device. It was by his foot.

It all unfolded so quickly, but Park had just enough time to appreciate one fact. Vira was in direct line of sight of that pin gun, and if she threw herself forward, she would get shot. Or at least, an ordinary person would get shot. Though a pin-gun blast would tear through any soft-fleshed race, Park had absolutely no misgivings that it would bounce right off Vira. But that wasn’t the point.

“No, stay perfectly still,” Park thought as loudly as he could, bellowing the thought in his mind as if he was screaming across a valley.

Remarkably, though Vira looked as if she wanted to throw herself at the man, she stopped.

She was a meter and a half from him, and he had the gun pointed right at her chest. “Nobody move,” the man spat, voice shaking.

As Park remained there on the ground, arm bleeding over his torn uniform, he got a full look at the man. He too was a science officer judging by his collar. Or at least, that was his stated profession aboard the Apollo – because from one look at him, you could appreciate he was trained in combat. From the way he held himself, to his even expression, to his expert grip on the pin gun.

“Nobody move,” he said again, spitting out each word slowly. “And you,” he barely shifted the gun as he gestured at Vira, “pick up that wrist device. Slowly. Everyone behind and beside me, walk toward the walls. Do it now, or I put a pin right through this woman’s head.”

Though Walker was close enough to make a go for the gun, the man wasn’t an idiot. Not only were pin guns capable of shooting right through a bulkhead, they were also computerized. The guy holding it would have already locked his aim on Vira, and short of an elephant getting in the way, if he fired, the pin would find Vira and slam right through her chest. Or dodge off her Spacer form, but that wasn’t the point.

This was the very worst thing that could have happened. Though Park didn’t fear for Vira’s life, the importance of her secret slammed into him and shook him as if the Creyole had suddenly wrapped its massive hands over Park’s shoulders.

Silently, as one, all of the crew in the mess hall shifted toward the walls.

Park remained exactly where he was. It wasn’t because he was injured. It was because he needed to stop this now.

Fortunately the guy assumed he was down.

“Lieutenant Rogers, think about what you’re doing,” Lieutenant Walker said from the side of the room.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Rogers said, and there was that same tone to his voice that the Creyole had used. Unhinged. It wasn’t as quick, as angry, as desperate, but it had that same frantic quality you only ever saw with people who had gone right off the deep end.

Momentarily, Rogers looked at the Creyole. “Kill yourself,” he snapped.

The Creyole didn’t even pause. He didn’t question. He didn’t complain. His jaw twitched to the side as he obviously activated some shielded neurological implant. The man jolted and fell to his back as his eyes rolled and his jaw slackened.

He was dead before he hit the floor.

Vira twitched.

“Don’t move a muscle,” Park pleaded with Vira once more as the horror of what he’d just seen shook him to the core. That Creyole had gone through with the order to kill himself with no complaint. Worse, he’d obviously possessed a shielded, lethal neurological implant that had never been picked up by the ship’s scanners.

Vira didn’t move a muscle. But from the look in her eyes, it was obvious she wanted to tear Rogers’ apart.

“Pick up the wrist device,” Rogers said, lips snapping around each word. “Now. Make it slow,” he growled.

“Just do it. Vira, do it. And whatever you do, don’t make a go for his gun. It’s programmed to you. It will fire.”

Vira paused, and that pause was the single worst experience of Park’s life. He’d subtly shifted his left hand over to his right. He’d do it if he had to. Turn her off. He just hoped Rogers wouldn’t be stupid enough to shoot her.

“Do it,” Rogers spat.

Finally, Vira shifted. She slowly got down to one knee, wrapped her hand around the wrist device, and stood.

“Turn,” Rogers spat.

Vira turned.

“Do everything he says, Vira,” Park thought desperately.

Rogers walked right up behind Vira and pressed the pin gun to the back of her head.

Park hadn’t caught sight of Jameson since the altercation began. He was standing close to Walker, and the two men had their angry gazes fixed on Rogers.

“Now, this is what’s going to happen – we’re going to walk out of here,” Rogers said to Vira. “And no one’s going to get in our way.”

“Do exactly what he says,” Park thought again.

Park had never been more fearful in his life. He needed to end this now. Christ, he needed to end this now.

He’d been lying there, stiff, but now he tilted his head up to get a better view of what was going on.

It obviously alerted Rogers to the fact he was still there.

Rogers darted his gaze toward Park. “Don’t try anything,” he snarled.

Park slowly brought up his hands and opened them wide. In doing so, he aggravated his shoulder. Obviously the pin had done a hell of a lot more damage than Park had appreciated. Adrenaline and the sheer shock of this situation had been hiding from him the true extent of his injury.

His chest was completely covered in blood, and a small pool of it had escaped under his back.

Though he attempted to keep his hands wide, his injured shoulder chose that exact moment to buckle, and his hand fell limply against his stomach.

His head was a little woozy, too, but he never stopped facing Rogers. “Just take it easy,” Park said. “There’s not much I can do here, buddy. I’m pretty injured.”

That thought ignited something in Park.

He looked right at Rogers. “I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but if you’re looking for a hostage, take me. I’ll be a hell of a lot less trouble than she will.”

Park wasn’t being chivalrous. He was being desperate.

Rogers snorted. “Nice try, Lieutenant, but I know your service record. I’ll take my chances with the woman.”

“Then you’ve obviously never seen her fight,” came a rumbling voice from across the room.

Park had to strain his neck to appreciate it was Jameson.

Maybe there was something about that voice, because Rogers stiffened. It obviously made him reassess his judgment. He let his gaze swivel from Vira’s head back to Park.

Park tried to look as weak as he possibly could. Which, to be honest, wasn’t that hard. He’d seriously underestimated the damage that glancing blow had done him.

“Don’t you dare move a muscle,” he spat in Vira’s ear as he shifted back. He took several steps away from her, then several steps more. Without shifting his aim, he nodded down at Park. “Stand. You fall down, I shoot you and I get another hostage. Got it?”

Though Park couldn’t even move his right arm anymore, he kept his left hand held out in a placating position. “I’ve got it,” he said slowly and clearly as he hauled himself to his feet.

He was wobbly from blood loss, but there was no damn way he was going to let himself fall.

“You hand the wrist device to Lieutenant Park,” Rogers spat, obviously talking to Vira.

Without turning around, Vira held out the wrist device, her palm open.

Park shuffled up to her and grabbed it, momentarily leaning into her shoulder for support. “No matter what happens, do not do anything extraordinary to save me, got it?” he thought at her.

He couldn’t see her face.

He had no idea what she was thinking. But at least she handed over the wrist device.

Park took it and faced Rogers. “What now?” Park managed through wobbly lips.

“Now you turn around, and you follow me. As for you,” he spat at Vira, “join the rest of them on the far wall.”

Vira paused.

“Do it,” Park thought at her.

She shifted forward.

Park hadn’t calculated for this. In his head, the greatest variable to getting Vira to the Expanse had been Vira, not the crew of the Apollo. Jesus Christ, what was even going on here? And how had it happened? What was on this wrist device? And how exactly had two members of the Apollo been treasonous without anyone else noticing? How the heck had Rogers gotten the pin gun on board? What the hell was wrong with security on this ship?

Park had just enough time to think ironically that Jameson had obviously been employed for a reason, then Rogers slammed the muzzle of his pin gun against Park’s neck and growled, “Move.”

Though Park was wobbly, he walked out of the mess hall, Rogers right behind him.

He had absolutely no idea where Rogers would take him.

There was one thing Park could be thankful for, though – at least the ship wasn’t demonstrably on red alert. The klaxons weren’t blaring, and the red lighting strips along the floor hadn’t lit up to alert crew to an incident. That didn’t mean that the Captain wouldn’t know what was going on; it just meant that the man was smart enough to appreciate that the last thing Rogers needed was more stress.

Rogers never let the gun deviate as it was pressed right there against the back of Park’s skull. If the bastard ever fired, Park wouldn’t know it. The pin would blast through his brains in a nanosecond. He’d be nothing more than blood, bone, and tissue over the once pristine, clinically clean hallway.

Park wasn’t stupid enough to try to negotiate with Rogers. Park had done what he needed to – get Vira out of the line of fire. Park was also mildly comforted by the fact that if he did die – not of course that he wanted to – Admiral Forest would find out, and would presumably put a stop to this mission and take Vira back to the Academy.

In other words, no matter what happened, Vira would be safe. And for a man who was usually as self-interested as Park, that thought gave him far too much comfort.

Whoever Rogers was, he was well prepared. The exact calibration of his pin gun would allow Rogers to automatically fire should anyone be brazen enough to try to transport Park out of the firing line.

It was the perfect weapon. Which got Park thinking – just who exactly it had been meant for.

It was obvious Rogers and the Creyole hadn’t expected to be rumbled. No, their weapon and whatever secret communication they’d been engaged in had obviously been directed toward somebody else.

Who?

Park had heard the rumors that there were still factions amongst the Coalition – spies either from the Force or the Barbarians. Elements within the Coalition actively trying to destabilize it.

“Hook a right,” Rogers spat. “We’re going to head up to that panel. You’re going to use your security clearance to open it and send us to deck 20, understand?”

“I understand,” Park said automatically in a completely easy tone.

Though he’d said that, he didn’t. Deck 20? Why? He would have assumed that Rogers would try to flee the ship, and to do that, he would either have to go to the transport bay or to the hangar bay.

Park didn’t have the luxury of asking Rogers casually what the hell the asshole had planned. He reached over with his shaking, blood covered left-hand, maneuvered his fingers slowly over the panel, and was quietly glad when it took his orders.

The whole ship would be on silent alert by now, and it was a damn blessing that the Captain hadn’t decided to shut down access to every deck. It would buy Park some time.

He had no intention of dying at Rogers’ hand. There would be a way to get away, Park just needed time.

The door opened, and they both walked into the elevator.

“Turn around, slowly,” Rogers snapped, never shifting from behind Park.

Park complied, not bothering to say a word. Now was not the time for a getting-to-know-you chitchat. Rogers was on a precipice. Though he was obviously a lot better at dealing with his stress than the Creyole had been, Park could hear the lack of control poisoning Rogers’ voice like a virus to a mainframe.

The man was holding it together for now, but underneath, he was still haunted by whatever the crap the Creyole had gone on about. Harbingers of doom? The end was nigh? Though Park seriously wanted to dismiss that as the crazy ramblings of broken minds, it hit far too close to home.

… They couldn’t be meaning the Force, could they? The Force were a closely kept secret amongst the top brass of the Academy, and they would remain so until the Academy were ready to fight the Force in full.

The elevator arrived at its destination with a ping, and Rogers stiffened. Park could feel it; Park could smell it; Park could practically taste it. As Rogers’ sweat laced the air and his adrenaline pounded through him, Park attuned himself precisely to the man’s fear and stress.

Managing it would be the only way to get out of here.

As the door opened, fortunately, it didn’t lead to a security detachment. Obviously whoever was in charge of security was smart enough to appreciate that the only way to end this without any bloodshed would be to distract Rogers. And the only way to do that would be to nominally give him what he wanted.

But what exactly did he want?

“This is what’s going to happen,” Rogers spat. “We’re going to head to my office. You’re going to follow my every order. Got it?”

“Got it,” Park said, sounding like a competent recruit.

Park kept leaking blood as they walked along, but it was through sheer strength and grit alone that he didn’t allow himself to wobble. He felt nauseous, all right. He felt exactly like he’d had a glancing blow from a gun that could tear through a room full of people and right out the hull of the ship.

He held it together long enough until they reached a door into one of the scientific labs.

Park’s curiosity almost got the better of him, and he almost asked what the hell Rogers was doing. But he held his tongue, because he was about to find out.

“Lean forward and open the door,” Rogers spat.

Park complied.

The door opened.

“I’m going to stay here, and this is what’s going to happen – you’re going to stay within my line of sight. You understand? You also need to understand that if you try to get creative and duck out of the way, I have calibrated this gun to your biosignatures. It will shoot around walls. No matter where you try to hide, you will be blasted apart by this pin. Got it?”

“Got it,” Park said in that exact same even tone.

“Now, walk through the door toward the computer panel on the opposite side of the room.”

Park shifted forward. He tried to hide the wobble to his feet. Though all he wanted to do was bring up a hand and clasp it over his profusely bleeding arm, he ignored that desire as he shifted into the darkened room.

For some reason, the lights weren’t working. At his approach, they should’ve turned on, but they didn’t. And he appreciated why – though whoever was in charge of security was obviously smart enough to allow Rogers relatively unrestricted freedom to move through the ship, ultimately, they wanted to trap him. They also weren’t stupid enough to allow Rogers access to key systems.

“The lights won’t turn on,” Park pointed out. “Where’s the computer panel? And how exactly am I to use it without power?”

“Use your damn wrist device,” Rogers spat. “Turn on its light function. As for the computer panel, it’s got a backup generator. It should turn on right about now.”

There was a click and a buzz, and something lit up on the far end of the room.

Park tried to activate the light on his wrist device, but his right arm was essentially useless, his fingers throbbing with such pressure it felt as if they would explode.

“I can’t move my right hand,” he managed.

“Then use your damn nose. Turn on the lighting function and head toward the console on the far end of the room, and do it now,” Rogers screamed, his voice bellowing down the corridor.

It was finicky to use his goddamn nose to turn on the lighting function, but Park managed it, cleaning his wrist device of blood over the one patch of his uniform that was still dry.

He was still holding the Creyole’s wrist device in his left hand, and despite the inherent weakness charging through the rest of his body, Park’s grip was fast. He wanted to know what the hell was on this thing.

Now Vira’s secret was nominally safe, Park had to find out what was going on here. For the Coalition. Hell, for himself. He’d been shot by this asshole, and Park really wanted the man to go down for the rest of his life.

Park shifted forward, spying the console on the opposite side of the room.

He reached it.

He never allowed himself to get a full sense of security. Though he could no longer feel Rogers’ harsh breath against the back of his neck, that did not mean Park was safe. Rogers hadn’t been lying – no matter where Park moved in this room, the blast from that pin gun would reach him.

“Wipe the computer’s cores. Do it thoroughly. I can see you from here. If you—” Rogers began.

“I will wipe the cores,” Park said.

With only one working hand, Park had to reluctantly let go of the Creyole’s wrist device as he settled it on the console beside him.

Then he got to the task of wiping the computer.

He hoped like hell that there was a backup somewhere – that the security team were keeping a continuous scan lock on this deck and knew exactly what he was doing. But that was a gamble. Because this Rogers had obviously been prepared for anything. Park really doubted whatever secret communications were on this computer were stored in one of the standard hardware petitions. They would be shielded, encrypted, and presumably, prevented from remote backup.

Still, Park lived in hope as he settled his fingers over the console and went through the movements of deleting the information. Though he had the overwhelming temptation to access the data to find out who the hell Rogers was and, more importantly, who he was working for, Park resisted the urge.

Rogers could see Park and would know exactly what he was doing.

So Park did it – deleted the information.

“Is it done?” Rogers spat. “Lie, and I’ll put a pin right through the back of your head.”

“It’s done,” Park said. Park didn’t take the time to point out that it was highly unlikely that Rogers would shoot Park. After all, if he murdered Park, Rogers would no longer have a hostage, and if he didn’t have a hostage, the security team would sweep in.

Or at least, that would be the case if this were an ordinary situation and Rogers were an ordinary spy. He had a pin gun, for God’s sake – who knew what other weaponry he had on him? Worse, who knew what unrestricted access he’d had to the Apollo’s systems before this incident had occurred? He could have done anything, set any booby-trap up to harm the rest of the crew.

No, for now, Park had to treat Rogers as an incalculable threat.

“Come back,” Rogers spat.

Park complied, turning on his feet, resisting the urge to fall down as weakness wobbled through his muscles.

He walked toward Rogers.

Though technically the security team could’ve remotely shut the door and protected Park from Rogers, it wouldn’t work like that. With the lock that Rogers’ gun had on Park, it would be able to easily shoot through the door, let alone any security shields that flickered into place. There was a reason pin guns were banned, after all.

Park had picked up the Creyole’s wrist device, and once again he held it protectively in his hand.

Rogers’ gaze darted down toward it. This was the first time Park had faced him since the mess hall. Though technically the guy’s expression was a heck of a lot more controlled than the Creyole’s had been, there was still that unstable quality behind his gaze. A quality that reminded Park of someone whose mind had been completely torn apart by suspicion, paranoia, and fervor.

“Come here,” Rogers motioned toward himself, “turn and stop.”

Park did as he was told. Rogers snapped back into place, pressing the muzzle of his pin gun against Park’s head once more. The move was hard, and if this ended without Park’s brains being scattered over the deck, then he would have a heck of a bruise along the base of his skull.

Though Park wanted to facetiously ask, “where to now, skip?” he held his tongue.

Rogers shifted around, possibly checking something on his wrist device, probably the blueprint of the Apollo.

He muttered something under his breath, and Park just caught it: “two corridors down.”

Two corridors down? Though Park had just boarded the Apollo several days ago, he’d already completely memorized the blueprint – despite the fact the Apollo was a large heavy cruiser and was a hodgepodge of rooms and corridors, laboratories and storage rooms.

Two doors down would lead to an outer maintenance airlock.

What the hell was Rogers planning?

Did this conspiracy run so deep that he somehow had a hidden ship waiting for him outside the airlock?

“Move,” Rogers growled. There was a final kind of note to it, and it got the skin along the back of Park’s neck tingling as if someone were trying to slice through it with a light scalpel.

There was one fact Park hadn’t appreciated until now – what if Rogers had the ability to harm the whole crew, the whole ship? What if he had an ace up his sleeve large enough to scuttle the Apollo or blow it apart completely?

Though Park’s mission was to keep Vira safe, he couldn’t allow the Apollo to go down. But what could he do?

For the first time in his life, Adaptable Park was staring down the barrel of a gun, literally, and he had nowhere to go.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t have anyone to rely on.

Chapter 9

Vira

She was walking alongside the main corridor of Deck 20.

The deck had already been evacuated.

She kept walking through objects and shifting through walls as she maintained equidistance between Rogers and Park in the corridor outside.

She had no intention of allowing Rogers to leave the ship and even less of an intention of allowing him to kill Park.

If Rogers fired, despite the sophisticated nature of his pin gun and the computational lock it had on Park as a target, she would get there first. She could transport faster than a standard Coalition computer. She would wrench Park out of the way, and she would end this.

But for now, she would wait.

She kept striding along, matching pace with Rogers outside. Even through the thick walls of this room, she could hear Rogers’ every breath, count his every footstep.

She reached a wall and walked straight through it.

She had no fear that the security sensors which were locked on this deck would pick her up. She was shielding herself from them.

As soon as Rogers and Park had left the mess hall, Jameson had gathered his security personnel and set to work on a plan to end this altercation.

But Vira hadn’t been part of that plan. Despite the fact she demonstrably had no injury, Jameson had looked her right in the eye and told her to head to the med bay.

There’d been something about the look in his eye, too. Though he hadn’t let his mental defenses drop at that moment, she… there’d just been something there.

But it was a thought Vira pushed away for now. She locked her every sense on Park. He was weak. She could feel it. He was losing blood with every second, and though the tenacious man was holding on, there was a limit to how much his fragile human body could take.

For some reason, that made Vira’s insides twist.

There was one lesson the Admirals had never let her forget – don’t get angry. She could never get angry. Efficient, yes, calculating, absolutely – but never angry. Never allow herself to feel, because feelings would get in the way of executing orders.

But the Admirals were far away, and there was no one to stop her as she curled one hand into a fist.

She walked right through a container of lab equipment, reached another wall, and strode through the metal.

Her head was tilted to the side, her hands still clutched into fists as she focused on Park and Rogers beyond.

She could only pick up Rogers’ thoughts in bursts. He was mentally defending himself. As had the Creyole. That was what had first alerted her to him in the mess hall. But the Creyole had not been particularly good at protecting his mind, and she’d seen through long enough to appreciate he was hiding something.

She didn’t know what, she didn’t know from whom, but from the emotional tone of his thoughts, she had appreciated one thing – it’d been a secret large enough to threaten the entire crew and possibly the stability of the Coalition as a whole.

As Vira strode easily through another wall, she completely forgot about her original mission in the Expanse. This, right here, was far more important.

Rogers finally stopped.

Vira didn’t need to rack her brain to figure out where he was. Not only could she remotely and secretly access the blueprint of the Apollo, but she already had a mental layout of the ship. It would be necessary for efficient transportation within it.

Rogers stopped in front of a maintenance airlock.

Though Vira could technically end this right now, she had to find out what Rogers’ was planning. Though he kept his mental defenses in place, from the dread and import of his emotions, it was clear he had something big planned. If it was something that could affect the whole crew and ship, Vira needed to find out what that was. If the man had been able to get a pin gun on board – and the Apollo’s lax security hadn’t stopped him – then he could easily have a much more dangerous weapon shielded somewhere. Vira would no doubt be able to find it given time, but the one thing she didn’t have now was time.

Vira paused, and then she transported. Not into the airlock, mind you, but into the maintenance hatch right beside it.

She appeared half in the wall, half in the squat tunnel.

To other Spacers, they had to be careful where they transported. But Vira? She was other. It allowed her to transport through and into matter virtually without restriction.

She didn’t bother to crouch down. With her head still in a metal bulkhead, she locked her senses on Rogers.

She also scanned the airlock.

She could appreciate that there was a sophisticated set of long-range space armor within it. There was also some kind of transportation device. She couldn’t fully access it from here, and it was clear it was utilizing unknown technology to shield itself. But she could appreciate its base function. She could also appreciate that Rogers would be able to use it to transport right off the ship.

Whoever Rogers was, he had access to weaponry and technology he should not.

He was a threat.

And it was time she dealt with him.

As she waited for her chance, she kept half of her attention locked on the security scanners and the constant influx of information being communicated through the ship.

The first second she’d gotten on board, she’d paired herself remotely with the communications system of the Apollo. It meant she would be able to access any communications lines, even the Captain’s own channel. It did not, however, mean she had been able to access the Creyole’s wrist device and whatever shadow communications he was sending off ship. He was utilizing a shielded bandwidth. And until she got access to that wrist device, she would not be able to pair with it.

But her access to the Apollo’s communications system was enough to appreciate one fact.

Though, on the face of it, it appeared that the Apollo’s security staff had decided not to get into Rogers’ way, that was simply an appearance.

She felt a specific charge in the air as a transport beam shot through the floor of the deck and transported five people into the room beside the airlock.

Though she could sense the transport beam, she had no idea who was being transported, and that information was not on the Apollo’s security systems. And yet, she felt she instinctively knew. Which was a mistake, for that was another lesson that the Admirals had always hammered home – Vira was never to rely on her instincts.

Her senses, yes. The constant, continuous, never stoppable stream of battle data – absolutely. But not instinct.

Park? He relied on instinct. And that was one of the reasons she’d taken such a disliking to him. Arrogant Park had such a reputation for going with what his gut felt, not necessarily what his mind dictated. And though she judged him for it, right now she went with her own instinct.

She knew Jameson was on that team who’d just transported into the room beside the airlock.

So she had to end this now.

Vira got ready. She clenched both hands into fists and shifted toward the wall.

Chapter 10

Park

Park’s gut was going wild, warning him with everything it had that he’d underestimated Rogers.

They’d entered into the airlock, and now there was nothing but a massive, shielded, huge door between them and space beyond.

He didn’t know what the security team were planning, but he could bet that they weren’t about to let Rogers just open an airlock.

The effects of blood loss were starting to hit Park like a cruiser at maximum speed.

He was propped against the wall, blood still slicking down his arm. The effects of the specific injury that the pin gun had given him meant that there was no way his blood could clot until he received medical attention. And second by second, that was becoming all the more urgent.

Rogers was smart enough not to allow Park to get out of eyesight.

He’d forced Park to lean against the airlock out into space.

Rogers’ expression changed, somehow becoming even more frantic, his brow crumpled, his eyes wide.

He’d snatched the wrist device off Park, and Rogers was turning it over, doing something as beads of sweat lined Rogers’ brow.

If Park were anyone else, maybe he would take the opportunity to point out to Rogers that there was no way the man was going to get off the ship. The problem was, Park’s gut told him Rogers was going to get off the ship just fine.

The question was, would he take everyone else with him?

“Doing this for the Coalition,” Rogers suddenly said, for the first time volunteering information that wasn’t along the lines of, “stand up, shut up, and do as I say.”

Park’s brow clunked down. “What are you talking about?”

Rogers looked up suddenly, almost as if he’d been speaking to himself and hadn’t expected Park to answer. “The end,” Rogers added.

Park’s stomach shifted. “What?”

“The end the Admirals,” he spat, “are allowing to plow down on us. The end that is coming from every direction. The end that is seeping through the cracks in our security. The end that has been foretold for hundreds of thousands of years. The end that the Force will bring,” he added.

Park couldn’t control his expression. He just hoped that the exact pale hue to his cheeks was hidden by blood loss. “The Force?” he asked innocently.

Rogers clenched his teeth and shook his head. “Don’t move,” he went back to saying as he leveled the gun at Park.

Rogers shifted to the side and started rapping his hand on an apparently innocent looking section of wall plating.

Before Park could wonder if Rogers had completely lost his mind, the wall plating popped off with a pneumatic hiss.

Rogers made no attempt to catch the plating as it tumbled and clanged against the metal floor.

It revealed a hollowed-out section of the bulkhead, and inside was a metal box.

Park knew what it was as soon as Rogers reached inside, grabbed the box, pulled it out, and let it fall to his feet.

Armor. Space armor – long-range if Park was any guess.

Seriously sophisticated stuff.

Rogers wasn’t being careless as he allowed the armor box to clang onto the floor by his feet. He was activating it. And in a second, it started to open, the metal shifting out like the petals of a flower. Then, with a metal clang and a snap, it reached out, grabbed hold of Rogers’ ankle, and started to climb up his body.

Within several seconds, it had manufactured a full set of long-range armor.

Park’s original assessment had been correct, too – this armor was sophisticated.

Was that Rogers’ plan? To head out into space?

He would need more.

He had more.

The armor had been smart enough to grow over Rogers’ hand without jeopardizing his grip on his gun. Now it was in place, it would also give Rogers the advantage of being able to completely shift his attention while keeping his aim on Park. The armor, after all, could pair to the gun and fire whenever Rogers needed.

Rogers reached a hand into that same hollowed-out section of wall and brought something out.

It was a large box, and even though it was relatively nondescript, Park’s stomach sank.

His gut told him it was a heck of a lot more than a chunk of metal. Sure enough, as Rogers brought it around and slammed it over his arm, it shifted, encasing his arm in a second.

It revealed a sophisticated screen which Rogers typed two things into.

Then he took a step back and faced Park. “Sorry, Lieutenant. I read your record; you’re a good man. If we’d had the time, we would have invited you to join the cause. But there’s no time. And unfortunately, considering the entire galaxy is on the line, you will have to make the final sacrifice.”

Park swallowed. “You say this is for the whole galaxy. Then save the ship. Take me, but save the ship.”

“I’ll only take this deck with me,” Rogers answered.

Park’s stomach sank. His heart practically broke.

Rogers spread his hand wide and shifted it to the side.

Park felt something move behind him, and he jerked back just in time to see something appear over the door.

It had been hidden by a sophisticated hologram.

And what was it?

A massive bomb. One with a high enough yield to take out the whole deck.

Park jerked away.

Rogers brought his hand up. He settled it over the large device that had grown around his wrist.

He saw Park staring at it.

“A transporter. One more than strong enough to get me off this ship and to safety. Lieutenant,” Rogers actually snapped a salute, “the galaxy will thank you for making the final sacrifice.”

Rogers brought his hand down. At the same time, the bomb behind Park activated, the entire door vibrating as the thing armed.

He had seconds.

Seconds to live.

This would be Park’s end.

Rogers’ finger reached toward his transporter. He didn’t get the chance to press it.

Something emerged from the wall.

In a flash. In a spark. In a goddamn blast of divine intervention.

Vira.

She reached forward and clamped her cast-iron grip over Rogers’ hand, holding it in place. “Park will not make the final sacrifice today,” she said.

And Vira, the Spacer, wrenched the transport device off Rogers’ wrist.

Park had just a moment for his heart to open, for relief to wash through him. Then the bomb behind him vibrated.

They were not out of trouble yet.

The end of Vira Episode One. This series is complete, and you can purchase all four episodes today.


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