War Begins Book One

War Begins Book One

Prologue

Colony Outpost Baxan A

“We’re getting closer every day,” Professor William Ray said as he leaned in and clapped a warm hand on Bethany’s shoulder.

His wife smiled up at him. There were many things Bethany was good at, but smiling came naturally to her. As her lips curled and pushed toward her eyes, she seemed to bring light into the world. And considering the massive hovering dig lights that illuminated this site had malfunctioned yet again, William could use all the light he could get.

“Where’s Diana?” He turned his attention over his shoulder as he set his speckled amber eyes sweeping over the dig site. It was massive. A vast underground operation, it had easily absorbed the past five years of his life. This chamber alone, even considering current technology, had taken two years to dig out.

And there was more to come. Briefly pausing his search for his daughter, he cast his gaze to the left and up. It rested on the primary wall and the motif carved across the thick, granular gray stone. As one of the few fully functional remaining dig lights hovered into view and cast its illumination over the wall, he caught sight of those symbols. As shadows danced along their long, intricately carved surfaces, a shiver raced up his back and snatched hold of his heart.

Though it could’ve been easy to tell himself it was just expectation and pure exhilaration at the fact his life’s work was finally coming to fruition, buried deep in his gut was a grain of doubt. It had been with him since he’d set foot on this outpost five years ago, and though he kept a handle on it most days, occasionally it would flare.

He tugged his attention firmly off the wall, setting aside his academic curiosity for his paternal instincts. Using a sharp gaze, he finally spied his daughter on the far side of the cavern. She sat ensconced behind two stacked crates displaying the Coalition Army insignia. Though the Army weren’t funding this dig, he’d managed to procure old equipment. It was a heck of a lot more reliable than the reused, practically stitched together gear you got on these colony outposts.

He kept a hand over his mouth, ensuring his voice would carry, knowing that despite this cavernous room, it could muffle sound somehow. “Diana, what are you doing?”

It took a few seconds for his daughter to respond. She had a dented datapad in her hand, and she was playing with something in the dust. She pushed up, tilted her head toward him, and managed a wave.

He copied the wave, turned his hand around, and pointed at the ground.

Diana turned back, and though she was far away, he could see the side of her face clearly with his ocular implant. He’d lost one of his eyes during an explosion years ago on a colony outpost even more remote than this one. Without the capacity to regrow one, he’d self-made an implant, and though he could ditch it for the real thing now, he’d always opted to keep it.

His mantra – which happened to be his mother’s mantra, and her father’s mantra, and the mantra of the Ray family going back centuries – was that you grew with your faults. You did not remove them. You could never tell what was a blessing in disguise – only time could.

As William focused his ocular implant on his daughter, he saw the side of her lips moving as if she was talking to someone.

Bethany might not have implants, but she had great instincts, and she took a worried step up to his side. “What?”

“It seems our daughter still has her imaginary friends,” he said with a disappointed sigh.

“It’s okay. It’s just a stage.” Bethany reached a hand up and patted it tenderly on his shoulder.

He looked down, but he couldn’t hide the glum frown stretching his lips thin. “She’s not a toddler anymore. She’s eight years old. It’s too old for imaginary friends.”

She chuckled. “I thought your mantra was that you grow with your faults?”

“Imaginary friends aren’t like fake eyes.” He brought up a hand and tapped the side of his face, indicating his implant. “I’m just worried about her, that’s all.”

Bethany shrugged. As she turned her attention over to Diana, and they both watched their child extricate herself from behind those crates, he saw the subdued worry paling Bethany’s cheeks. She might put on a brave face, but she was anxious too.

Diana, for all her childlike brilliance, tended to believe in things that weren’t there….

Diana raced up and reached them, opening her arms as a broad smile spread her cupid-bow lips.

William leaned onto his knee, opened his large hands wide, and scooped her up.

Diana laughed, her jet-black hair with a hint of indigo tumbling around her face like a sheet of water. “I was just playing.”

“I saw.” He paused, wondering if he should mention that he’d seen her talking to someone.

Bethany cleared her throat. “It’s time for dinner,” she said definitively. “A cargo ship is about to port. I’m sure they’re going to have the rations we asked for. Which means I can finally make your favorite…. Diana?”

Diana, seemingly ignoring her mother, locked her attention on the back wall of the dig site. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that, and it wouldn’t be the last. Several times a day at least, she’d get trapped by that wall as if something had reached from it, grabbed her chin, and held her eyes in place.

That grain of worry William was so used to burying rose, climbing up his belly, marching up his back, and sinking into his hindbrain until a shiver raced through his limbs. He arched his shoulder around until he blocked the wall from view.

Diana just clamped one of her small hands on his arm and twisted to move past him.

He got in the way again. He also made eye contact with Bethany. She made no attempt to hide her worry anymore.

Despite the fact William had devoted his whole life to this dig, he’d started to have conversations with Bethany. Conversations about giving it a break. Or at least sending Diana back to live with his parents for a few months. Maybe if she had a chance to interact with more kids of her own age, she wouldn’t be so….

“You can put me down,” Diana said as she tried to wriggle free.

“Oh, I can, can I?” he said playfully.

“I am eight years old. I’ve heard you two talking. Eight years old is too old for you to continually scoop me up in your arms.”

Confronted, he tried to control his expression as he put her down. “Diana—”

Before he could start a serious conversation, she tilted around him and stared with fixed attention at the wall. Her gaze moved as if she was looking at something that was moving too. Which was impossible. The hover lights had shifted, and there was no direct illumination falling on the mural anymore. It was as still as a mountain. And yet his dear child’s eyes jerked from left to right as if she was somehow tracking an army through it.

A shiver raced up his back, and this time, he made no attempt to hide it. He took a step in front of her, completely blocking her view as he settled a hand on her shoulder. “Diana, your mother and I have been talking.”

She didn’t look up at him. “You want to send me away. You don’t like the fact that I talk to people you can’t see. You don’t like the fact that I still have stuffed toys and I treat them like they’re alive. You don’t like the fact I still play in the dirt. And you don’t want to have to scoop me off my feet anymore.”

Every revelation was like a blow, and he swallowed hard. “We don’t want to have to send you away. But—”

“Your father and I are a little worried that you’re not interacting with kids your own age.” Bethany leaned down, her hands on her knees as she too blocked their daughter’s view of the wall.

“Why would I want to do that?” Diana asked.

“Because there’s so much you can learn,” he tried with a smile.

Diana took a quick step to his side, looped a hand through his, and turned him around until the next thing he knew, they were both staring at the wall again. “People don’t have that much to teach me. That does.” She pointed at the wall, her finger straight and proud. “You always said the most important knowledge is from the past. And you’re right.”

Bethany took a deep sigh.

William half closed his eyes. “I did say that, didn’t I? But I’m wrong. The knowledge you can gain from the past is only one half of the equation. You must use your knowledge to benefit others. But you can only benefit others if you know who they are.”

She finally tore her gaze off the wall and locked it on him. “Why do you need to know who they are? To benefit them, all you have to do is keep them safe.”

“You can’t save people you don’t know. Now come on. Dinner is waiting.” Though he could have pushed, and though maybe this was the best time to force this conversation, he wanted to get Diana away from the wall.

Bethany was right. It was time for her to leave this outpost and discover just how large the world was beyond these four walls.

It was just when Bethany took a step to Diana’s side and rested a hand affectionately on her daughter’s head that an alarm cut through the dig site. Sharp and loud, it shook up from the ground and blared with the force of a thousand bells.

Bethany protectively shrugged toward her daughter, clamping an arm all the way around Diana’s shoulders. “What the hell is that? The red alert?”

Yes. But there was a second alarm blaring between it. William’s cheeks paled, all the blood pumping out of his face until it felt like someone had garroted him. “Invader alarm. Get Diana out of here!”

“What?” Bethany skidded down, using her large, athletic form to grab Diana up. Diana might’ve been eight, but she’d always been a preciously small girl.

As blood pounded through William’s head, thrumming in his ears until it felt as if he’d swallowed an exploding generator, he yanked up his hand and accessed his wristwatch. It was also Coalition issue. He hadn’t had to haggle for this one, though. It had been a gift from his long-term friend, Captain Fenton.

William’s fingers, slicked with sweat, dashed across the interactive device as he accessed the communication unit housed in the primary accommodation block above ground.

At least he tried to. He could get a signal out, but nothing replied.

Bethany, carrying Diana close, sprinted toward the set of stairs that would lead up to the airlock and the elevators.

“No,” William roared, his voice so strong, it croaked and rattled. “Not that way. Above ground has been overrun – comms is down. Take her back through the tunnels. Now, now—”

Bethany had a chance to turn to him. He watched as her eyes pulsed wide, as primal, maternal fear spun through her. Then something else spun into her, cutting his wife down right before his eyes.

A blast shot through the dig site primary door, collecting a chunk of it and sending it hurtling down toward his wife. William didn’t have the chance to say anything more to her. It sliced across her back, an arc of blood splashing over the floor and Diana’s face.

“Bethany!” The shout was torn from his throat as his heart was ripped from his chest. He staggered forward as his wife fell on top of Diana.

Diana’s shrieks echoed through the room, loud enough to compete with the blaring alarm.

He reached Bethany. He shunted down to his knees, not caring that they grated over a still smoldering chunk of metal. It ripped his sturdy pants and burnt his flesh, but nothing could stop him from tenderly pulling his wife’s dead body off his daughter and cradling her in his arms.

Diana shrieked in his ear, tears melting over her face as if they were acid that had eaten away her cheeks. She shoved a hand toward her mother, grabbing a handful of Bethany’s glorious, sleek jet-black locks.

William couldn’t linger. Not even for one last goodbye. He rocketed to his feet, his eyes pulsing wide as he locked them on the mangled dig site door.

This dig wasn’t dangerous, but William had always been a cautious man. Especially on outposts like this. Though this particular colony had been nothing but safe ever since he’d arrived here five years ago, a man like William Ray would never be able to shirk off his past. Being an archaeologist who specialized in managing digs in the furthest reaches of space, a healthy dose of fear was baked into his personality. One of the reasons this operation had taken so long was that William had been meticulous in building the shafts down to this site, lining the primary corridors, shipping in airlock doors that were heavy-cruiser grade, and basically ensuring that short of a Barbarian raiding party, no one would be able to blast their way down here.

But someone had. Because it was a Barbarian raiding party. William confirmed that as he stared over his shoulder at the primary door. One enormous Mascar warrior ducked his head through the mangled remains of the still burning-hot metal. As soon as the massive alien came into view, realization struck William like a blow through his heart.

He was going to die. Everyone on this goddamn outpost was going to die, even if anyone was still alive above ground.

But he would not let his daughter be one of those casualties, no matter what it cost.

Using speed he hadn’t used for years, William flung himself forward and pushed into a roll. He somehow managed to cradle his daughter’s head, protecting her fragile skull from the unyielding stone as their bodies tumbled over it. A hot, spinning blast of red pulsating energy slammed into the patch of ground where he’d been standing. It was so powerful, it didn’t just eat into the stone – it obliterated it, dust, gas, and goddamn burning chunks of rock scattering up in a devastating halo. Pieces of them landed on his back, shoulders, and the side of his face. They were like kisses from Hell itself. They didn’t just cauterize his skin – one chunk that scattered over his earlobe burnt right through it.

William couldn’t feel the pain, though. He couldn’t afford to. He pulsed to his feet and shot forward.

Out in the corridors beyond the primary site, he heard screams. All of them he recognized because all of them came from his team. The Barbarian warriors leading the raiding party didn’t make a sound apart from the occasional harsh, brutal chuckle as they mowed down another innocent.

Diana wouldn’t stop crying or screaming. She kept trying to wriggle free from his grasp to get back to Bethany. He didn’t have the time to lock a hand on the back of his daughter’s head and coo in her ear. He couldn’t afford to waste a single breath as he concentrated on navigating through the room. Barbarian blasts shot through it, lighting up his equipment and sending writhing shadows dancing over the mural as if the stone had come to life.

With a grunt from behind him, William heard that Mascar warrior bypass the stairs as he jumped 50 meters down to the base of the site. The brute landed with such a heavy thump, William could feel the shake as if a mini earthquake had gone off behind him.

Out in the rest of the dig, William heard more screams. They became higher pitched, and for the first time, he swore he heard the heavy, grating calls of the Barbarians.

A wave of intuition washed over his back, and William tried to dodge to the left, but just at the last moment, one of his heavy boots snagged against a chunk of stone, and he found his body deviating to the right.

Before total fear could pulse through him, warning him that this was the end, his own daughter latched her hands on his collar and yanked him to the side. It was just in time, and a pulsating red shot sliced past his face, close enough to sear and bubble the flesh but not rip it from his bone.

William heard more screams, and they were even more desperate now. They arced high into a chaotic cacophony like an orchestra that had just been set upon by lions. If fear hadn’t already been shuddering through his body with all the power of one of those spinning blasts that kept shooting around him, it would’ve snagged hold of his heart and obliterated it with a single squeeze. Because there was something primal about them – something bone-numbingly terrifying about those screams. It wasn’t just his team being killed by the Barbarians. It was—

The Mascar warrior reached him. William had a chance to open his arms, to throw his daughter forward, but that was it. The next thing he knew, a massive, armor-clad arm sliced down against his throat with all the power of a sword. He was wrenched back, and the breath was pushed from his lungs with all the effectiveness of somebody slamming a bat into his stomach.

He was just aware enough of his daughter to watch her fall onto the floor by his feet, to watch her eyes widen until they could drop out of her head as she screamed his name desperately.

Somehow, some precious how, William managed to force enough air into his lungs to whisper, “Run. Now. Diana, run.”

As the tears ate away at her face, she stayed by his feet and stretched a hand toward his. Fighting the Barbarian all the way as the bastard tried to choke him in front of his child, William brought up his foot and tried to kick Diana away, tried to do anything to force her to run while she still had the chance.

He wasn’t given that opportunity. The Mascar wrenched him off his feet until William dangled there like a carcass about to be strung up by a butcher.

Diana screamed. And she screamed. And she screamed.

Just as blackness swamped in from all sides, invading William’s vision like a virus decimating some poor soul, he heard scattering footfall behind him. Something struck the Mascar. The alien warrior’s fatal grip of William’s throat slackened, but the damage was done. Stars swarmed over William’s eyes as if every constellation had been crammed into his skull. He fell to his knees, the Mascar dropping him with a grunt.

William couldn’t turn around. He was only just holding onto his consciousness and his life. The only way he could see what was behind him was through his daughter’s reflective eyes. His implant was still functioning, and it narrowed in on the reflection in her large violet irises.

There was something behind the Mascar, something that had grabbed the alien by the holster on the back of his armor.

William tried to reach a hand toward his daughter, tried to whisper for her to run once more, but he couldn’t move his lips. All he could do was fall down onto his face and struggle to keep one eye open as it locked on the reflections in her deep eyes.

There was the sound of something being choked to death behind him. Terrifying guttural splutters echoed through the room, cutting through the sound of the continually blaring alarm.

“Run… Diana…” he tried, an entirely new level of fear slamming into him as he felt his life trickling through his fingers.

There was a thump as the Mascar warrior dropped to his side, dead. Then footfall. Edgy, rattling, unsteady – it sounded like the scuffling of a spider not the footsteps of a man.

As William’s body shut down, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He expected it to be another Barbarian warrior. Though whatever it was had just killed the Mascar, that didn’t mean anything. To the Barbarians, loyalty could and would be superseded. Aggression and the rule of the strong over the weak were the only things that really counted.

Yet as something staggered into view, the last of William’s struggling senses confirmed it was no Barbarian warrior. It was one of the young undergrads the Archaeology Institute had sent for work experience – James Ventura.

William didn’t have the opportunity to process his hope. He wasn’t even given a single second to believe that James had somehow overpowered the Barbarians. Diana started screaming, and she wouldn’t stop.

James took a struggling, shuffling step forward, and William looked up to see that the man had a blast hole in his middle that stretched from his sternum right down to his hips. His torso barely connected to his legs anymore, and blood covered his body like dribbling tattoos. There was no way the man should be moving, yet he took another shuffling step. He reached a hand toward Diana.

As that hand came into view, cutting across William’s vision, he caught sight of James’ wrist. It was black. But the skin wasn’t charred. It was encased in some strange, incomprehensible writhing mass of black energy. As William’s mind struggled to understand what he was seeing and struggled to push back the waiting arms of death, he saw a stone bracelet clamped around James’ wrist and instantly recognized it was something they’d uncovered in the secondary dig site this morning.

William couldn’t ask what was happening. All he could do was watch as James pushed that infected hand toward his trembling daughter.

William tried – tried with all his goddamn might – to find the strength in his body to push up and push his daughter away, but he couldn’t move. His body shut down from underneath him like a machine slowly ripping out its own memory banks.

His impending death did nothing for his fear and only ignited it further. Though William had no idea what was happening and how James could be moving despite his injuries, William instinctively knew with knowledge from beyond himself that if James touched Diana with that hand, she’d die.

James opened his mouth wide, the move disjointed, saliva and slicks of blood covering his teeth and dripping down his lips as a hollow scream echoed from his gravelly throat. His fingers widened, snapping apart so far, they could have dislocated, and they shot toward Diana’s throat.

There was nothing Diana could do as James’ blood-covered, seething black hand clutched the bare flesh of Diana’s neck.

William roared. Just as James wrenched his daughter into the air and Diana’s legs dangled like cut strings, William tore every last scrap of energy from every last muscle. He shot to his feet, locked an arm around James’ throat, and pulled the bastard back.

The second William’s bare flesh touched James, something shot from James’ cold, stiff body into William.

Desperation. Anger. Fear. Violent, uncontrolled, purely destructive emotion. There was no other way to describe it, especially for William’s rapidly dimming mind.

He was only vaguely aware of the fact that his daughter had fallen beside him. He was only barely aware of the fact he was standing despite feeling as though he was already dead on the inside.

More screams echoed out from the rest of the dig site, primal, violent, pulsing with pure, undiluted violent fear and rage. Before William could stop himself, his head pitched back, and he let out the same bloodcurdling cry. A part of William’s body – the part that felt dead and black like the furthest reaches of space – suddenly wanted to drop James and reach toward his daughter. There was something about her unique light and warmth that attracted him like a moth to a flame.

William fought the urge. He fought it with his heart, mind, and goddamn soul. He fought it with memories of Bethany and every happy recollection of his once peaceful family.

He fought it until he clamped his teeth together and ground them so hard, blood seeped between his gums. He fought it until finally he managed to open his mouth. He fought it until he locked his gaze on Diana. “Run,” he croaked. “Run and don’t look back.”

Diana pushed to her feet. She reached a hand out to him.

“No,” he roared. “Run.”

William fought that insidious black infection as it claimed his body, but he couldn’t fight James at the same time. He wrenched himself free from William’s grip.

Diana shrieked, but she wouldn’t leave.

James once again grabbed her, this time by her wrist. James’ bare, blood-splattered, infection-covered skin closed around hers.

… But that writhing infection did not spread to William’s daughter.

Instead, Diana shrieked, clutched a stone by her side, and slammed it against James’ wrist.

There was a crack of bone. James was forced to drop her wrist, and before he could try to grab Diana up by the throat again, William pulsed forward one last time. He wrapped his arm around James’ throat and hauled him back.

“Daddy,” Diana shrieked.

“Run. Sweetie, run. Never look back. Run.” That infection continued to claim his body. He could see it out of the corner of his eye as it wrapped around his wrist, climbed his arm, and circled his chest like the waiting grip of death.

“No. No. Someone help, someone help!” Diana shrieked.

“Run,” William begged as he forced his body to hold James in place.

James’ body was cold and stiff. It felt as if his muscles had gone into rigor mortis, and yet, he kept moving with an unquenchable thirst. It was as if his limbs had turned into robots that could continue to move despite death.

As cold realization flashed through William once more, almost robbing him of the last of his mental control, he appreciated that would happen to his body soon. William wouldn’t be able to hold back the infection forever, and when it claimed his every cell in full, it would use his own damn hands to grab his daughter’s throat.

But Diana wouldn’t run. She turned from him, and she rushed a step forward toward the back wall. Her eyes grew wide as she stared at it. “Please. Please help him. Save him. Please,” she pleaded with no one at all.

James continued to struggle, and he brought his hands up, turning the nails in as he dragged them over William’s cheeks and throat. He left long gouge marks dripping with blood, and William watched as more of the infection plunged into them. He felt cold wave after cold wave of total dread spread through his body, robbing him of his continued control until William knew without a doubt that he only had seconds left. “Please, Diana, just leave.”

She got down on her knees, tears soaking her cheeks as her lips trembled open. She brought her hands up as if in supplication. She closed her eyes. “Please help me. Please. You promised you’d always be there for me.”

He had no idea who she was talking to. He didn’t care. He just had to get his daughter out of here before it was too late. Before he lost his grip—

James put on a surge of power, grabbed William’s hand, and twisted it to the side. The snap of bone crunched and reverberated through William’s arm.

James pulsed toward Diana. Diana turned her head up, her tear-streaked face framed by her hair and fear as William’s sweet child waited for death.

But that death did not come. Just before James reached Diana, something cracked from the wall. Right from the center, from the most intricate of the carvings, something moved. A blast of brilliant white-hot light shot toward Diana as William fell to his knees, his body finally giving up, the infection reaching his throat and practically strangling it like a chain around his neck.

He could do nothing for his daughter as that blast of light slammed into her. But it did not knock her from her feet. It encased her, slicing around her middle, encircling her like one of the rings of Saturn. James reached her. But just before he could lock a hand on Diana’s throat and lift her from her feet, Diana was pulled from her own feet. That strike of light circled around her faster and faster until somehow she was lifted up as if on the wings of an angel.

William could barely comprehend, barely comprehend as his body shut down and that virus eked every last scrap of control from his mind and body. But he watched, and he would continue to watch until his eyes lost all muscular control and they closed for good.

James screamed. He was thrust back as the light encasing Diana blasted out.

Something rushed through her body, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head as she suddenly landed on her feet. An exhilarating rush of energy, William swore he could feel it from here as if his nervous system suddenly connected to his daughter’s. It felt like power, like light, like the force of creation itself. And it ate into every single cell of Diana’s form until she briefly glowed like a star giving birth to another.

Though James had been blasted back, he didn’t stay down. The effects of that virus doubled, more black energy swarming over him as if it were a hive of bees claiming an attacker. There was the crunch of bone as James flung himself forward so violently, he broke his shin.

Just as he reached Diana, something formed around her. Or in her. Or over her. William could make no sense of the vision as he watched a taller woman somehow suddenly inhabit the same space as his daughter.

That vision of a woman – whoever she was – held a sword. And while William could doubt everything that was happening before his eyes, he couldn’t doubt that. For as the sword formed, it seemed to carve itself a place out of reality itself. There was no other way to comprehend the sheer importance it came with. It was like every constellation had been condensed down to create the hilt, and the vast tracts of empty space that knitted together the galaxies of the universe had been crushed into one to build the blade.

That blade could cut down anything, from men to ships to boundaries unseen.

As William stared in soul-crushing shock at what was happening to his daughter, visions spiraled through his mind. As his gaze locked on the brilliance of that blade, recollections blasted through his psyche, each more violent than the next. Yet they were not his memories – they came from races long passed, from men and women long dead.

He saw a war stretching out into the past. A war between all life in the Milky Way and a single force.

A force that called itself nothing more and nothing less than Force itself.

He saw civilizations crumble at the hands of that insatiable enemy. He saw worlds riven in two like a knife through eggs.

But he saw those who would not die rise up to fight. Soldiers, guards, heroes of races long dead – he saw as the galaxy united to thrust the Force back.

His visions wouldn’t last. Just as they threatened to blaze so brightly through William’s mind that they would burn his personality like a photo cast into a raging fire, he heard James tip his head back and let out another blood-curdling, rattling scream.

James lurched. He snapped his hand up, and the infection surged, powering over it until it pulsed like a black hole.

The woman standing not beside but within Diana brought her long, glowing blade up.

William didn’t have a chance to scream as the infection leaped from James’ outstretched fingers and shot toward Diana’s throat.

The woman moved, and Diana moved with her. As if it were her little hands holding that impossible sword, Diana sliced the blade around, right through James’ chest.

Though the blade plunged through James’ broken body, it somehow missed it. It did not miss the black virus inhabiting him. It sliced through it, unstoppable and pure like lightning on the darkest night. The black virus had no chance. It burnt up. The blade dragged every last wisp of it from James’ body and extinguished it like a flame thrown into an unquenchable ocean.

James didn’t scream. Not a single word escaped his lips as he fell face-forward. He was dead before he struck the ground. Because he’d been dead all along.

And William? William was dead too.

That realization struck him as he forced his knees to fall out from underneath him.

He watched his daughter as she brought up her hands, stared at them, then walked over to him. She took a step, and that thing – that woman made of light who was inhabiting the exact same point in space as her – took a step forward too.

Diana raced up to him. He tried to scream at her to stop; she didn’t.

If she touched him, she’d die just like he had.

But as Diana locked her hands on his shoulders, the infection didn’t spread. It couldn’t. As it lapped up against her hands, it was rebuffed.

“Daddy, Daddy,” she sobbed.

He stared at her, his eyes glassy.

He couldn’t speak.

All he could do was watch as his daughter collapsed her arms around his back and pulled him close.

Briefly, for one blissful moment, it felt as if her light could chase away the infection claiming him, but all too soon he realized that wouldn’t matter.

Nothing could save a dead man. For he’d died in the Barbarian’s arms when the warrior had crushed his throat. This – these last few seconds with his precious daughter – were nothing more than borrowed time.

She rocked back and forth, pulling him with her as she kept her arms locked around him. He could feel her tears trickling down his neck and face. They might have been wet, yet however briefly, they had a heat that thawed the frozen death overcoming him.

William managed to open one eye, and he locked it on her. That woman was still standing there, somehow imprinted over the top of his daughter as if she was an echo from the future – an echo of what his daughter would one day grow into….

As his mind shut down, more visions assailed him. They swamped him with greater weight and force like an army pinning him to the spot.

He saw world after world crumbling at the feet of the Force as they swept through the Milky Way. Clusters fell, sectors were wiped out, and the Force moved forever forward. For they existed for one purpose and one purpose alone – the total and complete annihilation of every living creature in existence. Their energy was fundamentally incompatible with life and always would be.

William lost awareness of his daughter’s never-failing grip, of her tears, of her shaking sobs. He watched a replay of the Force assailing the Milky Way all those millennia ago. He watched until something rose up to stop them.

“Daddy, don’t die. I can help you. I can eliminate the infection. Just hold on. Hold on,” Diana begged.

William barely heard her. He could no longer see past his visions. They played across his blackened vision like footage across a view screen.

Even if he could have looked away, he wouldn’t have. For as he saw something rise up to fight the force, it pushed away the last of the fear that had infected his mind along with that black energy.

“There’s hope,” he found himself saying. The words tore themselves from his throat and trembled through his parted lips.

“I can save you—” his daughter began.

“I’m dead, Diana. But there’s hope for you – hope for everyone else.”

“No. I won’t let you die.” She rocked back and forth into him. Her tears washed down her face until they slicked one side of his cheek.

He couldn’t reach a hand up and lock it on her shoulder, so he put the last of his energy into a smile. “There’s hope,” he said one last time, his voice now nothing more than a throaty, far-off whisper.

As he said that, he stared past his daughter at the woman who appeared to be possessing her. She’d been gazing at him ever since she’d appeared, and she did not drop her attention now.

Realization after realization slammed into his mind as vision after vision flew through his dying consciousness.

“You’re an angel,” he croaked. “One of the ultimate soldiers developed to fight the Force and lock them out of this realm.”

As his daughter continued to sob, the woman nodded once.

“You’re here to help us again, aren’t you? Because they’re coming again?” As he managed that, he somehow twisted his head to the side and stared at James’ dead form.

William understood. He understood exactly what happened to James, what that stone bracelet was, and what waited behind the mural to his left.

He knew what would come, not just for his daughter, but for the rest of the Milky Way.

He didn’t have the breath or time to explain everything to his sobbing daughter. She would forget this all anyway until the day she was needed. He merely focused his attention on the angel. “Look after her.”

The angel nodded.

William died, crumpling in his daughter’s arms as his mind faded away but hope remained.

Chapter 1

Present Day

Sampson Ventura

He pressed his back up against the warped section of metal wall behind him, locked his hands on his gun, and focused. Not just with his body, not just with his mind, but with the force of his thoughts embodied.

As he heard another scream echo through the ship, he clenched his teeth together.

“You trained for this,” he whispered under his breath as he walked his shoulders to the side, inching his body out from behind cover to check on the rest of the corridor. Far off down toward the lifts, 50 meters away, he caught sight of movement, quick and deadly but staggered and uncoordinated.

A single bead of sweat slid down the side of his face, trailed over his square chin, trickled over his neck, and dribbled past his torn collar. He felt it slide right over the raised tattoo imprinted a hand-width below his collarbone.

It meant nothing to the uninitiated. To the initiated, it signaled that Sampson was part of one of the most select groups in all of the Coalition.

He was a psychic soldier, and he was one of the best. Unlike the other men and women in his select team, he didn’t come from one of the psychic races – he was human, through and through. But he was a human who’d had an accident. At the age of 12, his father – one of the greatest scientists the Coalition had ever seen – had lost his mind. All it had taken was the death of his other son.

The memory still burnt at the edges of Sampson’s mind, and as he focused, he forced it aside with all the strength of his disciplined psyche.

The last thing he wanted now was a distraction. And if he pushed his mind into the memory of his father breaking down and injecting him with an experimental psychometric drug, it wouldn’t just distract Sampson – it would open a door he had to keep closed. Some people dealt with trauma. Some people locked it away. Sampson had no option but to do the latter. His wound was more than blood deep. It had literally been seared into his mind as the drug his father had administered to him had awakened Sampson’s latent psychic powers.

If Sampson chose to, he could step inside that memory. He could make it unfurl around him like a waking dream. He could explore every second of that torture, over and over again.

But not now. Not ever. Some people wash away their pasts. Some have to force themselves to move on, step by step, shot by shot.

Sensing his chance, Sampson ducked out from behind cover, kept low, and yanked his gun up. His fingers squeezed the trigger, and a slice of white-hot energy pulsed down the corridor. It slammed into the movement he saw by the lifts, and even from here, he heard a tight, gurgling gasp. It sent the hair on the back of his neck standing on end as if someone had concreted it upright.

Sensing his opportunity, he pulsed forward. He’d been pinned down in this section of the corridor for the past five minutes. He had to get to the bridge. He had to get to the transporter station right in the middle of it. And he had to transport every single member of this ship’s crew out into space. Living or dead, he had no option but to push them out into the merciless vacuum beyond this small cruiser’s thick walls. For living or dead, every man and woman on this ship now had no hope.

Sampson rolled past a broken neuro pack, his specialized holographic armor protecting him and only becoming visible in a shimmer as his back and shoulders rolled right over the lethal black gel.

By the time he snapped to his feet, the armor had become invisible again. The energetic barrier had completely burnt up every last trace of the neuro gel until there was nothing to stop Sampson from sprinting forward.

The armor, developed only in the last months, had drawn heavily on the Circle Trader incident that had befallen the Academy three years previously. Remarkable stuff, when operating at 100-percent efficiency, it could divert even the most lethal blow, all while leaving Sampson apparently unprotected. It was the kind of armor you gave your most important espionage agents. Which is precisely what Sampson was.

He wasn’t just a spy, though. When called for, he was a soldier too. He reminded his body of that fact as he yanked his gun up and fired just as something crawled out of the broken lift doors in front of him.

He didn’t allow his mind long to lock on the sight of a woman’s upturned, deathly pale face. He didn’t let his gaze lock on the blood that pumped from a fatal gash in her throat. He didn’t even note her glassy, deadened eyes. All that mattered to him was the black, pulsing energy that writhed from a point in the center of her chest and seemingly tied her body like smoke curling around a fire.

Dread pulsed through Sampson. Despite all his skills and all his training, it always did whenever he faced a zero infection.

Deadly, there was no cure for it. It wasn’t a virus. It wasn’t bacteria. It wasn’t protozoa. It was no known biological entity. Instead, the root of Infection Zero was a twisted form of energy itself. Whoever it infected, it killed, and it claimed their body, controlling them like marionettes. Gruesome, terrifying, and unstoppable – it was one of the greatest secrets the Coalition Army had. Few admirals knew of its existence, let alone your average grunt or budding cadet. News of Infection Zero was clinically controlled, even if the infection itself resisted all attempts to be cured. Only select admirals throughout the Coalition Academy and the leaders of the Galactic Senate knew about it. Oh, and the psy corps. It was soldiers like Sampson, after all, who were the ones tasked with dealing with zero infections.

Any ordinary soldier who faced a patient infected with zero would have seconds if minutes. Even the greatest heroes of the Coalition Army wouldn’t stand a chance.

Infection Zero infiltrated your mind first, then your body. It snatched hold of your personality like a picture painted on glass and smashed it into a trillion pieces. Once it was done with the patient’s mind, it would control their body until their muscles wasted away and their bones crumbled. Even as a psy soldier, Sampson wasn’t immune. No one was immune. If you were unlucky enough to get touched by an infected patient – even through armor – you would succumb.

But at least Sampson could detect them. Long before an infected patient reached him, he could sense a disruption in their psyches. Call it a wave – a chaotic, destructive wave that pulsed through space – but whenever he felt an infected patient near him, it was as if the air itself became poisoned. It would buffet against him like an oncoming storm.

Right now as he skidded to a stop, rammed his hand onto the base of his gun, and flicked the modified rifle to its most intense setting, he felt the woman’s mind crumpling. The last of her psyche gave way, his psychic senses blaring like a klaxon.

She jerked toward him, the infection controlling her body completely. Just before she reached him and just before he fired, he looked right into her eyes. He wasn’t stupid enough to think that she could see back. There was nothing left of this woman’s hollowed-out, horror-filled form. That wasn’t the point. Before Sampson’s dad had cracked, the brilliant man had imparted one crucial lesson on his son. You treat life like life. It didn’t matter what form it came in, it didn’t matter how much more sophisticated and intelligent you thought you were – you treated everything as sacrosanct creation.

Sampson had done a lot of seemingly brutal things in his life, yet he’d always held onto that. And now that lesson rose through him and saw him stare into that woman’s eyes as he ended her suffering with two quick shots.

The blasts from his gun lanced out, slamming into the center of her chest and between her eyes.

He glanced away as the high-yield shots tore through her body. He didn’t look back until there were two soft thumps and she fell – or what was left of her fell – onto the crumpled floor in front of the lift.

He stood there, stock still, his gun raised and locked on the mangled lift. He watched it, his psychic senses shifting through the ship as he struggled to detect any other crew members.

He was in a section of corridor above life-support. His psychic abilities told him that there was still crew in engineering, the mess hall, the bridge, and the accommodation deck, but no one close by.

So he watched, never moving as that black light flickered violently over the woman’s body. It writhed like a flame, a flame that was desperately trying to keep itself lit in a roaring wind.

Sampson considered it with cold hatred. His father might have told him that all life is sacrosanct, but that black infection wasn’t goddamn alive. It was anathema to all existence. So he didn’t batt a single eyelid as the infection started to fade. Without a host to jump to, it had nothing to sustain its insatiable hunger.

One second, two seconds, three, four, five – finally it started to flicker out like a firefly that had been crushed underfoot.

Sampson didn’t move until it had extinguished itself completely. Without turning from it, he locked his rifle against his back holster, grabbed up a handgun from his hip unit, and took a step back.

Finally, he turned and continued through the ship. He located other crew members, all of them infected. He killed anyone who got in his way, concentrating on heading to the bridge rather than hunting them down.

The closer he got to the bridge, the more the infection forced the crew to fight him, but Sampson was lethal.

He had to be. If Infection Zero got out into the rest of the Milky Way, it would be catastrophic on a level never before seen. Small infections could be dealt with. Planets? Sectors? If large numbers of people succumbed to Zero, it would leave the Coalition with no other option but to turn on its own. Even then, he doubted the infection could be contained. For wherever there was life, Zero could sustain itself. Whether it be people or trees or plants or damn moss – it could infect anything classed as biological. And given a chance, it would.

So men like Sampson didn’t goddamn give it a chance. He didn’t say a word, didn’t even let out a guttural scream as he reached the bridge. He shot the reinforced doors that led to it, bringing up his foot and giving them one solid kick as his holographic armor gave him the last pulse of force he needed to open them.

The bridge doors parted, falling from him like dead petals from a dried rose.

He swung his handgun around, firing two shots right through the head of a Berkani female to his left. Her infection surged, the black light trying to accommodate for her injuries but failing as her body crumpled and struck the floor plating.

He noted her demise out of the corner of his eye as he locked his attention on a figure sitting in the captain’s seat. It would be the captain himself, and the man was so infected, he looked as if he was wearing a black, twisting cloak.

Sampson tightened his finger over his trigger. Before he could fire on the man from behind, the captain lurched forward and fell to his hands.

Sampson ducked to the side, clearing the reinforced back of the captain’s chair to line up a shot. Just as he aimed right at the captain’s head, the man turned.

And Sampson stopped. Because right there in the middle of the man’s eyes, he saw intelligence, fear, and most importantly, the desire to be saved.

Some people could fight Infection Zero. For a time, at least. As that black energy wrapped around their body from the inside out, controlling every cell, every muscle, and every fiber, some people could still hold onto a scrap of their psyches.

Maybe for seconds, maybe for minutes – but for no more than that.

Sampson had only ever faced three other people who’d managed what the captain was managing now.

He paused. He stared at the man’s wide, expressive, and soulfully pleading eyes. The captain’s jaw dropped open, several licks of saliva dripping off his lips and splashing onto his tensed hands. The man tried to move his lips.

He was human, so Sampson didn’t need much help to figure out what the man’s trembling lips were trying to mouth.

Help me. Help.

“I will help you. That’s what I’m here to do.” As those bitter words pushed from Sampson’s lips, he raised his gun higher. He didn’t fire yet. He stared right into the man’s eyes, and Sampson Ventura tried to acknowledge the humanity this man must have once had.

“Help,” the man mouthed one last time.

Sampson half closed his eyes, and he helped.

He shot the captain twice in his head and once in his heart.

As blood and fragments of burnt uniform splattered over the once clean bridge floor, Sampson forced his eyes all the way open. He slowly stared around the bridge, and he breathed. Through the death. Through the destruction. Through the chaos of the infection.

Before he could take another moment’s reprieve, he heard screams out in the corridor. The rest of the infected were coming.

Sampson surged forward like a tsunami as he reached the transport panel. His fingers flew over it, and any rudimentary security system designed to lock him out was immediately overcome by his holographic armor. “Computer, lock onto all crew biosignatures, alive or dead, and transport them into space.”

He spun around, lifting his gun just as a man plowed into the room, his neck snapped and lolling to one side but that not stopping his speed in the least as the infection swarmed him.

Sampson had a chance to raise his gun, but he didn’t need to fire. The transporter did as it was told, and it locked onto the man, spiriting him away right before Sampson’s eyes.

It was only when Sampson turned and confirmed with the computer that every crewmember was gone that he closed his eyes. He allowed himself five whole seconds to absorb the horror that had gone on here. Then he drove a breath deep into his chest, letting it push through his mind like a wind designed to strip dead leaves from a tree.

As he opened his eyes, he accessed his neural implant. “Connect to the computer’s communications system,” he ordered it.

There was a beep, and to his left, he watched the communications panel light up with a yellow glow.

“Contact Admiral Forest.” He didn’t shift from his position as he turned his gaze toward the view screen. It was broken, patches sparking like wildfire along its edges. That didn’t stop it from blinking into life as the computer managed to contact the admiral.

Her drawn, pale face came into view. “Is it finished?”

He nodded. He didn’t snap a salute, even though a soldier in his position should. Well, an ordinary soldier should. There was a different set of rules when it came to the psy corps. Because there was different everything when it came to the psy corps.

The admiral let out a relieved breath that was so long and stuttered, it sounded as if she’d been holding onto it for days. “Have you removed every case from the ship?”

He nodded. “I’ve spaced them.”

“… Are there survivors?”

She always asked that question. He understood why, even though he knew she already knew the answer.

He shook his head.

She looked down briefly. Though she might think she was good at hiding it, he could see her gut-wrenching disappointment, even if it took all his psychic skills and emotional understanding to recognize it. She might be able to hide her mind from the ordinary officers under her command, but not from him. It took her several seconds to compose herself, then she looked up sharply. “Scuttle the ship and return. Send it into the closest star.”

He nodded. Then finally Sampson Ventura snapped a salute. “What next, Admiral?”

She didn’t hesitate. The admiral might have genuine feelings under her apparently cold exterior, but Forest’s reputation for always striving on, no matter what, came to the fore. “You return to the Academy, to Earth.”

He frowned. Before terror could grip him and tell him an infection had broken out in the very heartland of the Coalition, he read something else in her expression. “Another mission? Where?”

“In the Academy.”

“Sorry?”

“I need you as a spy this time, Sampson,” she admitted. She always used his first name. He, like the other soldiers in his team, had earned that level of familiarity.

“And who do I spy on?”

“The students. It’s time for you to become one. Appropriate, considering you never went through standard training. I want you to make it back to Earth and assume your position before classes start in a week.”

He snapped one last salute and nodded. Then he ended the call, turned, and set the ship on a course to hurtle into the sun. For Sampson Ventura always did what was required of him.

Chapter 2

Diana Fenton

Diana woke long before her alarm could blare, alerting her to the first day of classes for the new year.

She woke on the wings of a dream. A dream where she’d seen her father’s dying face, his smiling dying face….

Without pause, she reached over to her bedside table unit, grabbed up the real journal and pen she’d scrounged from an antique dealer, and started to scribble his features. She took comfort – and diligent respect – in drawing every detail she could recall. From his amber-flecked eyes to his smile – to his beautiful smile….

When she was done, a single tear trickled down her cheek. She didn’t stop it from reaching her chin, trailing along her neck, and dashing against the collar of her regulation pajamas. She let it chill the skin like the caress of a cold finger.

She carefully placed the book and pen back in one of the drawers of her bedside unit, and then Diana finally rose to her feet.

She waved a hand over her alarm clock, disengaging it. Rather than march over to her neatly stacked uniform, she took a few seconds to stare out of her window behind her bed. The city was waking up, a brilliant dawn caressing the coastline and reaching through the five tall towers of the Academy. It looked like an unstoppable army made of light, and that was no grandiose use of terms, for Diana knew precisely what she meant when she said that.

Bringing a hand up and pinching the bridge of her nose, she rubbed her eyes and finally walked over to her clothes. As she dressed, she received a call, her wristwatch flashing yellow. She had a feeling of who it was long before she accepted the call and the crisp but ever friendly tones of Admiral Luther Fenton echoed through her room. “Ready for your last year at the Academy, kid?” he asked, his kind tone filling the room with just as much energy as the light of dawn.

She tilted her head to the side and smiled, despite the fact Fenton couldn’t see her. “Of course I am.”

“Up bright and early before your alarm, ha? That’s my girl.” He didn’t even pause before he added, “That’s my daughter.”

Her smile didn’t hesitate. It grew. “I guess that makes you my dad, then?”

It was meant to be a joke, and she hoped her tone conveyed that, but Admiral Fenton paused.

Because he wasn’t her real dad. Her biological dad had died when she was eight. The then Captain Luther Fenton had taken her in when both her parent’s families had refused to deal with her. If it hadn’t been for Fenton, Diana would’ve been dumped in an orphanage.

If it weren’t for Fenton, Diana would’ve been dumped from most things in life, including the Academy. But he alone always rose to her defense and protection. So she took a breath, and she let the emotion push from it and echo out as clear as day. “I didn’t mean it like that, dad,” she said truthfully. “You know I’m not the best when it comes to humor. I guess I wasn’t born to make people laugh.”

He chuckled, and it was clear all was forgiven. “Maybe you’re not the best comedian out there, but I don’t know anyone else who’s more caring. And gifted. You know who contacted me this morning about you?”

“Nope. Who?” She continued to dress quickly and efficiently. She might’ve had many failings when it came to Academy procedures but looking like a competent cadet wasn’t one of them.

“Keltar Roc – the engineer of the Chronos, that’s who.”

“Why was he asking after me?”

“He read your paper. A lot of people did. Your procedure to re-modulate xenton energy fields is getting a lot of attention, kid. Of course it is – it’s brilliant. You’re going to get a lot of offers for when you graduate. The best ships will be fighting over you.”

She smiled. Then she put her foot in her mouth because Diana always did when she made the mistake of opening it. “I’ll only get an offer if you force somebody to take me.”

There was a short pause. For two reasons. It robbed Fenton of his fatherly pride, reminding him that it wasn’t all sunshine and light when it came to Diana’s Academy career. It also suggested he could act against strict nepotism regulations to circumvent the Academy and secure Diana enlistment. And that was a pretty sore point, considering almost every cadet in Diana’s class already thought Fenton was the only reason she was still around.

“You need to have more confidence in yourself,” he said.

She sighed. “I’m sorry, dad. I didn’t mean to put it like that. I know you never have and you never would intervene on my behalf like that. It’s just—”

“What, the other cadets? Ignore them. They’re emotionally immature. Wait until they have a few actual years of life and service under their belts before you listen to a damn word they have to say. Don’t let anything detract from your achievements, Diana Fenton, and that’s an order.”

She chuckled. “An order from an admiral? Or an order from a father?”

“Both. Now keep your head up high, head to class, and keep being brilliant. If you put your brain to it, you can do anything. You’re a Fenton,” he paused somberly, “and a Ray. You were born for great things.”

Fenton rarely mentioned her last name. Though he acknowledged her parents and never tried to sweep them under the rug, her real last name was a tightly held secret. He would never admit it in public. For her adoptive father would never do anything that could bring her harm.

Emotion swelled in her chest as she thought of that, and a tear trickled down the opposite side of her cheek. Unlike the tears she’d given when she’d drawn her father’s face minutes before, this one warmed her skin and didn’t freeze it.

“Diana? You’ve gone all quiet. Are you planning your next brilliant move in physics class?”

Silently, she wiped her tear away. “I’ve only got combat training today.”

There was a pause.

For a good reason. While Diana might’ve technically been the top of her class in physics, she was right at the bottom for combat. It wasn’t just her petite size. She hated the concept of fighting. Right down to her bones. The thought of it would seize her, forcing her muscles to contract as if someone had tied them up in rope.

Fenton pursed his lips together and let a whistling breath through them. “Just think of it this way – you just have to pass combat class.”

Her palms became itchy, and she scratched them as she finished dressing and sat slowly on her seat. She took a deep, rattling breath that she didn’t let echo over the line. Her dad was already worried enough about her as it was, and Admiral Fenton could hardly afford to be worried. He was the admiral in control of the outer forces – the Coalition units set to patrol and guard the rims of Coalition space. It was one of the most prestigious roles in the upper echelons of the Army and was easily one of the most important. From pushing back Barbarian attacks, to keeping an eye on the Kore Empire, to simply ensuring colony outposts weren’t overrun by pirates – a lot was resting on her dad’s shoulders.

So she had no right to add more. She forced a smile and wouldn’t let another heavy breath erupt from her lips. “I know. And I’m working on it.”

There was a pause. “I heard you missed your last appointment with Bequelia.”

“I know, I know – something came up.”

There was another patient pause. Fenton might have a reputation for being anything less than patient with his forces, but around her, he was a saint. “It’s a requirement of your continued service with the Academy, Diana,” he said, using her first name to underline how serious this was. “If you fail to attend your required counseling sessions, you’ll be digging your own grave.”

She’d been holding onto her emotion. Until now. She flopped back in her chair, collapsed a hand over her face, and tried to block out the memories of her dream. “She pushes too hard,” she admitted. “You know she’s got psychic skills, don’t you? She’s from one of the strong psychic races. I don’t like the way she pokes around in my mind.”

“It’s part of her job. And though I know… the process can be uncomfortable, it will help.”

Diana scratched her crooked fingers down her cheek, her knuckles so stiff it felt as if she would never be able to straighten them. She tilted her head up and stared with a dead, fixed gaze at the ceiling. She recalled her last session with Bequelia all too easily. The woman was a Sakara, a beautiful, generous, kindhearted race. No one else had any trouble with her.

Except for Diana. Because every time Bequelia poked around in her head, it felt insidious, not helpful.

She didn’t share a word of this with her dad. He had too much on his plate. She just sighed. “Fine. I’ll book an appointment for the end of the day.”

“Excellent. Now good luck. Remember—”

“All I have to do is pass combat. I’ve got it. I think.”

“I was going to say,” he chuckled, “that you need to give yourself a break occasionally. I wasn’t lying about the engineer from the Chronos. People are interested in you. You have a gift, Diana, and you shouldn’t ever let anyone get in the way of using it.”

She stood. In fact, she rose elegantly, which was saying something, as Diana was far from elegant. She might’ve had the small form of a ballerina, but she was ungainly and knocked into things every other minute. Now it was like something moved through her. And it was all on the promise that she should never allow anyone to stop her from using her gifts.

With one last smile directed at her door, she nodded and even bothered to snap a salute despite the fact her father couldn’t see her. “Thanks, dad.”

“Is that you snapping a salute? Always the consummate cadet. You’ll make a great ensign. Now go out there and knock them dead. Though, don’t actually kill anyone.”

She chuckled. “I think Commander Sparx would be thrilled if I managed to land a blow on someone, let alone kill them. But don’t worry, dad. I’ve got this,” she promised. “Thanks for calling.”

“Thank you for being my daughter,” he said, and there was real emotion behind his voice.

Her heart faltered, skipping a few beats as tears threatened to touch her cheeks. Diana might’ve had a difficult life. She might’ve had to deal with the traumatic death of her parents. But Fenton had gone through hell to raise her. No other person could have done it because no one else had wanted to. After losing her parents tragically, her father’s family had dealt with her for all of two months before handing her on to her mother’s family. They’d lasted two weeks. If Fenton hadn’t stepped in, Diana would have been handed straight to an Earth orphanage or a long-term psychiatric facility.

She’d never tried to be difficult. She hadn’t set out to ruin anyone’s lives. Diana just wasn’t like anyone else.

She didn’t hide a quiet sob. “Thanks for being my dad.”

“Right, time for you to get off the line before I lose it. The last thing I want to do is cry in front of Admiral Forest. I’ve got a meeting in 10 minutes. Now dry your eyes, head to class, and know this – you’ve always got me.” With that, he signed off.

Diana did as she was told.

Maybe others would class her as lonely – she didn’t care. At least she had one person to rely on in this cold world.

She would take what was given, for her life had taught her this – at any moment, everything can change forever.

Chapter 3

Sampson Ventura

Sampson had skipped Academy training. He’d gone straight into the psy corps. After his father had attacked him, Sampson – and his skills – had been discovered by a team of Coalition doctors. From that day forward, he’d been taken into a facility and trained.

That didn’t mean he was out of his depth as he strode down the wide, light bathed corridors of the main Academy building. A side effect of having undetectable, powerful psychic skills was that he was never out of his depth. All he had to do to learn how to fit in was tune in to the sea of cadets excitedly hurrying past him. As his gaze darted toward two large, older cadets who looked as if they were in their last year, he unconsciously copied their body language – their stiff shoulders, drawn but determined gazes, and resounding steps.

As Sampson opened his awareness and strode along, he felt two nervous cadets a step behind him. Their anxiousness lapped off them in waves. They were first years, and they were two parts excited to four parts overcome.

He could see why. As everyone began to assemble in the grand atrium for the first day of classes, everything was minutely designed to inculcate admiration and a grand sense of purpose. From the sweeping architecture, to the light bleeding in from the massive windows, to the sea of cadets all anxiously waiting as one. Sampson didn’t need his psychic skills to know that – a simple understanding of psychology and the forces used to manipulate others was more than sufficient.

He’d been given strict orders by Admiral Forest to fit in. If he didn’t fit in, he’d have no chance of fulfilling his mission.

The mere thought of it sent a wave of nerves racing over his broad shoulders and down his back until it felt like he’d tipped ants down the stiff collar of his uniform.

Forest suspected a covert ring of enemy agents had infiltrated the Academy. Though extensive measures had been taken to prevent such a thing from occurring since the Axira incident, times were changing. Even without his top security clearance as a psy soldier, a basic grunt would know that the last 10 years had seen a rapid deterioration in peace throughout the Coalition. From bombastic battles to old enemies raising their heads, something felt as if it was slipping out from under everyone’s feet.

In times of war – or in the deceptive bubbles of quiet you get before one breaks out – your enemies will always take the opportunity to spy on you.

If that were it, Sampson would chase away the nerves darting over his back like hot coals scattered through water. Spies he could understand. But that’s not all Forest had revealed to him. She suspected that the covert enemy operation that had infiltrated the Academy had one plot and one purpose in mind: to bring Infection Zero to Earth to let it out here, amongst the sweeping, grand, history-filled halls of the Academy.

It would be chaos. Death incarnate. If Infection Zero spread through the Academy, it would take down every single person in its path. It would blister through the halls like hellfire, reach the grounds outside, take down the sweeping old oaks that lined the paths, and move swiftly on to the city beyond like a cloud of death.

It would not stop. It would mow down everything in its path, as indiscriminate as a tsunami and just as lethal.

The virus wasn’t here yet. Sampson reminded himself of that fact as he doubled his efforts to spy on the students around him. If Forest’s intelligence was correct, a group had infiltrated the students, and that group intended to lay the groundwork for smuggling Infection Zero to Earth. It would be a complicated, almost impossible operation. You would need help along every single stage of the supply chain, from the transport routes that led to Earth, to the security stations that scanned oncoming vessels, to the Academy grounds themselves.

According to Forest’s intelligence, the plan was in the early stages of its development. If Forest were genuinely concerned that Infection Zero was imminent, she wouldn’t just shut down the Academy – she’d shut down Earth.

It was up to Sampson to find the terrorist ring, blast them apart, and stop this before it started.

He strode forward, quickly tilting his tall but lithe body to the side as he maneuvered around a group of excitedly chatting cadets. He noted that, despite the fact this hall was packed, the other cadets gave them a wide berth.

To a T, they were all attractive, powerful examples of budding Academy soldiers. They also knew that. He could practically feel their need for exclusivity as if they had the phrase better than everyone else stamped on their heads.

Moving past, he subtly scanned their minds, not prying into their thoughts but skimming their emotions like a cook dragging a spoon across the boiling surface of some broth.

He sensed pride, righteousness, strength, determination, excitement – all of it. But no anger. No vicious hatred – which is precisely what you would require if you wanted to infect every single person around you and destroy the planet you stood on.

Intending to ignore the group, he shifted to the side, but he felt as a woman turned her attention on him. Tall and attractive, she had an Amazonian quality about her, and as her sharp gaze settled on the back of his neck, she locked onto him with interest.

Sampson was hardly the biggest guy out there – but his musculature and the way he held himself would be different to every other recruit. These cadets might be training for combat, but he’d been living it most of his life.

Maybe this woman could see that Sampson was a cut above the rest because she broke away from her group. “Excuse me,” he heard her light voice pick up over the rumble of the crowd.

He knew full well she was talking to him, but that didn’t stop him from ignoring her and marching competently through the crowd until he was sure he’d left her behind.

Judging by the woman’s emotions, she’d just been about to invite him into that exclusive group of hers. Though Sampson had never been to the Academy, he could tell she and her friends had something to do with the E Club – a group that billed itself as the best of the best.

Sampson held no truck with exclusivity. Unlike most, he could feel the emotions that made exclusive groups up. And if you intended to bathe yourself in fervor, jealousy, and competitiveness, go ahead. He didn’t have the time.

He continued with his task, scanning every cadet he passed. For any other psy soldier, this would’ve been like searching for a needle in a haystack. Heck, for some, it would be worse. For the psychic races that primarily scanned emotion, a seething mass of anxious, excited students like this would be like dumping your brain in boiling water.

For Sampson, it was all part of the job.

He found himself negotiating through the crowd until he made it up to a massive set of windows that stared down onto the primary central ring of the Academy grounds. A beautiful, manicured green lawn stretched out to paths that hugged the sides of the five Academy main towers. From the sky, they looked like fingers reaching up to invite you down, and that sprawling grass lawn was like an open soft palm that could cradle you.

Long before he joined the psy corps, and long before his father cracked, Sampson had adored nature. Trawling quiet gardens, getting lost under the verdant, leafy trees, and trailing his feet through cool, babbling brooks had always given him a sense of perspective. So it wasn’t a surprise that, just for a few sweet moments, he let his gaze sweep over the view as a sense of calm washed through his tensed chest.

The moment didn’t last. He was drawn out of it as a woman to his side softly pressed her stiff fingers onto the glass. She’d been there when he’d walked up. As he cast his mind back, he appreciated she’d been standing there even as he’d made his way through the seething crowd to the windows.

And now she stood there, hardly moving as she kept her hand pressed against the glass.

… While every other cadet in this hall was overcome with excitement and nerves, this woman was in a world of her own. She wasn’t an ocean of calm, though – she was like an island separated from a continent. Her back was to the crowd, her body language was stiff, and her gaze was unblinking as she locked it, not on the grounds, but seemingly through them to something only she could see.

They shared a moment. Or at least, he shared one with her. Out of this whole crowd, she had the most interesting emotions. For hers were the most subdued. It felt like a purpose-built wall separated her from the students behind.

He instantly found himself prying her mind. Though he didn’t sense any anger, she was the most interesting cadet he’d come across yet.

As soon as his psychic skills spread out like invisible hands, she snapped her gaze over to him.

She’d been staring so vacantly, he’d been sure that she hadn’t even known he was there. Now, in a moment he would never forget, she locked two large, deep violet eyes on him. They had a slightly watery, mirrorlike quality to them, giving you the impression that if you stood close enough, all you’d see was your own reflection staring back.

He opened his mouth, not sure of what he was about to say. He didn’t get the opportunity, anyway.

The woman from earlier caught up to him. “Excuse me. What’s your name? I’m Susan – Cadet Susan Sinclair. I head up the E Club. I haven’t seen you around, yet you look as if you’re in your last year.”

Sampson didn’t blink at her barrage of questions. “I am in my final year. I transferred.” He didn’t say where he transferred from. No need. If she chose to pry, he had a ready-made, foolproof story provided to him by Admiral Forest. The kind of story that even if someone tried to dig deep into it, they’d never figure out it was a fabrication. “As for my name, it’s Mark Ray.”

The quiet woman beside him reacted. Not visibly, but the wall separating the world from her emotions cracked a little, and he stared at her out of his peripheral vision as her chest tensed.

It was his name that had done it. Did it mean something to her?

“It’s nice to meet you, Mark,” Susan said as she shoved a hand forward.

He didn’t hesitate as he grabbed it and let her do all the shaking. You could tell a lot about how a person intended to treat you by the way they shook your hand. Susan’s grip was firm and leading. A warm, attractive smile spread her equally warm and attractive lips. “You look like you’re great at combat – if you don’t mind me saying,” she said as her gaze slipped over his large shoulders before she shifted it away politely. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the E Club, but we are currently recruiting for the new year. After classes today, we’ve got an introduction and a training session out on the tracks. You should come join.”

“I’ll see,” he said noncommittally.

Susan slipped her gaze over to the quiet cadet he’d interrupted as if seeing her for the first time. “Can I help you, Diana?” Her voice was pointed and sharp like a sword. You didn’t need to be blessed with psychic skills to be able to detect disdain rippling through her tone.

Diana blinked, turned, and walked away without a word.

He didn’t know Diana or Susan, but Sampson was well-versed in emotional confrontation. And as Diana was practically beaten back like a town pariah, she didn’t react in the way she should. Sampson detected no embarrassment and no frustration, not even any self-pity. Diana simply turned on her foot and walked away. She hardly had a smile on her face, and she still had a detached, almost deadened gaze – but that was it.

You only got detachment that deep if someone was highly skilled at hiding their true feelings, or if they’d been beaten down so many times, they knew there was no longer any point in reacting.

Sampson had a real problem with bullies. Others might see their actions – he felt their feelings. And the powerful, cruel, greedy need to control the weakest in the group was one of the ugliest feelings you could get.

He only just held back his disdain as he looked at Susan. “She was standing here first,” he made a point of saying.

“Well, now she can walk away. Sorry,” Susan shook her head, “that probably sounds rude.”

Not probably. It was rude. As a psy soldier, he didn’t technically have a commission like an ordinary officer in the Coalition Army. He was in a different command stream. He operated under dictates of admirals, and that was it. Despite not being a standard lieutenant or commander, he still outranked this cadet by a factor of 10 to 1. If he hadn’t been knee-deep in a mission, he would’ve sent her straight for reprimand. As it was, he struggled not to cross his arms.

“I wouldn’t have anything to do with Diana if I were you. Let me be the first to warn you – steer clear of the Angel of Death.”

His cheek twitched. It was a quick move, and he hid it as he tried to press a curious smile over his face.

The Angel of Death meant something different to Sampson. It was a nickname amongst the psy corps for Infection Zero. Before he could get too ahead of himself and take that as evidence that the quiet Diana was the terrorist he was after, he reminded himself that phrase had a different meaning to cadets.

“An Angel of Death is someone who just drags you down,” Susan explained needlessly. “No friends, no hope, no help. And if you’re ever stuck with only her watching your back, you know she’ll get you killed. If it weren’t for her daddy, she would’ve been kicked out first year, first day.”

“Daddy?”

Susan jammed a thumb in the direction of where Diana had wandered off. “That’s Luther Fenton’s kid. Sorry, adopted kid.”

Luther Fenton arguably had one of the most important posts of any of the admirals, especially in these dark times. As the man in control of every outer force that protected the borders of the Coalition, as peace degraded, he was the guy everyone looked to to buy the rest of the Milky Way time.

Sampson hadn’t even known Luther had adopted.

“If it weren’t for daddy,” Susan continued, “Diana would be out on her ass. She has more complaints against her than any other cadet ever. But her dad is too soft to do anything about it, I guess.”

Yeah. Sure. Luther Fenton was soft. A man who could, and had, single-handedly taken on whole Barbarian raiding parties. A man who had a deserved reputation for keeping soldiers at the height of their performance, day in, year out. And a man who had been single-handedly picked for his position because of those skills.

If Luther Fenton was soft, then so was a meter-thick wall of lead.

Perhaps Susan read something in Sampson’s expression because her cheeks paled slightly. “This isn’t me dissing an admiral. I’m just stating what every other cadet here knows – Diana Fenton shouldn’t be here. So if I were you, I’d steer clear.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“So will I see you this afternoon?”

Though his first inclination was to tell her to go to hell and that she could shove her exclusive group up her ass, he managed a smile. He had a job to do, and he couldn’t start burning bridges, especially with groups like the E Club. Exclusivity tended to be a hotbed for radical views. If he could infiltrate them, he could see if Susan’s derision for heroes like Fenton extended to hating the Academy as a whole.

“Yeah, I’ll see if I can make time.”

Susan smiled, flashing him a look over her shoulder as she walked away. “I’ll see you around, Mark. I’m final year, too, so we’ll have combat together in an hour.”

He locked his gaze on her and didn’t blink once. “See you in combat.”

Sampson didn’t unlock his senses from Susan until she was well out of sight in the thick crowd. She had an interesting, complex emotional profile that was well worth looking into. And that wasn’t just at the fact she’d displayed open derision of an admiral. She’d taken real pleasure in chasing Diana away.

Speaking of Diana, as he cast his gaze down the corridor, he could see that she’d continued on 50 meters or so, only to find another patch of a window for herself. In a replay of what she’d been doing beside him, she stared out of the glass morosely with a hand softly clamped on it.

There might’ve been 50 meters between them, and cadets and officers might’ve been walking in between, but that didn’t stop Diana from turning and staring at him suddenly. Even from here he swore he could see her reflective violet irises as if they were right up close.

She pushed away from the glass, and he quickly lost her in the crowd.

He made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t be losing her forever, though. There was something unusual about Diana Fenton, and he would find out exactly what that was.

Chapter 4

Diana Fenton

She was getting good at it, you know. Ignoring the stares, ignoring the muttered comments. Even ignoring some of the disgruntled downright disrespectful ways the teachers treated her.

She wouldn’t exactly call it easy, but Diana had something no one around her had. She knew precisely what she could live through. Her dad was right – the cadets around her were merely immature. They hadn’t faced the real horrors of the galaxy yet, and until they did, their opinions were worthless.

It didn’t make it easy, though. Especially not in combat class. As she walked silently behind a group of cadets heading to a lecture hall situated around a large training circle, Diana kept to herself.

She thought she was the last to enter the hall, but she heard someone behind her, and importantly, felt their eyes on the back of her neck.

She turned.

There he was. And who was he? Mark Ray – the guy who’d stared at her strangely twice this morning. And the guy who just so happened to have the same last name as her. She knew he wasn’t a relation. That wasn’t the point. Fenton had drilled into her head over the years to keep her real last name hidden, and he’d done such a good job that the mere mention of it always set her nerves alight.

Her gaze lingered on him a little too long, long enough that the guy obviously felt obliged to offer her a short, curled-lipped smile.

There was something automatic about it as if he’d taught himself the movement without ever bothering to impress upon his mind the importance of it. You can curl your lips toward your cheeks without making it a smile. Smiles come with warmth.

This one only held curiosity.

She lost sight of him in the mass of cadets trying to make their way to their seats. Diana strode past everyone and sat at the back. She always did. And she always sat alone. There were two seats right behind the final row often left empty for Academy observers. But when they weren’t used, anyone else could sit there.

As she sat down, Mark Ray sat next to her.

She couldn’t help it, and she turned fully to him. She opened her eyes wider. She’d been insulted on more than one occasion about that move. According to people like Susan Sinclair, it made Diana look like some goggle-eyed doll.

Mark waited until he made himself comfortable to look up at her. “What?”

“… I ah… usually sit alone.”

He pointed at the rest of the lecture theater. “It’s pretty packed down there. Sorry – do you need me to move?”

She shook her head politely. She turned from him and arranged her hands on the automatic foldout table that had unwrapped itself from the armrest of her seat.

She felt his attention on her. His full attention.

There was something prying about it she couldn’t put her finger on. For some reason, it reminded her of her sessions with Bequelia. With every second, it made her steadily more uncomfortable until she turned to him sharply. “Can I help you?”

A strange smile spread his lips, and at least this one was genuine. “What?”

“You were staring at me.”

“I was looking at the front of the class.” He pointed a long, broad finger down to the front of the room. His finger – and his whole hand, hell, his whole body – had this stiff eagerness as if he hadn’t merely been born for combat; he’d lived it. Which was saying something, considering that despite the Academy’s growing efforts to properly train their cadets before service, none of the students around here would see real battle until they graduated.

Though she knew she should drop this, she couldn’t. “Maybe you weren’t looking at me directly, but you were staring at me,” she rallied. The rational part of her mind knew that statement didn’t make any sense. You were either looking at somebody, or you weren’t. That didn’t stop her from speaking. Little in this world did.

To Mark’s credit, he didn’t leap up from his seat and mutter that she was crazy. He looked intrigued by something, and he opened his mouth, but far down at the front of the lecture theater, the class began.

As they settled into silence, she locked her attention, not on Commander Sparx as he welcomed them to their final year of combat training, but on Cadet Ray.

There was something different about him. He seemed worldlier, for one. But that only scratched the surface. He had a presence that reminded her of a highly polished mirror as if he’d been spending his whole life reflecting people.

The class continued. Though it was meant to be a theory class, there was no such thing as theory when it came to Sparx. A hardened ex-soldier, to him, a class wasn’t complete unless you actually trained.

As he invited everybody assembled down into the circular training compound, Diana allowed herself to experience dread. To most people, their emotions happened to them. To Diana, she had to vet every single one and only let what was appropriate through. She’d spent years developing that skill. It was the only reason she was still in the Academy.

But this dread she could not stop, and as it spiraled around her spine with a deathly grip, she shuddered on the inside. Every other class she could take. Combat brought up ghosts.

At the mere thought of the word ghosts, she shivered.

“You cold?” someone asked from behind.

She turned to see none other than Mark Ray again. He looked right at her as he added, “Or do you just not like combat?”

She tried to hide her reaction, but there was no way she could. Her cheeks stiffened, and she dropped her gaze to the ground. She didn’t get a chance to answer – even though that strong reaction would be more than answer enough. Sparx strode through the final year cadets, his massive arms crossed. “This year we’re going to kick it up a notch. We have to. This is the final chance you’re going to get to operate in real combat conditions before you join the Coalition Army. And all of you,” he swung his gaze around the room, settling it on her, “will take this opportunity.”

Though all Diana should be doing was shrinking under Sparx’s defiant gaze, she found her attention switching to Mark.

… She got the impression he was laughing on the inside for some reason. Like he didn’t believe a single word Sparx was saying. It was one phrase that had set Mark off – real combat conditions.

Diana was hardly psychic, but she… had skills when it came to reading people. Skills that often made said people uncomfortable because when she had to, she always spoke her mind.

“For the next few weeks. we’re going to be prepping for a mission,” Sparx continued. “I know most of your training camps have been in or around the Academy. Now we are headed off-world.”

There was a muttering of genuine surprise that rushed through the room like a spark to gas. Though some select Academy groups trained off-world all the time, it was unheard of for an entire grade to get that privilege.

“We’ll be headed to Centauri Alpha – a new training colony the Academy has set up. It will be a survival mission. And passing,” Sparx’s gaze locked on her, “is a requirement of passing this class. Failure to do so,” in front of every single person his gaze remained locked on her, “will mean failure to graduate the Academy.”

His words washed over Diana. This wasn’t the first time he’d threatened to stop her from graduating. Still, in making such a public display of it, it gave all the other assembled cadets tacit permission to judge her.

She didn’t have a single friend at the Academy. Not one. It literally was just her and her father. And though most of the time she was okay with that, you try being the odd one out in a group of strapping, powerful cadets like this.

Despite herself, she shrank back. But in shrinking back, she accidentally banged up against Mark Ray’s side.

Though she could still detect curiosity burning in his eyes, something was missing. Disdain. It would come. He just didn’t know her yet.

She stared at her feet and waited for Sparx to continue.

“When you’re on Centauri, you’ll go it alone. You will be dropped in a group, but you’ll be expected to survive on your own. In the next couple weeks, I’m gonna reinforce the skills you’ll need to do that. Now, split up into groups and get ready to practice your throws.”

Diana hid a sigh. Or at least she thought she did. Sparx had superhuman hearing, and he quickly turned on Diana. “I don’t like people making a mockery of my class. Fenton, you pair up with Ray. I’ve seen his scores in combat, and he could teach you a thing or two.”

As the class split off, Diana still stared at her shoes.

Could she really go through another year of this? If it was up to her, she’d… what? Just quit and stare at a wall all day?

It wasn’t that Diana didn’t have drive. Her dad told her she had nothing but.

It was just… she perpetually felt as if she was waiting for her life to start. It was like someone had hit pause on her very existence the day her parents had died and they’d forgotten to hit play again.

She brought a hand up and distractedly scratched her face as she turned to Mark. “Sorry about this.”

“Sorry for what?”

She shrugged. “That you’re stuck with me. I’m not very good at combat.”

“Then I guess you should learn.”

She smiled. But then, despite the fact she told herself to hold her tongue, the words came slipping out anyway, “This isn’t real combat. This is fake. There’s a limit to what you can teach behind the safe walls of the Academy.”

Mark frowned. It wasn’t angry. It wasn’t disdainful. It was almost as if he shared her sentiment.

Someone else did not. Sparx. He had such good hearing, after all. At that comment, despite the fact he was halfway across the room, he came marching up to her. “What was that, Cadet? Why exactly do you think you have the right to say that when you are yet to show the slightest ability to defend yourself? You think you know more about the rigors of the Coalition Army than anyone else? Do you think your upbringing makes up for real experience?”

Though Sparx didn’t say it, she knew he wanted to add a direct jibe about her father. While Sparx was smart enough not to do it, the cadets really weren’t. Though the Academy had a lot to do with the admirals of the top brass, and they knew distinguished leaders like Admiral Forest like the back of their hands, her dad had precious little to do with the Academy. No one around here had likely seen him. He was just Diana’s dad to them – the man they all erroneously thought pulled strings to keep her in the Academy. She knew enough about the real Army through her father, however, to appreciate that no soldier in their right mind would have dared imply what Sparx had.

She looked at her feet. “Sorry, sir.”

“There’s a time when sorrys don’t count. During battle. Now if you’re done belittling the rest of us, maybe you could try learning something from Cadet Ray here.” Sparx turned and strode through the cadets.

Diana closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Mark was staring right at her. He had… this knowing look about him, as if, unlike every other hotheaded cadet around here, he had a maturity beyond his years.

She scratched her neck again. “Sorry,” she defaulted to muttering.

“I’m not sure there’s anything to be sorry for, Cadet. You’ve got a point. Training doesn’t necessarily prepare you for combat.” Though he didn’t ask a question, there was something leading about his tone as if, for whatever reason, he wanted to understand why she thought this way. “It hones your body, though.”

“You can’t teach people how to deal with real chaos. No matter how many simulations they put us through, they will never put us through chaos. There will always be a safety net, and as long as there is a safety net, the effectiveness of training is minimal,” she answered, slipping smoothly into the role of a scientist.

Sampson looked surprised, but she could tell it wasn’t because of her precise use of terms. Again he seemed taken by the fact that she alone among all the cadets appeared to understand something no one else did.

Before Mark could push, Sparx snapped at everyone to start.

Diana tuned out. She always did. What was the point? She could only reiterate what Sparx was too scared to admit. This wasn’t real training. The Academy would never and could never replicate true chaos. Real battle – not the simulated junk they fed to the cadets – robbed your control from your bones and muscles. You could be the best combat specialist, but you could lose all that training in a single second of fear. Sparx might think there was a point to all this endless pretending, and there was on some level. On another, it led to overconfidence. And out there in the real galaxy, overconfidence would get you killed.

For given a chance, everything would kill you.

The other recruits could live by the mantra that in training themselves, they honed their skills so that when they faced their first battle, they could rise to the challenge.

Diana lived by another set of rules. If you wanted to win, you waited.

You waited like she’d been doing her entire life. You waited until it all made sense. And you waited until your enemy made their first move.

Chapter 5

Sampson Ventura

He wasn’t paying attention to the class. Okay, maybe he was with half a mind. With most of his mind, he watched, felt, heard, and generally discerned everything he could about Diana Fenton. Which wasn’t a particularly hard task considering how close they were.

As he flipped her on her back for the fifth time and Diana offered little to no resistance, her dark, glossy hair flopping around those vibrant violet eyes, he realized she wasn’t paying a scrap of attention to him. She’d switched off. Again. She seemed good at that. And he couldn’t blame her.

Diana Fenton was a pariah. He could vaguely understand the other students going after her. Sparx was another matter. The other cadets might not know who Luther Fenton was – Sparx would unless he’d buried his head under a rock for the past five years.

Though a part of Sampson wanted to just let Diana cruise through this lesson, another part reminded him she had to learn this. “You should at least try to roll,” he muttered. “It’ll absorb some of the force of the fall.” He reached his hand out to her. Again.

She pressed her slight fingers into his and allowed him to do all the work as he pulled her to her feet.

There was no denying that she was petite. But there was no denying that that was not a reason to shirk combat. Some of the most lethal soldiers Sampson knew were the smallest. Size tended to lead to overconfidence. The best operators knew that they had to win every fight from scratch.

Diana took a few seconds to even comprehend the fact that he’d spoken to her. She brushed her fingers through her glossy hair as one of her canines scrunched down her bottom lip. “I did,” she lied.

He couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, certainly saw you trying to roll there as you stared dead-eyed at the ceiling.”

His comment got to her, and she immediately shrugged her shoulders in and lowered her gaze to the ground. He recognized it for what it was – classic defensiveness. Over the years of being treated like the odd one out, Diana Fenton had obviously internalized that the only way to stop people from bullying her was to show that she was smaller and not worth the effort.

He reached a hand out to her. It took him a few seconds to even realize why – his body had done it of its own accord. And for a psy soldier as trained as him, his body rarely acted on instinct.

She looked at his hand, those large violet eyes opening wider. They were like two doors. And yet, despite how wide they looked as her dark, long lashes rimmed them, something told him that if they were two doors, she always kept them closed. Diana Fenton didn’t strike him as the kind of person who ever let anyone close. “Ah… why are you offering me a hand?”

“Because you’re going to get me on my back now,” Sampson decided.

She didn’t react. Sampson knew he was attractive. He didn’t even need to tune in to the feelings of some of the cadets around him to conclude that. He could see it in their gazes. He’d received more than a few appreciative glances. Something told him that if he’d just offered that to Susan, she would’ve shot him one hell of a smile.

Diana just looked back as if it couldn’t be done. Her cheeks didn’t even redden. She shook her head, her shoulder-length silky hair sliding around her cheeks, a few long strands slipping from her bun. “You’re too tall and too heavy. I simply don’t have the capacity.”

He chuckled. His hand was still held out to her. “It’s not about capacity. It’s about opportunity. Even the smallest person can flip the tallest if they get them on the wrong foot. You get a Mascar warrior barreling toward you, and even an unarmed soldier can take them down if—” he began.

He stopped.

At the mention of a Mascar – one of the primary Barbarian races – Diana Fenton shut down. It was like a wall slammed down in between her and him. Her cheeks stiffened, her lips locked into a line, and she turned her gaze to the side.

That was no normal reaction. The Barbarians and their constituent races might be legendary among the Academy, but for Diana to shut down like this, it meant she’d dealt with them firsthand.

… How? He doubted Luther Fenton had taken his daughter along on a mission to Barbarian space.

Before he could finish that thought, Diana shook her head. “There’s nothing anyone can do against a Mascar. You just die.”

“What did you just say, Cadet?” Sparx spat. He had to have hearing implants, because the commander seemed to be able to pick up what Diana was saying from halfway across the room, despite the noise.

He shifted over once more, and once more, Diana was forced to drop her gaze to the ground.

Diana sighed. Sampson thought she’d drop this conversation like she had her gaze, but he was quickly learning that while Diana technically knew how to physically react around bullies, she didn’t know how to keep her mouth shut. “I said that there’s nothing you can do against a Mascar if you’re not in armor. You just die.”

“How would you know this? You met one?” Sparx snapped.

Diana didn’t drop her gaze. Slowly, she shook her head.

… And it was a lie. Sampson didn’t need to turn his psychic skills on to fully appreciate that. It was written all over her face. However it had happened, Diana Fenton clearly had first-hand experience with the Barbarians. Sampson didn’t need statistics to tell him that experience would’ve been traumatic. Common sense was enough.

But what Sampson could read, Sparx was clearly too blunt to discern, as he continued, “You can’t make assumptions about the galaxy, Cadet. Neither can you make assumptions about what you can and cannot take on. Theory will never make up for direct experience.”

She blinked her arresting eyes once then kept them wide open as she looked directly at Sparx. “Then you prove my original point. Training will never prepare you for the real world.”

Though Sparx had legitimately just walked into that, by pointing it out, Diana had dug her own grave. And she’d done it publicly. Sparx, even if he hadn’t hated Diana, would be forced to reprimand her anyway.

“Out,” he said, jamming his thumb toward the door. “You will report to discipline at 17:00 hrs.”

“I have an appointment,” she said quietly.

“I don’t goddamn care.”

“It’s with Counselor Bequelia.”

Sparx ground to a stop. He cleared his throat gruffly. “Then you will report to discipline at 17:00 tomorrow. That’s it. Now get out of my class.”

Diana made eye contact with no one – not even Sampson – as she walked away.

As for Sampson – he couldn’t tear his gaze off her. That had been unfair on every level. Yeah, so Diana clearly had a habit of putting her foot in her mouth, but only when pushed. And her classmates and teachers seemed all too eager to push her.

Before Sampson could conclude that every kid around him was nothing more than a glorified bully – Sparx included – he had to remind himself they weren’t psychic. To them, Diana didn’t know what she was speaking about. To Sampson, she clearly had a violent history with the Barbarians, and Sparx had no right to rub her nose in it. To make matters worse, Sparx publicly forced her to admit that she was seeing a counselor. He’d rescheduled her disciplinary action to another day, which meant Diana wasn’t casually seeing a counselor – she was being forced to.

It took Sampson too long to drop this injustice and get back to his actual mission. It was still in the background of his mind as he was paired up with another cadet. Because it painted a picture of an Academy that had forgotten its roots. In the rush of competitiveness to be the best and brightest, they’d forgotten what set the Coalition apart. The Galactic Coalition did not rule through the power of force – it ruled through the power of understanding.

And when you forget your roots, it’s easy enough to let weeds grow.

With that thought in mind, he scanned his classmates, one by one. He’d find the terrorists before it was too late. And he would deal out the justice they deserved. For while he’d just preached about understanding, it went beyond accepting weakness. Correct understanding was about the accurate and truthful representation of one’s limitations. True understanding reinforced what you could and couldn’t do, but most importantly, it taught you what to protect and what costs you had to go to to keep it safe.

Sampson Ventura would protect the Academy, the Coalition, and the goddamn Milky Way from Infection Zero. And that was a promise.

Chapter 6

Diana Fenton

“Just close your eyes,” Bequelia said as she sat forward in her seat, her robes rustling around her elegant legs. She had a pretty array of spots marching up her shins and disappearing under the hem of her dress. The streaming sunlight that glowed through the window behind Diana caught those spots and cast Bequelia in an otherworldly glow.

But Diana had seen real otherworldly glows – they inhabited her dreams. So she wouldn’t be fooled by a trick of the light.

She sat as stiffly as she had the minute she’d walked in and nominally acquiesced to this process. She would go through the motions, she told herself, but she would not open up.

Bequelia let out a heavy sigh, but it had a patient edge. Or at least, appeared to. As a smile spread her white lips, she shook her head. “You just have to submit to the process.”

“I don’t wish to submit to anything,” Diana said defensively, her hackles rising higher.

This always happened whenever she had an appointment with Bequelia. From the moment she walked in the door and sensed the woman psychically scanning her, Diana felt like someone was trying to drill a hole through her head.

“My mistake. That was just a misuse of words. Trust,” she emphasized with a breath of air, “the process. Fall into it. It’s only through trust that you can truly open.”

“We’ve discussed this. I don’t wish to open myself. I’m happy where I am.”

“And yet the Academy is not,” Bequelia said quietly.

To anyone else, maybe they would only see the small, supportive smile apparently spreading her lips. To Diana, she swore she saw underneath.

Bequelia was the sharpest person she’d ever felt. The woman was like a scalpel. One that was hidden behind a flower. If you were stupid enough to reach out and grab said rose, it would stab you through your hand.

Diana brought up her fingers and pinched the bridge of her nose as more tension racked her body. As soon as she closed her eyes, she caught a vision of her dream from this morning.

Bequelia suddenly shifted closer, the rustle of her dress loud, and it gave Diana the impression of hiding in a forest only to hear the snap of a twig right behind her.

She dropped her hand and looked at Bequelia.

Was that interest playing in Bequelia’s eyes? It usually was.

Cutting interest.

Rather than dare to close her eyes again, Diana settled for locking her hands together and rubbing them. It was clearly nervous, but Bequelia ignored it.

“I feel like we’re on the cusp of something significant. We’ve been working together for years. And I feel like we’re finally getting somewhere. You simply have to—”

Diana pushed to her feet. Securing her hands together until the fingers became as white as sticks of magnesium, she considered marching for the door.

“You’ve already missed one session, Diana. I shouldn’t have to remind you that if you miss another, your Academy career could be jeopardized.”

“You don’t need to remind me – you’re correct. But you do it every session regardless,” Diana said bitterly.

Bequelia didn’t react. Not with frustration or anger, anyway. If Diana had been stupid enough to direct that comment at Sparx, he would’ve ripped her head off.

Bequelia? Diana swore she could spit right in Bequelia’s face, and the woman would still patiently reinforce that all Diana had to do was open up.

Bequelia was like a voracious reader patiently waiting to find out what was written on a book inside Diana’s head. No, wait – that image didn’t go far enough. She was like a miner who wanted to dig violently through Diana’s psyche to find a single fleck of gold, then she’d cast everything else away.

“Please sit, Diana,” Bequelia said patiently.

Diana settled for marching nervously over to the view. She clamped her sweaty hands behind her back as she tried to focus through the glass. Though Bequelia’s office had a direct view of the Academy grounds, and from this high up they looked like a glittering gemstone, Diana stared right through them.

… As she concentrated, sometimes she swore she could stare right between matter. It was crazy, she knew that. Or at least, people had taught her that over the years. It was the one place of calm Diana had, so she used it now as her hackles just rose higher and higher.

Bequelia stood. “Just open up,” she said as she reached a hand out and clamped it on Diana’s shoulder.

It wasn’t a strong move. It wasn’t as if Bequelia was using all her weight to lock Diana down like an anchor to a ship. It had something far more insidious, though – it felt as if Bequelia had just put the mental equivalent of a knife to Diana’s throat.

Diana got the urge to not just throw Bequelia off but to throw her halfway across the room.

“You’re closing off more than ever. I suggest whatever thought you just had, you stop it. Whatever you’re doing right now – it’s shutting you down, pushing your emotions further and further away. Take back your life, Diana, and open up.”

All Diana was doing was pretending she could stare between matter again. And far from taking her life away, it felt like it was the only thing protecting it.

Whenever Diana retreated to this place, it didn’t just feel as if nothing could touch her – it felt as if everything was in perspective. She would gain these glimpses – glimpses that told her no matter what she was going through now, one day everything would make sense. One day she would change. She just had to wait.

She let out a sigh. She felt better – way better than she had since she’d walked in the door. She also felt that despite the fact Bequelia’s mind continued to try to pry into hers, Diana could rebuff her.

She turned to look right at Bequelia. “Can you please move your hand from my shoulder?”

Bequelia paused, and Diana swore she saw a flicker of irritation dancing deep in the woman’s bright blue eyes. But finally Bequelia dropped her hand. She gestured back to the couch. “I don’t want you to go backward during this session. You honestly are on the cusp of opening up. Now please, close your eyes. You’re calmer when you close your eyes.”

Calmer? Either Bequelia was the worst counselor out there – and certainly the worst psychic – or she had a talent for lying. For whenever Diana closed her eyes in Bequelia’s presence, her fear would peak like a freaking volcano getting ready to explode.

Knowing she couldn’t continue to fight Bequelia the whole session, Diana walked over to her seat and sat roughly. She didn’t and wouldn’t close her eyes, though.

Bequelia walked back to her own seat, but before she did, she patted Diana’s shoulder once more.

Diana felt it all over again – like the woman’s mere presence was a knife at her throat.

Becoming agitated, Diana clasped her sweaty hands together and sat back in the comfortable seat. Well, technically it was a comfortable chair – in her current mood it felt as if it was an iron maiden from old Earth.

“Close your eyes,” Bequelia said.

“I don’t—” Diana tried.

“Close your eyes, Cadet,” Bequelia said in a firmer tone, “or I will make a note on your report that you have been wholly uncooperative during this session. Do you wish to be kicked out of the Academy?”

Bequelia wasn’t usually this forthright. For some reason, Diana got the impression that the woman was running out of patience. There was a sense of urgency behind her, even though an ordinary person wouldn’t see it in her languid smiles and patient blinks.

Diana swore it enshrouded her like a cloud of black energy.

Though the last thing she wanted to do was close her eyes, Diana did it anyway.

Another flash of this morning’s dream erupted through her consciousness. She could see her father’s face. Right there. Close enough to touch.

“That’s it,” Bequelia said excitedly. “I can feel you opening up. If you don’t let me in, you’ll never be able to deal with your traumas.”

Diana tensed right up. As panic surged through her and she forced herself to keep her eyes closed, she felt like Bequelia was trying to reach into her head.

The image of Diana’s dad suddenly focused in her mind. Before it could become too sharp, Diana jerked her eyes open.

“Dammit,” Bequelia actually spat. “Why are you being so difficult, Cadet?”

Diana blinked back her surprise.

It took Bequelia a second to realize she’d overreacted. She tried to smooth that smile onto her face, but it was too late.

It’d been too late the second Diana had walked in the door. It had been too late the second she’d met Bequelia. Because while everyone else might assume that Bequelia had the kindest heart of any soul out there, Diana saw through. Because Diana always saw through.

“I’m uncomfortable with the way you just spoke to me,” Diana said directly. While she had a talent for putting her foot in her mouth, sometimes that worked to her advantage.

“I apologize. I simply sensed you were on the edge of something. And I wish to make every single session we have worthwhile.” Bequelia smoothly slipped back into her usual role as if nothing had just happened. The woman seemed to have an unparalleled ability to wipe away her past reactions as if no one else would bother to remember them. Or perhaps as if, with nothing more than a mental command from her, they wouldn’t be able to.

… Diana knew that was a paranoid thought. She’d gone over this too many times. She tended to see the bad side of people. Not always, but while she could excuse the exclusionary behavior of some of her classmates, others she couldn’t. Inexplicably for reasons she could not comprehend, some people raised her hackles. And once they were raised, they would not drop.

“Cadet, all I need you to do is try to remember the incident,” Bequelia said.

Incident, ha? Was that what they were calling it now? The most traumatic moment in Diana’s life – in anyone’s life – and it had been melted down into nothing more than a single word.

“Don’t let anger rise through you. Push it away. Push everything away. Just keep your eyes closed and listen to me. My voice is like a rope. All you have to do is hold onto it.”

While you strangle me with it? Diana thought bitterly.

“I want you to take your mind – and your emotions – back to your incident.”

If Bequelia kept referring to it as an incident, Diana knew she’d break.

For with every second as she sat there, feeling more vulnerable than the next, her emotions frayed.

This was why she hated coming to the counselor so much. She’d tried to convey that to her dad so many times, but what could he do? Seeing Bequelia was a requirement of Diana’s continued stay at the Academy. With so many complaints leveled against her – especially in her first few years – the disciplinary committee had required frequent counseling sessions as a condition of her passing. There were even some threats that they might continue when she graduated.

The very idea of it – of this, of having someone continually dig about in her thoughts, dragging up her past emotions as they searched for what they thought would cure her – made her blood boil. It made it feel like it was rising through her like smoke. And that… that almost brought up something from her past… something….

“That’s it,” Bequelia said, an excited note unmistakably shaking through her tone. “You’re so close. Just listen to my voice and go further into your incident.”

To be fair to Bequelia – not that Diana was in any mood to cut her any slack – she didn’t know what had happened to Diana. Not completely.

No one did.

Bequelia simply knew that Diana’s parents had been murdered right in front of her eyes on a colony outpost.

Even Diana didn’t know much more….

All she could remember was her dad being killed. A massive Mascar warrior grabbing him from behind and crushing his windpipe – right in front of her.

… Then everything went blurry. Though her dad was dead, she remembered him down on his knees in front of her. She remembered cradling him. She recalled him smiling up into her face. She even recalled the awed way he’d stared at her. But that was it.

“That’s it,” Bequelia said, and the excitement curling through her tone could not be mistaken. It rose like flame curling around indefensible dry wood.

Fenton had found Diana. After her colony outpost was attacked by Barbarians, somehow something had managed to get off a distress call, and Fenton’s ship had been the closest around.

She could remember him and his team searching through the rubble of the dig site. She could remember – to this day, in perfect detail – as he’d whispered that no one was alive and lingered over her father’s body.

Then she remembered him finding her and lifting her out of the destruction, the blood, the death, and the darkness.

The rest was a blur.

Countless counseling sessions had never been able to get Diana to recall what had happened that day, and they never would.

Diana, without closing her eyes, collapsed her face into her hands, pinned her elbows on her knees, and started bouncing them up and down, one after the other.

“Keep your eyes closed,” Bequelia warned. There was a real edge of control in her voice. She might have asked Diana to treat her quiet tones like a rope leading her forward. Now they felt like chains around her wrists.

Diana wanted to open her eyes, but something felt like it was compelling her to keep them closed.

“Push deeper, Diana. Deeper. I want you to remember the moment you saw your father’s dying face. I want you to look right into his eyes.”

This was sick. It had to stop.

Diana went to jump to her feet. The next thing she knew, Bequelia was somehow right beside her, and one of her hands was sinking hard into Diana’s shoulder.

The urge to run away died quickly. It was as if someone had just diluted it in an ocean, as if the mere thought of moving Diana’s limbs was now so heavy, it couldn’t rise to the surface of her motor cortex.

“I want you to remember the moment you saw your father’s face. I want you to look into his eyes – deep into his eyes and tell me what is reflected back. What did your father see in his dying moment?”

No.

Something broke Diana free. It was the same thing she’d been battling all these years. That feeling – no, that actual ability to see between things. It rose up like a hand reaching from the stars.

The next thing she knew, Diana snapped to her feet.

She expected the move would be violent enough to throw Bequelia off… but Bequelia was still seated opposite her.

Bequelia’s eyes were strained, the skin around them so stretched, it looked like plastic had been melted, dried, and melted again.

She looked as if she’d been concentrating with all her might.

And she had been concentrating – but whatever she’d been trying to do, she’d failed.

That realization appeared to strike Bequelia like a slap. She rocketed to her feet, and now nobody – no matter how naïve and innocent – would view the woman’s snarling face as kind. “You will sit back in that chair, Cadet. And you will take me back to the point of your trauma.”

“No. I won’t.”

“You will. Or you will be kicked out of the Academy.”

“Maybe that’s better than this.”

Bequelia could usually see reason, but she was irascible now. That look in her eyes – it was the look of someone who’d just been seconds away from grasping what they’d always been after only to have it slapped out of their groping grip.

Though Diana was already standing with her legs against the seat behind her, she got the urge to retreat further. Her gaze darted toward the door, but Bequelia’s followed.

The counselor took a pronounced step, blocking off the exit. “Close your eyes, Cadet. Show me what your father saw all those years ago.”

“No. You’re… you’re talking about this like it’s some kind of movie. It’s my life,” Diana choked, tears welling in her eyes as she slapped a hand emphatically on her chest. “This isn’t ordinary counseling. You shouldn’t keep making me relive this. Why the hell should I look into the dying eyes of my father to see what he saw? What kind of screwed up shit is that?” Now Diana had started, she couldn’t stop.

“This is counseling. And it is required. If you wish, I will call Commander Sparx right now, and he can reaffirm why this is so important. Or perhaps,” Bequelia said, making no effort to hide the snide pleasure curling her lips, “I can simply call Admiral Fenton. I’m sure he can take time out of his busy schedule protecting the Coalition to listen to another one of your complaints.”

That did it. Despite the fact everything told Diana to flee this room like a burning house, her shoulders deflated.

She couldn’t… she just couldn’t add more to her father’s plate. She’d heard it in his voice this morning – the stress. Even if he’d been a good enough actor to hide it, Diana was smart enough to appreciate it had to be there. Though she was hardly privy to Coalition secrets, she read the news. She was also emotionally aware enough to pick up the vibe when she passed officers in the Academy halls. It was written all over their faces – the galaxy was slipping day by day. Her dad was tasked with the responsibility of making the Milky Way – and everyone in the Coalition – hold on just a little longer.

She closed her eyes as tears washed down her cheeks.

Bequelia pointed one stiff finger at the couch.

Diana didn’t say anything. She couldn’t.

She would just have to submit.

Chapter 7

Sampson Ventura

It was time to head to the E Club meet.

Sampson didn’t honestly know what he’d find there. The more he got to learn about the culture at the Academy, the more he suspected it would be a smart move to join that club.

Sure, it wasn’t as if Sampson had ever studied here himself, but he’d met people who had. And to a T, they had more moral worth than the cadets he strode past now.

That wasn’t to say these kids were write-offs – just that the culture they were being steeped in was twisted.

Maybe it was the threat of impending war. Perhaps it was the stress of knowing that the Coalition Army they’d joined was infinitely more dangerous than the ones their parents had.

Or maybe some insidious force had slithered its way into the Academy to rot its students from within.

These thoughts and more flashed through Sampson’s mind as he strode along. No matter what he was thinking of, he always looked the part. He wouldn’t exactly call his body some glorified robot, but he certainly had the mental acuity and practice to be able to set his limbs doing one thing while his head did another.

Or at least, that was the theory. As he passed a door on his way through one of the wide corridors of the administrative wing, he found himself stopping. Suddenly.

It wasn’t the door that did it. It was the surge of emotions behind it.

Sampson had faced a lot today. From cadets who were so nervous, it felt as if their psyches had morphed into storms, to excitement that blazed as if someone had lit a firecracker.

This? What he sensed behind the door?

It was despair.

It was blunt like a blow to his goddamn brain.

His gaze jerked toward the door. Forest had made it clear that he – under no circumstances – was to reveal that he was psychic. Everything else was a blank check. Forest was the kind of operator who knew that a soldier like Sampson understood proportionality. His brutal training in the psy corps had taught him when and how to act, and importantly, when to walk away if interfering in something would jeopardize his primary mission.

But right now, he couldn’t move away.

Someone was trapped behind that door. And they were only getting more trapped by the second.

There was a real possibility that someone was about to be assaulted.

“Fuck it,” he whispered under his breath as he lurched over and rammed his thumb into the call button beside the door.

He felt something emotionally change in the room. As a crescendo of despair broke like a drowning man suddenly cresting the surface of the sea, Sampson knew he’d done the right thing.

He kept his thumb jammed into the intercom button until someone finally answered.

He didn’t know what he expected to see.

What he saw was a Sakara female. And behind her?

Cadet Diana Fenton, her face awash with tears, shouldered past the Sakara, bumped into Sampson, and barreled down the corridor as if she’d just been released from chains.

Sampson tried to control his expression, but he couldn’t. Genuine, compassionate surprise widened his eyes.

“Diana,” the Sakara snapped. “Get back here.”

Her tone arced high with sharp irritation. Irritation that immediately changed the second she looked up at Sampson’s face. For a race that was careful about where they were and who they were in front of, the Sakara had momentarily forgotten she had a witness. That fact was reinforced as she set calm control settling through her features as if she’d programmed it into her muscles. “I’m sorry, Cadet. Please excuse me.”

She went to shift past Sampson to get to Diana, but Sampson did something he probably shouldn’t. Short of actually snapping a hand around the Sakara’s wrist and stopping her in place, he took a direct step in front of her.

The Sakara looked up, and Sampson saw it again – profound irritation flickering in her gaze like a flame just asking to be lit. “I’m sorry, Cadet,” she said patiently, and at least she could control her voice, because not a hint of the anger he knew was there poisoned it. “But if you have a counseling session with me, it must wait.”

“Sorry, it’s kind of urgent. I’m struggling,” he lied. He also continued to get in her way until he felt Diana reach an elevator down the corridor. He didn’t need to turn his head to confirm it with his sight. His psychic skills were more than enough. With the amount of emotional turmoil Diana was going through, a psychic halfway across the city would be able to track her.

“You can book an appointment with me after I’m done,” the Sakara said as she took one final step around him and marched off down the corridor.

Sampson watched her go. He didn’t lock his full attention on her. Her door was still open. It hadn’t closed because he was standing close enough to it that it thought he wanted to enter. And he did. It would be kind of inappropriate, considering there were witnesses – but he didn’t have to physically move inside, did he?

He let his psychic senses wash over the place, and it was like the scene of a crime. He could tell where the Sakara had been sitting, and his heart skipped a beat as his gaze flicked over to a white couch seated behind a huge window.

Even if he hadn’t met Diana, he would have been able to feel her imprint all over that couch. Heck, there were tears splattered on the armrests.

His gut clenched.

As he continued to scan the room, picking up every last psychic trace he could, he took a step back.

He could sense Diana. She’d made it down to the base of the tower. He hadn’t been kidding, see – any psychic worth their while would be able to track her. She had this open emotional wound, and it was the equivalent of dripping blood all over the floor wherever you ran.

Sampson didn’t pause too long until he appreciated precisely what that thought meant. The Sakara had already disappeared through the crowd.

He turned and headed in the opposite direction, determined to get to Diana first. It took until he reached the lifts on the other side of the corridor for him to catch up to what he was doing.

You see this – this wasn’t his mission.

He didn’t honestly think Diana and the Sakara had somehow been discussing terrorist plots in that room only for Diana to have a teary about it.

This… he didn’t know what this was. But he knew precisely what his body wanted to do as he nervously waited for the lifts to arrive.

He ran out as the doors opened.

He didn’t use his gaze to try to pick Diana out of the crowd – he followed her wound.

It was still dripping. As Sampson turned in her direction, picking up his pace, he stopped trying to tell himself not to follow.

He knew he was going to do it anyway.

His father had never been impulsive. Professor Ventura was anything but. Sampson had never known his mother, either. His impulsiveness – though it only ever reared its head occasionally – came from his brother.

Sampson pushed all thoughts of his brother from his mind as he twisted behind a group of cadets striding through an opening door. He got in front of them and marched down the front steps quickly.

“Mark,” someone called out to him.

For a second, he forgot that was his name now.

“Mark,” someone called louder.

He recognized the voice. Susan.

“Just heading to the training session now,” he lied, fobbing her off.

“We should walk together.”

“Sorry, gotta take a private call first.” He lost himself in the crowd quickly. It was a simple task to do. Maybe for some of the other psychic races, it would be one of the more complex skills out there. To truly lose yourself in a crowd, you needed to not just be aware of the person who was tracking you, but the crowd itself. You needed to negotiate a position that would always keep the crowd between you and them.

Now, as he plowed forward, he did it as an afterthought. His body moved seamlessly through the sea of cadets coming and going on their first day. If someone had been watching him, they would have noticed that he didn’t once bump into anyone and instead moved like a programmed drone navigating an asteroid field.

He finally saw Diana. She had one hand crumpled over her mouth, the other locked around her stomach as she stumbled off through the grass toward the quietest section of the grounds.

No one appeared to care. Did they see the tears that stained her cheeks like arterial blood? Yeah, a few did. Even if they didn’t, anyone with a functioning set of eyes would have noted her hunched, defeated body language.

No one stopped her to see if she was okay. Not a single soul.

That hardened Sampson’s resolve like molten steel thrown in ice water. He picked up his pace until he reached her.

She retreated behind the broad base of a wide oak. It was far enough away from the main grounds that no one could see her behind it.

She didn’t even notice as he darted into view. She clamped her white-knuckled, tear-slicked hand so hard over her mouth, it looked like she was trying to hold onto her every breath.

Or not her breath. Maybe what was left of her frayed mind.

“Hey, you okay?” Sampson asked the one question every cadet who’d passed her should have asked the second they’d seen her.

It took too long for her to look up. As she swung those soulful violet eyes toward him, it was a moment he would never forget.

For the use of the adjective soulful was no accident.

It felt as if Diana Fenton’s life had been laid bare at his feet.

Sampson Ventura wasn’t an emotional man, or at least he wasn’t meant to be. Years of training should have taught him by now that emotions – in all their forms – were tools. Only those who wielded them wisely crafted a life worth living.

That went out the window as he hesitated, reached out a hand, and rested it on her shoulder, compassion flowing through him from some long-buried reserve. Sampson was a great actor, but this wasn’t acting. “You okay?” he tried again.

Maybe it was his hand or his voice, but she finally unhooked her hand from her mouth. She went to shake her head, but she stopped.

He could feel as the raw immediacy of her despair passed. He had no clue what had happened to her, but now she was out here, the threat was over, and he could practically see as Diana reassessed her situation.

She took a step back from him. “Sorry. I… I’m fine.”

He nodded slowly. It was the kind of nod that affirmed nothing but his own suspicions. “Okay.” Though he could have pushed and pointed out the obvious – that she was a bleeding, emotional wreck – that wasn’t how he should handle this.

She sighed, shook her head, stretched one sleeve over her white fingers, and tried to wipe her face. It was a hard task; it looked like she hadn’t just cried a river but an ocean.

He stood there silently. As he did, he did two things. He watched her, and he watched over her.

With a subtle psychic suggestion, he prevented any curious cadets from wandering their way. He also kept a lock on the Sakara. She was still searching for Diana. With all her damn worth.

What the hell happened?

Though Sampson wanted to know right now, he knew that to push Diana would be to push her away. So he stood there, a psychic shield between her and an Academy that seemed programmed to crush her.

It took another minute for her to stop fastidiously drying her cheeks. She even bothered to re-do her hair, pulling out her bun and letting each glistening indigo-laced lock slide over her blotchy cheeks before she gathered them up in a shaking hand and tied them up again.

She let her gaze drop to her feet. It was like she was waiting for something. He didn’t need to search her emotions to figure out what it was. Diana was vulnerable – open-heart, tear-covered-face vulnerable. And as she slowly allowed her gaze to tick up to his face, it was clear she was waiting for him to use this against her.

When he just stood there, she swallowed. “I’m sorry—”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Diana.” He deliberately didn’t call her cadet. And he deliberately ensured his voice was hard but kind.

She looked at her feet briefly, but this time it didn’t last nearly as long. She ticked her violet eyes back up to his.

He swore they were more reflective than ever. With little effort, he could see his own image reflected back in them. Though Sampson was hardly a romantic soul, there was only one way to describe her eyes – you could stare into them for the rest of your life without ever growing old. They had this… sense of perspective about them.

“You… thank you,” she said quietly. “I mean, if I can’t say sorry, I should at least say thank you.”

He smiled at her weak joke; not at the humor, but at the fact she was calming down enough to see perspective.

… And there was that word again – perspective.

“You don’t need to thank me,” he managed after a pause longer than it needed to be.

“Um… you probably want to know what happened.” Her nerves reignited as she locked a tensed hand on the back of her neck and drove her fingers down into her knotted trapezius.

“Not if you don’t want to tell me.”

She did it again – she dropped her gaze, waited, then tentatively stared at him. It was like she was always giving him the opportunity to reassess the situation and walk away.

He stood his ground, redistributing his weight until his back was just as strong as the oak beside him.

“I… what were you doing there, anyway?”

“I was thinking of seeing the counselor for something,” he lied.

Though Sampson had a heck of a lot he could see a counselor about, there was no point. When it came to psychic wounds like his, you needed the most skilled operator. Because if you got someone who didn’t know what they were doing – or worse, didn’t have your best interests at heart – they would do way more damage than good.

Fear flooded her features like someone pouring ice water down her mouth. She shook her head in a jerky move that saw a few strands of hair loosen from her bun. “Don’t, don’t,” she whispered quickly.

He’d expected her reaction. It’s why he’d asked his question. “Why not?”

“She’s—” Diana started to scratch her hip, then she moved onto her elbow before resettling her nails into her thigh and digging them in like someone holding on for dear life. “She digs,” she admitted in a tortured tone.

Disgust spilled down his back and curled his stomach. “What do you mean?” He almost couldn’t control his voice.

“I… god, you’re just going to think I’m mad.”

“I don’t think you’re mad, Diana,” he said definitively.

Again, she looked at him like she was giving him time to change his mind. When he didn’t, she shook her head but stopped halfway through the move. “She’s… psychic, you know? She’s from one of the psychic races… and I just… I just feel she uses her mind to—”

Diana didn’t get to finish.

The Sakara appeared.

Out of frigging nowhere. And she wasn’t alone.

Sampson had been so drawn in by Diana, he’d committed the cardinal sin of failing to scan his environment.

He’d lost attention for just a second, but in that time the Sakara had found Diana like a hawk.

Diana lost it. Just not obviously. She shut down at the sight of Sparx and the Sakara. This wasn’t like the time Diana had put up an emotional wall at the mention of a Mascar.

This was on another level.

It was like she switched her mind off completely. She locked her gaze on Sparx’s boots and didn’t say a word.

“There you are,” the Sakara said. Her tone was neutral.

Technically.

Sampson could feel something seething under the surface of the Sakara, but he could only catch a glimpse.

He could push, but that would be dangerous; he had no clue what level of psychic skills this Sakara possessed.

“Cadet, Bequelia here has informed me that you stormed out on your counseling session,” Sparx barked.

Though Sparx was aware Sampson was standing just there, Sparx didn’t measure his tone.

Or his anger.

The guy was seething.

Why?

And as for ‘storming out’ of her counseling session, Sampson had been there.

His gaze slipped toward the Sakara, Bequelia. Why had she found Sparx, brought him here, and lied about Diana’s behavior? If retreating in a flood of tears could be classed as storming out, then Bequelia needed her emotions recalibrated.

“I’m sorry,” Diana managed, never once glancing up. It was like she was desperately trying to look not at the ground but through it.

“Sorrys aren’t good enough. If you can’t treat your counselor with respect and you just storm out—”

Sampson couldn’t take it anymore. There was no Earthly reason for him to get involved, and there was every reason not to. Now the Sakara and Sparx were here, Sampson needed to walk away. If he showed too much interest in Diana, the class pariah, it could bring him the kind of attention he didn’t need.

But Sampson wasn’t the kind to sit still or walk away. He took a small, barely noticeable step in front of Diana. He hardly squared off in front of Sparx and Bequelia, but he gave the impression he could at any moment.

Sparx frowned. “What are you doing, Cadet? Did Diana come running to you? You can’t believe—”

“She didn’t storm out of her counseling session, sir,” Sampson said evenly.

“It’s okay, you don’t have too—” Diana tried.

No one listened to her as Sparx swallowed his anger with a twitch of his jaw – or tried to. “Cadet Ray, you don’t need to get involved in this – it’s not your business.”

“Pretty sure it is, sir. Pretty sure it’s the business of every cadet to ensure the safety of every other cadet around them.”

Sparx’s eyes narrowed. It was a twitching, quick, obviously calculating move. And it would be the first of many. Because Sparx would, from this point on, reassess Sampson. That’s what you did when a bolshie cadet refused to back down in the face of authority.

Sparx lengthened the long muscles of his back and set his jaw like concrete. “Cadet Ray, there’s nothing to see here.”

Ha, great way to put it, Sampson thought bitterly. Because to the rest of the cadets who’d ignored Diana’s distress, there really had been nothing to see.

Sampson wasn’t known for shutting his eyes and denying what was right in front of his face, though. He wasn’t known for forgetting his mission, either, but right now that faded to the background as he got involved in something he shouldn’t. “I was there,” he repeated. “I accidentally interrupted whatever was happening,” he said, not doing Bequelia the dignity of referring to it as a counseling session, “and I saw Diana. She didn’t storm out. She ran because she was scared and overcome.” There, he’d done it – he’d poked his toe somewhere he shouldn’t.

As Sparx’s thin lips spread into an even thinner frown, he looked like he wanted to crush said toe with his heel. He settled for clearing his throat. “Your interpretation of events—” he began, his voice like a frigging brick to your head.

“Is understandable,” Bequelia interrupted. Like any true psychic, she’d been watching the situation, and now the slight, pretty alien stepped in literally as she took a step up to Sampson.

… He sensed her trying to skim his emotions. It felt like a hand trying to reach in through his eyes – a hand used to bluntly and violently grabbing whatever it wanted.

Just before he could conclude this Sakara was versed in psychic interrogation, she pulled back or lost the power to push further.

“I can see why you interpreted events that way,” Bequelia continued, her voice all sweetness and light.

Sampson looked at her, his expression and emotions controlled under the weight of his considerable mind. The best psychic could try to read him, and they would fail.

“Diana might have appeared distraught when she left my office,” Bequelia continued. Every comment was leading, and it was clear she was trying to get Sampson to admit to his ‘interpretation’ of events. As soon as she did, she would no doubt fabricate a masterful ‘reinterpretation’ to show him he’d misperceived events.

Sampson kept his mouth shut and his attention on the Sakara. He wouldn’t be led down a rabbit hole today.

She waited, but when he didn’t rise to the bait, she put more effort into her beguiling smile. “Diana needs to come back with me. It’s important for her not to leave a session mid-way through. I can’t discuss more with you, Cadet Ray – because this is a private matter between a patient and her doctor,” she added.

Sampson just stopped himself from snorting. It was a little too late to rely on patient privacy when they’d seemed happy to parade Diana’s problems earlier.

Sparx’s eyes settled on Sampson, and it was clear that the commander was waiting to see what Sampson would do next.

Diana’s eyes were on him too – and her hope. He could feel it like a bundle of wings she’d swallowed. They fidgeted in her chest as she shifted further behind him.

They told him she had no way out. If he backed down now, she’d be taken back.

So Sampson would make her a way out and make some enemies in the process. “It might have started as private, but the second it came out into the corridor, it became public. It’s clear Cadet Fenton does not wish to return with you. It’s clear – despite possible interpretations,” he stressed that word, “that she left your counseling session distraught, not angry. I might not have finished my training yet, but I’m pretty sure there is no privilege under any student ordinance to force a patient to continue a counseling session under duress.”

Yep, that would do it. Sampson had just gone and stuck his toe even further into boiling water.

Sparx looked like he’d been sucker punched, and Bequelia gave nothing away as she pressed another smile over her face.

This one wasn’t beguiling. This one was the kind of smile you’d give if you were trying to get someone to look in the opposite direction while you knifed them in the back.

“Cadet Ray, that was way out of line,” Sparx tried.

Sampson had a cutting remark readying on his lips – you want to try out of line, Sparx, look in the mirror. But he didn’t get a chance to spit it. Diana settled a hand on Sampson’s arm.

Her touch was light, deceptively light. He couldn’t shake that impression, even though it made no sense – she was a small woman, so of course her grip was feather-weight. It’s not what he meant, though. It felt like she was holding back.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to put your neck on the line for me.”

Sparx growled. He actually growled. A fully trained, graduated, commissioned officer of the Coalition Army growled at a cadet like she was prey.

If Sampson hadn’t already gotten involved, that would have been the last straw.

“You recognize you’re dragging someone else down with you, do you, Cadet Fenton?” Sparx snapped. “Now have the sense to stop and head back to your session—”

“Stop,” Sampson said. It was one word – just one damn utterance. But he meant it.

Sparx slowly ticked his gaze up from Diana and over to Sampson. It was the move of a man re-aligning his aim.

Sampson didn’t flinch. “I don’t know what this is, but whatever it is, it’s going to end right now.”

“Unless you want disciplinary action brought against you—” Sparx began.

“If that’s what it’s going to take – fine. I submit. The next detention is tomorrow evening at 17:00 if I’m not mistaken.” Sampson delivered that line with zero care. Sparx could threaten him with the most grueling punishment the commander could think of, and Sampson would take it without batting an eyelid.

Sparx had no idea who he was dealing with.

Diana gasped. “You don’t need to—”

“Damage is done, Cadet Fenton.” Sparx didn’t lower his defiant gaze from Sampson as he snapped at Diana. If the commander’s deadly stare could speak, it would snarl just try me.

“I didn’t mean to—” Diana tried.

“Damage is done,” Sparx growled. “This is what happens when you drag people down with you. Cadet Ray here could have had a promising career before you latched onto him. Now I’ll have to watch him like a hawk.”

That comment made Sampson’s skin crawl. Diana hadn’t latched onto anyone – he’d found her. And he wasn’t going to give up at Sparx’s crude attempts to bully him away. Whoever this asshole thought he was, when Sampson was done with this mission, he was going to drag Sparx through the dirt. For now, he stared back at Sparx without a flicker of concern marking his face. It wasn’t a stare of defiance, but skill. The look of a man who knew, hands down, he could beat the idiot in front of him. Hands down.

Sampson was done telling himself to walk away. So he took a step toward Sparks.

Sparx reacted like any good commander should upon being physically threatened by a junior. The commander took a step forward, right at Sampson. “What are you doing?”

“Proving to you that I’m not being dragged down by anybody.” Sampson’s voice was even. So was his stance. Sparx could come at him, hell for leather, and Sampson would not be knocked from his feet.

“You want discipline – you get discipline. For the rest of the week. Join Cadet Fenton—” Sparx began.

“I don’t think discipline is necessary. There was simply a misunderstanding,” Bequelia interrupted.

Sampson waited for Sparx to pull the counselor up. She had no right intervening in a commander disciplining a cadet. She wasn’t part of the chain of command, and god knows both she and Sparx should know that.

Except Sparx did not pull her up. He nodded. “I guess you’re right. No need to drag Cadet Ray down with this mess. I wager he’s learned his lesson.”

… That was a hell of an about-face. Sparx was still simmering – oh hell was he simmering. But at one mere suggestion from Bequelia, he was backing away.

Why?

Sparx had every reason to discipline Sampson. The only reason you wouldn’t is if Bequelia here had something to gain by Sampson walking free.

Sampson felt Bequelia’s interest tick to Diana, not that it had ever left, and in a flash, he understood.

To discipline Sampson would be to push him closer to Diana, not further from her. Sampson would have shown a willingness to go down with her, and Bequelia was manipulative enough to figure out that the more Sampson had to sacrifice, the more it would entrench his views, not change them.

“Right, this is over,” Sparx concluded. “Cadet Ray, I believe you’re headed to the E Club meet. So head there. Cadet Fenton, you’re with me.”

Nope. She really wasn’t going anywhere with Sparx.

Short of physically forcing that fact, Sampson needed a way out of this situation that didn’t blow his cover.

Time to find a distraction. If he could get enough people – or more accurately, witnesses – over here, Sparx would be forced to back down. No reasonable person could possibly force Diana to go back to counseling if it was torturing her.

Just before Sampson could push out with his psychic skills to call people to his side, Diana shifted back. She’d been hidden by the bulk of the oak, and she couldn’t see beyond it, but that didn’t stop her from twisting to the side and suddenly waving. “Commander Bakar?”

“Diana!” Someone announced cheerily. A wide, squat Zex alien hurried around the tree, a genuine smile pressed over his three lips. “I haven’t had a chance to compliment you on your paper. It’s brilliant. But don’t simply believe my praise – I’ve had almost every senior engineer in the fleet contacting me for proof-of-concept,” Commander Bakar rolled on without taking a breath. Zexes rarely did. They were known for two things – being incredible scientists and even better gasbags. They were also known for having all the emotional awareness of a brick wall.

Bakar had just wandered into a clearly tense situation, but rather than note it, he clapped his hands together warmly and pointed in the direction of the primary science tower. “I was just about to call Chief Engineer Barlow – she would be honored if you sat in on the call, I’m sure.” For the first time, Bakar acknowledged the three other people standing around the embattled Diana. He stared right at Sparx. “That is unless I’m interrupting something.”

Sampson watched Sparx out of the corner of his eye. This right here would tell Sampson everything he needed to know. If Sparx continued to demand Diana get back to her counseling session, it would be clear the commander had nothing to hide.

But that’s not what he did. Sparx spread his stiff lips over his teeth in a move that looked like he was trying to slice them in half with his tongue. “It can wait.”

“The cadet was in a counseling session with me—” Bequelia interrupted, clearly unhappy with Sparx backing down. “And she really must finish it.”

“So finish it tomorrow. This is important business, I’m afraid.” Bakar gestured Diana forward.

“You simply wish for her to sit in on a call—” Bequelia tried.

She wouldn’t back down. Why?

Genuinely, what the hell was going on here?

… And why did Sampson care so much?

He could lie to himself that in standing here and watching this, he was doing important research on the Academy because he was learning how poisoned its culture had become. But that would be ignoring the fact that he wasn’t merely standing here and watching – he was getting involved every step of the way.

“I’ve changed my mind. It is important.” Bakar smiled evenly. With only two of his lips, which was a telling sign.

Bequelia didn’t pick up on it. “It is a requirement of Cadet Fenton’s continued service at the Academy that she attend these sessions with me—”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Counselor, so perhaps I should repeat myself one more time – I require the Cadet for Academy work.” He emphasized Academy. “Which is my prerogative as her teacher.”

Bequelia wasn’t going to win. Sampson could feel as she realized that. He could feel it – as it felt like a frigging black hole imploded in the counselor, threatening to suck away her control with it.

It took Bequelia a long time to crack her lips open, “Cadet Fenton, I will see you tomorrow.”

“We don’t have a session until the end of the week—” Diana began.

“You will have daily sessions now. And that is my prerogative as head counselor,” Bequelia retorted.

Usually, Sakaras controlled themselves. Usually, they didn’t try to win points in arguments. And usually, they didn’t get looks like that in their eyes – looks that promised no one could stand in their way.

But nothing about this was usual, was it?

Bakar didn’t react as Bequelia walked away, Sparx at her side.

“Are you ready, Cadet Fenton?” Bakar shrugged toward the science block. “Does your friend want to come along?” He flicked a confused but relieved look at Sampson on the word friend as if he could hardly believe what was in front of his eyes.

“Oh, he’s not—” Diana stopped and looked at Sampson.

A friend? Sure, he was—

Before Sampson could finish that thought, reality came crashing down around him.

He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t jeopardize his mission. And he sure as hell couldn’t keep following Diana to ensure she was okay.

He had to get back to his primary task.

“Um… did you want to come?” Diana asked.

He could tell how hard it was for her to push those words out.

… For a second, Sampson swore they did something to his heart, but he pushed that thought away as he reminded himself why he was here.

He folded his lips into a smile as he shook his head. “I kind of already promised that I’d check out the E Club meet.”

Before Diana’s expression could drop as she thought he was finally abandoning her, he ticked his head in the direction Sparx had fled in. “I’d say it’s better for everyone if I head along – Sparx is expecting me to go.”

Realization slackened her cheeks. “I got you in so much trouble, I’m so—”

He brought up a hand before she could say that one word – the one everyone here kept forcing her to say because they were too blunt and stupid to understand her.

Sorry.

Just what exactly did Diana Fenton need to be sorry for? Being the daughter of an admiral? Having a history with the Barbarians? Being the smallest, softest target out there?

No, no, and no. Just when Sampson thought he was putting his mission in perspective again, it fell from his grasp, all at the small smile that parted her lips as he kept his hand raised.

“You don’t have anything to apologize for. See you around, Diana.” He made a deliberate decision to use her name, not her title. And he liked the way it lit up her usually dim expression as he turned.

“Thank you,” she called after him one more time.

Despite every effort, Sampson Ventura smiled.

He didn’t go through the motions. He didn’t contract the short muscles of his chin and cheeks to pull his bottom lip down and the corners of his lips up.

He let his emotions do it for him.

It had been a long time since Sampson had saved someone. You didn’t save anyone from Infection Zero – you disposed of them before they could infect anyone else.

This felt good.

So just for a few seconds, he’d let himself feel it. Because maybe for a few seconds, he needed to remind himself of what his emotions could do if he let them out.

Chapter 8

Sampson Ventura

He was back in his quarters.

Fortunately Forest had secured him a single quarters. It wasn’t the biggest, but that didn’t matter.

It was secure.

He sat on his couch, a specialized unit visible on his arm. It was his holographic armor generator. While it could send an invisible sheen of pure protection pumping over him at any moment, it also doubled as an untraceable communication device.

It was time to call home.

He activated his neural implant, sending a silent command to the communication unit to contact Forest.

He didn’t need to wait around. She answered.

Being a functional holographic projector, his device had no trouble sending a perfect image of Forest rippling through the air in front of him.

He bothered to stand and salute, even though he knew it wasn’t necessary.

“It didn’t go well, then,” Forest surmised. “If you’re bothering to follow command pleasantries, Sampson, then you’re not about to tell me good news.”

He hesitated. “I don’t have usable intel yet,” he admitted.

Forest had looked disappointed. Until a second ago. She’d noted his hesitation – she noted everything. She was seated at her desk, and she pushed forward, her interest clear. “What do you suspect?”

“Nothing concrete.”

“Did you manage to infiltrate the students? Did you find any disturbed psyches?”

“Yes, I infiltrated a group I think will be useful – the E Club.”

“I want to tell you that no one from the E Club would dare harm the Academy, but these are strange times, and I’ve given you a blank check to investigate as you will. Answer my second question, though.” Forest never forgot, and she never let anything drop.

Sampson made the mistake of hesitating again.

“Who is it?” Forest asked bluntly.

Cadet Diana Fenton. Forest wanted to know if he’d discovered any disturbed psyches – he hadn’t met anyone like Diana. But it wasn’t anger and a desire to kill that sat behind the closed curtains of her mind – it was….

“Who? If you’ve got a feeling, Sampson – even if you don’t have concrete evidence – tell me. I’ve learned to trust your intuition.”

Sampson shook his head. “Nothing. Except for a general malaise,” he added. “I might never have gone through standard Academy training, but I didn’t expect this.”

Forest frowned. “What does that mean?”

Yeah, good question – what did it mean? Why was Sampson even bringing this up? While he’d undoubtedly run across behaviors he disagreed with, he couldn’t hang the Academy up to dry based solely on how it treated a single cadet.

No. Wait. He knew himself well enough to know that was a lie.

He could, and he would. He looked Forest in the eye. “I don’t like the culture here, Forest, not one bit.”

Forest was smart enough to conclude that wasn’t a general complaint. It was the assessment of a trained psy soldier.

Her cheeks stiffened, and she forced a deep breath. “If that had come from anyone else, I would have disagreed. With you, I need to ask what you mean.”

“Bullying, manipulation, excessive reliance on competition – pick one, though it’s the first that worries me the most. For an Academy that is meant to be built on the premise that the Coalition rises only if we all rise together, the students here have forgotten that.”

“Do you have anything more concrete than that? And is this anything more than a general observation?”

He paused. Did he have anything concrete? Yeah, he could throw out every example of inappropriate behavior he’d seen today, but that wasn’t what the admiral was asking. He also couldn’t afford to waste her precious time on petty disputes. She had a galaxy to keep safe from the deadliest virus known.

“No. Not yet,” he countered.

“When your hunches form into concrete suspicions, you let me know. Though it would have been a miracle if you’d found our terrorists on your first day, I’m pragmatic. It’ll take weeks, if not months to drag them out of the shadows. Take that time. Don’t leave any stone unturned. I need to know exactly who these people are and how they got into my Academy.” With that rousing command, Forest dropped her gaze to the datapads sprawled across her desk, the conversation clearly done.

“One more thing, Forest.” Sampson actually took a step forward, despite the fact this was a recording.

She looked up. “What?”

“What level of psychic is the counselor… Bequelia I think her name is?” He deliberately pretended to forget her name to soften his apparent interest in the matter.Sampson had already wasted enough of Forest’s time with his non-specific feelings about the Academy, and he couldn’t afford to dangle hope in front of her nose when he didn’t have any real evidence to share.

Did that stop him from asking? No – no it didn’t. Try as he might, he couldn’t drop Diana’s cause.

“Level One.” Forest didn’t need to check Bequelia’s file. “Why? Are you worried she has the skills to detect you? She doesn’t.”

Level One? Bequelia was one rung up the ladder to a full-blown psychic. Bullshit.

Though it looked like Forest wasn’t paying him attention as she stared down at her data pads again, she dropped them. “What? I can see that vein popping out of the side of your temple, Sampson, and it’s never a good sign.”

He didn’t know whether he should keep this to himself. He couldn’t shake the feeling this was private. He’d wandered into Diana’s tragedy, and he should just wander right back out.

He couldn’t. And though he didn’t think this could have anything to do with his mission, he couldn’t be sure, right?

Maybe this wasn’t wasting Forest’s time after all.

That realization was the final reason he needed to shake his head. “Bequelia is not a Level One.”

Forest didn’t look away again. “How do you know?”

“I felt her using her skills on a cadet. She tracked said cadet through Academy grounds at a distance. That’s got to put her at at least a Level Three – probably higher considering how much emotional pollution was around as it’s the first day of classes.”

Forest didn’t question him. “Investigate her. Though this may be nothing – and Miss Bequelia might have simply risen in skill recently—”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he finished for her.

He might have just spoken over the top of an admiral and given himself leave to do what he wanted, but Forest didn’t pull him up on it. She nodded, her neck stiff and her lips drawn. “I expect another full report tomorrow, because I’ll need it,” she added.

He knew for a fact Forest hated showing emotion in front of anyone. She knew there was no point in hiding it from him, though. Even without the stress shuddering through her tone like a shaking hand desperately trying to hold onto something, he could see it in the crinkled skin around her eyes and the white, patchy hue of her cheeks and lips.

Forest was a woman on edge.

“More bad news?” he asked, knowing the answer.

“The Barbarians have exponentially increased their attacks on the outer colonies. We’ve lost three in the Selek Sector this past week—” she began. She paused, her lips drawing thin. “I’m sorry for mentioning the Selek Sector without warning you first.”

Sampson was damn happy that his hands were behind his back. He could clutch them as hard as he wanted while keeping his expression neutral. “It’s fine.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I’m not a psychic, but I’ve made my life out of reading people. It’s not fine, and I should have warned you before mentioning those outposts. Now, to answer the question I know you’re thinking, Baxan A wasn’t one of them.”

Sampson tried to hold it in, but there was no point. He unhooked his hands and let them swing beside him. His knuckles looked like swords protruding through plastic.

Baxan A was drilled into his brain – his heart, too. Because Baxan A was the colony outpost he’d lost his brother on all those years ago.

Baxan A was the reason his father had lost his mind. Baxan A was the reason Sampson was now a psychic and he was here, doing this.

Baxan A was the crumbling surface Sampson had been forced to rebuild his life on.

Still making no attempt to hide how much the mere mention of it had gotten to him, he swallowed, his throat as tight as a vice. “Thanks for letting me know, Admiral.”

“I thought I’d save you the trouble of looking it up yourself. Whenever you hear there’s Barbarian activity around Baxan,” she dropped her voice measurably, “you look it up. And any attempt to do that right now could blow your cover.”

“I know that,” he admitted softly.

Goddamn did he know that. Sampson, despite asking hundreds of times, had never been allowed to set foot on the outpost that had killed his brother. And Sampson never would be.

But that didn’t stop him from researching Baxan whenever he could. He was connected to the place whether his superiors liked it or not.

“I know you know that. But—” Forest began, a knowing look in her eyes telling him that despite her lack of psychic skills, she knew exactly what he was thinking.

“This mission cannot be compromised.” He straightened, shaking out the tension in his hands as he snapped a salute. “And it won’t be.”

Appearing satisfied, Forest snapped her own salute. “Find me those terrorists, and find them as fast as you can.”

“I will.”

The call ended.

Drawn like a moth to a flame, Sampson found himself striding across the room until he reached the windows. He settled a hand on the cold glass as he tilted his head back and searched the stars. He locked his gaze on the right constellation without trying.

He couldn’t head to Baxan, just as he couldn’t travel into the past to save his brother.

All he could do was live with the trauma, and in living, carve out a place for others to do the same.

Chapter 9

Diana Fenton

Another day, ha?

Why did she keep doing this again? Her dad could claim that when she graduated, every engineer in the fleet would overlook her shortcomings in favor of her skills, but there was a big if there.

Diana had to graduate. And to graduate, she had to get to class.

But she couldn’t leave her room.

She’d been haunted by her dreams last night. As she sat on the edge of her bed and pushed her slightly unsteady hand through her hair, it snagged on knots. It was so slippery that it hardly ever knotted. To do so, she must have thrashed her head around last night.

She could imagine why. All night, nightmares had assailed her. One after the other and always the same thing.

She could see that Mascar warrior murdering her father. She could see her father falling to his knees.

Diana could usually put her memories in perspective, and though her dreams haunted her, she’d taught herself to push them aside.

Ever since her appointment with Bequelia yesterday, her visions were sharper than ever. It felt like that damn counselor had programed Diana’s psyche to lock onto the moment of her father’s death and not let go.

“Put it out of your head,” she tried to command herself as she locked a sweaty palm between her brows.

It didn’t work.

She couldn’t put this out of her head; it was in her body. Every muscle vibrated with agitation.

She felt like she should run, but there was nothing to run from. She wanted to save herself, but she wasn’t sure from what.

“Just get to class,” she tried.

She didn’t move.

“Go to class, Diana. If you don’t, Sparx will just come find you. Worse, he’ll contact dad.” With that realization ringing bitterly from her lips, she forced herself up.

She’d already put Admiral Fenton through so much; she wouldn’t make him pay more for being stupid enough to adopt her.

She scratched her wrists as she dressed. By the time she made it out into the kitchen, she’d forced herself to clear her mind.

Which was a mistake.

Diana usually timed her schedule at home perfectly to ignore her flatmate. It was that or have to stare at perfect Susan Sinclair’s perfect hatred for her.

Diana ground to a halt as she saw Susan on the couch.

Susan was having some kind of meeting, and her wristwatch hovered close to her mouth as she drummed her free hand over the armrest of the couch. “I want to push back the intake of new cadets to the Club until the end of the week. I don’t think the meet yesterday was a good enough test—” she began. Susan stopped dead as she stared over at Diana. “Do you mind? I’m clearly having a private meeting.”

Then do it in your room, Diana thought.

She didn’t intend to say it out loud. And yet, for whatever reason, she couldn’t stop herself. “If it’s private, do it in your room. This is the commons area of this flat. That makes it public.”

What the hell had she just done? Susan was not someone you messed with.

Sure enough, her fair complexion paled further. “I’m sorry – what was that?”

Diana didn’t continue the confrontation. She couldn’t. Now her reason had caught up to her fat mouth, she reminded herself to push would be suicide.

She turned on her heel and retreated out of the apartment, ignoring her rumbling belly.

She caught Susan snorting in derisive indignation before spitting, “Goddamn Angel of Death,” to whoever was on the line.

Diana could have stopped. A part of her wanted to. A part of her needed to turn, march up to Susan, and tell her she was the world’s biggest bitch.

… But it wasn’t right. Susan wasn’t evil, no matter how easy it would be to conclude that.

If Diana’s father had imparted one lesson on her – not Fenton, but her biological father – it was that you never believed what was easy. Easy led to simple theories, and nothing anywhere in this complex universe was simple.

Susan lacked perspective. She also had fears she couldn’t control. The Academy and E Club had taught her to succeed through competing. And competition had taught her to stamp out weakness.

That had led to one sad conclusion – Susan could no longer think for herself; she could only think for the group. In this case, the group didn’t want someone like Diana around.

Diana turned and walked away.

She scratched her neck nervously. It was that or start the day by dragging her nails over her palms. If she did that, by the end of classes, she’d have dug right through her hands.

“You’ll be fine. Today will be fine,” she muttered to herself, ignoring the fact that two cadets clearly heard her and shot her strange looks.

Stares she could deal with. Bequelia she could not. Just the thought of being forced to attend another of those sessions made Diana want to leave Earth. She wasn’t making that up – she felt so cornered around Bequelia that the primal side of Diana would do anything to get away.

The Coalition-cadet side of Diana knew to control that urge. If she left the Academy and fled Earth just to get away from a simple counselor, it would destroy her dad.

… If Bequelia was just a simple counselor, that was.

“No, that’s paranoid,” Diana said as she reached the elevator and it opened.

“What’s paranoid?”

She glanced across at none other than Mark Ray.

She was so shocked, she just stared at him.

“What’s paranoid?” he asked again as he stepped to the side, giving her more room to enter, even though the lift was large enough to fit 30.

She briefly thought of waiting for the next lift.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him; it was—

“There’s no need to feel ashamed for yesterday,” Mark finished her thought somehow. “Because there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Now, you getting in the lift?”

She hesitated, then walked in. She opened her mouth, a smile on her lips as she readied to thank him for this – for not making a big deal out of yesterday. Hell, while she was there, she could thank him for saving her from Bequelia, for not backing down, for—

She didn’t get the chance.

“Hold the lift,” someone ordered as they jogged up.

Diana didn’t need to turn to know it was Susan. She marched in. As soon as she saw Mark, a specific smile spread her shapely lips.

Susan liked Mark. Not just his looks – but everything. Because looks were never enough for Susan. She expected excellence in every arena, and it was clear as she brushed her neat ponytail over her shoulder that she saw that impossible standard in Mark. “You were the only cadet worth testing yesterday. We’re going to have another meet on Friday just to weed out the rest – but you’re a shoo-in.”

Mark didn’t respond. He seemed irritated that he’d been interrupted.

“You have insane combat skills. Where did you train?”

“Fordoza,” Mark said automatically.

… Why did Diana get the impression that that was a lie? It wasn’t his expression – that was neutral, if bored. It was….

“When you join E Club, you’ll have to show us your secrets,” she purred.

Mark didn’t respond.

Diana could feel his interest. It wasn’t locked on Susan – he hadn’t looked at her once. No, sorry – he had looked at Susan. Diana just felt that his actual attention hadn’t deviated from her. That could have been wishful thinking, but—

Diana groaned quietly as she dug her fingers into her neck and tried to ignore her paranoid thoughts.

Like a bullet from a gun, Mark didn’t pause as he turned toward her. “You okay?”

“Oh… ah, so—” Diana began, but she stopped before she could say sorry.

She didn’t have anything to apologize for, did she?

“Just ignore her—” Susan tried.

Mark didn’t ignore Diana – he stepped closer. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you—”

Before he could finish his question, Diana’s wrist device vibrated with an incoming call. She was so focused on Mark’s interest in her, she actually yelped. “Sorry, sorry,” she broke his rule as she winced at her overreaction. It distracted her into not checking the caller before she answered. “Yes?”

She expected it to be Bakar.

It wasn’t.

“Diana,” Bequelia’s voice echoed from Diana’s wrist device.

And Diana shut down. Something about Bequelia’s tone reminded her of her horrifying dreams with all the blunt force of a brick to her face.

Despite Diana’s distress, she was aware enough of her surroundings to note suspicion compressing Mark’s brow and hardening his eyes. “What the hell is she doing calling you at this hour?” he muttered.

There was a pause. “Aren’t you alone, Diana? I thought I would catch you before class.”

“I’m just headed there now,” Diana managed.

“Try to see me before you do,” Bequelia continued, her voice somehow equal parts soft to hard. While no one else would be able to pull off that contradictory combination, the counselor could, for she was used to hiding that knife-like personality of hers behind the guise of a gentle doctor.

Dread spiraled through Diana.

Before she could figure out what to do, Mark stepped in. Literally. He took a step right up to Diana’s wristwatch. “Sorry, maybe you didn’t hear, Counselor – Diana’s headed to class now.”

There was a long pause. “That’s Cadet Ray, I assume.”

“Well, your assumptions happen to be correct, this time. Congratulations,” he added dryly.

Diana stared at him, her lips limply parted.

What the hell was he doing?

Bequelia might not technically be part of the commissioned Academy staff, but she was still a staff member. If he sassed her – or outright insulted her, as he was doing now – he could and would be severely reprimanded.

There was a long pause. “Diana—” Bequelia tried.

“Diana is headed to class, Counselor – maybe you didn’t hear her the first time,” Mark didn’t stop.

“Cadet Ray,” Bequelia said patiently – or at least her tone had a semblance of patience.

Diana was used to being immune to Bequelia’s charms, but Mark didn’t fall for her sweet tones either. He cleared his throat. “We’re just headed out into the open ground floor section of the main accommodation block. You might have to speak up if you want to be heard or end this conversation if you don’t want to be.” Mark strode over to the doors and forced them to open, the unmistakable sound of a busy hallway filtering in.

Diana didn’t move. She stared at Mark as if he’d fallen from Heaven. And he was either an angel or just some guy who’d hit his head on the way down, because what he was doing was crazy.

He’d just put Bequelia on the spot. Though they weren’t conversing face-to-face, that didn’t stop Diana from swearing she could see Bequelia’s expression, and it was as twisted and raw as flesh someone had squeezed down to the bone.

“I will see you this afternoon, Cadet Fenton,” Bequelia said, and with that, she signed off.

Diana was too surprised to say anything. So, apparently, was Susan, but for all the wrong reasons.

When Mark nodded at Diana to leave the lift, Susan jammed her thumb into the door button, and the doors sliced closed right in front of a surprised cadet who’d been about to enter.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked, his tone giving you the impression it was blank. It was only an impression, though – it was nothing more than an emotional veneer meant to hide the fact Mark was pissed as hell.

Why?

Why did he keep leaping to Diana’s defense?

She didn’t get the chance to ask, and neither was she stupid enough to do it in front of Susan.

“Are you out of your mind?” Susan demanded quickly, her cheeks pale with shock at what she’d just seen.

“Last time I checked, everything’s running fine up here.” He tapped his knuckles on his temple and went to stride past her.

Susan kept her finger jammed against the button, ensuring the doors wouldn’t open and the lift couldn’t be called to another floor. She put up a hand. “Whoa, you need to know what you just did.”

“I stood up for someone. You should try it sometime,” he said snidely.

Diana got the impression that while he’d intended that comment to come off as emotionless, he’d failed. Heck, she got the impression that while he intended not to keep making enemies on her behalf, he kept failing at that, too.

Sampson didn’t seem the kind to care what he had to fight if it meant making the right kind of difference.

… Wait, sorry – his name wasn’t Sampson, was it? Where the hell had that come from?

Susan’s cheeks stiffened at that barbed insult. But in typical Susan fashion, she did not back down. “You should not—”

“If you’re about to tell me not to defend Diana, just don’t. I get to pick my own battles.” Mark didn’t even slow down as he said that – he sped up like Susan and her argument were just debris that had to be cleared on his way to orbit.

Susan really did pale now, but she still shook her head. “I’m not sure if you know how things work around here, but Bequelia has a lot of power.”

Mark finally slowed down. It wasn’t out of fear, though. Interest flared in his deep gray eyes, not self-preservation. “She’s just a counselor.”

“She’s the head counselor,” Susan corrected. “And with one word from her, you can be grounded.”

“Surely it should take more than a word. Surely, if the Academy is operating as per its original dictates, it should take evidence,” he snapped.

If Susan thought he had a point, she didn’t concede it; she just shook her head again until her ponytail tapered over her shoulder. “This is only your second day. You can’t afford to come to Bequelia’s attention.”

That interest flared in his eyes again. Diana couldn’t say he had the most startling eyes she’d ever seen – they were kind of dull. In color, at least. What they lacked in brilliant hue they more than made up for in power.

They seemed to run on pure determination, and that lit them with a light Diana had never seen before.

“Bequelia scans all incoming cadets. If she doesn’t like what she sees, that can permanently affect your placement and set you off the track for career success and onto the track for total oblivion.” Susan made no effort to stop her gaze from switching to Diana on the term total oblivion.

“Scans?” he said, his suspicion evident, at least to Diana. “What do you mean scans? I thought she only had latent psychic skills?”

“She does. It’s just a term we recruits use. She does a complete psychological assessment of you.”

“And if she doesn’t like what she sees,” he said, his suspicion only growing, “she gets to decide your career track, ha?”

“Yeah. She does. I’m assuming you had psychometric assessments back on Fordoza. It’s all part of recruiting the best and ensuring—”

Mark cut her short as he cleared his throat, though it sounded more like the vocal equivalent of a stop sign. “I’m going to have to stop you there. Psychometric testing is part of a process – not a goal. You can no more decide who’ll succeed from a battery of psych tests than you can predict who’ll succeed in real combat from simulations.”

“That sounds like something Diana would say,” Susan pointed out, her tone hardly kind.

“Then I guess we think alike. Now, are you going to get out of my way? We’re kinda headed to class here.” He nodded at Diana.

“No, I’m not. You’re new, so you deserve a second chance. But if you keep—”

“If I keep hanging around with the wrong people, I won’t get that second chance, ha? Why don’t you just say what you’re actually thinking? It’s not because I’m new – it’s because you think I have skills you could use. I’m someone you don’t want to lose – that doesn’t make you giving me a second chance an honorable thing to do; it makes it manipulative.”

Diana had never seen anyone steamroll Susan before.

… And while a part of Diana should be enjoying it, her heart went out to Susan. Susan might have been insulting Diana breaths ago, but that didn’t matter.

“It’s okay, Mark.” Diana shifted subtly in front of Susan. “You don’t need to do this. We should get to class. And… you should give the E Club a go – I’m sure it could help your career,” she added.

Susan darted her gaze over to Diana briefly. It might have only lasted a fraction of a second, but that was enough for Diana to note the few tears shimmering at the edges of Susan’s green eyes.

Without another word, Susan removed her finger from the door button and walked out.

Diana went to follow her.

“Really?” Mark said from behind, running to catch up.

There was something that felt… right about him slipping in close by her side. It made her feel like she had a shield, and no matter how many stares they got at the fact they’d exited an elevator with a crying Susan Sinclair, Diana didn’t feel alone.

“Ah, what?” she managed.

“Don’t you have anything to say to me? Like maybe a thank you?” he prodded.

“I… thank you. But you really don’t need to keep jumping to my defense like that. There’s no point in making enemies around here. Susan is right – you’re on the right career track. Someone with your skills can go places.”

“And someone with your skills can what, exactly? Go nowhere? I heard Commander Bakar yesterday. He was thrilled about your work.”

“I guess.” She looked down at her feet. Then she made the mistake of looking up and staring up at the other cadets all streaming out of the accommodation block and onto the lawns around her. All it took was their cold hard stares for Diana to remind herself of one cold hard fact. “I don’t belong,” she whispered, ensuring her voice was quiet enough that it would take a psychic to pick up her twisted emotional tone.

Yeah, well maybe Sampson was a psychic because he got that crumpled expression he had back in combat class – the one that told her she deserved better than this.

… It took Diana entirely too long to recognize she’d done it again. What was wrong with her? His name wasn’t Sampson – it was Mark.

The fact she couldn’t remember that just unsettled her further, and she picked up her pace as she darted around two first-year cadets. She could tell they were first years based on the collars of their uniform. She’d never seen them before. That didn’t matter – they clearly knew her, because as one, they stepped back from her as if she was the plague.

Mark glared right at them as he passed. “Have you got problems, kids? Pretty early in your career to start forming those. You’re meant to be blank slates in your first year – so go ahead and start looking blank.”

Both cadets flushed like they’d been slapped and scurried off.

Diana stopped just as she reached the steps down to the Academy lawns. Before she could open her mouth to pull Mark up on making enemies for her – again – the wind caught her loose hair and sent it tumbling around her face.

… She watched as his eyes darted with it, tracking the path of each strand as they played around her cheeks and eyes. Mostly her eyes – he seemed drawn in by them for some reason.

It was almost enough to derail her. She opened her mouth.

“Before you tell me to stop being mean to people – I’m not being mean. I’m being direct. And if you want to point fingers – you need to point them that way.” He jammed his thumb over his shoulder at the accommodation block and the sea of students still marching and shuffling through the main hall. “They started it. And they keep continuing it, day in, day out.”

Her shoulders dropped, but as she turned, she didn’t put on a burst of speed to leave Sampson behind. She deliberately kept pace beside him. “Why aren’t you scared that… you know, you’ll be tainted if you hang around with me?”

Sampson snorted. It was one of those deep moves of frustration and amusement that told her Sampson knew all about tainted things, and Diana’s social problems didn’t come close.

… He wasn’t called Sampson. For the love of god, what was wrong with her? And how exactly was she so confident that Sampson – no, Mark – knew of things far more tainted than her?

Though he’d taken his attention off her, he twisted his head back, and the look in his eyes was….

It reminded her of Bequelia. Just not like a knife to her throat – more like a hand through the dark.

Diana sighed. “Is this where you ask me what happened yesterday? I guess you’re curious why I almost started an international incident just to get away from the counselor.”

“It was hardly an international incident. And I’m not going to push you. If you want to tell me, fine – if not, that’s okay too.”

Diana couldn’t stop herself as her lips parted, and five little words slipped out, “You’re not from the Academy.”

It was just meant to be an observation that Mark was unlike any other cadet she’d ever met.

But she’d worded it poorly.

Sampson turned to her, his expression momentarily unfiltered as something that looked exactly like suspicion flared in his eyes.

It took Diana too long to appreciate she’d just thought of him as Sampson again. She was too stuck on the look he was shooting her. “I… sorry? I just… you don’t act like anyone from around here. I… I’ve put my foot in my mouth again. I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep right. I couldn’t stop dreaming. I… I’m going to go now.” She turned to walk away.

Her emotions were becoming too much. They choked her with every second, wrapping around her throat like the insidious grip of some Barbarian. And that – thinking of a goddamn Barbarian just brought up her nightmares.

Just before tears could swarm her eyes like drones trying to take down her vision, Mark placed a hand on her shoulder.

It was the same shoulder Bequelia had kept grabbing yesterday.

This felt different. As Sampson’s hand rested there, its mere presence seemed to chase away the lingering effects of Bequelia’s session.

Diana turned and stared at him. She knew her eyes were wide with vulnerability but hope. She was so distracted by the effect of one simple touch that she didn’t pull herself up on thinking of him as Sampson. For whatever reason, in this moment, it felt right.

Everything felt right.

He opened his mouth to say something, but he didn’t get the chance. Diana’s wristwatch vibrated again. She was so startled by it, she jerked away from him, their moment broken.

Before she could answer it without thinking, Mark shoved close and stared at the screen.

“Don’t answer that,” he snapped. “It’s Bequelia again. What the hell does she think she’s doing? This is against every regulation there is. She’s harassing you.”

Diana couldn’t get a word in edgeways. All she could do was stare up at him, her surprise as evident as a sign written over her head. “If I ignore that call, she’ll get me in trouble—”

“She can’t. She can’t call you during class like this.”

“Class hasn’t started.”

“She’s breaking the rules,” he defaulted to saying. “All of them,” he added opaquely.

“What does that even mean?”

He looked at his feet. When she looked at her feet, it was as if someone had grabbed her head and ground it into the floor. When Sampson Ventura glanced at his feet, it felt as if it was that, or burn the world with his gaze.

… Had she just added another made-up name? God, he was Mark Ray, not frigging Sampson Ventura.

What the hell was happening to her? She hadn’t been this unsettled for years. It felt like someone had drilled a hole through her self-control.

She shoved a sweaty hand through her hair and turned, despite the fact they were halfway through a conversation. This was why Diana was a pariah. And it was why Mark would ditch her eventually. No one stuck by her side for too long.

“It’s okay,” he said.

She turned back. A part of her wanted to flee him and hide her emotion; the rest… the rest wanted to face him now more than ever. Because the rest wanted to see how long Sampson Ventura could stay by her side.

This time, Diana didn’t even realize she’d gotten his name wrong. Because this time, she allowed herself to accept that it felt right.

And so did sticking by his side.

Chapter 10

Sampson Ventura

Sampson knew he was distracted. He didn’t care.

Someone had shot the equivalent of a psychic hole through Diana’s head, and there was only one candidate.

Bequelia.

He had no clue what was going on here, but the more he discovered, the more his stomach churned. It was one thing for the Academy to have changed its culture – one thing for the pursuit of power to have replaced the far more noble goal of understanding. It was another for an unregistered powerful psychic to play with cadets’ minds.

Maybe Bequelia had some therapeutic goal in mind. Perhaps she’d even been ordered to push with Diana. And maybe Sampson didn’t believe any of that for a second.

The psychic had an ulterior motive, and he would find out what that was.

Diana seemed calmer as they strode through the packed halls to class. She was calmer for two reasons, though she wouldn’t be able to appreciate what those were.

He was standing in as a psychic and physical shield, bodily and mentally throwing off the negative intents of her classmates, and importantly, he’d closed up the wound Bequelia had left in her mind.

Sampson had felt it the second he’d laid his hand on Diana’s shoulder – this gaping psychic wound as if someone had stabbed the equivalent of a mental knife into Diana just to see how much would bleed from it.

There were two possibilities – Forest was right, and Bequelia had incidentally increased in power without realizing it, and she was inadvertently damaging the students in her care. Or Bequelia had known precisely what she was doing.

Sampson knew which one he believed.

Though all he wanted to do was push and figure out exactly what Bequelia was trying to do with Diana, he knew the costs of pushing. In Diana’s current condition, she was too vulnerable.

Dammit.

Dammit on every level. Dammit to hell that he’d gotten so distracted, and dammit to hell that he couldn’t extricate himself from this situation and get back to his mission.

Terrorists were planning to bring Infection Zero to Earth, to the Academy main grounds, and rather than do anything about it, he was knee-deep in some drama that would only distract him.

As soon as that harsh thought snapped through his mind like a loaded spring, he clasped it back.

This wasn’t just some drama. Diana was actively having her life ruined. And though he’d only caught clues of what had happened to her, it was clear she had a wealth of trauma rotting away in her past.

There you go, rationalizing again, he berated himself. Sticking by her side won’t solve this case.

… But it couldn’t hurt, right?

Just as soon as he thought that he shook his head. Oh, it had hurt. He’d stuffed up his chances at infiltrating the E Club, he’d actively put two staff-members off-side, and by the end of the day, he’d likely have dug those holes even deeper.

Sticking by Diana’s side was hazardous to—

He stopped that thought dead in its tracks. He’d been about to fill in the last word with career. He couldn’t do that. While the rest of these idiots thought she was an Angel of Death, he knew precisely what that was, and she wasn’t it.

Diana simply had no one to stand up for her. By standing with her, he’d have to do that.

Though they were walking through the halls to get to engineering class, she suddenly stopped. It was so abrupt, he ran into her side.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she whispered.

“Sorry, what?”

“I know what you’re thinking – you’re re-evaluating everything. And you have every right to do that. You’ve stuck your neck out for me enough today.”

Sampson ground to a stop at one little phrase – I know what you’re thinking. While ordinary minds might bandy that term around, it meant something different to a psychic. It meant your defenses were down.

… It took him too long to remind himself that Diana clearly wasn’t a psychic and that had just been an educated guess.

In that time, the damage was done. She pressed her lips together and nodded quietly. “It’s okay,” she said genuinely. “I understand completely.”

It was all too clear that she did, just as it was all too clear the only reason she did was that this wasn’t the first time she’d been ditched.

“I’m not—” Sampson didn’t get the chance to finish.

She walked away, and with her small form, quickly wended through the group of cadets until she disappeared down the front of the class. Though all he wanted to do was march up to her, sit beside her, and tell her he didn’t think like that – to do that, he’d have to sit on the lap of the massive half-Yara, half-human cadet she’d sat beside.

… So Sampson had to drop this. For now.

He found a seat and sat. When he realized the kid beside him had been one of the E Club instructors he’d met at the meet yesterday, he tried his darndest to ignore him, even when the guy gushed at Sampson’s skills.

Sampson didn’t pay attention during engineering class. It wasn’t that he knew the material – though he could have easily taken the class and done a better job at explaining just what it was like to be in a cruiser during an engine meltdown – it was that his mind fixated on one thing.

Diana. What was happening to her. Why the students hated her. Why no one bothered to stand up for her. How the heck Sparx could put her through hell in combat class when it was clear it wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm that hampered her, but fear grounded in past trauma.

Right now was the perfect time to scan the final year cadets around him.And he did. For a few seconds. Though he picked up some interesting emotions, none were as interesting as Diana.

She clearly wasn’t a terrorist, though, was she?

The more Sampson forced his mind off her, the more it snapped back as if he’d attached himself to her with magnets.

The one thing he could be thankful for was that the engineer taking the class didn’t hate her. It was precisely the opposite – she had a justified reverence for Diana’s skills. Because out of all the cadets, Diana was a cut above the rest.

Obviously, Diana’s genius extended beyond physics.

… So why wasn’t she in E Club? If the Academy had turned into an institution that could only favor the cream of the crop, how could you leave Diana behind?

Sampson didn’t hold much truck with paranoid thoughts. Once upon a time, they’d haunted his mind. A side-effect of the drug his father had given him, it had taken years of training to force Sampson’s psyche to put paranoia in its place.

Now he couldn’t stop one crazy thought from rising to the fore. What if Diana’s social isolation wasn’t natural? What if someone had orchestrated this?

What Sampson was suggesting should have been impossible. To turn the whole Academy against Diana, you would require coordination, authority, and time. Oh yeah, and a reason.

Before he could bury that suspicion, the last thing he wanted to see walked in the door.

Commander Sparx.

Engineer Ryta looked up, confused as she stepped away from the podium and spoke quietly with Sparx.

While Ryta might have been trying to keep their discussion discreet, a man like Sparx didn’t believe in the concept of discreet. He pointed one stiff finger right at Diana, right in front of the class.

And then he took her out of the lecture theatre, marching behind her as if she were a prisoner being led away.

Sampson sat so straight, he could have snapped his spine.

A second ago, he’d been questioning how you could possibly orchestrate a calculated social assassination of a cadet – this was how. By constantly, and without shame, drawing attention to them in public.

Ryta got right back to the lecture, flustered but too busy to explain what had just happened.

That would just lead to gossip. And it did. Even if Sampson hadn’t been able to psychically feel the focus in the once-bored cadets spiking, he could hear their muttering.

“I wonder what she’s done this time?” someone mused snidely further down Sampson’s row.

“Maybe they’re finally kicking her out. Sparx didn’t look happy. God, finally,” the guy next to Sampson said. And unless Sampson was wrong, the idiot was speaking to him. But the fool couldn’t be that stupid – because right now Sampson wanted to punch the next person who insulted Diana.

These cadets weren’t thinking. They weren’t questioning like they should. They’d turned into automatons fed steady social intrigue. That social intrigue kept them amused but distracted. It was like someone painting a glitzy, colorful mural right over your drab life in the hopes you’d forget what was actually happening to you.

Though all Sampson wanted to do was jump up, follow Sparx, and see what the hell was happening, Sampson couldn’t. He’d already brought too much attention to himself. If he kept screwing up, he wouldn’t need Diana’s help to become an outcast. He’d dig his own deeper, far darker hole.

When Forest had given him a blank check to prowl the Academy halls looking for their target, she wouldn’t have envisioned Sampson turning into the class screw-up.

A few seconds passed, then a few more. With every one, Sampson’s skin crawled. With every one, his conscience begged him to do something.

Sparx would take Diana back to Bequelia, and god knows what that psychic would do to Diana’s already broken mind.

You can’t do anything. For god’s sake – just sit here, Sampson begged himself.

It took one more second.

Fuck it.

He jumped to his feet.

Ryta, for the second time that lecture, looked shocked. “Cadet, what are you doing?”

Yeah, great question. What was he doing, again? Following his instincts. Forest had told him to do that, after all.

“Sorry, Commander. I have an existing medical condition that’s just flared,” he said confidently. It might have been the most generic excuse ever, but it wasn’t what you said that convinced people, it was how you said it. At least, when you were a psychic.

“By all means.” Ryta nodded at the door.

“I’ll head to the med bay, and you’ll be provided with a full med-pass later. I apologize for interrupting class.” Sampson saluted perfectly, turned on his foot, and strode away.

Were all eyes on him? Oh, you betcha.

He barely noted the attention as he reached the doors, waited for them to open, and walked out into the corridor. Though barreled was a more accurate verb. Every step was snapped and quick as he turned his psychic senses to full and tried to sense Diana.

She wasn’t in the building anymore.

He could bet where she was.

Curling his hand in until his knuckles could’ve cracked his skin and erupted out like knives, Sampson half-jogged until he reached the nearest lifts.

He didn’t head straight to Bequelia’s office. He was too smart for that. It was time to cut this weed at its root.

As he rode the elevator, he waited for the only other passenger to leave. Then Sampson did something. Not just to the elevator, but to the internal sensors in this whole section.

He overrode them, and all it took was one simple neural command. He was still in his holo armor. He never took it off. As he accessed its powerful computer, he commanded it to pause the lifts and ensure no scanner – whether Academy or enemy-planted – could record what was about to happen.

He called Forest.

During class.

Though he was taken by the overpowering urge to stop what was happening to Diana, he hadn’t lost his senses completely. He knew perfectly well that in calling Admiral Forest during the day, she’d think he had real intel.

Sure enough, as she answered, he could hear the stress in her voice and yet the clear hope. “What happened? Have you found them?”

“No. But I need you to do something for me. Sorry, two things.”

It was a testament to their relationship – and importantly, Forest’s trust for him – that she didn’t question his reasoning. “What?”

“I need a medical pass. I left a class abruptly and lied about a pre-existing condition flaring up.”

“I’ll manufacture the required pass, create credible witnesses, and contact your lecturer. Now, what do you really want?”

Okay. Here came the hard part.

Sampson was damn pleased this wasn’t a video call. He could make all the pained faces at the closed lift doors he wanted without Forest losing complete faith in him.

“I need you to contact the head counselor, Bequelia.” He didn’t pretend not to know her name this time. He let it roll off his tongue with all the disdain his tight lips could allow.

“And say what?”

“I want you to get me a session with her. Now.”

“Why?”

Yeah, here we go. Forest’s trust in him could only go so far, and the weirder his requests became, the more she’d question.

He took a breath and plunged on anyway. “She’s hiding something. I’ve confirmed she’s more powerful than her registration suggests.”

“You raised this suspicion with me last night, Sampson. What more do you have?”

Alright, here goes nothing. Without wincing again, Sampson said, “She’s psychically targeting a student.”

There was a tight, pressured pause. That was a hell of an allegation. One he technically didn’t have the evidence to back up yet.

“How did you find this out? And are you sure?”

“I felt repeated open wounds in a cadet, and I know they’re caused by Bequelia.”

“It could be unintentional.”

Sampson laughed angrily. “Then that makes Bequelia grossly incompetent.”

“I see. But do you suspect her in our main investigation?” Forest, despite the fact they were using the most secure comms in all the Milky Way, still wouldn’t mention those two little words. Infection Zero.

Fair enough. It was like mentioning the bogeyman. Forest might not have dealt directly with as many infections as Sampson, but she would have dealt with the aftermath enough to have internalized the emotional burden of this secret.

“Sampson?” she prompted.

“I don’t know. All I can tell you is that Bequelia has a position where she has to scan every incoming cadet. With undisclosed psychic power—”

“She’s either unintentionally damaging people or spying,” Forest finished his thought, and her voice hardened. “You may be on to something. Now, what do you want me to do?”

God, that hadn’t been hard. Of course it hadn’t been hard; Sampson wasn’t just acting on instinct here. Something didn’t add up.

And he was going to find out what that was.

“The first thing I want you to do is to call her right now and interrupt her session,” he said, spitting session with as much derision as his lips could manage. “Then I want you to get an appointment for me. Preferably right now.”

“Why now? That’s going to take some work; you’re meant to be in class. For me to force an appointment during the day, I’ll have to manufacture a suitable excuse.”

“And an excuse like that is going to make it sound as if I’m the kind of guy who needs immediate counseling – I get it. I don’t care. I want you to get me in with Bequelia now. Because if I’m right, as soon as you pull her out of her current session,” he spat that word derisively again, “she’ll be pissed. And I want her as emotionally unstable as I can get.”

“Understood. Anything else?”

“Yeah. Get me Commander Sparx’s file.”

“Done. Is he a suspect?” Forest asked quickly.

“He’s a something. I’ll figure it out when I get his file. There’s one more thing, Admiral.”

“What?” Forest didn’t hesitate. He could have asked for half the city, and she would have handed it over.

“I want you to cancel all Bequelia’s existing recurring appointments.”

It was a big ask. A fact Forest made clear as she hesitated. “That would take a very good excuse.”

“And I think I’ve got one. Promote her.”

“You just told me she could be a spy. And she’s already head of the counseling department. There’s nowhere else for her to go.”

“Cook up some excuse, Admiral – I know you can. All I really want is to see how she reacts. I think she’s got her hooks into the cadets, and I’d wager that the second you cancel all her appointments and promote her, she’ll act.”

He didn’t specify how Bequelia would act.

The point was, he wanted to find out.

“Fine,” Forest muttered. She didn’t sound happy, but it was clear she could see his point. “Now, is there anything else?” To Forest’s credit, her tone remained even. Though he’d already asked for a heck of a lot, she didn’t care.

“Not right now. I’ll be in contact when I have something.”

“Good luck.”

“I’ll need it.” He snapped yet another needless salute, ended the communication, subtly restated sensor control in this area, and rode the lift to another random level. He got off, and by the time it took him to walk to a set of stairs, his wristwatch vibrated.

He wasn’t surprised when he glanced down to see a med pass flashing on the screen. Forest was a quick, disciplined woman. She would also have reliable assets in place throughout the Academy who could provide her with fake reports whenever she needed.

Now all Sampson had to do was wait until he got a call to schedule his appointment with Bequelia.

He couldn’t stop himself from smiling. It was time for the counselor to meet a real mind.

He could guarantee she wouldn’t like what he would let her find.

Chapter 11

Diana Fenton

She couldn’t think. She couldn’t breathe.

She just wanted this to be over.

Bequelia didn’t even bother speaking to her anymore. Though the counselor was seated on the chair opposite, she hadn’t whispered a word.

She didn’t need to. Why use words when she could just set her mind on Diana’s like a wild animal attacking far weaker prey?

The tears had stopped streaming down Diana’s cheeks minutes ago. It wasn’t that they’d dried up; her emotions were so chaotic, her body felt like it was shutting down from the stress.

Her mind… her mind was being pulled forcibly back into the past until she could feel the dig site around her, breathe its musty, re-filtered air, and hear the sounds of screams as loud as explosions right by her ear.

Diana tried to open her eyes, but her vision was now so all-encompassing, all she could see around her was the dig site. The stacks of boxes to her left where she’d always hide, the constantly humming drilling equipment to her right, and her parents – her parents right behind her. Right behind her calling her name.

Emotion cracked the last wall holding Diana back. “Mom, Dad!” The words tore from her lips as she threw herself at them.

Her father got down to one knee and swept his arms wide. They were like an invitation – back into her family, back into happiness… and back into the past.

Somewhere far off, Diana was vaguely aware of the fact she heard a voice, and it purred, “Good. Trust me and trust the process. Now just open up a little further.”

… Some part of Diana wanted to react to that voice – not just the words, but the mental control slipping through each syllable like poison dripping from a fatal bite.

She couldn’t react; all she could do – and all she’d ever wanted to do – was throw herself forward into her father’s arms.

She reached him, and he scooped her off her feet.

As he twisted her in the air, her gaze was swept off his smiling face and up. Up to the wall behind him.

No. It wasn’t a wall. Not to her. She could see right through.

“That’s it,” she heard that voice again, and it spat with such excitement, it sounded like someone was on the verge of the greatest discovery of their life. “Show me the wall. What’s behind the wall?”

Before Diana could glance at it again, her father put her down.

“The wall, Diana. Stare at the wall. Do it now.”

That voice kept ringing in her head, louder and louder. It wasn’t like the clear tones of a bell – it bashed through her brain like steel balls.

Her father and mother spoke… but the words… they started to fade.

She felt something reach into her mind – the same force attached to that persistent voice. It grabbed her – snatching her throat and shoulders like the grip of an icy comet come to life.

It wanted to turn her toward the wall.

Diana froze.

… She… that grip on her neck… it reminded her of something.

As the grip tightened and pulled her around, Diana saw a memory.

A memory of a man – a dead man – lifting her off her feet. A memory of a hand – a dead hand – wrapping around her throat and squeezing – squeezing as it tried to get to her light.

Diana screamed, both in her vision and in the real world.

It tore from her throat with all the violence of a sun imploding.

She rocked forward, her eyes blasting open as reality hit her. She didn’t need time to realize where she was and what had happened – she knew.

She was sitting in Bequelia’s office, and the counselor had just done something to Diana.

Bequelia wasn’t seated in front of Diana where she should be – she was behind Diana’s chair. Both the counselor’s hands were held either side of Diana’s head. And they were tensed like hooks.

As Diana rocked forward and jumped to her feet, Bequelia gasped, and blood splattered over her white lips.

Too shocked to say or do anything, Diana just stared.

… That… that woman – no, that psychic – had been invading her mind. If there’d ever been any doubt in Diana’s head that Bequelia had her best intentions at heart, it died now.

Diana backed off as Bequelia brought up a hand and pushed the blood off her lips and chin with one direct, hard swipe of her thumb. All the time, she drove her gaze into Diana like a knife.

“I want to leave. I want to leave now.” Diana’s voice shook.

“Sit down.” Bequelia strode around from behind the couch.

“No—”

Bequelia reached Diana and grabbed her by the wrist.

Suddenly, Diana couldn’t move. She became jelly in the alien’s grip as Bequelia dragged Diana over and shoved her onto the couch. “I’m sick of waiting. You’re on the cusp.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore. This isn’t helping me – it’s hurting.”

Bequelia chuckled darkly as she smoothed the blood from her mouth with another swipe. “You think anyone cares that you’re hurting? Now close your eyes, Diana Ray.”

No.

God. No.

Somehow Bequelia knew Diana’s last name. It should have been impossible, but—

Bequelia grabbed Diana’s chin, sinking her fingers in until it felt like she’d rip out Diana’s windpipe. “You’re going to show me what’s behind that wall, Ray. And you’re going to do it now. Then you’re going to show me what your father saw in his dying moment even if it kills you.” With that promise ringing in the air, Bequelia dug not just her fingers in, but her mind in with all its force.

Diana screamed, and she didn’t stop.

Through the pitching shriek of her voice, she swore she could hear the insistent blare of the door’s buzzer.

Bequelia ignored it as she sunk into Diana’s mind with more violent relish.

Whoever was behind the door didn’t like being ignored. They didn’t ring again. With a shrill beep Diana would never forget, someone entered the security override, and the door opened.

Diana let out one last scream as her consciousness crumbled out from underneath her like rubble under a rotting house.

Before she lost it completely, she saw one thing – one man.

Sampson Ventura.

Chapter 12

Sampson Ventura

He knew something was wrong the second he reached the door. He could sense despair washing out from under Bequelia’s door with all the gritty force of blood spewing out of a cut vein.

Sampson wasn’t alone. Forest was a smart operator, and at Sampson’s insistence that he see Bequelia during class, the admiral had cooked up a believable story. One of the doctors from the med bay was standing beside him. For two reasons. One was to introduce him to Bequelia in a believable enough fashion that the counselor wouldn’t suspect anything. The other was to ensure Sampson had a witness.

Which he needed.

Because as they reached the door, and the doctor with him, Sheila Edwards, buzzed again, they heard a scream.

It was faint – these doors were reinforced and Academy issue, designed to ensure no one could hear through them to the sensitive conversations within. Well, if said conversations were happening at an ordinary volume.

For them to pick up this scream, it meant someone was shrieking with all their terrified vocal force.

“What the hell is happening here?” Sheila snapped as she thumbed the button so hard, she could have cracked it. “I have augmented hearing,” she admitted quietly, “and someone’s shrieking in there.”

“Open the door now. Security override it now.” Sampson couldn’t get his words out quickly enough. They were stuck in his throat right along with his heart.

Sheila might have augmented hearing – he had augmented damn senses, and right now every single one of them told him Diana was being attacked.

Despite the fact he was just a cadet, Sheila went right ahead and entered the security override. Though she would have no idea who Sampson really was, Sheila also worked for Forest. She was a spy, just like him, and would know that he wasn’t just some fourth-year grunt.

The doors swept open to a scene Sampson would never be able to wash from his mind, no matter how hard he scrubbed.

Diana was on the couch, her body white with fear as Bequelia stood above her, her hands clamped on Diana’s face with the popped-knuckled force to break stone.

What he could see was one thing – what he could feel another. Bequelia was all but mutilating Diana’s mind to get to something.

This was psychic interrogation, and in all forms, it was illegal.

“What the hell is happening here?” Sheila roared.

Sampson dispensed with words and used his fists instead. He reached Bequelia, wrapped an arm around her middle, and threw her off Diana.

Diana had already lost consciousness. She was nothing more than a pale, bone-white wreck on the couch. Sheila snapped over to her as Sampson rounded on Bequelia.

Bequelia stumbled to her feet, her eyes wild with rage. She still had her psychic hooks in Diana – still.

There was only one thing Sampson could do short of revealing his own psychic skills. As Bequelia got to her feet and spread a hand out, intent to use her psychic powers to blast through Sampson, he rounded his fist and slammed it against her jaw.

One timed blow was all it took.

Bequelia crumpled.

Sampson had just hit a staff member, and it was only his second day.

Without pause, he twisted around and shunted over to Sheila. The pale-lipped doctor had a hand on Diana’s limp wrist.

“Is she okay?” he asked breathlessly.

“Alive,” Sheila confirmed as she checked the medical scanner on her wristwatch. “But she needs immediate medical care. I’m no psychic – but that counselor clearly is. Even my rudimentary scanners are picking up massive neurological disruption in Diana’s brain. She needs a transport now. You stay and deal with her.” Sheila didn’t even do Bequelia the justice of turning toward her – the busy doctor simply pointed a stiff, white-knuckled finger at the counselor.

They’d drawn a crowd. The doors hadn’t had a chance to close behind Sheila before Sampson had leaped over and attacked Bequelia. As they opened and a nearby officer spilled in, Sheila snapped to her feet. “Call security. Lockdown this office. Take the counselor into custody. And get me a medical transport. Now.”

The guy looked taken aback, but he was still a Coalition officer, and as he stood there in the open doorway, he called security himself. He didn’t ask the obviously harried Sheila any questions or interrupt as she organized the medical transport. He stood there and stared out at the corridor, clearly holding the fort until a security team got here.

That just left Sampson to stand there. Stand there, and feel.

Sheila might have ordered for this office to be locked down for an impending investigation, but Sampson hardly had to wait around for forensics to get here.

He knew exactly what had happened. Bequelia had forced a hole right through Diana’s head to get to something. A single memory. One that was so strong, it had left an imprint in this very room.

He… he swore he could see someone – a little girl who couldn’t be more than eight – staring at a wall.

He couldn’t make out any more details, but the memory felt like Diana. It was so strong, it was like she’d left a part of herself behind.

As the medical transport was confirmed, Sheila made brief eye contact with Sampson. She didn’t need to say anything for Sampson to appreciate Sheila was going to call Forest the first chance she got.

Good.

Sampson stared at Diana’s deathly pale face as she was spirited away, the transport beam locking on her and shimmering like a mirage.

The pit of his stomach crawled like snakes at the sight of Diana’s lifeless face.

Once the transport beam had disappeared, Sheila accompanying Diana at her side, Sampson couldn’t stop himself from turning back to Bequelia. He was like a pig on a spit. No. Wrong image. Pigs didn’t move themselves; the spit did. Sampson was fully in control of his actions now as he rotated on the spot as slow but as deadly as a far-off quasar.

He was vaguely aware that the security team were marching down the corridor to get to them; he could feel their psyches, and they were far more trained than the students. This was where Sampson needed to take a step back and remind himself he was just a student.

But he wasn’t a goddamn student. He was a fully trained, deadly psy soldier.

“Hey, Cadet,” the officer in the doorway said. “What happened here?”

Sampson almost didn’t reply. It took too long to remind himself he was the cadet the officer was referring to.

Though all Sampson wanted to do was wake Bequelia up with the equivalent of a psy slap and do to her mind what she’d done to Diana’s, he finally reminded himself of where he was and who he had to pretend to be.

“I’m not sure, sir.” He ensured his voiced wavered with just the right note of stress and surprise to make it believable. “I had an appointment with this counselor, and Doctor Edwards came with me to introduce me.” Sampson didn’t stop as the security team finally arrived. “We heard something, Doctor Edwards became concerned, and she opened the door.” He left out the detail about screaming. The more he thought about it, the only reason he’d discerned Diana’s screams would be because of his psychic skills. As for Edwards, she had hearing augmentation. He couldn’t let either of those secrets out.

“What happened when the door opened, son?” a fully-armed security officer said.

“I don’t know,” Sampson lied. “The cadet was on the couch, and the counselor was attacking her somehow. I knocked the counselor back, but she came at me, so I knocked her out.”

Sampson measured every word. Every syllable. Every breath. He had to time everything to ensure one emotion couldn’t get out – rage.

He had to keep reminding himself that an ordinary final-year cadet would have no clue what psychic interrogation looked like.

The security guard walked in and started scanning the place.

The rest became a blur. Sampson was taken back to the security station for a full debrief. By that time, he fancied Forest had found out about this because rather than be questioned again, he was asked to provide nothing more than a verbal confirmation of Doctor Edward’s witness report.

He did.

By the time he was free, Sampson was nothing more than a seething pot of rage that could lose its lid at any moment.

He’d had a chance to think things through, and he’d come up with one conclusion. Diana had been systematically targeted and undermined, both socially and psychically, since the day she’d set foot on Academy grounds.

And no one had stepped in.

No one had stepped in.

Though all he wanted to do was head back to his apartment and call Forest, he didn’t get the chance. He was waylaid.

Not by Susan or some other member of the E Club keen for gossip.

No. By an admiral’s aide.

Sampson recognized the woman immediately – it was Commander Bar’nes. And the thin-lipped, never-smiling woman was the aide to none other than Admiral Fenton.

Sampson knew what the commander wanted long before she snapped a salute. “Cadet Mark Ray,” she stated, not bothering to go through the formalities of asking him who he was, “your presence is requested by Admiral Luther Fenton. Do you have time to meet with him?”

Even if Sampson didn’t, he knew full well he’d have to make time.

He snapped a salute, didn’t ask a single question, and followed Bar’nes as she led him through the darkened grounds and over to the primary command tower.

It was already dark out because he’d spent hours in security. As he strode behind the tall Bar’nes, the cold wind chilled his cheeks and for some reason made his collar feel like the grip of a metal hand.

All he wanted to do was get to Forest and ask the admiral for permission to question Bequelia. Sampson wanted Bequelia to know he was psychic – he wanted the counselor to realize that every step of the way as she’d tortured Diana, he’d been there. And that he was much more powerful than Bequelia would ever be.

For those who wield power indiscriminately must be controlled by those more powerful and just.

He wouldn’t get that chance any time soon. Bar’nes led him through the command tower and up to the fortieth floor. Sampson wasn’t drawn in by the view, though it was expansive. As they strode along a wide, open corridor with plate glass windows on one side, all he could see was the city. It glittered back at him like a many-faceted jewel.

The city was one thing. The door at the end of the corridor and the man behind it another.

“You’ll address the admiral as admiral,” Bar’nes said needlessly.

“Yes, Commander.”

She stopped in front of the closed door, briefly nodding at the two security guards either side of it. “Cadet, Admiral Fenton—”

She didn’t get a chance to finish – the doors opened.

“Admiral Fenton can speak for himself. Now come in, Cadet.” Fenton swept an imposing arm to the side, gesturing at them to enter. It wasn’t just his arm that was imposing; the whole man looked like he could take on a speeding cruiser and win. It wasn’t only his massive size – it was the oversized look in his eyes.

Fenton had deserved his post as the man tasked with holding back the Coalition’s enemies.

But even heroes bleed. For as Sampson fell into step behind the admiral, he could feel Fenton’s pain.

Bar’nes went to follow, but with a curt nod from Fenton, stepped back. She turned and assumed a position with her back to the door as it closed.

… That made it three guards outside Fenton’s office.

He was an important man, granted, but to guard him, you would have to expect a threat. Specifically, a threat within the heart of the Academy itself. They were on the fortieth floor of the command building.

But he still had guards.

As soon as the doors closed, Fenton unlocked his hands from behind him, reached his desk, and descended into his chair like a man whose legs had been filled with lead. “Let’s start by getting what we both know out in the open. Forest just called. I know you’re one of her assets.”

Sampson didn’t say anything, though his cheeks tightened as he wondered if Forest had told Fenton the whole truth.

Fenton brought up a weak hand and dismissed Sampson’s worry with a flick of his large wrist. “Don’t worry. She hasn’t told me what kind of asset you are, and I’m not stupid enough to ask. Forest does her thing, and I do mine. I’m simply saying this to point out I know you’re not an ordinary cadet so we can dismiss with unneeded pleasantries and formalities. Now tell me what happened to my daughter.” Fenton had been tired but to-the-point until he mentioned his daughter. Grief cracked through his face like water through dry ground.

Sampson straightened. Fenton might have just ordered him to dispense with formalities, but Sampson didn’t stand rigidly for the admiral’s benefit. Sampson had to control his body to control his emotions. While Fenton had every right to be aggrieved, Sampson did not.

What had happened to Diana was a tragedy, but it wasn’t Sampson’s personal tragedy – it was Fenton’s.

“It’s my belief the counselor was hunting for something in your daughter’s head.” Sampson didn’t hesitate to reveal that detail, though it might lead Fenton to believe Sampson had psychic skills. It was the most pertinent fact, and even if Sampson withheld it, Fenton would figure it out from the medical report.

Fenton’s jaw stiffened like molten steel setting in zero kelvin. “How did you figure it out?”

“I interrupted a so-called counseling session between them yesterday. Your daughter rushed from the room, visibly distraught. I tracked her down. So did Bequelia, though. The counselor wanted to drag her back – I intervened.”

Fenton looked right at him. “Thank you. Now tell me whatever you’re holding back.”

Sampson knew Fenton had a reputation, but as the admiral’s piercing gaze sliced into him, Sampson realized he’d somehow underestimated the man. Fenton might have been hurt by what had happened to his daughter, but the competent Coalition leader hadn’t forgotten how to get things done.

Nor had he forgotten how to read people. “I appreciate you may need to hide the details of whatever you’re investigating, but I need to know everything you do. I want to know what that psychic wanted in my daughter’s mind.”

“I don’t know,” Sampson answered truthfully.

“I know you’re a psychic, son,” Fenton dropped that fact with all the ease of someone relaying the time.

Sampson shut down all visible body reactions and stared at the wall.

“Forest didn’t tell me, but I’m good at guessing. I doubt you just figured out Bequelia was psychically interrogating my daughter, and that you happened to interrupt her twice. You would have felt it. So I’m asking you – what was Bequelia after?”

Sampson breathed through his teeth. He hadn’t even had a chance to share this with Forest yet.

Fenton didn’t push when Sampson didn’t answer quickly. The admiral waited. When Sampson’s pause drew on, Fenton leaned forward. “Please.”

“Something about a wall,” Sampson revealed.

Fenton looked confused. For half a second. Then a deep realization struck him. It had to be deep because it barely affected the surface of the man’s emotions. But it was there. God was it there.

“Go on,” Fenton ordered.

“That’s it, sir. I only picked up that impression when I was in Bequelia’s office. Some kind of wall… and… a man. Her father,” Sampson added as the realization dawned on him.

Fenton didn’t move.

It seemed to be common knowledge that Diana was adopted. Why she’d been adopted, however, was clearly a secret. Because as Sampson stared at Fenton, he saw the admiral was holding something back.

Something big.

“… You’re sure that’s it?” Fenton said.

“Those are the only images I received. I can only reaffirm that Bequelia was using extreme psychic interrogation, and for whatever reason, she wanted something buried in that memory. For her to be using such force, it would suggest whatever it is, Diana has forgotten it. At least on the surface.”

Fenton closed his eyes and breathed.

Sampson said nothing. He thought nothing, too. Though it could have been all too tempting to try to read Fenton’s deeper emotions, Sampson was smart enough to know that would be a step too far.

Men like Fenton – and anyone who rose to the top of the Coalition – were taught psychic defense. While it wouldn’t give them the kinds of skills Sampson had, it meant Fenton knew the basics of keeping the contents of his mind to himself.

Plus, Sampson had to keep reminding himself that his part in this play was done. He’d saved Diana, and now her father was involved, Sampson could be confident that no one would pick on her again.

… What Sampson was trying to say was that he should just drop this. He had no right – either morally or professionally – to care about this anymore.

Fenton finally opened his eyes and sat back. He looked Sampson right in the eye. “Thank you. I would use your title, but I don’t know what it is. So thank you will have to do.”

Sampson snapped a salute.

Fenton returned it.

As Fenton’s hand dropped, he let his gaze twist toward the wall. There were no windows.

… Sampson might have only started this mission a few days ago, but he’d already put to memory the entire blueprint of the Academy grounds, including the command building.

There should be a window in this room – one that took up most of the wall. Every other office on this floor had one.

As Sampson stared at the wall with a more careful eye, he saw it was new. It looked like a prefab molten metal kit that had been set up hastily.

Either Fenton didn’t like the view, or someone had decided he couldn’t afford one. It would be the same person who’d required Fenton to have on-site guards in arguably the most secure building on Earth.

What was going on here? Was someone after Admiral Fenton?

Though Sampson had no clue what Bequelia had been after in Diana’s mind, what if it had something to do with Fenton? What if there was an assassination plot against the admiral, and Diana was just one piece in his enemy’s snare to trap him?

“What are you thinking, son?” Fenton asked without moving his head from where the view should be.

“That someone might want you dead, sir.”

Fenton laughed, the move gravelly like someone grinding sandpaper down flaking wood. “A lot of people want me dead. Every soul beyond the Coalition’s borders, for one.”

“That’s not what I meant, sir.”

Fenton put a hand up. He turned from the non-existent view, and there was an unmistakably deep look in the man’s hardened gaze. “I know what you mean. You work for Forest, and you’re a psychic – I’m sure it didn’t take you long to figure out there had to be a reason I have guards and can’t have a window.”

“… Are you worried that Bequelia targeted your daughter to get information on you?” Sampson asked. At the back of his head, he knew he was pushing, and though he had leeway with Forest, Fenton was another matter.

Sampson couldn’t stop. No matter how much he told himself to drop this, he kept picking it up again.

Because every time he tried to dust his hands of Diana and her troubles, an image of her deathly pale face flashed across his mind’s eye like someone clicking their fingers to get his attention.

Fenton cleared his throat loudly. “That’s not your concern.”

“Sorry, sir.”

Fenton laughed. It wasn’t a cold move, but it could hardly be classed as happy, either. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. I understand that you must be curious. But I also understand that you are an important asset for Forest. I don’t know what you’re doing here at the Academy, but I can bet that if Forest is utilizing a psychic, it’s an important mission. I don’t want you distracted from that, son.”

“I’m not distracted, sir.”

Fenton’s brow compressed with a twitch. “So you’re saying your investigation led you to my daughter and Bequelia?”

Sampson stopped.

Fenton let out another laugh. “I didn’t think so. Now, trust me – I’ve got this,” Fenton rumbled darkly. “You don’t have to worry about my daughter again. You are free to complete your original mission.”

Sampson opened his mouth as if to say he hadn’t been concerned about Diana. He stopped. It wasn’t just that such harsh words would insult one of the strongest men in the fleet.

It was that it wasn’t true.

Dammit, try as he might, the longer he stood there, the more his concern for her peaked. Because the longer he stood there, the more he could hear her scream – the same terrified, soul-crushing cry she’d given when Bequelia had latched onto her. Just remembering it sent spikes of nerves slicing through his middle like swords trying to carve their way out of his gut.

Fenton, just like Forest, could read soldiers. Because just like Forest, Fenton had to. The difference between a soldier enthusiastically accepting an order and one begrudgingly acquiescing could be the difference between completing a mission or failing it. So Sampson wasn’t surprised when Fenton stood, clear understanding softening his expression. “She’s awake. She awoke an hour ago.”

Sampson tried to hide his emotion. He went through every step he knew to still the muscles of his cheeks and brow and to soften the intensity of his gaze.

Nothing worked, and his cheeks twitched. “She is?”

“Yes.”

“Is she okay? Is there any lasting damage?” Sampson asked too quickly. He could hear his own voice. He sounded more worried than Fenton.

With a deep sigh, Fenton shook his head. “No lasting damage that the doctors can detect. At least physical.”

Sampson’s stomach twisted. He wasn’t a rookie. Someone who had little experience with the horrors of psychic interrogation might assume that someone could bounce back after a failed attack – he knew differently. It could leave you with lasting scars that would never heal.

“She doesn’t remember anything from today. And it’s unlikely she will ever get those memories back,” Fenton revealed.

Sampson’s stomach kicked with a vicious mix of anger and defeat.

He hadn’t got there in time. For Bequelia to have wiped Diana’s memories, it meant the psychic had already well and truly sunk her hooks all the way into Diana’s consciousness by the time he interrupted.

Fenton’s gaze darted over Sampson’s face, and he appreciated the admiral was reading him like an open book.

“I have a question. Officers say they saw you standing up for my daughter on several occasions. Why?”

Sampson wasn’t an idiot; he could tell where this line of questioning was going. Fenton wanted to know if the only reason Sampson had helped Diana was because of the admiral himself.

And Fenton would be able to tell if Sampson was lying. So Sampson didn’t even try to disguise a deep sigh. “She seemed alone, sir.”

“Is that it?”

Nope. The more Sampson interrogated his own reasons for sticking close to Diana, the more he didn’t want to admit them. Sure, she’d had the most interesting psyche, but the fact he’d stuck by her side went beyond that.

“I never went to the Academy,” he suddenly admitted.

“I assumed you had non-standard training, but what is your point?” Fenton asked.

“I’ve only ever met officers who’ve been to the Academy. From the stories they told, I assumed this place was like a utopia. It isn’t.” Sampson didn’t hold back.

Fenton looked to the side, then up, his gaze once again locking on where the view should be. “No, it is not. Impending war can do that to utopias.”

“It’s more than that,” Sampson said, and though he tried to keep his body controlled, he rocked forward on his feet. It was like his secrets were trying to push out of his mouth and were dragging him forward the more he tried to keep them trapped.

Fenton’s thick brows crumpled between his eyes as if someone had hollowed out his skull. “What does that mean?”

“That someone was targeting your daughter, sir. Not someone – everyone.” Once the words were out, Sampson couldn’t retract them. He could try to smooth them over, but Sampson couldn’t deny his own vehemence, and Fenton had already seen it.

The admiral’s gaze sharpened. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that your daughter is isolated wholly and completely. And it doesn’t seem like it’s an accident.”

Fenton, to his credit, held it in. The admiral’s gaze locked in place, and the only indication that Sampson’s admission had gotten to him was the crinkled skin at the corners of the admiral’s eyes scrunching in further as if a fist was trying to squeeze the blood from them. “What?”

“… I can only say what I saw. And I saw an Academy that seemed programmed to ignore your daughter’s distress. I don’t know how long this has been going on, sir – but it’s been going on more than long enough that someone else should have already stopped it.”

… Shit, what was Sampson doing? This wasn’t his place. Goddammit. Fenton had already told him to drop this and get back to his real mission. Now here Sampson was dumping the whole Academy into the same hole.

Fenton didn’t answer. He tipped his head up and stared at the ceiling. “That’s a hell of an allegation.”

“I know.”

“So why are you making it?”

“Because something else is going on here, sir.” The more Sampson tried to stop himself from speaking, the more it had exactly the opposite effect. It was like his body was now primed to do the reverse of what his better reason kept begging him to do.

Fenton didn’t move for several seconds. He finally cracked his lips open, but just a slither. It was like his face had become so rigid with anger, he’d lost the capacity to move all but the slimmest section of one pale lip. “Something else may indeed be going on here, son – but it’s not your concern anymore. It’s mine. I suggest you leave this and return to your mission. I will pass on my commendation to Forest. I doubt you’re the kind of soldier to have an ordinary file, and I doubt it will ever be recorded, but I will try anyway. Thank you.” With that, Fenton snapped a salute. It was firm, it was direct, and it would make it clear to even the thickest recruit that this conversation was now over.

Sampson wanted to push, but Fenton was now the equivalent of a brick wall. The man turned and considered something on his desk with all the finality of the sun setting for the night.

Sampson’s shoulders dropped. He bothered to snap a salute in return before he turned on his heel and headed to the door.

“One more thing,” Fenton called after him.

Sampson stopped. “Yes, sir?”

“My daughter has asked to see you to thank you for saving her.”

“I thought you said she couldn’t remember what happened today?”

“She remembers you coming into Bequelia’s office – and that’s it,” Fenton revealed.

“… Do you wish for me to see your daughter, sir?”

“She’d find a way to see you, even if I didn’t want her to. There’s no stopping Diana Fenton when she wants to do something. All I ask is that you don’t drag her into your investigation.”

“That would never happen, Admiral.”

“I also ask,” Fenton turned and folded his large form down until he leaned against the edge of his desk, “that you do not investigate her.”

Sampson turned fully. He looked at Fenton fully too – not leaving anything back. “… You can’t ask me to do that, sir.”

Fenton put up a hand. “I’m not talking about your mission, whatever that is, though I couldn’t imagine my daughter could ever be involved. What I’m saying is that I don’t want you asking any questions about her past.”

Sampson didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. To claim that a registered psychic – even if Sampson was technically a secret asset – would violate every psychic code and illegally use their powers to spy on innocent people was a hell of an allegation.

Fenton kept his hand up. “I’m not casting aspersions on you, son – and I appreciate everything you’ve done so far. All I’m saying is that my daughter’s past cannot come to light. Do you understand?”

No. Sampson didn’t have a clue what was happening here. That didn’t stop him from nodding low.

“I have one other thing to ask you.” Fenton crossed his imposing arms against his equally imposing barrel chest, his uniform crinkling over his elbows and stretching at his shoulders.

“What, sir?”

“Don’t let her down. If you have to ditch Diana as your investigation goes on, let her down lightly. As you already said, she’s isolated.”

Though Fenton was trying to hide it, and the admiral was doing a nominally good job, Sampson could feel the man’s distress.

Sampson nodded once. “I don’t ditch people, sir.” He walked back to the door. He paused before he opened it. Before he could stop himself, his lips parted as a strange smile took them. “And your daughter is stronger than you think.”

With that, Sampson walked out.

He saluted Fenton’s aide, strode off down the corridor, and finally headed back to his apartment.

By the time he got in, two calls were waiting for him. One was from Forest – though it hadn’t come from her directly, and instead appeared to originate from a low-level junior member in her team. The other was from Diana.

… He knew which one he wanted to answer first. Sorry – he itched to answer first. For the second he saw Diana’s name flash on the comms unit of his apartment, a surge of emotion washed over him.

Though the doctors hadn’t been able to help her remember the last day, Sampson could help her. He had skills they didn’t.

… He caught himself just in time before that thought could take root. To help her, he’d have to reveal his powers. To help her, he’d have to go against a direct order from her father.

Sampson controlled himself and called the admiral.

As soon as Forest’s face flickered over the hologram his armor projected, he could see her stress.

Her lips were pulled white and hard over her teeth, and the dark shadows welling under her eyes suggested she hadn’t moved from her desk for hours. “Fenton wants to commend you for your actions today, Sampson, and so do I. You saved a cadet’s life. But you failed to mention something last night.”

Sampson reeled. He’d expected the admiral would praise his efforts today; not use them to launch into an immediate reprimand.

“Sorry, Admiral?”

“Yesterday when relaying that you had suspicions Bequelia was targeting a cadet, you failed to mention who that cadet was.” There was a hardened note in Forest’s voice. It sounded like she’d been holding onto this reprimand all day, just waiting for him to return home so she could serve it up to him on a platter of cold anger.

“Diana Fenton?” he asked stupidly. “Why would that matter?”

“Because she’s the daughter of one of the most important admirals in the fleet,” Forest snapped bitterly. “And I would have thought a smart operator like you would appreciate that is not a detail you leave out.”

“Admiral – I apologize. I didn’t mention her name… because I didn’t think it was relevant to our operation.” It was a half-truth. Okay, it wasn’t even a half-truth. It was fractionally correct and would require a mathematician to calculate precisely how small that fraction was.

Sampson hadn’t mentioned Diana, not because he’d thought she wasn’t important – but because he hadn’t wanted to say her name in front of Forest for two reasons. He hadn’t wanted to implicate her in his investigation, and more importantly, he hadn’t been sure he could control his tone when saying her name.

Forest practically rammed a hand into her head as her tension-filled fingers cupped her brow and dragged through her short hair. “Well, what’s done is done. At least we have Bequelia.”

It was clear from the way Forest spoke that she didn’t want to be questioned. Sampson knew that. But he also knew his body was not about to follow through with his better judgment, yet again. “Why does it matter that it’s Diana? Do you think Bequelia was using her to get to Fenton? Why is Fenton even here? I thought he was still out in the colonies?”

Forest dropped her hand. It thumped against her desk as if she couldn’t afford the attention to guide it safely down because all her focus was locked on Sampson instead. “Just drop it, Sampson.”

“Someone’s planning to assassinate Fenton, aren’t they?”

“If they are, it’s not your concern.”

“Unless it has something to do with my mission, sir.” Sampson knew he had a special relationship with Forest, but that didn’t give him leave to ignore her every order. His privileged treatment could only go so far.

He smashed right up against its limit as Forest tilted her head back and locked her steely gaze on him. “I’m ordering you to drop this. Do you understand that order, Ventura?”

Forest only used his last name when she wanted to hammer home that despite appearances, she was still his commander.

It took a few seconds for him to open his mouth and breathe, “I understand.”

Forest ran her hand through her hair, though it wasn’t to neaten it. Her tension still ate through her muscles like acid churning through paper. “Now, do you have anything to report to me?”

“I assume Sheila already told you what happened.”

“She did. But I’m not talking about the thing with Bequelia – I want you to focus on your original mission. Do you have anything to report?”

Sampson held his tongue. The only thing of note that happened today had been the ‘thing with Bequelia’ as they were now apparently referring to it.

Forest would know that. Just as she would know that it could very likely be linked to their mission. Bequelia was clearly much, much more powerful than her psychic registration suggested – and with access to every cadet, she could have done untold damage.

She was a strong lead, and yet now the admiral was treating her like a closed door.

… All because of Diana.

Forest didn’t appear to be paying attention, but the admiral could watch the world out of the corner of her eye like a cat waiting for a mouse to traipse across its path. “I don’t want you to think this one through, Sampson. I know you have your questions, but understand that I have very good reasons for not letting you ask them.”

“Don’t you want to know what I saw when I interrupted Bequelia?” he challenged. Though every fiber in his Coalition bones told him to do exactly as she wanted – and drop this like a stone – he couldn’t.

He waited, concentrating on Forest with all his might as she looked up. There, at the corners of her eyes, he saw interest.

But she controlled it immediately. “Unless it has something to do with our mission, then no, I don’t want to know.”

“How do we know what it has to do with? How are we so sure Bequelia is now a dead-end?”

“Because she and Diana Fenton are now dead-ends to you, Ventura.”

“Sir, you set me the task of figuring out who’s planning on bringing Infection Zero to Earth. I can’t do that if you shut down legitimate lines of questioning.”

“You will do as I order, Ventura – or you will be taken off this case.”

Sampson stared at Forest, shocked. “What?”

That shouldn’t even be on the cards. As far as he knew, Forest didn’t have any other assets out in the field. For her to be suggesting taking him off this case, she’d either cracked… or what?

Clearly, Forest could see that Sampson was thinking things through, as her gaze sharpened. “Just drop it. That’s all I’m asking. Return to your original investigation. And… rest assured that Bequelia won’t be forgotten. She has been moved to a secure facility, and she will be questioned. Just not by you.”

Sampson opened his mouth to ask why. He stopped. While Forest’s attitude had apparently changed, the threat of removing him from this mission was still on the table.

Maybe that had been a test, as Forest waited a few more seconds for Sampson to question her. When he didn’t, she let out a sigh. “We’ll track this down. Now, go out there and find me another target. And, Sampson, this is an order – stay away from Diana Fenton.”

Sampson knew that had been coming. From the second Forest had answered his call and freaked out about Diana for no reason, it had only ever been a matter of time before the admiral would warn him off her.

Sampson looked at his feet and nodded. He stopped. “Fenton – the admiral,” he corrected, “told me to go see his daughter. She wants to thank me—”

“Don’t have anything to do with Diana Fenton, and that’s an order from your direct supervisor.”

Forest used the kind of tone that told him she would not repeat herself again.

It took Sampson too long to open his mouth and mutter, “Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The admiral looked as if she’d had a weight taken off her shoulders as she said that. Or at least, had a weight partially removed from her already bowing back. God knows that until all threat of Infection Zero was removed, she wouldn’t rest easily.

“Is there anything else, Admiral?” Sampson asked.

“No. Return to classes in the morning. Keep an eye on everyone, including Sparx.”

Between one thing and another Sampson had almost forgotten about Sparx. Almost. At the back of Sampson’s head, and right down deep in his heart, rage had been seething since the moment Sparx had taken Diana out of class.

Sampson snapped his mouth open. He couldn’t move his lips fast enough. But before he could ask the question that burnt through his throat like a cruiser’s exhaust, Forest put a hand up. “No, Sparx hasn’t been taken into custody. Yes, he’s being investigated. At this stage, we can’t find any concrete ties between him and the counselor. For all intents and purposes, it looks as if he was just trying to keep Dia—” Forest began. She was somehow so cautious of Diana’s name, however, that she clearly thought better of mentioning it. “Bequelia simply seems to have appreciated that Sparx was a way to get to the cadet,” she corrected, her tone so cautious as she said cadet, it was like Forest somehow thought the mere mention of Diana could blow up in her face.

Or Sampson’s face. Forest wasn’t dodging Diana for her own benefit.

So why the hell was she doing this?

Diana Fenton was the daughter of an admiral – Sampson got that. But there was no earthly reason for Forest to order him away from her like he was a dog she was worried would dig up some deeply buried bone.

It took Sampson a second to pull his mind off his numerous questions and onto what Forest had just said. “That’s bullshit, sir. Sparx hates Dia—” he caught himself just in time, “the cadet.”

“Perhaps. But it doesn’t seem that hatred – which is a strong term, Sampson – is directed at her.”

“What the hell does that mean?” He made a face as he tried to follow that clearly warped logic.

“You asked for Sparx’s file. If you’d had a chance to read it, you would have appreciated that Sparx has a history with Admiral Fenton. The kind where Fenton removed him from a prestigious position in the outposts and left a permanent mark on Sparx’s file. Sparx was going for a position as a captain – one he’ll never get. He returned to the Academy to teach combat because he couldn’t see any other career path available to him.”

Sampson’s mouth could have dropped off his frigging face at that revelation. “You knew this? Why didn’t—”

“If you’re about to ask why no one intervened… on the cadet’s behalf in relation to her treatment by Commander Sparx, it never merited it. We kept an eye on Sparx. And his treatment, though harsh, didn’t—”

“What? Admiral? Seem like an issue at the time?”

Forest’s cheeks hardened. “I’m telling you this not to rile you up, Sampson, but to give you perspective.”

There was something about that word that brought up a picture of Diana’s smiling face. His mind had already associated that word with the far-off look Diana would get in her eyes whenever she stared off at the view, but obviously that association was now so strong, whenever anyone mentioned the mere word, it was like a movie reel of Diana rolled through his consciousness.

“Sparx targeted a cadet to get revenge on Fenton’s daughter – is that the perspective you’re seeking?” he snapped.

“No. I’m trying to tell you that while it may appear Sparx was colluding with Bequelia, we can’t find any evidence of that. Bequelia had access to staff files, and that includes Sparx’s. She would have figured out he had a reason to hate her, and Bequelia being the obviously manipulative psychic you revealed her to be, would have figured out a way to use Sparx. I’m trying to tell you, Sampson,” Forest said, her voice louder and more insistent as if she was only going to say this one more time, “that we have no evidence to suggest Sparx was involved, just used by Bequelia. That isn’t to say you don’t have leave to investigate him if you think you have legitimate grounds to do so. It simply behooves you to find such grounds before you do. Do you understand?”

No. The last thing Sampson could do right now was understand this screwed up situation. From Fenton, to Diana, to Bequelia, to Forest shoehorning him into only investigating what she thought was safe – nothing made sense.

“Do you understand, Sampson?” Forest asked one more time.

“Yes.”

“Then do your mission but have nothing more to do with Diana Fenton.”

Chapter 13

Diana Fenton

She didn’t know what to think. She only knew what she wanted to do. She had to find Mark and thank him from the bottom of her heart for saving her.

Though Diana couldn’t remember most of what had happened yesterday, one memory was as clear as the shining light of dawn – Sampson launching through the door and saving her from Bequelia.

Diana sat on the edge of her bed, her hands in her lap as she traced her thumbs around each other.

She stared out of her window. It was morning.

She knew what she had to do. She had to get to class. But to do that, she had to first pull herself off this bed. She also had to convince herself that today everything would be different.

Now Bequelia had been revealed, Diana no longer had the horror of weekly counseling sessions looming over her head. She could go to class and live her life without ever fearing that someone would poke around in her memories again.

… But that couldn’t remove the disquiet that had settled in Diana’s bones since the moment she’d awoken yesterday.

It was a sensation that could hardly be described. It felt like clouds looming on the horizon – like the far-off threatening rumble of thunder.

It felt like being pushed right up to the edge of oblivion and waiting for someone else to shove you into it.

She twitched and pushed to her feet. It was that or be drawn further down into that horrifying sensation. And she knew that if she allowed herself to be dragged down into it, she would never emerge.

“Get to class,” she warned herself.

She dressed and walked out to find Susan nowhere to be seen.

Though Susan shouldn’t know exactly what happened to Diana yesterday – as the Academy was keeping it under wraps until they could investigate Bequelia further – Susan would know that Diana had been attacked.

… Though Diana hardly expected a bunch of flowers from Susan, at least an acknowledgment of her condition would be nice.

“Don’t ask for a change in people’s hearts – make the change.” The words were out of Diana’s lips before she even realized she was moving them.

As she reached the door, she paused and blinked in surprise. That hadn’t sounded like her voice, had it? Not unless Diana had lived a thousand lifetimes last night in her dreams.

… With that strangely haunting thought ricocheting around her mind, she walked out of her door and into the corridor.

The last person she expected was waiting for her.

Not Mark.

Susan.

She was standing, leaning against the door, her gaze directed out at the cadets walking past and gawking their way. “You’re up. Good. Come on. I’ve got to get to a special ops class,” Susan said.

“… Sorry?”

“Hurry up – come on. I’ve got to take you to class.”

“Ah, Susan – what are you doing?”

Susan turned and looked right at Diana.

Diana had never once had what could be classed as a friendly relationship with the frosty Susan. But that had never stopped Diana from believing that under the right conditions – and importantly, away from the competition of the E Club – Susan could be a different woman.

She just needed a chance.

Diana smiled. “Thanks. I think… because you’re offering to take me to class, aren’t you? And you were guarding the door from gawkers, weren’t you?”

Susan looked away sharply but didn’t shake her head. “Come on.”

Diana hurried up by her side. When she tried to walk on the outside of Susan, Susan quickly twisted until Diana was beside the wall and Susan blocked her off from the gawking, muttering cadets they passed.

“Don’t ask for a change in people’s hearts,” Diana found herself saying aloud, though thankfully her voice was low enough not to carry. “Make the change.”

“Sorry?” Susan turned to her.

“Don’t wait for doors to open – open them,” Diana found herself adding as they reached the elevator.

“Are you talking to me, Diana?” Susan asked, and to her credit, there wasn’t any accusation in her tone – just worry.

Diana shook her head as realization caught up with her. “Sorry, no… it was just something I heard last night.”

“Where? I thought you went straight home after you were discharged from the hospital?” Susan dropped her voice low so no one else could hear. She reached the lift, walked in, marched Diana inside, and closed the doors before any more cadets could cram themselves in.

“Oh… yeah, I think I must have heard it when I watched tv,” Diana lied.

“Oh.”

They descended into silence.

Diana expected it would last until Susan discharged her duties and shepherded Diana to class.

She was wrong. Before they reached the ground floor and exited into the thick crowd, she turned to Diana and let out a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry for what happened to you – even though I don’t exactly know what that is.”

Diana blinked, stunned.

“Don’t worry – no one knows you were… assaulted by your counselor – just that there was an attack on campus involving a student and a staff member. I only found out it was Bequelia because someone from E Club saw Bequelia being taken away.” Susan didn’t lift her voice. It was so quiet, Diana could only just pick it up.

Even if she hadn’t been able to hear it, it wouldn’t have mattered. Diana knew what Susan meant – it was like she could reach right into Susan’s mind and discern her real meaning with perfect clarity. Susan’s words were imperfect representations of Susan’s heart.

And Diana could see right into Susan’s heart as if her body and mind were nothing but doors that could be opened.

… It took Diana too long to recognize how wrong that thought was.

When terror gripped her expression and Susan saw it, she paled. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to mention her name like that. I’m… sorry,” she added.

She wasn’t talking about Bequelia attacking Diana anymore. Susan was apologizing for the way she’d treated Diana over the years.

… Again, Diana just knew that. Just as she knew she couldn’t be wrong.

“Come on, I really need to get to spec ops class.” Susan hurried forward through the crowd, acting as an ice breaker.

Before Diana could become too worried by her intuition as it sharpened like a knife that could seemingly cut through any matter, she rushed after Susan.

A small, hesitant smile spread Diana’s lips.

Susan waited at the main doors, keeping them open with her arm until Diana had walked through.

Was everyone looking at Diana? Yeah.

And they were thinking horrible things about her. Some were wondering if she’d be kicked out now. Some thought she deserved it.

But cutting under every cruel thought was a sense of chaos and uncertainty. The cadets didn’t know what was going on, and they were latching onto the only thing they knew to explain events – that Diana was a screw-up.

… Diana was doing it again. She couldn’t possibly know what the cadets around her were thinking. She couldn’t read their minds… and yet… she was.

“I’ll come to pick you up after class, but seriously, hurry up,” Susan said as she forged forward.

“Thank you,” Diana said quietly. “And sorry.”

Those two little words made Susan lengthen her back and unsettled her stride as she marched across the grounds. “You… you don’t need to be sorry. And aren’t you going to question why I’m doing this?”

“I know.”

“Really?” Susan snorted. “I’ve had a complete personality change overnight, and you’re not going to ask why? Aren’t you worried that someone’s ordered me to stick by your side?”

Diana shook her head. “No one’s ordered you to do anything. You’re a good person, Susan – you always have been and always will be.”

Susan actually stopped. She looked flabbergasted. Her lips opened, and Diana knew a part of Susan wanted to push. The old Susan who cared more about distancing herself from Diana wanted to snap out some snarky comment.

Don’t wait for doors to open – open them.

Those words pushed through Diana’s mind like a hand reaching up from oblivion to guide her back on the path of creation.

… Diana swore she could see two sides of Susan’s personality locked in a battle. Diana could almost see Susan’s thoughts like wafts of smoke winding through her mind.

Susan was worried what the E Club would think. She was worried that by associating with Diana, Susan would be stripped of her role as their leader.

Diana shook her head. “Don’t worry – the E Club won’t remove you. You’re the best, and they know that.”

Susan looked startled. “What… how did you know I was thinking that?”

Diana didn’t get a chance to answer. She felt someone moving through the crowd.

She jerked her head over her shoulder, knowing who it was long before Sampson Ventura strode past.

Diana didn’t draw herself up on thinking of him as Sampson Ventura. It felt right.

So did reaching a hand out to him and clasping his shoulder as he walked past without seeing her.

Sampson ground to a halt but didn’t turn to her. “I’ve got to get to class.”

“I haven’t had a chance to thank you for yesterday. I tried to call you—”

“I’ve got to get to class,” Sampson repeated in a dull tone. He didn’t turn to look at her once.

A chill raced across Diana’s back.

“Remove your hand, please – I need to get to class,” Sampson repeated in the same dull tone without ever looking her way.

Diana let her hand drop.

“Hey, what the hell is your problem?” Susan snapped.

The old Diana would have assumed that Susan could only use a tone that angry with her. But Susan wasn’t talking to Diana. She was directing her full ire at Sampson. A man she clearly fancied, and a man she wanted in E Club. But a man Susan still challenged with a hardened voice and a direct, unflinching stare. “Diana just wants to thank you. You can at least look at her.”

Sampson didn’t turn. He walked away. “I have to get to class,” he said with all the automatic efficiency of a programmed robot.

“What an asshole,” Susan said, and she let her voice carry unabashedly through the crowd.

Diana just stood there.

Susan turned to her, her gaze clearly worried as it traced over Diana’s still form. “Forget that asshole. Who cares if he ditched you? He’s arrogant anyway.”

“… You need to get to class, Susan. I’ve already wasted enough of your time,” Diana said weakly.

“Like hell. That asshole might be ashamed to be seen with you, but I’m not. Come on.” Susan locked a hand on Diana’s wrist and pulled her forward.

Until this morning, Susan had been ashamed to be seen with Diana. Diana didn’t point that out. She couldn’t.

Her mind was locked on Sampson as he strode quickly through the crowd. He was out of sight, but that didn’t seem to matter – Diana knew exactly where he was.

Just as she knew Sampson, despite appearances, had wanted to look at her with all his heart.

Something had kept him back.

Even now as she felt him in the crowd, it was like she could sense the very electric potential picking up in his muscles. Though she had no chance of seeing him, she knew with all her heart that he suddenly paused at the base of the steps and glanced her way.

It didn’t last. He turned and walked away.

Diana stopped. She brought a hand to her head, and she locked it there.

His name wasn’t Sampson.

She couldn’t track him through the crowd.

She couldn’t read Susan’s thoughts.

And Mark Ray had just abandoned her because he – like everyone else around here – thought she was the Angel of Death.

All of that had to be true because if it wasn’t, something was happening to Diana Fenton that she couldn’t explain and she could not stop.

Chapter 14

Sampson Ventura

That had been hard – as hard as any mission he’d ever gone on.

Turning from Diana and walking away had been like sticking his boot in.

Sampson felt sick. He felt like a walking asshole – because he was one. Admiral Fenton himself had asked Sampson not to hurt Diana. So, what had he done?

Hurt Diana.

He couldn’t shake the guilt as he got to class.

He couldn’t sit with her, no matter how much he longed to look into those deep violet eyes. He couldn’t check her psyche, no matter how much he wanted to ensure Bequelia hadn’t left any lasting damage.

All Sampson could do was sit there and complete his real mission.

With a dulled mind and emotion so buried, it felt like he’d thrown his heart into the Mariana Trench, he scanned the students in science class.

By the time it was over, he had nothing.

There was emotion – yes. But none of it even neared the level you’d require to destroy every living creature on Planet Earth.

By the time he made it out of class, Sampson was on autopilot.

He scanned every mind he passed, but he got nothing.

… Except for Diana. He could feel her stronger than ever. Though he could kid himself and try to believe that Diana was fine, and Bequelia hadn’t left any lasting damage in Diana’s head, that was naïve.

With a psychic attack on that level, Diana would have lasting scars. He could feel them. Her mind had turned into the equivalent of a burning engine.

And there was nothing he could do about it.

As he walked through the corridors to get to his next class, he could see Diana. She’d stopped in front of another window to once more stare up at the view.

No. Not up at the view – again she looked as if she was staring through it.

Though Sampson knew that sounded strange, as soon as that thought hit his mind, it was like an infection. It spread until it took over his whole body and locked him to the spot.

… What the hell was she doing?

Though Diana appeared ensconced in her task – whatever it was – suddenly, she turned, and despite the fact there was a crowd between them, she managed to stare right through it, right at him as if she’d already known he was there.

A smile spread her lips. And those same lips opened to mouth, “Sampson.”

Surprise gripped Sampson like chains around his heart.

There was no way Diana could know his real name.

Before he could spiral down into suspicion and call Forest, someone moved in front of Diana, and by the time they’d moved off, so had Diana.

Sampson turned to try to track her through the crowd, but a whole class had just finished, and cadets were spewing out of a lecture hall to his side like water from a dam.

He shoved off, trying to get to her.

… He’d just made that up, hadn’t he? She hadn’t actually mouthed his real name. She’d just mouthed something similar.

Because there was no way Diana knew who he was. Even Admiral Fenton didn’t know Sampson’s real name.

Though Sampson had been explicitly ordered to stay away from her, he couldn’t stay away now.

He only just caught glimpses of her as she walked through the cadets. Everyone, as usual, gave her a wide berth. She didn’t seem to care. Her head was turned to the side, and far from locking on the judgmental gazes she was getting, Diana was still staring out of the windows.

He could kid himself that she was just watching the grounds and the glittering slice of the bay beyond. Her head was tilted up, though. Specifically, right at the command building.

Nerves buzzed through him. They seemed to come from somewhere beyond him – it was the only way to explain their power. For a trained psy soldier like Sampson couldn’t possibly have emotions this intense.

But intense they were, and they only grew as he tracked Diana forward.

Though occasionally she would get distracted and pull her wide-eyed gaze off the view to lock it on some passing cadet, she always returned her stare to the command building.

… It was like she was tracking something.

What?

Goddammit, what the hell was going on here? Why had Forest sworn him off Diana? What had Bequelia really been after? What was that wall Diana had seen? And why was the memory buried in her mind?

Diana finally stopped, coming to a halt so suddenly, several cadets almost banged into her. They all muttered angrily and flowed around her as Diana tilted her head all the way around to face the view. She looked like a marionette. Her neck muscles tightened so slowly and jerkily, it was like something else was in control of her body.

“Diana?” he called, incapable of taking this anymore.

He shoved through the crowd, bodily ramming a large cadet to push him out of the way.

Sampson didn’t get a chance to reach Diana. She shoved into a run. No. Wrong word. The only verb that came close to describing her sudden speed was pulsed. She was like a blast of light that had just erupted from some pulsar.

“What the hell?” Sampson spat as he pushed off to follow her.

She disappeared through the crowd.

Sampson couldn’t drop this anymore. No way, no how. Forest be damned.

He shoved off into a run, not caring that he made a scene as he barreled bodily through the crowd. Diana might have been able to lithely dart around people using her much smaller body, but Sampson just had to plow a path forward.

He did.

But he didn’t catch up to Diana. She reached a lift, threw herself inside, and surprised two cadets as she snapped at them to get out.

What the hell was happening to her? Had she finally cracked?

Sampson didn’t reach the lift in time.

That didn’t matter. He couldn’t lose her. Before he’d described her psyche as an open wound. Now he had no clue what it was, but he was sure even the most rudimentary psychic would be able to track it a planet away.

He’d never seen anything like it. She was like some kind of beacon.

Or at least to him.

Swearing under his breath, Sampson darted over to the next lifts and did exactly what she did – snapping at two cadets to get out as he commandeered it and rode it down to the base of the building. By the time he reached it, Diana had already disappeared.

“Dammit,” he spat again.

As he threw himself through the crowd, following her beacon, he wondered if he should contact Forest. She’d outright told him not to have anything to do with Diana Fenton, but that would change if he discovered Diana had anything to do with his mission.

He honestly didn’t know what was happening to her now, and though he wanted to believe with all his heart that Diana didn’t have anything to do with Infection Zero, he had to track her down to check.

By the time he made it out onto the steps that led down to the grounds, he finally spotted her. She rushed toward the command building, but halfway there, she abruptly stopped, halting so quickly, her boots tore up tufts of turf. She turned and threw herself in the opposite direction toward the accommodation block.

What the hell is happening to you, Diana? He thought with all his force as he ran off after her.

Abruptly, she turned to look at him. She didn’t stop running, though, and her hair fanned around her face as those startling eyes locked on him.

It was almost as if she’d heard him. But she couldn’t have – that had been a thought.

Something… something started to build in Sampson. It wasn’t suspicion. Not yet. Just an aching need to get to Diana before something happened, either to her or someone else.

Though all her combat scores would testify that Diana wasn’t the greatest athlete, he couldn’t catch up. It was easier for her to move through the crowds, but that wasn’t the only reason she managed to keep her distance from him.

Diana reached her accommodation block, shouldered two members of the E Club out of the way, and threw herself at the lifts.

Sampson skidded in through the door behind her and knocked one of the same cadets over. He did not hang around to give her a hand to her feet.

Screw this, Sampson thought. “Diana,” he bellowed.

She didn’t even look around as she entered the lift, kicked someone out of it, and closed the doors.

Sampson skidded to a stop in front of them. Slamming his fist so hard on the metal, he could have broken it, he shoved over to the next set of lifts.

People were asking him what the hell was happening. He didn’t answer.

He just had to get to her.

His lift couldn’t arrive soon enough, and he rammed his way in like he was a cannonball and not a man. The cadets inside scurried away. He slammed his fist onto the button that would take him to Diana’s floor.

He stopped. As his eyes darted like a jittering hand, he sensed she wasn’t headed to her floor. She was headed up.

… The roof?

Before he could question, he stabbed his finger into the button that led to the roof.

The elevator couldn’t arrive quickly enough. It felt like a lifetime of torture as he stood, pressed against the doors, one hand locked against the metal as if he thought he’d need to manually open them – anything to get them to open faster.

In one more agonizing second, he arrived.

And Sampson Ventura shot onto the roof.

He saw Diana. He also saw Commander Sparx crumpled over a sniper scope pointed right at the command building.

Chapter 15

Diana Fenton

Couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop.

She couldn’t stop.

What had started off as a feeling of being on the knife’s edge this morning had bloomed into a panic Diana had never felt.

It was a panic the human heart wasn’t built to contain – one her simple mind had no hope to fathom. For it was the fear of something far greater than her finally appreciating the time had come.

Diana couldn’t deny her senses anymore. She could see things. Hear things. Feel things.

Her senses were being bombarded from every angle by data no ordinary human could detect. Thoughts. Emotions. Intentions.

Everyone she passed, she swore she could see into their minds as if their skulls were windows.

That fact had not seen Diana throw herself halfway across the Academy’s grounds.

Someone was trying to kill her dad.

As Diana had stared out of the window in the teaching block, she had felt that intention as if someone had whispered it in her ear. The whisper, however, had quickly become a scream, forcing Diana into action.

Now she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.

She reached the roof and threw herself onto it. She knew what she would see long before the doors slid into their recesses to reveal Sparx crunched over a high-powered sniper scope.

The scope was directed right at the command building, right at her father. There was no earthly reason for Diana to know that – but there was every otherworldly reason.

Her body tingled with this energy she’d only ever felt in her dreams. It was the certainty that told her with the right perspective, she could see all.

She skidded to a stop as she saw Sparx.

Sparx jerked his head over his shoulder, his stiff cheeks paling as he spied her.

He intended to reach for the handgun holstered at his side.

She knew that, just as she knew he would never get a chance to fire.

The doors behind her opened, and Sampson Ventura threw himself out and at her.

Sampson took a split second to assess the situation.

Just a split damn second. He went from standing there, his eyes wide, to bolting toward Sparx just as he went for the handgun at his side.

Diana staggered back as Sampson tackled Sparx.

Sampson was big; Sparx was bigger.

But Sampson had a secret, didn’t he?

He was wearing something called holographic armor. Diana had no clue what that was, just that it could give him the edge.

Sampson roared as he pulled Sparx off his feet and slammed the commander so hard against the roof, it cracked.

But Sampson wasn’t the only one with secrets. The commander had some kind of bomb rigged up, didn’t he? It was right under their feet.

That realization slammed into her mind with such force, she staggered to the side.

The bomb had a directed blast path – it wouldn’t kill Sparx, just Sampson.

She couldn’t let him die.

She couldn’t let anyone die.

Diana threw herself at the sniper scope.

She had to hurl it off the side of the roof. It was the only way to distract Sparx and buy her father and Sampson a chance.

But in buying them a chance, she would lose hers.

Chapter 16

Sampson Ventura

Things were happening too quickly to track.

He’d blasted onto this roof thinking he’d simply find that Diana had snapped.

He hadn’t expected Sparx with a high-powered, Barbarian-grade sniper rifle.

Sampson didn’t have time to think, but he could conclude who Sparx’s target was. Admiral Fenton.

So Sampson didn’t stop as he hauled Sparx up again and slammed the commander so hard against the roof, he could have broken down to the level below.

Sparx had two more hits like that in him until the man lost consciousness.

Or at least that was the plan.

Diana suddenly bolted to the side and grabbed up the sniper scope. Sampson knew what she would do well before she hauled it over to the edge of the roof. Her intention wasn’t just writ large on her terrified expression; he felt her heart.

More than that, he heard her thoughts.

Though psychics could, under optimal conditions, read another’s thoughts, it was forbidden unless cleared by a superior. Even then, it was hard. To peer into another’s mind with the ability to distill their intention and sift through the quagmire of their psyche to pick up their internal dialogue, you needed total focus and power.

He had neither. But that didn’t stop him from gaining access to Diana’s head with all the ease of someone throwing open a door.

The realization he could read her mind as clearly as an open book hit him like a punch to his gut. It was enough to see his fingers slip from Sparx’s wrist.

And that was all the chance the commander needed. With a scream, the bastard slammed his hand down on his wristwatch.

And the side of the roof exploded.

The shields that should have stopped Diana from falling failed. And Diana Fenton was thrown off the side of the roof.

The rifle fell from her grip just as she fell from sight, her wide-open eyes staring into Sampson’s soul.

Sparx shoved his hand to the side, activating some remote sensor and initiating his gun’s thruster. It spun in the air and slammed into his grip.

Sampson ran. His every muscle pumped as his heart broke free from his chest and fell with Diana.

Sparx lifted the rifle and fired.

Sampson reached the edge of the roof, and he jumped off just as the bullet slammed into his side.

He fell.

And so did Diana.

The end of War Begins Book One. This series is complete. The next book, War Begins Book Two, is currently available so pick it up today.

  

logo for newsletter



Contact Details

odette.c.bell@gmail.com

Sign up for updates
Latest Posts

So much sci fi!

On the Cards

War Begins just released

Magic Born and plans for the year to come

Coming Soon

Fall From Earth

3%

The Admiral

5%