An explosion ripped through half of the ship, tearing it apart in under two seconds. Unprotected bodies tumbled into space, their circulatory systems popping under the impossible force of the vacuum.
Lara Forest clamped a hand over her mouth as tears streaked down her cheeks. She couldn’t wrench her gaze off the viewscreen as it showed the damage to the ship. A red alert shook through the room, pounding up her feet like hammers.
She stood in the remnants of the bridge. The captain’s seat behind her was torn to shreds. The navigation panel just to her left was cracking as sparks splattered over it like blood from a fresh wound.
“You don’t have time for this,” someone said from behind her. “You have to get out there – you have to save those people. You have to stop this from ever happening.”
Lara forced herself to turn over her shoulder. There stood something that should not exist. A version of her older self. The woman was dressed in a Coalition uniform – one Lara had never seen. The fabric was more sophisticated, though in chunks, it’d been ripped right off from the strain of running through a broken bridge.
“You need to get out of here, now. They’ll come for you,” the woman repeated in a snarl.
Lara shook her head. Tears still tumbled down her cheeks.
The older woman took a strong step forward. It should have been impossible – she had a broken leg. A chunk of bone protruded out of her thigh, and blood soaked down the front of her trousers. “You will get out of here. And you will save the Coalition.”
“I don’t know who you are,” Lara stammered.
“I’ve already told you – I am your future self. I am Admiral Forest. And I will not let the Coalition fall.”
Lara went to shake her head again. This couldn’t be happening. The ship was breaking apart, half the crew were dead, and she was hallucinating about her future self.
Lara would never be an admiral. She didn’t have it in her.
Whoever this woman was – whether she was some hallucination, a hologram, or an enemy trick – she acted like an admiral. Before Lara could duck away again, the so-called Admiral Forest closed the gap between them and grabbed Lara’s shoulders.
As the older woman’s hands settled on Lara’s skin, a jolt of energy passed through her body. It felt as if she’d just swallowed lightning.
“You will save the Coalition. You must shut down the time gates. That’s how I got here – through a time gate. You will find them, you will close them, and you will save the galaxy.”
Lara couldn’t shudder back – Admiral Forest wouldn’t let her. All she could do was stare into the eyes of the woman she would one day become as she muttered, “I’ll do it.”
Lara would have no choice.
The fight for the galaxy was about to begin.
“I hope you will reconsider,” Captain Chanda said as he steepled his fingers and leaned forward against his desk.
Lara did him the dignity of staring into his eyes, even though all she wanted to do was cut her gaze up and lock it on the windows behind him. They showed a view that led out over Academy grounds. She could see the bay glimmering beyond. Up above, the sky stretched out forever. Dusk was starting to set. Blues and yellows and golds tracked across the horizon, and they drew her gaze up until she saw the first glittering stars.
He cleared his throat. Chanda might be getting on a bit at the tender age of 90, but his senses were still sharp. “I hope you’ll reconsider, Lara,” he repeated.
Lara clasped her hands firmly behind her back. She ran her teeth over her lip. It was the only way she could stop herself from telling him exactly what she thought. There was no way she was going to reconsider. Her mind was made up.
“Your letter of resignation says you will stay until the end of your scheduled training trip. All that I ask is on this trip, you keep an open mind. If you look, you will see that the Coalition can offer you exactly what you want, Cadet Forest.”
Lara smiled. “I’ll keep an open mind,” she promised. But that was it.
Her mind was made up. She’d decided weeks ago – maybe months ago. The Coalition wasn’t for her. It didn’t fit right. She wanted adventure, but not at the helm of some starship surrounded by obsequious crew.
There was something inside Lara that wanted to get out, and it was time to let it free.
She snapped a salute.
The captain let out a sigh, then snapped his own salute. His was perfect, right down to his stiff wrist, flat fingers, and neutral expression. “It’s natural to have questions about your future career in the Coalition.”
“I don’t have questions. I know what I want to do, sir. And it’s not this.” She let her salute fall, and she walked away.
It was time for Lara to do what she’d always wanted to.
See the galaxy on her terms.
She would not get the chance.
“This will be the hardest combat training scenario you have ever encountered,” Commander A’qua said as he walked around the cadets, his hands clamped behind his massive back. He was half human, half something else – and whatever that other half was, it was huge. Most of the cadets were dead scared of him.
That should have included Lara. Several weeks ago, it had. Then she’d made up her mind to leave the Coalition, and now nothing seemed that real anymore.
Though all the cadets stood to attention, Lara made the mistake of unhooking one of her hands from behind herself, bringing it up, and pulling a few strands of her hair out of her tight bun. They were bothering her scalp.
Immediately, A’qua’s eyes locked on her. One of his lips ticked up, and he bared his sharp, black, pointed teeth. “Is there a reason you’ve broken protocol, Cadet Forest?”
“No, sir,” she said automatically as she let her hands drop. She clasped them behind her back, but her stance was weak. A passing breeze could have unshaken her posture as easily as someone pushing over a doll. As for her hands, if A’qua bothered to walk around her, he would see she was impatiently tapping her thumb against the base of her wrist.
A’qua would know she intended to quit. Most people did.
It wasn’t like Lara had that many friends – she had an acerbic personality that drove people away. That wasn’t the point – even the few friends she’d once called her own now kept their distance.
It was drilled into you from the first day you entered the Academy that you didn’t quit. Maybe if you had family circumstances or something massive happened in your life, but you didn’t just suddenly change your mind midway through your final year. That was a waste of all the resources the Coalition had invested into you. More than anything – it was a waste of the friendship and loyalty you’d gained.
A’qua looked like he wanted to say something, but Lara stared right past him at the view through one of the massive windows that lined this corridor.
She was on the observation deck of the Zeus. Their group was contained while the real crew rushed about, actually running the ship.
The Zeus hadn’t left Earth yet. Behind A’qua was a backdrop of that beautiful, glittering planet.
Beyond that? Reaching out into the depths of space, spread the galaxy.
Lara’s back itched with nerves. They weren’t unpleasant – just the opposite. She wanted to get out there and make a name for herself away from the Coalition. She didn’t want to live tucked under a stiff collar anymore as she snapped salutes and stammered “Yes, sir.”
Lara might’ve joined the Coalition because of her late father, but it’d taken until her final year to appreciate there was no point in doing something she didn’t want to do just to honor his memory.
“Just don’t disappoint the rest of us,” A’qua settled for snarling as he walked past Lara. He did a loop around the group. He would’ve looked like a cattle dog rounding up livestock were it not for his massive size.
Brilliant light filtered in through the window – not just from Earth below, but from the hovering robots making the final touches to the Zeus’ hull. They would ensure efficient transport through one of the high priority routes.
Lara let herself be distracted by every glittering light.
She kept watching them until finally the briefing was over.
She waited until all the other cadets had dispersed until she bothered to turn.
There was a problem – not everyone had left.
“You know, you could probably do them the dignity of pretending to pay attention.”
Standing in front of her was none other than Nok. Once upon a time, she’d had a thing for him, but the stoic humanlike alien had never returned her affections. As far as she was aware, they currently had exactly no relationship whatsoever. But you would need at least something for Nok to think he could get away with a comment like that.
Lara pressed her lips over her teeth. “I listened to the briefing. I will follow my orders,” she said automatically.
Nok got an unreadable look on his face. To be fair, most of his looks were unreadable. He belonged to a race who knew precisely how to move every single one of their features at will. They were the best spies. Even a full empath would have trouble getting past their defenses.
Now, for whatever reason, he wasn’t hiding what he was thinking. And what he was thinking was that she disappointed him.
It almost stirred something in Lara, but she pushed it away as she offered him a polite, noncommittal smile. “Is there something else you want, Nok?”
He seemed to look right through her. “You’re making a mistake, you know.”
She’d been about to walk away, but she stopped. She cast her gaze past him, over to the window, then over to him again. “And what’s that?”
“You’re wasting the resources the Coalition has put into you.”
She chuckled. “That’s no way to think of cadets. We’re not resources. We are not like stocks waiting to mature.”
“Then what are we?”
Lara ran her tongue over her teeth. “People.”
“You’re missing an important detail.”
“And what’s that?”
“We are people who serve. I would’ve thought that by now you would have figured that out.” Without another word, he turned and walked away.
Lara locked her gaze on the back of his neck. It easily slipped down to his broad shoulders under his always ill-fitting uniform. Like any other Harvonian, Nok had the ability to put on muscle at will. Most of the time, he was lean and wiry, but when he needed to, he could bulk up. It was usually a sign of some threat. For whatever reason, he had to feel threatened now, because she watched as muscles pushed against the fabric of his standard recruit uniform.
“The only thing I figured out, Nok,” she muttered under her breath, keeping her voice as quiet as she could so it wouldn’t carry, “is the Coalition just isn’t worth it anymore.”
She turned away. She wanted to get back to her room, jump into bed, and sleep until the training scenario began. The rest of the cadets would be hungrily rushing around the Zeus, enjoying every single second of their first official spaceflight.
Lara went to turn away, but just at the last moment, she saw something.
Something flickered across the glass in front of her. It moved so quickly, it couldn’t be one of the reflected lights from the robots outside.
She jerked her head over to it just in time to see a reflection.
Tilting her head to the side and taking a quick step up, she caught the reflection again.
It was of her – and yet it wasn’t. Somehow, it looked like an older version of herself. Her young skin was wizened, with deep worry lines embedded in her cheeks and brow. That determined look she was renowned for burnt 100 times more brilliantly.
“What the hell?” Her voice shook, but before she could catch sight of that reflection again, it disappeared.
It took her several seconds to pull her hand off the glass and walk away. Even then, she warily stared back several times. When that strange reflection didn’t reappear, she pried herself away from the observation deck. The thought crossed her mind that she should head to the infirmary, in case something was wrong with her, but she couldn’t be bothered. It was just stress. Maybe she was more bothered by Nok’s comments than she’d like to believe.
She didn’t care about him. She was over him in the same way she was over the Coalition. Lara could do that, see. When she decided she didn’t need something anymore, she could cut it from her existence like a lizard dropping its tail.
There was an uneasy quality to her gait as she walked back to the accommodation deck.
By the time she finally reached her quarters, she’d put it out of her mind. But the second the door opened, she swore she caught a reflection in the shiny silver panel beside it.
Again she saw just a glimpse of an older woman standing exactly where she was.
She shook her head. She squeezed her eyes closed and opened them, and the reflection was gone.
She brought a hand up, cupped her chin, and drove her fingers hard into her temple. As her short nails left half-moon cuts in the flesh, she mentally tried to push that image away.
Once upon a time, Lara had seen things. Horrible things. For a long time, she’d had intrusive thoughts, too.
That came hand-in-hand with watching your father die a violent death as he was sucked out into space and torn apart.
She thought she’d gotten over that image, but something brought it back, and as she strode into her tiny quarters, she stopped halfway in as an image of her father’s purple face spirited across her mind.
She came to a complete stop. All her muscles refused to work, and her chest froze halfway through a breath.
There, right in front of her mind’s eye, she could see a perfect recreation of what had happened to her father less than eight years ago.
Captain Ventura Forest had been one of the most decorated captains in the fleet. Brave, loyal, and with an unflappable sense of duty, he was everything a good Coalition soldier should be. He’d lived as the model soldier all his life, and critically, he’d died that way, too.
Lara had been visiting him on his ship, the Prometheus. It had been attacked by a Kore raiding party. Rather than let his crew fall into their hands, he’d single-handedly fought them off. He would have managed the impossible, saving everyone and the ship, had one of the airlocks not malfunctioned. It would have sucked Lara out, but at the last moment, her father had sacrificed himself to save her.
Lara brought up a slightly trembling hand and pushed it over her eyes. When that didn’t help, and she couldn’t block out the image of him tumbling helplessly through the void, his eyes opening wide one last time as he stared at her, she pushed against her eyes until she saw stars. She didn’t let her hand drop until it felt as if she’d squeezed her eyes out of the back of her skull.
Even then, that didn’t stop the images. They kept flooding through her consciousness with sickening speed.
“Quitting is the right thing to do,” she said through clenched teeth. “I don’t want to be part of the Coalition anymore. It doesn’t seem to know what it is,” she concluded.
With a sigh, she walked over to her tiny gel mattress, turned, and flopped down on it.
She slowly opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was plain, smooth, silver metal. She let her gaze trace down the almost invisible rivets.
When that didn’t help, she turned onto her side and stared at the wall. A mistake. The second her eyes locked on the shimmering metal, she saw that fleeting glimpse again. Except this time, it lasted longer. She swore she could see right into her own eyes. They were filled with a determination, wisdom, and power Lara could never have imagined.
She gasped, jerked back, locked a hand on her mouth, and tried to breathe through her fingers. “What the hell is happening here?”
She closed her eyes and opened them again experimentally. At first she saw nothing, but then she saw that fleeting glimpse.
She jerked up off her bed.
She stood in the middle of her small room and shook her hands up and down. With nowhere else to go, she walked into her tiny bathroom. She splashed water on her face and stared into the mirror above the sink.
She gazed at her eyes as she started to question if she was slipping.
“Leaving the Coalition is the right thing to do… Dad,” she found herself talking to him – or at least his ghost. She hadn’t done that for years. In the months after the accident, the only way she’d been able to soothe herself to sleep was by talking to her memories of him. Once his body had been repatriated, she’d kept his Coalition insignia. She’d slept with it under her pillow, and whenever her nightmares had gotten too bad, she’d always pulled it out and started chatting to it.
Her dad had always known what to do.
He’d wanted her to join the Coalition. But he’d also wanted her to follow her dreams.
“The Coalition isn’t for me,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks. Lara rarely cried. There had to be a reason. That was her motto – why show emotion unless you had to? Yeah, maybe that was one of the reasons she had so few friends, but it had gotten her through her life, and it was a rule she relied on now as she clenched her teeth hard. “I’ve made my decision, dad,” she kept staring at herself as she let her gaze trace the path of her tears down her cheeks, over her chin, and under her collar. “The Coalition has lost direction. I don’t know who they stand for anymore.”
There was no one to answer – except the memory of her father. So why did she suddenly see her reflection in the mirror move? Her lips twitched and opened. “The Coalition hasn’t lost its way. You have.”
Lara gasped. She jerked back and locked a hand on her mouth. She hadn’t said that. Yet she’d clearly seen the reflection in the mirror—
Someone hit the call button from outside, and a buzz echoed through the room.
She backed away from the mirror. She didn’t look where she was going, and her shoulder hit the doorframe. She tumbled to the side and fell harshly onto her ass.
There was another buzz. “Forest? You okay?”
It was Nok.
Rather than race to her feet, dry her tears, fix her uniform, answer the door, and tell him to rack off, she remained there on the floor, her hand clasped over her mouth. Her fingers sank in as hard as they could go until it felt as if she would lose her lips from blood loss.
“Forest? Answer the door. I’m concerned,” Nok said. He wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Just like her, he said what he meant.
It took too long for Lara to let her hand drop from her mouth. “I’m fine,” she said in a trite tone. There was a slight waver, but she tried to hide it with anger. “You don’t need to check up on me.”
There was a pause. “You’re crying in there, aren’t you?” he said, his tone unreadable.
Lara clenched her teeth together. Even through the door and over the intercom, Nok could sense her true emotional state.
She brought up her thumbs, wiped them hard over her eyes, shook her hands out, and stood. “You don’t need to check up on me,” she repeated, her voice hard.
“What makes you think I am?” Nok asked flatly.
It felt like a slap. Lara shifted her jaw from side to side before settling on clenching her teeth hard. “Then what do you want?”
“We’ve been asked to assemble on the bridge. The captain wishes to speak to us. You have five minutes.” Without a goodbye, he walked away.
Lara stood there, and she shook. It wasn’t a full-body quiver – just the slightest shake of her shoulders. That was enough to tell her she was unraveling.
She took her five minutes. Every single one of them. She hadn’t felt this broken in years.
Only when she’d dried her tears and checked her reflection did she finally walk out of her quarters.
She didn’t rush. She couldn’t. Her muscles felt dead. Either it was her emotion, or it was what? She was cracking up under the strain of leaving the Coalition?
This was the right thing to do. She knew that from the bottom of her heart. The last couple of years of training had confirmed her worst suspicions. The Coalition had grown far from its roots. Back when it had been created, it had been founded on principles of peace and exploration. But these last years had been so violent, with new incursions from the Barbarians and the Kore Empire, that the Coalition had flown far from its coop. It was no longer interested in protection. Warships were being built every day to take on the looming threat of the Kore.
When she’d walked into the recruiting office all those years ago, she hadn’t intended to join an army. She’d wanted to see the galaxy – not trample over it with guns.
So why was she shaking even now as she tried to tell herself that? She balled up a hand into a fist, pressed it close to the door button, squeezed her eyes closed, then finally jammed her thumb to the side. The door opened. By the time it did, she had precisely 30 seconds to get to the bridge. She smoothed what she hoped was a calm expression over her face, and she walked out.
She heard footfall behind her. She didn’t even bother to turn. It would be Nok. Maybe, despite his protestations that he wasn’t checking up on her, somewhere under his always-calm exterior was someone who actually cared for Lara.
Or maybe she was reading too much into him. An unflappable man like Nok would never ditch the Coalition – especially in his last year. The second he graduated, he would be on the fast track for lieutenant. Heck, she could easily see him becoming a commander in a few years, then a captain, then an admiral.
Lara stopped. Her muscles froze. It felt like something reached in and grabbed hold of her heart – all on one word. Admiral.
Before she could stop herself, she found her lips parting, and she stammered that word aloud, “Admiral.”
She took another step. Something grabbed her elbow.
She turned her head over her shoulder.
… There was nothing there.
She felt the sensation of fingers hooking around her elbow and pressing hard until her flesh puckered. Out of the corner of her eye, she swore she could see her uniform rumpling.
But there was nothing there.
Her heart skipped a beat and started to thunder in her chest. A quick sweat slicked down the sides of her temples and prickled along her hairline.
But the sensation disappeared. Just as quickly as it had appeared, it went.
Lara’s elbow dropped to her side. It was as limp as a rag doll’s.
Her eyes were wide with terror. She was so out of it, she didn’t hear someone walking up behind her until it was too late.
A hand descended on her shoulder. She freaked out and screamed.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Nok said from behind her. He left his fingers pushing against the tip of her shoulder. His grip wasn’t hard, yet. That was the thing about Nok and his unique physiology – every movement was accompanied by the promise that it could get harder and stronger at any moment.
Lara pulled herself together, turned, and faced him. In doing so, she shrugged off his grip. “I’m….” She went to say fine, but how could she do that? She’d graduated from seeing things to feeling things. Though all she wanted to do was bring up her offending elbow and run her fingers over it to try to chase away the lingering heat of that ghostly touch, she settled for trying to control her expression.
“You are late. We should have arrived at the bridge approximately 10 seconds ago.”
“I’m not going.” The words were out before she could stop them. Though she’d tried to shrug off seeing things earlier, maybe it was time to go get some help.
Though the very last thing Lara wanted to do was admit that she had an emotional problem, she was pragmatic. That was the one thing her father had taught her more than anything else. When it came to it, you pushed away your emotions and you acted. Others couldn’t do that. That was okay. But if you could, you used that ability. It was one of the rarest skills in the galaxy. Maybe it meant you wouldn’t make many friends – but at least you’d keep people alive.
“It is a requirement. Though you have made your mind up to quit, you cannot quit until after this training session.”
“I’m going… I’m going to the med bay,” she said. Though Nok was the last person she wanted to admit this to, like she’d already said – it was time to be pragmatic.
Nok looked her up and down. “You do not appear to be unwell. If, on the other hand, your symptoms are emotional, there is little that the medical team will be able to do for you. It is natural to have second thoughts about quitting the Coalition—”
“I’m not having second thoughts,” she stammered. “And I’m going to the med bay.”
“You are required on the bridge.”
God, why had she had feelings for this guy? Nok was popular at the Academy, but you had to look past his persistent, blocklike personality to see what shone beneath.
“Yeah, I don’t need you to repeat that. Go to the bridge, Cadet.” She turned hard on her foot. It took until she walked a few meters away to appreciate the tone she’d just used didn’t belong to her. She’d spat the order for him to go to the bridge like she was a seasoned admiral.
She took another step, but she froze. It was all on that word. Just repeating it in her head felt like a ghostly hand was reaching out and grabbing hold of her arm.
She stiffened. Again she swore she felt something tracing along her elbow. It wasn’t gripping her hard like it had last time – it was just shifting past as if whatever it was was having trouble re-aligning with this realm.
“You do not have the authority to order me around, Cadet Forest.”
She tuned him out. This dense ringing started to pick up in her head. It was like she’d swallowed the pure form of static. She brought up a hand and pressed it into her brow.
“Get to the bridge,” she said. Except she swore she didn’t say anything at all. Just as had happened in front of her mirror, the voice seemingly came from nowhere.
She froze. She waited for Nok to react to that disembodied tone. When he didn’t, she appreciated what she’d already suspected – it was all in her head.
“Cadet Forest—” Nok began.
“Get to the bridge, Lara. You’re needed. Get to the bridge now. Before people start dying.” The voice came from nowhere. It echoed up from the floor, boomed down from the ceiling, and rang around her head as if someone had thrown her into a tolling bell.
“Move. Their lives will be in your hands,” that voice blared in her mind one last time.
She didn’t want to move. She needed to stay still until she stopped hallucinating. She couldn’t. This sense of overwhelming urgency rushed through her. It hit her bloodstream and pumped into her muscles like liquid fuel. Before she knew what she was doing, she turned hard on her foot. She pushed down the corridor. At first, it was an unsteady, quick walk, but she soon pushed into a jog.
Nok kept up beside her. “I’m glad that you have chosen to do the right thing. Perhaps you are redeemable after all.”
If Lara had been in her right mind, she would’ve snarled at him for that comment. Choosing to follow orders did not make one redeemable. Not following them did not make them irredeemable. There was a dangerous association between playing the Coalition game and moral righteousness. Maybe it had always been there and Lara just hadn’t seen it when she’d followed her dad around. Or maybe it hadn’t, and the Coalition was twisting before her very eyes as it became an army, not an exploration force.
None of that mattered – only her pounding heart did as they reached a set of lifts and she threw herself inside.
Two lieutenants shot her and Nok surprised looks, but they didn’t comment as they left the lift.
Lara hesitated as she brought a hand up to stab the button that would lead to the bridge. She crunched her fingers in at the last moment as she caught up with what she was doing.
She was going mad. This was stress talking. Quitting the Coalition was digging up uncomfortable memories, and for whatever reason… they were making her see things.
That was the only rational conclusion.
Nok was staring at her. When she didn’t press the bridge button, he leaned over, close enough that his arm brushed past hers. He stared at her as he pressed the button.
He’d given her lingering looks like that over the years, but nothing recently. Stares like that had been one of the reasons she’d fallen for him back in their first year.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she stammered. It wasn’t a question she should be asking. She should be making a beeline for the infirmary. Heck, she should just contact the Chief Medical Officer from here and admit that she was hearing things.
Instead, she let Nok distract her.
He straightened up. Without facing her, he shrugged. “You’re intriguing.”
This line of questioning was the only thing stopping her from crumbling. With a shuddering breath, she swallowed. “Why?”
“You have the greatest capacity of any of our class, yet you choose to turn your back on that.”
She should have known that this would just turn into another reprimand from Nok.
Nok didn’t jump on his high horse and keep whipping her. With a thoughtful look, he shrugged again.
“Why are you still looking at me like that?”
“I’m attracted to intriguing things.”
Just before she could spiral down into fear again, her stomach clenched. Was that an innocent use of the word attract? Or was Nok trying to tell her something?
Or was he just trying to distract her, because a second later, they arrived. The bridge doors opened, and standing right there was Commander A’qua. The captain was behind him. The 10 cadets who were part of this training simulation were arranged around him.
As soon as A’qua locked eyes on her, his lips stiffened until they looked like set concrete. “I’m assuming there is a reason that you were late and that that reason is not disrespect.”
She’d never been that much of a target for A’qua before. Now she’d quit, apparently the commander saw it as a reason to go after her like a predator to a wounded animal.
The captain cleared his throat. Either he didn’t want A’qua disciplining Lara in front of his crew and disrupting their operations, or he was a more forgiving man.
No. It was neither of those. Lara might be crumbling under whatever was happening to her mind, but she could still register the captain’s expression. There was a saddened quality to it.
He would have known her father. Or maybe he’d just known of him. The first year at the Academy had been almost impossible for Lara. Every single teacher she’d run into had all shared their condolences and gone out of their way to affirm that her father had been the model Coalition soldier.
Lara got the urge to turn right back around, in front of all the senior members of crew and her fellow cadets, and walk back into the lifts.
Maybe Nok had become a mind reader in the last few seconds, because he strategically placed himself between her and retreat.
She took a hard breath. Though she didn’t want to believe the intrusive voice she’d heard back down on the accommodation deck, she couldn’t stop her attention from shifting around the bridge.
Suffice to say, people weren’t dying. The view screen did not show armies screaming toward the Zeus, ready to blow it up.
Not a single person had a bloody nose or even a scratch.
… This wasn’t the first time Lara had dealt with intrusive thoughts. She’d had them after her father’s death. They’d been damn dark things. They’d whispered to her about the destruction of the galaxy. They’d blamed his death on her inaction. And they’d promised her that no matter what she did, she would never outgrow his greatness.
“It’s good of you to join us,” Captain Marshall said. “Now, I’m sure, for some of you at least, this is the first time you’ve been on the bridge of a Coalition starship.”
That caveated statement was for her. This certainly wasn’t the first time she’d been on the bridge of a Coalition heavy cruiser.
And it wouldn’t be the last time, a voice promised her.
She frowned. It wasn’t an intrusive thought this time. It was just certainty that bubbled up from some unknown place. It promised her that no matter what she thought she would do, she would spend her life on bridges just like this in front of people just like these.
And that life would not be wasted.
“This is the heart of the Coalition. Bridges like this – ships like these – run the day-to-day activities of the Coalition Peace Force.” The captain stood in front of his command seat, his hands clasped behind his back as he spoke proudly.
Lara tuned out.
She brought her left elbow up and gently cupped it with her other hand. She pushed her fingers in, tracing them up and down the stretchy but strong fabric of her uniform.
That ghostly touch was gone.
Because it’d just been a figment of her imagination.
As soon as she thought that, her teeth clenched for some reason. Tension gripped her jaw, transferred down her neck, and tightened every muscle of her chest until it felt like someone had cast her in steel.
This wasn’t her imagination. Something was happening to her. Unless she caught up with it soon, she’d be too late to do anything.
Fortunately Captain Marshall wasn’t paying attention to her. He gestured toward the view screen. His hand was held out to it, his stance strong. It was as if he was ushering these cadets through a gate into the future.
Those two words echoed through her mind, and they struck her with the force of a heavy cruiser.
Before she knew what she was doing, her knees wobbled, and she staggered backward.
There was a console to her side. Instead of tumbling right into it and cracking her skull, Nok shoved in hard and grabbed her by the shoulder.
He did so smoothly and quickly, and barely anyone bothered to look up.
It took him a few seconds until he released his grip on her arm.
“Perhaps you should go to the medical bay,” he conceded so quietly, his voice couldn’t travel.
Yeah. She needed—
She couldn’t finish that thought.
At the intention of turning away from the bridge, waves of muscular convulsions shifted through her body. They started in her feet, ran up her knees, plunged into her pelvis, arced up her spine, and pulsed into her hands. The next thing she knew, she clenched them. It felt like she was simultaneously running and fighting for her life while standing still and doing nothing.
Her heart rate doubled, then tripled, then became unreadable as her chest felt ready to pop.
Nok hadn’t moved far from her side. He shifted in even closer until she felt his heat.
His race had high metabolisms, and that resulted in high body heat. You could be sitting next to one in class, and it would be like snuggling up to a heater.
As a strange, cold sensation descended through her as if someone had forced her to swallow an iceberg, she was wholly thankful for his warmth.
“I can take you to the med bay,” Nok said privately. He had the ability to ensure his voice didn’t carry. It all came down to his race’s capacity to finely manipulate their physical body and any movements it made.
He was close behind her, and his breath cut across the side of her cheek. It was the only thing that reminded her that she wasn’t actually freezing on the spot.
Though all she wanted to do was let him lead her away, she couldn’t be led. That sense she’d felt back on the accommodation deck – that something was building, that something was almost here – hit a fever pitch.
“Lara.” Nok uncharacteristically used her first name as he settled his hand on her elbow. It wasn’t the elbow that was troubling her – which was great. If he’d grabbed that one, she would have screamed, freaked out, and tried to throw him off.
She couldn’t… god, she couldn’t breathe. Pressure built in her chest. It wasn’t just like she’d swallowed a balloon – it was like a black hole was forming inside her. It was sucking out every last inhalation, stealing the heat of her body with it.
Nok’s fingers tightened around her elbow. Sometimes he might act like a blockhead, but like all members of his race, he was exquisitely attentive. While no one else noticed she was losing it, his grip on her elbow told her he knew exactly what she was going through.
He pulled her back.
Except she couldn’t be moved.
Like she’d said so many times, Nok was a strong man. Critically, he was the kind of man who could get stronger if he needed to. As she resisted, maybe unconsciously – maybe on purpose – he pulled her a little harder.
She still wouldn’t move. She felt cemented to the spot.
She checked in with her body, but it wasn’t her that was holding her there. She started to feel that ghostly hand wrapping around her left elbow. Its grip was indescribable. It felt like her own hand, but not one that was currently attached to her body. Though this was the most insane thing she would ever think, it felt like a hand from the future reaching back and grabbing her past self.
“Lara, come on,” Nok insisted.
He didn’t control his tone this time.
The officers closest to him looked around, and it got Marshall’s attention.
The captain frowned. “Is something wrong?” His gaze ticked down to Nok’s hold of Lara’s elbow.
Lara assumed, given Nok’s unrelenting attention to detail and protocol, that he would quickly take a step back from her. He didn’t. “Forest isn’t feeling well. I will—”
He couldn’t get the words out.
Something grabbed hold of Lara’s left elbow. It wasn’t just a ghostly touch this time. It closed around her skin with such force, she crumpled as it pulled her to the side.
She was wrenched free from Nok’s grip.
If she’d only had a few people’s attention earlier, that changed. Every single set of eyes on the bridge locked on her – none more so than Nok’s. Fear and surprise opened his golden eyes wide. He would’ve felt what no one else would know. Lara hadn’t just randomly lurched to the side – she’d been pulled.
He had a chance to open his lips and stammer, “What—”
“Duck,” Lara heard that disembodied voice again. It echoed right out from behind her ear. This time there was no mistaking it – it was there. Breath rushed past her hair. She could feel it shifting around her face.
So Lara did as she was told. She crumpled onto the deck and latched her hands behind her head.
Nothing happened. The bridge didn’t break apart. Enemies didn’t transport around her.
Nope. There was just complete silence as, in front of all the crew and her fellow cadets, Lara lost it.
For several seconds, she didn’t move. That sensation that told her something was about to happen started to ebb. It fluttered away, and in its place, all she felt was embarrassment. It climbed her stomach, choked her throat, and left a cloying sweat picking up between her shoulders.
“Cadet, what’s wrong with you?” the captain asked.
She locked her fingers around her head. She stared at the floor plating. She took one pressured breath, and she pushed to her feet.
She couldn’t look at the accusatory gazes of her fellow cadets. They’d already written her off for quitting. Now they had a fresh new reason to hate her for acting like a complete loon on the bridge of one of the most important ships of the fleet.
She was almost too scared to look at Nok. He didn’t share that compunction. He took a quick step up to her side. Compassion and fear opened his features wide. “What was that?”
“I guess I’m just—” she began, about to stammer at him that she was losing it.
Something grabbed the back of her head and forced it down. It used so much strength, she heard something clicking in her neck, and her hair flared around her face.
Nok moved as fast as light. He wrapped an arm around her middle before she could smash her face against the unyielding plating of the floor.
She could tell he turned his muscles onto full, but despite that, his boots skidded as he was thrust back.
“What are you doing, Cadet Forest?” Marshall’s tone changed. Gone was the saddened quality she’d heard earlier. Now it stiffened with anger. “The bridge is not a place for games. I would have trusted that you of all people would know that.”
She didn’t respond. Shaking, she pushed up.
She stared right into Nok’s eyes. Something quickly distracted her from his memorable golden irises. Blood bloomed from a cut in his shoulder. It was deep enough that it looked as if someone had just sliced a knife down his arm.
She stared at him agape. Slowly, he turned his stiff head down and looked at it.
Command A’qua was not the kind to stand around and let his cadets make a mockery of one of the Coalition’s flagships. He marched right up to her. He went to grab her by the elbow, no doubt to escort her personally off the bridge.
Nok reacted. Faster than before, he snapped over to A’qua and shoved the man back. Nok used half his strength, and despite the fact A’qua was a big man, there was nothing the commander could do. He was thrust back. He hit the floor, rolled, and punched to his feet.
Everything happened so fast, but Lara didn’t need time to know what would happen next. Nok would go straight to the brig. You know that stellar career she’d described earlier? Yeah, Nok had just thrown it away. He’d assaulted a commander.
There was no time to think about that. Lara heard something whistling past her face. Maybe Nok heard it too, because he snapped in close, grabbed her wrist, and tried to pull her out of the way.
He wasn’t in time. Something snagged her arm. It felt like an electro blade. It instantly sliced through the threadbare protection of her uniform. It reached the bone as it cut down with all the unstoppable force of a samurai sword to melting butter.
Blood splattered up the side of her uniform, across her face, and over the floor.
Marshall could ignore a lot, but any captain worth his mettle would not turn a blind eye at suddenly bleeding cadets. “What the hell was that?” Fear and confusion arced high through his voice.
Lara didn’t have a chance to answer. She heard that same high-pitched noise. Before she could react, Nok did. He didn’t just have strong muscles – his race made the perfect spies for another very good reason. Their senses were three times more powerful than humans’. He could track things most cadets couldn’t have a hope of even seeing.
He was just in time, and as he bodily pushed Lara out of the way, something sliced past the side of his face. He had shoulder-length blonde hair. A massive chunk of it was cut in half. It sailed around him, dashed over his shoulder, and fell at his feet.
Marshall thrust forward. “Go to red alert. Something’s infiltrated the bridge,” he had a chance to say.
“Get down, get down, get down,” that intrusive voice blared through Lara’s head.
Lara’s first instinct was to collapse on the floor. She pushed into Nok, instead. He might’ve been the equivalent of a mountain, but her desperation pounded through her and gave her the strength to force him to the side.
Something blazed past her shoulder. It wasn’t a blade this time.
It was a bullet.
It smashed into Captain Marshall’s chest, knocked him off his feet, and killed him by the time he flopped lifelessly onto the navigational panel three meters away.
The bridge erupted into screams.
A’qua was back on his feet. He lurched to the side, his body low, his eyes wide.
He wasn’t alone – there was a Havi combat officer, and the guy snatched his gun from his holster and quickly let off a shot, aiming it at exactly the point where that ghostly blast had emanated from.
It didn’t hit anything. It smashed into the deck.
Lara staggered backward. Nok hadn’t let her go, and even if he had, she would have just grabbed him again.
Something was happening.
Something that shouldn’t be happening.
That last conclusion formed in her mind, unstoppable and unforgettable.
This should not be happening.
But it was. Unless she kept on her toes, it would cost her her life.
She heard the faint rumblings of that voice in her mind again. Before it could beg her to duck, she thrust to the side.
Either Nok now trusted her enough to follow her moves, or he was picking something up with his extended senses. They rolled together, and they came up behind the captain’s seat.
Two blasts of red-hot blistering light smashed out across the bridge. One hit the view screen, and it exploded in a sea of sparks. While it didn’t take out the entire screen, it took out a massive meter-wide section and gouged a hole through to the machinery beneath. The other bullet lanced into Commander A’qua’s shoulder. It didn’t take off a chunk of the flesh – it pulled off his whole arm.
The commander’s eyes had a chance to bulge wide, then he fell backward.
He twitched, and though he tried desperately to clutch his wound with his remaining hand, he didn’t get the chance. Something trod on his chest. As Lara stared at him with tear-filled, rounded eyes, she swore she could see weight pinning him down. The fabric of his uniform rumpled, and the broad man’s chest crumpled inward. His breath was cut short as he brought a hand up and desperately tried to shove something off.
He didn’t get the chance. He was shot in the head.
Lara screamed and jerked her head away.
She couldn’t watch the blood splattering across the once clean floor.
Every single member of the crew acted in concert to contain the threat. But how could they contain what they could not see?
The second-in-command was a human male called Commander Verma. He thrust to the side, always keeping on his toes until he reached one of the science panels. His fingers flew across it. Two members of crew closed in behind him and protected him with their bodies.
A second later, shields crisscrossed the bridge. They would stop anyone from moving.
If they kept working, that was. Another one of those red-hot blasts slammed out across the bridge. It tore through every single shield it met.
That… god, that was impossible. Though Lara had only had a chance to see those shields for a few seconds, she recognized them. They were the strongest the Zeus could produce. As the strongest ship in the fleet, if those red blasts could penetrate the Zeus’ best force fields, then they were unstoppable.
A sense Lara hadn’t felt in years rose through her. It was one that told her this was it. No matter what she did, she would die. She hadn’t felt this alone and lost since the death of her father.
There was a problem – she wasn’t alone. If she let herself believe that, she wasn’t lost yet.
Nok tightened his grip on her arm and pulled her to the side. “What the hell is going on?” His voice wavered.
If she could answer that, she would. She had no clue.
More of those red blasts smashed through the bridge. They tore it up. Sections of the ceiling fell, and clumps of wire scattered over the floor. They sparked with lethal force, and a stray cadet who’d wandered too close was struck by an arc of electricity.
Lara knew her. Cadet Shirov. She had a second for her eyes to open wide, then she died. She was thrown across the room, and by the time her body smashed into a console, she’d taken her last breath.
Terror engulfed Lara. She grabbed a hand to her mouth and pressed it in hard. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and wait for this to end.
Nok wouldn’t let her. “Move,” he spat. He sensed another threat, and true to his race, he was bang on the money. He yanked her out of the way just as one of those blades sliced down past her face. It caught a few strands of her hair. They floated up in front of her face then fell against her blood-covered arm.
The red alert was already blaring through the ship. It had initiated the second the captain had realized something was wrong. Now its pitch changed. If it weren’t for the fact Lara had lived through a critical alert before, she wouldn’t know what it was – but as it rang through the ship, a sense of doom descended on her.
That alarm was used when structural integrity was lost.
Nok obviously knew what it meant as he stiffened. She swore his steady heat changed, and he became as cold as her heart.
Something exploded under the floor. It shook so badly, she tumbled to the side. She fell right on top of Nok’s chest.
She stared into his golden eyes as they widened. “What—” He didn’t have a chance to finish.
Lara felt something moving behind her. This was it, she realized. It was another one of those blades, and it would cut her in half.
She stared down into Nok’s eyes, and in her last moment, she wondered if it could have been different between them.
The answer was it should have been different.
But everything had changed.
The ship was under attack. The bridge was being torn apart by an unknown enemy, and he couldn’t do anything to help.
All of that was a side note. The only thing that took precedence as the seconds slipped by was the look in Lara’s eyes. She had intriguing eyes – they weren’t the prettiest, but to a man like him, that was irrelevant. What mattered more was that her eyes led you places. They offered a bridge from the present to a future you could only claim if you were by her side.
These thoughts blasted through his mind as fast as light. They had to, because she was about to die in his arms. He could hear that invisible blade as it sliced toward the back of her head. There was nothing he could do. He was out of time. In approximately half a second, it would slice into her skull, and she would be cut in half.
As the deepest fear he’d ever felt engulfed him, Nok waited for it all to end.
It didn’t. Just at the last moment, he felt a rush of air as something moved. There was the sound of a hand smashing against metal.
No, there was more than a sound – in a moment he would never forget, he saw a hand appear. It grabbed hold of the base of an electro blade and held it in place a few mere centimeters from the back of Lara’s head.
Lara couldn’t move. Her eyes were wide open as they stared to the side. Fear gripped her.
Nok could move, so he did it for the both of them. He wrapped a hand around the back of her skull, his knuckles coming perilously close to that blade. Then he rolled with her, getting her out of the way.
“Thank you,” a voice said. It came from nowhere. It was female, and it sounded suspiciously like Lara’s voice. It had the same tone and pitch, but it seemed older and a thousand times harder.
“What?” he stammered.
That hand was still visible. It tightened around the base of the blade and pulled it out of someone’s grip.
For the first time, Nok heard the sound of boots on the deck plating. It was such a faint noise, it was barely there.
Nok considered himself a man who’d seen the galaxy. He’d traveled it for 10 years before he’d bothered to join the Coalition. It was a rite of passage for his race. You could not protect a galaxy you had not seen.
In all his travels, he’d never encountered something like this. While cloaking technology certainly existed, it was imperfect. You could not completely erase the way cloaked objects interacted with their environment. Being able to bend the light bouncing off them and hiding them from sight was one thing, but it was almost impossible to remove their auditory data.
Whatever enemy he was facing had that impossible skill.
Lara was still in his arms. She’d frozen – all at the sound of that voice.
“Get the cadets out of here,” Commander Verma spat.
A few officers closest to the main doors opened them and started to shepherd the cadets out.
Nok didn’t join them. His people believed in honor – you never backed down from a fight.
Even if he had wanted to move, he wouldn’t have been able to. His focus was fixed on that hand that had wrenched the electro blade out of thin air. For whatever reason, it felt familiar.
“Engineering is under siege,” the science officer blared, her voice pitching with fear.
Another explosion shook through the bridge. It was stronger than the last. It sent Nok’s body shuddering over the floor. Before he could tumble head-first into a cracked, sparking console, he brought his foot out, smashed it into a fragment of metal, called on his every muscle, and held his position.
Forest was still limp in his grip. He could see the side of her face. Her eyes were open with total fear.
Maybe this was where he should scream at her to pull herself together. He hadn’t been lying back in the accommodation deck when he’d said she had the greatest skill in their class. She was unflappable in combat. Usually, at least.
Now it was like someone had pulled her spine out.
“Come on,” he whispered into her ear softly as he pulled her up.
“Keep her down.” That voice that sounded exactly like an older Lara blared across the bridge.
Nok bristled. Though his people didn’t have a phrase like it, he was reminded of a human saying – it felt like someone had just walked over his grave.
He had no clue who that voice belonged to. There was every possibility that, despite the fact it had seemingly saved Lara, it belonged to an enemy. Yet he followed its every command. He remained exactly where he was. Bullets continued to blast across the bridge. Some of the cadets got out. Some didn’t. People were torn down in front of his eyes.
Though that hand had appeared, the person it belonged to was still invisible. He could see the electro blade, and he watched as the owner of that hand used it with aplomb. They rushed up the side of the command chair, flipped right over it, and sliced the blade down.
For the first time, Nok caught sight of the enemy. A soldier appeared right at the foot of the command chair. They were wearing armor that didn’t exist.
Nok kept up on all armament development throughout the Coalition, the Barbarians, and the Kore. It was a specialty of his. He intended to become a combat officer, and he’d done his thesis on armor development. So he knew with total confidence that there was nothing like that in all of the Milky Way.
The armor appeared to have the ability to selfheal. It did so right before his eyes. Crackles of electricity and some unknown green energy marched across its surface, sinking into any holes and healing them within seconds.
The soldier wearing the armor twitched, then like a zombie, pulled itself to its feet.
It went for a gun holstered at its side.
It didn’t get the chance to pull it out. The electro blade spun around and smashed right down the front of the soldier’s white armor. The hand wielding the sword knew precisely what it was doing. It twisted to the side, dragging the blade right under the left armpit of the soldier. It struck some kind of invisible node. There was a massive crack like someone tearing a cruiser in half, then the soldier fell to the side, dead.
There was no conceivable way this could be happening. But Nok could not deny what was occurring in front of his very eyes. Sweat slid down his brow – which was strange for his race. You only ever sweated if your life was on the line – and there was no question of that as a bolt of blistering blue light smashed into the captain’s chair to his side. Nok acted just in time. Pinning Lara to his chest, he rolled to the side as the chair exploded. A few chunks of blazing hot metal smashed against his shoulders and back, but as he made his muscles as large and rigid as they could become, the shrapnel couldn’t slice down to his bones.
“Keep her safe,” that voice growled. There was no denying it this time – it sounded exactly like Lara. It couldn’t be her, though; Lara was still all but frozen in his arms.
The bridge was plunged into even deeper chaos as Nok heard more pounding footfall. Now he was retuning his nervous system, he could detect it, despite the fact those soldiers were utilizing cloaking technology to hide every sound they made. His hackles had a chance to rise, and pure tension gripped him harder than wires around his gut.
He opened his lips to scream at the bridge combat officer, but the guy never had a chance. Long before Nok could warn him, the man was cut down by two vicious blows to the back of his knees and the front of his chest. Blood erupted everywhere, moving more like shrapnel from an explosion and less like human fluid.
Nok instinctively pushed his shoulder down, using it as a break to ensure none of that blood splattered over Lara’s frozen, white face.
She wasn’t moving. It was like she’d shut down.
One thing that had not shut down was that hand. It gripped that electro blade, moving it so expertly, you would think the owner of those fingers was the galaxy’s greatest combat specialist.
The hair had a chance to lift on the back of Nok’s neck, then he heard an invisible soldier right by his side. His breath caught in his chest, and his muscles rippled across his back, but there was nothing he could do as a massive hand reached out and latched hold of Lara’s shoulder. Right in front of Nok’s very eyes, he saw imprints as those fingers snagged around her throat.
Before he could do anything, that invisible woman acted for him. He heard her grunt, and something smashed into the back of that soldier’s head. Sparks erupted out everywhere as the soldier became visible. Its body jolted, its white armor glistening as cascades of electricity darted down it and sunk into the floor.
Lara screamed. It wasn’t at the sight of that soldier who’d almost throttled her – it was the disembodied hand.
For whatever reason, Lara’s gaze was locked on that invisible woman’s thumb. Specifically, what looked like an old scar that ran from the thumbnail down to the joint.
It didn’t take Nok long to realize what was making Lara scared. She had a scar exactly like that.
There was no time to think that through. There was no time to think at all.
That invisible woman let out another grunt. She pirouetted to the side – or at least Nok was certain she did. He was now realigning his senses to be able to track this invisible fight. If he pushed most of his attention into his hearing and the sense of air shifting past him in eddying currents, he could predict what was happening.
There were at least six invisible soldiers on the bridge. And then there was that woman. Perhaps earlier he’d questioned whether she could be an enemy, but it was becoming abundantly clear that she was the only thing standing between the Zeus and total destruction.
She was also the only thing standing between those six soldiers and Lara. For whatever reason, she was their target.
“Get her up,” that invisible woman snarled.
There was something about her voice that told Nok she had been born to give orders. His muscles reacted immediately, her tone reaching in, switching off his mental control, and forcing him to act without him thinking it through.
He rose up, his torso crunching hard as he used the full force of his adaptable body.
“Get Lara off the bridge. Head down to—” the woman began.
She couldn’t finish. Something smashed into her side. Though Nok couldn’t see it, he heard it, and there was the distinct crunch of breaking bone.
He gasped. Something in him felt like it was ready to coil up and die. It told him in no uncertain terms that that invisible woman couldn’t die. If she did, everyone would die with her.
Reluctantly, Nok dropped Lara. Not for long. Just for now. He rolled to the side, the move tight and quick. He brought his leg around and smashed his foot up and out to the left. It was a timed blow, and the only reason it worked was he could detect one of those invisible soldiers with his exquisite hearing. It told him the man was getting ready to slice an electro blade right through that mysterious woman.
Nok’s blow was so perfectly timed as he struck that invisible soldier on the back of his legs. There was a grunt and a crunch as the guy fell down to the deck.
“Don’t protect me – protect Lara,” that mysterious woman bellowed.
Again, it was an order the likes of which Nok had never received. It bypassed his every question, sunk into his hindbrain, and took control of his body until he found himself rolling to the side. It was the quickest move he’d ever made. His muscles were filled with such nervous tension, he felt like he could run a marathon, over and over again for a month.
He rolled right on top of Lara, pinning her against the deck just as he felt another one of those invisible soldiers close in. The guy didn’t get a chance to do anything. The mysterious woman let out another grunt. Nok heard her slicing to the side with her electro blade, but he also heard a scuffle.
“Dammit,” he spluttered. He jerked his head up and to the side, and he watched as blood and sparks cascaded everywhere.
No matter how much damage those invisible soldiers received, he hadn’t seen them bleeding yet. The blood must have come from that woman.
Dread spiraled through him. It reached a fever pitch as he heard two dull thuds. They were the woman’s knees as she fell heavily down to the deck.
Right in front of him, for the first time, he saw more than her hand. Crackles of some unknown energy started to discharge up her arm. They snaked and blasted across her chest, ran up her face, and gushed down her feet. For a few split seconds, he saw her.
And he did not understand. He looked into a set of eyes he knew. A set of eyes that were close enough to touch. For they were Lara’s eyes.
Everything ground down to a halt. It felt like reality itself hit the pause button and waited for Nok to catch up.
This could not be happening. Nok had seen Lara’s mother – and whilst there was a familial resemblance, they had different colored eyes.
The woman became invisible again, but only for a few seconds. The unknown technology she was using to cloak her body was failing. Nok had never seen an eerier sight as she fought those soldiers. She would appear for a few fluttering seconds, almost like a feather madly dancing through an updraft, only to disappear in a snap.
Though she was only visible briefly, and she was encased in discharging energy, Nok’s visual acuity was more than sufficient enough to note the injuries littering her body. Blood seeped down from a deep gash in her shoulder. There was a cut above her eye, and bone protruded from her leg.
It didn’t slow her down. He’d just met this woman, yet he got the undeniable impression that nothing but death itself would slow her down. She would keep hurtling along until and unless someone killed her.
Lara – his Lara – wasn’t moving. She was barely breathing. Every 20 seconds or so, her frozen body would muster the energy required to suck in a shallow, trembling breath. That was it.
Out of the corner of his eye, though he was paying most of his attention to the rest of the bridge, he saw Lara’s expression. It was shattered.
He’d seen Lara Forest show sadness before– not that the stoic cadet would ever admit to having an emotion as low as sadness. He’d seen her angry and scared, too.
This? He didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone showing this much raw emotion. It reached right into his double hearts and held them in place.
It made his body react without a thought, and he pressed his hands harder against the deck as he protected her with his body.
Maybe this was where he should pluck her up and try to get her out of the bridge, but it was too chaotic. As soon as he got up, he’d make a moving target, and that would be much harder for that mysterious woman to protect.
As it was, she was just keeping those invisible soldiers away from Lara.
There was no one else left on the bridge. All the cadets had left – the ones who weren’t dead and nothing more than bloodied remains splattered across the once clean deck. The officers that had been ordered off the bridge were gone, too. Everyone else?
Dead. They’d been torn apart by those unrelenting bullets.
If Nok had never seen the armor these invisible soldiers were wearing – then the weapons they wielded were on yet another level. He’d encountered electro blades before – but nothing like these. Standard electro blades had their operating parameters. They couldn’t cut through everything. These ones sliced right through the most protected consoles, cutting them not just like a hot knife through butter, but like someone waving a hand out in space with zero resistance whatsoever.
He saw two of those electro blades in a split second as two soldiers came upon that mysterious woman. The electro blades appeared as they smashed into the floor by her feet. She was too fast. As she appeared for several flickering seconds, she rolled onto her good side and somehow flipped.
Her leg was broken. There was no doubting that. Bone was sticking right out of the thigh. There was no way she should be moving. Yet it didn’t even seem to slow her down. With another earsplitting grunt that echoed through the bridge and bounced off the broken remains of the viewscreen, she pivoted on her hip, sliced out with her broken leg, and kicked the soldier right on the back of his knees. The guy fell down.
The woman was quick and relentless. She pushed up, as silent and quick as a lioness, and sliced her electro blade across the soldier’s head. She must’ve hit a specific weak point, because the helmet exploded in a sea of sparks.
Another soldier became invisible as he hit the floor, dead.
There were five left.
Five impossible, prototypes soldiers against one badly injured woman was not great odds. You tell that to whoever the hell this lady was. Relentless, she acted less like a human and more like a comet barreling through space as she jumped up.
One of the soldiers grabbed something from their belt. The only reason Nok was sure of that was that he swore he heard metal fingers sliding across a leg armor piece.
His body reacted, a new wave of nervous tension pulsing through him. Despite the 10 years he’d traveled this wide galaxy before joining the Academy, he’d never been in a situation like this. Yes, he’d been in firefights – and doubly yes, he’d been forced to fight for his life before. This was combat on a scale that shouldn’t exist in the peaceful Coalition.
Even Kore raiding parties or Barbarian pirate factions wouldn’t be able to bring chaos on this level.
That mysterious woman acted. This time, rather than going straight for the soldier who was clutching something from its holster, she attacked the floor beneath his feet.
Either she got lucky, or she somehow had a fine knowledge of the engineering ducts beneath the Zeus’ bridge. As she smashed her blade down, she easily ruptured the deck plating and blasted into a relatively unprotected neural pack.
Nok’s gut clenched as he knew what would happen next. That woman didn’t appear to be in any armor. As soon as that neural gel touched her skin, she would die. That stuff was completely toxic. There were very few armor sets that would shield a person from it. It was usually under some of the best shielding a Coalition ship could produce. But there was nothing the deck could do against that electro blade – and there was nothing the mysterious woman would be able to do against the gel.
Nok’s hearts had precisely two seconds to stop. He saw the black gel splatter up over the woman.
Then nothing. It didn’t sink through her flesh, pull it from her bones, and eat through her body with all the ease of somebody snacking on overripe fruit.
It splashed against something that was close to her skin – so close, it was almost like a personal, completely invisible shield.
He had a chance to gasp again, but then he watched as the woman used that neural gel. She shifted down, grabbed her hand around several neural gel packs, and thrust to the side. She threw them right at that soldier who’d been grasping at something in his holster.
Though Nok could only guess, he could bet the guy had been after some kind of grenade. Considering all the other insane prototype weapons he’d seen today, if one of those invisible soldiers grabbed some futuristic grenade, this fight would be over. If the grenades were like their electro blades, then presumably they’d be able to cut through the Zeus’ defenses so easily, it would be like child’s play.
That invisible soldier didn’t get the chance. With a grunt, she threw the neuro packs right at him. Just as they reached the tops of their arcs, she smashed through them with her electro blade.
The blow was timed and careful, and she used her body to block any splashes of gel from getting too close to Nok and Lara.
That soldier wasn’t so lucky. For whatever reason, his white armor was no match for the neural gel. As soon as it splashed onto the soldier’s chest plate, helmet, and legs, his armor became visible.
He started to convulse as he fell to his knees. He fell so hard that the already stressed deck plating buckled underneath him.
Whilst contact with neural gel had clearly caused some kind of reaction with the soldier’s armor, it hadn’t downed the man. The woman did that. Twisting her electro blade around expertly, she thrust to her knees, skidded to the side, and smashed the soldier across the back of his head. Her blade finished off what the neural gel had started. With two massive, convulsing twitches, the soldier fell down face-first, dead and well and truly out of this fight.
That left four soldiers.
While the woman had managed to keep her own during this fight for now, fortune caught up with her. Nok’s eyes opened wide as his hearing told him that the remaining four soldiers came upon the woman all at once.
They attacked her from both sides as two skidded down to their feet and rolled toward her.
There should have been nothing she could do. Somehow, she found the coordination – despite her broken leg – to thrust to the side and jump up the side of a sparking console. It was the navigational panel. It had been sliced in half by one of those stray electro blades. It was crackling so badly that any unprotected flesh that came too close wouldn’t just be burnt – it would be fried to a cinder.
Once again, this woman held her own, and whatever invisible armor she was wearing crackled into place, protecting her from those sparks as she leaped right over the top of the console.
It managed to put some distance between her and those four soldiers, but it wasn’t enough. One of the soldiers grabbed something from his belt. This time, there was no way the woman could get there in time.
Nok heard the distinct sound of fingers locking around something metal – then a pulse as they squeezed it.
Fear erupted through him – faster and more encompassing than any he’d felt. If you could bottle terror into its purest form and pour it down his throat, that would explain what was happening to him. He shook on the spot as paroxysms engulfed him.
He got that unstoppable impression that this couldn’t be happening. It promised him this woman – whoever the hell she was – could not die. Not here, not back in the future – not ever.
… It took him precisely half a second to appreciate what he’d just thought.
Back in the future?
The soldier with the invisible grenade attacked.
He threw it forward.
The woman was becoming steadily more visible. Though she would disappear every few seconds, it wouldn’t last, and the energy that had once been discharging over her form was starting to dissipate.
There was nothing to stop Nok from watching as her eyes opened wide and her head spun to the side. She tried to bring up her electro blade, but she wasn’t in time.
Something smashed into the side of her body. Nok expected the worst. He thought she would be torn apart as an explosion ripped into her, blasting into her body and ripping it apart like wild animals to a fresh kill.
That wasn’t what happened. This wall of energy erupted around her. It fizzled into place then wrapped around and encased her.
He watched as her face became as white with fear as any he’d ever seen.
He couldn’t help it anymore – he tried to bolt to his feet.
Lara hadn’t moved – until now. She locked a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t get close – it’s some form of psychic shield.”
There wasn’t the time to question how Lara knew that. At the back of his head, he doubted she knew why she’d said that anyway. Her frozen lips had suddenly jerked into life, shifting as if some hand had reached into her face and moved them for her.
Nok had to act.
No time for thought, no time to assess the shield.
He pulled up off Lara. She kept a hand on his arm, and that pulled her to her feet.
That mysterious woman was still locked on the spot, her face open with total terror.
Those other four soldiers hadn’t stopped moving. Nok heard as two went toward that woman and two broke off. They headed for Lara.
There were only 10 or so meters separating her from them. Soldiers like this could close such a distance in snapped seconds.
Nok did the only thing he could think of. He shoved into Lara, pushing her to the side hard enough that she hit the floor and rolled. It would buy her time. He thrust forward. He ran up the side of the broken navigational console. Unlike that woman, he wasn’t wearing some form of invisible, incredible armor. As his boots pounded into the console, he felt it. Electricity discharged into him, and sparks easily burnt through the weakly reinforced fabric of his cadet uniform.
Pain erupted through his legs and smashed into his knees.
He turned his muscles on to full. It meant that they pressed against the stretchy fabric of his uniform, threatening to break the seams in places.
It also meant the electricity didn’t blast through him and knock him out. Pain he could deal with – unconsciousness would just get them all killed.
He didn’t jump off the console and land on the opposite side. He flipped. As he jumped through the air, he brought his foot around and pushed all of his muscular strength into his leg. It smashed into one of those soldiers just before he could dart around the console and get to Lara.
At the same time as Nok fell, he twisted and smashed his arm around to the left. He caught the back of that other soldier’s leg. He grabbed the knee unit and pulled. It was just enough to get the guy to overbalance. He smashed into the deck.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nok could see that Lara was still on the ground where she’d fallen after she’d stopped rolling. She was down on her knees and hands.
Frozen fear encapsulated her. It looked as if the moment that other woman had been locked away by that psychic shield, somehow, so too had Lara.
There was no time to question. Using nothing more than his hearing and a good dose of luck, Nok shoved a hand down. He had to get a weapon. To do that, he had to grab one out of the holster of one of these soldiers. Reach for the wrong thing or do it at the wrong time, and he’d be offering his hand up to be broken or chopped right off.
He couldn’t think of that. All he could acknowledge was the pounding desperation shaking through him that told him he had to save this woman no matter the costs.
His fortune won out. For now. He snagged hold of what felt like a gun. He drew it up and out of the soldier’s holster long before the guy could react.
As soon as the gun settled in Nok’s grip, it became visible. He watched it form in his hand. There wasn’t anything like it among any of the races of the known galaxy.
Even holding it, he could sense its near infinite power. It was modular, and it instantly responded to his touch, shifting and becoming larger to accommodate his broad hand. Its power appeared to be modular, too, and it had to have some kind of mental connection, because without even thinking it, it fired. A blast of energy smashed out, but rather than move forward, it twisted to the side. It slammed into one of the soldiers just before the guy could get to his feet and rush over to Lara.
Nok rolled to the side, kicked out at the remaining soldier, brought up the gun, and fired right at the back of the guy’s head. A bolt slammed out of the gun and smashed into the man’s armor. As soon as the energy bullet hit, sparks of power rippled over the guy’s armor, sunk into it, and made it crack. It shattered off the soldier’s back as if it was a carapace the man was outgrowing.
The guy had a chance to jolt twice, then he died.
Nok wasted no time. He pushed forward, heading for those two soldiers going after the mysterious woman. He felt Lara right by his side. He hadn’t even heard her move, but somehow she’d fought past her fear, thrust up, and reached him. Her hand settled on his wrist. “You need to drop the gun. It’s trying to infect you. It’ll push into your mind.”
He had no clue what she was saying. There was no way she could know that, either. It wasn’t like Lara knew more about prototype weapons than he did.
But there was something about her voice. It was reflected in that mysterious woman’s look as her eyes managed to pulse even wider.
He dropped the gun. It was against his better judgment. It was against his training. It was against his sheer survival instincts. But with both Lara and this woman staring at him, pleading with nothing more than their gazes, he couldn’t help it.
The gun clattered to the floor. As soon as it hit the metal plating, he could see something shifting through it – this almost indistinct black, cloudlike force.
He jerked back. He brought up a hand and stared at it. Wisps of whatever the hell that stuff was were playing around his fingers. They marched over his skin as they searched for a way in.
Those two other soldiers were still alive and operational, and they were still going after that other woman.
Nok thrust forward to put himself between her and them.
Lara moved to the side. Something had obviously broken the spell that had locked her in place. She was moving now, and though she didn’t have the strength and grace he was used to from combat class, she had something he’d never seen in her eyes – total desperation.
She skidded down to one of the soldiers Nok had killed. He had no idea what she was doing. Presumably if she was searching for a weapon, there was no point. They would be protected by the same insidious, black, cloudlike substance that gun utilized as a defense mechanism.
That’s not what she was after. Her fingers fumbled down the side of the dead soldier’s body until she plucked his wrist unit up. Gritting her teeth, her body shaking, she smashed the hand repeatedly against the deck.
Nok reached the first soldier. He pivoted to the side, dropped to his knee, pushed out, and launched himself at the man in a rugby tackle. Nok turned his muscles on to full – utilizing every single ounce of his strength and then some. As the blood pounded through his body from his dual hearts, his skin tingled with pure fear and force.
Though the soldier tried to smash its electro blade down through Nok’s back, Nok twitched to the side, rolled onto his back, and kicked out. His foot smashed into the guy’s knee, and it overbalanced him just at the right moment. The electro blade smashed down into the deck.
Nok thought on fast forward. Long before coming aboard the Zeus, he’d already memorized the ship’s blueprint. He’d wanted to serve here, after all.
He didn’t just know the room layout on this massive ship; he knew every single service duct. He also knew every maintenance hatch, and critically, every conduit and power unit that twisted through the guts of this massive vessel.
It was enough to tell him that that electro blade had just sliced into a patch of neural gel.
Nok kicked out of the way as fast as he could. He moved with pure speed. Rather than just leap to a safe distance, he reached the other soldier, shoved the guy in his back, and pushed him toward his buddy.
The electro blade smashed through the deck plating, hit the neural gel packs, and made them erupt. Black, toxic gel erupted out everywhere.
It didn’t reach Nok, though a few splashes came perilously close.
He instantly pushed to his feet, jerking his head to the side to note that those two soldiers were now covered in the gel. Just like their friend from earlier, they started to convulse as if they were having sudden epileptic fits.
They weren’t down, though. This was when Nok had to capitalize on their distraction, reach them, and end this. He couldn’t do that. Neural gel stained the deck around them, and he had no weapon.
He didn’t need one.
Lara hadn’t moved from where she was kneeling. She still smashed that wrist unit down against the deck repeatedly until finally he heard a crack.
She gasped, brought the hand unit up, grabbed a small panel that had appeared, typed something into it, then jerked her head over to that mysterious woman.
The whole time, she’d watched the fight with dread-filled eyes as she’d been unable to move behind that flickering psychic shield.
Now the psychic shield failed with a crack.
The woman jolted forward as if she was a horse beginning a race.
Her electro blade had fallen to her feet. She scooped it up in one twitching, fast move, and smashed it into the backs of those convulsing soldiers.
In a split second, they were dead. And this… was over.
It was just getting started. Breathlessly, Nok stared from the woman over to Lara. Though his race did not have a word for destiny, he swore he felt it reaching between those two women as the very future rested at their feet.
The… the fight was over.
No. No it wasn’t. It had just begun.
Lara could barely think or breathe. Pressure built in her chest like nothing she’d ever felt. It pulsed through her body, sunk down into her stomach, and pushed hard into her back and legs. It anchored her to the spot, and yet it felt as if she was floating away, never to return – all at the sight of that woman.
All at the sight… of her.
There was no denying it now. That woman was Lara’s older self.
She took a step forward. It should have been impossible – there was a bloodied bone sticking up from her thigh. That didn’t seem to bother her. She moved as if you could cut off all her limbs and it wouldn’t slow her down.
That electro blade was still held loosely in her grip, the end sparking with lethal energy.
Lara didn’t need to slice her gaze down to it to conclude that she’d never seen anything like it.
She couldn’t have. It came from the future, didn’t it? Just like this woman.
Fear began to get the better of Lara again, and her breathing became shallow. Her chest shook up and down, and no matter what she did, she just couldn’t get enough air.
“Pull yourself together,” the woman said. “You will be stronger.”
It wasn’t a question – she wasn’t asking if Lara could be stronger. It wasn’t even an order. It was a statement of fact.
Lara shook her head.
Nok stood off to the side. Somehow, he’d survived this chaotic battle. Not somehow – the reason he’d survived was he’d fought relentlessly. He’d done what Lara had been unable to do. He’d helped. Now he stood there and watched with a shattered expression. He didn’t move, and he didn’t make a sound. Either he couldn’t, or he appreciated there was no point.
Lara brought up a hand and pressed it against her lips. The move was so fragile, she thought her fingers would break. “Just who are you and what’s going on here?”
“There’s no time for that. This ship is about to be destroyed. We need to do what we can.” The woman strode right past Lara. She reached the broken remnants of the tactical console. Rather than try to use the now useless controls on top of it, she got down to her knee, navigating past her broken leg. She shoved an apparently unprotected hand into the guts of the console and pulled out a control crystal. She gripped it in her hand, ticked her jaw to the side, half closed her eyes, and appeared to concentrate.
Somehow, the crystal started to glow as if she accessed it with nothing more than her thoughts.
“This can’t be happening,” Lara stammered. She started to hyperventilate again. It didn’t matter that this woman had told her to get over it – how on earth could Lara follow this breakneck situation? Everyone was dead. She didn’t have to cast her gaze far over the bridge to see the remnants of broken, torn apart bodies.
“Get a hold of yourself,” the woman ordered Lara again. “We don’t have much—” she didn’t finish her sentence. She let a tense breath of air shudder through her teeth.
Nok had been silent until now. He took a quick step forward. “What is it?”
“We’re too late.” A note of total horror shook through the woman’s tone.
Lara jerked her head over to the bridge screens. Though half of them had been destroyed in that chaotic attack, a section still functioned, and they rallied now, the sophisticated programs behind them rewiring until they bypassed every broken screen.
They showed the outside of the ship as something careened toward it.
It… was some kind of cruiser. Lightweight, small – Lara had never seen anything like it.
“The Zeus’ external shields are still functional. They should be able to—” Nok began.
He never got a chance to finish.
Lara knew precisely what Nok had been about to say. Whilst the ship on screen was hurtling toward the Zeus, it was too small to do any real damage. Even at full thrusters, the Zeus’ inertia dampening field would be able to slow it down and prevent too much damage.
None of that was true, though. The ship was unlike anything Lara had ever seen. It slammed into the side of the Zeus, and it tore through five decks at once.
A damage report flashed on screen, and footage began to show the horrifying sight of bodies tumbling into space.
Lara was pushed off her feet. She tumbled headfirst toward one of those broken consoles. Nok didn’t have the time to get to her. He didn’t need to. That woman rolled over, grabbed Lara, and pushed her to the side.
As soon as Lara felt the woman’s fingers brush against her skin, a jolt of pure adrenaline-fueled terror blasted through her. She couldn’t describe the sensation hammering down her spine and shuddering through her clenched jaw. It felt… it felt like being touched by yourself.
It felt like violating every single rule of time.
It felt like this here should never have happened.
“Get a grip. You need to pull yourself together. The future,” the woman’s words shook, “is now on your shoulders.”
Lara couldn’t describe what happened to her on the word future. It was like she was torn apart then reknit anew. It was like she was born only to die only to be born again. Her lips trembled open. It took several seconds until she gained the control to speak. “F-future?”
The woman took a step back from Lara. Lara knew what she would say before she said it.
“I’m your future self. I am Admiral Forest.”
Lara almost didn’t hear the words. This dense ringing echoed through her skull. It grew louder until she thought she’d pass out. Her lips quivered around those two words. “…Admiral Forest.”
This… this could not be happening.
But it was.
It wasn’t over yet.
He couldn’t move. There was no point. This didn’t involve him.
He felt like a bystander as Lara crumbled at that woman’s words.
She brought up her hands, clenched them over her mouth, and pushed them in so hard, it looked like she was trying to break her jaw off.
Lara shook her head.
The woman claiming to be Admiral Forest didn’t turn to the footage playing across the Zeus’ broken screen once.
It showed the crew tumbling into space, surrounded by debris as the guts of this once mighty vessel were spilled like a knife down the belly of some rabbit.
“You need to pull yourself together. You don’t have time for this,” Admiral Forest snapped at Lara. “You have to get out there – you have to save those people. You have to stop this from ever happening.”
Still shaking, Lara turned over her shoulder. It was clear she didn’t understand a word Admiral Forest was saying as she stared at the woman in gut-punching shock.
“You need to get out of here, now. They’ll come for you,” the woman ordered.
Lara shook her head as tears soaked her white cheeks. Nok got the urge to brush them away. He still didn’t move. He just couldn’t. It wasn’t just at the sight of the woman or the damage to the ship and its crew – it was those two words.
Admiral Forest. They rang through his head. Though he’d never heard them before – as, to his knowledge, there’d never been an Admiral Forest in the Coalition’s history – that wasn’t the point. As they repeated in his mind, he had a visceral reaction to them. It was almost like… it was almost like something was telling him this was right.
Lara had always been destined to become an admiral.
And here she was. Standing in the flesh, right before him.
Time travel was theoretically possible. In the same way that, theoretically, one day, the universe would end. It was a feature of some physics theories, but it wasn’t an actual practice. Though you occasionally got people trying to complete projects at the Academy that promised stable time change, they were beyond fringe. Nobody worth their scientific credentials would ever believe in the reality of traveling through time.
But he couldn’t deny his eyes. From everything he’d seen, to those soldiers, to their weapons, to the woman standing in front of him – there had to be some reasonable explanation, and time travel was it.
Admiral Forest took a snapped step up to Lara. She completely ignored her broken leg. Nok had seen people move with injuries like that before, but he’d never seen someone with the capacity to ignore such a massive wound. It was like it was an irrelevant side note. The only thing that mattered to Admiral Forest was getting through to Lara. “You will get out of here. And you will save the Coalition.”
“I don’t know who you are,” Lara stammered.
“I’ve already told you – I am your future self. I am Admiral Forest. And I will not let the Coalition fall.”
Lara half shook her head. Horror engulfed her gaze, flattened her cheeks, and made her skin as white as snow.
Admiral Forest settled her hands on Lara’s shoulders. Lara jolted but didn’t push back.
Admiral Forest bared her teeth. “You will save the Coalition. You must shut down the time gates. That’s how I got here – through a time gate. You will find them, you will close them, and you will save the galaxy.”
Lara looked like a cornered animal. For a woman who’d never been that emotive, now it felt as if Lara was feeling the very depths of human emotion on fast forward. Her lips wobbled open, and he was sure she would tell the admiral she wasn’t going to do it. But just at the last moment, he saw something in Lara’s gaze – the same thing that had intrigued him the first day he’d met her. It was hard to explain. It was like a reset button. Lara had always had the capacity to change things – that was the only way to put it. Where others saw obstacles and certain death, Lara Forest saw a challenge.
She closed her eyes, then her lips wobbled open. Lara Forest stared into the eyes of her older self, and she stammered, “I’ll do it.”
Silence spread through the bridge. Though the red alert had never stopped blaring, this was a visceral silence. It tugged at Nok’s heartstrings, scattered across his back like fast-moving spiders, and descended through his gut in a clump of fear and anticipation.
Admiral Forest removed her hands from Lara’s shoulders. She took a step back. “You need to stop this from happening.”
“Okay. But I don’t understand.” Lara’s gaze sliced over to the remnants of Commander A’qua. She looked as if she wanted to throw up. Her cheeks became pallid white, and her lips pressed hard against her teeth. “It’s already happened,” she conceded in a shuddering breath. “You can’t change the past.”
“Ordinarily, you cannot. But this time period is unique – it has two almost simultaneous time gates. One two weeks from now in the past and one,” Admiral Forest shifted her jaw from side-to-side as her hairline lifted with tension, “from approximately half an hour ago.”
Lara’s eyes opened wider. “That’s… that’s when I started to see glimpses of you around the ship, right?”
Nok’s back stretched, his spine lengthening as his stomach kicked. Back when he’d come to see her in her quarters, he’d sensed that Lara was emotionally unstable. He’d assumed the reason was that her decision to quit the Academy was starting to catch up to her. He would never have guessed it was something like this.
Who would have?
“I will transport you back two weeks from now. There will be a catch.” The admiral looked right at Lara, and every word the woman spoke was pregnant with total authority. There was no question she was used to leading.
“What?” Lara’s lips trembled open.
“You will disappear from that original timeline. These two gates are too close. If two of you walk around at the same time, it could create temporal fractures. It’s bad enough that I’m here.”
Lara opened her mouth, obviously to say that she had no clue what the admiral was speaking of.
Nok took a solid step up to Admiral Forest. “What about me? You will transport me back, too, won’t you? You won’t leave Lara alone, right?” He spoke with such passion, he surprised himself. Maybe it was the force of the battle he’d just endured, or maybe it was the prospect of Lara – scared and overcome – being left alone to do the seemingly impossible.
Or maybe, deep down, it was because he felt connected to the admiral in a way he just could not comprehend.
It took several seconds for Admiral Forest to look at him. When her gaze locked on his, her features stiffened in an unreadable expression.
“… What?” he asked.
“It’s best for you to stay in your own timeline.” Despite the fact Admiral Forest had spoken stridently before, now her voice fractured – but only slightly.
Lara shook her head. “Please – I’ll need help. I don’t see how I can do this on my own. Even if you somehow,” she appeared to swallow her fear as she gulped hard, “transport me back two weeks from now, I’ll be up against the impossible. How will I be able to stop the Zeus from being destroyed? If,” her gaze shifted around the ship, her eyes open but almost sightless at the horror before her, “you’re really from the future and these soldiers are too, what chance do I have?”
“Nok must stay here. He’s part of the existing timeline. The less we mess with that, the better.”
Nok’s brow sank down hard. His lips twitched open. “How do you know my name?”
Admiral Forest didn’t acknowledge his question. “We’re running out of time. Come with me to the engineering bay. I will initiate an engine cascade failure. It will allow us to align with the time gate and transport you through.”
Lara wouldn’t move. She shook her head. “That would kill Nok and everyone on this ship.”
“Technically. But just these current versions of them. And barely any of the rest of the crew are still alive. We must go back and prevent this from ever happening,” Forest said. No, she spat each word through clenched teeth. It felt as if they were bullets she was firing from the only gun she had left.
Lara looked too horrified to function anymore. She took a step toward the bridge lifts, obviously intending to follow Admiral Forest down to engineering.
Nok wouldn’t let that happen. He took a determined step up to the admiral. His hearts shuddered in a way he’d never felt. He shook his head once.
The admiral wasn’t facing him, but she was watching him out of the corner of her eye. She froze. “You’re not coming, Nok.”
“I am,” he said flatly. “Lara is right – there is no way that she can do this on her own. People won’t believe her. She’ll have a greater chance if there are two of us.”
“She is my past self. She’ll grow a backbone soon enough. You are not coming,” Forest said one last time definitively.
“I am. I’m not leaving her alone. And that’s final,” Nok snarled.
In a moment of levity that didn’t – and couldn’t – last, Forest’s lips curled. “It’s a little too early for you to start giving orders like an admiral. You will stay behind. Lara, you will come with me.”
Lara didn’t move. She sliced her gaze over to him. Pure pleading emotion played in her eyes.
It reached into his chest and stilled his hearts in place.
It didn’t still his body. Nok had already made his mind up. He had no clue what was going on here. Though most of him didn’t want to believe it was time travel, something in his gut told him it was. He wasn’t usually an instinctive man – few members of his race chose to believe in things they could not directly control. But he was feeling something now, and no matter how hard he tried to push it away, it stubbornly resisted.
It told him he had to stay by Lara’s side. She would need his help. Maybe that would change their futures. But from the moment Admiral Forest came back in time, presumably, time itself had changed forever anyway.
“This is non-negotiable—” Admiral Forest began.
Nok showed her that it wasn’t. He reached down, grabbed Lara’s hand, and pulled her toward the lifts.
Lara was 100 percent not the kind of person you could grab by the hand and lead around. Usually, at least. Now she released into his grip as he reached the lifts, opened them, and stared over his shoulder at the admiral.
“You always were stubborn,” Admiral Forest muttered. She walked toward the lifts. For the first time, she staggered. Perhaps her adrenaline was starting to run out, or maybe the admiral had stopped to appreciate how injured she was.
Nok’s gut clenched at the mere sight of it. He wanted to reach out to her, but unlike Lara, she really would slap his hand back.
They traveled through the lifts down to the engineering deck. Fortunately it hadn’t been damaged by the impact of that unknown ship – directly, at least. Sections of the deck had warped, and massive collections of wires had spilled from the ceiling.
Admiral Forest strode through them as if they were nothing more dangerous than leaves tumbling in the wind.
Nok and Lara could hardly do that. The admiral realized that, and as she reached a section past the sparking wires, she smashed a hand into some kind of maintenance panel, pulled something out, and crushed it.
The sparking conduits stopped.
Nok paid them no heed. He locked all of his surprised attention on the admiral.
She had to be wearing some kind of invisible armor. But what? It was strong enough that she could wade through circuits, ignore neural gel, and take on soldiers in futuristic armor.
The admiral must have seen his gaze, because she looked pointedly down at her hands. “Holographic armor. Hasn’t been invented yet. Won’t be for decades. I’d give you my set, but unfortunately, I need it.”
“Won’t you come back with us in time?” Nok asked, realizing he should have asked this back on the bridge.
Forest shook her head. “I have to remain here.”
“But this timeline will end, won’t it? And once you initiate a critical cascade, the Zeus will be destroyed,” Nok countered.
“I don’t mean here on this ship. I mean here, trapped between the gate nexus.”
“What’s the gate nexus?” Nok demanded.
“Call it a realm of bridges.”
His back itched. “… Realm of bridges?”
“It is a singularly unique space between the time gates. I have been trapped here ever since the Force pulled me out of my own time. Unfortunately for them, I was wearing a prototype set of holographic armor before they yanked me out of my timeline – one known only to the man who installed it and me. And unfortunately for the Force,” she clenched her teeth, “I have no intention of giving up easily. This armor might have kept me alive as I’ve traveled the nexus, but so has my damned determination.”
“Why can’t you come back in time with us? If you come, we’ll have a greater chance of completing our mission. You said that we have to stop this from happening and that we have to destroy the time gates – how do we even find these time gates? And how on earth can we possibly take on those futuristic soldiers? They are in armor we can’t hope to match with modern technology,” Nok said.
“I’ll leave you with gifts,” Forest said. “I’ll also leave you with information.”
“How?” Nok’s gaze darted down her form. Whatever this holographic armor was, it was sitting on top of her clothes. They were ruined in patches where her armor had failed.
It meant that his gaze could easily tick across her body and ascertain that she didn’t have some fancy weapon on her or a remote AI unit.
The admiral reached over, grabbed her wrist unit, and pulled it off.
While every cadet at the Academy wore wrist units, they were a lot bulkier than the one the admiral pulled off.
Still striding ahead, dealing with every new sparking conduit and allowing Lara and Nok a safe passage, the admiral turned over her shoulder and threw her wrist unit at Lara.
Though Lara didn’t look as if she was in any state to catch it, her instincts got the better of her, and moving with unnatural speed, she plucked it out of the air.
She frowned as she stared at it over to Nok.
“That is coded to work with Admiral Forest and Admiral Forest alone. Fortunately for you, Lara, we share the same body, just not the same time period. The wrist device will not know that. Within that machine is the information you will need to not just reach the time gates, but destroy them.”
“You said time gates,” Lara started to speak for herself. Though her voice shook, it was also hardening like setting concrete. “You mean there’s more than one, don’t you? You mean… we’re going to have to travel forward through time?”
“Forward and backward,” the admiral stated flatly. “You must reach every time gate that the Force is trying to push through. And you must stop them.”
“Force?” Lara’s lips trembled around the word.
Forest stopped. The open, mangled doors to engineering were just several meters ahead. She turned over her shoulder and stared at Lara. “They are the greatest enemy the galaxy has ever known. They are unlike any living creature in the Milky Way. They are entities from another dimension. And their singular purpose is to destroy every living creature – be they animal, sophisticated life, or plant – in this galaxy, and absorb their energy. During the First Force War, many millennia ago, the first races pushed them back. Now it is our turn. But this time, we must kill them. We must destroy their entry point into the Milky Way and push them away for good.”
It was so much information. Nok felt like he’d been slapped. It had to be worse for Lara, but strangely, she stood taller at the mere mention of the Force.
Her cheeks were still pale, but the muscles were starting to stiffen. Her lips pulled up hard. “How many time gates do we have to destroy?”
“It will be up to how the Force and where they choose to deploy their soldiers from. That will change as time goes on. It will also be down to how much of a threat they think you are.”
Lara shook. “Me? You mean you, don’t you? Even though we’re the same person we’re not, because you have knowledge and power that I don’t have.” Though she spoke quickly, she didn’t stammer as she worked her way through that complicated premise.
“I’m stuck in the time gate nexus. I can hold them off from here, but you must do the real work. You have to fight this war for me.”
Lara went to shake her head. Nok wouldn’t let her. He reached over and locked a hand on her shoulder.
They had a moment as they stared into each other’s eyes.
He didn’t know what he wanted to say. He doubted any words could possibly assuage her fear or encompass the enormity of what was going on.
His people had a saying. Words were transient – touch was not.
His people were a tactile race. With adaptable bodies that could change with a mere thought, that was only natural.
“You won’t be alone,” Admiral Forest said. “Once you fight off the Force in this time period, you will find others.”
“Others?” Lara stammered.
“Soldiers at other time gates. You must go through, access the Coalition, if the Coalition exists in that time period, and utilize our best soldiers. Information on who those people are and locations of caches of weaponry is in that watch. Do not let it out of your sight.”
Lara responded by quickly snapping it onto her wrist. The metal adhered to her skin, and the band grew around, locking tightly in place.
“Will we see you again?” Nok asked.
Somehow, he already knew the answer.
“Yes. When you travel through a time gate, you will likely see me – if I’m still alive,” she said with utter seriousness.
The prospect of her imminent death obviously loomed large in her mind.
It loomed large in Nok’s body, too. The mere mention of it made his skin crawl. He clenched his teeth harder. “There must be something we can do to help you.”
“Exactly what you’re going to do. Like I said, you will have to fight the war for me. I will do what I can against the Force in the nexus, but you must fight in the real arenas of the Milky Way. Never let them win. Not once. And always guard your minds.” Her jaw tightened, and those last few words were spat out of white lips.
Nok opened his mouth to ask what she was speaking about, but Lara got there first. Her cheeks paled. “The Force fight people psychically, don’t they? Those invisible soldiers on the bridge… when they came in contact with neural gel, it did something to that psychic connection, didn’t it?”
“Yes.” The admiral nodded once. She turned on her foot and started to head toward the open engineering doors.
“How do I know this stuff?” Lara brought up a hand and pressed it hard into her temple, her fingers snagging hold of her skin as they dragged roughly down the side of her face.
“It is a consequence of two copies of the same person from different times existing at the same point. My consciousness is leaking into yours. That’s how I warned you to get to the bridge back in your quarters. That was before my body could form in full.” Admiral Forest reached the open engineering doors.
She didn’t blink. She barely reacted at the destruction within.
If the bridge had faired badly, engineering was worse. As Nok rounded the corner of that mangled door and stared in, his stomach clenched to the point of imploding.
The main engineering room was one of the largest in the ship. It took up half of a whole deck. It had to. The engine cores which ran the massive Heavy Cruiser Zeus were enormous.
Usually, engineering was a wide, expansive room, dissected here and there with lower levels that allowed access to the tops of the cores.
Now it was a mess. Huge chunks of the ceiling had fallen down, and conduits spilled from them like guts. They sparked and twitched, writhing over the floor like mangled snakes.
That wasn’t to mention the bodies. It looked as if every single engineer had been slaughtered.
Traveling the galaxy, Nok had seen death. It came hand-in-hand with life. Though usually in the relatively peaceful Coalition you did not face the unrelenting violence of the nearby empires, there were still skirmishes. Nok had never seen anything like this. Even the Barbarians didn’t kill so indiscriminately. Blood was splattered over the floor, and the remains of officers he’d seen that very day were slumped over consoles and scattered over the deck as if someone had grabbed a handful of marbles and thrown them carelessly into the air.
Nok tried to reach out to Lara before she could round the open doorway. She’d already seen enough. Though she was starting to speak in coherent sentences at least, he could tell she was still rocked to her core. He wasn’t in time. She walked into the engineering bay. Her cheeks had been white to begin with, but now it looked as if they lost all color and someone had replaced the image of her with one in grayscale. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t move from that spot as slowly and unstoppably, her eyes shifted across every dead body.
Forest didn’t even seem to notice them. “They’re not dead. Technically,” she added with a passionate growl. “They don’t have to be dead,” she corrected. “Their lives will be up to you two. Now come on. We don’t have time. The Force will send more of those ships. The Zeus has nothing to defend itself with. If we’re struck again, we will be blasted apart.”
Nok clenched his teeth. He didn’t order his muscles to turn on to full, but they did, and he felt every single fiber in his jaw and cheeks react as he tried to swallow his grief and fear. “What do you want us to do?”
“There will be more of those invisible soldiers. They will transport aboard the Zeus soon. You have already proven that you can track them with your senses. Do so. Prevent them from reaching Lara and me.” Forest strode over to one of the only functional engineering panels, got down on her knees, pulled out a hatch at the base, and started sifting through circuits. How they were still running, despite the damage to the ship, Nok didn’t know. It was either a testament to the crew, or once more, luck was on their side. That was a dangerous thing. Luck would never hold. It would always run out when you needed it most.
Nok turned and faced the broken doors. “I need a weapon. What works on those soldiers? What race are they, anyway? What exactly can their armor withstand?”
Admiral Forest got to work. Despite the fact these were critically important questions, she appeared to ignore him.
Lara had been standing there, staring at the death covering this room. She suddenly brought up her wrist. A frown marched across her lips, then she started typing on that device. It lit up as soon as her finger pressed against the screen. She swallowed. “Ah, wrist device, explain what those soldiers are,” she tried.
Nok didn’t think it would work. If Admiral Forest was correct, and that little wrist device seemingly held all the information on the future they would require, presumably it would have better security. He was missing something, though, wasn’t he? Lara was Admiral Forest.
The wrist device lit up brighter. “They are level I foot soldiers. The armor they possess is a form of solid-state psychic matrixes.” The wrist device spoke with a pitch-perfect manufactured voice that sounded real.
“Ask what I can use to defeat those soldiers,” Nok demanded.
“Ah, what can we use to defeat those soldiers? What do we have at hand?” Lara asked. She’d started off stammering, but now her tone was becoming even again. She was turning right back into the unflappable combat officer he knew so well. Granted, the shock of meeting her future self and having her ship torn apart by some interdimensional race determined to destroy the Milky Way had unsettled her, but she was getting back on track.
“This device detects that one of the matter re-calibrators on the port side of the room is still functional. I have remotely accessed it. In approximately four minutes, it will create a weapon capable of disabling the level I soldiers’ armor.”
“You said destabilizing,” Nok snapped quickly. “How do you actually kill them?”
“Though these are only level I foot soldiers, their armor still possesses the capacity to regrow,” the AI informed him.
He wasn’t surprised by that fact. He’d seen it with his own eyes. Back on the bridge, the first time one of those soldiers had become visible, he’d watched as their armor had re-healed.
Of all the things he’d seen that had confirmed Admiral Forest was from the future, the mention of this shook him to his core. It reminded him that unless they had a miracle, there was no way they could defeat this so-called Force.
Perhaps Admiral Forest had the capacity to read minds, because despite the fact she’d ignored them both while she’d been tinkering with that console, she shifted her head hard over her shoulder. A frown marched across her lips and dug into her chin. “I know what you’re thinking. Stop it. There is a way to defeat the Force. This galaxy has done it before, and we will do it again. But the first thing you must do is eliminate your fear and indecision. You will lose if you decide you are not capable of winning.”
Nok’s mouth opened, but he had nothing to say.
She was right.
She didn’t follow up that impassioned speech with another. She turned around and focused all her attention on whatever she was doing to that panel. A few plaintive warning beeps echoed through the room, but she quickly turned them off. Presumably they were telling her that whatever she was up to wasn’t a good idea. She had promised to create a critical cascade event, after all.
“Just how much time do we have?” Nok asked quickly.
“Five minutes. The soldiers will appear in two,” Forest snapped.
He paled. His weapon wouldn’t be ready by then. Immediately, he squared off in front of the doors. He had to be quick, but he also couldn’t afford to take up a position that would leave him an open and vulnerable target.
He rocked back and forth on his feet as his gaze cut across the room and he searched for some way to hold these soldiers off for a minute until he would get his weapon.
Cold sweat drenched the back of his neck as he remembered just how breakneck that fight up on the bridge had been. Back then, he hadn’t been doing all the fighting. Admiral Forest had. This time it would all be down to him.
Lara could obviously sense his fear. She took a step up to him, but he didn’t give her the chance to say whatever was on her mind.
“You need to get somewhere safe,” he said as he jammed a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of several broken consoles. She could squeeze behind them, and it would give her a form of protection. Though those consoles were mangled and torn in half, the metal was reinforced, and judging by the way those soldiers’ bullets had interacted with the consoles on the bridge, that metal should be able to absorb at least several bullets without exploding.
“I can help,” Lara tried.
“Get behind cover,” Admiral Forest growled. “You can’t help until you’ve got weapons and armor, Lara. You won’t be able to create those until you travel back in time and get away from the Force. Now move.”
Lara moved. Either it was Admiral Forest’s dictatorial tone, or the fact this was the equivalent of getting an order from yourself.
With one last lingering look at Nok, Lara threw herself over to the consoles and skidded behind them.
Even from here he could hear that she was still tinkering with her watch. He wanted to know exactly what she was finding out, but there wasn’t time.
A new alarm blared through the ship.
“The soldiers are en route,” Admiral Forest snapped needlessly.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His hearts beat harder, and he pushed all of his attention into his senses.
Out in the corridor, he heard several almost imperceptible thumps.
They were the soldiers.
They were here.
It was time for round two.
She felt useless. She hated feeling useless. She just couldn’t pull herself together.
That woman was her older self.
Everything Lara knew about time travel told her this should be impossible. But everything her body was telling her told her it was happening.
She pressed her back against the mangled remains of the consoles heaped behind her. They were jagged, and here and there, they pressed hard through her uniform. Maybe she’d get a few bruises. Bruises she could live with. She rounded a hand into a fist and pushed her fingers hard into her palm, and she prayed like crazy that Nok would survive this.
She’d dragged him into this mess. If he died….
There was no time to think that. She heard something breaking. It came from the corridor. It sounded like an enormous hunk of metal being thrown against the engineering doorway. A huge shudder tore through the room. If Lara hadn’t been seated, she would’ve been thrown off her feet.
She brought up her hands, clamped them over the sides of her head, squeezed her eyes closed, and tried to block it all out.
This wasn’t her – a part of herself tried to tell her. Lara Forest was known for being not just skilled in combat, but ruthless. Blame it on the fact she had the singular ability to close her emotions off. Ever since the loss of her father, she’d understood the importance of pushing your emotions away during combat. Hell, that was generous. Ever since the death of her father, she’d understood the importance of pushing away emotion full stop.
But she couldn’t do it now. She felt her heart in a way she never had before. Worse than that, she felt fear. Goading, spine-shaking, gut-punching fear. It brought her right back to the day her father had died in front of her eyes.
She pressed her fingers harder into her temple, clenched her teeth until her gums threatened to bleed, and shook.
Though she’d started accessing the watch again, using this time to find out as much information on those soldiers as she could, there was no point.
As the sounds of battle erupted around her, she realized there was no way they were going to get through this.
Nok didn’t even have armor on. These soldiers were the most sophisticated she’d ever seen.
He was going to—
There was a grunt and the sound of someone loudly throwing someone else against the wall.
Though all Lara wanted to do was dart her head around to figure out what had just happened, before she could stick her neck out, she heard Admiral Forest’s voice echoing in her head. She doubted that it was the real Admiral Forest accessing her consciousness again. It was just an imprint. A memory of a woman Lara would one day be.
If Lara risked it all by sticking her head out of cover now, she would be risking it all for everyone.
Better to stay put and wait it out.
Tears started to stream down her cheeks of their own accord. She was barely aware of them. The old Lara would’ve felt ashamed at the mere fact of crying. This current Lara couldn’t spare the emotional awareness to even notice.
Somehow between the sounds of battle, Lara heard Admiral Forest as she continued to work on that console.
The woman was relentless. The console faced the doors, so in working on it, Admiral Forest would be within sight of those soldiers.
At any moment, she could be cut down. But she was still working through that stress.
Lara had never met a soldier like that. No, wait. That was a lie. She had. Her father.
A cold sense shook through her at that realization. From the day her dad had died, Lara had promised herself that no matter what she did, and no matter what she achieved in the Coalition, she would never live up to his legacy.
If Admiral Forest was to be believed, Lara’s future self wouldn’t just live up to her old man – she would surpass him.
There was another grunt. It sounded like Nok. It was pained, and as soon as it echoed out, Lara’s stomach clenched with total fear.
She couldn’t help it anymore. She went to duck her head out of cover. The wrist device stopped her. It vibrated at the last moment. She jerked around, trying to see what it was doing.
A holographic screen – more perfect than any hologram she had ever seen – appeared over the top of the watch. It hovered several centimeters above the primary unit.
With a flicker, it started to show her footage of the engineering room. Either this watch could see around corners, or it could easily hack into the security cameras in the room.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was that Lara now got to see what was going on.
Nok was alive. What’s more, he was holding his own.
He was standing off to the side of the main doors. Somehow, the left sleeve of his uniform had been ripped off, but fortunately, the arm beneath was still fully intact. It showed his rippling muscles as he turned them on to full.
With a powerful right hook, he smashed his fist against the side of one of those soldiers’ heads. He couldn’t down the guy – he had no hope of rupturing his sophisticated armor. What it did do, however, was change the soldier’s aim as the guy brought his gun up. Rather than fire right through Admiral Forest’s back, the bullet smashed uselessly into the floor plating.
Nok followed up the move by shifting down to his haunches, crunching forward, rolling, and bringing his legs up. As he cartwheeled to the side, he smashed the sides of his feet into the back of another soldier. As he got the guy off balance, Nok thrust forward. As he bolted backward through the air, he wrapped his legs around the guy’s head, crunched his body forward, and used the momentum to flip the soldier hard against the deck.
There was a massive thump.
Lara had no hope of seeing the invisible soldiers in the room – ordinarily. For whatever reason, this watch could detect them. As she stared at the footage flying fast across that holographic screen, she saw eight soldiers. And more coming.
Nok had held his own until now – but there was no way he could keep doing that.
Lara jerked her head to the side and stared at the matter re-calibrator on the opposite side of the room. It was almost done.
Nok wouldn’t have the time to grab that weapon.
So she would have to.
There was no one to tell her not to.
She was done hiding, anyway. Images of the death of her father be damned – it was time for Lara to remind herself of what she was capable of.
“Watch, help me chart a clear path to that matter re-calibrator. Tell me when to—” she began, about to command it to tell her when to move.
It vibrated, and the word move flashed across the screen.
She threw herself out of cover. She kept low, and she rolled, despite the fact her back smashed hard against several broken sections of the deck. They easily ripped through her uniform, and they cut the skin beneath. But the small scattering of cuts they left would be nothing compared to receiving a bullet through the back of the head.
Her wrist device vibrated again, and for whatever reason, she got the feeling it was telling her to duck to the left.
She flipped over a console, using the agility she was legendary for. She landed, pushed into a roll, then punched to her feet. All the while, she kept her attention locked on the watch as it helped her navigate through the chaotic engineering deck.
Nok screamed her name from behind, his voice pitching with fear.
Forest screamed her name, too, but the fear was replaced with red-bellied anger.
Both of them had told her not to move. But Lara was a pragmatic woman. There was no way they were going to get through this if she just sat huddled behind that console like a sitting duck.
She could see the matter re-calibrator. It was only 20 meters in front of her. It filled up her consciousness as if every other thought, memory, and belief had been crammed out.
The watch suddenly vibrated. It seemed to want her to pitch to the right. She did it. And it was just in time. She felt something slice past her shoulder. It was another one of those red, blistering blasts. It smashed into the deck in front of her.
There was a problem. It was perilously close to one of the protected core ducts. She heard a shrieking alarm pitch through the room. It was so loud, she wanted to clap her hands around her ears.
“Warning, warning, a critical engine cascade has begun,” a dull tone repeated through the room.
While that was precisely what Admiral Forest was attempting to organize, blowing up one of the cores now was probably not part of her plan.
Light began to flash through the engineering deck. It warned everyone present that one of the cores was about to go critical.
Though it would’ve been pretty easy to just sit this one out, crumple to the ground, and kiss her life goodbye, Forest grit her teeth. She kept all her attention locked on the matter re-calibrator until finally she reached it. She darted to the side, acting like a scared rabbit, hopefully confusing the soldiers behind her so they couldn’t get a direct shot.
Either it saved her life, or Nok did. She heard him scream and grunt as he took on another one of those soldiers.
She shoved a hand into the matter re-calibrator. Her hand locked around the gun.
As soon as it sunk into her grip, it sunk into her mind. It snagged in as if it had invisible hands that were programmed to grab hold of one’s consciousness as easily as someone lifting up a cup of water.
It was almost enough to see her fall to the ground and grab her head. The watch either knew what she was thinking, or realized she had seconds left to move. It vibrated, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw the word left flash on screen.
She pitched to the side.
A massive red-hot blast slammed into the matter re-calibrator. It exploded, and sparks scattered across the deck like disturbed spiders.
She let out a scream – the first she’d given in a while. It pitched through the room, but it simply could not compete with the engineering alarms blaring through the air.
As she rolled, she caught sight of Admiral Forest. She was crunched down as low as she could get as she made a small target of herself. Her arms were still deep inside that console. A frown owned her face. It seemed to crowd out every other feature as the admiral concentrated with all her might.
The red alert blinked through the room. Strips of lighting along the floor and along the ceiling gave the whole place an eerie glow. It was one that was matched by the blasts of those soldiers’ guns. They ricocheted everywhere, smashing into the remaining engineering infrastructure with blistering ease like someone smashing an egg with a hammer.
She went to throw the gun to Nok. She stopped. There was no point. The gun had made a mental connection with her brain, and with the watch’s ability to detect those soldiers, there was nothing to stop her from fighting.
And it was high time to fight.
Her father taught her that your greatest asset is you. The last soldier you can rely on is you. That doesn’t mean you should be a lone wolf – a lesson Lara hadn’t really taken to heart. What it meant was that, when it came down to it, you should rely on yourself first.
Admiral Forest kept telling Lara to grow a backbone.
So she did.
One of those soldiers came right at her. She kept a mental connection with her gun, and the weapon somehow linked up with her wristwatch until a subtle vibration in the gun told her a soldier had just darted to the left.
Lara matched the move. She threw herself into a roll. Halfway through, she planted her feet onto the deck, and she flipped. It was an elegant move. It was strong, too. One of the consequences of not having many friends was that Lara had a lot of time to train. She trained hard. Every day, for hours. She might not have Nok’s unique biology, but what she did have was a fine understanding of her body’s limitations.
She pushed each muscle to its maximum as she screamed, landed, and fired. A bolt from the gun sliced out. It was this eerie blue-green. It reminded her of lily plants growing over a lagoon.
A calming image, maybe, but it sure as hell wasn’t a calming bullet. It slammed into the soldier’s chest. The guy had been about to smash an electro blade across the side of Lara’s face. He didn’t get the chance. As soon as that bullet struck him, it stole away his balance. He went from being poised and agile, to looking like a doll someone had attached to a string and tied to a rocket. He convulsed until every single limb looked like it was being electrocuted.
“How—” Lara began, about to ask her watch how she could down the soldier for good.
Somehow, the hologram above the wrist device moved. It shifted up, and with the help of the gun and whatever mental connection it had created with Lara, the hologram formed over her face like a visor.
She wasn’t expecting it, and she gasped, the move shaking hard through her throat.
She wasted no time when an image flashed across the screen. It showed a singular weak point in the soldier’s armor. It was just under his right arm.
Lara pulsed forward.
She didn’t have Nok’s strength. But she did have Nok. Somehow he knew what she was doing, and he closed the distance between them. He skidded, rolled, and reached the soldier from behind just as the guy stopped convulsing.
“What do you—” he began.
“Hold up his arms,” Lara screamed.
Nok complied. His muscles bristling and pushing hard against the already torn fabric of his uniform, he spread the soldier’s arms.
“Gun, give me some kind of directed blast,” Lara stammered. The gun shifted in her grip. It was truly modular. With nothing more than a command from her, the metal shifted then reset like icing.
She had a chance to gasp, then naturally her fingers curled against the trigger, and she fired.
A direct green blast of energy smashed into the weak point underneath the soldier’s arm.
The guy had one single chance to jerk, then he fell to the side.
Nok lurched back and shook his hands out as he dropped the soldier to the deck.
“You’re injured—” Lara couldn’t finish.
That holographic visor warned her that two soldiers were rounding on Nok from behind.
She shifted to the side of him.
Rather than try to grab her and pull her back, Nok realized what she was trying to do. He moved with her, like they were ice skaters engaged in a complex maneuver. Just as she got to the side of him, he shoved back into her, and it gave her the momentum to roll.
He fell gracefully to the side and leaped up. It put the distance he needed between those soldiers and him as they fired.
As soon as Lara landed on her feet, she fired. Two bullets slammed into those soldiers. They fell down to their knees and convulsed against the floor, every rocking movement of their bodies echoing through the room.
Lara dashed forward to repeat what she’d just done.
“No need,” Admiral Forest called. “The time gate is about to open. There’s more I should have told you. Ask the watch. Just save everyone,” she spat.
Just save everyone was not a helpful order.
It was a wish.
As a strange glow started to pick up through the room, Lara had a few more seconds to stare at her older self.
Just save everyone….
Or she’d die.
The time gate opened, and it pulled everyone away.
He woke with a start. His heart pounded in his chest, and a sweat unlike any he had ever experienced drenched his body.
He was… he was in his bed. He was in his quarters back at the Academy.
For several shaking seconds, he stared around, his eyes wide. It wasn’t until he moved, getting out of bed, his pillow tumbling to the ground, that he allowed himself to believe where he was. He reached out a long arm, pressed his fingers against the wall, and trailed them down its smooth, metal surface.
He walked over to the window. There was a view of the Academy. Its sprawling grounds reached out to the bay beyond and the sky above.
He pulled his shaking hand off the wall and pressed it against his jaw. He jammed his thumb against his ear and let his fingers spread up until they pushed into his temple. It was almost as if he was trying to open his skull. As his teeth clenched hard, he stammered, “What the hell?”
For a fleeting moment, he wondered if that could have been a dream.
He looked down at his shoulder.
It was bleeding. There was a massive gash right down to the bone. As his gaze traced over the rest of his body, he appreciated he was in his cadet uniform, and it was mangled.
He tilted his head to the side and caught his reflection in the window.
He looked as if he’d been through hell.
Because he had.
His jaw dropped open. For several seconds he couldn’t say anything. Then he screamed.
It shook out of his belly, clambered out of his throat, and echoed around the room. And he meant every second of it.
As he ran out of vocal force, he did the first thing he could think of. He ran to his door and opened it.
It led to a small kitchenette and living space.
Unlike most recruits at the Academy, Nok lived alone. There was no one to stare in surprise at his completely mangled uniform, scorched features, and bloodied arm.
He went for the door.
He couldn’t run out looking like this. People would have valid questions, and he had no idea how to answer them.
There was only one thing he needed to do. Get to Lara.
He brought up a hand, intending to call her. His fingers froze.
He didn’t know enough about this enemy yet. What had Admiral Forest called it? The Force? She claimed they were some kind of interdimensional race hell-bent on destroying the Milky Way. By the sounds of it, they had technology light years beyond anything the current Coalition possessed.
They were also after Lara.
There was every chance they didn’t know that she’d reappeared in this time. There was also every chance that they were monitoring the Coalition’s relatively unsecured communications anyway.
His fingers clenched together, and he forced his hand to drop.
He walked back into his room, every step unsteady as he reached for a fresh new uniform. When he grabbed it up in a bloodied hand and transferred stains across it, he cursed. He turned hard on his foot and raced into his bathroom. Fortunately, he had a relatively satisfactory medical kit. It had the two things he needed most – a bone repair dressing and spray-on skin.
It wouldn’t heal his injuries properly, but it would hide them.
Rather than bothering to undress, he just ripped off the remnants of his uniform with one violent tug. He threw them to the side of his room. He’d deal with them later.
He cleaned each cut, dealt with his shoulder, selected a new clean uniform, dressed, then stared at himself in the mirror.
He looked the same. Technically. His eyes were different. His mind was different, see.
Nok hadn’t been lying when he’d said that he’d never been in a battle as chaotic as that.
And it was only just beginning.
As that certainty shook through him, he pushed away from the window. He grabbed his mouth, let his fingers slide down it, and he walked for the door.
He strode out of it.
There in the corridor were the other students at the Academy. They were laughing and chatting as they made their way to class. Not one of them had any clue what had just happened to him.
“Nok, are you going to make it to the function tonight?” One of his classmates asked as she walked past with a smile.
The last time he’d seen her, she’d been shot to pieces on the bridge of the Zeus.
It took him several seconds to compose himself. “Function?”
“Come on, you haven’t forgotten the E Club party, have you? I know the club’s new and all, but you are one of the founders, so you should keep up with its social calendar.”
Nok had to force himself to reset his mind. This was two weeks ago. And two weeks ago, he had gone to an E Club function. He nodded. He tried to smile again. It was the fakest thing he’d ever done. “Of course.” With that, he strode off.
All the cadets were headed toward the bank of lifts on one side of the corridor. It would take them down to the base of the accommodation building. From there, they would be able to walk out across the sprawling green grounds of the Academy.
The Academy was the jewel in Earth’s crown. It had been home to the recruits of the Coalition for hundreds of years.
As he walked on autopilot, rode the lifts, and strode out through the base of the accommodation block, he stared. His gaze sliced across the grounds and ticked up to the massive fingerlike towers that constituted the Academy’s main buildings.
A knot formed in his gut. His heart pounded. Sweat slicked across his brow.
All at one thought.
This? This peace? This prosperity? This hope?
It was about to be crushed.
Someone jostled him. “Sorry. Hey, why are you sweating?” It was Cadet Forsyth. He too had died on the Zeus’ bridge. “I thought your race only sweated when you were stressed? Don’t tell me you’re freaking out about the combat exam today? Or is it the party tonight? You know Sandra will be there. You two have been really hitting it off.”
“Sandra?” Nok asked as if he had no clue who that was.
Forsyth frowned. “You don’t look so well.” The eagle-eyed cadet let his gaze rove over Nok’s face. “Hey, are you scratched?”
Nok snapped up a hand and pressed it over his temple – where Forsyth had been staring. Some of his spray-on skin had failed.
Still keeping his thumb locked against the scratch in case more of the spray-on skin failed and peeled back to reveal a far more significant injury, Nok smiled. “Believe it or not, I hit my head this morning. Nothing serious. As for the sweat, occasionally my race does sweat due to underlying metabolic processes. Thank you for your concern. I’ll see you tonight at the party.” He nodded and walked off.
Forsyth frowned at him, but fortunately the cadet didn’t follow.
There was only one thing Nok needed to do.
He had to find Lara.
As he spilled out of the accommodation tower and into the grounds with the other cadets, he searched for her.
He couldn’t see her. Dammit, maybe she was back in her room.
He turned on his foot to head there as fast as he could.
He stopped. Because there, only a few meters behind him, was Lara.
She seemed to be in her own world as she stared at her feet.
She was too distracted to even see him.
Nok wasn’t distracted. Incapable of ignoring his body, it forced him to jerk forward. As the fear, surprise, and total shock of what they’d just been through sailed through him, he wrapped his arms around her back.
Right there, in front of everyone.
A surprised Lara spluttered. “What are you doing?”
Several people stopped to stare. Others walked past, pursed their lips, and whistled.
“Lara, thank the gods, you’re okay. Did you manage to heal your injuries? Where’s the wrist device?” He spoke quickly, but he spoke quietly, using the fine control he was capable of to ensure his voice was only just audible.
Lara shifted back from him. She broke his grip easily. Then she stood there and stared. “Is this a game, Nok?”
His reality ground to a halt. His lips dropped open. “Game?”
“Why the hell did you just hug me? We don’t have a relationship. You’ve made that pretty clear before. And what the hell are you talking about? Wrist device?”
“Keep your voice down,” he chided. He could only just push the words out. His breath formed an immovable lump in his chest. “And what are you doing? Don’t you…” frozen dread snagged hold of him, “don’t you remember what just happened?”
She brought up a hand and pushed a few strands of her hair from her face. She was always pulling it out of her strict bun. Now was no different as she grabbed a hand on it and loosened it with two confused yanks. A pronounced frown pressed across her lips. “Look, if this is some game, I’m really not in the mood. I have an important meeting today. Now, can you get out of my way?” She went to shift past him.
Nok acted on instinct as he reached out and grabbed her wrist.
Fortunately most of the other cadets had moved on by now. Though Nok could bet that news of how he’d greeted Lara had not moved on. That would be circulating faster than a spinning atom.
Lara stared down at his boots, up to his knees, across his chest, then finally up to his face. “What are you doing, Nok? Did you find out from Sally that I’m going to quit? Is this where you’re going to berate me for wasting Coalition resources? I don’t care. My mind’s made up. Now let me go.”
“Quit? I don’t care. You’re not going to quit, anyway. Trust me.” As he pushed those words out of his mouth, his gaze darted across her face. It kept ticking back and forth like a pendulum as he fought to figure out what the hell was going on.
He knew Lara. Or at least, he seemed to have an accurate mental map of her expressions. For whatever reason, she’d always intrigued him, and from the day he’d met her, without a conscious thought from him, his body had been able to instinctively understand her moods.
She wasn’t lying. This wasn’t a game. For whatever reason, she could not remember what had just happened.
His mind acted on fast forward as every possibility sprang before his consciousness. He didn’t understand time travel. Only several hours ago, he’d thought it was impossible. But there was one thing that made sense. Admiral Forest mentioned that when Lara returned to this point in time, the Lara already here would disappear. She’d said something about temporal fractures occurring if there were two Laras co-existing from a similar time.
What if for whatever reason Lara hadn’t returned? Maybe she’d gotten stuck in the nexus along with Admiral Forest, but he doubted that. It made far more sense to believe that for whatever reason, the Lara from two weeks from now had been incapable of replacing this one.
That meant they were screwed. Nok very rarely thought that – it was a human expression. His people tended to speak far more eloquently. But the fact remained. Lara had possessed the gun and critically, the wristwatch.
Now both of those were gone.
He became cold all over. He felt his cheeks shifting and drooping like dead flowers falling from a rose.
Lara had been about to walk away, but there was something about his expression that made her stop. “What’s wrong with you, Nok? Are you sweating? Your face is cut, too.”
He pressed a hand over his mouth again. He pushed his fingers in.
What was wrong with him? The future of the entire galaxy had just been thrust on his shoulders and his shoulders alone.
When he didn’t answer, Lara took a wary step away from him. “I have to get to a meeting with Captain Chanda. Goodbye.” She walked away several steps but stopped. She turned over her shoulder to see that Nok hadn’t moved an inch.
Nor had his expression changed.
She clenched her teeth. “Honestly, is this a game? Or is there something wrong with you? Why did you hug me, anyway? You made it abundantly clear we’re not even friends—” she began.
“Did you have any dreams last night?” he asked, seemingly out of the blue.
She looked as confused as a cat that had just been thrown into a ball pit. “Sorry?”
“Did you dream of anything last night?” he asked directly.
“No. I very rarely dream.”
“… Was there anything wrong with your room this morning?” It was a long shot, but maybe, despite what Admiral Forest had said, the other Lara had returned too.
“Is that what this is about?” Her lips became tight with anger. “Are you playing some kind of joke on me? Did you break into my room? No, you got my roommate to do it, didn’t you?”
For the first time since this conversation began, hope billowed through him. “Why, what happened to your room?”
“You know. Now stop wasting my time. I’ve got somewhere to be. I’ve got something to quit,” she added in a dark tone as she turned and strode off.
It would’ve been easy for Nok to stop her. It would’ve been stupid, though. He knew Lara. When she was in a mood like this, there was nothing you could do. She would barrel on like the proverbial boulder downhill.
Nok waited until she was out of sight. He turned, and he faced the accommodation building again.
There was a chance, a small, pitiful chance, that the gun and wristwatch had come back in time, even if the real Lara hadn’t.
Though all Nok wanted to do was race up to Lara’s quarters, break-in, and find out for himself, he couldn’t afford to be obvious.
He’d already be the talk of the Academy for hugging Lara out of the blue. He didn’t want people clocking onto the fact he was headed to her quarters when she wasn’t there.
His palms itched. His muscles were worse. They begged him to turn on to full. He couldn’t do that, though. Sweating was bad enough. If he utilized every ounce of his strength, people would know something was wrong with him.
He rode the lift up to Lara’s level, but he didn’t get out when he saw that a group of cadets were standing perilously close to her quarters.
He took the lift back up to his own level, hung around for several tense minutes, then rode it back down.
Only when there was no one in sight did he walk up to Lara’s door.
The thing about traveling the galaxy for 10 years before joining the Academy was that Nok had a range of skills. While most of those skills were exactly what you would expect a good Coalition recruit to possess, some were… excess to requirements.
Though he’d never done anything too illegal, in some of the outer colonies, you had to check the strict morals of the inner Coalition at the door if you wanted to survive.
Shakily, he brought up his wristwatch. He didn’t have the authority to open Lara’s door. Even if he did have the authority, it would leave a trace. It was the last thing he could afford to leave. The Coalition was one thing, the Force another.
Even thinking that word made his back tense.
It took him several seconds to unstick his fingers and encourage them to tap on his wrist device.
Hacking through her door would be sophisticated. It would take time—
The door suddenly opened.
Nok dropped his hand and stared in shock at Lara’s flatmate, Sally.
She blinked back her surprise, then rolled her eyes. “Oh, I know why you’re here. Lara screamed at you, too, ha? Are you just as confused as I am?”
“… Yeah,” he managed.
“Lara just called me. She said that you and I have been working together to ruin her day. I’m sorry, she’s getting crazier now that she’s decided to leave.”
“That’s fine. I’m pretty confused, though. Do you know what she’s talking about? She claimed we broke into her room and left something? Do you—”
Sally Bishop stepped to the side and ushered him in. She was usually pretty obliging to him. A lot of the female recruits in his year were. While often he felt uncomfortable with that attention, right now, he needed to use it.
He nodded at her affably and shot her what he hoped was a charming smile.
Her cheeks reddened slightly, then she rolled her eyes again as her wristwatch vibrated. “I’m going to shoot her if that’s another message from Lara.” She brought up her hand and frowned. “Dammit, I made a mistake with one of my assignments. Lara’s door is that way.” Sally pointed over her shoulder to the left.
So much for having to use his less-than-legal skills. It would’ve been easier to just knock.
Controlling his expression and wiping the sweat off his brow with a surreptitious quick move of his wrist, Nok reached Lara’s door.
His stomach twisted into a knot. The kind of knot that felt like it was trying to digest itself.
Flashes of what he’d gone through on the Zeus blasted through his mind. His body was still filled with his race’s equivalent of adrenaline. To him, exactly no time had passed since standing in the engineering deck after his breakneck fight with those soldiers, to apparently waking up in his bed.
His body was still fatigued, though at least he had more to give. It meant he could keep his back straight and a smile on his face until Lara’s door opened for him.
He walked in.
His gaze shifted methodically over the room. The first thing he noted was that her pillow was on the floor. Her bed covers were a mess.
Hell, her whole room was a mess. That seemed unusual for the by-the-book Lara, though maybe it wasn’t. For all he knew, this was how she chose to keep herself. One of the reasons she was intriguing was that she was inconsistent. Sometimes she would be formidable in combat class, and despite his superior size, she’d give him a run for his money. Other times? She would freeze, just as she had on the bridge of the Zeus.
He was thankful when the doors automatically shut behind him. He could hear Sally’s voice off in the main room, anyway. She appeared to be having a heated argument with one of her lecturers.
As soon as the doors shut, he let his act drop. He gave into the fear shaking through him. His hands fell loosely by his sides, his head tilted back, and he took a shuddering, chest-thumping breath.
When he didn’t break under the strain, he slid a hand over his mouth and got to work. He methodically checked her bed, pulling back the covers but making a mental note of precisely how rumpled they’d been and re-creating the mess once he was done.
He didn’t find anything in her bed. He quickly dropped to his knees and searched underneath it. There was nothing there.
He searched the bed table. As he opened the top drawer, he was surprised when it was empty save for a single thing.
A Coalition pin.
Despite the pressure of the situation, he paused, his hand frozen above it.
There was only one person that pin could belong to. It was a captain’s pin, and despite what Lara would become, she was only a cadet in this time period.
“Captain Ventura Forest,” he muttered, the words quiet and somber.
Everyone who’d ever attended combat history class knew who Ventura was. He was one of the most decorated soldiers in Coalition history. Even in death, the man had been a hero. He’d saved his whole ship from a Kore raiding party. He’d been the only casualty.
Nok let his hand drop. He went to pick the pin up. He stopped. It was none of his business.
With a breath, he turned around. He had to find—
He stopped. As his gaze darted to the side, he saw something under her closet. To be precise, light was reflecting under the joinery.
He frowned. Something in his gut kicked.
Though he’d been slow and careful, now he moved. He threw himself at the closet. He opened the door. In front of him were neat uniforms. It was a small closet, and it had been made precisely for them. Their trouser cuffs reached almost down to the bottom of the closet.
The light he’d seen wasn’t there anymore.
Something else was.
As Nok pushed past his pounding heart, ignoring the shaking thrum that echoed through his ears, he heard breaths. Soft, low, and terrified.
He pulled the uniforms to the side.
And there, hunkered right in the corner, was Lara.
She jerked her head up, her eyes wide with fright. It was clear she expected to see herself. But when her gaze locked on him, she broke.
Tears gushed down her cheeks. She opened her mouth, presumably to scream his name.
He jerked up a hand and settled his finger against his lips.
“Sally is in the main room,” he whispered. “Lara, you are my Lara, right?” There were so many other ways to explain the concept. He could have asked if, only half an hour earlier, she’d been aboard the Zeus. He could have asked if she knew who Admiral Forest was. But the words were out.
At the question of whether she was his Lara, she nodded, more tears flushing down her cheeks.
She went to get up out of the closet. She staggered. Her hand pushed forward, and he snapped up to grab her.
There was a problem. Her hand pushed right through him. She fell down through the closet, through the clothes, and onto the floor of her room.
She was insubstantial.
He jerked back in horror, then he threw himself forward. He tried to lock a hand on her back, but his hand shifted right through.
She tilted her head up, her expression shocked. “I think I’m disappearing.”
“What? What happened?”
“I appeared in this room, and Lara was right there in bed. I panicked, and I hid in here. But I left some soot and debris from the Zeus on the floor.”
“I don’t care about that. What’s happening to you?” Passion and fear shook through his voice. He was only just managing to keep it quiet enough that Sally wouldn’t be able to hear.
“You heard it yourself. Admiral Forest said that two versions of me can’t coexist so close together. I think… I think time’s fracturing. I think I’m disappearing. For whatever reason, I didn’t replace this Lara.”
He shook his head. “I won’t let that happen.”
“I’ve already checked the watch. There’s nothing we can do. Time will readjust, and I will disappear.”
Terror engulfed him. He clenched his fists so hard, he could barely move. It was like someone had chained his muscles up.
“It’s okay… I don’t… I don’t think I’ll be gone for good,” she stammered.
Hope had a chance to ignite in his heart, but then she became more insubstantial before his very eyes. Though her body had been capable of shifting through matter earlier, now lines appeared through the image of her as if someone was erasing her.
“Lara,” he spat through clenched teeth. “What can I do?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. Take these.” She pulled her wristwatch off and fumbled beside her until she found the gun. She handed them over.
He expected that they’d become insubstantial like her, but they didn’t. They were all too solid in his grip. So solid, that the second he touched them, they reminded him of the almost impossible task they heralded.
That could wait. This couldn’t. For a man who rarely cried, he forgot that as tears soaked his cheeks.
Lara wouldn’t technically be dying if she disappeared. But the Lara he’d fought side-by-side with would, and he’d become connected to her in a way he was only just realizing.
“It’s okay,” she whispered quietly. Her voice was starting to fade. “I think… if I’m right, that other Lara will remember me. When time fractures, I think it will create points.”
“Points in time. When she reaches them, I think she’ll remember me. It’ll be like what happened to me on the Zeus when I started to see Admiral Forest.”
He clenched his teeth. “There’s gotta be something else we can do.”
“You need to convince her, Nok. Tell her about Admiral Forest. Show her these devices. We can’t afford to waste any time. I’ve,” she took a shaking breath, “spent the last half hour looking at this watch. Admiral Forest didn’t tell us the half of it. The Force is the most devastating enemy you could imagine. They are ravaging the future. They are spilling through time gates everywhere. They haven’t reached this one yet, but they’re working on it. We need to find the time gate in this period, close it off, and travel to the next point.”
“I’m not doing that without you.”
“I told you, it won’t be without me. I don’t think I’ve gotten the physics exactly right, but if my calculations are marginally correct, in approximately two hours, Lara will remember me briefly. Take advantage of that. Do whatever you can. Just get her to believe you and help you. I don’t know how much time you have until the Force push through this time gate, but it won’t be long. Now they know we’re on the run, they’ll throw everything they have at us.”
“Lara,” he began. He didn’t get a chance to finish. Right in front of his eyes, she disappeared. It started down at her feet, marched up her legs, crossed her chest, and finally reached her face.
He jerked forward and reached a hand up, intending to cup her chin before it was erased.
She looked at him pleadingly one last time, and he watched her lips open. She mouthed, “You can do it.”
He couldn’t move. He was frozen to the spot, his hand still reached out to where her chin had once been.
Though his mind couldn’t function, his senses could. They alerted him that Sally was approaching.
As quickly as he could, he jerked up, closed the closet, and spun around. He clutched the wristwatch and gun behind him, hiding them with the bulk of his back.
Sally walked in without knocking. It wasn’t like it was his room anyway.
She casually glanced at Lara’s bed. “You wouldn’t think it, would you, but Lara is a real pig around the apartment.”
Sally went to smile at him.
That’s when he remembered his face was streaked with tears.
He went to jerk away, but to do that, he’d reveal the gun and wristwatch.
He walked quickly past her instead. His massive form caused her to duck back out of the doorway. He ensured he brought the gun around and pressed it against his hip as he walked through. “Sorry about that. I looked at the room. I can’t find anything. Just a few burnt patches on the carpet. To be honest, they look more like dirt, anyway. I don’t know what she’s on about. It has to be stress,” he added. He spoke so quickly, it was obvious that the only person who was stressed here was him.
Sally looked surprised that he’d barreled her out of the doorway. She shrugged it off quickly. She walked out and scratched her neck distractedly. She shot Lara’s room one last angry look.
It gave Nok the time he needed to hide behind the tall kitchen bench and dry his face.
“She said she was off to see Captain Chanda today,” he said, realizing he couldn’t let the conversation end there. If he didn’t speak, he’d start to think. The only thing he’d think of was Lara’s tear-streaked face disappearing right in front of his fingers. “Is she really going to quit?”
Sally shrugged. “Do we really care? That’s Lara. You know her. If she’s made up her mind, she’s made up her mind, and to hell with everyone else around her. She can be a real bitch at times,” Sally concluded harshly.
If Sally thought this was where Nok would join in, he didn’t. His jaw stiffened.
That real bitch had just all but died. She’d been swallowed by fractured time.
When he didn’t join in, Sally looked at him properly for the first time. “You know, you don’t look well. You sick?”
“Yeah. I don’t feel great. Haven’t felt great all morning. It’s why I haven’t gone to class. I would’ve headed straight back to my apartment, but then Lara accosted me.” He could only just push the word Lara out of his frozen lips.
“Do you want me to take you to the med bay?”
He shrugged it off. “I think I’m probably okay to go to class. Anyway, sorry to waste your time. Thanks for letting me see Lara’s room, though.”
Sally snorted. It had a real derisive quality to it. “You know, she would kill me if she ever finds out about this. Letting someone into her room would be bad enough, but you—” she didn’t finish her sentence. She brought up a finger and ran it across her throat. “Lara would literally murder me.”
Despite the horror that still gripped his body, he frowned. “Why?”
“Come on, Nok, you’re aloof, but you’re too smart to be obtuse. She’s had a thing for you from our first year. Though maybe it’s not obvious. She acts like a coldhearted robot most of the time, anyway.”
Nok didn’t say anything. What was there to say? He’d be kidding if he pretended not to know what Sally was speaking about. But she was missing something.
This Lara from this specific time didn’t have a thing for him. Not anymore.
Replaying the moment she’d stalked away from him this morning, it was very clear she no longer cared what he thought about her.
That was the thing about Lara. Maybe some would say she was cold and solitary. Maybe others would say that she had the heart of a robot. What she had instead was the ability to cut away what she no longer needed.
That thought left him cold as Sally shrugged again and headed toward her room. “I need to get dressed and head to class. Are you sure you don’t need help getting to the med bay?”
He shook his head. “I’m feeling a bit better. I’ll head to class soon. Thanks for your help.”
Sally shot him a smile.
He forced his lips to curl as he shot one back. It was one of the coldest smiles he’d ever given.
If she noticed, she didn’t let on. She scratched her shoulder, brought up her wrist device, and thankfully distracted herself with it as she marched off to her room.
It meant she didn’t once glance at the gun he was pinning between his hip and the bench.
When her door was closed, he wasted no time in bolting over to the main door out of the apartment.
Warily, he opened it and pushed his head out. When he didn’t see anyone, he ran toward the stairs, not the lifts.
He marched up them, two at a time, relying on his senses to ensure that no one was around.
He reached his own level, warily opened the door, and ran to his room.
He was more thankful than ever that the Academy had granted him a single quarters.
When he rushed in and the doors closed behind him, he collapsed against them.
His head was spinning.
Unusually for him, his hands were shaking. It took too long to control them as he brought the wrist device around. He opened his palm and stared at it. With his other hand, he brought around his gun. He stared at that, too.
The gun appeared to be off for now.
As he turned it around in his grip and nestled it closer against his palm, a frown pressed across his lips. “How do I even turn this thing—” he began.
There was no point in finishing the sentence. The gun moved. Just like some of the other modular weapons he’d seen from those soldiers, this gun clearly had the capacity to alter its shape. As he jerked in surprise, it shifted around his grip until it molded perfectly to his fingers.
That’s not all it did. He felt something reach into his mind.
His race wasn’t technically psychic – they had strong emotional awareness, though. They might be called aloof at times, but that wasn’t because they weren’t aware of what the people around them were feeling. It was quite the opposite. Just like his body, he had fine control of his mind. Right now that fine control warned him that something had just connected remotely to him.
His stiff lips broke open with a quick jerk. “What just happened?”
“This gun is capable of forming a mental connection,” the gun spoke.
It was so sophisticated that it had its own onboard AI.
He shook back again. “You connected to my mind? How?”
“This weapon possesses sophisticated neural field technology. We can explain the exact process—”
“Never mind. There’s no time.” He focused his attention on the wristwatch. He turned it around. There was an input panel on the top.
He snapped it over his wrist, and it formed tightly around his skin underneath his existing wrist device. He tried to tap the screen.
Nothing. It didn’t react.
In a flash, he remembered what Admiral Forest had said. The only reason this device had worked earlier was that Lara was Admiral Forest.
He clenched his teeth and swore. His race very rarely swore. There was no point in being so undignified. But he’d rarely had such a reason to swear.
He might have the gun and the wrist device, but without Lara, he wouldn’t be able to access their only source of information.
A memory of Lara’s tear-streaked, disappearing face flashed across his mind. Her words repeated in his head with a dull ring. He had to get to the Lara from this time. He had to find some way to get her to trust him, and they had to find the time gate.
As he closed his eyes, he saw the tumbling bodies of the Zeus’ crew as they emptied out into the void of space. He could even feel the deck shuddering beneath his feet.
Several of the cadets he’d seen this morning would be dead in two weeks if he didn’t do anything.
The death and destruction wouldn’t stop there. The whole galaxy would follow.
Feeling cold and overcome, he staggered into his apartment. He fell on the couch.
He brought up the wrist device. Though it was useless and nothing more than a waste of time, he tried to interact with it again.
At least this time, he got it to respond. “Admiral Forest’s bio-readings have not been registered. Identify yourself.”
“Ah… this is Cadet Nok.”
There was a short pause. “Your physical signatures have been scanned. Admiral Nok, good morning.”
He almost dropped the wrist device. He would have had it not been attached to him. His voice became high-pitched as he said, “Sorry, Admiral?”
It was one thing believing that Lara would one day become an admiral. She seemed built for it. Him? He didn’t want to be an admiral. Though others thought he was on the career path for captain, he only considered serving for the Coalition as a stage. That wasn’t to say he planned to quit soon like Lara. He fully intended to give the Coalition 10 good years of his life. Then, like most of his race, he would become itinerant again. Serving was important to him, but he didn’t see the point of serving his entire life. When he was no longer at peak physical fitness, his use to the Coalition would reduce, anyway.
“Please return this wrist unit to your wife,” the wrist device said.
For several seconds, Nok couldn’t say anything, then one word broke from his lips like steam escaping a pipe. It was just as high-pitched and pressured. “Wife?”
“Admiral Nok is married to Admiral Lara Forest. You have an adopted child together. Please return this wrist device to your wife.”
Nok shook his head. When that didn’t change anything, he just shook his head harder.
He was married? To Lara? They had a kid? He’d never even planned to get married, let alone to Lara—
He stopped himself. The Lara of this time was one thing. She was cold and alone. The decisions she’d made had irritated him. But his Lara from two weeks in the future… it wasn’t hard to imagine falling for her. He had to have some significant feelings for her already if her disappearance had hit him so hard.
He shook his head weakly one more time, then he stopped. He gripped his mouth then let his fingers drop limply. “I cannot return this wrist device to Admiral Forest. She is currently in something called the nexus. She’s fighting for her life. Can I… can I access this wrist device as,” he shifted his lips from side to side as if he’d just swallowed something that was having trouble going down, “her husband?”
“Where is your own wrist device?”
“Ah… I left it… behind,” he said awkwardly. He’d just stopped himself from saying in the future.
Though presumably this wrist device had sophisticated functions, maybe its programming just couldn’t wrap its head around time travel. He couldn’t blame it. Neither could he. Or maybe this was just some kind of test for all he knew. The device could be lying. Perhaps he wouldn’t become an admiral, and perhaps he’d never marry Lara and adopt. Maybe the device was stringing him along as it got ready to zap him for daring to try to access Admiral Forest’s stuff.
There was only one way to find out.
“Wrist device,” he said awkwardly, not knowing what to call it, “do you know where… or when,” he clarified as his voice failed, “you are?”
“Time location data has been restricted from this current user.”
“So you do know when you are, but you’re not going to tell me?”
“Time location data has been restricted from this current user,” it repeated in the kind of tone that told him it could keep repeating this day in, day out.
He brought up a hand, grabbed his chin, and let his fingers sink in hard. “You said I could access limited functions. What kind of functions are they?”
“Nonsensitive data and basic systems functions.”
While the wrist device was answering his questions, it was doing so in an entirely unhelpful way.
He dug his fingers harder into his face until he left half-moon indents in his chin. They quickly disappeared. Unless he turned his muscles on to full, there was no way he was going to cut his extraordinarily hard flesh. “I have a mission. Will you help?”
“State the parameters of your mission.”
This was where this was going to get tricky. If this wrist device truly was loyal to Admiral Forest and Admiral Forest only, then there was a chance it wouldn’t help him find and convince Lara – it might see it as coercion.
What choice did he have but to try?
Sighing and sinking back into his couch, he closed his eyes. “I need to find Lara Forest—”
“She is currently en route to combat class. She’s in the science block, deck 12, southside.”
He blinked quickly. “How do you know that?”
“This wrist device has already logged into the current Coalition systems.”
He opened his mouth. He frowned hard. “Sorry, before you told me to hand this wrist device back to Admiral Forest. You know there’s a difference between Admiral Forest and Lara in this timeline?”
“Access to temporal location data is restricted.”
“Of course it is,” he sighed. He went back to gripping his jaw as hard as he could. Sorry, not as hard as he could. Though he was in the mood to start trashing things to release some of the tension riding through his body, at the same time, he was too fatigued.
“This unit has noted your physiological condition. It is recommended that you get some rest.”
He laughed. It had a saddened, frustrated quality to it. “I’ll rest when the war’s done. I really don’t see any way around that.” He flopped forward, pinning his elbows against his knees as he stared at the glowing wrist device morosely. “You know exactly what’s going on here, don’t you, but you’re going to continue to give me restricted answers until I find and convince Lara. Can you help me do that?” he asked directly. There was no longer any point trying to explain what was happening here. Presumably the device had been on Admiral Forest’s wrist when she’d been sucked back into the past and during the whole time she’d been traveling through the nexus. Unless that experience had warped the device somehow, then it knew more about what was happening than he did.
“This device will help. That was the intention of Admiral Forest.”
He let out the smallest sigh of relief. “Then what do we do?”
“There is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes until the next temporal fracture occurs. You will have to utilize it. Until then, I suggest you make contact and keep an eye on Lara. She may be at risk. Though we have not detected significant Force activity in this time yet, that could all change rapidly.”
He crunched forward until he was seated on the edge of the couch. His cheeks became stiff, and they pulled hard over his lips. “You mean they could attack at any moment? What kind of attack are we talking about?” His fingers stiffened, and he naturally curled them into tight fists. Thoughts of that breakneck battle aboard the Zeus flashed through his mind. That had been on a Coalition heavy cruiser. If the Force came to Earth, the destruction would be far worse.
“If they recognize that this wrist device is within this timeline, they will attack with everything they have. They will also attempt to eliminate Lara.”
Every muscle he had became rigid like steel poles. He could feel them pushing against his uniform. If they pushed any harder, he’d rip the seams. He shook his head tightly. “What do I do? I can hardly walk around with this gun.” He’d placed it on the floor by his feet. Now he nudged it lightly with the toe of his boot. For all he knew, that could initiate some kind of self-destruct. Because that right there was the problem. He had no clue how that gun worked. While it could connect to his mind, without a full understanding of its functions, it was less of a weapon and more of a lucky dip. Hell, if he gave it the wrong mental command, it could blow him up and take his quarters with it.
“That weapon is purely modular, as is this wrist device. Remove your own wrist device.”
Frowning, he did as he was told. He pulled his sleeve up, grabbed the device, and chucked it onto the couch beside him. It sunk into the rumpled cushions. Immediately, Forest’s wrist device shifted further up his arm of its own accord. Within several busy seconds, it changed until it resembled the wrist devices he was used to.
He pursed his lips together and whistled. “That’s amazing.”
“Modular technology exists even at this time.”
He shook his head. “Not like that. That was seamless.”
“Pick up the gun,” the device said.
“Fine. But what do I call you?” He reached for the gun and grabbed it in a careful grip.
“I am a generation 5000 wrist device.”
“Do you have a name? I don’t know, something that rolls off the tongue better than wrist device?” He leaned forward, still cupping the gun gently in his hand as he locked his elbow on his knee.
If there was one thing he could be thankful for, there was no view in this section of his apartment. While he had a window in his bedroom, one of the things he’d sacrificed in getting a single quarters was having a view in his kitchenette and lounge room. That meant no one could see in. If they could, they would have some valid questions about the hyper-sophisticated gun loosely held in a mere cadet’s grip.
“What do you wish to call me?” the wrist device asked.
He shrugged. Of all the decisions he had to make right now, this seemed ridiculous. He barely put any mental effort into it as his lips opened, “Ferris.”
“A natural choice.”
His nose crumpled. “It is?”
“That was the name of your first Qororian dog.”
His lips parted with a jerk. He got ready to ask how the hell the wrist device knew that, but he stopped.
A cold sweat slicked his back. It was worse than any he’d had since this mess had unraveled on the Zeus.
It wasn’t at the thought that he was about to be killed. No. It brought him right back to the fact that this wrist device was certain he was married to Lara and they had a kid together. It might be far off in the distant future, but….
“You do not have time to waste on recursive thoughts,” Ferris replied. “Now you have named me, connect to the gun.”
“And do what, precisely?”
“Command it to become an arm cuff.”
He put a hand on his head, pushed his fingers down his face, then let them drop. “What? An arm cuff? The gun is modular, sure, but surely it can’t become more than its current size. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Material compression will be invented in approximately 20 years. Connect to the gun and command it to become an arm cuff.”
He shook his head. There was a limit to how much he could question this. Time was rapidly running out.
He gritted his teeth, secured his hand harder around the gun, and pushed his mind into the task. Therein lay the problem, however – he had no clue how to—
He couldn’t finish that thought. The image of an arm cuff came into his mind, and a second later, the gun started to move. It was so surprising, he almost dropped it.
He held onto it long enough that he felt the metal expand then contract like a beating heart.
Right before his eyes, it became nothing more than a small piece of jewelry. About three centimeters thick and wide enough to fit around his arm, it was one of the most insane things he’d ever seen.
“Put the arm cuff on. It will retain its modularity. If your muscles change shape and size, it will change with them.”
“This is insane,” he muttered. He shoved the arm cuff over his right wrist as he pulled his sleeve up with his thumb. It instantly adhered to his skin, locking down without affecting his circulation.
He didn’t think he’d ever frowned harder as he stroked the oddly cold metal with his thumb carefully, lest it turn into a gun and lodge itself right in his arm.
“You must practice your mental connection with it. With nothing more than a thought, it can become an arm cannon, or it can become a gun once more. For now, pull your uniform down. I will ensure the gun is not scannable.”
He complied, and he pulled his uniform sleeve down tightly. He rose to his feet.
With a heavy breath, he stared at the door. “Let’s—” he didn’t get the chance to say let’s do this.
“You are still injured. This is likely the last chance you will get to heal your injuries for some time. You will do so now.”
“I’ve already used my med kit.”
“You have not done so properly. You will now do so under my guidance. Go to the bathroom.”
He was used to orders, but Ferris the wrist device had the same blunt method of giving them as Admiral Forest.
He didn’t let himself bristle as he walked into his bathroom and complied with every order. By the time he was done, he was back on his feet. The quick patch job he’d done of his shoulder was now a complete fix. He wouldn’t get his full range of motion back for a while, but it would heal. As for the cuts scattered across his face – he’d applied the spray-on skin properly, and this time, it wouldn’t rub off.
When he was done, he finally squared off in front of his door.
This was it.
It was time to walk out and do the impossible.
He cast his single quarters a fleeting glimpse. He got the impression he’d never see them again.
He turned his back on his room, and he walked out.
She didn’t see the point of going to combat class. She was starting to regret promising that she’d stay for another two weeks.
Ever since getting up this morning, her desire to quit had reached a fever pitch.
She was only just dragging herself to class. She was a full 20 meters behind the rest of her classmates as they eagerly spilled into the lecture hall.
With a sigh, she stopped, turned, and stared at the windows that lined one half of the corridor. She got the urge to go over, enjoy the sunlight streaming through them, and spend the rest of her class staring at the Academy grounds and the sky above.
The urge was so strong, she found herself turning.
She didn’t get to turn all the way around. Without her even hearing it, someone had come up behind her. Before she knew what they were doing, they grabbed her arm.
She bristled. Though her first reaction was to throw them off, she couldn’t start flipping cadets outside of combat class without a good reason. Plus, there was every possibility it was her teacher.
She turned around. It wasn’t her teacher. Her gut tightened in a way it hadn’t since first year.
“Nok, what are you doing? Is this where you tell me that I should be in class? It’s my choice whether I go.” She went to pull her arm back. That’s when she saw the look in his eyes.
This morning, when he’d been playing a game with her and he’d hugged her in front of all the other cadets, he’d had that look, too.
He seemed to be haunted by something.
She pressed her lips together. She wanted to scream at him, but she settled for swallowing. “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
“You want to skip class together?” he asked.
There was no one more dedicated to the Academy than Nok. Either it was a feature of his race or of his particular personality, but she could never imagine him breaking the rules. Yet here he was asking if she wanted to skip class.
Her lips remained frozen open. Then they twitched closed. “This is about what you were doing with Sally, isn’t it? Just what exactly are you playing at—”
“Let’s skip class,” he said definitively. He didn’t release his grip on her elbow as he turned her around.
Though she’d been intending to skip class, now Nok was suggesting it, frustration and anger rose through her stomach. “You can’t be serious, right? Is this you trying to punish me? Is this you trying to point out that if I skip class, it will affect other people? As if—”
“If you’re about to say that a man like me would never skip class, all I can say is you don’t know me, Lara.”
“What does that mean?”
“I had a life before I joined the Academy, you know. And I intend to have one after,” he said.
His voice twisted in a way she’d never heard. Of all the recruits in her year, there was categorically no one else like Nok. It wasn’t just the unique physiological characteristics of his race. He was more mature than everyone else. But if he was more mature, then why exactly would he be leading her away by the elbow when they had approximately 30 seconds to get to class?
He was careful. He didn’t just march her past several officers. He surreptitiously shifted to the side as he passed them. He hid his grip on her arm using the bulk of his massive body.
This was where Lara needed to pull back, step on his toes if she had to, and get to class.
She couldn’t. She felt uneasy. It wasn’t at his tight fingers around her arm – it was at that look.
It was the same look he’d given her when he’d hugged her out of the blue. It looked… as if they’d gone through hell together but only he had been spat out the other side.
At that specific image, she shivered. It was full-bodied. It ran from her toes, up to her head, then down again. It left her with this creeping sensation that she’d forgotten something.
As soon as those officers walked past, Nok jerked his head over his shoulder and stared at her. His eyes opened wider, and she saw that haunted look clearer than she ever had before. “Did you just remember something?” Hope shook through his voice.
Nerves jolted through her. Could Nok read minds now or something? She understood that all members of his race had the capacity to be hyper-aware of people’s emotions, and that technically gave them insight into what a person was thinking and what mood they were in. But there was a real difference between that and the capability of reading someone with any psychic accuracy.
She couldn’t deny the way he opened his eyes and stared at her, and neither could she hide from the words in her own head.
Seconds before, she’d questioned if she’d forgotten something. Now that statement shook from his lips, all she could do was shake her head.
She suddenly felt ill. “Nok, what are you doing?”
He brought up a hand, grabbed his mouth, and pushed his fingers in until the tips of them became white like ice.
Lara new Nok’s range of emotional reactions. Blame it on the fact she’d spent most of first-year ogling him. That right there – grabbing his mouth and trying to push his fingers through his jaw wasn’t a move she’d ever seen him make before. That left two possibilities. Either he was copying it from someone else he’d seen, or she’d never seen Nok this distressed.
“You can let me go now,” she said.
He let out a twisted, frustrated laugh that made it sound as if letting her go was the last thing he could do.
“What’s wrong with you, anyway? Why did you do that this morning?” She couldn’t use the word hug, so she settled for that instead.
She was thankful for the fact that Nok turned around and continued to navigate down the corridor. He couldn’t see her expression. He was too focused on trying to take her somewhere private.
Her stomach could have kicked at that, but if there was one thing she was certain of, it was the fact that Nok had no feelings for her. He’d spent three years making that abundantly clear. Maybe it had taken too long for Lara to take his disinterest to heart, but now she’d removed her affection for him, getting rid of it as easily as someone throwing an old set of clothes away.
Nok didn’t answer. He kept concentrating. For whatever reason, he was looking at his wrist device.
Messages were flashing across it, but they weren’t in the Standard Galactic Tongue. They were in Nok’s own language.
For the briefest moment, she wondered if he’d snapped. What if he was a spy? What if this wasn’t just a game, but it was a dangerous one, and his intentions weren’t just to skip class, but to hurt her in some way?
She dismissed it immediately. Like she’d said, there was no one more by-the-book than Nok.
She couldn’t imagine him even thinking of doing something illegal.
It took him a while, but when they reached a relatively abandoned corridor, he suddenly snaked to the side. He jammed his thumb into a button and opened the door.
He pulled her in.
She spluttered. “Isn’t this someone’s office?”
“Yeah, I guess it is. Lieutenant,” he looked down at his watch, “Lai. The guy’s out on a mission to the outer colonies. He won’t be back for two months. Looks like they’re leaving his office locked for that time. We are in luck.” Abruptly, he let go of her hand, turned to the door, closed it, and typed the locking code – which he should not know – into the control panel.
As it beeped and the lock engaged, Lara took a careful step back from him.
Maybe her assessment that Nok would never do anything illegal was nothing more than wishful thinking. “What—”
Nok took several staggering steps back, locked a hand on his face, and appeared to break down. His large body didn’t seem to have the capacity to hold him up anymore, and it thumped hard against the door. He took several seconds to press his fingers in harder and harder until the skin around them became pale and pasty.
Only after several direct breaths did he let his hand drop.
Lara had been about to state flatly that he needed to let her out of here. At that reaction, she stopped.
She opened her mouth, but the words didn’t want to come out.
“This is where you’re going to ask what’s going on here again, right? Depends what kind of answer you want.” Nok straightened up.
Her lips wobbled shut. Then they opened hard. “The truth. What exactly are you playing—”
Another bitter laugh rattled through his chest. She’d never heard him chuckle like that. It sounded like someone who was surrendering to the inevitable and yet just holding onto the edge of some cliff with all their might. “Trust me, Lara, this is not a game.”
“You’re freaking me out, Nok. What—”
He sliced his gaze down to his wrist device. More of his native tongue flickered across it.
While she didn’t understand his language, her own wrist device certainly could. Realizing that Nok wasn’t going to answer her questions directly, she brought up her wrist device and typed on it. She set it to translate the words flashing across his device.
As soon as it tried, her device turned off with a fizzle.
Surprised, she dropped her hand, her lips slackening and opening wide. “What—”
Nok shook his head. He wasn’t paying attention to her. He ran his tongue around his teeth. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
He still didn’t tug his gaze off his wrist device. “Fine, if you’re sure,” he commented.
He started to pull up the sleeve of his right arm.
“Nok?” she had a chance to say.
“Disengage,” he said. Something suddenly dropped off his arm.
It looked like nothing more than an arm cuff. That is, until it struck his hand. In several seconds she would never forget, it changed its size and shape, and it morphed into a gun.
She screamed. She was usually the kind to hold her mettle, but not now. She had never seen technology like that.
She jerked backward, her legs smashing hard into Lieutenant Lai’s messy desk.
Nok spread a hand toward her. “Whoa. It’s okay. I’m not gonna use it on you. Ferris here just thought it was a good idea to demonstrate what I’m talking about before,” he ran his tongue around his teeth again, “I let you know exactly what’s going on here.”
“And what is going on here?” Her voice was high-pitched yet hard. She couldn’t pull her gaze off that gun. She was certain that nothing like that existed anywhere in the Coalition. She was also sure that it didn’t exist anywhere else in the known galaxy.
That gun had been nothing more than an arm cuff, and in only two seconds, it’d changed shape, size, and density.
Nok kept a hand spread toward her. He still had that haunted look in his eyes, but it was now muddled with confusion and something else.
For the first time, she noticed how loose his shoulders were. His stance – which usually looked like an oak tree reaching for the sky – now looked like a puppet slumping against its strings.
“Do you believe in time travel, Lara?” he asked flatly.
Without even having to think about it, she shook her head. “Certain physical theories allow for it, but it does not exist,” she said, using the exact same flat voice he had. “So what is this about? Are you—”
He put up a tired hand. “If you’re about to accuse me of playing a game again, please don’t. Games have endings. This is only getting started,” he commented through bared teeth.
An electric shiver chased its way up her spine, sunk into the back of her head, then darted right down her front. She clasped her hands into tight fists. Though she’d backed off from him the second he’d gotten that gun, now her natural inclination was to take two heavy steps forward. “Nok, just tell me what’s going on.”
“Fine. You always were one for the direct approach. Two weeks from now, aboard the training scenario on the Zeus, the Force attack.”
Her features crumpled. “The Force?” She intended her voice to be strong and derisive. It wasn’t. As soon as she said the word Force, it felt like invisible hands tightened around her throat.
Nok’s eyes widened, and he took his own step closer. Now there was less than half a meter separating them. “Do you remember? Lara, are you remembering anything at all?”
She shook her head. “Stop playing with me,” she spat.
This time Nok didn’t react to the word playing. He shook his head and started to stride through the room. It was unmistakable now – the once strong alien’s stance was weak. His limbs moved, sure, but he was dragging them along, and he fully lacked his usual grace.
He looked as if he’d been in a fight. A long and bloody one.
Had she gotten it wrong? Was Nok not the by-the-book cadet she’d always assumed he was?
It took him several strides before he stopped in front of her again. “It’s irrelevant whether you don’t believe in time travel – it exists. This,” he brought his gun up carefully, “comes from the future. We have not invented compression technology yet.”
She shook her head. “It’s some kind of hologram, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “Really, Lara? We don’t have holographic technology like this, either. It’s from the future,” he spat. “And so am I.” His tone dropped off at the last statement. It was strong and frustrated, but then it became weak as if someone had just cut him down at his knees.
Lara shook back. She didn’t shove hard into Lieutenant Lai’s desk again. She just stood there weakly as she brought up a hand and clutched the front of her uniform. “Why are you saying these things?”
Nok brought up a hand, locked it on his brow, and pushed his fingers through his shoulder-length hair. “Because they’re true. I’m from the future – only two weeks from the future. The Zeus is attacked by the Force, and everybody aboard dies. Except for us and,” he clicked his jaw from side to side, “Admiral Forest.” As soon as those words left his lips, he shuddered.
There was something so visceral about the move, she shuddered, too. She was hardly from an empathetic race, and she usually didn’t copy other people’s reactions. But—
“Admiral Forest,” he said again, this time putting as much effort into those two words as he could. His lips slid around them, and he spoke them with his full vocal force.
She shuddered again. This time, her whole body got in on the act – from her quaking knees, to her trembling hands, to her quickly jerking head.
“Admiral Forest,” he said one last time.
That impression she’d gotten earlier – that she’d forgotten something critical – struck her in full. It felt like a hand reaching out to her from the future.
She shook her head and jerked back.
“You’re Admiral Forest,” he said. For the first time, he stood taller. He pushed away his fatigue, and Nok took up the same strong stance she was so used to.
“I’m a cadet. I’ll never be an admiral. I’m quitting the Academy.” As she said those words, something about them didn’t sound right.
“You don’t quit the Academy. And one day, Lara, you become an admiral. I met that admiral two weeks in the future. She saved our lives. She sent us back to this point in time to do one thing – to stop the Force War.”
Unbeknownst to her, tears started to stream down Lara’s cheeks. If she’d known she was crying, she would have immediately dried them and shoved corks into her tear ducts.
She hated showing emotion around others.
Now she couldn’t help it.
She kept shaking her head. She didn’t know who she was trying to disagree with. Either it was what Nok was saying, or it was at the impossible reactions happening in her body.
There was no conceivable reason that she should be reacting like this to two simple words. Admiral Forest. Merely thinking of them made her shudder once more. The move was so hard, she was certain she was going to fall onto the floor.
Nok took a step forward again. There was nowhere for her to back off to. There were only 30 centimeters separating them now. She could see right into his eyes. That haunted look had been pushed away, and hope started to flicker in his gaze. “I know this probably sounds like too much to believe, but you’re going to need to trust me. One day you will become Admiral Forest.”
“I told you, I’m going to quit.” She could barely push those words out. They were so weak, Nok wouldn’t even be able to hear them, let alone believe them.
He smiled. “You’re not. At least,” he took a breath, “once upon a time, in one timeline, you didn’t.”
“What does that mean?” Her brow compressed with confusion.
He brought up a hand and ran it down his face again. “I’ve only had several hours to try to wrap my head around time travel, but it’s going to take me a lot longer to truly understand it. I don’t know if by coming back here and fighting the Force War it means that we’ll alter your original timeline and Admiral Forest will disappear,” he said, unbelievable sadness infiltrating his tone, “or if this happened the first time. I’ve got no clue. The only thing I know is that the existence of the entire Milky Way is on our shoulders.”
“The Milky Way?” She could hardly force those words out. It was such a preposterous thing to suggest. Yeah, when you joined the Academy, you did so under the promise that you would form the force that kept peace in the Coalition. Nobody – unless they were completely foolhardy – would believe that they alone would ever have to save the Milky Way single-handedly. But at the overcome look in Nok’s eyes, that seemed to be what he was suggesting.
“This is insane,” she spat.
For the first time, he chuckled. “I know. But it’s still happening. And I need you to trust me.”
She locked her gaze on his gun again. Sure, she’d never seen anything like it, but it was still just a gun. There was every possibility it was some kind of sophisticated trick. That made more sense than believing it was from the future.
“Look, Lara, we don’t have that much time. The Force will come for you. They’re going to try to assassinate you.”
“Just let me out, Nok. I don’t know what you’re doing—”
“I’m trying to save the Milky Way,” he snapped.
She’d never heard him raise his voice, let alone scream. Now he did so, and the fear shaking through his tone was unmistakable.
She blinked back her surprise.
“Lara, my ability to save the Milky Way will rest on my ability to convince you. I understand this sounds mad, but you need to trust me.”
“Just let me out. If… if you think that you’ve traveled through time, I can take you to the med bay—”
He chuckled. “Look, Ferris, this isn’t working. You need to give me something. I know I’m not Admiral Forest, but unless we do something dramatic, she’s not gonna believe us.”
“Who are you talking to?”
He brought up his left hand and tapped his wrist device. “This wrist device belongs to Admiral Forest. It’s unlike anything we have in this time period.”
She looked at it and frowned. “Looks exactly—”
The wrist device changed before her eyes. Using a variation on the modular technology that the gun had utilized to change shape, it shifted until it looked a thousand times more sophisticated than the devices she was used to.
“Here goes,” Nok said as he wrenched the device off. It unhooked from around his wrist immediately, the band retracting silently.
He took a breath, then he handed it to her.
She looked at it and shook her head.
“Please,” he pushed it closer to her, “put it on. It’ll be able to convince you where I can’t.”
She stared at it. Then she stared at Nok – the aloof, impossible-to-understand man she’d gotten over. A man she thought would never show weakness because he just didn’t have it in him. But a man who now looked so crushed, it was like a heavy cruiser had landed on top of him.
“Please,” he begged. Then something happened she thought she’d never see. A single tear drained from his eye, traced down his cheek, and splashed against his collar.
It locked her to the spot with surprise and fear. Before she knew what she was doing, she reached out a hand, and she accepted the device.
The second it touched her, she felt something. Either it scanned her, or it did something else, but for a fleeting moment, it was almost like it connected to her mind.
It rolled over her hand, connected to her wrist, and locked down in a second.
She screamed and jerked back. Again she smashed into Lieutenant Lai’s desk. It had already been messy, but every time she pounded against it, the guts of old scanning devices fell onto the ground by her boots.
Nok brought up his hands and spread them in a calming motion. “It’s okay. It’s just a wrist device. It’s not going to hurt you.”
She went to wrench it off, but it wouldn’t move. She became pale as a prickling sweat raced across her brow. “Get it off me, Nok. Get it off—”
“Welcome, Admiral Forest,” the wrist device said in a perfect computerized tone.
“What? What kind of game is this?” she spat.
“Admiral Nok is correct – this is no game.”
“Admiral?” Lara’s voice shot right up.
Nok spread his hands further. “Whoa, Ferris, don’t mention anything about that,” he said, his voice pitching on the word that. “I don’t think Lara’s ready for that kind of information. Just keep it to this timeline and anything we need to know now.”
“What are you two talking about? What the hell is going on here?” Lara started to freak out.
“Look, Ferris, do that thing you did back on the Zeus. Turn into a visor. And,” Nok closed his eyes in regret, “show Lara footage of what happened.”
She shook her head. The wrist device shifted. Suddenly, a perfect holographic panel appeared above it. It had a single second to shimmer there above her wrist, then it moved. It raced up and covered her face.
She jerked back so hard into the desk that most of the things on top fell off. If there’d ever been any order to Lai’s chaos, when he came back from the colonies in two months, he would be an unhappy boy.
That was the least of Lara’s troubles right now. As promised, that hologram formed a visor. It started to show her footage.
Footage involving her, Nok, and the crew of the Zeus.
Footage that was violent, terrifying, and gruesome.
But critically, footage of something that had never happened.
When she saw the captain of the Zeus being cut down by an invisible soldier, she brought a hand up and tried to pull the visor from her face. When that didn’t work, considering it was a hologram and there was nothing to grab onto, she closed her eyes. “Get this thing off me. What the hell are you doing? This never happened. Did you create this using holograms? You’re sick, Nok,” she spat.
“I wish I’d just created it,” he said in a dead tone. “But it happened. It happened to me less than two hours ago.”
Though she didn’t want to, she wrenched her eyes open. The footage was still playing. She stared past it right at Nok.
He looked broken again. There was no strength to his stance. It seemed as if the slightest breeze would cut him down. He brought a shaking hand up and pressed it over his chin. He jammed his thumb in until it was like he was trying to hold his jaw joint together. “I know this is hard to believe—”
“It’s impossible to believe. Now stop this footage and let me out.”
“If I do that, Lara, the Force will just find you. They’ll kill you, and then there’ll be no one to access the full knowledge in that wrist device. The Force are coming,” he said with dread ringing through his tone. “Or maybe they’re already here. I’m not gonna let them claim the Milky Way without a fight.”
“Just who the hell are the Force, anyway?” she half screamed.
Nok didn’t have to answer. The visor did. It stopped showing impossible footage. It started to show blackness instead. Fortunately the visor only covered one eye. With the other, she could still see around the room. It was the most discombobulating thing to have one eye shown nothing more than a black void while the other saw ordinary creation. For there was a difference between what the visor was showing her and what she could feel. This world, the one she was currently standing in, had color, light, movement, and critically, life. That one that the visor was showing her?
It was devoid of all of those things.
Though she wanted to continue the argument, scream at Nok, and get out of this room, she became locked on the spot.
Out of her other eye, she could see that Nok became still and watchful, his cheeks slack with hope.
Hope was the last thing she could feel. Though technically the visor was only showing her footage of what this so-called Force was, it felt like a lot more than that. Either it was the mention of their name or the strange, cold, black sight, but she felt as if she’d suddenly been thrust from what she knew into the depths of uncertainty.
She shivered as she closed her arms around her middle. “Please stop this,” she tried.
The visor would not comply.
“You wish to know what the Force is. You must know what the Force is if you have a chance to save the Milky Way. If you do not save the Milky Way, you will not just be condemning it in this time. You will be condemning it forever.” The visor spoke with a perfect pitch and tone. Though it had a monotonous quality to it like most electronic devices, it otherwise felt like a lecture from a history teacher. “The Force is the greatest enemy this galaxy has ever faced. They are creatures from another dimension who are hell-bent on feeding on every single life form in the Milky Way. They will break down every person, plant, and animal, and consume their energy.”
She shook her head weakly. “If such an enemy existed, we’d know about it.”
“Top-level officials in the current Coalition do know about it. Many races throughout the galaxy know about the Force, too. This is not the first war. The first war occurred between the first races and the Force.”
“Then why is a war happening again?” she asked. It took her too long to appreciate that by asking that question, she was tacitly believing what this visor was saying.
No. She wasn’t. She wouldn’t. This had to be some kind of game. It was the only thing that made sense. You could not clutch at outlandish theories when a far simpler one could explain your predicament. Though it went against everything she thought she knew about Nok, the simplest explanation here was that Nok was not the golden boy she thought he’d always been.
“Because the Force was not destroyed last time. This time, they must be. To destroy them, the time gate must be closed forever.”
“Time travel doesn’t exist.” She spoke with passion. And yet, right there, worming through her tone was just a grain of suspicion. The visor over her face was unlike any technology she had ever seen. As it continued to show her footage of that dark void, her body reacted to it as if it was so much more than a mere image.
“Time travel does exist. The technology to create it – and the capacity to understand it – do not currently exist in your timeline.”
“So what’s a time gate, then? You said that’s what the Force is using to travel through history. Is that,” she looked at Nok again, “what he used to come back in time?”
As her questions changed, and she stopped screaming at everyone to let her out, relief washed over Nok’s features.
He looked as if he’d just been handed a lifeline.
“The time gates are points in time that lead through the nexus.”
She shuddered. It felt as if someone had just grabbed hold of her brain, pushed their way into her motor cortex, and taken full control of her body. Her convulsion was so bad, she banged yet again against Lai’s desk.
Nok jolted. He spread a hand out. “The reason you react like that is that your older self, Admiral Forest,” he said those words quietly now, “is still in the nexus.”
Lara jerked her head from side to side. She hadn’t reacted like that for such a stupid reason. She was just… understandably overcome.
She clenched her teeth as she forced herself to believe that. That was the rational, scientific thing to accept. This? The ridiculous theories Nok and the strange device were trying to tell her were impossible in every way.
The visor didn’t stop showing her footage. It changed, and rather than show her that black void, it started to reveal a Coalition unlike any she’d ever seen. She didn’t recognize the uniforms or the ships or the technology. The only thing that was the same was the insignia that sat on every soldier’s breast.
“What… what is this?”
“This is the future – or at least, Admiral Forest’s future. It is the point at which the Force War began. And it is ultimately the point – if you can push the Force back – from which time will reassert itself.”
“I have no idea what that means,” she said in a crushed voice.
“That can wait. Firstly, you must gain access to the Academy’s primary scanners.”
“What?” Her voice shot up high.
The visor started to show her footage of the Academy’s scanners. There was a problem. They were in a restricted section of the science building. One she’d never been to and would never get access to. If what this visor was showing her was accurate, it seemed to have the capacity to hack into restricted security cameras.
“You and Nok will head to the primary scanners. There, you will upgrade them as per my instructions. You will use them to ascertain whether the Force is on their way.”
She wanted to keep shaking her head, but her lips parted with a jerk. “And if they are on their way? What exactly do we do then?” She couldn’t believe she’d just said that. That right there was the last straw. If she kept asking questions that suggested she believed this, maybe one day she’d be stupid enough to actually fall for it.
The last thing her father would want her to do was check her reason at the door and start believing in mystical, impossible theories when a rational explanation was within reach.
Then again, the last thing her father would want her to do was quit the Academy.
“You will create armor, you will defend this point, you will locate the time gate in this period, and you will destroy it,” the visor said, listing these things off with all the ease of somebody writing down a shopping list.
“This is nothing but a lie,” Lara said. There was a problem – her voice twisted and shook with wretched emotion.
Nok had been watching. Until now. He took a careful step toward her, and he opened his hand wide. “I know it’s gonna take time to fully believe this, but Ferris is right. We have to ascertain if the Force are coming. Because if they are coming,” his voice dropped right down low, “there is nothing standing between everyone on Earth and them but us. You may not believe the footage you saw aboard the Zeus,” his voice slowed right down and shook with unmistakable pain, “but I,” he jabbed a finger against his chest hard, “lived it. And I will not let these people,” he gestured widely, indicating the Academy and the grounds beyond, “live it too. No more innocent people are going to die because of this.”
She wanted to look away. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t believe him – it was that she couldn’t face his sheer emotional force. A power unlike any she’d seen lapped off him in waves. It was the determination of someone who would not let others fall.
She went to shake her head one last time. She stopped halfway through. It felt like somebody cut through her neck muscles. With her head limply tilted to one side, she stared at the carpet. Then she let her gaze trace across the messy office until it locked on Nok’s feet. Slowly, her stare traveled up him until it locked on his eyes.
“Lara, please. If you can’t do this for me, do it for the galaxy.”
If she couldn’t do this for him? She had to go back to the fact that they didn’t have a relationship. But if they didn’t have a relationship, then why was he looking at her with that tender, grief-stricken stare? The kind of look that told her that he couldn’t lose her. The kind of look that suggested he’d do anything – and everything – to stop that from ever happening.
She took a shuddering breath. She brought up a hand and latched it on her uniform. She pulled her fingers in, and they scrunched over the fabric until she grabbed a fistful of it. “This can’t be happening,” she said one last time, her voice so weak, not a soul would be able to believe it.
“The line between what can happen and what is happening can only be discerned by one’s faculty of reason,” the visor stated flatly.
“So you’re asking me to believe in time travel and some ancient race with the power to destroy an entire galaxy over the much more reasonable theory that this is nothing more than some trick?” She pushed the words out, but again they were weak. With every syllable, it was like she lost the force to fight.
“I’m asking you to trust me,” Nok said one last time. He glanced over at her wrist device. “What’s the time, anyway? How long do we have?”
“I am interpreting that to mean how long do we have until the next time fracture. The answer is one hour,” the wrist device answered.
Nok closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and pushed an unsettled breath from them. “I’m assuming you’re not gonna let us hang around in this office for one hour, then?”
“We do not have the time. You must get to the scanning system, upgrade it, and discover if the Force is on their way,” the visor stated.
Nok warily stared at Lara. It was clear from his look that he was trying to ascertain if she believed a word of this yet.
She made his mind up for him when she shook her head one last time. If that was all she could do – keep shaking her head like it was only attached with a string – then that was what she would do.
But again she got halfway through the move and she stopped. The look in his eyes… she’d never seen anything like it.
In her head, Nok was a simple man. That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t smart – she didn’t know anyone who was more intelligent. And that wasn’t to say that he didn’t have skills. Even disqualifying the natural abilities of his race, there was no one like him at the Academy. What she was trying to say was that Nok shouldn’t be able to give looks like that. He’d always been aloof from the day she’d met him. The man who was looking at her now was anything but. If the old Nok had been above the clouds, beyond reach as he barely interacted with her and the rest of his classmates, then this Nok had been torn down to the ground.
The look in his eyes… it made her want to reach out a hand to him. To do that, she had to trust him, right?
She couldn’t do that.
She was a pragmatic person. No matter what happened, she would not lose that skill.
She crossed her arms, and she half turned from him.
Nok sighed. “Ferris, what do I do?”
“Get to the scanners,” the wristwatch commanded.
“What about Lara?”
“We will keep her here. Return in an hour,” Ferris stated flatly.
Though Nok looked crushed, at that prospect, hope expanded through him like an explosion. It washed away the fear that had been hooding his features and made him smile, however briefly.
Lara twitched. “Why, what happens in an hour? And you know there’s no way you can keep me in here, right? The second you leave,” she snarled, “I will call for help.”
“Two things,” Nok said, his voice weak. “Firstly, you’re forgetting that that wristwatch,” he nodded at it, “is from the future. It eclipses everything in the current Academy. If it doesn’t want you leaving this room, you won’t,” he said conclusively.
“And what’s the other thing?” she spat.
“In an hour, Lara, however briefly, you’ll remember me.”
Her fingers twitched in, and she curled them into fists. They dragged across her legs, but she didn’t care that she scratched them through the fabric. “I do remember you.”
He shook his head. That look in his eyes… it went back to the fact that Nok didn’t seem to want to lose her. But for the man to have that emotional reaction, it meant one thing – he’d had her in the first place.
“In an hour, the you from two weeks in the future – my Lara,” he said, not hesitating on the phrase my Lara, “will return. I’ll be back by then. Ferris, I’m gonna need your help—”
“Return your gun to an arm cuff. I have already connected to it. Using its mental connection to you, I will communicate through it.”
Nok didn’t hesitate. He opened his hand around the gun, and right there, without a single command from him, it changed shape. It condensed down until it was nothing more than a slim piece of jewelry. Nok rolled up his sleeve, shoved it onto his forearm, then pulled his sleeve down.
He looked to the side and smiled. “Damn, you’re right. You’re already in.”
He wasn’t talking to Lara.
She took a jerked step up to him. “You can’t lock me in here. I’ll find a way to escape.”
Nok reached the door. He paused as he turned over his shoulder. “I’ll see you in an hour. I’d tell you to use that time to ask the wrist device what’s going on here, but I know you won’t.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because I know you, Lara Forest – better than you know yourself.”
“Nobody knows me better than I know myself,” she snarled.
He reached a hand out and got ready to open the door. He turned over his shoulder and looked at her one last time. “I know you better than you know yourself, because I’ve seen what you can become, and you haven’t.” With that, he opened the door and walked out.
Lara got ready to scream. She tried, but for whatever reason, her voice couldn’t carry. The visor was still over her face, and somehow, it was muffling the sound of her voice.
She thrust over to the door, but it closed before she reached it. She pounded on the metal, but again, the sound couldn’t echo out.
She sunk down to her knees. She tried pathetically to pull the wrist device off her wrist, but it would not be moved. It remained locked there as she remained locked in this room.
Her only hope of escape would be in an hour when Nok returned.
But she would not escape, for Nok would not return alone. Her future self was waiting.
“Is she okay?” he asked for what felt like the hundredth time. He’d barely made it down the corridor outside of Lieutenant Lai’s office, and all he’d done so far was check in with Ferris.
“I can only say conclusively once more that Lara Forest is physically fine. She is, however, irate.”
He found himself chuckling. It was bitter, but it had just a glimmer of humor. He could bet she was irate. She’d be trashing Lieutenant Lai’s already messy office, desperate for a way to escape.
With Ferris on her wrist, he’d keep her safe, though.
“When the two officers to your left exit into the second room in the corridor, you will break into a run. I will tell you when it is no longer safe to sprint.”
“How do you know those two officers—” Nok thought back.
There was no point finishing the question. Ferris was 100 percent right. Both officers broke off and walked through the door Ferris had indicated.
“Statistical patterns,” Ferris replied quickly. “Now, run.”
Nok didn’t pause. He threw himself into a sprint. He pushed his body as if he hadn’t been in deathly fights only hours before. Critically, he pushed his body as if he didn’t have a second to waste.
He reached the end of the corridor, found a set of stairs, and threw himself down them. He almost reached the bottom, but Ferris told him to stop.
Nok slowed down.
His muscles receded, and by the time he passed two cadets, he looked completely normal.
They both muttered their hellos and nodded at him, and he forced a smile as he walked off.
“Do we really have enough time to infiltrate the scanners, upgrade them, and get back to Lara?” Nok thought. Though it had taken time to get his head around how he could direct his thoughts to Ferris, he was starting to get used to it.
“I have calculated that you have precisely 59 minutes and 38 seconds to do this – if you push yourself to your maximum capabilities.”
Great, Nok had a chance to think ruefully. He managed to not direct that thought at Ferris.
Nok made it past several more cadets, then reached a set of lifts. Ferris made him wait until the lifts were empty.
As soon as Nok was inside, the lift doors closed, but the lifts didn’t move.
Nok frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Hacking into the lifts.”
“To utilize the interconnected lift system between the Academy buildings.”
“Sorry, there’s an interconnected lift system? I thought the lifts only operated within their own buildings?”
“You thought incorrectly. We will reach the appropriate level in approximately 30 seconds.”
Nok brought up a hand and scratched the side of his face. Soon enough, he let his fingers limply fall to the side of his leg. He had the chance to tap his thigh several times, then he appeared to arrive.
There was a slight shudder, and the doors opened.
He didn’t have to ask Ferris if there was anyone around. As Nok strode out, the place looked deserted.
And what was the place, exactly?
It looked like some kind of basement system. A deep frown dug hard through his lips.” Where are we, exactly?”
“We are in the current interconnected basement unit of the Academy grounds.”
“It will be redeveloped in five years along with the lift system. For now, it will allow us direct access to the scanning level. Break into a run.”
Nok broke into a run. “Where are we headed? And what about security cameras?” He ticked his gaze up to the ceiling, and he saw several almost imperceptible nodes. The only reason he concluded they were security cameras was that he could pick up just the faintest high-pitched squeal with his extended hearing. An ordinary cadet – and a member of most other races – would not be able to discern it.
“I have already gained control of them. There will be no evidence that you are here.”
“What about the people? Isn’t there anyone else around?”
“I have offered them a distraction.”
Nok frowned. “What kind?”
“One that will give us time.”
He didn’t push. Well, he pushed his body. He gave it everything he had. He ran until he was certain he was gonna pop right out of his uniform.
It didn’t take long to reach another lift.
Without being told, he strode toward it as the doors opened.
He rode it up one floor, then got out.
He entered the scanning level. He didn’t need to ask Ferris – it was abundantly clear what this place was.
The whole floor was open. It was massive. It was easily as big as a football field. It was full of banks upon banks of humming consoles.
They were black towers about the size and height of a man. They were tightly packed together, with only a hand width between them. Their edges glowed with red lines.
While the towers weren’t that tall, the ceiling was massive. It looked as if there were two floors fitting inside the space.
Nok tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling high above. Conduits ran across it, bunched together like the knotted roots of some great tree.
“Follow this path,” Ferris said.
“What—” Before he could push the words out, he felt his arm cuff vibrate. Something seemed to drop off it. It trickled down his sleeve and shot out. At first, it was just a cube, but then it shot up to his face.
He went to jerk back, but there was no point. It lodged into the side of his temple with nothing more than the light tap of someone’s finger. It spread and formed a visor.
“What?” His voice shook. “This gun can form a visor, too?”
“Of course. I told you, it’s perfectly modular. Now, follow this route.”
A path flashed up on screen, and he followed without another question. It took him deep into the room. It was hard to throw himself through those compact towers. Though there were paths between them, they were sprawling and snaking. He took them as fast as he could until finally he reached where Ferris wanted him to go.
There was a bank of control consoles.
Ferris didn’t bother speaking to him anymore. The visor showed him precisely what to do.
Nok fell to his knees, punched a hand out, and grabbed a maintenance panel that led inside one of the primary consoles.
It was shielded. Or at least, it started off being shielded. As Ferris hacked into it, there was a slight buzz and a tingle, and the force field failed.
Nok did precisely as he was shown. He started pulling out control crystals as he got deeper into the guts of the console. The visor didn’t show him stopping until he reached some strange, black cubelike node right deep down in the middle of the console.
He clutched a hand around it and pulled it out.
He frowned. “What is this?”
“That is a Hendari crystal.”
His frown didn’t lift. “Who or what is that?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“No. Few have. Was do not know when they came from or who they were – just that they left these crystals.”
He turned the cube over in his hand. His frown only cut deeper through his lips. Though his senses were operating at full, he couldn’t detect anything off this cube. It seemed to have a shape, and it certainly resisted his fingers like an ordinary object, but that was it. It was lacking something.
“I’m assuming from the precipitous change in your physiological symptoms that you have ascertained that this cube is unusual.”
“Unusual is one word for it. It just… it doesn’t seem to be real matter.”
“An interesting deduction.”
“What is it?”
“Unique technology the Coalition has never been able to mimic, even to this day.”
A thrill chased up his back. “You mean in the future, right? Even during Admiral Forest’s time, they haven’t been able to understand what this is or copy it?”
“So what’s it doing back here in the past with me?”
“Hendari crystals have existed since the First War. During Admiral Forest’s time, 15 are known. While the Coalition has eight of those, the Barbarians and Kore have the remainder.”
“What’s one doing in the center of this console? Is it hidden, or is it being used? How can we use it if we don’t understand what it is?”
“Hendari crystals have been used since the beginning of the First War.”
“But I don’t get it, if you don’t understand how they work, how can you use them?”
“One of the greatest features of such crystals is that they can form a connection with whatever technology you are attempting to utilize them with.”
“What does that mean?”
“A simple summary is that they seem to understand every single technology in the Milky Way, no matter how sophisticated.”
A tight shiver ran up his spine.
“Just show me what to do,” he snapped.
His visor kept giving him visual data, and he followed every single order.
His fingers started to get stiff as he pushed them all the way into the console. His body was at such an awkward angle, even his unique physiology was starting to tire.
Ferris wouldn’t let him rest. Nok didn’t want to, anyway. Even without asking for Ferris to show a visual countdown, he could feel every second shifting past. There were now only 15 minutes until Lara would wake.
… Would you call it waking? Or remembering?
A part of Nok that had taken a backseat to today’s events, appreciated how much he’d learned in a single day. This morning when he’d woken up aboard the Zeus, all he’d cared about was doing a good enough job in the combat scenario that he could reasonably apply for a position with them when he graduated.
Now, his world had been shaken upside down. Every theory he thought he had once known about time lay shattered at his feet.
In times of uncertainty, his race had a saying. When you couldn’t clutch hold of facts, find something that can hold you instead.
To the humans, who weren’t a tactile race, they didn’t understand such wisdom.
To him, it brought a small smile slipping across his lips as he pushed his arms even further into the console.
He’d never been on the scanning level of the Academy – heck, he’d never been surrounded by this much machinery. Even the engineering deck aboard the Zeus hadn’t been this large and packed with so many mainframes.
There was a distinct crackle in the air. It made the hair along the back of his neck stand on end. Whenever he clenched his teeth together, they chattered. He was growing used to it, though.
“Work faster,” Ferris demanded.
The wrist devices of the current Coalition, though they possessed the capacity to speak to their owners, didn’t seem to have such genuine emotional reactions. Though Nok doubted that what Ferris was showing was true emotion, he couldn’t deny the note of tension in the AI’s tone.
Neither could he deny the tension that wrapped around his arms as he pushed them further into the console.
“You have approximately 10 minutes to get back to Lara. But you must complete this task first.”
“Dammit,” Nok spat, swearing uncharacteristically. He’d probably sworn more in the past five hours than he had in his entire life combined. He’d never had a reason to curse the universe as much, though.
Every time he thought he was accomplishing something, his accomplishments were thrust to the side as a new threat closed in.
“Ferris, how long will my Lara return for?”
“It is impossible to predict how long a time fracture will last for. They are inherently unstable.”
Nok gritted his teeth together harder. “I just want to know if I’ll have long to get to her.”
“I cannot tell you. All you can do is work faster.”
A single bead of sweat slid down his brow as he pushed his body all the way into the console. He meticulously followed the orders he was getting over his visor until it felt as if his stiff fingers would fall from his knuckles.
Finally, when he felt like his shoulders would give out, the visor flashed and the word done appeared over the screen.
He let out a sigh and pushed backward. He fell down onto his hands. He tilted his head up and stared at the room. The conduits slung across the ceiling started to glow. A pulse of light traveled from one side of the room to the other, and the mainframes hummed so loudly, it sounded like they were winged insects getting ready to take off into flight.
“What exactly did we just do?” Nok stammered.
“We have redirected the scanners of the Academy.”
“Are you sure no one will find out?”
“Certain. I know the security programs the Academy utilizes during this time period.”
“Of course you do. Now, we have to get to Lara.” Nok punched to his feet.
“First, we must access the scanners to detect the Force.”
“Can’t you do that remotely?” Nok demanded as he started to throw himself across this massive room.
“It is best to do it in this room. If there are Force operatives in this time period, and if they are already at the Academy, they will detect our efforts.”
Nok swore again. What was that? Three times in an hour? If this kept going, he would lose the dignity of his race and become nothing more than a brutish Barbarian.
“Where do I go to access them?” he commanded.
“Nowhere; I am currently accessing them. It will take two minutes.”
He didn’t have two minutes. Nok had to get back to Lara. He couldn’t waste this window of opportunity. What if it only lasted for several seconds? He needed to be there, not just to get Lara to convince her current self, but to see her face again. The last time he’d locked eyes on her, she’d disappeared, right in front of his fingertips.
He swallowed hard, a lump of pure emotion forming in his throat and making it feel as if he’d tried to swallow a stone.
“How’s it going? Have you detected the Force?” he forced himself to stammer.
Either Ferris didn’t answer because he didn’t deign that to be an appropriate question, or he couldn’t be distracted.
Nok just had to wait until those two minutes passed. Once they were done, he practically fell over as he stammered once more, “What did you find?”
“The Force do not appear to be here yet.”
“Yet?” His voice shook hard.
“Perimeter scans suggest that they are en route.”
“Dammit,” Nok spat. He brought up a hand and sunk his fingers in either side of his mouth. He pushed them in so hard, he could’ve removed his chin from his face. “What do we do? What chance does the Academy possibly have?”
“If the Force attack the Academy, it will fall.”
“What about you? You’re from the future,” he stammered, “surely there is something you can do. You managed to print this gun on the Zeus. You could print more like it,” Nok began, his mind working on fast forward as he tried to come up with a last-ditch plan to save everybody.
“It will not be enough. Once the Force detects this wrist device is here, and critically, once they find that Lara has been contacted by Admiral Forest – even if they are unaware of the time fractures – they will attack with everything they have.”
“I don’t get it,” Nok said as he threw himself across the room, intent not to waste a second, “why are they going after Lara, anyway? Just to get to you, right?”
“The Force has justifiably ascertained that Lara is their worst enemy.”
Nok made a face. “Aren’t the Force fighting the entire Milky Way throughout time? There must be countless soldiers from countless races that could challenge them. Why would….” he couldn’t finish his sentence.
He got an image of Admiral Forest on the Zeus. Her relentless capacity to fight. Her efficient attitude. Her capacity never to give up. She’d run with a broken leg, and it had seemed as if she would still have run even if you’d broken every other bone in her body.
“Admiral Forest not only possesses unique information about the Force, but she knows locations of weaponry throughout time and space.”
“But you know that information too, right?”
“Correct. That is why the Force are trying to destroy both of us.”
“What do we do?” Nok reached the end of the room. He threw himself out. In his head, he knew that even if he ran with every gram of strength he had, there would be no way he would reach Lara in time.
“We go off world.”
“Off world?” Nok’s voice shook as he pushed into a run. Soon enough, he reached a set of lifts. Even calculating in his head, he was out of time.
Dammit. Damn it all to hell. He wanted to be there the second she remembered.
“By removing this wrist unit and Lara from the Academy, it will give the Academy a chance.”
“It will make us easy targets. At least at the Academy we have others who can help us fight,” he tried, but his voice became weak as he realized how wrong he was.
The other cadets and officers he’d spent the last four years with might technically know combat, but they would be nothing against the Force. They’d be nothing but warm bodies ready to be broken.
He swallowed hard.
Ferris paused as he hacked into the lifts again. “You will not make it to Lara in time,” he noted casually.
Nok couldn’t reply. He ground his teeth together so hard, he could have cut his gums into shreds. “Even if we somehow find a ship and head off into space, what then?”
“We locate the time gate.”
“And what then?” he asked after a significant pause. He felt like he was getting ahead of himself, but he had to know this stuff. Though it seemed impossible that they would ever get the chance to reach a time gate, let alone destroy it, he needed to know what would theoretically happen next. “If we destroy the time gate, we’ll never be able to come back to this time.”
There was silence. “It is best not to ask that question. Think only of the Force War for now.”
The lift doors opened. Nok went to throw himself out, but Ferris warned him, using his mental connection, that there were too many people around.
Reluctantly, he clenched his teeth and walked out at a healthy pace that wouldn’t draw too much attention. Every single one of his muscles itched. He wanted to throw himself forward as if he’d been catapulted from a cannon, and every slow step he took felt like a slow death.
He finally made it to the right level. Though all he wanted to do was reach Lieutenant Lai’s door, wrench it open, and rush inside, there were three people standing around it.
His gut had the chance to clench.
“Do not be concerned,” Ferris thought at him. “They are not attempting to enter Lai’s office. I will deal with them,” he added.
A second later, all three officers got messages on their wrist devices. They frowned and rushed off.
Finally, finally Nok reached the door. He wasted no time in opening it and throwing himself through.
There was Lara.
He could tell it was her. She was crying. Horror engulfed her features as she sat in the middle of the floor, her body crumpled as if someone had removed the muscles from her legs.
He skidded down to his knees. He didn’t even command the door to close. Ferris did that. Nok paid no attention to anything else other than Lara as he reached her and wrapped his hands around her shoulders. “You’re back. Lara, you’re my Lara, aren’t you?” There’d been a time when he’d been embarrassed for using that term. Now it was the only way to describe her and his connection to her.
She nodded once. The move was so jerky, it was almost as if she’d forgotten how to use her body.
“What is it?” Unashamedly, barely aware of what he was doing and how intimate it was, he brought up a hand and rested it on her cheek. He pushed his fingers in, anchoring his thumb against her tear-streaked chin.
“I saw them,” she stammered.
“The Force.” She only just managed to push that word out. It shook from her lips as if it was some monster trying to break through a cage. That cage was her mouth. It seemed that half of her wanted to speak while the other half couldn’t let herself vocalize her horror.
He lost all sense of propriety, and he collapsed forward. He locked his arms around her shoulders, and he drew his face alongside hers. “Do you know how long this time fracture will last?”
“We’ve got another minute,” she said, her voice far off with fear.
His fingers tightened around the back of her skull. They pushed in so hard, it was like they were a clamp he was locking around her. But no matter how much he used his muscles, and how strong he became, he would not be able to keep her in place.
Even now, he swore he felt her slipping. It was the oddest sensation. While her body was still right there in his arms, he got an impression of her drifting back, sinking down under some unbreakable surface.
So he just held her harder.
“Lara, you have to do everything you can to make your current self believe me. Please,” he begged.
“I don’t know how. I think my mind covered hers as soon as I appeared. I don’t know what’s happening,” she stammered, more tears streaming down her face.
“Dammit,” he swore yet again as he wrapped his arms harder around her back and pulled her in closer.
This was a useless waste of their time. He couldn’t just hold her as every valuable second shifted past. But he couldn’t release her, either.
“You need to do everything you can to convince Lara. I don’t think there’s going to be another time fracture for a day or two,” she admitted.
“Damn it all to hell,” he spat louder.
He could feel their time running out. It was like he was trying to hold an ocean in badly cupped hands. No matter how tightly he squeezed his fingers together, it just kept rushing through.
“It doesn’t matter. She won’t believe me, no matter what I show her.”
“Tell her… tell her you know she used to have intrusive thoughts and voices,” Lara stammered.
“What?” His brow compressed hard.
“She – we – used to hear things. It was trauma caused by watching our dad die.”
He didn’t know how to respond. He wanted to simultaneously reach out and comfort her, and yet express his surprise. In his head, Lara Forest had always been too tough to have suffered from something like that.
“Just do it, Nok. We’re running….” She didn’t get a chance to finish. Her body became insubstantial.
He tried to hold her harder, but she just drifted away. It felt like she’d been an image sitting over the top of the current Lara, and she was washed away like crayon someone had sprayed off the pavement.
He clutched her all the harder, but a second later, she was gone completely.
There was a pause.
“What the hell are you doing?” The original Lara Forest returned. She let out a puffy breath of frustration as she shoved Nok back.
He let her easily break his grip. His arms fell down to his sides. He made no attempt to hide the fact his face was streaked with tears. He just stared at her, cold dread owning him.
Lara looked as if she wanted to punch to her feet and punch him a second later. Instead, she remained there, down on her knees, right in front of him. A pronounced frown spread her lips. “What the hell are you playing at, Nok? How… how did I get here?” She brought up a hand and pressed her fingers into her temple. She shoved her nails in until they left half-moon cuts.
“For however briefly, my Lara returned.” There was something so possessive about the way he said my.
She bristled. “I am not your Lara. And I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
He sighed. He pushed to his feet. It was only then that he noticed how weary his body was. Though he didn’t intend to, he staggered.
He didn’t get the chance to fall. Lara was right there. She hadn’t pushed to her feet yet, but she crunched forward and locked a hand on his elbow.
Slowly, he turned his head down and stared at her. Confusion swamped his expression. It ended when she continued to stare up at him with a pissed off expression. “I don’t know what’s happening to you, but you need to go to the med bay. You have to let me go.”
“We’ve already ascertained this. Lara, I can’t let you go.”
“So what are you going to do? Keep me in Lieutenant Lai’s office until he returns in two months? People will start looking for me.”
He stared down at her somberly. “No, they won’t, Lara. I’m going to take you into space.”
This could not and should not be happening. But it was.
Nok had broken. Don’t ask her how. His race tended to have even temperaments. They very rarely suffered from the same mental health issues that humans did.
But something must have snapped in the alien’s brain.
She was still down on her knees. One word echoed in her mind. Space.
Nok was going to take her into space.
He strode several steps away from her. He started to scratch his fingers across his brow.
“This can’t be happening,” he sighed.
“But it is. And you’re the reason it’s happening,” she growled. “You can stop this at any time. Just let me go. I’ll be understanding,” she lied. “I’ll get you to the med bay. I’ll get you the help you need.”
“Currently, the help I need is for you to believe me. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon, is it?” he said through a sad smile.
She responded by crossing her arms and staring at him tersely. Seconds ago, she’d been trying to make him believe that she would be kind. She dropped the act. “You know, you’re throwing your future away.”
He chucked his head back and laughed. “Isn’t that a little rich coming from you?”
Her expression soured even further. “Don’t tell me this is all some elaborate trick to ensure I don’t quit the Academy.”
“It would be one hell of a trick.” He nodded at the wrist device, rolled up his sleeve, and tapped his arm cuff. “I would have had to invent technology that doesn’t exist yet. Are you done clutching at straws, as humans would say? Are you starting to accept that something else is going on here?”
“There is an infinity of possibilities to explain this situation that do not involve time travel. You haven’t yet given me any evidence that couldn’t be explained by something else.”
“Okay. Lara, ever since the death of your father, you’ve had intrusive voices.”
She stopped. It felt like Nok had just reached in, grabbed her heart, and squeezed it. It took too long for her lips to crack open. “What? How do you know that? Did you hack my medical records?”
“No. Because that information isn’t even on your medical records, is it?”
She paled. His words were like someone grabbing hold of her carotid artery and pulling it right out of her throat. She brought up a shivering hand and planted it on her chest. “How the hell do you know that?”
“Because you told me just a few minutes ago. Shouldn’t you be questioning why you have no idea what just happened? How long did you lose your memory for?”
“Nothing happened,” she tried quietly.
“If nothing happened, how did you go from being in here on your own, to being on the floor with me? How do you think I got into the room?”
She shook her head harder. She clenched her teeth, and this time, she meant it. She put all of her effort into it as if her life depended on it. “That doesn’t mean I believe in time travel.”
“Fine. That doesn’t change anything, then. I’m still going to get you off Earth and away from the Academy. I have to. Ferris has detected the Force are en route.”
She tried not to react, but her stomach kicked on the word Force. It was such a visceral, violent reaction, it felt as if she’d swallowed a firecracker.
Nok had been about to turn away, but his eyes opened. There was the briefest glimmer of hope, but when she stared back at him with clenched teeth, he turned away. “Ferris, can you chart a path out of here for us? I’m assuming we’ll take one of the ships on the top dock in the command building?”
“Your assumption is correct. I have also already charted a path for you and cleared it. It is now safe to open the door.” The voice echoed out of her wrist unit. She got the impression that it could talk mentally with Nok and bypass her completely. For whatever reason, it was trying to keep her in the loop.
No, not for whatever reason – it was obvious. The more they kept confusing her, the easier it would be for her to break. And Nok, for whatever reason, needed her vulnerable. Vulnerable people clutched at whatever theory was at hand to explain what was happening to them.
She curled her hands into fists. She got ready to scream.
The door opened in front of Nok.
… And there was no one around.
She screamed anyway.
Nok turned over his shoulder, his face pale with frustration and defeat. “Don’t make me knock you out, Lara. Come on.”
“There is no need to knock Lara out,” her wrist device said. “Under extraordinary circumstances, we can create limited neural fields that will aid the wearer in movement.”
“Aid the wearer with moving?” A deep frown cut across Nok’s lips as he turned in the open doorway.
Ferris the wristwatch demonstrated as, with a jolt, Lara moved forward. Fear and alarm bolted through her body. It felt as if she’d swallowed a mechanical doll, one that was expanding and taking up her body. She took another jolting step forward. She opened her mouth and screamed, but no one came to her aid.
The slightest smile spread Nok’s lips. “If you could do that, you should’ve told me earlier,” he commented, obviously speaking to Ferris.
“It would have been preferable for Lara to believe us.”
Nok let out a bitter chuckle. “Sure would be easier. Now show me a way forward. Bring back that visor,” he commented quickly.
Lara had no idea what he was talking about. As Nok pulled up his sleeve, something fell off his arm cuff. It shifted as if it was nothing more than a bead of sweat trailing down someone’s skin. It rolled down his arm, hit his wrist, jumped up his body, locked against his temple, and formed a perfect visor. Though it mimicked what had happened to Lara earlier when the wristwatch had tried to show her false footage of the future, this was even more impressive. That little bead of metal looked no larger than a small pinky nail, and yet the visor it created was nearly perfect.
Though a part of her wanted to keep screaming until someone finally came to her aid, the curious side of her personality couldn’t help but to stop and stare. “What kind of technology is that?”
“I told you,” Nok said as he pushed into a jog, aiming for the lift on the other side of the corridor, “it’s from the future. We don’t have anything like it in this time. You know that,” he chided. “You may not be as on top of prototype weapons as I am, but you keep yourself informed.”
Her cheeks paled and tightened until her lips pulled hard over her teeth. “You just said it yourself, didn’t you, Nok? You know far more about prototype weaponry than anyone else at the Academy.”
He sighed, but he didn’t stop jogging. They reached the lifts. They opened at Nok’s mere approach. He walked in, and the wrist device forced Lara to move in after him.
She glowered at him. Either the wrist device couldn’t control her expressions, or it didn’t see the need. She put all of her bitter force into staring at him angrily. “Where did this tech come from? You’re not working with the Barbarians, are you?” she growled.
Nok stared right at her. “The Barbarians don’t have this type of technology either, Lara. I’m shocked by you. You’re not thinking anything through. If the Barbarians had something like this,” his arm cuff was still visible, and he tapped it twice, “do you think they would’ve kept it to themselves, or do you think they would have used it to destroy the Coalition in one fell swoop?”
“Maybe it’s a prototype and they’re still testing it out.”
“Maybe you don’t know anything about the Barbarians, then. Even if it was a prototype, they would quickly put it into mass production, and they would use it to do the one thing they’ve been meaning to do for hundreds of years – destroy us completely. Stop clutching at straws,” he chided again.
That, right there, was a saying she was renowned for using. She hated it when people around her couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces. A surprising number of people, even in the scientific and combat fields, chose to believe in silly superstitions rather than facts.
And no, that was not evidence that time travel existed.
She hardened her jaw further. “You know, you’ll pay for this at some point.”
“If you mean I’ll pay for trying to protect you from an interdimensional alien race hell-bent on killing you and destroying all life in the Milky Way – I guess I will. But only if I fail.”
The elevator pinged. Lara expected it to open several floors down in this block. While, for some reason, no one had been on their level, she was certain the ground level would be full of people.
She got ready to scream.
… Except there was a problem. The lift doors didn’t open onto the ground floor. Somehow, some crazy how, they opened onto the primary hangar bay at the top of the command building.
“What?” Her voice shook, and fear and surprise opened her expression wide.
For the first time in a long time, Nok let out a genuinely amused chuckle. “There’s an interconnected secret lift system that joins up all of the Academy buildings. Apparently, it will be redesigned in five years. Now,” he clearly tore his attention off her as he let his gaze whisk around the various ships on the docking deck, “which one, Ferris?”
Even from here, she saw something light up across his visor. His head ticked to the side, and a grin spread his lips. “Now that is a prototype, isn’t it? It must be nothing compared to the ships you’ve got in the future, but it will do for us.” He pushed into a jog.
As soon as he moved, it was like Lara was tethered to him. She was pulled along with his every heavy footstep. “Where is everyone?” she asked, her voice shuddering. While it made loose sense to think that no one had been hanging out around Lieutenant Lai’s office, the docking deck above the command building was always packed. It’s where officers came and left from. Even if there wasn’t a steady stream of Academy personnel, there were engineers maintaining the ships.
Now there was no one.
There weren’t even any alarms.
Her gut clenched so tightly, a wave of nausea reached up and snagged hold of her lips. They trembled open. “What have you done with all the people, Nok?” Her tone shook with accusation.
He briefly turned over his shoulder. “Do you honestly think I have the means to murder them all? Or the will?” On the words or the will, his voice dropped right down. “Do you really think that little of me, Lara?”
“Just tell me what’s going on here. I’m sick of playing this game. How the hell have you gotten rid of everyone at the Academy?” Her voice shot right up. “Whatever you’re doing—”
“I’m saving the Academy,” he snapped back. He reached the ship.
Everything she knew about this deck told her that no matter what he did, the ship would not open for him. Somehow he might have been able to get rid of everyone on this deck, but he just did not have the means to hack into—
She couldn’t finish that sentence, because the door to that ship opened. The hatch spread to the side, and a ramp rolled out. It stopped right in front of his feet.
He briefly looked at her again. “You may not believe that this is for your own good, but Lara, the sooner we get you off Earth, the longer you can live. The Force is coming for you. Now get inside.”
One word echoed around her head as her body was forced to walk up that ramp.
Every single time she thought it, she swore something reached out to her from beyond.
Though she had never admitted this to anyone, once upon a time, she’d had intrusive thoughts that had promised her that one day, the galaxy would be destroyed at her feet.
Every time such a thought had pushed its way into her mind, she’d been filled with an Indescribable sense of terror. It had shaken up from her feet, blasted through her stomach, and catapulted into her heart with all the power of a black hole.
Now she felt that exact same sensation as she arrived in the small hangar bay of this equally small vessel. Behind her, the ramp folded back up, and the hatch door slid smoothly shut with a quiet hiss.
She stared at it morosely as dread sunk through her.
She had no clue that her all-encompassing fear came from more than her traumatic past. For the horror spiraling through her was too great. It promised her one thing—
Never ending. Complete. And only just beginning.
At least he’d reached the ship.
Lara didn’t believe him, and he was starting to appreciate that she wouldn’t.
That was her personality. When she decided she didn’t want something anymore, she threw it out of her life. It was just a pity that the thing she didn’t want anymore was him.
That just made his thoughts tick right back to his Lara.
As he walked into the compact but powerful bridge, one of his hands naturally curled into a fist. He dug his nails hard into his palm as his teeth grated back and forth.
He would give anything to wrap his arms around his Lara again, but as the other Lara jerkily walked into the bridge beside him, he realized it would be a long time before he’d be able to do that.
Ferris took control of Lara’s body, walked her over to the navigation seat, and set her down.
Nok pressed his lips together in a wince. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea – unless you want to monitor her actions all the time. There’s a lot of damage she could do within reach of the navigation console.”
As if in answer, Ferris made Lara’s hand jerk down. Her fingers quickly played across the controls under the seat, and it disengaged. Its magnetic lock allowed it to float up several centimeters above the deck plating.
It shifted back until it was in the center of the room.
Lara looked livid. “Just let me the hell out of here.”
He didn’t bother responding. He wasn’t going to be caught in another useless conversation with her. Sorry, a conversation went two ways. Lara would continue to scream at him to let her go without any input from him.
He sat down quickly in the command seat. Rather than ask Ferris for instructions, he looked obediently at his visor, and Ferris gave them.
If there was one thing Nok could be thankful for, it was that Ferris was starting to trust him.
Maybe the wrist device had always trusted Nok, and all that junk it had said back in Nok’s quarters had been nothing more than a test.
Or maybe Nok couldn’t take anything for granted.
It was the last one, wasn’t it?
Even as he settled down and his fingers spread across the console, moving as quickly as they could, he realized the only hallmark of this situation was uncertainty.
It could – and would – change in the blink of an eye.
Lara continued to snarl at him from behind, hurling insults his way. She did so for a surprisingly long time. Most people would quickly appreciate that they were in an untenable position, and they would quiet down to save their voice and their energy.
She reminded him of a fire. A particularly persistent one.
Once Nok’s initial flurry of activity was done, and the visor permitted him to rest his knuckles, he shifted back into his seat. It was large, but it wasn’t quite big enough for his body. Well, not his current body. With the number of crazy fights he’d been thrust into, he’d unconsciously put on 40 percent more muscle, even now he was resting.
He could let it recede – and he probably should if he was about to engage in long-haul spaceflight.
He didn’t want to. That voice in the back of his head that promised him this was only getting started told him he had to be prepared, every second of every day.
“Ignition has been initiated,” the computer’s AI said in a perfectly even tone. “Welcome aboard, Admiral Nok.”
He sure as hell hadn’t asked the ship to call him admiral.
Before he could correct it, Lara grumbled from behind. “He’s not an admiral,” she spat viciously. “He’s just a cadet. Don’t trust him. I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s some kind of spy. You have to contact the Academy—”
Nok turned right around in his seat. “Lara, you are starting to go hoarse. For the love of the gods, just save your voice.”
“Don’t you dare tell me what to do,” she spat viciously.
He just rolled his eyes and turned back around. “Cadet Forest is correct – I’m not an admiral,” he tried.
“Welcome aboard, Admiral,” the computer continued.
Obviously Ferris was funneling the computer instructions, and now, no matter what Nok said, the computer would continue to refer to him as admiral.
With a sigh, he just shrugged it off. “Ferris, what now? Do you really think we’ll be able to locate a time gate quickly? Won’t the Force intercept?”
“It is highly likely that the Force will intercept before we reach the time gate.”
Nok pressed his lips closed, dropped his gaze to his feet, and stared at them for several seconds. “Fine,” he said, mentally coming to terms with the fact that this battle was only just getting started.
Lara might be fresh. He wasn’t.
He shifted forward, propped his elbows on the console in front of him, reached his hands up, and clasped them around his face.
“You do not have time for that,” Ferris rebuked him.
“I’m just massaging my brow,” Nok lied as he pressed his fingers in and pushed them up and down. It was a useless move. What he needed was to sleep. Even if it was only for 20 minutes, it would take the edge off his day.
Maybe Ferris could read minds, because the wristwatch beeped. “A short rest is permitted. It is unlikely the Force will reach us for the next hour. Take this time. But you must rest in this chair.”
“Fine by me,” Nok said as he shoved a hand down, grabbed the controls at the base of the chair, and flicked his thumb over the unit that would allow the seat to extend.
It extended, and thankfully for him, this prototype ship was a comfortable one. As proper head and leg units grew out of the bottom of the seat, it felt surprisingly like hunkering down in a comfortable bed.
“You’re not going to sleep, are you?” Lara’s tone wavered with accusation.
“Sure am. You heard Ferris – this is the last chance I’m going to get to sleep for a while. When we near the time gate, the battles will begin again.”
“What battle? What do you mean by again? Nothing is happening, Nok.”
“I don’t suppose you could do anything to shut her up for a bit, could you, Ferris? It’s going to be mighty hard to sleep with her screaming in my ear.” Nok had to be careful. He was starting to get really irritated by this Lara. So irritated, he was crossing propriety lines he never usually would. There was no way he would have said something so rude about Lara several days ago.
That was the problem. In his mind, this Lara, with all her anger and inflexibility, was keeping him away from his Lara.
He briefly brought up a hand, pressed it over his eyes until he saw stars, then let it drop.
He had to push all that away and get a few sweet minutes of sleep.
They wouldn’t last.
And that, right there, is what scared him most. What if his Lara never returned, and what if she never managed to make this Lara remember?
Nok might have been terrified when Ferris had told him that one day he’d marry Lara Forest and adopt a kid with her. Now a new kind of terror reached up and claimed him. What if that never happened and he and Lara parted ways forever?
She tried to scream at Nok as he apparently got comfortable in his seat and started to nod off. It wasn't working. She could snap at him until her voice went hoarse, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t hear her. Either Ferris the wrist device was doing something to her voice and not allowing it to carry, or that strange arm cuff that Nok wore was doing something to his nervous system.
She let one last gurgling, spitting, viciously angry cry out, and she slumped forward. Or at least, as far forward as Ferris would let her. “Just let me go,” she pleaded.
“I assume that you are currently talking to me,” Ferris said.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you, asshole,” she spat. “I don’t know what you are, and I don’t know what—”
“You have said this approximately 35 times so far. You do know what I am – I am a wrist device from the future. And you do know what is happening. The Force War is in full swing. Your future self has returned to this time to save you. You must believe the truth of what is happening before it is too late.”
“But it’s not true.” Her voice shook hard through her chest. It was starting to get weaker. She wasn’t about to believe Nok, but… she just wanted this to go away.
“You do not have the capacity to decide whether it is true. You have a limited perspective, and an even more limited set of facts.”
“It’s always easier to believe the simple explanation than a stupid, outlandish one that involves time travel,” she spat with derision.
“Exceptions are starting to mount against your accepted version of events. From the existence of myself and that armband, to the ease with which we got you out of the Academy. How many exceptions will mount before you believe the truth?”
“I don’t care. I’ll never believe it.”
“Because I’m not that stupid.” Her voice really shook out of her chest. It was twisted and bitter… and something else.
“We are detecting fear in your voice. Based on our current model of your emotional mood, it does not come from fatigue. Why are you scared about the prospect of time travel?”
She went to spit at this wrist device that it was mad. She wasn’t scared about the prospect of time travel. She was just a rational creature who would never be led astray by lies.
She took a little too long to open her lips. By then, the damage was done.
“Before you protest, my emotional predictive model of you suggests there is a 98 percent likelihood that you are scared of time travel. Why? Computing possibilities,” it added before she could even pretend to answer. “You are scared that with the possibility of time travel, you can go back and change your life, are you not?”
She felt herself pale. The skin around her lips tightened to the point where it would take a crowbar to open her mouth.
“You wish to go back and save your father, don’t you, Lara?”
She shook her head tightly. It was all she could do to stop the tears from stinging her eyes.
“You will not be able to do that,” Ferris stated flatly.
Finally, her lips cracked open. They could barely move, but she didn’t need them to snap wide in order to hiss, “Why not?”
“You can only change events around the time gate.”
“And you’re telling me there’s no time gate around my father? There has to be. Even if it’s not around his death—”
“You cannot go back and change the fate of your father. It was a seminal force in your own life.”
She really shook her head now. She clenched her teeth so hard, she could have shredded the enamel. “I don’t care. You think I like that fact? I don’t want my strength to come from my father’s death. Now tell me the truth. I can go back and change his fate, can’t I?”
The wrist device didn’t answer immediately.
“I can,” she concluded, her voice shaking with hope.
“You can’t, and you won’t. Because at some point, Lara, you will accept what’s happening here. Either the Lara currently trapped in fractured time will come back and help you remember, or you will meet your future self.”
Her stomach curdled. “What?”
“When you manage to reach the time gate in this period and shut it down, you will travel to the nexus, and there, you will meet Admiral Forest.”
“There’s no such person as Admiral Forest,” she said. Her voice was pitifully quiet.
“I can assure you there is. I am her personal wrist device. I have countless information on the admiral’s life, unique biology, psychology, and achievements. I can share that with you.”
“No. I don’t want to know. The more lies you tell me, the more you confuse me. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I am attempting to assist you and Admiral Nok in saving the Milky Way.”
“Stop saying that,” she barked.
“He’s clearly not an admiral.” Her teeth clenched hard as she shifted her attention over to him. He’d fallen asleep just like that. He had to be tired. He’d been acting fatigued. In between snapping at her and lying to her, his shoulders had looked like they’d drop off his back.
“Correction, he is an admiral. In the future. As are you.”
“I’ll never be an admiral.”
“You are mistaken. You will be. I would tell you when and how, but it is best that I do not share too much information about your future.”
“Fine, what about his future, then?” she asked, not taking her eyes off him.
“What do you wish to know?”
“How does he become an admiral?”
“He single-handedly saves the Coalition Eleventh Fleet from a singularity.”
She blanched and opened her lips, ready to tell him that that would never happen. She stopped.
Before today – before Nok had appeared to break like a mirror thrown from a cliff – she would have believed that story easily.
There was no one like him. When Nok was faced with some crisis, he didn’t stop giving until that crisis was solved.
Not like her. When she was faced with a crisis she couldn’t understand, she did this – she got angry, belittling, and defensive.
She curled her hand into a fist. Surprisingly, Ferris allowed her to. When she started to push her fingers in too tightly, the nails grating across her skin, she felt her grip slacken without a command from her.
“Just get out of my head,” she snapped.
“I am here to assist you.”
“Then assist me to—” She went to say Ferris had to let her go, but what was the point?
She couldn’t keep repeating that.
“It will take over an hour for this ship to reach the location where we predict the time gate to be. You should use that hour.”
“What do you mean predict? Don’t you know where this time gate is?”
“It is itinerant. It will change as the eddies of time change and the forces within the nexus are altered by the Force.”
“What you just said is a garbled collection of words. None of it makes sense.”
“Sense and meaning go hand-in-hand with one’s ability to accurately perceive reality.”
She chuckled darkly. “I’m not falling for your fancy words, you know?”
“They are not fancy words. They are the truth. And you will begin to believe them. We have calculated the statistical likelihood that Nok will be able to convince you without outside assistance.”
She snorted. She pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to ask what that statistical likelihood was. It was just another proverbial rabbit hole to fall down. If she kept allowing Ferris to lead her around by the nose, she’d lose her sense of self-direction.
But her curiosity got the better of her. “Fine,” she spat angrily. “What is the likelihood?”
“92?” Her voice shot up. “Your statistical model is inaccurate. There is no way I’m going to believe in this.”
“Even when you are thrust through a time gate? When you feel time changing around you, you will believe.”
“So why are you only 92 percent confident, then?”
There was a pause. “Because you are and always will be a unique woman, Admiral Forest.”
Her back tightened on the term Admiral Forest.
Those two little words did things to her. Truly uncomfortable things. They tightened around her back, latched hold of her jaw, and squeezed her heart. They made her feel like she was running a marathon and yet sitting still. They made her feel as if she was fighting for her life, yet doing nothing more grueling than sitting here in this chair.
A quick sweat picked up across her brow. She tried to ignore it.
“We can detect your physiological condition, despite the fact you are trying to hide it from us. It suggests that you are having a visceral reaction to the words Admiral Forest. We can only hope that this is because of the paucity of your mind. Perhaps when Lara returned due to the fractured timeline, she left some hints in your mind about what will come. We suggest you search for those while you help us modify the ship.”
“Sorry, what? I’m not going to help you modify the ship.”
“We apologize, future Admiral Forest, but you will. We require your hands.”
With that, she felt herself getting up from her seat.
“Hey, stop this,” she snarled.
It didn’t matter. She could have screamed at the top of her lungs, and Ferris would still have moved her body.
She got down on her knees, plucked up a panel in the floor, and pulled herself down into a small duct.
Though she immediately saw a master switch for one of the main engine units – one that if she pulled it, she could get the ship to stop dead in space – she couldn’t move her hand.
“It is not recommended to press that switch,” Ferris said.
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Statistical models. I followed your eyes, too,” he added.
“Whatever. I’m not going to—” she tried.
Her protestations meant nothing. She did what Ferris directed. He used her small hands with aplomb as she started to do things to the engine she just did not understand.
For the next hour, she tracked back and forth through this tunnel to the small armory of the ship. There, she utilized the matter re-calibrator continually. She started printing guns like the one Nok had shown her – armor units, too. There was a problem – a big one – she did not recognize them. Even she could detect with nothing more than her eyes that they were not technology she was familiar with.
Not being familiar with it did not mean it was from the future, she tried to tell herself for the thousandth time.
“As we recommended earlier,” Ferris said as he walked her back to the bridge, “it is suggested that you use this time to explore your consciousness. It is highly likely that the version of you from two weeks in the future has left clues there. Explore your reaction to the words Admiral Forest. It may be meaningful.”
She wanted to bark at him that it wasn’t damn meaningful, but Ferris would just ignore her.
The wrist device continued to use her body. That left her mind capable of freefalling.
Ferris might have told her to use this opportunity to get in touch with herself. She didn’t. The only thing she thought about was Nok.
Once upon a time, she’d been so certain she understood him. She’d known exactly what his career would look like. She might not have ever had an intimate relationship with him, but she still knew him.
Except she didn’t. She went back to the moment he’d told her she had no clue who he really was.
“Then just who are you, Nok?” she found herself muttering.
“Sorry, are you talking to me?” Nok answered.
She was so surprised, if she’d had control of her body, she would’ve jumped up in the duct and smashed her head on the unyielding metal ceiling.
“You’re awake, then?” she snarled.
“You asked who I am,” he said.
She couldn’t see him. Her head was still obscured by the top of the duct. She was thankful for that fact. Ferris had control of her body, but not of her autonomic nervous system. Her skin began to flush, and there’d be no hiding it from the eagle-eyed Nok.
“I did not,” she tried.
“I’ve only been dozing for the last five minutes. I heard you. Do you want to know the answer?” he asked quietly.
“You shouldn’t have asked the question, then.”
She opened her mouth to churlishly point out that she hadn't asked it, but he’d obviously heard her.
For some reason, despite the fact she couldn’t see him, she was certain he cracked a smile.
“I’m someone who’s hard to pin down,” he admitted.
“You aren’t. There’s no one more by-the-book than you—” she began. Everything she had seen this morning had completely disqualified that conclusion.
He chuckled. “I think the pirates I hung around with six years ago would probably disagree with that conclusion.”
“I’m sorry. Pirates?” She couldn’t stop her voice from shooting up loud.
He chuckled again. Briefly, he sounded like he was actually enjoying himself. It was miles away from the haunted expression he’d been using on her all day. An expression that – if she would only allow herself to believe it – would tell her that he was carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders. And if not the universe, then just the Milky Way.
“Yeah, pirates. I did a stint with them on the outer colonies. Didn't you know I traveled the galaxy for 10 years before joining the Coalition?”
“Yes, I was aware of that, but I just…” she trailed off.
“What, thought I spent it in a library somewhere? Or maybe training? Or in a peaceful monastery? What exactly fits your assumptions about me, Lara?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. Because you asked who I am, and I’m the kind of person who’s going to answer, even when you don’t seem to be interested anymore,” he answered quietly.
She’d been glad she couldn’t see him earlier. Now she itched to watch his expression.
What did that mean?
Was it just about her question, or was it something more?
She heard a scratching noise as if he was running his thumb over his chin. “We didn’t do anything too illegal. But a bit of illegality comes hand-in-hand in trying to survive in the outer colonies. What? Did you think that I had a squeaky clean nose, Lara Forest?”
“Clearly not, considering what you’re doing here.”
He chuckled again. “Ah, yes, because my faintly illegal past explains the fact that I’m busting a gut and tearing out my own goddamn heart in my attempts to save the galaxy.” He might have laughed earlier, but now his voice became bitter and twisted.
Nothing was more twisted than the statement that he was tearing out his own heart.
Her thoughts ticked right back to the way he’d been holding her when he’d appeared in Lieutenant Lai’s office. No, he hadn’t appeared. She… she’d gone from standing there, to feeling like she’d fallen asleep only to wake in his arms.
It had been the strangest experience of her life. It was like someone hit pause on her own consciousness and replaced it with something else.
She clenched her teeth. She could not allow herself to think of that. For that was a slippery slope.
“You’ve gone all quiet. Don’t you want to know more? Let’s see. I only planned to stay with the Coalition for 10 years after I graduated.”
“That’s a lie,” she said confidently.
He laughed again. “Why can you be so confident of that? Like I said, Lara, you don’t know me. I only planned to stay 10 years,” he repeated. “Once my peak physical fitness was over, and I’d given back as much as I’d taken from the Coalition, my plan was to become itinerant again. That’s what my race does. We never stay with something for too long. Then again,” he smiled, “I clearly stayed with the Coalition for longer,” he became quiet. “Or at least in one timeline I did.” There was a far-off, somber quality to his voice.
Finally Ferris finished what he was doing, and he pulled her out of the duct.
She clambered up.
Nok was still lying down in his seat, his hands behind his head. He was staring wistfully at the view screen.
As she shifted, he ticked his gaze over to her. “I’m assuming that’s you controlling her, Ferris, by the way – and that Lara hasn’t spent the last hour undermining our mission.”
“You are correct,” Ferris said.
“In which case, I’ll take it from here.” He jumped off his seat so quickly, it didn’t have a chance to retract. He arched his shoulders, pushed his knuckles in, twisted his neck, and stood straight.
He was bigger than he usually was. Lara knew the rules when it came to his people. They only put on muscle like that when they sensed a threat. That meant that he was continually sensing a threat.
She pushed that uncomfortable thought away.
“Let her rest, and I’ll—” he began.
Lara opened her mouth. Pain suddenly snaked through her head. It shot from one temple to the other, and it felt like an electro blade slicing across her skull. She screamed. She tried to clutch her head and fall down to her knees, but Ferris still had control of her body.
Nok bolted over to her. He skidded down to his knees and wrapped his hands around her shoulders. “What the hell is happening? Ferris,” he screamed. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Sensing an astronomical increase in her neural activity.”
“What is it?”
“Unknown—” Ferris began.
He stopped suddenly.
Nok’s cheeks became pasty. “Ferris? Ferris?” he barked louder. “Dammit.” He crunched forward and picked Lara up.
He twisted and stared at the view screen.
It was just in time to see something flickering across it.
Despite the pain, Lara appreciated she’d never seen anything like it.
Space… it was acting more like a pool of water that someone had just thrown a stone into. She could see ripples shifting out everywhere.
“Ferris,” Nok screamed at the top of his lungs.
“A Force unit have found us, and they are attempting to transport on board. The time gate is close. They will prevent us from getting to it. Fight them,” he spat.
“I’m not putting Lara down,” Nok barked.
“You must. We have already printed off a set of armor for you. It is meters to your side.”
Nok tugged his head hard to the left. His brow pushed up hard against his hairline as he saw the armor units. He took a single step toward it. “How do I—” he began.
His mere proximity was enough. One of the armor units shuddered against the floor, then scooted over to him with the sound of someone running a knife over an anvil.
He staggered back, but in doing so, he revealed one of his heels. The armor unit connected to it, and the box opened out like a flower. Metal reknit itself all the way up his legs.
He had a chance to gasp until his face was covered.
Somehow, the unit managed to push past Lara in his arms.
Pain was still smashing through her head, but at this sight, she managed to stammer in surprise.
Nok staggered back several more steps, then stopped. He tugged his head down as he watched his gun cuff re-meld through his armor as if it was a fish resurfacing on a lake.
“One gun will not be enough,” Ferris stated flatly.
Several more of those metal squares that Lara had manufactured started to tumble over the floor. They shot up Nok’s legs, connecting around his wrists and arms as they formed more of those cuffs. Two of them tumbled up his back and lodged against his shoulders as they formed guns.
When they were done, Nok had six guns to choose from, with four in their dormant forms.
It was just in time.
Something smashed into the ship. She could see light slicing across the view screen.
She had a chance to scream, and the whole ship shook.
The way the deck shuddered beneath her feet… it almost brought back a memory. One that shouldn’t be in her mind, because it wasn’t hers.
She could… she could see herself on the bridge of the Zeus. She could see tumbling bodies floating in the vacuum of space.
And she could hear a voice behind her.
The voice of her future self.
Lara Forest screamed one last time.
Then four Force soldiers beamed into the bridge behind them.
The battle for the future began anew.