Nine days in the future
She couldn’t breathe as she knelt there in the open doorway, secretly listening to the conversation occurring down the corridor.
Her life was falling apart around her ears. Out there in the hall, her mentor – her surrogate father, the only man who’d ever cared for her – showed his true colors.
Captain Bruce Bridges was the only reason Isabel was who she was today. Literally. He’d taught her, he’d trained her, and he’d never let her lose focus once as he’d crafted her into the perfect soldier.
Isabel was drenched in sweat as she listened to him take a step toward her friend, Aaron Forest.
Bridges had already knocked a man out by breaking his back against the wall. As he approached Aaron, her gut trembled and her hands shook limply in her lap.
Aaron took a hissed breath. “What the hell are you? You’re the spy, aren’t you? You’re the one who opened the back door to the Kore. You’re the one who’s been running around trying to kill me.”
“I’m not the spy,” Bridges stated flatly.
“Then who is?”
Bridges took a long pause. Even from here, Isabel could tell there’d be a satisfied, victorious smile crumpling his lips. “I just trained the spy.”
Aaron wheezed. “No—”
“Yes,” Bridges said. “Isabel is the spy. She’s something I picked up years ago. A gift from the Gods.”
“No way,” Aaron’s voice shook with true passion. “She was the one who saved me from those Kore assassins.”
“Technically she was finishing her training and buying us the opportunity to do this here.” Bridges’ shoes squeaked, and it sounded like he locked his hand on Aaron’s shoulder.
Even from here, Isabel could hear something metal moving in Bridges’ skeleton.
Aaron spluttered in deep shock. “No way. No way. If Iz had wanted me, she would’ve taken me a week ago.”
“But a week ago, Admiral Forest hadn’t outfitted you with sensors capable of detecting the Hendari crystal in your blood.”
“What?” Aaron’s voice became dead.
“Pumping within your blood is the greatest power the galaxy has ever seen. Trust me when I say the Kore are ready to rip it from your chest, son, but we just never had the technology to accurately detect it. We do now.”
There was a grunt as Aaron threw himself at Bridges.
Bridges just laughed. “Don’t worry, Cadet. You won’t wake up again.” With that, he punched Aaron out cold.
She could hear the thud from here as Aaron’s unconscious body hit the floor.
Isabel Carter stared at the open door, tears caking her cheeks as she clutched her mouth with shaking fingers.
She’d always wondered why she was different. She’d always questioned why she was stronger, faster, and smarter than everyone else.
Now she knew the answer. She was an undercover asset – an assassin in disguise. The man she’d trusted most in her life had made her this way, and now he was about to use her as he saw fit.
Nine days in the past
Admiral Forest stared at him, a crumpled frown indenting her lips. She tapped her fingers on the desk.
Aaron didn’t move a muscle. He was good at showing a poker face. Hell, that was the only thing he was good at.
“Ensign Aaron Forest, this is where you take some initiative and apologize before I order you to.”
Aaron ticked his head to the side, shrugged, and settled back in his chair until he was comfortable – not that he could get too cozy in one of these cold, regulation Coalition seats.
Aaron could carve out a space for himself anywhere – that was one of his greatest skills. Just like a cat, he could rest on any surface, no matter how inhospitable, and still look relaxed.
Speaking of inhospitable, Admiral Forest’s expression became even sourer. “You know there is an upper limit to my patience, don’t you?”
Aaron smiled. He had to put the brakes on the move so the grin didn’t overcome his entire face. “Yeah, I’m aware of that. I’ve known you since I was a little kid. First thing you learn about Lara Forest is that her patience has a real low ceiling.” Sighing, he shifted his hand to the side and held it at about ankle height.
If it was possible, Admiral Forest’s expression became even sourer. “You’re testing my patience, Cadet.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I just don’t understand,” she snapped without a segue. Pressing her already white, stiff lips together, she took the kind of sigh that told anyone that dealing with Aaron was a Herculean task. Hell, Hercules could lift anything with time. Dealing with Aaron was more Sisyphean. Every time Admiral Forest – or anyone who tried to control him for that matter – thought they were getting somewhere with him, he would just roll back downhill.
Which is exactly what he did now. He shrugged, arched his hands back, clamped them behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. He frowned. “You’ve got some kind of stain up there. Might be blood. Probably from the myriad crazy battles the Academy has been in over the past 15 years, ha?”
“This is no time for a distraction. You are on a precipice, Aaron.”
He looked down, dropped his hands into his lap, and arched an eyebrow. “Aaron? Are you admitting you know me now?”
She sighed and closed her eyes briefly. That was the most defeat she was going to show. Her expression hardened like setting smart concrete a second later. “It’s time for an ultimatum. You know what those are, don’t you? Because you’ve been given enough.”
It was his turn to sigh. “Yes. I’m conversant with the Standard Galactic tongue. I understand what an ultimatum is. Now lay it on the table.” He spread his hands out as if he were inviting her to show her cards.
“This isn’t a game, Aaron. If you do not shape up, you will be kicked out of the Academy. And that has consequences. It will go on your record. Choosing to leave or being forced to leave are two very different things. Getting kicked out,” she pressed a hand on the desk, and she pressed an even harder frown over her lips as she faced him, “will tell any prospective employer the kind of character you are.”
“Not all prospective employers give a hoot about the Academy. Especially these days. Who said I need to look for employment, anyway? I’ve got enough money from dear old mom to do as I please.”
He shouldn’t have mentioned his mom. Lara’s eyes twitched. If you thought ordinary people couldn’t twitch their eyeballs, you’d never met the indomitable Admiral Forest.
“My late cousin might have left you a fortune, Aaron—”
He cut her off at the pass. Staring at her unflinchingly, he showed the only genuine emotion he had since he’d been dragged in here. “But she also left me alone, ha?”
Though Admiral Forest rarely backed down from anything, she looked away fleetingly.
“She didn’t need to take the risks she did. She wanted to. And hey,” he shrugged, “that was her choice. I’m just what’s left behind.”
Lara pressed her lips together and pushed her teeth against them. Slowly, she shook her head. “What happened to your mother is a tragedy. Do not let it ruin the rest of your life. From now on, you must be—”
“Responsible?” Again, he cut her off at the pass. It was his turn to lean against the desk. He knew for a fact that no one would ever lean against Admiral Forest’s desk and talk to her as casually as he was now. Even her husband, Admiral Noc, knew his limitations.
She demanded respect. But here’s the thing – Aaron didn’t give it. Not to Admiral Forest, not to his superiors, and not to his classmates. It wasn’t to say he was a rude, arrogant brat – though sometimes he was. It was to say that respect didn’t come automatically with your rank. You earned it through your actions.
If there was one thing his mother had taught him, it was that.
“Let’s be clear, my current behavior has nothing to do with my dear dead mother. That’s in the past.”
“And your future is in the future.”
Aaron pressed his lips together in the kind of crumpled smile that statement deserved. “Thank you for the temporal lesson, Admiral.”
She leaned even closer. The desk was large, and Lara wasn’t that big, but that wasn’t the point. She could loom. Hell, if he pitted her against a giant 10 times her size, she would still come off as more intimidating.
Somewhere deep in Aaron’s gut, he almost flinched. He said almost. The part of him that cared about authority had been stamped out. Putting up with the Academy would do that to a guy.
“You cannot let your fears and indiscretions decide who you will be in the future. You won’t always feel this way, Aaron. One day, you will regret the things that you did and the opportunities you passed up.”
He shrugged. Scratching a hand down his angular jaw, he looked around the office. There was nothing to stare at. Admiral Forest practically ran the Academy. She had multiple offices. Hell, he knew for a fact that she had an entire basement level of the Academy all to herself. What she did there? Who knows. He didn’t, and he didn’t care. Point was, though this office was empty, he didn’t want to stare into her eyes right now and listen to yet another fist-pumping speech about how he should care more about his future.
He did care about the future – as much as it deserved. It’d never been particularly kind to him. He’d once had grand plans. So had his mother. A research scientist by career, she’d forgone the Academy, quitting at a young age. She would’ve gone through the same crap he was going through now. People would have told her not to quit, too, but she’d gone on to surpass everybody’s expectations.
“It’s dangerous to assume that you’ll fall on your feet,” Lara warned.
He chuckled. “Have you ever heard about me, Lara?” He scratched his chin. “Falling on my feet might be the only thing I’m good for. Combat is the only class I pass.”
“Combat skills won’t get you far in this galaxy.”
“You tell that to the mercenary clans. I hear there’s good danger pay out in the colonies.”
“You will be wasting your skills,” she warned.
“What skills? The fact I have absolutely no capacity to fill the Academy’s rigorous standards is why I’m here in the first place. Now, you’ve said your piece. I’m on my last warning. If I fail another class, that’s it.” He shrugged, pointing out how little that concept affected him.
Her lips twitched. “Your grades are not the only condition.”
He shrugged again. “You don’t want me giving lip to officers. Yeah, I get it. Word must have spread about my run-in with Lieutenant Winston, but I didn’t agree with the way he was taking his class. If there’s one thing I’ve inherited as a Forest,” he looked right at her, “it’s that you speak up if you see something you don’t like.”
“Your behavior will be monitored by your superiors, and it will be shared directly with me.”
He patted his chest with several loud thumps. “I’m flattered, Admiral. The most important leader in all of the Coalition is going to be monitoring little old me. You have better things to do,” he said flatly. “Plus, we both know what’s gonna happen here.”
“And what’s that?” It was time for Admiral Forest to use her own poker face.
“I’m gonna get kicked out. I’m gonna screw up again. It’s only a matter of time. Because I,” he stood tall as he pushed his chair into the desk with a hard shove, “am the Coalition’s greatest disappointment.” He winked and went to walk out.
“You have not been dismissed yet, Aaron. You might pretend not to be able to keep up with most of the Academy’s rigorous standards,” she parroted precisely what he’d said earlier, “but you know that rule.”
Sighing, he turned. He even smiled, though it wasn’t because he was happy and neither was he being friendly. That was just his resting facial position. “May I be dismissed, Admiral, please?” He snapped a totally unnecessary salute.
She sighed one last time. She rose. She took a long time to look at him. Up and down, up and down, it was like she was counting every single one of his faults. She could try, but it would take a long time to list all of his problems. Even before his mother had died, Aaron hadn’t been one for authority.
“You’ve got something special in you, Aaron, I know it. Trust me,” she said with a knowing look that would tell everyone she knew what she was talking about. “I’ve seen enough cadets in your exact position who doubted their abilities just like you do now.”
He sniggered. “I don’t doubt my abilities. They don’t exist. Except for combat,” he added, a certain kind of smile on his lips. “We all know I’m great at punching things.”
She ignored his comment. “I’ve seen enough people in your exact position,” she repeated, “to know that all you lack is one thing.”
He was done with this. If he was going to get kicked out for one more act of insubordination, he might as well make it impressive and sass the head admiral herself. He turned and walked to the door. Just before he got within range of it automatically opening, she cleared her throat. “The thing you lack,” she said pointedly, “is a challenge.”
That comment actually got to him. Shifting his jaw hard, he looked right at her. “I face challenges every day. Last night, there were no hot dogs left over in the cafeteria—”
“Whether you like it or not, Aaron, challenges always come. That’s part of life. The question will be how you respond.” She took several seconds to look at him once more. Her eyes could have pierced through the thickest armor.
“If there’s one thing you know full well about me, Lara, it’s that I don’t face challenges. I walk away from them.” With that, he walked out.