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.
“You’ll make an admiral yet, Isabel,” Captain Bridges said as he clapped. The sound echoed through the training ground, his big hands like a drum of appreciation.
Isabel stood from her crouched position and wiped the sweat off her brow with a swipe of her thumb and forefinger. “Well, I don’t think I’ve worked that hard for a long time.”
He chuckled. “You work that hard – and harder – every time you train. That’s what makes you special, kid.” Real appreciation glittered in his eyes as he smiled even wider. “You excel where others don’t. You try where others fail, and you will rise where the rest of your classmates will stagnate.”
She tried to smile, but it was awkward. You would think she would’ve gotten used to praise by now, but you’d be wrong. Every time it was showered on her – either by Captain Bruce Bridges or her classmates and teachers – it just got weirder.
Isabel couldn’t help the way she was. She was tall, she was fit, and she’d always been strong. She was great in all of her classes. She was the top of her grade. And when she graduated in a few short months, she would take a position on a massive heavy cruiser. Heck, she just had to pick which one. She didn’t have to line up to apply – captains were lining up for her.
Arching her back and planting her palm against her lumbar, she rolled her lip through her teeth. “I feel like I’m still slowing down too much in the second half of the course. I know I’ve got more speed in me.”
Bridges chuckled. He crossed his large arms in front of his broad chest and looked right at her. “You’re right. You can get faster.” All of his vocal emphasis was on the word can. It was like the equivalent of an exclamation mark. Not one of surprise, but one of force. Because Bridges was all about force. Everything he did – everything he said – came with the promise of strength.
A new breed of captain, as he called himself, he’d cut his teeth a long way away from Earth. He’d patrolled the colony worlds for years. During the recent upsets that had plagued the Coalition, he’d been tasked with keeping those outer colonies safe and stopping the many enemies who bayed for the Coalition’s blood from taking advantage of its disquiet.
Ever since her parents had died, Bridges had become her mentor. She had no one else like him in her life. Hell, she imagined ordinary people didn’t have people like him either. There was something epic about him she couldn’t put her finger on, despite the fact she’d known him for years.
Shrugging again, she finished wicking the sweat from her brow, and she pulled down her Coalition standard activewear, making sure to neaten out any creases in her T-shirt. “What do you think I’m doing wrong?”
“You’re putting out too much power early on. On a dynamic obstacle course like this, you’ve got to keep your grunt for the last half. The computer will learn what you do. If you give it your all in the first round, it will adapt too quickly.”
“If I lag, I’ll waste precious seconds. I know I’m close to shaving at least half a minute off my best time, but I don’t think saving all my energy for the last half of the course is the solution.”
People didn’t usually second-guess Bridges. He had a reputation for jumping down the throat of anyone who questioned him. Hell, she’d even heard him share sharp words with admirals over the years, despite the fact they outranked him.
With her it was different. With her, Bridges had always taught her to push. Push her body, push her mind, and push anyone who got in her way.
That wasn’t a rude thing. Or at least, she didn’t interpret it that way. She didn’t run around doing whatever she pleased at the Academy. Hell, she was her mother’s daughter, and if there was anything Nelly had taught her, it was to be conscientious and polite.
What she was getting at was that when it came to Bridges, he’d taught her to question him. He wanted her to be independent. A good soldier could think on their own, act on their own, and make a difference on their own.
As she walked out of the training ring, the computer disengaged, and a beep echoed through the air. The training ground was a large room of about 50 meters by 50 meters. It was composed of multiple interchangeable rings that could move around the large space. There were massive holographic projectors embedded in the floor, walls, and ceiling. The entire 50-meter-square area could become a movable and programmable obstacle course. You could train anyone anything here. Hell, you could even simulate the bridge of a super-heavy cruiser. Combat, engineering, medicine – all of the key areas of the Coalition could be taught in a room like this.
Training grounds were expensive. They were usually booked out by classes. Bridges had always found the time and authority to get her extra training in them by herself. Back when she’d just started at the Academy, she’d wondered if he was overstepping the line, using his familiarity with her and abusing his authority to give her a leg up.
Now she didn’t question anymore. It was a legitimate part of her training. As the top of her class, she could request at least seven hours a week in one of these training centers. She used every single one.
Grabbing a metal flask with a miniaturized water synthesizer lodged in the bottom, she tapped on the base with her palm twice. It vibrated, and two lines of yellow diodes lit up along the side. In a matter of seconds, it had synthesized water right out of the air.
She chugged it down, not caring as several long lines splashed down her chin and throat.
She wiped them away, synthesized another bottle, and drank that too.
All the while Bridges watched her.
He often did that. It’s how he gave her tips to change and grow. And there was always… this quality behind his gaze. As she’d said before – there was no one like Bridges. His attention was something else entirely. It was sharp, crystal clear, and totally aware. It was like he was a computer in disguise.
When she was done, they walked out of the training room.
“I managed to bend the combat faculty’s arm,” Bridges said. “We’ve got another training room coming online next week. It’ll be calibrated by the engineers for the rest of this week. They’re just making fine-tuning adjustments so that it can handle real-world simulations of critical core meltdowns. A function you won’t need.”
She frowned. “So you’re telling me I can use it while the engineers aren’t calibrating?”
He nodded. “And you will. And by the end of this week, you’ll have cut half an hour off your best training time.” There was no question. Because there never was with Bridges. If he knew something would happen, then it would happen, because he would move Heaven and Earth to ensure it did.
Grinning, she nodded. “Thanks. But are you sure I won’t be getting in anyone’s way?”
“You know the engineering faculty. Not too many people can get in Chief Engineer Xevox’s way. She’ll let you know if she needs the room. Use the time. Improve,” he said simply.
He patted her on her shoulder. That was the most human contact they ever had. Bridges was not the kind to bother with such trivial things. He was a man of action, and aside from his loyal crew, he was a loner.
In many ways, Isabel was like him. She might be the top of her class, and the rest of her peers might adore her, but… she’d never been able to connect.
It wasn’t them. It was very much her. Blame it on the early death of her parents or something else, but Isabel always felt different.
They parted outside of the training facility, and Isabel wished Bridges good luck for his next mission. Then she turned and hurried to class.
Sorry, pre-class. It was only 6:30 in the morning. She’d already put in an hour and a half of training. Now she was going to a pre-class for engineering. It wasn’t like she technically needed it. Her scores in engineering were great, but they weren’t the best, and as Bridges kept telling her, she should be the best. The only thing that stopped her was motivation.
Isabel had never questioned his reasoning.
… Though it was awkward to admit, she really was very good. No, exceedingly good. She… it just went back to the fact that she’d always been stronger, fitter, and smarter than everyone around her.
Long before her parents had died, when she’d been in primary school, when she’d played sports, she’d been in divisions five grades ahead of her. At the Academy, she was already in her last year, so now she played in the non-human divisions. Otherwise, it wasn’t a challenge.
Sighing, she rushed to class.
Once pre-engineering was done, it was time to start her ordinary day of study.
She had a full day of classes. When it was over, she’d come back and train. You could easily accuse Isabel of not having a life. Sometimes she wondered if there was more. Then she reminded herself that a life worth living was a life of work. That had been her father’s mantra. It was one she carried with her wherever she went – as well as his signet ring.
He’d been an accomplished scientist. He’d helped discover newer, cleaner energy sources for the previous class of Coalition cruisers. The Coalition wouldn’t be in the position it was today if it hadn’t been for him. Even if she tried as hard as she could, she’d never do anything nearly as important as what he’d achieved, but he was still a reason to keep trying.
She wore his signet ring around her neck as a pendant. She fingered it now as she finished up medic training and headed to combat class.
Whenever she slipped her loving, nostalgic embrace around that ring, her mind calmed down. She’d get perspective. She’d remember what she was doing and why she tried so hard.
She reached combat class. It was in one of the new training centers. As she strode in, it was to the sight of all the assembled students staring at her in awe.
That kind of happened wherever she went but especially in combat class.
Isabel couldn’t explain it. She’d tried to multiple times, but there was just something about her in combat. It wasn’t even a combination of her athletic skill, agility, and determination. She just couldn’t fail when it came to fighting.
She hadn’t had a chance to change into her activewear yet. Something Commander Phillips, who was running the class, noted as she looked Isabel up and down. “We all know you’re brilliant, Cadet, but the standard uniform isn’t great for running drills in. Unless you want an extra challenge today, I suggest you go change.”
Bashfully, Isabel nodded and averted her eyes. “I didn’t get a chance to change – sorry. I had to stay behind for an honors project in science class.”
Phillips chuckled. “Don’t sweat it. Go change. By that time, our wayward hero should’ve arrived.”
Isabel’s nose scrunched. “Sorry? Wayward hero?”
“It’s kinder than what the other teachers call him. Aaron is a lot of things, but at least in my class he’s not a screwup.”
“Aaron? Sorry, but I’m lost.”
“That’s because I haven’t explained anything yet. It’s going to be a different class today. Hell, it’s going to be different for the rest of the semester. You might notice that there are more students here today.” Phillips gestured to the assembled crowd. “The fourth and fifth years will be combining on an upcoming training mission. Each year group will be led by the best students in their grade. That will be you for the fifth years and Cadet Forest for the fourth years. This will be a special assignment.”
Before Isabel could question what Phillips meant by special, she was shooed off to change. When she came back in, it was to the sight of a guy walking into the training ground a full 12 minutes late.
She thought she’d seen him around, but it was hard to say. He had a semi-muscular build. He certainly wasn’t as large as some of the combat specialists in her class, but what he lacked in bulk, he made up for in sinewy agility. She could just tell from the way he was built that he knew how to move. He would combine speed with strength, and if he knew how to work those two, he would be a deadly opponent.
When a cadet was late, they rushed right up to their teacher, explained their issue, and embarrassedly shuffled to the back of the class. Not this guy. He walked in and nodded at Phillips, offered her a half-frown half-grin as if he hadn’t been able to help himself, then dumped his bag on the floor. He casually planted a hand on his hip and stared at the training ground, his gaze sweeping over the assembled students quickly. “You’ve got quite a crowd here today, Phillips.”
“That’s Commander to you, Cadet,” Phillips said, her voice tight with a warning.
Either this guy was too obtuse to pick it up, or he just didn’t care. He scratched his shoulder. He was in the standard cadet uniform. While Isabel hadn’t had a chance to change before class, she’d quickly rectified the issue.
This guy? He kicked his bag to the side, stared at the other students, then turned and looked at the ceiling for some reason.
“Cadet, what are you doing?” Phillips asked. You could mistake her voice for being patient. It certainly had an even tone. But if you read between the lines – and critically, you saw her gaze – you would realize that patience was the last thing on her mind. It was obvious that this cadet was walking a tightrope, and Phillips was about to push him off.
“I’m checking to see when the simulation will start running. I’m assuming,” he pointed from him to the other assembled cadets, “that the only reason you’ve brought together the fourth and fifth years is that you’re trying to teach us how to work together or something. This is going to be some,” he balled up a hand and struck his chest twice, “loyalty-building exercise the Coalition intends to use to forge our future relationships so we work as a single interconnected unit when we finally graduate and take our positions in space.”
“An accurate assessment. Though perhaps it would be more on the mark if you dropped your sarcastic tone. Now, Forest, go and change. You have two minutes.”
Isabel’s eyes practically fell out of her head. Sorry. What? That was Cadet Forest? That wasn’t possible. Phillips had to have been talking about a different Cadet Forest. As the guy strode away nonchalantly like he didn’t have a single care in the world – and that included authority – Isabel deliberately searched the crowd. Soon enough she picked out one of the most physically impressive specimens – a guy who looked as if he was half-human and half-Yarra. From the way he held himself to the way the other cadets stared at him, it was clear that he was the cream of the crop when it came to the fourth years.
She tried to smile at him.
Commander Phillips clapped her hands loudly. “All right, students, listen up. This is going to be the most ambitious combat scenario the Academy has ever run. You,” she pointed at everyone, “get to be guinea pigs. If we can pull this off, it will change the standard combat program. It will prepare you in a way other cadets have only ever dreamed of for the real rigors of space. This will be a privilege,” she started walking around the cadets and staring at them in turn, “and a burden. You will be expected to put in twice as much effort as those going through the standard class. You won’t get any better grades. You won’t get any fancy commendations. All you will get is better training. And in my mind,” she tapped a short nail against her left temple, “that’s a better deal. Ultimately, space doesn’t care if you’ve got a lot of medals.”
“Space only cares if you can stay alive,” someone said from behind Phillips.
It was Cadet Forest. He now wore his active gear – tight black and gray pants, a gray tunic top, and an unzipped jacket. Standard cadet activity wear was made of smart, reactive fabrics that conformed to the shape of their wearer. They wicked sweat away, regulated body temperature, and offered a little protection against contusions, muscle damage, and fractures.
Somehow, Forest made it look as if he’d worn his clothes to bed. They were rumpled, loose, and exactly not what you would expect from a fourth year.
Isabel usually didn’t find herself upholding social standards. Her surrogate father did that for her. She liked to think that she was easy-going. Something about Cadet Forest rubbed her up the wrong way, and she crossed her arms and frowned at him.
He noticed. Rather than look bashful, he slowly pressed his lips into a smile and winked.
Before she could splutter – or blush if her mutinous cheeks had their way – Phillips turned. “The prodigal son has returned. Yes. That was what I was going to say. You’ve heard it enough, haven’t you? But do you really understand the rigors of space?” There was something pointed about the way Phillips said that.
Forest shrugged. “Do I understand that space tries to kill you in ever creative ways? Do I understand that the Coalition has become progressively less safe? Do I understand that our enemies have been pushing further into our borders? Do I understand the combat program has been lacking for several years? Yeah, I think I do.”
Phillips had been cutting Cadet Forest a lot of slack. That ended now. With one stiff thumb, she pointed him toward the back of the class. “No more snide comments. I’ll be talking to you at the end of the class. And I will be talking to her,” she added.
Isabel could only assume that Phillips meant Forest’s supervisor. For him to have one, it meant that he was in trouble enough to require his very own compliance officer.
That didn’t surprise Isabel at all. She thought nothing of crossing her arms tighter and scowling even harder.
“Right,” Phillips said as Cadet Forest slowly slouched his way to the back of the class. “As I was saying,” she said pointedly, “you won’t get anything special for participating in this mission. If you want extracurricular points, I suggest you opt-out and go do some other class. All you’ll get from this experience is experience, and you will get to use it as you see fit. The galaxy,” she looked right at Isabel for some reason then switched her gaze around, searched through the crowd, and stared at Forest, “is changing,” she emphasized with a puff of air. “Quickly. So quickly it’s hard to predict what will happen next. We have new enemies,” her voice dropped, “and a new galaxy full of potential trouble. The way you learn to handle yourselves under stress could dictate the lives of thousands if not millions of souls in the Coalition. I go back to the point that you are privileged to be taking part in this experience. But this is a burden. Once you acquire worthwhile skills, you have a responsibility to use them in the protection of those less able than yourselves. I only ask that you use this mission to do just that. If this extra training can mean each of you saves one extra life,” she brought a finger up and held it stiffly, “then it will have paid for itself.”
Isabel listened. She was always extraordinarily conscientious when it came to class. Hell, it was a surprise she wasn’t taking notes. She usually cared about the exact intonation of her lecturer’s voice, their body language, and their precise choice of words. For whatever reason, she found her gaze ticking to the side and searching through the crowd until it locked on Mr. Screwup. She’d remembered what Phillips had said. The name fit the guy perfectly. There was something about him that gave you the impression that even if you gave him the best weapons, the best armor, and the best orders, he would drop the ball every single time.
She’d already pointed out that he’d rubbed her up the wrong way – but being willfully incompetent was worse. Her parents had been killed in an accident. A preventable one. An arrogant, drunk pilot had led to their deaths. This guy reminded her exactly of that pilot – someone who just didn’t have the basic human decency to care for those around them.
“This is what’s gonna happen,” Phillips got down to business. Swiping her hand to the side, a holographic projector dismounted from a hole in the ceiling. As it hovered above her head, it changed shape until a circular rim of yellow light spread out in every direction. It soon transposed a scene all around the combat training room, solid holograms intermingling among the cadets.
It showed an ice planet. Isabel tried to discern where it could be based on the color of the snow and the shape of the crags.
“Does anyone know where this planet is?” Phillips asked.
Isabel put a hand up. It was on the tip of her tongue.
“Cadet Isabel Carter?” Phillips asked, a smile in her voice.
“It’s Ragnar. 2B, if I’m an expert,” a surly voice pointed out from the back of the room.
It had to be Cadet Forest.
Phillips chuckled. “Was that a guess, Forest?”
“Very specific guess, sir. The more specific a guess is, the less likely it is to be a guess.”
“I don’t need a lesson on probability. Now, you’re right. This is Ragnar 2B.”
There was a general muttering of excitement. It ran through the crowd like wildfire rushing through dry grass.
“Does anyone know why Ragnar 2B would be the perfect place for a combat training scenario?” Phillips asked.
Now Isabel knew what she was looking at, she understood perfectly. “Sir, if I may?” She put her hand up.
Again Phillips got halfway through pointing at Isabel before Forest interrupted.
He cleared his throat. It was a loud, irritating noise. “It has variable conditions. They don’t know why, but at some point in its history, it had an unfortunate run-in with a quantum singularity. Its seasons change by the day, sometimes by the hour depending on which area you find yourself in. You can go from freezing like the tail of a comet, to a heatwave that will melt everything around you and turn the terrain into a deadly mudslide.”
Phillips pressed her lips together. It was hard to predict whether she would act angrily at his interruption or praise him. Because he was right.
She settled for a mixture of both. “Please don’t interrupt. But you are correct. Ragnar 2B is the perfect place for a training simulation, because this planet alone combines terrain like nowhere else. There are patches that are so variable, a beach can become inundated in snow and the ocean can freeze in a matter of minutes. It is a Class A inhospitable world.”
A cadet put his hand up. Forest didn’t feel the need to interrupt this guy.
“Yes, Cadet,” Phillips said.
“Sir, if it’s so inhospitable, how exactly are we going to run a combat situation there?”
“Armor. Every team will be outfitted with their own unique prototype armor that will not just be able to withstand the conditions, but that will be able to adapt.” She lifted a finger. “Its level of adaptation will depend on how smart the user is.”
“What do you mean by smart?” another cadet asked.
“What makes this combat scenario unique is that not only will you be pitted against the weather, but you will be pitted against each other. Fifth years,” she pointed at Isabel, “will go up against fourth years.”
It didn’t take long for a low muttering of discontent to amp up, not from the fourth years, but from Isabel’s classmates.
“Isn’t that a little unfair?” One of her classmates pointed out. “We’re a full year ahead of them.”
“Algorithms suggest you will be evenly matched.” Phillips shrugged.
From the back of the room, Forest gave a little snigger. It wasn’t loud enough to reach Philip’s ears, but Isabel heard it loud and clear. She had an extraordinary sense of hearing. And heck, she was so focused on him that right now he could drop a pin and she’d pick that up too.
Why the hell was he laughing? The Academy’s algorithms had obviously made a mistake. Isabel’s class had a full year of experience on Cadet Forest and his contemporaries. Plus, her class was ranked as one of the best in the Coalition’s history. They’d won more awards than any other grade year. She herself had won most of the awards, to be fair, but the rest of her team had racked up records that would likely stand for years if not decades.
“Is this really fair?” another cadet asked. “We fifth years are all older and better trained.”
“There’s more to combat than grunt,” Phillips said, again dodging the question.
“Sir.” Isabel lifted her hand.
Other cadets had been about to ask questions, but they all dropped their hands.
“Yes, Cadet Carter?”
“Can you let us know a little about your reasoning?”
“Very well. The fifth years may have won more records than any year that has ever come before them, but,” she emphasized that, “the Academy’s best data science tests have run the algorithms. You and your contemporaries have a weakness.”
Isabel stiffened. Everyone else smiled, reasoning Phillips had to be lying. Isabel looked alarmed. The mere suggestion that her rigorous combat training could have a weakness was like a slap to the face.
“With all due respect, sir, what is that weakness?”
Phillips gestured wide. “You’ll find out. That’s what this combat scenario is about. Not only will we be trialing this system for future years, but we want each of your year groups to learn from one other.”
“As if we have anything to learn from fourth years,” one of Isabel’s friends pointed out quietly.
There was a fourth-year standing close by, and he sniggered. “Oh, you have something to learn, alright.” The guy flicked his gaze back to Forest. “You’ll learn how to fight crazy.” There was a slightly accusatory note to his tone, but it was more than subsumed under amusement and a touch of pride.
… Fight crazy?
“Carter, Forest, come up here.” Phillips gestured to her side.
Isabel walked up, and she turned her gaze quickly toward the guy she was certain had to be the other Forest. She was wrong. The rude, insensitive, impertinent cadet who’d already aggravated her so badly she was willing to write him off for life slouched out of the back of the group and walked casually up to Phillips’ side.
Isabel stopped and stared at him.
“Carter.” Phillips nodded to her other side.
Finally Isabel pushed herself into gear. She stopped beside Phillips. Though she didn’t want to turn her head and actively goggle at Forest, she locked the rest of her senses on him instead.
She could hear the way his muscles creaked as he held himself like a disaffected teenager. While her chest was pushed out and her head was held high, Forest managed to look like he was leaning even though there wasn’t anything to lean against.
“Cadet Aaron Forest will lead the fourth years, and Cadet Isabel Carter here will lead the fifths. For the next few months, both teams will be expected to work together before the mission date in precisely eight weeks from now,” Phillips continued.
This couldn’t be happening. Phillips had to be playing some joke, because there was no way in hell this guy could possibly be the most talented student in his class. Unless the fourth years were starved of talent, that is – but looking around, Isabel saw several prime candidates who could replace the rude, irritating Aaron Forest in a heartbeat.
Isabel became so focused on Aaron that she didn’t pay a scrap of attention to what Phillips was saying. Soon Phillips waved them off and started a lecture on Ragnar 2B. Throughout the entire interactive holographic display, Isabel continued to expect Phillips to admit this was all a mistake.
By the end of the class it became clear this was no joke.
In precisely eight weeks, she’d go toe-to-toe with Aaron Forest and the rest of his class. The outcome would be one thing – total annihilation. You tell that to the fourth years, though. When the class was done and both year groups were left to eye each other off as Phillips hurried to another class, the fourth years had a certain cocky look that suggested this mission would be the upset of the century – all provided by their screwup leader, Aaron.
A few of Isabel’s friends shot Aaron unfriendly looks as he slouched his way out of class. Isabel could tell that they were all thinking what she was – there was no way in hell that someone with his personality could lead undertrained cadets to defeat the best undergraduate combat team the Academy had ever seen.
Aaron seemed oblivious, both to the stares of his proud classmates and the decidedly less kind glares of the fifth years. He walked right out of class as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
This was Isabel’s last class of the day, but that didn’t mean she was free. She had to prep for training. That didn’t stop her from marching right out of the training ground. When she got to the huge electronic doors that led out into the wide, sweeping, light-filled corridor, she saw Aaron dead ahead.
She strode right up to him, cleared her throat, and preemptively crossed her arms, because it was a safe bet that the first thing to come out of his mouth would insult either her, the Academy, or both.
Aaron didn’t notice, or if he did, he didn’t do her the dignity of caring.
“Excuse me,” she said brusquely.
He sighed and turned. “Combat class is finished, Fifth Year.”
“You know my name, just as I know yours.”
“Right, yeah. Isabel, ha? Nice to meet you.” Shoving his bag higher over his shoulder, he turned right around and continued down the corridor. Classroom doors branched off on both sides. There were huge windows set above them, and they let in the streaming late afternoon sun. It could almost have been pleasant – were it not for Aaron fricking Forest.
“Don’t walk away from me, Cadet – the conversation is not over.”
He sighed. “Look—”
She marched around and faced him; the task of turning and facing her was obviously too much for him. How the hell this guy had made it through to his fourth year in one of the most rigorously demanding programs in the whole galaxy, she didn’t know.
He stared right at her and gently inclined his head to the side. “I’m just guessing, but you look pretty angry off with me.” Despite the tone of their conversation so far, a smile spread his lips. It was fake. It did genuine people with genuine emotions a disservice to call it a smile. What it was was pure arrogance solidified into one handsome but totally not worth it face.
Though Isabel didn’t usually think like this, she needed a new vocabulary and set of rules when it came to Cadet Forest.
He took one look at her expression and laughed. “Wow, You’re pretty quick on the uptake. It usually takes people a good day and a half to hate me as much as you do. What exactly was it that got on your nerves? Wait.” He clicked his fingers and twisted his head to the side. “I’ve heard about you. You’re a real golden girl, Cadet Carter. If there’s one thing I know about golden girls and boys, it’s that you love to keep up standards. I,” he grabbed his collar and smoothed his fingers down it, “must really get your goat. I am the Academy’s number one screwup. And here you are, its new rising star. Yet we still have to work together. All I can say is I’m sorry. Your luck must’ve taken a turn. Don’t worry. Our assignment together will only last for several agonizing months.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You think this is funny, do you? You heard what Philips said. This is a privilege yet a responsibility.”
He rolled his eyes at her. “Philips said that because she’s reading from the standard Coalition chest-thumping book on how to trick unsuspecting cadets into doing something they don’t want to do by appealing to their misguided sense of loyalty. Let me break it down for you. We are going to be taken to one of the most inhospitable planets in this quadrant, dumped down for two weeks, and set at each other’s throats. You really call that a privilege?”
“We will not be set at each other’s throats,” Isabel tried.
This just made him click his fingers again. “Right. Because we’re at each other’s throats already. Why wait for the training mission? Let’s just go toe-to-toe right now.”
She looked powerfully affronted. She didn’t usually act this way. Most people respected her or at the very least afforded someone with her grades the basic dignity she deserved. “Are you really suggesting a sparring match here—”
“Whoa, whoa.” He brought his hands up wide. “I’m not about to have a go at the Academy’s finest in the corridor. That’s not what I’m suggesting. We’re already engaged in combat verbally. The mission is irrelevant, anyway. I guarantee it was invented just to get to me. Don’t let yourself get caught up with this. Go live out your fantastic existence getting top marks and appearing on Academy promotional mugs, or whatever the hell happens when you’re a golden girl. Forest has made her point. I’ll go in there this afternoon, tell her she’s dreaming, and have this scenario canceled.”
Suffice to say, Isabel didn’t follow. Even if his quick, informal speech had been captioned, she still wouldn’t have comprehended a thing. “Sorry, Forest?”
He narrowed his eyes at her and got the kind of look a worried doctor would get if his patient started spouting gibberish. “As in Admiral Forest? The most decorated—”
“I know who Admiral Forest is,” she snapped. “Why would she care?”
Though he’d managed to look unaffected during most of the conversation, a decidedly sour expression darkened his features. “Let’s just say it’s personal. This time she’s overstepped the line. Sure, she keeps telling me I need a decent challenge, but I didn’t expect her to cook up one that involved two entire grades of the Academy.”
“You will afford an admiral the dignity of their rank,” she began.
He lifted his hand up and let it hover close to her face. It was a little too near for her taste. She took a determined step back, her eyes blazing. “What are you doing?”
“Just stop there. Admiral Forest was my mother’s cousin. She considers herself a surrogate mother ever since my real one passed away in a completely avoidable accident. Forest wants me to stick it out at the Academy. Me,” he patted his chest twice, “I can see the writing on the wall. I’m not suited for this place, and this place isn’t suited for me. This ridiculous mission,” he pointed back in the direction of the training room, “is nothing more than a test for me.”
Though he had the same surname as Admiral Forest, she wouldn’t have guessed that he was related to her. Not in a million years. Though Isabel hadn’t had much to do with the admiral herself, considering Lara Forest was way too busy running the galaxy to bother having anything to do with ordinary cadets, Isabel knew enough about her. Every single officer, recruit, and technician at the Academy did, because there wouldn’t be an Academy without Admiral Forest. She had saved everyone’s skin more times than anyone could count. Yet here Aaron was, not only claiming to be related to her, but disrespecting her in the same sentence.
He arched an eyebrow. “You’re getting a kind of fiery look in your eyes. So I’m just going to stop you right there. Like I said, this is none of your business. Forest is after me. I will quit so she can stop this dumbass training scenario and spare everyone the trouble.”
“You will not,” Isabel said in a certain kind of voice. It was one she rarely used, but by God was it one that was effective when she did crack it out. Isabel didn’t feel as if she was on the fast track for a leadership role when she was out of the Academy. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go down that route, anyway. She firmly believed that before you led, you had to live, and there was a lot this wild, expansive, dangerous galaxy could teach her. That wasn’t the point she was getting at. Though she didn’t think she was ready for leadership, Bridges had instilled it in her from a young age. She knew when to channel his authority, and she did so right now.
But if she suspected it would have any effect whatsoever on Aaron Forest, she was sadly mistaken. His bottom lip wobbled, and then it kicked into a grin. “Where’d you learn to do that? Have you been watching too many crappy space horror films? You sound like some kind of draconian over-acted bad guy. No, I tell you who you sound like – Captain Bridges. I’ve seen him on the Galactic news occasionally talking about the colonies—”
“That man is my father.”
Forest just frowned. “He has no kids.”
“He took me under his wing after my parents died.”
For the first time, a little of Aaron’s bluster disappeared. An almost believable compassionate expression took over his features. For several seconds, at least. “Sorry to hear that.”
“All you need to be sorry about is what you just said about Bridges and Admiral Forest. You’re a fourth year, aren’t you?” She gave him a decidedly dismissive look. “By now you should understand how the Academy works.”
All the compassion disappeared from his eyes. It was his turn to let his gaze blaze. She fancied there was even a harder edge than she’d used on him. “Believe you me, Golden Girl, I know exactly how this place works. Now, back to my original point. Don’t worry about this scenario. I’ll go straight to Admiral Forest and get it canceled.” He turned from her.
Isabel wasn’t aggressive. She’d never had a reason to be. Problems always just got out of her way. She liked to think she was a sensitive, compassionate soul, and despite the fact she was freakishly good at combat and was the top of most of her classes, she wasn’t unduly assertive. So why did she grab his arm and fix her fingers in tightly? And why did she stare right into his eyes with the kind of defiance a Barbarian warrior would be proud of? “You will not go to Admiral Forest and have this canceled. This is an opportunity for everyone. You’re just being arrogant if you think it has anything to do with you. Do you honestly think Admiral Forest would organize something so complicated just to give you a challenge?”
Aaron got stuck staring into her eyes. It was not a romantic thing. Slowly, he shifted his gaze down to her hand, then back to her eyes. Pressing his lips together, he took several seconds to pause. Then? He laughed. Somehow, he changed emotional gears quicker than a shuttle pilot dealing with a capricious asteroid belt. “You’re quite something, aren’t you, Isabel Carter? I’m not really sure what to do with your personality. You’re meek and mild on the outside, but when you’re pushed—” He didn’t finish that sentence as he stared pointedly at her hand. “Now, replying to your comment, yes, I absolutely think that Admiral Forest would do something like this to get me to stay in the Academy. It has her style written all over it in big neon letters.”
“You are not going to get this scenario canceled. I want this opportunity,” Isabel said definitively.
He rolled his eyes. “Really? We’ve already talked about this. It’s not an opportunity. Phillips got it right when she said it was a burden. We’re going to an inhospitable world that can change weather patterns in the blink of an eye, and we’re going to hunt each other like glorified Kore mercenaries.”
“This is an opportunity to learn,” she said, not giving up for one second.
“If you actually believe that, then I am touched.” He finally yanked his arm away from her, though it was a soft move. He patted his chest as if she’d just offered him the greatest compliment.
She frowned hard. “Stop fooling around.”
“I’m not fooling around. I’m genuinely touched,” he said again with another fake smile. “For a golden girl like you to actually think that I could put up any sort of challenge is a compliment indeed.”
“What are you talking about?” She was rapidly losing patience with him. “There’s no way I would ever lose to someone like you.”
“Great, we’re both agreed on that point. In which case, we’re both agreed that this training scenario is a complete waste of time. If you think it’s an opportunity, then you logically have to think that I could be some kind of threat to you.” He stared at her pointedly, his gaze flashing with a challenge. “But if we’re both agreed that there’s no chance in holy hell that I could lead the fourth years to victory over you and your golden girls and boys, then let’s end this now.”
She paled at his airtight reasoning. He had an uncomfortable point. Though Isabel usually backed down when she realized she was wrong, she simply could not give up in the face of this man’s total arrogance. She’d been wrong back in the training room. He didn’t just rub her up the wrong way – every single thing about Cadet Aaron Forest made her skin crawl. “Ragnar 2B itself will be an opportunity. You won’t be. Now, you are not going to get this canceled.”
He just laughed. “If you want to go to Ragnar 2B – then go on your own. There’s nothing stopping you from doing it in your free time. Why drag everyone else there just to make a point?”
“People like you disgust me,” she snapped, her reason now well and truly frayed.
If it were possible, he just laughed harder. “Really? You’re escalating things this fast this early on in our relationship? Fine.” Leaning back against the wall, he crossed his arms and looked at her as if this was going to be a long day. “Lay it out on the table, Golden Girl – what is it about me that you despise?”
“Deliberate incompetence. It’s people like you,” she spat, her hackles rising faster with every second, “who get other people killed.”
He’d been about to laugh her comment off. She could tell that, because he’d opened his mouth in preparation, but something held him back. He narrowed his eyes and appeared to look at her from every angle he could. “You actually believe that, don’t you? You think that you have the ability to predict how one person’s actions will or won’t lead to the greater good. Why?”
“I know people like you – people who don’t take responsibility seriously, foist it onto others, and pretend nothing in the galaxy is serious. People like you,” her white lips moved stiffly around that word, “inevitably get others killed.”
Aaron laughed. It was a deep, rumbling move. He’d been playing earlier. Now he was serious. He pushed off the wall. He didn’t move his tethered arms from around his middle, and trust her, they were tethered there. The way he held them made it look as if he’d built a permanent cage around his chest. “There are many things that get people killed in this giant, complicated galaxy of ours, don’t you think? Including,” his voice hardened, “blind loyalty. In fact, if you could put a number on the likelihood of me getting someone killed and you getting someone killed for the wrong reason, the odds would not be in your favor, Golden Girl.”
She was so angry, she couldn’t even answer.
“How many mistakes has the Coalition made? How many people have been wrongfully killed due to bad orders? How many people in positions of privilege have abused their authority to protect themselves and harm others? I can guarantee you,” his voice hardened, “that the number of people killed by mistakes the Coalition has made – and will continue to make – will outnumber anything I could do by my sheer incompetence. And while people like me,” he patted a stiff-knuckled hand on his chest, “might kill out of ignorance, people like you,” he took a step up to her, “kill in a far worse way. You kill while snapping a salute and saying yes sir. You follow orders without thinking them through. You fight blindly and kill blindly, then you still think you can go home at the end of the day and hold your head up high. Good luck with that.” He walked away.
Isabel let him go. Not because the fight was over. In her mind, it was only just beginning. She just couldn’t face him anymore. If she did, she could snap. That wasn’t her overreacting. This pit of anger rose up from her untapped depths. It was a well of emotion she didn’t even know she had.
Isabel couldn’t overemphasize how much she thought of herself as a well-mannered, polite, understanding person, but the sensations raging through her gut right now were evidence that maybe she had no clue who she really was.
There were hidden depths in Isabel’s soul that she was only just starting to plumb. No one had ever bothered to push Isabel to find out who she really was. Now Aaron Forest was doing just that, and he was only beginning.
Had he gone too far? Yeah, he’d gone too far. That often happened with him.
As he found himself casually walking through the Academy grounds back to the accommodation block, he couldn’t get this particular incident out of his mind. Every day Aaron made mistakes. It’s who he was…. But dammit, he couldn’t get the look Isabel had shot him out of his head. When he’d accused her of being far more likely to get people killed if she followed the Coalition blindly than he would if he just followed his own stupid heart, she’d….
Aaron didn’t want to describe the look in her eyes. It suggested something he wasn’t comfortable with. For all her competence and apparent skills, Isabel Carter clearly had a soft side. Sorry, soft was the wrong word. Vulnerable was better. People who were used to being victims had soft sides. Wild animals had vulnerabilities that didn’t for a second change the fact they were deadly overall. Try to go after one of those vulnerabilities, and a wild animal would go after you. He wasn’t trying to say that Carter was a beast. It was just that she had a real hard edge to her.
It almost reminded him of Admiral Forest, but not quite. Forest was someone who knew the depths of her soul. He got the impression Isabel had absolutely no clue what was really inside her.
“Stop trying to think it through,” he snapped out loud. “There’s no point. You feel guilty. You went too far. Just get over it. It’s not like you’ve ever cared about making mistakes before, Aaron,” he continued his one-sided conversation. “Guilt, just like mild indigestion, will pass. Just give it time.” Scrunching up a hand, he struck his chest lightly twice, forced a grin to occupy his lips, and continued around the back way to the accommodation block.
It was a cold day in hell when Aaron walked through the main grounds that sat between the five massive towers of the Academy central campus. It wasn’t that he felt exposed, though he could guarantee that some compliance officer’s eagle-eyes would track him if he showed up in public too often. It was that Aaron was the kind of guy who felt far more comfortable around the back roads of the galaxy. When his mom had still been alive, he’d traveled with her. She’d been one for independence. It hadn’t mattered that he’d been a kid as she’d explored the colony worlds and some of the most dangerous sectors in the galaxy; she’d always sent him off on his own. So he’d learned to get by. And the number one lesson of surviving is to ensure you minimize the things you have to protect. If he kept alone, it was a hell of a lot easier to get by.
“Just put it out of your head,” he muttered to himself one final time. “Go see Forest, get this training game canceled, then… bum around the galaxy for the rest of your life,” he muttered.
Usually when he planned out his life like this, he did so with a certain kind of smile on his face. Not today. For whatever reason, his mind kept ticking back to Cadet Carter.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. He kept walking, even though his eyes were closed.
He could usually pull it off. Not this time, apparently. Someone came rushing around the side of a tight laneway, and he banged right into them.
The words, “I’m sorry,” were out long before he bothered to check who he’d hit.
It was Carter. It had been only about 20 minutes since their fight.
And here they were again.
Her face solidified. Seriously, it was like water that had just come in contact with liquid nitrogen. Just like any frozen substance, it could, and did, shatter. Her lips jerked up hard. “Did you bump into me on purpose?”
He chortled. “Clearly I didn’t. I just wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“You know, you’re going to have to get over this.”
He gestured wide. “Get over what? The fact that you don’t like me? Don’t worry, I’m already over it.”
“If we can’t work together, the only person you’ll be hurting is yourself. I will ensure that my part in this mission goes off without a hitch.”
“I’m sure you will—”
Isabel barreled into him.
No warning, no hesitation, and no pause. The next thing he knew, she wrapped an arm around his back and yanked him hard to the side.
She fell on top of him. She had a tall, athletic form, and she had to have a high metabolism, because she was warm all over.
The slight angle of her hip dug into his pelvis, and her hands squeezed his biceps.
These were all details he had precisely one second to notice.
Something slammed into the grass beside them.
Before he could question what it was, blood splattered over his face.
Isabel’s eyes became wild with fright as she jerked up.
“What the hell?” he stammered breathlessly. He pushed into a seated position and almost threw up.
There was… there was a body beside him.
“Oh my God.” Isabel lurched down to one knee and shoved out a shaking hand. It looked as if she was about to check the corpse’s pulse.
There wouldn’t be one. The guy was a mess of fractured bones, torn clothes, and ruptured skin.
Turning his head up, Aaron quickly surmised that the guy had fallen off the roof. And the roof was a good way up. They were right next to the accommodation block, and it was one of the tallest towers at the Academy.
There were countless security precautions in place to prevent somebody from falling off one of the tall rooftops of the Academy campus. From permanently active transporters that would lock onto a falling body, to security nets that ran around the rooftops and should – theoretically – prevent anyone from ever slipping and tumbling down that fatal drop.
Falling was one thing. As Aaron’s gaze narrowed, he swore he saw someone up there.
“Hey, was that guy pushed?” he stammered.
Isabel had been hovering over the dead man’s body, but now it was her turn to jerk her head up. Even from a meter away, Aaron watched breathlessly as her gaze narrowed.
He almost thought he’d seen someone on the roof, but as Isabel’s cheeks paled, it was clear she actually discerned them. “There’s definitely someone up there.” She jumped to her feet. “What the hell is going on?”
“What? How can you possibly see that there’s someone up there?” Aaron had a chance to spit.
“Call the medics. I’ll see who that is,” she snapped.
The next thing he knew, she pushed off.
“What? What are you talking about? You can’t get up to the roof fast enough. Carter? Carter?” he called after her, but she’d already started running around the side of the building.
“Dammit,” he spat. He’d already yanked his wrist device up. He tapped on it desperately. While the screen activated, it couldn’t get a signal. “What the hell?”
He turned to find Isabel. He expected she’d have rushed around the side of the building to get to the main entrance.
Yeah, that’s not what was happening.
“Holy hell,” he whispered under his breath as he watched her climb right up the side of the building.
Carter hadn’t suddenly grown sticky fingers, and nor was she so agile and capable that she could jump from window mount to window mount. Instead, she was using something that hadn’t been seen for 15 years.
One and a half decades ago, they’d been the Academy’s crowning achievement. An implant buried above the collarbone of most qualified cadets, it had assisted them to telekinetically manipulate certain objects imbued with a specialized magnetic substance. TOs – or telekinetic objects – could then be fashioned to help assist people with tasks, from moving large goods in engineering and hangar bays, to front up fighting enemies.
They’d been the cornerstone of the Academy’s dominance for years. That was until the Barbarians had found a way to exploit them. Around 15 years ago, the Barbarians launched an attack, wiping out an entire heavy cruiser. All they’d done was hack the crew’s TI implants, then they’d turned the Academy’s greatest tool against itself.
Ever since, every single telekinetic implant and object had been decommissioned.
But that didn’t mean Aaron didn’t know what he was looking at. He was a student of history. He knew precisely what was going on as Carter controlled two long, sword-like objects lodged under her feet. With her hands spread wide, an energy field pulsed blue light around her, and she rose up the side of the building like a frigging meteor in reverse.
He had a chance to flatten his hand on the top of his head, his mouth opening with amazement, before something grabbed the hem of his pants.
Aaron had a good enough control of his nervous system that he didn’t scream.
He jerked his head down and watched in horror as the man – who should be nothing more than a corpse – wrapped his bloodied fingers harder around Aaron’s trouser cuff.
“Jesus, you’re still alive,” Aaron stammered.
“Bridges,” the guy muttered.
“What?” Aaron jerked down to one knee. He didn’t hesitate, and he locked his hand on the man’s broken shoulder. His scapula had pierced his flesh.
Aaron hadn’t paused to note it before, but the guy wore an officer’s uniform. He was a senior technician judging by the specific color of his pips.
“Bridges,” the man spluttered once more.
“Someone threw you off a light bridge?” Aaron tried.
“He… responsible.” The guy didn’t say another word.
His weak grip failed.
“Dammit.” Thrusting forward, Aaron checked the guy’s pulse.
Reeling back, he had time to jerk his head up and check on Carter before she reached the roof and jumped out of sight.
“Damn it all to hell,” Aaron screamed. He tried his wrist device one more time, but it didn’t work.
Though the last thing he wanted to do was leave Carter alone, he couldn’t get to her and he couldn’t very well stay here without calling for help. He thrust around the side of the building. He put his will into running. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d fallen over and broken his leg – nothing would have slowed him down.
Finally he reached the open grounds.
The first person he clapped eyes on was none other than Commander Phillips herself. She was leading a class.
He skidded to a halt next to her.
She had a chance to look irritated, then he brought up his hands, and her gaze locked on the blood covering them. “What—”
“A man has fallen off the roof near the accommodation block. My wrist device wouldn’t work near the scene.”
Phillips didn’t question. Aaron got the impression that if it had been anyone else, the first thing they would’ve done was stare at him incredulously and ask if this was yet another pathetic attempt to cut class.
Phillips kept pace beside him as he led her back to the scene. She took one look at the body, yanked up her own wrist device, and tried to make a call.
When her wrist device beeped in that cold, irritating tone that told anyone it couldn’t get a signal, she locked a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “Go directly to the command building.”
“Go directly to the command building, Aaron. Go find the captain on duty and bring them here.”
“That’s an order, Aaron. There’s no time to waste.”
Though he wasn’t one for accepting orders – even he couldn’t deny the immediacy in her tone. He turned as fast as he could, his regulation boots tearing up a chunk of grass. He got one meter, then jerked back around.
“Aaron – I need the captain on duty now.”
“Carter was with me. She… she used some kind of telekinetic object to head up onto the roof. We saw someone up there.”
Phillips jerked her head up. Her cheeks paled, and her eyes narrowed. “Dammit. Go get me that captain now.”
Aaron didn’t waste any more time. He ran around the side of the building. Though he usually wasn’t one for heading through the main grounds, now he cut across them like a cheetah hurtling through the African savanna.
Several of his teachers saw him, and each one told him to slow down.
He did not.
He reached the command building and threw himself in through the front door. He banged into two lieutenants on the way past. Both of them were strapping, and neither was the kind to allow a wayward cadet to impertinently strike them, let alone run in the command building.
“Hey—” one of them snapped as he reached out a burly hand to grab Aaron.
Showing his signature speed, Aaron ducked under it. Sure, there were plenty of other guys who were tough in his combat class. Hell, there was a guy who was a Ventian. He was eight foot tall. But Aaron had put him down many times. At the end of the day, strength only got you so far. Speed meant everything. If you could punch like a heavy cruiser smashing through an atmosphere, it was all very well, but if your opponent had already ducked out of your way, all that power meant nothing. If, on the other hand, the punch was only half as strong, but your speed meant that every single blow connected, you would be the winner.
“Hey,” the disgruntled lieutenant snarled, his voice pitching around the room.
“Gotta go,” Aaron snapped. He scanned the command atrium, searching for the captain on duty.
Fortunately, the lieutenant had created a scene. Two security officers marched up to Aaron.
One of them was a commander. Though the guy wasn’t the captain on duty, surely he was close enough.
Aaron went to run up to the guy, but he stopped. He saw the back of a large, powerfully built man, and from the side, he noted the stripes on his shoulder. There were four – the man was a captain. Judging by the fact there wasn’t another captain in the room, he would have to be on duty.
Aaron stepped toward the guy, then something churned in his gut and he recognized the man.
The victim’s words came smashing back into Aaron’s head like a battering ram.
Bridges. Man. Responsible.
Aaron became cold.
Those security officers jogged up to him.
“What the hell are you doing, Cadet?”
Though all Aaron wanted to do was make a scene, he couldn’t get Bridges involved. What if he really was a suspect?
“Cadet?” The Security commander placed a hand on Aaron’s shoulder.
Aaron stepped to the side. “Commander Phillips is guarding a crime scene,” he said quietly. “She requested I come here immediately to gather security.” Aaron lowered his voice, ensuring even a Kore Assassin wouldn’t be able to pick it up. “Someone’s been killed.”
The guy’s hand fell off Aaron’s shoulder. “If you’re playing around—”
Aaron brought up the cuffs of his bloodstained uniform. “This way.” He didn’t give the guy any other time to question. He ran out of the doors.
Though the two affronted lieutenants Aaron had smashed into didn’t look pleased, it was clear from the security guard’s body language that something was up.
As Aaron threw himself out of the door, he turned quickly. Scanning the crowd in the command atrium, he saw Bridges. He’d stopped in the middle of the room, and he was looking right at Aaron.
Aaron ignored the cold sweat that slicked his brow as he threw himself into a run.
The security commander and his lieutenant were right behind Aaron. In the blink of an eye, he was back at the crime scene. Time just didn’t seem to count right now. Seconds felt like rain slashing around him as he stared down at the man’s broken body.
Phillips knelt beside him, her hand hovering over the broken man’s shoulder. As soon as she heard footfall, she whipped her head around. Relief had a chance to plaster her face, then disappointment came hot on its heels. “Aaron, I told you to get the captain on duty.”
“What the hell is happening here?” the security commander said as he jolted over. He stared from the broken body then up to the roof.
“There’s always a captain on duty on the first floor of the command building,” Phillips continued to reprimand Aaron.
Aaron had no clue what to do. At the back of his head, he appreciated how serious it would be to cast aspersions on Captain Bridges if he didn’t have real evidence. Yet could he ignore this dying man’s words?
“The guy said something before he died.” Aaron decided to go with the truth.
“What are you talking about, son?” The security commander clearly had great hearing.
Aaron sighed under his breath. Here we go, he thought. “The guy said Bridges before he died—”
“How the hell could the guy say something before he died? Aaron, he fell off the roof. He would’ve been dead the second he reached the ground,” Phillips countered.
“I can only tell you what happened. He grabbed my pant leg. I thought he was dead myself. But he definitely said Bridges.”
The two security offices looked incredulously between themselves, then at Aaron.
Aaron got it. His story didn’t make sense. No one could survive a fall like that. But—
He cut his gaze back down to the corpse.
Phillips warily stood. “I need someone to find me the captain on duty right now,” she stated flatly.
“We’ve got this, ma’am,” the security commander said.
“I’m telling you you don’t. I’m telling you that someone has to go find me the captain in charge—”
The security commander ignored her, yanked up his wrist device, and tapped it twice.
His device, like everyone else’s, gave a long, irritating beep. He growled. “What the hell?”
“Go get me the captain in charge,” Phillips snapped.
“This is a potential crime scene. We need to secure it,” the security commander snapped back. “It will be brought to the attention of the captain in charge in due course.”
Just what the hell is going on here? Why did Phillips need the captain in charge anyway? And why weren’t wrist devices working in this area? And more to the point, how the hell had that body fallen?
So much didn’t make sense.
Aaron lived by one cardinal rule. Very few things were truly random. Especially in this big wide galaxy. If you looked far enough, you would always find a reason behind things, and he couldn’t help but assume something nefarious was going on now.
He ticked his head back and stared at the roof. He hadn’t forgotten Carter. His gut twisted as he thought of her rising up the side of the building like an avenging angel. “I’ve got to get up to the roof,” he suddenly snapped.
“You’re staying right where you are, Aaron,” Phillips commanded.
“Will be able to look after herself. You’re the only witness here now. I need you where you are. Now, someone will go get me the captain in charge—”
“This is our crime scene,” the security commander snapped.
This right here was what Aaron hated the most about the Academy. Pulling rank. Yeah, sure, technically you were meant to be more capable the more you rose up the command ladder. Technically, everyone was meant to have the peace of the Coalition and the prosperity of its citizens at heart, but it didn’t work like that. Human psychology never changed. When you got two personalities who butted up against each other, the common good crumbled and self-interest always won out.
“You will go get me the captain in charge,” Phillips roared. She used that specific voice she was so good at. It was one of the reasons she’d been picked to run the academy’s combat program in these trying times. She could wrangle even the most headstrong student all with a well-placed guttural growl.
The security commander squared off in front of her, clenched his teeth, and went to stare her down.
His subordinate wasn’t so strong. “Look, I’ll go and get—”
Aaron’s mind worked on fast forward. Though he didn’t want to believe for a second that someone like Bridges could have something to do with this, he couldn’t get the dying guy’s words out of his head.
If Bridges was brought here, what if he found some way to muddy the crime scene?
Though Aaron never usually relied on Admiral Forest, there wasn’t anyone else he could think of right now.
He turned and ran around the side of the building.
“Aaron,” Phillips roared.
Aaron still had his communicator in his hand. He stared at it, thumbing through the screen’s various options until he saw its signal measure. As soon as he got one, he called her.
Because yeah, he could call Admiral Forest with nothing more than a tap. Most students at the academy wouldn’t know her number, let alone have the guts to actually talk to her.
It took all of two seconds for his call to connect.
“If this is you telling me you quit—” Forest began.
“Someone got killed right in front of me,” he stammered without taking a breath.
There was a significant pause. “Tell me everything.”
“I was walking with Cadet Carter around the back way to the accommodation block, and this guy… he fell off the roof. He was pushed. I think… I think he was pushed.”
“An incident report has not come through to me—”
“My communicator didn’t work in that area. I ran and got Phillips and brought her back to the scene.”
“Is Phillips there right now?”
“Yeah. She made me go to the command building to get the captain on duty. I brought back a security commander. Lara,” he dropped all formalities, “before the guy died, he said three words. Bridges, man, responsible.”
There, he’d done it. Not only had Aaron shared the evidence he’d heard – he’d done so with the highest-ranking official at the academy.
Lara didn’t pause. “Aaron, I’m on my way.”
He blinked. He expected that she would send security, but why would she come herself?
“Get back to the scene, Aaron. I’ll transport to where you are.”
“Wait, there’s something else. Carter… she has a telekinetic implant. We thought we saw someone up on the roof. She went to go find out who they were. I—”
“I will deal with it, Aaron. Head back to the scene.”
She cut off the communication.
Aaron just stood there. Slowly, as if he couldn’t remember how to use his muscles anymore, he lifted his hand. Clamping it on his mouth, he let his fingers sink all the way in. It felt like he was dragging sheets of steel over his lips.
There was no energy left in his body. His chest was just a carved out pit of bitter emotion.
It took too long for him to jolt, turn, and jog back to the scene.
By that time, the last person he wanted to see arrived.
Aaron locked his gaze on the guy, and a wave of something struck Aaron. Terror, repulsion, fear? Aaron didn’t know, but whatever it was, it was the most intense reaction he’d had in years.
This wasn’t the first terrifying incident Aaron had ever seen. He’d been the first on the scene when his mother had died. He didn’t want to describe exactly what happened, but let’s put it this way – it had been a particularly gruesome cruiser crash.
Before that, he’d seen his fair share of dead bodies. That’s what happened when your mother believed in independence and she flew around the scariest sections of the galaxy.
What Aaron was trying to get at was that he had a relatively strong stomach. He knew how to deal with horrors.
But right now, he felt like a little kid in front of a lion.
Bridges was an intimidating physical specimen of a man. Aaron had heard rumors that he wasn’t entirely human. There had to be some kind of alien DNA buried deep in his genetic code, because he was just a little too big to be believable.
Then there was his gaze – as sharp as a sword, as bright as a laser, and as deadly as a black hole. There was a reason that the Coalition usually trotted Bridges out to talk about the colony worlds on the news. He commanded respect, oozed authority, and would give anyone the impression that if an incident was in his hands, he would be able to carry it, no matter how heavy it got.
Aaron had seen him in person a couple of times. Bridges had a lot to do with the academy, even though technically he was stationed out in the colony worlds.
What Carter had said suddenly struck him. He was her proxy dad.
That made no sense. Bridges didn’t seem to have a loving, familial bone anywhere in his body. That fact was confirmed as his cold gaze locked on Aaron. “Are you the one who saw what happened?”
“Aaron, where were you?” Phillips snapped.
“I was making a call,” Aaron stammered.
He was usually not the kind to stammer.
“Who did you call?” Phillips demanded.
Aaron looked at his feet.
He wasn’t usually the kind to get overwhelmed, either, but something told him that he had no chance – none at all – against Bridges.
She reached the roof.
She knew someone was up here. She’d seen them. Just for a flash of a second, but it had been more than long enough for her quick brain to pick up the fact they were a man and that they’d been in an officer’s uniform.
For the fourth time, Isabel methodically searched around her. She didn’t just use her eyes – though she relied on her senses most – she also used the scanners embedded in her wrist device.
They were playing up.
There was some kind of blocking field in place. It was preventing her from sending any communications. It was also making it a lot harder for the wrist device’s onboard processors to pick up a clear reading. Every now and then, ghostly shadows chased across the device’s face.
“Just what the hell is going on here?” she muttered for the fourth time as, gritting her teeth, she tried to hack her way around the jamming field.
At the back of her head, she realized just how important this was.
Someone had been killed.
Maybe she was jumping to conclusions, but she felt like it was a safe enough conclusion to draw. There were countless security procedures in place to ensure that someone couldn’t fall off the roof of an Academy building. For them to have failed, it wouldn’t have been an accident. That meant that the person – the male officer – she’d seen up here was likely the culprit.
As Isabel worked, her TI objects hovered around her, close enough that if she needed to use them quickly, she could.
Today had been the first time she’d ever used them outside of a training center. They’d only been installed several months ago. Another gift from Bridges. 15 years ago, TI objects had been used extensively, but due to security problems, they’d been wholesale abandoned. Now they were back. The programming backdoors that had allowed the Barbarians to hack through them had been closed. A select few cadets and officers had been implanted, and trials were being run with full implementation planned two years down the track.
They were a secret for now. Isabel wasn’t meant to use them without Bridges’ permission. But she hadn’t seen any other way. Now as she tried to clear the jamming field for the fifth time, she distractedly rubbed her palm against her collarbone.
Every time she called on her TI implant – especially suddenly and for a burst of power – it left a little residual heat. It was a consequence of the new hacking-proof security system. The heat was harmless, but for some reason, it lingered now.
Her variable TI weapons floated to her left, catching the dying light of dusk. Long beams of sunlight glinted off their unique patterned metal surfaces.
When not in use, the weapons were lodged into the soles of her shoes. When she’d called on them, it had taken exactly 3.5 microseconds for them to retract and spin around her.
They had modular designs. They could increase in size by a factor of 10 and reduce by a factor of 5 from their original dimensions. You could create a weapon out of them, a platform, or just a mug if you needed one.
“Come on, just break through the jamming field,” she chided herself as, grinding her lip through her teeth, she tried again to figure out what was wrong with her wrist device.
It had to be a consequence of whatever system had hacked through the building’s security protocols and shut off the fields that prevented objects from falling off the roof. It was seriously sophisticated, and that conclusion came from her unrivaled knowledge of computer programming.
If there was one thing she was exceptional at, it was programming. Okay, notwithstanding combat, of course.
Now, no matter what she tried, she couldn’t get past the jamming field. But here’s the thing, she wasn’t the kind to give up.
Just when she thought there’d be no chance, she tried something Bridges had taught her two years ago. It was a work-around for critical academy infrastructure. A backdoor that, according to him at least, technicians had built after the Axira incident to track down potential spies. It was a log of activity that would be able to tell you exactly the registration code of the wrist device that had accessed weather field systems closest to your location.
It might not sound like much, but every single person who wore a wrist device throughout the academy – which was pretty much everyone – accessed weather fields just by walking around. The wrist device would log into the field to gain critical information. There were areas of the academy that had to be kept at specific pressures and temperatures in order for sophisticated machinery to work. Rather than have to manually log onto your wrist device, the device automatically accessed weather fields so that the wearer’s residual heat and effect on air pressure could be accounted for in critical areas.
Unless somebody knew exactly what they were doing, they wouldn’t turn off that function.
Isabel was sure she was onto something, and she secured her lip in between her teeth, squeezing to the point of almost bleeding as she hacked into the backdoor system.
There, she was in. With a few more lightning commands from her quick fingers, she got the weather access log.
She knew exactly the time that she’d seen that man on top of the roof. She looked up the log.
There was nothing.
“What the hell?” she demanded quickly. “What was that guy? Just a ghost?” She stared around the roof.
She didn’t get a chance to search the roof again. There was the hum of a transport beam, and a bright blast of light shone over the roof like the birth of a small star.
She turned her head slightly to the side, and when she turned back, a high-ranking security officer had appeared.
She didn’t know the guy by name, but judging by the specific color of his uniform, he worked for Admiral Forest herself.
“Carter,” the guy said immediately.
“You need to come with me.”
“We’re aware of the incident. You need to come with me.”
“I saw someone up here.”
“You need to come with me,” the guy said definitively. From his build to the way he spoke, it was like he embodied an exclamation mark. It was clear that he wouldn’t back down.
Carter sighed. “Okay.”
“You will tell me everything you saw,” he continued as he strode toward the door that led down through the building.
“Yes, sir.” She turned as they reached the door. She stared at the roof one more time, then frowned down at her wrist device.
She had seen someone up here. She was sure of that. Just as she was sure that she’d glimpsed an officer.
She frowned again. Bridges had promised her that hardly anyone knew about the weather field backdoor.
The murderer had. The question was why?
Aaron still couldn’t look at Bridges. Aaron had faced off against some pretty nasty adversities in his time. He wasn’t just talking about his truculent attitude toward Academy stuff. Neither was it the fact that out of everybody at the Academy, he was likely the only undergraduate – or officer, for that matter – who had ever sassed Admiral Forest.
There was just something about Bridges that made his skin crawl.
“Where were you, son?” Bridges asked, repeating Phillips’ question with an apparently quieter, gentler tone that somehow felt like a sword right up against Aaron’s throat.
Finally, Aaron faced Bridges. As he slowly tilted his head up and let his gaze trace along the blood-splattered path until it locked onto Bridges’ regulation shoes, he grew a backbone. “I told you, making a call.”
Aaron didn’t know why he wasn’t admitting to the fact he’d called Admiral Forest. As soon as she appeared, everyone would figure it out. But something…. This tight, niggling sensation deep in his gut told him not to give anything away.
The only reason he would think that was if he suspected that Bridges really could have murdered that guy.
Aaron didn’t have time to be distracted by that thought. Bridges took a solid step up to him.
Aaron wasn’t small, but he certainly wasn’t like your usual bulky combat officer. What he lacked in muscle size, he more than made up for in knowing how to use his body. Having massive guns was all very well, but if you weren’t nimble enough to use them, all they were were liabilities.
Bridges wasn’t your ordinary grunt. The way he moved his form had an almost seamless grace behind it. Well, if you considered a loaded gun to be graceful.
He cut out the dying sunshine of dusk as he loomed over Aaron. “Who did you call?”
From behind him, Aaron swore he heard the specific buzz that indicated someone had transported.
He stared into Bridges’ eyes for entirely too long. It felt like Aaron was facing his nemesis or something. Which was kinda strange considering he’d only ever seen this guy on TV and never had a run-in before today. Still, you tell that to the way his throat closed off and a sharp tingle of nerves raced down his back. “Admiral Forest,” Aaron finally let that drop.
He stared at Bridges. He noted every detail. Aaron might usually snooze off in psychology class, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t naturally skilled at reading people. Plus, class was way too basic. It taught you how to gain psychological insights on people who were far to open with their emotions. The folk you actually wanted to get an emotional reading on were men like Bridges – competent officers who were all too good at keeping their true objectives hidden.
Sure enough, Bridges didn’t show a thing but the slightest twitch of his left hand. It was far enough away from Aaron’s direct line of sight that Bridges probably thought it wouldn’t matter.
Aaron’s gut clenched as if someone had reached down his throat, grabbed his stomach, and twisted.
Bridges was up to something. He had to be.
There was a quick pattering of determined footfall, and Admiral Forest appeared with two commanders beside her.
Phillips actually spluttered. “What?”
The security commander who thought he was in charge quickly snapped a salute, but from the pale hue of his cheeks, it was clear that he too was surprised at the fact that Admiral Forest had shown up for something like this. Not to suggest that a murder on campus was irrelevant and below her, but there were systems in place that meant that she wouldn’t personally have to deal with it.
Her expression was hardened. Most people would assume that Admiral Forest’s default look would be like setting concrete. They were wrong. Aaron had had enough to do with her to know that the specific way she held her lips right now suggested that there would be hell to pay.
Bridges did nothing. Yet at the same time, Aaron felt he was doing something very specific – his lack of reaction to Forest’s sudden appearance was as finely calculated as an assassin robot powering down to avoid a sensor sweep.
The security commander snapped a salute and gestured to the body. “There’s no need to worry, Admiral, everything—” He wasn’t given the opportunity to say that everything was under control.
Both the commanders who’d accompanied Forest snapped into action. One of them walked over to the body, plucked an unusual scanner out of his pocket that looked more like it was a small old Earth coin than a sophisticated device, and started waving it over the man while the other secured the perimeter.
Forest took one look at Aaron and nodded.
He knew that nod. It was a nod designed to tell him that – this time, at least – he’d done good. It was also dismissing him from the scene.
That was all fine by Aaron. He wanted to get the hell out of here. He needed to find Isabel and check that she was okay.
He also needed to go somewhere quiet and preferably far out of Bridges’ way to actually process what the hell had just happened. Bridges was up-and-coming – he had to be for the Coalition to put him on the news every day. For him to be involved in a murder—
When Aaron didn’t move fast enough, Forest nodded at him hard. “Your part in this is done. You will be contacted soon. And, Aaron?” she added as he turned away.
“Yeah?” he said, trying to control his tone to seem unaffected but knowing that in trying, he only came across as more emotionally distraught.
“You did good,” she said.
Aaron just nodded. He didn’t snap a salute as he walked away. He remembered when it was too late, turned awkwardly on his foot, and snapped it anyway, but by that time, Forest wasn’t paying any attention. Bridges was. Despite the fact that Bridges had nominally turned toward Forest, Aaron could practically feel the guy’s attention boring a hole into the back of his neck. It was way more effective than any asteroid mining drill. It was the kind of stare that could pierce down to your most vulnerable levels, carve out your heart, and eat it for breakfast.
Though Forest hadn’t said it, Aaron could surmise that he needed to get back to his apartment and wait. Presumably the investigation would start soon. He couldn’t head home yet. He needed to find Isabel and check that she was okay. Though it should have been like looking for a needle in a haystack, he was smart enough to hang around the base of the accommodation block where she’d flown up to the roof on her TI objects. He was still shaken to the core that she was using them. More than anything, he just wanted to see her.
Finally he did.
She came out of a side door, one of Forest’s commanders beside her. The guy shared some words with her then walked away.
Aaron didn’t bother to hide his enthusiasm as he rushed up to her. “Jesus, there you are. You’re safe. I’m so relieved.”
Slowly, she turned, and a deep frown dug into her cheeks. “What?”
Aaron looked right at her. “You disappeared up the side of the building using telekinetic objects that were meant to be discontinued 15 years ago. You tried to single-handedly track down a murderer. It’s kind of nice to know that you’re still alive.”
“Why would you care?”
Aaron’s lips stiffened. Yeah okay, so he’d almost deliberately come across as a jerk to this woman, but surely there was a point after which you dropped petty disputes to focus on larger pictures? And that point was the fact she could have gotten herself killed.
“Okay, so we didn’t get off on the right foot, but I’m not a complete jerk. All I’m saying,” he looked right into her eyes so she could acknowledge that he was being serious, “is that I’m relieved to know that you’re okay.”
She stared at him harder. It was clear this was some kind of test, and if he so much as flinched the wrong way, he wouldn’t pass. He got the urge to lift his hands. Bad urge. As soon as he did, her jaw tightened, and that same angry expression flooded her features.
“Quit playing around. This is—”
He cut her off. “It’s awful. A man is dead, and judging by everything that happened after, it’s pretty clear he was murdered.”
Her frown deepened, but this time at least it wasn’t out of anger for him. “What do you mean what happened afterward?”
“Forest got involved,” he admitted, leaving out the most important part that she’d only done so because he’d called her.
Her eyes widened in clear shock. Any first-year cadet – let alone a final year – would be able to appreciate that for Forest to directly get involved in a security incident like this it meant it had to be serious.
“What did you see up on the roof? Did you find anything?” he stammered. He tried to push his questions out as fast as he could, but he was held back by the natural incapacity of his mouth to turn into a verbal machine gun.
“There was no one up on the roof when I got there. But I definitely saw someone from the ground,” she added.
His mouth was open to tell her that he was sure she was right, but his lips froze of their own accord.
They were standing near enough to the side of the accommodation block but not close enough that he couldn’t tilt his head back and see the roof. His gaze traversed the distance quickly. It was his turn to frown. “Exactly how did you manage to see someone up there? I mean, I thought I saw a shape, but—”
Her cheeks flushed a touch, and she turned away quickly. She neatened her hair, even though she had to make it messy before she did so. “I have good eyesight, okay? There’s a reason I’m the number one undergraduate combat specialist at the Academy.”
Aaron didn’t for a second point out that for her to be the number one, she would’ve had to face off against all the other combat specialists, including him. He just stared at her.
He was starting to get that impression again – the one he’d received right after their argument – or rather, their first argument. There was something very strange about Isabel. Something most other people couldn’t see, including her.
He should have done a lot more to control his expression. They were having the first decent conversation they’d had together, but the animosity was still there, ready to bubble out like poison. Which is precisely what it did when she saw his confusion. She crossed her arms. “What now?”
He’d already dropped his hands. He resisted the urge to jerk them back up and hide behind them. “Nothing. You’re just… a little unusual, that’s all.”
“Right, whatever. As if your assessment counts. Now, I have to get to training class.”
“… Are you serious?” he asked after a significant pause.
Maybe the word serious triggered her or something, because her gaze flashed. “Yes, I’m serious. I take every single aspect of my Academy training with the respect and determination it deserves. I understand that it’s a privilege to be here, and every second I am here, I strive to make myself better.”
There were so many things Aaron could say to that. Had this been an ordinary day, he would have reeled them off with the practiced ease of a Shakespearean actor repeating the same play they’d rehearsed their entire life.
“Okay, that was uncalled for,” he settled for saying instead. “I’m not accusing you of not taking your Academy career seriously. I’m just surprised that you’re not more curious about what happened. A guy was killed. He was thrown right off the roof. For that to have happened, someone must have hacked into some of the Academy’s most secure systems. There’s a time for combat training, and there’s a time for asking questions.”
“Why? It’s clearly not in our hands anymore. You said that Admiral Forest got involved. She’ll track down the culprit. It will be solved by the end of the day.”
He stared at her, and he made no attempt whatsoever to control his expression. It would tell her just how naïve he thought that statement was.
He knew he should shut up, but he just couldn’t do it. “I’m sorry, but do you actually believe that’s how the Academy works? Terrible incidents like this happen, but with a click of the Academy’s fingers, they get solved by teatime?”
“Don’t you dare call me naïve,” she warned. “I have lived a hard life.”
He didn’t bother to lift his hands again. He was way beyond that. “The kind of life you’ve lived has nothing to do with what’s happening here.” For the first time since they’d met – hell, for the first time in years – he used his authoritative voice. Isabel had used her own version earlier when she’d tried to intimidate him. It was time to turn the tables. “You’re about to graduate. Presumably, you’re on the fast track to becoming a leader of some description. You know very well that a case like this cannot be solved in a few mere hours.”
He knew he had to back down. He’d only just gained a modicum of her trust, and now he was using it to berate her and point out that for an up and coming star, she had no clue how the world really worked.
“You know what? I’m done here.” She turned hard on her heel, a few stray strands of her hair darting around her like a cape.
“Wait, hold on. Don’t you want to know what the guy said?”
She stopped. Turning, her brow compressed and her frown tugged open to reveal pale gums. “What?”
Screw it. Though he knew it rubbed her up the wrong way, he put his hands up again. “I know it sounds crazy, but that guy wasn’t completely dead. He grabbed me and said three words.”
She just stared at him.
“I know – I know. It doesn’t make sense that he could possibly survive a fall like that – even if it was only for a few minutes. But he did.”
“Just tell me what he said.”
“… Wait, you believe me?”
She looked at her hands sharply. “I thought I detected he was still alive.”
“… Detected?” Who spoke like that?
“Just tell me what he said?”
“Bridges. Man. Responsible.”
“I told Forest,” Aaron added quickly. “The weird thing is, even though I didn’t tell Bridges, he appeared on the scene—”
“Are you serious?” Her whole demeanor changed. Gone was the curiosity that had briefly bubbled to the surface. Anger rose high and fast in its place.
Aaron reeled back. “What?”
Something clicked. Damn, he’d forgotten that she thought Bridges was her surrogate father.
“You got my father involved in this?” she spat through white lips.
“No. I didn’t get him involved. I heard three words, and I shared those words with Forest. That’s all that happened.”
“No one will believe you, anyway, Cadet,” she snarled.
When two cadets met for the first time, they tended to stick with formalities and call each other by their ranks, but as soon as you learned someone’s name, you used that instead.
He really doubted that she’d forgotten his name. He’d seen the look on her face when he’d admitted to being related to Admiral Forest. It was the same look most people got. It was clear that in the minds of those at the Academy, there wasn’t a single soul on Earth less like Admiral Forest than he was.
“No one is going to believe your story,” she repeated defensively.
“The medical exam will state the exact time of death.”
“No one is going to believe the guy spoke of my dad,” she corrected quickly suggesting that, yet again, she believed the man had survived long enough to speak to Aaron. “There is no one at the Academy more accomplished than Bruce Bridges.”
Though Aaron was trying to control his expression so this argument didn’t erupt into an uncontrollable inferno, he couldn’t.
Isabel should know better than to boldly say something as stupid as that.
Many, many people worked together in many different fields to keep the Academy running. Yeah, okay, so some people were at the helm. Every ship had to have a captain, but the ship wouldn’t run without every single member of the crew. It was the same with the Coalition. It was wishful, naïve thinking to assume that a single soul could have such a tremendous effect on the whole group.
Yes, occasionally one person did have a disproportionate role, but overall, the Coalition was made up of multiple people doing everything they needed to ensure that the whole thing ran properly. If you took out all the grunts and just left the glorified admirals and captains, you’d quickly find the Coalition nosediving like an embattled cruiser struck by a comet.
“… Okay,” he settled for saying in his politest voice. “But I just shared what the guy told me.”
She gestured wide with stiff hands that could have passed for bats. “You’re just trying to make trouble, aren’t you? Did your mother not love you or something?”
Aaron slowly closed his mouth, pressed his teeth together, and walked his tongue over his incisors.
He had every reason to get angry at that. Because, to be honest, to this day, he didn’t know if his mother had loved him. She’d lived her life, and he’d been dragged along in her wake.
Then she’d died. End of story.
“What? Did your mother honestly not love you?”
“Hard to say. I can’t ask her, as she’s dead.”
He expected a little bit of the bluster to fall from her sails, but it didn’t. She just turned around. “Welcome to the club. Don’t tell me, your incompetence got her killed, ha?”
She was going too far. He dropped his hands. “Really, Carter? You don’t seem the kind for such a low blow.”
She didn’t like being pulled up on that comment. Pressing her lips together, she locked her tongue against the back of her teeth. “You don’t seem like the kind to deserve to be treated politely.”
“All right. You can think whatever you want to. All I wanted to do was check on you, but clearly you don’t want me doing that. You go do you, and I’ll do me.” He went to walk away.
“You back down from a fight way too easily.”
He rolled his eyes, turned, and shook his head. “Just go home. Get some sleep. This incident has obviously affected you.”
“I’m sorry?” You could have registered her incredulity on the Richter scale. Her voice shot up like it was about to start an earthquake. Her expression matched that sentiment precisely.
“I’m assuming you’re not like this usually. I’m assuming,” his voice dropped, “that most of the time you have a sense of professionalism. As it’s solely lacking now, I’m going to do you the dignity of guessing the reason you’re reacting like this is that we just saw a man die.” He proudly let his voice shake as he spoke.
“What, is that the first dead body you’ve ever seen?”
Just what the hell was wrong with her? She was meant to be one of the Academy’s finest. Now she was playing tit for tat with him like she was a three-year-old.
He deliberately let his expression drop. “No, that’s not my first dead body. Trust me, I’ve seen much worse. My mother dragged me around some of the most dangerous places in the galaxy. But I’m not about to play a game of who’s seen more blood with you. All I care about is that you’re okay.”
She snorted. “You are not the kind to care about anyone but yourself. If you did, you’d care about your mistakes more.” Anger flattened her features. “Maybe you should talk to the admiral and get the training scenario canceled, after all.”
He just looked at her. “And why is that?”
“In my current mood, you wouldn’t make it out alive.”
With that comment, she finally walked away. She was stiff. She looked like a plank, not like a human being.
Aaron, owing to his specific attitude toward life, was pretty used to people getting angry at him. It came with the territory. Especially if those people compared him to Admiral Forest. But this… this had been all sorts of weird.
There was something wrong with Isabel Carter.
He wasn’t being mean. If anything, his concern for her was about one of the kindest things he’d ever managed.
It didn’t last. He received a call from one of the investigators looking into the case – a man he knew was directly linked to Admiral Forest – and Aaron was summarily told to go home and wait for someone to come around for his witness report.
He was also told to think back and remember every single detail, no matter how minute and apparently irrelevant. He did, all right, just not about the case. As he made his slow way back to his apartment, his hands in his pockets, a frown crumpling his lips as he stared at his feet, he thought about Isabel.
Right there at the back of his head, he recalled Forest’s words from this morning. All Aaron needed was a challenge.
Maybe he’d finally found one.
Here he was, back in his apartment. He shouldn’t have to say that he was tired. It felt like his body had been rolled up, thrown in an asteroid, and used to batter moons. He had a ringing pressure headache that reminded him of a red alert klaxon, and his mouth was dry even though he’d just chugged down two glasses of water. He was wise enough to know that he was suffering from mild shock.
But shock at what, he wasn’t sure. You’d think his head would be running circles as it replayed the moment that guy had died in front of him, over and over again. Instead, it was stuck on Isabel, repeating their fight on an endless loop.
He sat on his couch. He said his couch, because his flatmate had left the month previous. The guy had been a real stickler for rules. Perhaps some poor misguided soul had thought that by making Aaron bunk with him, the guy would rub off on Aaron. That had not happened. Aaron had driven the guy to madness, and he’d quit the Academy.
Aaron knew he had that kind of effect on people. But why was his effect on Isabel so disproportionate?
“You need to push her the hell out of your head. You’ll be asked to give your witness report soon. Pay attention to the facts,” he told himself.
His voice was alarmingly weak.
He kept darting his gaze back in the direction of the computerized door panel.
He would be informed immediately when someone arrived, but that didn’t mean he could stop checking.
He wanted to put this all behind him and go to bed. But he knew that’s not how his mind worked.
He was surprised to learn that’s how Isabel’s worked, though. When she’d told him the case would be solved quickly, she’d meant it.
He shifted his tongue around his teeth. “That’s not how good Coalition officers work, you know, Iz,” he said, shortening her name despite the fact she wasn’t here and they really didn’t have that kind of relationship. “The Academy,” he said authoritatively as if he was taking a class, “is built on curiosity. Yeah, you follow the rules, but in your heart,” he balled up a fist and tapped his chest twice, “you have to care enough to search out every single detail, to come up with every single question, and to never give up.”
He looked ahead, his gaze slicing over to the armchair opposite. It wasn’t as if he actually thought Isabel was there.
He shook his head, palmed his face, sighed, and lay back. He sprawled over the couch. It lasted for approximately one minute before he quickly darted his head up and stared at the door again. No luck. Forest’s investigator still hadn’t arrived.
“It’s already 10 o’clock. I’m tired. Hurry the hell up,” he said to no one.
Aaron assumed that, given the seriousness of this incident, someone would come sooner rather than later. He was wrong.
As minutes ticked into hours, he lay back and slipped into an uneasy sleep.
Aaron didn’t usually dream. He slept like the proverbial log. Maybe if he’d been able to remember his dreams, he’d be a more sensitive soul. As for nightmares, he didn’t have them. Blame it on the fact he’d refined an uncaring attitude during his waking hours.
None of that counted tonight. As soon as he slipped off, he fell into a truly uneasy fog. He saw the incident. He saw the man falling from the roof in slow motion.
There wasn’t a thing Aaron could do as the guy fell, over and over again. Aaron stood exactly where he had in real life. Isabel wasn’t there. Someone else was. A shadowy figure stood on the roof, watching the entire scene.
The more the dream repeated, the more details Aaron unavoidably noticed. He could see the dead man’s face in ever-growing clarity as if it were a picture Aaron was inevitably being drawn toward. Fear started to rise within Aaron – a more powerful emotion than any he’d experienced before. It lapped at him in waves and tried to drive him to his knees, but the dream wouldn’t let him move. He was stuck there, riveted to the spot as that dead body fell off the roof, getting ever closer to him.
Aaron somehow knew that he was dreaming, which was a tall order considering he’d barely dreamed his entire life. But something made him lucid. That same thing made him aware of the fact that all he needed to do to make this nightmare stop was wake up.
The dead body fell off the roof again. This time it was so close to Aaron that as it pounded into the ground, the turf broke. Hairline fissures smashed through it. Somehow, the grass cracked like shattering glass. Those fissure lines marched relentlessly under Aaron’s feet.
His breath became trapped in his throat. He couldn’t scream. He jerked his head back. He stared at the roof. And there, despite the fact he was too far away to see in real life, Aaron caught a glimpse of the murderer. It was none other than Bridges. There was something wrong – Bridges’ eyes, to be precise. They glowed red. It was the kind of color that could never be mistaken for biological.
“Come on, just wake yourself up. Wake yourself up,” Aaron roared in his mind.
He couldn’t rouse, and once more that body fell. Without the ability to move out of its way, it fell right on top of Aaron. He couldn’t describe the moment of total gut-wrenching, soul-punching fear as the corpse fell not just onto him, but into him. There was a moment where reality seemed to bend. Aaron was thrust back. His head jerked to the side, and his eyes bulged as a near-perfect image of the man started to grow within him. It felt like Aaron had been inhabited by a virus, not made up of cells, but the image of someone else. He tried to grab his throat and choke the other man out. He tried to force the image away with every faculty he had, but no matter what he did, nothing worked.
Paroxysms of pain blasted through Aaron until he fell down to his knees. There beside him was the corpse. No. There beside him was Aaron. He could recognize his own messy hair and uniform.
“What?” Aaron stammered.
He could move his body again, but only barely. He went to jerk away, to run, to get the hell out of here. Maybe if he could break through this specific scene, the rest of the dream would crumble. He didn’t get the chance to move. In an exact replay of what had happened this afternoon, the corpse threw out a hand and grabbed the cuff of his trousers.
Aaron stared down. He watched his own dead face come to life. And there, right in the center of his eyes, a flicker of light appeared that shouldn’t be there.
The light didn’t remain in his eyes. In a glimmer, something appeared over the corpse’s left palm.
Stunned, Aaron stared at it. He felt something burning on his own palm. He yanked it up and gasped. Four concentric circles appeared. Within them was a complicated mandala-like pattern with alien symbols perfectly arranged around its edges.
He’d never seen anything like it. The second he clapped eyes on it, another wave of pure emotion struck him. It felt as if everything he’d ever experienced in all his life was condensed down into a few pure moments of soul-redefining terror.
The corpse – his corpse – suddenly stopped moving. That hand dropped off his trouser leg. Then Aaron felt two hands on his shoulders.
Right in Admiral Forest’s face.
The dream broke as Forest woke him up.
Lara didn’t jerk back at his intense reaction; she stayed right by his side, frowning hard into his face. “Aaron, Aaron? Are you awake yet?”
Aaron shakily sat.
Carefully, as if he could break at any moment, Admiral Forest straightened. She didn’t move far from his side. With a certain kind of calculating frown, she looked him up and down. “I take it you were dreaming.”
Though Aaron was usually quick on the uptake when it came to smart replies, he just couldn’t now. He shifted forward, his sweaty legs making his uniform stick to his skin. He planted his shaking feet on the carpet and leaned into himself, folding his body like a tightly coiled spring. Pressing the tips of his elbows hard into his knees, he collapsed his head in his hands. It took him too long to open his fingers and stare up at Forest. “Yeah, I guess you could call that a dream.”
“You experienced a traumatic incident today, Aaron.” Lara’s voice took on a particular tone. It was one Aaron had a lot of experience with. It had been used on him so many times. Back in the early days after he’d joined the Academy and his sob story had done the rounds, his lecturers had tried to cut him some slack, figuring he was only acting out because of his screwed up past. Their compassion hadn’t lasted. He hadn’t let it.
He shook his head. Locking his teeth together as if they were a cage for the remnants of that nightmare, he tried to figure out what to say.
“I need a witness report, Aaron. Sooner rather than later.” She got a quick, flighty look in her eyes as she jerked her gaze over to the door.
“Why didn’t you just send an investigator?”
She looked at him, and she made no attempt to hide her affront. “Because I’m the closest thing you have to family here. And I respect that what you experienced today would’ve been traumatic. Believe it or not, I don’t just want your incident report; I want to check that you’re okay.” Though she didn’t add anything else, she shot him a look that suggested considering he’d woken screaming like a baby, she’d been justified in coming to check on him in person.
He tried to shake off the remnants of the dream, but he couldn’t. They were burnt into his bones. He shifted up, but when he became a touch unsteady, he quickly walked over to the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and drank it, not caring that it splashed all the way down his front.
Warily, Lara watched him. “Did you dream of her?” she asked quietly. There was reverence in her voice.
Though Lara and his mother had only been cousins, they’d been close. After the death of Lara’s father, Jean had been one of the only people to keep Lara together. Apart from Admiral Nok, but that was a different story.
Though Aaron usually didn’t discuss his personal details with anyone, that dream was obviously lowering his inhibitions. He shook his head. “No. I dreamt of the incident. It was wild. Way too intense.” He pressed his hand into his forehead. He shoved his fingers in hard, and he didn’t care as his short nails dragged red lines down the side of his face.
Admiral Forest didn’t launch into a lecture about how a good soldier had to respect their emotions and not cover them up – how traumas had to be dealt with and not treated as embarrassments. Her eyes narrowed in a very specific way that immediately made Aaron freeze. “What? Why are you looking at me like that? What the hell happened today, anyway? People think I’m mad, but that guy wasn’t dead when he landed. He did grab my trouser leg and say those three words.”
“Ignore what people say. Uninformed opinions are nothing more than uninformed opinions,” Forest said evenly.
This made him frown all the harder. “Wait, so you believe me, then?” Why did his voice shake as if Lara believing him would make all the difference? Yeah, because Admiral Forest believing him really would make all the difference. Isabel could doubt his story all she wanted. Phillips could think he was mad. But the second Admiral Forest came on his side, all of their opinions became pointless.
Not once had Aaron ever been thankful to have Lara as a relative. For a few fleeting seconds, that pride rose. It didn’t have long to settle in. Lara’s frown only hardened. “You don’t want to know about what’s going on here, Aaron,” she warned.
“Why? Is it above my pay grade?”
She snorted. “Considering you’re a cadet and you don’t get paid yet, yes, it’s above your pay grade. You also don’t want to get involved,” she repeated, her voice hardening.
Lara was wrong. He did want to get involved. Which just made him think of Isabel. Good students got involved in incidents like this. Dropkick idiots like him did not. As soon as something outside their sphere of control happened, they shrugged it off, ran away, and got back to being disaffected and useless. Aaron knew his playbook better than anyone else, but he also knew one thing. It was just a playbook. Aaron might act disaffected most of the time, but inside, he cared.
So there was nothing he could do to hide his expression as he stared meaningfully at Forest. “A guy died right in front of me. I know I’m meant to move on, but I can’t do that – not after the dream I just had.”
Forest frowned again. “Just what kind of dream was it? You once mentioned to me that you don’t recall your dreams.”
“Yeah, I know, everyone dreams, but I don’t remember them. But trust me, I remember this one.” He brought up his left hand and stared at it. It was almost as if he genuinely expected he would see that strange symbol emblazoned on his skin.
Forest followed the move – so did her frown. The longer Aaron stared at his hand, the more her frown marched across her features like a relentless army intent to take her calm, crush it, and take everyone else’s calm with it. Because once Admiral Forest was riled up, you knew something was really wrong.
He got a flighty look in his eyes as he stared at her. “It was just a dream, right?” Of course it had just been a dream, but damn, he had to go back to how intense those feelings had been. “It’s probably just stress,” he volunteered, even though ordinarily he would never voluntarily admit something like that.
His words did nothing to change the intensity of her frown. “Tell me exactly what you dreamed of.”
Pouring himself another glass of water, he didn’t drink it immediately. He walked over to the large window that took up one whole wall of his lounge room, and he stared at the glittering lights of late-night. “I dreamed of the incident. The guy who was killed kept falling off the roof. Over and over again.”
“Is that it?”
Aaron pressed his lips together. He thought of mentioning Bridges again, but all he could think of was Isabel. The look she’d shot him after he’d mentioned Bridges would stay with him for life. It was a look of total betrayal. She’d clearly been starting to trust him, but after that comment, she’d never trust him again.
“Aaron, tell me your dream,” Lara outright ordered.
He sighed. Then Aaron caved. Though a part of him wanted to hide the fact he’d seen Bridges, there was something else inside Aaron. Blame it on the fact that he’d seen Coalition officers in action more than most people, but he knew that when you had information, regardless of how embarrassing or damaging it could be to you, you shared it. It was up to your superiors what they would decide to do with that intel.
“Bridges. He was there. He… he was the murderer,” Aaron managed quietly.
“Is that it?”
Aaron shook his head so fast, he could’ve snapped every vertebrae in his cervical spine. “No. That corpse… the guy,” he corrected with a sharp breath, “kept falling off the roof, getting closer and closer to me.” He didn’t want his voice to shake. It did anyway. It trembled as a memory of the dream slammed into him as sharp as a knife.
He stared at his hands again.
“Did anything else happen?” Forest asked.
“Yeah. The corpse… he finally fell into me.” His voice took on exactly the kind of note it should as he remembered that god-awful trauma.
Forest shifted. The lights weren’t fully on in the apartment. She was standing with her back to one of them, so Aaron couldn’t see her expression perfectly. He only inferred it from the way her shoulders rose higher toward her ears.
Before she could ask if that was it again, Aaron walked over to the couch and sat. He assumed exactly the same position he had after he’d woken up. It helped the memory of the dream become even sharper. He stared at his hands, and he didn’t look away.
“After the… corpse fell into me, I saw it by my feet, but it had changed. It… it was me.” Of all the things Aaron had admitted to, that should make his voice tremble like an arthritic hand. It didn’t. Yet.
“Why do you keep staring at your hand?” Lara asked, her tone neutral but interest commanding her body language as she stood taller.
“Just like this afternoon, the corpse in my dream grabbed my trouser leg. I saw something in his eyes – in my eyes. Then something appeared on the palm of his hand.” Aaron brought up his hand to demonstrate. A part of him – a distant, stupid part far removed from reason – actually thought there might be a shadow of the symbol on his skin. There wasn’t, because that had just been a dream… right?
“What did you see on your palm?” Forest was now using that tone – the one she was so frigging good at. The one that made it seem as if regardless of what interrogation methods you used, you would never ever be able to pierce the veil of what she was truly thinking.
“There were four concentric circles. Inside them were these strange alien symbols.”
“Do you remember them?”
“It might help if you draw them.”
He frowned at her. It might help him to draw it down? Yeah right. Admiral Forest hadn’t suddenly turned into a counselor. She wanted to see exactly what he’d dreamed. Which brought the kind of frown to his face that deserved. “What’s going on here, Lara?”
He expected her to just repeat her order. Instead, warily, she pressed her hand into her brow. “Please just do it, Aaron.” Her tone frayed. For the first time in a long time, Admiral Forest sounded tired.
Frowning, he got up. Rather than use the holographic drawing function on his wrist device, he walked over to his kitchen, rummaged around, and found an actual pen and a pad of paper. He gestured at her. “Knowing you, the physical properties of a tactile drawing medium are better than a hackable digital copy.” As he said that, he stared at her, intent to pick up her every reaction.
She just frowned and stared back. Then she nodded at the paper, the move sharp.
He sat down and dutifully drew the symbols. Luckily for him – and for Admiral Forest – he had a pretty good memory. Especially considering how intense that dream had been.
In about a minute, he’d drawn a faithful copy. He handed it to her. Deliberately, he stepped in close, and he stared at the muscles around her jaw joints.
There wasn’t anyone like Lara Forest when it came to controlling their reactions and hiding their true emotions, but she was family. She had one telling tick. When something was affecting her intensely, those little muscles around her jaw would harden and twitch. Sure enough, they did that just now.
Adrenaline kicked through Aaron like a wild horse running from its master. “What the hell is going on here?” he spluttered. “That was just a dream, right?”
Lara tore her gaze off the paper and stared right at Aaron. She hadn’t looked at him like that in years. There was a hint of familial tenderness, and that was way worse than the barely contained disappointment she usually showed.
He brought his hands up and backed off. “That was just a dream, right?”
“These are strange times, Aaron. You know that.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Why don’t you stay here tonight?”
“What? Yeah, that’s a given. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”
She looked at him. “You will stay here tomorrow, too. Don’t leave your apartment until I come to get you. Do you understand?”
“No, of course I don’t understand. I’m freaking out. I had a crazy dream. Then the last person in the world who takes frivolous things seriously starts acting as if it was real.”
“It was a dream,” she said, but the specific way she said it didn’t fill him with confidence.
“If it was just a dream,” he pointed at her, “then why did you carefully fold that paper up and place it in your pocket? Do you think I’m going crazy?”
“No. You’re not crazy. But like I said, you will stay here until someone comes to get you.” Her voice rang with the authority Admiral Forest was famous for.
“Why? What the hell is happening? Tell me that was just a dream.”
She looked right into his eyes. “No, that was not just a dream.”
Aaron’s world crumbled right then and there. This morning when he’d shown up to Lara’s office, all he’d cared about was getting out of the Academy and ending the drudgery. Now his priorities changed.
Admiral Forest was right. All he’d needed was a challenge. But this one would kill him.
She woke up at 08:25. She’d slept heavily. She’d dreamt, but she couldn’t exactly remember what she’d dreamed of.
For a few minutes, she lay in bed, her hand pressed over her head as she blocked out the sunlight streaming in through the window.
It took way too long to realize the sunshine was far too bright. She jerked her head to the side, grabbed up her wrist device off her bedside table, and stared at the time.
“What the hell?” she stammered so badly, it felt like she could’ve perforated her throat.
It was 08:25. She had exactly 5 minutes to get to class, let alone pre-class and training. She’d missed those by hours.
She lurched out of bed. Though she was usually graceful, she wasn’t this morning. She miscalculated her step, and she fell right on her ass.
She pushed up. “What the hell is wrong with you, Isabel? You never sleep in. Hell, you barely sleep at all.” There was no one to answer. She didn’t have a roommate. Bridges had always considered them distracting. Ever since she’d become the top of her class and the next golden girl, as Aaron Forest put it, it had been easy to get her what she’d needed.
That just made her think of Aaron.
A scowl marched across her lips. “This is his fault, isn’t it?” She crammed her uniform on. Again, she was a little uncoordinated. Though she usually had preternaturally perfect balance that could see her doing an Olympic level gymnastics routine on a tightrope, her body just wasn’t playing nice today. It felt like she’d been running all night, regardless of the fact she hadn’t moved out of bed.
Swallowing hard, she flopped a hand down her face. That scowl remained on her lips, even though she tried to smooth it away. “This is all to do with you, isn’t it, Aaron? I slept in because I was worried about all the lies you’re spreading about Bridges.”
She didn’t usually speak to herself. What was the point? Crazy people vocalized their thoughts – smart people filtered them.
She couldn’t help herself this morning. Fortunately, she stopped just as she threw herself out of the door of her apartment. There were no other cadets around. Of course there weren’t. They were already headed to class.
She threw herself down the corridor.
She saw the elevator opening. She skidded into it. Fortunately, her balance held this time, and she didn’t tumble over her feet and smash against the wall.
“This is unlike you,” someone said before she had a chance to straighten up.
She didn’t for a second think it was Aaron, even though she couldn’t get him out of her mind.
She turned with wide, startled eyes to see none other than Bridges.
“Bruce, what are you doing here?”
“I came to check on you. I would’ve done it sooner, but that incident yesterday has been taking a lot of my time.”
She paled. “I’m so sorry about him. He’s such an idiot. He was just trying to get to me—”
Bruce frowned. “Who was trying to get to you? The victim?” His voice became tight with worry.
She opened her hands wide and shook her head. “No. That idiot Aaron Forest.”
Bridges frowned again. “What about him?”
She opened her mouth. Was there even any point in spreading Aaron’s lie? Why do him the dignity of pretending his story was even important?
She thought that for a second, then she realized that there had to be consequences for what Aaron was doing. He couldn’t just insult decorated officers like Captain Bridges and get away with it. Her jaw hardened. Right here and now she forgot the story she always told herself about being a kindhearted, easy-going cadet. “Aaron Forest’s been spreading rumors about you. He told Admiral Forest herself that the guy who fell off the roof survived long enough to say three words, and one of them was your name.” She couldn’t stop her voice from becoming tight with anger as she said that.
He didn’t react. “I’m aware of what Cadet Forest said.”
She let out a sigh. “That’s a relief. I’m glad he didn’t get away with it. He was just doing it to get to me. How someone like that could possibly have survived this long in the Academy, I don’t know.”
“Don’t let it get to you,” he said firmly. “Now, you should get to class.” He made a show of looking at his wristwatch, despite the fact he always knew what the time was.
She made a face. “Sorry. I slept in. I’m not sure why. I guess I didn’t sleep well. I was worried about you.”
He didn’t even smile. Maybe anyone else would have at that kind of statement, but not Bridges. Compassion was all very good, but what he cared about was effectiveness. He just looked at her as if daring her to remember that lesson. “You don’t need to worry about me, Isabel. I know how to look after myself. And you know how to look after yourself.”
She opened her hands wide and spread them. “Of course. I’ve got this.”
“Is that all you came to say?” she asked.
“I thought you’d have some questions.”
“Questions about what?”
He looked right at her. There was something in his eyes. Okay, there was always something in Captain Bridges’ gaze. There was never a quiet moment in his mind. He was always calculating something. She doubted he even slept. But this time, there was something else behind his penetrating stare. And that something else locked on her completely.
She found herself frowning. “What is it?”
“I assumed you would have questions about what happened yesterday.”
She started off looking at him, but she quickly looked away. “No.” She wrapped her arms around her middle. Her grip was tight as she traced her fingers up and down the crooks of her elbows.
She never usually displayed emotion like this in front of Bridges. She never usually had a reason to.
Blame it on the fact she’d been obsessing over Aaron, but she hadn’t thought about the incident much. She’d thought about what it would do to Bridges’ reputation, but that was it. It was like… it was like there was some kind of block in her mind that was preventing her from thinking about what had happened. Very unusually for her, she couldn’t even remember what the man had looked like.
The details of his face had just disappeared from her mind as if she was a computer and someone had deleted the files last night.
Bridges smiled. “You must be tired. You’ve been working very hard. Perhaps it’s time for you to take a rest from training?”
“What? A rest? I don’t need a rest. You said that new training ground is coming online today. I will try it out, sir.”
He smiled. “What have I told you about calling me sir?”
“That I should only do it when we’re in public. When we aren’t, you’re Bruce and I’m Isabel.”
“Indeed. When you’re training, it’s another matter. Otherwise, I am your surrogate father. And I’m here for you.”
There was something about the way he said that. She almost wanted to frown.
“I was going to ask if you had any questions about the incident yesterday, but it seems that you’re concentrating on other priorities. Get to class.” With a salute, he walked away.
Isabel was left frowning.
It hadn’t been what he’d said… it had been the look behind his eyes.
Bridges usually told her to be conscientious and always look into everything, no matter how apparently straightforward, but not this time.
It took her a while to shake off their interaction, and it took her even longer to get to class.
It was combat class. As soon as she walked in, Phillips nodded at her and mouthed, “Honors project?”
In a snapped moment, Isabel nodded. It was a lie, and Isabel never told fibs, but it was already out.
Phillips smiled and pointed at her to go change.
As Isabel walked out, she wasn’t at all surprised to note that Aaron wasn’t here yet. To think, Isabel had been horrified at the fact that she’d been 10 mere minutes late. Meanwhile Aaron was probably slouching his way toward class without a care in the world.
As she changed, she thought of him, and by the time she came back, she expected him to be there, taking up space that should be kept for a far more effective cadet than him. Except he wasn’t there.
Hell, he didn’t appear all class. It was an important lecture where they went through the terrain details of Ragnar 2B, but he didn’t deign to show up.
The rest of the day, she kept an eye out for him.
They weren’t in the same year, so there was no reason for them to cross paths, but that didn’t stop her from searching for him every time she rushed across the grounds or headed between the various teaching buildings.
There was nothing. It seemed Aaron Forest had disappeared into thin air.
By the end of the day, she’d become so obsessed by him that for the first time ever, she’d gotten three questions wrong in engineering.
She had to train, regardless of what Bridges had said, but rather than head straight to the training ground, when she spied several of the fourth year cadets she’d seen in combat class, she walked right up to them. One of them was the guy who’d sniggered at her and said that Aaron could teach her how to fight crazy.
She cleared her throat as she approached.
The guy jerked around, a petulant expression on his face as he no doubt thought a lowly first-year cadet was about to bother him. He looked like the kind of guy who thought he was on top of the world. As soon as he saw her, that expression froze as he saw someone who really was on top.
“Excuse me, Cadet, but I have a few questions.”
“Whoa, you’re Isabel Carter, aren’t you?”
She nodded demurely. “Yes, I am. Where was Cadet Forest today? He was meant to be in combat class, but he didn’t show.”
He shrugged and looked around at his friends. “Anyone seen Screwup today?”
She was mildly amused by the fact they called him Screwup too. It fit him to a T.
… But if it fit him so well that he was nothing more than an irritating loser, why did she think about him so much?
“I haven’t seen him all day. None of our lecturers asked after him, though,” one of the other cadets pointed out.
The first cadet pressed his lips together and whistled. “Damn, you know what that means, don’t you? The Academy has finally come good on its threat. They’ve kicked him out.”
The guy had a second to chortle, despite the fact he himself had looked proud of Aaron only yesterday.
One of the other cadets who was clearly more sensible than everyone else shook her head. “If he’d been kicked out, I would’ve heard. I’ve got the apartment next to his.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. If Screwup had finally been kicked out, we would have all heard. He’s probably bunking off. Maybe he’s trying to think up new and exciting crazy ways to bumble his way into winning that combat scenario with you fifth years. I guess we should thank him.”
Isabel stood there the entire time and frowned.
She really doubted that Aaron had skipped class in order to concentrate on planning the Ragnar combat scenario. It was way more likely that he’d skipped class because he’d slept in just like her, but rather than have the strength of character to show up anyway, he’d just decided to take the whole day off.
Her jaw hardened with anger.
She was not gonna let him get away with that.
Plus, she needed to confront him about the lies he’d been spreading about Bridges. Aaron shooting himself in the foot was one thing. If he actually thought he could mar Bruce Bridges, he had another thing coming.
Without even a goodbye, she turned. She quickly turned back and looked right at the woman who’d admitted that she had the apartment next to Aaron. “What number is his apartment? I need to talk to him about the combat scenario,” she lied.
“33 alpha,” the woman muttered.
“Thank you.” Isabel turned and stalked across the grass to the accommodation block.
She was wasting precious time. She knew she should use every single moment of this week to maximize her opportunity in that new training ground.
She would make Aaron pay for that, too.
Before she could reach level 33, she was waylaid by her engineering teacher who needed help calibrating a new engine core. Several hours later, she headed straight across the darkened Academy grounds, a scowl marking her features. By the way it sat against her lips, it felt as if it would now be with her for life. She quickly reached the right block, accessed one of the ground-level elevators, and rode it to the 33rd floor. The first thing she noted was that, judging by where 33 alpha was, it was on the outer-facing aspect of the building.
Not all apartments had windows. Those toward the inner part of the accommodation block didn’t have them, but they often had pretty convincing holographic versions thereof so people didn’t get cabin crazy.
As cadets aged and marched up the ranks, they were given real views.
Usually only fifth years got to have apartments right on the outer edges of the building, but not Aaron Forest, apparently.
He’d probably used his connection to Admiral Forest to get this place.
That thought made her jaw even harder as she marched right up to his door. Not once did she see the obvious irony in that statement. Not only would Admiral Forest never bend to nepotism considering her cast-iron character, but if anyone could level that accusation against a cadet, it would be at her. Bridges bent over backward to get her whatever she wanted.
Isabel wasn’t thinking clearly right now.
She jammed her finger into the call button. She kept it there, even though she knew it would send a continuous irritating buzzing noise drilling through Aaron’s apartment.
“Crap, you’re finally here,” he said over open comms. “Come in.”
She frowned then marched in as the doors opened.
Aaron took an obvious double-take. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“What, who are you waiting for? A friend to skip class with? Is there a reason you didn’t deign to show up to combat today? Or is that reason just that you’re the number one screwup and you have to keep up appearances?”
If Isabel had been in the mood to note details, she would’ve realized that Aaron was strangely stiff. He was pale, too. He looked genuinely sick, and if not sick, overcome. But Isabel couldn’t calm her emotions down long enough to see the forest for the trees right now – and no, that wasn’t a joke. She strode right into his apartment without an invitation, the door quickly swishing closed behind her. She crossed her arms. She didn’t think she’d ever done it so tightly in her life. If her body had possessed structural sensors like armor did, it would’ve warned her to loosen up her grip lest she break a rib.
“Is your sole reason to exist to bring other people down?” she snapped.
He went to lift his hands but quickly thought better of it. He pressed his lips together, then he pointed at the door. “Maybe you should just leave. We really don’t need to have another one of these arguments.”
“Maybe you should just listen for once in your life. Your actions have consequences, Aaron Forest. By not showing up to class, you’ve let your true colors shine.”
“Look, I really don’t have the mental capacity to have this conversation right now. I’m also waiting for somebody.”
“So, what, I’m dismissed, am I?”
“You can call it whatever you want. But would you just leave?”
“You really aren’t man enough to take responsibility for your actions, are you? You know, the other cadets in your class think that you’ve finally been kicked out of the Academy. Does it actually not affect you that your contemporaries think so little of you?”
“They can think whatever they want to think. Now, can you just—”
“I’m not leaving.”
He sighed. “Fine. Please come in,” he said sarcastically as he gestured to his couch.
He was in a T-shirt and shorts. He wasn’t even in his cadet uniform anymore. On one level, that was fair enough. It was nighttime, and most self-respecting cadets wore whatever they wanted to. But that didn’t stop her from shooting him the kind of disparaging look that made it obvious she didn’t approve.
He just shrugged, using that exact same disaffected move she was getting so used to hating. “You barged into my apartment. You don’t get to comment on my clothes.”
She opened her mouth with a snap. “You don’t get to decide what people think of you. But you can influence it by your actions.”
“Wow. Thanks for the life lesson. Now I’m assuming the only way I’m going to get you to leave is by allowing you to air your grievances – so go ahead and tell me exactly what you think about me, Golden Girl.”
“It’s okay to hate me,” she snapped. “You’re the kind of character who’s always going to malign those above them, anyway. But how dare you cast aspersions on Bruce.”
“You mean Bridges?” His jaw became stiff. He’d been looking mildly irritated until now. His expression hardened – not with anger, but with something that looked uncannily like fear. He started to rub his left arm. He quickly tucked the thumb of his left hand in as if he’d just caught a splinter.
“Yes,” her lips stiffened. “I’m talking about Captain Bridges. It makes sense for someone as cowardly as you to go after a hero like him.”
He shook his head. “Permission to speak freely?”
She snorted. “As if you have ever required someone else’s permission to insult them.”
He laughed. There was a piercing quality to it. “You’re not very good at holding up a mirror to yourself are you, Isabel? Why do I get the impression that you have no idea who you really are?”
He could have said a lot of things. He hadn’t. He’d said that. It cut right down to the bone. She took a shallow breath. It was the kind of jerking, gasping move that would tell anyone that comment hadn’t just hit her, but it had hit her as hard as a left hook.
He frowned. “Something gives me the impression that you’re not usually like this. The same thing tells me that you don’t randomly push your way into other people’s apartments, insult them, and threaten them. So what is it? Is it just me? Or are you on a journey of self-discovery, Isabel Carter – and are you using me to light your way?”
She couldn’t speak. It was like someone had turned off her voice box.
This just made him narrow his eyes. She would’ve been okay if his gaze had hardened with anger. But there was a touch of concern in there, wasn’t there?
“Hey, are you okay?” His tone was genuine.
She pressed her lips together until they went as white as snow. “You have no right to check up on me.”
He shrugged. “Of course I don’t. But are you all right?” He was either deliberately trying to get her goat, or somehow, he actually cared for her.
She didn’t like that possibility, so she turned quickly.
She marched around his apartment as if she had the right to be here in the first place.
He didn’t stop her. He just shook his head confusedly and gestured to the seat opposite his couch. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Do you have any idea what kind of damage you could do to Bridges’ reputation?”
He sat heavily on the couch and shrugged. “None.”
Her cheeks became hot with anger. He was finally showing his true colors. This was clearly a game to him.
He looked right at her. “No, I don’t think this is a game, Isabel,” he somehow read her mind – or her easily deductible expression. “I think a man died – no, was murdered. I think neither of us knows what’s going on. But I think – no, I know – that I heard the victim say three words before he died. I reliably gave my witness report. Now you know,” he shifted forward, locked an elbow on his knee, and stared at her so steadily, the Academy could suffer an earthquake, but his gaze would remain just as level, “what I did was right. Would you prefer that I’d lied?”
She wanted to keep facing him, but at that particular question, she couldn’t. She turned away, then quickly turned back. “If it were the truth, then no, you shouldn’t lie, but it wasn’t—”
“It was the truth.” He turned off his intensity as if he’d hit the equivalent of a light switch. He flopped back against the back of the plush couch. “Why are you assuming that the victim was talking about your Bridges, anyway?”
“The guy said Bridges, man, responsible. The Academy is a big place. Why would you assume it’s your Bridges?”
She didn’t know how to reply. The anger in her body did. It was still there, seething under the surface. It’d only been gathering throughout the day. In his presence, it took on a new intensity like a fire that had just found lighter fluid. “You told everyone that he was talking about Bridges,” she tried.
He shook his head. “No. I only told Admiral Forest exactly what I heard. Maybe it was Captain Bruce Bridges,” he became strangely breathless, “or maybe it was someone else. It will come out in the wash whatever happens.”
She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Despite the fact she’d been doing nothing but nurturing her anger all day, slowly but surely, a little of that rage started to bleed away.
It couldn’t do so for long, could it? Because Aaron Forest was his own worst enemy.
“I think it’s Captain Bridges, though,” he added without pause.
She stiffened. He darted his gaze over to her and sharpened it as if he didn’t want to miss a thing. “It’s not good for a cadet to lose their reason, you know.”
“Isabel, I might’ve only met you yesterday, but I can tell that barging into people’s apartments to bully them over witness reports is not your usual style.”
It took her too long to spread her lips into a snarl.
If she thought the move would make Aaron back down, she was unfortunately wrong. He leaned forward, tilted his head down, and set his gaze level until shadows picked up in his ocular hollows and accentuated his sharp gaze even more. “Take it from me. I may not be the best cadet out there – heck, I might be the worst – but I have seen a lot of this galaxy, and I know my fair share of the dangers it can concoct. If you really want to be someone who makes a difference, the very first thing you have to do is know yourself. It’s only through knowing yourself that you understand when you start to slip behind your own standards.”
Really? Really?! Aaron Forest was leveling such an accusation at her? A man who epitomized the lowest standards at the Academy actually thought he had the right to warn her when she was getting out of line?
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. She’d barely released them. Now her muscles bulged. “You really should just quit.”
He laughed quietly as he darted his gaze away. “If I could just quit, I would. Things are a little out of hand right now.”
She should’ve paid attention to his voice. It shook with something even he wouldn’t be able to fake.
If she’d employed some of the sharp attention she was renowned for, she would’ve noted that he was still strangely pale. The color that usually brightened his cheeks and jaw just wasn’t there. It looked as if someone had spent the day bleeding him dry.
She didn’t bother saying another word. She strode right up to the door. Only then did she turn. “The only thing you will ever do in your life, Aaron Forest, is get someone killed.” With that, she turned and opened the door.
He’d been thinking about her all day. Then she’d shown up at his door.
Now she was about to walk right out again, angrier than she’d ever been.
If their relationship continued to sour like this, in one more argument, they’d literally be at each other’s throats. No, that wasn’t fair. The anger wasn’t coming from him, not anymore. If anything, she just confused him now.
Aaron was really good at writing people off. He’d made an entire career out of it. He was especially good at doing that to people who were trying to help him out.
Isabel was certainly not trying to help him, but he still had every legitimate reason to be angry with her. That didn’t stop him from staring at her compassionately as she went to stride out of the room. He got the unshakable impression that she had no idea what was going on with her.
She’d mentioned that her parents were dead. She’d said something about someone like him killing them. He could only assume she meant a screwup.
It would be easy enough to dismiss that, because a sane, competent cadet like her shouldn’t make such loose, emotional associations and use them to not just judge, but assassinate other people’s characters. But… something was going on with Isabel.
She might give everybody else the impression of a competent, untouchable student, but he swore he could see a soft side, and it was calling to him.
He sat back, clamped his hand on his head, and watched as the door opened and she marched out.
The door didn’t get a chance to close before she turned and stormed straight back in.
This was where he should roll his eyes and mutter, “Here we go again,” but a part of him was happy that she wasn’t leaving. Maybe, somehow, if they kept hashing things out, they might be able to come to some form of resolution.
“One more thing,” she snapped.
She jerked her head to the side. It looked as if she was in pain. She quickly grabbed her right ear.
He frowned. “You okay?”
He picked up a sharp noise. It was only for a microsecond.
Aaron’s couch was close to his window. He knew he was lucky for having an actual window. You didn’t get one until you were a fifth year. His roommate had been a fifth-year before he’d left. The point was, Aaron made the most out of the window. His couch was right up against it. As he stood, he stood with his back to the glass. At least, where it should be.
He had a micro fraction of a second to pick up that high-pitched sound, then wind struck him. It smashed into his back as strong and relentless as a barrage from a Barbarian cruiser.
Aaron was sucked back.
He didn’t get the opportunity to tumble out of the 33rd-floor window and splatter on the ground just like the man had yesterday.
Isabel barreled into him and wrenched him to the side. It was just in time. A light whip appeared where he’d been standing. It slashed through the air and smashed into the carpet, instantly searing it down to the concrete beneath.
Light whips always got their targets. Programmable, deadly devices smuggled out of the Kore Empire, they were used by assassins, killers, and no one else.
Aaron didn’t have time to think. Fortunately Isabel did. With a hard kick, she collected the recliner with the back of her foot, shunting it toward the light whip. The light whip could tell the difference between a man and a seat. It sliced right through the recliner, but it gave Isabel time to think of something else. She wrenched Aaron’s wrist device clean off his arm. To do that, she had to use the kind of strength that buckled the strap that connected it. Wrist devices were programmed to stay on a person’s wrist through thick and thin. You could fight for your life as your cruiser tumbled around your ears, and it would stick to your body. You could be thrown into the void, and it would stay with you.
It could not, however, withstand Isabel’s grip. The strap shattered in her hand. It bruised the hell out of his wrist, but at least it saved his life.
Isabel threw the wrist device at the light whip as it groped its way across the floor, heading for his ankle.
It was a calculated risk, but it paid off.
Isabel was assuming that the light whip wasn’t locking onto Aaron but onto his wrist device. The assumption was accurate. The whip locked around his wrist device and disappeared out of the hole in the window. Sorry. There was no hole in the window – there was just no window. That high-pitched screech from earlier would’ve been a transporter wrenching it right out of existence.
Aaron lay there on the carpet, Isabel on top of him. He breathed – once, twice, three times, then the light whip lanced up through the nonexistent window again.
“Dammit,” Isabel roared.
She grabbed him up. She pushed him over the couch with the kind of strength she shouldn’t have, then kicked the couch into the whip.
It slashed right through the leather. The scent of it burning filled the air. Then the light whip groped toward his ankle once more.
“We need to disable it. Run,” she snapped. She shoved him hard in the back.
“What the hell are you going to do?”
Isabel lifted up one foot then the other. Two rotating metal discs jerked out from underneath her regulation boots.
His eyes widened.
He’d seen videos, and back when he was a kid, he’d seen his mother use telekinetic objects, but this was the first time he’d ever glimpsed it up close.
As Isabel accessed her telekinetic implant, blue light faintly picked up around her neck.
She squeezed her fingers in and pulsed them out. That light rippled down her hands.
The telekinetic objects instantly reacted. It was just in time. Aaron hadn’t started running, which was a problem, as the light whip suddenly doubled in intensity and grew a second layer.
Aaron only vaguely knew about light whips because, despite his appearance, he genuinely cared about Galactic security. That’s why he watched the news so much and had recognized Bridges easily. Aaron kept up with whatever he could. Though he was sure most of the intel about these whips was top-secret, he’d seen a few declassified files. Light whips were used by assassins precisely because they could be programmed to go after their target relentlessly and because once deployed in an energy-rich environment, they leeched off nearby electricity sources to make themselves more powerful. If you set up a light whip in a badly shielded engineering bay, it could use all the excess energy to make the light whip unstoppable.
His room didn’t have a frigging engineering core, but there were plenty of unshielded energy sources.
Once the light whip doubled in size, one side went after the threat it accurately detected in Isabel, and the other went after him.
He had a chance to roll onto his back and flip, then the light whip was upon him. It snagged his arm. Isabel screamed. She shunted to the side, split her telekinetic objects into four units, and sent them spinning around her torso.
In the blink of an eye, she let them go. They slammed into the light whip. Though technically it was made of light, it had a solid core of nano microfilaments. It was those that Isabel targeted.
Just as Aaron started to feel the heat as the light whip wrapped around him with the vicious power of molten lava, Isabel managed to wrench it off him.
She used her telekinetic objects with untold grace. Flattening her hand to the side and rolling her arm up as if she was tickling the throat of a lion, she sent all four of her telekinetic objects smashing into the base of the light whip. Though it had split off into two, its original unit was the one to go after.
And go after it she did.
Her telekinetic objects circled left and right, smashing into the whip from every angle as they perforated its physical defenses and struck the core.
It started to shudder. Electricity discharged off it in waves until, with one final earsplitting crack, it lay still.
Aaron just sat there on the stained carpet, breathing hard, his mind a mess of adrenaline and confusion.
Isabel was the first one to react. She sprinted right up to the window. She grabbed her wrist device and went to make a call, but she frowned quickly.
Aaron warily got to his feet. “It’s not working, is it? Something is jamming the signal, ha?”
She frowned and stared at him. “What the hell is going on?”
He wiped a sweaty hand down his mouth. “I’ve got no idea. We need to get out of this apartment, though –”
She ignored him. She leaned right out of the window. She apparently didn’t care that up this high, the winds were battering. If she stood in the wrong place, she would get sucked out.
She showed her perfect balance – and fearlessness – as she grabbed the edge of the window frame, leaned right out, and peered down the side of the building.
Aaron bolted to her side. Before he could grab her back, she let go of the window and walked over to him. “You go get security. I can see someone out there. I’m going after them.”
He shook his head in surprise. “Sorry, what? You’re going after them?” He barely had a chance to push those words out.
She just looked at him, stepped to the side, then gracefully fell out through the hole in the window.
He bolted up to her. “Isabel!”
He didn’t need to worry. Her four telekinetic objects rushed out of the room, shot down the side of the building, lodged under her feet, then corrected her fall. She quickly floated up and made eye contact with him, albeit from a meter away. “Go get security. Now. I’ve got this.” She turned.
Aaron didn’t think. He couldn’t right now. There was too much crap happening in his life.
He could only do what his body saw fit.
He threw himself out of the window. Seconds earlier, he hadn’t wanted to go near that open hole. At the sight of Isabel preparing to go and take on his attackers on her own, all that changed.
The second he jumped out, wind sliced into his body with all the eagerness of a wild animal. He had a moment to regret his actions, then Isabel thrust forward. She caught him before gravity could do the same.
“What the hell are you doing?” She wrapped her arms around his back.
He’d never been more thankful for someone’s touch.
Before he could shrug into it and let it remind him that he wasn’t dead, one of her telekinetic objects snagged hold of his wrist. It changed right in front of his eyes until it created some kind of cuff.
She let go of him, and he floated backward toward the open window.
“What are you doing? Isabel? You can’t go after whoever that is on your own.”
“I can, and I will. Stay behind. Go get security,” she ordered.
“No, wait, you can’t leave me alone. I was their target,” he stammered. Aaron was not appealing to that fact so she would protect him. He knew it was the only way she’d let him come with her.
Her lips stiffened.
“The light whip was only called off its first attack when you threw my wrist device at it,” he stammered quickly.
She didn’t have time to waste. Obviously realizing it would be safer to take him with her after all, she shunted off down the side of the building, and he followed.
His wrist was still cuffed in the telekinetic object. Its grip was light yet reassuring. Still, he would’ve preferred absolutely any other mode of travel. It was one of the singularly most frightening experiences of his life to fly right down the side of the accommodation block as he saw the Academy flashing past in fast forward. He glimpsed the glittering bay that sat at the Academy’s north face. Then, as he twisted to the side, he saw flashes of the city beyond.
Fear gripped him with a cast-iron hand, and it wasn’t just at his barely controlled freefall.
There was no getting around it – that attack had been meant for him.
The question was why?
He was just an ordinary cadet. Yeah, he’d spent his life getting on people’s nerves, but he didn’t know one person at the Academy who would try to kill him with an illegal Kore assassination weapon just because he was irritating.
He had no clue what Isabel was focusing on as she flew. How she could possibly discern what was happening while they dropped through the dark so fast it felt like they were falling from a scuttled cruiser, he couldn’t tell. He could at least tell she was focusing on something by the way her head bobbed and her eyes narrowed in focus.
Just who the hell was this woman? She had to be capable to be the Academy’s golden girl – doubly so considering she’d been outfitted for the next wave of telekinetic implants – but there was no physical way for an ordinary human being to be doing what she was doing now.
“What the hell do you see?” he spluttered.
“There are two shapes running through the grounds.”
“How do you know they’re not cadets out for a late-night run?”
“Because they are in some form of specialized holographic cloaking technology.”
It took him a second. “What?” he spluttered so loudly, his tongue could’ve popped like a balloon. “How can you see that?” Reality caught up with him. “Wait, you’re outfitted with some kind of fancy armor, aren’t you? Holographic armor?” he guessed. He tried to discern the telltale shimmer you always got with holographic armor from certain angles. He was no longer in her arms, but he was close enough to see the side of her body.
There was nothing there.
“I’m not in armor,” she said distractedly. “Now shut up. I’m sure they can hear you.”
“What do you mean you’re sure they can hear me? Just how far away are they?”
“About 520 meters.”
He was done acting surprised. The only possibility that made any sense was that she was outfitted with some kind of computerized implant. There would be no way for an ordinary human to be picking up what she was without one.
At least thinking about that was a distraction – and he really needed one of those right now. Without it, he would have to come face-to-face with the fact that someone had just tried to kill him with a banned Kore weapon.
Why the hell would anyone want Aaron dead?
It had to come back to what had happened yesterday. Lara had definitely recognized that symbol.
“Hold on,” Isabel snapped as she zoomed down to the ground but didn’t land. They were headed around the south side of the Academy. There were massive fields that led to outside training rings, gardens, and land that could be repurposed for light cruiser drills or anything else you would need to teach the budding soldiers of the Coalition.
There were these great big elms and oaks that ran around the perimeter of the fields.
Isabel came in close next to two of them. She moved so quickly, the leaves rustled wildly, several twigs breaking and snagging against his t-shirt as he slipped in behind her.
Fortunately, she’d switched her grip on the telekinetic object holding him, and it no longer grabbed him by the wrist. If it had continued to do that, his shoulder would have clean popped out of its socket. Instead, it had created some form of field that meant it could carry Aaron without putting undue stress on any specific part of his body.
Isabel was being carried on two of her telekinetic objects, the third sitting in the palm of her left hand. She gripped it like a soldier holding onto their gun. And to her, it was better than a gun.
Even from here, he could see the energy pumping out of her implant. It encased her in this eerie blue glow that reminded him of the hearts of nebulas.
They sliced past another tree, shifting so close, he could pick up the texture of its gnarled bark.
“Can you get a signal yet?” he asked quietly.
“Don’t speak. They’re tracking us,” she snapped through a gruff, biting breath.
If Aaron still had his wrist device, he’d be trying to call Lara like crazy, but something told him it wouldn’t work, anyway.
The men they were dealing with here were clearly professionals. But that just went back to the question of why the hell professionals would want Aaron dead. He found himself squeezing his eyes closed. There was nothing to see anyway as they swept in close beside an outbuilding that held exercise equipment. The night was a particularly dark one, and despite the fact the Academy towers were well lit, there was nothing out here in the fields. As soon as his eyes twitched closed, he saw that symbol from his dream. It was sharper than ever. It was transposed over his vision as if someone had burnt it into his retinas.
With a gasp, he opened his eyes, and for a few fleeting seconds, the symbol remained.
“You okay?” Isabel snapped.
Was he okay? Hell no, he wasn’t okay. He was seeing things, and someone was trying to kill him.
He settled for stammering a quick, “Yes.”
“Then shut up,” she snapped. “I’m coming in close. You will stay back.”
“It’s not like you’re gonna give me any other option,” he said, violating her rule of speaking. Though he understood the importance of creeping up on your enemies, she was overreacting. If the guys who were after him had the kind of tech required to smuggle a deadly weapon into the Academy, then they would have the relatively cheap devices required to auditorily track somebody across varied terrain. You could go down to any engineering supply store on any crappy colony world and get gear like that for a few measly Galactic Credits.
Still, Aaron didn’t speak again. He couldn’t.
What was happening to him? Had… had that dead guy somehow psychically transferred something over to Aaron? It sounded insane, but Aaron had been around the galaxy too many times to know that it was, indeed, possible. Psychic soldiers existed. He knew for a fact Admiral Forest had a crack team which she controlled personally. It wasn’t outside the realms of a strong soldier’s ability to transfer mental imagery. But why that specific symbol? What the hell had that alien language represented? Aaron might technically be failing xeno-linguistics, but he knew his way around alien tongues. His mother had always demanded that upon visiting a new colony world, they tried to learn the language. Nearly everybody in the modern Coalition spoke the standard galactic tongue. That hadn’t mattered to his mother. She’d been all about tradition and the old ways of space travel. To her, it was madness not to learn the cultural, social, and linguistic norms of the places they visited. Without that knowledge, she’d reasoned they’d be at a disadvantage.
Still, Aaron had no clue which race those symbols came from. He’d never seen anything like them.
Though humanity had grown up in relative isolation, a lot of the other Milky Way races had influenced each other. There were commonalities across 60 percent of galactic dialects.
Those symbols didn’t have any shared roots with any language he’d ever come across.
“Our targets are just ahead. I’ve got this,” Isabel snapped.
Maybe once upon a time Aaron would’ve snapped right back that she didn’t have this, and that she was arrogant for thinking she could take unknown enemies on without backup. She was very much the only reason he was still alive, so he just stayed quiet and watched.
They were coming up on one of the running tracks right at the edge of the Academy grounds. Aaron was smart enough to know not to bother questioning how Isabel planned to take this on. He could practically feel her body vibrating in preparation for the fight.
Though Aaron had his own skills when it came to combat, he was cowed by her. This discernible energy picked up in her body as if she was a targeting system that had just locked onto its enemy and would relentlessly pursue it, no matter what it threw her way.
“I will put you down, but I’m going to leave you with one of my telekinetic weapons. I will program it to protect you. Got it?”
“Got it,” he snapped.
She hit the ground at a run, her telekinetic objects jerking out from underneath her, spinning around her, and instantly forming a barrier.
Aaron still couldn’t see the enemy. That didn’t mean he was stupid enough to assume that they weren’t there.
Rather than fruitlessly search for them, he stared at Isabel and tracked her eyes. Her eagle-eyed gaze locked on the middle of the running track.
Aaron thought he could just see a shimmer of light that shouldn’t be there.
Isabel hit the track at a deadly sprint. She shot forward as if she’d been blasted from a heavy cruiser’s cannons. She didn’t make a sound, despite the fact her knee joints should be creaking at the splintering force of her moves.
Though all Aaron’s body wanted to do was draw him toward her, the telekinetic object was holding him exactly where he was. It was a singularly strange experience. It had this memorable energy about it that reminded him of being held by a newborn star – not, of course, that he had ever had that privilege. The energy had this intense, fiery quality to it. It reminded him a hell of a lot of Isabel herself. He wondered if it was germane to the new generation of telekinetic objects, or if it was just her. Darting his gaze up and locking it on her as she swept her telekinetic weapon out in an arc, he knew what he wanted to believe.
There was just something different about Isabel Carter.
Isabel didn’t make a sound as she attacked, and she attacked swiftly.
Aaron still couldn’t see the two enemies, but as her telekinetic object sliced to the side and formed a long sword that glinted under its own blue glow, he caught just the hint of a glimmer.
It didn’t look like an ordinary object shimmering under light. It was creating its own illumination, and it had a deadly green hue to it that made his skin crawl.
Finally, Isabel connected. She let out the first noise she had as she grunted, skidded to the side, and swept her hands up wide. Her telekinetic object sliced right down into one of those eerie green glimmering objects.
There was the sound of skidding boots and a quiet grunt as someone was thrown back.
Aaron’s eyes widened as he watched something clearly impact the grass as tufts of it were torn up. No matter how wide he opened his eyes and sharpened his vision, he couldn’t detect it.
… Yet Isabel could, a fact that was made abundantly clear as she swept her sword to the left and caught the other guy. Aaron saw a blast of light, but it didn’t last. This guy didn’t hit the grass. Judging by the way air suddenly buffeted around Isabel and her fringe fluttered hard across her cheeks, the guy had the ability to fly. Maybe he genuinely came from a race who had wings, but it was far more rational to conclude that the same armor which was giving him the capacity to cloak his appearance was allowing him to hover.
“Get down,” Isabel suddenly snapped. She swept her hand wide, opened her fingers, and gave Aaron no option as she took control of the telekinetic object holding him.
He was thrust down to his knees, then he was summarily dragged backward.
It wasn’t a light move. His back smacked hard against the dirt track behind him. At least it saved his life. Something smashed into the grass where he’d been standing. Tufts of it erupted up everywhere, and they instantly burnt, turning to ash that scattered over his chest.
He was still in his T-shirt and shorts. His shirt was rumpled all the way up to his shoulders. If it took much more of a beating, it would be ripped right off his back.
The invisible guy attacking Aaron did not let up. For the first time, he heard something biological. A breath – sharp, directed, and hissed. It made his skin crawl.
He could no longer see Isabel. He could hear her, though. She let out a hard grunt, and he discerned the sound of shoes squeaking as she sprinted over the grass to the other target.
The guy after Aaron came at him again, and for the first time, Aaron actually caught a glimpse of something solid. Either it was the fact his head was jerked hard to the side as the telekinetic object desperately tried to save him, or maybe his enemy’s armor was malfunctioning – but he saw the outline of a small, five-foot warrior. The fact that his enemy was short gave Aaron no comfort whatsoever. Terror gripped him, and he let out a strangled gasp.
He might’ve only caught a glimpse of the outline of the guy’s body, but that was enough to note two things. One, it wasn’t a guy – it was a woman. Another was that it was a Kore assassin.
Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. They’d already utilized a Kore weapon on him earlier. But trust him, it was the most surprising thing that had ever happened in his short, violent life, because there was no reason in hell that the Kore would ever go after a nobody like him. Notwithstanding the fact that they would have to have wagered incredible resources to smuggle their agents and weapons onto one of the most protected planets in the Coalition – but there were way more valuable targets around here than little old him.
“What the hell?” he stammered, as, once again, the assassin’s armor fluctuated long enough that he caught a glimpse of their memorable armor. It was black and green. The base unit was pitch black – the kind of soulless, colorless hue you would associate only with the furthest reaches of space that had never seen even a glimmer of starlight. The green was this murky, shadowy energy that accented the outfit along the wearer’s arms, neck, and the undersides of their eyes. It reminded him of some contaminated biological fluid you might scrape from the drains after a failed science experiment.
“Aaron, stay back,” Isabel roared.
Again, it was a waste of her breath. She twitched her fingers to the side, and her telekinetic object carried out her order without the slightest input from him.
It was just in time. That Kore assassin appeared briefly – long enough that he could see she had a curved, deadly hybrid of a sword and a light whip in her hand. She slashed it close to his face. As the blade whistled past, he felt its energy. It seared his skin as if he’d been stupid enough to shove his face against the cooling jets of a light cruiser.
He screamed as pain punched through him.
“Dammit,” Isabel snarled.
Aaron was thrust to the side, and he caught sight of her again. She was a blur of motion. She continued to control her telekinetic objects, and despite the breakneck fight, she had an unmistakable grace to her. It somehow seemed to marry the efficiency of a machine with the impossible-to-imitate-prowess of a human.
She shunted down to her knees, long lines of dirt and grass staining her uniform before she thrust up, rolled, and punched both her hands out flat. By now she was glowing as she presumably accessed her telekinetic implant with all her power.
All three of her remaining TOs shot around her, forming a protective barrier just as her target produced one of those long hybrid blades. The assassin slashed it forward. It impacted one of Isabel’s telekinetic objects which had changed shape to form a long flat sword.
An echoing boom shook over the training track, and as both unique energy fields connected, a small shockwave blasted out.
Rather than lose her balance and her momentum, Isabel controlled one of the telekinetic objects, forcing it under her foot. It shunted her forward, right into the energy pulse. Light blasted around her face, discharged over her chest, and crackled into the air around her. It framed her lips as she pulled them back and snarled.
She snatched hold of one of her weapons, gripped it tight, then sliced it down. It struck the Kore assassin’s sword right on its hilt. There was another unholy blast of energy, but this time Isabel was prepared for it. She deftly ducked to the side, pirouetted, then brought her sword down again.
All the while, she somehow managed to retain a strong enough connection with the telekinetic object protecting him that he was kept out of the second Kore assassin’s deadly grip.
The TO had created a kind of inertia bubble that was keeping Aaron suspended as it whipped him left and right. It had to possess some kind of predictive capacity, because it was that, or Isabel was not only managing to fight off her own enemy, but she had the remaining brainpower to predict what was happening with Aaron, too.
He was thrust to the side as the Kore assassin smashed her sword into the ground beneath him. Chunks of dirt erupted up everywhere. He caught the scent of burning grass and laced over the top of it a strange mechanical scent that was likely coming from the Kore assassin herself.
The assassin didn’t slow down. Not once. She moved with unearthly speed. Either she was outputting too much energy, or Isabel had managed to do something to her armor – but both assassins were now permanently visible.
“Aaron, I’m gonna get you out of here and finish these two up,” Isabel warned.
“No,” he spluttered just as he was thrown to the side. “You don’t know if there are more enemies out there.”
He didn’t give a hoot about the fact he was appealing to his own safety here. As he’d already said, if that was the only way to stick by Isabel’s side, then he would gladly play the damsel in distress.
“There’s no one else out there. I’m sending you to the command building.”
“No, Iz,” he begged, unashamedly using the nickname he created earlier. “You can’t fight on your own.”
Everything that was happening proved that statement wrong. Isabel didn’t even bother to reply. She spread her hand, and Aaron started to barrel backward.
His eyes bulged with fear, and he swore his heart threatened to pop out of his chest. “Iz,” he screamed.
The assassin that had been going after him didn’t stop. She suddenly shoved a hand behind her back and grabbed something out. It was a low disk that fit easily into her small palm. At first, it looked as if it was made out of the same armor she wore. But then light started to pulse across it. It was this chaotic yellow-blue.
“Isabel,” he gasped. “She’s got a grenade—”
The assassin threw the grenade just as Aaron managed to spit out that warning.
He flinched. There was nowhere he could go. The only thing he could do was stare inevitable death in the eye.
Appropriately, the Kore assassin undid her helmet at that exact moment. It retracted into the mechanical collar around her throat, and she stared at him with vicious green eyes. The slightest smile spread her lips. “You’re mine now,” she mouthed.
A powerful, soul-destroying wince traveled through his body. Shen she let go of the grenade. He only caught a glimpse of it, but that was enough. As it became electrified, he recognized what it was.
It was a sheet grenade. As the name suggested, when deployed, it created a sheet of energy. It was so powerful, it could blast through a heavy cruiser’s engineering shields. It would decimate him. It would obliterate his body, and it wouldn’t leave an atom in its wake.
She bolted to the side, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw genuine fear blast over her expression – all at the possibility that this was it and he would die.
She suddenly commanded his telekinetic object. It hadn’t left his side. It was still very much clasped around his wrist. Somehow, she pumped it so full of energy, it was as if she connected to it on the subatomic level.
Aaron shot into the air as a protective shield surrounded him.
The sheet grenade discharged. Its energy pulse was unidirectional, ensuring that it didn’t obliterate the person who deployed it. That deadly energy wave only shot toward him.
It reached him. Despite the power Isabel had pumped into his TO, it just didn’t have the speed to get him out of the way in time.
He closed his eyes and thought of his mother. Then something slammed down in front of him.
Isabel’s three remaining swords sunk into the ground by his feet and created a connected shield.
It took the brunt of the grenade’s force, but it couldn’t take everything. A few pulses of energy got through. One impacted his chest, picked him up as if he were nothing more than a ragdoll, and slammed him down onto the track 10 meters away. As his back struck it, stars exploded over his vision. He swore the very galaxy itself opened up in front of him as his mind got ready to give up for good.
He managed a gasp as his consciousness slipped through his fingers like water through a sieve.
He was just aware of the fact that Isabel screamed his name. He heard staggering footfall, then she reached him. He felt her hands on his shoulders. He had a chance to smile. She’d been right about him. The only thing Aaron had ever been good for was to get someone killed. At least it had been him and not someone he cared about, like Isabel.
That thought faded quickly like a star that had gone nova, and Aaron Forest was swept under.
This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not now.
The Academy was one of the most protected places on one of the most protected planets in the Coalition. Yet there were still two Kore assassins with banned weapons going after nothing more than a failed cadet.
She knew she didn’t have the time to think this through. Though Isabel had never seen any real combat time, her training was paying out. She felt as if she’d been born for this moment. There was no doubt in her mind – there was just action. That was until Aaron was struck right on the chest with an energy blow that could fry a man.
She screamed his name as fear shot through her more crippling than any she’d ever felt. She skidded up to his side and grabbed his shoulders just in time to see him smile fleetingly before he lost consciousness.
“Aaron?” She shook his shoulders, but he wouldn’t wake.
Those two Kore assassins were far from being down.
As she crumpled in horror at what they’d done to Aaron, her senses still functioned. She fancied that right now these Kore assassins could throw everything they had at her, but it wouldn’t matter. A part of her brain was irrepressible. The side of her that tracked and hunted targets couldn’t be turned off, even if these assassins found a way to knock her out.
Isabel roared in anger as she felt one of them sweep close beside her, their strange hybrid curved blade in their hand.
She pulsed her palm out wide and connected to her closest Telekinetic object. She sent it spinning up in an arc.
It was now covered in blue energy – as she was. She’d trained extensively with her TI. Bridges had put her through scenarios that would make ordinary cadets crumble. She’d been part of the testing phase, too, to ensure that this new wave of Telekinetic Implants was truly un-hackable. But Isabel had never trained as hard as this. She could feel her telekinetic implant vibrating above her breastbone. It was pulsing with so much heat, she was starting to wonder if it would burn her.
But a slight internal scald would be the least of her troubles if she couldn’t make it out of here alive.
Isabel roared with anger. It was this visceral, primal move. She’d never screamed like it before, and it cut through the air far more effectively than one of the assassin’s blades.
She launched forward, grabbed the hilt of one of her telekinetic objects, and slammed it down into the assassin’s side. She could tell that the woman tried to get out of her way, but she couldn’t. Isabel accessed some deep reserve of energy that rippled through her, giving her force she had never dreamed of.
The assassin had taken off her helmet, so Isabel could see the woman’s face. She was from one of the genetically bred Kore warrior races. She had sharp features, and her skin was marked with long lines of prominent red veins that sat proud of her flesh. One of them bulged now as fear bolted through the woman. She clearly tried to shove off Isabel’s move, but she didn’t have the strength.
The assassin’s armor buckled. A massive crack ran up the woman’s side, across her shoulders, and along the nape of her neck.
She screamed in anger. It was a move that was picked up by the other assassin. The woman grabbed up her curved blade and came at Isabel from the left.
Isabel opened her palm and commanded one of her TOs to shoot into it. She grabbed the hilt and spun it to the side just in time to parry the other assassin’s blow. Again energy blasted out of the move as her telekinetic object’s unique energy reacted with whatever the hell was powering the assassin’s sword.
This time, it couldn’t affect Isabel. The shockwave smashed into her, but it did not rebuff her. It did, however, affect the assassin’s balance. That gave Isabel all the time she needed to twist her sword around and slash it across the assassin’s knees. There was every reason for the blow not to make it through the assassin’s highly sophisticated armor. It had already proven itself to be stronger than most Coalition sets.
Isabel knew the inherent limitations of her TOs. Though they were modular and she could change their shape, she certainly couldn’t make them sharp enough nor durable enough to slice through highly sophisticated armor sets. But… something happened. Maybe her implant reacted to her growing desperation – maybe it was something else. But her sword sliced right through the assassin’s knees. The blade smashed down to the woman’s skin, and black-gray blood spurted out, splattering over the grass and the side of her armor.
The other assassin still wasn’t down.
She backed away, her eyes bulging with unmistakable fear that you would be able to recognize across races regardless of the emotional norms various species possessed in this great wide galaxy.
Isabel screamed again, right in the assassin’s face. Her anger was pure. She shouldn’t need to tell you that she’d never felt anything like it. Isabel, once upon a time, honestly had thought that she was an easy-going, kind cadet who just happened to be excellent at combat. She was disabused of that notion as another wave of pure rage blasted through her, giving her the energy she needed to sweep her blade down one last time. The assassin had yanked up her curved sword, but there was nothing she could do. Isabel cut right through it, and her TO embedded in the assassin’s chest unit.
The woman jolted back, fear slackening her features as she stared down at her chest. Long lines of blue-black energy discharged over her chest unit, blasted over her legs, and crackled over the burnt, torn-up grass.
She staggered back. She didn’t fall. She wasn’t down completely, and neither was the other assassin. One of them grabbed something from the holster on their back and clicked it. A second later, a shimmering energy beam collected them, and both assassins were transported away.
Isabel just stood there. For way too long. She wasn’t breathing desperately as she came down from the fight. Her body was fine. It felt as if that breakneck battle hadn’t taken anything out of her and she could repeat it over and over again.
But while she was fine, Aaron was not.
She jolted to the side, skidded down to him, and immediately checked his vitals. She needn’t have bothered – not because she didn’t care, but because she already knew he was alive. She was aware of his breath, his radiant heat, and his circulation.
… Which didn’t make sense, right? An ordinary person could not detect the beat of someone’s heart just by staring at them.
She brought her fingers up, and they hovered over his pale face for several seconds. As they did, the allegation he’d leveled at her earlier came slamming back into her mind.
She had no idea who she really was, and the problem with having no idea who you were was that you had no idea what you could do. Critically, it meant you had no idea what lines you could cross.
As Isabel nervously stared at the burnt running track around her, she couldn’t help but feel that she’d crossed some line tonight. It hadn’t been the way she’d viciously screamed at the Kore assassins. It hadn’t even been the wild energy she’d used to take them down. It had been this – the light now pulsing over her form as her TI continued to vibrate above her chest bone. She’d never accessed a level of power like this before in training. It wasn’t even theoretically possible. But she’d done it now, and she couldn’t help but feel that there’d be no going back.
She finally allowed herself to settle her fingers on Aaron’s cold cheek. He was very much out of it. She fancied he wouldn’t wake, even if she slapped him hard.
“Aaron? Dammit, Aaron.” There was real bitterness in her tone, but for the first time since she’d met him, it wasn’t leveled at him.
Once more, she stared at the grounds.
She finally allowed herself to think of what the hell was happening here. Two Kore assassins had gone after an apparently unimportant cadet. Were they using him to get to Admiral Forest? It was the only thing that made sense, and yet, the little sense it made couldn’t stand up to probing.
If the Kore had used the kind of resources required to smuggle these assassins here, then they would’ve gone after a high-level target – not someone who was loosely associated with Admiral Forest and would be an emotional target for her. The Kore never wasted their time. They would’ve gone after a valuable physical asset instead.
“Dammit, Aaron, what have you done this time?” she snapped, despite the fact he couldn’t answer.
Someone could, though. She discerned footfall behind her, but it was too late. Someone was already there.
She snapped her head over her shoulder and grabbed hold of her TOs, ready to start the fight anew.
Then she saw it was Bridges.
For several seconds, she just knelt there, staring at him. She couldn’t push back the immediacy of the fight long enough to realize that help was finally here.
Bridges looked down at Forest.
It was a dark night. That hadn’t bothered Isabel in the least during the fight. Hell, it was as if she was only recognizing that now. But it still didn’t count. She could see Bridges’ expression perfectly.
His lips stiffened as he stared at Forest.
Was it just anger at the rumors that Forest had been spreading?
Wait. Who cared? Aaron had been attacked.
Isabel’s body reacted to that thought. She thrust up. She found herself standing protectively in front of Aaron, even though the threat was well and truly gone. “Bridges, you’re not going to believe what happened. Two fully equipped Kore assassins came after Aaron Forest. They would’ve killed him, but I fought them off. I had to use my TI.” She opened her hands and commanded her TOs. They slowly spun around her. “I have no idea what’s happening here—”
“You did good,” he said calmly as if the very fact that the Kore had infiltrated the Academy was nothing more than a curiosity.
Her lips wobbled open. It took her too long to be able to move them. “Sorry? I did good?”
He looked right at her. “You did great.” He switched his gaze and stared at her telekinetic objects. They were still glowing wildly. She was no longer calling on the height of their power, but they were just as bright and strong as when she’d wielded them to cut through the assassins’ last defenses.
He nodded once, and it was clear he meant it. Pride… and something else flickered in his gaze. It was a powerful combination. It made it look as if his eyes were backlit. She almost thought she saw a glimmer of red behind them, but it disappeared and she quickly concluded that the only thing she was seeing was a trick of the light.
She staggered back. She finally felt what she should have felt earlier. Her body became weary. Though her TOs had been spinning around her gracefully before, now they dropped like dead flies. She staggered down to her knees and clutched her forehead. “What’s happening to me?”
“You’re just an ordinary human, despite appearances,” Bridges said, an unusual note twisting through his tone. “And ordinary humans feel fatigue – especially after giving their all like that.”
“I guess,” she stammered. “But you’ve got to do something. Aaron needs immediate medical attention.”
Though Bridges had been facing her, Isabel knew for a fact he had the capacity to watch things out of the corner of his eye. Everyone did. But Bridges had refined it. He could track things out of the edge of his vision with precision that no ordinary person could match. She got the feeling that right now, he was paying his utmost attention to Aaron.
“First, let’s get you a medical transport out of here,” Bridges said as he walked over to her and grabbed her by the elbow.
She shrugged out of his grip. At least, she tried to. Though moments before she’d sworn she had the energy to shove him off, as soon as his fingers locked around her arm, that energy disappeared like autumn leaves blown away in a violent gale.
She staggered into him as he helped pull her to her feet.
He cleared his throat and accessed his wrist device remotely. “This is Captain Bruce Bridges, and I am requesting an immediate medical transport.”
“No, what about Forest? He’s in a much worse condition than I am. Transport him first.”
She tilted her head to the side, and she was close enough that she could see every single muscle in Bridges’ throat and chin.
The sides of his jaw contracted as if he’d just tried to chew through a nail. “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with Forest personally.”
She was getting woozy. The heat that she’d dismissed earlier coming from her implant was now way too painful to ignore. She clutched her collar bone and twisted her fingers in, but she could do nothing to alleviate the ache. It didn’t matter, though – the look in Bridges’ eyes did. It burrowed down to some long-forgotten part of her that Isabel had kept hidden for years.
Long ago before the death of her parents, she’d always been suspicious of their best friend, Bruce Bridges. Later in life, she’d realized that she’d just overreacted to his brusque attitude. Unlike ordinary people, he didn’t interact differently with children. He treated them just as harshly as he would a budding cadet. Now a fragment of that old suspicion rose.
Isabel tried to pull back from Bridges with all her might now.
“Isabel, it’s all right,” he said, lowering his tone so it wouldn’t be picked up on his communication. He cleared his throat. “This is Captain Bruce Bridges, and I am requesting an immediate medical transport for the cadet directly by my side.”
“Right you are, sir,” a competent voice came over Bruce’s wrist device.
Isabel tried to wriggle out of his grip again, but he wouldn’t let her go.
A second later, a transport beam snagged hold of her.
She just had a flickering second to feel fear, then she watched as another transport beam snagged hold of Aaron.
Just before she was broken down, she saw Bridges’ expression. It shattered in anger.
It didn’t last – it couldn’t as she was dematerialized – but it could not be forgotten, either.
A fraction of a second later, Isabel reappeared. She expected that she would be spirited away to the main medical block, but she wasn’t. She arrived in a large room that was practically empty save for three officers.
She didn’t appear alone. Aaron’s comatose body was with her.
She jolted close to him, her muscles telling her to protect him long before she recognized the three figures in front of her.
“Admiral Forest,” she spluttered.
The admiral’s face tightened in obvious concern as she stared at Aaron’s unconscious form. She immediately pointed forward, and one of the commanders to her side rushed over. He grabbed a medical scanning device from his pocket, got down to his knee, and held it against the side of Aaron’s white throat.
“What happened here? I thought Bridges requested I get a medical transport?” Isabel stammered.
Forest didn’t answer immediately. With tight white lips and a worried darting gaze, she waited for the commander checking over Aaron to nod.
She closed her eyes and let out a relieved breath. When she opened her eyes, her gaze locked wholly and completely on Isabel.
Her gut twitched. She almost felt the urge to bring her hands up. She settled for snapping a salute. It wasn’t her best. If there was one thing Isabel was good for – which was everything, apparently – she could snap salutes that were textbook perfect. Not today, though. Her arms were weak. The joints felt like jelly. As for her TI, it was still outputting enough heat to make it feel as if she’d swallowed a hot coal. “Admiral, an incident has occurred on campus grounds.”
“I am aware. You took on two Kore assassins on your own,” she added quietly.
Isabel kept her salute snapped. She should just let her wrist drop. The longer she put her arm under strain, the more obvious it would be to everyone that she barely had the strength to hold herself up anymore.
“You’re aware? Did the Academy scanners pick it up—” Isabel began.
“Eventually,” the admiral admitted around stiff, white lips.
“Something was blocking my wrist device’s ability to communicate. Was the same thing affecting Academy scanners?” Isabel finally let her hand drop.
“You could say that,” the admiral said noncommittally.
Isabel had to pull herself up, and she had to do it quickly. This was not Bridges. While Bridges tended to answer almost every question she had, she had a special relationship with him. “Sorry for interrogating you, Admiral.”
She didn’t reply. Again, she flicked her worried gaze over to Aaron. “How long until he wakes?”
Isabel mistook the question for being directed at her. “I tried to protect him, sir, but that Kore assassin used some kind of sheet grenade on him.”
“An hour or two,” the commander attending to Aaron said.
Admiral Forest clenched her teeth and pushed a tight breath through them. “I see.” She switched her gaze to Isabel. There was a piercing quality to it now.
You know how Aaron always brought his hands up in a position of surrender around Isabel? She finally understood where that came from. All Admiral Forest was doing was staring at Isabel, but it felt like there was a loaded gun pressed against her forehead.
Isabel cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Admiral—”
“You single-handedly fought off two Kore assassins who were at the top of their game. Alpha breeds,” she grumbled, her voice hard, “this is the first time they’ve ever penetrated the Earth Security Net.”
Isabel gave that the right amount of gob-smacked surprise it deserved. “But they were just after Aaron.”
Maybe it was the way she said just after Aaron, or perhaps a touch of her old incredulity for him wended its way through her tone, but Forest stiffened. “I want to thank you for your efforts here today, Cadet. A discreet note regarding this incident will be put on your file. It will be locked and only visible to those with the correct security clearance – as word of this incident will not get out. Do you understand?”
Admiral Forest hadn’t directly given her the order not to talk about this again, but she could read between the lines. She snapped a salute. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. You will be transferred to the medical bay where you will receive treatment for overuse of your TI.”
“Wait, that’s it?”
“No. This incident will be dealt with. Your part in it, however, is now over. You are dismissed.”
This was where a good cadet – especially one with her level of training and skills – should snap one last salute and leave. But Isabel couldn’t do that. She turned and stared at Aaron again. “But I don’t get it. Why were those two Kore assassins after him in the first place?”
“Your part in this is over now, Cadet. I will take you to the medical bay,” the stiff-lipped commander who’d been standing silently by Admiral Forest’s side nodded at her and gestured to the door. He had the kind of broad neck, sharp jaw, and direct gaze that would make it very hard for even the most rebellious cadet to ignore one of his direct orders.
Blame it on the situation and the fact today had conspired to run Isabel emotionally and physically dry, but she ignored him. “Those two assassins were clearly after Aaron. They used the light whip to try to take him out of his apartment.”
“Once we became aware of the incident, we managed to track what occurred using external Academy scanners. We are aware of what weapons they deployed,” Admiral Forest said without looking at her. Her worried attention was once more locked on Aaron.
Like Isabel had said before – she’d had precious little to do with Admiral Forest. Most cadets – hell, most officers – would never meet her even if they served the Coalition for the rest of their lives. A privileged few got to work directly with her, and an even more privileged subset of those people ever earned the permission to speak frankly with her. Now Isabel was simply assuming that right.
“I know what I saw, Admiral. Those assassins were after Aaron. Why?”
“Cadet, you will come with me now,” the commander snapped, his voice hard.
Isabel kept telling herself to drop this. But if anything, the more she told herself to comply with the admiral’s orders, the less she could. She had to find out what was going on here.
To think, the murder yesterday had barely registered on her radar, but this… this was personal.
When she did not up and leave with the commander, Forest faced her once more. “As I have already said, you will receive a discreet commendation regarding your actions here today. But this is now out of your hands. I cannot and will not tell you what is going on here. I can tell you what you will do. You will follow Commander Barnes here to the hospital where your telekinetic implant will be checked after the beating you put it through. Any witnesses of this incident will be rounded up and told not to spread information on it. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up, you will go to classes, and you will put this all out of your mind.”
Isabel, just shut up and leave, she begged herself. But she didn’t. She turned and pointedly stared at Aaron. Maybe she didn’t control her expression, because compassion flashed deep in her gaze. It spread through her heart, too. The moment when he’d smiled softly and blacked out right in front of her replayed in her mind like a broken recording. It solidified her will. She stared at Admiral Forest sharply. “What about him?”
Commander Barnes cleared his throat with the kind of hardened immediacy that reminded Isabel of a sword being taken out of a sheath.
Admiral Forest twisted one of her hands to the side in a stopping motion that clearly told him she had this.
“Why are you concerned for Aaron’s safety?” the admiral asked blankly. “From what I’m told, you registered a complaint with Commander Phillips this morning questioning the fitness of Aaron’s character to lead the fourth years in the upcoming combat training scenario on Ragnar 2B.”
Isabel hadn’t expected to be put on the spot like this, especially by Admiral Forest herself.
Isabel knew her cheeks reddened in embarrassment, but she didn’t back down. She nodded stiffly. “Yes, I did. And to be honest, I loathe Aaron’s character.” She didn’t hold back. Loathe was a strong word – a damn strong word – but it was accurate. Or at least it had been. Before the incident with the Kore assassins, Isabel would’ve been ready to do anything to get Aaron kicked out of the Academy. Now she turned and stared at Aaron’s comatose form again. He was pale. Deathly pale. He had to still be alive, or the commander tending to him would’ve done something, but that didn’t calm Isabel’s nerves even a fraction.
“You—” Forest began.
“I might not get on with him,” Isabel inadvisably spoke right over the top of one of the most decorated soldiers in the Coalition, “but he was almost killed in front of me, and I want to know that he’s going to be okay.”
There. It was out. And it was true.
Isabel was the kind of competent cadet who always knew what she would say before she said it. She filtered almost every aspect of her life. Now she did not. Nor did she mollify the strong look she shot Admiral Forest.
Forest arched an eyebrow. It was just a slight move. Fortunately she didn’t follow it up with a snapped command for Isabel to be taken to the brig for sassing an admiral.
She nodded once. “Aaron will be fine. Everything being equal, you will probably see him in combat class in a week or so.”
Isabel blinked. “So he’s staying at the Academy? He’s not getting kicked out?”
Forest let out a low laugh. “Aaron might have been threatening to quit the Academy for four years, but trust me, he’ll never come good on that threat. It isn’t in his character. Now, I will share your concerns about his safety with him when he wakes up.” The admiral didn’t add anything else. The silence made it clear that this was it – she’d given Isabel as much as she would.
Isabel nodded. She shot Aaron one last confused look, then reluctantly walked away with Commander Barnes.
All the while as they tracked their way from the command building through the interconnected tunnel to the medical block, she could only think of two things. One of them was Aaron. He took up 90 percent of her processing power. The other fact that managed to capture her attention wasn’t Admiral Forest. It wasn’t even the Kore assassins. It was Captain Bruce Bridges. To be exact, it was the look he’d given when Aaron had been transported right out from under his nose.
There was every reason to assume she’d just misread it. He likely hadn’t looked that angry. She would just have been seeing things as her visual system had been broken down during the transportation process. But no matter how much she tried to rationalize it away, it remained, and it started to bore a hole in her head.
There was no one like Bruce. She wouldn’t be the person she was today without him. She owed him her loyalty, no matter what. Right?
He woke with a ringing headache that could only be classified as apocalyptic. It took him too long to remember where he’d been. The last time he’d been conscious, he’d been sure he’d been about to die at the hands of two deadly Kore assassins. While it would be easy enough to assume that had just been a dream, considering how impossible it would be – Aaron knew it was real. For a guy who didn’t dream, he had a pretty sharp awareness. Whenever he woke, he always knew exactly where he was and what had happened to him, and now was no different.
He let out a shaking, gut-punching sigh as he tried to bring up a hand and massage his head.
He heard quick footfall from beside him.
Blearily, he opened one eye. He expected to see a doctor, and he did – but it was the Chief Medical Officer, and she was standing behind someone a heck of a lot more important.
Aaron frowned. “Lara? What are you doing here? I guess you want to have a justified chat to me about fighting illegal Kore assassins on Academy grounds, ha?” He tried for a joke even though that was the last thing his body wanted to do right now.
Lara got an unmistakably relieved look on her face as she reached out and patted his shoulder.
That’s when he realized he wasn’t in a standard medical room. He was on his own, for one, and it was massive. He couldn’t see the whole room from where he was, but there was enough equipment around him that it felt more like he was in a lab.
“So you remember what happened, then?” Lara questioned.
Aaron managed to fight against the weakness in his muscles to press his fingers down his forehead. “It would be kind of hard to forget two illegal Kore assassins breaking up my perfectly good argument with Iz to steal my window and try to kill me.”
“Do you remember that Cadet Carter – which is who I assume you are talking about – saved your life?”
Aaron dropped his hand and laughed. It was a seriously foolish move. The number of muscle contractions involved in laughing was wholly at odds with recovering after what he’d just endured. But he did it anyway. “Yeah, I remember that she saved me. It would be pretty hard to forget. What’s she equipped with, anyway? Some new breed of targeting implant? I asked her if she had holographic armor, but she said no. I couldn’t see it, but I’m assuming that the Academy is always working on new prototypes.”
“Cadet Carter is not equipped with holographic armor.”
“So what’s she got, then?”
Forest turned away. Aaron wasn’t entirely sure whether it was because she didn’t want to face him so he couldn’t read her expression, or if she was checking on something.
It was enough that he frowned. “What’s she got, then?” he repeated. “Because she has to have something.” Awe touched his voice, making it shake like crazy. “I mean, I get that no one’s been trained in telekinetic implants for 15 years, but the way she wielded them was…” he trailed off. Blame it on the headache, but he couldn’t think of a single descriptor that would come close to capturing Isabel’s impossible prowess.
“The cadet is not implanted with anything that we are aware of,” Lara admitted.
Aaron had brought a hand up to massage his brow. Now it hovered stiffly by his side. “What?” he asked with a voice barely capable of generating any volume. “You’re kidding me, right? I saw her fight—”
“Cadet Carter appears to possess unusual skills and a truly unusual ability to use telekinetic implants,” Lara answered.
A frown dug its way across his lips. It shifted in so hard, it could’ve replaced his every expression forevermore. Slowly, he shook his head. “There’s unusual, Lara, and there’s impossible to explain. You should’ve seen her fight—”
Aaron virtually ground to a stop. It took a long time for his mouth to open. “I’m sorry. You were kicking back and watching during that fight—”
“Of course not,” she snapped. “We managed to reconstruct it after we removed the virus from the Academy scanners.”
“Virus? You mean those Kore assassins uploaded a program to spoof Academy scanners? Is that why Carter couldn’t make a call?”
“Part of that statement is correct.”
“Which part?” He got a sinking feeling. Isabel was strange – damn unusual by his standards, and he’d traveled enough of the galaxy in his young life to have some pretty solid comparisons to draw against her. He also knew that there was no such thing as chance in this world. He didn’t believe in predestination, but he did believe that every time an unexplainable, potentially dangerous incident happened in Coalition space, its explanation was almost always that someone was up to no good.
He got a distinct feeling that that’s what was happening here.
“We don’t believe it was the Kore assassins who infiltrated the Academy’s scanner network,” Forest volunteered.
That was a relief. Kind of. It meant that Isabel hadn’t lied about trying to make a call. But it was hardly comforting, because it meant that someone within the Academy had opened the virtual back door to let some of the Coalition’s most dangerous enemies in.
He stiffened and tried to sit. A big mistake. A wave of nausea wrapped up in paroxysms of pain smashed into him.
He almost fell back. He managed to just prop himself on his elbows. That just brought attention to how weak his arms were.
Though the Chief Medical Officer had been hanging back until now, she jolted forward. “Lie down, Cadet. You are in a tremendously weakened state.”
“Tremendously weakened state? You mean I was hit by a discharge from a sheet grenade?” He chuckled as he managed to lie down without anyone’s help. He quickly lifted a hand and flopped it onto his brow. “I guess you can call that being weakened. I just call it being injured.” He dropped his hand onto his chest and quickly located the area where the brunt of the grenade had struck.
He expected that his prying fingers would come across sophisticated gel skin dressings – or at the very least some kind of robotic implant that would be temporarily helping his flesh to heal.
Instead, there was nothing.
He was smart enough and quick enough not to look at Lara, but to stare back at the CMO.
She had a certain kind of look in her eyes. It was a variation on something that Aaron had been seeing his whole life. It was the stare of somebody who was not sure if they should let you know just how screwed you were. Though most of the time it was his lecturers shooting him that particular stare, it was really not a good sign when it came from his medical practitioner.
He stiffened, and though he’d just experienced what happened if he tried to sit, this time he put his all into it, and he managed to push up.
“I told you to lie down,” the CMO snapped warily.
Aaron looked right at Lara. “What the hell is happening here? Trained medical practitioners don’t talk about their patients being in tremendously weakened states after they’ve been struck with grenades. Lara?”
The admiral pressed her lips together.
That was about the worst thing she could do. Aaron’s fear shot up like a cruiser headed into the atmosphere. Several medical devices nearby started to beep, their thrumming warnings drilling through the room.
“Calm down, Aaron,” Lara snapped. “You’ve been in worse situations.”
“Really depends on what kind of situation I’m in here right now, doesn’t it? While we’re on the topic of what the hell is happening to me, why did two Kore assassins go after me?” That was probably a question he should’ve started off with. It was one he still couldn’t stomach.
In Aaron’s head, he wanted to believe the myth that at any time, he could just abandon the Academy, shirk all responsibilities, and head out into the galaxy to slouch through the rest of his life without a care in the world. That had always been a very important dream for him – not that it had technically been an aspiration. What it had been was an act. An escape fantasy he could imagine when his despair at his lack of direction caught up with him. No one, save for maybe Lara herself, would ever assume that someone like Aaron actually cared about the fact that he had no direction in his life. Isabel would probably laugh in his face for even suggesting it. Or she’d snap and start to threaten him – it was hard to tell with her hot-and-cold character.
Not his point. What he was trying to get at was that without that particular fantasy, he’d have to take his life at the Academy seriously. And that would come with unavoidable consequences.
He would not only have to face up to all of the years he’d wasted and the reputation he’d built himself, but he would have to start imagining what would happen next. It was one thing being an affirmed screwup in school. It was another when you were on active duty. Aaron doubted he’d be able to do that. Isabel might actually think that he was the kind of inconsiderate, incompetent fool who would gladly get someone else killed, but that character assessment couldn’t be further from the mark. When there was actual skin in the game, Aaron wouldn’t be able to pretend anymore.
Admiral Forest waited a long time until she answered. Maybe she somehow knew the character-redefining questions flying around Aaron’s head. Or maybe she was just judging how to make her way through this complicated situation. Finally, she sighed. “Aaron, those assassins were after you.”
Aaron pressed his lips together and nodded. He knew he shouldn’t be sitting, and he rapidly found out why. Just by nodding, he became so woozy, he almost collapsed.
The CMO didn’t look happy, but she didn’t snap at him again.
“You sure?” Aaron asked, even though he knew Admiral Forest never made assumptions about intel. If she was ready to state flatly that those assassins had been after him, then they’d been after him.
“Aaron, I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Lara began.
He snorted. He wasn’t sure if it was a truculent, impetuous move, or just his body releasing pressure before it popped like a balloon. “You could say that. Let’s start with why me? Don’t tell me, I’ve now irritated so many lecturers at the Academy that they’ve grouped together, financed some illegal assassins, and put a hit out on my head?”
Lara just looked at him blankly.
“No?” His voice became pressured. “It has to be that,” he tried with a hard swallow, “because nothing else makes sense.”
“Do you know what your mother was researching before she died?” Forest asked out of the blue.
Aaron stiffened. Hell, it was generous to refer to what happened to his body as stiffening. It felt more like someone meticulously deboned him and replaced his skeleton with the hardest substance known in the galaxy. This always happened when someone mentioned his mother out of turn. You would think he’d be over it by now. You’d be dead wrong. As he’d already said, he’d been the first on the scene at her particularly gruesome cruiser crash. It was a godsend that he didn’t remember his dreams. He knew that if he could that every nighttime exploit would’ve been filled with images of her broken, bloodied face. Though a few nightmares had haunted him in the immediate weeks after her death – none of them nice.
“I’m sorry to bring this up, Aaron, but do you know what she was working on before she died?” Forest asked again.
Aaron pressed his lips together and nodded. “Some kind of biosynthesis project. She was out near the Xana Ferris Colonies. Apparently they’d discovered some kind of mold—”
“It wasn’t mold.”
Aaron frowned. Though he didn’t have a super memory most of the time, he would never doubt his recollections of his mother. “Yeah, it was.” He opened his mouth to repeat the lengthy scientific name, but he didn’t get the chance.
Admiral Forest stiffly brought up her wrist device. She didn’t wear the same kind your average grunt did. Hers was a heck of a lot more sophisticated. That was evidenced by the fact that, with nothing more than a swipe of her hand, it detached, changed shape, and formed a near-perfect hovering hologram. It showed a picture of a crystal. What kind of crystal, he didn’t know.
He stared at it for several seconds, then switched his gaze over to Lara. “That isn’t mold.” He wasn’t trying to be funny for once in his life. He was holding onto the facts he knew, and he was holding onto them as tightly as he could.
Aaron had a lot of emotional energy invested in the death of his mother – specifically in how pointless it had been. Any variation to that story could undermine his character as a whole.
“Do you have any idea what this is, Aaron?” Lara asked.
“Something with a crystalline structure.”
“It’s a Hendari crystal.”
Aaron couldn’t move. His body wasn’t so much stiff as completely unresponsive. And all it had taken was the word Hendari.
Two years ago, according to rumors, at least, the Coalition had unwittingly made contact with another galaxy.
Throughout the Milky Way’s complicated history, despite the number of novel, incredible power sources that had been developed, no single race had yet engineered the capacity to span the vast distances between galaxies. The Milky Way had sat separately like a walled-off garden from the rest of the universe. Or that had been the story, at least. If the rumors around the Hendari incident were anything to go by, then another galaxy hadn’t just made contact with the Milky Way, but it had brought its technology here – the Hendari crystals. He knew barely anything about them other than the fact that they could connect to almost any technology they encountered, and that there was nothing anywhere near as powerful as them anywhere in the entire galaxy.
“I’m going to take from your reaction that you’ve at least heard rumors about what I’m talking about. We tried to suppress all information about the Eye of the Gods incident, but you know how the Academy rumor mill works. You can never stop everything.”
“Eye of the Gods?” His voice shook.
“Approximately two years ago an Academy officer and a civilian were pulled from the Milky Way into the Scarax Galaxy. That galaxy is where these crystals come from. Or at least, it is where they were deployed from before they entered our galaxy. There is every possibility they were stolen technology to begin with, considering the proclivities of the Scarax.”
Aaron couldn’t keep up. No one would be able to. Sure, he’d heard rumors of another galaxy, but it was absolutely groundbreaking to have them confirmed by Admiral Forest herself.
“The Scarax Galaxy has a rigid caste system which was created by an eponymous upper-class called the Gods. They utilize specialized energy unique to the Scarax Galaxy. They possess the capacity to create pathways through time and space – paths that can cut right through the distance between galaxies like a knife through butter.”
“Lara… you’re joking, right?” Aaron tried. It didn’t matter that in all of his life he’d never heard Lara joke once.
She didn’t do that stupid question the dignity of answering it. She barreled on. “Due to the rigid caste structure of their society, all other races save for the Gods are kept away from the planets in the galaxy. They subsist instead on stealing the technologies of other galaxies.”
Aaron shook his head. He could not take this in. It redefined everything he thought he’d known about space travel.
“There are paths that exist throughout the Milky Way and other galaxies that, if a ship travels along them, it will open up a light gate and it will take them directly to Scarax. There, scavenger ships that patrol the rim of the galaxy pick up those unfortunate vessels and take everything they can.”
“That… that can’t be true,” Aaron tried.
“I assure you, it is accurate. Two years ago when a Coalition officer and a civilian were taken to Scarax, they unintentionally brought us and our Hendari crystals to the Gods’ attention. The leaders of that galaxy will do anything,” Forest’s voice dropped like a brick thrown off a building, “to get their hands on our Hendari crystals. And we will do anything to stop them.”
“Why… why are you telling me all of this? It’s clearly top-secret.” Aaron suspected he knew precisely why Admiral Forest was sharing information even some of her highest-ranking officials wouldn’t know. Lara only ever shared what she thought someone needed to know. Which meant Aaron had to know this.
He couldn’t describe what his stomach was doing. Was it kicking? Was it curdling? Had it turned into a wild horse that wanted to drag him from this room before his life could get any more screwed? Or was it, as well as the rest of him, simply fading away at the serious look in her eyes?
“My cousin, your mother,” Forest said quietly, “found a Hendari crystal. It was likely that which led to her death.”
Aaron just stared.
Then he lay back down and closed his eyes. Yeah, he got it – it was a cowardly thing to do. He couldn’t help himself. He flopped a hand over his eyes as if he was placing blinkers on a horse.
Forest didn’t snarl at him to sit back up. “I know this is hard to take in, Aaron, but I know you. There isn’t anything you can’t deal with in time.”
He snorted. “I appreciate the lie, Lara. But we both know it’s not true. There’s nothing I can’t deal with? Sure. The death of my mother derailed my entire life. I’m a real hero.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself. There was nothing you could do to save her.”
“Don’t be hard on myself? How about don’t be hard on her? I really,” he emphasized that word with a biting breath, “don’t want to believe a word of what you’re saying. But you’re you, and you don’t lie. So now I have to come to terms with the fact that my mother didn’t die uselessly, after all. And that… that’s a hard pill to swallow considering how much I hated her over the years.”
Lara became quiet.
Aaron really didn’t want to drop his hands from his eyes, but his curiosity won out. He let his fingers fall, and he turned to face her.
She looked quietly compassionate. At least half of her did. The rest of her was filled with the exact same fiery determination he was so used to. “Before your mother died, she contacted me to tell me what she’d found.”
“So… where is this Hendari crystal, then?” It was a mark of the fact that he was starting to accept this that he could ask a question like that. Did that mean he was seeing reason yet? Hell no. That would take a long time. But he could appreciate that Admiral Forest would only be sharing this if it were critical.
He couldn’t afford to waste her time.
“Unknown,” Lara admitted.
Aaron frowned. “You mean it was stolen or something?”
“So she hid it?”
Lara looked at him. Her determination disappeared. Or at least, it was pushed to the side and momentarily replaced with compassion.
His heart skipped a beat as it told him he wouldn’t like what he was about to hear.
“That was no accident, Aaron. Your mother was killed.”
Aaron didn’t and couldn’t react.
“The Kore managed to learn that she had found a Hendari crystal. They went after her.”
He still didn’t react.
“Though it is unknown what happened to that Hendari crystal, it is safe to assume that the Kore did not manage to retrieve it. We have had spies in the Empire for years. Some of them have made their way up to the highest echelons. They would have informed us if the Kore had managed to retrieve another Hendari crystal.”
“Another?” He finally forced past his paralysis to ask that.
“They already possess a number.”
Silence set in. Aaron knew that this was where he should ask what had happened to his mother’s Hendari crystal. He couldn’t. Asking that would acknowledge that this was all real and it wasn’t some horrible nightmare.
But the silence couldn’t last forever.
Lara continued to stare at him evenly until Aaron cracked.
“What happened to the Hendari crystal?” he asked, his tone a mess.
“The last transmission I received from your mother told me she gave it to you.”
Aaron just stared at Lara. He didn’t come to his own defense. He didn’t see any point. If his mother had given him one of the most powerful pieces of technology in all of the galaxy, he wouldn’t have forgotten.
“Knowing my cousin, she would not have given it to you directly,” Lara continued.
“… What are you talking about?”
“Jean was at the top of her field. There was no one like her.” Genuine pride filled Lara’s eyes as she said that.
“Yeah, but her field was biosynthesis. It was not espionage.”
“From the little we know of the Hendari crystals, they combine with all forms of technology lower than them. Considering there is nothing as sophisticated as them in the Milky Way, that means they can combine with any extant technology we possess.”
Aaron couldn’t be silent anymore. This truly itching, unpleasant sensation climbed his back relentlessly. “What are you getting at, Lara?”
“Before her death, your mother was working on organic state transformation.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“The transformation of physical, nonbiological material into novel biological matter.”
It took Aaron a long time to shake his head. “Reading between the lines, you’re talking about making a table a person or taking a door and making it into a cat.”
“Not exactly. The biological material made from this process does not function in the same way and cannot possess sentience. However, it can be hidden within existing biological entities.”
His jaw dropped open slowly. “What?”
“Your mother was working on a process to hide things within people’s bodies,” Lara dumbed it right down.
“Technology like that doesn’t exist,” he said flatly. He turned to the CMO and faced her with a pleading gaze as if he was begging her to back him up.
“Correction. For a short period of time, it did. When your mother realized that the Kore were after her, she destroyed all of her research. Ever since, we have been attempting to re-create what she had discovered.”
“What are you trying to tell me here, Lara?” He choked on a deep breath as he sucked it all the way into his lungs. “That my mother,” he shakily brought up a hand and flattened it on his chest, “tried to hide something within me?”
“You were always quick on the uptake, Aaron. That is exactly what I think. I think your mother was literal when she told me that she gave you the Hendari crystal as a gift.” She looked right at him. “Her communication specifically said that she gave it to your body as a gift.”
Aaron shook his head. And he kept shaking his head, because none of this made any sense whatsoever.
“Aaron, it’s important for you not to become overwhelmed. I need you on board for this. In the space of precisely 48 hours, this situation has escalated.”
“Situation?” His voice shot up like a kazoo. “Are you actually telling me that my mother managed to hide the most sophisticated technology in all of the frigging Milky Way inside my body?” He balled up a fist and struck his chest hard.
The CMO took a quick step forward. “Try to calm down. Undue stress will affect your energy levels.”
He looked at her wildly. “Energy levels? Why are we talking about me as if I’m a glorified battery and not a person? Wait, you haven’t found this Hendari crystal inside me, have you?” He jerked his head down and started to run his hand hard over his torso as if he intended to dig his ribs up.
Lara took a lurching step over to him, but rather than grab his hands and hold them in place, she did the equivalent with her gaze, and it was far more effective.
He stopped his frantic search and stared at her with dead eyes.
“No, we have not found the Hendari crystal inside you. Up until 24 hours ago, the fact it could be inside you was nothing more than a theory.”
“Then what happened 24 hours ago?” He fancied he already knew the answer as a perfect recreation of the symbol he’d seen in his dream jumped into his mind.
“You started drawing symbols only associated with the crystal.”
Aaron’s jaw stiffened. He tried to unhinge it, but he couldn’t, so he just spoke through lips that could barely open. “I’ve thought about that,” he said quickly. “Isn’t it far more likely that the man who was killed possessed psychic powers? What if he managed to transfer that symbol to my mind before he died?” Aaron sounded like a kid as he spoke. His voice shook with the same kind of fear a toddler would use to describe the serious possibility that there was a monster under the bed.
“Lieutenant Alfred Parsons was not psychic,” Forest said definitively. “You may very well be, though, if you’ve been walking around with the liquefied remains of a Hendari crystal in your body for years.” Lara pulled no punches as she said that.
Aaron began to feel woozy.
This dense pressure built in his skull, feeling like a balloon that was getting ready to pop and take his brain with it.
He managed to weakly shake his head once more. “None of this is possible. If you actually thought there was sophisticated alien technology inside of me, you wouldn’t have let me out of your sight.”
“Like I said, until 24 hours ago, it’d only been one of many theories. And I didn’t let you out of my sight, did I?”
Aaron paled. “Are you telling me the only reason you had frequent contact with me is that one day you thought I would sneeze up alien super technology?”
Her eyes flashed. “Aaron, you know very well that’s insulting. You’re my close cousin’s son. I had frequent contact with you because I cared. But yes,” she conceded with a nod, “I also kept an eye on you. I rapidly came to believe that my theory was wrong and the Hendari crystal was not within you, however. Now I recognize how great a mistake that was.”
“No. No way,” he said passionately and decisively, “you were right. Because the theory that there is a frigging crystal in my blood,” he shakily patted his chest, “is just sheer madness. There has to be some other explanation. Maybe my mother told me where the Hendari crystal was, and I just forgot or something.”
Lara smiled at him compassionately. “Do you remember the days after your mother died?”
Just mentioning that was like a kick in the gut. Yeah he remembered. Or rather, he didn’t. They’d been a blur of grief.
“Because I do. I rushed to your side, if you recall. I was aboard the Chronos at the time. And at the time, the second-in-command was one of the strongest psychics to have ever worked in the fleet.”
Aaron didn’t like where this was going. He just stared at her with an open mouth.
“You were questioned about the Hendari crystal, Aaron. But you had no clue where it was. You were not lying. Your mother had never mentioned it to you. Nor had she ever told you about what she was working on.”
“… And after you questioned me… that psychic wiped all knowledge of the interrogation from my mind?”
“It was not an interrogation. But yes,” she conceded quietly, “that information was removed from your psyche as a precaution for your safety. Understand that at the time, the Hendari crystals were the greatest secret the Coalition had.”
Aaron couldn’t process anything anymore. He settled for just sitting there weakly and staring at Lara.
“I actively sent teams out to retrace your mother’s every footstep in the hope that we would find where she hid the Hendari crystal.”
“And all the while you ensured I stayed at the Academy under your nose in case your theory about the crystal being inside me turned out to be true, ha?” he asked weakly.
“I did not pull you into the Academy, if you recall. You decided to join. Like every cadet I have ever dealt with, I always encouraged you to do your best and think twice about quitting. Once upon a time, I was given that same advice, and it saved my life.” She got a wistful look in her eyes.
Aaron palmed his forehead. He sunk his fingers in hard. He went to shake his head, but Lara was right. She hadn’t influenced his decision to join. That had been his own misguided call. And she’d never outright threatened him not to leave. Hell, two days ago she’d been reading the riot act to him about being kicked out.
“Fine… say… say I believe even a fraction of this crazy story, what happens now?” His voice shook.
“I’m sure you understand that I can no longer afford for you to leave the Academy. For those two Kore assassins to come after you, it tells me they found information on the Hendari crystal that has led them to you. It would be impossible for them to have discovered what you told me about your dream. But other evidence must have led them here.”
Aaron brought a hand up and shook his head. “Sorry, so we’re now just concluding wholeheartedly that there is a frigging crystal inside me?” He could barely breathe. “Just because I dreamed of some strange alien symbols?”
“Not just because of that. Because you survived,” Lara conceded with a shaking, clearly emotional sigh.
“Survived?” His nose scrunched.
The CMO took a step forward. “Though the majority of the energy of that sheet grenade did not reach you, it was still more than strong enough to fry a human being.”
She didn’t pull any punches, and she emphasized the word fry with a blast of vocal force.
Aaron winced and receded. He brought a hand up and went to flatten it on his torso, but he stopped when he realized he no longer had any idea what was inside his chest.
“Aaron, in many ways, I’m relieved it’s you,” Lara said out of nowhere.
He couldn’t control his expression as he looked at her. “Why, because two days ago you were talking about a challenge keeping me in the Academy, and there’s nothing like having coveted alien technology zipping around your blood to make your life hard?”
She ignored his pathetic attempt at facetiousness. “No.” She took a step up to him, rounded a hand into a fist, and tapped it against the metal railing of his bed. “Because you’ve always had an unstoppable resilience, Aaron, even if you’ve never chosen to recognize that.”
He got stuck on the words unstoppable resilience. Admiral Forest was meant to be the best judge of character in the Academy. She’d obviously dropped the ball.
The only thing about Aaron that was unstoppable was his need to get out of responsibility.
He shook his head. Every time he did that, the move became progressively weaker as if his neck was giving up the ghost.
“You want to know what happens now,” Forest said. “Believe it or not, it will be business as usual.”
“You will go back to class, though not straight away.”
“Back to class?” He couldn’t control his tone. “Are we ignoring the fact that two Kore assassins infiltrated Academy grounds with inside help and tried to kill me?”
“They wouldn’t have tried to kill you. They would’ve been attempting to capture you.”
“They tried to fry me.” His voice shot up.
“As has been demonstrated,” the CMO interrupted, “your body can withstand greater outputs of energy than ordinary people. The Kore would have known this.”
“Great,” he threw up his hands, “that’s just great. I’m harder to kill now. But people are just gonna try a hell of a lot harder to kill me anyway, all because my mother gave me a so-called gift.” His teeth clenched. “I might have been hard on her for wasting her life, but now I have a whole new reason to hate her. She put her only child in mortal peril.”
“Aaron, be respectful,” Lara snapped. “Jean would have known the stakes. And trust me, they are great – as great as the entire Milky Way. If your Hendari crystal falls into the wrong hands, it could bring about a war. We narrowly avoided one two years ago. We will not be able to avoid out and out confrontation with the Scarax Galaxy for much longer.”
Admiral Forest could have said a lot to derail his anger over his mother, but that was just crazy. “Outright war with another galaxy?”
Her eyes flashed, telling him this was no game and that was an accurate assessment of the current situation. “It is only a matter of time. As we prepare, the Coalition has been gathering as many Hendari crystals as it can. We have rightly calculated that they will make all the difference.”
“Difference? You told me that this other galaxy scavenges technology from the rest of the damned universe. Who knows what kind of tech they have? The Milky Way wouldn’t stand a chance—”
“We repelled them once, and we will do it again. But to do it, we must grasp hold of our advantages.” She looked at his chest again.
Finally he gathered the courage to actually run his fingers down his torso. He didn’t want to believe for a second that there was hidden alien technology inside him. But Admiral Forest wouldn’t have created such an elaborate ploy.
He shook his head one last time, then his neck stilled as if his body finally came to terms with what was happening.
He took a shuddering breath. “So I just… go back to classes and walk around with the full knowledge that the galaxy’s last hope is pumping around my blood?”
“That’s crazy, Lara.”
“We need to find out who opened the back door and allowed those assassins onto Earth,” Lara growled. “And we need to find out now.”
He looked right at her. He didn’t need his familial connection with her to be able to read her mind. A basic understanding of strategy was enough. “You’re going to use me as bait, aren’t you?”
“Is that really safe? If these Hendari crystals are half as important as you’re suggesting, then whoever is after me is going to use every weapon they have.”
“As will we.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to just keep me down here and wait for the doctors,” he nodded at the CMO, “to figure out a way to remove this thing from my chest?”
“Our best bet is that the crystal has been synthesized to mimic your blood,” the CMO informed him.
He frowned. “Doesn’t blood get replaced all the time?”
“I’m sure the volume of your blood that isn’t made up by the synthetic crystal is replaced,” the CMO conceded with a shrug.
That shrug told him everything he needed to know. This really wasn’t a joke. So the possibility that there was a frigging alien crystal pumping around his blood was more than a possibility – it was real. That was the only thing that could account for the CMO’s apparent comfort with this concept.
Aaron pressed his lips together, closed his eyes, and tried to breathe. He also tried to imagine what the hell life would look like from now on.
“You will not be left alone,” Forest promised. “You will also be outfitted for the latest generation of holographic armor. We will be giving you a telekinetic implant, too, though we will have to monitor it carefully to see how it interacts with your Hendari blood.”
Aaron winced at that term, but he straightened at the prospect that he would be getting a TI. “Isn’t all of this going to take some time? How exactly am I going to go back to class?”
“You will, in a week or two,” the CMO said as she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her coat. Her demeanor suggested that this conversation was now over and it was clear she wanted to get a head start on all the work she had to do.
Aaron stared at Forest again. “What about the murder?”
“It’s related,” Lara admitted. “The man who was killed was one of my operatives who routinely checks Academy systems for signs of espionage. It is my belief that he found evidence of the same person who let the Kore assassins in. But before he could warn anyone of what that evidence was, he was killed.”
Aaron dropped his gaze. He flattened a hand over his eyes and pushed it down the bridge of his nose. When his fingers dropped, he breathed hard.
And he… as crazy as it sounded, he started to accept this.
“You won’t be alone, Aaron. I will be with you for every step of the way. We will find out who is hunting you.”
“We will hunt them right back.”
It had been a week, and there was still no word of Aaron. By now every single rumor had done the rounds. She kept her ear to the ground, so she knew what the fourth years were saying. Everyone thought he’d been kicked out. Phillips hadn’t mentioned a thing in combat class, though, and she hadn’t replaced him.
Isabel also kept her ear to the ground for any other rumors, but nothing circulated. Not once did she hear people talk about an attack on campus, Kore assassins, or a crazy fight on one of the running tracks.
Forest had been true to her word. All information on the incident had been buried.
… But so too it seemed had Aaron.
The last week had been a haze. Isabel had done what she’d always done – trained, trained, and trained. She’d fully utilized the training ground that had come online. And hell, she’d even shaved 20 seconds off her best time. But for the past seven days her mind had been elsewhere.
Not once in her life had she ever been distracted before. She’d always had an unshakable purpose. She’d heard a couple of the other kids comment that she was more like a machine than a human. It wasn’t just her speed and skill. It wasn’t just that she could memorize facts by seeing them only once. It was that she could turn off, bury her emotions, and do what needed to be done.
As she walked dejectedly to combat class, she started to rub the spot above her telekinetic implant.
As the doctors had pointed out harshly, she’d run it too hard. It hadn’t done any lasting damage, but it had interacted with her nervous system. This – the ghostly heat she was feeling now – was overstimulation.
As several cadets quickly ran past her, she dropped her hand.
Though no one had read her the riot act about using her TI to save Aaron, she knew how important it was to keep it secret. It wasn’t just that the Academy wasn’t ready to announce it publicly yet. It was very important that in this testing phase information on the implants did not leak from the Academy and make it back to the greedy ears of either the Kore or the Barbarians. All it would take was for one of their empires to come across the blueprints of this new generation of devices, and history would repeat itself. They’d find some way to hack them, and cruisers full of brave Coalition soldiers would die with nothing more than the execution of a simple program.
“You think Screwup will show up today?” The arrogant cadet she’d spoken to a week ago walked close by her as he spoke to one of his friends.
“I’m telling you, he must have been kicked out. His apartment has been cleaned,” his friend replied.
“Yeah, but I have a cousin who works in recruitment. I would’ve heard. I’ve been asking her every day.”
“Is that glee I detect in your voice?”
The guy chortled. “You bet you it’s glee. Sure, no one could fight as crazy as Aaron Forest, but we don’t need him.”
The guy’s friend chuckled. “You just think that Phillips will give you the nod to take over as head of the fourth years if Aaron is taken out of the equation.”
“I don’t think – I know. I have the second-best scores. Hell, I have the best scores,” he rallied arrogantly. “Phillips just favors Aaron for whatever reason. Probably nepotism.”
His friend laughed. “Yeah, right. If it were nepotism, then why would Aaron constantly be on a warning? And pull your head in. You’re not as good as Aaron Forest. In every single sparring match you’ve ever had, he’s taken you down in like two seconds flat.”
“Whatever,” the arrogant cadet said petulantly.
Isabel walked behind them in a daze.
She listened to every word. Even if she hadn’t possessed super hearing, at the mere mention of Aaron’s name, she knew her focus would have locked onto what was being said like someone chaining her to the conversation.
She couldn’t get Aaron’s soft smile out of her head. When he’d fallen to that sheet grenade, he hadn’t screamed. He hadn’t grunted. He hadn’t shed a tear. He’d just smiled as if he was happy to give up to defeat.
No. It hadn’t been that. Maybe – as hard as it was to admit – he’d been smiling at the fact that he’d gone down rather than her. To believe that, she would have to rewrite every assumption she’d ever made about Aaron Forest.
She reached class in a daze.
She wasn’t paying the least bit of attention. She walked smack bang into that arrogant cadet as he stopped suddenly in the doorway.
“Hey, watch yourself,” he growled as he turned to her.
She paid no attention to him whatsoever. She was tall enough that she could stare right over his head. And there, in the middle of the class, she saw the reason why all of the other cadets had stopped.
Aaron was back.
There wasn’t a mark on his body, there wasn’t a burn on his chest and neck, and there wasn’t any indication at all that only seven days ago, he’d almost died at her feet.
The arrogant cadet quickly spluttered as he realized who it was. “Sorry, Carter. Didn’t see you there.”
Isabel didn’t move. With wide-open, emotion-filled eyes, she stared at Aaron as all of the other cadets in front of her got over their surprise at his return and walked into class.
It soon became conspicuous that she was standing there, soldered to the spot.
Aaron was standing with Phillips.
Phillips turned to Isabel. “Come on, Carter, get over here. Class doesn’t begin until everybody is on the mats. We’ve got sparring today.”
Isabel still didn’t move. She stared at Aaron as he turned.
She watched his shoulders stiffen and lift high toward his ears the second Phillips said Carter.
Aaron turned and made eye contact with Isabel.
She couldn’t describe the quality of his gaze. Direct, piercing, thankful, a little scared, and a lot relieved.
As for her, she had no idea what she looked like.
“Carter,” Phillips said louder. “Stop wasting time.”
Isabel still didn’t move.
He was back. He hadn’t been swept under the Academy’s secret rug, after all. Neither had more Kore assassins infiltrated Earth and killed him. Over the past seven days, she’d entertained every single possibility, diligently going through them not because she thought she would actually be able to predict what was happening to him, but because her anxiety hadn’t allowed her to drop it. And yes, she was willing to admit that she had been anxious over Aaron’s welfare.
When Isabel couldn’t unstick herself from the doorway and walk into class, Aaron strode up to her.
“Really, Forest? Do you want to spar personally with one of the best combat assets the Academy has?” Phillips challenged. “Fine. Everybody pair up and find a section of the mat.”
The class started to move, and it became less conspicuous that Isabel still hadn’t shifted, let alone twitched.
Aaron reached her. It was clear from the look in his eyes that he wanted to say a lot, but his lips remained shut. He nodded to the side, indicating the closest mat. Then he reached a hand out to her.
It was obvious that he didn’t actually expect her to take it. She did so anyway.
She took in every detail of the shock that rumpled his brow and widened his eyes. “Okay, then.”
“So you can speak?” she said.
He frowned. “Yeah, I can speak. Have you already forgotten the epic arguments we’ve had?”
“No, it’s been a week since—”
He wrapped his fingers hard around hers and pulled her toward the mat.
Thus far she’d been the one holding his hand. From the exact quality of his grip and the way he jerked her forward, it was clear he was trying to distract her.
They reached the mat, and he let go of her hand. As he brought his arms up and took up a defensive position, he shook his head once.
She was not slow on the uptake. She knew he was trying to tell her not to question what had happened a week ago. Hell, she had personally been reminded by commander Barnes not to ever share information on that incident. But it was different now that she was facing Aaron.
Phillips whistled, and the paired-off cadets started to spar.
There was usually no one faster than Isabel. Not today. She just stood there like a sack of bricks as Aaron jerked close, pivoted from his hip, and successfully threw her.
He had more strength than she remembered – a lot more.
She hit the mat with a resounding thump, and her classmates who were the closest all gave surprised splutters.
Even Aaron jerked back and opened his eyes wide. “I kind of expected you to defend there.”
She placed her hands on the mat and rose.
She still didn’t take up a defensive position.
Aaron winced. “You’re going to make me pay for that lucky move, ha?”
This was where she should attack. She just stared at him. She knew her gaze would be dead.
Aaron shot her a worried look. “Did the golden girl get out of bed on the wrong side?” He tried for a joke. It was clear that his heart wasn’t in it.
“Keep sparring,” Phillips commanded.
Looking unsure of himself, Aaron shrugged then shot toward Isabel.
She made no effort whatsoever to stop him as he shifted in close, hooked a leg around the back of her knees, then swept his shoulder across her chest. He threw her to the ground as easily as somebody manhandling a teddy bear.
As she fell harshly onto the mat, her hair loosened and played around her blank expression.
Aaron didn’t immediately get off her. He stared into her eyes. This close, she could see what she’d caught a glimpse of earlier – the fear playing deep in his pupils. What the hell had happened to him over the past week?
“Iz, I know I’m no match for you, but can you at least pretend?”
“Carter, look alive,” Phillips snapped.
Aaron shot Isabel one last meaningful look that was obviously intended to tell her to snap out of it, then he sat up and offered her a hand. She didn’t accept it. She frowned. She ran her fingers over her shoulder where his palm had been resting. Why did she feel as if she could detect some strange energetic residue?
He arched an eyebrow. “What, you don’t think I left cooties on you or something, do you?”
She ignored him. For the first time since they’d started sparring, she forced herself to move. It was her turn to attack, and she didn’t hold anything back. Over the past week, despite her numerous distractions, her speed and agility had almost doubled. She didn’t want to begin to think of how that was possible. Ordinary people tended to plateau after they’d been pushing themselves to their extremes for as long as she had. After rigorous training, you might make small gains in strategy, which would affect your overall game, but you very rarely greatly changed your capacity. You tell that to her muscles as she snapped toward him with such speed, she was almost a blur.
She wrapped an arm around his middle, and rather than unsettle his balance with a kick behind his knees, she just used nothing more than brute force to slam him down on the mat.
“Carter,” Phillips roared, “restrain yourself.”
Isabel hadn’t done any damage to Aaron, and that was the point. Rather than jump up and help him to his feet, she pinned him there with her knee against his chest. Her head was down low, her loose hair playing around her cheeks, the tips dragging over the side of his neck.
“Ah… Iz? Why are you looking at me like that?” Aaron didn’t even bother to try to push her off.
She narrowed her gaze and stared at him. She couldn’t detect anything with her eyes, but she swore she could feel some unknown energy charging invisibly over Aaron’s body.
“Let him up, Carter,” Phillips snapped from across the room.
Isabel waited several seconds until she was sure she wasn’t making this up, then she jolted back. Long before she did, she noted all the kinds of details she’d never bothered to feel when she’d sparred in class before – from the shape of Aaron’s rigid chest wall, to his heat, to the fact her body felt drawn to his.
He spluttered as he pushed up. “You’re not going to hold back, ha?”
“You’re wrong.” She patted her hands on her trousers. “I know when I can’t win.”
Warily, he got to his feet. “Excuse me?”
“Just what kind of armor are you wearing?” She deliberately lowered her voice so no one would be able to pick it up. She paid utmost attention to his expression, and she watched him flinch the second she said armor. “It’s holographic, isn’t it? Why can’t I see any telltale signs?”
“Dammit,” he said sharply under his breath. “Keep it down.”
“So you are wearing holographic armor, then?”
He looked put on the spot. He shook his head.
“It’s too late, Aaron – I’ve already detected it.” She glanced at her hands when she said that. As soon as she jerked her gaze up again, it was to the sight of Aaron staring at her without a filter.
“You detected it? Just what are you, Isabel?”
That comment made her cold.
What was she? She was the kind of person who could fight off two Kore assassins without assistance. She was the kind of cadet who could double her strength and speed in a week without taking any form of enhancement. She was the kind of soldier who was aware of every single conversation in the room, despite how far off they were.
Aaron reacted to how pale her cheeks became.
“Keep sparring,” Phillips warned.
“Fine, fine,” Aaron muttered under his breath.
He halfheartedly started to circle her. All the while, he stared at her with wide, worry-filled eyes.
“What happened to you, Aaron?” she hissed, her expression hopefully telling him that she would not drop it this time.
He let out a heaving sigh that could have dislocated his shoulders as it rammed its way through his body. “I can’t tell you here, okay? Hell, I’m not allowed to tell you at all. But I guess even though we’ve only seen each other a handful of times, I’m getting to know you, Isabel, and I can tell from that particular gaze that you’re not about to give up.”
She came at him again. She intended to throw him back onto the ground, but he backed off quickly. He showed his trademark agility as he managed to shift low to the side, scampered to the left, then snapped up sharply by her side.
She twisted on her foot. She brought her elbow up and swiped it at him. She didn’t dare put all of her force behind it. She had no intention of knocking him out, though maybe that would be easier. She could then take him to the med bay and get some time alone with him.
Aaron was right – she was not going to drop this.
… Which was crazy on every level. There was nothing more important to Isabel than keeping up standards – and the one most critical to uphold was the chain of command. She had been given a direct order from none other than Admiral Forest herself to drop this issue.
Isabel just couldn’t.
It was Aaron’s turn to come at her. He was a lot faster than he’d been last week. She still couldn’t detect his holographic armor visually, but she was certain it was there. It was as if she could taste its electrical potential in the air.
She waited until he reached her, then she shunted her shoulder into his. She tried to overbalance him, but he went with her movement and not against it. He willingly fell onto his back, and he rolled out of the way before she could capitalize on the move.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Phillips trilled from across the room. “If every cadet could spar like you two, it would be a different Coalition.”
Phillips was right. It would be a Coalition of secrets, intrigue, and danger.
For the past week, Isabel had been trying to tell herself that there had to be some kind of innocent explanation as to why those Kore assassins had seemingly gone after Aaron. He couldn’t have been their primary target. But if Admiral Forest had equipped him with prototype holographic armor that was undetectable, then Aaron really had been what they were after.
He tried to sweep around her side, but she wouldn’t let him. With a grunt, she hefted her shoulder up and out. She snagged him in his lower back. He was shunted to the side.
She pivoted quickly, shoved her arm out, wrapped it around his middle, and hauled him onto the mat. They both struck it with skull-shaking force.
“Damn, Isabel,” he grunted as he tried to throw her off.
There was no way she was going to let him get this point. Making your opponent hit the mat was only the first stage. You had to be able to hold them down for five seconds.
She planted her knees into the blue crash mat as she used all of her force to keep him down.
She managed to hold him down for four seconds until Aaron bucked chaotically to the side and somehow slipped out from under her grip.
She tried to grab him, but he brought his knee up and smashed it into her elbow.
The move wasn’t hard enough to hurt her. It would hurt anyone else – just not her.
It barely shoved her back.
He jolted to his feet and danced back quickly, his eyes wide. “Damn, Iz, just what exactly are you made of?”
For the first time, she noticed he was using a nickname on her. Though it was a common shortening of Isabel, it was the first time she’d heard it. None of her other classmates called her anything other than Cadet Carter. Yet here Aaron was, after only having known her long enough to argue with her, using a pet name.
It was only a few seconds later that she recalled the rest of his question.
What was she made of?
She had no idea anymore, did she? And that frightened her to the core.
Just when he thought that Isabel would flatten him dead, Phillips called for everyone to change partners. Honestly, Aaron wouldn’t have minded if Isabel had used him as a punching bag – at least it would’ve kept him close by her side. For the past week as he’d been outfitted with prototype technology intended to keep him safe and monitor the Hendari crystal in his blood, he’d only thought of her. He’d asked after her a couple of times, but when Lara had started to get this knowing look in her eyes, he’d backed off. Excuse him for being concerned about the woman who’d single-handedly saved his life.
Now she was here – though technically over there several meters away. He managed to lock his attention on her and not let it deviate once even as he fought a fifth-year who was a hell of a lot bigger than him.
The guy obviously thought it would be an easy sparring match, but Aaron didn’t need all of his wits about him to take this guy down.
He didn’t utilize his holographic armor. That was not why it was there.
Aaron was very much in harm’s way now.
Over the past week, he’d tried to come to terms with everything that was happening to him. He had, on some level. When more and more of Lara’s senior staff had gotten involved, it had become abundantly clear that this was no game. Aaron really did have one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology in all of the Milky Way pumping through his blood. And the Kore really were after him. Lara had released several very top-secret classified documents on recent Kore activity, and they had pushed far into the Coalition, all of their efforts clearly focused on getting to Earth. She’d also released information on the prototype weapons they’d likely brought with them. Over the past two years it seemed the Kore had thrown almost every resource they had into developing new gear. A disturbing amount of it was dedicated to the task of capturing and containing high-yield energy devices. Which is what he was now, wasn’t he?
When class was finally over, Aaron went and changed immediately. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Carter. It was a calculated move to ensure that he left the training ground before anyone else did.
He started walking off in the one direction where he knew none of the other cadets would head. He was making an assumption that Isabel would somehow read his mind and know where he was going, but he didn’t think it was such a crazy guess to make. She’d been able to track two Kore assassins in cloaked armor 500 meters away…. Just what the hell was she? He’d tried to have that conversation with Forest a few times, but she’d steadfastly ignored it. She’d suggested that Isabel was just unusual, but Aaron knew better.
Isabel’s crazy skills would very much be on Forest’s radar.
Considering his relationship with Isabel thus far had been built on epic arguments, it would be easy enough to be suspicious of Isabel. She was way too quick-tempered, and if you combined that with her insane combat skills, that was a particularly explosive combination.
But he couldn’t be suspicious of her. Neither could he be angry. His heart just wouldn’t let him.
He was heading around the back way out of the building. He was walking down a long corridor that had only recently been created. Considering the crap the Academy had gone through in the past 15 years, funding had increased exponentially. New fully integrated holographic training centers were coming online. As he inclined his head in their direction, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Relief bolted through him. “Iz, thank heavens. I figured out you’d find some way to track me considering you’ve got crazy godlike skills.” He didn’t know why he added that last bit. It just came gushing out as he turned.
It was not Isabel. Nowhere near.
He paled five shades until it looked as if someone had slathered him in light-reflective paint. “Bridges. I mean, Captain,” he added quickly.
Bridges let his hand fall to the side. “Cadet Forest, is it?” he asked in the kind of tone that told anyone Bridges had already known exactly who Aaron was.
Aaron pressed his lips together and nodded.
He tried to get a handle on his fear, even though it was kicking through his gut like a stubborn mule.
Over the last week, Aaron had asked Lara about Bridges several times.
Lara hadn’t exactly dismissed Aaron’s suspicions, but she had told him that Bridges couldn’t be the Kore’s man on the inside. That told Aaron that Lara had been suspicious enough of Captain Bridges to do a thorough investigation, but that investigation had come up with naught.
Now Aaron seriously questioned if Lara hadn’t made an epic mistake, because there was something decidedly wrong about the way Bridges was staring at him now.
“What are you doing in this area, son?” Bridges asked.
“Just walking through.”
“I have functioning ears. It seems you were waiting for Isabel.”
Aaron scrunched his lips together as if he’d tied a belt around his mouth. “I was just walking through,” he defaulted to saying. “What are you doing here?”
“There is no custom that dictates the necessity of a captain to answer a question from a cadet.”
That was a less than polite way for Bridges to tell Aaron to mind his own business.
They were standing uncomfortably close. No, Bridges was uncomfortably close to Aaron. And he kept that close as Aaron tried to back off but Bridges followed.
“Ah, I guess I’d better go. Goodbye, Captain.” Aaron even bothered to snap a salute that wasn’t half bad as he turned on his foot.
“Why do you seem so tense around me?” Bridges wouldn’t let him leave. He took a solid step up to Aaron’s side.
Dammit. All Aaron wanted to do was end this conversation and run back home like a scared little rabbit. He settled for smoothing a polite smile over his face – or as friendly as he could manage right now. He turned around. “I assure you, Captain, I’m not tense. I’ve just been recovering from a bout of space flu.” He hadn’t invented that lie – Forest had. She’d also placed enough false information with the medical teams that if anyone tried to check up on it, his story would seem airtight.
“You’re tense,” Bridges concluded. He wrapped his hands behind his back.
If Aaron had been paying attention, he would’ve realized that Bridges’ shoulders popped out a little as if he was making fine micro-movements with his fingers.
“It’s nothing, sir. I’m sorry I wasted your time. I should really head to class.”
“But your next class is in the opposite direction,” Bridges pointed out.
“So it is.” Aaron turned and tried to walk away.
Bridges wouldn’t let him. With his hands still behind his back, he took a step in front of Aaron, blocking him off from retreat.
Aaron’s gut started to turn.
His heart began to pound, too. Forest had given him a warning to control his emotions unless he was under a direct threat. The Academy was keeping a constant lock on his biosignatures. If his physiological state underwent a dramatic change, help would come immediately.
Aaron made no attempt to try to calm himself down. He didn’t like the look in Bridges’ eyes one bit.
“I’m really sorry for wasting your time, sir,” Aaron tried as he attempted to walk around Bridges again.
Bridges still wouldn’t let him. He took a step back. His hands were still locked behind his back.
For the first time, Aaron consciously noted that his arms were moving ever so slightly. He frowned. “Are you typing something on your wrist device, sir?”
Bridges had already made it clear that as a captain, he wouldn’t answer Aaron’s frivolous questions.
Maybe this one wasn’t so frivolous, though.
“I’m preparing a trap, Cadet.”
Aaron froze. “What?”
“I’m assuming your chaperone will transport in three, two, one.” Bridges sliced his hand to the side.
There was a blast of light right next to Aaron, and the next thing he knew, Commander Barnes appeared with a phase rifle in his hands. Not a handgun, mind you – but the kind of rifle they equipped people who were going out to war.
Aaron staggered back at Bridges’ threat just as Barnes dropped his rifle. “What’s going on here?”
“Bridges just—” Aaron got a chance to stammer.
Bridges nodded at Barnes. Aaron saw something – he swore he saw something in Bridges’ eyes. A red glow – the same one he remembered from his dream.
Aaron, it seemed, wasn’t making it up. Barnes immediately snapped up his rifle. “What just happened to your eyes?” he demanded without ever bothering to add a sir.
“I disabled your rifle, your wrist device, and your combat implant.” Bridges tapped the side of his brow.
“Enough,” Barnes snapped. He slid his thumb over the power setting on his gun. It would ensure he didn’t fry Bridges to a crisp but just knocked him out.
Then Barnes depressed his finger on the trigger.
… And nothing happened. The rifle didn’t even click. It powered down as if someone had grabbed out its battery unit.
“What the hell?” Barnes had a chance to snap.
Bridges took a step forward.
Barnes threw the gun to the side and bodily stepped in front of Aaron. “Get out of here, Cadet.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” Bridges said with a slightly bored tone. He blinked as if his eyes were bothering him.
Again Aaron picked up that unmistakable red glow. Though he wasn’t about to back away from a fight, he did exactly as Barnes said, and he turned.
Before Aaron got the chance to run, Barnes threw himself forward.
Bridges moved so quickly, he couldn’t possibly be human. There was the sound of something mechanical as his arm impacted Barnes’ chest. Then there was the unmistakable crack of breaking bones as Barnes was thrown back. He smashed into the wall, his head lolling to the side as he crumpled like a broken doll.
Aaron skidded around, his eyes bulging wide. “What the hell are you, Bridges? 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.”
Bridges took a step toward Aaron, and he inclined his head from left to right. Deep metallic clicks echoed through his body as if he was somehow built around a mechanical shaft.
“I’m not the spy,” Bridges stated flatly.
“Then who is?”
Bridges looked right at Aaron. “I just trained the spy.”
Aaron froze. He felt like he’d black out. His lips wobbled open. “No—”
“Yes,” Bridges said as he nodded. “Isabel is the spy. She’s something I picked up years ago. A gift from the Gods.”
“No way.” Aaron brought up his hands and staggered back. His foot snagged something, and he fell flat on his ass, but he still kept his hands up. It wasn’t in defense – not physical defense, at least. He was trying to fight off the mere possibility that Isabel could be behind this mess. “She was the one who saved me from the Kore.”
“Technically she was finishing her training as a spy and buying us the opportunity to do this here.” Bridges demonstrated what this was as he locked a hand on Aaron’s shoulder.
Aaron unmistakably heard metal units shifting in Bridges’ fingers. That eerie red glow was back in his gaze. It was just as bright and deadly as two targeting lasers.
Aaron shook his head. “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 twitched as cold reason caught up with him.
“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.”
Bridges loomed over Aaron.
Aaron finally tried to fight. All the emphasis was on the verb try. He jolted forward, rounded his shoulder, and tried to shove it hard into Bridges, but it was like hitting a brick wall. Even with the aid of Aaron’s armor, he couldn’t make a dent in the captain.
Bridges reared back, stared into Aaron’s eyes, and sliced his lips open. “Don’t worry, son. You won’t wake up again.” With that, he cracked Aaron across the jaw with a devilish left hook.
Aaron fell unconscious with time for one last thought. He finally knew who Isabel was – a Kore spy. But he could guarantee one thing – she still had no clue.
His lips wobbled open, and he whispered, “Iz,” as he fell unconscious.
She’d followed Aaron.
She’d had every intention of rushing up and confronting him… until Bridges had arrived.
She’d somehow felt him long before he’d come marching down the corridor toward Aaron.
She’d ducked into one of the training grounds she had access to.
Bridges had walked right past without noticing her.
Then Isabel had opened the door… and heard everything.
Now she knelt just back from the open doorway, her body broken, her mind a reeling mess.
She… she was a Kore spy.
All this time, Bridges had been grooming her.
She heard the snap of bone as Bridges hit something.
She planted her hand on her lips and gasped between her fingers.
Horror filled her as she inched her face up to the doorway and stared down the corridor.
Bridges stood over Aaron’s unconscious body. Holographic energy discharged down Aaron’s face, desperately trying to protect him from Bridges’ move, but it was too late.
Bridges… he glowed. The side of his face and his bare knuckles were covered in an eerie red glimmer that reminded her of dried blood under sunlight.
Isabel couldn’t move. She couldn’t think. All she could do was repeat Aaron’s warning in her mind.
If she didn’t know who she was, then she had no clue what she was really capable of.
Isabel was…. She—
She heard Bridges start to drag Aaron’s body in her direction.
She needed to dart forward and close the door, but she couldn’t. She just knelt there in horror until he came up to the doorway. Bridges turned around and stared at her as he held Aaron by the back of his shirt.
There was no surprise in Bridges’ red eyes. “It’s time to move, Asset. You finally have a chance to show your true colors.”
She shook her head. “This isn’t happening. I’m not… I’m not a Kore.”
“You’re right. You’re not a Kore. You come from what the Coalition calls the Scarax Galaxy. You,” his eyes widened with unmistakable greedy awe, “are a Hand of the Gods. Now rise.”
She shook her head, her hair flattening over her tear-streaked face. She hadn’t even realized she’d been crying.
Bridges didn’t ask her again. He clicked his head to the side.
She felt something building inside her – a potential she’d always felt in Bridges’ presence, but one she’d stupidly never understood.
She stood and stepped in close beside him. He was somehow controlling her body, but he could not control her expression. She stared at him in gut-wrenching shock. “How—”
“Did you never wonder why you were stronger, faster, and smarter than other people?” Bridges challenged.
She couldn’t answer.
He could. “Because you’re a weapon. My weapon.”
“Every gain you ever made was down to me, Isabel. You’re the perfect weapon, the perfect assassin, and the perfect infiltrator.”
She shook her head, more tears trailing down her cheeks. “No.”
“Yes. As a Hand of the Gods, you can be wielded by the worthy.” He brought up his free hand and clenched it into a fist. That red glow shifted around him.
Isabel felt herself snapping a perfect salute.
“The life you lead is a lie, Isabel. You’re nothing more than a sleeper agent that has been waiting for this moment. Now come. It is time to wield you.”
There wasn’t a thing Isabel could do, for Bridges was right. She was nothing more than a weapon for him to wield. She should have tried to find out who she really was earlier. Now it was too late, both for her and Aaron.
Judging by the look in Bridges’ eyes, it would be too late for the Academy, too.
He would fight his way out of here using her fists.
Isabel closed her eyes.
It didn’t change what was happening to her. Nothing could.
The fight was about to begin.
The end of Hand of the Gods Book One. This series is complete. There are four books in total, and all are currently available. Pick them up today.