The War of the Gods

Joseph Lance

“Just trust the process,” she whispered in a smooth tone designed to secure anyone’s trust.

Joseph felt a hand on his shoulder. It had to push through the thick shielding securing his body in place.

He opened one eye to see Anna, his counselor. A smile split across her lips. It was the kind that could put anyone at ease. She was an empath like no other.

And… she was right. He just had to trust the process.

He closed his eyes. “Right. Will I get a warning when it starts?”

Her hand retreated. “You’ll just slip in. Don’t fight it. Let yourself remember exactly what happened.”

Remember exactly what happened? Joseph wanted to fight it every single step of the way, which is exactly what he’d been doing for years. But there came a point in your life when you could no longer fight yourself, ha? It was usually when a greater threat loomed.

The Coalition, Joseph’s adoptive home, was at war with the Scarax Galaxy gods – beings who controlled a complicated energetic substance that gave them incalculable powers called the Light of the Gods.

About six months ago, things had kicked off at the Coalition Academy, where Joseph was based. There’d been all-out war. The Scarax Imperial Fleet had surrounded Earth and battered it. But the Academy had won – through grit and damn luck.

Which brought Joseph to the here and now.

The Scarax gods hadn’t disappeared. They’d only hit pause on the war. They still wanted the Milky Way.

There was only one chance to hold them back for good. And it was buried in Joseph’s tortured psyche somewhere.

“When you sink into the vision, I want you to be able to recognize every detail you can,” Anna said. Her voice was like a warm hand. Not that it really affected Joseph. As a spacer – a powerful being spliced with a human who was capable of generating subspace fields inside his own body – few things affected him. It had to be a torpedo from a heavy cruiser or a weapon of some similar massive energy yield.

He was leaving something out, wasn’t he? Something big. There was one category of weapon that could slice through Joseph’s otherwise impenetrable form like a samurai sword through a sheet of clean paper.

Psychics.

Joseph had been plucked from a colony world by one of the Kore Empire’s greatest sect leaders, Master Deus, and the monster had spliced Joseph with a spacer for one purpose – so that Deus could use Joseph as a glorified tool. Spacers were nothing more than armor suits for their masters. Ones that could be slipped into and used to do the worst atrocities imaginable then slipped out of and practically hung up like coats on a hook.

Now was not the time to remember all this. Every single recollection of Deus always brought the same cold tingle rushing over Joseph’s back. He could technically sweat like an ordinary human, but not much. This was worse, anyway. It made it feel as if a black hole had just opened up in his body and it would swallow him with a pop.

“Trust the process. It’s beginning now. Don’t fight it, Joseph. We’re relying on you to remember every detail.

Every detail, ha?

How many times had Joseph done this? Probably only five, but it felt as if it was interminable.

Though he was an important Coalition asset as a spacer who was directly under their control – or at least orders, considering that word had a special meaning to somebody who’d been grown to be completely subservient – they weren’t after his skills here.

They were after one memory.

Six months ago when the Academy almost fell, one thing had saved everyone. It hadn’t been the Academy staff, and God knows it hadn’t been the embattled Coalition fleet.

It was a powerful psychic unlike anything the Milky Way had ever seen – unlike anything that was thought possible. She had come in and stolen every single one of the Coalition’s most powerful devices – Hendari crystals. Just like that. In the snap of her fingers. And it was a snap of her fingers Joseph had to concentrate on now.

Joseph had fought in the battle for the Academy. He’d been one of the main forces, in fact. Everyone else had been trapped or too weak to fight.

But Joseph should’ve lost. He went to bed every single night – because yeah, his human side needed to sleep – thinking through what should have happened.

He should be nothing but dust right now. As should every single building on Earth. Yet they all stood.

Because of the Queen.

“We just registered a fluctuation in your subspace particles,” Anna informed him.

“It’s okay. Just thought of something I shouldn’t,” he muttered.

Yeah, something he shouldn’t. And something that had left him conflicted for every single day since the attack.

The Queen was… unknown.

She belonged to the Hendari – at least they knew that. And the Hendari were the greatest civilization to have ever walked the stars. They were by far more powerful than any other race that had ever come after them.

But they were ultimately crazy. They’d given up their bodies to create some kind of massive conglomeration of psychic energy that, theoretically, would’ve enabled them to port their consciousnesses throughout the entire universe. They would’ve been able to control and live vicariously through anyone’s eyes anywhere. And yeah, that sounded just as bad as it was. The Queen… she’d either encountered them or been grown to stop them.

And now she was back. Likely on Academy territory. Yep, you got that right. The best assessment they had was that she was a cadet, or at least she often pretended to be one.

Joseph’s mission was twofold. He had to find out everything he could about the Hendari crystals, and he had to give Anna every detail about the Queen. If she wasn’t found soon… it would just be a matter of waiting until the Scarax Galaxy attacked again.

“This is going to tingle a little,” Anna said.

He only just picked up her voice. He was starting to slip under. He experienced consciousness unlike other people. Sometimes it honestly felt like a wave to him. Now that wave suddenly crashed forward and receded back with impossible speed. He couldn’t hold on to himself. He was dragged… down.

The first thing he became aware of was the scent. So cold and clinical. Chemicals masked blood, sweat, and tears.

Joseph opened one eye, then the other. He found himself back there in Master Deus’s primary lab. He floated in the middle of the room. There was a hook field behind him. Which was exactly what it sounded like. It was a shield that hooked around Joseph’s back, holding him steady.

He wasn’t alone. Scientists strode about. They wore thick, bulky armor. There were no crisp white lab coats here. Do that, and you’d just be inviting some angry scientist below you to stab you in the back – literally.

The armor was strong, splattered with blood here and there, and smelt worse than the room.

One scientist strayed close to Joseph. He grabbed Joseph’s hand roughly and shoved a scanner up against it. It beeped slowly.

Joseph had to remind himself that this was a memory. And what made that fact important was that he wasn’t here right now. He was back in the Academy, and at any time, if he screamed loud enough, he’d get out.

It didn’t change the emotional primacy of this moment – the raw trauma that sank into every centimeter of him.

Joseph had been found during something called the Axira incident. Admiral Lara Forest – Joseph’s direct superior – had rescued him and brought him to the Coalition. Then after years of reintegration, Joseph had joined the cadet program. He was now a fifth-year – just a month from graduating. It was weird – almost cripplingly so – to know that fact while at the same time experiencing this memory as if it were occurring.

He heard a heavy thump from over near the doors. It was followed by a crunch. Then the door opened. Why was it that everything on Deus’s ship sounded like broken or breaking bones? It echoed through the air.

There was the drumbeat of footfall as someone strode in.

Joseph stared at one of the largest scientists.

When it came to practicing science on a ship like this, you had to be a hell of a warrior. The bigger you were, the more likely you were to stick around. It had nothing to do with how talented you were. This guy looked like a hulking great rock warrior. His armor was a hodgepodge. The reason wasn’t that it made it more efficient. Just scarier. Joseph could see different chunks that had been ripped off the guy’s enemies. There was even a gleaming chest piece from a Coalition soldier. Joseph might not have recognized that at the time, but now he did. His gaze locked on the old brown patina of bloodstains crusted up the side.

“Prepare him for his first inhabitation,” the guy snarled. His voice was like nails down a blackboard. Joseph knew that sound now. The first thing he’d done when he’d reintegrated with the Coalition was to partake in the considerable Coalition database. It had information on old Earth – and every planet you could think of. Immersing himself in history often took him out of the present. But nothing could snap him out of this vision unless he willingly broke it. Do that, and he’d only confirm he wasn’t up to this.

“He’s already prepared. There are no snags left in his psyche,” one of the scientists snarled.

Snags left in his psyche? Sounded unscientific, didn’t it? Kind of was. But it was a direct way of stating that Joseph’s mind was now just as open as a set of doors that had been ripped off the side of a building. Even the smallest, newest, least powerful psychic out there would be able to bust their way in and start to control him.

Joseph felt his heart rate quicken in the pod. He became momentarily aware of it as if his mind was giving him an exit route. He couldn’t take it yet.

That massive scientist tilted his head back. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, so you could see the low lights glinting off his prominent nose, sliding over his bulbous lips, and collecting just under his fierce gaze.

Joseph fancied he could even see blood splattered down the guy’s collar. He really doubted it was some nasty shaving incident. Likely the guy had been forced to battle it out before he put his armor on and hadn’t bothered to take a wash.

The chief scientist never deviated his gaze once. He stared at Joseph as if he was going to enjoy this. To be fair, to someone like him, the thought of a weak mind being taken over by Deus was about the greatest entertainment there was.

You could look for someone with a kind heart on this ship. But you’d be looking for eternity.

Joseph again became aware of his body in the pod. It started to disrupt the experience until he heard a soft voice over the intercom. “Just flow with it. Don’t get in its way. It’s in the past, Lieutenant. You’re over it now.”

“Yeah,” he managed, though he couldn’t speak aloud.

There were two things that were wrong with that statement. He was still technically a cadet. He was only a lieutenant to those who knew he was a spacer. The other massive gaping hole in her argument was that he was over this.

How could you ever get over a past like his? He’d been born on a colony world. He could still remember every single detail of his prefabricated home nestled into a craggy hill. From the kitchen window, you could see the magnificent peaks reaching toward the stars. They’d perpetually glimmered with snow, even on the hottest days. Venturing up their sides, you could always find some cool cave to wait out the heatwave.

Then there were his friends. All he had to do was close his eyes, and he could hear them laughing.

He remembered every single name.

One day – all of it had ended. The colony had been wiped out by a Barbarian raiding party, and Joseph – out of everybody – had been saved.

If you could call outliving your entire family and friend unit being saved.

Joseph knew that his heart rate quickened yet again. He didn’t need the pod to warn him with a shrill beep.

He couldn’t calm himself. Not as, in his vision, the chief scientist snarled. His ruddy lips pulled back to reveal glistening yellow teeth. They were pointed like tiny little sabers. The saliva practically sloshed along them. This guy was not human. He was from one of the Barbarian races. He looked like he’d once had a tusk that’d jutted out from his chin, but now all he had was a charred stump. He grabbed it, the metal fingers of his armor sliding over it with clangs. “Tell the Master to inhabit him. Now.”

Here we go.

Here we damn well go.

It was the same every time. Joseph suddenly sensed this force thrust into his mind. It couldn’t possibly fit. It felt like his head was the size of a pin but the entire universe was trying to jam itself down into it.

Joseph screamed in his mind. He had to control himself not to let that scream echo out in the real world.

It took every ounce of his training.

He had to get through this. Just one more time. He needed to find the details everyone was after. The Milky Way was relying on him. With that refrain repeating in his head, he endured.

Then he felt Master Deus’s presence. At first, it was like a far-off crack of thunder – just the minutest warning something was on the horizon. Then, in a rush, Joseph could actually feel his Master’s thoughts. His psyche was… violence embodied. Every thought was twisted toward destroying someone to take what they possessed. There was no kindness. There was no heart. There was the complete lack of both.

Most people who’d never experienced a psychic attack didn’t truly understand how the mind felt when it was pushed to the edges of the body. It was like the psyche was suddenly a ball. One that was being crushed. Joseph became smaller and smaller until it felt as if his thoughts had never mattered, as if his memories were nothing but illusions.

He….

“The moment is coming up, Lieutenant. You must pay attention,” Anna’s words slipped through his reverie.

He wanted to grab hold of them like they were a ladder and climb them out of this horror.

He couldn’t.

Master Deus’s mind took up more space.

Suddenly, Joseph twitched. His right arm first – then his left. His fingers spread then one by one crunched in with the sound of bones being scraped over dirt.

Then one lip twitched, and the other.

Deus was in.

Joseph reached forward, opened his hand as wide as it could go, and generated a subspace blast in his palm. It shuddered there, getting more violent and stronger by the second.

He directed it not at the chief scientist but the guy next to him. The man had done nothing wrong – nothing but stand there while Master Deus wanted to try out his new toy.

The scientist’s eyes widened – just a crack. There was no time for him to scream. He knew there was no point in thrusting down to his knees to beg. What would be done to him by Deus he had done to others. The circle of karma had simply spun around again.

Deus roared in Joseph’s mind, enjoying every sensation as power collected within him. Then he thrust Joseph’s shoulder forward with a crack. Just as that blast of power almost lanced out of his palm toward its victim, something happened to Joseph’s head. The same thing that happened every single time he tried to recall this traumatic memory. A hand appeared out of the darkness right in front of Joseph’s face, and the fingers clicked. This was the moment he had to heed. The very reason for this pod – the counselor – everything.

The fingers clicking in his head right now belonged to the Queen.

Six months ago, Joseph would have fallen during the fight for the Academy. He hadn’t, because the Queen had intervened. She’d somehow done something to his mind to block him off from psychic trauma. He was still a target and could be inhabited by stronger psychics, but he was no longer as soft as he’d once been.

He tried to take down every single detail of those clicking fingers, but it happened so quickly. The point was it was abrupt. He’d been so invested in the traumatic memory of killing that scientist, but the fingers were meant to be some kind of clanging alarm – one that roused him from the depths of his horror.

He could tell they were female – small, too. The nails were short. And the sleeve – it definitely looked like a cadet uniform. That was it. There were no moles or scars, no handy marks at all.

The vision ended.

Joseph felt himself jolt awake in the pod.

Anna was there. As he looked up, slipping his gaze toward the suddenly opening doors, he saw Forest walking in. “Anything new?”

Joseph pushed up from the pod as the orange holding shields flickered off with a buzz. He grabbed the back of his neck and let his nails curl in as they sliced down his trapezius. “Same details as before. No moles, no scars. Nothing.”

Forest looked down at her feet. She didn’t seem surprised.

Anna, on the other hand, sighed, her shoulders dropping a few centimeters. “There will be more information. You just have to find it.”

She… okay, this sounded harsh, but she was just a counselor. Standing over there was Admiral Forest – arguably the greatest admiral to have ever served the Academy. A woman who pretty much shouldered the burden of the oncoming war. If she wasn’t disappointed, then Joseph wasn’t gonna hang his head.

“It was unlikely this method was going to work,” Forest stated flatly.

Anna, a tall Hembra with long, elegant limbs and a face to match, twisted. She had red hair that was tousled down her back. She wore a mixture of an Academy counselor’s outfit – with the pale-blue tunic buttoned high at the neck – and the traditional dress of her people. A bright scarf gathered her tumbling messy locks back. It was a flash of color in the otherwise usually clinical corridors of the Academy. “I don’t believe that’s true, Admiral. I can sense that there is a memory deep inside him. I believe he knows who this cadet is.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Lara said noncommittally. “But there are other ways to find this information out.” She looked right at Joseph. Even if someone had shoved her – with a frigging high-powered cruiser – her gaze wouldn’t have deviated once.

He knew what that meant.

Without further ado, he jumped out of the pod. It was suspended on the wall, but Joseph could technically fly. He didn’t have to now. His boots thumped down with two ringing thwacks. He straightened.

His heart still pounded, but he ignored it.

Forest nodded once then inclined her head to the side.

It was time to talk business, ha?

Joseph went to walk away, but Anna stopped in front of him. “Come back. There’s more in your mind we must find.”

Yeah. There was so much in his mind. But all of it was broken.

Maybe he would gather the strength to do this again, but for now, Joseph was gonna do what he did best. He would use his considerable skills to fight his way to the truth, not remember it.


Joseph Lance

“Look, Sally… please, you can’t do this. You need to stay. Everything is riding on you,” Joseph screamed. Spittle flew out of his lips. His body shook as if somebody had shoved it inside a dying engine. “Sally?” He locked his hands on the now broken perimeter fence around the top of the accommodation block. He thrust forward, and it rattled dangerously.

Above him, the wild storm raged. Blasts of lightning shot from cloud to cloud, illuminating the darkened Academy and city beyond.

“Please, Sally, you’ve got to come back. We can’t do this alone. And you… you can’t do it alone.” Those words slipped out of his lips. They had no business being said.

Sally? What exactly couldn’t she do? And why the heck would she need someone like him?

She inclined her head around. She right now stood on nothing more than a telekinetic brick. It was a device one could use, with a specialized implant, to pretty much do as the mind wanted. You could wield it as a weapon or as a building block. Right now, Sally simply stood on it as the storm raged around her.

She looked as if she floated there, only the base of the brick glimmering with every new flash of lightning that arced through the heavens wildly.

Her hair whipped around her. It cascaded over her cheeks, practically throttled her shoulders. His uniform might be torn – hers was pristine. As for her expression? Cold as the furthest depths of starless space.

“Sally, please. Stay with the Academy.” Joseph could have ported beside her, but he knew there was no point. He crumpled down to one knee and crunched against the rubble beneath him. He grabbed the warped remnants of the perimeter fence. One section suddenly fell away. He had to jerk back. Without a blast of subspace particles, he would’ve tumbled down the side of the building.

Sally continued to stare at him. Then she turned. With two fingers, she twisted her hand in a circle. A gate appeared behind her. Joseph’s subspace particles reacted. This rush of energy tore over him. It started in his feet then raged all the way up to his head. It was like his skin had been recast and made out of fire.

He staggered back and dropped to his knees again. It was just as force blasted out from the gate. It whipped Sally’s already chaotic hair faster over her face. It even tore her sleeve. It fluttered past Joseph. He was defeated, but he still snatched a hand out and caught it fast. Securing it between two sweaty, shaking fingers, he tilted his head up again. It felt like he was fighting against inevitability here. What the hell did he have that could work against Sally damn Winters?

“Please, Sally, just… stay. For us.”

“I cannot stay. The King is coming. I will meet him. And I will destroy him.”

“Then you’ll destroy yourself.”

….

Joseph Lance woke.

It was violent.

He was usually relatively good at separating what was a dream from reality. Because most of the time, he only dreamed of the past. For six months, however, this dream had repeated, going around and around in his head as if someone was tying him up.

He thrust forward so hard, he actually started floating. He also rammed his bed against the wall behind him.

Joseph had a roommate. It had been his idea. Forest wanted to give him his own room. It wasn’t that unheard of, but it was pretty unusual for a cadet to bunk alone. But when Joseph had decided to become a recruit, he’d wanted to be as normal as possible. He’d wanted to taste what it felt like to grow up without the kind of history he did and without the kind of power. Hence the roommate and the beep at his door now.

“You okay in there?” someone demanded over his intercom. It was James, his flatmate.

Joseph secured a hand on the back of his neck. It was slick with sweat. It slid underneath his fingers and marched down his shirt.

He pushed up. He knew from experience that if he didn’t answer, James would just keep calling. And considering he was just about to graduate as a security officer, he was pretty dogged.

Joseph jammed his still shuddering thumb into the intercom button. “Fell over.”

“How?”

“I tripped into my bed. The damn thing thumped against the wall.”

“You need to go to the med bay?”

“Sure, if they can do anything for my bruised ego,” Joseph said, somehow smoothly slipping into a charming jokester. It was a persona he’d shrugged into not too soon after joining the Academy. It had been such a debilitating experience the first few days. He hadn’t known how to fit in. Until he’d realized to fit in you had to make space for yourself. You had to be the biggest, loudest, most fun person out there. Then nobody would pry into your secrets.

James grunted. “Anyway, I’ll be on my way soon. You should get going too. I heard your class has got a combat test today. Good luck.” He said that with all seriousness.

Joseph was only middling at combat. Or at least, that’s what he had to make his teachers believe.

If he cracked out a subspace blade and sliced through his resistance, his secret would be out for good.

“Thanks, man. I’ll do my best. See you tonight.”

Jeff signed off.

Joseph turned, slumped against the door, grabbed his mouth, and pressed his lips together as if he was trying to extrude the truth from them.

He might’ve had that dream countless times for months, but he couldn’t remember who it was about anymore. He knew that in the dream, whilst he experienced it, he screamed some cadet’s name. Who? What did she look like? He remembered whipping hair – and some sleeve. But that was it. Every other detail was lost upon waking.

Rounding a hand into a tight, bloodless fist that would remain even after the rest of him died, he smashed it hard against the door. He didn’t even use an ounce of his true force. Do that, and the door would eject backward, fly through the main room, and embed in the wall in a sea of jittering sparks.

Joseph had to shrug this off. He also had to get to class, but he needed to see Admiral Forest first.

He quickly dressed. A long mirror stood near his window, and he got distracted looking at his reflection.

Joseph knew he was relatively handsome. He didn’t know if he’d been destined to be that way and how much had been genetic manipulation from Deus.

Deus had initially intended Joseph as an espionage tool. His goal had been to use Joseph against the very Coalition he now served.

As Joseph leaned down and grabbed his wrist device – a communication hub and personal computer that every cadet had to wear – he stared at his reflection again.

His lips almost moved, almost screamed that name, but just at the last moment, it slipped out of his psyche.

“Dammit,” he snarled. As soon as his wrist device was in place, Joseph transported without further ado. He could do that, see. Other people required technology to transport – sophisticated devices and a heck of a lot of energy. Joseph, on the other hand, could do it at will.

He appeared down in the basement levels of the command building. This was where all the true decisions about the Scarax war occurred.

Joseph had to be careful when he was transporting blind – that was to somewhere he couldn’t directly see – not to appear within people. So there was a general agreement that when he came down to the basement levels, he would appear in a storage room. He did so, halfway up toward the ceiling. He hovered there for a few seconds, snarled, “Dammit,” again, then floated down to the floor. His simple boots slapped against the polished smart concrete, and he half sprinted over to the door. It opened at his approach. He pushed into a corridor, just in front of Forest’s chief medical officer, Jerome Cooper.

The guy was holding an arm full of datapads. He jerked back. “Don’t you ever warn us that you’re coming?”

Joseph shrugged. Then, still managing to run even as he turned backward, he snapped a salute. “I keep you on your toes.”

Jerome laughed. “You don’t know what that means. You can fly.”

Joseph chuckled.

He soon made it to Admiral Forest’s office.

He walked past several engineers retrofitting some new system. Fair enough. The last office had literally been torn apart. It had utilized Ares Tech. That company had single-handedly almost seen the Coalition fall six months ago.

Despite the fact her office was still being remade, Admiral Forest sat resolutely behind her desk as people worked around her like a hive of bees.

She didn’t even look up as Joseph stopped in front of her.

“I would’ve assumed you would have come earlier. Were you sleeping in, Joseph?”

This was where Joseph needed to make some joke. That’s what people expected from him. He took little seriously. But his lip twitched. He thought of the dream. What the hell was the cadet’s name?

Was… she the Queen?

How could that be? From what they knew, the Queen was a virus of the mind. But… while everything else slipped into the background, he could recall the emotional content of that dream. Whoever she’d been, Joseph hadn’t wanted her to leave.

He shook his head. “What do you want me to do?”

He might’ve tried to fob her comment off, but Admiral Forest never let anything go. She shot him a sharp look. Clearly whatever she wished to discuss, however, was far more important. She grabbed something from her desk. It was a datapad. Though she could just remotely send her information to Joseph’s wrist device, sometimes you didn’t want data trails. The pad she held couldn’t be hacked. By anything. She chucked it at him. He caught it, twisted it around, and started reading. His eyebrows practically shot from his face.

“Yes,” she said as she leaned back. “Current intelligence suggests that we have a god undercover at the Academy,” she summarized.

Joseph’s heart pounded hard. All he could do was recall the fight for the Academy. Gods were… almost damn impossible to fight. If they had engorged themselves on Light, they could do practically anything. Here Lara was telling him there was one on Academy grounds? “We’ve got to—”

“Before you say that we’ve got to do everything to find this god, trust me, I’m already trying.” She leaned forward, and she pressed her pale fingers into her eyelids. If Forest were out and about on the Academy grounds, she would never show weakness. It was a sign of trust that she did it in front of him. He wouldn’t hold it against her.

“So what do you need me to do?” Joseph stood straighter.

He was used to impossible orders. He lived for them, in fact. You see, every single time he carried one out, he told himself that all that trauma he’d experienced at Deus’s hands had been worth it after all. Yeah, the brutality had crafted Joseph into a soldier he’d never wanted to be. But at least he could use that power for good.

“It’s gonna be almost impossible to drag them out into the light. Unless we force them to make a mistake,” Lara added.

“What have you got planned?”

“Bait,” she said simply, her voice ringing loud.

Joseph was a pretty astute psychologist. He knew how to read people. Came with the territory.

Right now, Forest was about to ask something big.

“We do not believe that the gods have figured out who you are. You were masked at all times while you fought them.”

“So… what are you asking me to do, Admiral? Advertise who I am and see who comes knocking?”

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly?” He arched an eyebrow.

“We’re going to start leaking information about you.”

“Who to? Galactic news?”

“Through the Academy. Cadets, teaching staff – everyone. We want the undercover god to think we’ve got something special. Then we’ll see who comes biting on the bait.”

“What if they actually find out who I am?”

She shrugged. “Everyone will find out who you are sooner rather than later, Joseph. As soon as you actually join a Coalition ship, your identity will likely be revealed.”

“Likely?”

“Depends whether we are at war or not. But it ultimately depends on you. You can continue as an espionage agent if that is what you want. I simply always got the impression that one of these days, you’ll want to shrug off your secret identity and show people who you really are.”

Joseph wasn’t ready for an emotional conversation. The dream kept repeating in his head, smashing into his cerebellum like a stone rolling down through a garden. But was Forest right? Maybe. He didn’t know anymore. It would be nice not to hide behind a mask. It would be nice for people to know who he was. But then… people would know who he was. It was a double-edged sword. They’d understand his story. But they’d also know he’d been grown for one specific task. Forest and her officers could put Joseph in context. They’d dealt with other spacers before. They knew that Joseph wasn’t a risk. Some fresh-faced recruit wouldn’t have that kind of wisdom, and they’d fear him.

Forest watched him and likely knew exactly what he was thinking, but she didn’t push. “We’re going to start to leak the information now.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Keep an eye out. We’re going to reveal that a fifth-year recruit is a spacer. I want you to watch how all of the other officers interact with your classmates.”

Joseph grabbed his chin, shoving his fingers in hard. It was both at the complexities of this plan and one last-ditch effort to thrust away his nightmare. “Is that such a good idea? What if you put the students in danger?”

“War is dangerous, and unless we do this, the god amongst our ranks will turn on us when we least expect it.”

She had a point.

“That said, if you ever believe that one of your classmates is in danger, act to save them.”

Joseph actually snapped a salute. It wasn’t necessary. He did that sometimes, though – got carried away by the moment. Act to save someone? Those weren’t words he would’ve ever heard on Deus’s ship.

“I’ll also be giving you another mission. Later in the day, though. Don’t you have an important combat test today?”

Joseph laughed. “I think I might fail,” he said jovially.

“Pass, but do so at the bottom of your class. From now on, you must ensure no one suspects that you’re the spacer.”

He nodded. With a deep breath, he shrugged toward the door. “Will that be all?”

“It’s up to you if you want to try again,” she said abruptly.

“What, Admiral?” The words were out of his lips, but his mind caught up a second later. This was about those psychic regressions. He tried to hold on to his expression, practically grabbed it with his mind as if he was going to hustle it behind a door to hide it, but he was too late.

Lara stood slowly. She’d sat for this entire conversation. She stood when things were important. Everything they had discussed had been life-threatening. Apparently this, however, trumped that. “It’s up to you, Joseph. I doubt that we can find any useful information. Anna has a different opinion. She’s the psychic, so maybe I should trust her. But understand ultimately that we are up against—”

“The Queen,” Joseph interrupted. There was no point. They both knew who they were talking about. Maybe Joseph just wanted to pretend he was in control of the conversation. Or… it was the tingle he could still feel rushing through him from his dream. If he closed his eyes, he’d likely thrust a hand out as if that floating cadet was just above him.

“There is a part of me that believes that no matter what we do, we will not be able to find her. She will either reveal herself when she wants to, or she won’t. There’s a possibility she’s already left.”

“You don’t believe that, do you, Admiral?”

Her cheeks twitched. You’d have to know her – and you’d have to be watching her like a hawk. Joseph saw it, all right.

It told him what he already knew. Lara was certain the Queen was still around.

The question was why? More than that, why had the Queen stolen the Coalition’s crystals but helped them survive the Scarax invasion? What was the Queen’s ultimate game?

“You need to head to your combat class now, Joseph. Good luck. But not too much luck,” she added. “Bottom of your class,” she reiterated firmly.

Joseph snapped a salute. “Bottom of my class,” he repeated. Then he ported away.

He had a mission. Good. Because that’s all Joseph lived for.


Admiral Forest

As soon as Joseph left, she turned. She nodded at the engineer just behind her desk. It was one simple move, but the man understood. He pushed up, his knees creaking as he snapped a salute. He gestured at his other engineers wordlessly to leave the room, and they packed up swiftly. The door soon shut behind them.

Lara walked over to her desk, reached into the bottom drawer, and pulled out a datapad.

There was no backup of its information on the Coalition databases. There was no copy anywhere.

It was where she worked on her notes regarding the Queen.

The Queen was still here. Lara knew that. But that knowledge didn’t come from facts.

Lara had once been the custodian of the Coalition’s Hendari crystals. Over the years, as she’d shepherded them, she’d sworn they’d started speaking to her. Once the Coalition had secured a critical threshold of crystals, it was as if the inherent intelligence of each had combined.

The reason Lara could be so confident that the Queen was still here was that she was almost certain the Hendari crystals were still on Earth.

Crunching over her datapad, she slid her fingers over the smooth screen, activating the interface and thumbing through her notes.

Most of the data they had on the Queen had been secured in the Scarax Galaxy. But other facts were flooding in.

The Hendari had traveled to many galaxies. For the past few months, Lara had been scouring all of the old books of the truly ancient Milky Way races. She’d found a few snippets.

There was one she went back to now. Clearing her throat with a gruff, rattling cough, she hissed, “Queen of the downtrodden, ruler of the broken minds, the Queen is a virus like no other. Where others fall, she rises. Where other’s die, she survives. And where others end, she builds a wall to keep it back.”

It was that line specifically that Lara tapped her finger on.

It sounded like nothing more than a rather bland ballad, but she knew better.

This snippet had been taken from an ancient language. It was one with a particularly rich linguistic core. Every word came with almost thousands of definitions. The word wall could also mean gate under certain circumstances. It was unclear which one it connoted in this instance.

Why would the word gate matter?

Because cross-referencing through the rest of Lara’s notes, it was becoming clear that the Queen could interact with all of the Hendari crystals. Once you gathered together more than five, she could use them to create gates – ones capable of going anywhere in the universe.

To defeat the Scarax Galaxy – once and for all – the Coalition had to take on the Hendari. Though the civilization was mostly destroyed, it could rise at any moment. To truly end this, the Hendari had to be taken down, once and for all. To do that, they had to get there.

They would require a gate. There was no other way to travel so far. Even an Eye of the Gods – a being capable of creating light paths through galaxies allowing instantaneous transport – wouldn’t be able to go back to the Hendari. Because nobody knew where they were.

She stood. Her body was stiff. Tension marched across her shoulders, gripped her spine, and pooled in her feet as if she’d filled them with liquid lead. She shook it off, her datapad still gripped in a cast-iron grasp.

She walked over to the door. She dearly wished she had a window. Windows, however, could be dangerous.

So she thrust the pad higher in front of herself, and she read that line again.

The Queen had to be out there. As did the Coalition’s crystals. All Lara had to do was find the Queen.

Sorry. That would be the first step.

It was unclear if the Queen was a friend or foe. She might’ve protected the Academy, but she could have ulterior motives. Even if she didn’t, Lara knew one thing – the Queen had a mind like no other, an intelligence as vast as the universe.

It would take an act of even bigger will to draw her to the Coalition’s side.

Even then, it might not be enough.

That was the nature of war.


Sally Winters

She got out of bed. She was late. Irrelevant. She’d been dreaming of the Hendari civilization. She had walked its halls, run through its broken cities, and screamed for her friends. Her countless friends and family.

It might’ve been a harrowing dream, but Sally had experienced them most of her life, so she shrugged it off literally. Shaking her shoulders out, she soon dressed.

She glanced over at her bedside table. There, lined up in neat rows, was every Hendari crystal the Coalition had once possessed.

She patted one fondly. It reacted to her presence, bleeding a glimmer of light as her finger slid on by. She didn’t allow it to get too bright. Do that, and the Coalition might figure out that the Hendari crystals had never traveled that far – just a few hundred meters away from where they’d once been kept.

Shrugging again, Sally pushed her mind out. Her incredible, unstoppable mind. Or should she say the Queen’s?

Sally had no idea where she began and the Queen stopped. They had been bonded for too many years to be able to tell both of them apart.

She could still recall the moment she encountered the Queen.

It had been down on her colony world. She’d been in a cave, had been waiting there for her friend. He’d never come. And in the cold and dark she’d slipped, right down a cliff. One that should have shattered any small child’s body. And hers had technically shattered. But her mind….

She closed her eyes now, despite the fact she was already late. She let her psyche slip back into that moment. There was no resistance. When her mind wanted to move, it was like water rushing down a raging river.

She stood there in that cave now. She looked down at her crushed six-year-old body.

She was wearing a dress – old, dappled and cheery, white and red and covered with flowers. It matched the blood that seeped out of the deep injury to her skull.

But then, just as the last light went to flicker from her eyes, the floor lit up. This presence grew. It reacted to her blood, sensed an opportunity, and followed it back to its source.

There was no trauma in this memory for Sally. Why would there be? She could’ve died, but she hadn’t in the end. Yes, one of the greatest psychics in all of the universe had been the reason for Sally’s salvation. Irrelevant.

Nobody understood Sally’s personality. She knew what they called her – the maddest recruit in 100 years.

Irrelevant yet again.

Even as her alarm blared in the real world, Sally continued to look at this moment. She smiled at the second she saw the Queen’s energy lift the little Sally off her feet, smiled harder as she saw the wound in her skull repair itself.

To this day, Sally didn’t really know how the Queen had come to inhabit that cave. Even the Queen was unaware.

Perhaps someday she’d find out. For now, she had to ensure the Coalition’s Hendari crystals went nowhere.

She shrugged, pushing her psyche back into the real world as she yawned and headed toward the door.

Her flatmate had already left.

You would think it might be dangerous for Sally to keep the greatest treasure in all the universe stacked up by her bedside. From the wrong angle, you’d be able to see right into her opening door and glimpse the crystals.

But that would necessitate Sally not knowing where her flatmate was at all times. If she wished it, she could track her across the city. Heck. If she wished to, she could track her across the world. Nobody would glimpse the crystals. Not unless Sally wanted them to.

The computer in the main room beeped. “You’re five minutes late for your combat exam. You have already lost five points from the final mark.”

Sally didn’t hurry. She walked straight past the kitchen table, not bothering to grab any food. She paused, angled her head over her shoulder, and stared through the windows at the grounds below. They had been repaired from their ordeal months ago. At the time, every beautiful grand oak tree had been ripped up, their leaves burnt and the grass around them charred. Now she almost couldn’t see the old wounds.

But she could feel them. Every time she passed a cadet or an officer, she glimpsed into their minds and felt the weeping holes in their psyches. They might have won the last battle, but all of them wondered when the next would come.

If Sally had anything to do with it, it wouldn’t.

For untold years, the Queen had lain in wait, just for this time, this rising opportunity. She had one purpose, to destroy the King. And she would.

With that thought thundering in her mind, Sally strode out of her door.

There were other cadets. Maybe they’d overslept, or perhaps they had some other reason for being late, but now they ran down the corridor as if their lives depended on it. One she recognized from her class. It was Serena. She stopped and stared for a second, likely noting the fact that Sally wasn’t rushed. Then Serena rolled her eyes in a very specific way, huffed, and ran.

She called the only elevator at the end of the corridor but didn’t wait for Sally. It would take too long.

Sally simply smiled.

There were aspects of Academy life she didn’t understand.

Here these recruits were, dragging themselves to class, when out there, the Scarax Galaxy waited. Their forces had already pushed into the Academy. Sally was almost certain that there was a god walking amongst the staff now.

She would have to drag them out into the light at some point.

Though she had to be careful. There was a line she couldn’t cross. If she became too involved, it would reveal her and weaken her before the final fight. Nothing – nothing would stop her from killing the King this time.

Sally waited for the elevator to arrive. It took a good two minutes. She casually took it down. When she reached the first floor, she was alone.

Or at least she should have been.

An elevator to her side from one of the higher levels of the accommodation block opened. Out strode none other than Joseph Lance.

He was by far the most popular person in her grade. He was charming, he was witty, and he was also a spacer. Not that she was meant to know that.

She’d saved his life multiple times during the attack on the Academy. Not that he knew that either.

He took a double-take when he saw her. Then he straightened quickly. “Go get to class.” He turned and started running.

When he’d strode through the elevator, he’d been unhurried. Likely, just like her, he didn’t see the point of a combat exam. Also, he was a spacer. If he chose to pluck out his sword and use his power, there wouldn’t be anyone he wouldn’t be able to defeat.

Sally didn’t bother to hurry. But Joseph still paused at the doors, keeping them open as he frowned over at her. “Come on, Cadet. This is the most important combat exam of the year. I know your grades. If you want to stay in the Academy—”

“Shouldn’t you speak for yourself?” she asked directly. Other people might flinch around being direct with somebody as charming as Joseph. Not her. “Your combat grades are hardly amazing.” She said grades, not skills. She was no idiot.

His jaw twitched a little.

She’d seen it do that before – mostly around her. Maybe, unconsciously, Joseph still remembered who she was. She would never let him recall the exact memory until she had to, though.

“Why aren’t you hurrying? You’re a fifth-year. You must’ve joined the Academy for a reason. Now come on. Rush. Every minute you’re late is a point from your final grade.”

“Then maybe I’ll have to prove that I’m the greatest force in all the universe,” she said with a shrug.

“Here we go again,” Joseph muttered. He might’ve tried to hide it, but he rolled his eyes – and it was even worse than what Serena had managed.

“What, you don’t believe I’m the greatest force in all the universe?” Sally asked in a controlled voice.

“No. You’re just a fifth-year cadet. I get that… we live in interesting times, but come on, Sally.”

“I don’t require combat training. Nobody can touch me,” Sally admitted.

For years, she’d told everyone what she was. It was they who chose not to believe her.

She didn’t necessarily use the words Queen or Hendari crystals. But she didn’t hide the fact that she was powerful. Or at least the claim.

Sally couldn’t and would not use her power without reason.

She had to keep it in reserve until the King finally came.

“Come on, Sally. Last chance. I’m not going to keep this door open for you forever,” Joseph huffed.

“That’s the nature of doors, isn’t it? They can’t be open forever. Otherwise they’re not doors – they’re holes.” She looked right at him as she slipped past through the open door.

Joseph reacted. For a microsecond. And perhaps in that fraction of time deep within, he recognized how pointed that statement was to a spacer. But he shrugged it off.

He rolled his eyes again, then rushed down the steps of the accommodation block. He jumped onto the grass, his boots crunching the blades as he turned. Sally took every step slowly.

There was no point in hurrying to class. Yes, there were going to be exams all week. She doubted they would last the week, however. For a god to be amongst the officers, it meant the Scarax Galaxy were planning another attack.

All of this… all of this was nothing more than wishful thinking. Classes, grades, exams – they ultimately wouldn’t matter when the gods came back. Only fighting would.

Sally slowly moved off the last step.

Joseph shook his head, disappointment flaring in his gaze. “The cadets out there,” he jammed a thumb over his shoulder, “don’t need arrogance, Sally. I don’t know what you think you can do. I don’t know why you weave these lies. But at the end of the day, if we don’t watch each other’s backs—”

“The Scarax Galaxy will come anyway,” she said. “Because they are going to come anyway. And we can pretend everything is normal, but it isn’t, Joseph Lance. Your grades will be irrelevant in the end. Everything always is.” With that somewhat haughty statement, Sally turned. She walked away from Joseph.

She could feel his eyes on the back of her head. If she wanted to, she could slip easily into his mind and read his thoughts, too, but she had standards. She was not like some simple psychic. She didn’t get a kick out of invading people’s psyches.

Nor did she use her skills uselessly.

And perhaps that’s what truly bothered her about this entire situation. Here the cadets and the admiralty were, pretending the Academy had to run like usual when they were forgetting that at a time like this, you didn’t waste a single scrap of energy. You gathered every mote of power you had, and you held onto it for the oncoming storm.

If Joseph had been paying attention to her, and hadn’t run past, muttering unkind comments as he went, he would’ve realized Sally forced her hand into a fist. The knuckles protruded hard, catching the early morning sun.

She closed her eyes.

She thought of the Hendari, of everybody that had been destroyed in their quest for the ultimate psychic force.

Joseph might have his demons. She had hers. And hers were much, much larger.


Joseph Lance

He made it to his exam late – though he’d calculated every second. Or at least he had until he’d run into Sally.

He wanted to be only eight minutes late. That would mean an eight-point automatic deduction from his final grade. Instead he was 10 minutes late. Now he would have to use a little more effort in combat class to actually pass. Hopefully it wouldn’t be sufficient for anyone to turn around and claim he was a spacer. Still.

Still – Sally Winters didn’t deserve to be in the Academy. He was amazed she was still here. Seriously, everyone knew she was mad.

If Joseph weren’t boiling with anger, he’d take a step back. Everything was insane right now, so what did it matter if a couple of cadets were too? How could you hope for somebody to stay sane while everyone played the waiting game with the Scarax Galaxy?

… It was uncomfortable to admit, but didn’t she have a point? Why engage in all of this? Why pretend that the galaxy was still normal?

This was just the calm before the storm.

Commander Carlisle, his teacher, didn’t look happy. The guy was a hulking half human, half Varian. He had a massive body, and his muscles bristled continuously. Joseph had no clue how many uniforms the guy went through, but if he so much as chuckled, he’d likely rip his tunic right off him.

“You’re late, Cadet Lance,” Carlisle growled. “That’s an eight-minute automatic deduction from your exam.”

Joseph dropped eye contact. “Sorry, sir. Overslept.”

“Another point deduction. It doesn’t matter what your excuse is. You’re late. You can’t be late to a real battle, you understand that, don’t you? If you can’t rise when you are asked to, others will fall.”

Joseph kept his gaze locked on the crash mats below Carlisle’s boots.

Yep. Joseph didn’t need to be reminded of that. He would’ve fought many more battles than Carlisle.

The rest of the students were already sparring. They paused, though. None of them looked at Joseph like he deserved this. He had built a reputation as their friend, as the charmer, as the one who saw the sunny side, no matter what. It was the polar opposite of what he was on the inside.

“There’s no one left for you to pair up with,” Carlisle began.

That would be when Sally finally appeared. She strode in through the doors looking as if the world should always wait for her.

Carlisle stood taller. Every muscle twanged. Joseph was aware of the electrical potential across them as they contracted to the point of snapping. None was more prominent than his brow. It looked like hands clenched into tight fists. “Winters,” he growled, “what time do you call this?”

“I don’t think it matters what time I call it. The nature of the Standard Galactic tongue is that we all agree on similar definitions for known phenomena,” she said simply.

In any other context, it could’ve been funny. Now, it was an insult. One she had no right to give.

Joseph straightened. Who the hell did she think she was?

While everyone else had looked at him as if he kind of deserved to be late, the entire mood of the room changed. People shot her death glares. Fair enough. Here they were busting a gut to ensure they were ready for the war that would come, and Sally was… Sally.

“An automatic 30-point deduction,” Carlisle snarled. “You don’t have what it takes to make it in space, Cadet. You don’t have what it takes to make it at anything.”

Sally… if there was one thing about Sally you had to give her credit for, it was that she was indomitable. People could insult her – the whole room could turn against her, and strapping teachers like Carlisle could bark right in her face – but she always shot them the exact same look. It was as if nothing could penetrate her armor.

“As you wish, Commander.”

Carlisle bristled once more, but she hadn’t technically been rude. He pointed a stiff finger toward Joseph. “Pair up.”

Joseph almost wanted to transport out of there. It would’ve been worth revealing he was a spacer to get away from Sally.

Instead, he had to grind his teeth and glance away.

“You don’t seem to be somebody who hides what they’re feeling. You can glare at me openly, Cadet,” Sally whispered as she walked over to him.

She didn’t look like she was astute – not enough to note what he was thinking. Then again, how could she be astute? She might’ve accurately predicted that Joseph thought she was mad, but if she was truly great at reading people, Sally wouldn’t be the way she was. She wouldn’t have insulted Carlisle, she wouldn’t be here late, and she wouldn’t be ignoring every death glare of every student around her.

“You will be judged on your ability to react to unpredictable scenarios,” Carlisle began. “Now spar for five minutes. Then things will change.”

Joseph planted his feet. He brought his hands up.

Sally just looked at him from underneath her eyelashes. She wasn’t pretty. She was… Sally.

Maybe this was cruel, but she just looked… like nothing much.

It was hard to put his finger on, really. While he could describe the features of everybody else, she was just… Sally.

“Are you even going to bring your arms up and get ready?” he growled quietly.

Sally stood several meters back from him, her arms swinging softly by her sides. “Don’t worry, I will when the gods arrive.”

His gut could’ve exploded.

She might’ve insulted Carlisle before, but this… Sally wasn’t going to stand in anyone’s path when the gods arrived. Joseph would. He’d be asked to dig deep again. And if he wasn’t fast enough and he wasn’t good enough, then people would die because of him.

There was a beep.

Joseph pushed forward.

He easily grabbed Sally. She didn’t stop him. He rammed her down onto the crash mats, though not hard enough to do any damage. Not even hard enough to bruise her. This was meant to be a real combat class. You were meant to go for it to simulate what actually happened in a battle.

Sally looked up into his eyes, completely unmoved, even though he’d technically flipped her.

He almost felt like he could pull out a subspace blade and slice it toward her, and she wouldn’t shift that dead gaze once.

“Back on your feet. At least try to look like you’re trying to win,” Carlisle growled at Sally from somewhere.

There was another beep. And once more Joseph took her down.

And again… she just stared up into his eyes.

Her gaze was… he couldn’t describe it. He didn’t need to. All of this was pointless.

He had to turn his mind to the important task of what would happen next. There was a god out there amongst the officers. He would find them.

As Joseph automatically took Sally down, and she just flopped like a boneless fish, he surreptitiously shifted his attention through the rest of the cadets. There was only Carlisle in the room for the moment, but it wasn’t impossible that the gods had a spy amongst the cadets too.

He imagined by now that Forest had leaked information that the Coalition had a spacer amongst the recruits. Carlisle looked… like he always looked. As for the rest of the cadets? Everyone looked normal.

It was highly likely the god was not in the room. At least it gave Joseph something to do. Stare at Sally too much and that… damn dead gaze would do something to his mind.

Joseph could perfectly track time. He didn’t need his wrist device for it. So he knew that whatever the surprise was, it was coming. Just as he knew it would be holograms. His senses picked up the emitters that had just been installed under the crash mats. You’d have to be very perceptible to be able to detect the lumps of them underneath the sophisticated gel substance.

They were starting to hum into life.

Joseph knew that he couldn’t move too quickly. If this combat scenario tested your ability to react to unpredictable scenarios, he had to hold his natural self back.

“You haven’t won one single round, Cadet Winters,” Carlisle snarled. “You’re gonna have to get full points in the next round. Which is impossible.”

Sally shrugged. “I suppose I can’t fail. I can’t be kicked out, can I?”

“Why? No one will ever want to work beside you, Sally,” Joseph said a little too unkindly. The management of cadets was way beyond him. He didn’t have the ability to decide who got to stay or go. Yet Sally was… she was getting personal.

It was that comment from before. She would not stand in front of the oncoming war – he would. Thinking that again made his nerves tumble down his back. They shoved into his spine and rose like a flare.

It was just as the emitters got ready to produce holograms.

“The scoring system will be simple. The first person to kill a correct target gets the most points – and it will be scalable from there,” Carlisle called from off toward the edge of the room.

The sense of anticipation amongst the cadets changed.

None of them paused – they knew they had to continue their sparring matches. But everyone started to turn over their shoulders, waiting.

Everyone but Sally.

“You don’t even care, do you?” Joseph said. He was just about to flip her. He stopped. That meant one hand was on her arm and the other was on her hip. Don’t get him wrong – don’t ever get him wrong – it was not an intimate move. He didn’t notice a single detail of her heat, nor the curve of her body.

But in pausing… he had to look into her eyes again. And once more he was struck by the fact that he… he couldn’t even begin to describe Sally. It was like there was something in his head that was blocking him.

Out of nowhere, his dream from the morning came crashing back into his psyche like a tidal wave.

He saw that cadet – whoever she was – up in the sky, standing on that TI block, calling to the gate, about to leave him for good.

Joseph felt a pang he’d never experienced before. Love was not an emotion he would ever enjoy. To do that, he’d have to stop hating himself so much. But—

The holo emitters switched on. A part of Joseph’s mind was aware of it – the rest was taken by his dream.

Throughout the cadets, holograms appeared. Some of them were kids, some of them were Coalition officers, and some were Barbarian warriors. But they all looked practically indistinguishable. They had the same body size – apart from the children.

Some cadets screamed. But nobody reacted as quickly as Sally. Still looking at him, with his hand still on her hip and one on her shoulder, she leaned to the side. There was a Barbarian warrior right there. The fact he was a Barbarian was only distinguishable because he wasn’t wearing a Coalition wrist device and pips.

Nothing stopped her from pulling the gun out of his holster, turning it against his chest, and firing. Done. It’d taken her one second.

She hadn’t moved particularly fast – like a spacer or anyone in armor. She’d just acted first before anyone else could think.

And the fact Sally Winters had won the exam stopped everybody else in place. Even Carlisle spluttered in surprise.

A hologram appeared above Sally’s head, proclaiming her the winner.

Then Joseph… caught up to the fact he was still holding her. He jerked back.

Other cadets finally realized that the exam was still on. One of them – the best in the class – spluttered, turned, looked flustered for a second, and found another Barbarian warrior. He thrust forward, tackled the guy, and took him down. While it was a good tackle, he could’ve just taken the gun in the Barbarian’s holster or the electro whip in the guy’s hand.

It took roughly 10 seconds.

Finally the other cadets started to wake up.

Joseph had to… dammit, he had to pull himself out of this moment and calculate.

He had to pass. Just.

Which meant he had to act now.

He finally turned.

He saw a Kore soldier just to his side. He reached the guy, wrenched an electro whip from his grip, and shoved it into his stomach.

The movement was a little too quick though. Dammit. If someone had been paying attention, maybe they would’ve realized Joseph was a lot more capable at combat than he let on.

But who the heck could pay attention now?

Even as the rest of the cadets finally took down their targets, some of them accidentally mistaking Coalition officers and immediately losing, most eyes were on Sally. She still just stood there, in the exact same position Joseph had left her.

It was like her hip and shoulder were just waiting for him—

Sorry, what the hell was that thought?

It was like… she was just paused.

The exam finally ended.

There were holograms above everybody’s heads, placing them in ranks from the top to the bottom.

And Sally—

Carlisle cleared his throat. “You—”

“You got lucky,” Jerry Whitmore, who’d previously been the top of the combat class, snarled quietly.

Though Joseph didn’t really want to point this out, if that had been Sally commenting, she would’ve received an immediate deduction. Instead Carlisle ignored it. He walked over to Sally. “You got—”

“The nature of combat is luck,” she said in that same haughty, arrogant tone everybody hated. It was one that spoke of experience she didn’t have. And the look in her eyes? It was damn regal. She had this tilt to her head, this angle to her neck.

If she thought she looked like an actual queen, she was dead mad. She simply couldn’t pull it off.

It rubbed Carlisle up the wrong way. “Do you think you have the right to tell me or any of these other cadets about combat—”

She shook her head. “Depends how you define the word right. Sometimes experience is valued. Sometimes it is simply those who are in charge who decide what’s right and wrong.”

“What are you saying, Cadet?”

“Nothing of interest.”

Carlisle was on the edge. He wanted to fail her. But… could he?

Yeah, Jerry could complain that she got lucky. Joseph had been right next to her. That hadn’t been luck.

It had taken everyone else seconds to even recognize what the test was. And even though Sally had shown them how easily you could take down a Barbarian warrior – just by stealing their weapons – Jerry had chosen to do it physically.

You could have claimed that she’d just seen something beside her and had decided to attack them – that she hadn’t recognized it was a Barbarian target. But that wouldn’t account for how quickly she’d located the gun and taken the guy down. For crying out loud, she hadn’t even turned or taken her eyes off Joseph once.

Carlisle clearly knew this. “I don’t understand you, Cadet. Do you want to stay at the Academy or not?”

“I need to stay in the Academy,” she said, not technically answering his question.

“But you already failed the test.”

Her cheek twitched slightly.

“You didn’t manage to take your sparring partner down once – which is a requirement.”

There was a look in Sally’s eyes. It was… dammit, Joseph couldn’t describe it. When it came to her, his mind just drew blanks.

“There were 10 allotted sparring sessions, correct?” Sally asked.

“That’s right.”

“We only engaged in nine.” Sally, without looking at Joseph, stepped in. She locked a foot around his ankle, pulled it, then pushed him hard on the chest.

It was a strong move. It shouldn’t work on a spacer. But Joseph wasn’t paying attention. He slipped.

And he fell, as hard as a sack of bricks, right on the crash mats, right by Carlisle’s feet.

Carlisle wasn’t marking the exam. The computer in the room was.

It now showed that Sally had successfully completed a sparring match.

In other words, she passed.

Joseph was almost too surprised to push himself to his feet.

Sally continued to stare at Carlisle. “Did I pass? Do I get to stay?” Her lips did something funny around the word stay.

Carlisle looked like he was going to explode. What could he do? She had technically passed.

Nobody did anything. Every set of eyes was locked on Sally. Not a soul stared at her kindly.

This was arrogance in the extreme. It was also… Joseph had just not been paying attention. That’s why he’d slipped.

He was a spacer. Sally was nothing.

And no, the fact that she’d quickly taken down a Barbarian warrior and she’d turned around and pushed him over didn’t mean that she was a god. Seriously. He’d know.

Sally had no strength. She wasn’t even particularly intelligent. She certainly wasn’t sporting some massive secret. She was just Sally. And though he kept repeating that fact incessantly, it was because he’d never been more certain of anything else.

Carlisle forced himself to take a breath. It rocked his chest forward against his already tight uniform. Joseph thought he could hear the seams getting ready to snap.

But Carlisle finally gathered his control. He turned hard on his foot. “The scoreboard is outside. You can immediately go and check to see if you’ve passed. If you haven’t, in most circumstances, you will be allowed to sit another exam. But that will be it.”

There was chatter amongst the students. Nobody stopped staring at Sally. As for her? She got that dead gaze again. It was the one that looked as if she was somehow staring at something far off – maybe through space or time.

He didn’t want to believe that Sally had a history. It was easier to hate her, frankly. But whenever she got a look like that, he whispered in his mind that maybe she wasn’t that different from him.

No one became like her without a reason.

He’d never find out what that reason was, though. As an alarm blared to suggest the exam was over, she turned.

She strode away. She shoved her hands into her pockets, and she didn’t stare at anyone else once.

Joseph? He could never look away.


Joseph Lance

The day was over. The night had begun. Classes might’ve finished – but the real work was here.

Joseph stood on top of the accommodation block. One foot was up on the massive fence that rimmed it. For that to occur, it meant he was floating.

He had a mask on, though – and it acted as more than a veil over his features. It was a cloak, too. Unless he was being directly scanned by sophisticated tech no cadet would possess, he’d slip through the academy unseen.

His sharp gaze narrowed as he stared over the Academy grounds.

He might’ve kept his eyes out all day, but he hadn’t seen any indication of the god out there. So it was time to do what Joseph did best. Snoop around in the dark.

He suddenly transported. He appeared in the command building.

He was in one of the corridors. It was dark. Most people had gone home for the day. He heard footsteps, though. There was a wall beside him. He slipped right through it. He was fully aware of the fact nobody was within.

It was a simple enough office, though whoever had it wasn’t clean. Data pads and devices were strewn everywhere. Joseph stood on one, though he didn’t put his weight down on it and crush the metal case with his boot.

He hovered there in the air, his head tilted toward the door as he listened to those footsteps.

“There’s no damn point,” someone said in a defeated tone. “We can do everything we can, but—”

“Look, it’s okay. Come back to my room later. Spend the night, okay? Just pretend nothing else exists, right?”

“But your wife—”

“Is away on the Rim. Just one night, okay?”

Joseph arched an eyebrow. While this was salacious, it certainly wasn’t the god he was after.

He tilted his head. He stared through the windows behind that messy desk. He transported again.

This time, he appeared just underneath the medical bay.

There was a storeroom he often liked to port to. It was quiet, nobody accessed it, and there was a vent leading to the rest of the building. He soon floated up to it, slipped through, then maneuvered until he was above one of the operating theaters.

“I still see that day, you know,” a nurse said as she prepped a room for a patient. “See it right here.” She tapped the middle of her forehead. “I see it every damn night.”

“Then you need to go to that counselor. What’s her name again?”

“Ranna?” the nurse tried.

“Anna,” Joseph mouthed without making a single sound.

“I’ve heard she’s really good,” the second nurse said. “She can help you process your trauma.”

“Why would I want to? I mean… at any moment, the gods could be back. We could—”

“Just stay strong. And go see the counselor. We all have to get through this together.”

A touching conversation, but it wasn’t what he was after. So he transported again. This time he appeared out on the running track.

There was another running track beyond, and a few cadets were training.

They looked like E Club. It was a group of the best of the best. They trained to make every single member rise above the chaff with the hope that when they graduated, they’d instantly become officers.

They’d approached Joseph a couple of times. Not because he had a particularly stellar academic career – just because he had a personality they were after. They liked winners.

If only they knew the truth.

Joseph transported once more.

Joseph didn’t bother to ensure his feet touched the ground. Even if any member of the E Club was lucky enough to stare over at the right moment and glance him, they wouldn’t be able to see through his cloak.

He watched them all for a few more moments. They barely talked. When they did, it was about reaching the top.

He went to port away.

“She should have been kicked out. Right there, right at that very moment,” someone hissed. Joseph recognized them instantly. It was Jerry.

He tilted his head closer toward Jerry. The move was unnecessary. When Joseph surveilled someone, he could be a block away, and he’d still hear every word they said.

This was not part of Joseph’s mission, and it was a waste of time to remain here. But….

“Nobody wants to serve with her. Nobody wants to gamble with putting their life in her hands. Why the hell should she get top marks in the exam?”

“She didn’t,” a quiet voice of reason said beside Jerry. Jerry clearly didn’t want to hear it.

“Not the combined top mark, but the top mark in the exam. People still look at that,” he rallied.

“You should push Carlisle to rerun the entire exam again,” someone suggested.

“He’d do it if we all asked. You’re right, Jerry. It’s not fair. We’re all relying on those marks.”

Joseph agreed. Except he also didn’t agree. The cadet part of him thought Sally should be kicked out right now. His lieutenant side – and specifically the spacer – knew there was no point in rerunning an exam. The whole reason had been to test these students’ preparedness for unexpected battles. They’d lost.

Rerun it, and they’d know what to expect. That wasn’t the point of being a good combat soldier.

Joseph hung around for way too long as they started discussing Sally disparagingly. Or at least continued to.

If they were anyone else and she were anyone else, maybe Joseph would care. A few times, he even nodded as he agreed with their points.

Then his mission caught up with him. He thought he heard something on the opposite side of the Academy grounds. He ported.

He had no idea where the god might be, but canvassing and re-canvassing the Academy was a start.

The god would make a mistake. It was just a matter of time.

But so too would Joseph, and his first mistake was already well and truly made.


Sally Winters

She woke from another dream. This one had been worse than the rest – if she were the kind of person to rate them.

This one, you see, had been slightly more personal.

“Layra,” she whispered.

It hardly slipped off her lips. It felt like a Sisyphean stone she dragged behind her. She shouldn’t have said it, either. The Hendari crystals reacted. They shone brighter. She had to slice a finger to the side, remotely grab hold of their power, and tone it down, lest they do something untoward to this rather simple room.

When she was done, she secured an arm underneath her head and stared at the ceiling.

Layra was the Queen’s first self.

The Queen was a mental virus, and she had many minds that made her up. But Layra… had been the initiator. A Hendari princess, she’d nominally been weak. Weak enough that no one had invited her into the King project. She had been nothing more than a sacrifice. But at the last moment….

“There is no point in going over old ground,” Sally commanded herself. She thrust out of bed.

She stood in front of her crystals and patted them fondly.

She turned to walk out into the main room, but her flatmate was there. She was also on her communicator. Talking about Sally, no less.

Her flatmate, Willis Jones, did not appreciate that she had to bunk with the craziest recruit in 100 years. A fact she often rehashed to her friends.

“Tell me again. That’s nuts. She got lucky. It’s crazy. Carlisle should definitely rerun the exam.” Willis said that, but she didn’t mean it. She was someone who’d say anything just to fit in.

Sally stood there. She couldn’t open the door. Judging by the position of Willis’s mind, she was too close. It wasn’t just that she might accidentally glimpse the Hendari crystals. Certain people with soft minds could find themselves overcome by the sight of so much power.

Sally stood there, right in the middle of the room, her arms loose by her sides, her expression even, even as Willis’s words became a lot harsher. “I’m happy to give witness, you know. She’s useless. She’s not Academy material. They need to kick her out… before the next war comes.” Her voice tightened like a spring.

Even from here, Sally could feel her psyche coiling in on itself.

The stress was enough that, if Sally felt like it, she could click her fingers, turn Willis’s mind on itself, and watch it feast on its own fears.

Sally wasn’t that kind of psyche and would never stoop so low. Nor did Willis deserve it. She said what she thought others wanted to hear.

There was a shrill beep. “I gotta go. See you.” With that, Willis lingered for a while then finally left.

Sally strode out moments later.

The computer beeped. “You must get to psychic defense class.”

She had to laugh. How could it not be funny? “What precisely will we be taught in psychic defense class today?” she asked drolly.

“There will be a special guest lecturer.”

“And who will that be?”

“The new counselor.”

“Scintillating. I’ll be late.” Sally walked over to the window. Clasping her hands behind her back, she stared out at the view. She let her gaze cut left and right. She searched for what she knew would be out there. She still hadn’t discovered that god.

Nor could she shake the feeling that… there was something worse.

It was less of a sense and more of a prediction in many ways. A cast-iron one. She understood how the Scarax Galaxy operated. For she knew how those the Coalition called the Observers worked.

The Observers were the remnants of the Hendari – powerful minds that had given themselves the goal of recreating the Scarax Galaxy in their image. Minds that ultimately only looked for a way to wake the King again.

They would have one of their own on campus grounds by now. They would know that the crystals had disappeared. And they’d be searching for them.

Sally had to keep her wits about her. She wasted another 10 minutes, then finally pushed off out of her room. At least there was nobody to stare at her today. She took the elevators and arrived in the lobby only to see a figure in front of her.

That figure was none other than Joseph Lance.

He was currently engaged in a neural communication with Admiral Forest. Though Sally wasn’t trying to read his mind, neural communications were something she almost couldn’t block. They were on a frequency that made it so easy to listen in to, Sally had become used to ignoring most of the chatter around the Academy. Such comm technology was popularly employed by the higher up officers.

“Got it, Admiral. I found nothing last night. Just a few whingeing cadets, a liaison, and people working out their trauma. Nothing to suggest the god’s anywhere close by.”

Sally came to a stop behind him. She wasn’t reacting to the fact he’d confirmed there was a god on Academy grounds. She was however mildly impressed that the Coalition had figured it out so soon.

“Hold on.” Joseph turned. His expression became just as stony and unstable as any rock cliff. “I should get to class,” he muttered.

“Anna will be giving a guest lecture in your psychic defense class today. It’s important you don’t let anyone know you’ve been working with each other.”

Working with each other? Sally ensured her eyes didn’t narrow in interest. What on earth was a spacer doing working with a counselor? Spacers had exquisitely open minds. Their masters in the Kore Empire had learned how to open them – like broken windows – many years ago.

Spacers, if they wanted to stick around without a master – had to learn how to close everyone else out. In Sally’s experience, no psychic at the Academy knew how to do that. They had zero understanding of how the mind really worked.

Joseph hardened his jaw. “Is there any reason you are another 10 minutes late today, Cadet? And is there a reason you’re not even hurrying?”

“I wonder if it’s the same reason you are,” Sally shot back.

Joseph twitched a little. What, had he forgotten he was meant to be playing the role of the cadet right now and not the officious lieutenant?

“Just hurry up. Get to class. Though someone like you would never appreciate this, psychic defense is one of the most important units out there at the moment.”

“And why is that?”

“Because the Scarax Galaxy will do anything and everything to win.”

“Won’t they utilize the Light of the Gods instead of psychic attacks?”

“Don’t talk back to me, Cadet.”

“Why? Because you know a lot more than you’re letting on?”

Maybe she shouldn’t have used that particular voice, as his hackles rose. He turned, but now he shifted back, pressing his weight hard into his boot as it squeaked threateningly over the floor.

He did a relatively good job of controlling his expression, but inside, his heart pounded. She watched him stare at her with suspicion, but it could last for only a few short seconds. Then it disappeared.

There was a reason Joseph couldn’t find her suspicious. After she’d helped him out in the battle for the Academy, she’d ensured there was a block in his mind. He would never believe she was the Queen. Not until and unless she let him.

“Just get to class. Stop wasting everyone’s time, Sally.”

“Perhaps I can suggest that you stop believing you have time.”

“And what’s that meant to mean?

She had picked the wrong choice of words. Or perhaps the right if her goal had been to rile him up. She could feel his growing tension from here. It washed off him like violent waves from a tsunami.

“How many more psychic defense classes will we require until we can all block off the attacks coming from the Scarax Galaxy? One? Two maybe? How many more combat exams do we require until every single cadet will be able to face the Scarax gods? Or perhaps they should just redo the exam?” Sally said pointedly. “Then the right people can win, and we can be confident that when the Scarax Galaxy comes, we’ll defeat them easily. Because that’s how things are done here.” She shifted past him and went to walk away. She expected her well-placed comments to at least do the equivalent of telling him to clear off. But clearly Joseph wasn’t in the kind of mood to drop things. He marched right out after her as they left the accommodation block.

“Sally,” he began.

She tuned him out. Her gaze became slightly unfocused. She shifted her head to the side. It was a hard, direct movement. The concentration in her stare would’ve looked like a laser.

Out there, close by, maybe even walking amongst the Academy, she felt an Observer. This morning, it had been nothing more than a prediction. Now she proved it right.

The poisonous mind of an Observer was relatively easy to recognize when you came in close contact with one. For Observers’ psyches were nothing more than twisted hatred. For so long, they had been marching across this universe, pathetically attempting to bring the King back. They had twisted the Scarax people until they had created them in the Hendari’s image, all so they could gather together more crystals. When enough crystals were attained, the Observers would be able to call on the King once more.

If Sally got close enough, she could snap the Observer’s mind like a string shoved in the path of a comet.

“Hey, are you paying attention to me?” Joseph interrupted.

She turned slowly and looked at him.

She ensured it was a strong glare. She didn’t need him disrupting her right now. He might be a spacer, but ultimately, the next stage of this battle would not be down to him. It certainly wouldn’t be down to the Coalition cadets. It would be up to her.

“You know, you can’t pull that look off,” he spluttered snidely.

“What look off?”

“The look you give when you think you’re better than everybody else. You’re not, Sally Winters. You’re just the same. Though realistically, you’re worse, aren’t you? Because as soon as you think you’re better than somebody, you lose touch with reality. That’s not how the Coalition works.”

“The Coalition does not work as one unit. There are many disparate forces within our ranks who are moving against one another. And the more you ignore reality, the more you let people’s separate fears chart a path for the Coalition right down to hell. Psychic defense does not matter. Combat does not matter. The Scarax Galaxy will come, and others will come after that. The only thing that will keep you all back from the brink of death, Cadet, are forces outside your control. Now, feel free to rush to psychic defense class. I have no urge to meet our new lecturer.”

Joseph bristled so much, Sally thought he would explode. She even felt a charge of subspace particles. That amused her. He’d been holding onto his secret identity ever since he joined the cadet program. Would he break it just because he was irate with her? He wouldn’t attack her. Joseph had better training than that. But he might make a mistake.

So Sally took the initiative and stalked away from him.

She focused her attention on the Observer she felt. There were very few good Observers left. A few of them had broken away from the rest, finally realizing that the King was not something to protect. The others, however, had one task. And Sally would prevent it, no matter what.


Joseph Lance

He was boiling. He honestly felt as if his blood had hit a thousand degrees and was starting to vaporize.

He went to clutch a hand into a fist, but he felt a little charge of subspace energy.

He could control himself around anyone else – from raging teachers to the worst of the recruits – but Sally Winters was another thing.

It didn’t help that ever since he woke this morning, another dream had been raging through his psyche.

He couldn’t remember the exact details of it. It’d been about her again – that cadet who was infected with the Queen.

He’d picked up different details this time.

She’d been repeating some kind of name. It sounded like Layra.

Just as he went to rush after Sally and continue the argument, he was frozen to the spot as he saw another still frame of the dream. The cadet was rushing down the corridors, running towards something.

Some force. Some force she ultimately didn’t have the ability to destroy.

The Queen should have been nothing more than an academic fact to Joseph. Yeah, she’d saved the Academy, and she’d given him a parting gift by ensuring that his deep trauma from Deus didn’t affect his mind as much as it once had. But ultimately she was a virus. So why did Joseph’s skin become slick with sweat as he recalled the dream – the horror of seeing her run for her life?

“Shake it off,” he muttered hard. He shoved forward into a run.

He didn’t want to get to psychic defense class after Sally. Before she got to the main teaching building, she paused anyway.

She got that look again. He might be a good hundred meters back, but that was irrelevant. He could see it, all right. It was sharp. The kind of sharp even Admiral Forest couldn’t achieve.

You could put anything in front of that look – from a raging bull, to a raging admiral – but Sally wouldn’t soften it. It looked as if it could part all matter to find its goal.

It stilled him for a moment, and if he’d been paying attention, he would have realized that somebody who was capable of a look like that was certainly a lot more astute than he gave her credit for.

He just went back to stewing. That at least stopped him from repeating the name Layra over and over in his head again.

He shoved into the teaching building.

Admiral Forest was actually out and about. They didn’t interact when they were above ground. She didn’t even glance his way, other than to mutter, “If you have a class to get to, Cadet, I suggest you rush there.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

He didn’t rush, though. Sally had just walked into the building.

Joseph was meant to be late for class. Sally chose to be late.

If there was one person who couldn’t suffer fools, it was Forest. Here she was, losing soldiers, busting a gut, and sacrificing in every way to ensure the Coalition had a chance. And here Sally was, ignoring everything for her pathetic fantasies.

Sure enough, Lara stiffened. “Cadet, what class are you meant to be in? Why are you late?”

“As the world is ending but no one else can see,” Sally delivered that in a tone that was somehow still powerful yet weak.

As Joseph kept saying, he didn’t want to believe Sally had some kind of trauma fueling her erratic behavior. If he did that, if he started softening toward her, he might not stop.

Forest was a different matter. “Just get to class, Cadet. I think you will find that when we all work together—”

“If our opposition is still greater than us, it only means we all fall together.”

“Cadet, that is no way to think.”

“It is neither a thought nor a fear, Admiral Forest. It is an unfortunate fact.”

Lara started to bristle.

Another cadet, who clearly had the permission to be walking the corridors, considering they weren’t hurrying, strode within earshot. Lara had to control this situation now. But what could she do? Send Sally to the brig? A part of Joseph wanted to see that.

Another part… dammit. He didn’t want to help Sally out, but he found himself doing it anyway. “There’s no point in engaging with her, Admiral,” Joseph sent a quick neural message to her. “She’s the maddest recruit at the Academy. She thinks she’s the greatest power in the universe,” he added.

“Then she clearly requires psychological assistance. Take her to class. Anna is an astute counselor and will help her.”

Yeah. Sure. But Joseph knew Anna wasn’t going to solve Sally’s problems. Nobody was.

Forest backed off. She pretended to get a message, muttered sharply at Sally to get to class, and walked away.

Sally paused, a nonplussed look on her face, then turned and walked unhurriedly.

Yep. She’d just had a run-in with Forest. Most full-grown captains would still knock at the knees if they got in trouble with Lara.

All but Sally.

Joseph might’ve just helped her out, but he found himself seething as he walked behind her. Yes, behind. He was corralling her to class now, whether she liked it or not.

She got a distracted look in her eyes a few times, and she stared out across the grounds.

What did she think she was glimpsing? She claimed to be the greatest power in the universe? Was a deadly enemy out there? Hell, if she was the greatest power, why not click her fingers and get rid of the threat of the Scarax gods? Why not end all of this and return everything to normal?

With those bitter thoughts ringing through his mind, they reached the right room.

The door opened.

Sally stopped.

Joseph loomed right behind her, pretty much acting like a wall to ensure she walked into the class, but even as he brushed up against her shoulder, she didn’t shift.

She stared over at Anna.

It was a well-lit classroom. There were large arched windows on one side, and the students sat at a distance from each other. Everyone looked peaceful. It was the first class Joseph had been in for six months where people didn’t have an undercurrent of stress – clearly Anna was working them through some kind of psychological strengthening exercise.

She turned to look at Sally, and her gaze slipped over her quickly and locked on Joseph. “It is unfortunate you are both late, but understandable considering these grave times. Please take a seat.”

The only two seats left were right at the front of the class and right next to each other.

Joseph instantly felt calmer in Anna’s presence. Most of the time they were together, she was trying to regress him, and he hated every single second of it. But at least she knew what she was doing.

She’d also be able to diagnose Sally, or at the very least put her in her place properly.

Sally continued to stand there stiffly for a few seconds, then acquiesced, walked over, and sat in the seat. She instantly crossed her arms defensively.

Joseph felt like reaching over and pulling them down.

God, it made sense, didn’t it? Of course Sally would have a problem with the nicest person on campus.

Anna picked up on the aggression. “I sense a troubled mind. Have you taken the growing anxiety of this galaxy to heart, Cadet?” she asked in her quiet but still penetrating tone.

Sally did nothing. Everyone else in the class snorted with laughter. It was unkind.

“Students, you must be gentle to each other. It is by strengthening our connections that we allow ourselves to fight alongside one another.”

“It’s also by separating the wheat from the chaff,” somebody muttered from the back of the class. Joseph didn’t have to turn around to see that it was Jerry.

Anna chose to smooth over the comment. “We have limited time today, and it is integral that I teach this lesson. As times change, one must learn how to hold their mind. One must learn how to block out aspects of the past that bother them. The only way to do that is to hide them.”

Joseph knew all this, but he still wanted to pay attention. He might learn a thing or two. Instead? Damn, instead, he just watched Sally. It was out of the corner of his eye, as he didn’t want to be too obvious. She kept her arms crossed, her head tilted to the side, and a supremely arrogant expression on her face. It was as if she’d walked into the room only to find a fraud.

“When we face a mind greater than ours that is attempting to overcome us—”

Sally put a hand up.

It derailed Anna slightly. “What is your question—”

“Why assume that a mind is greater than yours and not simply more aggressive?”

“I meant in terms of psychic ability.”

“What if everybody has the same psychic ability?” Sally countered.

The question threw Anna for a moment, then she chuckled quietly. “I believe that question would be answered in the very first class you ever had of psychic defense.”

It was hardly a slap, but every student in the room still laughed as if Anna had put Sally down.

Sally? Did Joseph really have to tell you that she didn’t even react? She didn’t twitch. She looked completely neutral. No. She looked as if she had a point – one that was better than Anna’s.

Joseph’s anger itched once more.

Maybe he’d go back, he’d find Forest, and he’d tell her that as a personal favor to him, she needed to kick Sally out immediately.

“It is simply a fact that some people have more powerful psychic energy than others.”

Sally chuckled quietly.

It was so rude.

Joseph’s hackles had already climbed all the way up his back, but now they threatened to eject themselves off into outer space.

Anna noticed, but she smoothed it over. “To fight against a truly powerful mind, we must take our traumas,” she said as she placed her hands over her chest, “hold on to them in our heart, and block them off. We must meditate on them in quiet moments to ensure that when a powerful psychic attacks, they will never be able to open up that wound to use against us.”

Sally didn’t interrupt again, but she did roll her eyes.

Dammit. Joseph wanted to—

“Class, please close your eyes right now. Think of a traumatic moment. Hold it in your heart. I will teach you the process to block it off from your enemies.”

Joseph didn’t want to close his eyes, but he had to. He kept the rest of his senses on Sally, enough to know that while she nominally half shut her lids, she certainly didn’t close her eyes fully.

He could sense the electrical potential across her muscles, and she had zero intention of calming her mind and following through with this lesson. But what was Joseph going to do? Stop everybody and get Anna to kick her out? Yeah, wasn’t going to happen. Plus….

Anna must’ve been producing some calming psychic fields because the energy in the room changed. It somehow became anxious while at the same time quiet.

Joseph… he felt himself slipping back into his time on Deus’s ship.

“I need you to experience your most traumatic memories. Draw them up. Hold them in your chests. Imagine every detail. Re-live it as if you were actually there.”

Either it was her sonorous voice, or it was Joseph’s continuous regressions, but this was relatively easy.

He saw himself back on Deus’s ship—

But it didn’t last. The partially forgotten dream from this morning rose instead.

There he was, running down the corridor.

That cadet was right in front of him. He could almost see her hair, her features, her fear. She ran desperately.

“Layra,” he called out to her. “Come on. You can’t do this. It’s a trap. You know that. You don’t even know how you got to the Milky Way. The Observers did it. Don’t fall for it again.”

The vision was sharp. Joseph didn’t feel like he was still seated here under the streaming sunlight with the other quietly focusing cadets. He felt he was right there in his dream once more.

He didn’t necessarily recognize the corridor around him. It was just like a cookie-cutter version of the general architecture of the Academy. But—

He reached his hand out again.

The cadet turned her head, and he almost saw—

“This only works if everybody pays attention,” Anna said. For the first time he’d ever heard it, her voice was slightly hard.

Everybody opened their eyes to see that Sally was tapping her foot.

It was hard for Joseph to come around. He knew his most traumatic memory, dammit. So what the hell was that dream doing coming up? It was… just a dream… but who the heck was Layra?

He clutched the side of his head. Even the sight of Sally tapping her foot harder didn’t ignite his anger again.

“Is there something we need to discuss, Cadet?” Anna said in a calm tone that nonetheless belied a gram of frustration.

“Yes, your methods,” Sally said as if she was an admiral handing down a personal review.

“My methods?” Anna said stiffly. “What do you mean by that?”

“If a stronger psyche – as you say – attacks you, and you spend all of your time psychically blocking off your most traumatic memory, aren’t you just going to invite them into it because that’s what you’ll be thinking of?”

“You will protect it—”

“But they’re stronger than you. If you focus on your memory while they’re attacking you, they will see it, and they’ll use it against you.”

There was silence. For a second.

It almost made sense. But then Joseph reminded himself that Sally was no expert – on anything. Maybe everybody else reminded themselves of that too, because there was a general muttering for Sally to shut up.

Anna cleared her throat. “That is not how it works. You must concentrate hard and practice.”

“All right, I see. But if we don’t do that, and say we only ever do this in one class, then when we come up against a psychic and we foolishly try to block off our most traumatic memory, aren’t we just going to offer it up to them?”

Again Anna was silent for a few seconds. “Every cadet must try their hardest at all times to protect one another.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t answer the question. By teaching us this method in one class, and assuming that everyone will simply practice sufficiently to be able to fight off Scarax psychics, aren’t you setting us up to be attacked by those very psychics?”

There was a real edge to Sally’s words now. She wasn’t usually this aggressive. She maintained the exact same position, her arms crossed in front of her chest, her legs out as her foot tapped the floor.

Anna had clearly heard too much. “Cadet, that’s enough. Unless you can suggest a better strategy, notwithstanding your preciously limited psychic energy,” Anna said defensively and somewhat inappropriately, “you need to remain silent.”

There was raucous laughter now. Only a powerful psychic like Anna could tell how psychically disposed someone else was.

It was privileged information to a counselor, and they were expected to keep it private.

That being said, most ordinary humans and other aliens had about the same level of limited psychic energy to begin with.

This just confirmed everybody’s biases, though.

Wait, sorry. Here Sally was, interrupting everything just to make a scene yet again – he couldn’t be on her side, no matter how unprofessional Anna was.

“You want to know how to fight off a Scarax psychic? You want to know how to fight off any psychic? You drag them in. Then you shut them down.” Sally looked at her cuticles. She was barely paying attention. It was as if she was saying something that she had known her entire life.

“You drag them in, and you take them down?” Anna said sarcastically. She wasn’t even pretending to be professional now.

Maybe that should have triggered something in Joseph. Instead he just stared at Sally. What the heck did she mean? Did she have any clue how the mind really worked?

“Your weakness is your strength. Most powerful psychics train their entire lives to ignore the soft sides of their minds. They cannot handle weakness. And you think you should block off your weakest memory from them? No. If you treat it like a wound, they will use it like a wound. Instead, you treat it like your greatest strength. You understand that you can withstand that weakness because you have withstood it in the past. They, on the other hand, have never experienced it. So you drag them in using that traumatic memory,” she said, her voice dropping until she whispered the word drag yet somehow managed to give it the vocal force of a thousand people screaming all at once, “and you trap them inside it.”

There was silence for a few seconds.

Some of the cadets… almost looked interested. It kind of made twisted sense, but Anna wasn’t about to let that stand.

She stood taller. “You have to leave now, Cadet. You’re being disruptive to people’s minds. Your mental energy is skewed.”

Sally chuckled as she pushed to her feet. “What a shame. I’m sure we’ll see each other around.” She turned and walked to the door.

There was something about the way she said that. It got Joseph’s nerves on edge.

Sally wouldn’t do anything to a teacher, would she? Hold on. No. She couldn’t do anything. He dismissed that thought as fast as it arose. Sally was inept. She could be rude and dismissive, but that was it.

Every eye was on her until she was out the door, then, for a good several minutes, the students all bitched about her at once and Anna did nothing. She stood there, looking a little flustered, almost as if she wanted to join in. Then she finally calmed everyone down.

She darted her gaze toward the door a few times.

As for Joseph, he almost wanted to run out there to find Sally. He’d drag her back to this class. Regardless of what was going on in her head, she couldn’t change the fact the Scarax Galaxy was coming. She could live in her fantasies, but unless she trained, she’d die lying to herself and everyone else.