He saw every second. From Sally walking in, to the E Club setting on her, to her saving Willis but no one else really noticing.
More than that? He’d been watching her.
This morning, rather than heading straight to class, Joseph had attended a meeting in the command building. The room had an unrivaled view right down the middle of the floor Sally lived on.
So he’d seen it, all right. She’d walked straight up to those elevators on time, but she’d had to stop as everybody else rode them before her.
She hadn’t done a thing as everyone had treated her like a pariah. She’d just… stood there.
Joseph kept telling himself he didn’t want to soften toward Sally. She was just getting what she deserved.
But then she kept doing the unexpected. Which is exactly what happened as Sally said those three little words. Don’t hold back.
He didn’t think for a second she believed he was a spacer. That said, he had no clue what the comment meant.
The holograms flickered around them, becoming solid until the old room was gone completely. They soon found themselves on a narrow path.
The other students were in front of them. They’d already paired up and were discussing what to do.
“What the heck is going on here?” somebody asked loudly.
“The whole point of this task is to get out. Get out with your grades intact. Get out with your current Coalition morals intact. Get out with your training intact. This is a maze, Cadets. You have to get out. Understand this. The goal is to escape the maze at whatever cost you deem fit.” With that particular cryptic statement, the intercom buzzed off.
Joseph frowned, looked up at the ceiling from under peaked eyebrows, and immediately detected emitters all around him. If he wanted to end this, all he had to do was take them down in a sea of subspace particles and brush his hands off.
Yesterday, Joseph would’ve reacted – like a damn bomb. Now he arched an eyebrow at her. “Not having fun? It’s just started.”
“Indeed. I’m sure the fun will come later.”
Everybody else in the corridor in front of them, which were all the other cadets, considering Sally and Joseph had been at the back of the class – walked forward. That was only logical.
Sally paused, turned, and walked in the opposite direction.
There were fewer emitters that way. It would be the simplest way to get out of the maze.
“What are you doing? Don’t you want to follow your peers?”
“It’s a maze. The best chance everybody has of winning is if we all split up and go in opposite directions. I imagine that’s the point of this test. We were told to get out with our Coalition morals intact. The most important one of those is to be able to work in groups.”
“So rather than work in a group, you’re going on your own?”
“I imagine the exit is in this direction.”
Joseph frowned for a fraction of a second. She couldn’t detect it like he could, right? “Why do you imagine that?”
She turned over her shoulder and glanced at him. And there it was again, that… knowing look. The one that kind of stretched out and took him somewhere only for him to crunch back in as if he was a muscle that had been overextended.
“We can’t all fail together. So I’m heading in this direction.” She walked away.
“Don’t let E Club hear you say that.”
“I don’t believe my relationship with E Club could be any worse.”
“Speaking of which,” Joseph stopped bantering. “Jerry—”
“Is becoming increasingly aggressive. Yes.”
“If he does anything or comes to threaten you—”
“What?” She paused, her echoing footfall ringing out on the smooth floor as she turned to face him. He was close – close enough that he saw every line around her eyes, the tension spreading her lips, and the look in her steely stare. Close enough that he could feel as her presence reached in and stilled him.
A few seconds passed.
There was a beep.
It was a certain pitch. Joseph didn’t need to be able to know what it meant. He detected new holograms entering the corridor further up.
They’d be enemies, then. He didn’t even have a weapon yet. From further down, he heard screams.
You would think that Sally would react – jolt in surprise or something. She didn’t. “We should probably find a weapon,” she muttered.
They reached a T-intersection. She picked the left branch. Which, Joseph had to admit, was the right decision.
There were no more screams.
Joseph angled his head over his shoulder. By his estimation, three teams had already been pulled out.
There was a lot of shouting from that direction, too. They were working together, but in a nominal way. He heard Jerry’s rambunctious tones echoing louder than the rest.
All Jerry wanted to do was win this and get the top points. But Sally was right, wasn’t she? There was no winning this alone – which was why people had been paired up.
“We should probably pick up the pace,” Joseph said. “We need to find a weapon before those enemies—”
Sally turned on him fast. It wasn’t so blindingly fast that he couldn’t track it as a spacer – but it was certainly a whirlwind for his mind. There was something about Sally moving that… it was probably the fact that he had trouble describing her, right? That had to be it.
She locked a hand on his chest, her palm flattening over his pecs. She pushed him against the wall. And Joseph… let’s say he didn’t quite react right.
His heart beat faster, sure, but his pupils dilated, not because he thought she’d attack. “Sally—”
Something sliced down from above them. It’d loosened itself from the ceiling.
It was a crackling neural gel wire. If it’d been real and it’d touched them, they would be dead. As it was, it just sliced back and forth, swaying like a pendulum.
Sally continued to make eye contact with him, then pulled away. And Joseph… yeah… let’s not go there. It was good that he couldn’t describe this.
Sally crouched down, angled under the swaying electro wire, and jumped up on the other side.
Joseph could still hear the screaming cadets in the other direction. There were fewer of them now.
He didn’t care about them. “You’re too fast, Sally,” he muttered. Though he didn’t want to, he locked a hand on his front and let his fingers trail slowly down his chest.
“Why would I be too fast?”
“Because your combat scores are middling. They’re worse than mine, and I thought I was at the bottom of the class.”
She opened her mouth to say something automatically, but she paused. “Just because I’m not good at combat doesn’t mean I can’t read a situation.”
“That’s kind of what being good at combat means.”
“I’m not good at flipping someone, Joseph. I’m not good at grabbing up a gun and pretending to tag holograms.”
“But you’re good at saving people when it really counts?”
She chose not to answer.
They pushed forward.
Joseph had been in simulations like this. He knew how they played. They kept things slow to begin with. But that was so you could have a chance to find a weapon. If you didn’t, you’d be screwed. By his estimation, they probably had another minute or so to find a gun. Then it would be over.
“Do we have to pass?” Sally muttered?
“That’s the goal, yeah.”
“I mean to say…” she trailed off.
“You mean do you need to pass to stay at the Academy?” To everybody else, Sally was just playing a game. But he’d heard what she’d said previously. She had to stay here. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “It might be different for everyone else. But… we don’t have the best grades. We should try our hardest.”
“You’re likely right. Which means we need a weapon.”
Joseph knew exactly where there was a weapon. There was one in the overhead storage cupboard just above him. It was hidden though. It was under paneling.
Beyond that, there was a weapon several meters down embedded in the wall. It was behind a service station. You just had to know what to look for.
This hologram was based on a Barbarian simulation. Though most Barbarian ships were nasty, kind of cobbled together, raggedy things, some of the sleeker strike ships were just pared-back and bare bones. They looked exactly like this. They were nothing like a Coalition ship. You wouldn’t be able to just guess where everything was. You’d either have to strike it lucky, or you would’ve had to practice enough to know about every class of Barbarian vessel.
Sally looked distracted again. She shook her head, appearing to come to some decision. She turned. She faced him. “Reach up.”
He spluttered. “What? How did you—”
She tilted her head to the left. “Were you already aware that there’s a weapon above you?” she asked without a suspicious tone.
His paranoid mind imputed one, though. He hadn’t controlled his expression, which presumably told her that yeah, he’d been aware there was a weapon up there.
“This simulation is designed off a Barbarian strike ship. There’s a panel above you. Presumably there is a weapon there. Because Barbarians stash weapons everywhere, don’t they?”
“I… guess,” he fumbled over his words quickly, hoping that if he stammered, she wouldn’t pay attention to the fact he’d already known it was there.
He reached up, using his height advantage to immediately pull back the panel. Out fell a blaster. It was relatively simple, but it would do.
“You keep a hold of that. There’ll be another somewhere around here.”
“Sally… how do you know about Barbarian strike vessels?”
“I imagine it’s the same way you know about them,” she muttered efficiently.
His heart skipped a beat.
She walked exactly two meters down, got onto one knee, foraged around in a panel, and pulled out another blaster.
“And what do you think I know?” he asked, his voice way too timid.
“We are both a lot more motivated than we look.” She checked the blaster. She had a quick, competent stare. She also looked… as if she’d seen a blaster like that before in the flesh. No. It was more than that. It was as if she’d somehow created this gun, maintained it, and wielded it thousands of times. It was a strange damn thought, and he chased it away quickly. He cleared his throat. “We—”
She threw a hand out. “I think the real simulation is about to begin. Are you ready, Joseph?” She turned and looked at him.
Honest answer? Nope. Joseph had fought off incalculable enemies. He’d saved countless lives. He knew exactly how to fight. But following along after Sally was proving to be another task entirely.
He didn’t have time to answer, anyway. A simple drone suddenly shot around the end of the corridor.
Sally didn’t turn to shoot it. She just faced Joseph.
So Joseph snapped his hand up, automatically, way too quickly, and shot the drone as if he was protecting her, even though he knew this was a frigging simulation.
The drone shattered into sparks that disappeared quickly as the holographic emitters gave up projecting them.
“A good shot,” she muttered.
“Thanks,” he muttered back.
They continued forward. There weren’t that many screams left anymore. Most of the other cadets had fallen already.
Joseph couldn’t afford to come first. Then again, was it really him coming first? He was just following around in Sally’s wake. She’d found the weapons. As for that shot – yeah, it’d been too fast. But everybody gets lucky shots every now and then.
He’d be able to explain it away. He couldn’t afford to come top of this class, though. Lara would kill him. But….
They reached another T-intersection. One side swung to the left and led down some stairs. Another opened up into a wide corridor. There was more light. You’d think, if this was a maze, that you’d automatically head there, but Sally twisted toward the stairs. She paused for a microsecond with her small fingers on the shining metal railing. An odd look flickered in her pupils. She inclined her head hard to the left as if she were staring through the wall.
“What is it?”
She took several seconds to answer. “Nothing.”
Nothing? Yeah, right. She had the same look she’d shown yesterday in the pub when she’d ignored everybody and run out into the night.
Crap, he still hadn’t asked her who she’d been looking for.
A drone came shooting toward him from behind. Joseph paid no attention at all. He barely even looked.
He shot it without turning. He could deal with the consequences later.
Sally didn’t even look impressed.
She strode down several steps. That look was back, burning brighter than ever. If he had to guess, she was tracking something.
“Hey, Sally,” he said in a low tone, “what were you looking for last night?”
She didn’t pay attention to him.
“Last night, at the pub. What were you looking for? Why did you run off into the night like that?”
“Did you find it? Because you look like you’re searching for it now,” Joseph said.
Whoops. He should have been more subtle. Her face stiffened.
Then the floor beneath them rumbled.
It was no ordinary moment, though. A specific energetic hum buzzed through the air.
Up until this point, the simulation had been just that – a simulation. But now… he felt psychic fields push out through everything.
Somebody or something had just taken control of this simulation. And it was no longer a game.