The War of the Gods Book One Chapter 26

Joseph Lance

He longed to get to Sally all day. He couldn’t. Forest kept him busy. She pulled him out of classes, faking some kind of medical issue.

It was damn cruel. But… Joseph understood it was important. He had to figure out what was going on with Carlisle before it was too late.

They found out that Carlisle had been frequenting a building far off beyond the outskirts of the city.

It was an old recreation of a log cabin from the 19th century. It could’ve been charming, were it not likely a bunker for a dangerous spy.

Joseph touched down near it. Behind him were crags that stretched up toward jagged peaks dusted here and there with snow. Wind howled behind him, marching relentlessly through pine trees. As he floated above the ground, a few stray pine needles scattered over his back.

He inclined his head over toward the log cabin.

He could feel its defenses from here. There was a hidden security system that would no doubt alert anybody of intruders and likely blow them up if they weren’t shielded. It wasn’t in the house – it was buried in the ground several meters away.

Joseph didn’t even have to port toward it. Casually opening his hands, he spread his fingers, gathered charges, and blew it up.

He could control his explosions. It depended on how much subspace energy he forced into them. If he wanted them to spark out like crazy, they could rival a cruiser’s blistering exhaust. Otherwise, he could create mini implosions instead. Which is exactly what he did now. There was a pop and an eruption of sparks and dust. That was it.

Inclining his head to the side, he sharpened his senses until he concluded that there was now nothing preventing him from walking right into the log cabin.

He didn’t bother to let his feet touch the ground. Blame it on the day he’d had, but they’d been itching to fly since this morning. Even now, when he was deep in a critical mission, he thought of Jerry. It didn’t last. His leering face was soon replaced by Sally.

She….

Joseph curled a hand into a fist and muttered to himself. There was no call to. Yeah, he’d got rid of the surveillance device, but as a good spy knew, you didn’t act unnecessarily. He still grunted. “This isn’t frigging fair. Why can’t anyone see what’s happening?”

Nothing but silence responded to him. Silence and the continuous creak of the old cabin as wind beat it from outside.

According to the intel Forest had received, this was where Carlisle was communicating with the Scarax Galaxy. Joseph had found nothing thus far. Carlisle’s office had been a real bust. So had his quarters. But now? Joseph floated in a little further then paused.

Immediately his hackles rose. He detected Scarax energy. It was so damn obvious, it felt like this place was inundated by the stuff.

He finally let his feet touch down. There was a table right over in front of a window. On it? A Scarax communicator. It was almost too obvious to believe.

Joseph didn’t do anything until he floated over and confirmed it. He hefted it up, wanting to drop it a second later. His body recoiled at the horrible feeling of it. He could sense psychic energy and quickly concluded this controlled a psychic generator.

This was all the evidence he needed. Joseph… look, it might be because he was distracted, but it still didn’t feel as if Carlisle had done anything wrong. This was….

Forest communicated with him. “Have you found anything?”

“Yeah. As soon as I got in the door.”

“He’s our man, then?”

“… I guess.”

Forest hesitated. Their relationship had been strained over the past several days. But she still clearly valued his assessment. “What is it?”

“The evidence was just sitting on the table, Lara.”

She paused. She understood what that meant.

“Sure, there was a surveillance system outside. One which I detected immediately. I destroyed it in one hit. There was no backup.”

“How many other devices are there?”

Joseph pursed his lips together and whistled. He closed his eyes, and he started porting around.

He found at least eight other communicators and plenty of tech required for psychic generators. “It’s like he’s got a Scarax depot here,” he muttered.

“I see.” Forest didn’t speak with confidence. Who would?

“Look, this feels like a set-up,” Joseph said, finally speaking his mind.

Lara was quiet for several seconds. “Have you checked the entire building?”

“Lara, did you hear what I said?”

“Yes, Joseph. I heard what you said.”

“Do you know the students are turning against Carlisle? They’re spreading rumors about him. I just—”

“Do not make the mistake of believing that you’re the only person who is capable of reading complex situations. Continue to scan. Tell me if you find something else.”

Forest didn’t come out and say it, but from the exact tone she’d used on the phrase something else, it was clear that just like Joseph, she didn’t like the feeling of this.

If Carlisle was meant to be some supersecret god, then why would he keep his Scarax devices littered around the house as if they were nothing but toys? Yeah, sure, it had been hard to find this place. Not impossible.

You’d think it would employ some form of shielding. A cloak, maybe? Anything? And you would’ve thought that Carlisle would’ve hidden his movements better.

Instead….

Joseph tilted back, secured a hand on his skull, and let his fingertips slip down his skin. He didn’t want to be here. Right now, he wanted to head straight back to the Academy and figure out if Sally was safe.

Joseph had a few privileges as a lieutenant – and plenty of added extras as a spacer. He could reprogram the Academy sensors to keep a lock on Sally. Do that, however, and Forest would ask why. But he could just pretend that he was completing his mission, right?

Nope, Lara was already suspicious.

She hadn’t berated him too much more over what happened this morning, but she would be keeping a watchful eye on him.

This was… it was just a frigging mess.

He continued to search the cabin, being as methodical as he could. He found a couple more communicators. That was it. There wasn’t evidence that Carlisle was attempting to hide his tracks.

Hell, there was precious little evidence that Carlisle himself had been here that much. Yeah, there were a couple of indications the man had visited. At least his molecules had, if that made sense.

Joseph had keen senses that could detect somebody’s smell – right down to their chemical constituents. He could track them easily.

And… there was evidence Carlisle had visited. But like Joseph had said – it might’ve just been a part of him.

There wasn’t what you would expect. If Carlisle had spent what looked like months here, planning this attack, he should be all over everything. Instead, his presence was only detectable around select items. The more Joseph ported about, the more he concluded this had to be a trap. He shared all the evidence he gathered with Forest, including his growing suspicions. She, as usual, was tightlipped.

When Joseph finally got back to the Academy, he wanted to port straight to Sally’s room.

He had to head home first, though. And he couldn’t actually port to her, right? He suddenly told himself. Not only would it reveal who he was, but Sally….

He sighed into his hand as he strode in through his apartment doors.

He froze.

He wasn’t alone. There were James and Serena on the couch and… Jerry.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Joseph said. He dropped his hand. He stared right at Jerry. “How are you going, Jerry?”

Jerry punched up. He didn’t look as aggressive as he had this morning. But Joseph could feel it, just like a volcano that currently had a cap on.

“Look, Lance, I’m kind of sorry about what happened today.”

Joseph stared at him askance. “Have you apologized to Sally yet?” He emphasized her name.

“Not about that.” Jerry’s cheeks twitched. He revealed his anger in one go. He couldn’t hide it anymore. Sally was like a trigger word to him.

Joseph locked his arms around his middle and shot James a very specific look. It screamed at the top of Joseph’s lungs that Jerry had no right to be here.

James receded back. He didn’t look comfortable. Maybe he’d been strong-armed into it by Serena. Maybe she’d just walked in and Jerry had followed.

“I didn’t mean to shout at you this morning. It was pretty wrong of me.”

“Okay,” Joseph said calmly. As calmly as you could if you secretly wanted to punch somebody. “Jerry, can you just jump ahead to the bit where you threaten Sally, give me one last chance, and storm out?”

Serena hissed. “Joseph, where—”

Joseph put up a finger. It was stiff and strong, and damn did he look like the lieutenant he was. “I’m just gonna stop you there. If you’re about to tell me that you’re going to give me one last chance to come back to your fold, understand this – I don’t want to be there. What I saw today was disgusting on every level.” He looked right at Jerry. “You are not Academy material,” he said categorically. “Sorry, maybe you are Academy material. But understand this,” Joseph said menacingly, “you’re not Coalition material. You wouldn’t last a day under a real captain. You would be sent to the brig or kicked out for good.”

All the apparent forgiveness Jerry had conjured disappeared. Hell, it cracked like a house under an earthquake. “Excuse me? I’m here to give you another chance, man. Can’t you see that?”

“Who exactly are you, Jerry? God? I don’t need your other chance. Now get the hell out. Oh, sorry, if you’re James’s guest, stay. But I’ll leave.”

Joseph went to turn. He’d head straight to Sally now. He didn’t have a good feeling about this.

Jerry shoved a hand out and grabbed Joseph’s shoulder.

Without even thinking, Joseph could break his grip. Hell, he could’ve gone on to break every single bone in Jerry’s body. Fortunately Joseph was thinking. For now.

James rocketed to his feet. “Look, Jerry, just back the hell away. He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“Can’t you see what’s going on here? You’ve been hoodwinked. I can’t believe you’ve fallen for someone as stupid as Sally, but—”

Joseph slowly turned.

James put himself squarely between Joseph and Jerry.

“The only thing that’s stupid here, Jerry, is you. Can you take a step back and see what you’re doing? Do you honestly think that this is the kind of behavior Coalition captains want?”

“I have woken up, Joseph, and I know exactly what I’m meant to do.” He slapped his chest. “I’m here to save the Academy, and I’m giving you the opportunity to join us.”

Joseph had to walk away right now. He was close to crunching a hand into a fist. And when he did, he wasn’t gonna let it go until he hit something with his full subspace power. It wouldn’t be Jerry’s face, but it might be the wall right next to him.

“Look, Joseph, just hear us out, please. We’ve been your friends for a long time, right?” Serena jumped up from the couch.

Joseph said nothing. He didn’t really have true friends. No one understood what he was. Even James right now wouldn’t be looking this compassionate if he had any inkling what Joseph could do.

The compassion would be replaced by fear.

“We don’t know what Sally told you—”

“Nothing. Why? You here to gather information on her? Or wait,” Joseph clicked his fingers, “you want me to make a statement, don’t you? Something tells me right now that you’ve got other cadets harassing her roommate for a statement too. You want everyone who’s ever met her to come out in front of the Coalition and tell them all that Sally’s the greatest monster in the entire universe, ha? Do you think that will make all your problems go away, Serena? Do you think that will suddenly make the Scarax Galaxy disappear? Do you honestly think that will give you any chance whatsoever of surviving a real attack? Or is all of this just wasting everyone’s time?”

“Hey,” James said in a deep voice.

Joseph brought his hands up, figuring that if they were visible, he’d be less likely to unconsciously build more and more subspace charges. “I didn’t invite you over here. So just leave.”

“We are giving you a chance to make a difference for once in your life, Joseph Lance,” Jerry growled.

Joseph teetered.

He almost snapped.

All he could think of was Master Deus’s lab.

All he could think of was the people that Joseph had killed – with his hands but someone else’s mind. Had that been making a difference? No. But when Joseph had been saved and he’d scrounged the emotional strength to pull himself up out of that, it had been making a difference. And every battle he’d fought since had made a difference because he’d fought for the right reasons. This? It was a damn joke.

Joseph turned, but Jerry just shoved in.

He grabbed Joseph’s arm again.

This was it. Joseph was actually going to snap. He opened his hand to the side. He was about to call on a subspace sword – not to cut Jerry in half – but to actually hammer home Joseph’s point. This wasn’t how you won wars.

But that would be when the doors opened. Joseph hadn’t even realized he’d left them unlocked.

And right there he saw Sally.

She was like an ocean. It doused his anger immediately.

She glanced down at his hand, but he dropped it, his fingers twitching a little. Then they spread toward her. “Sally? You—”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jerry snarled. He dropped Joseph’s arm.

Before he could take a step toward her, Joseph squared off in front of him. “Have you kind of forgotten that this isn’t your room? Or do you think that every single room in the Academy belongs to you now? Have you become a glorified King?”

Sally had been looking on evenly, but her cheeks twitched.

“Get the hell out of here, Sally Winters. This is your last damn warning—” Jerry snapped.

“Okay. I did this because my arm was twisted. I did this because you actually said you would apologize and you had a reason behind your madness,” James said as he now pushed right toward Jerry. “This has gotta stop.”

“James, you don’t understand.” Serena looked ready to snap.

That would’ve been Joseph had Sally not come along. Honestly, anyone else could have appeared – including Admiral Forest – and Joseph wouldn’t have calmed down as much as he did now.

She was safe, and that’s all that counted.

“How did you know I was here?” Jerry snapped at Sally.

“I followed the cloud of hatred,” Sally muttered. “I also did not come to see you. Strangely. You do not own this apartment.”

Jerry looked apoplectic.

Joseph had no clue whatsoever why James thought it was a good idea to let Jerry in the apartment, but James shook his head once. “You need to get out. Now.”

“James,” Serena spluttered.

James flinched but continued as he stared at the wall, “You heard me, Serena. This isn’t your apartment.”

“You serious?”

Part of Joseph wanted to de-escalate the situation. The rest of him realized there was no de-escalation. He hadn’t spoken for a few seconds, and it gave him the perspective he required to see how utterly crazy this was. Serena was passionate, sure. She was one of the few cadets he knew who deserved to be in E Club. She always strove to be the best, no matter what. And no one could kick her down. Usually, she saw reason, though. From the stiff way her lips curled into a frown and her eyes blazed, it was pretty clear that reason was now the furthest thing from her mind.

The only person with an even expression was Sally.

It was the same expression she’d worn since the moment she’d walked in, almost as if she’d expected to find Jerry here.

As for Jerry? Should Joseph really have to tell you he kept looking at Sally as if he wanted to throw her out the window?

“Sally Winters, you’re—” Jerry snarled.

“You’re not going to threaten her right here. This isn’t your damn apartment,” Joseph snarled. “How many times do you need to hear that? Get out, Jerry.”

“You’re making the biggest mistake of your career, Lance. You think by ignoring me you’re going to be able to get anywhere? You won’t be picked up by a ship. You’re just gonna languish around on Earth doing office jobs.”

Joseph snorted loudly and derisively. “What, you’re a captain now? Or have you been promoted to admiral already?”

“You’ll see. In the upcoming war, E Club is gonna make all the difference. We will save everyone.”

Again Joseph was forced to take a step back and appreciate how damn weird that sentence was. Sorry? E Club was gonna save everyone? E Club was nothing more than cadets. Sure, if it came to fighting on Academy grounds – or when, rather – they would be forced to pick up guns and attack the Scarax army. But you know what they wouldn’t be forced to do? Make any critical decisions. Joseph really would be on the front line, however. He could snap that at Jerry right now, but from the burning fervor in his gaze, he alone was gonna take on the Scarax Galaxy and win.

Sally was the only one who remained calm. It was as if she’d seen psychopaths like that her entire life.

Jerry finally got it into his thick head that he wasn’t invited anymore, and he predictably went to smash into Sally on his way past.

Joseph just locked a guiding hand on his shoulder. Even if he would’ve been forced to use all of his spacer power, he would have.

He didn’t let Jerry’s shoulder go until he was out of the door. “See you around, Cadet Lance. Don’t be surprised tomorrow when you find that no one is on your side.”

“It’s over,” Serena hissed at James on her way past.

Both of them glowered at Sally. Then they stalked down the corridor.

Sally took a step back, locked her hands in front of herself politely, and nodded once. “I apologize for escalating things.” Then she turned right around without another word.

Jerry and Serena were just there. What was her plan? To walk right through them? She was like a fish darting in front of sharks with no idea that she could be eaten in one bloody snap.

“Whoa, Sally.” Joseph jolted over to her. “You can’t go out there. You serious? Did you not just see what happened?”

“Unfortunately yes.”

James rubbed the back of his head. He looked genuinely disappointed. He’d been going strong with Serena. Until she’d flipped.

Though Joseph wanted to deal with Sally, at the same time he shot James a commiserating look.

James just crunched his arms over his stomach and shook his head. “What the hell is going on here?” he mouthed, more disappointment flickering in his gaze as he stared at Jerry and Sally stalking toward the lift.

Maybe they hoped Sally would walk within earshot again – or worse – she’d voluntarily choose to ride the elevators with them like a mouse trying to curl up for a nap on a cat’s lap.

Joseph was not gonna let that happen.

When she looked as if she was gonna walk toward them again, he got in front of her.

He shot James another look.

“Good luck,” James mouthed. He closed the door.

Joseph wanted to commiserate with him, but right now he had more important things to do.

He stopped in front of Sally with his hands held up wide. It was almost as if he was surrendering. He wasn’t sure what he was surrendering to, that said. The look in Sally’s eyes? Even as always. Her stance? Strong. Her expression? Unperturbed.

The entirety of E Club was right now probably plotting against her, and she just looked… like Sally Winters.

That was an equation he’d completed in his head so many times, but this time it just seemed so empty. She was more, but he just couldn’t put his finger on exactly what that was.

With his hands still up, he took a shuddering sigh that caved his shoulders in like rocks in acid. “Seriously, Sally. You can’t go back there. I saw Serena. She’s probably right now going after your flatmate. And your flatmate is probably gonna fabricate stories about you just to keep them happy. We need to go to the faculty. We need to—”

“It’s okay, Joseph. I’m well aware of the fact that no one is going to help me.”

Her voice might be even, but it still shook Joseph’s heart. It felt like it wanted to rip right out of his chest wall. Nobody wanted to help her? Dammit, this was the Academy. They were all here to help each other. So how could a cadet as lonely as Sally exist in the first place?

He finally dropped his hands. “We’re going to the faculty. We’re gonna complain about Jerry.”

“I think the faculty is already fully aware of what Jerry is doing. If they had wished to, they could’ve taken the security footage from the incident on the ground floor this morning. They probably have. Jerry’s still here. That’s the only information we require to conclude going to the faculty will be fruitless.” Not making eye contact with him, she went to move past.

So Joseph just got in front of her again. “Maybe they didn’t see what they needed to. So we’ll show them. We can’t give up on the Coalition,” he muttered, thinking of Forest as he said it. “We have to all stand together.”

He knew full well that during times of war things became stressful. If you used that stress against one another, then you lost by default.

“Stand together?” she echoed his words but with a hollow tone. It was so empty, Joseph no longer thought her expression was stony. It was dead. It was likely numbness that’d allowed her to get through that interaction. She probably thought it was strength. Joseph could see. Maybe he was perfectly programmed to see, in fact.

He’d had that exact expression for so much of his life. When he’d been Deus’s spacer, there’d been nothing he couldn’t do. But there’d been nothing he could feel.

Joseph took one large, rocking sigh that felt as if it was going to detach his shoulders from their joints. “Let’s walk,” he commanded. He used a little of his lieutenant authority.

She pulled her large eyes up to his. “There’s no time for you to get involved in my problems. It’s all right. They’ll end on their own.” She said that with so much certainty….

His gut kicked. Sally wouldn’t do something stupid, would she? No. Maybe she was just under the impression that the war would come and all of this petty violence would end by necessity. They couldn’t fight each other when Scarax warriors were trying to shoot everyone.

“Come on. Let’s go for a walk,” he said again.

He was surprised when Sally actually unstuck her feet.

She followed along after him. It kind of felt… memorable.

This walk had two purposes. One… he kinda just wanted to spend some time with her, frankly. The other? He wanted to show the E Club he meant business. He’d walk her right up to her door. There’d likely be cadets waiting there, but as soon as she got into her room, she’d be able to lock the door. The E Club did not have the authority nor the gall to go in and unlock it remotely.

Hell, if they did, Joseph would find out, and he really would take this to Forest. No more messing around. He’d give her an ultimatum. She would have to do something about Jerry, or he would. Even if it meant revealing who Joseph was, he was not gonna let this go.

They walked in silence up to the lift.

Joseph wasn’t at all surprised to find a member of E Club there, presumably waiting for Sally.

The guy looked over at Joseph and actually bared his teeth. “You made your side clear. No last chances, Lance.”

Joseph walked right into the elevator. He stared at the guy – only a few centimeters from his face. “You do not have the power nor authority to give anyone a last chance. You don’t even have the power nor authority to give them a first chance. You are a cadet of the Coalition Academy. You will start acting like one.” Joseph channeled all of the force and sheer indomitable will of Admiral Forest.

It worked. The guy cowered back. He clearly wanted to ride the elevator with them to see where they got off, but he chickened out.

He dashed out into the corridor. When he was several steps away, he snarled at them. “Everything starts again tomorrow. You’ll wish you were on our side.”

“You don’t have a side. You’re on the Coalition’s side. Start remembering that, Cadet,” Joseph snarled.

The elevator doors closed.

The control panel beeped. They hadn’t selected a destination.

Sally leaned forward at the same time he did. He expected her to hit her room button. She didn’t. Both of their fingers locked on the same key.

As he looked at her, it took him too long to realize that a) he was touching her, and b) they both wanted to head to the same place. The roof. Joseph thought only he went up there when he was stressed.

Swallowing, he pulled his hand back and let her do all the pressing.

In silence that only lasted for a few seconds, they traveled to the roof. The doors opened. They walked out. It was thankfully empty.

Joseph took in a deep lungful of cold air. The Academy was located right next to a bay, and if he tipped his head, he could see the sea.

It took him a few more seconds to realize that he’d breathed voluntarily.

Sally walked over to the fence on the other side. She secured her fingers through it. She leaned her face against the cold metal links.

It might look like simple metal, but it was a lot more. It could withstand a strong blast. It also ensured nobody climbed over it. Joseph, of course, never climbed. He transported or floated.

He watched Sally. “It’ll be okay.”

“Like I said so many times—”

“It’s not the cadets that bother you. It’s the war. That’s what I’m talking about, Sally. It’ll be alright.”

She slowly pulled her face off the links, an impression of them indenting her cheeks. She turned to him. “You do not have the right to say that, Joseph Lance. You are incredible, but you aren’t that incredible.”

He got stuck on one thing. It wasn’t the fact she’d said he wasn’t that incredible. It was the statement that had come before. Sally….

“You should not stand by my side. There is no reason to.”

“Other than the fact that the E Club has gone completely mad. I don’t know what they think they’re doing, but—”

“They’re being manipulated, Joseph. It isn’t really their fault. There’s no point being angry at them.” She spoke as if she believed that. Jerry was going around right now, ruining her career, and here Sally was, the first to jump to his defense.

It took Joseph several seconds to splutter. “Sally, you don’t owe them anything. You don’t need to be scared of them. Don’t follow in their wake just because they’re threatening to label you as a cheater.”

“Scarax gods employ strong psychics. Don’t you think one is operating on campus right now?”

“… What?”

“Think about it, Joseph. The mood of E Club changed relatively recently. It was only really in the last two days that something started to arc up. If it were me and I was planning an attack, I’d sew maximum discord amongst the students and faculty so that when that attack came, everyone would fracture like glass.” She said that with so much directness… it was almost as if this really was her plan.

That thought could not settle. Joseph didn’t even need his automatic mantra that Sally was just Sally to chase it away.

He’d been keeping his distance. Now he took several steps up to her, his shoes slapping against the smooth smart concrete. “There are more forces at play in this world than you know, Sally. The Coalition has defeated the Scarax before. We’ll do it again.”

“It’s not them I’m worried about,” she said quietly.

For a heart-pounding second, he thought she’d mention the Hendari. The Scarax were now known by everybody. It would’ve been impossible to keep their existence hidden, considering they’d attacked the Academy twice. The Hendari, on the other hand, and the crystals – were still one of the greatest secrets that the Coalition had.

Sally did nothing. Re-gripping her fingers through those metal links, she pushed her face into the fence until it looked as if she wanted to force it right off the side of the roof.

He was drawn in by her silent presence once more.

He’d been keeping his distance. He couldn’t anymore. He pushed right close by her, shoving his fingers into the links, pressing his face into the cold metal, even though he knew far better ways to let off steam. His body itched to let him float.

He could transport around the world and come back again and feel that good fatigue an ordinary person might get if they’d run for an hour.

Instead? He tilted his head to the side, the metal groaning slightly under his weight, and he stared at Sally Winters.

One of her eyes was pressed open. She used it to gaze out at the Academy grounds. She had… a certain watchful stare.

It told him she’d never miss a thing. So she knew what she was looking for.

… That thought… came from somewhere. And hot on its heels was another.

Joseph hadn’t spent this much time touching this fence since his dream. And yeah, he momentarily thought of it as if it was real because by Jove, it’d had the emotional significance to seem so.

He was forced to close his eyes as a muscular twitch shot down his face.

He could see that cadet, standing on a TI block, right in the middle of the chaotic storm, her expression nothing but cold regret. He could hear himself screaming her name, over and over again. He couldn’t actually recognize her face, and he couldn’t hear what he was saying.

So he closed his eyes harder.

This recollection didn’t have the visual complexity of when he regressed in the pod, but it was still pretty sharp. Maybe it would finally tell him what he so desperately needed to know.

Neither of them said anything. God knows what she was thinking of. He kept forcing himself to figure out who that cadet was. Nothing. The only thing he copped was a heart full of sorrow.

The moment he saw her swallowed by that gate, his eyes opened wide. His chest pitched, making it feel as if it was gonna crack right off his sternum and fall to his feet.

“What is it, Joseph?”

He thought he hadn’t made a sound. He scratched the back of his neck hard, leaving indents from his fingers. To actually cut his skin, he’d have to try a lot harder. But technically that dream had done it. He felt an emotional bleed opening up in him as he recalled the sheer desperation of trying to save that cadet before it was too late. “Nothing,” he eventually forced himself to mutter.

“I’m sorry I’m making your life hard,” she whispered, sounding genuine.

Several days ago, Joseph would’ve told you with full confidence that Sally would never genuinely apologize to anyone. She was too haughty. She thought way too much of herself. The last several days had rewritten every inaccurate assumption he’d ever made.

He didn’t want to go back to that old Joseph. He wanted to lock him away in jail forever.

He found himself taking another breath. Why did he keep doing that around Sally? Did she rob him of the knowledge he was a spacer? Or did she take something else away? Something intangible but important – but something he’d never understood before. And something that, as it broke down, opened him up.

Joseph Lance had never been opened before. He didn’t mean his mind – Deus had pretty much taken a can opener to that thing. He’d busted it so wide that any damn psychic could march inside and call it their new home.

But there were other ways to open – far more important ones.

He felt this unmistakable light and kind of easy sensation welling in his chest. It pushed down to his stomach, spread around into his shoulders, and almost made him float. “You haven’t made my life hard. Just the opposite.”

“Ha?”

Yeah, ha? Because what did he actually mean? The opposite of hard was easy, right? What was he trying to say here? That they were friends? Or….

“Joseph, things are only going to get harder. Just so you know, I won’t blame you if—”

He never got to find out what she wanted to say. Her eyes suddenly narrowed. She jerked her head around. She stared across the grounds. She got that exact quality that he’d seen twice before now.

She looked like she was tracking something.

“… Sally?” he prompted when she said nothing.

She narrowed her eyes again. She pushed further into the railing. Judging by the smooth look of her knuckles, it was as if she wanted to grab the fence and wrench it away. Do that, and she’d fall right down to the bottom of the accommodation block. Her current gaze said she didn’t care, though. The only thing that mattered was catching up to whatever she had just detected.

His heart skipped several beats. “Sally?”

“I need to go, Joseph. Thank you so much for spending time with me. But as I said, remember things will only get harder from here. You must do whatever you need to. I can look after myself.”

She turned.

It all happened so quickly. They’d been having a moment, and he’d been opening up, but Sally shut down quicker than a blast door.

She reached the elevators.

“Whoa, Sally, I should at least take you back to your room.”

“If you need to.”

He rushed in.

He looked at her. He really wanted the lift ride to last longer, but it didn’t. He barely had a chance to open his mouth.

They strode out. Guess who was waiting outside Sally’s room? Oh, it was Jerry, of course.

Sally walked straight up to him.

“Sally Winters, you’re going to—”

“Door, open,” she commanded.

The door opened. Standing inside was Willis. Joseph would’ve assumed that considering she was desperate to get into E Club, she would’ve sold Sally out by now. Instead, she was clearly terrified. And there were no E Club members in the room. What? Had she been hunkered down there, ignoring Jerry’s demands to let her in, no matter what it would do to her career?

This was insane. Joseph was definitely going to Forest. And she was gonna do something about this mess this time.

“Winters,” Jerry tried.

He went to grab Sally’s arm, but she simply smoothly spun around him.

It was a good move. The kind of move that, if she’d done it in combat class, would’ve gotten her full points.

She walked straight in the door and promptly told it to lock.

Jerry turned, but it was too late.

The door locked.

He hammered a hand on it. “Hey, open up. I wasn’t done talking to you.”

“Well, she’s clearly done talking to you, Jerry. So get the hell out of here.”

“I told you to leave it alone, Lance,” Jerry said, slowing down each word. He turned. His hand was still tense. Heck – his entire body was still tense. It looked as if somebody had been trying to wrap him in wire all day.

He had a look Joseph knew all too well. Jerry only wanted to end this conversation by punching somebody.

Okay – Joseph would put his hand up for a hit, but Jerry wouldn’t like what would happen to his knuckles when they smashed into an unyielding subspace shield.

Jerry snarled. “She’s not worth it. This is your final chance—”

“Just leave, Jerry.”

“Joseph Lance, you’re no one. You could’ve been somebody. You could have joined us and helped. You chose not to. So just fall back into the background. Go back to being the bad joke you always were.”

Joseph’s lips curled. “Fall into the background?”

“You’re never going to make anything of your life. You’re just like her. Pathetic. Useless. Nothing but a damn sacrifice.”

Joseph snapped.

For a second. It was enough that he closed the distance between him and Jerry way too quickly. Even enough that as his face pressed close, Jerry’s short fringe was ruffled by the sudden movement.

His eyes opened wide, his pupils dilating at the unexpected occlusion that was Joseph’s looming form.

“No more chances, Jerry. I’m going straight to command. You will be stopped. You have snapped.”

Jerry teetered, clearly wanting to take a step back, but he was too damn angry to do that. So he just shoved forward, locked his hands on Joseph’s chest, and tried to push him.

Joseph was in no mood to be pushed.

Jerry rocked back on his feet and tried to shove harder, but Joseph just locked himself down.

An actual bead of sweat slid down Jerry’s brow by the time he decided to stop. He snarled, jerked back, and flicked his hair out of his face. “You’ll get yours tomorrow. Everyone will get theirs tomorrow.”

“That sounds like you’re planning something, Jerry. What is it? Are you going to attack the Academy?”

“We’re doing this for the Academy. The cadets are the heart of the Coalition.” He rounded a hand and beat it on his chest until the hollow thump echoed out everywhere. “We’ll prove that.”

He marched away.

Fortunately nobody had seen that interaction. As for Jerry? He was too whacked out on his own sense of victory to have noticed that Joseph had momentarily become as hard to move as a mountain.

He quickly darted in and stabbed a sweaty finger on the intercom. “It’s okay. It’s me – Joseph. I got rid of Jerry. I want to see Sally.”

The door opened, and there was Willis. She looked shocked, her cheeks pale and slack. “She’s gone to bed. She didn’t look so great.”

“Can I see her?”

Willis scratched her cheek. “I don’t know. She gets pretty quiet when she looks like this. Maybe just come back in the morning?”

She had a point. It wasn’t one Joseph wanted to follow, though. He got the urge to transport right into her room but controlled it. He sighed. “If Jerry does that again, call security.”

“Then what?” Willis asked in an empty tone.

“Ha?”

“If I call security, then what? I thought something would be done this morning. He put his hands on her. He threatened to drag her out of the Academy. Nearly everybody saw. Yeah, some of those people were E Club. Some of them weren’t. I know that I told that lieutenant exactly what happened. So why is Jerry still here? And why did Sally get dragged up in front of the disciplinary committee instead of him?”

“What?” Joseph’s voice bottomed out so quickly, it could’ve sliced the earth in two.

“She tried to hide it from me, but I saw it on her wristwatch. She has to show up in front of the disciplinary committee tomorrow for what happened. Jerry doesn’t have to. How can you tell me that’s fair? How can you tell me that if I call security, anyone’s going to show up and help me? I don’t know what’s going on with the Academy anymore, but everything is going to hell.”

With that, Willis freaked out, stepped backward, and rushed into her room.

The main doors closed and locked without another word.

Joseph turned around. He smoothly pressed one hand into his pocket. Trust him, that was the only smooth thing about him right now. He had to use all of his muscular control to do that. His shoulders actually jerked and rattled like coins as he shoved them against the door. With his free hand, he grabbed his face. The entire idea was to let his fingers flop down it. But his fingernails clawed in. They locked onto his brow as if he wanted to rip it from his head.

What the hell was going on here? And why the hell was it happening now? Really? Intrigue and threats right before the Scarax Galaxy attacked? When Joseph had almost died in the first battle for the Academy, he hadn’t thought he’d done it for this. He’d bought everyone a chance back then. They were using that chance to turn against one another.