He arrived right in the admiral’s office.
He immediately went to port away, but Lara grabbed his arm. “Don’t even think about it. You’ve already done enough damage as it is.”
“Let me go, Forest. Sally—”
“Anna told me everything that happened in class. It’s not real, Joseph,” Forest stated flatly.
“Anna believes that Sally’s a psychic. She extracted that information from your mind.”
“What are you talking about, Forest? She didn’t even know the name of my planet. She had no clue I was Tyler—”
“You’re Joseph. Tyler died at Master Deus’s hands. And that was not a name nor a planet you should have shared with Sally. She was fishing for information, Joseph.”
“Fishing for information? I haven’t thought about that girl… since it happened. I forgot about her completely.”
“Anna has lost the plot. Forest, for the love of God, open your eyes and see what’s happening. The Academy is falling down around our ears. Cadets are fighting each other—”
“We believe that Sally’s the force behind that. She is psychically disrupting—”
“Everybody to hate her? Occam’s Razor, Forest. If you want to look for a powerful psychic who could be potentially affecting cadets – look at the powerful psychic you’re employing.”
“Joseph, you must calm down now. You have fallen too deeply into this—”
“Fine, I’ll calm down if you wake up. Everything is too convenient, Forest. From Carlisle, to the evidence, to Anna running to you every single time she wants to control me.”
Forest pressed her lips closed. She got that look that told him she wasn’t sharing everything.
Maybe she thought this was too convenient, too. But unless she actually did something to stop Anna and protect Sally from her, Joseph would.
He took a threatening step over to the door.
She did not back off, even as subspace energy crackled around Joseph’s face.
“You very almost revealed yourself in class, Joseph.”
“But I didn’t. You want to know why?”
“Because Sally jumped up and created a distraction for me.”
“Which tells you that she is aware of what you are,” Forest said blankly. “Which tells you she’s the psychic we’re after—”
“No, Forest. It tells me she cares.” He delivered that with shoulders that couldn’t hold up anymore. They flopped down as if he’d never be able to lift anything again. No subspace sword, and certainly not the weight of the Academy.
Forest looked down at her feet then up. “This is a stressful situation. But you can’t take that stress on. We know the endgame. And we have to reach for it. Together.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Meanwhile, the cadets are running around creating mayhem. You can tell me it’s Sally, but in my professional opinion,” he dropped that as if she actually cared, “it’s not her.”
“You got too close to her. And you shared details you shouldn’t have.”
“You might not believe me, Lara, but I believe me.” He struck his chest hard, the sound echoing out through the quiet room. “It’s actually her. She’s from Faxan A, just like me.”
“Why are you so sure that Anna isn’t a Scarax goddess?” That thought snapped into his head from nowhere. He went with it.
Forest looked incredulous.
“She has the ability to plant evidence, Forest. Carlisle? Really? Sure, he was on the Rim, but does he actually strike you as somebody who’s an undercover god? He’s been too damn confused over the past several days. He wants to know why the entire faculty has turned on him, why the students are hunting him down, and why nobody with more power is helping him. I thought that’s what we did in the Coalition, Forest? I thought we helped each other.”
“Which is precisely why you’re here now.”
“Joseph, you’re in too deep.”
He heard what she said. What she said between her words, at least. He was being pulled out of the cadet program.
He staggered back. Then he turned to transport.
“Joseph, don’t do it,” she said, her tone strangely empty. There was no threat there because likely there didn’t need to be.
Joseph might be powerful. On paper. But there was what you could actually produce, and then what circumstances allowed you to do.
“I’m not just gonna stand here and watch the Academy go to hell.”
“No. As you will not stand alone. You should not have told Sally those things,” she repeated.
“You can think what you want about Sally, but you’re wrong.”
“What exactly do I think about her?”
“She’s a goddess. She’s somehow in on this. She’s not.”
“And how can you be so sure of that, Joseph?”
He opened his mouth. He was readying hundreds of automatic responses. They wouldn’t come. There was a block in his mind. It wanted him to repeat, over and over again until his tongue fell out and his teeth rotted that Sally was just Sally.
Sally Winters was just Sally Winters, dammit, and that would never change.
He clutched a hand into a tight fist. He didn’t really have to control his subspace energy around Forest, but he also couldn’t allow it to erupt over him. She really would think he’d snapped, and she’d knock him out.
When he woke… her trust would leave for good.
He locked a hand over his face. He used his fingers as a prison for his eyes. Maybe if he shut down the outside world, everything would go back to normal. It didn’t. It still looked equally as twisted.
“It’s my belief that the Scarax Galaxy assets will move soon.”
“You mean Carlisle, right?”
Forest didn’t move.
“Look, Lara, I’m… sorry,” he forced himself to say. “But—”
“You’re being targeted.” She crossed her arms.
“I believe those psychic sprites were after you,” she said. “Which means the Scarax Galaxy assets out there know you’re a spacer.”
“Isn’t that a leap?”
“No. I’m certain they know you’re a spacer.”
“And you’re certain it’s Sally?”
Again, she kept a stony expression. You didn’t want to play poker with Lara. You’d end up with no money whatsoever and no clue what happened.
“You just need to trust, Joseph.”
“Who? The Academy? Yesterday, I broke up a fight. Jerry was gonna drag Sally out of the Academy. The cadets knew what was happening. Some lieutenant came. Instead of doing anything, Sally is going to get a disciplinary meeting and Jerry walks free?”
“Trust that we will all work together when it matters most,” Lara said unequivocally.
“Maybe I don’t want trust,” he roared. “Maybe I want certainty.”
Lara didn’t flinch. “Don’t be a child. Certainty doesn’t exist. Trust is all you get. Take it, Joseph Lance, or leave it.” There was a threat in her words, all right.
Joseph had one more chance to pull his head in.
Pulling his hands into fists, he looked down at the floor.
One by one, he tried to remind himself of everything that mattered in his life. Every sacrifice, every lesson, every battle – all of it. They streamed past his psyche quickly, like sparks fluttering in a dark night.
Once upon a time, they’d meant everything to him. And they still did. But something else was starting to rise in Joseph’s life like a flare.
He was reminded of his dreams again. Reminded of them far more powerfully than of the rest of the memories he’d just recalled put together. Their combined force had the sheer lift to pull him up into the air. Literally. This was not the equivalent of blasting through a door, porting out of here, or pulling his sword on Forest. It was still evidence he couldn’t control himself. Which was just as bad, right?
“Joseph, Sally has disrupted your mind.”
“Are you certain of that, Admiral?” His voice was strangely even for a man who was currently floating because he couldn’t control the emotions raging through him. He’d spent most of the morning being chased by E Club as they’d told him he had one more chance.
Now he was giving that same chance to Forest.
It was far too late for him to pull his head in now. His anger had finally reached a point that could not be backed down from.
Forest clasped her hands behind her back. “Lieutenant—”
“This is not the bit where you remind me I’m a lieutenant. Forest, this is the bit where you tell me you can see what’s going on with the Academy. Anna is a powerful psychic employed by you. But tell me this – why is it easier to believe her over one of your cadets?”
“I’ve known her longer,” Forest said automatically.
What exactly was Joseph going to do if he didn’t like her answer? Port out of here, find Sally, and… kidnap her? She’d made it clear that she needed to stick by the Academy. He had no clue why, but he just knew that if he found her, she wouldn’t come, even if he spilled his every secret. Which told him what exactly? That Joseph already knew that if he revealed who he was to her, it would change nothing? The rest of the Academy would be terrified and awed if they found out that they had an actual spacer amongst their flock. Sally? He didn’t want to suggest that she already knew what he was, but….
He made the foolish mistake of clutching the side of his head.
Forest let a tense breath out of her nostrils and bared her teeth. “You’re in too deep.”
“So this is where you pull me out of the Academy, ha? This is where you get me away from the cadets, lock me up in some room somewhere, and finally realize that our great experiment was destined to fail? I’m too damn broken on the inside to be able to fit in with the actual Coalition, aren’t I?” he spat, bile rising through his throat with every snapped word. All he could do was think of his memories from Faxan A. They practically rolled around in his head like lightning. They would destroy anything they touched, further undermining his already shaky stability.
“You’re not broken, Joseph.”
“So my mind’s actually fine, then? You agree that Sally did nothing to me?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“So what do we do from here, Forest?” If she thought he was submitting, he wasn’t. His tone was… unreadable. Not a good thing. It meant simultaneously both he and Forest had no clue what he was going to do next, and that was as bad as it sounded.
Joseph couldn’t… it was more than the fact that he was loyal to Sally, more than the fact that every time someone asked what she was, he answered automatically. He just knew, on some deep level no one could undermine, Sally Winters was good.
She wasn’t responsible for all of this… or at least she hadn’t done anything knowingly, or….
She was… God, she was just Sally Winters.
He sighed as he filled in that question automatically again.
“What happens next is up to you, Joseph. You’re the best judge of your behavior. A fact I have attempted to teach you over the last five years. One of the benefits of making you public – or at least allowing you to enroll in the Academy visibly, though your secret remains hidden – is for you to learn to control yourself on your own.”
“And that’s working, is it?” He chuckled as he gestured to himself. He was still floating. He could stop, but he didn’t want to. Do that, start to use his precious depleting mental energy to control himself, and he’d lose it, transport out of here, and do God knows what.
“You’ve had five years as a cadet without an incident.”
“I’ve had five years where I’ve never had this kind of motivation before,” he snapped.
Forest didn’t look pleased by that. She wasn’t apoplectic, either. “I return to my original point. What happens next is up to you.”
His brow scrunched. “You won’t… kick me off the program?”
“It would be better for everybody if you remained as a visible cadet for now.”
“But you said Sally,” he clenched his teeth, “no, the Scarax assets out there,” he said clearly, “know who I am?”
Forest shrugged. “It’s highly likely. But they haven’t been able to do anything to you yet, have they?”
“What if they reveal my identity?”
She shrugged once more. It was very clear from the little effort she put into the move that possibility was unimportant to her.
Okay, Joseph got it. One day the Academy would learn that he was a spacer. Not today. Not like this. When it happened, he wanted to be in control of the process. He needed to be certain that in revealing who he was, he wouldn’t lose his every friend.
That assumed he had any, right?
Everything with E Club had shaken him to the core. It confirmed that no matter how hard he tried, he’d never really know the mind of a soft-fleshed race. “But—”
“Do not overthink it, Joseph. If you are revealed, you are revealed, and we take it from there. If you aren’t, then we will continue as things are.”
“For how long?”
“Until the Scarax attacks again. You know that equation. The rest of the cadets might have forgotten what’s afoot, but you would never forget.” There was a touch of pride brightening her cheeks as she said that.
Joseph had convinced himself that Forest would never feel prideful over him again. He was certain all the trust he’d earned over the years had been destroyed by his uncontrollable rage. But it was still there, softly burning in her eyes like a few coals surviving in an otherwise cold hearth.
He straightened, just slightly, just enough to be reminded of the fact he had a spine. “What about Sally?”
“She will be left to me,” Forest said unequivocally.
Joseph twitched. This right here was the real test. He didn’t know if he could pass it. “She—”
“I told you to trust me, Joseph.”
“Sally is being set up—”
“Trust,” she said, voice ringing from her throat and echoing around the room, “is the one commodity that the Scarax Galaxy does not have. They demand loyalty through blood. They create it by killing off the people who won’t give it. We,” her voice somehow rang even louder, “freely give it.”
This was one hell of a damn test. Joseph’s feet touched the ground again, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like he was careening through the galaxy, headfirst. There had to be comets and colorful nebulae flashing past his head, because it was the only thing that could account for the fact his skull felt like it wanted to explode.
He owed Sally. Owed her something big. Somehow he’d unconsciously figured out his connection to her over the past several days. Now he knew who she was… he couldn’t see her wait around for him only to fall again.
“I’m only going to ask you to trust me one last time,” Forest warned.
Joseph ground his hands into fists. No more leaking subspace energy. No more floating. Just this. And even it didn’t last. With a hard, shuddering sigh that felt as if he’d swallowed scalpels that were shredding his lungs, he opened each finger. He let them flop by his legs. He took a step back. “Where do you want me?”
“Back in classes.”
He opened his mouth to ask about Sally. He stopped. She wasn’t going to tell him.
This was it. Time to trust Forest, apparently. She’d better do the right thing, or Joseph would do it instead.
As everything else went to hell around him, he knew one thing. He would not let Sally fall again, no matter where he had to follow her to save her.