It was night already.
He’d… actually gone to classes. And it had been one of the most mind-bending experiences of his life. E Club still went after his throat. He didn’t even notice. It was like he was on another planet. To be fair, he was. He was back on Faxan A, back in those cool caves, back in its wild woods, and back there with a young Sally Winters.
The whole day, he tried to extract her name from his mind. He couldn’t.
It’d been supplanted by Deus’s training, the Academy – everything that had come afterward.
Now Joseph found himself striding back to his room. Forest would likely call on him. Though maybe not. Maybe she figured he needed one night off. If they could afford it.
He tried to keep his head down. He couldn’t.
All the cadets talked about the fact Sally had been taken to the brig.
He reached the base of the accommodation block.
He walked wordlessly, in a damn daze, up to one of the elevators. Some E Club guy heckled him.
Joseph didn’t even look at him.
When the guy grabbed Joseph’s arm, Joseph carelessly flicked him off. He used a little too much power, and the guy slid down to his ass.
The elevator opened.
Joseph walked in to see James.
When the E Club guy shot to his feet aggressively, James snarled at him.
The doors sliced closed. James fell back against the metal wall behind him with a clang as if he’d been struck. “What the hell is happening, Joseph? All day… God, it’s like the cadets have snapped.”
Joseph hadn’t bothered inputting his floor yet, and the command panel beeped. He grabbed his face. He rubbed his eyes. He kept rubbing his eyes. He didn’t see stars. It would take a much, much more forceful impact to do that.
“Joseph?” James asked. Fragility cracked through him – he’d clearly had a day from hell. His girlfriend had broken up with him, and likely E Club had turned on him too. All because he’d been stupid enough to associate with Joseph.
Clearly, however, James was a good enough friend to see Joseph hadn’t exactly had the best day either.
“I heard about Sally. Crazy,” James croaked.
Joseph’s fingers froze over his eyes. He pushed in, then pushed in harder.
“Hey—” James began.
The doors opened.
Both of them stiffened, expecting an attack. They didn’t get it. It was Willis. She barreled in. Some guy was heckling her.
“Stop it,” James snarled at him.
Willis moved so fast, she practically skidded into the wall.
“You okay?” James stammered.
“I just want to go back to my room. But they are everywhere. I called security, just like you said,” she stammered as she stared at Joseph with wide eyes. “They don’t seem to care. If I keep calling them, what are they gonna do? Drag me to the brig like Sally?”
Joseph knew this was where he had to wave the Academy’s flag. He had to tell them all to trust each other. While that had worked on him when Forest had said it, how exactly could he use those words right now? James and Willis were having their lives torn out from underneath them. And the people meant to protect them couldn’t be bothered lifting a finger. Why? He had no clue.
He rounded a hand into a fist.
He felt a few sudden charges of subspace energy, but they crackled against his thigh where no one would see.
He kept rounding his hand, though, forcing his fingers hard against his palm. It was almost as if he was waiting for somebody else to reach in and stop him. The only person who ever did that was Sally. And she—
Willis reached forward and inputted the number of her floor. “I know this is a crazy ask, but do you mind taking me to my door?” she stammered.
“Not at all,” James said immediately.
The ride took barely any time.
Joseph expected an E Club army around her door. There was only one person, but it was Serena.
James paled. At the same time, he stiffened and took a hard breath. “Just let her get to her room, Serena,” he tried.
“Don’t talk to me,” she snapped. She stepped close to get to Willis.
Joseph squared off in front of her. He just looked at her… like he didn’t understand her anymore. Like all of the cadets came from another galaxy.
Had they all had their bodies switched? Was this another dimension? Hell, even that couldn’t explain why everything was collapsing around them so fast. Joseph had been in some pretty crazy combat situations. He had a brain that had been bred to follow violence, no matter where it took him. He was still reeling like the world was continually being tugged out from underneath his feet.
“Open up,” Willis commanded her door through trembling, pale lips.
She went to run forward, but Serena got there first. She marched right in.
“Hey, you can’t do that,” Willis tried.
“I’m searching for evidence,” Serena said with the kind of authoritative tone that suggested she was an admiral and they would do exactly as she said.
“Serena, this isn’t your apartment. And what do you mean you’re searching for evidence? For who? You’re a cadet—” James tried.
She sliced her gaze around. It was so forceful, it could’ve smashed right through the walls. Heck, Joseph wondered if it had the power of one of his subspace swords. “So does that mean I can’t do anything? Does that mean I’m powerless to act when the Academy is being stolen out from underneath us?”
“Serena, get out of this apartment now. It doesn’t belong to you. Wake up. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” James tried, getting more exasperated with every breathy syllable.
“Saving us,” she roared. Her voice was unstable, snapped, teetering like someone had pushed her right to the edge.
It softened James’s expression.
But Serena sure as heck wasn’t done yet. She marched right over to Sally’s door.
“She keeps it locked,” Willis stammered.
“Fine,” Serena said. She was an ace engineer. And she proceeded in one move to rip off the control panel on the door. She knew exactly what manual exploit was required to force it open.
Joseph jolted forward. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Evidence. We need evidence,” she said, her voice slightly slurred. Her gaze? Kind of glassy. It was like she wasn’t in control of her actions.
Joseph reached forward to grab her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. And she was strong. He didn’t use his whole force. But he had the ability to gauge how much strength somebody used and how much they had in reserve. Serena’s move didn’t make sense.
James tried to grab her other shoulder. She wrenched it free.
The exploit didn’t take long.
And then… Sally Winters’s doors opened.
Joseph saw them out of the corner of his eye. Right there. Right on her bedside table.
For the last several months, Sally had walked around telling everybody that she had the greatest power in the universe in her room. People had just thought she was mad.
But sitting on… sitting on the table….
Serena bolted forward. She looked as if she’d been ejected from a torpedo chute.
“What the hell are they?” James stammered as he shoved a hand up and staggered back.
Willis couldn’t even move. Her gaze was frozen like somebody had accessed her brain and shut down her senses with a master key.
Serena reached out, her fingers practically stretching with a twang.
Joseph got there first. Twisting around, he grabbed her, locking a hand over her shoulder as he pressed the flat of his arm against her stomach.
He held her in place. Just.
She groped toward the crystals.
The Hendari crystals.
Sally… Sally Winters wasn’t Sally Winters.
He couldn’t…. There was a block in his mind.
He couldn’t…. He saw fingers clicking in his head. Then finally he saw the arm, the shoulder, the neck, and the face.
Sally was the Queen. She was the cadet from his dreams. The one he had to stop from leaving, no matter what. The one who’d already slipped from his hands.
Joseph grabbed the side of his face, screamed, and fell to his knees. It was just as Serena grabbed the crystals.