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.
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.
“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.