The only thing he’d learned in psychic defense class, other than the fact that Sally had finally snapped, was that he couldn’t get his dreams out of his head.
The word Layra specifically repeated over and over again.
It haunted him as he ported in to see the admiral after classes stopped.
He marched toward her office. Her door was open.
She was waiting for him. “We’ve had another development.”
“What is it, Admiral?”
“We believe we might have a clue as to who the god is.”
Joseph stiffened. He straightened as quick as he possibly could. “Who? Where? I can head there right now.”
“Not so fast, Joseph.”
“Because it’s still only a suspicion.”
“How did you come across it?”
“It was Anna. She tipped us off. She felt a strong mind in the corridors.”
For the slightest moment, Joseph thought Forest would say Sally. But he laughed it off. Literally.
It was not the reaction Admiral Forest expected. She frowned hard. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry, that was really inappropriate, Admiral. It’s just… something that happened in class today.”
“Ignore it. The god is Carlisle.”
Joseph heard the name and processed it, but then three seconds later frowned. “As in the combat teacher?”
“Anna is convinced he is sporting a psyche far more powerful than he should have.”
“Right, but… I didn’t feel anything.”
Forest stared at him evenly. “You are a powerful being, Joseph, but—”
“I’m not psychic. Yeah… it’s just….” What? He was gonna go against Anna? Okay… maybe she’d been a little inappropriate today, but she was still an incredible psychic. And if she said Carlisle was the god, then he had to be, right? “What do we do?”
“Watch him. He’s got to make a mistake soon.”
“Right. We have a combat simulation tomorrow. I’ll watch him like a hawk. But… what if it’s not him?”
“I trust Anna, but I concede that this is a complex situation. We must also be prepared for the fact that there is more than one god. Continue to survey all the Academy. Do not do so from a distance, though. It’s time to be social, Joseph. There’s an E Club gathering at Brady’s Pub tonight. Head to it. There will be a number of officers going along. It will be the perfect place to simply kick back and watch.”
He shrugged. He preferred it when he was up above the city, watching from a distance. But he supposed he could hang out and work at the same time.
“Carlisle will be there too.”
“Right. I’ll do my best.” Joseph turned to leave.
“One more thing.”
He paused. It had to be about Sally. Forest would kick her out, right? He’d been all for it today, but now… god, he didn’t know.
“Look, I don’t honestly know why she behaves like that. I guess it’s stress. We’re all stressed, right? Some people choose to manifest it differently. She does need help, but… I think kicking her out is the wrong move.”
Forest simply looked at him. “Who are you talking about?”
Crap. This wasn’t about Sally, after all. He straightened. “Never mind.”
“It’s about your regression,” Forest stated.
Joseph’s stomach clenched. “Right. Of course it is. You want me to head back in. You think there’s more I can find.”
Forest sighed. It was a heavy move. It pushed her shoulders up and out. It was honestly as if she was trying to grow wings. Even if she did, it wasn’t as if she could get away from this horror. Nobody could. “This is not something I want to say, and I don’t want to pressure you, but—”
“We’re not finding any other information about the Queen. My memory of her is all we’ve got.”
“Indeed. After the E Club function, head back to Anna. She’ll be waiting for you.”
“Long night then? I guess it means I won’t be forced to endure my dreams.” It was meant to be a throwaway comment.
But Forest took every single thing someone said literally. She frowned. “What do you mean? Are you having flashbacks of Deus?”
Joseph’s cheeks stiffened. He tried to hide it, he honestly did, but there was no masking the tension that wrapped around his shoulders and pushed into his jaw.
He paused, ready to tell the admiral that he’d been dreaming of the Queen, and the dreams had been… weird and full of an emotional connection he simply should not have. But he shrugged it off. “Yeah,” he lied, wincing as he did, “it’s Deus. I guess… maybe it’s an aftereffect of all that regression?”
“It shouldn’t be. Mention it to Anna. She’ll be able to walk you through some steps to banish them.”
Yeah. Sure, banish his dreams. That’s what he should do. He should keep them locked up in his chest so nobody could ever use them against him.
At that thought, Sally’s steely gaze and hard words returned.
If you truly wanted to defend against somebody attacking your mind, you used your weakest memory as a trap, not as something you had to keep blocked off.
You, by definition, had survived your greatest trauma – they hadn’t.
He shook his head again. He snapped a salute. “I guess it’s time to head to a party for the Coalition’s sake.”
Forest chuckled. “Don’t have too much fun. But do find our god.”
He ported away.
The whole time he’d been speaking to Forest, that name had been repeating in his head. He hadn’t said it to her for obvious reasons. Now as he arrived out on the running track, inside a storage room, he let it slip off his lips. “Layra.”
Was it just him… or did things shudder around him as he said that? Almost as if that name, whatever it was, had inherent power? He whispered it again a few times as he made it off the running track and sprinted back to the accommodation block.
He got dressed and headed out to the town.
It was just as things started getting dark. There were a lot of cadets out, officers too. It was a great night for it. A little cold and breezy, but still pleasant as he huddled into his jacket. Not, of course, that he felt the cold. But Joseph Lance would do anything to fit in.
He saw cadets excitedly chatting amongst themselves. He smiled until he tuned in to what they were saying.
The war. It was all about the upcoming battle for everything.
Sometimes he’d come across the occasional cadet who was talking about something else – some new tryst amongst classmates or equally salacious gossip. But then it would come back to the war.
How could he expect their minds to go anywhere else? They were all just paused. Their lives, futures – everything was paused. Statistically speaking, some of these cadets would die. Maybe even all of them would.
And they knew that on some level.
Even though Joseph didn’t need to, he now shuddered into his collar.
He walked toward Brady’s.
It was in part of the old section of town. The architecture, with a few modern improvements, was hundreds of years old. The street wasn’t even modified smart concrete. It was honest to god cobbles.
He felt them pushing up against his standard boots as he walked on through.
There were a few park benches dotted around and some beautiful old elms above them.
There was one right out the front of Brady’s. And sitting in it? Was Sally.
Her hands were on her knees, and she stared forward. She… wasn’t doing anything. She wasn’t playing on her wrist device. She just looked like she was waiting for somebody.
Other cadets were passing her. “No one’s going to come to see you,” one of them said cruelly.
“What? Waiting for a date to manifest out of the clouds? Fat chance.”
They spoke, but she didn’t even register them.
Her sharp gaze was locked forward almost as if she expected some kind of enemy to rise up out of the cracks in the street.
She paid so little attention that Joseph stopped right in front of her, and she didn’t swivel her gaze over to him once.
His hands were in the pockets of his jacket. They slowly clenched into fists. If he’d been self-aware, he would’ve realized it wasn’t out of aggression. His palms itched with nerves.
“Can I help you, Lieutenant?”
Joseph took nothing of that comment. Yeah, he was technically a lieutenant, but she just wasn’t paying attention. She hadn’t looked at him. She’d assumed he was someone else. He cleared his throat again. “Not a lieutenant yet. And yeah, you can help me. What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting on a park bench and staring out into the city. Why?”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you.”
“Irrelevant,” she said in this… tone. He… couldn’t describe it. Dammit, because when it came to describing anything about Sally, he always drew a mental blank. That made him even more irritated than he already was. “People are trying to have a good time.”
“Me sitting on a park bench and staring into space without talking to them is preventing them from having a good time, is it? Perhaps they should try harder.”
He gritted his teeth. “Look, Sally—”
She saw something. And he knew the moment she saw something because her eyes sharpened. Her pupils didn’t dilate. The skin around her cheeks remained exactly as tense as it had been before. He just… felt this wave of something.
Sally pushed to her feet. Without looking at him once or acknowledging the fact they were technically still having a conversation, she walked away.
He went to push after her, but he heard a chuckle behind him.
“It’s unlike you to come to one of these events,” James, his flatmate, chuckled. He was arm in arm with his girlfriend, Serena.
She wasn’t paying any attention to Joseph. Her head was turned all the way around as she tracked Sally. “Oh my god. I’m so relieved. Do you think she was actually going to attend? I mean, I know it’s an open invitation, but—”
“I guess she can attend if she wants,” James said. He didn’t know Sally. He’d probably heard of her, though.
Serena rolled her eyes. “She’s the one from combat class.”
“You mean the one who turned around and shot a Barbarian warrior in two seconds without looking at the guy? That’s her?” James sounded impressed. He craned his neck to get a better look at her.
“She got lucky,” Serena said, exasperation clear.
Joseph opened his mouth to agree, even though it wasn’t true.
James frowned at the both of them. “You mean, without looking at the guy, she identified he was a Barbarian, recognized he had a gun, and shot him, all before anyone else could even react? Sure that’s luck?”
Serena yanked her arm back. “Yeah, it’s luck. You don’t understand. She’s useless.”
James suddenly realized he’d crossed a line. He opened his hands. “Sorry. I don’t know her. I clearly have no clue what’s going on.” He knew not to put any sarcasm in his voice. He was in the security stream of the Academy, and he was a damn good candidate. He’d make a great officer when he graduated. He knew that you didn’t get lucky in combat. He also knew that Serena was on the warpath, though.
She locked her hands on her hips. “She should just quit.”
“She said she needs to stay here,” Joseph found himself muttering.
“I wonder why. It’s not to protect us. Where does she get off on acting so arrogant? You were there in psychic defense class, right? What the hell was all of that stuff about a weak moment being a weapon? I hope like hell she finally gets kicked out for that. That poor Anna.”
Joseph opened his mouth to agree. But….
“Maybe we should just go inside?” James said diplomatically. He slowly inched closer to Serena. He put himself deliberately between her and where Sally had walked off.
Serena finally huffed. “Right. Whatever. Let’s not let her ruin this night like she ruins everything else.”
Yeah, Joseph agreed. But… did Sally really ruin that much? She kept to herself. And while she’d upset a lot of E Club by coming at the top of the class in the combat exam, even if she hadn’t gotten the best overall points, they needed to get over that. At some point, their little club of elites would have to join the real world.
Joseph clearly didn’t breathe a word of this.
He walked into the pub. It was pumping.
He had to go through a little side door and come around the edge of the bar. There were tables everywhere. Cadets streamed through the joint, drinks in their hands as they chatted amongst themselves. There were also officers at tables, every single seat taken.
That meant there were a lot of people to surveille.
He recognized some officers, and they recognized him, but they didn’t look at him once. They knew that when Joseph was in his cadet uniform, they treated him like every other cadet.
“What kind of drink do you want?” James asked quickly.
“I think I have a – oh my god,” Serena hissed. She became tense and rolled her eyes in that specific way that meant one person had walked in.
Joseph didn’t need to turn. He could see it on the face of every recruit – some of the staff too.
Sally had arrived.
She marched right around the bar, not caring that everybody became silent and shot her death glares. Even the officers that didn’t know her clearly recognized something was up because the cacophony had reduced.
Sally twisted her head around. She had that sharp look back in her eyes. What the heck was she looking for?
She shifted right past Joseph.
She didn’t look at him once.
She went to walk around the tables, but Serena stopped right in front of her. “Really? You think you belong here?” she whispered. The thing about being quiet in a deadly quiet room is everyone can hear your voice anyway.
“Nobody belongs anywhere ultimately. We always have to fight for our position,” Sally muttered.
“Here we go again. And where did you gather that wisdom?”
“From millions of lost minds,” Sally answered. She wasn’t paying any attention. Usually when people were distracted, they let the truth slip. This was the furthest thing from it.
Those officers who didn’t know Sally shot each other looks.
“Maybe you should just turn around and leave—”
“And try to save the world,” Sally said.
He should be enjoying this. He couldn’t. He was so aware of the way that everybody stared at her.
She was just… the lowest of the low. But she still didn’t care.
She went to shift past Serena.
Serena got in her way again. Other members of the E Club rose, too. And there was Jerry. “You got lucky during the combat exam. What, you here to rub that in our faces now? Let’s face it, you’re not Academy material.”
“That’s great – I don’t want to be Academy material.”
“So you agree that this is a waste of everybody’s time? Quit—”
“Your E Club doesn’t exist in space,” she said flatly. Everybody else’s voices were loud. Hers was quiet. Yet it had so much more force. It made the hair along Joseph’s arms stand on end. “The best of the best is irrelevant when you face your enemies. Every grade you’ve ever achieved can be swept away if you are not quick enough to notice a gun up against your head. Enjoy your drinks. Enjoy your attitudes. Enjoy your elitism. But whatever you do, remember this – there are no second chances when you are at war. Nobody will allow you to reset your exam if you don’t agree with the result. You will just die and take others with you.” With that, dropping that like a bombshell, despite the fact she had not lifted her voice once, she walked deliberately around Serena.
Joseph… damn, he couldn’t even move. His eyes were wide enough that he saw a lot of the other people in the room anyway. The cadets looked livid. A lot of the officers – the real ones who didn’t teach but were only here on stop-offs as they actively fought the real war – looked as if they agreed with her. One or two captains kind of looked impressed. What she’d said, after all, was absolutely right. You couldn’t reset an exam in space. If you got something wrong because you didn’t act quickly enough – you died. And usually, you’d get other people killed, too. But E Club couldn’t see that.
Jerry turned swiftly on his foot. Aggression burnt through him. It was in his expression, in his every snapped move. He looked like he was gonna follow Sally out back and make his point – with his fist.
He turned, but Joseph grabbed his shoulder. He used a little more energy than he should.
Jerry tried to shrug him off, but he couldn’t.
“You should probably just let it go,” Joseph said.
All eyes were on him. Yep, he was the class clown. He wasn’t someone who would ever get involved in something like this.
“Get the hell off me, Lance. She needs—”
“What?” Joseph said, letting his voice drop, ensuring that whatever Jerry said next would be heard by teachers and captains.
“She needs to wake up and realize that she’s putting the rest of us in danger. When the Scarax Galaxy—”
“Okay, buddy,” James said, stopping on Jerry’s other side, “why don’t we all just have a drink?”
James shot Joseph a specific look.
James was astute. He had no clue what Joseph was, but maybe he realized right now that there was a place that Joseph would rather be. He arched his head toward Sally, and the look in his eyes said that he had this.
Joseph nodded once. He broke away.
The rest of E Club erupted. They sounded as if they’d been wronged – mortally wounded in fact.
James kept them occupied as Joseph slipped out the back.
Sally was gone.
It hadn’t been that long. She wasn’t fast, but she was well and truly out of sight.
So Joseph needed to let this go, right? In fact, he had to. His mission was back there in that bar.
But he couldn’t.
She’d be hurting, right? All of this had to be an act. You couldn’t be attacked like that by pretty much your entire class and peer group and not feel something.
Joseph stood to the side of the alley. There was no one around.
The old section of the city was a warren. He could run for a long time and never find her. There was one guaranteed way to do it, though.
“I should definitely not be doing this,” he muttered to himself.
His subspace mask activated. Then he immediately rose off his feet. He ported right to the top of the pub, keeping low.
He swept his gaze over the city.
There was a balcony just below him, and officers were down there chatting.
“Who was that cadet? Smartest thing I’ve ever heard a recruit say.”
Joseph’s lip twitched. It almost curled into a smile.
But he couldn’t enjoy it. Sally was wasting his time, dammit. But…. He finally saw her. There, making her way down a laneway 300 meters away. She was walking fast, too.
She’d be running home, right? Maybe he should just let it go. He should definitely just let it go – but—
“Screw this,” he muttered to himself, not letting his voice carry down to the balcony below. He transported again.
He ascertained that there was nobody at the back of the alley near Sally. He appeared, dropped his cloak and mask, and ran.
He’d find Sally. And Joseph Lance… would go from there.