“Look, Sally… please, you can’t do this. You need to stay. Everything is riding on you,” Joseph screamed. Spittle flew out of his lips. His body shook as if somebody had shoved it inside a dying engine. “Sally?” He locked his hands on the now broken perimeter fence around the top of the accommodation block. He thrust forward, and it rattled dangerously.
Above him, the wild storm raged. Blasts of lightning shot from cloud to cloud, illuminating the darkened Academy and city beyond.
“Please, Sally, you’ve got to come back. We can’t do this alone. And you… you can’t do it alone.” Those words slipped out of his lips. They had no business being said.
Sally? What exactly couldn’t she do? And why the heck would she need someone like him?
She inclined her head around. She right now stood on nothing more than a telekinetic brick. It was a device one could use, with a specialized implant, to pretty much do as the mind wanted. You could wield it as a weapon or as a building block. Right now, Sally simply stood on it as the storm raged around her.
She looked as if she floated there, only the base of the brick glimmering with every new flash of lightning that arced through the heavens wildly.
Her hair whipped around her. It cascaded over her cheeks, practically throttled her shoulders. His uniform might be torn – hers was pristine. As for her expression? Cold as the furthest depths of starless space.
“Sally, please. Stay with the Academy.” Joseph could have ported beside her, but he knew there was no point. He crumpled down to one knee and crunched against the rubble beneath him. He grabbed the warped remnants of the perimeter fence. One section suddenly fell away. He had to jerk back. Without a blast of subspace particles, he would’ve tumbled down the side of the building.
Sally continued to stare at him. Then she turned. With two fingers, she twisted her hand in a circle. A gate appeared behind her. Joseph’s subspace particles reacted. This rush of energy tore over him. It started in his feet then raged all the way up to his head. It was like his skin had been recast and made out of fire.
He staggered back and dropped to his knees again. It was just as force blasted out from the gate. It whipped Sally’s already chaotic hair faster over her face. It even tore her sleeve. It fluttered past Joseph. He was defeated, but he still snatched a hand out and caught it fast. Securing it between two sweaty, shaking fingers, he tilted his head up again. It felt like he was fighting against inevitability here. What the hell did he have that could work against Sally damn Winters?
“Please, Sally, just… stay. For us.”
“I cannot stay. The King is coming. I will meet him. And I will destroy him.”
“Then you’ll destroy yourself.”
Joseph Lance woke.
It was violent.
He was usually relatively good at separating what was a dream from reality. Because most of the time, he only dreamed of the past. For six months, however, this dream had repeated, going around and around in his head as if someone was tying him up.
He thrust forward so hard, he actually started floating. He also rammed his bed against the wall behind him.
Joseph had a roommate. It had been his idea. Forest wanted to give him his own room. It wasn’t that unheard of, but it was pretty unusual for a cadet to bunk alone. But when Joseph had decided to become a recruit, he’d wanted to be as normal as possible. He’d wanted to taste what it felt like to grow up without the kind of history he did and without the kind of power. Hence the roommate and the beep at his door now.
“You okay in there?” someone demanded over his intercom. It was James, his flatmate.
Joseph secured a hand on the back of his neck. It was slick with sweat. It slid underneath his fingers and marched down his shirt.
He pushed up. He knew from experience that if he didn’t answer, James would just keep calling. And considering he was just about to graduate as a security officer, he was pretty dogged.
Joseph jammed his still shuddering thumb into the intercom button. “Fell over.”
“I tripped into my bed. The damn thing thumped against the wall.”
“You need to go to the med bay?”
“Sure, if they can do anything for my bruised ego,” Joseph said, somehow smoothly slipping into a charming jokester. It was a persona he’d shrugged into not too soon after joining the Academy. It had been such a debilitating experience the first few days. He hadn’t known how to fit in. Until he’d realized to fit in you had to make space for yourself. You had to be the biggest, loudest, most fun person out there. Then nobody would pry into your secrets.
James grunted. “Anyway, I’ll be on my way soon. You should get going too. I heard your class has got a combat test today. Good luck.” He said that with all seriousness.
Joseph was only middling at combat. Or at least, that’s what he had to make his teachers believe.
If he cracked out a subspace blade and sliced through his resistance, his secret would be out for good.
“Thanks, man. I’ll do my best. See you tonight.”
Jeff signed off.
Joseph turned, slumped against the door, grabbed his mouth, and pressed his lips together as if he was trying to extrude the truth from them.
He might’ve had that dream countless times for months, but he couldn’t remember who it was about anymore. He knew that in the dream, whilst he experienced it, he screamed some cadet’s name. Who? What did she look like? He remembered whipping hair – and some sleeve. But that was it. Every other detail was lost upon waking.
Rounding a hand into a tight, bloodless fist that would remain even after the rest of him died, he smashed it hard against the door. He didn’t even use an ounce of his true force. Do that, and the door would eject backward, fly through the main room, and embed in the wall in a sea of jittering sparks.
Joseph had to shrug this off. He also had to get to class, but he needed to see Admiral Forest first.
He quickly dressed. A long mirror stood near his window, and he got distracted looking at his reflection.
Joseph knew he was relatively handsome. He didn’t know if he’d been destined to be that way and how much had been genetic manipulation from Deus.
Deus had initially intended Joseph as an espionage tool. His goal had been to use Joseph against the very Coalition he now served.
As Joseph leaned down and grabbed his wrist device – a communication hub and personal computer that every cadet had to wear – he stared at his reflection again.
His lips almost moved, almost screamed that name, but just at the last moment, it slipped out of his psyche.
“Dammit,” he snarled. As soon as his wrist device was in place, Joseph transported without further ado. He could do that, see. Other people required technology to transport – sophisticated devices and a heck of a lot of energy. Joseph, on the other hand, could do it at will.
He appeared down in the basement levels of the command building. This was where all the true decisions about the Scarax war occurred.
Joseph had to be careful when he was transporting blind – that was to somewhere he couldn’t directly see – not to appear within people. So there was a general agreement that when he came down to the basement levels, he would appear in a storage room. He did so, halfway up toward the ceiling. He hovered there for a few seconds, snarled, “Dammit,” again, then floated down to the floor. His simple boots slapped against the polished smart concrete, and he half sprinted over to the door. It opened at his approach. He pushed into a corridor, just in front of Forest’s chief medical officer, Jerome Cooper.
The guy was holding an arm full of datapads. He jerked back. “Don’t you ever warn us that you’re coming?”
Joseph shrugged. Then, still managing to run even as he turned backward, he snapped a salute. “I keep you on your toes.”
Jerome laughed. “You don’t know what that means. You can fly.”
He soon made it to Admiral Forest’s office.
He walked past several engineers retrofitting some new system. Fair enough. The last office had literally been torn apart. It had utilized Ares Tech. That company had single-handedly almost seen the Coalition fall six months ago.
Despite the fact her office was still being remade, Admiral Forest sat resolutely behind her desk as people worked around her like a hive of bees.
She didn’t even look up as Joseph stopped in front of her.
“I would’ve assumed you would have come earlier. Were you sleeping in, Joseph?”
This was where Joseph needed to make some joke. That’s what people expected from him. He took little seriously. But his lip twitched. He thought of the dream. What the hell was the cadet’s name?
Was… she the Queen?
How could that be? From what they knew, the Queen was a virus of the mind. But… while everything else slipped into the background, he could recall the emotional content of that dream. Whoever she’d been, Joseph hadn’t wanted her to leave.
He shook his head. “What do you want me to do?”
He might’ve tried to fob her comment off, but Admiral Forest never let anything go. She shot him a sharp look. Clearly whatever she wished to discuss, however, was far more important. She grabbed something from her desk. It was a datapad. Though she could just remotely send her information to Joseph’s wrist device, sometimes you didn’t want data trails. The pad she held couldn’t be hacked. By anything. She chucked it at him. He caught it, twisted it around, and started reading. His eyebrows practically shot from his face.
“Yes,” she said as she leaned back. “Current intelligence suggests that we have a god undercover at the Academy,” she summarized.
Joseph’s heart pounded hard. All he could do was recall the fight for the Academy. Gods were… almost damn impossible to fight. If they had engorged themselves on Light, they could do practically anything. Here Lara was telling him there was one on Academy grounds? “We’ve got to—”
“Before you say that we’ve got to do everything to find this god, trust me, I’m already trying.” She leaned forward, and she pressed her pale fingers into her eyelids. If Forest were out and about on the Academy grounds, she would never show weakness. It was a sign of trust that she did it in front of him. He wouldn’t hold it against her.
“So what do you need me to do?” Joseph stood straighter.
He was used to impossible orders. He lived for them, in fact. You see, every single time he carried one out, he told himself that all that trauma he’d experienced at Deus’s hands had been worth it after all. Yeah, the brutality had crafted Joseph into a soldier he’d never wanted to be. But at least he could use that power for good.
“It’s gonna be almost impossible to drag them out into the light. Unless we force them to make a mistake,” Lara added.
“What have you got planned?”
“Bait,” she said simply, her voice ringing loud.
Joseph was a pretty astute psychologist. He knew how to read people. Came with the territory.
Right now, Forest was about to ask something big.
“We do not believe that the gods have figured out who you are. You were masked at all times while you fought them.”
“So… what are you asking me to do, Admiral? Advertise who I am and see who comes knocking?”
“Not exactly?” He arched an eyebrow.
“We’re going to start leaking information about you.”
“Who to? Galactic news?”
“Through the Academy. Cadets, teaching staff – everyone. We want the undercover god to think we’ve got something special. Then we’ll see who comes biting on the bait.”
“What if they actually find out who I am?”
She shrugged. “Everyone will find out who you are sooner rather than later, Joseph. As soon as you actually join a Coalition ship, your identity will likely be revealed.”
“Depends whether we are at war or not. But it ultimately depends on you. You can continue as an espionage agent if that is what you want. I simply always got the impression that one of these days, you’ll want to shrug off your secret identity and show people who you really are.”
Joseph wasn’t ready for an emotional conversation. The dream kept repeating in his head, smashing into his cerebellum like a stone rolling down through a garden. But was Forest right? Maybe. He didn’t know anymore. It would be nice not to hide behind a mask. It would be nice for people to know who he was. But then… people would know who he was. It was a double-edged sword. They’d understand his story. But they’d also know he’d been grown for one specific task. Forest and her officers could put Joseph in context. They’d dealt with other spacers before. They knew that Joseph wasn’t a risk. Some fresh-faced recruit wouldn’t have that kind of wisdom, and they’d fear him.
Forest watched him and likely knew exactly what he was thinking, but she didn’t push. “We’re going to start to leak the information now.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Keep an eye out. We’re going to reveal that a fifth-year recruit is a spacer. I want you to watch how all of the other officers interact with your classmates.”
Joseph grabbed his chin, shoving his fingers in hard. It was both at the complexities of this plan and one last-ditch effort to thrust away his nightmare. “Is that such a good idea? What if you put the students in danger?”
“War is dangerous, and unless we do this, the god amongst our ranks will turn on us when we least expect it.”
She had a point.
“That said, if you ever believe that one of your classmates is in danger, act to save them.”
Joseph actually snapped a salute. It wasn’t necessary. He did that sometimes, though – got carried away by the moment. Act to save someone? Those weren’t words he would’ve ever heard on Deus’s ship.
“I’ll also be giving you another mission. Later in the day, though. Don’t you have an important combat test today?”
Joseph laughed. “I think I might fail,” he said jovially.
“Pass, but do so at the bottom of your class. From now on, you must ensure no one suspects that you’re the spacer.”
He nodded. With a deep breath, he shrugged toward the door. “Will that be all?”
“It’s up to you if you want to try again,” she said abruptly.
“What, Admiral?” The words were out of his lips, but his mind caught up a second later. This was about those psychic regressions. He tried to hold on to his expression, practically grabbed it with his mind as if he was going to hustle it behind a door to hide it, but he was too late.
Lara stood slowly. She’d sat for this entire conversation. She stood when things were important. Everything they had discussed had been life-threatening. Apparently this, however, trumped that. “It’s up to you, Joseph. I doubt that we can find any useful information. Anna has a different opinion. She’s the psychic, so maybe I should trust her. But understand ultimately that we are up against—”
“The Queen,” Joseph interrupted. There was no point. They both knew who they were talking about. Maybe Joseph just wanted to pretend he was in control of the conversation. Or… it was the tingle he could still feel rushing through him from his dream. If he closed his eyes, he’d likely thrust a hand out as if that floating cadet was just above him.
“There is a part of me that believes that no matter what we do, we will not be able to find her. She will either reveal herself when she wants to, or she won’t. There’s a possibility she’s already left.”
“You don’t believe that, do you, Admiral?”
Her cheeks twitched. You’d have to know her – and you’d have to be watching her like a hawk. Joseph saw it, all right.
It told him what he already knew. Lara was certain the Queen was still around.
The question was why? More than that, why had the Queen stolen the Coalition’s crystals but helped them survive the Scarax invasion? What was the Queen’s ultimate game?
“You need to head to your combat class now, Joseph. Good luck. But not too much luck,” she added. “Bottom of your class,” she reiterated firmly.
Joseph snapped a salute. “Bottom of my class,” he repeated. Then he ported away.
He had a mission. Good. Because that’s all Joseph lived for.