Yep. This was crazy. On every damn level.
Sally had finally gone quiet.
She was sleeping. For real this time.
Joseph stood back in the main room.
He fielded questions from Willis. She kept making him repeat everything. Fair enough – he couldn’t keep up himself. James just wanted to know about Serena. Joseph didn’t have the information he needed.
All he had was this growing knot in his gut. This had only just begun. Seriously. All those fights, all that raw anguish – it was the beginning.
They had so much further to go yet.
He itched to get on a ship and head straight to Faxan A. What exactly did he think he’d find there? Some convenient note that would explain exactly why the Queen had come to be there? Even if he did, would it actually go any way to explain what happened to her?
He floated. Only occasionally did his feet touch the ground.
Forest was out questioning Ninev. Joseph had no clue what she’d discovered and doubted she’d share everything.
It had been several hours now.
What a letdown. This morning, he’d been fighting off a possessed cadet. Now?
Willis walked over to the matter calibrator in the wall and made some drinks. She wordlessly handed one to James.
He accepted with a crumpled half smile.
James was still cut up about what happened to Serena, and they’d been close, but Willis and James looked good together. They had a certain ease about the way they interacted.
And Joseph was just damn distracting himself.
“I would make you a drink,” Willis said, “but… do you drink? What exactly do you eat?”
“He eats a lot of pies,” James said frivolously. He shrugged and laughed.
How the hell could he manage that? They were on the cusp of the greatest mission the Coalition had ever been on.
Willis laughed. “Really?” She frowned. “Spacers… exist on pies?”
It was her delivery – it finally pulled him out of his problems. Joseph had to laugh. “No. I can eat. I’m half human. I don’t need food, though. Subspace particles sustain me. I just have to keep my connection to them.”
She nodded. She was interested but not freaked out.
He slid his stiff fingers along his jaw. He looked at her from underneath his knitted brows.
“I know that look.” James gestured at him with his drink. “You’re waiting for us to get freaked out, ha? What, do you genuinely think you’re the greatest thing we’ve seen today? Come on, Spacers are old news, man.”
“Old news?” Joseph had to let his fingers drop.
Even Willis had to shrug. “Everyone’s heard of spacers in the Coalition, especially after the Axira incident. Why were you hiding your identity, anyway? Were you spying on us?” Her nose rumpled.
James seemed to like that move. He probably didn’t realize it, but he smiled around his coffee cup as he drank.
“I went on covert missions around the Academy,” Joseph muttered.
“That means you’re not a cadet, ha?” Willis’s eyes brightened.
“I’m technically a lieutenant.”
“Wow. That must be crazy.”
“To have to put up with people like the E Club telling you you’ll never make anything when you’re already a lieutenant and they’re just cadets.”
“It was certainly strange. But….”
“I still know that look,” James said as he gestured at Joseph again. “He’s waiting for us to get freaked out. It’s not going to happen, man. We’ve got way bigger fish to fry.” He turned over his shoulder and once more dutifully looked at the door. Sally had not left her room. And nor had she ported out of there. Joseph was now locking his every sense on it. He’d know the second she snuffled, let alone hightailed it out of here.
“I can’t believe my flatmate was…” Willis clearly couldn’t fill in that statement.
“Yeah, and mine was just a spacer,” James said somewhat disappointedly.
Joseph had to arch an eyebrow. “You guys aren’t taking this seriously enough.”
“Oh, believe you me, we’re taking it as seriously as we can,” James said as he dropped his gaze down to the stained rim of his cup.
Willis shot him a commiserating look then switched her attention back to Joseph. “What do you think will be expected of us when we get to Faxan A?”
Joseph’s jaw stiffened.
“What does that place mean to you, anyway? I heard about what happened in psychic defense class. Apparently you freaked out and muttered about Faxan A after Sally shared some story. Is… is that where you’re originally from?” James placed his cup down carefully.
Joseph didn’t want to have this conversation. He had to, though, didn’t he? It would be part of the mission briefing when they accompanied them on the ship anyway. He gripped his jaw, really sinking his fingers in. You know what else he did? He let a little crackle of power out. He didn’t have to hide it, didn’t have to be ashamed he couldn’t control himself.
And no one said or did anything.
“Yeah, I’m originally from there. I was… picked up from there and taken to Kore space.”
There were no jokes. They both looked on at him compassionately.
Dammit, Joseph had spent so long telling himself that the second anyone found out who he was, they would treat him like a monster. It… shouldn’t be this easy.
He suddenly flopped on a chair.
He only half sat on it. He didn’t let gravity lock him against it. And every few seconds, he floated a little.
Something told him that if he thought this was bad, it was nothing compared to what Sally was going through.
He’d seen every single time she’d looked at him, the question in her eyes wondering why the heck he hadn’t run from her the second he discovered she was the Queen.
“From what we know, Sally… encountered the Queen on Faxan A. We just have to figure out how,” Joseph said.
“Does that mean that she’s just normal underneath?” Willis asked very quietly as she shot a wary look in the direction of the door.
Joseph shoved right up from his seat again. “The Queen isn’t a parasite,” he said by default. Passion rang through his voice.
Willis opened her hands wide. “Sorry, I wasn’t suggesting she was. I just… don’t really understand.”
Joseph started to stalk back and forth again, his hunched shoulders catching the dusk light slicing in through the large windows behind the table.
There was something he had to appreciate, wasn’t there? What he was doing right now, it felt like he’d been influenced.
Joseph couldn’t even put up with the mere suggestion the Queen was a parasite. He trusted her – more than he’d trusted anyone else in his entire life – but not because she’d earned it. Because his damn dreams had told him to.
Maybe those dreams had come from Sally. Heck, they could’ve been given to him by the Observers.
All of this could be fake.
As he thought that, it was like stabbing himself in the heart. He soon slammed a balled-up hand into his leg. Then he did it again.
James knew Joseph well enough to realize that wasn’t a good sign. “Go get some rest.”
There was a sudden slice of light beside James. He didn’t scream. He swiveled protectively in front of Willis. Willis, despite the fact she wasn’t always the quickest off the mark, didn’t stand behind James for long. She clearly took her mission seriously, and she positioned herself between the flash of light and Sally’s door.
The light was just Forest, though.
Joseph suddenly realized she’d sent him a mental comms.
She was back. Which meant one thing. The mission was ready to leave.
Joseph slowly stood.
“The ship’s been prepared,” Forest snapped quickly.
“Oh my God, this is happening so fast,” Willis commented.
Perhaps she thought Forest couldn’t hear. Lara could hear a pin dropping three blocks away.
“Yes, it is. Everything will ride on this mission. I will give you two one last chance.” Lara stared at James and Willis. “Do you wish to accompany this mission?”
Both of them snapped salutes, answering the question.
“Very well. We’ll transport aboard shortly. If you have any matters that you need to attend to, do so now.”
Both James and Willis just looked at each other. They might not be lieutenants yet, but they clearly knew what that meant.
They walked out of the main doors.
Forest turned to Joseph. She had this weird look in her eyes. Joseph had seen Forest under varying levels of stress.
“What did Ninev say?” he asked warily.
“There may be a ship and another Hendari crystal on Faxan A.”
That was a hell of a revelation. “Another crystal?”
“Yes. We need to secure it as soon as possible. I don’t trust the Observer. After that incident in psychic defense class, Anna became aware of where Sally’s from. I have a feeling the Observer is already en route there. We need to get there first. If we can’t, we at least need to get there before he secures that ship.”
Joseph nodded. Then he stopped. It was hard to read Admiral Forest. Psychics even had trouble reading her. She was so good at defending what she was actually thinking, sometimes he wondered if she knew what she was thinking herself.
This time he swore he knew why she hesitated. He frowned hard. “What else did he tell you?”
“There is a matter that I will not share with you until we are on Faxan A.”
“I need to know everything, Forest—”
“Ninev lost his mind. There is every chance that he was lying.”
“But you’re confident that there are a ship and crystal there?”
“Relatively. Please wake the Queen up.”
He could’ve pointed out that Forest could wake her up herself. But Joseph turned anyway.
He walked toward Sally’s door.
She had a moment to look at him.
They’d had a pretty intense conversation previously. Yet there was still more he had to say. Or maybe he just had to say the same thing, clearly, over and over again until she heard it.
Joseph trusted her. Didn’t know why, nor could he tell you when it had started. But she just had to know that he would see this through to the end right by her side.
Sally turned and faced Forest. “I believe you’re right. The Observer will be on his way. There may be others, too.”
“Once you are aboard the Mercury and you have settled in, I want you to keep your senses out in case there are any Scarax assets aboard, Cadet.”
Joseph could tell it was pretty new for Sally to get orders like this. She didn’t snap a salute. But she did slowly nod, which was all Forest was after.
Lara turned and faced Joseph once. “The next leg of this mission is likely going to be far more dangerous than the first.”
Yeah, he’d figured that out too. What exactly was Lara saying? And what was that unsure quality behind her stare? It was almost as if she wanted to share something with him, but she wasn’t certain if he could take the news.
He frowned and opened his lips, but she shook her head. “Prepare to transport. I take it you can be transported safely using Coalition technology?” she asked Sally.
Forest slid her gaze toward Sally’s room. “And the crystals?”
Sally gestured dismissively. The crystals appeared above her.
It was a hell of a sight. One Joseph hadn’t really had much time to take in when he’d seen it previously. He’d been too busy fighting, and, you know, busting a gut to save the Coalition. Now he got to enjoy the eerie sight of the crystals’ truly unique glow. They weren’t like candles and certainly weren’t like torches. You could probably claim that they were like far off starlight – but they had more concentrated creation in them. What they were was possibilities come to life – ones that were set aglow by hope. Kind of lyrical, ha? You had to get a different lexicon when you were discussing these things.
Forest nodded once. “Prepare for transport.”
Sally only had eyes for him.
As they were transported away, it didn’t feel as if Joseph was broken down, didn’t feel as if Sally’s gaze deviated, either. It stuck with him, even as the rest of reality blinked out for a few seconds.
They arrived in a wide transport room on the Mercury in orbit.
Joseph had been on missions from the Mercury several times. It was the best ship in the fleet. Forest’s own personal vessel, it was equipped with every single technological advantage the Coalition had scrounged over the past 10 years. After the fight for the Academy, all Ares Tech systems had been pulled out. Now it was ready to go on yet another violent, all-important mission.
Forest strode off the transport platform, turned quickly, and nodded at Joseph. “Please take Cadet Winters back to her room. She will find a place appropriate for the crystals. I will be in my office. Time to Faxan A is currently 24 hours.”
“24 hours?” Joseph arched an eyebrow. “It’s on the other side of the galaxy.”
“We’ll be employing new superfast transport systems that were partially created by Vivian Bond.”
Joseph knew who Vivian Bond was. Anyone who was high up in the Academy did. She was an Eye of the Gods, a creature originally from the Scarax Galaxy who could create paths through space. Ones that could take a ship from one end of the galaxy to another in a blink.
“Why not just get Vivian to take us right there?” He frowned.
“Because she needs to keep her power in reserve. Who knows when the war will begin? Over the past six months, she has been dutifully creating light paths throughout the galaxy. They do not function like ordinary light paths, but they will cut transit time considerably. Three hours will be enough. It will give us a chance to prepare, anyway.” Forest looked from Joseph to Sally, didn’t say anything, turned hard on her foot, and strode out.
Yeah, time to prepare.
Sally looked at Joseph.
“Come on, Sally.”
She fell into step behind him.
They walked out into one of the wide, sophisticated corridors of the Mercury. There were already staff walking past. You’d think they’d stop and stare at the spacer and the psychic Queen – especially considering she had crystals lined up above her like Christmas decorations. Nobody did. They stole quick glances, but everybody maintained their professionalism.
They knew what was at stake, and every single one of them knew what they had to do.
Everybody but Joseph.
His previous missions had been clear. Use his subspace power to blast through all opposition. He was good at that, too. Even enjoyed it. Now? Was he meant to wrangle the Queen? Was he meant to ensure her loyalty? Or was he just meant to… wait around like a coat on a hook until someone needed him again?
“Whatever you just thought was wrong,” Sally muttered.
“Sorry?” His hackles rose for a moment as he realized Sally could be reading his mind.
She looked at him evenly. “I didn’t read your mind, Joseph. I never waste mental energy like that. And I wouldn’t do it to someone like you. I just guessed that you are thinking something emotionally important considering your shoulders became harder.”
“Someone… like me?” He got stuck on what she said.
“I’m aware of what Deus did to your mind. I understand what a spacer should be. But you… are different.”
“You should not have been able to fight back against Anna when she attacked you. You did. I did not assist you. You did that on your own.”
“Correct. So whatever you just thought, it must be wrong. You made me promise not to think I exist for one purpose – that I must find out what I can do instead. If you expect me to do that, then you should try to do it yourself.”
He found himself gripping his jaw. People continued to walk past. They couldn’t exactly stand here and have such a delicate conversation in the corridor. He needed to get her back to her room and then… what? Sit there on her bed, twiddling his thumbs for three hours, trying to figure out exactly what they’d find on Faxan A?
Yeah, they were doing this for the Queen, but Joseph hadn’t been there since she’d been taken too. He was returning home just as much as she was.
He unstuck his feet. He found a lift. They rode it in silence, several other lieutenants with them.
Everybody had work to do.
They all looked like they could do it, too.
Joseph might be the same rank as them, but unlike these guys, he didn’t have clear orders.
They arrived on the right floor.
Joseph took her to her room.
The door opened. He was expecting something big. Come on, she was the Queen.
Instead? It was a standard set of double quarters. There was a small partition between the bedrooms, and there was only one bathroom. It was probably a third of the size of her apartment back on Earth.
Sally frowned. “This is my room?”
“Yeah. I guess Forest still thinks you’re a cadet. If you want something different, I can—”
She brought up a hand. Was there a dismissive quality to it? He’d once thought that. Now he just realized Sally was too stuck in her thoughts to care about the exact stiffness of her fingers and wrist.
She walked into the left room partition, and there were Hendari cases lined up.
She arched an eyebrow at them. She waved a hand to the side, and her crystals simply arranged themselves on the bedside table.
“I think Forest wants you to use the cases. They’re insulated—”
“It’s irrelevant. Nothing will be able to protect them from the Observers. Only I will.”
Yes. The Observers.
Joseph glanced to the side. Was this where he had to reiterate that no matter what happened, he’d stick by her side? He’d said that too many times. If he said it again, he’d start to sound like an idiot. He already felt like one.
“You should try to get some sleep,” she said, seemingly out of the blue.
“You should get some sleep, Joseph. I have a feeling this will be the last time you’ll be able to do so for a while. Sleep is valuable.”
He shrugged. “I can live without it as a spacer.”
“What of your dreams?”
His mouth was partially open. His lips froze.
“I don’t know where this information is coming from. But we cannot ignore that you have learned things about me no one else knows. You should engage your dreams again to find out what else you can discover. It may be critical to what occurs on Faxan A.” Sally tilted to the side and stared pointedly at her bed.
Joseph took a moment. Then his heart did this strange kind of shuddering thing. It was almost as if it was attempting to lurch sideways out of his chest, roll toward the door, and get the hell out of here. Was she suggesting that he use her bed?
He gripped the back of his head uncomfortably. “I can just go to my room,” he spluttered.
She stared at him in confusion. “I assumed you would. I was simply making a point.”
Really? Here he was, on the cusp of the most important mission he would ever go on, and here Sally was, the Queen in all her glory, and he made the idiotic assumption that she was inviting him to sleep in her bed?
Crap. He’d never live this down.
Joseph almost floated but quickly took a step back. “I’ll go get some shuteye.” He jerked toward the door.
The next thing he knew, her hand settled on his shoulder. Her touch was hesitant.
The kind of hesitant that could stop him, no matter what he was doing. Middle of an attack? He’d just freeze. Even if he was suddenly porting, that touch would pull him out of it.
His heart stilled, skipped several beats, then made up for it as it felt like it rattled out of his throat.
“Thank you, Joseph. And… I’m glad we met each other.”
Boom. Those words were like a punch. She didn’t deliver them that way. They were soft, quiet even. They lacked force, giving the syllables the quality of fluttering bird wings not bullets. But they damn well meant something to him.
“I would have gone back to the Hendari worlds if it weren’t for you. I know you sometimes doubt yourself. Don’t. I won’t again.” With that, she turned, let her fingers drop, and sat on the edge of her bed.
Joseph just stood there for way too long. It felt like it took the combined power of several engines to shift his feet. Even then, he couldn’t look at her, couldn’t comment.
He made it out of the door.
Then he just stood there.
Fortunately there was no one around. Even if there had been, he would’ve still just stood there, like a tree rooted into the ground.
He slowly gripped his jaw and slid his fingers along it.
Then he walked away.