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 All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Galactic Coalition Academy Series

Vira

Episode One

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



VIRA

EPISODE ONE


Vira is a super weapon – the greatest the Coalition has. She’s been kept in secret for the last 20 years, trained and protected until the day they would need her.

That day has come.

It’s time to let Vira out.

But her secret identity must be shielded, and there’s only one man who can do that. Lieutenant Park. He’s meant to be adaptable – but he’ll have to be more if he has any hope of controlling the socially awkward Vira. Worse, when he finds himself at the foot of a growing conspiracy that could swallow the Coalition whole, he’ll find he’ll have to trust her. But will she ever trust him?

Vira is the seventh instalment in the Galactic Coalition Academy meta-series. Each Galactic Coalition Academy series is relatively stand-alone, and you don’t need to have read the others to understand this one. Vira is an action-packed space opera that is sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Betrothed.

Prologue

Lieutenant Park

Get back here,” he screamed.

Vira ignored him.

She jerked her hand to the left, activating her armor. In a hiss of moving metal and a blast of blue-green energy, it sailed over her.

Vira,” he bellowed. “Don’t go after him.”

Vira didn’t even bother to answer. She flew up the side of the sheer mineshaft, her black armor almost indistinguishable from the dark night above. Her subspace swords weren’t, though. As she pulsed both hands wide, two swords appeared out of subspace pockets behind her. They leaped into her hands, glowing as brightly as trapped supernovas.

In a flash, she was out of sight.

Vira,” Park bellowed her name once more.

Nothing.

Sweat slicked his brow as he took a jerked step backward, clamped a hand over his mouth, and thought.

The body of Princess Me’ac was still behind him. As he took a careless step backward, his boot banged up against her lifeless form. Her sticky blue blood now practically covered the bottom of the shaft.

This mission had gone to hell. He should never have accepted this role in the first place.

He didn’t have the skills to control Vira – no one did. She was overpowered and undertrained, and Admiral Forest should never have let her out.

But Vira was out.

And unless Park could pull her back before the Coalition staff on the moon above caught sight of her, then everything would be over.

Dammit,” he spat.

He whirled on his foot, searching for any way out of here. The assassin had already destroyed the hover elevator that usually serviced this pit, and Park could bet that the backup flotation packs had been removed, too.

Didn’t matter.

Park caught sight of a low gravity rock grinder. They were designed to float along the sides of walls, buffing off preprogrammed stone layers so you could reveal archaeological finds beyond.

Park dashed over to the nearest one, skidding down on his knees, not caring that it aggravated the wound along his leg and up across his hip where the assassin had tried to slice him in half with a rotating electron sword. Blood might have scattered over the rock by his knees, but it didn’t goddamn matter.

Nothing would matter until he found Vira.

Gritting his teeth, ignoring the pain, Park threw himself at the sheer wall to his left, activating the rock grinder.

It kicked into life, shuddering in his hands and jerking forward as it made a mag lock with whatever magnetized ore was in the wall.

The rock grinder was meant to work on its own – following whatever program you keyed into it.

It was definitely not meant to act as an impromptu elevator.

With his thumb, Park activated the swipe control that would dictate the loadbearing on the grinder, shifting it to its maximum setting. It still wouldn’t be enough to carry his weight for long, but all Park had to do was make it up the 50 m to the surface of the moon above.

Come on,” he spat as the rock grinder powered into life, latching onto the surface of the wall as it began to shift upward. Rocks scattered out everywhere, dust erupting around the grinder but quickly being sucked into the air vents along its side. It meant Park didn’t suck in a lungful of rock dust every time he took a jerked, shuddering breath, but this wasn’t easy, either. As he held onto the grinder for dear life, it shuddered as if it had the trapped force of a tornado. His fingers slicked with sweat and his wrists hurt like hell, but he didn’t let go.

Above, he could hear the sounds of battle.

He had no fear for Vira’s life. She’d already proved she could take on an army if she had to. But that wasn’t the point.

Vira was far too valuable to be used on any old army. No, Vira had to be kept for the Force.

By the time Park was 10 m away from ground level, his shoulders felt like they would be wrenched from his back. But he held on.

Just five more meters, just four.

Just one.

With a scream, Park’s grip finally failed. Just before he could fall, he scrabbled against the almost completely sheer, smooth rock face, pressing the points of his regulation Coalition boots against the rock as he threw himself up the last meter with every scrap of strength he had.

He just made it. His shuddering, weak fingers latched onto the edge of the pit. Before they too could fail, he shoved his boots against the rock and he pushed with all his might.

A genuine, gut-wrenching scream splitting from his lips, Park rolled onto the dark gray, pockmarked ground.

He lay there for a single second, arms practically convulsing from the beating the rock grinder had put them through.

But Park couldn’t give himself the time he needed to recover.

He shoved up hard and ran.

The assassin had tech Park had never seen. Though it had looked Artaxian, appearances had been misleading. His gut told him it was from the Force.

And though Vira was a lot of things, if that Force technology was strong enough, even she could be overcome.

He didn’t bother bellowing her name or using the constant lock his wrist device had on her – all he needed to do was use his eyes to discern where Vira was.

She was 100 m away and 50 m up, fighting in the sky.

Even from this distance, Park could follow the fight easily. Though both the assassin and Vira wore jet black armor, Vira’s blue swords gave her away.

Park had no weapon. All he had was his goddamn voice, his uniform, and his wrist device.

Oh, and the kill switch.

The one built right into Vira’s brain. The one Admiral Forest had made Park promise he would only ever use in the direst of situations when Vira either went completely off the reservation, or acted in a way brazen enough to reveal her secret to the rest of the galaxy. Because he knew if he used it, it would cost him something he’d spent the last three weeks painstakingly cultivating – Vira’s trust.

Park’s eyes had never been wider as he tilted his head all the way back and stared up at the two fighting figures.

It was like watching a star fight a black hole. The assassin’s pitch black armor made its darting body look like it was nothing more than a shadow against space, while Vira’s bright swords looked like the flashing tails of comets.

As they fought, they got higher and higher.

The surface of this moon – like most moons – was completely pockmarked from space debris impacts. Fortunately, the area they were in was in a low valley. But above the rise to his left and past a small mountain ridge was the primary research facility. Though Vira’s armor was specifically manufactured to be completely undetectable to standard scanners, anyone with a functioning set of eyes would be able to see her. If she got any higher, she would come within view of the research facility, and she would blow everything.

Goddamn you, Vira,” Park spat through clenched teeth as he tried to make the toughest decision of his life.

His thumb and finger hovered over his right wrist. Not his wrist device – but the implant that had been grafted onto his wrist bone. His wrist device, after all, could be removed. Short of cutting off Park’s arm, the implant couldn’t be.

The implant did one thing. It maintained a continual subspace connection to the kill switch in Vira’s mind.

All Park needed to do was activate it, and Vira would fall unconscious.

She continued to fight the assassin. Her movements were graceful and yet the deadliest he’d ever seen. But whatever armor the assassin possessed was fending her off for now.

Forever? Park doubted it. He knew in his heart of hearts that Vira would succeed. Eventually.

But he couldn’t give her any more time.

Goddamn you, Vira,” he repeated, voice more bitter than it ever had been before. Once upon a time, Lieutenant Park had thought he had a switch in his own mind. Not a kill switch, mind you, but one that, if he flicked it, made him into a passionless, emotionless, perfect soldier. The kind of man who followed orders and never got involved.

But Park was wrong, wasn’t he?

Because he’d finally met his match – the one person in all of the Milky Way who could press his buttons.

And right then and there, he pressed hers. Without a single moment’s hesitation, Park rammed his thumb and finger against his wrist implant.

Vira fell from the sky. In an instant, she lost consciousness.

The assassin didn’t take the opportunity to try to kill her. He wisely turned tail and ran, flying vertically right up into the atmosphere.

Park threw himself forward.

He didn’t reach Vira before she crashed into the surface of the moon, her two spinning blue subspace blades slicing into the ground by her side.

She struck the ground with such force, he could feel it even 10 m out.

With a burst of speed, completely ignoring the injury to his leg and side, Park finally reached her.

Her head was at an angle, her body limp, the light from the starscape above catching along her glinting, smooth black armor.

Park fell down to one knee by her side. He reached a hand up, propped his elbow on his knee, and pressed his fingers into his sweat-and-grime caked brow.

He didn’t need to use his wrist device to scan her to know she was okay. That didn’t stop him from opening his mouth one last time and spitting, “Goddamn you, Vira.”

Chapter 1

Lieutenant Park, three weeks before the incident on the Second Moon of the Falax Expanse

He stood in front of the Admiral, his arms crossed.

She was looking better than she had in weeks, and that was saying something, considering Admiral Forest had gone through hell at the hands of the Force.

Park had gone through hell, too, but hell was something Park always courted. Maybe Admiral Forest had back in her day as a combat specialist, but she was an Admiral now, and it wasn’t up to her to gun-sling and save the galaxy. Maybe from behind her desk, but definitely not from the front lines.

Which was the Admiral’s point.

She shifted back in her chair, the neural link on her temples catching the low light of her enclosed room.

The neural link was two glistening metal pads that sat either side of her head – constant reminders of what the Force had done to her only several months ago during the Circle Trader attack – constant reminders to the rest of the Coalition of what could have happened if Admiral Forest hadn’t been strong enough to force them back.

According to reports Park had learned of, Forest would now have them for life. The Force, it seemed, were not kind to anybody’s mind they inhabited. Not only would the neural links allow her brain activity to be constantly monitored, but, theoretically, they’d never allow the Force to inhabit Forest again.

According to what Park had learned through his many contacts, the medical team at the Academy were learning more about the Force every day. And what they learned they did not like. Everything from the ability to replace humans with almost perfect biological and mental clones, to the ability to invade someone’s mind and control them, just as they’d done to Forest. The Force were categorically unlike any enemy the Coalition had ever faced.

And that was the point of this meeting.

Forest rested back in her seat, the yielding fabric creaking as she shifted her head all the way back, jutted out her chin, and faced Park. “I’m going to give you one chance to tell me you’re not up for this. This is not an ordinary mission,” she said, voice pitching down low, unmistakable seriousness crumpling her previously smooth brow. It made the two neural links either side of her temples shift in as the skin crinkled.

Park stood straight. Didn’t move a muscle. You see, Park had two modes. Everyone who’d known him long enough appreciated that fact. There was the wild Park, the fun Park, the Park who owned the party scene at the Academy. And then? There was the professional Park. There was a switch in his mind – honestly, there was. And if he flicked it, he could switch off his empathy, switch off his fun, switch off everything until he was nothing more than a man behind a gun who followed orders.

So Park didn’t shift. He simply stared at the Admiral.

One chance,” she said as she brought up a hand and slowly raised a single finger. Her movements lacked the grace and competency they’d once had – the burden of having the Force pry into her mind truly had been costly, and she might never fully recover, even with advanced Coalition medical tech.

Park didn’t shift.

As I’ve already stressed several times before, this is no ordinary mission, for she is no ordinary Coalition asset,” Forest pointed out, her voice wavering for the first time during the conversation. It only trembled on one word. She.

Despite the fact Park had that switch in his mind, despite the fact he had a reputation for being one of the best Coalition combat specialists because he could shove aside all emotion, his stomach pitched. But it was the slightest of sensations, one he could easily ignore as he locked all of his focused attention on the Admiral. “We’ve been over this, Admiral, and I’m ready.”

The Admiral simply arched an eyebrow. “I will not deny your service record, Lieutenant Park. It’s exemplary. And out of all my assets, I chose you for this mission. But if for a second you don’t think you’re ready—”

I’m ready. You’ve stressed she is no ordinary asset before. I’ll deal with it. I’m adaptable,” he said.

For the first time, Admiral Forest allowed a smile to crack over her lips. Again it was slow, and her bottom lip wobbled a little, but that didn’t take away from the import of the movement. She reached her hands forward and clasped them on the desk. “Yes, you are adaptable – that’s why you were my first choice. Because Vira is….” The Admiral ticked her head to the side quickly – the first time she’d managed a move that wasn’t slow, laborious, and well thought through. It seemed whenever Admiral Forest spoke of Vira – whenever anyone spoke of Vira – they changed. Became nervous, unsure, and yet determined.

Vira.

That’s all Park had been hearing about for the past several months. All he’d been prepping for. And yet, he hadn’t even met this mysterious Vira.

He knew several things – she hadn’t gone through the Academy, at least not formally. And she was one of the greatest assets the Coalition had.

And what was she?

Part Spacer, part other.

Park had little experience with Spacers. He’d been offworld during the Axira incident. But hell, he knew about them. Any combat specialist would. They were built for one task – war. Whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial, it didn’t matter. They were the pinnacle of modern conflict, even if they dated from a time long, long ago.

But this Vira? She wasn’t just a Spacer. No, she was other, and whenever Park tried to push – whenever he tried to find out exactly what that other was – no one would tell him.

He didn’t need to know.

All he had to do was watch her and help her, and, more than anything, keep her secret safe.

Though Admiral Forest chose to remain seated for most conversations these days, it was a testament to the import of this situation that she rested her hands flat on her desk and laboriously stood. Her muscles jerked and twitched, but she just re-gripped the desk and clenched her teeth.

A few times she looked as if she would fall. Maybe someone else would’ve reached a hand out, tried to grab her elbow or shoulder, tried to shore up her stance – Park didn’t.

If she wanted to stand, then let her stand. If the cost of trying was falling over, that was the Admiral’s cost to take.

Park just stood there as straight as he could, his gaze as even as it could be.

Last night, he hadn’t managed to get a wink of sleep – he’d been out celebrating with some of the Academy maintenance and security staff. It had taken two full months, but finally the Academy main buildings had a clean bill of health – every single holographic emitter had been pulled from the place, and the computer cores had been completely flushed and rebuilt.

The Academy was back to operating at full capacity.

And Park? He’d been the life of the party.

Now? He didn’t blink. “Admiral, I assure you, I’m up for this task. I’ve dealt with some… difficult personalities before, and I can do it again.”

A strange kind of smile spread across the Admiral’s face. “Trust me when I say you have never dealt with anybody like Vira.”

Again Park’s stomach kicked, but again it was a minuscule sensation. Maybe it was hunger or the consequence of partying all night. But ultimately, it was irrelevant. Because if Park wanted to be ready for this mission, he would make himself ready. It was as simple as that.

When Park had gone through the Academy, he’d gotten a reputation in his first week. None of the other Academy staff or students had ever met a recruit like him. He didn’t need to be browbeaten to take orders. He just did it. No complaints. He rose to any occasion, no matter how dire.

Adaptable Park, that’s what they called him. He also had a reputation for being able to scrounge a solution from any problem. He was just as good when it came to engineering and jury-rigging weapons and tech from broken machinery as he was with combat.

And he was fully aware of this fact. Which led to another nickname – Arrogant Park. Some people would care about that – some people would be ashamed. Park wasn’t. It fit him to a T.

He was aware of the fact the Admiral hadn’t blinked in the last minute – like she was using her eyes to scan his very mind. “I’m going to stress once more that this is unlike any mission you have ever been sent on. And she is unlike any asset you have ever worked with. I’m also going to give you one more chance.”

I’m not going to back down,” Park said firmly.

Let’s wait until you meet her. Remember, your responsibilities during this mission are simple—”

Do everything I can to ensure the mission is a success,” Park spoke over the top of the Admiral.

Forest paused for several seconds, her gaze hard. “The mission will be a success depending on whether you can control Vira. Plain and simple. This is not a standard combat affair. You will not be going in there guns blazing – she will. All you must do is keep her secret from other Coalition assets and the general public at large. Do you understand?”

Park nodded automatically. To be honest, he didn’t understand. Perhaps mentally, but not physically. He was used to taking charge in any combat situation. Sure, there were combat specialists out there who were brawnier, stronger, agiler, but nobody could push themselves as hard and as far as Park.

Maybe there was something about his gaze that alerted the Admiral to the fact he wasn’t truly comprehending the import of her statement, because she let out a low growl. “Follow me. You’ll decide once you’ve met her.” Without another word, Admiral Forest pushed off from the desk.

She’d been fitted with a discrete biomedical exoskeleton that would help her maneuver and retain balance. They were several connected joints that sat flush against her skin underneath her uniform. But as Park fell into step behind her, it was clear she wasn’t using them. Because Admiral Forest was a woman who chose to do everything the hard way.

Stumbling, she made it to the door, swiped her wrist to the left, then to the right, and activated the invisible sensors in the smart metal.

Park heard several mechanisms shift within the wall, some so deep, they made the floor shudder.

When Park had walked into the Admiral’s office, he’d done so through the basement level hallway.

But now, as the doorway peeled open in front of him, he was met with a completely different sight.

He was on one of the lower basement levels. Though once upon a time Park wouldn’t have had the security clearance to travel deep below the command building and into the numerous sub-level basements, that had all changed during the Circle Trader incident. And since the incident, so had the sub-level basements. They’d been rebuilt completely, fitted with new security systems that, theoretically, would stop something like the incident ever happening again.

You see, the Coalition desperately needed to tighten security at the Academy, throughout the rest of the Coalition states, too. For something was coming – and that thing was the Force.

Though Park usually had a cool, calm affect, at the thought of the Force, his stomach kicked. Again, it was such a slight sensation that he could barely notice it, but by God, it was there. For good reason. If all of the high-level intel he’d learned about the Force was correct, then the Coalition would have to pull out every stop to prevent them from spilling into the Milky Way. And if the Force were allowed entry into the Milky Way, that would be it. There would be no fighting them. Even if every single race in the Milky Way joined together – from the Coalition to the Barbarians to the Kor – it simply wouldn’t count. The Force, at the fundamental level, consumed energy, and they would greedily lap up every single source of energy throughout the entire galaxy, from biological to technological. They would leave nothing but destruction and dust in their path.

Admiral Forest strode through the new hallway. As she did, it changed actively around her, the wall panels never sitting still as they grated and ground on invisible tracks. It wasn’t some mere distraction or a strange form of decoration – as part of the new security protocols, the new sub-basement levels were in constant movement. It didn’t mean any of the scientists and officers working in any of the numerous labs would suddenly be crushed as Admiral Forest decided to willy-nilly create a hallway to her destination – the constant movement was monitored and kept in check. It simply meant that if the situation dictated it, and a serious security breach occurred, the entire subbasement system could be changed. Incoming combatants could be cordoned off and key personnel could be kept safe. It was just one of the many new systems the Academy had been forced to put in place as the threat level in the Milky Way just kept getting higher.

And that, if you believed the briefing he’d had, was why the Academy was finally letting Vira go.

This wouldn’t be easy. Though Park was always full of bravado and happy to take on any mission, no matter how unlikely it was to succeed, even he could appreciate this was out of the ordinary. He’d never seen any of the usually stiff-lipped, competent Admirals like this. Whenever they spoke of letting out Vira, he imagined they had the same grim, slightly terrified and yet awed expressions soldiers on old Earth would have had whenever they spoke of using nuclear weapons.

Despite the fact she still wasn’t using her exoskeleton, as the Admiral neared a door that suddenly appeared through the ever-changing hallway, her back straightened, and for the first time, her stance became strong.

She paused at the door, coming to a full stop as her shoulders tightened and she sucked in a deep breath. For a woman who had a reputation for never being rattled, she looked just as scared as a brand-new recruit.

Are you ready?” she asked.

Park wasn’t sure whether the question was meant for him or her, but he settled on uttering a, “Yes.”

That statement would haunt him for life. For, though Park couldn’t appreciate it yet, he’d never been less ready for something in his life….

Chapter 2

Lieutenant Rogers, the Apollo

He sat there hunched over the pin gun, his stiff fingers stroking the smooth metal.

Beside him on the small console of his equally small quarters, his burnable communication device sat. His gaze slid methodically between the gun and the device as he waited.

Waited. And waited.

Finally the small electronic screen of the communication device lit up, casting a red glow against the underside of his face in this otherwise dark room.

Rogers lurched toward it, left-hand banging into the pin gun and almost sending it spiraling off the console and onto the floor.

He caught it just in time, teeth clenching.

That could have been bad.

The communication device beeped again, and even though the electronic tone was emotionless, Rogers’ fragile, paranoid psychological state told him it had a sense of urgency. As if this little device could appreciate just how important this was.

With a stuttering breath, he snapped up the device, first pressing his thumb against the tiny biometric reader against the side of the device, then tapping the top of it in a prearranged set of movements.

He waited half a second, then the device finally registered that it was him.

It switched on.

A minuscule hologram no larger than his palm appeared over the device.

Admiral James Jones. The leader of the revolution.

As soon as Rogers thought that – as soon as he allowed the promise of the revolution to swell in his mind – his back stiffened, his head angled down, and his breath stilled in his chest.

“Are you in position?” Jones spat.

“I’m in position,” Rogers said as he even snapped a salute.

Jones didn’t react. He simply kept his unblinking gaze locked on Rogers. “I’m relying on you – the Coalition is relying on you,” he added.

A cold, quick, prickling sweat slicked across Rogers brow, descending and collecting between his shoulder blades. “I will not fail.”

Make sure you don’t. Are the traps in place aboard the Apollo?”

“The bomb is set.”

“Don’t hesitate to use it if you have to.”

Rogers didn’t pause. Perhaps he should have. He’d served the Coalition all his life – he should have more loyalty for it than this. But that was just the thing. What Rogers was doing was loyalty. It was the highest form, in fact. For he was seeing beyond the closed minds of the Admirals to the storm that was brewing. He would not let that storm consume the Milky Way.

“I will not hesitate,” Rogers said without further pause.

Jones nodded, made brief, calculating eye contact, then ended the feed.

Rogers sat there in the dark, reaching a hand out to his left and letting his stiff, cold palm and fingers rest against the pin gun.

He was ready to do what would need to be done.

Park

The Admiral didn’t question him again. She shifted forward, brought her hand up, spread her fingers wide, and lifted her arm from left to right. It activated an invisible scanner in the door. The scanner wouldn’t simply be picking up biometric readings from the Admiral, but would be analyzing the Admiral’s unique patterns of movement.

It took several seconds, but finally there was an audible click and a buzz.

The door opened.

It was no ordinary door. It didn’t slide easily into the recess allotted for it in the wall. It grated, and as it did, countless sub shields and mechanisms switched off.

For some damn reason, it was the door that finally hammered home to Park how serious this mission was.

Atmosphere and unidentified gasses spilled from the sides of the door until finally it opened in full.

And out walked a young woman.

Vira.

Park didn’t know what he’d been expecting. But it wasn’t what he got. When Admiral Forest had mentioned that Vira was a Spacer, Park had envisioned Vira would be decked out in subspace armor, with one of the long subspace weapons the Spacers were renowned for.

That’s not what he got.

He got what looked exactly like a cadet.

An ordinary, bog standard cadet.

She was human – or at least had the full appearance of a human. She wasn’t particularly tall, wasn’t particularly short, and was of average build.

As for her general looks, they also were average. Nothing was particularly special, and nothing would make her stand out from the crowd. She had drab brown hair, equally drab brown eyes, and nothing that would usually catch his attention.

Except for one fact – she’d been standing behind that door. A door that looked as if it had the requisite thickness and technology to withstand a heavy cruiser slamming into it.

And that fact made Park swallow.

Vira? She noticed. With the quickest, slightest move, her head ticked to the side, her ponytail brushing over her neck. Her gaze darted from left to right, up and down as she looked Park over completely.

Park remained still.

Admiral Forest let out a hard breath. “Vira, this is Park.”

I know,” Vira said. Her voice, just like the rest of her, was completely ordinary, if a little sweet and innocent. Definitely not the kind of voice you would associate with what everyone was telling him was one of the Coalition’s greatest assets.

Introduce yourself,” the Admiral said after a pause.

I’m Park,” Park said automatically, “Lieutenant Park. I’ll be—”

He won’t do,” Vira said flatly as she turned around and walked back into the room.

For the first time, Park caught a glimpse of it. He expected some kind of laboratory, or a small med bay maybe.

What he got was a well-appointed living room. There were several couches, a massive bank of screens, various paraphernalia, and even an old-school bookcase.

Vira walked right over to the couch, flopped down, crossed her arms, and stared at the bank of screens as they suddenly turned on.

She’d given no verbal or physical command to switch them on, but that didn’t matter.

Vira,” the Admiral said, letting out a trying breath as she shuffled into the room, “we’ve talked about this. The Admirals have selected Lieutenant Park here—”

Well select another,” Vira said flatly.

Though Admiral Forest had walked into the room, Park remained in the doorway. Firstly, it didn’t feel right to enter what was obviously Vira’s room. Secondly? Apparently she didn’t want him.

Park had been prepared for a lot of things, but he hadn’t been prepared for Vira flat-out refusing to work with him.

Seriously? He’d been prepping for this mission for the past two months. Why hadn’t the Admirals seen to it that he’d met Vira earlier?

Still sitting on the couch, Vira unhooked one of her arms from around her middle and pointed at Park. “He’s becoming angry,” she pointed out.

Vira,” the Admiral’s tone was angry but guarded – lacking the usual bluster it had whenever she was correcting a junior, “we’ve talked about this. You can’t use your abilities to point out people’s mental states. It’s rude.”

Vira didn’t reply.

Park? He kept his feelings in check. Though Admiral Forest had pointed out Vira’s considerable physical skills, she’d obviously left out the fact that Vira had psychic abilities. He doubted they were full-blown – doubted she could actually read the contents of his thoughts – but that wasn’t much comfort.

Combat specialists like Park who were sent on sensitive missions were always given extensive mental training to ensure they could guard their thoughts from races with psychic abilities. You never knew when you would come across a Mindair, and you had to have the ability to close your thoughts off with a flick of a switch.

And Park did that. Easily. He’d topped the class when it had come to mental defense.

Though Vira hadn’t looked at him since she’d flopped down on the couch, for the first time, she arched her head to the right. “He’s attempting to block his emotions from me,” she pointed out. She still had that somewhat sweet, innocent voice, and suffice to say, it didn’t match her cold, objective statements.

The Admiral snorted. “Of course he’s attempting to block his emotions off from you. Lieutenant Park, like all senior-level combat specialists, has gone through extensive mental training. He topped his class, in fact, and has one of the highest mental defense scores of any recruit to have ever gone through the Academy.”

I have the highest score,” Vira pointed out.

Park wanted to think that there was a bratty quality to what Vira was saying, but that wasn’t quite right. It had that immediate innocence of someone who’d never been taught social skills.

And something clicked in his head.

This was what the Admiral had meant.

Perhaps the Admiral could read his mind, because she made momentary eye contact. “You can back out if you choose to. As I’ve already said, this will be no ordinary mission.”

I won’t work with him,” Vira said flatly once more as she went back to watching the screens.

The Admiral looked at Park meaningfully. She also nodded to where she was standing. “Enter, Lieutenant, and convince Vira that she will be working with you.” From the quality of the Admiral’s tone, to her stare, it was obvious that Forest was testing Park.

If he failed? He’d lose the mission. If he succeeded?

Park hadn’t signed up to be a combat specialist to babysit brats.

But he could hardly walk away yet. He took several steps into the room. It was far more spacious than he’d been able to predict from outside. It extended far in both directions and to the left headed down into some kind of training area. It was massive.

Of course it was massive – Vira was a Spacer.

Park had been through some pretty tough training situations in his life, but he couldn’t even begin to imagine how Vira trained.

But that wasn’t the point.

He cleared his throat. The Admiral’s eyes were on him, and so were Vira’s.

Why am I not appropriate for this mission?” he asked Vira directly.

She narrowed her eyes at him. He could tell it wasn’t just in irritation. No, she would be using whatever extended senses she had to continue to assess him. And even though he was technically using all of his skills to guard his mind against psychic intrusion, she would still be able to garner plenty of other information from his stance, to his heart rate, to the size of his pupils.

Park stood his ground. “Answer,” he said.

You don’t have the requisite mental control,” she said.

Park could have played this several ways. He chose to let a wry, albeit small smile spread his lips. There was many a woman around the Academy who would blush at that exact move, but he wasn’t at all surprised when Vira remained unaffected.

As the Admiral already said, I have some of the top marks in mental defense that have ever been recorded at the Academy,” he pointed out.

I have the top marks,” Vira said once more, almost sounding like a petulant child. Almost. Because the look in her eyes wasn’t petulant. She didn’t look as if she were rubbing his nose in anything – she simply looked as if she were earnestly trying to tell the truth.

You didn’t attend the Academy,” he said.

Yes, I did,” she snapped back.

Park slowly let his gaze dart around the room. “Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but you’ve been residing in this room for the past 20 years.”

I attended the Academy,” she said, and there was a note of defensiveness about her tone.

The Admiral finally intervened. She took a step toward Vira. “We’ve gone over this before, Vira. Though you watched classes,” the Admiral gestured toward the bank of screens in front of the couch, “and you were technically graded, you were never an official Academy recruit.”

They’d made her watch classes? They’d even graded her? Why bother? Wasn’t she just some glorified weapon?

Park momentarily allowed his mental defenses to slip.

Vira sliced her gaze toward him. For the first time since the conversation had begun, she looked at him darkly. “I know what you’re thinking. And I’m not some kind of weapon,” she spat.

His eyebrows peaked slightly. “She can read minds?” he asked the Admiral. “A heads-up would’ve been nice.” Though he would never usually be so informal to an Admiral – especially Forest – this was already getting out of hand.

One thing was clear – Vira, despite her technical combat skills, had the emotional maturity of a child.

I am not a child,” she snapped.

Dammit, he’d done it again.

She rose. There was a sharpness to the move, one that could have indicated danger, but before he could worry that the Spacer would call on her subspace weapons and slice him in half, she crossed her arms together and got a decidedly haughty edge to her expression. “You may think I have the personal affect of an infant,” she said, her tone no longer sweet and certainly no longer innocent, “but you are mistaken. You have wandered into a situation you do not have the skills to understand. And now you should wander right back out.” She pointed stiffly at her door.

Park couldn’t stop himself from snorting.

Admiral Forest took a trying breath as she brought a hand up and distractedly scratched her brow. “Vira, you can’t order him out of here. The rest of the Admirals and I did not make this decision lightly. We only chose Lieutenant Park after vetting every other combat specialist we have.”

He’s not ready,” she defaulted to saying.

Why not?” the Admiral said, her exasperation clear.

Vira darted her gaze up and locked it on Park. Though he’d already judged her appearance to be pretty ordinary, obviously he hadn’t gotten a good look at her eyes. Because right now, as he did, he could appreciate that her gaze was about the most goddamn penetrating thing he’d ever seen. He got the impression she could pick up more about you than one of the Academy’s subatomic biological scanners. “I’ve seen him around the Academy,” she revealed.

Park didn’t take the opportunity to point out that she’d never been out of this room. He narrowed his eyes. Where was she going with this?

He’s irresponsible,” Vira said. “Do you know he didn’t sleep last night? I believe he was out with members of staff and the E Club imbibing himself.”

Though Park could have easily laughed at the concept he’d been imbibing himself, he let his gaze jerk toward the Admiral. He desperately wanted to ask just how much of his mind Vira could read.

And, more to the point, why exactly Forest hadn’t pointed this out before the meeting had begun. He sure would have liked to have been alerted to the fact that Vira was psychic and painfully immature – which was a frankly horrible mix.

As he thought that, he was careful this time to ensure his mental defenses were perfectly in place. And either Vira chose not to comment – which he doubted – or she didn’t pick up what he was thinking.

The Admiral let out a sigh. “I assume you know the Lieutenant didn’t sleep because of his biological readings. And I assume you know that he was out,” for the first time Forest slid her gaze momentarily toward Park, and there was a judgmental quality to it, “all night,” she stressed all, “because of your privileged access to security information. But I shouldn’t need to remind you, Vira, that access to that information should be used to keep people safe – and before you point it out, you are keeping nobody safe by putting Lieutenant Park on the spot.”

You expect me to travel to the Falax Expanse with this man with no other supervision to hunt down fallen Force technology. I haven’t left this room in 20 years. He will be my only guide. He knows this. And yet, the night before the mission is meant to begin,” it was Vira’s turn to swivel her judgmental gaze to Park, and unlike the Admiral, she didn’t discreetly look away, “he chooses to drink all night and socialize rather than gaining the requisite rest his human body requires.”

Park swallowed.

She had him on that one. But if she thought she’d won this conversation, she was dead wrong. Before the Admiral could try to bring Vira into line again, Park took another step forward, his stance easy. His smile was too as he flicked it at her. “You’re right, I did stay out all night last night,” he said as he brought a hand up and casually scratched at his nose, “because I’m an adult,” he emphasized the word adult. “I also know my limitations. And while, technically, the mission is meant to start this afternoon, it hasn’t started yet. Though I am duty-bound not to,” he let his smile spread all the way around his perfect white teeth, “imbibe myself while on an operation, I wasn’t on an operation last night. I have an unimpeachable service record, and I don’t appreciate anyone calling into question my abilities.”

Anyone else in Park’s position wouldn’t dare to say what he’d just said. He didn’t need to stare at the training ground to his left to appreciate that Vira could crush him in an instant. He also didn’t need to stare to his right to appreciate that the Admiral would be judging his every move. If he couldn’t control Vira now – while she was safely in her room in the lowest level of the Academy basement – what hope did he have of controlling her when they were off-world? Because she was right – he would be her only guide on this mission, and not only had Vira never left this room in 20 years, but she was a goddamn handful.

Vira crossed her arms again. “He’s not ready,” she returned to saying flatly. She also swiveled neatly on her foot. But rather than walk back to the couch and flop back down, she floated right off her feet, suddenly completely unaffected by gravity. She shifted over to the couch and lightly sat back down before she swiveled her gaze toward him.

He wasn’t an idiot. She was posturing. His basic combat intelligence told him that.

The Admiral gave a long-suffering sigh. “How many times do I have to tell you, Vira,” she began.

Showing off won’t win you this argument, Vira,” Park spoke straight over the Admiral. He hadn’t forgotten the original parameters of this test. Unless he – and he alone – could bring Vira to hand, he would lose. And though Park was beginning to seriously question whether he wanted this mission in the first place, he hated losing. Better to prove he was worthy and capable and back out gracefully later.

His comment got Vira’s attention. Her arms tightened around her middle. It brought his attention to her ordinary physique once more. Honestly, from one look at her, you couldn’t tell that she was technically one of the most powerful assets in the entire Coalition. And that? That was the point.

He took a solid step forward, making sure his Coalition boots rang out on the smooth floor. “You said you went through the Academy, ha? Prove it. What’s the one most important thing a recruit must learn?” Though Park personally hated lecturing, and he did so infrequently, he was good at it. It came hand-in-hand with his natural arrogance. Park knew he was capable, just as he knew when the people around him weren’t. And Vira was a lot of things, but it was obvious she would be a terrible soldier. She would be a force of chaos, not order.

Vira, answer him,” the Admiral prompted when Vira did nothing.

Park arched an eyebrow. “Don’t like to listen to people, do you? You know that’s what children do, don’t you?” He deliberately goaded her. Judging by her previous reaction to his thought that she was nothing more than a kid, it was obviously an emotional button for her.

Sure enough, she reacted to it, her cheeks stiffening. “I am fully capable of listening. In fact, I think you’ll find my abilities to hear outstrip your own by a parsec. I can hear your stomach, for instance, as it tries to rid your weak biological form of the poison you consumed in large quantities last night.”

He flicked her an amused smile. It only curled one side of his lips and revealed a slice of his clenched teeth. “There’s a difference between hearing and comprehending.”

I am fully capable of understanding what you said.”

Then tell me – what’s the most important thing a Coalition recruit should learn? The one thing that keeps the Coalition Army working – the one thing that keeps the Coalition safe,” he said, and as he spoke, he let more passion filter through each word until they rattled through the room.

Admiral Forest didn’t stop him – she simply watched.

Vira raised her chin and looked at him, a defiant look glinting in her eyes. “The ability to forge peace,” she answered.

Park smiled. “Wrong,” he said, voice just as flat as the one she’d been using to point out he was the wrong man for this mission. “The most important trait for any recruit is the ability to follow orders. It is that alone which sustains the chain of command. And the chain of command,” he said, words hard, “is what keeps the Coalition safe. The first thing you learn on your first day in the Academy is that you do not have all the answers,” he emphasized the word you. “You don’t have all the strength, you don’t have all the ability – you are simply a necessary rung in the chain of command. Maybe you’re stronger than the average recruit,” he conceded before she could point that out, “but you alone are not the Coalition. You alone do not have the resources, the intelligence, or the strength to keep all of the Coalition safe. So you must rely on others. To do that,” he gritted his teeth, “you respect the chain of command.”

Vira continued to watch him. “… Is that it?” she said after a lengthy pause.

Park stopped himself from reacting. If Vira really had been an ordinary recruit – as she kept on stating – she wouldn’t have dared to speak back to him like that.

This time, the Admiral didn’t pull Vira up on her inappropriate behavior. Park could still feel the Admiral’s gaze as it locked on him. She was obviously willing to give him one last chance to pull Vira into line.

Why? Do you think there should be something more?” he asked Vira.

When we are out there, there will be no chain of command. There will be no one above you. There will simply be you and me. You wanted to know before whether I can listen – and the answer is I can. You also wanted to know whether I can comprehend and follow orders – again, the answer is yes. But that’s not the question you should be asking – it’s whether you have the right to give me orders.”

If she’d pulled a stunt like that on Commander Sharpe, he would’ve eviscerated her. Hell, any commanding officer would punish a cadet for sassing them like that.

Park had to take another track. He was adaptable, after all. “My head is clear.”

You’re hung over. Before you say you aren’t – I can see you are,” she emphasized the word see as she looked him up and down. “Somebody who has the right to lead must be able to shoulder the responsibility. If you can’t control your own desires long enough to prepare correctly for a mission, then I do not trust your abilities to control yourself while on a mission.”

That’s rich coming from someone who’s never seen any active service and hasn’t left this room in 20 years. But let me open your eyes to the reality of missions. You need to test yourself in every way, be prepared for every damn thing that could go wrong. You’re right, I didn’t sleep last night – you’re right, I drank, too. But you’re wrong – that doesn’t make me less capable of going through with this mission – it makes me more capable. I can operate under stress. Without a wink, with a goddamn fuzzy head – it doesn’t matter.”

If you are likening partying all night to the stresses that come up on a mission, that’s a stretch. Also, you’re wrong.”

Park didn’t want to point out that he wasn’t following and he had no idea what he was wrong about. So he waited.

Sure enough, Vira ticked her head to the side, her hair trailing over her shoulders. “I have seen combat.”

I’m not talking about training,” he said dismissively as he waved a hand to the left.

Her gaze changed. He was starting to appreciate that she had a complicated personality, and that while, at times, she sounded like a child, at other times, she sounded like an erudite Admiral. Now?

For the first time, he caught a glimpse of the soldier. “Neither am I.”

Had the Coalition sent Vira on missions in the past 20 years? Was that just another fact the Admiral hadn’t bothered to share with him before this meeting had begun?

No, not in the last 20 years. Before then,” Vira said, her tone… strange.

Shit, he’d done it again – left his thoughts unguarded. But though he could admonish himself, he was too distracted by her expression.

He was good at reading people – but he had no idea what that far-off look in her eyes meant.

Though Park had already asked the Admiral where exactly Vira had come from, he’d been flatly told that he didn’t have the security clearance to know.

That question suddenly burnt brightly in his mind as Vira shook her head slightly and dismissed that far-off quality to her stare. “You have lost this argument, Lieutenant Park. You are inappropriate for this mission.”

You don’t get to decide when the argument is over.”

I think you’ll find as the physically stronger and mentally more capable individual that I do,” she pointed out.

Are you threatening me?”

She opened her mouth.

He got there first. “No, you’re not threatening me. I think you’re a lot of things, Vira,” he said, and it was his turn to let his gaze shift up and down her body, “but I don’t think you’re needlessly violent. While it seems your minders have failed to drum into you the necessity of proper social skills, I would say you fully understand the consequences of using your strength without reason.”

For the first time, he brought her down a notch. It was just a notch, and as soon as she looked crestfallen, she straightened her back. But it gave Park the hope he needed.

He took another step toward her, now half a meter from her and the couch.

She looked up at him.

He looked down.

What do you need to go on this mission?” He suddenly changed track completely, realizing he would need to radically shift this conversation if he had any hope of convincing Vira.

She looked confused. And that? It brought her down another notch. Park suddenly felt as if he were trying to chop down a redwood with a tomahawk. But Park was a seriously determined man, and even if it took him the rest of the day, he would bring Vira to task.

He didn’t explain himself; he waited.

Sure enough, though it took several seconds, she asked, “What do you mean?”

You want assurances,” he answered for her. “You want assurances that not only do I have the skills to guide you on the mission, but that the orders I give you will be fair, just, and in line with the Coalition’s needs. The answer is I can’t give you those assurances.”

He allowed her a moment to look satisfied. She pushed up from the couch, and considering he was close, that meant she stared up into his eyes. She may have been several inches shorter than he was, and that could’ve momentarily fooled his body into thinking she was no physical match for him, but the look in her eyes reminded him she could blast him right into space without a second’s thought.

She opened her mouth, obviously to tell him to leave. He got there first. “You will never get any assurances that a mission will go to plan. Assurances won’t save you, Vira – only adaptability will. You want to know that I’m the right man for this job. But you have no way of knowing because you’ve been stuck in this room for 20 years, living your life vicariously through those screens,” he added.

Though he’d brought her down two notches so far, that comment was like a sucker punch. He wasn’t expecting it to be that powerful, either – it had just been a throwaway comment. But boy did it affect her.

Though she’d been staring defiantly up into his gaze seconds before, she jerked her head down and looked away.

The strength of her reaction made him pause, but not for long. If he wanted to win, he had to attack now. “Despite your superior senses and the fact you can tell from one frigging glance that I’m hung over,” he admitted, “you still don’t have enough information to assess whether I’m the right man for this job. And that, Vira, comes back to my original point. You may be technically powerful, but you’re not everything. You’re part of the Coalition,” he emphasized the word part, “and you have to trust that every other member of the Coalition wants peace just as much as you do. That trust, however, comes at a cost. Maybe Admiral Forest doesn’t have a subspace weapon and she can’t transport of her own volition, but she doesn’t need to to be able to make good decisions. Neither do the other Admirals. They’ve given their lives in service to the Coalition, and they will continue to give their lives in service. You may think you’re stronger and better than everyone, Vira, but I hope you appreciate that that comes at a cost. You may not value your own fragility, but the people without your skills do. To the admirals and captains, lieutenants, ensigns and cadets of the Coalition who have ordinary, fragile biological bodies,” he said, emphasizing fragile just as she had, “combat costs more. To us ordinary individuals, we cannot afford to make snap decisions. We must act only on the best information and with the strongest morals. So trust,” his voice punched out on the word trust, “that the Admirals have made the best decision. You don’t know me,” he went back to repeating, “you don’t like me,” he added, “but you need to trust me.”

Vira looked confused, and it was quite a sight. She’d recovered from his throwaway comment about her living her life vicariously through screens, but she obviously didn’t know how to reply to his impassioned speech.

Her gaze cut toward the Admiral, and that was all Forest required.

She cleared her throat. Though she’d been watching the conversation until now, she took several steps toward them. “Vira, everything Park said is correct. We did not make this decision lightly. We have looked at every combat specialist we have, and we have come to the decision that Park is the most capable for this mission. Will you work with him?” she asked simply.

Park wanted to point out to the Admiral that she was giving Vira too much latitude. It wasn’t a question of whether she wanted to work with him – she was part of the chain of command, and if the Admirals chose, then Vira did.

Park didn’t dare mutter that out loud, and he was careful to keep control of his thoughts so Vira couldn’t pick them up.

He waited.

The Admiral waited.

And Vira, with one more confused glance between the two of them, allowed her shoulders to deflate. She also took a step backward. There was nowhere to go – the couch was right there behind her. That didn’t matter as her body simply gracefully bent, hovered for several seconds, then fell down with a thump. She allowed her hands to drop into her lap and her head to slouch forward. “Fine,” she said in a defeated tone.

The Admiral looked relieved.

Park had won, technically, but he still wasn’t willing to bow out yet. “What did you say, Vira?”


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