Across from him, Karen and Heidi were working on their second glass of red wine and a bowl of gluten-free crisps. Ethan and Beth were to his right, their beverage and snack of choice being beer and wings. Allen was a dangerously quiet lump to his left. Summer was at the bar getting food and solicitations for her phone number. It had been almost twenty-four hours, but everything was still fresh and raw, seeing as Heidi, Ethan, and Summer had only recently recovered their missing twenty seconds. Migraines prevented their defrags until this afternoon.
“Can we just forget about it for tonight?” Heidi said, trying to coax Karen into a better mood. “And get your hand out of that bowl before you put on ten pounds,” she added.
Lips pressed, Karen shoved the bowl to the center of the table. “As far as I’m concerned, it was a major screwup and we deserve to have to repeat the test.” Karen slumped in her chair, staring at the bowl. The woman was a rail. Ten pounds would look good on her.
Elbows on the table, Ethan tipped his bottle up and took a swig. “They don’t run them again for another six months. I checked,” he said, wiping a drop from his tidy beard.
Allen stirred. “I’m not waiting another six months to graduate.”
A collective sigh sent guilt through Silas. Maybe hitting Professor Milo had been a mistake, but that paled in comparison to the professor taking a bullet in the rewrite. That Silas might end up out on his ear—irreplaceable skills and techniques aside—would be a real concern if half the administrating body hadn’t wanted to punch the distasteful man on more than one occasion. Let them die. Bullshit. He had a feeling his punishment simply hadn’t been decided yet. They’d probably put him in charge of the freshman drafters, every one of them a maddening mix of justifiable arrogance and insecurity.
He was guiltily grateful that no one at the table blamed him, even if it was his actions that led to their failure. It had been their mistakes that put him in the position to have to make that decision, but no one wanted a classmate to die.
“Six months,” Karen groaned, pulling the bowl back to herself. “Our lease is up in two weeks. Silas, can we crash with you and Summer?”
“No.” Silas’s eyes went to Summer as she laughed, the tone telling him she was trying to diffuse a situation at the bar. Seeing someone standing a smidgen too close to her, he put on his leave-my-girl-alone face, hunching his shoulders to look more massive when she cheerfully pointed him out, the ribbon that had been around the chocolates now in her hair. Beside him, Allen chuckled as the student’s face twitched and he turned away.
“I’m not waiting another six months to graduate,” Allen repeated, pushing his glasses back up his long nose.
Ethan set his beer down hard. “You have another choice? It’s not as if we can long-draft back and try again.”
No, not yet, anyway. Frowning, Silas dropped his gaze to the data he’d gotten from Summer’s double-draft. There had been an unexpected sink of gravity paralleling the secondary Doppler shift. He wasn’t sure if it validated his theory that drafters were creating a temporary, parallel universe when they drafted, then yanking that created pocket of parallel existence into the current one, in effect allowing a reboot of time. If that was true, drafting back further in time was possible—apart from the massive damage it would do to the drafter performing it.
Silas hit the PROCEED key to start the data-compiling, and the screen went clear to conserve power. Under it, the table was scratched with initials in a heart, and Silas’s lips twitched. “I wouldn’t do anything different if I could long-draft,” he said.
“I would.” Ethan’s jaw was tight as he looked at Allen in accusation. From across the table, Karen and Heidi clinked glasses and downed their drinks.
Allen raised a hand in placation. “We all would, but they’d still fail us. Professor Milo is right. We treated it like a game, not reality.”
A smile crossed Silas’s face, his psychology training coming to the forefront. It never failed to amaze him how tooth-and-nail they could be with each other until one of their own was threatened, and then there was no doubt of their loyalty to each other. But then again, Opti took steps to foster that kind of behavior.
“It was a game.” Silas slid down the bench as Summer approached with a plate of fried vegetables. “They dress you up in training suits and give you guns that don’t hurt anyone, then set you all against each other to fetch a box of chocolate. They aren’t treating it seriously, either.”
“They are now,” Ethan said as he held up his hand to show the silver band around his wrist. Silas was the only one at the table without one. It had a tracking chip in it, a product of their probation. The only reason Silas was exempt was because they knew he’d find a way to get it off, and then everyone would know, when he shared the information.
“I’m going to lodge a formal protest,” Allen said as he glumly twisted the band around his wrist before hiding it behind his sleeve. “Who do I go to for that?”
Ethan snorted as Heidi looked into the bottom of her wineglass. “Milo,” she said softly.
An odd sensation of protection and pride pinged against Silas’s thoughts as Summer’s tall, willowy frame eased past Allen and easily shoved him down so she could sit beside Silas. Allen went without complaint, happy to be at her other side, if not the focus of her immediate attentions. The plate of fried vegetables steamed, and she wiggled closer to Silas, touching almost his entire body’s length. The scent of her hair was everywhere, and he put an arm around and behind her simply to maintain their balance.