It was a new day.
She intended to wait until her flatmate left. It soon became apparent from the nervous energy in the main room that she was waiting for Sally.
Once Sally dressed, she strode out to see her.
Willis was hiding behind the kitchen table. Both hands were gripped on it as if she needed to secure herself in place lest she was blown away by Sally’s fury.
Yet Sally showed no fury. “Head to class, Willis. Don’t worry. You will not get in trouble over what happened yesterday. I won’t complain to anyone. You did nothing.” She went to walk out the door.
“Why are you like that?” Willis asked through a swallow.
Sally didn’t need this. Last night, she’d communed with the crystals. It hadn’t assisted her to find the Observer, but it had told her that this was more important than ever.
He was out there somewhere, wreaking havoc. And Sally would… stop him.
She would find a way to do it without jeopardizing her primary plan. She might’ve accused Serena of wishful thinking yesterday, but Sally didn’t have the brainpower to recognize she was engaging in it right now.
“Why are you so cold? You… Serena slapped you yesterday. Have you forgotten? I let her into our flat. Nobody likes you, Sally. How… how can you keep walking around with your head held high?”
“No one ever likes the weak.”
“Once you get over that, you realize there is inherent strength in being weak anyway.”
“That makes no sense. When you’re weak, you’re not strong.”
“On the contrary. You survive things that the so-called strong people would never be able to endure. One of the reasons they hate you is they know they can’t become you. What you face would crush them.” Sally headed toward the door.
“Why do you speak like that? Why don’t you have any friends? Why aren’t you normal?”
Sally knew what was going on here. Willis desperately wanted to say sorry. She had to make sense of what happened. But rather than jump to it, she was twisting her feelings around and around as if she was trapping them in her fingers.
Sally reached the door. She paused and turned over her shoulder. “Do you want to know the real answer? I’m like this because I have to be.”
“What does that mean?”
“That out there there’s something I have to do.”
Sally opened her mouth. She almost told her simple flatmate the truth. Out there, was a mental virus like no other. Out there, was something called the King, and unless Sally did everything she could, and ultimately sacrificed her life to take it down, one day the universe as they all knew it would end. There’d be no more Academy. There’d certainly be no more E Club. There wouldn’t be a chance at redemption from a failed exam. All there’d be was vicarious control that would never be able to be broken.
“Have a good day, Willis.” Sally turned and marched out the doors.
If she’d used her astute mind on herself, she would’ve realized how high her shoulders were. Instead, she strode down the corridors.
She was earlier than she liked to be. Which meant that she had to endure people’s stares. They came in thick and fast.
Some cadets were from E Club, and they muttered as she strode past. Several words were repeated. Cheat. Fake. Ticking time bomb.
If they wanted a ticking time bomb, they could turn around and look at themselves in the mirror.
Sally had to wait for the elevators. She would go to use them, but others would rush in first and close the doors.
She’d experienced this before. On many different planets, from many different people.
The Queen wasn’t just one mind. She’d started off that way. When Layra had finally risen up, rejecting the life of a sacrifice, she had drawn the other weak minds of the Hendari toward her. It hadn’t stopped there.
When the Queen virus had left Hendari space, it had traveled the universe, coming across other weak minds. Others that had been tossed away to rot and die.
Their psyches had been pulled into the Queen.
Sally had literally trillions of stories to call on. An uncountable number of incidences just like the one unfolding right now. Where someone was pushed to the side, not because they were unworthy – because others believed that in their presence, they’d be less likely to win.
Sally waited there until every other cadet had streamed past her and taken the elevators.
She heard soft footsteps behind her. It was Willis.
The elevator was called again.
Willis paused, then walked in. She hesitated.
Sally dipped her head down. “You don’t wish to be seen with me. It’s fine.” She took a step back.
“No… it’s just….”
Willis dropped eye contact.
The elevator left.
Sally stood there.
She repeated the mantra the Queen had repeated her entire existence. In weakness there is true strength. In weakness there is true strength.
Finally the elevator came again, and Sally rode it down.
She almost expected to see Joseph. It was becoming somewhat of a routine of theirs. He wasn’t there.
So she was alone. And late. 15 minutes late to be exact. To top it all off, today was a combat simulation.
She strode across the empty grounds. She should’ve paid attention – assessed them for any energy similar to the Observers. She did – on some level. Primarily, she stared at her feet.
She made it to class.
Fortunately the doors weren’t locked. She opened them and walked in.
There was Carlisle addressing the class.
He was ready for her. He’d already whirled on his foot. “What time do you call this? What excuse do you have to be 15 minutes late for an important combat simulation?”
Sally opened her mouth. She could give him the truth. You couldn’t be late for something that didn’t matter. Then she stared at everybody’s faces. The hatred had grown today.
Anger was a relatively easy psychic emotion to detect. It spread beyond somebody. She wasn’t just talking about their expression. She meant the vibe around them. If someone was sufficiently angry, that emotion could jump from them and infect people close by.
Now the entire room looked apoplectic.
They all stared at her as if they wanted her dead.
So Sally stared back. Only one person didn’t react like the rest. It was Joseph. He looked….
She pulled her gaze off him quickly. How he looked was irrelevant.
“Cadet, you haven’t given an excuse,” Carlisle barked.
“Because you don’t want one.”
Carlisle bristled. “What? Are you talking back to me?”
“No. You requested a response. I gave you one.”
“I don’t like your attitude.”
“Seems no one does,” she whispered.
“You’ve been late too many times. You—”
“It wasn’t her fault,” Willis squeaked.
She was standing amongst members of the E Club. Maybe they’d finally pulled her into their fold now they saw a use for her. Everybody turned and stared at her. Their gazes hardened.
“What was that?” Carlisle hesitated before he asked.
Willis grabbed her hands. She secured her thumbs in against her palms until the flesh dimpled.
Serena muttered something beside her.
“Cadet?” Carlisle said.
“It wasn’t….” Willis began.
This wasn’t Willis’s fight.
Sally knew Willis’s primary goal was to be accepted by the E Club. If she did this, they would blacklist her.
“I’m late because I don’t see the point to this,” Sally said quickly, knowing the only way to save Willis was to jump in first and make a distraction.
“You don’t see the point of a combat simulation?”
“You schedule these things as if, in space, battles are easily scheduled too.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Carlisle hissed. “Have you had much battle experience, Sally? Ever been in a threatening situation at all?”
There was a general smatter of laughter.
“No. Never,” she lied.
“I know your kind. You freeze. You’ll never be able to save anyone. You can’t even save yourself. Now,” Carlisle growled, “go pair up with anyone who would actually be stupid enough to partner with you. The simulation begins in two minutes.”
Sally shrugged and walked away.
Willis tried to make eye contact with her. Sally didn’t look her way.
The unkind muttering continued like the hum of a puttering engine. Sally ignored them.
She was fully prepared for nobody to partner with her. It would be better. Sally had to think. She still didn’t know what the Observer would do—
“Are you all paired up? Anyone on their own will have to partner with a hologram,” Carlisle said. “Sally, that means you—”
Someone stepped forward. Joseph. He’d been standing at the back of the class with his hand in his pocket. Now he put that same hand up. It had a certain commanding presence. He should realize it was off-character for him. He was meant to be the clown. He was the happy-go-lucky one. The guy who, apart from his charming attitude, didn’t stand out from the crowd. Now here he was, literally standing out from the crowd.
Sally didn’t want to admit this, but her stomach did something. While the Queen inhabited her form, this was still a mostly human body. So it could feel things with racing hearts, pounding breath, and shaking nerves.
“I’ll partner with her,” Joseph said.
Several members of the E Club turned around and stared daggers at him. None more so than Jerry.
There were some mutters, too. Pretty much along the lines of if Joseph knew what was good for him, he’d walk the hell away.
“I can actually hear you guys muttering, you know? You’re all about as subtle as a brick to the side of the head,” Joseph said clearly.
“What was that?” Carlisle snapped.
“I’m not entirely sure all the other students here are ready for their simulation yet, that’s all,” Joseph said louder.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Carlisle’s tone softened. He wouldn’t know Joseph was a spacer. But Joseph, apart from being middling at combat, was a relatively good student. At least compared to Sally.
Now he walked right over to her.
Sally tilted her head back.
Joseph chuckled slightly. “Haughty doesn’t suit you. You can’t pull it off. Haughty is for queens.”
Her eyebrow twitched. It was quick, and it didn’t last, and fortunately he didn’t pick it up. “Why are you pairing up with me, Joseph? You don’t need to feel sorry for me.”
“Trust me, I don’t feel sorry for you. You deliberately put your foot into that. And I’m sure she’ll thank you later.”
Joseph, shoving his hand back into his pocket, turned around and looked over at Willis. She was back amongst the club. “I didn’t pick you as somebody who sacrificed for others. Then again, I know what they don’t, don’t I?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “What’s that?”
“They’re wrong about you. When I was threatened last night, you jumped in first.” He settled his gaze on her, and….
She was stronger than him. In every way. She had access to Hendari crystals. She was a mental virus made up of untold minds. And yet he somehow seemed to have a far more knowing look in his gaze.
It stilled her for a few seconds. She almost felt a flush climbing her cheeks, but then there was a beep.
“We don’t even know what the simulation’s about,” he muttered. “Whatever it is, I can tell it will be worth a lot of points. Lucky you’re with me.”
“And why is that?”
“I’m good at passing.”
“You’re good for a lot more than that, Joseph Lance,” she muttered.
She momentarily forgot he was a spacer. He could be across the city, but if he were attending to her, he would pick up every syllable she muttered, no matter how quietly.
He arched an eyebrow just as holographic emitters shot up out of the floor and the room around them began to change. “What does that mean, Sally Winters?”
She tilted her head toward him. “Don’t hold back, Joseph.”