She stalked forward.
Her mind was made up.
She would destroy the holographic generator. Then she would find the Observer. She would end this. It didn’t matter if she had to reveal herself.
She wouldn’t simply wait around to listen to the psychic screams of all of those students. She wouldn’t stand and watch the end of another civilization again.
Sally didn’t scream. She made no sound at all. She just ran.
It was easy enough to figure out how to get out of this maze. You just had to consistently turn toward the path that looked more dangerous.
The sprites didn’t concentrate on her. She could tell that they were choosing instead to feast on the terrified minds of the cadets further into the maze. When they did come, Sally ensured she ran past them as quickly as she could.
It wasn’t long until she’d make it out of the maze now.
She kept telling herself that Joseph would be saving everybody. Because if he didn’t… Sally would have to end this. With nothing more than a click of her fingers, she could make the holographic emitters explode. But the King….
As Sally ran, she closed her eyes.
She remembered being Layra. She’d been nothing more than a simple fool. A young princess who had trusted everyone and everything.
But when the King project had begun, it had been decided that she’d been too weak to join. Instead, they’d wished to sacrifice her weak psyche to the King to strengthen it. The King virus, after all, needed to practice and feed. And what better people to do that on than the weakest minds of the Hendari?
But Layra had found a way to fight back.
“The weak are strongest when it matters most,” she muttered to herself, a variation of her favorite mantra.
She kept muttering that as she took another turn into an even darker section.
The standard remit of the hologram still ran. That was to say there were drones and even Barbarian warriors. She had to shoot through them.
She ensured every single shot counted.
She knew she was close to exiting the maze now. She had no clue what she would find when she got out there.
The Observer energy… it wasn’t as prominent as it’d once been. Perhaps he’d ported in, done what he’d wanted, and left.
Though Sally hadn’t made a sound, she now let out a scream. It was tortured, angry, full of the frustrations of the millions of minds that had been kicked down by the Observers for far too long.
She reached a large room. It was the end of the simulation. Three Barbarian warriors appeared.
Sally was tempted to simply click her fingers and extinguish them.
Hell, while she was there, why not crumple space? Why not call on the crystals to rip this entire section out of reality? She could create a permanent scar, a reminder never to mess with her.
She could pretend all she wanted that she was the greatest strength in the universe, yet she had the greatest weakness too.
Sally didn’t bother with the Barbarian warriors. They were nothing more than a distraction. She could see the end of the maze right there.
There was a small hatch door. Next to it was a big one.
She just had to get to it.
One of the Barbarian warriors sliced toward her. He had an electro whip in his hand.
She had to duck behind a cargo box, and the whip smashed into it. Then she rolled out of hiding.
She blind fired over her shoulder. She could’ve fired on them with perfect accuracy. She just focused on the hatch door.
With one well-placed shot, she blasted it off. And right outside, she could see the training facility.
Just as all three Barbarian warriors shot in to grab her, she rolled right through.
Sally’s back struck the crash mats.
The room was empty. Of people. A holographic control panel was just there in the middle. It floated and had presumably been ported into the room after the simulation had begun.
The gun she had was solid-state. It would operate as if it were a real gun.
Sally brought it up and started firing.
The holographic panel had minimal shielding. So she just had to keep firing.
She ran right up to it, locked the gun against the panel controls, and blasted round after round into it. When that didn’t work, she swung the gun around and smashed it into the top screen. Finally sparks erupted everywhere.
She pulled the gun back, and she did it again.
With one last attack, the shields cracked.
Sally kicked the back panel, wrenched it open, shoved a hand in, and pulled out the primary control crystal.
Then everything dimmed and began to flicker off. It was somewhat of a letdown considering everything that’d come before.
With a crack, the holographic wall behind her disappeared. The simulation was being run behind it.
She turned, just as the gun disappeared from her grip.
One by one, sections of walls disappeared as the holographic field failed, and it revealed cadets in varying states of distress. Some of them were hunkered together in groups, holographic guns in their hands. Others were down, injured but still alive.
Soon it would reveal Joseph, though. If he was still standing with his subspace blades in his hands, it would compromise his identity. Even if he had his holographic mask on and his cloak, people would wonder where he was.
With another fizzle, the entire simulation failed.
Joseph finally appeared. For a fraction of a second, she saw his cloak and one of his subspace blades before he turned and they disappeared.
Everybody started to pick themselves up. Nobody had any clue what had just happened.
Joseph clearly did. He might have been a good 50 meters away, but that didn’t matter. He turned slowly, and he faced Sally.
She held his gaze.
Finally the doors to the room opened. In walked Carlisle. He was flustered. By his side? Anna.
So Anna had done this, then? She would’ve had assistance from the Observer.
Ah, didn’t this make sense? She’d taught the students how to give in to Scarax psychics yesterday. The best way to ensure her poisoned lesson had worked was to test them. Hence the psychic sprites.
“What the hell happened?” Willis said as she tried to push to her feet. Even from here, Sally could tell she had a busted ankle.
A cadet rushed in to help her.
“We passed the test, right?” Jerry said with a group of the other E Club cadets. “It was crazy,” he said with a loud whoop. “But we passed, right?”
“What the hell was that?” Joseph growled, his tone dropping like a stone. He didn’t speak louder than everyone else. But the menace in his voice made up for it.
He stared right at Anna.
She smoothed a controlled expression over her face. “That was a special kind of test.”
Carlisle still didn’t look happy. He had no clue what was going on, did he?
“Special kind of test?” Joseph barked. Right now he wasn’t acting like a cadet. He was like the lieutenant he really was.
“I’m sorry, students. But you will not be facing simple Barbarian strike ships anymore. No matter how much we wish to hide from reality, we are at war with the Scarax Galaxy. They utilize psychic sprites. So this simulation was modified to use them and test you all.”
To see how easily everyone would fall, Sally wished to add.
Sally knew she had to stay quiet. She couldn’t. With every second, her ire rose. “That was… a simulation?”
“Yes, as I have already told you all, it was only a simulation,” Anna said tonelessly.
“Yeah, and we won. We won.” Jerry beat a hand on his chest, the thumps echoing everywhere.
“The simulation should’ve run a little longer,” Anna said as she shifted her attention over to Sally.
“What did she do?” Jerry growled.
“Defeated it sooner than expected,” Carlisle jumped in. He didn’t look happy that he had to defend Sally. But he still looked completely thrown by what had happened.
What? Had Anna just walked in, told him what she’d do, then requisitioned his class? Or, more likely, she’d twisted his arm psychically so he couldn’t refuse?
Sally… she wanted to end this. Right now. She wanted to march up to Anna, look in her eyes, and challenge her mind.
She wanted to yank the goddess within her right out into the harsh light of reality so everyone could see.
But she was somehow not the angriest person here.
Joseph took another step forward. “This entire thing was out of line.”
Anna blinked at him. “Cadet,” she said specifically.
“Yes, Cadet,” he growled back. He emphasized that with a huffed breath. “We’re just students. People could have died.”
“Nobody would’ve died. It might’ve seemed that way, but we needed to test you. There comes a time when predictable exams must stop. If you really wish to excel out there in the stars, you must know how to fight your enemies.”
“That wasn’t right,” Willis said in a quiet voice.
“You do not get to decide–” Anna began.
“But you do, do you? Aren’t you just a counselor?” Sally’s voice was quiet, but she somehow had more menace than Joseph did.
“Cadet,” Carlisle began. “You might have exceeded everybody’s expectations,” he said in a truly flustered voice, “but—”
“Well, because I’ve succeeded everyone’s expectations, I choose to speak my mind anyway. You’re just a counselor,” Sally said again, emphasizing the word just. “So what are you doing instructing our combat classes?”
“I may be just a counselor,” Anna emphasized just as well, “but as the resident powerful psychic—”
“You wanted to test us to see if your lessons worked? Did they?” Sally gestured toward the cadets. “Did anyone who followed Anna’s advice from yesterday actually find it worked? Or, if you tried to block off your weakest moments from the psychic sprites, did they just attack harder?”
“Sally, you’re way out of line,” Carlisle said, dropping decorum for a moment and calling her by her first name. Probably because he was still so damn flustered, the poor guy couldn’t catch up.
Sally wasn’t about to back down.
Anna kept her gaze. Sally could feel the anger bubbling within the goddess. She had to hold herself back.
Sally had maintained her position. Now she took a step forward. Anyone would be able to see it was threatening.
“We have discussed this, Cadet. I am psychic. And you do not have sufficient psychic energy to be able to comment on such matters. You have quite a small mind, in fact,” Anna said strictly.
A couple of members from E Club laughed. Nobody else did.
“That as it may be,” Sally said as she opened her hands out wide, “but I still remember our conversation from yesterday. To successfully be able to block yourself from a psychic attack, you need time and practice to be able to keep your most traumatic memory from them, don’t you? Do you really think the students have had time to practice sufficiently in the past 16 hours?”
The silence became even sharper.
So Sally took another step toward Anna. “It strikes me that you were setting the students up to fail. Why? Wanted to see how fast they would fall?”
“Cadet,” Carlisle snapped.
Anna simply shifted a hand toward him. It was a dismissive move. She managed to control her lips, probably even thought she had a polite smile crumpling them. Sally could see right through it.
“You do not get to decide as a mere cadet what your fellow students will face.”
“I just have to mop up after it, do I?”
“Mop up after us? Did you hear what she said? We defeated—” Jerry began.
“Shut up, Jerry,” Sally snapped. She didn’t let any psychic energy out. She could have. And it would have shut him up for good.
“I won that damn simulation, Sally—”
“That is enough,” Joseph said. Up until now, Sally had been standing on her own. He came to a stop beside her. He looked right at Anna.
“You made your point, Counselor,” he said strictly. He turned to Carlisle. “There are injured cadets here. I think whatever debrief we are going to have over this should happen later.”
That snapped Carlisle into action.
He still looked supremely uncomfortable at everything that had just happened, but he pulled his wrist device up and made some calls.
That just left Sally staring at Anna.
Sally could see the goddess’s mind beneath. It practically writhed with the need to reach forward and snap Sally.
“Good cadets must be able to control their emotions at all times. You might find yourself with the lowest marks in this class for your outburst, Cadet Winters,” Anna said.
So Sally took a step forward. Enough. She could feel Anna was planning something.
Sally could’ve figured out exactly, but that would involve reading Anna’s mind. It would only reveal Sally was a psychic. And then? She’d have to reveal the rest, wouldn’t she? But maybe it was time.
She took another step forward, but Joseph weighed a hand down on her shoulder.
Sally stopped. She’d never felt like this before. It wasn’t because of the warmth of his hand. Nor was it because he stood beside her.
“Let the injured cadets head to the med bay. We can debrief about this later,” Joseph said as he looked right at Anna.
She nodded, made some platitudes, and left.
It took Sally a long time to turn and stare at Joseph.
She expected anger. She’d practically threatened Anna, after all. Instead? What she got was a confused, muddled, crumpled smile. Then a quiet but just discernible, “Thanks.”