She didn’t bother to sleep that night. There was little point. She did technically require it – or her human form did. But with powerful mental techniques, she could go months without resting.
She’d spent a long time out on the grounds last night. Her intention had been to track the Observer down. Until Joseph had come along. He’d just… waited above her, watching her watching the stars. It had been….
Sally moved quickly. She didn’t even think about waiting until her flatmate was gone. She strode out of the door to see Willis waiting for her. She paused.
Willis looked uncomfortable. She clutched her hands too tightly. “I’ve been trying to catch up with you. I think… I need to warn you.”
“About E Club? Do not worry. They have already brought their aggression directly to me.”
“Look, it’s bad. I don’t… I’ve never seen them like this. I… something isn’t right. You should just be careful. I… I know this sounds wild, but why don’t you just quit?”
“If I could’ve quit, I would’ve done so a long time ago. This is one of the few times… I want to see this through to the end,” Sally said, revealing nothing with her words but everything with her gaze.
The more Sally traveled with the Academy, the more… it was more personal than the other civilizations she’d seen falling. She’d never been as close to destroying the King. She wanted to tell herself that… but maybe it was something else. Maybe every time she closed her eyes and thought about this, she thought of Joseph, and she didn’t know why.
“Look, Sally, I really don’t know what’s happening on campus now. But—”
“Don’t worry, Willis.”
“We’re talking about the entire E Club. I heard them say some pretty crazy things. I think they’re going to make you out to be a cheat.”
“They will require evidence.”
“You don’t understand, Sally. They’ve—”
“Lost their minds,” Sally said quietly. She hadn’t chanced upon that term. She’d felt it yesterday.
It was a revelation to Willis. Her eyes widened. “I don’t really know what’s going on—”
“Keep your head down. Do not associate with me. You will drag their anger onto you. They will likely ask for you to give witness. Do what you need to. I won’t hold a grudge against you.” Sally turned toward the doors.
Willis took a quick step, her boots squeaking along the polished floor. “How could you say that? How could you… just stand in the way of their onslaught for me? I… I don’t deserve it.”
“Nobody deserves what’s about to happen, Willis. But that’s the nature of war.”
“Why do you speak as if you’ve been through so many wars before?”
“Too many to count,” she muttered under her breath.
“Sally, you can’t be that much older than me. What are you talking about?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just get to class. Keep your head down—”
Willis moved over, snapped a hand in, and grabbed Sally’s arm. “And what if I don’t want to? You know how hard it was yesterday watching you just stand in front of the elevators? People… they treated you like a monster. You just let them.”
Sally didn’t intend to react. What was there to react to? She’d already come to terms with what her peer group was doing. They were by and large simply scared – though some of them had clearly now received unfortunate direct tutelage from Anna. Sally’s hand still curled into a fist. Her shoulders still hardened. And Willis still saw.
“You don’t have to pretend to be so strong. Go to the faculty. Ask for help.”
“There is no help to give me at a time like this. The Academy is rightly distracted. Willis, I said it was okay. You don’t need to stand with me. If you do, they’ll simply target you. It would be assured personal destruction. I am aware of the fact that you always wished for acceptance from the E Club—”
She jolted back. “It wasn’t acceptance.” She sounded injured.
Sally didn’t want to turn. She told herself it was simply because she had something to do. What if it was because she didn’t want to see Willis’s expression? Did Sally even have to see it with her eyes? No. She could detect it with every psychic sense she had. But….
“I don’t want to be accepted by them. I just want to….”
“Get by?” Sally suggested in a quiet tone. It was something that came from deep within her. How many so-called weak psyches had the Queen absorbed that had simply been trying to get by? Unlike their peers, they hadn’t reached for the stars. They’d just wanted to exist. But to the strong, existing is the purest act of weakness.
“Yeah. I just wanted to get by. Do you know why I joined the Academy?”
Yes, Sally did. It was because her father had been a scientist who’d died on a mining transport about an hour before Coalition help had arrived. Willis’s goal had been to ensure that didn’t happen again. It was a foolhardy hope – for people would always die – yet it was still admirable.
“I don’t want little girls to grow up like me.” Willis looked at her feet.
“There is no problem with who you are, Willis.”
“I don’t want them to carry my trauma, okay? I wanted to make a difference out there in the galaxy. And ever since I joined, they told me E Club was that difference. They get better training. They get better access to resources. Everybody who joins E Club tends to get better positions.”
“Better isn’t necessarily better.”
Willis sighed. She planted a hand on her head and started rubbing her brow. “I guess you’re right. Who gets to decide what’s best? I just… want to get through this. I want to survive the war. I want to make a difference. But—”
“Then do not get involved.” With that, Sally reached the door. Willis didn’t stop her.
Sally strode out into the corridor just at peak traffic time. There was a sea of cadets all heading towards the lifts.
They parted for Sally, not to allow her to get past, but as if touching her would poison them.
The muttering started.
“Shouldn’t you just leave? Get the hell out of here before the war begins. You’re just going to drag us all down.”
Sally strode toward the lift. She would’ve waited, but this time she did not wish to. She walked straight in.
There were already several people in there. One of them was Jerry himself.
She stopped right in front of him and stared straight into his eyes.
She needed to feel exactly what kind of damage Anna had done to his mind. That said, when a psychic places a seed of anger inside someone, they must already have the conditions for it to grow. If a person knows their heart and understands how to get rid of fear-filled anger, they can often unwind even the most powerful psychic’s attack. Jerry… did she have to tell you that his emotional system right now was the most fertile ground she’d ever seen for rage? He could practically grow a forest of it.
One of his nostrils actually flared like he was a bull. “Do you think you have the right to travel in an elevator with me?” he growled.
Fortunately the elevator was quick. It took several seconds to reach the bottom of the tower. Sally continued to stare at him then turned to walk away.
But that would be when Jerry shoved out of the lift and grabbed her wrist.
The first floor of the accommodation block was seething. There were hundreds of cadets in here, all heading toward the doors. Everybody stopped.
All eyes were on Sally yet again.
Jerry’s grip was hardly loose. If she had been an ordinary soft-fleshed race and not simply nominally human, it would’ve even bruised her.
She sighed, her shoulders like a wobble board.
She turned to face him. “What is it that you plan to do, Jerry?”
“Kick you right out of this Academy once and for all. You don’t get it. You’re too damn oblivious. You’re the worst cadet the Academy has seen in years.”
There was a lot of laughter. It didn’t come from every cadet. Some of them looked a little nervous.
Perhaps they could hear what Jerry couldn’t. His voice sounded strained. It was the kind of tone you’d get from a psychiatric patient.
The elevators kept functioning. Other students walked out to get to class only to stop dead at the scene.
“You’re good for nothing, Sally. Nothing at all. Just pack it in and leave before the war. Do us all a favor so we don’t get shot in the back for you.”
“Release my wrist, Jerry,” she said in an even voice.
“No. I will do what the Academy can’t do. People like you don’t deserve to be here.”
“And what is it about me that does not deserve to be in your presence, Jerry?”
“You’re weak,” he said flatly, his voice ringing out loud.
Sally turned and settled her gaze forward on the doors.
Inside, she thought of Layra.
A simple princess. Someone who had not known much of the world. Jerry would’ve thought her weak, wouldn’t he? For her ambitions hadn’t been as big as the other Hendari.
But is that what it is to be weak? When your views don’t match the majority’s, you must necessarily be beneath them?
“You think I’m gonna be stupid enough to ever serve beside you?” Jerry continued.
Sally didn’t shift her gaze once or turn to watch the spittle collecting around his lips.
She saw Layra the day she’d found out she’d be a sacrifice. That moment of pure horror was still in the Queen’s mind. In fact, it was the core around which the other psyches that constituted her gathered. It was like a point of singular gravity that would never be broken.
“Get the hell out of here now, Sally. This is your last chance.”
“What is it you’re going to do to me, Jerry?”
“Like I said, I’m going to kick you out of the Academy grounds myself.” He grabbed her wrist harder. He started to pull her toward the doors.
Based on the energy rippling off him, he was actually gonna do this. The E Club cadets all around him agreed, too.
As for the other cadets in the room? They were shocked by what was going on, but they weren’t doing anything. Nobody was going to call a teacher. Even if they did call one, there was every possibility they wouldn’t do anything.
The E Club and every student who’d studied with Anna was influencing the other cadets unknowingly. The combined hatred was like a vortex sucking everybody in.
Jerry got one step then stopped suddenly.
The elevators had just arrived. One person had taken a step forward, and despite Jerry’s combined psychic rage and strength, he couldn’t move a frigging muscle.
Joseph Lance faced Jerry, his fingers like steel beams as they held Jerry to the spot. He used a little more force than he should.
Jerry looked like a car that’d been pinned by a cruiser. His eyes widened. “Lance? What the hell are you doing? Get off me. We’ve all agreed that this is the right thing to do.”
“What the hell is happening here?” someone said from behind Joseph. It was Joseph’s flatmate, James.
He was about one of the only cadets who was having a genuine reaction. Possibly because he hadn’t seen the entire thing. He’d just entered into this crazy scene, and he hadn’t been inundated in the psychic vibes yet.
“You have one chance to let her go. That chance is now. So let her go,” Joseph said. Menace dripped off every word. This was not the tone of the happy-go-lucky joker. This wasn’t the charming guy who’d crack a joke but never tell you how he was really feeling.
This was Lieutenant Joseph Lance the Spacer.
Jerry’s cheeks twitched.
Sally might not technically be facing him. She might still have kept her gaze locked on the door, but she could detect everything that was happening with Joseph. You could’ve put several planets between her and him, and she would’ve still felt everything. Even if she would’ve had to use all of the combined power of the Hendari crystals, she wouldn’t have missed a moment.
Joseph didn’t hold back. He was walking the line between revealing who he really was and keeping his valuable identity secret, and he was doing it… for her.
“Lance, this is your last chance. You’ve been associating way too much with this piece of trash. You’re—”
“Jerry, this is your last chance. Let her go right now.”
“You know what she is, right? She’s a damn cheat. She’s been sleeping with Carlisle. That’s the only reason—”
Joseph went to punch Jerry. But in Joseph’s current mood, he would reveal everything. He’d probably leave Jerry in the med bay for a week. Sally turned quickly, grabbing Joseph’s hand before he could complete the move.
There was a moment where they made eye contact and only eye contact. The rest of the world just dropped away. Eternity became irrelevant. This was all that would ever count again.
It was one thing to be aware of Joseph’s expression remotely. It was another to actually experience it. It was the difference between noting a fire several miles away then walking straight inside it.
Joseph’s anger was real. This was all for her.
Her stomach twitched.
She hadn’t faced Jerry yet. She looked at him now. “You need to stop. Every single student here needs to stop. You must see reality before it’s too late. People are using you.”
“Using us? Shut up, Sally. You want to hear about being used? The only thing someone like you is good for is cannon fodder. You’re nothing but a damn sacrifice.”
Silence. Silence echoing in Sally’s head.
Nothing there but the void.
She was nothing… but a sacrifice.
She tried to keep her emotions back – tried to keep the horror of Layra from rising through her. She couldn’t. The horror didn’t last. It turned to anger like an entire planet full of flint going up with a whoomph.
There was no such thing as what Jerry was suggesting. Some creature so wretched and pathetic that all they were good for was a sacrifice for others. When that occurred – when people lost their humanity and turned on one another – they broke the entire point of society.
They created a mini Hendari civilization, just like the one the Queen had fled, and just like the one the Queen would destroy, no matter what.
Sally took a step toward Jerry.
This would end now.