The War of the Gods Book One Chapter 27

Sally Winters

As soon as she got into her room, everything became irrelevant. She got ready to transport, but there was no point. The Observer energy was gone again. She simply didn’t understand how it worked. The Queen had destroyed many Observers over the years, snapping the path that allowed them to port their minds from the Hendari worlds to the rest of the universe. It was simple and quick. Once she detected Observer energy, she simply followed it. They used a specialized kind of Hendari artifact to create their mental paths. Once located, they could easily be destroyed. And that was it. But this Observer energy kept appearing and disappearing. Either the Observer himself was porting continuously in and out of the Academy, or something was going on she’d never encountered before.

She didn’t bother to sleep that night. She spent the entire time staring out of the window, waiting for the Observer to return.

Though… perhaps she did not spend all her time waiting.

Her mind… it did what it wanted to. It roved around, sometimes focusing on the King, but more often than not, it locked on Joseph’s smile. The many smiles he’d shot her now.

Whenever it spent too much time on him, she would always ball her fingers into a fist and lightly strike her cheek. When that didn’t work, she would strike her leg far harder.

Now was no time to be distracted. The situation was quickening. For Anna to have passed such a complete psychological net over the cadets meant that the next attack on the Academy would be imminent. Then would come the chance. The one chance she was going to get to head back to the King and destroy him.

When morning finally broke, the oranges and purples of dawn bleeding in through her window and lighting up her crystals, Sally had to move her stiff body around to face the door.

She might harness the Queen’s mind, but her joints were still human. If she didn’t call on the power of the Hendari crystals and let them course through her blood, she was vulnerable.

She ignored her weakness.

She unstuck her feet and walked out.

There was Willis. She sat at the kitchen table. There was food in front of her, but she hadn’t touched it. She appeared to be concentrating on picking at her thumbs instead. She shot up at the sight of Sally. The first thing she noted was Sally was in the exact same clothes she’d worn yesterday. “You didn’t sleep, did you? Are you… okay? Because I’m not.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t stick by your side—”

Sally lifted a hand to silence her. “It is going to be more critical than ever that you don’t stick by my side now. The E Club is attempting to move on me. Presumably today they will claim that I cheated. I will go into a disciplinary meeting. Willis,” she said directly, “just do what the club wants you to do.”

Her cheeks twitched. She looked as if Sally had slapped her when all Sally was trying to do was save her career. “You can’t be serious, right? Why would I compromise my morals like that?”

Sally wasn’t expecting such an impassioned statement, and she blinked quickly. “To save—”

“Who cares about my career at a time like this? What does it mean to be a Coalition Academy recruit?” She stabbed a finger toward the main corridor. “I saw… a different side of the Academy yesterday. It’s not a side that I want to have anything to do with.”

“Don’t worry. It will end. Everything ends eventually.” Sally went to walk away. The conversation clearly wasn’t over. She simply hoped by extricating herself from it, Willis would realize the best thing to do was to keep her head down.

“Sally, stop being so damn cruel.”

Sally froze.

“I’m trying to say sorry. I’m trying to stick by your side.” Willis flattened a hand on the table and rose. She also looked as if she hadn’t slept last night. There were dark circles around her eyes, and her limbs moved with less coordination than usual. She still resolutely stepped over to Sally. “I’m not going to let them bully me into losing the only thing I have right now.”

“What’s that?” Sally asked quietly.

“Friendship.” She delivered that line with such confidence, it was as if she was stating a well-known fact of the universe.

Willis… she’d had precious little to do with Sally in the five years they had been living together. What they had was not friendship. It was a loose association.

And yet the look in Willis’s eyes suggested otherwise.

“I know that’s pretty rich coming from me. And I’ve done nothing but ignore you. I look back on that time now, and I realize it was wasted. I was so desperate to get into E Club,” she opened her palms and stared at them, “that I forgot what mattered. I let them make me think that reaching the top is all that counts to become a good Coalition soldier. It isn’t. It’s connecting with other people. It’s creating the kind of strong moral friendships that can’t be broken. The kind of moral friendships,” she added, “that keep one another on the straight and narrow.”

“… I don’t understand,” Sally whispered.

“Sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from doing the wrong things. Sometimes we get caught up with crazy situations or something else happens to us. And sometimes our problems seem so big that they blind us to their solutions. But if we’ve got strong friends, they can help us. I’m trying to say I’m your friend, Sally. I’m not really sure if I have the right to say that. It’s up to you.”

Sally was floored. Far more floored than she should be. Here she was, preparing to find the Observer and end this chapter, and Willis was….

Willis took a breath through clenched teeth. At first she looked a little saddened by Sally’s lack of response. Then she actually grinned. “Sorry. This is kind of new to you, ha? You don’t need to say anything, anyway. I’m telling you that I’ll stick by your side. E Club deserves nothing from me. I know what you did for me the other day in combat class. You helped me out. All they wanted to do was use me. So I’ll be here for you. You need a buddy to go to your disciplinary meeting with?”

Sally was still too surprised by what had happened to even answer. A part of her… actually wanted to answer yes. And the rest swiftly reminded her that it was highly unlikely she would even make it to her disciplinary meeting. She was more determined than ever to find the Observer. Then… she would have to see what happened next. She wanted more than anything to destroy him. She couldn’t waste her energy….

Willis suddenly pushed forward. She hugged Sally. Just like that.

And just like that, Sally was pulled out of her problems.

Willis pushed back. “Sorry. Just looked like you needed it. I guess I needed it too,” she said with a deep sigh. “I really don’t want to go out there. God knows what E Club is going to do. You think they’re going to accost you again?” she asked nervously as she once more started to pick at her thumbs.

Sally was still trapped in the moment Willis had hugged her.

Sally understood how weakness was treated in many societies. It was always the same. The weak were driven out. And she had been ready to assume that role yet again. Yet here Willis was… connecting of her own accord. More than that, she was sacrificing. And make no mistake, Willis would give up everything if she walked out there by Sally’s side. She would become a target too.

“Joseph said that we could call security if they got too aggressive. I don’t really know if that’s going to work, frankly. I have no idea what’s going on with the Academy, but Jerry should be the one going up in front of the disciplinary meeting. He isn’t. So—”

“Joseph said that?” Sally said in a falsely light tone.

Willis grinned, her demeanor changing. “You bet you he did. He delivered it with the kind of line that suggested that if they didn’t do anything, he was gonna take on the entire Academy for you. When did you guys get together, anyway?”

Sally had been floored before. Now… she became vacant. It took too long to answer. “We are not together.”

“Okay. I’m sure you will be soon, though.”

“That will not happen.”

“Can’t fight destiny,” Willis laughed, for the first time sounding happy since they’d started discussing E Club.

“I’ll be dead before then,” Sally said flatly. She didn’t mean to tell the truth, but it was true, nonetheless.

The only destiny she had was to sacrifice her life to finally destroy the King.

But the certainty was too much for Willis. She paled. “What did you say?”

“Never mind. I simply… statistically it is likely that some of us will not survive the Scarax war.”

“Sally?”

“We should head to class. I don’t wish to be late today. It will be further demerits against me in the disciplinary meeting.” She turned quickly. She reached the door.

Willis rushed up behind her, ready to question Sally again. She stopped. They walked outside, and yes… there was E Club.

But there was also Joseph.

He’d just reached their level via the lift. He walked out.

Some guy from E Club tried to get in his way, but Joseph just stared him down.

Sally found as she watched him that every other thought left her head.

Joseph was doing this of his own free will. When she’d changed his mind, she’d only done so to ensure that he never suspected her of being the Queen.

But this… he wanted to do this.

Incorrect, she corrected herself. For the moment he found out she was the Queen, all of this protection would end.

She found some of the heat that had rushed up her cheeks at his presence disappearing. It felt as if someone had poured ice-cold water into her heart.

Jerry at least wasn’t here.

Joseph stopped in front of Sally. “Let’s head to class.”

“You actually think you’re gonna get through class today?” somebody muttered. It was a guy who was high up in the club.

Sally looked right at him. “Unlikely,” she muttered.

“Finally giving up, then?”

“I’m giving in to statistics. Understand this, you are not the most powerful force out there. You are Coalition Academy cadets. The Scarax Galaxy is still our enemy.”

Nobody reacted to her words. It was like they couldn’t hear them.

The psychic fields were worse today. Their anger was more infectious than ever. If an infected E Club cadet stood too long next to an ordinary cadet, the anger would spread naturally just like a highly infectious virus.

Only strong minds would be able to withstand it. Technically a spacer didn’t have a strong psyche. But Joseph….

He inclined his head toward the lift. “Let’s get to class. I’m sure it will be a great day,” he muttered through a forced chuckle.

Willis walked beside Sally. It took several steps to realize Willis and Joseph were trying to block her off from the other cadets.

They needn’t bother. With a snap of her fingers, she could end it all. But….

There was a funny thing that happened to one’s mind when they realized they were virtually all-powerful but that power could not be used. It allowed a special kind of weakness to take one over. It wasn’t a weakness of mind or body – just will.

Sally had never really cared too much about it. Until now. She’d been so focused on reaching the King that the dramas and pain of ordinary people had slipped into the background. Until now.

She watched both Joseph and Willis have to endure the dark stares and mutters meant for Sally – all to protect her. And Sally could do nothing.

They reached the elevators.

They took them.

Fortunately they were alone.

They rode them down to the ground floor.

Out they walked. And there was Jerry.

Sally looked at him with a different set of eyes today.

He was still the same old Jerry. He still had the same desire to be the top, no matter what, and that desire still had the same weakening force on his psyche, allowing Anna’s virus to wreak havoc with his mind. She stared at him with a new set of eyes, though. She ultimately didn’t care what he could do to her – because he could do very little. What about Willis? What about Joseph? Joseph might be a spacer, but his situation was always a precarious one. Neither of them deserved to go down for her.

“We’re all here to see you off, Sally. It’s over for you. You’re gonna get kicked out today. As you should be.”

“How can you be so damn confident of that?” Joseph snarled as he squared off in front of Jerry.

Sally didn’t set out to read Jerry’s mind. It was far too easy, though. The holes in his psyche were widening. His thoughts were leaking out like blood.

So it wasn’t hard at all to detect what was making Jerry so happy. He’d planted evidence on Sally.

Evidence that she’d cheated in all of her exams.

It seemed rich, considering Sally was scraping by in most of her classes. He’d also created evidence that she was trying to influence teachers.

She looked at him evenly.

He would not have been able to do this on his own. Anna had helped him.

Which meant Anna needed to get rid of Sally. The question was why? Was it solely because Sally had snarled at her during class? A Scarax goddess would not abide by people insulting her.

It couldn’t be that Anna had any suspicion whatsoever that Sally was the Queen. If she did, the Scarax goddess would leave, running with her tail tucked between her legs.

“You done?” Joseph asked, perceptively narrowing his eyes and realizing that Jerry looked as if he held all the cards.

“The truth will come to light today,” Jerry snarled.

“Yes,” Sally said simply. The way she said it was disarming.

Even Jerry faltered. “So you admit—”

“I admit that all this will be over soon. You will no longer have to be concerned by the petty disputes of the Academy.”

“Is this where you tell us that the war is coming? That all of this is irrelevant? That we don’t have the strength to protect ourselves from people like you? Is this where you tell us that you’re the greatest force in the universe, and with just a click of your fingers, you can fix everything? Go ahead and fix it, Sally,” he said, snarling through every word.

Sally did not move. What was there to do? Her words couldn’t get through to him.

But his words… they could get through to her.

She was the greatest force in all of the universe. But with the click of her fingers… what exactly could she achieve?

She needed the power of the Hendari crystals to get back to the King. And then she needed every single scrap of energy she could scrounge to finally defeat him.

She wasn’t the greatest power in the universe, was she? She was simply in the greatest prison.

“Shut up, Jerry,” Willis tried.

Jerry just laughed. “You were an idiot to pick her side, Willis. You’ll get yours,” he growled.

“Has everyone forgotten that we work for the Coalition Academy?” Joseph spluttered. He was doing a good job keeping his anger in check for now. Or partially in check. He was becoming tenser and tenser. He wasn’t entirely keeping hold of his subspace particles, either.

One of these days during an argument, Joseph was just going to accidentally port around the room like a bouncy ball letting off steam.

Sally wouldn’t let that happen. Just as she wouldn’t let Willis be dragged down.

She took a step up to Jerry.

His eyes willed her to do something. He clearly wanted her to punch him. That would get her kicked out, right? He’d grabbed her yesterday and tried to drag her out the doors, but he’d smoothed it over. If she did the same, it would result in immediate dismissal.

This was just a test to break her.

But this boy knew nothing of what she would do when she broke.

“You should be careful, Jerry,” she said, all the force leaving her tone. Barely anyone would be able to pick it up save for him.

He actually flinched.

She didn’t use most of her psychic force. She used but a drop. And yet she needed nothing more to influence his mind – nothing more to snap him like a sapling under a cruiser.

He took a tense breath. His shoulders shot up high. His skin became clammy.

“You should be careful you don’t get everything you wish for. You’ll find our greatest desires are our greatest traps.” With that, Sally broke away, releasing her power.

It had been a foolish move. One she would regret, but it had its desired effect.

Jerry shivered.

Nobody around him heard anything, so they didn’t know why.

He staggered.

Sally strode right past him.

Willis hurried up to follow, but Joseph lingered.

Out of everyone, he’d be the most likely to have actually heard what she’d said. Yet had he felt her psychic powers? And more to the point, could he recognize them? Even if he could, he couldn’t suspect her. But if she kept pushing, revealing more and more, even Joseph would figure out who she was.

Sally strode right out of the doors, right between the parting cadets. She reached the ground.

The anger still writhed within her, ready to hit boiling point. She could walk straight back up to Jerry and click her fingers. And then she would do as promised. She would deliver every single thing that he wanted. It was the exact same weapon she’d used on Admiral Ninev.

During the attack on the Academy, he’d threatened everyone in his foolish attempts to access the Coalition’s crystals. Sally had intervened. She’d locked him in his own mind. She’d created a psychic loop. One that would be unbreakable by anyone but her. Right now Ninev lived in his own thoughts. He inhabited the exact galaxy he’d been trying to create when he’d attempted to steal the crystals.

Jerry could do the same. She could fool his psyche into looping around its fantasies. But the cost would be that he would never wake again.

“What happened?” Willis grabbed the back of her head and scratched her nails down her scalp. “He just gave up.”

Joseph was conspicuously silent.

Sally wouldn’t turn to him. “Nothing. Perhaps he finally realized his goals are useless,” she said, breathing too fast.

This was a slippery slope. If she kept getting involved, she wouldn’t stop. She’d march right up to Anna, and she would reveal the goddess to all. Then what? Sally would go after the Observer publicly? What then? Would she stick around to save the Coalition from the Scarax Galaxy? And then? She could fill in that one at least. And then she would lose the power she so desperately needed to end everything.

Sally had one goal, dammit, and if she lost sight of it, then none of this would matter. Willis would die. Joseph would die. Every single person in the entire damn universe would die. Or at least, they would live a life far worse than death. The King would infect their minds and control everyone.

They reached the main teaching buildings.

Sally couldn’t slow down. Do that, and she might have to face what she’d done.

“I don’t have the same class as you right now,” Willis muttered. “What do you guys have?”

“Psychic defense,” Sally said automatically as her mind unraveled, her eyes widening vacantly as she stared at the far wall. She… she could see herself giving up everything to save the Coalition. But if she did that, it would just condemn everybody. Why couldn’t Sally pull her head together? Why couldn’t she do what she’d been doing for millennia? Why did this feel so much worse than it ever had before?

She came to a stop on the steps.

Willis had to rush off. She turned, waved, and ran to class. It would be the only way to ensure the club didn’t catch up with her.

As for Joseph…?

He slowly leaned forward. He grabbed up Sally’s hand. That’s when she realized she’d squeezed her fingers into a fist. It was so tight, she’d drawn blood. It trailed down her wrist, a darting line of red like a swirl of icing on a pale cake.

She reacted to Joseph’s fingers, her hand loosening as if nothing could stay whole around him.

“It’s all right, Sally,” he muttered.

She couldn’t hear his voice – her head rang. Was that suspicion? Had he heard and seen what she’d done to Jerry?

He—

Joseph pulled her forward.

Cadets strode all around them. They could see him holding hands with her. He had to drop her hand and pretend to have an argument with her now. If he wanted to save face, he had to—

But none of this mattered. At the end of the day, it was completely irrelevant. The King—

“Take deep breaths, Sally. You’re okay now,” Joseph said with utter confidence. It was not the voice of somebody who was so suspicious they were about to drag you to the closest brig.

It was the voice of somebody… who cared.

So Sally took a deep breath, and it was only then that she noticed that she was breathing far too shallowly.

As she’d already pointed out, she nominally had a human form. At any time, she could bolster it with the Hendari crystals. Until she did… she could experience what it was to be fragile.

Students saw her. The muttering began.

It was harder to endure this time around. And yet… easier.

Joseph didn’t move a muscle. He stayed with her, his hand over hers. He ensured her fingers couldn’t curl too hard in and indent her palms again, even as they passed students that threatened she’d get her comeuppance soon.

They made it to psychic defense class.

It was only then she realized she had to have her wits about her. Anna would be in there. Sally had to pull herself together. She had to….

Joseph leaned in. “We can just skip class if you want.”

She turned and looked at him.

Perhaps he hadn’t thought she’d do that because he was still close. Close enough that she could see his subspace energy. It was always there, just under his skin. People were mad not to detect it. They were fools for not noticing that Joseph was so different from everybody else.

It was only that difference that right now anchored her, that allowed her to plant her feet, that allowed her to breathe.

Slowly, it was as if a cloud that had passed over the sun parted.

“Don’t hold hands with that thing in front of class. It’s disgusting,” Jerry snapped from behind them.

He shoved Sally’s shoulder. She jostled.

Joseph got that look again – the one that told her he was getting ever closer to revealing himself.

It made her realize something very important. She wasn’t alone on many levels here.

Here she was, grappling with who she ultimately was and her incalculable power. Here she was, stuck between the weakness that was having the ability to do something but not being allowed to. And here Joseph was, experiencing the exact same thing.

She felt a surge of his subspace particles. They were much stronger than before. She was certain that if she didn’t do something, Joseph would finally port. So it was her turn to shift her fingers around and hold his.

That was all the distraction he needed.

Until Anna strode up behind them.

“Cadet Lance,” she said in a voice that was just dripping with manipulation. “Is there something you wish to tell me?”

Joseph turned. He didn’t drop Sally’s hand, though. It was almost as if it had melted into the background, becoming so natural, it was as if Sally was now part of him.

His expression was… conflicted around Anna. It wasn’t outright suspicious, but he certainly didn’t smile. “Anna—”

“Counselor is a more appropriate term,” Anna corrected. She stared at Joseph’s hand.

He still didn’t pick up what she was on about.

Sally thought of politely letting her fingers drop, but instead, she took the opportunity to pry into Anna’s psyche. Not completely. If she tried to skim Anna’s thoughts, there was every possibility Anna would figure it out. To do it without being detected would require energy Sally couldn’t afford.

Joseph had done the one thing nothing else could. He’d calmed Sally’s mind. He’d put her mission in perspective yet again. She did not reveal herself. Not yet.

“It’s inappropriate to hold a student’s hand before class,” Anna said strictly.

Joseph finally figured it out. He didn’t look shocked, though. He usually did when he realized he was getting too close to Sally.

He dropped her hand, but it was more accurate to say that he let his fingers slip back. There was no fear or embarrassment in the move.

He looked at the blood on her wrist.

Nobody else did. Or if they noticed it, they didn’t care.

Everybody streamed into the room.

This class had far more members from E Club in it. More than she remembered. Had Anna stacked it against Sally? Or was Anna simply filtering through the students, finding the ones she could manipulate most? And weren’t E Club ready targets for her? All a psychic needed to get into your mind was a strong motivation. If they found one lurking around in your head, they could use it against you.

You didn’t need to do much digging to figure out what E Club wanted. They wanted to be the best. So if you handed them a tool to do that, they gave you the keys to their heads.

Sally went toward the back of the class. She stopped. She turned, and she sat right in front.

Jerry sat beside her. Joseph paused, arched an eyebrow at her, shrugged, and sat on her other side.

All the while, Anna kept her eyes on him.

It was clear she wanted to pull Joseph away and question what kind of relationship he had with Sally. She couldn’t do that yet.

“I will be your teacher for the rest of the semester. There is much you need to learn. Weak minds are easy fodder for the Scarax Galaxy,” she said with the kind of certainty that should’ve told anyone she knew that from experience. She looked right at Sally.

Sally tilted her head and stared back.

She wouldn’t have been able to do that if Joseph hadn’t rescued her from her own emotions. But Sally was back, all right. And she was fully in control.

“Today, we will explore our most traumatic memories.”

“In the hopes they will be able to defend us from strong Scarax Galaxy psychics?” Sally interrupted.

Anna’s lips pared back. “You do not need to be reminded of that fact. That is a basic lesson. Do you not have the mental acuity to be able to remember such things?”

Jerry guffawed with laughter. It was way over the top. He sounded as if he’d snapped.

The rest of E Club had entirely too much fun, too.

Joseph on the other hand crossed his arms and looked at Anna stonily.

She only had eyes for Sally. “I must say, you have a remarkably weak psyche, Sally Winters—”

“That’s a particularly inappropriate and unprofessional statement,” Joseph snapped. Back was the lieutenant.

Anna bristled. “Cadet, I do not need to be policed by you—”

“But if you do keep this up, you will be policed by someone. Cadets aren’t here to be threatened by you, Anna,” he said, choosing familiarity over her title as counselor.

She hid her anger well. She held her hands in front of herself. “As I already said, today, we will be going through each cadet’s most traumatic memories.”

“Publicly?” Sally asked.

“Cadet Winters, I see that you’re putting your hand up and offering to be the first candidate. If one can be open about their most traumatic memory, and their peers can help them through it, it will mean that they are much stronger the next time they encounter a psychic.”

Sure, unless that psychic was the very one they were sharing the traumatic memory with. Then the psychic would be able to turn around and use it like a noose.

“You have volunteered, Cadet, so please, tell us your greatest trauma.”

“This is wildly inappropriate,” Joseph began. If he kept going like this, he’d port out of the room and come back with an army.

“I get to set this lesson, Cadet. Please do not interrupt again.”

Yeah, Anna got to set the lesson. Because she now had her fingers firmly around the faculty, and she could do what she wanted without being questioned. Sally could get up. She could leave. She could make a scene. All that would mean was that some other poor cadet would have to share their trauma, and Anna would know how to get into their head easier.

So Sally stretched back. “I died,” she said flatly.

“You seem alive, Sally Winters. Do you not know the difference between life and death?” Anna said sarcastically.

People laughed. Anna could just breathe, and E Club would chuckle as if it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They were connected to her and did whatever she wanted unconsciously without realizing they were the equivalent of puppets on strings.

“I was brought back,” Sally said.

Joseph still wanted to fight this. At the same time, she could feel his need to find out more about her.

“And where did you die?”

“On a colony world,” Sally revealed evenly.

“What occurred?” Anna asked. She was practically licking her chops. She inaccurately thought this would be the way into Sally’s head. Sally could almost feel Anna sharpening her psychic tools.

“There was an attack.”

Joseph stiffened.

“By whom?”

“Barbarians. We were close to the Rim.”

“I see, and what happened exactly?”

“I was waiting for my friends. They were older than me. I was somewhat of a nuisance to them, I suppose. They told me to wait for them.”

“You, a nuisance? I can’t possibly imagine,” Anna snarled.

“Counselor,” Joseph tried. His heart wasn’t in it, not because he didn’t think Anna needed to be controlled. Just because… he seemed unsettled.

Her story was cutting close to home for him.

“Do you remember who your friends were?” Anna asked.

Sally glanced to the side. “I admit that the memory of their names has drifted away. I recall their faces though. There was one boy who was half hagorian, half human. He had long hair tousled down to here.” She flicked her hand against her side. “There was another boy. He was fully hagorian. He was already two meters tall by the time he was eight,” she chuckled.

“Fascinating details, but—”

Yeah, yeah, Anna wanted her to skip ahead to the trauma so that she could get right into Sally’s psyche and start rooting around like a chicken in a veggie patch.

Sally was strangely drawn in by this reminiscence, though.

“There were several other kids. But there was one,” she laughed. “A young boy, just a couple of years older than me. Fully human. The only thing I remember about him is he had a birthmark. It was down his back. Looked like a map of the galaxy from the right angle. I liked him. Followed him everywhere. Did anything for attention,” Sally laughed once more.

Anna got the exact ammunition she wanted. “None of this surprises me. You seem like the kind who would do anything for attention, Sally.”

On cue, E Club laughed. But Joseph did nothing. He was ramrod straight now. He just stared at her. His breathing had become a little hard.

“How did you die, Sally Winters?” Anna practically salivated now.

“The other kids were going up the mountain for something. They told me to wait in one of the caves. Where our settlement was, the weather was unpredictable. You could have scorching hot summers. The days could get up to 45 degrees easily. But there was a mountain just behind the outpost. And there were caves up there that were always cool. I waited in one. They never came.”

Joseph almost couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t a problem, because he didn’t need to. But he had to keep up the impression that he required oxygen just like the rest of them.

“And how exactly did you die, Cadet?” Anna snarled, wanting to get up to the juicy part already.

“There was a hole in the cave. We called it the black hole of death. Slipped down it. Cracked my skull.” Sally tapped the side of her head.

Anna waited. Waited for that moment when Sally’s trauma would come gushing down like a freshly let wound. Didn’t happen, though.

Sally was completely calm. There was one person who wasn’t.

Joseph hadn’t breathed for an entire minute. Sally had been paying too much attention to Anna. She’d just assumed Joseph was worried Sally would become emotionally overwrought by her recollection.

Now Sally’s senses locked on Joseph just in time. Subspace energy was building around him. She saw a flicker over his knee and one dart up to his elbow. They connected around his lips as he broke them open to whisper, “Faxan A?”

Anna narrowed her eyes.

Everyone would start staring at Joseph soon. It was becoming obvious he was more affected by Sally’s tale than she was. Worse than that, he started to leak more energy. Subspace crackles began appearing around his lips. If he continued, Joseph really would reveal himself.

Unless Sally did something.

She punched to her feet.

She walked straight up to Anna. No holding back. “You got my traumatic memory out of me. Now, what can you do to protect me from strong psychics like yourself?” Sally slipped in the words like yourself as loud as she possibly could.

“Cadet Lance,” Anna said, trying to ignore Sally.

Sally was not the kind that could be ignored easily. “I’m talking to you, counselor. You extracted my most traumatic memory out of me, so how is it going to help me protect myself against you?”

That finally got Anna’s attention. “I am the counselor. I am here to—”

“Open holes in our heads?” Sally tapped the side of her face. “You’re here to help us drag our traumas out into the light. But pray tell, how do you honestly think that you will be able to fix them so that psychics, just like you,” Sally emphasized, “won’t be able to use these new holes you formed in our heads against us?” She ensured she was just as obnoxious and loud as she possibly could. It meant every eye was on her.

“Sit the hell down, Winters,” Jerry growled. “Or I’ll make you.”

“Go ahead, Jerry. Stand up in front of the class. You’re the teacher’s pet, aren’t you? You can tell everybody your greatest trauma. Do it right in front of Anna, and let’s see what Anna does? Will she be able to fix it? Will she be able to cover over the hole in your psyche so that no psychic will ever be able to hurt you again? Or will she just let them further in?”

“You will sit down right now, Cadet Winters. Your behavior here will be—” Anna tried.

“Shared with the disciplinary meeting. I’m sure you’ll be sharing more things with them too, won’t you?” Sally asked sarcastically. “What gives me the impression that you’ve been sharing information about a lot of people around here on campus, Anna? You know it is illegal to read people’s minds, right? I guess it’s not illegal to drive holes into their psyches to make them weaker when they encounter other psychics though, is it? No. That is illegal too.”

“Sit down now, Cadet Winters,” Anna snarled.

“This is a farce. This is not psychic defense class. Nobody here knows how to defend themselves against a psychic.”

“Except for you?” Anna said. She took a step toward Sally, and it was threatening. Simply not physically. Sally could feel Anna unwinding her mind. It was like a snake getting ready to strike.

For a moment, Sally stopped paying attention to Joseph. She attuned instead to the Scarax goddess within Anna.

The goddess, whoever she was, certainly was a powerful psychic. They must’ve sent one of their best. Perhaps she had controlled Hands of the Gods before. Or perhaps she had simply been bred for this specific purpose.

More and more psychic energy unfolded around Anna. Nobody else noticed.

Except Joseph.

He rocketed to his feet. Without a word, he grabbed Sally by the hand and pulled her toward the door.

“Cadet Lance—” Anna began.

Joseph said nothing.

He yanked Sally right out of the door.

“Joseph?”

He wouldn’t say a word. He wouldn’t even look at her. His energy changed.

Had she done something? Had she finally revealed what she was? Or had Joseph figured it out and realized there was no point in protecting someone like the Queen?

No. Because he kept a hold of her hand. He didn’t turn around, even as Anna spilled out into the corridor. “Cadet Lance—”

Joseph wouldn’t turn. He pulled her away until she was out of sight.

Sally just watched him.

Finally he opened his lips. “Sorry,” he hissed. He seemed to say it from the very bottom of his heart. Something shook up his chest. It was more than emotion. It was this great psychic need. It was one that, if Sally hadn’t been the Queen, would have floored her.

She’d felt it before, though. It was often the same psychic need she’d encountered whenever so-called weak souls had reached out to her to form part of her psychic mass.

It was Sally’s turn to be silent. She couldn’t breathe, just like Joseph. But hopefully Joseph didn’t notice.

He kept pulling her away. His wrist device flashed. She was also fully aware of the fact that he got several neural communications. He ignored them all.

Sally finally gathered the force to part her lips. “Where are you taking me, Joseph?”

“Away from here.”

“Away from… here?”

“Somewhere far away,” he hissed.

“Why?”

Joseph stopped. His limbs became jerky. He leaked subspace energy. It crackled down the side of his hand.

Cadets were walking past.

It was Sally’s turn to lean in, grab his hand, and pull him on.

She soon found a secluded set of stairs. She stopped. She kept hold of him. She would control his energy even if he couldn’t.

He would not give up his secret for her. Joseph Lance seemed strong. He was, in so many ways. But he needed this. He needed the Academy, needed to keep his friendships. It normalized an otherwise solely traumatic life.

He didn’t force her hand back. Didn’t really pay attention to the fact she was holding him at all. He inched his shoulders onto the wall. It felt like he was about to collapse.

“I—” he began.

She went to shift away but not too far. He just grabbed her hand harder and held her in place. “You have to hear this. I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Sorry for what?”

“For not coming back,” he said. He closed his eyes. The skin around them became so pressured, he would either start to cry, or his subspace particles would rip right through his cheeks.

“What are you talking about, Joseph? You’re here right now.”

“Sorry I didn’t come back for you, Sally. I couldn’t. I was attacked.”

“What are you talking about, Joseph?”

“Faxan A,” he hissed.

“Which is what exactly?”

His brow scrunched down. “The name of the planet you come from. The place you… died,” terror gripped him as he said that.

She blinked. “I don’t know the name of the colony world. All I have are a handful of memories. How—”

Joseph pushed forward. He grabbed her shoulders as a wave of emotion took him. “That boy. The one you followed around. I know his name.”

“How… how could you know his name?”

“Tyler,” he whispered.

Sally froze.

The name felt right. It even unlocked a recollection. She remembered his smiling face. She remembered the hundreds of times she’d followed him straight up to that cave, walking around in his wake, doing whatever he and his friends wanted to do just so she could be near him.

She stopped breathing. She stopped functioning.

Usually memories were not blocked off to the Queen. She would not allow them to be. But Sally’s mind had been so young when it had been absorbed.

“Sally, it was me. I was Tyler,” he hissed, tears charging down his cheeks like speeding cars.

“No,” she shook her head. If Joseph… if she’d known him… she would have remembered. Nothing was hidden from the Queen, she practically screamed in her head.

“I can’t… I can’t believe this. We know each other. How… how did you survive your fall? What happened? Don’t tell me the Barbarians took you too.”

This was where she had to ask why he was taken by Barbarians. She knew the answer. She was aware that Joseph had been taken by Master Deus of the Kore Empire. Presumably the Barbarians had sold him in the slave markets to Kore traders. She’d just never known the name of the planet Joseph had come from. She’d never known….

The Queen could not be undone. It was simply not within her mental parameters. She was so strong because she understood the strength in weakness.

But there was another lesson about weakness she’d never learned, not over her millions of years of lifetimes.

It allowed vulnerability. And when you are vulnerable, you—

“I can’t believe this. You’re really her, aren’t you?” He touched her face with a trembling thumb.

Sally couldn’t move.

Her mind couldn’t function, so she didn’t realize that they had company until Admiral Forest strode right around the corner and stopped, her arms crossed.

She stared at Joseph.

Joseph had ignored untold neural communications from her.

She would not be ignored anymore. “Joseph,” she said, trying to break him out of his reverie.

He wouldn’t be broken out. “It was me, Tyler,” he hissed.

“Joseph, you will come with me now,” Forest said with a deadly even tone.

“I can’t believe this. You—”

Sally took a step back. She….

He just grabbed her hand. “It’s me, Tyler—”

“Joseph. You will come with me right now,” Forest said. She had a commanding tone. She technically didn’t have any psychic abilities – that didn’t matter. She knew how to force emotional poignancy into her voice. It finally worked on Joseph. It was like he was broken out of a dream.

He turned and faced her. He looked shocked that she was standing there.

“Now, Joseph. You will come with me now.”

Joseph took a hesitant step back.

It was Sally’s turn to want to grab onto his hand. This didn’t make any sense. Joseph couldn’t have been the boy from that planet. But he’d known Tyler’s name. He….

Sally shook her head and grabbed her face.

“We’re transporting, Joseph,” Forest said simply.

And Joseph was whisked away.

Once more, Sally Winters was on her own.

On her own with a head full of memories that wouldn’t come out and with one burning question in her heart.

Who the hell was Joseph Lance?