Undermined. On every level. Cracking away like she was foundations someone had taken a jackhammer to.
She knew Joseph. Or at least his previous form. The young boy who’d been taken from Faxon A, broken by a Kore sect master, and turned into a spacer was none other than Tyler….
She could recall Tyler now. It was the only thing that could focus her. She saw flashes of his smiling face. Perhaps that’s what’d beguiled the six-year-old Sally. No matter what happened to Tyler, he’d always picked himself up, laughed it off, and kept going. Now?
She’d felt Joseph’s psychic wounds open in front of her when he’d grabbed her shoulders. Even now she could feel them, festering like sores that could never close.
Sally hadn’t gone back to her room. Nor had she returned to class. She stood in front of a set of windows with a commanding view, knowing there was no point. The faculty would come to her.
Not only had Forest transported Joseph in front of Sally, but Sally could feel that the mood of the staff members had changed. Not all of them. Some watched her carefully. They were the ones that had access to the basement levels.
Clearly word had spread that she was someone to be suspicious of. What? Did they think that she was the Scarax asset? She could turn around and reveal Anna. But what then?
Sally didn’t want to, but once more, she scrunched a hand into a fist. It was an unconscious move. It suggested there was far more tension in her body than she wanted to admit to. But that tension would be let out. It had to be. Bottle it up, and her head would spin from her neck, shoot around the walls, and blast off into outer space.
She kept telling herself that she had to stick by the Coalition’s side. When the Observers came to attack, the Scarax Galaxy too, it would give Sally a chance to investigate, gauge the Observers’ numbers, and plan her final attack.
Right now, if she so wanted, she could head right back to the Hendari planets. They were hidden in a pocket of space impenetrable to those who didn’t possess crystals and couldn’t call on their full power. That wasn’t a problem for the Queen. With just the click of her fingers, she could utilize five of the crystals at once, calling on their inherent strength to allow her to port right across the universe and right back into the heart of those deadly worlds. From there? If she closed her eyes, she could still recall the exact details of the chamber where the King was kept.
Artifacts spun around him – the same artifacts that allowed the Observers to port their minds anywhere throughout the universe. And the King? Technically nothing more than a black void at the moment. Allow him to grow, though, allow that parasitic mind to be turned on again, and it would smother the whole planet it rested within.
Sally couldn’t think straight. Her thoughts kept slamming against her as if she was a boat about to be scuttled.
But finally she heard footsteps.
“Sally Winters,” some lieutenant said in a strict voice, “you have been called up before the disciplinary committee. You will come.”
Wordlessly, Sally turned on her foot.
The lieutenant hadn’t been particularly loud, but a cadet was walking past. She quickly snapped her wrist device up and took footage.
Soon enough they had a crowd. She walked behind the marching lieutenant, and cadets gathered to watch the show.
There was Serena, her arms crossed, doing a good impression of some guard seeing off a ruffian. As for Jerry? Not here right now. Probably didn’t mean anything. Perhaps he would wait until the meeting was over and Sally was kicked out before he celebrated.
… Why think of these things? Why allow herself to keep following this lieutenant? Why engage in any of this? With one simple click of her damn fingers—
Sally shut the thought down. It cost her dearly. Her shoulders fell further, her head hunching forward. She stared emptily, emotionlessly, heartlessly at the floor.
To have great power but not be able to wield it was the greatest prison of all.
She finally reached a proper looking door on the second floor of the command level.
She could feel severe minds within. They were powerful, too. A few of them would even be admirals. One of them was Forest. Who knew what she’d done to Joseph? Probably locked him up somewhere. She would’ve definitely got him away from here. It was clear he could no longer be trusted.
Sally was keenly aware of one thing. If she hadn’t started to associate with Joseph, she’d likely still be out there, biding her time. But decisions had been made.
She took a deep breath as she walked in through the opening doors. The gray, glimmering metal with a prominent Coalition insignia slid back into the compartment in the wall soundlessly. It revealed a large, circular wooden table. Around one side was seated Admiral Forest, Commander Sharpe, and multiple heads of staff.
Their gazes weren’t exactly kind.
Sally just stood there and took them. Give her every hateful stare in existence, and she’d stand there and take it. She had and would continue to survive much worse.
With her hands clamped behind her back, she tilted her head up and stared on impassively.
There were great big windows behind them. They might’ve only been on the second floor, but it didn’t matter. The view was still startling. She saw slices of the green grounds, the gnarled oaks, and the various other tall towers constituting the rest of the Academy. She could even glimpse the ocean beyond. Peaceful. For now. Deceptively so. It was like somebody had come in and skillfully painted over a scene of destruction. The actual chaos festered within, waiting to be revealed.
“Cadet Sally Winters,” Commander Sharpe said with a powerful, booming tone, “you have been brought up in front of the disciplinary committee because of serious allegations against you. How do you plead?”
“I don’t bother to plead,” she said impassively.
She hadn’t had much to do with Sharpe, but he seemed a lot like Carlisle. A strict ex-soldier type who didn’t suffer fools.
Her comment elicited exactly the kind of response she expected.
“Cadet,” he growled, “do you have any idea how serious this is?”
“Ultimately irrelevant,” she said emptily. “In the grand scheme of things, this disciplinary meeting will be forgotten when the Scarax Galaxy rips through the Milky Way, don’t you think?”
Perhaps it was the way she delivered it. The cold certainty. The empty grace as she tilted her head back, stared at them all, and didn’t flinch once. Or perhaps it was the fact that every single one of them knew what was coming next and understood right now this was a farce.
For God’s sake, Admiral Forest was here. Didn’t she have something better to do?
It was Forest who now stood. Placing two steady hands on the edge of the table, she rose. She didn’t flinch back from staring at Sally. Nor did she blink once. “There’s evidence you cheated on your exams.”
“All of my exams,” Sally added. It was a mistake. How was she meant to know that? She could claim she’d overheard it from a cadet. The cadets would claim they’d never said a thing.
… Once upon a time, Sally hadn’t made mistakes. Her mind had been like a fortress. Now cracks appeared in every façade.
It all came back to Faxan A and one little boy called Tyler.
“So you admit—” Sharpe began.
“I’m barely scraping by in most of my classes. You would think, by cheating, I would’ve at least attempted to increase my marks,” she muttered.
“Did you cheat?” Forest asked.
“Have you been influencing staff members?” Her voice changed.
The smallest flicker of worry danced within Sally. It rose through her gut, sparked up to her throat, but quickly sank back down.
There was no way Forest could have any clue who Sally was. Sally wouldn’t be here if she did. She would be surrounded by the strongest soldiers the Coalition had. The Academy itself would be shut down. Hell, maybe even Joseph would be sent in to control her.
“Answer the question, Cadet,” Forest snapped.
“No,” Sally said evenly with a shrug. “Though I did tell Carlisle to keep his head down when I realized the E Club was trying to destroy his career and you had no intention of stopping them.” She faced Forest directly like a mountain that had no intention of getting out of the way for the sun.
She understood that Forest was one of the most important admirals in the Coalition. And she equally understood that her comment would be considered an insult. It was meant to be insulting.
This was a waste of everyone’s time when they didn’t need a distraction, when every second could be the difference between them winning and the entire galaxy falling.
Every single person at the meeting bristled. Sharpe looked so apoplectic, his face became the color of boiled beetroot.
Forest was the only one who didn’t react. She stared on blankly. “The welfare of staff members is not the business of cadets.”
“The welfare of every member of the Coalition is the business of everybody else,” Sally corrected almost immediately. “You may be an admiral, but you do not get to tell others who to care for.”
Sharpe jerked and went to jolt to his feet.
Forest shook her head. “This is not the only allegation against you, Cadet Winters.”
“I’m sure there are many more.”
“The counselor, Anna—”
Sally couldn’t hide her reaction. She leaned forward, pinched her nose, and laughed.
“What is that meant to mean, Cadet?” Sharpe roared.
“I didn’t go far enough,” Sally said, realizing it as the words slip from her lips.
“Didn’t go far enough?” Forest asked haltingly.
“In class. I stopped her. I should’ve kept going and proved she was a fraud. Tell me, who thought it was a good idea to allow a powerful psychic access to your cadets without supervision?”
“Again, the matters of the staff have nothing to do with you,” Forest tried.
“Again,” Sally talked right over her, a little of her queenly authority echoing through her voice until everybody had to pay attention, “you do not get to decide who cares for each other. In the Coalition,” her voice dropped to a register Forest couldn’t achieve, “it is the business of every single person to look after everybody else. That is how your civilization functions.”
There was a long pause. “Your?” Forest said quietly.
She’d been on a roll here. Her mind hadn’t quite functioned, though. She’d answered automatically in a last-ditch attempt to get these idiots to see what was going on.
Her lips twitched.
“Anna believes you’re a strong psychic, Sally,” Forest didn’t move as she spoke. She didn’t soften her gaze, didn’t sharpen it, either. She just stared on at Sally impassively.
So Sally stared back.
Right here, right now, she could reveal everything.
She could float up in a cloud of power, call her crystals to her side, and show everyone exactly what a powerful psychic looked like.
For a moment, she almost did. The stress of this mounting situation got too much for her. She needed to find a way out. Then she felt it. This disembodied sensation – this memory from nowhere. Joseph’s hands on her shoulders. His calming presence.
He wasn’t here. God knows where he was. But his effect on her lingered.
She closed her eyes and opened them. “Why don’t you stick me in the brig, Forest? Why don’t you let Anna come along and pry into my mind? This is where this is going, isn’t it? She wants access to me. You’re gonna give it to her. So sure, I’m a powerful psychic. I’m a Scarax asset. Hell, I’m the empress. I’m whatever you need me to be so Anna gets what she wants. Don’t you dare use your critical thinking. Don’t attempt to think on your own two feet. Do what the psychic tells you to do and fall right into her clutches.”
“Enough,” Sharpe snarled as he jumped to his feet.
Forest still had one hand locked on the table. Her body was crunched forward, her shoulders prominent. The tension running along them framed her eyes. Because there was no tension around those at all. Her expression was unnervingly easy. “Sally Winters, you will be taken to the brig for further questioning. This meeting is over.”
Forest paused before she walked away towards the doors. Right in the middle of the room, she inclined her head toward Sally. It was like she was waiting for something. What? Did she think that Sally was going to suddenly call on the Light of the Gods, reveal she was a Scarax goddess, and start ripping through the room? Did she think she had a psychic generator nearby and she’d call on an army of sprites?
For one more second, the desire to reveal her true form rose. It was stronger than it’d ever been before. She needed more than the feel of Joseph’s disembodied hands on her shoulders to hold her in place.
She needed… one wish.
All of this had to be worthwhile in the end.
This wasn’t the first time she’d faced a stacked meeting like this. Her millions of other psyches had faced injustices just the same. They’d been chased out of their worlds, framed, and attacked.
She had a library of so many mental images to call on, she could have used it to bury every single person here.
In weakness there is strength. In weakness there is strength, she repeated.
Then she turned, walked right up to Forest, and looked into her eyes. “Do what you need to. But understand this,” her gaze darted back and forth, “you’re not in control. No one is.”
Sally walked several steps away, never giving the indication that she was running, just that she was in control of her own two feet and she would use those to walk to the brig herself.
Forest waited until she reached the door. “Control is an illusion.”
“It is a mirage fools clutch at.”
“What should one clutch for instead?” Sally asked.
“Connection. One person might have an insurmountable task, but if an entire civilization stands together, you have no clue what heights we can reach,” she said, emphasizing we as she strode right past Sally.
The doors opened, and Sally wasn’t surprised to see several burly security offices there.
She watched Forest. She could easily enter the admiral’s mind. There was no point.
The die had been cast, the cards played. Sally had tried to stick by the Coalition’s side, but there was now no point.
Yet if there was really no point, and she had taken that thought to heart, she wouldn’t have turned and followed the security officers to the brig. She would’ve called on her crystals and left.
But leaving… would leave Joseph behind too.