She sat there in the brig, knowing full well she should not be here. The time to act had come and passed. And yet still she waited. For what? Did she think that the situation would change? That everything would go back to normal? That she would be able to observe the Coalition from afar again?
The whole concept that she could just stand around and watch the Academy tumble was now broken.
This place had wended its way into her heart. And when it broke, so too would she.
She didn’t call on her crystals yet. Couldn’t.
She sat there on the edge of the cold metal bench, the hard rim digging into her thighs, staring dead ahead at the flickering force field in front of her.
The shields, apparently, were a precaution against her psychic mind.
She closed her eyes. She thought of Joseph.
It made nothing easier – just more complicated. She searched for clarity. All she found was the murky chaos of half-remembered recollections and a heart that wouldn’t stop pounding.
Finally the doors opened. She knew who it was. She felt Anna’s hateful mind walking down the corridor toward her.
Now the Scarax goddess sliced in, her movements quick like a predator knowing its meal was just around the corner.
You’d expect there’d be someone with her. Perhaps Admiral Forest – maybe another staff member. There was no one. It was a testament to how much trust Anna had bought herself. She stopped in front of the shields. They played a pretty pattern across her dappled skin. But they couldn’t reach her eyes. They were so fixed open with concentration, it looked like Anna’s mind was ready to rip right through reality. And if she couldn’t manage to carve the universe in two, she’d settle for Sally’s simple psyche.
Sally didn’t move. She remained exactly where she was, even though her position was nominally weak. Her shoulders were rounded, her head hunched forward. She slowly let her eyes open, and she stared at Anna from underneath her crumpled brows.
Do your worst, Sally thought.
If Anna picked up on it, she didn’t let on.
“This is your end, Cadet.”
“My end? I thought I was being investigated?”
“Your secrets will be mine in a number of minutes,” Anna snarled. She enjoyed every single second. As those poisonous syllables slipped from her lips, she savored the moment like a sommelier to wine.
Anna caught a glimpse of her mind. Not of her surface thoughts, but of the deep motivations that ran her.
How many times had Anna ripped through psyches? That was her specialty, wasn’t it? She created divides in people’s heads so that other smaller psychics could come in and control them. She was like a wrecking ball. One that loved its job so much, she’d do anything to break one psyche then just one more.
She took another step up to the shields. She was close enough now that they gave off a warning crackle. They wouldn’t hurt her. But it was a precaution to ensure no one got too close to breach the brig.
Sally, on the other hand, would be foolish to touch the shields from her side. She was nothing more than a cadet, but they’d still been programmed to have impediment effects. With one touch, she’d jolt back. If she tried to shove her hands into that energetic wall, she’d pass out.
Or at least an ordinary person would.
She continued to look up at Anna from underneath her crumpled brows until she couldn’t take it any longer. Settling one hand down beside her, she rose. There was no force in the move. She wasn’t like a snapping spring, wasn’t like an uncoiling snake. She was simply one woman who got to her feet.
If Anna had any ounce of sense, she would’ve realized something was wrong. But her mind was too bent toward the delicious task of ripping apart Sally’s personality like greedy fingers to a freshly baked cake.
“You shouldn’t have shared your most traumatic memory, child. I can take it right out of your mind, lay it at your feet, then use it as a prison to wrap you up in. By the time I’m done with you,” Anna actually licked her teeth, “you will be nothing but scarred flesh in my hands.”
Sally settled her gaze forward, never letting it deviate, never letting a thing interrupt the force of that cold, bare-knuckled stare. “Do your worst.”
So Anna did her worst.
Sally had to admit she was a talented psychic. She knew her way around visions. They were hard to master. Most psychics simply went into their victim’s mind and wrangled it like a wild animal. A truly powerful psychic, however, could create believable visions and use them to encourage a victim’s mind to fill in the details. It was a great way of finding out evidence. It was also a fantastic way to ensnare somebody. Encourage their imagination along the wrong path, and you could find your victim’s strangling themselves.
Sally saw something breaking around her. She was fully aware of where she stood while at the same time being aware of every detail of the vision. Most minds couldn’t split like that. They had to follow one version of reality and one version alone.
She allowed both to mix.
Anna created a crude version of Sally’s death. It was nothing like the real thing. Sally did not fill in a single detail.
“What does it feel like to fall, alone with no one to help you? What does it feel like to fall, Sally Winters?” Anna snarled, her eyes widening, the skin around them becoming slack and slippery like melted butter in a pan.
Sally was beset by a vision of falling, over and over again. Though beset was the wrong word. It entered her mind. It was just like a waking dream. One that could be dismissed with nothing more than a wave of her psychic hand.
She watched it nonetheless.
“What does it feel like to crack your skull, Sally?” Anna snarled louder now.
Sally saw visions of a child hitting their head. The child looked nothing like Sally. And she hadn’t hit her head on that side.
Anna started to twitch. She could tell that Sally wasn’t acting how she should be.
“What does it feel like to die in my hands, Sally Winters?” Anna roared.
Sally closed her eyes.
It wasn’t because she was suddenly giving in to the vision. Just the opposite.
It was time, wasn’t it? Time to figure out what to do next.
The inertia was still there, tugging Sally down. She thought of rising up, of ending this. She couldn’t. To fight now would mean she couldn’t fight the King later.
But. But. But. Exceptions could keep rising in her mind, but they meant nothing.
She couldn’t respond. She was the trapped superweapon, the undisputed power that could not act no matter how dire the situation became.
Sally didn’t mean for it, but she slipped into her actual memory of dying in that cave. She did not share a single detail with Anna.
But the memory… it looped around her nonetheless. She saw the moment she fell. Then the moment the Queen’s energy rushed into her. The lights that formed across the floor, the patterns that played over the ceiling high, high above. Then the moment it had lifted Sally up like a set of hands that would never let her fall. There was so much strength in that memory. But there was now… more.
Right there, right at the edges of the recollection, Sally felt something.
She heard a voice, too.
“You must stay hidden. Don’t fall for their trap again. Don’t let them take you back to the King. They will use you, great Queen, and they will—”
Sally was forced to open her eyes.
It wasn’t at the suddenness of this memory – a memory she had never recalled before – it was because Anna had just turned the shields off.
Clearly she was upset by the fact that she couldn’t access Sally’s mind completely. So she rushed in and grabbed Sally’s face in shaking, bone-white fingers.
Sally paid no attention to her whatsoever. She closed her eyes once more and tried to get back that snippet of her vision. She heard the voice again but couldn’t pick up its final words.
“Your mind will break, Sally Winters. It will fracture in my grip. There is nothing you can do. So break,” Anna screamed.
Sally was back there, back there in that moment where she cracked her skull. But….
She heard that voice again. She felt it, too. It was… almost like an Observer.
Technically not every single Observer was bad. Though the majority of them acted only to bring the King back, others had resisted. They’d seen the error of the Hendari experiment, and they’d done everything to wipe away that painful legacy.
At one point, there’d been more good Observers than bad. But unlike those loyal to the King, the good Observers could not function long. They embodied their name. They were there only to observe. They did not utilize the same powerful psychic techniques as the King. It meant that the more their consciousness was ported throughout the universe, the more it fractured. They were nothing more than living memories. And what do memories do? In time, they fade.
Which is what the voice did now.
It might’ve once belonged to a good Observer, but whoever the person had been, they had long since departed this existence.
“Crack,” Anna roared, grabbing Sally’s shoulders harder and screaming right in her face.
Sally could not and would not crack.
She needed that memory. She had to understand.
A trap… this couldn’t be a trap. She existed to destroy the King. That was her entire damn purpose.
Anna suddenly jerked. She jolted back. Her eyes widened. She received a neural communication. Sally picked it up. It was as loud as a screech. Though a powerful psychic should be able to hide it from those around them, Anna lost control momentarily.
It was Serena. The message was simple. The Hendari crystals had been discovered.
Anna started to jerk, not in fear, but in joy. She collapsed her fingers over her mouth, sucked in deep breaths, and let her eyes roll into the back of her head. “Finally. Finally.” She twisted on her foot and threw herself out of the brig.
Sally had to stop this. She had to act. But….
She let herself fall down to the floor, let her head smash hard against the concrete. Her eyes closed. But the more she groped at that memory of the Observer in her recollections, the less she could find.
Her crystals had been found. She had to rise. She had to act. Now. She couldn’t.
Anna had set out to crush Sally with the memory of her death. And she had done so without being aware of it.
Sally was gripped by a total fear she couldn’t overcome.
There was meant to be strength in weakness. But now the weakness swallowed her whole.