She… fell. Over and over again. She died, over and over again, forcing her mind into the moment in the hope that she would find the Observer. She couldn’t. That muttered memory was now gone, lost to the annals of time. She couldn’t stop herself.
The psychic loop was impenetrable.
She felt the Queen’s great mind trembling under the horror of being locked.
There was meant to be strength in weakness, so why did the weakness swallow her whole?
Sally… she’d failed already, hadn’t she?
She’d been the wrong mind for the Queen to take, hadn’t she? Perhaps not all weakness is the same. Perhaps some people, just like Sally, are irredeemable.
That thought just undermined her further. She fell. And she fell. And she fell.
She was not aware of the rest of the Academy. She couldn’t keep her mind split between where she actually was and the vision. Every second she cracked her head only to fall again and repeat the process consumed her.
She thought nothing could ever break her out of her own self-imposed hell.
She was wrong.
Just when Sally felt the weakest, and there was no one and nothing in this entire galaxy that could ever reach her, she heard one voice. One scream.
It broke through everything, reaching her no matter the distance between them.
It snapped through her own fear, holding her to the spot.
Suddenly the image of her six-year-old self falling through that hole was replaced by clicking fingers. They were accompanied by a scream like no other.
This was his last chance.
He was about to succumb to Anna.
Anna… the Coalition… everything Sally had worked for.
She used Joseph’s screams and that hand like a ladder to pull herself out of her terminal death.
Out and up into the light.
Sally Winters blinked one eye open.
She was still down on the cold floor of the brig.
This wasn’t over yet.
She shoved up.
She pushed out of the brig doors.
She could hear a commotion.
This was it. No more backing down.
Perhaps the Queen had never understood something about weakness – maybe she’d never bothered to learn of its most fundamental lesson. You had to put it in perspective by giving it a purpose. And the greatest purpose you can give it is to allow your vulnerability to lift someone else up. You become weak and accept an injury so another is spared.
Sally walked in to the corridor to see cadets down on their knees, screaming as they clutched their heads. There was Anna, the crystals at her feet. And there was Joseph, looming over Serena, sword held high, screaming in his psyche as he fought one last time to keep his mind whole.
If Sally used her power now, she might never be able to fight the King.
But she knew one thing. If she acted now, she could save Joseph.
There was only one way forward.
She strode right up behind Anna.
And Sally Winters clicked her fingers once.
She couldn’t break Joseph out unless he wanted to be freed. That was a fundamental fact of psyches. Some people desired to be controlled. It was a horrible fact but one that couldn’t be ignored.
When people face the terrifying uncertainties of the universe, sometimes they will do anything to be provided certainty. Even if that certainty is a trap. It was the very same force she had used to make a prison for Ninev in his own mind – the same force she’d threatened to use on Jerry.
If there was anyone who would be willing to be trapped, just to get away from their fear, you’d think it would be a spacer. You’d be wrong.
Just as Sally clicked her fingers and broke Anna’s connection, Joseph broke free at the same time. The surge of power cascading around him fluctuated then cracked.
And Joseph the spacer landed down on his feet.
He had two subspace blades in his hands. He turned. He faced Anna. She screamed. She lurched toward the crystals.
Joseph might’ve angled toward Anna to end this, but his gaze was on Sally. That gaze… it knew everything. It was the stare of a man who had finally had the wool pulled from his eyes. The very wool Sally had put there in the first place. She waited for the anger, the hatred, the fear. She waited for what had to be there. Joseph would be terrified of her. Joseph would do anything to save the Coalition from her. But Joseph? He let one single tear trail down his cheek. “Thank God you’re alive. Thank god you’re still here.”
Time fractured, slowing down around Sally. It didn’t slow down around others.
She just… her great psyche was provided with a moment to stare at itself and everything it had once believed. It watched the assumptions that had previously made it up crack at its feet.
No one had ever accepted the Queen – not knowingly.
No one until Joseph.
Anna screamed. Somehow, despite the fact she should not have had the power, she called on the crystals. They began to float around her. They stopped Joseph just as he tried to cut right through her with his subspace blades.
He was rebuffed and thrown back.
A joyous chuckle ripped out of Anna’s lips. “You fool. You can’t fight the crystals. They belong to the gods. Their power is ours. They’ve chosen me. Now get out of my way.” She spread a hand toward Joseph. Based on the viciousness pulsing off her, she would rip him to shreds.
Sally took a step forward. And it was a step she could not walk away from. It was a step that would decide the rest of her life and everyone else’s.
She clicked her fingers once. The crystals disappeared.
Anna turned. “What?”
“They’re not yours. They’re not mine, either. They are a power that should never have been called on. No one chose you, Scarax goddess. No one chooses anyone. We’re all given opportunities when we are born. But it is up to us to take the path – the one path – that will lead to the greatest good.”
“Who are you? What are you? It doesn’t matter. The Scarax gods are on their way,” Anna hissed. She opened her psychic powers and threw them at Sally. It was such a strong move, actual energy blasted out. It was so destructive, it could’ve ripped right through the minds of the cadets nearby.
Sally would not let it. She opened her considerable psychic wings. For there was no mind like hers.
Anna fell back.
“The gods might be coming,” Sally said as she leaned right down in front of Anna, her hair cutting in front of her face, every strand framing her stiff lips, “but I’m already here.” She clicked her fingers again. The crystals reappeared right above her, lining up like a sword.
Anna shook her head, the desperate move practically tearing the skin from her face as her lips twitched open and her eyes bulged wide. “No. You can’t be her. You can’t be the—”
“The Queen,” Sally said in a voice devoid of force – no power, no viciousness. Just certainty.
She was the Queen. And she had waited too long to rise. Now? She would not look back.
As she thought that, she slid her gaze up to Joseph. The power that’d boiled behind her eyes when she’d stared at Anna flickered for a moment.
He didn’t turn. Didn’t recoil. Joseph Lance reached out a hand. It was the same hand that she’d seen when she’d been stuck in her death spiral, the same hand she’d been waiting for her entire life.
The hand that told her she wasn’t alone, and if she just fought for the right things going forward, she’d never be alone again.
With one last earsplitting scream, Anna fell unconscious, her own psyche crumpling in on itself at the horror of meeting the Queen’s mind. And Sally?
She reached forward, and once more, accepted Joseph Lance’s hand.
The end of Book One.