He was boiling. He honestly felt as if his blood had hit a thousand degrees and was starting to vaporize.
He went to clutch a hand into a fist, but he felt a little charge of subspace energy.
He could control himself around anyone else – from raging teachers to the worst of the recruits – but Sally Winters was another thing.
It didn’t help that ever since he woke this morning, another dream had been raging through his psyche.
He couldn’t remember the exact details of it. It’d been about her again – that cadet who was infected with the Queen.
He’d picked up different details this time.
She’d been repeating some kind of name. It sounded like Layra.
Just as he went to rush after Sally and continue the argument, he was frozen to the spot as he saw another still frame of the dream. The cadet was rushing down the corridors, running towards something.
Some force. Some force she ultimately didn’t have the ability to destroy.
The Queen should have been nothing more than an academic fact to Joseph. Yeah, she’d saved the Academy, and she’d given him a parting gift by ensuring that his deep trauma from Deus didn’t affect his mind as much as it once had. But ultimately she was a virus. So why did Joseph’s skin become slick with sweat as he recalled the dream – the horror of seeing her run for her life?
“Shake it off,” he muttered hard. He shoved forward into a run.
He didn’t want to get to psychic defense class after Sally. Before she got to the main teaching building, she paused anyway.
She got that look again. He might be a good hundred meters back, but that was irrelevant. He could see it, all right. It was sharp. The kind of sharp even Admiral Forest couldn’t achieve.
You could put anything in front of that look – from a raging bull, to a raging admiral – but Sally wouldn’t soften it. It looked as if it could part all matter to find its goal.
It stilled him for a moment, and if he’d been paying attention, he would have realized that somebody who was capable of a look like that was certainly a lot more astute than he gave her credit for.
He just went back to stewing. That at least stopped him from repeating the name Layra over and over in his head again.
He shoved into the teaching building.
Admiral Forest was actually out and about. They didn’t interact when they were above ground. She didn’t even glance his way, other than to mutter, “If you have a class to get to, Cadet, I suggest you rush there.”
He didn’t rush, though. Sally had just walked into the building.
Joseph was meant to be late for class. Sally chose to be late.
If there was one person who couldn’t suffer fools, it was Forest. Here she was, losing soldiers, busting a gut, and sacrificing in every way to ensure the Coalition had a chance. And here Sally was, ignoring everything for her pathetic fantasies.
Sure enough, Lara stiffened. “Cadet, what class are you meant to be in? Why are you late?”
“As the world is ending but no one else can see,” Sally delivered that in a tone that was somehow still powerful yet weak.
As Joseph kept saying, he didn’t want to believe Sally had some kind of trauma fueling her erratic behavior. If he did that, if he started softening toward her, he might not stop.
Forest was a different matter. “Just get to class, Cadet. I think you will find that when we all work together—”
“If our opposition is still greater than us, it only means we all fall together.”
“Cadet, that is no way to think.”
“It is neither a thought nor a fear, Admiral Forest. It is an unfortunate fact.”
Lara started to bristle.
Another cadet, who clearly had the permission to be walking the corridors, considering they weren’t hurrying, strode within earshot. Lara had to control this situation now. But what could she do? Send Sally to the brig? A part of Joseph wanted to see that.
Another part… dammit. He didn’t want to help Sally out, but he found himself doing it anyway. “There’s no point in engaging with her, Admiral,” Joseph sent a quick neural message to her. “She’s the maddest recruit at the Academy. She thinks she’s the greatest power in the universe,” he added.
“Then she clearly requires psychological assistance. Take her to class. Anna is an astute counselor and will help her.”
Yeah. Sure. But Joseph knew Anna wasn’t going to solve Sally’s problems. Nobody was.
Forest backed off. She pretended to get a message, muttered sharply at Sally to get to class, and walked away.
Sally paused, a nonplussed look on her face, then turned and walked unhurriedly.
Yep. She’d just had a run-in with Forest. Most full-grown captains would still knock at the knees if they got in trouble with Lara.
All but Sally.
Joseph might’ve just helped her out, but he found himself seething as he walked behind her. Yes, behind. He was corralling her to class now, whether she liked it or not.
She got a distracted look in her eyes a few times, and she stared out across the grounds.
What did she think she was glimpsing? She claimed to be the greatest power in the universe? Was a deadly enemy out there? Hell, if she was the greatest power, why not click her fingers and get rid of the threat of the Scarax gods? Why not end all of this and return everything to normal?
With those bitter thoughts ringing through his mind, they reached the right room.
The door opened.
Joseph loomed right behind her, pretty much acting like a wall to ensure she walked into the class, but even as he brushed up against her shoulder, she didn’t shift.
She stared over at Anna.
It was a well-lit classroom. There were large arched windows on one side, and the students sat at a distance from each other. Everyone looked peaceful. It was the first class Joseph had been in for six months where people didn’t have an undercurrent of stress – clearly Anna was working them through some kind of psychological strengthening exercise.
She turned to look at Sally, and her gaze slipped over her quickly and locked on Joseph. “It is unfortunate you are both late, but understandable considering these grave times. Please take a seat.”
The only two seats left were right at the front of the class and right next to each other.
Joseph instantly felt calmer in Anna’s presence. Most of the time they were together, she was trying to regress him, and he hated every single second of it. But at least she knew what she was doing.
She’d also be able to diagnose Sally, or at the very least put her in her place properly.
Sally continued to stand there stiffly for a few seconds, then acquiesced, walked over, and sat in the seat. She instantly crossed her arms defensively.
Joseph felt like reaching over and pulling them down.
God, it made sense, didn’t it? Of course Sally would have a problem with the nicest person on campus.
Anna picked up on the aggression. “I sense a troubled mind. Have you taken the growing anxiety of this galaxy to heart, Cadet?” she asked in her quiet but still penetrating tone.
Sally did nothing. Everyone else in the class snorted with laughter. It was unkind.
“Students, you must be gentle to each other. It is by strengthening our connections that we allow ourselves to fight alongside one another.”
“It’s also by separating the wheat from the chaff,” somebody muttered from the back of the class. Joseph didn’t have to turn around to see that it was Jerry.
Anna chose to smooth over the comment. “We have limited time today, and it is integral that I teach this lesson. As times change, one must learn how to hold their mind. One must learn how to block out aspects of the past that bother them. The only way to do that is to hide them.”
Joseph knew all this, but he still wanted to pay attention. He might learn a thing or two. Instead? Damn, instead, he just watched Sally. It was out of the corner of his eye, as he didn’t want to be too obvious. She kept her arms crossed, her head tilted to the side, and a supremely arrogant expression on her face. It was as if she’d walked into the room only to find a fraud.
“When we face a mind greater than ours that is attempting to overcome us—”
Sally put a hand up.
It derailed Anna slightly. “What is your question—”
“Why assume that a mind is greater than yours and not simply more aggressive?”
“I meant in terms of psychic ability.”
“What if everybody has the same psychic ability?” Sally countered.
The question threw Anna for a moment, then she chuckled quietly. “I believe that question would be answered in the very first class you ever had of psychic defense.”
It was hardly a slap, but every student in the room still laughed as if Anna had put Sally down.
Sally? Did Joseph really have to tell you that she didn’t even react? She didn’t twitch. She looked completely neutral. No. She looked as if she had a point – one that was better than Anna’s.
Joseph’s anger itched once more.
Maybe he’d go back, he’d find Forest, and he’d tell her that as a personal favor to him, she needed to kick Sally out immediately.
“It is simply a fact that some people have more powerful psychic energy than others.”
Sally chuckled quietly.
It was so rude.
Joseph’s hackles had already climbed all the way up his back, but now they threatened to eject themselves off into outer space.
Anna noticed, but she smoothed it over. “To fight against a truly powerful mind, we must take our traumas,” she said as she placed her hands over her chest, “hold on to them in our heart, and block them off. We must meditate on them in quiet moments to ensure that when a powerful psychic attacks, they will never be able to open up that wound to use against us.”
Sally didn’t interrupt again, but she did roll her eyes.
Dammit. Joseph wanted to—
“Class, please close your eyes right now. Think of a traumatic moment. Hold it in your heart. I will teach you the process to block it off from your enemies.”
Joseph didn’t want to close his eyes, but he had to. He kept the rest of his senses on Sally, enough to know that while she nominally half shut her lids, she certainly didn’t close her eyes fully.
He could sense the electrical potential across her muscles, and she had zero intention of calming her mind and following through with this lesson. But what was Joseph going to do? Stop everybody and get Anna to kick her out? Yeah, wasn’t going to happen. Plus….
Anna must’ve been producing some calming psychic fields because the energy in the room changed. It somehow became anxious while at the same time quiet.
Joseph… he felt himself slipping back into his time on Deus’s ship.
“I need you to experience your most traumatic memories. Draw them up. Hold them in your chests. Imagine every detail. Re-live it as if you were actually there.”
Either it was her sonorous voice, or it was Joseph’s continuous regressions, but this was relatively easy.
He saw himself back on Deus’s ship—
But it didn’t last. The partially forgotten dream from this morning rose instead.
There he was, running down the corridor.
That cadet was right in front of him. He could almost see her hair, her features, her fear. She ran desperately.
“Layra,” he called out to her. “Come on. You can’t do this. It’s a trap. You know that. You don’t even know how you got to the Milky Way. The Observers did it. Don’t fall for it again.”
The vision was sharp. Joseph didn’t feel like he was still seated here under the streaming sunlight with the other quietly focusing cadets. He felt he was right there in his dream once more.
He didn’t necessarily recognize the corridor around him. It was just like a cookie-cutter version of the general architecture of the Academy. But—
He reached his hand out again.
The cadet turned her head, and he almost saw—
“This only works if everybody pays attention,” Anna said. For the first time he’d ever heard it, her voice was slightly hard.
Everybody opened their eyes to see that Sally was tapping her foot.
It was hard for Joseph to come around. He knew his most traumatic memory, dammit. So what the hell was that dream doing coming up? It was… just a dream… but who the heck was Layra?
He clutched the side of his head. Even the sight of Sally tapping her foot harder didn’t ignite his anger again.
“Is there something we need to discuss, Cadet?” Anna said in a calm tone that nonetheless belied a gram of frustration.
“Yes, your methods,” Sally said as if she was an admiral handing down a personal review.
“My methods?” Anna said stiffly. “What do you mean by that?”
“If a stronger psyche – as you say – attacks you, and you spend all of your time psychically blocking off your most traumatic memory, aren’t you just going to invite them into it because that’s what you’ll be thinking of?”
“You will protect it—”
“But they’re stronger than you. If you focus on your memory while they’re attacking you, they will see it, and they’ll use it against you.”
There was silence. For a second.
It almost made sense. But then Joseph reminded himself that Sally was no expert – on anything. Maybe everybody else reminded themselves of that too, because there was a general muttering for Sally to shut up.
Anna cleared her throat. “That is not how it works. You must concentrate hard and practice.”
“All right, I see. But if we don’t do that, and say we only ever do this in one class, then when we come up against a psychic and we foolishly try to block off our most traumatic memory, aren’t we just going to offer it up to them?”
Again Anna was silent for a few seconds. “Every cadet must try their hardest at all times to protect one another.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t answer the question. By teaching us this method in one class, and assuming that everyone will simply practice sufficiently to be able to fight off Scarax psychics, aren’t you setting us up to be attacked by those very psychics?”
There was a real edge to Sally’s words now. She wasn’t usually this aggressive. She maintained the exact same position, her arms crossed in front of her chest, her legs out as her foot tapped the floor.
Anna had clearly heard too much. “Cadet, that’s enough. Unless you can suggest a better strategy, notwithstanding your preciously limited psychic energy,” Anna said defensively and somewhat inappropriately, “you need to remain silent.”
There was raucous laughter now. Only a powerful psychic like Anna could tell how psychically disposed someone else was.
It was privileged information to a counselor, and they were expected to keep it private.
That being said, most ordinary humans and other aliens had about the same level of limited psychic energy to begin with.
This just confirmed everybody’s biases, though.
Wait, sorry. Here Sally was, interrupting everything just to make a scene yet again – he couldn’t be on her side, no matter how unprofessional Anna was.
“You want to know how to fight off a Scarax psychic? You want to know how to fight off any psychic? You drag them in. Then you shut them down.” Sally looked at her cuticles. She was barely paying attention. It was as if she was saying something that she had known her entire life.
“You drag them in, and you take them down?” Anna said sarcastically. She wasn’t even pretending to be professional now.
Maybe that should have triggered something in Joseph. Instead he just stared at Sally. What the heck did she mean? Did she have any clue how the mind really worked?
“Your weakness is your strength. Most powerful psychics train their entire lives to ignore the soft sides of their minds. They cannot handle weakness. And you think you should block off your weakest memory from them? No. If you treat it like a wound, they will use it like a wound. Instead, you treat it like your greatest strength. You understand that you can withstand that weakness because you have withstood it in the past. They, on the other hand, have never experienced it. So you drag them in using that traumatic memory,” she said, her voice dropping until she whispered the word drag yet somehow managed to give it the vocal force of a thousand people screaming all at once, “and you trap them inside it.”
There was silence for a few seconds.
Some of the cadets… almost looked interested. It kind of made twisted sense, but Anna wasn’t about to let that stand.
She stood taller. “You have to leave now, Cadet. You’re being disruptive to people’s minds. Your mental energy is skewed.”
Sally chuckled as she pushed to her feet. “What a shame. I’m sure we’ll see each other around.” She turned and walked to the door.
There was something about the way she said that. It got Joseph’s nerves on edge.
Sally wouldn’t do anything to a teacher, would she? Hold on. No. She couldn’t do anything. He dismissed that thought as fast as it arose. Sally was inept. She could be rude and dismissive, but that was it.
Every eye was on her until she was out the door, then, for a good several minutes, the students all bitched about her at once and Anna did nothing. She stood there, looking a little flustered, almost as if she wanted to join in. Then she finally calmed everyone down.
She darted her gaze toward the door a few times.
As for Joseph, he almost wanted to run out there to find Sally. He’d drag her back to this class. Regardless of what was going on in her head, she couldn’t change the fact the Scarax Galaxy was coming. She could live in her fantasies, but unless she trained, she’d die lying to herself and everyone else.