She was right. The Observer was here. She could detect his energy. And make no mistake – it was a he.
She could feel his mind now. She just had to get close enough.
The question was if she got him on his own, could she snap his Hendari path without anyone noticing? No. The resultant energy would be picked up by the Academy. Still…. Though Sally knew the importance of not acting too soon, she just couldn’t abide by the fact an Observer was walking around the Academy, sewing distrust, compromising Academy systems, and weakening everyone.
She stalked forward. But she soon stopped.
She could feel Joseph. He’d just ported to the back of the laneway behind her.
She closed her eyes. What was he doing? He couldn’t be suspicious of her. She’d blocked his mind from that possibility.
She sighed. She heard him rush up behind her. “Hey, Sally, stop.”
She controlled her expression and turned. “Can I help you, Cadet Lance?”
He looked right at her face. It was clear he expected to see something there. What, tears? Pudgy cheeks? Unlikely.
You could get the entirety of the Academy – perhaps the entirety of the Coalition – to scream insults at Sally, but she wouldn’t forget her greater purpose.
They were all ultimately foolish anyway. They had no clue who their real enemy was, so they bit and barked at who they assumed dragged them down. They falsely thought it would be the weakest among them who’d get them killed in the end.
That particular thought had great emotional poignancy for her. It was one she shouldn’t have thought if she’d wanted to keep her expression even. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, she revealed her true emotions. Joseph saw. This alleyway was dark, and though there was a lamppost not too far away and it shone on one side of her face, her expression should still have been dimmed. To anyone but a spacer.
Joseph took a harsh breath. Not that he needed it. “Look, Sally, you just… you need help.”
“Someone like Anna.”
Joseph might have come here because he thought she required assistance, but all it took was one laugh to snap his resolve. “You don’t know anything about psychic defense, Sally. You’re not the greatest power in the universe—”
“Yes, I am. And the greatest tools in the universe sit on my bedside table,” she said automatically, telling the truth, revealing exactly where the Hendari crystals were but knowing he’d never believe her.
He crunched his hands into fists. Then he reached up, grabbed the back of his head, and sighed. “Look, you’re wasting my time here.”
“Then go back, Joseph. Enjoy your party.”
“Sally, stop being so damn selfish. Didn’t you hear them all back there? Nobody trusts you. Nobody wants you looking after them. You can’t watch everyone’s backs—”
“And they can?” she asked coldly.
“Yeah, because they have the right attitude—”
“And one’s attitude saves lives, does it?” She turned away from him. She didn’t want him seeing her expression. Her lips scrunched together, and her cheeks stiffened.
Sally wouldn’t be in this position right now if only the rest of the cadets and the Academy could see what was right in front of them. She wouldn’t have to jeopardize her entire plan to try to eliminate the Observer if only they could rise and see who their real enemies were.
“Ultimately your heart is what counts,” Joseph defaulted to saying. “You can’t turn into your enemies to defeat them. Otherwise you become them.”
“That is untrue, Joseph Lance. You do not become them. Even if you have to use some of their methods, even if you have to sacrifice, even if you have to turn a blind eye to others’ pain,” she said, her voice cracking as she thought of all those who’d died in the attack on the Academy, “you ultimately get closer to defeating them. You are never akin to your enemy. Not when your enemy is a force that wishes to absorb all.”
She’d just let something very critical slip.
Yes, she’d trained Joseph’s mind to ensure he didn’t automatically suspect her. But she couldn’t shut down his deductive reasoning entirely. If she let too much go, he would realize who she was.
She didn’t need to face him to know his expression. His cheeks twitched, his eyebrows peaking.
Joseph probably assumed Sally had no story. He wouldn’t want to pry into her past, lest he actually found something to feel compassion over.
He paused. “Look, why don’t I walk you back to the Academy?”
“My feet are capable of walking on their own.”
“Yeah, they are. But all of E Club is out to get you.”
“And if they’re trustworthy cadets, then they don’t go after the weak runts they want to run from their pack, correct? For that’s not the kind of behavior becoming of a Coalition soldier.”
He sighed. “Yeah, but we both know this world doesn’t work like that.”
We both know, ha? It was the first time Joseph had ever drawn a parallel with her, the first time he’d chosen not to keep her at arms-length.
Sally… despite the enormous mind in her head, was a lonely creature. Fundamentally so.
It usually didn’t bother her. Now she went to turn.
She got halfway through when she felt it.
The Observer was close by. But that wasn’t the most interesting part of the equation. He’d just turned on some kind of psychic field – one that would produce sprites. Devastating psychic soldiers, unchecked, they could tear through this city like a knife to cooked flesh.
Joseph frowned at her expression, then that frown turned into a much harder move as her cheeks stiffened. “Sally, I actually thought you were opening up for a second there—”
The psychic sprites were getting closer.
They were strong, too. They could only be here for one thing. There was no way the Observer knew who Sally was. So these were after Joseph. Which meant they were fully aware he was a spacer.
“Look, you just need to open up to somebody. If you’ve got a history—”
“I have millions of years of history,” Sally said truthfully as she narrowed her eyes and tracked the psychic sprites. They were starting to climb over the roof just above them. She could feel every single subtle movement of their cookie-cutter psyches. Sprites were exactly what they sounded like. They were soldiers created out of psychic energy. They had no true minds, no actual personalities. They were just mass-created forces one used to attack psychically weak targets.
There was no one like a spacer. Joseph could take on an entire ship full of Barbarians, but a psychic sprite with a well-placed attack could take him down in a few short seconds.
“It sometimes feels like, when you’re hurt, it’s lasted millions of years, doesn’t it? But—”
One of the psychic sprites shot down toward Joseph. It would wrap its hand around his throat long before he had a chance to react. Sally had helped Joseph by breaking through some of his spacer psychic controls, but she couldn’t just stand there and wait for him to get attacked.
Her human heart pulsed.
It forced her to shove in. She grabbed him, right around the arm, and she pulled him forward.
His whole body stiffened. He rammed against her chest, pushing her into the wall. There was a split second when he looked into her eyes. And Sally… she saw something that shouldn’t be there.
Then the sprite landed down behind Joseph, and she recognized the moment he felt it.
“What the—” It was his turn to grab her.
He secured his fingers around her wrist and pulled her on. He was way stronger than a human right now.
The sprite let out a silent scream but one that nonetheless echoed on all mental frequencies and thrust toward Joseph again.
There was another climbing over the opposite roof.
“You’ve gotta get out of here, Sally. Come on,” Joseph screamed.
Sally could tell that all he wanted to do was turn around and fight, but he couldn’t do that in front of Sally. And yet… he pushed a hand to the side. He started to build a small charge of subspace particles. Would he break his identity for her?
… And why did that feel… important somehow?
Sally let him pull her along again. She got stuck staring at his face.
He was so focused. She knew how to narrow her mind in. She knew how to ensure all other distractions fell away.
The other psychic sprite lanced down behind them, but this time Joseph was ready. He pulled Sally to the side again.
He quickly made a neural communication with Admiral Forest and told her what was happening.
“Sally, you have to run, okay? Run and don’t come back.”
This was where she should ask what the hell was going on. She was too focused on Joseph. His expression….
There was no one who would help Sally. The Queen had been on her own for too long. She….
Joseph shoved her in the back. “Just get out of here, Sally.”
She turned over her shoulder and looked at him.
A psychic sprite snapped in close. These were unlike the ones that’d assailed Joseph back during the attack on the Academy. These were far more powerful. And Joseph’s mind was uniquely vulnerable. Sally hadn’t left it that way. Clearly the goddess in psychic defense class had done something to him.
He might think that he had a chance against this psychic sprite, but he didn’t.
Sally could end all of this with a simple click of her fingers. But not here.
He wanted to keep hold of his secret identity, and she had to keep hold of hers.
She didn’t look back once.
That was until she got around the side of the alleyway, and she stopped, turned, crossed her arms, pushed her back against the wall, put one foot over another, and clicked her fingers.
It was one simple move.
And in that simple move, the psychic sprites’ power reduced by half.
They’d still be a challenge for Joseph, but he’d manage it.
Next, Sally turned to the various surveillance devices that had locked their attention on this alleyway. She ensured they couldn’t see her.
She should’ve run. She couldn’t.
She… would remain here until he was done. A silent angel who’d already done as much as she could.