She woke from another dream. This one had been worse than the rest – if she were the kind of person to rate them.
This one, you see, had been slightly more personal.
“Layra,” she whispered.
It hardly slipped off her lips. It felt like a Sisyphean stone she dragged behind her. She shouldn’t have said it, either. The Hendari crystals reacted. They shone brighter. She had to slice a finger to the side, remotely grab hold of their power, and tone it down, lest they do something untoward to this rather simple room.
When she was done, she secured an arm underneath her head and stared at the ceiling.
Layra was the Queen’s first self.
The Queen was a mental virus, and she had many minds that made her up. But Layra… had been the initiator. A Hendari princess, she’d nominally been weak. Weak enough that no one had invited her into the King project. She had been nothing more than a sacrifice. But at the last moment….
“There is no point in going over old ground,” Sally commanded herself. She thrust out of bed.
She stood in front of her crystals and patted them fondly.
She turned to walk out into the main room, but her flatmate was there. She was also on her communicator. Talking about Sally, no less.
Her flatmate, Willis Jones, did not appreciate that she had to bunk with the craziest recruit in 100 years. A fact she often rehashed to her friends.
“Tell me again. That’s nuts. She got lucky. It’s crazy. Carlisle should definitely rerun the exam.” Willis said that, but she didn’t mean it. She was someone who’d say anything just to fit in.
Sally stood there. She couldn’t open the door. Judging by the position of Willis’s mind, she was too close. It wasn’t just that she might accidentally glimpse the Hendari crystals. Certain people with soft minds could find themselves overcome by the sight of so much power.
Sally stood there, right in the middle of the room, her arms loose by her sides, her expression even, even as Willis’s words became a lot harsher. “I’m happy to give witness, you know. She’s useless. She’s not Academy material. They need to kick her out… before the next war comes.” Her voice tightened like a spring.
Even from here, Sally could feel her psyche coiling in on itself.
The stress was enough that, if Sally felt like it, she could click her fingers, turn Willis’s mind on itself, and watch it feast on its own fears.
Sally wasn’t that kind of psyche and would never stoop so low. Nor did Willis deserve it. She said what she thought others wanted to hear.
There was a shrill beep. “I gotta go. See you.” With that, Willis lingered for a while then finally left.
Sally strode out moments later.
The computer beeped. “You must get to psychic defense class.”
She had to laugh. How could it not be funny? “What precisely will we be taught in psychic defense class today?” she asked drolly.
“There will be a special guest lecturer.”
“And who will that be?”
“The new counselor.”
“Scintillating. I’ll be late.” Sally walked over to the window. Clasping her hands behind her back, she stared out at the view. She let her gaze cut left and right. She searched for what she knew would be out there. She still hadn’t discovered that god.
Nor could she shake the feeling that… there was something worse.
It was less of a sense and more of a prediction in many ways. A cast-iron one. She understood how the Scarax Galaxy operated. For she knew how those the Coalition called the Observers worked.
The Observers were the remnants of the Hendari – powerful minds that had given themselves the goal of recreating the Scarax Galaxy in their image. Minds that ultimately only looked for a way to wake the King again.
They would have one of their own on campus grounds by now. They would know that the crystals had disappeared. And they’d be searching for them.
Sally had to keep her wits about her. She wasted another 10 minutes, then finally pushed off out of her room. At least there was nobody to stare at her today. She took the elevators and arrived in the lobby only to see a figure in front of her.
That figure was none other than Joseph Lance.
He was currently engaged in a neural communication with Admiral Forest. Though Sally wasn’t trying to read his mind, neural communications were something she almost couldn’t block. They were on a frequency that made it so easy to listen in to, Sally had become used to ignoring most of the chatter around the Academy. Such comm technology was popularly employed by the higher up officers.
“Got it, Admiral. I found nothing last night. Just a few whingeing cadets, a liaison, and people working out their trauma. Nothing to suggest the god’s anywhere close by.”
Sally came to a stop behind him. She wasn’t reacting to the fact he’d confirmed there was a god on Academy grounds. She was however mildly impressed that the Coalition had figured it out so soon.
“Hold on.” Joseph turned. His expression became just as stony and unstable as any rock cliff. “I should get to class,” he muttered.
“Anna will be giving a guest lecture in your psychic defense class today. It’s important you don’t let anyone know you’ve been working with each other.”
Working with each other? Sally ensured her eyes didn’t narrow in interest. What on earth was a spacer doing working with a counselor? Spacers had exquisitely open minds. Their masters in the Kore Empire had learned how to open them – like broken windows – many years ago.
Spacers, if they wanted to stick around without a master – had to learn how to close everyone else out. In Sally’s experience, no psychic at the Academy knew how to do that. They had zero understanding of how the mind really worked.
Joseph hardened his jaw. “Is there any reason you are another 10 minutes late today, Cadet? And is there a reason you’re not even hurrying?”
“I wonder if it’s the same reason you are,” Sally shot back.
Joseph twitched a little. What, had he forgotten he was meant to be playing the role of the cadet right now and not the officious lieutenant?
“Just hurry up. Get to class. Though someone like you would never appreciate this, psychic defense is one of the most important units out there at the moment.”
“And why is that?”
“Because the Scarax Galaxy will do anything and everything to win.”
“Won’t they utilize the Light of the Gods instead of psychic attacks?”
“Don’t talk back to me, Cadet.”
“Why? Because you know a lot more than you’re letting on?”
Maybe she shouldn’t have used that particular voice, as his hackles rose. He turned, but now he shifted back, pressing his weight hard into his boot as it squeaked threateningly over the floor.
He did a relatively good job of controlling his expression, but inside, his heart pounded. She watched him stare at her with suspicion, but it could last for only a few short seconds. Then it disappeared.
There was a reason Joseph couldn’t find her suspicious. After she’d helped him out in the battle for the Academy, she’d ensured there was a block in his mind. He would never believe she was the Queen. Not until and unless she let him.
“Just get to class. Stop wasting everyone’s time, Sally.”
“Perhaps I can suggest that you stop believing you have time.”
“And what’s that meant to mean?
She had picked the wrong choice of words. Or perhaps the right if her goal had been to rile him up. She could feel his growing tension from here. It washed off him like violent waves from a tsunami.
“How many more psychic defense classes will we require until we can all block off the attacks coming from the Scarax Galaxy? One? Two maybe? How many more combat exams do we require until every single cadet will be able to face the Scarax gods? Or perhaps they should just redo the exam?” Sally said pointedly. “Then the right people can win, and we can be confident that when the Scarax Galaxy comes, we’ll defeat them easily. Because that’s how things are done here.” She shifted past him and went to walk away. She expected her well-placed comments to at least do the equivalent of telling him to clear off. But clearly Joseph wasn’t in the kind of mood to drop things. He marched right out after her as they left the accommodation block.
“Sally,” he began.
She tuned him out. Her gaze became slightly unfocused. She shifted her head to the side. It was a hard, direct movement. The concentration in her stare would’ve looked like a laser.
Out there, close by, maybe even walking amongst the Academy, she felt an Observer. This morning, it had been nothing more than a prediction. Now she proved it right.
The poisonous mind of an Observer was relatively easy to recognize when you came in close contact with one. For Observers’ psyches were nothing more than twisted hatred. For so long, they had been marching across this universe, pathetically attempting to bring the King back. They had twisted the Scarax people until they had created them in the Hendari’s image, all so they could gather together more crystals. When enough crystals were attained, the Observers would be able to call on the King once more.
If Sally got close enough, she could snap the Observer’s mind like a string shoved in the path of a comet.
“Hey, are you paying attention to me?” Joseph interrupted.
She turned slowly and looked at him.
She ensured it was a strong glare. She didn’t need him disrupting her right now. He might be a spacer, but ultimately, the next stage of this battle would not be down to him. It certainly wouldn’t be down to the Coalition cadets. It would be up to her.
“You know, you can’t pull that look off,” he spluttered snidely.
“What look off?”
“The look you give when you think you’re better than everybody else. You’re not, Sally Winters. You’re just the same. Though realistically, you’re worse, aren’t you? Because as soon as you think you’re better than somebody, you lose touch with reality. That’s not how the Coalition works.”
“The Coalition does not work as one unit. There are many disparate forces within our ranks who are moving against one another. And the more you ignore reality, the more you let people’s separate fears chart a path for the Coalition right down to hell. Psychic defense does not matter. Combat does not matter. The Scarax Galaxy will come, and others will come after that. The only thing that will keep you all back from the brink of death, Cadet, are forces outside your control. Now, feel free to rush to psychic defense class. I have no urge to meet our new lecturer.”
Joseph bristled so much, Sally thought he would explode. She even felt a charge of subspace particles. That amused her. He’d been holding onto his secret identity ever since he joined the cadet program. Would he break it just because he was irate with her? He wouldn’t attack her. Joseph had better training than that. But he might make a mistake.
So Sally took the initiative and stalked away from him.
She focused her attention on the Observer she felt. There were very few good Observers left. A few of them had broken away from the rest, finally realizing that the King was not something to protect. The others, however, had one task. And Sally would prevent it, no matter what.