She felt the moment something changed. Perhaps it was the Hendari crystals calling out to her. Perhaps it was the intuition of someone who’d fought so many wars, but she was like a weathercock that could pick up even the slightest oncoming gale.
She snapped to her feet, her eyes widening. “What was that?” There was no rumble, no far off crack as ships appeared in the atmosphere. Just her beating heart and suddenly sweaty palms.
Her scanner beeped. It was disarming to have a conversation with the body of a six-year-old girl through a piece of mere technology. It cut through some of the emotional poignancy, but not all of it. Because right now there was a long pause. “They’re here, Admiral.”
Lara went to force her lips open to demand more information. Who was here?
She already knew.
She curled one hand into a tight fist and dragged her short nails over her palm. “The Scarax fleet?”
“The war has begun?” Lara managed to push each word out, but they became more vacant, weaker, quieter. Why waste force on words? She needed strength for her guns.
She took a step back.
She went to turn.
“The war is but a distraction.”
She froze, her shoulders straining against her uniform. “It’s not a distraction. Countless people could die.”
“Yet the entire universe will be crushed if you allow the Regent and the Observers to have their way.”
“But they are enemies.”
“Their goal is to destroy one another. In doing so, they will take us all with them.”
“I have to concentrate on saving who I can.”
“You must concentrate on saving full stop.”
“How do I do that? I’m just one admiral.”
“They will come back here. I cannot be moved. But the Hendari crystal in my mind is the most important in all reality.”
“Why?” Lara had turned, but slowly she shifted her head back. She was like an old clown at a fair. She didn’t have the grace of somebody who could move with a real body – just the automaticity of something being moved by a greater force.
“I am the Coalition’s Hendari crystal.”
Lara twitched. “The Coalition’s Hendari crystal? What does that mean? Have you been here the longest in Coalition space?”
“Incorrect. I come from the Coalition’s knowledge.”
“You… I don’t understand.”
“The crystals were not created by the Hendari. They are simply the last race to gather them together and stamp their name on them. Fundamentally, the crystals belong to the universe.”
“Fundamentally?” Lara could barely move her lips. They tried to twitch around each word, but they became stiff as millions of questions arose, crashing through Lara’s mind like shockwaves.
She’d… always suspected the crystals were different. They had minds – she’d felt that. But—
“Each crystal was created by a past civilization.”
“Past civilization? The Coalition isn’t over. Not yet,” she growled, her voice as hard at the same time as it was soft. That was what a good admiral did. You couldn’t blast your way through every fight. That’s what Ninev had tried to do. Such an attitude only ever led to disasters of your own making. You had to be just as strong as you were yielding. You had to know what to give up and know what to fight to the death for.
“The crystals do not respect time,” Alice answered.
“So you’re telling me… the Coalition isn’t over? But if the crystals are created when a civilization passes—”
“All civilizations pass. The Coalition will not last forever. Nothing does.”
“So what are you, then? Somehow the combined knowledge of the entire Coalition?”
“In a way.”
“What does that mean?” Lara knew she didn’t have a second to waste, but right now she could be receiving the most important information of her career. Heck, this could be the most important information in all of the universe. It certainly felt as if some great veil of mystery was being lifted. Her skin prickled, sweat continually marching down her back. Her heart beat harder, this tension spilling through her stomach. She stood as strong as she could.
Even then, this information felt like it would sweep her off her feet.
“Hendari crystals are created from the minds of the civilizations they come from. Their ascendant psyches.”
Nerves continued to prickle over Lara, condensing between her shoulders and slipping down her spine. She twisted her head further around. Her lips finally twitched open. “Ascendant psyches?” Once upon a time, the universe had been so simple. Lara had been privy to great secrets, true, but even they hadn’t prepared her for what she faced now.
The more power the Coalition groped up, the more questions it answered, the less understandable everything became. The once solid footing of the Coalition, based as it was in science, just kept morphing as if they’d only been standing on clouds to begin with.
“Nothing can ever truly be destroyed. Especially minds,” Alice said.
“So what… are you trying to say? The Hendari crystals are… some kind of afterlife?”
“Incorrect. They are an imprint of the soul of a civilization – its hopes and dreams, knowledge and power.”
“And… the crystal inside you… you come from the Coalition?”
“You’re telling me the Coalition Hendari crystal is more powerful than all others?” Maybe Lara’s voice should’ve shaken with amusement. She was well aware that despite how much she loved the Coalition, it was but a speck of dust compared to most of the other powerful civilizations that had walked through this great universe. It had a good heart, true, but rarely did good hearts make up for raw power.
“Every force will now come for me,” Alice warned.
“How do I unleash the power of the Hendari crystals, then? If you are… intelligences, ones based on all civilizations, then there must be enough knowledge to stop this.”
“You cannot access it.”
“Because nothing is ever that easy.”
Lara had to laugh. It wasn’t an explanation, but perhaps it was the best one she’d ever get. She still clenched her teeth. “There has to be something I can do. Some device I can connect the crystals up to. Some advantage we can clutch at before the war gets here.”
“Protect this planet. While you may not be able to use the full Hendari crystals, there are others who can.”
A thrill of recognition chased its way across Lara’s back. She stood taller. “Are you talking about the Queen?”
“And others. Hold this planet, Admiral. For this planet is key.”
Lara closed her eyes and forced a breath through her teeth. Then she straightened. She actually saluted. Who was she saluting? A six-year-old girl? Alice had never been inculcated into the traditions of the Coalition. But if she was right, and somehow inside her was a crystal based on the entire Coalition civilization, then that deserved a salute. Deserved the greatest one Forest had ever given.
Did she understand what was going on? No. Did she have a hope of understanding it? Of course not.
But she knew what she had to do nonetheless. One step then another, one bullet then another, one sacrifice then another. That’s how you won wars. But to truly rise again from the ashes of battle, you had to remember who you’d been going into it. You had to clutch hold of your morals. You had to keep them safe. And no matter what people did to wrench them from your grip, you had to lock them away.
Admiral Forest grabbed up the Hendari crystal case, then thought better of it. She placed it down beside Alice, but not in the pool of seemingly static blood.
She crunched up into a standing position. One more salute, then she turned. She grabbed the gun out of her holster, and she got ready to protect Faxon A.
The war was here.
She would never back down.