She was… she was sick of trying to describe states like this. Words just didn’t match the horror she was being forced to put up with. It was so much worse now. She’d assumed that Caxus’s mind had been the greatest, most debilitating psyche in existence. Try being overtaken by eight Observers all at once. They all clamored for space in her mind, all took up progressively more room until she was crammed right to the edges of her own psyche.
She felt like nothing more than a side note, like a pause, like a single moment of silence. Something that would never be noticed in the first place, and certainly not something that would ever be allowed to grow.
She tried to think of Joseph, tried to tell herself that maybe there was hope. Perhaps he would come back and defeat Caxus. Perhaps he would not. Perhaps his fight thus far had been nothing more than a glitch – one Caxus would easily sweep away with his greater power.
Sally was taken right down to the pits of despair then further. She didn’t think anyone had ever felt like this before. Surely it would’ve been impossible for someone with a lesser mind to be so completely defeated? For she wasn’t just defeated in this moment – her memories were paraded in front of her by the Observers to prove her resistance had always been pointless. Every single time she’d striven to rise, it had been nothing more than an ultimate waste of time and effort.
She hadn’t saved a single psyche within her. She had simply condemned them all to the same total defeat she now faced.
The ship flew back toward Faxon A. She knew that at least. She was still connected to it. Perhaps she should’ve taken something of that. Here were the Observers, Hendari themselves. Caxus was not, so it was understandable that he’d been forced to use her to control the ship. Why couldn’t the Observers control the ship directly? Had it changed somehow? Had she done something to it, modified it until it was beyond their control? Was it not original? Or was there something else going on here she couldn’t begin to imagine?
It was that, wasn’t it? Because every single time she found information, it only proved to her that there was far more to know. It solidified her weakness, didn’t break her free from it.
The Observers didn’t speak. They didn’t have to. They kept the connection with her mind through Jerry. As for Jerry? She doubted he was still alive. His body functioned – that was to say it moved. He was like a flesh doll. Sometimes his head just stopped and rolled down with a sickening, crunching, bony snap until it rested on his chest like a deflated ball. It was like his muscles were trying to desperately remind the Observers that they were done – this body spent. But they would not listen. Even death would not keep them back.
Jerry was currently sitting in the command seat, his hands spread forward, several fingers always directed toward her. His neck was strained, though, his chin on his chest. There were a few lines of blood sliding out of his puckered lips and down his torn uniform. Occasionally, they slid across his Coalition insignia. They didn’t light it up. Somehow, despite the fact the powerful downlights continued to illuminate Jerry directly from above, the few drops of glimmering blood felt like they erased the symbol. It was as if those few splatters could cover what the Coalition stood for. But there was more blood to come. The Observers hadn’t even started cutting into the Milky Way yet.
Nobody talked to her. There was little point.
But the ship shot relentlessly toward Faxon A, and Sally struggled with the reality of what would come when it got there.
The ship didn’t travel alone. The imperial fleet flew all around it in formation.
It was here. The war. No backing down, no more waiting, no more pretending. Should a part of Sally be laughing at this? Not in joy, but in irony? After all, she’d spent so long at the Academy telling everybody everything they did was pointless. Because when the war came, it would wipe away all of their regrets, all of their petty disputes, all of their ridiculous dreams. It would prove that every single second they’d wasted not preparing for the war had been a second where they’d been loading the gun which would be used on them.
“Not long now,” Jerry said. It was impossible to say which Observer was speaking, though it sounded a little like the original one. What was his name? Gan.
She had no idea how he’d managed to call together all of the other Observers. She had even less of an idea why he thought it was a good idea to go against Caxus. Sure, ostensibly Caxus was back on that asteroid, stuck with no way of getting off. But he’d been in Sally’s mind. She understood precisely how he worked. He’d been aiming for this his entire existence – one that felt just as long as the Queen’s. He wouldn’t back down. And next time, regardless of how much he needed Gan, he would simply kill him.
Sally was still floating in the pillar of light. Occasionally the weightless illumination would take her twisting around to face Jerry, only to twist her back around once more. Now she faced him. His gaze flashed over to her.
His lips twitched. “Weak. Weak from the beginning. Weak until the end. Nothing more than a pathetic sacrifice,” he stammered. It sounded like Gan all right.
Sally didn’t think she could move her lips. But there was something about the look in his eyes. Was there a glimmer of Jerry burning there? Impossible. Yeah, Jerry was pigheaded and arrogant, but how the hell would the kid be able to survive with eight Observers in his skull?
But it was still something, and it brought Sally out of her own fears – for just a second. Her lips twitched. “You… don’t know weakness,” she managed. It took several seconds after the words slipped out to be surprised at the fact she’d actually said them.
Jerry’s lips twitched. It was a violent move. Maybe the Observers thought that was how humans spoke. That their lips moved about like cracking whips or slicing knives. Or perhaps that’s what happened when you had so many minds vying for the control of one rapidly dying body.
“You can speak, but there is no point to it,” the Observers hissed through Jerry’s pale lips. “It will only solidify your position – and reveal how weak you were from the beginning.”
“If… I was weak from the beginning, I wouldn’t be here now, would I?”
“You misunderstand what your current situation is and how utterly hopeless you have become. You have been captured, Queen, and you will never escape again.”
“Not… my point. I successfully fought you, for so long. For so many damn years. I fought you, and the King remained trapped. You might be pretending this is inevitable. It wasn’t – and it still isn’t. You’ve just trapped me… for now.”
Every word was like a ladder. A new one, not a separate rung, but a new ladder she could grab, climb, and use to glimpse greater heights.
The Queen had told herself she was based on weakness. That it was her entire point. Maybe it wasn’t weakness she was based on, though. Maybe it was the act of being kicked all the way down only to find there was still something inside you. Maybe it was the recognition that even when one’s external strengths are taken away, there is always an internal force that remains.
“You can say anything you wish to, Queen, but you cannot escape, can you? You will remain alive, and you will watch the Coalition crumble. Every single soul.” The Observers scrunched Jerry’s hand into a fist and went to bang it down on the armrest, but there was a pause. This deep muscular contraction ran up his wrist and vibrated into his shoulder.
It was Jerry.
She was certain of that now. She opened her eyes wider, startled surprise slackening her cheeks. How on earth could Jerry, a seemingly simple human mind, fight off the Observers?
He made eye contact with her. Make no mistake – it was Jerry. “Psychic defense class,” he stammered, shoving the words out as fast as he could, clearly realizing he had to take this opportunity before the Observers trapped his lips once more.
What was he trying to say?
His lips twitched again, this time far more violently. Then they opened into a wide sneer that saw a few lines of saliva slide off his canines and splash onto his gray lips. The Observers were back in control. “When you are fed to the King, the universe will be at our feet, where it has always belonged. We will ascend. But it will be to a greater height than the civilizations that came before us.” Jerry’s hands were spread wide, every knuckle straining. The skin of his fingers became dappled. It was as if his circulatory system only partially functioned – as if his capillaries could pump blood into his fingertips but not back out again. They bulged until they were these pudgy sticklike protrusions.
But Jerry didn’t notice. The look of fervor and focus in his eyes always remained the same. Until she saw it again – that flicker of the real Jerry.
Psychic defense class. She doubted he’d get the chance to speak again – the Observers had clearly tightened the noose around his neck. So what was he saying?
Was he implying the lessons Anna had taught him were important somehow? Very unlikely. She was the one who’d opened up vast holes in his mind in the first place. She was the very reason he was now here, swaying on the edge of death as his body became the home of a violent psychic hive.
What else had he learned in psychic defense class? Sally had only had a handful of recent lessons with him.
The answer came slamming back into her head, so quickly, she could have spun right out of the pillar of light.
There are no weak psyches. There are only aggressive ones. It was something she’d said just to annoy Anna. It wasn’t technically true. Sally was the very epitome of why it wasn’t true. The Queen was a mind like no other. Or at least, once upon a time she had been.
She stared in wonder at Jerry again. He was still there. She caught flickers of him. He would control his lips, snatching them back from the Observers as he pulled them harder over his teeth. It was the same sneer he was so damn good at.
But when the Observers flooded back in, he would find some other part of his face to control – maybe his eyes, maybe his brow, maybe the slack skin around his neck.
If Jerry – with his simple human mind – could fight off eight Observers, then what was Sally doing?
She was meant to be so much more. Yet she was still trapped. Still hopeless.
She spun around again. She couldn’t control the pillar of light. She was completely at the whims of its eddying force.
She at least twitched a hand into a fist. It was nothing more than a momentary thing, like a distant, fleeting flash. Then immediately, she felt the Observers flooding back into her body.
They couldn’t control her completely and seemed incapable of affecting her lips and vocal cords, no matter how hard they tried. But as she spun around once more, it was to the sight of Jerry up on his feet. He swayed, but the weakness of his form could do nothing for his stare. It was one of the strongest things she’d ever seen. It could part matter, rip through time, get to the heart of the universe, and take what it wanted. And if it could do all that, it could tear through her without pause or remorse. “You will give up now, Queen. No more resistance. No more anything. Just submission. For that—”
“If you’re about to tell me that’s what I’m good for, do not waste your breath.”
“We have no breath to waste. Simply that of this host. He is degrading. He will be tossed aside, and another will be gathered on Faxon A. And there you will see what the Hendari can do. You might have forgotten your people, but trust us, we have not forgotten our inherent right to rule this universe.”
“Inherent right? You’re nothing but monsters, nothing but parasites.”
“We are the first civilization to reach the top. We have every right to become the gods of this universe.”
“And what about the Xentais?” she spat, surprised when she could completely move her lips, when she could control the tone of her voice, when she could force it out like a punch.
Jerry’s cheeks twitched. This time it was the Observers. She wondered if she could feel their psychic field fluctuate as fear crossed through them. But the fear was quickly turned into burning, righteous anger. “The Xentais were nothing more than a steppingstone. One we crushed to reach the height we now stand at.”
“And now they are all gone, are they? You have access to Gan’s mind, don’t you? You know full well the one calling himself the Regent – Caxus – has risen again. What do you think you’ll do when he catches up with you, Gan?” She tried to bring her sneering face close, but it was pretty hard considering all she could do was control her neck. The muscles bulged, tightening all the way up into her jaw until she could practically feel her teeth grinding to dust. “You think he’s dead? Do you think that you’ve stopped him? He will come, and when he does—”
“There’ll be nothing he can do. We are strong now. No mind in existence will be able to fight all of us at once.”
She chuckled. It was quiet. No force – barely any amusement. Nothing but an expulsion of air that rocked up from her constricted chest. “No one but the simple human host you are currently inhabiting.”
Maybe it was wrong to draw attention to the fact Jerry was fighting them. Then again, they would know. Sure enough, they lost control of their lips. Jerry’s mouth opened. He hissed out several short words. “There are no weak psyches.”
If words could be hands, then they would’ve clutched around that statement like a man groping for a savior as he drowned beneath violent waves.
There are… no weak psyches.
The Queen had been fodder for the King. She’d been so because her mind had been labeled as too small. Her psyche had been called weak. And the rest of the Hendari civilization had believed that.
They had found a way to measure the strength of each other’s minds.
But what had they actually been measuring?
How could one psyche be weaker than another?
Weren’t all psyches there to do the same thing? To impart perspective on existence? To be the bridge between the strange realm of self-reflective consciousness and seemingly lifeless matter?
“There are no weak psyches,” Jerry managed again. His mouth opened violently. It was very clear the Observers were in control again. They snatched up a hand, grabbed it around Jerry’s face, and let their fingers sink in. It was brutal. Jerry’s nails soon drew blood, and it trailed down the side of his cheek. It splashed onto his collar and kept going. It soon marked the once perfectly clean floor. But that couldn’t change the fact Jerry had risen. And if a mind like his could rise, so could hers.
She strained again. This time she got just that little bit closer. And every time she did that, it was proof that with just a fraction more effort, she could get closer again.
“You can resist all you want. You can tell yourself fiction. You can promise yourself that if you fight us, you will ultimately win, but your imagination cannot change reality,” the Observers snarled through Jerry’s lips.
“And neither can you. If eight Observers can’t fight off one simple human’s mind, what chance do you think you will have against the entire Coalition, against the entire Milky Way? You have waded into a fight you cannot win. You are just as weak as me. But unlike me,” she said as she finally broke through their control and forced herself all the way forward until she was pressed up against the edge of the pillar of light, “you have no idea how to rise once you are knocked down.”
Actual fear flooded into Jerry’s expression. It didn’t look like a single moment of dread, if you will, but eight moments combined. It made it such a far more exquisite, almost palpable emotion. Though she couldn’t reach her fingers forward and lock them around Jerry’s face, she practically felt the blood flow changing in his neck, thrumming up to his lips, and spreading like a cold wave back down his throat.
Though all Sally wanted to do was float here and taunt the Observers, there was a sudden beep. It echoed out through the center of the bridge. It brought with it this cold, devastating realization.
There was a view screen permanently floating to the side of Jerry. With one stiff swipe, it got closer to his face. The Observers ticked their frightened but still fervent gaze over to it, and true joy leaped through their eyes. “Faxon A,” Jerry’s lips barely moved around that word. All of the force of it came through the Observers’ psychic connection. They didn’t need words momentarily. All they required was the fact that they’d won. “We have arrived. You can try to resist all you wish. You can make up fictions about who is stronger and who is weaker,” the Observers said as they pushed Jerry’s face right up into the pillar of light until it started to flicker around his jutting chin and bulging eyes, “but you cannot change the fact of where we are, nor the fact of what we will soon begin.” He lifted his hand up. His fingers shook, but just slightly. It was clear Jerry was momentarily trying to regain control of his form, but he couldn’t stop what would happen next. “Connect us to the rest of the fleet,” the Observers snapped, their righteous order ringing out on all frequencies. “The battle for the Milky Way begins now.”
They swiped Jerry’s hand down, and Sally swore she felt it. The very moment the imperial fleet started firing, and the very moment hope died with them.