He… couldn’t figure it out. Couldn’t think full stop.
All he could do was lean down there on one knee, his hair slicing in front of his eyes, a few lines of sweat sliding down his brow as he stared at Sally.
Now Anna’s psychic attack was gone, one by one, the cadets and officers picked themselves up. But by and large, they had no clue what they were looking at. Yes, there were glowing crystals above Sally’s head, but unless they had top security clearance, no one would be able to guess what they were.
There was one officer further back who was an engineer from the basement levels. He might comprehend this situation better than everybody else. He still didn’t move a muscle. What exactly could he do?
Sally got stuck staring at Joseph for a few seconds. Her eyes were slightly unfocused. Apart from that, her expression was unreadable. There was no tension around her cheeks. They were smooth and slack, the powerful corridor lights from above glinting off them.
He would’ve given anything in that moment to be psychic, to know what she was thinking.
The next moment came, and he didn’t need to read minds anymore to know what she’d do now.
Sally turned. There was a weightiness to the move, a certain speed, too.
She’d revealed herself, and it was time to leave.
She went to take a single step. Three bright flashes erupted beside Joseph as people ported in.
He jerked up, brought his sword around, and put himself between them and Sally. That’s right, he was going to defend her. Didn’t matter that she was the Queen. Nothing mattered right now but his pounding heart and what it begged him to do.
They weren’t Scarax assets, though. It was Admiral Forest and some of her senior staff.
They didn’t hold weapons, but Forest did carry a glimmering silver case. Joseph had seen it before. It was used to carry around one Hendari crystal at a time and release their power.
While it might’ve been designed for that purpose, the Queen, on the other hand, was destined.
Sally had taken a single step away. She slowly inclined her head back to the admiral. “If you’ve come to take the crystals off me, don’t bother trying,” she said emotionlessly. “I need them.” She took another step.
Joseph could feel this strange kind of energy building in the room.
He wanted to say he’d never detected anything like it – that was wrong, though. In a rush, he recognized where he’d felt it before. His dreams. Specifically the one where he was screaming against the broken railing on the roof and Sally was floating there, a gate appearing behind her.
He jerked around so fast, his joints could’ve turned to dust. Shoving a hand toward her, he couldn’t get his fingers to spread wide enough. “Sally, no. Don’t do it. Don’t go.”
“It was nice knowing you, Joseph. I have to return now. One more chance,” she muttered under her breath. The way she said it – the snapped syllables that slid out of her lips – suggested she’d used this as a mantra her entire life.
Joseph didn’t need to ask where she was going. Back to the Hendari. Back to the King. But it was a trap.
Joseph had known many facts over his existence. He wasn’t talking about scientific knowledge of the universe. This wasn’t what he’d learned in class. He meant bodily facts – the kind you couldn’t forget because they had been carved into you. There was Deus’s control, of course. Then there was the fact of being a spacer. He could never remove himself from it, because it was in every cell, inherent to his form, there to stay with him from now until death.
But he knew this fact, too, possibly somehow with a stronger physiological certainty. Sally was gonna go back to the Hendari, but it was a trap, and she would die. With her, everyone’s chance to survive the war would die too.
She was the Queen. She had all the Hendari crystals above her. There was every reason not to get close. Did Joseph care?
No. He rushed up to her.
The entire corridor was silent. The cadets might not have any clue what was going on, but not only had Anna been taken down – they had functioning eyes. The power buffeting off Sally, the awe on the faces of Forest’s senior staff – it all signified this was a momentous situation.
It could make or break everyone.
“Sorry, Joseph. I’ve run out of time. If Anna was right, and there’s more than one Observer on this planet, then I can’t give up my chance—”
“You can’t go back there, Sally. It’s a trap,” he finally delivered that line. Sorry, he dropped it. He wanted it to shunt out of his lips, to echo out with all the power he felt swarming inside him. Instead, it slipped out and fell at his feet. It was the equivalent of taking your heart out and throwing it at someone to try to win an argument. You didn’t have reasons. You didn’t have well-thought-out points. All you had was raw emotion.
Maybe that’s all he needed. Sally took another step and turned. A strange energy continued to build in the room. If he’d been able to tear his gaze off her, he would’ve noticed that light was picking up between the crystals. It wasn’t what you’d expect. For the most powerful examples of technological prowess in the entire universe, their glow should’ve illuminated the whole planet. Instead it was subtle, gentle even. It was deceptively small. These tendrils of energy simply filtered down from one crystal to the next. When they struck Sally, who knew what would happen? Sorry. He knew. A gate would open, and she’d be spirited away. For good.
“Sally, you can’t go. It’s a trap.”
“Don’t worry, Joseph. The Hendari will be taken out of the equation. Without them, I have every confidence that the Coalition can win against the Scarax.”
“It’s a trap,” he tried again. Once more, he lay his heart at her feet. Every trembling word spoke of his deep damn need.
It just wasn’t enough. That gate finally began to open. The last tendril of light struck her, and this energy… he couldn’t describe it. A team of scientists wouldn’t be able to. Heck, you give a planet their entire existence and you set them the task of explaining it, and they would fail. No words could possibly comprehend the silence that suddenly spread. It was as if creation hit pause but forgot to turn off people’s awareness as it did something behind the scenes.
Everything dimmed. Joseph had seen old movies from Earth. These black-and-white things. They were almost too impossible to comprehend compared to holographic movies. But what happened now reminded him of that.
It was like somebody sucked the color out of everybody.
In amongst that gaping silence and desaturation, Joseph saw a circle appear right behind Sally. You’d think it’d be more dramatic. You’d think the windows would bust in, the floor would crack, and she’d rise off her feet. Instead it was disarmingly quiet and slow. Then, it was there. A fully functioning gate to the Hendari worlds.
Sally looked at him one last time and turned.
Joseph grabbed her hand. Yep. She was the Queen. He was a spacer. Usually that equation came out in his favor. Not today. Not ever again.
He was surprised when he actually stopped her in place. He was more surprised when touching her didn’t result in his body atomizing.
He could feel the energy coursing through his cells. It was crazy.
“Joseph,” Forest snapped quickly.
“Listen to the admiral, Joseph. You can’t come. This only requires me.”
“It’s a trap, Sally. Please. You cannot leave.”
“I exist to kill the King. I have to take the opportunity to do that now. I don’t know if I’ll ever get another chance again.”
“This isn’t an opportunity.”
“Wait.” Lara took a step forward. It resounded. Everything else might have become dim, but she at least stood out. She didn’t need color and brightness. She didn’t need what other people did to make themselves known beyond the crowd. Forest came with her own internal import.
It was enough that Sally glanced at her once. “As I said, Admiral, you will have your chance when the Hendari are gone.”
“Joseph is right. Don’t go.”
“There is nothing you can do to stop me,” Sally said. Her voice was pretty much the same voice she always used. The same tone she’d had whenever she’d blithely told everybody she was the greatest power in the universe and the greatest technology sat on her bedside table. None of that had been lying. Back then, when he’d thought she was mad, he’d assumed her slightly haughty, arrogant tone was nothing more than a foolhardy attempt to get attention. Now everything fit.
It might’ve been the silence, the dim scene, or you know, the glowing crystals above her. Or it might’ve just been that Joseph finally pulled the blinkers from his eyes. Sally had always been powerful – he’d just chosen not to see it.
“No, Cadet, there’s nothing we can do to stop you,” Lara conceded. “Only you can stop yourself. We pray, however, that you stay. This is no time to rush out and destroy the Hendari yet.”
Sally let out this empty chuckle. There was no force in it. It only came from the top of her throat as if the rest of her body was shutting down. Joseph knew this, because he still held her hand, and he couldn’t even detect the slightest vibration, despite his super sensitivity.
“Every single second I have existed is a chance wasted. Every new second in this universe is a second you come closer to an end you have no hope of surviving. Only I can save you. It’s time—”
Joseph couldn’t hold on to her. Not forever. With her crystals, she would be able to rebuff him.
He’d done some pretty crazy things over the years. In combat, sometimes he forgot that even as a spacer, he wasn’t impervious. Make no mistake, right now, he knew that he was just as fragile as a glass statue of a baby. Did that stop him? Did it yank his hand back? Nope. His dreams repeated in his head, pounding down into his cerebellum, feeling as if they’d part his grey matter, drive into the center of his skull, and detonate like a torpedo.
This was it. One chance. He had to get through to her.
“Leave now, Cadet,” Lara’s voice rattled with import. “And you will likely condemn the Coalition. There is a reason you stuck around. There was a reason for your impassioned speech during your disciplinary meeting. Follow that reason through. Give us all a chance and stay.”
Joseph didn’t know what Forest was referring to. Had she been there for Sally’s disciplinary meeting? While he was on the topic, why didn’t Forest look surprised? Yeah, she hadn’t come to the scene until after Anna had been defeated. But where was the tension, the awe? Shouldn’t she be floored that the maddest cadet in 100 years had turned out to be the most powerful force in all the universe, just as she kept telling everybody?
Forest hadn’t known, right? That hadn’t been the reason she’d commanded Joseph to trust her? If she’d suspected Sally was the Queen, she would’ve shared, surely?
Those were all undermining thoughts. In any other circumstance, maybe he’d drop Sally’s hand and head right over to Forest now. But dropping Sally’s hand would be akin to taking an ax to every single one of his limbs.
“You’ll be fine,” Sally said. “Once the King’s destroyed, the Scarax Galaxy will no longer be able to control Hendari technology. The Coalition will win the upcoming war easily.”
“If you leave now, Cadet Winters, you will abandon the Academy.” Lara didn’t flinch as she delivered that line. She was essentially admitting that no matter what everyone did – what they sacrificed, how they fought – it wouldn’t count. Not without Sally.
Sally took another step. She was close to that gate. Joseph… he really didn’t want to pay attention to it. Couldn’t, in many ways, because all his brain wanted to do was focus on Sally as if she was the only real thing and everything else was a bad fantasy. But, in between time, almost as if it was a temporal shadow, he thought he could hear things coming from that gate. This endless screaming. This moaning, too. And this inkling… of a mind like no other.
Joseph had a closer association with minds than most. Especially strong ones. He’d felt Deus’s for years. And that was a mind that would’ve put Anna to shame. Whatever was through that gate… was on a level Joseph couldn’t comprehend. It made Anna seem like an ant at the foot of the greatest mountain that had ever existed.
Sally went to break away from him. He just held her harder.
She reached around, placed a hand on his, and with no effort at all, broke his grip. His fingers became weak like springs stretched beyond their limit. He went to grab her again but couldn’t.
She reached the gate.
She faced it.
He couldn’t see her face, not directly. He was behind her. He still knew how she looked.
Her expression was free of anger. Despite the fact she was the Queen, and she was meant to be the strongest, greatest force out there, there was fear instead.
Maybe it was the very same fear that had been plastered over the young Sally’s face when she’d fallen into that cave on Faxon A.
That was the last shot Joseph needed. Just as Sally began to walk through, he reached a hand out to her one last time. “Stop, Layra.”
The name exploded from his subconscious, erupting from the heart of his dreams like blood from a fresh wound. It helped that he screamed it, that he gave it all his vocal might, that his emotions pulsed right through it, giving it this need and urgency he’d never given anything else in his entire existence.
He could hear the gate, hear that moaning getting louder.
He knew behind it, the King, the Observers, or whoever was waiting for Sally, practically licked their chops in anticipation. They’d been trying to trap her for millennia.
He wouldn’t damn well let them.
“It’s a trap, Layra,” he said again, his voice vibrating on her name, dropping down then arcing up.
“Joseph?” Forest tried.
If she was about to call him back, he wouldn’t comply. If Sally had to go, he’d follow. He’d lay down his life to buy her a chance.
His spacer skills might be incomparable in the Milky Way, but they’d be worth nothing over there in the Hendari worlds.
Slowly, like a carcass attached to a spit, Sally turned.
He mightn’t have been able to see her expression before. Now? Any child would know what she was thinking. Cold recognition flooded her features, making her cheeks so pale and slack, they looked like they’d slide right off her face. “How… how do you know my name?”
“Joseph?” Forest’s once commanding voice now fluctuated.
Wait… Layra really was the Queen’s name? He had no frigging clue how he’d figured that. But if this was what he needed to stop her, he’d use it.
It was a strange, debilitating experience getting closer to that gate, especially considering Sally was halfway in it. Joseph thrust forward anyway. He’d gladly let his body burn right now if it meant snatching her back from the jaws of death. “You’re Layra, right? This is a trap. The Observers set it up. Or someone did. You go through that gate, and they’ll kill you, Layra.”
Power crackled down from the crystals. He didn’t know if it was on purpose. Maybe Sally was so pissed off by what he’d said that she was going to turn him to dust.
Or maybe… maybe he’d finally gotten through to her.
She tilted toward him and took a step.
He thought he heard something behind her, rushing up from the gate.
It was a blast of power he couldn’t begin to describe. Psychic? Physical? It was impossible to discern. Maybe it was a mixture of both – some deadly weapon that would work on the mind and matter equally as forcefully.
It never got a chance to reach Sally. As soon as she bodily walked out of the gate, it shut down. It withered up, receding back in on itself like it was some kind of dried corpse. Then with a click, almost like Sally snapping her fingers, it disappeared.
The crystals remained, still floating there above Sally, but they slowly lost their illumination.
Though Sally had voluntarily turned the gate off, she could turn it back on at any moment. “Where did you hear the name Layra—”
“You have to stay. This is a trap. The Observers or someone has been planning this. If you go back there, you’ll die. And you can’t die, Layra.”
Slowly but steadily, Forest took a step forward. She wasn’t calling Joseph back anymore. She did, for a second, stare at him. Clear questions burned within. Fair enough. They burned in his mind, too. How… exactly had he known the Queen’s name?
Though everything was unfolding so quickly, he still realized Sally must’ve done something to his mind. She was the reason he’d never suspected her, right? But she wasn’t influencing his mind now. She certainly hadn’t slipped him Layra’s name psychically – she was too shocked by the fact he knew it.
So where the heck had her name come from?
Joseph wasn’t psychic. He sure as hell wasn’t clairvoyant. He already had enough powers, thank you very much. Whatever the hell was happening could not be denied, though.
“I don’t know what just occurred,” Forest said evenly. “But I do know this. You leave now, and you will condemn the Coalition. If you care for the people you’ve traveled through the Academy with, Cadet, follow me.” There was a pleading note pulsing through Lara’s voice.
She never usually pleaded with anyone. Lara Forest knew how to be in control of any situation.
She was out of her depth now. Everyone was. But at least, unlike most of the cadets around her, she stood with her head held high.
Sally continued to stare at Joseph for a few seconds, the questions clearly burning within her powerful psyche. Then she turned. She didn’t reactivate her gate. She followed Forest.
That’s when it struck Joseph. He’d done it. She was staying for now.
He went to jerk toward them but stopped. Serena was still down on her knees, that completely vacant look in her eyes. “What happened to her?” All he could think of was James. If he could see this right now, he’d scream at Joseph to do something.
“Unknown,” Sally said evenly.
“Take her to the med bay,” Forest demanded. “Lock the Academy down,” she added.
Presumably every single cadet in this corridor who’d seen this show wouldn’t be allowed to share it. The rumors wouldn’t get a chance to spread through E Club like wildfire. Every one of these students would be taken to a room and debriefed then debriefed again. Joseph didn’t actually know if Forest wanted to – or even could – keep a lid on this, but information control was ingrained in admirals like her. You prevented something from spreading, then decided what to do with the truth later.
Joseph couldn’t unstick his feet. He kept looking at Serena. He remembered her frightening fervor when she’d seen the Hendari crystals.
It’d been like… somebody else had been in Serena’s head.
Had they been controlling her from afar?
Forest took another step, and Sally followed.
When Joseph didn’t, Forest cleared her throat. “If you wish to come, Joseph, come.”
“Someone was in Serena’s head,” he spluttered. He stared down at Serena. Her eyes were open, but there was nothing there. It was like someone had driven a hole right through her head. That’s when he recognized the feeling climbing his spine. It wasn’t like someone had driven a hole through her head. They had. He felt the same gaping psychic wound that’d been in every spacer under Deus’s command.
A violent shiver ran down his back, rammed into his legs, and raced right back up his spine.
Sally noticed. She turned fast.
“There’s something inside her head,” Joseph muttered breathlessly.
Maybe it was because he’d figured it out. Maybe it was because, fundamentally, Joseph had a mental hole just like Serena. Or perhaps he just got lucky. He started to see something surging within Serena’s once dead gaze. It was like standing at the mouth of a cave only to realize that an explosion was rushing your way but it was too late to run.
He couldn’t jerk back in time.
This psychic force struck him. It felt like standing in the path of a thousand heavy cruisers. As it smashed into his mind, there wasn’t a thing Joseph could do to thrust it back. Every psychic tool he had ever learned was nothing compared to the force of this.
There was no time to scream, no time to even open his lips.
Something touched him.
It could’ve been a mind, could’ve been a hand. Could’ve even been creation itself deciding to snuff him out personally.
Just as Joseph was tugged right back, right down to hell, he was pulled out again.
A second later, he tumbled down to his feet.
Sally had saved him, and now she stood right in front of Serena, her steely stare locked on the gathering force like a gun trained on a target.
Serena jerked, screamed, and blinked.
“What’s going on?” Forest roared.
Serena grabbed her head. She rocked back and forth. “What… how… what? It’s coming back,” she muttered.
The force hadn’t left her. It’d tried to inhabit Joseph but had failed. Sally had knocked it down, but it was still in Serena’s head somewhere.
She was lucid for a moment. In that time, she let out a keening, high-pitched cry. Make no mistake, it was the scream of somebody who knew they had a moment to use their voice before they lost control of it again. Halfway through the shrill shriek, her voice gave up.
Joseph was still down on his ass. He didn’t bother to pluck himself up.
Sally stood right in the path of Serena just as her eyes blinked wildly once then settled. They closed all the way then opened. It looked like someone was dragging shutters up.
“An Observer,” Sally said simply. “Come out of the student’s head,” she commanded in an even tone. There was no force. There clearly didn’t need to be. You demanded when you couldn’t ensure someone did something. You begged when you were out of your depth. Sally held all the cards.
The Observer hissed. It wasn’t Serena’s voice. Didn’t sound like a voice at all. It was… forceful, the kind of forceful that was like a scalpel, like a knife designed to rip right through someone’s flesh. The kind of forceful that would take your wishes and crush them into dust.
“Too late,” the Observer gurgled.
“Too late for her?” Sally hissed.
“Too late for the Academy. Too late for the Coalition. Too late for the Milky Way. Too late.”
“Why?” Again, Sally’s voice was even. Deceptively so. If you’d heard her voice in a different context and compared it to the Observer’s, you would conclude she had zero chance of winning. But that would deny the sheer sense of possibility behind every clipped syllable.
Maybe it was just Joseph who could feel this, but when Sally spoke, it was like the universe listened.
“Too late, Queen. Can’t hide now. We know exactly where you are. There’s nothing you can do—”
Sally slapped Serena. It was a slight physical move. It was just enough to see Serena’s head turn to the side. But over the rustle of Serena’s hair, Joseph heard a snap echo out. It was like bone – like hundreds of cooked chicken bones. It was eerier than that, though, felt like it echoed in every dimension.
Maybe it was just him who could hear it. Nobody else had to snap their heads to the side and huddle into the crooks of their elbows like he did.
With that one simple move, Serena resurfaced. She spluttered, jerked back, sucked in a lungful of air, and locked her hands on her trembling chest.
She shook as if she was about to pull out of her skin.
She stared up at Sally then over at Joseph. “What… what the hell is happening? I can’t… remember a thing.”
“Have you destroyed the Observer?” Lara demanded. She might look hard most of the time, but she would do anything to protect the students under her command.
Sally lifted her hand. Serena flinched back. Suddenly, her head jerked, and the Observer returned. It was only for a fraction of a second. Joseph felt the moment. It was hard not to. The whole room became quiet once more. It wasn’t like what had happened when Sally had opened the gate. There wasn’t anywhere near as much force. But everyone became eerily silent as this dark unseen wave pulsed through the room.
“You cannot kill me if you cannot catch me, Queen. And you will not catch me,” the Observer promised with leering glee.
There was a surge of power. It interacted with the entire room. It might’ve been in the middle of the day, but the lights were still on. They suddenly became 10 times as bright until students had to scream and clutch their eyes. Then the globes exploded in a hail of sparks and fragments of smart glass.
Sally had been ready to follow Forest. Now she turned.
It was clear she intended to hunt down the Observer.
Joseph got to his feet.
In the space of several minutes, his entire world had been turned upside down.
He didn’t know what to stand on anymore.
The wise admiral just to his left had taught him a lesson he’d never truly understood until now. When you have nothing to stand on, you find someone to stand with instead.
Joseph didn’t know what was really going on. He didn’t understand how Sally could be the Queen. He didn’t know what the Observers were ultimately up to. He had no clue if he could even begin to help her, let alone stop this. He would stand by her side.
No matter what happened.