She didn’t… couldn’t… this couldn’t be happening.
Her connection to her crystals was wavering.
The crystals belonged to the Hendari, even if her people hadn’t technically made them and had only found them. That wasn’t the point. She was the Queen, a psychic like no other, dammit. So why….
Those three massive sprites continued to drag her back. No matter how much psychic power she pumped into them, it didn’t count. They were relentless. Their strength was unmatched. And it made no sense.
The only force meant to be able to fight her was the King. He couldn’t have been activated. She would’ve known. Every single person on every single planet in every single galaxy would’ve figured it out when their psyches were dragged right out of their minds in one last violent, fatal, and permanent attack.
“Sally,” Joseph spluttered again. There was a different note to his keening desperation. She was aware of the fact something was appearing just above her bed.
She didn’t need to tick her gaze toward it. She knew it was the Observer. Or at least his official manifestation in sprite form.
As soon as he entered the room, the energy changed. Not only did the psychic sprites become more frenetic, but this undercurrent of sheer control and fear infected everything. It wasn’t just the sprites. She swore it was every object, from the carpet, to the walls, to her damn clothes. It was as if reality understood that a force that shouldn’t exist had just imposed itself on everything like a permanent shadow.
She tried to thrust away from the sprites again. That’s when she heard Jerry’s laughter. Make no mistake, it was still his voice. She didn’t quite understand where the Observer began and Jerry ended, but a part of Jerry was enjoying this.
The fool. The Observer would leave him with no mind left – or at least not one that could function. He’d have nothing more than a hole in his head far larger than any spacer. Jerry would be fodder for any and every psychic out there. But she was jumping ahead. That assumed the Observer would ever leave him. And it assumed that when it left him, the King wouldn’t rise immediately once more.
Those three psychics couldn’t use their power to rip through Sally’s body. They tried. But even though the Queen couldn’t throw them off, her mind withstood their control.
Jerry would be a different matter when he attacked. He hovered there just above her bed. Then he pushed down. His boots crumpled her pillow.
He took a step toward her, if you could call it a step. It was optional. Gravity couldn’t affect him. Neither, it was obvious, could reason.
“It’s over, Queen. Your grip on your crystals slips with every second.” He gestured toward the table. The standard psychic sprites continued to assail the crystals. They shouldn’t even be able to get close to them. Yet they were getting closer with every second.
They might have just been cookie-cutter forms, but their faces suddenly contracted with expressions of pure greed. It sent fear climbing up her spine, rattling over the back of her head, then crashing back down to her heart like a wave.
She struggled against the psychics again. It didn’t matter. They held her in place.
Joseph fought. Damn did he fight.
But more of those massive psychic sprites appeared. They distracted him, getting in his way, stopping him from getting close to Sally, let alone the crystals.
He was smart enough not to be touched. God knows what would happen if he was. She didn’t want to imagine it, couldn’t bring her mind to submit itself to such horrible details.
Joseph might have developed the unique ability to be able to interact with sprites, regardless of the fact he wasn’t psychic, but that ability would end at the hand of one of those massive soldiers. It would likely rip right through Joseph’s psyche, leaving nothing more than a gaping hole the damn wind could rush through.
“Hold her still. Let her watch,” Jerry hissed.
“How are you doing this?” Sally screamed.
“You know precious little, Queen. Let’s keep it that way.”
“Sally, you’ve got to do something. If he gets hold of the crystals,” Joseph spluttered. He didn’t finish, either because he couldn’t as the sprites assailed him once more, or because there was no point.
If the Observer got hold of the crystals, then this entire galaxy would fall. And all others would fall soon afterward.
Sally knew the importance of not giving in to fear – especially when you were actively involved in a psychic fight. It was a debilitating emotion – one that could be used against you as if you were tying your own noose and hanging it around your own damn throat. Fear carved a path right into a person’s heart.
One of the sprites holding her jerked forward, hissing right in her ear. She felt a wave of control trying to push into her psyche, but she rebuffed it at the last moment. Gritting her teeth and jerking forward as far as she could go, her hair fell in front of her face. Long sweaty strands cut across her dark gaze as she stared over at Jerry. “No matter what happens, you won’t win.”
“You say that with confidence that you have no right to have. Once the crystals slip out of your grip, it will be over, Queen. You will return to the Hendari worlds, where you always have belonged. And you will open the King up one last time. Your mind will be the appropriate sacrifice for him.”
“Shut up,” Joseph roared much more loudly than she could. She even fancied he had more anger. What was he reacting to? The word sacrifice? It had special personal significance to him, after all.
But this wasn’t personal for him – Joseph’s anger was all on her behalf.
“Jerry, if you’re still in there, snap the hell out of it. You did everything for the Coalition, right?” Joseph roared. “You just want to save people.”
“If you’re speaking about my host, understand this,” the Observer hissed, now clearly in control, “this boy knows exactly what he wants. And he is getting it.”
“The assured destruction of the Milky Way and everyone in it?” Joseph spluttered, sparks blasting out in every direction as he managed to rebuff one of the large psychic sprite’s attacks.
“Victory. This child wanted to be the best of the best. And he is experiencing it.”
“This isn’t the best,” Sally hissed. “Do you have any idea what will happen to you when the King rises?”
“The Observers will take their natural position—”
“They will be controlled, too. There is a reason you were not in the original King hive mind. You were too weak. You were deemed to be better off to stay outside so that you could do the menial task of protecting the King.”
“You have no clue what you’re speaking of,” the Observer said. If he was trying to stay strong, he failed – his voice was far too dark.
Sally couldn’t fight directly. She couldn’t access the crystals for whatever reason, and only her psychic skills could keep her safe.
There was another way to win. There always was.
“You think I’m a sacrifice? At least I’m aware. You lie to yourself. The King will not elevate you. You will be a sacrifice too. You will likely be the first mind the King attempts to control. That,” her voice rattled down with pure passion, “is what you’re doing here. You fools.” Sally said that with the haughty arrogance of the Queen. You could’ve recorded her voice and then played it back until it was barely audible, and it wouldn’t have mattered. She swore the whole room still paid attention.
The Observer wasn’t really here. He had full control of Jerry’s body anyway. So there was no reason to show real emotion. Unless he lost control. Which is precisely what happened now. Sally saw the fear slackening his features, twitching his cheeks, and marching down into his stiff neck. It flattened his brow only to see it condense a second later as if somebody had suddenly made a fist that could crush their knuckles.
“You have no idea, Queen. You’re the sacrifice. The King will need nothing else. And when that great hive finally rises, we will rise with it.”
Sally could undermine the Observer. But it wouldn’t get her out of this mess. Her only chance was to grab the Hendari crystals back and control them once more. She didn’t know how to do that, though. She kept trying. She was connected to them, but it was almost as if somebody was building a wall between them. She had never in all of her long years of existence felt anything like it.
It was as if she stood on a section of land that was rapidly being taken away from the crystals and their reality. If she concentrated too much on that sensation, it only got worse.
“Sally,” Joseph roared again. He was thrust back. Two more of those massive sprites manifested. Just how many did Jerry have? Joseph hadn’t managed to destroy a single one of them yet.
It was… really over, wasn’t it? Even if she managed to destroy the sprites holding her, what then? More would arrive. The Observer held all the cards.
Sally stupidly let that debilitating thought slip through her psyche. It was like an invitation right into her withering heart. It was one the psychic sprites couldn’t resist.
She felt and heard hisses right by her ears. It sounded as if the floor was crumbling out from underneath her.
Jerry had to be connected to every single one of the psychic sprites, because his eyes widened with clear joy. “That’s it. Give up.”
“Sally?” Joseph roared, a note of fright crumpling his throat and making it sound as if he choked her name out of a constricted straw.
It’s too late.
Her vision suddenly cut out.
Her senses could no longer pay attention to the world outside. They were dragged back within her mind as if she was going to be imprisoned there for good.
She was aware she was being held, but that sensation rapidly dwindled too. It was as if somebody was taking all of the evidence that Sally existed in the real world out there and erasing it one by one. It made her question whether she existed or she’d only ever been a figment of her own imagination.
She heard Jerry’s voice, alright. It was the only thing she could be certain of. His debilitating chuckle rang out louder until it felt as if it would be the only noise she’d ever hear again.
“Just a little longer. A little bit more. Give in, Queen. Understand this was always your destiny. Finally rise up and accept it. Or rather,” he paused, more menace gathering around the force of his words in her mind like a storm, “fall.”
Sally felt a psychic attack sink in right between her brows. There was no way to get away from it, no way to distract herself. She had to take it head-on. Literally.
Maybe Joseph screamed. Maybe he finally succumbed to his attacks. Maybe the ship was destroyed. There was no way to be certain. All Sally could do was fight.
If she weren’t a powerful psychic, she would crumple in a second.
It was a profoundly incapacitating experience to fight in one’s mind. You have a body for a reason. It anchors you, tells you what’s real, gives you a sense of consistency. In one’s own thoughts, all of those comforting facts disappear. You are left only with this unchanging sea of force.
A truly good psychic knows how to hamper another. You don’t go against their mind directly. Instead, you force their mind against itself.
If you don’t have any sense of direction, if you don’t know where you begin and end, then you can’t stop yourself from attacking your own form.
Sally knew all of that, but it didn’t matter.
She heard Jerry’s disembodied echo. First from beside her, then from the other side. Then everywhere all at once. “It’s over. Submit, Queen. Accept your destiny.”
“Destiny?” she screamed back. She didn’t even know if Jerry could pick her up. All she could do was shriek.
“You must fall so the King can rise. You will be the steppingstone he requires to ascend.”
There was that word. The one word that’d destroyed the Hendari. They hadn’t always been like this. Once they had taken their position of the most powerful civilization in the universe to heart. They’d protected all other nascent galaxies and worlds from dangers they couldn’t fight.
They’d been noble, strong, and diligent. Until noble hadn’t been enough. Until the pursuit of power had trumped the pursuit of kindness.
They had attempted to ascend.
Why is it that a little power is never enough? Why is it that a lot of power only leads to the pursuit of even more?
“Just a little longer,” the Observer hissed.
She could feel herself slipping away. She didn’t know where she was going, had no clue what she was detaching from. Her sense of the Mercury was gone now. Nothing remained. Not the floor, not her body, not the psychic sprites restraining her – not even Joseph.
Did she… even exist?
It took a seriously powerful psychic to undermine somebody’s sense of reality.
The Observer managed it. “Release. One final time.”
If she’d been paying attention, she would’ve realized the impending sense of hope that rippled through his every word.
He was about to win. Every single person on the Mercury would die as soon as he did – including Joseph.
Including Willis and James.
They would all crumble under the Observer’s greed, their psyches like nothing more than ants underfoot. Unless… unless the Queen rose once more.
For a split second, she remembered Layra. Running through the cold corridors of the Hendari prime homeworld, fleeing her sacrifice, tears raining down her cheeks, her whole body shaking. Then finally one hand curling into a fist.
Layra hadn’t given up. She’d created the Queen hive mind, even though no one else had thought she possessed the psychic power to survive, let alone fight.
In other words, she had risen highest when she had fallen hardest.
She would rise once more.
“Give in,” the Observer screamed.
Sally held on. The Observer couldn’t keep up this level of psychic attack forever. She just had to keep going until she got an opportunity.
That opportunity came a second later. She finally heard something from the real world. One scream, one word.
Joseph called her name. The desperation in his voice couldn’t be mistaken. This wasn’t the call of somebody crying out to a cadet under their command. It wasn’t even the actions of someone calling to a friend.
Sally used his words as a ladder to pull herself up out of the Observer’s attack. Other psychics wouldn’t be able to scrounge the strength to rise when they had fallen so far.
The Queen was no other psychic.
She came roaring back out of the depths of her mind like a ship blasting up from the center of some lost planet.
She opened her eyes. The movement was snapped as if she was breaking through chains.
Jerry was right there, his fingers around her face, one hand latched on her throat.
As soon as she opened her eyes, his own bulged. “What—
Sally thrust forward.
“Sally,” Joseph called from the opposite side of the room. He was ensconced amongst powerful sprites. He had to keep a subspace shield in front of him, his hand shaking with the effort of pumping particles into it.
But at the sight of her, time seemed to still for a second. He gave her this moment beyond the fight, beyond fear, beyond everything. A moment where Sally connected to him in a way she’d never connected to anyone else before.
The Queen had absorbed untold minds over the millennia. This was different. This wasn’t absorption. It was… alignment.
“How—” Jerry spluttered.
He was just a sprite manifestation. But he was connected to the Observer’s mind.
She wouldn’t be able to kill him. But if she attacked quickly enough, she would be able to debilitate him for now.
So Sally threw every single ounce of psychic power she had into the move.
She didn’t call on the crystals – didn’t have to.
“Impossible,” Jerry spluttered.
He tried to grab her face, but suddenly his fingers didn’t manifest correctly. Energy sliced around them, and they disappeared, one after another.
“Sally,” Joseph tried.
She didn’t have the mental energy left over to reply to him. She used his voice, used it to pull even more power up out of her.
She concentrated her mind like she never had before. Nothing – absolutely nothing – could get in her way.
That included the look in Jerry’s eyes – the fear that ripped through the Observer. The greed, the violence, the everything.
Powerful psychics know the only thing you truly have to stand in the way of is emotion. It is a far worse weapon than any high-powered torpedo out there. It’s worse than some gun that could rip through a planet. It is the greatest destructive yet creative force in existence.
And when it spills forth from a powerful psychic mind, it’s like standing in the embrace of a supernova.
She stood right there, right in front of Jerry as the Observer let rip with his final attack. And she damn well took it. She knew he tried to drag her back down to the depths of her own mind, but she wouldn’t fall.
Securing her fingers even harder around his throat, she attacked.
His fingers had already disappeared. Now his hands did, and his arms, and finally a chunk of his face. It ripped right away, not like flesh being torn from bones, but like someone ripping up paper from an artwork. It was extraneous material – unnecessary. And to be fair, the only thing the Observer required was Jerry’s eyes. They blazed brightly with both fear and disgust until finally she ripped right through those, too.
Her psychic attack broke the sprite.
It wouldn’t kill the Observer wherever he was – nor would it kill Jerry as his host. It would incapacitate them for now.
The psychic sprites were still attacking the Hendari crystals, but one by one they jolted, twitched to the side, fell to their knees, then exploded in a sea of sparks. The psychic energy played over the floor, leaping chaotically until it disappeared a second later like bad dreams.
The sprites behind Joseph disappeared one by one, too. When the last broke apart from him, it fell down to its knees and exploded. Joseph jerked over to her immediately. He was like an arrow from a bow.
He reached her, wrapping a strong hand around her arm.
She was down on her knees, wasn’t she? She was wobbling, too. She had no clue why.
She’d almost completely disconnected her mind from her body to attack the Observer. Now as her senses flooded back in, she realized she was weak.
“You’re bleeding,” Joseph spluttered.
Without holding back, he ran his gentle thumb underneath her nose, his short nail scratching lightly across her lips.
He drew his thumb back. She saw her own blood glistening on it.
She looked at him, her brow condensing as her heart thumped harder. Its beat echoed in her ears. Another wave of weakness struck her, but it couldn’t drag her down – not completely, and not until she saw what was really happening here.
Joseph had stuck by her side. Throughout the entire fight. More than that? It had been his desperate plea that’d pulled her up out of her psychic prison.
She smiled slightly, her lips twitching to the side in a jerky move. It was all she could manage.
No. She made one other movement – simple and weak. She lifted a hand.
Joseph stared at her fingers. “Sally—”
She rested them against the side of his face. Her name was on his lips again, but they froze as Sally’s trembling fingertips caressed them.
Then Sally fell right against his chest. He opened his arms, sweeping them around her as he pulled her up and ported away.
She lost consciousness.
She’d done it.
She’d also done something else – something far more significant. She might forget the way she’d stared into Joseph’s eyes and touched his face with all the gentleness of a lover. He would not.