He ported straight to the med bay. Sally was limp in his arms, as unresponsive as a chunk of steel – and just as cold.
The med bay was already at red alert. Other injuries kept flooding in.
The chief medical officer even had a cut down the side of her face so deep, the blood practically spurted out of her like steam from a ruptured pipe. She didn’t do anything about it – even though there was a spray-on skin device on the gurney to her side – she simply jolted over to Joseph. “What’s happening?”
“No clue. She’s bleeding from her nose, and she’s lost consciousness. I—”
Forest called him. It was so abrupt to hear the insistent mental comms, despite the fact he was used to them and had been receiving messages like this practically hundreds of times a day for years. Now it felt as shrill as someone shrieking right in his ear. He even jolted his head to the side as if he’d been hit.
“Lieutenant?” the CMO snapped. “What’s happening?
“Forest?” he thought bitterly.
“I don’t know what you’ve done, but it’s over. We’ve reset the scanners to detect psychic fields. They aren’t picking anything up. There are no more reports of sprites, either. What happened?”
What happened? He still had no clue. How the hell could the Queen lose control of the crystals? How could a mere psychic sprite of Jerry wrap his hands around Sally’s throat and almost kill her?
“Lieutenant?” the CMO asked just as Forest thought it. It felt as if he was being assailed from all sides.
He had to take a deep, shuddering breath. He could usually go so long without breathing. Now his body was doing everything it could to suck in the desperate energy he required. He lurched over to a free medical bed just as the CMO realized he couldn’t respond verbally and pointed it out.
Joseph slid Sally’s limp form from his arms. It was hard as hell to pull his hands back, to take a step away, even as the CMO rushed in.
Sally was unresponsive. She couldn’t be dead, though. She still had a mind. Don’t ask Joseph how he knew that. He just did. As the certainty rang through his brain, he slammed a sweaty hand on his brow. It felt stuck there, the skin so cloying it was the equivalent of glue.
The CMO grabbed up some kind of scanner and practically rammed it against the base of Sally’s neck. Joseph twitched. The move reminded him too much of what that Barbarian had done to Tyler.
This was different now. Everyone was on Sally’s side. But there was no guarantee they could save her. No guarantee they could even figure out what was wrong with her.
“Internal scanners have picked you up in the med bay. Sally’s with you. What’s going on?” Forest demanded.
He finally found his breath. He explained everything that happened. Right from Jerry appearing, to Sally almost losing it.
There was a protracted pause as Forest caught up. “The situation is over for now. Leave Sally there—”
“No, Forest,” he said in a voice that couldn’t be denied. There was no force, no spitting or screaming. Just the ease of someone who knew exactly what they would and wouldn’t do. Leaving Sally wasn’t an option. His body knew it, his heart beat with the certainty, and Forest must’ve realized it too because she didn’t push. She sounded as if she clenched her teeth together and hissed through them. “Fine. I’ll come there.”
Barely did she think that when there was a flash of light and she ported in.
She’d clearly already thought ahead and warned the med bay, because nobody jolted for their guns.
Nobody bothered to salute, either. Forest didn’t care about proper procedure when her entire ship was on the line.
More injuries continued to port in. Some of them were so serious, the pale, broken bodies of the crew looked right on the proverbial knife’s edge.
Ostensibly, Sally had it good. She still had her limbs, wasn’t bleeding from any nasty cuts. She was unresponsive, though – as still as a corpse.
“What’s her condition?” Forest snapped quickly.
The CMO ignored her for a few seconds, muttering something to a junior doctor before turning swiftly. “As far as I can tell, she’s just unconscious.”
The CMO grabbed her middle, locked an elbow on her arm, then let her free fingers slide down her chin. “I have no idea where to begin, Admiral. We can detect a psychic field. Only just.”
Joseph jolted, a line of sweat sliding between his shoulder blades. “What does that mean—”
Forest quickly snapped up a hand. She could read people better than Joseph could right now. “I take it by that that you mean our scanners, no matter how powerful they are, are not designed to read someone like the Queen.”
“Correct,” the CMO said quickly. “I’m assuming, however, that everything should be fine. She simply lost consciousness from too much effort.”
Forest let out a sigh.
Joseph should have, too. There was one trapped in his throat. He couldn’t let go of it. He clutched it like a rope ladder that could lead up and out of his gripping confusion.
It couldn’t, though. Nothing could. He wouldn’t relax until Sally was finally awake.
Forest arched her neck toward the CMO’s office. “We’ll be needing this, Lucy,” she ordered.
“Aye,” Lucy muttered as she plucked up another gleaming scanner now, her fingers working quickly. When she walked away from Sally to attend to another patient, Joseph almost jolted over and reminded her Sally had to be her priority.
But Joseph could see the injuries flooding in. Some of them were so serious, he doubted the poor victims would survive.
“Let her go, Joseph. She’s a good doctor – she knows exactly what she’s doing. Now, we need to talk.” Forest strode towards Lucy’s office.
He didn’t flinch. He followed her, a few steps behind.
The room wasn’t big, but thankfully it was soundproof, and as soon as the door closed behind them, he felt cocooned from the chaos beyond.
Though it wasn’t her desk, Forest strode around the large circular wooden antique, leaned forward, rounded her knuckles into fists, and pressed them against the carved edge. It took her a few seconds to slice her steely stare up. “That could’ve ended differently. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” he spluttered, trying to force the words out as quickly as he could. He needed to end this debriefing and get back to Sally. He didn’t know what he’d do when he got there. Stand uselessly by Sally’s side? Get in the way as the doctors attended to her? Take up space that should be there for another patient? He didn’t honestly know. But it would calm his nerves. Unless he tried something, they’d rage right out of his chest, rupture through his throat, and ping around the walls like stray bullets.
If he was stupid enough to pay attention to them, it gave them a license to rage faster and harder. It felt like a black hole opening up right in his middle.
He let his shaking fingers slide over his brow. Forest watched every single movement, her eyes darting quickly. “There’s something I haven’t told you,” she cut straight to it.
“What?” He let his hand drop. It was a quick move. He wanted everything out of his face so he could see her. His gut instinct told him whatever this would be, it would be damn big.
“You’re aware I found out facts about Faxan A from Ninev, correct?”
He nodded. “What did you find out? About the ship and the crystal?”
Forest looked away. She spent several seconds staring at the door. Then she flashed her gaze over to him once more. It was direct and hard. She no longer flinched back from the truth. “Ninev also told me that when both of those things were discovered, the body of a six-year-old girl was as well.”
Joseph couldn’t keep up. Maybe it was how Forest had introduced that – or maybe it was what she’d said. Because it simply didn’t make any sense. The more he tried to understand it, the more he thought he heard a rushing in his ears. “When did he find the ship? When…?”
She shook her head. “You misunderstand. According to Ninev, the body of a six-year-old girl is still down where the ship and crystal were found. Presumably it’s Sally.”
Joseph stood there. That was good, right? He was still on his feet. At least he hadn’t fallen to the side like a ship somebody had ravaged with torpedo shots. At least his knees hadn’t crumbled out as if someone had turned them to dust. But standing was all that could be said for him. He didn’t know what his breath did anymore, had no clue how hard his heart beat. He just… remained. And slowly, trickling like blood from a fatal wound, what she’d said sank in.
He took a shuddering breath that punched his chest out like a bellows, that could’ve ripped his uniform right off his torso.
Forest quickly spread her fingers wide in a stiff, placating move. “We have no idea what it means. We are in way out of our depth. Something that was proven to us violently five minutes ago,” she hissed, darting her gaze toward the glass wall that showed an unrivaled view of the chaotic med bay. Injured crewmembers still ported in, though the flood was finally stemming. The medical staff now had to deal with them. Every bed was full. The fight hadn’t run that long. It’d felt like 10 minutes, but couldn’t have been more than two. In other words, it’d been dealt with pretty much as quickly as possible. Yet there were still this many injuries?
He could note that. It was an academic fact, though. It couldn’t sink in. Nothing could.
His lips jutted open. They closed again. They opened once more. He was like a fish that had been dragged out of water. It was only a matter of time before he drowned.
Forest still leaned forward, her knuckles white and stiff as she locked them against the edge of the desk. “I shared this information with you because I thought it was critical. I also know you can deal with it.”
“Great. But… what the hell does this mean? That Sally… somehow is still dead?”
“We have no information. We can conclude nothing. All we know is we’re dealing with the greatest psychic hive mind to have ever existed, the likelihood of a Hendari ship, and the high possibility of a trapped crystal too. You can take nothing for granted, Joseph,” she emphasized, letting her words punch out of her throat with a poignant rasp. They were the vocal equivalent of a slap. One designed to focus him before he lost it.
It was pretty hard not to lose it, though. He felt his resolve slipping through his fingers as if he were trying hard to clutch hold of an icy ladder.
It was his turn to lean forward and lock his knuckles on the desk. He didn’t do it for anything other than support. His strong spacer body felt like that of a newborn. “I… do you think Sally knows this?”
Forest straightened and stared through the glass wall.
Joseph, despite the fact these revelations should’ve had his full attention, still kept a few senses locked on Sally.
She was fine. There were no doctors around her, which hopefully meant she was in a stable condition. She would presumably wake when she was ready.
“I doubt she has any clue. She seems to have been honest with us thus far. She would’ve told us.” Forest didn’t remove her gaze from the glass wall until her final syllable slipped out.
Joseph took a step back. Sorry, he tried to. He started fighting. His feet simply refused to touch the ground – it felt as if it had been yanked out from underneath him. So what the hell was the point in trying to pretend it was stable to begin with?
Plus, there was something about pulling his feet off the floor in stressful situations like this that reminded him his power was meant to be unmatched. But he had to repeat three little words to himself. Meant to be.
You could be as powerful as you wanted on paper. But if your enemy was stronger, it didn’t damn well matter.
“I’ve been questioning whether to tell her,” Forest said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not yet, anyway.”
“I trust her—” Joseph began.
Forest shook her head. “No. It’s not an issue of trust. It’s an issue of what Cadet Winters can deal with.” The way she said that, it was like she was actually dealing with the cadet. You know, some fresh-faced recruit – someone who simply didn’t have enough life experience to survive what space could throw at them.
The Queen… Joseph had no clue how many minds made her up. Her experience would put every officer on the Mercury to shame. Yet he had to admit Forest was right. Sally, underneath all that force, was somehow still fragile.
“We will have to inform her at some point. Not yet, though. And that’s an order, Joseph,” Forest said as she flashed her gaze over to him. “Do not let her know.”
“You assume she’s even going to wake,” he said exasperatedly. He darted his head around now, not hiding the fact he was paying just as much attention to Sally as he was to Forest.
“She will wake. I trust Lucy. She’s personally dealt with my strongest psychics. Winters probably simply used too much mental effort. She will have blacked out while her brain recuperates.”
“You say that like you know what’s going on, Forest. Like any of us has a clue,” Joseph spluttered. It wasn’t with indignation – just pure, pulsing frustration.
Why was it that every single time he thought he knew what was going on, this deteriorating situation simply threw up another problem? He felt like he was in an obstacle course from hell. One that was designed to take everything he knew, turn it into a projectile, throw it right at his head, then keep going until he collapsed.
“This situation provides us with an opportunity,” Forest stated abruptly.
“Opportunity?” He could barely force that word out.
“I’ve already had a word with Lucy. She will perform a full atomic scan on Cadet Winters.”
Joseph bristled. “You don’t trust Sally? You think she’s somehow not real?”
“This isn’t about trust. She may not be aware she’s a psychic manifestation or she has a manufactured body.”
“You honestly think that’s what’s happening here?”
“No. But we need to rule out the possibility. If there really is the body of a six-year-old girl down on Faxan A, we need to figure out exactly what it is and what she is.” Forest pointed toward Sally.
Joseph didn’t know how to react. He should get angry, right? But at what? Forest was right, and everything she’d said was reasonable. They were about to enter a dangerous situation. Unless they had their wits about them and they knew exactly what they were going to face, a single mistake could kill everyone.
He locked a sweaty hand on his skull, letting his fingers slip down one by one. They felt stiff as if he’d replaced them with steel. Hell, the rest of him was stiffening up, too. Maybe he’d swallowed concrete. Turning into a statue would beat living like this.
He let out a tight, shuddering breath. He actually let himself think about what Forest was suggesting – the possibility that Sally didn’t have a body at all. That made her… what? Some kind of psychic manifestation?
His stomach kicked at the thought. You know what else happened? His lips tingled. That’d be from where Sally had gently caressed him before she lost consciousness.
And yeah. He hadn’t forgotten that. He hadn’t had a chance to breathe, let alone process it, but the memory would be with him for life now. He almost touched his lips. He had to keep his hand firmly locked behind his back.
Joseph usually waited for information to come to him. He knew the danger of inventing your own facts without external corroboration. He shook his head anyway. “She’s real,” he said categorically.
Forest frowned then shrugged. “I’m almost certain of that myself. We still need to check. And we need to be prepared for what we might find out on Faxan A.” She might have said we, but she meant you. It was obvious in the way she stared at him, her gaze as unbridled as a loose horse that didn’t care what it trampled. Feelings were irrelevant to Forest right now. She needed Joseph to process this shock and move on.
He looked to the side then up. “What’s your best guess?”
She snorted. “Guess? I stopped guessing a long time ago. Stopped guessing when it turned out we had a cadet with a hive mind. Stopped guessing when we lost the crystals. Stopped guessing when one of our most prestigious admirals turned on us. Guessing was for the old days, Joseph. Now we need facts.”
He straightened. His stomach still kicked, descended as his mind went through the possibilities of what Sally could be.
But at least the look in Forest’s eyes gave him permission to straighten his back and remind himself he’d been through worse.
He opened his lips but didn’t get a chance to reply.
Sally woke. He knew that, because he felt it – even from here. It had to be the fact his senses were locked on her, that he was using the considerable power of a spacer to figure out the second she moved.
If he’d gotten some perspective, however, he would’ve realized he noticed she was waking before she twitched. It was like he was connected to her consciousness somehow.
He didn’t turn around, open the door, and leave. Didn’t even tell Forest what he was doing. He ported right to Sally’s side.
It was just as she opened her eyes.
The CMO had her back to Joseph, and she startled as she turned. “What are you doing, Joseph? Wait, she is awake.”
Yeah, she was. Joseph had to try hard not to lean forward, cradle her head, and look into her eyes.
What? Did he want to remind her of what she’d done before she’d fallen asleep? Maybe. But maybe all he really cared about right now was the fact as Sally looked at him, there was intelligence there. Her mind hadn’t fractured under Jerry’s attack.
She groaned a little. She touched her nose, expecting to feel blood.
“We cleaned you up. Cadet, how do you feel?” The CMO had a scanner clutched in her competent grip, and it beeped softly.
Sally went to sit.
Joseph grabbed her shoulder and shook his head. The second she’d fallen into his arms kept playing in his head, reminding him Sally was far more fragile than he wanted to believe, that despite her mind, she could still get hurt, like the rest of them.
“She should be fine, Lieutenant,” Lucy said strictly.
Joseph forced his hand to drop. Seriously, he almost had to bring up his other fingers and shove his hand down with all his damn might.
Forest, using the door, walked up to Sally. “Cadet, are you whole?”
It was a weird question. Sally clearly knew what it meant, though. She shrugged then nodded. “I don’t feel fantastic, but I am whole. Though the Observer attempted to destroy my mind, he failed.”
“And what of the Observer?”
“I believe I disrupted his ability to transfer his mind here for some time. We should be okay until we get to Faxan A.”
Forest didn’t like assumptions. She was built on facts – and so was the Coalition. She didn’t ask Sally to confirm her guess, though. She just nodded once. “That incident has shown me it is critical that you learn to use TI objects sooner rather than later. This may just be an assumption, but I feel safe in making it. We—”
“Are going to face heavy resistance down on Faxan A. And that resistance will include one or perhaps many Observers,” Sally said haltingly. She wasn’t afraid. It was as if she was getting this information as she spoke, as if someone was downloading it into her mind like a message to a computer.
Forest narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that?”
Sally ticked her head to the side slightly, the skin around her lips slackening as she focused. “I believe I skimmed the Observer’s mind just before I broke his connection to his psychic sprites. There will be resistance on Faxan A,” she replied unequivocally.
Forest nodded once. She turned to Joseph. “Ensure her TI implant is paired up and operational. You have several hours.” She turned and left.
Lucy did some more scans, asked Sally how she was feeling, then got distracted by a screaming patient.
That finally left Joseph and Sally alone – or as alone as you can be in a frenetic med bay.
He sighed. Then sighed again. Hell, if he kept going like this, he’d loosen his shoulders and melt into a puddle.
Gripping the edge of her bed, getting as close as he dared, he looked down at the floor then slowly let his gaze tick up. His eyebrows were so crumpled, he could only see her – the rest of the med bay was a blurry mess. “That was crazy. I thought… you were actually going to die.”
She looked at him steadily. Did her cheeks redden slightly? Wait, she didn’t have a fever, did she? Could she get one?
He turned quickly and lifted his hand, ready to get a doctor’s attention.
“It’s okay, Joseph.” She surreptitiously patted her cheek then rested back on her bed. “I’m fine.”
“I saw Jerry with his hands around your throat. What exactly happened?”
Her eyes became slightly unfocused as they slid to the side. “He attacked me with his mind, dragged me right down to the depths of my own psyche. It shouldn’t have been possible,” she muttered as she stared at her stiff, clenched fingers. “But it was.” Her lips twitched into a smile. Sorry – technically they rose at the corners. What it was was as far away from a smile as you could get, though. It was frustration, fear, and self-loathing all wrapped up into one slight kink. He knew the emotion. He’d faced it in the mirror too many times to ignore.
“Don’t blame yourself,” he said strictly and as quickly as he could. “There’s no point. You did everything you could.”
“Really? If I’d used the crystals sooner, maybe he wouldn’t have been able to get on board in the first place.”
Joseph’s lips dropped open. He didn’t know what to ask first. There were too many questions.
“To answer the question you really want to ask,” she looked away from him again, emotion tightening her cheeks and making the already contracted muscles of her neck protrude further against her collar. “I don’t know. One simple Observer shouldn’t have been able to disrupt my connection to my crystals. But he did. If I hadn’t fought him… I would’ve lost control of them,” she whispered haltingly.
It was a hell of a thing to hear. Nobody else in the med bay listened in. If they had, all of them would’ve stopped and no one would’ve said a word – hell, even the screaming patients would’ve paused.
This was big – huge. The kind of massive that could destroy the whole damn universe.
He took a breath and wiggled his jaw from side to side. It was like he was trying to crush his fear with his teeth. Fat chance.
Sally looked uniquely vulnerable for a few seconds until she quickly sliced her gaze down to her hands. Her shoulders hunched up.
“It’s not your fault,” he said quickly.
“Who else’s fault could it be? After all these years, I can’t believe I’m not even strong enough to fight a simple Observer. What hope do I have against the King?”
He had to build her back up. Right now she was tearing herself down with self-recrimination. He opened his mouth but stopped. He didn’t want her going anywhere near the King. Just the thought of it brought his dreams back to him, and they pounded against his chest like fists.
All he could see was the first dream he’d had. The one of Sally floating in the air above the accommodation block, her expression one of cold regret and determination. The one where she’d left him for good.
Just the mere memory of it made him clench every single muscle down his arms into his fists. “We’ll figure this out, Sally. We don’t know what that Observer was doing. He could have technology we know nothing about. He must have had something. How else would he have managed to port his psychic sprites here?”
“Unknown. Though maybe somebody on the Mercury is working for him.”
“Yeah, or maybe he has more artifacts than we know about? Maybe he has a stronger Hendari path? There are too many variables. But you dealt with the attack. That’s all that matters, right? He doesn’t have the Hendari crystals. You do.”
Sally wouldn’t look at him.
“I have them for now. Who’s to say when we get to Faxan A, he won’t attack again, and I’ll lose?”
“Don’t stop trusting yourself. I never have. I don’t know what trick the Observer’s got up his sleeve, either, but whatever it is, he was certain he was gonna win when he attacked the Mercury. He lost, though. I saw his face when he was trying to strangle you,” Joseph almost couldn’t push those words out – they formed a logjam of slurring syllables. “He was certain this was it. But you won anyway. That tells us we have an advantage. We just have to believe in it.” He said it, but he meant her. Dammit, he didn’t think he’d ever believed in someone as much as he did now. His whole body was involved in the unstoppable emotion – his heartbeat, his breath, the sweat that slicked his clenched fingers. Every physical process confirmed he could trust her – knew she could ultimately win – he just had to get her to see that.
She opened her mouth. She didn’t get to say whatever was on her mind. The CMO came over again. She did a few more scans. She looked at Joseph seriously. “Take her to the armory—”
“But she’s been injured—”
Sally wordlessly slipped off the bed. “They need this bed for someone else, Joseph. I was injured. Now I am fine. The needs of the other patients aboard the ship are greater than mine.” She walked past him.
Joseph didn’t know whether to grab her or follow her.
His body chose for him. It was pretty easy to turn around and get swept up in her wake.
She thanked the doctor and strode effortlessly toward the door. Sorry – she did wobble a bit. She hid it well. If there was one thing Cadet Sally Winters was good at, it was hiding what was really going on with her.
Joseph kept telling himself that if she was on her feet, then she couldn’t be too injured, right? Then he just remembered the slack way she’d fallen in Jerry’s grip. There hadn’t been a damn thing Joseph could do.
As soon as they reached the corridor outside, despite the fact Sally looked like a tidal wave that’d never stop, she turned abruptly and looked at him. Her gaze flashed left to right as she took in both his eyes. “Don’t blame yourself. You fought… exceptionally well back there, Joseph. So well that I’m not entirely sure I understand how you did it.”
He found his cheeks reddening.
Joseph received compliments all the time. That happened when you were a spacer with abilities the Coalition had once thought impossible.
This was different as it tumbled readily from Sally’s lips. Different enough to make his heart pound like a hammer trying to build him a new rib cage. It took way too long to mutter a, “Thanks.” Even when he did manage it, it was way too high pitched. It was like the first compliment he’d ever received from a girl.
He found himself grabbing the back of his head. His fingers wouldn’t work right, so he dropped them quickly and hid them behind his hip.
“Did one of the large psychic sprites ever touch you? How did you manage to stay out of their grips?” she questioned.
He shrugged. He went to answer automatically, but he paused to think it through. He grabbed his chin, letting his fingers scratch through his stubble. “Yeah, one of them grabbed me.”
Alarm bolted through her gaze. “How the hell are you still here?”
Those massive psychic sprites had been big enough to hold Sally in place. He’d been certain that if he was touched by one, he’d die. But what with one thing and another, he’d forgotten one had grabbed him by the throat. He hadn’t died. He was still very much here. And Sally’s alarm had a very good point. How had he survived?
“Are you sure you are simply a standard spacer?” she asked quietly as several officers strode by.
“I don’t have any psychic abilities, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s virtually impossible for me to develop them. My mind is too open.” He spat all of that out quickly. It felt like a preprepared statement. He’d been thinking through the fact he could interact with psychic sprites for several days now. He’d reminded himself of his inherent inability to be psychic multiple times.
Sally looked at him for a few seconds but didn’t say anything. It was impossible to know what she was thinking, even though he was drawn in by the deep look in her eyes. She soon sighed, turned, and walked toward the nearest set of lifts. She keyed in the correct deck for the armory.
Silence descended between them. He had enough questions to fill that silence for months, if not years – heck, why not the rest of his damn life? But it still filled the empty lift. They were alone for now, but they sure as heck wouldn’t be alone forever. After this, they’d be in briefings until they reached their destination. And when they actually got to Faxan A?
Joseph shuddered to think what would happen then.
Yet could he open his lips to say a word to her? No. He felt simultaneously empty and filled up, like his brain demanded more facts but had nowhere to store them.
Sally turned to him. She opened her lips. She closed them.
The lift finally arrived on the right deck.
Crewmembers were everywhere. It looked as if this deck had received the brunt of the attack.
That finally put Joseph’s problems into perspective. He’d only seen one side of the battle for the Mercury.
Sally twitched back. Her darting, wide gaze assessed the damage.
There were engineers working on a ripped-up section of floor plating to their left. One of them spluttered and jerked back as a circuit suddenly ruptured. The guy was fine. He had a flickering blue personal shield around him. He swore loudly and yanked his hand about a bit, but he wasn’t torn down like a doll.
“It’s going to take us days to fix the ship. We’ve got three hours until we arrive on Faxan A. This fight is over before it’s even begun.”
Sally’s shoulders rammed up high towards her ears. She walked silently past the guy, her head held down as if she was too ashamed to face him.
There wasn’t time to say anything to her. In a few short strides, they reached the open doors to the armory. It was a hive of activity. Lieutenants and ensigns ran to and fro out of the doors, some of them just transporting away, others carrying armfuls of weapons to whatever stations needed them.
Though Forest always ensured her ships were prepared for battle, he could tell the Observer’s unexpected attack had thrown even her.
As soon as they walked into the armory, the chief strode straight over to them. He was a massive half Agarn, half human. He had the kind of imposing form that would make even a Barbarian warrior think twice.
He nodded at Joseph. “Thank you for your efforts, Lieutenant.” He dropped his gaze and immediately started sizing Sally up. He would know exactly what she was. He didn’t look at her as if she could end this ship with the mere click of her fingers. Because… maybe she couldn’t.
It was a strange experience to believe someone was untouchable only to find out they were far weaker than you’d assumed. If not far weaker, then far more trapped. That was something Joseph was uniquely placed to understand. Yes, on paper he was amazing. On paper, none of the other cadets at the Academy could touch him. In reality? When you were seriously powerful like him, you got controlled. You couldn’t just rush around, slicing through resistance with your subspace blades. Power attracts more power. When you’re strong, others will find a way to control you.
That’s exactly what had happened with Deus. Somehow, he’d discovered Joseph’s mind amongst the riffraff of the galaxy and sought it out.
But he’d been after Sally’s mind too….
Joseph’s gaze darted up to her, though he tried to hide the fear swarming through his pupils.
The chief led them over to an armory station. Forest had clearly called ahead, and there was a TI implant and objects already lined up.
Sally looked at them, her cheeks slightly pale and stiff but her hard focus obvious.
She’d been terrified of being implanted back in the briefing room. But a heck of a lot had happened since then.
“I have never used one of those implants before,” she said strictly. “I’ve heard about them, but I am unsure how they will work with me.”
“Forest thinks they will work fine. We have three hours to figure out just how fine they will work, though. You need to focus, Cadet. If you’ve got any questions or problems, you need to ask them now – not while you’re in combat, got it?”
The chief had a direct style. He needed it. He was dealing with some of the most powerful weapons in the Coalition arsenal. While most of the people he handled would be soldiers and would know exactly how to use their armaments, some would be fresh-faced ensigns and cadets. So the chief needed a direct style that ensured before someone walked out of the door with one of his guns, they wouldn’t shoot themselves in the foot with it.
He grabbed up the TI implant. It was tiny, really – no bigger than a pinhead. This one was currently in its holding box.
As the chief held it up, it caught the light, a few glimmers playing across it deceptively. Joseph said deceptively, because it made it look unimportant, almost as if it was nothing more than a speck of dust. He knew better. Once upon a time, TI objects and implants had been used extensively throughout the Coalition until the Barbarians had found a way to exploit them easily.
The promise was simple. TI objects used controllable gravity fields to influence specially manufactured objects. Cadets and officers would have TI implants surgically embedded below their collarbones, and with nothing more than a thought, they’d be able to control TI objects. It was the closest thing to telekinesis you’d ever get – with science, at least. Though Joseph had never used one, clearly, he’d heard they were one hell of a thrill ride. Then the Barbarians had come along and ended that ride with a bang. Now, if Forest was to be believed, TI implants were back.
And if Forest was to be believed, no one would be able to use them quite like Sally the Queen.
Sally got a deep frown, one that marched down her chin, marking it hard until it felt as if it would break away from her neck.
It was clear she was scared yet willing to give this a go.
“Pairing this up with your wrist device will be easier. It would probably be better to implant you, but who knows what that would do?” the chief muttered without holding back. “Hand me your wrist device.”
Sally dutifully took it off. The chief’s quick, large fingers darted over it. They might’ve been beefy, especially compared to Sally’s delicate hands, but he knew exactly what he was doing. In about a minute, he paired up the device. He handed it back reverentially, a sharp look in his eyes. He might have a direct style, but it was clear he knew exactly who Sally was. He wanted to see what she could do.
Joseph brought his mind back into the here and now, reminding himself that if the implant worked, Sally would be able to control those TI objects with the equivalent of modern magic.
Sally took her time putting her wrist device back on. She didn’t look at anyone, or at least Joseph assumed she didn’t. But he caught sight of the side of her eye and realized she focused on him in her peripheral vision, so much so that it looked like he was her touchstone.
“You should be paired with the implant now. I’m not gonna go through the standard procedure with you, Cadet. You know how to use your mind. You should be able to—” the chief began.
Sally lifted her hand. The TI object resting on the metal table lifted seemingly out of nowhere. It glowed ever so slightly, the manipulable magnetic field shifting it only visible from the right angle.
“As predicted, you’ve got no trouble moving it,” the chief said as he crossed his muscly arms. “But there’s a difference between moving one of these objects and being able to command it sufficiently to be trustworthy in battle. Because this is a device that pairs with your mind, it will be distractible by your emotions. You must keep an even keel. Especially if you are in a fight next to your own people. The very last thing you want to do is let your fear for somebody accidentally kill them. Trust me, that’s more than possible with a device like this. If you get scared for somebody, your attention naturally switches to them. But where your attention switches to—”
“Will dictate what this object will attack,” Sally finished the sentence for him. Stretching a hand out wide, she concentrated until her brow contracted like a fist. She flew the object to the side, then to the other side. She let it twist around her carefully. Not once did Joseph jerk away wondering if she would lose control and chop his head off.
“That’s it. Now practice. I’d tell you to go into a shielded room, but you can just use him.” The chief shrugged at Joseph. “If you make a mistake with a TI object, you might bruise a spacer, but it sure as heck won’t kill him. If you need anything, I’ll be just over there.” He shrugged over his shoulder, turned quickly, and started ordering around some ensigns who didn’t look busy enough.
Sally still concentrated, her lips pulled thin, a few beads of sweat glistening on her brow. “This is… not as easy as it should be,” she admitted.
“What are you talking about? You look like a natural.”
“I am aware of the fact if I lose my concentration and attend to the wrong thing—” She didn’t get a chance to finish. The TI object suddenly shot toward Joseph.
It didn’t aim for his arm, his chest, or his leg – but right toward his lips.
Joseph was used to reacting quickly – but he didn’t quite get there fast enough. The careening white metal object smashed into his face. It jolted his head back but didn’t actually have the force to hurt him.
“Oh my God,” she spluttered.
She opened her hand, but rather than control the TI object, it just kept pushing against his lips like it was trying to kiss him.
He grabbed it, secured his fingers around it, and sent a little subspace charge rippling through it to disable its gravity field.
Then he caught up to what this meant and why Sally’s cheeks became bright red.
Wherever she thought about, the object would go. Which meant…. Yeah.
“Sorry,” she spluttered. “I… will get control of it again.”
Joseph let go of the object.
It could smash into him all she wanted. If it darted elsewhere in the armory, he’d just port there and grab it back up.
Sally needed training. And he kind of needed to figure out what this meant.
“I think I’ve got hold of it now,” she hissed hopefully.
It swirled around her again then stopped in front of her. She changed its direction easily. She looked like she was in control – so Joseph actually clapped.
Then it shot towards him.
He grabbed it.
Her cheeks descended with a twitch. “I can’t do this,” she stammered. “I am meant to be—”
He could see her unraveling. “It takes most cadets years of training to be able to move a TI object. Or at least it did back in the day when they were used. You’ve mastered it in a couple of minutes. Give yourself time.”
“I’m meant to be the Queen, Joseph,” she said, bitterness wrapping around her tone like hands looking for someone or something to strangle. Hell, there was no someone or something. Her voice dripped with self-hatred.
“Sally, I thought we talked about this?” He let his voice drop, ensuring no one else could hear it.
“You’re not meant to do anything. You get to decide.”
Her eyes shimmered a little. “If I really got to decide, Joseph, then I wouldn’t be this damn week.”
“Weak? You tore through the Observer. It might have taken you a couple of minutes, but you still did it.”
“Yet I can’t control a simple TI object. And yet I should’ve been able to simply click my fingers and get rid of the Observer and his sprites just like that.”
“No one knows what’s really going on here, Sally. But I can tell you what you can’t do.”
“How can I possibly not doubt myself? I should—”
“Be stronger? Be quicker? Deal with every enemy that comes your way without ever breaking a sweat and without ever losing a single drop of blood? Yeah, take it from me, it doesn’t work out that way.”
Maybe it was his tone, but he finally got through to her. She frowned, her lips dragging down hard into her chin until it dimpled. “Joseph, you’re—”
“If you’re about to build me up, you have to build yourself up, too. I’m the spacer – the Coalition’s last hope. The guy who, with one single swipe of his subspace blade, should be able to save the Academy, no matter what. I can tell you, it doesn’t work like that. Nothing’s ever that easy. Just when you think you’re at the top, the universe will always conspire to drag you back down. That’s why you don’t just stand there, Sally.”
Her fingers twitched. “What do you want me to do, then?”
He chuckled slowly. “You don’t just stand there, Sally – you ensure you stand with someone else. What you can’t do, maybe they can do. And maybe you can make up for their faults. That’s the whole point of the Coalition. We are a group. Groups look out for each other.” He didn’t use a lot of vocal force as he spoke. His syllables didn’t punch through the room. No one could hear them apart from Sally. Did that matter? No.
His words did what he needed them to. She blinked quickly, the stiffness that’d been marching around her features falling away. She didn’t look easy – like she was going to rest and take the next three hours off. But she no longer seemed ready to crack.
She also plucked the TI object out of his hand with nothing more than her mind and spun it around him.
It didn’t bang into his lips like a kiss this time. He didn’t know if he was happy or sad about that, but he still chuckled.
For the next several hours, they trained. Sally got good. Who was he kidding? She got great. With every new attack, she became more proficient. The chief came and checked on them a couple of times. He didn’t say anything much. He knew she didn’t require compliments. Joseph could tell he was impressed, though.
Good. Maybe it confirmed they had a chance. They needed one. The attack on the Mercury had reinforced to Joseph he couldn’t take anything for granted.
The Observer would still be out there, plotting his next move.
And down on Faxan A there’d be a Hendari ship, crystal, and….
He had no clue what he’d really face. Had less of a clue whether he was ready. But he knew one thing. There was no turning back now.