She… everything was slipping out of her control.
First Joseph, now this.
She had one chance, one hope. Either Sally destroyed the King, or she died trying.
Joseph shot to his feet again.
He got in front of her.
She was the Queen, dammit. He was privy to the secrets of the Coalition. He knew how important and powerful she was. He should be receding back from her like a wave.
Now he knew who she was, the psychic influence she’d hidden in his mind was gone.
He should be just as scared of her as everyone else. Why wasn’t he cowering like the rest of the students? Why wasn’t he down on his knees shaking? Why did he reach for her instead?
Sally knew what she was. And now he knew what she was too, he should be just as afraid of her as she was of herself.
But Joseph somehow still got in her way. “It’s a trap. You heard it in his voice. This is a trap.”
“The Observer knows I’m here. I must find him, destroy him, then leave.”
“Layra—” Her name slipped out again almost as if his lips had been made to say it.
Sally crumpled. “How do you know my name?”
“I just…” he twitched, “know.” Pushing his fingers in hard, he grabbed his head with a grip meant for something made of metal, not bone. Did he stupidly think that if he squeezed with all his might, the truth would pop out of his skull like an overripe berry off a vine? It was clear from the desperate look in his eyes that he had no clue why he knew her name.
“What happened to that cadet?” Forest demanded. “All our intelligence suggests Observers can only inhabit bodies that are grown for them or those that have already been touched by the Hendari.”
“Your intelligence is correct. You’ve only omitted one thing. Observers are fundamentally strong psychics. Anna has likely created tracks in the minds of willing and susceptible students.” As Sally said that, she recognized it to be true. She’d already felt the powerful wounds in the heads of E Club cadets. If she’d known Anna’s purpose had been to create hosts for an Observer, she would’ve done everything to stop her.
Forest bristled. “Are you telling me the Observer could right now be in the minds of cadets throughout the Academy?” She had been nominally in control until now. Forest was exceptional at hiding her true feelings. Now they crumpled her cheeks, flattened her brow, and made her lengthen her back as if she were trying to bodily stand in the path of everyone’s ultimate destruction.
“The Observer is unlikely to be able to possess more than one student at once,” Sally said quickly.
“How do we stop him?” Forest demanded.
“I will hunt him down. The next time I find an infected cadet, I will challenge his mind directly,” Sally snarled.
But on the inside, she recoiled from her words.
Normally fighting an Observer was easy. You found their artifact and destroyed it. It required power, but not too much. This would be a psychic fight, though. Sally would be more than strong enough to win in the end, but the point was, it would take yet more energy. She’d already used too much.
The King had to be destroyed. That was her goal, the one thing she’d held onto for millennia.
Now she could feel it slipping through her fingers.
Joseph couldn’t read minds, could he? If he was a psychic anywhere near powerful enough, he would’ve recognized she was the Queen immediately. The way he looked at her could not be denied, the compression crumpling his brow, the awareness focusing his eyes until it felt that they would follow her, no matter where she went.
“We have to find the cadets,” Forest commanded.
It was clear Forest itched to take Sally somewhere quiet down in the basements. But saving the cadets would be far more important.
“Is everyone forgetting this is a trap?” Joseph stammered.
Forest didn’t even look at him. Sally, on the other hand, couldn’t drag her eyes from him.
How had he known that name? Nobody but the Queen knew that name. The minds that constituted her great mind heard of Layra when they received her hand and joined with her. Nobody else in the universe should know it, though.
Even the Observers didn’t know who Layra was. They had no clue the Queen had come from a simple princess who’d refused to be sacrificed.
There was a scream. Sally heard it well enough. Now she was making no attempt to hide her superior senses, she attuned to them directly. She was still connected to the Hendari crystals, anyway. They floated above her, quietly pulsing, looking deceptively like nothing more than decorations. But with simply a mere thought, she could open a gate back to the Hendari. Hell, with a thought and this many crystals, she could destroy Earth. She wouldn’t. Couldn’t. It was the same reason that kept her right here, right in front of Joseph, even though her chance to flee was slipping further away with every second.
“Where did that come from?” Forest demanded. She twisted around on her shoe.
The scream was diffuse. It wasn’t coming from one direction. If you thought that meant it was being generated by many voices or being recorded and played back through multiple devices, you’d be wrong.
It was a psychic scream that had somehow been generated to have a physical dimension, too. It would be the Observer.
The scream had an edge. One she was by now all too familiar with.
“Jerry?” Joseph stammered.
Sure enough, it was Jerry’s hoarse voice.
It made perfect sense. Of all of the psyches Anna had worked on, his had been the most pliable to begin with and the most open to her devious suggestions.
“What do we do?” Forest demanded. She delivered that order as if Sally was still a cadet.
Forest might’ve referred to her as one multiple times, but Sally had simply put that down to the fact that admirals like Forest had decorum hard-wired into them.
But as Forest turned to Sally once more, it became clear this was no accident. “Cadet, find him. Do what you can to save him. And break the Observer before he can do too much more damage.”
Sally didn’t correct Forest. She turned.
She would do as she said.
And then Sally would finally head back to the Hendari homeworlds – she filled in that question emptily. She couldn’t feel the emotional significance of that statement, even though it was the only goal she’d ever had.
It felt empty, because on some level, she knew it simply couldn’t happen. She didn’t have the power anymore.
Maybe, more fundamentally than that, she was accepting something. Not only did Joseph know her name, but he had said precisely what the disembodied Observer voice in her memory had told her.
This was a trap.
The Queen didn’t want to believe that. Couldn’t. What force aside from the King could possibly dare try to trap her? There wasn’t a power in this galaxy strong enough. Even the universe didn’t have the force.
There was arrogance, then there was fear. And Sally knew that thought was tinged with both.
The fear soon won.
Rather than transport back to the Hendari, she focused.
It wasn’t hard to locate where Jerry’s scream was actually coming from.
She didn’t need to push a hand to the side to transport. All she had to do was think. She intended to head out into the grounds.
She wouldn’t go alone. Just before she could move, even though no one else would be aware of the fact that she was about to transport, Joseph sliced close to her.
She didn’t choose to transport him. He could do that perfectly easily on his own.
They appeared together, out on the grounds. He was close, close enough that their arms brushed together, close enough that his eyes widened just as the breeze caught his hair and flattened it over his face.
It framed his expression. Unmistakable. There was no fear. Just the exact opposite. “This is still a trap. But if you have to do this anyway, I’m coming with you.”
“Joseph, everyone will figure out who you are.”
“That ship already sailed.”
Yes. Just as it had with her.
The grounds were by no means empty.
Cadets were everywhere. They stared at Joseph and Sally as they appeared. To be fair, most students would just assume they’d appeared using Academy transporters. But nobody could explain away the crystals above her head.
She could’ve clicked her fingers and hid them. She chose not to. No more hiding.
She focused. She heard the scream again.
It was powerful.
Not all Observers were cut of the same cloth, as the humans might say. Some were weaker. Some were much stronger. They came from truly powerful Hendari minds, and there had been a great difference between her people’s psychic skills. Still. Regardless of this current Observer’s strength, if she destroyed the path allowing him to port his consciousness to the Milky Way, he would crumble.
To do that, she had to find him, locate his artifact, and break it.
The students weren’t aware of the psychic scream. It no longer had a physical manifestation. It simply echoed out through people’s minds.
Some students did pick it up. They shook their heads confusedly and hurried on. Others were oblivious. Joseph? He grabbed his ears and threatened to fall to his knees.
“Go back. Joseph, I’ve got this.” She shifted to the side.
He wouldn’t let her leave. He grabbed hold of her arm and hauled himself up. He looked right into her eyes. No hesitating, no flinching. No moving back.
Joseph should be scared of her. The look burning in his gaze told her the exact opposite. “I’m not letting you go out there on your own. This is a trap, even if you can’t see that, Layra.”
“Stop… calling me that,” she stammered. She didn’t want emotion infiltrating her tone. She couldn’t hide it. It raged through her, crashing into her body then subsiding only to fall back like a double tsunami. “How do you know that name?”
Squeezing her hand and pulling her to the side toward the origin of the psychic scream, Joseph wouldn’t face her. “I’ll tell you later.”
“We have to save the students. Like usual,” he muttered.
As she watched him, she couldn’t help but let her eyes become wide as she tried to take in every detail.
Joseph, though he wasn’t a strong psychic, had far more experience than most people would ever dream of. And that experience had the emotional poignancy of a lesson that had been beaten into him, blow-by-blow. It meant he was quick, competent, and immediately turned in the correct direction.
A lesser psychic wouldn’t have been able to filter out where the real scream was coming from. It was being played on all mental frequencies, if you will. It should have sounded as if it was echoing out from all directions at once, but as Joseph snapped his head toward the top of the accommodation block, he figured it out. “Right, let’s go.”
He didn’t wait for her to transport. He pulled in close. Without another word, and with one arm around her hips, he transported them both.
Sally had never been transported by a spacer before. It was nothing compared to the energetic rush of moving with a Hendari crystal. But it came with a different kind of rush. One that raced through her stomach and tingled through her heart.
They arrived half a second later up on the accommodation block.
The wind raced over the roof. It wasn’t strong enough to pull anything down. Weather fields could snap into place at any moment, protecting people from what should have been a debilitating gale, considering how far up they were.
A different kind of rushing filled Sally’s mind at Joseph’s proximity, then he shoved a finger forward, pointing at a small black crack in the air. “What’s that?”
Sally reluctantly tore her gaze off him. “It’s a Hendari transporter,” she stammered.
While the Scarax Galaxy had been virtually built by the Hendari in their own image, they hadn’t been foolish enough to give them every single piece of Hendari technology. The Light of the Gods and the crystals had been shared. Hendari transporters had not been. Until now.
They were unmistakable. They looked similar to the gate Sally had produced earlier. They formed these… she supposed you could call them cracks in reality. Stand next to one too long, and you could hear this high-pitched moaning as if it came from the very center of existence.
“Where the hell did he go?” Joseph asked competently, snapping his head around, his gaze narrowing as he stared out through the grounds.
She pulled herself together. She might’ve detested Jerry. But she also accepted that he wasn’t in control of his behavior. His drive for success had taken him right into the belly of the wolf.
Closing her eyes, she finally tuned in.
She felt energy far off over the city.
It was her turn to grab Joseph’s hand and transport him.
Previously, he’d transported with her. This time, he experienced what it was to be moved by a Hendari crystal.
They arrived on the street, out on the outskirts of the city.
There was a tree right above them. Joseph staggered back, his shoulder striking the trunk as his eyes widened with a pulse. He momentarily gripped his head with stiff fingers. Then his lips had a chance to kink into a deep grin. “That was crazy. Felt like being swallowed up by reality.”
Despite the severity of the situation, she managed the smallest smile. Perhaps it managed itself. Perhaps, if she’d been crazy enough to try to stop it, it would’ve ripped right through her control. Her body… seemed to know how to react around Joseph even without her input.
He quickly focused. You could tell he was a competent lieutenant. The cadet was an act. This was who he really was. As his shoulders lengthened, his stance strengthening, and his head angling hard to the side, he nodded down the street. It was wide and lined with trees and had gleaming gray and white buildings. The large windows reflected the streaming sunlight from above and the racing clouds, even the dappled light through the trees. They also reflected something else.
It was possible for strong psychic powers to manifest physically. That had occurred when Anna had attacked. She might’ve only opened the wings of her mind, but she’d managed to lift Joseph right up off his feet with a cloud of actual power.
As Sally watched the reflections in the glass, she saw something flitting through them, even though there was nothing out on the actual city street.
It didn’t take Joseph long to notice. With wide eyes, his chest punched out and stayed there. He pointed. “What the hell is that?”
“The Observer’s playing with us.”
“Those reflections show Jerry. Where the hell—”
Sally pushed in close. She opened a hand right in front of Joseph’s chest just as a charge of power sliced into him from nowhere.
She managed to hold it back. Easily. It cost her, though. And even though this was to save Joseph, every single time she used more power, that balance sheet in her mind registered another demerit. It told her she was getting further and further away from the power needed to defeat the King with every second.
Joseph spluttered, blinked once, then brought up his own defensive barrier. He didn’t just produce it around his shoulders. He let this crackling wave of dark black and blue subspace power enshroud her, too.
She had a moment to wonder why. Force of habit? Was Joseph used to dealing with creatures weaker than him? Maybe it was just his training? But had he forgotten who she was?
Shoving his shoulder into the task, he opened his hand wider, giving it more power until the subspace shield crackled like 10 strikes of trapped lightning. It sent energy playing up over his face and framed his features, drawing her attention to his eyes, not that she needed an extra incentive. “How do we do this? How do we… freaking find him first?” he spluttered.
“He will likely have a real physical manifestation somewhere in the city. I doubt he’s beyond it. The Observer will be using the holes in Jerry’s mind. But ultimately, Jerry’s body wasn’t built for the Observer. It will have necessary limitations.”
“Great, so he’s somewhere in the city. How do we figure out where?”
“We—” Sally felt another charge of psychic power headed towards her. She got ready. She didn’t look like she did, but internally, she processed the oncoming threat and she prepared her body.
Joseph wasn’t taking chances, though. He was the one who was weak to psychic energy. Maybe he forgot that. Maybe he didn’t care at the prospect of protecting her.
He locked a hand on her back, turned her around, and used his shoulders to block her from the attack. He kept his subspace shield there. It charged even brighter as he pumped power into it. She could feel it pulsing through his body, shuddering into the shield, and making it strong enough that it could theoretically withstand a Barbarian strike vessel.
But you could line up every physical force in the galaxy and it wouldn’t match the cruel effectiveness of a psychic attack on a spacer. She had a fraction of a second to appreciate that, then the attack powered into Joseph’s shield.
And… it didn’t break. Neither did Joseph. He didn’t crunch to the ground, scream, and grab his head in agony.
He was a spacer. He had his limitations. And yet somehow… somehow he had surpassed them.
She was frozen to the spot, a deep breath trapped in her chest, her shoulders shuddering up high.
Joseph didn’t even notice. Nor did he heed the fact he still had a hand flat on her back. It didn’t shake once, just remained there, secured to her like it would take an entire army to rip it off.
He narrowed his sharpened gaze, tracking Jerry’s shadow through the reflections.
Spacers were designed to be able to comprehend complex battle situations quickly. But Joseph was far better at tracking Jerry’s shadow than even a trained psychic.
How? What was happening to him? And how… how had he known Layra’s name?
Joseph grunted again, detecting another attack. He pulsed more subspace energy into his shield, and he took it.
From somewhere, Sally heard Jerry’s actual scream. It wasn’t psychic. It was just an expulsion of air from Jerry’s real lips.
Joseph withstood yet another attack. It should have torn an ordinary spacer down, turning their mind to nothing more than mush.
With that protective hand on her shoulder, he narrowed his gaze again. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard an actual scream. Come on.” He locked an arm around her middle again, and together, they transported.
She had no clue what was happening to him, less of a clue what was happening to her. She was frozen in his arms, captured both by his presence and the complete confusion of why he hadn’t fallen yet.
They appeared above the city.
A standard person who appeared halfway up above the city probably would’ve screamed until they passed out. She was ready for it. So was Joseph. He was in his element. He seemed to be far more comfortable floating than he did with his feet on the ground. He narrowed that sharp eagle gaze once more, and as a blast of wind whipped his hair over his forehead, he pointed. “Down there. I heard it from down there. Come on.” They ported again.
Sally had the kind of mind that should be able to keep up with any situation. Even if you thrust her into the heart of creation, her millions of psyches would be able to resurface and figure out what was going on.
She couldn’t speak, could hardly think.
They landed again down on a cobbled street. Joseph didn’t have his cloak on. It was clear that he was now ready to show the world who he was. It was also just as clear that Admiral Forest had finally put a warning out.
There was no one around.
Had she transported everybody out of the city? Or had Jerry done that?
Sally… she had to pull herself together.
Real people were on the line.
“There are more of those reflections,” Joseph said as he shoved a shaking hand toward a large window beside them. It was easily 20 meters tall and 10 meters wide. And in it appeared Jerry’s reflection. It made him look like a giant.
It was only fleeting, but Sally's superior’s senses managed to capture it.
Jerry’s gaze glowed. Behind it, she saw that endless dead stare. It could only belong to an Observer. A powerful one. One hell-bent on wreaking as much destruction as he possibly could.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Joseph muttered. He went to port again, but something started to rush up from underneath them.
He could survive everything – or seemingly so. No matter what was happening to him, he would have his limitations. And that force was one such thing. Sally finally yanked away from him. It was heart-wrenching, as if pulling away from his hand was somehow symbolic and it meant, no matter how long they traveled together, ultimately, they would part for good.
She slammed both her hands down on the cobbled ground. It rippled. She didn’t call on her Hendari power – not yet. This was simply her psychic force.
“What—” Joseph began. She watched as his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He grabbed the side of his face, his fingers sinking into his skin. He hissed, clenched his teeth, and stifled a scream. He could stop it from shuddering out of his throat, but he couldn’t stop it from echoing out on every psychic frequency.
The force rushing up through the cracks in the cobbles was an undifferentiated psychic attack. It was clear that the Observer was no longer content to haunt them with images in glass. This was raw power.
So Sally pitted her raw power against it.
She focused until her mind felt like a laser, until her memories and beliefs became a path – one that drove right down through the cobblestones into the center of that force.
Joseph continued to grip the side of his head, but he let one hand fall.
He formed a sword, twisted around, and stood behind her.
… In other words? He defended her.
Sally was still overcome by the fact that Joseph hadn’t left her side, even after he’d discovered what she was.
This? It was so much worse. She felt like it would undermine her. It did the opposite. It gave her another burst of power, and that ripped right through the Observer’s attack.
They heard another scream. It wasn’t that far away.
Joseph narrowed his eyes. He looked as if his piercing gaze could part through all matter, regardless of how dense. “He’s at the pub,” he hissed.
He leaned in. He opened his hand. It was just as Sally reached a hand out toward him.
They had a moment – maybe one the universe provided for them. The danger slipped away – only for half a second. It counted. Their fingers brushed.
They stared at each other.
Then together, they gripped each other’s hands at exactly the same moment.
You’d think it would be dangerous to simultaneously transport with two different types of power – his subspace energy and her Hendari crystals. They didn’t rip each other apart, fortunately.
Somehow their power summed and worked together.
They arrived right in front of the pub.
There was that bench she’d sat on. There was the tree. And there was the winding cobbled path that led up to it. And there was the door to the pub – ripped off its hinges. It wasn’t resting on the ground, though. It floated. It was as if it had been trapped in a field of non-reality. Didn’t understand what she meant? Then listen.
The door drifted in and out. There was an eddy of invisible power that kept pushing it toward the center of some black force. Whenever it crossed through it, it disappeared as if it had never been. But as it floated to the other side, it reformed again. It was a fundamentally undermining experience. The kind that, if you watched it too closely, would remind you existence was ultimately a blip. Nihilism was the only real truth.
“What the hell is that?” Joseph stammered, his eyes widening, his cheeks paling, his hand re-gripping his subspace sword. It crackled permanently by his side, brighter than it’d been when he first called it.
She focused on that for a fraction of a second. Was Joseph somehow becoming more powerful?
Impossible. A spacer’s power was ultimately set at a predefined level. They could control subspace fields. Yes, they could concentrate them in different ways, and depending on how they concentrated them, they could change the yield of various attacks. But they couldn’t fundamentally alter who they were. Yet Joseph was interacting with psychic phenomena, and she couldn’t ignore that his sword was twice as bright as it had been during the attack on the Academy.
“I’m game if you are,” he said, a slight stammer in his voice but a crumpled, competent smile scrunching his lips. He arched his head forward. “I’ve been meaning to take you out for a drink,” he added.
It was nothing more than a throwaway comment. Nothing more than a one-liner. Joseph was mentally getting prepped for what would be inside. It was clear he didn’t even really understand what he’d said.
It forced her to stop. For a moment. Then she heard that scream echoing out once more. The Observer was aware of the fact they’d found him. No more hiding.
The real battle was now on.