The War of the Gods Book Two Chapter 3

Joseph Lance

Had he actually said that? Yep. Couldn’t take it back though, could he? Because there was a screaming Observer in there.

Joseph re-gripped his sword, more power coursing through him. It was… he didn’t know, but it was easier to produce than it usually was. He felt something pumping through him, reaching deep inside, gushing up through his grip, and forcing its way into his sword.

It was just desperation, right? It was the knowledge that if he didn’t contain the Observer now, the guy would smash right through every cadet, destroying them like a house in a hurricane.

Maybe it was more – something Joseph didn’t have the ability to perceive right now.

Sally hesitated for a moment. It was at his crass comment, right? No. She was just gathering herself. And what a sight it was.

Joseph swore he could see her psychic power. If it could be the equivalent of ships, then right now she had eight supermassive heavy cruisers behind her – a virtual army.

Anna had pretty much just had a car in comparison.

The Observer? Hard to say.

They walked in past the door. Sally didn’t flinch back from interacting with it. Joseph would’ve gone and found a team of physicists and then created a level XX containment field. Even then, he would’ve used the back door. Sally? She bat her hand to the side. The door suddenly spun out of that strange black field, smashed into the cobbles, and ripped up a good meter wide section of stones that sizzled like hot fat.

Joseph strode in behind her.

The bar… kind of looked like it usually did.

It even had guests.

He didn’t freak right out. He figured out quickly that these were not ordinary people. They had the faces of cadets and staff he knew. There was nothing behind their gazes – nothing behind their moves either. Everything was empty and preprogrammed.

“They are—” Sally began.

“Not real,” he finished for her. “Nothing more than empty husks.”

Her brow scrunched down quickly, and she shot him that look again. The one that told him he was an enigma. It wasn’t a good thing to be an enigma to someone like the Queen. He still didn’t really understand how her mind worked, but suffice to say, if the greatest force in the universe didn’t understand you, then you really were in trouble.

Speaking of trouble.

There was Jerry, right at the bar, leaning against it, an actual drink in his hand. Sorry. Something that looked like a drink. He took a sip, but it didn’t move fast enough. The liquid didn’t actually push down his gullet by the time he swallowed. Plus, it had this unreal quality to it. Everything was like a dream. Nope – a nightmare.

The chatting patrons suddenly stopped. They froze as if someone had hit pause. Then their actions reversed. They drank backward, regurgitating into their glasses. Their conversations became slurred and incomprehensible.

Jerry? Just laughed. He tapped his rigid fingers on the bar and leaned further back. “Time to get rid of you, Sally Winters.”

“Get out of his head,” Sally said quietly.

She didn’t have to draw her hands up, display her power, and look as if she was physically ready for the fight. Any psychic would be able to see her force. Sure enough the Observer within Jerry opened his eyes wider. Joseph swore he could see Sally’s reflected power in Jerry’s pupils.

It was like a halo – like a burning wall.

“Remove yourself from that child’s head,” Sally commanded.

“No. The child’s a willing host. Just like your child,” the Observer hissed.

Sally stiffened. “Jerry didn’t know what he was getting into. Now remove yourself from his mind.”

“This cadet knows that only true power matters at the end of the day. Your ships count for nothing. Your training is irrelevant. Your guns will be useless. To make a difference, you must reach for actual force.” With that, Jerry gestured to the side, and something shot off the wall behind them. It careened toward Sally.

Joseph was ready to get in the way of her, but he didn’t need to. With just one flick of her finger, it slowed down. It reached her, shuddered, then stopped. It fell at her feet with a clang.

Joseph sneered. “What is your plan, Queen? To crush me? It would take too much energy. I am far too powerful for you to just simply blink me out of existence,” he snarled.

“I will do what it takes,” she said in the kind of voice that could not be ignored.

You could try to put walls between you and it – you could try to port across the universe. It wouldn’t count. You’d never get away from her certainty.

“But in doing so, you will waste more of your precious energy. You won’t be able to destroy the King, will you? And your wretched little destiny won’t count,” the Observer hissed.

Joseph didn’t want to believe that anything could stop the Queen, but this could.

She paused, her face freezing as if someone had dumped it in ice-cold water.

This twitch ran up and down her arms.

The look in her eyes? Maybe it was hidden from the Observer, but Joseph knew what she thought.

It was something he had been grappling with his entire existence, and that’s why he recognized it – even with one mere look. It was the grimace of someone who was meant to be fundamentally powerful – but someone who couldn’t make a difference, no matter how hard they tried.

“This boy,” Jerry tapped the side of his face, locking a finger against his temple and then letting it drag down, “understands something fundamental to reality that you have forgotten, Queen. If you can’t act, you are weak. It doesn’t matter what technical prowess you have. It is what you are willing to do to achieve your goals.” Without another word from him, the floor started to pitch.

This force rushed up toward Sally. Joseph jerked toward her. She could probably withstand it. His heart couldn’t.

He grabbed her and ported across the room.

Jerry slapped the bar. “What are you doing, Spacer? This is between her and me. Go to sleep.” He dismissively flopped a hand Joseph’s way.

Joseph staggered to his knees. It felt like he was going to sleep, alright – felt as if every single time he had ever fallen unconscious was somehow being condensed into a single attack.

“Joseph,” Sally gasped.

She reached toward him. Joseph pulled up a specific memory in his mind. It was Sally’s clicking fingers. And it worked. Just like that.

It didn’t matter that the rest of her psychic influence on him had already dissipated. He held onto this.

He’d staggered down to one knee, but now he punched up as quick as a spring under pressure.

Jerry spluttered. “What—”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’m not gonna sit this one out.” Yanking a hand up, Joseph spread his fingers and sent a debilitating pulse of power smashing into the bar.

It meant Jerry could no longer lean against it casually. He jerked to the side, hissing as he went. He stretched his own hand out toward Joseph, but this time Joseph didn’t wait around to be struck by a psychic attack. He ported again, just in front of Sally.

He brought his sword up. “Enough. Get out of Jerry’s head. Wait, you can’t, can you? You need a host. Damn parasite.”

“You want a parasite?” the Observer hissed through Jerry’s lips, his voice taking on a force Jerry simply would never be able to achieve. It gave Joseph the impression that the Observer had seen everything time could produce. As a consequence, there would be nothing Joseph would be able to do to shock him.

Did that mean Joseph backed down? Hell no. He never would again. He tightened his grip on his sword, sending even more subspace power into it until it blazed with the color of a newborn star.

“The thing behind you is a parasite,” the Observer hissed. “Just as this body,” he bounced his hands off Jerry’s chest, “has given way to my mind, that body over there belongs to the Queen. Once it had a psyche of its own, though. It would’ve been wiped away for her.”

Joseph didn’t want to be affected – not now that he knew he was getting to Jerry. But… all he could think of was Sally. The real Sally. The little girl he was only just remembering. The one who’d followed him around and waited for him in a damn cave only to die because of him.

“Joseph,” Sally’s voice shook.

“You can’t undermine me,” Joseph snapped, pulling himself out of his reverie. He could face the prospect of what the Queen was – later.

No matter what Jerry said, Joseph wouldn’t abandon her. Do that, and he’d have to ignore his dreams. They were now inescapable. They were practically around him every single second as if they’d condensed into some kind of shroud. They hunkered down against his shoulders, giving his every move the import of someone who’d seen the end and would take every chance to stop it.

Slicing his sword to the side, he sent a charge of light blasting out toward Jerry. It was his first frontal attack.

He thought Jerry would simply transport. He had to bring up a hand and force a psychic shield to appear in front of him. It was enough to deflect Joseph’s attack. But Jerry had to shore up his shoulder, and sweat glistened across his brow. “This is not your fight, Spacer. So crumble.”

“I’ve tried that. Didn’t like it.” Joseph appeared right above Jerry, his sword in his hand, somehow growing even brighter. What the heck was happening to it? If Joseph had time, he would’ve paused and realized his sword was getting steadily stronger, despite the fact he wasn’t necessarily pumping more power into it. It was coming from somewhere, though.

He sliced it down right above Jerry. Jerry couldn’t get away in time. He was forced onto his knees. He yanked his arm up. A psychic shield appeared. It managed to rebuff Joseph’s sword, but only just. Joseph floated there in a cloud of his own power, his sword sparking against the shield.

Jerry’s eyes widened. The shield began to buckle.

“What?” Sally stammered.

“Enough,” Jerry roared. He forced out a psychic attack. It smashed into Joseph, and even though he wanted to take it, he couldn’t. He was rebuffed. He spun back several meters but quickly ported, appearing right by Sally’s side again.

She had a second to stare at him, and he saw the awe and confusion in her eyes. Yep, that’s right. You heard that correctly. Awe. The Queen was surprised by the power of a simple spacer.

No time to think this through. Joseph ported again. He appeared right in front of Jerry, his sword held high.

Jerry staggered down to his knees again. “You are not in control of the situation. I am.” He sent out a psychic attack.

Joseph ported. He appeared behind Jerry. “I’ve got news for you. When you’re down on your knees, you’re not in control.” He smashed his sword down.

Jerry had to yank up a hand again. He produced a psychic force field. Almost immediately it buckled.

“You’re nothing. Nothing more than a spacer with a hole in your head the size of a planet.”

“Then take advantage of it,” Joseph roared. Producing two psychic swords, he came at Jerry in a flurry. One blast after another, he took down more chunks of the psychic shield.

It was close to breaking. So damn close to breaking. Just a few more attacks now.

Jerry clearly knew this. With a roar that sounded as if it came from some far distant place, he thrust both hands forward and produced one hell of a psychic wave. Joseph tried to withstand it. He couldn’t.

He was thrown backward, right at Sally.

She grabbed him, hauling him to the side.

Jerry staggered back. “This isn’t over. It hasn’t even begun. You have no idea what we’re planning. And you have no way to stop us. You will fall as you were always destined to fall. You will form his final sacrifice, Queen. We will rise again.” With that hissed volley, Jerry shoved his hands out wide. His arms looked as if they were being stretched by something. He was pulled off his feet. There should’ve been a cloud of power, but there was nothing at all. Everything became deceptively still and quiet.

“He’s getting ready to transport,” Sally stammered. The crystals still hovered faithfully above her. She called on them now.

It was too late.

Jerry just blinked away. It was like he hadn’t existed at all – like he’d been some kind of bad dream and collectively, he and Sally woke up from it.

Sally flinched. Her fingers dropped.

“Where did he go?” Joseph turned quickly, his head yanking this way and that. He pared back his senses. He tried to discern that psychic scream, even stared at every reflective surface in the hopes he’d see Jerry’s shadow floating on by. There was nothing.

He turned back to Sally. She stared in defeat at the floor. “I doubt he’s even on Earth anymore,” she commented. She closed her eyes. It took a few seconds. She shook her head. “He’s definitely not on Earth.” She covered her face with her fingers. It was as if she couldn’t even look at her failure.

Joseph forced a breath through his teeth.

He didn’t let his psychic sword drop. Not because he didn’t trust her and he thought Jerry would return. Just because… dammit.

He finally opened his hand, and it disappeared. Then… silence. The kind where he could look at her. Nobody came to attack them. There was no new emergency. Joseph finally got his chance to face Sally.

Her shoulders started off close to her ears, her whole body hunched in regret. But then she ticked her gaze up to him. It was a slow motion, a little scared even. And yeah, she was still the Queen. Because the Queen could be scared, couldn’t she?

If Joseph had never had those dreams about Layra, he would never have made that assumption.

There was no going back.

“Layra,” he said quietly. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Every time he mentioned that name, it had a demonstrable effect on her.

The same thing occurred now. Her shoulders had been deflating, but now it was as if somebody hardened them like diamond. She looked just like the old Sally – out of her depth, confused by a world she simply could not control.

He took a breath. “Before you ask, I dreamt about you. Or I dreamt about something.” It was pretty uncomfortable admitting this. First that line about taking her out for a drink. Now this?

She swallowed, her lips trembling open. “You dreamt about… Layra? How, Joseph? Nobody knows that name. You are not psychic,” she said categorically.

He had to chuckle. It was uneasy, though. “Yeah, of course I’m not.” He stared at his hand. He didn’t bother to produce his subspace blade to see if it glowed just as brightly. It would. He swallowed. “I… kept seeing you trying to leave the Academy. It was some trap, though. I screamed Layra’s name. That’s it. I don’t have anything else. I don’t know why that name was in my dream.” He dropped his gaze to the floor. It couldn’t stay there for long. It was as if somebody had attached it to Sally and wherever she went – even if it was just the thought of her – he would follow too. “I just know you can’t go back to the Hendari homeworlds. It’s a trap,” he said with all the force he could muster. He used just as much as he did when he’d attacked Jerry.

Sally’s cheeks crumpled with confusion. He watched her brow tremble then compress. The same happened to her chin. It looked as if she was being pinched by a black hole. She didn’t disappear, though. He wouldn’t let her.

He slid his stiff fingers down the bridge of his nose. His lips pulled into a thin, strong frown. He had no idea what she’d do. She wasn’t about to open a gate and head back to the Hendari worlds, was she? Wasn’t about to follow Jerry, wherever he was off-world, right?

“Sally, I don’t know what’s going on. But you have to promise me you’ll stay.”

She looked away from him quickly. “I exist to—”

“Nobody exists to do anything,” he said, a flare of righteous anger rising from somewhere. “Take it from a spacer. I was made to do something, but I exist to do what I want to do.”

“It’s not the same with me, Joseph. I’m the only force that can destroy the King. You know what the King is, correct?” The room became silent. She wasn’t controlling it or anything – there was just no point in making a noise.

Yep. He knew what the King was. He’d been briefed. And sometimes when he went to sleep at night, he shivered at the prospect that such a force could be out there.

“It was created by we Hendari. Our final ascension,” she said, her voice completely vacant – her stare more so. You could’ve put the heart of creation in front of her, but she wouldn’t even notice. It was clear that she was deep down in her recollections right now, drowning in them like a weak child. “My people shrugged off their bodies. They understood – or believed,” she corrected in a hard voice, “that the mind was all that mattered. They found a way to combine their psyches. They thought that they would become gods. So they created the King. And with his power—”

“Yeah, they would’ve been able to psychically manipulate anyone anywhere in the universe. I know.”

“Control them,” she said, her lips barely moving around the words. “They would’ve been able to control everyone anywhere in the universe, Joseph. No one would’ve been free. No one would have ever been able to get free. There would’ve been no resistance, no uprising. They would’ve consumed everything. I,” she slapped a hand on her chest, her fingers crunching in as if the tendons had snapped and curled back on themselves permanently, “am the only force who can destroy the King. So that is what I exist to do.”

She had a good point. He had a better one. It wasn’t more logical and sure as hell wasn’t sound, but it felt right, and to his beating heart, that was all that counted. “You don’t exist to destroy them. Nobody exists to do one thing.”

“Very well. I choose to exist to destroy them.” She turned from him.

“Sally, it’s a trap,” he said. He bled his heart out. His dreams were concentrated in every syllable. He couldn’t make her stop. All he could do was fall to a frigging knee and plead with her.

She covered her face with a shaking hand. “That’s what he said.” Whatever she’d just admitted to had slipped out.

His brow twitched. “Who?”

She froze.

“Who, Sally? Come on, tell me that. I’ve earned the truth, haven’t I?”

You would think such a play wouldn’t work. Strangely, it did. Sally got this look in her eyes as if Joseph really had earned her trust. What had he done? Stand by her side? Pull her out of class several times? She was the Queen, dammit. If she had chosen to, she could have risen at any time and wiped away all her opposition.

But the look in her eyes told him that every time he’d intervened, it had meant something anyway.

She looked at her feet. “When Anna came to me in the brig, she attempted to psychologically manipulate me. She tried to regress me to the day I died.”

His gut kicked. It felt like there were cruisers down there – all of them desperately trying to get out of some gravity well. They were turning their engines on to full. If his stomach kept pitching like this, it would shove right out of his torso. “She did what?” His voice dropped with cold fury.

“It’s fine. But… I heard something. Remembered something that wasn’t there previously.”

“Did she implant something in your head?” Joseph knew exactly how psychics worked. Sure, you could start off with a traumatic memory, but they could make it a heck of a lot more traumatic if you let them.

Sally’s gaze unfocused for a moment, then she shook her head. “No. I just hadn’t recalled it before.”

“What was it?”

“An Observer.”

“Did they attack you?”

Again her gaze became so unfocused, it was like she was staring right through this scene and right into the past. “No. Not all Observers are bad.”

“So whoever they were, they helped you? What did they say?”

Her gaze focused, all at once. It was one hell of an experience to be standing right in its path as it did that. “He told me it was a trap. Told me not to….”

“What?”

“I can’t recall.”

He shoved right up close. Sure, it was like voluntarily wading into a tsunami. But that’s what he was built for, right? He was powerful, and thus far he’d only ever used that power in battles. Now he had to draw on his experience to produce a different kind of bravery. “They told you not to go because it’s a trap,” he said quietly, slowing down every word. “Do you even know why you’re here?”

“I… guess… I wanted… to help,” she said as she slid her morose gaze back to the bar. “It’s cost me energy, but I guess I… couldn’t let the cadets fall. I guess,” she repeated, clearly incapable of thinking in complex sentences right now as her feelings spilled out like air from a popped balloon, “Admiral Forest was right, and I couldn’t walk away. But now I won’t have the power to destroy the King.”

“That’s not what I meant, Sally. Do you even know why the Queen is in the Milky Way? Do you remember how you came to be here?” It was a pressing question.

And it was the one thing he truly needed to say.

This wash of terror raced through her. It was momentary, and even though she tried to control it, she couldn’t wipe it away.

He straightened. “You can’t head back. You heard that Observer in Jerry. I think that’s what they want. This is a trap, Layra,” he used her real name, and he meant it with all his heart. “We need to figure out what’s going on. And you have to stay.”

She turned from him, either to open a gate, or because she didn’t want to show him her expression.

“Sally,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Please.”

“I… am not going anywhere, Joseph,” she conceded in this small voice that sounded like it’d been crushed by the greatest weight in the galaxy.

“You aren’t?”

“No. I can’t, anymore.” She stared at her hands. The movement of her head as she tilted it down was jerky, almost as if she’d already extinguished every single ounce of her strength and no matter what she did, she’d never claw it back.

“Good. That’ll give us all a chance,” he stammered.

“I tried to buy everyone a chance, Joseph, but I failed.” She moved toward the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To bed.”

“What?”

Pressing a shaking hand against the side of her brow, she slowly shifted around. Her eyes looked dead. “To bed, Joseph. I’ll think about what to do in the morning.”

“But the Observer and Jerry—”

“Are gone. The Observer isn’t coming back. And no, before you ask, I can’t track him across such a distance. We will have to wait until he lifts his head.”

“The Academy—”

“Is now safe. There may be more Scarax assets out there, but they’re not nearby.”

“Sally—”

“Good night, Joseph.” She clicked her fingers.

Joseph ported as soon as she disappeared, but it wasn’t in time to accompany her.

He had to take a leap of faith and assume she really had headed back to her room.

Technically Joseph shouldn’t go porting to a place he’d never been before. He needed to know the blueprint of a building before he appeared inside, lest he end up in a wall – or far more seriously, inside somebody. But he knew Sally’s room, all right. Hell, he wondered if he knew that apartment better than he knew his own.

He arrived right up in the air.

He expected to see Forest’s people, but clearly they were too busy locking down the rest of the Academy and they’d assumed Sally wouldn’t come back here.

James and Willis hadn’t left.

Technically Joseph had ported earlier in front of James. He hadn’t revealed his full powers, though. Now as he floated there completely unassisted in the air, there was no hiding who he was.

James spluttered. He stood just inside Sally’s door, his back rigid, his stance suggesting he’d taken Joseph’s order to heart and he was guarding it. Willis was closer to the main door. She also had a stiff stance, though her back was hunched from fright and pressure. It sure as heck didn’t get any better at Joseph’s sudden appearance.

Her shoulders slammed back into the door, and they let out a rattling shake. “What—”

“Holy hell. You’re a spacer?” James stammered. “I knew you were different, but—”

Joseph waited for the moment where James would fill in that but. You know, point out that Joseph was a harrowing creature that had been designed specifically to kill Coalition soldiers just like him.

He didn’t. He continued to stare at Joseph with a mix of disbelief and actual relief.

He turned quickly and pointed to the door. “Nobody’s come in or done anything. What exactly was in there, Joseph? And Serena—”

“Is Sally back?”

“Sally?” James shook his head. He got out of the way of the door, though.

Joseph rushed in. There she was, in bed, cuddled up with her head against the wall.

His shoulders crumpled. It felt like his spine turned to ash and drifted out of every hole in his body.

He soon sank to the floor.

Locking a hand on the door for support, he ensured he didn’t do it in Sally’s room.

He kept the door open, though. He needed to know if she, you know, opened a gate to another dimension and left, quite possibly condemning the Coalition forever.

“What the hell? When did she get back there?” James hissed.

“Lower your voice,” Joseph whispered. He picked himself up.

Willis looked freaked out. To be fair, despite his training as a combat soldier, James didn’t look any better.

But you know what they didn’t do? Point out he was a spacer again. In fact, it was as if that point had already been synthesized. They now knew what Joseph was, and it didn’t matter.

Something he’d been hiding from for so long was now swept away with such ease. It felt like a letdown.

As he pressed his fingers into his eyes, he realized he had to keep Forest informed. He called her.

“What—” Willis began.

James chucked out a hand toward her. The knuckles were stiff and protruded hard against his dark skin. “He’s making a neural communication.”

Joseph wasn’t suspicious at the fact he’d figured that out. You could usually tell when someone was engaged in a neural message – if you were skilled enough to see the signs. Their features would become a little slack, their focus would change, and, of course, they’d become quiet. It was damn hard to have two conversations at once, even for a spacer.

Forest answered almost immediately. “Our scanners detected that she is back in her room. Is that true, Joseph?”

“Yes,” he thought back. “Jerry—”

“Our scanners detected he left.”

“We can scan for Observers now?” he spluttered.

“Apparently. Someone reprogrammed them.”

“What?”

“Likely Sally. What’s she doing?”

“Sleeping as far as I can tell.”

There was a protracted pause. It was one that desperately wanted to fill itself with information but didn’t know where to begin.

Yep. Joseph had a lot of debriefing to do. He could probably start with how he alone had kept Sally here, because he’d managed to dig up a name from his subconscious that literally no one else in the entire damn universe knew.

“A lot has happened, Joseph. We need to establish our priorities.”

“Sally said the Observer isn’t done. He’s gonna lift his head again at some point.”

“I’m sure he is,” Forest conceded. “I don’t want to say this, but I’m glad he’s off-world. Even if he has a cadet as a hostage, I’m assuming this means that he cannot jump through the heads of other cadets remotely. Is that true?”

Joseph went to shrug. How would he know? He wasn’t Sally. Maybe Forest wanted him to wake her up. Bad idea, though. Presumably if the super-powerful queen psychic needed to rest, you didn’t go in and nudge her awake for frivolous questions.

Forest usually gave you a direct order when she wanted you to pass on a request, but she didn’t tell him to disturb Sally. She just waited.

He narrowed his eyes. “Forest, I have no clue.”

“You sure?” Her voice wasn’t empty. It wasn’t exactly pointed, either. It sounded prying. Maybe she wanted to figure out what Joseph’s limits were now. Once upon a time, she’d known them – she was the one who’d helped Joseph rediscover what he could do.

Now he’d changed, hadn’t he?

Joseph went to grip the side of his face, but his fingers slid off the bridge of his nose.

“I’m assuming you have no clue what happened to you, Joseph. Just as I’m assuming you have no clue how you came to learn that name. Considering what Anna was capable of, it likely has something to do with her—”

“It’s got nothing to do with her,” he actually spat aloud.

He reined himself in. He couldn’t bring Willis and James any further into this than they already were. Then again, they were helping him guard the greatest psychic there’d ever been. They were already too close to this mess.

Joseph winced. “Look, I don’t know what happened, but I know it’s got nothing to do with Anna,” he thought, but he clenched his teeth as if he wanted to hiss that through them. He continued to grind them, throwing his mind into picking up every detail of the tension winding around his throat and up into his temples. He used it to remind himself that yeah, no matter how crazy this situation was, he’d faced worse. This was a battle – just a different one from the ones he usually fought with swords. It required just the same amount of grit, though.

There was another protracted pause. “You cannot forget the fact that you can now interact with psychic sprites,” Forest reminded him. “Was it the Queen who gave you that ability? Layra?” she tried that name out.

It didn’t sound right. It lacked the correct emphasis. Joseph knew exactly how to pronounce it, though. How? How had her name been downloaded into his head perfectly? And from where? He had no frigging clue. To top it all off, Lara was right. They couldn’t forget that he could now interact with psychic sprites.

He no longer noted the details of his stiff jaw and contracted muscles – do that, and he’d feel like he’d pop.

“I suggest whatever is happening that you do not get overcome,” Forest said quietly.

Sure, don’t become overcome. That would be stupid, right? The Academy was attacked, a student was kidnapped by an Observer, and Sally had turned out to be….

It was still hard to fill in that equation. It wasn’t because of the well-practiced psychic tracks in his mind that had been there to tell him Sally was nothing. He didn’t want to fill that question in anymore. The truth of the matter was he still didn’t know who she was. Hell, did she even know herself?

“I would tell you to come back here and debrief,” Forest said quickly, “but—”

“Someone has to guard this place, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring anyone else here, Forest. She—”

“Trusts you,” Forest filled in. They might’ve been utilizing mental communications, but it still felt as if her words echoed in his mind. It brought more attention to them, underlining them, making it so he couldn’t turn away.

Yep. The Queen trusted him.

For now.

“We need to discuss what we’ll do next.”

“We should head to Faxan A,” Joseph did it again – he said that out loud.

James and Willis looked shocked.

“Joseph, you are in no position—” Forest began.

“Before you tell me that I’m in no position to decide what we do next, I think you need to trust me, Forest.” He didn’t communicate that in a particularly convincing way. He swallowed, and his arms fell slack by his sides as both James and Willis stared at him.

Neither of them knew where he came from. Both of them were pretty good at reading people, though. They would’ve realized he’d accidentally blurted that. Which meant it would have emotional significance to him.

“Why would you want to return there?” Lara questioned.

“I think that’s where the Queen inhabited…” he couldn’t finish.

Was inhabited the right word? He had to go back to his fight with Jerry.

Jerry hadn’t looked inhabited, had he? He’d been possessed. But….

“While the Queen’s origin is intriguing, we cannot forget the greater context, Joseph. We are soon to be at war. As long as we can get Sally to stay, she may be the deciding piece in this game.”

“She’s not a piece in a game, Forest,” he found himself thinking hard.

“Nothing more than a metaphor. I am fully aware of what she’s worth.”

“She needs to find out why she’s here,” he thought back categorically. “So we’re heading to Faxan A.”

Yep. He’d just given an unequivocal order to one of the most powerful admirals in the fleet.

He wasn’t surprised when there was an edgy pause. Presumably Forest wasn’t drawing up his dismissal papers, though. She sighed. “If that’s what you think is best, then perhaps I should trust you on this.”

He had a chance to blink.

“First, there’s something she needs to do.”

“What?” He frowned.

“If she has the power, she must wake Ninev.”

“Why?” he asked aloud, his voice hard like a punch.

“He has information we require.”

“Need I remind you—”

“No, Joseph, you don’t need to remind me of what Ninev did. If Sally hadn’t shown up, he would’ve taken the Coalition’s crystals, and right now neither you nor I would be alive. I’m well aware of his treachery. Just as I am well aware that he has information that could change the course of this war.” She said that with such confidence, he knew it couldn’t be a throwaway comment.

“What does Ninev know? More to the point, why do you think he’d tell us?”

There was another protracted pause.

Joseph narrowed his eyes. “Forest—”

There was soft footfall. Sally appeared at her door. She barely looked rested. To be fair, she’d only been asleep for five minutes.

“Ninev was working with Ares Tech for a short amount of time,” Forest explained. “He would likely have seen them as a means to complete a goal he’d been striving toward for years. We believe he was working with other forces within the Coalition before that, though.”

Forest didn’t twig to the fact that Joseph had become completely silent.

He stared at Sally.

Though James and Willis were right there, and they certainly stared at her with surprise slackening their cheeks, it was Joseph’s stare that shook the most.

He didn’t think she was about to port away again – or at least he hoped she wouldn’t. She just… her presence brought everything back.

Usually Joseph managed to reassess things quickly. That happened when you were involved in crazy battles as a spacer. You couldn’t hold on to the way things were. You had to sport a brain capable of switching through new realities as fast as a supercomputer compiling new data.

But whenever Joseph faced Sally… everything kept grinding to a halt. Time didn’t want to play nice, and neither did his brain.

“Sally?” Willis hissed. Was there fear there? Hard to say.

As for James, he stared at her warily, but not like she was about to attack.

“Joseph, why have you become quiet?” Forest demanded.

“Because Sally’s up,” he whispered.

Yep. She was up, and the next chapter of this journey was about to begin.