She would’ve preferred to sleep longer. While she didn’t need to, she had to reset.
Five minutes would have to suffice. It had given her a little perspective, but it hadn’t replenished her power. It couldn’t recoup what she’d lost.
She’d been roused by Joseph’s neural communication. It had echoed in her mind even though she had been under.
For whatever reason, it was louder than it usually was. She wouldn’t have been able to ignore it even if she’d tried.
Joseph straightened. He could control the rest of his body, but he couldn’t shift the slack look dragging his cheeks down, opening his eyes wider, and fixing his attention to her like a rope to a cliff.
“Look, I know something crazy’s going on here, but can someone please tell me what happened to Serena?” James stammered.
“She will be fine in time,” Sally answered directly.
That was not the answer James wanted. He jolted hard. “What do you mean fine in time?”
“She was inhabited by—”
Joseph took a step forward. “We’re not really cleared to share the secrets of the Coalition, Sally,” he tried.
“She was inhabited by something called an Observer. It is a ported mind from Hendari space,” she spoke right over the top of him.
James didn’t even know where to begin. His lips wobbled. “What do you mean inhabited?”
“I suppose you could say it is a form of possession. Do not worry. The Observer has left her. She would be in the med bay now.”
“How… how the hell did this happen?” James stammered.
Joseph ticked his head to the side. He was continuing his conversation with Forest. She was either going to port in, or he had to get Sally to head to the basement.
Sally had no intention of leaving. The crystals were back where they belonged, on her bedside table.
She could carry them with her, but truth be told, she felt weak. Things had changed too quickly. She needed to rest, and her bedside table was an appropriate location for the crystals, anyway.
Once Hendari crystals had spent a sufficient period of time in one position, they started to… she supposed you could say they began to carve out holes there. They became etched into the space, almost as if they were making permanent gaps in reality for their roots.
“You can tell Forest to come here,” Sally said.
It didn’t take much longer. Soon there was a transport beam. Forest arrived. She brought with her several top members of her staff. One of them had even joined in the disciplinary meeting earlier today.
Suffice to say, she no longer looked at Sally as if she deserved to be dragged off to the brig.
Forest? She’d never looked that way.
“When did you suspect it was me?” Sally asked flatly.
Forest hardened her stare. “I never fully expected you to be the Queen.”
“You assumed it was a possibility, though,” Sally read between the lines.
“You went around telling everybody you were the greatest power in the universe.”
“I’ve been doing that for years.”
“You had a certain mannerism about you.”
“Yet it was one no one else picked up. Why did you really suspect me?”
“Because Joseph didn’t,” Forest finally answered truthfully.
Sally wasn’t expecting that. It was far too personal an answer. She didn’t want to respond in a way that suggested it got to her, but she couldn’t hide her suddenly pasty cheeks.
She straightened instead. “I picked up your conversation. You want me to wake Ninev up.”
“What did you do to his mind? Will there be anything left?”
“He’s simply trapped in his thoughts.”
“How and why?”
“I can’t really explain the how to you. You wouldn’t understand. The why? A man like that deserves to be in his own head. It’s safer for everyone, and it’s where he ultimately wants to be.”
“You imprisoned him in his own psyche?”
Sally flashed her gaze over Forest. Her hard stare was unmistakable. Not just defiant – but unapologetic.
While Joseph, for whatever reason, trusted Sally implicitly, it was clear Forest didn’t.
And whilst Joseph thought Sally was good, Forest clearly hadn’t made her mind up yet.
“He’s trapped in his own fantasy, Admiral. He wished to lock the Milky Way off in a pocket of space no one would ever be able to break. He wished to rule everybody with an iron fist so they could never hurt themselves again. He is currently living that reality. He simply does not know that it is being generated by his own mind.”
Willis gasped. Sally hadn’t forgotten she and James were still here.
Forest didn’t look pleased with the interruption.
“What… what are you, Sally?” Willis whispered.
“The greatest psychic to have ever existed,” she answered automatically as if the words no longer meant anything. Did they? Wouldn’t the greatest psychic have stopped the Observer? Wouldn’t she have saved the Academy with nothing more than a blink? Would the greatest psychic be here right now, bleary from fighting and a lack of sleep, concentrating on standing straight while her mind reeled?
Willis shook. She could’ve run from the room. She did not. She let her hands drop. She remained exactly where she was.
James straightened too, but he also didn’t flee.
Why not? Everything Sally knew told her they should be terrified at what she was and what she could do to them.
But they… remained.
“Can you wake Ninev up?” Forest demanded again.
“We need information he has. It could be critical to the coming war,” Forest stated.
Sally narrowed her eyes. “And you wish me to obtain this information, do you?”
Forest stiffened. “It is illegal—”
“I don’t operate that way, Admiral Forest.”
“You mean your powers have limitations? You can’t read minds like an ordinary psychic?”
Sally didn’t want to react, but she couldn’t stop her muscles hardening and her chest freezing mid breath, the tight fabric of her uniform stretching with the quietest rustle.
Did Forest notice? Admiral Lara Forest probably noted every single detail in her environment. Nothing and no one would ever be able to hide from her. And that included Sally. “What are your limitations?”
Sally clicked her fingers. “Ninev is now awake. You can go and question him yourself.” She’d done it quickly to throw Forest, but Forest would not be thrown.
“Cadet, I asked you a question. What are your limitations?”
Though this whole situation had unfolded quickly and Joseph had become a wrinkle Sally would never have been able to anticipate, at the back of her head, the Queen still functioned. She understood she could not give too much information away.
Yes, Forest and the Coalition felt different from many of the other civilizations the Queen had encountered, but at the end of the day, if she gave people the ability to use her, they would.
Sharing sensitive information about where her powers began and ended could and likely would be used to control her.
“It’s okay, Sally. We just need this information to help you,” Joseph tried.
“Questions about how I work are irrelevant,” Sally said. “Now interrogate Ninev.”
“You stuck around, Cadet,” Forest said, her voice dropping. She had a sense of import few admirals ever achieved. It was almost the equivalent of psychic force – a seriously strong one. Most people did not have the ability to garner attention when their audience was distracted. They didn’t have the capacity to pull people out of their mental worlds and force them to take heed of their every word.
But most people weren’t Admiral Forest.
She took a commanding step toward Sally, her boots thumping against the polished floor. “You stuck around, Cadet.”
“Why do you keep calling me cadet?”
“Because you’re still in your uniform. You assumed a position when you joined the Coalition Academy. Your background doesn’t count. It’s the same for every other cadet here.”
Sally went to laugh. She stopped. This was no game to Forest. She meant every word. “I would think that my background is somewhat more extraordinary than the other cadets you’ve brought through the Academy, Forest.”
“In the Academy, your background doesn’t matter. The day that you put on that uniform,” Forest shrugged toward it, “you accept to fight for a core set of principles. And you accept the responsibility of protecting those around you. You’re still wearing the uniform, Cadet Winters. And you’re still here. Which means you’re still bound by that responsibility.”
Sally could’ve removed the uniform. She could’ve burnt it up with a blast of Hendari power. She almost lifted her fingers to do so. She paused.
For so long, she hadn’t felt like she was part of something greater. She’d been nothing more than the silent, forgotten Queen with the mission to save all without the ability to call on anyone for help.
For a fraction of a moment, she saw that things could be different.
“Too many things are going on here to leave loose ends. Ninev will be questioned, and as Joseph has requested, a mission will be set up to explore Faxan A. But I need a promise from you, Cadet Winters.” Forest stared at her with an unflinching gaze stronger than a steel pylon.
Sally didn’t want to visibly react to the fact they were going to Faxan A. She wanted to say it was a waste of time – she couldn’t push the words out. All she could do was face Forest. “And what promise do you require?” she eventually asked.
“You won’t go to the Hendari planets until we agree it’s a good idea.”
“You have no way to bind me to that promise,” Sally said, her lips cold as they snapped around her words.
Forest straightened. She got a look in her eyes Sally had seen too many times. It was a superior who was about to reprimand a junior. “Again you have forgotten how the Coalition functions. You are never given orders with a gun up against your head here. When you join the Academy, you choose to follow the dictates of the Coalition to help one another. You’re not bound to do it by any other force than your loyalty. I don’t have the Hendari crystals. I can’t force you. Even if I did, I would choose not to. What you do next, Sally Winters, will be up to you. But understand this – your decisions will have consequences for every single person here.”
A cold sweat prickled along Sally’s back. Forest had no right to say that.
Unlike with Sally, she hadn’t been fighting the promise of the King her entire life.
But Sally didn’t snap back. Nor did she turn, rip her uniform off, and walk away.
She felt everyone’s eyes on her.
What did she look like? A caged tiger agreeing to do tricks for a circus master? No. That was cruel and way off the mark.
She had to keep going back to the fact that regardless of how many minds the Queen had absorbed and how many civilizations she’d seen, she had never come across anything like this. For none had ever recognized her power then offered her a position, not as the Queen, but as… a part of something greater.
Thus far, she’d made the judicious decision not to glance Joseph’s way. Do that, and she’d be pulled right out of her mind. He had the singular capacity to affect her when no one else could. Now she made the mistake of letting her gaze flutter up to him.
His expression was kind of hard to track. It was open, and for a spacer who’d once had to hide his true self, there was a rawness that made him seem almost naked.
He wasn’t telling her what to do, though. Judging by the way his every sense tracked her, he’d follow her, whatever happened.
“Cadet Winters, we do not have all day. Make a decision. Will you—”
“You have my word,” Sally said.
There, she’d said it. She wasn’t certain she’d meant it, though. Sally couldn’t so easily rewrite her entire life goal. The Queen existed for one single purpose – the Coalition and this cadet uniform couldn’t get in the way of that forever.
Forest straightened. She didn’t look victorious as if she’d finally tamed some wild beast. The only thing flattening her features was relief. “I will question Ninev myself.”
“What will I do?” Sally asked, her tone a testing one. Yes, she’d made a nominal promise to Forest, but if Sally was given orders she did not agree with, she would not enact them.
If Forest wanted to treat her as a standard cadet, then Sally would comply. Up to a point. She had no intention of letting Forest vicariously control the crystals through her.
“Rest. It will take time to organize the mission to Faxan A. I imagine you have things to think through.” Forest turned and nodded at the commanders behind her.
Sally inclined her head toward Willis and James. “And what of them?”
Forest looked at them. It didn’t seem as if she was seeing them for the first time. Somebody like Forest would be well aware of where every single person was in a conversation, and she would track who knew what. “They are now privy to one of the greatest secrets in the Coalition.”
Both Willis and James straightened. If Sally felt that she had precious little power in this situation, she at least had more than they did. They were doing nothing more than being dragged along for the ride.
“If they wish to stay here, they can stay here. If they wish to come to Faxan A, they can come along.”
Willis balked. James’s jaw dropped.
Then both of them stared over at Joseph and Sally.
Sally blinked. It wasn’t up to her to decide where cadets would go. But that wasn’t what Forest was up to, was it? She was under the impression that these two were somehow Sally’s friends and that bringing them along on the mission would influence Sally in some respect, correct?
Sally opened her mouth to command them to stay.
She couldn’t make a decision for them though, could she?
James swallowed. “We’ll… run into that Observer again, right?” he asked quickly. He darted his gaze toward Sally.
Forest didn’t flinch at the fact these two now knew a state secret. “I can’t say that for sure. I’m assuming yes, however.”
“Then if it’s all the same to you, Admiral, I’d like to accompany you on this mission.” He saluted.
Willis swallowed. She saluted too. “I’ll come as well.”
“Very well. Joseph, you know what you have to do.” Forest ported away. No more explanations, no orders. She didn’t even give them a timeline.
As soon as she and her commanders left, silence filtered through the room. It was thick and heavy and felt like it could stifle an entire city.
All eyes were on Sally. Though James’s gaze slipped towards Joseph several times.
Willis was the first to break the silence. “Are… we seriously gonna go off-world?”
… That was her first question? She wasn’t going to accuse Sally of reading her mind or being an unregistered psychic who’d influenced everyone without their knowledge?
James gripped the back of his head. “What can we do when we run into that Observer again? I want him to pay for what he did to Serena.”
“You will leave him to me,” Sally said flatly. The whole while, she stared at Joseph. He had this look in his eyes. He itched to ask her questions, but he clearly wanted to do it in private.
“I can’t believe things have changed so quickly,” Willis stammered. “This morning, I thought my greatest trouble was E Club. Now—”
“Your greatest trouble is something called the King,” Sally said. They needed to know the truth. If they actually wanted to accompany the mission to Faxan A, they had to know what they were ultimately up against.
Sally must’ve let a little psychic energy out with her statement, because Willis shivered and James snapped taller, his muscles shaking slightly.
“What… the hell is the King?” he stammered.
Joseph didn’t remove his gaze from Sally. What? Did he want to see how much this emotionally affected her? Or was he angry that she’d shared this?
“The greatest psychic power there is,” Sally stared at Joseph as she let every word slip out. “It was created by my people – the Hendari. It is a force meant to be able to control every single mind in the universe, no matter where they are, for eternity.”
Willis had no clue what to do with that statement. James understood it a little quicker, but he shook his head, the move empty of all force. “What the heck does that even mean?
“You’re not in a position to share this information,” Joseph admonished her. “It’s up to the admiral—”
“They need to know exactly what they’re up against if they want to come to Faxan A. I can’t promise you what will be there – but I can promise you that other Observers – multiple,” she emphasized, “will come. They know my identity now.”
“Yeah, Sally, they will come,” Joseph agreed. He didn’t care about the fact she was sharing secrets without permission now. From the look in his eyes, he wanted to tell her one thing – from the beginning this had all been a trap.
And how did he possibly know that? “Follow me,” she said stiffly. She turned and strode into her room.
Willis and James went to follow.
“She doesn’t mean you,” Joseph muttered. He turned to James. “Ensure no other cadets come in. I don’t think they will, but—”
James snapped a salute. Then he shrugged over at Willis. She walked over to the door again. She muttered under her breath that this was crazier than fiction.
Then Joseph followed Sally into her room.
She kept her back stiff, kept her expression haughty. She hadn’t forgotten everything Joseph had done for her and all the feelings he’d left in her heart. It was precisely because of all that. If she acted like this, maybe those same feelings wouldn’t affect her as much.
The door closed behind them.
She felt Joseph’s attention scissor over to the crystals. But only once, and only for a few seconds. “Is it easier this way?” he asked, his voice unreadable and quiet.
“The stiff shoulders, Sally? The haughty angle of your jaw. The tone in your voice. Does it make it easier to discuss the truth? It might work on everyone else,” he muttered. “But I’ve already seen through that act.”
Just like that, several seconds after she’d decided this was the best way to interact with him, he yanked down her façade with all the strength of somebody destroying a house with a torpedo.
She was lucky her back was to him. If she’d faced him, he would’ve seen the full gamut of shock rumpling her features. Then she reminded herself he was a spacer, and he could detect it anyway.
He proved that point as he ported right in front of her.
He was close to the crystals, but at no point did he make an attempt to lean toward them, let alone touch them. He crossed his arms. His feet floated a few centimeters off the floor.
His gaze? Gazes never technically touched the ground. They were never rooted in anything. But Joseph’s had a heck of a lot more freedom – and power – than most. It felt like a mighty tree Sally would never be able to uproot, no matter how hard she pushed. “You can’t hide, Sally.”
She arched an eyebrow. Really? She lifted her fingers. She could click them. And do what exactly? Transport off-world? She could head anywhere in the Milky Way. Hell, she could head anywhere in the universe if she felt like it and she was happy to waste her precious dwindling energy.
The threat was there, but it did nothing to Joseph.
He kept his eyebrow arched. He also tilted his head to the side. Half of his expression was soft – the rest was hard.
He kept assessing her, and her treacherous heart shuddered until she finally dropped her fingers. She turned and flopped onto her bed. “I’ve changed my mind, Joseph. You can leave. I want to sleep.”
“Yeah? And I want to discuss this.”
“Everything has been discussed. We will head to…” she trailed off.
She thought of the moment she died again. She groped toward that memory of the Observer, but it was already starting to disappear.
“Faxan A, Sally,” he said, and all the strength slipped from his voice in a single shake. “We come from the same damn planet, Sally. I forgot you. And I—”
“If this is where you apologize for leaving me in that cave, Joseph, don’t. You were captured by Barbarians and taken to a Kore sect. How the hell was that your fault?”
It was his turn to stiffen. He might’ve looked casual and in control, but now every single one of his muscles became rigid as if they were getting ready to hold up the world. She fancied Joseph would prefer to hold up the world than the memory that now raced through his mind.
She kept her hands over her face. It was easier this way.
Or was it? It made for fewer distractions. And that meant she was fully aware of every single thing that happened to Joseph as the horrors of his childhood kept assailing him.
Usually when someone had trauma as significant as him, if they stepped within it, it would be hard to step out of it again. It formed a path in their mind, one so well-trodden it was like a ravine. Find yourself stuck within it, and you would need one hell of a jolt to force you out of it.
That jolt, apparently, was Sally for Joseph.
He let his arms drop. “I’m sorry I didn’t remember you.”
“How could you, Joseph? I have a different name, and you last saw me when I was six.”
“But why didn’t you remember—”
Her hand stiffened. She knew what he wanted to ask. “Why didn’t I remember you?” She swallowed loudly.
“I don’t know much about how this Queen mind works, but she is a psychic, right? Why couldn’t you pierce through your childhood memories and realize I was Tyler?”
Sally became eerily silent.
“I get why you didn’t want to tell Forest about your powers. I understand that you can’t reveal information that might be used against you. I get that, Sally, but why wouldn’t you remember me? More to the point, why doesn’t the Queen know how she got to Faxan A in the first place?”
She heard this empty rushing hiss in her head. It took a moment to realize where she’d heard it before. It was the very same sensation that’d haunted her when the six-year-old Sally had fallen to her death. Presumably, it was the sound of a mind shutting down.
She shuddered hard. Her back was close to the wall, and her shoulders rocked and banged against it. Her hair tangled behind her, tightening against her throat and slicing across her cheeks with an unpleasant scratch.
A new silence spread between them. “Sally?”
“I don’t know. There’s a gap in the Queen’s mind. It lasts several hundred years. She has no clue how she came to be on Faxan A. As for my memories…. Usually the Queen has access to every single mind of every host, but—”
“Host?” he asked, his voice so careful, it was clear that he had to use all his gumption to even ask the question in the first place.
She opened her hands and let them drop. She had to see Joseph’s face.
She kept telling herself that for whatever reason, he accepted the Queen fully. Did he? Or was he only interested in Sally beneath? “To answer your question, Joseph,” her voice hardened, “we are one. There is no distinct place where Sally ends and the Queen begins.”
“I didn’t ask that question, Sally. I don’t think you’re a parasite or anything like an Observer,” he whispered. “I just… need to understand. And you need to understand too,” he emphasized that, his brows flattening, his cheeks tightening. “I think this is key. I don’t know why, but we’ve got to find out what happened on Faxan A and how the Queen came to be there.”
“And why do you think that?” she demanded, her voice way too hard as her emotions got to her again.
“Because for the past six months, I’ve been having the same damn dreams, Sally. And they’ve all been about you.”
That focused her. It could’ve focused anyone.
He held his stiff shoulder, shifted, and strode toward the window. It was his turn to hide. “In one of the dreams, you’re up there.” He pointed roughly in the direction of the roof. “You’re standing on some kind of TI block. You’ve opened a gate to the Hendari worlds. I call you back, but you just leave anyway.”
“It was just a—” she began.
He turned on her so fast, his feet finally touched the floor. They could have gouged a hole through her carpet and kept going through the concrete beneath. “Are you about to tell me it was just a dream? Then how did I find out your real name, Layra?” he whispered.
It had the same effect on her. Every time he whispered that, and no matter when or where, it would do the same thing – drill a hole right through the center of her head and hold her in place.
“Tell me how I figured that out? No one else knows it, do they? Just you. Even the other Hendari… they don’t know, do they?”
She became cold cheeked. Her back was still propped up against the wall. She released into it, the rest of her body becoming weak. “How… did you know that?”
He laughed. It had a seriously uneasy edge to it. “I have no damn clue. That’s what I’m getting at. I know Faxan A is important. We have to figure out how the Queen came to be there. And, Sally, I know that promise you made to Forest wasn’t genuine. Yeah, you can follow her for now. If you don’t like the orders she gives you, you’re just going to head back there, aren’t you? So you can give me a promise,” he hissed. “Don’t you dare go back to the Hendari worlds without me. Don’t you dare do it until we find out why you’re here.”
It was different facing Joseph – so different, Sally didn’t even know where to begin explaining it.
The look in his eyes….
She had to close her own.
“Sally?” He took a hard step up to her.
“I promise you, Joseph,” she whispered.
She meant it.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t scream it. She meant it with every beat of her suddenly pounding heart.
Silence slipped in once more. She had no clue if it was uneasy or if it was somehow the easiest thing she had ever felt.
She couldn’t deny that, of every single individual she had ever come across as the Queen, Joseph was the only one who had ever begun to understand her.
“Why don’t you fear me, Joseph?” she found herself asking abruptly.
“Because you’re not scary,” he said with a shrug. “Take it from me, I’ve met a lot of damn psychics. I know what scary feels like.”
“I’m the Queen,” she reminded him gently.
He just shrugged again. It was such an unaffected move, it was as if she had just told him some boring fact about the weather.
“You should fear me. I influenced you, Joseph. I stopped you from suspecting me.”
“Yeah, you did.” He looked unaffected. “I think I remember you now. Back during the fight for the Academy, the psychic sprites I fought – Ninev programmed one of them to have your form, didn’t he? I forgot that, but I remember it now. Just as I remember,” he dropped his hand and took a firm step toward her, “your clicking fingers. You might’ve influenced me not to suspect you, Sally, but you saved me too, didn’t you?”
She wanted to shrink back from the intensity in his gaze. There was meant to be nothing the Queen had never seen and nothing she couldn’t do.
Could she react now? No. Could she pull herself away? No.
“Thank you for saving me,” Joseph rasped.
“I influenced your mind though.”
“No – you gave me an opportunity. Your clicking fingers have saved me too many times to count.”
“I only did that once.”
“Yeah, but you taught me something, Sally. And I’ve been using that lesson since. So thank you. Before you try to get out of that compliment, just accept it.”
Again silence reigned. Every single time it flooded in, it became steadily more uncomfortable. It was building towards something, see, something that had yet to be said.
“No matter what happens, I’m going to stick by your side. We can figure this out together, Sally.”
“Is this where I have to make you a promise again?” she asked warily.
He laughed. “Sure. You have to make me a promise.” He turned around suddenly and sat on the bed beside her.
His proximity made it impossible to get away from him. She usually didn’t need to be close to something to be able to read its intentions.
But there was reading something’s intentions – and then there was being swallowed up by it. There was being stuck there, standing in the path of it, and recognizing that no matter what you did, you’d never get away. And you… didn’t want to.
Joseph stuck his hand out.
She stared at his strong fingers. “What is this, Joseph?”
“Promise what?” Her voice started off strong but steadily became weaker.
“That we’ll figure it out together.”
“I already… promised you that I would not go back to the Hendari until we understand why the Queen came to be in the Milky Way.”
“More than that.”
“What is it then?”
“I want you to promise me that we’ll find out what we can do together.”
“What… I can do? I’m the Queen. I’m a psychic,” she stammered, wondering if Joseph had been hit on the head. Why couldn’t he keep up?
“Not that, Sally,” he said with this fixed stare that could never deviate once. Once it locked on its target, it would stay there. Forever. And the target? Was Sally.
“Back in the pub, you told me you have a destiny – one reason to exist. I told you there’s no such thing. Each and every one of us can do more than we even begin to suspect.”
“I must kill the King. It is all—”
He shoved his hand out and grabbed hers. As soon as his warm fingers locked around Sally’s, the words died in her throat.
“You promise me, Sally Winters, that you’re never gonna finish that statement again. You’re here to do whatever you want. You have no damn clue what you’re capable of. We’ll find out together. Right?” His voice shook.
She couldn’t respond. So Joseph shook her hand for her.
Finally the words slipped out of her lips. “We’ll find out together.”