Things had unfolded quicker than expected.
Lara had suspected Sally only for the past several days. But the disciplinary meeting had sealed it. The way Sally had admonished her, the look in her eyes, the force in her voice. Forest had recognized a strong mind – even if no one else had been able to.
She’d sent Sally to the brig to find out what she would do next, and she’d decided to stick with the Coalition. For now.
Forest had a job to do.
She marched into the prison.
She’d already confirmed that, as Sally had promised, Ninev was awake.
He was behind category 20 shields. His body had been scanned and rescanned, and it certainly didn’t seem as if he had any unknown implants. He’d been working with Ares Tech for too long, so they’d had to check.
For much longer than that, however, he’d been working on his plan to collapse the Milky Way in on itself and ensure the rest of the universe could never access it again.
He was disoriented. Apparently he’d done nothing but scream ever since he’d woken.
She stopped in front of the shields. They crackled along her shined boots, played up her blue uniform leg, and pooled under her eyes.
He had a bed. But he’d climbed off it. His back was pressed up against one of the shiny metal legs, his face in his hands.
Lara’s shadow cut across his left eye.
He slowly opened it and stared at her between his stiffly parted fingers. He smiled. “This is your doing, isn’t it, Forest? You stole the Hendari crystals off me—”
“For the past six months, you have been trapped in your mind, Ninev,” she said, not doing him the dignity of referring to him as admiral. He had well and truly lost that title for life.
“That’s not true,” he roared. He might’ve thought his voice was strong. It fractured with fear.
Ninev had almost killed Lara during the attack on the Academy. Based on the look in his eyes, given a chance, he would try again.
But his part in this drama was well and truly over.
“You have information I need, Ninev. And for the good of the Academy, you’re going to give it to me.”
“Take me back, Lara. Return the crystals to me. Allow me to do what only I can.”
She paused for a few seconds. “What only you can do? You’re talking about saving the galaxy? As I told you, for the past six months, you have been trapped in your head.”
“And who trapped me in my head?”
“Cadet Sally Winters. She is a hive psychic mind. She comes from the Hendari—”
He froze. His eyes widened. He was clearly remembering something.
He shook his head. He shoved his stiff old fingers into the collar of his medical jumpsuit. He tried to pull it out. He couldn’t. So he clutched his throat for air.
“You’re fine, Ninev. But if you have any loyalty left over for the Coalition, please assist us now.”
“That wasn’t a dream. I saved the Coalition, dammit. The threat is already dealt with,” he roared.
“It is the nature of a complex civilization to never overcome every threat mounting against it. If you wish to rise, you must wake up and do so every single morning, and you must pull everyone with you. When you joined the Coalition, you took an oath,” Lara growled. “And that oath was to protect us all, no matter what.”
He suddenly jolted forward. He couldn’t get too close to the level 20 containment shields. There was an impediment field just around his bed. It slowed him down like someone running through shoulder-high mud.
He flopped backward. “I could have saved the damn Coalition. We wouldn’t be in this position if you had just given me the Hendari crystals earlier.”
“The world that you have lived in for six months does not and cannot exist. You cannot ever account for every single risk, Ninev. You know that. That is standard Coalition training. You cannot craft a world where there are no troubles. You can only train people to be able to deal with whatever may come. We right now face the greatest risk we ever have. We are on the cusp, Ninev, on the cusp of a war that could swallow the entire galaxy or lift us up to greater heights once more. You must rise one last time. Do justice to the title admiral and tell me the truth,” she commanded.
She got through to him. For a fraction of a second. He jerked back. His shoulder banged hard against his medical gurney, and it rocked back and forth over the floor.
He shook his head in a sharp move that made it look as if his neck was going to crack. “You just have to gather together the Hendari crystals—”
“Nothing will ultimately change, even if we hold on to the crystals forever. Observers will come after them, or the gods. Or some other race we’ve never heard of. They are fundamentally a technology that does not belong to us. But they do give us one chance we must take. It is time to return them to where they come from. It is time to end the Hendari threat forever.”
“The only way for the Milky Way to be safe—”
“Is not to block itself off from the rest of the universe. It’s to remember in every single moment the principles the Coalition is founded on, and to, in every single moment, make decisions based on them. You chose to go against your people. I’m asking you one last time to help us. I need you to tell me what you discovered on Faxan A,” she demanded, finally getting to her point.
That fixed his attention like nothing else could.
He looked as if he was about to rant about the crystals again, but his eyes narrowed. The skin around his cheeks tightened, deep grooves darting down to his chin.
Forest was already up against the shields. She angled closer, as she didn’t want to miss a moment of this. It was being recorded. But she trusted her senses more. The specific quietness that came over him suggested what she already suspected. Ninev knew critical information about Faxan A nobody else did.
Before Ninev attacked the Academy, he was the admiral in charge of the Rim. Faxan A was on the edge of the galaxy, but also on the edge of the Barbarian-Coalition border.
Forest had credible evidence that he’d been there multiple times. What exactly he had found, however, had been hidden.
It’d been removed from the Coalition databases. The only person who knew was him.
“What did you discover on Faxan A?” she questioned quickly.
He shook his head.
She could see that glassy look in his eyes returning. He was going to rant once more. She had one chance. She could either take this opportunity to gather all the information she could, or she could wait for the Scarax Galaxy to attack without all the relevant facts.
War was imminent. The imperial fleet would be back any day. And this time, presumably every single Observer in the universe would join them.
They’d be able to smell the Queen’s blood in the water. They would come to take her back to whatever trap they had planned.
If the Coalition had a single hope to rise above this, it was to gather every fact they could.
In times of war, information was key. Green-eared soldiers thought you shot first and asked questions later. Admirals knew you only ever secured defeat if you did that. Real wars were protracted. Even if you shot faster, had better ships, and decimated your enemies quickly, if you didn’t ultimately know who your enemy was, you lost by default.
“I’ll… do it if you put me back,” Ninev said through clenched teeth.
Ninev, once upon a time, had been an imposing physical figure. He was now in his eighties, but that didn’t matter. Or at least in the past it hadn’t. Now he looked like nothing more than a hunched old man. He rocked again, his shoulders dragging the bed’s metal leg back and forth. It groaned, just like his joints.
“I’ll tell you if you put me back in that vision. Let me die in peace. I’d prefer to live in a fantasy where the Milky Way is safe than in a reality where I can do nothing to ensure we won’t all die.”
There was a lot she could say to that. That he was being a child. That those who groped for such certainty were destined to fail.
Perhaps on some level she understood.
Ninev had fought his entire life on the Rim, coming up against brutality most Coalition soldiers would never be able to imagine. Now all he wanted was to live in a dream where his efforts counted.
“Fine. Tell me.”
“We found a ship,” Ninev muttered.
“What kind of vessel?”
“I can only assume it was Hendari,” his voice took on a haunting quality as he stared at the floor, his gaze unfocussed.
This information was huge. They had never discovered a Hendari vessel anywhere, and that included both in the Milky Way and the Scarax Galaxy. “What happened to the ship?”
“It’s still there.”
“It appeared to be trapped in some kind of pocket space. We tried to remove it. We couldn’t.”
“What else did you discover?”
“A Hendari crystal.”
“We couldn’t take it, either.”
“Is that it?”
He let out this dark chuckle. The quality was unmistakable. It answered her question a thousand times over. No, that was not it, and what he was about to reveal would shake her world to the core.
“No, Forest. We discovered the body of a six-year-old girl.”
Lara froze. “What?”
“She’s still there. Right at the bottom of some cave. The crystal’s in her, and the ship’s behind her.”
“I suppose. That’s it. Tell me how to go back into that fantasy world. Tell me, Forest. Don’t leave me here. You promised.”
Yes, she had promised. But some promises were worth breaking. Ninev had almost destroyed the Coalition, all for a fantasy. He would live out the rest of his years knowing that one cannot be rewarded for threatening others just because they would prefer to live in their heads. Forest turned coldly on her foot and walked away.