She’d been invited to a debriefing.
She didn’t know if she wanted to go.
Now they approached Faxan A, Sally wanted to throw herself into a deep meditation. She had to decide what she would do next.
She had already reached the point of no return, hadn’t she? She’d used too much of her Hendari power. There was now no chance she would be able to defeat the King.
Unless she dug deep.
She didn’t know exactly how much power she’d require. So there was a possibility she could still win, wasn’t there? As long as she didn’t use her power again.
Whatever they faced on Faxan A, she could guarantee it would descend into a battle of some sort. Could she really hold back?
She wanted to tell herself she could, but the past several days had taught her something very important. What Sally thought she’d do and what she ultimately ended up doing were two very different things. Especially when Joseph was involved.
Sally waited for him to pick her up. He didn’t. She strode through the ship on her own.
People looked at her. They didn’t stare for long. It was a demonstrably different experience from being on the Academy grounds.
The suspicion was gone. The competitiveness was, too. This was a real ship made up of actual officers and soldiers who knew exactly what was on the line and precisely what they were meant to do.
It didn’t take long to navigate to the bridge.
When Sally arrived, it wasn’t to the sight of everybody turning and staring at her.
She was the Queen. Yet to these people, she might as well have just been another cadet.
A guy who had to be Forest’s XO, judging by the number of pips on his collar, gestured her toward a room down a short ramp.
The bridge was impressive. It was large – which it ought to be considering this was a supermassive heavy cruiser. There were consoles dotted around, but they were modular, and they moved with whoever was working with them.
If the tactician had to talk to the navigations officer, they could do some work at the same time.
The third in command stood in front of a massive command seat, her hands clasped behind her back, her shoulders straight and wide.
She had a powerful gaze which she locked on the view screens. It showed space practically parting for the Mercury as it blazed its path toward Faxan A.
Sally could’ve let the sight distract her. There was no point. This wasn’t the most impressive ship she’d ever been on. Nor was it the first time she’d seen such a complex operation. A simple trip into the Queen’s memories revealed thousands of other incidents.
But this time… felt different.
It was a weak statement, but she had to keep going back to it. It was the only explanation for her current actions.
This war was different. And these people – from the cadets to Forest to Joseph – they were all different too.
So whatever the Queen thought she would do going forward, there was only one thing she could really conclude, wasn’t there? It would be different.
Sally finally walked into the debriefing room.
There was a massive discussion table. It was made out of real wood, and the varnish glimmered under powerful downlights. Sitting at one end was Admiral Forest. Her XO walked in beside Sally and sat beside Forest.
There were other key members of staff around. And there was Joseph. As soon as he looked at her, this strange, conflicted expression crumpled his face, drawing his brow down and tugging his cheeks up.
He looked emotional, like he was holding onto something for dear life.
Had something happened? Had he had another dream of her perhaps? She longed to ask him, but she was told to sit right at the end of the table.
She did so dutifully.
Forest leaned forward and steepled her fingers. “Regardless of whether you wish to share these details with us, it has become clear that you either cannot, or are reluctant to, access the full power of the Hendari crystals.”
Sally immediately stiffened. She hadn’t known where this conversation would go, but she’d expected it would be about what they would do down on Faxan A.
Just as Sally’s hackles rose higher and almost threw her up to her feet, Forest shoved a hand out and spread her fingers wide. “This is not an attack on you, Sally. It’s an observation. One to which we offer a solution.”
“What are you talking about?” Sally controlled every syllable that slipped from her lips. There was no aggression, but there wasn’t trust, either.
“Yeah, Forest, what is she talking about?” Joseph asked.
The XO cleared his throat. “Admiral,” he grunted. He shoved to his feet and strode over to a console on the opposite side of the room.
There was something locked in a stasis field. With a few quick, darting, practiced movements of his fingers, he unlocked the field.
There was what looked like an implant and a set of small discs.
“TI blocks?” Joseph asked quickly. “What the heck?”
“We derived this from the information you imparted from your dreams, Joseph.” Forest leaned back. She gestured at Sally.
The XO placed the objects in front of her.
Sally looked at them then over at Forest then immediately turned to Joseph.
Blame it on the fact he was the only one she really trusted on this ship, but when she was confused, her eyes simply sought him out like he was the only real thing in existence and everything else was a bad dream.
Joseph leaned forward. His cheeks became pale at the mention of his dreams. “What?”
“Though TI objects are controlled and mediated by telekinetic implants, there is a strong association between efficient use of one and one’s ability as a psychic,” Forest explained.
Sally paused. “What are you saying?”
“You do not need to tell us exactly how much you can control your Hendari crystals for now. That information will hopefully come in time when you trust us. But we are about to go into a dangerous situation. I need to know that every single asset under my command will be able to fight. And that includes you, Cadet. If you can’t use your crystals, you can use that.” Forest pointed at the small, shiny silver objects.
Sally frowned at the telekinetic implant again. “I refuse to be implanted with it,” she stated flatly.
“You don’t have to. It can form a lock with your wrist device. You should then be able to use the TI objects almost perfectly.”
Sally frowned and looked at them again. Once more she stared at Joseph.
Why were his cheeks so slack? Was the angle of his jaw weaker as if someone had deboned him? Why did he look at her with a haunting question in his eyes – one it looked as if he’d never have the strength to ask?
Sally tore her gaze off him and locked it on the implants. Though she should’ve been sleeping, she’d spent the last three hours questioning exactly how far she would go to save the people around her. She couldn’t condemn her mission to destroy the King. But….
Maybe this offered her another way.
Frowning deeply, she plucked up the implant.
It sang in her grip. No one else would be able to hear it – she certainly could.
She felt Forest’s fixed attention on her as Sally stared at the implant. “It shouldn’t take you long to pair up with it. Nor should it take you long to master it.”
“I thought TI objects could be controlled by the Barbarians?” Joseph spluttered quickly. “Isn’t that why we got rid of them?”
“In a limited fashion, we have been using them for the past two years. It’s a trial program to see if we can finally iron out the kinks. We do not believe that anyone would be able to hack through TI objects being controlled by Cadet Winters, however.”
Sally glanced at the TI implant one last time, then returned her full attention to Joseph.
Something had happened. She could tell that. His shoulders were lower, his body tilted forward as if he was tired from some fight.
While the implant was interesting, she wanted to grab him by the arm and pull him out of the room to ask what’d happened.
Forest rose to her feet. “We have 12 hours until we reach Faxan A. I am certain that we will face resistance from Observers when we get there.”
“Why would you assume that Observers are headed to there?” Sally asked. To be fair, she’d already made that assumption herself. But there was certainty in Forest’s tone – it implied she’d found out something she hadn’t yet shared.
“We believe there may be a Hendari ship on Faxan A.”
Sally became quiet. So quiet, it didn’t feel as if she would speak again. As she’d already pointed out, while the Hendari had shared their crystals and the Light of the Gods with the people of the Scarax Galaxy, there was technology they’d withheld. For good reason.
It was the heart of Hendari power. Most of it was locked behind the Hendari dimensional pocket.
There were no full Hendari ships in the Milky Way that Sally knew about. Forest must be mistaken. For if such a vessel existed, every Observer would have swarmed over it like bees to honey.
Forest looked right at Sally. It was only then Sally realized this was some kind of test.
She tilted her head to the side. “What you say is impossible, Forest. There couldn’t be a Hendari ship in the Milky Way. Whoever told you this was lying.”
“It was Ninev. And in my estimation, he wasn’t lying,” Forest replied emotionlessly.
“Your estimation is incorrect,” Sally contradicted her.
“That’s not all. Ninev told me there’d be a Hendari Crystal on Faxan A, too.”
Sally opened her lips. She closed them.
Something almost rose in her. Was it a memory or something else?
Hard to say. It was too fleeting. It felt like it jerked through her head as if it was a string attached to a speeding comet. One that, when it was gone, she couldn’t clutch back.
Forest didn’t soften her gaze once. She stared at Sally as if the truth would be written right across her head.
“It is highly unlikely that a Hendari Crystal would’ve just sat around on Faxan A for so long without somebody coming to take it,” Sally tried.
“Apparently it’s stuck. It’s the same with the ship.”
“Stuck?” Sally frowned.
“Ninev said they were trapped in some form of pocket space. What did he mean?”
Sally wanted to repeat that Ninev’s lies didn’t mean anything. But her lips froze.
At the mention of the Hendari Crystal… something almost rose within Sally, but it disappeared again. It was like trying to catch a fish she only ever kept glimpsing far off in some deep ocean.
“It is critical we know what we’re up against before we land on Faxan A.” Forest leaned forward, locked her knuckles on the glimmering table in front of her, and stared right at Sally as if she had all the answers.
“While I admit there might be some information of some import on Faxan A, I find it highly unlikely – no, impossible,” Sally corrected herself, “that there would be a Hendari ship and a crystal. The Observers would’ve stolen both by now.”
“So you’re telling me you have no clue how they got there?”
Sally didn’t know what was going on. What did Forest want her to say? “This is a waste of time, Admiral.”
“Indeed.” Judging by the look in Forest’s eyes, Sally passed some test. It was clear the admiral realized Sally wasn’t lying.
Forest started to walk around the room. She reached a holographic projector. She swiped a hand to the side in a strong move.
It soon revealed a planet.
Sally hadn’t seen it from this vantage. Didn’t matter. It had to be Faxan A. She didn’t derive that based on the fact they were headed there. It was….
Another memory rose in her. It was short, sharp, and violent. It was like a bullet ripping through the back of her skull. She had to try hard not to shudder forward. She gripped the underneath of the table, not allowing her fingers to scrabble over the top lest anyone see how white her knuckles became.
Had she seen this view before?
Had the Queen seen Faxan A just like that when she’d crash-landed on the planet?
Wait? What? Had she crash-landed on Faxan A? She had no clue how she’d come to be there in the first place.
It might sound crazy, but not once since the Queen had inhabited Sally had she wondered how the Queen had gotten to Faxan A. Yes, the Queen had a gap of several hundred years in her memory, but it had been… irrelevant.
Why? Did that make any sense at all? The Queen existed for one mission. She’d been attempting to gather sufficient power to head back and destroy the King for all her existence. You’d think losing her memory for several hundred years would be horrifying and potentially fatal.
So why… hadn’t she cared until now?
She knew she didn’t control her expression as she stared at Faxan A.
Fortunately Forest started to give a mission debrief. Most of the senior staff looked at the admiral. Joseph didn’t.
He only had eyes for Sally. And there was that look again – the crumpled-brow consternation, the thin-lipped fear.
It was like he’d found out something about her she didn’t know.
Sally felt uncomfortable – like there were spiders crawling under her skin. She crunched further forward, her heart pounding too hard. She tried to grip the underneath of the table so she could hold on to something, but her sweaty fingers kept sliding off.
As a wave of muscular weakness took to her, her fear climbing ever higher up her throat, she rocked forward. She grabbed the TI discs without realizing it. She pulled one onto her lap.
She could feel its power – or at least its potential.
It offered her a way around the wall in her head that stopped her from acting and using her power.
Which was good.
Because the time to rise was here once more.