This was murder. He wanted to get to Sally, wanted to desperately share what he’d dreamt of. At the same time, he didn’t want to add to her stress. Because trust him, Sally was unraveling.
Maybe Forest noticed. Or maybe she wasn’t quite as tuned in to Sally as he was.
Forest was giving her debrief – important information he needed to be reminded of, even if he knew most of it already. Could he rip his eyes off Sally? No.
She shook. It was slight. Other people would have to be right up close to her. He noticed every single detail, though – from sweat sliding across her brow and glistening under the powerful downlights to the way her shoulders looked as if they would never loosen again.
Then she rocked forward, grabbed one of the TI objects, and pulled it into her lap.
Crap, she was gonna break.
He had to pull her out of here just as he’d pulled her out of class so many times.
He pushed to his feet.
“Joseph—” Forest snapped.
Joseph tuned her out. It was for a split second. Sally was the only person here who mattered.
He almost thought he felt his feet fall down on that strange stone cobble pathway – the same one that’d led to his dream. He reckoned he could hear that moaning, too. It was distant but somehow sharp at the same time.
It got sharper the more he stared at Sally. It was like… like her mere presence was doing something to his mind. The moaning grew and grew like a crescendo until, right around it, he heard this crackling.
A surge of energy shot up his back. His senses aligned, becoming so sharp, they could’ve pierced the side of even the strongest ship hull.
He felt something – out on the bridge.
“Joseph—” Forest began again.
Joseph’s eyes blasted wide. He opened a hand to the side, formed a subspace sword, and ported. All without explaining anything to anyone.
He appeared on the bridge. He thought he could hear Forest calling out to him from the briefing room.
There was something out here – he knew that. His senses had somehow become stronger than they’d ever been, and they warned him – like a blaring orchestra – that something had just appeared on the ship.
Joseph thought he’d face an immediate battle. He didn’t.
The bridge crew froze at the sight of a spacer appearing in the air above them, but that was it.
The third in command looked up at him sharply. “What—”
Joseph felt another fluctuation again. He didn’t know what to call them. He couldn’t figure out what was happening, but something kept rippling through his senses like stones thrown in a pond.
He transported again. This time he was underneath the bridge. There were small maintenance tunnels there, cramped and full of critical pipes and blinking conduits.
But no enemies. Just as he feared this was all in his head, he ported one more time. Now he was above the bridge in the very small maintenance tunnels that allowed one access to the back of the viewscreen. Finally he picked something up.
There was a ripple, all right. It appeared right in front of him. He knew exactly what it was.
A psychic sprite. It hadn’t manifested fully yet.
Joseph wasted no damn time. To think, once, when he’d seen a psychic sprite, he would’ve held back, shaking in fear, and burnt through precious time.
Now he was like a shot from a gun.
He blasted forward and sliced his sword right through the sprite just as he got a neural message from Forest.
“We’re under attack. Psychic sprites are appearing throughout the ship,” Joseph thought back desperately.
Forest stopped, the communication cutting out abruptly.
“Forest?” He ported back into the discussion room.
It was just in time to see all holy hell break loose. Three psychic sprites blasted out of the middle of the discussion table. They didn’t fracture the wood. They didn’t have to interact with it, see. They got to choose what their minds touched.
The XO jolted forward. He wrenched the gun from his holster at his side and started firing. A psychic sprite appeared right behind him.
Joseph was used to figuring out the relative strength of the psychic sprites he faced. With nothing more than a glimpse, he could figure out exactly how strong a soldier was. This psychic sprite was 10 times stronger than the ones he’d faced on Earth. You read that right. 10 times.
The XO didn’t have a chance. He crumpled as if someone had just inserted a hot skewer into his brain and melted it.
“Mohammed,” Forest roared.
An ordinary person would have just died. Mohammed fell to one knee and clutched the side of his face. He wouldn’t be able to withstand another attack, though.
Joseph thrust forward, spinning his sword high. He smashed it down into the psychic sprite just as it reached for him.
It held his sword. Yep. It actually held it. Only for a fraction of a second.
Joseph let a blast of anger rise up him. It had a tinge of what he’d seen in Taylor’s eyes.
All this time, Joseph had assumed his younger self had been weak. Fair enough. He was an eight-year-old who’d been kidnapped by Barbarians. How do you expect anyone – let alone a child – to scrounge strength in the face of such automatic and brutal defeat?
But his dream had taught Joseph something different. The seed of his determination and anger had been born in Taylor’s frozen cold gaze.
Finally Joseph’s sword smashed right through the sprite. It exploded in spluttering sparks.
There was a scream from back out on the bridge. Crap.
Sally jerked forward.
He hadn’t forgotten all about her. Not technically. He still knew she was there, but he’d kinda forgotten that with the click of her fingers, she could end all this.
With one click of her damn fingers.
Which is exactly what she went to do now. Her expression was conflicted – horrified even. Joseph knew she had to keep her power in reserve to have a hope of fighting the King. Every time she used it, she got further away from her goal.
But he also knew, just like Forest did, that no matter what Sally thought, at the end of the day, she would use her power to save the Coalition.
It was horrifying actually seeing Sally come to that conclusion, though. He could practically see her dream breaking at her feet.
But she never got a chance to save everyone.
This massive sprite suddenly surged right outside of the table in front of her. It had Jerry’s face. You could program a sprite to have whatever features you wanted. During the attack on the Academy, Ninev had stupidly based the psychic sprites who’d fought Joseph on cadets from his class. One of them had been Sally.
He’d forgotten that memory, but now it was as clear as day.
It couldn’t yank him out of the here and now.
Based on the expression that crumpled Jerry’s face like screwed up paper, while the other sprites had cookie-cutter psyches, he didn’t. Real intelligence blazed in his eyes – enough to confirm the Observer was right there.
“Use your power now, Queen,” the Observer hissed, “and you will cede control of the Hendari crystals to me.”
“What?” Sally shook back.
“You have a limited amount of power. It dwindles with every moment. If you keep using it, you will lose control of the crystals, and they will return to us.”
Sally laughed, but Joseph could see the seed of doubt suddenly playing in her gaze. It spread just as the psychic sprite of Jerry shot toward her.
He grabbed her wrist.
Joseph would’ve attacked, but two psychic sprites appeared right behind Forest. With a roar splitting from his throat, he was forced to slice at both. He turned to see Sally try to pull back. A sneer crumpled her lips. It couldn’t match the one marking Jerry’s.
“The hunt is on, Queen. One by one, the crystals will be taken from you. And one by one, your defenses will fall. When it’s over, you’ll be dragged right back. And you will be the means by which the King finally wakes. You are the greatest psychic in existence. You will be his first and greatest meal.”
“Bastard,” Joseph roared.
He didn’t know why Sally wasn’t clicking her fingers. She couldn’t honestly believe Jerry was telling the truth, right? This was just trash talk. He wanted to keep her afraid so she wouldn’t use a Hail Mary and save everyone.
“Sally?” Joseph called.
She hesitated. Then her eyes flinched wide open. From the exact look of slack shock crumpling her cheeks, it was clear she’d just detected something.
She jerked around.
Joseph just knew she was going to transport a moment before she did.
He needed to save everyone on the bridge, everyone in this discussion room too, but he had to get to Sally—
Forest made the decision for him. “Follow her. The crystals are your priority. Go,” she roared. At the same time, she pushed one of her crew out of the way just as a sprite blasted up through the table.
Now he was given permission, Joseph didn’t pause. He ported over to Sally just as she called on the power of her crystals. They weren’t with her. That didn’t matter. She could access them remotely. Except there was a difference this time. He got swept up in their transport force. It didn’t feel quite as powerful for some reason. Joseph didn’t know if it was his fear telling him that, or if something really had happened to her control of them.
They landed down in Sally’s room. It was to the sight of psychic sprites swarming all over her bedside table.
Alarms split the air. They were so violent, they could’ve torn the ship apart without the assistance of the sprites.
The sight of those psychic manifestations amassing over the crystals, each cookie-cutter face showing no expression but their hands groping towards the bedside table as if the crystals were the source of all life, was terror incarnate.
Sally jolted in surprise then shot forward.
Joseph didn’t know where her powers began and ended. Yeah, they definitely had something to do with the crystals. Whenever she transported or locked someone in their mind, it was the work of the crystals. But Sally was still a strong psychic on her own. As a sprite appeared right behind her and Joseph couldn’t get to her in time, he didn’t have to worry. All Sally did was hiss under her breath and slice to the side, and the sprite withered. Perhaps it came up against her energy and couldn’t withstand it. Perhaps she momentarily interacted with its mind, cutting off its psyche like secateurs to a weed. But perhaps the exact mechanism didn’t matter. Just the fact Sally could do this.
Joseph sliced forward, smashing his subspace swords down against two sprites that dared shove their heads out of the floor. He blasted right through them. Sparks erupted everywhere, scattering over the metal plating until they disappeared as if reminding themselves they hadn’t existed in the first place. Joseph watched Sally grab sprites and pull them off her crystals, one by one. They smashed against the walls. They reacted to wherever she touched them, grabbing themselves, their groping fingers sliding over their hissing skin before they screamed and erupted into sparks.
But no matter how many she pulled away, more just manifested in the blink of his eyes.
“Sally, talk to me.” He sliced through a sprite that shot right through the wall and went for his throat. It exploded in a satisfying blast of ethereal light. But another simply surged through to meet him. “What’s happening? Tell me they can’t get to the crystals. They’re yours, right?”
Sally didn’t have the brainpower to answer him. He could tell that. Every single move was so jerky and lost, it looked as if she was about to fall over permanently. She put him in mind of a sapling somebody had worn down with a rasp. She was only connected by a single strand now. When it snapped, God knew what would happen.
Joseph put on a burst of speed, letting anger and fury pulse right up his chest, ricochet into his stomach, and slam up into his brain as if he’d been stupid enough to swallow a bullet. Slicing both hands out to the side, he got rid of his subspace swords and decided to attack with blasts instead. He sent three of them out at once. They pulsed like hot coals in his fingertips before cutting through the room. All three of them hit their marks. He got two psychic sprites who’d just grabbed Sally from behind, and he got a third who’d just ported through the door.
They didn’t have a chance to scream. They just exploded.
He saw Sally’s face again, pallid and broken, her expression as haunted as if she’d seen every ghost in existence.
That’s when it hit Joseph. This wasn’t a game. Sally really could lose control of the crystals. Then what? He might be in the height of battle, and his senses might be locked on every single micro-movement of his enemies, but he could still think ahead. If the Observer got all of Sally’s crystals, it would be over. A thousand times over, a million frigging times over. It would be over in a way that was impossible to describe. It wouldn’t be like a shot in the head. It wouldn’t be like the Mercury exploding. It would be like every single chance the Coalition had all being gathered together and extinguished so they could never ignite once more.
“Sally,” he roared again, spittle flying out of his lips as three more psychic sprites ported into the room. He might be making this up, but they looked stronger. They didn’t crackle more brightly or anything – it was just an impression. Joseph didn’t have time to question it, just go with it. He was damn glad he did. He didn’t thrust in close and try to blast through them with his blade. He took several floating steps back, quickly reassessing the situation with darting, competent movements of his eyes. The sprites went straight for Sally.
They grabbed her. But rather than wither at her mere touch, they managed to haul her backward.
“Sally,” Joseph screamed with all his vocal force until it felt as if he’d swallowed a saw.
She didn’t look his way once. Her eyes unfocused, real fear ripping through her gaze like a wolf to prey.
“Sally,” Joseph screamed again. He jerked forward, throwing all caution to the wind, not caring that if these sprites could interact with Sally, they could definitely do a heck of a lot worse to him. He lifted his subspace blade but never got a chance to fight. He heard this hissing sound from behind him. He moved around to see a psychic sprite manifesting right in the middle of the room. He was just a step above Sally’s bed. It was Jerry. Or the Observer. Or whatever the hell Joseph was gonna call him now. Point was, it was over before it had even begun. They hadn’t set foot on Faxan A, and they never would. The fight for the galaxy ended now.