He strode into the regression room, his mind everywhere else but on what was about to happen.
He opened his fingers, flexed them, then crunched them back into a tight fist.
Anna was already in the room. She stood up from her desk. There was a strange look in her eyes as she stared at his hand, but she soon shrugged it off.
He grinned. “You heard, then? Something… happened. Maybe it was the regression, or I don’t know – maybe it was a gift from the Queen,” he said through a laugh. “But I can now interact with psychic soldiers.”
“You should not be so ready to accept this without understanding what it is,” Anna whispered quickly.
That threw Joseph. He’d already debriefed with Forest. He’d seen the pride glittering in her gaze. If Joseph hadn’t suddenly been able to interact with psychic sprites, that entire situation could’ve gone differently. Instead, he’d pretty much single-handedly saved the Academy and the city beyond. Now here Anna was, casting a shadow of doubt on that victory. “What’s up?”
“You still have an open psyche, Joseph. You don’t know how or why you managed… to win,” she said carefully, “but we must investigate it before we think it’s a boon.”
He just shrugged. “We can investigate it, but I know what that was. It was the difference between the Scarax Galaxy winning another skirmish and losing it.”
She gestured toward the pod. “I have a limited amount of time today. Please.”
He nodded, grinned one last time, and pulled himself in. His heart sank pretty damn quick when he realized he had to regress, yet again.
He thought of Deus, thought of every traumatic memory that could come up this time. He had a plethora of them.
He might’ve only been on that ship for years – but he swore he had millions of memories. Which just made him think of Sally.
She’d already been debriefed by officers. She hadn’t seen much. She was alive, though.
And she’d… saved him – kind of. She’d seen the psychic sprites right before he had.
He found himself thinking of Sally as the pod initiated. Anna muttered something to him, probably to calm his mind and accept the process, but he didn’t pay attention.
Finally the vision resolved around him. He was back up on that hook field. He saw various scientists he recognized – each of them more murderous than the last.
His heartbeat quickened… but the vision changed.
It just… slipped away.
“I want you to keep going until Master Deus’s mind enters yours,” Anna said quickly.
Joseph could have roused enough to move his lips and tell her that he wasn’t even thinking of Deus anymore, but he focused.
The images around him changed and changed until, bam, he was back in the Academy. This time he was running through the accommodation block.
Right there, right in front of him, was that cadet.
His heart really did leap into his throat this time.
He jerked out a hand toward her. He heard himself calling her name.
He could see her hair, see her slight form, but he couldn’t put two and two together to figure out who she was.
“You have to come back,” he screamed. “This is a trap. They’ve been planning it for millennia. Don’t fall for it.” He was so certain of every single thing he said. But he had no clue where all of this was coming from.
Wasn’t this pod only meant to take you back through your memories? He’d never experienced this, just dreamt it.
You would think, considering all of the trauma that Joseph had, a dream would be nothing compared to actual recollections, but obviously this particular dream had enough emotional primacy to eclipse even what Deus had done to him.
Joseph could feel his heart, feel his sweat-slicked skin, even shudder along with every desperate breath his dream self struggled for.
The cadet continued to run. He followed, sprinting past a window to his left. He momentarily switched his attention to it and saw the Academy grounds. They were cast in this eerie darkness. It wasn’t night. There were no lights on. It was as if… someone had turned down the brightness of reality. The only things with enough contrast to catch his attention were the section of corridor he was in and her.
He reached out again. He could feel the tension in his knuckles – see a few charges of subspace particles racing over his skin. He certainly had no intention whatsoever of attacking her – just doing whatever the hell he could to pull her back one last time. “You can’t do this. You can’t do this, Layra.”
There it came again. The same name that had been haunting him all day. He very almost whispered it in the real world, but something stopped him at the last moment.
He got so excited that he’d finally see her face, a plume of hope cascading up his throat. But—
“I need you to pay attention. Any details you can pick up of that hand could be the key to everything,” Anna interrupted.
His dream just cracked. It fell away a moment before he could see that face.
Joseph screamed himself awake. He jolted hard against the pod’s restraints.
Anna was standing close by, and she lurched back. “Joseph, I thought we were beyond this?” she chided him.
She was usually as kind as they came, but clearly something had irritated her today. Not something – probably Sally.
It took her a few seconds to notice how distressed Joseph was.
She finally unstuck her feet from the floor and walked over to him. Her fingers darted over the pad controls near the pod, and they released him. He could have just produced a subspace blade and cut right through it, but Admiral Forest sure wouldn’t have been happy with him destroying technology unnecessarily – especially on the edge of war.
Joseph grabbed his collar. He secured his fingers in hard. His shoulders trembled. These deep jolts passed up his hips and scissored into his spine.
He usually didn’t breathe. Didn’t have to. He did have a human side, though, and sometimes he regressed.
Anna hovered over him, concern and confusion crumpling her brow. “What is it? Did we uncover a new memory?” Interest ticked through her tone. “Did you finally see the Queen’s face?”
Joseph made a face of his own.
He couldn’t even begin to answer that. Unsticking his lips sounded like murder. But slowly, his heart began to calm.
His fingers fell off his collar of their own accord. They were like petals from a dying rose. They flopped against his lap. It felt like moving Everest to shift his neck up. He shook his head. “No. I… it was just… a traumatic memory of Deus. One I haven’t… remembered in a while,” Joseph lied. Every movement, every syllable. All of it was untrue.
This was where he had to admit that he’d regressed into a dream. He knew the emotional significance of regression. Which meant the dream… mattered.
Mattered so much that even as Joseph thought of it, his symptoms returned. His hand snapped up, and he grabbed his collar again, tempted to rip it from his throat just so he could get that little bit more air.
Anna frowned. “I thought you had gone through every single one of your memories of Deus?”
“I guess… this one… came up from somewhere. Just rattled me. That’s all. I should go back in,” he suddenly concluded.
Yeah, the dream had been horrifying – distressing on every level. But… if he could go back and regress into it, he might finally see her face. Dammit, he just had to see her face. It would be that, or dying.
With that grim promise echoing in his mind, he lay down.
He looked up at Anna expectantly, gesturing quickly to the controls when she didn’t move toward them fast enough.
She was shocked at his sudden change in demeanor. “I cannot fault your determination, Joseph. Your mind is becoming stronger every day,” she said. It was something that she repeated to him a lot.
He hadn’t really thought about that, but what if… all of this was what had helped him fight the psychic soldiers?
He wouldn’t let that distract him for long. He threw his mind back into that dream.
He regressed backward into a memory. It wasn’t the dream, though. His heart filled with disappointment, swelling to the point of popping.
He was back on Deus’s damn ship. It was the same memory from the other day. The chief scientist would come in, and Joseph would be possessed. Then he’d kill some other scientists in cold blood.
Joseph might be thinking about it in casual terms now – even though he’d never done that in the past. It was only because it now had context. This was just a memory. An irrelevant one. He couldn’t find any new information here. Even the Queen’s hand didn’t really matter.
Her face though….
The memory played.
“I need you to pay attention to every single detail you possibly can,” Anna said in that same tone. There was a note of urgency, though. Perhaps Admiral Forest had lit a fire under her ass.
This really might be their only way forward.
And the Academy desperately needed a chance.
With psychic soldiers on their doorstep and a growing threat mounting every day, they needed something, anything to change the tide.
Joseph realized then that wouldn’t come from his memories – just from his dreams.
But dreams are slippery things. The more you hold on to them, the more they fall away.