He’d done it.
He’d pushed Caxus back. And this time… it didn’t feel as if he would come roaring back into Joseph’s head anytime soon.
Joseph was still down on his knees.
His subspace energy crackled around him.
It wasn’t chaotic – just exultant. It knew he was back in control. And unlike Caxus, he wasn’t going to try to kill himself.
He staggered up to his feet.
The future boxes were just there, and maybe he should’ve taken the opportunity to grab them – instead he twisted.
The first thing he had to do was break Sally out. But he took one staggering step toward the ship only to feel that its hatch closed.
“Sally?” he hissed.
Something slammed into his head. It wasn’t regret, but it certainly came on the wings of it. Or perhaps it was a premonition.
The ship started to take off.
“Sally?” he roared.
He ported over to it.
He was too late.
The ship had already blasted up into the atmosphere. Joseph could feel something inside. Something that threatened to drive a hole right back down through his head once more. It might not bring Caxus racing back, but it didn’t have to.
He staggered down to his knees then jerked up.
His subspace energy was only just enough to protect him from the fiery exhaust of the ship. But nothing could protect him from the knowledge of what had just happened.
He felt Observer energy on board. Not just one Observer – multiple.
They’d somehow found Sally and stolen the ship.
Just when Joseph had thought he’d finally won, he’d lost more than he ever had before.
Still down in the dust, he rounded a hand and beat it as hard as he possibly could into the rocks beneath him. His force blasted out, but it could do nothing to bring the ship back. “Sally,” he roared.
His voice barely pitched out through the partial atmosphere.
He pushed up. He calculated what he could do. Nothing. Because the ship went to beyond-light speed in a flash. One he’d never forget. One that felt as if someone had just taken all of his dreams, gathered them together in a pile, and set light to them.
He fell down to his side. Sweat slicked his brow. He was still in that light shroud. It pulsed around his form, but it could do nothing for Sally. No one and nothing could snatch her back. She was now gone.
Joseph started to become aware of flashes erupting through space beyond. Ones that were accompanied with a certain pulsing knowledge that started in his heart and catapulted up through his clenched jaw.
The fleet. The… Scarax fleet was finally here.
He stared in total horror above him, frozen in a fit of gut-wrenching fear.
Because the war… it was here. No more waiting, no more planning, and no more second chances.
He pulsed to his feet again. Didn’t matter. He couldn’t do a thing. He couldn’t warn the Coalition. Soon enough their subspace scanners would pick up the imperial fleet anyway. Then the battle would ensue.
Joseph had already tangled with the imperial fleet back on Earth. He instinctively knew that the Scarax Galaxy had practically drained itself of every single asset they owned. This was the real war. It was here, and Joseph could do nothing. He was trapped on this asteroid. As that realization flooded in, he ported up as high as he could go, then fell back down. It wasn’t that he couldn’t survive in space, just that he was still horrifically injured. His throat hadn’t had a chance to heal, and while he had won that fight with Caxus, he still needed time. He fell back down, only partially weightless. Then he slammed into the rock. Dust erupted around him, floating for a few seconds before falling back down limply against his chest and pathetically open hands.
He squeezed his eyes closed, roared, and went to port again, but he stopped.
He… couldn’t give up.
It might’ve been tempting to waste every single last scrap of subspace energy he had as his rage and fear got the better of him, but ever since Caxus had infected his mind, Joseph had discovered a thing or two about rage. You always had to be its master. You lose hold of it, and no matter how powerful you think you are, you will lose everything that matters to you. Rage is a force unto itself.
He condensed a hand into a fist, possibly the most powerful he’d ever created. But he didn’t turn his energy against himself, and he wasted no more precious time. He closed his eyes. Then he turned.
The lonely asteroid remained around him. It hadn’t changed. Those endless flashes of rocks impacting its surface continued. He still didn’t feel the vibrations, though. One of them came so close to him, he could actually see the rock smashing into a mound only several meters away. He should’ve been blasted off his feet even as a spacer. Nothing happened, though. He was just treated to the strange sight of the rock smashing into the ground only to blink out of existence. It was eerie, spine-tingling, enough to make him question everything.
The other thing that remained were those piles of dust. They no longer created regret-filled visions. But they were there, all right. They were everywhere. So where the hell had they come from, and what were they?
Joseph knew that no matter how monumental these questions were, they were ultimately petty distractions. He shouldn’t be thinking of them. He should be… what? There was nothing he could do. He didn’t have a ship, and he didn’t have a communicator. Yes, he was a spacer, and that would mean he would survive. But even as one of the most powerful creatures in the Milky Way, that power didn’t count when he couldn’t use it. The tyranny of distance still trapped him as it would any soft-fleshed race.
Joseph soon took himself back toward the future boxes. As he walked down into that valley, while a few of those piles rippled a little, they didn’t create any sprites. He felt the psychic force, though. And for the first time, he paid attention to it without any fear. It was hard as hell to concentrate and focus his mind off the Coalition’s problems, but the more he did, the more he objectively faced each pile and the more he realized they were out of phase.
More than that? They… felt like they were glimpses of something else. Like a different kind of history.
Joseph almost needed a new lexicon to describe everything that’d happened to him and everything he’d learned. The quantum conscious realm? It sounded like something you’d get out of a bad sci-fi. But it was real. And Joseph knew one thing. When you came across previously unknown facts, they could give you an advantage if only you figured out how to use them. The best soldiers don’t know what to do in every circumstance. They are adaptable, and they figure it out.
Joseph reached the future boxes and faced them.
He could feel their inherent power. He wondered what would happen if he opened one. He wasn’t a psychic, so he wouldn’t be able to use its power to create telekinetic force. Even if he did, then what? Could he turn himself into a ship and use his own mind to propel his body through space? Sounded crazy, but then again, for all he knew, it was possible.
But Joseph Lance was no psychic.
He was something else entirely.
The fifth future box was still on that plinth.
His fingers paused above it, then plucked it up. For a second, he saw Layra’s endlessly sad gaze once more. She returned, but she didn’t last. She flitted away.
Joseph frowned at where she’d been.
He’d assumed she’d appeared because of Caxus’s regret. But maybe she’d been so disruptive because she’d been Joseph’s regret, too.
That regret only became more powerful now. Joseph might’ve gotten over the regrets of his past, but new ones were blinking into existence all around him as he saw the far-off flashes of more Scarax forces porting relentlessly into the Milky Way.
That wasn’t to mention Sally. Right now she was….
The sprite of Layra became stronger. She took up more space. Or perhaps what Joseph really meant was space decided to quite rightly get out of the way for her.
Joseph’s hand was still on the box, his light-covered fingers interacting with the strange white metal.
He felt frozen, as if her gaze was like a giant hand.
Then he tightened his fingers.
He stood, and he lifted the box. It was an effortless move, and she didn’t stop him. She watched, though, almost as if she was intelligent – more than an imprint, more than a nightmare.
What were sprites? Just echoes, right? They used a psychic connection to somebody’s mind to draw up their most traumatic memories. But there was nothing real in them, and you sure as hell couldn’t learn anything new from them. Joseph told himself that, but then he remembered exactly what he’d learned in his dreams. In his regression sessions, too. Sometimes the mind could hide information from itself.
Why did he get the impression as he stared into Layra’s eyes that he was about to find some new insight again?
“Who… or what are you?” he stammered.
At first she didn’t respond. Joseph could’ve given in to his regret and concluded he was a fool and of course she was incapable of responding, but he didn’t give up. He held the box closer, not with a greedy grip, but a protective one.
Her gaze flashed toward it.
“Who are you?” he tried again.
She finally answered. “Final imprint.”
“Everything that exists is reflected in everything else that exists.”
“What does that mean?”
“Time and space are ultimately connected, forward and backward. It doesn’t matter. The only direction that counts is the one the mind chooses to take up.”
Joseph shook his head. Was she trying to tell him that time was somehow a figment of the psyche? It didn’t have any physical manifestation? Joseph might’ve been in a vulnerable position, and he might be ready to believe things he never would have been capable of comprehending before, but this was a step too far. He shook his head. “What are you? You aren’t like the other psychic sprites. You seem… realer.”
“It is your emotions that dictate what is real to you.”
“When you have no idea that there is a gun behind you, and it’s fired, it’ll kill you, regardless of whether you think it’s real or not.”
“Not in this realm,” she said simply.
A race of nerves charged over his back, sank into his stomach, and made him stand straighter. He was still holding onto the future box, a little too hard. His fingers squeezed around it, a subspace particle or two charging along the handle. If he’d been paying attention, he would’ve realized the color of the future box changed. This strange energy came over it. But there was nothing he could do to wrench his gaze off Layra’s endless stare.
He swayed a little again, then straightened. “I need to get off this asteroid. There’s got to be some way for me to warn the Coalition. There’s got to be something I can do.”
“Ask yourself this.” She paused and looked up at him, that gaze somehow becoming even more forceful. What, did she have all of creation trapped behind her stare? That led to an important question, didn’t it? Did Joseph even have the kind of mind that could perceive all of creation at once? It took a keen intellect to know what questions to ask. It took an even keener mind to be able to actually recognize the right answers.
When it came to perceiving all of existence, you would need an intellect like no other.
She narrowed her eyes. That didn’t make her gaze any less powerful. It concentrated it as if it was a path.
Path… Joseph heard that moaning again. He momentarily closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was right there, right in front of him. He hadn’t heard her move. Then again, maybe she hadn’t. Maybe everything else had moved around her until the space between them had realized it needed to give up and go away.
He opened his eyes wider and took in every single detail he could, from her beautiful dappled skin to the patterns of light playing around her irises.
“What is it that you cannot do, Joseph?”
It was disarming hearing her say his name. It did things to his body, sent these tingles racing through his stomach and up his back, and made his lips open wider.
He was sharply reminded of the time Sally had let her fingers trail down his lips.
He’d possessed lips his whole life, funnily enough. But ever since that moment with Sally, he’d felt them in a new way.
Why did he think of that now?
It wasn’t Lara’s proximity. It was….
“You’re currently in the ascendant realm.” She slowly brought up a hand and pointed at all of those flashes. Every impact that should’ve sent huge, continuous shockwaves rippling his way, instead just disappeared in a flicker.
“And?” He gulped.
“Here, it is the strength of one’s mind that matters.”
“What… are you trying to tell me? That with just a thought,” he swallowed again, his throat pushing hard against his torn collar, “I can get out of here? Then what do I think?” he asked desperately.
“It is not what you think.”
“Then what is it?”
“It is who you think of. There is no distance greater than that between what you want but what you cannot conceive of.”
He frowned, but a part of him understood. He went back to what he’d said before. It took a truly intelligent mind to understand what question to ask in the first place. Often people groped around in the dark. They knew what they wanted, but they didn’t know how to perceive the problem that prevented them from getting there in the first place.
He gasped for air again, the move harder this time, highlighting the fact he wasn’t in control, underlining the fact he’d probably never been in control his entire life. His power had just been a distraction. Ultimately, he was weak.
“Ultimately everyone is weak, Joseph,” Layra said.
He flinched. “You read my mind—”
“As I’ve already said, in this realm, there is only mind.”
Sweat started to slide down his brow. Would that really happen if he was somehow trapped in a realm of the mind? He doubted it.
He couldn’t deny the erratic path that little cold, trembling bead took as it sliced down his temple, tingled across his chin, then dropped onto his collar.
But nor could he deny Layra’s stare. It went beyond time, beyond space. He imagined if he closed his eyes again, she would appear right in his head, proving the ordinary properties of existence were nothing when a strong psyche was involved.
Joseph had to concentrate. “I need to get off this asteroid. I have to make a difference in the war.”
“Then you need to stop the Observers and the Xentais.”
“You know more about the Xentais? Do you know who the Regent was?”
“Yes, but so do you.”
“I don’t know.”
“His mind is in yours.”
“I can’t access it.”
“You have touched his mind. His thoughts are now your thoughts.”
“I’m telling you I don’t know.”
“Then you are preventing yourself from accessing that knowledge because you are scared of what you will find.”
His head ticked to the side on the word scared.
For just a second, all those piles of psychic sprites around him started to shiver.
Joseph felt a tinge of regret. Hell, who was he kidding? It was more powerful than a tinge. It was a problem which had come up so many times in his life. He was powerful, but why wasn’t he more powerful? He could do seemingly incredible things, but why couldn’t he do more incredible things? Why did he always find himself just a touch under what was required to win his battles? Why did he always have to strive, no matter what he faced?
“Because you will find striving is the point,” she said, skimming his thoughts again.
He took another heavy breath, and he closed his eyes and thought of Sally.
When he opened them, Layra was gone.
“Layra? Where are you?”
She was his only way out of here. If she disappeared for good, then so would his chance at survival – and the survival of the Coalition, too.
He thumped a hand on his chest. He turned. But those little shivering piles of dust started to rise. They didn’t take on the shape of clouds – just people he’d lost.
He gripped his free hand into a fist. He locked it on his chest. He held onto his subspace particles – but only just.
Dammit, he’d gotten over his regrets. He’d risen once more.
“Layra,” he screamed with all his force now.
She didn’t respond.
She’d just disappeared.
“Layra,” he screamed once more.
The shivering pile of dust by his feet suddenly reached toward him. It was Sally – or her six-year-old form.
His eyes strained wide, terror and regret filling him up as if someone had forced smart concrete down his throat. He had never been stiffer, never been colder.
That little hand started to climb his leg. Then he heard sobbing. He would’ve challenged any person, no matter how coldhearted, to ignore it.
“Save me, Joseph. I’m still there. You saw me. Why didn’t you save me? Everybody else left me there. Everyone has always ignored me. You even forgot my name. Why won’t anybody save me? Am I not good enough? Save me, Joseph.”
Every horrifying word was worse than the last. And every single one locked him further to the spot. He became like an immovable tree, a lifeless statue there as nothing more than a warning of what happened when you failed.
There was no struggling now, no fighting – just defeat.
Pure and simple.