Shearrived down near the primary cave mouth opening.
It would’vebeen tempting to head straight into the settlement to check on her people, buther XO was in contact again.
Everyonewas picking themselves up, but they were still enduring the effects of psychicattacks. Attacks that had, apparently, stopped abruptly.
Strangepiles of dust had come to life, forming psychic sprites that specifically targetedpeople’s most regret-filled memories.
Even nowas Lara appeared, she saw a pile of dust right by her boots.
She sworethe crystals in her grip reacted. They should’ve been shielded from her, butsome kind of subtle vibration crossed up into the handle of the case andshuddered into her fingers.
What…were those piles of dust Hendari somehow?
She could’vetaken the time to scan them and even take a sample, but that wasn’t her missionright now. Nor was it her greatest source of hope.
Accordingto Ninev, the six-year-old body of Sally had been impossible to remove.
Lara justhoped it was still there.
Shestrode into the cave.
They’dalready done scans of it. She knew how to get to the so-called black hole ofdeath.
The airwas musty, but it had a strange, particularly rocky scent filling it. That washardly remarkable, considering her surroundings. But she soon realized what waswrong.
Therewere fresh gouge marks in the floor. There was a patch of moss on one rock that’dbeen carved right in half. It almost looked as if somebody had played God inhere, moving the caverns and tunnels around as if they were nothing more thanlittle pebbles in a sandpit.
Shestraightened her back. While she had the Crystals in one hand, she had a gun inthe other. The best the Mercury could produce.
It wouldbe nothing compared to a Hendari weapon, but while the gun was in her grip, shewould hold it as if she intended to use it.
Shemarched along the stone path, knowing how to get to the cliff.
She soonreached it.
She tookone step, her heart in her mouth.
Her armorenabled her to easily glimpse below. And there, as promised, was the body of asmall girl.
Her headwas down, her face covered by her tangled hair.
There wasa fresh pool of blood under her.
She’dbeen dead for many years, but according to the scanner holstered at Lara’s hip,it was as if the little girl had just fallen.
It pickedup the slightest sign of life.
Larawasted no more time. She stepped right off the edge of the cliff. Unlike the unassistedsix-year-old Sally, she was wearing sophisticated armor. Air didn’t evenwhistle past it as she shot down the incline. She landed with two shakingthumps. She didn’t let the vibrations travel up into the crystal case. Grippingand re-gripping it, she pushed up and walked over.
Herscanners went haywire. They had no clue what they were detecting. Apart fromthe impossible reality of the fully preserved form of Sally’s six-year-oldbody, there was… some kind of residue in here. Lara turned on the spot, staringat everything. That was when she… thought she heard and saw some kind ofafterimage.
It wasthe strangest experience of her life, and trust her, ever since she almostsingle-handedly defeated the Force, she’d led an adventurous existence.
But nowshe had no clue what she was looking at. Again, that afterimage rose.
She sworeshe could see a ship. More than that? She thought she could see Joseph standingnext to a crumpled Sally.
There wasJerry, too, on the opposite side of the cavern.
What wasshe looking at?
Sheshifted to the side, and the afterimage changed. Now she saw a ship taking off.
“What isthis place?” she muttered under her breath, knowing full well there would be noone to handily answer that question. If she wanted answers, she would have toobtain them herself.
She soongot down on her knee in front of Sally’s body.
Sheplucked the scanner from her belt and started to assess Sally’s form. Again,she registered just the slightest life sign.
For howlong had that life sign been there? Life signs like that were fleeting. They’dbe there for a few seconds, then they’d disappear as the patient finally died.
Theselingered. And unlike the strange images surrounding Lara, they didn’t flickerin and out of existence.
When sherealized the scanner would be useless, Lara set the crystal case down.
Shestared at it.
What wasshe going to do? Take the crystals out to see what they would do to thesix-year-old Sally? That wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t anything.
Itcertainly wasn’t the well-thought-out, calculated, efficient operation you’dhope someone in Lara’s position would have. Yet it was all she had.
Sheopened the box.
Thecrystals were still inside their own cases. One by one, she clicked each open.
Theirlight filled the room. The so-called after images came into sharp detail. Shesaw them. First in reverse, then they played naturally.
At first,she was horrified. It looked like Joseph had turned on Sally. Then Lara startedto hear his voice. There was an undercurrent of control there – a hint of atruly great mind. Someone or something had overtaken Joseph’s form.
When Larahad finished watching and now understood what had occurred, she returned herattention to the six-year-old Sally.
To evenbegin to help the little girl, she had to understand what was happening to herfirst.
Hendaricrystals could technically be connected to any form of Coalition technology tomake it more powerful. But as Lara had already pointed out, these crystals werebecoming more and more temperamental. They did what they wished to.
Handlingthem was dangerous, so Lara set her scanner down inside one of the boxes nextto the crystal.
She staredat it, willing it to work. For a few seconds it did nothing, then thesetendrils of light almost like tentacles pushed into and around the scanner. Shedidn’t have to physically pick the scanner up. Her armor could connect to itremotely, which is exactly what it did now. The slightest smile pushed acrossher lips at the fact this was working. “Scan Sally’s form. Tell me what’s goingon.”
Thescanner followed out her command until it beeped softly.
“She istrapped in bridge space,” the scanner informed her.
“A spacebetween quantum thought reality and the reality you currently occupy.”
“Whereare you getting this information from?”
“It isbeing downloaded into us,” the scanner admitted.
“By whator whom?” Yes, Lara had connected a Hendari crystal to the scanner. But itshouldn’t be able to simply derive information out of thin air. Giving amaterial breakdown of the young girl in front of her would be one thing. Yet itwas coming up with information it simply shouldn’t know.
“It isbeing downloaded into us by a strong psychic mind,” the scanner informed her.
Laraactually looked around, her movements quick. She hadn’t missed something, hadshe? Finally she moved her lips. “Which psychic mind?”
“The oneright in front of you.”
Laraturned around slowly and frowned down at Sally. “You mean this child? She’smostly dead.”
“And yether mind functions. She has downloaded this information into the scanner viaher Hendari crystal.”
Larafroze. “She’s still alive enough to function? How?”
“Bridgespace,” the scanner informed her again.
It keptrepeating that as if it should mean something to Lara.
It almostdid. Every single time it was mentioned, a race of nerves charged down her backand sank into her stomach, feeling as if she’d gathered together all of theconsiderable power of a super-heavy cruiser and crammed it down into her gut. “Areyou telling me… that it is some kind of bridge between dimensions?”
“Betweensubdimensions,” the scanner informed her.
And that’swhen it struck Lara. She was technically having a conversation with Sally rightnow.
Shestraightened, compassion flattening her features. “Is that you, Sally?”
“That isnot my name.”
Larachanged tact quickly. She’d already dragged up the records of Faxon A andfigured out who Sally had once been. “Is that you, Alice?”
There wasa pause. It felt overly personal. “Yes.”
“Whathappened to you?”
“Did theHendari crystal do this to you? Or was it the Queen hive mind?”
“What doyou mean?”
“TheQueen found in my biology a suitable host and in my mind another way.” Shemight’ve technically been a six-year-old girl, but she spoke too well.
Then Larareminded herself she wasn’t six. For six years, she led a normal life. Sincethen, she’d been here, combined with a Hendari crystal, living out her time inwhatever the heck bridge space was.
Lara’shackles rose. It wasn’t in fear at what was happening here, just a reminder ofwhat could be happening out there in the rest of the galaxy.
“Are youtelling me the Queen inhabits a clone of your body?”
“Inhabitsa clone of my body but an expression of my mind.”
“Whatdoes that mean?”
“Thatminds cannot be replicated, just stretched.”
“Are youtelling me… you retain some form of psychic connection to your host body?”
“Throughthe Queen, yes. She found me a suitable host, for I was like no other.”
Nervescharged through Lara again, getting stronger. They reminded her of what Josephhad admitted. He’d had a dream, and in that dream, he’d realized Master Deushadn’t just been after him. He’d wanted Sally too. The only reason for a Koresect master as important as Deus to go after someone was if they had power.Lots of power.
“What areyou, Sally?”
“A girltrapped in a bridge.”
“That’snot what I mean—”
“What ismy mind? It is unknown.”
Thosenerves came back, pushing hard into Lara’s stomach, leaping high like wild,lapping waves. They sank into each vertebra then used them like bridges toreach the next. They scissored up into the back of her head and blasted downher face. If Lara weren’t good at putting her nervous symptoms in perspective,they might carry her away. Instead, she used them to carry her forward, and shecrouched closer. Maybe other people would be scared of getting this close to aclearly powerful mind. Lara was not.
“Do youknow what’s going on? Do you know what the thing infecting Joseph is?” Larademanded.
Lara straightened.It was the same move she’d done so many times in her life. It was this specificinternal twitch that traveled into her shoulders, jolted through her back, andtwisted around her throat. It was the move of somebody who was about to havetheir questions answered.
Maybe thesoldiers under Lara’s command thought she went on about information too much,but the fact of the matter was she’d been involved in so many criticalsituations she now understood data was key. You could strive to have the bestships and the best people, but unless you had all of the facts, you would onlyever fight into the dark.
“What’shappening, Alice? Who is the Regent?”
“He isthe Queen’s previous host.”