He was… falling. Over and over again – forever. There would never be a way to drag his body out of this endless descent. For it was what he was good for, what he had ultimately been made to do.
As the psychic sprites violently parted his mind, dividing his thoughts and beliefs until there was nothing but fear left between them, he remembered something he’d told Sally. He’d promised her, in all confidence, as if he’d actually believed it, that she hadn’t been made for a specific purpose and neither had he. Both of them possessed self-determination. And it meant they could become whatever they wanted. How wrong he’d been.
All he was was an open, festering wound.
And now that wound festered more.
Every single psychic sprite on the asteroid surrounded him. He was underneath them, struggling under their fearful control. He didn’t scream. Just couldn’t. He couldn’t think – or at least the thoughts he had were nothing more than a fractured mess as if somebody had taken a saw to a pile of bones. Maybe once upon a time they’d been able to hold up a body. Now the only thing they could do was crumble under a greater force.
He hadn’t seen Layra again. If she’d ever really been there. He was starting to doubt everything. Maybe he wasn’t a spacer. Maybe he couldn’t even remember what the Coalition was. Maybe all of that had been nothing more than a feverish dream and this was what he was, what he’d been built for.
He sank further. He was on the pockmarked surface of the asteroid, but it felt as if he was suddenly descending through pitching waves. He would never reach the bottom of them. For that wasn’t the point.
The endless drowning was.
He couldn’t move his body. Did he even have one anymore? You didn’t need a body if you were nothing more than a pit of regrets.
Memories flashed through his mind, getting faster and heavier. They were the equivalent of 10-ton punches. Maybe once upon a time he’d been able to fight them. Now he just took each single one right to the center of his head. He saw the day he’d been taken by the Barbarians, saw the first day he met Master Deus. Then he felt, over and over again, the brain-splitting process that had turned him into a spacer.
It wasn’t something Joseph had focused on during his regressions. It was deemed to be a far too traumatic memory, both for his psyche and his body.
Nobody knew how Master Deus had spliced a human with a spacer. It was meant to be impossible.
Spacers hadn’t been created by the Kore sects. They’d been left over from the very first Force war. Had Deus found spacer DNA? Not that they had simple genetic codes like a human. But had he found the material required to splice Joseph in the first place, even though no one else in the galaxy even thought it was possible?
There were no other spacers like Joseph. He was the only example of his kind.
Forest probably had more information on exactly what had occurred, but Joseph knew even she had her questions.
If Joseph thought he could get his answers now, he was dearly mistaken. The only thing he experienced was the pain of being spliced. It felt like his psyche was torn to shreds and his body was chained up like a carcass thrown in a meat grinder then thrown in again for good measure.
He was aware of the asteroid, but only in flashes. They were just as agonizing as the blasts of recollections ricocheting through his mind.
His face was pressed up against a raised, jagged section of dull brown stone. It couldn’t push through his light shroud. He was more than thankful for it. Without it, and with his subspace energy so chaotic, even the most innocuous mote of dust would’ve been able to cut him down like a vibrating sword.
Sally’s six-year-old self was still there. She didn’t pile over him like the other sprites. But occasionally he saw a flash of her right in front of his face. Something opened his eyes every time she appeared. Maybe it was her disembodied hands. Maybe it was the seed of his regret.
“You always ignored me, Joseph. But you knew I was there in that cave, didn’t you? Deep in your heart–” She patted his chest, but it certainly wasn’t a light move. His rib cage crumpled in as if it had just been struck by a bat. “You knew I was down there. But you just ignored me. Do you know how many years I remained there, dead and waiting?”
“Sally,” he managed, forcing the words out of his lips. They couldn’t vibrate any further. This was still an asteroid. It had a little atmosphere, but not enough for coherent speech.
Joseph wasn’t talking with an ordinary creature, though, and he wasn’t even in ordinary space. Somewhere buried deep at the back of his psyche, he was aware that he was still in the phase realm. But what did that mean other than the fact his mental regrets now came to life?
Sally pressed close to his face again. He struggled to shut his eyes, but even then it wasn’t like he could get away from her. That was the whole point of regrets. You dragged them with you when your eyes were open or closed, when your feet were moving or still, when you were awake or asleep. They formed a part of you – permanent scars inside your soul.
It seemed that Sally wanted to open those scars even wider. “You should have come back for me.”
“Come… back for you?” he managed, his lips barely moving. “I was… kidnapped by the Barbarians.”
“You should’ve come back for me.”
“I forgot about you.”
“You should’ve come back for me.”
“I couldn’t… but why didn’t Deus come back for you?” That question parted the clouds of his mind, ripping through the growing storm that threatened to tear apart the rest of his personality. It was like a single ray of light passing through a once impenetrable darkness.
“You should have come back for me,” she screeched again. There was a different pitch to it, almost as if she realized he was starting to become distracted.
Joseph went over the memory he’d recalled. It had felt as if Deus had wanted Sally just as much as he’d wanted Joseph. So why hadn’t Deus gone back to find Sally?
Or had he?
By the sounds of it, Sally’s six-year-old self at the bottom of that cliff couldn’t be moved.
Had Deus found her and tried to move her but failed and given up? Which meant he would’ve learned about the ship and the crystal.
It also meant he would’ve learned about the Queen.
Deus’s databases had been completely scoured when the Coalition had captured his ships. If any important information had been revealed, Forest would’ve shared it. While she hadn’t known about Faxon A, that was because Ninev had been in direct control of it as admiral of the Rim. Forest had been directly involved in Deus’s downfall.
So what was going on here?
Why… why had Deus wanted Sally in the first place?
Joseph opened his eyes wider. It was a voluntary move. The skin strained, almost as if he wanted to push his eyes out on stalks to see as much as he possibly could.
And maybe it was the act of actually staring at Sally’s disembodied face as it parted through the writhing psychic sprites that stilled his heart enough for a moment of calm to finally take him.
He reached a hand up. He placed it on her cheek.
Sally’s eyes opened wide. “This is all—”
“My fault,” he said quietly, but there was no self-recrimination there. He was just finishing her sentence.
“You ignored me—”
“Yeah. I guess I did back when we were kids. But I’m not going to ignore you anymore, am I? I’m going to finally come back for you.”
“But I’m still there, Joseph. I’m still at the bottom of that lonely, dark cliff.”
“You’re dead, Sally.”
“No, I’m not,” she said with this cold, piercing force. It felt like an ice pick someone had driven right into his heart.
He shivered, but a blast of strength kept his hand cupped gently around her face. “What do you mean?”
“I’m trapped in the moment of my death. Why can’t you liberate me from it?”
His eyes narrowed. Sally’s body hadn’t rotted. She hadn’t been alive though, had she? It had just been a quirk of phase space. But what if he was missing something here? And what if it had something to do with his rising memories? Just why had Deus wanted her?
More to the point, why had Deus wanted Joseph?
Joseph had just assumed that maybe he had an open psyche – some feature which had enabled him to be spliced with a spacer. But as far as Joseph knew, he was the only spacer Deus had attempted to create. He’d clearly had the technology, but not the desire to create more.
Or perhaps not the means.
Maybe it wasn’t just Joseph’s open mind. Maybe there was something different about him – and different about Sally.
Maybe they were a pair.
Make no mistake, Deus had used Joseph. Brutally. Without holding back. But the few times Joseph had directly glimpsed Deus’s mind, it had been clear that he’d been full of regrets. He’d imagined so much more for Joseph. And maybe the reason Joseph had been incapable of doing it was that Deus had never secured Sally.
Joseph crunched forward. It should have been hard. Those writhing psychic sprites still covered him. He only caught the barest glimpses of the shimmering stars above.
As the sprites groped around him, looking like a handful of undifferentiated worms, he knew it was a harrowing sight designed to draw him down. But he stopped paying attention to it, no matter how hard that was. He only stared at what was in front of him instead.
Joseph had never developed that skill. Not until now. His mind had always been elsewhere, even during battle. He’d always been jumping ahead or jumping behind. Living in the present moment wasn’t something he’d ever learned, wasn’t something he’d ever thought himself capable of.
To do that, you had to be sufficiently comfortable with yourself to recognize that you had the right to exist in the first place. If you spent too much time in the future, it suggested you wanted to be someone else. If you spent too much time in the past, it suggested you thought you could never change.
To live in the present revealed you for who you were, every wrinkle, every crack. And every hope.
He crunched even further forward again. Now he was sitting. And if he’d been aware of it and hadn’t narrowed his gaze on Sally so much, he would’ve realized the psychic sprites were starting to lift. They were honestly like clouds parting to finally reveal the sun above.
“Sorry, Sally – sorry I didn’t think about this sooner.”
“You left me there—”
“I think I left a part of myself back on Faxon A, too. I never threw myself back into my traumas because I didn’t want to. But the secret lies there, doesn’t it?”
Joseph pushed to his feet. He didn’t need strength to do it. He just had to stop reminding himself he was weak. In other words, he got out of the way of his own power.
The psychic sprites did, too. They screamed and writhed away, but the less attention he paid to them, the more they disappeared. Maybe they were like shadows. If he learned precisely what to shine the light of his mind on, they dispersed, for when light is pure and comes from every direction, shadows cannot exist.
“You left me there…” Sally tried one last time.
Joseph smiled then lowered his hand. He got down on his knee to get right in front of her. “Yeah, I did. But I’m going back now.”
“It doesn’t matter – it’s too slow. Nothing matters now.”
“You’re wrong. Something does matter.”
With that, Joseph got back down on the same section of pockmarked stone. Was he giving up?
He was finally turning within. The answers were there – they’d been trying to rise up through his consciousness, trying to claw their way into his active mind since the beginning.
Now was the time to go to them.