The next three hours flew by. She trained. Perhaps she should’ve rested and meditated. Maybe she should’ve once more tried to decide just how far she would go and just how much energy she’d waste to try to save the Coalition.
Or perhaps it was infinitely better to simply act and think about those things later.
They stood on the bridge. The Mercury was coming close to Faxan A.
Sally… simultaneously felt more and less than she should.
Her body wasn’t rigid with fear and expectation. It didn’t feel like she was returning home. But something rose within her. It could’ve been delayed fear – could’ve been her psychic intuition giving her one last chance to turn back.
But there was one thing she could be thankful for. She didn’t stand alone. Joseph remained right there by her side.
The bridge was quiet. The main view screens showed Faxan A. It was a watery planet. She remembered that at least. It had a handful of landmasses. Out of those, only two were habitable. The rest were too battered by storms to bother with.
The weather systems that bombarded the planet were some of the most powerful on any Rim world. There were massive mountain ranges. They trapped clouds. Yet they were also the best places to live.
Her settlement had been right at the foot of one. And the cave where she died? Right up the craggy peak that’d been visible from her bedroom window.
Sally had memories of her life up to six years old. Not a detailed biographical movie or anything – but enough recollections to evoke as the Mercury shot towards its destination.
She could recall playing in the cool creeks and rivers that ran through the ravine at the base of the settlement. She remembered playing through the forests that lined the mountain ranges. She remembered Tyler, of course. She’d been so devoted to him. Where he’d gone, she’d followed like a little puppy.
That same Tyler stood right beside her.
He might’ve nominally watched Faxan A on the viewscreen, but she knew a lot of his considerable attention was left over for her.
He, just like Sally, was returning home, though. Based on the trauma of his last memory of Faxan A, he should’ve been withdrawing within, replaying the day he’d been kidnapped.
Instead he watched her covertly.
“This is it,” Forest said. She stood in front of her command seat, her hands clasped behind her. Her head was tilted back, her full attention locked on the viewscreen. The watery gem of Faxan A took up the entire central panel. It resembled a massive glittering sapphire.
“Preliminary scans are coming in. We haven’t detected any ships or people,” Forest said.
“I thought Faxan A was resettled?” Joseph spluttered quickly.
“It was. Up until two hours ago, it should’ve had a population of roughly 200,000.”
“200,000? Where the hell did they go?” Joseph asked desperately.
“Our scans do not reveal that. As soon as we port down to the planet, we will have to find out. It will only be one of our missions.”
Forest didn’t need to repeat what they were going to do down there. Sally even wondered if there was a point to stating it in the first place. It made a series of assumptions – ones that were unlikely to stack up.
If there really was a Hendari ship down there – a crystal, too – then every single Observer in the Milky Way would be after them.
Making assumptions about how this mission would or would not run was the equivalent of pinning your hopes on wishes.
“As soon as we are in range, our forces will port down. We must keep one principle in mind. Information, at this stage, is more important than anything else.” Forest stood straighter.
Did she actually believe that? That data was somehow more important than a Hendari ship and a crystal?
Sally wanted to interrupt. She knew she couldn’t. It wasn’t just the fact she was being treated as a cadet and she was allowing people to get away with it. On some level, Sally agreed with Forest’s assessment.
For millennia, the Queen had assumed she’d known everything. In the space of several days, Sally had found out most of her assumptions were inaccurate. What exactly would they find down on Faxan A? Was she ready?
Forest continued to command people. Sally tuned it out. She focused her full attention on the view of that crystalline world, and she closed her eyes.
It took her right back to the day she died.
She could practically hear Tyler telling her to wait in the cave. Then the fear that had beset her when the minutes had ticked into hours and he hadn’t returned.
Sally couldn’t tell you why she’d approached the hole in the cave. It had been drilled into her so many times that it was dangerous and she could never go there alone. But that day… something had taken her there.
Was it some compulsion? Perhaps the Queen’s mind reaching out to her?
No. That didn’t feel right. It had been something else… something….
“Sally,” Joseph’s soft words echoed out from beside her.
She turned to see him.
She hadn’t even noticed him approaching.
Now his gaze darted back and forth, this knowing quality to his stare. It was almost as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. “Whatever we find down there,” he gave a strange, clearly uncomfortable swallow, “just know this, I believe in you.”
Where had that come from? What was with the sincerity behind his gaze?
There was no time to question.
A beep echoed across the bridge. It had all the poignancy and import of a clanging bell.
Sally found herself straightening, realizing they’d run out of time.
“The first team will port down to the settlement and try to figure out where the current population has gone. Our priority is to figure out if we have any active targets down there. Scans haven’t revealed anything – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that doesn’t mean much,” Forest warned with a growl. “I initially intended to join the mission. I will not leave the Mercury, considering recent events,” she said without further explanation.
Sally still had no clue how the Observer had managed to port his psychic sprites aboard the Mercury. Preliminary investigations hadn’t revealed anything. The Mercury’s shields had been at full operating efficiency at the time. There was no indication somebody aboard the Mercury had assisted the Observer in any way. Which meant Joseph was likely right. The Observer had some kind of technology Sally couldn’t predict. Something that gave him the edge. And something he would use again.
“Due to the potential of resistance, the Mercury will keep a constant lock on our people. We will be ready to transport anyone out when necessary. We will also be ready to use our guns at your beck and call. Does everyone understand?”
Yes and no. The mission, on paper at least, made sense.
Emotionally… Sally was starting to feel it. She might’ve claimed she’d felt little at the sight of Faxan A. Now it was undeniable. Tension clawed up her back, scissored into her stomach, and sliced up to her heart. If it weren’t for Joseph’s presence, maybe she would’ve run away.
There was no running now.
With a few more short words, the team ported.
Sally didn’t waste her energy using the crystals. It was a bad idea until she found out exactly how the Observer had compromised her connection with them. She’d bonded with them again, and she could continually feel them as this comforting, pulsing force in her mind. But the knowledge they could be disrupted put her on edge.
It distracted her from the fact she was utilizing Coalition transport technology – that it lacked the smooth, unbroken feel of Hendari tech.
At least she wasn’t alone.
As soon as she landed down in the middle of the settlement, Joseph appeared before her. His feet were a few centimeters off the ground, his head darting around quickly.
The settlement looked… eerily close to what she remembered. There were prefabricated houses, cookie-cutter versions of each other, the only difference the view they had of the magnificent craggy peaks beyond. Billowing gray clouds hung around the mountains, making their tops impossible to see. A few scant snowdrifts peeked out from underneath them, the wind bringing with it their icy touch.
“Start scanning the buildings,” the XO said as he pointed a stiff finger toward the closest demountable. The door was open. It let in the rushing wind. It’d already pulled out several light objects, and they tumbled down the steps onto the dirt path between the houses. A doll lay on its side, its face covered in mud.
It was a haunting sight that got Sally’s attention, gripping her tightly.
Joseph floated a little higher. He yanked his head toward the top of one of the buildings. He ported before she had a chance to follow. She went to transport too, but again reminded herself she couldn’t waste the energy. Just when she thought it was a bust, and she’d have to leave him, she remembered her TI objects. They’d come with her. She might’ve only trained with them for three hours, but they already felt like a part of her. It took no effort – none at all – to control several blocks and make them spin underneath her feet. Then she lifted up just like Joseph had. She rose onto the roof as he plunged down to his knee. He ran his fingers through a pile of strange black metal dust.
“What is it?”
His brow crumpled with consternation as he clearly used his superior spacer senses to try to figure out what it was. When that didn’t work, he plucked out a sophisticated Coalition scanner from his belt. It beeped. Even from here she could see the flashing screen didn’t know what it was dealing with, either.
“Joseph?” she asked warily.
From this vantage, she could see the other roofs. There were more piles of dust. She really doubted they were decorations. It wouldn’t be the wear and tear of the buildings, either. The scanner would have immediately recognized the buildings’ manufacturing materials.
So what if it was the remains of the settlers?
Joseph pushed up. He ported back down the side of the building. There was a pile of dust between two gnarled old trees.
Sally went to take a step off the side of the building. When she had the full power of her crystals, ordinary physical restraints didn’t matter. She could walk through walls. She could survive in space. She could do anything and everything an ordinary fragile body shouldn’t be able to imagine, let alone survive.
Now she had to quickly insert a telekinetic brick underneath her feet so she didn’t go careening off the side of the building and die before the main event.
She finally made it down to Joseph.
He was on his knee again, his torso crunched forward, his brow now so contracted with confusion, she didn’t think he’d ever smile again.
“Joseph?” she muttered uneasily as a blast of wind caught her short hair and sent it playing around her face.
“I’ve got no clue what these are, but I’m detecting slight charges of subspace energy.”
“Do you think other spacers could’ve been here?”
He paused for way too long. “Possible. Not sure though.” Darting his head up, he stared toward a path leading up to the craggy peaks beyond. “Hell’s Pass,” he muttered, a slight wistful smile crumpling his lips for a fraction of a second.
A thrill of recognition shot up her spine, shuddered through her teeth, and practically collapsed her jaw.
She had to take it all back. She mightn’t have felt much in space when she’d stared at Faxon A, but now she couldn’t hide from her emotions. They raged in her heart like an unstoppable flood.
Joseph nodded at her once, compassion filling his gaze as he clearly knew what was happening to her, then gestured forward.
He didn’t float, even though she knew he wanted to get this over and done with as quickly as possible.
The rest of the Coalition team behind them continued to scan those piles and search through the settlement. The XO had already been commanded to give Joseph a loose leash. That said, Sally was certain Forest would’ve also told the XO to keep a watchful eye on Joseph.
He’d returned home to the origin of his first trauma. As a spacer, that was a uniquely undermining experience.
“Do you remember that as kids, we used to run down there so fast,” he jammed a thumb toward the path, “that someone was guaranteed to break their leg at least once a year?”
“Yeah,” it took too long to softly part her lips to mutter that, “I remember.”
He looked at her, the left side of his lips twitching down so quickly, she barely noticed it.
What… had that been a test?
Joseph kept telling her at every opportunity that he’d stand by her side – that he trusted her. So why test her?
She stood a little straighter as the howling wind played along the back of her neck, darting down her collar, yanking at her fringe, and chilling her skin. “I never broke my leg, though. You wouldn’t let me,” she muttered.
Joseph pushed to his feet. This time, his feet did touch the ground – it was like he’d suddenly lost the ability to float. “Sally, I—”
“I know I was a nuisance to you as a kid, but you always looked after me anyway. Thank you,” she muttered.
What could have been a touching moment quickly morphed into something else. She could practically feel the regret tearing through Joseph. It crumpled his brow, melting his features like ice cream in the sun. “That day—”
“You saved my life that day, Joseph. If you hadn’t sent me to that cave, I’d be dead now. The Barbarians would’ve killed me just like the rest of the kids.”
His lips twitched. He clearly wanted to say something, but he was holding back. Heck, it felt like he tied the equivalent of ropes around his throat. If his lips dared twitch open to reveal whatever was on his mind, he’d likely cut them off with a subspace sword.
He turned quickly, the hard move churning up the loose gravel and sending it scattering over his boots. Wordlessly, he shoved up the path.
It wasn’t like descending down memory lane – they traveled up, for one. For another, the memories didn’t flood back in. They became scant. It was as if they were scared, like rabbits running away from a cat.
It took about an hour’s walk to reach the primary cave mouth from here. If you couldn’t transport, that was.
Admiral Forest had specifically told them to explore the settlement first. She also didn’t want Joseph heading off to the cave on his own. Though, to be fair, Forest had stared at Sally when she’d said that.
Nobody needed to be concerned about Sally, though. Yes, she’d died in that cave. She was over it. A fact she’d proven when she’d easily and emotionlessly shared her story with Anna.
So why did Joseph keep twitching over his shoulder and staring at her like she was about to break?
He opened his lips. But they both received a message.
His fingers twitched up to his collar first. “Lieutenant Lance here.”
“We have found over 3000 piles of dust. They are all exactly the same size and have precisely the same constituents – even though our scanners cannot tell what they are actually made of,” the XO rumbled, worry marking every word.
Joseph twitched. “Have you transported any up to the Mercury yet?”
“Not yet. Not until we know exactly what we’re dealing with. For all we know, this could be a weapon.”
“What does Forest think?”
“That we need to find some evidence. What have you found, and where are you?”
“Not much. We keep encountering more piles—” Joseph couldn’t finish. There was a scream. It was light and far off, but it was unmistakable.
“Lieutenant?” the XO barked.
Joseph had transported.
Sally staggered and threw a hand out to him, but it was far too late.
He appeared about 100 meters up in the air. His head darted around so quickly, he could’ve unscrewed it.
“Lieutenant?” the XO barked once more. He’d called both Sally and Joseph, so his words reverberated over Sally’s communicator too.
“We just heard a scream,” she spluttered.
“Find out what it is, but if it’s an enemy, do not engage. Do you hear me?”
Sally had only just learned how to use her TI objects. Yeah, she could control them. She’d also used them to help her float up the side of one of the houses. But could she really follow Joseph as he madly ported around the mountain, looking for the origin of that scream?
She lifted off her feet, but the TI object fluctuated.
She knew what was wrong. Fear. It started to claw at the edges of her mind like a wolf trying to get in through the front door.
The XO had already signed off.
Sally tried to rise once more, but again the object fluctuated. She swore, landed down hard on one knee, a painful jolt eating up into her hip, and punched the ground beneath her.
She wasn’t careful. Her bare knuckles impacted a stone. She didn’t damn well care.
Joseph wasn’t here to lift her back up again. Both physically and metaphorically. He might keep telling her it didn’t matter that she wasn’t as powerful as she could be. How the hell couldn’t it count? She was meant to be everybody’s last hope. She couldn’t carry those hopes. She couldn’t carry her own frigging weak form. She punched the grass once more then focused. She finally managed to lift off the ground, but only for a meter or two. Joseph was now about a kilometer up. She could only just make him out.
There was another scream. It was closer to Sally, though. She didn’t need to fly anywhere, just had to dart to the side.
It might have been years since she’d been on this planet, but the pathways around these peaks were ingrained in her.
Stones scattered out from underneath her polished boots as she powered around the side of a moss-covered boulder. Scant grass grew around it. Foliage had to be tough to survive the twin forces of the wind and the freezing snow.
She had to lock a hand on the boulder for support, her fingers dragging over the pockmarked surface.
That’s when she saw another pile of dust. But amongst it? Glimmering here and there like a few splatters of paint? Crimson red blood.
She probably should’ve called Joseph. He was still porting around. He had exceptional hearing – better than hers. He would know where that scream had originated from. Something else must be distracting him.
There was a slight opening to a small cave just to her left. The dark space revealed an object down on its side.
Sally skidded over to it.
It was a body. A man, maybe in his late forties. He was dead and had been so for some time. She pulled him around, his gray face staring up at her, his sightless eyes cloudy like the sky above.
She didn’t recede at the sight of death. That was one thing the Queen was used to dealing with. So used to, in fact, she didn’t even flinch as she leaned forward and closed the man’s eyes. The scream that echoed out a second later, however, did force a convulsion to rip through her shoulders and make her head jerk up like a sapling being battered by the wind.
Now Sally could hear it, she knew that was no normal scream. The rest of her abilities might have been locked away from her, but as a psychic, she would always recognize another mind in distress.
The scream might’ve had a physical manifestation, but most of its force came across on mental frequencies. Whoever it was shrieked again, and their pain was practically incalculable.
“It’s all right, I’m coming,” she spluttered.
She thrust through the cave mouth. Her madly dashing feet stirred up the dirt. It soon turned to mud. You had to be careful in these cave systems. With all of the continuous precipitation on this planet, the limestone constantly leaked. Find yourself inside a cave during a downpour, and the whole thing might fill up like a bathtub. But unlike a bathtub, there’d be no handy plug.
The scream didn’t have a physical location. Or at least its psychic effects shielded where it was actually coming from.
Sally had to focus as she dashed forward.
She took a step, but the ground beneath her took that exact moment to crumble away.
She would’ve tumbled were it not for her TI objects. Without even having to think, one shot from the holster by her side and rammed underneath her foot fast enough that though she tilted, she didn’t stumble further.
Yanking her terrified gaze down, she watched the ground simply crumble away.
It revealed a deep ravine beneath her.
If Sally had been thinking, she would’ve questioned whether this was a trap. She would’ve also darted back out and screamed for Joseph. She kept telling herself that with his senses, he’d know what was going on down here. He’d either concluded she could do this on her own, or he had much bigger fish to fry.
“Who’s out there?” Sally screamed.
The psychic shriek replied, more forcefully than ever. The teetering, painful edge to it suggested somebody was on the verge of dying.
Gritting her teeth, Sally didn’t bother to run anymore. She simply locked her feet down on the TI blocks, and she shot forward.
It was a crazy experience, and in other circumstances, could have even been fun. Now as the air plastered her fringe over her face and yanked at her clothes, she concentrated to ensure she darted around every craggy jutting stone. As she traveled further into the cave, the path became narrower. And water filled up underneath her, so dirty and cloudy, she couldn’t see the floor beneath. She didn’t want to get down on her stomach and swim through it. She knew from experience that not only could these caves fill up with water in the blink of an eye – they were also unstable. There could be cave-ins, and there had been. Back as a kid, one of the other children her age had lost both their parents in such a cave-in.
The scream blasted out one last time.
Sally finally located it unequivocally. She had to use her psychic skills to pierce through it, but she realized it was to her left. There was a tiny gap amongst the stones. She couldn’t use her TI objects and had to get down on her stomach and squeeze herself between two boulders, but she did it. She reached a cavern. It was big – massive even. She’d explored these caves as a kid but never come across it.
They’d either changed, or she’d missed something.
Though Sally couldn’t think it, there was another possibility – that her memories were unreliable.
There was a small camp under the jagged high ceiling – an all-weather shielded tent, cooking gear, and a case or two. There was also a young girl down on her side, her hands covering her face so Sally couldn’t see her features.
Sally dashed over. “You okay?” She placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
The girl snapped up. She dropped her hands and revealed her face.
Sally froze. It was the face of her six-year-old self.
The girl screamed – this bloodcurdling affair. Then disappeared.
Sally jolted back, fell against her hip hard enough that she felt something twinge up her side, and grabbed her mouth. Then she bolted up, but the girl was gone. As was the camping gear.
Instead, the cavern was starting to fill with water.
She gripped the side of her face, forcing her nails in, holding onto one of her temples as if she could rip it out and get to the truth beneath.
She had to remind herself she was a strong psyche and she could withstand everything.
Even the sight of her six-year-old self screaming for her life.
Sally took a moment to compose herself, and she locked her muddy, sweat-caked fingers against her mouth. She forced herself to breathe.
She… had to figure out what had just happened.
She remembered where the girl had been. Slowly and carefully, she crawled over, her knees already soaked. She swiped a hand forward. She closed her eyes as she did.
She couldn’t detect it at first, but as she determinedly swiped her hand through the air, she felt a slight fluctuation. It was like momentarily putting her hand in the path of fluttering butterfly wings.
Frowning, she jerked up.
The cavern kept filling with water.
She didn’t leave.
She had to figure out what’d just happened. Though it was possible to conclude someone had just attacked her and pulled the vision of her childhood self from her mind, that hadn’t felt like a personal attack. Which meant what, exactly? The ghost of her old self was haunting these caves? She’d somehow left a psychic impression here years ago, and it was only rising now?
Sally’s communicator buzzed. It was usually a clear, direct sound designed to get someone’s attention, no matter what they were doing. You could be knee-deep in a battle, gun blasts raging on by, and you’d still hear it. This time it was indistinct, and it crackled like it was about to die.
Frowning, she jammed her thumb onto it quickly. There was another buzz, and she thought she heard a voice. She couldn’t pick up the words – just a fluctuating hum. “Hello? Hello?”
Sally had been through standard training like everybody else. Regardless of the fact she was the Queen, she knew what she should do. Leave this cavern right now and find out what was going on. But she felt locked to the spot. She thought she heard a scream again. It was distant. Even with her powerful mind, she couldn’t pierce through it to figure out precisely where it was located.
It was an invitation – one that wanted to take her further into this cave system. This was the same peak where Sally had died. The cavern she’d fallen into was a good several kilometers away – but it was technically part of the same system, wasn’t it?
As Sally thought that, her cheeks naturally slackened, the blood drained from her face, and she felt empty. Not empty of emotion – that still raged within her. Empty of control. It saw her take a step toward where she knew the primary cavern was.
Her movements were jerky, kind of like a puppet on strings. Her ankles splashed through the water, and it splattered up over her knees. The room kept filling. Based on the pace of the water flow, given half an hour, this entire place could be submerged. You’d think she’d take the opportunity to get out of here. Instead? Yanking her head up, her neck muscles twinging, she stared right at the ceiling to her left.
She could feel the cavern where she died. If you’d suddenly transported her to the other side of the planet, she knew her head would’ve tilted on the right angle to stare toward the cave anyway.
She heard that scream. It was unmistakably her. How she hadn’t identified it previously, she didn’t know. But now it almost felt as if someone was reaching in and controlling her voice.
Her communicator crackled once more. She picked up one word. Her name. More importantly, she discerned the voice saying it.
It was Joseph. He wouldn’t bother communicating with her. He should know exactly where she was.
If there was one thing that could break her out of whatever compulsion had seized her, it was Joseph.
She staggered, blinked even, then swiped a hand over her sweaty brow. “Joseph? Dammit.” Her TI objects were still beneath her feet. They weren’t compromised by the influx of water. You could send them scooting through space for years, and it wouldn’t affect them. So she rose up easily, the water splattering off her. She didn’t stand, couldn’t for whatever reason, so she locked one knee down on the TI object beneath her left foot and crunched into a smaller, more stable position. Securing her hand on her knee, she shot back in the direction she’d come. The small space she’d squeezed through was now gushing with water. She could hold her breath and wiggle through it again, but based on the deluge, she could tell the path she’d taken here was probably submerged already.
Her communicator crackled again but soon fell silent. She jammed her thumb on it. “Joseph,” she tried, her voice spluttering from her lips like a dying engine. “Joseph?” Nothing.
She clutched hold of the communicator, locking her palm hard against her chest, not because she was concerned it could fall off, but because she needed to remind herself of the fact she’d heard his voice. If she forgot…. Her head threatened to tick up toward the cavern above again.
She fought this growing compulsion with every second.
“I have to get out of here. Get back… get back to Joseph,” she muttered.
Thankfully she could still control her TI objects. Without them, she’d be dead. She would’ve drowned under the water now gushing into this cavern so quickly, she had to reassess her original prediction. It wouldn’t take half an hour to fill this room. It would take a couple more minutes.
If she’d had her wits about her, she would’ve realized this was way too much water. Where the hell was it all coming from? Why wasn’t it seeping through the cracks in the ground? It didn’t feel like she was in a cave so much as a giant watery prison.
She shot toward the roof.
Her hand started to slip off her communicator. Her head began to jerk naturally back towards the direction of the cavern. Every single time it did, she swore she heard her disembodied scream. It was a note of pure terrified fear. The kind of unique horror somebody can only achieve once in their life, because it comes right at the end of said life.
Before Sally really knew what was happening, she realized tears were raining down her cheeks. One or two at first, then just like the deluge below, they became thicker like a torrential downpour.
“Just… focus,” she stammered to herself. “Get… out to Joseph.
Her only option was to use her TI objects to break out of here.
She finally saw a likely crack in the ceiling. With a little effort, she could widen it. She may or may not find a path above. She just needed something – anything to get out of here. For as the water raced up from below, that compulsion continued to push down from above. She would only be able to fight it for a few more short minutes. Then? Then Sally would return home. Faxan A was one thing, but the secret waiting for her in that cavern was something else entirely.