He had no idea where Sally had gone.
He’d detected her walking around the side of the cliff. Then nothing. It was as if she’d disappeared off the face of the planet. He kept trying to tell himself that was impossible. She wouldn’t have used her crystals to transport away. But his fear unleashed itself upon him like a tiger tearing through his torso. He couldn’t fight the possibility that Sally had returned to the Hendari homeworlds, despite her heartfelt promise she would never go without him.
As a spacer, he knew how undermining fear was. Especially at the wrong moment. Fear – at the right moment – could and would save your life. It would tell you that thing you thought was a stick beside you was actually a snake. It would warn you of the enemy creeping around the corner just before they shot you from behind. But at the wrong moment, fear was like a noose tied by your own hands.
As it rushed upon Joseph now, powering into his throat as if he’d swallowed a flare, he transported one last time.
Forest had warned him of the cave system. He couldn’t go there – at least not yet. They might be here to assess the possibility there was a Hendari ship and a crystal here. They couldn’t investigate until they knew exactly where the populace had gone and if the Observers had set up a trap.
Joseph couldn’t discount the possibility Sally had already gone inside the caves on her own.
The cave system was dug all the way through this craggy mountain peak. It crisscrossed within it like chaotic arteries.
Worse, it constantly moved about, new caverns opening up and old ones closing off due to the continuous tectonic movement of this planet’s fragile crust.
Even now, Joseph could recall frightening memories from his childhood of kids being stuck in the caves – people dying even. Once or twice, he’d been inside some deep crevice only to hear a frenzied rumble from beneath. Each time, he’d gotten out by the skin of his teeth, clambering madly until his hands had bled like skinned carcasses. Even now, he could feel the same fear pounding up through his stomach, shaking his shoulders, and catapulting through his heart. He transported again, arriving just in front of a low, squat entry into the cave system.
He went to port inside, his heart in his mouth, a new wave of fear promising him Sally was inside. But the same wave, as it came crashing down through his body like a felled tree, also warned him that whatever was going on within wasn’t something he could survive. He thought he heard a psychic scream. It was shrill, reminding him of claws down his back. But if Sally was in there—
His communicator suddenly beeped. He’d been trying to contact Sally with it for at least two minutes. He had a chance to think it was her, a surge of hope filling him up. But then he heard the XO’s throaty rumble. “Get back to the settlement now. Something—”
“What’s going on?”
“What’s going on, Commander?” Joseph demanded.
“Impossible. You’ve been… dead for… 10 years. Impossible,” the commander whispered, his voice shuddering out of a constricted throat, one that sounded as if it’d been cracked through by emotion.
“Commander, what—” There was no point finishing that. Out of the corner of Joseph’s eye as he floated there, he saw one of those piles. They’d been so innocuous until now. He watched energy jolt through it. It looked as if it was creating its own lightning. As it snapped between each particle, something began to rise. The scanner at Joseph’s side beeped, but he didn’t need it to warn him of the horror he witnessed now.
A psychic sprite. Just one unlike those he’d seen generated back on Earth or on the Mercury. This one… it looked and felt real, almost as if a ghost was actually coming to life before his very eyes. And speaking of those eyes, they widened to the point of popping like overfilled balloons.
Joseph saw his friends coming back to life. For there were more piles dotted around him. Each one quickly resembled the friends he’d lost up on that mountain top. The memory of their tortured faces had been raw his entire life. But ever since his dream, they’d become even fresher. Now the trauma of what he’d seen came flooding into him, shaking up his back and blasting down his spine.
First he saw his best friend. The guy smiled, and right in front of Joseph, he was torn down.
Joseph still had a communication connection with the commander. He screamed, this throaty blast of fear echoing over the line. The communicator was powerful, and it picked up anyone close by the XO. There were other screams, each and every one tortured as if the entire Coalition mission to Faxan A was currently in an iron maiden.
They were. Though Joseph was transfixed by the sight, he still had enough sense left over to realize what was happening to him would be happening to everyone. People’s loved ones would be coming to life right in front of their eyes.
Though this was… terrifying, Joseph had to get to Sally.
He was now certain she’d gone into those caves. But as he secured his gaze on that opening like a drowning man reaching for a hand through the waves, the psychic sprites of his dead friends just got in his way.
They weren’t constrained by gravity like real people. One of them floated right up to meet him. As he attempted to leave, she secured a hand around his shoulder. “Save me, Joseph. Save me this time. You couldn’t last time. You failed. Now you have one last chance. Save us all.”
It was horrifying in a truly crippling way to hear her words. They didn’t last, see. They were interspersed with screams. As Joseph had just re-endured the dream where they’d been killed, he knew the screams were an exact match for the ones that had really blasted from this little girl’s throat when she died.
Joseph could no longer pay attention to the message coming over his communicator. By the sounds of it, all holy hell had broken loose back at the settlement. He just had to….
Sally, he whispered to himself in his head. He just had to… get to Sally. Get inside the cave system, figure out what was going on… and go from there.
In critical missions, you couldn’t always think ahead. You often didn’t have enough data. So-called plans were nothing more than a waste of time. Instead, you had to come up with categories of actions. You decided what you’d do if you faced a guy with a gun, and what you’d do if he suddenly pulled out an electro blade. And you strung those circumstances together until you had a viable, live action plan that could move with your actual circumstances.
But how the hell could he be prepared for something like this?
Joseph wasn’t even aware of the fact there were more piles of dust around him, but there had to be, because now his entire host of friends appeared.
They didn’t just look like his friends. They felt like them – down to every crippling detail. He knew some kind of powerful psychic field was being generated. It affected him, all right. It was designed to lock him in place, to call directly to his emotions and use them as chains around his wrists.
He knew that, but did it stop him? Could he use his considerable training to counteract it? No.
With every second he gave in, it felt like he’d never be able to fight it again. This inertia took to him as if someone was creating a field right inside his body. It wouldn’t just stop him from ever lifting his feet up again. It would lock him to the spot until he became a permanent floating fixture on the side of this lonely peak.
Just when Joseph was certain there was nothing that could stop him, he thought…. Could he hear someone calling his name? It wasn’t just wishful thinking, right? It had to be Sally. She was still out there. That single thought enabled him to twitch a hand into a fist. You would think, for a spacer, that wouldn’t be a particularly significant feat. He clenched his fingers every time he used his subspace blade. But right now, it proved what his out-of-control mind didn’t want to believe. He… he could break out of this. Break… out of this.
One lip twitched, then the other. He forced them over his teeth, flush against the enamel until it felt as if he would squeeze his jaw out of the back of his head. “Sally,” he stammered. “Got… gotta get to Sally.”
He floated forward.
That’s when his friends all shot up around him. They placed their bloody hands on his shoulders. They brought their cracked expressions close. “Joseph, you’re the only one who can save us now. Joseph, you have to help us. You have one last chance to rewrite the mistakes of your past.”
Joseph could only just break free from them. There was a small snippet of his mind that was aware of the fact this was all a ruse. There were psychic sprites, and the emotions raging through him were being generated. But if he – with all of his training – could only just figure that out, what about everybody else? They weren’t psychics with massive holes in their heads, but that wasn’t the point. He at least had experience with what was going on.
He now thought he could hear the screams of the Coalition team, regardless of the fact the XO’s communicator no longer worked.
Baring his teeth again and settling all of his energy into his fist, he finally broke away from the psychic sprites. He ported. He didn’t head straight into the cave – couldn’t yet. That felt like crossing some significant threshold. He needed to build himself up mentally before he did it. Instead, he transported a kilometer right up into the air. The thin atmosphere and beating wins didn’t bother him. In fact, they served to flush away the psychic control. His head jerked back, and he gasped. A long line of sweat glimmered off his brow, a few droplets sliding off his face, catching the sunlight, then disappearing through the clouds. He jerked his head down as he covered his mouth with his shaking fingers.
With wild, fright-filled eyes, he saw the side of the craggy peak and down into the settlement. His eyesight worked fine. It was enough to show him there were literally thousands if not tens of thousands of psychic sprites now roaming through the area. He detected a few Coalition soldiers from the Mercury. By and large, they were all down on their stomachs or backs, hands covering their faces, screaming as their dead loved ones assailed them. The sprites didn’t use fists or feet. They didn’t directly attack. They utilized something a heck of a lot more powerful. Regret.
Even for a standard citizen of the Coalition – considering these warlike times – everyone faced regret. It was amplified when you were a soldier. Especially when you had to make critical lifesaving – and ending – decisions. You get a medic, and you influence them with a psychic field that shows them all the lives they couldn’t save, and they’d drown like a single drop in an ocean. It was the same with a soldier – definitely the same for a commander who would’ve had to make the kind of orders that would’ve put people to death too many times to count.
Joseph needed to get down, find Sally, and end this, but there was something he had to do first. He made a quick communication to the Mercury. Every second he waited for it to connect was one that told him the Mercury had been submerged by these psychic sprites too. “Come on,” he growled as subspace energy crackled over his fists. There was nothing to punch. Even if Joseph let rip, there was nothing to attack, anyway. He had no idea what was generating the sprites. Was it those piles of dust? That meant he would have to port to every single one and chop them down. He wasn’t even certain that would work. Psychic sprites were usually generated from a central location. What were those piles? If it were him, and he’d been designing this, they would’ve been distractions. Something to lure the Coalition soldiers out, something to confuse them, and something to ensnare them with.
Finally his communication connected. A breathy Admiral Forest echoed over the line. “Joseph—”
“Did you ever transport any of those piles of dust up to the ship? Is everybody okay?” He fired his questions out so quickly, they became derailed in his mouth until the syllables slurred together. They were like trains toppling off their tracks.
“Port it into space right now. Right now, Forest.”
He’d already pointed this out before – but as a lieutenant, he didn’t give categorical orders to an admiral. But their relationship at least saw her pause. “Done,” she said a second later. “What’s happening to my team? Do I have to transport them out?”
A 30 strong team of Coalition soldiers and officers had come down to the planet. Now their lives were literally in Joseph’s hands. He could end their torture by transporting them back to the Mercury. But he could also spread whatever the hell was going on here.
“Joseph, this is your call,” Forest stated clearly.
“Leave them,” he said, shuddering through his words, his shoulders snapping up to his ears and his back arching as he floated there in the clouds. Though he shouldn’t feel the cold, it sank into his bones, ripped through the remaining heat in his flesh, and made that decision all the more horrible.
Forest waited several seconds. “Very well. What’s happening?”
“Some kind of psychic attack. People are seeing dead loved ones.”
“My team has all undergone strong psychic training—”
“And it’s not working on anyone,” Joseph said, still gripping the side of his brow, his fingers sliding off his sweaty temples. He soon lost all tension in them. They flopped by his side. A few weak subspace crackles darted up around them, the black energy distinct amongst the racing gray and white clouds. But that was it. Joseph hadn’t even gotten out his blade and fought once yet, but he was already drained.
“Where’s Sally?” Forest snapped.
Dammit. Sally. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t forget. Now he darted his head down. Focusing, he managed to see through the clouds. He detected the main opening into the cavern. The very same one Forest didn’t want him going near until he understood what was going on with this planet. But did he understand what was assailing Faxan A? He had more questions than ever. It was also very clear that whatever assailed the Coalition team, the Observer – or Observers – were behind it. Forest quite rightly didn’t want them going on with the primary leg of the mission until they understood the key facts. Act prematurely, and it would be the same as walking into a trap.
What choice did Joseph have right now? Sally could make or break this entire mission. He had to find her. He didn’t want to think she’d be affected by these piles like everybody else, but who knew what she was facing? What if she was surrounded by those psychic sprites? What if there were thousands or hundreds of thousands all attacking her at once? Joseph had seen with his own eyes that Sally had her limitations. He’d felt it on his lips, too.
He angled his head down toward that cavern, his decision made for him. “I’m gonna go find her, Forest. Keep an eye on the team from space. Scan for psychic fields. Maybe you’ll be able to find the generators from up there. Until you find out exactly what’s going on, don’t send anyone down,” Joseph said, reinforcing his earlier decision and finally confirming to himself he’d made the right call.
Joseph had no idea what the Observer was capable of. Though he didn’t want to think that a psychic manifestation could be like a virus that could pass on to somebody else, who knew? The only way to contain this issue was to physically contain it on the planet until they knew more.
Forest didn’t sound happy, and she let a ragged, shaky breath echo over the line. “We’ll do what we can. Remain in contact.”
He narrowed his eyes as he stared at the dark, gaping maw-like opening of the cave. His chest trembled, tension scissoring into his heart. “I’ll try, but something tells me as soon as I go in there, it will be to a full communications blackout.”
He heard the sound of Forest shifting around. Her tight shoulders pressed against the unyielding fabric of her command seat. Was she trying to get comfortable? There would be no more comfort until this was over. “Whatever you do, Joseph, your priority is—”
There was a pause. He knew what Forest was thinking. His priority was everyone and everything, surely? Sally, the ship, the crystal, and the crew. Hell, beyond that, the priority was the galaxy. He needed to act in a way that gave them an edge against the Hendari, that would allow them to get out of this war, once and for all.
“Just do what you have to do, Joseph. You know what the Coalition needs,” Forest said.
Joseph didn’t bother to sign out. He ported.
He arrived down in front of the main cave mouth. His whole body stiffened, a wave of tension crashing through him. If it was trying to prepare him for what he would face within, good luck.
Nothing could. Joseph Lance was home. And it was finally time to find out why. With closed eyes, he floated inside.