He got to his quarters. They were much nicer than Sally’s. He could figure out what Forest was playing at. The only card she had to control Sally was if Sally convinced herself she really was a cadet.
Still, maybe you should aim for a larger set of quarters if you were holding the greatest technology in all the universe, right?
He had to trust Forest knew what she was doing. Worse? He had to trust he knew what he was doing, too.
He lay crunched up on his bed, one arm under his head, his gaze locked on the porthole window just beside him. It showed a snippet of the Mercury as they thrust through space, so fast, he couldn’t even calculate it as a spacer.
To think, they’d be there in a day. Faxan A was right across the other side of the galaxy. He’d always threatened to return there one day. That day would be tomorrow, apparently.
“Just get some damn shut-eye,” he muttered to himself.
He specifically didn’t call it sleep. That suggested rest, right? He knew this wouldn’t be relaxing. … If he had a dream. Could he really have them on demand? Were they like a tap? Open it, and out would gush information he needed to know before it was too late?
Life rarely worked like that.
He found his mind jerking around like a ball on a chain for far too long until finally slumber started to take him. It wasn’t a slow affair. It was as if somebody rushed up, gripped him from behind, and dragged him down. The next thing Joseph knew, he was in a dream. It was the only thing that could explain the crippling, gut-punching fear. It locked around his body, feeling like a thousand anchors. They dragged him down, down, down.
Though his other dreams had always been in or around the Academy, this one was different. He felt himself traveling through… he couldn’t explain it. His brain didn’t function. He didn’t think the rest of the universe functioned, either. Because whatever it was he traveled through right now felt like a path right down through Hell. If you didn’t believe in religious Hell, try to believe in a lack of creation instead. That’s what this was – like he was currently shifting through the antithesis of matter and what it was to be alive.
It didn’t last. Couldn’t.
With bone-crunching force, Joseph smashed face-down into what felt like cold stone. It had this unearthly grip on his body as if he’d just been surrounded by millions of ghosts.
He spluttered, and he watched in terror as a few droplets of blood splashed out over his chin, marking the once smooth cobbles beneath his trembling grip.
He tried to tell himself this was a dream. It was… right…? He started to lose his grip on reality. He coughed again, more blood splattering out. A few charges of subspace particles played along it, crackling through each crimson droplet.
With a grunt, he shoved up.
There was nothing around him – just this cold stone pathway.
It was dark, unnervingly so. Only his extended senses allowed him to see through it.
Joseph knew the importance of not advertising yourself if you didn’t have to. When you were a spacer, you didn’t need light. Your senses didn’t work like other people’s. But he still reached around, pushed his hand to the side, and created a subspace sword. It crackled wildly. He only ever did that when he was desperate. Trust him, as his heart beat a little faster, then a little faster again, it certainly seemed as if pure desperation was falling around his shoulders like a cloak.
He now lost full awareness of the fact he was in a dream.
This felt too real, the stone beneath him echoed too loudly, and the injury inside him throbbed too badly.
“Is anyone out there?” he called. Another stupid rookie mistake.
There was silence for a few seconds, then… something. Was it footfall? Hard to say. How about the scattering of claws? Too indistinct. Could it be moaning wind rushing through this lonely stone tunnel? He had to find out.
He dragged himself forward one step then another. He kept going until he found a set of stairs. They descended. Something about letting his gaze trace down them made his body fall, too. That didn’t mean he suddenly thrust down them. It meant it felt like he tied his heart to a sinking ship.
As soon as he took the first step, he finally heard what that sound was. Moaning.
He’d detected it before. When Sally had opened up that gate back on Earth, there’d been this sound rushing through everything, indistinct but yet still as strong as a knife up against his throat.
He said nothing, could barely breathe, and only focused on moving forward. He finally reached the base of the stairs. That’s when the floor started to shake. The moaning got worse. As it rushed around him, Joseph felt heart-pounding fear the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in decades. This, right here, felt like what happened to him back on Faxan A.
As soon as that thought slammed into his mind, the stone floor beneath him changed. With a shake, it just crumbled away as if it had never been anything more than a mask.
He staggered to the side and fell face-first onto a dirt mound.
“What the—” He pushed up, his whole body shaking.
He couldn’t carry his own weight. Which meant he had absolutely no chance of carrying the horror of the scene around him. He didn’t see bodies, didn’t wake to the sight of the entire Coalition turning to ash.
It was his homeworld.
For a split second, Joseph remained lucid enough to realize he couldn’t be back here yet. That lucidity soon slipped away. It was replaced by more spine-tingling fear. Though spacers didn’t really sweat that much, his brow was suddenly submerged in it. These deep convulsing shakes continued to cascade up his stomach, pound into his arms, and practically pulverize his muscles and bones.
He heard laughter. Easy, friendly, childlike.
He turned his head. And there he saw his childhood friends rushing up the hill behind him.
His cheeks slackened, cold dread surging through his heart and shaking hands. “Guys—”
Right at the back, as usual, was Tyler, his old self.
Joseph couldn’t move.
He suddenly remembered this exact position on this exposed, wind-swept mountaintop, even the weather. Every detail slipped into place like somebody tying a knot into a noose around his throat.
He bolted forward. “Get out of here,” he screamed. If he’d possessed even a scrap of his usual mind, he would’ve realized this had to be nothing more than a dream.
He didn’t retain his mind. And this had to be much more than a dream. The details were far too crisp. It felt as if someone had reached into his memory and pulled this out, frame by frame like a computer extracting footage from a camera.
Tyler rushed up behind his friends, but it was just in time for the entire group to stop still. This sound throbbed down from overhead – the unmistakable hum of powerful engines. A bright flash of light blasted out from a split in the marching clouds, like concentrated lightning.
Horror swallowed Joseph up. It wasn’t the kind of fear you could easily sweep away, wasn’t the type of gripping anxiety you could put in perspective. It was the kind instead that had been built into his body, that’d grown with his muscles, that’d been baked into every single cell, and no matter what he did, he’d never break free from it again.
He screamed one last time, this throat-curdling, raw, fractured affair.
While it might’ve felt as if it cracked his throat, it didn’t get through to the kids. They just stood there as a group, frozen in fear and wonder at the ship bursting through the cloudbank surrounding their peak like a hand thrusting down from the heavens.
A fraction of a second later, Barbarian soldiers ported down. They arrived in flashes of bright light. Some others just jumped right out of the side of the ship, their descending bodies like strikes of lasers, their fearsome armor catching the glinting, powerful sun above.
Joseph couldn’t do anything. He watched in total horror as those Barbarian warriors landed then attacked. No warning. No remorse. No recognition that their targets were children. In seconds, blood covered the once clean grass.
Tyler stood at the back of the group, far enough away that the first volley missed him. His little body froze with debilitating fear. Joseph saw his chest twitch then stop as if his heart cracked. His eyes widened and glistened with tears he’d never get a chance to cry. As a massive Barbarian turned to him, he jerked and slipped back. He thrust up and tried to run away. He didn’t try to defend his friends, couldn’t even scream their names as they died all around him like daisies plucked from a field. His face just fell apart with the unique fear of somebody who’d watched his entire life crumbling down around him.
He couldn’t get far. One barrel-chested, throaty Barbarian warrior called out for him to be caught.
Joseph just stood there. He couldn’t move a muscle. He felt as if someone had rooted him to the spot.
This… this… couldn’t be happening.
A cloud passed over the sun. And yet somehow it felt as if in his head, the haze of this dream parted under some powerful light.
That’s what it was, right? This was a dream. You couldn’t stand and watch your past self go through memories – not this clearly. More than that? Joseph had experienced plenty of regressions. He knew their emotional significance. He understood that the more feelings you poured into the process, the realer your mind could make it. During a true regression, the ability of your psyche to fool itself was dependent on how much fear you pumped into it.
Joseph had the means to end this. Just not the desire.
Somewhere in the back of his head, he remembered what Sally had told him.
He had to trust his dreams, trust they had important information to impart…. So he just had to… watch.
He stood there and stared as Tyler got three meters and tripped on a stone. He tumbled down the side of a rocky hill, smashing his head against a boulder as he went. Blood splattered everywhere. It mixed with the blood already covering the grass and staining the craggy, moss-covered rocks from his friends.
That massive Barbarian warrior settled a hand down on Joseph and plucked him up as if he was nothing more than a sack of flour.
When Joseph came to the Academy, Forest had been strict with him. Tyler didn’t exist anymore.
You’d think Forest wouldn’t want Joseph to forget his past as Tyler, but she’d wanted him to draw a real line in the sand instead.
Tyler no longer existed but Joseph did.
He hadn’t understood the point of that until now.
Tyler screamed. It was loud, but it couldn’t arc higher than the Barbarian’s throaty growl. He jammed his blood-caked thumb onto his communicator by his throat. “Caught him.”
Joseph shouldn’t be able to, but he heard the other side of the Barbarian’s conversation. Someone with a much more clipped, efficient tone asked, “Are you sure it’s him?”
The Barbarian plucked some scanner from his belt. Every single thing he owned was covered in blood. It wasn’t his. The guy didn’t have any gaping injuries – certainly not significant enough to account for this much bodily fluid. It would come from his victims. He either never bothered cleaning it off – that, or he killed so frequently there was zero point in attempting to hide it.
Joseph watched in transfixed horror that felt like chains around his middle.
The scanner was rammed right up into Tyler’s little face. His tear-streaked, blood-splattered head tried to jerk to the side, but the Barbarian simply grabbed him and ground his face closer. There was a beep. It was low, sonorous even. It was so deceptively gentle that it shouldn’t account for the effect it had on the Barbarian. He chucked his meaty head back and laughed – this whooping, vibrating affair that sounded worse than the strike ship’s engines as it hovered above. “It’s him.”
“Bag him. Master Deus wants him now,” the voice on the other end of his communicator growled.
Tyler couldn’t even shake anymore. Couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream, couldn’t do anything. He was just frozen there, his eyes wide open, his body shaking, his soul looking like it had fallen and cracked at his feet. All the life and verve that’d been in him while he’d run up the hill with his friends seemed gone forever.
Then the words filtered in, piercing through Joseph’s pall.
Yeah, Joseph had ended up with Deus, but he’d just assumed that one of Deus’s people had bought him from a Barbarian slave market.
This… this was kidnapping.
They knew exactly who they were after. They’d come to this planet specifically for Joseph. What the hell?
Master Deus had been looking for people to splice. Specifically humans to splice with spacers. Joseph understood it was a delicate process. Deus had needed people with a sufficiently open, specialized psyche. Joseph had just assumed they’d found him after the fact – not that they’d known exactly where he was and had come looking for him.
This changed everything.
According to Forest’s intelligence, Joseph wasn’t the only person who’d been taken from his colony world that day. Other kids and adults had been kidnapped too. None of them had ended up like Joseph. Most of them had just been taken to the Barbarian slave markets.
Knowing that fact, Joseph had always assumed this had just been a brutal raiding party. The Barbarians had killed the kids and adults they didn’t think would sell for a high enough price.
This wasn’t anything other than kidnap. Preplanned and meted out with cold efficiency.
“Have you detected the other one?” A call came over the head Barbarian’s helmet.
The guy sneered. “Rescan them.” He shoved a stiff finger at Tyler’s dead friends.
“You must keep her alive,” the guy on the other side of the line hissed.
“Relax. None of their injuries are significant enough that they can’t be brought back.”
Joseph squeezed a hand into a knuckle-popping fist. He stared at the lead Barbarian warrior as if he was seconds from slicing him through with a subspace sword. It was that – or look down. And he couldn’t.
Do that, and he’d have to face the full horror of this scene – the blood, the bodies, the death.
He was only just holding onto the fact this was a dream now. The more he let his emotions get the better of him, the more he would slip back into the horror until he lived this like it was really happening for the second time.
He had to… figure out what was going on here.
The other Barbarian warriors crunched down onto their knees, their hodgepodge armor glimmering under the strong sunlight. Now there wasn’t a single cloud close by. It meant there was nothing to hide behind, nothing to dim the horror.
One of the warriors soon shook his head and made a cutting motion across his throat. “Nothing.”
“Scan the rest of the settlement. Find her. She’s just as important.”
Tyler hadn’t moved a muscle. Now he twitched. His eyes widened. A little life returned to him. “What are you doing?”
“Still awake? Bodes well. Strong mind,” the Barbarian hissed right in Tyler’s face.
Tyler’s tear-struck red eyes opened wide with more fear, but right at the end, they contracted then narrowed in anger.
It was a moment Joseph would never forget.
It was as if he was seeing the first time he’d ever risen up from fear and turned it into rage. A faculty that Joseph had relied on for the rest of his life.
The sneering Barbarian brought his face close. Joseph still stood far away, but he swore he caught the overpowering scent of the man’s fetid breath.
Tyler didn’t flinch back, just bared his teeth, a few long lines of blood slicing down his split lips.
“Where’s your friend? Little girl, younger than you. Where is she?”
Joseph watched Tyler’s brow flatten then contract with confusion.
One by one, Joseph’s lips twitched back to life. “Sally?”
Deus had… been after Sally too?
This was a dream, or a vision, or something. He couldn’t interact with it, though. The Barbarian didn’t suddenly turn on him and notice that a fully-grown half spacer half human happened to be standing behind him.
Instead he shoved his face even closer to Tyler’s. The guy was wearing a partial helmet. It meant there was nothing blocking Tyler off from his sneering, stiff lips.
Tyler just gritted his teeth harder. “I’m not going to tell you a damn thing.”
“Then here’s your first introduction to pain, child.” The guy dropped his scanner unceremoniously then plucked something up out of his belt.
Joseph winced, even wheezed as he jerked back.
He couldn’t stop this, even though he knew exactly what that object was. It was a Barbarian torture tool. Shove it into the soft flesh of your target, and it would send debilitating pain messages up into their nervous system that would never stop until you turned it off.
Tyler screamed and jolted. It looked like he swallowed lightning.
The Barbarian laughed, this throaty vibrating chuckle that suggested this was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
He left it on for a full minute until it looked as if Tyler’s fragile little body would crack like glass. He turned it off with a stiff swipe of his thumb. “Where’s the girl?”
“I don’t know.”
“Like hell you don’t know. Tell me.”
“I don’t know,” Tyler screamed. The fear was there – but the anger was greater. That’s all that mattered, right? It was like fire and water. As long as you had more strength to burn through your fear, you ran forward not back.
The Barbarian tortured Tyler again. This time it was worse. Joseph was shocked Tyler could even survive it. But he did. When it stopped, rather than scream in fear and beg the guy to save him, the look in Tyler’s eyes changed again. More anger now, less fear.
The Barbarian simply chuckled. “Tell us—” Based on the look in the monster’s eyes, he was gonna keep doing this all day. Nothing would be able to stop him. Nothing but an external alarm. It blared out from their strike ship that kept hovering over the scene.
The Barbarian jerked his head up. “What’s that?”
“A Coalition ship is on its way,” a message echoed over his helmet.
The Barbarian jerked back, snarled, and swiped a hand at the rest of his crew. “Fall back for now. We’ll return later. We’ve got what the master wants. The girl can wait.”
With that, there were slices of light, and Tyler was taken away.
Joseph remained there, cold, still, and totally damn confused.
The girl they were after had to be Sally.
He couldn’t think that through. The scene began to change. He was in the cold corridor once more. That moaning was much worse than he remembered. It shook up through the floor, powered through the walls, and pulsed into him.
It had this terrifying leading quality.
He didn’t intend to take a step forward, but he felt himself being pulled on. He tried to resist. There was no resisting. Whatever that moaning was, it would reel him in, sooner rather than later.
He was at its whims and always had been.
Just as more fear grabbed Joseph, he held onto the fact he was still dreaming.
He tried to scream himself awake. It didn’t work. So he attempted to yank himself out of the dream with all his might. It still didn’t work.
There was only one thing left.
Clenching his teeth, securing his hands into fists, and driving his full attention into them, he imagined Sally’s clicking fingers. Just when he thought it wouldn’t work, bam, they appeared right in front of his face like a blast from a gun. With a single click, they did it.
Joseph shook awake. It was more accurate to say he powered awake. He was like a cruiser that’d been trapped by inertia shields only to be released abruptly. He actually thrust into the air. He was damn lucky he was in his own quarters, because if anybody else had been in the room, the shriek that blasted from his lips would’ve likely made them deaf for life.
It took too long for Joseph to realize that not only had that been a dream, but he wasn’t in it anymore.
He locked a shaking, sweaty hand on his chest. He kept floating, the cover that’d been over him flopping onto the floor.
It was fortunate, because he lost hold of his subspace energy. If the blanket had still been around him, he would’ve burnt it to dust.
He hovered there, taking every chance he could to remind himself that’d been a dream. It had been a dream. Just a dream.
Joseph floated down to the floor. His feet touched the cold metal. He dragged himself into the bathroom. He looked in the mirror.
He opened his mouth to tell himself that’d been a dream again, but his lips froze.
Too many details. Too sharp. That’d been a regression. He was sure of it.
Where had it come from?
There was a beep.
Joseph was so surprised by it, he opened his hand and called on a subspace sword. As it blazed into life, he looked for something to cut only to remind himself he was safe on a Coalition ship. There were no Barbarians around, so there was no reason for the sword, he promised himself.
He forced it to drop.
He finally answered.
“What was with the delay, Joseph?” Forest asked quickly.
Joseph waited too long to answer.
“Joseph?” Her tone changed.
“You mean admiral. This is not a neural communication, Lieutenant. You’re now on my vessel. Proper procedure should be followed.”
Gripping the side of his face, he nodded then realized she couldn’t see him. “Yes, Lara. I mean Admiral.” He winced.
“I need you to attend a debriefing.”
“… The briefing room,” she said, slowing down each word.
Damn. He likely came across as mad. He was, right? He had to be. It was the only thing that could account for that haunting dream.
He shook his head. Dream? It must have been more. The details – the raw feelings – he’d felt like he was back in Anna’s regression pod.
Which meant what? Deus had been after Sally? How and why?
“Joseph, what’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just a dream,” he muttered.
He shouldn’t have let that detail slip. Forest became dangerously silent. He said dangerously, because it had that kind of edge that told him whatever she was thinking, it could change everything.
“What was it about?” she asked carefully.
He shook his head. “I don’t… even know. I… was on Faxan A,” he finally admitted.
His thoughts were all over the place. Right now he needed to prove to the admiral he was capable of whatever mission would unfold when they finally got to their destination. Way to go to do that. He probably sounded like he was a kid and this was his first mission in space.
“Did you learn anything?” Lara asked.
Did he learn anything? Right here he had to decide if that’d been a dream, some horrifying nightmare, or something else.
He closed his eyes.
He secured his hands over his eyelids and pressed and pressed and pressed until he saw stars. What, did he think they’d somehow lead him toward the truth? Or was he trying to hurt himself because at least he knew what pain was?
“I was kidnapped, Forest.”
She paused. “We know that you were taken to slave markets—”
“No. I was hunted. The Barbarians came there for me specifically. And… Sally.”
“What?” There was a sharp, long, pointed silence. The kind that reminded you of Damocles’s sword hanging over the scene.
“I’m trying to tell myself it was just a dream, but I don’t believe it,” he finally realized. As he did, a lot of the tension left him. He dropped his hand. He tilted his head up. He fixed his angry gaze on the mirror. “They came to that planet for me. On Deus’s direct behalf. He hunted us down. He wanted Sally and me.”
“Are you sure this wasn’t just a dream, Joseph?”
He gripped the basin. He stared at his reflection, and he let his eyes dart this way and that. He was determined to pick up even the smallest sign that this was just his memory playing tricks on him.
It wasn’t there.
So Joseph took one stiff breath then pushed away. He floated a little. “No. Master Deus sent a Barbarian raiding party to that planet for the both of us. He only got me. And we need to figure out why he wanted Sally. It’s the key. To everything.”