As soon as he pushed in through the cave mouth, he felt the psychic fields. This was way worse than any army of sprites he’d ever faced. This was….
Joseph shuddered. His eyes naturally closed. Then images bombarded him. He saw his time on Deus’s ship, saw every single person he’d ever killed with his own hands but with someone else’s mind.
Every image was designed to be as debilitating as possible. They were like perfectly programmed bullets. No matter how many defenses he put into place, they tore right through them.
He’d only made it a single step into the cavern. Now his whole body stiffened as if he would never move again.
He heard the screams, the screams of countless victims. Joseph had never tried to count the number of people Deus had made him kill. Do that, and he’d hate himself even more. Now he couldn’t hide. Every murder played out before his eyes like the worst slideshow in existence.
Right from the first scientist to the final Coalition soldier – Joseph was forced to witness every life he’d cut down. He screamed. Clutching his brow, his eyes widening to the point of cracking, he staggered down to his knees.
He lost all awareness of where he was. He should’ve been able to feel the rough rock beneath him, should’ve been able to feel the cold, moaning wind rushing past his cheeks. He couldn’t even sense his own body. It rapidly began to numb. It started in his heart and spread out as if it’d been replaced by the icy tail of a comet.
He kept screaming as every person he’d murdered took up more and more space in his head. It was as if they were now demanding to live inside him. They’d cram out the rest of his psyche, but it wouldn’t matter. They deserved to exist somewhere considering he’d snuffed out their lives, right?
He rocked forward, his back suddenly giving out. He crumpled, his face banging up harshly against a particularly jagged section of the rock floor.
Not much in this world could make Joseph bleed. Yet his cheek sliced against that section of jutting rock. It cut him right from the top of his temple down to his chin. It looked like someone was carving a smile into his mouth. It would be the last he’d ever make.
As the blood splattered his face and ran down his neck, he ground his hand harder into the floor. He couldn’t rise. Nothing could change the psychic bombardment. It only got faster. That didn’t make it any easier to endure. He still saw each and every death. It wasn’t like footage, more like photos. Photos that were being superimposed on his mind’s eye. No matter what he tried to think about from now on, those images would occupy his full attention. He’d be nothing more than a walking, haunted museum of past regrets.
Joseph screamed again. Or did he? Did he only manage to let that shriek blast out of his mind? Because his lips didn’t move. Neither did the rest of his body. He became deathly still. He didn’t breathe. He didn’t need to. For now. He could feel his spacer side shutting down, though. When it did, he’d be the equivalent of a soft-fleshed human. No – it would be worse. He’d be like a freshly picked flower. All you would need to do was wait, and he’d wilt on his own.
One eye was pressed open while the other was ground shut. He didn’t have the energy to be able to move, to close anything, to even twitch a hand up to check on his face to see if it was still under his control.
One of the first lessons Admiral Forest had ever taught him was that when you have nothing to hold on to, you hold on to yourself.
It sounded ridiculous. When you have nothing to hold on to, you are by definition on your own. You can’t clutch hold of yourself, anyway. Sure, you can try to believe that you have a chance. But it won’t objectively change whether you do or you don’t.
Joseph had fought that rule the hardest, and he still didn’t believe it until this very day. He recognized the wisdom of a lot of Forest’s other lessons. He knew that when you couldn’t stand alone, you stood with others. He knew that you tried to make up for the faults of those around you so they could make up for your faults in turn. But when you were truly on your own and it was just you… why bother holding onto yourself?
Just as he thought that, he heard something. Footsteps? It was impossible to discern. A hand on his shoulder? It could be that too. Or he could just be making it all up.
Though one of his eyes was open, it didn’t change the immediacy and sheer raw information of the visions assailing him. He saw Deus’s face, every hellish detail. That face was enough to break anyone’s psyche. It didn’t just come along with simple features, see. Whenever the Master had opened his eyes, his considerable mental force had blasted through his gaze like lasers down a chute.
Joseph began to shake. No – he thought he did. Or at least some part of him did. Was it his stomach or his psyche? Who cared? His body was now completely irrelevant. His body, with all its inherent power, couldn’t save him from this. So had it ever mattered in the first place?
There was that sound again – that feeling, too. Someone or something was moving him.
Joseph had to….
When you have nothing else to hold on to, you hold on to yourself. But what if you can’t hold? What if your hands have literally been taken from you, all of their force destroyed like a once-powerful fleet flying into the center of the sun?
If Forest were here, he fancied he knew what she’d say. Even when your hands fail you, you find something else to hold on to. It doesn’t have to be your body – doesn’t have to be your past. It doesn’t have to be anything tangible at all. When everything else breaks away, you hold on to whatever scrap of yourself remains. And by necessity, something has to remain. If you still recognize you are an I, then some part of you lives.
Somewhere at the back of his head, the soldier still operated. It screamed at him that he had to rise right now. Push past his limitations, grab back his power and fight.
But how the hell could he even begin to push past the visions controlling him? Did he even deserve to?
Yeah, Joseph had never really been in control of what Deus had done to him. But there’d been times when Joseph could’ve ended it. Unguarded moments where, in Deus’s lab, Joseph could’ve destroyed himself. He hadn’t. Didn’t that make him responsible for every single person he’d killed?
Again he imagined if Forest were here, he’d know exactly what she’d say. Joseph had saved an incalculable number of lives ever since he’d joined the Coalition. If he’d ended his life, he would’ve essentially ended those lives too. For that was the folly of hindsight. It tricked you into thinking that you knew how one circumstance would run differently. But if you change the past even a little, you alter the entire thing.
Joseph couldn’t be responsible for what Deus had done through him. But he was responsible for every life he’d saved with his own hands.
Great. A comforting conclusion. But did it get his spacer power back? No. Could it move his body? No.
He was relentlessly dragged forward.
Wait… he was dragged forward.
Maybe his mind had broken through the pall of his fugue for a few short seconds, or maybe he’d just mentally discerned the sound of his still body being moved. It didn’t really matter. The fact was there. Something was dragging Joseph. And whatever they were, they didn’t care about his body. His face kept smashing against the jagged floor. His cheek was still completely covered in blood. He didn’t know the last time he’d bled. Now it practically soaked his uniform collar.
Joseph wasn’t completely aware of his surroundings yet. He had to actively fight the visions that assailed him. They only got faster. They soon flashed around him as if someone had taken the photo book of his life, shredded it, set it on fire, and created a tornado around the center of his skull. There was no running from it. There was only being consumed by it, second after second.
No matter what he saw, his memories never made it up to Sally. They centered around Deus and his first days with the Coalition.
Sally, for whatever reason, was off-limits. It was as if whatever was happening to him knew that if it was stupid enough to show him Sally, he’d grab hold of her like a ladder.
And yet some part of him had to remember her if he could think that. If he could… he could remember her, he could reach out to her memory now.
Joseph might not have been a psychic warrior, but his unparalleled experience at least gave him a perspective standard Coalition students would never have the privilege of possessing.
Psychic enemies attempted to undermine you. The most powerful way of doing that was to force you to undermine yourself.
They often located your strengths and weaknesses within a few seconds then did whatever they could to take your strengths away and to force you to drown in your own pain.
Sally… though he couldn’t reach her physically, the thought of her was enough.
He saw his master’s leering face, but Joseph wasn’t pulled in by the horror anymore. It didn’t rip through his chest like a bear through some freshly caught salmon.
Dammit, if he really concentrated, he could remember the first time he’d clapped eyes on Sally.
It’d been during first year. She’d been this mysterious kid no one had ever talked to. He hadn’t had much to do with her.
He’d only glimpsed her from afar.
If you’d asked him, he would’ve told you that Sally had never gotten on his radar until about third year. That’s when she’d started telling everybody she was the greatest power in the universe. Up until that time, she’d been a nobody.
But how could Joseph have so many startlingly clear memories of a nobody? He recalled standing up on the top of the command building, noting her marching across the grounds. He recalled seeing her from afar and being drawn in by her powerful, graceful gaze and ease.
Those memories and more started to crowd out everything else. They didn’t have the emotional significance of being tortured and killing others. They had something far, far more powerful. If he let them, and he got out of their way, they could crowd out every other bitter memory. They were like powerful hands parting a raging ocean.
Joseph became aware of where he was, just a little at first – the details of his bleeding face, the hard rock beneath him, and the cold, continually moaning wind. But as the memories of Sally gathered speed, almost creating their own gravity vortex that kept everything else out, his senses sharpened.
He had to be in a large cavern. Massive even. Based on the airflow and the temperature fluctuations, he could bet it was about half the size of the Mercury.
He was also not alone. He heard footsteps. They were real. The way the sound waves fluctuated suggested this was more than a psychic manifestation. It wasn’t a hologram, either. There was someone in the room with him.
It wasn’t Sally. He would’ve felt her. She would’ve done something for him, too – not just dragged him and his bleeding face through a cold, damp cave.
She was out there. And if Joseph had been attacked like this, God knows what was happening to her.
The thought of what could be assailing her was that final rung up the ladder. He didn’t need the positive memories of Sally anymore – even though they settled into his soul never to be removed. Her name was all that mattered. He didn’t shriek it out loud, but he did let it settle on his lips, almost like a bullet loaded into a gun. It would be ready there the next time someone tried to psychically control him.
Instead of bolting up, Joseph turned his mind to figuring out every single detail he could. He got the impression that whoever was beside him was responsible for the psychic manipulation. He also realized that when they didn’t jolt toward him, they had no clue he was awake.
The person moved to the side. Their footfall changed. Then they rapped their knuckles on something. It was a hollow, ringing sound. It had to be metal, then.
Joseph longed to twist his head around and open his eyes, but as a spacer, he could get a heck of a lot of information with his other senses. Focusing even harder now, he thought he detected somebody typing on some kind of device.
Joseph heard screams.
They were far off. They came from everywhere.
He didn’t jolt. He told himself immediately they were psychic manifestations.
They echoed out powerfully. If he hadn’t just managed to pull himself up out of his horror, it would’ve only dragged him further down.
He had no clue what was happening to the rest of the Coalition soldiers down in the settlement, but he imagined they’d be able to hear those screams too. Perhaps they were the equivalent of adding fuel to the fire. The projections down in the settlement were likely now swarming over their targets, filling them up with the fear of their regrets until they popped.
It was hard as hell for Joseph not to clench his teeth, even harder not to reach for a subspace sword. But a second later he was glad he’d held onto his mettle.
“Not long now,” someone said.
The voice was memorable, all right. Jerry.
It only had a fraction of control. It was mostly Jerry’s instability, with just a hint of the Observer over the top like unwanted icing.
Joseph used every trick in the book – every single ounce of training Forest had ever given him – not to physically react. He wouldn’t even let his stomach clench.
He remained in exactly the same position he’d woken up in.
God knows how much blood he’d lost. It felt like an entire bathtub of it. Joseph still didn’t understand how a simple rock had cut him. But he did know that under extreme circumstances, a spacer’s energy could be turned against them. You had to have one hell of a psychic manipulator though.
And what exactly was an Observer but the epitome of such a force?
If Joseph’s own subspace energy had cut his cheek, not that rock, then his energy could heal him again. Do that, however, and it would alert Jerry to his presence.
Joseph needed every damn fact he could get. He had to stay silent and still to get them.
“The Queen’s mind is almost digesting itself,” Jerry commented.
At the last moment before he broke, he held on. He didn’t freak out, jolt up, and try to attack, even though out there, Sally must be in the fight for her life. He held onto one fact. The word almost. Sally hadn’t killed herself yet.
Whatever was happening to her, she still had time.
“No. The ship has not been unlocked yet. The mind is not aligned yet,” Jerry continued to speak to somebody, likely through some remote communication device. “It will happen in a minute or two. There will be no further interruptions. She does not have the ability to fight. The crystals will be ours in under 10 minutes. All resistance will be wiped away after that,” Jerry chuckled, more of the Observer’s voice filtering through his own. “I also have a suitable form for you to manifest within.”
Joseph didn’t need to question what that meant.
That would be him. Why else keep him alive?
“There will be no resistance. His psyche has already been crushed. He will be perfect for you, Master.”
That one word almost derailed everything. It was like a permanent thorn in Joseph’s heart. Master. How many times had he heard that? How many times had he been forced to think it? And how many times had every other poor soul on Deus’s ship repeated it like a mantra? Master, master, master. The utterly debilitating thing about a word like that is it robs you of your autonomy. When you truly work for a master, there is no you. There is only you in the context of their extended I. They get to decide what you do, who you kill, how you fight, and how you die. They are your beginning and end.
And right now, that one word almost spelled Joseph’s doom again.
Jerry became quiet for a split second. He turned toward Joseph.
Joseph held on, dammit. He ensured his body was as still as a corpse’s. He launched himself back into those easy and gentle memories of Sally. He could see her walking across the grounds, a smile on her face, freedom and confidence in every stride.
It dragged him out of his fear just at the right moment.
“We must simply wait for the Queen’s mind to break one final time. It will take mere minutes,” Jerry repeated.
There was a note shaking through his tone. One Joseph imagined Jerry wasn’t even aware of. It hinted at a question – a single moment of fragility.
And it gave Joseph that little blast of hope he needed so desperately.
But while he might be conscious and capable of gathering facts, he didn’t have the ability to snap up his sword and port to Sally’s side.
He just hoped that, out there, the Queen could rise one last time.
So he lay there and prayed.