“Just trust the process,” she whispered in a smooth tone designed to secure anyone’s trust.
Joseph felt a hand on his shoulder. It had to push through the thick shielding securing his body in place.
He opened one eye to see Anna, his counselor. A smile split across her lips. It was the kind that could put anyone at ease. She was an empath like no other.
And… she was right. He just had to trust the process.
He closed his eyes. “Right. Will I get a warning when it starts?”
Her hand retreated. “You’ll just slip in. Don’t fight it. Let yourself remember exactly what happened.”
Remember exactly what happened? Joseph wanted to fight it every single step of the way, which is exactly what he’d been doing for years. But there came a point in your life when you could no longer fight yourself, ha? It was usually when a greater threat loomed.
The Coalition, Joseph’s adoptive home, was at war with the Scarax Galaxy gods – beings who controlled a complicated energetic substance that gave them incalculable powers called the Light of the Gods.
About six months ago, things had kicked off at the Coalition Academy, where Joseph was based. There’d been all-out war. The Scarax Imperial Fleet had surrounded Earth and battered it. But the Academy had won – through grit and damn luck.
Which brought Joseph to the here and now.
The Scarax gods hadn’t disappeared. They’d only hit pause on the war. They still wanted the Milky Way.
There was only one chance to hold them back for good. And it was buried in Joseph’s tortured psyche somewhere.
“When you sink into the vision, I want you to be able to recognize every detail you can,” Anna said. Her voice was like a warm hand. Not that it really affected Joseph. As a spacer – a powerful being spliced with a human who was capable of generating subspace fields inside his own body – few things affected him. It had to be a torpedo from a heavy cruiser or a weapon of some similar massive energy yield.
He was leaving something out, wasn’t he? Something big. There was one category of weapon that could slice through Joseph’s otherwise impenetrable form like a samurai sword through a sheet of clean paper.
Joseph had been plucked from a colony world by one of the Kore Empire’s greatest sect leaders, Master Deus, and the monster had spliced Joseph with a spacer for one purpose – so that Deus could use Joseph as a glorified tool. Spacers were nothing more than armor suits for their masters. Ones that could be slipped into and used to do the worst atrocities imaginable then slipped out of and practically hung up like coats on a hook.
Now was not the time to remember all this. Every single recollection of Deus always brought the same cold tingle rushing over Joseph’s back. He could technically sweat like an ordinary human, but not much. This was worse, anyway. It made it feel as if a black hole had just opened up in his body and it would swallow him with a pop.
“Trust the process. It’s beginning now. Don’t fight it, Joseph. We’re relying on you to remember every detail.
Every detail, ha?
How many times had Joseph done this? Probably only five, but it felt as if it was interminable.
Though he was an important Coalition asset as a spacer who was directly under their control – or at least orders, considering that word had a special meaning to somebody who’d been grown to be completely subservient – they weren’t after his skills here.
They were after one memory.
Six months ago when the Academy almost fell, one thing had saved everyone. It hadn’t been the Academy staff, and God knows it hadn’t been the embattled Coalition fleet.
It was a powerful psychic unlike anything the Milky Way had ever seen – unlike anything that was thought possible. She had come in and stolen every single one of the Coalition’s most powerful devices – Hendari crystals. Just like that. In the snap of her fingers. And it was a snap of her fingers Joseph had to concentrate on now.
Joseph had fought in the battle for the Academy. He’d been one of the main forces, in fact. Everyone else had been trapped or too weak to fight.
But Joseph should’ve lost. He went to bed every single night – because yeah, his human side needed to sleep – thinking through what should have happened.
He should be nothing but dust right now. As should every single building on Earth. Yet they all stood.
Because of the Queen.
“We just registered a fluctuation in your subspace particles,” Anna informed him.
“It’s okay. Just thought of something I shouldn’t,” he muttered.
Yeah, something he shouldn’t. And something that had left him conflicted for every single day since the attack.
The Queen was… unknown.
She belonged to the Hendari – at least they knew that. And the Hendari were the greatest civilization to have ever walked the stars. They were by far more powerful than any other race that had ever come after them.
But they were ultimately crazy. They’d given up their bodies to create some kind of massive conglomeration of psychic energy that, theoretically, would’ve enabled them to port their consciousnesses throughout the entire universe. They would’ve been able to control and live vicariously through anyone’s eyes anywhere. And yeah, that sounded just as bad as it was. The Queen… she’d either encountered them or been grown to stop them.
And now she was back. Likely on Academy territory. Yep, you got that right. The best assessment they had was that she was a cadet, or at least she often pretended to be one.
Joseph’s mission was twofold. He had to find out everything he could about the Hendari crystals, and he had to give Anna every detail about the Queen. If she wasn’t found soon… it would just be a matter of waiting until the Scarax Galaxy attacked again.
“This is going to tingle a little,” Anna said.
He only just picked up her voice. He was starting to slip under. He experienced consciousness unlike other people. Sometimes it honestly felt like a wave to him. Now that wave suddenly crashed forward and receded back with impossible speed. He couldn’t hold on to himself. He was dragged… down.
The first thing he became aware of was the scent. So cold and clinical. Chemicals masked blood, sweat, and tears.
Joseph opened one eye, then the other. He found himself back there in Master Deus’s primary lab. He floated in the middle of the room. There was a hook field behind him. Which was exactly what it sounded like. It was a shield that hooked around Joseph’s back, holding him steady.
He wasn’t alone. Scientists strode about. They wore thick, bulky armor. There were no crisp white lab coats here. Do that, and you’d just be inviting some angry scientist below you to stab you in the back – literally.
The armor was strong, splattered with blood here and there, and smelt worse than the room.
One scientist strayed close to Joseph. He grabbed Joseph’s hand roughly and shoved a scanner up against it. It beeped slowly.
Joseph had to remind himself that this was a memory. And what made that fact important was that he wasn’t here right now. He was back in the Academy, and at any time, if he screamed loud enough, he’d get out.
It didn’t change the emotional primacy of this moment – the raw trauma that sank into every centimeter of him.
Joseph had been found during something called the Axira incident. Admiral Lara Forest – Joseph’s direct superior – had rescued him and brought him to the Coalition. Then after years of reintegration, Joseph had joined the cadet program. He was now a fifth-year – just a month from graduating. It was weird – almost cripplingly so – to know that fact while at the same time experiencing this memory as if it were occurring.
He heard a heavy thump from over near the doors. It was followed by a crunch. Then the door opened. Why was it that everything on Deus’s ship sounded like broken or breaking bones? It echoed through the air.
There was the drumbeat of footfall as someone strode in.
Joseph stared at one of the largest scientists.
When it came to practicing science on a ship like this, you had to be a hell of a warrior. The bigger you were, the more likely you were to stick around. It had nothing to do with how talented you were. This guy looked like a hulking great rock warrior. His armor was a hodgepodge. The reason wasn’t that it made it more efficient. Just scarier. Joseph could see different chunks that had been ripped off the guy’s enemies. There was even a gleaming chest piece from a Coalition soldier. Joseph might not have recognized that at the time, but now he did. His gaze locked on the old brown patina of bloodstains crusted up the side.
“Prepare him for his first inhabitation,” the guy snarled. His voice was like nails down a blackboard. Joseph knew that sound now. The first thing he’d done when he’d reintegrated with the Coalition was to partake in the considerable Coalition database. It had information on old Earth – and every planet you could think of. Immersing himself in history often took him out of the present. But nothing could snap him out of this vision unless he willingly broke it. Do that, and he’d only confirm he wasn’t up to this.
“He’s already prepared. There are no snags left in his psyche,” one of the scientists snarled.
Snags left in his psyche? Sounded unscientific, didn’t it? Kind of was. But it was a direct way of stating that Joseph’s mind was now just as open as a set of doors that had been ripped off the side of a building. Even the smallest, newest, least powerful psychic out there would be able to bust their way in and start to control him.
Joseph felt his heart rate quicken in the pod. He became momentarily aware of it as if his mind was giving him an exit route. He couldn’t take it yet.
That massive scientist tilted his head back. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, so you could see the low lights glinting off his prominent nose, sliding over his bulbous lips, and collecting just under his fierce gaze.
Joseph fancied he could even see blood splattered down the guy’s collar. He really doubted it was some nasty shaving incident. Likely the guy had been forced to battle it out before he put his armor on and hadn’t bothered to take a wash.
The chief scientist never deviated his gaze once. He stared at Joseph as if he was going to enjoy this. To be fair, to someone like him, the thought of a weak mind being taken over by Deus was about the greatest entertainment there was.
You could look for someone with a kind heart on this ship. But you’d be looking for eternity.
Joseph again became aware of his body in the pod. It started to disrupt the experience until he heard a soft voice over the intercom. “Just flow with it. Don’t get in its way. It’s in the past, Lieutenant. You’re over it now.”
“Yeah,” he managed, though he couldn’t speak aloud.
There were two things that were wrong with that statement. He was still technically a cadet. He was only a lieutenant to those who knew he was a spacer. The other massive gaping hole in her argument was that he was over this.
How could you ever get over a past like his? He’d been born on a colony world. He could still remember every single detail of his prefabricated home nestled into a craggy hill. From the kitchen window, you could see the magnificent peaks reaching toward the stars. They’d perpetually glimmered with snow, even on the hottest days. Venturing up their sides, you could always find some cool cave to wait out the heatwave.
Then there were his friends. All he had to do was close his eyes, and he could hear them laughing.
He remembered every single name.
One day – all of it had ended. The colony had been wiped out by a Barbarian raiding party, and Joseph – out of everybody – had been saved.
If you could call outliving your entire family and friend unit being saved.
Joseph knew that his heart rate quickened yet again. He didn’t need the pod to warn him with a shrill beep.
He couldn’t calm himself. Not as, in his vision, the chief scientist snarled. His ruddy lips pulled back to reveal glistening yellow teeth. They were pointed like tiny little sabers. The saliva practically sloshed along them. This guy was not human. He was from one of the Barbarian races. He looked like he’d once had a tusk that’d jutted out from his chin, but now all he had was a charred stump. He grabbed it, the metal fingers of his armor sliding over it with clangs. “Tell the Master to inhabit him. Now.”
Here we go.
Here we damn well go.
It was the same every time. Joseph suddenly sensed this force thrust into his mind. It couldn’t possibly fit. It felt like his head was the size of a pin but the entire universe was trying to jam itself down into it.
Joseph screamed in his mind. He had to control himself not to let that scream echo out in the real world.
It took every ounce of his training.
He had to get through this. Just one more time. He needed to find the details everyone was after. The Milky Way was relying on him. With that refrain repeating in his head, he endured.
Then he felt Master Deus’s presence. At first, it was like a far-off crack of thunder – just the minutest warning something was on the horizon. Then, in a rush, Joseph could actually feel his Master’s thoughts. His psyche was… violence embodied. Every thought was twisted toward destroying someone to take what they possessed. There was no kindness. There was no heart. There was the complete lack of both.
Most people who’d never experienced a psychic attack didn’t truly understand how the mind felt when it was pushed to the edges of the body. It was like the psyche was suddenly a ball. One that was being crushed. Joseph became smaller and smaller until it felt as if his thoughts had never mattered, as if his memories were nothing but illusions.
“The moment is coming up, Lieutenant. You must pay attention,” Anna’s words slipped through his reverie.
He wanted to grab hold of them like they were a ladder and climb them out of this horror.
Master Deus’s mind took up more space.
Suddenly, Joseph twitched. His right arm first – then his left. His fingers spread then one by one crunched in with the sound of bones being scraped over dirt.
Then one lip twitched, and the other.
Deus was in.
Joseph reached forward, opened his hand as wide as it could go, and generated a subspace blast in his palm. It shuddered there, getting more violent and stronger by the second.
He directed it not at the chief scientist but the guy next to him. The man had done nothing wrong – nothing but stand there while Master Deus wanted to try out his new toy.
The scientist’s eyes widened – just a crack. There was no time for him to scream. He knew there was no point in thrusting down to his knees to beg. What would be done to him by Deus he had done to others. The circle of karma had simply spun around again.
Deus roared in Joseph’s mind, enjoying every sensation as power collected within him. Then he thrust Joseph’s shoulder forward with a crack. Just as that blast of power almost lanced out of his palm toward its victim, something happened to Joseph’s head. The same thing that happened every single time he tried to recall this traumatic memory. A hand appeared out of the darkness right in front of Joseph’s face, and the fingers clicked. This was the moment he had to heed. The very reason for this pod – the counselor – everything.
The fingers clicking in his head right now belonged to the Queen.
Six months ago, Joseph would have fallen during the fight for the Academy. He hadn’t, because the Queen had intervened. She’d somehow done something to his mind to block him off from psychic trauma. He was still a target and could be inhabited by stronger psychics, but he was no longer as soft as he’d once been.
He tried to take down every single detail of those clicking fingers, but it happened so quickly. The point was it was abrupt. He’d been so invested in the traumatic memory of killing that scientist, but the fingers were meant to be some kind of clanging alarm – one that roused him from the depths of his horror.
He could tell they were female – small, too. The nails were short. And the sleeve – it definitely looked like a cadet uniform. That was it. There were no moles or scars, no handy marks at all.
The vision ended.
Joseph felt himself jolt awake in the pod.
Anna was there. As he looked up, slipping his gaze toward the suddenly opening doors, he saw Forest walking in. “Anything new?”
Joseph pushed up from the pod as the orange holding shields flickered off with a buzz. He grabbed the back of his neck and let his nails curl in as they sliced down his trapezius. “Same details as before. No moles, no scars. Nothing.”
Forest looked down at her feet. She didn’t seem surprised.
Anna, on the other hand, sighed, her shoulders dropping a few centimeters. “There will be more information. You just have to find it.”
She… okay, this sounded harsh, but she was just a counselor. Standing over there was Admiral Forest – arguably the greatest admiral to have ever served the Academy. A woman who pretty much shouldered the burden of the oncoming war. If she wasn’t disappointed, then Joseph wasn’t gonna hang his head.
“It was unlikely this method was going to work,” Forest stated flatly.
Anna, a tall Hembra with long, elegant limbs and a face to match, twisted. She had red hair that was tousled down her back. She wore a mixture of an Academy counselor’s outfit – with the pale-blue tunic buttoned high at the neck – and the traditional dress of her people. A bright scarf gathered her tumbling messy locks back. It was a flash of color in the otherwise usually clinical corridors of the Academy. “I don’t believe that’s true, Admiral. I can sense that there is a memory deep inside him. I believe he knows who this cadet is.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Lara said noncommittally. “But there are other ways to find this information out.” She looked right at Joseph. Even if someone had shoved her – with a frigging high-powered cruiser – her gaze wouldn’t have deviated once.
He knew what that meant.
Without further ado, he jumped out of the pod. It was suspended on the wall, but Joseph could technically fly. He didn’t have to now. His boots thumped down with two ringing thwacks. He straightened.
His heart still pounded, but he ignored it.
Forest nodded once then inclined her head to the side.
It was time to talk business, ha?
Joseph went to walk away, but Anna stopped in front of him. “Come back. There’s more in your mind we must find.”
Yeah. There was so much in his mind. But all of it was broken.
Maybe he would gather the strength to do this again, but for now, Joseph was gonna do what he did best. He would use his considerable skills to fight his way to the truth, not remember it.