Chapter 25

 

Ramirez and his team’s boots clopped hollowly against the deck as they sped through one causeway after another.  Mercifully the marines had let their wards walk on their own after they were sure of how much distance now lay between themselves and the humanoid hurricane raging on the flight deck.

They stopped outside a weapons locker on one of the ship’s lowest decks.  Unlocking the door, Ramirez ushered Logan, Sam, Lucas, and Sera inside.

“There’s only one way in or out of here,” he told them as they sheepishly entered the confined space, walled in by steel shelving and boxes of artillery.  “You’ll stay put here until this blows over.  My men and I will guard you with our lives if we have to.”

“Do you really think any of you stand a chance against her?” Logan asked, earning pensive silence from Ramirez.  “What’s to stop her if she decides to come for us?”

Approaching Ramirez, Sam asked, “Chief, can I borrow your radio?”

“I’ll inform Major-General Toth and Captain Hughes myself of our status,” Ramirez responded, unconsciously reaching for the radio on his tactical vest.

“That’s not it,” Sam persisted.  “I’d…  I’d like to hear what’s going on up top.”

As if to punctuate his request, the walls trembled and the lights flickered for a moment—the results of another explosion on the flight deck.

Looking back down from the ceiling, Ramirez said, “Just sit tight here, all right?  We’ll take care of things.”  Without waiting for Sam’s reply, he rejoined his men outside the locker, standing guard.

Giving up, Sam turned to look into the locker; he found Lucas, watching him from the corner.  They shared a look, though no words.

Sera stepped forward, eyeing both Sam and Logan.  “Be honest.  Do Freya and Rashid really have a chance of beating your sister?”

With an uncertain look, Sam turned to Logan, who leaned against a wall of shelves, his lips thinning.

“Both of them have fought plenty of Q before,” he said with a hum, “but never a psychic like themselves.  Granted, Rashid’s killed people before, and while Freya’s yet to pop that cherry, she definitely has the guts to do it—neither of them possesses an overabundance of empathic regard.”  Raising his eyebrows and dodging their looks, he continued, “Were this a squabble between Freya and Rashid, I’d say they’re evenly matched.  And in the case of two against one, the odds would definitely be in their favor…  But Elaina’s abnormal even for a psychic.”

“You think her personality disorder gives her an advantage,” Sera surmised.

Heaving a sigh, pulling himself from the shelves, Logan stood straight and met her gaze.  “At the risk of sounding crude, Elaina lacks a conscience.  And a conscience requires one to see themselves as beholden to others, to be especially self-conscious; if synchronicity requires losing your sense of self, then theoretically that might mean she lacks mental barriers common among our other psychics.”

Even with such a description, each of them felt the itching truth of the matter; this battle was undecided, which meant all they could do now was take shelter and be patient.  Logan leaned back against the shelves while Sam paced the locker’s short length.  Lucas sank back into the corner, while Sera stood near their center, as if awaiting some imminent event.

Time passed and the carrier continued to tremble on occasion, even down to its lowest decks, but no one spoke.  Absolute silence was intermittently broken by the sounds of Ramirez and his marines speaking outside.  They communicated over the radio with their commanding officers, trading status reports; and even spoke with Toth at one point, her strained voice carrying into the weapons locker.  No one in the locker could make out what she said, but her tone told them enough: things up top were not progressing.

Eventually, a distinct voice interrupted their torpor, despite the fact that it was barely audible in the perpetual quiet.

“Is this my fault?”

Sera, Sam, and Logan found Lucas, who sat with his knees raised and his arms folded, his eyes cast down.  None of them appeared to understand what he meant, so he elaborated.

“If I had my powers,” he said, “I could be up there right now.  I could help them…  Instead, I’m down here, helpless as ever.”

“What good’s pointing fingers going to do?” Logan told him, though he sounded less convinced.  “It’s not like it’ll make a difference, anyway.  Even if you were up there, we’d still be in this mess.  Whether we can pin this all on some scapegoat is ultimately irrelevant.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong, Lucas,” Sam said, refining his brother’s more blunt approach.  “Our predicament isn’t on you.”

“No, it’s on Elaina,” Logan told Sam, stepping forward.  “Of course, who here’s really surprised?”

Shooting his brother a sharp glare, Sam readied a reply, but the words never left his mouth.

“You’re both wrong,” Lucas muttered from the floor.  “It is my fault.  If I hadn’t tried to run away in the first place, I’d be able to help…  But now, if Freya and Rashid can’t handle her…”

“Then it is your fault,” Sera said pointblank.

“Now hang on,” Sam countered, stepping toward Sera.  “Logan was right before, there’s no point trying to place blame.”

“It’s not a matter of blame, but utility,” Sera replied stoutly, looking from Sam back to Lucas.  “If he had his powers, then yes, he could help the others.  If they die because he wasn’t there, then he’s at least partly to blame.  That’s all there is to it.”

Lucas’ face twisted, and he looked away from Sera, his guilt transmuting into something more red in the face.  “If I had known this would happen when I ran…”

“You would never have run from your memories, then?” Sera prodded, standing over him like a sentinel tower.  “If you had known just what it would cost us all?”

His shoulders rising, Lucas looked as if he might protest, but he held his tongue.  Sera then turned to Sam.

“It’s no use trying to consul him,” she said.  “The problem isn’t that he feels guilty about all this.”  Her hardened expression melted a little from her own words, and she glanced back at Lucas.  “It’s deeper than that—isn’t it?”

Watching the two of them, Sam asked Lucas, “What’s she talking about?”

“Elaina,” Lucas breathed.  “She said I wouldn’t be able to regain my powers until… until I come to terms with my memories.”

“But that’s not possible,” Sam said.  “You aren’t suffering from something purely psychological; there’s a brain injury to speak of.”

“Actually,” Logan said, stepping forward, scratching the back of his head, “that’s not exactly true—not anymore.”  He stood beneath the wide-open eyes of the others.  “Lucas, after you reappeared, we scanned your brain again.  And we found that the scarring around your limbic system was entirely absent.  Theoretically,” he added, extending a hand, as if presenting Lucas to himself, “there’s no longer a neurological barrier preventing you from revisiting that memory.  Now, that’s not the same as saying you can just recall that memory—”

“No, he still has it,” Sera said, turning back to Lucas.  He looked away from her, but she crouched before him, forcing him to meet her eyes.  “I lashed out at you before because I was angry.  I felt betrayed.  But now…  Now I understand how afraid you really were.  I won’t force you to confront this.  I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.  You’re the only one who can face this now.”

Lifting his head, Lucas was visibly pained by her gaze—yet he bore that pain.  “I meant what I said before, back in the hangar, about why I came back for you…  But now…  Now I feel like I could fail everyone on this ship.  If Elaina kills Freya or Rashid, of if they kill her, then we won’t have our four, and we won’t be able to put an end to this.  We won’t be able to stop the Q.”  Hoisting himself up by a shelf, he face to face with Sera.  “I’ve been running for a long time, but now, the closer I come to it, the more I want to… atone.”

“Atone?” Sam asked.

“I can’t explain it,” Lucas replied, “but Sera’s right.  There’s something deep inside me; I’ve been trying to escape it for the past seven years.”  With a fixed expression, a new determination in his eyes, he turned back to Sera.  “I’m ready to face it now.  I want to.”

“All right, then,” Sera said in a hush.

With awe and worry, Sam and Logan watched Sera take one of Lucas’ hands in hers.  Her free hand lifted Lucas’ sinking chin, raising his eyes back to hers.  She smiled warmly at him, and his mouth curled weakly in reply.

“Let’s begin,” she said.  And in an instant, for the two of them, the present reality vanished, overshadowed by their memories, splayed out.

For the momentary transition Lucas closed his eyes.  When he opened them again, he saw only darkness.  He could feel his feet on the ground, and he could look down at the rest of himself, as if he were in the light, yet everything else around him was thick with blackness.  All he could see was a singular figure, who stood before him.

What are you doing? Lucas was asked.  Immediately he recognized the figure, and with the force of that recognition the blackness surrounding him transformed.  He revisited the time this figure had watched his father take a fist to the face.  The figure followed him through the years, even teaching him how to levitate stones in the family garden outside the old chapel.

Why are you here?

“It’s time,” Lucas replied.  “Are you here to stop me?”

You shouldn’t press.  Some doors are locked for a reason.

“I know.  But unless I’m willing to bear that…  If I can’t accept it, then innocent people will die.”

You may destroy yourself.

“It’s not just about me anymore.  My life doesn’t belong to me alone—not anymore.”

Lucas walked past the figure, then found himself standing at the chapel’s front door.  He glanced back at the figure, nostalgia swirling in his belly.

“Have you been keeping me from this memory, then?” he asked.  The figure didn’t respond.  “Are you the Sera I’ve been talking to these past few months?”  Again, no reply came, at least not in words.  In an instant, he realized the figure was in some way Sera—and yet it wasn’t.  The figure represented a lacuna, one he had never noticed before.

“Thank you,” Lucas told the figure.  “You protected me all this time—I’m grateful.  But I’m ready now.”  Turning back to the doors, he opened them with both hands, then stepped into the chapel.

Shouting—that was the first thing he could remember.  He had woken up to shouting, coming from the chapel downstairs.

Rising from his bed, on shorter legs he walked out into the main hall.  He could hear several voices—among them his father, stout; and his mother, pleading.

“What’s going on?” a soft voice asked.  Sera emerged from her room, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.  “Who’s shouting?”

“Go back to bed,” Lucas told her before intrepidly sneaking down the stairs.  Sera followed him wordlessly, her covered feet pattering against the wooden floor.  On the first floor, they peeked through the closest door into the chapel, where they found a small group of men, all dressed in black, arguing with their parents.  Their father was holding their mother back with an arm, keeping his eyes on the men.

“Mommy looks so scared,” Sera whispered.  They could see the anger in their father’s expression, too.  Tugging at his shirt, Sera asked who those men were, but Lucas didn’t know.  No, that wasn’t right—he recognized one of them.  There was a man with a bald head and tensed eyes; he’s the one who had punched their father in the chapel before.

“You have no right being here,” Richard boldly declared to the leader of their group.  “This is our property.  If you don’t leave now, I’ll be forced to call the authorities.”

The group’s leader—a man with scruffy facial hair and a pouty face took a step toward Richard.  Gently though decidedly he said, “Come on now, let’s be rational here.  Just what do you think the police will do for you?”  He glanced around the chapel, then looked back at Richard.  “You and I both know they’re likely to take your boy away—you’ll never see him again.”

The man’s words caused Lucas’ heart to skip into his throat.  A thousand questions came to them, none of them articulate, each of them adding pressure to his head.

“Don’t act as if your own intentions are so noble,” Richard snarled back.

Losing a bit of patience, the scruffy-faced man said, “Now look, our only concern is the safety of our community.  We’ve got Q to worry about.”  The other men seconded that.  “And we can’t spend our time wondering if some psychic’s going to suddenly go ballistic, too.”

A chill crawled over Lucas’ skin, and he stood frozen to the spot.  He couldn’t feel Sera tugging at him anymore; he could only see the scruffy man, and hear his words.

“I already told you my son’s not psychic,” Richard insisted, his voice as firm as before.

“Come off it,” the scruffy man chuckled.  “A couple of his classmates finked on your boy, Rick.  Seems he was showing off to a couple friends today, right after school.”

“Children tell stories,” Richard said.

The scruffy man smiled and shrugged.  His smile then sank, and he told the men behind him, “Search the place.  Bring the boy here.”

Richard leapt at the scruffy man, but two others beat him down to the floor before he could do anything while a couple of others held Araceli back.  They roared for her to shut up while the others slinked from the chapel, into the rest of the church.

Stumbling back, Lucas hit the wall, his heart pounding uncontrollably.  Paralyzed, he watched Sera throw the door open and rush into the chapel, shouting for the men to stop hurting her daddy.  Light poured over him through the open doorway, soon eclipsed by a few men, who grabbed him; they dragged him out into the chapel, kicking and thrashing.

Araceli pulled Sera close and wrapped herself around her, screaming at the men to not hurt Lucas.  Richard yelled with her, demanding that they let his son go.  But despite his parents’ screams and his sister’s cries, Lucas was thrown carelessly onto the stony floor, in the aisle bisecting the pews.  Looking up, he found the bald man who had punched his father before, now staring down at him; the man’s lips tightened, brow creasing, scrutinizing the boy the same way he might a rabid animal.

Entirely confused, Lucas still knew to be afraid.  Puerile shame washed through him, for the fact that he had violated his father’s one cardinal rule.  Those two emotions collided, colluding into a suffocating desire to be with his family.  When he attempted to crawl to his parents, a dense boot kicked him back into his place—a foot belonging to no one in particular.  He was surrounded by what seemed to be countless feet and towering legs, no longer able to discern which had kicked him.

The screams, the kicks, the sheer chaos—his face twisted, and tears smeared his burning cheeks.  From out of nowhere, emerging from the surrounding legs, Lucas came face to face with the scruffy man, who squatted down to the young boy’s level.  He looked at Lucas with something like disappointment; in his delirium, Lucas wondered if this man was as disappointed as his father that Lucas had broken such a paramount rule.

“I want you to know,” the man said, his voice low, “I get no pleasure out of this.  I want you to understand that.  I don’t hate you.  I don’t think you’re evil.”  He shook his head, as if to ask what else he could really do.  “But you know as well as anyone else, what you do, it’s unnatural—and it’s dangerous.  I wish it could be otherwise.”

The bald man from before swatted Lucas with his foot, getting his scruffy leader’s attention.  “Enough of the pity part already.  Let’s get this done.”  From his coat the bald man withdrew a long revolver.  Lucas scrambled back on all fours, but more feet and hands shoved him toward the bald man.

With a sigh, the scruffy man looked away.  “Just…  Not in front of the kid’s folks, okay?”  With a wave he ordered the others to take the preacher and his women away.  But the screams multiplied, and Richard and Araceli thrashed more furiously at their captors, prompting their leader to go see what the hold-up could be.

Lucas wanted to scream with them, but it was as if those numberless hands were now around his throat.  His voice was gone, his face raw.  He felt something heavy rap him over the head.  Recoiling from the blow, he looked up at the bald man, who glared down at him, his teeth showing.  The man thumbed back the revolver’s hammer—“This is taking too long.”

Lucas gasped, and the gun went off.

A bloodcurdling scream escaped Araceli, and she fell against the men wrestling her back.   Richard struck every man he could reach, but he too was held at bay.  The scruffy man shouted back at the bald shooter, “I told you to fucking wait!”  But he could only see the stunned expression on the bald man’s face.  Everyone cleared a way for their leader, giving him, Richard, and Araceli a clear view of Lucas on the floor, staring in terror up the barrel of the revolver.  Between the young boy’s face and the muzzle, a single bullet spun slowly, suspended in the air.  The bald man brandishing the gun looked panicked, though not nearly as much as the adolescent he had fired on.

“Stop it!” Richard shouted at the top of his lungs.

“Hold up!” the scruffy man ordered, running for the shooter.  But it was too late.  Another shot was fired.  Then another, and another.  Yet all three additional bullets hung at bay in the air like the first, inches from their target.

More shouting followed, and a couple of more shots, but Lucas registered none of it.  All he could see were the bullets near his face.  He felt a sharp spike plunging into his head, like a single talon clawing its way out of his brain.  His hearing muffled and his vision blurred, then the talon burst from him as an incoherent shout.  But it was not enough to only shout.  It was as if a star had detonated inside his head, flowing like a river through the rest of his body, vaporizing his insides until, finally, uncontainable, Lucas himself evaporated and the supernova escaped him.

Having lost track of himself, time became moot; he wasn’t sure how long he had been out.  He came to himself in the midst of sobs, his body already working when he himself returned.  Still on his knees, Lucas found himself in what could have been another world altogether.  That would have been better.      The chapel was hardly recognizable.  The pews were upturned, flung against the walls and columns, some snapped.  The altar and its candles had shattered, and the rosy windows had cracked, scarring the Lord’s image and that of the Patriarchs.  And among the decrepit house of holiness, the men were scattered—the men who had come for him—strewn along the floor like broken glass, dead as the cold stones beneath their contorted faces.  Their limbs were twisted, some smashed; blood trickled and pooled from beneath piles of wood and hunks of granite.

With a single turn of his head, Lucas found his family, nestled among the ruins.  Leaning toward them, he fell onto the ground, his strength mostly gone.  Forced to a crawl, he drew closer to them with cries, calling their names, receiving no reply.  His tears returned, blurring his sight, but he continued to shout into the silence.  He shouted and shouted, falling to the floor—sobbing, and crying out for an answer.

A gentle voice overcame his own.  His eyes shot open.  He heard the groan of his father.  Lifting his head, Lucas crawled more furiously than before, finding Richard Weir on his side.  A flicker of hope kindled in Lucas’ chest, blown out when he turned the wheezing body over.

A crimson line cut across Richard’s face, drawn from his nose and the corner of his mouth up to his ear.  He was looking into a distance that wasn’t there; though his eyes were wide, they registered nothing near.

Kneeling over his father, Lucas clutched fistfuls of Richard’s coat, trying to say something—anything—but finding nothing.  Only crying and incoherent pleas.  Richard slid a shaking hand blindly toward the sound of his son’s voice, finding Lucas’ hand.  He squeezed that hand, his grip strong, then gradually weakening.

“Lucas…”

Another gasp exploded from Lucas’ throat.  “Daddy…  I’m sorry…  God, I’m so sorry!  Please…  I didn’t mean to…”

“Lucas.”

Hearing his name again, Lucas raised his head and looked back into his father’s eyes.  Though Richard’s sight was fading, he looked back at his son with clear eyes.  A soft smile wafted along his father’s mouth.

“It’s okay,” Richard managed to say, a line of tears joining the rivulets of blood across his face.  “It’s okay, Lucas…  It’s okay…”

Richard’s head slumped as he repeated himself to his son, again and again.  His voice softened with each rendition, and his grip on Lucas’ hand loosened, until his body became limp and his voice ceased.

His mouth hanging open, Lucas gaped down at what remained of Richard Weir, then bowed his head against his father’s chest.  Clutching his hand still, he let out a terrible shout, his own body seeming to give out, all his strength poured into this single lament—this protest against anyone who would listen.

Watching his younger self crumble, Lucas Weir stood over the dead preacher and his weeping son.  He felt Sera’s hand slip warmly into his own, though he didn’t dare avert his eyes.

After some time, she asked him, “Have you seen enough?”

Behind them, the ineffable figure appeared.  I told you, you wouldn’t like this.

“I don’t,” Lucas confessed, turning from his younger self to the figure.  “But that doesn’t matter anymore.”  He glanced back one more time at the scene—the memory he had long-since forgotten, the trauma he had fruitlessly attempted to evade all this time.  “This is the truth.”  Steeling himself, he faced the figure.  “But this isn’t everything; there’s still something missing.”

Both he and Sera could sense it then, looking into the figure, who possessed no content, no substance; though in the shape of a person, in essence the figure was more the outline of a hole in their collective memory.  Each of them knew the figure had been with them since the beginning, yet only now did they realize its presence—or that there was something missing at all.

Do you really want to know? Lucas and Sera were asked.

The two of them shared one last look before boldly, defiantly facing the figure for the final time.  In response, the figure frayed away, along with the chapel, returning Lucas and Sera to the darkness in which they had begun.  Only the two of them remained.

“Are you ready, then?” Sera asked, her voice faint.

“Yeah,” Lucas breathed shakily.  “I’m ready.”

Opening his eyes, his hand in Sera’s, Lucas recognized the weapons locker—he was back aboard the Eisenhower.

Looking back at Logan and Sam, who eyed both him and Sera with no small amount of perplexity, Lucas said, “It’s done.”

“But…”  Logan stammered, uncertain of what had happened, having only seen Sera and Lucas stand in place for a moment.  “What’s changed?”

“I left something behind when I came back from that singularity,” Lucas said, beginning to beam, feeling lighter.  “I had to go back and get it, that’s all.”  He then turned and headed for the door.

“You’re going to fight Elaina,” Sam said, walking after him, stopping him at the threshold.

“Of course he is,” Logan said from behind his brother.

As if he hadn’t heard Logan, Sam looked desperately back at Lucas.  “Will you kill her, then?”

“What else would he do, Sam?” Logan asked.  “We have no other choice.”

“How can you say that so callously?” Sam burst out, spinning around to face Logan.

Logan grabbed Sam by his shirt.  “How can you not see the mess she’s put us in?”

“This is all supposed to end with four,” Lucas said to them both.  “That means all of us.  I’m going to do everything I can to save Elaina.  But…”  He met Sam’s gaze for a moment.  “There’s only so much I can do.”

Sam’s lips parted, but no words came.  His shoulders swayed, but he resigned himself to that fact.  “I’d like to come with you, Lucas.”

“There’s no way!” Logan protested.

“I want you to come, too, Logan,” Sam said, far calmer.  “We…  We should be there…  For whatever happens.”

Logan searched Sam’s eyes for some time, his tense demeanor softening under what he found.  At last, he sighed.  “All right, then.  Let’s go.”

The two of them then followed Lucas and Sera out of the weapons locker.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ramirez asked, stepping in front of Lucas.  “It’s way too dangerous to move now.”

Lucas made no attempt to move.  Instead, Ramirez watched as his tags lifted weightlessly from his chest, along with the containers and equipment in the locker.   At once, everything clattered back into place, released from what the Master Chief instantly recognized as a psychic hold.  He then focused on the one who had lifted those objects.

“Thank you for your help,” Lucas told Ramirez, “but believe me when I say I’m probably the safest of all of you.”

With Sera leading the way, Lucas walked past Ramirez and his men, back the way they had come.  Sam and Logan trailed behind them.

Looking back on his way, Logan called to Ramirez and the marines, “You’re welcome to come along, if you like.”

The four of them then disappeared, back into the bowels of the Eisenhower, on their way to the flight deck.

***

High-caliber ammunition continued to skitter along the flight deck, and Freya and Rashid both breathed heavily from the length of time spent evading Elaina.  They both knew their Talos-skins could handle intense punishment, but it remained to be seen whether the material could withstand such a close-range spray.  Neither of them was interested in testing the suit’s limits.

“There’s no way we’re going to get so close to her again,” Freya told Rashid through the comm.  “Not like this.”

“It may not even matter if we do,” Rashid replied, his exhaustion evident in his voice.  “Not if we have to worry about these planes.”

Backing into each other, Freya and Rashid watched the jets encircle them again, gliding menacingly around their prey.

Heaving a deep breath, Freya said, “Then we’ll just have to play by her rules.”  Extending her arm to an end of the flight deck, she seized a distant F/A-18 Super Hornet, flinging it from its spot, hurtling it into one of Elaina’s own F-35s.  The two planes fell into the sea in a flaming heap.  “It’s an expensive counterattack, but what else do we have?”

“Then I’ll take away her toys,” Rashid said, throwing himself headlong out of the two remaining fighters’ kill-zone.

Sprinting in the other direction, Freya said, “And I’ll break the ones she’s got!”

Shoving the air with his whole body, Rashid sent a row of fighter planes off the carrier’s edge, into the water.  As he pushed the rest of the aircraft he could find from the deck, Freya lifted two more Super Hornets, slamming them each into Elaina’s two remaining planes.  The only aircraft remaining on the deck were the blazing remains of one of Freya’s two-plane collisions.  Enraged voices filled their channel, US Navy and NATO alike, but they ignored them, focusing instead on their target, who was now without a weapon.

Rashid, finding himself closest to Elaina, took advantage of his opening.  Pulling what was left of Freya’s broadsword to himself—a hilt with a jagged stub for a blade—he rushed Elaina.

“Pretty bold,” Elaina hummed, remaining in place, thus masking her response to Rashid’s direct attack.

Freya spotted it before Rashid, and tried to warn him, but it was already too late.  The heap of scrap left on the deck sprang from the deck and sideswiped Rashid like a speeding train.  He bounced like a ragdoll, then skidded to a stop.  Under Elaina’s watch, Rashid struggled to stand.

“Unaone!” Freya yelled.  “Rashid!”

“Too late,” Elaina sang.  Without moving a finger, she lifted the same burning, metal mass over Rashid, giving him a moment to look up at it; she then dropped the mass like a sledgehammer.  Again the mass ascended, then dropped with equal force; then again, and again, and again.  The assault only stopped when Freya ran out beneath the falling mass, lifting her hands in the air, telekinetically halting the coming drop.

Shaking under the weight, Freya grunted down to Rashid, “Move already!”  But Rashid didn’t respond, lying motionless at her feet.  Freya’s whole frame quaked when she noticed Elaina was right beside her, watching her struggle to hold up her makeshift comet.

“This is really like you, isn’t it?” Elaina asked nonchalantly.  “You’ve spent so much time telling yourself you can take on anything, especially when others can’t.”

The blazing mass overhead abruptly became weightless, then shot off into the air from the psychic force Freya had been applying.  Before she could look back at Elaina, however, she felt her feet leave the deck.  She soared, then crashed into the top level of the carrier’s superstructure.  Couched in twisted metal and shattered glass, she lifted herself; a quick glance told her she had landed in the ship’s bridge.  Broken computers spat sparks, and crew yelled back and forth to each other, checking for casualties.  Looking around, Freya saw Toth, whose eyes were already fixed on her.

Emphasizing each word, Toth gave Freya one final order: “Kill her.”

Rising, Freya replied, “Romeo wilco,” then flew headfirst back at the deck.

She landed near Elaina, who appeared to be patiently awaiting her return.  Freya checked Rashid, receiving his vitals from his suit to her HUD; he was still alive, only unconscious.  She sighed in relief, then straightened up, facing Elaina once again.

“I must admit,” she said, “you’re much more formidable than I gave you credit.”

“High praise coming from you,” Elaina said, perking up.

“You want a good fight, then.  A real challenge, right?”

“Preferably.  The result won’t matter if we’re not giving it our all.”

Nodding at Rashid, Freya said, “My partner’s out of commission.  I don’t see much point in making this bigger than you or I.”  She turned back to Elaina.  “I’ll give you the fight you’re looking for, so long as you leave him out of this for now.  Just us girls—what do you say?”

“Sounds fun,” Elaina said, radiating.

“Thought you might think so.”

Freya then led Elaina to the center of the flight deck, away from Rashid.  Utilizing her visual feedback system’s retinal tracker, she then worked her way through a number of menus on her HUD, digging through the Talos-skin’s layers of security software.  At last, an artificial voice filled her helmet.

“Requesting confirmation of authority.”

Answering with her name, rank, and confirmation code, Freya then said, “I authorize the use of the Talos-skin’s chemical administration suite.”  Then followed a pinprick in her shoulder.

“Aggression stimulant administered,” the voice in her helmet declared.  “Holding cortisol inhibitor.”

“Negative.”

“Administering cortisol inhibitor.”

Elaina whistled, acting impressed.  “That’s a dangerous combo you’re mixing.  A manual triggering, then?  I have to say, I’m dying to see what happens when your ego and complexes quiet down—when only the archetypes are left.”

“You talk too much,” Freya said, pulling her helmet from her head, her entire body beginning to shake.  She fell to her knees, her heart accelerating.

“This isn’t a total surprise, really,” Elaina confessed.  “You never could accept failure.”

Freya gritted her teeth, nearly enough to crack them.  “Shut your mouth already.  You don’t know a thing about me.”

“I know more than you’d like to admit,” Elaina replied, unaffected by what was happening to Freya.  “For example, I know what that Q in Namibia showed you.”  She watched Freya’s eyes widen.  “Funny, for a girl who claims to have it all together, you seemed to come entirely undone.  In the end, what did you in?  Was it seeing your nasty aunt and uncle, or was it when Lucas saved you—when you couldn’t even save yourself?”

Clawing the deck, Freya felt the chemicals take full effect.  Her heart pounded in her ears, and every muscle in her body expanded.   Her lips stretched into a smile over her clenched teeth.  “That’s right,” she gasped.  “Just keep talking.”

The air began to oscillate; the deck vibrated, and broken glass jingled.  Freya heaved herself up to her feet, then walked toward Elaina, who watched patiently.  Her vision momentarily blurring, red cracks crept across Freya’s eyes, and her extremities rattled, as if storing some potential energy begging to be released.

Tilting her head at Freya, Elaina asked, “So you think getting angry will—?”

Freya darted forward, then rocketed a fist at Elaina’s face.  Her knuckles stopped a hair’s-breadth from Elaina’s bare nose, shaking in place against unseen restraints.  Elaina had intended to deflect the attack, but all she could do was keep Freya at bay—worse yet, that was readily apparent.

“I may not know everything about you,” Freya snarled, still shoving her fist in the direction of Elaina’s face, “but I know you’re human like the rest of us.  And that means you’ve got limits like the rest of us.  You’re wearing yourself out.”

The invisible barrier buckled partly, enough for Freya to land her punch.  Swinging around, Elaina stumbled back.  Her glasses snapped, the frames fell to the deck; lifting herself, facing Freya, Elaina’s face was bloodied, though she wore a wry smile.

“Am I really so obvious?” Elaina asked.

“More than you’d like to admit,” Freya said with a grin.

“I guess you’re right, I am approaching my limit.”  Elaina narrowed her eyes.  “But, then again, so are you.  If I’d been any more exhausted, your Talos-skin would have let you cave my skull in.  But you’ve already fought a Q today.  So I wonder—whose stamina will hit zero first?”

Freya grimaced.  Already feeling the side-effects of her chemicals, she forced a grin.  “That’s the lovely thing about all this: I don’t have to survive; all I have to do is kill you.”

Still glaring back at Freya, Elaina said, “If you kill me, you lose any chance of defeating the Q.  This all ends with four psychics, Freya, one way or another.”

“You’re joking, right?” Freya laughed, leaning forward, as if preparing to sprint.  “If I can kill you, then I could kill every last Q from now till kingdom come with my own two hands.”

Kicking off from the deck, Freya flew at Elaina with abandon, pulling the bristled hilts of both her combat sword and broadsword in the short distance between herself and her target.  Elaina doubled back, but Freya closed the gap too quickly—close-quarters combat was unavoidable.  Mentally parrying Freya’s first strike, Elaina planned for her to blow by; instead, what ensued was something like a dance.  Freya circumnavigated Elaina, turning her entire body to increase the spin and momentum of her broken swords, amplifying her blows.

Deflecting each strike, Elaina lowered herself, preparing to put some distance between the two of them once more—but Freya’s movements were too erratic, too unpredictable.  She circled Elaina, taking one swing after another at random intervals, at varying angles.  Though she was only one person, Freya left Elaina with little recourse than to hunker down and defend herself.

Elaina realized this would turn into a war of attrition quickly—she decided to change her tactics.

“You fight with a lot of passion,” Elaina called over the clanging of Freya’s strikes.  “I’m tempted to think it’s out of a sense of self-preservation—but we both know that’s not it.”

Getting a rise out of Freya, Elaina caught her next blow, holding it in place.

“This isn’t you trying to save yourself, or anyone else for that matter,” Elaina continued, delving into Freya’s wide eyes.  “You couldn’t give two shits whether the rest of the world lives or dies.”

Attempting to tug her weapon from Elaina’s remote grasp, Freya grunted, “I think you’re forgetting who the diagnosed narcissist is.”

Elaina could see what the chemicals had done for Freya; her focus had narrowed considerably.  Leaning closer to Freya, who continued trying to wrestle her weapon free, Elaina smirked.

 “It’s not just self-aggrandizement you’re chasing,” she told Freya.  “The truth is you’re just a poor little girl, desperately seeking what she never got as a child.”  Freya bared her teeth, but Elaina only simpered further.  “Lovely mummy and daddy were so kind and good, and evil auntie and uncle did nothing but demand the world of you.  Nothing was ever enough.  All they wanted was the little girl with the title ‘honorable’ in front of her name, the girl from privilege and prestige.  And all your country wanted was the brave daughter of the woefully deceased political titans, the little girl with the stiff upper lip—but that was never enough, either, was it?”

“I’ve had enough of you!” Freya screamed, yanking her weapon free of Elaina’s grip, resuming her circuitous attacks.  But Elaina knew she had already gained the advantage she needed.

 “We’re really not that different,” Elaina said as Freya spun on.

“You’re wrong,” Freya yelled.  “People are afraid of you.”

“And people pitied you.  They expected so much of you, and then suddenly nothing at all—and that wounded you.  And ever since you’ve spent every ounce of effort and strength you had in pursuit of excellence, and beyond, without realizing that all you were after was the approval no one could ever be bothered to give a natural fuck-up like you.”

Losing herself, Freya thrust both swords in one brutal jab.  Elaina easily sidestepped the attack; she then attempted to crush Freya against the deck, narrowly missing her, cracking the ground instead.

“Is that what set you off before, then?” Elaina asked, watching Freya deteriorate.  “When Lucas saved you in Namibia—did you hate him for stealing your glory, or for reminding you that you never really overcame what’s haunted you most in life?”

Just die!”

Closing her eyes, Elaina traced what she knew would be Freya’s final strike.  One of Freya’s swords made contact with Elaina’s arm, slicing it open at the bicep, but Elaina twirled out of the way of a fatal blow, catching Freya at the end of her motion.  Palming her by the forehead, Elaina lifted Freya from the deck, suspending her in air.  Her eyes wider than before, hanging impotently in the air, her mind fading, Freya roared at Elaina.

“You want so badly to be the hero,” Elaina opined.  “But really, you’re just an angry, scared little girl.”

“I’ll fucking kill you!” Freya screamed, the drugs taking their full toll.

“You certainly would,” Elaina agreed.  “But that’s now how this story goes.”

Elaina then viciously slammed Freya onto the deck—once, twice, again, again, and again.  Rolling to her side, Freya attempted to take the worst of the blows to her back and shoulders, rather than her head, as Elaina mercilessly continued her onslaught.  Elaina eventually stopped, and lifted Freya to eye-level to assess the damage.  Her eyes were closed, and blood spilled from her lips.  Even though she could barely speak, Freya still managed to murmur death threats at Elaina.

“I’ll kill you…  I’ll kill you…  I’ll kill you…  I’ll kill you…”

Calling Freya’s swords to her, Elaina brought the jagged ends to Freya’s neck.  “That’s not going to happen.”

Stop it, Elaina!”

Elaina flinched, then turned her head; she watched as Lucas and Sera approached her.

Lowering the swords from Freya’s neck, she cast a pleasant smile, as if relieved.  “I knew you’d turn up, Lucas.”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Lucas replied, meeting Elaina halfway.

Looking back at Freya, Elaina found her spinning aimlessly in place, still suspended, quickly fading.  Her curses and threats had long since curtailed, but her dulling attention was aimed at Lucas.

“She hates you, you know,” Elaina told Lucas.

“She can’t fight anymore,” Lucas replied.  “Let her go.”

“She’ll hate you even more if you step in.”

Swiping his hand through the air, Lucas knocked the swords from Elaina’s hands with his mind, sending them clattering far across the deck.  This only elicited glee from Elaina.

“You’ve done it!” she cheered.  “Your powers are back.”

“Yeah,” Lucas said, walking closer to Elaina with Sera.  “It took a minute, but I did it.”

Stepping forward to join Lucas and Sera, Elaina let Freya drop onto the deck.  The three of them convened, saying nothing for some time, as if to first size each other up.

“I see you came without a Talos-skin,” Elaina at last observed, looking Lucas up and down.  “I take it that means you don’t intend to fight me.”

“I didn’t come here to fight you,” Lucas said.

“What’re you here for, then?”

Her question weighed down on Lucas more than he had anticipated.  He looked to Sera, who had her eyes fixed on Elaina.

“We’ve come for exactly what you wanted us to come for,” Sera said.

Her giddy smile broken, surprise flickered across Elaina’s face, subsiding into an even deeper sense of relief—if only for a moment.

“And what might that be?” she asked, her voice faint.

“I’ve recovered what I can of my memory,” Lucas replied, facing her once more.  “We’ve come to you for the rest.”

Elaina said nothing, but she smiled at them anew—she wore the same smile she had back when she had confronted Lucas in his quarters on Argo, that genuine expression of the real Elaina Walker.  She extended her hand, then waited.  Lucas and Sera shared a look, then anchored their gaze on Elaina’s hand; together, they took her hand in theirs, then began.

In a moment, the three of them seemed to split, their memories pouring out, pooling into a cohesive whole—they each remained aware of the narrative about to unfold.

It was raining profusely the day they first met.

Lucas had wanted to play outside, but his mother had insisted he stay indoors.  Later that same day, his father came to his room, where he was busy—though somewhat reluctantly—reading.  He said there was someone he wanted Lucas to meet.

Led by his father into the kitchen, Lucas found a teenage girl sitting at their table, quietly sipping from a bowl of steaming soup.  She wore a loose towel over her soaked hair, and was dressed in old clothes Lucas guessed his mother had provided; he could hear the dryer rattling in the other room, likely full of this new arrival’s own clothes.

At the age of nine, Lucas felt somewhat nervous under the older girl’s quizzical stare; she seemed to watch him through a single eye, devoting the rest of her attention to eating.

“Lucas,” Richard said, walking his son closer to her.  “This is Ela.”

Fighting his father’s gentle nudges, Lucas tried to keep his distance.  This girl—Ela—was scowling, though not angrily; rather, she seemed to be inspecting him, scanning every possible detail.

Richard squatted beside his son, beaming, then pointed Lucas toward her.  “Lucas, Ela is very special, you see.  Actually, she’s just like you.”  While Lucas maintained his silence, Richard looked to Elaina, wordlessly asking for assistance.

Looking from Richard to Lucas, Elaina then fixed her eyes back on her soup.  Within a moment, the liquid began to levitate from the bowl, first in rotund wads and bulges; the floating soup then formed into ornate patterns above the bowl at the behest of her gaze alone.

Seeing the awe in Lucas’ eyes, Richard nudged him one more time.  “Go ahead, Lucas.  Show her, too.”

With some trepidation, Lucas walked to the table, feeling Elaina’s gaze on him again.  He focused on a glass of water by her bowl, reaching for it, his fingers far from it.  Creasing his brow, he managed to raise the glass from the table.  The glass rolled in the air, and the water tumbled out, suspended like a cloud.  Then, all at once, the glass and the water fell back onto the table; the glass cracked and the water splattered all over.

Mortified, pulling his hands to his chest, Lucas turned to apologize to Elaina.  He expected her to be irritated, but instead she was surprised, staring at the mess for some time.  She then looked back at Lucas, then smiled.  Her presence seemed to shift, turning from analytic though apathetic to something far warmer.

“It’s nice to meet you, Lucas,” she finally said.

With Richard’s help, Elaina found a job in town, and even a place of her own, not too far from the church.  Lucas could remember visiting on occasion when his father would walk Elaina home in the evenings.

Despite having her own place, however, Elaina seemed to spend most of her time at the Weirs’ little chapel.  Elaina would spend hours in conversation with Richard in his study, and with Araceli, both of them bouncing off one another as if they had known each other all their lives.  Often Richard would lend her some of his books—volumes with Greek names and Byzantine iconography; sometimes Eastern names and mandalas, Lucas remembered.  And sometimes Elaina would bring Richard books, ones with French and German names, and featureless covers.

Even with as much time as she spent with his father, Lucas could remember spending seemingly as much with Elaina.  They would both go up to his room, or sometimes the garden if they were feeling brave, and she would teach him how to lift and move things with a thought.  They, too, would talk for hours, about why they could do what they could, or why she thought they were what they were—but her words tended to go over his head.  But he didn’t mind.  He appreciated the lessons, but what he treasured most was at last having someone with whom he could share this.  For the first time in his life, he had recognized a certain loneliness that had cast its shadow in his heart—but only after Elaina had cast a light upon it.

One afternoon he wandered into the chapel, prompted by an argument.  A bald, disheveled man he had never seen before was shouting at his father, accusing him of blasphemy.  Elaina was standing at Richard’s side.  Far from passive, she seemed ready to rush the balding man, if not for Richard, who held her back with a gentle hand.  Even when the man took a swing at him, Richard held his face with one hand and Ela with the other, keeping her from going after his fleeing assailant.  And Lucas could remember that evening, sitting in the bathroom while his mother tended to his father’s black eye and split eyebrow.  Sera hid behind the doorjamb, and Elaina rested her hand lightly on the little girl, as if to tell her it was all right.  Together they talked, and they laughed.

Three years had passed, and, if nothing else, Elaina had become a member of the Weir family.

Their collective stream of memories sputtered, and Lucas found himself revisiting one purely his own.  As if it was still going on, he felt the sting in his lungs as he fought for every breath, running in the night as fast as his feet would go.  His face was chapped, his eyes were raw, and his body ached from what he had done only moments ago.  The chapel was in ruins; he had left it and the corpses, not looking back once.  Instead, trying to recall the few times he had been there before, he reconstructed the route to Elaina’s apartment.

It was well past midnight when he hammered at the door.  He didn’t stop until she opened up.  He then tripped over himself on his way inside, as if someone were after him even then.  Falling to the floor, he stared up at Elaina, who appeared confused though composed as always.  Unable to contain himself further, Lucas’ tears returned, and through sobs he recounted to her what he had done.

Watching the previously lost scene unfold, Lucas felt himself slip from the thoughts and feelings of his younger self, shifting to another—he could instead feel Elaina, who recollected her own experience.

She watched him huddled on the floor for some time, his words descending into incoherent moans.  Listening closely to his account, she was at first tepid—then her lip twitched, and she clutched her abdomen.  Something odd swelled in her.  Curious, she knelt beside Lucas, who looked up at her with a twisted expression.  Overcome by an unfamiliar thought, she wound her arms around him, pulling him close, holding him tightly.  In that moment, for what could have been the first time in years, she thought of Sam, and of Logan; she looked down at Lucas, and she thought she saw her brothers—though only for a moment.

Cradling his head in one hand, she whispered to him, “It’s all right, Lucas.  You don’t need to worry…  It’s over now—you don’t have to suffer.”

“What d’you—?”

Lucas’ words burned out as what felt like a fire kindled in his head, far more intense than earlier that night.  Pressure built inside his skull, so much so that his head threatened to split, to part and pour out its thick contents.  His entire body shaking, he clutched at Elaina, losing track of himself.  Suddenly he couldn’t remember his name, though he knew he must have one.  He could feel his own brain failing him, his mouth agape, his cheeks stinging.  There was no real pain, only the senseless pressure and the sensation of being squished from the inside out.  And then—nothing.

His once wide eyes drooped, and his body relaxed.  Resting his head against someone warm, he couldn’t think, let alone rationalize to himself what was going on.  All he could hear was an old cassette tape playing—had it been on this whole time?  The last thought to flutter from his mind was a memory of his mother lending Ela that tape, one of her favorites, the one lulling him from reality and into a dream—Ella Fitzgerald, “Blue Skies.”

Getting to her feet, Elaina lifted the young man with her.  She carried him to the street outside, set him on his feet, then told him to go.  Lucas obeyed, sleepwalking down the road.  Elaina watched him until he disappeared, then headed in the opposite direction—to the old church.  There she found exactly what Lucas had described.  She found Richard, Araceli, and Sera, huddled amid several others she didn’t recognize—nor did she care.  Wasting no time, she used a gas canister from the Weirs’ shed, then lit the church on fire.  The twitch in her face returned as she watched the old chapel go up in flames, but she turned away nonetheless, taking her leave.

As Elaina returned to her apartment in Detroit for the last time, Lucas Weir, age twelve, bereft of any memory of what he had done, walked away the rest of the night.  He left the city and his only home behind, escaping to whatever might be left for him now.  And along his way, a ghostly companion accompanied him, whispering in his ear and pushing him along in his fantasies and dreams; the image assured him he was a victim and not a perpetrator.  A parting gift from Elaina—something to ensure he would never remember that night.  That he would never feel the weight of what he had done.  So that he would never cry the way Elaina had seen—never again.

Together, Lucas, Sera, and Elaina emerged on that dark road.  Lucas and Sera stared in the direction Elaina’s younger self had taken to the church, while Elaina watched Lucas’ younger self disappear into the night.  Her lips were parted, but she said nothing; she appeared to be at an utter loss for words—a state Lucas had never seen her in, not even with these memories returned to him.

The scent of the sea filled their nostrils, and their vision melted away, returning them to the Eisenhower’s flight deck.

Lucas’ mouth opened some time before he spoke.  “I never repressed anything.”  He searched Elaina, who seemed unable to look back at him.  “You…”

“I wanted to think I was protecting you,” she murmured, tensing with every word.  “I saw what it was doing to you…  And for the first time in my life, I actually cared.”

“But why would you care about me, of all people?” Lucas asked, still holding her hand with Sera.

Lifting her eyes back to him, Elaina said, “I’m not sure, really.  But maybe it was something to do with what you and I share.  You knew—if only in part—what it’s like to be hated because of something you may never have chosen for yourself.  Hated and feared, so much that others would want to take your life.”  She broke off for a moment.  “When I looked at you, I saw myself.”

“You injured my brain,” Lucas said, “so I would forget?”

“I suppressed part of your memory,” she explained.  “Enough to take away the pain without wiping out any recollection of your family or your childhood.  In your mind, I created a mental process to block you any time you attempted to remember that night.”  She turned to Sera, somber, unnerving her and leaving Lucas uncertain.  “Lucas, you never let go of that memory, not entirely.  You dug deeper and deeper still.  Eventually, it seems you personified the barrier I left in your mind, turned it into a gestalt all its own.”

“I’m that process,” Sera breathed, her hand falling from Elaina’s fingers.  “I’m just… a thought?”

“You’re much more than that now,” Elaina said, taking a step toward her.  “You’ve become something I never thought possible: Lucas articulated you into the form of his younger sister, gave you the substance of an impossible desire to be with his family again.  But you—not the real Sera, but you—seem to have individuated from him.  You’ve become your own being.”

“I don’t understand,” Lucas confessed, eyes bouncing between Elaina and Sera.  “What does that mean?”

Shaking her head, Elaina said, “I can only assume this is an extension of synchronicity and how we created the Q.  When the two of you entered that singularity, in order to save yourselves, you somehow split, disassociated from each other enough to splinter.  Instead of slipping into nothing, you individuated from one another, then recreated each other constantly, ensuring neither of you would be lost in the void.”

Sera’s brow creased.  “Is that the truth,” she asked darkly, “or are you lying to us still?”

“Whether you believe me or not, I realize this must be troubling to hear.”

“Troubling…”  Sera chuckled bitterly, then subsided into a scowl.  “Then, if I’m just another creation…  Does that mean…  Am I a Q?”

Smiling warmly back at Sera, Elaina said, “You really are a lot like Lucas, so stuck on the microcosmic scale, never really seeing the big picture.  You’re no more or less a Q than a human infant.  You’re a creation, but one no different than myself or Lucas.  You came into being by different means, but mark my words: you’re just as real—just as rooted in God—as any other living being.”  She leaned closer to Sera, as if to have a better look at her.  “And I find that remarkable.”

“Elaina,” Lucas began.  “I didn’t just come for my memories.”  He scanned the deck, finding Freya and Rashid, then looked up at the superstructure’s crumpled peak.  “I don’t understand why you’re doing any of this…”

Turning fully to him, Elaina said, “I spent my first thirteen years locked inside my own skull.  I could hear stories about the world outside myself, and even see the people who populated it, but they were always just that—stories.  They were never real, not to me.  But then I met you.  You felt… familiar, in a way no one else ever had.  And when I saw you that night, I saw the profound suffering going on inside you—and I felt it in myself.”  She looked away again, as if wincing.  “So I took your memory—a mercy, or at least an attempt.  But I only realized after it was too late that that wasn’t mercy.  It was only a distraction.  I could keep that memory away, but I couldn’t hide the indelible mark it’d left on you.  I could spin you a tale about how you were the victim of unjust killers, and that your family were taken from you by force—and, in a way, that was true.  But all of that would never be anything more than fictive.  The reality was less pretty, and it only caused you pain.”

When she looked away again, Lucas took a step toward her, regaining her gaze.  “You suffered from it, too.  Something about you—your ability to seep into others thoughts…  That must have made my visit agony to you.”

 “After that night,” she said in a hush, “I never forgot.  I started to feel others’ pain, too.  And day after day I walked through life experiencing nearly firsthand the sum total of every other person’s pain, whether they realized it themselves or repressed it.  I felt their deepest agonies—they became my agony.”

Something seemed to squeeze Lucas’ heart, and his look softened.  “They all said you weren’t capable of that.”

“That’s the secret, though,” Elaina said, locking eyes with him.  “From an early age, I was told I was a psychopath—they may have even been right.  But when I entered your mind that night, for what felt like the first time in my life I felt pain that wasn’t my own.  You shattered my shell, allowed me to hatch into reality.  And after that, I couldn’t stop feeling others’ pain.”

“So you used my dad’s theology to make sense of all that pain.”

“He didn’t realize it at the time, but your father gave me a way of explaining to myself why there’s so much suffering.  The evils we commit, the tragedies we can never master…  He gave me a deep-seated truth—a truth you helped me experience…  But I also knew people hated that truth, and they hated your father for speaking it, for inviting them to experience it for themselves.  They didn’t want to wake up; they preferred their dreams.  And it wasn’t just them.  The more I traveled, the further I realized that Detroit’s no different from the rest of the world in that way.”

“When you told me the Q are manifestation of people’s suicidal desires,” Lucas said, “this is what you meant.”

“Their repressed desires, at least,” Elaina said.  “Few, if any, could ever admit it outright.  And because of that, they’ve spent the past thirty years locked in a perpetual war with themselves, catalyzed by a metaphysical malfunction.  And the only thing prolonging this war is the whole’s inability to come to a decision.”  Her own expression seemed to soften.  “When I finally saw that, I was moved.  I wanted to do something about it.”

“To force a decision,” Sera said.

“That’s right,” Elaina nodded.  “I went to Europe and arranged all the major players in this war for a final ritual, something to see us to enantiodromia—to open God’s eyes so wide as to be able to see the only options on the table, and to make a choice.”

“To go on,” Lucas said, “or to go extinct.  That’s why you’re doing this.”

“If you realize that,” Elaina told him, “then you also know why I can’t stop now.  This isn’t about me or you—it’s about all of us, everything.  Reality is groaning under itself; the subjects can’t bear the weight of their own objects anymore.  They’re crying for a final decision: to go on with their load, or to allow it to consume them for good.”

Elaina forced another smile, eyeing Lucas and Sera.  “I understand how much this hurts—you aren’t the only ones to feel the gravity here.  If anything, though, I’m grateful for a few things.”  Stepping forward, she brushed her fingertips across Sera’s cheek, and said to her, “I’m glad that you could protect Lucas, and then even faithfully helped him find the part of himself I’d hidden away.”

Holding Elaina’s hand to her face, Sera smiled.  Abruptly, her eyes shot open, then closed; she fell limp to the deck, unconscious.  Calling her name, Lucas rushed to her, but Elaina took his hand, causing his body, too, to collapse.

 “What are you doing?” he grunted from his knees, fighting to look up at her.

“Deep in your heart, you want humanity to survive,” Elaina told him.  “That desire meets its equal and opposite in me…”  An unexpected sadness flitted through her eyes as she stared down at Lucas.  “I have no intention of going on, not after everything I’ve done—especially to you.  And the fact that you disagree only tells me that God has yet to reach a decision.”

In a strained voice, Lucas called out to her, pleading for her to stop.  But he was losing himself once again.  He could feel a familiar impulse sprouting from his mind, digging its way like fingers through soil into the open.  Nothing was invading him; she was only coaxing something from him.  The more it grew, the more apparent it became: rage, fury, beckoned by Elaina, aiming it at herself.

“It’s an ancient idea,” she told him, “that God rules the world with two hands: good and evil, order and chaos, spirit and body, life and death.  The whole world suffers so long as one hand does violence to the other.  So, together, you and I—we’ll force a resolution.  We’ll trigger the final enantiodromia.”

“Elaina!” Lucas’ voice erupted, soon subsiding.  His uncontrollable fury began to surface.  He pleaded with her again, but Elaina only smiled.  His senses started to fade, but he could hear her still—he could hear her whisper over his pangs.

“Goodbye, Lucas.”

With the last of his sight, he watched a few tears roll down her cheeks, and he could see her lips moving.  She uttered one last message, one he could not hear, and which slipped away within him into unconsciousness.

***

The overcast sky was already growing dark when Lucas came to.

He lay on the deck, barely able to move.  He found the flight deck decimated, shredded; the superstructure at the ship’s midsection had nearly collapsed.

He looked into Sera’s face, who was lying at his side.  Her eyes were opened, yet she seemed as paralyzed as him.  To his surprise, two hands helped him slowly roll over.

“Try not to strain yourself.”

Rashid knelt over him, his hair messy, his face covered in sweat.  On his other side, Freya loomed over him as well, but her eyes were aimed away from him.  Groaning as he moved, he raised his head, following her line of sight—there he found Elaina.  At a distance she was sprawled out on the deck, the two broken swords unceremoniously planted in her chest and abdomen.

Lucas’ eyelids raised slowly, opening wide, as it dawned on him—what he had done.

Seeing her chest rising and falling, Lucas tried to crawl to her, but Rashid held him where he was.

“No, Lucas, don’t move…  It’s over.  She’s finished.”

The dense sound of footsteps caught Lucas’ attention.  He looked over and watched Sam walk past him, heading for Elaina.  Furrowing his brow, Rashid lowered Lucas’ head, preventing him from looking at Elaina.  But Lucas could hear a metallic clacking, and the sound of Sam lowering himself to Elaina.  He could hear the two of them speak, though their words were inaudible to him—then the terrible crack of a gunshot.

The moment the shot was fired, everything in Lucas contracted.  Bowing his head, clenching his eyes shut, with all his strength a shout clawed out of his throat.  His eyes burned, and the same agony as before seeped back in, saturating him down to the soul of his soul.

He lost consciousness again before his shout faded.