Chapter 26:

The Ebb Tide VII - "Mind Games"

Destiny Marine

Cacophony - that was a good word Isaac picked up from a story he had to read for class that could be applied here. An ear-shattering cacophony of bullet ricochets thundered around the cramped cargo hold. As he moved through the thick smoke, he realized that perhaps cacophony wasn’t totally adequate. His ears weren't the only body part and sense being overwhelmed - the fierce flames and cloud of smoke assaulted his eyes, the heat licked at his skin, and a putrid, ashy smell constantly assailed at his nose.

Heading into the fray seemed like a good idea, but truth be told, Isaac had no idea where he was going. Everything was all too overwhelming. He had to cultivate while he moved to push the inhaled smoke back out of him, a makeshift process that wouldn’t do him any good in the long run since cultivating while fighting was difficult. He wasn’t even sure if he pushed more impurities out of him than he took in, but he had to try.

The regular flow of breathing steadied him. Despite the chaos around him, it gave Isaac a small space of calm, allowing his consciousness to process his own thoughts rather than feel overwhelmed by everything going on all around him.

Is this Jackson’s plan? To throw us off with too much…information. The body and mind could only handle so many things at a time - Jackson’s using his power to force us into an information overload.

With his breathing providing him with a steady base, Isaac took each source of information as they came, separating them, making them easier to understand and handle. The ricochets came first, their regular pat-pat-pat, pat-pat-pat echoing throughout the hold.

No, that’s not right. Now that Isaac could listen calmly, something odd struck out to him - the ricochets weren’t random chaos, they followed a pattern. The same sounds came in at the same time, as if somebody replayed a record over and over. These ricochets weren’t a natural phenomena at all - they were man-made. After that first round of fire from the machine pistol, there weren’t any more bullets flying around anymore.

Jackson’s power must allow him to make illusions.

To confirm this, Isaac analyzed the fires. The flames didn’t flicker at random, either. Instead, they moved in a regular pattern; Isaac saw the same jet of fire shoot out at every few seconds in the exact same way. The fire itself looked odd as well - as if it had a predefined shape, as if an artist drew it.

The smoke could be fake as well. But I felt the heat and tasted the smoke going down my throat. But if my eyes could be deceived, couldn’t my other senses be as well?

And if that was the case, Isaac knew what he needed to do. Since the smoke blocked his vision, he analyzed the room with his other senses. He sifted through the patterns of repeating sounds and reproduced the smell of burning wood until he found an irregularity - a sound that wasn’t repeating. The sound of footsteps, the sound of planting a foot, the subtle sound of a jacket crinkling as the machine pistol was raised.

Isaac dove out of the way right as a real hail of bullets came in his direction. Their ricochets gradually transformed into the fake repeating pattern, confirming Isaac’s theory. More importantly, Isaac had Jackson on lock. He could make out the individual sound of an ammunition clip sliding out of the gun, the way it impacted the metal floor below. The irregularities in the fake patterns - in other words, evidence of the true reality covered by the illusion - gave Jackson's location away.

Moving through the smoke, Isaac raced forward, red lights in his fist. He arrived right at Jackson’s position and swung with all his might. He only struck air - no Jackson to be found here. As he looked at his fist in confusion, Isaac realized Jackson had been one step ahead of him.

If Jackson can make fake patterns to fool the senses, then there’s no reason he can’t make fake irregularities to fool me either.

Another irregularity appeared in front of Isaac, about ten feet away, too far to defeat before the machine pistol went off. Isaac feinted as if to dive out of the way, but instead, he dove right towards the irregularity. The machine pistol never went off; instead, thrown grenades exploded in Isaac’s former spot, as well any of the other places he could’ve dove towards. Isaac arrived at the irregularity in front of him and found nothing there, either.

He did bump into someone, though - auburn hair tangled with brown as the two midshipmen collided. Isaac and Babs spent a brief moment rubbing their heads, then Isaac pulled Babs away from incoming real gunfire.

“Isaac, what are you doing, just wandering around like that?” Babs asked as they slid behind a stack of crates. A suspicious Isaac felt the random contours and cracks in the wood and confirmed it was real; Babs tilted her head in confusion. “It’s like you can’t see.”

“How could you, with all this smoke?” Isaac asked. Babs herself was just barely visible in front of her.

Babs raised an eyebrow. “Smoke? Isaac, I blew that all away with my breathing technique. I’ve been chasing him this whole time, yet whenever I reach him, he seems to melt away into nothing.”

As Babs looked at him in confusion, Isaac reached a hand through the smoke, giving it a slight wave, watching the smoke roll away. He knew it was fake, yet this was a hurdle his mind couldn’t get over - his senses had been fooled so well that they screamed at him that the smoke was entirely real. A different thought entered his hand; he continued to reach forward and cupped Babs’ face. She took on a scarlet hue and looked off to the side.


“The slight irregularities on your face,” Isaac confirmed. He took his hand away. “You’re the real Babs, alright?”

The frown on her face spurred Isaac to explain himself. “Jackson’s power involves illusions. He made fake noise and fake fire to overwhelm our senses and enhance the main visual illusion of smoke. I can’t see through the illusion. But you were able to blow the illusion away - your breathing power gave confidence to your sense of sight and helped you realize the smoke was fake. But he’s still been evading you by making visual fakes of himself. Perhaps the Jackson we saw when we got here in the first place was fake, too. That’s why I touched you - the illusions feel like paintings, far too perfect, like everything was planned, while reality has random rough edges to it. His illusions are distillations of reality like a movie, to quote a friend.”

Babs responded by flicking his forehead. “Isaac, what the fuck are you talking about?”

Isaac motioned with his hands. “Essentially, we need to find the real Jackson. We need to break this fucked-up illusion of his. And I have an idea.”

The wooden crate creaked as Babs pulled herself back up to full height. “Well, I understood that.” She punched her fist into an open palm. “Let’s go get the bastard.”

As Isaac rose, a new question popped into his mind. “Hey, if you know that we’re fighting illusions now, then why didn’t you make sure I’m real?”

Babs grinned. “Isaac, I understand you well enough that I don’t need physical touch to know you’re real.”

Isaac wasn’t sure what to make of that, but they felt the subtle shift in the air as grenades fell through the imaginary smoke. Babs blew them away; Isaac expected some sort of misdirection on Jackson’s part, but these grenades were all real, exploding into random bits of bright fire and shrapnel above them out of harm’s way.

“The grenade attacks have all been real,” Isaac realized. “And the way they’ve been tossed, it’s like they’ve been thrown down from above.” He scanned the catwalk, but there was no sign of Jackson. This only strengthened his idea.

“Babs, remember how when we came in here, the cargo hold seemed like it was only half as big as the one with Panama in it?” Isaac asked. When Babs nodded, he continued. “Don’t you think that’s a little odd? Since you can see me, take me to the wall without the catwalk on it.”

She shrugged and did as instructed. As Babs bounded off into the smoke, Isaac followed after her, her bouncing red hair visible and providing a guide as long as he remained close. There were a few times where it suddenly bounced in a different direction; Isaac followed, narrowly avoiding the grenade explosions that came after.

“The set-up of the hold is identical to the first one,” Isaac further explained. “All except there only being a catwalk on just one side. But, if I’m correct…”

Babs slid to a halt; through the smoke, Isaac could make out the incoming wall. He only increased his speed, as well as the power in his fist; the red energy glowed.

“Then this wall itself is fake!”

Isaac punched the wall with all his might. He was ready for the sharp collision of fist on metal, but instead, he punched right through air. His body followed along as he plunged right through the imaginary wall. He stumbled to a stop on the other side, his footsteps bouncing across metal.

As he reoriented himself, he found that his theory was correct. The second cargo hold had never been half the size of the first; it was the exact same size. Isaac glanced back and saw an odd, metaphysical wall where the illusion of a metal wall once stood, filled with odd pools of shifting black miasma, with red energy and imaginary numbers occasionally spilling out of it.

This is the boundary line of his power. He took one half of the cargo hold and turned it into an illusion. I bet he could only manipulate sights and sounds in there. But now that I’m out…

Since this cargo hold was identical to the first, another catwalk lined the true other wall of the hold. Isaac glared daggers at the man standing on it, nonchalantly holding another bundle of grenades.

“Jackson,” Isaac called out. “You’re out of tricks.”

He grinned. “Not out of weapons.” He tossed that bundle in Isaac’s direction, the individual grenades gradually taking their own arcs to blanket a wide area. A gust of wind blew them away; Babs emerged out of the imaginary wall. The grenades went off above them, creating a screen of explosions; when they disappeared, Jackson had as well.

“Another illusion?” Babs questioned as they cautiously moved forward.

“We’re out of that space where he could use his illusions,” Isaac informed her. But then he paused. Panama’s words came back to him - should they just assume Jackson couldn’t use his powers outside of that space?

“No, you may be right,” Isaac corrected. “I think they won’t be as powerful as in the illusion space, but he could still make illusions here. The grenades have always been real, but that’s not a reason to think they'll continue to be real.” Come to think of it, the screen of explosives might’ve looked fake, as if created by a painter, as well; Isaac assumed his victory and hadn’t paid close enough attention. He thought of Reed’s mangled body and kept his wits about him as they advanced through the maze of crates and containers.

“Say, these crates aren’t really a labyrinth, are they?” Babs realized as they passed along a solid wall of crates. “The way they’re all arranged, it’s as if he’s funneling us towards somewhere.”

After she pointed it out, Isaac noticed too. What at first appeared like a maze of boxes was actually filled with dead ends, with only one way forward usually being presented to them.

Jackson’s smart. He’s not a guy I can defeat with my fists alone. Let’s think here. Let’s be one of those guys who beats people with his intellect. If I was Jackson, I’d appear up on that catwalk, make that big spectacle of explosions, because it would draw our attention that way. As we moved to investigate, we would end up in a maze of crates that’s not really a maze at all. We’re being directed toward a spot…where he could ambush us. He could’ve been lying in wait there this whole time, and once we arrived, he could finish us off.

No…since we broke through his illusion space, he must expect us to figure out that ruse. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of the crate funnel death maze?

Isaac’s thoughts drifted back to the illusion space. Jackson’s powers involve a main visual illusion reinforced by information overload. When he reached out to touch the crates, they’ve felt random and real. So, if the crates are real, and he deliberately set all this up, why? What’s the information overload here?

Isaac glanced at Babs, and she looked just as troubled with her thoughts.

That’s the information overload. He’s given us all these possibilities to think about - to keep us focused on what’s directly in front of us, rather than the rest of the hold. But it’s not like I can see the rest of the hold while stuck in the death funnel.

With nowhere else to look, Isaac looked up, and discovered the irregularity.

He picked up a crate. “Babs, remember how the first cargo hold was lit up by light fixtures on the walls?”

She nodded and looked at the light fixtures on the upper walls. “Yeah, this hold has them too.”

Splinters erupted from the crate as Isaac gripped it tightly. “If this hold has them too…then why are fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling as well?”

Before she could answer, Isaac broke the crate into pieces. As wooden pieces fell to the floor, several wooden shards with jagged edges remained in his hands. “I assumed I had broken the illusion, and then I assumed this cargo hold was identical. But I hadn’t even looked up to totally confirm it.”

Isaac looked up now and, mimicking the best pitchers of the day, launched the shards from his hand. They rocketed upwards, doing their best impression of an artillery barrage, and thundered into the fluorescent lights. The lights immediately went out, but then immediately disappeared, having never been there in the first place.

All that remained was a trapdoor in the ceiling, a short bit of rope for someone to hold onto after descending out the trapdoor, and the real Jackson, falling to the floor alongside a rain of grenades.