This was hell. Personal physical hell. He had to continually hurt himself. In a way, Joseph had been doing that his entire life. Ever since surviving Deus, he’d beat himself up for his weakness, for his pathetic inability to get over his past.
But that had been mental anguish, and this was physical. Every single time he felt fine, he realized he needed more pain.
It kept the Regent back, but it also kept his mind dull.
When Sally wasn’t looking, he grabbed his face, pushed his fingers in, and blinked blearily behind his eyes.
But Sally turned around now, worry lines marking her face.
Rather than make her stand, he’d brought Jerry over.
He now floated in the air just in front of the command seat.
He was awake. Technically. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head. There didn’t seem to be anybody home.
For the third time, Sally closed her eyes. Joseph could feel she was practicing strong psychic techniques, but he didn’t know what they were. And critically, they weren’t working.
Joseph knew they couldn’t waste time, but maybe he didn’t feel that fact as much as Sally did, because she swore again, the movements of her lips quick like darting comets. She grabbed the side of her face and snatched hold of a chunk of her hair, twisting it hard around her fingers until she looked like she wanted to rip it out. “There’s got to be something we can do to get his mind back. This is our only chance, Joseph.”
Yep. She didn’t need to tell him that. Nervous tension kept jolting through him, reminding him the Regent was still there somewhere in his head, watching all of this from afar.
Joseph let his fingers snatch his collar but quickly made his hand drop. You know the worst thing about having to continually attack himself with his subspace energy? He couldn’t heal the considerable injury to his throat.
Joseph could feel the pain pulsing through him, down his back, and across into his jaw. It was like somebody with a truly icy grip was continually attempting to strangle him.
Sally swore at herself again, balled up a fist, and went to strike it against the armrest.
Without thinking, he pushed a hand forward and grabbed her fingers before they could snap down hard against the unyielding metal.
She stared up at him in surprise.
“No matter what’s happening, don’t hurt yourself. That’s exactly what the bastard wants you to do. Now, we have to think this through. Do you think… Jerry’s even in there anymore?”
Sally took a breath. It wasn’t what Joseph had said, though. Her eyes were way too focused on him.
He realized he was still holding her hand. Worse? His fingers had been particularly tender, gripping her skin like someone cupping hold of a flower. Clearing his throat and feeling awkward for the first time since the Regent had stolen into his mind, he let her go.
“I,” she took a few seconds to take control of herself, “I think Jerry is still in there. I would’ve felt if his psyche had crumbled forever.”
It was a heck of a way to describe it. It put Joseph in mind of some house that’d been trashed by its occupant. He could practically feel Jerry’s beliefs and desires like plaster someone had taken a jackhammer to.
“There’s gotta be a way to get him out. Maybe… he can hear us, but he doesn’t want to come out. Damn prideful idiot,” Joseph commented.
Sally closed her eyes and concentrated. “Look, if Joseph is right, and, Jerry, you’re in there, come out.”
They couldn’t waste time.
Because they didn’t know how much time they had. The impending threat of the Regent was one thing. They didn’t know what other threats were out there. That was the truly frightening prospect. There could and would be more Observers. Hell, because they didn’t know who the Regent was and where he came from, they couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be more like him. One of the guy was enough. Could Joseph actually imagine fighting an army?
Just the thought sent a cold sweat tingling down his shoulders, sliding between the blades and slicking his spine.
“Jerry, please.” Sally locked a hand over her face again, the movement weak, her shoulder shaking. “I know we didn’t get along. But I guess… maybe I had a begrudging respect for you. You gave your everything to E Club. And I suppose, deep inside, you did it all for the Academy. You wanted to be the best of the best to help people, right?” Her voice was hesitant. Fair enough. Didn’t Jerry just want to be the best of the best for himself? He got a kick out of the club because they were elite. As soon as you joined them, it told everybody else that you were better than them. Yeah, ultimately you might get a better job on a better ship, but while you were still at the Academy, you could stride around knowing that you were the top of the top.
Jerry didn’t respond.
Joseph winced. Maybe this wasn’t a great idea after all. “Sally, we are wasting time—”
Sally suddenly jolted forward, and she grabbed one of Jerry’s shoulders. Her fingers could easily push through the medical stasis field.
Based on the tension in her wrist and seizing her arm, Joseph actually thought she was going to punch him. She didn’t, but she did bring her face close. “Come on, Jerry. The Coalition is on the line. I don’t honestly know what your motivations were. You know what? It doesn’t matter. I tell you what does matter – the future. Help us. You must’ve seen what the Observer was capable of. You must know what’s out there – that right now Coalition ships are fighting for their lives. The Scarax galaxy is coming. You wanted to stop them, didn’t you? You desperately wanted to be the force that gave the Academy a chance. So, Jerry, I’m going to give you a chance. Please, just rise once more. I know you can do it. Maybe anyone else’s mind would’ve crumbled by now. Not yours. You’re too damn pigheaded and arrogant.”
Joseph winced. Way to go to get him to try to rise. She’d just unloaded on him instead.
But remarkably, impossibly, it worked. One of Jerry’s eyes opened. It was a weak move, and so was the stare that blearily blinked back at them. The point was, it was there.
Joseph was so surprised, he started to float a little, and he pushed closer.
So did Sally. She took a breath, and it became trapped in her chest as it pushed out and rumpled her trashed uniform. “Jerry, is that you?”
“Shut up and leave me alone, Winters. This… is all your fault.”
“Jerry,” Joseph stammered, his voice actually happy and not seething with anger at that useless insult.
Jerry laboriously tipped his head to the side. He had to focus, almost as if he couldn’t see a single meter in front of himself. “Is that you, Joseph? You lost your chance to make something of your life. You should’ve… joined us.”
Not even the tiniest glimmer of anger rose in Joseph. But he did crunch down and lock a hand on Jerry’s other shoulder. “Maybe you can help me make something of my life right now,” he whispered. “You know what happened to you, right, Jerry? You know that—”
“Some kind of psychic thing was in my head. Yeah. I… know.” It was clear Jerry didn’t have full control of his body, but it was also clear he was upset enough to use the little energy he had to move his hand. It looked like he was dragging a mining cruiser, but he finally managed to lift it up. He stared at his skin.
It was still pasty and gray, looking as if someone had stolen it from a rotting corpse.
He gulped, the move pressing against his torn collar.
Sally reached over and gently pushed his hand down. “Jerry, we need you to tell us everything you can about the Observer. He must’ve leaked details from his thoughts. I wouldn’t say that anyone else would’ve been able to pick them up, but—”
“I’m the kind of arrogant pigheaded creep to be able to do it?” Jerry challenged with a weak cough.
Sally didn’t know whether to laugh. Joseph did. He let it rumble out. It was nonthreatening. Hell, it was perfectly weak, just like Jerry.
Jerry actually joined in. “Yeah, I am. You know, I would’ve made a great captain,” he said with another throaty cough that sounded as if he was trying to rip his lungs out.
“You still can. Though there’s no damn way I will work under you,” Joseph tried.
This really got Jerry laughing. Which was a mistake. He laughed for a few whoops then stopped and coughed. Blood splattered up over his lips.
Sally jerked back.
Joseph just shot in closer. “Look, man, we’re running out of time. You need to—”
“The Observer, this one’s got a name,” he whispered.
“What is it?” Joseph demanded.
“Gan,” Jerry said. Anger rose and peeked through his tone then subsided. He clearly didn’t have the energy to sustain it.
“Gan?” Sally whispered. It was clear from the look on her face that she didn’t remember that name.
But maybe she should. Jerry now swiveled his gaze and locked it on her. “They need you.”
“For what?” Joseph’s heart beat harder as he pushed in close. He kept a hand on Jerry’s shoulder. What? Did he think that Jerry was gonna thrust forward and continue the fight he’d started on the ground level of the accommodation block? Fat chance. Jerry’s body really was dying. Joseph could feel that. As he’d already said multiple times, he was uniquely placed to assess energetic systems. While Jerry wasn’t pulsing with subspace force, that wasn’t the point. He was still an energetic being. And the biological force that made him up was starting to degrade.
Even if they got him to sophisticated medical technology, there might be no future for him.
Which was something he clearly knew. He coughed and spluttered up more blood as he stared at Sally. “This is all a trap. It has been from the beginning. They were aware you were on Academy grounds somewhere. They needed to pull you into the open. And look – they’ve found you now.”
Joseph stood even straighter. All he could do was think of his haunting dreams. A mistake. Yep, as long as he kept injuring himself, the Regent wouldn’t be able to come back. But if Joseph weakened his mind, and the Regent decided to take his chances, Joseph wouldn’t be able to push him back.
Sally blinked wildly. “What?”
“You have to hear this. My Observer, Gan, found one of them.” His voice lost all force, his body almost dying on fast forward as he said that. “Maybe the guy found Gan, I don’t know. Gan is a frigging idiot. A desperate idiot,” he added with another cough. “He will do anything to bring the King back, anything to take you back to Hendari space.”
“What are you talking about? Do you mean he found the Regent?” Joseph began.
Jerry coughed again. He had to lean to the side.
Blood splattered over his stasis shield. It flickered then disappeared. But you know what couldn’t flicker and disappear? His considerable injuries. This pasty gray pall was starting to seep into his lips and push through the rest of his face like acid eating up a flower bed.
Joseph had no clue what would happen when it reached his eyes.
“The Regent… got a name. Caxus,” Jerry managed.
“What is he? Where did Caxus come from?” Joseph shivered as he said that name.
“One of the ancient races the Hendari held back. The Xentais,” he hissed.
Joseph reacted first. Even though he shouldn’t. Sally technically had all of the memories of the Queen, so she should be the one to freeze and stop breathing. It happened to Joseph, though, like he was hit by a cloud of meteors.
He… that name meant something. Something big. Something loud, something impossible to ignore. Something that started down in his feet then shook up to his head. Something that gripped him so hard, he thought he was going to implode.
Finally Sally reacted, too. She sucked in the lightest gasp. “I think… I remember that name.”
“Yeah, you should. They were the last civilization the Hendari took on. And they were the civilization that gave them the idea to ascend in the first place.”
“What?” Joseph finally spoke. Trust him, it was pure hell moving his lips. It took all of his energy – every single last scrap. Which was pretty dangerous considering who he was currently trapping in his mind.
Jerry coughed again. This time it was much worse. Joseph could see the contractions gripping his chest. If he kept speaking like this, he would die.
But Jerry had this look in his eyes that told everyone he didn’t care.
Sally was frozen. One hand was locked halfway up to her lips, but she couldn’t move it. There was this lost, panicked look in her eyes. It was clear she was trying desperately to remember who the Xentais were. It was just as clear she was only getting glimmers. Joseph was almost connected to her mind through her eyes. And he saw as every partial memory rose only to break apart and drift away like torn up butterfly wings.
Jerry coughed. It had this final quality to it.
Joseph could feel that his mind was about to slip back. So he crunched in close and locked a hand on Jerry’s shoulder. “How do we get rid of Caxus?”
Jerry slowly swiveled his head over to Joseph. “You can’t.”
“Mind… his mind is like a virus. You can’t rip it out. You can only contain it.”
Joseph shook his head. Panic vaulted through him. “There’s gotta be a way—”
“You don’t get it.” Jerry coughed up so much blood now, it dribbled down the side of his face. “The Xentais were the ones who invented ascension in the first place. The crystals were theirs originally. Most Hendari technology – it originated with them. Including the Light of the Gods – the Hendari just stole it from them.”
“What… are you talking about?” Sally finally managed.
“The Xentais…” he coughed so much now, it looked as if his chest was gonna tear itself in two.
Joseph leaned in and clutched both his shoulders. “Jerry, just hold on. We need this information. The Coalition does.”
“And I’m gonna give it to you. Stop pressuring me, Lance.” More coughs, more blood, more convulsing shakes that looked as if they’d be Jerry’s last. But every single time, the determined idiot held on. “The Hendari crystals were originally gate points into pure quantum consciousness. That’s what ascension is. Leaving your body behind and traveling to the pure realm of thought.”
Pure realm of thought? Didn’t make any sense. It was fiction, nothing more than a dream. But the way Jerry looked couldn’t be denied.
Jerry was slipping back. Before he did, he grabbed up Sally’s hand.
Joseph stiffened. But this was no attack. “They need you as a final host,” Jerry warned.
“Host? You mean the Queen?”
“Not the Queen – she’s just the doorway. You… they need you as a host,” he spluttered. He wasn’t making any sense.
Sally’s eyes widened, tears glimmering in them. “You mean this body?”
“I mean… both of you… they… need you as a host.” Every single word was punctuated with more bloody coughs. “You can’t… let them. They’ll… break down the gates. Then… King won’t matter. Nothing will matter. Reality… will cease. Everything over.” With that, Jerry finally succumbed. He flopped back. There was a warning alarm from his stasis shield. It only became twice as bright.
Jerry dropped Sally’s hand.
So she clutched it up tighter. “Jerry? Dammit, Jerry, come back. You can’t die.”
She grabbed his shoulders.
Joseph quickly moved around to her and pulled her back. As soon as her fingers fell weakly from the shield, it doubled its intensity again.
Tears ran down her cheeks. “We have to do something for him.”
Joseph shot the stasis field a calculating look. There was no way for him to know this, but he still straightened with certainty. “Jerry is not dead. Not yet.”
He slowly moved around and put his hands on her shoulders. He stared into her eyes. The only thing he wanted to repeat, though it was damn childlike, was he had told her this was a trap. Everything had been a trap from the beginning. Joseph might not have known all of the details, but now they aligned, he wouldn’t run from them. Neither could she.
She swallowed. “Joseph, I don’t even understand what he said.”
“The rest of the details are irrelevant. The one thing we know is something we already knew from the beginning.”
She closed her eyes one by one, tears trailing down her cheeks. “They need me. Everything was a trap.”
“And we’re not gonna let them get you.”
Joseph went with the desire exploding through his heart. He pulled Sally close and hugged her. It would be the last time he’d be able to do that in a long while.