She was aware of the ship moving through space, her entire body tingling as if somebody had thrown her into the void and then set her thrusters to maximum. Wait, she had no thrusters. This… it was a discombobulating experience. She didn’t know where her body ended and the ship began. She was starting to think of herself as if she was just compartments, as if she had a thick hull, as if outside, the eternity of the void raged.
And while she battled that, she had to put up with the Regent’s snarling. “Just a little closer. A few more future boxes, and the wall should fall.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d referred to the wall. She understood what it was. It was the bridge between realms. Perhaps that wasn’t a sufficiently satisfying scientific explanation, but it was irrelevant. It was something her body now understood.
This current realm at least had physical laws. The one the Regent belonged to, or at least wanted to go back to, did not. And the future boxes allowed those walls to fall down.
Perhaps once upon a time as a powerful psychic, Sally would have been able to use her mind to telekinetically move objects around under the influence of those boxes. But she would never be able to get hold of her mind again. And there was no other psychic in the Coalition that could even begin to rival the Regent.
He crunched forward, his whole body tense. Locking his fingers on the armrest, he tapped them one by one. Every now and again when she wasn’t battling the promise of the future and the strange experience of piloting this ship, Sally looked for Joseph. Just a twinkle in his eyes, just a stammer in his voice, just a fleeting moment of tension curling around his shoulders. Something. Anything.
But there was nothing.
Had she been kidding herself before when she’d seen a glimpse of him? Was it just wishful thinking? Because without it, she would submit, wouldn’t she?
Jerry was now fine. Or at least by fine, he was stable. He’d fixed his injured knee. His skin, however, still had this sickly pallid hue. He looked like a corpse that’d been given a few more hours to walk around, but a corpse nonetheless.
“Will we not face resistance when we attempt to obtain the next future boxes?” Jerry whispered.
The Regent’s fingers paused as he drummed them on the armrest. He slowly twisted his neck around. Just as slowly, a snide smile curled his lips. “It will be nothing compared to this ship.” He reached his hands up wide, his fingers opening as if he was some kind of prophet about to extol the virtues of the future he’d imagined for everybody. “There is no weapon this ship cannot create with its matter recalibration devices – nothing the Milky Way will be able to withstand, anyway.”
“But it will not be the Milky Way we will be attempting to fight,” Jerry said, his voice dipping down low.
Now he’d been fixed up, it was hard to tell who was Jerry and who was the Observer. Maybe the Observer had rightly realized he should only inhabit Jerry’s mind when it was utterly necessary. Considering Jerry had apparently thrown his heart and soul into this mission, it wasn’t required most of the time. But Jerry knew things he shouldn’t. Had the Observer downloaded most of his knowledge into Jerry’s mind? The cost would be incalculable. Sally had to keep going back to the fact Jerry wouldn’t go back to normal. Then she had to return to another fact. Nor would the rest of the galaxy. She would certainly never return to who she’d once been.
For the Regent would never let her go.
“There may be resistance.” Again, the Regent’s fingers paused, hovering just a few centimeters above the glimmering metal armrest. They locked down against it, slapping with a thump that echoed through the bridge. “We will crush anyone who dares get in our way.”
“But… the others have had time.”
“The others are nothing more than echoes now. Even if they can scrounge themselves together for another fight, it will be their final one. Let them use all of their precious little energy. Let them expend it so they finally disappear.”
It was hard to track what was going on. The ship suddenly negotiated through an asteroid field at many times beyond the speed of light. Sally’s body… she couldn’t go there. The tingles and rushes and spasms were beyond explaining. She could at least lock her mind on the Regent’s words.
He was talking about the good Observers, wasn’t he? They couldn’t sustain themselves for very long. They were meant to watch. The more they got involved, the more their living memories degraded.
Sally hadn’t forgotten why she’d gone to Faxon A in the first place – at least why she’d agreed to. She’d uncovered an Observer in her memory.
But that memory had long since been replaced.
When she’d fallen over and over again in the self-induced trance she’d given herself after Anna had attacked her in the brig, Sally had heard an Observer tell her not to go back to the King.
Yet clearly that Observer hadn’t been on Faxon A. Only Layra had.
So where did that disembodied memory of an Observer’s voice come from?
Sally… she had just assumed everything the Regent had told her was true. It had felt true. It was certainly as if somebody had pulled the wool off the Queen’s eyes and she’d recalled something that had actually occurred. But what… if it was only an aspect of the truth? A manufactured set of memories designed to make Sally believe what was most convenient for the Regent and Jerry?
Sally could answer that. It didn’t matter. Because she was still trapped. And simply knowing she’d been lied to wouldn’t be enough to allow her to break free.
The Regent was still connected to her mind, though she was fully aware of the fact he couldn’t actually read her thoughts. Sometimes emotions are a better clue about what someone’s thinking, anyway.
He suddenly thrust to his feet. He was clearly getting used to Joseph’s body because he didn’t bother to place his boots down on the shiny metal floor. He took a floating step toward her, the move effortless, his entire form weightless as if he’d turned off gravity in the entire universe.
He reached the pillar of light, but not once did he stray too close. He remained several centimeters back. Even if this ship suddenly shook, which was unlikely considering its sophistication, he’d have time to jerk back. Something about this pillar scared him. He still leered up at her. “I know your mind, Queen. I know you are desperately searching for a way out. Understand this. There is nothing you can do. You’re trapped, just as you always were meant to be. Trust me, it’s better to be here with me than with him.”
Sally didn’t understand who this man was. It was becoming apparent he had an ulterior motive. One the Observer may not actually appreciate.
She could at least move her face while she was in this pillar. The rest of her body might be weightless and might be at the whims of the eddies of power rushing around her, but her lips pulled into a sneer. “Better off with you than the King?” she asked quietly. She put no force into her words. She controlled her emotions, too. Right now, she wanted to lure him into answering automatically. And it actually worked.
He snorted derisively. “I see your mind continues to work. Yes, you are better off with me than the King.”
It took a moment for Jerry to react as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Then, with a shake that tore through his shoulders and marched down to his knees as if they were going to crumble again, he took a lurching step toward the Regent. “What did you say, my lord?” he spat those words out as quickly as he possibly could.
The Observers – at least the bad ones – were all loyal to the King to the point of total fault. They would and had sacrificed their lives for him. He was their entire reason to be. He was practically their heaven, too. For the promise, even though it wouldn’t stand up, was that once the Observers opened up the King’s mind, they too would be pulled into the glory of that almighty psychic force. Sally knew the truth, however. The Observers would be the King’s first snack to ensure the great hive mind was operating correctly.
The Regent stiffened. It was quite a sight to watch his shoulders march towards his ears, quite a sight to see the blood drain from his cheeks.
Sally could practically see the cogs moving in his head as he quickly calculated how to smooth this over. But why smooth it over when he was ultimately in control anyway? He turned quickly. He stared impassively at the Observer. “I am your Regent. You serve me.” There was cold efficiency in his voice. This was a reminder. The final one. It was a test, too.
Jerry didn’t pass. He staggered back. He might’ve fixed up his knee, but he hadn’t done anything for the underlying instability ravaging Jerry’s body. He looked like a torn flag being asked to withstand a category five hurricane. “We are loyal to the King. We are the King’s subjects, the King’s bearers, the King’s custodians. We are—”
“You sought out my power. I saved you, Observer,” the Regent hissed. “I gave you abilities that you had never imagined. The only reason you are here and you were not torn apart by the Queen’s mind is me. So tell me once more,” he snarled as he took a step close to Jerry, his eyes narrowing to the point of disappearing like two pinpricks of pure hatred, “who do you serve again?”
Sally might’ve been able to see the cogs moving in the Regent’s mind earlier, but now she watched as the Observer reassessed everything. Jerry’s eyes were wide, the skin around them glistening with sweat, fracture lines of fear and confusion marching down his brow as if he was an iceberg about to crack off and melt into the sea.
But he’d clearly momentarily forgotten who he was dealing with. The Regent wasn’t about to stand around as Jerry slowly came to the conclusion it was better off for him to switch loyalties.
The Regent pushed in.
He formed a subspace sword in the blink of an eye. It rested there on Jerry’s throat.
It wasn’t the kind of energetic blade that could just be placed against somebody’s flesh. Not unless you intended that skin to bubble and burn like blistering paint.
Jerry shrieked. Make no mistake, it was him. The keening cry couldn’t have come from the Observer. He didn’t have a body. He just used others as a form of mobile armor. This shriek came from somebody who was intimately connected to their own form and who didn’t wish for it to be burnt to ash.
Rather than jerk back and realize how much damage he was doing, the Regent just twisted closer, leering harder until it looked as if the move would indent itself into his lips forever. “I’m going to ask you one last time, who do you serve?”
Jerry tried to rock back, but the Regent wouldn’t let him. With a powerful hand locked on Jerry’s shoulder, the Regent pulled him in. The scent of burning flesh now filled the bridge. With a few neural commands, Sally could’ve gotten rid of it. She wasn’t in control here. Neither was the Regent. He might’ve felt like he was – in perfect damn control – as his anger and power coursed through his veins. But his rage decided what he would do next, not his reason. He was clearly keeping the Observer around for some purpose. He would’ve killed him if it was an option already. He hadn’t. It was just as clear he couldn’t see that right now. All he could see was the fact he was more powerful. And those who are more powerful must prove that to themselves at every single opportunity. Whenever weakness strays in front of them, they must chop it down, or perhaps they will turn around one day, look in the mirror, and see they were the weak one all along.
The look of fervent power in the Regent’s eyes only grew.
Finally Jerry spluttered. “I serve you, Regent. I have always served you. You’re the greatest psychic I have ever come across. You have my full loyalty.”
The Regent didn’t immediately pull the blade back. In fact, he rested it harder against Jerry’s neck until the smell…. It was hard to describe. It was more than bubbling flesh now. It was atomizing blood. Had he reached bone even?
Jerry shrieked once more before the Observer managed to grab hold of his throat. The scream gurgled and came to a spluttering stop as if somebody had shot an engine.
But still the Regent didn’t pull back. He clearly intended to make a point this time – one Jerry and his neck would never forget.
“Who do you serve?” the Regent said, slowing that down one last time, practically making every single word a drill that would embed itself in Jerry’s cerebellum, never to be removed.
“I serve you, Regent,” Jerry said. He finally figured out what the Regent wanted, and he moved toward the blade to bow.
Only then, when a satisfied smile flickered across the Regent’s lips, did he let the sword disappear.
He stood above Jerry, his shadow dancing over Jerry’s face. A few crackles of subspace energy blasted up the Regent’s back, across his shoulders, and around his eyes. It framed his expression, his god-awful, corrupt, broken expression. It was undoubtedly the look of a man who had and would go to any extreme for power.
It was that which grabbed Sally’s attention and focused her mind, finally pulling it off this brutal scene and back into her head. She… she must’ve known the Regent in some capacity before. She had to recall those memories now. She didn’t care what it would take to drag them up from the center of her soul – she had to do it.
Jerry continued to splutter for a bit, going all out and telling the Regent just how loyal he was. He managed to distract the Regent for a few precious minutes.
Sally turned within. All the way within. She pulled her mind back from the distracting sensations of feeling like a ship. She no longer tried to catch glimpses of Joseph in the Regent’s eyes. She….
She had crash-landed on Faxon A. She could remember that now. As she sank her mind into that recollection, she felt all the correct personal details. The fear that had pounded in Layra’s chest, the alarm that’d ripped through the ship, warning her it couldn’t hold on against the incessant attacks of those cloud vessels.
But as soon as Sally tried to go further back, she couldn’t. She came up against another frigging wall.
Dammit. She wanted to roar and strike something. When you can’t move your body, the only thing you can strike is your own psyche.
The Queen knew the inherent danger in turning against one’s self. Weak minds did it all the time. If they didn’t like what their external appearance was or if they didn’t agree with their circumstances, they blamed the self. They tore it apart like wild animals to a weak rabbit.
Do that, and you will never rise again. For the psyche is your ultimate, final defense. Tearing it apart is simply doing the work of your enemies for them.
But Sally… she had to remember this. If she was to have a chance, and if the rest of the galaxy was to have one with her, she had to part the murky clouds of her past and finally dredge up her true recollections. Yet every single time she reached for them, they simply darted out of her way as if they were fog being chased by a fiendish wind.
Just as she thought it was utterly hopeless, she finally glimpsed something. But the memory made no sense whatsoever.
She was running down some corridor – it was in Hendari space. It was on the prime homeworld if she was any judge.
But it wasn’t that part of the memory that was completely and utterly fabricated. She ran with Joseph. Which was impossible.
He wasn’t currently inhabited by the Regent, so it was him, all right. She could see that sharp, desperate look in his eyes. Most importantly, she could feel the determined hope practically pulsing through his fingertips as he held her with all his might.
She was given no more time to indulge in that dream – for that is what it had to be.
She was suddenly brought back into the here and now by the Regent’s vicious snarl.
Her eyes were forced to widen.
“We’re coming up on the asteroid. Focus, my Queen. For it is time to use you to open the Hendari arsenal. Give me what your people stole. Help me rise once more so that we can crush the Hendari for good.”
His echoing words broke through the ship and her resolve. All images of running with Joseph were washed away for good.
They were simply fantasies. It was time… time to face reality.