She… was half conscious, half completely dead. It was almost impossible to describe how debilitating this experience was. Every time she thought she had hope, it was like a path she willingly yet stupidly carved into her own heart. One her enemies would use to simply push in further.
She no longer thought of her life, certainly not her time as a Coalition cadet.
Her memories were diffuse, like this shroud being used to wrap her up as if someone was getting her ready for her funeral.
She wasn’t aware of her body, though she knew she continued to float in that light chamber. She would twist from side to side with no control over herself. Her hair would flutter around her cheeks, slice around her eyes, and tickle her shoulders. Her uniform, which had already been nothing more than glorified scraps had torn a little further. A large chunk kept flapping against her stomach and rubbing up against her weak arms. One of her boots half hung off. She would’ve looked like a broken doll somebody had shoved into the empty embrace of weak gravity.
All the while, she thought of Joseph. Willis too, and James – everyone she’d ever met at the Academy.
It was just a matter of time now. She could practically feel the seconds slipping through her fingers like arterial blood. They would all fail. As soon as the regent got his way—
Sally felt something pushing into the pillar of light.
It was such a sudden break in her concentration, she couldn’t even open her eyes, not until a light touch settled on her shoulder. She was pulled out. The move wasn’t hard, but she tried to interpret it like that. She knew it was the Regent’s hand. So where was the anger, where were the stiff fingers, where were the charges of leaking subspace energy?
She finally got her answer.
She was pulled right out and placed gently on the floor, so kindly, whoever did it actually cared for her.
She finally blinked one eye open.
And she saw Joseph staring back at her.
She shouldn’t have any strength anymore. It had been beaten out of her, squeezed from her mind as if it had been a peach somebody had crushed under a building.
She found the strength, all right, and it exploded up her back into her arms until she wrapped herself around Joseph.
He didn’t freeze. Wasn’t surprised by the move. Wanted it, in fact. It didn’t take long at all for him to wrap his arms around her, bring his face close, and press his trembling lips against her ear. “It’s okay, Sally. It’s me.”
“Joseph.” She grabbed him tightly with one arm. With the other, she slid it down his back. Maybe it could have been interpreted as an intimate move. What it was, was desperation embodied. Her prying fingers needed to check it was him. It was his cadet uniform, rumpled and burnt in patches. It was his shoulders, strong but only showing a fraction of that strength now.
And it was his chuckle in her ear. “It’s okay. It’s… okay.”
That single moment of hesitation was all she needed. She pushed back. She realigned her mind and reminded herself of what had just happened. “Where’s the regent?”
Joseph’s cheeks were alarmingly pale. He was a spacer, and he didn’t need his blood to survive – not technically. So why did it look as if someone had drained it all from his face?
He clutched his collar in an odd move, his fingers darting up and securing around it with such a shake, he could’ve lost his wrist.
“Joseph?” She might’ve been weak, but she still wasted energy to push close to him.
He finally took a stammering breath. “He’s… gone for now.”
“Gone… for now? You mean he is still in your mind?”
“I don’t really know. But… he’s not here right now,” Joseph said, pushing to his feet and reaching a hand out to her.
She didn’t take it. So Joseph assumed she was too weak. He got down to pick her up, and presumably to take her over to the only piece of furniture in the bridge – the command seat. She wouldn’t let him. She shook her head once, alarm filling her eyes like water being ejected from a dam that was about to break. “What happened? Where is he? How did you fight him?”
Joseph locked a hand on the back of his neck. He was still close, so she could see every single worry line marking his cheeks and digging deep into his brow. “I just did it, okay? Actually, what am I saying? I followed some good advice.” His eyes locked on hers, ticking back and forth as he tried to take in her every reaction.
“What are you talking about?”
“I realized that strong psychics don’t know how to handle weakness. They hate trauma. They do anything to push it away. And what am I full of?”
Sally almost wanted to answer automatically. She needed to open her lips and say one word – yet it was something she wasn’t quite prepared to admit to yet.
Joseph was full of love.
She didn’t need to embarrass herself now, though.
Joseph closed his eyes. “I realize the Regent recedes whenever I’m in pain. Can’t deal with it,” Joseph said haltingly as he reached his fingers up.
There was some kind of bandage around his throat. Sally hadn’t noticed it before. It was why he kept pulling his collar out.
“Joseph, what happened?”
“Let’s just say he tried to chop my head off but thankfully failed.”
“Joseph—” true alarm blasted through her voice.
“It’s okay, Sally. It’s over now. Or… for now,” he corrected. He pushed to his feet.
There was an invitation glowing in his eyes for Sally to join him.
She shouldn’t have been able to do it. She was still perilously weak, but because this was Joseph and because they finally had a chance, she found the strength from somewhere. She staggered a little, but she didn’t fall as she swayed to her feet.
Joseph looked unimaginably proud of her.
If she’d seen that look years ago at the Academy, she wouldn’t have been nearly as lonely. Just one single small smile from Joseph like that, and it would’ve filled her up for years.
“We need to find a way to get the Regent out of your head for good.”
Joseph’s lips twitched in a sad smile. “That sounds great. Not sure we will be able to do it, though.” He locked stiff fingers around the side of his face, curled his nails in, and one by one, let them slide down his temples until he created long red lines. Worse than that? One of them actually opened, a single drop of blood visible.
She jolted toward it. “Joseph, what’s happening to your body?”
“I’m choosing to hurt myself,” he muttered.
“Like I said, I figured out the Regent can’t take control of me when I’m in pain. So I guess I have to keep damaging myself.”
It was sickening.
She shook her head in shock.
“It’s okay, Sally. I’m just turning a little of my subspace energy against myself. There’ll be no permanent damage,” he said in a strict voice. “And if it can keep that bastard back, then it’s worth it. I refuse to be used as a flesh suit,” he snarled.
Though all Sally wanted to do was stand here and stare at Joseph, to finally let her heart spill out, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jerry.
He was in some kind of strange medical stasis. There was a spike in his chest. A field was rippling out of it.
Joseph turned quickly. His cheeks twitched. There was anger there, but sorrow as well. “The Regent tried to kill him after the Observer attempted to use your body.”
“Then why is he still alive? Did you fight the Regent and stop him from killing Jerry?”
“No. The Regent got over his anger and had to save him. Seems like he needs the Observer for something.”
Joseph sighed. “I wish I knew. We can just add it to the questions that keep mounting.” Silence spread for just a second. Then he turned and faced her again. There was so much damn need in his expression. He was back to being the original Joseph, all right. It was as if the Regent was just a bad dream. All of the terrible things he’d done to Joseph’s face – all that anger and greed and hatred – it was all gone now.
Again Sally got the desire to throw herself forward. She held herself back. She pushed back on her foot, and luckily she didn’t overbalance and roll. Then she secured one arm around her middle and let the other fall to her side. She tapped her thigh slowly. “What now? Can we turn around and meet up with the Mercury?”
“Sure. Or you can. I don’t know how to use this ship.”
She turned and looked at it. “I’m not entirely sure how to use it, either. The Regent uses it through me.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he said softly.
She looked up at him, her eyes opening wide. “And if I can’t? Even if I can,” she whispered, no volume in her voice because she almost didn’t want him hearing her say this, “will it really matter? We don’t even know who the Regent is. Wait, do you?”
He closed his eyes in clear disappointment at his own failings and shook his head. “No clue. But I can confirm he is not Hendari.”
“Which makes him what, exactly?”
There was silence for a few seconds. “I don’t know.”
Sally let her shoulders drop. It was a violent move, one that wanted to drag her back into the semi unconsciousness she’d endured for most of this spaceship ride.
Joseph could clearly see that something was cracking in her, so he reached toward her. She pushed away and faced the pillar of light for a second, then went to check on Jerry. She turned once more and stopped.
There was nothing she could do – and critically nothing she could do to distract herself.
“Sally, it’s okay. We will—”
“Get through this? Joseph, there is some kind of… other realm out there. I don’t even know what it is. I have no clue how it makes sense, either. It’s almost like a realm of pure mental power. What the heck are we dealing with here?”
“I don’t know. But we will find out.”
He opened his mouth almost as if he could actually answer that. Then one by one, his lips twitched then closed.
The resulting silence was even worse. For it highlighted the fact there was nothing to fill it with.
Sally let out a shaking gasp. She suddenly felt weak. She went to clutch toward the command seat but then realized she had no right to. Joseph was keeping himself injured to ensure the Regent didn’t come back.
She gestured to the command seat with a stiff, barely moving hand. “You should sit.”
He looked up at her from under crumpled eyebrows. “Like hell, Sally. You can barely stand.”
“I can manage.”
“You can lie to everyone else, but you can’t lie to me anymore.” Without a word, he picked her up.
She blinked in surprise up at his face.
He didn’t look at her. She was right there, so it was pretty hard not to. He still kept his eyes forward, locked on the command seat until he reached it and placed her down. Even then, he solidly didn’t look at her until he took several steps back.
He wasn’t ignoring her. He clearly didn’t trust himself when they were too close.
He pressed a breath through his teeth and tried to grin like the old Joseph. The jokester, the fun one, the one who kept everyone at arm’s-length so they didn’t know what he was thinking or feeling.
“You can’t lie to me, either, Joseph,” she whispered quietly.
“I’m not trying to lie.”
“That grin. There is nothing to smile about.”
“I’m not currently being controlled by the Regent, and you’re not being used to find his future boxes. I’d say that’s plenty to smile about.”
All he had to do was mention the words future boxes, and she turned her head, her muscles straining. The box was right there behind the command seat. She glimpsed it, but she hadn’t really stopped to think what it meant. As she stared at it now, she couldn’t swallow, could barely breathe. It was like somebody had grabbed her muscles and held them still, all to confirm how important this moment was. “What… even are they?”
He scratched the back of his head, letting a few subspace crackles sink into his skull. She picked up the scent of flesh burning. Joseph wasn’t losing control of himself. This was still a targeted play to ensure the Regent couldn’t come back.
What if the Regent started to learn to deal with pain? What if his desire outgrew his fear?
She mightn’t have shared a head with him, but she’d still heard his words, still felt his psychic need. At some point, his fear would get the better of his revulsion toward pain.
Then he’d be back.
Knowing they had limited time, she crunched forward on the edge of the seat. “What do we do, Joseph?”
“We have to find out who the Regent is, where he’s from, and why he’s come back now.”
She shook back. She might’ve suggested that question, but now she had to face it, she realized the only person who could really do it was her. The memories were in the Queen’s mind somewhere. She just had to dig them out. But even now as she tried to push into her mind, she felt a block there.
It was complete, as if somebody had used all of the resources in the damn galaxy to create a wall so thick, no one would ever be able to pierce it, no matter what they used to dig through its defenses.
Joseph’s gaze became a little unfocused as he continued to stare at the box. He gripped his chin, his fingers sliding over his stubble. “One thing we could do is eject that into outer space—” he began.
“No,” she said so quickly, she practically shrieked it through the bridge.
Joseph blinked in surprise. “What?”
“Sorry. But… I think we shouldn’t do that,” she stammered.
Yeah… why not. Because you’d think she had a pretty good reason considering her crazy reaction. But she didn’t. At least not one she could clutch hold of easily.
She slid her stiff fingers down the side of the command seat.
“I dunno. I just think that’s a bad idea. I don’t know who the Regent is, and I don’t know which Observer is infecting Jerry, but the rest of them will be out there. They will be aware we went to Faxon A. Maybe some of them even tracked us down here. If we just eject that into outer space, they will get their hands on it.”
Joseph hissed. “You have a point. But if we keep it here and I… lose control again, then the Regent will just use it.”
“We need to figure out who he is and find a way to block him off from you.”
“I can think of a way to at least do one of those things.” Joseph turned and stared at Jerry.
Sally inched around on the edge of her seat and stared at him too. “He’s not going to answer us.”
“I’m not so sure about that. We just have to give him a reason to.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t… I’m not even sure I have the psychic power to pull the memories from his head.”
“I’m not talking about that. We can give Jerry something he wants and see what happens from there.”
“Trust me, Sally. Trust that I won’t do anything too unjust. Trust that I’ll be there if the Regent comes back and I’ll fight him again. And trust… that together, we can get through this.”
Together they could get through this? That would require a heck of a lot of trust. She wasn’t sure she had it. But she certainly had something, and it was enough to reach a hand out. Joseph didn’t take it. He’d already turned toward Jerry. Didn’t matter. She left it stretched out to him. There would’ve been a time when such a move would have embarrassed her until her cheeks had burnt as brightly as the center of a star. Now? She let her hand remain until she chose to make it drop.
She closed her eyes. Trust, ha? It was a relatively free commodity. It was one of the ones still under her control. It certainly didn’t seem to have the power to rival a Hendari crystal or the Regent’s cold mind, though. And yet, it had to have something. Because for the first time in a long time, hope filled her up. But this wasn’t the kind of desperation she’d held in her heart when the Regent had attacked her. It was so much greater.
It wasn’t focused on the next few minutes. Wasn’t even focused on the next few hours. It was a hope that one day, if they strove together and tried everything they could, they would get through this. One day.