The Regent pulled her right out of the vision. He had the information he needed. His eyes were wide, and she could practically see the reflection of the ship still playing in them.
It was a truly undermining experience to be yanked back into the real world. Though Sally was well-versed in shifting between visions and reality, this time it was so crushing, she fell against his chest.
He simply slid his gaze down to her. “You have weakened so much over the past several hundred years, you are like a shadow of your former self.” He said all of that around curled lips. He clearly loved every word.
She hissed. “Who are you?”
“I told you. You sought me out. I gave you power. And in return—”
“I didn’t give you anything,” she snarled. “Where did you come from? There are no Regents in Hendari space.”
“You will watch the words you say,” the Observer snarled out of Jerry’s lips. He was still down on his knees, but make no mistake, this wasn’t a move of deference. He’d simply busted through Jerry’s body. He couldn’t rise anymore.
The Regent laughed. “The time to reveal my ship is here.” With that, he tugged her right off the edge of the cliff.
She hadn’t been aware she’d been standing there. She’d been far too consumed by what the Regent was saying.
Then as he tilted backward, his hand still around hers, everything came back to Sally. She was dragged back into the reality of her death. She screamed. The keening cry was exactly the same one she’d given all those years ago. The fall wasn’t that long – not long enough to have a conversation, but it was just sufficient for her to stare into his eyes and realize he enjoyed every single moment of this.
They didn’t fall against the floor below and crack their skulls. The Regent was in Joseph’s body. Gravity meant nothing to a spacer.
Just before he reached the floor, he began floating.
Sally crumpled against his chest.
Then, one arm around her, he simply floated up into a standing position. He released his arm, and she fell down 30 centimeters. Her ankles were weak. They gave up underneath her, and she tumbled to the side. Her blood-slicked hair fell against her cheeks. She stared up through the thick strands as the Regent clicked his fingers.
Jerry appeared beside him.
He immediately crouched down to his knees. But there wasn’t a look of pain on his face – just pure anticipation.
He jerked his head around, almost as if he was about to see the greatest gift in existence.
She… she had to believe that some scrap of Joseph was left. Because if it wasn’t… she would be alone from now until forevermore.
The Regent continued to stand there, his head angled down as he stared at her. “You have no clue, do you? How far your mind has fallen, oh great Queen.”
“No clue about what?” she snarled defiantly. If the most she could manage was that, she had to at least growl into the face of his utter victory.
A smile slowly slid across his lips.
For just a second, it looked like Joseph, and her treacherous heart fluctuated, but then the smile kept going as if his lips were about to carve off the rest of his face. Slowly, he lifted a finger up and pointed to the side.
It took several seconds until Sally turned around. And then….
Her world – or what was left of it – came crumbling down.
There was a body several meters away. One of a six-year-old girl. One of Sally.
And… one that… real… it was real.
If she hadn’t already been down on her knees, she would’ve tumbled over and kept going.
She locked her hands over her mouth and tried to breathe, but suddenly she hyperventilated. Fear and pain shot through her.
“The mind is a treacherous thing, even for a great psychic like you, Queen. There are facts we choose to forget because if we remember them, they would sap our power.” The Regent placed his fingers on his brow and gently let them slide down his temples. It was almost as if he was reminding himself he was back in a real body.
“How… what… how…?” Sally couldn’t squeeze a question out. She could barely force the first few syllables out of her trembling lips. Nothing wanted to work anymore.
It felt as if she was under the greatest psychic attack she’d ever endured. But this was no mental battle. This was reality.
The Regent walked over to Sally’s dead form.
She looked fresh, as if she’d just cracked her head a few seconds ago. There was a pool of crimson blood beneath her, and it hadn’t even mixed with the mud and dust covering the ground yet.
But the pool didn’t grow. It looked real – not as if she was a mere image that’d been painted on reality – but like an actual dead child.
The Regent confirmed that when he leaned down, slid his fingers through the blood, lifted it up, played with it, then cleaned it on his pants. It left a long smear up his thigh.
He continued to smile at her, if the curl of his lips could be termed anything other than brutal. “Welcome to your dead body, Sally Winters. The only real thing about you.”
She shook her head once. Then she stopped. No muscular control. No more energy. No more breathing. No more heartbeat. No more anything. It was like her body just decided to give up.
It lasted several seconds, then she sucked in a terrified breath and rocked back. She fell against her side, but that brought her closer to the pool of blood. She jerked back immediately.
The whole time, the Regent watched and laughed. His cruel lips ticked to the side, revealing his teeth. “You know a true psychic mind cannot lie to itself. It recognizes the greatest power is found within.” He tapped his head, the dull sound ringing out. This cavern was eerily silent, so there was nothing to compete with the tap, tap, tap.
Jerry didn’t move. But even if he’d screamed, Sally would’ve been able to hear every single thing the Regent did and said.
He turned around, stopped over Sally’s dead form, leaned down, and actually patted her head. His fingers interacted with her hair. It slid around his palm.
Sally was transfixed. “How… what…?”
“How is this possible? Did you never stop to ask yourself if you were real, Sally Winters?”
Sally clutched the side of her face. Her fingers didn’t suddenly push through as if she was just an image. They encountered real resistance. Yet she felt the tears covering her cheeks like water trying to wipe away some painting.
“You slipped my grasp several hundred years ago. You will not do so again. Now, return my ship to me,” he said coldly.
Sally still couldn’t do anything but stare at her dead body.
It looked real. But it couldn’t be real, right? Because even as Sally tried to stop breathing again, her autonomic nervous system just did it for her.
This was a human body. There was no doubting that. Plus, she’d had atomic scans before. They would’ve pointed out she was nothing more than a psychic manifestation.
So what was this body, and what was that body?
She stared at her dead self in horror as the Regent got down on his knee in front of her. “Reveal my ship to me. I will give you one option. You can do it voluntarily, or I will do it through you. That will be painful. But you taught me pain, didn’t you, Queen? I, however, have mastered it since,” he sneered.
She didn’t understand a word of what he was saying.
With a deep growl, he jerked to his feet. “Very well.” He spread a hand over her face. Then he jammed his palm hard against her brow.
Her head jerked back. Her thoughts began to squirm. This ringing pressure built, echoing from ear to ear as if a church bell had been crammed into her skull.
She was dragged back to her most traumatic memories. She couldn’t do a damn thing to block them from him. He was like a cleaver. Anything that got in his way would be cut down.
She couldn’t scream, so she shrieked internally.
Then one of her hands twitched up.
She was still under the control of her TI objects. But this was different.
As the Regent pushed in, he captured her body completely.
Memories started to part before her like water. They flowed quicker and quicker. She felt like she would drown under each and every one. She was dragged back through her past. She saw every single moment at the Academy, and she couldn’t hide from the fact the ones that possessed the most emotional significance were those where she interacted with Joseph. They were swept aside as her mind drilled back down into her past until it finally reached the moment she died.
It came slamming back into her skull with such force, she could’ve fallen backward. But the Regent wouldn’t let her.
His lips parted in a hiss. “There,” satisfaction rang through his tone. “We finally have it.”
Sally’s eyes rolled into the back of her head. She was dragged back into that vision. She didn’t inhabit it from her six-year-old self’s perspective. She remained exactly where she was as the world around her changed into the memory.
With one difference. The Regent still stood there.
His hand was still spread toward her skull, but he twisted, staring down at the scene.
Sally remembered the moment the Queen’s light had lifted her up, the exact way it had pulsed into her, healing her injuries and soothing her pain. It was one of her greatest moments of strength. For there is strength in weakness, correct?
But perhaps what there really is is strength in lies.
For everything she had told herself about this moment was wrong.
Sally wasn’t lifted up. She remained exactly where she was. The Queen’s healing energy didn’t slide over her skull, fixing the crack in one smooth, efficient move.
None of that happened at all.
Instead, Sally watched the ship that’d been trapped in some kind of bridge-like dimension appear in full. It was a hell of a sight. As it manifested in this world, light cascaded off it. Each crackle looked like fireflies. They didn’t just spark down to the ground and discharge. They moved chaotically through the cavern, sinking into cracks in the wall only to dart back out, bounce around, and ricochet off the ceiling.
It looked as if the air had been consumed by a meteor shower.
When it finally abated and the ship appeared in full, the hatch opened.
And something… someone walked out.
Sally couldn’t move. If she’d been able to move, she wouldn’t have responded anyway. Not truly. Her body shut down.
For her mind… turned within.
The form that walked down that glimmering hatch was none other than Layra.
Layra wasn’t meant to have kept her physical form. After she’d turned into the Queen, her body had degraded over time, and the Queen virus had moved into other hosts.
But this… this was her first self. The same tall, svelte body. The same patchy blue and white skin. The same sad eyes rimmed with a touch of luminescent purple.
The same everything.
“A long time since you’ve truly stared at yourself, isn’t it, Layra?” the Regent asked. His tone was completely guarded. He wouldn’t look at her now, even though he hadn’t wanted to miss a thing previously.
If Sally had been thinking, she would’ve shoved to her feet, grabbed his face, and stared at it. For him to hide something meant he wasn’t in control. It was a way in – a single hope – a rung up a ladder that, if she climbed it, she could use to get out of this horror. She would have to unstick her knees first. And that was impossible.
She stared at herself. And… things tried to come back, but they couldn’t. There was an honest to God wall in her head. It had been built right down the middle of her psyche, and no matter how powerful the Queen was meant to be, she couldn’t break through it.
Sally watched Layra get down on one knee. She settled a gentle hand on the dead Sally’s shoulder.
There was no explosion of light, no fixing the wound in her skull.
Instead, a morose expression took to Layra’s face. She seemed to have features that were perfectly programmed to register that emotion. The luminescent glow rimming her irises dimmed, and her soft lips parted.
She patted Sally’s hair. Then she stood.
But not once did she fix Sally up, not once did she scoop her up in her arms. Not once did she save her.
Sally had both hands over her mouth now. It was like she was trying to will herself not to breathe. Do that, and she’d prove she didn’t have a human body. But her tears kept crying themselves, her heart kept beating on its own, and her breath thrust through her fingers, regardless of how hard she pressed them against her mouth.
“This is what really happened,” the Regent said in a cold voice. It was as if he had managed to gather up every single icy planet in the galaxy and crammed them all down into every syllable.
“This is… impossible. I’m human,” Sally stammered.
“No, you are nothing more than a handy genetic cloak,” he hissed.
Layra retreated into the ship then brought something back. Sally couldn’t tell what it was, but it felt Hendari. She waved it over Sally’s form.
Sally couldn’t necessarily see from this angle, so the Regent helped her.
He suddenly pulled her up, tugging her along. She thought she’d fall, but he wouldn’t let her. He shoved her close to the scanner until she saw the bio signs.
Nothing. They told her that Sally’s childhood form was dead. How she could read the bio signs, she didn’t know. What they said mattered more.
“Look. The child’s dead. The being you believe you are based on died a long time ago.”
Sally shook her head wildly. Tears splattered over her cheeks. They splashed onto Joseph’s uniform. One of them actually caught his insignia and slid down the Coalition symbol, making the carved metal glimmer for a second. “Don’t fight the inevitable. You died. Sally does not exist.”
“If she doesn’t exist, then what the hell is that?” Sally shoved out a trembling finger and pointed to her childhood form.
“An afterimage. A gate,” he snarled.
He had seemingly been in control until now. On the word gate, it was like his lips were gonna crack off his face.
Somewhere in Sally, something still functioned. Maybe it was her Coalition training. Perhaps it was the remnants of the Queen. Whatever it was, it told her for him to be this emotional, it meant he was nowhere near as in control as he seemed.
Emotions, to a strong psychic, were like cracks in a wall. Why attack the main façade when you could deliberately widen the cracks to make it easier on yourself?
Layra continued to work.
It was now clear she was taking some in-depth scan of Sally.
Sally wanted to crumple down to her knees. The Regent wouldn’t let her.
She was forced to watch.
Layra returned to the ship. Not once did she pick Sally up. She left her exactly where she was.
Sally wasn’t the only one watching this with fixed attention. The Regent wouldn’t look away.
For a fraction of a moment, he almost looked like Joseph. Sally wasn’t sure if it was because the Regent’s control became weaker or if this was just wishful thinking. But she almost recognized him. The moment passed.
The Regent’s lips curled into a sneer. “Would you like to know what you actually are?” he hissed through a laugh.
“Sally Winters, a cadet at the Coalition Academy,” she stammered. “And the current host for the Queen.”
He tilted his head back and laughed.
Joseph’s body just wasn’t suited to the move. There was menace there, sure, but it didn’t look anywhere near as terrifying as it did when Jerry did it.
But there were appearances, and then there was reality. He squeezed his fingers harder around her wrist. His hold of her was complete. There was no way for Sally to break it. Even if she managed to finally scrounge up her psychic powers and she threw them against him with all her might, it would count for nothing.
“You are a copy, nothing more than a glorified clone. One who was specifically developed to allow Layra’s mind to survive within it. You,” the Regent hissed, “are nothing more than a psychic suit.”
Sally twitched as she stared at him. She wanted to show her defiance. It was rapidly leaving her. She could practically feel it leaking out of her body like lost blood.
He grunted again in satisfaction and turned.
But Layra continued to work. Sally would give her one thing. She was diligent, and she was also kind. Not once did she treat Sally’s childhood form like a dead body. She patted the hair fondly, even whispered things Sally couldn’t pick up.
The tears were back – they drained along Sally’s cheeks, marching down her collar relentlessly and soaking it.
If she kept crying them, they’d wash away all of the rock dust and blood. But the Regent clearly had no intention of keeping her here forever.
While Sally watched Layra work, his attention was locked on the ship. The greed flickering in his eyes was obvious. The need, too.
He had to get that vessel back, wherever it was.
“Now you understand you are not real and you are nothing more than a host, get out of my way,” he snarled. “Bring me back my ship.”
“I don’t even know where it is,” Sally spat back defiantly.
“Some part of you does. Now stop lying to yourself. You’ve been attempting to block yourself off from the truth because you do not want to believe that you are nothing more than a parasite, Layra. You are not some great hive mind who has traveled the galaxies, finding the weak to give them a place to live. You take their genetic forms, gather up scraps of their psyches, and use both as food. You are a ghoul,” he took great pleasure in that, and the word echoed out with a bang.
“No longer allowed to lie to yourself.” He grabbed the back of her head and forced it forward until she couldn’t look away from Layra working. The scan was complete. She retreated back into the ship. She pulled out some kind of hovering device. It floated over Sally’s dead form and started to knit something out of light.
Sally just knew it would create a clone.
She should have been horrified. The only thing she really cared about was the fact the Regent twisted his head and once more paid full attention to the ship.
His psyche was guarded completely – his expression not so much. Real desperation burnt in his gaze. He had to get to the ship. And he had to do it quickly.
If he really held all the cards, there would be no constraints on him.
“How do I get to the ship, Layra? I will force my way into your mind and find the truth.”
“If you could do that, you would have done it already,” Sally snapped. “So do your worst.”
He turned around and snarled right in her face. There was no Joseph there. For the first time she wondered if he really had died in the attack.
“Do not tempt me. I want nothing more than to rip through your psyche. I’m giving you one last chance.”
“This is nothing to do with giving me a chance. If you could take the information from my head, you would have done it already. So do it,” she taunted him.
“You are nothing more than a fiction, Layra. Everything you have ever told yourself and everyone else are lies designed to ensure you do not face how much of a parasite you are. Now I have shown you the truth, give me my ship. Or I will destroy that vessel in orbit. I will send my psychic sprites to it, and they will rip it to shreds. And I will take every single body, line them up, transport them down here, and put you on top. It will be a fitting metaphor for what you truly are. You are nothing more than a merchant who deals with death.”
The image was horrifying. The certainty which he used to say it was worse. But did Sally give up? No. She just gritted her teeth. She faced him and sneered right up into his dark eyes.
So he crunched forward.
He locked a hand on the side of her face.
She felt his psychic control shove in. It was like a battering ram. Sally had already fought the Observer. It had been bad. But nothing, absolutely nothing compared to this. This was like fighting flames only to be transported right into the middle of the sun. All the experience she’d gathered over the years came crashing down.
She heard him laugh. Then his control pushed in further.
She was taken back to the moment when Sally died. The memory didn’t feel like hers anymore. It was distant, as if she’d downloaded the information into her skull.
“Recognize what you are, and give me back my ship.”
She screamed. But she didn’t give anything away.
There was nothing to give.
He might’ve been trying to tear down the last walls in her head, but they withstood his attacks.
Make no mistake, this wasn’t a moment of strength, though. She didn’t use all of her psychic skills to keep her defenses strong.
They were completely out of her control.
He continued to scream. He raged more and more. He sounded like an uncontrollable storm. It didn’t matter. No matter what he did to her, her memories wouldn’t return.
He finally jerked away from her.
She fell onto her back. She gasped for air.
She was still stuck in the vision, but it fractured around her a little.
As it did, she realized she’d fallen perilously close to her dead self.
That pool of blood was right there. As Sally thrashed, the side of her face dragged through it.
“Bring me back my ship,” he roared. “The crystal must be mine again.”
Crystal? This was… about another damn Hendari crystal? If he was… so powerful, why didn’t he just go after the crystals back on the Mercury?
She had too many questions. And too much… pain.
Sally was certainly in no position to tell herself there was strength in weakness. She could barely even breathe.
The Regent took a halting step toward her, got down on one knee, and snarled right in her face again. “I will give you one last chance.”
“Then what will you do?” she spluttered. “Are you going to use my friends against me? You’ve already done that. Destroy the Mercury? I don’t think you can. Why don’t you simply click your fingers, Regent? Why don’t you bring the rest of the Hendari crystals to you? You can’t,” she growled. “So do your worst. I’ll take it.”
He roared and lanced forward, but rather than hit her, smashed a subspace-power-covered fist into the floor. Rock dust didn’t splatter up. It didn’t have the chance. It was obliterated. Fracture lines spread underneath her, and he went to pound his fist on the ground again, but Jerry suddenly shot forward. He got down in a subservient position. Surely there was nobody an Observer would be subservient to other than the King?
Who exactly was the Regent, and where had he come from?
“My lord, you cannot. If you do too much damage to this area, you might break the alignment.”
“I know,” the Regent hissed.
He might’ve known, but Sally hadn’t.
What was the alignment?
Her mind might’ve currently been processing that attack, but at least that question could pull her out of her pain.
They had to be talking about the ship.
If Sally tilted her head and stared out of her peripheral vision, she could see it still flickering in and out of existence. It was weaker somehow.
“We have limited time,” Jerry whispered.
“I do not need to be reminded of that fact – I told you about it in the first place. Now go away. I have this.” He got down in front of Sally. Then he produced a subspace blade. He pushed it right against her neck. As soon as it touched her skin, it blistered.
More pain erupted through her. This was far more debilitating. It didn’t stop her from narrowing her eyes and staring at him as if she was in control.
She watched fracture lines of frustration blast across his brow. “You will fall to me,” he hissed. “You have already done so in the past, even though you cannot remember.”
“Threaten me all you wish to,” Sally said, not stopping her throat from pushing forward, her skin dragging closer to the blade. “You still can’t force me to do what you want.”
He screamed again.
He honestly looked as if he was getting ready to slice her across the throat and end this, but at the last moment, he turned. He went to open his hand and fire a bolt of power toward the wall, but Jerry got in the way.
He opened his arms wide. “Please, my lord. You cannot weaken the alignment. We only have an hour now.”
An hour? What the hell was going on here? Could there be some other force out there greater than this Regent? Who and what? It sure as heck couldn’t be the Mercury. Who else was on her side?
The Regent pushed to his feet. He grabbed his chin. He secured his fingers in. He dragged them down hard. A little subspace energy arced out. Sally watched the moment – she would never forget it as he actually pushed into his cheek and cut it.
He jerked his head back.
She almost screamed Joseph’s name.
“You must be careful, sir,” Jerry said quickly. “Spacer energy can be used against itself. Calm your mind.”
“I do not need a lesson from you on how to control my mind, you Hendari pipsqueak,” the Regent snapped.
He spoke as if he wasn’t Hendari.
The Regent appeared to control himself. He placed a finger on his cheek and dragged it down. His subspace energy sank into his skin again, but this time, it didn’t widen the cut – he closed it. He shook his head to the side, forced a smile to spread across his lips, then pushed in close again. “One by one, I’m going to transport the Coalition soldiers out in the settlement before you. And one by one, they are going to die. Right in front of your eyes. Only you can stop that—”
“And in an hour, regardless of what you do and who you kill,” she said, her voice devoid of all emotion, “you are still going to fail. I suggest you prepare yourself now. Don’t waste time. Just run,” she snarled.
For a moment, he didn’t react. Then she realized it wasn’t because he wasn’t reacting. He wasn’t controlling Joseph’s form.
She thought… she saw a flicker of something.
But then the Regent came roaring back into life. He grabbed his shoulders and shook them. “There is nothing you can do against me, Queen. You are nothing more than a pathetic Hendari pup. How did you believe you have the power to take someone like me on?”
“Someone like you? You aren’t Hendari, are you?” She sliced her gaze over to the Observer. “So what are you doing helping him?”
“He’s the greatest Hendari mind to have ever existed.” Jerry placed his hands forward and bowed.
The whole while, Sally watched the Regent.
She burst into laughter. “He’s not Hendari. I thought you Observers are honor-bound to protect the King? That is not one of our people.”
“Enough,” the Regent snarled.
“Your poisonous lies will not be believed,” the Observer said automatically.
“You called that your ship. But it is Hendari, and you are not one of my people,” Sally hissed as she gave a sharp nod in the ship’s direction. It kept blinking into existence only to drift away again. Was it her imagination? Or did it take longer every single time it reappeared, almost as if it really was dropping out of alignment?
“You stole it from me—”
“You’re not Hendari,” she spat again. “So what are you?”
“All you need to know is that I am impossible to fight. I am far, far worse than you, Queen. I always have been and always will be. Now, I offered you power—”
“And I offered myself in return? I may not remember, but that is irrelevant. I would never have made such a deal.”
He laughed. It was… cold. The kind of cold that made you question everything. The kind of cold that made you wonder if you were still alive, if anyone else was still alive, if the universe existed or if you had just simply been thrown into the depths of space, alone forevermore.
“You sought out power. You found me. I offered it. But everything comes at a price, doesn’t it?” he snarled.
“You’re right. It does. You have an hour to pay yours,” she hissed right back.
He snarled right in her face, rage – and importantly fear – blasting up over his features.
He had an hour.
All Sally had to do was wait that time out and not break.
As a powerful psychic, she knew how to shut her mind off. She would never struggle to get to sleep. She had a virtual consciousness switch in her head. All she would have to do was flick it, and she would crumple.
Which is exactly what she did now. She stared at him in blistering defiance for one more fraction of a second. Then she closed her eyes. She crumpled forward.
She had no idea what she would face when she woke.
But she would face it.