The hand just crumpled. It withered in on itself as if it was a grape thrown into a fire.
That mote of light that had infected it was revealed. It shuddered there in the air then just… disappeared. It didn’t go out of phase, though. It was as if it had extinguished itself. Joseph was now more certain than ever it was an Observer. Not one of the bad guys – one of the good ones. But the living memory had just passed, erasing itself from reality in a last-ditch attempt to save everyone.
Joseph didn’t have time to be distracted by that sad fact. He could still feel Sally’s hand….
“You did well, spacer. You saved us both,” the Regent snarled. He did so out loud and as he fell to one knee. His body swayed. He never lost his grip on the box, though. You could come along and try to drag it out of his grip with a powerful cruiser, but he’d still hold on. You could chop away the rest of his body, but it would do nothing to stop him.
It took a few swaying seconds, then he pushed to his feet. He turned.
Jerry was now well and truly out of sight. He’d returned to the ship.
The Regent snarled, his lips plucking up over his teeth like jerking strings.
He didn’t bother to walk. He transported right into the hangar bay.
He didn’t dump the future box. He stalked up to the door.
It opened for him.
It was in time to see Jerry trying to shove his hands through the pillar of light to get to Sally’s floating form.
The pillar rejected him, but Jerry tried nonetheless. He kept shoving his fingers in through the pillar only for them to be rebuffed as if someone was attacking him with a bat. It was a relatively light image that couldn’t really capture precisely what was happening. Because every single time Jerry was pushed back, these strange burns erupted over his skin. They had this blue, almost ocean-like quality to them. They shimmered, seemingly endlessly. It didn’t take too much longer to realize they were phase burns. How you could injure yourself in two realms at once, Joseph didn’t know.
It slowed Jerry down. You know what else slowed him down? The Regent marched right up behind him. He flicked his fingers wide, and Jerry’s armor disappeared. Then the Regent created a subspace blade and sliced it right through Jerry’s back. Joseph was aware of the moment the blade blasted through Jerry’s middle – he could feel the resistance, hear the blood hissing and erupting into steam.
Then Jerry twisted his head. His eyes opened. And Joseph saw Jerry the cadet. Jerry the idiot. But Jerry the guy who’d joined the Academy for a reason – who’d once had a heart that’d been twisted by circumstance. Maybe people could have stepped in earlier. Maybe they could have done something to stop what had happened to him. They hadn’t. Yeah, Jerry had to be responsible for his own actions, but everything occurred in context.
Joseph actually wanted to scream Jerry’s name. He couldn’t.
Jerry staggered back as the Regent let the blade crackle away. Jerry fell against the side of the light pillar. So the Regent just reached in, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him off. Jerry fell on the floor. No blood oozed out of his injury. It had been completely cauterized. He shouldn’t be alive. The Observer was clearly holding onto him, though, using every single last scrap of control he could.
The Regent got down on one knee.
He produced another subspace blade. It sent fiendish light and shadows playing over Jerry’s wide, almost sightless eyes.
His body was shutting down.
“You dare go against me?” the Regent roared.
“I am… loyal to the King.”
“Your King is nothing more than a virus. You would’ve been fed to him, idiot. You should have followed me.”
“Still… you still need me,” the Observer hissed. Blood splattered out from his mouth, covering his lips, sliding down his pale chin, and splashing against his torn Coalition collar. Jerry was just a cadet, so he didn’t have pips on his collar. If he had, they would’ve been inundated by his own blood.
The Regent’s lips twitched. This was presumably where he would snarl that it didn’t matter what Jerry thought – he’d gone against the Regent, and he had died for his crime. But the Regent twitched again. Joseph could feel his emotions – the confusion and greed. They crumpled in on themselves, almost as if they were cannibals trying to feed off each other.
It was clear the Regent was facing some great force out there – and considering Joseph had just experienced that disembodied hand, he could now personally appreciate the Regent was in no way in control.
“You… still need me,” the Observer whispered again. His teeth were covered in blood now. Joseph couldn’t even see a hint of the white enamel glimmering through. As for Jerry’s eyes? They were quickly becoming sightless. Maybe it was the effect of having a strong psyche in his head, but it was as if his eyes were turning into those of a corpse. They were glassy and white as if they’d been left out in the sun for too long.
Regent crunched a hand into a fist. It wasn’t the one holding the box. That was stiffly locked against his chest as if it had become a part of his body.
The Observer tried to open his mouth one last time, tried to whisper he was needed.
The Regent sliced forward. He went to punch Jerry, but at the last moment his fist struck to the side and smashed into the floor beside Jerry’s neck. It was already slicked with blood, this growing pool splattering out from Jerry’s bleeding mouth.
Jerry’s eyes widened once, then they shut permanently. Joseph could actually feel him dying, feel him as if he was somehow connected to Jerry’s dwindling consciousness.
The Regent roared, grabbed Jerry up by the throat, then hauled him over to the matter recalibrator. He worked quickly. He created devices that locked around Jerry’s chest. One of them stabbed right into his heart. It was a sickening sound, and blood splattered everywhere. It didn’t kill Jerry. It was clearly some kind of brutal stasis field. This light flickered up Jerry’s form, coalescing around his face then sealing his injuries in place. It also lifted him up off the floor until he floated by the Regent’s side.
The Regent continued to move quickly, but not once did he put the box down. He could certainly save Jerry’s life faster if he at least put it to the side, but he clearly couldn’t stomach that. What, did he think that more of those motes of light would float in from the asteroid beyond and try to capture it?
… Yeah, he did think that. Because the Regent, despite how fraught this moment was, kept wasting the time to jerk his head over his shoulder and stare at the door.
It didn’t take too much longer. Five minutes or so, and Jerry had been stabilized.
Then the Regent turned.
Joseph was surprised when rather than march over to the command chair, he twisted, locked his shaking shoulders against the wall, and slid down.
This was an obvious show of emotion. Who cared? Who was there to see it? Sally’s head was still lolled to the side, her eyes closed. She looked unconscious. Jerry? Very much unconscious.
As for Joseph, it wasn’t as if the Regent could hide his true feelings from him anyway.
The Regent spent a good several minutes locked there, his arm shaking, his free hand squeezing his eyes closed. Then he shoved up.
He was going to open the future box now. Or maybe he’d wait, gather up more, and get ready for the inevitable fight with the Coalition.
Joseph had glimpsed the possibility of controlling his body back down in that crater. He wasn’t about to give it up yet.
“I’d run faster if I were you. I wouldn’t waste time crumpled in a ball of self-pity. You know the good Observers are out there, right? I doubt there was only one. There are others on this asteroid – I can feel them,” Joseph lied. “And they are coming. Coming for you, Regent.”
The Regent roared again. It was unstable – fractured and cracking like a hand that suddenly realized it couldn’t hold anything up, let alone itself.
“You have no clue. You are nothing more than a—”
“Skin suit?” Joseph sneered. “If I’m nothing more than a skin suit, how did I regain control of my body back there? I did. You can’t ignore that. And you can’t make me forget. You haven’t been able to kill me yet. So I’m gonna tell you this. The next time you’re in pain and you retreat from my body because you can’t withstand the agony, I will come back, Regent. And the next time, I will block you out. You think you’re strong? You can’t deal with pain. That’s not strength. It’s opportunism.”
The Regent roared again. He clutched the side of his head with his free hand, his fingers pushing in. Big mistake. He lost control of his subspace energy. It zipped into Joseph’s already yielding skin. He was still sporting a significant injury to his throat. His subspace particles had been trying their best to heal it, but as the Regent undermined them yet again, the process reversed.
The Regent rocked forward, splattering blood up against what was left of his light shroud.
Better than that? His arm loosened around the box.
Joseph made a play for his body – one last desperate attempt.
But just as the Regent’s arm loosened, it snapped back over the smooth metal like a spring returning to its base.
His lips pared back over his teeth. It was a slow but deliberate move, just like someone cocking a gun. “You can try all you want, boy. You can wait at the back of your mind, ready to rise when you will. But know this – you’ll never get rid of me. Whenever you become weak again, I will snap in.”
With that, the Regent fell back in Joseph’s consciousness. Just like that, he withered up. But he didn’t die. Because he was right. There was nothing Joseph had that could kill him.