The War of the Gods Book Three Chapter 6

Joseph Lance

He was still in his head. But no matter what he did, all he could do was remain.

Joseph had been in some pretty wild fights over the years. Fights where the best he could achieve was simply not dying. So he knew what kind of state this was. Didn’t make it feel better, though. In every other fight he’d ever had, he’d always had hope – hope that there’d be backup, hope that something would change, hope that he’d be able to scrounge the power to make a difference. What exactly could he hope for right now? That the Regent would just up and leave his body? Impossible. It was as if the Regent had put down roots in Joseph’s mind. He was never going to leave. He was a poisonous infection that had permanently altered Joseph’s mindscape. He was damn well here to stay.

So what else could possibly save Joseph? Sally? She was… it was horrifying to watch her through the Regent’s eyes. She just floated there. The only thing she could control was her eyes. And that made the scene all the worse. Because every time he looked into them, he saw her utter despair and defeat. Maybe sometimes there would be a flicker of something. It wouldn’t last. It would be replaced by total gutwrenching surrender.

The Queen knew there was no point, and Joseph should too. But he kept vacillating between the hope of being able to push the Regent’s mind back and realizing that his hope was nothing more than a distraction.

There was one thing he could do in the Regent’s head. Assess his emotions. He might be able to hide them from everyone else, but he couldn’t hide what was actually happening to Joseph’s body while he was still in it. Joseph was well aware of how tight his chest had become, how shallow his subspace energy was. It was a little like breathing in a way. The shallower it became and the more it raced over his skin without control – the more it meant he was losing it.

Ostensibly, on paper at least, the Regent was winning. He held all the cards – the Hendari ship, the Queen, even a pet Observer. But why did his heart beat so damn hard, and why was there so much fear kicking around in his system – enough to tear through a thousand normal chests and shatter a thousand normal brains?

Because something was out there. That was the only thing Joseph could derive. Something big. Something that was coming for the Regent.

“We are approaching the asteroid,” Jerry said.

He was back on his feet. Technically. He’d had to manufacture spray-on skin. At least the Hendari version of it. Don’t get Joseph wrong – it was a miraculous product. It had immediately fixed the extensive damage to his throat. But Jerry’s body was still failing, and it was clear there was nothing that could be done for that.

He had to brace himself against walls. There were no other handy objects to lean against.

He breathed way too fast, too, and his chest pounded into his uniform, meaning there was this permanent quiet rustling sound echoing through the bridge.

The Regent had returned to his command seat. He might be trying to hide it from everyone else, but Joseph was well aware of the fact that as his body crunched forward, the only thing he damn well wanted to do was spring from his seat, reach that asteroid, and claim the future box.

Instead of showing his fear and eagerness, he leaned back as if he was as casual as a resting, apathetic teenager. Crossing one leg over the other, he shrugged. He even floated a little. What, did he think that Joseph usually floated when he was in calm, complete control? Nope. Sally would know that.

Sally… she had to still be in her head, right? She still had a scrap of hope that allowed her to hold on, right? She wasn’t drowning in her own mind, was she? It was so damn hard to tell. She spun around in that pillar of light, coming into view occasionally only to drift away.

If Joseph felt like a doll, then she looked like one. Her hair scattered around her face, framing her vacant eyes.

It was a stilling, horrifying sight.

Joseph was well aware that he would’ve felt differently several days ago. But several days ago he hadn’t remembered who she was.

Sally…. He might no longer have the Queen’s mental block in his head, but he still couldn’t fill in that question.

Just who the hell was she really?

He’d seen the memory the Regent had dragged out of her skull, all right. He’d been watching through the Regent’s eyes, so he’d experienced every horrifying detail of the six-year-old Sally falling and Layra claiming her. But… something hadn’t felt right. This wasn’t wishful thinking. It was… this feeling that whatever was going on here, it was so much bigger than Joseph had even begun to imagine.

All of his doubt came back to that damn sound. That inescapable moaning. That ever-present, ever-growing groan. The one that almost sounded like the universe trying to shift around some laborious weight. Pay too much attention to it, and he might be dragged back along that stone path into his memories again.

It could have been tempting, but it would also have left him unguarded, and the Regent was looking for any chance at all to snap the remnants of Joseph’s psyche like a burnt twig.

“We are close now,” the Regent said, managing to hide his fear from everybody else as he crunched forward, his legs slipping over the edge of the command seat. His whole body was rigid. Joseph didn’t think he’d ever felt his muscles like he did now. They were at the point of snapping permanently. It was like somebody had recreated them out of springs. Just a little more tension, and they would ricochet out of his body for good.

“Create a view screen. Show me what we approach,” the Regent snarled. He swiped his hand to the side.

It was unclear exactly how he interacted with Sally, but he sure did make a lot of physical movements for someone who was apparently effortlessly controlling a doll. If this was all psychic manipulation, then all he’d require was a single thought. Yet he put a lot of effort into swiping his hand to the side, almost as if he was actually physically picking up some heavy object.

Sally spun again. Her eyes didn’t open. They remained loosely closed, almost as if she’d shut down for good. Her mental connection to the ship still functioned sufficiently to create a view screen.

Joseph had never seen anything like it. In a cascade of what looked like pure creative light, something appeared right in front of the Regent’s face. It wasn’t a hologram… it was like actual reality, almost like a little universe had appeared – one the Regent was in complete control of.

He gathered it toward him, his greedy gaze lapping it up.

It showed an asteroid. A relatively plain one, to be fair.

Most asteroids looked the same – as chunks of barren rock that’d been battered relentlessly by space, it was hard to find differentiating details. Yeah, they’d have a different conglomeration of holes and pockmarks, but at the end of the day, they were all just large space rocks.

But the way the Regent looked at this one, it was damn clear the future was held in those simple barren crags and peaks.

The Regent hissed again.

His emotions raged within. They were so violent, Joseph was almost pulled in by them.

It was one thing to be inside your body, feeling its emotions – but quite another to realize that those emotions weren’t yours. It was easy to be carried away by their force, anyway.

There was one emotion he couldn’t be swept up by. Total gutwrenching, soul-destroying greed. As the Regent’s eyes darted back and forth, they locked on a certain section of the asteroid, right toward its middle.

There was something there. Something the Regent wanted to obtain with all his might. He desired to part space, tear through what dared get in his way, and grab up the future boxes.

“We appear to be approaching the asteroid now,” Jerry hissed.

His eyes widened, too. It was clear he had now understood he no longer served the King publicly. Whether he had completely lost his loyalty for the King was another matter, though. If he wanted to live, then he served the Regent.

… Had Joseph actually thought that through yet?

The King and the Hendari were meant to be the greatest threat in the universe. The Regent, whoever he was, could clearly fight them though.

… Your enemy’s enemy is your friend, right? Now, Joseph wasn’t about to suggest the Regent in any way would ever be considered friendly. What if he could do something to weaken the Hendari, though?

Joseph knew the answer. He could practically hear Forest’s disembodied voice echoing through his head. Yeah, he could try to help the Regent, or at least go along with him until he started openly attacking the Hendari, but if Joseph was swallowed up at the same time, it wouldn’t matter. He’d just swap one monster for another.

The only way to win was to wrench back his control.

Control… was something that had haunted Joseph his entire life. Something he’d spent much more time thinking about than your average cadet. To a normal person, just getting up in the morning, doing what you wanted, and seemingly being the driving force behind your life was enough. Joseph had felt a lack of control on a fundamental level that few would ever even begin to imagine. It was the lack of control you felt when your body rejected you, when your limbs no longer heeded your commands, when your brain squeezed in on itself as if it was attempting to push your ego right out of the back of your skull like an uninvited squatter.

Once you experienced that, you never lived normally again. You couldn’t live with an open heart, either. You always had a grain of doubt that one day your personality would be snuffed out like somebody plunging a candle into an ocean.

Maybe that realization was meant to be debilitating – and it had been for most of his life. It also gave him a single way forward.

You see, not so long ago, someone had taught him an interesting lesson. The only way to fight a strong psychic wasn’t to block your most traumatic memories from them. It was to force them out of your mind like a weapon, to use them as a trap. The Regent might’ve faced many things, but had he experienced the unique weakness of a spacer? Did he know the unrelenting fear it was to have someone else control your every action, to commit crimes with your hands that you couldn’t stop?

No. But if Joseph thought that thinking that would somehow drag the Regent into a vision, he was mistaken.

For the Regent was on the cusp of what he wanted.

He rocketed to his feet, his heart fluttering like a wild hummingbird.

The view on his screen altered. The ship started to approach the asteroid.

Joseph couldn’t feel it slowing down. He couldn’t feel it at all. It was less like he was on a ship, and more like he was on a stable planet somewhere.

“We approach the future…” Jerry couldn’t finish. His cheeks became slack, his eyes opening wider, the skin around them now so pale and gray, it was like somebody had taken a live person’s features and crammed them into a dead skull.

That couldn’t stop him from staring in wonder at the viewscreen. Even Joseph became transfixed.

He didn’t understand how Hendari ships worked. Were they going to transport down to the asteroid or actually land the whole vessel? If this was an ordinary Coalition spaceship, they wouldn’t dare land. Asteroids were fundamentally unstable things. Geologically, they were the equivalent of shifting sand. If you were stupid enough to land a heavy cruiser on one, you might turn around only to find it had sunk. There were so many earthquakes, it didn’t bear mentioning. You know what did bear mentioning? The fact this was a Hendari vessel. The next thing he knew, it quietly slipped in to land. Again, there were no shakes. There wasn’t even an alarm.

The Regent was already on his feet. He began pacing back and forth. A few charges of subspace energy crackled up his legs, then darted back down into his feet. They sank into Joseph’s regulation Coalition boots. The soles were already burnt, but now the sparks did more damage. The Regent clearly didn’t notice. Joseph’s energy could leak through half the ship, and the Regent still wouldn’t care. He probably thought he had good control of Joseph’s body. He didn’t have any understanding, though. Then again, did he need it? If he blasted through Joseph’s form and damaged it beyond repair, who cared? The Regent would just use his considerable skills to find a new host. Or worse… maybe he’d just go into Sally? Joseph had felt the Regent staring at her multiple times. There’d been greed there, greed Joseph had only ever felt when Master Deus had inhabited his skull. It was the attention of someone who knew the thing before them was nothing more than a toy to be used. One they longed to grasp up like a greedy child.

“Come,” the Regent snapped at the Observer as they turned and headed for the bridge door. It opened seamlessly. Joseph had already figured out that this ship was programmable. It could likely change its design to whatever it saw fit. But for now, it simply had two large rooms. The bridge and the hangar bay. It was disconcerting, though. It gave the feel of a ship that hadn’t been finished yet, that was hanging up in some shipyard still being built.

Joseph wasn’t the only one who was disconcerted. The Regent stopped. He turned. He marched over to the bridge matter recalibrator. “Build me the greatest set of armor there ever was,” he barked.

… Really? He honestly did sound like a kid now. One that thought that if he just demanded anything he wanted, the universe would scurry to the side, find it, and give it to him like an obedient parent. Suffice to say, the matter recalibrator didn’t reach into its Christmas bag of tricks and just deliver what the Regent requested. It did nothing.

He growled again. It had a slightly uneasy edge to it.

It was the note of somebody who knew that fundamentally they weren’t in control, were they? They were glimpsing control through somebody else, but it was still technically located in another’s hands.

Speaking of hands, he swiped his to the side in a violent move.

Sally suddenly spun around in the pillar of light, her floating form twisting as if she was a ballerina in a snow globe.

The Regent opened his hand wide, spreading his fingers in a jerky move, and Sally did the same. The matter recalibrator beeped.

The Regent pressed his face close, locking his hands on either side of the sleek device embedded in the wall. It looked like nothing more than a panel with a shiny silver chute. A deceptively simple design, but Joseph still knew from experience that it could create any medical technology one could imagine.

“Show me the most sophisticated set of armor in your database,” the Regent growled.

A viewscreen similar to the one that had appeared before the command seat rippled in front of his nose.

It showed… Joseph could only assume it was a set of armor, but it certainly didn’t look like that. It wasn’t solid. Instead, it seemed to be a shroud of light.

Clearly the Regent had no experience with it because he snarled. “Something better.”

Rather than respond to him with words, the rotating picture of that shroud of light simply got closer, as if the viewscreen was trying to tap the Regent on the shoulder and point out that yep, this was the best it had.

The Regent snarled a little, then shrugged. “Very well. Build it.”

“Will you make two suits?” Jerry spluttered.

“Just one will be necessary,” the Regent hissed.

“But I am to accompany you—”

“You can get a suit. But not the best.”

“But—”

“Do not fight me, Observer,” the Regent said in a far-distant voice. Make no mistake, that only ensured the menace was worse. It practically dripped with death now. It was enough that Jerry opened his hands and took a step back. He shuddered badly, but he managed to just stay on his feet.

It didn’t take too much time at all for the matter recalibrator to create the set of armor. Rather than print it in the air, it created it right over the Regent’s body.

This was one of the few times when Joseph had to think of it as his body again. He was intimately connected to every tingle as it raced up and down him, first plunging into his feet then pulsing up the back of his legs then across his hips and finally up to his face.

As a spacer, he had a far closer connection to energy than most people. He could detect even the smallest hint of electricity. Go into a room and hide some device under some cloak, and Joseph could usually pierce through it with nothing more than his mind.

But this… it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like actual energy. It was as if Joseph was glimpsing the heart of possibility. As the light was knitted over the Regent’s form, it was as if Joseph was watching the Big Bang on fast forward.

It didn’t take too much longer until it was finished. With another blast of energy, the Regent opened his arms and closed them.

The shroud of light remained locked around him. It was a few centimeters above his skin. It shimmered and crackled wherever he went, following his every move as easily and completely as actual skin.

He smiled. Then he dismissively ticked a hand to the side. “A standard set of Hendari armor,” he hissed.

The Observer’s eyes widened. Jerry’s fear took a backseat.

Joseph could see and feel the Observer’s mental control – his fear, too. “But sir, there will be other Observers down there. Once they sense I am here, they will do everything they can to stop me.”

“You will be by my side. All you must do is trust that I will protect you.”

“But sir,” the Observer made the mistake of hissing. He should’ve learned by now that the Regent wasn’t somebody you messed with. You might be able to second-guess a commander, or at least question their reasoning. You didn’t do that to an autocrat.

The Regent’s cheeks twitched, then he suddenly turned around. He gripped the Observer up by his throat, pulling him up high until Jerry’s boots scrabbled against the floor.

The Observer’s eyes bulged, both with fear and pressure.

“You do not need to fear. I am with you. There is nothing your people can do against you. Not while you follow me.” He brought his sneering face close. Joseph could even see the Regent’s face reflected in Jerry’s wide, somewhat glassy pupils.

The Regent’s face… Joseph kept saying that, but it was different to see his own reflection.

It was something he’d looked at a lot over the years. He knew every wrinkle, every permanent line of stress. He may not have many scars – on the surface, at least. But he certainly had them within.

Despite the fact this wasn’t his body anymore, the marks remained – but they no longer meant the same thing. In the past, Joseph’s scars had kept him back, had reminded him that underneath everything, he was weak.

The Regent didn’t accept weakness.

Not in himself, and certainly not in his subjects.

He tightened his grip around Jerry’s throat once more. Jerry’s eyes started to roll into the back of his head. Just before he could splutter and die, the Regent finally let go. It was a hard task. His better reason had to flood up just at the last moment and stop him.

The most important thing about that equation was the last moment. If you kept playing brinkmanship, pushing yourself right up against the limits of your anger, statistics dictated that one day you would lose. Your anger would rise up, and it would do something you wouldn’t be able to fix.

But Jerry survived for now.

He fell onto his knees. He was woozy, and his eyes almost rolled into the back of his head, but letting his fingers slide over his throat one last time, he was smart enough to use his dwindling energy to stand.

The Regent finished his commands, and the matter re-calibrator started to create armor over Jerry. It was solid. It still had a glimmering quality to it – one that was unmistakably alien. When it was done, Jerry no longer swayed. He stood rigidly, all weakness now hidden by the perpetually glimmering silver-black carapace. It didn’t need to catch the powerful downlights shining from above. It had its own light. It almost looked like the Hendari ship had back on Faxon A – as if it was permanently in some phase state.

Now they were done, the Regent turned swiftly on his foot. He wasn’t floating right now. But as his light shroud interacted with the floor, it sent strange ripples of energy passing through everything. While the Hendari bridge was clearly capable of withstanding it, Joseph questioned whether anything else would be. As soon as they stood on the rock outside, would it crumble at the Regent’s approach? Would it forget it was a rock, turn into light, and drift away?

They soon strode through the hangar bay and reached the hatch just as it opened. There was no shield, no decontamination process – nothing that you’d get on a Coalition vessel. It just opened out right onto the asteroid. Nothing depressurized. There was nothing to suck out of the hangar bay, anyway – it was still completely empty.

Jerry took a shuddering breath. Either he didn’t know how to block his armor off from sharing every single vocalization, or the Regent had turned that function off.

Clear fear shook through Jerry’s throat.

The asteroid was… just an asteroid. On the face of it. The same craggy peaks stretched beyond that you’d get on any space rock. The asteroid didn’t technically have mountains – just cavernous holes that’d been ripped into it by millions of impacts over the innumerable millennia.

It looked eerily like the mountain peak back on Faxon A – but one that’d been desaturated of all color and had every single aspect of life sucked out of it. The rock that stretched before Joseph was just this gray-black mass of death.

The Regent wasted no more time. He walked off the edge of the platform. As soon as his light-covered boots touched the rock dust beneath, little blasts of illumination scattered out from him. It was as if he’d just crushed a handful of fireflies.

Jerry jumped down, and his boots simply crunched through the dust further.

The Regent strode ahead. You’d think he was in control from his straight back and stiff arms. But you know what people don’t do if they are in control? Shudder. And trust Joseph, the Regent practically convulsed. He hid it as he twisted his hand to the side and quickly called on a subspace blade. As it blazed into life, sending light spluttering up over his palm and down his wrist, Joseph realized where the Regent was focusing. It was on a section about 200 meters away. There was a dip. It was an impact crater. The rock around it was glassy, giving the impression the impact had been strong enough to physically alter the stone.

It wasn’t that shimmering quality that caught the Regent’s attention.

Just down the side of the impact crater rested something that was out of phase.

Jerry stuck right by the Regent’s side. Close enough that Joseph realized there had to be a threat out there. A looming one.

The Regent twisted his other hand to the side and called on another subspace blade. It erupted into existence, a few subspace particles interacting with the Regent’s light shroud.

They moved seamlessly between each other, as if they’d been built for that exact purpose.

Yeah, spacers were sophisticated. They were also a remnant from the Force. But surely they were nothing compared to Hendari technology? So why did his energy work so well with an ultimate Hendari set of armor?

There was no one to answer. There was only fear to be felt as the Regent approached that section of the impact crater.

His fear hit a crescendo, now shaking through Joseph’s chest, marching up into his throat, and pressing his lips so hard against his teeth, it was like he was trying to swallow them.

Above, the star-studded black sky pressed in close. Joseph didn’t usually like asteroid missions. It was completely different from being outside on the hull of a ship. That came naturally to him. It wasn’t like space could actually kill him. Asteroids, on the other hand, felt a hell of a lot more personal. It was like all the defenses between you and the actual horrors of space had been removed. Kiss a blue sky goodbye – say goodbye to a handy atmosphere, too. And while you were there, you could get rid of all your thick hull and gravity fields. When you were on an asteroid, you felt what it was to be an insignificant speck of dust rushing through the impersonal universe. If something went wrong, you’d quickly become just as dead as a speck of dust, too.

Though it wasn’t the case for a spacer, you needed to be damn sure your environmental suit worked when you went down onto an asteroid. It wasn’t just their unstable geology. It was that things impacted asteroids all the time. Especially in an asteroid field. While gravity usually kept a lot of the other asteroids in check, there were so many small shards of meteors kicking around that you could have impacts every other minute. Sure enough, Joseph watched as such an impact occurred only 300 meters away. It was a small chunk of rock, but that didn’t matter. You move anything fast enough, and when it strikes its target, it does so with an unholy bang.

A shudder ripped through the ground, cracks appearing underneath the Regent’s feet. He ignored them. He focused his full attention forward on the impact crater. Saliva collected in Joseph’s mouth, this cold, dense pressure spreading down his chest like ice melt flowing through a previously dry river.

It didn’t take too much longer to reach the crater.

Joseph… he could see it clearly now. See it as if it had always been a permanent fixture burnt into his eyeballs.

Something was in phase down the side of that craggy crater.

Joseph had already seen the effects of one of those future boxes. This… felt different.

“Amazing,” Jerry spluttered.

“The truly amazing part has not occurred yet. Watch,” the Regent hissed.

He didn’t walk. Not now. He grabbed hold of Joseph’s subspace energy and ported. Joseph loved porting. It was the equivalent of running to a marathon junkie. It proved to him he was alive and in full control of every muscle and body system.

Now… he had to take a back seat. The Regent appeared just above that shimmering out-of-phase object.

Now Joseph was closer, he could see what it was – another one of those boxes. It wasn’t embedded in the side of the impact crater or just sitting there for anyone to take away. It was clutched in a dead man’s hands. The guy wore some form of armor Joseph couldn’t recognize – this strange white carapace that made it look like he was an angel. His body was wrapped all the way around the future box. It was clear that his final act had been to protect it with his dying breath.

His armor glinted under the starscape, a few of those glimmers seemingly tracing along the future box but not getting far. It was still out of phase. It blinked into existence only to disappear then come back. It was like a pendulum swaying between two realms.

The Regent froze, expectation yet crippling fear mixing together and blasting through his chest in a wave. He still had both his subspace swords in his hands. His grip was sweaty. While this light carapace could probably withstand several attacks from a heavy cruiser, it wasn’t like other sophisticated armor. It didn’t form a seal with his skin. It was more like a cloak. So it could do nothing to dry the Regent’s sweat.

He finally crunched down onto a knee. Without further ado, he stabbed the subspace blade down into the dead soldier. He tried to cut him away from the box. Every move was brutal. It was like the guy was nothing more than a statue, not someone who’d been alive, just some interfering scrap of junk that needed to be removed like someone flicking mud off their shoe.

Joseph was gutted by the sheer cruelty of every slash and stab.

It took a long time – far longer than it should. The guy wasn’t technically out of phase, but parts of him were. His arms and legs were pressed up against the future box. It meant they weren’t really there, and they were what the Regent had to target. As Joseph’s subspace blades dug into the guy’s white carapace, half the time they were rebuffed. The Regent kept going, his lips pulling back into a vicious snarl, a bead of sweat sliding down the center of his brow, tingling along the bridge of his nose and splashing onto his lip. It shuddered then fell off his chin and splattered against the light shield. Then it just disappeared as if it had never been.

It was almost as if the light shield was out of phase too.

Where did this phase technology come from? Was it really another realm, or was it a place the Hendari had created? Was it even their creation? There were too many questions. And when you drowned in questions, it stopped you from standing tall when you needed to the most.

If Admiral Forest were here, what would she say?

Gather information. That would be it. Don’t attack, don’t show your hand too early. Search for every single fact you can, for it is in facts you will ultimately win.

So Joseph paid attention, as hard as it was, as brutal and damn vicious as every single one of the Regent’s attacks became. It took him a good five minutes, but finally he dug the future box free from its grave.

The last thing to hold on was the dead soldier’s white armored hand. It formed some kind of adhesive lock on the side of the box. As the Regent jerked it back, the hand came with him.

The Regent snarled, gripping it and trying to rip it off, but he couldn’t.

The fingers still had some strange lock on the box.

So the Regent twisted around, formed a double sword, and cut the hand right off.

It was sickening.

Joseph could hear the crunch of bones beneath, the splatter of evaporating liquid, and the hiss of bubbling metal.

The hand remained locked against the side of the future box, though, even as the soldier flopped back.

He remained there for a few seconds then just disappeared. His armor and body weren’t burnt up. He simply slipped back out of phase.

It was a disarming experience. Everything that had been happening recently felt as if it was on the edge of reality. Ever since Joseph had encountered the Regent and seen his ability to interact with matter, it was as if Joseph had slowly been slipping into a dream.

The soldier disappearing like a figment of his imagination only made it all the worse.

The Regent twisted. He opened his lips. He laughed. It was cold, broken, and about as stable as the ground beneath his feet.

Speaking of which, there was a sudden powerful shudder. The Regent either forgot he could float or didn’t do it fast enough, but his knees cut out from underneath him. He tumbled to the side and rolled down into the middle of the crater. He soon shot up, but even as he tried to float now, it didn’t matter.

Joseph… he didn’t know what he saw, but he saw something, all right. This flicker at the edge of his vision. It was like a mote of light. It burst into existence, sparking like one of those aforementioned fireflies. Then it disappeared. It reappeared right beside him. The Regent didn’t notice. Maybe he wasn’t used to having a spacer’s body, or perhaps he’d never been in true battles before. When you were as powerful a psyche as he was, you probably forgot how to rely on your body’s quick senses. Joseph saw, all right. That spark of light shifted next to the hand locked on the box. Then it pushed within.

Joseph had a chance to freak out, then the fingers twitched. The Regent finally noticed. He jolted back. He shifted one hand off the box and created a sword, but it was too late.

The soldier’s hand came to life.

Then it went right for the Regent’s throat.

Sorry. Joseph could pretend that his body belonged to the Regent most of the time – just not when it was getting injured.

Joseph had no clue what the soldier’s armor was made out of, but as soon as it wrapped around his throat, it interacted directly with his subspace particles. The light shroud covering him couldn’t do anything. It was as if the hand knew how to bypass it perfectly.

The Regent spluttered. “Get off me,” he roared. He fell onto his back. He kept the future box clutched in his arm, but that led to a problem. He could only use one hand now. He either had to try to wrench the soldier’s hand free, or he had to create a subspace sword. He wasted valuable time trying to do both.

The hand simply locked around Joseph’s throat harder until he spluttered. Joseph did have a form of circulatory fluid. It was pretty hard to cut him, but it wasn’t impossible. Right now that hand did enough damage to force Joseph to splatter up a mouthful of blood. It splashed against his light shield then immediately disappeared out of phase. But the damage was done.

The Regent tried to roar, but you try roaring through a completely crushed throat.

He finally settled on attempting to use his subspace blade. Wrong idea. As he stabbed it toward Joseph’s throat in a last-ditch attempt to get the hand off, the hand simply blinked out of existence, somehow directly affecting its own phase. That meant the subspace blade was rammed right into Joseph’s throat.

He spluttered. Make no mistake, it was him. As the injury tore through his neck, almost chopping his head off, he returned to his own body. It was a moment of exquisite agony. He hadn’t been this damaged in a long time.

The subspace blade stopped just before it could do terminal damage.

It wasn’t the Regent who stopped it, though. At the height of Joseph’s agony, the Regent’s mind just disappeared as if it simply couldn’t withstand pain. Joseph, on the other hand – he’d been withstanding pain his entire life. He roared, wrenched his blade away, and opened his hand wide. He got rid of it. And he concentrated – with every scrap of will he had – on his throat. While his subspace energy could harm him, it could also heal him. His cells weren’t connected like an ordinary person’s. His body was more coherent energy. He had to focus on that coherence now, reminding it to stick together.

It was agonizing. It was also damn hard because that hand hadn’t disappeared completely. It reappeared. This time at the back of Joseph’s skull. It locked against it, completely ignoring his light shroud. Then Joseph was picked up.

He went to drop the future box, but that would be when the Regent came roaring back into his head.

Joseph actually heard it as this shrieking high-pitched scream. It came from right between his brows and practically ricocheted from temple to temple. Just as Joseph went to drop the box to focus on the hand gripping his skull like someone trying to crush a raspberry, the Regent stopped him from dropping the box.

The Regent had to focus on getting rid of his hand, or Joseph would die. He didn’t know what would happen to the Regent’s mind if he remained in his skull when he did die. It probably wouldn’t be good. Yeah, the guy could likely port his consciousness to whatever host he wanted, or maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he had the same limitations as the Observer infecting Jerry.

From everything Joseph knew about current Coalition intelligence, all the Observers were back on the Hendari prime homeworld. They had artifacts which they used to create paths that allowed them to port their consciousness wherever they wanted. So even if they were inside a host and the guy died, it was irrelevant. They could just change the Hendari path and port into somebody else’s head. But the Regent had already confirmed that wouldn’t happen with this Observer. So maybe it couldn’t happen with the Regent, either?

Joseph got his answer when a pulse of pure fear plummeted through the Regent’s stomach. It reached the bottom of his gut then kept going. It dragged itself down his legs, plunged into his knees, then shot out of his feet. It made Joseph feel as if he was being stretched on an old human rack.

But if the fear was meant to be torture, the pain was way worse. That detached hand kept attacking. Its fingers now squeezed the back of Joseph’s skull. He was like a watermelon someone was attempting to hit with a hammer. Though his subspace energy should have been able to protect him, it couldn’t fight on two fronts at once. It was dealing with the almost critical injury to his throat. So Joseph heard a crack. Pain blasted through the back of his skull and sank down into his neck. Then it ricocheted through the rest of his body. It disrupted even more of his energy. Right now Joseph had to drop the box and concentrate on the hand. The Regent wouldn’t let him. He secured the box against his chest even harder. What? Did he want to go down like the soldier who’d once owned this hand? Would he clutch the box to his chest in his final moment, keeping it even though it meant sacrificing his life?

Joseph screamed.

It took half a second to realize he’d actually made the move. Again he punched through the Regent’s control. His voice echoed out against his light shroud, but it couldn’t push further. There was no atmosphere on this asteroid. There was no one to care about him screaming, either.

Technically Jerry was still there. He couldn’t do a damn thing. He was down on his side, his eyes wide. He’d tumbled down into the asteroid pit, but not all the way.

He scrabbled to his feet a good 20 meters back. He was no idiot. He didn’t rush in to help. He kept crouched low. Once or twice? He darted his head back toward the open hatch that led into the Hendari vessel. Joseph knew exactly what he was thinking. He wanted to go back to the Queen. She was unguarded right now, and it was freaking clear the Observer wanted Sally’s body.

That just lit the powder keg of rage burning softly in Joseph. Sorry, burning softly? It’d been raging ever since his body had been taken over.

Every damn fear he’d kept hold of ever since his time with Deus was crammed down into that powder keg, just more fuel for the fire – the inevitable raging inferno that started to light itself now.

The hand kept itself secured around Joseph’s skull. It twisted him to the side this way and that. He was like a doll attached to a chaotically flying bird.

One arm dangled loosely. Joseph wasn’t currently controlling it, and neither was the Regent. Joseph instead focused on the hand holding the box – as did the Regent. They had an unholy battle.

“Get the hell out of my mind. You are nothing, spacer. Nothing but a pathetic fool,” the Regent sneered.

Joseph did nothing. Why waste words? He could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. He had to just grasp it with both hands.

Speaking of hands, the one locked on the back of his head suddenly changed tack. It disappeared, blinking out of phase once more.

The Regent somehow took that as a sign of hope. He roared in Joseph’s head. “Finally—” His fingers slid over the future box. But he never got a chance to open it. That hand reappeared right over Joseph’s. It locked his fingers against the future box, but not as if they were helping him hold it.

The Regent roared, terror punching through him.

Then his fingers were ripped back. Joseph heard something breaking in his wrist and radiating all the way up to his thumb.

His subspace particles tried to surge down into the injury to heal it, but Joseph stopped them. It was hell, but he willingly got in the way of his own body’s healing process.

The Regent spluttered. He screamed – the sound so violently loud, despite the fact it only echoed in Joseph’s psyche, he was certain every single other person in creation heard it.

But the Regent could scream all he wanted. He couldn’t change what was happening.

That hand locked around his fingers again, shoving in harder until Joseph felt more cracks. They spread down into his arm this time.

He had no idea what this hand was – and importantly, what had possessed it. But he could conclude it was stronger than both Joseph and the Regent combined.

Joseph didn’t know too much about the Observers. Yeah, there were meant to be good ones and bad ones, but he’d never met a good one.

What if he had now?

Joseph could answer that. If this was a good Observer, that was great, as he could clearly fight the Regent. But as the Regent’s host, Joseph would die too.

“Give me full access to your body, idiot. Or we will both die,” the Regent suddenly screamed in Joseph’s skull.

There was so much desperation there, it was clear this was the Regent’s last chance.

Joseph… he had to make a decision, didn’t he? The hardest he’d ever make.

If he kept fighting the Regent, maybe he’d be able to prevent him from defeating this hand – and he’d lose. Joseph would go with him.

Jerry suddenly picked himself up.

There was no hiding it anymore. He turned, and he ran toward the ship.

He would go straight for Sally.

Joseph wanted to believe that Sally had the inherent ability to block the Observer off, but maybe she didn’t anymore. He’d seen the resignation in her eyes.

She needed Joseph’s help. But….

“Fool, give me back your body. Release your full energy unto me, or we will die together.”

Joseph….

Just when he tried to make his decision, tried to do the noble thing and take the Regent down with him, that moaning returned. It was louder than ever, so insistent there’d be nowhere in the entire universe he could go to get away from it. It picked up in the center of his skull, blasting out like the sound equivalent of a grenade.

It stilled him to the spot, offering him a position in the eye of the storm as the hand kept crushing his fingers.

Joseph… he glimpsed that path. He had no clue where it was and what it led to, but he thought he could see or feel someone beside him. It was indistinct at first, and he had to fight against what felt like a wall of time to see it clearer. But finally… he glimpsed a hand. The hand that once he hadn’t been able to identify but one that was now burnt into his psyche.

It was Sally’s. It wasn’t clicking in front of his face, trying to wake him up from his trauma. Instead, it was clasped around his, and together, they ran. Their echoing footfall was now the only thing louder than the ever-present moaning.

Joseph… he was drawn in by that vision, far too drawn in than he should be.

And that, whether he liked it or not, suddenly gave the Regent a way in.

He roared back into life, snagging hold of Joseph’s body completely.

It was just as that armored hand tried to break Joseph’s arm. It climbed up his forearm, locked around his elbow, and went to snap it.

But the Regent created a subspace blade. This time, it crackled with a power Joseph had rarely seen himself wield. It was almost as if he’d taken the combined force of the sun and crammed it down into a single blade. Without a roar, without a sound, the Regent sliced it right across the hand. It was a precision move this time. And it worked.

For now. He could fight all he wanted, but the first and most fundamental lesson of creation is you can’t fight forever.