He’d reached his hand out to his past self. And while the vision had paused to allow him to do that, now it ran once more. Once again, he was beset by the reality of inevitable defeat.
He didn’t want to believe the things Caxus was telling him.
Because to do so would be to ignore many of the other facts he’d already learned about Caxus. He was here to destroy the Hendari, dammit. He’d killed his wife, too. He was the last of a race the Hendari had purportedly fought to prevent from destroying the rest of the universe.
But… Joseph couldn’t hold on to mere facts anymore. Everything he’d learned just jumbled through his mind like an unstoppable logjam.
But who could he actually trust?
Every single person seemed to want to control and manipulate him. Everyone but Sally. Yet she was far out of his reach.
“You are running out of time,” Caxus said. Though his voice had been relatively even until now, almost as if this memory had somehow blocked him off from his violent side, now Joseph heard the sneer that was at the heart of the monster. The dripping contempt that seemed to carve out space for itself through the very heart of reality.
“How can I trust a single thing you told me?” Joseph snapped.
“Do you wish for Sally to die? The Queen will die with her. She will be ripped to shreds. Her mind will be used to open the final gate. As I said before, the Observers will come for you, regardless of whether you are brave enough to fight or foolish enough to stay. They will destroy you and your last hope. Do you really wish to spend the last precious few minutes of the Coalition here watching your past self fight fruitlessly? For you will simply be sealing his fate. Why do you think he fought bravely like that? Because he knew that his final fight wouldn’t be the end of the larger battle. He knew that by fighting, he would give others a chance in the future. But if you stand here, and you get drawn in by the futility of his actions, you will simply replicate them.”
“Shut up,” Joseph spat.
“Do something. We are running out of time.” Joseph didn’t know if it was a slip or if Caxus was now desperate enough to tell the truth, but on the word we, his voice rang out with yet more power.
It also shot through Joseph, giving him a final blast of recognition.
Though it was likely mad, he felt like he was still connected to Sally. It was the remotest of links, and it was degrading yet further with every second. It was just enough to know that wherever she was right now, she’d reached rock bottom. It was as if someone had thrown her off that cliff again.
As his heart shuddered, Caxus came roaring back in his mind. Joseph had never felt his desperation burning greater.
“We are running out of time,” Caxus screamed again.
As a single tear sliced down Joseph’s cold cheek, he watched on as the Omega guard finally started to lose. He fought so bravely – impossibly so. He must know that this was a fool’s game. There was no way for him to win against so many Observers and the King. But still, he never backed down.
Because Caxus was right, wasn’t he? Deep down, the Omega guard knew that even if he couldn’t win during this fight, there would be another.
And that fight… it was now. It rested in Joseph’s hands.
He sliced his gaze back toward the King.
Caxus was still in Joseph’s head, so he knew full well what Joseph was doing. “You need to take the gate. It’s the only way out of here. Control your thoughts, and it will lead you straight to Faxon A.”
“What if this is a trap? What if, when I go in there, you will just try to control my mind again?”
“It’s the only way to get out of here. We are nothing more than sitting ducks here.”
Joseph continued to watch the scene. In sections, it began to degrade, and he wasn’t sure why. He thought he could see those five future boxes close by.
“No,” Caxus shrieked. “If the memory is lost, you will lose your chance to go through the echo gate. Take it now.”
It started to degrade more. Sections of it just fell away as if they were rotted plaster in a ruined house being submerged by floodwater.
Joseph became far more aware of the future boxes now.
They were still in phase space, and so was he.
Phase space… he didn’t understand it. But maybe if he got out of his own way and he called on the Omega guard within, the knowledge would rise anyway.
Joseph didn’t like to believe in facts he hadn’t touched, hadn’t seen, hadn’t heard – hadn’t been directly physically connected to.
As he’d already pointed out so many times, he knew the danger of just making things up in his mind and believing them to be true without proof. That way foolish decisions lay. Yet this unstoppable certainty grew within him. He could ignore it, or he could finally realize it had always been there, the imprint of the Omega guard just waiting to rise.
Caxus wasn’t lying, was he? Here in the heart of phase space, Joseph could use the echoes in his most powerful memories to travel to Faxon A.
But as soon as he got there, Caxus would try to rise.
As would the Observers.
The fight would be on – more intense and dangerous than it had ever been before.
Both the Observers and Caxus were determined not to lose. Joseph would just have to wade through their anger and greed to find the one path forward.
His dream degraded even further. Caxus kept screaming, over and over again, that shrieking pitch of total despair and anguish falling into the background like the continuous hum of the universe. You would’ve thought it would be so debilitating that Joseph wouldn’t be able to move. But he managed it. He twitched an arm forward. He called on a charge of subspace energy. He used it like a net. He gathered the five future boxes. He held them against his chest, and he traveled back into the dream. He had to anchor his mind like he never had before. Not in images, not in sensations even. He had to use his will like a knife that would cut through all extraneous data, dividing reality into the parts he wanted and the parts he had to ignore.
He just managed to clutch onto a fragment of the dream. He saw the Omega guard – saw himself. The guy reached a hand out to Joseph, almost as if he was aware that this vision was dying, and this would be their final moment together.
As soon as their hands touched, another memory was momentarily laid over the top of the scene.
Joseph swore he was back on Faxon A, back in the exact same cavern where Sally had died. Now it was different. It was several years before the incident.
Sally had followed Joseph to that cavern. And together… they’d encountered something. A smear in space – a break in the fabric of known reality.
It… had been the Omega guard.
This… it was the moment the guard had approached Joseph. The moment the imprint had been given.
Joseph saw the Omega guard reach a cloudlike hand out to the young Tyler. Then those hands met.
It… there was no point in describing it. No point in taking his conscious mind away from experiencing it in the flesh.
He allowed himself to be pulled in by it until he was totally immersed as if he’d willingly dived into the deepest ocean in existence.
But at the same time that his vision ran, so too did the other.
Joseph could see the Omega guard in his final moments as he lost to the Observers.
They gathered around him, their intentions to snuff him out permanently clear.
“We are running out of time. The memory echo is about to degrade for good. Do something,” Caxus roared.
So Joseph did something.
He’d already taken the hand of the Omega guard, both in this vision and the one on Faxon A. But this time he took the initiative. He blasted up, grabbed the Omega guard’s hand, and thrust toward the violent, pulsing center of the King.
This could’ve been the craziest thing Joseph had ever done. Or it could save everybody. He had no clue which would occur. He was literally balanced on the knife’s edge. The only thing that could make a difference was the hope surging through his heart.
“Finally,” Caxus roared.
Joseph prepared himself for the moment when Caxus would attempt to take his body over again, and he blocked himself off from it.
Then the surge began.
Joseph had doubted the existence of phase space until now. It had seemed like nothing more than a convenient lie. The more you pulled things out of the physical world and science, the less explainable they became. And critically, the more easily manipulable you became if you believed them. Matter and science anchored you in reality. Every step away from them was a step into the dark. But whatever this phase space was… it was real. It didn’t change what happened in the rest of the actual galaxy – just sat beside it almost as if it was a ghost following along in history’s tracks.
It wasn’t real like a mountain, not real like a ship, not real like the core of some spinning planet.
It was real like thoughts, like quickly flitting beliefs, like the unknowable contents of someone’s deep unconscious.
As Joseph entered the King, he felt… this second where he spread. He wouldn’t say he was suddenly connected to everything in the universe, but he realized in a moment of fundamental perception that everything in the universe was connected.
Every single so-called disparate event out on the edges of reality was connected to the events in his mind. Nothing could occur anywhere in the universe without affecting every single other thing in the universe.
It was a moment of ascension, if you will, but not the same the Hendari and Xentais were attempting to clutch at. It was something far more basic to experience. And it was something he couldn’t allow to distract him for too long, because Caxus continued to tear through his mind.
It was very clear Caxus could now see an opportunity – likely the last he would ever get.
He used every single psychic trick he knew, but Joseph held on – not just to the contents of his mind, but to the future boxes.
It was a fundamentally inverting experience to travel through a point in his mind while still holding onto something from the real world. It was almost as if reality imploded back into his perception.
It couldn’t last. Nothing does.
Joseph felt himself traveling right through the heart of something that barely existed.
It was the closest thing to hell he could imagine.
It felt like what would happen to perception if you pared it all the way back. There were no beliefs or memories – nothing to give him a personality. Just this singular moment of awareness.
He had to hold on to where he was going, though. It was almost impossible. His memories of Faxon A kept slipping through his fingers like dripping blood.
But… he managed it. Right at the end, just when he thought he’d give up, he drew up the image of one smiling face.
It was of Sally’s four-year-old form. It was when they’d met the Omega guard.
He was dragged right back there.
He could see the moment the Omega guard had reached his hand out, see the exact point when Tyler had accepted it.
He might’ve already recalled this memory, but it came into much sharper focus. He could recognize the cavern around him, from the dusty, undulating floor beneath his little feet, to the light that had spread around the Omega guard – this ethereal glow that didn’t look as if it could come from anything constrained by the dictates of the natural world.
Beside him, the young Sally still stood there, one hand on his sleeve. Her eyes were impossibly wide. The Omega guard’s light reflected in them.
But then the memory changed, slipping backward. He didn’t run through it as if it was in reverse. It just jerked as if it had been a tapestry someone had suddenly half yanked out of his hands.
He saw what had occurred several minutes before he discovered the Omega guard. He’d been walking through the cavern. But Sally hadn’t been following him. She’d been leading him. He was transfixed by a memory where she turned over her shoulder, her little hand covering his. He looked into her eyes and….
He almost thought he saw something.
This endless point. This gate.
Sally… she’d encountered the Queen when she’d been six. She might’ve had a special, open psyche, but what… what if it was more than that?
He desperately grabbed at that memory, but it suddenly shattered around him.
Because Joseph Lance arrived. With the five future boxes in his hands and Caxus screaming in his mind, his feet landed down in the very same cavern on Faxon A where all of this had begun. But this wasn’t in the past. It was the present. And the fight for everything raged around him.