She was wrenched sideways. She tumbled through what felt like an eternity, one that was eerily cold and dead. This wasn’t the eternity of the universe with all of its countless stars, untold worlds, and diverse lives. This wasn’t an eternity one could spend surrounded by the glittering glow of every galaxy. This was completely without distraction. It was nothing more than that dark void, calling out to her with this disruptive moan almost like some lonely beast that’d been thrust into a cold, endless hell.
Just when Sally thought it wouldn’t end, and this would be her future forevermore, she was pulled to the left.
She smashed up against some wall, hitting it so quickly, it was a surprise her nose didn’t shatter and bone shards didn’t rupture up into her brain. Blood did at least splatter out everywhere, and it coated her by the time she fell to her side.
She struck an unyielding metal-plated floor. It was white, shimmering even. It was so clean and clear, it looked as if it had been carved from cuts of crystals.
While that couldn’t distract her, the sound behind her certainly could.
She wasn’t completely out of phase space yet.
There was this clicking sound, quickly followed by a strange grating. It immediately bypassed her reason and shot right into the back of her skull. It grabbed hold of her hindbrain and shook it with pure fear.
Sally might’ve only heard that sound once before, but it was now baked into her amygdala.
It was a monster from the phase realm.
Her lips parted and gaped open, all muscular control leaving until it felt they would remain this way until her death. And hey, as that scratching got closer, she realized her death wouldn’t be that far off.
As a pulse of adrenaline finally hit her bloodstream, she tried to push to her feet, but they scrabbled. Every sound was too loud, and it didn’t just advertise where she was, but how vulnerable she was at the same time. She finally managed to get to her feet. But she had to lean heavily against the wall beside her. Blood from her oozing nose splattered across it, marking the once smooth, clean metal.
Sally hadn’t even had the time to investigate where she was. This wasn’t a Coalition ship. She doubted it was a ship, anyway. The airflow felt different. She had to be on some planet somewhere.
It didn’t feel like it was in the Milky Way. That might be a grand guess, considering she’d only ever experienced the Coalition in her current life, but she possessed hosts from other parts of that grand galaxy, and though she couldn’t fully access the memories of the Queen, she still knew she was right.
Where Sally was was completely irrelevant. Who was hunting Sally was the only thing that counted. Sure enough, she detected another grating sound. This one was right behind her.
She was only in partial phase space. It was enough that she could interact with the world around her, but also enough that, with just a thought, she should be able to push through the walls and floor. That wasn’t comforting. Nothing was.
She felt an icy touch alight on her arm. Its effects on her were indescribable. They didn’t need to be understood – just felt. They would be the last thing her mind would ever comprehend before her inevitable destruction.
Sally squeezed her eyes closed. Just when she thought she would submit, another blast of adrenaline hit her bloodstream, and it carried her to the left. Keeping her eyes closed, she found herself pushing through the wall. It was a good thing. Open her eyes, and her belief in ordinary matter would likely reinstate the solidity of this metal. As it was, she was carried right through.
She didn’t think she’d ever run harder. As for her heart, she wasn’t entirely sure it was beating anymore. It was fluttering, just like the desperate wings of a half broken butterfly as it tried one last time to flee the bird behind it. There was no fleeing this monster. It could sink its claws into Sally whenever and wherever it pleased.
She was suddenly yanked to the side as something grabbed her arm. She screamed with all her might, the desperate shout ripping up from the center of her chest, powering into her sternum, then plunging back down through her lungs.
It resulted in this pitching gurgle of a cry. One that cut out completely as the cold effects of the monster’s grip seized hold of her body.
Sally had now been controlled more than enough to realize what it felt like. It started as this wave that struck the middle of your brows then pulsed inward. In a few seconds, it would consume you whole. This attack started that way, but the monster clearly had no intention of controlling Sally’s body. Just pacifying her like a snake injecting venom into its prey.
She still hadn’t seen the monster. She wasn’t sure if it was because it didn’t fully inhabit this realm. As she’d already said, she was only one level above the real world.
She imagined a phase monster was rooted in the deepest levels of phase space. And while those were all very interesting facts, they couldn’t save her now. Nothing could.
She felt herself teetering to the side. She slipped and fell onto her face.
Something started to gather around her. She saw it in flashes. It was far more frightful than if she’d seen it continuously. There was a tentacle, or at least some sticky, slithering gray limb that behaved like one. It started to wind around her ankle then wrapped in tighter, covering her leg as it marched up around her hips and finally reached her throat.
Sally had heard of boa constrictors back on Earth. She was sure being consumed by one was similar to what was happening to her now. She was about to be swallowed….
She finally saw a glimpse of a face staring down into hers. Though the word face was inappropriate.
There weren’t any eyes, wasn’t even a nose. Why would a phase creature require such things? They didn’t necessarily see in the same way other people did. Their minds would be their primary sensory organ, for that was the only information that counted in phase space. As for a nose, you required one to breathe, but this creature certainly didn’t engage in something so fundamental.
The only feature it possessed was a gaping hole. It looked more like a shaft than a mouth. One that would light up right in front of her face, use a simple blast of mental energy, and rip right through her.
Sally had been in some terribly frightful situations, not just as herself, but as the Queen. They lined up in front of her now, and make no mistake, it was no accident of her frantic mind. The monster now had full control of her psyche, and like any good mental soldier, knew precisely how to fight.
Sally started to be beset by the moments of death of every single one of Layra’s hosts. They started to march around her on fast forward. It was like an army encircling her.
She tried to scream. She couldn’t use her throat. She wanted to punch up a hand and lock it over her eyes, but even if she managed to do that, there would be no squeezing out these memories. They kept getting faster, kept getting stronger. They circled her more and more, getting closer and closer until Sally was certain there would be nowhere to go, as if every single door on every single planet was now closed to her for good.
Not once did the phase monster speak. It didn’t make a sound.
It just remained there, coiled around her, that shaft-like mouth pointing down at Sally’s head like an empty gun.
Maybe it wouldn’t even technically feed on her body. It would just wait until her mind digested itself. Then it would rip right through the remnants of her psyche to get to whatever juicy energy lay beneath.
Sally couldn’t even call out to Joseph. She almost no longer remembered who he was. She wasn’t even that aware of the facts of phase space. As for her mission to destroy the King? Who was the King, again?
All of her most important memories were fracturing. They left in their wake nothing but this empty center. You might think it was Sally’s soul, but it was simply a lonely, pointless, and open space. It felt like nothing more than a pathetic set of hands that’d been grasping at something their entire existence only to find everything they held ultimately fell from their fingers.
Those death memories got faster. They were debilitating. She was taken to the point of death of every single one of her hosts. Though Layra had always switched bodies before death had occurred, she’d still been sufficiently connected to her previous hosts to feel the moment they fell.
And over and over and over again, she fell and fell and fell.
The one thing Sally didn’t see was her own death. She had now understood it wasn’t a death.
The phase monster remained wrapped around Sally.
There was nowhere to go. It knew that. It also knew she was trapped where it mattered most. Chaining up her muscles was one thing – but if she couldn’t even think her way out, there would be no escape.
She felt it tightening its already impossibly strong grip. Only a scrap of her mind functioned. It told her that for the phase monster to do that, maybe it thought she wasn’t falling fast enough. Somehow, despite the fact she was being crushed, she was also holding on. So the monster only increased the speed of her death memories. They felt like bullets now. They would tear through her chest first. Then they’d go for her mind. Nobody in all of creation would be able to stop them. But… Sally faced the death memories. They got faster, got far more forceful. They felt like super-heavy cruisers – every single one of them. And every single one of them could have destroyed a standard mind, yet Sally remained. She wasn’t talking about Layra. The Queen’s psyche didn’t rise to protect Sally in this, her worst moment. In fact, it was the other way around.
Just when it felt as if Layra would shatter under all this force, Sally remained, and she reached all she had out to Layra’s mind. Sally didn’t have raw force anymore. She only had one thing. Nothing but one memory she’d turned into a point of strength, not weakness.
When Sally had fallen off that cliff, she’d done so in an ultimate act of sacrifice to this universe.
Sally didn’t know why as a young girl she’d forgotten what she really was. But the compulsion she’d felt that day, that which had taken her to the cliff and seen her slip off, had been her true self calling her back.
And now Sally called out with that same voice.
It was just as the death memories got worse. They were far more detailed now, their emotional poignancy unstoppable and unforgettable. The phase monster was accessing the very depths of Sally’s heart. It was dredging up every emotion it could. Yet it still wasn’t enough to cut Sally down.
She remembered one simple lesson. One that’d been repeated back to her multiple times over the past day. There was no such thing as strong psyches. There were only aggressive ones. And if you wanted to fight someone who was attacking you, all you had to do was take your weakest moment and relive it. For you had evidence that you could survive it. Your attacker, on the other hand, would be experiencing it for the first time.
You would think there’d be nothing the phase monster would be scared of. Presumably everything that had ever made up its real psyche had been crushed long ago.
She got a sudden glimpse of how they operated, a truly frightful one. Phase monsters turned against their own minds first. As they wandered in this merciless space, the only food their minds could find was the very contents of their own heads. Only when they had feasted upon themselves sufficiently to have lost their personalities and memories did they turn without to become the relentless monsters they were.
Sally wasn’t at that stage, and she never would be. As she pulled up the memory of her young self’s sacrifice, she did so with wings, not chains.
She did so knowing this defined her, didn’t break her.
Just as the phase monster attempted to speed her memories up until they were like the mental equivalent of lashes, Sally offered up that one recollection. She pushed herself into it as much as she could. At first it didn’t count. Her efforts were empty. But she didn’t stop. She kept repeating that moment to herself, over and over again. This wasn’t like what had occurred back in the brig at the Academy. Sally wasn’t harming herself.
She was using that memory like a ladder.
She’d assumed the phase monster couldn’t make a sound. But suddenly it screamed, this self-righteous, completely painful, debilitating cry. It was the sound of something that knew it should win and couldn’t even comprehend a circumstance where it would not.
So Sally just remembered that moment, again and again.
One of the reasons she’d gone to Faxon A was the first time she’d repeated this memory to herself, she’d recalled something that hadn’t been there before. A disembodied Observer voice telling her not to go back to her homeworld. On Faxon A, she’d learned new truths. She still hadn’t found the source of that voice. Now, from somewhere, as she slowly repeated that memory like the mental equivalent of a building shield, it rose.
“You can’t return to the homeworld. Not until you are ready. Not until you understand how to destroy the King.”
How to destroy the King? When that moment came, there’d be no strategy. It would be her mind against his in one last-ditch battle for everything.
But she heard that Observer’s voice now, and she couldn’t deny the soft, gentle certainty echoing through it.
Observers – the good kind – weren’t real. They were echoes. Living memories that imprinted themselves on the universe. Sally had never understood the mechanism until now. They must’ve used phase space. But she also understood their echoes started to deplete if they used themselves. The more they interfered, the weaker they became. And even though she’d just heard that voice once, the second time it repeated, it sounded far distant. It was as if somebody had placed it on a spaceship and had already sent it a sector away.
Both in the real world and in her mind, Sally twitched her fingers and tried to reach for the memory. “What… what are you?”
“You didn’t run alone, Layra. You had those who were helping you.”
“You helped me?”
“Yes. And many others in Hendari space. We could see what was happening. We couldn’t stop it.”
“How did you fight against the King? How did I get out of there?”
Though Layra had memories of running down the stone corridor, and memories of taking other weak minds into her own, she didn’t know how she’d escaped Hendari space.
“You were assisted,” the Observer said.
“You came across we good Observers later.”
“Then who…?” She couldn’t finish the question. She was beset by a memory. The first time she’d ever imagined this, she’d rejected it with all her soul. It had been impossible to her at the time. Nothing more than a ridiculous, useless dream.
But now once more she saw herself running with Joseph through the corridors on the Hendari homeworld. Except this time he wasn’t Joseph – or at least not in his current official form. This time he was the Omega guard.
That knowledge rose up from within her just as she turned to him in her memory and stared at his features. His body wasn’t completely solid in the real world. He, just like Sally’s true self, belonged to phase space. But he still had enough solidity that she could trace her gaze over his eyes, that she could gaze at the grim angle of his lips, at the strength locked in every muscle of his neck and defined in the hard angle of his jaw. Though they were all ultimately unreal, she was still drawn in by them. And as she focused, something opened up in her heart.
More memories flooded into Layra. This man was the reason she’d escaped Hendari space.
He was also the reason she’d refused to be a sacrifice.
Layra hadn’t acted alone. She hadn’t been the one strong mind who’d been able to fight her people. Sally didn’t know where the Queen had gotten that myth from. But it had been the basis of her personality for so long. She’d been the strong psyche, the one who’d resisted the King project, and the one who’d ultimately survived. But nobody survived on their own.
“We had help from the Xentais, from their Omega guards. They knew what was happening to us. For it had happened to sections of their own society. The temptations of ultimate ascension and complete control are too great for some.”
The Observer continued to speak, his low tones rumbling through this memory, punctuating it without distracting her. Nothing could pull her attention off the Omega guard’s face. She still thought of him as Joseph, even though this was long before they’d become one.
“The Queen cannot return to Hendari space. She cannot fight the King. Not until we are ready.”
“But… you are nothing more than a living memory. You’re an echo that is degrading. I can hear it and feel it. You do not have much longer,” Sally said earnestly, a single tear dropping down her cheek in the real world.
“That is not what I mean. The Queen carries more than you know.”
“What do you mean?” An electric jolt of nerves raced down her back.
“The Queen will become our ultimate ascendant.”
“You know them as the Hendari crystals. She will be our final and greatest gift to the universe.”
“What… what are you talking about?”
“When a civilization becomes strong enough and the minds within it brave enough, they leave permanent changes in phase space. It is a reflection of the changes they have made in the real world.”
“But… you… are you telling me the Queen will become a Hendari crystal?”
“She does not just carry the minds of the weak. Layra might’ve started it, but she carries so much more. She carries the good heart of our people. She carries those minds that refused to throw themselves into the ascendancy project. They wouldn’t become vessels for the King. Their groping psyches wouldn’t be combined together to control all. She is what the Hendari were before they tried to ascend. She is our good side.”
“She’s… me. We are the same person. And you are asking… me to become a crystal?”
“The body who carries the Queen is ultimately a replication of a phase creature. The Queen may be an aspect of your mind, Sally Winters, but she is not the complete thing. And she is a treasure you have nobly protected. You may not have understood that you were the one protecting her, but you were. Though the knowledge appears to have slipped from your fingers, you would have known that you needed to keep her safe to not just fight the King, but to change the ultimate direction of the Hendari.”
This was all too much. It was incomprehensible. The Queen was going to be turned into a crystal? Sally… she cared. Of course she did. But the most important thing was Joseph. The Omega guard still ran hand in hand with her. He might not have standard features, and they might not convey the same emotional import as a standard set of eyes and a mouth and a nose. But they gave her something so much more.
She glimpsed further into his mind with every step. She had never encountered somebody more focused. Somebody more willing to sacrifice – including their own life – to protect others.
She was drawn further into the image of him until she thought she heard the Observer taking one final breath.
“Understand this. When you finally fight the King, it will not just be a battle to stop his mind from taking over all. You must grasp hold of the Hendari legacy. You must rise to the ascendant realm and offer up the Queen. In doing so, she will create our own Hendari crystal. And that will be the only way to destroy him. You will also finally bring the Hendari back to the path we initially walked before our greed got the better of us. It will be our last legacy.” With that, silence spread.
“Wait, I have more questions,” she stammered desperately.
It didn’t matter. Nothing punctuated the silence.
“Wait,” she said desperately. This time, it wasn’t for the Observer. It was clear his echo had finally degraded.
That image of the Omega guard started to degrade, too. First it was his feet, then his legs, then his arms, then his face, then finally his hand that held hers. She clutched hold of it just as desperately as she had held Joseph’s hand before she’d been ripped out of the gate and deposited in that metal corridor.
Sally shrieked one last time. But it didn’t matter. The memory was gone, the lesson taught. What she did next would be defining, not just for herself, but for everybody.
She would either have to rise and take the Queen with her, or fall one last time.