He needed to get back to Sally. He had no clue where she was. He could just tell she was in trouble. But at the same time… some kind of connection still functioned. She wasn’t dead. Not yet.
Though that wasn’t much to hold on to, it was all Joseph had. He simply didn’t have the energy to open up another gate, no matter how hard he tried.
And… dammit, he’d never get this chance again. He was now 100 percent certain of where he was. This was Hendari space. More than that, it was the prime homeworld. The King would be just beneath Joseph’s feet.
He pulled himself away from the balcony. But the image of what was above had been seared into his mind. All he had to do was close his eyes, and he could see every single galaxy in all the universe, all lined up, also close, all there for him to grab.
You’d think that would be an amazing thought. It was sickening, though. Because he understood the purpose behind the design. The Hendari had recast the night sky to look like that in an effort to solidify their power. They honestly believed it was their right to reach up and claim all.
Joseph pulled himself out to the simple stone corridor beyond that room. There was nobody about. For now. Yes, the majority of the Hendari civilization had fallen long ago, but there were still Observers. He didn’t know if they had sophisticated scanners that would warn them that he’d arrived, but they would have something. He was alone at this point in time, but his luck wouldn’t and couldn’t last.
He’d never felt nerves this bad. They raged through his stomach, pitching up into the rest of his torso and groping at the base of his neck. He didn’t feel like he’d throw up. He was a spacer, dammit. But he did feel further undermined with every step. All he could do was think of the images of the Omega guard. He’d possessed far more power than Joseph had. Joseph was starting to learn how to interact with his Omega side, but the memories were still far too diffuse. What he was trying to get at was the fact the Omega guard had been at the height of his power, and yet he’d still been cut down so easily by the Observers.
Joseph wanted to believe they’d be weaker now. Many Observers had fallen. But precious few of them had actually been destroyed. The artifacts that allowed them to port their consciousness to the Milky Way and Scarax Galaxy might have been blown up, but that didn’t mean their minds back in Hendari space had been broken.
For all he knew, this castle could be seething with them.
He inched his way slowly down the corridor. He didn’t float. You’d think it would be smarter to float, considering it made less noise. But it also required more energy. He could just bet the scanners in this castle would be calibrated to pick it up.
He continued on. This was an opportunity, sure. But was it actually one he could reach for? It felt like he was a rabbit, and right at the top of the tallest tree was the food he wanted. Technically he could see it, but he would never be able to get to it.
He could get to the King, sure. He could pull his subspace swords even. Then what?
Joseph thought he heard a sound. He lengthened his spine, now standing so straight, he could’ve sent his spine ricocheting through the corridor and out into space.
He waited, but nothing happened. For now. That became like a deadly damn mantra playing through his head. For now. The Observers hadn’t found him. For now. That phase monster hadn’t come across him again. For now.
Worse. He couldn’t forget the King was still half open. For all he knew, he was wasting precious seconds, and by the time he got to the end of this simple corridor, none of it would matter, and the King would rise once more. But he forced himself to take another step anyway, then another. There was something ultimately calming when you simply made yourself concentrate on walking. You didn’t come up with a plan. You didn’t even waste your energy on hoping. You just moved as much as you could when you could.
Joseph’s entire body itched. His energetic system was going wild. It was warning him there were powerful forces in this castle – none more so than that which pulsed directly under his feet.
4Joseph had technically felt the King before. He’d been there when the bastard had tried to rip right through Sally’s psyche in the cavern on Faxon A. But this was different. Because this was being physically present in the same location as the root of his infection.
Joseph had never traveled too close to a black hole. There were some things even spacers shouldn’t do. But he got the impression this is what it felt like to face off against ultimate destruction.
Hope was the first thing to be crushed. Then your reason came later. Then your ability to imagine another future. All of it was crushed, ripped up as if it had never been anything more than useless wishes written on paper.
He finally reached the end of the corridor. He found a set of stairs. He took the first one, and he stopped. A memory rose in him. He’d taken the same set of stairs so long ago when the Omega guard had fought the King.
They would lead down, down through the castle to the basement levels. The whole building was made of this same stone. Joseph remembered why. To the Hendari, stone had been the closest you could get to the building materials of the earth. It had been traditional to create the greatest palaces out of it, because their hope had been that it gave each structure the significance of nature. But it made for a uniquely creepy experience. Gone were all the trappings of the future. There were no devices, not even hidden in the walls. This castle could have been from ancient Earth.
Joseph swallowed. He’d been doing that continuously for many minutes. He was thankful for the fact it didn’t echo out. But it confirmed to him every time he did he was out of his depth.
Even if he’d brought a team here with him, it wouldn’t make a difference. Nothing could make a damn difference when the odds were so stacked against him….
He closed his eyes. Just as that debilitating thought rocked through his chest, he was sure he heard that scratching again. His eyes opened wide with a twitch. It was the phase monster. So it was still out there, was it? Still haunting him in phase space, just waiting for him to become weak. Then it would likely wrap its claws around him and drag him back into the phase world to feast on his weak mind.
Clenching his teeth, Joseph did the only thing he could, and descended the stairs, one at a time. They seemed to loop around some tower. As he ascended every level, he faced arched windows to his left carved into the stone. They gave him a perfect view of the world beyond. And every time, his head yanked itself to the side, and his eyes naturally locked on the view.
This task, it was… impossible. He’d already pointed that out, but every single time he saw the domed stars, that fact was underlined. Not only could the galaxies never be this close, but one’s view of them could never be this complete. As they were lined up there, it was almost as if they were items in an inventory. You could just swipe your fingers from left to right, counting them all and dividing them up like chips on a gambling board.
A blast of disgust finally rose through Joseph, combating his fear. If he’d paid attention, he would’ve realized it felt and looked exactly like the same emotion he’d seen the young Tyler show in the face of the Barbarian threat. It was a fear that couldn’t last long without turning to a righteous, burning sense of injustice. A fear that led one to the conclusion that one shouldn’t be afraid in the first place – the greater world had failed them.
It wasn’t childlike, though. Joseph wasn’t going to wait for someone else to fix this. He faced that view once more. Then he locked his head resolutely forward, and he climbed down the stairs.
He had no clue what he’d face when he reached the basement levels. Would the Observers be walking around, like prowling wolves? Would he even be able to reach the King’s chamber? Or would the King himself have spread? He’d broken through some level of containment when he’d attacked Sally’s psyche. So would the basement levels now be seething with him?
It was an image that should’ve stopped Joseph. Screw that. He’d never be stopped again.
He reached what he felt to be the ground level of the castle. He just knew the King was underneath the floor now, so close, if Joseph just ported once, he’d port right inside that monster.
He wasn’t stupid enough to transport and alert whatever scanners were around, though. One last time, he faced a descending set of stairs, and he took them. It almost felt as if he walked through history. This sense of import rushed up to meet him. Joseph didn’t really understand how the psychic powers of an Omega guard worked, but he thought he saw flashes. They didn’t come from his mind. These weren’t recollections of the time the guard fought here. It was almost as if Joseph was descending through the minds of the Hendari who’d used this very set of stairs over the centuries and millennia. At first, he felt hopeful at the sight of a civilization so close to the Coalition, they were almost inseparable. They were both born out of the passion for exploration. Both wanted to use their power to help others. That initial Hendari civilization had modeled itself as a touchstone for others. One that wanted to share the lessons of its mistakes so they wouldn’t be repeated. But with every step Joseph took down, that feeling changed. It warped in on itself. The Hendari, just like the Coalition, faced growing threats over their history. And each one eroded their sense of morality. Worse than that, they shattered their belief in the universe as a good, worthy place. The majesty, the adventure, the romance – it was all replaced by a belief in a fickle, uncontrollable universe that would just as soon see someone die as capriciously lift them up.
This sense of overwhelming bitterness started to crush Joseph from all sides.
He’d be lying if he said he’d never experienced it before.
He’d felt it with the cadets not that long ago. It was the thought of somebody who’d had to sacrifice so much to protect those below them, but the people they saved couldn’t even muster a little thankfulness. They were so stuck in their own small lives, they forgot to appreciate the sacrifices made to buy them those lives in the first place. If Joseph could’ve set aside every single cadet in E Club, showed them his subspace blade, and played them footage of every time he’d almost died to protect them, he would have. Instead, they’d continued on in their petty little lives, never realizing how fragile their existences were and how dependent they were on others’ actions.
The Hendari had increasingly thought like this. But on a level even deeper than Joseph’s. It had matched the fervor of Admiral Ninev.
They hadn’t seen the point of continuously sacrificing themselves to protect a universe that wasn’t even aware of them.
So their dreams changed. The pure morals that had seen them protect the stars started to crumble out from under their feet. So they’d built a new platform for themselves.
It hadn’t been based on protection – just control. For protection in many ways is another form of control. If you truly wish to save others selflessly, then it is a unique state you must always monitor. Save someone once, but next time teach them how to save themselves, even if it requires you sacrificing some of your advantage. But the power that enables you to protect in the first place becomes far too seductive and far too hard to let go of.
Joseph wasn’t aware of how close he was getting to the King now. The only thing that mattered was the emotional journey he was taking through the Hendari civilization’s past. It mirrored his own so well, but also that of the Coalition. From reports, the Coalition had been so free 10 to 15 years ago. They hadn’t faced the enormous challenges the last decade and a half had brought them. From the Force war to the Hendari, the Coalition, while not entirely peaceful, had lived in golden times before it had faced such trials. But golden times can be just as destructive as they are rewarding. They blind you to the sacrifice that is required as part of life.
Joseph reached the final step. As he took it, new memories rose up to meet him. He thought he could see the day the Hendari became aware of phase space. And worse, the day they met the Xentai.
This memory cut deeper than the rest. It shook into Joseph with such devastating force, he wondered if he’d even been there that day. Had the Omega guard been one of the contingent to reach out to the Hendari?
Had he feared then what would happen now?
Joseph pushed a hand to the side. He locked it against the cold stone wall. The rock grated against his fingers, pushing indents into his skin. He closed his eyes. It didn’t matter. Even with them open, he saw the same thing.
His people, the Xentai, might’ve had a better understanding of phase space than the Hendari, but not everybody had shared that same understanding.
No civilization truly walks together. There are always opposing forces within it. There are voices of dissent, those who wish to alter the direction of everybody either for personal gain or to stave off their deepest fears.
Caxus had been one of those voices of dissent for the Xentai. And in time, his voice had grown so loud, it had cracked through the resolve of most of his people.
Joseph pushed away from the wall. The memories were still there, circling around him. They’d done something to his fear, dragging it down and putting it in a greater perspective.
They’d also done something unexpected. They’d connected him to his Omega side more closely. He didn’t have access to all his memories yet, and he certainly couldn’t click his fingers and create a phase gate. At least Joseph understood he was now trapped in the same battle the Omega guard had been in years ago.
The Omega guard hadn’t made the guiding decisions of his civilization. He hadn’t been the one responsible for bringing the Hendari into the phase fold. He’d simply had to fight in the aftermath.
Which is exactly what Joseph was being called on to do right now.
He took another step forward. He thought he could hear this pulsing chanting. He hadn’t detected it a moment before, but with a single step, it became loud enough not to ignore. He didn’t grind to a stop. Even though the hair along the back of his arms stood on end and this pulse of nerves ricocheted through his stomach, he still unstuck his feet and walked forward.
He would soon face the King and the Observers too. He didn’t have the energy to fight them. But that descent through the memories of old had given something to Joseph he’d never thought possible. A sense of perspective. If he’d been able to access this when he’d first been taken from Master Deus, Joseph would never have tortured himself the way he had.
Power is one thing. It might give you the means to break through whatever traps you in the present, but there is something far greater.
Perspective will wipe away all fear, all greed too. Perspective is the greatest source of wisdom out there. And when we grasp hold of it, no matter what it costs, we cannot let go.
So Joseph ground a hand into a tight, knuckle-popping fist and walked forward resolutely.