The memory degraded. There was no way to hold on to it. It just slipped away. It had been so all-encompassing, she’d forgotten where she was and what she was fighting. But the phase monster had not. It was still wrapped around her. And now it was far easier to see. Either she’d slipped fully into phase space, or it had somehow momentarily become real – real enough to touch, to feel, and to attack.
She heard it scream again. You’d think its bloodcurdling roar would’ve ignited Sally’s fear, blasted through her psyche, and ended everything, but she was still clutching hold of the information the Observer had imparted.
So she just stared at the monster impassively, even as this terrifying destructive glow began to pick up in the center of the creature’s mouth.
Any sane person would have jolted out of the way. They would’ve run, transported, done anything to flee the purely destructive light gathering in the monster’s gullet. Sally was forced to stare on at it impassively as if she was doing nothing more taxing than watching an oncoming storm while safely tucked inside a strong house.
That light gathered together. She almost felt the monster trying to snag hold of her psyche again, but it couldn’t.
The light suddenly subsided. The monster twitched. It screamed. There was a note of defeat that echoed out through all the multiple levels of reality.
Sally finally came back into the here and now. She didn’t forget completely about what she’d learned, but she shoved it to the side to concentrate on the fact she was in a fight for her life.
She jolted, but the monster simply wrapped its body around her harder.
Sally didn’t have access to her Hendari crystals. She couldn’t create any amazing destructive force like Joseph.
But there was something else she could do.
She suddenly grabbed hold of the creature’s mouth. She looked right into it. Hell, with a twitch, she brought it so close, it was as if it was a lion and she was a circus performer who was gonna stuff her head right down its teeth-lined mouth.
The monster twitched and screamed. It locked its lips around Sally’s sweaty face.
Before Sally could question everything she was doing, she concentrated her mind.
The monster had no eyes, but its mouth was essentially the same. It was a pure path down to its psyche. And Sally forced her mind against it. No more reimagining her death. No more clutching at disparate sources of power, at the torn apart memories of the Queen’s hosts.
Sally’s questions had been answered, and a path and plan had been given to her. She now derived as much strength from both as she could, like a juice press squeezing out every last drop from an overly fat, ripe apple.
No screaming, no kicking, no physical activity at all. All there was was her mind against the monster’s.
She felt its shock. Perhaps it no longer understood what surprise was, because you required a personality to give significance to such an emotion, but that’s surely what tore through it now.
She had no clue how many psyches this monster had feasted on, but she could bet that not a single one of them had ever fought back like she did now.
She sharpened her mind, using her psyche like a sword. She plunged right into the depths of the monster. It was hard to describe the fight. With no physical dimension, it was just her mind against its. But she had to be winning, because it let out another keening cry, and this time, it shook with actual pain.
All the while, at the back of her head, she had to think everything through. Not only had Sally been the one to reach out to Layra, but Sally had been Layra’s ultimate protection. More than a host – a supporting set of hands that had carried Layra all this time, guarding her until she would be needed most.
Sally still had no clue if it was possible for the Queen to turn into a Hendari crystal. She didn’t even know what would happen when that occurred. Now wasn’t the time to allow her imagination to run wild. Now she had to gather together the once disparate forces of her psyche, lay them out in front of her like weapons, and use them one by one against the gathering storm that was this monster.
It screamed again, the pitch of its cry shaking with far more fear. It might not have a personality, but it didn’t require one to understand what was happening to it now. It shook, these great convulsions passing into its mouth and locking the equivalent of its lips harder around Sally’s head.
She rejected her own fear, shoving it back and breaking it down for further fuel.
She didn’t call on the Queen, didn’t have to. Sally used her own mind.
And finally it worked.
The monster gave this great shriek. It didn’t just have a physical dimension. While weakness raced through its form, jerked its mouth back, and unwound its tail from Sally’s body, its psyche did the same thing. It convulsed then jolted backward.
If Sally could see it in physical space, it would look like a cloud had suddenly been attacked by a confused gale. It could no longer hold its position. And soon, that very same gale would rip it apart.
Sally was still in half phase space. So she could interact with the seemingly real objects around her. That cold, clinical metal wall behind her hadn’t changed. Locking a hand on it, she shoved up.
And with one final attack, she ripped right through the psychic monster. There was no blood. It had no circulatory system. There wasn’t even the sound of torn flesh. All there was was a single pinpoint of hatred that’d been removed from reality. The basic instinct around which the monster had been created was like a thorn that’d been removed from the flank of the universe.
As it slipped away, Sally staggered back. She locked her shoulders against the wall behind her, but she didn’t pay quite enough attention. With no warning at all, she tumbled right through it. Her back at least struck the floor, but her body was half in the wall, half out. As her eyes opened wide, she stared into the room she’d tumbled into.
And that’s when her entire body froze.
She saw Jerry.
He was crouched over some kind of floating console, the lights of the screen playing over his carved-out eyes. She didn’t mean that literally as if someone had taken a knife to them. The skin surrounding them had become so fragile and vascular, it looked as if it’d turned into puckering blue pastry.
He had no idea she was here.
He continued to work, his knuckles sounding like they would pop at the frantic pace of his fingers.
Make no mistake, this wasn’t really Jerry. While the look in his eyes was certainly one of righteous fervor, it lacked Jerry’s arrogance.
This was the Observers. Or at least Gan. Sally didn’t get the impression there were more minds inhabiting him at this point in time.
Slowly, she turned around. Locking one hand down on the floor, she rose. She had to remind herself that while the floor technically didn’t have to be solid for her, right now she wanted it to be. As her fingers spread across it, she let her wish for it to remain pulse down into the metal.
She inched towards Jerry.
She could hear every rocking inhalation, and he made no attempt to hide how chaotic they were. If breaths could kill, then these gasps were designed to tear right through fragile human flesh and even more fragile lungs.
That Jerry was still alive seemed impossible. That’s when her eyes darted down and saw some kind of strange pulsing device locked on the center of his chest. She said locked. She meant stabbed. It had these six shimmering spines, and they were embedded in his heart.
A few beads of blood leaked up occasionally. But they were burnt up by the power of whatever that thing was.
It was keeping him alive. Maybe it was also enabling Gan’s consciousness to transport into Jerry’s body more precisely, too, because not once did Sally see a glimmer of Jerry.
Gan paused. Slowly, he twisted his head around, his muscles looking like they would snap at the slightest movement, let alone the demand they were now under.
His darting gaze sliced left and right.
Sally was just behind him. She straightened, waiting for his considerable psyche to detect her. It didn’t happen. He crunched back around, and she meant that. Every single muscle and tendon just contracted until the sound that filled the air made her get goosebumps.
No matter how close she got to him, he didn’t detect her. She soon stopped right up against his shoulder and stared down. What she looked at caught her breath, trapping it in her chest, making it feel as if it was a lump of coal she’d inadvisably tried to swallow.
She crammed her hands over her mouth, even though she was certain that even if she made the loudest sound she could, he wouldn’t be able to detect her unless he slipped into the phase realm too.
The Observers were working on a plan to destroy the Coalition. Not just any plan. They intended to perforate a massive hole in phase space and use a huge blast of power to rip through the heart of Coalition territory. It would render everything unlivable. It would make it this half-broken realm where ships wouldn’t be able to travel and people wouldn’t be able to live, no matter how abundant a planet had been previously.
Worse, the Observers intended to gather together phase monsters and use them against the Coalition Army. Sally didn’t think she’d ever seen a crueler plan.
She saw flashes of Gan’s amusement as he worked on it. He was still crunched over the console, his whole body swaying forward and back, making it look as if even the slightest wind would be able to fell him like an unsupported sapling. But every single time he held on. The look in his eyes suggested that even if he had to scrounge the very last scrap of energy from this body, he would do just that. Victory, it was clear, was now right within his grasp.
Sally still shook there. She could imagine this plan visually, in every horrible, gruesome detail. And with every single second, her visions became harder to ignore. She could see the bodies being blistered and broken in space as the planets they’d once stood upon were ripped asunder. She could see ships being pulled apart into their constituent molecules that would remain there, static in space, stuck like permanent reminders of the Observers’ depravity. Nobody would live. Nothing would survive. The Coalition would fall like nothing more than a once great house that had been beset by a storm.
Though she didn’t want to believe the Observers had the kind of technology required to open up a pocket into phase space and use its considerable power to destroy real space, they’d clearly been working on this plan for some time. Now as Jerry’s broken fingers darted frantically over the input controls until she heard the sound of one of his knuckles popping and his skin tearing from protruding bone, a satisfied smile flew across his lips.
Sally had no idea what kind of technology ran this console. Worse – she had no idea what it was connected to. Did it have a direct link to the rest of the Scarax fleet or the other Observer forces scattered throughout the universe? It didn’t matter, because with a jolt that bounced through her stomach, she suddenly understood she couldn’t simply stand here and stare.
She certainly didn’t know how to travel into phase space with nothing more than a thought, and she didn’t know how to leave partial phase space, even though it should be easier. But while her conscious mind might not understand, her body clearly did. Because this time as she pushed toward Jerry, he heard. Just as she felt her feet locking down on the real metal floor beneath her, and her hair whipping around her cheeks with actual air, Jerry snapped around so quickly, he fell off his chair. Sally would never forget the moment he saw her, the moment his eyes bulged on fast forward like hands bursting up through the surface of a once clear pool.
Using her shoulder, she shoved into him as hard as she possibly could. He went skidding over the floor, his limp body hitting it with the kind of dull crack you would expect from a rotted trunk. As for the console in front of him, as Sally’s eyes darted over it as fast as they possibly could, she desperately tried to figure out how to use it. Her memories of her previous hosts were becoming more and more porous as the Queen and her existence was put into perspective for Sally. She still tried to trawl through the Queen’s memories to discover how to use this console. And most importantly, how to destroy it.
But Jerry was hardly going to give her the time to figure that out. With a righteous roar, he leaped to his feet. He skidded a little, his boots struggling to grip the ground as his knees wobbled. That was until she felt the moment the rest of the Observers snapped into his head. It was like loaded springs suddenly flicking back in on themselves. It was a surprise his head didn’t ricochet around the room.
Sally had to be ready a moment later as Jerry barreled into her.
As his arms collected around her middle, she didn’t just need to protect her body from the physical force of the blow. The real attack came from his mind.
Once upon a time, Sally had just given up whenever she’d been attacked by the Observers. Or if not given up, then she’d retreated into the depths of her mind, knowing ultimately there was no way she could fight them. Now she understood she was of the phase realm, she tried to draw what power from it she could.
It was just enough for her to survive the first wave of his debilitating attack. Sorry, wave? That was a gentle word. Even though waves could swell and attack entire villages, destroying rudimentary infrastructure with ease, the strength of the blow she experienced right now was far more like the explosion from a supernova. The full power didn’t reach her initially. At first it was nothing more than a whiplash punch of psychic force. It was enough that her head actually jerked back, her mind reeling. But a single second later, the much larger attack finally struck. And Sally… momentarily she turned off. It was as if somebody reached in, grabbed the light switch of her mind, and just flicked it off callously.
She could feel this growing, gushing void opening up in her head – this emptiness sweeping through her body and collecting in her limbs until it felt they’d be too dense to ever move them again. But finally her senses returned, and she twisted back. It was just as Jerry knocked her to the ground and wrapped his hands around her throat. He brought his face close enough that she could practically see the eight Observers lined up behind his eyes. Their greed was… why go there? Their greed was the strongest emotion she’d ever experienced. This was what they’d existed for for so long. It wasn’t just their reason to be. It was the only way they knew to exist. If you took away the greed, they’d have nothing. They would be the equivalent of a ripped sail flapping in a wind that could no longer move them.
Jerry screamed, a few lines of shaking spittle splashing over her skin. It brought his gray lips close. They were starting to slough off, the skin looking as if he’d been dehydrated in the desert for months. It wasn’t a pleasant experience to have a chunk of it fall on her chin.
She didn’t let it revolt her. That would just be another path in. She jerked up her knee, smashed it against his sternum, and tried to shove him off. Even if he was being inhabited by eight powerful psychics, his body shouldn’t be able to withstand too many physical attacks. And yet, no matter how much strength she shoved behind that move, it didn’t count.
Panic reached her, smashing into her gut and blasting up her throat like a wild flare slicing through the night sky. It was too late.
Jerry brought his head down. Then he head-butted her. It was a solid blow that struck right between her brows and sent this dull ringing spreading through her skull. A line of blood splattered out of her nose, collecting down her chin, even marking some of his own gray, sallow cheeks. He didn’t make a move to wipe the blood off. He brought his head down once more.
Sally could see the future flashing in front of her, and it wasn’t just because of that devastating blow. She swore that all of the different pieces across the Scarax Galaxy, Milky Way, and Hendari space were all starting to line up. Every sorry soldier who’d ever had anything to do with this twisted tale was being called on one last time. It was the equivalent of the last maneuver in a game of chess.
If Sally failed right now, then everyone would fall with her.
So one last time, with a gripping scream that clutched its way out of her sternum, she brought her knee up, and she pounded it into his yielding chest. She forgot all about the Queen, forgot all about Jerry. She forgot all about the Academy even. She might’ve held the principles of the Coalition in her heart, but she retreated back to that cavern. This wasn’t a debilitating memory, and she wasn’t letting her death play over and over in her head. She just took herself back into the sense of responsibility that was embodied by her six-year-old self.
It was probably a mistake to keep calling her six years old. Sally still didn’t understand how time and age worked in phase space, but she was likely to be much, much older than that. The point was, Sally’s young form had sacrificed herself to open the gate, knowing it would be the only way to buy everybody a chance.
All Sally had to do right now was throw Jerry off. She wasn’t being asked to dig as deeply as her young self had been forced to. All she had to do was punch and kick.
So with another shaking roar breaking out of her lips and echoing around the room, she finally did it. She shoved Jerry to the side, rolled with him, and momentarily pinned his shoulders. She looked down into his eyes, searching for any glimpse that the real Jerry was still there. He might be – but whatever remained would be nothing more than a tiny scrap of the old, belligerent personality. She couldn’t pin her hopes on attempting to draw him out again. So with a snarling swearword, Sally rolled off him.
Though all she wanted to do was destroy this console, she also had to keep herself out of the Observer’s clutches. In a way, she’d delivered herself right to them. She hadn’t thought about that at the time, but they needed her head to bring the King back. It would’ve been smarter not to return, but it had been ultimately out of her hands.
She saw them now out of the corner of her eye, and somehow their greed multiplied. They were like a virus. One she might look at one moment to see it only partially filled a petri dish, only to turn around the next moment and discover it infecting the entire room.
Jerry pulsed toward her, his eyes somehow widening so quickly and so fast, she actually saw the skin around them fracture this time. It was a sickening sight that would be seared into her memory.
She threw herself at the door to her left.
She didn’t think it would open for her, but then again, it was very clear the Observers hadn’t thought that anyone would disturb them here. So likely they hadn’t bothered to utilize the true defenses of this building to keep intruders out.
Wait, here? Where even was she? The corridors were clean and clinical, but they certainly didn’t have the smooth design of the Coalition. There were no insignias on the walls. Just glistening, polished metal. Everything was impersonal, too. Perhaps the real words she was looking for was everything was brutally efficient. This felt like the ship or building of somebody who had one singular purpose, and they wouldn’t let anything get in their way, including dirt and trash.
As the door actually opened for her, she threw herself through it at full pelt, skidding into the corridor, reaching the opposite wall, throwing a hand against it, and pushing off, never losing a single second’s advantage.
Jerry roared again. She was well aware that if she bothered to turn around now, she would see spittle flying out of his lips and his face would be glowing as red as a beetroot.
Maybe she’d been trying to tell herself that his body simply didn’t have much time left, but it was clear the Observers were now using unknown technology to keep him alive. As she reached a corner, took it as fast as she could, then kept pounding down the next corridor, she turned over her shoulder, her hair flying around her face. She saw that strange device still pulsing in his chest. More light bled out from where the spines attached to his sternum. Every single time a droplet bubbled up, it was extinguished. Sally saw a resultant flash scatter across the smooth silver surface of the device. It was electronic in nature and sophisticated enough to have some form of computer within. What it actually did for him was unclear.
That was until he abruptly put on a burst of speed. Sally was well aware of the fact Jerry was fast. There’d been a reason he’d been top of the E Club and her combat class. Regardless of his actual character, he had pushed himself. So he could run. But nobody could run this fast. You tell that to his feet and straining muscles. Like a bullet from a gun, he suddenly closed the 20-meter distance between them, and he reached her.
He snapped his cold fingers around her shoulder and pulled her toward him. She was ready for the move, though, and once more, she snapped her knee up. She shoved it into his sternum, pushed into him, and deliberately overbalanced herself. It was the only thing that saved her. Based on the look in the Observers’ eyes, they thought she’d just crumble. Not yet. She rolled right on top of him. His groping hands slid over her shoulders. She kicked back as quickly as she possibly could. Her feet landed down on the smooth, polished white-gray floor plating, and she shoved forward.
Her heart thundered in her chest now. She almost couldn’t catch her breath, and it felt like she had to inhale through a damn straw.
She kept throwing herself forward. To where, exactly? Did she think she’d come across a handily discarded gun? What about Joseph? Would he just pop into existence right behind her and use his subspace blade to finally cut the Observers down? She couldn’t pin her hopes on that. She had no clue where Joseph was. But she hoped like hell he wasn’t dead. Considering all of the crap he’d survived thus far, it was a pretty safe guess. Yet he wasn’t about to come in and save the day. Sally had to save herself.
She skidded around another corner. That’s when she saw something discarded right in front of her. It was the future box. She suddenly recognized this exact section of the corridor. This was where she’d arrived. Blame it on the fact she’d immediately been attacked by one of those monsters, but she hadn’t even realized she brought the future box with her. She’d assumed it had been in Joseph’s grip.
She couldn’t deny her eyes. It was right there, just waiting for her. It glimmered, light coming from nowhere and tracing across its girth and sides. It didn’t match the illumination from above. For the glimmers that danced across the surface of the metal looked more as if they were trapped stars. Not starlight – actual trapped stars. Like they were somehow resurfacing through the lid only to dive back down to the center of the box and come out along one of the sides again. It could’ve been a truly stilling sight. If anything stilled her right now, Jerry would grab her, and all of this would be over.
Jerry had been making terrible panting breathing noises behind her the whole time. But as they came into this corridor, all that stopped. He stilled, too. It didn’t last. It was nothing more than a momentary pause of recognition, and it told Sally the Observers knew exactly what that box was and what it could give them.
Sally was almost upon the box. If Jerry put on another one of those unholy bursts of speed, he’d get there first.
She twisted around just as he tried to run past her. She dropped to her knees in a perfect recreation of a move Lieutenant Carlisle had tried to teach her, and she kicked him in his ankles. It was just enough to overbalance him. Sally rolled right on top of him, pushed to her feet, and finally reached the box. She plucked it up, her mind reaching out to it a second before it locked into her fingers. She won’t tell you exactly what she felt. It would take years and a lot of regression to go through every single emotion that suddenly charged through her chest like bolting horses.
There was hope, fear, power, and confusion. There was everything she’d experienced over the past several days all rolled into one petrifying moment.
But she didn’t hesitate. There was no point carrying this box – she had to use it now.
Sally had been okay with using her telekinetic implants. It was very clear that everyone had expected she’d be more proficient. But at least she’d learned something. She hoped like hell that would give her the advantage she so desperately required now. With a roar that shuddered through her strained lips, Sally slammed her hand down on the box just as Jerry reached her.
You’d think he’d wrench the box right out from her grip, but he didn’t. He skidded to a stop, his limbs jerking as if someone had just shoved a thousand volts of electricity into his spine.
That silence spread out. By now Sally was sufficiently familiar with this experience to know exactly what to expect. First came the silence, then came that energetic wave. The one that felt as if it would perforate all matter and lift everything up to some higher dimension.
She got ready. She dropped the box to her feet, and she shoved her hands out wide. All the while, she just told herself she could do this. She shoved away every single moment of defeat she’d once endured. She clutched hold of every single moment of resistance instead. It was just as the bridge space opened around her.
“Idiot. We are a far stronger psychic than you will ever be, Queen.”
“You aren’t about to fight the Queen,” Sally roared. “You’re going to fight me, Sally Winters, instead.”