She kept her hands around Jerry’s neck. She forced her psyche against him. She had never fought more completely. For she didn’t just fight using the Queen. She utilized all of the psychic energy she had as Sally. She no longer put blocks in her mind between her and her power. She no longer let her unanswered questions undermine her. Everything was forced to the side as she dug deeper than she ever had – than anyone ever had. If this were the equivalent of real space, then right now, Sally was digging right through the heart of not just one planet, but hundreds.
And every time she pushed her mind further into herself, she found just that little extra scrap of psychic power.
While it was enough to hold Jerry there and keep the Observers in check, it wasn’t enough to destroy them. Something was helping them hold on. There was only one thing it could be. Gan had completely and utterly broken his connection with Caxus. So this had to be the King.
Sally’s views on the King hadn’t changed. Her journey of self-discovery hadn’t altered her comprehension of his ultimate threat. But one thing had changed. Layra had been determined to sacrifice her life to destroy the King – and she hadn’t even been able to conceive of a way around that. It had been an endless, hollow refrain she’d repeated through the Queen’s head her entire existence. It hadn’t just been her reason to be. It had been her guiding principle. Every single decision had been checked against it. Nothing had been wasted – not even a gram of energy if it were to be taken from the ultimate reserve that would help her kill him.
But now Sally saw everything for what it was.
The Queen had to be protected. Not for the final battle. And not as a sacrifice. As the remnants of her once great civilization. As the ultimate good side of the Hendari people. For she would one day turn into the crystal that represented everything they’d been and everything they’d meant to the universe.
But make no mistake, regardless of the fact that Sally no longer thought she had to sacrifice herself to assure victory, death might come anyway. Swiftly.
The Observers managed to collectively squeeze more energy out of Jerry’s ailing fingers until she heard her throat crack like an egg thrown at a wall. “No matter what you do, you cannot defeat us. The King has already risen. Simply give up,” they spat. There were only three of them left now. She could hear every single one of their voices. They pitched and rocked through Jerry’s throat. They didn’t speak as one. Sally didn’t know if that was a critically important fact – if them losing their cohesion meant they were about to lose their power. But she distinctly heard every cruel tone. One of them was Gan. And he was by far the most frightened. Maybe, considering he had traveled with Jerry for the longest, he had the most detailed imagination of what it would feel like when the host died and his mind was dragged down to oblivion with Jerry’s broken soul. Let him imagine. And let it break his will further.
She shoved her face close. Gan desperately tried to wrap his hands harder around her throat, and while he managed it, Sally wasn’t crushed. She was still human. Or part of her was. Though technically it was more accurate to say that her physical manifestation at this point in time was human. Underneath, her true side required no form as a creature of the phase realms. She kept reminding herself of that fact, kept grabbing onto it every single time she thought her throat would explode like somebody trying to strangle a raspberry.
“The King has risen. The King has risen,” the Observers chanted. Gan’s voice punched out louder than the rest.
“I can hear your fear,” she hissed. “It infects every single syllable like the vocal equivalent of marching rot. You can try to comfort yourself with strong words, but you cannot make them true by simply wishing.”
“Joseph is falling. It’s only a matter of time now,” he hissed.
That could’ve gotten to her, and it did. These great tight shivers crossed through her shoulders and down into her spine. They shook into her hips then shuddered down into her shins. But you know what she didn’t do? Let them weaken her grip at all. Her fingers were just as strong as if they’d been cast out of steel.
Her gaze was somehow stronger. She stared at the Observers, not just with cold hatred, but with a glimmer of understanding too. And maybe it was that that finally got to them.
The Observers jerked Jerry’s lips too violently again, and more skin cracked. A few beads of blood splashed onto his teeth as he screamed. “Joseph is soon to die. The Omega guard will be ripped out of him, then the spacer. Then his pathetic human remains will be crushed. He will be nothing more than fodder for the King.”
“I trust Joseph,” she said, her voice constricted but the heart of her words still there.
She did trust him. She always had. And she would continue to trust Joseph, no matter what horror transpired in the future. Maybe she’d even trusted him the day they’d met. Maybe her mind had always recognized there was something different about him, even though her true memories had been blocked off from her.
But maybe the past was irrelevant right now. What happened back then was no indication of what would occur now.
She didn’t need to come to any new resolution. She didn’t need to understand exactly how she’d come to this realm. Not yet. Not here.
All she had to do was wrap her fingers around Jerry’s throat that little bit tighter. All she had to do was pit her mind against his.
The Observers shrieked again. “Just fall.”
“Desperation shakes through your tone,” she said in an almost cold, toneless voice. “If you believe you’re in control, pause to listen to yourself. Even if you manage to let the King out, you will not be rewarded.”
“You do not understand the nature of reality.”
“Unfortunately, I do. Or at least the reality you have made for yourselves. You have ignored everything it was to be Hendari. You have twisted yourselves into the very enemies that we once fought.”
“You know nothing, child. Layra was nothing but a useless princess. She didn’t live the life of an explorer, nor a protector. She was ultimately little more than a statue for people to stare at.”
“And yet that statue possessed a mind you couldn’t capture and one that frustrated your every plan for an untold number of years. And yet that mind possessed a heart that you couldn’t touch. One you ripped out of your own chests when you started the King project. Who were you in the past? What were your dreams? And how much did it hurt to sacrifice them to the King? They were the first sacrifice,” she warned. “Make no mistake, your minds will be the next and last.”
“We will be rewarded,” they roared. Again they managed to scrounge a burst of more strength. She felt their psyches smash against her. It was one hell of an attack. She could’ve fallen. Hell. It would’ve been easy to fall. Logical, too. Her fearful mind kept trying to tell her that submission was the only answer.
Her heart knew another path forward.
“The one you call Joseph is ready to crumble. The King is about to surround him.”
“Even if the King rises, I know Joseph’s mind won’t be broken down.”
“Nothing can withstand the King.”
“We can withstand,” she hissed back.
The Observers threw themselves against her. Jerry’s body couldn’t take it. One of the hands squeezed around her throat just snapped. She could hear the wrist. It suddenly lost all integrity as if the bone all the way down from his fingers to his forearm turned to dust while still inside his body.
The Observers’ eyes pulsed wide. She almost thought she heard Jerry’s actual voice as it ruptured through their control with unbridled, pitching pain.
The broken hand fell from her throat. Now there was only one there.
Desperation alighted in Jerry’s gaze, burning even brighter than it had before. The Observers hissed, their combined anger enough to burn down any wall in their way. Except for hers.
“We have glimpsed the future,” they tried. “you are not in it.”
“The only future you have glimpsed as the lies you live within. You have narrowed down this great universe, cutting away its endless possibilities in the hopes you can live in a dream of your own creation. You are like a child. You cannot decide what will occur in the external world. Our people once knew that. It was our guiding principle. But rather than accept the lessons of our race, you have ignored them. You will not be able to ignore them any longer.”
Sally pushed in.
She saw a crack in Jerry’s gaze, if you will. Just this little fracture line right between his eyes. It wasn’t an actual physical hole. His skull wasn’t splintering. But his psyche was.
The Queen didn’t like to overcome other people’s minds. But this was no ordinary circumstance, and nor did she face a natural psychic manifestation.
Sally might not like Jerry. They might’ve had a fraught relationship back at the Academy. Irrelevant. That wasn’t how the Coalition worked. You didn’t only save those you agreed with. You saved anybody you could. It didn’t matter if they were flying the Coalition flag. It didn’t matter if they were a Barbarian. If they were not acting to kill others and you could save their lives, you did. And therein lay the difference between her and the Observers.
She didn’t foolishly believe she got to decide which minds were worth saving and which were not.
She wasn’t an arbiter of what was good and what was bad. She was just a hand there to help anyone who’d slipped.
And now she reached that hand out to Jerry.
“I know you’re still in there, Jerry,” she muttered, her words quick. She had to force them through the Observers’ complete control to get to the scraps of Jerry within.
She wasn’t quick enough, and they noticed, all right. They collectively screamed, the shaking pitch of their cry reaching higher toward the ceiling than ever before.
Sally was still fighting in the hangar bay. That odd ship was just behind her. She’d given up on attempting to access it yet.
If she managed to get through the Observers, she might be able to find a way within it. But she couldn’t get ahead of herself.
“I know a scrap of you is still in there, Jerry. You wanted to be the best of the best. You already are the best.”
She thought she saw something flickering in his gaze. But the Observers roared back into life quickly, like an entire ocean that’d been thrust aside only to remind itself there was no power like its own violent waves.
They sneered harder, more of Jerry’s skin cracking up. The sound was…. It was like somebody had taken a thin metal sheet and they were perforating it with nails.
There’d be no going back for his skin. It was losing integrity. The device pulsing in his chest was growing brighter, these scattering blasts of light darting over the shiny surface only to sink down into the pins in his muscles. It was having to output more and more energy. In time, however, it would stop. For in time, everything failed.
“Why do I get the impression that you didn’t want to be the best of the best all the time, Jerry? Why do I suddenly get the impression that you had a better dream than that?”
“This body is dead. The mind is gone. Do not waste your time, Queen,” the Observers cried.
They couldn’t tell her what to do. Nor could they decide what was a waste of time and what wasn’t.
Sally stared on with compassion at Jerry.
He hadn’t been a friend. Who cared? When you agreed to fight for a civilization like the Coalition, ultimately, it didn’t matter who you associated with, who you labeled as friend or foe. When it comes time to rise to the defense of all, you do it. No questions asked, no distinctions made. One life became equivalent to another. For when you fought together, you fought wielding the connection that bound you to others.
Jerry’s lips twitched again. There was a slightly more personal twist to them now. He almost looked as if he was going to smile – that same sanctimonious grin she’d grown to hate. But now it gave her hope, and it pulsed up through her heart. She smiled on her own. “Jerry, I know you’re still in there. I don’t know what your original dream was—” she stopped. She did know. He’d taken any and every chance to repeat it. “You wanted to be the difference, didn’t you? You wanted to prove that cadets, regardless of their position, could save the Coalition, just as anyone else could.”
Now his lips parted. And she saw it, right there in his eyes. A flash of awareness, a moment where he rose to the surface of his churning mind.
It should have been impossible. The Observers were now connected to the King, and their control of his body should have been more than complete. Even Sally would’ve struggled to fight against him. Jerry actually managed it.
“Jerry,” she spluttered.
Her eyes widened as she took in every detail, as she tried to use her gaze to somehow pull him out further into the light.
The Observers were still fighting him. His eyes twitched. They widened only to close, then only to widen again. He looked as if he was permanently on the edge of sleep. And it was yet further evidence that his body simply couldn’t withstand this. More of his skin cracked. His face was now covered in blood. It wasn’t red but rather had this sickly pale hue as if it could no longer oxygenate itself sufficiently.
Did that stop Jerry from moving his lips? Did that stop him from letting out a short, sharp chuckle? It was unaffected as if Jerry had no clue what was happening to his body. No. He understood. He just didn’t care.
And that had always been his greatest power.
“Yeah, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to show everyone, from Admiral Forest to Joseph damn Lance, that it didn’t matter who you were and what power you had on paper. I wanted to show them all that a cadet could save everyone. All you have to do is strive. And I never stopped striving.”
“Then do it, Jerry,” she said softly. “Show everybody that you’re the best of the best.”
There was a moment’s silence, and it was tense. Jerry’s lips continued to twitch, and she thought she saw the Observers rising once more. They were like a shark fin, one that was becoming visible as it rose toward the surface of choppy waves only to disappear again. When you couldn’t see it, did it mean the shark wasn’t there? No. It just meant you didn’t know where it was. It would rise once more.
But Jerry kept them back. For now. He sneered. It was similar to the arrogant, snide move he’d seemingly dedicated his entire life to. Make no mistake – it wasn’t kind. The exact curl of his lips could only be referred to as utter belligerent self-belief. Yet it just made Sally smile harder. Maybe Jerry wasn’t a likable person. Maybe he had a lot of faults. No, he definitely did. But he was self-aware. And he strove to push past everything, including his own mistakes. “Get ready, Sally Winters. I’m about to do what you couldn’t.”
She had a chance to blink. “Jerry?”
“I shouldn’t have taken those classes with Anna. Big mistake. But at least they taught me something.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are no strong psyches. There are only aggressive ones. Time to show these Observer idiots there’s no messing with a cadet from E Club.” With that, he closed his eyes.
His remaining hand twitched around her throat. For a fraction of a second, his fingers actually tightened, and Sally feared that Jerry was about to give in to the Observers and attack her again. For a time, it had seemed he’d enjoyed being possessed by them as if he had willingly given himself up as a slave to the Observers for good.
But Sally didn’t need to worry. That twitch only lasted for a microsecond. Then she heard a cry. It came from inside Jerry’s head.
The Observers screeched like birds trapped in a cage somebody had carelessly tossed a hawk into.
They screamed again, the horrendous cry shifting out on every single psychic frequency. But there was nowhere for them to go. They had inserted themselves into Jerry’s consciousness. They had locked the door that would allow them to get out of it.
Jerry simply took advantage of that fact.
Sally kept her fingers locked around Jerry’s throat. But she didn’t push, either with her hand or with her mind. All she had to do was wait.
Soon enough, she felt a wave of psychic power. Was it even accurate to call it that? Strong psyches certainly had the ability to project force outside their mind. Jerry? He just had grit. And how different was that in the end?
He roared. His throat couldn’t accommodate the move, and it cracked up halfway through. He spluttered. But he didn’t stop. He sneered, and his lips only became more covered with blood, but that didn’t matter either. He kept frigging pushing.
Sally continued to hear the Observers until their cries cut out.
Then Jerry opened his eyes again. One last push.
“Winters,” he spluttered.
“Jerry, the Observers aren’t dead—”
“Don’t tell me what I already know. Don’t waste my damn time. When I take them down, I have to go with them. That’s what sacrifice is, idiot,” he snarled.
Sally really didn’t need a lesson on what sacrifice was. It was an ongoing lesson her life had beaten into her. Her true form – the one back in that cavern on Faxon A – was still engaged in the ultimate sacrifice.
She let her lips crack up into a small smile. “Jerry?”
“I’m buying you this chance to give you a warning.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to break the King out, activate him, and lure him into phase space. But you already know that.”
“You need to use the Coalition against him.”
“The crystal synthesized in the mind of your actual self – the one back down on Faxon A. It’s the Coalition’s crystal.”
“What… do you mean? The Coalition isn’t dead.”
“Time means nothing in the phase realm. The Coalition might not be dead yet, but it’s already had such a massive impact on the phase realm that it’s got a crystal. Anyway, the Coalition will end one day. And that crystal will be the only remnant of who we were and what we achieved.”
“What are you telling me, Jerry?”
“You’ve got to take the Coalition crystal. You have to use it against the King. You have to call on the minds within it and use them to help you.”
“How on earth could I do that?”
“The Queen knows. She’s been doing the same thing her entire existence. She’s been gathering together the good minds of her people. And she pulled in other minds from every other galaxy. She’s been creating a hive, a mental imprint of so many psyches. That’s what the crystals are at heart.”
“Jerry, I don’t understand.”
“Then stop interrupting, Winters,” he growled, his voice punching down low, his irritation so familiar, it suggested they were back in the Academy having a snappy conversation in the accommodation block, and not out in an unknown building on an unknown world as the universe crumbled down around their ears. “You need to use the Queen to activate the Coalition crystal. And you are going to pit it against the King in phase space. Get Joseph to help you. Get him to guide you. As you fight, countless phase monsters and lost civilizations will rise up to try to defeat you. They will attempt to use the power of the crystals and your mind to ascend further. But use Joseph to fight them. That’s all he’s good for, anyway,” he snarled.
Sally didn’t react to the snide comment. “I don’t even begin to understand how to fight with the Coalition’s crystal – not in the way you are describing. Do I even have a right to fight with it? I’m not—”
“You’re about to say you’re not Coalition, ha? Of course you are. You became a cadet in the Coalition Academy. The second you took that oath, you became just as Coalition as everybody else. Doesn’t matter where you come from,” Joseph said, his voice punching down low and taking on a tone that suggested he’d learned this by heart. “It doesn’t matter where you’re going ultimately. All that counts is that when you become a cadet of the Coalition Academy and you take our principles to heart, you choose to walk together with your fellow citizens. You’re just as Coalition as the rest of us. So yeah, you can wield the crystal. You’re the only one who can.”
There was a long silence. It was almost as if Jerry had somehow fallen asleep.
“Jerry?” she asked, desperation arcing up through her tone.
“I’m still here, Winters, so just give me a chance. I’m fighting off those Observers. It’s not an easy task. You couldn’t do it, so stop damn well pressuring me.”
She had to smile again. Even in these, his last moments, Jerry was still such a blustery personality, he was about as warm as an ice pick to the heart.
Nothing stopped her from recognizing the ultimate sacrifice he was currently making.
“Head back to Faxon A. Before you do, collect all the future boxes you can. That ship there,” Jerry managed to open his eyes and point toward the vessel behind her, “will help you identify where they are. Use phase space to get there. Gather more up. Joseph is gonna need them.”
“Are you about to ask what about me, Winters? I would’ve thought that’s obvious.” He chuckled as if he was going to win the best prize of all. “I’m gonna go down fighting. I’m gonna be the bravest soldier in this whole sorry mess. Make sure people talk about me.” He managed to laugh. It should have been an impossible act, considering how broken he was. But nothing stopped Jerry when he put his mind to it.
She smiled again, but it was weak. It could barely touch her lips. “I’ll make sure they don’t forget your name, Jerry. I will ensure that E Club inculcates every single new member into the history of the greatest cadet there ever was.”
Jerry actually cackled with laughter. Again it was a costly move. But again it was clear he got to decide what he’d sacrifice, and not the Observers. “You do that. Hell, why not erect a statue of me in the middle of the grounds?”
She laughed. “I’ll try.
There was a moment of silence. It stretched on and on.
Jerry might’ve snapped at her not to interrupt him, but she could tell he was starting to lose the fight. Sure enough, when he managed to capture hold of his throat again, it was to the sound of this raspy cough that would’ve killed anyone weaker.
“Remember to use the Coalition against the King. The Hendari crystals – they are more than just an impression of the civilizations that made them up. The Coalition is still alive. You will be connected to all of our minds. Use that connection, Sally. Use our combined power.”
“I have to protect them—” she began.
“Dammit, Winters, just when I thought you were starting to become intelligent, you prove how stupid you are again.”
“But if the Coalition crystal is connected to everyone—”
“Trust me, the people out there, they don’t want you to sacrifice yourself. They want to have the power to protect themselves and each other. Don’t take that away from them. You’re not fighting for yourself. We are all fighting for each other. So let us all rise up. Nobody in the Coalition stands alone. And that’s why we are stronger than the Scarax Galaxy. That’s why we are stronger even than the Hendari. You get that yet?”
It had felt like it was just her and Joseph for so long. Sure, on some level she appreciated that Forest and the Mercury were out there. And in some fashion, they were nominally having an effect on the war. But ultimately, Sally had been certain that everything would come down to her.
“Do you finally get it, Winters?” Jerry pushed again. “It might feel like it’s just you fighting in the end. But that’s the ultimate trap of all psyches, isn’t it? You only inhabit your own head. You forget that everybody inhabits their own heads, too. You forget they have dreams and unstoppable wills too. You forget that they want to rise up in their last moments as well. The Scarax Galaxy is built on selfishness. And the Hendari are built on a different type of individuality. I’m not asking you to forget the fact you have a self. Don’t become a collective, like the King. Become a different kind of unit. One that recognizes and celebrates every single person who makes it up, but more than anything, enables them to fight together. Nobody wants to be ruled by their protectors. So when it comes to it, Winters—”
“I will ensure everybody rises together.”
“Good. Now, it’s time to check out. The moment for my selfless death is here. Remember—”
“You want a statue in the Academy main grounds. I’ve got it, Jerry. Thank you.”
“Don’t get emotional on me, Winters. It’s a waste of time. Keep those emotions in check. You’ll need them for the final fight. Good luck, Cadet. Don’t let me down.”
With that, Jerry disappeared. It was more accurate to say that his psyche sank into his mind. She saw the Observers for a microsecond. They rose up like that aforementioned shark. But there was no longer anything to feast upon. And the ocean they had once called their home was starting to turn on them.
Jerry’s body began to crack.
It finally gave up, for Jerry’s mind could no longer sustain it.
Sally saw the moment the Observers realized they’d be taken down with Jerry. True fear pulsed through their eyes. She thought she heard Gan’s voice the loudest as it tore through the remnants of Jerry’s crumbling throat. “No,” he shrieked. But Jerry’s larynx stopped working a second later, and the cry simply gurgled and died.
The Observers had been fighting the Queen for so long, and they had been Sally’s enemy, too. You’d think when it came to their destruction, it would be a massive, overdramatic scene. All it was was quick and effective. Jerry simply pulled the Observers with him, gathering his remaining strength around them and tugging them down into the endless embrace of death. She heard him grunt one last time and watched as his eyes closed.
Jerry died. His body simply gave way. His neck lolled to the side, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his hands lost all force. They dropped off her throat with one final scream as the Observers became silent forevermore.
Sally went to clutch at Jerry’s falling form, but he’d already tumbled out of reach. A second later she realized she didn’t have the psychic force to remain floating here anymore. Her telekinetic powers had already reduced considerably. But with a pulse of force, she managed to just stay where she was.
She watched Jerry fall down to the floor below.
He was spent, but he’d done as promised. He had bought every single person a chance.
And there was no way Sally Winters was going to ignore that. She turned her head toward that ship, and she spread a hand, commanding it to open for her.
Perhaps it, like Jerry, had recognized the end was here. There was no point in resisting anymore. There was only striving forward toward everyone’s last moments together.