It was just when he thought he couldn’t take anymore, that the King would reach into Joseph and completely destroy him, that something happened. Joseph’s mind… it expanded. It took on an endless width and breadth that should be impossible for a mere psyche. It felt as if he was just as large as the entire universe. But at the same time, distance became irrelevant. The only thing that counted was one’s ability to connect disparate places. For what is the point of distance but tricking things into believing they aren’t connected after all? And how better to overcome it than to pierce through that illusion to understand that, no matter what, no matter where you are, you are connected to everything else everywhere?
Joseph had a chance to think that, then the Observers began to scream. It was this throaty, never-ending blast of fear that felt as if it made a permanent change to the psychic realm.
The King might’ve extended to protect each artifact, but in a cracking moment of shaking force, that no longer mattered. Because each artifact broke apart. They shattered with all the disruptive power of somebody taking simple glass orbs and landing cruisers down on them.
As the shards erupted around the room, the King screamed. So too did the Observers. One last time. Make no mistake, it was the gurgle of death.
A second later, they no longer existed. And as they fell back, the last to go was Gan. Joseph only recognized it was him because his crippling cry echoed louder than the rest.
Gan had clearly tried everything he could to get the King back. He even made a risky pact with Caxus.
In the end? It hadn’t mattered.
Make no mistake, not a single mote of compassion rose through Joseph’s heart at the fact the Observers were finally dead. Perspective did, though. He could see that, once upon a time, the Observers hadn’t been twisted. Circumstances and greed had grabbed hold of them and scrunched them in and in and in like a book that had detailed a brave tale only to be torn apart by the hands that had once cherished it.
As the Observers cracked apart, Joseph turned his head toward the King. He assumed the gate would wobble. That it would fracture a little or at least reduce in size. But that’s not what happened. It fluctuated for a moment, the combined, chilling scream of the King becoming louder. Then it burst forth and took up half the remaining space of the room. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could slow it down. Joseph had to twitch out of the way, using all the speed he could muster. Horror gripped his heart. He knew, deep down, using more than his Omega senses, that regardless of everything, the King was now seconds from rising.
This shaking force blasted through the room. It felt as if he was on a cruiser that was set to self-destruct. There would be nothing that would stop the King’s inevitable rise now. Joseph shook there, and his sword was out. But it was limp in his grip. It was as if he was holding onto nothing more effective than a dead leaf.
The ceiling fell. This time it didn’t cave in toward Joseph. It just parted above him and tumbled into the shaft. The entire castle started to fall down around his ears.
Joseph had to port and slash wildly to stay where he was. Nothing could alter the fact the King was beginning to rise. Joseph had assumed the crystals had protected the King. Maybe in some way they’d constrained his power. Or maybe the King understood that now was the time to rise or fall.
The shaft below Joseph’s feet pulsed with so much light, it felt as if it had been stolen from the rest of creation. It could light anything up, could throw back any darkness, no matter what it protected.
Another righteous roar split from the King’s mouth. It shuddered up through the growing black gate.
Joseph tried to yank his hand up to protect himself, but the sound was just as crippling as any deadly blow. It landed against his chest and sent him spinning to the side. As he smashed into a wall behind him, one of the few remaining structures, it was pulverized, and it too was sent down into the glowing shaft. At first, it had only been the width of the floor. It was starting to grow. It did so in a convulsing way. It would be one size one moment only to twitch like a muscle under strain and then expand. The shaft was becoming just as wide as the King as he took up ever more space.
There were no alarms, no screams, no external warning to underline how desperate the situation was – just Joseph’s hammering heart and sweaty brow.
The King pulsed toward him again. The greed was there, but so too was the righteous power. Joseph had to twist to the side. He was being asked to use more and more subspace energy. There would come a time soon when he’d simply run out. He didn’t have that option right now. Every single time the King screamed, his voice turned into a blast of power that tore through the room, and Joseph had to keep fleeing.
He spun to the side once more. There were no walls around him anymore, no floor, no ceiling, no anything but the pulsing shaft and the writhing King. As the ceiling above finally fell away completely, and the castle kept disintegrating like a simple log that’d been thrown into a raging inferno, Joseph finally saw the stars above. For a single moment, he was taken in by their impossible beauty. Then a shiver raced down his back. Beautiful as they may be, they still signified the King’s ambition.
As the gate convulsed further above the shaft, it reached up high. It suddenly grew four times as large in a split second. Joseph was forced to port. By the time he arrived half a kilometer above it, he was suspended between the gate and the star-lit sky above.
Hendari space was in some kind of pocket. It’s what the Hendari had used to protect themselves for so long. Joseph now heard the pocket breaking.
There was no point in describing it. It was muscle-wrenchingly insane. It gripped one’s body, trying to tear it apart, trying to get past every single defense to hammer home that everyone would fall, regardless of how hard they tried.
Joseph was forced to port again, but there would come a time soon when he would run out of distance between him and the King.
For it was clear the King was going to expand to take up all space.
Joseph didn’t bother to scream. His lips were wired shut. It was almost as if his mouth wouldn’t dare make an utterance – not compared to the terrifying, debilitating screams that continued to rip from the King’s collective throat.
Joseph hadn’t even had a chance to be thankful for the fact the Observers were down. He hadn’t killed them. So Sally, wherever she was, had made the final blow. Did that matter? Did it give him something to clutch hold of? Could anything matter anymore?
Joseph was beset by horrifying visions. They rose up out of the King like sulfurous fumes from some opening volcano. He saw what would happen next – in a few minutes and hours. The King would rise to consume the Hendari pocket, swallowing the world that had once made this civilization great. Then his mind would extend out into everything. Joseph practically saw the moment that every single soul in all of the universe stopped. The exact second when the King’s force slipped into their skulls to control their bodies forevermore. He saw aliens flying ships only to freeze, midway through inputting critical commands. He saw creatures giving birth, only to smile down at their young and stop. He saw doctors attending to the weak only for their fingers to hover over their patients’ throats as their personalities changed and their good hearts were destroyed.
Then Joseph saw the Coalition. The war. His friends, his colleagues. The people he’d fought for and who’d fought for him. All of them were consumed.
He squeezed his eyes closed in a wretched, pathetic moment of defeat. The King only took the time to reach up higher. The screams were becoming unbearable. If he could’ve corked his ears, he would have. It would’ve made no difference. For the screams were echoing out on every frequency they could. They didn’t just blast through the air but shook through the phase realm.
… The… phase realm.
Joseph might’ve been completely consumed by the horror of this moment, but finally something rose up through the confusion.
The King had to be awoken ultimately. He had to be drawn into the phase dimension. That was the only way to destroy him.
You would have thought that Joseph would’ve been able to keep that plan forefront in his mind. But he challenged even the strongest intellect to be able to hold on to reason when it literally fell out from underneath his feet. When the sky tumbled out of the heavens, and when every known fact in the universe twisted in on itself.
But Joseph… he had to do it.
He’d managed to go into phase space before. He opened his hand, and he concentrated, but the King only grew, and as the sight activated Joseph’s fear, he couldn’t phase.
He couldn’t scream at himself, couldn’t beg his ailing body to try one last time. He couldn’t move at all. The King rose even higher. Joseph had to port, and it disrupted the fraying strands of his sanity.
He saw more visions. They were downloaded into his mind by the King, and make no mistake, the collective psychic force wasn’t only unstoppable, but it crowed with glee at what it was doing to him. The visions concentrated on the Coalition now, showing him more images of people stopping in their tasks as their minds were infected from afar. He even saw Admiral Forest. There she was down on her knees, fighting some kind of Scarax goddess only for her to pause. Only for her once great mind to shatter as the King forced its way into her consciousness like a home invader through a weak window.
No. No. No.
The images kept coming. Finally… finally he saw Sally.
He didn’t know where she was. Couldn’t recognize the building around her. He saw her face, all right. Witnessed the horror in the widening whites of her eyes. And he heard the sound of her body snapping as it was coiled backward, as the King finally forced his way into her mind to pull out the Queen.
“Sally,” Joseph screamed. The shout finally not only blasted out through his throat but matched the King’s scream as it echoed out on all psychic frequencies.
Joseph couldn’t give up. He’d already done the impossible by attacking and destroying five Observers. He’d already risen when others would have fallen.
But to make that count, he had to keep rising.
“Sally,” he continued to scream. The King only kept showing him Sally’s death, over and over again. It grew worse with time, getting more gruesome. It was a psychic sword designed to cut right through Joseph’s remaining defenses. And it cut, all right. He bled, too. But he didn’t fall.
He shoved a hand out. And this time he meant it. He didn’t clutch at phase space. He distracted his mind completely. He imagined Sally – every effect she’d ever had on him. But he didn’t recall her alone. He went back to the past and became the Omega guard. He reached out to Layra’s hand. Then he went further forward and became Tyler. He reached out to the young Alice’s hand. And finally, he became Joseph the cadet, the hidden lieutenant, and the spacer. And he reached his determined, stiff, strong fingers out to Sally Winters once more.
It worked. Something grabbed hold of him. Maybe it was the universe’s last chance, or maybe it was Sally’s disembodied hand. It didn’t matter. It had the same effect. Just when Joseph thought he would fall and everyone would fall with him, he finally opened a gate into phase space.
The gate opened behind Joseph. He could feel its unstoppable crackling force.
He could also hear the keening cry of phase monsters. There would’ve been a time when they would’ve terrified the heck out of him, and to be fair, that time had only been about half an hour ago.
Now he had a far greater monster to fear. As he thrust backward into the gate and let its force embrace him, he had to channel his fear, making something useful of it rather than using it as a weapon against the remnants of his mind.
Joseph focused on the Coalition, everything they had ever taught him. Every single time hope had risen to defeat the inevitability of falling to a greater enemy.
He pushed through the gate. But he didn’t go alone.
A plume of the King’s power rose high from that writhing black mass. It shot toward Joseph and grabbed hold of his ankle. Joseph only just had the ability to close the gate off from it, but he didn’t. He held onto the plan. It was one hell of a thing to grasp at, because as the King clutched around him, Joseph saw more of those horrifying visions. They assailed him, far more effectively than bullets. But he still pulled backward into the phase realm, taking the King with him.
This was it.
The fight was here.
Joseph would be right in the middle of it.
But would he fight alone? No. All of the Coalition would fight with him until their very last breath.