She was in her head. For there was nowhere else for her to be now. She couldn’t exist in the real world anymore. All her body was was a point of entry for the King. A path, a glorified road. Nothing else. She had never been anything else.
The King didn’t simply open up in the middle of Sally’s brows. He rose with debilitating force. He brought with him images of total defeat. She saw herself running through the corridors in Hendari space. It was a recreation of that horrifying scene she’d experienced earlier where the King had attempted to crush her ribs. But this time, it didn’t end. And over and over again, he stamped on her until she was crushed like dust under a mountain.
But it wasn’t just her being crushed. She saw the other Hendari that made her up. One by one, the King blasted them apart. It was an act of total, complete violence.
And there was nothing, nothing she could damn well do. Screaming was beyond her. To make any type of pitching cry, she required a throat. She also needed energy.
Hell, she needed to believe that in screaming, it would make a difference. And Sally would never make one of those again.
As the King continued to open up in the middle of her brows, she swore she could feel reality boiling before him.
She didn’t just see moments of utter desperation from her past. She saw what the King intended to do. His greedy imagination twisted around her in a black hole of total darkness.
She swore she saw the Coalition infected. Every single mind that made it up parting before the King like waves before an unstoppable ship.
Then his influence spread. It shot through every single galaxy. Everybody fell. For everybody deserved to fall. The weak, after all, were nothing but food for the strong.
That refrain played over and over in her head, and regardless of the fact Sally had always told herself there was strength in weakness, she couldn’t anymore. For the King was now in control. In… control.
Just when Sally thought she would sink completely, like a scuttled ship slowly slipping beneath a violent sea, she heard Joseph. She’d been nominally connected to him, enough to know he was losing, no matter how hard he tried. But just as a chunk of the ceiling was wrenched down from above and covered him, his words cut through.
She needed to find out who she was and rise….
Sally was nothing more than a child who’d encountered the Queen. Hell, Sally didn’t even really exist. She was memories from her true self that’d been downloaded into the printed form Layra had made. She was nothing more than a quirk, an aftereffect, if you will.
But as the Queen started to degrade, or at least slip into the background of the King’s control, Sally was the only thing that remained. It was only Joseph’s last-ditch desperate words that got her to believe that. Yes, she was being torn apart. And yes, she could hear and see what the King would do to this fragile universe. But Sally… dammit, she remained.
As the King started to get bigger in her head, taking up more space until it felt as if he somehow took up the same amount of room as the rest of the universe, Sally allowed herself to fall into her fear. This wasn’t giving up. This was the complete opposite.
The Queen… Sally didn’t know what the Queen was anymore. She was beginning to doubt every single one of her memories. Her simple human mind shouldn’t have been able to withstand the King, especially as the Queen fell away. Everything she’d learned from Caxus and Jerry, from Joseph even – none of it made sense anymore. She wasn’t sure what to believe in and what to reject. But she suddenly found a path forward between her indecision and uncertainty.
A path forward that didn’t require knowing where she would go, just what she could do. A path where she didn’t need to know where to head to – just how to walk.
Just as the King opened up even further in Sally’s consciousness and she swore he almost reached the point of no return, she turned around and faced him. There was no shape, no recognizable body. There couldn’t be in the center of her mind, could there? But she swore she could feel the combined greed of the Hendari civilization. She didn’t view it from Layra’s eyes but from Sally’s. And as she took that perspective, the fear just ebbed away.
Sally lost awareness of what was going on in the cavern. Forest and her team hadn’t stopped fighting, though there was precious little they could do. As for Joseph… he hadn’t moved. You’d think that a simple cave-in wouldn’t be able to stop him, but it had been several seconds now, and he hadn’t blasted through or transported out.
The King roared in her mind. Maybe he realized she was still there, somehow still resisting, despite the fact the weak should have fallen already.
She didn’t roar back.
Sally Winters started believing in herself. Not in her strength, not in her weakness – in something that existed beyond those two points.
Maybe the King realized she was doing something. He roared louder than he ever had before.
But that roar could only affect her if she chose to let it.
Sally had no idea why she had encountered the Queen. If she hadn’t, she would have been a normal child, correct? Incorrect. Sally started to see memories. Make no mistake, these were not dreams. She wasn’t making this up as the King continued to blast through her head. Genuine recollections assailed her. Though assail was not the correct word. That suggested violence, suggested the fact Sally wasn’t in control of this process, didn’t invite it in with all her heart.
Sally… she was a psychic.
She’d been a psychic since birth. A psychic like no other.
For she hadn’t been born of the ordinary world. Sally came from the phase realm.
She had no parents, or at least no human parents. She had always been a fixture on Faxon A, a permanent part of this cave. Sally… the Queen hadn’t been the one to find Sally. Sally had been the one to call out to the Queen in her moment of greatest need.
These memories… they… got faster, stronger. They felt like they would never end, like a permanent deluge from some forever storm.
And as they pulled her along with them, she was tugged right out of the fearsome grasp of the King. His groping mind and greed no longer counted.
He could turn his full strength against her. But that too would be irrelevant.
The real Sally, not the half dead child, not the Coalition soldier, and not the host of the Queen.
Sally, the point of singular consciousness. Sally, the creature born of the phase realm.
The King tried to erupt right out of the center of Sally’s mind, but in an act of ultimate and pure will, she grabbed him and thrust him back.
He’d been trying to replay moments of power to her – trying to terrify her with what he would do once he came through – but Sally reversed the process. No screaming, no bloodcurdling cries. No recognition she was even fighting him, because he wasn’t worth it.
Sally Winters turned her considerable psyche against the King, and for now, he lost.
You would think there’d be cracks of lightning, a show of real, obvious, fearsome power. And there was. In her mind, at least. But no one else could see it.
She doubted anyone other than Joseph would’ve been aware of the fact the King was coming through. Sorry, anyone but the Observers.
As Sally opened her eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she saw unimpeded with her own senses, with no psyche manipulating or controlling her, she watched as the Observers tugged Jerry’s head around, as total crippling fear grasped them like the hand of God.
But that just gave Joseph all the time he needed.
He finally reappeared from under the caved-in ceiling. He blasted up, this glowing hand parting through the rocks with all the force of a heavy cruiser smashing through a paper wall.
Jerry screamed. Sorry, there was no Jerry anymore. Just the Observers. As they recognized their time of defeat was here, their cry arced up louder than a thousand peals of thunder.
They could scream all they wanted. It didn’t change the fact they’d lost.
Joseph thrust forward. He went to slice right through them, but he didn’t get the chance. At the last moment, they snagged hold of some power and ported away. It wasn’t before staring in total wretched horror at Sally.
They’d pinned all their hopes on this working. But once more, she had risen.
Yet the fight for the galaxy wasn’t over. Not yet. The King, though fought back for now, remained. The Observers would lick their wounds, then try to bring him forth once more.
As the dust started to settle, literally as clouds of it fluttered down through the now silent cavern, Joseph staggered forward.
He was bleeding. Sally wasn’t entirely sure how that could’ve occurred, considering he was in specialized Hendari armor, but she couldn’t deny her eyes as long slicks of blood traveled down his pale face, covering his cheeks and splashing over his collar.
Even though Admiral Forest was right there, and even though a Coalition team of soldiers was behind her, Joseph didn’t hesitate. He blasted forward as if someone had shot him from a gun, and he locked his arms around Sally.
She let him. As he embraced her, she smiled – this deep move that parted her lips and sent warm recognition pulsing through her chest.
“You did it. Sally. You fought off the King. He’s—”
“Not destroyed,” she cut in, her voice grave. “He’s gone. For now.”
“I take it this attack is over?” Forest said. She arched an eyebrow at the fact Joseph still had his arms around Sally’s back. She didn’t tell him to stop it, though.
Sally slowly turned her head toward Forest.
Then she ticked her gaze down to the box of Hendari crystals at Forest’s side.
Forest followed her gaze. “You can’t take this back from us. They are the only reason we survived this long—”
“I have no intention of taking the Hendari crystals off you again, Forest,” Sally said in all seriousness.
Maybe it was because a different note of strength rang through her voice, but everybody paid attention. Sally didn’t let the force of the Queen slip out, though the Queen thankfully hadn’t died in the King’s relentless attack. But Sally no longer required the Queen’s power to be heard. Not anymore. Not now she understood who she’d always been.
Her whole life, Sally had thought the Queen had come to her because she’d been weak. The Queen had taken Sally over in an act of kindness. But it hadn’t changed what Sally was ultimately. She’d still been a pathetic creature who’d needed saving in the first place. Now… she understood what had really happened.
It had been the other way around. Sally had called out to Layra. Though that crippling scene Caxus had shown her – the one where Layra had printed a copy of Sally’s body – had technically been correct, Caxus had willfully missed out the most important information.
That’d been an act of Sally saving Layra, and not the other way around. Sally’s considerable psyche had found Layra, called her to Faxon A, and offered herself up as a host. All so the Queen couldn’t die.
Joseph finally pulled back from her. He could see the look in her eyes. “Sally?” His voice lowered, a deep question shaking through his throat.
“The attack is over for now. But the war still rages outside. The imperial fleet is still here,” she pointed out facts that everybody here would already be well aware of. “And the King hasn’t been defeated. Just pushed back for now.”
“I am well aware of that, Cadet,” Forest stated, her voice rumbling. “When will the King come back?”
“Unknown. Make no mistake, however, the Observers will actively be helping him. He has ruptured through most of the systems that were holding him back for millennia. He is on the cusp of rising. It won’t take much until he breaks through the remaining strings holding him back.”
Forest was already pale, but now she looked a lot like Jerry had. She grabbed her face, letting her fingers slide down her chin. “What do we do?”
“We have to go after him.” Sally straightened.
“You mean mount a mission back to Hendari space?” Forest’s eyes flashed.
Sally looked away. It wasn’t because she was terrified of what Forest was suggesting. She simply took the opportunity to realign.
She could see the future opening out in front of her.
The one future that would enable everyone to get out of this mess.
“We must draw him out,” Sally stated without further pause.
“… What do you mean, Cadet? If the King were to rise—”
“He would control the universe, correct.” Sally didn’t drop her gaze once.
“You know that, and yet you suggest letting him out anyway?” Forest demanded.
“The only way to truly destroy the King is to let him rise first.” Sally had never been more certain of something in her life.
“But he would control everyone and everything—”
“Everybody who wasn’t in phase space,” Sally interjected.
Phase space had once been such a point of confusion for her. Now it would be her greatest rock, one she could clutch hold of in even the strongest storm.
She was from there. But it was more than her home. She breathed and lived it. She’d simply never been aware that it was the undercurrent that had run through her entire existence. A true source of strength she’d always clutched at but never understood.
Forest didn’t look happy. Fair enough. It wasn’t every day a cadet suggested allowing every single mind in the entire universe to be overtaken in the hopes they could snatch victory out of the jaws of certain defeat.
Forest sliced her gaze over to Joseph.
Joseph had this knowing look in his eyes, but a prying one, too. It was clear he’d finally recognized Sally was more than just a host for the Queen. Yet he still had his questions – so many they were swarming behind his searching stare.
“Joseph, this is a suicidal plan—” Forest tried.
“I… might be making this up, but I think… I think it’s the only plan we’ve got.”
“Lance?” Forest demanded.
“Sally’s… right,” Joseph said as he closed his eyes and clearly tuned in to some knowledge deep within him. “The only way we’re going to destroy the King is to lure him out. He’s trapped in a pocket space of the Hendari’s own making. Even if we were to use the crystals against him, we wouldn’t be able to defeat him – let alone lure him out. He’d just go deeper into that pocket and bide his time.”
“Which is a better plan than allowing him to take over every single mind—” Forest began.
“I don’t think he is going to be in control of every mind for long, Admiral. In fact, I don’t imagine it will be longer than a micron of a second. Phase space… it doesn’t run in the same temporal dimension as ordinary space.”
“And if you are wrong? Worse, if you lose?” Forest didn’t drop her challenging gaze. It could’ve pushed past any wall Joseph or Sally dared erect in front of her.
“It would be the same result if we did nothing and the King rose anyway. We are on a precipice right now, Forest. We either act boldly, or we lose. We might get a few more days if we don’t lure him out into phase space, but ultimately, the result will be the same. No, it will be worse. Because in our last moments we will know that we could have tried to defeat him, but we lacked the courage to even attempt it.”
Forest certainly didn’t leap to enact their plan. She continued to hold the Hendari box. Her fingers tightened around the silver handle until her knuckles could’ve protruded right out of her skin and ricocheted around the cavern.
Sally stood there, her body somehow strong. At least her stance was. Her muscles were technically weak. The Observers had put her through a hell of a beating, and before them, Caxus had already ravaged her form.
But Sally was finally confident of something. Save for the King, no one would ever have the power to take her mind over again. For she now understood what she was, and that pulsing knowledge was a weapon that would hold all other psychics back.
To think, she’d wasted all of those years assuming she was pathetic. Regardless of the fact she’d had the Queen’s power at her fingertips, it had still been a debilitating experience to believe she’d been nothing more than a weak host.
Yes, the Queen was correct – there was strength in weakness. But the greatest strength one had was in truth.
When you understand yourself, no matter the circumstances you find sweeping you off your feet, you will fight from a strong base – one that cannot be destroyed. You can lose your body, you can lose your future, but you cannot lose the fact of who you are.
So Sally pushed her shoulders back, arched her head up, and stood as straight as she could. “This is the only way to win, Forest. If you don’t believe me, ask them.” She nodded down at the crystals.
She had once claimed they were hers. But her connection to them was slipping.
No… it was changing. She was recognizing she came from a similar place to them, but she could never truly be their master, just someone who chose to travel next to them.
She still didn’t understand the true mysteries of the Hendari crystals, but they were singular points of combined intelligence – of compounded history. They were what happened when a civilization ascended, when its impact on the phase realm became so strong that it altered it irrevocably.
Forest slowly slid her gaze down to her case then back up to Sally.
Sally remained exactly where she was, her stance still strong, her stare still steady. “Ask them, Forest. I know you’ve communed with them before.”
Forest twitched a little. She probably didn’t want the rest of her team knowing she was talking to a bunch of crystals. It would be pretty hard for a competent admiral like her to explain away.
She still shut her eyes. She tipped her head to the side, a few strands of her loose hair falling in front of her face. They framed her strong and in-control expression.
Sally was aware of the surge of psychic energy that rushed off the Hendari case. It was… powerful, but in a different way to the power of guns or ships or technology. For the power of the mind will always be different from the power of the hands and feet. It doesn’t grasp up and lose hold of things, so much as rise or sink.
And right now, the wisdom of the crystals rose through Forest until she finally opened her eyes.
God knows what the crystals actually said to her, or rather, what her mind comprehended of their message, but her lips twitched.
“… Admiral?” Joseph muttered.
Forest shook her head. “This is certain suicide.” She might’ve said that, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her pale cheeks started to take on color as if a painter had just begun filling in a once dull sketch.
“Suicide is doing nothing. I already told you—” Sally began.
Forest locked her piercing gaze on Sally’s. Yes, Sally now understood she was born of phase space, but even though Forest was nothing more than ordinary flesh and blood, she could still use her psyche to pierce through reality just as well as Sally could. “We must be bold if we intend to win,” Forest admitted. “And we cannot back down. We have reached a precipice – and the rest of the entire universe stands there alongside us. We must rise together or fall inevitably later.”
Sally heard the certainty ringing through Forest’s tone, and she watched as she re-gripped the case one last time. She took a breath, and the rocking inhalation pulled her shoulders out. Then they slumped. Make no mistake, this wasn’t a move of defeat. It wasn’t even one of submission. Just a momentary relaxation that shuddered through Forest’s muscles until her shoulders rose again, even more rigidly than before. Strength returned to her body, and it became concentrated behind her eyes. “This will be no easy task. From the little of phase space I learned about from questioning Alice, it is necessarily incomprehensible. Even the strongest minds can become lost there, because they can lose themselves willingly. I don’t ultimately know what you are, Sally – and I imagine you have only just started learning yourself – but you may not be able to withstand phase space for long.”
“She’s not gonna go alone,” Joseph said as he took a strong step forward. He didn’t float – didn’t have to. He was in perfect control of his body again. Sally didn’t know if Caxus was still in his mind – he probably was. But it was now clear that Joseph could control himself.
“I don’t have time to gather together my strongest psychics,” Forest said. “It will only be you two. It is not as if the war with the Scarax Galaxy has stopped. It continues to rage. Above Faxon A, the imperial fleet is currently pitted against half the Coalition fleet. You will be on your own,” she repeated.
Sally slowly slid her gaze toward Joseph. On her own? She’d once been on her own. She knew loneliness – knew it right down in the pit of her shaking stomach.
She understood exactly what it felt like to return to her room with no one to talk to, no one to confide in, no one to touch and hold. She understood loneliness in a way few others did. So she recognized that you couldn’t be alone when you stood with someone else. Especially when that person shoved their shoulders back, angled their head up, and stared at you with a gaze that could hold you through even the greatest horror.
The slightest smile parted Sally’s lips, pushing them delicately up into her cheeks. Perhaps she should’ve made a far stronger move – maybe she should’ve carved her expression out of pure will. But this was all she needed now.
The time for pure will would come later.
Forest sighed again. “I don’t know how to assist you in phase space, but do you require the crystals?” she asked. Her voice was even. It suggested that if the crystals were required, she would relinquish them, despite the advantage they gave her in the continuing war.
Sally had always doubted Forest ultimately trusted her. This proved Sally wrong. She wondered if Forest had ever truly trusted this much before.
“You need to keep them here, Admiral,” Joseph spoke quickly. “You need to protect this gate point. Everything’s gonna come back to this.” Though Joseph obviously didn’t want to, he turned.
Sally could feel this deep reluctance hooking into his muscles, almost as if somebody was treating him like a fish to be reeled in. He twisted around, and finally he stared at Sally’s six-year-old self.
She hadn’t moved. She couldn’t. It wasn’t because she was dead. It was because she was permanently acting as a bridge between phase space and the real world. Sally might have remembered falling down that cliff. She hadn’t slipped. She’d understood what was required of her and sacrificed accordingly.
Sally had once thought she’d gotten over her death. But you can’t get over something you don’t understand. You can try to move on, but it will always be a gaping mystery like a wound right in your heart.
As she stared at herself now, she finally appreciated the sacrifice her younger self had given.
She also connected with her. Or at least she understood that she’d always been connected to her childhood form. Her consciousness was spread between two points.
She let the slightest smile creep across her lips again.
She made eye contact with Joseph. His cheeks were pale. His eyes were bright, too. It was clear he had a world full of questions to ask her. They had both come across fundamental realizations that had completely rewritten who they thought they were. They needed time to reassess everything, time to reimagine who they could be.
But time was of the essence. With every second, it slipped away from the universe’s grip, allowing the King to get closer again.
“You must protect this point, Admiral,” Joseph warned. “The Observers will attempt to come through here again. They need to exploit it to pull the King out.”
“You say that as if you know that for sure, Joseph.” Forest frowned.
Joseph laughed. “I’ve been fighting off the Observers for millennia. I know all about them.”
A question burned in Admiral Forest’s gaze, but she didn’t ask it. She would know there was no time. Whatever had happened to Joseph would require hours of debriefing. So Forest just stood straighter. “We will do what we can. I will call on my forces. But understand that this war is not just occurring in the Milky Way. It rages in the Scarax Galaxy’s heart, too. My assets over there are moving against the empress. I tell you this in case your travels through phase space take you there. Though the Milky Way is your priority, we must help the Scarax Galaxy shrug off the yoke of the gods once and for all.”
Joseph saluted. “We will do what we can.”
Forest sighed and closed her eyes. It was a momentary thing. She wasn’t trying to hide from the reality of this mounting situation. It was a simple point of reprieve.
Then she set her crystals down. She wasn’t abandoning them. She just took a step up to both Sally and Joseph. Her gaze swung between them like a determined pendulum. “I’ve never had to tell anyone else this, but the entire universe now rests in your hands. I hope that your limited Coalition training will be able to help you get through what happens next.”
Sally could’ve laughed at that. Her Coalition training was surely irrelevant compared to the fact she was a creature born of phase space. She understood that realm in her very bones and blood. And it would be her intuition she would call on most. But Sally still got Forest’s point.
Forest wasn’t referring to the nitty-gritty of being a cadet. She wasn’t asking Sally and Joseph to remember how to hold their guns, snap salutes, and follow orders. She wanted them to hold on to the heart of what it meant to serve the Coalition and its morals. And it was a lesson worth remembering.
The Coalition was not like the Scarax Galaxy, were nothing like the Hendari and the Xentais. Though the Coalition wasn’t always perfect, and division lines arose within it frequently, every single time a crack appeared, the Coalition healed it. It moved on with its ethics intact. For it never fought without them in mind. Every time it was asked to sacrifice who it was for assured victory, it altered the equation, and it won with its morals at its side.
The Queen had encountered many civilizations, but none like the Coalition.
Sally snapped a salute. It was the most perfect one she’d ever managed. The stiffness in her wrist, the tension in her fingers, the look in her eyes. It spoke of a deep respect not just for the woman she was saluting, but for the history that stood behind her and the future that opened out beyond.
Forest snapped a salute in return and dropped her hand. She took a step back and picked up the crystals again. “You have no time to waste. I take it you know how to get back into phase space?”
Sally turned around and looked pointedly at her six-year-old self. “Yes.”
“Very well. Your mission begins now. Don’t let us down.” With that, Forest turned away.
No more words, no more planning – nothing. This was now down to Sally and Joseph.
Sally felt strong, or at least in control of who she was. She turned to Joseph. She saw the questions flickering in his gaze, growing like an eternal flame.
It was one thing to find out who you were, but quite another thing to share those revelations with the closest person in your life. And trust her, Joseph was the closest person she had. Quite possibly the closest person she’d ever had.
Memories were starting to resurface from the Queen. She now knew what Joseph was. An Omega guard. A member of the Xentai race who specifically protected phase space.
He had encountered Layra all those years ago on the Hendari homeworld. They’d assisted each other. Then Alice – Sally’s early childhood form – had encountered Tyler. And at the Academy, they’d encountered each other once more. They had three separate, equally important connections spread through space and time.
And with such a link, you would hope they’d never be able to be broken apart again.
But here’s the thing – a lesson Sally would never forget now. If you didn’t want something to be broken, you fought for it. Every second of every day, with every breath and every heartbeat. You rose as it rose, fell as it fell, and walked in step with it until the end.
She reached out to Joseph Lance, and he grabbed her hand. Then together, they turned toward the future.