She knew instinctively what to do. The knowledge had always been within her, simply trapped, not by a wall, but by her conscious mind and its inability to accept what she truly was. She could’ve made it so much easier on herself if only she’d recalled who she was all those years ago. The knowledge had simply slipped from her when she’d spread her mind to the clone Layra had created. It had likely been a consequence of what Layra had been facing at the time.
Sally didn’t know all of the details yet, but Layra had suffered a devastating attack from Caxus, one that had driven holes into her mind. Not random ones – perfectly purposed cracks through which Layra’s psyche had slipped like water.
There was no use crying over spilt milk. It had taken this long for Sally to rediscover who she was. Now she needed to use that knowledge more than anything else. She stopped above the body of her six-year-old self. Though there was no point thinking of it as a body anymore. It was a point in space her childhood form was keeping open. It was the first step on a path to a bridge that would connect matter and mind.
Sally paused. Though she didn’t have all the time in the world, she had to appreciate she would never face a moment with this much significance and poignancy again.
It wasn’t the end of her journey. It wasn’t even really the beginning. But it would be a step she would never forget.
She closed her eyes. She was ever thankful for the fact she still held Joseph’s hand. It felt different. Now he’d recognized he was an Omega guard, there was more power there. His psychic power was no longer held back from her, either. It was quite an experience to be holding onto such a powerful mind. It wasn’t like the Queen. It certainly wasn’t like Anna. He was a psychic in a far different way. For he had spent most of his time in phase space.
A few charges of force crackled over his fingers now as Sally got down on her knee. Joseph became quiet. A pin could have dropped several caverns away, and they would’ve both heard it ringing out like a loud bell.
Joseph clearly wanted to know if Sally understood how to get into phase space. So did she. The knowledge was there, but it wasn’t a concrete thing. They weren’t facts lined up in a convenient way. It was just this amorphous, diffuse feeling. She had to let it control her body, step back, and allow herself to follow her intuition.
It tingled through her fingers, settling there as she locked them tenderly against the back of her six-year-old self’s head.
Maybe when others did this, they would feel death. That’s not what Sally detected. She felt that point – that bridge gate opening up in front of her like an endless whisper only she could hear.
It was such a unique experience. It put every single other ordinary feeling she’d ever had into perspective. Every time she’d woken up at the Academy and dragged herself to class – every single time she’d stared at her Hendari crystals, even. It didn’t matter what the ultimate significance of each memory was. They all simply lacked the incalculable significance of witnessing the bridge between mind and matter. All of her ordinary memories had occurred in the real world. When they both took this next step into phase space, she would be introduced to a new level of significance.
Joseph was as quiet as a stone behind her.
Sally was aware that Forest and her team hadn’t left the cavern, but they were busy.
The war still raged outside. It hadn’t made it to this cavern yet, and judging by the fact the Hendari crystals seemed determined to help Forest in some fashion, it was unlikely that gods would ever port in here directly. That didn’t change the fact they were still engaged in a deadly battle with the Coalition forces in space. If the tide of the war changed, no matter how hard Forest tried, this cavern would be compromised. With enough forces, the crystals would be taken, too. But… no matter what happened, nobody would be moving the six-year-old Sally’s form. It was now rooted into space, as if it was the backbone of the very tree of creation.
The Hendari crystal synthesized in her mind would ensure she remained locked there, no matter what came to drag her away. As for the crystal, Sally didn’t know how she’d got it. It was a memory that was no longer at her fingertips. It felt as if someone had snatched it from her and buried it in a grave. She would have to come across the truth at some point. Now? It was time to walk through the gate of the mind.
It was by aligning with the crystal that she finally managed to open up phase space. She momentarily pushed all of her seething thoughts out of her mind. It felt like gathering up some great wind and sweeping away a flock of frantically flying birds.
When it was done, silence filtered in. Silence pierced here and there with this almost nonexistent hum. One that felt like the very background of reality. She let it vibrate through her body until she felt something shift.
Were there trumpets and explosions? Was there anything to suggest the utter significance of what was occurring before her? No. Not in the external world, anyway. But if you paid attention with your correct senses, you could feel everything opening like someone pulling off the lid to a new galaxy.
Her mind felt like a map that had suddenly expanded. It was as if the real, material world was nothing more than a prison for her thoughts. Or if not a prison, then a funnel. One that kept her on an impossibly narrow path.
Yet as phase space opened, it was like Sally was in a small world that suddenly expanded a thousandfold.
She caught glimpses of other planets. Not of their actual physical locations and real proportions in space, but of their impacts on the phase realm.
Just for a glimpse, she actually felt what it was for a civilization with all of its people to permanently alter the mental dimension.
Then that all-knowing feeling quickly crumpled in on itself.
Sally and Joseph were spirited away to another world. Technically, this area of the cavern was already open to phase space. Just not completely.
But as Sally pushed her way forward with her mind, that bridge opened further.
Sally opened her eyes. It was just in time to see what looked like sped up space flashing before her.
It was dizzying, as dazzling as seeing fireworks flashing right in front of your frightened gaze.
Joseph’s eyes were open wide, and he stammered in spluttering surprise. He didn’t say anything. For what could you say in the face of such majesty? It was as if every single star in creation was suddenly played to them on fast forward. She saw all that blinding light, all that color and life. As wondrous gas clouds and nebulae flashed on by, it was as if Sally was looking at the fluttering pages of the picture book of all creation. But it couldn’t last.
Joseph clutched her hand harder. “I might be making this up… but this is the important part. We need to concentrate.”
“Concentrate?” It took a lot of effort to snatch her mind off the impossible sight before her and pay attention to his words instead. Her eyes just couldn’t open wide enough. She wanted to take in this vision with absolutely every sense she had, but she didn’t have enough. She suddenly wished she possessed every perceptive faculty of every single creature in existence, even the scanners of a robot. She wanted to take in all of the data she possibly could. Yet even then, she knew that if she gathered all the information on this experience, it wouldn’t make it more understandable. Its entire point was that it was mysterious. It was also not meant to last.
They landed back down in the cavern. But nobody was there anymore. There was the subtle, continuous glimmer of Sally’s childhood body, but that was it. The cavern was different, too. It hadn’t been carved up as much. The ceiling was lower. The floor wasn’t as damp. There also wasn’t that softly seeping puddle of Sally’s blood.
Sally gasped. “What’s happening?”
“I think… we just jumped one phase level beyond the cavern.”
“… Phase level?”
“I don’t really know.” Joseph looked like he wanted to scratch the back of his head, but he didn’t have enough hands. One was still clutching Sally, and the other protectively locked the future case against his chest.
“Sally… I think we have to be careful here.”
“Careful of what?”
“Phase space isn’t empty. It’s full of other creatures. For all we know, the King expects us to come here. The Observers aren’t just going to let us do what we want to.”
“Where should we head?”
“Caxus’s original plan was to find as many future boxes as he possibly could. He said they were the Xentai equivalent of Hendari crystals. I really doubt that. Their effects are limited. But they are still powerful. They could give us an edge.”
“They allow powerful psychics to be able to interact with matter, correct? How exactly is that going to count in phase space?”
“I don’t think we should remain in phase space indefinitely. That really wouldn’t be a good idea.” Joseph kept turning his head over his shoulder, left and right, left and right. He looked like a paranoid metronome keeping the beat of his rapidly increasing fear.
“Joseph, what is it?” she demanded as a frown puckered his lips and drew his dimpled chin toward his neck.
It took too long for him to answer. And with every second, the joy Sally had felt at being able to come here rapidly dwindled. She’d always been connected to Joseph in some way, but now she’d recalled their deep association, it honestly felt as if his heart was beating in her chest.
“Joseph?” She knew his fear only quickened.
“I don’t think we should stay here. Come on.” He went to pull her away, then shook his head. “We need to concentrate to jump to another phase level.”
“Why?” Scarcely were the words out of her lips when she heard something. Though was it accurate to say she heard it? Was it even accurate to describe it as something?
It… it was… there. But it also wasn’t there. And that fact was the most unnerving of all. It seemed to slip smoothly and innocuously in and out of existence like a fleeting question mark.
She was watching Joseph. Even if she flashed her gaze away, she would’ve still been holding his hand. The sudden shake that shot through his wrist and into his trembling fingers was all the information she needed to conclude he, on some level, knew what that sound was.
“Concentrate, Sally. I don’t have the ability to navigate properly through phase space on my own yet. You have to do this for now. So do it now,” he commanded. Make no mistake, every word that slipped from his mouth was the kind of command a seasoned lieutenant would give. One who was right on the edge of some pressured situation that felt like chains around his shoulders and neck.
Sally wanted to know more. She thought she heard that sound again. Was it closer or further away? It was further away. But that was no comfort. In phase space, distance didn’t count. If you were sufficiently powerful, you could travel right across the universe in the blink of an eye.
So Sally closed her eyes as her heartbeat quickened.
She might’ve discovered so many powerful revelations about her true self, but she still had a human body. She didn’t know why she’d been born with one. She still had no clue how she had come from phase space to Faxon A. Those were not mysteries she had any right paying attention to now. Do that, and it might rob Joseph and her of their last chances.
She concentrated, trying to connect to the bridge once more. Then she heard that scream. This time it sounded almost as if it was inside her head.
She gasped. Joseph backed off into her, his hand still around hers. He secured the future box against his chest with the same elbow to free up his other hand. Then one of his subspace blades sliced into life. It was quite a sight to see it in phase space. It didn’t look normal. Then again, normal wasn’t a word that belonged anywhere near here. The sword fluctuated in and out, in and out. It was like a beating heart more than a devastatingly sharp and powerful blade. Its force had somehow altered, growing so bright it looked as if it could cut through a mountain only to become as dim as a dying candle a second later.
“Concentrate, Sally,” he ordered her again, the officious lieutenant back.
She used that voice, let it call to her training. It swept away every single question and reminded her that all she had to do was complete one task. She didn’t have to think. She didn’t have to fight – Joseph would do that. She just had to open this damn gate again.
So Sally threw herself into the task of rising through another phase level, even though before now, she hadn’t even known phase space had levels.
It was just as she felt the bridge opening up when she thought something touched her arm. Touch was the wrong word. She couldn’t think of a better one. The force didn’t wrench her arm off. It didn’t sink claws into her flesh. Yet it didn’t just brush her. It was like… it connected to her, bypassing her skin, bypassing her mind, bypassing her every defense, no matter how powerful.
Sally found herself screaming, this deep gut-wrenching affair that rocketed up from her chest and violently pulsed out of her throat. It was just as they reached another phase level. They were still technically on Faxon A, but the walls around her no longer had any solidity. They kept blinking in and out, almost as if all they’d ever been were illusions. Ones that, if she had possessed the correct frame of mind, she would’ve been capable of ignoring.
She wasn’t capable of ignoring the point where she’d been touched.
She staggered down to her knees, her ankles suddenly cutting out as pain and fear ripped through her.
“Sally. It touched you, didn’t it? You will be okay. The coldness will pass in time,” Joseph said knowledgeably. Or at least he promised that from some base of knowledge. He didn’t look as if he understood a single word slipping from his lips. But they had to be coming from his Omega side.
Sally clutched the point where she’d been touched. Sure enough, it was cold. Unendingly so. Unnervingly so. The kind of cold you would associate with the deepest, furthest reaches of space. Space that had never seen any creation whatsoever. Space that was nothing more than a frozen canvas of forgotten existence.
She kept clutching her arm, sinking her fingers in. Her fingers themselves started to become frozen as the coldness spread. “Joseph?”
“It’s gonna pass. Just let it go. Don’t clutch hold of it. The first thing you’re gonna learn in phase space is that your mind – and critically your emotions – are the most important thing you have. They are a weapon against your enemies, but one that can be turned against you as easily as a double-edged sword,” he spat all of that out quickly.
Sally paid attention to every word, closed her eyes, and rode the storm out. It took a few more seconds, then finally she felt her arm normalizing. And critically – she actually felt it. The marching numbness receded like a wave that had decided not to crash through some village after all.
It was hard, but she pushed up to her feet.
All of the wondrous sights she’d seen upon coming into phase space were now nothing but long-forgotten memories. She gulped wildly as she stared at him. “How the hell do we navigate through here? It’s… incomprehensible.” She sliced her gaze to the side, then it slipped through the amorphous walls. She glimpsed things beyond. She almost thought she saw the war raging above.
Joseph cleared his throat gruffly. He was still holding her hand, still keeping the future box pinned against his body with his elbow. With his other hand, he occasionally called on his subspace blade only to let it disappear again. It was clear he was just as out of his depth as Sally.
But unlike Sally, he had his memories to call on. Or at least partial ones. She just had a gaping hole in her head she’d managed to plaster over with the knowledge she came from phase space. She still had no clue what had happened to the Queen for hundreds of years, let alone what her ultimate significance was.
“We need to concentrate on getting the future boxes,” he concluded again. “I might just be making this up, but I’m pretty sure they can have an effect on phase space. That said, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
“So is it such a good idea to pin our hopes on finding more? What if they turn out to be all but useless?”
“We need to move, Sally. One of the most dangerous things you can do is stay exactly where you are in phase space. It invites your mind to turn against itself.” With that, he started to pull her away. “Even if you manage to hold out – the monsters will just find you.”
She planted her feet down. “But the bridge is here. This is where my young self is. How are we going to navigate phase space without her?”
“There will be other gates. We just have to find them. Come on.”
She wanted to protest. There was no point. She could see from the glimmering, strong look building in Joseph’s eyes that not only did he know what he was doing, but the intuition pulling him forward was unstoppable.
So she just followed in his wake.
He kept a hand on hers. Make no mistake, he wasn’t leading her around like she was some foolish child who didn’t have the capacity to walk on her own two feet, let alone pick a direction and follow it.
It felt like an anchor. Like at least if they held each other, the realm of the mind wouldn’t break them apart so easily. Speaking of breaking apart. They walked toward the closest fluctuating wall. Then right in front of Sally, it just cracked and disappeared. No warning. There wasn’t even any sound. She saw and felt the violent vibrations chase through everything until the wall disappeared with no evidence it had existed in the first place.
She gasped and jerked back.
Joseph just narrowed his eyes. “I think… that just happened in the real world.”
“What are you talking about? The Scarax gods have already made it to the cavern? I thought the Coalition would have more time.”
“Distance doesn’t mean much in this realm, Sally. I don’t know if that’s the wall that leads to the cavern or some other wall through the mountain. But I do know that we will just waste precious mental energy if we try to figure it out. Forest has got this. Her team knows what’s at stake. And we have our mission,” he said as his voice dropped like a stone thrown from the pockmarked ceiling above.
Sally had no choice but to follow.
She wanted to question where they were going, but it was clear that Joseph didn’t know. They just had to move. She had to go back to the fact it was an intrinsically strange experience. This was nothing like dreams. At least dreams had a sense of continuity, even if it was one that didn’t make sense. Things flowed from one scene to another. In this realm, walls would appear only to disappear. It was almost as if the mind was deliberately playing tricks on itself, throwing up unstable phenomena to make her question everything.
“Do you even know where another one of those future boxes is?” she stammered.
“No, but… I think I can find them.”
“How? Do you have access to all of the memories of your Omega guard?”
There was a long, protracted silence. It was almost as if Joseph was too ashamed to answer that. He flicked his gaze toward her once. That was all it took. She could see a different energy in his eyes now. It had always been there in some respect, but now Joseph Lance no longer kept it buried.
It was the force that allowed him to interact with psychic sprites. And it was the same force that hardened his grip and strengthened his stare even further as he answered, “it will come back to me. I simply have to be open to the experience. No more running and hiding.”
“Except from whatever creature is out there,” she said as she unconsciously touched her arm and shivered.
His gaze became unfocused again. “Creatures… they get pulled into this realm. Some of them even come here to hide. But this place turns minds against themselves. The longer you’re here… the more monstrous you become.”
“What kind of power do these creatures have? How many of them are there?”
“I can’t answer that. But all I can say is that we can’t afford to come in contact with them. We need to keep all of our energy in reserve to fight the King.”
That one little word focused Sally. She’d already pointed out that the Queen wasn’t gone from her mind. She was still there, but for the first time in Sally’s existence, she was in perspective.
She wasn’t a source of outside strength, wasn’t an anchor for the once wayward, broken Sally to clutch hold of to weather the storm of her own existence. The Queen was… a moment of kindness.
It was pretty strange to rewrite the myths that existed at the heart of Sally’s life. Pretty strange to realize she’d been the one to do the saving, not to be saved.
Yet it wasn’t as redefining as she thought it would be. Because Sally had been honest when she’d told Joseph she didn’t know where Sally ended and the Queen began. Over the years, they had become one.
It was almost as if the Queen was now a separate part of Sally’s history, one which had run externally to her main mind for so long until it had finally realigned with her. It was still her history, though, still something she could capture with the word I.
Joseph continued to pull her along until suddenly, without even the faintest glimmer of warning, they were on the outside of the mountain. She knew that, because she was beset by the sky. And trust her, beset was the correct word. It was just… so big. It was like every single sky on every single planet was condensed down into one wild experience. She tilted her head back, her neck strained, tension wrapping around her spine and pushing into her stomach to accommodate the unnatural move.
She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t say a word.
Joseph glanced at the sky once but wasn’t torn apart by the sight like she was.
“You have got to keep everything in phase space in perspective. Certain images will try to undermine you. They’ll remind you of the fundamental expansive nature of the universe and your ultimately insignificant comparison to it. So just keep your mind on your goal. Always on your goal,” he whispered again.
She closed her eyes, wrenching her gaze off that impossible, stilling sight, and she reminded herself of the King once more.
When he’d been in her mind, she’d felt his need.
She knew she sometimes referred to him as a collective and sometimes as a single entity. It was hard to say what he was now.
The Hendari minds had been within him for so long. Yes, they’d been hiding, mostly shut down, but that wasn’t the point. Over time, they’d condensed into this collective personality. Occasionally she could feel each individual’s force. But with time, they would squeeze in even closer.
Perhaps it was analogous to what was happening with Sally right now. As the Queen had inhabited her consciousness, they’d grown together like two intertwined trees that could no longer be parted.
Joseph kept pulling Sally along.
She thought she could see the settlement beyond. And she saw the war, all right, but only in these disparate flashes. It was usually when her eyes were halfway through a blink. She would see Coalition soldiers screaming, the gods, too, with their impossibly glowing skin and greedy gazes.
Whenever she felt like she would pay too much attention to it, Joseph just tugged her on again.
What were they going to do? Walk to the next future box? She really doubted there was one on this world. If there had been, Caxus would have taken it before he left.
But Joseph seemed to know what he was doing.
“There is… one around here. I know there is. It’s what the Omega guard took when he arrived on Faxon A in the first place.”
“I’m just struggling to try to sift through the Omega guard’s final memories. After he fought the King in Hendari space, he came here.”
“I can’t tell you that. He just… maybe he knew this was where he’d ultimately meet up with the King again? Or maybe….” His gaze became unfocused, and it was clear he couldn’t finish that sentence.
But maybe Sally could finish it for him. Perhaps the Omega guard had momentarily stepped out of time to realize where he’d be needed in the future. Or perhaps he’d felt Sally.
She had no idea how old she was. It didn’t seem to be a term that made much sense in phase space. Being a certain age required time flowing in the one direction continuously. That didn’t occur here.
What Sally was trying to say was that maybe all those years ago the Omega guard had felt Sally’s mind on Faxon A and realized it was the best place to go.
Or maybe he’d encountered her force in phase space and been drawn there.
But that only led to another question, didn’t it? What was the importance of Faxon A, and why had Sally’s phase form been attracted there in the first place?
“You’ve got to be careful,” Joseph suddenly whispered quickly. He stopped on the edge of a rock path. Though it was rich to say he was on the edge of it. His feet didn’t really interact with it. It kept phasing in and out of existence. There was a collection of moss-covered rocks beneath his feet and a few blades of grass. They would become sharp only to become dim. It was as if somebody was actively manipulating video footage. They could make it fade in and out of other reels with nothing more than the touch of a button.
“What do you mean, Joseph?”
“You went all silent, Sally. I’m assuming you were thinking. Remember, this is the realm of thought. You’ve gotta be careful what leaks out of your head.”
Careful. Careful. Careful every single action had to be watched and checked.
Sally still remembered staring frankly at Forest and telling her this would be easy. Or if not easy, at least possible.
But Forest had clearly known something Sally hadn’t been able to comprehend yet. Phase space was a deeply unsettling experience, even to a creature that’d been born here.
“There,” Joseph finally said. Victory leaped through his tone. He tugged her forward faster.
She thought she’d lose her footing until she realized there was no point in having footing if the ground beneath you swayed in and out of existence just like a wind chime being taken by two different directions of a confused gale.
She concentrated on what Joseph was clearly heading toward. It was… just some kind of rip in space. What made it important was the fact it remained while everything else blinked into and out of existence around it.
“What is that?” she whispered, her words quick as they darted out of her lips.
“It’s a gate,” he said in a gravelly, deep tone that barely made it out of his constricted throat. “One we will be able to use to head anywhere in phase space. Theoretically, when we both figure this out, we won’t require gates.”
“And where are we going to take that gate to now?”
Joseph experimentally tried to take a step into the air. It didn’t quite work. Then the spacer clearly reminded himself that steps were irrelevant to someone like him. He started to float, and he took Sally with him.
“When we head through the gate, I’m gonna concentrate on future boxes. I’ve got no clue where that will lead us, though. It could take us anywhere in the entire universe,” he admitted, dropping that fact like someone casually tossing some bomb out of a speeding cruiser.
Sally gulped, her chest shaking. “Anywhere in the universe?”
“Worse, I think we won’t be able to obtain future boxes in phase space. Not in real direct phase space, anyway. It’s gonna be like that asteroid I fought on. We’ll be in bridge space, or some version of it. It means we will have to partially drop into the real world.”
“Anywhere in the universe? Joseph—”
He turned to her. It was just as they floated up to that crack.
As his gaze locked on her, her questions just ebbed away. They still took up space in her mind, still clamored for attention, but she momentarily reduced their significance like someone clasping a dimmer switch and reducing an overhead light until it was nothing more than a glimmer.
“No one said this was going to be easy, Sally Winters. The fight for everything never is.”