With that, he pulled her toward the crack.
He… knew what he was doing, but at the same time he had no damn clue.
He was operating on some kind of deep, unsettling knowledge. He said unsettling, because it wasn’t knowable like the facts he’d learned at the Academy, like all of the other aspects of knowledge that made him up.
It was instead this collection of strange impressions that would grow in his mind, kind of like a flare only to ebb once he acted on them. And let him tell you, it wasn’t a good way to conduct oneself in such a critical situation. If Forest were here, she would tell him he could only act on the best facts they had. He shouldn’t have to remind you how much was riding on this. Shouldn’t have to remind himself, either, because whenever he tuned in to his shoulders, it was to the feel of the whole damn universe resting on top of them.
Joseph didn’t know that much about phase space, yet he understood that every single decision they made was critical. Misstep, and find yourself falling too much into your own thoughts, and everything would just slip away. The longer you spent unfocused in phase space would give it more time to turn you into a monster. Speaking of monsters. Just as he pulled her toward that crack, Joseph felt something. Technically, it was far away, out off in the depths of phase space. But as he’d already pointed out so many times, distance was irrelevant. To a powerful mind in this realm, it was a momentary limitation that could be overcome with nothing more than a thought.
The creature out there didn’t scream. Not like some fearsome animal would in the real world. Instead, it let out a blast of psychic force that rippled out in every level of phase space.
It would’ve been damn crippling had Joseph not had a gate right in front of him and the immediate means to escape.
“Come on,” he said, his heartbeat reverberating through his chest and up into his throat.
Sally didn’t question him. He pulled her toward that crack in space. He had to be thankful to Caxus. Yep. He’d just thought that. He had to be thankful to the brutal mind that had controlled his body and tried to get him to compromise the entire Coalition. But Caxus had taught Joseph something incredibly important. When Joseph had gone through that echo gate in his memory, he’d learned the first lesson of how to travel in phase space. You had to concentrate on your destination. But this wasn’t the same as usual concentration. You didn’t fix your mind on it so much as your emotional system. You let your need flare through you, but you controlled it.
They finally reached that crack. Joseph felt this surge of energy blasting around him. If he hadn’t been a spacer, maybe it would’ve made him jerk back and run. The crack felt like a pulsing spatial anomaly with the power to tear apart the heart of a massive planet, let alone a little spacer like him.
As it was, he let the energy pulsing through him reach a crescendo. It interacted with the crack until a burst of force rocketed out. It was one that captured both him and Sally. The next thing he knew, they were being swallowed by the crack.
Sally might’ve screamed, but it was hard to say. Sound didn’t play nice in phase space at the best of times. Especially not inside a gate. Gates were… unknowable. If you wanted him to explain their exact physical properties, there was no damn way he could do that. He doubted the strongest, smartest mind would even have the slightest inkling of how to comprehend the physical properties of what was essentially a puncture wound in the nature of possibility.
Gates didn’t connect you to other points. They connected you to the ability to pierce through phase space like a hot knife through already melting fat.
“Just hold on,” he uselessly screamed at Sally. As he’d already said, sound couldn’t echo out here. But at least it could focus his emotions again. He pushed them forward and used them to carve out a path. It was as if he was down on his knees, forcing paving stones into the ground in a desperate attempt to create a way forward.
Just when Joseph thought he would lose it, he concentrated on the future box in his hand, letting the certainty of it spread through him.
He concentrated on the possibility of it, on the hope it could give him. Then finally there was a flash.
They arrived down in phase space.
Joseph had no clue where they were. It appeared as if they were in some kind of dark cavern. There was stone beneath him and stone above. He could also detect an inkling of some pervasive dank smell.
Was there water dripping off the wall behind him? Or was this nothing more than a dream?
His mind was starting to slip….
“Joseph?” Sally grabbed the side of her face. She staggered into him.
Joseph kept struggling to figure out where he was. And every moment he struggled it felt as if he was pulled back… pulled… back.
The gate was technically still open behind him. If he tumbled backward into it now, then he would do so with no control. The gate would spit him out wherever it saw fit. Which would be a very dangerous thing. For as his fear controlled him, it would take him to the most fearsome place the gate knew. Maybe it would be in phase space, or maybe it would be in the real world. He could end up in a Barbarian slave market or arrive under a pile of phase monsters.
“I…” Joseph said, a wave of further confusion overtaking him. He jolted backward toward the still crackling gate behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he was aware of its dark embrace. It pushed toward him, almost as if it could sense his weakness, and just like a wild animal, knew exactly when to plunge in for the kill.
But there’d be no killing today.
“Move,” Sally said in a commanding tone that rang through the mysterious cavern around them. She switched her grip until her hand was now crumpled around his, and she yanked him forward. It was just as he thought a dark shape reached out of the gate toward him.
But Joseph’s and Sally’s forms had to sustain the gate in the first place. As they finally erupted from it like a cannonball, the gate crackled then just split apart. There was the sound of shattering glass then nothing.
Joseph crumpled forward, breathing hard. His short fringe flopped in front of his face. Then he slowly turned. He faced the point where the gate had been. Had he been making that up? Something had groped toward him, right? Or had that just been his fear coming to life?
Sally got down on one knee.
It was clear she’d had to use a lot of energy to snap him out of the gate.
She didn’t last down there long, though. She caught her breath then gracefully rose to her feet. You’d think there’d be no grace now. You’d think there would just be fractured surprise at the mindbending experiences they were being thrown through.
But make no mistake, there was still strength burning brightly behind her eyes. “Did you hear that thing? Did you feel it? It was almost… like the gate was trying to turn against us.”
“Yeah, I heard it.” He longed to pull his collar out. That wouldn’t resolve the tension winding around his body. Only action would.
Sally might’ve been the one who was undermined earlier, but obviously her senses were now coming into alignment. She slowly tilted her head back. With a deep frown pressing over her lips, she stared around them. “I have no clue where we are. But you focussed on those future boxes, didn’t you? So we have to be somewhere near one.”
“Yeah, I did. But like I said, Sally—”
“We could be anywhere in the universe.” She abruptly dropped his hand, walked over to a wall, and checked it.
He actually staggered forward as if he’d been tethered to her and she’d callously cut their connection. His hand even gripped uselessly in the air.
He went to call her name but realized there was no immediate threat yet. They weren’t in phase space – just partial phase space.
Sorry, he had to go back and change that. They weren’t under immediate threat yet? They had no idea where they were. They could be anywhere in the universe. He just got the impression – either based on the smell or the exact substance of the walls around him – that they weren’t in the Milky Way anymore.
Sally frowned. She got down on her knee and trailed her fingers through a murky pool of water.
“You probably shouldn’t do that, Sally. I don’t think we are anywhere near home anymore. We don’t know where we are and have no clue what that liquid could be.”
“Something about this place is familiar,” she whispered.
An electric jolt rocketed up his back. He was lucky he was in control of his body, lest he accidentally created a subspace sword. “What do you mean? This place is completely alien to me.”
“There is something about it,” she muttered as she twisted her lips around, making each word hiss out almost incomprehensibly. “I think one of my hosts is from around here. It’s something about the rock,” she added.
Joseph blinked quickly. Yeah. Of course. She still had the Queen in her mind, and the Queen had access to an untold number of minds. Joseph might feel like they were alone and at the complete whims of uncertainty, but there was a virtual army already within the Queen.
He took another hard swallow, one that felt less like a gaping fish gasping for air and more like a man who just needed to breathe, and he took a step up to her. “Where do you think we are?”
It took Sally a while. She slowly pushed up from her crouched position, her knees protesting slightly. Then she turned to him. He thought he knew what she would say, just before her lips opened and just before she whispered, “the Scarax Galaxy.”
Good god. They were here.