It didn’t take any time at all to focus his mind. It had been born ready.
As soon as he closed his eyes and got rid of every other distraction, he heard that moaning sound. He no longer rejected it. He walked toward it, realizing no matter how scary it was, it was a direction he’d always needed to take.
He could feel his mind detaching from his real body. There was a scrap of awareness still there. If Scarax gods suddenly ported in around Joseph, he would wake and fight. But it was time to take advantage of the fact he was alone.
Time to finally find out what he was.
Ordinary spacers couldn’t interact with psychic sprites like he could. They certainly wouldn’t be able to fight off a mind like Caxus.
Nor would an ordinary human.
So it was time to stop thinking Joseph was ordinary in any way.
He faced that moaning, didn’t just let it fill his ears – but let it pierce through every sense until he was back there on that stone path. It was hard under his feet, giving him the impression it would never yield. He could try to bash through it with a sonic jackhammer – it would remain. He could smash it with meteorites, but it wouldn’t even crack.
Joseph unstuck his feet and started to walk forward.
Every step took him further down that stone corridor. While the walls were solid, from the wrong angle – or the right one – they shimmered. And looking back, he swore he could see through them to past memories.
Faxon A, Master Deus, the Coalition – everything. It was like a slideshow of his existence.
He could have been distracted by them, but just like a dream, he knew that if he followed them, it would lead him where they wanted to go, not where he needed to.
He determinedly unstuck his feet every time he paused and continued to stride ahead.
The stone pathway seemingly led onto eternity.
It didn’t give him the impression it would ever stop until suddenly, it did. It didn’t lead to a set of stairs, didn’t open out into a large room.
There was a black pit before him. His boots pushed over the edge, a few stones loosening and tumbling down the side. He heard them bouncing off the precipitous wall until he couldn’t pick up the sound of their descent anymore.
The hair along the back of his neck stood on end, and his skin tightened around his chest, his muscles preparing for an attack. It didn’t come. Nothing changed. The corridor remained behind him, and the hole remained before him.
Joseph knew he had to walk this path to find out who he was. But the time to walk had ended. The time to take a leap of faith was here.
Joseph closed his eyes. He didn’t grasp toward every single lesson he’d ever learned – every single moment he’d ever risen above his troubles. He just took one step then another.
He could’ve floated. He didn’t. He fell.
What felt like real wind whistled past him, practically screaming in his ears as it grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him like a leaf.
He ignored it. He finally forced his eyes open. It was to the sight of complete darkness. It was an acutely disarming experience to be falling through it. He didn’t even see flashes of the wall. It was just a void – one it felt as if he would endlessly descend through. It reminded him of what he’d experienced back on the asteroid as the psychic sprites had amassed upon him. It was as if space was continually changing itself so he would descend through it for eternity.
It wasn’t the fact of reaching the bottom and smashing against some unyielding floor that was horrifying. It was the descent through uncertainty like an untethered ship.
His eyes threatened to close again, but once more he forced them open. He rounded a hand into a fist. He didn’t call on his subspace blade, not even a flicker of energy. Instead, he kept at the forefront of his mind the reason he was doing this.
Joseph could no longer turn away from who he was.
As he settled his focus on that fact, he finally fell against something. But he didn’t land on some floor. Immediately, with no warning and no sense of continuity, the scene around him changed. He went from descending to standing in a wide stone corridor. It had a similar feel to the one he’d traveled through above, but this one seemed to be real.
There were actual cracks in the walls, little fissures under his feet, too. It gave the impression this structure was old – ancient like the first fleeting moments of the universe’s creation.
He thought… he could hear voices.
He pushed toward them. He reached a set of stairs and descended.
At the end was a wide-open room. Within? Some black mass.
His eyes locked on it, parting through space, fighting through the haze of his memories as they did. He knew exactly what that was.
It was the King.
This was the King’s chamber. Around him floated crystals. They were artifacts – the very same ones the Observers used to port their minds through the universe. This right here was the room that had dictated the broken path of the Scarax Galaxy. And it was the very same room that, if the King would be allowed to wake, would enable him to control every galaxy out there.
Joseph shouldn’t be seeing it. Because to be witnessing it with this much clarity meant he’d seen it in the past.
He walked through the room. His footfall echoed out. But Observers didn’t suddenly rush out from the cracks in the floor to stop him.
This was a memory, not reality.
Joseph couldn’t describe the nervous tension clawing through him.
He wasn’t sure if it was from the memory or from the reality of what he now faced, but it was almost complete. He couldn’t breathe – couldn’t even remember the last time he’d tried. But as the tension continued to wrap around him, it interacted with his subspace field.… His subspace field?
He looked down at his body.
This memory had to be at least slightly different from a standard recollection because he could interact with his form. He pulled up his hands. He stared at his fingers. He saw… strange light breaking over them.
It was wrong to call it light. It was a form of energy he’d never encountered before. One… one that had always been inside him.
Joseph Lance turned his hands around. He pulled up his sleeves. He saw those same shimmering lines tracing all the way around his flesh.
They had always been inside him. And they were the very means that allowed him to interact with psychic sprites.
He was no mere spacer.
He suddenly jerked his head up. He heard footfall. He turned. It was to the sight of Observers. They were wearing long black robes. They trailed across the dusty stone floor, and the hoods covered their faces completely. There was no flesh visible save for their long bony blue hands. They were dappled and caught the light strangely, making them look like beams being shone through charging waves.
They couldn’t see Joseph. But if this was a memory, it meant he’d been here when they’d arrived, correct?
“Soon now. The Xentais will be overcome. There is nothing they can do. Soon,” the Observers chanted as one.
Joseph turned on the spot.
The Observers took up position behind their crystals. They spread their hands out wide but didn’t touch the artifacts. They tilted their heads down until their hoods covered even more of their forms. They now looked like nothing more than disembodied hands pushing out of black voids.
They began to chant. But while their sonorous hum filled the air, it wasn’t the only force they imparted on reality. He could feel their psyches connecting up, this force collecting between them, less like a gathering storm and more like a cocked gun.
The air began to shiver. Joseph turned again. His hands were still up. He saw those lines of charging light rushing across his body change. They shivered and grew in brightness, reacting to whatever the Observers were doing. His body wasn’t the only thing reacting. That black point of space in the middle of the room started to convulse. It looked like a once-dead heart roaring back into life.
More energy filled the air. It now crackled, the destructive hum unmistakable. It didn’t sound natural – just the complete opposite. Let this sound echo out in some forest, and it would rip down every single tree.
The humming only increased as the Observers’ chants sliced at the air like swords.
The King pulsed in and out again. Then there was an almighty shiver. Something flooded through the room. It was a wave like no other.
As it charged into Joseph, he knew he became visible to the Observers. More than that, he finally understood why he’d been invisible in the first place.
Phase space. He’d been hiding there.
The Observers spluttered and jolted back but didn’t leave their artifacts.
“An Omega guard,” one of them snarled.
Two words. Just a simple collection of syllables. But that couldn’t account for the effect they had on Joseph. Everything stopped. The scene actually paused as if it was giving him time to understand this monumental moment.
An Omega guard.
Joseph closed his eyes. He thought he saw eternity or something like it stretching out in front of him. It had to be close to endless time, for he was suddenly filled up with so many memories, they couldn’t possibly have all been his. But no one could have been alive for that long, nor could a simple mind have ever held on to that many recollections without being swallowed by them.
He thought… he thought he felt himself moving through phase space. It wasn’t the same as traveling in the real world. In phase space, you could think of a place, and you could go there effortlessly.
It was the realm of the imagination come alive.
Not just your imagination, however – the imagination of many other creatures too.
He… he’d guarded it once, hadn’t he? Guarded it against people exactly like the Observers.
But he’d failed.
He was thrust back into his vision. The Observers collected their hands around their artifacts. As soon as their blue dappled skin spread before their glowing crystals, it started to burn, and the smell filled the air. The sound of their bubbling flesh did too.
They all screamed at once, and their psychic force combined. Joseph stood in the middle of the artifacts, and as lines of light blasted between each crystal to the next, he felt a trap snapping into place.
His memory finally split. This sometimes happened in regression. Your current psyche became so disconnected from what had happened in your memory that you parted until you stood there and watched yourself acting out your past as if you were watching a movie.
The same thing happened now. Joseph felt the moment he split. He remained right there, staring at his hands in utter confusion as his past self ripped right out of his body.
Joseph jerked his head up in time to see his past self’s form. He… suffice to say, he didn’t look like his current body.
He didn’t really look like much at all. He had a form, but it was indistinct, like he was a smear, like he was a vague cloud. It reminded him of what he’d seen when those Xentais had appeared in Caxus’s regrets.
And now, even though Caxus should’ve been completely submerged in his mind, for a single moment, he rose.
“You must have been Xentai to begin with. All Omega guards were.”
“What? No.” Joseph could say that, but he couldn’t stop the scene playing out in front of him and revealing that despite his protestations, he was clearly wrong.
He watched that cloud-like apparition start to fight the Observers. They remained behind their crystals, their psychic force connecting them. They chanted, their violent tones filling the room. And in the middle, the King gate fluctuated. It looked as if it had turned itself off, only for a sudden violent blast of force to shoot out. It was a wave of black energy. It struck Joseph’s other form.
For a fraction of a moment, he became visible. He had a face, arms, legs even – but they didn’t seem to matter.
“Forms are not required in true phase space – especially not to an Omega guard,” Caxus rose once more and muttered that. Make no mistake – he wasn’t taking over Joseph’s mind. This was nothing more than a far distant whisper.
It focused Joseph again, focused him as horror catapulted through his sternum and shook into his heart.
The Observers continued to chant. Joseph’s other self kept fighting, but there didn’t seem to be anything he could do.
“A fool’s errand,” Caxus whispered coldly. “To think, we Xentais were the very race to teach the Hendari how to use their minds.”
“We… taught them?”
“Yes. It is the right of every ascendant civilization to teach the one below it how to rise. We didn’t think they would use that knowledge to try to crush us.”
“They couldn’t abide by a universe where they couldn’t control all of its power. They misunderstood the nature of the mind. They didn’t want to truly ascend – they just wanted to control everything. But to actually ascend is to allow creation to flow through you. It is to become a point of no resistance – not one of total manipulation.”
Joseph could’ve laughed and pointed out that was pretty rich coming from him. But he was still utterly consumed by what he saw. This memory… it finally started to feel like that – an actual recollection. Something personal enough that he must have lived through it. He still didn’t remember exactly who he’d been. Fragments of recollections rose only to sink again. But the point was they were there.
“Your mind was well hidden to me, spacer. I didn’t know that you had the imprint of an Omega guard within you. Likely the reason you’re able to fight me.”
“How… how did I get this imprint? What am I exactly?”
“Likely your mind touched it.”
“When you were a child, likely you came across something. Your mind touched that of an Omega guard, and he would have transferred his imprint over to you, possibly on the edge of death.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Watch. Maybe the truth will be revealed,” Caxus said.
Joseph didn’t want to believe what Caxus was saying, and he certainly didn’t want to waste time, but he had to stop, had to watch. For the truth came to him, regardless of whether he wanted to believe it or not.
But the truth, as always, is brutal.
He heard the Omega guard’s scream. It was a pitching cry that sounded out on every frequency. It interacted with matter, shaking the dust-covered floor below. It also blasted out on every mental frequency. If an ordinary mind had been present, it would have repeated that scream forever, acting like an echo chamber that would never free itself of that pure moment of desperation.
The King pulsed in the middle of the room once more. As that black point writhed, Joseph almost thought he could see disembodied hands groping through it. They just wanted to clutch hold of something – anything – and when they did, they would crush it.
“Am I… the only Omega guard?” Joseph whispered.
“No. There were others. They were all lost.”
“The Hendari knew to truly ascend, they needed to destroy every last Xentai. And they did.”
“… Except for you,” Joseph whispered.
“Except for me. And you, it seems.”
“How did you survive?”
“By plunging myself deep into phase space.”
“But surely the Observers would have looked for you?” Joseph picked up on something Caxus said, or rather, what he didn’t say. Blame it on the fact Joseph had now spent so long with him in his mind, but he knew when Caxus was hiding something.
Sure enough, he snarled. “Circumstances turned in my favor.”
“You mean the Queen, don’t you? You mean the moment the King project was shut down? They were hunting you, weren’t they? But then their priorities changed when the King was trapped.”
There was silence. Joseph knew that confirmed his every suspicion.
But all of this was just a distraction. Everything that tore his mind off his past self was. The Omega guard was losing the fight.
Joseph saw in him something he’d always known was in himself. This desire, when he was kicked down, to rise up. Not necessarily to keep fighting, but to prove to everybody he could never be pushed down forever.
“You’re wasting time, you know that, don’t you? As this memory plays out before you, the Scarax Galaxy attempts to destroy the Coalition,” Caxus pointed out.
“Why would you care if I’m wasting time? You want the Coalition in tatters.”
“My only goal is to destroy the Hendari.”
“And to ascend until you control all.”
“That is not my goal.”
“What is it, then?”
“To free my people.”
“They are dead.” Joseph didn’t need to pause. He brought up the memory of the way Caxus had cruelly cut through the image of his wife. No resistance, no pausing, no emotion. Just action. If somebody meant something to you, you didn’t treat them like that. You certainly didn’t act with such complete efficiency.
Unless you were the Regent, apparently.
“My people are still stuck in phase space. They are hunted by other minds, including the remnants of the Hendari. I will break them free.”
“And control the rest of the universe on your way out?”
“Ascendant space should never be threatened again. My people were fools for taking the Hendari under our wing. A universe where such a critical mistake can be made on behalf of all is not a fair one.”
Joseph chuckled. “So you are gonna make it fair, are you? You’re going to rewrite the rules to ensure that nobody can ever fall, but in doing so, rewrite the rules to ensure you’re on top? You sound like Admiral Ninev.”
“I don’t know who he is, but if he had a similar wish, then I salute him. You are an innocent, Joseph Lance. You know how to fight, but you’ve never bothered to think ahead.”
“What does that mean?”
“There will come a time when you realize that fighting only ever hurts people. What have you ultimately done? When have you ever truly saved somebody – not just their lives, but their future? When have you ever fundamentally altered their circumstances to ensure that no war will be able to crush them, that a sudden, unfair, violent death will not rob them of their dreams?”
“I don’t know how many people I’ve saved. I don’t keep count. But I do know that people who think like you only end up condemning everyone. This has nothing to do with you saving people. This has to do with you gathering more power for yourself. You’re scared of your own demise – not everybody else’s.”
“The rules have to change. This universe is a cruel one. A child like you can be born with so much hope and potential, yet circumstances can bring you down a path of total regret. Do you want to know why you became a spacer? Because you had an encounter with that Omega guard. If you had not, you would be someone different now, Joseph. You wouldn’t be facing this moment. You wouldn’t have to be scrounging through your soul for every scrap of truth you’ve always hidden from yourself.”
“That wouldn’t have changed the oncoming war though, would it?”
“True, but saving everybody wouldn’t be your responsibility.”
Joseph twitched. He’d gone over this equation so many times. It was useless to do it again, but dammit if Caxus didn’t have a point.
There was… something so tempting about kicking back and making everything someone else’s responsibility. It resolved the debilitating fear of knowing that no matter how hard you tried, people would die anyway. It took away the pressure of knowing that everybody’s lives were on your shoulders. Slip once, and you’d be letting someone else’s blood.
You’d think that by now Joseph would’ve found a different way to reimagine his pressure, a different way to think about power, possibility, and the responsibility of using what you had to keep others safe. But had he? Every time he faced this equation, he came up with convenient answers that only pushed the problem further away.
“I can feel the indecision raging through your mind,” Caxus hissed.
“But I know how to keep you back now,” Joseph roared.
“That’s not the point, is it? I might not be able to rise again, but this question is far more powerful than I will ever be. It haunts your every moment, boy. It is a thorn you continually stab into your own heart. You don’t need another psyche in your head to undermine you – you’ve already got one. It’s yours.”
Joseph’s lips twitched into a sneer. He could lock it hard against his teeth, and he could shiver with uncontrolled rage, but you know what he couldn’t do? Change the fact every single thing Caxus had just said was true.
Beyond, in the memory, the Omega guard continued to fight. The battle was frenetic, almost impossible to follow. If Joseph hadn’t been able to detect psychic fields, he wouldn’t even know what he was looking at.
The Observers remained behind their artifacts. It was clear they couldn’t dare leave them alone. One of them accidentally twitched slightly to the side, and the Omega guard roared into life, attacking with a blast of undifferentiated force. It clipped the side of the artifact, and it spun. But before it could crack and move too far away, all of the other Observers thrust their hands forward, and a psychic blast shot into the Omega guard, ripping him back.
It was clear they couldn’t let a single one of those artifacts fall. They had to fight together, as one, to even have a glimmer of a chance against the Omega guard. But if you thought that lifted Joseph up and made him realize he had that kind of power inside him still, then you wouldn’t have paid attention to the previous conversation. It only highlighted everything Caxus had just said.
“You know, there’s a way out of all of this,” Caxus whispered.
“What are you talking about? Do you want me to voluntarily let you back into my head? It’s not gonna happen.”
“No. But there’s another way.” Every single word was leading.
Joseph tried to harden himself against them, but he only opened his eyes wider and watched the Omega guard fight fruitlessly. There was no way he was going to win. It wasn’t simply the fact Joseph knew historically he lost – it was that… you could see it. Dammit, if the Omega guard just paused and opened his eyes, he would realize how useless this was. And there was no point in fighting just for fighting’s sake.
“Don’t you want to know how to get out of here?” Caxus whispered.
“How?” Joseph snarled in a moment of utter weakness.
He still couldn’t connect to the Omega guard’s memories. But maybe he could connect to the guy’s emotion. It was far more debilitating. The information it sent rocketing through his mind was far sharper, too. It was like cramming scalpels up into his mouth and shredding his palate to get to his brain.
There was no hiding from this, no softening the blow, either. All he could do was withstand the knowledge of impending defeat.
“Much can be done in phase space, boy. You just have to understand it.”
“If you think I’m gonna follow you – if you think I’m gonna let you affect me, you are dead wrong.”
“The truth is independent of your hatred for me.”
Joseph tried to ignore him. But do that, and the only other thing to distract himself with was the Omega guard. He started to lose. Started to be ripped up. Joseph didn’t really understand what the cloud around him was – if it was part of his body or if it was some kind of defensive mechanism. But the point was, he knew the pain that tore through the Omega guard as he was shredded by the Observers’ mental energy.
The Observers actually laughed in glee. It was so disconnected from reality. All of this was disconnected from reality. It wasn’t just the fact the mental realm was turning out to be real. It was everybody’s motivations. Their crazy grand desires. Their impossibly large perspectives. Why couldn’t anyone be normal? Why couldn’t they have standard hopes and dreams? Why did everything have to be so over-the-top?
Yes, the universe existed, but why couldn’t they be happy living out a simple life? Why did they have to keep clutching at everything?
Maybe Joseph didn’t guard his thoughts, because he heard Caxus suddenly laugh. “Because that is what occurs in the realm of the mind. One’s thoughts necessarily become literally larger than life. Don’t you wish to know how to navigate it? It will be the only way to get to Faxon A on time.”
Joseph froze. He had actually forgotten about it. “Faxon A?”
“All will go back there. The imperial fleet. The Observers. The Coalition. Everyone. And that is where they will take the Queen for the final plunge.”
“I can feel the emotion blasting through your body. You wish to get back to her. And I am telling you there is only one way you will be able to do that.”
“I’m stuck on this asteroid.”
“Nobody is stuck if they can truly negotiate the realms of mental space. Distance is irrelevant. You can travel anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye.”
“You just need to find the right gate. And right here, you have a gate.” Though the Regent couldn’t point, Joseph felt him gesturing toward the King.
Joseph stared over at the pulsing black void in horror. “You want me to step inside the King? Firstly, this is nothing more than a memory. Secondly, I can smell a trap. I’m not an idiot.”
“We are all idiots. Every single one of us has a gap in our knowledge. And that gap, if used by somebody more intelligent, is a trap.”
“So you’re admitting this is a trap now?”
“Incorrect. It is the exact opposite. Your ignorance is preventing you from doing what is necessary. If you take that gate, you can arrive on Faxon A, back in the real world.”
“And how the hell does that make any sense? This is just a memory.”
“No. It is an echo. You have the mind of an Omega guard inside you. You are standing on an asteroid that is consumed by phase space, and there are five future boxes at your feet. I know that you have questioned why you can interact with psychic sprites – why you can fight me off so easily. It is because of the Omega imprint within you. It will allow you to travel through that gate to Faxon A.”
“But it’s just in my mind.” True exasperation rang through Joseph. It felt as if it would continue to ring until it finally blasted through Caxus’s nonsensical arguments.
But Caxus wouldn’t back down. “You misunderstand what a mental echo is and how powerful they can be in phase space. Very few people, even the greatest of my kind, were ever brave enough and powerful enough to capture hold of their psychic echoes. But you can use them – use them to align to the very heart of phase space, and use that to travel anywhere in this universe.”
“It is not impossible, and it is your only chance now, spacer. You either take the gate and travel to Faxon A, or we remain here on this asteroid, alone and useless as the rest of the galaxy fights a war it cannot win without you.”
“It’s just a trap.” Joseph stared in wide-eyed horror at the pulsing heart of the King. Make no mistake, regardless of the fact it didn’t have a form, it clearly had force. He could feel the psychics lined up within it. They were like endless bullets for a gun arranged in front of an army. If he was stupid enough to stray too close to it, let alone venture within, he would be destroyed. Hundreds of times over, thousands of times over – destroyed for all eternity.
“Your time is running out. I can sense the fleet has already arrived at Faxon A. Don’t you want to be the one to save her?”
“Sally’s mind will be used to bust open the gate to the phase realm. And when the gate is opened, the Observers will come for you. They know you’re still out here, know that you are a threat. You either go to them and you fight, or you wait here to die. The option is yours. Do not pick the wrong one. Do not fill yourself with more regrets. You might believe you have now faced them – but realize this. No matter what you do, you will never face every regret in your life. Because they will keep coming. The very nature of existence is regret.”
“No. It’s fighting.”
“Really? If it’s fighting, why are you so resistant to watch the Omega guard fight in vain?”
“Fine, then it’s winning.”
There was a protracted silence. “Is that what you believe, spacer? For that is what I believe. It is what the one you called Jerry believed. It is what the Observers believe. Understand this, however, if that is what you wish to be true, you will spend the rest of your life desperately trying to win. Nothing else will matter. Only the victory you have imagined for yourself. Until and unless you obtain it, your life will be meaningless and devoid of hope.”
Joseph didn’t know why Caxus was suddenly speaking like this. Okay, he could bet it was just some twisted manipulation. But there was still truth behind it, wisdom, too.
It was wisdom that started to get Joseph to see what was really in front of him.
Did he suddenly align with the King and realize it was some kind of super psychic gate that would allow him to travel to Faxon A?
No. That wasn’t the point, though. He focused on the one thing he should have been focusing on to begin with. The Omega guard.
Joseph had felt distant to him ever since they’d split off. But he could still… he could still connect, right?
He stopped conversing with Caxus, stopped trying to distract himself with the contents of his mind. He walked right through the memory, right up to the Omega guard. He stood in front of him. Occasionally, he could recognize a face bursting through that amorphous cloud.
It was Joseph’s, all right. Not his human face – but… a deep resemblance that had always been imprinted within him.
He reached out a hand. It wasn’t a strong move – didn’t need to be, though. It was weak, his fingers barely stretching out further than a few centimeters.
Suddenly, the entire scene paused. The frenetic fight stopped. The humming, the chanting, the painful, terrifying vibration of the King. All of it just disappeared. It was as if reality opened up to provide him just a second to focus on what had always mattered to him.
The Omega guard straightened.
That cloud of force in front of him parted.
Joseph saw himself.
It didn’t matter that the features were different. The only thing that counted was the guard’s eyes.
He saw the endless fight, the pointless one, too. The same fight Joseph had been continuing ever since he’d been born.
Did Joseph live to win? No. Did he live to fight? No.
He lived to try.
He reached out to the Omega guard again. It was strong now, resolute. He knew what he wanted – understood what he had to do.
He’d come into this memory because he knew there was no point in running from who he was anymore. He would come out of it still running but toward a different cause.
Toward one greater than him – greater than everyone. For it connected every single mind in the universe.
It was a cause he would never forget again.