There wasnothing he could do as Caxus walked his body through the ship to the hangarbay, then out of the hatch. Joseph had said before that all asteroids were thesame. So as Caxus jumped down onto the gray, barren, uninteresting dirt, itshould’ve been the same experience, right? Wrong.
There wassomething up with this asteroid.
Spacerocks continuously impacted it. The horizon line was filled with the flashes ofcollisions – both big and large – pummeling the asteroid as if someone wastrying to knead it like dough.
But here’sthe thing. Joseph felt nothing. Yeah, he was in another one of those lightshrouds, for what good it would do Caxus. But it shouldn’t protect him from therumbles that must have been pummeling the ground.
Yet therewas nothing.
“I cansense your silence. It is your confusion getting the better of you, spacer. Tellme, how much of this universe do you think you understand? Whatever you believeit to be, it is but a fragment of reality.”
“Youunderstand everything, do you?” Joseph spat back.
Caxuslifted a hand, clenched his fingers in, and secured them hard against his palmuntil a few diffuse crackles of energy blasted across them. “Almost everything.”
Therewasn’t any hint of hesitancy. Caxus actually believed this.
Yeah,there was so much Joseph didn’t understand, but there was hopefully one pointhe would always comprehend. No matter how many answers you gathered to yournumerous questions – there would always be more questions. Nobody could beall-knowing. There simply wasn’t a mind nor a database nor a civilization thatwould ever have the power to be able to perceive every single one of theuniverse’s mysteries. It was a fundamental paradox of perspective and size.Unless you managed to watch the entire universe at once and gather up all ofthat data, there would always be things you wouldn’t know.
Caxusclearly didn’t know that lesson. As he strode forward, his light shrouded bootskicking up the dust and sending it scattering around them in this low gravityenvironment, he did so with every confidence he was right.
Thoseflashes continued. Once or twice, some of them got close – close enough thatJoseph should be able to see the rocks impacting the ground and the resultantexplosions. There were no eruptions, though. There were these strange shakesinstead. They shuddered there, pushing through the area the rock impacted, thenabruptly disappearing. It took one more step until Joseph realized thisasteroid was out of phase.
Caxuscontinued to walk until he stopped. It was up a rise. Below him stretched avalley.
Therewere so many flashes here, Joseph almost couldn’t describe them. It was like hewas seeing every single impact that’d ever happened to the Earth’s moon, all onfast forward.
If he’dpossessed an ordinary set of eyes, they’d likely be burnt out of his skull atthis incredible sight. The resultant explosions burst brightly like the heartsof thousands of stars.
In themiddle of the valley was a small rise.
Caxus’seyes locked on it. Joseph knew the future boxes were there.
He alsoknew that Caxus wasn’t rushing. He hesitated, tilting back only to beginfloating for a few seconds.
This wasit. Joseph couldn’t let Caxus get hold of that many future boxes. So from nowon, every single time he showed fear, Joseph had to fight.
Josephthrust himself at Caxus’s mind.
And itdid nothing. For Joseph was rapidly distracted.
As Caxuswalked, his shined boots flashed with the continuous explosions from above.They also crushed a pile of metal-like shavings. They exactly resembled thosefrom Faxon A.
Joseph’sheart had a chance to leap into his throat, then the pile came to life.
A spriteappeared. Caxus clenched his teeth hard enough, he should’ve turned them toenamel dust that would’ve floated away in the low gravity environment likepetals on the wind.
Right infront of Joseph, a strange creature appeared. They weren’t demonstrablybipedal. They were almost cloudlike. He saw what could be a face, though,pushing right through the center of that diffuse black mass. Then he heard akeening cry. He didn’t know if it was because he was connected to Caxus’s mind,but he understood it.
“Traitor.Traitor,” the cloudlike apparition continued to scream.
Caxusignored it. He walked down several more steps. There were more piles of dust.He attempted to avoid them, but it didn’t matter. They were everywhere. Hestopped floating, too, almost as if he couldn’t or wouldn’t dare.
Othercloudlike creatures appeared. Every single one of them shrieked at Caxus thathe’d killed them.
… Ifthese were the same type of sprites Joseph encountered on Faxon A, then what onEarth were they doing having an effect on Caxus? Surely if he was the one whocontrolled them, he could just click his fingers and make them go away?
He sureas hell couldn’t click his fingers, and nothing would make them go away. Theycontinued to be disrupted and kept floating up and around him. But more thananything, they kept screaming at him that he was a murderer.
For awhile, Joseph was too surprised by the scene to do anything. Then he remindedhimself the fear currently pulsing through Caxus’s heart was precisely theopportunity he required.
He threwhimself at Caxus’s mind again.
But Caxuswas ready for him.
He thrustJoseph back. He continued to walk down the rise. Now there were literallyhundreds of cloudlike apparitions. They all screamed at the same thing. Caxuswas a traitor.
If Josephcouldn’t fight Caxus’s mind directly, there was another way. “What did you doto them? These are your people, aren’t they? Did you condemn them all?”
“I willnot listen to a word you say, spacer, so there is no point in wasting yourbreath.”
“Don’tworry. I don’t need to breathe. I’m just thinking this. And you can’t stop me.So who are you, Caxus? Did you kill your entire race? You must have. If youkeep walking through here and disturb more dust, is the entire Xentai racegoing to rise once more? What did you do to them?”
“You willstop speaking, spacer.”
“Wealready discussed this. You can thrust me to the edges of my mind, but youcannot stop me.”
“You willstop speaking, or I will damage the Queen.”
That wasenough to see Joseph pause. But he couldn’t for long. “She’s your ultimatehost. You’re not going to lift a finger against her. There’s nothing you can door say that’s going to stop me. So what happened, Caxus? Why did you go againstyour people?”
“Becausethey were happy to be extinguished to create another one, and I couldn’t seethat happen.”
“I willnot say more. You can stew on that statement. Use it to distract yourself with– for you have a pathetic mind incapable of concentrating when it matters most.”
“But youcan’t distract yourself, can you? No matter how much you want to right now. Youmight be trying to deny it, but those sprites are getting to you. How many ofthem do you think you can put up with? I can’t control my eyes, but I can stilluse my superior calculating abilities. It looks like this entire valley isfilled with those piles of dust. How many cloud apparitions is that going tocreate? This is just a guess, but probably hundreds of thousands. Can youreally ignore that many?
“They arenot cloud apparitions,” he snarled.
“No, theyare people. And even if you pretend that you’re not listening, you are. I canfeel how tense my body has become. What did you do? Did you condemn them all?”
“I didn’tcondemn them. I saved them.”
“Theseapparitions only ever take on the forms of those who’ve died. How can you havesaved them if they’re all dead?”
“You knownothing, boy,” he defaulted to spitting. He also clenched his hands into fists,but he didn’t create subspace swords. He just let his energy chaotically pulseout. Joseph did mean chaotically. It spurted out here and there, blasting outfrom his thumbs then curling back around his wrists. If Joseph had put on adisplay like that around Admiral Forest, he would’ve been immediately knockedout. If a spacer lost complete control of their energy, they could do untolddamage to their surroundings – to their own body, too.
But evenas a few scant burns started to march up Joseph’s wrists, Caxus didn’t stop.
Hecontinued relentlessly marching forward as those sprites now amassed aroundhim. For whatever reason, they couldn’t interact with him. They didn’t need tophysically touch him to affect him, though.
Oneappeared right in front of him. Joseph swore he could see a face pressingthrough the middle of the cloud now. Whoever it was, it almost looked like a woman– though maybe Joseph was making that up.
“Youcondemned us all, all for your own power. You robbed us of the ultimateascension. For what, my love? For yourself? For your fears? For your hatred?”
Josephlocked on one word. Love.
Thiscloud had to have been Caxus’s partner.
“Youcondemned your own wife? You really are a monster,” Joseph snarled.
Forseveral seconds, Caxus did nothing. He just remained there, frozen. He staredup at the cloud in front of him, and that face pressing through the middle ofit stared down.
It was astilling sight. There was so much emotional poignancy, Joseph almost felt Caxus’sregret. Then he reminded himself this was a chance.
He triedto fight Caxus again, but it didn’t work.
Instead?In a cold move Joseph would never forget, Caxus opened his hand wide and calledon a subspace blade.
“Youcondemned us all,” Caxus’s wife said again.
“No,” hehissed, unsticking his pale lips from around his clenched teeth. “I preventedyou from giving yourself up for them.”
“It isthe greatest privilege of all powerful civilizations to create a crystal. Youtook that privilege from us.”
“You donot create it. Your minds… your power… is condensed into it. Your very psychesare broken down to form it. It eats through you, my love. Do you think I wasgoing to let that happen?”
“It is anatural process of ascension. You took that right from us. Now our people arenothing more than broken psyches drifting in the void.”
“I wouldrather you be broken than food for the crystals.”
Withthat, Caxus thrust forward. He cut right through the apparition of his wife,and just like that, she flickered and disappeared.
Joseph….He’d just learned so much.
She’dbeen talking about the Hendari crystals. Which meant they were… what?
He wentover everything she’d just said, but none of it made any sense. The crystalswere created… by civilizations that had ascended?
“That’sit, distract yourself with the fragments of knowledge you just learned. They’llmake no sense to your porous, broken mind, boy.”
Caxusstrode forward. He didn’t drop his blade once. Any apparition who dared get inhis way, he cut down remorselessly. There was no emotion in his heart – he keptit locked off as if he’d chained the thing up for good.
Josephcould reel from what he’d learned all he wanted, but the time to stop Caxus wasrapidly disappearing. They were only several steps away from that small moundnow. The closer they got, the more of an effect it had on the space aroundthem. It was… Joseph didn’t know if it was gravity or something far morefundamental, but Caxus had to slow. Every step became laborious. As his bootskicked up dust, it shivered in the air like ice droplets on tree leaves. Theyhad the same luminescent quality, too. From different angles, it almost lookedas if every single mote was a reflection back on the entire universe.
They wereone meter away now. Then… they were there.
Sittingon the mound was a small stone plinth. It was only raised up from the dirtabout 30 centimeters. And on it? Five of those future boxes. They weren’tembedded in the dirt, weren’t safely tucked behind some rock wall, andcertainly weren’t clutched in the grip of some dead white-armored soldier. Theywere just there for the taking. Or seemingly so.
You’dthink Caxus had faced the worst of it. His own wife had appeared, and he’d cuther down. But now his heart truly raced with fear.
Hereached his hand forward, his shoulders shaking and sending vibrations pitchingdown into his stomach and spine. He finally touched the first box, but thatwould be when one of those sprites appeared right above him.
This onewas a massive cloud. Joseph didn’t know if that meant it had been important inCaxus’s life or if it was somehow a larger collection of his people instead.
It was acollection – Joseph got that answer a second later as the cloud screamed. Itwas the worst psychic shriek he’d ever heard. As it pitched out of the cloud’scombined throat – or whatever equivalent it possessed – it seemed to infect theair. It parted it like a violent grip tearing up curtains that’d dared get inthe way of some view.
Caxustried not to react. It was impossible. He fell down to one knee and clutchedhis hands over his ears. Joseph even thought he felt blood oozing from them.
Thatmassive cloud said nothing. It just continued to shriek. Maybe Joseph wasmaking this up, but the note of it… it was the shriek of things which had diedunjustly.
Itcontinued, over and over again, getting louder, getting more violent.
It washaving a brutal effect on Joseph. He could feel his subspace fields disrupting.
If Caxuscontinued to let this happen, then he didn’t need to fear Joseph controllinghis own body. They’d both just die as Joseph’s form tore itself apart.
But rightat the last moment, Caxus managed to punch through his pain and fear. He openedhis hand and created a subspace blade. Then he jolted forward. He cut down thatmassive cloud remorselessly.
It tookone blow.
Then itjust disappeared. It fluctuated and fluttered away as if somebody had taken a flametorch to a tiny piece of paper.
Therewere scant spluttering sparks, then nothing.
Caxuslurched forward and latched a hand on the future box.
Anotherapparition didn’t appear. He managed to pull the box right off the plinth. Hestaggered back and set it down beside him. He went for the second box. The samething occurred. As soon as he touched the handle, another apparition appeared.This one was even larger than the last. Again, they were cloudlike apparitions.
Josephpaid as much attention to them as he could. It was by now clear that Caxus hadto scrounge the strength to force his way past fear and pain. So Joseph wasback to doing what he’d been doing since he’d first been infected. Gatheringdata. He had to secure as much information as he possibly could in the hopesthat in the future, when he finally got an opportunity, it would be thedifference he so desperately required.
Caxusrepeated the process. He fell back, then scrounged enough power at the lastmoment to cut through the apparition.
It wasthe same with the next two boxes.
When itgot to the last, Caxus’s fear hit a crescendo. It rushed and punched throughhis chest, bringing this cold, dense pressure in its wake. Joseph had only everfelt nerves like this during the most crippling of experiences – usually beforehe’d been regressed.
What, didCaxus know the next creature he faced would be the worst? Would it be the mostviolent and horrifying of his memories?
Bring iton, Joseph thought.
“I dothis for everyone,” Caxus snarled. Then he finally touched the last box.
Out camehis regret. This was no cloud. This was Layra.
The imageof her had now been seared into Joseph’s head ever since Faxon A. It was thesame dappled blue skin, the same sad eyes, the same poignant force in every breath.
Josephwas so surprised at her sudden appearance that if Caxus had wanted, he could’veturned around, finally located Joseph’s mind, and destroyed it completely. ButCaxus was in no condition whatsoever to fight. As his nerves raged through him,they got the better of his body, shaking through it and disrupting every muscleuntil he staggered down to both of his knees. He stared up at Layra.
She juststood there. She looked at him, that haunting loneliness traveling through herendless stare.
It waslike, as she gazed at him, she did so on behalf of every lifeless star systemout there without a soul, every expanse of lonely space. It was as if she’dgathered all of that up and crammed it into her heart, finally giving thecoldest, darkest places of this universe a place to live.
Joseph…almost couldn’t comprehend this. Until one fact slipped into his consciousness.
Everysingle regret he’d seen thus far were people who died. But Layra… she was stillalive. Right?
Or atleast a part of her was still alive in the Queen.
Was thatreally the most important fact right now? The effect she had on Caxus was.
He shook,far worse than he had when he’d faced his own wife.
Theseconvulsions ripped through his chest. They disrupted Joseph’s subspace energyuntil it practically tore through his body. It crackled down his shoulders,over his front, then up to his jaw. It was looking for a way in, desperatelysearching for something to destroy. Without Joseph’s mind to direct it, itbecame a chaotic force like no other.
WhileCaxus was wearing a light shroud, it could do nothing. This wasn’t an externalattack.
Caxusdidn’t strive to control his mind. He didn’t strive to do anything. He was justlost there, staring at Layra’s endless gaze.
Joseph…this was it.
Layra’sstare was having an effect on him too.
He couldsee her pain, and it reminded him of every glum stare he’d ever seen Sallygive.
If hepaid too much attention to it, he would be dragged into it for eternity. Butmaybe there was an edge, just this slight flicker of hope in Layra’s gaze.Joseph could be making this up, or perhaps it really was directed at him,telling him this was his last chance.
Caxuswould never be as weak as he was right now.
So Josephstrove. He struggled just like he had under master Deus’s control, just like hehad every single day he’d woken up, forced a smile onto his lips, and gone outto see his friends at the Academy.
In otherwords, Joseph fought on every level he could, in every way he’d ever taughthimself.
Once upona time, Joseph had lived to win battles. But there’d been one thing he’d beenterrible at. Enduring wars. He liked to finish things, get them done, thenreturn to his brand of normal. His mind wasn’t good with protracted fights.
But hesaw in Layra’s gaze something endless, something that knew it would be kickeddown at every opportunity. But something that also knew it would rise again, nomatter what. The goal and the destination were irrelevant. The fact ofcontinued resistance was all that counted.
Joseph usedthat hope, used it like a damn battering ram. He thrust himself at Caxus justwhen he was weakest.
In aflood, Joseph got control of his body, but only one half. It was his left side.
It wasjust as his subspace energy was threatening to burn one of his arms so badly,it would’ve crisped right down to the bone.
But asJoseph controlled half of his lips, he roared, immediately turned his subspaceenergy away from his body, and then grabbed his subspace blade.
Whatwould he do? Cut the other half of his body away? It would kill him.
He wasn’tthe only one who grabbed a blade, though. As Caxus finally unstuck his mindfrom the fear that filled it at the sight of Layra, his unimaginable forcereturned.
WhileJoseph’s sword crackled with power, Caxus’s was violent and uncontrolled.Plumes of energy danced across it, leaping high, sending horrifyingillumination playing over the last future box. It couldn’t touch Layra, though.She wasn’t really here, so her image couldn’t be affected by the lights andshadows playing over everything. Yet something was reflected in her stare. Asshe opened her eyes, her sad gaze taking in more of Joseph’s form, somethingdanced there in the middle of her pupils.
Somethingendless. Something that had never been broken, no matter how hard other peoplehad tried. It was almost… like a gate.
Jerry hadalready admitted the Queen’s mind was a gate. Joseph saw it now. Heard it. Feltit. Endless wasn’t even the right word. It was… always there. Always a pathanyone could take out of their weakest moment if only they refused to believewhat others thought about them.
Josephroared just as Caxus did.
“You willbreak. You were built to break,” Caxus screamed.
Josephdidn’t bother wasting any breath. He kept the sword in his hand just as Caxustried to slice Joseph’s arm off.
It wasstill attached to his body. It would be damaging his own host. But did thatmatter to such a warped and broken mind? Little could. Caxus would do anything,even if he had to cut off his own fingers and ultimately clutch at victory withnothing more than bloodied, broken stumps. All that counted to his twisted mindwas winning. Everything else was tantamount to death.
Josephmanaged to parry the blow.
It would’velooked like a hell of a strange sight – a spacer fighting his own blades.
Caxustried once more, screaming out of half of Joseph’s mouth. Spittle splashed outeverywhere, and a few particles crackled out with it. They sparked with thischaotic black-red hue. They even looked as if they’d rip right through the air.
Caxus didit again. This time he tried to chop Joseph’s leg off.
Josephparried the blow once more. And all the while, Layra’s sad stare watched them.
Not oncedid she turn. Nor did she try to grope toward them. She didn’t scream. She didn’treact at all like the other sprites. She was just like a silent, sad observer.
“Nothingbut a broken toy, nothing but a flesh suit. Nothing but a marionette whosestrings I control,” Caxus screamed. But if he thought he was in control, heshould’ve heard his voice as he said that word. It fractured like every singlepane of glass in the universe all being struck by bats at once.
Josephdidn’t waste his voice on speaking. Didn’t even think back to Caxus. Everythinghe had, he used to force his way further against Caxus’s mind.
“Broken.Nothing more than a broken living suit,” Caxus screamed again.
But onthe word broken, for a microsecond, his gaze ticked back toward Layra. Morefear pulsed through Caxus.
It waspersonal, deep, the kind of fear that someone can only ever really feel once intheir life. It is the complete wretched regret of somebody whose time has comeand who knows their past is here to swallow them.
Wait.That’s what these psychic sprites were and where they ultimately came from –they were based on nothing else.
Oncemore, Joseph remembered an important lesson a certain cadet had imparted inpsychic defense class. One he’d received with arrogant ignorance at the time.But one that now rose up to save him.
When apowerful psychic comes into your mind, you don’t hide your past from them. Youdon’t take your fears and lock them behind some door. You open them, lettingyour heart bleed like a river that can take anything away.
For yourgreatest traumas are proof you can withstand anything.
What isregret if not the greatest trauma there possibly is? It may not be an injury toyour actual body or mind. But it’s one to your soul, to the dreams you had butlost.
Josephhad regret. So much regret, he couldn’t count it all. His greatest regret washe hadn’t lived a normal life, that he’d been stolen by the Barbarians andturned into something he couldn’t control. If he’d been normal, maybe he’d beback there on Faxon A. Maybe he’d even be with Sally, and maybe none of thiswould’ve ever happened.
Or maybeit would’ve happened anyway. But he would never have been given the power tomake a difference.
Josephintended to turn his regret against Caxus, but at the last moment, he did somethingfar more powerful. He stopped turning it against himself.
Yeah,Joseph could’ve been somebody different. The entire galaxy could’ve beendifferent, too. But he had to be who he was now. He couldn’t hold on to hispast. And every time he tried to destroy it, it was like taking a jackhammer tothe foundations of some house. Do that, and everything he lived inside wouldcrumble.
It wouldn’tget rid of his regrets. They would simply continue to grow. But there’d benowhere left for his psyche to reside.
Josephknew what he was now. And he knew what he could do now. Those were the only twofacts he required. They were his power, his anger, his righteousness andfervor. They were what told him he could keep fighting, no matter what.
They wereno longer something to be afraid of.
Caxustried to attack him again. This time the blade sliced toward Joseph’s throat.
MaybeCaxus had forgotten the fact they were already sporting a massive injury.
Attackit, and they might both die.
But Caxus’sblade never slashed into Joseph’s neck. Joseph didn’t just parry the blow. Thistime, he let his own blade go, and he grabbed Caxus’s sword.
It wasfundamentally his body. This was fundamentally his force.
Layra nolonger stared at Joseph. It was like she couldn’t see him anymore.
That didn’tcause regret to rise once more in Joseph’s heart, just the exact opposite. Forthe entire point was that regret would no longer hold him down.
Heroared, then wrench the sword right out of Caxus’s grip.
Caxusspluttered. “No. You are nothing more than a spacer – nothing more than anengineered tool.”
“I amwhat I am. I understand what that is now. You, on the other hand, have no cluewho you are.”
“I am theRegent, the savior of my people. I stopped them all from becoming a crystal.And now I will destroy the Hendari and every other civilization that dares getin my way. I do this for others, even though you are too foolish to see that.”
“You dothis for yourself. I can feel your fear, and God knows I can see your regrets.Look at her, Caxus. She’s staring down at you with sorrow in her eyes. I don’tknow what you did to the Queen, and I don’t know what you’re running from, butI know this – you do not have the strength to stop running and face it. So I’llmake you face it.”
Josephgrabbed his throat. He didn’t secure his fingers in and violently try to ripout his larynx or anything. He just settled them there then tilted his chin up.
It forcedCaxus to stare at Layra.
ThenJoseph finally got hold of both of his eyes. He fixed them wide open. It feltas if he dragged the lids apart with heavy cruisers.
Caxusspluttered. He tried to jerk away, but he couldn’t. “No,” he screamed. “I didn’t….”
“Didn’tsacrifice everything. I saved everyone. I did this all for them.”
“If you’ddone this for your people, you would’ve been able to face them earlier, insteadof destroying them. You did this for yourself. And now you will be swallowed upby your regret.”
Layra didnothing. The image of her simply stood there, cold and alone, that gaze neverbecoming too sharp, but never becoming dull and dead, either. It was just… likea hand held out, one that wouldn’t drop. It wasn’t grand, wasn’t crackling withpower. It didn’t have any trappings of success.
It wasnothing more than a hand that would reach out to those in their coldestmoments, in their deepest sorrows.
But Caxusdidn’t and couldn’t grab it.
And onefinal time, he was wrenched right back out of Joseph’s head.