It happened again. This time was much worse. There was no way to claw his way back into the center of his mind. He didn’t even know where his mind was. It was as if he’d been thrust into a cold, lonely sea. The disembodied waves of Caxus’s thoughts crashed against him continuously, making him sink further down. There was nothing that could save Joseph.
He was aware of the fact Sally was being controlled. That could part through Joseph’s confusion. The sheer power Caxus had to use was unimaginable. If it were the equivalent of ships, it would be the entire Coalition fleet. You’d think that would give Joseph hope – the mere fact Caxus had to use so much power meant Sally was still powerful in her own right, correct? That wasn’t the point. Caxus had already won. Sally… if Joseph had somehow nominally been connected to her mind, that connection now told him she had all but gone.
Caxus no longer taunted Joseph. He hadn’t spoken to him once since returning to his mind. Perhaps he was under the impression that Joseph had finally been destroyed. Or perhaps he was groping toward victory and didn’t want any distractions from this monumental moment. This overwhelming sense of impending glory filled him up. It started in Joseph’s feet then swelled up through his chest. A little more, and it would likely rupture his rib cage.
Caxus might not be speaking to Joseph, but he sure spoke to himself. He paced back and forth on the bridge, his footfall ringing out. His head was twisted toward the viewscreen Sally had created for him, his eyes wide and fixed.
They’d left that small asteroid behind. Joseph mightn’t have been paying enough attention to Caxus’s mind, but he knew one thing – they were headed to another asteroid. It was further out. The trip would take several hours. And for each of those hours, Caxus did nothing but wait. Wait and pace. His hands were locked behind his back. A few times, he brought his fingers out, and he seemingly tried his telekinetic powers as if he was an actual soldier and he was using his downtime to train. But here’s the thing – his skills became weaker with time.
Was it time, or was it distance? Joseph had no clue how one of those future boxes worked. Was it a proximity thing? Or was it an actual location thing? Yes, Caxus had used it on the ship, but had the box’s physics-defying qualities affected the actual ship or where it had been located at the time? Or did the future box’s effects degrade? Every single one of those questions needed an answer, and those answers could change the shape of the oncoming war. If the future boxes had a permanent effect on their environments and the things they touched, then the Coalition was screwed. It didn’t matter how many powerful psychics they scrounged; it wouldn’t be enough to fight off Caxus. If, on the other hand, they had a limited effect on remote locations that faded with time, there’d be a chance.
A chance. Joseph used that word. God knows he couldn’t use it like a ladder, though, couldn’t even use it like a spark to ignite his hope. Instead, he used it like a rock to hold on to. He wrapped the remains of his psyche around it, almost as if it was a drop of water in a desert. It mightn’t be enough to sustain him forever, and it certainly couldn’t rescue him from his predicament, but it could hold him still as his mind raged with fear and regret.
It was the regret that felt the most powerful and poignant. When Joseph resurfaced from his tortured memories, it was to brief but powerful moments of reason. They reminded him he’d faced regret similar to this down on Faxon A. In fact, it had been the very weapon that’d compromised the Coalition team. Joseph hadn’t even figured out where those sprites and that dust came from, but what if it had been Caxus?
Did that mean the origin of the sprites wasn’t Hendari? That they came from the Xentais instead?
Even as Joseph thought that, and even as he tumbled in freefall through his mind, the word had a demonstrably large effect on him. He could be on the edge of death, but it would wake him up with a surge of fear so powerful, it would create its own heart just to see it beat frenetically.
The… Xentais, whoever they were, had something to do with him. Maybe something to do with his past, or maybe it was that strange stone corridor. Whenever he thought about them, focusing his mind away from his problems however briefly, he heard that moaning louder than ever. It rushed all around him as if he’d thrown his head into the center of a wind vortex.
Were they the actual origin of the Hendari crystals? It would be easy to assume that, but just as easy not to. The more Joseph traveled with Sally and her crystals, the more he realized they likely didn’t have an origin. Every race who came across them probably thought they were theirs, but fundamentally… perhaps they were just an expression of the universe’s powerful creative force.
Poetic, lyrical thoughts, but hardly ones that could save him now. Because Caxus suddenly stopped. It was an abrupt movement that saw his Coalition boots scuff the floor. A second later, he started to float. But it wasn’t a freeing affair – just the opposite. Tension wound through every muscle and blasted into his throat until he opened his lips. “Finally.”
Joseph realigned with his own eyes and saw through to the viewscreen.
There, he saw an asteroid field opening up before them. The thing about asteroid fields was they all looked the same. Just so much pockmarked, damaged stone thrown together and floating pointlessly through space. They were the equivalent of a bramble patch back on old Earth – a bramble patch that could pack a heck of a punch. Any ordinary ship had to be careful going into an asteroid field. It wasn’t just that asteroids were by definition unstable. It was that you could disrupt gravity with your ship, pull one toward you, and end up smashed to smithereens.
Suffice to say, that wasn’t a concern with this vessel.
The only concern was the fact Caxus floated higher, his eyes opening even wider, his hands falling to his sides. He even sighed in relief. Then the relief quickly turned to victory as his fingers curled in, snapping as if someone had cut the tendons. “Finally. If the legends are correct, there are five boxes down here.”
Sorry, five whole boxes? That… it couldn’t be true.
One had been damaging enough. Five? You could easily take over the Earth or any other critical Coalition planet.
Though Joseph didn’t want to believe Caxus had the intelligence to plan the destruction of the Coalition, he could do something much worse. If he used his anger and gave in to the rage permanently burning through his soul, he could pick a target and obliterate it without pause for thought. Nobody would get in his way. It wouldn’t matter if the populace was innocent and had nothing to do with the Coalition Army. They would be snuffed out. Because men like Caxus existed to prove to others they were stronger and always had been so.
“Land the ship,” Caxus snarled. He didn’t even bother dismissively gesturing at Sally anymore. She was completely under his control.
She continued to spin softly in her light prison. As she twisted toward him, her fingers floated forward. Make no mistake, it wasn’t her doing this. There was no life behind the movement. It just looked as if someone had attached strings to her muscles, and they were yanking them about. As for her eyes? They were still closed. The skin around them had become slack. It wasn’t the look of somebody who was deeply asleep. This… this was the look of someone who’d never wake again.
Joseph saw the viewscreen, watched as the ship came toward a large asteroid.
Then he felt just as Caxus’s lips twitched. But this wasn’t a move of impending victory. This… was crippling fear. A pulse of it ricocheted through his heart like a warning shot from a gun.
Joseph jumped on it with all the whip-lash speed and strength of a tiger. Fear was a little like pain. Men like Caxus didn’t want to feel it, didn’t even want to acknowledge its existence. They wanted to pretend there was nothing in this great universe that would dare make them afraid, for nothing would dare challenge them. Yet whatever was down on that asteroid was equally as frightful as it was potentially powerful.
Caxus was aware of Joseph’s psychic attack immediately, and he roared in Joseph’s thoughts. “It’s useless, boy. There is nothing you can do against me. I have this mind, and I will not let go again.”
“You’re afraid of something, Caxus. Whatever is down there, it’ll fight you, won’t it? Is it more of those good Observers? You only just survived last time. Who’s to say you’ll survive again?”
“The Queen is now completely in my control. This ship and its considerable power are at my fingertips. The Observers will have no way of fighting me,” he growled.
“I heard that note in your voice, even if you want to pretend it wasn’t there. You’re terrified. As you should be. You know, being in your mind, I now know just how weak you are. You’re only strong when everything’s going your way. But that isn’t control. It’s nowhere near. You think you’re so powerful. But you are just like me – beholden to circumstances far beyond your influence.”
“I’m nothing like you, boy,” he roared, this time aloud.
Didn’t matter. There was no one to hear. As Joseph had already pointed out, Sally was unconscious. Jerry? He hadn’t moved a muscle in hours. He was still in thick medical stasis fields that sent a yellow light crackling over his gray, pallid skin. Joseph longed to know why Caxus needed to keep him alive. Because trust Joseph, the first chance Caxus got, he wanted to wrap his hands around Jerry’s throat and end it all.
Men like Caxus had to use every single ounce of their strength not to go through with their anger. To control it, something big had to be at stake.
“I don’t care how many Observers we face down there, I will be victorious and those five future boxes will be mine. There will be nothing your pathetic Coalition will be able to do to stop me.”
Joseph controlled his fear. It tried to arc up in his stomach like a wild flickering flame, but he just shoved it back down with all the force of somebody stamping on a spider. “And what about Jerry?”
“The fool, when he wakes, will realize he is on my side again.”
“Not my point. What if the Observers go after him?” It was just a step in the dark. Joseph was spitballing here, clutching at any possible statement that could arc Caxus up.
He just happened to clutch at the right one.
Joseph felt this wave of anger pulse into Caxus, one that was quickly followed by crippling fear. His eyes widened, the skin around them scrunching then quickly slackening as if he’d lost full control of it.
Wait, because he had lost control of it.
Joseph tried to attack, but there was nothing to attack.
Caxus quickly closed his eyes and concentrated all of his force on bolstering his psyche. As he forced all the considerable, destructive power of his thoughts back onto Joseph’s brain, it was like turning a gun around. He trained it right between Joseph’s brows. “If you make another move, I will destroy you, spacer. I will rip you apart.”
“We’ve already discussed this. If you had that kind of power, you would’ve used it already.”
“I will soon get that kind of power,” he hissed.
It was just as there was a high-pitched beep that rang through the bridge.
Caxus opened his eyes. In front of him, the viewscreen got closer. It showed they had landed.
Another wave of fear kicked through Caxus’s heart. Then he turned hard on his foot. “It is time to obtain the future. Not for everyone. But for me.”