I was nervous. My palms were sweating. I was so used to the steady pace of my cybernetic heart that the rapid beat of the synthetic part made me think something was wrong. I didn't know if I'd recognize my family, especially Holden. He'd been six when I was captured. He said he was going to be a pilot just like me. Maybe he wouldn't remember me either, then we'd be even. But how do you start over with a twelve-year-old? Regan had already been well on her way to becoming a woman the last time I saw her. I didn't like it then. That wasn't likely to change, especially since the man she loved had betrayed us. Cherry would still be Cherry. As long as she still felt the same in my arms, I'd adjust. Mom and Dad would be older and sadder. My lost cause had cost them both of their sons. How could I ever make up for that? They'd cry and say it was enough that I was alive, but how could it be? Hundreds of lives had been lost for the sake of one. How could I live up to that? Okay, so I never lived up to my full potential in the first place, but my potential didn't need to be quantified in blood. And I wasn't even thinking about all the innocent people who were killed by the Imperial army and the demons or the planets that died when every resource was used up.
Cold spiders crawled up my back. I saw Seren reaching her hand out to a dark figure in front of her. "Help," she said. She reached further. I could see tubes running out of the back of her head. She wasn't asking for help for herself. "Help him." The dark figure stepped closer to her and placed a knife in her hand. I recognized the blade. "Help Talon," she said. The figure turned away. I saw a flicker of flame, and then the sidewalk was in my face.
Barrett lifted me up. "You okay?" he asked.
"Another vision," I said.
"Good or bad?"
"I don't know. It depends on what she does with the knife."
Walden City was like a little castle in a fishbowl. Everything about it was like a regular city except for the climate control and waste management operations. Vehicles buzzed by. People of varying races hurried to work or to play. They tried to carry on as if nothing had really changed, and it hadn't. They were still bound to destroy their home eventually. If I'd been twenty years younger, I would have spent as much time there as possible. The spaceport was teeming with people desperate to get out. Passenger liners took off every fifteen minutes. I could have made a shitload of money taking people off that floating dump. I was sure they'd all still be there after the war, and it was nice to dream for a second of getting back to life the way it had been before I walked across a desert that wasn't supposed to be there.
Daigoro met us a few blocks away from the port. There was a young boy with red hair standing beside him. That's Holden, I thought. He threw his arms into the air when he saw me and shouted, "Dad!" When he ran to me and jumped in my arms, I thought I'd fall over, but I didn't. I remembered everything.
"You got bigger, pal," I said.
"I missed you, Dad," he said.
"I missed you, too."
"Are we gonna win now?"
"Yeah, we're gonna win now."
When we got to the small apartment where the rest of my family was waiting, I found that all I wanted to do was hold them all and cry. But my arms weren't big enough, and I didn't have enough tears.
I was exhausted. I'd been dead tired before but never anything like that. It went beyond my body and my mind. It went so deep that it felt like it was part of me that would never go away. It rattled me. I lay in bed unable to sleep, and the only thing that made it bearable was the fact that Cherry was in my arms.
"Why are you still awake?" she asked. We'd been lying in bed for a few hours, and I hadn't even been able to close my eyes.
"Why are you awake?" I asked.
"Because something's not right with you."
"Talon, I know better."
"I'm just tired."
"You can't see without using Shaman, and it's killing you."
"It's not killing me. It's just … it's exhausting."
"Maybe you should stay here. Let the others finish the war. All they ever needed was for you to be here."
"No. Not while Rune is playing this game. If he's really turned on us, I might be the only one who can stop him."
"I don't believe he's turned. It doesn't make sense."
"They made him cold."
Cherry shuddered. "Poor thing."
"I would believe they tortured him into being on their side, but he left on purpose."
"Do you think he's trying to help us?"
"I don't know. He's too good at being bad."
"Have you had any other visions about it?"
"Nothing I can make sense out of. I've been afraid to look for answers."
"Maybe you should try."
"But if he really is trying to help us, maybe knowing that would make it harder for him to make Kaylan believe it. I mean, if we act like nothing's wrong, Kaylan would know that Rune wasn't really on his side. But if we honestly believe he's betrayed us, it all works out. He hasn't even done anything yet. He knows where we are. Why wouldn't he tell them to attack us here?"
"Because Kaylan doesn't want you dead."
"We're going to have to go to Xebec."
"I want to go with you."
"No. I need you here. I want someone to come home to."
"I don't want to have to say goodbye to you and not see you for another six years. If you're not coming back, I want to be with you the whole time."
"I'm coming back. I promise."
Cherry sat up and pulled open the drawer of the night table. I could see the ring sparking in her hand when she turned back to me. She slipped the ring on my finger. "You remember our vows?" she asked. "That line about 'til death do us part?"
"I'm not ready for that. You come back to me."
"And don't ever leave me alone like that again. You hear me?"
"I hear you."
She leaned down and kissed me, and I found that I wasn't nearly as tired as I thought I was. I slept after that and dreamed. When I woke up, I couldn't remember my dreams, but they left me with a sense of peace and conclusion. No matter what happened, the war was going to end.
Everyone was still asleep when I got up, so I went into the small kitchen and tried to find coffee. Through the red haze, nothing looked like coffee. I opened containers and smelled them. I knocked things over and cut my finger when a glass shattered in the sink and I tried to pick up the pieces.
"Talon, what the hell are you doing?" Dad asked.
I turned away from the sink. Dad was blinking and rubbing his eyes. "Looking for coffee," I said.
"You're gonna wake everyone up. Sit down. I'll get it. What did you do to your finger?"
"I thought it might look better in the sink than on my hand."
I sat at the kitchen table with my finger in my mouth. Dad wrapped a paper towel around my wounded finger and pulled the coffee out from the cabinet under the sink. "That's not where coffee goes," I said.
"Kore puts it there. I don't know why. And she's always the last one to use it."
My finger had stopped bleeding by the time the coffee was ready.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, Dad said, "You don't have to do this."
"Why does everyone keep saying that? Of course I have to do this. Who the hell else can finish what I started?" I asked.
"You didn't start the war, Talon."
"Yes, I did."
"How? By stopping the pirates?"
"By letting the Republic become the Empire."
"You had no control over that."
"That's the thing, Dad. I did. I had every opportunity to stop the whole thing. I didn't have to run when Shane said I put him up to trying to kill Blackstone. I didn't have to keep running when I realized they were after me. I didn't have to let Daigoro kill her, and I could have told him to kill Kaylan, too. I just let things go on because that was all I ever did. I was never the one who did anything. I never thought I was smart enough to have any influence on things like that. Maybe I'm not. Maybe that's why everything's so fucked up right now. But I don't have any intention of leaving my mess unfinished this time."
"I just don't want to see you get hurt again. I don't want to lose you."
"The last six years haven't been easy. No one even knew if you were alive. For a while, I thought Rune was gonna end up fighting the war by himself. He probably would have just destroyed everything. He was more upset than any of the rest of us were. Then I watched all these people fight and die. No matter how many times we got beat, there were always more people willing to fight. So it doesn't matter if you decide to stay out of it. People want to be free."
"I can't stop until it's finished."
"I wish you'd change your mind."
"Rune left me bullets for my guns that have names on them. It's not everyone who's died, but it's more than enough. Those names are on those bullets because of me. I'm not gonna stop until I've used all those bullets to fix what I fucked up."
"As long as you realize that you have a choice."
But I didn't see the choices the way Dad did. The way I saw it, I could either fight for the universe and give my life for it, or I could sit back and watch and die when all efforts failed. I had to be in the middle of it, and I had to be willing to die. There were too many people who were asking me to save my own life. I wished there was some way I could make them understand how little life meant to me compared to getting rid of the demon and getting the universe back to something tolerable. I wished they could see that it was because of the powers I had that I couldn't stand idly by while others died. If I had thought I could do it alone, I would have, but I really wasn't enough to stand against an empire. That didn't mean I wasn't going to try.
Later on, we sat down to plan, but with so little firepower, it didn't seem there was going to be much we could do. I figured it was best to start small and wait for Irial to get the GLOBE fighters fully armed. So our first objective was to rescue Duncan and Leysa. I was pretty sure I could get to them with no trouble, and Jake could provide more than enough distraction to give us time to get out. Tristan and Kore volunteered for the job, so I decided to take Barrett instead. Kore just wanted to see some action, and in a sense, so did Tristan. I wasn't willing to let Tristan see Jake die. Kore was a good pilot, and I didn't have any doubt that she'd be fine in a battle. She'd spent a lot of time protecting my family, and they were comfortable with her. I didn't want to take her away until I had to. Besides, Holden had a crush on her.
We decided to wait one more day, and that night I had a dream. I couldn't tell where I was. It was cold and dim. The room was full of people talking in low voices, but I wasn't sure they knew I was there. My head felt hollow and raw, like I had been drinking all night and stepped out of the bar to find that it was already noon. I tried to move. I was strapped down. That was nothing new. It seemed like I had spent most of my time strapped down to tables. They seemed to think that if I could move, I'd do something really nasty. Maybe I would.
I was full of tubes. They were in my arms, in my chest and in my head. Some of the tubes were connected to machines. The ones in my head were connected to another head. About two feet to my left, a small girl with pink hair was strapped to a table. Like me, she was full of tubes. She turned her head to look at me. She was terrified. "Don't hurt," she said. She reached her hand out to me. "Don't hurt." I lifted my arm to take her hand, and as soon as our fingers touched, pain tore through my body. I could hear her screaming. Fluids rushed though the tubes. She crushed my hand in hers. The pain faded, and as it did, a curtain of red descended over my sight.
I woke up screaming.
Before we left, I contacted Jake to see if he had found anything else that might have been useful to us.
"I was getting worried about you," Jake said. "I've been trying to contact you and kept getting some kind of interference."
"We made it to Walden City," I said.
"Is it Shaman that's keeping me out?"
"I think so." I didn't want to tell him any more than that. I was worried that Seren might be able to pick up on our contact, and if she found out that I was having a hard time, she might be forced to share that information. If Kaylan found out how weak I really was, he could change his mind about following Rune's advice to wait for us to show up on Xebec.
"I've seen what the demon plans to do with you. There's a machine of some kind that's designed to drain your power and transfer it to someone else. They've been using Duncan and Leysa to test it." He paused, and I felt a wave of anger ripple through him.
"We're coming for them, Jake."
"They may not last that long. They're both weak now. Leysa more so than Duncan. I could - "
"No. I need you to stay alive. If you try anything on your own, you're taking too much of a risk."
"Talon - "
"I said no. Remember, your life is mine."
"All right. I'll wait."
"Yes. Their tracker is missing. She somehow cut the tubes that kept her immobile, killed the guards and vanished. They don't think she's left the building, much less the planet, but I think they're afraid of her."
"That's a good thing."
"For you. If they find her, they'll probably kill her."
"Then we need to get her out of there before they can find her."
"There's one more thing I want to show you." Jake turned his attention to a table behind him. On the table, there were several stacks of old books.
Cold spiders erupted all over me. "Get out of there now."
"Just get out. I know what those are. You have to get out of there."
Behind him, the door slammed open. The contact slipped a little, but I held it. Jake turned around. I saw fire.
"Fuck," I said. "Jake, he's going to kill you. Get away from him."
"So there's the tricky little shadow," Rune said. He shut the door. Through Jake's eyes, I couldn't see much of Rune's fire, but I could see that the outer edges were turning black and that the black was growing. "I've been looking all over for you."
Jake put his hand on his sword. "Rune … "
"Jake, don't fight with him!" I said. "Get out!"
"Don't start," Rune said. "There's nothing you can say. I thought that for once I was going to be the good guy, but then I realized that the good guys aren't gonna win this one. I've been on the wrong side all this time. Why the fuck should I be fighting for the universe when all it's ever given me is pain? I should have known from the very beginning that it would end like this. I should have left it a seething mass of chaos. But it's never too late to start over."
Jake drew his sword. "I will not allow you to do this," he said.
"Silly, silly shadow. You can't beat me with that."
Jake's sword crumbled to dust.
Rune raised his left hand. The magic that had been protecting Jake's armor gathered in a glowing blue ball in his palm. He slipped it into his pocket. "Now what?"
Jake threw a knife at Rune.
Rune caught the blade between both hands with the tip an inch from his face. He tossed the knife to the floor. "You have no tricks I can't see a mile away. And speaking of tricks, how are you holding up, Talon? It's hard, isn't it? It drains you, leaves you half dead. What a shame. Let me show you one of my tricks." He rushed forward so fast that I couldn't even see him, but I felt the knife break through Jake's armor and pierce his heart. "Say good night, Jakey. Show's over."
The contact frayed and fell apart. For a minute, all I saw was darkness. Hollow air rushed around my head, then it popped. My right hand throbbed and burned. I looked at it and watched the warm orange glow of Jake's life turn grey. I clenched my hand. I wondered how I could save the universe if I couldn't even save the life I held in my hand.
"Daddy!" Regan rushed out of her room and collapsed in my arms. "How could he do that?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"That fucking bastard. I swear I'll kill him myself."
"Regan … "
"I hate him."
"Don't say that."
"He said he loved me. He said he'd never loved anyone like he loved me. He said he'd do anything for me. He said he'd do anything for you. How could he just turn his back on us? How could he kill Jake like that? I hate him. I hate him!"
"He won't get away with it. We won't let him."
"Tristan … how can we tell Tristan?"
"We don't. Not yet. I have a feeling he'll know anyway."
Everyone knew something had happened, but I didn't know how to tell them that Rune had killed Jake. All I could manage to get out was that Jake was dead. They guessed the rest. Tristan walked out of the apartment before anyone could stop him. No one went after him.
Cold spiders scurried over my arms. I closed my eyes and waited for a vision. None came. Instead, I heard the voices swirling around my head. I strained to pick out the one that would tell me that I hadn't really seen Rune kill Jake, that it was just some kind of trick, that Rune's fire wasn't turning black. "Undying love" was the only thing I could hear. Bullshit, I thought.
We delayed our rescue mission one more night, and I waited up for Tristan.
I heard him sigh when he came in. "I knew you'd be waiting for me," he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"You can't fix this."
"No, I can't. But I can do something."
"Kill Rune. Please. That's the only way I could possibly stop feeling like this."
"I don't know if I can. That fire is the stuff that made the three stars. It made the whole universe. He can do anything he wants. The only way I could kill him is if he lets me."
"This is why you wanted to separate me and Jake, isn't it? You knew something was going to happen to him."
"To one of you, yeah."
"We were stupid to fall in love."
"Probably. Just like I was stupid to fall in love with a prostitute. But that didn't stop the way I felt about her."
"I'm sorry I walked out."
"I just wanted to make sure you came back. Your part's not done. I still need you."
"I'm worthless now. I can't think. All I wanna do is cry. All I can think about is the last time I saw him and the look in his eyes when he told me he loved me. I'd never seen that before. He really meant it. No one ever meant it like that before. I couldn't even say anything back to him."
"You've got some time. Do whatever you need to do. The others will take care of you."
"I don't want to be a burden."
"Don't walk away from this now, Tristan. You've been here too long. I need good pilots. You're one of the best. Jake didn't die for nothing. And I promise you, Rune won't get away with this. Even if I can't kill him, I'll find a way to make him pay."
"I've been at the church down the street, by the way. I asked God why I had to lose Jake that way. She told me I wasn't the only one who ever lost a lover, and I wasn't the only one who lost Jake. She told me that you saw the whole thing. I don't know how you kept yourself from going to Xebec right then."
"I'm a little too old for rash decisions like that. That's all. It wouldn't have done any good."
"It might have ended the war. In the wrong way."
"We're not losing the war."
I kept saying that. I wanted to believe it. At that point, I wasn't sure I could believe it. But I knew I had to keep saying it. Nothing else would push me through like having everyone believe that what I said was truth.