In a random storage room somewhere on board the Sunstrider, Jazz Rhodes stood facing the far wall. She held a baseball that Tabbris had found somewhere in her hand. Giving the wall a long, discerning look, she wound up and hurled the ball.
It flew that way, but before the ball would have hit the wall, it passed close to one of the gravity manipulation orbs that she had set up. The ball was sent in a diagonal direction toward the corner. It bounced off one wall of the corner before starting to drop to the floor. Before it could land however, the ball hit another one of the gravity orbs, and was launched upward and back the way it had come, toward the middle of the room.
A third and final gravity orb, positioned near the ceiling almost directly above Jazz, caught the flying ball and send it downward. By that time, she had picked up a bat that had been leaning against the wall. As the ball dropped, she readied herself before swinging. The bat caught the falling ball, sending it back toward the wall, where it was caught in the same loop of gravity orbs guiding it around the room and back up to drop in front of Jazz once more for another round.
It wasn’t perfect. The ball simply falling from the ceiling wasn’t as good as it would have been to have it shooting at her like a pitching machine. But Jazz had not yet figured out how to set one of her gravity orbs so that it would be strong enough to shoot the ball toward her without making that same orb stop the ball as she hit it in that direction to begin with. And she couldn’t just keep hitting the ball to a gravity orb and have it shot right back at her. She needed the delay that the roundabout route provided so that she could get the bat back on her shoulder and get ready again. This was the best compromise that she had come up with so far.
“Personally, I’m more of a rugby fan.” The voice came from behind Jazz, and she spun to see a handsome blond man with a thin, neatly trimmed mustache standing there, arms folded loosely as he regarded her contemplatively. “On the other hand, baseball does have that lovely bat. You could just give all the rugby players bats, but then I suppose we’ve just reinvented gladiators.”
The flames around Jazz’s falchion roared to life even as she hauled it into position, the bat clattering to the ground at her feet. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded, keeping the sword up while taking a quick step over toward the nearby intercom panel. She’d hit the alarm, hopefully before this chucklefuck tried whatever it was that he was going to do. “How’d you get on this ship? We’re in… hyperspace, or warp, or… whatever the hell we’re in. We’re moving.”
“Jazz, it’s okay.” That voice came from behind the strange man, as Haiden Moon poked his head in the room. He nodded to her reassuringly. “He’s not a threat. He’s… ehhh. He’s an ass for not waiting for me, but he’s definitely not a threat. Not to us, at least.”
The man himself shrugged. “I wanted to see her reaction. I wanted to see how she’d act if I surprised her, if anyone surprised her. Good reaction time. Good instincts. She didn’t try to attack me. She kept her guard up to make me come toward her, and went for the alarm.”
“Um, excuse me?” Jazz stared at the two. “What the hell is going on? Why is there–that’s a Seosten, right? Another Seosten? He’s probably not human, but he didn’t set off the Heretic sense, and he looks like a fucking movie star, so I’m guessing Seosten. So what the hell? Is this one of Athena’s buddies or something?”
A small smile seemed to play at the strange man’s face as he gave a slight nod. “You could say that we’re old friends, sure. Just reunited after a pretty long time, actually.”
Jazz continued to squint at him for another moment before her eyes widened. At the same instant, the flames on her sword went out as she abruptly lowered it, her arm dropping.
“You’re an Olympian,” she blurted out loud, the words coming almost before she knew them.
A broad smile stretched across the man’s face then, as he remarked, “Now you see, I knew she was a sharp one. Picks things up quick. But what I really–” He paused, glancing over his shoulder toward the other man. “Do you mind giving us a minute here?”
Haiden looked to Jazz, raising an eyebrow. “You think you’ll be okay? Like I said, he’s safe.”
Biting her lip, the girl shrugged hesitantly. “If you say he’s safe, then I guess he’s safe.”
Nodding, Haiden gave the man a brief look before stepping back out. “Let us know if you need anything,” he called while leaving the two alone in the room.
Dismissing her gravity orbs as she sheathed her sword once more, Jazz squinted at the Seosten. “I didn’t know Athena had any Olympian allies she could get to come help. Who, uh, who are you? Or were you, or… whatever.”
“Me?” The man gave a languid shrug. “I’m called Apollo. Among other names, some of them flattering, others really not. Depends on how much I’ve ticked off whoever’s talking about me.”
Starting a bit, Jazz blinked that way. She had been expecting some minor Olympian that Athena had managed to call in. “Apollo? You mean Vanessa and Tristan’s… uncle, basically? But y-you were back on Earth. Athena said you were trapped, that there was no way to get you here.”
That charming smile came back as the man gestured. “Oh, trust me, she was pretty surprised to see me. Like I said, this was a bit of a reunion. We’ll have some catching up to do later.”
Jazz’s voice came bluntly. “So why aren’t you doing that?” She paused and glanced down for a second, considering her own words briefly before looking up again. “I mean, why’re you talking to me instead of her?”
Shrugging once more, Apollo replied, “We’ll have plenty of time to talk. Right now I thought it’d be interesting to get your story. I do like those, you know. Stories are kind of my thing.”
“My story?” Despite herself, Jazz snorted. “You don’t want my story. You want a good story, you should talk to like, Flick, or Roxa, or… I dunno, somebody important. Even Sands or Gordon.”
Arching an eyebrow at the question, Apollo asked, “Well, what makes you think you’re not important? You’re out here too, same as they are.”
Jazz’s head shook. “It’s not the same. You don’t know me, but just believe me, you’d be better off getting a story from one of them. The only reason I’m out here is because of a total accident. I just happened to be part of the team that was being manipulated against Flick. And the only reason I’m even a Heretic is because my people didn’t have any other choice. I’m here because your people saw me as easily manipulated and expendable, and I’m a Heretic because I was literally the last choice. So, like I said, you want a good story, talk to one of the real Heretics.”
For a moment after she had finished with that, Apollo said nothing. He simply stood there, watching her in silence before slowly letting out a long, low breath. Instead of speaking then, he walked around the girl, stooping casually to pick up the ball that had fallen forgotten to the floor. “Grab that bat,” he instructed while moving out toward the middle of the room.
Jazz blinked, but went ahead and did so anyway. Plucking the bat from the floor, she turned to ask, “What are you–”
“Bat,” the man interrupted while winding up. “Let’s see your swing, huh?”
Jazz quickly set herself, and a moment later, the ball was thrown her way. It wasn’t a hard pitch, and the bat easily connected with it, sending the ball flying up over Apollo’s head.
Surreal. This was so fucking surreal. She was playing baseball, sort of, with the Apollo. What the hell was his deal? What was this all about?
The ball bounced off the far wall, and Apollo caught it on the rebound. Turning back to her, he asked, “You like baseball?” As he spoke, the man wound up before pitching once more.
Shrugging one shoulder slightly, Jazz waited until the ball came close enough for her to swing once more. With a crack, the ball was sent back out again while she replied, “It’s okay. Mostly it’s… um, Jokai. Sands was telling him about it, and he really likes it. So I was trying to practice and set something up for him to play.”
That time, Apollo jumped, catching the ball as it passed over his head. “Jokai?” he echoed, his tone curious. “That sounds like a Eulsen name.”
Head bobbing quickly, Jazz confirmed, “Yeah, that’s what Jokai said his species is called. He’s um–” She smiled, the words coming far more easily than she had ever thought they would. “He’s my boyfriend. And he liked what Sands was telling him about baseball, so I wanted to set something up for him.” Shrugging, she kicked a bit at the floor. “Maybe it was dumb, but–”
“Hey, no.” Shaking his head, Apollo tossed the ball once more. “Doing something nice for someone you care about isn’t dumb.”
Jazz swung once more. However, at the last second, the ball slipped out of the way and her bat whiffed through the air. “Hey,” she complained, “that was a curveball.”
The man nodded easily. “Yup,” he confirmed. “Life does throw those at us sometimes. You wanna grab it?”
With a snort, she moved to do so. “You trying to teach me some kind of object lesson or something? We don’t even know each other.”
“Oh,” Apollo drawled slowly, “I think I know you a little better than you might think, Jasmine.” With that, the man cleared his throat before dramatically reciting, “I can’t marry you, Elaine. My elephant won’t fit in your bedroom. Also, kissing is gross. But mostly the elephant.”
Dual thuds filled the room then, as Jazz dropped both the bat and the ball one after the other. Her eyes widened, and she stared at the man. “How did you—how could–what–what?! That’s my–my… that’s the–I wrote that when I was eight years old. It was for a stupid little movie I wanted to make. How could you know about that? How–”
“I’m a Seosten,” Apollo replied. “We never forget anything, remember?”
“But when did you read it?!” Jazz’s voice rose as she flailed a bit. “My friends and me, we recorded some of it for that show and tell thing, but… but you–were you… wait, we had a substitute that day, didn’t we…?”
“I believe he was introduced to you as Mr. Watterson,” Apollo confirmed. “Technically, his real name was Albert Pusch, but I didn’t want anything leading back to him later. Thus, the fake identity. He and I made a deal. I got to borrow him for a few days to teach your class, and in exchange, he got enough money to quit his construction job and go back to school for his real passion: architecture. I made sure he won an award that would pay any of his tuition, and take care of his room and board until he graduated.”
Working her mouth a little, Jazz slowly shook her head. “You… you paid a guy with a full scholarship, rent, and food for an entire education just so you could use his body to substitute teach my class?”
Grinning, Apollo offered her a shrug. “I mean, come on, it’s not like I don’t have the money to spare.”
Her voice was a loud squeak of, “That’s not the point!” Flushing, Jazz took a breath before reiterating, “It’s not the point. Why would you do that? Why would you be so interested in some stupid little video project I did when I was eight years old?”
“It wasn’t just that project,” the man informed her. His voice was soft, all traces of teasing and joviality having vanished. “Jasmine, I have seen every video project you’ve ever made. I have read every script you wrote, watched every home movie you made up. I know that you wanted to make movies for basically your entire life. And believe me, you’d be amazing at it. I was really looking forward to seeing your name in Hollywood.”
“You…” Jazz bit her lip, taking a reflexive step back. “Honestly, you’re starting to creep me out a little bit. Are you like… obsessed with me or something?” Her hand wandered back toward the weapon at her hip.
Coughing at that, Apollo admitted dryly, “Yeah, I could probably be explaining this better, couldn’t I?” His voice softened once more, as he met her gaze. “Jasmine, I paid attention to you because I pay attention to all of the descendants of my people. I wanted you to have every chance you could possibly have because I believed you were really that good. I read and watched everything you put out because I wanted to see how you grew, because… I knew that given the chance, you could be one of the best filmmakers out there. And I wanted to know your work before you were famous.”
There was a lot to decipher through that, but the first part of it struck Jazz soldily. “Wait–your people? What do you mean, the descendants of your people?”
His voice was kind as the man replied, “The Torchbearers, Jasmine. They were my people. I… when the six original families left, I helped them. I guided them, though most of them didn’t know it. Only the leaders were aware of what was happening. I helped them understand the Seosten manipulations. We wanted to have a group that would help people, that was outside of the normal political rivalries between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden that the Empire was nurturing.”
Well, that made Jazz’s mouth fall open. “Y-you… you… you created the Torchbearers?!”
He winked. “Well, I was Lucifer the Lightbringer.”
“Lightbringer,” Jazz echoed, the realization dawning on her. “Lightbringer, Torchbearer. I–oh.” She rocked backward, the full weight of that knowledge making her eyes widen. “You… you’re the one who… oh. Oh, my God.”
The man grinned broadly at that. “Only if you’re really into the sun and poetry.”
Jazz barely heard him. She was still stunned, her mouth opening and shutting several times as the girl only managed to weakly repeat several times, “You’re the one who started the Torchbearers. You’re the one who started the Torchbearers. You started them. It was your group. They were–we were–we’re… Oh. Oh Gods. You’re… you’re…” Her voice had fallen, turning softer and softer with each word as she slowly raised her gaze to stare at the man.
And then she lunged that way, fist flying as she swung at the man, voice rising to a shrill shout. “Where were you?!”
He let her hit him. Jazz knew that, somewhere in the back of her mind as her fist connected with his chest. She knew that he could have avoided it a thousand times over, if he wanted to. But she didn’t care. Her fist swung again, then the other one. She punched the man’s unyielding body repeatedly while demanding, “Where the hell were you?! Where the fuck were you?! They died! They all fucking died! You could have stopped it! You could have saved them! You could have fucking saved them! Where the hell were you?! God damn you! God damn you! Fuck you! Where were you, God damn it!? Where were you when they were dying?! You let them die, you asshole! You let them fucking die! They’re gone! They were supposed to be here, not me! They were the good ones, and they’re dead because you didn’t do anything! Where were you?!”
She stopped, fists falling limply to her side as her head dropped as well. Tears blinded the girl, falling freely as she repeated one last time, her voice hoarse and broken. The words had been a demand. Now they were a plea.
“Where were you?”
For a few long seconds, her words were met with silence. Then, the girl felt his hands find her shoulders. As she lifted her eyes to blink at him through the tears, Apollo spoke gently. “I’m sorry, Jasmine. You’re right. I wasn’t there.”
He let out a breath then. “You always think that… if you live long enough, losing people, failing people, will get easier. Because it happens so often. But it always hurts. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m sorry I couldn’t help them. They died and if I had been there, I could have stopped it. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
“If it helps anything at all, I can tell you that the monsters who murdered them are dead now. I know it’s too little, too late. But they’re dead. Every last one of them.”
“You’re right,” Jazz replied in a voice that cracked slightly. “It doesn’t help very much.” With a sharp headshake, she added, “But I guess you’re suffering too. I mean, you had all those great potential choices to be the next Lightwalker, and look at what you end up with. I don’t blame you for being ticked off about it.”
“Hey.” His hands squeezed her shoulders a little more firmly, before the man moved two fingers under her chin. “I mourn their deaths, and grieve for what could have been. But not because they were better than you.”
Stepping back then, Apollo continued. “I mourn them because of who they were, and who they could have been. I grieve for the people they could have saved, if they had lived. That’s not in comparison to you, or to anyone else.” He paused, before adding quietly, “And you are wrong about something else.”
“Wrong?” she echoed, her own hoarse, cracked voice sounding foreign to her ears.
He gave a slight nod. “You keep saying that you’re only a Heretic because there was no other choice. But there was a choice. Yours. They died. They were murdered and you were the only one left. But you didn’t have to accept it, Jasmine. You could have walked away like you were planning to do that whole time. You could have gone to California. You could have gone after your dream. Making movies was what you always wanted, always. Since you were a little girl, that was everything to you. And then they died, and you gave it up. You gave up your dream, and went to be a Heretic. Even though it wasn’t what you wanted. Even though you were scared. Even though you still, still don’t think that you’re good enough. You did it anyway.”
Trembling a little, Jazz crossed her arms over her stomach, rocking back and forth on her heels. Words completely failed her, as she tried to speak repeatedly, only for nothing to emerge save for a few empty sounds.
Apollo’s voice, however, was firm and strong. “Listen to me, Jasmine Rhodes. This will never come easily to you. As hard as you work at it, there will be others who put in a fraction of your effort, and yet, they will surpass you.”
“You know,” Jazz started weakly as her voice cracked, “if this is supposed to be some kind of pep ta–”
She was stopped as the man continued. “That is why I choose you.”
“Wait–what?” Blinking up at that, the girl started a bit. “What do–you didn’t… huh?”
Apollo smiled faintly. “Jasmine, you will never be the most powerful Heretic out there. You will never be the best fighter. And what you do manage, you will have to work twice or three times as hard as others to get to. You will work your ass off every day to get as far as you do, even if it’s never good enough to hit the top. Others will be better than you while putting in half the work. You’ll scrape and claw just to reach what others would look down on as average.
“But you’ll do it. You’ll do it because you know something those other people don’t. You know what’s out there. You know what you’re up against. You know what will happen if you fail. You will work and sweat and bleed because you know that it’s worth it.
“That is why you are my chosen one, Jasmine. Not because you’re the best. Because you will earn it.”