That arrogant son-of-a-Slug-Mess, Rudo thought to himself, of Peter, as he took the stairway down to the ground floor of the Central Tower. The others would be taking the elevator, and Rudo wanted to avoid them as much as possible. To this day he still really didn't know why he ever let Rolf talk him into becoming an Agent, and he didn't much care either.
Because he's your friend, a mental voice chimed. And that was true; he considered Rolf a friend, and a very good one at that. They had gone through hell together, and they both had the scars to prove it. They all did. But Rolf was the wo rst. He still woke at nights from nightmares, and Rudo knew darn well what he was dreaming about.
("You alien murderer!" Rolf yelled to the Earthling leader. "I loved her! She was like a sister to me! And you and your Hell-Computer took her from me!" With his words, the Agent violently shook the Earthmen's leader. The tears r olled down Rolf's face and mixed with the blood that came from the cut on his forehead. Then Rolf took a step back, and drew the Neisword. Rudo heard him mutter a few words, probably to Lutz, or to Nei. Then he drove his weapon--)
He was dreaming about the battle on Noah -- the last of their trilogy of epic battles. The battle with the men from planet Earth. The people who took Nei from Rolf and who, ironically, helped created her in the first place. Rudo still remembered the sc ene himself, and he would never forget it. All the alien bodies... the genocide of the last members of a dead race.
But they had to do it. They were going to take Mota -- and Algo -- for their own. He and Rolf and Anna and everyone else were protecting their planet. But the blood... all the blood that will always be on their hands...
Sometimes Rudo thought that the Central Gardens should not honor those who lost their lives on Palm, but those who gave their lives after Palm's destruction. Those seven warriors' hearts may beat on, but each of them were changed forever that day on the Earth space ship Noah. Some more than others, but all changed. Rudo knew that he could never once again become the happy man he was when he first married Liz, even if it had worked out between he and Anna. No, none of them would ever be the same. No o ne who saw the scene on Noah would have.
No, Rudo thought, the Gardens should honor the eight heroes, only seven of whom came home alive, who gave their lives for their planet, in one way or another.
Rudo approached the main doors of the Tower and they slid apart to let him pass. He stepped out into main street of Paseo, where a cool breeze struck him with comfort. The street was busy today; the Rebels had been quiet for some time. He glanced over across to the Gardens, and eyed the Palm Memorial from a distance. It seemed no one was there at the time. To Rudo that was good. He liked to pay his respects in private.
Except for the Memorial, the park was bustling with activity. Maybe no one wanted to be reminded of such tragedy on such an otherwise beautiful day. As Rudo walked, he entered the Gardens and walked across the park towards the Memorial. He watched the townspeople, happy now, but panicked and fear-stricken at the uncertain future not so long ago. He noticed two teens playing a game of barton on the barton courts, toddlers playing at the playground while the happy parents watched (he and Liz had done th at with their baby daughter), and a pair of lovers under a tree enjoying a picnic (he and Liz had done that, too). He went up the stone pathway that lead to the Memorial, his eyes on the ground, peripheral vision sweeping over the park. He'd never stopp ed using that unconscious sweep of an area ever since he started using it, a year ago when he joined Rolf's quest to find Mother Brain. But the pathway was spreading out, which meant he had arrived at the Memorial. He looked up...
And jumped when he saw another man.
"Geez!" he said, relieved yet holding his heart all the same. "You gave me a scare, my friend."
Rolf turned to look at him. Anyone who hadn't seen Rolf since before the Mother Brain case would have seen a completely different man. Others, like Rudo, had seen the man change and harden over the months. Rolf looked at his friend with almost blank ey es from an emotionless face. The wind blew his blue bangs away from his eyes, then when it died they fell back into place across his forehead. The yellow headband stuck out; its brightness a sharp contrast to the rest of his face. He nodded to Rudo. " Sorry."
"It's okay," Rudo said and walked towards his friend. Rolf was simply going up and down the list of names of those who died, something he did quite often, reading every name silently to himself. He once told Rudo he would always do this until he had the list completely memorized, forward, backward, and in-between. Rudo had asked why, but Rolf never gave an answer.
"We missed you at the meeting," Rudo said after ten minutes of silent prayers and respects from both of them.
"Why bother?" Rolf asked. "Just to hear Commander's options -- which I've already heard a hundred times, quite literally, and they never get any better or more sensible -- and to hear Peter say I'm crazy. Who cares?"
Rudo nodded. "That's about it," he said. The former Hunter turned and looked across the park to where they wanted to build a statue to Nei. The same they that Rolf rescued Nei from in the first place. Rudo was strongly against it. He was afrai d if they did Rolf really would go insane. Commander said he probably wouldn't but Rudo had visions of Rolf standing in front of it, day and night, blue sky and rain, just staring.
His head turned towards the barton court, where the two kids were just leaving. He caught a whiff of a scent, paused, and then took a good sniff to try and catch it again. Sure enough...
"Get down!" Rudo yelled, drawing his Sonic Gun.
Rolf turned and looked at him, the long coat he wore over his Agent uniform flopping in the air. He drew his Sonic Gun and shed the coat on the ground and then they heard the explosion.
The barton court went up in a ball of flame as the dynamite bomb Rudo smelt exploded. The barton players fell to the ground, then ran. The parents grabbed their children from the playground equipment and ran from the Gardens.
But the picnicing "lovers" stood, grabbing lasers from the picnic basket. The female threw off the wig she wore and let her blond hair fall back into the ponytail it was tied in. The man ripped off his shirt, revealing a Guardian uniform underneath, and popped an energy clip in his laser.
Then the Rebels, who planted the bomb, came seemingly from nowhere, most of them armed with rifles. Rudo and Rolf were crouched behind the bushes that separated the Memorial area from the rest of the Gardens as they watched more Guardians and more Rebels come from nowhere out onto the park grounds, which was quickly becoming a battlefield.
Rolf met Rudo's eyes. "Who do we side with?" Rudo asked.
"As Agents," Rolf said, "neither. We bring both of them in."
"We have allies on the Guardians."
Rudo nodded. "And Anna could be out there right now."
They both stood from where they were behind the bushes and aimed their Sonic Guns. Rolf saw one Rebel was attacking a Guardian hand-to-hand, winning at that, and had the Guardian down, about to fire his rifle point-blank. Just then a sonic blast ripped through the air with a screeching whine. The blast punctured the Rebel's chest, and the Rebel fell. The Guardian stood, taking the Rebel's rifle, and glanced over near where Rolf crouched. He saluted.
A female Guardian came up behind him and uttered orders, probably to keep fighting. The Guardian whose life Rolf saved ran off, and Rolf and the woman met eyes, saying paragraphs in just a split-second eye contact. Anna nodded to him, and her friend Rol f nodded back. Then he motioned to Rudo and they leapt over the bushes and joined the battle on the field.
Rudo ran to Anna's side. "Hello, Anna," he said.
"Cover me, Steiner," was her response. Rudo stood by her side, firing at Rebels with his Sonic Gun, as Anna tossed a pair of AC Slashers out into the Rebels small gatherings. After a few throws they were returning with blood on them.
Rolf was joining the younger Guardians, and he was pleased to note that they were seeing him only as an ally, not one of the men they had sworn to protect in their oaths as Guardians.
The Guardians and Rolf stood their ground on the playground equipment, like overgrown kids playing some kind of war game. Rolf stood at the top of the popular, large, wooden maze area. At one part of this contraption was a balcony where kids could overl ook the whole Gardens, and Rolf stood here, his Sonic Gun holstered, using a rifle a Guardian handed him from a fallen Rebel to snipe Rebel attackers.
Anna and Rudo stood behind the tree that she and the male undercover Guardian posted themselves at. She had decided the AC Slashers weren't much help, and she had armed herself with her laser. Using five shots, she took out six Rebels, then crouched beh ind Rudo to assess the situation.
The Guardians were winning. Once again, Anna thought, Kip hasn't let me down. Kip was her best Guardian, and the one who went undercover and into a Rebel camp to get the information about this bombing.
Her train of thought was broken. "Anna," Rudo said, "they're retreating!"
She looked over the battlefield that used to be the Central Gardens. Sure enough, the Rebels were climbing into whatever holes they sunk into. The Guardian leader grabbed a radio on her waist and spoke into it. "Guardians, this is Anna," she began. "T he Rebels are backing off. Let them go. Then we have to back off as well... All Guardians are to be back to base in five minutes."
Then as an afterthought she smiled and added, "Good job, people. We'll celebrate tonight." Cheers went up throughout the Gardens. She looked up to Rudo's face, and he smiled back. Long ago there were times when neither of them would smile, least of al l at each other; times when Rudo was a Hunter and Anna was a Guardian whose job was protecting townspeople from the Hunters. But God knows things had changed ohh so much...
The Agent offered her a hand in congratulations. She stood, ignored the hand, and hugged him tight. After a few moments, she whispered, "I've missed you, Rudo."
"I've missed you, too."
The embrace was broken off by the voice of another man. "Sorry to interrupt, Anna, but the Rebels have gone to apparently pre-arranged coordinates and have been teleported."
Rudo knew this guy had to be important, as he called her "Anna" and not "Ma'am" or "Leader" or something else appropriate. Anna walked to him and hugged him as well. "Thanks to you, Kip, all this was possible."
Kip blushed. "Aww, it was nothing." Rudo recognized Kip as the Guardian that was staked out with Anna at the beginning of the battle. He also knew that this was one good Guardian, a darn good one. "But, really, we have to get out of here."
Anna nodded, and looked to Rudo. "Back to base," she sighed.
"No," Rolf said as he joined the scene, "come to our place. For at least a little while."
Anna hugged him as well. During their quest one year ago, and even more so in its aftermath, Anna and Rolf had become very good friends. No one understood Rolf more than Anna, with the possible exception of Rudo and the definite exception of his childho od (and best) friend, the Thief Shir. Without those three, Rolf would probably be in a padded cell rather than an Agent's uniform. His mind was so fragile when he returned from space, it took great friends who knew how to walk on the egg shells and piec e them back together to get Rolf to where he was now. Friends like Rudo, Anna, and Shir.
They released one another and she looked into his eyes, hoping to see but a glimpse of the man she knew before battling Earthmen on the Starship Noah. But she didn't, and deep down inside she wondered if she ever would. Instead, she forgot about the fai led attempt, and nodded. "Yeah, that sounds great. Kip's invited, too, right?"
Rolf looked Kip over. He was fairly short, about a head shorter than Anna, but that made him lithe and agile. Besides the guns he had hidden on him, he also had a staff, apparently his hand-to-hand weapon of choice, and with one look Rolf could tell he knew how to use it as well.
"Of course he is," he said. "Let's just get out of here before the Agents arrive."
"But you two are the Agents," she smiled. Then she radioed a man with the message that she and Kip wouldn't be returning to base until later.
The dinner was incredible. It was a regular cooked meal, not the standard replicated dishes they were all used to. And for sure they were all hungry as bears after the little "incident" in the Gardens.
Rolf went to bed shortly after dinner. Anna gave him a Visiphone number where she could be reached every once in a while, and a radio frequency, complete with an encryption code, where she could be reached anytime.
Anna dismissed Kip to return back to base. He looked at her for a second, then decided not to question his boss. Kip left the house and proceeded to return to base.
Which left Anna and Rudo alone, facing each other as they sat on the couch. "I, uhh," Rudo fumbled, "couldn't help but notice you couldn't take your eyes off me at dinner."
"Oh, I see," she smiled. "And why is it that you couldn't help but notice, Mr. Steiner?"
"Because I couldn't take my eyes off you."
They laughed for a moment. A good laugh, straight out of the good times. Then there was a pause. Her smile vanished. "We need to talk about things."
Rudo's face showed some confusion. "What's there to talk about?" he asked. "You told me there wasn't room in your heart for me."
"I thought there wasn't. But even if there was..." She trailed off, shrugging her shoulders.
"Well... I'm a Guardian. I'm their leader. And you're an Agent. And as an Agent, one of your missions is to bust up the Guardians." She let out a breath, which came out as more of a sigh than she would have liked it to. "It wouldn't work, that 's all. Because I would never give up my job, and I wouldn't ask you to give up yours."
"I don't really like my job, anyways. I'd give mine up..."
"No," she shook her head. "I wouldn't let you."
There was another long pause. Rudo turned his head and looked out the window. She'd dismissed Kip back to base...
"Were you planning on spending the night?" he asked hesitantly.
She smiled at him. It was her mischievious grin. "Yes. I am."
He smiled back. "Besides Rolf's bed, there's only one other one in the whole house."
Her grin widened. "I know. That's why you'll be sleeping out here on the sofa."
He dropped his head to the couch, buried his face in the soft padding. Anna laughed, ran a hand through his fuzzy crew cut. When he looked up, she was in his room, and a second later, she'd closed the door behind her.
Kip left Rolf's house from the back, and hopped through back yards, a long, Guardian standard overcoat shrouded over his uniform. When he reached the end of the street, he was at an unlit corner.
Slowly, taking his time, he swept the street for signs of anyone, anything. Late-night walkers, patrolling Agents, Musk Cats, anything. When he was sure it was clear, he sprinted across and slid into the sewer grating, and into the underground tu nnels below.
Paseo, and every other city on Mota, had stopped using the old sewage systems with the advent of toilets that converted wastes to energy. It was a win/win scenario: more energy sources and no need for a sewage system. The hell of it was that it was one of Mother Brain's inventions.
Kip was silent, as he had no idea of who was on the street above, if anyone. So he quietly ran through the tunnels that led to the main Guardian base tunnels. As he was within a few blocks of the junction (the main base was underground, somewhere below the woods between Arima and Paseo), he heard two distinct voices on the street above. Without noise, he shrunk up against a wall of the dark tunnel, lit only by what street light came through the grating, and peered onto the street.
The two Rebels he heard were crouched behind bushes, hiding. The only thing was that these bushes were right in front of the grating Kip was looking through, so not only did he hear every word, he also saw them very clearly. Of course, this also made hi m an easy target as well, so absolute silence had to be maintained, or else the entire Guardian base could fall.
"We weren't at the coordinates on time, Johnny," the first Rebel said. "So now we have to make our way back to main HQ before Ricktus kills us." Kip silently drew a notebook and wrote down the name Ricktus. It was either their supervisor, or the Rebel leader himself. Then he listened on.
"Don't load yer pants, Sid," Johnny said. "Here's all we have to do. We sneak outta Paseo -- which will be easy -- and we make our way to the Arima bunker. Then we buy a teleport at Arima to Oputa, and from there its just a couple mile hike into the wo ods."
Sid nodded. "Yeah, and we could radio Ricktus from the bunker..."
"Exactly," Johnny agreed. He stood, and offered Sid a hand to help him up as well. It wasn't so much to help physically as it was to help mentally; to give encouragement that the plan would work.
The two Rebels started to walk away, and as they did Kip tucked away his notebook and grabbed a tracker off his belt, aiming for Sid as he pushed the button. The light on the small device flashed on, which was the confirmation that it was recording. Now , when he slid the small coin-like tracking object into a computer, he would get exact coordinates of where they were, as long as they remained on-planet. (Not hard considering the one space ship still on Mota was in the hands of the Agents.)
But this itself was just to prove to Kip with physical evidence what he already knew in his gut. He knew there were woods outside Oputa, and he knew there was an abandoned building a few miles into those woods that would serve as the perfect base for the Rebels. Their nifty teleporters would have plenty of room and power was no worry. Anna and he had even discussed the possibility of this being the location of their base, but never seriously, nor did they reveal it to any other Guardian.
Once he got confirmation, it would be the time. The time to tell the Guardians that the Rebels were using the building that was once called Biosystems Lab as their headquarters.
I'm glad that's over with. Now I can sleep better.
|Please send all comments and feedback to mike at ripplinger dot us|