Far, far above the ravaged and beaten mess of the Central Tower; higher even than the terraforming gasses high in Mota's atmosphere waiting to mix with the deadly F-5 gas; and across the solar system from Esper Mansion; an abandoned and half-destroyed spacecraft circled Mota.
The spacecraft's name was Noah. Built in a solar system far from Algo aproximately 1200 years ago, it once housed the last survivors of a doomed planet called Earth. Only one year ago had its long voyage finally come to an end, when Rolf and his friends defended Algo by defeating the last survivors of the planet from which it came.
After the Earthmen had been killed, Rolf had looked at the ship around him, and called upon strength from deep within to use the Megid technique. He and his friends were magically transported back to Esper Mansion shortly after, but they saw enough to know that the Earthmen's control room, where the epic battle had taken place, was completely obliterated. As the room's atmosphere blew out into space, so did the bodies of the Earthmen. Rolf, Rudo, Amy, Anna, Hugh, Kain, and Shir left Esper Mansion and returned home to Mota changed people at such a sight.
But just how abandoned and how powerless was Noah, still orbiting the planet the Earthmen had tried to take for their own? Any ship that passed through Algo (and besides the Hell Runner, not many did) and scanned the remains of Noah would have found no power signatures, no life support, and no life signs.
But they would have been wrong.
Though Dezo's "official" space program was advancing at a slow rate, the New Order's space program was alive and flourishing. D'zkot had already sent troops to spaceports and inhabited systems all over this sector of the galaxy, seeking goods and materials to use in the building of his New Order. In fact, unbeknownst to Tyler, every Dezorian the Space Pirate had ever seen outside of Algo worked for D'zkot.
Ironically, though, D'zkot didn't even have to leave Algo to find his biggest, most valuable prize. He'd known for some time what the people of Mota still didn't know; that the Palmans had developed huge colony ships with which to explore space. D'zkot often thought about how to get his hands on one of the ships, but once Mother Brain's true intentions became clear to the Palmans, the ships had been used as escape pods for evacuation on a global scale.
After Rolf fought the Earthmen, and destroyed a good portion of the Noah spacecraft, its cloaking field dropped for the first time in 1000 years. D'zkot could not believe his eyes when he read the first reports about the treasure that orbitted Mota. The New Order quickly took over the spacecraft, restoring power and rebuilding the damaged systems. Quite helpful in this undertaking was the fact that D'zkot did finally manage to get his hands on one of the Palman ships. It seems that one of the ships headed for Mota, but its life support systems failed shortly after it was launched. The New Order quickly moved in. Presently, D'zkot kept the ship in its orbit around Mota, a cloaking field hiding it from discovery and subsequent salvage by the Palmans.
He'd had to build a new control room to replace the one that Rolf destroyed, but with that out of the way, D'zkot and his New Order had restored the Earth space ship Noah to full operating capabilities, and now used it as their main headquarters.
It was in Noah's conference room that D'zkot now stood, facing a table of his highest ranking lieutenants and closest advisors. The "power" these men had was most certainly all but smoke and mirrors. D'zkot, and D'zkot alone, ran the New Order.
D'zkot now wore the kem'pallah that showed his rank to be that of Pai'tekkan. R'Ayln, the new Sinc'tekkan, sat in the first chair to D'zkot's left. There were three others at the table, and all eyes were on D'zkot.
"As you can see, I have accomplished everything I promised I would," D'zkot told his men in the Pennzat language. "We have our space program, the incompetent fool K'Cren is dead, and I now rule Dezo.
"The next step is to conquer Mota. Then I will rule the entire solar system." He grinned and pointed out the window at the space beyond Algo. "This is completely unheard of out there. The Dezorians will be feared, and the rest of the galaxy will equate the name of your Pai'tekkan with domination."
"Pai'tekkan D'zkot," one of the men at the table, N'Echy, said, "I trust your methods completely. They have yet to fail. But how do you plan to take Mota?"
D'zkot smiled, a sinister smile that showed the pride he took in his insane work. "In the databanks of the computer that used to run this ship -- the Mother Brain that held Mota in her electronic palm -- I discovered this ship's previous owners' plan for cleaning off Mota before taking it themselves. Immediately after she was brought on-line, Mother Brain began pumping gasses into Mota's atmosphere through Climatrol, gasses that eventually worked to change Mota from a sandball into a world of green. The Palmans living there never knew that these gasses would also react with a substance the Earthmen created known as F-5.
"When we send millions upon millions of gallons of this chemical into Mota's atmosphere, the friction of its planetary entry will heat it into its gaseous state, where it will mix with the terraforming gasses and create a new gas -- heavier than oxygen and quite unbreathable. It will cool down on the surface, and oxygen will return..." He paused and the grin widened. "...but only after everyone on Mota has suffocated to death."
The asembled Dezorians had no idea D'zkot's scheme was already so well-planned. Their surprise soon turned to flat-out shock.
"Neither the government Agents nor the Guardians will have any time to stop this from happening," D'zkot added, "because the Rebels are keeping them busy."
"You certainly know how to take advantage of a situation, Pai'tekkan," said another man at the table.
"On the contrary, reisha I'Glos, I did more than take advantage of the situation. I created it. I control the group of Rebels on Mota." Shocked looks floated across the faces assembled around the table, except R'Ayln's, who was already in on the plan. He looked at D'zkot with admiration. "Rolf, King of Algo? They want nothing of the sort. Their sole purposes are to manufacture F-5 and to keep Mota's government busy." A twisted smile appeared on D'zkot's face. "And to use the word 'busy' to describe the Agents at this hour is a bit of an understatement.
"I have just received word that my Rebels have succeeded not only in capturing the leader of the Guardians, but in nearly destroying Paseo's Central Tower, as well. Many on Mota consider the raid a failure as only ten of the Rebels captured yesterday are now free, but freeing the prisoners was never a priority, only an added bonus. Yes, this may be the incident that finally unites the Agents and the Guardians, but they will be united in--" His voice took on a saracstic tone. "--an altruistic effort to save lives and rebuild the damage--" Returning his voice back to its sinister timbre: "--that they won't even have time to notice they're dead."
D'zkot's men sat, stunned at their leader's genius. The Pai'tekkan himself just smiled and enjoyed their thoughts of admiration; thoughts none except R'Ayln knew he could read. Finally, after many moments of silence, N'Echy spoke up again. "One more question, Pai'tekkan: why are the Rebels manufacturing the F-5 for you? Don't they know that, when it lands on Mota, it will kill them, too?"
D'zkot could not hold in his laughter any longer. "The beautiful answer, reisha N'Echy, is no, they do not. And by the time they do realize it, they'll be on their planet gasping for air, wondering what went so horribly wrong."
"All right, Tyler," Rolf said as he flipped on the Paseo's comm systems, "I'm taking her in for final approach now. You're going to keep the Hell Runner in oribit, right?"
"That's right," Tyler's voice confirmed over the comm channel. "You're coming back to Dezo after you tell the Central Tower about F-5?"
"Yes. Lutz should be awake by now. He and I have to figure out what to do about this... 'D'zkot,' Lutz said his name was."
"Well Toasterhead and I will just cloak the Hell Runner and wait here for you, okay?"
"Sounds good," Rolf said. "And thanks again, El, for fixing up the Paseo. You didn't have to stay up all night or take the trouble of space walking out of the Hell Runner to do it, though."
"Rolf, " L-479's artifical voice came back, "I am a Palman government Polezi model robot. I do not sleep or breathe, so 'staying up all night' and spacewalking are not obstacles I try to avoid."
"Ohh, for crying out loud," Rolf heard Tyler over the comm, "he was trying to joke with you, Toasterhead!"
"Apparently I only understand your humor, Tyler," L-479 conceeded.
Rolf smiled and entered Mota's atmosphere. He changed his comm frequency to inform the Central Tower of his approach, but received no reply. "Central Tower? I repeat, this is Agent Rolf in the Paseo. I'm coming in for a landing."
Still no reply. And once Rolf broke through the cloud cover, he saw why.
The Paseo's landing pad was gone along with the rest of the Central Tower's roof. All Rolf could do was stare. Had Dark Force himself awakened and decided to simply step on the headquarters of Mota's Agents and crush it like an ant?
Rolf altered his approach vector to land between the two north Control Towers. For some reason, these also were swarming with Agents. Good, Rolf thought, not only can they look after the Paseo, but they can answer a few questions, too.
Rudo and Kain sat in chairs outside of Shir's hospital room. The Hunter-turned-Agent sat with his head bowed while the Wrecker-turned-Mechanic stared into the distance, rubbing his arm, the break in which was fixed but was still stinging with pain.
Kain heard the sound of a pair of boots approaching. He glanced down the hall and immediately jumped from his seat. "Rolf!" he cried.
Rudo stood, too, to meet his friend and fellow Agent. "How is she?" was Rolf's first question.
"The doctor just got done with her," Rudo said. "They said it's a good thing we administered trimate when we did. It probably saved her life." Rolf's body visibly relaxed with relief. "They said that with a good night's sleep she'll be ready to leave in the morning, but she needs to get a few days bed rest at home."
"They probably want to kick her out," Kain threw in, "so she can make room for others. It was terrible, Rolf. There's a lot of hurt people, some real, real bad. And some of the worst hurt weren't even in the building, just passing by!"
Rolf nodded. "I can believe it. When I brought the Paseo in for a landing, I looked for my parking place only to find it in the middle of Central Gardens."
"Did you hear about Commander?" Rudo asked.
Rolf nodded. The Agents he had talked to after landing told him that the top floor was the most badly damaged. It also happened to be where Commander's office was. The rescue teams had pulled him out from under a pile of rubble that used to be his ceiling. He was in intensive care now, where Mota's best doctors fought to save his life.
He met Rudo's eyes. "What about Anna?"
Rudo shook his head. Rolf placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "We don't know for sure where they took her," Rudo said. "If they hadn't blown the building sky high first, we might have been able to track the teleport. But... Kip and I have a good idea where she is."
"Biosystems Lab," Rolf said.
"Yeah. Kip and I are heading over there tonight."
"No, you're not," Rolf said sharply. "I mean that, Rudo. You both need a good night's sleep first, at least."
"What if they kill her?" Rudo demanded.
"They won't. If they wanted her dead they could have killed her in the Central Tower. What they probably want is for you to come after her."
"Well if that's it then their wish is about to come true," Rudo said with anger.
"I know it is, but not tonight." Rolf tightened the hand on Rudo's shoulder, and after a moment, his friend nodded. "I'm going to pop my head in and say hi to Shir. You guys both head back to our place. Sleep. I mean it."
Rudo nodded again and this time he was joined by Kain. They both headed down the hospital's hall and towards home.
Slowly, Rolf opened Shir's door and poked his head in. She was awake and turned her head at the sound. "Rolf!" she exclaimed. "You're back!"
He closed the door behind him and entered the room. "Hi, Shir," he smiled and pulled up a chair next to her bed. "How's your tummy?"
"It's been better," she admitted. She sat up in bed with the covers up to her waist. Now, she lifted the hospital shirt she wore to reveal her stomach, which was covered by a large bandage. She pulled back the bandage and showed Rolf the scar underneath. After replacing the bandage and her shirt, she went on. "The doctor said all I can eat and drink for the next two days is gelatin and water." She opened her mouth, pointed her finger at it, and make a wretching noise. "I'll be more than happy when I can get my hands on burgers and cokes again. So, what's the news on that stuff we found at Biosystems?"
Rolf took a deep breath. "F-5? Ohh, it's not much. It can only kill every Palman on this planet in a matter of minutes."
Shir's eyes widened in shock. It took her a moment to speak, and then only very quietly. "You are kidding."
"I wish I was. Suffice it to say that if F-5 rains on Mota, we'll all suffocate to death before we can even realize what's happening. And here's the scary part. The Rebels are either highly intelligent--"
Shir made a buzzer noise. "Or?"
"Or they got this stuff, somehow, from the Earthmen." Rolf explained how the F-5 worked, and his theories as to why it had to come from Noah. Then he mentioned the ship that attacked him, and how it was not launched from Dezo. "Tyler and I went back over his logs, but we can't figure out where, exactly, that ship came from, but we can rule out Dezo, despite the fact that it definitely was a Dezorian ship."
Shir was silent for a long moment. She turned her head and looked out the window at Paseo's night-time skyline. All the lights... all the people. Even after everything they'd been through, there was still a chance that it could all be wiped out. Still a--
Shir closed her eyes, and her mind, to such thoughts. No, she told herself. No chance. Whatever the Rebels or the Dezorians or whoever are up to, we will stop them.
She turned her attention back to Rolf to see that he, too, was looking out the window. He, however, also had tears running down his cheeks.
"Rolf..." she said softly. "Rolf, what is it?"
He sniffled, took a deep breath. "Nei." He looked Shir in the eyes. "I miss Nei so much."
She reached out and grabbed his hand, and he, in turn, squeezed hers. "I know you do."
Suddenly, just as quickly as he had started, he stopped crying, and wiped the tears from his eyes. "But," he said, dropping her hand, "I can just stop that right now. I have no right to miss her, no right what-so-ever."
Shir couldn't believe what he was saying. "What do you mean, Rolf? Grief isn't something you have a right to! It's an emotion. We're Palmans, we feel emotions, we're born with them, it's natural. Nei was like your sister, and she was taken tragically, in the prime of her life. She died way too soon." She grabbed his hand again. "There's nothing wrong with crying over her."
"Yes, there is," he nodded. "There is when your name is Rolf, and you're responsible for the destruction of a planet and the deaths of billions of people."
A sharp pain hit Shir in her stomach, but it wasn't a leftover from the knife wound. It felt almost like heartbreak. So this is what has been torturing you for the last year. Oh Rolf...
"Rolf..." she started, not knowing where to begin. "Rolf, you did not destroy Palm. You did not kill those people. Mother Brain did that." She had a thought and smiled, trying a different approach. "Are you a big demented computer that runs every aspect of our lives?"
"Shir, this isn't funny," he replied. "You just don't understand. Nei was like my sister, yes, but think of all the sisters I killed when I destroyed Palm. Think of all the familes I destroyed." The tears started coming again. "I killed mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters--"
"--aunts, uncles, cousins--"
He looked at her and shook his head. "I had a friend when I was little named Orakio. Do you remember him? His family moved to Palm when we were in the second education segment. But..." His voice took on a matter-of-fact tone. "He's dead now. And I killed him."
"Rolf, listen to me! Stop this right now! Torturing yourself is not going to bring those people back--"
"Oh, I know, Shir. They'll never come back. I killed them all."
She closed her eyes for a moment. Nice one, Shir. "Rolf. Listen. You did not destroy Palm-- No, wait, listen! You did not destroy Palm. Mother Brain and those damn Earthmen destroyed Palm. I mean, weren't their exact words, 'You think you can stop us, we who destroyed Palm'? All you did, Rolf, was save the rest of Algo. Mother Brain would have gone on to destroy Mota, and probably Dezo, too. I mean, you just now found out what she had in store for us. But you stopped it from happening."
"Then," Rolf pointed out. But if he can't stop the Rebels now...?
"You know," he went on, "when I went to Esper Mansion, Lutz told me something. Remember how before he told me that I was a direct decendent of Queen Alis? Well he told me that, sometime in the past, one of Alis's decendents married an Esper, and that the Esper blood has continued to pass down the generations. Dormant, until now."
This surprise news lit up Shir's face. "You mean you're an Esper? You can read my thoughts and move stuff with your mind?"
"Well, when I hold the Neisword I can," Rolf smiled. "I'm just learning, you see."
"Read my mind, then!"
Rolf took the Neisword from the scabbard at his side and laid it across his lap. He stared at Shir for a moment, then said, "You think I'm making it up. You're also thinking about how much you'd like a burger and coke. And... you think I'm not responsible for the destruction of Palm."
Shir was stunned at the proof Rolf presented, but she couldn't pass this opportunity up. "And since you can read my mind," she said, "you know I'm not lying when I say that."
Rolf was quiet for a long moment. From the look on his face, Shir could see he was digesting this information. Yes, yes, digest it Rolf. Just learn that it's true. You're a hero, not a planet-killer.
"Lutz also said something else very strange," he added. He told her about the new telemental, D'zkot, and how he and Lutz fought. "Just as I was about to teleport up to Tyler's ship, Lutz wakes up and calls me. In my mind, that is. And he says, 'You must visit Palma.' He was very adamant about this. He didn't explain how I'm supposed to visit a planet that is now an asteroid field, he just said I had to do it."
Silence hung in the room. Shir didn't know what to make of it, either, really. So eventually she just asked, "What are you going to do?"
He stood up and placed the Neisword back in its scabbard. "Right now I'm going to leave so that you can get a good night's sleep. Then I'm going to go home and sleep and in the morning, I'm going to take you to your house before I return to Dezo."
"No," she shook her head, "you're coming here to pick me up in the morning, but I'm not going home. I'm going to Dezo with you. The Paseo can hold four people, so there'll be plenty of room."
"Shir, the doctor said you could leave here in the morning as long as you went home and got several days' bed rest."
"And that's what he'll think I'm doing," Shir countered with a smile. "I mean, what's he going to do, chase after us in his own space ship?"
They both laughed. "No, I guess not," Rolf agreed. "Okay, fine. In the morning, we leave for Dezo together."
"Shir... I thought you just invited yourself along?"
"I did," she nodded. "But I don't think we should go to Dezo, at least not right away. I think we should take Lutz's advice and visit Palma first."
Rolf shrugged his shoulders. "But I don't know what Lutz meant by that."
"Neither do I." She fixed him with a smile. "That's why we'll find out together."
I am Dark Force, master of Death!
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