Chapter Nineteen

Lutz sat on his throne, watching Rolf pace across the room back and forth, back and forth. "Tyler's out there, dead in space," he repeated for the third time, "and I can't help him. I can't even get to him!"

Shir stood nearby. She was filled more with worry than with frustration, and not just for Tyler. There was no telling what D'zkot's timetable was for releasing the F-5 onto Mota, so there wasn't a moment to lose. They had to stop D'zkot or destroy the F-5 or both before the twisted Dezorian could kill the last of the Palmans remaining in Algo.

Through all of this, Lutz just calmly stared at Rolf. Finally, as Rolf groaned in frustration, Lutz pressed his fingers together and spoke. "There is an old bit of Esper wisdom," he began, "which says, 'If your road is blocked, try a different route.'"

Rolf humored Lutz by nodding, but then continued pacing the room. He tore the Neisword from its scabbard and began swinging it through the air in front of him. "Great saying. And yes, it's very wise," Rolf agreed, though his voice contained a bit of sarcasm. "Except I don't think it applies when your destination is an alien spacecraft that's been occupying your solar system for far too long, and your only way there is a ship that's already been shot to pieces."

"Are you sure?" Lutz asked.

Rolf stopped pacing, met Lutz's eyes. "Of course I'm sure," he said, his tone implying he thought it was the dumbest question he'd ever heard in his life. "I saw all the lights on my control console go red. I landed, got out, and saw the smoking holes in the rear of the ship. Trust me, Lutz, the Paseo isn't going anywhere."

"I am aware of the Paseo's condition," Lutz continued patiently. "But what I was asking was, are you sure your only way to Noah has been blocked?"

Shir and Rolf met eyes. It was obvious Lutz knew something that he wasn't sharing. They both turned to him and demanded the answer. "You know, don't you, Lutz?" Shir asked. "You know how we can get to Noah."

"Of course," Lutz smiled. "And so does Rolf. Let me ask you both something. Have you ever run all around your house searching for something -- a lightpen, for example -- and after becoming completely frustrated, you look down, only to find you've been carrying it around in your hand all along?"

"So what are you saying?" Rolf wanted to know. "I've been so frustrated about the Paseo's condition that I haven't stopped to see that another way to Noah is right in front of me?"

"No," Lutz shook his head. "My example was meant to be taken more literally than that." He stood from his throne. "Your ride to Noah is right in your hand, Rolf."

Rolf looked down at his hand and saw the Neisword. Of course! On his first visit to Noah, it was the Neisword that had allowed him to transport from Esper Mansion to the space ship and back. If it worked then, why wouldn't it work now?

The Agent began to laugh, brushed his bangs off his forehead, and looked to Lutz, who was also smiling. "Tell me: just how old is that Esper saying of yours, Lutz?" he asked.

"Ohh." Lutz made a show of searching his memory. "I'd say Espers have been passing down that bit of wisdom for about a minute or so."

All three of them laughed again. "Thank you, my friend," Rolf said afterward.

"You're wel--" Lutz broke off his own sentence, then quickly closed his eyes and tilted his head backwards in concentration. "Rolf, open your mind."

Rolf closed his eyes, opened his mind, and reached out with it. He just stood there for a few moments, not knowing why Lutz had instructed him to do this. Then, he heard it, too.

Rolf! Lutz! I don't know if either of you can hear me--

{Tyler! I can hear you. You're all right!}

Well, I'm floating here in the cockpit of my ship with a breathing mask on while Toasterhead fixes the gravity nets, but if that's what you call all right, then I'm fine and dandy. Rolf, listen -- I can't make it to Mota. I suggest you don't try to, either. Three New Order fighters came out of nowhere and nailed me even while I was cloaked. I think D'zkot homed in on my mind or something.

{I was attacked, too. Shir and I made it back to Esper Mansion.}

Rolf, you have to get to Noah now. I'll bring Rudo and the others as soon as I can. Go on ahead without us. Just get out to that ship!

{Be careful, Tyler.}

Same to you.

As he opened his eyes, Rolf turned to face Shir, who had been watching him intently. "Tyler," Rolf began. "He's all right." Shir sighed in relief and squeezed Rolf's hand. "He wants us to go on ahead without him, though."

Shir nodded. "I'm ready whenever you are."

"So are we," a female voice called from across the room.

Doctor Amy Sage and Biologist Hugh Thompson came down off of the stairway and trotted across the room to where Rolf and Shir stood. Each of them wore armor and carried an Acidshot. "We're coming with you," Amy revealed.

Hugh grinned at Rolf and Shir. "If we don't come along, Amy and I will feel really left out, once Rudo, Kain, and Anna join the party."

Rolf clapped them both on the shoulder and smiled. "Thanks, guys." Then he clutched the Neisword and gave a final look towards Lutz.

Lutz was smiling at the assembled group of heroes. The pride he felt a year ago when they had returned from Noah after saving Algo from Mother Brain welled up in his heart. "My brave warriors who rescued Algo..."

He looked at each of them in turn. Amy and Hugh, who he had gotten to know so well in the last few months. Their dedication to restoring the powers of the Half-Espers was exemplary. He looked to Shir, the Thief with a mischievous grin but a heart made of precious metal -- someone knew what they were doing when they put Shir into a family named Gold. And finally, he looked to Rolf: his friend, his student... about to go into space and face his destiny.

"Make me proud once again," Lutz nodded. "I will be praying for your safety."

"We know you will, Lutz," Shir smiled.

Then, in a blast of Esper magic, they had left the mansion and entered space.

- - - - - - - - - -

The moment they materialized on Noah, Shir, Hugh, and Amy all realized it looked exactly the same as it had a year ago. Hugh and Amy began sweeping their Acidshots in all directions around them, and Shir brought her knives to a ready position, but no one seemed to be around. Did they just teleport in at the right place, or was it Esper magic?

"Looks the same to me," Shir nodded. "What do you think, Rolf?"

When she noticed that Rolf's eyes were closed, he had her complete attention immediately. "I think..." Rolf began. Then he opened his eyes, faced the others. "Anna is here, aboard this ship."

Hugh and Amy exchanged startled glances at this, the first demonstration of Rolf's new Esper abilities that they had seen for themselves. "Is she hurt?" Amy asked.

Rolf paused, then nodded solemnly. "Yes," he answered. "Something is very wrong with her."

Doctor Sage quickly stepped forward. "Can you lead me to her?"

"Yes," Rolf said, already starting to move down the ship's corridor, "but... it's weird. I don't know if you'll be able to help."

With Amy behind him, Shir behind her, and Hugh bringing up the rear, they started off through Noah in search of Anna.

- - - - - - - - - -

In a corridor of the New Order's flagship, D'zkot watched as K'Clanne used a single stretched-out arm to hold Kain against the wall by his throat. Kain, struggling to breathe and to break free, wondered when it would end. Moments earlier he'd seen Rudo literally rip one of K'Clanne's dead arms right from his dead body, but K'Clanne (and A'Jole, too) kept fighting. Now, he used his one remaining arm to slowly choke the Mechanic.

Because they were in such close quarters, they could not easily use their energy weapons without risk of hurting each other. But Kip, who had a gash across one cheek and bruises all over his body, was unable to pull K'Clanne off of Kain. So, tearing his rifle from its hiding place in his coat, he swung its barrel around and aimed at K'Clanne's head, point blank.

He pulled the trigger and looked away as Dezorian blood splattered across him. When he opened his eyes, he saw that K'Clanne was now missing one arm and one head, yet he still held Kain against the wall, choking with more strength than Kip had ever seen a corpse wield in all his life.

Realizing that the color of Kain's face and hair were starting to look the same, Kip squeezed himself in between Kain and K'Clanne. He wrapped his arms around K'Clanne's one remaining arm, established a lock, and then snapped the bones like twigs.

Kain finally managed to twist free, ripping off K'Clanne's hand and severed forearm from where it was still wrapped around his neck. He turned around in time to see that K'Clanne was still coming at Kip. He also noticed that he and Kip's leader was having some difficulties of his own.

Rudo and A'Jole each had a lock on one another and they twisted and turned, swinging each other around the small corridor. Rudo would slam A'Jole's back into one of the bulkheads, but A'Jole would then break free, spinning on his heels to pin Rudo against the opposite wall.

Regaining his breath, Kain saw that, at the moment, it was A'Jole who had Rudo pinned. Kip, meanwhile, was dodging kicks from K'Clanne while fighting back with his own. "I don't suppose," Kain managed to say between gasps, "that either of you two brought an Escapipe with you?"

Rudo, gritting his teeth to find the strength to push A'Jole off of him, came up with an idea. "Look out!" he yelled to Kain and Kip. Then he pushed A'Jole off of him and across the corridor, into the opposite bulkhead. Before D'zkot's dead older brother could advance back towards Rudo, however, the Agent swung his Pulse Vulcan into his hands, aimed at each of A'Jole's shins, and fired two shots.

A'Jole's legs, from the knees down, were obliterated. The Dezorian fell face forward onto the deck. Rudo had just a moment to catch his breath before glancing over to see how Kip was holding out against K'Clanne. It was then that he realized that Kip's opponent was still fighting strong, apparently undisturbed by the fact that he no longer had a head.

And as for the third Dezorian in the corridor, D'zkot continued to laugh with every punch, kick, choke, grab, and gouge A'Jole and K'Clanne managed to score against Rudo, Kain, and Kip.

Rudo, however, was too busy coming to a realization to notice. He realized that, if K'Clanne still fought despite the lack of a head, A'Jole might still be in the game, too, so he quickly looked towards where he had last seen his opponent. He turned his head just in time to see A'Jole coming towards him, walking on the stumps of his legs. With a grunt, Rudo kicked him in the face, and he went back down to the deck.

At that time, K'Clanne, too, fell to the ground, but not because he had finally been defeated. A'Jole and K'Clanne fell simply because D'zkot was done animating their bodies. Rudo, Kip, and Kain all looked towards the New Order's leader, who had come forward to face the three invading Palmans once again. "As you might be able to tell, we have arrived at my headquarters ship." Rudo glanced out the corridor's viewport to see that, indeed, they were in the process of docking inside Noah.

"Therefore, as much as I would like this to continue," D'zkot went on, "it will have to do so at another time."

Kip raised his rifle. "I don't think s--"

He was cut off as searing pain ripped through his skull. The same happened to Rudo and Kain at the same time, and all three of them brought their hands to their heads just before they fell into unconsciousness at the hands of D'zkot's powerful mind blasts.

Staring down at the Dezorian corpses and the still forms of his Palman enemies, D'zkot pulled a comlink from his belt and spoke into it. "R'Alyn, I have subdued the invaders. Have them thrown in with the Guardian woman," he ordered.

"Yes, sir, Pai'tekkan," R'Alyn answered through the comlink. D'zkot turned it off and put it back in its place. He cast one final look at Anna's friends and then turned and strode out of the corridor with a wide, evil grin pasted across his face.

- - - - - - - - - -

"This is it," Rolf said, pointing to a heavy steel door. "She's in here."

They had broken into the cell block relatively easily, and had quickly taken care of the sole guard on duty. Rolf glanced around the room, which appeared to have only one other cell. After all, the Earthmen never intended for anyone besides themselves to be aboard Noah, so what use did they have for holding cells? Actually, it was a small miracle there was even a cell block aboard.

"I'll handle it," Shir said, stepping up to the door's control panel. She took a few moments to glance at it: two buttons (LOCK and OPEN), and a numeric keypad, to enter the access code after choosing from the two options. Actually, for all she knew, the symbols on the keypad weren't numbers but letters; she didn't read or speak the Earthmen's language.

The Thief drove the blade of her knife down into the small crack between the control panel and the bulkhead. Gritting her teeth and putting all her strength into it, she managed to snap off the panel's casing and expose the circuitry underneath, then she took another moment to examine the panel's innards.

"Hmm," she said, rubbing her chin as her eyes traced the tiny circuits. "Emm. Hrrrrm. A-ha!" She spun on her heels and faced Amy. "Amy, may I borrow one of your hair pins?"

A little confused, Amy tucked her Acidshot under her arm and brought both hands to her hair. She pulled the pin she wore from her red locks, which quickly caused her bangs to fall back across her forehead. "Will this one work okay?" she asked Shir.

"Perfect, just perfect," Shir confirmed. She then bent the pin entirely out of shape, glancing now and then at the circuits, occasionally placing the pin near them to get a judge of size. Finally, she slowly and carefully brought the pin, which she had twisted into a U-shape, towards the control panel's circuits and gingerly aimed each end of the pin towards a specific part of the circuit board.

"Okay," she said at last. "Stand back everyone." Then she tossed the pin at the circuitry, quickly releasing it and jumping back as soon as she'd done it.

The control panel screamed out in a brief flash of sparks and flame, then became a silent, smoking mess. The door to Anna's cell abruptly swung open.

All four of them were quickly inside only to see Anna curled up in a fetal position in the far corner of her cell. She'd brought one of her hands to her mouth, where she had chewed down the fingernails, leaving her fingertips a bloody mess. Her eyes were wide open, but she did not register the presence of her friends, who all crouched around her.

"Anna?" Rolf called to her. "Anna, can you hear me?"

"Anna, this is Shir. Talk to us."

"I'm here, Anna. It's me, Amy. Can I help you?"

"Remember me, Anna? Hugh? I'm here with Rolf and Shir and Amy."

"Anna, it's Rolf. You're going to be safe now. Can you hear me?"

Realizing they were having no effect on her, Rolf brought the Neisword close to him and turned to Amy, Hugh, and Shir. "I'm going to go inside her mind."

"Rolf, I don't know if that's wise," Amy protested. "Something has happened to put her into a catatonic state. Her mind is probably very fragile."

"Never the less, I have to--"

He was cut off by the sound of footsteps at the cell's door, which was still flung wide open. Six Dezorian guards entered the cell, each pair with an armload of baggage.

The guards did not respond to Rolf, Shir, Amy, and Hugh. Instead, they simply dropped the unconscious forms of Rudo, Kain, and Kip to the floor before spinning on their heels and exiting the cell.

Amy, Hugh, and Shir ran to the cell's new arrivals, but Rolf, picking up another presence, stood and faced the cell's door. D'zkot entered the cell then, meeting Rolf's eyes immediately and greeting the Agent with a sinister smile.

"Hello, Rolf," the telemental Dezorian sneered. He had grabbed the attention of Amy, Hugh, and Shir, as well. "I'm sorry I was unable to formally introduce myself to you at Menobe, but at the time, I was preoccupied with destroying the arrogant yet forceless Lutz." The smile widened. "I am General D'zkot, Pai'tekkan of Dezo. It is nice to make your acquaintance."

With that, he turned and started to leave the cell. Hugh brought his Acidshot to bear at D'zkot's back, but Rolf, knowing better, just stood and watched him leave. Hugh fired and the shot bounced harmlessly off of an invisible force field. Then, the cell door slammed shut, leaving Rolf, Amy, Hugh, and Shir alone to deal with four of their friends.

"Why did he just leave?" Shir asked Rolf. "I thought he wanted to kill us all."

"He does," Rolf nodded. "But for now, he's toying with us. Notice that he incapacitated Rudo, Kain, and Kip, yet he left them in here without taking their weapons. He wants us to come after him."

Amy, finishing a quick examination of all three men, turned to face Rolf. "Obviously, it looks like they've been in a fight. I can heal wounds like these," she said, pointing to the gash across Kip's cheek, "but I'd like them awake before I administer Dimate."

"D'zkot mind blasted them," Rolf said after gently probing his friends. "Just give them a stimulant, and they'll wake right up."

Amy opened her doctor's kit and administered the stimulants. As the three of them woke up, Rolf introduced Kip to Amy and Hugh, and then Amy tended to their cuts and bruises while Rudo filled Rolf in about their raid on Biosystems Lab, the discovery that D'zkot had taken possession of all the F-5, and their battle with the living corpses of A'Jole and K'Clanne.

"We discovered he was using Noah here as his base," Rolf began after Rudo finished. "I sent Tyler back to Mota to get you guys, but he was ambushed by New Order fighters. They also shot up the Paseo; we had to use the Neisword to get here. But I think you'll be happy to know that we found someone..."

Rolf moved aside to reveal Anna, still curled up and shaking across the cell. Rudo gently pushed past Amy, who was trying to tend to a bruise across his cheek, and walked to Anna, kneeling down beside her.

"Anna? It's me, Rudo." He ran a hand through her long, blonde hair and traced the curve of her face, then looked to Rolf, who had crouched down next to Rudo. "He told me he forced her to relive her worst memories. Was he lying?"

Rolf took a quick intake of breath. "I don't know. It doesn't look like he was. But when you, Kain, and Kip arrived, I was just about to probe her mind and find out."

"Do it," Rudo said quickly. "Find out what happened to her. Help her."

Rolf turned to his friend and fellow Agent. "Do you want to come in with me?"

"Can I?" Rudo asked eagerly.

Rolf nodded, closed his eyes--

- - - - - - - - - -

--and then he and Rudo were standing... somewhere, where a brilliant white light surrounded them. It was everywhere they looked, all around them and all above them, and all below them, too. Rolf looked down and saw that they didn't seem to be standing on anything but light, but they weren't falling, either.

Their fascination at their surroundings was cut off by the sound of a scream piercing through the air. Anna's scream.

Rolf and Rudo ran in the direction of the scream. "Oh God..." Rolf whispered.

"What? What?" Rudo demanded.

"I can see what he did. It was horrible, Rudo. We have to help her."

Eventually they came to a two-meter tall and one-meter wide brick wall. Circling around it, Rolf and Rudo found there were four others just like it in the shape of a square, blocking something in. Cautiously, Rolf knocked on one of the bricks. "Anna?" he called.

"Go away!" Anna's voice came back, muffled by the brick. "Go away! Leave me alone!"

"Anna, it's me, Rudo," the former Hunter said as he gently knocked on the bricks. "Please talk to me."

Anna responded with a scream that caused Rolf and Rudo to jump at its suddenness. "We opened Pandora's Box!" she screamed. "He's coming! He's coming! Oh God, it's straight from hell, what is it?"

"She's reliving our battle with Dark Force," Rolf realized.

"No! No! No!" Anna cried out from inside her prison. "He's going to push me! I can't swim! Daddy, help me, I can't swim!"

"Anna!" Rudo called out, tears welling up in his eyes. He beat his fist into the bricks repeatedly in frustration before he turned to Rolf and placed his hands on his shoulders in desperation. "Please, Rolf, please! Help her! How do we help her?"

Rolf's eyes took on a distant look, an idea striking him. Then, he took a step back from Rudo and raised the Neisword high into the air. "Break down the wall!"

He brought the sword down hard, and a huge crack appeared in the bricks before them. Then he swung the Neisword across the wall horizontally, and he and Rudo pulled away the rubble of the bricks to reveal Anna, curled up and shaking just as she had been in the cell on Noah. Rudo took a step towards her, wrapped his arms around her--

- - - - - - - - - -

--and he and Rolf were on a boat in the ocean off of Uzo Island. Anna was here with them, reliving the memory of when she was ten years old. She stood at the front of the boat, her twenty-four year old body wearing a grown-up sized replica of the swim suit she had worn when the incident had originally happened, when she was ten years old.

Rudo started towards her, but Rolf held out a hand to stop him. "Don't touch her," he whispered to his friend. Then, he took a small step forward and called out, "Anna?"

Anna turned to look at them. She was still sobbing, but she was not hysterical, as she had been a moment earlier. Her eyes were red from crying and even now, tears rushed down her cheeks. "He's going to push me," she said meekly, more tears streaming from her eyes. "I can't swim, Rolf. Will you help me? Rudo? Please, he's going to push me. I can't swim."

"Anna..." Rudo said, taking a step forward to stand next to Rolf. "You can swim. We went swimming in Odin Lake when we vacationed in Zema together, remember?"

"I can't now!" Anna protested. "Here! And he's going to push me!"

"Anna... yes, this was a horrible incident," Rolf agreed. "I know your brother was sorry afterwards, but he never, ever should have pushed you into the water, knowing that you couldn't swim. But Anna, tell me, what happened later on this vacation? What happened the next day?"

Anna stopped sobbing and wiped a tear from her eye. "My daddy..." She sniffled. "My father taught me how to swim."

"That's right!" Rolf nodded. "Falling into the water, yes, was very terrible, but you took it and made something good come out of it, didn't you?"

"I... I guess so," Anna agreed.

Suddenly, Rolf and Rudo found themselves in a dark alley. Three men surrounded a frightened teenage girl and beat her as another held Anna pinned against the wall.

"No!" a voice called behind them. They turned to see Anna, in her Guardian's uniform, closing her eyes, not wanting to witness the horrible crime from a new angle.

"How did you turn this incident to good, Anna?" Rudo asked.

Anna just shook her head and sobbed. She opened her eyes a crack and saw her younger self pinned across the alley, but then her eyelids slammed shut again as she saw her friend being beaten, as well.

"Yes, you did, Anna," Rolf interjected. "You were brave enough to testify against these four men, and you sent them to prison to pay for their crime."

Anna blinked, and again nodded in agreement. "But what about here?"

Rolf and Rudo turned to see Anna cradling the body of her dead boyfriend, who had just been shot by a Hunter. "You became a Guardian," Rolf said, turning back to her. "You became a Guardian to make sure it never happened to anyone else."

Anna stood now. She'd stopped crying. She just pointed past Rolf and Rudo and said, "Here?"

Rolf turned to see the streets of Arima. Anna and two other Guardians were running when all of the sudden, a dynamite bomb went off, killing her companions instantly. "You didn't give up," Rolf offered. "You kept on fighting."

The streets of Arima vanished and they were on the space ship Noah, only everything was black and Dark Force was everywhere. "You fought bravely to defend your world." Dark Force vanished and there was Mother Brain. "And here, too," Rolf continued. Mother Brain then vanished, and suddenly, there was a roomful of Earthmen before them.

"Same thing here, Anna." Rolf started to turn to face Anna, but then something hit him like a bolt of lightning, and he quickly turned to face the Earthmen once again. A tidal wave of realization overtook him, and his heart began pumping faster. It was as if he'd found the missing final piece of a jigsaw puzzle he'd almost completed long ago, but now, with the discovery of the last piece, it was complete. He gasped for breath, and watched the Earthmen as he said, "You defended your world. You took an oath in your heart that no evil would ever threaten your world... your home. And you swore to stop at nothing to uphold that vow."

With a smile on his face, he turned to face Anna--

- - - - - - - - - -

--and Anna blinked her eyes, and stopped chewing on her fingers. She looked up at Rolf and Rudo, who smiled down at her. New tears began to well in her eyes, but these were tears of happiness, not torment. As she stretched her legs out from the fetal position she'd been curled up into, she smiled at her two friends who had rescued her, and she lipped the words, "Thank you."

Carefully, Rolf and Rudo helped her to her feet. All of her friends -- Shir, Amy, Hugh, Kain, and Kip -- joined her, and the eight heroes enjoyed a brief moment where all but happiness had been forgotten.

"Anna, you're all right!" Amy beamed.

"Boss, I'm so glad we found you." Kip said, the relief obvious in his voice.

"All right, Anna," Kain congratulated.

"I knew you'd prevail!" Hugh beamed.

"Welcome back, Anna," Shir finished with a smile.

It was Anna herself who finally broke it up. "Thank you, all of you," she beamed. "But I believe we have a job to do."

With a grin, Kip pulled a pair of AC Slashers from his coat. "I thought that once we found you, Boss, you might need these."

Anna shook her head. "What would I do without you, Kip?"

"You all realize," Rolf announced, the others gathering around him, "that D'zkot wants us to come after him, right? That he probably has a trap waiting for us?"

"I don't care," Kain said, speaking for all of them. "Trap or no trap, that Dezorian bastard is going down, and going down hard." He aimed his Pulse Vulcan at the cell's entrance, pulled the trigger, and blew the door off its hinges.

Then, the eight of them began to search the ship for D'zkot, to put an end to his mad reign of evil once and for all.

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