The two year old Wren-type android -- who, fittingly enough, was called Wren -- sat at the main control station for the orbiting satellite Zelan, glancing between his many readout screens as he performed some sort of routine procedure with Mota's weather net.
Perhaps because he himself was made of metal and electronics, he always found it comforting to be here in Zelan's nerve center, which was cool, dimly lit, and also full of metal and electronics. "Comfort" was a relative term, of course; Wren's neural net was not designed to manufacture emotional algorithms, and so he felt comfortable when at Zelan's control station simply because he'd analyzed his performance reports and determined his efficiency levels were higher when he operated in the room he currently occupied. His feeling of comfort, then, came from the expectation of higher operating efficiency, not from any sort of emotions extending from familiarity.
The comfortable (however one wanted to determine it) android noticed a light blinking on his comm board, and so he flipped a switch, activating his communications link to Nurvus on Mota, the plant which manufactured power for all of the planet's other systems. "Ahh," the android Byren "exhaled." (Another relative term.) Wren saw the brown-haired android on his screen lean back in his chair, fold his arms behind his head, and smile. "Home sweet home," he beamed.
Though he mostly continued with his work, Wren paused just long enough to give Byren a quick glance. "Either your vocabulary database needs editing, or you have just attributed a place with an adjective that I had believed was reserved solely for persons." Another, this time longer, glance at the screen. "Then again, this could be an emotional issue," Wren conceded.
"I guess it is," Byren nodded. "The data my emotional algorithms send to my main neural processor whenever I'm here at Nurvus always makes me feel comfortable and at ease, and so that I call" -- Byren made an "O.K." sign with his fingers -- "sweet."
A momentary pause as Wren fixed his eyes on his screen. "Hmm," he said in acknowledgment of Byren's words, and then he went back to work.
"But anyway," Byren continued, "I was just calling to let you know I'm about to run a class three diagnostic on Nurvus's entire power reactor, so my comm system will be down for about an hour and a half."
"If you would run your diagnostics at regular, standard intervals," Wren pointed out, "you would have no need to inform me when doing so."
"I said that to Tyler once, about regular maintenance on his ship," Byren replied. "His response was, 'Hey, I don't like routine. Sue me.'"
Wren looked away from his work to focus on his screen. He didn't even bother to repeat the statement he'd heard. Instead, he simply said, "What me?"
"Never mind," Byren brushed him away with a hand. "But before I go, how do you think our presentation went today?"
"Satisfactory," Wren answered.
Because Wren was again focusing on his work, he did not see that Byren was still watching him expectantly. "And...?" he finally prompted.
"And," the black-haired android continued, "it was a very rewarding experience."
"No, you don't understand," Byren replied. "What I'm asking, Wren, is what is your opinion on the matter? Do you think Commander Steiner will advise the Paseo Council to do the right thing and implement Seed, or is he what Tyler would call a 'screwball' who will advise that Daughter be hooked up to the system instead?"
"The decision is irrelevant to me, as it should be irrelevant to you," Wren answered. "Either way, I will still operate Zelan and you will still operate Nurvus."
"Until the day Daughter decides to usurp control from us," Byren mumbled.
Once again, Wren dropped his work and focused on the screen. "You see, Byren, this is why I reject emotional capabilities. You are allowing emotional feelings about the atrocities committed by Mother Brain to influence your opinion on Daughter, and you are not giving Professor Jarkin and his team a fair chance."
"It doesn't matter to me if it is emotional or rational," Byren said. "I just know I'd much rather work for a computer designed by two of Rolf's friends than one designed by Mother Brain. That's all."
"I will, if you wish," Wren began as he returned to his control panels, "give you my projection on what Commander Steiner's recommendation will be."
Wren was slightly surprised when, in response, Byren sighed. "I'm afraid I already know," he said somberly. "I think the Commander will recommend Daughter. You saw Jarkin's estimates, Wren. With Daughter controlling the systems rather than Seed merely coordinating them, system efficiency will reach, and perhaps exceed, Mother Brain's levels. Besides, Team Daughter works for the government, so they're already on the Central Tower's payroll. If the Paseo Council chooses Daughter over Seed, they won't have to send Kain or Hugh one meseta."
"That is an interesting analysis," Wren replied. "Completely incorrect, but interesting."
"What?" Byren blinked. "You think Commander Steiner will recommend that the Paseo Council implement Seed?"
"Affirmative," Wren nodded. "Your analysis of the given factors was flawless, but you left out one variable, and the one you left out is, I'm afraid, the critical one."
Byren paused for a moment, then asked, "What is it?"
"Emotion," Wren answered. "Commander Steiner will choose Seed for the very reasons you prefer Seed: emotional ones."
If Wren had looked down at his comm screen then, he would have seen Byren look off into the distance and raise his eyebrows, impressed at his friend's answer. However, just then, a minor control screen on Wren's right beeped a small alarm, and Wren turned his head to look at it. Finally, he pursed his lips and said, "Hmm."
"What's going on?" Byren asked.
Wren was silent for several moments as he again examined this minor screen that had buzzed at him, but finally, he turned to his comm screen and said, "Do you detect any energy abnormalities in Paseo?"
"I can detect a lot of things from here at Nurvus," Byren answered, "but energy readings are not among them. Any sort of energy detector I used here would just pick up Nurvus's fusion reactor." A beat, then: "Why? What's up in Paseo?"
"Just a strange energy reading," Wren said. "It appeared, held there on my screen for a few seconds, and then it was gone. There was one out in the Palman Asteroid Field at the same time, but I estimated-- There's another one! It's on Dezo, somewhere." Wren paused, watched his screen. "Now it's gone again."
"What was it?" Byren asked. "What kind of energy signature?"
"I can not tell," Wren answered. "Dawn is still three hours and seven minutes away in Paseo, and so that part of the planet is not facing Zelan. Thus, I could not get a very strong reading. The same problem hindered my reading of Dezo, but the planet's distance plays a role there, as well."
"Do you think it's anything to worry about?" said Byren.
Wren paused, pursed his lips before answering, "No, I suppose not. Have a good diagnostic, Byren. Initiate a comlink with Zelan when it is finished."
Neithird stepped through the Xe-A-Thouls' portal and back into the Air Castle's throne room, closely followed by Xanon, Xarxas, and Xerik. Lassic looked up from where he sat on his throne as Neithird ran towards him. Her arms were stretched out before her, and the claws she had been sent to steal (both so that she could use them as weapons and to send a message to Rolf) were attached to her wrists. They were also covered in blood.
"Killed him!" Neithird growled in glee as she approached the throne. "Killed him! Killlled him!"
"Bow," Lassic commanded as Neithird reached him. She obeyed and fell to her knees, still holding her claws up for Lassic's inspection. As he did just that, he flashed her a smile of his own. "Very good, my pet," he grinned. "Very good work, indeed. Which one did you kill?"
"Myau," she hissed in response.
Lassic clapped his hands once and chuckled in glee. "The cat!" he exclaimed. "Doctor Mad should have snapped that damn cat's neck and stripped him for his fur a millennium ago, but that's what you're here for, isn't it, Neithird? You're here to mop up for the mistakes of others. You're here to--"
"Kill them allll," she finished. To that, Lassic nodded, and then he chuckled softly as he scratched the top of her scalp. After a moment, he turned his attention to his red-robed lieutenants.
"Xanon," he addressed their leader, "how did the mission at Esper Mansion go?"
Xanon straightened up, held his head high, and got right to the truth. "It was unsuccessful, your majesty."
Upon hearing the words, Lassic's grin fell from his face, and he stopped petting Neithird. A few tense moments of silence passed, and then Lassic stood from his throne, left Neithird bowing before it, and stepped towards the Xe-A-Thouls. He gave both Xarxas and Xerik a quick glance, and then he returned his focus to Xanon. "May I ask why?"
"The shield protecting the mansion is too strong," Xanon told the truth. "Even combining our power had no effect on it."
Lassic remained standing at the foot of his dais, but now, he started to shake. The shaking was very subtle at first, but soon, the Xe-A-Thouls could see his temples bulging under his helmet and finally, he clenched his hands into fists, swung his scepter to his side, and screamed wordlessly towards the throne room's ceiling.
"Your majesty," Xanon began as Lassic started to pace across the room, but the king would hear none of it. With his back to the Xe-A-Thouls, he quickly interrupted Xanon with a single word.
A beat, as the Xe-A-Thouls glanced at one another. Then, Xanon spoke up. "My lord?"
"Noah!" Lassic screamed as he spun around to face them. "This is the work of the damn Esper companion of the Landale twit! Noah! Only he would do this to me!"
"King Lassic," Xanon attempted to calm him, "we have no proof that it was Noah who made the shield. But if your maj--"
"It was him!" Lassic roared, returning to his throne and falling like a heap into it. "It could only be him. And he will pay! With his life, with his miserable existence, he will pay."
"Your majesty," Xanon was finally able to say, "Xerik believes he knows a way to destroy the shield."
The reaction from the king was not immediate, but when he did acknowledge Xanon's words, he did so first by glancing at the speaker, and then over at Xerik. The third Xe-A-Thoul understood the order to explain.
"I will use our vision gates to search Algo for any equipment that can aid our mission, your majesty," Xerik reported. "I believe if we Xe-A-Thouls combine our magic and then channel it through a weapon of some kind, we will be able to create an energy discharge powerful enough to shatter the shield like it is glass."
Again, Lassic, at first, remained silent. He simply stared into Xerik's eyes. Underneath his battle armor, the Xe-A-Thouls saw the king's chest rise up and down. Up and down. Finally, Lassic licked his lips and said, "Do you think such a technology exists?"
"I feel certain I can find something, my lord," Xerik nodded. "The alien computer -- this 'Mother Brain' -- left behind numerous technological marvels. Also, it appears the Palmans themselves have made numerous advances in the last two years."
"What about the greenies?" Lassic wanted to know.
"I believe there is a Weapons Plant of some sort on Dezoris," Xerik answered, "but it is a Mother Brain creation. The Dezorians themselves will undoubtedly have nothing to offer. They're too busy saying prayers to their candles."
The racist remark drew a small smile out of Lassic, then a wider one, and then a flat-out chuckle. Soon, the king was laughing hysterically. As he laughed, he motioned back towards his throne. "Rise, Neithird," he said off-handedly, between chuckles. Behind him, Neithird, who had obediently remained bowed before Lassic's throne, climbed to her feet and turned to face the king and the Xe-A-Thouls, but she did not step down the dais. "I am going to nap," Lassic told the Xe-A-Thouls. He cocked his thumb back towards Neithird and said, "Clean the cat's blood off of her, or make sure she licks it off herself. I don't care. You have three hours to find the technology necessary to destroy Noah's shield. I'll expect a report when I awake."
"Yes, my lord," Xanon said with a bow. Though the other two Xe-A-Thouls remained silent, they, too, bowed to their king.
"Very well then," Lassic nodded. He stepped towards the throne room's exit, pausing only to clap Xerik on the shoulder as he left. "Praying to candles," he repeated. Apparently, hearing the words aloud again refreshed their humor, and so Lassic left the Air Castle's throne room laughing.
"I can't believe this." Anna Steiner shook her head and looked away from the blocked-off alley. Rolf then watched her glance at each of them in turn. First Rudo, then Tyler, and then him. On each face, Rolf supposed she saw the same thing: stunned disbelief.
"What I'd like to know," Rolf turned to Rudo, "is where did this cat come from? I was under the impression that no Musk Cats had been seen on Mota for centuries."
"His name was Dirlan," Rudo answered. "He'd been showing up in Paseo off-and-on during the last few months. Occasionally, his mate would be with him. Someone asked him once where all the Musk Cats have been, and why he was coming back among Palmans now, but Dirlan never really gave a direct answer."
"In fact," a new voice called, and Rolf turned to see someone he remembered from his days in the Central Tower approach the group: Agent Sawa, "his exact words were, 'Mother Brain's gone, meow.'"
"Hello, Sawa," Rolf said as he shook the Motavian Agent's hand. "It's been a while."
"It has," Sawa nodded. "It is good to see you are well, Rolf."
"Sawa, this is Tyler Jorran," Rolf made the introduction. As the Space Pirate shook hands with the Agent, Rolf added, "Tyler, Agent Sawa of clan Canek."
"Nice to meet you," Tyler greeted.
"So," Rolf continued to Sawa, "you were the one who had actual contact with Dirlan here in Paseo?"
"I talked to him a few times," Sawa nodded. "He said he'd teach me the Musk Cat language."
"Is the forensics report ready, Agent?" Rudo asked the Motavian. In response, Sawa nodded and handed the Commander a datapad.
"It's not pretty, sir," he said grimly, "but we think we've managed to piece together what happened."
"Let's hear it," said Anna.
Sawa took a deep breath and then began. "We feel certain that the attacker is the same person who burglarized Rolf's house, based on Rolf's testimony about his foot chase early this morning, the fact that we have found evidence of only one person present, and the fact that the weapons used in the attack were most definitely the claws stolen from Rolf's living room."
"So someone broke into Rolf's house," Tyler started to ask, "so they could steal Nei's claws, so they could slaughter some Musk Cat?"
"We're not sure of motivations yet," Sawa answered. "But we know the attacker chased Dirlan into this alley, where Dirlan found himself cornered. There are some scratch marks on the wall" -- Sawa pointed to the one on which "MYAU" was still written in blood -- "which lead us to believe Dirlan tried to climb it and escape, but the attacker grabbed him by the ears, and then made his first strike."
"How do you know that?" Anna asked.
"Because," Sawa sighed, "each of the cat's ears was found in four pieces. The attacker grabbed Dirlan by the ends of his ears, and then slashed his claws across them. Since there were three claws on his hand, each of Dirlan's ears was cut into four pieces."
"You're saying whoever did this," Rudo started, "began the attack by cutting the Musk Cat's ears off?"
"That is correct," Sawa nodded.
Rolf looked at the faces of his colleagues. Their stunned disbelief was growing as their eyes saw the blood stains in the alley, and as their ears heard Sawa's report. "I'm, uhh," Tyler finally said, glancing between Rolf and the crime scene, "I'm going to go and find a cup of stim-juice. See you later." With that, he left the scene.
"Go ahead, Sawa," Rolf prompted the Agent once Tyler was gone.
"There's not much more," Sawa shrugged as he spoke quietly. "The fight did not last long. After losing his ears, Dirlan fell to the ground, because the part of his body he was being held up by was simply no longer attached to his head. We believe the attacker then picked him up by his neck and just began carving him like a roast. His chest was slashed, his legs were cut off, he was disemboweled... And the sad thing is, he was alive through all of it."
"I can believe that," Rolf nodded. He remembered hearing the howls of agony and pain as he ran across Paseo towards their source. He'd probably remember them for a long time.
"So what finally finished it?" Rudo asked before quickly adding, "Or do I even want to know?"
"The killing blow came," Sawa continued, "when the attacker drove his claws straight into Dirlan's face, through the eyes. Dirlan was then dead, but we believe the attacker then raised his arm into the air. The body was still attached to his claws, so the body was raised, as well, and then, the attacker swept his other hand's claws across Dirlan's neck. The result was decapitation." Sawa bit his lip, collected himself. "The attacker discarded Dirlan's head off of his claws, and then escaped."
"Not his claws," Rolf spoke up. "Nei's claws. And I want them back. How did the murderer escape, Sawa?"
"He just disappeared into thin air," Sawa answered with a wave of his hands. "We believe he used teleportation."
"I take it we're already checking the Teleport Station logs from every city across Mota?" Rudo asked. Sawa nodded yes.
"And I'll check with Kip -- just in case -- since the Guardians have a teleport system, as well," Anna said. "But anyway, before our muderer escaped... it looks like he left a message there."
"Myau," Rolf said aloud.
"Wasn't that the name--" Rudo began.
"Yes," Rolf cut him off, "it was. But we've heard stories of the Protectors from one-thousand years ago from Lutz. These days, if a member of the general public remembers any of them, it's usually just Queen Landale."
"Someone remembers Myau," Anna pointed out.
Rolf only bit his lip and nodded. "I know. But who?"
"Who and why?" Rudo asked. "Why break into your house? Was it just to get the claws, or did someone intentionally want you to see this? Why slaughter a Musk Cat and then dip a finger into the blood and write 'Myau' on the wall? What does it mean?" Rudo turned to Sawa. "I'm going to put most of the Agents on this. I want to know what the hell this all means."
Sawa nodded in acknowledgment and then left, probably to coordinate the ongoing investigation. That left Anna and Rudo with Rolf. The blue-haired Protector saw the two of them share a concerned look before quietly locking hands. After a moment, however, Rolf's gaze focused on the blood-written word on the alley wall. Myau. It was, quite frankly, no coincidence that someone slaughtered a Musk Cat and then left this name on the wall, but beyond that, Rolf simply did not know what to think of the situation.
"I'm going to go find Tyler, and then we're going to head back for Dezo," Rolf told his friends. "Lutz needs me back at the mansion."
"I wasn't aware you'd spoken to him this morning," Rudo said.
"I haven't," Rolf answered, "but we share a tight mental link, and so I can just tell that I'm needed. I'll stay in touch, though. I'd like to keep informed as to what develops with this."
"Of course," Rudo nodded. "I'm sorry this all happened now, my friend. This was supposed to be your homecoming vacation."
Rolf looked away and shook his head. "I can't answer your question, Rudo," he said honestly. "I don't know what this all means. But I can tell you this: this won't be the end of it. Something is happening. And I just have the feeling that whoever is responsible for this isn't going to stop with just one dead Musk Cat."
Somewhere in the distance, Lutz heard a cough. His eyes fluttered open and the darkness of sleep slowly faded away, only to reveal Doctor Amy Sage, who stood before him with her arms folded across her chest.
"You're in my chair," she said softly (as Shir and Lance still slept), and after a moment she punctuated the remark with a smile.
"You're in my mansion," Lutz replied groggily. "So there."
"How long have you been sitting there sleeping, Lutz?" Amy asked.
Lutz sat up in the chair and answered, "I've been sleeping for about ten minutes. But I've been sitting here for about seven hours or so."
Amy's eyes quickly went to Shir. "Is something wrong with Shir, or the baby?"
"No, no," Lutz reassured her. "I just..." After drifting off, he shook his head, then waved his hand at her. "Never mind. It's unimportant."
"Anything that would drag you out of bed and leave you sitting up all night is not unimportant, Lutz." The doctor smiled again. "After all, most of your one-thousand two years have been spent down in the cryo-chamber. So we all know you do love your sleep."
The joke was enough to make Lutz smile, as well as make him lower his guard, and so he soon found himself confiding in Amy. "Last night, Master Noah appeared to me in a dream," he began. "He spoke of the energy field which protects this mansion exploding, and he did so in present tense. Normally, I would think nothing of such a dream, but after what happened yesterday, I thought it best to check outside the mansion."
Reaching behind her, Amy pulled up another chair, sat down in it, and folded her right leg over her left, leaning forward to face Lutz. "What did happen yesterday? I take it you're referring to when you teleported away suddenly."
"Yes," Lutz nodded. "What happened was, in my mind, I heard Master Noah call out my name, so I went to Elsydeon."
"Elsydeon?" Amy repeated the word. Then, her mouth formed an "o" and she nodded, "The sword."
"That's correct," said Lutz. "The sword. When I got there, the voices from within it were chaotic. Jumbled. I could only make out bits and pieces, but in the end, all the voices formed a chorus -- or maybe it was just one, I could not tell -- and I clearly heard, 'He has returned.'"
Amy swallowed and said, "I think I can see why your dream concerned you."
"Well, everything was clear outside," Lutz informed her, "but still, I thought a little extra protection for Shir, Lance, and... Brandon wouldn't hurt."
There was a long pause between them before Amy finally asked, "Lutz, who has returned?"
Lutz released a deep breath. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "All of our enemies are dead, except of course for Dark Force, but he should not return for well over nine centuries."
Another long pause. Then, Amy's eyes widened. "Wait," she whispered. She paused once more, then she began speaking slowly and softly. "Last year, when we all went back to the space ship Noah to face D'zkot, he re activated Mother Brain, and she said that she knew the future because Noah was built from an Algoian ship that went into the past, right? And she said that right now, Dark Force is out there destroying the ships that escaped from Palm one by one."
"She said a man named Orakio would stop him," Lutz nodded, his eyes slightly narrowed in concentration, and focused on Amy. "I saw the encounter in Rolf's mind."
"Yes, that's what she said," Amy rebutted. "But what if she was wrong? Or lying? What if Dark Force has turned around and has come back to Algo, and yesterday, Elsydeon was trying to warn you that, 'He has returned'?"
Lutz was silent for a very long moment. Finally, he said, "It is a distinct possibility."
"Can you go back to Elsydeon and ask if it is indeed Dark Force that has returned?" Amy wanted to know.
"Oh no," Lutz chuckled. "No. Communicating with the souls that reside within Elsydeon is a wonderful experience, but I'm afraid that they contact you, never the other way around. I am privileged to speak with them, but they speak to me when they want, and no other time. If Elsydeon wants me to know something, then I will know it, but until then..." He sighed and stood, adjusting his robes. "This Dark Force hypothesis is the best thing we have to work with. I immediately thought of Dark Force when I spoke with Elsydeon yesterday, but I dismissed the possibility. I hadn't considered Mother Brain's words from a year ago."
"So what's next?" Amy asked as she, too, stood.
"Next, Rolf returns to the mansion. We still very well could fall under attack. If we do, I'd like him here."
"I'll get on the comm to Mota right away," Amy told him, "but my prescription for you is some sleep, pronto."
"No," Lutz replied. Off Amy's stern look, he quickly added, "I mean, yes, I will take a nap, for Rolf will not arrive for several hours, but you don't have to get on the comm." He tapped the side of his head at his left temple. "Rolf already knows he's needed."
With that, he collected his staff and made his way towards the clinic's door. Before leaving, however, he turned around for one last look at Shir's patient's lower torso. "Take good care of him, Amy," he called out softly. "For I promised him that he would be safe."
Lassic entered his throne room, climbed his dais, and sat down in his chair. Then he said, "Now. Tell me what you have found."
Xanon took a step towards his master and smiled. "What we have found, your majesty, is a place on Motavia called the 'Machine Center.'"
"There," Xarxas continued, "is a device that will make Esper Mansion's energy shield go boom!"
"What kind of device are we talking about?" Lassic asked eagerly. As if it was his cue, Xanon then opened a vision gate on which Lassic saw what looked to be some sort of store room. There were numerous aisles of shelves -- racks which nearly touched the high ceiling -- and as Xerik began to speak, the image on the vision gate zoomed in on one of the many shelves.
"My lord," Xerik said, "the device is called the EX-17. Essentially, it looks like a weapon, though it is so large it must be mounted on a tripod. And in essence, it is a weapon. It is an energy disrupter."
By this point, the vision gate that Xanon created showed Lassic a close-up of the device. It was long and silver, and looked (like Xerik had said) much like a plasma cannon. Lassic also saw, behind it on its shelf, a tripod and three small boxes that appeared to be energy clips.
"From what I have learned from their computers," Xerik continued, "the Palmans created this device to instantly destroy highly powerful energy barricades, mostly as a fail-safe against anyone taking over any of their support systems and then locking the world out with a force field. The EX-17 can bring down such barriers almost instantly."
Lassic was still sitting forward in his chair, eagerly listening to the Xe-A-Thouls' report. "I suspect," he said, "that the energy shield at Esper Mansion will not go down so easily, as it is a product of magic and not technology. But if the EX-17 can not bring it down, even with the help of your combined magics..." A devilish smile. "...I have an idea on how to give it a little extra umph!"
The king punctuated his last word by punching a fist into an open hand. Then, he stood and shouted in glee, "Excellent work, my Xe-A-Thouls, excellent! Prepare my army. You shall strike this Machine Center and bring me the EX-17 immediately!"
"As you command, my lord," Xanon happily replied. With that, he closed his vision gate, and then all three Xe-A-Thouls left the throne room to prepare, leaving Lassic alone.
"My god said the prism and the sword are in Esper Mansion," Lassic said aloud to the empty room, "and so soon we shall have them. For soon, we shall attack, and the shield shall explode!"
Oh, yes! Did I tell you about the weapon? It's completed! Ha, ha, ha.
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