Chapter Eight

"So," Tyler exhaled, keeping his eyes on the Landale's control panel and front viewport, and not on the man who sat beside him in the passenger seat, "are you upset?"

"About what?" Rolf asked. "Dirlan's death? Of course it bothers me. Musk Cats are sentient life forms. For someone to just--"

"No, no," Tyler interrupted. "That's not what I meant. I meant, are you upset that someone stole Nei's claws?"

"Oh, that," Rolf said. "Well, I want them back." He grinned and then added, "But if what you're really trying to find out is whether or not I'm about to go mute and withdraw from society and fast for six days at a time -- one day for each claw -- then I'm happy to say that no, I'm not. Maybe a year and a half ago, but not now."

Tyler mocked wiping sweat off his brow as he smiled at Rolf. "Whew, that's a relief."

"I'm more concerned than anything else," the former Agent continued. "You took off before Sawa could finish his report, but I was not just randomly targeted for burglary. Someone came to my house specifically for Nei's claws, slaughtered Dirlan, and then teleported away."

"I take it the Central Tower is conducting investigations into Mota's teleport stations, right?" the Space Pirate asked.

"Yes, and in fact, they're finished with them," Rolf answered, leaning back into his chair to get more comfortable. "Rudo read me the report right before we left. Computer records show no teleport station on the planet reported any teleports to or from that site last night."

Tyler shrugged. "Computer records can be changed. Falsified."

"That's what Rudo has the Agents working on now. But," Rolf sighed, "that kind of investigation takes time. The records have to be carefully cross-referenced with system usage logs, times have to be lined up, anomalies have to be checked out, and most of them turn out to be nothing..."

"So it's kind of like searching the enormous galaxy for three-hundred ninety-eight comparatively microscopic Palman colony ships," Tyler nodded. "Gee, with all the success we've had, it should only take the Central Tower... What?"

"About a week," Rolf answered seriously. "Maybe two."

"Why couldn't Dirlan's attacker have just used a knife, or a dagger?" Tyler wondered aloud. "It would have done the same thing, in the end."

Rolf shrugged but answered, "That's how we know this is just the first part of something much bigger. No one specifically breaks into a house specifically to steal a specific pair of weapons, just to go kill one single Musk Cat." Rolf shook his head. "When I put it that way, it makes it seem like Dirlan was a special target, and that he was staked out and killed for a reason. However, Myau's name on the wall makes me believe Dirlan was killed simply because he was a Musk Cat."

Closing his eyes, Rolf slowly shook his head back and forth to stretch out his neck muscles. "And then there's the fact that I'm needed back at Esper Mansion," Rolf threw in. "It seems like my presence is needed fairly ur gently, as well. I don't know, Tyler. I just don't know what's going on."

"Do you want me to radio the mansion now and find out what Lutz wants? It will ease your mind a little. Maybe."

"Nah," Rolf responded, opening his eyes to look at one of the screens before him, this one displaying the ship's rear-view. Since the Landale was heading towards Dezo, most of the screen was currently taken up by the green of Mota, but behind his homeworld, Rolf also saw the space rocks that made up the Palman Asteroid Field. "We'll be there soon enough," Rolf started, and that's when he started to get a strange feeling in his mind -- just from looking at a screen on which he saw the asteroid field. "And Lutz can just... tell me when... I, uhh... I get there."

"What's wrong?" Tyler asked. Rolf could see out of his peripheral vision that Tyler was looking at him, concerned, but the former Agent himself was too busy focusing his eyes on the screen that had captured his attention to return his friend's glance. Instead, he continued focusing... on the asteroid field.

"Rolf?" Tyler called out again. Rolf barely heard him. "Rolf!"

Why am I getting this... feeling? Rolf wondered. Is something out there?

Finally, Rolf looked away from the screen and licked his lips. "Tyler," he started to ask, "are you picking up anything... unusual in the Palman Asteroid Field?"

The Space Pirate turned his attention to a side screen, pushed a few buttons next to it, then watched for a moment before saying, "No. Nothing 'unusual' at all, unless asteroids fit your definition of strange. What's going on?"

Rolf pursed his lips and returned his eyes to the rear-view monitor. He didn't like Tyler's answer, because he was almost certain... "Tyler, are you sure?" he finally said at last.

"Am I sure?" Tyler repeated. "Am I sure?"

The former Agent again placed his eyes on the Space Pirate in time to see Tyler throw his arms up in exasperation. "Rolf, how many hours have you logged here in the Landale's cockpit, searching for Palman ships, hmm? A lot, right? Right. A lot. So I shouldn't have to ask you this, but... what type of sensors is my baby equipped with?"

"I just asked--" Rolf began, but Tyler held up a finger, and would not let him finish.

"Uh-uh-uh," Tyler shook his finger, "I want an answer. Please state the type of sensor array the Landale is equipped with."

Rolf, staring straight ahead out the front viewport, replied in an emotionless monotone, "The Landale has a Deluxe Beker 46-M series main sensor array--"

"With?" Tyler prompted.

"With Coymik class seven sub-emitters, a Vivalka reprocessing transceiver, and a generic brand 360-mark-360 main wave transmitter that works better than the most expensive ones you'll find on Stoi'ra. Do you know how much that costs, Rolf?" he continued flatly. "Do you have any idea? You don't, so I'll tell you. In standard credits, my complete sensor system--"

"Okay, okay," Tyler again interrupted. "You remember that I have the best sensor array in the sector. You've made your point, so now let me make mine. Yes, Rolf, I am sure. There is nothing going on out in that asteroid field. Okay?"

"Okay..." Rolf finally (reluctantly) agreed. "But Tyler, despite your fantastic" -- he threw that word in for pure flattery -- "sensor system, I'm telling you, I'm just getting a feeling..."

He looked at Tyler and saw that the captain of the Landale now, with Rolf's respect for his ship's sensors reestablished, suddenly appeared more open-minded to believing the strange sensations Rolf was receiving from the asteroid field. At first, though, Tyler didn't know what to say. Finally, he said, "I bet you're just sensing something weird because the asteroid field is where you met Alis, and the anniversary of that meeting is coming up pretty soon."

That very well could be exactly what this is, Rolf silently conceded. To be perfectly honest with himself, he had to admit he really didn't know what the strange mental sensations he'd started picking up since looking at the Palman Asteroid Field meant. It was something he'd have to ask Lutz about, and he'd be to Dezo soon enough to do that. So in the meantime... "I'm not sure," Rolf said aloud. "You could be right."

"Of course I'm right!" Tyler chuckled, and with his smile back, his attention returned to his control panel and viewport. "Isn't that what the sign above the cockpit door says? 'The captain of this vessel is always right'?"

Rolf shot his friend a look, though he couldn't help but smile. "There's no such sign, Tyler."

"Hmmph," the Space Pirate responded. "There should be."

- - - - - - - - - -

After they reached Dezo and landed in a wide-open snow field, Rolf donned his snow gear and stepped outside the ship first. It took Tyler several more minutes to emerge, and when he did, he paused to stand at the top of the Landale's gangplank. Clothed in a thick, heavy coat, with a fur-lined hood pushed back, Tyler stretched out his arms, breathed in deeply, put on a big smile, and exclaimed, "Ahh, how I thoroughly hate this planet!"

A corner of Rolf's mouth raised as he saw Tyler's fake smile turn into a very real frown. The Space Pirate stomped down his ship's ramp, sealed it behind him, and then turned to his blue-haired friend. "What do you have against Dezo?" Rolf asked as they started walking around the Landale to perform a quick eye-check of the ship.

"It's cold, to start out with," Tyler complained, and he punctuated the remark by pulling his hood up over his head, tying it tightly at his neck. "Give me Uzo Island any day. Plus, you walk around in this snow for a while, and I don't care how good your boots are, your feet get wet after a while. Guaranteed."

"Oh," Rolf smiled. "I thought maybe, in your childhood, you were playing barton with Dezo one day and it took its ball home early, so you couldn't play anymore. I thought you'd been emotionally scarred by this place or something."

Tyler waved a hand at Rolf and said, "Go ahead and chuckle, but that's pretty much true, too. This is the place, after all, where a year ago I was shot and kidnapped and taken off to that godforsaken tower where D'zkot, may he rot in hell, almost drowned me to death. So perhaps you can understand why I'm not exactly fond of this place."

As the two of them came around the front of the ship and started back towards the door, Rolf pointed in the distance. "You could always put those memories aside and go for a fresh start," he said. "There's a village right over there that wants you to be their chief. Heck, they even named the--"

"You guys just love to tease me about that, don't you?" Tyler interrupted Rolf to ask.

"Only because it frustrates you so much," Rolf laughed out loud. "If I didn't, it wouldn't be any--"

Rolf's words were again cut off, but this time, it wasn't by Tyler. This time, he suddenly stopped speaking because a small, furred, gray animal suddenly leaped high, straight up out of the snow, and brought its arm around in an attempt to slash Rolf across his face -- an attempt that just about was successful.

"It's a snow mole!" Rolf shouted in alarm as he jumped back from the creature. It was already heading back into the ground, and by the time Rolf pulled the Neisword out of its scabbard, it had disappeared underground completely.

"See?" Tyler called out as he drew his laser gun. "I told you! This planet stinks!"

"Watch out!" Rolf shouted in alarm as another snow mole leaped from the ground. Before it could even try to slash at Tyler, the Space Pirate aimed his laser gun and pulled the trigger. The blast punched a hole through the snow mole's torso and sent it flying away from Tyler and Rolf.

Suddenly, three more snow moles leaped from the snow, but this time, they stayed close to the ground, and once above it, they charged towards Rolf and Tyler, their mouths open and fangs exposed.

"I'll hold them for you," Rolf said casually, and as he focused his concentration (and his telekinesis) on the attacking creatures, they came to a stand-still, becoming easy targets for Tyler's laser gun. After that, two more snow moles leaped from the surface of Dezo to attack, but using the same technique, Rolf and Tyler disposed of them quickly.

They waited, standing at alert, for at least two minutes before they relaxed and returned their weapons to their sides. Each of them walked towards one of the six carcasses that were suddenly littered around where the Landale had landed. Rolf knelt to get a closer look, probing at one with his gloved fingers, while Tyler remained standing and kicked one of the bodies with his boot.

"Oh, I'd just love to live here," Tyler said. "Leave your house to go pick up some supplies, and one of these things jumps out from the ground and slashes your nose right off your face. Charming planet. Just charming."

Finished with his examination, Rolf shook his head and stood. "That's not how it is at all," he told his friend. "Snow moles don't go near towns, and a ship the size of the Landale setting down in the middle of this field should have been enough to scare them away for at least an hour."

"Maybe we landed on top of their nest or something," Tyler offered before adding, with a glance towards one of the bodies, "and if we did, good."

"I don't think so," Rolf shook his head. "And even if we did, they'd still burrow away underground, scared. No, I'm afraid..."

When he remained quiet for several moments, Tyler spun to face him. "You're not saying..."

"Yes," Rolf nodded. "Tyler, someone made these animals attack us. Even if normal snow moles attacked this viciously, they would have run the minute you blew that first one away. They never would have charged at us like that, not even if the odds were five-to-two in their favor."

He kept his eyes on Tyler, but the Space Pirate remained still and silent. "You do know a little bit about everything," he said at last. Then, he shrugged and added, "Well, I guess we'd better get to Esper Mansion, then. Lutz always seems to have the answers."

"Good idea," Rolf nodded. The two of them came in to stand closer together, so that Rolf could teleport them away. "But there's one answer that you have. Why did we land here, as opposed to the entrance to the Crevice?"

With another shrug, Tyler said, "I got a message from the people of... that village, and they said they wanted to build a spaceport for my ship. I just thought I'd land here and, you know... Get a rough idea of the area we're talking about. Stuff like that."

Rolf smiled. "And let the people of Tyler measure your ship so they can build this spaceport?"

"Only a fool gives up a freebie," Tyler responded. "And Mrs. Jorran didn't raise her boy to be a fool."

- - - - - - - - - -

Just before he threw open Esper Mansion's front doors, Rolf heard a voice in his head say, [Ahh, you're here. It is so good to--]

The doors opened, and Rolf and Tyler found Lutz waiting for them. "See you," Lutz finished aloud. He smiled as he welcomed both of them into the warmth of the mansion. "Welcome, to both of you."

"It's good to be here," Tyler said as he stomped snow off of his boots. "Rolf here has just had two very interesting days."

"Oh," Lutz replied. Rolf could instantly detect the dread in his voice and in his mind as he watched Lutz's smile fell off his face. "What has happened?"

"I'll tell you everything," Rolf promised as he removed his coat and handed it to one of the mansion's resident Espers, who took it and Tyler's off to a nearby closet. "But first, what's going on here? I sensed some urgency."

"There is," Lutz answered hesitantly. His demeanor had changed completely since Tyler's remark, drawing Rolf's interest and concern. Before he could say anything, however, Lutz continued. "Tyler, if you could excuse the two of us, please?"

"You can find Amy and Shir," Rolf suggested. Then, to Lutz, "It's not about Shir, is it? Or the baby?"

"Mother and child are fine," Lutz reassured him. To Tyler, he said, "You will most likely find both of them, along with Lance, upstairs in the clinic."

"The clinic," Tyler repeated. "Good. Maybe Amy has something for hypothermia."

Both Rolf and Lutz watched as Tyler began ascending the east staircase. Once he and the Esper who had taken their coats had departed, Rolf and Lutz were left alone in Esper Mansion's grand entrance chamber.

[Let us go downstairs, Rolf,] the teacher mentally said to his student as the two of them started towards Lutz's throne and the adjacent stairs, which led down into the room in which Lutz used to hibernate. He did not say another word, aloud or with his mind, until they were within it. After sealing the door behind him, he then turned to Rolf.

{Could you please tell me what's going on?} Rolf asked his teacher. {You are a lot more nervous than you're letting on.} It was an observation, not a question.

Lutz gave him a small smile and a nod. [I'm good at hiding my emotions, even from my fellow Espers,] he conceded. [All right. Here is what happened yesterday.]

Rolf opened his mind as Lutz sent him a stream of images. He heard Lutz's name being called out, and then he saw Lutz in Elsydeon's Room. He experienced Lutz's dream, and his midnight trip out to the Alplatin Plateau, and his all-night vigil at Shir's bedside. Finally, he saw the conversation with Amy Lutz had had that morning, and he heard Amy's chilling hypothesis.

When it was all over, Rolf wasn't sure what to think. He knew before he'd reached the mansion that something big was afoot in Algo, but now it appeared to be one hell of a lot bigger than he'd ever anticipated. And could it really be...

{Could Dark Force really have returned to Algo?} Rolf asked his teacher.

The mental response was accompanied by a physical shrug. [I don't know. I don't sense him, like I did two years ago, when I sent you and the others to Noah. However, Amy's hypothesis does seem to be the most plausible idea I can think of. What other enemy do we have that is capable of returning?]

{Maybe,} Rolf grinned, {we ought to fly around space, and make sure D'zkot's body is still blown to bits.} He started to chuckle, but then he saw that Lutz was not as impressed with the joke as he had been, and under the stare of his teacher, he returned to seriousness.

[Now,] Lutz said, [what has been happening on Mota? What are these events Tyler speaks of?]

The Esper-in-training focused on his teacher's mind and showed him. He sent images of his battle with the monster at Nei's grave to Lutz's mind, as well as visions of his foot chase in Paseo with Dirlan's unknown assailant, scenes of what he had discovered in the alleyway (including the blood-written name), and finally, he showed Lutz what had happened to he and Tyler upon landing.

When it was all over, before Rolf could say a word, he noticed Lutz's expression. The master Esper was staring at him with... was it indecision? But about-- {What?} Rolf asked. {Lutz, what is it?}

[I knew darkness had returned to Algo...]

{I have felt the same. But what--}

Before he could finish, Lutz explained himself. [Rolf, I know I myself summoned you, but frankly, I'm not sure I want you here.]

The words took a moment to sink in. When they did, Rolf blinked slowly, just once. "Excuse me?" he said aloud.

"Rolf, you have been attacked twice now," Lutz explained himself. "Three times if you count the burglary at your house. It is obvious that you are a target, and it is just as obvious that Master Noah is trying to tell me that Esper Mansion is a target, as well."

The former Agent threw up his arms and said, "So what?"

"So," Lutz answered, "I am unsure if it is safe for you to be here. Safe for Shir and Kyle, that is."

For the second time in just a few moments, Rolf blinked at Lutz. "Who's Kyle?" he asked.

Lutz's mouth hung slightly open for a moment before he chuckled, blushed, and said, "Oh, I mean Lance. Shir, Lance, and the baby. If you are a target for attack, then I -- simply to be cautious -- am wondering if perhaps this place isn't the best place for you to be right now. That is, because Shir, Lance, and the baby are here."

Suspicious, Rolf asked, "Why did you say 'Kyle'?"

"Kyle was the name of Lance's great-great grandfather," Lutz answered, brushing Rolf's question away with a hand. "Lance bares a remarkable resemblance to him, that's all, and in my old age, I find I sometimes make mistakes with names. I am one-thousand two, you know."

No, Rolf thought in his mind. That's just it. You don't make mistakes, Lutz. Not with names, not with anything. Not you.

"Regardless," Lutz continued, "Shir and Lance finally asked Amy to reveal the baby's gender, and it turns out the next resident of Esper Mansion will be a boy. So, the baby's name is Brandon."

Despite his earlier thoughts, Rolf nodded and said, "I see." A pause. "Well, I have to tell you I disagree with your idea whole-heartedly, and I'm not going anywhere."

Now, it was Lutz's turn to blink in surprise. "Excuse me?"

"If I'm a target, then fine. I'm a big boy and I can defend myself. But I'm also Algo's Protector, and so if the mansion is a target, then this is where I should be. Shir and Lance and baby Brandon couldn't be anywhere safer."

Lutz remained silent for a long moment, but finally, he nodded and placed a hand on Rolf's shoulder. "I suppose I am simply hoping that Shir and her child will not have to be defended from an attack," he admitted. "I can't think that an assault by creatures of darkness would be very helpful to her pregnancy. But, if such an attack does occur--"

"I should be here to take care of it," Rolf interrupted, and with a confident smile, he addded, "I want to be here to take care of it."

Before long, he and Lutz were heading back upstairs to the mansion's main entrance chamber, but instead of thinking about visiting Shir, who had been his best friend since childhood, all he could think about was the memories Lutz had sent to him from the day before.

"He has returned!" Elsydeon had called out. Was it really Dark Force? Had Mother Brain been wrong a year before, or had she been telling a lie, and was Dark Force now back in Algo instead of in space destroying Palman world ships?

Someone was behind the scenes of Dirlan's murder and the attack at Nei's grave. Someone was pulling the strings, setting the agenda. That much was clear. But if not Dark Force... then who?

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