Chapter Twenty

Shir gently bounced her child up and down in her arms. Little Kyle smiled up at her, waving his hands under his blanket and cooing at his mother. "You're one month old today, sweetie," she softly told him. "What a way to celebrate..."

The thief and her husband and son were in Paseo, standing awestruck near the edge of what was starting to be referred to as "the pond." The fragment of Lassic's asteroid that hit the city had impacted right in the center of town, replacing the Central Tower, the Central Gardens, and even Rolf's nearby home with a crater. When waters from nearby Odin Lake flooded into the town early in the disaster, the crater filled with water, and though the waters had since receded and the town was now a soggy, swampy mess (where it wasn't still smoldering or outright on fire), the crater in the middle of town was still filled. Hence, "the pond."

Sometimes Shir felt "Lake of Hell" would be a better term. She remembered the earliest days of the tragedy, when she and all of her friends came to the town to help in any way they could. Divers were frantically searching the waters for anyone underneath who might still be alive. Hope was lost after just a few hours. Many of the buildings in the crater had been reduced to dust. There was no way any of the people who had been inside them could have survived.

Looking at her child, Shir remembered how she had originally joined Rolf's fight two years earlier because she thought it would be fun. How young, stupid, and arrogant she'd been. And how fast she'd been forced to grow up. Though it was just two years earlier, that world now seemed like a dream to Shir. Two years ago, Mota had broken free from the chains of slavery Mother Brain held on them. They had struggled to live their own lives again, to remember what freedom felt like. Rolf had told her two weeks earlier that in a way, the complete loss of all technology that the disaster had caused would be a good thing for Mota. But the way in which it happened... Could it have happened in any worse way?

"At least," Lance said next to her, "there's still some rubble from your house. Rolf lost everything..."

Shir shook her head. "He didn't have anything very important in his house. He lived a pretty simple life. It's ironic that perhaps the only things he would have missed were Nei's claws, and thanks to Neithird..." She left the thought there, not wanting to even say the beast's name.

"How is he doing?" Lance asked. They had both spent considerable time with Rolf since the disaster had happened, but Shir knew him better than many others, as the two had been childhood friends. "I mean, how's he really doing?"

"Rolf blames himself," Shir exhaled. "He feels he has turned out to be a vast disappointment to all of Algo. He feels in many ways like he's a failure. It was his job to protect Algo, but when the Dark Castle entered the atmosphere and exploded, really, what could he have done? He tried everything he could think of. But that's not enough for Rolf."

"Is he..." Lance started. "What I mean is, will he be--"

"He's not going to go psycho again, no," Shir reassured him. "He's a bit depressed, of course, but these days, who isn't? I think that's why he and Amy have been getting along so well lately. She's in the same boat as he is. She had to stand there and watch as Rudo died. She's confronted with thousands more dead every day that we help with the recovery efforts here. As a doctor, she has to help, but there's so little she can do."

"You said it," Lance nodded. "They both did everything they could. They're still doing everything they can."

Shir exhaled again. "Yeah. Overachievers. What can you do?"

The couple stood there looking into the pond in silence for several minutes after that. Finally, Lance reached out and took his wife's arm. He didn't say a word, but he didn't have to. Shir knew he was trying to tell her that it was time to get it over with.

She glanced into the waters that had once been downtown Paseo one last time, and then they walked away, headed for the outskirts of town. It was there that the makeshift morgue had been established; it was the only place they could handle the sickeningly huge piles of bodies that were pulled from the rubble daily. The morgue was also on the outskirts so that the smell from the funeral pyres would not reach town, but that attempt was in vain. The stench of death was everywhere one went on Mota these days.

Part of her didn't know why she even had to do this. A desire of closure was the real purpose, she suspected. She had cut her parents off from her life a long time ago, and so they had essentially been dead to her for years. But if she didn't check the morgue, check to see if the couple they thought might be the Golds was actually they... she would always wonder. The tragedy must have softened her heart. God knows she'd cried more in the last month than she had her entire life before the disaster.

But she wasn't unique in that, not by a long shot. Everyone on the planet who had survived would now divide their lives into two parts: what they did before the day the sky fell, and what they did after.

Lance didn't bother to ask her if this was really what she wanted to do. He knew better; he knew her better than anyone ever had, and in such short time. It was part of why she loved him so much, and why she'd felt such an immediate connection to him. Again her thoughts drifted to her parents, how they'd tried to control her life, mold her into the perfect little socialite daughter. Did she also marry Lance so quickly, in part, because she yearned for the family she felt she'd never truly had?

"Shir," called a voice from behind her. "Shir!"

She and her husband both turned around. Another couple had just passed them on the street. The thief's jaw slowly dropped open as she turned and looked into her own eyes.

"It can't be!" the man continued. The woman was still too stunned to speak. "Shir, is that really you?"

Shir turned and looked at her husband. She was trembling now, and Lance silently took Kyle from her arms. His telelemental abilities confirmed for him what was already clear: the man and the woman they had encountered on the street were Shir's parents. The couple Shir had been asked to identify at the morgue was obviously someone else.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled what she had told Lance right after their son was born, when he had suggested that as long as they were in Paseo, they should look her parents up. My parents are out of my life, Lance, and all three of us are no doubt happier for it. They will never, never be a part of Kyle's life.

"Fate works in strange ways," Lance smiled and told his wife softly. "And sometimes, God is even more mysterious."

Shir nodded to her husband as the tears started to fall from her eyes. Her heart softened from the pains of the past. They had both said horrible, horrible things to one another, she and her parents, but they were still her parents, as much as she and Lance were Kyle's parents, and since she was growing up, then she might as well grow up all the way and forgive the past. For she had only pushed them out of her heart precisely because she loved them so much, and could not bear the hurt they had caused her.

But the time for hate had passed. Now was time simply for love.

She ran to her parents and they met her halfway, squeezing her in their arms between them. All three of them wept openly and loudly. Her mother exclaimed, "Shir, we thought you were dead!" The side of Lance's mouth turned up in a small smile. He was certain his wife was having difficulty breathing, but he didn't know if it was from the tightness of the embrace or her own furious sobbing.

Shir pulled away from her parents, looked them both in the eye. "Mom, Dad, I want you to meet my husband, Lance. And your grandson, Kyle." Her family -- her whole family -- then shared their first moment together.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tyler stepped into the hangar at Nurvus and called out his former co-pilot's name. "Byren!" he yelled. "It's me, Tyler! Where are you?"

After weeks of helping Rolf and the others with relief efforts, Tyler was finally taking the time to get to Nurvus. Not only did he need to acquire some parts for the Landale, but also he wanted to at last check on Byren, who cut off communication with them immediately after the disaster and had not been heard from since.

"Byren!" Tyler called again, stepping through the empty hangar. When he had last been here, there had been a workshop table nearby, where Byren had been repairing the android Wren.

"Hello?" a familiar voice called, and then Byren stepped from a side door into the hangar proper. "Who's there?"

"Byren!" Tyler greeted. "You're alive! You're okay!"

"I am functioning well within parameters," the android nodded. "Can I help you with something?"

"Right to business, as always," Tyler shook his head. They had walked towards one another, and they now stood in the middle of the hangar. Tyler wanted to reach out and pull the android into a hug, but part of him felt purely silly for hugging an android. Finally, the pirate decided, to hell with it, and he pulled the android towards him and embraced his cold metal exterior.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I know this must seem silly, but I'm just happy to see you, Toasterhead." Tyler held the android at arm's length and smiled.

"Do I know you?" Byren replied.

The smile dropped off of Tyler's face. He looked at Byren incredulous. Then he threw his head back and laughed. "That's not funny, Toasterhead," he shook his head. "Well, it is funny, and I'm glad you have your sense of humor, and I think that's the first time I've laughed in a month, but seriously... that's not funny. Cut it out."

"I am not attempting to be jocular. I am honestly not aware of who you are."

Tyler just blinked. "What do you mean?" he asked. "You know me. It's me, Tyler. You were my co-pilot, L-479, before you stayed in Algo and got your upgrade!"

"I'm sorry," Byren shook his head. "My memory was recently almost completely erased as a result of a massive, catastrophic failure in my emonet, which has now been permanently shut down. I am aware of my version history -- that I was, as you say, once Polezi L-479, and that I was upgraded to my current Byren-type classification. But my personal memory storage was lost completely."

"You... you're serious," Tyler responded softly. It wasn't a question, but a realization.

"Why would I be anything but?" Byren replied. "You say I was your co-pilot? Co-pilot of what?"

"Of my spaceship," Tyler said. He was starting to get angry. He didn't mean to be, but he couldn't just sit here and listen...

"A spaceship. Interesting," Byren nodded. "I would definitely like to see outer space someday. Or if what you say is true, see it again, for the first time."

Tyler couldn't take it anymore. "Look, I need some parts," Tyler told him, no longer looking at the android that had once been his best friend. "I know where they are. I'll just take them and be on my way."

"Very well," Byren replied, already walking from the room. "Let me know if I can be of further assistance."

"Sure," Tyler nodded. He looked down, but turned at the last moment and watched the android leave.

Only once he was gone did Tyler cover his face with one of his hands and weep. How ironic that even him, who had no family left in the Algo system whatsoever, could also lose a loved one to this disaster. He gathered together the parts he knew he needed, as well as a few he thought he might need sometime in the future. He never planned to return here again, so he had to collect what he needed now, while he had the chance.

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf stood in the doorway of the Desan temple, alone, looking inside. Though the room's architecture was exquisite, and the stained glass windows that lined the top of the room were especially impressive considering their age, he couldn't focus on anything but the bloodstains on the floor, especially the one that marked the spot where his friend Rudo Steiner had died.

He walked to it and crouched down, shaking his head in silent frustration. "I miss you already, friend," he whispered. "What I wouldn't give to have you at my side right now."

"Wish granted," a voice called out to him, and when he looked up, startled, he saw Lutz standing across the room.

Rolf's jaw dropped open. The Master Esper looked the same as he had the last time Rolf saw him alive. He wore the Frad Mantle, which was not ripped and torn and bloody but was instead as white as Dezorian snow. The former agent glanced down at his side, where both Elsydeon and the Neisword hung from his belt. "How is this possible?" he finally asked the apparition.

"After all you've seen," Lutz smiled and shook his head, "you still don't realize that anything is possible in this world, do you?"

Stepping closer to his mentor, Rolf could now see that Lutz was not fully opaque; he could make out a bit of the wall of the temple behind where he stood. "I'm sorry," he said at last, his head bowed. "You entrusted me with so much, and I failed you."

"Nonsense," Lutz chided him. "I would wish that I could shake your hand right now, if it wouldn't make me seem ungrateful for the opportunity I do have. Rolf, I didn't come here to say goodbye. I came here to tell you how proud I am of you -- how proud I've always been of you."

Rolf shook his head. "No," he said, "I can't accept that. Lutz, you... you must know what has happened. Look around you! This is the worst disaster to ever strike Mota, perhaps all of Algo."

"It was a deadly threat," Lutz agreed, "I'll grant you that. But I don't think you and I are looking at the same world."

"How can you say that?" Rolf was incredulous. "We estimate that two million are already dead! That number is going to skyrocket after we sort things out and figure out just how many of the missing have also been lost. And you're here to say how proud I made you? Lutz, two million people and counting died on my watch!"

"Rolf," Lutz cut him off. "When you step outside this temple, and you look out at the world around you, what do you see?"

"I see a world that has been brought to the brink of destruction," Rolf answered him.

"Excellent," Lutz smiled. "Go on."

The former agent just stared, not believing what Lutz had just said. He raised his voice. "I see people who have lost their entire families, lost everything they had in this world, and I see them every day, Lutz. Every single day I see more people who have lost everything."

"By God you do," Lutz nodded. "What else?"

"I see cities that have been destroyed!" Rolf yelled at him. "I see bodies of water where there should be land! I see land that has been crumpled up like paper and then twisted and shredded some more, just for good measure. What do you think I see, Lutz? Are you trying to drive me over the edge here or something?"

Lutz's arms dropped to his side and he met Rolf's gaze evenly. "What I'm trying to do," he said softly, "is open your eyes."

Rolf moved his mouth to speak, but no words would come out. He tried again, but still, he had been rendered completely speechless. "What?" he finally spat out at last.

"Before you left Esper Mansion," Lutz told him, "when I hid Elsydeon and the Aero-Prism on the Landale, I dropped to my knees and I prayed to God. I begged of him that no matter what happened to me, no matter what happened to you, or to any of the others, that the system would prevail. Tell me again, Rolf: when you look outside, what do you see?"

Silent for several seconds, Rolf finally said, "I see land--"

But Lutz cut him off. "That's right, you see land. And do the forces of darkness roam across it? Do twisted creatures patrol the land by day, and Marauders by night? That's what you would see if Lassic had won."

"I see bodies of water--" Rolf said to him, quietly, but again Lutz cut him off.

"You see beautiful blue water, water of life, and I assure you, Rolf, if Lassic had won, you would not see that water."

"I see cities," Rolf nodded to him, slowly understanding.

"Cities that, yes, have been severely damaged, cities that may never be able to be rebuilt. But they're still there, Rolf. And what do you see inside those cities?"

"I see people."

"People," Lutz echoed. "Life. Do you honestly believe, if Lassic had won, that he would have allowed any life to remain on Motavia? When you look out across that landscape, my friend, you see a world that, as you say, has been brought to the brink of destruction, but by God, Rolf, you see a world. The eternal enemy we fight against is not an enemy that would deny us our freedom, as Mother Brain did. The eternal enemy we fight against would not just exterminate our lives. Our eternal enemy, darkness itself, would erase our very world from existence.

"My prayer was answered, my friend. The system has prevailed."

"Broken, bruised," Rolf added. "But standing nevertheless."

"Two years ago, Rolf, you liberated the people of Algo. You first showed them the chains that the aliens had placed upon them, and then you removed those chains in triumph. You knew there had to be a better life, because life without freedom was no life at all. Now, it's time to show everyone that better life, Rolf. The people need you now more than ever. Technology is wonderful, but freedom, but life, that is what really matters. Show them that though everything has been lost, they still have their freedom and their lives, and nothing is worth more than that."

"I will," Rolf nodded.

"You're not a failure, Rolf," Lutz smiled at him. "You're a Protector. You make us all proud. And Rudo is at your side, Rolf... literally."

For a moment Rolf did not understand. He glanced to his side, and then down at his belt, at the Elsydeon, then with a jolt he again met Lutz's eyes. He placed his hand on the scabbard that held the sacred blade and nodded. "He'll be with you even after the sword is returned to the mansion," Lutz added. "As will I."

"I'll never forget you," Rolf told him. "You've meant so much to me."

"I told you," Lutz smiled. "I didn't come here to say goodbye, because we'll be together again one day, my friend. We'll all be together again... in Elsydeon."

With that, Lutz vanished from the room.

Rolf took a deep breath. He had done everything he could to stop the disaster, and that was all anyone could ask of him. It was also all he could ask of himself.

Feeling a tingle at the back of his mind, he turned around and faced the doorway of the temple. There stood Doctor Amy Sage. Her arms were folded across her chest as she leaned in the doorway. She smiled gently as he saw her.

"How long have you been there?" he asked.

"Long enough," she answered. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I think I had to hear that as much as you did."

Rolf nodded. "All that advice I've been giving you, about how you were doing all you could... I guess I should have given the same advice to myself."

They paused in silence for several moments, meeting eyes but not saying a word. Finally, Amy said, "Everyone else is here, whenever you're ready. Take your time, though -- I don't think anyone's in a rush."

"No," Rolf answered. "I'm ready."

Emerging from the temple together, they walked to the other side of the plateau where Anna, Tyler, Kain, Hugh, Kip, Shir, Lance, Kyle, and Sawa had gathered around the pile of dirt and the simple wooden cross that marked the place they had buried their friend Rudolf Steiner. Rolf and Amy joined the group in silence, and the former agent knelt down at the end of the grave, signing himself with the cross. As he prayed, an idea overcame him. He hesitated at first, but finally realized it was not only appropriate, but it was time.

Reaching behind his head, he untied the yellow headband he had worn as a sign of grief for his parents ever since they had died twelve years earlier. He stood and walked to the head of the grave and tied the headband in an x-shape around the center of the cross. "Even at the end," he said aloud, "he never thought of himself as a hero, even though he was. He just called himself a simple soldier. He just felt he was doing what had to be done. We would all be better people if we could be more like him."

After another long silence, Anna, Rudo's widow, spoke aloud. "When we got back from the castle, and Amy checked us all out..." she started. She fumbled over her words a couple of times before finally saying, "I'm carrying his child."

A wave of both happiness and sadness at the same time overtook them all. Not quite sure what to say, Anna solved the dilemma for them when her face lit up with a wide smile. They all shared embraces with her, all promising to help any way they could.

"Tyler," Rolf finally said, "you're departing for Dezoris today, right?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "I've got the Landale repaired enough that she can make one last trip, so I can get Shir, Lance, and Kyle back home."

"And my parents," Shir happily added. "They're going to come with us."

"But I think one trip is all she has left in her. After that, it's going to take years to repair it." He sighed. "I guess it's a good thing that village on Dezo already built me a hangar."

Rolf grinned. They all knew darn well that Tyler didn't have to go to Dezo; Byren could just as easily take the Moonseers back to Esper Mansion in Nurvus's shuttle. But like everyone else on the planet, Tyler had lost a dear friend to this disaster. Who could blame him for wanting to start a new life, as far away as possible?

"Kain and I checked out Birth Valley yesterday," Hugh announced. "There are some repairs to be made, and most notably, one section of the complex has caved in, but nothing critical was there. And Seed himself is fine."

"It's up to us now to preserve the past," Kain said, "'cause no one but us is going to be too concerned with technology for a while."

"What are the rest of you doing?" Shir asked.

"I'm hoping they'll join me," Rolf answered, and several pairs of puzzled eyes all turned to him. He swallowed and decided that Lutz had said it best; there was no use in him trying to rewrite the words. "Two years ago, we liberated the people of Algo. We told them that there was a better life than the oppression Mother Brain kept them in. Now, it's time to show them that life, but the cities have been destroyed. Emergency water supplies are starting to run low, and the aftershocks from the groundshakes, as well as the damage from the castle's explosion itself, have left many of the cities on unstable ground. Even now, more and more people are leaving Paseo, and all the other cities, every day.

"What I propose is that we get large groups of people who want to leave the cities together, and we lead them in the search for water and stable land. We'll help them find new places to settle down. And when we've done all we can for them, we'll move on to other groups that might need our help."

"People will need to learn to defend themselves," Kip nodded.

"And to hunt," Anna added. "To build homes..."

"They need to learn how to live," Rolf summarized. "We can help them. And I was hoping the rest of you would join me."

Anna, Amy, Kip, and Sawa all agreed. With that, all that remained was their final goodbyes. Some of them would be seeing one another on a daily basis; others would see each other once in a while. But they all knew this was the last time all of them would be together.

At least, Rolf thought with a smile, until we're all together again in Elsydeon.

When their goodbyes were over, and everyone who was leaving had departed, the remaining five gathered together on the plateau. "Where do we start?" Anna asked.

"I say we start in Paseo," Rolf told them. "That's the city that not only was hit the worst, but simply because it was the most populous, the most survivors are there, too."

"A lot of survivors from Arima have gathered there over the last month, also," Sawa added.

"Right. We know, because all of us here have been working with the relief crews, that the city is more or less a complete loss. It will take us a few days, but let's gather everyone who's left and encourage them to come with us. We'll go south, along the eastern border of Odin Lake, and see if we can find a good supply of fresh water for them that also happens to be near some stable land."

They all nodded and headed off, but Rolf straggled behind. Amy noticed and waited for him. "Are you okay?" she asked him.

He took one last look at Rudo's grave and nodded. When he turned back to her, he had a smile on his face, the biggest smile he'd had in a long, long time. "I'm fine," he said. "In fact, all things considered... I may be more fine now than I've ever been in my life."

"Then let's get a move on," Amy winked at him. "There are people we need to help. We have a job to do."

"Of course we do," Rolf nodded. He looked to the blue sky and took in a deep breath of air. "We're Protectors."

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