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Chapter Seventeen

There Is Only One Life

Live it well , Lore told herself. She clasped her titanium cape around her and pulled her long onyx hair back into a ponytail to keep it out of her way. Lore had never had to wear a full compliment of armor before, though she had practice using various means of protection at different times during the days the biomonsters held Motavia's population captive in their cities. She dug around in her duffel bag and pulled out a jewel crown which she placed on her head for protection. Finally the historian picked up the sheath containing her laconian sword and fastened it to the belt around her waist.

The two ships had found Noah with relative ease considering that they had searched for less than half a day before the Landale sensed hostile fire and Tyler kicked in his hijammer. The space pirate did not understand how or why the invisible ship revealed itself so swiftly considering that he had never sensed it in all his journeys and that it had never attacked anyone to his knowledge. The hijammer worked however, and Tyler left it up to those three to figure out what was going on from the inside. He gave them a healthy warning to be careful as Kain turned on the cancellation device and brought the Dipwad alongside the larger ship that could only be Noah.

The Earthmen's ship loomed dark and heavy on the monitors, an alien dreadnought with no windows, no signs that there could be life within its fearsome belly. It had no apparent way to move, but it slipped through space with the stealth of a practiced predator.

Kain had guided their shuttle to what appeared to be an airlock so that once they drilled through the hull with the emergency lasers installed on the Dipwad they would be able to find a place to stand within. He matched drifting speed with Noah then locked the shuttle's controls into place. Once they connected their airlock to the Earthmen's ship the Dipwad would hold steady alongside it.

"Well, are we ready?" asked Kain, straightening the work gloves on his hands. The wrecker had decked himself out in laconinish for body armor and storm gear to protect his head. Kain stashed his computer equipment in his backpack and picked up his laser shot.

"Just... about," muttered Hugh. He finished pulling the amber robe over his body and buckled his ceramic chest over it. The amber garment had the property to endow its owner with the powers of the gires technique without taxing any of the user's own mental strength, and Hugh was not about to leave such a valuable possession behind. Hugh lifted the Neishield in his right hand and a laconian mace in his left. An acidshot was holstered at his side and a laser knife device in his boots. The Neisword was strapped to his back.

Kain shook his head. "Man, you are decked!"

Hugh shrugged. "I'm not the one who stashed eight sticks of dynamite in his backpack."

Lore gaped. "You did what!"

"Eh..." Kain slung his backpack over his shoulder. "We might need it. Never can tell."

She tugged on the edges of her protective cape. "I just hope that doesn't get set off because you get hit by a foi technique."

"Heh. If that happens I'll be taking out whoever shot at me along with the rest of us."

"I hope you know that's not very reassuring."

Kain chuckled. "I do. Now if you'll let me by, I'll start carving our way into Noah with the lasers attached to the ring around our airlock. You two stand by in case anything tries jumping at me."

The three entered the extendable airlock of their shuttle with Kain in the lead. Hugh slung his Neishield back over his shoulder and pulled out his acidshot. Lore drew her sword and stood off to one side where she could better evade an initial range attack. Kain took his place at the airlock's computer terminal and began the commands to move the passenger cabin away from the shuttle and towards Noah.

Slowly the mechanisms whirred, bringing them closer to the entrance to the monster's lair. Hugh knew he would have to concentrate on their immediate danger, but he could not help fighting the memories of almost exactly one year ago.

* * * * *

In an instant, Rolf and his companions had been attacked by several hundred Earthmen!

Rudo hefted the Neishot and took aim. "We will show you how it feels to lose something that you love!"

Amy raised her hands, preparing the power for her deban technique. "I see the confusion and pity in your eyes. I will never forgive you for what you have done."

As Amy's defensive power surrounded him, Kain slashed his way through the first rank of Earthmen. Screaming his anger he shouted, "How dare you ruin Algo!"

"I refuse to be a slave of fate! I am the master of my own future!" With those words Shir unleashed the fury of her nazan technique.

Hugh narrowed his eyes. "You have shown me the ugliness of continued existence."

Anna dodged a poorly aimed strike and hurled her slashers at the rows of Earthmen before her. "These are my parting words to you: Those who give up are doomed!"

The six of them rallied around Rolf, blades and guns flashing and techniques flaring in a massive conglomeration of light. The blue-haired agent looked about him, seemingly confused but proud of their steadfast loyalty.

"I wonder what the people will see in the final days," he murmured.

"We're ready, Rolf," said Rudo. "Use it."

He nodded, sheathing his sword as he raised his hand to draw on their power. Seven minds prepared themselves as each member of the outer ring willed his or her life force to fuel the strength of Rolf's megid.

All of their power joined at a nexus, then burst from Rolf's hand as a chain of fiery explosions. The outer six staggered and collapsed at once, older wounds bursting open the instant the megid technique sucked their lives' energy from them. Nothing could ever fully prepare them for the drain. As Amy used her healing technique to revive them, they looked up to see less than a third of the Earthmen had been affected.

"This is nuts!" breathed Kain. "We'll all be withered husks if you keep using megid!"

Anna's slashers whistled as she hurled them in another arc. Half a dozen Earthmen collapsed as she caught them on their return. "Who cares? We'll all be dead anyway. Use it!"

"But we're not used to using megid against so many targets!" said Amy. "Does Rolf have enough technique left that we can actually take out enough clumps of them?"

"Eat a nagra!" yelled Shir, crushing more Earthmen within the confines of her mentally induced gravity well.

"I don't know!" Rolf shouted back to Amy. "I might only have enough for one more megid, but I'm not sure!"

"Only one?" asked Kain. "We're sandworm bait!"

Hugh swung his mace into the chest of an Earthman, making bones crack with a sickening crunch. "What else can we do? We've got to try!" He spoke brave words, and he wanted to believe them, but he knew that there was an else; an else he did not want to use. This battle was already terrible, looking to all outward appearances as though Palmans killed Palmans. He found the thought revolting.

Rolf raised his hand again, to summon the power of megid. Hugh felt the pull, but it was weak, hardly enough to bring forth the destructive force of the dreaded technique.

"I can't get it! It's just not enough!" shouted Rolf as an Earthman charged him. The agent darted to one side then finished the man off with a nafoi.

"Anyone else got any bright ideas? I'm sure open to them!" said Kain.

Shir backflipped out of harm's way, throwing one of her laconian daggers into the gut of her latest assailant. "Not me. I'm almost out of technique. One more nazan then it's back down to the puny stuff."

"Hugh!" shouted Amy. "Use your savol! I know you didn't drain much with your gifois against Mother Brain."

His world changed then, and he felt sick to his stomach. Savol? How could Amy suggest he use such a thing against sentient beings? Beings who likely had every right to live as they did. It was one thing to kill a charging dragon with it, and even then he mourned for the creature, but savol did not give a reasonable chance for survival once it held its victims in its thrall; not unless the wielder willed it to stop. At least the Earthmen had a chance at dodging his mace.

"Amy's right," said Kain. "If you use it we might stand a chance!"

But did he have the heart for it? Would he spare the Earthmen at the last second rather than live with the guilt of their murder? His friends' lives, Amy's life, depending on him. He could not fail them, could he?

"Please shoot me afterwards," he muttered.

No one heard him.

Hugh raised his hand, finding within himself the nexus of power that would direct his thoughts into reality. Images burst into his mind's eye in the split second it took for the technique to activate. Aspects of the Earthmen's anatomy flashed before him and he absorbed everything. Their bodies were so similar to Palmans it was unbelievable. Hugh nearly reeled back from the shock, but recovered himself just as quickly. He sighted their vital organs and closed a suffocating pressure around them. It would not be an easy way to die, but he could make it swift.

"Hurry up, Hugh!" yelled Anna.

He could have make it swift. But he did not. Gasping cries had filled the air, and he was paralyzed by their sound. People--yes, they were people!--had crawled towards him as their organs stopped functioning. Their hands were raised, either in supplication or anger. He didn't know. He was horrified, and could only watch in morbid fascination as they slowly dropped one by one. Their anatomy was far from unfamiliar to him, and that made them all the easier to slay.

He could only take out so many at a time. His friends surrounded him to protect him but he did not want to be shielded. He hoped, even prayed, he would be struck down before he could take any more lives. But he lived, and cast savol again and again against the diminishing horde of Earthmen. His power was such he could catch the few who fled, discover who watched from the shadows, and locate those who had hidden away in their quarters.

They wanted them all dead. His friends wanted them all dead. They all died. None of the Earthmen escaped, but the last few lives he took, those who had been hidden away, slipped free with such ease amid his panic driven madness that he suddenly realized just who those last victims had been.

"No! It can't be," he sobbed, dropping to his knees. "Kill me!" he shrieked. "I can't live like this... knowing what I have done."

He could no longer speak, only hiccup and regret with all his heart as his tears fell. He squeezed his eyes shut, but he was all too aware of the many corpses around him. And in the hidden rooms he knew that their children joined them in death.

* * * * *

Genocide. It had been genocide. They were the last of their race and he had killed them. Were they truly evil or corrupted by a hardship no one should endure? Would their children have grown up to be like them had they been spared?

"Hugh," Lore said softly.

He came out of his reverie with a start and found that Kain had already latched the exterior of the airlock with the Earthmen's ship. The airlock's outer door seemed an insignificant barrier to place between them and Noah, and the lasers had almost finished breaking through Noah's hull.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I was just remembering." He made a show of renewing his vigilance, but that did not hide the disturbance within him.

"Just remembering, he says," Kain snorted. "Don't be dangerous, Hugh. We're counting on you, and you'll see there's no reason to fear those memories."

"I hope you're right, but it's not easy," he said. Not when I haven't told you the whole story.

The lasers met, completing the job. Kain pushed the cut metal away and it fell back into Noah revealing an empty hallway. He crouched immediately, expecting an attack, but none came.

Lore lowered her sword. "Some welcome, huh. No one's even here to greet us. You'd think someone was aiming those lasers at us."

"Someone probably was," said Kain, straightening himself. "Let's not let our guard down."

Once he made certain the seal between the Dipwad and Noah was airtight, he opened the outer door of the airlock. The air in Noah and the shuttle met in a swirling rush of wind. Taking his laser shot in hand, Kain gestured for Lore and Hugh to follow him. "I think I recognize this place. Let's go."

The floor inside Noah was made of stone, a fact that Lore found remarkable. The Earthmen were eccentric, she supposed. She could not find the use in such an unlikely building material. Perhaps the Earthmen came from a metal poor world was her second thought. In any case she remained wary of every corner and every alcove that appeared where it did for no particular reason at all.

"Do you think the monsters survived?" she asked. "The life support systems are still working."

"I hope not, but that's what these weapons are for," said Kain. "Some of those monsters were pretty smart. If any of them survived they probably were the ones firing at us." He tapped his laser shot against his leg as he considered which direction to take. "At the very least there are no Earthmen, assuming we got them all."

"We did," Hugh murmured almost inaudibly.

"And that they had control of the them," Kain continued. "The monsters looked an awful like some of the stuff in the Nei dungeons. But I don't think the Earthmen had anything to do with the guarding of the Nei items."

Lore considered that as they resumed walking. "I wonder if we should have asked your friends for their Nei stuff. All we have is Hugh's Neishield."

"And Rolf's Neisword," said Kain. "But I wouldn't want to have to rely on that thing. I don't trust it. What it does it does of its own free will. That's not the type of sword I would want to give to a hero."

* * * * *

Kain continued to guide them through the irrationally arranged corridors and Lore could only speculate about the sanity of these Earthmen. The three found no signs of living creatures, though it was not long before they began to find the carcasses of battles past. They stumbled on to the skeletons of two archdragons, among the most ferocious beasts to be found in Algo. Kain recalled a few details of the battle to Lore, who listened with a keen ear in the event that any of these dragons should still live in Noah.

Then near the end of the convoluted maze Kain pointed out where they fought Dark Force. They did not linger there long. The evil aura of the ancient being permeated the air around its former lair and Hugh inexplicably marched full speed away from the area with the gait of a man trying too hard to avoid trouble. He only said that the place made him feel uneasy and left it at that.

The three reached Mother Brain's chamber as a group, Hugh lurking in the rear and Kain in the lead. Kain walked to the center of the room and looked around him, careful to avoid looking in the next chamber where the bodies of the Earthmen were.

"Well, we're here," Kain said. He set down his backpack with a grunt. He popped open the top and pulled out his portable computer. He looked around for a place to connect it and muttered, "Let's hope this works."

"Mother Brain designed your computer to interface with her system back on Mota. They should be compatible." Lore folded her arms across her chest as she looked at the remains of the massive computer. Even battered and torn, the Mother Brain held an aura of power and majesty. Lore picked up a jagged panel of silicon circuitry. "So this is what's left of the Mother Brain," she murmured as the metal reflected in Noah's eerie light.

"But Mother Brain probably used satellite relays to talk to us from Noah. She was not directly connected to any of Mota or Dezo's control towers," said Kain as he removed what appeared to be a maintenance panel from an unscarred section of the computer. "And I can't plug my portable into a satellite."

Lore shrugged, setting the circuit shard back down. "She had to have sent the signal to the satellite from somewhere though. Plug it in there."

"Are you sure we can download anything at all?" asked Hugh, coming to life. "She's turned off after all."

"No, I'm not sure," said Kain, dumping various shaped cables beside his computer. "I'm not sure about anything right now. But if we can't download anything then chances are neither can the Council's team. I've learned a lot in the past year and I think I have just as good a chance at breaking in as they do."

Hugh nodded then turned his gaze back to the path through which they entered. His expression was calm, though thoughtful. "Okay, try not to take too long."

"I have no intention of doing so."

Lore prowled through the debris, approaching the door to the Earthmen's hall. She peered only briefly inside and remained silent about what she saw.

Kain leaned deeply into the space behind the panel he removed, dragging in long coils of cable after him. He emerged shortly to pull a flashlight out of his backpack, then crawled back inside. The light shone from inside the darkness to those outside. "Nah, this is a dud," came Kain's voice. "My cables aren't going to be long enough coming in through here. But I think I'm getting a feel for the layout of this mainframe. And I really mainframe . The inside of this thing is like a hallway to some building!"

He emerged again and began prying open another panel. He had better luck this time and started making his connections. "The trick is to only stimulate the parts I need information from. I don't need the whole computer system on at once," said Kain as he worked. He wrung his hands eagerly as he turned his portable on. "And maybe once we get this done I can shift off of these homemade batteries of mine. We might even get the factories up again!"

Hugh watched Kain begin typing in his commands and shifted his stance uneasily. He turned his gaze back to the portal through which they entered. The sword on his back felt very warm.

"It's working," Kain breathed with a smile. "It's working! We're getting something out. I don't know what it is, but some of her data banks are still intact!"

Lore smiled. "Good. I wonder if there's any information about the Earthmen in there. I wish we knew more about them, especially if there were any that were not on this ship."

"Looking through this stuff is the first thing we'll do once we get back to Paseo," Kain assured her.

"No, making sure the Council hasn't missed us terribly is the first thing we'll do." Lore playfully wagged a finger at him as she winked. "Then we'll invite Rolf, Rudo, and Cass over, so they can see what they risked helping us to get."

Hugh had not listened to his friends' conversation. He continued looking out towards the rest of the ship. "They're coming," he said.

"What?" asked Kain, suddenly looking at the biologist.

"I thought I was wrong--it was my imagination--but I'm not." The biologist focused his gaze at the entrance to the chamber and lifted his mace as he took a combative stance. "The residents of Noah..." --the first rank of caped fiends and enchanted firefalls came into around the corner-- "are here." Hugh's words ended with a dead tone of finality.

Lore stepped up beside him, drawing her sword from its sheath. Dozens more creatures filed into place behind the ones already present. "Oh Alis, this is gonna be some fight," she breathed.

"These must be all the monsters left on Noah. They've never attacked us en mass before."

"We've ruined all their plans, I suppose," said Kain. He stood up from his computer, hefting his laser shot in both hands now. "No surprise they hate us. I'm just surprised they let us get this far." Lore and Hugh stood between him and the monsters, but he believed he could get a clear shot before the melee commenced.

"They wanted us to." Hugh held his Neishield in front of him. "Now we have nowhere to run, except to the room of death behind us."

Lore lanced forward, black tresses streaming behind her as Kain opened fire through the space where she once was. The laser caught a fiend in the shoulder as Lore swung her sword through its body. The twelve foot giant fell in a great billowing of its robes and feeble twitching of its bone hands.

Lore parried the thrust of an animated sword and ducked the wild swing of another fiend. She tumbled back and let go of her sword with her right hand as she called up the image of a technique. A charge of electrical energy shot from her palm, striking the darkly outlined figure of a shadow being. The historian gasped in a breath of air as she prepared for an attack by the firefall nearest her.

Kain touched the side of his storm gear with a fingertip, activating the headgear's embedded technique and capturing the creatures nearest to Lore in cruel pockets of vacuum. He lifted his laser shot again and picked off more enemies in a rain of covering fire.

Hugh tried to keep up with Lore, but the historian moved swiftly and erratically, picking off clumps of enemies wherever she could stall them. He settled instead for catching the monsters that barreled past her. Surprisingly many went out of their way to fight him and he called up his gizan technique more times in a minute than he thought possible. He batted away a firefall with his mace but did not escape without being singed.

The end of the monster army came into view with a quartet of imagio mages leading it from behind. They gestured and shouted orders in a dark tongue that sounded as though it sucked the the brightness from the room around them. One of them turned his masked face to look at the trio's combative efforts. He raised a globe of light between his hands and hurled it above the monster forces. It landed exploding between the three Palmans, scattering them.

Kain stumbled back out of the way, Hugh to one side with his shield raised, and Lore leaped forward, using the awkward opportunity to bring a fiend into range of her sword.

She never struck. Lore crashed to the stone floor from midleap as the force of a lung sword's attack clipped her in the shoulder. She gathered herself, vision spinning from the pain, when she saw the giant form of a fiend looming over her. She knew she should move, but the flickering memory of a Dezorian dream came back to her.

Lore did not scream when the fiend's bony fingers pierced her back and passed through her ribs.

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