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Chapter Thirteen

"There it is," Shir said, pointing her finger out the Paseo's front viewport. Rolf himself had noticed it a few minutes earlier, when it appeared on his sensor scope. He took a deep breath. This wasn't easy. In fact, it was almost like flying straight down the throat of his worst nightmare. But Lutz made it perfectly clear that it was something he must do.

"Approaching the Palman Asteroid Field," Rolf acknowledged.

After they had blasted off from Mota and arrived in the space high above their planet, Tyler had decloaked the Hell Runner and asked Rolf and Shir if they were ready to go to Dezo. They sent him on ahead and told him they had a quick errand to run. Tyler was a little confused; with only two planets in a system, one does not make many "pit stops" during space travel. But the Space Pirate had obliged, and the Hell Runner had moved off towards Dezo before cloaking again.

Rolf checked that the Paseo's deflector shields were raised to maximum despite the fact that he had already checked them three times. They had made their way a few kilometers into the asteroid belt when Shir suddenly spoke up.

"Well, we're here," she said. "What was it Lutz wanted you to do?"

"He said, 'Visit Palma'," Rolf answered.

"So are we just supposed to land on one of the rocks and get out?"

"I don't know," Rolf shrugged. "It was your idea to--"

A flash of light engulfed the cockpit, and when it was gone, Rolf and Shir found that they were no longer sitting in the Paseo.

- - - - - - - - - -

In fact, they weren't even sitting at all anymore. They were standing on green grass and looking up at a bright blue sky. Rolf squinted at the clouds overhead; they seemed to be very close. How high above sea level were they?

His examination was cut short, however, when behind him, Shir exclaimed, "Rolf! Rolf! Look!" He turned around and could not believe his eyes.

They were standing on a mountain, and far in the distance, he could see a trifecta city structure. A moving roadway connected what looked like a spaceport to two cities. The entire area was surrounded by a protective wall.

He knew immediately what it was; he knew it with every fiber of his being. But it couldn't be. It just couldn't be.

Rolf was standing on the world he'd destroyed. He was standing on Palma.

"Rolf, this is Baya Malay. We're standing on the top of Baya Malay!"

He turned his head a bit and gasped at what he saw. "Look, Shir! That town on the docks! It has to be Scion!"

Their eyes met, and slowly, they turned back to the trifecta city structure. "That's Parolit, Rolf. And Palma's spaceport. And--"

"And Camineet," he smiled. He didn't know how, but it was true. He was standing on Palma, looking at the town his foster parents had retired to -- the same foster parents he had believed he'd killed.

But something bothered Rolf, and he suddenly noticed what it was. Shir noticed, too. "Rolf," she began, "shouldn't they be a lot bigger, though? The cities, I mean."

Rolf nodded. Something else was missing. Even from this far, they should have been visible along the skylines of Parolit and Camineet.

"Where are the Mother Brain Control Towers?" Rolf asked out loud. Shir shrugged, just as puzzled as Rolf was, but before she could offer a guess, someone else answered.

"They won't be built for another several centuries," came a voice from behind them. Rolf and Shir spun around to face the voice's owner.

When Rolf had first learned that Mother Brain intended to make the Biomonsters, he was shocked. When he found out the creators of Mother Brain were not from Algo but from across the galaxy, that gave him a pretty good shock, too. But those were nothing next to the surprise he saw in front of him.

Walking up Baya Malay -- walking right towards he and Shir -- was Queen Alis Landale.

Neither Rolf nor Shir could speak. They just stared at Alis, who kept walking towards them. "That's why the Control Towers aren't there. This is Palma as it was when I lived here, 1000 years ago. Before the time of Lassic. Before my brother Nero died." She stopped walking and fixed them both with a smile. "Hello, Rolf. Hello, Shir. My name is Alis."

Rolf, his mouth hanging open in disbelief, took a step closer to her. He found he'd half-expected her to disappear when he did so, but she didn't. She just stood there, her hands behind her back, smiling, while a cool Baya Malay breeze pushed her strawberry blonde hair into the wind.

"I..." Rolf began. "I've seen you. In my dreams." He then quickly added, "Your Majesty," but Alis waved a hand in the air.

"Alis is fine. When I accepted the title of Queen of Algo, I never intended to govern. I set out to kill a tyrant, not to take his place. So I accepted the throne and made but one decision as ruler of Algo: that Palma would be ruled in the same way Motavia had been for years, by a democratically elected group of leaders. After that, I was merely a figurehead. So I was never comfortable with the title, 'Your Majesty'." Rolf and Shir had known this bit of Algo history since the third education segment, but they nodded all the same, as if hearing it for the first time.

Alis looked past them at Camineet, Scion, Eppi Forest, and the rest of Palma. As if thinking they were to do exactly as she did, Rolf and Shir took another look, as well. But after a few moments of silence, Rolf couldn't hold it in any longer.

He spun on his heels and faced her. "I fought him, too. Just like you did. I saw you do it, in my dreams. You were fighting Dark Force, and -- well, I guess they were more like nightmares, because in my dream you weren't winning -- though I know, of course, that you did win, but -- I saw you. And then Lutz told me I was your direct descendent!"

Alis smiled at him. "I always wanted great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren." All three of them laughed. Then Alis took a breath, and looked to the green Baya Malay grass beneath her. "Rolf, I've been very worried about you."

Rolf was stunned. "Alis..." he began. "Do you even know me?"

"Of course. Lutz has told me all about you. I know about everything. Nei, Climatrol, Dark Force, Mother Brain... the Earthmen."

All of a sudden Rolf found he could not look at her. "What you, Myau, Odin, and Noah did for this star system is legendary, Alis. I've let our family down. You saved Palm. I destroyed it."

Alis placed a hand on his shoulder. "That's why I've brought you here, Rolf. Do you remember thinking, 'I wonder what the people will see in the final days?'" Rolf looked up at her, met her eyes, and nodded. "I've brought you here to answer that question. I'm going to show you what happened in Palm's final moments of life."

She took a few steps past him and looked out at Camineet and Parolit. Rolf, however, remained perfectly still... until he started shaking. "No," he muttered under his breath, his back to her. "No, no, no..."

Shir, silent until now, stormed across the grass to stand in front of Alis. "Your Majesty -- Alis. Please. Don't do this to him. You don't understand."

Alis rested a reassuring hand on Shir's arm. "Trust me, Shir. He has to see this."

"No, no, no, no," Rolf continued to whisper. He'd wrapped his arms around himself tightly and he gently rocked back and forth in place, tears pushing their way out of his tightly closed eyes.

"No!" Shir yelled at Algo's former queen. "Alis, he holds himself responsible for the deaths of everyone on Palm! You don't understand! He stands before the Palm Memorial in Central Gardens and just reads the names up and down. He deliberately tortures himself over this day and night. Alis, please -- please!" She grabbed Alis's hand and squeezed. "Alis," she said, trying to choke back tears, "for the love of God, I beg you not to do this to him."

Rolf had stopped whispering, and now just rocked back and forth on his heels.

"Shir," Alis began, leaning in closer and squeezing back the Thief's hand, "Rolf has just found out that he is an Esper. I can not begin to tell you how important it is that he become the very best Esper he can be. But that will not happen so long as he holds himself responsible for the destruction of Palm."

"I know that!" Shir shouted back. "But that's what I'm trying to tell you. This isn't going to get him over the guilt. This is just going to make it worse!"

Alis looked over Shir's head at the sky above and smiled. Then she again met Shir's eyes and said, "Look behind you."

Shir did. She turned around and watched.

And watched. And watched.

"Rolf," she finally called to her friend, her voice little more than a whisper. "Rolf, open your eyes and look at this."

"I can't," Rolf replied, his whisper barely audible.

"Rolf," Shir started to say more loudly, but her voice cracked as the emotion overcame her. She turned to him and practically yelled in happiness, "Rolf, the people of Palm are not dead!"

Rolf's shaking abruptly stopped, and slowly, he opened his eyes. He turned around to face Alis and Shir and then looked all around him.

Palm had aged 1000 years. Camineet was ten times the size it had been a moment before, and Control Towers could be seen on its skyline. Scion's docks were loaded with shipping boats.

And all over, anywhere Rolf looked -- on the ground, in the air -- were space ships. All together, there were about four hundred of them.

Each ship consisted of seven domes, each dome massive in size. Some were so high in the air that they looked like birds running for the freedom of space. Others were just beginning to hover off the ground.

Rolf didn't know what to make of it, so he just stared, and stared.

"Palm had been developing these vessels for some time," Alis told them. "They were planning on using them to explore space outside of Algo. But they learned of Mother Brain's plans, and instead, the ships were used to escape Palm before she destroyed it."

"They're alive?" Rolf asked softly. "No one was on Palm when it exploded?"

Alis smiled at him. "No one, Rolf. There wasn't so much as a Musk Cat left on the ground."

Rolf, excited, turned to Alis. "My foster parents?"

"Yes."

"My friend Orakio?"

"The ship he's on is called Alisa III."

Overcome with emotion, Rolf buried his face in his hands. Shir was right there, and they threw their arms around each other, celebrating. All of the loved ones they'd thought they had lost were, in a way, instantly brought back from the dead.

And Alis just watched, beaming with happiness herself. You're free, Rolf, she thought. Free of the guilt that has plagued you for the last year.

Rolf broke his embrace with Shir and turned to Alis. He took her hands in his and stared into her eyes, his tears continuing to pour. He had so much he wanted to say, but he had no idea where to start. "I'm so..." he began. "I mean, I don't know how..." He stopped and shook his head, and decided to just get straight to the point.

"Thank you. Thank you so much." Rolf pulled Alis to him and squeezed her tightly, his tears of joy wetting her shoulder. Alis returned the hug and shed a tear of her own. Well, Alis, I guess, in a way, you've saved Algo once again.

By this time, all of the Palman ships had vanished into the clouds high above. But now, a new speck could be seen in the distance. And this one was not outgoing, but incoming.

"I have to go now, Rolf," she said without breaking the hug. "But you have to promise me something, okay? You have to promise me you'll become the best damn Esper Algo has ever seen. Can you promise me that?" Rolf nodded.

Somewhere in the distance, light years away as far as Rolf was concerned, Gaira smashed into Palm and exploded.

Alis held him out at arm's length and fixed him with one last smile. There was so much more she wanted to say. In many ways, Rolf was like a son to her. Not only was he her descendent, but he was her successor, as well. Alas, there wasn't much time. But someday, they'd have all the time in the world to get to know each other... "Then I guess I'll see you later, in Elsydeon."

The world around them exploded with the sound of thunder and a flash of light.

- - - - - - - - - -

The next thing Rolf and Shir knew, they were back in the Paseo.

Rolf stared into the asteroid field in front of him for a long time. A few tears rolled down his cheeks despite the fact that the biggest smile he'd worn in months was plastered across his face. Finally, he turned to Shir, and said, simply, "I didn't kill them."

Shir smiled and squeezed his hand. "I know you didn't."

He squeezed her hand back. They sat that way all the way to Dezo.

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