[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter Fifteen

"Hi there, stranger," came the voice of Space Pirate Tyler Jorran through the Paseo's speakers. "Are you finally ready to go to Dezo?"

"Yes, Tyler," Rolf said after opening a comm channel, "I'm finally ready. Make it seem like I made you wait ten years, why don't you?"

"Because I'm a nice guy, that's why I don't," Tyler chuckled. "All right, then. I'll bring you over to the Hell Runner and then we'll teleport down to Dezo right away."

Rolf blinked his eyes in momentary puzzlement. Shir caught the look and leaned over to mute the channel. "Rolf?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

She looked down and saw he was running his hand back and forth along the scabbard that held the Neisword while he stared out the viewport. No, wait, she thought. It took her a moment to realize it, but he wasn't staring out the viewport, he was staring past it.

He moved her hand from the mute button. "No, Tyler, let's land on the planet," he said finally. "You're able to cloak the Hell Runner, but I don't want to leave the Paseo a sitting duck up here."

"I can extend my cloaking field around you," Tyler protested.

Rolf held firm. "No, let's land." Tyler gave an affirmative response and then cut the channel.

"What's all that about?" Shir asked.

Rolf shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted. "Just a hunch, I guess."

Shir nodded her head in understanding. "Oh, I get it. This is some of that wacky Esper stuff I'd better get used to, isn't it?"

Rolf smiled and dived the Paseo into Dezo's atmosphere. After poking through the cloud ceiling, he found Skure right below him.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tyler looked all around him as he stepped from the Hell Runner with his Polezi robot co-pilot, L-479, in tow behind him. So this is Skure, he thought. They were underground, but still, all around them was once a bustling city -- a city founded by Palman settlers. Though the Dezorians had rejected them at the start, and, in fact, had even attacked them once, the Dezorians had eventually moved in with the Palmans and existed peacefully in Skure, helping it grow until its size rivaled that of Camineet itself.

But then one fateful day Noah brought a group of young Esper students to train in the city. An army of hostile Dezorians attacked, and the supposedly peaceful Dezorian residents of the town joined in, too. Noah and his students fought them off, but not before they had killed every Palman in the city. In the aftermath, Noah had destroyed what was left. Now, all that remained was a series of interconnected underground "rooms" without "roofs." Pits, basically.

Tyler's thoughts drifted away from the past as he saw Rolf and Shir walking across a narrow walkway from the Paseo's landing pad to stand with the Space Pirates. "Hey, Shir," Tyler called to her, "what's the biggest thing you ever stole?"

"Why?"

Tyler slapped the hull of the Hell Runner. "This is my record right here."

Shir looked at the ship with admiration in her eyes. "You stole her? The whole ship?"

The Space Pirate turned and looked upon his beloved vessel with obvious affection in his eyes. "Yup. Someone else paid for her, but I went home with her. So anyway, what's your record?"

Shir shrugged. "The biggest thing I ever stole?" She thought for a moment. "I'd have to say it was in the fourth education segment. Keith Rayshon's heart. Walked right up to him and--" She pressed her hand against Tyler's heart and pretended to pull something away. "--ripped it right out of his chest."

It was not, exactly, the kind of answer Tyler had expected, but Shir just smiled and strolled past him. The Space Pirate then turned to Rolf with an expression of complete puzzlement.

"Oh, I know," Rolf said, "it was vicious. You didn't see little Keith. I was there. The boy cried for weeks."

If Tyler was confused at Shir's comment, he was absolutely abashed at Rolf's. Tyler had only known Rolf for a little over a year. Coincidentally, it was also the most chaotic year Rolf had ever experienced, so Tyler had never known Rolf to be anything besides a tortured man. He knew that wasn't the real Rolf, of course. He knew that the real Rolf would joke from time-to-time; that he would have wild moments and would laugh just like everyone else.

None the less, Tyler was still unprepared to actually see and hear it -- Rolf joking, that is -- and it left him a little stunned. It's like with Dezorians: you know they have green skin and three fingers and flat, nose-less faces, but you're still shocked the first time you actually see one.

The joking and smiling Rolf was then gone just as quickly as he arrived, only to be replaced by the serious and down-to-business Rolf. "Something's wrong," he said suddenly.

It was then that a secret door opened on the nearby wall and three Dezorians charged out, each with a laser pistol in his hand.

Rolf yanked the Neisword from its scabbard and raised a telekinetic shield between the Dezorians and his group just as the Dezorians started to open fire. He, Shir, Tyler, and L-479 ran around to the rear of the Hell Runner as the laser blasts bounced harmlessly off of the mental shield.

"Who the heck are they?" Tyler asked while checking the power level on his blaster. "I thought this place was destroyed and abandoned a millennium ago!"

"It's not so abandoned," Shir pointed out. "We're here, aren't we?"

Rolf used his mind to reach out towards their attackers. "They're coming this way. Two around this side," he said, pointing forward, "and the last one around this side." He cocked a thumb behind him.

Tyler and L-479 slowly crept up to the corner of the ship's port side and nodded back to Rolf, who stood at the edge of the starboard side. Shir, in the middle, counted off in a whisper, "One... two... three..."

Rolf, Tyler, and L-479 all jumped from their hiding places. A handful of shots later, and the attacking Dezorians were finished. Rolf, after replacing his Sonic Gun in its holster, nodded to the others that the now dead Dezorians didn't have any friends waiting in the wings, and then all four of them stepped out of hiding to investigate.

The Agent and Esper-in-training walked over to the two Dezorians Tyler and L-479 had killed. As he approached, Tyler turned and looked at him. "Guess who?" he asked.

When Rolf reached the bodies, he saw they wore the symbols of the New Order. D'zkot's New Order.

"What are they doing here?" Rolf wondered aloud.

"You said they have ships, right?" Shir offered. "And this was Dezo's spaceport."

"Yes, but the ship that attacked me two days ago was not launched from Dezo. So I didn't expect to find them here." Rolf looked up, searched the walls around him. "Where did they come from?"

L-479 pointed. "They came out of a door approximately twenty meters in that direction."

The four of them walked to the spot L-479 had pointed out, but after trying to push, pull, and slide the wall, they realized it was no use. "This is the kind of secret door I'd love to have," Tyler said. "Even when you know where it is, you can't get in!"

Rolf looked at L-479, who was looking up and down the wall, starting at the floor, stopping about two-and-a-half meters above it, and then going back down. "What do you have, El?" he asked.

"Air is coming out of a slit in the wall approximately one-half millimeter wide, right here," the Polezi announced.

"Good job, Toasterhead!" Tyler commended. "Now can you open it?"

L-479 turned to point his optical receivers at Tyler. "Could I finish, carbon-based head?" Tyler smiled at his co-pilot. There's hope for you yet, El.

The robot looked back at the slit in the wall. "Under heavy magnification I can see this slit. However, the line is broken in two places by thirty-centimeter 'gaps' made of solid metal."

Shir buried her face in her hands, then looked up at Rolf and Tyler. "Am I the only one who didn't understand a word of that?" Shir asked.

"What I mean to say is, we can't open it because it's locked," L-479 finished.

Rolf thought for a moment, then spun on his heels and marched back towards the Dezorians' bodies. He searched the two that Tyler and L-479 killed, found nothing, then circled around to search the one he'd killed. Shir followed him. "What are we looking for?" she questioned.

"They obviously weren't planning on locking themselves out of their secret room," Rolf told her. "So they must have had--" He raised the dead man's hand into the air and yanked a ring from his finger. "-- a key!"

Shir followed Rolf back to the door, where he pressed the top of the stolen ring. Giant metal tumblers turned inside the door and it slid aside, revealing the secret entrance and allowing Rolf and his group beyond.

As they stepped in, they found themselves in awe. All around them were computer panels, viewscreens, sensor scopes, readouts, and more blinking lights than they'd ever seen in one place in all their lives. It was almost like a miniature Central Tower.

"This can't be D'zkot's base...?" Tyler said. It was only half-statement.

"No," Rolf said, "I'd expect a few more guards, at least, if it was. What do you think, El?"

"Judging by this equipment," L-479 said as he used his own sensors to scan the room. "I'd say this bunker is designed to coordinate communications between the planet and ships in space."

The four of them spread out, investigating the entire room. After a few moments, Shir called out. "Rolf, come here and look at this."

She was standing in the corner of the small bunker, looking down at a small computer screen with an access panel in front of it. "Did you find something?" he asked excitedly.

"Maybe," she nodded. "I'm no technological expert, and I certainly can't read Dezorian, but this looks to me like a datalink terminal."

Rolf examined the console closer. Shir was right. The terminal she'd found was indeed a datalink terminal, so perhaps it was linked into the New Order's main computer network itself. Now if they could just access the information within it...

"El, come here," Rolf called, waving wildly with his hand to get the robot to move. "I want you to interface with this terminal. I think it's linked to the New Order's network."

L-479 stood before the screen's access panel and began typing rapidly. "Yes, Rolf, you are correct," the Polezi said at last. He continued typing. Data flew across the screen before Rolf, Shir, or Tyler could even comprehend it, but L-479 seemed to take it all in with ease.

"The network has an encryption code on all data," L-479 finally announced.

Rolf sighed. "Well, it would have made things a lot easier if--"

"I have broken the encryption code," the Polezi interrupted. "I have access to the entire New Order computer network database."

Rolf, Shir, and Tyler looked at each other with astonishment. It seemed too good to be true. "You're in?" Shir asked incredulously.

He turned his "eyes" to Shir. "Is there an echo in the room?" His gaze returned to the screen as Rolf stifled a laugh. In return, Shir elbowed him in the ribs.

"I've taught him well -- probably too well," Tyler conceded to Shir with a smile. "So what have you found, Toasterhead? What are we up against?"

"Commander D'zkot formed the New Order approximately eight years ago," L-479 began. "Since then, it has prospered as a secret faction whose desire was to impose stricter, more militaristic rule on Dezo, as well as to conquer Palm and Mota.

"Six years ago, D'zkot built the New Order's first space vessel and traveled outside of Algo, forging alliances and getting the materials necessary to build a fleet of spacecraft. This continues to this day. In fact, current mission statistics list several New Order operatives on assignments outside of Algo at this moment."

"That explains why I've seen Dezorians outside of Algo, despite the fact that they supposedly don't have space travel," Tyler said, understanding.

"Within the last six months," L-479 continued, "the New Order has also formed the Rebel group on Mota."

"I was right!" exclaimed Rolf. "There is a connection! D'zkot's been running the whole show on Mota all the way from Dezo." Realizing what this meant, Rolf silently gave thanks that even as he spoke, Rudo, Kain, and Kip were destroying all the F-5 stored at Biosystems Lab.

"Oddly enough," L-479 said, "the assignment roster does not list any projects for the Rebels since they shipped all of the F-5 from Biosystems Lab to the New Order fleet yesterday."

Rolf felt his heart sink to the floor. He was silent for a long time after that, and so was Shir and Tyler. They all knew what that meant: D'zkot had taken possession of the deadly chemical. Quietly, slowly, he finally asked, "What's the size of their fleet, El?"

"One hundred thirty-seven single-pilot fighter vessels like the one that attacked you two days ago, Rolf. Plus one flagship, much larger than the fighters, with a crew of fifty-three."

One hundred thirty-eight ships! He crunched the numbers, trying to figure out just how long it would take to cover Mota with F-5; how long it would take to wipe out all oxygen-breathing life on the planet.

He came up with an estimate about the same time L-479 provided him with the answer. "Computer simulations the New Order has run project all Palmans on Mota will be killed within ten minutes of the launch of F-5."

"My God..." Shir whispered. Her family was still back on Mota; her parents... her friends...

Rolf was thinking much the same. He knew now he wasn't responsible for the destruction of Palm, but if they didn't stop D'zkot, and stop him fast, he'd have a different planet's death on his hands.

Tyler apparently also sensed the danger. "Where is he, El? D'zkot. Where is he right now? Is that flagship their base?"

L-479 searched the database a bit more before answering the question. "To answer your first question, I am uncertain, but it appears that yes, D'zkot is in the New Order's main base. But no, the flagship is not their headquarters. These files speak of a very large abandoned spacecraft the New Order found in orbit around Mota about one year ago. That is what they are using as their headquarters."

Stunned silence filled the room. It can't be, thought Rolf. But he didn't need his Esper powers to know the New Order was using the Earthmen's space ship, Noah, to plan the destruction of Mota.

"Oddly enough," L-479 added, "when Tyler and I entered the system, we scanned this spacecraft, and it showed no life signs and no power signatures."

Rolf chuckled to himself. Well, you see, L-479, the people who used to live there destroyed Palm. And then they tried to destroy me and my friends, too, but instead, we destroyed them, then I blew their spacecraft to smithereens. But apparently, not enough.

"Ahh, I see," the Polezi said, solving the mystery on his own. "The New Order installed a sensor mask when they took over the facility."

Rolf had heard enough. He spun on his heels, stormed out of the communications bunker, and strode towards the Paseo. Shir was right behind him, and Tyler and L-479 followed a few steps later. "What are we going to do, Rolf?" Shir asked, the fear evident in her voice, and with good reason. "He has the method and the motive. It's only a matter of time before he kills everyone on Mota!"

The Agent stopped and turned to her, taking her gently by the shoulders. "Shir, listen to me. D'zkot is not going to succeed. I didn't get over the destruction of Palm only to lose Mota, too, did I?"

Shir shook her head "no." She trusted Rolf and believed him. Rolf only wished he believed himself.

"Tyler," he started, "I want you to go back to Mota. Get Rudo, Kip, and Kain. They were going to Biosystems Lab today to search for Anna. Find them."

"All right," Tyler nodded. He was standing next to the Hell Runner, which L-479 had already climbed aboard. "What do I do once I find them?"

"Get them onto the Hell Runner, and then all five of you, meet Shir and I on Noah." They gave each other a final nod, wished each other good luck, and then Rolf climbed into the Paseo's cockpit, in which Shir had already strapped herself in.

"Are we heading to Noah now?" Shir asked.

"No," Rolf said, running the Paseo through its' pre-flight sequence as fast as possible. "We need to give Tyler some time to get Rudo, Kain, and Kip. So before we go, we're going to make a brief pit stop first."

A minute later, Rolf had raised the Paseo off the ground and was blasting it over the landscape of Dezo towards the Alplatin Plateau and Esper Mansion, all the while praying that they had enough time to stop D'zkot before he could murder everyone on Mota.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]