[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter Twenty-One

Rolf slowly stepped into the Earthmen's old control room, with Rudo, Anna, Shir, and the others behind him, and absorbed the scene around him. It was a scene he never wanted to see again; a scene he thought he never could see again. Yet, somehow, the Earthmen all stood lined up, just as they had one year before, when they had revealed to Rolf and the others that they had created Mother Brain. Right after that they had proudly declared themselves, "We who destroyed Palm."

The group of Palmans looked around and saw that the room was exactly as they had left it: destroyed. All that remained was the deck which they walked on. D'zkot had apparently installed a new gravity net in the floor and restored life support systems sometime in the past year, however, because although they were effectively standing on a platform in the middle of space, they did not float into the air and they did not find themselves in a vacuum. Rolf noticed a shimmering purple force field in the shape of a dome, covering the whole room. He decided that was what kept the air -- and the room's occupants -- from being blown out into space.

When he noticed the force field, he noticed D'zkot, too, floating some fifty meters in the air, and laughing as if he'd just been told the Funniest Joke in the Universe. "Welcome back, Rolf!" he yelled down. "I've brought along some friends of yours to join in the occasion. Of course, I had to retrieve them from where you left them floating in space like debris, but they were all rather eager to see the lot of you again."

Now that his group had completely entered the room, Rolf took a closer look at the Earthmen. All of them stood with open eyes, glaring at Rolf, Rudo, Anna, Kip, Shir, Kain, Amy, and Hugh. But something was wrong -- something was missing -- and it only took a moment for the group to realize that the eyes that glared at them were dead and lifeless, as were the rest of their bodies.

"This is the trick he used on us before," Kain told the others.

"Look at them," Rudo pointed out. "They're dead. But he's using his powers to animate their bodies somehow."

Coming to this realization, however, didn't make any of them feel any better about being reunited with the aliens; in fact, it made them feel worse. It wasn't hard at all to miss the sword, gun, knife, Slasher, and Acidshot wounds the Earthmen bore on their bodies. They saw Earthmen whose stomachs were red messes of dried blood, and they saw Earthmen with laser holes through their foreheads. In short, they saw a hands-on reminder of the fact that they had finished off what Earth's destruction had started: the complete extinction of the human race. And that was an accomplishment that none of them were proud of.

Rolf nearly broke down right then and there. He fell to his knees and started to shake, his breathing coming quicker and quicker. "Rolf!" Shir called to him, but despite the fact that her hand rested on his shoulder, she was light years away in his current state. Dropping the Neisword in front of him, Rolf brought his hands to his head and closed his eyes tightly shut.

What did we do? What did I do? I'm no better than they are. They wanted to kill all of us Palmans, and I responded by killing all of their race instead!

The rest of them ran similar arguments through their minds as they just stared at the poised-and-ready dead Earthmen. Through it all, D'zkot savored their private agonies like a rich delicacy, with Rolf's serving as the icing on his cake.

And the Agent and Esper just knelt there, shaking and tortured, for what seemed like a long time, but was only a handful of moments. It was then that Rolf's eyes opened just a slit, allowing him to see something that made him instantly stop shaking. He opened his eyes all the way, and picked the Neisword up off of the deck, staring intently at the blade.

Turning it slightly back and forth in his hand, he watched the reflection of the stars above and around him as they twinkled in the metal of the Neisword. And then he realized it wasn't his imagination, because then he saw it again.

It was Nei. He could see her face in the reflection on the blade. She just stood there in the metal smiling at him, and in his mind, he heard her repeat the words she had spoken earlier. "Your birth was not just some random twist of fate," she had said. "You were put here for a reason. Now, you just have to go out and find out what that reason is."

Rolf's mind flashed back to his encounter with Alis on the top of Baya Malay. She had spoken of the first mind-demon that had tormented Rolf for the last year: his guilt over the destruction of Palm. With her help, he had left that guilt behind. He could still hear her words to him as they echoed in his brain.

"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?"

Yes, Alis. I can.

Then he was deep in the bowels of Esper Mansion, and he and Nei were standing before Elsydeon, the magical and mysterious weapon that housed the souls of Algo's Protectors. Nei helped him confront and defeat the second mind-demon that had plagued him: his refusal to accept her death. That mind-demon had been destroyed once he was armed with the knowledge that, in a world other than this physical one, he would be with Nei again someday.

Nei did not elaborate on the third mind-demon; she only said that it existed. This time, if he'd had any help, it had come from Anna, but mostly, it had come from himself. He'd found the mind-demon, confronted it, and defeated it on his own.

Back in Anna's mind, he had been forced, in order to save her sanity, to show her the good that came out of their battle with the Earthmen. When he did, he not only showed Anna the brightness that came out of the dark tragedy, but he'd showed himself as well. And in the process, the third and final mind-demon had been conquered. He still regretted what happened here one year ago, but now he took it for exactly what it was: justifiable and completely necessary self-defense on a system-wide scale.

But now D'zkot was trying to erase all that. By forcing him to see the Earthmen first-hand once again, he was effectively testing Rolf's recovery. He'd seen in Anna's mind the battle aboard Noah one year ago, and had realized that it was what had driven Rolf to the brink of insanity. He knew that if he made Rolf relive the battle -- and not just in the mental, but in the physical, as well -- that he would push Rolf over the brink, and Rolf would tumble into insanity... and there would be no one left to stop him from taking Mota.

His plan almost worked. Almost. But then Rolf heard Nei's words for the third time.

"Your birth was not just some random twist of fate. You were put here for a reason. Now, you just have to go out and find out what that reason is."

Nei, he thought, climbing to his feet and squeezing the handle of the Neisword. Realization hit him like a tidal wave, and the proverbial light bulbs in his head went off like fireworks. Nei, I know now. I know why I am here. And more than that... I accept it.

The whole process of realization in Rolf's mind had taken only a moment. D'zkot still floated high above, and the reanimated bodies of the Earthmen still stood poised and ready to attack.

"Yes, they're dead, Rudolf Steiner," D'zkot called down, "because you all killed them! But now they have returned from beyond the grave to take their revenge on you!"

High above them, he unfolded his arms and pointed downwards. "And that is exactly what they will do now. Prepare to join them... in hell!"

Before the Earthmen charged, and before Rolf's friends charged back, everyone in the room stopped suddenly as Rolf raised the Neisword into the air, pointed it at D'zkot, and yelled at the top of his lungs.

"D'zkot!" the Agent screamed. "Your reign of terror is over!"

With that, he pounced off of his feet, and began to rise into the air for his final battle with D'zkot.

At the same time, the Earthmen charged forward, and while the telementals battled high above, Rudo, Anna, Shir, Amy, Hugh, Kain, and Kip fought the last survivors of Earth for the second time.

- - - - - - - - - -

When Rolf was half-way into the air, he and D'zkot both reached out with their minds. There was a flash, and Rolf realized he was no longer on the physical plane but on the astral plane. However, when he looked around him, he saw his surroundings were almost the same as they had been a moment before.

He was still in the Earthmen's control room, but instead of a force field dome overhead, there was a ceiling, and walls. He looked down and saw the Earthmen, almost exactly as they had been a moment before. Rudo, Amy, Hugh, Anna, Kain, and Shir were all here, too, but Kip was gone, and in his place, Rolf saw himself, confronting the Earthmen leader, whose name was Terrick.

"For the rest of them, reliving the battle in the physical world is enough," a voice called. He looked across the air to see that D'zkot was here, too, looking down at Rolf's memory of his first battle with the Earthmen. "But for you, Rolf, it is not nearly enough. Down there, in the physical, I wanted you to see the bodies as you left them: torn, bloodied. Dead. But I also want you to relive killing them for the first time."

Below him, Rolf heard his own voice as he turned to the others and asked in a whisper, "Who are these people?"

Terrick smiled, but the kind gesture held sinister motives behind it. "Look, gentlemen! It appears we have visitors. Welcome to the spaceship Noah."

"Who are you people?" Rolf asked again, this time to the Earthmen and in a more demanding tone.

The leader's smile vanished, and his eyes bore into Rolf's. "Now that's no way to treat your hosts, is it? Frankly, I don't like your tone of voice. Are you here because you think we are enemies?"

"Yes," Rudo answered sternly.

In response, Terrick chuckled softly. "Oh, come now. We will be hospitable hosts, although of course we hate you for destroying our Mother Brain--" He was unable to finish his statement.

"So you are the creators of Mother Brain," Rolf interrupted. "You are hardly what we expected! What city are you from, and why did you create her?" His voice took on a suspicious tone. "Surely you did not mean for her to malfunction as she has lately?"

"To answer your first question, we are not people of Algo," the leader explained, instantly drawing gasps from Rolf and his friends. "We are from a place called Earth, far across the galaxy. It took us many years to reach Algo."

"Why did you leave Earth?" Rolf asked, suddenly very intrigued. He was actually standing face-to-face with aliens from another solar system!

"Our planet was green and lovely, and we had a highly advanced civilization," Terrick started, but then he paused and met the eyes of each of them in turn. Then he said, very deadpan, "We are the last of our race."

Above the scene from the past, D'zkot threw back his head and laughed. "So you even knew it going into it, eh, Rolf? You knew they were the last of their race and you still killed them!"

Rolf ignored him and watched the Earthmen leader talk about the destruction of his world.

"We were a weaker people then," Terrick admitted. "Even though we knew about the evil inside of us, we didn't suppress it. We took joy in controlling nature; we didn't realize we were destroying ourselves until it was too late. The death rattle of our planet alerted us to our failure. Panic seized the populace, but a few of us sprang into action. We determined that we only had about a century left, so with the time remaining to us, we built a spaceship to wander among the stars."

Terrick's smile returned, but now it was an evil smile, with no trace of friendliness to it. "Then we found Algo. We found the people living here in simple happiness." The "smile" vanished, and he no longer made any effort to hide his dark tone. "We decided we wanted this planet. And do you think you can stop us, we who destroyed Palm? You will die!"

Rolf had been stunned at the sudden change in the lead Earthman, but he quickly noticed that the mood of the entire room had changed, too. They knew they destroyed Palm, and more than that... they seemed proud of it!

There was a blast of Esper magic, and then all seven of them were standing in the control room: Rolf, Rudo, Amy, Hugh, Anna, Kain, and Shir. "Very clever," the leader deadpanned, his eyes roaming across the entire group. "But it is only a matter of time before Algo is destroyed."

"Ahh, how true, how true," D'zkot laughed high above. The Esper-in-training Rolf turned his eyes away from the scene below him and stared into the dark pits that were D'zkot's eyes. "Even now, Rolf, my fighters, fully loaded with F-5, are preparing to launch. The destruction of the sandball you call home is imminent!"

"Always overconfident, even now," Rolf chided. "With your powers, your plan might have gone off perfectly. The only threat to you was Lutz, and you thought you had taken him out of the picture. But now there is another telemental here to stop you."

D'zkot's mood and tone turned from one of mocking to one of fury. "You dare call yourself a telemental," D'zkot sneered. "You are nothing more than a roach, and I intend to crush you underneath my boot." He pointed to the battle below them. "Watch as you and your friends prepare to begin your genocide!"

- - - - - - - - - -

Very calmly, Rolf looked down at the scene from his memory. He looked at Rudo, who in the past year had become one of his very best friends. Rudolf Steiner, driven by the memory of tragedy and a desire for revenge. Throughout their quest to find Mother Brain, Rudo had never forgotten his wife and baby daughter. "We shall make you see how it feels to lose something that you love!" Rudo shouted to the Earthmen.

Rolf turned his head and looked at Amy, the Doctor who had devoted her entire life to helping others. She literally defined the word "selfless." Even now, as she looked at the Earthmen before her, there was not a mean-spirited bone in her body. She was only going to fight to save her "patient," Mota, from a deadly bacterial infection called "the Earthmen." "I can see the confusion and pity in your eyes," she told the Earthmen. Then she shook her head, thinking about the loved ones she had lost on Palm. "I will never forgive you for what you have done."

He moved his eyes to Kain. So young, so brash, so full of enthusiasm... and here, so full of anger at the men who had destroyed Palm. "How dare you ruin Algo!" he shouted.

With a smile, his gaze turned to Shir. Her wealthy parents had always given her everything and anything she wanted. They would never allow her to know what it was like to want something but not be able to get it; to have to work for it. More than that, they had always attempted to control her life, as well, in later years going so far as to try and tell her who she could and could not date. There was even talk or aranging a marriage for her. So, in rebellion, she had turned to theft, "working" for things by scoping out stores, checking security systems... and then making her move.

Rolf grew up with her -- more than that, she was his best friend -- and so he knew better than anyone that the surest way to wind up on Shir Gold's bad side was to try and take her hand and walk her like a puppy. "I refuse to be a slave of fate!" she announced to the Earthmen. "I will be the master of my own future!"

Then there was Hugh, a Biologist with a deep love for all kinds of life. He had been the most puzzled by the Earthmen. In them, he saw his complete antithesis: people who had a complete disregard for all life. It saddened Rolf that, in a way, this exposure had forced Hugh to lose a bit of his innocence. "You have shown me the ugliness of continued existence," Hugh told the Earthmen.

His eyes turned to Anna, who had also become a very close friend. For the last year she had worried about Rolf, desperately wishing there was something she could do to help him. In the end, she had. Rolf was forced to undo the damage D'zkot had done to her, and in the process, he not only overcame his guilt over the battle he was now witnessing below, but he reminded Anna that she had always been a fighter, as evidenced by her words to the Earthmen: "These are my parting words to you: those who give up are doomed."

"Yes, yes," D'zkot growled. "How touching. It should have been their final words. But what of you, Rolf?" Rolf turned his full attention back to D'zkot. "Why didn't you say anything? Were you so overcome with grief and anger that you blindly massacred these people? Is that your excuse? Even if that's so, it really doesn't matter. You killed them all. Face it, Rolf! You're no better than they are!"

Rolf stared at D'zkot for a long, long moment. In his mind, he turned D'zkot's words over and over, and gave them deep consideration. Then, as he and his friends began to fight the Earthmen below him (just as they were doing now, back on the physical plane), laughter cut across the air of the room.

But for once, it wasn't D'zkot's.

"You've failed, D'zkot," Rolf said once he stopped laughing.

Also for once, Dezo's Pai'tekkan was speechless. He just stared at Rolf, not knowing what to say, wondering how and where his plan to defeat Rolf had gone so horribly wrong. Finally, his mouth opened, and his lips moved, but all he could say was, "What?"

"If you had done this a week ago, or even two days ago," Rolf began, "you would indeed have pushed me over the edge. You would have driven me to insanity. But you see, D'zkot, something has changed."

D'zkot's mouth was a thin line. "What's that?" he asked.

"I've come to realize that my birth was not just some random twist of fate. I was put here for a reason. And now, I know what that reason is.

"I am heir to a great and proud tradition," Rolf continued, his voice resonating with pride. "Like the ancient Desans and the great Queen Alis Landale before me, I am Protector of Algo. It is my destiny to defend my world from any and all that dare threaten it. It is my job to maintain peace, and it is a job that I accept with all my heart."

D'zkot was furious. He pointed to the deck below them, where the first of the Earthmen were starting to fall dead. "Look at what your precious destiny brings you, Rolf!" he yelled. "Massacre! Massacre!"

"Our fight with the Earthmen one year ago was tragic, yes," Rolf agreed. "I truly am saddened that the people of Earth have left this world, as I am sure they were not all like the ones in this room. But I did what I had to do. As Protector of Algo, I will sometimes be forced to kill. But if it is in the name of peace for Algo, as this battle was, I will not hesitate to defend my world.

Slowly, Rolf drew the Neisword from its scabbard. "And that is exactly what I must do now."

- - - - - - - - - -

The last time they had fought them, the Earthmen had died with one knife to the abdomen, or one Slasher wound across their throats, or one laser blast to their heads. But this time, it took about ten of the same kinds of wounds to even slow down one of the reanimated corpses.

Rudo and the others stood back-to-back, while the Earthmen surrounded them in a circle. Using their Pulse Vulcans, Acidshots, and rifles, Rudo, Kain, Kip, Amy, and Hugh kept the attacking hordes back while Anna and Shir used their Slashers and knives to deal with any that got too close.

Shir stole a quick glance into the air. Rolf and D'zkot just floated there, staring at each other. D'zkot kept his arms at his side, but Rolf held the Neisword out in front of him in a defensive gesture. C'mon, Rolf, she thought. We can't hold out here forever. But this will all end if you can just take him down!

In the meantime, a dead Earthman jumped out from the crowd at Shir. She drew her arm back, preparing to bring one of her knives home, when a blast from Amy's Acidshot tore through the air and momentarily stopped the attacker, sending him flying backwards.

And the battle went on.

- - - - - - - - - -

Inside the minds of Rolf and D'zkot, the telemental Dezorian was laughing again.

"You honestly think you can defeat me?" he laughed at Rolf.

"No," Rolf shook his head. "I know I can defeat you."

D'zkot stopped laughing and gave Rolf an evil stare. Rolf met it, returning D'zkot's hatred and strife with determination and a fierce desire to rid Algo of its latest threat.

"If you're so sure," D'zkot began, his voice a low growl, "then defend yourself!"

A red stream of energy shot forth from D'zkot's mind and aimed straight for Rolf's. Rolf, in turn, clenched his jaw and reached out with his own mind attack to counter D'zkot's. The wave of blue energy from theAgent's mind collided with the red wave half-way between where the two of them floated.

But each telemental remained determined, and the energy attacks continued to push at one another like some twisted game of tug-o-war. In order to keep it up, Rolf had to clench his left hand into a tight fist and squeeze the Neisword tight with his other. Beads of sweat began to break out on Rolf's brow, and all of a sudden, he was no longer pushing his mind attack towards D'zkot's mind. All of a sudden, he was pushing only to keep D'zkot's attack from gaining any ground.

D'zkot, meanwhile, floated casually, having no trouble keeping up his attack. Despite the fact that Rolf began to shake with strain, the blue energy wave started to be pushed back towards its sender, and the red wave of D'zkot's attack inched closer and closer to Rolf's skull.

"You see!" D'zkot laughed. "You are nothing! You are puny! Maybe you have the potential to become a great telemental, but that is all it will ever be, because now, Rolf, you will die!"

Rolf's whole body fought against the wave as if he were being physically squeezed between two walls. Between the two adversaries, there was only about a meter's worth of blue energy; their minds were connected by a beam that was almost exclusively red.

With all his might, Rolf brought forth strength from deep inside him. He pressed on by repeating over and over in his mind Alis's decree that he become the best Esper he can be. He pressed on by thinking of Nei. Yes, he wanted to be with her again. But now was not the time. He had just come to accept himself as Protector of Algo, and he was not yet ready to relinquish that post to someone else.

As he thought of Nei, an idea flashed to life in his mind. He didn't need to open his eyes to know that only inches of blue energy remained in the wave that stretched between he and D'zkot. He knew that if he didn't do something fast, it was all over, and not only would D'zkot win, but the people of Mota would die a horrible death, as well.

And so Rolf drew on the last reserves of strength he still had deep inside, and brought the Neisword up into the wave of mental energy.

"No!" D'zkot screamed. Rolf sensed that the Dezorian was trying to quickly cut their mental link, but it was too late. Rolf instantly won the mental tug-o-war. The energy beam became a moving wave of blue and Rolf's mental attack crashed into D'zkot's mind, but only after D'zkot's own crippling attack had been reflected back at him.

D'zkot's body was thrown backwards through the air, but Rolf was flying towards him quickly, the Neisword ready in attack position. He reached D'zkot, pulled the Neisword back--

- - - - - - - - - -

--and all of the Earthmen fell to the deck, dead once again, as a scream of agony ripped through the air. A Dezorian kem'pallah fell to the floor, and then Rudo and the others looked up and saw Rolf floating before D'zkot, who still floated in the air himself despite the fact that the handle of the Neisword stuck out of the front of his chest while the blade was punctured through his back.

Dezo's Pai'tekkan fell fifty meters straight down through the air. He landed on the deck on his back, pushing the Neisword out of his body and into the air for a moment before the blade crashed down onto the deck next to him. Rudo and the others gathered around D'zkot as Rolf slowly floated down to join them.

Rolf then did something none of them would have expected. After returning the Neisword to its scabbard, Rolf crouched down next to D'zkot, and cradled the Dezorian's head in his lap. Blood flowed freely from both the entrance wound in D'zkot's chest and the exit wound in his back. But somehow, he continued to breathe, though quite laboriously. Slowly, his eyes fluttered open and he coughed up a wad of blood.

"It didn't have to end this way," Rolf told D'zkot softly. "Together, you, Lutz, and I could have restored power to the Half-Espers and brought the Espers to a new level of greatness." He paused, and he and D'zkot looked right into each other's eyes. "I never wanted to kill you," he finally finished.

D'zkot nodded, convulsed, and spat more blood. "I believe you," he managed to cough out... and then one last twisted, evil smile played across his lips. "But..." More coughs of blood. "You're too... late..."

Dezo's Pai'tekkan pointed his green hand towards space, which, through the force field dome, they could see all around them. Then he gasped for breath, convulsed again... and his hand fell limp. He was dead.

Rolf gently set his body down and stood, his Agent's uniform now covered with D'zkot's blood. He looked out into space along with Rudo, Anna, Shir, Hugh, Kain, Amy, and Kip, but he saw nothing.

"What did he mean, Rolf?" Shir asked at last. "Too late for what?"

Just then, five New Order fighters were launched from the space ship Noah. From the Earthmen's old control room, Algo's eight heroes saw them scream across space, their engines pushing them forward at top speed.

"No," Anna whispered. She vividly remembered what D'zkot had shown her. The women and children, all of them with looks of horror on their faces but unable to scream due to lack of oxygen. She had seen first-hand what F-5 had in store for Mota.

And now, that is exactly where all five fighters were headed, each of them fully loaded with F-5.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]