[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter Twenty-Two

As the others watched the New Order fighters cruise towards Mota in horror, Rolf calmly spun on his heels and started towards the door, heading back towards the room that had housed Mother Brain. "We have to stop them from launching any more ships," he said.

Rudo agreed but had another concern, as well. "What about those five that have already been launched?" he demanded. "Those five can still kill a lot of people!"

The Agent who had just defeated D'zkot turned and looked behind him, past the shimmering force field that held air into "room." "Oh, them," Rolf said, as if seeing them for the first time. "Don't worry. They should have their hands full right about... now."

They all lifted their heads and looked into the space beyond the force field. Suddenly, directly in the path of the five ships, space itself twisted and shimmered, and then the Hell Runner appeared, blaster cannons blazing. Tyler and L-479 quickly destroyed two of the fighters, and the other three broke off their attack on Mota and turned back towards Noah.

Rolf nodded in approval as the others cheered. Then he stepped over two Earthmen bodies and resumed his stride towards the door. "Come on," he called. "There's no--"

"Rolf," Hugh interrupted. "I don't know if what Tyler just did was entirely wise."

He stopped again, turned and faced the Biologist. "Why, Hugh?"

"Because," Hugh answered, "they're coming back this way. And they can see in here, past the force field, as easily as we can see them, out past it."

Rolf realized what Hugh meant. As the New Order fighters got closer to Noah, they could see into the Earthmen's old control room, where they saw their leader, D'zkot, a sword wound in his chest, laying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, dead. They could also see eight Palmans in the room, one of whom carried a sword in a scabbard at his side.

As they swept past Noah, they fired off their blaster cannons at the force field holding the air into the old control room. Rolf and the others ducked instinctively as the blasts came in, but they merely bounced off of the force field dome.

"Close call!" Kain cried as they all got back to their feet. "But that force field won't hold forever!"

"That's only half of it," Anna added. "They're probably on their comm systems now to their friends still aboard Noah, telling them that D'zkot is dead."

Shir assessed the situation quickly. "We have to do something, fast!"

With that, a soft war cry cut through the air, getting closer. They all turned their heads and looked past the open doorway into the room that had once housed Mother Brain as the war cry got louder and louder.

Then, turning the corner to storm down the purple carpet in the middle of the demolished electronic boards in the floor came a troop of New Order soldiers, led by R'Alyn, charging towards the group that had killed D'zkot.

Rolf reached out and blocked the door with a telekinetic shield. R'Alyn, at the front of the troop of soldiers, bounced off of the invisible wall, but quickly recovered and pushed forward, now with the weight of almost fifty soldiers behind him.

"I think we have a new problem," Kip deadpanned.

Turning his head, Rolf glanced back out into space, where the Hell Runner was chasing down one of the New Order fighters as the other two came charging back for another pass at D'zkot's killers. He could lead his friends on a charge against R'Alyn's troops, putting a shield up around them and pushing their way to the fighters' launch bay, but five, ten, even twenty more ships could be launched by the time they got there. There was no time to waste; the survival of Mota depended on action, and that action had to come now.

"Come in close, everyone," Rolf called out. "Behind me!" Rudo, Anna, Kip, Amy, Hugh, Kain, and Shir gathered in a crowd behind Rolf, watching him as he held the Neisword in front of him, the tip of the blade pointing upward.

"What are you going to do?" Amy asked.

"I'm going to finish what I started one year ago," Rolf began. "I'm going to blast this whole ship into oblivion."

On their journey to learn the truth about Mother Brain, most of them had learned several techniques the ancient Desans had used to battle Dark Forces for centuries. All of them, even Rolf, had forgotten most of what they had learned. But one technique Rolf never forgot was the Megid technique. After their battle with the Earthmen, he'd used it to turn the Earthmen's control room into the condition it was now in: ruins.

Now, armed with Esper power and a Neisword to channel it with, he was going to use Megid to destroy the entire ship, and all of D'zkot's F-5 with it.

He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing to deep breaths, trying to bring his mind and body to total calm. It was hard considering the situation he was in, with a troop of angry Dezorians in front of him, several spacecraft full of Mota-killer behind him, and a group of frightened friends around him. But none the less, he forced his mind into calm and prepared.

- - - - - - - - - -

As the Hell Runner destroyed one more of the New Order fighters out in space, the remaining two fired another volley of blaster fire at the control room's force field. It buzzed and crackled with static, but it did not fall. Not yet, anyway. The Hell Runner closed in on them, but the two fighters swept around for another pass. By Rudo's estimate, they would be able to fire one more volley each before Tyler's ship could reach them.

He turned to look at his friend, standing perfectly calm in the middle of all this chaos, like the eye of the hurricane. He glanced at the Dezorians, still screaming their war cry and pounding at Rolf's invisible wall, and then he watched the New Order fighters coming in, closer and closer.

"No!" both Shir and Hugh cried out at about the same time. Rudo turned to look. Five more New Order fighters flew out from underneath them, charging towards Mota even as the attacking two from the first launch group moved in closer to the control room, entering point-blank range.

If they were going to take action, it had to come now. Rudo closed his eyes, fearing the worst; fearing that, despite all they had done, some F-5 was still going to be dropped onto Mota. Some people were going to the horrible suffocation death F-5 was capable of bringing about.

And if even one person died, D'zkot had won.

If Rudo's attention had not been averted, and his mind not so full of fear, he would have seen that Rolf had already lowered the Neisword to point it at the Dezorians pounding at his telekinetic wall.

- - - - - - - - - -

Finally ready, Rolf slowly opened his eyes and brought the tip of the Neisword down to point at R'Alyn's troop of soldiers. He lowered the telekinetic shield that held them back and fired with the Megid technique at the same time.

A blast of destructive energy came shooting out of Rolf, down the length of the Neisword, and away from him into the Dezorians, as well as Noah itself. R'Alyn and his entire troop were decimated by this first shot, but Rolf kept firing. All throughout Noah, huge explosions ripped through the spacecraft.

Almost as an afterthought, Rolf called out with his mind to Tyler. {Tyler, I'd move the Hell Runner away to a very safe distance, if I were you.}

How far is safe? he heard the reply in his mind.

{Let's put it this way. Land on Dezo if you can.}

Out past the force field, the Hell Runner spun around, abandoning the New Order fighter it had been chasing, and engaged its engines at full sublight towards Algo's ice world.

Massive waves of white Megid energy continued to stream from Rolf. Outside the force field, the others could see enormous explosions blow out entire sections of the Earthmen's old spacecraft.

Then, the Megid stopped shooting out of Rolf. The Neisword began to glow bright magnesium white, and soon, the entire control room was glowing the same color, as Megid energy spread out in all directions from a bubble protecting Rolf and the others. It moved slowly at first, but then expanded instantly, rushing outward at an incredible speed and destroying anything in its path.

The decks and bulkheads of Noah turned to dust and blew away in clouds of ash under the Megid assault. The two New Order fighters about to attack the control room were consumed and destroyed instantly, as were all five of the second wave of fighters loaded with F-5.

From a distance, it looked as if someone had approached the space around Noah with a huge eraser, wiping out the blackness of deep space and replacing it with a brilliant sphere of ever-expanding white.

And standing in the middle of it all were Rolf, Rudo, Anna, Kip, Kain, Shir, Amy, and Hugh, completely safe within the confines of their safety bubble. Soon, as the wave of destruction continued to spread, their bodies began to fade from existence, and the wave moved inward to crush their bubble of protection, as well.

But by that time they were gone. With a final roar of power, the immense sphere of Megid energy fell in on itself and flashed out of existence, but when it was gone, Noah was nowhere to be seen. All that was left was the blackness of space, and a floating junkyard of debris.

D'zkot, the New Order, and every last drop of the deadly chemical F-5 had been destroyed.

Rolf, Protector of Algo, had won.

- - - - - - - - - -

"You're renaming your ship?"

Realizing his jaw had dropped open, Rolf quickly closed his mouth and looked at Tyler, who stood across the Hell Runner's cockpit. Only, according to Tyler, it wasn't the Hell Runner anymore.

Tyler nodded to answer Rolf's question, but the decision to rename the Hell Runner was not unanimous.

"I told him he was crazy," L-479 offered from the co-pilot's chair. "A name like Hell Runner invokes fear into any space police or crime lords we might encounter. I guess he doesn't realize no one outside of Algo knows who the heck Queen Alis Landale was."

Rolf glanced around the cockpit and tried out the ship's new name. "The Landale." He gave Tyler a smile, making it two-to-one against L-479. "I like it, Tyler. But what made you do it?"

"I don't know," Tyler shrugged. "All this talk about defending this entire solar system, and Espers, and Protectors and all that got me curious, I guess. And so, since Toasterhead once was the property of the Palman government, I had him give me a little history lesson."

"I told him about how Lassic's robotcops killed Queen Landale's brother," L-479 explained. "And about how she set off to overthrow Lassic and free her world from tyranny and oppression."

"See?" Tyler started. "When he uses all those noble words like, 'she saved the world from evil,' well..." He drifted off, and shrugged his shoulders again. "Now that Palm is gone, and her home town of Camineet with it, I don't want anyone to forget her, that's all. It seemed like naming my ship after her was the least I could do."

Rolf smiled. He tried to imagine what Alis would think about this. Who knows? Maybe he could go to Elsydeon someday and ask her.

But L-479 only scoffed. "Come on, Tyler," he said, "tell him the other reason, too."

"Well..." Tyler shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "Toasterhead had a holographic image or two of her, and--"

"I believe your exact words," L-479 interrupted, "were 'Wow, was she ever cute.'"

Rolf laughed as Tyler delivered a back hand to L-479's metallic head. The Polezi robot didn't budge. Tyler, however, shook the pain out of his hand, but Rolf did have to admit he did it rather casually.

Once Rolf's laughter died down, he got to the point of why he'd come aboard. "Rudo and the others will be ready to leave soon," he informed the Space Pirate. "Are you sure it's no trouble returning the Paseo to Mota?"

"No problem at all," L-479 answered.

"Thank you," Rolf said, then he and gazed across the cockpit at Space Pirate Tyler Jorran. Tyler, who had saved his life one year ago; who had been the one to inform him of Palm's destruction; and who had bravely fought beside him against D'zkot. By probing Tyler's mind, Rolf had seen the torture D'zkot had put him through, and he knew that, even at the worst of it, when he'd nearly died, not a single fiber of Tyler's being had any intention of spilling the secrets of Esper Mansion. Rolf would never forget that.

"Take care of yourself," he finally told the Space Pirate.

"You, too, buddy," Tyler returned. "Do me a favor -- from time to time, speak out loud, okay? Just so you don't forget how to."

Rolf chuckled. "Safe travels in the Landale here. And don't forget to drop into our little solar system from time to time."

"Yeah, you, too. Maybe you can use that sword of yours to appear in my cockpit when I'm half-way across the galaxy."

Rolf shook his head. If nothing else, Tyler was always good for a laugh. He waved good-bye and then left the Landale. As he entered the Crevice, next to which Tyler's ship was parked, he wrapped the white cloak he wore over his Agent's uniform tighter around his body. After traversing the Crevice, he went back inside Esper Mansion, where he went to the room that Rudo had used during the two days they had spent here since destroying the space ship Noah.

Here, in Rudo's room, Rolf received another surprise, but this one didn't take him as off-guard as the renaming of the Hell Runner had. This one he'd rather expected for quite a while. And when he found Rudo in civilian clothes, his Agent's uniform behind him spread out on the room's bed, he knew for sure.

"You're leaving the Agency," Rolf said. It was a statement, not a question.

"When I lost Liz, I never thought I'd love again, Rolf," the former Hunter and now former Agent began. "But then Anna came along, and... I guess there's just no other way to say it."

"You love her." Again, his words were not a question.

"Yes," Rudo said, a smile breaking out across his face. "Ever since I met her, our jobs have always put us into conflict. First I was the Biomonster Hunter, and she was the Guardian whose job it was to protect townspeople from Hunters. Then, she was still the Guardian, but now I was the government Agent whose job it was to arrest her, to tell her what she was doing was wrong when every fiber of my being knew it was right."

They began to walk down the hall together, side-by-side. "So what are you going to do now?" Rolf asked. "Are you going to make changing jobs an annual event and become a Guardian?"

"No," Rudo laughed.

"Wait a minute." Rolf stopped walking and turned to face his friend. "I thought you said Anna would never let you leave your job for her, that she'd feel bad if you sacrificed that much for her."

"That's right," Anna said. They had stopped near the room she had been using for the last two days, and Rolf received his third surprise. Anna, too, was dressed in civilian clothes, but unlike Rudo, who had abandoned his Agent's uniform, Anna carried her Guardian one folded underneath her arm. "But this way, we're both sacrificing for each other."

"You're leaving the Guardians?" Rolf's words were finally a question, because this time, the surprise was something he wouldn't have seen coming from a mile away.

"Yes," Anna confirmed. "With most of the Biomonsters dead or driven far away from the towns, the Hunters are starting to die out, and with the Rebels gone..." Her voice trailed off, but she was clearly happy to realize that the Guardians wouldn't be needed as much anymore. "Kip will make an excellent Guardian leader, and he'll make sure they're there when they're needed. But from now on, I think you and the other Agents will be able to handle things pretty much on your own, Rolf."

Scratching his head, Rolf looked to the floor. It was his turn to deliver a surprise. "Well..." he began. "You're right about the Agents being able to handle things from now on, Anna, but--"

"You're leaving the Agency too?" Rudo exclaimed.

"I've been an Agent for three years," Rolf began, "and believe it or not, despite all that's happened during those years, I look back at them with mostly fond memories. But there just comes a time to move on."

"You're staying here, on Dezo?" Anna asked.

"In Esper Mansion, yes," Rolf confirmed. "I made a promise to someone that I'd do everything I could to become the best Esper Algo has ever seen, and I intend to fulfill that promise. Besides, Lutz was only a student himself when he became Algo's last telemental. Through the years he's increased in power and ability, and he could easily be called Master now, but I'll be his very first student."

"Wow, that's weird to think about," Anna said. "The man's about 1000 years old and he's never trained a fellow Esper."

"Well," Rudo started, offering his friend his hand, "I know you'll make good on that promise, Rolf. That white cloak already looks perfectly natural on you. Take care of yourself, okay?"

Their handshake turned into a hug. Then Rolf turned to Anna and hugged her good-bye as well. "Thank you for helping me back on Noah," Anna said as they hugged. "You saved my life."

"You helped save mine, too," Rolf told her truthfully. They broke the embrace, and Rolf looked them both over. "Good luck, you two," Rolf called after them as they started down the stairs. "I promise not to be a stranger."

"You better not be," Anna called back, and then they both disappeared down the stairs. Rolf just stood there, staring at where they had been, until he was interrupted by a voice from behind him.

"So this is good-bye, huh?" He turned and faced Shir, who closed the door to her room behind her and then crossed the gap between she and Rolf.

"What did you take, Shir?" Rolf asked with a grin.

Shir rolled her eyes in a "caught me" kind of gesture and pulled a towel out from her bag. "I couldn't resist," she admitted, and they both laughed. She stuffed the towel back into her bag, and then addressed Rolf in seriousness once again. "You're staying here. I heard you talking to Rudo and Anna."

Rolf didn't know what to say. He and Shir had both lived in Paseo all their lives. When Rolf had lost his real parents, Shir was there to help him through. They'd grown up together, gone through school together, fought aliens bent on conquering Algo together...

"I made a promise to Alis," Rolf said at last.

"I know. I remember." There was another long moment of silence, and it was finally broken by Shir. "Walk me out?"

"I'd love to," Rolf smiled.

They walked down the stairs and through the mansion's entrance hall in silence. When they reached the doors, Shir zipped the coat Lutz had given her all the way to the top and Rolf once again pulled his white cloak closed tight. Then they walked across the Alplatin Plateau together, their boots crunching on the snow underneath their feet.

The silence was broken when Rolf looked over and saw Shir was crying. He stopped and stood in front of her. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," she shook her head. "I'm just so proud of you."

She pulled him close in a tight hug. In many ways, it had broken her heart to see Rolf suffer the mental agony and torture he'd put himself through over the last year. And now, to see him back to his old self -- to see him surpass his old self, in fact... He was about to begin, with Lutz, to turn the Espers from a race nearing extinction into the powerful, guiding force they should be. To see Rolf do this...

"I'm so happy to see you free, at last," Shir continued, the tears still flowing. "I'm so glad you've broken the chains of depression and guilt. I'm... I'm just so, so proud of you."

Shir pulled away to see that tears now escaped Rolf's eyes as well. "You don't know, do you?" Rolf asked.

Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Know what?"

"That I couldn't have done it without you!" Saying the words brought out fresh tears from both of them. "Alis helped me, and Nei helped me, and Anna helped me, and even D'zkot helped me, by forcing me to face my inner-most demons. But you, Shir..."

He trailed off, but after a moment, he picked up again. "Without you, I would have remained closed off from the world. I would have gone to the Central Gardens every day and read those names until I did have them memorized. But that night, sitting with you in the hospital. Shir, thanks to you, I wasn't closed off anymore. You helped me to open up, and only once I was open could the healing start to happen."

The Esper and former Agent pulled her back into a hug. Once it was over, Shir looked at her best friend and said, "So I guess this is good-bye, huh?"

"No," Rolf shook his head. "Do you remember back when we were in school? Any day that you were sick, I'd stop at your house in the morning and we'd talk, and then before I left, what would I always say?"

"'See you after school,'" Shir smiled.

"Exactly!" Rolf exclaimed. "That's all this is, not a good-bye. I'm going to school, and you get to stay at home. Okay?"

A smile slowly came across her lips. "Okay." They continued walking towards the entrance to the Crevice. "Is there any message you want me to pass along to the Commander for you?"

"No," Rolf answered, but once the words were out of his mouth, he remembered something. "Wait. Yes! Tell him..."

"What?" Shir asked, wondering what the smile on his face meant this time.

"Tell him I think a statue of Nei would look great in the Central Gardens."

Shir smiled, now even more proud of her friend. It was just one more symbol that his recovery was complete. He hadn't just defeated D'zkot; he'd defeated the ghosts of his past, as well.

They stopped a few steps away from the Crevice. "You'll come to visit, won't you?" Shir questioned.

Rolf smiled and tapped the Neisword's scabbard at his side. "I have a ride right here anytime I need one."

She returned his smile and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "See you after school," she said. Then she disappeared down into the hidden cavern beneath the Alplatin Plateau, looking back at Rolf with a smile and a wave as she did.

Rolf remained out there in the snow until a few minutes later, when, looking out over the snow-covered mountains, he saw the Landale rise into the air towards outer space and then Mota, its rear engines blazing with green energy, while the Paseo trailed close behind. He watched the ships go higher and higher into the atmosphere until they were mere pin pricks in the bright Dezo sky.

Only after they had disappeared all together did Rolf turn around and crunch his way across the Alplatin Plateau back towards the doors of Esper Mansion. Armed with the Neisword at his side and the knowledge of his destiny in his mind, Rolf entered his new home and began his new life as an Esper.

THE END

(Dedicated to Todd, my Phantasy Star partner.)

[an error occurred while processing this directive]