[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Chapter Two

Three Months Later

"Kain," called Biologist Hugh Thompson. "It's getting late. I think I'm going to head off to bed."

"Yeah," Mechanic Josh Kain replied, turning off the instrument he'd been using on a grid of electronic boards. "I will pretty soon, too. I just want to finish this up, though."

"You were working on those this morning," Hugh said, craning his neck inside the narrow access tube to look at the circuits that had Kain's attention. "Did they malfunction again?"

"Nah," Kain answered. "I never stopped working on 'em. For some reason, I can't get this section of primary memory circuits to initialize properly. And if we wanna fire up the big boy tomorrow for a test run, these chips have to learn to work together."

Hugh and Kain were deep within an underground complex north of the town of Zema which the two of them had named Birth Valley. After returning from their battle with D'zkot and his New Order, Kain had helped his friends Rudo Steiner and Anna Zirski clean up Biosystems Lab, the Mother Brain-created installation D'zkot's Motavian Rebels had been using as their base. In doing so, they found a secret system of underground caves which connected the Biosystems Lab complex to another large underground bunker, which they soon learned was also accessible through a hidden entrance in the city of Zema.

Kain had taken over the abandoned bunker almost immediately, as he felt it was the perfect home for an invention he had in mind. Soon after moving in, he'd begun working on an enormous computer system he called Seed -- a system which would coordinate all of the remaining systems left behind by Mother Brain, such as Nurvus and the orbiting satellites Zelan and Kuran. It would not, however, control the systems, as Mother Brain had; instead, it would merely coordinate their efforts.

Even for this comparatively minor task, however, sentience -- true artificial intelligence -- would be required. And so, at Kain's invitation, Biologist Hugh Thompson had moved to Birth Valley from Esper Mansion. He consulted Kain where he could, and when not helping to breathe life into Seed, he had been moving the archives of genetic information stored at Biosystems Lab to Birth Valley via the underground caves.

In the end, when both Kain and Hugh were finished, Birth Valley would be the virtual center of life on Mota. Within its walls would be stored all of Mota's genetic information, and within its laboratories, the most advanced, cutting-edge scientific research in the entire system would take place, thanks to the massive help Seed could provide.

Speaking of Seed, in him, Mota would find a new caretaker -- one they could trust, unlike Mother Brain. Everyone in Algo realized that aside from the fact that Mother Brain had been controlled by a group of aliens bent on conquest, the major problem with her presence was that it had made them too weak. Now, they had to learn to be self-sufficient again, and even though in the last year much technology had been recovered, that important lesson had, for the most part, been relearned. In the opinion of Kain and Hugh, it was now time for the best of both worlds: a self-sufficient society caring for itself with the assistance of the new computer Seed coordinating all remaining Mother Brain systems.

And that was the real problem that Kain and Hugh faced. Long after they got all of the genetic information transferred from Biosystems Lab to Birth Valley, and long after Kain got all of Seed's primary memory circuits to initialize simultaneously, they had to face the prospect of selling Mota on a new computer system to help them in all aspects of their lives. Despite the lesson learned, some -- in fact, many -- felt they were still too weak to rely on a caretaker. Kain and Hugh faced a challenge, but it was a challenge both men looked forward to.

"Kain, go to bed," Hugh suggested. "If you take another look at the problem in the morning from a fresh angle and a freshly shaven face, you just might have it solved, just like that."

"Yeah," Kain nodded, "that's true. Or, I might have it solved with just another five minutes of work right now."

"Hmmpf," Hugh snorted. "You sound like Amy. I can't tell you how many times I'd hear her say something like that in our laboratory on Esper Mansion, when we were working to restore the Half-Espers' telemental abilities."

"Yeah, and she did it, too, didn't she?" Kain pointed out.

"We did it, thank you very much," Hugh corrected. "And we did it on a good night's sleep, which I am now going to get, whether you want to or not."

"All right," Kain said, dropping his tool to the floor of the tube and letting out a deep breath. For a moment, however, he did not start sliding on his stomach backwards on his way out of the small, confining access tube. Instead, he patted the circuit boards he'd been working on as if reassuring a sick child. "Okay, fellas, I'll be back tomorrow morning. And you're gonna work for me then, you hear?"

Slowly, Kain wiggled his way backwards out of the maintenance tube, sealing its access panel once his feet were on the hallway floor. Then, he and Hugh started off through the labyrinth that was Birth Valley's corridors towards the West Section, the area that housed their respective living quarters. "So what'd you do today?" Kain asked as they walked, taking off his work gloves and stuffing them in his back pocket.

"I brought more DNA samples over from Biosystems," Hugh groaned. "The procedure is becoming quite monotonous, but at least I'm almost finished. I ate lunch in my quarters, but at dinner time, I had to go up to Zema for some fresh air and a little sunlight."

"I see," Kain chuckled. "You're still not used to spending your days down here underground, are ya? The sound of Odin Lake rushing around above us isn't yet comforting to ya, eh?"

"I'd rather be up there in the sun swimming in Odin Lake," Hugh agreed. "I don't know how you've survived down here alone for the last three months."

"It's better than sitting in that mansion in the middle of a raging blizzard all day," Kain asked as they reached elevator W3 to the West Section. "Isn't it?"

"I think the jury's still out on that one," Hugh answered, scratching his chin as if his mind were elsewhere. "At least at Esper Mansion you can look out a window... even if the snow does prevent you from seeing two feet past it." At that, both men laughed, then, a moment later when the elevator door opened, Hugh made an impulsive decision and waved Kain inside while he headed off deeper into the complex.

"Where ya goin'?" Kain called after him.

"I brought some files over today that I want to grab for before bed reading," Hugh called over his shoulder. "See you in the morning."

"Oh, okay, mister 'You need to get a good night's sleep, Kain'," the Mechanic joked with his friend. "Who's refusing to take a break now, huh?"

"Good-night, Kain," Hugh waved. With that, he heard the elevator door slide shut behind him, and soon afterward, he turned the corner to head towards the Genetic Archives. Despite his complaints about the claustrophobic nature of the Birth Valley complex, Hugh really was happy to be here. He was proud beyond belief of he and Amy's successful work back at Esper Mansion, but conquering the challenge of returning telemental power to a people who had not had it for almost 1,000 years -- a time spanning almost fifty generations -- installed in Hugh an eagerness for more challenges, greater challenges, and replacing Mother Brain with a new (and this time, benevolent) sentient computer system seemed to fit that bill perfectly.

Besides, despite the enormous accomplishment their work on Dezo signified, neither he nor Amy would be winning any awards for it. The fact that the Espers were isolationists eliminated the possibility that the scientific world would recognize Doctor Amy Sage and Biologist Hugh Thompson for their achievement, because you can't recognize someone for work involving a people you think are nothing more than legend. However, this Seed project here in Birth Valley... This is the project that's going to get the Mota Scientific Council to give me the Luveno Award, Hugh thought with delight. In fact, during the long hours of transporting genetic samples from Biosystems Lab, he'd already started composing his acceptance speech.

As Hugh walked, the brightness of the corridor lighting suddenly dimmed considerably, but the Biologist wasn't alarmed. He knew the change of lighting simply meant that it was now 2200 hours. Kain had programmed the automatic change in lighting as his best attempt at creating days and nights for the underground complex.

Finally, with his head down, his teeth biting at one of his thumbnails, Hugh stepped through a doorway and into the long Genetic Archives chamber. At one end of the room was a mini-laboratory of sorts, which consisted only of a few tables cluttered with scientific equipment, as well as cabinets lining the walls, all of which held research supplies. The rest of the room was nothing but barren space in the middle with rows upon rows of drawers lining the walls. Within the drawers was the stored genetic information of the entire planet -- or at least, as much of it as Hugh had managed to so far move over to Birth Valley from Biosystems Lab.

Hugh stepped across the lab part of the room towards one of the tables, where a datapad with an inventory of what he'd brought over that day rested, and because the Biologist was looking down, he did not see the intruder until it was too late. When Hugh finally did look up, he saw a ghoulish creature in red robes standing in the middle of the vault section of the room.

Hugh did not know it, but the creature staring him down from an evil face and a straight-line mouth was Xarxas, King Lassic's second Xe-A-Thoul.

The unarmed Biologist jumped and yelped in shock, then spun on his heels and bolted for the door. He did not see Xarxas wave a hand behind him, but when the door opened and he tried to escape into the corridor, Hugh did see the magical energy barrier which sprang to life, knocking him backwards away from the doorway with a jolt of magic electricity. He landed hard on his back. After a moment's recovery, he opened his eyes.

Xarxas was standing right over him.

"It could be said, Palman," the creature addressed him in a very hollow, echoing voice, "that you have found yourself in the wrong place at the very wrong time."

Hugh tried to roll away, but Xarxas was just too fast. He reached down and grabbed Hugh, hefted him into the air, and then simply threw the Biologist across the room, where he skidded across one of the lab's tables, crashing into the scientific equipment and knocking it to the floor before joining it himself as he rolled off the table with a crash.

Have to reach the alarm... Hugh told himself, gritting his teeth against the pain which racked his entire body. Need Kain...

Before he could get to his feet, the Xe-A-Thoul was back. Hugh saw it approach out of the corner of his eye, and when it was close, he reached out with one of his legs and kicked it in the abdomen. He was quite pleased to find that his attacker was indeed made of flesh; the ghoul reeled over as Hugh felt his foot crunch something underneath its flowing red robe. The attack gave Hugh enough time to get back to his feet, but he had not taken but three steps before something seized him by the back of the neck.

The Xe-A-Thoul grabbed him, spun him around so that they were face-to-face, and then squeezed his neck with one hand, lifting him high into the air. Hugh kicked his legs reflexively at the open space beneath his feet as his own hands groped at the bony one the creature held tightly around his throat. Need air! Hugh panicked internally. Can't breathe! I can't breathe!

"You are wasting your time attempting to fight me," Xarxas informed Hugh, his voice completely calm, "and your struggles to breathe are pointless, as well, for dead things do not require oxygen. Yes..." Xarxas laughed, "you will be dead soon, for I will break your bones..." With his free hand, the Xe-A-Thoul grabbed Hugh's right leg at the thigh and twisted. If the Biologist could have taken air into his lungs, he would have screamed in agony as the bone underneath was shattered.

"...I will rip your appendages from their sockets..." Xarxas grabbed Hugh's left leg at the ankle and pulled. A moment later, the leg hung limply from the rest of Hugh's body. Not only had the leg bone been removed from hip, but the tendons, ligaments, and most of the muscles holding it there had been torn away, as well. The leg was now attached only by skin and a few strands of muscle.

"...And if I wanted to, I could take you over my knee and snap your spinal cord like a twig. But instead, I think I'll simply squeeze the life out of you." With that, Xarxas tightened his grip on Hugh's throat. The Biologist could fight no more, and the world started to go black. Soon after, he had no air left within him, and he fell unconscious.

"Bah!" Xarxas grunted, tossing the limp form of Hugh Thompson across the lab, where it smacked into some of the cabinets, crashed down onto the counter below, and then rolled off to the floor where it rested without movement.

- - - - - - - - - -

After disposing of the Biologist, the Xe-A-Thoul proceeded on its way to the computer terminal which rested in the wall in the middle of the vault area of the room. I would already have the information I need from the computer and the samples, as well, if that puny Palman hadn't interrupted me, it grumbled to itself. I only hope lord Lassic forgives the delay.

Reaching the computer, Xarxas took a moment to familiarize himself with the commands. When Hugh first arrived at Birth Valley -- before he had even moved one genetic sample from Biosystems Lab -- he had sat down with Kain and helped the Mechanic write a computer program to use in cataloging the samples. Cross-referenced in a variety of different ways, it was designed to make it easy to find one sample amidst the millions stored.

The Xe-A-Thoul first called for a species search, told the computer the name of the species it was looking for, and then was informed that the sample could be found in storage compartment 57-113. Next, Lassic's minion ordered a name search, gave the computer the name of the individual whose DNA it was looking for, and learned the sample was in compartment 105-14.

Xarxas returned the computer to its main screen. Then, just for the hell of it, he stepped back and fired an energy blast at the screen, which instantly exploded into a charred, blackened mess. With a satisfied grin on his ghoulish face, Xarxas then stepped further into the vault area until he found drawer number 57. He threw it open, quickly found sample number 113, and then slammed the drawer shut, moving on down the room to drawer 105, staring at sample 57-113 as he did so.

Your fancy computer better have been correct, Palman, Xarxas mentally told the purple-haired dunce that lay dead far behind him. Because if it isn't, I promise I'll find a way to kill you twice.

Suddenly, a loud, clanging alarm ripped through the air.

Xarxas quickly turned around and saw that back at the lab end of the room, the "dead" Palman had managed to claw his way up to the counter near where he had fallen. The sick pleasure Xarxas took at the look of agony on Hugh's face (thanks to the pressure he was putting on his decimated legs) paled next to the rage he felt at the fact that the Palman had somehow activated Birth Valley's alarm system. Screaming wordlessly in frustration and anger, Xarxas raised his hand and fired an energy blast which struck Hugh squarely in the head. He fell to the floor, again falling into unconsciousness.

"Now I am rushed!" Xarxas screamed, his hollow voice echoing even more off of the empty, sterile walls of the vault section. "I am glad that you are still alive, Palman, because I will make sure you die a slow, horrible, agonizing death for what you have done!" Again, Xarxas screamed wordlessly.

Reaching drawer 105, Xarxas ripped it open and tossed samples all over the floor, frantically searching for number 14. When he finally found it, he tucked it into his robe and then, rather than close drawer 105, he simply ripped it out of its slot with his bare hands, tossed it across the room, and screamed in rage once more.

The Xe-A-Thoul then stormed across the vault section of Genetic Archives until he reached the door. It automatically opened for him and he removed the magical barrier he'd put in place just as he stepped into the corridor. "Hey!" a voice yelled at him. He turned his head to see another Palman, this one with light purple hair and wearing red overalls, running down the corridor towards him from his left.

Waving his hand and paying no more attention to what was essentially little more than a distraction, Xarxas strode down the corridor to the right. Behind him, he heard a faint buzzing noise as the second Palman struck the magical barrier he'd erected. "Hey you, get back here!" the Palman screamed. "Get back here, you ugly Biomonster!"

Xarxas could not resist. He spun around to face the Palman and then threw his head back and laughed. "Biomonster? If you truly believe I am a Biomonster, then you really are as asinine as you would appear to be."

"If I'm so dumb," the Palman began, pulling a Sonic Gun from his belt as he spoke, "then why am I about to take down your little energy barrier and then blast your damn self back to hell?" With that, he took three steps back, aimed his Sonic Gun, and started firing.

I don't have time for this! Xarxas internally roared. He turned back around, took a few more steps, and then entered another room, this a large storeroom. Pushing through the crates and boxes, he finally found what he was looking for in the rear corner, just as he heard the Palman break through his energy barrier outside. Xarxas held a palm open to the center of the room and within moments, a swirling dark portal had appeared. Grabbing what he was there to take, and checking once more that the samples he'd stolen were safely tucked into his robe, Xarxas then stepped into the portal and disappeared.

- - - - - - - - - -

As Kain dashed down the corridor towards the supply room the big red monster had entered, he checked the power readout on his Sonic Gun. Only two shots left, he thought with a sigh, and that monster looked pretty big. Better make 'em count.

A moment later, however, Kain charged into the supply room and found that the invader had already vanished. Teleportation. That explains how he got past the security system, at least, the Mechanic thought, already on his way out of the room and heading towards Genetic Archives down the hall, from which Hugh had sounded the alarm. Only as he approached the door itself did he realize that Hugh had not been out in the corridor, giving chase to the monster. Alarmed, Kain stepped into Genetic Archives, but still, he did not see the Biologist.

"Hugh!" Kain called, looking over the room. The lab section was a complete mess with all of the equipment from the tables dumped to the ground, and the archives themselves weren't much better, either. It looked as if one whole drawer of genetic samples had been scattered across the floor.

When Hugh did not answer the initial call, Kain grew even more alarmed. "Hugh!" he yelled again. "Hugh, are you in here?"

A groan from the corner sent Kain in that direction, nearly tripping over a fallen microscope in the process. Once he cleared the room's far table, he found his Biologist friend. Hugh lay flat, his face pressed into the tile of the floor. One look at the odd angles his legs lay at and Kain knew he was in bad shape. "Hugh," Kain said, kneeling next to his friend. "Hugh, lay still, okay?"

Defying his order, Hugh started to roll over onto his back, despite the fact that the move made him scream out in pain. "Don't move!" Kain repeated, but by this time, Hugh had turned enough to let inertia do the rest, and his body collapsed the rest of the way with a thud.

"My god..." Kain whispered. Aside from the rest of his apparent injuries, Hugh's throat was bruised as purple as his hair. "Hugh, buddy, you just sit tight, okay? That monster's gone. I'm gonna run to the communications center and call up to Zema, get you a doctor, okay?"

"Uh huh," Hugh nodded, pushing the words past teeth grinding together in pain. "Didn't... see him... Grabbed me..."

"Shh," Kain said, jumping to his feet. "Just be quiet now, okay?"

Hugh nodded, and after that, Kain wasted no more time. He spun on his heels, leaping over the fallen scientific equipment on his way out of the room, and then he sprinted down the corridors to the communications room to call for a doctor before Hugh died.

- - - - - - - - - -

Hours later and across the solar system from Birth Valley, a Visiphone call was being received within a special mansion surrounded by a magical force field on Dezo's Alplatin Plateau.

It was a mansion forged by magic to protect those who wield magic. Most in Algo, if they'd ever even heard stories of the mansion's existence, dismissed them as legend and fairy tale, just as the mansion's inhabitants were dismissed as history and legend. But the truth was the mansion, very real indeed, would soon be celebrating its one thousandth year of existence, just as the leader of the people it housed would be celebrating his one thousand second.

The place was Esper Mansion, and the leader was Lutz, an Esper who had trained under the great Master Noah; who had been placed in cryogenic hibernation for a millennium so that he could choose Algo's Protector at the time of Dark Force's return; who had chosen Agent Rolf of Paseo and who had helped him to accomplish his task; and who, until recently, had been Algo's last telemental.

It was the middle of the night on the Alplatin Plateau, but considering the mansion did not receive many Visiphone calls, the Esper who had answered the call had immediately woken Lutz, who had calmly put on his Frad Mantle, the cloak and symbol of Esper leadership, and proceeded to the communications room. Now, he sat before the communication device, pushed his long sky-blue hair from his face, and fixed his same-colored eyes on the Visiphone screen. For a man who had lived over a millennium, he didn't look a day over twenty-five.

Lutz smiled at the image of Kain that appeared on its screen. "Hello, Joshua," he greeted. "It is good to hear from you."

"I wish I was calling under better terms, Lutz," Kain admitted before filling Lutz in on all that had happened in Birth Valley that night, including what Hugh had told him briefly, before getting some much-needed rest. "It looks like robbery, plain and simple," Kain concluded. "Hugh even said that the monster told him he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It ransacked through the Genetic Archives, then it grabbed a breeding capsule from storage and just disappeared."

Lutz furrowed his brow, steepled his fingers, and leaned closer to the Visiphone monitor. "I am obviously quite disturbed by this news. Hugh has only been on Mota for two weeks. It would seem that perhaps Hugh himself was the target, but you're certain the motive was robbery?"

"I'm no telemental, but I'm pretty positive, Lutz, yes."

"Answer a question for me, will you?" Lutz asked, leaning back in his chair. "This 'breeding capsule' you said was stolen -- what is it?"

"It's a leftover from when Mother Brain was in control of Biosystems Lab. That's why it was in the storage room and not in one of Birth Valley's laboratories. Basically, it's a device designed to nurture life and let it grow."

"I take it," Lutz asked, his voice dry, "that Mother Brain and Neifirst used similar devices to grow Biomonsters two years ago?"

"That's right," Kain nodded. "You can see why we wanted it in storage. We certainly don't have any use for one."

"However," Lutz offered, "an intelligent Biomonster certainly would."

"I don't know if I agree with your classification," Kain shrugged. "I saw the thing myself, Lutz. It didn't look like any Biomonster I've ever seen. Besides, the Hunters have been pretty thorough over the last year and three months. The Biomonsters are all basically gone now."

Lutz rubbed his chin and considered this. Kain was certainly correct, but the only two possibilities were that this creature was one of the few remaining Biomonsters, or else it was some sort of minion of Dark Force -- unlikely, considering Dark Force had been dispatched by Rolf a little more than a year earlier. There was a third option, but it was one Lutz did not like considering. It was possible that Birth Valley's intruder was something completely new; something the Esper leader had not yet seen in 1,002 years of life. What that could be, Lutz could not answer.

Shaking his head, Lutz cast aside the mental puzzle. "The important thing is that Hugh is going to be all right. Are you sure you don't want me to send Amy to Birth Valley? Or a few Espers, to act as guards?"

"I'm sure," Kain waved away the offer. "Hugh is in great care here by a doctor from Zema, and as for your Espers, they've only had their powers for a month or so. They need to stay with you and train."

"Besides, Kain's already made some security arrangements," came a voice from Lutz's Visiphone's speaker, but the voice was not Kain's. Slowly, the picture on his Visiphone screen zoomed out to reveal Kip, the Guardian leader, standing next to Kain. "Me and a few of my best Guardians are going to stay here at Birth Valley for a while. If that monster comes back, it won't get out alive."

"That's reassuring, Kip," Lutz nodded. "It's good to see you there."

"By the way, Lutz, is Rolf there?" Kain asked. "I'd like to get his opinion on this monster."

In response, Lutz shook his head. "He and Tyler left the mansion shortly after Hugh did two weeks ago, after Shir's wedding," Lutz explained. "They were going to take the Landale out of Algo."

"Ahh," Kain nodded in understanding. Three months earlier, after they had defeated D'zkot and his New Order, Tyler was taking he, Rudo, Anna, and Shir back to Mota when they discovered an enormous world ship full of Palman refugees orbiting Dezo. The ship had apparently been hidden by D'zkot's New Order and was revealed only when the New Order headquarters ship Noah was destroyed. Another of the ships was found orbiting Mota, but its life support systems had failed shortly after its launch one year earlier, and all aboard were dead.

Tyler rescued the refugees from the ship above Dezo and took them down to the planet, where they founded a town named in his honor: Tyler. Meanwhile, the discovery of the two ships confirmed what Rolf had learned previously: that the Palmans did indeed evacuate the planet to escape Mother Brain.

However, the most pressing (and disturbing) part of the whole matter to Rolf was what the temporarily-repaired Mother Brain had told him before his final battle with D'zkot -- namely, that Dark Force would go on to destroy the ships one by one. Therefore, in the previous three months, he and Tyler had been scouring the space outside the system for more of the ships in an effort to alert the people to the danger and bring them home to Algo. So far, though, no more ships had been contacted.

"I will most certainly inform him of what has happened the next time I speak with him, all right?" Lutz asked.

"Sounds great, Lutz," Kain smiled. "Birth Valley--"

"Oh!" Lutz interrupted, "I almost forgot: have you been able to determine what genetic samples were stolen?"

"Yeah," Kain nodded. "One Musk Cat sample was stolen along with the DNA of a Palman who lived a long time ago. His name was..." Kain looked off-screen, as if checking a nearby datapad. "Alex Ossale."

Lutz gasped while his eyes bulged in surprise and all other body movement ceased. Alex Ossale? Slowly, the Esper leader managed to lick his lips. "Did you--" He stopped, cleared his throat, started again. "Joshua, did you say 'Alex Ossale'?"

"Yeah," Kain nodded, caught by surprise at Lutz's reaction. In response, he picked up the previously unseen datapad and read from it. "Sample number 105-14. Palman male. Name: Alex Ossale. Lived about a thousand years ago." As he dropped the datapad, Kain chuckled. "You were around back then, Lutz. What, did you know this guy or something?"

"No," Lutz answered softly. It wasn't a lie. Then, after a pause, "Thank you, Joshua. I will inform Rolf of the attack on Hugh as soon as possible. Esper Mansion out." With that, he disconnected the line, deactivated the Visiphone, and then quickly stood from his chair, pacing the room.

Musk Cat and Alex Ossale DNA. There is no moral reason why anyone would want a breeding capsule and those two particular samples, Lutz told himself, making sure he had raised strong mental shields so that his thoughts would not leak out to any of the other Espers in the mansion. There was, then, only one possible explanation for the crime that had occurred in Birth Valley. Someone, or perhaps something, is going to create a weapon.

Lutz also knew, as disturbing as it was, that the most logical target of that weapon could only be... Rolf.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Lord Lassic," the Xe-A-Thoul Xanon announced to the king as a dark portal opened in the middle of the Air Castle's throne room, "Xarxas returns."

"He had better not be empty-handed," Lassic grumbled, standing from his throne as the tall red demon stepped from the portal before it closed behind him. In its arms, the Xe-A-Thoul held a large object which could only be one of the breeding capsules. Lassic, however, did not see the genetic samples.

"The mission was successful, lord Lassic," Xarxas bowed.

"Where are the samples?" Lassic demanded. "Did you get the necessary DNA?"

With a proud grin, Xarxas produced the slides from his robe with a flourish and handed them to Lassic. "I did, lord."

Lassic held the samples up to the light, then fixed Xarxas with a twisted grin. "Very good," he nodded. "Very good work, indeed. Xerik, prepare the breeding capsule. I want work to begin on my secret weapon immediately."

"I already do as you ask, lord," Xerik said, as he and Xanon moved the device into the corner of the throne room. With a wave from Lassic, Xarxas joined them, and left alone, Lassic again turned his attention to the DNA samples. He glanced briefly at 57-113, the Musk Cat sample, before sample 105-14 took up most of his scrutiny.

"So this is all that is left of my old friend Alex Ossale," Lassic wondered aloud, though he kept his voice low. "All that remains of the father of one of my murderers."

As he examined the samples, Xanon had moved closer, and he now stood at the foot of the stairs leading to Lassic's throne. "We're not sure how, lord, but the aliens somehow had that sample in their possession," he told his master. "We obviously know what they used it for."

"And we shall use it for the same thing," Lassic replied, handing the samples over to Xanon. "The DNA of a Musk Cat and the King of Algo shall combine to make my little surprise for Agent Rolf of Paseo." Lassic emitted a dry, raspy chuckle. "The Queen of the Biomonsters."

[an error occurred while processing this directive]