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Chapter Three

Hegger had always been a compassionate man. And a man who could always recognize injustice when he saw it. And so it was that he had convinced his own town of Eppi to aid the Camineet resistance long ago. Thankfully the days of the movement were over, as the cruel King Lassic had been destroyed. But Hegger's compassion continued to thrive, as a relic of those dark days had recently come back into the spotlight.

With the fall of the king, the numerous Espers, those Palmans who commanded arcane magical techniques that no one quite understood, came out of hiding, finally free of their banishment. Although many had left for Motavia to escape persecution long ago, many had also stayed, scattered around the planet in the hopes that one day they might again be free to live in the open. As the group began to find its lost members, the community grew larger and larger... and yet they had no official home. So it was that Hegger and the residents of Eppi offered their own town as a temporary home for the Espers, until such a time as a new village could be constructed. How long this would take was unknown due to the sore economic conditions around Palma, but no one minded, and in the short weeks since the Espers joined Eppi, everyone on both sides had been pleased by their presence.

In fact there had arisen around Palma a subtle anti-Esperic sentiment among normal Palmans. In banishing the Espers, King Lassic had started a hate campaign with the intent of destroying any of the magic users that still lingered on his planet. Although many throughout Palma knew that Lassic was spreading lies, that did not stop a large portion of the populace from siding against the Espers. It was a testiment to Eppi's strong, independent spirit that these outcasts were welcome in the town.

Hegger currently stood in the doorway of one of the few treatment rooms in Eppi's modest hospital. His old, wrinkled face grinned brightly as he watched. Rie, one of the new Esper arrivals, was using some sort of magic to heal the broken arm of a young boy of the village. The Espers had shown themselves to be quite adept at this, and had been a virtual boon to the supply-shortened town.

"...and next time, go a little easy on that jungle gym, alright little guy?" Rie said with a wink. Like most Espers, he wore shoulder-length light blue hair, a traditional blue and white Esper robe, and a golden headband. Though similar in appearance, Hegger had come to realize that each Esper was quite distinguishable... he could recognize any of them with but a look into their distinctive eyes.

The boy jumped off the table where he had been seated, thanked Rie, and bounded off through the door, barely missing the still smiling Hegger. Rie turned to face the old man. "I give him a week before he has to come back in here..."

Hegger laughed. "We never have been able to keep our youngsters still, Rie." The subject changed. "Is April here?"

"No, she's gone home for the day. Things have been slow around here," Rie responded.

"Of course, of course. Watching over young Lutz, I imagine. You know it won't be too much longer before he'll be able to go running around the village himself!"

"Well, maybe a little while longer," Rie chuckled. "He hasn't quite yet mastered walking just yet... give him a day or two..." Both men laughed heartily.

"Anyway, I've come to ask you something. We've somehow lost contact with Camineet... some problem with the comm unit they gave us, I don't know... but we'd like to send a small party to the city to ask them to repair it. I'm wondering if you have anyone in mind who might like to go, as I think I remember you mentioning someone that had some friends in Camineet."

"Sure, two of our members, Ruly and Cane, are close to a family there. I'm sure they'd like to go along." Rie headed towards the door, calling over his shoulder, "Come on, we can ask them right now."

- - - - - - - - - -

The Camineet forces had manage to rout the robotcop attack in the early morning hours, just before dawn. As the first rays of sunlight began to spread over the city, the true magnitude of what had occurred was evident. Bodies lay everywhere, even after hours of efforts to move them out of the streets. Buildings were still aflame, as fire control crews were spread thin. The hospitals, those that were still functional, at least, were overflowing with patients; long lines stretched outside and down the lanes of the city, and makeshift clinics were hurriedly being erected to meet the demand. Huge carts roamed the city, carrying away the masses of robotcop wreckage that lay just as thick as the Palman bodies.

Inside the magistrate estate, the Palman Governing Council, or rather, those members of the Council who could attend, were seated at the main conference table on the top floor of the building. Only recently had they been able to group themselves here, as the chaos of the post-battle environment nearly matched that of the battle itself.

Alis waited patiently as the last two members sat at the table. She cleared her throat, and nodded to the councilman to her left. The man, obviously in his later years, sat up in his chair, his large hand falling away from his wispy red beard. "I'll go over what we know, for the benefit of those who haven't been monitoring the situation as well as we have from here. Forgive me if I overstate the obvious." He paused, then began again. "Several hours ago, a horde of robotcops of unknown origin, numbering at well over a thousand, breached the Outer Wall in several areas. They immediately proceeded to enter Camineet and Parolit and began firing with no apparent target in mind; for some reason, the spaceport has suffered some peripheral damage, but has remained largely unaffected.

"Our police forces responded as quickly as they could, and soon engaged the 'cops in battle. Fortunately, our force's personal weaponry was enough to terminally damage the robots, but still casualties were heavy. Extremely heavy."

"Meaning...?" asked a councilman at the opposite end of the table, one of the two who had just arrived. "How many are we talking about here?"

The older speaker cast a glance at Alis, then looked back. "We don't have hard numbers just yet. Police commanders tell us that they may have lost as much as forty percent of their forces." Heavy exclamations escaped several councilmen. "As for civilian casualties... reports are spotty... but we're looking at... massive losses." The room was silent.

"Support facilities," he continued, "have suffered moderate to heavy damage. Temporary replacement efforts are underway as we speak. The moving road is inoperable, but as I said, the spaceport was largely untouched. Communications to everywhere outside the city are down. We haven't heard from anyone." Finally the man sat back, and another farther along the table rose. This man was much younger, possibly the youngest of those gathered, save Alis herself.

"We've taken steps to contact the others." His voice, though louder, did not have the confidence of the older councilman. "A transport was sent out to Scion shortly after the battle began, but it has not yet returned. Also, we managed to get a shuttle launched for Motavia, to inform Governor Sirus of what has happened."

"Then we can expect help soon, supplies and weapons, and more men..." stated the other latecomer.

The young councilman bit his lower lip. "...Well... the spaceport lost radio contact with them shortly after they left the atmosphere... we don't quite know what has happened to them... but they no longer show up on our radar. It's probably just a computer malfunction on our end... we've been having problems with it for a while now." He did not seem entirely confident in this judgement. "We'll soon have communication lines with Motavia back up, though, as repair crews have been working non-stop on the towers. Sirus will soon know what has happened one way or another." Finally he sat, thankful that the spotlight was now off him.

For the first time, Alis spoke, still seated. "In short, gentlemen, we don't know what happened. Whoever has directed this attack has not made their intentions clear. We're completely blind here. Our forces have set up minimal barricades along the Outer Wall breaches, and we're repairing them as fast as possible, but that won't do anything more than slow down any further attacks if they decide to hit us again soon. Every policeman here is on full alert, and all residential military reserves have been called in..."

"Can we consider evacuation? Perhaps the target of the attack was the city itself? Maybe there's something here that they want? We could negotiate..." suggested Councilman Poller.

"Possibly. But as I said, we don't know who or what we're dealing with. And until we get communications back with the other cities, it's my opinion that we'll be safest right here. We have issued a request for all civilians to stay out of the streets, but it's still chaos out there." And Alis had nothing more to say. In the silence, as the councilmen exchanged nervous glances, she felt her youth creeping up again. She was a child among giants, it seemed... and yet they looked to her position for leadership. It was painfully ironic, and she imagined that many of them sometimes felt she was unsuited for her role, especially in such a time of crisis. They had embraced her in a time of elation, but how did they judge her now?

Nelson quickly entered the conference room and hurried to Alis's side. He whispered something in her ear, and suddenly she leapt to her feet. "Well get him in here!" she cried. Nelson ran back out, and returned in a moment. Behind him walked Odin, general commander of the Palman army. He was slow to move, looking as if he'd fall over at any moment. Scrapes and bruises marked his face, and his breathing was labored. Immediately one of the councilman stood and offered his seat to the general. It was taken thankfully.

"Odin..." Alis whispered, aghast at his condition.

"My god..." came another voice.

"Robotcops..." the great warrior exhaled. "Goddamn robotcops."

- - - - - - - - - -

They saw it coming for some time... a distant watercraft of some sort, heading towards them over the ocean from the northeast. It traveled slowly; obviously the ship had not been built for speed. They had at least twenty minutes to prepare themselves since it was first spotted. Even as more and more detail came into view, however, they knew nothing of its purpose. Presumably it was another supply ship, bringing them still-desperately needed foodstuffs and medicines. They had not received any prior communication as to its arrival; but then again, communications had been down for a while now. Any assistance was greatly welcomed, announced or not.

And so they sent the usual off-loading crew to the main dock, eagerly anticipating the supplies. It was only then that they began to notice that the ship was not like any supply ship that they had been receiving recently. This one looked more like a... troop carrying ship. Perhaps then this was the only transport available; they had heard, of course, and knew firsthand all too well, of the extreme shortages throughout the planet. Regardless, as the ship pulled up, they dutifully activated the securing arm that held the ship firmly in place. As the main hatchway of the ship opened, the off-loading crew had only a second to question why a line of robotcops greeted them; as the second ended, the crew was mercilessly cut down by dozens of blasts of laser and plasma fire.

Robotcops had invaded the ocean town of Drasgow.

- - - - - - - - - -

Marlowe, alone in his quarters, listened intently to the audio stream that the computer was playing. It was Lusar's voice, describing the rumors that his contacts had forwarded to him since he had been aboard Noah.

"This raiding party, the warrior Odin, Queen Alis, the genetic abomination Musk Cat, and an Esper, the same ones that murdered King Lassic, are reported to have destroyed a magical force of darkness on Motavia. It is said that the very governor himself had been possessed by the demon..." Here Marlowe smiled at the pathetic awe with which Lusar described the events. The playback continued, "...and yet these rebels triumphed. It is unknown how such a small group could have defeated the demon, when in fact there are unconfimred rumors that everyone save the girl died in the fight. We know of course that Esper magic has limited resurrection abilities... but we have no explanation as to how to account for the girl's seemingly magical power. We must of course dismiss this death-rumor as simply revisionism of the uneducated masses below."

"Pause," Marlowe commanded. The playback froze. Marlowe knew full well how easily plebians could be duped; spin control was a necessary pleasure of those in power. However, he had been intrigued the first time he had heard this report from Lusar, and the playback stimulated his thoughts even more. "Resume."

The audio stream began again. "Further rumors among the populace suggest that the very weapons used by these dissidents are embued with magical powers themselves. Surely a child such as the brat that now rules Palma could not have defeated a supernatural force without such a weapon, and so I tend to believe that this particular rumor has more merit than the others. Currently, their weapons are said to be housed in a special repository below the main magistrate estate in Camineet."

"Stop." Marlowe closed his eyes in thought.

Magical weapons... one weapon, at least, that destroyed one of those wretched demons...

"Computer, Alpha Override Marlowe-6-6-9-9-F-F."

"Acknowledged, user designate 'Marlowe', strict Information Seal Protocol disabled," came the computer's response.

"Computer, relate progress on procurement of 'Nei Weapons'."

"Subjects 'Nei Weapons' remain locked in sub-structure of engine compartments. Searches through remaining Alisa III databanks reveal no access route. Analysis of sub-structure yields possible entry points in four distinct locations."

"What will we have to do to reach the weapons?" Marlowe asked.

"High intentsity laser fire, concentrated at any of the four points, will yield access."

"How long will this take?"

"Fourteen hours of continuous fire. Procedure will require three days to accomidate cooling of laser generators."

"Three days!?!" Marlowe cried. Although he and his cohorts had wrested control of the council, he still felt a need to keep some of his actions secret. Hiding the recovery operation of the Nei Weapons would be of primary importance.

"Computer, is there any other option that would speed the recovery of the weapons?"

"Negative."

Damn it, he cursed. I can't keep the council in the dark for three days... they'd discover the operation through standard systems checks.

"Computer, erase current dialogue. Rebuild Information Seal."

"Completed."

The Nei Weapons will have to wait for now... but perhaps the brat will provide us with another option. Suddenly he heard a high-pitched tone.

"Enter," he said.

As the doorway slid open, in walked Lusar, one-time top advisor to the fallen King Lassic. He now wore the common trappings of the earthmen: a tight fitting maroon tunic, glossy deep blue pants, and white boots that rose halfway to his shins. His neatly kept black hair was held in place by a golden headband, a stark contrast to his otherwise dark appearance. Marlowe eyed him closely as Lusar took a seat; the Palman's eyes seemed to flash momentarily in the dim light.

"What is it, Lusar... I'm busy..."

"This is important, Marlowe..."

Marlowe swiveled in his chair, his back to the Palman, and folded his hands together. "Speak."

The affront was not lost on Lusar, but a greater urgency directed his voice. "I need to request a shuttle... and a squadron of 'bots."

Marlowe turned to face the man. "Why on earth would you need a shuttle? Are communications with your contacts on Palma inoperable?"

"No," Lusar said flatly. "I need to get to Motavia, to take care of... a threat to our efforts." Marlowe's eyes narrowed at Lusar's coyness.

"Do not play games with me, Lusar, lest you forget your place. Explain this supposed 'threat' immediately or leave and stop wasting my time."

It was instantly apparent to Lusar that he would not win a battle of wills with this devilish alien before him; and his tone reflected his forfeiture. "I wish to go to Motavia to eliminate the Master Esper... Tajim. His powers and status pose a threat of resistance. He must be eliminated before he can aid the people of Palma."

"How is it that one man might oppose us, Lusar? Perhaps you are being too paranoid."

"Tajim is not merely 'one man'... he is the living repository of all the knowledge and wisdom of the Espers... knowledge that could prove troublesome... further, he has the clout to unite all the Espers throughout Algo... and such a gathering would surely disrupt our plans. With Tajim dead, we will have nothing to fear from the Espers. Of this I am sure."

Marlowe smiled, still not wholly convinced of Lusar's sincerity. "And you believe that you have the ability to dispose of this threat? Are you sure that one squadron will be enough? He is, after all, the Master Esper," Marlowe said mockingly.

Fighting back outrage, Lusar responded. "One squadron will be quite enough."

Marlowe stared at the man, amused at his ability to withstand the verbal attacks. "Very well. You may have your shuttle, and your 'bots." Lusar bowed his head in thanks. "And tell me, where might we find more of these Espers? I believe you once mentioned that they were too scattered to be significant."

"Such as it was... but I have recently been informed that a large group of Espers have established themselves in the town of Eppi."

"Interesting, interesting," Marlowe cooed, joining his hands together. "Then we must accomidate them. You will have another mission before going to Motavia, Lusar. You will personally lead a robotcop attack on this town of Eppi... if the Espers are as resistive as you claim, your personal leadership will be required. As is our usual policy, everyone in the town is to be slaughtered, Esper or otherwise. I will inform the Council of your assignment, so that you may depart immediately."

Surprised and shaken, Lusar could do nothing but nod. He was not a warrior... not in the conventional sense, at least. Leadership would be a first. Silently, he rose, and headed towards the door.

"Oh, and Lusar, before you leave the ship, tell your men planet-side that I want all the files of Dr. Mad's work recovered and transmitted to the ship's computers as soon as possible."

"Very well," Lusar agreed.

Fool... thought Marlowe as he watched the Palman leave the room, doors sliding to a close behind him.

Outside, Lusar paused for a moment, mid-stride. If indeed the Espers of Palma had all gathered in Eppi...

It seems as though we may meet again, Rie, he thought. Unexpectedly, Lusar began to sense feelings of rage well up within him. He clenched his hands and resumed his walk. You and your cow of a wife will die... and I will be your executioner.

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