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Chapter Four

Rie sat on the edge of his bed, playfully bouncing his infant son Lutz on his knee. The young child cooed and giggled as he stared up at his father's bright face.

"You're daddy's little boy, yes you are!" Rie laughed. Carefully he raised his son upwards so that their noses touched. "You're going to be famous, little Lutz! Everyone knows that! You're going to change the world! Yes you are! Yes you are! " Lutz continued to giggle as he brought a hand up to squeeze Rie's nose. "You're going to make mommy and daddy so very proud!" Rie told the infant.

"Rieeeeeeeeee! I need you out here dear!" came a shout from the next room.

"Coming!" Rie responded. Holding Lutz close in his right arm, Rie stood and walked through the bedroom doorway. Their home was modest, to say the least. One bedroom, one sitting area and one small cubicle for cooking was all that made up the house. The people of Eppi had gladly helped the Espers build new homes for themselves, but the ever present supply shortage dictated their sparse living conditions. Nonetheless, the Espers were grateful for the assistance, and, as Rie and April demonstrated, each was delighted to finally be able to lead a free and open life.

April was standing in a corner, carefully holding a lit candle above a small wooden table. As was common among the Esper females, she wore short hair as blue as the sea, and a thin golden tiara sat above her forehead. A cool breeze from a nearby open window gently wafted her white cloak back and forth.

"I'm ready, darling," she said. Rie nodded and walked to join her in the corner. With utmost care, Rie reached out his left hand, while still holding Lutz with his right arm, and gently grasped the candle just below April's hands.

"We commemorate this home, in joy and in reverance, to our mutual lives together," he spoke formally.

"And let it be known," April continued, "that as our thoughts go, so go our lives, in peace, and harmony, and unity." Together they slowly lowered the candle into its holder on the table. Releasing it, they then looked at each other and smiled softly. Rie reached out and embraced his wife with his left arm, as April hugged her husband and son.

"Are you sure that you don't want to come with me to Camineet?" Rie asked as April took Lutz into her arms.

"No, you go, I have so much to do here. We still have problems to work out in training at the hospital. I really shouldn't leave when I'm needed here so much. Plus I couldn't stand to be away from Lutz for that long." Lutz held onto April's finger as she wiggled it back and forth, staring lovingly into her son's eyes.

"Then I'll stay too. I don't need to go, sincy Ruly and Cane are going... I can stay and help take care of things. It's not that important."

"No, you should go. I know how much you've wanted to return there after all this time. It'll be good for you to see your old friends."

"They're your friends too, April," said Rie, rubbing his hand on her shoulder. "I could wait until things die down here and we could go together... we could take Lutz with us, too."

April sighed, a grin on her face. "I know you better than that, Rie. You really want to go now. You just don't want to leave me alone."

"Well..." Rie returned her smile, blushing.

"But you know I can take care of myself, and you know they need me here. So get going, before they leave without you."

Rie leaned forward and kissed his wife on the cheek, gave the same to his son, and then walked towards the door. He turned and paused for a moment, and smiled again. April raised Lutz's hand and waved it in the air. "Say bye-bye to daddy!"

"I'll be back before you know it, love!"

Lutz continued to giggle as Rie left the house.

His life was magical. Strolling down the lane towards the town meeting hall, Rie reflected. He had a wonderful, loving wife, a healthy baby boy and a wealth of community and brotherhood. The years of fear, uncertainty and struggle were finally coming to an end as he and his fellow Espers had emerged into the brightly shining sun of a new dawn. It was a second birth for all of them. There would be obstacles ahead, no doubt, but he had every confidence in the world. He had a family.

As he approached the hall, he found his thoughts drifting outward to those that had escaped this world long ago. What had become of the Espers that had left for Motavia and Dezoris? In their haste to re-establish their own lives on Palma, they had spared little time to consider their off-planet brethren. It was certainly time to contact them, to revitalize the links that had held them together so strongly in the past.

Inside the hall, Ruly, Cane, Hegger, and another unnamed townsman rose to greet him. Ruly and Cane were twins, several years younger than Rie. They both were dressed in off white tunics, a departure from traditional Esper wear. They both shared the same deep blue hair, and both had contrasting greenish eyes. In fact, no one among them had ever been able to consistently tell them apart, so similar in appearance they were. The only distinguishing characteristic between them was that Cane had a peculiar habit of wearing a set of light blue gloves, at all hours of the day. Rie shook hands with each of the men.

"Everything's ready for you, Rie," the unnamed man said. "We've tuned up our only transport, so it should get you where you're going... but don't let these guys push it too hard." Rie laughed as Ruly and Cane exchanged mischevious looks. They had long been known as technological addicts, a rare trait among Espers.

"We've loaded the comm unit onto the transport. Hopefully it will be a simple fix. Also, if they can spare any medical supplies, please acquire whatever you can."

Rie nodded at Hegger in recognition. "Well then, we can be on our way! Keep an eye on April and Lutz for me, Hegger..."

"Of course," he responded. "We'll expect you back sometime late tomorrow, then. Good journey." Hegger again shook hands with Rie, and the three Espers walked out of the hall towards the left edge of town. Ahead, a pair of townsmen waited for them in front of the transport. As Rie engaged the men in a short conversation, Ruly and Cane began examining the outside of the vehicle.

"Marvelous piece of work!" Ruly exclaimed, running his hand along the hull.

"Badly in need of refurbishing," Cane rebutted disapprovingly.

"You only say that because you can't see its inner beauty!"

"I can see its inner beauty just fine. Its the outer beauty that I'm worried about." The pair continued their playful verbal jousting as they entered the transport.

Rie followed them inside, taking a seat just behind Ruly, who had taken the controls. "Remember, take it easy. This thing looks like it could fall apart at any moment."

"Rie, trust us! We'd never do anything to push this little baby too hard! Have some faith!" Cane cast a devilish grin back at Rie as his brother hit the ignition and the machine roared to life.

"I have faith in a lot of things, Cane. You two, however, aren't very high on that list..."

"You wound us, Rie," Cane replied, striking a mock indignant pose. "After all we've been through..."

"Let's just get going, alright?" Rie laughed. "I've got a wife and son that I'm missing already."

Ruly turned in his seat and gave a thumbs-up signal. "Right-o! Onward and upward! Ho!"

- - - - - - - - - -

Lusar arrived at the south shore in his small shuttle transport from Noah just before sunset. Waiting for him was a flotilla of 'bot carrier craft, all sitting quietly on the sand. Three Palman commanders, one per craft, stood patiently as Lusar left his shuttle. With a blast of hot air, the ship was immediately airborne again, off to return to Noah, still high above the planet.

Lusar, wearing silver armor plating on his chest and legs, shouted to his commanders over the roar of the surf. "Is everything ready?"

One commander, a young, dark man responded. "Absolutely. Every 'bot is fully functional. We're ready to leave at your order." The man offered a crisp salute, but Lusar ignored it.

"Very well. Aboard." Lusar and the commander walked through the open hatch in the nearest landing craft; the other two men did the same. With a whir of the engines the hatches closed and the three machines surged forward, due north. They left heavy tracks in the sand that would soon be oblierated by the endlessly crashing surf.

Inside the lead vehicle, Lusar stood, watching the world through the front viewport. They would arrive in the town of Eppi in about one hour, given their current speed. The task would be simplicity in itself. The town would have little warning of their presence, and they would have no military defenses. Lusar still fumed at having to lead this mission, though. There was no need for him to be here. These commanders and the 'bots could handle all of this themselves, without his lead. Rightfully he should have been well on his way to Motavia to squash Tajim before word of the happenings on Palma spread.

Marlowe was obviously toying with him, but he was in no position to oppose the Earthmen. Despite the contacts he had been able to locate on Palma, these rogue commanders included, Lusar in fact had nothing with which to challenge anyone on his own. The Earthmen had taken control of the robotcop manufacturing bases, and in fact could control almost everything remotely from the comfort of their mothership. No, he would have to cooperate with the aliens for now, if only to bide time until he held a more favorable position.

"I've sent a transmission to Noah, informing them that we are on our way," the young commander dutifully stated. Lusar ignored him, and the man returned to monitoring the controls. Obedient idiot, Lusar fumed. His own men, those who had served under the great King Lassic, were acting as if these Earthmen were their saviors. Only Lusar knew the truth. The Earthmen were simply rival powers, who must be observed carefully. They were dangerous, and as much a threat to the proper rule of Palma as the brat queen herself. There would come a day, he mused, when he would take his rightful place as King Lassic's successor to the rule of Palma, and would crush any and all interference by Earthman, Palman, or otherwise.

Still, Lusar imagined, there was an upside to this excursion. He would personally witness the death of Rie and his wife. In fact, he thought as his hand fell to the blaster at his side, he might even have the pleasure of ending their lives himself. It would be a most delicious revenge.

Your end is coming, Rie, he thought, just as you ended my life so many years ago, so shall I now end yours. Lusar smiled to himself at the irony. And you will not live again.

- - - - - - - - - -

Hegger rocked back and forth in his chair on the porch of his small house in Eppi. He had always enjoyed taking the time at dusk to reflect on his experiences that day, no matter how trivial or insignificant. It was a habit taught to him by his grandfather when he was a young man. It was a habit he had not forsaken since.

"Granpa, granpa!" His musings were interrupted by the voice of his own young grandson, bounding hurriedly down the lane towards his home. "Granpa! They've come back! Uncle Rie is back!" The boy leapt onto the porch as Hegger stood.

"Uncle Rie won't return until tomorrow, Roop. They have a long way to go."

"But granpa, I seen them, in a big truck, three of 'em, even, coming to the south gate! C'mon, we can go meet them!" The grinning boy took his grandfather's hand and led him off.

As Hegger approached the gate, he found the sight that the boy was referring to. Several hundred yards away, three large transport vehicles were barreling towards the town, crashing through the forest.

"See, granpa? I told you! They're back!"

"That's not..." Hegger trailed off. It wasn't Rie and the others. At least it wasn't the the town's own transport. Had they returned with loads of supplies from Camineet?

No, he thought to himself. It's too soon. They couldn't even have arrived in Camineet by now. It's someone else. But who would... As the vehicles drew closer and closer, Hegger noticed something else. They were military transports, not civilian. He hadn't seen one of those in weeks. And they were coming from the south. But there were no inhabited destinations south of Eppi. Only the sea lay in that direction.

Something inside pulled at Hegger. Something inside of him knew that things were amiss. Reluctantly, he took Roop's hand and quickly led him back to his home. He wasn't quite sure why; it was is if he was acting under someone else's volition. He felt the need to warn someone. He needed to let someone know what was happening. But what was happening? There was no one around. This late, everyone was inside.

As he opened the door of his house and pushed Roop inside, he turned back to the gate, staring intently. Moments later, he caught sight of the three vehicles again, this time only yards away. In a second, they crashed through the outer wall, destroying the southern gate. Hegger stood frozen for one more moment as the front of the transports sprang open.

Robotcops. Hegger dashed inside just as laser and plasma fire started strafing the town. In the living room, his daughter, Emma, and April, holding Lutz, rose to meet him.

"What's wrong dad, we heard a noise... is something going on?"

"Move!" Hegger shouted. "We must get out of here! Emma, grab Roop!"

"But what's happening?" asked April, who suddenly found herself clutching Lutz tightly.

"We're being attacked! Robotcops!" the old man exclaimed as he pushed his daughter and grandson towards the rear door. April stood frozen at his words. Every Esper knew what it meant to face Robotcops firsthand.

"April, come on!" Emma screamed. The Esper quickly came out of her trance and followed the others out the door. Back in the streets, they could hear explosions, could hear the sound of plasma blasts whizzing through the air.

All around the town people began to come out of their houses to see the commotion. Some where hit immediately. Others, in a panic, ran down the streets, no destination in mind. As the 'cops advanced ever further, they too were assaulted as bodies began to litter the roads and screams began to fill the air.

Hegger knew where he was headed. The only safe place, if there were such a thing, was the basement of the hospital. If only they could make it there in time.

As they ran down the street, Hegger shouted and waved his arms to get people to follow him to the hospital. Several understood and raced to join him, while still others tried to run away... but they were all cut down by laser fire. Hegger seemed to recognize every face, to recognize every scream as the people he knew and loved were murdered around him. He couldn't help them now. All he could do was get his daughter, grandson, and whomever else that could follow him, to the hospital.

As wave after wave of 'cops surged ahead, Lusar finally disembarked from the carrier, blaster raised in readiness to finish off anyone who might pose a threat. His three commanders walked along side, casually picking off those who were fortunate enough to have evaded the attention of the robotcops. They reveled in the experience, laughing as they took life after life. But Lusar was not laughing; his singular visage spoke of his need for vengeance. He must find Rie. He must.

Further into the town, Hegger and the others were mere yards away from the hospital entrance when a laser blast exploded the doorway in front of them. Diving to the ground, they looked behind them only to see a large number of 'bots closing in. Hegger squeezed his daughter tightly, closing his eyes, awaiting the final moment of his life.

Suddenly they heard a whooshing sound, followed by massive explosions. As April screamed, "Look!!!" Hegger reopened his eyes only to see bursts of flame sailing towards the approaching 'bots, impacting them and blowing them to pieces. The old man turned his head and saw a wave of white robes. The Espers stood nearby, staves raised in the air, unleashing a magical firestorm at the robots.

Quickly Emma helped Hegger to his feet and they rushed through the flaming doorway of the hospital. "Get to the basement! Hurry!" he urged. Emma and April ran towards the steps, still clutching their sons. More explosions rocked the building, this time joined by screams from the outside. At the top step, April stopped. Emma, just below her, looked back questioningly.

"April!" she cried. April looked at her, turned to face Hegger, then looked back at Emma with tears rolling down her face.

"Take Lutz," she said quietly through her tears as she held her infant son in front of her.

"What are you doing? We've got to get down here! Come on!" Emma screamed.

"Take him!" April shouted back, turning her head aside. In shock, unable to comprehend what was happening, Emma reluctantly took the baby. April stepped back, hands moving to cover her face as she sobbed. Hegger jumped forward into the stairwell and began to close the heavy steel gates above them.

"No, dad, she has to come down here! You can't stay up there, April! Dad!" Emma's screams continued.

"Take care of him, Emma, please..." April stuttered through her own sobs, "you must take care of him."

"No, daaaaaaaa--" Emma's cry was cut short as the gates closed, sealing them inside the basement.

A scream from the outside awoke April from her painful solitude. Hurriedly she rushed back to the doorway, ready to join her fellow Espers in the battle outside. Leaping into the firefight, April readying a healing spell to aid her fallen comrades nearby. Just as the spell was cast, she felt a searing sensation in her lower back. Turning, she just managed to catch of glimpse of the 'bot that was moving swiftly towards her, blaster raised. A second later she felt another pain on the back of her neck, and she collapsed to her knees.

Before she could react, she felt a third stunning impact in her left temple.

April fell to the ground, dead.

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