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But now three young Espers were returning to the capital, without fear, and without reservation. It was time to rebuild friendships, time to re-establish contacts with long-lost families, and time to embrace and nourish the new world that was emerging from Lassic's demise. These three were bringing with them the keys to the future.
"--I'm telling you, it's gonna be great! Food processors! Spaceships! Tele-communications!" Ruly was raving estatically about the prospects of returning to Camineet, no less for the technological wonders the city held than for the friends they intended to see.
"Always 'better, faster, more!'" Cane playfully mocked, knowing he felt the same. "Here you are, running the transport, and all you can think about is what lies around the corner. Take the time to appreciate the subtle intricasies that even this moderate craft provides!"
"And the both of you should spend more time appreciating the subtle intricasies that nature can provide..." Rie suggested. "You must never forget that everything is a product of nature and everything will eventually return to nature." The two twin Espers looked at each other and snickered.
Young... brash... indulgent... Rie mused. Still, there were times when he was sure that he saw flashes of his own youth in them. Although he was only a few years older than the twins, he had long since adopted somewhat of a father figure role to the boys. Ruly and Cane had been with Rie and April ever since the banishment, sharing every triumph and enduring every hardship. During this time a bond had formed between them all, and they looked upon each other as family, above and beyond the standard Esperic connotation of the term.
The transport continued to rumble along, as Rie sat back and began daydreaming of April and his son. Apart from them for only hours, he still yearned to hold them in his arms once again. Still the Wall loomed closer.
"What's that?" Cane asked as he stared out the viewport.
"What's what?" Ruly responded. Cane raised his hand and pointed.
"There, on the left portion of the wall... there at the flashing lights..."
Ruly focused on the spot Cane was referring to as Cane leaned forward. "It looks like... like..." Ruly squinted as the Wall grew larger and larger in the viewport. "...like a gap ... I think that's a construction crane out there."
"Look at the size of it, the gap I mean... it's huge! That entire section of wall is down. What in the world happened out there?" Ruly didn't have an answer. "Rie, what do you think-- Rie?" Cane had turned his head to look back at Rie. "Rie!"
The Esper had his hands pressed against his temples, and his eyes were tightly shut. Gritted teeth revealed his pain.
"RIE! What's the matter with you?!?" Cane gasped. Looking over his shoulder, Ruly quickly brought the transport to a halt and joined his brother at Rie's side.
Rie wouldn't speak, but through his contorted face he was moaning incessantly. "What is it?" Ruly asked Cane. "Is he sick?"
"He was fine just a second ago! Rie, can you here me?!? RIE!" Cane shouted.
"Aaarrgghhh... noooo... eeyyyaarrrghhh!"
"Get the padding from the back and clear the floor! I'll get him out of the seat! We've got to help him!" exclaimed Ruly. Immediately Cane rushed to the back of the cabin and tore open a storage locker, grabbing a padded mat. He turned and was frozen just as Rie began to scream.
"AAPPRRIILLLLL! NNOOOOO!" With that the Esper fell forward and collapsed, out of the hands of Ruly. His head collided against the steel plating of the floor with a dull thud. Cane dropped the mat and ran back to his brother's side as Ruly knelt beside Rie.
Rie lay on this side, arms resting haphazardly in front of him. His eyes were wide open but glazed over, staring out into nothingness. But his face was frozen in an expressionless mask. "Check his heartbeat!"
Ruly reached out and grabbed Rie's neck, searching for a pulse. "Still there! But it's weak!" Cane put a hand on his chest.
"He's breathing, too!"
"Stand back..." As Cane stood and took two steps backwards, Ruly closed his eyes and mouthed a silent chant as he put his hands on Rie's forehead. Just for a moment, magical energy flowed between the two Espers.
"...Well?" Cane's voice shakily asked.
Ruly opened his eyes and again felt for Rie's pulse. "...No change..." He turned his head and stared back at his brother. "...No change. It's something serious... but I don't know what."
The two were silent for a moment, and then Cane bolted forward towards the transport controls. "Stay back there with him. We'll get him help in Camineet." The transport again came to life, and they were off.
"Damn it all to hell!" Lusar shouted, violently kicking the metal corpse of a fallen robotcop. He stood in the center of Eppi, which by now was a smoking ruin. All around bodies lay, the results of the cold resiliance of the robotcop forces. Currently, nearly all of the 'cops stood at silent attention, in row after row, several yards from where Lusar thrashed.
As Lusar continued to scream curses into the night, a trio of robotcops arrived, dragging with them the lifeless bodies of three Espers. The bots carelessly pushed them next to the others... seemingly dozens of Espers, white robes now covered in crimson, all lay dead on the ground. Lusar had examined each and every one of the bodies, searching for someone he had not yet found.
He strode over and examined the newcomers. After but a moment, he exclaimed, "He's not here either! Damn it! If you've killed him I swear I'll rip your circuits out myself! His blood belongs to me alone!" The robotcops stood motionless, internal servos humming quietly, quite oblivious to the outburst. "Blast!" Lusar cried as he spun away.
"They didn't kill him, Lusar." Commander Creed, one of three commanders that had accompanied Lusar on his mission of death, arrived. Behind him, the other two commanders walked next to another three robotcops who were dragging their own trio of Espers along. "He's not here. We've checked every last inch of this town... these are the last three. If he ever was here, he's not now."
Lusar clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to Creed. Turning his head slightly, he looked over Creed's shoulder. "They're still moving..."
"We thought they might help us locate Rie. Of course we had to discourage them from resisting us." Creed laughed and Lusar nodded in agreement. Stepping past Creed, he postioned himself in front of the three robotcops.
"Drop them." The 'bots immediately released the three Espers, and they fell to the ground. Lusar moved closer and bent down in front them. With a gloved hand he reached out and wrapped his fingers around the neck of the Esper on the left. Pulling the face towards his own, he could see that the man was in no position to put up any kind of a fight. His face was covered in blood and bruises, and his breathing was extremely labored.
"Open your eyes, damn it!" Lusar squeezed the Esper's neck tightly, and the man opened his eyes in pain. "Tell me where Rie is," Lusar commanded calmly.
"...I... don't know who... you're talking about..." the Esper coughed, closing his eyes again. Enraged, Lusar, pulled his blaster from his belt with his right hand and raised it to the Esper's forehead.
"LIAR!" he screamed as he pulled the trigger. The energy from the weapon ripped into the man's head, killing him instantly and violently. Lusar tossed him aside in disgust.
Rising, he stepped over to the next Esper, blaster still in hand. Again reaching for the neck, he raised his gun and placed the barrel in between the Esper's eyes.
"TELL ME WHERE RIE IS..." he repeated. His voice was still calm, but was much louder than before. He slowly increased the pressure of his grip, and the Esper began to choke and sputter.
"...ack... who... who's... yeack... Rie?"
"You know damn well who he is! Tell me where I can find him! Tell me or you die!"
The Esper was silent.
"Bastard!" Lusar shouted, pushing the Epser backwards. He pointed his blaster and fired off five shots, wracking the man's body with energy. He was dead in an instant.
Eyes flaming, the murderer turned to face the last Esper. "You!" he cried. "You see what has happened to your wretched brothers! That is nothing! Tell me where Rie is NOW and you can join them! Resist me and you will envy their fate!"
The Esper, on his knees, bowed his head and cast his eyes to the ground. With an inhuman roar Lusar leapt forward and kicked the Esper in the stomach, causing the man to bend over and cry out in agony. Without hesitation, Lusar then swung his leg upward with all his might, smashing his boot into the Esper's face. The last Esper of Eppi flew backwards, now unconscious.
Still fuming, Lusar spun to face Creed. "Get the scum back to the carriers! We're leaving!"
Creed raced to the nearest robotcop and gave the withdrawal command. The other two commanders had a free 'bot grab the unconscious Esper. As Lusar watched impatiently, the invasion force began to make their way back to the three carrier craft that waited at the demolished town gate.
Although Marlowe's command to eradicate the town and all Espers within had been fulfilled, Lusar's burning desire to find and destroy Rie had not been quenched. As far as he was concerned, the entire operation had been a waste of time. Throwing a closed fist upwards, he looked up into the night sky.
Far away, at the northern end of town, the hospital stood. Its frame was cracked and charred, its doors and windows shattered, but still it stood. And deep in a sealed basement, away from the prying eyes of the commanders and the prying sensors of the robotcops, four people sat huddled together. They had escaped the the barrage of death that had blanketed the town. Here, now, they were safe... and though they knew nothing as to the horrific extent of the devastation above, they knew, they knew that their town, their people, were lost.
Four people... Hegger, his daughter Emma and grandson Roop, and the infant Lutz... had escaped. Roop was crying, buried in the embrace of his mother Emma, whose own tears were clearly evident. Hegger held her with his left arm while cradling baby Lutz in his right. Never in all of his decades of life had Hegger experienced something like this. And more than anything, he wanted to keep these three young beings with him from ever having to experience it again.
The transport came to an abrupt halt at the Wall, as a group of Camineet Policeman stood directly in its path. "What has been going on here?" Ruly asked his brother.
"I don't know... but we've got to get Rie inside. I'm opening the hatch." Cane pressed a button on the control panel and the side door of the transport opened. As Cane stepped out, he was greeted by three soldiers brandishing their weapons.
"Who are you?" the lead soldier asked, mistrust evident in his tone.
Cane responded. "My name is Cane. I'm from Eppi... we've got an injured man in here, we need to get him to Camineet immediately."
The soldier eyed him closely. "You're an Esper..." he said, with barely disguised disgust. "The city's under martial law. No one gets in or out without authorization." The man took a step forward, raising his weapon ever so slightly. "I think you'd better step down here... slowly..."
"Stow that blaster, soldier! You'll get somebody killed!" a voice boomed. Turning their heads, the three soldiers dropped their weapons to their sides and offered crisp salutes. Just then another man strode into Cane's view. From the trio's reaction, the man, whose face was in a scowl, was obviously a commander here. He stood some six and a half feet tall, and his barrel chest swelled in anger at his men.
"Sir," Cane said, addressing the newcomer, "this man in here is in serious need of medical attention. It's imperative that we--"
"I gotcha, I'll take you in myself. What's your name, son?"
"Cane. From Eppi."
"Well, Cane from Eppi, you can follow my personal transport to Camineet. And while your friend is getting help, you can go talk to the Council. I'm sure they'd be very interested in what you have to say."
"The Council?" Bewildered, Cane offered a nod and turned back to Ruly. "He says to follow him inside." Cane turned back to respond to the commander, but the man was already gone, ahead of their own vehicle. The Esper stepped back as the hatch closed and returned to the controls.
As the pair of transports surged forward, Cane looked out the viewport in amazement. They were actually driving through the Wall, as something had blown a huge hole within the massive structure. Behind them, the soldiers replaced the minimal barricades they had removed and returned to their guard positions. Construction workers resumed their work, in a desperate attempt to erect a sizable, albeit makeshift blockade.
The area had not seen action since the first and only invasion, but no one on the Palman Governing Council doubted that they had seen the last of the attacks.
"Lusar's back, Marlowe," Terrick reported. Marlowe's right-hand man stood in the doorway to Marlowe's private quarters aboard Noah, the massive mothership headquarters of the Earthmen. Marlowe himself, First Consul of the Earthmen, was lying on his bed in an adjoining room. Groggily he arose and walked out to meet Terrick.
"I would have thought the fool would have taken longer..." Marlowe said, rubbing his eyes as he exited his quarters. "I take it the mission was successful?" The pair began to walk down the corridor.
"That depends on who you ask. He brought one of them back with him," Terrick replied.
"Brought one of them back?!? I told him that everyone was to be killed!"
"I know, I know, but he says that we can use him for information." Terrick's tone indicated he did not agree.
"Damn him. He thinks his role in this grand scheme is actually significant. If we didn't need him to rally Lassic's former agents I'd kill him myself." Terrick was silent as they entered a nearby elevator. "He's in the board room?" Marlowe questioned.
"Yes. We've got his prisoner shackled in cargo bay 11. Guarded, of course."
"What about the robotcops?" asked Marlowe as they waited.
"Minimal losses. We've sent those that survived the mission back to the nearest manufacturing base. They'll be serviced then will be ready for our next command."
Moments later the elevator doors opened and they found themselves just outside the main board room, meeting place of the Coucil of the Earthmen. Adjusting his uniform but failing to disguise his annoyance, Marlowe entered the room, with Terrick just behind.
Ahead of them, Lusar sat. "What's this I hear about a prisoner, Lusar? I gave you an order to destroy every last person in that village. Certainly you couldn't have misunderstood me, could you now?"
Lusar rose and steeled himself against Marlowe's sarcasm. "I have captured an Esper, Marlowe. He can help us... he--"
"I have no need to listen to the mystical ramblings of some deranged cult member, Lusar! He has nothing to offer us!" the leader shouted.
"But... he can give us information... tell us what people are doing down there," Lusar pleaded.
"Don't be ridiculous! He's been holed away in some backwater village! He knows nothing! You were sent down there with the express intent of destroying the Espers, not bringing them up here!" Terrick offered as he stepped forward to Marlowe's side.
"Be quiet, Lusar! You've countermanded a direct order, and compromised the security of this ship! No one is ever to be brought aboard Noah unless it is under my strict orders! Do you understand me?!? DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!?" By now Marlowe fumed with anger, his face flushed red.
Lusar stood with his mouth agape, unable to respond.
With a curse, Marlowe walked over to a nearby comm screen. "Don't ever play games with me, Lusar," he said, facing Lusar and amazingly calm once again, "you can't seriously expect me to believe that you think this Esper has something important to offer our cause..." Flicking a switch on the comm unit, Marlowe directed his voice over his shoulder. "Cargo bay 11," he called, "this is Marlowe."
"Sir!" an invisible voice responded through the speaker.
"Do you have a Palman prisoner down there?"
"Good," Marlowe replied. "I want him executed immediately.
"No!" Lusar shouted, raising his hand in an ignored plea.
"Yes sir!" the voice said. Moments later, blasters could be heard firing over the speaker. Satisfied, Marlowe flicked the switch on the comm unit and walked back towards the door. Pausing, he turned to face Lusar once again.
"You live to serve our ends, Lusar. You will not indulge any pathetic desires to futher your own ends. Don't ever play games with me." With that, Marlowe left the board room.
Terrick followed, and as he left he added, "Get yourself ready. You leave for Motavia in two days."
And Lusar was alone in the room, left with his own anger and humiliation. His gambit to preserve the life of the Esper in order to find Rie had failed... and Marlowe's distrust of him grew every day. A confrontation between them seemed more and more inevitable... and more and more desirable.
If you've cost me the chance, Marlowe... I swear I'll exchange your life for Rie's, consequences be damned!
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