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Directly opposite Alis, far at the other end, sat Ruly, Cane, and General Zeno, the man who had escorted the twin Espers into Camineet. Nelson and a few comm techies sat at stations on the perimeter of the room.
Councilman Manchester rose, running a hand through his red beard, as had become his trademark. "General Zeno here tells us that these two Espers..." here he waved a hand in Ruly and Cane's direction, "...have come from Eppi. General Zeno?"
Manchester sat, and Zeno leaned forward slightly. "I'll let them speak for themselves." The general returned to his reclining position.
All eyes were staring at the two Espers, who now exchanged a nervous glance. Ruly cleared his throat, and began. "We don't have much to say... ah... we left Eppi, my brother and our friend, I mean, to bring a broken comm unit to Camineet in hopes of getting it fixed. Just when we arrived, our friend... got sick... and we saw the damage to the Wall, and then we met the general... and here we are." Ruly swung his head left to right, scanning the faces of those around him. There was something going on, something serious, but he didn't understand what.
Cane leaned forward, "We haven't done anything, we just want to get our friend some help!"
"Your friend is currently being looked after by our available medical staff, young man," Alis stated. In truth, the two Espers looked no younger than she, but that did not color her speech. "When we're finished here, you can join him. I know that your knowledge of Esper healing will certainly help our efforts to aid him."
"...Thank you," Ruly said, slightly more at ease.
Alis continued. "Who sent you from Eppi?"
"Hegger," Cane responded flatly. Councilmen all around nodded at each other in affirmation.
"And everything was fine when you left?" Alis asked.
Ruly squinted his eyes just for a moment, unsure of the implication of the question. "Everything was fine... we just needed to get the comm unit fixed." Alis turned to face Odin, who returned her stare. "What's going on here? Why is everyone treating us like this? We just want help!"
"General Reno," Alis called, "didn't you lead them through the city?"
Reno coughed. "Yes, yes I did. But we brought them in through a closed transport. They haven't seen the streets yet." Alis nodded.
"I see. Listen very closely, the both of you," came Alis' voice, rigid and fortified. "Camineet has been invaded by a massive number of robotcops." Here the twin Espers winced at the mention of the tormentors they had came to know and fear. "The robots destroyed a section of the Wall, flooded the city, and began attacking indiscriminantly. The city has been ravaged, and... many lives have been lost. It was only days ago that our troops managed to destroy the last of them. Ever since, we've been on alert."
Ruly and Cane were floored. Lassic had been killed. His troops had been taken into custody. For weeks and weeks, peace had returned. None of it made any sense now.
"That isn't all of it," Alis went on. "Our troop units throughtout the countryside have also been attacked. Scion has been decimated-- in comparison, Camineet came out relatively well. Due to unexplained communication failures, we still do not know the status of any other settlements on Palma. So you can understand that we are interested in hearing about Eppi."
"...I..." Ruly started to say something, but his shock held his tongue. Cane took over.
"Again, Eppi was fine when we left. You don't think... you don't think that Eppi has been attacked too? There's nothing there anyone could want! It's just a small town! Why would..."
Alis interrupted his cries. "We don't yet know why this has happened..."
"Well you've got to let us go back! And you've got to send troops! Eppi has no protection at all! What are we sitting around for?!?" Ruly shouted.
General Zeno placed a firm grasp on Ruly's arm. "We can't let you go back right now, son. Nobody goes into the countryside unless it's an official military action. Too risky. And as for the troops..." Zeno eyed General Odin for just a moment, "we can't spare them right now. We've got units protecting Camineet, Parolit, Scion, and the Spaceport... but until we hear from our other commanders around Palma, we simply don't have the manpower to..."
"To what!?! To 'waste' on a little town?!? A town with Espers in it!?!"
Alis shot to her feet, immediately silencing Ruly as well as the murmurs of the councilmen. "I'm sorry." Her voice was calm, though still resolute. "We are doing everything we can with everything we have at the moment. We will not be ignoring anyone who may need help... you have my word on that."
Ruly and Cane sat still, staring at Alis, paradoxically comforted amidst of turmoil they had been thrust into.
"I think we are finished here. Nelson," the queen called over her shoulder, "please escort these two to the medical room so they can be with their friend." Silently Nelson rose and walked to Ruly and Cane. He then led them out of the conference room. Alis slowly panned her head, locking eyes with each and every person seated at the table before her. No one said a word.
Alis returned to her seat. "Poller... any word on the broadcasters?" she asked.
"They tell me that they'll be operational by tomorrow morning. We'll be able to contact Sirus then. Certainly he'll send troops and supplies to us at that point."
"And we can find out if our shuttle made it..." added another councilman.
"The shuttle didn't make it," General Zeno said gruffly. "If it had, troops from Motavia would have already arrived. There's something out there," he went on, pointing his finger upward as he rose from his seat, "I'd bet my stripes on it."
Everyone knew Zeno's tendency to see things in a bad light, but for the life of her, Alis couldn't help but come to the same conclusion. "Alright. Barring an emergency, we'll meet again tomorrow evening for status reports." Those still seated at the table stood, and each strode off to attend to requisite duties.
They stood silently in the doorway of the balcony for many moments. Behind them the room was feebly lit by one dim lamp, while a hazy light fell across their faces, as outside and below repair crews worked continuously to repair the damage done to Camineet.
Alis raised her hand and pointed to a chair on the balcony, and Odin took it without saying a word. Alis gracefully sat next to him, and they each stared out at the city. Occasionally the noise of the reconstruction efforts shattered the relative calm on the upper level of the magistrate estate, but for the most part they heard only a constant yet distant background din.
Above, the stars had emerged, though they were washed out by the light from below. Alis wore a light cloak that was wholly unnecessary in the mild weather, while Odin had stripped off his command jacket, which lay resting on a chair inside Alis' room. With a sigh he leaned back and rested his right foot against the balcony railing; Alis turned her head to the right to face him, but still she said nothing.
Again the moments stretched onward.
"...I never even had the chance to get to know them..." Odin finally began. "A commander's should always to get to know his men."
Part of Alis was relieved that the silence had been broken, but another part dreaded the direction that she knew the conversation must head.
"Those boys... and make no mistake, they were just boys... " he continued, "they had no idea of what they were getting into. I can't believe I let this happen."
"You couldn't have known, none of us could have..." Alis' attempt at consolation obviously wasn't enough.
Odin went on, now speaking more to Alis than to himself. "That doesn't matter. When you gave me the position, when I took the position, I became responsible for them. I can't get around that. They died under my care."
"But you didn't cause their deaths, Odin, you know that..." Alis' voice was more forceful now.
"Knowing that doesn't change one damn thing!" the general shouted, eyes momentarily flaring. Catching himself, he lowered his tone. "I'm sorry." Alis feigned a slight smile that faded away in an instant, and the two of them returned to watching the city below. The night breeze disturbed the drapes behind them.
Odin scolded himself in his mind. He was not one given to fits of self-pity or emotional self-indulgence. With a calm but resolute thought, he closed the door, filing the feelings away for another time.
"I thought that it would be different..." the young queen said, still gazing outward. "So different..."
Odin knew she was changing the subject, and he welcomed the effort. "You mean when you accepted Sirus' offer?"
"Even before that... before I went from 'Alis' to 'Your Majesty'..." She closed for her eyes for a moment, and when she reopened them her voice was barely above a whisper. "I mean when we were fighting together... I thought that if we won, no matter how ridiculous our chances were... I thought that if we won, everything would be okay. I thought the world could be a nice place again, and that the pain would go away."
Odin struggled for a moment, unsure of the pain to which she was referring. The loss of Nero? Lassic's plague? Her own loneliness?
"And for a time, when we were with Sirus... when we had won and we had all made it and I found out about my parents... I felt like finally the dream had come true, I felt like the wish to make things better had been granted... even though Nero didn't come back."
"We did make things better..." His response was short, for he knew she needed to verbalize the feelings that were bottled up inside.
"I know, I know, I've never doubted that... but for the life of me, during that time in Paseo before coming home, I thought that we really could have a fairy-tale ending..." Alis shook her head and chuckled. "Stupid kid..."
"That 'stupid kid' managed to save the world... and there's nothing wrong with youthful idealism."
Alis again laughed quietly. "...Every day since we got back, I've felt that idealism ebbing away... there's just so much pain here, left in Lassic's wake... and now, with these latest attacks, I feel like that idealism isn't just ebbing away, it's being ripped out of me... Sometimes I think that Lassic must be laughing at us from beyond the grave."
Odin studied her for a moment, his mind wandering back over all the private conversations they had gone through in earlier times. The young girl he had first met, seemingly a lifetime ago, was gone, or had at least faded into obscurity. With a frown he looked up at the sky.
"How do you deal with it?" Alis asked. The question brought Odin out of his trance.
"How do I deal with what?" he replied, still gazing upward.
"With the fact that the fighting never ends? You once said that, 'peace is just a break between wars'... I need to know how you deal with that."
The warrior continued to eye the faint stars, as if searching for the right words. Hesitantly he spoke, knowing he hadn't found them. "You didn't believe me when I said that..."
"Things are different now..."
"And you're different..."
Odin finally shifted back to face her, and her eyes seemed to cry out to him for something that would reinforce her possibly crumbling world-view. Though her words seemed nihilistic, he could see that somewhere inside she still clung to what had driven her through their quest to free Palma.
"I deal with it... by reminding myself that fighting for a good reason is just as important as making peace for a good reason, as for living for a good reason." He saw Alis squint her eyes ever so slightly, searching for a way to interpret that. He continued. "We've got a world to live in, with conflicts everywhere, between groups of people, between individuals... even if there was only one person in the entire universe, the person would have internal conflicts with himself... it's not something that you can escape.
"And I'm not so sure that that's a bad thing... if you make the right choices, if you survive the conflicts, you grow... and if you remember what you fought for, then maybe you won't have to fight the same battles over and over... you'll just move on to new conflicts and new growth...
"And maybe, after a long enough time, after a million years maybe, you'll have fought enough and grown enough that there aren't any more conflicts, that there aren't any more fights to fight... then finally you'll have real peace... in a place where everything exists in unison, and even though you couldn't grow anymore, you wouldn't need to, because there wouldn't be anything else to learn... and you could finally rest."
Alis eyed the unknown man before her. This was not the warrior she had risked her life with... these words came from someone she had never seen, from a place she didn't know existed. Could it possibly be that he had just revealed the very motivation that had caused him to dedicate his life to unending struggle? It was too simple to be true.
And it was there before her, a crystal-clear, tacit understanding that hung between them in the night air. She knew this man, completely, for the first time. He fought for peace. He fought so that one day he could rest, and never have to fight again.
And then it lost its clarity. Her understanding began to slip away, and she was left with only a swirling mass of ideas and assumptions. She struggled to guide her thoughts back over the same path that led to the revelation, but it was hopeless. The knowledge of her comrade was lost.
And again the man before her, the one she had known for what seemed like forever, returned. However, somewhere inside her heart, she could feel, in an empathic sense, what this man was all about. She couldn't intellectualize it, or put it into words, but the feeling was there. And she would never lose that feeling, she knew.
"So that's what I have to face?" she questioned, floating out of the haze. "There's not going to be a peaceful ending?"
Odin folded his hands together in his lap. "I don't think so... oh, sooner or later, you will find peace, we all will, I guess, but not in this world... but that doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't continue to strive to end the pain here."
"...So we fight for the unachievable... because it's the right thing to do..." she whispered to herself. Odin nodded.
"As queen... as a leader, you're going to feel the pain of everyone around you... as well as your own. That's what leaders have to face."
The irony of the statement was not lost on Alis, as she realized how much she mirrored the warrior.
"But you will also feel their triumphs, and their growth, if you can lead them down the right path... that's what it takes to be successful."
Alis stared at him. "This coming from a man who has lived nearly his entire life in autonomy. You, general, have either learned a great deal since you took over the army, or you understand people far better than you like others to know."
Odin sat motionless, and expressionless, as he returned her stare. Then, with a wry grin, he said, "I don't know what you're talking about, your majesty. I'm just a soldier."
"And I'm just a naive little girl." For the first time in what seemed like ages, Alis felt a full, genuine smile spread across her face. Minutes of silence fell between them.
"Do you think they're doing all right?" the queen asked.
For a moment Odin started to ask who 'they' were, but he knew in an instant. "Noah's probably got his nose buried in some history book, sitting in some cave out there..." Here he pointed upward towards the sky. "I'm sure he's doing fine."
Alis waited for him to continue, but he did not. Instead, she watched the grin leave his face. "You thought about Myau while you were out there, fighting..."
"...I think about Myau a lot... sometimes I don't even know what triggers it... but yes, I've thought about him since this whole mess started." He lowered his head again, nudging the railing with his foot.
Unending struggle, Alis thought to herself.
"There's no reason to think that he's in any danger... whoever is behind this obviously has no reason to be concerned with a bunch of Musk Cats out in the wild... but still, I keep thinking about him."
"You fought together for years... it must feel weird to now be without him."
"Yes... but we both chose the paths that we had to... he needs to be with his own people again..." Odin's voice trailed off.
Alis watched him stare at the floor as the brief levity between them had now completely passed. "...You could go see him, if you wanted."
After a moment, Odin's head shot upward, and his chest swelled. "No. I have responsibilities here now. We've got so much work to do to... there's no time for such things. We're flying blind here, and don't know what's gonna come next. All we know is that we've got robotcops coming out of our ears, killing people."
Alis knew he was right. Something inside of her yearned for the four of them to be reunited. Perhaps she believed she could be safe, confidant and effective, if only they were together. After all, that was how it had once been. But no more. She was queen now, and had to fulfill her duty no matter the circumstances.
Odin rose, placed a hand on her shoulder, and said, "I should get back to the control room. I'll see you in the morning. Sleep well, okay?"
Alis brought her hand up and touched his. "Okay." With that, Odin walked through the doorway, back through Alis' room, and out the door.
Alis Landale pulled her arms against herself in a tight embrace, and as she looked out over the city, she wondered how soon it would be before the madness that had invaded Camineet would return.
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