Ohhh my god, I'm sorry for the incredible wait again. x_x Though this time I have a better excuse, because it was mostly real life that distracted me.

But anyway, yet another arc is over! Though I didn't plan for it to be this long, there you have it. And this means we're now even closer to reaching the end! (You have no idea how nervous I am about having to actually finish this story, ahahaha...)

And again, THANK YOU for all the reviews! My day is made every time I receive one. :)


Chapter 12- Breakthrough (Part 3)

There was no sign of the Anti-Spirals that day either. By this point, going on almost a week since the last encounter, they were all just waiting for another attack to come, and the anticipation only put the crew further on edge.

Simon and Nia arrived at the conference room right on time. Though he wasn't invited, Taboo came along too, and seeing that it would be pointless to make him leave, they decided to allow it.

Simon looked rather sullen, and seemed to be avoiding making eye contact, which suited Yoko just fine. Their most pressing issue involved Nia, anyway, and she was much more agreeable, greeting them politely at the doorway.

Yoko would have preferred not to speak to Nia again so soon, but Gimmy still seemed a little nervous in her presence, and Kittan's goofy smile irritated her enough to make her shove her reluctance away. She started the meeting, clearing her throat.

"First thing's first, I'm sure you've noticed that we haven't had any attacks in the past few days. Do you know why? Or what the Anti-Spirals might be planning for us? Can you tell us when they'll appear?"

Nia let out a small sigh. This must have been a common question, but she still answered patiently. "When I rebelled, the Anti-Spirals cut my connection to the hive mind. I don't know what they are planning, nor can I predict their attacks."

"There's nothing you can do to warn us?"

"I can sense their presence when they are nearby. At most, I can give you a few seconds of prior warning."

Yoko exchanged a glance with Gimmy and Kittan. A few seconds. Not much of an advantage.

"But you were part of the enemy before, so you must know how they think?" Gimmy asked.

"Enemy or not, I think it'd be obvious what they're doing," Simon butted in. "If they're taking their sweet time, that usually means they're putting together a big operation."

Nia nodded. "They must be planning something. We had made ourselves difficult to track in the past weeks, so now that we are consistently in one place again, they must be concentrating all of their resources to defeat us once and for all. Depending on what their plan entails, this could take some time."

Then Nia's tone shifted, her voice and expression becoming more cold and business-like. "Yes...they are taking their time. Calculating and recalculating. Building layer upon layer to confuse or distract us. Very exact. Very meticulous..."

A chill lingered in the air following her words.

Simon sighed and tapped her shoulder. Nia blinked, the cold look disappearing.

Yoko coughed. "Old habits die hard?"

Gimmy was looking uneasy again. "W...well, everything is up and functioning. We've made sure to keep the main bridge staffed at all times, and we each carry a transmitter in case we can't get there right away, so...I guess we're as prepared as we can be?"

Kittan sat back with a frown. "What, so all we can do is wait?"

"There's no use worrying about it," Simon shrugged. His lips curled in a slight smirk. "Just try and enjoy the surprise."

Anger boiled up in Yoko again. That attitude. Call it confidence, call it whatever you want, but here they were trying to protect themselves, and yet he took it so lightly...

Thankfully, before she could worry about suppressing her rage, they got a call from the bridge.

"Transmission coming in!"

He always did have good timing. "Send it here," Yoko said.

The voice they heard next wiped the smirk off Simon's face.

"Hi again~!"

"Leeron?"

"Simon, is that you? Wonderful! I assume this means the talk proved helpful after all?" Leeron peered into the screen. "And now you're sporting an eyepatch! I swear, you look manlier every time I see you!" He fanned himself. "And is that your Messenger friend?"

"Pleased to meet you, I am Nia," she said, though looking puzzled.

"The pleasure's all mine, dear. My, you sure have changed."

They quickly filled Simon in on the deal with Leeron, and Leeron on the deal with Simon. Once they were all caught up, Gimmy began, "Leeron. We were wondering if you could help us with something..."

"Sure, what is it?"

"About making the Messenger human...I think we could use another mind working on it."

"I see. You want my insight?"

Simon looked at Gimmy. He hadn't been expecting this.

In response, Gimmy turned to him and said, in his best impression of Rossiu, "Yes, we were planning this. Did you think we would leave it all up to you? Remember, we have a vested interest in seeing all this through."

Kittan snickered.

Yoko looked to Leeron. "So would you be up for it? It would mean longer and more frequent transmissions, but..."

"Of course! It might be dangerous, but this is far more important than anything else I'm working on. Just transfer whatever data you have over to me and I'll take a look. If need be, I'll call in sick to devote more of my time."

Simon seemed to be at a loss for words. When he finally did manage to speak, he sounded almost touched. "...Thanks."

Leeron merely smiled.

Clearly, Simon thought he would never hear from anyone on the colony again. That had been the intention, after all. But in that moment, Yoko thought she saw something deeper in his surprise; a glimmer of the shy boy he used to be, someone too used to people not wanting anything to do with him.

She rested her head on her hand. "So did you enjoy the surprise?"

Simon gave her a dubious look, but before he could say anything, Nia stood up.

They blinked at her. "What?"

Nia didn't answer. Her eyebrows were furrowed. She looked as if she were trying to listen for some very faint sound.

Then suddenly, her eyes widened. "They're here!" She vanished.

Half a second later, an alarm sounded.

"Shit!" Simon shot to his feet.

Yoko turned to Leeron. "We'll get back to you later!"

Leeron nodded, and cut off the transmission.

They all scrambled to the door. But once out in the hall, instead of heading for the main bridge, Simon and Taboo dashed in the opposite direction, toward the elevator. This made the rest of them hesitate.

"Where's he...?" Yoko began, but then realized. If the ship was being attacked from the outside, shouldn't they have felt some kind of impact by now...?

With growing dread, they followed after them.

As they ran, Gimmy dug his transmitter out of his pocket and contacted the bridge. "What's going on?"

Tetsukan answered him. "The computer is picking up signs of unknown intruders throughout the ship! Twenty- no, thirty- fifty-!"

So it was for real this time. The Anti-Spirals were infiltrating the ship.


As they hurried into the elevator, Cibela's voice rang out through the communication system. "Red alert. The enemy has breached the ship. All personnel are to arm themselves immediately with Spiral shells..."

Yoko began loading Spiral shells into her rifle and pistol. She wasn't sure what they would be facing, but Spiral shells seemed like a safe bet.

Suddenly, the lights flickered, and for one horrible second, the elevator ground to a complete halt. They held their breaths. Thankfully, it was soon moving again.

Gimmy spoke into the transmitter. "What's the status on the power supply...?"

"The Super Spiral Engine still appears to be functional, as well as the Lord Genome Head. But we're losing contact with many of the other computers..."

"Thank god we created those backups," Yoko sighed in relief.

Following Simon's escape, they had created a backup system for the computers, scattered throughout the ship rather than in one location, so they would never have to worry about losing any vital functions. But the Lord Genome Head was their main energy source and information bank. Losing it would be a fatal blow.

"So the Lord Genome Head is safe?" Kittan frowned. "You'd think that'd be the first thing they'd hit..."

"That should be Nia's doing," Taboo said, speaking up. "We discussed what we would do if this ever happened, and came to the conclusion that Nia was the only one who could protect the Lord Genome Head in time. Of course, Simon wasn't too keen on the idea..."

Yoko glanced at Simon as he silently counted down the floors, drumming his fingers against the wall.

"So...the target of this attack is..."

"Yes, it would be the main computer room."

So that explained everything: Nia's disappearance, Simon knowing right where to go, his impatience. For all their lax attitude, they had at least talked about what to do in the event of an attack.

Taboo went on. "The problem is, we don't know how long she can hold out..."

The transmitter buzzed then. "We're getting reports from all around the ship of the crew facing combat..."

"What does the enemy look like?" Gimmy asked.

"Anti-Spiral Messengers. Lot's of them."

This stunned them into silence. Up to now, it hadn't occurred to Yoko that the Anti-Spirals had more than one Messenger. And now they were sending a whole army? They usually had their hands full dealing with just one...

Minutes later, the elevator finally reached its destination, and the doors slid open. Immediately, they were met with a corridor littered with the bodies of crew members. Standing over them, sure enough, were Anti-Spiral Messengers, all of them clearly not human. Appearance-wise, most seemed to have nothing in common except being bipedal, having red lines carving their bodies, and glowing red eyes.

Yoko had never seen such a variety of alien species gathered together at once. In that moment, she was struck by the sheer number of Spiral races there were in the universe...and how many of them had now become active.

But they had no time to react further, because at the sound of the doors opening, the Messengers all turned their heads. Then, one by one, starting from the nearest to the elevator and echoing back down the hall, they each raised a finger to point at Simon. Eyes glimmering, they chanted in unison: "There."

"DOWN!" Simon shouted. They dropped to the floor just in time as red lasers shot above their heads. Quickly, they crawled out of the elevator, Gimmy, Kittan, and Taboo grabbing weapons from fallen crew members, while Yoko began returning fire.

Her first few shots missed entirely, as the Messengers teleported out of range. She heard Simon growl beside her, "It was a trap! They knew I would come for her..."

On her other side, Kittan yelped as a Messenger teleported right behind them, and turning, he reflexively sent a punch to its face. Surprisingly, his punch actually landed, and the Messenger was sent flying into the elevator. He quickly slammed the doors shut, but the Messenger simply teleported out again. "GAH! I hate these guys!"

Now Gimmy was kneeling beside her, shooting at Messengers, and finally they managed to hit a couple with their Spiral shells. And in that nick of time, as the Messengers exploded, screaming, within the Spiral barriers, Simon and Taboo made a mad dash down the hall.

Following their lead, Yoko and Gimmy got up and ran, shooting at attacking Messengers, with Kittan behind them, protecting their backs. They passed by more bodies as they went, all dead, holes burned clean through their chests.

Kittan cursed. "She really took it easy on us!" He meant Nia.

"I'll say," Yoko said, shooting at a Messenger. It disappeared, but in one smooth motion, Yoko turned to her blind spot and fired again. This time she didn't miss. "But fighting her did teach me something!"

Another Messenger appeared in a side corridor just as they ran past, firing two beams at Simon's back. One looked like it would hit, but it glanced off something in the air. A barrier surrounded Simon's body, invisible but for the spark of green when the beam made contact.

The other beam hit Taboo instead, passing through his left shoulder, and he stumbled with a gasp of pain.

"Boota?" Simon turned his head, but Taboo only grunted, "Keep going!" and continued running and shooting as best he could, left arm hanging limply by his side.

Soon they met up with another group of crew members who were still alive, valiantly fighting back. At the same time, the Messengers' attacks increased in intensity, and they were all forced to huddle in close circles back-to-back to prevent being snuck up on from behind.

As she reloaded her rifle, Yoko glanced around the corner of a wall and saw the door of the computer room nearby. They were now in the very corridor she'd planned to assassinate Simon from.

"What's the situation in there?" Simon asked one of the crew members.

"We don't know! We haven't managed to get any closer than this!"

From just seeing the closed door, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. But who knew what was going on in there?

Yoko looked at Simon and saw him getting ready to dash forward again. No doubt there would be more Messengers inside, just waiting for him to come barging in, but from the look on his face, he clearly didn't care.

"You're going in?" she asked.

He nodded.

"We'll be right behind you." She called to the others. "Gimmy, Kittan! Back me up, we're going in! Taboo, you take over things here!"

"But I-" Taboo began.

"You're injured, you'll just slow us down!" There was no time to argue any further. Yoko took aim at the Messengers standing in front of the computer room door and began firing.

As soon as the way was clear, Simon went running. Yoko and Gimmy followed, with Kittan at their backs again. They got there seconds after Simon did, his hand already on the door panel.

The door to the main computer room slid open, but instead of the usual dim interior, they were met with a blinding light show.

Beams flew around the room in a full spectrum of colors. At least three dozen Anti-Spiral Messengers crowded the place. Most of the computers were completely destroyed; the only thing left of them now were smoking piles of rubble. The fight in the halls had been chaotic enough, but this was complete mayhem. The computer room had been turned into a battlefield.

In the middle of the room, they could just barely see Nia, teleporting from place to place around the Lord Genome Head faster than a blink, both hands outstretched, straining to meet each of the Messengers' beams with her own. She was clearly overwhelmed.

Without another moment to lose, Simon strode into the room, walking straight through the maelstrom of beams. They bounced off the invisible barrier around him, but he hardly seemed to notice, focused only on getting to Nia.

By now, the remaining crew members led by Taboo had taken over the defense of the halls. Kittan turned around, took one look at the computer room, and deftly expressed all their thoughts. "Oh...shit."

Yoko gripped her rifle and took a deep breath. This battle was far from over.


Nia got to her father not a moment too soon. She appeared in the computer room at the same time they did, and the battle started immediately. It took every bit of her concentration to deflect the attacks, reading and anticipating all of her fellow Messengers' movements at once, not only within the scope of her vision, but from all sides. It pushed the limit of her ability as a single Messenger to the brink, but she could not fail. Not even for a second.

Minutes passed unbearably, unendingly. Occasionally her father would speak to her, but she could not spare the concentration to speak back.

"It is impossible for you to continue protecting me on your own for much longer," he droned from behind her.

I know, she wanted to say. But what choice did she have? Nia closed her eyes, and for the first time in weeks, let the programs take back control. No human mind could handle this. She had to become a machine.

"It is a useless endeavor to persist in this fashion. The logical conclusion is to leave this place while you are still able."

He was telling her to save herself. To leave him to be destroyed. And she could not pause to process this, to appreciate the full meaning of it, to understand why it made her heart hurt as it did, because the strain was starting to break her now, and she...she couldn't go on...but she had to...and Simon would come...this time, she was sure...any minute now, he would come and she just...had to...hold...on...

Then she sensed something strange. There was something interfering with the beams being shot from the front, as if they were being reflected off of something. She felt a gentle warmth envelop her, and the strain on her mind lessened.

She opened her eyes, and saw that she and the glass tank were now surrounded by a green light. And there Simon stood beside her, and she couldn't recall a time she felt more glad to see him.

At once, the programs were shoved away again, and she was no one but herself, clutching at him as if he tethered her to life itself.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," he whispered, wrapping his arms around her.

But the moment was brief. Her father's voice snapped them back to the present.

"Hm. A Spiral Power energy shield," he observed. "It would appear you have evolved even further since you were last attacked in this room."

"Save the explanations!" Simon said, bringing his arm around Nia's shoulders as they both turned to face the battle. "Don't worry, I'll handle the defense," he told her.

Nia nodded, but then hesitated. That meant she was the offense. Mind finally clear, she looked out at the room full of Messengers and realized where this battle was heading. They would have to attack her fellow Messengers.

This thought was affirmed by the sound of a gunshot, and a pained scream as one of the Messengers near the edge of the room was caught in a Spiral barrier and destroyed within. The scream echoed in her mind as it registered the loss, like that of a distant limb being cut off.

"NO!" Nia cried, and impulsively leapt forward as more shots rang out across the room.

"Nia!" Simon grabbed her before she could leave his barrier, shielding her in his arms. "What are you doing?"

Another gunshot, another Messenger caught in a barrier, bursting into blocks and exploding piece by piece, its scream a final cry of humanity breaking through its programming.

Nia clutched her head. She felt sick.

It was worse than when she saw Manuku die. Perhaps it was because they were so close by, but when these Messengers were destroyed, fragments of their memories flew through her head, like she was seeing someone else's life flash before her eyes. A Messenger in his youth, laughing with friends. Another, giving birth to her first child. Another, seeing a parent pass away.

"Stop...stop..." Nia groaned, but it did not stop.

Soon back-up arrived, crew members with more weapons. They all kept their backs to the walls, circling around the room and herding the Messengers towards the center. She heard Kittan whoop, "All right, guys! Let's exterminate these pests!"

No, they weren't pests. They were all people once. Just like her.

"I'm sorry," Simon said in her ear. "We can't let them cause any more damage."

"I know." She gripped his arm around her waist. "I know, but..."

She knew. This was how battles were. Both sides had to keep killing each other, until one side either retreated, surrendered or was wiped out. She knew. That even if they weren't killed here, the Messengers would all die once the Anti-Spirals were defeated. But still, she wanted to try...

She looked up at him. "Please, Simon. I want to give them a chance."

Simon sighed. He wasn't happy about it, there was no doubt about that. But still, he nodded. "I'll be here if you need me." He let her go.

Nia smiled gratefully. She stepped out of his energy shield and began walking toward the Messengers among the chorus of beams and gunshots.

"Hey Simon, get her out of there!" Kittan yelled. "She's gettin' in the way!"

But Simon said nothing, standing resolutely by her father's tank. Nia could feel his gaze on her back. It gave her strength.

When she neared the middle of the room, she raised her arms and shouted. "STOP!" She didn't expect them to at once, but surprisingly, the Messengers listened. They paused in their attacks, watching her.

But the humans took this as an opportunity to pick off the Messengers and continued shooting. Nia turned to them with a cold glare. Something about her expression must have spoke to them, because gulping, they too soon halted their attacks.

The room fell silent and gloomy once more. Only the glowing red outlines of the Messengers and the green glow from Simon and the Lord Genome Head illuminated the darkness.

"What's the deal...?" she heard someone say, but she did not answer. Nia turned to the Messengers and took a deep breath.

"My fellow Messengers," she said to them. "I implore you, stop this attack at once! Don't you see you're fighting someone else's war? Nothing good can come of this. Only innocents will lose their lives in this battle, both you and the people you are fighting."

Someone shouted in the background. "Yeah, get out of here!"

But Nia shook her head. "No, I don't wish you to leave. I wish you to listen. And," she extended her hand to them. "I wish you to join me."

One of the humans grumbled, "Oh, you've got to be kidding me," but it was quickly followed by a "Shhh!" from what sounded like Yoko. Nia smiled.

"You know me as the Irregular, the Messenger who turned her back on the Anti-Spirals. But I know myself as the Messenger who chose life over death, love over servitude. If you stay as you are, you will have no future. You know this. And I know this isn't what you really want. You don't want to be enslaved, you don't want to be forced to terrorize your own people. You don't want to be killed for a cause you yourself don't believe in."

None of them spoke. They merely stared at her silently.

"You all had lives once. Think back to your past selves. Look deep into your memories. I'm sure you all had someone you cared for. Someone who cared for you. Wouldn't you like to see them again? Speak with them, laugh with them, feel their warmth again?"

She looked among the Messengers, and found a young face in the crowd. It was a child, much shorter than the others, with soft budding horns in a head of bushy brown hair. He had only recently been turned. Maybe she could reach him.

Nia approached him, cupped his face in her hands. The child stared up at her, face blank. Nia searched the fringes of her mind for that same face, digging up faint memories. Then she looked down upon him, smiling gently.

"See? I was right. You do have a family. A mother, a father, a sister and brother. They must be worried sick for you now. Do you remember that day by the river? It's one of your brightest memories. You caught a large fish, and your parents were so proud. Your brother was jealous, but you gave him your dessert, and he forgave you in the end."

The child's eyes widened, just slightly. But that was enough. She was reaching him.

"I'm sure he will forgive you, even now. And so will everyone else. They'll welcome you back with open arms, I'm sure, because they're your family. Because they love you."

The child's eyes watered, just slightly. Not enough for tears, but that was enough.

"I know, you love them too. Deep down, you miss them terribly. You want to go back. And you can. Please, come with me. I'm sure there's a way for you to be saved. For all of us to be saved."

The child opened his mouth, just slightly. He looked like he was about to say something. Nia nodded encouragingly. A word began to form on his lips.

And then he began to disappear.

Nia stared, shocked, as his body gradually dissolved into fragments of light. She knew what this was. He was being erased.

"No...wait..." She quickly tried to gather the fragments in her arms, but it was futile. He faded away. Within seconds, he had ceased to exist.

Then, the other Messengers spoke. "Foolish Irregular. Did you think we would repeat the same mistake?" They spoke as one voice, the voice of the Anti-Spirals. "We said we would take your treachery into account. We have no need for a Messenger who cannot follow orders. The instant we sense that one is becoming irregular, we will erase it, without hesitation. There is no escape. For them, there is only death or servitude."

Nia couldn't speak. She couldn't get the image of that young face out of her mind. It was her fault. She had caused the child to awaken. And now he was gone. Because of her.

"Yes," the Messengers said, and this time they were speaking for themselves. "We are not special. We are only tools. There will always be others to replace us."

"No..." Nia fell to her knees.

"Yes. Don't you remember, Sister? The valley with all your siblings? Cast aside, unneeded, forgotten. Trapped in their cold little coffins, unable to escape. They could not be saved. We can not be saved. Sister, Sister, you cannot save us."

They continued echoing the word. "Sister. Sister. Sister." Over and over again. Nia couldn't stand it, put her hands over her ears, but couldn't block it out. The word blended with the memories from the child, from Manuku, from all the other dead Messengers. She couldn't stand it.

Behind her, Simon was shouting, "Nia, snap out of it! NIA!" but the voices drowned him out, chanting and chanting, the world becoming a blur...

Then, the sound of Yoko's rifle rang out. The Messengers suddenly fell silent.

Nia blinked. Slowly, she lowered her hands from her ears and looked back. In the rear of the room, a Messenger stood with its hand in the air, the remnants of a deflected beam disintegrating before it. It took a second for Nia to realize that the beam had been aimed at Simon, whose shield had weakened.

"Simon, would you please pay attention?" Yoko snapped.

And then Nia understood. She had been distracting him.

The Anti-Spirals foresaw everything. That she would be here to protect her father. That Simon would come join her. And that she would try to save the other Messengers...

That had been their plan all along. Nia recognized the strategy now. She'd used them so many times herself. Allowing the enemy to think they've won, let them feel hope, only to snatch it away at the last second, plunging them into despair. They did this knowing that Simon would worry for her, and as soon as his guard was down and everyone's attention was drawn, they would take out both him and her father in one fell swoop.

Looking back, the set-up was so obvious, but crafted in a way that they could not help falling for it. And it would have worked, if it weren't for Yoko's interference.

With the plan foiled, the Messengers resumed attacking, turning their beams on Simon and firing at once. But Simon grit his teeth and strengthened his shield. The humans soon retaliated, shooting at the Messengers again.

Once more, Nia was caught in the middle of a battlefield.

"Nia!" She heard Simon call and looked at him. He held his hand out to her. He wanted her to return to safety.

She stared at him blankly for a second. He, too, could have just died because of her. Because she had fallen into their trap.

She looked around in a daze. Along a far wall, she recognized one of the young crew members she had gotten to know in the past few days, a second before he got hit by a beam in the face. Smoking, his body slid to the floor. He never even had a chance to cry out.

Another flash of memories streamed through her head as a Messenger on the other side of the room was destroyed. Among them, a memory from only a few minutes ago, where deep inside, despite knowing it was all a trap, the Messenger couldn't help but feel a spark of hope at Nia's words...

Something snapped within her then. Enough. She had had enough.

Nia got back to her feet. A beam came from her right. Without even looking, she deflected it with a beam from her right hand.

She was done being manipulated. No more.

A bullet came flying from her left. She destroyed it with another beam.

Maybe she couldn't save them, but there still had to be something she could do...

Nia looked to see where the nearest Messenger was, a few steps away.

After so much time preparing, calling back all the Messengers from their missions, analyzing her insecurities, the Anti-Spirals still had a gaping hole in their plan. They could not take into account something they could not foresee, either because they were too blind to see it, or because their opponent could not plan it themselves.

Nia had no plan. And for the moment, maybe that was for the best.

She turned to the Messenger. "If I am to be the only Anti-Spiral Messenger to survive, then so be it. But you will not be forgotten. Your feelings, your lives, your sacrifice...even if you are forgotten by time, I will never forget you!"

Then, an idea sparked. Not sure if it was possible, she moved anyway, teleporting up to the Messenger and putting her palm to its face.

"So please...come with me. Let's move toward tomorrow, together." She closed her eyes.

"What are you..." the Messenger began, then gasped.

Even after all the times the Anti-Spirals had analyzed her, reaching into her mind to extract her memories, Nia had never considered whether she was capable of doing the same. But now, she knew. Now that she was breaking into the very hive mind that she had been cut off from.

Somewhere in the din of battle, Nia heard her father's voice drone. "Hacking activated. Proceeding to infiltrate..." Soon after, every Messenger in the room began to groan.

Nia strengthened her concentration, pushing past the first Messenger's mind and reaching for the others. They were all connected. If she followed the hive mind, she should be able to find all of them, even the ones who weren't in the room.

The Anti-Spirals immediately pushed back. Nia grit her teeth, trying to keep from being forced out again.

A billion minds against her own. The last time Nia tried to fight this battle, it was her complete loss.

But this time, she wasn't alone. When she was pushed into a corner, Nia found that a hole opened up for her to escape from. And as she made her way through the hive mind, again and again, she came across firewalls that had already been broken. Her father was in there with her, clearing paths.

One by one, Nia found the other Messengers, and one by one, she transfered their data into her own mind.

"Not...possible..." the Messengers groaned.

But it was working. She took in their thoughts, their memories. Not just bits and pieces. She downloaded entire personalities.

"Simon will save me. I will live on, and so all of you will live on inside of me. I will carry you, all of you...my brothers and sisters."

As she went on, Nia found it increasingly difficult to elude the Anti-Spirals. The amount of data she was accumulating slowed her down. But she couldn't stop, not until she had everyone.

"Don't worry, you will all be able to meet your loved ones again. I know it isn't much, but I will take you to them. Even if it takes my whole life, I promise, you will all have your due time."

One more Messenger left. With the Anti-Spirals right at her heels, Nia hurried to it, and found it waiting for her with open arms. Nia ran into its embrace, quickly taking it into herself. "It's okay," she assured it, "I won't leave you behind."

A second later, she was expelled from the hive mind. The force of it thrust her from her own consciousness, and suddenly, everything was chaos.

She was drowning in a sea of souls. The other Messengers, like a mass of writhing bodies, surrounded her. In their confusion, everyone fought to reach the top, to achieve dominance.

Above, she saw, as if through someone else's eyes, her body collapse to the floor. She heard, as if through someone else's ears, people calling her name. But she could not call back.

Weak from her endeavors, Nia found herself sinking down, down...

Then a green light, outstretched like a hand, plunged into the depths of her mind. It reached blindly for something, and she heard a familiar voice cry, Nia! NIA!

Using the last of her strength, she struggled upwards, pushing past the masses until she could just barely grasp his hand.

In a rush, she was pulled back up, and Nia awoke, gasping.

"Nia! Come on, talk to me!"

She stared blearily up into Simon's face. He was kneeling on the floor with her in his arms. He looked pale.

"Simon...it's okay, I'm here."

He let out a sigh of relief. "God...don't scare me like that."

Nia touched her lips. They felt warm. She realized that his mouth had just been on hers, but not as a kiss.

"What...did you do...?"

He blinked. "I don't know. I just...thought that might help."

"Are you all right?" Yoko's voice.

Nia looked up to see that all the humans were gathered around them, peering down at her worriedly.

"Are the Messengers all gone?"

Yoko nodded. "It...looked like you absorbed them all."

"Yes...they're all inside me now." Nia put her hand to her chest.

"And you'll be able to keep them in line?" Gimmy asked nervously.

"They are no longer under the Anti-Spirals' control. They won't mean any harm. We were all a little shocked at first...none of us are used to sharing a body like this...but they are calming down now."

Simon shook his head. "That was a reckless thing to do," he said. But rather than looking upset, he had on a proud, loving smile.

Nia smiled back at him. But she could feel the exhaustion creeping up on her now. Whatever she needed to say, she had to say it quickly.

"Yoko...thank you for protecting Simon."

Yoko blinked in surprise. "Huh? I-I was just...I mean..." She looked away, flustered. "It's no problem..."

Next, though she couldn't see him, Nia spoke to him anyway. "Thank you, Father." He had moved on his own, without being ordered, just to help her. Perhaps that was his way of atoning. Either way, it made her happier than she could express.

Then she spoke to the Messengers. "I'm sorry...I've confined you in such a small space...I wish I could have given you more freedom..."

But the Messengers disagreed. In her mind, they clamored their thanks. This was more than they could have hoped for. They could think for themselves now. They didn't have to kill anymore. And they had a future they could believe in.

"Yes...don't worry, I'll keep my promise...I'll take you all, someday...to meet them..."

Her eyelids felt heavy, as if they had the weight of a hundred souls on them. She turned to Simon again. "I'm sorry...I'm feeling...so tired..."

"It's okay, you can rest," Simon said gently. "We'll take care of everything."

Nia gave a little nod, then closed her eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.


Afterwards, they allowed Simon to take Nia up to his room. Simon didn't return for the rest of the night, but since the two of them had already done so much, no one minded their absence.

Then, once the injured had been sent up to the medical bay, the crew got to the task of collecting all the dead. It had been a while since they'd had so many casualties. It was a large blow to their already dwindling numbers.

By the end of the day, they were all exhausted. In her room, Yoko collapsed on her bed, ready for sleep to take her.

But sleep wouldn't come.

For some reason, after everything that had happened that night, the one thing she kept seeing in her mind was Simon's face. That kind, warm, adoring smile...completely unguarded and genuine. So he was still capable of smiling like that...

Was she jealous that he had never looked at her that way? Maybe. But in a way, everything made sense now. Their relationship never really was like that, was it? He was never protective of her the way he was with Nia. He had never held her like that, like he truly cherished her...

In the end, maybe she was always just his comrade, the one he trusted with his back. Nia was the one he trusted with his heart.

Yoko rolled over in bed, tired of staring at the ceiling.

But then...maybe he had been protective of her, just in a different way. After all, he kept what he knew about her and Kamina a secret for so long... He was trying to protect her feelings, not realizing that his silence only drove them apart.

And looking back, she could spot a hundred mistakes she'd made in her own inexperience and vulnerability. She thought that she had let all her feelings out, but in a way, she kept herself at as much of a distance as he did. She couldn't let herself become completely undone. Not for him, not for anybody. Not again.

Maybe, when it all came down to it, they were both just afraid of being hurt.

Yoko sighed. She would never get to sleep at this rate. Maybe she should just...no, that was stupid. He wouldn't want to talk to her.

But no matter how many times she thought she'd tried for the last time, she found herself trying again. Minutes later, Yoko stood in front of Simon's room. She hesitantly raised her hand to knock.

"Simon, it's me. ...Can we talk?"

He was probably asleep anyway. Even if he wasn't, he'd probably turn her away.

After a minute of silence, Yoko turned to leave, but then she heard his voice come from within.

"Come in."

Yoko paused. He wanted her to go in? But...wasn't Nia in there too...?

She touched the door panel, and when it slid open, she saw why he couldn't get up.

Simon sat at the head of the bed, Nia fast asleep beside him. She had her head in his lap, with one hand wrapped securely around his knee.

He shrugged sheepishly. "My legs fell asleep hours ago."

Yoko gave an exasperated sigh. "That's not healthy."

"She looks too comfortable."

"And what exactly were you planning to do if we were attacked again?"

"I guess I'd just have to drag myself to the bridge."

"Idiot."

She came in. The door closed behind her, plunging them into darkness. Uneasily, she sat on the edge of the bed. Come to think of it, the last time she was in this room, they were...

Well. This was awkward.

She cleared her throat. But now that she was here, she wasn't sure how to start.

When she didn't say anything for a while, Simon began instead, speaking quietly.

"Nia told me that you came to apologize this morning."

"Oh...yeah. I did."

"I appreciate it," he said, and as if to avoid looking at her, turned his attention to Nia instead. He stroked her hair softly.

"...You really love her, don't you?"

"Yeah. I do." He said it without any doubt or hesitation.

Yoko's heart hurt a little, but she smiled. "Well, I have to admit you two make a good match. You're both crazy."

He laughed a little.

Yoko examined him for a moment, in wonder at how mellow he was right now. Of course, he was trying to be quiet to avoid waking Nia, but...there was something else too. He seemed pensive, subdued.

"Seems nice. Being so sure and all."

"It's not like we had it easy."

"Right. After yesterday, I think I know a little more about that than I'd like."

He snorted.

She almost felt afraid to disrupt this atmosphere now. But who knew when he would be this receptive again?

"Still, that's one thing we never had..."

Silence. The shift in mood was painful, but Simon seemed to have been expecting this. He looked up at her, waiting for her to go on.

Yoko took a deep breath. "I really mean it when I say I never meant to use you. I really was worried; I really was scared to lose you. But now I see that it just...couldn't have worked. Because what happened back then, with the Earth...it brought everything back, you know? About Kamina..."

She hesitated. Maybe she shouldn't have brought him up.

But Simon was still looking at her expectantly, so she continued.

"Honestly, I didn't want to drag him into our relationship, but I..." She gulped. "...I just can't let him go. Especially around you."

And there was the crux of it. That man was so much a part of themselves and their connection to each other, he was impossible to ignore.

"It's stupid, I know. I only knew him for a few months. We only kissed twice. But here I am, after all this time, still thinking of him. And sometimes I can't help but realize just how really, really stupid that is..."

She paused, for a moment remembering his daring grin, flaming back, and straightforward passion that guided them farther than they thought possible.

"But then other times, I'd think of him again, and I'd realize..."

"It's not," Simon said suddenly, seriously. "I don't blame you. It's Bro, after all. I...feel the same way." He had a complicated expression on his face, one of regret and sympathy and longing and years of measuring himself against someone else.

"Simon..."

He shook his head. "Besides, I get it now. I've only known Nia for that long too."

And somehow, that was all that really needed to be said.

Yoko looked at Nia, a smile tugging on her lips. "It's only been that long, huh...?" So much had happened since she entered their lives, it was a little hard to believe.

Simon nodded, then fell silent again, stroking Nia's hair thoughtfully.

The relaxed atmosphere returned. Tender, quiet, comfortable.

Yoko sat back a little, overcome with an immense feeling of relief.

This. This was what she'd wanted all along. Why things had to get so complicated before they got to this point, she would never know. But they finally made it.

Some minutes passed, and Yoko got up. "Well, I guess I should leave you two alone now."

"Wait," Simon said. "Yoko...could you do me a favor?"

She glanced back at him. "Depends on what it is."

Simon faltered for a second, but then nodded to himself, making up his mind. "Could you look out for her, when I'm not able to?"

This gave her pause. "...What do you mean?"

"Right now, I'm the only one on her side. Me, the most wanted man in the universe." He looked down at Nia with an ironic smile. "For the future she wants...she really could use another friend. That's all."

"...Why are you asking me?"

This time he turned his gaze to her, seeking for assurance. "Because I need someone I can count on." She could sense that this was important to him, as if some momentous decision lay behind it.

Yoko took a shaky breath, overwhelmed by the amount of trust he was suddenly putting in her. "Okay. I promise."

He let out a sigh. "Thanks."

She turned to leave, unsure if she should be touched or concerned. The door opened, and she was about to step out of the room, when Simon spoke to her again.

"By the way, I think Kittan's been crushing on you for a while."

She froze outside the door. "I've noticed," she said back, curtly.

"All right. Just saying. You tend to be oblivious to that sort of thing."

And with that final exchange, the door closed behind her.