Eight Years Later…

White powder floated along the air like snowflakes, rising and falling among the translucent flowers that carpeted the hillside. The edges of the flowers crinkled light brown in the moonlight, nearing the end of their brief performance. In the middle of the Sleeping Nightshade a prone figure lay, not fallen by the pollen but there by choice.

Samus lay on her back, watching the deadly powder float through the air, shielded by her armored suit. A single grain of pollen, should it enter her lungs, would have paralyzed and asphyxiated her. But Chozo armor could withstand volcanic magma and the vacuum of space, much less air that needed a little filtering. She lay with her head resting on her right arm, the lower half obscured by a cannon-like weapon. It twitched slightly when she heard the before-dawn calls of the leapers, but she had long since lost any fear of the creatures that had killed her benefactor.

As the Greater Sun rose, so did Samus. She shouldered the bag of Night-Blooming Radish she had gathered, the tasty dish now out of reach of the rest of the Chozo. The past two years had been marred by famine, and she'd overheard Old Bird saying that the planet was dying along with those who had tended to it. She tried not to dwell on this.

Samus made her way slowly back to the Chozo settlement, giving a huge bearlike creature a wide berth. Her warrior training had taught her how to strike it down with one shot; her Chozo guardians had trained her not to fire unless necessary.

Just outside the gate, she pressed a button on the arm cannon; a wave of energy washed over her, vaporizing the pollen and any other unwanted elements that might have clung to her suit. Once clean, she stepped inside and made her way toward Minah's home. She pulled off the helmet but left the rest of the armor. For some reason she felt naked without it.

Minah let out a small cry of delight when she saw the radishes. "Oh, these will last us through the rest of the week at least! Were they hard to find?"

It had taken Samus all night to fill the bag, but she shook her head no.

"That's good to hear. Thank you, Samus. Now, Old Bird stopped by looking for you, so you'd better go find him. He said to meet him at Ligon's place."

Samus nodded and bid Minah good-bye. She knocked at Ligon's door and Old Bird opened it. "Good heavens, Samus, where were you? You were out of bed all night."

"Got radishes for Minah." She offered no further excuses or information. "Did you want something?"

He nodded vigorously. "Come in, come in. We have a surprise for you."

As the village's mechanic, Ligon had a workshop connected to his home. Most of the workshop looked like a computer graveyard, with wires and metal chassis scattered over the floor and piled in corners. It was Ligon who had flown the ship that brought curious Chozo to K2-L, and Ligon who had fixed the hand-computer Samus used in her studies.

The ship, nebulous in Samus's memory, stood in the middle of the workshop with Ligon at the back, adjusting the exhaust pipes. As soon as he heard the ring of her armor on the floor he raised his head with a smile. "Ah, Samus! Take a good look; it's my gift to you. It'll be finished in a few days, and I'll teach you how to fly it."

"Fly it?" She eyed it with ambivalence, both interested and a little afraid of the reasoning behind this gift.

"Yes, indeed." Ligon rapped on the armored surface with his knuckles. "The last of some of the best Chozo flight technology ever made. Thing practically flies itself…though I wouldn't attempt to let it," he added with a chuckle.

"It'll take you to Federation Headquarters much quicker than one of their ships." Old Bird held up the broken hand-computer. "You've been accepted into the Academy. You start next year."

"Next year? " Samus said nothing for a long while. "I understand." She turned and left the workshop.

Ligon turned to Old Bird. "Is she all right? I thought she would be excited."

Old Bird sighed. "She's been so quiet since Bamy died. I've tried speaking with her…I think she wants to, but can't find the words. I wish I knew how to help her more. So many things left unsaid…"

She couldn't be angry at Old Bird.

Samus knew he was doing what he had to do, what all the Chozo had to do; concentrate their efforts into their last great hope, before departing this world. Feeling like a child about to be thrown from a burning building, she wondered how far she would fall and if anyone would catch her.

And if anything would remain of the second place she had dared to call home.

Flowers still bloomed, creatures still called to each other, the Suns still rose and set; yet Samus herself could feel Zebes beginning to decay. It felt as if something had gone rotten on the inside, and the rot was slowly seeping up to the surface. The place that had become her grounding shelter, her rock in a storm, was now falling apart. And there was nothing she or the Chozo could do about it.

The waning life of her home made her even more curious about what lay in its unexplored corners. For years she had roamed the surface in her suit, both under Old Bird's direction and as a result of her own unanswered questions. There were still secrets to be discovered, things that the village had forgotten and that the planet would devour over time, hiding those secrets forever.

Walking quickly, Samus easily covered several miles of ground, finally coming to an outcrop of rock that punched up from the surface as if thrust there by some volcano eons ago. Some months back, she had blasted a hole in the rock with one of her bombs. She had not expected to see anything more than a dent, but to her surprise, that blast opened up the mouth of a cave. It was barely big enough for her to squeeze through in ball form, but the movement of air in the small area she had entered told her that it must reach far into the rock.

The Morph Ball came easily to her now, but when Old Bird had first trained her, it had been a stark reminder of the fact that she was not completely human. She did not know just what it was that the Long Sleep had done to her body, but she knew that any other human being would have been crushed to a pulp.

At the mouth of the cave, she rolled into a ball and entered the opening, going further and further into the absolute blackness until she sensed she could stand upright. Her human eyes could not see in the dark, but the suit's visor displayed the rocky walls in front of her. She had popped out of a small channel, and now stood on top of a cracked tile floor.

Obviously, some sentient being had to have been there before her to put them there. Samus had learned about Chozo temples built by the first to colonize this planet, so long ago that the villagers had no idea where or even if they existed. She felt a thrill of anticipation as she began following the tile down into the depths of the cavern.

Her entire body tingled as she came to a pair of statues, worn and cracked but still identifiable as Chozo. She peered at the writing over the entrance between the statues, but the carving was too worn to be legible. A pair of the little spiky creatures that inhabited caves - Old Bird had called them "zoomers" - walked in lazy circles around the lettering.

Samus walked in further, her eyes lingering on the columns carved out of the virgin rock. Spouts that opened into carved birds' beaks hung on some of the walls; Samus deduced that water had at one time flowed out of them and into channels on the floor. Here and there she could see overgrown, subterranean organisms that looked like plants but were actually animals, not native to Zebes and adapted to life without light. Each had been placed there by the former inhabitants to serve as decoration.

Some of the columns had collapsed, giant wedges of stone resting far below their original home in the ceiling. Given the infrequent earthquake activity on Zebes, Samus deduced that the expanding honeycomb of passages had been here for ages.

Time held no meaning in these dark caverns, and Samus quickly lost track. She walked deeper and deeper into the Chozo ruins, taking note of the precious stones embedded in the walls. The stones themselves held little value to her; she lingered longer on the designs they created. In one particularly large room, Samus recognized the summer night sky winking down at her from the ceiling, stars made of diamond.

Samus noticed that some larger stones were missing from a far wall. As she examined it closer, she noticed marks consistent with a prying tool. A flash of anger ran through her, multiplied when she realized that the marks were fresh.

What sentient being, human or otherwise, knew about these caverns other than herself and the Chozo? Surely the Chozo would not plunder their own shrines. Strangely enough, after looking at the pattern around the gaps, she realized that one of each type of stone had been taken. Had the place been visited by some interstellar explorer, taking back tokens for study or sale?

A sharp, grating sound, halfway between a growl and a screech, jolted Samus out of her thoughts. She remembered that sound. She could never forget it. It had long been etched into her memory. Her breath quickened and she charged her cannon.

The sound echoed through the hall again, no louder or softer than before. Samus slowly backed out of the room, her weapon pointing toward the source of the noise. Not yet tested against this enemy, she felt it unwise to do so here, so far away from her trainers and benefactors.

Suddenly something dropped down from the ceiling right in front of her face, and with a shout Samus unleashed her blast charge. Her assailant shrieked in agony but swiped at her, blunting its claws on her armor. She unloaded charge after charge until its corpse lay at her feet, then turned and ran as the cries and growls of others followed her.

Space Pirates! What were they doing in a Chozo shrine? What were they doing on Zebes at all? Samus sprinted through the halls, stumbling as a laser blast to her shoulder threw her off balance. She whirled round and delivered a few return shots, but only a few found their mark. A least seven Space Pirates ran just behind her, their cries ringing in her ears.

In a moment of panic, Samus realized she had chosen the wrong hallway. She turned around to face her pursuers, weapon arm raised. She took a shot to the leg but waited until all seven were in the room, then ducked into her Morph Ball and raced past them, rolling in between their clawed feet. They yelped in surprise and confusion for a few precious moments, then resumed their chase as she stood and darted down the correct hall.

This small but successful maneuver to outwit them gave her a little courage, and as she sprinted through the hallways she shifted her mind ahead of just survival. They must not follow her to the Chozo village. Despite the distance from the caves, she knew Space Pirates were excellent trackers. All of them had to die. But how could she stand still long enough to aim a proper shot?

Samus's eye fell upon the jagged slabs of fallen rock. She shifted direction slightly, running toward it, charging her cannon but keeping it carefully downward. At the last moment she raised her arm above her head and fired. She heard the crack of splintering rock, felt a stone the size of a fist strike her armored head, and then a cloud of dust enveloped her as the ceiling fell upon the back three of the Pirates.

She could barely see, and from the sound of it, the Pirates had been blinded as well. Samus rolled into ball form again and struck the walls at right angles, moving forward in a jagged line instead of groping her way through the passage.

Smacking into a bend in the wall, Samus stood and leaped onto slabs of stone that at one time had probably held statuary, but was now just a niche in the rock. It served her purpose well enough. Now that she had the high ground, she fired shot after shot into the cloudy debris, the yelps of the Pirates driving her on.

Suddenly a laser blast burst out of the dust cloud and hit her helmet with a force that knocked her off her feet. She fell to the ground and immediately felt a heavy weight press against her chest. One of them stood with one foot on her armor, its laser weapon shoved right in her face. More out of instinct than anything she batted the weapon aside with one hand and it fired into the rock next to her head. This left the creature slightly off balance and she rolled over, throwing it off her chest. Two others attempted to hold her down but she curled into ball form again and sped off.

She rolled through the remainder of the halls until she reached the small opening where she had entered the caves. Here she stood and planted herself firmly in the middle of the passage, charging her cannon. When the first one rounded the bend, she gave it the full force of the blast. It fell backward and the other two tore at it in their eagerness to get at her. She fired again and again, feeling them strike back with every blast.

Finally, it was over. Three corpses lay at her feet. She leaned hard against one wall, dimly registering the fact that she had a slight concussion. A series of alarms rang in her ears, warning of damager to her suit. Quickly she rolled through the small passage to the outside, nearly falling over when she stood once more.

Were there more of those things? Samus knew she could not stay here. On unsteady legs she limped back toward the settlement, dreading the long walk ahead. Her head swam and she felt herself falling more than once. She had no idea how far she had gone when she finally collapsed on the ground, unconscious.