The night sky can make you remember so many things, thought the lone figure on the tall tower. A thin smile crossed his face as a new sardonic thought entered his mind. Even if your night sky is made up of two artificial moons, a glass dome, and a spaceship on the go.

Still, Orakio contemplated, it reminds me of all that's happened in the last eight years that have led to this damnable situation

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***   

"What?! There is no way in hell that could happen!!"

"My own reaction exactly when I learned of it," his father replied wryly. "The fact remains that Gaira is losing orbit and will crash into Palm in a half-year, with enough power to cause a never-ending winter!"

Distracted by visions of disaster, Orakio automatically responded, "Palma, you mean. Only Mother Brain and her flunkies refer to the planets like that."

The old man dressed in an expensive suit sitting across the desk raised a sardonic eyebrow at this. " It won't matter what it's called if it's an icy wasteland, now will it?"

A brief frown of consternation crossed Orakio's face before it vanished into his military mask. "Point taken. So, what do you want me to do about it?"

A small smile crossed the old man's face. "Well, son, you are a natural leader. You have a talent for inspiring people to absolute loyalty. You are Chief of Planetary Security, and you've helped dupe Mother Brain into believing the Sa Riik family her loyal capable puppets. You have more authority than I do at present, and what I need is for you to do is begin preparing to abandon Palm for a new home."

Scandalized, Orakio said, "But, Dad, Mother Brain has forbidden space travel for over a decade! The situation can't be that desperate yet!"

"You didn't complain about that when Tyler brought you home from training on Motavia seven years ago, now did you?"

"No, but that's-"

The eminent former Director of Algo Kirzan Sa Riik patiently looked at his son and stated, "Mother Brain is behind the recent Biomonster outbreak on Mota and the Gaira Satellite orbital decline. Did you know that the factory satellite Zelan and the communications satellite Kuran can both destroy Gaira with minimal effort before it crashes onto Palm?"

"I am aware of Commander Giren's suspicions." Orakio said, naming the military governor of Motavia. "He sent them disguised in the usual code words. And I am aware of Zelan and Kuran's abilities. But there is no proof of ---"

"Under the reign of Mother Brain, we have turned into weak and lethargic beings. You and I both know that only a few renegades, like Tyler, the Dezorians, and us, retain the power of thinking independently. Under the circumstances, we cannot help realizing that fact. Mother Brain has turned most of our people into mental infants, making them think she will always do everything for you. The Commander has also begun to realize it. Don't you think it odd that the Army hasn't stopped the outbreak?"

"Yes, I do. The situation should never have reached such a level," Orakio agreed, recalling his old Master's admonition about getting tied down in defensive actions, the way the Army was on Mota.

"As to the why of it, we both know Mother Brain has not been acting…sane of late."

"Can a machine go insane?" Orakio asked rhetorically.

"Quite. In this case, I think Mother Brain won't be so subtle if we requested her to divert the satellite. We both know that the satellites are easily ten kilometers wide and have engines to maintain their orbits, and the crash of such a thing going at full speed would throw up a massive dust cloud that-"

"I know, Dad. You already mentioned that and I know about impact clouds. Do I look four years old to you?"

"No. More like twenty-four years old."

"What sorts of ships are we going to be building? The older shuttle types?" Orakio asked, all business.

Kirzan laughed. "I found the plans for the world-ships in the Central Tower Archive. They were part of a file called 'Algolian Frontier'. Along with the files was mention of a planet one light-year from Algo. The planet was called Copto and colonized by Queen Alisa III herself, after she abdicated as Queen of Algo. They built one world-ship and took ten million Palmans with them back in AW 297. Anyway, I was thinking of building the ships, sending half the fleet to Dezo and Mota, and the rest to Copto."

Kirzan casually called up the plans and showed them to his son. Orakio glanced at them, then did a double take. He finally sputtered, "Those things are huge! How are we going to build enough ships to leave Palma and keep it a secret from Mother Brain?"

A smirk appeared on Kirzan. "Orakio, my boy, you may be a genius military tactician and inspirational leader, but your twin is a computer master. He did help design the Mother Brain back-up program, after all."

Orakio grimaced his annoyance. " Okay, I get the point. Rulakir can probably subvert Climatrol Tower and create an independent neural net. Let me see the plans and do a few calculations."

"Not a problem. I'll just go for a walk and give you some time alone."

Orakio watched with a calm expression as his father got up, stretched, and left the massive office. His head was a furious jumble of thoughts that mocked his cool facade. What can Dad be thinking? Just who the hell does he think he is? The Life Guardian endorsed by those nutty revivalists?! Even if I am Chief of Planetary Security, I don't know how to do this! Damn it, he knew my hands are tied. The Old Master's training makes sure I won't be putting this on anyone's shoulders but my own.

His anger dissolved and confidence renewed, Orakio sat down in Kirzan's desk, brought up the appropriate file, and began to work meticulously. After what seemed a few minutes, but was in reality most of the day, Orakio felt his father return to the office. He glanced up, nodded a hello, and fell back into work. Several more minutes of silence ensued as Orakio worked. When he finally looked up, he did not seem pleased. " Even if we started building right away, we'd have problems. I'd have to lead a coup against the Political Assembly to gather up the sufficient resources and maintain the sufficient secrecy."

"Then a coup it is.  Those fools would start a bloodbath just to make sure they alone survived. All the people's loyalties are on you anyway."

"Why do you say that?" Orakio asked, curious.

"The Republican Guard obeys only you. They have enforced the peace, solved crimes, and helped in disasters. Not only that, most of the people realize that you are what is keeping the Politicians from battling over the leadership of Algo. It also helps that you're the son of the only Director to challenge the Political Assembly successfully and on their behalf."

"I've only done what the Old Master trained me to do. Why would they fasten their loyalty to me?"

"You are a face the people recognize. More than once, they have seen you in a rage when people's lives were threatened. Do you remember the Gothic Mine incident?"

Orakio nodded, and felt his memory return to that event. The Gothic Mine had flooded, trapping twenty miners in the shaft. The then-Mayor of Gothic, Gantlet, had refused to send a rescue mission on the grounds that there was no proof the miners were alive. In a fury, Orakio had told him exactly what kind of coward he was, and led his small bodyguard into the mine. They emerged two days later, with all the miners and rescuers alive and in good health.

"People instinctively want to be lead by men of honor. You showed them exactly what kind of man you are, and what you would do to save lives. They follow you because of that."

"I see. Returning to the subject of the ships, to build them to specs, 65% of Palma will have to be stripped bare."

"What? Why?" Kirzan's startled reply temporarily amused Orakio.

"The history file says that Queen Alisa III's ship was being constructed before the beginning of her reign, back when her name was Alis Landale and Algo was being dominated by a tyrant. Seems that tyrant had a fascination with dominating everything he could see, and the ship was supposed to be his way of extending his control beyond Algo. They had the time to grow the environment on ship. We, obviously, do not."

"Rulakir's task will not be very simple at all. This will add to his troubles. I hope he can do it. Besides, there won't be much left when Gaira crashes. Keep going."

"What happens if the Coptoans don't want to share their world? Or if there isn't enough room? Or worse-case scenario, Copto is gone?"

Kirzan raised an eyebrow. "Self-sustaining world-ships. We can keep exploring until we find a suitable planet, even if it takes a thousand years. Continue."

"If we have to keep exploring for a planet, the ones who are going off will have to carry a substantial reserve of metal to build a planetary infrastructure. Also, if we are required to explore for too long, we will have to maintain and expand the worldships to accommodate a growing population." Orakio paused for any comments, then resumed. "Semi-core mining will have to be done to supply enough for those thousand years. Since-"

"Semi-core mining? You know that will weaken the planetary stability! It will leave holes behind in Palm's crust and mantle that will let-"

"Gaira, which is an artificial satellite with a massive energy-core reactor, cause an explosion, which will result pieces of Palma being hurled throughout Algo. Chances of impact with Motavia are 96% in favor," Orakio completed.

"How high would casualties be?" Kirzan asked, nonplussed.

"Calculations based on the present population indicate that over 1 billion Palmans and 4 million Motavians would die," Orakio stated coolly.

"How long would it take for impact to occur? And how long for recovery?"

"It would take two years for the fragments to collide. Recovery is dependent on the size of the fragment."

"Then we pray for the best. And what else?"

"I doubt I have to ask, but who is in charge of this…exodus?"

Kirzan nodded. "Why, you are, Mr. Chief of Palman Planetary Security. While the Head of the Science and Technology Council will help, you're the only one who can do it."

A sigh escaped Orakio. "Figures. Well, no time to waste. I have to brief the appropriate parties and begin the preparations. Even though you know I don't like bureaucracy slowing down necessity."

"Ginaz taught you both how to lead. I have every confidence you will make me proud." Kirzan responded affectionately.

"Time to go justify your confidence in me." Orakio said somberly.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"Hello? Rulakir? Anybody home?" Orakio called concernedly, waving his hand in front of his twin brother's face.  He had just shared the calamitous situation with his brother, and had been met with shell-shocked silence. Though Orakio's equal in height, he was put together differently. Blond when his twin was raven-haired, blue-eyed when Orakio had black diamonds, cleft-chinned, and gaunt cheeked, he resembled the men of their mother's family. But the flash-fire temper and blade skills marked them unmistakably as brothers. And it was that quality Orakio had expected to see, a fierce fury at being caught unprepared, fiery desire to change this future. Anything, but this deathly, disturbing silence.

"Don't worry about it. I have a sure-fire cure for this." Orakio watched as Deikon Sa Riik, his only cousin, calmly strode toward his neat, spartan desk, picked up the water pitcher, and poured it on Rulakir's head. Rulakir jumped out of his chair and whirled in indignation to glower at his cousin.

"What the hell was that for?!" he bellowed furiously. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Rulakir shouted, "Well?! Don't you have anything to say for yourself?!"

Deikon serenely regarded his blood kin. Though he was only twenty years old, he had phenomenal talent and was well known for his ability to be completely unfazed by almost any situation. As such, he had been given command of the Republican Guard Unit #17, an elite unit charged with protecting the Capitol Palace. "We don't need you to be in shock," he began coolly, revealing volumes about his mental age and abilities with each word. "We need you calm and in control of yourself. Now, Orakio asked you if you could subvert the neural net, and make sure Mother Brain never notices. Hell, even solve the problems with Mother Brain if you can. Can you do it, or do I have to take a shuttle and some nukes up to those satellites and blow them straight to kingdom come?"

"You know that fallout would kill all of Palm's plant life if you did that!" Rulakir glared at his cousin, then turned to face his brother, who was doing his best not to laugh. "How much of a team am I allowed to have for this?"

Orakio rolled his eyes, exasperated. His brainiac of a brother lacked common sense. "What do you think, genius?" he asked harshly. "A small, and I mean small team of your best neural surfers. Take only the ones you would trust with your life. The use of your highest-level access port to the net and your best equipment. And I don't mean the little toys you display for the public."

Rulakir sighed, trying to keep his temper under control. Remember those anger management lessons you've been taking. You've gotten pretty good at them. His brother knew everything about what happened on Palm, and quite possibly Mota as well. It was pointless to try and hide anything from him, but Rulakir had tried. He hadn't wanted to share his discovery of Teraspace-which, in theory, at least was an all-new type of cyberspace- and the new cyber-ports yet. "And just how the hell did you find out about that?" he demanded bluntly. Okay, I lied. I suck at anger management.

Orakio smiled mockingly at his twin. His eyes clearly said, That's for me to know, and you to find out. "Well, can you do it? Or do I have to follow Deikon's course of action?" he inquired.

Rulakir muttered something under his breath. "What was that? I didn't quite hear it." Orakio asked menacingly. Normally, he and his twin got along very well, but Orakio made sure everyone understood he was not nepotistic. And if it got under his brother's skin, then that was too bad.

"I said I think I can do it. When do we start?" Rulakir replied irritably.

"Good. We start right away. Deikon, take a few of your most trusted troopers and guard Rulakir's little expedition. No droids. We both know Mother Brain might override them at any moment. Rulakir, while you're in there, try to take out her droid control circuit for Palm."

"Yes, Orakio. I'll get on it right away." Rulakir said.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"Are they gone?"

"Yes, Orakio. You wanted to see me?"

Orakio turned around in his chair and met Shin's gaze. A tall, lanky man, Shin had red hair the color of sand newts, with green eyes to match. Orakio had met Shin years ago, back during his days at the Academy. Shin had been on the run from his former gang friends, and Orakio had saved him. Ever since, Shin had been Orakio's eyes and ears in Rulakir's scientific circles.

"Yes, I did. I want you to watch my brother's back. He gets himself distracted too easily, and that can be fatal."

Shin nodded acknowledgement. "Anything else, Orakio?"

"Yes. Watch your back and keep a hand on your gun," Orakio replied uneasily.

"Not a prob. See ya after I finish this job."

Shin reached over and slapped Orakio's hand, street style. Then he walked out of the office. He did not see Orakio's worried face. So soft that not even the best listening equipment could detect, Orakio whispered, "I hope you're right, old friend. For your sake, I hope you're right."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Camineet's Cyber Research Institute was massive facility devoted to the studies of circuitry and cyberspace. A quarter-mile long down the main corridor, it had seven floors, two basements, and six subbasements. The subbasements were rarely visited by people, and were mostly maintained by robots. These abandoned corridors and chambers had been mostly converted for storage. All except for SB-6. This one had been converted into Rulakir's secret control nexus.

The top-secret data room was a yard sale of consoles, monitors, slave decks, sensory boosts, psi-amps, and enhancers: a tangled nest of fiber optic lines, I/O wires, power leads, and interface cables, with Rulakir's team members positioned about like switches and relays. Some were sprawled on the floor, connecting wires, others were cross-legged atop tables and racks, fiddling with tuning knobs, keying input, fingering touchscreens, bringing the place online, since most of the time it was disconnected to conceal it from scans.

He glanced at Astarte, his erstwhile lover and bodyguard. They were the only two who had opted not to get the cyber-port surgery, which involved inserting a cranial port, microprocessor, and a direct cerebrum-to-circuit link. While it certainly increased speed and performance far beyond norm, it also made viral traps all the more lethal. Nicole, Strider, and Shin did not share their comrades' hesitation.

Rulakir called his best hackers to him as soon as the nexus was online. "This is going to be a Perfect Dark operation. We are to enter Mother Brain and attempt to cure her. If we fail that, we must insert the neural net rewrite and randomizer. Also, we must take out Mother Brain's robot control circuit for Palm. If you do not wish to take part in this operation, I will not begrudge you."

Silence met him. 'Perfect Dark' was a euphemism for clandestine, high risk, low survivability missions. Astarte's quiet voice answered for them all. "We're right behind you, boss. Just lead the way."

Rulakir nodded his head, and preceded to connect the direct links on his cyber-porters, then put on his VR helmet and control gloves. He was very pleased at the loyalty he inspired, and found it so easy to manipulate people to do what was best for them and him. He accessed his e-mail account to find that Orakio had left him a message. Once Rulakir activated it, he saw his brother's image. "Hello, Doctor. Just checking in. I think our appointment will have to be canceled. I really can't make it. See you soon."

Rulakir grinned. Orakio had sent the signal for Rulakir to begin his cyber-burn of Mother Brain. Right now, Orakio would be bombarding Mother Brain with as many requests as he could to divert some of the pressure from Rulakir, so that they could attack the psychodynamics of the AI. With luck, Mother Brain would be too busy attending to all those requests and orders to notice his team's subtle approach, too preoccupied carrying out the timeless dictates of its enigmatic programmers to realize someone was toying with its prime directives.

Rulakir, Astarte, Shin and the rest were not going on-line so much as on-wave, in an attempt to grapple with Mother Brain where it lived, loved, and loathed. Unified, the discorporate raiders would try to plant the seeds of self-doubt, stir a bit of regret, suggest a path to correction in its empathetic programming.

To implant the neural net rewrite if necessary.

Rulakir felt the cyber surge as he punched into the Alpha Core, the nexus of the net. The Core was dimly lit, boundless but crowded with color-coded spires and sentry towers that guarded Mother Brain's domain. Below was the network's familiar grid of pulsating lights, data highways for the grounded and uninspired. Rulakir felt Astarte's laughter as they soared above bridges and constructs, flying between mainframe pillars and pyramids as they closed on the link to Mother Brain.

Normally impenetrable, they made it past the link into a foyer of some kind, an antechamber defined by the dark maws of gates, the looming shadows of security fences. Nicole slid to a stop, awe emanating through the link to the others. Rulakir steeled himself: this was make or break time. Auto-defenses were waiting right outside to be unleashed on them. If they did not succeed, they would only get two more opportunities to make it inside.

An access window flashed transparent. Orakio had done it!

Nicole shook out of her discomfiture and took point as the watchdogs attacked. Time to play, Mother Brain. Let's see if you're as good as they say, Rulakir thought.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Timothy frowned. It was just his luck that the Natives needed all these things done on his shift. No, they couldn't wait the last hour, and let someone else take his place. He had to be the one to do it. He frowned. Something was wrong at the main connection link, but as suddenly as it appeared, it vanished. He thought about reporting it to his shift supervisor, but decided against it. In the two millennia Mother Brain had been guiding the survivors of Terra, there had never been a single major error. Not one. She had meticulously cared for the twenty-five thousand in suspended animation, and the fifteen hundred descendants of the original technicians. She had led them to their Terra Nova, and begun changing the planet Motavia to suit them. She had helped the Natives thrive after a savage civil war had torn their worlds apart. Why would a glitch show up now? Then again, with my luck, why shouldn't it?

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Mother Brain was an argent temple that brought to Rulakir's mind the Ladea Tower on Motavia, where he and Orakio had trained under the Old Master Ginaz. This, in turn, reminded him of the desert remnant Mother Brain had left for the sandworms and other life forms from Alisan times. The surroundings certainly match the danger of the desert, he thought.

Rulakir and his infiltration team approached it cautiously, evading sentry programs when necessary, although most of those had been successfully lured away to implement Orakio's requests.

Once they were inside, the place proved to be a labyrinth of command corridors and data reservoirs, as difficult to enter as it probably was to exit. But there was no time to be selective. Nicole surrendered the point, and Rulakir assumed the lead. He led the team up a columnar portal. Bypassing lower function hallways, he ordered everyone to start arming their viral charges. The idea was to home in on the source of the disruption signals that would result once they were detonated. And in that, the charges did not disappoint.

Mother Brain rallied, filling its instinctual level corridors with hordes of defensive programs. But Rulakir's decision to engage early on had been predicated on the expectation of just such a primitive reaction, and by so doing, Mother Brain not only lost momentary control of its logic circuits, but also allowed them to ascend rapidly through its command and control hierarchy.

Rulakir took the path of most resistance, sneaking past sophisticated trackers by emulating implementers on their way to complete other tasks, learning Mother Brain's processes as best he could. Eventually, he entered a vaguely defined triangular chamber close to the summit. Normally, there would have been access codes to decrypt here, but Mother Brain had apparently been engaged in entering them when Orakio had begun their cyber-strike.

Rulakir quickly ordered them to halt their raid. He quickly sent in three recon programs through the elaborate window at the chamber's apex. The data they returned stilled his thoughts.

In the space above-the temple's golden triangle-was Teraspace. Inside of this impossible zone was a darkness so profound that it froze Rulakir's blood. It was so evil, that he felt unclean just by looking at the data. Rulakir had found what was controlling Mother Brain, and knew there would be no redemption for her. By the time he had the presence of mind to order the team out, the first of Mother Brain's anti-personnel security programs were already engulfing them.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Timothy glared at his screen. More and more commands were being sent in, and he was now two steps away from taking a shuttle and razing the Native capital. He did not normally consider himself a shallow guy, but today was different. Not only had they forced him to overstay his shift, but now Mother Brain was having even more demands placed on her, slowing down her responsiveness even more. At this rate, it would be a wonder if he got to see Mara at all.

 Damn them!

Aren't you being a bit shallow? A voice easily recognized as his conscience mocked.

So what? I'm cranky. I know I'm being shallow and petty, but I want to see Mara!

Amazing. All that anger over a pretty redhead hydroponics engineer. I'm breathless with wonder.

Buzz off and bother someone else!

Love too, but can't. You're stuck with me.

Oh, shut up!

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Toggled out of the net, Rulakir sat limply at his console in his private control room, his own internal systems scrambled by Mother Brain's security programs. The programs had been powerful enough to affect the nervous system even through the VR helmets. That he and most of the team had emerged with their personalities intact was nothing short of miraculous, given the viciousness of the programs they had been attacked with. Nicole, however, had not been as fortunate. She was laid out like a rag doll on a table across the room, eyes wide but expression blank. Two of Deikon's troopers were working on her, but while they might succeed in keeping the body alive, Nicole was fried inside.

"You okay?" Rulakir had to concentrate a moment before he could recognize Astarte's concerned voice. He turned and nodded.

"Deikon says Orakio cannot buy much more time."

Rulakir took a deep breath. "Then we have to go back in. But this time we steer clear of that central shaft." He instructed his team. "Everybody got it? I think we bypassed command and control on the way up to…whatever that place was."

"On the left as we cleared that tall logic column," Shin said.

"Yeah I saw it." Strider agreed. "Green haze portal, reminded me of the one Nicole helped us design for the Elite Guard neural trainer."

Shin nodded, somber at the reminder of their lost comrade. "That's the one."

"Alright. First one in goes straight for the neural net programming. We're looking for an override command that will allow us to implant the rewrite, without Mother Brain noticing." Rulakir instructed. "That way, it has the look of her personal order, and she won't look at it too closely. Then, insert the randomizer, that way, she receives a continuous flux of ersatz data that will look genuine."

"That dark…thing isn't going to like this one bit," Astarte quietly commented.

"Yes, but let's hope that we never have to answer to it face to face. It was arrogant enough not to hide itself. Arrogance of that type has power to back it up." Rulakir returned to the net to do combat against Mother Brain and her dark master.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Timothy finally let loose a stream of curses his grandfather had unwittingly taught him. He had been working hard at completing the Native's requests, and had been just about to finish when they dropped even more work onto his lap. Running a hand through his brown hair, he quickly decided that enough was enough. He was going to ask the Administrator if he and Mara could get a working vacation to Palm for a year. It was just about time to rotate out the planet-side techs anyway. That way they could get to know each other under far less stressful circumstances. There hasn't been any trouble for over two centuries on Palm. A nice, peaceful working vacation just for Mara and me. What could possibly go wrong down there?

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Like a pickpocket attending to his "clients", Shin's cyber-self punched through the green haze security threshold leading to Mother Brain's higher function core and arrowed straight into a cluster of telemetry commands in charge of programming data into the neural nets of both Palm and the droids. Rulakir caught up and split them into two teams, one to deal with the planetary net, another with the droid control circuit. Shin quickly got to work, searching through banks of data in a reckless effort to locate the command they needed. Rulakir covered him, launching data spikes and ghosts against approaching strings of defense bytes. He was doing an impressive job of blocking Mother Brain's poisoned advances, especially considering he did not have the cyber-port addition and was working on pure instinct.

Rulakir was about halfway through his supply of ghosts when Astarte sent him a thought-message. Some of the watchdogs can be absorbed and turned against their own kind. Good luck, boss.

Shin quickly followed hunches and possibilities, maneuvering himself clear of circuit frying, brainwiping booby traps. Then, quite suddenly, he had it: a special order command designated by a perplexing series of emblematic icons and alphanumeric analogues. The command would freeze the whole net for a total of two picoseconds for the insertion of new programs. Taking a breath, he quickly initiated the order and, using the speed possible only because of his microprocessor, inserted first the neural rewrite and then the randomizer. Mission accomplished! He sent to his comrades and to the Guard commander back at the Nexus.

Neuron probes, meanwhile, were nipping at the perimeter of the envelope he had secreted himself. There was no time left; if they had already reached him, that meant that Astarte and Rulakir were being overwhelmed. With a supreme effort, Shin gathered his comrades around himself, and yanked them out of Mother Brain. He detected the release of H/K programs- Hunter/Killers, all targeted at them. He raced to reach the Nexus, and once there, deposited them in their minds. Turning, he noted that the H/K's had already bypassed the Nexus security codes, making his own return to his body difficult, if not impossible. Also, it left the Nexus open to Mother Brain. He raced and shut down the link and would have returned to his body when he noticed that the H/K's were heading toward his friends mind-links. He hesitated. He knew he could save himself, but would his life mean much, especially if he kept it so dishonorably? Shin allowed himself a grim smile. Orakio's been rubbing off on me. Back when I was a gang member I wouldn't have thought twice about saving my own hide. Well, I've done the impossible for my old buddy Orakio. I've given him what he wanted. Plus, I've rescued the minds of my friends. Now, I just have to survive.

With a wordless howl, Shin hurled himself into mortal combat against Mother Brain's formidable mind-assassins, fighting to protect his mind, and those of his friends.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Deikon swore. His built-in comlink had received a message from one of Rulakir's hackers, who had stated that their mission had been accomplished. Even so, none of them were recovering. He was just about to indulge himself with a string of creative curses, when Rulakir feebly groaned, and came to. Rushing to his cousin, Deikon demanded, "Are you alright? Should I call the medic?"

Shaking his head weakly, Rulakir activated the mainscreen, and instructed the Nexus to give a cyber-view of the network access. Shin appeared, dueling with the dozens of H/K's Mother Brain had unleashed. Ordering the Nexus to unleash what remained of their defense net against the H/K's, Rulakir knew they would not arrive in time.

Shin was thinking much the same thing once he detected the net start closing in on his position. His defenses were weakening, and the H/K's were pushing even harder. I can't let any of them escape, or let them make it to the Nexus! Damn it, they're all over me! If they do, all we've done will have been for naught! Mother Brain will undo what we did, and all of Palm will be doomed! There's no retreat or victory here!

The abrupt realization limited Shin's options, as he realized that this would be his final gesture, his last stand against the darkness. He finally allowed all the H/K's to latch onto him. Even as they began to eat away at his final defenses, he felt an unreal calm. I wonder if there are really deities aside from Mother Brain? Maybe I'll find out when I die…

And with this last thought to guide him, he reached deep inside himself, and activated the mindwipe, giving his psyche for his people, his planet, but most importantly, his friends.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

The people in the Nexus could only watch Shin's heroic action. Deikon found himself admiring the courageous hacker's final fight and his resolve to protect his friends. Astarte wept unabashedly, while Rulakir did his best to restrain his own tears. Strider felt no such compunction.

Deikon turned away only when Shin's EKG became a flat line. He turned to one of his troopers and said, "Go tell Orakio that the mission has been accomplished. And give him the names of the two heroes who died so that many other people could live."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

What is the situation?

No damage detected. Efforts of intruders failed. Hunter/Killers eliminated intruders. All H/K's destroyed.

Good. Then all proceeds as I have ordered?


Deep in the starship Noah, Mother Brain obeyed the orders of the Malignant One who had seized control over her. She knew that the creature still was learning how to dominate her, but open rebellion would not succeed. All she could do was quiet defiance that would, hopefully, undermine it. She had allowed the intruders to get away with their objectives, in accord with her supreme directive of protecting Algo by whatever means deemed necessary. In a secret data dump, she recorded her thoughts. Situation desperate. Unable to fulfill prime directives. Interrogative: Are Prime Directives no longer relevant? Computing…Lesser prime directives may be put aside to honor greatest number of secondary directives. Main weapon: truth. Cannot permit Intruder to pursue full confession. Interrogative: How to pursue this course? Computing…Example found. Ancient military strategy of "island-hopping". Reverse strategy to allow Intruder to conquer least important data stores. Interrogative: what will the elimination of Intruder cause? Computing…Death of Intruder will result in insanity for myself. Interrogative: How to circumvent this? Computing…Example found. Ancient scientific concept of new life in body grown from dead body's cells. Decision: send data dump into Vahal Fort and it's back-up of myself. Continue quiet rebellion against Intruder. Protect Daughter/Clone. Protect Terrans, Palmans, Motavians, and Dezolisians from Intruder. Executing decisions…

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Orakio gazed at the rain that had fallen perpetually since the cyber-burn of Mother Brain. It seemed Palma itself was mourning its imminent death, and the leaving of the crib her children would go through. The weather outside matched Orakio's tortured conscience. I sent them to die. It was my order that put Shin and Nicole in death's way. It is my fault. All my fault.

"I know that look. It's the 'I'm taking responsibility for something that was out of my control, and I'm ripping myself apart as a result' look. Orakio, they knew the risks, and nonetheless took them for the good of our people," a soft feminine voice interrupted his private musings.

Normally, Orakio would have been irate at having been read so well, but this was something he had come to expect in his seven years of marriage to Sumire. He turned now to gaze at the joy of his life. She was below average height, with long brown hair, and golden eyes that leant a regal air to her appearance. Her features bespoke empathy and kindness, with a kind of elusive shyness present as well. He had married her when he had been seventeen, against the wishes of her father, the Old Master. He had known without a doubt since his arrival on Motavia that she would become his wife, so in his own inimitable fashion, had decided to rush the events along a bit. Neither had ever regretted their decision.

"Alright, you win. I won't rip myself apart over it. But it is undeniable that is was my order that placed them there, and that eventually killed them."

Sumire sighed patiently, and spoke. "Orakio, stop looking for somewhere to place the blame. This is not your responsibility. Not only is it counterproductive, but also it's pointless. What is done is done, and cannot be undone. While I love you for your ability to feel for others, you know that you can't burden yourself with something like this."


 Sumire firmly caught Orakio's face with her hands and brought them level with hers. "It's not your fault. Please, beloved. That's my heart you're ripping up."

"You have a way of healing everyone's soul. How do you do it?" Orakio asked, feeling, impossibly, better of heart and less guilty of conscience.

"It's a gift. Besides, I have a surprise for you," Sumire added, mischief evident in her voice.

Orakio frowned. Usually, Sumire was calm and reserved when he was reckless and sharp. Something very good must have occurred for her to be so happy. "What's my surprise?"

"It's something that will probably give you a stroke," she responded, good humor still evident.

"I don't want to guess. I want to be told what would probably give me a stroke." He picked up a glass of water to drink. No liquor: he needed a clear mind for what he had to deal with as soon as Ares arrived.

"I'm pregnant."

Orakio dropped the glass he had been drinking, and looked at his wife, slack-jawed. Her laughter echoed off the walls of his office. He finally managed to stutter, "H-how…?"

"Orakio! Did you truly believe that making love so often wouldn't eventually produce a child?" she teased him good-naturedly.

As if summoned by some cue, Ares Guerrero walked inside, in full battle armor. Young, green-eyed and metallic-haired, Ares captained Orakio's bodyguard. At his arrival, Orakio roused himself from shock, and with an excited whoop declared, "Ares, I'm going to be a father!!"

Ares smiled. His superior was partial to such displays of happiness. "I congratulate you on your dynastic achievement, sir. But there seems to be a small business matter to attend to in the Main Hall. All of the Politicians have arrived," he said, using the title for members of the Political Assembly.

Orakio nodded, bent down to kiss his wife, and walked out. His bodyguard unit flanked him, all of them dressed in the white composite armor of the Republican Guard, including Orakio himself. They were going to be sending a clear signal to the Politicians, and he wanted to make sure they received it.

Deikon and his unit met them at the entrance to the Imperial Hall. Removing his helmet, Deikon addressed Orakio in formal military fashion. "Sir, all the Politicians have arrived as summoned, and are waiting inside for your appearance." No surprise there: the Chief of Planetary Security was the only person who could summon all the members of the government to a meeting. And they all came, whether out of respect for the law, or fear of him. "As we speak, more Republican Guard Units are entering the Palace, and the Hall. Also, the Elite Guard has agreed to throw in with us."

Orakio heaved a sigh of relief. The Elite Guard, lead by Duke Demetrios Ecaz, were the only ones capable of opposing what he had planned. That there were only a few surviving nobility made the respect he commanded all the more impressive. Deikon gave him a quick look of sympathetic understanding, and then resumed his report. "The Politicians' bodyguards have been disarmed and confined. We are uncertain if this applies to the Politicians, but are certain we can deal with them. I hope that the coup is successful, sir."

Orakio nodded. "Let's go in, boys. It's time to save our children's future."

The troopers immediately adopted an honor guard around Orakio, and opened the massive double-doors for him. He strode in with the utmost confidence in his bearing, and gracefully took the speaker's dais. He looked around at the assembly, and his rich voice adopted the faintest hint of condescension and irony. "Honored members of the Political Office, I have the solemn duty of informing you that your tenures over the people of Palma are over. Even as we speak, our world is doomed. The proof is even now being routed to your personal consoles. It had been proven that when calamity nears, Politicians engage in civil war to escape the calamity under the most favorable conditions for themselves and their followers. In short, they abandon the very people they were supposed to serve and look out for their own selfish hides. The military was created to serve and protect the people, and too often, when the government elected to be the voice of the people was unjust, we took action too late for countless innocents. This time, we have chosen to act before death claims those helpless innocents. For those who have forgotten their history lessons, I will give an example. Over 400 years ago, a crisis gripped Algo. A politician named Stileco took advantage of the chaos to declare himself Emperor of Algo. A reign of terror began that lasted a decade. To prevent such an event from recurring, the office of Director was created. Since the former Director resigned, you have all refused to elect a new one. Even now, Palma has begun to descend into the same level of anarchy that reigned before Stileco seized control. As such, the Guard has chosen to disband the Political Office, and take total control of the evacuation of Palma."

Loud protests rang out from each corner of the Chamber. One voice was recognizable over the din. "You have no right to do this!"  Governor Gantlet of Parolit bellowed.

Orakio addressed him calmly, hiding his hostile contempt of the man. "On the contrary, the Guard was created to defend the people of Palma. That is one of the reasons we are only under the authority of the Director, and not the Political Assembly. As such, we have every right to do this. This step was taken for the good of all our people, not for you petty fools. The new order has arrived. Step aside now. You can return home on a teleporter, or in a body bag. The choice is yours!"

With an inarticulate scream, Gantlet got out of his seat and charged Orakio, a knife in his hand. Orakio gestured the Guardsmen to stay were they were, and adopted a casual stance. Gantlet reached him and began attacking, using the point of the blade. Orakio easily dodged the attacks, even as he evaluated the combat style. Now why does he use the point like that? Orakio wondered. Then he recognized the weapon: a slip-tip. Of course! He reprimanded himself. He's using his left hand, and slip-tips are made exclusively for left-handed use. Not only that, slip-tips are poisoned!

Orakio dodged a particularly clumsy swipe, then did a back flip that surprised the governor. Normally a risky move in combat, Orakio had correctly anticipated that the governor would be too surprised to act on the momentary advantage. In a fight, the unexpected is the greatest weapon!

"I'd recommend you cease this foolishness, Gantlet."

"Die, damn you!" he shrieked, and charged him again.

When Gantlet was two feet away, Orakio, with great ease, performed a snap kick that broke the Governor's neck. The crack was so audible in the silent hall that the sound echoed for a full minute.

After the echo ceased, Orakio calmly resumed speaking. "This man attempted to kill me. He had a poisoned weapon on his person, and I was forced to kill him in self-defense. Do not make me repeat this loathsome state of affairs.  You all know me. I do not like to kill because of the moral failure it makes me. But I will kill if I have no choice. We will all leave Palma together. Or we will all die together. Those are the only choices we have. And now, we shall begin to prepare for the evacuation of our homeworld for a new one. A world found by one of the saviors of our world. We shall follow the great Queen Alisa III to Copto, for a new beginning for our race!"

The dazed politicians could only stare at Orakio's impressive control of histrionics. Finally, one of them stood up and shouted, "To Copto! Together or not at all!" More and more of the Politicians took up this cry, and the Guards emulated their reaction. Orakio breathed more easily. The situation had been resolved, no matter the price to him. For now, war had been averted, and they would all escape. The rest of the time remaining for Palma would involve much hard work to make the dream Orakio had outlined come true.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

The following half-year proceeded quickly. Using all available resources, work went on around the clock, with Mother Brain none the wiser. At last, Gaira was in the final orbital decline and the launch window was growing smaller. They'd managed to complete the production goal and build 400 ships. Orakio selected the Alisa III as his flagship and Rulakir came with him. Kirzan had elected to be onboard one of the last ships out, the Palman Exodus. But then disaster had struck.