August 2050

"Tell me a story, daddy," the young girl pleaded as her father tucked her into bed for the night.

Rand smiled as he leaned over the bed and caressed his daughter's cheek. She was looking more and more like her mother every day. Her beautiful mother. In the darkness of the bedroom, Rand turned toward the door and saw a shadow, and he knew that Rook was standing by the door, surreptitiously listening to their conversation. Since the defeat of the Invid and the end of the last Robotech war, Rand and Rook had been living peacefully in Rand's old hometown, a rural town in South America.

"It's getting late, Maria," said Rand. "Anyway, I think I've told you all of my stories by now. I bet I even repeated some of them without knowing it. Don't you get tired of listening to me?"

The five-year-old Maria pouted, putting on an exaggerated frown in a sign of mock disapproval.

"I think you've got a story in you," Maria said.

"Well," Rand said, scratching his head.

"How did you get that?"

Maria pointed to a silver chain around her father's neck. Rand looked down in surprise, as if he had become so accustomed to wearing it that he had forgotten its very existence.

Rand gingerly reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled out the rest of the necklace, which his clothing had always concealed. At the end of the necklace was a shiny steel pendant.

"Daddy, what's that?"

"I never told you about this old thing?"

Maria shook her head.

Rand, holding the pendant in his hand, took a seat next to Maria's bed and opened the pendant. A holographic image of three young women appeared in the palm of Rand's hand, emanating from the pendant. The light of the hologram faintly illuminated the room.

"Well, it's like this," Rand said, summoning his story-telling powers as best as he could.

"Once upon a time," Rand began as the impressions of long-lost sights and sounds returned to him.

* * *

August 20, 2030

The train would leave in ten minutes, the conductor informed Vanessa.

As Vanessa stood outside the train with her suitcase, she and Dana Sterling looked each other, perhaps for the last time in their lives. Neither woman knew what to say. Looking at Dana, Vanessa reflected with wonder how this battle-hardened teenager had once been such an adorable and innocent child. Vanessa, Bron, Konda, and Rico used to enjoy coming over to the Sterlings' house and playing with little Dana. But everything had changed. Dana was no longer the child she used to be. Max and Miriya were far away, somewhere in deep space. And Bron, Konda, and Rico were dead.

It was almost two weeks since the deaths of Bron and Samantha, but to Vanessa, the time span felt like an eternity. Her life on earth now felt empty without her beloved family. Every day she spent in the ruins of Monument City was a reminder of the life that once had been, the life that was gone forever.

"That's why I have to leave this place," Vanessa said to Dana.

"You could come with us," Dana said. "You can still change your mind."

Vanessa was well aware of the fact that Dana planned to leave the earth at the first available opportunity and travel, along with the rest of her friends from the 15th Squadron, to Tirol and join the SDF-3 forces under Admiral Rick Hunter. If Vanessa went with Dana and her group, she would no longer be alone. She would be among the only friends she had left in the universe: Rick and Lisa, Max and Miriya, and Dana.

The temptation was great.

"My place is here," Vanessa said sadly. "I'm getting too old for space adventure anyway."

"You know what will happen if you stay," Dana said.

Vanessa nodded, remembering everything that Dana had told her about the Invid flower of life. There would be a new war, a war which humanity appeared destined to lose. The invasion could come any day, for all anyone knew.

"This is my home," Vanessa said. "If the Invid are coming, then let them come. I'm not afraid of anything, anymore. I want to be here when it happens. Maybe I can be of some help."

Dana gazed at Vanessa with newfound admiration. It seemed to her that every time Dana spoke to her, she found something new in her that she hadn't seen before.

"Good-bye, Aunty," Dana said, using her affectionate name for Vanessa, which she had used all her life.

Vanessa smiled as she stepped forward and embraced her last link to the past and the life she would soon leave behind forever.

"Take care of yourself, Little Dana," Vanessa said. "I love you."

Vanessa turned and stepped on board the train, which was heading south. Vanessa intended to travel across the country in a southward direction. She would even go all the way to South America if she felt up to it. What would she do? What kind of life would she lead? Was she making a horrible mistake?

Vanessa pondered these questions as she found her seat and looked out the window. The train's engine roared to life, and the wheels began turning. Vanessa saw Dana standing at the edge of the track, watching. Dana put up a hand to her face and slowly wiped a tear from her eye as she waved. Vanessa waved back, and gradually, Dana grew smaller and smaller as she shrank into the distance, becoming nothing more than yet another memory of happier times.

* * *

July 2031

The train had borne Vanessa Leeds to a new life, in a new home, with an uncertain future. Settling down in a small rural South American town, Vanessa had grown accustomed to her new life. She found work as a teacher, and she taught young children history at the town's sole school. The people of her town wondered who was this stranger who seemed to know so much about the history of the first and second Robotech wars. Wishing not to draw undue attention, Vanessa minimized her role in the war. She was careful not to say that she knew any of the war heroes, such as Rick Hunter or Dana Sterling, personally.

"I used to live in Macross," Vanessa would say demurely if anyone asked her what she did during the war.

Vanessa surveyed with a glance the classroom of fifteen children. They were so young, so fragile, she thought to herself. Why did they have to be born into a hopeless world like this?

"Children," Vanessa said, "Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about how the Zentraedi renegade named Khyron destroyed the SDF-1 and New Macross City."

The children went home, and Vanessa went to the washroom to clean up before going home. She stood alone in the washroom, gazing at herself in the mirror. Vanessa shut her eyes and clenched her fists. The memories kept coming back. She had thought that she could talk about the last day of the SDF-1 calmly, but the memories of her lost friends kept returning to haunt her. It was so long ago, but it felt like yesterday. Vanessa noted the wrinkles starting to appear in her face. She was no longer the vibrant,

young woman who had served proudly on the bridge of the SDF-1. Vanessa Leeds was nearing fifty, now, and the light seemed to have faded from her. Everyone she had ever cared for and loved was gone. Why was she even living? What reason did she have to go on? There was no hope left for her in this world. Vanessa was a living death. She was only waiting to die.

In the mirror, Vanessa saw Kim Young stood silently, watching her. She was dressed in her bridge uniform. Her eyes were calm and peaceful.

"Kim?" Vanessa whispered, not daring to turn around.

Those eyes, they were the same eyes that had burned into Vanessa's own on the day the SDF-1 went down for good. Sammie Porter appeared next to Kim.

"I miss you so much," Vanessa said, clutching the pendant at her breast.

"We'll always be together," Kim said softly.

The apparitions disappeared, and Vanessa was alone again.

Vanessa walked quietly down the main street to her small house at the edge of town. Children and dogs played together in the streets at twilight. Unseen birds sang colorful songs to one another as the sky burned a brilliant crimson over the horizon. Vanessa knelt by the side of the road and inspected a small pink flower that had only recently sprouted up.

The Invid flower of life was dangerous to the touch, and Vanessa was careful not to come too close. The townspeople had discovered that the flower possessed unusual properties. Touching the flower would send a deadly jolt of energy into any unsuspecting person. The humans were afraid of the flower and did their best to rid their city streets of the flower. But as quickly as the flowers were destroyed, new ones would invariably come to take their place. Out in the wilderness, there were large fields of Invid flowers, untouched by man.

No one knew what the flowers meant. Most people saw the flowers as a weird nuisance, never suspecting them as a sign of the doom of the earth. But Vanessa knew. She knew that the flowers were calling out to the Invid, a mysterious race of which she knew almost nothing. When the Invid came, the people of earth would fall. It was no use fighting. There was no place to hide. There was no use going around telling everyone, because Vanessa knew that none of these ignorant townspeople would believe her.

"Oh Bron," Vanessa lamented, "how can there be any hope left?"

In the distance, there was a brilliant flash of light. Terrified, everyone ran out to the street to see what was happening. Pillars of light rained down from the stars, illuminating everything for miles.

"What the hell?" someone behind Vanessa said.

"It's starting," Vanessa whispered sadly.

Something was coming their way, toward the town. Within minutes, a swarm of Invid scout ships was upon the town, firing at anything that moved. Vanessa quickly got out of the open and found cover behind a nearby house. The Invid scouts landed on the street and marched through the town, firing indiscriminately and annihilating anyone who dared to fire back.

"Humans," an imperious female voice announced to the town, "we are the Invid. From across the galaxy, we have come, from a world that was lost to a world that was found. What we have done to you is but a small demonstration of our power. Do not dare to oppose us. Your time as the dominant species of life on this planet is at an end."

Under the watchful eyes of the Invid ships, the people of the town emerged from hiding and beheld their new masters. Cries of pain and anguish could be heard everywhere, amidst the flame and rubble of the town. Vanessa wandered up and down the streets, astonished by the destruction and the speed with which it had been wrought.

In front of the town's general store, now in smoking ruins, a young boy was on his knees, sobbing inconsolably.

Vanessa was drawn to this young boy. She did not recognize him as a resident of the town. The boy was clutching the bodies of a man and woman. They lay at the boy's feet in a pool of their own blood. These were his parents, Vanessa realized.

In a flash, the pretty face of her beloved daughter came before her eyes. Samantha's eyes were glazed, and a trail of blood trickled down the sides of her mouth. In a cruel twist of fate, her precious daughter had been taken from her.

"I failed," Bron's voice echoed in Vanessa's head. "I failed to save our little girl."

"No," Vanessa said.

Vanessa shut her eyes, trying to keep herself in the present moment.

"No," the young boy said in agony. "Mama. Papa."

Vanessa looked around them. No one else in the town had stopped to notice this little boy. He was a stranger, from out of town, and people had their own families to worry about. Gazing at the boy and his dead parents from a distance of several yards, Vanessa felt an upwelling of compassion in her heart.

Vanessa's shadow fell upon the boy and his parents, and the boy turned. He couldn't have been more than ten years old. Seven, maybe eight years old, Vanessa thought. He was a slim and handsome boy with red-brown hair.

"Who are you?" the boy asked tearfully.

Vanessa got down on her knees and faced the boy, eye to eye.

"I'm Vanessa Leeds," said Vanessa warmly.

The boy looked at her blankly and with trepidation. He was afraid of her.

"You're not from this town, are you?" Vanessa said, trying her best to soothe the child. "What's your name?"

"Rand," the boy said.

"Are you all alone?" Vanessa asked.

Rand nodded.

Vanessa reached out to Rand and laid her hands on his shoulders, indifferent to the chaotic activity of the people around her and the quiet threat of the Invid troops.

"You don't have to be alone," Vanessa said with a tender smile. "Come with me. I'll take care of you. Everything is going to be all right."

Rand looked into Vanessa's eyes with amazement. Who was this woman? She seemed to have such an enormous inner quiet and strength about her. For the first time, Rand began to believe that everything really WAS going to be all right.

Vanessa stood up and smiled as she held her hand down to Rand. Hesitantly, Rand stood up and took her hand. The woman and child walked down the road together.

* * *

August 2032

It was a beautiful day. As Vanessa walked through the meadow to the edge of the nearby river, she paused to admire the clear blue skies and the birds that flew overhead. There was no sign of the Invid.

"You know, Rand, it's dangerous for us to be out here by ourselves," said Vanessa.

Rand gave Vanessa a roguish grin.

"Come on, Vanessa, live a little," he said.

Rand was carrying two long tree branches. He took out a knife and began whittling down the branches into two long poles.

"Could you tell me what exactly we're doing?"

"We're going fishing. I used to do this all the time at the river with my dad."

Rand stopped at the thought of his deceased parents. As Vanessa now knew, Rand had come to town with his parents to buy some supplies, when the Invid had invaded. Rand's home town was five miles away, but now that he was staying with Vanessa, there was no reason for him to return. Vanessa in turn had shared the story of how she had lost her family and best friends in war. From the day that they had met, Vanessa and Rand were rarely apart.

An hour later, Vanessa and Rand were enjoying their fish, which they had caught themselves and cooked over a small fire. Vanessa and Rand sat together at the edge of the river and watched the sun set as they ate their dinner.

"Sitting here like this," Vanessa said, "it's easy to forget that there's a war going on."

"But we can't," Rand said bitterly. "One day I'm going to pay back the Invid for what they've done."

"There's nothing you and I can do about it," Vanessa said.

Rand looked at Vanessa in surprise.

"You sound as if you've given up," Rand said.

Vanessa looked toward the sunset in sadness.

"I'm sorry," Vanessa said.

I'm sorry, Bron. I'm old; I've lost hope. I joined the RDF to make a difference, and after all these years, what difference have I made in the world? We're still at war. We are a conquered people."

"Vanessa," Rand said, getting her attention. "What about that story about the five million ships?"

* * *

August 2031

Vanessa sat next to Rand's bed. The poor child could not sleep and was having recurring nightmares about the deaths of his parents. Vanessa's heart went out to him, and she reached out and took Rand's hand.

"I'm here," Vanessa said, squeezing his hand.

"I can't sleep," Rand said. "I know I should sleep. But I just can't."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Vanessa," Rand's eyes lit up, "would you tell me a story?"

"A story?"

"My mama used to read stories to me at bed time."

Vanessa thought about it for a while. There were so many stories to tell. Which would she choose? Her mind reached back to a terrible day. The day the earth died, and humanity triumphed over overwhelming odds. She could see it in her memories with perfect clarity. She could see Kim, Sammie, Claudia, Captain Gloval, Exedore, and Minmei. With growing enthusiasm, Vanessa told the epic tale of how the SDF-1 joined forces with Breetai and Azonia to defeat Dolza and the fleet of five million. They had never been so scared in all their lives, but the tiny shred of hope in their hearts had kept them going. The thrill of victory and the promise of a new life, born from the earth's ashes, had exhilarated them all. And as Rand listened to the story, he too, was transfixed. He had never heard the story before. He knew almost nothing of the first Robotech war.

From that day on, Rand could never get enough of Vanessa's stories, whether they were of war or of peace.

* * *

Vanessa and Rand were silent for a while as they sat near the riverbank.

"If we could beat five million warships, we can beat the Invid," said Rand hopefully.

Rand turned to look at Vanessa more closely, and he saw that she was holding back tears.

"Vanessa--" Rand said.

"I'm old and tired of war," Vanessa said, hanging her head. "I'm so sorry, Rand. I know I've told you all kinds of inspirational stories. I've given you all the hope I could. Seems like I don't have any more left for myself."

The faces of Bron and Samantha returned to her mind's eye. She could see them even now. She could hear their voices. They were happy voices, the long lost echoes of a distant and extinct era.

"All I ever wanted," Vanessa said, "was a normal life. Love and family. It's all I ever wanted."

Rand put an arm around Vanessa as she sat with her head bowed.

"I'm here," Rand said. "We'll always be together."

Vanessa looked up with a start. Weren't those the words once spoken to her by Kim and Sammie? It was a vow of friendship spoken long ago, in the early years of their friendship.

Vanessa looked at Rand affectionately, and she smiled as she put an arm around him.

* * *

May 2037

Having rebuilt most of the town from the initial Invid assault, life went on for everyone as normal. The Invid, with the exception of a few routine and periodic patrols, mostly left the townspeople alone. There were no thoughts of armed resistance. Everyone wanted nothing more than to go on with their lives. Vanessa was no exception.

Vanessa whistled a cheerful tune as she prepared dinner for herself and Rand. The young orphan Vanessa had adopted was growing up nicely. He was thirteen now. They cared for one another deeply and were grateful for each other's companionship, but Vanessa could tell that Rand was growing increasingly restless. He chafed at Vanessa's efforts to look out for his safety and make sure he did not do anything rash that would draw the Invid.

"Where is that kid?" Vanessa said with annoyance.

Rand should have been home from the general store more than half an hour ago. He was oft to wander the wilderness outside of town on his own, looking for useful junk that he could salvage.

"I'm hunting for treasure," Rand once said.

Rand came in through the door, breathless with excitement.

"Rand," Vanessa scolded, "have you been wandering in the woods again?"

Rand grinned sheepishly. "Check out what I found! Isn't it great?"

Rand brandished a pair of laser rifles.

"They still work, too," Rand said.

Vanessa shook her head in gentle disapproval.

"Come on," Rand said, "don't lecture me again."

"Rand, I worry for you so much--"

"Come on, Vanessa, it's not like you're my mother."

Vanessa shut her mouth. Rand could see that she was stung and hurt by that remark. Vanessa turned away from him.

Rand walked over to her and tugged her sleeve.

"I'm sorry, Vanessa, I didn't mean it."

"I don't want to lose you, Rand. You're all I have left."

They turned to face each other.

"I'll do whatever you say, I promise," Rand said, embracing Vanessa, "I won't go out wandering alone again. Just don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I've broken your heart or something," Rand said.

Rand was as good as his word after from that day on.

* * *

October 2038

One night, Vanessa and Rand were having dinner when there was a knock at the door. Vanessa and Rand looked at one another.

"Who could that be?" Rand said.

They almost never had visitors.

The sight of three soldiers dressed in cyclone armor startled both Vanessa and Rand. Neither of them had seen cyclone armor before. One soldier clutched his side as his two comrades struggled to keep him on his feet.

"Can I help you?" Vanessa said warily.

The lanky, nervous looking soldier on the right said, "our buddy's hurt. Could you help us patch him up? We promise, we won't stay long."

"I don't know if I should," Vanessa said nervously.

Rand was appalled.

"Are you kidding?" he cried. "We gotta help these guys! Come on!"

Rand opened the door wider and pulled one of the soldiers in, and the rest followed.

* * *

The wounded soldier, a man named Thompson, lay on the couch, exhausted. Rand and another soldier, Marks, worked to bandage Thompson's wounded abdomen. He had received a shrapnel wound. Vanessa and the third soldier, a man named Davis, sat at a table, drinking tea.

"What are you people doing here?" Vanessa demanded.

It was well known throughout the town that there were human soldiers scattered everywhere, trying to resist the Invid. Anyone who harbored these soldiers risked deadly reprisals. Vanessa was eager to get these soldiers out of her home as quickly as possible, before the other townspeople found out.

"We were sent by Admiral Rick Hunter, and we arrived here on September 15th. Our orders were to destroy Reflex Point and reclaim the earth."

"Rick Hunter?" Vanessa was startled by the mention of that name. It had been many years since she had last seen Rick, let alone heard anything about him.

"You mean THE Rick Hunter?" Rand said excitedly, having heard all about the legendary war hero from Vanessa's stories.

"That's right, son," Lieutenant Davis said. "But we failed in our mission. The Invid defenses were greater than we had anticipated, and we were wiped out and scattered. Some of us have been trying to keep going with the mission."

"Why?" Vanessa said. "Why throw your lives away when your mission has already failed?"

Davis shrugged. "It's all we have left to do."

Rick Hunter. The name from Vanessa's distant past arose into her consciousness and galvanized her in a way she never had thought possible. Why, if Rick Hunter was still alive and well, bent on reclaiming the earth, surely there was hope for this world after all. He was among the last remnants of the greatest generation, the generation of warriors who had defeated Dolza and the five million warships. If anyone could win when all hope seemed lost, surely Rick Hunter could find a way. For a brief moment, Vanessa's heart was filled with hope. Rick, Lisa, Max, Miriya, and the others were still out there. They had not forgotten earth.

"We were ambushed by an Invid patrol," Davis continued. "Thompson got hit, and we were barely able to escape with our lives."

Vanessa looked upon Davis and his men with compassion.

"You can stay here for the night," she said, "but you have to leave this town first thing in the morning."

* * *

Three hours later, there was another knock at the door. It was very late at night. As Rand went to answer the door, he saw a large number of the townspeople gathered outside the house.

"Uh oh, looks like trouble," Rand said. He went over to alert Vanessa and Davis, who were sitting quietly and watching the sleeping Thompson and Marks.

"Hey! Get up!" Rand shook the sleeping soldiers awake.

"Who's out there?" Vanessa whispered.

The knock sounded on the door again, more insistent.

"We know you're in there," a muffled voice said from the other side. "Come on out, or there's gonna be trouble!"

"Everyone, I think," Rand said as he picked up his laser rifles and slung them over his shoulder.

"I'll handle this," Vanessa said to the others. "You soldiers get out of sight while I answer the door."

Vanessa finally opened the door and was greeted by the sight of nearly the entire town. They all stood outside, holding flashlights. Vanessa shielded her eyes from the glare.

"What do you people want?" Vanessa said.

"We know you got Robotech soldiers in there, Miss Leeds," a gruff man said. "I saw you take them in three hours ago. If you don't hand them over, the Invid are gonna come and destroy this town."

He and the others stepped forward, pushing Vanessa back into the house as they entered the living room to confront the soldiers.

"We can't allow that to happen," the man said.

Ten men from the town brazenly walked into the living room, carrying pistols. The intruders were met at gunpoint by the three Robotech soldiers, who were positioned at various spots in the living room. Rand, with his laser rifles, stood dumbly by Vanessa as he helplessly watched the confrontation unfold.

"Come any closer and we'll make you regret it," Davis said as he aimed his laser rifle at the mob's leader.

The two parties stared at each other across the short distance of the living room, while Vanessa and Rand stood by, out of the line of fire. Looking at the mob's leader, Vanessa could tell what he was thinking. He was thinking that there were ten of his guys and only three of them. He was thinking, we can take these soldiers.

Each side hesitated for a moment. Neither wanted to fire first. Then one of the townspeople snapped and he let off a shot with his pistol that nearly took Thompson's head off.

That was it. Both sides opened fire. Vanessa screamed as she grabbed Rand and held him close to the floor. Broken wood and glass rained around them as the sounds of gunfire filled the air.

Vanessa looked around the room. Seven townspeople lay dead on the floor. The other three had retreated to the outside. Thompson was dead, and Marks was nursing a wounded arm. As for Davis, he had emerged relatively unscathed, save for a shot that had taken his left ear off. Blood was flowing down the side of his head, onto his body armor.

Davis looked at Vanessa.

"Is there another way out of here?" Davis said.

"There's a back door," Vanessa said. "It faces the woods."

Vanessa looked out to the crowd gathered outside. The townspeople were pondering their next move. There was precious little time. They did not have the house completely surrounded. Everyone was standing near the front side of the house.

"Then go," Davis said. "Take your boy and get out of here."

"What about you? We can't leave you here to die," Rand said.

"This is the end of the road for us," Davis said. "I won't let you die on account of us. Go on, we'll cover you. Our cyclones are hidden by the bushes outside. You better haul ass."

"Let's burn them out!" a woman shrieked madly. The crowd of fifty people began lighting torches shortly.

Inside the house, Vanessa and Rand hesitated. Davis waved his gun at them.

"Go!" he ordered. "Go NOW!"

Vanessa seized Rand's hand and led him toward the back of the small house, where there was a back door.

Marks and Davis propped themselves up near the front windows and began firing at the townspeople, driving them back.

"Come on you sons of bitches, you want a piece of us? Come ON!" Marks taunted as he shot one townsperson after another.

The townspeople responded by hurling torches at the house as they fired back with their guns. Meanwhile, Vanessa and Rand had made it out of the house. They headed for the parked cyclones hidden by the bushes, not more than twenty yards away.

Two of the townspeople spotted Vanessa and Rand. The two men cried out in alarm and ran for them. Rand whipped out his laser rifles and shot them both down. Vanessa watched the violence unfold with horror.

Can't I ever escape it? When will it end?

These thoughts ran through Vanessa's head as she saw Rand turn back for the nearest cyclone.

"Come on, Vanessa!" Rand exhorted as he hopped on.

Two more men were approaching. Seated on the cyclone, Rand scratched his head.

"How on earth do you operate this thing?" he said, bewildered.

Vanessa, crouching near the cyclone, saw the two men stop at a distance and draw their guns, preparing to shoot them both down.

After flicking switches and turning dials at random, the engines finally roared to life.

"Hey!" Rand said, delighted by his luck. At that exact moment of Rand's distraction, the two men fired on Rand.

"No!" Vanessa cried, leaping to shield Rand from the lasers with her own body. She cried out in pain as the lasers penetrated her right shoulder and her stomach.

Rand turned and saw Vanessa fall at the side of the cyclone bike. Infuriated, he let loose on both of the shooters with his laser rifle, gunning them both down in a rain of fire. There was no time to think about

anything besides escape. More enemies would be coming within seconds.

"Vanessa," Rand said, leaping off the cyclone and hurriedly helping Vanessa to her feet. She was clutching her stomach in agony.

"Leave me," Vanessa gasped.

"I won't leave you," Rand whispered fiercely. "Climb on behind me and hold on tight!"

Vanessa struggled to mount the cyclone behind Rand. She slipped her arms around his slender waist. Rand revved up the cyclone and sped off, toward the open roads. Risking a look over his shoulder, Rand saw Marks and Davis charge out of the burning house, firing wildly on the townspeople, determined to go down fighting. Rand fought tears as he watched the home he had known for seven years go up in flames. Then an even more disturbing sight appeared in the distance, coming from the direction of the town.

"Invid!" Rand cried.

Two Invid scout ships were hot in pursuit of Rand's cyclone.

"Hold on tight," Rand urged Vanessa as he cranked up the speed.

In the dead of the night, Rand had nothing to illuminate his way except the headlights of the cyclone and the pale moon, shining overhead. The Invid were drawing closer. They were coming up alongside the bank of the river where Rand and Vanessa had gone fishing together. The Invid began to fire, and their shots came perilously close to vaporizing Rand and Vanessa.

Rand saw that there was no outrunning their pursuers. There was no question of fighting, not with Vanessa wounded and Rand having no idea how to use the cyclone's weapons.

"We've got to ditch this bike!" Rand shouted to Vanessa.

Vanessa did not respond.

"Vanessa! Talk to me!"

"I hear you," Vanessa said weakly, through clenched teeth.

The riverbank was to their right, at the edge of the road. Rand began slowing down his bike.

"On three, we jump for the riverbank and hide. Three."

The two Invid ships overshot them and made a 180 degree turn, preparing to make another strafing run at them.


The Invid opened fire.


Rand leaned his cyclone toward the riverbank.


Vanessa and Rand both jumped off the cyclone for the riverbank at the same time. Simultaneously, the Invid's shots landed on the cyclone, sending it up in a deafening explosion. After rolling around on the grass and pebbles, Rand and Vanessa came to a halt. They crawled further along the side of the river, finding shelter behind a small enbankment of rocks. Remaining still, the pair huddled together in the darkness as the Invid swooped overhead and landed. Vanessa felt as if she could hear her own heart beat as the Invid troops marched around the area, conducting a cursory inspection.

The Invid could see nothing. Deciding that the humans had probably been destroyed, they flew back to the town to observe the fight between the soldiers and the townspeople, which by now had ended.

Rand lifted his head above the level of the rocks and breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the Invid depart. Then he saw the blood on his own hands and remembered Vanessa's injuries.

Vanessa lay on her back, her eyes turned toward the stars and the moon above. She was breathing heavily, and her hands were on her abdomen. Her clothes were drenched in blood.

Vanessa Leeds was dying, and she knew it.

"Vanessa," Rand said, throwing away his guns and kneeling to cradle her in his arms.

"I'm sorry, Rand," Vanessa said softly, "but my time has come."

"No," Rand cried in despair, "We'll find a way. I'll run down to the next town and find a doctor. You can make it. I won't let you die. I won't!"

But they both knew such talk was futile. Vanessa would be dead before Rand could ever make it.

"Stay with me," Vanessa said. "Didn't we say we would always be together?"

Rand began crying. Vanessa reached up with a hand to caress Rand's face and wipe away his tears. She felt her own tears falling as well. Let them fall, she thought to herself.

"It's too soon to say goodbye," Rand said. "Don't go, please don't leave me. I love you, mama."

Vanessa felt her heart skip a beat. It was the first time Rand had ever called her that. Their eyes met, and Vanessa smiled.

Vanessa felt her head lightening, and her breath came in ragged gasps. It would not be long now. Vanessa summoned all of her strength to open her heart completely to Rand and share with him all that she was never able to say to him before.

"Listen," Vanessa said. "We all have a destiny. The people we love, the places we go, the things we do in life. My destiny led me to you, Rand. I was meant to find you and help you. We lost our families but we found each other. I'm not afraid to die. I want you to know that I'm glad I could give up my life for yours. You'll be on your own now, but you'll find a family again. Don't be afraid. You will find people who will love you and care for you as I have. It's our destiny, Rand. Isn't that a nice thought?"

Wishing he could think of something better to say, all Rand could choke out was, "I--I guess so!"

With what little strength she had left, Vanessa reached around her neck and unhooked the chain of her necklace. She placed her precious pendant into Rand's hand and closed his hand on it with her own.

"What is this?" Rand said.

"Something to remember me by," Vanessa said. "Always remember how much I love you."

With that, Vanessa pulled Rand's head down toward her own, and she laid a gentle kiss on his forehead. Rand wrapped his arms around her, and they lay on the riverbank together in the darkness for a long time.

* * *

August 2050

"She died in my arms on that night by the river," Rand told his mesmerized daughter. "I buried her at the foot of a nearby tree and carved her name into the trunk."

"And then what happened?"

"Well," Rand scratched his head. "After that, I was on my own for a few years and had some pretty wild adventures. And then I met your mother and swept her off her feet."

"Can we visit Vanessa one day?" Maria asked, yawning. Sleepiness was overtaking her at last.

"Of course," Rand said. "It's not far from here. We'll go tomorrow. How's that?"

Maria smiled.

"Thanks, daddy."

Rand kissed Maria on the forehead.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," he said.

Holding the pendant in his hand, Rand left his daughter's room and found Rook standing outside the door.

"So you swept me off my feet, did you?" Rook said with an ironic smile.

"Hehe. If you wanted to hear my story, Rook, you should have just come in and said so, instead of hiding out here. Are you ashamed to admit that you like my stories?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sneak around," Rook said.

"I did say I've had some pretty amazing adventures, didn't I?" Rand said. "Not all of them involved getting you to fall in love with me, you know."

Rook playfully punched her husband in the arm.

"I'd beat you up if I didn't love you so much," Rook said sweetly, holding out her hand.

"Can I see it?" she said.

Rand handed the pendant over to Rook.

"I'll be going to bed now," Rand said.

"I'll be with you soon," Rook answered, kissing Rand on the lips.

Rook sat alone at the dining room table and turned the holographic pendant on. The image of Vanessa, Kim, and Sammie appeared before her eyes, as lifelike as on the day the photo was taken. Rook's eyes were drawn to the pretty young woman with the brown hair and glasses.

"I can only hope," Rook addressed the holographic image of Vanessa, "that I can live my life with your strength and courage. I never met you, but I feel as if I've always known you. Thank you, Vanessa. Thank you for taking care of Rand."

Having said these words, Rook pondered the image for a long time. The women in the picture seemed to come alive before her eyes. The sights and sounds of a faraway day flooded her senses. If Rook could only close her eyes, she could take herself back to another day, to a time when humans fought with giants, to a time when the Terrible Trio was together and whole, enjoying a friendship that was destined to live forever.

The End