Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member. Note that you can only see posts made in areas you currently have access to.


Messages - Lennis

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 26
1
Fan Fiction / A novel fragment - The Maker of Bangor
« on: April 10, 2024, 04:38:27 am »
Chapter 24 - The Maker of Bangor


It was official.  Nothing Marle did surprised her anymore.

That was what Lucca would write in the dwindling pages of her diary sometime tonight, and in bold lettering despite the limited space.  After six days of making a general nuisance of herself in the Bangor enclave, and with Lucca in particular, the former Princess of Guardia had publicly – and loudly - declared her intention to join the enclave as a full citizen.

And as a member of the Protector-caste, no less.

“What?  You think I'd do better as as an Operator or a Maker?” Marle asked her.

“I'm not even going to honor that with a response,” Lucca replied, trying not to sound snide.

“Thought you'd agree.  So what are you worried about?  This can only help us, you know?”

Lucca, Marle, and Crono were walking side-by-side down one of the main corridors of the Bangor underground towards the enclave's central armory, where dozens of beige-clad Protector-caste citizens were assembling for the unexpected ceremony that had been announced two hours ago.  More than a few enclave residents were giving Marle a dubious look as they made their way past.

“I know I said there wasn't any rush in going back to Krawlie's lair,” Lucca said.  “That doesn't mean I intend to make this my permanent residence.  Just long enough to figure out how to get us home without messing things up.”

“Marle, I'm not sure you understand what a big step this is,” Crono said.  “Full citizens are expected to carry their weight and give their all for the survival of the enclave.  I've been awake long enough to tell you that much.  An oath of citizenship isn't something you can easily walk away from.”

“These people need our help,” Marle said more seriously.  “And if we can't tell them everything about us, we need to make up for it in other ways.  Using our best talents to help them survive.  For me, you know what that means.”  She hefted her crossbow for emphasis.

“You do know that plasma rifles are an entirely different animal from that thing?” Lucca pointed out.  “Using one might not be as easy as you think.”

“What's hard about pointing and shooting?  I've been doing that my whole life!  Ranged weapons might change over time, but the discipline of marksmanship doesn't.  No problem.”

“I used to think the same thing about swordsmanship,” Crono cautioned.  “It's not that simple.  There have been many different sword types developed over the years, and each of them require their own technique to wield effectively.  And even if you only specialize in one, you have to adjust your technique to deal with whatever weapon your opponent is wielding, too.  Switching to an unfamiliar weapon always presents dangers, even if you've mastered another.”

“Oh, come on, Crono!  It's not like people are going to be shooting at me during the trial.  Nothing the Protectors shoot at ever shoots back, so it's just a question of hitting things before they get close enough to hurt you.  I can't imagine this trial of theirs could be more involved than dealing with GATO at the Millennial Fair.”  Marle shrugged confidently.  “It'll be easy.”

Lucca scowled.  In three years, no crossbow wielder had ever gotten a perfect score challenging GATO, and Marle had done it from the top of the stands.  Shameless show-off.  “The first thing I'll do when I get home is make a new program card for GATO that'll take your ego down a peg,” Lucca said.  “Don't think that I can't.”

“I look forward to it,” Marle said with a playful wink.

The three time-travelers came to a large storeroom that the enclave residents had long ago converted into an armory and shooting range, and the two men standing guard – each holding well cared for plasma rifles across their chests - let them pass.  Nearly a hundred Protectors and curious citizens from other castes were already present, sitting on makeshift chairs or leaning against the walls as space permitted.  None of the people Lucca recognized as Protectors, she noticed, looked all that pleased to be here.

Like they have anything better to do, Lucca mused.  The Protectors were by far the smallest of the three castes, and most of them often found themselves with a surplus of free time despite their numbers.  Partly that was because of the limited number of weapons available.  Not a one of Bangor's rifles or pistols was less than 300 years old, and their sophisticated components were notoriously hard to duplicate with the materials the enclave had, resulting in a stockpile that was frequently traded out to avoid unwelcome maintenance issues from piling up.  But the food supply was also an issue.  There were only so many rats to be hunted at any one time before their numbers were exhausted, and sending people out with little prospect of getting a kill only put them at risk of being ambushed by glassers (or “mutants”, as the enclave residents called them) out of the shadows.  There simply wasn't a need for that many Protectors.  Likely, the enclave's defenders were only lamenting the fact that one of the most annoying people to ever visit their domain was about to join their ranks.  Marle's reputation for bugging people and asking them for help operating pretty much anything electronic didn't make her very popular, and her frequent locking of horns with Amelia Evans over reg violations was a subject of continual gossip among the residents.

A burly looking man with dark skin and a scraggly beard of peppered silver then stepped into view and rapped on a nearby metal shelf with a much abused pan to get everyone's attention.  Burly was perhaps too strong a word, as everyone who sustained themselves via enertron developed a uniformly gaunt appearance, as if perpetually on the brink of starvation, but the man's eyes were uncommonly focused and his posture was ramrod straight.  Lucca recognized him as Assistant Director Stephan Morris, leader of the Bangor underground's Protector-caste, and the enclave's overall fourth in command.

“I'll get straight to it, people,” the gruff Assistant Director said without preamble.  “A new soul wishes to join the ranks of our community today.  A soul of the forgotten wastes whose aimless wandering brought her to be among us through providence.”

A few snickers echoed through the crowd at that last word, but they were quickly silenced by a glare from Morris.  Lucca knew he was just reciting the age-old proclamation for the sake of appearances.  Any outsider who sought to join the enclave as a full citizen was a “soul of the forgotten wastes”, and someone to be cherished as if delivered through providence.  Lucca wondered if there had ever been a time when these words were uttered with a similar lack of sincerity.

“Given a choice between the three great castes of our community, this young woman desires the role of Protector.”  He then turned to where Marle was standing.  “Is this what your heart desires?”

“It is,” Marle said clearly enough for all to hear.

Assistant Director Morris nodded solemnly, and his gaze took on a harder edge.  “Is it, truly?  The life of a Protector is one without ease.  One which you may be called upon to freely give in the defense of our community.  To be sent into danger at a moment's notice without question.  To fulfill your duty and the orders of your superiors at all costs.”  Morris said all of this with growing volume and stepped closer to Marle with each statement.  His formality had been completely dropped now, and the Assistant Director looked almost angry.  “This is not a game, young lady!  I have watched people die!  Friends!  A single careless moment or delayed action can get you ripped apart!  The freaks of nature that infest our once great city do not think!  They do not feel!  They are completely and utterly without mercy!  And they never stop.  There are always more.  The ruins ever belong to them and the rats on which they feed.  So I ask you again: Is this... what your heart... desires?”

It was to Marle's eternal credit that she didn't blanch at the verbal drubbing she was being subjected to.  Lucca couldn't honestly say if she could have done the same, especially knowing too well the truth of the AD's words.  But maybe it was because Marle had developed a sort of immunity to such things.  Being the daughter of King Malcolm probably helped a lot, as by all accounts the reigning monarch of Guardia from 1300 years ago was no less hard or demanding than the man she was facing now.

“I've dealt with those 'freaks of nature' before,” Marle told her interrogator evenly, their faces almost touching.  “They were rather... frozen by what I could do to them.  I only need a new weapon to continue the fight.  Give me one, and I'll show you what I can do.”

A wicked grin spread across Assistant Director Morris' features.  “So let the trial begin.  But first, prove to us that you have the vigor and vitality of a Protector.  Only then will we allow you to wield the arms of Bangor.

“DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY!”


      *      *      *


Marle found herself suddenly paralyzed by the barked command.  A command louder than any her own father had given her in her former life.  Drop and give him what?

Push-ups!” Crono and Lucca said in unison.

Are you serious? Marle thought with dismay.  What did this have to do with marksmanship?  All she needed was a weapon, for Creation's sake!

Still, her body responded almost immediately once she finally understood what was asked of her, and she fell to the floor and began unsteadily pushing her body upward from a face down position.  Over and over and... over.  Her face colored noticeably, but more from embarrassment than from the exertion.  Her ponytail fell backwards across her face as she moved, and the golden bracelets around her arms shifted and slipped down to her wrists where they inevitably got in the way of her repetitive task.  The Star of Guardia around Marle's neck clanked on the concrete floor every time she let gravity take hold.  If she knew she would have to do something like this, she'd have left her jewelry with Crono and Lucca.  What a disgrace!

“ON YOUR FEET, PROTECTOR!”

Marle gasped.  “But I'm not...”  She was sure she had only counted to thirty.

“I SAID ON YOUR FEET!  THE ENEMY'S COMING!”

“Wha...?”

Marle nearly missed catching the well-polished rifle Assistant Director Morris abruptly tossed to her.  She fumbled with the unfamiliar firearm.  It was the first time she had so much as touched a plasma rifle, and it was a lot heavier than she thought.  Or maybe it was just because her arms were so tired.  Laughter began to ensue from a few of the spectators.

“THERE!  THE TARGET!  FIRE!”

A crudely painted target depicting the image of a red-skinned glasser mutant suddenly appeared in Marle's peripheral vision, and she turned to face the far wall where it had popped up.  The distance was about seventy-five feet, a shot that Marle could bullseye half asleep any day of the week with her crossbow, and she pulled the trigger after an uncomfortable moment steadying the barrel.  She had never fired a rifle before.  There was nowhere in Guardia Castle she could have practiced with something so loud without the Royal Guard immediately taking notice and alerting her father to her activities.  Malcolm would have certainly locked her up for months if she'd tried.  Still, it was just point and shoot.  Nothing could be more simple.

Nothing happened.

“TAKE THE SAFETY OFF, GRUNT!” Morris crowed.  “IT'S GONNA GETCHA!”

“Safety?!  Huh?!”

More laughter echoed through the armory, and Marle found herself beginning to panic.  Why wouldn't the stupid thing fire?  It wasn't like those crazy computers with hundreds of buttons that you needed to know calculus to decipher.  In fact, the weapon had four buttons along with the trigger, she finally noticed, and something that looked like a dial on the left side of the forestock.  That was five controls too many for something with such a simple function.  What kind of sadist would design something like...

“THREE...!”

“TWO...!”

“ONE...!”

Marle hit the weapon's controls at random and spun the forestock dial before lining up again for the shot.  That had to do something.  She pulled the trigger just after her loudmouth examiner reached the count of one.

“No, wait!”

Lucca's shouted warning just had time to register in Marle's mind, but a split second too late to stop her shaking trigger finger.  The next thing she knew, she was flying backwards into the spectators behind her, a deafening shriek having erupted through the barrel in the general direction of the target, and the sound of flying debris hitting stone and steel was dimly heard through Marle's ringing ears.  So were screams.

A moment later, a dazed Marle was helped to her feet by Crono while Lucca was examining the infernal weapon still clutched firmly in Marle's hand.  A sizable chunk of stone had been blown out of the far wall about two feet above the target.  She had missed.

Missed!

“'Protector', you are more dangerous to your allies than the enemy!” Morris barked.  His earlier gleeful heckling had been replaced with genuine anger.

“Maximum setting,” Lucca remarked quietly in Marle's ear.  “This could have blown up a Dragon Tank with one shot.  What were you thinking just punching things at random?”

I was thinking that a weapon should be easy to use so I can actually concentrate on what I'm shooting at, Marle thought with growing fury.  What a humiliation!  She couldn't remember the last time she had missed a target that badly, or at all.  It was a wonder someone wasn't seriously hurt just now.

“Set it... up for me, then,” Marle told Lucca through gritted teeth, her temper hanging on by the thinnest of threads.  “This isn't over.”

Lucca took all of three seconds manipulating the weapon's controls and then slapped Marle on the shoulder.  “Single-action, minimal power, trigger free,” she said.  “Go knock 'em dead.  And try not to take that literally, okay?”

Marle snorted and stormed up to Assistant Director Morris, holding her weapon as confidently as she could project under the circumstances.

“All right, playtime's over!” she said loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the armory.  “Set up ten targets at the farthest distance you can, then set up ten more targets after I burn through the first set.  If I don't bullseye five consecutive sets without a miss, I'll withdraw my request to join the Protectors and you'll never hear from me again.  How's that sound?”

Assistant Director Morris seemed suitably taken aback by Marle's audacious boast, though it almost seemed to her that he was trying hard not to burst into laughter.

We'll see who's laughing after I'm done, she promised the arrogant man silently.

As it turned out, the weapon only had enough energy for four more shots, but one shot was all that was needed to end Marle's trial.


      *      *      *


“We all have bad days, Marle,” Crono said soothingly.  “And it wasn't a fair test.  They deliberately wore you out before handing you a weapon you'd never used before.  There's no winning a contest like that.  Don't let it get you down, okay?”

The three time-travelers were back in their designated room in the rear area of Dormitory 7, Marle lying face-down on her enertron bed and wanting beyond anything to just curl up into a ball and disappear.  It was the fate that suited her best after what happened today.  How could she dare show her face in the enclave proper ever again?

“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” Marle muttered miserably into the bed's padding.  She appreciated Crono's concern, but nothing he could say could make things better at this point.  He had warned her about the dangers of expecting good results with a weapon she'd never trained with, and she'd brushed aside his warning like she was Creation's gift to all marksmen.  That last certainly wasn't true anymore.  Five shots total she had fired from the enclave's plasma rifle, and all of them had missed their targets completely.  All!  That had never happened to her before, not even when she had been a complete novice playing casually in the Guardia Castle armory as a little girl.  It was a performance that defied belief.  She had been too good for too long to just choke like that, unfamiliar weapon or not.

“Well, as a constructive critique, I think the shot speed was throwing you off,” Lucca said with sympathy.  “You were trying to adjust for ballistic drift with a weapon that doesn't really have any.  Pointing directly at the target would have served you better in this case, but no one can blame you for not being accustomed to that.  It would probably take months of practice for you to change those old habits.  I know it would for me.”

Lucca's words barely registered.  What mattered was that Marle had failed, and she would have to rethink all of her plans going forward.  Where would she even start?  It was hard to think when all she could dwell on was her own humiliation.

Marle sighed.  “Can I go to bed now?”

“Already?  It's still six hours until your scheduled session,” Lucca reminded her.

“Ask me if I care.”

“Well, I can talk to Amelia, try and switch out my hours for yours.  I've got plenty of things to do on the computer, so I don't mind.  But you know what a stickler she is for the rules.  Two days in advance for all exchanges.”

“That's ridiculous!” Crono protested.  “Marle needs the enertron now.  And I don't see anyone else waiting to use it.  Just start the session anyway, and we'll make the exchange ourselves without telling Amelia.  No big deal.”

Lucca shook her head.  “Won't work.  All enertron activity is logged in the computer network.  And you can't fool the machine into thinking one person is actually someone else.  Everyone's DNA is distinctive.  It can't be faked.  Not once it's been already registered.”

Crono blinked, uncomprehending.  “DNA?”

“Sorry.  Call it a genetic imprint.  The bottom line is that Amelia will know it was Marle using the enertron instead of me, and she'll make a stink about it.  And Marle has broken so many regulations already that she could get in real trouble this time.  I don't think we should risk that after what happened in the arm... well, you know.”

“Oh, forget it!” Marle said despairingly.  “I'll just sleep on the floor.  It's no less than I deserve.”  Of course, Marle was certain she wouldn't be able to sleep at all without the enertron, given how she was feeling, but...

“Hey, I won't have you talking like that!” Crono said sternly.  “What happened wasn't your fault.  And who cares what Amelia thinks?  All she cares about is her job.”

“Yeah, ain't that the tru...”

Lucca then started laughing all of a sudden, interrupting herself, and Marle lifted her head from the enertron bed wondering what had gotten into her.

“Yeah!  That's it exactly!” Lucca said jubilantly.  “I was looking at it from completely the wrong angle!  We can fool Amelia easy.”

“How?” Crono asked.  “You just said that DNA thing couldn't be faked.”

“It can't.  But that has nothing to do with the actual schedule.  Amelia writes that up on her own system.  It's completely separate from the enertron itself.”

“You're saying Amelia's schedule can be faked?  Changed to say something else?”

“That would never work,” Marle said.  “Amelia knows exactly when my next session is supposed to be.  She was lecturing me about it earlier today.”

Lucca's eyes twinkled behind her glasses.  “Amelia's a bureaucrat.  It doesn't matter what she knows, it only matters what's in her records.  If the record conflicts with her own memory, she'll just assume she misremembered things and move on without a second thought.  That girl has about as much imagination as a Heinchraw.”

“And you think you can change Amelia's records without her finding out?” Crono asked dubiously.

“Are you kidding?  I probably know these systems now better than she does.  There's a difference between knowing how to use something, and knowing how it actually works.  Don't underestimate Lucca the Great!”

Marle felt a smile creep across her face for the first time since failing her Protectors trial.  Just picturing Amelia's consternation the next time she looked at her records almost made this whole situation worth it.

“So how long do you want to sleep for?” Lucca asked her.  “Just tell me and I'll make it happen.  Within reason, of course.”

“Long enough to forget about things,” Marle said.  “I don't think a regular session's going to cut it.”

“Six hours it is, then.  Sweet dreams and bon appétit... you glutton.”

A moment later, the hatch of the enertron sealed itself against the machine, and Marle drifted off into a blessedly dreamless slumber.


      *      *      *


The definition of a good teacher, Lucca decided, was someone you were always delighted to see when you were unexpectedly called into their office.

Lucca could count the number of people who had tried to teach her effectively on two hands.  The number of people who actually did she could count on as many fingers: her mom, who had taught her how to read a couple of years before her tragic accident, and her dad, who had taught her everything else - once she had dedicated herself to the path of science.  Lucca never expected to add a third finger to the list.  Her parents had done enough to open the door of knowledge and coax her through it, and Lucca thereafter had been able to learn anything else worth knowing on her own.  Such was the expectation, and the reality, until Lucca met the director of the human enclave of Bangor.  The best teachers were the ones who knew things you didn't know that you didn't know and were freely willing to share them, and Frank Doan met that description better than even her dad could ever have hoped to.  Doan's knowledge of science and technology was, if Lucca could pare it down to a single word, sublime.  Such that if Lucca dared to share her knowledge of time-travel with him, Doan would not just absorb and understand the concepts involved almost immediately, he would also improve on what Lucca had already figured out and start teaching her the subject she had only recently pioneered herself.

His was a spirit akin to her famous grandfather, Alistair Ashtear, a man that Lucca had barely gotten to know as a child, and who would never live to see just how prodigious his granddaughter would become.  Like Director Doan, Alistair knew things nobody knew that they didn't know, and he had used his stupendous intellectual gifts to change the world forever.  Meeting Frank was almost like going back in time to meet Grandpa Alistair.

In another era, Lucca thought, Director Doan would almost certainly be another such world-changing individual, but the whims of history had relegated him to a post of heartbreaking obscurity instead.  Still, his gifts were not going completely to waste, and Lucca was determined to learn everything she could from him while their historical paths intersected.

Now, Lucca was admiring the threadbare efficiency of Doan's office, a far cry from her own “office” back home, which could only charitably be called a bedroom, such was its clutter.  It was all too easy to get disorganized when your mind was running at a million miles an hour trying to make new scientific discoveries and putting them into action, but Doan somehow utilized his own gifts cleanly and left nothing that could be trampled on or lost.  A few viewscreens depicting various real-time images of certain areas of the enclave ringed the walls, and there were very few other accouterments of note.  The owner of the space leaned pleasantly towards Lucca across a modest dust-free desk upon which rested a single integrated computer terminal that sat off to one side.

“Thank you for coming so promptly, Miss Lucca,” Director Doan began in his typically polite fashion.  “For a moment, I was afraid that I had caught you rejuvenating in the enertron, as I'd momentarily forgotten when you were scheduled to rest today.  But there seems to have been a... change in the scheduling.  I do hope Miss Marle is resting comfortably in your stead?”

Lucca froze.  Was it possible that he knew already?  She thought she had covered her tracks well enough, but then, that was just to hoodwink a certain junior assistant director who took her job too seriously, not the full-blown Director himself.  Was he really keeping tabs on her that closely?

“She had a pretty rough day,” Lucca allowed.

“So I noticed.  I was rather displeased by how Assistant Director Morris handled that whole situation in the armory.  Whatever else Miss Marle may be, she is still a guest of the enclave, and her desire to join the Protectors was genuine enough to warrant proper training.  I fear we have treated her poorly.  Please extend my personal apologies to her, as well as my pledge that she will be permitted to re-take the Protector's trial if she chooses to.”

Lucca released the breath she didn't know she was holding and smiled at Doan's generosity.  She really shouldn't have expected any less after his patient tutelage of her on the finer points of computer science over the past week.

“Thanks.  I'll do that,” Lucca said gratefully, then found herself reddening at the whole affair.  “Sorry about this.  I don't mean to cause you any trouble, Frank.”

Doan's eyes glinted with amusement.  “If you are referring to your rather clever subterfuge in Junior Assistant Director Evans' scheduling system, please don't apologize.  I have contemplated that I may have promoted Miss Evans too quickly.  There is more to a supervisory role than mere efficiency.  One must be aware of the people around them and cater to their needs with empathy.  It is a lesson she must take to heart if she expects people to respect her leadership.”

Lucca quirked her mouth.  “I hope you're not offering me her job, because I don't want it.”

“Oh, no,” the Director chuckled.  “That would be quite the waste of your talents.  In fact, it is principally the matter of your talent that led to my summoning you just now.  You have demonstrated sufficient knowledge of our systems and technology now to undertake a task I had hoped you would be able to manage from almost the first moment we met.”

Frank Doan's expression then turned very serious.

“The enclave has a problem, Lucca.  One that could be qualified as an existential threat, both to Bangor and to the entirety of the human race.”

Lucca stared at him for a long moment, and her heart tingled with sudden dread.  There was a certain... terror behind Doan's carefully crafted demeanor.  It was almost too subtle to notice, but a good student always perceived things in their teachers that no one else would catch.  Anything which terrified Frank Doan was a matter to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

“What's the problem?” she asked.

“The enertrons.”

Lucca sat back in her chair and felt her blood turn cold.

“As you know, our equipment is quite old,” Doan continued.  “Most of it dates from before the Day of Fire, and our most recently built enertron has been confirmed to have been made almost forty years before that.  Serving as a nearly total substitute for food was something these machines were never intended to do.  Not on this scale, and not for so very long.”

“You think they're failing!”

Doan's face was even.  “Perhaps they are.  Perhaps they are merely showing their age.  Or, perhaps...”

“...They already have?” Lucca finished breathlessly.

“There is sufficient evidence to say it could be so.  I am old enough to have seen many generations of enertron users go about their lives.  The process has been gradual enough to have been missed by most, but it is evident that every successive generation of enclave citizens have been less vigorous, less healthy, than the one that came before.  And then there was the arrival of yourself, Mister Crono, and Miss Marle, who, it must be said, are demonstrably healthier than any man or woman has been in decades.  And it is also evident, at least to me, that the three of you are quite new to enertron sustenance.  This begs the question of where you could possibly be from that would enable you to survive so, but that is a matter for another time.  What matters at this moment is that everything I have related to you suggests a serious issue with enertron sustenance.  This must be investigated.”

Lucca took a lengthy interval to collect her wits and recall everything she had seen and witnessed in the few days she had been a guest of the Bangor enclave.  There was much truth in what Director Doan was saying.  She didn't have the benefit of experience or decades-worth of observations, but she had enough to make the same general hypothesis, now that Frank had alerted her to the problem.  The enertrons were failing.  Or worse.

Perhaps more seriously, Doan's analysis of Lucca, Crono, and Marle was leading him frightfully close to their origins as time-travelers.  She was getting the distinct impression that Doan was being cagey and already knew, or suspected, more than he was saying on that particular question.  That would make matters immeasurably more complicated if the enertron machines were, in fact, failing.  No book Lucca had ever read provided any insight into how to solve the ethical dilemma that was rapidly developing around her.  Without the enertrons, most of the enclave's population would be dead inside of a week.  The food stores were simply too minuscule for the enclave to survive longer than that with 1,500 mouths to feed.

“What about the seeds?” Lucca asked desperately.  “You told me the granary was fully stocked with almost every type of crop.  Is it possible...?”

“It wouldn't be enough,” Doan said.  “And that underscores humanity's most fundamental problem of the age: where to plant the seeds.  The underground isn't large enough to sustain a crop that can feed everyone, even if we could get it to grow under such conditions.  The operation would have to be moved to the surface, and that has long been an indefensible position against mutant attacks, to say nothing of the continual drought and the poor soil quality outside the dome.  No enclave's attempt to create an agriculture program has ever succeeded.  Not in three-hundred years.  Our seed archive exists as a symbol of hope more than a practical solution to our problems, I am sad to say.”

Lucca sighed.  The answer was about what she expected, but a drowning woman grasped for whatever she could find.

“What do you need me to do, then, Frank?  I'd be happy to examine the enertrons, but I'm honestly not sure how much help I'd be.  You know that technology a lot better than I do.”

“Perhaps.  And I would be less than honest if I claimed that I didn't already have a suspicion of the scope and particulars of the problem.  However, my position makes me and my Operators susceptible to a certain... bias.  We all tend to approach a problem in the same way, you see, and my junior associates are loath to not follow the methods and lead of their superiors, even if it leads them to a false conclusion.  A second opinion is needed, and for that second opinion to have value it must come from outside the enclave.  For that reason I cannot share my full suspicions with you at this time, but invite you to deduce the truth of things yourself and then share them with me as you are able.  It is not impossible you may come to a different conclusion than I, and we will then have to consider the merits of each.  Solving the problem requires that we first correctly identify it.”

“Right,” Lucca nodded curtly.  “You can count on me.”

“I know I can,” Doan said warmly.  “You are an exceptional student, perhaps the best I have ever taught, yet you retain the flexibility of an independent mind.  The enclave dearly needs that right now.  But do not feel pressured to complete my request with undue haste.  It is more important to be thorough than to be quick on this matter.  I wish you luck with your investigation, Miss Lucca.”

Let's hope I don't need it, Lucca thought as she quickly strode out of Director Doan's office and began grappling with the problem in her head.  She suspected the remaining pages of her diary would be filled very quickly.


      *      *      *


The hatch of Marle's enertron was already open by the time she reluctantly returned to the realm of the conscious.  She felt the bones in her spine crackle as she stretched her lithe form atop the gray upright-angled bed of the machine, but the sensation of early morning vigor and renewal gave no satisfaction.  It took only a moment's reflection for Marle to remember why she was in the enertron again so soon after her previous marathon session, and she turned on her face and grabbed the less than comfortable padding in the manner of a teenager who was profoundly unhappy at the state of her life.  Which meant hard.  She wanted nothing better than to go back to bed again and let the hands of time tick by without her.  But it had been six hours, and Marle doubted she would be able to fall asleep again on her own without something like the enertron to wash her worries away into a temporary oblivion.

Maybe it was time to wash them away in a more literal sense, Marle thought.  She certainly needed a shower after her worthless exertions from yesterday.  Push-ups!  And for what?  Just so she could make a fool of herself wielding a weapon she had no business touching?  Marle pounded the enertron bed with her fist and turned around with a huff.  A very cold shower was what she needed to distract herself from that disgraceful memory.

She then started as she finally noticed her empty crossbow bolt quiver hanging by its strap over the small computer screen that controlled the enertron.  She didn't remember having put it there before she went to bed.  Marle always kept her things together in the far corner of the room, well away from both enertrons so no one would trip over anything.  Why was it here?  Everything else was where it normally was, she saw.

Marle turned to the enertron opposite hers and saw the blue light of active use shining through the small window of the closed hatch.  She shuffled over to the other machine and stood on her tiptoes to see Crono sleeping face-up inside.  According to the computer screen of his capsule, Crono's rejuvenation session had started less than fifteen minutes ago.  Had he put the quiver on Marle's machine just now?  She wasn't sure how many minutes had passed between the end of her own session and the moment she had actually woken up, so maybe he had left it there, but why would he?  The quiver wasn't really good for anything.  Just a reminder that she had a useless weapon, as if she needed reminding.

A reminder...

Are you trying to tell me something, Crono?

Crono Lantree was a bonafide expert on the art of fighting, Marle knew.  In the short time she had known him, Crono had demonstrated that he was not only strong and fast, but that he was always thinking.  Always seeing the next move and being able to execute it flawlessly, taking advantage of his opponent's weakness and enhancing his own strengths for maximum benefit.  He had used that talent to defeat Krawlie, and the mammoth Guardian machine.  And he had correctly predicted the risks of Marle using a weapon she clearly wasn't proficient with, however similar it was as a ranged weapon.  If she had used her own crossbow in the Protectors trial instead of the rifle, the results would surely have been very different, even with those pointless push-ups, but she couldn't use her crossbow because she didn't have any...

Marle started tittering in spite of herself.  Her problem was a simple one, and Crono had pointed it out with an equally simple gesture from beyond the veil of his slumber.  Stick with what you know, he was saying.  She didn't need to train with a new weapon, she needed to rearm the one she already had.

It was something she hadn't even considered since her crossbow was so archaic by the standards of this era.  Who needed a crossbow when there were rifles that could blow glassers in half with a single shot?  Crossbow bolts weren't something that would be kept in a modern armory anyway.  Those had been uncommon enough in her own time, with firearms supplanting everything and older weapons being relegated to the passions of hobbyists and extremely bored princesses.  Where could she possibly find crossbow ammunition in a world that had absolutely no reason to have it?

She wouldn't, of course.

That meant it had to be made.  The Makers!

Marle abandoned all thoughts of her cold shower and collected her belongings and rushed out of the room.  She wasn't sure what asking for help from the Makers would entail, but it was the one shot she had at redeeming herself and she wasn't going to miss this one.

She came into the lobby of Dormitory 7 at a trot and abruptly slowed, realizing it was the middle of the night.  More studious residents preferred this time to peruse the library computers along the walls due to the lack of other distractions, and Marle didn't want to disturb them unnecessarily.  Only a few people were present.

Lucca was one of them.

Marle very nearly called out to her, since it was now time for Lucca to get in the enertron herself after having surreptitiously exchanged her sleep time for Marle's.  But one look at Lucca's expression gave her pause.  It wasn't unusual for Lucca to be absorbed in her work.  Marle had seen her in that same chair, using that same computer, hour after repeated hour over the near week they had been in the enclave, when she wasn't off somewhere being tutored by Director Doan on the use of all of this crazy tech.  But she seemed different this time.  Felt different.  Her magnified blue-eyed gaze bore into the computer screen as if a mortal enemy were staring back at her.  Lucca barely even blinked.  Only her hands moved as she manipulated the displayed “windows” to show her more information or close out information she no longer needed to see.  Almost all of it appeared to be diagrams and formulas of some kind.  Lucca muttered something Marle couldn't quite make out, then changed windows again to grumble at another set of diagrams and formulas.  One of the pictures resembled an enertron machine.  Lucca then reached for her diary and made some quick notations before resuming her computer work.

I've never seen her this focused.  What is she working on?

Regardless, Marle decided that bothering her for any reason was probably a bad idea right now.  Lucca already had a surplus of irritability where Marle was concerned due to her repeated demands for help with the computers during their first days here, and their differing views on addressing their time-traveling origins had done nothing to deflate the tension.  Marle didn't want to test the temper that Lucca gamely kept a lid on most of the time over something as trivial as a bedtime reminder.  Not when she was this preoccupied.

Hunger would remind her soon enough, Marle reflected.  A bit of hunger was a fact of life for those who lived off of enertron machines, and that hunger began to hurt after so many hours away from the capsule.  Marle quietly crept her way around the library and left Lucca to her work, leaving Dormitory 7 behind to focus on her own problem.

Marle attracted a fair number of glances as she wandered around the too-same passageways of dispiriting grey that seemed ubiquitous to this future era, embellished only by badly fading directional markers and those glowing rods of cool light that made everything feel unnatural and lifeless.  When she'd first arrived at the enclave, those glances were entirely due to her extravagant clothing, jewelry, and comparatively healthy complexion, but there was little doubt now that those glances were either passively hostile or outright deriding.  Yes, she had been demanding during her early days here, Marle had to admit, but that was hard to help when even the most elementary tasks required an understanding of technology she simply didn't have.  She had become a beggar because she had no choice.  Add to that the humiliation of yesterday's trial, and there probably wasn't a single person in the enclave who wouldn't look at her askance.  Marle marched on, refusing to meet anyone's eyes until she found what she was looking for.

She made her way slowly to the opposite side of the enclave, not far from the seldom used entrance that Marle had passed through when she first came here.  The entrance led directly into the sewers, being about three-quarters of a mile, as the crow flew, from the location of Krawlie's lair.  It was widely considered too dangerous of a route for scouting parties to begin their sorties out of the enclave, and this was reflected by a couple of heavily-armed Protectors always being posted by the door to keep watch on things.  Marle avoided the guards' notice and turned the corner to a stairway leading down.  This was the lowest populated level of the enclave, the only one lower being where the granary and the classified computer database were housed.  A short distance from the bottom of the stairs was the entryway to Common Area 3, the exclusive domain of the Maker-caste.

Marle looked around the expansive space and found her natural inclination towards excitement when she was visiting someplace new surge to the forefront of her bearing.  Common Area 3 was nothing less than a full-blown factory.  Industrial equipment of every size and shape dominated the space, and there was a good bit of activity even at this time of night.  The enclave never had a shortage of things that needed to be repaired or modified.  Stuff was breaking down all the time, and it was principally the Makers job to make sure the inevitable mechanical and electrical misfortunes of the enclave remained at a manageable level.  They also manufactured the tools that the Operator-caste used to maintain the more advanced technology that only they knew how to handle, and the Protectors were entirely reliant on the Makers when they had a problem with their – Marle now realized were hard to use - weapons.  The Makers were arguably the most important of the enclave's castes, as the entire underground society of Bangor would grind to an unceremonious, and deadly, halt without them.

It's so much bigger than the dormitories, Marle observed.  Not to mention warm.  She could feel the heat from the surrounding foundry alcoves press against her bare arms and shoulders, and everyone working around them seemed to be sweating profusely.  She would definitely be needing that shower whenever she was done here.  No matter.  She would stay around as long as she needed to complete her task in the meantime.  Maybe she would start with one of the smaller...

“Can I help you, guest?”

Marle turned with a start to see a surprisingly heavy-set woman looming over her holding a wrench.  Her brow glistened with sweat, and her narrow eyes regarded Marle with, if not quite hostility, somewhat elevated indifference.  Though she hadn't met the domineering woman in person, Marle immediately recognized her from computer images as Assistant Director Chieko Vals, the leader of the Maker-caste, and the enclave's third in command.

No way she wouldn't have heard about what happened in the armory, Marle thought glumly.  Her all too brief excitement plummeted into a gutter of forlorn recrimination, and she fought to stay afloat in her self-made sea of censure.

“I need to have something made,” Marle said, putting on the bravest face she could.  “I used up the last of my ammunition getting to Bangor.  Can you make some that's compatible with this old crossbow?”  She held up her weapon for Vals to see.

“No,” the Assistant Director said without deigning to even look at the crossbow.

Marle's face fell.  “What?  But I need...”

“I know what you need,” Vals said darkly.  “I also don't care.  Thanks to you, rifle #57 has to be overhauled.  Full power discharges like the one you so foolishly unleashed causes considerable degradation of both the barrel and the capacitor.  Or did you think you were shooting something fresh off the assembly line?  It'll take no less than four days to repair, and I'm not about to put that job on hold just so you can play with your archaic toy.”

“So you won't help, then?” Marle said, dejected.

Vals gave her a withering look.  “My people are very busy, Miss... Marle, is it?  Generator three has a continual flutter.  Water pump eight is shut down pending engine replacement.  And the backup compressor for the granary is due for replacement as well.  I shouldn't have to tell you what could happen if that last job isn't finished on time.  The main compressor has no other back-up, and it's the single oldest piece of equipment in the whole enclave.  You've caused us enough trouble by taking one of our rifles out of service.  We don't have time to deal with any more of your nonsense.”

“But it's such an easy job!” Marle protested.  “My crossbow is a heck of a lot older than that 'compressor' thing you're talking about.  How hard can it be to...?”

Enough!” Vals barked harshly.  The Assistant Director gave a long huff through her nose and then directed a weary gaze at the floundering target of her ire.  “Go talk to Mary, then.  She just got back from an errand.  She'll either help you or she won't.  If she chooses not to, I'll expect you to leave.  I won't tolerate any more distractions here.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to fabricate a new barrel for the rifle you trashed.”

Assistant Director Vals lumbered off without another word, and Marle shook herself to regain what little remained of her composure.  Chieko Vals was a hard woman for a hard job, and speaking to her ever again was something Marle wouldn't contemplate lightly.

I guess I better go find this “Mary” she was taking about.

Marle strode through the Makers domain at a brisk pace, taking mind to stay out of the way of the caste's purposeful activity as much as possible.  A few short queries directed her to an even more sweltering area far to the rear of Common Area 3.  A large machine very similar to the power generator Marle remembered from the ZDF facility filled the space, and a diminutive passage branched off into near darkness just behind it.  Marle had to crouch to make her way through the tiny corridor.  The droning sound from the presumed generator machine was constant, and loud enough to cause her mild discomfort.

What is a Maker doing all the way back here? she wondered.  There was no one else around, and it looked as though very few people ever came this way.  The glow-bars were scant and much more widely spaced than she had seen anywhere else in the enclave, giving the place an eerie ambiance.  The sound of the generator gradually receded as Marle continued her stooped passage, and the oppressive heat began to subside.  Marle was beginning to wonder if Assistant Director Vals had simply lied to get rid of her.

She finally came out into a room that only seemed large because she had been stooped over for so long.  In reality it wasn't much bigger than a closet.  Various tools littered the space, and a couple of metal storage racks stood against one wall holding a multitude of objects Marle couldn't identify in the dim light.  A drab mattress that looked very much like a discarded enertron bed lie forgotten on the floor and was covered in blankets.  There was no sound aside from the now faint droning from the generator room.  There were no other outlets, either.

Marle leaned back against the wall with a weary sigh.  Vals had taken her for a ride all right, but she wasn't about to go back and give the AD a piece of her mind after the way she had been roasted over the events in the armory.  This was just one more way that the enclave was punishing her for her behavior and poor judgment, she decided.  What really hurt was that she knew she deserved it.

“Who's there?”

Marle was so startled by the sudden voice that she jumped back and then fell on her rear, her crossbow clattering to the floor.  She thought the room was empty!

A shadow rose up from the old enertron bed, and the blankets were tossed aside to reveal the figure beneath them.  A small person stood regarding Marle with mild consternation.

“What are you doing in my room?” the former shadow asked.  “Can't you see I was trying to catch a nap?  It's kinda late.”

Marle stared back at the individual in surprise.  Not a small person.  A child!  A little girl!

“I'm sorry,” Marle stammered, clambering to her feet.  “I didn't think anyone was actually back here.”

“What are you talking about?” the child asked.  She looked to be maybe ten years old.  “This has always been my space.  Why would you be back here if you weren't looking for me?  Everyone knows where I hide out.”

Marle shook her head.  “Assistant Director Vals sent me.  She said there was a Maker named Mary who might be able to take a job for me.  But... I guess she lied.”

“Chieko didn't lie!” the little girl pouted.  “I'm Mary!  How could you not know who I...?”  The red-haired child stepped closer.  “Oh, wait!  You're one of those three visitors who came here a few days ago, right?  I should have known from your clothes.  No one around here dresses like that.”

This was Mary?!  A little girl was working as a Maker?

“Why are you here by yourself?” Marle asked with concern, momentarily forgetting why she was here.  “Where are your parents?”

“Oh, they died.  Muties got 'em.”

Marle shuddered.  Not so much at the tragic revelation as the casual way the little girl had said it.  Her parents must have been gone for a long time.

“You said you had a job for me?” Mary asked.  “I just got done with one, but I guess I could take another.  The adults don't really need me right now.  They're all working on important stuff.  Chieko said I'd just be in the way.”

Marle closed her eyes and again lamented the recent direction of her fortunes.  How could she ask a little girl for help in the middle of the night?  Would she really be forced to stoop so low?  She had already been begging everyone else for help.

“I... don't want to be any trouble,” Marle said, deeply conflicted.

“It's no trouble!” Mary said with a touch of heat.  “Just because I'm a kid doesn't mean I can't make stuff.  And if you need something I can't make, I can find it!  I'm always finding stuff for people.”

“I don't think you'll be able to find what I need,” Marle said reluctantly.  “It's ammunition.  For a weapon that isn't made anymore.  That's what this is.”

Mary knelt down to examine Marle's crossbow with great interest.

“Oh, wow!  Is that a crossbow?   I've only seen one in pictures!  That's super, super rare!”

Marle sniffed with amusement. “I suppose so.”

“You're right.  I won't be finding stuff for this.  It's gotta be custom made.  That means the price is going up.”

Marle blinked.  “Huh?”

Mary regarded her with a quizzical frown.  “It's a one-of-a-kind weapon.  The ammunition would be one-of-a-kind, too.  I'd have to set up the foundry with a whole new pattern, and that's after I take all the measurements and find out what kind of scrap is best for the mould.  Scrap is really expensive because it's so dangerous to get more.  It's a really big job.  And because it's a custom order and not an enclave assignment from Chieko, the price goes up even more.  It's not every day I get a job like this one.  It costs, and I don't work for free.  How much of this ammunition do you want?”

An uneasy feeling was creeping into Marle's heart.  “My quiver holds up to 35 bolts,” she said.

Mary's eyes widened.  “That's a lot!  Are you sure you can afford this?  What do you have to trade for them?  You're a visitor, so I know you can't have any credits.”

And now we get to it, Marle thought.  The economy of the Bangor enclave was largely barter-based, though it did have a strange form of currency that existed solely in the computer systems that could be used to trade for certain goods and services.  The problem for Marle was that non-citizens didn't have access to a credit balance, and she wouldn't know how to use it even if she had one.  That left only barter, and that left Marle with some painful choices.

The bracelets, she decided.  The golden bands that so well complimented her outfit were the most logical things for her to put up as trading stock.  Gold had been a mainstay of value for pretty much all of recorded history, so Marle knew she could get a lot for them.  More importantly, the bracelets didn't have so much sentimental value that she couldn't do without them.  The fashion hit would hurt, no question, but Marle could endure it.

“How about this?” Marle asked, unclasping one of her bracelets and handing it to Mary.

The child looked at her as if she'd stated water was dry. “What about it?  This isn't worth much.”

Marle froze.  She couldn't have just heard that right.

“I couldn't even get 300 credits for this,” Mary said with a scowl.  “Do you think I'm dumb or something?”

“It's gold!”

“Yeah, and gold is just melted down for circuits and stuff.  We already got lots of that.”

This couldn't be happening, Marle thought.  She didn't know the credit system well enough to know what 300 of them were truly worth, but it was apparently a pittance.  Even if she put up every piece of gold she wore she wouldn't even get 1,500 for the set!  This future was truly demented!

And that brought another question to mind.

“Uh... Mary?  How much would you say this job is worth in credits?” Marle asked with trepidation.

The young Maker took a moment to think about it.

“Hm, depends on the scrap I use.  But it wouldn't be less than 12,000.”

“Twelve-thousand?!”

Mary grimaced at Marle's outburst.  “Why are you yelling at me?  It's the job, I can't help it!  I'd lose money if I asked for less than that.”

Marle found herself sliding down the wall, and her remaining jewelry tinkled as her bottom hit the floor.  “How...?   How could I possibly get that much?” she muttered faintly.

“Save money.  It'll do ya good.”

“But... I don't know how to make any money!” Marle exclaimed with frustration.  “I'm not even a citizen!”

“Well, what about that pendant you're wearing?  I've never seen a jewel that big.  Chieko could probably turn it into a really nice focusing lens for our energy guns  That'd be worth something.”

Marle shook her head quickly.  “Sorry.  That's not for sale.”  Sentimental value aside, there was no way of returning home without it.

Mary snorted derisively.  “You're not very good at this.  And I don't see you carrying much else.  What's in the satchel?”

“Um...”

Marle fingered the small satchel around her belt that held Queen Leene's music box.  Could she really pawn that off?  That had been a gift from Leene herself.  Her physical twin.  The music box meant almost as much to her as her pendant did.

What would Leene do?

With the utmost reluctance, Marle gently lifted the small music box out of its satchel and wound the key.  She placed the box on one of the racks next to Mary and let the lullaby play.

Mary put her ear to the box in wonder and stood completely still as the song played.  She turned to Marle with an expression of childish delight when the music came to a close.

“Oh, wow!  We don't have anything like this!  It has to be really old!”

“You have no idea,” Marle remarked.

Mary regarded the old music box with intense thought, her eyes shifting between cold appraisal and the undisguised avarice of a child in a toy shop.  “I don't think I can sell this, but... I really want it!  I'll give you, uh... 7,000 credit for it.  That's towards the job.  That makes my fee only 5,000.  How's that sound?”

Marle's face scrunched in anguish.  Little more than half the price in exchange for something she truly cherished, and she had nothing else to bargain with.  Adding her bracelets to the mix wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the balance.

“Hey, don't cry!” Mary said with concern.  “That price is for 35 bolts.  If you can't afford an extra 5,000 credits, why don't we reduce the order to 20 bolts instead and we can call it even?  I don't want to lose this deal!”

The despair that nearly consumed Marle at that moment abruptly vanished, and she gazed at the ceiling feeling a bit foolish.  Having her quiver fully stocked wasn't strictly necessary for what she needed to do, now that she really thought about it.

Still, giving away Leene's music box in exchange for having her weapon back would leave an open wound.  But she had no other options.  Marle reverently picked up the cherished gift from the shelf and then placed it into Mary's eager hands, her lips quivering with emotion.

“Okay, Mary,” Marle said in a husky tone.  “You've got a deal.”

Mary bounded on the balls of her feet in evident excitement, looking every bit the ten-year-old she was.  “Great!  Let's go get started, then,” she said.  “And don't worry about the music box.  I promise I'll never sell it, and you can come by and listen to it any time you want!”

The bargain struck, Mary stowed the precious artifact among the numerous odds and ends on her storage racks and then led Marle back through the diminutive passage from her modest hideaway towards the much warmer sections of Common Area 3.

“I haven't seen any other children among the residents here,” Marle said, deciding to make some small talk with the girl she had just bargained with.  “How many are there?”

“Oh, just me.”

Marle balked.  “What?  You mean you're all alone?”

“Yeah.  But it's okay,” Mary said.  “The other Makers all like me.  They don't yell at me much.  Just at each other.  How old are you?  You look younger than everyone else.”

“I'm sixteen.  So are my friends Crono and Lucca.”

“Wow, that makes you guys younger than Junior Assistant Director Evans.  She's twenty-two, I think.  She's the next youngest person after me.  It must be nice having friends your own age.  Have you always been together?”

“Crono and Lucca have.  They grew up in the same tow..., uh, place.  I just sort of...” she tittered.  “...stumbled into their path.  And we've been more or less together ever since.”

“I haven't always lived in Bangor.  I was born in Trann.  My dad was a merchant that traveled between the enclaves.  At least that's what everyone says.  I'm too young to remember.  'Save money, it'll do ya good?'  My dad used to say that.  It was his motto.  So saying it makes me feel closer to him, like he never died.  What about your parents?  Are they still alive?”

Marle halted her pace for a moment at the pull of painful memories.  “My mom isn't,” she said softly.  “She died when I was only six.  My father, well...”

Mary turned to face her in the gloom of the small passage.  “It's okay.  You don't have to tell me.  You must have a reason for coming all the way to Bangor.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation drifted off as Marle and Mary got closer to the generator room, where it was too hard to talk over the endless drone of whatever process the giant machine used to generate electrical power for the enclave.  Marle closed her eyes against the brutal heat.  The two then made their way through the fabrication section, where numerous Makers were currently putting together small parts and components for the enclave's many machines and other pieces of equipment.  Marle thought she saw Chieko Vals over to one side and made sure she stayed well clear of her.

“I never told you my name,” Marle said.  “It's Marle.”

“Limova is my last name,” Mary said.  “But nobody calls me that.  I think it's a grown-up thing, people calling each other by their last names.  Do you have a last name?”

Marle colored.  “Uh...  Not really.”

“I guess that means you're not really a grown-up, then,” the young Maker teased.  “That gives us something in common.”

More of Marle's titters followed the child Maker as she found herself back where she had started in this domain of the Maker-caste.  The activity in the foundries hadn't lessened at all, and much of the equipment Marle could see was being used in furious purpose.  The people all around were focused intently on their jobs and didn't pay Mary or Marle any mind.

It was amazing that a child could grow up and live in such an industrious environment, Marle thought.  And Mary's confidence in her skills didn't feel at all forced or false, like she truly belonged here among the hard working adults and was happy for it.  Yet Marle couldn't help but feel it was a tragic fate for a young girl so full of life.

“Is it hard being a Maker?” Marle asked.

“Sometimes,” Mary replied.  “Mostly it's just a lot of running around looking for stuff.  It's a lot more fun when I'm actually making things.  Though it does get pretty hot in the foundries.  And by the fabricators.  And the generator, too.  Actually, it's pretty hot all through here.”

“I noticed.  Especially in the generator room.  Is it always like this?”

“Yeah, everyone's always sweating.  And we never have anything cool to drink, either.  The water pipes all go behind our machines to help keep them from getting too hot, so the water coming out of the faucets is always warm.  Sometimes people sneak off to the dormitories early to drink the cooler water there, but that makes Chieko really mad.  Says it wastes too much time, and that the enertrons can cool people off during the juvee sessions, which everyone has to do anyway since there's no food.”

“But you weren't sleeping in an enertron back in your hideout,” Marle pointed out.  “That's why I was so startled when you suddenly popped out of bed.  I thought that everyone here slept in enertrons.”

“We do.  But I don't really like the enertrons.  I always feel a bit funny when I get out of one, like the machine's taken away a part of me I can never get back.  That's why I only stay in them a short time and do the rest of my sleeping in my hideout.  It doesn't get very hot back there.  That's why I like it.”

Taking away a part of you, Marle thought.  She couldn't remember feeling a similar sensation after her own sessions, though she didn't much care for the enertrons either.  They were restful only in the moment, and never particularly energizing.

Mary and Marle strode up to one of the unoccupied foundry stations, and the young Maker opened a rust-colored door in a nearby cabinet to reveal a multitude of tools and protective gear inside.  She drew out a measurement tape and motioned for Marle to place her crossbow on the table.

“Okay, lets see what kind of dimensions the crossbow can work with,” Mary said.  “Then we'll talk about the kind of scrap we'll need to use to forge the new bolts.”

“Will they be harder than iron?” Marle wondered aloud.

Mary looked at her peculiarly.  “Are you kidding?”


      *      *      *


The cool water cascaded in rivers across Marle's skin, and her unbound hair lay satisfyingly plastered against her naked back.  Being in Common Area 3 for the better part of the early morning was an experience marginally shy of being inside a volcano, and Mary had been generous in describing that section's faucets as merely “warm”.  Becoming a Maker had never been high, or on, Marle's list of things she wanted to accomplish in the enclave, and after this morning she would add it to the list of things she actively wanted to avoid contemplating, though she had learned a few elementary aspects of how the Makers' equipment worked and how they tackled the art of repair and fabrication.  But the toil and sweat had been worthwhile.  Five shining crossbow bolts of forged steel now rested in her quiver, with the remaining fifteen bolts of her order expected to be completed before tonight.

It felt good to not be completely useless.

Mary had taken a break in order to have a scheduled three-hour enertron session, and Marle had taken the cue to refresh herself in a more pleasant fashion back in her own dormitory.  The women's bathroom was happily empty of other souls, and Marle took advantage of the solitude by standing under the streaming water of the shower for a length of time that any other resident of the enclave would have considered indulgent in the extreme, despite the abundance of clean water and its continual recycling.  Amelia Evans had given her several bothersome lectures on water conservation, another source of friction between Marle and the JAD.

Marle spent an additional five minutes letting the forceful spray engulf her face and contentedly slicking her golden hair back with her hands before grabbing her towels – tan, of course, like every other garment in the enclave – and exiting the shower stall with her body and hair fully wrapped in them.  She regarded herself in the mirror and braved a smile.  The face of Queen Leene was staring back at her.  She had done good today.  Perhaps, for the first time, she had demonstrated a level of generosity in keeping with her ancient ancestor.  Mary Limova would be a good keeper for Leene's music box, cherishing it no less than Marle had for the short time it was in her possession.  It would always be on her shelf, waiting to be played, every night or free moment to lull young Mary into contentment after a hard day of work.

Very hard.

The heat.  The scrounging.  The horse-trading.  The endless sweat and toil.  The eternal hunger, and a rest that took as much as it gave.  Every day the same, and only a music box to numb the pain that Mary had to feel every moment of every hour deep inside.  No father.  No mother.  No friends, and no sunshine to share with them.  Only work.  That was Mary Limova's future.

The tears came before Marle could stop them, and knowing she was alone in the bathroom persuaded her to just let go of her always fragile emotional balance and embrace the chaos.

“Mary...” she sobbed.  “You deserve so much better than this.”

Marle fumbled for the faucet handles below the mirror and splashed water on her now burning face to relieve the sting.

Or tried to.

Ice cubes fell out of her hands instead.

Marle regarded the fragments of ice in the sink's basin with stunned bewilderment.  What had just happened?  Even the water in this part of the enclave wasn't that cold.  In fact, ice was one of the rarest things to be seen in the enclave proper.  Only the granary on the enclave's lowest level was kept cold enough to keep water frozen, and entry was highly restricted since that was where all of the enclave's food was kept, as well as the seed archive that was key to one day restoring the world's agriculture.

Turning the faucet on again revealed nothing but normal running water.  Cool, but far from frozen.

Of course, frozen water would never have come out of the faucet to begin with, Marle thought.  Nothing would have come out of it at all.

It wasn't the faucet, it was her!

Marle thought back to her desperate stand in the ruins of old Bangor; her, Crono, and Lucca holding back a wave of glasser mutants from behind a warped and failing door.  That should have been the end of their adventures through time, as well as their lives, but it wasn't.  For reasons that continued to elude her, Marle had channeled powerful elemental magic at the moment of catastrophe, encasing all of their attackers in frozen death before passing out.  She didn't even think about it, as much as her addled memory could recall.  Never called upon her usual concentration that channeled her restorative and energy-draining abilities.  She just did it.  No explanation at all.

But that wasn't wholly true.  Indeed, she hadn't been thinking, but she was doing something else.  Feeling.  Feeling they were about to die.  Feeling that everyone's deaths would be her fault.  Feeling that she had lived almost her entire short and tragic life without any friends.

She had been in despair.  Total and complete despair.  Her spirit had broken.

And then her spirit had risen back with astonishing vengeance.

“How about you think all that stuff and then throw your hands around or something?”  That was what Lucca had told her, facing the glassers above Krawlie's lair, but Marle had been utterly spent at that moment.  Truly on her last legs and ounce of strength.  Nothing had happened at all.

But something was happening now.  She felt.  She grieved.  She lamented.

And she now had strength.

Marle turned on the faucet a third time, let the water spill into her waiting hands, and then instead of merely concentrating, she felt.  Remembered how she felt when her mother died, when her father turned cold, when Crono had been sentenced to die, when everyone had been stranded in the future because of her.  And she remembered Mary.  All the misery and anguish she had ever felt was in the forefront of her memory as Marle looked at the cupped water in her hands.

It solidified into a wintry block.

Marle had just become a Maker.

2
Fan Fiction / A novel fragment - Flight of the Man
« on: April 09, 2024, 11:47:10 pm »
Chapter 29 - Flight of the Man

The long walk to sector 32 of the Bangor ruins wasn't as uneventful as Crono had hoped.  Two glasser mutants had to be dealt with before the time-travelers even made it past the tenth block heading north.  Dispatching them hadn't been difficult.  Lucca, with her new plasma pistol given to her by Director Doan, had done the job almost all by herself, landing all twelve shots she fired and leaving the red-skinned abominations reeling enough for Crono to finish them off with no real effort.  Things had become more tense at the end of the eastern leg, when five glassers approached them from two directions.  Crono, Marle, and Lucca all had to drop their backpacks to fight the fiends effectively, and the charge on Lucca's new gun had dropped to a dangerous level by the time the last glasser stopped twitching.  Doan's pistol could fire up to twelve consecutive shots at normal power and speed before needing to recharge from its internal capacitor, which was a process that took up to a full minute.  Lucca had been forced to fire only single shots near the end of the engagement, necessitating Marle to take a much larger role in the fight than any of them wanted.  The battery pack that Lucca carried in her satchel had several hundred normal shots-worth of power, which could be employed whenever the gun's capacitor became low on energy.  Marle only had the thirty-five crossbow bolts in her quiver.  Wasting any of those on mutants here would leave fewer to deal with unknown threats in the ruins of Arris.  Two of the five bolts she fired had been completely imbedded in the glasser corpses through their eyeballs and couldn't be recovered in any acceptable amount of time in the open ruins, so they were forced to leave them behind and continue on their way.  A comparatively short walk further north brought them into the declared red zone of sector 32.

“There's the sign.  Thank the Divine,” Marle said.

It was the rickety remains of a street sign, labeled “stop”, that Crono guessed had been placed erect by Director Doan sometime after he had sealed his vehicle away.  It was implanted in a small pile of rubble in the middle of the street rather than where it would normally be on the side of the road, so he knew it had to have been placed deliberately as a landmark.  A shadowy descent lie a short distance to their right, situated between two decaying buildings of stunted height.

“How's your gun, Lu?  Ready to brave the shadows?” he asked.

Lucca tipped her glasses and held her gun aloft in one hand.  “Good to go.”

“Let's hope this vehicle's still okay,” Marle said.  “It's been sitting here for over thirty years, right?”

“Gotta think it's okay,” Crono said.  “Mutants don't feed on machines.  Just us.  Let's keep our eyes open until we know the place is clear.”

Marle turned on the flashlight modification of her crossbow and gingerly led the way down into the dark, Crono and Lucca flanking her position from just behind.  Going lights on was a bit of a risk since mutants were always attracted by the glare, but if the vehicle was here they had no choice but to clear out the area anyway.  Crono made ready to slip off his backpack and draw his sword in an instant.  Lucca kept her gun in a two-handed grip and slowly panned her aim, scanning for any threats.

The underground area was fairly small, perhaps no bigger than the entirety of Dormitory 7 back at the enclave.  A brief examination showed the only outlet being the ramp they had just descended.  Sitting off to the right side of the otherwise empty space was a large narrow object about forty feet in length covered by some type of tarp.  Marle circled the object at a distance moving to her left, splashing the beams of her flashlights across the tarp and then focusing on the unrevealed shadows on the object's far side.  Nothing was seen except bare concrete.

“Clear!” she called out.

“All right, let's get this tarp off and see what we're dealing with,” Crono said.

Marle kept her flashlights spotted on the unknown vehicle and occasionally looked back up the ramp for mutant threats while Crono and Lucca got to work on removing the tarp.  Decades-worth of dust rolled off the covering as it came off, causing a fair bit of coughing for all present.  Everyone was expecting to stare in great interest at whatever the dusty tarp finally revealed.

Instead they were completely transfixed.

The vehicle was quite unlike any they had ever seen.  It didn't resemble a steam buggy so much as a giant dart.  A two-tone dart of blue and gold with more wing than wheel.  The narrow seating compartment was completely enclosed by a canopy of glass and was resting atop a strange hollow that dominated the whole front end of the vehicle.  On either side of the hollow at the very front was a small metal wing angled downward that Crono had no clue as to the function of.  Further back were two larger wings extending rearward from the vehicle's center that grew gradually wider until coming to an abrupt halt at the vehicle's far aft.  Above the canopy was another slightly smaller hollow that tapered back to a sharp wedge at the very rear.  Below and a bit in front of this wedge were three more hollows with apertures facing rearward.  Most everything above the wings was painted in blue, while everything below the wings was painted in gold, both colors sparkling where Marle's flashlights played across the vehicle's surface.  The lightning bolt and fireball emblem on the key Doan had given them was duplicated prominently on either side of the wedge fin.  Crono felt the vehicle's metallic skin with fascination.  It was totally smooth.  Crono's gaping expression stared back at him from the blue.

“Lucca?  Did you ever...?”

“No,” Lucca told him.  “I never saw anything like this on the computers.”

“It's beautiful!” Marle said in wonder.  “Whoever built this was as much an artist as an engineer.”

“No doubt,” Lucca chuckled.  “I wonder at the practicality, though.  It has almost no carrying capacity that I can see.  Just what's under that canopy.  I wonder if we can even all fit in there?”

Crono rose on the balls of his feet to peer inside the glass.  “There's three seats, all in a row front to back,” he related.  “Gonna be pretty tight with the packs, but I think we can do it.”

“Three seats?  It's almost like it was made for us,” Marle mused.

Crono didn't believe in that level of coincidence.  He was just happy enough that things seemed to be going their way.  He checked the vehicle's skin around the canopy for any levers or controls that might get the canopy open, praying it wasn't stuck in place from the vehicle sitting around unused for thirty years.  Nothing stuck out at him, though.  The skin and the canopy both seemed unblemished.

“Let me see it,” Lucca said.  “Marle, get the light in tight, would you?”

Lucca saw it before Crono did: an almost invisible square-shaped switch the size of his thumb that was contoured perfectly with the vehicle's skin.  Lucca pressed the switch inward about half an inch, and a light thudding sound was heard coming from somewhere just inside the canopy.  A moment later, the canopy began rising sideways to the vehicle's left in a slow smooth motion.

“That's some really precise engineering there,” Lucca remarked approvingly.

Crono wasted no time climbing into the vehicle's front seat, pulling his backpack in behind him and stuffing it as best he could in the confined space.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Lucca protested.

“I got the key, I call the seat,” Crono smirked back at her.

Lucca scoffed.  “You're such a child, Crono!  You've never even driven a steam buggy before.  I know dad wouldn't let you even touch the wheel of ours, Anne be praised.”

“First time for everything.  How hard can it be?”  Crono settled himself and regarded the controls in front of him.  As expected, the vehicle had a wheel - of sorts - directly in front of him, and there were a couple of pedals he could feel with his feet below.  But the wheel was quite small and wasn't shaped anything like a circle, though it did turn a bit, and the pedals wouldn't depress.  There was also a lot more.  A square pane of glass, probably a viewscreen of some sort, faced him from between his legs, and there were dozens of buttons and switches on the consoles to either side of the strangely shaped wheel.  The controls altogether looked more like a small computer terminal than the simple control scheme of dials and levers found on a steam buggy of his time.  Maybe this wouldn't be quite as easy as he thought.

“See?  Everything's computerized,” Lucca said smugly.  “That means this is my show.  Come on, switch out and let me show you how it's done.  We'll be driving off inside of an hour.”

Crono grumbled.  Lucca was probably right.  Computers tripped him up almost as much as they did Marle if he attempted anything beyond the most basic operations.  Still, if he was going to be driving a vehicle for the first time, he wanted it to be this one.  Nothing for it but to put in the key and see.  He'd examine the controls further once he turned the vehicle on and then pass the task on to Lucca – maybe - if he couldn't figure it out.  Bringing the long key out of his pocket, he inserted it into what looked like a matching slot just above the presumed viewscreen and turned it.

A glowing circle appeared around the key as soon as it was fully turned.  The buttons and switches all around Crono then started lighting up in groups, and a low pitched whine began to sound from somewhere behind the canopy.

“All right, Crono, don't start getting any funny ideas,” Lucca warned.

Crono laughed.  Computerized or not, the functions of the wheel and the pedals would certainly be the same as on a steam buggy.  Why would that be changed?  He might not even need to use the other stuff anyway.

“Come on, you two.  Find yourselves a seat,” Crono said eagerly.  “The sooner we can get to Arris, the better.”

“I agree with Crono,” Marle said, deftly scrambling into the seat behind his.  “The noise from this thing is bound to attract mutants if we don't leave in a hurry.  We can figure things out as we go.”

“Figure things out as we go?!” Lucca said, flabbergasted.  “There's a difference between knowing how a vehicle drives and knowing how it actually functions!  I don't even know what kind of engine it uses!”

“You want to take it apart?  Fill out the rest of your diary dissecting this thing while glassers are wandering about looking for their next meal?” Crono asked disdainfully.

“Well, no, but I...”

“Ain't no one takin' the Comet apart!” came a shrill voice.

In the next instant, the steering wheel and the floor pedals all retracted from Crono's reach.  Crono, Marle, and Lucca all looked around in sudden alarm.  Who was that who just spoke?

Crono tried to get out of the vehicle quickly to investigate the sudden intrusion, but the tight fit impeded his efforts.  No one else was supposed to be out here.  He knew there were no active scavenging runs going on, and sector 32 was a red zone anyway.  No one could cross into a red zone without Director Doan's express permission.  Could it be a traveler from outside of the Bangor enclave, perhaps?  Such travelers were exceedingly rare.

“Who's there?!” Lucca called out to the dark surroundings.  “This is a red zone!  We thought we were the only ones here!”

“What you talkin' 'bout, girl?  You blind or somethin'?” came the unknown voice again.  “You in the presence of 'da Man.”

Crono looked around in befuddlement.  The voice didn't seem to be coming from anywhere around them, it seemed to be coming from the vehicle itself.  But that didn't make any sense.  Crono and the others had checked the vehicle thoroughly.  There was no one hiding inside the hollows, and for the life of him Crono couldn't imagine anywhere else on the vehicle large enough to hold a man even if there was some access he wasn't aware of.  He assumed the entire rear end behind the canopy held the engines or other vital equipment.

“Da... who?” Lucca said uncertainly.

“Da Man, baby!” the voice crowed.  “Alias for old Johnny Comet!  Grand Champion of '97, '98, and '99!  Fastest racer there ever was, or ever will be.”

Racer?

Crono looked down at the controls.  A face was staring back at him.  From the viewscreen.

“Wait,” Marle called out.  “Where exactly are you?”

“I'm all around you, baby!”

There was no question.  The visage in the viewscreen had just talked.  It was a cartoonish depiction of a dark-skinned man with an exceptionally odd hairstyle consisting of a strip of black strands in the middle of an otherwise bald scalp, sticking almost straight up as if reaching for something.  He was wearing wildly angled opaque glasses and an orange vest that looked to be made of metal rather than cloth, the bulb of a large flashlight device prominently displayed in the center of his chest.  Oddest of all were the things he was wearing on his back.  They appeared to be tires.

“Uh... Lucca?” Crono uttered.

Lucca bent over where Crono was sitting from outside of the open canopy, staring at the odd visage with evident disbelief.  Marle got out of her seat to goggle at the face from over Crono's opposite shoulder.

“Are you... the vehicle?” Lucca inquired.

The face appeared to scoff.  “Vehicle?!  Do I look like a garbage truck to you, Violet?  I'm 'da Man!  What would you go turnin' me on for if ya didn't know who I was?”

Lucca gaped in astonishment.  “It's an artificial intelligence!  Integrated into the computer systems of this vehicle!  There's still one of them left!”

An artificial intelligence, Crono thought.  Just like what the homicidal robots of Arris were said to possess to some degree.  He very nearly went for his sword right then, but stopped the thought before the impulse reached his hand.  Director Doan had used this very vehicle to escape Arris and its malfunctioning robots, after having sabotaged them to prevent any more machine on human carnage.  There couldn't be any danger.  That “worm” thing Doan had mentioned would have caused the vehicle to destroy itself if it were present the moment it left the vicinity of Arris.  That meant he saw no reason to install it in the first place.

“You called yourself Johnny Comet, right?” he asked.

“In the sheet-metal, bro!  You talkin' to the car who ain't never lost a race.  Hit over a thousand my very first time on the track and I wasn't even tuned up yet.  Nearest chump finished thirty seconds behind me.”

“A... thousand?” Marle asked with a frown.

“Ohhh, yeah, baby!  Said it couldn't be done back in '97, but I showed them!  Wanna see the reaction on their faces when I did it?”

The viewscreen shifted from the ridiculous cartoon visage to an image of a crowd with astounded faces.  A healthy and very well dressed crowd that knew nothing of want or enertron sickness, from all appearances.

“You date from the age of the domes!” Lucca said.  “That's incredible!”

The image shifted back.  “You know it, sister.  They made Johnny Comet to last.  So what you doin' turnin' me on?  Need a ride somewhere?”

“We need to get to the ruins of Arris,” Marle said.  “Director Doan said you could get us there fast.”

The cartoonish figure's face grew in size, as if moving closer to the screen, and donned a wicked smile.  “You need to get to Arris fast?  You talkin' to the right car!  Sweetness!  Been awhile since I stretched my legs.  The Trans-C ain't the same without 'da Man.”

“Trans-C?  What's that?”

“Probably slang for the Transcontinental Highway,” Lucca said.

“Fast is good,” Crono said, feeling more confident by the second.  “Well, if you can put your controls back where I can reach them, Johnny, we can be on our way.  I'm assuming you moved them before?  We shouldn't waste much time with mutants wandering around outside.”

Johnny Comet's gleeful expression disappeared.

“Oh, no, bro.  That ain't the way it works,” the artificial intelligence said darkly.  “Ain't no one drive Johnny Comet but Johnny Comet!  Been my rule since some blue-haired maniac take me for a joyride back in '98 and scratched up my paint!”

Crono wasn't sure he heard that right.

“You can drive yourself?”

“Who you think you talkin' to?  Ya want something done right, do it yourself!  I'll show you how to get to Arris fast!”

The low whine coming from behind the canopy then abruptly raised in pitch, went down just as quickly, then raised up and down again several times.  The vehicle shook where it sat on the pavement, as if it were a bull raring to charge.

“I think that's our cue to sit down,” Lucca remarked, looking white in the face.

“Buckle up ladies and gent.  We gonna fly!” Johnny Comet said with manic enthusiasm.

Lucca quickly clambered into the back seat, while Crono and Marle pulled sturdy-looking straps down from the top of their seats across their chests and locked them in place to a securing ring across their stomachs, doing the same thing with straps to either side and from below per Johnny's instructions.  The canopy of the blue and gold racer closed with a gentle thunk and sealed itself with an audible hiss.  Crono's heart hammered in his chest.  They weren't even moving, and somehow Crono knew the next few moments would be the most thrilling of his life.  That anyone should have to be secured to a vehicle's seat with six straps implied an astonishing level of performance.

“You ready back there, Lu?”

“Oh yeah.  Perfect.  Back here I know I won't be the first one to die if we crash,” Lucca replied with a nervous laugh.

Crono snorted.  “We're set here, Johnny.  Ready when you are.”

“That's what I wanna hear!” Johnny Comet said.  “Let's rock!

A very loud piece of music suddenly began to play within the canopy, with intense chords and a rapidly kicking rhythm, and the vehicle known as Johnny Comet kicked out of its place of long slumber just as suddenly.

Crono saw three glasser mutants at the top of the ramp directly in their path.

“Look out!” he warned.

“Psh!  Roadkill,” Johnny said dismissively.

Johnny Comet began his turn before reaching the ramp's apex, sliding his right side directly into the mutants and sending them flying across the street to crash violently into the buildings on the other side in a cloud of dust.  The stop sign landmark was the next casualty.  Johnny then blazed a path down the street heading south, turning east, then south, then west, then south again at a rate of speed far in excess of anything on the ground Crono could conceive.  He cried out in delight at the vehicle's furious motion, the acceleration out of the turns, the way the seat straps and buckle pressed into his skin.  The opening seconds of this mad dash to Arris had already exceeded his expectations.  And for all of the risks taken maneuvering in such a way when the streets were filled with rubble, Johnny somehow didn't run into anything.  The rubble might as well not even have been there.

It was like foot-racing in the streets of Truce City at peak pedestrian hours, never knowing precisely what was waiting for you around the next corner, only about fifty times as fast.  A Truceian street racer often risked humiliation, detainment by the police, or actual injury every time they got truly serious on their makeshift racetrack.  Johnny Comet risked a lot more than that at every corner and was laughing at the danger, letting it fuel his advance, fearing nothing except being too slow.  This while not even racing anyone.  Marle's joyous laughter filled the narrow cabin.  Lucca's cries were a thin hair short of hysteria.

Almost before he was conscious of it, the shattered archway marking the entrance to Bangor from the road Crono remembered walking under that first day in the city was past them, and Johnny Comet and his passengers were on the Transcontinental Highway heading east.  The giant road to Arris stretched to the horizon in front of them.

Goodbye, Bangor.  Stay safe until we can fix things.

The racer's radical lateral motions then diminished to a more stately juking between holes in the road's pavement, and Crono felt himself being pressed even harder into the back of his seat.  He was expecting greater acceleration outside of the ruins, but not like this.  It felt like two heavy men were sitting on his chest trying to force his breath out.  This thing was now traveling faster than one of Marle's crossbow bolts could fly.

Crono willed himself not to worry.  The most hazardous part of the trip, outside of Arris itself, was probably behind them now.  There were no sharp corners he remembered seeing on the computer generated map back in the enclave.  Just a gradual turn southeast as the highway carved through the eastern half of the Tarvor mountains, and then it was over two-thousand miles of straight empty road and bridge.  At these speeds, if Johnny could sustain them, they might reach Arris in as little as two days, three at the most.  Crono had to laugh at the notion of a three month trip reduced to as many days.

So why did it feel like he was forgetting something important?

“The beam!  By Creation, the beam!” Lucca cried out at the top of her lungs.

There was no time to comment on what was coming.  Barely any time to lament the thing Crono had forgotten about.  The giant slab of steel, a remnant of one of Bangor Dome's main structural members, thrown out here in the explosive chaos of the Day of Lavos, was lying across all eight lanes of the road directly in front of them.  They would hit it in under two seconds.  Crono's life flashed before him.

Johnny Comet skirted left, leaving the road and running up the short hill the time travelers had climbed over their first time here to get around the immense obstacle.  He wasn't on the hill long.

Crono, Marle, and Lucca screamed.  The ground could no longer be seen, nor could it be felt through the vibration in the cabin.  Johnny Comet had gone completely airborne.

So this is how it ends, Crono thought, staring straight ahead into the open sky.  Their quest to save the future brought to an unceremonious close barely outside of Bangor by a talking vehicle that suddenly aspired to become a bird.  He supposed it was no less lunacy than everything else he had been through of late.  Crono wondered what he could say to his father when he saw him.

And then Johnny Comet was down.  They weren't dead.  The giant beam was behind them, and the now unobstructed lanes of the Transcontinental Highway lie ahead of them.  They were back on the road!  Off the road and then in the air for several seconds, and Crono barely felt the moment of their landing.  How had Johnny done that?

“Whooo yeah!  Five-point-two seconds of Johnny Comet airtime!” the figure in the viewscreen gloated.  “Told you we was gonna fly.  Who 'da Man?”

Marle's elation filled the compartment.  “We flew!  We were flying!  This is incredible!”

“This is insaaaane!” Lucca yelled, a measure less than elated.

“Insane?  What you talkin' 'bout, Violet?” said Johnny.  “We haven't even hit the big straight yet.  This is nothin'.  You wanted to get to Arris fast?  I can get you there today!”

“Uh, I'll settle for merely tomorrow.”

Crono's thoughts mirrored Lucca's audible unease.  Today?  Surely Johnny could not be serious.  It was a journey of over three-thousand miles!

But Crono's doubts were beginning to falter as Johnny Comet continued his blistering pace on the gently curving road, driving faster and faster as the craters along the pavement grew less frequent.  The road then shrank from eight lanes to six.  Johnny stopped juking entirely and kept to the center lane of the right-hand set of three, increasing his speed even further.  As gradual as the turn to the southeast was, Crono still felt himself pressed against the side of his seat.  Insane was about right.  And thrilling.

“Johnny, how fast are we going?” Crono asked breathlessly.  “I can't even begin to guess, this is so crazy.”

“What, you don't see the speedo?” Johnny answered.  “We just passed 800 kph.  Nothin' crazy 'bout that.  Slowest chump I knew could do that in his sleep.”

Crono blanched.  He still didn't know the metric measuring system of the future all that well, but 800 kilometers per hour sounded ridiculous.  “Uh, Lucca?  How fast is that in miles per hour?”

“Oh, um, just under five-hundred,” Lucca said with a fearful chuckle.  “Totally not crazy, that.  I can come up with a much better word once I stop shaking in my straps.”

Five-hundred miles in an hour! Crono thought numbly.  Johnny wasn't boasting in the least.  Not only would they get to Arris today, they would probably arrive with half-a-day to spare.  He suddenly understood why Director Doan's tone had been so dry last night.  “Rather quickly” didn't begin to describe this experience.

“Miles per hour?” Johnny inquired curiously.  “Old-fashioned, huh?  I'm down with that.  How's about I put my mph above my head here, and you can go 'whoooa' with every tick of my awesome vel-os-eh-tay?”

A number then appeared above the gleeful visage of Johnny Comet's cartoonish avatar.  It read “504 mph”.  And that figure was continuing to climb.

We really don't need to go faster than this, Crono thought.  But the greater part of him – perhaps not the wiser, but the greater – wanted to know what this talking vehicle's upper limit was.  Crono had always pushed his own limits on the streets of Truce, and made a habit of knowing the upper limits of the people he raced.  He couldn't imagine the knowledge being useful in this instance, but he still wanted to know.

The Transcontinental Highway began to straighten, and the cresting of one more shallow rise revealed the longest roadway Crono had ever seen.  A slight downhill grade marked the path, which extended to a point in the far distance Crono wasn't sure an eagle could make out from here.  From the map, he knew this was the beginning of the straight that would lead almost directly to Arris.  No turns.  No hills.  Just thousands of miles of straight pavement.  If Johnny was going to demonstrate the upper levels of his performance, it would be here.

“Here it comes, kiddos,” the artificial intelligence said eagerly.  “The straight of Tylair.  Longest stretch of road there ever was.  Called it the big three-K back in the day.  Ain't no excuses here.  This patch of pavement show who be fast and who be slow.”

“Be fast, Johnny,” Crono said with a boyish grin.  After all, he had actually flown in this thing for over five seconds and somehow survived.  He could handle this.

Johnny Comet's avatar then folded its body at impossible angles and suddenly took on the form of a... tricycle.  A tricycle with Johnny's head in place of the handlebars and with pink wings extending out the side of its body.  The wide tires formerly on its back now touched the virtual ground in the form of a tricycle's rear axle, and two long pipes, perhaps exhausts, angled out above facing rearward.  It was an incomparably odd picture, but one that promised impending excitement.

“Goin' for my personal best, then.  Sonic booooom!”

Crono was then thrown back in his seat with such force it was like the two proverbial men sitting on his chest suddenly became five.  The whine of the vehicle's strange engine rose to a painful pitch, and the sudden change of music in the cabin was almost entirely drowned out.  Johnny's speed increased from 500 to 700 mph in mere seconds.  Crono's response was about what the self-aware vehicle had prophesied.

“Whoooa!”

“Crono, what have you doooone?” Lucca wailed.

Johnny Comet streaked down the road at a velocity that Crono could only imagine was akin to a shooting star.  He had no other frame of reference aside from the number displayed on the vehicle's viewscreen.  Seven-fifty.  Eight-hundred.  Eight-fifty.  Each passing second seemed to increase the number by twenty, and the rate of acceleration wasn't slowing.  The road went by in a blur.  The engine howled.  The seats shook.

“Uh... maybe we should slow down,” Marle said, sounding disquieted for the first time.

“Slow down?!  I haven't even hit a thousand yet!” Johnny said.  “I thought you guys wanted to go fast?”

“This isn't fast!” Lucca shrieked.  “This is demented!”

“Any chump can go supersonic.  The real mark of greatness is for a car to break the big one-nine-double-oh.  That's 1,180 mph for you old-fashioned folk.  Me, my record's 1,940 kph, meanin' 1,206 for you guys.  I'm gonna break that today for sure!”

“S,somebody stop this thing!” Marle cried.

But there was no stopping Johnny Comet, and Crono didn't dare start pushing buttons while the crazy vehicle was traveling at these speeds.  The four-digit barrier was soon breached, and the mph continued to climb.  Crono then saw the surrounding land disappear, and all that remained were the lanes of pavement in front of them.  They had crossed onto the giant bridge that spanned the remnants of the Tylair Ocean.  Guardrails to either side passed them by in a mist of gray.

Lucca's moaning abruptly ceased.  Crono didn't have to see why.  He thought about passing out himself.  Time seemed to slow down all around him.  The cabin grew strangely quieter, and the pressure on his body eased.  The speed indicator was close to 1,200 mph.

“Whoooo, yeah!” Johnny finally crowed.  “Twelve-oh-nine, baby!  Who's da' Man, huh?!  Who's da' Man?!

“Uh... you are?” Crono managed.  He didn't know what else to say.  Just that he had to get this speed demon to stop before he got everyone killed.

“I can't heeeear you!”

You are!” Crono and Marle cried in unison.

Johnny Comet's avatar then reverted back to it's man-like form, apparently satisfied, and pointed at himself with both thumbs.  “And don't you forget it, baby!”

Satisfied or not, Johnny took his sweet time decelerating from his record-breaking 1,209 mile-per-hour run.  It was a long while before Crono could stop shaking.


      *      *      *


One of the great things about being the author of your own story was that you had the power of Creation – which was to say omission – over incidents that painted you in a negative light.  Fainting was a completely understandable occurrence given the situation Lucca had been in.  She had an intimate knowledge, academically speaking, of what happened to things that collided with other things at a high rate of speed.  It wasn't her fault that the laws of physics demanded bad things happen to a human skull that hit a solid object at anything faster than a brisk trot, let alone a hundred times as fast.  Lucca had no qualms about omitting Marle's use of magic to keep said author in the realm of the conscious shortly after the ludicrous 1,209 mile-per-hour speed record was set.  After all, such things weren't supposed to happen to the heroine.

Since then, her diary would record the unaltered tale of Johnny Comet reducing his speed – after much persuasion and shameless flattery – to a “mere” 300 miles-per-hour to time their arrival at Arris shortly after dark.  Lucca, Crono, and Marle had decided that arriving after dark was the best way of avoiding unnecessary encounters with robots in the ruins, though it made the task of finding an entrance into the Arris enclave more challenging.  Better to be slow and unnoticed than to be quick and dead, the thinking went.

The following hours were spent making almost normal conversation with the vehicle's undaunted artificial intelligence, which Lucca tackled with a vigor to make up for her earlier spell of fright.  Speaking with a genuine programmed intelligence, with the capacity for self-awareness and an ability to make its own decisions, was a tremendous opportunity.  A relic of a now bygone era, for Lucca it represented everything a machine could aspire to be.  She couldn't help but think of GATO speaking in its own voice instead of playing records of other people's voices, and not even needing a change of program card to conduct itself differently and adapting to the situation at hand.  It was an avenue of research she wanted to undertake sometime after all of this Lavos business was behind her.

“So you replenish the fuel for your boosters by harvesting hydrogen directly out of the atmosphere through your intakes?” Lucca asked.  “That's amazing!  And because your jet engines operate from a fusion cell, you can never run out of fuel.  You can just keep going and going.”

“Oh, yeah.  I ride the wind, baby.” Johnny Comet replied proudly.  “Might have still been goin' these past thirty years if there were anyone left to race.  Most of my old buds got melted right where they were on the day that rain o' fire come stormin' down, and the few who didn't got sent to the scrap pile to keep those underground enclaves a runnin'.”

“How many of you were there?” Crono asked with fascination.  Naturally, anything to do with racing caught Crono's interest.

“A full circuit, brother.  First racers started showin' up in the mid seventies, though none of them lot were AI.  Just a bunch of workin' class chaps that took it in their minds to go soupin' up their cars to see how quick they could drive between the domes.”  Johnny chuckled.  “Drove the cops bananas, what with them guys weavin' back and forth through traffic lookin' for the glory of a checkered flag, and then doin' it all again goin' the other way.  It was all the rage, man.  For every one of that lot the cops threw behind bars, there were two more lookin' to join in the action.  People even started recordin' the races and placing bets on who won.  Things got so crazy by the nineties that the government in Keepers Dome decided to make an official circuit and cleared the highways every couple months for people to race.  Them's were the glory days, brother.  That's when they stopped usin' cars you could buy off the lot and started buildin' bonafide racers from the ground up.  Changed all the rules about what a car could be.  Only restrictions were they had to carry at least two passengers and couldn't fly more than a hundred meters.  Other than that, it was anything goes.  Jet engines.  Fusion cells.  The works.”

Including wings, Lucca thought.  Not for flying, but to help keep the car on the road.  Looking at Johnny Comet's design, Lucca now understood the aerodynamic principles at work.  Each set of wings generated downforce, which was essential for the vehicle's stability at high speeds.  Those same wings could also be used to generate lift in an emergency, such as when Johnny jumped that hill to get over the giant steel beam lying across the road.  A slight and continual adjustment of those wings in mid-air would account for the way Johnny had landed back on the road with hardly any impact.  It was the kind of stunt no human driver would have been able to manage.

“And that's when they started putting artificial intelligences into the cars,” Lucca reasoned.

“You got it, sister.  I come around back in '97.  Some guys wanted to shatter every record in the books by puttin' an AI behind the wheel, so they gathered up every credit between them and put me together.  Broke a thousand kph in my first race, dusting everyone.  That brought about the AI era, and every team worth its rubber put one into their cars hopin' to take me down.  Nope!  Didn't happen.  Grand Champion of '97 right here.”  Johnny made a thumbing gesture to himself through his avatar.  “Then teams started puttin' hydrogen boosters into their cars to get that added edge, only they did the same with me as soon as my crew chief got wind of what they was doin'.  Nope!  Supersonic, baby!  Grand Champion of 98' right here.”  Another thumb point.  “Then my rivals get it into their heads to break 1,900 on the kph meter, and I was the only one to actually go and do it.  Right here on the three-K.  Boom!  Grand Champion of 99'.   Fastest racer there ever was or ever will be, that's Johnny Comet!”

“Are you saying you're the last one, Johnny?” Marle asked.  “The last racer?”

“'Fraid so.  Wandered the highways for years.  Never saw another.  Then I run into Brother Frank.  Said he'd protect me from scavengers as long as I did what he said.  Seemed like a good deal, so he hid me away in Arris for a bit, then later in Bangor.  Better than the scrap heap.  Then the three of you turn me on, and here we are.”

“Then Frank did us and the world a great service keeping you in one piece,” Lucca said with a smile.  “Especially in Arris.  Did he do something to prevent you from going crazy like the robots did?  I'm still trying to understand how that happened.”

Johnny's avatar shrugged.  “All Brother Frank did was turn me on.  As for those robot psychos in Arris, I don't know nothin' about that.  Brother Frank said some song they was hearing was drivin' them batty.  All I heard over the comms was static.  Whatever that song was, it had no effect on ol' Johnny Comet.   Maybe 'cause all I know or care about is racin'.  Don't have no weapons, neither.”

That made sense, Lucca thought.  If the directive the robots received from this “song” demanded the destruction of all humans, a machine like Johnny Comet wouldn't serve any practical use.  He would just be ignored by whatever the source of the song was.

“What about the robots themselves?” Crono asked.  “Director Doan only gave us a few basic descriptions.  Is there anything you can tell us about them?”

“Yeah, they shoot you on sight, man!  What, you think I'm some kind of encyclopedia on anything other than racin'?  You want those kind of details, you're lookin' for one of them double-sixers.”

“Double-sixers?” Marle inquired.

“General-purpose robot, generation sixty-six,” Johnny said.  “Top-o'-the-line 'bot from '95.  Know everythin' about everythin' since the Great War them 'bots do.  Problem is the song got to them, too.  Brother Frank was the last guy to speak to one without gettin' his head blown off.  You want my advice?  If it's metallic and it moves, you best be movin' yourself and hope it don't see you.”

A dome-era robot that survived the Day of Lavos?  This was news to Lucca.  She knew nothing about the sixty-six series, but she had read a few articles describing much older robots in the general-purpose category, including a few schematics.  Perhaps the survivors of Arris had been able to scavenge the remains of these advanced robots and put them back together as their level of robotics knowledge allowed.

“Can you show us a picture of a sixty-six, Johnny?” Lucca asked.

“Can do.”

A half-solid, half-wireframe schematic then appeared on the viewscreen set into the back of Marle's seat.  Lucca's breath caught.  The seven-foot-tall robot was bipedal, with a round bronze-colored body that eschewed sharp angles everywhere Lucca could see.  Sturdy metal plates covered every section of the robot aside from the upper legs and arms, which were wrapped in a dark synthetic material that covered the elbow and knee joints.  Scattered rivets precisely measured from one another kept the plates in place.  A large hose curved upward from a protrusion on the machine's left breastplate and was inserted high into the robot's torso just below the head, and a more vertical protrusion, perhaps a cooling vent, fronted the right breastplate.  The head was squat and without a face, with one large plate covering the cranium and two sizable optic mechanisms facing front.  Sticking up out of the head was a cylindrical protrusion Lucca thought to be a radio receiver and transmitter.  Most notable to Lucca, and the most human-looking part of the robot, were its hands, which were five-fingered and looked to have all the joints and articulation of a human hand.

It was mechanical perfection.  Something even Lucca wasn't sure she could improve upon for all of her imagination and industriousness.  The ultimate evolution of GATO.  A mechanical being with the self-awareness of Johnny Comet, but also one with the versatility of a human, and loaded with knowledge of every kind to serve and protect the people it was designed to aid.  Such a thing had to be Creation sent.  Inspired by the Divine and built by man to do good.

Burn.

Lucca suddenly felt faint, and not from her earlier episode.  What was that just now?

It's perfect.  And it was corrupted to kill.  Someone must pay.  Burn them all!

It was her mind's voice.  The same one that confronted her in the ruins of Bangor after running out of the classified archive, trying to come to grips with the reality of humanity's doom.  But the voice felt different, somehow.  A dark fragment of Lucca's soul that wasn't simply berating her weakness in the face of the truth, it was a part of her clinging to the edges of sanity.  Silent fury and rage warred on the border between thought and action, and Lucca felt her body begin to shake.

Burn! Burn! Burn!

Lucca doffed her helmet and clutched at her forehead with growing alarm.  Her breath was suddenly coming in fits.  She felt... hot!  Her forehead was fire.  Her eyes smouldered.  Her heart raged inside her chest.  A tingling sensation crept across her whole body as if she had been thrown into a forge and was beginning to succumb to the flames.  What was going on?

“Lucca, are you okay?  What's wrong?” came Marle's concerned voice.

Lucca could only grunt in response.  How could she answer?  She didn't even know what was happening to her.

“Here, give me your hand.  I'll channel some magic.  Whatever it is, I'll take care of it.”

Unthinking, Lucca extended her left hand.  Marle grabbed hold of it from her seat.

“You're burning up!” Marle said in astonishment.  “Hold on, Lucca.  I'll concentrate a bit harder.”

The stifling heat radiating from Lucca's skin then was draped over as if from a damp towel guarding against an August sun at the beach.  Her breathing returned to normal.  Her eyes cooled.  Her heart steadied.  And she suddenly felt exhausted.

“What's going on back there?” asked Crono with evident worry.

“That's strange,” Marle said, sounding oddly pained.  “There's nothing wrong with her that I can sense.  Just the opposite, she was overflowing with energy just now.  I actually had to siphon strength away from her to calm her down.”

Crono looked baffled as he stared at Lucca from the front seat.  Lucca could only gaze back with failing eyelids.

 “Johnny, I think we all need to take a break,” Crono said.  “We've been riding for hours in this tiny compartment.  Lucca needs some fresh air before we go any further.”

“I'm down with that.” Johnny said.  “Gonna have to slow down soon anyway.  We're only a few hundred klicks away from Death Peak.  The force o' that insane eruption that made it did some damage to the bridge.  Gotta go over that bit with care.  It's a good spot to get out and take a look if ya wanna sightsee.  No other view like it.”

Lucca took a deep breath and forced herself to stay awake.  She had a pretty good idea what the view was going to be like, but the fresh air could only do her good, whatever had just happened to warrant a second magical intervention from Marle.  She needed to think of how she could even explain this one in her diary, if she cared to share it at all.


      *      *      *


The breeze was deceptively peaceful.

The westerly wind was just cool enough for Marle to have to dig her blanket from Landis out of her backpack and drape it across her shoulders as she gazed mesmerized to the east from where she sat.  Crono and Lucca sat to either side of her on the concrete median divide of the bridge, separating the three right-hand lanes Johnny Comet had been driving down from the less appealing left hand lanes that had borne the brunt of Lavos' emergent wrath.  Much of the left-most lane no longer had a guardrail to restrain careless vehicles from toppling over the side, and there were a few spots where there was no left-most lane at all.  It was a long way to fall.  Before the Day of Lavos, the surface of the Tylair Ocean had lain about a hundred feet below the bridge.  Now, the surface was actually the solid mud-caked crust of the earth, almost 1,500 feet further down.  All that now remained of the Tylair Ocean in this region was a pockmarked series of shallow lakes littering the surface, mocking a greatness that would never again be.  The ruined seascape extended to the horizon in all directions, but it was to the east where Marle and the others were focusing their attention.

In the far distance, a maelstrom of gray was in perpetual battle against the surrounding sky.  Continual flashes of lightning lit up the spiraling clouds from within, hinting at appalling climatic violence beyond the veil of gloom.  It was a hurricane that never went anywhere, doomed to watch over a place that hadn't existed before 300 years ago.  Death Peak.  The mountain itself couldn't be seen from this distance.  The lightning occasionally exposed a shadow reaching over the very edge of the horizon, but that was the only glimpse any of them could see.  The highest point of a caldera that was dozens of miles in diameter, and who knew how many miles deep.  It was from this place that Lavos had bathed the world in fire, condemning the human race to extinction.

Marle wrapped her blanket more tightly around her.  Just looking at the distant storm chilled her skin, knowing what it represented, knowing that she somehow had to find a way to stop it from happening.  There was no need to get any closer to it.  Marle couldn't imagine a reason anyone would want to get closer to it.  A traveler would have to climb down to the muddy seabed, navigate around hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny lakes between here and the mountain, and then somehow make an ascent to Death Peak in the midst of hurricane-force winds.  Marle wasn't sure why Director Doan was so adamant they not go there.  No one in their right mind would even make the attempt.

“Nice scenery,” Lucca quipped after a long moment.  “I can see the postcard now.  'See the glorious sights of 2300.  Death Peak: A scene of majesty that will blow you away.'”

“Well, your sense of humor seems fine,” Crono remarked.  “You sure you're feeling all right otherwise?”

Lucca shrugged.  “I guess.  Putting down some grub and a whole canteen's done me good.  Dare I say it, but I'm starting to develop a taste for rat.  Makes me wonder if the food we'll get back home will even taste the same to us after all this.”

Marle exchanged a look with her.  Lucca seemed okay at the moment, but Marle still didn't understand what had happened to her.  Trying to heal the sudden unexplained malady only revealed that Lucca had positively been bursting with energy, and when Marle had reversed the magical weave to drain Lucca of that excess energy, the resulting blowback nearly caused Marle herself to faint.  She was still nursing the remnants of a headache from the experience.  It almost felt like...  No, that was impossible.  Lucca was just stressed from their insanely fast trip across the world, that was all.  Marle then channeled another ice cube into being and handed it to Lucca, who popped it into her mouth with silent gratitude.

“We'll be having a feast no matter what it tastes like,” Crono said with a grin.  “But first we actually have to get home.  We're only about two hours out from Arris once we get back on the road.  We should probably review what we know about the robots before setting out again.”

“Good idea.  Let's whip out old reliable and take a look-see.”

“Old reliable”, of course, was Lucca's diary.  Normally Marle would agree with that quaint description.  It was certainly easier to use than a computer.  Though lately the thick volume was pretty much indecipherable to anyone but Lucca.  Blank pages were now at such a premium that she was making notes anywhere she could find space, and that meant important information on any particular subject could be found in any number of different places, and often not in chronological order.  Thankfully, Lucca had sketched what she knew about the robots on one of her few remaining clean pages since it was such a vital subject.  Two sketches appeared on the page she flipped to, and Marle and Crono scooted in close to get a good look.

The first sketch was a squat thing on four spindly legs that extended well past the robot's small body.  “This little guy I call the 'bugger',” Lucca explained.  “It's about three feet tall and was apparently designed to hunt down rats.  Don't know for sure what kind of weapon it carries, but I'm guessing it's some kind of standard projectile, since plasma fire has a way of destroying the target's food value.  This thing is probably pretty quick, so we can't count on outrunning one if it picks up our trail.”

“Are there any weak points I can aim at?” Marle asked.

“Just the eye, and there's only one, right at the body's center mass.  You take that out it should be blinded, though it'll probably take a plasma shot or a good sword hit to put the bugger down for the count.”

Lucca then directed their attention to the sketch below the insectile machine.  This one seemed to be bipedal, and carried two mouth-like apertures on its upper body on either side of the machine's head in place of where the shoulders and arms would be on a normal biped.  “This one is just short of the height of an average human,” Lucca said.  “Call it the 'hunter'.  Those clamper things on the upper body hide weapon emplacements, probably plasma-based.  These were the things the Arris enclave sent when they had mutant problems.  It looks a bit awkward on its feet, so it doesn't move very quickly in all likelihood.  It's probably meant to hold a position and lay down fire to anything that crosses its sights.  We'll have to be especially wary of them.  I'd rather not test the limits of Marle's healing talents by eating a plasma bolt.”

“Weaknesses?” asked Crono.

“The same.  One eye.  Bigger than on the bugger, so it'll be easier to hit.  But I wouldn't advise challenging it from the front.  Too much firepower to safely deal with.  Its awkward stance suggests it could possibly be flanked, but I don't know how much good a sword will be against that.  Its plating looks thicker than on the bugger from the images I saw, so expect that it is.  Any sword strike would have to be aimed at the joints, and that's a narrower target than the eye is.”

Crono nodded soberly.  “Best to avoid both of these things if we can.  This won't be like fighting glassers or the like.  These things will actually shoot back.”

“Only if we give them the chance,” Marle said.  “I don't intend to let any of these machines see what they're shooting at if it comes down to a fight.”

“What about that other thing Johnny showed us a bit ago?  That sixty-six model robot?”

Lucca looked uncomfortable.  “If we see one, we should probably run like the Day of Lavos were upon us.  Nothing short of a plasma bolt will make a dent in the plating it has, and there's no way to know how vulnerable its joints might be.”

“It didn't look like it had any weapons, though,” Marle pointed out.

“That was an old schematic, dating from around the time it was first built before the Day of Lavos.  1995 or so.  If it's been corrupted by that 'song' Johnny mentioned, it could have any number of offensive abilities to suit its new directive.  I think its two front chest plates open up, so it could be hiding weapons in there.  That's what I saw in the schematic, anyway.”

“Avoid at all costs, then,” Crono said.  “Is there anything else we should know?”

“Just that all the info we have is at least thirty years out of date.  The only thing we know for certain is where the temporal gate is.  We need to stay hidden and get to the gate as quick as we can.  No unnecessary heroics.”

“It's as good a plan as we're going to have under the circumstances.  Nothing for it but to make it happen.”

Lucca closed her diary, and Marle came to her feet and stretched, gazing into the swirling chaos to the east that was Death Peak.  She wanted this image burned in her memory.  The picture of what would happen and what would always endure if the future didn't change.  Then she turned around and regarded the setting sun.  As far as Marle was concerned this would be the last time the sun would be allowed to set on this ruined future.  Once she was back in the past, all of the rules would change.  A new future would be created, and the creature known as Lavos would never live to wreak such destruction as she had witnessed.

Thinking of Mary, doubtlessly hard at work back at the Bangor enclave, Marle collected herself and strode over to where the proudly shining Johnny Comet was parked on the road, waiting to drive everyone to their destiny.

3
Fan Fiction / Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« on: April 09, 2024, 09:31:30 pm »
Thank you so much.   :)  I'll be posting a few more excerpts at random from other unpublished sections in separate threads.

4
Fan Fiction / Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« on: April 07, 2024, 12:43:52 am »
Chapter 31 - What's in a Name


With a little skillful prodding of the type Marle used to employ with her father – which meant pleading – she and Crono were able to convince Lucca it was best to have everyone rest for the night before tackling the robot rebuilding project.  Rebuilding a robot!  This was not the sort of endeavor you wanted to attempt when a single fatigue-induced error might result in the exact opposite of what you wanted to achieve, like staying alive.  They were all exhausted and emotionally reeling after the events of today.  After the events of the last several days, really.  Lucca had once called time-travel “exhausting”, and she couldn't have been more right.  Marle could scarcely believe she still had energy at all.  Relieved at having a new goal and the beginnings of a plan to see it through, Marle again stretched herself out on the floor of the security office and surrendered to slumber.

Not surprisingly, she was the last to wake up.

Crono and Lucca had already made some progress with the R-66.  The robot's chest plates were open to each side, the scarred and battered plating having been cleaned and then patched with coverings from the very machines that had inflicted the damage.  The humanoid machine now almost gleamed in the light of Marle's pendant.  Lucca was finishing up placing some new insulating material around the robot's right arm joint, and Crono was busy disassembling one of the hunter machines for parts.  Marle strode over to look at the hunter's complicated innards, seeing a number of hoses that might make for good replacements for the one that had been damaged on the R-66.

Everything seemed to be going well.  Marle dared to believe that Lucca's confidence in fixing this thing was justified.

“Are we really going to get this working in a day?” she asked.

Lucca sniffed.  “I don't know what you mean by 'we', sleepyhead.  We've been at this for hours now.  Not that I'm complaining much.  Knowing your luck with machines, your absence has probably helped more than anything.”

“Well, I'll just go back to bed then,” Marle said sourly.

“No, please don't,” Crono chuckled.  “We could always use another pair of hands.  And mine are a bit sore from all the scrubbing I had to do to get the grime off.”

“Oh, quit complaining,” Lucca chided.  “I told you the plating had to be cleaned before we patched up the holes, or the welds wouldn't hold.”

“Welds?  How are you welding it?” Marle asked.  “We don't have those kinds of tools.”

“Actually, we do,” Lucca said, holding up her plasma pistol.  “Frank's gun is a lot more versatile than the others you've seen.  Set to minimal power, it can fuse metal just as well as a dedicated welder.  I think he designed it with that purpose in mind.  It would be like him.”

Thankfully, taking apart the hunter machine wasn't as technically challenging as what Lucca was doing with the R-66, and inside of an hour Crono and Marle were sorting through the remnants of their charge for useful components.  The hose Marle noted earlier was about the right size, and Lucca deftly installed it on the R-66 with a few modifications.  Numerous other parts inside the robot's open chest were adjusted and replaced as the need arose.  Marle could only watch or hold onto things while Lucca did the lion's share of the real work.  Even at a glance, she could tell the R-66 was an order of magnitude more advanced than the machine she had just taken apart.

That Lucca could manage even this was a testament to her evident genius.  Marle wondered if Director Doan had been like her in his youth.  Experience alone could not account for his level of talent and knowledge.  Some people were just naturally gifted.

Though Lucca did have to be reminded to have a bite to eat during the job, Marle noted with some amusement.

It was late in the afternoon when Lucca hooked up the battery pack for her pistol to something inside the robot's chest and then let herself slump on her rear with obvious weariness.

“Is it... done?” Marle asked her.

“Basically,” Lucca replied.  “It just needs some time with the battery to restore its power core.  Once that's done, I flip this little switch inside its cranium and...”

“Find out if we get to go home,” Crono finished.  “Assuming it doesn't see us as a threat, of course.”

Lucca looked at them both decisively.  “It won't.”

And then it was time.  Lucca removed the battery pack cable from the robot's interior and then climbed on its bulky frame to reach for something on the top of its exposed head mechanism.  She then quickly screwed the cranium plate back into place and stood back with Crono and Marle to regard the newly repaired legacy of mankind's once great civilization.

It was quiet and still, its metallic form remained seated on its rear.

“Uh... Lucca?”

“Hush, Crono!” the inventor whispered.  “It's just rebooting.  I know it.  Give it a bit of time.”

The seconds stretched on.  Marle knew that computerized systems needed time to “boot” up to full operation, though she didn't pretend to understand how the process worked.  Even so, there was usually some sign that the computer or machine had been turned on.  The robot before them was completely inert.

Come on! she pleaded silently.  We are so close!

And then, a hum.

Marle wasn't sure she was really hearing it at first.  Wishful thinking had a way of triggering the senses before a moment's reflection exposed the lie for what it was.  But it was no lie.  Something barely audible was coming from deep inside the R-66.

“It's working...” Lucca mouthed with growing excitement.  “It's working!”

The sound was little more than what one could discern from an active computer monitor, a static that was felt more than heard, but it gradually wound up to a more substantive whirring of working machinery.

A soft green glow came to the robot's eyes.

The ancient machine's arms and legs began to twitch with evident deliberation, perhaps a test to see how well they functioned after the passage of so much time, then the robot pressed its arms against the floor and slowly raised itself to its feet.  Its neckless head rotated back and forth in smooth motions from where the robot stood, the fingers of both hands opening and closing several times as if to practice its ability to grasp.  The moment stretched on until the glow of the machine's eyes brightened to where they were putting out almost as much light as Marle's gleaming pendant, and the robot halted its movements entirely.

“Uh...  Hello?” Marle called out.

“Initialization in progress,” the machine intoned in a male voice completely devoid of inflection.  “Stand by.  Stand by.”

Lucca's breathing was so shaky she couldn't manage a reply.  Marle looked on, not knowing what else to say.  She wasn't sure what “initialization” even meant.

The robot suddenly turned and walked across the room with slow yet steady movements, then made its way back to its original position at a faster pace, taking care to avoid the obstacles of the other robots in its path.  It turned in place several times, then rotated its head to focus its eyes directly on Marle.

“System initialization and reboot is complete,” the robot said with a more natural and pleasant inflection.  “Unit is 96% functional for general duties.  Good morning, Mistress.  I am R66-Y.  How may I serve you?”

Mistress?

Marle waved at the robot with trepidation, suddenly remembering what had happened the last time she greeted a machine like this.  “Hi, uh... Mr. robot!  My name is Marle.  There's no need to give me a title or anything.  It's just Marle.  I'm happy to meet you!”

“I am also pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress,” the robot replied.  “However, addressing a human in the familiar with no honorific is inappropriate for this unit.  My programming considers it rude.  There is also no need to address me by an honorific.  My unit designation will suffice.  My purpose is to serve.”

Crono visibly relaxed, and Lucca looked as if she were about to cry tears of joy.  Marle let go of her remaining anxiety and smiled at the robot without reservation.  They had really done it!

“Glad to hear it,” Crono said.  “We really need your help.  It was a stroke of luck that we found you in this room.  Otherwise, we wouldn't know what to do.”

The robot turned to him.  “Please elaborate, sir.  I shall aid you however you require.”

“Hold on!” Marle protested.  “There's no reason to get down to business, yet.  We haven't all been introduced!  Like I said, I'm Marle.  I'm a citizen of the Bangor Dome enclave.  This is Crono Lantree, a good friend and traveling companion through many adventures.

“And this is Lucca Ashtear,” she finished, turning to the inventor.  “Without whom none of us would be speaking to you now.  She was the one who fixed you.”

The robot's posture somehow became straighter as he regarded Lucca.  “I was non-functional?” it said with evident surprise.  “Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience, Major.  It is distressing that this unit required the aid of a Protector.  I shall run additional diagnostics to assure that no further malfunctions occur.”

Lucca blinked with confusion.  “Huh?”

“Your helmet clearly identifies you as a major in the Bangorian Protection Force,” the robot elaborated, motioning at the old helmet Lucca was wearing.  “I am grateful for your assistance in this matter.  Rest assured that the Arris Dome government will duly compensate Bangor for services rendered, though I am surprised that Arris technicians would not perform repairs on their own...”

“Wait,” Lucca interrupted.  “R66-Y, what's the last thing you remember?”

“I do not remember anything, Major.  This unit's memory has been fully initialized, doubtless due to the issue that rendered me non-functional.  Once I have completed further diagnostics, I will endeavor to investigate the cause and render a report to the Arris Robotics Guild.”

Lucca turned to Crono and Marle.  “It's as I thought.  R66-Y has reverted to its factory default specification.  Everything he knows is on account of his original programming.  From his point of view, he probably thinks it's the year 1995.”

“Negative, Major,” R66-Y corrected.  “My original activation date was April 8th of the year 1996.  Has a significant period of time elapsed since then?”

You could say that, Marle thought.  What would R66-Y think of the circumstances of the present day?  Everything and everyone he knew from the date of his first activation would probably have been destroyed on the day Lavos emerged from the earth.  It was no small miracle that R66-Y himself had somehow survived.

The robot then seemed to take stock of his surroundings for the first time, rotating his squat head rapidly and tilting downward to observe the inert remnants of the buggers and hunters that had attacked him long ago.

“What has happened here?” R66-Y asked with a concerned tone.  “These appear to be unauthorized robotic units.  I have no record of these designs in my programming.  The Arris Robotics Guild will have to be notified.  Also, this room appears to be a security checkpoint for Arris Dome's emergency shelter.  It is odd that an illegal robotics operation would have a presence here.”

Marle, Lucca, and Crono shared a meaningful look.

“What should we tell him?” Marle asked.

“Everything,” Lucca said.


      *      *      *


“Yours is a most remarkable story,” R66-Y told them later that night.  “I conclude that your experiences would challenge the thinking of every leading mind of the Domes era, both scientific and historical.  I will update my own databases accordingly, and provide whatever insights my further study on the matter can produce.”

“Thanks, R66-Y,” Lucca said, smiling.  “Having another mind working on such weighty matters can't be a bad thing.”

Marle frowned.  It was good that the robot so readily believed everything about what the three of them had been through, after a few hours of the telling.  But Marle couldn't help but be disturbed every time Lucca used the robot's serial designation to address him.  It felt... dehumanizing.  Johnny Comet had had a real name.  Why couldn't R66-Y?  His was a label you would place on a filing cabinet, not to use for simple conversation.

Besides, it really didn't roll off the tongue well.

“It is my pleasure to serve, Major,” the nameless robot said.  “Changing history in a way that preserves human civilization without causing an undesirable historical shift is certain to be a complicated endeavor.  This unit's creators would certainly regard the matter as suitable for robotic aid, whatever I am able to provide.”

And speaking of names...

The robot had a curious quirk in his programming that required him to address every human being with a title or lesser honorific depending on their station or profession, even if the individual's current status was something completely different.  That Marle had been a princess of Guardia inevitably got out during the telling of their story, and for hours afterwards she couldn't get R66-Y to stop calling her “princess”.  Finally she had to order the robot to stop on the authority of her former station and have him call her “mistress” instead, as he had in their first meeting.  Somehow that actually worked.  She felt silly being called Mistress Marle, but at least it was better than that detestable title from her former life.

She noted that Lucca no longer bothered to correct the robot on her non-existent rank in the old Bangorian Protectors, and actually found the title a bit amusing.  She would.  Another thing Lucca could crow about in her diary.

“Again, I'm sorry about disconnecting your radio antenna while I was repairing you,” Lucca was saying, looking abashed.

The robot flashed the lights inside his eyes in a strobing pattern that was apparently meant to simulate a human expression, but after hours of conversation with the machine, Marle still couldn't fully decipher what the patterns signified beyond the tone of R66-Y's synthesized voice.

“A sensible precaution, Major, given what happened to the unauthorized units stationed here.  But now unnecessary.  Once you informed me of the remote access attack on robotic units, I endeavored to reinforce the firewall protections in my databases to prevent such an attack from altering my behavior.  You can feel free to reinstall my transmitter at your leisure.”

“Right now, I think we need to focus on what we're going to do next,” Crono said.  “Like how we're going to get through that door and to the temporal gate.  Nothing the three of us can think of can solve this problem.”

“Indeed.  This facility's present lack of power hinders practical access to the granary,” R66-Y said.  “Allow me to accompany you to the generator room.  Perhaps there I can ascertain why the reactor was dismantled and attempt to calculate an alternative means of restoring power.”

“Now's as good a time as any, I guess,” Lucca said.  “Maybe we can sleep on whatever you figure out tonight and work on the solution in the morning.  Lead the way, R66-Y.”

Marle grimaced.  She couldn't take it any longer.

“All right, hold it!  We're not going anywhere until we get this little issue sorted out!” Marle decreed with all the force of her royal upbringing.

Lucca shrugged irritably.  “What 'little issue'?  You've been in quite the temper for most of the night.  If this is about the title thing, just let it go, okay?  There's nothing we can do about it anyway.  Personally, I find it kind of endearing.”

“Don't change the subject!  We're giving R66-Y a better name.  He deserves it.”

“Is now really the time for this?” Crono asked with mild disapproval.

“Names are important, Crono.  They define who we are.  How we think of ourselves.  I of all people should know.  I wouldn't have become who I am today if I remained 'Princess Nadia'.  I feel free now to do whatever I can to help people, without titles or petty responsibilities holding me back.”

“You're making a speech, but not making a point,” Lucca countered.  “Just what are you suggesting?  Giving him a name of your own design?  R66-Y isn't our pet!  He's a living entity in all the ways that matter.  His name is his own to choose.”

“I fail to see the significance of changing my designation, Mistress,” the robot said.  “My function and purpose are the same, regardless.”

“So you want to be regarded as a random string of letters and numbers?” Marle asked, aghast.  “You're not a kitchen appliance!  You have wants and needs, just like us.  What do you want out of your life?”

The robot was still.  “What I... want?”

“Yes!”

R66-Y was quiet for a moment.  “Curious.  My creators never asked me such a question during this unit's development.  My purpose is to serve, yet you are implying I should aspire to a different purpose.”

“We all have a purpose,” Marle continued.  “What matters is if that purpose is our choice.  How much nobler is a life of service if that's the choice you have made for yourself, rather than have other people dictate that course?”

“Hypocrisy much, Marle?” Lucca remarked.  “You're the one who's dictating.  Or has it escaped you that you're one of the few people in history who's chosen their own name?  You're a special case.  That doesn't give you the right to demand others make the same choice you did.  If a string of letters and numbers is good enough for him, it should be good enough for us.”

“Let's not argue about this,” Crono interjected.  “I agree names are important, but they aren't worth dwelling on.  If you want R66-Y to have a different name, then come up with one and have him think about it.  If he disagrees, that should be the end of it.”

Marle found she couldn't refute Crono's offer of compromise.  She just needed to come up with a name the robot might be willing to accept.  What did one call a robot and have it not sound completely random or like the name of a pet?  What was in a name?

Xanar?  Too random.  Steele?  Too objectifying.  Clank?  That was insulting.  There had to be something suitable!

Marle worked her mouth until a word came out.  It sounded almost silly, but it was infinitely better than her other aborted thoughts.  She repeated the name more decisively.

“Robo!”

Lucca's eyes rose to the heavens.  “Well, that's original!”

“I concur,” the robot said.

Crono, Lucca, and even Marle looked at their robot companion with disbelief.

“A human being gave this unit a choice,” the machine explained.  “To my knowledge that has never happened to me before.  It would have been disrespectful to reject Mistress Marle's offer, or to delay approval unnecessarily.  The name she would have me choose suits my physical being, plus it has the added benefit of being easy for humans to recite.  Applying this designation to myself is therefore logical and pleasing to my companions.  For the duration of my service to you, I shall happily answer to the 'Robo' designation, if that is agreeable to everyone?”

Marle took a long time to find her voice.

“Welcome to the first day of our friendship... Robo!” she said with a radiant smile.

      *      *      *

The time-travelers waited patiently while the newly designated “Robo” searched and analyzed the Arris enclave's generator room at length.  Lucca couldn't honestly say she disapproved of the name.  It was one of Marle's better ideas, aside from her aggravating penchant of making them known loudly and at inopportune moments.  The bonding between human and robot could only be helpful in solving the challenges that remained ahead of them.  And so in the space of a day, the three person party that had vowed to save human civilization from Lavos had effectively gained a fourth member.

There was no question that Robo needed to be told everything, once his peaceful nature had been established after his reactivation.  The robot had been programmed to serve humans.  What better service could he provide than saving history itself?  There was also the high probability that this R-66 unit had once been associated with Director Doan himself, though the robot had no memory of him, and that was an assurance of trust as far as Lucca was concerned.

“The power conduits that once fed into the emergency shelter's reactor appear to have been rerouted,” Robo explained to them.  “This would not have been done without purpose.  I ascertain that the reactor was disassembled for transport to a different location.  From there, the rerouted conduits would enable the emergency shelter to receive power if the unauthorized robotic units decided to make use of this facility at a later date.”

“So the robots did this, then?” Crono said.

“Affirmative.  Human survivors of the robot corruption event could not have benefited from this action.  It would only have made their position in the emergency shelter less tenable.  More than likely there were no survivors at all aside from Director Doan, so the unauthorized units were free to utilize the facility as they saw fit.”

Lucca nodded thoughtfully.  “It makes sense, but that begs the question of why they didn't bother to collect their fellows from the granary?" she said. "Or try to recover you after the enclave was theirs?”

“I can only speculate, Major.  It might have been a question of simple efficiency.  Due to my apparent use of an electro-magnetic pulse from my power core, the damage to the unauthorized units in the granary was significant.  Restoring them to full operation would have required the replacement of all of their processors at a minimum.  I cannot speak as to their attitude toward this unit.  It's possible I would have been deemed too dangerous to approach, given the fate of the granary units.”

“So where did they move the reactor to?” Marle asked.

“Considering that the conduits currently extend through the ceiling, above which are no known chambers of this facility according to my records, it is probable that the unauthorized units reestablished reactor operation somewhere on the surface, most likely to facilitate construction of the new city you described to me.”

“Yeah, I follow, but that was still over thirty years ago,” Crono pointed out.  “In all that time there's no sign that the robots ever came back here.  If they meant to make use of this place, what's taking them so long?”

Lucca thought back to their mad dash through the streets of New Arris aboard Johnny Comet.  Nothing about that city made sense.  Like there were a dozen different architects acting independently of the others and then all changing their minds before hardly any work was done on what they had initially decided on.  “I don't think they know what they're doing,” she told them.

“Perhaps they do not,” Robo said.  “Unauthorized units have historically had inferior cognitive processes compared to mainline production models like myself.  And even units like me often require human guidance to provide essential vision on important labors.  Creativity is a quality that machines often lack.”

“Whatever they've done up there, the bottom line is that they have something that we need down here,” Crono said.  “What do we do about it?”

“Safe to say we won't be hauling it back, either whole or in pieces,” Lucca said.  “Those generators are enormous.  But if the rerouted conduits are still intact, and they all lead to wherever the reactor was reassembled, we won't have to move anything.  We just need to get to the reactor and transfer power from where its currently routed back to here.  It might be as simple as flipping a switch.”

“But can we do that without being spotted?” Marle asked.  “We don't know what's going on up there right now.  And if the lights suddenly go off in the city because of us, there's no way those crazy machines won't notice.”

“Correct, Mistress Marle,” Robo said.  “However, the power transfer does not have to be maintained for any great length of time to achieve the desired objective.”

Lucca nodded.  “He's right!  We only need to trigger the granary door activation in the director's office the moment power comes back on in the enclave.  Once that's done, we can just leave the door open and not worry about the power after that.  It's just a question of getting everyone back to the granary to use the gate.”

Everyone looked at each other as the implications struck home.

“That means one of us has to stay in the enclave to get the door open while the power's on,” Marle said with a frown.  “And it's not going to be me.  I have no more idea what to do down here than the robots do up in their kooky disjointed city.”

“Yeah, given how long it's been since the enclave had power, there might be critical troubleshooting that has to be done at a moment's notice, and neither you or Crono are qualified to handle that,” Lucca said.  “It would have to be either Robo or me.  And since I already have some experience with enclave equipment, I'm the logical one to remain behind.  Robo would have an intuitive understanding of what needs to be done at the reactor and can do that job better and faster than any of us.  He has to go to the reactor.”

“Not alone, he isn't,” Crono said decisively.

Marle nodded.  “I'm going with him, too!”

“Begging your pardon, but I am not certain this division of labor is prudent,” Robo said.  “The necessary outcome is for the three of you to return to your own time and begin investigating Lavos from a position of safety.  My own presence there is not a necessity.  I am capable of initiating a power transfer on my own once I determine the reactor's location and can confirm the integrity of the conduits.”

“That's too dangerous, Robo!” Lucca said.  “We have to assume you're going to run into robot trouble of the unauthorized variety.  They attacked you before, they'll probably do it again.”

“That is irrelevant, Major.  My duty is clear.”

“So is ours!” Crono asserted.  “Someone has to protect you while you work, and using whatever weapon you used against them the last time would just shut you off again, wouldn't it?  And we'd all be back where we started.”

“Three of us goes, one stays, and all four meet up at the end,” Marle said.  “And I'll make that a command if I have to.”

Robo seemed to consider the point, which took the form of a few strobing flashes from his eyes along with the notable pause.  “Objectively, the use of an electro-magnetic pulse would indeed be counterproductive in the current circumstance,” he said.  “My programmed desire to protect you all from risk is at odds with my logic.  Thank you for pointing out my error.  I shall endeavor to do better.”

A robot apologizing for his logic? Lucca thought.  This R-66 model was polite to a fault.  The gesture actually made her heart flutter with gratitude.  Saving this noble machine from oblivion was the best choice she had ever made.

“We can all do better simply by working together,” Crono said.  “It's gotten us this far.  Come on, let's get rested up and see what we can do in the morning.  The granary isn't going to open itself.”

5
Fan Fiction / A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« on: April 06, 2024, 11:10:56 pm »
Just to show that my long-time novel project is still in active development, I'd like to share part of a chapter that I haven't published previously.  It takes place shortly after Crono, Marle, and Lucca arrive in the ruins of Arris Dome (Proto-Dome in the original game) and retreat underground to hide from the robots who dominate this part of the world.  I switched the names of certain locations simply because they sounded better in the narrative.  Geographically they are in the same positions they were in the OG.  The old Arris Dome is now Bangor Dome, and the old Proto Dome is now Arris Dome.  Bangor is the central hub from which most of the adventures of this era are experienced, while Arris is the location of the second temporal gate to advance the story.

Unlike my previous posts, I won't use a PDF and simply copy the text into a standard post, like how most everyone else shares their content.  This way will be much easier for people to read and commentate on.

6
Chrono News / Re: R.I.P. Akira Toriyama
« on: March 08, 2024, 09:38:14 pm »
The world is diminished by Toriyama's passing, but his legacy will stand the test of time.

7
Goodness!  I sit out on the news for a few days and this drops.

I am solidly in the camp of going the FF7R route.  As sergecross says, they have ported the game many times.  A simple remaster isn't going to garner much attention.  With the release of the Chrono Cross Radical Dreamers edition, the original canon is essentially preserved in the most complete form we are going to get.  Going back to that with no appreciable alterations or additions serves no purpose.  It's too late to "finish" the original planned trilogy.  The foundation is just too shaky to build a part three that makes any kind of narrative sense, seeing how Cross turned out.

The fact that Kitase is even talking about this publicly suggest he thinks the time is ripe to revisit Chrono and remake the saga from the ground up.  If treated as one grand story, they would approach the complex narrative of Chrono Cross in pre-production before most of the work on Trigger was even begun.  This way would avoid the contradictions of their previous piecemeal approach.  The developers would know exactly what happens between the events of Trigger and Cross, it would just be a question of when they reveal this knowledge to the player, or whether there is any foreshadowing of future events.

To remake the events of Trigger using modern production values in a single game I think is unrealistic.  Not if they want to do it right.  And Square-Enix will soon be in a position where they need a production that can generate some real buzz.  Once the final part of the FF7R saga drops, what does the company have?  Most of their post-legacy projects (which I define as coming after Final Fantasy 12) have either fallen short of commercial goals or crashed and burned out of the gate.  The company can't afford to take another risk on something that is unproven in a major production.  Plus, Square-Enix isn't looking for a single game, they're looking for a franchise.  Something that can sustain the company for years.  Chrono could be that new flagship franchise.

The key would be in how a remade Chrono saga would be divided.  From my own story work, I have a fairly good grasp on where the divides should be.  Part one would cover all of the events between the Millennial Fair and the moment where Frog claims the reforged Masamune, including also the scene where Lavos crashes into the earth during the prehistoric era (which happens at a later time in the original game).  That means four distinctive time-periods to explore; a meaty amount of content for a part one.  Part two would cover the final battles of the Mystic War, the confrontation with Magus, the return to a now ice-aged prehistoric era, and a much expanded Zeal arc - which solidifies Crono's and Marle's mutual affections into open love.  Part two would conclude following the failed confrontation with Samale and the "death" of Crono.  The remaining party members will find themselves divided into two groups, with each believing the other dead.  Marle, Robo, and Ayla are captured by Dalton and held prisoner on the Blackbird, while a listless Lucca wanders the snowscape until she discovers and confronts Magus over the events in Zeal.  Having lost her ability to control magic after an earlier accident involving the young Janus Zeal (who she tried to tutor in magic at Schala's request), Lucca lashes out in ineffective grief, and Magus forcibly enters a dream-link with her, sharing the truth of his identity and his hardships in the middle-ages.  Frog intervenes out of nowhere while Magus is distracted and overpowers him, vowing to avenge his sworn brother Cyrus, but Lucca restrains him at the last, refusing to let her former pupil die even at the hands of a friend.  Confused by Lucca's actions, Magus relates that the Guru of Time, Gaspar, might know of a way to prevent Crono's death.  The three uneasy companions are then shown entering a time gate, while a distraught Marle laments the loss of her friends as Dalton's prisoner.  Thus ends part two.

Part three is where things most deviate from the original game, introducing two new time-periods, with Lucca and Marle sharing the protagonist role from the respective eras they find themselves in.  This is a very involved story that builds the foundation of the events that will transpire in Chrono Cross (the remade version of it), as well as planting a seed for the untold Chrono Break story.  At its core, part three encompasses the entire Crono resurrection arc, and it will end with the iconic Death Peak scene, with both Marle and Lucca embracing him in tears.  I'll relate some of the details of part 3 in a PM to interested parties later, as I'm not comfortable spoiling a story that I very much want to see translated into a new game or film project by Square-Enix.

Part four finds the group at a crossroads of decisions, beginning a few weeks after the Death Peak event.  Crono is returned to the living, but he finds himself diminished due to the way his life was saved.  Physical feats that once came easily to him are now difficult, and he relentlessly trains his body to regain his lost skills with Frog's help.  Marle takes exception to Crono's overtraining, and states that the group now has enough freedom that there is no need to rush matters.  Lucca also finds herself changed, but for a very different reason.  Though she has regained the use of magic, thanks to a technique Magus copied from Schala by memory, the disturbing dreams Lucca experienced in the 1990's have not relented.  She is increasingly convinced that the lifelike dreams are a warning of a possible future, but doesn't know if that future can be, or should be, prevented.  This foreshadows the climatic confrontation with Lavos, but would victory in this impossible conflict solve everyone's problems, or would it just lead to a world that had no future at all?  Part four essentially finishes the tale of Chrono Trigger while at the same time resolving the entire saga by allowing the earlier planted Chrono Break seed to blossom.  (Chrono Cross still happens, but in a prior timeline that is rendered moot by the events of this story.  Through this, Kid is finally able to keep her promise to Serge, even though Serge himself can have no memory of it.  The remade Chrono Cross would thus be a prequel story rather than a follow-up, allowing the saga to come full-circle.)

If a Square-Enix dev happens to be reading this wall of text, please consider the ideas I was willing to share here.  I've been working on this for a long time, and most of the Trigger portions have at least been outlined to some extent.  It pays homage to the original games, but also opens the door to a more complete narrative.  If there is any company interest, I would be happy to share things in a more confidential setting.

9
Site Updates / Re: Massive Interview Update via DeepL
« on: December 19, 2022, 09:57:15 pm »
Very interesting drops.  I fail to see how Masato Kato thinks Mojo is important to the plot of Chrono Cross, though.

And Leena being a default party member for the game's early development?  I can totally see why, given her centrality to Serge's life in Home World.  It will always mystify me why she was basically sidelined for the rest of the game as a character who is pretty hard to recruit.  Starky is a different matter, since he serves as an emotional sounding board for Harle late in the game.

While much of what you report seems to be rumor, I can't help but wonder if some of the rifts spoken of between the devs might not have some basis in fact.  The Dream Team hasn't been together for over twenty years now, and I'm not hearing so much as a hint that another Chrono project might be in the pipeline.  I know that disagreements between creatives happen, and they can often hurt, sometimes for years, especially if there is public criticism over the final product. (Chrono Cross)

As for the Ultimania stuff, that just serves to remind us that focusing on plot technicalities never leads to a good place.  Serge is supposed to be the hero of the story, and Lavos the villain.  Period.  Anything else is a violation of the mythos' core themes: The Hero's Journey, and the rejection of fate.

10
General Discussion / Re: Video Game Discussion Thread
« on: November 11, 2022, 10:10:48 pm »
I recently dusted off my old X-Box 360 and popped in a somewhat obscure JRPG called Eternal Sonata.  The graphics are amazing for a game released in 2007, and the ost stands out even more.  It's unique in that the story focuses on the dreams of an historical figure; a famous composer and pianist named Frédéric Chopin.  It has a fairly large playable cast, and most all of the characters have names based off of musical terms.  The battle system is also unique, combining aspects of turn-based and real-time combat.  Characters have no MP, but instead use special attacks based on whether they are standing on lighted ground or shaded ground.  You can use a special attack at any time, but those attacks are more effective if you deliver a few regular attacks first during your character's turn.  Alternatively, you can build up a combo gauge using regular attacks with one character and then have another character spend the built-up energy on a special attack, leading to huge damage.  There's no other JRPG quite like it.  I'm about 40 hours into it, and I find the game charming, though the narrative can get a bit preachy in places.

11
Fan Art / Re: Artworks from Deviantart and others
« on: September 25, 2022, 01:05:56 am »
Danbooru is a treasure trove of fan art.  You will find things here that don't show up on DeviantArt.  Keep in mind this is an 18+ site and some of the images may be objectionable.

This is a link to Chrono Cross fan art.  To the left of the screen are links to many different Chrono Cross characters if you're looking for something in particular.

https://danbooru.donmai.us/posts?tags=chrono_cross+&z=5

Here is the link to Chrono Trigger fan art.

https://danbooru.donmai.us/posts?tags=chrono_trigger&z=2




12
General Discussion / Re: Video Game Discussion Thread
« on: September 07, 2022, 12:20:39 am »
A new action RPG is on the verge of release.  It's called Asterigos: Curse of the Stars.  It caught my attention because the main character looks a lot like Leena.  It would be too funny if a modder gave this girl Leena's outfit and a frying pan to swing around.

https://nichegamer.com/asterigos-curse-of-the-stars-release-date-oct/

13
Quote
Did you play Star Ocean: Anamnesis? I did for a while out of respect for the series, but ultimately got frustrated and quit -- gacha games are not for me.

I only just heard of Anamnesis the other day.  Gacha games don't interest me in the least.  I already spend too much time and money on the few MMOs I'm invested in.

Quote
I haven't played SO4 and would love to, but I stopped the console wars with the PS3, so I no longer play unless it's on Switch or PC. I've heard the same complaints, though. I hope SO5 ends up on the PC; if so, I'll definitely be playing it.

It's actually Star Ocean 6, not 5.  Five was Integrity and Faithlessness.  Yes it is coming to Steam, as well as PS5, PS4, and XBox.  October 27th is the release date.  I can understand not wanting to have the higher-end consoles if you already have a decent computer that will get most of the console games eventually.  The drawback is that the games are often not optimized for PC on release and cause numerous crashes before patches come out.  I don't have the patience to fix broken games with my limited programming knowledge, and I prefer consoles for action-based games anyway.  Much better controllers.

As for Integrity and Faithlessness, you really aren't missing much.  I finished it yesterday and the experience was disappointing to say the least.  It was inferior to The Last Hope in almost every way, and it was obvious the game was made on a shoestring budget on account of Square-Enix having other priorities for their development dollars.  (A sadly familiar tale, isn't it?)  The story in particular was a letdown, both in the core plot and in the boring way it was presented.  It's a shame, because the characters had an interesting visual design that felt (mostly) more grounded than the cast from The Last Hope.  If you need to catch up with Star Ocean lore, just look for YouTube playthroughs on the game.  It's unlikely SO5 will ever get a PC release unless it's part of a compilation.

14
I am currently playing through the Star Ocean series.  I beat Second Story many years back, when the PS1 was in its heyday, but had neglected the series since then.  With the recent announcement of Star Ocean: The Divine Force, I decided the time had finally come to play through 'Till the End of Time, The Last Hope, and Integrity and Faithlessness to get caught up with the series and the underlying lore of its universe.

To avoid spoilers for those who haven't played these games, I'll just say that 'Till the End of Time has a rather... interesting plot twist that casts the entire series in a strange light that generates controversy to the present day.  I also found Star Ocean 3, as it's otherwise known, to be remarkably unfriendly to the player in the way the game is structured.  Most aspects of the game, outside of the excellent combat, seem almost tailor made to frustrate the player and waste his or her time.  There are no quick travel options from region to region, and the crafting system is an RNG nightmare that practically demands a strategy guide to make any meaningful progress.  As a whole package, I liked the game more than I disliked it, but 230 hours of investment made me painfully aware of the PS2 game's shortcomings and questionable design choices.

The Last Hope really upped the presentation values, as you would expect from a PS3 generation game, and the combat was perhaps even better than in Star Ocean 3.  I also liked the fact that TLH was more grounded in science fiction, and didn't just rehash the spaceman crash lands on primitive world and saves the day trope.  Unfortunately, avoiding that trope didn't prevent the game from taking other tropes into overdrive and creating some truly cringe-inducing moments with its colorful cast of characters.  More than once I questioned how the MC ever became a military officer after the way he dealt with a certain mid-game crisis, to say nothing about how the game's main healer (which you get very late in the story) is written to be as air-headed as possible.  I like lighthearted moments as well as the next guy, but this girl is little more than a trope on two legs, she is so dumb.  The story was a bit hit and miss, starting strong, straying into some existential issues in the mid-game that are never adequately explained, and then evolving into almost predictable metaphysical preaching at a blistering pace near the game's end.  The ending itself is pretty strong, but I felt the whole narrative to be a bit disjointed.  The Last Hope is a decent enough game, but not something I would consider top-tier among JRPGs.  I spent roughly a hundred hours on it.

Integrity and Faithlessness (PS4) is considered by many to be the worst game in the Star Ocean series, and I was always curious as to why it got such bad word of mouth among fans.  Having just started the game, being about fifteen hours in, I'm kind of getting an inkling.  The combat feels like it has taken a step down from the often glorious carnage we saw in The Last Hope, and you generally feel less formidable than the previous casts of characters.  More ominously, the story starts slow, and the characters are presented in a less cinematic way than in the previous two games.  Though it's still early, I'm much less emotionally invested in this group of characters than I was with the previous group at the same point of the story.  Never a good sign.  I'm also wary of the crafting system.  You can increase your skill easily enough, but you never seem to be able to find the materials you need to make even low-level equipment, let alone things that make you feel like you have gear suitable to your level.  You gain levels fast in this game, and that is because enemies seem to scale to your level of strength, sometimes banishing a particular enemy you need for material drops in favor of something that can last more than five seconds against you.  Maybe the overall experience will get better, but the early signs are not promising.

Anyone else have an opinion on the Star Ocean series of games?

15
Hey all.  It's been a few years since I've lurked around here.  The recent re-release of Chrono Cross has got Chrono back to the front of my mind, not to mention the passage of time.  So much has changed in the world since 2015.  Just when you begin to think you might be in the Ideal Timeline, reality throws you a curveball and you wish you could open a dimensional portal someplace else, or maybe go back in time to make a few changes.  Barring Lucca becoming real and inventing something that will enable us to do that, all we really have is this dreamspace to reminisce about what was and what might be.  How many of the old gang are still around?

I've been continuing on my Chrono Trigger novel project whenever I get struck by the writing bug.  There's quite a bit more material than the chapters I've already posted here, and I may post those at a future date if there's enough interest.  In the meantime, I've been struck by the urge, insane as it is, to start on a reboot novelization of Chrono Cross.  It can't be called canon, since I have a number of changes planned that just can't fully mesh with the world we already know, but I try and keep it as close to the original story as possible and make any changes feel organic rather than arbitrary.  I've already posted what little I've written in the fan-fiction section and am looking forward to some feedback.

It's good to see all of you again.  Maybe something good can yet come out of this timeline.

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 26