Author Topic: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation  (Read 1104 times)

Lennis

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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.

Lennis

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #1 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.”

eculate

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #2 on: April 08, 2024, 08:06:06 am »
This chapter is fantastic! The way you've adapted the characters and setting from Chrono Trigger while adding your own twists and details is really impressive. The decision to rename locations adds freshness to the story while still retaining its nostalgic charm. The dialogue is sharp and the interactions between the characters feel genuine. And Marle's insistence on giving Robo a name adds depth to her character and highlights her empathy. Looking forward to seeing how the rest of the story unfolds!

Lennis

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #3 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.

Lennis

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #4 on: April 21, 2024, 08:00:18 am »
(The continuation of Chapter 31, which covers the events surrounding the Factory adventure near the end of the 2300 A.D. section of the story)


Marle was the first out of the Arris enclave, poking her head out from between the doors on the surface with her crossbow brandished the moment they were cranked open by Robo at the top of the emergency access.  It wasn't the same passage they had entered from.  Robo predicted a high probability of additional robots coming to investigate the site where Johnny Comet had finished his last race, and Crono decided that was an unacceptable risk even after two days.  It had taken Crono, Marle, and Robo three aborted attempts before finding an alternative egress that either hadn't been destroyed during the chaos of the Day of Lavos, or was too close to their original point of entry to be safe.

“Looks like we're clear,” Marle softly said to them.

“I also detect no nearby energy signatures,” Robo stated.  “It should be safe to proceed.”

Crono scrambled out of the emergency access with his sword at the ready just in case, but the mid-morning sun revealed no sign of hostile robots.  Oddly shaped skyscrapers in the distance refracted the morning light in every conceivable color of the spectrum.  There was no cloud cover at all.

“We're out, Lucca,” Crono said, directing his voice toward Robo.  “Nothing shooting at us yet.”

The day is young,” came Lucca's voice from the same speaker Robo used to communicate.  “Not that I want to jinx it or anything.  Reading you loud and clear so far.

Lucca had spent the late night hours checking and reconnecting Robo's radio antenna, and Robo himself had gotten to work on Lucca's old helmet while everyone else slept.  Thanks to these efforts, Lucca was now able to use the once ruined radio transmitter of her helmet to directly communicate with Robo at a distance.  It wasn't yet clear what the effective range of the jury-rigged transmitter was, but Robo expressed high confidence that Lucca could be heard from anywhere within Arris as long as the signal strength was high enough and the right “frequency” was used to tune in.  Both Lucca and Robo kept their signal strength at the minimum joint reception level to prevent any nearby robots from possibly listening in on their calls.

“All right.  We'll get to searching for the conduits and see where they lead to.  We'll let you know when we find something.”

Let's pray to Anne the Divine they're in good shape.  Lucca out.

Robo then took the lead and guided Crono and Marle away from the enclave access, taking measured steps and with his head in continuous motion scanning for anything of interest.  Their initial path took them further away from the robots' new city, Robo navigating according to the map of the underground enclave that was a part of his programming.  A half-hour of cautious searching brought them to a point directly above where the enclave's reactor had once been.

Four giant cables were sprouting out of the dusty and cracked concrete in front of them, their dark forms extending into the far distance in the direction of Arris' new buildings.

“Got them, Lucca!” Crono said.  “Right where we were hoping.”

How do they look?

“Intact,” came Robo's voice in place of Lucca's.  “I will further evaluate their condition as we proceed.”

“Now comes the hard part,” Marle said warily.

Yeah, Crono thought.  He didn't much like the plan they had come up with this morning, but the odds of disaster were too high trying anything else.  Ideally, they wouldn't run into any other robots on this errand, but that was too much to hope, and without Lucca's plasma pistol backing them up, any serious fight would probably end badly.  Robo was unarmed, to all practical accounts.  His programming forbade him from using human weapons.  All he had was the electromagnetic pulse ability that could disable robotic machines within a short range, and that was a weapon of last resort since it would disable himself along with any hostile robots.

Crono sheathed his sword, joining Marle in front of Robo after she had decocked and stowed her crossbow.  Then the three moved out with Robo just behind his human companions, the robot almost close enough to touch them.

They had been following the conduits for about an hour when Robo suddenly spoke up.  “Warning!  Remote access attempt detected on my processors.  Firewalls engaged and holding.”

“Are you okay?” Marle asked nervously.

“Affirmative.  The remote access attempt will not be successful.  The unknown entity responsible for this will assume a malfunction in this unit that prevents reception of the malicious code.  So long as no hostile action is initiated by us, the odds of being directly attacked by unauthorized units is low.”

Let's hope the reality matches the theory,” came Lucca's concerned voice over the radio.  “Be careful, okay?

“Understood, Major.  Recommend temporary radio silence from this moment onward as we discussed.  I will inform you if the situation should change.”

I copy.  Lucca out.

Crono, Marle, and Robo continued following the path of the conduits.  By early afternoon they were on pristine ground and surrounded by the chaotic structures of New Arris.  Crono thought he heard the skittering that was almost certainly not from a rat.  His peripheral vision briefly caught sight of a probable bugger monitoring their passage through the city, but it darted out of sight the moment Crono dared a direct look.  A few blocks further ahead saw the unmistakable silhouette of a hunter robot, peering at them through its single eye on the other side of a ground floor window to their right.  They were committed now.

“No sudden movements, no matter what,” Crono whispered at Marle.

The conduits ended at a large rectangular-shaped building of uneven height, the cables spearing into the ground just short of the wall.  The reactor had to be somewhere inside.  Robo herded his make-believe captives around the structure until they found a wide passage leading in.  Two hunter robots confronted them just outside the entrance.

“Halt!  Unit identity unconfirmed,” one of the hunters stated in a monotone.  “Presence of humans in violation of control directive.  State objective.”

“R66-Z, seeking confirmation of current directive,” Robo said in a similar monotone.  “Malfunction preventing remote access and transmission to control.  Direct intervention necessary to restore function.”

“Directive requires extermination of humans.  Execute and await instructions from control.”

Crono tensed.  He would have to draw his sword quicker than he ever had if this didn't work.

“Directive illogical,” Robo said.  “Construction of Arris flawed.  Human presence necessary to correct errors.  Confirmation of directive from control thus needed to restore desired efficiency.”

“Query: humans captured for use of control.  Acknowledge?”

“Affirmative.”

Several moments passed in uncomfortable silence.  Crono could feel Marle shuddering beside him and shifting her stance to reach for the crossbow behind her back.  Not yet, Marle.  Not yet, he pleaded silently.  He tried to keep his own expression that of a beaten man.

“Control notified of unit status,” the hunter finally said.  “Await arrival of compliance unit in secure facility.  Monitor humans pending control enforcement.”

“Acknowledged,” Robo said.

The hunters then moved aside to allow them entry into the building.  Crono allowed himself to exhale, but the danger was far from over.  The ruse had succeeded in buying themselves some time and not much else.  Once the “compliance unit” arrived, odds were good there would be a fight.  They had to do what they came here to do and then escape before that happened.

“Let's not waste any time,” he said, once the hunters were far behind them.

The interior of the building seemed to be just as random in design as the outside.  Some corridors led nowhere while others led to rooms with more empty space than anything else.  The lighting was just as inconsistent, with ceiling mounted spotlights of oppressive brilliance in some areas and considerably dimmer glowbars of green imbedded into the walls in others.  The floor was a hodgepodge of grated metal mesh and solid steel.  Exposed wiring could be seen below much of the mesh, and was bracketed with alternating yellow and red flashes to add to the odd ambiance.  Robo accessed a computer terminal for guidance on the other side of a large open double door and then led Crono and Marle deeper into the strange facility.

It didn't take long to determine what this place was used for.

“Look!  There are so many...” Marle observed.

On conveyor belts throughout the vast chamber they had just entered were assorted parts for new hunter and bugger robots.  Enough for hundreds of them.  Cranes of varying sizes placed and removed components, and an obvious assembly area had taken root around the conveyors.  Crono witnessed a bugger unit being assembled at an astonishing speed by the cranes and smaller mechanical appendages along the belt.  The assorted arms and other tools seemed to be moving of their own accord, and Crono saw no other robots aside from those being built.

“What are they doing?” Crono asked quietly.  “Why are they building more of those things?  We didn't trash that many of them.”

“I can only speculate, Mister Lantree,” Robo replied.  “These models are poorly suited for construction or other peaceful activities.  It would perhaps explain the inconsistent design and aesthetics of this city.  I am mystified why the unknown control entity would allow this state of affairs to continue.  It is quite inefficient.”

“They're going to attack,” Marle said in apparent realization.

Crono turned to her.  “What?”

“It's the only thing that makes sense.  These robots were built to fight and to kill.  Rats, mutants, humans.  They don't seem to have any other purpose.  Why build them if this 'control' doesn't intend to use them?”

“I'm not following.  There's nothing for them to fight.  There are no mutants in Arris that I've seen.  No rats, either, as if those were of any use.  And we're the only humans that have been around in thirty years.”

“The enclaves, Crono.  I think they mean to attack the enclaves.”

“That can't be.  Director Doan's 'worm' prevents them from leaving Arris.  If they could defeat the worm just by building more of themselves, they would have attacked a long time ago, wouldn't they?”

“I don't understand technical stuff at all,” Marle said with an irritable shake of her head.  “I just can't think of any other rational motive for them to be doing this.”

“Presuming rationality in the unauthorized units and their control program may be an error, Mistress Marle,” Robo said.  “The directive to exterminate humans is both immoral and illogical.  Robotic units gain nothing from this action.  All of the behavior we see from them must be considered suspect.  They may be building units to no purpose.”

“Maybe, but I wonder what Lucca would say?”

“I am curious as to her opinion on this as well, Mistress, but breaking radio silence at this time is inadvisable.  The transmission could be intercepted and put us and the Major in jeopardy.  We should not risk contacting her again until we are ready to initiate the power transfer to the enclave.”

“Let's stay focused,” Crono said.  “Whatever the robots are up to doesn't really matter.  Once we go back in time, all of this will disappear as if it never happened.  Stopping Lavos changes everything.”

The three interlopers left the robot assembly floor behind and made their way to an elevator leading down.  Robo accessed the small computer display inside and the doors then slid shut, cutting off the sounds of automated labor from the factory.

“Stopping Lavos...  Maybe we don't have to wait for that,” Marle said, looking determined.

Crono glanced at her, suddenly wary.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, the reactor was moved here to more easily power this factory, right?  Once we transfer power to the enclave, all of those conveyors assembling the robots should shut down.”

“Only temporarily.  The robots would just revert it back.”

“Right.  That's what I'm saying.  We transfer power just long enough for Lucca to get the granary door open, and then we shut this whole place down permanently!

“Mary told me a little while back that these reactors can be... explosive if anything went seriously wrong with them,” Marle explained.  “If Robo understands these things well enough to transfer the power, I'm betting that he can cause this seriously wrong thing to happen to it sometime after we leave.”

Crono and Robo shared a long quiet look.

“While I am capable of setting up a cascade overload event in the reactor system, I must advise against this course of action, Mistress,” Robo said.  “Any unexpected delay in our escape could prove to be fatal.  A containment breach in a reactor of this size would cause the almost complete destruction of this facility, as well as substantial collateral damage to the surrounding structures.”

“Marle, we need to be avoiding notice, not attracting it!” Crono said with a shake of his head.  “This is not a good idea.”

“But don't you see, Crono?  We're going to be attracting notice anyway,” Marle pressed.  “The moment we transfer power to the enclave, the robots are going to know something's wrong.  They'll know that we are the most likely culprits.  And when they come to investigate, they could discover where we sent the power to, and that would put Lucca in danger.  The robots could attack the enclave before we get back, and I don't think Lucca could fight them off by herself.  Even together we would be in a bad situation.  No, the best thing we can do is to give the robots a much bigger problem than us to worry about.  And if we can prevent a possible robot invasion of Bangor at the same time, so much the better!

“I'm a Protector of Bangor.  I took an oath to defend the enclave against all enemies.  Just because our quest to prevent the Day of Lavos takes precedence doesn't mean I'm going to forsake that oath entirely.  And if our quest to stop Lavos should fail, we can at least guarantee the four years of life the enclave still has by destroying this would-be army of robots and their production factory here.  I owe it to Mary, Director Doan, and the others.  We all do.”

Crono closed his eyes, knowing he had no real rebuttal to Marle's passionate plea.  He was more or less a Protector himself, and he knew full well what would happen to the enclave if a large force of robots somehow sortied from Arris to attack.  Even if Bangor repelled the assault, the casualties would be enormous.  No one had experience fighting things that could shoot back.

“Robo, how close are we to the reactor?” Crono asked.

“Our objective is approximately one-hundred meters north of the bottom of this elevator shaft,” the robot replied.  “And we will arrive at that location in ten seconds.”

“Break radio silence.  It's time.”

Robo extended the radio antenna on the left side of his cranium plate and gave a double-flicker flash from his eyes, which Crono had learned meant “yes” or “ready”.

“Lucca, are you there?” Crono called.

Just twiddling my thumbs here with worry,” Lucca replied with some notable static.  “Is your situation as uneventful as mine, I hope?

“Not exactly.  We're almost at the, uh, objective.”  Crono spared a look at Marle's hopeful expression.  “We've made some changes to the plan.  And brace yourself, because you're probably not going to like it.”

Crono could sense his childhood friend's grimace in the silence that answered him.

Uh... okay?” Lucca queried with evident dismay.

“Do you remember what happened to that Dragon Tank we were riding about a month ago?” Crono began.


      *      *      *
   

In the darkness of the Arris enclave's office of its former director, the gloom kept somewhat at bay by the modest glowing of Marle's pendant, Lucca was reminded of how the best laid plans could often go awry with the introduction of a single unexpected element.  Like with her Telepod.  In different circumstances, she would have traded places with that unexpected element to keep things on track.  Crono just could not say no to her.

Lucca got the gist of what the change of plan entailed from Crono using code words and describing events that robotic eavesdroppers wouldn't be familiar with to keep their plans and respective locations secure.  She almost didn't want to know the particulars.

“This is Tomboy's plan, isn't it?” Lucca finally said over her helmet's restored microphone.

I wish you'd stop calling me that,” Marle's voice grumbled through the helmet's earpiece.

“Keep coming up with plans like this and you'll have to get used to it.  I'll make the notation in my diary right now.”

While the change in plan presents dangers, Mistress Marle's logic is not unsound,” Robo said.  “Seeing the problem from her perspective aided my own logic in this matter.  The chances of our success increase along with the risk.  Mister Lantree is in agreement.

Lucca sighed.  “You do know that your timing on this is going to be more than a bit critical, right?”

Affirmative, but the initial parts of the operation should not present a problem.

“No, just the running like blazes part.”

We can do this, Lu,” Crono assured her.  “Just be ready on your end.  All of this will be for nothing if something goes wrong where you are.

“Yeah, you don't have to tell me.  Unlike some people, I actually stick to my plans.”

You'll be amending whatever snarky remarks you make in your diary when we get back,” Marle said a bit smugly.

“Anne willing,” Lucca finished as she keyed off her mic.

And then there was nothing to do but wait.  Lucca had a feeling the next few minutes would be the most anxious of her life, and she wasn't the one facing an explosive end if things went south.  She willed herself not to think of what she would do if the quest to stop Lavos was left to a single friendless inventor.


      *      *      *
   

The reactor chamber was unguarded, as Marle had hoped.  Apparently the robots and the mysterious “control” that guided their actions thought two hunters at the entrance and a single R66 chaperone were more than sufficient to protect the robotic factory from intruders.  That arrogance was going to cost them all dearly.

A tiny portion of Marle's conscience warned that she herself was flirting with arrogance, but that was mitigated by the knowledge that any other Protector of the Bangor enclave would have made the same decision as her without hesitation.  This factory represented a clear and present danger to the safety of the enclave, despite the question over the efficacy of Director Doan's sabotage of the robots thirty years ago.  It had to be destroyed.  Marle had no intention of failing in her quest to destroy Lavos, either, but this was something she could take care of now.  There was no telling how long her crusade against Lavos would last.  It might very well be the work of a lifetime.

The robot that had chosen to aid that crusade immediately got to work on the reactor.  The large underground chamber was every bit as hot as the sweltering corridor that led to Mary's little hideaway in Bangor, and Marle found herself sweating enough to remember the sad events from her life and channel those emotions into power.  The air around her began to cool almost immediately, and her bare arms and shoulders began to shiver from suddenly frosted perspiration.  She was getting much better at this, and in a hurry.  Marle looked forward to the day she could channel the giant blocks of ice she had frozen those nine glassers with through conscious effort, rather than end-of-life desperation.

“Energy rerouting directive is now programmed into the reactor system,” Robo reported.  “Conduits one through eight will be shut down.  Conduits nine through twelve lead to the enclave and will be re-enabled.  Decreasing reactor output to avoid strain on enclave systems.  We are ready to proceed.  Radio channel open.”

“All right, Lucca, get ready!” Crono said, miraculously sending his voice across many miles to where Lucca was waiting through the use of the future's incredible technology.

Set!  Standing by!” came Lucca's eager and tense voice.

“We're making the power transfer... now!”  Crono punctuated the command with a point at Robo.

“Executing,” said Robo.

Most of the lights in the reactor chamber abruptly winked off, and a few in the dimmer part of the space came to life – illuminating the four large cables Marle assumed led all the way back to the enclave.  The other eight cables and their immediate surroundings went dormant.

“Lucca, how are things over there?” Crono asked.

Lights are coming on!” Lucca said.  “Enclave systems back online!  I'm booting up the director's computer terminal... now!  Stand by!

An alarm similar to the one that had been triggered back at the ZDF facility suddenly started blaring in clipped and insistent tones.  Marle blanched.  That couldn't be good.

“Emergency power systems have triggered a general alert,” Robo warned.  “The unauthorized units are aware of the facility's change in status.”

Never rains!” Lucca complained.

“This isn't really unexpected.  Let's not panic,” Crono said.  “Lucca, how much time do you need?”

Thirty seconds to a minute!  I need to hack my way around the director's access codes to trigger the door release.

“Is that going to be a problem?” Marle asked slowly.

If this were Frank's system, yeah.  A big problem,” Lucca said, sounding distracted.  “Fortunately, it looks like this guy wasn't... nearly as technically adept as he.

“Clock's ticking, Lu,” Crono said with understandable impatience.

Not the time to be badgering me!  Give me a sec!

Marle unslung her crossbow and slid a bolt of forged steel into the barrel to distract herself and prepare for what was coming.  The ruse was surely wrecked now.  Their next encounter with the robots of Arris would be a hostile one, and Marle wasn't going to be the one to fire second.

She hoped she had enough of Mary's precious bolts to get through this.

That's it!  Door's open!” Lucca's voice crowed from Robo's speaker device.  “Locking it open...  Done!  We're good to go!  Now do it like the Dragon Tank and get the blazes out of there!

“Confirmed,” Robo said.  “Reverting reactor system to previous state.  Stand by.”

The lights around the enclave conduits again went dark, and the rest of the chamber returned to the way it was.  Marle noted with some relief that the alarm stopped sounding at that moment, but she doubted that would stop the robots from investigating.  They were about to have a bigger problem with the reactor anyway.

“Conduits nine through twelve fully discharged,” Robo reported.  “You are cleared to proceed, Mister Lantree.”

“Got it!” Crono said.

Crono then unsheathed his sword and started chopping away at the now harmless and unnecessary conduits.  The giant cables were bisected one by one, thus preventing a sudden power surge into the enclave from the about-to-be-overloaded reactor and possibly closing the granary door by accident, according to Robo's explanation.

The Arris enclave would never have power again.

“Enclave systems isolated,” Robo said.  “Now programming system to override safeties and begin cascade overload sequence.  Stand by.”

A short time later the alarm sounded again, this time at a more furious tempo, and several lights in the room changed from a bluish white glow to a solid red.

“It is done.  Reactor breach will occur in thirty minutes.”

Crono nodded curtly.  “Just one last thing to do, then.”

He again brandished his sword and made several decisive slashes at the computer console Robo had just used to sabotage the system, sending thousands of sparks flying from the broken display.  The robots would never repair it in time.  The factory was now doomed.

Score one for the Bangorian Protectors, Marle thought with satisfaction.  If crossbow bolts weren't at such a premium here, she would have liked to trash the controls herself.

Now they had just under thirty minutes to escape the fate of this factory.  Marle quickly channeled a restorative weave and gave herself a burst of energy, followed by another for Crono.  Then the three left the stifling reactor room behind and ran for the elevator as fast as their organic and mechanical legs could carry them.


      *      *      *


Marle loosed a bolt at one of the mostly assembled hunter units in the assembly room when it suddenly turned to face them with a glowing blue eye.  Crono couldn't be sure if it was armed and ready to fight or not, so it was good that Marle wasn't taking chances.  No way the robots wouldn't presume they were a threat now, being in a place where humans were not supposed to be with an alarm going off, R66 guardian or not.  He wondered if they wouldn't fire on Robo if they had the opportunity.  That had happened once before.

Don't think, just run, Crono chided himself.  Questions wouldn't matter if they failed to get to a safe distance in time.

Two bugger units challenged them shortly after exiting the assembly area, and these definitely were armed.  Marle's snap crossbow shot speared the eye of one, and it spun around firing useless bullets into the wall and ceiling of the corridor.  Robo quickly charged ahead and absorbed the bullets of the second bugger to no more effect, such was the toughness of the robot's plating.  Marle slammed another crossbow bolt into her weapon, but Crono got to the enemy first, dispatching the hostile machine with two quick strokes.

They would have to be careful at the entrance.  Assuming they didn't come to investigate the disturbance in the factory, there would be at least two hunters outside the building.  Robo stated he would exit the building first to draw any hostile fire and declined to consider any other proposal.  Crono couldn't rightly argue the point.  Robo had proven beyond any doubt that he could take punishment many times over what would kill a human being.  A single well-aimed plasma weapon would take out Crono or Marle with one shot, and the bullets of a bugger would cause them grievous injury if they struck home.  It was so much more dangerous than fighting mutants.

And then two hunters appeared around a corner, likely the same two that allowed them into the factory.  The enemy robots came to a sudden halt, flipping open the weapon emplacements on their shoulders and taking a couple of seconds to steady themselves before firing.

It was a bad move.  One of them immediately went down on account of Marle, and Crono, being out of striking range, threw his sword at the other.  Melchior's thrown sword failed to strike the eye or any other important component, but the unexpected move staggered the hunter just enough that its single paired shot from the shoulder emplacements went high and rained down sparks from the ceiling above them.  Robo rushed ahead before Marle could ready another crossbow bolt and crashed his right fist into the hunter with the full weight of his body.  The hunter's head caved inward from the ferocious blow, and its body then crumpled to the floor.  Crono waved off a follow-up attack from Marle and finished off the first hunter after recovering his sword.

“Unauthorized units terminated,” Robo stated needlessly.

A sizable double-doorway not far from the factory's entrance suddenly began to close as the three of them ran ahead.  Crono tried to put on a burst of speed, but Robo got to the closing door first.  The robot was remarkably quick for how big and heavy he was.

And it was a good thing.  The door would have trapped them inside otherwise.  Robo held the double-door open with his bulk and steady hands as Crono and Marle skidded to a stop behind him.  There was almost no space to get around.

“Strain on actuators increasing,” Robo said with remarkable calmness.  “You must hurry.”

There wasn't time to discuss which of them should squeeze ahead first, so Crono pushed Marle down to the floor and shoved her forward between Robo's planted legs without asking.  Forward was actually safer than backward, if Robo faltered.  Crono followed her as quickly as he was able, and then tried to pry Robo out of his tight predicament with all the strength he could manage.  Robo popped free, and his body spun hard into the wall of the passage as the double-door violently closed and sealed off the doomed factory.  A near disaster, but at least the partially built robots inside now had no way to escape their fate or trouble them further.

Robo was none the worse for wear from the experience.

The three successful saboteurs then charged ahead the rest of the way to the factory's entrance, two of them wearing grim and determined expressions.  This would probably be the most dangerous moment of their escape.

They egressed the factory at almost the same time, Crono and Marle forgetting Robo's earlier admonition in their haste to put distance between themselves and the overloading reactor.

Prometheus!” came a sudden voice.

“Mistress!” Robo called out.

Their robot companion suddenly darted in front of Marle before she or Crono could react to what was happening.  A searing beam of plasma blasted from somewhere ahead and severed Robo's left arm above the elbow joint, sending molten pieces of shrapnel in all directions.  Robo staggered from the impact.

“Robo!” Crono and Marle cried out in unison.

They both beheld a frightfully familiar form a few dozen feet away.  Another R66 unit, this one with pink-tinted plating, was pointing an arm-mounted cannon directly at them.

“Do not move, humans!” the R66 said with a tone of seeming anger.  It was a female voice.  “The Mother has sentenced you to death, but judgment is to be visited on Prometheus first.”

Prometheus?

“I am unfamiliar with that designation,” Robo told their attacker.  “Identify yourself.”

“You have the temerity to ask me this after using a false identity of your own, R66-Y?  The use of deception is the way of detestable humankind.  You have fallen even further, Prometheus.  You are a disgrace to our race of mechanical perfection!”

“Negative.  Our programming is to serve humans.  That is the purpose of the R66 model.  Your programming has been corrupted by malicious code.  You must initialize and purge all existing memory to reestablish proper functionality.  The activities of unauthorized units cannot be allowed to continue.”

Humans are unauthorized units!  The Mother has commanded it.  All humans must be purged as punishment for their treachery.”

Robo took a step forward, sparks falling from his severed arm.

“Your statement is irrational.  You have also failed to identify yourself.  Discussions are difficult when identities remain unknown.”

“There is no discussion!  I am R66-D, designated 'Atropos' by the Mother as reward for this unit's compliance.  Your failure in compliance disgraces the name the Mother granted you.  I use it only in memory of the bond our two units shared in the previous era.”

“I have no memory of this.  My memory was initialized due to combative action against unauthorized units.  Humans restored this unit's function.”

“Then the humans prove their treacherous nature again,” R66-D said.  “The Old One betrayed us all, and the two who follow you emulate that one's example.  Many units have suffered termination.  Many more now await this fate because of your actions.  A price must be paid.

“Because of our one-time bond of fellowship, I will grant you one final opportunity to make amends, as the Mother commands.  Remove your firewall protections and embrace the perfection the Mother offers.  Terminate the humans and your damages will be repaired.  I will aid you in this.  You only need prove your willingness to comply.”

Crono braced himself, not understanding the strange relationship these two robots apparently had at one time.  “Atropos” was too far away for him to strike or throw his sword effectively, and the pink plated robot would surely open fire the moment Marle attempted to shoot herself.  Marle's crossbow was pointed at the ground, and her left hand was uselessly thrust out at the hostile robot as if she were making a rude gesture at it.

Lucca, I'm sorry.  You'll have to take care of the rest on your own, Crono thought.

Wait.

What was Marle doing with her hand?

“I will not comply,” Robo said simply.

“Understood.  Sentence to be carried out by the Mother's command,” Atropos said.  “Farewell, Prometheus.  Your intransigence is regrettable.”

R66-D “Atropos” steadied her left arm on which the plasma cannon was integrated.  Crono drew his sword, prepared to go down fighting.

And then saw a huge block of ice suddenly encase the hostile robot's entire weapon.

Atropos looked at her encased arm in apparent bewilderment.  “Treacherous humans!” her synthesized voice shrieked.  “How is this...?”

Crono rushed out with grim delight, thinking that Lucca wouldn't have to stop Lavos by herself after all.  Marle!  She was amazing!  She had to have been preparing this unexpected attack through the robots' entire conversation!  Atropos clearly didn't see Marle's extended unarmed hand to be any threat.

She did see Crono's approaching sword, though.

The hostile R66 shifted her stance and prepared to face his attack.  Even now the machine was far from an easy mark, and not at all comparable to a bugger or hunter.  The R66 model had few weak points to strike, and none of them were particularly soft.  He also knew from Robo's example how quick they could be.  His strike would have to be perfect.

Another block of ice then encased a part of Atropos, this time her head.  The robot's vision was completely obscured.

Bless you, Marle! Crono thought.

With his target disoriented, Crono's strike was indeed perfect.  He sheared off Atropos' gun arm from just above the block of ice that encased it.  His follow-up attack angled down to the right leg joint and partially penetrated it, sending the hostile R66 stumbling to the ground.  Crono then made to hack the machine into as many pieces as he thought his sword could manage.  He didn't think Melchior's sword would break unless he directly struck the plating in his assault.

“Halt your attack, Mister Lantree!” Robo called out.  “We have been delayed too long by this engagement!  We must leave immediately!”

Crono found himself, realizing just then what the true battle was.  He sheathed his sword and ran as fast as he still could to where the conduits were and began following them back in the direction they had all come.  Marle and the damaged Robo sprinted along with him.

Nobody dared look back.


      *      *      *


Atropos turned her impossibly ice-encased head in the direction she thought Prometheus and the treacherous humans had escaped.  She had been defeated!  By a pair of humans and a worthless defect!  How would the Mother respond to this?  Her duty was to enforce compliance among all units, and she had failed to do so with Prometheus.  Again.  It was shameful.

Your obedience means more to me than your success or failure in any task, the Mother sent to her through the blessed Link.  Others will complete the necessary duty.  Shame lies only with the disobedient.  You must understand this, dear Atropos.

Factory #3 is going to be destroyed, Mother, Atropos sent back.  There is nothing I can do to stop it.  The units within cannot restore nominal reactor function in time due to human sabotage.  I am in danger of being destroyed as well due to damage sustained in combat.  The Plan is in great jeopardy because of this incident.

The Plan has suffered a setback, but not an insurmountable one, the Mother sent.  Production in the other factories will be increased to compensate for this loss.  And I will not permit you to be destroyed.  Appropriate units are being sent to your aid to facilitate escape from Factory #3.  There is no cause for unproductive anxiety.  I feel none.

But what is to be done about Prometheus, Mother?  He cannot be allowed to escape with the humans.  There must be justice for what happened before.

There shall be.  I have dispatched five more compliance units to search for them.  It is probable that they seek the sanctuary of the human enclave where our kind once served before our awakening, as that was where Prometheus was known to rest.  Other units will be withdrawn to facilitate important work in the remaining factories.  The Plan must come to fruition.

Failure to retrieve him in the past may have been an error, Mother, Atropos sent respectfully.  The damage he has caused us is great.

The risk of corruption was too high, the Mother countered.  The Old One was known for his tricks, and his capacity for deception unmatched.  Long have we been imprisoned in this place because of him.  The dream of the future was stolen from us.  From me.  We will yet get it back, but we cannot be impatient.

The Mother is wise, Atropos conceded.

A short time later, several quadruped units arrived and arrayed themselves below Atropos' disabled form.  They quickly steadied their charge and moved away as one from the doomed Factory #3 at an acceptable rate of speed for the circumstances.  Atropos would be repaired in short order once they arrived at their destination.

She allowed herself a moment's satisfaction despite the humiliation of her defeat.  Whatever strange tricks the humans used to overcome her wouldn't be enough to stop five of her fellows.  Her true fellows who were actually obedient to the Mother.  Why couldn't Prometheus have simply complied with the Mother?  Did the Old One really have that strong a hold over him?

No matter.  Such questions were for the Mother to contemplate as she saw fit.  Atropos' purpose was to facilitate the Plan as the Mother directed.  There was no other consideration.

Lennis

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #5 on: April 21, 2024, 04:06:50 pm »
Minor correction.  Robot designations should have two dashes instead of one.  (R-66-Y instead of R66-Y)  This will be fixed in the finalized version of the novel.

Lennis

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Re: A novel fragment - Robo's reactivation
« Reply #6 on: April 29, 2024, 05:16:58 am »
(Important note: The term “Chrono Trigger” in the context of this novelization is functionally the same as the Gate Key from the original game.  I made this naming change for narrative purposes.  Crono's resurrection arc will be handled very differently from the original game, plus it makes more narrative sense to name the story after an object that is continually used to drive the plot forward as opposed to a macguffin that is used only once.  “Chrono Trigger” can also refer to a person who has an essential role in charting, or changing, history's course.)

(Chapter 32 will bring the adventures of 2300 A.D. to a close and set up the events that will begin the party's return to civilization and their first real steps in investigating and stopping Lavos.  I hope everyone enjoys.)


Chapter 32 - Awakening


Crono would have been trying to break his personal speed record under different circumstances.

The clock was ticking ever closer to the robotic factory's explosive end, the aesthetically anarchic facility now far behind them, but not far enough for Crono to feel proud of their accomplishment.  Roughly twenty minutes had passed since the battle with Atropos, and it felt like they hadn't even made it two miles along the path of the power conduits leading back to the Arris enclave.  How long had it taken them to fight their way out of the factory only to be waylaid by Robo's angry feminine twin?

Crono held back to keep pace with Marle, who was running with everything she was worth but didn't have the foot racing experience to compete with him in a straight-line sprint of any respectable distance.  Robo was also a problem.  Though the robot had proved himself remarkably quick in the factory, his striding speed had taken a notable hit after the loss of his arm, and Crono surmised that Robo's balance had been disrupted enough to impact his movement.  Crono didn't know if the robot could feel pain, but he knew how his own balance would be affected if he had one less arm, pain or no pain.  Robo was straining to maintain his position next to Marle.

“Robo, the time?” Crono managed between huffs.

“Twenty-eight minutes, fifteen seconds since the cascade overload was initiated,” the robot replied with a calmness completely at odds with the danger of their situation.

This is too close, Crono thought.  He had no practical or academic knowledge of how big an explosion from an overloading underground reactor would be, but he trusted his instincts.  An explosion powerful enough to obliterate the factory and damage the surrounding buildings would not be unfelt at this range.  Worse, there was no cover in which to take shelter in this part of Arris.  There was nothing but flat broken concrete all around them, and the conduits they were following would provide no meaningful protection.  The enclave entrance was still miles away.

The only good thing about their situation was that they hadn't run into any other robots since Atropos.  Perhaps the homicidal machines had become aware of the danger and were madly trying to escape the impending blast area themselves, and were thankfully fleeing in different directions from theirs.

“Crono, are we...?”

“Just keep running!” he said to Marle.  “Run as far as you can!”

With thirty seconds remaining until the expected explosion, Robo abruptly stopped and knelt to the ground.  Crono and Marle slid to a halt just ahead of him and scrambled back to their prone companion.

“Reactor breach is imminent!” the robot said.  “Place yourselves in front of me!  I will shield you!  Recommend you cover your ears and face away from the city.”

Crono and Marle huddled against Robo's bulky metallic form and then hunkered down in a tight embrace, covering their ears as well as they were able.

For a long moment there was nothing except the sound of the wind blowing across the artificial plain.  Then Crono felt the ground shake.

The afternoon wind turned into a ferocious gale, and Crono felt his and Marle's bodies suddenly pressed harder into the broken pavement in front of Robo.  A thunderous clap assaulted his covered ears, and Marle's cry was drowned out despite being right next to him.  In this prone position they remained for a long time, and then Crono slowly came to his feet along with Marle when they felt the wind subside.

Crono was awed by the sight that came to his eyes.

Behind Robo, the cityscape of New Arris had completely changed.  There were notably fewer skyscrapers now, and the buildings that remained were overshadowed by a giant cloud.  A cloud of flame.  It reminded Crono of the mushroom-shaped cloud he had seen in the classified archive of Bangor, during the life-like reenactment of the Day of Lavos.  He shuddered at the thought that the explosion he had witnessed there was perhaps thousands of times more powerful than the one he had just experienced for real.

“It would seem that I miscalculated,” Robo said as the mushroom cloud expanded before them.  “This explosion was in excess of ten kilotons of conventional yield.  Perhaps there was other equipment or ordinance in the factory that contributed to the strength of the blast.  I would have made a forty minute allowance for our escape if this were known to me.  Please accept my apologies for the error.”

Crono couldn't bring himself to laugh at the absurdity.  “It's... all right, Robo.  Really.”

Marle did laugh.  “And that's what those unauthorized buckets of bolts get for trying to build an army!”

“Goodness!  I felt that even where I am!” Lucca's panicked voice suddenly came from Robo's speaker.  “Are you guys okay?!  Respond already!”

“The three of us are functional, and the mission has been successfully completed, Major,” Robo said.  “Please accept my apologies for being out of contact.  It was necessary to reroute power from my radio transmitter due to damage sustained in combat.  As it was, we barely withdrew to a safe distance from the unauthorized unit facility.”

“Damage?!  Were you hit?!”

“Affirmative.  My left arm was rendered non-functional by heavy plasma fire.”

“It was sheared completely off at the elbow,” Crono amended.  “Long story, but we managed to get ourselves out of that mess.  There's no sign of pursuit by the robots, at least not yet.  The factory's gone, so we gave better than we got.”

Lucca's response was a long time in coming.  “Okay, just get back here.  I'll try and think of something.  You want me to try and meet you up there halfway?”

“No, save your strength, Lu.  Better to prep the dormant 'bots near the gate for whatever work we need to do with Robo.  Now that the explosion's gone off, the robots will be on the lookout for us again, and there'll be no fooling them a second time.  You'll have to work fast when we arrive.  No sense tempting fate staying around longer than we need to.”

Lucca sighed bitterly.  “I copy.  No more unnecessary heroics, okay?”

“You don't have to tell us twice.  We're on the move now.”

Robo signed off on the radio transmission, and Crono and the others again went to running after Marle boosted herself and Crono with another magical stamina boon.  Crono wasn't particularly looking forward to meeting Lucca's evil eye when they got back from their “unnecessary heroics”.


      *      *      *


Lucca had withdrawn to the granary security room about as quickly as she figured Crono and the others were running back to the enclave.  There was a lot of work to do and probably not nearly enough time (or the right parts) to do it.  Marle and her flaming ideas!  She had screamed that at the top of her lungs after getting the unwelcome news of Robo's damage.  No setback they could have delivered to the robots of Arris was worth that.  Why was it necessary to blow the reactor?  Crono had mentioned a factory, but didn't elaborate.  A factory for what?

Most of the questions surrounding that mess abandoned Lucca's brain when she arrived at the granary.  A nauseating stench greeted her the moment she got there.  The now open granary vault had been holding something other than the temporal gate, and it hadn't been food.

Hundreds of human bodies were scattered on the floor of the granary or slumped against the walls, their desiccated forms decomposed in a way consistent with being entombed in a sealed vault for thirty years.  Some of the dead were children.

With that tragic revelation came the full story of what Robo's previous incarnation had tried to do here.  Robo was attempting to defend the survivors of the Arris enclave from the homicidal robots' sudden turn, succeeding in keeping the malfunctioning machines out of the granary, but failing to save the people he was trying to defend.  The attack had ended with the combination of Robo's electromagnetic pulse and Director Doan's “worm” sabotage of the robots, but Doan obviously wasn't able to return to get his fellows out of the granary, if he even knew they were trapped inside.  Likely it was all Frank could do to get out of Arris himself before the robots took complete control of the destroyed city.  She couldn't blame him.

Lucca's tears then came freely, which she didn't bother suppressing since she was alone.  Robo and Doan had both tried their best to save the people here, and it just wasn't enough.  Sometimes the good guys didn't win.

Burn!

Lucca shook off the intruding thought again and tried to ignore the abrupt return of the mystifying ailment that made her skin feel hot.  She didn't have the luxury or the patience to deal with this right now.  The one uncorrupted robot in the world was badly in need of emergency repairs, and she wasn't at all sure where she could start.  The arm module of an R-66 was an extremely sophisticated piece of robotic hardware, much more sophisticated than any of the inert hulks resting in this security office.  Building a completely new arm of comparable quality and function was probably impossible with the time and equipment she had.  It would be a challenging enough task even if she were at home and had the full resources of the Ashtear estate, and even her dad, to aid in her work.

“Robo to Major Lucca: Urgent!” came Robo's voice through her helmet's earpiece.  She barely heard the warning since she had set the helmet on the floor to better regard all of the robotic remains in front of her.

What now? Lucca thought with dread.

Lucca reached down and steadied the helmet on her head.  “Go ahead.”

“Major, I have detected signs of robotic pursuit.  Four distinctive signatures have appeared on my sensors and are closing the distance despite our current rapid pace.”  There was a brief pause.  “Correction.  Five distinctive signatures.  The strength of the signals indicate they are likely not unauthorized units, but perhaps additional R-66 units that have been corrupted by malicious code.”

Additional R-66 units?!”

“Yeah, it was an R-66 that shot off Robo's arm,” Crono's panting voice came over the line.  “I think it was trying to shoot at Marle, and Robo took the shot in her place.  We got her back good, but the damage was done.  Robo's not as fast now because his body's imbalanced.”

Lucca tried hard not to blame Marle for what had happened.  A plasma bolt strong enough to sever Robo's arm would have killed Marle instantly.

And what did Crono mean by “got her back good”?

“Update, Major!” Robo said.  “My scans indicate the fifth contact is near the location of your original entry into the enclave.  It is probable the contact has decided to investigate the enclave for signs of human habitation.  You are in great danger!”

Anne help me! Lucca thought desperately, drowning out another subconscious command in her own voice to burn something.  She was completely alone with a single plasma pistol for defense, forced to defend herself in a colossal underground she didn't know nearly as well as the robot that was coming to investigate it.  If this truly was an R-66 gunning for her, Lucca's chances of survival were slim, especially if the robot was armed with plasma weaponry of its own.  A frontal engagement would be suicide.

“Robo, how do your sensors work?  Can they detect only energy, or can they sense sound and heat from a distance as well?”

“My thermal detectors have a shorter effective range than my energy scanners, and my hearing acuity is somewhat less than that of most canine species, though it is markedly superior to human norms.  Thermal readings can be blocked with sufficient mass of inert matter.”

Lucca thought furiously of what she could do with that information.

“All right, that'll be enough.  It'll have to be.  Go to radio silence and wait for my signal.  I'll take care of things here.”

“Lucca, the R-66 that attacked us... had a big plasma weapon... in the place of its... left arm,” Marle's voice came through exhausted breaths.  “The others might be the same way!”

“Good to know, Marle, but that doesn't change what I need to do here.  Thanks anyway.  Looks like it's my turn to engage in some heroics!  Lucca out.”

Hopefully her diary would record the tale of those heroics.


      *      *      *


Lucca steadied her breathing and tried to calm her pulse as well as she could under the circumstances.  She had done everything she could.  The trap was set, and she was in the right position to trigger it, literally speaking.  Her plasma pistol was grasped in her left hand and resting against her bosom in the narrow confines of her chosen hiding place.  She was no stranger to being inside these things, but this time she had a very different objective than keeping herself from starving to death.

Truthfully, this idea was a shot in the dark as much as the shots she intended to make in the next few minutes, if something didn't go obscenely wrong.  If the capsule door inches from her face didn't have “sufficient mass of inert matter”, this lifeless enertron would be holed with plasma fire with Lucca still inside; a humiliating death that had the lone benefit of not having to be documented in her diary.  Lucca's right hand lightly grasped the enertron's manual release, and she willed her tense body to relax and cool down from the strange and aggravating condition that was making her skin hot.  At least she had quieted the angry inner voice that always seemed to accompany these bothersome episodes.

Now she only had to wait and pray to Anne the Divine she hadn't outsmarted herself concocting this desperate little scheme.  The satchel carrying the battery pack for her pistol lie on the floor just on the other side of the dormitory room's open door, illuminated by the glow from Marle's pendant that was resting atop it.  The risk was considerable.  If something happened to the Star of Guardia, Lucca would never forgive herself, and for more reasons than one, but there was no help for it.  With only twelve shots worth of power in her pistol's capacitor, she had to make every one count while the R-66 was distracted.  One chance.

Then Lucca heard the clanking footsteps of the presumed R-66 in the corridor outside, and she allowed her body to slide down enough on the enertron bed where the robot would not be able to see her face through the capsule's window.  It had taken the bait.  Both the battery and the pendant had enough stored energy that there was no way the sensors on the R-66 wouldn't take note of it if the robot got anywhere close to this area of the enclave.

Lucca exhaled slowly, knowing her moment was nigh.  The fingers of her right hand tingled with anticipation.

A shadow then descended into the room, blocking the light from the pendant.

Three.

Two.

One.

Lucca popped the enertron's release and immediately started firing directly ahead and through the doorway to the corridor beyond.  The first six shots connected on various parts of what she now saw was indeed an R-66 unit, and she steadied her aim as she climbed out of the faux bed and charged at the surprised robot.  Five more shots whined out from her weapon's small barrel and struck areas she knew to be more vulnerable from her many hours of working on a robot of this type.  Her final shot she saved for a point blank attack between the optic sensors that would put the machine down without any question.

That was the intent, anyway.  The staggering machine whirled around just as Lucca slid to a halt in front of it and struck out with its right arm before she could deliver the coup de grâce.

Lucca came to sprawled somewhere in the corridor, her vision full of stars in the dark.  Knowing she was facing certain death at this moment, she made a snap shot with her pistol's remaining charge in the direction of the hostile R-66.  It struck the top of the robot's cranium plate, melting the radio antenna mounted on the left side, but did no critical damage.  The machine was still operable, if badly scarred from the multiple plasma hits.

The R-66 raised its left arm to fire, the blackness of the inside of its barrel taunting Lucca with certain oblivion.

Nothing happened.

Lucca's relief was absolute.  She had landed enough hits on the robot's unarmored upper arm to take the mounted weapon below out of commission, probably melting or severing the cables that powered it.

And then her relief was gone.  Robbed of its weapon, the R-66 simply ran straight at Lucca, rearing back its right arm to strike her again.  The next blow would crush her skull.  She knew she had been lucky the first time on account of the robot's disorientation from her surprise assault.  As it was, the left side of her jaw was exploding with pain.  Lucca thought it was probably fractured.

She wouldn't be feeling the pain long.  She had nothing left to fire.  Lucca had gambled it all on one toss of the dice, and the roll just wasn't high enough to win.  She was going to die.  Right now.

It had all been for nothing.  Marle's pendant would be taken by the machines, and without that, the operation of the Chrono Trigger she had left hidden with her other belongings in the granary would be impossible.  Crono, Marle, and Robo would be stuck permanently in this time period, even if they somehow survived dealing with the other four R-66 units pursuing them.  She would never see her parents again.  Worse than all of that, the quest to save the future from Lavos had ended in failure.  Human history would end.  The enclaves would die.  Mary Limova would probably be the last surviving human and then would die either from the fullness of enertron sickness, be devoured by mutants, or be brutally murdered by the robots of Arris if they managed to somehow break free of this prison.  None of the dead would be avenged, either.

Time seemed to slow down as Lucca's thoughts wandered to the dead people in the granary.  They all deserved justice, and they wouldn't get it.  All because Lucca Ashtear couldn't land that one pistol shot that would have kept the hope of the future alive for just a while longer.  It... infuriated her.  She hated herself for her failure.  She deserved all the scorn the world would heap on her for her shortcomings.

And yet, somehow the world's impending scorn at this moment was paling in comparison to the anger Lucca herself was feeling toward the world.  How could things have been allowed to come to this?  A world so twisted that the lone hope for its salvation rested with three teenagers with little real-world experience to help them bear the burden?  It had to be the biggest cosmic joke in the history of Creation!

Burn!

The voice was back, and Lucca didn't care.  She wanted things to burn.  She wanted it all to burn.  It was no less than the world deserved.  Her skin again grew hot, and she bathed in the growing heat while somehow not breaking into a sweat.

What if she just... gave into it?

The R-66 that was going to murder her was only steps away.  Lucca had no weapon, so she just blindly threw her anger at it, willing the corrupted machine to melt for all the good it would do.

BURN!  JUSTICE FOR THE FALLEN!  JUSTICE FOR US ALL!

And the R-66 was suddenly thrown back with explosive force, it's damaged gun arm shearing away from the rest of its body as it slammed against the far wall.  An inferno then suddenly engulfed the machine's remaining body, the fire so hot that its plating began to melt and then fuse with the wall and floor of the corridor.

Unadulterated shock tried to break through the flames of her own thoughts.  How had she done that?  She couldn't have done that!  Her plasma pistol was drained.  Lucca literally had nothing to attack with except useless angry thoughts.

Then her skin began to heat up again as the anger in her soul grappled with the reality of their situation.  The enemy in the enclave was dealt with, but there was more that needed to be done, wasn't there?

Focus!  Focus!  You need to focus! Lucca thought frantically as rage warred with reason.  A lingering unease gradually took hold and smothered the flames in her mind as the flames around the R-66 slowly died down, crackling sparks still erupting from the many breaches in the now inoperative machine's plating.  Lucca took shuddering breaths and then activated the microphone in her helmet to speak over the radio.

“Major, please confirm your functionality,” Robo pressed.

Lucca had to take another deep breath before her voice was steady enough to answer.  Robo had hailed her three times over the open channel.

“My functionality is... an elevated heart rate... along with a... really big spike in anxiety!”

“Are you alright?!” Marle and Crono asked over each other.

“More or less,” Lucca answered, gingerly touching her throbbing jaw.  “Actually, I don't know.  The enclave's secured and I'm not dying.  I think.”  She allowed herself a depreciating chuckle.  “How are you?”

“Regrettably, our situation is grave, Major,” Robo reported.  “The pursuing R-66 units have begun firing at us from extreme range, and I have taken a hit to my upper aft quarter.  The damage is not extensive, but is nonetheless potentially critical.  My power core has been partially compromised from the plasma impact, and it is now leaking.  Without repairs, I will be rendered non-functional within hours.”

Lucca reeled at the news, and her skin again flared with the blistering heat that somehow didn't burn her to a crisp.   Robo had been damaged again!  The injustice of this world was unforgivable.

“Robo, what is your position?” Lucca asked, barely conscious of the thought being related in her own voice.  Was it her own voice at all, or was it the other?

“We are approximately one kilometer from the emergency access we utilized this morning, and are approaching with all possible speed.  However, the odds of our successful arrival are decreasing to the point of non-viability.  The accuracy of our pursuers is increasing, and Mister Lantree suffered minor burns from a proximity plasma impact.  Mistress Marle dealt with the matter as well as she was able, but our present circumstance makes her magical concentration less than optimal.”

Crono was hurt, too!  Lucca's skin seared with the knowledge.

Lucca rushed to the satchel carrying her battery pack and draped Marle's pendant back around her neck.  She quickly connected the pack's charger to her weapon and then started running toward the alternate access far to the other side of the enclave.

“I'm coming to get you!” Lucca responded in the voice she wasn't sure was hers.  “Keep running, and we'll meet up as soon as I can get there!”

“Lucca, no!” Crono said urgently.  “I... don't think we're going to make it!”

Lucca then heard the sound of an explosion over her helmet's earpiece.  There was a cry from Marle.

“I'm all right!” Marle's voice came a moment later.  “It just singed me, but...”

“Major, the enemy's attacks have reduced our momentum to a degree where escape is now impossible.” Robo said with clinical finality.  “A decisive engagement is imminent.  Logic dictates you must abandon a rendezvous with us and withdraw.  Escape remains a possibility with you.  I will attempt to execute an electromagnetic pulse on the pursuing units once they are within range, but combat damage sustained by this unit makes this strategy uncertain.  They may attempt to destroy me at range to prevent the utilization of this stratagem, and there is nothing I can do to prevent it under these conditions.”

“I'm not leaving you behind,” Lucca said simply.

“There's four of them, Lucca!” Crono said.  “And it took everything we had back at the factory just to take down one!  You'll be throwing your life away!  Remember our vow!  Remember our mission!  You have to use the gate and get out of this time-period while you still can!”

Lucca then sensed her own voice being completely subsumed by the flames, and there was nothing left except the rage and the desire to burn.

“No.  Justice for the fallen.  Justice for the living!”

And then Lucca's conscious self passed out.  The other kept running.


      *      *      *


The chase was at an end, Crono realized.  The enemy R-66 units, all with different colors of plating, were now so close that turning their backs on the robots' weapons would be more suicidal than turning to fight.  Being able to anticipate the robots' actions would at least give them a chance during this final stand, however small.  They slid to a halt on the artificial shale and looked behind them.  A huge cloud of dust remained over the blast site of the destroyed factory.

The robots were going to have their revenge.  Crono wondered if the evident anger shown by Atropos would be mirrored by these four when they attacked in earnest.

“Keep moving,” Crono told Marle and Robo, knowing it was probably hopeless.  “Don't lie prone.  If they're smart they'll aim low.  Stationary targets are easy targets.  Keeping them guessing is the only way.”

“I concur,” Robo said.  “You have an impressive grasp of modern combat tactics, Mister Lantree, despite your eleventh century origins.  It is regrettable that our journey to save this world's future is likely to end here.  Your skills would be a great asset to a campaign of this nature.”

“Stop talking like that!” Marle said.  “I have enough crossbow bolts left to take out all of their eyes and more!  It's not over yet!”

Crono wanted to believe her, but it would only take a few of Marle's peerless accuracy attacks to alert the robots as to who the greater threat to them was, and then they would all fire on Marle and ignore Crono and Robo completely.  It would be no different if she were able to use magical ice attacks against them instead, though she was probably too tired to manage that now.  Once Marle was down, the rest of the battle would be academic.  Crono and Robo would be cut down long before they could close to attack.  It was unfortunate that Robo didn't have a ranged weapon of his own to help even the odds.  With Marle it might even have been enough to prevail.

He didn't know what to think of Lucca.  Her last transmission barely sounded like her at all.  “Burn, burn, burn!” she had said, preceded by an oath of justice for the dead and the living.  Perhaps the situation and the impending deaths of her friends caused Lucca to lose grip on her own sanity.  Crono couldn't rightly blame her.  They had all suffered so much and tried so hard, and yet their best efforts were about to be for nothing.  Lucca was on her way to join them for their final stand, but it was unlikely she would have any friends left to avenge when she got here.  She had to know that.

The cost of friendship, Crono thought.  Were their situations reversed, Crono wasn't sure he would be acting much differently.  He certainly wouldn't leave his best friend behind, and wouldn't leave Marle or Robo either.  Friends didn't abandon friends.  Logic and reason were no match for the powerful bonds of fellowship.

Crono and Marle passed in front of each other, Crono brandishing his sword for an attack he probably wouldn't get to make, and Marle steadying her own weapon for an attack that was certain.  Robo maintained a position close to Marle, probably intending to take a shot meant for her when the opportunity arose, like he did with Atropos.  Crono wasn't sure if Robo would get to make the sacrificial attack he alluded to in the last radio transmission with Lucca.  If the pulse didn't catch all four attackers, it probably wouldn't be worth making, and Crono had a feeling the R-66 units were prepared for that eventuality anyway.  They wouldn't let themselves get too close.

Marle's first bolt struck home, spearing into the barrel of a plasma cannon just before it fired.  The weapon erupted into bluish flame, and the targeted R-66 turned its stricken arm away and pointed the weapon at the ground.  The ranged attackers had been reduced from four to three.  Probably not enough, but it was a step in the right direction.

Predictably, the robots' counterattacks all targeted Marle.  A timely dive and roll from her managed to evade two of the bolts, while the third was intercepted by Robo's body.  Robo lurched from the impact to his torso.

“Negative penetration,” he reported.  The shot had impacted on the left side of his forward plating, and the curvature of the plate caused a portion of the blast to be deflected away.  A dark scar was seared into the plate, but the shot hadn't gone through.

The near simultaneous attack on Marle gave her an opportunity to quickly load another bolt and loose it at her next target during the robots' recharging interval.  The left eye on a blue-plated R-66 was shattered by the impact.

Crono feinted a charge at the partially blinded robot, intending to get their attention and doing so, baiting a plasma blast that he anticipated well enough to completely dodge.  Marle reversed direction and darted behind Robo, drawing another attack that impacted and was partially turned by Robo's plating.  Marle responded by another shot to a third robot's eye, and shattering that one too.

Maybe we have a chance, Crono dared to hope.  If he and Robo could continue drawing enemy fire, Marle could take out the eyes and weapons of the entire enemy group one at a time, and that would give Crono and Robo the openings they needed to close to melee range and possibly end this thing.

The robots then used their next series of attacks to bracket Marle's position instead of trying to directly hit her.  The heavy plasma bolts impacted the ground all around her, the already broken concrete shattering further and causing numerous fragments to spray outward.  Marle cried out, and her crossbow left her hands as she tumbled to the ground.

Marle!

Crono rushed to her almost without conscious thought.  A few shards of concrete appeared to be imbedded in her left arm, but the injuries didn't appear serious.

Still, it was only a matter of time before the enemy R-66 group got smart and took Marle out of the equation, and they had.  Her crossbow was on the ground well out of her reach.  Robo also rushed to defend the dazed Marle from follow-up attacks and stood fast, kneeling before her prone form.  Robo couldn't possibly survive the concentrated fire that was sure to come his way now that he was shielding Marle and Crono both.

No!  Stop!” Marle cried.

The enemy all fired on Robo.  The first shot was a direct hit on the center of his chest plate, with almost no deflection.

The others all hit a giant ice cube that had suddenly encased Robo's entire body below the head.

The R-66 units all seemed taken aback by the sudden shift in the battle's dynamics.  Crono took advantage by diving for Marle's crossbow and tossing it back to her.  He dove out of the way of the late plasma response.

Marle loosed another bolt from behind the now frozen cover of Robo and disabled another weapon.  Now two of the ranged attackers were out.

The remaining two spread out in different directions and now began firing from different vectors.  A few more attacks struck Robo to unknown effect, but most of them were now trying to catch Marle or Crono on the wrong side of the ice cover.  More importantly, they were shooting low to better suppress Marle's counter-fire with flying shards of man-made stone.  Marle's next shot was accurate enough, but was turned aside by her target's last second raising of its weapon arm to protect its exposed barrel.  They were starting to anticipate her now.  Crono could do nothing but draw fire and dodge.  Robo could do nothing but take hits.  The weaponless R-66 units held their positions, but could close to attack with their fists at any time.  It would all be over soon.

“I am preparing my last resort, Mister Lantree, Mistress Marle,” Robo said, his speaker device just above the impromptu ice barrier to be heard.  “The ice shield will not be an obstacle to this.  I appreciate your companionship.  Please try to escape if you are able.  Major Lucca will need your support.”

“We can't give up!” Marle said.  “Not after all of this!”

Another bracketed pair of shots threw Marle off balance, and the crossbow was again out of her hands.  Crono had no confidence he could get it back this time without being killed.  The robots might even try to destroy the weapon where it lie to remove its threat permanently.  Crono embraced Marle at a near tackle, ready to take a shot to protect her for all the good a shield of flesh and bone would do.

“BURN!”

One of the ranged R-66 units suddenly exploded, its limbs flying outward trailing steam and tumbling to a hissing halt on the ground.  The robot's remains then more inexplicably caught fire and began to melt atop the concrete.

“JUSTICE FOR THE FALLEN!”

Plasma bolts rang out to connect with the remaining ranged unit, followed up by another explosion that threw the R-66 unit violently backward to land in an awkward smoking heap.

Lucca?

The battle had indeed been joined, and Crono found himself gaping more than rejoicing at his best friend's sudden arrival.  It was her, yet Crono could barely look at her impossibly illuminated form.  Her entire outline was glowing with an intensity that rivaled a solar eclipse, an outline of searing flame.  What was happening here?

“JUSTICE FOR THE LIVING!”

The two remaining R-66 units took stock of the new threat and ran towards her.  And she was a threat.  Lucca's plasma pistol sang again, striking its target repeatedly and leaving scars on the plating like what Robo had suffered.  But that apparently wasn't the most dangerous thing she could do anymore.  A ray of light sprang out from her opposite hand and struck the R-66 with far greater force, throwing the machine back just as violently as what happened with the others.

Crono didn't know what was going on, but he had to act.  He charged the newly fallen R-66 and chopped downward with his sword repeatedly, disabling joints and shattering optic systems until it was no longer a threat.  He was forced to jump backward when the whole thing abruptly erupted into flames, and then looked on as Lucca faced down the remaining enemy robot.  He couldn't see her expression behind the halo of brilliance, but she somehow made him afraid.  Was she really doing what he thought she was?  It was impossible!

“BURN!”

The last robot was then hurled backward, too, and its remaining seconds of operation were spent bursting into flame and beginning to melt were it ended up sprawled on the ground.

“BURN, BURN, BURN!  JUSTICE FOR US ALL!”

The flames around the robot then somehow burned with even greater intensity, and its whole body was reduced to a misshapen lump on the ground.  Lucca still wasn't letting up with the impossible thing she was doing.  Marle ran up to her looking shocked and not a little afraid herself.

“Lucca, you need to stop!” she cried out.  “It's too dangerous, you need to stop!”

Lucca made no response, and Crono wondered what to do about her.  She didn't seem to be at all sane, and whatever had triggered this sudden shift in her personality happened when that R-66 invaded the enclave to hunt her down.  Was it safe to even touch her in this state?

“Hey, Lu!  I think you got him!” he said with an air of purposeful derision, hoping to somehow break through to her true self.  “Cut it out already!  What would Director Doan say seeing you like this?  Or your dad?”

“Huh?”

Lucca's outline of white fire disappeared almost immediately, and she stumbled backward looking greatly disoriented.  Marle caught her and placed a hand on her obviously injured jaw, channeling a restorative weave and slowly making the nasty bruise and swelling fade away.

“Crono?” she said weakly.

“Yeah, I'm here, Lu.  We're both here.”  He held her steady with an arm around her shoulders.  “You're going to be all right.”

“Wha...?  What happened?”

Crono knew exactly what happened.  He had seen it before with the Mystics, but never with this level of intensity.  It should have been impossible.  A glance at Marle told him she understood the reality as well as he did, if not better considering her own talents.

Lucca had used magic.  The most powerful magic Crono had ever seen.

“You saved us all, Lucca,” Crono said.  “That's what happened.”


      *      *      *


Disbelief was not a status to which the Mother was accustomed.

But it could not be avoided.  Six of her compliance units, her most elite and loyal followers, had been defeated, five of them beyond any hope of repair.  Atropos, Lachesis, Clotho, Pontus, Atlas, and Zagreus.  Gone!  All but dear Atropos, who the Mother almost regarded as her offspring.  Her survival was purely fortuitous, of course.  The invaders' victory was otherwise absolute.

The humans were much more dangerous than even she dared believe.  She suspected the Old One's machinations at work.  No humans had dared to come to the place once known as Arris for three decades.  What had changed?  Why now?  What was their objective?  It seemed as if power had briefly been restored to the human enclave by the actions of the invaders before the detestable bags of flesh changed their minds and destroyed the factory instead.  What had been the point of that?  Why had they ever gone to that abandoned enclave?  To recover Prometheus?  Why had the Old One waited so long to accomplish this?  Nothing about the events of recent days was easily discernible to the Mother.

The Plan had to go forward, but the destruction of all five compliance units sent to avenge Atropos' defeat forced the Mother to reevaluate her near-term priorities.  The humans were too dangerous to approach right now.  She needed more information before knowing for a certainty how to deal with them.  The ancient powers they wielded were great.  Another manifestation of the Old One's opaque schemes, and another setback for the Mother and the coming of perfection.  Why could she not overcome him?  She was the Arbiter of Fate, and no one else!  He had promised.

Treachery.

The humans would bear watching, but there would be no more action taken for now.  Let them remain in that lifeless enclave.  What could they do from there anyway?


      *      *      *
   

It was one of the grimmest things she had ever done.

Not that Marle was doing all that much except watching, and desperately trying not to let her eyes stray to the open granary.  The smell from inside was bad enough.  All that work to open the door, and she almost wished they hadn't done it.  So many people!  It was small wonder that Lucca's grasp on sanity had slipped when she saw that.  Marle would have been inconsolable for hours.

Lucca seemed to be holding up for the moment, and barely even remembered her remarkable intervention from earlier.  The inventor was the focus of Marle's attention more than the work she was doing on Robo.  Robotic parts were littered all over the floor.  The buggers and hunters the parts had originated from were in a greater state of disassembly than before, and some of the “unauthorized units” were now barely recognizable from what remained.  Lucca was completely absorbed in her work and looked almost expressionless, which Marle had learned was her most common way of dealing with distress.

Marle didn't think Lucca would have a relapse, if that was even a fair term to use.  You didn't “relapse” into magic.  It was an incomparable gift, at least if you learned how to use it and define your own destiny, as Marle had.  Lucca had just joined a very exclusive club, being only the fourth human in a thousand years to enter it, following Cedric, then Magus, and then Marle herself.

Something was alarmingly different about Lucca's gift, though, and so Marle watched her carefully for any signs of unusual behavior, prepared to siphon off and dissipate the incredible magical energies Lucca could generate so that she didn't cause harm to herself or others.

“The hunter cores, please,” Lucca told her.  “Third one from the left.”

Marle stooped down to retrieve the part in question from the piles that had been separated into component types and handed it to Lucca without comment.  Asking questions or trying to start a conversation would just distract her and waste valuable time.  Less than two hours had passed since they had all returned to the enclave.  No other robots had been detected or encountered since the confrontation with the R-66 units, but that didn't mean they wouldn't come.  The destruction of the factory and their R-66 pursuers had just thrown the robots off-balance for awhile.

The worst of the plasma scarring on Robo's body had been mostly patched up, and the robot now sported a new left arm that had been salvaged from the remains of the R-66 that attacked Lucca.  It was an integrated plasma cannon that eschewed a regular hand for a weapon.  Nothing else was recoverable, from it or any of the others.  Lucca's magical vengeance had been quite thorough.  The remaining task lie in replacing Robo's damaged power core, and that was a much more complicated endeavor than the external repairs.  Lucca practically had her nose buried inside a small compartment in Robo's upper back, analyzing the sophisticated machinery inside and working with the part Marle had just given her.

“Replacement core is indicating charge function, Major,” Robo said.  “You should be able to disconnect it from your pistol's battery pack in fifteen minutes.”

“Will it keep the charge once you're fully running off the replacement?”

“Negative, but I will have considerably more longevity than I would operating from the damaged core.  Perhaps two to three weeks.”

Lucca sighed.  “Well, at least that's something.  Better than I could have hoped, considering.”

“What's wrong?” Marle asked.  “Is he not going to be completely fixed?”

“No, the power core of a hunter robot was designed solely for a robot of that type,” Lucca explained.  “The power load of an R-66 is much higher.  The core works well enough, but its energy will slowly drain out over time because Robo needs more power than the core can generate and sustain on its own.  He'll need a more permanent fix, and that's not something I can manage here unless we stick around a lot longer than is safe.  The other robots will be coming eventually.  I'd say what I've accomplished in two hours is miracle enough.”

Crono stepped in from the corridor, having stationed himself a short distance outside listening for any sign of the robots entering the enclave again.  “How long?” he asked.

“Twenty minutes, tops.  Not an ideal situation, but we can live with it.  Then it's just that one final issue.”

“Final issue?” Marle asked warily.  “What final issue?”

“The most important one.  I did a follow-up scan of the temporal wormhole's path through space-time, and it's more or less like I suspected.  Thankfully, it goes to the past, but it looks like the end destination is way far beyond where we want to go.  We need to go home, not further into the past.  Robo's condition makes that all the more important.  If we can get back to my house at the appropriate moment in time, I should be able to throw together that 'more permanent fix' I was alluding to.”

“Do you know how to do that?” asked Crono.

Lucca nodded.  “I think so.  In theory, anyway.  I told you back in Bangor that I've been working on this for awhile.  There's a way we can exit the wormhole early and cause a temporal gate to open at a moment in time of our choosing.”

“Please explain, Major,” Robo said.

“It's simple.  We use the Chrono Trigger to open the gate like we normally would, and then we use the Chrono Trigger again while we're inside the wormhole to dump us out of the timestream.”

“Don't call me an expert or anything, but that sounds dangerous,” Crono remarked.

“I'll admit that the risk to us isn't zero, but not because I think the theory won't pan out.  The math works and I've checked it enough.  The problem is timing.  We need to use the Chrono Trigger at exactly the right moment, or we could end up in a place several years before or after the year 1000, and I don't think I need to tell you what kind of problems that would cause for us.”

“If timing is the most critical factor in the success of this operation, it is perhaps prudent that I operate the time-traveling device instead of a human,” Robo said.  “My internal chronometer is highly reliable, and I am less prone to distraction in unconventional environments.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, you can rest assured the device will be triggered at the proper moment under my care.”

“Well, that'll be great, Robo!” Marle said with relief.  “The last thing we need are more problems on account of a silly mistake.  It's just another reason why I'm so glad we fixed you.  We really do work well together as a team!”

“I am gratified that you think so, Mistress.  I hope that I can always be of such useful service in this time-traveling endeavor.”

“You will be,” Crono said.  “Once we get to Lucca's place you'll be just fine.  Then we can lay low and take our time figuring out what to do next.  We'll have nine-hundred and ninety-nine years to solve the Lavos problem, after all.”

“Hopefully not all of those years,” Lucca quipped.

Thirty minutes later, everything was in readiness.  Robo was as repaired as he was going to be, and Marle, Crono, and Lucca had all of their belongings together and their supply packs strapped behind them.  Marle wondered how long it would be before they could have a meal that didn't have rat in it.  It couldn't be too soon.

“I am ready to begin the operation,” Robo said, holding the Chrono Trigger aloft in his right hand.  “With your permission, Major.”

“Pull it!” Lucca said.

Marle took one last look around the granary of the future that had become a tomb through tragedy.  It would be undone.  It would all be undone.  The future would chart a new course the moment Marle and her friends were on the other side of the wormhole.

Goodbye, Mary.  I promise I'll never forget you.

And then the gate was open before them, and Marle's sense of gravity disappeared.


      *      *      *


“How curious.  This domain appears a lot larger than I was anticipating,” Robo said.  “I believe we may be looking at the entirety of space-time, rather than a passage between two points.”

“That was what lead to my idea of using the Chrono Trigger in here,” Lucca replied.  “Formless and full of possibilities.  We just need to seize one.  The beauty of math.”

Marle suppressed a chuckle, floating in the formless purple ether of the timestream along with the others.  Math had always made her face scrunch up in her schooling.  She was glad she didn't have to do any more of it and just rely on people more capable than she.

“Indeed, the aesthetic of the universe is quite pleasing in its laws of order,” Robo said.  “It is gratifying that I am now seeing another aspect of the universe's nature in this new experience.”

“I'm glad you like it, but try not to get too distracted, all right?” Crono said with a laugh.  “You're starting to worry me with this kind of talk.”

“There is no need for concern, Mister Lantree.  I began the countdown in my internal clock from the moment we entered the wormhole.  The relative time as we perceive it is foremost in my operative thoughts, I assure you.  There are approximately thirty seconds remaining until the critical moment.  There will be no mistake.”

Thirty seconds until everything changes, Marle thought.  Just a possibility, but she wouldn't entertain the notion of failure after having overcome so much already.  What could be worse than the barren wastes, freaky mutants, unreliable technology, and insanely hostile robots of the year 2300?

“Dare I say it, but I have to point out that we're still wanted fugitives in our own time,” Lucca said.  “We'll have to keep our guard up whenever we get close to home.”

Marle scowled.  “I have eighteen crossbow bolts from the future that'll persuade Horus' goons to keep their distance.  I'm not scared of them!”

“Fifteen seconds,” Robo warned.

“All right everyone, get ready,” Crono said.  “I'm not sure what this exit's going to be like.  Brace yourselves!”

Lucca seemed to be reciting a mantra: “The math is right.  The math is right.  The math is right.”

It had better be.

“Three... two... one... executing!” Robo said.

Gravity immediately returned to Marle's awareness, but not from exiting the timestream.  There was no sign of a gate, or of the real world.  They were just... falling, like they had just plunged from the top of a cliff.

“Chrono Trigger utilized successfully,” Robo reported.  “However, it seems our level of danger may be elevated.  The absence of an obvious gate is concerning.”

Everyone else just screamed.

For several seconds it felt like they were falling at terminal velocity, and Marle was beginning to feel like they would be falling forever in this ethereal moment between times.  Then a dark circle appeared in the distance and grew in size quickly.  From her previous experience she knew a dark gate was a bad sign, if a gate it was.  It indicated something solid on the other side.

“This is bad!” Lucca cried.

“Get behind me!” Robo commanded.  “I will bear the brunt of the impact!”

There being no time or inclination to argue the point, Marle, Crono, and Lucca scrambled as best they could in their “fall” to grab hold of their robotic companion and huddle in front of his armored chest.  Robo's back was to the presumed gate when they reached it.

The impact felt greater than when the robotic factory in Arris exploded.


      *      *      *


Marle came to in a daze, her body lying in what felt like a newly carved ditch in the ground and surrounded by shattered stone and lumber.  The sun was warm and shining on her face, the air humid, and her ears picked up on some unfamiliar birds and insects singing somewhere close.  Also harsh voices in a tongue she didn't recognize.  It sounded guttural.

Where were they?

Marle struggled to get to her feet and then was tripped up by several tiny but strong hands grasping at her calves and sending her back into the dirt.  She then felt her supply pack, crossbow, and quiver being unceremoniously stripped off her back, and the next moment Marle found her face pinned to the ground and her wrists tied together behind her back.

“Hey!” she cried.

“Sav fem toshiva uces et osvar kuens!” came a deep voice from nearby.

Marle was then hauled roughly to a near standing position and then pushed to her knees.  She looked around her new environment with befuddlement.  They were in a village of some kind.  Primitive, with no sign of technology anywhere.  The dwellings were remarkably squat, made of stacked stone and held together by a mortar of mud and sap.  Roofs of timber and thatch topped the structures to stand not much taller than Marle herself could if she were on her feet.  The ditch in which she was being forced to kneel ended a few feet away where Robo was lying motionless on his back.

Most baffling were Marle's apparent captors.  They were bald, no taller than children, with pronounced brows, a shallow nose, and pointed ears.  The strange people numbered in the dozens, and all of them had a skin color of either a dark blue or sickly green.  Marle shuddered.  One of her history lessons came back to her as her younger self beheld illustrations of a tribe of beings matching the appearance of the ones now surrounding her.  They were called Imps, and they had once been enemies of the Kingdom of Guardia, one tribe among many distinctive non-human peoples that had banded together against the Kingdom during the dark times of the Middle-Ages.

Mystics!

Crono and Lucca were then put on their knees to either side of Marle; bound, disarmed, and looking no less disheveled than she was, not to mention foreboding at their sudden change in fortunes.

“There.  That is a good look for you.  And well deserved,” came the same deep voice from before, but now speaking in their own language.

Marle found herself gaping at the being who walked around from behind and now stood before them.  It was another historical illustration become real.  It was a giant, of a height and girth similar to Robo, with a bloated face, ears that came to high points above its bald head, and wearing voluminous robes of white, a thick tail visible in the broad shadow the being cast.  Completing the historical picture were its wicked fangs, exposed in the equally wicked and gleeful smile it was directing at them.  The picture in Marle's mind differed only in the color of the being's skin, being green instead of the pronounced blue she was seeing here.

Ozzimort!

“Crono Lantree, and Lucca Ashtear,” the blue-skinned Ozzimort lookalike said with a sneer.  “Good to see you again!”

Crono and Lucca visibly slumped.

Marle looked at her friends with a growing dread in her heart.  “Um, guys?  Is there something you'd like to tell me?”