Monday, April 2, 2018

The Haunted Galaxy: Chapter 17

[White's Journal. Eighth of Epiphany, Anno Domini 3172.] We had finally managed to defeat the Nadirites, with help from Maxwell, though in the end, Erybus chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Returning to Altayra Rex, Gold confronted the two Sages and in the confrontation that followed, we learned that the Sages had been betraying us to the Nadirites, using information supplied by Green. Green fought the Sages, destroying them, and revealing them to be robots. He then promised to take us to the true ruler of Altayra and led us towards the Temple of Ice.

The stairway up to the Temple of Ice was so long that the Corps had chosen to phase on their armor and simply fly up. Green led the way, closely followed by Gold, White, and Red, with Black and Blue trailing behind.

White hoped that Green could really carry out his promise to explain everything because she felt very confused. Only two things seemed clear--Green had some kind of tie to Altayra System which they had not previously suspected--and that Gold had somehow figured it all out. She had felt that Gold was different ever since he came back with Maxwell. Clearly, it was because he had come to understand what was really going on. She felt a little jealous. But more than anything she just felt relieved. Ever since she had come to think there might be a traitor in the Corps, the possibility had weighed on her heavily. It was a relief to find out that even if Green had betrayed them, it was not as bad as it had seemed--he certainly had had no intention of giving any information to the Nadirites.

When the Corps had first arrived on Altayra Rex (was it really only two days ago?), White had thought the mountain on which the Temple of Ice sat was actually covered by snow. She had quickly seen then, as she saw now, that it was really made of some kind of white rock, rather like quartz. But the strange thing was that as they ascended, they felt a sharp coldness that only intensified as they rose.

At the top of the stairs, there was a large portico set in an alcove in the mountain. As they passed in between the forest of massive pillars, the cold grew even stronger. The area was fairly small and at the back, two large, metallic doors were set into the face of the mountain itself.

Green had landed as soon as they reached the portico and now phased off his armor. “Keisai? It's me.” He raised his right hand, palm forward, as if preparing for a high-five. From somewhere, a soft red light shone down and touched his hand for a moment and then vanished. For about three seconds, nothing happened, and then with a strange silence, the doors swung inward.

“A fairly simplistic identification system, but it works,” Green commented, phasing his armor back on. “Welcome to the Temple of Ice.”

Once inside, the building seemed much less impressive, or, at least, impressive in a different way. White found herself walking down a corridor, very long and very straight which sloped downwards slightly. The walls, floors, and ceiling were made of some kind of white, metallic substance which seemed to glow with a dim but ambient light. Set at very regular intervals down both sides of the corridor were doors, all of them closed. Besides that, there was no break in the corridor and no kind of decorations. The only thing of note was the intense cold which seemed to fill the entire place. If this place was really a temple, it must be for some unusually austere religion.

“So this is the Temple of Ice?” commented Black. “So I suppose there's an Ice Sword here somewhere? And is there a Temple of Fire somewhere else where we find the Fire Sword?”

Nobody answered. After everything that had happened, none of the Corps was in the mood for trading banter with Black.

After walking for almost ten minutes, the corridor came to an end at a white door which slide into the wall as they approached. “Here we are,” explained Green, as he passed through the door.

The room into which he led them was not substantially different in appearance from the corridor--at least, it had the same austere note and uniform color and material. It was a large, round room with a low ceiling. White noted eight doors leading out in various directions. Aside from that, there was nothing else in the room, except at the exact center, where there were two additions to the scene. One was a large oblong pedestal rising about two feet off the floor. The top of the pedestal was concealed by a curtain hanging from the ceiling. Next to this, there was a tall glass case, containing some kind of electrical equipment.

“Is that some kind of computer?” asked Red, looking at the case.

“That is Keisai,” Green answered, pushing his hat back. There was a note, almost of pride, in his voice. “It's very old, especially for a computer, built at the height of human ingenuity, before the fall of the homeworld. Even today, you couldn't find many computers that can match it in memory or processing power and speed.”

Of course. The computer was named Keisai. That was all they needed--someone else with that name. White sighed. Maybe all this was going to make sense soon, but it didn't yet--at least not to her.

“So you're saying this computer is the real ruler of Altayra?” pressed Red. His face looked flushed and impatient. Though the flush might have come from the cold which filled the room. Though the Corps had phased off their helmets in order to communicate better, they kept their armor on--otherwise, the temperature would have been unbearable.

Green shook his head. “I suppose there's a certain sense in which that's true, but that's not what I meant. Keisai, override delta command cross 876K.”

The curtains which hung from the ceiling shuddered slightly and then drew upwards and disappeared, allowing them to see the top of the oblong pedestal beside Keisai. There, perfectly still, lay Princess Valencia. She looked exactly as she had the last time they saw her, except that her skin was very pale, almost bluish, though this may have been because of the strange blue light which shown down on her from the ceiling.

“Valencia!” Red moved as if to rush to her, but Green stopped him.

“Be careful. Prolonged exposure to the cryo-ray would assumably be harmful to you. And there's nothing you can do for her.”

“But she's--” Red broke off, apparently because he wasn't sure how to finish.

“She is safe, for the moment.” Green glanced at one of the monitors on the computer. “Her status has remained unchanged for years, fortunately.”

“For years? But she hasn't been here for years. We saw her out in the courtyard just yesterday.”

“You never saw her until this moment.” Green bowed his head, not seeming to want to meet Red's eyes. “Who you saw outside... was a hologram.”

“A hologram?” repeated Red, as if he had never heard the word before. “That's crazy.”

“There is a certain degree of insanity involved, yes.”

“But... but... but she slapped me, back in Hath'ellah.”

“Just as Maxwell also slapped you. Maxwell, by sheer accident, used the same technology--Liquid Fusion Holograms--developed here in Altayra--holograms which can become temporarily solid by utilizing atmospheric moisture.” Green had spoken in his normal, calm, impassive voice, but now he added, with more emotion, “Of course, it was touch-and-go nearly every minute. That's why the princess had to be so insistent on maintaining her royal dignity and not touching or being touched by commoners.”

The truth was finally beginning to dawn on White. “So the Sages were robots... and Valencia was a hologram... How much of what we saw here in Altayra was real?”

“None of it.” Green turned to look at her. “Outside of ourselves, Maxwell, and the Nadirites, every single person you saw in the Altayra System was either a robot or a hologram. Most of them were holograms. The buildings and other structures are real, of course, but all the people--and animals--are not.”

For a moment, there was absolute silence. Except for Gold, none of them were prepared for this revelation.

And then Red exploded: “But why? How? Why didn't you tell us?”

At the same moment, Blue nodded and remarked, as if to herself, “Well, that explains that. I thought there must be something wrong with my armor when I couldn't pick up an energy signature from the people here--I never thought that the problem was that there simply weren't any people here at all.”

Green took off his hat. “I owe you all an apology and explanation. The only excuse for my actions is that I grossly misjudged the situation--I never considered distrusting Zortan's ultimate loyalty. Everything I've said and done--like the Altayra system itself--though not exactly a lie, was not really the truth, either.”

“I just want to go on record as saying that I still have no idea what's going on,” observed Black.

Green turned to Gold. “Sir, this could take a while.”

Gold shrugged. “We don't have anywhere else to go right now. And I don't think any of us could concentrate on our work right now anyway. Even though I figured out some of this, there's still quite a bit I don't get--especially the 'why' behind it all.”

Green nodded and put his hat back on. “Then we'd better start at the beginning--which was five hundred years ago when the first settlers came to Altayra.” Green usually spoke with self-possession, unless he was upset or annoyed, but White wasn't used to hearing him have this kind of poise. He seemed to have grown a few years older during the course of the day. “You have to understand that time period--the time just before the fall of the homeworld. Science and technology were at an apex, an apex which even today we have not matched. Through the use of Primitive Warp Drive Technology, the entire universe was open for exploration and colonization. It seemed as if anything was possible--as if there were truly no boundaries to what man could do. It was then that the Altayra family led a group of refugees from Draxmore here to this system. In any other time period, no one in their right mind would have picked this place to settle--because it lacks a central star to provide energy. But then, it seemed that there was no reason why, with some ingenuity, this might not be a fruitful, productive place, why it might not become something great. It was that kind of confidence, almost arrogance, which led the Altayra family to christen this place a galaxy when it obviously isn't a galaxy and to refer to themselves as emperors when they were only kings and really little more than chieftains. But they did make it work--the reactor on Altayra Conaurrah was able to produce artificially all the energy this system needed for life. Of course, it was far less energy than a star would have produced, but it was used more efficiently, so it worked well. They were able to build a kingdom, a society here which was happy if not exactly advanced, generally speaking.”

Green paused and clasped his hands behind his back. “That was the state of things when Princess Valencia was born. Everything Zortan told you about her birth was true--about the way Altayra had almost given up on having an heir when she was born, of how her parents and all the people rejoiced at her birth, and then of the tragic news which followed. It was true, but there was one thing they didn't tell you--when it all happened.” Green turned to look at all of them. “It was almost exactly four hundred years ago.”

“What!” Red took a step back.

“She looks pretty good for four hundred,” remarked Black.

Blue tugged at a strand of hair. “So you're saying she's in a state of suspended animation?”

“Yes. For all intents and purposes, she has not aged during all that time.”

Red glanced up. “So that blue light--that's keeping her in suspended animation?”

Green shook his head. “The cryo-ray acts as a stabilizer and a catalyst, but in the final analysis, it is Princess Valencia herself that causes the state of suspended animation.” He started pacing again. “Zortan told you that Princess Valencia was born with a disease, but he didn't--couldn't--tell you what it was. Technically, there isn't a name for it. As the high point of science and human advancement came to an end, mankind began to realize that progress has its price and that every new realm you conquer comes with new enemies. In that time, many people across the universe suffered from rare, indefinable maladies, which were never known before or since--the casualties of science playing with forces it did not understand, specifically PWDTech. Valencia was one such casualty, though she assumably received her condition genetically from her ancestors.” He paused and then spoke slowly: “How did Zortan say it? 'She was born with a disease or, perhaps more accurately, an imperfection, a flaw.' It's not easy to explain, but perhaps that's close. It certainly isn't a disease in the sense you usually think of. Simply put, Princess Valencia acts as a magnet for energy. She is a sort of living black hole, draining energy from the world around her.” Green glanced at Blue. “I suppose you noticed already--that there was something odd in this system. A strange pull of energy.”

Blue nodded. “Yes, and I knew it was centered here in the Temple of Ice. But I never thought--do you really mean all of that is caused by Princess Valencia?”

“Yes. Unintentionally, of course. It was something she had no conscious control over.”

“And you're saying that this--whatever it is--is what was killing her?” asked Red, who seemed actually to be following along fairly well.

Green shook his head. “It is certainly possible that her condition is, in fact, sucking away her own vitality. They believed that might be the case, and it is still possible, though it's hard to say for sure. But that wasn't the main problem.”

“Then what was? What could be a bigger problem?” Red seemed impatient.

“I imagine you don't want all the scientific details. Valencia's condition has some impact on everyone and everything around her, but in most cases the effect was negligible. But for certain reasons it had a dramatic impact on the reactor on Altayra Conaurah.”

Suddenly, White began to understand. “Of course. That's the only thing which allows this system to live. Without it, the entire system would die.” She remembered what Valencia--or rather, the hologram of Valencia--had said to them in Hath'ellah: that the reactor must be preserved at any cost.

“And Princess Valencia--without intending to, without being able to control it--was slowly sucking the energy from the reactor. To put it briefly, as she lived she was slowly destroying that reactor, the only thing which sustained the system. Since the condition seemed to grow worse as she grew older, it was calculated that by the time she was an adult, she would have completely killed the reactor--and she and everyone else in Altayra would die.” He pushed his hat back and glanced at the Corps. “Those of you who come from a system with a central star--just imagine what would happen if that star were to be slowly extinguished. That was the situation which the people of Altayra faced. And they faced it alone. They really didn't have any outside power to turn to for help, even if such help could have been provided. Ursa Prime wouldn't have any representation in this area until Centauri City was founded, nearly a hundred years later, and while Draxmore had settlements closer at that time then they do now, they were in the middle of the War of the Dragon Riders and had no thought to spare for anyone else. Besides, the people of Altayra have always been a little paranoid about outsiders.”

Green paused and looked over at the motionless form of the princess. “You have to understand one thing. Even though you did not meet the real Princess Valencia on the outside, the hologram was true to her character. And so in one sense, you did get to know the princess. And having known her, I think you can see what she decided. Realizing that her condition was endangering her people, knowing that if she lived, others would die--she decided to end her own life.”

For a moment, his words hung in the still, motionless air of the chamber.

“Of course, as she pointed out, she would die anyway if the reactor failed--but everyone knew that even if not--if it had been a choice between her own life and that of her people--she would have chosen life for them and death for herself.” He pushed his hat back again. “She came to this decision when she was sixteen. At that time, her royal parents had already died and the reigns of government laid in the hands of the Sages--there were ten of them at the time. She gave them this ultimatum; that if they could not find some way of saving the reactor before she turned seventeen, then she would kill herself. Have herself executed, was how she phrased it, pointing out that it was her royal right to execute a danger to her people.”

“She was really willing to do that for the sake of her people?” asked Red. And then he shook his head. “Yeah, I guess we know that what's she would do. But I still don't understand--”

“Do you remember the other thing Zortan said when he told you about the princess's illness? That any of her people would willingly lay down their life if it would save the princess? He wasn't lying about that, anyway. No one in the System wanted that end, with Valencia killing herself to save them. And that was why the Sages came up with their plan. At first, it was only to be a temporary plan, to buy them some time, but it ended up becoming by necessity bigger and bigger until it became what it is today. They were desperate, almost fanatically desperate--that's why I said there was some insanity involved, even from the beginning.”

“So they put Valencia into suspended animation?” asked Blue.

“Yes, but that alone didn't solve anything. Though in this state she doesn't pull as much energy from the reactor, she still pulls too much. Too much for the system to continue to live. But what if--what if the Altayra System itself didn't need as much energy?”

“But people need energy to live,” Red pointed out.

“Yes, but not very much if they're in suspended animation. And that is why you have this, the Temple of Ice.” Green motioned around him. “This entire mountain is filled with tunnels and rooms. And within those rooms, the entire population of Altayra--men, women, and children--are sleeping, just like Valencia--in suspended animation. Animals too, of course.” He took off his hat and held, as if in respect. “Things were different while you were here, of course. If you came to this system on an ordinary day, everything would be dark and cold and lifeless. That was the only way the reactor has been able to survive for four hundred years because only a fraction of energy was being used--what little is needed to maintain this place. Fortunately, Valencia's condition actually creates a state of suspended animation easily anyway--it just needs a little help from the cryo-ray.”

“But--but--but what about all the holograms and the robots? What was the deal with that?”

“The Sages were paranoid about what would happen if anyone discovered the truth about this system. If an outside force realized what was going on, they could attack and spoil us at their pleasure. That was why they concocted the plan they did. They were helped by two things. One was that shortly prior to all this, Altayra had been visited by Robann Raan-- a legendary craftsman of androids and robots. I never learned exactly why it was done, but he created android duplicates of the ten sages as well as a few other random androids. The other thing that helped was that Valencia, desperately wanting to help her people in the short time before her death, had been using Keisai--” he nodded back towards the computer-- “to do in-depth research about how they lived--in essence, making recordings of thousands of little details about life on Altayra. Those two things, together with the existence of Liquid Fusion Holograms, allowed the Sages to do what they did.”

White couldn't believe what she was hearing, but in a certain way, it did make sense. “So whenever outsiders came to the System--”

“The Sages would return the reactor to its full activity--energy would stream from it to flood the veins beneath these planets, filling them with light and heat. From Keisai, the holograms would beam out (projected using the energy pattern created by Valencia's condition), filling Altayra with people, going through the motions of their lives, just as they had when they were still awake. Fortunately, visitors were never here long, or they would have realized that the same day or so of activity was being repeated over and over again. For instance, that riot in Hath'ellah has been going on at intervals for centuries.”

“That's just--bizarre--” said Blue in a strangely serious voice.

“Of course, it was an insane plan and could have blown up at any time. I was in agony of worry our entire trip--all would have had to happen was for any of us to stumble and run into one of the Altayrans for it to come out that they weren't real. Even if they could become temporarily solid for a moment, it wouldn't be enough to fool anyone in most circumstances. And if they needed to carry anything, they had to use an android, since of course the holograms couldn't carry anything. It never should have worked. And in a sense, it didn't. People knew there was something strange about this place. Probably some stumbled unto the fact that some of the people were unreal--that's how it got the nickname of the Haunted Galaxy. But fortunately, nobody ever put together the whole truth.” Green smiled. “It is hard to believe that such a scheme could be practiced for four hundred years, isn't it? It came even down to the present and the building of the Guidance Beacon. The representatives of Ursa Prime never dreamed they were making a deal with a largely unreal kingdom. But that, of course, is why the Sages insisted that the building and maintenance of the beacon remain with Ursa Prime.”

Red frowned with concentration. “You keep talking about the Sages. So were they robots or not?”

“That was the problem. Someone had to keep control of everything. And, of course, the whole hope of the scheme was that somehow they could eventually find a cure for Valencia's condition and allow the entire system to return to life. And so the Sages found a way to continue their lives--indefinitely. To put it simply, the ten Sages, including Zortan and Rothmar, are lying here with the others in the Temple of Ice, in suspended animation. But unlike the others, they are still conscious--and continue their life in the outside by controlling their android counterparts. They took turns--Zortan and Rothmar being the two who have been conscious for the last fifty years or so and have been in charge of the system.” Green's face clouded. “It's not a natural way for humans to live. That's why I can't help but wonder if they really did become completely insane. They have never been what I would describe as nice but allying with the Nadirites seems to be extreme.”

“But that's what I don't get,” Red interrupted. “How do you know all this?”

“Remember, four hundred years have passed. The Sages are no closer to finding a cure for Valencia's condition then they were when this whole plan began. And time is running out. Even as things stand, the reactor cannot last much longer. If it runs out, all the people in Altayra will die--unless they chose to kill Valencia or allow her to wake and kill herself. But in that case, all of this has been in vain. They were becoming desperate to find a solution to their problem. And that's where I come into it.” Green's eyes dropped. “I didn't lie to you--what little I ever told you about my past. All I ever told you was that I was an orphan and was from Draxmore. That much was true. But it wasn't the whole truth.” He looked up. “Of course, you understand that with the whole system in suspended animation, there is no food here, no way to grow any. With the invention of prefood, they could import that, but they couldn't produce any real food to get the nutrients to fill the prefood. That was why when we ate here, you all got hungry again. You figured that out, didn't you, sir?”

“Blue figured that part out, actually,” Gold answered. “And that's what made me start thinking about you. Because you're a mod--and don't eat--you'd be able to survive in a world with no food.”

Green nodded. “Precisely. As I told you when I joined the Corps, I am an orphan. My real parents died before I can remember. This hat--” he took it off again and looked at it-- “belonged to my father and is the only link I have to my biological parents. Zortan and Rothmar, through a contact, discovered me in an orphanage in Draxmore and realized that, because of my unique nature, I could survive in this system and so brought me here. I wasn't more than three then, so I remember next to nothing of my life before I came to Altayra. For the rest of my childhood, I lived in here Altayra, in a world inhabited by the ghosts of people from five hundred years ago. Zortan and Rothmar were the only people who could qualify as being real, and they were my tutors, mentors--almost parents. Not necessarily good parents, but parents.”

White glanced at Gold. She still remembered what they had discovered following Green's injury on Altayra Vorphintus. She had a fairly good idea of what kind of childhood Green had had with the two Sages.

“Because I was a mod, I could live here in this dead world. But because I was a real person--not a robot or hologram--I could also leave. And that was their intention, that I would leave and search the cosmos and, hopefully, find some solution to their problem. As you know, about a year ago, I came to Ursa Prime. There, Prefect Alkyte discovered me and because of my unusual intelligence asked me to join the Corps.” He had put his hat on again and now he pulled the brim down as if to hide his eyes. “I never told him, or you, the full truth about my past, of course. But I thought that, if anywhere, in the Corps I would be likely to find the solution I needed if it existed. And then brings us up to a week ago when we received this mission. I was rather worried about what would happen with the seven of us here in Altayra--sure that somehow you would stumble onto the truth. I was in constant contact with Zortan and Rothmar, of course, and gave them all the information I could about all of us, hoping to avoid any trouble--that included the means to track us, so they could know where we were at all times. In retrospect,” Green added, looking away, “I never should have done that, even though I trusted them. Make what excuse for me you can--they were the only family I've ever known, and the Altayra system the only home.”

Gold nodded. “I think we understand that.”

“I was hoping that I might be able to get away from you all and do some tinkering on my own to restart the Guidance Beacon--I did know more about it than you let on, though in the end, not enough. That is why I had us go to Hath'ellah in the first place. I knew that riot would happen and I thought in the confusion I might get away, though Valencia interrupted that. And during that battle, I deliberately jammed our comms so I could get away undetected and return to the Guidance Beacon, though nothing came of that.” He glanced at Gold and White.

Neither one seemed inclined to tell their part of that story.

“So,” said Gold after a moment, “when the Sages told us that people had been vanishing from Altayra, was that just to cover their bases in case we stumbled unto part of the truth?”

“That was my thought at the time. It also helped explain things like unfinished construction projects. However, even at that, I wondered why they hadn't told me beforehand--I was as surprised as the rest of you when they told us that, perhaps more. Now, I believe they were also deliberately trying to lead our attention to the Nadirites. Of course, there was some truth to it--at least, I assume the Nadirites must have been responsible for the deactivation of the holograms in Hath'ellah--somehow jamming the signals--since the Sages did not have the power to turn off the holograms in a specific location. Unless somehow they learned how to control Keisai's programming more than I thought.”

“Keisai. He was the computer. So what the deal with those servants?” asked Red.

“It's so hard to understand, coming from the outside. Zortan and Rothmar were ghosts, ghosts living in a world of ghosts. And there is no easy way for a ghost to control another ghost. Specifically, they had no way to control Princess Valencia. So long as her hologram was active, it would behave according to the programming in the computer--that is to say, it behaved exactly as Princess Valencia would if she were awake. So, her reckless trip to Hath'ellah--that was exactly the sort of thing Valencia would have done. And if she had, the people in Hath'ellah would have reacted exactly the way they did. Keisai did very well in his calculations that way. But that meant the Sages couldn't directly control Valencia--since she wasn't always willing to listen to them, even when she was awake. To control her, they had to use Keisai. Since she was only a hologram, a program, she had to listen to Keisai. But doing it that way, directly, when in front of others, would have tipped their hand immediately. So they got around it by having Keisai appear as a hologram. But since Keisai is just a computer and was never a real person, he had no programmed image to project. That's why every time Keisai appeared, he looked different and why every form was almost perfect in physical appearance--because each appearance was a randomly created image based on preset paradigms of human appearance.”

“So--so that's the whole truth about this place?” asked Blue after a long moment.

“Yes. And of my role in it,” said Green.

“I can hardly believe that such a thing is possible,” said White.

“It's crazy--just crazy,” said Red.

“And yet it has a certain symbolic pathos,” said Erybus.

All seven members of the Corps started and turned at the sound of the voice. The Nadirite commander stood in front of the doorway through which they had entered, his head bowed slightly as if in respect. He still wore his robe and approximation device, neither showing any particular wear or tear. “After all, this story is not unlike the story of us all, do you not agree?”

He raised his head and took a few steps forward. “Why do all seem so surprised to see me? I am rather disappointed. I knew the radiation released by that explosion would scramble my energy signature, but I thought one of you would at least consider the possibility that I could have used Moreland's Intersect to teleport to safety at the last second. I had come, in some measure, to respect your skill and intelligence during our brief interactions. Perhaps that respect was misplaced.” He moved a few steps further, though still remaining some distance away. “I hope you do not mind that I let myself in. Zortan and Rothmar were quite hospitable during our alliance and allowed me access to all of their secrets, this place included.”

Gold took a step toward the Nadirite. “So can we assume that you have an army behind you waiting to rush in on us.”

“Come now, Gold. What do you take me for? Would there be any finesse in such an ending to our story? In any case, between you and the Mobile Battle Units, my army has all been scattered or captured or otherwise disposed of. You have nothing left to prove in that regard. Twice now you have routed an entire army of my men. I know I cannot win against you by numbers even if I had any soldiers left to command.”

The Corps stood their ground and watched Erybus as he walked slowly towards them. Obviously, he was planning to use some kind of trick. White glanced at Gold. There was no sign of a shield so she might be able to zip in and attack before he could react. But that might be exactly what he wanted. Gold shook his head, almost imperceptible. It was better to wait and let the Nadirite play his hand before they countered.

“So your army is scattered, your plans are in disarray, and you're here alone,” said Gold in a low, cold voice. “Are we supposed to feel sorry for you?”

Erybus smiled and folded his arms. “I would have liked to end this quickly and cleanly in a single encounter. But I always suspected that would not happen. You are the Corps--you have faced far more powerful enemies and emerged victorious. That was why I tried to play my cards carefully, laying my plans for a long battle. Knowing that you had a traitor in your midst was my ace-in-the-hole, all the more so because he did not know that he was a traitor. That was why I choose Altayra as the stage for our battle. I thought I had you at that battle this morning, and, all things considered, I wish I had achieved my goal then. But when all is said and done, it is only right, only appropriate, that our last encounter should be here, here in this temple of truths and lies, of shadows and substance--here, in the heart of this undead and undying kingdom, before the throne of the queen of ghosts, the empress of the haunted galaxy.”

He bowed slightly towards the silent form of Princess Valencia. “Do you not see, Corps? This is what we have been fighting over, the difference between your way and mine. This system is only a symbol of the entire universe.” His voice dropped slightly and became even more than normally lilting, though not without a somber note. “The people you met here in Altayra, those you befriended and spoke with, some, perhaps, that you disliked and shunned, those you fought for, those you would, according to your Code, have been willing to die for--they were all ghosts, lies, phantoms. If you had tried to embrace one or strike one, it would have melted away beneath your hand.”

He glanced around, his eyes meeting those of each member of the Corps. “And is that really any different from all the people in the vast universe we call home? Those we hate and love, our enemies and our friends, those we seek to help, those we seek to hurt, those we avenge or visit vengeance on--they are all phantoms, holograms created by pieces of matter and energy, casting shadows on our minds through our senses and nerves. We take ourselves and those around us seriously, as if they were real, solid things that would last forever. And yet, two hundred years from now, where will any of them be? The elements that made them will have returned to Oblivion and perhaps be formed into new people or animals or the dust beneath our feet. The people of Altayra, at least, have managed to keep their ghosts alive for four hundred years. The people of the universe try the same thing with history, with art, with morality, with religion, with honor and tradition. But they do not succeed quite so well.”

He folded his arms again so that his hands disappeared into his sleeves. “That is the reality of the universe, something no sane man can deny. There are only two ways to treat it. There is your way--to defy it, to try to keep up the appearances, to believe and teach the lie of life, even though you know it is a lie. And then there is my way--to accept reality and plunge all things into the burning, cleansing fire of truth, the all-consuming reality of Oblivion.”

Red took one step forward, his face more flushed than before. “Wait a sec. So that's your solution? Because everyone is dying, you want to kill everyone? I don't understand half of what you're saying, but if we're not real, then you're not real. If everyone is a ghost, then you're a ghost. And what right does a ghost have to go around and try to kill other ghosts?”

“Red does make a point,” remarked Gold. He stood facing Erybus with his arms crossed. “But in any event, even if you're right, you can't possibly hope to win us over with your arguments at this point.”

Erybus nodded. “I did not suppose you would be willing to accept the truth. Perhaps--may Oblivion forgive me--I have been guilty of the basest and most perennial of human follies--self-justification. No, I did not think I could change your way of thinking. And that is the bizarre irony of our situation. If you thought as I do, you could beat me easily. In a universe where nothing but brute force matters, the seven of you obviously have the advantage over me. But I will win this encounter precisely because you do not think as I do.” He snapped the fingers of his left hand and for just an instant something appeared in his right hand. Though it vanished again, White got a good look at it. It was a thin, oblong metallic device of some kind, containing a few buttons and knob. Nothing too complex and all looking rather outdated.

Gold still had his arms crossed. “So now you've got some fancy new weapon?”

“Not a weapon. Not in the conventional sense. Green--you can tell them what it is, can't you?”

Green had taken a step back when the device appeared. “That's can't be--did Zortan really give you THAT?” His voice rose and almost cracked.

“Not intentionally. Even he was not that foolish. But he revealed enough of his secrets that it was relatively easy to find out the rest.”

“What is it, Green?” asked Gold, not taking his eyes off the Nadirite.

“The emergency override. When everything started, the Sages created that in case something happened to Keisai.”

“What exactly can it do?”

“I will tell you,” answered Erybus. “It could do many things, but only one interests us at the moment. The press of a certain button on that panel--it would kill Princess Valencia.” He paused for just an instant to let the words sink in and then went on quickly. “Of course, you could prevent that by moving her, but if you did that, you would break her out of suspended animation and return her to full life, returning her condition to its full strength. The equilibrium of this system has become so fragile over the centuries that if her highness awakes now, it will instantly destroy the reactor on Altayra Conaurah, killing the system and depriving all the people in this building of their life support. The seven of you, of course, would be uninjured and you might be able to save a few others, but you could never save them all in the short time you would have.”

Gold glanced at Green for just an instant, as if for confirmation, and then returned his gaze to Erybus. “And if we don't do what you ask, you will press that button?”

“Really? What kind of person do you take me for, Gold?” Erybus threw back his head and laughed silently. “I already pressed it--before I even entered this room. I am too far into this game to take any chances. That was about fifteen minutes ago. We still have another thirty minutes before it activates--in that time, there would still be time to undo it, if you had the device. But I have used Moreland's Intersect to teleport it somewhere else. It could be anywhere and it puts out so little energy that even Blue will be unable to help you find it. You could, perhaps, find it by searching or you could, perhaps, capture me and torture the truth from me. But either of those things would take far more time than you have. If you do not wish to be guilty of the murder of Princess Valencia or all her people, you must accept my terms.”

Gold's face was hard and contracted. But his voice was calm. “And your terms are...”

“Surrender. All of you--or any one of you.”

“What?” White's head jerked up. “What did you say?”

Erybus closed his eyes. “Surely, by this point, you must realize what a problem the seven of you are for us. It is not just your strength, but your strength welded to your idealism, your legacy. The Corps is something that should not exist. Honor should have no power, and power should have no honor. The armies of this world are problematic, but not nearly as problematic as you are. That was why I was tasked with the mission of destroying you. But it would not be enough merely to kill you. That, I think, I could have accomplished. It has been done before. The Legion killed your predecessors. And yet that did not bring a stop to the Corps. Even if we could destroy your armor--destroy it so that no new incarnation of the Corps could arise--you would exist as a legend, a constant contradiction to the reality that we, as the Nadirites, represent. I considered many possibilities, but I finally realized there was only one workable solution. To counter you, I needed to have your power, your legacy myself. If I could have converted you to our cause, that would have been simplest. But I always knew that was unlikely. If you were less dedicated to your ideals, you would not be the Corps. So there was one other possibility.” He opened his eyes and smiled at them. “I decided to capture you--at least one of you--alive with your armor still intact, hoping that our scientist will find a way to replicate it. Think of it--a new Corps, with all your powers, but dedicated to the cause of Oblivion. That was why I had to play the game I did and why I did not dare make full use of the advantages I had.”

His arms dropped to his side and he stared at the Corps. “But talking takes time, and time is something none of us have very much of now. You must surrender, or Princess Valencia or her people will die. Which will it be?”

For nearly a minute, no one spoke, and there was absolute silence in the chamber except for a slight hum which came from Keisai.

“It's funny,” said Gold finally, in a voice which showed no amusement. “You've laid all your plans so carefully. You thought you had us boxed into a position where only one choice is possible. But, for all of that, you don't understand us at all, do you?--don't understand who we are and what that means.”

Erybus raised his eyebrows, questioningly. His manner was calm, but White thought she could detect a strain of uneasiness. This wasn't quite the response he had expected.

Gold's face was hard and set. “We are the Corps, guardians, custodians of a power and legacy which stretches a thousand years into the past. We live and fight by a Code and with armor which was entrusted to us. For the things we believe, we will fight to the end--we will face death or worse than death to maintain our legacy. We have the right, the responsibility to do all that.” He threw his head back and met Erybus's eyes. “We have no right to surrender.”

Erybus narrowed his eyes. “Even with an innocent life on the line--you will sacrifice Valencia's life for your own pride?”

“I don't expect you to understand. As you said before, we look at the world in two, totally dissimilar ways.”

“Gold--” White began, glancing at him.

“I don't like this any better than you, White. I realize what's at stake here. But we have no choice. The legacy of the Corps--our armor--our identity--it doesn't belong to us and so we have no right to surrender it.” Gold stood motionless and erect. “We cannot surrender.”

“Well then, I will.” Without warning, Red stepped forward, confronting the Nadirite commander. “I'll become your prisoner, Erybus.”

“Red? What are you doing?” Gold turned to him with an expression that had so much surprise that it barely had room for irritation.

“I'm surrendering. What does it look like? Erybus said he just needed one of us, right?” He turned back to Erybus. “If I promise to become you're prisoner, will you bring back that device and save the princess?”

Erybus was calm again. “Of course. I know I can trust your word, though you cannot trust mine. If I have your promise, I will entrust the Emergency Override to Green, who can make sure that her highness is safe.”

“Red, you can't do this. For one of us to surrender--that is practically treason. Do you realize what it would mean if the Nadirites actually can replicate our armor?”

“Not really. Something bad, I guess.” Red spoke calmly and met Gold's gaze, eye-to-eye. “But there's no way to know for sure they can do it. And if they can, that's in the future. A lot can happen between now and then. In that problem, time's on our side. But it's not on Valencia's side.”

“Even if you don't care about that, do you know what it would mean to be a captive of the Nadirites? Do you know what they would do to you?”

Red took a deep breath. “Gold. I'm sorry. I don't really understand half of what you say or what Erybus says. But I do know that this is something I have to do. Do you understand? Valencia was born with everything. She had possession, money, and a whole country that loved her. She should have had a perfect life and yet somehow from the beginning everything was poisoned by her condition. She had and stood to lose more than most people every get. And yet she didn't let that turn her bitter, she didn't become selfish or give into self-pity. Instead, she did all she could to help her people and even was willing to sacrifice herself for them. That's what all of this story comes to. I-I can't let that all come to nothing. Maybe she wasn't real and maybe I'm not real and maybe nothing is real, like Erybus says. I don't know about that, but I know what I have to do. If this is the only way to save her life, to give even one faint hope of her ever getting her life back--I have to do it.”

For a moment, Gold didn't answer. Erybus and the other members of the Corps just stared at the two of them.

“And what if I order you not to surrender?” asked Gold finally, crossing his arms.

“Well--” Red smiled a little sheepishly-- “you know I've never been good at following orders.” He turned away and walked to the pedestal where the inert form of the princess lay. “I know what I'm doing. I know what it will probably mean for me. I just wish I could have done something more. Even though I guess I never really met you--I still loved you, Valencia.” And he stooped down and kissed her.

For just an instant, he stood like that. And then there was a flash of light and something glowed in the chest of his armor, something red like the foaming of restless magma. There was a slight humming sound in the air, and the next instant, in the armor of each member of the Corps there was an answering light.

One white, like the heart of burning stars.

One gold, like the amber flickering of undying fires.

One black, like the sky of a starless night.

One silver, like the sheen of a polished sword.

One blue, like a frozen core of unfeeling ice.

One green, like the rich verdure of a forest primeval.

The humming grew louder. Erybus rushed forward, hoping vainly to stop what was about to happen, but even as he did, the seven strains of light united in a web of translucent brilliance which stretched between the seven members of the Corps. Erybus was caught in the light as it expanded. The approximation device on his chest began to send off sparks in every direction. For a couple of seconds, he flickered violently and then fell limply to the floor.

White saw all this out of the corner of her eyes, but she could barely take it in. And she could barely take in Gold's voice, which seemed to come from an infinite distance away, as he called out: “White, status report.”

With an effort, she brought her mind into focus. Of course, she knew what was happening. She didn't know how or why it had happened now, now for the first time in days, but somehow the Matrix had activated. “Power levels are stable,” she said, keeping her voice as calm as she could, “though somewhat higher than last time.”

Gold nodded. “That may be just as well.”

Red still was standing beside Valencia, who seemed also caught up in the light of the Matrix. “Did I--did I do this?” he asked, glancing up.

“Probably. But I don't think this is any time to be asking questions.”

“OK, so this is pretty,” said Black.

“Have you forgotten what the Matrix really is?” Gold's voice seemed distant. “Raw energy from the atomic substratum of the Cosmos, filtered through the emotions of those who wield it.”

“Energy.” Red repeated the word. “Energy--that's what we really need, isn't it?”

Green, even in the middle of everything, still had enough presence of mind to adjust his hat. “But--this--I never even considered--will this even work? Do we have enough power to try this?”

“We don't have any other choice now. But the energy of the Matrix is infinite for all practical purposes. The real question is whether we can maintain the interface.”

“But that is why we exist as the Corps,” White heard herself saying. “Our dedication, our ideals--everything we exist to be and to do--our feelings and emotions. But that might not be enough. Which is why we need to credit Red for this. Because there is no greater kind of love like this kind, where a person will face death for another.”

The web of light had grown more translucent, almost invisible, but it was also growing in size, pulsing outward from the chamber. White couldn't see it, but she knew it was traveling outward across the Altayra system. It had formed a resonance with the vibratory pattern created by Princess Valencia's condition, traveling along the same patterns, like fresh water pour into a dry riverbed, like an electric current flowing into a vast circuitry, like new wine being poured in new wineskins. For almost a minute, the Corps stood silently in the chamber, lost in thought.

And then the light of the Matrix grew harsher and brighter, becoming blindly bright for just an instant and then vanishing completely. The ground beneath their feet shivered slightly, as if the planet itself had shifted on its axis.

There was complete silence for just a second, and then, slowly, gingerly, Princess Valencia opened her eyes and pushed herself up, glancing around her in puzzlement.

“W-Where am I? And who are you?” she asked, sitting up on her pedestal.

Black sighed. “This is going to take a loooong time to explain, isn't it?”

Epilogue

White was sitting at a table with a holocube, trying to update her journal. For the last month, things had been so chaotic, she had barely had time to think, let alone make any kind of records. She wanted to put some things together now, partly for her own records, and partly so she could put together a report for the prefect eventually.

The table where she sat was in a little niche in a hill behind palace of Altayra Rex, high enough that it allowed her to see parts of the city. It wasn't necessarily a good place to concentrate, but she couldn't escape the fascination of watching the people of Altayra go about their business. Even though the scene was less crowded and busy than when they first landed on the planet, it was more impressive, knowing that this was real--that these people had up to a short time before been living in stasis and very nearly had died in that state--it made her almost feel as if she were watching dead men brought back to life.

But she forced all that out of her mind and concentrated on her records. The first thing to record was that the Guidance Beacon had been reactivated. The main reason for their mission had turned out to be fairly simple. The Nadirites, working with Zortan and Rothmar, had deliberately deactivated the Guidance Beacon in order to lure the Corps to Altayra knowing that here, with Green's connection to the Sages, they had the best chance of defeating or capturing the Corps. However, the components necessary to make the Guidance Beacon work had been hidden on Altayra Rex. With those, it was a simple matter for Green and Blue to repair the Guidance Beacon. So that part of their mission had been fulfilled. That was the easy part.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Gold walked up and sat down across from her. She was sighed and deactivated the holocube. She hadn't been making much progress anyway. “So did you see the MBUs off?”

He nodded. “Yeah, they're off, though General Kenton may be back. He said he's going to talk to Prefect Alkyte about that. But Mom and Dad were needed back at Diaster City and, of course, the mercenaries were wanting to be on their way anyway.”

“I'm just glad they were here in the first place. Without them... I'm not sure we could have handled this.” Certainly, if they had had time to think through the situation calmly, they never would have adopted the method they had--though in the end, it might have been the only workable one. When Red had accidentally activated the Matrix, the raw energy of the Matrix had counteracted Valencia's energy deficiency, bringing her back to full health and simultaneously jump starting the reactor on Altayra Conaurah, returning the system to the state it had been in before Valencia was born. But that downside was that when Valencia came out of suspended animation, the rest of the Altayra began to wake up as well. Dealing with an entire nation which had been asleep for four hundred years and was now waking up had been a momentous task. So much that the Prefect had assigned General Kenton and his squad (even the two mercenaries) to help them.

“The Altayra system will never be exactly like it was before, but at least its alive and functioning again. I think we can count this as a success.”

White nodded and then leaned forward. “There's something I've been wanting to ask you for days, but we haven't had a good chance to talk before. How did you figure out what was going on here, anyway?”

For just a second, Gold didn't answer. “It was because of Maxwell, really. He made me stop and think. I had to, because I couldn't go any further the way I was going. But he also gave me the key I needed--and that was the fact that Valencia just vanished from his ship when he kidnapped her. It was as if she had never been there in the first place. And then I remembered what you told me about the prefood--that it wasn't real food. Those two ideas made me think that there had to be something, well, fake, about everything that had happened here. Food that doesn't feed, people that aren't there--once I had that firmly in my mind, it didn't take much to guess the rest. Really, I should have figured it all out sooner, but it was an outrageous idea and, beside, I had other things on my mind.”

“And then the thing about the food--is that mainly what made you suspect Green?”

“Mostly, though Green had been acting sort of suspicious. And you and I knew that he had some kind of dark story in his past, anyway. All that wouldn't have made me sure, though. But it was easy to find out. Because when we fixed up his injured foot, the Medical Computer had recorded information about him--that's the real thing he was worried about, the reason he didn't want us to know about his injury. By playing around with that data, it was easy to pinpoint that he had spent a lot of time in this system or one like it.”

“So you stopped by The Crystallair and confirmed that before you and Maxwell jumped into the battle?”

“Yeah. And I wanted to use the equipment on the ship to get a good idea of what was going on with the battle too. Anyway, that confirmed that Green was linked to Altayra and that he was most likely the traitor. But I didn't know why he was betraying us. I though he might be working under coercion, but that didn't quite fit. When I talked to him on the battlefield, I got the last piece I needed--he was betraying us, but he didn't know it, because he came up with the way to overcome the Nadirite tracking system, which he wouldn't have done if he had knowingly given them the secret.”

“So Valencia vanished from Maxwell's ship--because she was just a hologram.”

“Right. Keisai had detailed information about Valencia--like everyone else in this system--and so was able to calculate how she would behave in any given circumstance. That's why she tried to follow us to Altayra Vorphintus, because that's exactly what the real Valencia would have done. But, in the end, Maxwell is just so weird that Keisai couldn't calculate what Valencia would have done when in contact with him, so he just reset the program, returning Valencia to Altayra Rex.”

White smiled a little wanly. So she wasn't the only one who had trouble dealing with Maxwell. Even the great computer Keisai had the same problem.

Gold shifted his weight and leaned back. “I've been doing my own work to compile information, talking with Green and the Nadirites we captured. Erybus still has recovered from the shock caused by his approximation device shorting out, and I don't know that he'd cooperate anyways, but some of the other Nadirite officers knew a lot of what was going on. And I think with all that, I've found the last piece of the puzzle.”

White looked up. “What?”

“The Nth-Dimensional Holocube. Green confirmed what I suspected--that he took it from the Wandering, keeping it +(1)d until after the battle at the Guidance Beacon when he moved it to get it to one of Zortan's robots. He wanted the Sages to have it in hopes that it might provide some help for solving Altayra's problem. The Sages were so deeply involved with the Nadirites that they turned it over to Erybus which is how he had it at that last battle.”

“So it was the same.”

“Yeah, but the story goes back farther. An Nth-Dimensional Holocube works with non-spacial dimensions, just like Moreland's Intersect. The crystals in our armor, which create the Matrix, also work on the principle of non-spacial dimensions. That was why Erybus deliberately let us walk into his ship--back at the very beginning of this adventure. He though he could handle us so long as we didn't have access to the Matrix. Do you remember how he attacked us and drove us all back? We didn't realize it at the time, but by combining the power of Moreland's Intersect with that NDHC (which he had hidden somewhere in that cabin) he was able effectively to jam the power of our crystals. That was the real purpose and function of that attack.”

Suddenly the light began to dawn on White. “So that's why we couldn't activate Matrix after that point.”

“Exactly. Green worked out the science of it--maybe you'd understand it; I don't--but the simple explanation is that the NDHC functioned as a jammer, counteracting the crystals. He couldn't have done that, of course, if Green hadn't given the Sages the exact frequency needed to lock onto the energy of the crystals. So long as the NDHC was around, we couldn't use the Matrix. That's why he gave it to Maxwell for safe keeping. When it got moved around and ended up back in his hands, he decided to use it as his trump card in that last battle. But you destroyed it. Theoretically, at that moment, we could have activated the Matrix, but we were all so used to it not working that it never occurred to us. If Red hadn't activated it by accident, we might still not realize the truth.”

White couldn't help but smile. “So for once Red's impulsiveness actually worked in our favor.”

Gold just shook his head. “Funny how that worked out. I never thought Red had the guts to do something like that--surrendering to Erybus, I mean. I hate to think what would have happened if he'd really gone through with it. But I get why he did it--I'm just still shocked that he did.” He smiled slightly with one side of his mouth. “What was it you told me that day on The Crystallair? That love, even when only half true, gives people the strength to do things they would never be able to do otherwise. I never thought I'd see the day when Red was actually an example of that.”

It was too much to expect a great change in Red, but there definitely had been a pronounced one. White started to say something, but stopped as something caught her eye in the courtyard below. She glanced at Gold, who had seen it also. Red, Princess Valencia, and a young giant with blue hair (apparently the present form of Keisai) were walking slowly through the courtyard. Though they were too far away to hear, it was clear they were engaged in serious conversation.

“I can't imagine what it was like for her--or any of her people--having to try to catch up on four hundred years in a matter of days,” commented Gold, leaning back in his chair. “Not to mention, learning that she was betrayed by some of the Sages. But with Red and Keisai, she seems to be coming to grips with things. I still don't think she understands what exactly Red did for her. But, even so... well, I guess you never know how something like that will turn out.” He paused and gave a short, grunt-like laugh. “After all, she's a princess. And Red is a prince. And his kiss woke her up from sleep. Really seems like that should be in a story of some kind.”

“It will be in a story if I can ever finish my report.”

“If it's a story, I suppose it has a moral.” He glanced at her. “You're the philosopher in the group. I suppose you've figured out the moral here? Something like: 'True love conquers all.'?”

White could tell that Gold was making fun of her but with no real animosity. If he was still upset with her, he had at least put those feelings aside for the time being. She stood up and began pacing up and down the small area. She still remembered the almost overwhelming feeling of raw energy when the Matrix activated. It was different from their previous times using the Matrix, perhaps because it had happened unexpectedly, perhaps because they had been more personally involved. It was a tremendous feeling. That was the power of emotions. It was both a good power and a bad one. She still shuddered to think what would have happened if (unlikely as it was) Erybus had managed to create his own Nadirite version of the Corps, with access to the Matrix.

And that same power had been at work, for good and for bad, in all of their story. It was their concern and despair for Valencia and the Altayra System which had driven Zortan and Rothmar to such desperate lengths. It was that same concern which had led Green to betray the Corps, even if he had done so partly in ignorance. It was pride and anger which had driven Gold to make some of the mistakes he had as leader of the Corps--and it had also been pride, wounded, which had forced him to rethink his actions after his humiliating encounter with Maxwell. (Gold still hadn't told her exactly what had happened between him and Maxwell on Altayra Conaurah, but knowing the two of them and with the hints she had gotten, it was easy to piece together.) Red's willful and passionate nature had nearly gotten him killed on multiple occasions and, in the end, it had saved Princess Valencia and the entire Altayra System.

People and their feelings--the things they cared about, the things that filled their hearts and minds--some would say that all this was a transitory illusion. Try to define a feeling, try to touch an emotion, and you will find nothing in your hands. That was the way she had tried to treat her feelings for Gold--as something she could just ignore and suppress. But she knew now what she should have known all along, that the feelings and emotions of sentient beings, good and bad, were only manifestations or incarnations of something higher and true which was in turn only a reflection of the unchanging character of God. They were not illusions; they were things that could help to save or help to damn the soul, that could change the foundations of the world itself. She knew now what she had to do with her love for Gold. She couldn't change the way she felt. She couldn't see now, given the circumstances, how she could have ended up feeling any other way. And as things stood now, she knew that might never see her feelings come to anything in the obvious way. She couldn't deny her feelings and she knew if she tried to suppress or hide them from herself again, it would only lead to disaster. Feelings and emotions were real. And like all real things, they must be offered up to the Creator.

But there was no point in trying to explain of that to Gold. “I think there's just one question we should ask by way of a moral,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at him. “If the partial love of one ordinary boy like Red was enough to change him and bring an entire system out of suspended animation, then what could perfect and pure love in a perfect man do? It would be enough to bring the whole universe back to life.”

“Hmm,” said Gold, noncommittally.

She turned around and walked back up to the table. She was about to say something else, when he stood up suddenly. “Well, I'm going to go back to the ship and contact the Prefect. Things here are basically wrapped up, and I want to know if he has a new mission for us.”

White glanced up at the sky above them. “Of course, I guess we're not going to stay forever. There are new adventures out there for us.”

“Altayra is on its feet now, if not exactly steady yet. And we don't want to get soft just setting around here, do we?”

White smiled and answered in a low voice. “No. Because we're the Corps. And with God's help, we'll be better than that.”