Chapter 4

People have come to regard Protoculture as just another fuel to burn, just another weapon to use. What they do not seem to understand is that Protoculture is just a mean to an end. A very easy mean. The warriors using it do not seem to realise that every time they fire a shot, they make life so much harder for others.
And I don't mean the person who gets his head blown off by the shot!
Jan Morris: Solar Seeds, Galactic Guardians.
Love is Heart!
Late 20th Century song.

Michele was walking away from the hospital, trying very hard not to break into a run. She hated the place; it kept on reminding her of the price of failure in war. She made her way over to the squadron's headquarter, knocked on the door, waited for an answer and walked in.

"Corporal Michele Cequor, reporting for duty, sir!" Had she not said the same thing just a week ago? Was this not the start of a conversation that had eventually led her to a hospital bed?

Her thoughts were cut short by the almost too cheerful voice of the squadron's present commander. "Hello again, Corporal. And how are we feeling today?" His voice was too syrupy for her taste.

"Not too well, sir. I still don't know how I went with the simulation. Nobody seems to want to tell me."

Sterling's smile left his face. "Well, let's just say you showed me I was wrong. It was a rather, ah... interesting experience to watch you at work. Are you packed?"

The question took her by surprise. "Er... Yes sir! Actually it's more like I haven't yet unpacked. I spent all of my time in the hospital."

"It doesn't matter. We've been recalled to join up with the rest of the Skulls in New Macross. I'm sorry but nobody here seems to need a wingman, so you'll just have to do by yourself for a while. However, a friend of mine in Macross needs a new partner. His last one tuned out during a recent attack by the Zentraedi. Are you interested?"

"Yes sir! What's his name, if I may be so bold as to ask?"

Sterling's smile made a reappearance on his face. "you may - Richard Hunter. Have you heard of him?"

<Oh no! Not him! Not the jackass!> She gulped as she tried to keep her feelings hidden from Sterling. "Yes sir, I have. Quite a bit."

"He's a good friend and a good pilot. A bit mixed up sometimes, maybe, but the best there is! Besides me that is." His smile grew and grew until Michele could no longer stand it. "We're leaving in half an hour Corporal, so have your equipment stashed on board the transport plane and get your Veritech ready. We won't be waiting for anybody." He gave her a salute, waited for her to return it, and walked out the door, leaving a very confused pilot behind him.

Simulations he had seen, but never anything like the last set! If these new Veritechs were anything like what he had just experienced, the Robotech Masters - whomever they were - would very likely find themselves overmatched.

"Eve?" he called into the air.

"Yes?" came the reply. Eve, it had turned out, was Research's resident Artificial Intelligence program. This had alarmed Hausthar - the Tifaro incident, where an AI had been responsible for the death of military and civilians alike - was foremost in his mind. Ever since this incident AIs had been banned world-wide. Which went a long way to explain why Hausthar had had to swear not to reveal the existence of Eve to anyone outside Research. Now, after a week of close contact with the disembodied presence, Hausthar considered Eve a close friend, a friendship that was instantly returned.

"Lock me down for the night. If anybody asks, I've died and been buried."

"Got it." replied the AI's voice.

Hausthar was in his room, sitting in a chair on his balcony, feet up on the railing. He watched the sun as it drifted slowly towards the sea, its orange mingling with the dark purple of the water, sending ripples of light which danced and rolled with the smooth waves of the bay. Off into the distance some pleasure boats were making their way back to harbour before the night. Behind the dark sunglasses, his eyes shifted upwards to the sun, squinting as they reached it.

Hausthar sighed and slowly stretched, feeling each and every muscles in his body protest after the day's punishing workload. Knitting a particularly sore shoulder, Hausthar had gotten up and was heading towards the bathroom with a view to taking a long hot shower when he noticed something had been slipped beneath the door to his apartment. A letter. Hausthar picked it up and looked at it, inspecting the front. The letter was correctly addressed to him, so it had not fallen from the pocket of the cleaner. He turned it around in the hope of seeing who sent it. No such luck - it did not even have a return address. Hausthar grabbed the letter opener, and opened his mysterious correspondence. The message inside was simple and to the point:

Meet me at the
Black Pegasus Club
at 1900.
Please come alone.

At least he now knew the name of the writer. But who was this Ricky? Why did he want to meet Hausthar? "Well, whoever you are, you've got yourself a date." he thought out loud.

Hausthar folded the letter again and went to change.

The Black Pegasus Club was a high-class bar/cafe where most of the Veritech pilots went after a hard day's flying. Originally opened during the SDF-1's long trip home from Pluto-orbit, The Black Pegasus has somehow manage to evade total destruction during the battle with Dolza's armada and had been relocated to a building a few kilometres outside Tokyo's RDF base. Today, as usual, it was filled with pilots drinking their cares away, hoping to drown their sorrows in the bottle... and as usual, failing miserably. The room was dimly lit but was free of that perverse low-hanging cloud of smoke normally pictured with such establishments. This absence of smoke came from the fact that very few Veritech pilots smoked, and those that did never survived long - smoking slowed your reflexes and mellowed your thought-processes, and in a Veritech this combination spelt disaster.

A small band was playing a slow tune in the corner. It was composed of all sort of musicians; the Dark Pegasus Band was renown as an open band; anybody could join in at any time - as long as they played reasonably well.

Hausthar had chosen a seat in an alcove on the side opposite the entrance. A series of Petite Cola bottles were stacked on his table in the shape of a pyramid, a testimonial to how long he had been sitting there. He had just finished placing his most recent bottle at the apex when a female voice broke through the low murmur of the crowd. "Hi! Sorry I'm late. Been waiting long?" A shadow slipped itself onto the seat facing him and placed something small on the table. "You wouldn't believe the trouble I had getting into this joint. The security here is worse than at RDF headquarters!"

Hausthar forced his sleep-weary eyes to focus on the shadow in front of him and tried to make some sense of what they were telling him. The first thing that struck him was the face - <God she's cute> was a thought that came to mind instantly and <How the hell did she get in a place like this> was another that immediately followed.

The face reflected youth and was not unpleasant to look at. A small knob of a nose was set in contrast by two deep-blue eyes and by the not-quite-shoulder-length crop of pale-pink hair that was tied back from her eyes by a red piece of material. She was wearing a legless, heavy-tissue leotard with a short-sleeved jacket that only came half-way down to her waist. The leotard was light green in colour and the jacket was light brown, offset with a large patch sewn just above the left breast. Hausthar squinted to make out the embroidery: three pink tri-petal flowers on the same stem against a background of stars. He followed the arms down to the item on the table: slender wrists, complete with light-green sweatbands, were connected to hands holding a small purse. The look was one of girlish seduction and how she had managed to walk in without eliciting any cat-calls or whistles - or an age-check - was beyond him.

He had not realised how long he had been staring until she shook her hand in front of his eyes. "Hello? Earth to Hausthar... Come in... Anybody home?" Her face was giving a sincere youthful smile that Hausthar found irresistible.

"Um... er... Sorry. May I assume that you are the one who sent me the note?"

"You may - and you would be correct in your assumption. Anything else you wish to know?"

"...Yes. How did you know where I was stationed? No civilian is supposed to know about transfers to and from Research."

"Well now, if I told you everything there wouldn't be any little secrets in our relationship, now would there?"

<Relationship?> What was she talking about? "Hum... Yeah... Well, who are you?"

"Oh, did I forget to sign the note? My name is Ricky."

"Nice to meet you." Hausthar was feeling a trickle of cold sweat making its way down his back. <This is crazy,> he thought. <Either she is nuts or I am.> "Would you like something to drink?" he proposed nonetheless. <Smooth move. Real smooth. How many time have you heard that line used before?>

"Yes, thanks. How about a Cola? And loosen up for Pete's sake. I'm not going to eat you up."

"I'm sorry," replied Hausthar nervously, "but I find it very difficult to relax in company of a person I have never before seen in my life but who seems to know everything there is to know about me."

"Jeezus. You're a hard case, you know that?" She smiled and looked to her left towards the stage then straight into his eyes. "But I think I know how to put you at ease and make you relax." She stood up and wandered over towards the band. Hausthar could faintly hear her ask whether they knew how to play `In My Heart'. <Now what?> The lead musician nodded his head and turned around to talk to his players. Ricky walked down the small stage towards a microphone, flipped the echo switch on and gave a small nod to the band. By this time, the room had turned quiet, waiting to see what would follow.

The band opened with electric guitars, a piano and a backbeat on the drums, setting the rhythm for the rest of the instruments. The opening was short but filled with feeling and the audience was already captured in its spirit when Ricky's voice drifted through the music.

In my mind,
I had to try to make it on my own -
Sometimes it's hard to be alone.
In my mind,
My loneliness would never seem to end;
Something is happening
I don't understand...

A trumpet took a soft solo, a languid sound amidst the heavy backbeat of the drums and the sharp sound of the piano and guitars, while Ricky danced on the stage. She twisted and turned, doing a half ballet, half disco routine and smiling at Hausthar all the while. Slowly, she made her way back to the mike as the band picked up.

In my heart,
I feel the heat
Of something burning deep inside of me;
I'll be the one that I could never be,
Now that I found you!
In my heart,
I realise -
'You ever loved me opened up my eyes.
You are the answer and the reason why.
'Living my love for you
In my heart!

The band continued with the music as Ricky sustained her last note, gave a bow to a pleased audience and made her way back to the table. Hausthar could not help but smile and join with the crowd in applauding her performance.

Ricky sat down, panting slightly from exhaustion. "Well, what do you think? Still uptight?"

Hausthar smiled crookedly. "Yes, as a matter of fact I still am. All I know about you is your name and that you can carry a tune. You still haven't told me how you found out where I was billeted, or in fact what you wanted with me at all." He took a deep breath. <Oh, well,> he thought. <In for a penny...> "Now, how about that cola?"

"I thought you'd never ask." Hausthar once again noticed how her smile was enhanced by her dimples.

<If anything in this world is ever true>, thought Michele, <it's that night missions are the worst!> Her Veritech was making headway towards the Arkansas Protectorate, an area of North America where the inhabitants had accepted the Zentraedi as local government. Through the misty clouds that were hanging outside her plane she could barely see the rest of the squadron, and wondered whether or not they were really there or just part of a delusion.

The group had just made landsight when the reality of the world was brought back to her attention. "This is Skull Two to all Veritechs. We've just received news of an attack by Zentraedi on a nearby town and our help has been requested by the local government." Maximillian Sterling was on the verge of yawning with boredom as he informed his crew of their assignment. The Fighter jockeys had a strict rule about life: Dying is sometimes unavoidable, but loosing your cool is inexcusable.

A voice replied over the TacNet. "Aw Jeez! Zentraedi again? Don't these guys ever learn?"

"Apparently not. So let's go find them and make them learn."

"Roger sir..." The voice held off for a few seconds as the planes closed in on the town. "Got 'em! Radar contact established, multiple paints. Radar signatures indicate two Light Artillery Pods, one Heavy Artillery Pod, five Battle Pods and a Cyclop Recon Scout. Computer also says we've been scanned - they know we're here sir!"

"Thank you Corporal. All-right, listen up. Normal battle plan." A few of the pilot sniggered at this - Normal Battle Plan generally meant a free-for-all. "Hit whatever you can but stay with your wingman!" Sterling's blue Veritech banked hard, soon followed by the red of his wingmate and soulmate, Miriya Sterling. The squadron split into groups of two, leaving Michele on her own.

The Pods had known they were coming and proved it by laying down a barrage of firepower that took out three Veritechs before anybody had time to react. The computers of the surviving mecha immediately took note of the location of the downed planes for later retrieval of the wreckage. Michele chose one of the surviving Valkyries and took the place of its missing partner. "You've just changed wingman, flyboy."

A voice drifted on the com-net. "I noticed my old one dropped out on me. My name's Michael. What's yours?" Two Stilettos left the underside of his wings and connected with a Battle Pod intent on the destruction of Skull Seven. The Pod's armour expanded, cracked, then finally gave way like an overblown balloon.

"Mine's Michele. Bandit at Six O'Clock - bank right." She changed to Guardian mode, thrusters folding forwards, and gave the engines all the power she could muster from the plane. The Fighter shook as the engines decelerated the mecha at a rate well above the recommended limits. A Light Artillery Pod surged past her and centred itself on her HUD. Michele fingered the firing button and felt rather than heard the buzzsaw sound from the undercarriage GU-11. The pod tried to imitate Swiss cheese as the rounds impacted with it, but soon gave up as its generator exploded, showering debris amongst the countryside.

"Skull Two to Skulls Five and Thirteen. The Cyclop's making like a banana. Stop it from splitting any further." Michael acknowledged and both he and Michele turned their planes around and went after the Recon Scout.

"Yo, Michael. I never went up against a Cyclop before. What are they like?" said Michele jokingly.

"Think of a potato with two compass attached to it on either side. Also it's green and deadly."

"In that case I've got a visual on it. 11 O'Clock high, trying to hide in the clouds."

"Well, here we go with the usual. Zentraedi Pilot. This is the first and only warning you will receive. Land your craft and come out quietly or face the consequences. Michele, have you ever wondered which lame-brained idiot wants us to say this every time? They never comply anyway."

"True enough Skull Five. Radar shows incoming missiles. Lots of 'em. Activating ECM. How about a little covering fire?"

"You've got it Skull Thirteen... Watch out, we've got a survivor... Never mind, it just blew up of its own accord."

"How's a little pincer manoeuvre sound to you? You take the right, I'll take the left."

"Affirmative... Hold on a second, I've got a high-energy reading coming from this baby."

"Same here."

"More missiles?"

"Radar paint says one medium range heavy warhead, but the energy paint is totally wrong for it."

"Try to get a visual on it."

"Skull Five, bank right! Bank right! It's coming right at you!"

"Got it Skull Thirteen... My God! I just got a visual on it. Those bastards have attached a Reflex Generator to it. Avoid contact at all cost. This thing can blow you to kingdom come without even meaning to."

"That's a negative Skull Five, I can't shake it. Countermeasures are not affective. Computer estimates thirty seconds to impact."

"I can't get to firing position in that time!"

"Don't I know it! I'll try to lure it away from inhabited areas. At least neither of us'll do any damage when we go up."

"Skull Thirteen, eject! Dammit Michele, get the Hell out of your plane!"

"My plane my show, Michael. I'm sticking this one out. All I need is just a few seconds more... Come on... Skull Five, I've cleared the city. I'm going to ej..."

"Michele? Dammit Michele, answer!... MICHELE!!"

Chapter 3
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Children of the Light, Children of the Shadow
Chapter 5
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