Chapter 6

I mean, what do you do with somebody whose brainwaves don't register but whose body refuses to die? We didn't know. So we decided to put her on ice, on observation. We hooked her up to every apparatus you could name, and then some. And still all they told us was she was brain dead. So you can imagine our surprise when this happened!
Unnamed orderly at the New Macross Military Hospital.

The darkness was surrounding her, closing in on her from all sides. She fought with it until she felt she would die, suffocated by the impenetrable blackness. She finally gave up and waited for something to happen. She didn't have to wait very long.

"Hello." The voice was very soothing, very syrupy, almost annoying. She looked about, trying to find its source.

"I said 'hello'. Are you so impolite as to not answer?" the voice enquired.

Michele gulped before answering in a faltering voice. "Hello."

"That's much better. Welcome Michele!" the voice boomed throughout the darkness.

"How do you know my name?"

"I know all there is to know about you - including the fact you seem to have an affinity for landing yourself in hospitals." The voice chuckled. "You do not seem to be at ease."

"I am claustrophobic. This darkness is smothering me."

"Ah! Well, this can be arranged." The lights came on abruptly. Where she had been floating were now ceiling, floor and walls. Two plush seats were waiting next to a chimney in which sizzled a warm fire. "Please take a seat." Michele tested the seat before she settled. It was real.

"Is this any better?" the voice enquired.

"Yes, much better thank you. Who are you?"

"Good! Abrupt and to the point, I like that. My name would tell you nothing."

"Show yourself then." Michele cried out, searching the room for the source of the voice.

"Oh, very well."

A shadow began to form on the seat in front of hers. The shadow took form and substance nearly immediately. Michele jumped to her feet and grasped at her hip for a weapon that wasn't there. In front of her, straight out of a religious book she had once read, was the Devil.

Hausthar had finally changed into his uniform and was digging into a hearty breakfast when the sun finally decided to rise and send its warm rays through the windows. Ricky stepped through the door of the kitchenette, once again wearing her leotard. She walked over to Hausthar and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"Good morning! Had a nice sleep?" Try as he might to stop it, her smile was growing on him.

Hausthar harumphed. "Yes... How did I get back here last night? More importantly, how did you get in here?"

"Well, you were having such a good time at the club, when suddenly your face went blank and you nose-dived into your Petite Cola pyramid. A couple of the pilots there helped me get you into a cab and it drove us back to the base. As for my getting in, the guard threw one look at you and called one of your friends, a Lieutenant Braywater? He and his girlfriend came to the gate and ushered us in. Happy?" She threw two slices of bread in the toaster and sat on the chair in front of him.

Hausthar ate the last of his toast in silence and got up. "Yeah, I s'pose. Listen, I've got flying duty today, so could you close the door behind you and tell Eve when you leave." Funny how his heart was cringing at the thought of her leaving while his brain was all against the idea of her staying.

"Sure! Have a good time." She got up to retrieve her toasts and turned to face him as he was stepping through the door. "Please be careful." she said in a low voice. She briefly looked him in the eyes, then went back to the table and buttered her toast.

Hausthar looked at her, puzzled. He eventually shrugged in defeat and closed the door behind him as he left.

"Are... are you the Devil?"

"Oh no." the Entity replied. "I simply took this image from your mind. Devil, eh? I must admit I like his style! Please, please, sit down. There is nothing worse than to speak to someone who insists on standing up."

Michele slowly made her way back to her seat. She noticed that the Entity was not completely there, that parts of It were shadowy. As if reading her mind, the Entity spoke. "The shadowy parts are the areas of this body whose descriptions I could not properly get from your memory. Most annoying - I do so hate messy solutions."

"You still haven't answered my question: how do you know my name?"

The Entity looked surprised. "But my dear, I thought it would have been obvious to you by now - I've read your mind. I know all there is to know about you. For example, the red tinge in your hair is real, you have a strong liking for your new wingman, and you have a birth-mark on your..."

"All right, I believe you! No need to sprout personal details. Don't you have any decency?"

"Mmm... no, I don't believe I have."

"Oh great! Which still leaves me in the dark. Who are you and where am I?" Michele nearly shouted her last question.

The Entity gave a small sigh and dug into a non-existent pocket. When It withdrew Its hand, It was holding a photos. "I guess the best way to present myself would be to start with the rest of my `family`." It handed the photograph to Michele. It pictured a tall man, dressed in a long white robe, with white hair and a white beard. A light shone around his head in a halo, obscuring his feature. The effect was, well, Godly. "Yes, I know what this looks like - you must remember that I am trying to pull images from your mind and imagination that will suit the occasion. And I am sure that blasted egomaniac would enjoy being represented thus." Michele did not know what to make of the picture - surely this had to be a joke! The Entity withdrew the picture and replaced it in his still non-existent pocket.

"To once again take analogies and names from your memory, I am called Neo. The name of the other is not important at this point. Let's just say that we both represent opposing points of views on a particular matter whose discussion can be done at a later time. The easiest analogy would be Good and Evil." It chuckled for a moment. "Although who's Good and who's Evil seems to depend on whom you talk to." It shifted slightly in Its seat. "So much for who I am. As for your second question... " Neo pointed at her head. "We're inside your brain. Or what's left of it at the moment."

"What do you mean `what's left of it'?" enquired Michele.

"It seems your medical people can't quite decide whether you are dead or not. Your brain shows no sign of activity, courtesy of yours truly, but your body refuses to die - again, my doing I'm afraid. I'm stimulating your involuntary reflexes to keep your heart and breathing going. Wouldn't do to have you die while we have this little chat, would it now?"

Michele's face had drained with the news of her physical condition. Neo used the silence to once again dig into Its non-existent breast pocket and pulled out a lit pipe. "I'm sorry, I forgot to ask. Do you mind if I smoke?" Michele shook her head, still trying to come to terms with the revelation. "Thank you. Not that it would have mattered if you did. Nasty habit, smoking, but I just can't seem to get rid of it. I picked it up by studying one of your kind. I believe you now him - Admiral Gloval. Charming chap! I just wished he'd be a little more nasty sometimes." It pulled on Its pipe in silence for a moment, then suddenly brought it down.

"Aha, it seems you have a visitor." Neo pointed towards a mirror which had just appeared above the fireplace. Michele looked into it and saw herself lying in a hospital bed, with all sort of equipment strapped to her. A shiver ran up and down her spine. The door to the room opened and one of the hospital's doctors walked in backward, hands in the air, and bumped into the nurse that was tending to the electronic gear. A voice came from outside the room.

"Listen doctor, I said I was going in to see her, and go in I damn well will!"

The doctor retreated even further into the room and a figure appeared, holding a gun loosely towards him.

"Michael!" shouted Michele, half out of her seat. He did not seem to notice her. "Michael?!... Damn it Michael, answer me!"

Neo took another puff from Its pipe. "I'm afraid that he can't hear you. As far as he's concerned, you are lying on that hospital bed. Mind you," he added with a smirk, "he's right. You are lying on that bed. You're not here at all."

Michael had by then escorted both the doctor and the nurse out of the room and locked the door shut. He came back and sat on the edge of the bed, staring at Michele's prostrate body. He reached out and took her hand, holding it tight. "C'mon partner, don't quit on me now. Who's gonna save my ass next time if you go?" He stooped over her body and brushed back her hair into place, caressing her cheek as he did so.

Inside the other room, Michele gasped - she had felt Michael squeeze her hand. She had felt him brush back her hair and touch her cheek. Her hand went up to her face, to where his hand had been, and for the first time in as long as she could remember, Michele cried.

Hausthar walked up to the hangar where the new Veritech was stored. He was supposed to test it today, to push its envelope until it finally gave way. It was not a task he was looking forward to.

"Hey, George - you in there?" He peered into the darkness of the hangar and spied a shape moving towards him. George was the main engineer of Research, and the two of them had met the day after Hausthar's transfer. It had not taken long for the two of them to realise they both enjoyed talking about the new mecha. Unfortunately, that seem to be the only common interest they shared, making conversations rather boring for anyone not in Research.

"Hausthar, long time no see." A tall man emerged from the shadows of the hangar, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth - no matter how modern the engines, they still managed to soil up anybody tinkering with them. "I heard you were taking X-Ray One up for a spin today. I'll have my men prepare her for you. She's a mean looking bitch. You think you can handle her?"

Hausthar laughed. "I hope so. Don't mind telling you my insides are in a knot. This is my first flight on an untested ship."

"Don't worry - they nearly all make it back the first time out."

"Nearly?!" Hausthar was gaping at George, trying to figure out if he was being serious.

"Once you're up there" continued George "you won't have time to worry." He slapped Hausthar on the back and went back inside the hangar.

Neo looked at the girl in front of It, bent in two on her seat, tears spilling from her eyes, and cleared Its throat. "Ahem. I do believe it is time to talk business."

Michele stopped crying and turned her blood-shot eyes toward It. She sniffed a couple of times before answering. "What do you want from me?"

"Your soul."

X-Ray One was the first prototype in a new series of Veritech - it was roughly the same size as the old VF-series, but managed to present less of an overall target profile. Gone was the old F14 look: X-Ray One had two gigantic engines located a third of the way out on each of the jets two slim wings. The overall aspect of the plane was that of a gigantic stylised broad-head arrow. Also a great departure from the old VF design was the dropping of the laser weaponry for more conventional kinetic/mass hardware and the incorporation of internal missile launchers into several areas the plane's body. Research had told Hausthar that by the time they had the design perfected they would be able to store between thirty to forty missiles all over the plane. Included in the new design was a new version of the GU-11 gun pod, the sleek, slim-lined GU-23. Hausthar was not very happy about the lack of an energy-based weapon, laser or otherwise, although a gun pod which could be reloaded from clips stored in the mecha's legs was certainly an improvement over the old design. His main concern was what would happen to the pilot once the plane's ammunitions had been spent. Research's answer had been that if the Vindicator had to stay in the fray long enough for all its ammo to be used, then the armour and shields would probably have given way long before. Not a comforting thought for pilots.

But for this flight X-Ray One would be going weaponless. Hausthar's job was to push the prototype to its limits and beyond, and hopefully survive when it finally snagged. As he taxied the plane towards the runway, it occurred to him that he had forgotten the routine visual check-up that was normally part of the pre-flight operations. Neither had he checked to see if they had packed his parachute correctly.

Tower gave him a green light on departure and Hausthar's worries were left behind as the plane rocketed down the runway and went ballistic a few seconds later. He reached the testing corridor within a couple of minutes and started to relay information to the control Tower. A voice came over the tactical net as he finished, a voice hauntingly familiar.

"Hausthar? You have been given the green light. Start your run."

Hausthar recognised the voice - it was Lang's. But Dr. Lang never bothered to come watch the testing of new mecha! What was he doing here? Had Lang come for him? Why was he so important to Lang? Hausthar's mind was full of questions as he rogered the order and began to push the throttle forward.

The plane's twin main engines roared into life as power reached them. The Veritech lurched forward and began to form the well-known cone of noise as it approached Mach-1. Inside the cockpit, Hausthar was reading off the instruments into the Net, more to calm his nerves than for those listening.

"Mach one. Mach one point five. Mach two. Mach two point five. Mach three. Slight buffeting starting to gain intensity. Computer has just engaged secondary engines to counter-balance. Mach three point five. Mach four. Heat reading on the nose cone reaching maximum tolerance. Plane controls are starting to rebel. Mach four point five..."

The plane gave a sickening lurch as an explosion occurred somewhere down the left side of the body of the jet. Warning buzzers filled the cockpit with their death songs. "Tower, do you read me? I have a malfunction in the port engine followed by explosion and loss of compression. Hydraulic pressure to the port control surfaces is dropping fast. Starboard engine is locked at maximum. Repeat, starboard engine is locked at maximum. Over." More buzzers filled the air of the cockpit. Hausthar did not even take the time to turn them off.

"We copy X-Ray One. Initiate bail-out procedure."

"Roger Tower, X-Ray One ejecting." Hausthar reached for the ejection handle and prayed that he would not be smashed by the plane's speed. He pulled on the handle.

"Tower, this is X-Ray One. I have a malfunction in the ejection mechanism probably due to previous problem. Can you help?"

"X-Ray One, do you have report of a fire in the main engines?"

"Roger that Tower, fire warning is on for port main engine. Request procedure to dump this heap o' shit."

Hausthar heard several curses being uttered, then a voice Hausthar had not expected to hear. "Hausthar, this is Victor. Open your main computer console. We'll try to shut off the engine and have you bring the plane down by gliding."

Hausthar reached for his emergency tool kit and pulled out the appropriate screwdriver. He had the panel open in no time at all. "Victor, main computer panel open, awaiting instructions."

Lang's voice replaced Victor's. "Locate the starboard main engine's fuel control MEMIC and pull it out. Then, short circuit its insertion slot by cross-connecting with any Delta circuit."

Hausthar took out a probe from the kit, located the appropriate wafer, yanked it out then jammed the probe into the freed space. Sparks showered the cockpit in a brief display of pyrotechnics.

"Tower, this is X-Ray One. Procedure accomplished and engine shorted out. Secondary systems suffered damage from procedure though."

"Got it X-Ray One. Can you give us a list of the systems that went down?"

"Systems include pursuit radar, starboard missile launchers, mechamorphosys circuits and landing gear. I repeat, both automatic and manual controls for the landing gears are down."

Victor's voice sounded resigned. "Roger X-Ray One. You are going to have to ditch her into the sea. Can you give us a relative position for touch-down?"

"I think I'll splash down somewhere south of Tokyo Bay. I'd estimate ten klicks or so."

"Got it X-Ray One - we are sending a ship to pick you up. God's speed."

Hausthar felt his throat close up - if Victor was going theological on him, things must be bleak indeed. "Thank you Tower. Out."

Hausthar's plane was beginning to break apart when it finally reached the touch-down area. Buzzers were once again filling the cockpit, warning him that he was either flying too low or driving too fast. Hausthar felt a pang of regret as he realised he might never again see Ricky. He did not have time to ponder upon this, or to think anything more - the plane hit the water at well above the recommended speed. It bounced several times across the small waves and finally came to a bone-wrenching stop in the middle of a wave. Before the next wave reached it, it had disappeared beneath the surface, leaving nothing but a few wreckage and an oil slick to mark the fact that a tragedy had occurred.

"You want... my soul?" Michele asked incredulously. Thoughts of Hell and Eternal Damnation filled her mind. Apparently Neo had also picked them up for It was quick to retort.

"No, no, no. Not like that. I think I have chosen the wrong words. I desire your... co-operation. Is that better? Yes, co-operation. I want you to join my cause and help me in my fight." It was waving Its pipe excitedly.

"Let me get this straight. You want my help? But aren't you evil?"

"Yes on both counts. Although Evil is a very relative concept. What might be Evil to you is perfectly normal to me. May I also add that such help or co-operation - call it what you will - would be rewarded with Power. Power such as you have never dreamed of before - Power to destroy your enemies before they can even sense your presence. This is the reward I offer you. And all you have to do is follow my directives." It leant back into Its chair and started to pull on the pipe again, filling the air around It with smoke.

Michele was looking at the mirror, watching Michael fuss over her unconscious body, trying to bring her out of her coma. For this was what she had decided was happening - she must have gone into coma and was dreaming all of this.

"I'll need time to think about this." she told Neo.

Neo smiled at her. "Of course. Take all the time in the world. I'll always be around if you need me. All you'll ever need to do is accept me in." Neo stood up and approached her chair, Its body towering above her. "Now it is time for you to go back, Michele Cequor." It waived Its hand toward her and she felt herself begin to dissolve...

Michael was still stooped over Michele's body, oblivious to the pounding on the room's door. He was pushing back more hair from her face and brushing her cheek softly when he felt two strong arms encircle his heck and pull him down. Warm lips rose to meet his as Michele put all she had to offer into their first kiss.

Chapter 5
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Children of the Light, Children of the Shadow
Chapter 7
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