Before we begin, I'd like to address a couple of comments:
- The italic/bold text issue is a flaw in Netscape. I will eventually return to my other stories and fix the bugs. Thank you to those who offered assistance.
- "Desert Heart" began the way it did on purpose. The reader is not supposed to know why Mitsuki Rara and the Rara Trio are suddenly bad guys. I plan to eventually create another series devoted to Mitsuki Rara's descent into Ms. Rah entitled "A Time For War". Of course, I could be encouraged to write quicker if my stories were reviewed... HINT HINT :-D
Without further ado, I give you the final chapter in the "Dual! What is This Emotion: Love?" Saga: "No Turning Back".
"Ageless Souls: No Turning Back"
"You're kidding, right," Kazuki asked, staring out over the desert valley that contained various core units, as the locals called the original core robots, and parts in varying degrees of decay. "It'll take years to make possibly two functioning core robo--units! This is ridiculous!"
One of the other pilots chimed in, "Ye-ars?"
Dee quickly responded, "The amount of time it takes for Earth to complete one rotation around Sol. About four hundred thirty-eight point three conords." Dee quickly added, "How many of these robots are close to being functional, Faran," trying to keep the team on topic.
"Follow me." The largest core unit motioned towards Persephone and her crew and activated its jets, descending into the valley bellow. Its pace slowed next to a newer model core unit. "This one was captured from an Elev camp undamaged. It was a newer model and has most of its weapons systems intact. We would have activated it sooner, but it has a Limiter in place."
Dee sighed, "I don't need the entire life story, Faran. Every second we spend out here puts Kazuki and myself at risk. Just point out the working units or those close to functioning and I'll do the rest."
Faran harrumphed and had his robot point off into the distance. "Another working unit is about half a mahed that way. We've also got a few Elev units that could be repaired, but of course they have Limiters installed." Faran's robot turned back to face Persephone and her occupants. "Well, do you think you can help?"
Dee nodded, visually surveying the core unit's surface. "Yes, this might work. Kazuki, open the hatch."
Kazuki obediently opened the hatch, too disturbed by Dee's taste in music to put up any resistance.
Dee hopped out of the cockpit, landing gracefully on the Elev unit. She expertly found the hatch release and was inside its cockpit in under a minute. As Kazuki watched, he wondered how many times she'd performed that action in the past.
The reality of the moment hit him like a brick. She shouldn't remember anything about her past "past". Zinv said he had taken care of that.
Was he wrong?
The core unit's eyes lit, a soft purple filling the lenses as Dee powered up its systems. She gently guided the unit off of the desert's floor, monitoring the systems for any irregularities.
"Well, is it functional," Faran's impatient questioning was louder than the sounds of the Elev units creaking joints.
Dee nodded. "Yes, any Elev could pilot it with relative ease. However, if you want to pilot her, you'll silence yourself while I work."
Faran grumbled and stormed off via his core unit towards a nearby malfunctioning unit. He disliked having to take orders from this little atrocity and her lap dog, but the fact that they had saved his life and could save the lives of hundreds of his people stayed his hand during times like this. He'd just have to bide his time until her usefulness was spent.
"This core unit is now fully functional. It's ready for a pilot," Dee rose from the pilot's chair, running a finger along the armrest as she took one last look at the Elev cockpit. It had been many years since she had seen one of these models. She couldn't believe it was in such good condition. With a little lubrication of the joints, it could hold its own against any Elev unit currently functioning on the planet's surface.
"Um, Dee," Kazuki's voice interrupted her fond memories of centuries past abruptly. "Are you ok?"
Dee shook her head, pulling back her hand quickly. "Y-Yes, I'm fine Kazuki."
Kazuki frowned. He didn't believe her, but was unable to find fault with her at the moment. "We have other units to work on..."
"You're correct, we do have a lot of work ahead of us. Shall we be going?"
Kazuki nodded, moving Persephone's hand towards the former Elev unit and catching Dee as she jumped out of its cockpit. The trio then moved on to the next robot as an Adome pilot got acquainted with the Desert Heart Corps' newest acquisition.
"What's our status?"
"Well Sir, we have three functional units with pilots and four units that can be brought up to full capacity, assuming the Limiters are removed."
Faran nodded thoughtfully. "And the storm?"
His subordinate ran his fingers over the display. "It's close. It'll be upon us any moment, Sir."
"Alright, let's move out," Faran's shout was barely audible over the desert winds that were beginning to scream throughout the scattered husks of core units. "How many units will it take to carry one of the damaged cores?"
The pilot next to Faran eyed the damaged units momentarily before responding, "One unit should be able to carry each damaged core, except for that one of course." The pilot motioned towards the large robot lying on its back beside them. "It'll take two units to drag it back to base."
Faran nodded, eyeing the robot eagerly, "But once it's restored and reactivated... It will out-match any Elev unit twelve to one at least!"
"That's 'if' we get it back and have the parts to restore it," the pilot muttered under his breath as he monitored the increasing weather activity.
"What was that?"
"N-nothing, Sir. Shouldn't we be moving out?"
"Humph!" Faran turned towards the alien robot and its two occupants, bellowing, "Caskea! D! Let's go!"
The unit turned back to face them as the final Elev unit lifted itself off of the desert floor. The young male pilot shouted back on the communications line, "Kazuki! It's Kazuki! How many times do I have to te- -?"
Dee's voice interrupted, a slight rustling noise barely audible as she pushed him aside, "Kazuki, not right now." She increased the level of her voice and continued, "Faran, we're almost done reactivating all of the units. Another twenty--."
"You're done now. It's an order."
Kazuki continued to mutter in the background, "I mean, it's not that hard to figure out... Kaz-Kee! Anyone can do it. Dee, you could say my name when you were a bio-- uh, that is... I mean, eh..."
Dee's annoyed sigh was her only response before closing the line and joining the rest of the Adome team. The team, now joined by an additional five former Elev units, all linked in to Faran with their status.
"Alright everyone, we will be maintaining communication silence until we reach the base. I will be the only unit broadcasting a homing signal on the frequency you're receiving via a sub channel. You're also receiving directions on how to keep up with the frequency changes in case we're being spied on. We're going to proceed to base along this pre-determined route, but in a sandstorm it's easy to get turned around and interference can cause some equipment problems," a map displaying the surrounding area super- imposed itself over Faran's face. "Needless to say, I would not recommend losing sight of one-another. We will proceed in a single-file line with my unit taking the lead and the units towing the largest core unit taking the rear. I want one unit escorting them just in case we run into trouble. Kaz-Kee, that'd be you," Faran emphasized the syllables, imitating Kazuki's earlier outburst.
"Great, just what I need, guard duty and a comedian..."
Faran merely grunted at the response and turned his back to the group. "You have your orders, let's move out!"
The pilots, except for Dee and Kazuki, shouted in unison, "Right!"
Dee tugged on Kazuki's sleeve as he proceeded to follow the cumbersome rear, "Kazuki, do you think I could pilot for a bit?"
Kazuki's eyes betrayed the slight bit of fear hidden behind them. The last time he'd let Dee pilot Persephone in a combat situation resulted in some rather strange behavior that still disturbed him greatly. He wanted to protect her, but he didn't know quite how other than to prevent her from being in a similar situation again.
"I know you're trying to protect me, but I assure you I do not require such services from you, Kazuki. Besides, you have other people you should be worrying about," as she said this, Dee appeared to be staring through Kazuki as if she were looking far off into the distance.
Kazuki's face darkened. "What do you mean, Dee?"
Dee shook her head, cupping her hands about her eyes. "Nothing, I'm sure it's nothing. May I pilot?"
Kazuki sighed as he got out of the pilot's chair, motioning for Dee to take his place. He had a bad feeling about this, but if it were what she wanted, Kazuki would give it to her.
Dee bowed her head, replying softly, "Thank you, Kazuki."
As she lifted her head, Dee's demeanor was entirely different. A bright smile had replaced the serious frown from mere moments earlier. She quickly hopped into the pilot's seat, shouting, "Let's go!"
Kazuki's confused look caused Dee to giggle as she placed her hands on the life sympathy orbs and ordered Persephone onward.
"Sensors detecting core unit power signatures."
Mena's cold gaze focused on the small display next to her right hand. "How many?"
"Unable to determine. The sandstorm is causing too much interference."
Mena smiled impishly, "Well, I know one way to find out..."
"A conflict with unknown numbers would be ill-advised in any situation, Mena. Are you sure we shouldn't just follow them--?"
"Silence! I'm the pilot here! You'll do as I order you," Mena slammed her hands down on the life sympathy orbs to make her point. She willed her robot to move towards the power signatures as it began activating its weapons systems.
"If I may make a suggestion..."
"What," Mena snapped at her companion.
"As we approach, I am detecting a smaller density of signatures in this area. Perhaps, if they are enemy units, they are proceeding in a linear fashion? If so, we could attack the end of the line without the others detecting us most likely."
Mena's grin widened. "Yes, my dear... I like how you think! Very well, let's see what we have here, shall we?"
"Understood." Clotho moved towards the weaker power signatures slowly, gently pressing with her sensors to determine the nature of their prey. Gradually, the sensor echo cleared, finally revealing two Adome units carrying a rather large mass.
"Jackpot," Mena screamed with glee as she increased Clotho's speed and began charging her main cannon. She released a shot, crippling one of the core units and obliterating the other unit. While all that remained of the destroyed unit were two legs and various assorted pieces of metal, their cargo appeared to remain intact.
"Hmm... That is interesting... Clotho! Lock on to that thing they were carrying!"
"Target acquired. Plasma cannon fully charged."
Clotho released another blast, striking her target directly. The blast forced the crippled Adome unit further away from its cargo and created a large crater where the cargo it had been carrying lay.
"Well, how'd we do?"
"While we wait, let's have a little fun," Mena grinned impishly as she eyed the crippled Adome unit. Its pilot's pleas for aid crackled in and out over her communications system. Slowly, Clotho paced towards it, like a predator circling its prey.
"... If... Hear me, I need... Der attack! Please! Can anyone hear me?" As Clotho approached, the signal strengthened.
She opened the line and replied calmly, "I hear you, son of Adome..."
"W-Who are you?"
Mena giggled with a malevolence that shook the Adome pilot to his very core. "I suppose I could answer that with a dramatic line like: 'The last living thing you will ever see' and I'd be correct, but why bother?" Clotho released a small burst of energy, ripping through her prey. The pilot's pained screams echoed throughout Clotho's cockpit as the cat toyed with her mouse.
"W-w-why," the pilot's weak voice asked.
"Because I am here to stop you!"
A disembodied core unit leg slammed against Clotho's head. The HIMC unit spun around to face its new opponent, forgetting about its present toy.
"Did you really have to throw that leg?"
"Well, what'd you want me to use? Charm?"
"Eh... Not really, it's just so... Morbid!"
"Honestly, Kazuki... Can we discuss this later?"
Mena's eyebrow rose slightly. "Kazuki-kun, is that you?"
Dee's sigh could be heard over the communications line as Kazuki replied, "I told you not to-- Mena, is that you?"
Mena chuckled. "Finally! I've found my ticket home! Kazuki-kun, come with us... Come back to Ms. Ra. I promise that all will be forgiven... And once Zinv completes his transformation, he can join you too..."
"His transformation? What do you mean? What's wrong with you, Mena? How could you kill another living being? It's not like you!"
"My, my, Kazuki! You always did ask a lot of questions! To answer in reverse order: How do you know, easily, nothing, you'll see, and you'll see," Mena giggled, moving toward where Clotho thought the signal was coming from.
"Guess again," Dee's voice was now audible.
Clotho darted towards another sensor echo, one of her tentacles grasping nothing but sand-filled air. "You again? Let me talk to Kazuki-kun!"
Another leg slammed against Clotho's body from an indeterminable position. Mena snarled, her voice barely containing her annoyance with the situation, "Why do you cower in the shadows? Fight me!"
"As you wish," Dee's calm voice replied as Persephone's fist slammed against Clotho's back.
"Really, you think?" Mena quickly rerouted power from the plasma cannons to Clotho's engines. She knew that the fight was not going to be won with long-distance weapons. Besides, she was under strict orders to return Kazuki alive.
Persephone landed another blow to Mena's cockpit.
"Must you hit her there? You could injure Mena!"
"Kazuki, these aren't like the battles with Rara's Army, I thought you would have realized this by now. The victor lives, the loser..."
"B-But she's one of us!"
Mena grinned. "You should listen to her, Kazuki... I'm not one of you anymore. Come with me... You can become something greater!"
"I'm not going to join you!"
"So be it!" Clotho immediately redirected power back to her plasma cannon and locked onto Persephone. "I'm fed up with this game of hide and seek, Kazuki-kun! Clotho, fire!"
"Mena, I would not advise firing upon Persephone."
"Shove your advice! I said fire, dammit!"
"But Mena, if we fire upon Persephone, the most likely outcome would be the destruction of the core robot and her crew. Hera and Ms. Rara's instructions to Alice and yourself were clear: Zinv AND Kazuki must be captured alive and intact."
Mena powered down the plasma cannon, cursing the orders under her breath. A gust of sand and wind separated Clotho from her prey, interrupting the core robot's sensor readings.
"I apologize, Mena, but the storm is increasing in intensity. At its current rate, I will be unable to maintain a sensor lock on Persephone within the next five minutes. Recommend that we return to base until a later date."
Snarling, Mena slammed her fist onto the armrest. "I will not allow them to flee!"
"You have no choice, Mena. The mission will be pointless if you are dead."
Mena continued growling as she ordered Clotho to return to headquarters. "I will not suffer this failure lightly. I will have my revenge upon that green-haired bitch... I promise!"