Conversations with Death (cont)

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All right, while I had managed to correct most of his speech and grammar, he still retained his more 'colourful' vocabulary.

He scrambled to his feet, as quietly as possible, and tried to find an escape route. Unfortunately, there was none. Two burly crewmen came around the side of the crate my mortal was hiding behind, spotted him and within seconds had him by the arms and were dragging him out into the open.

"Nonono! I'm not hurtin' anything! Let me go!" my charge yelled, wriggling wildly.

"No way, rat. You have some balls, stowing away on a Sweepers' ship! You know what we do with stowaways and thieves don't you?" the larger of the two growled.

I could feel the prickling of my Duo's fear, but he stood still and glared defiantly.

"We throw them out an airlock," the other continued, and the two started dragging him off.

Just as I was about to attempt to manifest physically, there was a commotion at the doorway and three more men came in; one young Asian-- Tetsurii again, I presume-- and two older men, one with a large nose wearing a lab coat, the other wearing an obnoxious floral print shirt and sunglasses.

"What's going on here?" the man in the lab coat yelled, seeing my Duo hanging between the crewmen.

"We've got ourselves a stowaway! And he's been stealing the food supplies!" the large crewman said, giving Duo a shake.

"Hey!" my mortal yelped, "I had to eat ya know! Didja wanna come down here and find a dead rotting body? And wouldja stop shaking me? Let me go!"

I did have to chuckle at that. My little Duo, being shaken like a kitten, was still stubborn and defiant.

The two older men obviously noticed this as well. They looked at each other, nodded and the one in the lab coat gestured at my Duo. "Let him go."

"...But... Boss?"

The man in the sunglasses shrugged. "You heard the Professor. Let him go."

The crewman dropped my mortal and Duo climbed to his feet, cocking his head to the side and glaring at the older men.

The Professor stared right back appraisingly. "Well, boy. I thought the security system I worked up for Howard was flawless, yet you managed to get on board this ship and hide for how long? I assume you stowed away on L2. How did you do it?"

My cheeky little mortal grinned impishly. "That's a secret. But, if it makes you feel better, it wasn't easy. Maybe if you promise not to space me, I'll tell you some day."

Both men laughed out loud. "I like you," the Professor said. "You're an interesting kid. Do you have a name?"

"My name's Duo. Duo 'he runs-and-hides-but-never-lies' Maxwell."

Now where did he come up with that? I still don't know. I keep forgetting to ask.

The Professor raised his eyebrows. "Hm, Maxwell, eh? Blue eyes, ridiculous braid, L2... Look boys, we have Maxwell's Demon with us."

My Duo frowned, then his eyes gleamed with mischief. "I'm not a demon. I'm the God of Death!"

I snorted. God of Death indeed! But you know, I was extremely pleased.

The Professor looked sharply at my mortal, then nodded. "You'll do. Well, 'God of Death' Duo Maxwell, we won't send you out an airlock. But, you're going to have to earn your keep. Howard?" he said, turning to the man in the awful shirt.

"Hm. You're small and scrawny. You'll probably do well with small machine repairs and the like. Maybe some navigating or piloting, eventually, if you stick around long enough. Go with Tetsurii, here. He'll set you up with a berth, show you around, get you started and explain how we work."

My little Duo seemed stunned for a moment, but that was understandable. Not only was he NOT being thrown off the ship, but he was getting a safe place, regular food and a real job. He recovered quickly, nodded and walked over to the young Asian man.

"Boy," the Professor called, as Duo was walking away, "I'm Professor G. You'll spend part of each morning and afternoon with me. You will have lessons to attend. Education, my boy, is an important thing. Go along now, and get settled."

My little Death nodded, eyes wide, and followed behind Tetsurii. I fell into place beside him and brushed his soul reassuringly. Tetsurii chatted away.

"'God of Death', huh? Maybe we'll nickname you Shinigami. That literally means 'god of death' in Japanese. I'm from California, on Earth, actually, but my grandmother made us all learn it. It didn't do me much good in college, but it comes in handy on occasion. You know, we wouldn't really have tossed you off the ship out here. Howard-- that's our boss, the guy in the loud shirt-- wouldn't ever do that. At worst, you'd have been confined, then tossed off at the next port. Karlov and Nate were just trying to scare you. They're really great guys, once you get to know them. Hell, everyone here is cool. You'll meet them all at dinner in a couple of hours. We all eat together, even the Professor when he's around. First shift runs from..."

Oh dear. This Tetsurii was more of a chatterbox than my little mortal at his worst.

My Duo settled in very quickly. The crew accepted him almost immediately, and Karlov and Nate apologised for frightening him and took him under their wing, treating him like their little brother. Mornings and late afternoon found him doing various odd jobs-- small repairs, running errands, cleaning-- while the midday hours were reserved for lessons with Professor G. The Professor was surprised and very pleased by my little mortal's high intelligence and quickness to learn. Howard was an ever-present father figure, occasionally 'punishing' my Duo for his many pranks (punishment usually entailing an extra hour of study after dinner) and often praising him for his work. 'Play-time' was also enforced, and the basketball games teaming up my Duo, Tetsurii, Nate and Karlov on one side usually left the entire crew rolling with laughter.

Dinner was a time filled with humour, teasing and open affection. Afterward, the off-duty crew pulled out board and card games, unintentionally teaching my Duo strategy and tactics with games like chess, checkers and, believe it or not, poker. At night, we'd retreat to the dreamscape and talk, sometimes about his 'work', sometimes about his crewmates or the Professor, and we always went over his lessons and 'homework'. My little Death seemed to blossom in this environment.

It wasn't long, maybe a few months, when I noticed things were changing. G's lessons began to be more structured and advanced, moving into chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering. Rather than odd jobs, he was now being assigned to specific training: computers with Matthews, an engineer, navigation with a woman named Birra, mobile suit piloting with Karlov, first aid with the medical technician Madon, basic languages with whomever spoke something besides English, simple cooking with Kealoha, and the list goes on. It seemed a bit much for a twelve year old boy, but my Duo absorbed and retained everything. He was thriving under the workload, so I kept my reservations to myself and helped him any way I could. Something was going on, but since my change of employment status, I could no longer skim other minds to see what it was. Oh, well, all would be revealed at the right time.

Yes, I can be patient. If there's one thing you learn when you've been around as long as I have, it's how to be patient.

Besides, it would have been criminal to disturb my human when he was finally discovering something he loved. However well he took to all his tasks, it was flying that truly captured his imagination. Even Karlov was impressed by how naturally and joyfully he took to it, and I let my pride in his abilities override that other part of me that couldn't help wondering why such a young boy was being trained so meticulously.

It should have been obvious! Endless drills, high-speed manoeuvring, reaction timing, flight patterns, and finally purely improvised situations and tactics that left grown men, experienced pilots, with their mouths agape. Yet he seemed so happy, so excited as we talked about it, his ever-thin arms tight around my neck.

What? You'd think that any being who'd lived for eons upon eons wouldn't be affected by all this? Then you've never met my Duo, and you just can't understand. So there.

Two years... it seemed to pass far too quickly. Two years, and we were back at L2, but not back where we started from. Instead, my little Duo was ensconced in a lab, on a secret Sweeper base, standing outside a door waiting for permission to enter. G had left the ship a couple of months earlier to set things up, with orders for my little mortal to be brought to him.

Leaving the Sweepers had been very hard for my charge. After all, they had been his 'family' for two years, and there were more than a few tear-filled eyes as he and Howard boarded the shuttle to take us to the base. Even Howard's eyes were suspiciously moist as he dropped us off. Pulling my Duo into a hug, he murmured, "Good luck, kid. Take care, and if you ever need us, you know how to find us." One more quick squeeze and he reboarded the shuttle to return to the main ship, leaving my Duo in the base's large hangar. A nondescript technician led us to a different hangar and left us standing outside its door.

So here we were, finally going to find out the reason for all his training. The door opened onto a large cavernous room, and I brushed my mortal's soul as he walked in.

"Welcome, my boy, welcome," Professor G called, standing at the end of the room in front of a huge, white sheet-covered object. "You've done well, very well so far, but now it's time to start further, more specialised training. There is much more for you to learn, and not as much time as I'd like, but you'll manage, as you always do. Come here," he said, motioning my charge forward. "Let me give you some basic background. As you know, the Alliance-- or Federation... they're really the same-- has been subjugating the colonies for two decades. I and a few others have been working to put an end to their dominance and free the colonies. All of your previous training has been towards this goal. I am giving you the chance to take the fight directly to them, and this will be the vehicle to do it." He pulled a cord and the white sheet dropped.

Before us was a massive, black and white mobile suit, standing three stories tall. It had an almost sinister visage, and I had to approve of Professor G's design. A vehicle of death, retribution and salvation. Fitting, no?

"This, my boy, is Gundam 02, model XXXG-01D. It is made of gundanium, an alloy that is electrically nonconductive and cannot be detected by radar, and is nearly indestructible. It is equipped with two hyper jammers, making it virtually undetectable by sensors and cameras, as well. This Gundam is designed for short range and close combat, relying on two vulcans, two machine cannons, a buster shield and its main weapon, the beam scythe, making its firepower and performance far surpass that of the Alliance's mass-produced Leo mobile suits. I want you to be its pilot."

The professor placed his hand on my little mortal's shoulder. "The current plan is this: In approximately one year, you and your Gundam will be sent to Earth, disguised as a shooting star. You will then wage guerrilla warfare against the Alliance military. I will send you missions and targets, based upon various information, that will enable us to weaken the Alliance, forcing them to free the colonies. This is our chance, Duo, to make sure no colonist has to live in fear... that no child has to go through what you have; to make sure that everyone has a future to look forward to."

I brushed my Duo's soul comfortingly, feeling his anguish as his memories flooded his thoughts. I knew what he would choose before he did.

"I'll do it," my little mortal whispered, staring at the looming Gundam. "I'll do it for Solo, Sister Helen and Father Maxwell, and for the future."

He turned to Professor G and gave a tiny grin. "So, what more do we need to teach me?"

I was very proud of my little mortal. I brushed his soul again, offering silent support and approval. But if I had known what part of that new training entailed, I may have tried to wrap my Duo up and spirit him away.

Professor G squeezed my charge's shoulder and, just for a moment, I could see a slight sadness cross his face. "The training won't be easy. Fighting, tactics, infiltration, demolitions... we'll want to hone your thieving and stealth skills, computer and hacking skills... and interrogation. My boy," he continued, "not only how to interrogate, but how to withstand it yourself. We'll have to build up your resistance to various drugs... and other techniques the Alliance might use to get information from you. I am not going to lie to you. This is going to be very... unpleasant, for both of us, and dangerous to you. I wish it could be otherwise, and I'll understand if you've changed your mind. I'll figure something else out... and you could go back with Howard..."

You know, I could have cheerfully taken G's soul right there and then. Yes, I AM an overprotective 'parent'! Do you want to make something of it?

My little mortal swallowed and shook his head. "I'll do it. Whatever I have to do... Does the Gundam have a name?"

I was more than just proud of my Duo. I could feel his fear and trepidation like a tangible thing, yet he pushed it down and actively chose to do what he had to. Not many men could do that, much less fourteen year old boys.

Professor G smiled and shook his head. "No, it doesn't. The pilot and the machine are partners. The pilot should name it."

Duo nodded, once again staring at the looming machine. "It's meant to bring death and destruction to our enemies... and it carries a scythe... It's Deathscythe..."

The professor nodded and cleared his throat. "Deathscythe it is. Now let's get you settled. We won't begin your training until tomorrow, so dinner, then get some sleep."

Dinner was a quiet affair, and we retired to his room once it was over. Sleep came quickly to my little mortal and we were soon in his dreamscape. I wrapped my arms around him and spoke first. 'Are you sure, Little Death?'

He took a deep breath and nodded. 'I have to do it. I just have to--'

'Hush, little one, I understand,' I soothed. 'I may not like it, but I understand. We'll get through it, like we always do.' There was silence between us, then he changed the subject.

'Death... I was just wondering. You told me you couldn't be 'real' outside my dreamscape... but...' He hesitated and I nudged him to continue. 'What if... do you think... maybe through Deathscythe you could be sort of real? It could be like an anchor. You wouldn't have to fight to stay physical... or fight someone else's soul for possession of the body, right?'

I blinked, stunned. Was he right? Was it possible? Was the Gundam enough of an anchor to give us mental contact while he was awake? If so, the possibilities were--

'Well?' he asked again, tugging on my braid impatiently. 'What do you think?'

I removed my braid from his hand and tickled his nose with it. 'I honestly don't know. But I suppose it's possible. We can try tomorrow when you get a look in the cockpit.'

My Duo nodded, cuddling closer. 'I was thinking... if it does work... and since I haven't really given you a name... you'd be Deathscythe, right? I mean, I could call you that. And everyone would just think I talk to my Gundam, which isn't so odd since lots of people talk to their suits. I mean, Howard talks to his ships, even, and Karlov ALWAYS talked to his suit, so nobody would really think it was strange--'

Yes, my Duo had the tendency to chatter on when he was nervous or upset. That still hasn't changed.

I placed my hand over his mouth and gave him a gentle shake. 'Duo, how you do run on. If it does work, then I will be Deathscythe, if that's what you want. Silly little mortal.'

He giggled. 'I'm not a little mortal, remember? I'm your Little Death. So there.' He sighed and relaxed more. 'Will you tell me more about the gods? More fables and myths?'

Of course I told him stories through the night. Could you say no to that?

The next morning he woke early, quickly dressing and eating breakfast, and met Professor G in the hangar. Tests of all sorts were run on my little mortal and the professor gave him inoculations against every disease known to man. His poor arms looked like pincushions by lunch time. To give him credit, G did explain each one to my Duo, and informed him of all the results. He also kept up a running conversation, trying to keep my mortal's mind occupied. Not that it truly helped when he told the poor boy that some of the shots had to go into the hip. I honestly thought he might slap the old man for even suggesting it, but in the end, my Duo simply blushed bright red and let G do as he pleased.

"Well, my boy, your overall health is quite good, considering your lack of nutrients and medical attention as a child. We'll need to work on your stamina and endurance, of course, and a strong course of vitamins and minerals should strengthen any weaknesses in your system we do find. Unfortunately, your amazingly high metabolic rate will make it difficult at times for you to gain weight, and the lack of nutrition during the earlier stages of your development seems to have stunted your growth. I'm sorry, boy, but I doubt you'll ever top 5 foot 7 or 8 inches. On the plus side, you'll probably never have to worry about being overweight, though it'll take quite a bit of high calorie food to keep you going at optimum levels."

"Doc, when I was ten I didn't think I'd live to see fourteen. All things considered, I can deal with being short. Besides, it's easier to sneak and steal when you're short! There's less of me to notice," my Duo chuckled.

Personally, I was slightly affronted by his comment. As if I'd have let him die. Hmpf. Kids these days, no faith.

"Your metabolic rate has another advantage, as well," the professor continued. "In the event you are ever captured and drugged, your body will throw off the effects much more rapidly than the average human... possibly as much as three or four times as fast, once we get you acclimated to the more common types used for interrogation. Another drawback, however, will be if you are ever ill or injured, then any anaesthetic or pain killers will also be metabolised at an advanced rate..."

"Doc, Doc, I get the picture. My body is going to burn everything faster than regular people, right? Which could be good or bad, depending on what's going on at the time. Is that about it?"

"Yes, yes, that's it. Sorry, boy, I do tend to get caught up occasionally. I think we're done here, for now. Go get some lunch, then meet me in the hangar at 1300 hours and we'll get you introduced to Deathscythe."

I had to tickle my Duo's soul at that comment. He was intimately acquainted with 'Deathscythe', after all.

Lunch went by in a blur for me. I spent the time trying to figure out how I could anchor my consciousness in the machine. By the time we were walking to the hangar, I had come to no conclusions. And what if it did work, then I couldn't get back out? Now that could be a sticky situation. Of course, as Minions, we could divide our consciousness, but since my new employment, many things had changed. Before my Duo, I could also read anyone's soul, see into anyone's mind... now I could only read and see into his. I looked at the machine and forced myself to stop worrying about it. What would happen would happen and we'd deal with it when it did. Que sera, sera, as the Spanish would say.

While Professor G went over every inch of the machine with my mortal, I tried to thread my way through the various parts and circuits, trying to find whatever it was that would allow this plan to work. I wasn't having much luck and frustration was setting in.

You know, I never really experienced frustration until my Duo came along. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Anyway, I was still feeling around, when my Duo turned the computer systems on in the machine, and my whole world flipped around. I felt like I was being sucked into something. I made some mental noise--

Fine, I shrieked like a frightened woman. Satisfied?

I mentally shrieked, saw my mortal wince and was abruptly centred in the machine's computer systems. Very interesting. I could 'feel' all the mechanical parts. I could 'see' through the various sensors. Everything the machine saw, felt or sensed, I could as well. It was like I now had a physical body outside the dreamscape. Well, that was the plan after all, and it seemed to have worked. That was one bridge crossed. I brushed my Duo's soul and put a message on his computer screen:

IT WORKED, LITTLE MORTAL. 'MORS EX MACHINA'
NOW, CONSCIOUSLY OPEN YOUR MIND TO ME

I felt a barrier in his mind drop, and 'heard' an anxious 'Death?'

'Yes, Little One, it seems to have been successful. Exactly how successful remains to be seen. Though, I must admit, this is quite fascinating... you may wish to use a higher amp fuse for circuit RK4...'

My mortal laughed out loud, gaining a sharp look from the professor, but we buckled down, both becoming intimately acquainted with the machine.

Over the next few days, I settled into my existence as Deathscythe. We had found, that first night, that once the machine was shut down, I was free. Of course, whenever the machine was started up, I was sucked back in-- a most disconcerting sensation-- but I figured I'd adjust with time. We quickly realised the advantages of my inhabiting the main systems. I could analyse situations faster than the computer, I could help with any split-second decision making, I was another set of eyes... You get the idea.

I could also help him to understand some concepts the professor introduced on the spot. And the advantage that I could check every system, line and mechanical part, and tell him exactly what and where the problem was would prove to be invaluable.

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