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Return to Innocence
by Michael Mendoza


   The crowd wound about the Borders Book and Music store like a jittery snake. Frances Mikoney was promoting her new book and she had attracted fans from all over the area. Some were cracking the spines of their freshly-bought copies of "The Return of Innocence", others were talking about Mikoney's latest interview in The New Yorker, and still others were standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of the acclaimed author.
   One person stood out from the fidgeting masses. Nyla Shapire held her well-worn copy of "The Rosemaiden" tightly to her chest. This was the first time in a week that she'd been out of her house, and she was hardly comfortable in such crowded surroundings. Nyla kept her eyes focused on the base of the neck of the elderly man before her. Just in case an old high school classmate or a friend of her mom was in the bookstore, she didn't want to risk making eye contact and being drawn into polite conversation. She could just feel their judging eyes searing onto her flesh.
   Time flew by quickly, as it usually did nowadays, and Nyla reached the front of the line. Frances Mikoney sat before her, dressed plainly in jeans, tennis shoes and a Boston College sweatshirt.
   "Well, here's a book I haven't seen in a while!" joked the ebullient middle-aged author.
   Nyla cracked the faintest whisper of a smile as she handed her book to Frances. "It was a gift from my sister."
   While Frances signed away, Nyla opened her mouth but said nothing. Then she blurted out, "Will you ever write a sequel to 'Rosemaiden'?"
   Frances surprised Nyla with a hearty laugh. "Oh no, no. Don't get me wrong. Rosemaiden was dear to my heart, but I have to confess, I never meant to publish it."
   Nyla gave her a puzzled look.
   "Oh, it's true," continued Frances. "Rosemaiden started out as poems in my private journal. I turned them into my first novel only at the insistence of my agent. Who would have known that my adolescent warbling would break me into the literary field?"
   Nyla stood for a second like an orator who had forgotten her lines. Then she took "The Rosemaiden" back and walked out.


   The Emissary was bored. It sat in the passenger seat behind Nyla as she drove home. Looking at her zombie eyes, the Emissary decided that it could learn nothing more from her.
   For the past year, it had been pulling the strings of Nyla's psyche in a small experiment to further understand the emotions of Earthers. The last time it used its psionic powers on her, it presented itself to her as The Nothing Man while she lay in a coma which it had induced. It isolated her notion of self-doubt and suppressed her other feelings during the following six months.
   After Nyla woke up, the Nothing Man relinquished direct emotional control of her. Yet her spiritual malaise remained just as strong without psionic reinforcement. The Nothing Man was confident in the knowledge that its master, the Enemy, would find the insight gleamed from this experiment useful.
   But Nyla's usefulness was at an end. She barely registered any emotional output at all. The Nothing Man decided to let Nyla finish her drive home, and then it would be time for the experiment to conclude.


   Soon after their Hong Kong adventure last December, Mitsuko Hasegawa was unable to contact Nyla with his Recharger. The Recharger told him that Nyla failed to maintain regular contact with her Recharger, so it left her and found another Patroller in England.
   Since then, Mitsuko's been preparing for a brutal shadow war with his brother Sekino. Sekino was powerful and ruthless, and the few who have survived his wrath were now hopelessly insane. According to these survivors, Sekino had a Gauntlet. Mitsuko didn't believe them, but he had no delusions. He didn't expect to survive his inevitable conflict with his brother. While he still had the chance, he wanted to find his American friend Nyla Shapire and find out what happened to her.
   Mitsuko had flown to Nyla's old home in Nice, France. Her old housemates were wary of the strange Japanese man who appeared on their doorstep. After he showed his Gauntlet, they told him that Nyla was alive and back in America. Mitsuko was troubled by his inability to get any other information about Nyla's welfare.
   And now Mitsuko Hasegawa was ringing the doorbell to Nyla's home. He hadn't given much thought to how Nyla might react to his surprise visit. Perhaps it would have been more proper for him to call beforehand.
   As Nyla opened the door, Mitsuko created a dozen-roses construct and smiled. "Hello, Nyla. I'm afraid these will dissipate within a few days, but at least you don't need to keep them in water."
   "M- Mitsuko? What are doing here? I mean, I mean hi."
   Mitsuko was taken aback by Nyla's harrowed appearance. She was practically hiding behind the front door, like she was ashamed. Mitsuko felt ashamed too. He shouldn't have dropped by without announcing himself. Nyla must hate him for intruding like this.
   And what was he thinking coming here in the first place? While he was chasing after American girls, his brother was a rabid wolf tearing a criminal empire out of the throat of Nippon. Mitsuko's pulse quickened. He must give up his shameful pursuits and return to his allies before they abandon all faith in his honor.
   The Patroller stumbled. Why was he so troubled now, after flying across the globe? This sudden breach of confidence wasn't like him. In fact, he'd been warned by other Patrollers about such drastic bouts of fear. Instinctively, Mitsuko dissolved his roses and summoned up a red, crystal-like field which covered his entire body.
   The solid energy field protected Mitsuko from the full effect of the power influencing his mind. His unnatural fear subsided, and he could now see what was responsible. It was a dark figure behind Nyla, a space of utter emptiness defined in the shape of a man.
   The Nothing Man.


   A Patroller was the last thing the Nothing Man expected. It had assumed that its brother in Japan would have kept Mitsuko Hasegawa, the only Patroller with whom Nyla had significant contact, too preoccupied to seek out its test subject.
   But Mitsuko was here, and his energy field counteracted the Emissary's ability to keep itself invisible in his mind. So it dropped its psionic cloak and came into plain view.
   Mitsuko knew this would be a brutal fight, so he used his Gauntlet to generate a suit of armor around him. It consisted of an elaborate array of interlocking ruby plates. The helmet which topped the armor evoked the image of a howling wolf. Mitsuko designed the construct for a movie he never filmed.
   "What are you doing?!" Nyla shouted. Then she turned around and saw the Nothing Man. It was the first time she had ever seen it in the waking world. On many sleepless nights, Nyla had pleaded for the Nothing Man to return and take her back to its dreamworld. But now that it had answered her summons, she felt only terror.
   The Nothing Man hit Nyla with a psionic blast. She crumbled and fell upon the foyer's marble floor. Her eyes were still wide open in fear and a trickle of saliva dripped from her mouth.
   Mitsuko flung himself at the Nothing Man and knocked it through the walls with a force field-enhanced kick.
   The Emissary just laughed.


   In a blinding moment, reality changed. Nyla had been taken from her home into the quiet twilight place of her coma. The gray stretching fields of the Nothing Man, which had held her in refuge. She was running up the same hill she was climbing just before her previous expulsion from her coma. But the circumstances were different. There was no Rosemaiden in the cloud-infested skies to follow this time.
   Instead, she was the one being pursued. Hunting her down was a vile monstrosity that lived only in the ghost stories Nyla's older sister told her when she was a child. She remembered its description as if Lisa were recounting the story now.
   "Chasing after her was an unspeakably alien beast. The massive creature propelled itself with its four clawed limbs. It had a gaping mouth where its back should have been, with row after row of razor-sharp teeth. And mounted on its powerful shoulders was the head of an innocent babe. What, this isn't too scary for you. Is it, little parrot?"
   "Playtime's over, little hero," the monster called out. "You wanted a release from the big bad world, and now I'm giving it to you."
   Over the gravel-rough voice of the beast, Nyla could hear the shrieking cries of the baby. Nyla was exhausted, but she pushed on. With each faltering step, the brittle petals of withering roses fell apart under her feet, but she didn't feel the sting of their thorns.
   Nyla reached the end of the cliff. Gasping for air, she peered over the ledge. There was nothing below her but an all-ending void identical in its darkness to the Emissary's body. Nyla's toes stuck out past the ledge. Leaping here would be a good death, far more preferable than being torn asunder by a creature out of her childhood nightmares.
   But Nyla's leapt into the unknown once too many times. The emptiness below her was too frightening, even now. She turned around with a calm, cold resolve.
   The scaly beast caught up with her. Bloody saliva dripped down its sides from its gigantic mouth. As it crouched into a hunter's stance, its infant head kept crying.


   Mitsuko thought about flying Nyla to the hospital, but he knew that whatever's stricken her wouldn't end until this Emissary was destroyed. He only hoped that Nyla, who was twitching on the floor, could hang on long enough.
   He created a giant hand construct to grab the Emissary. That fist began applying pressure to crush the Nothing Man. Mitsuko squeezed his own fist as he mustered up this willpower.
   His concentration was interrupted by a swift biting pain in his left arm. When Mitsuko saw his severed left arm on the floor, his concentration was pretty much broken.
   Mitsuko cried out and held his left shoulder with his Gauntlet-generated arm. His blood gushed forth between the thick fingers of his false hand. He folded over in shock. How could the Emissary have struck at him like this?
   "Not the Emissary, you pathetic traitor."
   Mitsuko knew that shrill, arrogant voice. Looking up, he saw a tall man dressed in an expensive business suit. His angular face was damp with the sweat of madness. His contemptuous scowl was as cold as a winter's blade.
   "Brother?" Mitsuko cried.
   "Wrong!" Sekino Hasegawa smacked his brother at the base of his neck with the side of his katana.
   Mitsuko lost his balance and his bearings. Was he in America or the Tokyo penthouse where Sekino severed his right arm after a ferocious argument? His surroundings blurred, but Sekino he could see clearly. He held a katana in his gloved right hand. But it wasn't a glove that Sekino wore.
   It was a Gauntlet, black instead of silver. The rumors were true. Sekino Hasegawa, the Winter's Blade, had a corrupted Gauntlet.
   Sekino's katana shifted shape and grew a dark serpent's head. "I'm disappointed in you," he taunted. "All this time and you couldn't find me. Or wouldn't find me. Instead, you're here in Yankeeland. You spend so much time abroad, you're practically gaijin."
   Mitsuko winced at the bite of his brother's words. He tried to ignore them. None of this was real. Not the salty smell of the blood in which he lay, not the serpent hissing at his neck. It was just the Emissary's mind game. If Sekino were really here, if Mitsuko had really lost his arm, he would have lost contact with his Gauntlet. Yet his armor remained intact.
   Still, the pain felt real. Not just the pain of his illusory wound, but the presence of the Emissary in his mind, dragging out his deepest fears into the light of day. He had to rise above the violation. He feared that Nyla didn't stand a chance without him.


   Above Nyla, the winds died down and the clouds hovered. They broke apart and revealed an empty starless sky. The same inky darkness in the sky and beyond the cliff also swallowed the hillside up which Nyla had fled. Quite literally, it was the end of the world.
   Nyla hung passively in the grip of the beast's thick front limbs. It sat on its hind legs and raised Nyla over its hungering jaws. The world grew silent and oblivion was a concrete reality, not just a distant longing.
   Nyla's breathing and even her heartbeat slowed, and a strange synchronicity with the surrounding emptiness welled inside her. As absurd as it seemed, she felt a companionship with that emptiness. It reminded her of the connection she used to feel when she envisioned the alternate dimension from which the Patrol's Rechargers drew their energy. At that nonending moment, Oblivion and Infinity were one and the same, and Nyla felt a glimmer of peace. Peace and hope.
   Hope. Nyla hoped that her mother wouldn't mourn her death too long. She still missed her husband, and the loss of her last daughter would hit her hard. Maybe now she and Dr. Valenti would finally get together again. He would be so good for her.
   Nyla hoped that Lexi would marry her four-year boyfriend and go on to design the next seven Wonders of the World. Lexi was a bedrock of maturity and determination, and she would certainly become the successful architect she wanted to be.
   Nyla also hoped that her other close friend Jen would set the modeling world on fire with her beauty and charm. She and Jen didn't always get along, but Jen's vibrancy buoyed Nyla's spirit on more occasions than she could count.
   Finally, Nyla hoped that Mitsuko would escape the Nothing Man, and that the Patrol would bring about Civilization on Earth. She still cared for her fellow Earthers, even if she had resigned herself to her own end.
   The beast hesitated. Actually, the Nothing Man hesitated. The beast was just Nyla's visualization of the Emissary's psionic assault. The Emissary was confused by Nyla's emotional response. She was on the verge of death and she should have been terrified. Instead, she was generating a fierce torrent of love.
   Nyla had piqued its curiosity. She wouldn't succumb to its command, even though her previous behavior indicated that she would welcome death once it gave her that final push. It considered keeping her alive for further observation, but her struggling annoyed it. The Emissary decided to divert more of its energy to crush her spirit.


   Mitsuko breathed deeply and closed his eyes, just as Sekino raised his serpent blade for the final blow. He made a quiet place of his mind, quiet except for his promise to defeat fear and hatred. He ignored his senses and trusted the reality which his senses failed to perceive. When Mitsuko opened his eyes again, his left arm was restored. Or to be more accurate, his mind was restored.
   The Sekino-illusion was still present, spouting insults and threats, but Mitsuko paid them no heed. He would not let the Emissary use his past against him. A life was at stake, and Mitsuko would not fail her.
   Mitsuko looked for the Nothing Man, and found it standing over Nyla. It had apparently forgotten all about him. Mitsuko took full advantage of that neglect. He decided to use the armor's built-in weapons system this time. He fired the barbed harpoon lines from his armored hands.
   At numerous points they pierced the Emissary. Pain overwhelmed the Nothing Man. The harpoons drilled throughout its body, slowly shredding the dark matter which comprised it. They crossed and twisted amongst one another inside the Emissary. The half-dozen drills broke the surface of the its body once again, on the side facing away from Mitsuko.
   The Sekino-illusion faded like a TV channel after its 2 AM signoff. And Mitsuko heard a sound which chilled his soul.
   The screeching cry of an Emissary.


   In the depths of Nyla's mind, she broke free from the beast. As the Nothing Man writhed against the power of Mitsuko's Gauntlet, so too did the monster weaken. It slumped down onto the ground. The only sound it made came from the crying baby's head on its shoulders.
   Nyla was flush with the regret one usually feels during a hangover. How could she have willingly surrendered herself to the Nothing Man like that? All this time, she had just taken it for granted that he had her best interests at heart. When it told her that she simply had no place among the living. The words it whispered during her coma were so comforting, so persuasive that she didn't even question the Nothing Man's existence or her sanity.
   It had brought out the worst in her, or had it simply taken advantage of her own self-abasement? Either way, she had almost lost everyone dear to her just because of her weak sense of confidence. And why? Because she couldn't accept her shortcomings? Because she didn't have the patience to learn about life through trial-and-error like everybody else? Because the sting of failure and ignorance deterred her from ever trying anything?

   Nyla scowled at the baby's head. It had been wailing for what must have been an eternity. The sound grated against Nyla even more than her newfound self-awareness. Everything was just so maddening...
   "Shut up! Fucking shut up already!" Enough crying. Enough tears. Nyla stood up and stumbled toward the beast. "It's over! I've beaten you!" She placed her trembling hands over either side of the baby's head. And she squeezed.
   And pulled. Nyla planted her feet against the beast and leaned backward. The baby's head slid slowly out of the carcass. The squishy sound nauseated Nyla, but she continued her struggle. The hole at which the head was grafted widened. Shoulders popped out, and then a pudgy little body. There was an entire baby lodged inside the beast.
   Nyla finally pulled the baby free and her momentum threw her onto the ground. The infant lay silently in her arms. Nyla looked into her sleepy eyes and found a moment of perfect beauty.


   The Nothing Man tried to strengthen the Sekino-illusion within his enemy's mind, but the battle was over. With a thought, Mitsuko reeled back the harpoons which pierced the Emissary. They violently shredded the Nothing Man on the way back. It shattered, and then simply ceased to be.
   Mitsuko's head throbbed from the strain he put into the Emissary's destruction. He ran to Nyla, hoping that he wasn't too late. He saw her curled up by the open doorway. Tears trailed down her face and anointed her quiet smile.
   "Mitsuko," she said weakly. "It's so good to see you."


   After a quick trip to the hospital and a few hours explaining to her mother what had happened, Nyla listened to Mitsuko explain what had attacked her. In her brief time as a Patroller, she had never heard of the Emissaries. Over dinner, he related everything he had learned from the reports issued out by the Terra Patrol.
   After dinner, Nyla and Mitsuko sat out on her patio, where he told her about the impending war against his brother. He also told her about the vision the Nothing Man presented him.
   "He has a corrupted Gauntlet," Mitsuko said. "I am almost certain of it. If he has the power of a Patroller without its limitations, he will be ten times deadlier than he has ever been before. That is why I can't stay."
   Nyla sighed. "I can accept that. But why go alone? Why not call in the Terra Patrol?"
   "Because I do not want this to be a fight. That is why I have kept my allies from striking first. I have to try to reason this with him. Just once."
   "Well, if I've learned anything, nobody is irredeemable."
   "Perhaps, but that is irrelevant. Sekino is my brother. After all he has taken from me, I still have to reach out to him, and try to redeem him. I have to go now."
   "Okay, Mitsuko. You know where to get in touch with me. Do so, okay?"
   "Of course." They exchanged one final hug, and then he was gone.


   Now that Nyla's mind was free from the Nothing Man's presence, she could fully examine her experience with the Emissary. The existence of the Emissaries and the Enemy which they served was still difficult to accept, even now. A few years ago, she would have dismissed the notion as an outward projection of humanity's own flaws. But was it such an outlandish notion in a world of real-life superheroes and hyper-advanced technology?
   And a few weeks ago, the Enemy would have frightened her into a panic. What hope would one mortal have when evil incarnate existed in a single entity devoted to exterminating her entire race? Yet she had withstood a direct assault from its handmaidens and still lived.
   When the Nothing Man first introduced itself to her during her coma, she thought it had looked familiar. Now she remembered that it had been a recurring figure in her dreams even before she joined the Patrol. In fact, Nyla's earliest memory of the Nothing Man was around the time of her breakdown last year. She was never able to understand why she fell apart then. Could that have been the Nothing Man's handiwork? The possibility that an alien force could have hijacked her life galled her.
   But she had been through too much, and almost lost too much, to obsess over it. As she came down from this year-long journey through possession and terror, her priority was recapturing and understanding that perfect moment she lived just before the Nothing Man's destruction. Nyla would share that knowledge with the world, and even though she was no longer a Patroller, she would do her best to bring Earth closer to Civilization.


This has been a Power Rolers Production.

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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Michael Mendoza