~ Spyral 9 ~
Chapter 24: Exterior/Interior
Tazuna brushed away his sweat as he looked upwards at the face of the Gear he was coating. The orange one was definitely a fine, strong Gear – in fact, he really wanted to shake the hands of the one who created it – but there were certain mysterious parts about its inner workings that he couldn't get his mind on. There were parts here and there that all Gears used, and there were other parts that seemed completely unfamiliar in the depths of the Gear's cavity.
He could ruin this thing from the inside, but he didn't want to. Even if he was ordered to, he wouldn't be able to do it. It wasn't something he wanted to do.
"Hey, you done yet?" asked a bright voice from beside him.
"Soon, you brat!" cried Tazuna, brushing his hair as he looked back. The young pilot was sitting on a pipe to the side, apparently having gotten there from the catwalks. What a daredevil. "It's not easy doing stuff like this, you know! If I rush this you're going to die by water pressure!"
"Don't worry, I have faith in your work!"
"Yeah, well, thanks for that," said Tazuna in a jokingly-bitter voice. A small pain flared up in his chest as he imagined the boy's face crushed under Zabuza's foot, but he let it pass. It was hard, definitely a lot harder than he had expected to continue this facade, but he would do it. He had no choice. "You want to get me something to drink since you're so obviously free?"
"Fine, whaddya want?" asked Naruto.
"Something cold," said the Gear mechanic as he continued applying the parts. Although this Gear was already pretty much waterproof, it was not completely suited to deep water. Its armour had weak points here and there that would certainly get crushed by water pressure once deep enough. "You guys got any iced tea?"
"Naw, I hate that stuff. Too bitter. Bring me some red tea."
"Sure thing, pops."
Naruto bounded from the pipes to land on the catwalk, and then ran out of the hangar through a door to the side but not before waving goodbye. Tazuna smiled at the back of the boy, trying hard to repress thoughts that would surely destroy him.
He had pegged the kid as an obedient pilot type before, but that was probably simply due to him being somebody they had to get a job from. He had been quite polite, but now he could see that he usually wasn't really like that. Uzumaki Naruto had quite the brash streak, although he did hide it quite well, and once you got to know him a little he was quite comfortable to be around.
Another image of despair came to him, and he struggled to repress it.
He didn't know how long he could keep this up.
Umino Iruka called the rest of his squad over silently with a hand gesture from his Gear, the Orca. Although not completely suited to underwater combat like the Ryuujin, the Orca was nevertheless suitable for both battle on land and water, and deadly at both.
Mist-made Gears were nearly all amphibious, or at least capable of battle in water in some way. The easiest way to recognize them would be through their streamlined and often blue appearance, and the graceful way they ascended and descended through the waters. There was a reason all of the best Mist pilots were known swimmers, after all.
Tazuna had sent them the coordinates of the enemy vessel as soon as he had located it, and it had been a little over three hours ago. That meant that he had finished coating the first Gear, and chances were he was working on the second. Intel also indicated that the pilot of the blue Gear that had given them the most trouble in prior engagements was knocked out, and thus the blue Gear was no problem.
The first one coated was the orange one, so that was no problem. Then he was working on the blue one now. They would wait until he got into the middle of working on the third one, during when the Gear would be partially disassembled and unprepared for sortie. That way, they would only have one Gear to deal with.
Tazuna had also managed to sneak a virus into the operating system without their notice, apparently. That would keep the enemy vessel grounded, with no hope of escape. Three pilots trained to fight side by side with an escape route they had failed against.
But one pilot with a disabled ship they could take.
They gripped their arms.
They hadn't even felt when the attack started. Barrage after barrage of ammunition pounded the sides of the ship, and it began to rock. Kakashi had ordered Mae and Ushiro to lift off as soon as possible, but it hadn't been working. Had the wing of the ship been damaged more than he had expected? But this wasn't the time to worry about such things.
Instantly, he had called Naruto to sortie, and he had done so; getting into the hangar, and then dropping out the bottom. He didn't know about the kid's condition, being sent out like this, but there was nothing for it. Either Naruto went out there and fought, or they all died as the barrage dented the walls. He couldn't even activate Seimei... it was like something was attacking the systems.
"What the hell is going on?" cried out Kakashi as explosions resounded through the bridge. These ones were dull, and came from somewhere outside. It was a good thing that he had ordered the constant use of shields, otherwise it would be their main body that was being damaged right now.
"I'm picking up signals on the radar… We've got eight… nine. Ten!" cried Ushiro as he pounded furiously on the terminal in front of him. "It looks like we've got ten hostiles right outside, sir! What are we going to do?"
"Ten hostiles?" asked Kakashi. "More than I expected. Sakura's Gear is still in the middle of coating, right? That means we can't count on her support right now, nor Sasuke's since he's in the middle of his coma. Naruto wouldn't be able to take them alone… Ushiro, lift-off! They can't reach us in the sky."
Ushiro nodded, and returned to his quickly typing. Thin fingers moved faster than they should've been able to, although no more than thirty seconds passed before the boy threw his headset aside in frustration as every attempt to access the lift-off mechanism of the UWS Yggdrasil ended in failure.
"Sir, we can't! The lift-off function has been disabled!"
Kakashi narrowed his eyes. How could it be possible? It shouldn't. He routinely made personal checks of the Yggdrasil's systems to make sure it was running at top speed and efficiency all the time; it was unthinkable for he to have missed something, especially something as important as the lift-off mechanism. Not to mention the timing was a little off; to have it malfunction right in the middle of an enemy attack.
There was no time for speculation, however. Now was the time for action.
"Keep control, Ushiro," said Kakashi. "Bring up all the shields to the max. If we don't do that, we're not going to survive another barrage. I estimated that even if we do that, however, we'll have thirty minutes max before their fire breaks through. Mae, where is Naruto?"
"In the hangar, I believe," said Mae. "He's with Tazuna-san, Sakura-san, and Chouji-san right now."
"Open a direct link to the hangar," ordered KAkashi.
"Naruto, are you in there? If you are, then listen to me right now and listen well! Get into your Gear at once and prepare to sortie!"
Naruto looked upwards as the voice rang through the intercom. Another tremor shot through the cold steel ground, and he could feel himself lose balance. Chouji had fallen on his butt after the first round, and Sakura was crouching to prevent herself from losing balance and hurting herself. Tazuna seemed pretty much fine, although he had banged his head against the leg of the Red Cherry slightly.
"What's going on? Sortie?" asked Naruto as he looked at Sakura. He had no way of communicating with the bridge right now, so she was closest he could get to for answers. "What the hey—"
He got his answer from Chouji, who was already running up the stairs to the second floor of the hangar, where the operation room was.
"Get in your Gear! It's time to deploy!"
"Do what he says, Naruto," cried out Sakura. Although her tone was tough there was worry in her eyes. "Go, get into your Gear! Whatever threat it is we're facing right now, only you can stop it!"
Naruto looked at her for a second, before ridding himself of hesitation and listening to orders. Running up the stairs two steps at a time, he reached the top, passing the door to the operation room and running down the catwalks that lead to his Gear. Another tremor shook the hangar, although it didn't affect him.
It was urgent. The Yggdrasil needed him, and all of the people on board needed him. It reminded him of the first time that he got into the Firefox, during that attack on Tiltstone which seemed like so long ago now.
Sakura, on the ground, looked up with worry.
Whatever it was, if it was this urgent and surprising, something was wrong. She was worried about his safety, considering the fact that both Sasuke and her were out of commission at the moment. Whatever it was that Naruto was going to be facing, he would be doing it by himself. The only battles that he had previously taken part in alone had been the debut fight against the Devil Brigadiers, and they had been drugged and dying…
"Naruto! The safety of Yggdrasil is top-priority… But your survival is too! Never forget that!"
"Don't worry about it, Sakura-chan!" grinned Naruto. "I'll definitely come back alive. It's the promise of a lifetime!"
Their eyes met for a second, before Naruto continued on his way.
Sakura grimaced. Until the Red Cherry was finished, he had to hold out.
The blonde boy jumped into the cockpit the moment the hatch opened, throwing himself onto the seat which formed around his body, creating a sort of nice seal. He could feel the Neural-Net connect to his body, as tiny pinpricks shot up his limbs and torso. A new addition, a headset, wrapped itself around his ears and formed a holographic visor in front of his eyes.
After a quickly boot-up screen containing the KAM logo, the hangar appeared in front of his eyes. The sensory systems had connected, and now he was good to go. Two small panels appeared to his left, one which connected to the bridge and one that connected to the operation room.
"Naruto-kun, how are you holding up?"
"Just fine, Kakashi-senchou!"
"Then we have no time to waste. Prepare for deployment immediately," ordered Kakashi. "Take care, however. Right outside the ship are ten hostile units, which we believe are connected with the previous attack. Your orders are to engage them, and delay them as long as you can so that Sakura can get her Gear in working conditions. Is that clear?"
"Alright. Chouji, this is up to you."
"Understood, senchou. Preparing for deployment: Three… two… one… Go!"
The hatch underneath the orange Gear broke open, and Naruto felt the thrill of true deployment for the first time. He dropped down, as though through a trap-door, and hit the ground running.
The battle was starting.
He would protect them all.
Naruto grit his teeth. This time he carried more than just a pistol to fight... He brought along an assault rifle too, a bit stronger than Sakura's recommendation but lacking accuracy. He would need all the firepower he had to fight against his opponents this time, especially considering the fact that he was apparently outnumbered ten to one.
He could feel bullets faster than the eye could follow skim his metallic head. Dread filled his veins. Even though the bullets wouldn't do much damage against his metallic armour, there was no question about the pain. Clicking his trigger, he let out a burst of spray fire, hoping to God that he hit something.
Peeking over the mound he was hiding behind, he smiled as he realized he had shattered the visor of one of the Gears. From his lessons in Gear mechanics given by Sakura, he knew that he had effectively disabled his opponent's optical receptors, which meant that he was effectively blind. That was one down, and nine to go. He retreated behind the mound once more as another wave of ammunition came by, striking at various parts of his mechanical body that he let out from behind the mound.
Goddammit... Sakura's Gear, the Red Cherry, had been in the middle of coating, so she was effectively out of the battle until Tazuna could put it back together again. Sasuke was knocked out, so in effect he was the only member of his crew who was combat-ready. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it was something he would have to survive through.
Turning once more, he gave another burst of fire, this time aiming carefully. The bullets skimmed by another Gear's face, which was actually pretty good for him considering his aim. The enemy Gears apparently did not care much for cover; they had him outnumbered too much to give a damn about small things like that. They were trying to overwhelm him with firepower and numbers, and he knew it was working. With the speed they were moving towards the Yggdrasil, it was only a matter of time they surrounded him and filled him with holes. He had to do something fast.
God, he really wished he had a Power right then.
And so, he did something that they definitely wouldn't expect. Rolling out the side of the mound, he stepped up and charged the rogue Gears with his assault rifle, firing all the way. Obviously they hadn't been prepared for such a tactic, and their moment of hesitation cost them. By the time they returned fire Naruto was already on the ground and in a better strategic position, returning fire without putting himself in the line of danger.
His opponents were smartening up, Naruto realized. He had taken out that one Gear out earlier by luck... These guys were on a different level compared to him. They were trained, he was not. Honestly...
He was getting angry, and a little scared.
Now was the time, he wouldn't get another chance. Although he regretted that he couldn't spend any longer putting this off, Tazuna knew that there would be no second chances if he didn't do it.
Of the three people in the room at that moment, only one had expected it when Tazuna turned around and pulled a gun on them the moment he had finished reassembling the Red Cherry. Sakura's exclamation of joy had been caught in her throat, and her eyes widened as she stared down the barrel of the gun. Chouji gaped as one of the Gear mechanics he held in respect above all else threatened his crewmate with a weapon that spoke volumes about his intent.
"I'm sorry about this, jou-chan," said Tazuna, and his voice was truly tinged with regret. He flicked his finger towards the wall. "But you're going to have to sit this one out. I've got orders, and if I disobey bad things are going to happen. You too, boy."
They did as they were told, their hands in the air. Sakura didn't have her standard issue military pistol with her, although even if she did chances were it wasn't going to save them in this situation. They stood against the wall, Tazuna's pistol on their bodies at all moments.
"Sit now, can't have you two making any sudden movements," said the old man with a glint in his eye. "And turn yourselves towards the wall. I'm not kidding around here."
Once more they complied with his orders, not finding anything they could do about it. Sakura bit her lips, fighting down the temptation to do something rash. Right now, if she panicked, there was a high chance that Tazuna would carry out his threats and turn both her and Chouji into smears on the wall. This was a bad situation, one they couldn't get out of.
"Why are you doing this, Tazuna-san?!" cried Chouji. Apparently the Tazuna's betrayal had hit him a little harder than she had expected, though Sakura, especially if he was willing to risk his life by talking in a situation like this.
"Don't call me san," said Tazuna jokingly, although there wasn't the slightest bit of humour in his voice now. "I'm sorry, but I don't deserve your respect. As for reasons... Well, what I'm doing is trading your life for the life of my daughter and her husband. I'm sorry it had to come to this. Hey now, jou-chan, I told you not to move."
A bullet grazed her cheek and slammed into the wall of the hangar as Sakura shifted her arms. She cursed mentally, and tried to keep herself from panicking all over again. The shock had been a little more than she had expected.
"I told you already, I'm serious. Next time you do something weird, this bullet goes through your head. I don't want to do it, but it's not my choice now."
There had to be something that they could do, though the pink-haired pilot desperately to herself. Naruto was out there alone, and if Tazuna's betrayal was any indication there was a high chance that he had done something to the ship itself. Why hadn't they screened him for suspicious equipment when he had come aboard? If they had done so, the mess right now would've been avoided.
If she was allowed to move her hands then, she would've brought them together and prayed. It seemed like they needed a little divine intervention right about now.
He had no idea how long he had been in here. Was it days, or perhaps weeks? Maybe even an eternity… It was funny how the human mind worked; it didn't keep track of time on its own. No, it based it around events that happened around it. Every time the sun came up it was a new day. Every time a second passed the numbers on a watch would change.
The darkness was all-consuming, all-despising. The hellish experience he was going through in here was something that he had thought he had surpassed long ago. Yet as he found himself alone in the darkness, his weakness and the cracks in his armour began to show.
As he wallowed in pain and self-torture, an explosions rattled through his mindscape.
That was new.
What was that?
Was he under attack? What was going on?
No, that wasn't possible. He was within the deepest recesses of his mind. Nothing could reach him here, not even light. How could something like that happen, when he was surrounded by nothingness and completely unable to feel just about any—
It happened again.
Instantly, his mind grew clearer, and the shadows seemed to fade slightly. They receded as his awareness grew, and the unconsciousness that he was trapped in lightened considerably. He could think now, although not that well. He could use reason and logic.
It wasn't a question anymore.
Something was happening.
Were they in danger?
Did the Yggdrasil—
Faint yells. Collisions. More explosions.
There was no question now. No doubts of any sort.
His friends needed him.
And he could help.
Unlike that time with his father and Itachi, he had the strength necessary to change their fates. Unlike that time with his mother and the rest of the Uchiha clan, he had the foreknowledge and the chance to do so.
With that thought, the darkness fled from his mind as Sasuke found his strength. The negativity, the dark memories, the chains that had been holding him down slackened and shrank, leaving his mind alone. He had managed to defeat his demons, and was now looking towards the light.
A step. Another step.
He was almost there.
It was true. Nobody was strong alone.
He blinked, and raised his hand to the sky. Except currently, there was no sky. In the distance, he could hear thunder rumbling, and the bed he was currently on was shaking left and right. Instinctively, he knew. They were under attack.
Blinking his dark eyes, he rose from his temporary death. He was wearing not much more than his boxers, but it didn't bother him. He ripped open his closet, and found the hakama and dougi uniform he loved wearing so much. There, at the side, was the Honnen Shinichido.
He walked out of the door, leaving the darkness behind.
Uchiha Sasuke had returned.
"Huh? Hey, kid, who are you?" asked Tazuna as he looked around. The silhouette standing in the shadow of the doorway was pretty much completely obscured, but he could tell by the body size that he was no more than a kid. "I'm sorry, but now that you've seen this you're not allowed to leave. You're going to have to—"
Tazuna realized something was wrong the moment the figure started charging towards him, with no regard to its own safety. He instantly turned his gun upwards, aiming down the scope and preparing to fire. The dark-haired boy in front of him would not give him that chance, however, gripping him by the arm and throwing him over his shoulder, taking care to disarm him. Tazuna fell to the floor with a thump, gripping his aching limb.
Sasuke pocketed the gun that the old man had been using, before striking him on the back with his bokuto. Sakura and Chouji, both roused by the sound of Tazuna being judo-thrown, looked backwards and cried out with joy at the sight of Sasuke's face.
"Sasuke-kun!" cried Sakura. "You're alright!"
"Alright... yes, I suppose I am," said Sasuke, with a slight smirk on his face, which was still slightly pale. The pink-haired girl looked at her teammate, her mouth set in a slight grin. He threw the pistol over to Sakura. "Take it, it suits you better. I'll stick with Honnen Shinichido. What's going on, anyway? Are we under attack?"
Sakura sobered up as she remembered the situation they were in. Quickly turning around, she gave Chouji an order. Pilots were technically only under the tactician in the chain of command, after all.
"Chouji, take Tazuna and tie him up," said the pink-haired pilot. "He's working for them, so chances are he knows something about them that we don't. Sasuke, we're under attack by the same forces that knocked you out last time."
"The rogue Mist, then," said Sasuke. "Good, I have... certain things I owe them. Where's Naruto? Where did the dobe go?"
"He's out there fighting against them alone," said Sakura, biting her lip worriedly. "It's not good. He's definitely outnumbered, and there's no doubt that he's still green. We've got to get out there!"
"Then what are we waiting for? I'm not letting the dobe one-up me," said Sasuke briefly, looking towards Chouji. "Please prepare our weaponry and lock the door after we leave. We're going out hunting, Chouji."
The plump technician saluted, and went straight to work, grinning all the while.
Naruto grit his teeth as he rolled out from behind the mound of what was apparently Swiss cheese now. Since the enemies had decided to pull out their incendiary weaponry, the amount of natural cover that he had access to was being diminished at an alarming rate. His lack of accuracy didn't help matters at all, as he was completely unable to hit any of his opponents whereas his metallic body was already scratched and nicked plenty. The scorch marks on his orange paint spoke of his recent introduction to the destruction that Gear-sized grenades were capable of, and it was not an experience that he was willing to repeat.
As he exited the roll, he broke into a run, dodging bullets that shot by him with terrifying speed and attempting to return fire at the same time with the Gear-sized assault rifle in his arms. It was a good thing that he was so far away from them… Even though their accuracy was much better than his, they were unable to get clear shots due to the amount of obstacles in between them, but he knew that was liable to change at any moment.
He just didn't expect it to be right then.
As he looked in front of him once more, he saw a MAM Gear that had apparently appeared out of nowhere. Naruto's eyes widened as he realized that while the others had been pinning him down, this one had sneaked around from the back.
He turned the rifle. Pulled the trigger.
And with fear in his eyes, Naruto stared into the face of Death as the MAM Gear threw down its arms, twin beam sabres clasped within each metallic hand. He attempted to get out of the way, throwing his rifle aside and putting all of his will into back-dashing, but it looked like he was going to be a second too slow.
Just then, it was as if the MAM Gear had hit an invisible wall. The Gear rebounded backwards, and the swords that it had been holding flew into the air. Without even thinking about it, Naruto grabbed them reflexively. It was not until the enemy Gear hit the ground that Naruto realized its torso had been shredded by two shells.
Looking backwards, he saw the Thunderbird and the Red Cherry land on the ground, before breaking out into a run, dodging the hailstorm of bullets much like he had been doing earlier, except much more gracefully.
A sense of elation filled him as a small panel on his holographic visor popped up, with the caption underneath spelling out Thunderbird. It was a picture of Sasuke's ugly mug, with that annoying smirk on his face.
"What are you going to do without me, dobe?"
"Sasuke, play nice!"
Sakura's face appeared beside it, with the caption underneath spelling out Red Cherry.
"Shut it, bastard," grinned Naruto playfully as he glanced at his two comrades fondly, before returning to the battle at hand. He could feel the energy welling up inside of him. Now that his comrades stood at his side, there would be no force strong enough to stop them. "Alright! On the count of three, let's charge in and kill their asses!"
"Why? I think he's got the right idea," remarked Sasuke.
A/N: Ugh… I actually rewrote this chapter twice, because I lost the first copy through a freak crash.
Well, I want to get to sleep as soon as possible, so here's what I've got to say. I haven't worked on this for the longest time because I lost my notes, but recently I realized that it was something of an excuse for me. You, my readers, deserve more than that, and so I'll be trying my hardest to get past writer's block.