Author's Note: A few readers have expressed mild frustration with my update schedule and to them and everyone; I apologize. Hopefully, this makes up for it.
Chapter 27 – Entropy
Orihime hummed tunelessly to herself as she worked, keeping a close eye on everything around her, all thousand-or-so ships in range, all of their regulation required nav-comm signals, all their trajectories and flight paths, and all the myriad of intricate details that made up controlling traffic. All at once. Far off and away back in her 'real' body, she knew her eyes were closed but she didn't let a little detail like that bother her, she didn't need them to see. Or rather, the reality that her eyes could see was so much less than what she could experience here. They had a word for it; 'neurality', and there was a part of her that felt bad when the techs would talk about people who couldn't handle it. Floating serene and weightless with all of time and space stretched out before her, she found it odd that some people could be confused or overwhelmed by it. It was so easy, she thought to herself, shepherding the tiny blips of different spacecraft on their way, seeing where they'd been and where they were headed glowing like bright lines that arced and raced out into the night.
With only half a thought she issued a dozen different comms simultaneously while re-prioritizing the hundred different traffic routes she'd been juggling, looking for something to occupy her mind. It was no use, she discovered, as through it all one blip in particular hung at the fringe of her awareness, persistently unnerving her with its continued silence. She half-hoped it would acknowledge her and then be on its way, but somewhere in the back of her mind she knew something was wrong.
Spiraling around her like particularly energetic electrons, one of several sparkles of light broke off from its orbit and zipped up to perch on her shoulder. "Still no reply from the Hueco Mundo?" chirped the small voice in her ear. Nodding, Orihime worried her lip as the little virtual agent directed its attention at the prison ship. Lots of other controllers had developed a library of useful automated functions to help manage traffic, but as far as she knew, no one else included personality subroutines in them. Part of working traffic control meant working alone, and she liked their company. She didn't know how close they were to being full A.I.s but she dared not tell the Ministry of Information Control, just in case.
Another one sped away from its orbit, streaking black and red, and came to a stop right in front of her face. "Are you still worried about that prison ship?" the tiny form demanded.
"Um, no. I mean, not necessarily," Orihime hedged, quickly busying herself by rechecking the guidelines of the ships she was working with.
"It isn't uncommon for navy ships like that to be low on staff, the control hooks for remote guidance are open even," said a third, flicking out to highlight the image of prison ship and piping the results of a sensor scan to Orihime's available datastores.
"See? The slackers have just left docking maneuvers up to Traffic Control, again," spoke up the one as it did the equivalent of poking her in the nose. "I don't see what the big deal is, dock it already."
All the attention her little helpers were paying to the prison ship was beginning to alarm her. "Well, I just don't think I should, not without verbal confirmation." Even she thought it was a thin excuse. "Besides, it's…" she whispered, "It's lurking."
The tiny form snapped back in confusion and then doubled over with laughter. "A spaceship can't lurk, you silly girl!"
"It's just giving me a bad feeling," Orihime tried to explain, performing the equivalent of tapping her fingers together. "Their power plant is pushed to max and their reactors are at redline, but the comms are auto-responding with a docking request only and the engines are running on reserve. It doesn't make sense," she explained to them. Orihime turned a hesitant gaze at the prison ship, thinking it increasingly strange. "Maybe I'll request the navy strikers to do a fly-by-"
Something touched her shoulder, her real shoulder. The sensation blossoming weirdly through her biological nervous system, it wrenched her focus away from looped biofeedback of the traffic control system. Startled, the non-linearity of time collapsed around her as she shrieked, nearly falling from her s-dep station. Her eyes flew reflexively open but her SOTEN-Link was still connected to the station's processor core, setting her entire nervous system buzzing as biological impulses down her real nerves competed with the signals traveling through the room temperature superconducting nanofilaments that had been grafted to them.
"Sorry! Sorry Orihime!"
Her tongue jammed between her teeth, Orihime quickly re-established a simple level one connection and gathered up her tiny helpers, loading them to personal storage before she snatched the link-collar from around her neck, the arms of the traceset slipping from the contacts at her temples. Her eyes fluttered open as the last bits of six-dimensional perception vanished, her perspective crashing down back into her body like it was being squashed into a room too small for it. Sitting at her station in the semi-darkened central tower of Karakura Traffic Control she blinked somewhat glassy-eyed at the figure at her side until, "Oh, Mahana." Blink. Blink. "Are you okay?"
"Uh, y-yes," the other controller stumbled out, caught off guard, "I'm sorry I startled you Orihime, I just wanted to tell you your shift was over, you can clock out." The pause stretched out as Mahana continued to stand there, expectantly.
Orihime realized she was waiting to sit down at the station and quickly bolted upright, vacating the s-dep and nervously clasping her hands behind her. "Right! Silly me! Thanks, I'll uh, I'll just be clocking out then! See you!" Orihime gave her a winning smile, tried to quash the queasy feeling in her stomach, and stepped away from the console as Mahana nodded in reply, fitting the traceset to the contacts at her own temples and taking over Traffic Control.
Blowing a low breath, Orihime looked over her shoulder as she moved towards the tower exit, out the wide viewport in the direction of the prison ship that had so unnerved her. Wondering if she should tell Mahana or another controller about it, she told herself she was just being over-imaginative, and left the control room. The door swished shut behind her as Mahana began talking to herself, looking for a good place to dock the Hueco Mundo to the station.
Rukia knew his eyes were following her as she walked slowly across the room, her fingertips delicately playing with the thin straps at her shoulders. Without breaking her stride she pushed one strap off her shoulder, then the other, proceeding to shed the gauzy white slip down her body to pool at her ankle just as she placed a knee upon the edge of the bed. A rare smile at the corners of her lips, she threw a glance over her shoulder to see him roaming his eyes up the smooth curves she'd bared. Lingering on her legs as she shifted her weight, his gaze moved slowly upwards until he met her eyes, the mischievous glint a match to her own.
The air was charged with a hungry energy as he left his place in the shadows to come near. Halting behind her, the inches between them crackled like static as his warm breath blew across the skin of her neck, anticipation heightening as she felt him reach for her. Tantalizingly, she leaned away and kept just beyond the tips of his fingers as she crept, cat-like, onto the plush expanse of white silk sheet.
On hands and knees, moving with a slow, sensuous grace, she slid her body onto the bed and down against the cool sheets, feeling their slippery chill against her skin as it touched the surface and a tingle of electric warmth knowing he was watching her every move. Propped on her elbows, her body flush against the bed from stomach to knees, she the electric warmth sparked a degree higher as the surface dipped under the weight of his knee. Facing away from him, all she felt was the brush of his knuckles sliding slowly up the back of her thigh and she immediately stretched out beneath the simple touch. Purring softly in her throat, she felt feather-light kisses starting at the small of her back and trail up her spine as he slipped above her, following her onto the bed. The pillars of his arms moving to either side of her own, his kisses slipped up her shoulder, nosing her hair aside as his lips glided over her neck. Rising up to meet him, she lolled her head to expose more of the column of her neck to his warm kisses and sought to feel the heat of his skin against her back.
Similarly denying her, she found he kept his body just beyond the range of her arched hips and growled a noise of frustration, eliciting a chuckle from his throat that vibrated through his lips and across her body. His lips remained the sole point of contact beyond a few brushing strokes, tracing the shell of her ear as she writhed beneath him, trapped facedown between his arms at her shoulders and his knees beside her own. She dared not admit it but the nearness of him, the caress of his body heat hinting, promising of his proximity, was driving her wild with the desire to touch him. A smoldering ache within her, long denied, buried or ignored by the soldier in her that always demanded control, was yearning with fresh need and the memory of his touch only fanned it higher.
His lips left her skin and for a horrible second she felt bereft of the small amount of contact they'd made, alone as the hunger within her cried out its abandon. Fingers quickly slipped around her waist and in seconds she'd been rolled to her back. Reaching, grasping arms encircled each other in a desperate attempt to remove the space between, and as skin came in contact with skin she could feel the electric tingle shivering and cascading across their skin. Bodies pressed together, lips soon followed and their gentle embrace spiraled into breathless pants, bruising kisses and clutching hands that roamed possessively over curves, scars and muscles.
His lips trailed down over the pulse point of her neck and across the skin of her chest as her fingers wound through his hair. Impatient noises mewled from her parted lips as she arched her back up to meet him, eager legs slipping around his waist to hold him close, feeling every inch of him. With a feral grin, soft lips pressed against her neck as her blood pounded under her skin. Hard teeth nipped at her before his tongue laved the spot he'd bit, maddeningly alternating between jolting her and soothing her.
Eager for the feeling of completeness, for him, she tried to tighten her hold on his body and groaned in frustration as he began to slide away. With a slow and tortuous procession, his kisses and nips travelled down her body as his hands eased themselves down her sides. Longing gave way to confusion, to revelation, and then to anticipation as she tipped her head back, the tip of his tongue snaking out to draw intricate designs around and over the tightened peaks of her breasts. Her body quivered as the planes of his body slipped across her own, his hands finding her hips as he sealed long, lingering kisses to the sensitive buds of her nipples. Releasing her, she chilled as those lips moved to kiss gently down her cleavage as he handedly spread her before him, pressing the outside of each thigh to the cool silk and baring her smooth, heated center.
Soft and hard, the opposing sensations had stark delineations even in her bliss-clouded, wantonly exposed state. Pinned by fingers like iron but caressed by the sheets beneath her, she could feel him pressing tender kisses to her flushed skin in a descending, meandering line. Her breath quickened and her fists twisted into the silk like a lifeline as drew her knees out, unfolding her like a flower. Each soft kiss down her body and stroke of his hands up her thighs rattled the foundations of her control, leaving her panting, desperate, and eager for more.
Firm fingers pressed harder to yielding flesh, they and his mouth were the only points of contact as he slipped kisses over her navel. Her breathing becoming ragged as his hands and lips closed their distance, fingers gliding up her legs as the rest of him continued downward. She felt him settle to the bed and the liquid fire she kept beneath her armor of ice threatened to melt her from within, the heat pounding in her blood as her hands strained against the give of the sheets. Tendrils of his warm breath rolled over her as her hips rolled up to him, seeking, yearning, almost begging for his touch.
Lifting her head, she answered his cocky grin with a silent command, her legs spreading wider in brazen invitation. The tension in her mounted like a coiled spring winding tighter as he neared. With a shudder and gasp, tautness of her body released as the hot slickness of his mouth sealed against her. Her eyes slid out of focus as she fell deliciously limp, the pent up energy was sapped from her body by his confident, delicate touch fluttering against her most sensitive of places.
She managed to see his coal-black eyes closing behind their lids as he hungrily devoured everything she willingly offered. Head thrown back, her shining dark hair was tossed against the white silk and framed her flushed, glowing skin as the wash of relief ebbed into a roiling, mounting tide. Control was an illusion, all that mattered was sensation. Ecstasy building, her own coal-black eyes rolled back as insatiable hunger for this, for him, became the only thought in her head.
Rukia bolted upright from the dream with a snap, clutching the covers to her heaving chest. Breathing hard, eyes staring around, it took her a moment to realize where she was, one of the small bunks in one of the cramped, half-height cabins on the Zangetsu. Gone were the silken sheets and endless expanse of bed, replaced by thick, scratchy covers and a too-firm bunk, both stubbornly holding the scent of long-term storage. Realizing quickly she was alone in the small room, she shook off the last of her dream as she rose, wrapping the covers about her to ward off the cold that had crept into the air.
The image of the two of them flitted through her mind as the last vestiges of the dream slipped away, and Rukia turned to the mirror in the room, peering at herself. Sleep shadowed but familiar blue-violet eyes beneath disheveled black hair stared back at her, a light sheen of sweat glistened at her brow and across her chest. Hitching the covers up closer over her body, telling herself it was due to the chill from the deck plating, she set off out the chamber door and into the central loading bay.
If she could find the other subject of her dream, no doubt consumed with piloting and its associated complex mathematical computations with nary a thought to most anything else, she could be sure that it had been just a dream, a harmless fantasy her subconscious stitched together. Never mind that it had felt more like a memory than a dream. Never mind that in her dream they each had exuded soft, sensuous and confident familiarity borne from years of intimacy, while she and Ichigo were still figuring out what exactly their relationship was and how it fit together.
And the hunger she'd felt for him. It'd been a frightening, powerful desire that bordered on primal and undeniable. The soldier in her was immediately wary of such a consuming, overwhelming emotion, uncertain how to feel about such a loss of carefully held control. There were other parts of her, parts that nothing to do with combat and fighting and tactics, that were drawn to such emotions, trying to convince her that perhaps a little loss of control wasn't a bad thing.
Making her way up to the blastdoor, the thick blanket swishing at her feet, she was just cresting the landing when a voice called out her name from deeper inside the bridge.
"Rukia, please come onto the bridge. There's something you have to see."
Perplexed by his request, she stepped over the threshold and squashed the irrational prickling of her soldier senses, warning her something was amiss. The cold metal biting at her bare feet and shivering slightly as she crept forward onto the darkened bridge, she squinted into the darkness. With the running lights off and the sleeve enabled over the canopy it was near pitch black around her, with only the meager light from a few dim screens and buttons to light the way. The warmth of her dream had fled, leaving only a cold emptiness as she asked, "Ichigo? What is it? I can't see a thing…"
"That doesn't matter," his voice answered back. "C'mon, your station is all set up."
Hidden in the darkness, at the fringes of her vision, something moved around her. The acrid stink of decay filled her nose, gagging her, bringing bile up her throat and she instinctively groped for the grip of a weapon. Unarmed and defenseless but for a thin sheet, her breath caught as she drew back, her heart beginning to pound in her chest as something came forward from the far end of the bridge, from where the pilot's station was.
The few lights around her played across a shape, glistening with filmy wetness and dangling like some horrid type of marionette as it moved through the dark. The features of his face that she'd become so… intimately familiar with, were only vaguely defined and haunted with a ghastly pallor in the console-light, shifting the color of his hair. Orange, to white…
"Where are you going…?" the shadowy figure hissed, "There's no where for you to run, Rukia."
Where Ichigo had been, a specter from her past emerged from the shadows, staring at her with eyes like chips of obsidian. A scream pierced her ears, erupting from her own throat as he reached for her. The sleeve covering the stump of what remained of his arm drew back, revealing something wet and horrid in place of his hand.
WE ARE WAITING FOR YOU.
Thrashing wildly, Rukia bolted awake again, kicking and fighting the tangle of sheets around her, panting fiercely. Curled in, arms wrapped around herself, eyes wide and staring, she scanned the darkness of the room in a panic before dropping her face into her hands, an ineffectual shield against the pain of returning memories. Eyes moist with unshed tears, she pushed her hair back from her face and worked on evening out her breathing.
"Just dreams," she told herself after a time. How long it took for her to find some measure of calm she couldn't say, it was only when she noticed faint starlight filtering in through the viewport to her side and she realized the defensive sleeve must be deactivated. Moving from the bunk, covers forgotten, she stood before the viewport and wide stretch of pinpricked black beyond, letting the tiny constant points of white and red and yellow and blue soothe her nerves. The stars never shined through the cloud layer on Junrinan Two or above her during the years she'd spent in her brother's house on Inzuri, with its unchanging, ever-twilit sky.
A breath of relief escaped her lips as she turned slightly to see the tall profile of the Longbow flying in loose formation beside them, the wide snubbed-nosed prow of the Zabi Maru just a bit beyond. Resting her forehead against the clear surface of the viewport, she breathed again. "Just dreams," she whispered to herself again, staring into the dark. The small degree of calm she had felt began to fade though, realizing the deep blackness beyond was not just simple emptiness. Somewhere, from beyond the deepest black, the Hollow mothership was coming, and a swarm of Hollows with it.
Locating her underwear, pressure shirt, and flightsuit, she pulled them back on and left the low-roofed cabin, ducking up through the crouchway and into the central loading bay. Heading up the steps to the maindeck she found Ichigo alone on the softly lit bridge, sitting backwards on his pilot station saddle and leaning back against the console, flicking his finger at a floating neural display. His helmet was off, hanging from one of the manual control system's handles, letting the huge sweep of stars above him play their light through his hair and glitter across the banks of chrome switches around him.
The degree of difference between the scene before her and the dream she'd had slowed her as she set foot on the bridge deck. Ichigo, comfortable at the controls of a ship and free from that pinched, cramped and sullen disposition he'd had when she met him, looked more at home there than she'd ever recalled. Their eyes met over his glowing display and she expected his unguarded expression to vanish, only it didn't. The furrow between his brows relaxed and the corners of his mouth turned up in the hint of a rare smile, just for her.
"Sleep well?" he asked.
"Yes," she lied uneasily, shifting her arms. Soft whirring and metallic footfalls from behind forced her onto the bridge before she could say more, Kon's empty hardsuit 'body' striding across the maindeck and through the bridge blastdoor, sidling past her with a machined grace. "Kon? You didn't request permission to the bridge…"
"Permission requires an authority to give it," Kon waved away, falling heavily into one of the rear stations, the seat giving an alarming creak as it supported his weight. "I don't recognize any such authority on this ship."
"But…" Rukia turned a laden look at Ichigo and found his face had hardened in the presence of the mouthy A.I., his scowl back firmly in place.
"I'm the pilot of this ship, and you're the tac officer," he said to her, "No one's the captain. Just like it was."
On a ship of this type and size, there was little difference between pilot and captain, but it heartened Rukia to hear he preferred to keep their original working relationship intact. "Have there been any comms?" she asked, clearing her throat with a polite cough and taking his cue to focus on the task at hand as she ducked into the tactical station.
"Nothing yet, but the channels are overloaded. Bandwidth is getting hard to come by as chatter filters in from the Outer Orbits. None of it's good news either." Ichigo set his feet down on the deck, leaning forward to stare at the plating. "Kon's been skimming the comms, people are claiming there's a shadow that blots out the stars, trailing a glitter of silver… all of Ejji is eclipsed. We figure it's going past Koriboru now, distress comms are coming in about flooding on Koriboru Four."
"The mass, it must be enormous… It's pulling up the tides as it goes by. Relief vessels headed out there aren't heard from again, and some of those outer settlements are going dark as well."
"Did they manage any scans or…?"
Ichigo met her eyes and shook his head. "There were a few reports of long range scan attempts but no clear results. A few of those headed in for a short range scan and fly-by, but none of them returned and only one managed to send back a wide-band comm signal that was picked up by a relay station."
"What'd it say?"
"It was just seven and a half seconds of screaming." Ichigo watched her grow more concerned, if she was alarmed at all she hid it well under the frosty set of her soldier's face. "The newscasters are trying to squash that clip. Anyway, the official word is that the area is experiencing a gravitometric anomaly and everyone in the area should evacuate as quickly as possible."
"What's been the civilian response?"
"The system is starting to panic, there's over a thousand ships in that sector."
Troubled, Rukia blew a low breath. That was a lot of civilians in harm's way. "Is the mothership still on course for the station?" she asked, her hands smoothing out over the consoles and button panels of the tactical station.
"From what little data there is, yeah I think. Something on that prison ship, or on the station itself, is still drawing it in."
Rukia glanced out the canopy, her eyes taking in the starscape around them. A thousand civilian ships, she could well imagine what it must feel like for them. In the Outer Orbits, Naval presence was rare and armed escorts even more so. Ships were left to fend for themselves with cobbled together mass drivers or vacuum-sealed flash cannons, despite the ban on ship-mounted weaponry.
"Well, we've got two things they didn't have," Ichigo answered. "We know what we're up against, and we've got this ship."
"Hey, listen," Kon interrupted, "About this ship, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."
"I'll talk to you about it later," Ichigo dismissed, beckoning Rukia closer to show her the displays of rough calculations on the size and mass of the mothership he'd worked out while she slept. He hadn't even begun explaining them when the comms chirped to life at the communication station. Sighing as he exchanged places with Rukia to cross the bridge, he ran his fingers through his hair as he prepared to answer. "It's the Longbow," he told her, seeing Rukia deflate a little as he accepted the request and opened a channel to the ship off their wing, setting one of the main monitors to vid-comm mode.
Expecting Uryu's typical professional detachment, Ichigo was taken off guard when Nemu appeared on the screen. "At present velocity, we should be arriving at Karakura Station in approximately forty-six minutes," Nemu said evenly, forgoing any attempt at greeting. Hands clasped behind her in a pose identical to the one she'd adopted in Kurotsuchi's Bio-mod chop shop on Junrinan Two, she seemed oblivious to the way it strained the material of the new softsuit across her chest.
"Uh, yeah," Ichigo somewhat lamely agreed. His own calculations told him the same thing, it didn't really warrant a full discussion though.
"The Longbow has been acknowledged by the station's long-range sensor and guidance systems, but we have not received any further communications. Has the Zangetsu had any word from the station?" Nemu's voice, that curious blend of melody and monotone, held no hint of emotion that Ichigo could detect.
He checked his sensor and comm logs again before turning back to the vid-screen. "No, just the station's nav buoy, same as you." Now that she mentioned it, it did seem kind of odd that traffic control hadn't contacted them at all.
"Mister Ishida suggests that if we come within eight minutes of the station without further contact, that we arm weapons and prepare for possible hostile contacts."
"Let's not jump to conclusions, we don't know the situation," Rukia cautioned.
The implications of what Nemu had suggested didn't sit well with Ichigo and he shifted uncomfortably as his thoughts turned to his sisters and friends. "Push it to a three minute window and defensive weapons only, no ordinance. Stay off the tightbeam and keep to passive sensors only," he advised, reasoning that they didn't want to advertise their approach any more than they strictly needed to. "The nav buoys are still operating and the automated guidance system is working, so the power's on. We just don't know who's home yet. Pass the word to Renji and Hitsugaya, too. If Ishida's right, that's one thing, but I don't want to put the station in any more danger than necessary."
"Yes, sir," she said crisply before the vid-screen winked out.
Ichigo shut down the comms and turned to face the tactical station, finding Rukia staring at him with an odd look on her face. "What?" he bristled.
"Nothing," Rukia diffused, helplessly watching the scowl slip back onto his face as he returned to his pensive, brooding pose. Try as he might to deny the captain's bars, it seemed that he could not escape the responsibility that came with them. Even stubborn Renji and rigid Toshiro acknowledged it on some level, dragged into Ichigo's wake as he flew headlong into the unknown.
Command suited him she decided, but not comfortably. It was like an ill-fitting softsuit, chaffing and constrictive, but still necessary. He had the heart stand up, the courage to act, but not the experience to fall back on. He thought that scowl he wore hid all his thoughts and emotions, but Rukia had learned to read between the frown lines on his face. Lives hung in the balance and that weighed on him, here in the interminably long hours between destinations. She could tell that, inwardly, he was agonizing over the decisions he'd made in the heat of the moment, when he'd been so certain of the rightness of his course, now seeming rash in retrospect.
All the same, she hoped it did not poison Ichigo's self-confidence.
Rukia turned her attention down to her tactical station. She knew that distracting him would only delay the process, and that it would do him no good to try to assuage his doubts and concerns. To deny of the seriousness of the situation would be naïve, and hollow assurances that everything would be okay would hinder more than help. No, Ichigo had to realize that with the responsibility he'd taken on came with two added burdens; doubt of the wisdom of your orders, and guilt for their consequences.
She remembered back to before she met Ichigo, a lifetime ago it seemed, to the day she stood on the deck of the Soto Kotowari with Captain Ukitake and the assembled officers. To the day she stood vigil as the empty casket drifted slowly away into the dark, the name stenciled plainly across it burned indelibly into her mind. She'd heard Ukitake say somberly, 'Doubt is the crucible in which the metal of conviction is tempered, and guilt is the hammer that gives shape to the bars of command.'
She turned away from the memories as quickly as they'd come, forcing herself back on task. This mission was different from the one that had claimed his life, she told herself as she stretched her fingers, and Ichigo was vastly different as well. Any apprehension she experienced she could confidently attribute to simple nervous energy. Ichigo was as fine a pilot as any she'd met, and she'd been manning weapon systems longer than she cared to remember. They were as best prepared for anything that might happen as they could. For some reason, that did nothing to assuage her unease.
Putting her unsettling thoughts aside, she flicked her fingers across her consoles, trying to configure a new weapon loadout to replace the main forward cannons. There were two real options she could employ, but neither was particularly applicable to the mission at hand. There was no time to repair the burnt railguns, so she settled on switching the gimbal turret's ammunition from anti-personnel to armor-piercing and hoped they didn't need to do heavy assault on hardened targets. Hope, she thought again, would probably be their best weapon.
Approaching the station seemed to take longer than Ichigo and Rukia would have liked, even at the speed they were traveling. Filling the time with whatever he could, Ichigo had finished absorbing the details of the navigation system and had moved on to the specifications of the ship's three main, and enormous, engines. It was there, crouched down amid the engineering crawlways and manifold hatches that he remembered what Rukia had said about losing himself in his work. Striking upon the idea of opening the galley station in the loading bay and asking if she wanted to eat, he entered the bridge only to find the tactical station empty. Ducking through the blastdoor, Rukia was sitting at his pilot's station instead, examining several displays detailing the control layout. With all the cabins lights off and the console screens dimmed, the stars seemed exceptionally bright, limning the bridge with their soft, blue-white glow.
Speaking quietly to herself, Rukia stopped when she heard him walking around the tactical station and step down to where she was. Her displays vanished as she made to get out of his way but slowed as he waved her to stay where she was, a smirky grin turning up a corner of his mouth. Narrowing her eyes at it, she none-the-less settled back on the saddle and could well imagine what he was thinking.
Standing just behind the pilot's station, Ichigo leaned back against the tactical console and took his time appreciating the image of her straddling the seat. The dichotomy of Rukia struck him again, soldier and dancer at once, wrapped in her body-clinging black flightsuit and with her thighs pressed tight against the saddle but all the power and speed of this deadly gunship under her fingertips. She was fiery and obstinate and challenging and everything that Orihime wasn't, and it was becoming clear to him that this was something he would never want to let slip away.
So he sat down behind her. "Remember when I asked if you wanted to come to the pilot's station and fly the Sode no Shirayuki with me, on our descent down to Junrinan Two?"
"Yes," she said warily, looking over her shoulder as she felt his hands sliding down her arms before he wrapped his long fingers around the manual controls, requiring that his hips move forward until he was pressed against her rear. He reengaged the flight system and the ship gave a little shudder as it left auto-navigate.
"The best way to learn how to fly," he said, coaxing her hands onto the controls beside his own, "Is to practice."
"I know how to fly," she claimed hotly. She had flown her own ship before she'd met him and had more than several successful missions under her belt to prove it.
"This ship is a little different," he said, "It uses an older style of control surface architecture and the main engines are a little sensitive."
Rukia rolled her eyes. Without exception, every pilot she'd met was like this, all them claiming that there was more art than science when it came to driving their precious ships. 'All of them are unique and subtly different, requiring years of patience and skill to master.' What a load of crap. Ships are ships, you point them where you want them to go and push the throttle up until you get there. Still, just to humor him, she placed her feet upon the control pegs and tightened her hands around the handles. A roar so loud and primal that it was felt more than heard thundered through the ship as a surge of acceleration sent the sleek black ship streaking out of formation.
A thrill of absolute terror raced through Rukia and left her clinging to the handles with her heart in her throat. Still in shock, she had never seen such raw power in a ship like this before. She had never seen a ship like this before. Trying to correct, Rukia shifted the controls slightly, and gave the throttle another hint of a twist and the ship answered back, gunning hard and pushing her back into the hard wall of Ichigo's chest as it angled upwards to leap toward the stars above.
"Easy there," Ichigo said, content to sit back and enjoy the feeling of her against him.
Pushing down the singular moment of fear, Rukia's lips thinned into a grimace as she redoubled her concentration on getting the ship back under control and on course. Ichigo wasn't making it easy though, despite his suggestion, as she could feel him chuckling to himself. Another few seconds of fighting the controls nearly had her convinced the ship was unpilotable, everything she did to try and get straightened out just resulted in massive overcorrections and bursts of speed. Next to her on the cross-control panel, a comm request blipped open.
"Don't answer that," Rukia ordered, knowing full well that the ship appeared totally out of control and mortified of the idea that anyone else know it was her fault. "I just need…" she turned the handles, pulling slightly and sent the ship fishtailing, the stars wheeling over their heads, "A few more seconds…" Lip caught between her teeth, she tried again and again, only to send the ship racing around wildly.
Brushing the hair gently away from her ear, he bent down to whisper, "You can't just force the ship to do what you want." Between leaning this way and that, he felt her shiver as his breath curled around her neck. Enjoying the reactions he could tease from her on these rare occasions, he smiled privately to himself before settling his hands on her waist. "You have to find a way to work together."
The words had a familiar ring to them, and Rukia didn't want concede that he might have a point so she remained silent as her fingers loosened around the handles, the muscles in her legs relaxing from their panicked constriction. Taking a deep breath and looking at the controls with fresh eyes, she blocked out the feeling of him against her back and his hands around her waist, narrowing her focus on the flight systems the same way she'd narrow her concentration down the sights of her guns. Smoothly, with a new level of confidence, she shifted the controls and pitched the ship down and around towards their original course, her toes tapping the foot controls while her fingers worked the handles and throttle with growing familiarity. She managed to coax a proper heading out of the ship and get them back on course, letting satisfaction and triumph spread a smile across her face. Easing them back into formation with the others, she re-engaged the auto-nav and let the computer handle the finer corrections as she crossed her arms and shot a daring look over her shoulder. "I swear if you say one word Ichigo, one word…"
He could feel her bristle against him as she turned to look over her shoulder, the irked set of her lips preparing to launch any one of the verbal retorts she had armed on her tongue if he made the mistake of saying the wrong thing. He knew her well enough by now though, so he wasn't about to fall into that trap. Rukia didn't need his approval or validation, and if it was praise or accolades she desired she would've left covert operations long ago. No, he knew just as well as she did that she was an accomplished and skilled pilot, and had no doubt she'd be able to fly the Zangetsu without his help. Still, to him, watching her was its own reward.
It dawned on Rukia, as she felt her hair brushed away from the nape of her neck, precisely why he hadn't spoken a word, and a shift of her hips confirmed it. "Are you…" was out of her mouth before she could rein it in. The truth was that he most certainly was, and the sensation of him moving to lean over to press the bridge blastdoor lock sent a brand new shiver of adrenalin through her. His hands slipped back into place as his lips caressed up her neck, her head tipping back to look up at the stars as she relaxed against him. "You know Ichigo," she began, pressing the 'disconnect' control on the comm panel when it chirped again. Then setting it to mute.
"Hmm?" His attempts at unzipping her flightsuit were thwarted as she stood up and turned around.
"The thing about this big, powerful ship…" she leaned over to whisper the rest in his ear, smiling at the sudden boyish flush of embarrassment across his cheeks even as he tried to play it cool. That was her Ichigo, the one she knew, the one she wanted, not the one in her dream. Not from either dream.
Rukia was walking back onto the bridge carrying a cup of precious coffee when she heard it. It was a simple sensor system alert tone, the kind that would sound whenever any user-enabled parameters were satisfied, but the connotations of this one were immediately apparent. She watched Ichigo at the pilot's station and Kon at the comm station freeze as the chime ended. Rukia immediately moved to her station, her coffee forgotten, knowing they'd hit the close-range threshold and all the while the comm system had remained ominously quiet.
Ichigo closed the panels he was reviewing and turned around on the saddle, his feet automatically finding the pegs and controls as he worked the kinks from his neck. "We're in visual range," he said, checking the distance to the station. His fingers hovered over the control that would switch his center screen to display their destination, but he was unsure of what he'd see after activating it. The sound of the small-bore turrets arming and priming ratcheted beneath the hum of the engines, and a glance out the canopy told him the info-overlay had been switched from general to tactical. To his right a small screen brightened up and upon inspection, Ichigo realized it was a wingman monitor panel coming online, Renji, Uryu and Toshiro all registering their system and targeting states.
"We are weapons hot," Rukia said without inflection.
Ichigo drew up his resolve, pressed the button, and sat back to watch the screen set between his handlebars shimmer and zoom in, focusing on Karakura station. If he hadn't known better, at first glance the scene was indistinguishable from his first approach, flying his father's medical ship back in from the rim after several years of absence. The station still hung there, huge and silent against the backdrop of inky blackness, surrounded by the comparatively tiny specks of ships and freighters. Relief eased the knot in his shoulders; the station was the picture of tranquility and normalcy.
Kon produced a rough approximation of a polite cough from his suit's speaker, and then leaned over to stage-whisper to Rukia, "I feel like someone should point out that we are on an intercept course with a civilian installation, and arrayed in an attack vector, and we have weapons armed."
"I know," Rukia replied, brows knit. "We should have seen a response by now, standard protocol is to sortie a fighter wing and issue a priority warning. Something's still wrong here."
The same thought was occurring to Ichigo as he turned a dial beside the screen, setting it to its highest magnification and panning the image around. Centering on a freighter, a tiny, grainy red-and-white shape on the screen, he watched it floating slowly through space, the unfocused drab gray of the station behind it. There was something off about it, its trajectory was angled wrong and it was starting to list several degrees sideways, an errant I-Grav pulse or braking thruster could easily send it tumbling.
A cold sweat broke down Ichigo's back as he realized what he was seeing. "There's no one flying that ship, she's adrift, right there next to the station." As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. He refocused the image just as the freighter's inertia carried it over, slowly revealing its other side.
"We're too late."
The freighter had been ravaged, broken nearly in half and torn apart like plastipaper, then abandoned with shockingly inhuman indifference. Looking like an untidy stack of cards, its inner decks were left exposed to the vacuum of space, visible through a gaping rent in the hull where half its starboard plating had been sheared away. Piping and conduits hung from the shredded tear like mechanical guts, bleeding fluids that froze into glittering crystals as they trailed away. Swallowing dryly, Ichigo rolled the zoom away, shrinking the image of the dead freighter but filling the screen with more and more and more ships, too many to count, all of them drifting lifelessly around the station. None had been spared, the remains of civilian cargo ships tumbled slowly near what used to be navy transports, the gleaming panels of luxury yachts shined with polished brilliance as they gently floated away, torn from their cracked and broken fuselages. Where there had once been a teeming flow of stellar traffic at all hours of the metric day and night, there was now only a debris field filled with the dead, empty husks of ships, ripped asunder, partially devoured, then discarded as the attackers moved on other ships, other food.
"Rukia, keep the passives tuned for hot signatures and be ready to train the weapons on anything still powered on, I don't care if the system is telling you it's reserve engines or backup batteries or the heating element in a lunch carton, if it's running, it's a threat."
Rukia nodded mechanically, constantly filtering the scan results through the tactical system by way of long-practiced routine. She'd seen the warzones of men and brutish savagery of Hollows, but never like this. Her eyes flitting from one dead ship to the next a horrible sort of sterile categorization began to fill her mind. Corporate cruiser, clawed and ripped in half, engine compartment entirely missing. Short range cargo barge, harpooned and half-shredded. J-Class observational ship, port flank melted to the sub-structure by energy weapon impact, then sliced open and gutted from within.
Her stomach roiled and she felt sick. Short range transport vessel, the type that ferried passengers to and from cruise liners. Crew compliment, three; passenger capacity, twenty-four. Tourists. Families. Main engine exhaust vents heavily damaged, likely while trying to escape. Rukia tried to stop, to look away. After crippling the ship, the exterior hull of the crew compartments and passenger deck was subsequently… Rukia took a trembling gulp… torn off, the interior consumed. "Kon, shut down optics, just give me telemetry."
"You think that's a good idea?" cautioned Kon, his mechanical body whirring as he peered closer at the screen. "What about the station?"
Ichigo rolled the screen back to take in the station again, now that they had better resolution, and it was worse than he'd feared. What he'd taken as little shadows across its massive rings and facings he could see now were gouges and pits in its bronze-gray skin. Lines arced across it, thin, miniscule lines relative to the station itself, until he looked closer to see they were huge swathes of blackened plating, seared by laser fire and the tiny blemishes in the surface were huge cratered impact sites. Projectile fire had punched through the outer hull structure, tearing through the integrity layers, faint crackles of sparks still showering from within. Two of the minor docking rings had suffered direct collisions with the debris of massive ships. Mouth dry, he couldn't look away from them, their skin blown outward and the structure buckled under the stress of decompression.
"This isn't a station anymore," Ichigo said, cold and detached. "It's a graveyard." A signal at his side drew his attention, the wingman monitor was issuing a notice from the Longbow. "Uryu's cut his engines and comms, he's dropping back for some reason."
"For a good reason," Rukia realized, "Shut down our engines, quick! Cut our speed to an absolute minimum but don't use the braking thrusters, use the I-Grav only. We need to slow our approach."
Ichigo was following her instructions before he realized, and it took a moment to see what their intent was. "Cut the lights, give us a little pitch and roll, cycle the power plant down to bare essentials," Ichigo nodded, flicking switches and easing the throttle down to zero. He looked back over his shoulder to add, "And we'll coast in just like any other derelict."
"Should we send a message to the pirates and the cops?" Kon asked, peering at the communication station.
"No, we can't risk it," Rukia interrupted immediately. "Any comm signal we send might be picked up, and we don't want attract attention."
"The prison ship pulled in enough Hollows to do this," Ichigo agreed, "No telling what might still be in the area."
"So what then? If we're going to shut down the carrier wave drawing them all here, including that Hollow mothership, we need to locate where that prison ship is berthed." Kon tapped his metal fingers against the bezel of the communications station.
"Finding it is only part of the problem," Rukia realized. "Once we do, then what? Destroy it?"
Ichigo shook his head. "No, destroying the ship while it's still docked is out of the question. There might be innocent people onboard it, not to mention that we could damage the docking seal and decompress the whole ring." There was only one remaining course of action. He turned to look over his shoulder, seeing Rukia looking equal parts relieved and apprehensive. She knew what he was going to say just as well as he did. Ichigo turned back at the display of the scarred and blasted station, surrounded by a halo of destroyed and shredded wreckage, but his thoughts were only of the fate of his sisters, father, and friends. "We're going to have to get aboard and decouple it manually."
There was a long pause following Ichigo's proclamation, eventually broken by a harsh burst of laughter from Kon's suit. "Oh man Ichigo, that was a good one. 'Get aboard and decouple it manually,' priceless," the A.I. said, pantomiming wiping a tear from his eye and sighing. "So what's the real plan?"
"That is the real plan," Ichigo ground out.
"Uh huh," Kon said, unconvinced. "That's crazy, Ichigo."
"I know," Ichigo said and Rukia thought there was some sadness in his voice.
Ichigo sat back at his controls and they'd barely traveled another thirty seconds before Kon's voice called out, "Proximity alert." The remains of a massive ship, cracked in half with its conduits and piping torn free, was going to skim near to their starboard side, a chemical fire burning at its depths. They brushed past the empty, destroyed ship and through the canopy they had a clear view down the stack of inner decks, the light through the tears and holes in the hull sliding like pale daggers across its lifeless body. Gently, Ichigo banked and rolled the angular ship past the drifting hulk and jagged shards of metal surrounding it, onward into the field of dead ships.
Shifting a tucking the ship as little as possible, the four ships eased their way through the debris. Finally moving in closer and taking a moment, Rukia and Ichigo both looked out through the canopy above them, the stars slowly wheeling as the ship made its haphazard, tumbling way towards the station. Like some kind of strange moonrise, the station's edge crested the horizon of the canopy and spilled its light down onto the bridge. Unable to remain at her station, Rukia slipped around the console and onto the edgewalk, coming close enough to Ichigo to let her fingers find his own, lacing together as the station rose fully into view.
While the long range optics display made it clear that the station had been attacked, it was another thing to see it up close, first hand. The totality of the devastation seemed almost impossible. As enormous as the station was, it seemed that no square meter of it was unmarred. Lines of laser burns and scorch marks stood out like cuts and bruises upon grey-bronze skin. Its once gleaming panels were torn into gaping fissures, clawed… or chewed, open. It had been savaged, brutally, and the fate of its occupants was left unknown.
The four ships slid in close to the station without so much as a puff of a directional thruster or main engine wash to give away their position. Barely a few meters away from the skin of the station, so close they could peer into the facing viewports, they dared to use their braking thrusters to bring them to a halt. Any thermal or electromagnetic radiation from the engines or vents now would be undetectable against the station's own, especially seeing how damaged it was. The only thing that would give them away was direct, visual confirmation of their ships powered up and under control, but it was a chance they'd have to take.
With a press of a button on his wingmen panel, Ichigo initialized a comm channel between all four ships and waited for it to resolve. In moments, the three small screens arrayed across the front of the pilot's station lit up with images of Toshiro, Renji and Uryu. "Alright," Ichigo began. "The plan is pretty simple, there's a prison ship docked to the station that's sending out a carrier wave that Hollow's are sensitive to. Whatever happened here, this attack on the station, I'm telling you it's just the appetizer. If that carrier wave keeps drawing in the mothership, I can only guess what the main course will be. The Zai Shipyards, the Miner's Coalition ore facility, maybe even Muujo itself." Ichigo raked his fingers through his hair. "Our first step is to stop it from getting any further into the system."
"Then what?" Hitsugaya crossed his arms over his chest, looking intently at him through the vid-comm.
Ichigo's frown deepened. "That'd be the second step," he said finally. Toshiro's face remained impassive, but Ichigo could tell he was skeptical. It was the best Ichigo could do, though, and Toshiro knew it. Still, Ichigo appreciated the white-haired detective's silence on the topic, there was no sense in souring morale over doubts and concerns over situations no one could change.
"How are we getting aboard the prison ship?" Renji asked. "I never thought I'd say that," he muttered, "More concerned about staying off."
"Low powered flight over the surface of the station, heading to the North end where the naval sector is. Until we have a solid fix on the ship we'll have to rely on optical targeting systems. Watch for jags and debris on the way there, and once we find it, E-V-A to a free airlock on the target," Ichigo replied. "Without a proper way to shield the source of the carrier wave, our only option is to decouple, tow, and then scuttle the ship."
"That'd qualify as destruction of Colonial Navy property," Uryu mentioned.
"Does that mean you want out?" Ichigo asked.
"On the contrary," Uryu replied darkly, "I'd be happy to set the overrides myself, once we get there."
Ichigo chuckled mirthlessly. "Alright, let's get moving."
Silently, a puff from the directional thrusters sent the long black form of the Zangetsu angling in close and skimming along a few meters above the station, flanked on either side by the Hyorin Maru and Zabi Maru while the Longbow covered their rear. Their shadows slid along the ruined grey-bronze skin beneath them, dipping down into the canyons that had been torn into the hull plating and ghosting over the cratered pits of projectile impacts and debris collisions. The surface of the station spread out around them like a battlefield covered in metal, sensor arrays spiked from the surface at odd angles like flattened grass, and air continued to leak from the cracks in the hydroponics bays that rose like rolling hills far off their side.
"I'm getting structural cohesion reports from monitors across the station," Kon spoke from the speakers in the bridge, his voice cutting into the silence. "Most of the direct damage was contained by the level one hull, habitat decks and populated areas appear to be mostly intact."
"What's the percentage of decompression across those areas?" Ichigo asked.
"Twenty-three percent," Kon reported. He had never sounded so much like a machine before.
Nearly a quarter of the station had lost full or partial atmosphere, the realization sickened Ichigo. Coupled with the fact that a section with an intact atmosphere did not necessarily mean it was breathable; fires, chemical leaks, particulate aeration, any of which could choke any survivors, and Ichigo felt himself growing not sad, but angry. His eyes were drawn to the main docking rings looming above them, their arches spanning the night sky as they curved from one end of the station's horizon to the other. His father's ship was docked up there somewhere, along with countless others. Part of him desperately wanted to pull up on the controls and cruise recklessly along the massive ring's exterior, searching for the Masaki to see if they escaped the attack, but he knew he couldn't. Too many were counting on them, he told himself again, settling his eyes back down to the far edge of the station.
"We need to pass all three of the main rings to get to the Navy's section of the station," Ichigo said, forcing himself to say their objective aloud. The prison ship had to be docked at one of the Navy's secured docking points, correctional and military craft were forbidden from docking at the civilian rings. Rukia pulled up a magnified overlay on the canopy, zooming to peer into the darkness. Way ahead of them down at the end was the Naval sector, where all ships with official Colonial Navy commissions docked. Studying the display, Ichigo didn't see Rukia shift her eyes, but he did hear her caught breath.
"Hot contact," Rukia said evenly into the shared comm, her thumb holding down the control but her eyes never leaving the flicker of motion above them. Heart pounding but her voice flat, she continued speaking into the comm channel, relaying the bearing of the target to the other three ships.
Confused for a moment, Hitsugaya bent forward in the vid-screen, peering out his own ship's viewport. "But that'd be directly abov-" His voice cut out as he immediately began ordering his own crewmen to various stations.
Ichigo craned his head back to look directly up as well, their ship moving into shadow as they gently glided beneath the first of the huge docking rings. Rising up on either side were the docking ring lift towers, huge structures housing freight transfer systems and cargo bays and twin level transit lanes connecting the rings to the central station, but were dwarfed by the docking rings they held aloft. And there, far above them at the point a spoke might connect to a wheel, a silvery shape hung nearly motionless. Covered in plates of scalloped, organic looking metal, it could have been as lifeless as the debris around them if not for the four segmented tentacles methodically shearing metal from the station and drawing the pieces back inside it.
"It does not seem to have noticed us," Uryu said over the comm, keeping his eyes on the Hollow.
"Its sensors are probably just as blinded as ours," Rukia added, "I can't get a soft-lock, there's too much interference from the station."
"We're still vulnerable to visual confirmation, so let's not do anything to attract attention," Toshiro suggested.
"Stay on course," Ichigo said with finality, "But stay alert, where there's one, there's bound to be more."
The four ships neared the end of the station without incident. Daring to slow their approach as they neared the natural lip that would take them towards the Navy's secure docks, they edged up near the crest to try to get a visual on the area below.
"Hang on a sec," Renji called through the comm, "I have something that might help."
Ichigo, seeing Hitsugaya's skeptical frown, looked out the side of the canopy to see a thin aerial rising into position above the Zabi Maru. Standing at an impressive height, Ichigo was jus beginning to wonder what it was when Renji answered for him.
"It's a whisker array," the red-haired man said, patching the sensor readings through the comm's data level and feeding it to everyone's telemetry processors.
"Used by pirates to find vulnerable ships without exposing themselves," Toshiro supplied, turning a glare at Renji, earning a noncommittal shrug in response. Toshiro didn't have enough evidence to make a piracy charge stick, but that didn't mean he couldn't needle the tattooed man it in hopes he'd admit something.
"I have a lock on the ship," Kon said, breaking into the channel and resetting their targeting locks on it.
"And I'm getting some more Hollow signatures," Rukia said. The signals were jumbled and hard to resolve, but there were definitely Hollows. Together, the four ships slipped over the natural lip and made their way down the naval sector of the station, closing in on the prison ship.
Still a ways off, they came to an abrupt halt. "You were saying something about there being more?" Renji muttered into the comm channel.
The prison ship was there, a huge hulk of forbidding-looking steel-grey metal, and moored to the Navy's docking facility and apparently undamaged. It was also surrounded by at least thirty Hollow ships, all of them hovering down low to the surface of the station or sedately circling the prison ship. Though he told himself he was imagining it, Ichigo could almost feel the tension rolling off each of those ships.
They're waiting, all right, the oily voice said, echoing and slithering through Ichigo's mind with a black glee. It's coming, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
"Ichigo?" Rukia asked, somewhat concerned. "You feel alright?"
"Yeah, fine," he replied a little harsher than he intended. With effort, he banished the unnatural presence to the back of his mind, his eyes firmly shut. When he looked back out the canopy, all he saw were dozens of silvery Hollow ships, no two alike, and all of them standing between him and the prison ship. "There's no way we can get through all those, they'd tear us to pieces."
Hitsugaya leaned closer to the vid-screen, a calculating look on his face. "So we won't be able to dock to the prison ship directly, that doesn't mean we can't still get onboard it from the inside. We just need a nice, out of the way place to get inside the station."
Rukia exchanged a knowing glance with Ichigo. "I know just the place."
Ichigo removed the masked helmet hanging from the handlebar as he stood, turning it over in his hands. Hesitating before slipping it over his head, he looked around the seemingly empty cockpit, taking in the banks and panels of switches, knobs and dials. The soft glow of the vid-screens added a bit of color to the dull light around him, reflecting off the station to filter in through the canopy. "Kon, come with me." Without waiting for an answer, Ichigo began walking towards the bridge door.
Following Ichigo through the blastdoor, Kon cocked his head at the young man's back. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it."
"No, not yet." Ichigo turned back to face him, the pair of them standing on the transverse deck that stretched above the loading bay. "I need you to do something."
"I meant what I said when I told you I didn't recognize your authority," Kon groused half-jokingly, somewhat put off by Ichigo's rather serious demeanor. There was a sudden shift in Kon's posture, as if something had just occurred to him. "No, no way. You can't tell me what to do."
The problem with dealing with A.I.s was that their cerebral processing cores ran on some of the most powerful computing hardware in the system: quantum MPU lattices, and that it made them difficult to surprise. Kon already knew what Ichigo was going to ask, but then again, it also made Kon predictable. "You know the plan, Rukia and I, along with the others from the Longbow, Zabi Maru, and Hyorin Maru, are going down to the station to get to the prison ship."
"The station that has been blasted to shit, decompressed, and chewed up by hundreds of alien ships, yeah I know."
"Yes," Ichigo continued, reining in his temper. "The station's in bad shape on the outside, who knows what it's going to be like inside. Not that it matters because even if station's infonet terminals were working, I'd be unable to use anything above level one because my security token has been corrupted."
Kon crossed his arms. "It was your decision to use that bio-mod link Urahara came up with, you should have known it would've invalidated your token."
"I'll deal with that later, but listen, if we're going to pull this off we're going to need someone doing digital recon. The station maps will be down, compression seals will be locked, blastdoors will be closed."
"Is that what this is all about? No way, I spent too long as a glorified phone operator on that relay station to do it again, even for you."
Undaunted, Ichigo went on. "I'm asking you to jack yourself into the ship's comm system, find an open uplink to the station and be our eyes and ears through the station's monitor net. This is your chance to help," Ichigo suggested, inwardly hoping Kon would agree. He held one last card and while he didn't want to play it, he would if he had to.
"I did help!" Kon snapped, turning away and pacing the engine room, "I did all your heavy lifting aggregating and filtering your ship-hunting data."
"Yes, so now we know the Hueco Mundo is the source of the problem, but the problem still needs solving."
"Why?" Kon argued, "Why do you need to do it? You want me to help you and Rukia run off and get yourselves killed so badly? Well forget it. Why can't you two just run off and be happy together and get away from this whole thing? Huh, tell me why it has to be you."
"Because no one else can." Ichigo could feel his temper rising, Kon was going to force his hand.
Kon shook his big armored head in refusal. "You don't know what you're asking. That's all colonial fiber, who knows what's running on station's network. I'm an A-I, Ichigo. I've spent my life keeping off those lines. I'll be detected and the M-I-C will know exactly where I am."
"I know exactly what I'm asking. I'm asking you to take a risk, to help us set this right, to do what no one else can."
"I saved your dumb ass from dying of hypoxia after you almost got blown up! Isn't that enough?"
Ichigo's face darkened. "And you think that makes you and her even?"
Kon spun to glare at Ichigo, bristling and angry. "Don't you dare…"
"LIRIN SACRIFICED HERSELF TO SAVE THE REST OF US!" Ichigo shouted, fury contorting his features.
"SHE DIDN'T GIVE ME ENOUGH TIME," Kon roared back at him, "I JUST… I j-just needed eight tenths of a second more…"
"And she knew it," Ichigo said quietly. "She had it figured out and she did what she had to, because she knew no one else could. What good is her sacrifice if we can't stop this," and he waved his arm indicating the destruction wrought upon the station, "From happening again?" A coldness settled in the pits of Ichigo's soul, knowing he could not take his next words back. "How could you live with yourself, if you don't even try?"
"You'd use her memory against me, would you?" Kon said tightly. "Use her to get what you want, just like you'd use me."
"This isn't what I want," Ichigo made plain. "But yes, if this is the shit it takes to save the people I love, then I'll do anything I have to." Ichigo felt a presence at his back but refused to break eye contact with Kon.
Kon stood rigid, his mechanical hands clenching tight. "You asshole. 'The ends are gonna justify the means' are they? You stay on that track and it's going to cost you more than you'll ever imagine. Oh I'll do what you want, but once this is over," he took a step closer to Ichigo, "I don't ever want to see you, again." Kon turned and left, his feet pounding angrily into the decking.
Rukia slipped around him and made to follow the furious A.I. but was stopped by a gentle hand on her shoulder. She caught the look on his face, somber but resolute. Another casualty, and she knew there'd be more to come. "He's more than just a machine, Ichigo."
"I know," Ichigo admitted. "But I still know which buttons to press." He was holding his helmet in his hands, his fingers absently tracing the contours of the mask. Ichigo gave himself a shake and turned towards her. "You heard all that?"
She nodded mutely. She could see from Ichigo's face that he felt the need to explain, but couldn't find the words. Unsure of her herself, she reached a tentative hand up to touch his face, smoothing her thumb along the line of his cheek. He relaxed slightly under her touch and Rukia was relieved, outward displays of affection were something neither of them had much experience with. The moment ended and Rukia withdrew her hand, taking a breath and setting her mind back on the mission.
Ichigo was staring back at the eye-visor of his helmet as she took her own out from under her arm, preparing to pull it down over her head, when she heard him say very clearly, "The Ministry of Population Control. We're going to need to do something about them too." He gave her a significant glance as he headed for the stairs leading to the loading bay floor, pulling his helmet on as he went.
Rukia stared blankly at him as he walked by. What could they talk about, she thought, the only thing they'd need to discuss is if they found out he'd been genetically bio-modified by Urahara's link. Nanite based bio-mods like neural links or her own micro-muscle control system were perfectly legal because they were essentially just machines, tools for you to use. It was the bio-mods that recombined your DNA, the kind Ichigo now had, that were illegal. Neither of them had said it outright but they both knew that if Ichigo's new link was discovered, they'd sterilize him to prevent fabricated DNA from making its way into the gene pool. The only other thing the MPC did was issue licenses for procreation…
Rukia nearly dropped her helmet. Her hands suddenly numb and shaky, she was momentarily too stunned to move. Surely… surely he wasn't suggesting what it seemed like. There had to be some other explanation, she told herself. He knew she was from the Outer Orbits, and she'd been young and orphaned during the occupation. Applying for an MPC license would've been pointless, he had to have known that.
Would he? He was the son of a doctor who'd made rounds at the belts and Rim, backwater colonies and undocumented settlements. Places beyond the long arm of the Colonial Government and any of its Ministries. Places where you didn't necessarily need a license… He might not know… Rukia jammed the helmet back down over her head, her face set like stone. If he didn't know she'd set him straight with enough force for him to never bring it up again.
She met back up with him in the darkened loading bay, standing alone in front of the access doors in the floor. The green status lights came on as the engineering blastdoor, bridge blastdoor and crew compartment blastdoor all slid and bolted shut, sealing the loading bay. Descending the steps, she could hear her own breathing inside her pressurized flightsuit and helmet as the air was quickly evacuated from the room, the lights shifting from green to amber. Coming to a stop on the opposite side of the large bomb-bay style floorlock door, the light finally switched to red signifying full depressurization, Ichigo standing before her, his own flightsuit and masked helmet awash in the crimson light and deep black shadows.
She glanced away as he turned towards her, stubbornly refusing to meet his gaze. While his mask didn't bother her anymore the memories he'd inadvertently dredged up did, and she found staring at the bay doors to be rather than look at him. She didn't see him press a control on the loadmaster console, but she did watch a gulf opened between the two of them, the complex machinery turning and shifting as the floorlock seals withdrew and the doors slid silently open. A thin line of pale light speared up from the seam between the doors, turning swiftly to a harsh glare as the bay doors swung down and apart, filling the room with the gray-white reflection off the surface of the station. The light was a lie, she sighed, blinking away the brightness. There was nothing but utter emptiness around her, she told herself as the bay doors shuddered and locked into place.
Daring to look back up at Ichigo's face, she noticed that the milky light had washed out the color of his mask, turning the ceramic composites to bleached bone, the glossy eyepiece visor lost to shadow. He had been looking down from through the open bay doors, leaning out over the yawning gap at their feet when he moved his head up to look at her. Through their open comm link, she heard the raspy slithering sound of his air system over the channel before he spoke.
"You ready to do this?"
Rukia took a deep breath and focused her attention on their objective. She couldn't afford to be bothered by whatever awful memories Ichigo's words might have brought up. She was a soldier, a covert operative of the Colonial Navy's G-13 Special Forces, and it was time to act like it. She crossed her arms in front of her, nodded to Ichigo, and stepped out into the void above the open bay doors.
Ichigo leaned out and watched her fall away from the ship, the minimal A-Grav giving her enough force to send her across the dozen meters down to the surface of the station, but not enough to injure as she landed. He watched her for a moment as she gently coasted downwards, the sunslight glinting from her helmet and flightsuit, before he crossed his own arms before following her out into the emptiness. In less than a moment he felt the pull of the A-Grav vanish as he dropped from the ship, leaving its effective range and slipping into a gentle, weightless descent.
Though he knew it was irrational, he still spread his arms out to try to steady himself as a feeling began to grip him, the sensation of sinking deeper and deeper into a shadowy abyss. The light was poor here in this section of the station and came at sharp angles, filling the area full of stark delineations between suns-lit surface and pitch-black shadow. They'd left the battle-scarred and now nearly unrecognizable sections of the station's habitat column and docking rings behind to come here, Ichigo reflected, and while it wasn't nearly as damaged, from this perspective the area was just as alien.
For all the time he'd spent off-planet, he hadn't performed much in the way of EVA at all so he expected the notion that the only thing between him and the vacuum of space was his sealed flightsuit was something that would prey on his mind. Expecting a natural fear response as he gently glided through the reach of space between ship and station, Ichigo was wholly unprepared at the degree of serenity and peace that settled over him. Everywhere he looked, the majesty of the starscape surrounded him, each star seemingly closer than ever before, filling him with a breathless wonder and hinting at ancient, fantastic secrets. For a fraction of a moment, he felt seized by the insane urge to unseal his mask and bask in the glow of their light full on his face.
"-should be near the, hey are you listening to me?"
Blinking, Ichigo snapped his gaze down at the sound of Rukia's voice through his comm. She'd landed as gentle as a feather right where they'd intended, one of the old traversal decks designed for shuttling unprocessed ore and construction crews across the exterior of the station. Her boots were mag-sealed to the deck and a neural display panel was glowing in her hands but she had aimed a stern look upwards at him. Ichigo didn't have time to properly set his feet before he came down hard, his boots clanking onto the walkway surface with a jolt and forcing him almost to his knees.
"With landings like that, remind me again why you fly the ship?" she admonished, letting the display vanish.
"Because," Ichigo began gruffly, standing back up. "Landing is for people who're grounded. I'd rather just keep flying." Looking star-ward he just managed to see the bay doors of the Zangetsu closing up, the black of the ship quickly lost amid the star strewn reaches of space. As he watched, a small spark of light blazed from the ship's engines and its angular form knifed through the night, followed closely by the three other, far more visible ships.
"I was under the impression we had to gain access to the prison ship, so what may I ask, are we doing all the way down here?" Detective Hitsugaya asked over their connected comm channel, "Nothing in this area has been operational for years and there must have been a dozen different docking points on the way." As always, his voice and manner were just as crisp and professional as ever, in contrast to his youthful appearance, but even Ichigo could see that for some reason, the white-haired detective seemed particularly on edge.
Ichigo turned to see the detectives, both wearing the distinctive blue and white softsuits of the patrol force, moving towards them. Behind them were Uryu in his traditional softsuit of the QNC, and Renji in a softsuit he'd obviously pieced together, all four of them looking somewhat out of place.
"Yeah Ichigo, so now we've got half a busted up station between here and there, and I don't know if you've looked recently, but this station is bigger than most cities where I'm from," Renji groused, moving with the odd, shuffling gait required to keep one boot planted firmly on the surface. "And we still need to get, y'know, inside the station."
"Using any of those docking points would have been too risky, we're trying to remain inconspicuous, so that's why we're here," Rukia answered both Renji and Toshiro. Stepping off the decking, she was careful with her footing as she made her way to one of the huge ore loading bay locks. Lifting a panel and placing the top of her gloved hand against the link pad, she bridged the circuit to the ore loading facility and began its cycling process. Beside her, the huge doors unlocked and parted, and from within a familiar landing pad came rolling out, secured to the top of the loading belt. The surface of it worn and strut-marred, the sight of it brought back bittersweet memories of her beloved ship, but she marshaled her emotions before turning to the others. "Under normal circumstances I wouldn't be divulging classified information to just anyone," her eyes flicked to Ichigo, "But these circumstances aren't normal. We'll enter the station here, at the G-13's covert operations service bay. Let's go."
Author's note: I had several bullet points laid out for chapter 27, the first of which was literally "-get aboard the station". As you can see, that bullet point evolved into the entirety of the chapter, pushing everything back into the next one. I think it turned out well though (better than 26 at least), lots of emotions running high, lots of tension and characterization. This seemed like a good place to break and post, instead of spending another few months writing a 40,000 word chapter. Stay tuned, the next chapter is full of stuff I'm excited to write about.