Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach.
AN: During the upload I seem to have lost 400 words somewhere. It looks okay to me but I've read it so many times. If it looks weird in any places let me know the spot and I'll fix it by hand.
Update: For anyone who might have forgotten the basic gist of this story, I have updated my profile with an abridged version of the plot of The Shining Dark.
Chapter 29 (Re)United; Part 2
With each labored breath she took her helmet was filled with the harsh clicking rattle of the suit's atmo-scrubbers. Compounded by aching muscles and fraying nerves, each struggling pant of exertion echoing within the confines of her flightsuit was slowly driving her mad. There were two pats against the object in front of her, vibrating through her hands, and they pulled her out of her brief reverie. Teeth clenched together, she set her hands again, ignoring the way the pads of her gloves cut hard against her fingers, and pushed. Slowly, the heavy plastisteel crosspiece that had fallen through the tunnel began to shift, raining down dust and crumbling chunks of durocrete. Rumbling back up into place, the same place they'd managed to push it once before it'd fallen, she was hoping that doing it again wouldn't unseat any more collapsed structure above them. Her attention drifting to the tons of metal and durocrete, plastisteel and ceramic polymer above them, the crosspiece slipped a fraction and Rukia pushed other thoughts from her mind, focusing on what was necessary, what she was used to doing: this was an obstacle and she would remove it. Arms burning, shaking with pain and exhaustion, she closed her eyes and grit her teeth.
It would send fire across her body, she knew it well, and still she did it anyway. Mentally opening the command system to her muscle implants, she overrode her nervous system and forced her muscles to obey. Throughout her arms, back and legs, the tiny nanofilament wires that threaded through her musculature, designed to let her have perfect control of her body when she needed, flared into brilliance, seizing up muscles and driving the crosspiece up and out of her way. It was agony, but she endured. She may have screamed, she wasn't certain.
Finally, she felt a judder through her hands as the heavy slab was secured underneath. Relaxing by degrees until she was sure the crosspiece wouldn't move, the heavy thing had been lifted up just high enough for her to slip underneath. They'd shut off their comms soon after entering the stretch of collapsed tunnel, an idea she'd come both loathe and praise simultaneously. On one hand, she considered as she bonelessly collapsed to the tunnel floor and eyed the gap they'd managed to make warily, they didn't have to listen to five other huffing, wheezing voices. The other hand, of course, meant that they were forced to resort to an impromptu sign language cobbled together from covert ops hand gestures, special forces silent indicatives and Free Spacer non-comm signs. A hand appeared beneath the crosspiece, tightly fisted. It opened palm down, and then pressed lower. It spun over and crooked its fingers towards her, beckoning her onward.
She gingerly edged beneath the precariously balanced plastisteel crosspiece, knowing somewhere faraway in the back of her mind that it had enough mass to crush any part of her unfortunate enough to be beneath it, should it slide from where they managed to prop it. Her hands squished into the muck that had accumulated at their feet, the angular velocity of the station pulling the water leaking from recycling systems ever further outwards, or in their case downwards. She was going to have to stay as low as possible to keep her weapon harness from catching on the crosspiece, her eyes staying on the massive slab as she began shimmying her way along through the mud and filth. Tucking her shoulders through the confines of the gap, the mud sucking uncomfortably at her suit, she reached for purchase to haul herself through. The gleam from helmet lamps played over the uneven crags and jutting angles of the short breach she was crawling through, the occasional shaft of light slicing across the faceplate of her helmet. She was breathing hard enough for condensation to build up on the inside of the glassite.
Her hand closed around a length of rebar, poking conveniently from another fallen section of durocrete, and she gently tested it, using it to leverage her body the rest of the way through the gap. Thankful for her narrow hips and slight frame, she set her other hand and began working her lower body the rest of the way beneath the heavy crosspiece. With a long exhale, she tilted her head up to catch the faces of the ones who'd preceded her, offering them a smile despite her exhaustion.
With a noise like crunching gravel, the rebar in her hand gave way.
Muck splattered her helmet as her hand-hold collapsed, sending her half-prone body gracelessly face-down into the brackish mud she'd been crawling through. A rumble all around her, like the deep cycle of a cargo vessel engine as it enters atmosphere, throbbed through her body, vibrating her teeth. The rocks and grit she felt pelting the back of her flightsuit sent a freezing chill that had nothing to do with temperature through her chest, seizing her heart, and she began frantically clawing her way forward. The crosspiece was falling, the rubble was shifting.
The tunnel was collapsing.
She didn't want to die here in the mud, buried under rubble, killed by the very station she was trying to save. The mud, however, had seeped up around her legs, clutching at her, holding her in place half-under the massive crosspiece. The cold dread of certainty snuffed out the fringe of fiery panic she felt, the soldier did not panic. She reached, her hooked fingers sinking into the mud ahead of her, and pulled with a strength that she presumed had fled her. Again, and again, in the space of heartbeats, she fought to drag herself from beneath the crosspiece as quickly as her battered body was able, fighting against the mental image of it shaking loose and falling to crush her. She may have screamed, she wasn't certain. A bone-jangling rumble of crunching durocrete filled the emptiness outside her helmet as her hands lost grip on the mud and the squishing pressure of mud on her suit vanished. Too seized by adrenalin to feel nauseated, she was nonetheless overcome by the sensation of falling.
Fingers grasping, clutching in the empty air for something to hold on to, to pull herself to safety with, her feet went kicking out behind her. Blinded by the mud smeared over her faceplate, all she could feel in the cloying darkness was the sensation of force against her body, whirled like a rag doll and out of control. A solidity crushed against her chest and instinctively her arms snapped against it, fingers digging to hold it, trying to anchor herself against the chaos. She was surrounded, enclosed in the dark and pressed in on all sides. A stillness settled over her here in the eye of the storm, encased by the deep dark, and amethyst-sapphire eyes that had been wide with fear narrowed in determination. She would not allow this broken, ruined station to be her tomb. Clarity of purpose, it seemed, sent a shudder up her spine as if she'd been doused with cold water.
The mud began to flow off her faceplate and she realized she really had been doused with cold water. Pipes from above them must have ruptured, sending a deluge of chilly water over her and as the mud was washed away the first thing she saw was Ichigo, holding her tightly against his chest. Her arms were around him, his armor-paneled flightsuit the thing that had crushed against her and his blood-smeared black mask staring down through her faceplate. Every line of his body was written with concern, from the angle of his skull-like helmet to the strength of the arms that had wrapped around her. The private channel she had running to him chimed and she opened it without even thinking.
A breath, a single breath, was all she heard over the comm. Hands tightened against her back. The moment went on. She smirked up at his helmet, well imagining his scowling eyebrows and pursed lips. "I had it under control."
"I know," he agreed. He made no move to remove his hands from around her, and she found herself unwilling to release him either. Regulating her breathing to something back under control, they stayed that way for a time as the water continued to pour down from above, streaming over the two of them.
Eventually, she felt a nudge against her shoulder and turned to see Renji motion with his helmet down the length of the mostly-clear, unobstructed train tunnel. She didn't bother responding to the look on his face they released each other, she didn't have time or inclination to nurse the pirate's bruised ego. Rolling her shoulders to try to loosen up knotted muscles, Rukia gave a mental flick of biofeedback and sent everyone a prompt to rejoin the local comm channel. "That's the interchange ahead," she said as they all accepted, and she resolutely planted one foot in front of the other.
"I hate to point out what seems like an oversight in your plan, Rukia," Renji said, breathing hard. He was trudging along a few paces behind her, watching the archway grow steadily larger. "But, how are we going to get into one of the cargo cars? I know you haven't got a key."
"We're not going to need one," was all Rukia said in reply, hoping her confidence wasn't misplaced. When no one spoke up in dissent, she chose to believe this was due to trust and not skepticism.
At the rear of the column as they headed down the tunnel, Ichigo remained silent.
Looking carefully about as they approached the mouth of the tunnel, peering into the massive cargo transfer point, the group keenly felt the absence of the solidity and security of the walls that had penned them in. As with most every other part of the station thus far, the light from up above was meager at best, the failing and sickly-yellow emergency lights occasionally flickering into absolute darkness. Thick snakes of grav-lev tracks crisscrossed beneath their feet while the huge cargo cars squatted still and heavy upon them, scattered across the yard. Past the cargo cars and dwarfing them as they loomed from the shadows at the far wall, poised like giant metal guardians, were the two cargo mech-loaders. Like the loader frames Ichigo had worn to work on the Sode no Shirayuki in the week they'd spent in Urahara's service bay, they were similar in all aspects but scale, standing more than ten meters tall.
"We need to get up there," Rukia said, pointing overhead. "The Loadmaster's station."
As one, their eyes rose up above the two towering cargo loaders to the workstation perched like a vulture overlooking the entire railyard. Connected by bridges of skywalks leading off to the darkened recesses of the cargo transfer point's administrative offices, the Loadmaster's station was similar to every other facet of the cargo system they'd seen so far: unadorned, industrial and above all, functional.
Nods of various levels of enthusiasm were all the replies she garnered and she could tell the group was hesitant to emerge fully from the protective shadows of the tunnel arch. The few remaining emergency lights high up the walls threw disjointed patterns of light and shadow among the hulking cargo cars and across the skywalks. Any attempt to reach the Loadmaster's station would be fully exposed not only to the other dark train tunnels, but to the skywalks lost in shadow up above. Noticing something, Rukia braved a few paces into the railyard, being careful not to trip over the grav-lev tracks as she craned her eyes at the far wall.
"What is it?" Ichigo asked, seeing her intent look.
She turned and found him at her side. He had kept pace with her when the others had not. A brief smile touched her lips before she tilted her head towards the yawning darkness of the far wall, beyond the two mech-loaders. "Look, the doors are open. The Imp must still be here."
Ichigo raised his head to look where she'd pointed, the optics on his helmet adjusting to pierce the gloom. Beyond the tall cargo loaders, on the far side of the rail yard there were two massive cargo bay doors standing open. "Huh," Ichigo said, "I'd never seen the bottom floor of the Impelator before." As large as a small cargo ship in its own right, the massive Impelator was the huge two-story elevator car that traveled through the ring pylon between the main habitat and the outer docking ring. Aligned with the surface and sub level transit systems, the top floor was for civilian traffic while the cavernous bottom level was reserved for cargo containers coming in and going out through the docking rings.
She and Ichigo moved back closer to the others, the finer points of her plan beginning to formulate in her mind. They had just set foot back in the safety of the tunnel darkness when they heard it over their suit mics, faint and far but unmistakable through the stillness and silence of the abandoned cargo transfer point. Somewhere on the floors above them, an automatic door was sliding open, then closed, then open again. They looked at one another, the knowledge that they were not alone settling over them like a dark cloud, dispelling their illusion of safety in obscurity.
Toshiro eased his weapon from the holster at his side, doing his best not to let the catch snap too loudly. "We need to keep moving," he whispered into the comm.
"I agree, listen up," Rukia said, schooling her features back into a visage of seriousness. She had enough experience diverting these cars for Urahara that she felt she knew the system pretty well, and her plan was contingent on that confidence. "I'll go up the ladder from the mech-loader service bay," she said, pointing off to the side. "From there I can get to the skywalks that lead to the Loadmaster's station. The cars have a backup, onboard powerplant to drive with, but I'll need get one set up on the right track."
"So what do we do?" Toshiro asked. There was a healthy measure of skepticism in his tone but he wasn't outwardly rebuking her.
"Stay here and get ready to move when I say." She caught the looks of uncertainty on their faces. "I'll be fast."
A sound of shuffling and clattering echoed from above and they all irrationally hushed their voices and ducked lower. "You're not going up there alone," Ichigo uttered, just shy of vehemence.
Instead of being touched by his thoughtfulness, Rukia spun on him with an angry glare. "I can handle myself just fine, Ichigo!" she snapped harshly, careful to keep her voice from carrying beyond her helmet.
"The point of having a partner is that there is someone to watch your back, Rukia!" Ichigo replied, unwilling to budge. The sound of shattering glass tinkled from the halls up above and Ichigo motioned to indicate the obviousness of the situation.
"He's right hun," Rangiku said, laying a hand on her shoulder.
"You should take someone with you," Renji agreed, but Rukia heard the careful lack of inflection in his voice as he looked out into the railyard, eyes anywhere but on her or Ichigo.
Mollified somewhat, she huffed out a breath as she glanced among them, finally fixing Ichigo with a stare. "Uryu, you're with me, the rest of you find some cover and keep quiet." She caught the slight motion of Ichigo's shoulders, a mixture of hurt, confusion and betrayal, and opened up the private comm to him. "He moves the quietest," she explained, smoothing ruffled feelings as she removed the weapon from her harness. "Besides, I need you down here. Think you can pop the locks like you did on that space marine's locker?" Her eyes flicked to him and caught his shoulders relax at her sardonic query.
Ichigo guffawed, "That's your plan? I don't think I have to tell you the difference between a basic junk-keyed tumbler and the ones on a cargo container, do I?"
Rukia laughed, the hardness of her glare melting beneath the light of mischief in her eyes. "Not those locks," was all she replied over the shared channel. She flipped over to their private one and told him what she wanted him to do, quickly and succinctly without room for objection. Once done, she tapped Uryu on the shoulder and slipped out of the tunnel.
Uryu stepped over to Ichigo and held out the strap of the bulky black bag he'd been lugging around this whole time. "Don't lose this," he said simply, watching Ichigo flash him an obscene gesture even as he hoisted the bag onto his shoulder. Uryu clapped him on the other, more professionally than companionably, before slipped out after Rukia, his pale radiation cape fluttering in his wake.
Ichigo remained there for a long moment, watching her sprint off through the flickering light. He set the bag more comfortably on his shoulder and turned his gaze to the darkness in the distance. "She can't be serious."
Moving noiselessly away from the others, Rukia let her black flightsuit melt her into the shadows, slipping from one cargo car to the next. While she kept checking her surroundings for movement, her eyes inevitably would flick over to the loaders hulking in the darkness. They were massive skeletons made of metal and hydraulics hanging there from their armatures, coils of tubing and umbilicals connecting across their backs and shoulders. She turned her eyes away, stomach twisting, the image of it eerily similar to what she'd seen in a dream. Shaking her attention back on mission, she aimed a two-finger point off to their side at their target. The service ladders up the side of the loader's maintenance bays went past the operator access railings, all the way up to the skywalk level, but there would no cover until they crested the top of the ladder. As soon as she caught Uryu's nod, she went sprinting off across the railyard.
At the foot of the rungs, she swung around with her back to the bay wall, eyes meeting Uryu's before flicking upwards. Off the skywalk level was the main lobby and a number of halls, all darkened by power loss. Whatever it was that making those noises, it was coming from there, from the administrative offices of the cargo transfer point. He drew his weapon, an odd, but still lethal looking contraption that bore some resemblance to the energy weapon she'd seen affixed to his ship. He rested it in the crook of his arm and gave a curt nod, sighting along the skywalks above them. Blowing a breath, she holstered her own weapon in the harness at the small of her back and began climbing. Feeling remarkably exposed, she hurried up the ladder to the middeck of the service bay and scurried over to the meager cover provided by the nearest control console, putting her back against its solidity before whispering into her comm, "Okay, go." She felt foolish for whispering, no one could hear them through the helmets, but growing up slinking among the ruins of Junrinan's moons' decaying metropolises had instilled certain habits that were difficult to break.
Uryu crested the lip of the ladder and knelt down across from her, at the railing that led along the outside edge. Like the rest of the railings and skywalks above, it was unadorned and functional, made of welded bare metal and slatted grating and would leave them without cover of any sort for the entire time it took them to get to the Loadmaster's station level. Readying herself for the next leg of their dash up to the skywalk level, she found herself glancing back to the tunnels they'd emerged from, the bare, simple metal framing the figures in the distance.
The sheen of Ichigo's eyeports flashed back at her, glowing amber in the dim light. He was watching over her. A system-link notice appeared in her vision, blipping into existence and hovering silently, awaiting her acknowledgement. Perplexed, she checked and found Ichigo's odd, biomodifed security token registered to it. Wondering what in the worlds could be so important that he'd interrupt her in the middle of an operation, and what system he was trying to load to her link, she popped it open with a biofeedback command, her hands finding and climbing the rungs of the ladder. What she got was not what she'd expected.
Expanding like a sphere around her head, glowing lines and arcs quickly traced their way through her vision, limning all the major structural areas of the cargo transfer station's interior. From there, sightlines and tactical information began spooling down, detailing hallway and door junctures, complete with glowing arcs of fire and occlusion, all formatted to sync with her neural targeting system and micro-muscle control implants. He was running logistics for her from the sensors in his helmet, the same as if he were piloting and she were at her tactical station, all of it on the fly and compressed through their private comm channel. Privately amazed, she took the time to glance around the cargo transfer point, studying the infofeed, then looked back at him to see him give her an encouraging nod.
Uryu might be the one up here with me, she thought, but it is Ichigo who's the one that's still my partner, and she would not let him down. She nodded back, checked through the interface for any trace of movement, and then set off again up the ladder. Pairing stealth with speed, she climbed to the skywalk as swiftly as she was able, Uryu following as soon as she'd stepped off. She found his solid focus and professionalism a reassuring presence at her back, and they both checked the connecting skywalks around them, half-hidden in gloom and shadow, for any signs of hostile contacts.
"I'll cover you, Miss White," Uryu said, falling back to using her callsign.
"Thank you, Bowman." Rukia caught him straighten slightly as she used the title. She knew it must have been decades since the QNC fleet had been under the command of the nobility, and Uryu himself had probably never been addressed by it directly. Now he was all that remained of the once proud imperial fleet and Rukia felt privately honored to be the one who once again called on his service. From the set of his shoulders and the determination on his face, she could tell that she was not the only who felt that way.
Blowing one more steadying breath, Rukia slipped out from where she'd crouched, moving along the metal grating of the skywalk towards their destination. The nearest juncture leading to the Loadmaster's station required a roundabout route and the grating vibrated beneath her boots with every step despite how careful they were not to let the sound of their footfalls echo in the vast chamber. They carefully moved along the skywalk as far they could, then crouched and weighed their options. To go further they'd have to slip across the mouth of the lobby area, a vast emptiness swallowed by shadow, and as they silently debated a sound over their suit mics froze them in place.
Somewhere nearby, echoing down the halls and through the darkness of the lobby, came the sound of wet, fleshy thudding. Her mouth suddenly dry, the only thing Rukia could liken it to was someone, past all reason, pass all sensation of pain, mindlessly pounding their fist on a door. Alarmed at the proximity of such a sound, Rukia met Uryu's eye, then looked over his shoulder at the Loadmaster's station suspended out from the skywalks, situated over the whole transfer point. There could not possibly be a more exposed location, she groused mentally. From the echoes, there was no way to tell which direction the sound was coming from, even Ichigo's computed overlay was having trouble isolating it, so she was forced to simply grit her teeth and soldier on.
Soldier on. She'd been doing that her whole life. From the time she and her sister had been eking out a living among the shambles of the Outer Orbits, through her heavy-handed tutoring as a member of the nobility, through her sister's deteriorating health and finally through her time in the Colonial Naval Academy. She'd learned to weather hardship and do her duty, despite anything.
Because everything else had been taken from her.
She shook her head and moved to peek around the corner. She had to focus on her mission, always the mission. She couldn't afford to wallow in maudlin emotion remembering her past.
Remembering her sister.
Remembering her old life.
Remembering the look on her brother's face when last they spoke, watching the wreckage of the Sode no Shirayuki spill across the starry sky. The way she'd felt when she thought her partner was dead.
Her fingers trembled, something that her muscle control implants should have made impossible, as the word 'partner' floated through her mind, this time dredging up more than just surface level associations. Ichigo had not been her first partner. Her fingers shook again, her mind's eye switching his hair color from orange to black. Did Ichigo know the weight of that word, she wondered, glancing down at him. Did he realize everything it meant to her? Did he know what had happened to the few that she'd called partner before? Her eyes flicked to the shadows behind Ichigo, over to Renji. One was here, their history together now just an ache in her heart that had been dulled by time. She closed her eyes, knowing it was the only place she could find second one, still able to see his cocky smile and messy black hair from the pilot's station even after all this time. She opened her eyes and looked to Ichigo again. Did he realize what he meant to her?
She knew her concentration had been broken as she forced herself to look up, peeking around the edge of the wall as Ichigo's borrowed visual interface spun data to her own targeting system, filling the darkness with streams of glowing information. She told herself she was an operative of the G-13, a soldier trained to fight an enemy no one else could, an enemy that had infiltrated this station. She reminded herself that it was her mission to see this through, to do whatever it took to succeed. All the while thought, there was a small voice in the back of her head that kept incessantly asking 'at what cost?' There was one thing that hadn't been taken from her yet, is this the mission that would take it from her?
She could hear the shuffling and thudding coming from down the halls but there wasn't anything in her field of view, her neural link's targeting reticle skimming through her vision continually trying to isolate a target. With a motion of her hand she gave Uryu the signal to roll around her and move across the wide mouth of the lobby entrance. For all his proficiency at ship combat, she could tell he was unused to small arms operations. It was obvious as he moved with a precise but rapid pace, the young man holding his weapon at the ready, his eyes switching from hall to hall, expectantly.
Fighting the distractions of her memories and gnawing sense of unease, she almost missed the signal from Uryu once he was in position on the other side. Keeping low and refocusing her attention on her surroundings, she crossed in Uryu's wake while the vigilante covered the darkness of the lobby with his weapon. Thus far uneventful, Rukia hoped their luck would continue as the two shifted away from the lobby and around the edge of the railing, moving onto the skywalk bridge that led towards the Loadmaster's station.
"So far, so good," Uryu said, echoing her thoughts, as they cautiously moved down the metal grating and came to a stop at the large console.
"Looks like they left in a hurry," Rukia mentioned. She stared mournfully at a cup of coffee sitting cold and lonely upon the surface, among several maintenance tools had been scattered about.
"Did they leave the workstation unlocked?" he asked, keeping his eyes moving from the dark lobby, over towards the office blocks, and back to the shadowy halls.
She didn't immediately respond, lightly touching the contact plate and activating the console. The screen brightened up but the rest of the bank remained off, the red notice of 'Critical Power Failure: Emergency Access Only' hovering there as the system status. One of her eyebrows rose as she deadpanned, "In a way."
A clattering of tumbling furniture made them both jump, then immediately duck behind the console. Something was clumsily crashing around in the recesses of the lobby across from them. "Whatever you're going to do, do it quickly," he said.
Eyes peeking up over the pointboard, Rukia lifted her hand and pressed it to the contact plate again, this time pulling down her security token and supplying it to the system prompt. The status flickered, shifting to display 'Access Denied' in bold red letters. She swore, inwardly and colorfully. According to the station, and the M.I.C. in general, her navel commission was still rescinded along with her official security token rights.
"How much time?" Uryu asked. His eyes were still scanning the darkness, looking for a target.
"I need thirty seconds," Rukia whispered. She pulled up her keyring, flicking through it and replacing her security token with Urahara's code for freight transfer access. He'd doctored up the permissions it had been assigned, making it far more powerful than what was needed to simply divert cargo containers. The status display blinked into a green 'Access Granted: Welcome Captain Urahara.' Rukia shook her head at Kisuke's endless audacity.
"I'm detecting movement," Uryu mentioned, "At the far side of the lobby." His outward calm was underpinned by notes of growing concern.
"Stay down," Rukia said, sitting awkwardly with her hand still touching the plate above her head. Uryu crouched next to her, fingers flexing on the grip of his weapon, anxiety creeping into his posture. Doing her best to ignore him, she pulled up the default set of system panels in her neural link instead of the console's displays and they all blipped to life around her, each bearing the header 'Emergency Management.' She nearly snorted at the irony of it. Upon activating the track relay screen, she was helpfully informed that the Loadmaster's station was in power recovery mode and that all cargo transfer tasks had been suspended, which she immediately dismissed. A holo-display of the railyard appeared in her vision hovering a meter in front of her, responding as she turned it around and overlaid it with the tracks that led to the navel sector of the station. Picking the right track, she zoomed in on the yard display again and poked her finger at the small glowing representation of a cargo car, sitting inert on the track. "This one."
She waited a beat, then poked it again. Frowning, she sent a biofeedback command for activation at the car. Still nothing happened.
"What's wrong?" Uryu whispered, catching the look on her face.
"Nothing," she lied. A final poke at the system triggered another helpfully informative display appearing in her vision, and reading it made her heart sink. 'Power State Insufficient' it read, and below it was the option to enable the cargo yard's independent backup generators. "Okay, something."
"What's the situation up there?" Toshiro demanded, his voice biting over the comm line.
"I need everyone with a weapon to form up down there at car..." she consulted her hovering screens once more, "Three-six-A-dash-four, and cover the lobby, the side halls and the lower tunnels, just in case."
"Just in case of what?" Renji demanded.
"I'm about to compromise our position," she explained, as clinically as she was able.
There was a long pause before Renji finally succumbed to temptation and asked, "Why?"
"The cars are self-powered, but the rail track controls are not. In order to get a car on the right track I need to power up the whole yard." She leaned out around the console, peering down at the mouth of the tunnel they'd come through.
"You sure you have to do the whole thing?" Rangiku asked.
"It's all or nothing, maybe I could eventually figure out how to route power to run individual tracks, but we don't have that kind of time."
There was another pause before Toshiro came back on the comm line. "Copy, car three-six-alpha-dash-four."
Well, Rukia thought to herself, at least they were all going to be in it together. "Ichigo, you know you're part in this?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm on it. So how much noise is that going to make?" Ichigo's voice was low and calm.
She looked over the railing and down at the yard, Ichigo walking with the others along the tracks. Renji, Rangiku and Toshiro had drawn their weapons and were moving cautiously, eyes alert and scanning for movement. Ichigo, from the relaxed way he'd hooked his hands on the panels at his thighs, could have been taking a stroll on the docking ring. His helmet rose to meet her glance, as if he could feel her eyes on him. "A lot," she admitted.
"We are in position," Toshiro announced.
"You ready?" Rukia asked Uryu. He nodded and with a flick of his finger, activated the cap chargers down the length of his weapon. "Okay," she said and firmly pushed her command to the Loadmaster's station, firing up the backup generator systems. From all round her, deafening like rifle shots firing in sequence, she could hear the loud snaps of breakers switching circuits. The murky yellow of the emergency lights was replaced with brilliant white as the main lights flickered on above them, Rukia blinking in the sudden glare. Red strobes began flashing across the railyard, safety and warning lights mounted everywhere demanding attention. Rukia privately agreed: This was definitely very wrong. She nearly jumped when the sirens began wailing. She stood instead, wincing as the alarms blared across the cargo yard, and pushed the control screens back to the console. One hand on the contact plate, the other setting her weapon down to dance her fingertips across the pointboard, she finalized her cargo car route commands, setting the track for the Northern Navel Sector cargo point and unlocking the moorings on the sled she'd picked.
"Hot contact!" Uryu's voice was sharp and she was holding her weapon again before she'd realized it. Looking up from the displays, she peered over the top of the Loadmaster's station and stared into the mouth of the lobby across from them. The lights were flickering on throughout the building, the cool sterility of the station's lighting chasing away the darkness while exposing them to the nightmares that had hid within.
"Oh... God..." she uttered. The walls, the carpets, the office windows, the workstations and desks, tables, chairs, everything. Everything was spattered with blood. From far down one of the halls, a door opened.
She had her hands braced and weapon sighted in less than a second, the targeting reticle in her vision locked down the sights of her barrel while her implant's control fibers woven through her muscles steadied her aim. There was something moving in the darkness beyond the open doorway and Rukia waited for the shot, she didn't have ammunition to spare and needed a clean line. Ichigo's visual interface shifted suddenly, something going wrong as the computed firing arcs blurrily diverged, a conflict arising between her targeting system and Ichigo's interface. Frustrated, she pushed away the link data as her finger tightened on the trigger. She didn't need her link to shoot at this range.
The shape in the darkness beyond the door shifted, shuffling nearer to the door, and Rukia eased her breath out, exhaling to put her body perfectly under control. A glint of light shined in her eye, making her twitch. She ignored it, lining up her shot. The glint sparkled, refracting off the clear glassite of her helmet. Irritated, she loosened up her body as the figure down the hall stumbled forward. Gritting her teeth, Rukia shifted to line up her shot again, leaning on the console to brace herself, something jabbing her in the side as a result. Cursing, she glanced down to see what had prodded her, ready to knock it away.
Of the tools that had been left behind, a heavy wrench had slid across the incline of the console and was pressing against her side. The soldier in her demanded she focus and fire, to do her duty, to eliminate her enemy. But the wrench, why couldn't she tear her eyes away from the wrench? She shifted her shoulders and settled her aim again, the shape beyond hesitating. Hesitating? Why? She glanced back to the wrench. It was a fitter wrench and an image flickered through her mind, the pale outline of a scar. Ichigo's scar. He'd been at the Miner's Coalition riots providing medical relief, he'd been injured just trying to help. Ichigo, his linked interface was still conflicting with her targeting system and in a flash, she realized what it was trying to tell her, and her finger eased off the trigger.
Her target stumbled from the darkness of the office, limping across the skywalk towards her, other shapes behind moving, emerging into the light, and the icy hand around her heart clenched tighter. That cold, unfeeling sterility of the soldier in her mind was a refuge, a safe place to go that she could rely on to execute whatever orders she'd been given. Whether it'd been tracking down marks for Renji, playing the part of the noble princess for Byakuya, or hunting down Hollows for Captain Ukitake, she'd let the soldier in her fill that role.
It had been Ichigo, headstrong, brash but ultimately noble Ichigo that had taught her that playing the role really wasn't the same as living a life. She'd been relying on it for so long she hadn't considered there could be any alternative, but she'd been wrong. He'd seen the danger on their first meeting, recognized the necessity when he'd been offered their partnership, and gave everything he had just to help her. He'd been thrown in jail, been branded a criminal, consorted with pirates and vigilantes, had watched his friend die, and nearly been killed by her own brother all just to help her protect the people of this system. It was Ichigo that reminded her that she didn't need to rely on the cold soldier within her, to shut down her feelings and emotions, to close herself off from everyone and everything. This wasn't hostile territory and she wasn't assaulting an enemy.
She was protecting her home.
All this came to her as she tipped the nose of her weapon up, her eyes widening as more figures came barreling out of the darkness and into the hallway. Survivors. The soldier in her had nearly shot a survivor.
"Non..." Rukia cleared her throat, eyes still wide on the approaching group. "Non-combatants, repeat non-combatants in the area."
"What the hell is going on up there?" Toshiro demanded.
"Remain in position," Uryu said, lowering his weapon and eyeing the people desperately running towards them.
"Oh please help us, you have to help us," a woman whimpered, stumbling towards them. She was streaked with grime and dust, her hair disheveled and clothing torn. She wore an emergency atmo mask strapped to her face, but beneath its clear plate her skin had taken on an ashen pallor while the whites were visible all around her eyes. Panicked and terror stricken, she nearly collapsed at Rukia's feet, barely held up by her free arm, the girl sobbing and heaving for breath.
Rukia turned her face up from the woman and stared at Uryu, a weapon in one hand and a broken mess of a civilian in the other, stamping a 'what-do-I-do-now?' look on her face while hoping that he'd have some idea. He was already moving to help the woman to her feet, deftly getting her to release her hands from fisting further into Rukia's flightsuit and gallantly helping her to catch her breath. He had just managed to get the woman to use the railing to support herself with when they were suddenly confronted by half a dozen scared and injured people pouring from the lobby hall, all with emergency air masks and looks of panic on their faces.
"Please, are you with the police?" the woman begged them.
"I'm with the Navy," Rukia answered over her suit's speakers, trying vainly to sound reassuring.
"Oh thank you," she sobbed, "I don't know what's happening! The station, and the people, what they did…" Her eyes were tearing up as she reached for Rukia's suit like a lifeline, Uryu managing to intercept her again. "We've been hiding, we thought we'd be safe here..." She glanced back at the hall they'd run through, spattered with blood and gore and then nearly vomited.
Screams and shouts erupted from the group approaching them across the skywalk, the handful of people realizing something was at their backs. Looking past them, Rukia could see the hasty barricade of furniture, inside the now well-lit office, blocking off the far door being knocked violently down and spindly, bony arms reaching through. There was no mistaking these misshapen silhouettes, she was sure of it this time. The Hollowfied, alerted by the noise and light, had found them and were clawing their way closer.
"Get these people out of here!" Rukia ordered Uryu, breaking away from the cluster of people and sighting her weapon down the hall. Terror had gripped the survivors as they fell back, falling over themselves to get away from the things crawling over the barricade and into the office.
"This way," Uryu announced, herding them away down the other side of the skywalk, heading for an alternate route to the ladders leading to the service bays. They were more than willing to follow any authority they could find.
"People? You're sending those people down here?" came the inevitable question in her ear.
"We've got a situation up here," she announced as she fought her way through the tide of people, keeping her eyes on the shambling non-people falling through a breach they'd made. As a group, they rose and began stumbling towards her, all limp hair, sunken cheeks, dead eyes and tattered softsuits. "A big situation."
"Report your target count," came Toshiro's clipped demand. It was clear he wasn't used to taking orders.
"Six hostiles on single approach," Rukia replied, raising her weapon. "More inbound, no doubt."
"I'm coming to you," Renji called out.
"You will do no such thing," Rukia shot back, her eyes narrowed down the ironsights as she took a knee, lining up her shot. "You will remain in position and assist in the evac of those non-combatants."
"This isn't a goddamn rescue mission, Kuchiki!" Toshiro fumed.
"The operational parameters of this mission just expanded," Rukia said evenly, and her voice was the wind off a glacier as her finger tightened on the trigger. She exhaled, she fired and the gunshot rang out like a clarion call, she inhaled. "Five hostiles. Ichigo, report your status." One of the Hollowfied lurching towards her had collapsed in the lobby, her gunshot blowing out its knee in a spray of ichorous blood. The others behind it paid it no mind, callously stumbling over it as they came into the lobby. "Ichigo, report!"
"Yeah yeah, I'm set here," he said negligently, though his voice was strained, as though from effort or pain. "You doing alright up there?" he asked, sounding far more interested in her than anything else.
Two more gunshots rang out. "I need supporting fire," she said. How she'd managed to sound as calm as she had, she had no idea. She'd managed to hit another two more lurching bodies, but neither had slowed up much, they were still advancing at her at a terrifying pace.
"Uryu left you up there?"
"Would you rather I'd left these people?" Uryu shot back, doing his best to get a group of civilians down the service ladder in an orderly fashion.
"Fall back!" Toshiro yelled into the comm, "Draw them out further!"
Rukia turned to sprint down the further skywalk, but barely made it two steps before skidding to a stop. The large plate glass window that looked out into the loading dock shattered beneath the weight of three, gaunt sallow-skinned bodies. The shards of glass cut and shredded softsuit and flesh alike, but it made no difference. Before she knew it, the trio of Hollowfied were lurching across the connecting the skywalk towards her, shuffling ungainly and staring at her, cutting off her escape route. "Shit." She checked the ammunition count on the side of her weapon and, if possible, became further discouraged.
"Take cover, Kuchiki," Toshiro ordered, a second before opening fire.
Rukia dropped to the metal grating of the skywalk as the shots rang out, coming from his placement down in the railyard below. The zips and rings of ricochets flew past uncomfortably close, and Rukia dared a glance at the two groups of approaching Hollowfied. The angle from below was bad but he'd managed to wound several, dropping them to the skywalk to claw and crawl their way along, but none of them had been incapacitated. What was worse, those that had fallen were now effectively out of Toshiro's line of sight. Rukia rolled back to the Loadmaster's station, the spot furthest away from both groups, and drew her weapon on the closest target.
"Cease fire, cease fire," came another command over the comm. Rukia looked over to see Uryu crest the top of service bay level, the highest vantage point possible without making the long climb to the skywalk level.
"You're not in a position of authority," Hitsugaya muttered, "You can't make that call." Still, Toshiro raised his weapon as he shot a scornful look the vigilante's way.
"Call it a suggestion then," Uryu replied easily, setting the barrel of his long, odd looking weapon in the crook of his elbow. "I also suggest that you take immediate cover behind that console, Miss White."
Rukia's eyebrows shot up as he swung the weapon up, leveled directly at her. She immediately dropped to the grating floor of the skywalk, tucking herself under the eave of the console. "Okay, I hope," she called out, making sure every part of her body was fully concealed behind the the console. In front of her, she could see the Hollowfied approaching not more than five meters away, staring at her with dull, rheumy eyes as their jaws worked mindlessly, reaching towards he with clawed hands. "If you're gonna do something, do it fast."
"Ahem," Uryu said, his tone clipped and proper. "Fire in the hole."
She recognized the whine that climbed quickly in volume and pitch as cap-chargers firing in sequence, a second before a bright, blinding white light filled the train yard, strobing a dozen times a second. The stuttering of relief breakers, like a constantly shuffling deck of cards, filled the air as Rukia turned away from the harsh glare. Lasting four, perhaps five seconds, the blue-white light suddenly winked out and the sound of relief breakers and cap-chargers vanished, replaced only by the sound of a spent energy source cycling down.
"What..." Ichigo's voice broke their momentary stunned silence, "The hell... was that?"
"There was a call for suppressing fire, I obliged."
Rukia clambered gingerly out from beneath the shelter of the console, staring at the skywalks that had been caught in Uryu's blast. The Hollowfied were little more than charred, smoking ash in the rough shape of bodies and the facing edges of the skywalks glowed a dull orange. She looked over to the white-clad vigilante to see him swing his weapon up to his shoulder and nod respectfully.
Ichigo, however, was not one to simply let this go. "You're idea of suppressing fire is to... to... to atomize everything? While Rukia was in the way? You could've hurt someone, asshole!"
"That was the point," Rukia smartly interjected. She stepped carefully over towards the skywalk that would lead her back down the service ladder, but stopped abruptly as the grating creaked beneath her feet.
"Hot contact!" Uryu shouted suddenly, his eyes aimed directly at the far end of the lobby. The cargo transfer point main doors had collapsed under the weight of dozens more Hollowfied, drawn by the noise and chaos. They came shuffling through the lobby, their eyes set on Rukia.
"I need an alternate exit here," she said. She felt remarkably alone, the only human on the skywalk level and facing a filthy, shambling mass of bloody and decomposing Hollowfied. The skywalk creaked again, the metal beginning to warp from the heat of Uryu's energy weapon, and Rukia took another prudent step back.
"My weapon needs to recharge to do that again," Uryu said, flipping a small toggle on the grip. "But in the mean time..."
"Ichigo?" she called out into the comm. "Think you could lend me a hand?"
"Yeah yeah," he replied testily, obviously distracted from what he was doing.
Mildly shocked, Uryu turned to look where he'd last seen Ichigo, then realized the black suited man wasn't around anywhere. "You know, I'd be much more comfortable taking your criticism, Kurosaki, if you had deigned to participate in the first place."
The mass of Hollowfied had reached the lip of the skywalk and were unerringly bearing down on Rukia, who stood less than ten meters away, essentially trapped on the island of the Loadmaster's station. The grating groaned in protest as they shuffled onto it, their combined weight and damage from Uryu's weapon weakening the entire structure. Rukia gripped the handrail at her back and watched, waiting, as the horde of Hollowfied came closer across the blackened, superheated bridge. "Sooner is better than later, Ichigo!" she called out, sliding her weapon into the holster at her back.
They all heard several loud clunks and then the spinning purr of flywheels and gryoscopes followed by Ichigo's exclamation of, "Alright! I got your evac, or extract, or whatever the fuck you call it right here. Take a good look Ishida, I'm participating."
From his vantage point atop the service bay's highest maintenance level, Uryu couldn't see anything aside from Rukia backed up all the way against the railing of the Loadmaster's station and a teeming mass of Hollowfied lurching and clawing their way down the skywalk directly at her. He sighted and braced, pulling the trigger and sending a flash of blue-white light lancing through the air, momentarily connecting him to his target with a thin line of energy. His target dropped to the grating, a hole cauterized neatly through its head, but the ones behind simply trampled over it. "There's too many!" he cried. Her only option was the long drop to the trainyard level below.
The skywalk shook and groaned under the weight of the Hollowfied atop it, and Rukia could see it would not hold up much longer. The Hollowfied had closed to within six meters, and she glanced over her shoulder at the long fall to the railyard, and said, "This had better work, Ichigo." She set her hands and swung her legs lithely over the railing. Turning about, her feet braced against the edge of the skywalk and her hands clasping the rail, she waited until the Hollowfied were nearly upon her, their dead eyes locked on her, their mouths slavering as if hungry for a meal. She held her breath, and let go.
"Miss Kuchiki!" Uryu screamed, surging forward to grip the handrail of the level he was on. He watched her fall, arms outstretched, away from the Loadmaster's station, plummeting downwards.
Until, suddenly, she wasn't. Uryu blinked and tried to adjust his glasses but was prevented by the faceplate of his helmet, all while he struggled to understand just what had happened.
"Gotcha," he heard over the comm line, just as Rukia sat up from where she was, having fallen only a meter from the skywalk. Looking tiny, sitting in the palm of a giant mechanical hand, Rukia adjusted her flightsuit before looking up at the deeper darkness below the skywalks and past the rail cars. Brilliant yellow sodium lamps flared like eyes in the dark, and from the shadows moved one of the massive cargo mech-loaders, its hand outstretched to catch the young woman and Ichigo belted firmly into the pilot's harness. "Told ya I would."
Rukia smiled in spite of herself, then quickly schooled her features back to business. Hanging onto part of the massive metal hand beneath her, she turned back in the direction of the cargo car, taking in the situation. "You still have a job to do," she reminded him, and hung on tightly as the huge mech-loader pivoted on its armature, taking them closer to where everyone was waiting. With the mech-loader's free hand, Ichigo reached over and set it against the service points of the container, ratcheting the locks closed before lifting it entirely off the top of the sled. From her perch, Rukia stood and stared down at the others. "See? I told you we wouldn't need a key." Her confident tone and sure smile wavered a bit, seeing shadows shifting in the tunnels at their periphery.
"Get those people on the sled, now!" Toshiro ordered, "Multiple contacts!" No sooner had he issued the order than he had swung his weapon to point into the nearest tunnel mouth, taking a bead on a gaunt, lank haired and bloodcaked Hollowfied figure. The sound of gunfire and screams filled the thin air, civilians scrambling up on top of the flat grav-sled while Toshiro, Rangiku, and Renji held off the approaching figures. Uryu, rejoining them, followed up with precision blasts of his energy pistol once he'd crested the sled.
Moving the mech-loader as close as he was able, the giant industrial waldo it was mounted to whirring as it went, Ichigo prepared to do what he could to help. He could see Rukia drawing her weapon and bracing against the massive 'fingers' of the loader's hand, ready to fire as soon as she had a shot. He was just about to comment when a tremor shook the cargo yard, jostling Rukia and throwing the people on the sled to their knees. The rapid gunfire quickly came to a halt, everyone tense and expectant. Bafflingly, even the Hollowfied froze in place. "What was that?" Ichigo asked into the sudden stillness.
"They're... falling back?" Rangiku said, tilting her head.
The Hollowfied that had come crawling through the darkness of the train tunnels were slinking back, moving steadily away from the train yard. Looking up above, the Hollowfied that had been stuck up on the skywalks after Rukia's jump to safety were also leaving, in as much haste as they're desiccated bodies were capable of.
Another massive tremor shook the railyard again, and the Hollowfied nearly fell over each other in their retreat. Watching them in confusion from the pilot's harness of the mech-loader, Ichigo straightened up the huge machine as he shifted his posture. "It's almost like they're running away."
"Yeah," Renji agreed, "But, what could possibly make those things turn tail like that?" The comm channel shared among them hissed and popped with a blare of distortion at the end of Renji's question.
The voice over the comm channel was heavy and thunderous, pounding through their aural implants right at the range of acceptable volume. The channel was filled with exclamations of pain and surprise, all of them holding their helmets in defense of the sound and pressure. The civilians, shaken and jittery, watched them in nervous confusion, unsure of what exactly was going on. Their confusion was immediately forgotten, however, as another, far more powerful quake shook through the railyard and left them clutching the top of the grav-sled.
"Someone's broken into the comm channel," Uryu gasped, shaking his head from the noise. "We need to-"
A shaft of light speared through the Impelator car's roof with another, final tremor. Instead of ending, this one went rolling on and on as the roof of the car began to cave in with the slow, tortured rumble of heavy things collapsing beneath their own weight, the six companions and their rescued civilians all watching in mute spectacle.
Smoke and dust billowed through the wide open cargobay doors, filling the railyard room with a brown-grey haze. On instinct, Ichigo lifted the hovercar-sized hand of the mech-loader to block the plume of dust and debris that came rolling from the Impelator car. He could see Rukia shift in his other palm, lifting herself up to get a better a vantage point.
"I think the answer to Renji's question just arrived." Rukia turned her face up towards Ichigo's their eyes meeting through eyeports and glassite, wordlessly exchanging the gravity of the situation.
The voice screamed in their helmets, far louder than before and sending all of them to their knees.
"Get on that sled, we are leaving, NOW!" Toshiro ordered, teeth clenched against the ringing in his skull.
"Something..." Ichigo muttered, leaning the huge mech-loader over, peering in interest through the eyeports of his masked helmet. "Something's in there..." The voice, he realized, while deafeningly loud was also unmodulated and utterly flat. Almost like it had been synthesized. But that would only make sense if-
The mountain of debris that the Impelator car had become, shifted as something moved beneath it. The huge sheets of metal paneling that had been torn from the sides of the car tented up, displaced as something rose up from the wreckage. Red lights, flaring from the shadows under the debris, flickered and blinked like so many eyes, all of them rolling madly in their sockets. Broken bits of the Impelator housing slid from atop it, the gigantic mass of it moving with a sudden, frightening speed, lifting itself up from the ruined lower deck of the car and throwing off the last of the concealing wreckage.
"That's..." Ichigo breathed, "Impossible."
"WHAAAT." The voice, like agony made manifest, wailed at them with a crushing, blasting pressure.
A nightmare melding of metal and bone, of muscle, flesh, and sinew grafted to steel, actuator, and piston, glowered at them from a dozen different baleful vermillion eyes. Huge and ghastly, bulging and quivering masses of flesh and undulating organs worked in horrid concert with cold steel and hydraulics, a monstrous mockery of both the living and the not. It moved forward, and every interplay of machine and muscle was sickening and unnatural, was so utterly wrong.
"Ichigo," Rukia whispered, gripping the edge of the giant mech-loader's hand, "Is that...?"
"Yes," Ichigo said, and a hiss of steam burst from the sharp slats across the mouth of his mask. "It's Fisher."
"But how?" Rukia demanded, needing some kind of explanation to what shambled out of the remains of the elevator car. "That thing should be dead!" The man that had once been G. Fisher, the subject of illegal bio-modification involving Hollow genetics, and the subsequent grafting of his body to the huge Hollow-infested ore transport ship had apparently survived the nuclear blast that had taken Lirin's life. However, the means that had kept him alive were no less ghastly and abominable than the means that had Hollowfied him in the first place. Rather than the Hollowfied humans that had taken to roaming the station, or the new, more calculating Hollows they'd encountered out in space, Fisher was caught somewhere halfway in between.
Bile rose in Rukia's throat as she watched Fisher push up off the ground, rearing up on thick, tree-trunk legs that bent and hinged in wrong places. Huge and disgusting, his body had become an amalgam of scavenged steel from the ore ship and scavenged human body parts from the crew, all grotesquely regrown and bolted together into the abomination before her. The horrid thing rolled its massive head around, the wedge shape the only thing reminiscent of the Hollows she'd seen, before it pointed its gaze at them. The plating across its jaw, taken from the prow of the ore transport ship, retracted as it open its mouth with the sound of servos and creaking bones.
"WHAT," thundered in their heads as a roar, unearthly and filled with suffering and agony, rolled over them.
Rukia clutched at the huge fingers of the mech-loader's hand, desperate to keep from falling as she buckled under the strain of such an auditory assault. There were screams around her, the civilians, terrified of the massive monstrosity, and shouts in her ear from Renji and Toshiro, but when she was able to blink away the pain-induced tears on her lashes all she could see was the giant form of Fisher, rising high above her, arms outstretched as it lunged for them and all dozen of its eyes staring hungrily at her.
She didn't scream, she was certain this time. Rukia drew her weapon from the harness at her back, whipped in front of her, and began squeezing off rounds. Each blast from the muzzle of her gun, the recoil thudding up her arms and across her body, was an affirmation that what had happened on that comm relay station would not happen again. Not here. Not anywhere. More gun fire erupted from behind her, off to the side the others had opened fire as well. From her impromptu shooter's stance atop the mech-loader's hand, she halted her fire long enough to watch Fisher pause, as if confused by the comparatively tiny stings and bites their combined gunfire had inflicted. She watched Fisher pause long enough for Ichigo's enormous left hook to catch him right across the jaw.
"Hang onto something!" Ichigo yelled from the pilot's bay of the mech-loader, fighting the controls to pull his arm back. This thing is made to move cargo containers around, he fumed internally, not go toe-to-toe with giant alien monsters. Fisher recovered more quickly than he could, and only managed to get the huge elbow of the mech-loader's arm up under Fisher's jaw as he came snapping and tearing at the pilot's bay. The sound of squealing metal and heavy impact filled the railyard as the two huge figures struggled against each other.
"What are you doing!?" Rukia shouted in response.
"What's look like I'm doing?!" Ichigo grunted as he strained, pushing as hard as he could as Fisher bore all his considerable weight against the mech-loader, the servo controls sympathetically bearing against his arm. He was doing his best to keep the hand holding Rukia still as Fisher began to gnash and claw, stripping away pieces of the mech-loader's arm. More steam hissed from the slats across his mouth as he focused on Fisher, locking his legs in the bay and pushing back, re-taking the ground he'd lost. With a heave, he shook off Fisher who'd overbalanced, knocking him back towards the Impelator car and earning a few seconds of reprieve.
"Drop the car!" Rukia shouted suddenly, seized by the idea.
"What?!" Ichigo replied, eyeing Fisher as the massive abomination righted itself, turning a wary stare at Ichigo in return.
"The brakes on the car!" Rukia exclaimed, pointing up. When Fisher had torn through the roof of the Impelator car, he'd destroyed the internal housing, leaving the surrounding shaft exposed.
Ichigo looked up to what she'd been pointing at, seeing the enormous caliper brakes clamped tightly shut on the rails. He looked back at Fisher, a plan formulating in his mind, only to see the massive form of the Hollow monstrosity lunge at him with shocking swiftness. "Brace!" he yelled, a moment before impact.
Fisher had collided with them, sending the heavy mech-loader swinging precariously on its armature. Rukia was nearly thrown from her seat in the huge metal hand, managing to hang on even as her legs went swinging out from under her. Dangling from the tip of one of the fingers by one hand, her weapon clutched tightly in the other, she had an unimpeded view as the bio-mechanical horror opened its mouth impossibly wide, jagged metal and bone teeth snapping into position, before it bit down on the mech-loader's midsection. He'd missed the exposed pilot's bay by less than a meter.
"Y'know..." Ichigo managed to say as he raised his free hand up towards the ceiling of the railyard, just brushing the skywalks. "You've..." he dropped the mech-loader's fist hard into Fisher's back. "Gotten..." he swung again, "Uglier..." and again, "Since last time." Ichigo managed to daze Fisher with the last swing, and pried his jaws off the mech-loader's armature juncture. The entire loader frame jerked suddenly, Fisher's attack had severed power connections to several supporting systems. Ichigo needed to finish this in a hurry. "And this," he said, his mech-loader's hand snapping out and closing tightly around part of Fisher's face, the piece that had once been the prow of the ore ship. Across it, the name of the ship was still stenciled. "Doesn't belong to you," he said blackly, right before he pulled it off.
Rukia, still hanging from one hand, turned a little green at the sight of Ichigo tearing off part of Fisher's face, the sound of it like wet popping. Stringy webs of connective tissue were pulled tight and snapped, blood, ichor and oil spurting from the grievous injury. She watched Fisher howl in pain and rage, his ravaged face a mass of torn flesh and sparking machinery, his jaw left hanging awkwardly as he reeled back. Ichigo's hand moved suddenly and she gasped, clenching her fingers on the handhold she'd managed to find. "Careful idiot!"
"Hey Rukia," he said, keeping his eyes on Fisher. "I'm gonna need both hands for this." His other hand flexed, the mech-loader getting a better purchase on the huge length of curved ship prow.
"What?" she asked. She paused a beat, thinking through what he intended. "No, no way! Don't you dare!"
"Ichigo, I swear..." Rukia continued.
"Yeah, what is it?"
Ichigo looked over to the young pirate, standing shoulder to shoulder with the two detectives and a group of huddled, but rescued, civilians. "Catch." He gently flicked his wrist and the mech-loader did as well, sending Rukia sailing through the air.
The feeling of falling under gravity is not like the feeling of weightless, though they share some attributes. Weightlessness, Rukia decided, had a certainty to it, a grace somewhere in the basic physics of it. Falling, on the other hand, was uncoordinated, chaotic and uncontrolled. Rukia hated feeling out of control. She sailed through the air, her gaze never leaving and never forgiving Ichigo, even as she crashed into the group of people on the grav-sled. Jarring her back and head inside her helmet, she star bright flashing colors before her eyes from the impact and could hear groans and curses over the rushing blood in her ears. "Damn... him..." she grunted, pained. Her vision cleared enough to realize she'd laid out several civilians and Renji, who, she noted, had actually done his best to catch her. She looked down beneath her, seeing his face behind the glassite of his mismatched softsuit and offered him a rare smile in thanks.
"You okay?" he asked, stage wheezing dramatically.
"I'm going to kill him," she replied brightly. She turned to face Ichigo, standing in the pilot's bay of the mech-loader. He'd made sure she landed safely, but considering the circumstances 'safe' was relative. He spun away from her, facing the rising form of Fisher again, the huge piece of spaceship prow held in his hands. The light in the railyard flickered, somewhere the emergency generators or backup batteries were dying, and the damaged word across the prow gleamed in the dimness. 'Vizard' it read. The ghost of the sensation of Lirin, cohabiting her neural link, shivered up her spine as she remembered the young A.I.
"Kick his ass," she whispered.
Maddened with pain and rage, Fisher came barreling at Ichigo again, all brute force and tactless focus. A shift of his shoulders had the ship prow angled up to meet the rush, Ichigo careful of the speed and agility Fisher had displayed before. At the last moment, Fisher did pivot to the side with more guile than Ichigo had presumed, but he was still ready for him, shifting the makeshift weapon and driving the point in a hard thrust. Fisher's momentum carried it forward and the edge dug hard into where one of his upper arms was attached, sending a spray into the air behind him.
Ichigo had scored a solid hit, but realized his mistake immediately after. The prow was wedged hard into Fisher's body and he was unable to tug it free. Meanwhile, Fisher had screamed in pain, paused, and then shook his massive, articulated jowls with a quiver of muscle and grinding of gears. His numerous red eyes blinked at Ichigo, left exposed in the pilot's bay, and reached back with one huge, clawed hand.
Two cargo containers swung up from either side of Fisher's hand and caught it between them, crashing together like enormous cymbals. The sound was deafening, and the containers fell to the cargo yard with a thunderous cacophony.
Fisher howled again in agony, and Ichigo watched dumbfounded as the giant beast recoiled, cradling its destroyed limb as it spun on this newest attacker. The curved length of prow went crashing to the ground, and he scooped it up as he turned as well, craning to see just what had happened.
"You looked like you could use an assist, Kurosaki." Uryu, sitting calmly in the pilot's bay of the other huge mech-loader, came about to face off against Fisher.
Ichigo chuckled, his own mech-loader beginning to falter, and together they moved closer to the Impelator car, cutting off Fisher's way out. "I had this under control," Ichigo argued, knowing full well that the young vigilante, or anyone, hardly believed him.
"Your delusions of martial prowess are not confidence inspiring," Uryu replied. Fisher had backed up to the Impelator car, snarling and lunging at them but remaining out of range. "Miss White said something about the brakes?"
"Blow the brakes on the car, drop the sucker down the shaft," Ichigo said.
"Wouldn't that be exceedingly dangerous, not only to anyone on the docking rings, but the structure of the station itself?"
Uryu stopped at that, giving him a dark look across the gulf between their mech-loaders. "At least you've thought this through," he muttered.
By that time Fisher had had enough of being penned in like a savage animal, and lashed out at the both of them in desperation. Ichigo blocked the first swipe of his claws with the ship prow, the screech of metal on metal filling the air, while Uryu dropped two heavy fists on Fisher's back. Roaring in defiance, Fisher wrapped what was left of his arms around Ichigo's mech-loader and began wrenching it back and forth, trying to tear it from the industrial armature. The whir of overheating actuators and motors rang out alongside the wet gnashing, Ichigo doing what he could to hold Fisher in place.
"Get the brakes, now!" he yelled.
Uryu wasted no time in pivoting the huge mech-loader the remaining distance and leaning inside the Impelator car housing. The car was wrecked, barely more than a solid floor anchored to the brake struts up each wall. "Got it!" Uryu called back, reaching up and prying off the calipers like tissue paper. The car shifted, the torn debris comprising the remains of the car's housing clattering and sliding as it shifted several degrees. Uryu look to the other side, seeing the brakes, and stretched as far as the mech-loader was capable. He was still short by a handful of meters. "I can't reach the other one!"
"Then come here and help me with this!" Ichigo's mech-loader had nearly been yanked from the armature, the entire midsection and stripped and coated with a mix of Fisher's blood and hydraulic fluids. Umbilicals had snapped and dangled below while smoke was beginning to pour from beneath the manifolds at the top. As much as it may have pained him to admit, he was relieved when Uryu pivoted back around and grasped Fisher from the back, his huge metal fingers digging into each side of Fisher's huge head.
"Get him into the Imp," Ichigo grunted. The mech-loader was not operating as well as he would've liked, but he overrode the thermal shutdown safety and shunted main armature control to the stabilizing braces. The ride was suddenly a lot more jarring, but he'd gained enough power to help push Fisher's writhing, furious body towards the cargo bay doors.
A few more well placed punches from the mech-loader had weakened Fisher, but the claws at the ends of his arms and legs left long furrows in the railyard, tearing up grav-track like soft mud. Heaving, the two of them managed to hurl Fisher the last few meters, leaving him sprawled out among the broken pile of elevator remains that littered the Impelator car's floor.
"Get the brake, hurry!" Uryu yelled, moving to block Fisher from escaping through the cargo doors.
Ichigo leaned in just as Uryu had, but the strain on the armature had become too much. A grinding pop echoed through the cargo transfer point as the main joint snapped neatly in two, sending the huge mech-loader to the ground, laid out halfway through the cargo doors and pinning Fisher to the floor.
Yells and screams burst through his head, his comm filled with the concerned voices from his companions. One in particular cut through the rest, a high and thready call of his name. His main power conduit hadn't been broken though, and Ichigo planted one heavy hand on the floor of the Impelator car, leveraging himself up to reach the last brake. He was barely a meter away from closing his fingers around it when he fell heavily to the ground again. Shocked, he looked over to see Fisher at his side, still pinned but now mercilessly grinding away on mech-loader's arm, having been in range to bite it, tearing it off at the elbow. Fuck. The Impelator car shifted again beneath the weight of both Fisher and the top half of the mech-loader, falling to angle a few more degrees.
"Hold on Ichigo!" Uryu called out, reaching out to grab what remained of the armature's support structure.
"Get back!" Ichigo yelled. With only one brake the car was going to tip and fall, their only chance of getting rid of Fisher now was to let it.
Ignoring him, Uryu sank his fingers around Ichigo's mech-loader and began pulling him out of the cargo doorway, dragging the huge machine across the floor and down the ramp.
"I said no!" Ichigo roared, his voice crackling with an oily blackness over the comm. He dug the mech-loader's fingers into the debris but could find nothing to hold onto. Uryu pulled him up off of Fisher, who rolled back to his feet amid all the destruction and turned twelve glowering eyes at them.
"Don't be crazy, Kurosaki!" Uryu shouted, doing his best to haul the young man out of there. There was a sudden tugging jerk on the support structure of the mech-loader, far more than Uryu knew it had the power for, and looked up to see Fisher, his arm restored, pull the loader back into the car. His claws had sunk deeply into the frame of the loader, the pilot's bay mercifully unscathed. A tug-of-war over Ichigo's mech-loader ensued, one that Uryu was swiftly losing.
"The... brake..." Ichigo ground out, reaching vainly with his one remaining hand, but it remained a dozen meters out of reach. In the shifting shadows of the Impelator car shaft, amid all the noise and jarring motion of the mech-loader, a calm descended over him like a soft, noiseless blanket. Out of the darkness above, skittering like gravity held no sway over it, a shape slipped into the corners of the support strut, perched over the remaining caliper brake and stared down at him. It turned eyes, eyes that shone with a desperate fear, at a rising Fisher before turning back to him. They glowed, like all Hollow eyes had, but these were a soft, pale green. It motioned towards the brakes, as if asking permission.
Ichigo nodded. The figure immediately hunched over the brake assembly and bright yellow-white sparks began arcing out from it, cutting through the first of three bolts.
The Impelator car shifted again, leaning precariously at a sharp angle inside the elevator shaft. Fisher, realizing this, made a sudden dash for the cargo doors but was stopped short when Ichigo gripped him around the leg and Uryu blocked him from the front. Fisher, hissing and snarling, opened his mouth as if to roar again.
Instead of sound, three cruelly tipped tentacles burst from Fisher's mouth, their chainsaw edges whipping as they sliced through Uryu's mech-loader armature before cinching around the massive frame. Uryu caught eyes with Ichigo below, a shocked look of 'how could I be so stupid?' stamped on the vigilante's face, right before he was pulled bodily towards Fisher's waiting maw. The mech-loader tumbled to a halt beside Ichigo's, the added weight tipping the floor of the Impelator car even more. With no way to stop Fisher from simply walking over them, they came to a grim realization.
Rukia, standing on the grav-sled, watched Ichigo lift his head to stare down the length of the mech-loader and past Uryu, catching her eyes. She could see it, in the tilt of his head, the lines of his shoulders, an unspoken line of communication between them. She knew he could see it too, in her clenched fingers, the jut of her chin, and the barely concealed step she took towards him. "No," fell from her lips. 'I'm sorry,' was all she could read from him.
A burst of white light flashed from up in the elevator shaft, and with the snapping bang of overstressed metal, the Impelator's brakes finally failed. A second they floated there, released to the grip of the station's rotation-fueled gravity, and Ichigo remained locked in Rukia's gaze as the second passed. Silently, the car, Fisher, Uryu and Ichigo dropped away into darkness.
A dull reddish glare was shining in his eyes. With a groan, Ichigo opened his eyes experimentally, squinting at the swimming colors and shapes in front of him and wondering idly what it was that was shining so brightly. After a few moments of hazy introspection involving lights that swam in and out of focus, he ultimately decided that this was a poor use of his time, and shut his eyes. Grunting in frustration he found the reddish glare remained, demanding more of his attention.
Forcing himself to step away from the welcoming abyss of unconsciousness in order to deal with these irksome dancing red lights, he realized he couldn't move anything beyond his eyelids.
Static crackled in his ear, sudden and splitting. "-chigo?"
Inexplicable paralysis coupled with a healthy surge of adrenalin did wonders for bringing reality into focus, he found. "Rukia?" His mouth was cottony and wet, a copper scent filling his helmet, and he valiantly fought the urge to spit. He held onto the vision of her falling away and remembered the look on her face through the glassite of her faceplate. Shock, anger, denial, and then something else… hurt maybe, or desperation, flickered across her face as the memory replayed in his mind. She was safe though, she'd been caught by Renji, she should be fine, he'd seen her as the brakes on the impelator had finally given out, dropping him down into darkness.
At least she was still alright.
"Ichigo? Are you alright?"
That wasn't Rukia's voice, it occurred to him, and therefore he felt secure in ignoring it. The rotating hazy reddish glare resolved into the pinpoint indicator light on the inside of his helmet that meant something. Something significant. Filing it away for further review later, Ichigo decided to return, with no small degree of trepidation, to the issue of his paralysis. His eyes flicked around, taking in the limited view he could inside the red glare-lit dimness of the interior of his helmet, so he figured he at least had that in the plus column. He flexed his hands and felt the creases of his gloves against his palms. That was also good. The fact he couldn't move his arms was less so, but there was something about the red light and this sense of immobility that felt connected somehow. Clarity rushed upon him with a gut-wrenching severity and suddenly, everything hurt.
Through the bone-deep, full body ache that had gripped him, he realized the red light was the flightsuit's pressure suppression, restraint system. If Rukia had been here, she'd no doubt have called him a moron, and then she would've asked if he was alright, and then would've told him to shake it off, ya big baby. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered to imaginary-Rukia, and became unsettled when he heard the ghost of a chuckle echo up from the far corners of his mind. With more effort than he felt should have been strictly necessary, he called up the mental command to release the joints and bands around his body, send it through his link and his flightsuit relaxed back to normal, his body sagging heavily into whatever it was that was still holding him up.
"Oh good, you are alive."
The irksome red light was gone from his helmet, replaced by another irksome presence. Ichigo mentally flicked the filters off his eyeports and blinked as the light came washing through. He found himself half-hanging in an activated safety webbing, staring out the cracked glassite of the mech-loader pilot bay. He turned his head, the seat's restraints making it difficult, and found Uryu peering through the canopy, right at him. "Uryu," he croaked into his comm, "What happened?"
"Well, we're not dead," came the reply as the young vigilante unclasped the bay canopy and hauled it open, "Which is good because I would hate to think the afterlife consists of you and hanging out and asking ridiculous questions to one another."
Ichigo scoffed which quickly devolved into a groan as his ribs twinged in pain. "Hah, you and me, hanging out in the afterlife," he deadpanned, "Like that would happen."
Uryu almost sniffed in response. Almost. Instead, he seemed to think better of it and reached, with some difficulty, to the control on the panel that deactivated the restraints. The webbing across Ichigo's body relaxed at once, and he managed to unclick the harnesses and buckles himself, finally clambering out of the tilted mech-loader and stumbling onto the cratered pavement below.
"How much do you remember before our trip to the bottom of the Imp?" Uryu asked into the silence, staring at the mech-loader. Something caught his eye and he reached inside, tugging out the bulky black bag he'd had Ichigo hold for him. He didn't say anything, he knew Ichigo would just scoff, but he appreciated it nonetheless.
Ichigo heaved himself to his feet, taking in their surroundings. What was left of the Impelator car and transfer housing lay a few dozen meters behind them. The whole of it had been blown apart, as if a bomb had hit it, metal and plastisteel paneling was folded outwards like a banana peel. Inside it, what had once been the massive two-story car was barely recognizable, the only things discernible being the destroyed remains of several hovercar lockplates and a few lines of twisted grav-lev rail among the smoking, twisted wreckage. Tossed in every direction were other hovercars, some still secured to their lockplates, strewn about the transit lane pavement they stood upon. Some, he noted with a twist in his stomach, had landed upside down, the car crushed under the weight of the durocrete and metal of the plate. He turned away from the debris strewn about them to reply to Uryu, "Bits and pieces." Shifting to scan past the young man for the one thing he didn't recognize among the debris, he continued, "We should get out of here." He didn't see Fisher's remains anywhere.
Uryu nodded in agreement, coming to the same realization. "We've fallen down the station's support pylon, onto a docking ring of questionable structural integrity, are probably surrounded by someone's twisted science experiment in Hollow-genetics, and have no easy way back to the other members of the team," he said, cataloging their situation as he came around the remains of the mech-loader.
"Oh, we're a team now?"
"We're also light on weapons, are out of comm range, and have no form of transportation," Uryu continued, pursing his lips at Ichigo's glib remarks. "And I still don't know how we managed to survive at all," he finished, somewhat exasperated.
Ichigo began walking off the transit lane, heading for the embankment that separated the pedestrian level from the pylon anchor point. "We lived, don't dwell on it." Every moment they wasted was another moment they weren't using to get back to the others.
"The last thing I remember was that Hollow monstrosity pulling the mech-loaders into the shaft as the lock-pins gave way, then just a lot of flashing lights and the feeling of falling. Then I woke up in the seat of the loader I'd been using, strapped into the crash webbing." Uryu turned a suspicious eye on him as he came up beside the low embankment wall. "I couldn't reach the last brake, and I know you couldn't either."
Ichigo grunted in reply, swinging he legs over the guardrail. He didn't elaborate.
Uryu managed to wait until they had slid down onto the top pedestrian level, darkened shops and businesses, little more than vague cubes in the dimness of the docking ring's interior, stretching off in either direction, until finally asking, "So how it'd happen?"
"Not how," Ichigo muttered, staring up and down the immensely long avenue, the whole of it gently sloping up out of sight with the curve of the ring. "Who." Picking a direction, he began moving along the level with a purpose.
"Ichigo, where are you going?" Uryu demanded, following him. "And what do you mean 'who'?"
"Doesn't matter who," he said with a wave of his hand. "You've said it yourself, we need to get back to the others, and they're on the habitat," he replied, pointing upwards. "The only way back is up another pylon, since there's no way we'll be getting back up that one. We don't have a car and the tram sure as shit isn't running, so we walk to the next one." Ichigo felt eyes on his back and stopped walking across the vacant, eerily dim causeway that fronted the commercial district, turning to face Uryu. He found the young man looking decidedly out of his element.
"The habitat…" Uryu muttered, staring upwards.
He must've looked up when he pointed, Ichigo realized. "Yeah, looks weird from down here." Ichigo glanced up despite knowing better, his eyes drawn just like Uryu's had, to the Sunroof. "It's the single biggest viewport in the system," Ichigo felt compelled to explain as he took in the view. Ichigo reasoned that since Uryu had probably lived most his life on stations and ships in the Outer Orbits, he'd have to be accustomed to the vaguely sunlight-esque centerline illumination system the habitat employed, which meant he'd never seen something like the Sunroofs on the rings. Down the center of the ring's inside edge, the ceiling of pedestrian level, a wide strip of the superstructure from the interior to the exterior hull was nothing more than high density sheet-crystallite. Sunslight reflected off the exterior hull of the main habitat and shined down through the Sunroofs as the station rotated, sending slanting beams of bronze throughout half the ring at a time, the other half lit by the glow of the stars and the occasional flash of engine wash. "Anyway," Ichigo muttered dismissively inside his helmet, "We're not here to sight-see."
Uryu fell into step beside him but Ichigo noticed his eyes straying upwards every once in a while as they walked silently down the avenue, a sour look settling onto his face. He wasn't really surprised, the parallels between the habitat and the Inner Orbits, and the rings and the Outer Orbits was pretty obvious. The rings might be where the tugs and barges docked, hauling in metric tons of materials from the belt, but that money invariably ended up centrally, in the habitat. Outer Orbits' gas miners and ice haulers from the belts were in the same situation. Sure the central four-and-six controlled paid them, but just a pittance. Seeing the habitat perpetually hanging over head, like it was forever crushing you down as far as possible, chaffed a lot of people over time.
"I don't think I like your station very much, Kurosaki," Uryu muttered. He was looking at the commercial sectors now, off to the sides of the docking plates and transit lane, crammed in as tightly as possible between the arching ribs of superstructure. They fronted the pedestrian levels and spilled out into the promenades, squeezing the inner sidewalks until they were barely more than labyrinthine corridors that wove through the businesses and minor fab-labs. Down the steps to the major ship docking airlocks and embarkation decks, to where the Masaki must be still moored somewhere, it was even more crowded off the major thoroughfares, all arced overhead with criss-crossing skywalks and gantries. "There's just no… space."
Ichigo smiled at his choice of words but said nothing. The Free Spacers design aesthetic was always bigger, wider and more spacious than he thought was strictly necessary. Working as medical support around the Rim, coming aboard their ships was often more comfortable, especially after being cloistered inside his father's ship after months, but there were others across the system that were convinced that much superfluous space was almost obscene. "It's always 'them and us,'" Ichigo whispered to himself, but waved it away when Uryu pressed him to repeat it. The smile slipped away when he thought again of the Masaki. "Come on, hurry."
The two of them broke into a brisk jog down the top level pedestrian deck, the major transit lane up above on one side and the dark, gloomy shops on the other. As far as they could see they were the only things moving on the entire ring. With the ground curving ever upwards at the limits of their vision, all was eerie starlight and hushed stillness. Ichigo, however, knew something was wrong. Knew it, but couldn't see it. His neck was starting to ache as he constantly shifted his head, craning around the corners of buildings and shops as he checked for movement and in a way he was relieved, his boots crunching on broken glassite that sparkled like so many stars, when he finally spotted a single Hollowfied lurching from between two structures, barely more than a silhouette against the darkened backdrop of the station.
"Hot contact," Uryu called through the comm, spying the Hollowfied and reaching for his weapon. He was stopped from drawing when Ichigo's hand landed on his shoulder.
"Shut up a minute," Ichigo unnecessarily whispered, ducking into the corner of a support rib and tugging Uryu behind. "They haven't seen us yet."
"They? I only saw one," Uryu remarked. Ichigo tilted his helmet at him but said nothing. "But I see your point," the vigilante amended. Together they leaned barely far enough to see around the edge of the ring's support strut and watched in silence as the figure took one shuffling step after another, mindlessly wandering across the pedestrian level.
Watching it, the figure's mouth hanging open as it wheezed rattling breaths that coiled into mist in the thin, chilly air, Ichigo studied it, trying to find some way to understand it. Activating the recorder in his link and feeding it the datastream from his ocular implant, he began filing away the footage as the seconds ticked by. When another shadow moved in the distance, detaching itself from the deeper darkness of the abandoned commercial sectors, he still had the video feed running when the Hollowfied creature noticed and turned towards it.
"Uh, Kurosaki?" Uryu spoke up, "Do you see that other one?"
"Yeah, I see it."
"It's not shuffling, it's walking."
"Yeah," Ichigo agreed. His first impulse was the wild inclination to rush the creature, scooping up something to use as a weapon on the way to give the further figure a chance to see what they were blindly walking into. He was half out of the cover of the support strut when something still seemed wrong with the situation. It occurred to him about the same time a vibration rolled beneath the paneling beneath his feet. He knew it wasn't the jarring shudder of impact, rather it felt more like the rolling tremble of heavy feet, marching in sequence somewhere below them. Strange, then, how the Hollowfied creature out on the deck also seemed to take note of it. And seemed afraid.
The other figure, the one walking calmly towards the Hollowfied, was not afraid.
Focusing his ocular video feed as best he could, he zoomed in the frame and did his best to steady his eye. A grainy, dark and jumpy video was the best he was going to get. The walking figure had stopped a few meters from the Hollowfied creature, standing straight but relaxed and apparently speaking if the mist curling from their mouth was any indication.
"Are your mics picking up anything?" Uryu muttered.
Ichigo shook his head and then stopped, realizing it would jostle the video feed. Instead he just watched, perplexed and silent, as the Hollowfied creature began to slink away from the other. It turned in their direction and began to walk with a slow but purposeful shambling gait, what was left of its arms and fingers drawn up and curled as if stricken by rigor mortis. "I think we've been made."
Uryu had half-drawn his weapon again when two dozen more figures came stumbling through the darkness all across the gloomy pedestrian level. Lurching from side alleys and crawling from broken windows, the avenue went from desolately empty to teeming with movement in a matter of moments, the darkness moving and shifting with the creatures scuttling within it.
"They're not coming this way," Ichigo realized. On the transit lane back in the habitat all the Hollowfied figures had come unerringly at them directly, moving as one. These however, were all scattering, scrambling away from the lone figure standing openly in the middle of the wide deck.
"Just like before, in the cargo transfer yard," Uryu said. "They're running."
There was only one thing he could think of that would send these ravenous Hollowfied monsters running. "We need to get off this level," he said. No sooner had the words left his mouth than a deafening bang split the thin air, the second-tier access stairway tearing itself apart not five meters away from them as something huge rose from the pit below. A flash from the sodium lights and holo-tisements lining the deck, the power flickering and surging through the ring, threw sickly yellow and harsh blue light across the pedestrian level as the massive form moved with an alien grace across the pedestrian level, disappearing among structures and ribbing of the pedestrian level just as soon as it'd appeared. Ichigo and Uryu both bolted back behind the pillar, recoiling from the afterimage of glistening, mottled flesh and dull, blood-rusted metal that had been burned into the backs of their eyes. The support strut beneath his gloved hands was cool and Ichigo braced himself against it, heart racing as he fought to control his breathing.
"Was that...? It can't..." Uryu panted. He could hear the creases squeaking from his gloves as he tightened his grip on his weapon.
Ichigo swallowed, the notion almost too horrible to think, but forced himself to say the words anyway. "Fisher," he whispered, "What's left of him anyway." Uryu appeared to be preparing himself to take another peek around the corner, so Ichigo leaned out first. What had blocked the avenue was gone again, leaving only the figure standing alone in the middle of the deck, his hands clasped behind his back. The Hollowfied creature was gone as well, the others like it further still crawling and scrambling to newer hiding spaces, slipping off into darker recesses with greater urgency, their haste robbing them of what little coordination they still possessed.
"This whole level is crawling with those things," Uryu noted, "Plus Fisher now."
Ichigo could see one of the main staircases leading from the lane deck they were on down to the commercial and docking deck below, jerked his head at it, and then followed Uryu as they too slipped into the cover of darkness.
"There's no guarantee the lower docking deck will be any different, Kurosaki."
"Fisher is up here on the lane deck, we're not equipped to deal with him." Ichigo began heading down the steps, the lights along the second pedestrian level a little more reliable, shining in pools of yellow at odd intervals across the wide deck. "Yet."
"We're getting near the Naval cargo receiving," Rukia explained, her voice projecting through her suit's speakers. The civilians, huddled together in the center of the cargo car's platform, nodded back at her. The car cruising along through the tunnel had left them all looking a little wind-swept and they'd given up trying to shout over the sound of rushing air a while ago. She turned away from them, fixing her view straight ahead down the tunnel, the rhythmic flash of lights overhead strobing across the cargo car flashing over all of them, each flash taking her further and further away from where he'd fallen. She did not look back to where he'd been, or give voice to her concerns where he was now. Instead she put her faith in Ichigo's stubborn unwillingness to succumb to the odds stacked against them. She'd see him again, she believed it, all she had to do was keep moving forward.
Her hand slipped to her back to touch the grip of the weapon seated in the harness and took what reassurance she could from it. She was the tac officer, and she wouldn't lose her pilot again.
Below the lane deck, separated by several standard stories and down the widest part of the docking ring, was the embarkation deck. A far cry from the laser-straight lane above that circumnavigated the ring, the foot traffic down on the second level pathways that comprised it were intentionally non-linear. Avenues meandered around and minor skywalks connected nearby buildings, all of which had been placed to break long sightlines. The desired effect had been designed to give off a comfortable, familiar environment to station residents and planetsiders who'd come aboard. All it was doing now, however, was angering Ichigo as the two of them made their way, interminably slowly, across the ring to the next support pylon.
"No." He did his best to keep the irritation out of his voice. He'd probably been asked a half dozen times, as Ichigo's eye port sensors had better resolution than Uryu's glasses, so he'd been the one forced to keep scanning the area. They were making their way, insufferably slowly he felt, along the lower docking level. Without the Sunroof overhead they were forced to rely on whatever light was filtering down from the upper levels and the few, dim emergency lights that were still operating. Everything had a wet, slimy sheen to it with what light there was, and neither of them wanted to investigate what it might have caused it too closely.
"We should have seen something by now," Uryu muttered.
Ichigo said nothing. He'd rather that they continue this trend of heading across the empty ring deck, passing docking berths in regular intervals. If they kept this pace they might be able to catch up to Rukia and the others in time.
The two of them continued onward, letting their conversation lapse into silence as they walked through the wide, dark and empty docking ring level. Up ahead, Ichigo noticed the area they were approaching and slowed to a stop, slipping behind the cover of a support pillar.
"This is going to be a problem," Ichigo muttered as Uryu joined him. He leaned out and looked down the length of the lower level at the main commerce and entertainment sector of the docking ring. It was overbuilt with shops and restaurants all crowded together, squeezed into the little space not reserved for docking gate terminals.
"We have little choice," Uryu said, the light of his glasses glinting off the clear glassite of his faceplate. "It seems clear, let's keep moving." They'd been moving this way for several hundred meters, picking their way through the meandering pedestrian lanes and across the few elevated skywalks, slipping around the darkened, empty faces of stores while avoiding the more open areas.
He had let himself become consumed with the act of getting across the deck, he and Uryu moving quickly through the dark and empty spaces that he'd always known to be well lit and teeming with people. Instead of listening to music or sys-linking a text comm channel with his friends, he was running logistics and TA, surrounding himself with tactical information. They had begun their trek with extreme caution, taking utmost care to avoid possible detection, but as the minutes and meters went by without sign of pursuit they had begun to favor speed over stealth. Cresting a staircase up to the lip of a skywalk that traversed the majority of the deck, they avoided the darker, winding footpaths through the kiosks and stalls below, but something Ichigo noticed forced him to a halt, knocking his focus from their task. His surroundings went from from battlezone to recognizable in an instant.
"I've seen this before," he said, mostly to himself, slowing.
"I should hope so, you live here," Uryu replied, not bothering to slow down. He was several meters ahead before he realized Ichigo had stopped completely.
"No," Ichigo breathed, turning his masked face out to the expanse below him, his gloved hands gripping the guardrail. The station had continued rotating, and now the starlight filtering down from the transit lane level above, bouncing off the polished metal and glassite, the durocrete and composites, had bathed the pedestrian level in a soft, pale blue glow. Motes of dust danced in the still air, slipping through the shafts of starlight like glowing wisps. Ichigo's grip tightened on the railing as he turned slightly to the right, and even knowing exactly what it was he'd find there, it was still a shock. The commercial sector with its the restaurants and shops and front offices that lined the docking ring, the kiosks and stands that littered the pedestrian walkways. The elevated embarkation deck that ran down either side of the wide docking ring, fronting the massive blastdoor airlocks of spacecraft berths. There it was, just as he'd expected and feared it would be, the simple holo-tisement over the large circular airlock still proclaiming the ship that was docked there in faltering, blinking graphics. "That's my father's ship, the Masaki." The last time he'd been onboard that ship had been the morning they'd left on Urahara's ship to go pick up engine parts for the Sode no Shirayuki, it was supposed to have been routine and now felt like part of a different life. Different life, he reflected, realizing how apt the phrase was, and then he realized that it hadn't been the last time he'd been onboard the Masaki. It'd been the bizarre fever dream he'd had after being injected with his new bio-mod link.
And the light, that ethereal blue glow that had suffused the dreamscape now permeated the station. Ichigo lifted his hands from the railing, trying to distance himself as he stared down at the meandering pathways he'd wandered a week ago. The shift of a shadow stopped him short, then another, and another. Figures were emerging from the dark recesses among the commercial sector, converging on the embarkation deck and stumbling their way to the staircases. They were making their way up to the skywalks.
"This," Ichigo decided, "Is a problem."
Uryu, for once, had not refuted him. Instead, he backed up to stand beside Ichigo, calmly assessing the spread of movement that was growing around them. He tapped the controls on his knuckles and the light flickered through his glasses, cycling through what sensor feeds he had available. "I think we've got a clear shot in that direction," he said, pointing.
A flicker off to their side prompted Ichigo's TA and object tracker to engage, a pair of thin lines bracketing movement at the edge of his field of vision. "Hot contact," he said reflexively, using the same vernacular pilots used for heat-emitting objects in space. He spun, and saw a Hollowfied had managed to climb up to the skywalk level they were on.
"How many, uh," Uryu stumbled over a word to describe the creatures that had infested the station, "Hostiles?" He pulled one of his weapons from its holster but aimed it down the other side of the skywalk, his own sensors reporting movement from that direction.
Ichigo watched the figure emerge into the light, its eyes gleaming and mouth hanging open as it rattled a breath. It reached towards them and Ichigo let his eyebrows rise a fraction out of his customary scowl. From the forearm down, one of its hands had been replaced with the broken grip of a loader frame, bolted through the flesh and wrapped clumsily with exposed wiring. There was more movement behind, figures coming up the stairs behind the Hollowfied with same dead-eyed stare and vacant, hungry expression. "How many?" he echoed. "There's enough. Follow me, I have an idea."
"You? An idea..." he looked over his shoulder to find Ichigo conspicuously absent from the skywalk. "Ichigo?" He heard the heavy thunk of boots landing down below and realized Ichigo had vaulted from the skywalk, landing on a restaurant rooftop directly beneath them. Stunned, he watched the darkly armored man adroitly traverse the rooftop and pause at the lip of the roof, aiming his masked face back up at him. "That's one way to do it."
Ichigo watched the vigilante toss the bag down to the roof before leaping after him, smoothly standing and looking to him expectantly. Noises off to their side alerted him that their escape had not gone unnoticed, and peering over the edge revealed a growing throng of shadowy movement. One by one, figures emerged from the walkways between buildings, wheezing and snarling with growing vigor and volume as they spotted him there at the lip. "This problem is getting worse."
"You are a master of understatement," Uryu muttered, looking down from the roof as well. The solid sound of impact drew their attention behind, one of the Hollowfied had tumbled off the skywalk and had fallen to the roof they stood upon. Surprised, they watched it wrench itself back to its feet with a detached sort of observation. When more began hurling themselves from the skywalk, some landing on the roof and some not, they broke into a run towards the building next door.
"Jump for it," Ichigo said, planting a foot on the lip of the building and leaping across the alley below. Soaring through the air, he landed on the upper patio of an upscale restaurant, skidding to a halt before he careened into the scattered tables and chairs. Uryu was right behind him, the heavy bag he was carrying nearly knocking him from his feet. Irritated with the vigilante, Ichigo turned on him pointing at the bag. "What the hell is so important in that bag?"
"Is now really the time for this?" Uryu replied testily. More Hollowfied were emerging from the restaurant doors, making a clumsy line straight at them despite the chairs and tables in the way.
Ichigo threw up his hands in frustration before sprinting to the far side of the patio. "It's clear on this side," he grumbled.
"Yeah but for how long?" Uryu asked. The question was rhetorical and went unanswered as the two of them climbed over the edge, hanging by their fingers. Releasing the lip, they fell the minimal distance to the commercial sector level. Shadows moved over the walls to their left, moans and guttural wheezes filling the air, so they turned right and took off at a sprint.
Running pell mell through the maze of darkened alleys, his boots thunking steadily against the grimy, wet durocrete and weaving his body past tipped over recycling containers, Ichigo gave little thought to what might be considered a plan. He knew they were headed vaguely in the direction Uryu had claimed to be their best shot, but the man hadn't said what their margin for success might be. If the alerts his logistical system were putting up in his vision, and by the number of movement brackets that kept appearing, that margin was getting slimmer and slimmer. There was a constantly reseting time-to-intercept gauge at the top of his vision, marking the time that nearest identified target would reach him, and he knew that as long as he kept it increasing rather than decreasing as they sprinted on, they were outpacing their pursuers.
The alley emptied out into a courtyard of sorts, the tall columns supporting the transit lane deck above standing stark amid a ring of vacant stalls, darkened kiosks, and empty storefronts. Cries of hunger and rage began echoing all around them, the Hollowfied creeping through the gaps and surrounding them. Coming to a halt in the center, their backs to the central column. They turned, and turned, looking for a gap as the Hollowfied steadily came closer.
"We're surrounded," Uryu said, drawing his weapon.
"What was that you said about the master of understatement?"
Uryu chuckled grimly, leveling the energy weapon and firing a bolt of blue-white light into the forehead of the nearest figure. The figure dropped like a stone but more took its place. Sighing as he checked the cell levels of the weapon, the panel appearing on the surface of his glasses, he said, "I'm going to run out soon."
"I'm sure we'll think of something," Ichigo said, studying the column behind them, wondering if it held a service tube or crawlway leading back up to the transit lane deck.
"We don't have long, Kurosaki," Uryu warned, firing another volley of shots. Coming too fast for him to keep up with, darker shapes were massing further and further back of the throng of Hollowfied, the closer ones picking their way slowly over the bodies of their fallen brethren.
"How long does your weapon take to recharge?" Ichigo faced the gathering darkness, not finding any hint of an access door or ladder on the column.
"More time than we have," Uryu replied, standing at his side. "Any suggestions?" he asked.
Ichigo privately commended the young vigilante for keeping the defeat out of his voice. "Sure, we make a break for it, we just need to think of a good-" Ichigo's eyes drifted upward to track a bright line of glowing orange as it arced overhead, his voice shifting from determined to confused, "-distraction?"
A line of incandescent orange seared through the darkness, bright as a falling star, and when it crashed to the commercial deck surface at the edge of the courtyard amid the rotting, shambling figures, fire erupted in its wake. Ichigo and Uryu, too stunned by the unthinkable audacity of such an action, and were only shaken into motion by the fiery trails and subsequent swirling infernos of two more firebombs. Reeling away from the heat and light, the Hollowfied drew back, clawing to get closer but wary of the fire.
"You're station's on fire, Kurosaki," Uryu mentioned, pointing helpfully. "I mean, more than it was already."
"I'd noticed." Ichigo glanced back in the direction the arcs had come from and saw an individual detached itself from the gloom, running through the gap the fire had created, face covered by an emergency mask and waving in their direction. "Looks like there's our exit," he said. "Anywhere's better than here."
Ichigo and Uryu followed the fleet footed figure towards a sheltered alcove, hidden in the recesses of the station's support structure. Once safely ensconced, the Hollowfied scattered from the fire and lost in the confusion, Ichigo roughly took hold of their would-be savior and jerked him about, forcing him to face his own masked visage. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded over his suit speakers, steam hissing from his mask, "You just set fire to the station!"
"Hey Kurosaki!" Uryu called out, "He just saved our lives!"
If the figure was concerned about being manhandled, he didn't show it. How only gave an infuriatingly careless shrug of his shoulders before flicking on a flashlight and peering up at Ichigo's face. "Kurosaki... Ichigo Kurosaki?" he asked, a familiar note to his voice.
Ichigo released him immediately, holding a hand to block the light. "Yeah?" He knew logically no one could recognize him past the mask and helmet, but he was still shocked. His eyes adjusted to the light to take in this mystery figure.
"I thought I heard that name right," he said, a smile crept into his tone but most of his face was still covered by the atmo mask.
"You have good ears," Uryu mentioned.
"In my line of work, it's a necessity." He spun a bottle around in his hand, a white rag fluttering from the top, and he looked down at it with a profound sense of mourning. He noticed Ichigo and Uryu's eyes flick to the bottle in his hand as well. "It's low tech but remarkably effective, and I had an ample supply." He pointed the flashlight to his own face and tugged the atmo mask from his mouth, giving them a friendly smile, one designed to ease and build confidence, one he'd cultivated over the years.
"Mizuiro?!" Ichigo realized.
The young bartender knocked him on the armored shoulder with a weak chuckle, replaced his mask, and nodded. "Small universe. Come on, I have the bar sealed and barricaded. It's safe there."
"Hey, look who I found running around the station," Mizuiro said, thumbing over his shoulder as they cycled through the service entrance at the back of the establishment.
The place was packed with people, far more than what should be permitted by station mandate, and several faces turned in their direction. Checking his link's readout, the air inside the bar was hovering around seventy percent of one atmosphere, thin but thankfully unpolluted, and Ichigo followed suit as Mizuiro pulled off his mask and Uryu removed his helmet. With a click and hiss, his mask unsealed and slid upward, leaving him blinking to clear his eyes from the brightness of natural light. The stink of sweat and unwashed humanity assaulted him, too many people in too-close proximity, huddling in fear and uncertainty, injured and without hope.
"I managed to get as many people safe inside as I could, once I realized what was happening out there," Mizuiro explained, walking past the bar which had become an impromptu triage area for the injured. "And I've had these two jacked into the station's security system, scanning the interior camera feeds nearby for anyone else, that's how we saw you two when you ran into trouble." He stopped at the hardwire terminal stalls near the back, nudging the two men perched on stools. They each shook off the faraway, link-focused look and glanced towards Ichigo and Uryu, shock registering on their faces when they swept away whatever panels they had hovering in their vision.
"ICHI-grmmmph!" Keigo yelled, a hand clapping solidly over his mouth by the one beside him.
"Shhh," Chad hushed. "Hey Ichigo," he rumbled in greeting.
"Oh man," Ichigo said, relief spreading a grin over his face and strode forward, clasping Chad's bionic hand companionably. "It's great to see you guys. Even you, Keigo."
"Hey..." Keigo pouted.
"What're you doing here on station?"
"The Outer Orbits were getting too crazy, the band cancelled the rest of the gigs we had and came back," Chad answered, "If we'd've known..." Chad lapsed into silence, indicating the situation that had befallen them all with a gesture of his bionic arm. "We were lucky to be here."
"I'm only doing what anyone else would," Mizuiro said, smiling self-deprecatingly.
"What about my sisters, are they here too?" Ichigo quickly asked, his head lifting to once again search the sea of faces clustered into the bar.
"No man," Mizuiro said sadly, "But your dad's ship has had the blastdoor sealed since it all started. So long as the Masaki's hull is intact, they should be safe inside."
Ichigo nodded, his lips tight. They were as safe there as anywhere, and he had other people counting on him. "We're heading to the next anchor pylon," he said, indicating Uryu off his shoulder. The young vigilante shouldered the bulky bag he was carrying and gave them a cursory wave of greeting. "We need to get back up to the habitat."
Mizuiro, Keigo and Chad stared at them in mute alarm until, "Are you nuts?" Keigo exclaimed. "You might as well space yourself for all the luck you'd have getting to the next pylon."
"Keigo's right," Chad put in. "The ring's hull has been compromised past the ninth barricade. Atmosphere's down to nineteen percent there, and the superstructure is going to buckle, just a matter of time."
"Why do you need to get back to the habitat?" Mizuiro asked.
Ichigo had the sincere impression he was being studied. "There's something in the naval sector," he admitted, wondering how much information to divulge to the crafty bartender, "It's related to what's happening here."
Mizuiro looked at him again, taking in the armored flightsuit, combat pilot helmet and the various scuffs and dents he'd suffered on his way here. He did the same to Uryu, noting the heavy bag he wore over his shoulder and the weapon at his thigh. His eyebrows rose only slightly when Ichigo watched him catch sight of the object Uryu had concealed at his back, beneath the radiation cape that hung from his shoulders. "You're certain?"
Mizuiro seemed to make up his mind at that point, because he turned to Chad and asked, "How clear is the way to the ninth barricade?"
"You're not serious about letting him go back out there, are you?" Keigo asked.
"The man's made up his mind," Mizuiro said, glancing at his armored flightsuit again, "And it looks like he can handle himself, so how's it look out there?"
Chad breathed out with a frown on his solemn face. "Hard to say. The station's systems are all powered down," Chad said, his one visible eye narrowing as he minutely flicked a single finger through a menu in his vision. "I've been trying to get to the camera feeds from station security back, we had them for a while but something weird happened."
"I think I know what," Ichigo said, turning his head towards the rear of the bar, towards the unoccupied, darkened hardwire link bays.
The silence stretched and the young woman, sitting as still as a statue and hidden inside a tilted hovercar, fully intended to let it continue stretching as long it wanted. In the quiet and the dark, she tried not to let herself ponder the wisdom of her plan and the amount of danger that it had entailed. If she did, she knew she'd start shaking from terror, which would defeat the purpose of sitting still. To distract herself, she gave the mental command to bring up her neural link interface, a sure-fire way to kill at least a few minutes.
There wasn't an available wireless connection on the station anymore, unsurprising really, and from what she could tell, there wasn't anyone else nearby to share a local connection with, which was relatively unheard of. Her softsuit didn't even have a hardwire plate, just the barest necessities in terms of emergency oxygen supplies and radiation shielding. Still, she brought up her link anyway and six tiny figures swirled into existence, flitting about her vision before settling around her.
At least she wouldn't be lonely.
"What in the worlds were you thinking, coming down here like this?" the small black and red one asked gruffly. He zipped up to perch on the hovercar's controls, staring out into the darkness with a tiny hand shielding his tiny eyes like a sea-ship captain from the old stories. Orihime found herself trying hard not to laugh as he appeared to scan the immediate area.
"Come down from there," she whispered, reaching up to snatch him from the dash. She knew logically that they were only visible to her, being images drawn directly on the interior of her eyes just like other people's private display panels, but she couldn't help feeling the need to shelter them, protect them. Looking down at her hands, she uncurled her fingers and watched the tiny figure standing on her palm, glaring up at her. He leaned against her upturned thumb and huffed, crossing his tiny feet and arms, uncaring. While he may not have been visible to anyone else, they were all as real as anything to her, a fact reinforced by the way she could feel the weight of him through her glove, a trick of her enhanced neural link and superconductor-threaded nervous system she'd long ago figured out. She smiled a bit, thinking about what she must look like to anyone else, cradling the tiny figure in her hands. Her brows creased slightly though, realizing she must not look any stranger than what most everyone else looked like when they were busy swiping and poking their fingers in the air, apparently talking to themselves, fiddling with their own panels and displays. She chuckled weakly, careful to keep the sound low. If they'd ever taken the time to observe them, the aliens that had come to attack Karakura Station must think humans were a bunch of lunatics, all talking and gesturing to themselves.
She still couldn't quite believe what had happened, what she'd seen. Ships, too numerous to count and each one a different configuration, pouring through space and tearing apart everything in their path, like... she shuddered, a swarm. She could only imagine the frantic chaos and panic that ensued up in Traffic Control, and hoped sadly that her friends were okay.
She'd just closed her eyes to try to settle her nerves when the unmistakable sound of the hovercar's door latch release echoed through the car. A squeak of fright escaped her lips as her eyes sprang open, hands balling into fists and her body tensing.
The door opened to a narrow degree and the car resettled on its broken landing struts as a figure slipped inside. "Relax Orihime, I'm back."
"Tatsuki!" Orihime sighed with relief.
"Let me go!" came the muttered voice from her hands.
"Sorry!" Orihime replied without thinking.
Tatsuki gave her an odd look as she climbed into the darkened car, but shrugged it away after a moment. "Your link, I guess?"
Orihime nodded, opening her fright-clenched fingers and watching the black-red streak zoom away from her hands, coming to a stop a safe distance away and pushing away the concerned crowding of other glowing figures. "Did you see a way through?" Orihime asked, rising up slightly to peer through the front windshield. All she could see was the rough silhouette of a dozen different hovercars that had apparently crashed when Transit Authority went offline, leaving them in a tangled pileup and blocking off the ring's transit level. Another dozen hovercars, one of which they were now sitting in, must have come to screeching halts, sliding pell mell across the lane surface and then were left abandoned as their owners had fled, presumably, to safety.
"No, it's all blocked off." Tatsuki sighed. "I think we're going to have to go down to the pedestrian level."
Her voice was barely above a whisper, their softsuits and the thinning air muffled the sounds from outside but amplified the sounds within. Orihime looked away from Tatsuki, the stiff material at her neck creaking in her ears, and over to the tiny hovering figures resident to her advanced neural link. Tense, frightened faces stared back at her, her link's interpretation of her own emotional state. "Is that safe?"
"At this point," she sighed, "I'd say 'safe' is relative." Arms crossed, she drummed her fingers against the upper sleeve of her softsuit, staring out past the hovercar pileup and towards the real issue they were dealing with.
Orihime decided to focus on the positive, nodding to herself. Maybe if they talked about their goal, they could think of a way to achieve it. Her eyes traveled out the front viewport, following Tatsuki's line of vision, trying to pierce the cool darkness that had settled over the station. "Well," she began, "His ship is just a few sections past this, all we need to do is find a way through."
"Yep," Tatsuki replied absently.
Her auburn hair tucked up inside the helmet of her softsuit, Orihime nodded tentatively, the stiff neck of the suit creaking in the silence, and poked a finger in the direction of the pileup of other hovercars. "And I'm sure the Masaki is fine, it had its blastdoors sealed last I checked." She folded her hands in her lap. "It's the safest place I can think of to go."
The quiet admition must have broken Tatsuki's concentration because she turned to regard her best friend. "I pretty much assumed that," she said gently, knowing Orihime's still-tender feelings about this. She smiled, trying to disarm Orihime's sudden shift in mood, saying, "And since I couldn't get you into a sanctuary pod or escape craft, the least I could do was come along."
Orihime offered her friend a watery smile but a sudden light from the hovercar's console system distracted her. "Did you turn the car on?"
"No," Tatuski said, unsure, "But I think that's the comm system?" Bolting upright, she quickly looked up out the viewports for anything that might have noticed the sudden light. "Quick, turn it off!"
"How?!" Orihime put her gloved hands against the console, trying to block the light that still seeped from around her fingers.
"I dunno!" Tatsuki exclaimed, "It's not even supposed to be on!" The glow from the panel suddenly dimmed down to near darkness, still lit but barely perceptible. "What'd you do?"
"Nothing..." Orihime said, perplexed as well, shifting her hands to get a better view of the comm panel on the car's dash. "Hey, it's blinking a channel," she said, "Like it's getting a signal."
"No way," Tatsuki alleged, "The station is busted, everything's off." Orihime pointed at the panel and shrugged, so when Tatsuki leaned over, sure enough, the comm in the hovercar was getting a signal. "Weird, probably just static. Don't turn it on, the noise'll be worse than the light."
Orihime's thin brows narrowed in consternation behind the glassite faceplate of her helmet. "Aren't you curious about what it might be?"
"No Orihime," Tatsuki said patiently, turning her attention away from the car, "I'm less concerned with the weirdnesses of a busted up hovercar than I am keeping us away from those freaks back in the habitat."
Undaunted, Orihime shrugged and replied, "Okay, I'll check it out then."
Instead of answering, Orihime turned up her left wrist and studied the sealing mechanism. Seeing it was relatively straightforward, she dug the fingers of her other hand into the catch-release and prepared to pull the latch.
"Orihime, what are you doing?" Tatsuki asked harshly, growing alarmed.
A streak of gold spiraled up her arm as the tiny figure of Shun'o alighted on her shoulder. "Taking my glove off." She pulled the release and heard the bursting hiss of escaping air followed almost instantly by the ratcheting zip of the pressure cuff as it cinched down hard on her upper arm, digging painfully into her skin as it tried to maintain an airtight seal in the rest of the suit.
"Ta-taking your glove off?! Why?"
"Because it doesn't have a hardwire link connector built in, silly," Orihime said, wincing slightly as she worked her glove off her suddenly chilly, tingly hand while trying to hold her arm still, lest the pressure cuff cinch any tighter.
Shun'o studied Orihime's bare hand, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "Based on the pressure differential I'm deriving between your suit and your hand, the atmosphere's probably twenty percent of nominal." She turned to face Orihime, looking slightly troubled. "Your hand is suffering from ebullism already, the longer you expose yourself the worse it's going to get."
"Good to know," Orihime said quietly, frowning a bit as he hand began to swell.
"What the hell Orihime?!" Tatsuki managed to keep her voice low but it was a close thing, her teeth clenched tight together as she stared at her friend.
"It's okay, Tatsuki," Orihime replied, trying more to convince herself. Still, she worked her now bare hand clumsily up against the car's console until she found the contact plate on the comm. "I've just got a feeling about this..." Her finger came in contact with the IO plate and negotiated a link connection. One of her other fairies perked up and came zipping over to hover before at arms length as a familiar sound chimed in her ear, the clarity it after so much muffled conversation was startling. "It's a... comm request?" Lily, the tiny figure, nodded enthusiastically.
"It's not a station feed?" Tatsuki asked, "Someone actually is calling the car?"
"I guess so," Orihime replied, somewhat mystified. She accepted the request and Lily put her hands to her tiny mouth. It must be audio-only, Orihime surmised, and the channel established itself through Lily with a tiny pop. "Hello?" she spoke, uncertainly into the channel.
"Oh good," came a voice, gruff and acerbic, out of Lily's mouth and Orihime smiled slightly at the absurdity of it, "I got through. Listen, you two in the hovercar, you need to get out of there."
"He says we need to get out of here," Orihime relayed.
"What? Why?" Tatsuki asked, "Anyway, no. We can't go back the way we came, and Ichigo's dad's ship is through there."
"It's not safe," continued the voice. "You can't go through, you don't know what's on the other side."
"There's something on the other side," Orihime went on.
"I don't care, it can't be any worse than what's on this side," Tatsuki said, unconvinced. "All we need to do is-"
"-whatever you do, don't-"
"=go through that door.="
The simultaneity of their voices and the silence that followed sent a chill through Orihime. She stared down at Lily as the tiny figure lowered her hands, seeing them tremble slightly. Meanwhile, Tatsuki was staring determinedly out the front windshield of the hovercar and Orihime found her gaze following her friend's line of sight. There, standing beyond the pileup of wrecked hovercars, stood the massive blastdoor barricade that sealed off the entire transit lane and pedestrian levels between sections. Huge and imposing, she had never seen them shut before today, and stenciled across the face of it a tall number '9' stared back at them.
"He's coming," whispered Lily in the comm's voice. Orihime glanced at the little fairy as she was shaking like a leaf. Lily clasped her hands over her mouth, her tiny eyes wide in terror.
Through the silence, in the still, thin air and through their softsuit helmets, they heard it. Like a rattling through the body, starting in the chest and thrumming through the teeth, they heard it. A roar. Rising like a tide, it rolled over them, gradually building until they were wincing behind their faceplates, ineffectually covering their ears as the sound resonated with all that was unnatural, that tore and screeched like twisted metal and grinding bone. The roar died off just as the door before them, the massive, impossible door, shuddered as it was struck from the other side.
It shuddered as it was struck again.
"What... what is that noise?" Tatsuki asked. Orihime could see the whites all around her friend's eyes.
"I dunno Tatsuki," Orihime whispered, then down to the comm channel that Lily maintaining, "What is that? Please you must tell us."
"I told you, you need to get the hell away from there, you and your friend Tats... wait Tatsuki? Tatsuki Arisawa?"
Orihime looked at Tatsuki, confusion written across her face. The barricade door gave another shudder and hydraulic fluid began leaking down the face of it. "Whoever is on the other end of this channel knows you, Tatsuki."
"How is that even possible?"
"If that's Tatsuki Arisawa," the voice went on, as if thinking to itself, "That would mean the only other person crazy enough to be out there during this kind of emergency would be... Oh fer fuck's sake..."
Orihime pursed her lips at the vulgarity. "What? Who are you?"
"You're Orihime, right? Orihime Inoue?"
"Yes, that's me..." Suddenly everything made a crazy kind of sense; the grouchy harsh voice, the direct orders. The comm system. She would've smacked her own forehead if she'd been able, but instead she leaned in closer to Lily, eyes alight with the thought of a familiar voice. "KON?!"