Merry Christmas all, and a Happy new year as well. New chap up, and hopefully with some closure for everyone.
It began, again, with light, sensitive to the touch.
Lights and lightning alike danced around her, a kaleidoscopic waltz of endlessly inverting and ceaselessly twisting hues caught in a tumultuous storm-tossed sea of color. With flickering green eyes, she beheld saturated greens, flaring spots of red, crystal blues and glittering yellows. Before her, malleable to thought and desire, laid bare before her pentachromatic eyes, she could see every hue and tint of the rainbow… as well as a few beside. There were colors there, colors she could see, that she did not know names for. Billions of colors defined her world, where before a meager million had sufficed.
It was only the beginning.
She perceived tinted ultraviolets at the edge of the normal visible spectrum: strange tints and an alien world of sick purples and obscure, distant, dizzying purples. It was not the only impossible color that was not a color - a wavelength given depth - to dance before her inhuman eyes. The violent, angry pastiche of infrared seethed at the edge of the light show, staining and staining and seeping into the rainbow; heat given form, substance, and color.
The source of the wild illumination was the near cylinder of holographic and psionic displays which surrounded the brilliant woman, each illusory screen sorting and displaying information at fantastic rates of speed, presenting it visually even as it injected it mentally. Systems, hidden from sight, collected prodigious amounts of raw data, compiling more and more with each passing second. Normally it was far too much, far too fast, for a human mind to take in… even one as elevated as her own. How convenient it was, then, that the psionic computer systems did most of the work, sifting through all of the material, analyzing it, and finally highlighting what was relevant, what was important to her work, what she desired most...
The woman lifted a hand from beneath the titian hued robe she wore to run it through her long red hair, letting out a petulant huff of frustration. Even with the computer doing most of the work, it was still difficult for her to control the purely mental interface. She had been brought into the fold, as it was, so recently. It was all still so overwhelming.
Closing her vivid green eyes, the cloaked woman attempted to tap deeply and greedily into the data streams, directly, rather than waste precious seconds and minutes actually reading of it from the displays. She let out a gasp as a lance of pain thrust through her skull. Not for the first time, she let out a silent curse, hoping that no one was near enough, or rather that no one cared enough, to hear her thoughts or partake in her mind.
It had only been six weeks, after all; less than two months back home, on that little blue world with the archaic calendar and its anachronistic twelve month cycle-year. Six weeks was simply not enough time to grow accustomed to her new existence as a Trenchard. Born human, she had been human, lived human, and finally died human.
Now, that same 'her' was elevated, reborn - uplifted.
No more was she that human, that Pamela. Opening her eyes, Pamela-no-more began to read over the harvested data anew. According to the knowledge which the Mind imparted to her with its constant, reassuring whispers – it still doled out only a small trickle of its infinite wisdom to ensure it did not burn out her still sensitive mind – other Trenchards tended to master their new abilities, to acclimate and adapt, far quicker than herself.
She was… slower… to adapt than most.
Then again, what did those glorified weapons or menial slaves have to do besides train their abilities and SUBMIT? A mild reproach affected immediate changes in her neurology: a gentle rebuke from on high, as jealousy had no place among peers. All thoughts and all minds were in concert within The Mind, and like a grand symphony, all instruments had their notes and chords to play. The subordinate served and all were valuable in their utility... just as all were ultimately expendable in their replaceability.
Annoyance remained, however, in that some were more readily able to serve than others. It was... unfair. Soothing pleasure trickled in at that thought. Let the others serve as they had to, in their more simplistic ways: soldiers and fodder and agents of terror.
Pamela-no-more, once a respected biologist, environmental engineer and leading geneticist, had a higher calling than dabbling with mental tricks. It was her pleasure to serve The Mind in unique and wonderful ways. Ways her peers respected her for. The Mind and the Highest Ethereals had chosen her, uplifted her, specifically so that she might serve a most enlightened role in the grand scheme.
One of the archaic visual displays – only provided due to her somewhat meager psionic talents – highlighted the absence of cellular breakdown in her test subject, and she nodded absently in academic interest. It appeared that the modified genetic graft was taking hold even more securely in this round, with no signs of terminal tissue rejection. Everything was progressing perfectly.
Her masters would be pleased, which meant she would be pleased.
"Speak of the devil," she murmured to herself, as the sound of the door flowing open across the laboratory alerted her to a visitor. She did not need to turn to know who it was. The mere presence of the being, the sheer pressure of its will was nearly enough to weaken her legs by proximity alone.
He - or even it, for they had no real gender - was the Ethereal Commander, and overall leader of the Dimensional Exodus Research Mission. The Commander was also the Point Mind for all Visitors in this dimension, handling a vast psionic load she could only faintly comprehend. The thoughts of every being in this dimension, those of all the members of the expedition, all flowed through the Commander. He was the axis, the focal point, on which they turned. Though genderless, Pamela's human side, consumed as it had been, nonetheless interpreted "it" as a patriarchal masculine: a "he."
Focus was the name she attached to the Commander.
The hooded ethereal silently floated into the stark, sterile laboratory, his titian robes hovering inches above the cold metal of the floor. Behind him, a pair of Sectoids ambled in on their thin legs, their childlike, distorted forms, their long fingers and deep black eyes... a comfort to her. Sectoids had been the ones to do the actual work of uplifting her, after all. They had been the ones kind enough to rescue her from the XCOM attack on her Sirius funded laboratory in the rainforests of Guyana. It was hard to imagine how terrified her formerly human-self had been when they had first taken her and began cutting.
How foolish that Pamela had been, not to welcome the knife and the probe for what they were: greatness.
She did, without question.
He had access to her mind, of course, and could glean all he desired to know from that alone.
This was more for the benefit of the overseers he had by his side. Though identical in appearance, her desire to know their stations prompted an immediate mental response: they were leaders from ships that had recently returned from detached dimensional expeditions. Quickly brushing back her hair, the Trenchard scientist waved her hand through the air, hastily dispelling the holographic displays. Turning to face her new master, more out of ingrained human tradition than any actual necessity, Pamela-no-more gestured to that which her master had requested.
The row of gestation tanks lined the wall, each one three meters tall and precisely one point one-three-nine meters in diameter. They were filled with a translucent, amber liquid. Fat bubbles of engineered atmosphere rose up from the bottom of the tank, creeping along the transparent walls of the tubes… and rolling along the bulbous sacks of embryonic material which housed the test subjects.
It was impossible to see anything inside, beyond the blurred silhouette of a human form curled up in the center of the artificial placenta afforded by the interior lights of the tank. Hanging from the tops of the tanks by a series of tubes and tendons, some organic, many not, the large, cancerous looking growths caused the Trenchard to sneer in disgust: to think that she had been pulled away from her real research just to help make these things?
MIND YOUR THOUGHTS YOU HAVE BEEN ALLOWED TO RETAIN A DEGREE OF INDEPENDENCE TO ALLOW YOU CREATIVE FREEDOM WITH YOUR RESEARCH
EXERCISE CONTROL OR CONTROL SHALL BE IMPOSED ON YOU
The mental command slammed into the red headed Trenchard's mind with the force of a Submit order, and Pamela-no-more stumbled back a step. A wave of overwhelming pain – her sensitive mind overloading from the command – and pleasure in the act of submitting swept over her, leaving her dazed for several long seconds before she could finally regain her senses.
"O-Of course," she muttered quickly, suddenly embarrassed by her own vocal communication. Gesturing to the central tank once more, she nodded eagerly, as if to prove that her thoughts had not been tainted by exaggeration. The proof was there, for all to see.
"The latest experimental iteration is exceeding all expectations," she assured them. "In these surviving subjects, virtually all physical characteristics are above initially projected levels; with my genetic modifications, I am confident that we will see a marked improvement over the previous generation."
She allowed herself a twisted sneer of superiority.
"Even though I disdain working on these base creatures, you can see the vast gulf which separates my works from those of that clinically deficient pig farmer." Pamela-no-more suffered a dismissive shake of her head. "Breeding things in pens… why you even keep her around I don't know…"
IMPROVEMENTS OVER THE PREVIOUS GENERATION WERE TO BE EXPECTED THE EXPERIENCE YOU EACH POSSESS IS VALUABLE BOTH OF YOU MUST SERVE FOR RESULTS TO BE OPTIMAL
Pamela-no-more nearly burst into tears; she could feel the reproach in her master's thought like a slap to the face. She could sense, keenly, that it did not approve of her pride and she was struck as well by the sudden wish, with all of her heart, that her Master would see fit to remove it from her. Perhaps without her pride, she would be made more acceptable. More compatible. All she wanted was to serve.
YOU SERVE AS YOU WERE CREATED TO AS DOES THAT ONE YOUR PRIDE SERVES AS WELL
She lowered her eyes in deference, seeing the great wisdom in the Commander's thoughts in an overwhelming instant. She was, after all, as the Mind saw fit to create her. In time, she and her peers would engineer her own replacement. Her too-human pride, properly reigned in, demanded perfection... in further service. Though it clashed with her need to work with certain other, less professional, Trenchards… like that vile little pig farmer.
"Of course, Master," she agreed, deferent. "This generation's development is ahead of schedule, as well. I project less than two days before they are prepared for the First Phase Maturation."
"Unacceptable?" she asked, and knew there was no wrong in it. All were free to query for more information. "Why?"
OUR SCOUTING PARTIES HAVE REPORTED SIGNS OF UNETCO INTERFERENCE ON SEVERAL OF THE PLANETS WE HAVE VISITED PREVIOUSLY RESEARCHED EXPERIMENTS FOOD STOCKS SUBJECTS ALL HAVE BEEN TAMPERED WITH HASTE MUST TAKE PRIORITY
The alien-human hybrid gasped aloud. Was this why the two Sectoid ship leaders were here? Had Earth forces somehow gained access to dimensional travel as well? That meant that it was just a matter of time before those XCOM bastards found their way here, to their current base of operations!
Regardless of the approval of her master, or not, Pamela-no-more could not help but seethe at the mere thought of those Unetco butchers. It felt like a lifetime ago that she had joined the organization, so far removed was she now, but before being uplifted she had lost many, many friends over the past few months to those murderous reactionary psychopaths. Why couldn't they just see the truth? Why couldn't they see that The Mind had come to free them, not destroy them?
It was just so typically male, so typically human, to kill anything and everything that you couldn't control, or that you refused to understand. XCOM had to know the Mind intended to bring a chosen few into a New Era, free of hunger or poverty or strife, free of loneliness or despair or doubt or want. There was no blissful ignorance in them. Their evil was that they rejected the great future the Earth was to be given.
Pamela-no-more grew a wicked grin. "Let them catch up! Let them come! My creations will slaughter them like pigs."
THAT IS NOT THE INFILTRATOR'S FUNCTION
A scathing reminder.
OBTAINING A FOOTHOLD IN THE TARGET DIMENSION IS OF THE UTMOST PRIORITY FURTHER ASSAULTS IN OUR HOME DIMENSION WILL FOLLOW IN TIME
She nodded, not entirely satisfied with the order. A stronger Trenchard would have the right to voice that opinion, to not just query but argue, but she was... not on that level as yet. Perhaps her next iteration would have that rank and that power, if she did well here. Of course the point of her work had not been to create a mere weapon, though it was to be quite capable in that regard. The ultimate goal was something far more intricate, far more advanced. The progress she had made since taking the lead in this project from the Pig Farmer four generations ago… it stymied all expectations, all belief.
And it would be so sweet to see their enemies ripped limb from limb.
THIS EXPEDITION CANNOT AFFORD TO MISS THE PROJECTED WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY WE ARE ADVANCING THE SCHEDULE OF THE OPERATION THIS GENERATION WILL BE THE FINAL ITERATION PRIOR TO DEPLOYMENT
That caught the Trenchard researcher off guard. True, her work had come so far… but there was still 'that' complication. As magnificent as this latest generation was, she was not sure they were completely prepared. Beyond even that issue, she had been hoping for at least another eight or nine generations, just to weed out all of the issues and potential complications working with such an unusual specimen entailed.
"Are you certain? We can still perfect the process further," she admitted, "And it only takes a little over a week to birth a new generation."
GESTATION TIME IS IRRELEVANT
PROPER TRAINING AND MATURATION BEYOND BASIC LEVELS MUST BE COMPLETED BEFORE THE INSERTION WINDOW
The insertion window, as she recalled, was only a month away.
While it only took a week to prepare an iteration, proper training and full maturation took longer, several times longer. If they wanted to be prepared for the window, they wouldn't have time to start another batch, they would have to train this group as far as possible.
But... was it really so important they insert then, and not at the next dimensional alignment? Pamela-no-more was not privy to the debates that had led to consensus within the Point Mind. She had simply been told what consensus had been reached and submitted to it.
WE CAN NOT AFFORD TO HESITATE OR DELAY BEGIN THE BIRTHING PROCESS
"W-what?" she asked, her green eyes wide. "Now? But they are still-"
IS IT SAFE TO DO SO?
"Yes, perfectly safe, but…"
As if possessed, Pamela-no-more's body moved of its own accord. No, not its own, as a will so much greater than her own commanded it now, finding that part of her that was compliant and willing. It was that part of her that moved arms and legs. Reaching out, shaking violently, her hand jerked over the control console which stood next to her. Finding the patch of colored light required, she depressed it, sending a weak psionic signal into it to activate it.
The second she did, the lights within the cylindrical tanks died out and the amber liquid began to drain out, to be recycled again for use in the next set of experiments, whatever they might be. Summoned by the signal, a number of subservient Hierarchy members waddled into the room, having waited in silence for this moment, like organic computers idling or hibernating prior to reactivation.
Soon enough, the tanks slid open, small amounts of the amniotic fluid held within splashing onto the floor. A series of sickening, wet thumps followed, as the fleshy sacks dropped to the ground, most of them rolling right out onto the cold floor at their feet. Immediately, the Sectoids fell to their task, tearing open the artificial wombs and dutifully cleaning off the subjects.
Checking quickly, the Trenchard brought up one of the holographic displays at her beck and call. As sure of her work as she was, activating the subjects so early was… unexpected. There was always, always the chance that something could go wrong. Bringing up the relevant information… she finally let out a sigh of relief.
"It seems like… all of their vitals are stable. I think that they will all serve."
If her master cared at all, he showed no sign, exterior or psionic. As such, in an attempt to emulate the powerful Ethereal, the uplifted scientist watched silently, distantly, as an odd mix of pride and disdain warred for dominance as her greatest creations rose up on shaky legs before her.
One of them stood up before the rest, taking a confident step forward. The subject was still physically young, only seven to eight years. They had been meant to be 'born' at ten years old, but this premature delivery made it impossible to know for certain… still, nothing that couldn't be corrected in later Phases. The subject was standing on still trembling legs, one of the black eyed aliens assisting her in holding her balance.
She was a young female, human in base, a bright shock of pink hair crowning her pale head. She stared at Pamela-no-more expectantly, blinking pink cat-like eyes.
As did the one next to her, and the next, and the next, and the next…
And the next.
Reflections Lost on a Dark Road
Lathis - "Enjoy if you will, Tolerate if you won't."
It had come to this, at last.
Torrential rain battered the deck of the ship, blotting out the sun and sky. How much time had passed since one could tell night from day? How much blood had been shed? Tatewaki Kuno could not say for sure. How long had their small ship been adrift on these lifeless, hostile seas? How long had they been deceived and manipulated?
It had begun, not when fourteen comrades left port in search of adventure: to track down and defeat a vile enemy that had fled to spread its poisonous seed in other lands. It had not begun when they had been forced upon a strange island, the supposed home of one of their crew, now overrun by veiled evil, lurking just below the surface veneer of fine temples. That battle had been most terrible, and the corruption that had briefly taken their dark mistress of the mind had scarred at least two of their number. It had been a dark day, fraught with bodily peril, but it had not been what set them into this tempest storm. Not directly.
No. Had it begun when they arrived in a cruel and pitiless Sargasso, left to drift in a damaged and storm-tossed ship? Perhaps, but perhaps not. This day's darkness, the monstrous setting of comrade against comrade, truly began with the discovery of so many other lifeless, forbidden vessels, trapped in the same stretch of dead sea. In a desperate effort to escape, they had boarded those lost, damned and cursed craft, and one in particular.
There, they had found the Head and thought it dead.
But the Head was not dead, and it spoke sweet, honeyed lies.
"I can take you home," it told them. "I know how to escape," it assured them.
The madness of the Sargasso had already worn away at the fourteen comrades in arms; they did not - could not - see the lies for what they were. Believing the Head, trusting in the dead thing's words, they ventured deeper into the abyss. Boldly, fearlessly, they strode into a most forsaken vessel: a dilapidated, haunted, blighted ruin. Battle was joined against the monsters that had once been that ship's crew. Battle was taken, in the end, to the unspeakable horror that resided within its heart. A battle that ended in bitter victory. The feisty witch, Jinx, and the vivacious crimson-haired foreigner from a far off land, Starfire, returned with a lone survivor of that mad vessel: the evil enchantress, Reava.
"There is a map that will show us the way," the Head promised them. "It lies within the body of a giant. You must fetch it for me."
Within that black Sargasso Sea, there was a great corpse emerging from the water, frozen eternally in a glacier-coffin. This was the giant, the giant-god. This was their way home.
Other brave crew members ventured to it, diving into the dead god's mouth, to divine its secrets. One of them, empowered by the Head, was the noble and beauteous Ukyou Kuonji. By her side, the fair-skinned and implacable psychic maiden, Raven, also sought to redeem herself through acts of devotion and bravery. The ferocious Amazon, Shampoo, was also present to lend martial aid. Also one other person was there, not so fair or so female, and thus not so important to the tale. What madness they endured within the dead god, Kuno could not say, but they returned triumphant... yet baptized in solemn silence.
"All that remains now, children," the Head let lies slip from its withered, ancient blue lips, "Is to decode the map. We must have a cursed compass to cross a cursed sea, and then we will be shown the way home."
Yet, the foulness of the Killing Sea was strong.
They were lost for so long in the nightmare mists, once formidable willpower began to fail, weakening the bonds of camaraderie... and slipping the bonds of sanity. The starless night clouded, and the sky became an oppressive pail. Spirits became lost. Their ship's once-amiable American engineer, Sir Cyborg, became isolated and withdrawn; their once implacable captain became stern and untrusting of his subordinates; their navigator remained an arrogant sorcerer with designs on the pigtailed girl and Akane Tendo. Curse him! Curse him and his wicked and uncanny skills with the opposite sex! How did he do it?!
Tatewaki Kuno, noble samurai and adventurer, saw it all, but was powerless to prevent the degradation of those around him. Attempts to reason with or uplift the spirits of his comrades resulted in rude rebuff. His own mind, of course, was like a castle besieged, the insanity breaking against great stone walls. Sadly, the others were convinced - in their irrationality - that he, too, had succumbed. They went so far as to demand the separation of the samurai from his legendary blade. The Phoenix Tail taken from him, he could do little but watch.
Despite growing debilitation, the crew obeyed the loathsome Head and fell under its sway. They forced their way across the Sargasso to a vast and decaying hulk left adrift for untold eons. Once more, they were called to explore the lost ruin. This time, the test was not one of great strength against a monstrous foe; it was not a contest of wits and riddles against a dead god. It was a trial of endurance, for the crew had to endure countless days of exposure to the dark mists that corrupted their minds and bodies. It was doubly a labor for their weary psychic, Raven, whose beauty could not hide her fatigue as she lead every expedition to the island-sized wreck.
At last, on the final day, the Head declared success.
It was then - with that lie - that the betrayals began.
The lovely Ukyou Kuonji, flushed with unholy power, struck down her returned friends and allies. Those who raised arms against her, lead at first by the fierce warrior-woman, Shampoo, and the hidden powers of Raven and Reava, were met by the treacherous alliance of the exotic Starfire and the once-humble manservant, Konatsu. Blood was spilled, as comrade battled comrade. Only the intervention of a great man prevented loss of life.
"Stay your hand, woman!" Kuno had seized Starfire's hand before she could deliver the death blow to the vivacious blush-haired Jinx. Crushing the comely alien woman to his chest, the brave samurai had endured her fiery anger long enough to cup her chin and look into her eyes.
"Remember who you are," he had pleaded. "Remember the woman who stole my heart."
Naturally, that snapped broke the bonds of the enchantment placed upon her.
"Fear not, fair one!" He then reached down to cradle the wounded witch, Jinx. "No longer shall I allow such evil to endanger my friends! Ha ha!"
Though no doubt tempted to make a snarky response, the poor girl could naught but stare into the samurai's eyes and trust in him. Completely. It was around that time that the peerless samurai noticed his good friend and comic relief sidekick, Mousse, had also successfully intervened in the battle between his love, Shampoo, and the butler-turned-assassin Konatsu.
"Need you help, my friend?" Kuno had generously asked.
"Only your inspiration!" Mousse had replied with a thumbs-up.
"Very well!" Kuno announced, still carrying Jinx... and Starfire... somehow... onto the deck of the ship. One of them was on top of the other. That was probably it. Regardless, he emerged against the biting wind and ferocious rain, where the ensorcelled Ukyou Kunoji was busily kicking a beaten body with an unremarkable face. It was the half-brother of Captain Hibiki, creatively also known as Hibiki, who had clearly done much to frustrate and vex the green-clad woman.
"Hark!" The swordsman commanded, raising his sword! Despite carrying two swooning women. "Fair Kuonji, I shall cut away the spell that so maligns you with the light from my noble blade!"
"Impossible!" The chef, now an evil Green Bucket... Lantern... whatever, yelled. "We cast that blade into the sea!"
Kuno just laughed boldly, not needing to explain how he had acquired it. Mundane details like that didn't matter.
"No matter," the spellbound woman, writhing with the Head's vile green energies, attempted to destroy the samurai with a wave of evil energy. "I have defeated the others! You, too, will succumb, Tatewaki Kuno!"
"No!" The swordsman blocked the atrocious energy with his righteous blade. "I yet live! Fight this spell, Kuonji!"
"Oh! OH! What have I done?" The all-powerful woman cried. "My energies are spent! I - I am finished! Save them, Kuno! I - I can't...!"
Seeing her collapse, Kuno gently scooped up her body and put her on top of Jinx and Starfire, both still in his arms. Standing against the wind, he made a true and noble vow.
"I shall save our friends!" he declared, with a crack of thunder. "No matter the obstacles before me! The Head's machinations end now!"
Unfortunately, it was near the end of that sentence when he got blasted from behind.
"I yet live...!" Kuno struggled to his knees. A... strange and twisted version of events had crossed his mind while briefly unconscious. It was wholly inaccurate, for as much as he would have wished it, he did not in fact have his sword on hand.
Also... some other very minor details may have been slight embellishments.
Holding his pounding head, the sword-less swordsman tried to remember. They had come to this cursed dimension... how long ago? Frankly, he had no idea. The last few of what must have been days, maybe a week or more, were all a blur. The ship had emerged within a vast complex, a strange hollow sphere of nightmares and warped debris. It had taken days to cut out, hadn't it? While freeing the ship, they had answered a distress signal, and Ukyou and Kumon had returned with the... the alien...
Trespasser. The so called 'Guardian of the Universe' so esteemed by Yankee Squad. Ukyou had become empowered by a strange alien ring, granting her the ability to materialize things with thought. With the ship freed, they had been sent to an alien ship, and some other time-lost ruin. Kuno remembered it, as if through a winding, cloudy haze. He had not been taken on those missions. He had... been relieved of duty... considered unfit for duty. Why? What had happened again? Mousse had been there, too, also relieved.
Days had passed. Watching the teams go on another mission, too. He had spoken to them. He remembered bits and pieces of conversations. Together, they had all been pushed to the brink, hours from being at each other's throats. Yet Trespasser pre-empted the madness of the dimension that surrounded them. Kuno remembered: he and Mousse had been confined. Konatsu was there, too, but not being subdued.
It was all so... confusing.
Then there had been the call. The call for help. That had roused him from some strange stupor. He had found a battle ongoing: Konatsu and Shampoo, Ukyou and Yankee's Hibiki, Starfire and Jinx. He had intervened in the latter. At that realization, he took a moment to wonder how it was that he was still intact. Getting between those two hellions, fair though that they could be?
And then... a suffocating green blanket... followed by sound and fury.
What had happened?
"Tatewaki Kuno... age twenty… rises once more!" he proudly declared, coughing and hacking as he forced himself onto his feet. The words felt good. There was no motivation like self-motivation! After all, what would Akane Tendo or the Pigtailed Girl do if he died here? Unfortunately, though the spirit was willing, the flesh was...
The flesh was pretty badly battered and bruised.
He felt a sharp, lancing pain in his chest. He could feel the broken rib, keenly, where his lovely comrade Starfire had attempted to use it to pierce his noble heart. The pain was exquisite, it actually took his mind back, so long ago. Back when he had first been shot... had it been his very first mission? An age ago, it felt like. And yet, that memory reminded him instantly of being on the brink of death. Truly being within a hair's width of dying. Compared to that, what was this? What was agony alone, to a samurai?!
"Hyo!" He surged up, sucking in a breath of air. His lungs felt like fire, his ears rang, and his legs felt like silly putty.
Heedless of that, he whirled on the only other man standing.
"Victor Stone," Kuno announced, glaring at the Cyborg. The Cyborg whose arm-cannon was still smoking from its discharge. Around the disarmed kendoist, unearthly blue smoke curled around the fallen forms of a half dozen men and women. Kuno realized that haze drifted from him, as well.
"I would not think you, of all men, capable of a stab in the back."
The mammoth cyborg turned to regard him dispassionately. After several fractions of a second spent in silent study, the traitorous genius glanced away, inspecting the rest of the hold with clinical detachment. "Kuno, Tatewaki. Rank: Squaddie. Current threat assessment: Negligible… Cross reference: Tendo, Nabiki."
A moment later, he looked back. "Your statement is illogical, Squaddie Kuno. I am not currently in possession of any bladed weapons. Nor is my sonic cannon, in correlation, or function, in any way represented by a piercing action of any sort."
"You did fire on your friends and allies!" the swordsman sans-sword objected, pointing accusingly at the Titan. "Hear me now, and step aside! I must..." Toppling forward, Kuno barely caught himself from falling on his face.
Perhaps... perhaps it would be best to tone down the dramatic declarations. For a time.
Just until his lungs ceased their cowardly burning.
"On whose side...?" he asked, glaring at Cyborg. "On whose side do you stand?"
"Yet again, it is being inferred that there are 'sides' in this conflict from which I must choose to align myself," Cyborg explained cooly, "This is not the case. I am merely initiating responses that will result in the highest probability of mission success. With Raven's death imminent within the Command Center, there are no actions I can make which will affect the outcome there."
Eyes slipping down to inspect the small display in his arm, examining some fathomless oracle in search of the answer to some mysterious riddle, he added as an afterthought, "With Squaddie Kounji disabled, the risk of my entering the Hold dropped significantly, allowing for my intervention."
"Raven's...?" Kuno struggled back to his feet. "Yet you come here to strike at us, rather than remain by her side?"
Staring forward, Cyborg explained in an unemotional tone so at odds with what Kuno knew of the normally boisterous fighter. "Raven is currently engaged in psychic combat with the Guardian. The outcome of such a contest is statistically improbable in regards to turning out in her favor."
"While her death is a near certitude," he posited, "The events occurring in this section of the ship are not. My presence here is more beneficial to the mission than my presence at Raven's side."
Cyborg's head quirked to the side. "That is UNETCO protocol, as I have downloaded the manual and assimilated all regulations. You should be aware, Squaddie Kuno… that the mission always comes first."
Kuno raised a finger to protest.
"And that it is standard procedure to utilize stun-weaponry against mentally dominated squadmates."
"Curse you and your encyclopedic knowledge," the swordsman flatly replied, but shook his head to add, "Yet, are you not also mentally compromised? And what of the ship? What of...? Are we still able to escape this place?"
Cyborg shook his head. "Negative, my organic mental faculties have been overridden by emergency contamination protocols. As such, my judgment is not compromised as per UNETCO psychological guidelines, and by UNETCO regulations, that means that my actions now supersede those of all compromised personnel… which at this point, includes all members of India CT, Juliet CT and Yankee CT, excepting myself."
Looking down at his arm once more Cyborg nodded to himself. "Operations concerning the escape of this pocket dimension are still in progress. It..." Suddenly, the cybernetic teen paused, something flashing red across his screen. "Start-up of EDC detected. Countdown to dimensional jump initiated. Dimensional jump will commence in: Seven, Six..."
It wasn't really noticeable until after it began. The "blue shift" of a transit event. Kuno and Cyborg froze in space and time. Unlike previous jumps, this one seemed to stretch on, conscious thought continuing in the gap between seconds when all else became mirrors and dust. The blue deepened almost to purple as infinity stretched, thinner and thinner; the transit window struggling to pull itself out of the slippery slope that was the dimensional abyss.
Finally, that tenuous moment snapped taunt.
A point expanded forcefully from the core of Pathfinder itself, expanding outwards to encompass and embrace the whole of the ship in the span of a nanosecond. A ripple in the air followed, and the air and alloy and iron and blood of everyone and everything within shook with an ear-raking screech, like nails on blackboard, like a wound torn in the stomach of a great, alien beast.
Beryl tinted vision faded in and out, and Kuno found himself on hands and knees, breath escaping in ragged gasps. The air was freezing cold, like they had been dropped into the middle of a frigid winter, and the swordsman could see his breath in the air. Clouds of it drifted from his nose and mouth, and flakes of frost fell from his skin.
Looking up, in speechless awe, he saw snowflakes.
It was snowing... they were flurries... inside the ship.
Lights dimmed. Silence. Broken, finally, only, by the stuttering roar of the automated environmental systems. Heated air shot into the room from pitted vents in the ceiling, causing much of the falling hoarfrost to begin to turn into fine, chilly droplets. Hard blue began to fade against blinking eyes. Nearly slipping as he tried to stand, Kuno saw Cyborg, somehow having maintained his footing, staring fixedly at the display embedded within his arm, blind to the rest of the odd effects surrounding them,
"What's... happened?" The scion of House Kuno coughed, his breath mist in the air as he struggled to stay conscious. "W-where are we?"
"At last," Trespasser declared, raising his hands to the digital sky. "The time has come."
The countdown, finally, had expired.
Time had, at long last, run out.
"I will drive this ship down God's Throat!" The insane Guardian exulted, his power and presence suffusing - suffocating - the mental realm he dominated. No longer was there a physical or mental distinction between Trespasser and Pathfinder. He was the ship, and the ship was he, and the restored and reworked Extended Dimensional Contact Device was both his beating heart and his weapon of retribution.
"Together, we will cut the strings of conditionality that bind the multiverse!" And, then, the 'we' disappeared entirely, the pretense of cooperation hardly necessary. "I will restore Natural Order!"
The viridian bonfire that consumed the Oan's eyes narrowed in secret glee and triumph.
"I will Find Truth..." His grin nearly split his ancient cheeks; upraised fingers clawed at the sky. "By MAKING TRUTH!"
EDC TRANSIT WINDOW - ENGAGED
Beaten and barely alive from where she lay at the mad Guardian's feet, Raven stared blankly at something beyond Trespasser himself, as the numbers flashed in their final, expiring state. She had been the last pitiful, mewling obstacle since Saotome and Hibiki had been dealt crippling blows. Left to suffer and die, to witness the consequences of her weakness and failure, Trespasser seemed to gladly cast aside any notions of finishing the hellspawned Titan off - not with victory in his grasp. Not with the product of a lifetime's research at hand. Not when death itself had kept him from his one, burning devotion.
A streak, a stream, of incomprehensible data flashed by on two parallel displays overhead. There was only the briefest, most fleeting delay between the initiation and the actual dimensional jump. There was less than a second to determine whether one had punched a hole in reality, to exit into another reality, or whether there would be no return voyage: no exit to the hole one had been cast into. Within that unfathomable rift in between spaces and times lay a sea of nearly infinite energy, the product of friction between dimensions; a seething and hungry Charybdis that would rend the tiny mote that was Trespasser-Pathfinder and those within it into scattered hyper-energetic subatomic particles.
There was no more time to think on it: they were in.
They were through.
Trespasser-Pathfinder closed his eyes to embrace what he knew would be the end of his life - the end of his long, long existence. It was Suicide. Personal suicide. The Guardian of the Universe would not die alone: he would take creation as-is with him, to be replaced by creation as-it-could-be. Creation: as-it-should-have-been! Creation: as-it-would-be! Without the contaminating influence, the 'conditionality' he despised. The new multiverse - their new multiverse - could just as well be recreated with no Oans, no Green Lanterns, as it could give birth to the perfect Malthusian race he wished for in his heart of hearts.
Genesis out of Genocide.
With a scream and a sound like cracked ceramic, Trespasser-Pathfinder shattered the walls between dimensions, cracking open the veil of the universe itself. A ripple-like halo grew from the exultant Oan, filling the shared gestalt mind with blinding, painful light. What was a split second in time, a clean cut between nanoseconds, blossomed into a momentary eternity within the mindscape. Here, in a mind that was Trespasser-Pathfinder... but that was also Ryouga, Ranma, and Raven... all of existence shimmered like a distant mirage.
And the mirage cracked.
Like a shattered mirror, like a house of mirrors coming apart, the gestalt mind fragmented in four dimensions, spreading from the roof of the world as a creeping spiderweb. Bits of crystalline memory and mind rained down like broken, reflective glass; like a thousand moving pictures playing at once to the sound of silence. In the wake of the smashed, falling memories, a monsoon of crimson fell like torrential rain. Memories crashed around Raven, forcing her to flinch and curl up to avoid the cave-in; the ground split and uprooted, searing blasts of broken neurons firing upward like miniature volcanoes.
The shared mind - their minds - were coming apart at the seams.
Yet, as Raven stare up at her conqueror, beaten in every sense of the word, there was no fear in her eyes. Even as droplets of red dribbled down her face and soaked through her hair; even as shards of memory shattered close by, breaking into a trillion uncountable fragments; even as the sky and the world split and sundered and cried blood. Heedless of the sight of the mental apocalypse, she stared up at the statue-still Trespasser. Even as splinters chipped and fell from the Oan's arms and face, she, Raven, remained intact. Whole. All that was her was within her. All that was Ranma, within him; all that was Ryouga, within him.
And… all that was Trespasser -
The Oan, like the world, shattered. The very pieces of him hung close together, the broken and splintered form of a red robed, marble sculpture, deceptively kept together just moments before it all came apart. His arms were still upraised as he awaited the final, apocryphal Truth he had so longed to force into being. His eyes still stared blankly upward, waiting for the moment - the instant - when he could crash head long into the apex of the pyramid, the source of Dimensional Conditionality. Even with his form coming apart like cracking crystal, he still looked for his goal, unwavering. Undeterred. Uncompromising. Unrelenting. Unforgiving.
He searched for Truth.
Instead, he beheld... Nothing.
Green eyes, devoid of fire, stared with shock and longing. One split straight down the middle, cracking like marble. Both eyes slowly, agonizingly, moved inside their splintered sockets to fall on her, to spear her. Raven saw no fear or hate in them. Only... confusion. Terrible, alien, incomprehensible, confusion. She could feel it in him.
And she knew, that for this Guardian of the Universe, it was worse than death.
"This..." Trespasser's mouth opened, and flakes of his lips and jaw fell away. "Isn't... I don't..."
His left arm crumbled to the floor, breaking apart in midair.
"I don't… understand..."
Raven finally blinked, and their shared world ended.
Eyes snapped open, and painful, stinging light blinded Raven all over again. Closing her eyes again, she blinked rapidly several times, tears leaking from the corners of her vision as she tried to acclimate herself to the intrusive, long-absent light. It was not a desirable sensation, after battling on a mental plane filled with so much scintillating fury, but it reminded her that that was all it had been: an illusory conflict, an astral war. Here, on the physical plane, her flesh and blood eyes had been closed the entire time, and her physical body…
Oh, Azar, how she regretted possessing a physical body at that moment. Perhaps, just perhaps, those Ethereals were on to something, with their withered, atrophied shells. Her eyes stung from the light, her extremities burned with some unnatural cold, her chest – her chest burned like fire. It was as if someone had forced hot coals into her chest. It was all she could do, her body still weak and unresponsive, to slowly curl herself up into a tight ball. The sensation was actually familiar, she had felt something similar during her battle with Trespasser, but here, in the real world, it was magnified a dozen fold.
It felt like a hundred heated needles were worming their way through her chest, roasting and eating her alive. Which made no sense. Her hands clutched tightly to her breast, she felt no gentle 'thump-thump' with which to confirm that she was, actually, alive.
That was right: Trespasser had crushed her heart.
'Why… am I still alive?'
It didn't make any sense. She knew that she was alive; not even life itself and the cold, hard universe they existed in would be cruel enough to inflict this kind of suffering on a corpse, after all. She was also breathing, though she honestly wished that she could forgo that autonomic function as well at the moment. And yet… her heart was still in her chest, unbeating, unfeeling.
Perhaps, in her titanic battle with a being of nearly pure will… she had actually, instinctively, stumbled upon that same trick used by their alien enemies to sustain her body with pure psionic energy? To sustain the body and survive by Will Alone. She had to admit… that would be pretty cool.
If it didn't hurt so much!
If this was what it was like to be a Trenchard, she could almost understand why Cologne and the others had gone evil so easily… Thankfully, the burning in her chest was slowly beginning to fade, from agonizing to merely unbearable. As she grew more at ease with her pain, other sensations began to wash over her, her universe gradually expanding beyond just herself.
It took several moments, trying to sort through numerous incongruities at once, but she was also getting the odd impression that she was lighter than she had been before. It seemed that the most likely explanation for that was that the gravity on the ship was either failing completely, or eking out what it could before the end. She wasn't weightless, yet, but things were moving in that direction. Then there was that damned cold. Though confusing, it was already known to her. Flitting her eyes open more fully, she began to take in her surroundings more fully.
Was… was that snow?
Ignoring that inconsistency for the moment – possibly a trauma induced hallucination - she recognized the ceiling of Pathfinder's CIC. She recognized the mimetic alloy chairs that sat before the Nav Interface. She recognized the figures in those chairs. She recognized a body across from her, on the opposite end of the room. She even recognized another body, one close by: the only one moving, if slightly, curled as it was into a fetal ball, just as Raven was.
The grey walls of the ship, however, were painted with sooty, black ash.
It was splattered haphazardly over the ceiling and floor, across walls in brazen streaks; even the Nav and the computers were blackened by the boiling, smoking ink-like stain. Ranma and Ryouga were smeared by it on half their bodies, and as Raven reached up to her face, she realized she was, too. Her tongue darted out to taste her upper lip, wiping away a bit of the black color. It had no taste. Like water. She tasted its absence.
Trespasser - her mind slowly realized - gone.
He was gone.
She also, agonizingly, realized what she had licked off her lip.
Shuddering, tasting vomit in the back of her mouth, Raven passed out.
Raven awoke again, forced out of dreamless unconsciousness by an alien sensation, not from within, but from outside: outside her body. Violet eyes wearily forced themselves open, and she reached out to grab a hand that had been touching - cleaning - her face. It was a human hand: a scarred, worn hand, larger than her own. She felt wetness on her face and on the scrap of cloth between her hand and this other one. She found a face; a man's face, and let out a sigh of relief.
Ryouga, the Major, gave her hand a very gentle squeeze before passing her the once-white piece of cloth, returning to his feet and moving on. Rolling onto her side, Raven instinctively wiped away at her brow. Most of it felt semi-clean, but the act helped to ground her back in the here and now: in reality. She was alive (or, at least close enough, it seemed). They were alive. The plan - the insane, utterly insane plan - had worked.
Unfortunately, the damp cloth was cold; cold like everything in the room it seemed. Even the floor nearly burned with its chill… but rising to her feet simply wasn't in the cards at the moment. The rag itself felt like it weighed nearly a ton in her numb, tingling arms, and her legs didn't even possess that much strength. In the end, she simply rolled onto her back, staring blankly upwards as her body seemed to wage war upon itself. Chest burning, limbs freezing…
It annoyed her that she was suddenly struck by the memory of those Fish Sticks she had tried to cook back at the Tower.
Closing her eyes, not appreciating the sight of her breath condensing in the frigid air above her, Raven gingerly tried to rub her hands along her arms to garner even a modicum of warmth. She didn't have great circulation at the best of times – not like that living furnace, Starfire – but she was usually able to focus past the cold with meditation and concentration. Now… now she was just frikkin' cold-
'Wait a moment… what is that-'
As her fingers strayed along her arm, she stumbled across something unknown. Something… hard and sharp. Not skin. Eyes slowly sliding open again, she turned her gaze to the... addition to her body. Pupils widened at the sight of wires digging into her right arm. Vivid memories of Terra's 'operation' and Slade's vile technology sprang to mind, agonizing hours spent worming and wiggling yards and yards of hair-thin wires from her stone body. For just an instant, panic began to rise up within her… only to fade as realization set in.
This was the machine, the "mother box."
She knew what it was, where it had come from, and, now she knew why she was 'alive', despite the lack of a heartbeat. Frowning, she poked it carefully with an inquisitive digit. It felt... wrong. Not cold, really, or even that hard, but it didn't feel like flesh. She could feel its tendrils inside her muscle, like a phantom pain in a lost limb. The gold on the Apokaliptian device had become a dirty brass color, and the lights flickered with the last, pitiful sparking visages of artificial life. Eons of overuse on the Thanagarian ship keeping Reava alive, and now this... she doubted it would last much longer.
The real question was… what would happen to her when the ancient device finally died? She remembered, quite clearly, that Trespasser had destroyed her heart. If his word hadn't been enough, then the pain in her chest certainly lent him credence. Was that what it had been doing with the last of its power? Repairing the damage to her shattered heart? Or was just keeping her alive the limit of its nearly depleted charge?
Either way… she found she could barely be bothered to care. If the former, then she would be overjoyed later, and possibly even go so far as offer up a genuine smile while they celebrated their victory. If the latter… then this small device, created by one of the greatest evils she knew… would have at least granted her the time to say goodbye…
What more could she truly ask for?
Using the rapidly drying cloth to dab some moisture from the corner of her eyes (purely caused by the cold, or the Oan Ash in her eye, or… anything else external to her person) she swung her gaze around the hold, looking for those people she would most want to say farewell to. Though ultimately disappointed, she was still somewhat relieved to realize that Reava was close by. Ryouga had clearly tried to check her for injury, and Raven could see that the Female Fury was - unlike Trespasser - intact and alive. The pale, tattooed woman was breathing, slowly and steadily, but remained on the floor, staring mutely up at the ceiling. Raven saw the Fury blink, and the woman's eyes met hers with a frown.
"This place..." she said, softly. Despairingly. "Oh, Great Darkseid… this place...!"
It was like something in her had broken and died. The Female Fury groaned, painfully, and crushed her eyes shut. Her mouth still moved, muttering too quietly to overhear. Prayers, Raven realized. The Female Fury was praying.
Raven tore her eyes from the displaced servant of Darkseid, catching Ryouga as he knelt next to another body. This one, Raven recognized as Nabiki. Even from her own position on the floor, Raven could see that the Tendo sister was unconscious. Her lower lip was split open and swollen, and her cheek was bruised purple and red. There was also a smear of blood matting some of her hair to her face, and a splotch where her head had hit the floor. Again, Raven flashed back to her own battle, nearly drowning in an ocean of blood, more symbolic than physical.
Still, Raven could hardly believe it. The wounds themselves were really trivial compared to what so many others had to be suffering, but seeing them on Nabiki - the one person on board that could come close to being a non-combatant - was more jarring than Raven would have expected.
Ryouga was lost in his own world at the moment, paying attention to nothing, and no one else. Rough fingers gently brushed Nabiki's cheek and drew back, as if afraid to cause pain even with a feather-soft gesture. Lowering his head closer, he nearly touched his forehead to hers, but also withdrew from that fleeting contact, afraid that an errant loss of control could cause injury. Instead, he set her back down on the floor as carefully as he could. It was... equally strange to see this other Ryouga, who so freely embraced his fury and darker emotions, show the gentle side Raven knew her own Ryouga possessed.
His left arm, she also noticed, was no longer glowing so lividly to her mind's eye.
He stood up, and his tone was professional... if forced.
"Ranma," he said, turning to the ship's pilot, once again plugged into the Nav. Raven hadn't even noticed him there, amidst the rest of the confusion. "Raven's here. Let's give her a try."
To Raven's surprise, Ranma leaned back in the pilot's chair.
"I noticed," the Saotome heir replied. "But something weird is going on. I… I can't access any of the systems."
"What's happened?" Ryouga asked tension creeping into his voice.
"I don't know for sure, but based on what's left of the Nav, we're dead in the water," Ranma said, getting out of the chair. "Feel free to try and plug in, but it's almost like the system has been locked out or something. Who knows, it might have happened when Trespasser blew? He probably took half the ship's systems with him." He then hazarded another guess. "Or maybe Nabiki did it? She's the only one with Admin privileges for basic systems."
Raven didn't like the sound of that.
A system lockout? It didn't seem like something that Trespasser would have intentionally instated, or Nabiki for that matter, but, then again, there had been so much security hacking going on during their mental battle, that it was probably a miracle that the ship hadn't de-pressurized and ejected them all out into space.
"I really don't like the sound of that," Ryouga stated, crossing his arms over his chest as he tried to think up what to do next. This not being a combat situation, he was already at something of a disadvantage. "We need to identify where we jumped to. There has to be something..."
The pigtailed pilot raised his hands, making quite clear his intention to shrug his shoulders helplessly, when-
"Further inquiries are unnecessary."
As one, everyone able (meaning Ryouga and Ranma) spun about to stare at the source of the voice. Walking through the door leading to the Hold, as calmly as if he were walking for groceries, Cyborg entered the CIC and began to make his way to the main control panel. Not bothering to spare a glance in anyone's direction - not even her own, Raven noted with no small amount of hurt - he continued in a flat monotone.
"I have initiated a full, system wide lockout," Cyborg explained. "Pending the full diagnostic which I am about to run."
"You what?" Ranma barked, disbelief obvious in his voice.
"You were warned about this, Cyborg," Ryouga growled, stepping up to the Titan and blocking his path. "I know it had to have been you who did that to Nabiki!" He pointed back at the unconscious ship's operator, dark anger fulminating up and into his features, and not because of the defiance of orders. "What the HELL do you think you're doing, stealing command codes AGAIN?!"
Cyborg stared at him impassively, only to step around him, continuing his way to the pilot's seat. "I did not 'steal' any codes. I merely seized control of all systems after Trespasser broke through the security encryption." Were it anyone else at that moment, Raven would have sworn he gave the acting Major a pointed look. "It was you that compromised ship's security, and permitted a hostile alien force to gain control of Pathfinder."
"W-what?" Ranma asked, his level of belief not rising. "But you were just working for the Guardian!"
Growling darkly, Ryouga stepped back in front of Cyborg and placed a threatening hand on his shoulder. Glancing down at the hand, Cyborg gave no sign of fear… or any other emotion. "I don't care what you think you're doing! You betrayed us, you attacked Nabiki! You're not doing anything except lifting the locks on the ship's systems! That's an order!"
Cyborg stared back flatly, Raven could not even sense his mind to determine just what was running through it at that instant. Would he attack? Comply? It was impossible to tell.
"You no longer possess the authority to give orders." Rather than do any of the above, the cybernetic Titan chose a third, highly unexpected response. Lifting his electronic gaze to meet Hibiki's, Cyborg followed matter-of-factly. "Acting-Major Hibiki, according to UNETCO regulations, you are relieved of duty. You are psychologically and physically unfit for duty."
"What?" Ryouga fired back, echoing Ranma's own incredulous bark. "You can't-"
"It is both within my purview, and my duty to do such," Cyborg countered. "I have already logged the incident, including a detailed psychological and medical breakdown to support my actions, and have initiated hierarchical reorganization protocols as are deemed necessary by the situation."
"Ummm… I'm not sure you can actually do that, Cyborg," Ranma countered. "As the next most senior officer, it falls to me to relieve any one of duty, if need be. That… and you're acting totally insane!"
Shaking his head, Cyborg made no other move. "Negative. You are also relieved of duty."
Lifting his free arm, heedless of Ryouga's deadly threat, the display lit up on his arm. This time, when he began to speak, his voice sounded throughout the ship. "Attention all conscious personnel: the following announcement is of the highest priority. Please cease all activity and pay attention, as this announcement is pertinent to all crew."
"What are HELL you doing?!" Ryouga asked, his temper obviously growing shorter by the second, the combination of dismissal, both personally and professionally obviously not sitting well with him.
Paying no attention, Cyborg continued uninterrupted.
"The following crew members are now relieved of duty:"
"Acting Major Hibiki Ryouga. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Lieutenant Saotome Ranma. Psychologically unfit for duty."
"Sergeant Konatsu. Psychologically unfit for duty."
"Sergeant Kumon Ryu. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Acting Sergeant Hibiki Ryouga. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Mousse. Psychologically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Kuno Tatewaki. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Shampoo. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Kounji Ukyou. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Koriand'r. Psychologically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Jinx. Psychologically unfit for duty. Medically unfit for duty."
"Squaddie Raven. Medically unfit for duty."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Ranma actually burst out into laughter. "Did – did you just relieve the entire ship of duty!?"
"Everyone except himself, conveniently. Are you even listening to yourself, Cyborg?" Ryouga spoke quietly, softly; reining in his voice to an icy calm. Raven knew that was not a good sign. "This is insane. You're obviously as mentally unfit as everyone else. You aren't in a position to relieve anyone of duty. My fucking dick ranks higher than you!"
Cyborg tilted his head to the side, studying the … no longer acting major (was that it?)... as if he were a particularly uninteresting shade of wall paint.
"You are incorrect," he replied. "The sections of my brain afflicted by psionic contamination have been identified and quarantined, as per my emergency safety protocols. As there are no sections of the UNETCO military code which rule on the possible contamination of minds augmented by cybernetics, such as my own, or for the dismissal of inorganic assets due to psionic tampering, by all regulations and stipulations, I am still fit for duty. The only one fit for duty."
"And as such," Cyborg continued, sounding for all the world as if he were delivering a lecture on physics, "I am forced to assume command of this mission. According to UNETCO regulations, only an accredited psychologist, with the proper security clearance, is authorized to reinstate you to mission readiness."
From across the room, the Fury, Reava, actually let out a derisive hiss of laughter of her own despite the pained expression on her face.
"Isn't this... splendid?" she asked, laughing happily. "How entertaining!" She grimaced but still drew a fierce smile across her lips. "We survive certain death in one universe, only to witness this farce in another? Tell me, 'Soundwave', does your proclamation mean what I think it does?"
Humorlessly, Cyborg replied in the affirmative. "You are correct. I do not possess the authority to reinstate members of the crew to duty, even if a marked improvement in mental condition should occur." With that, he turned back to Ryouga. "I must now ask that you remove your hand from my person. Continuing to act in a hostile manner and threatening the life of a UNETCO ranking operative is a punishable offense."
Hibiki's eyes narrowed, and his hand squeezed down just a little on Cyborg's shoulder, though to no visible affect. "Is that a threat?"
"Major! Don't!" It was bizarre, surreal, hearing what sounded like Major Hibiki shouting at himself, but the confusion lasted only a second. The actual source of the voice, coming from the same door which Cyborg had entered only moments ago, belonged to the young Sergeant Hibiki. Unable to even walk on his own, Ryouga was being half carried by Starfire. Right behind them was Kuno, as well and Mousse and Ryu. At the very edge of the pack, Jinx could just barely be made out, bracing herself against the frame of the door
Both Ranma and Ryouga (the elder) spun around to stare, or rather glare at the newcomer.
Frowning grimly, the younger Ryouga's eyes began to slide down towards her… and not even sure why, Raven snapped her eyes closed. She had no idea what he could be thinking, either, at the moment, but she was secretly worried that she might need to dredge up some hidden strength, of a second wind, sooner than she could have possibly imagined, the way things were going. Her tentative squad leader's voice still sounded out clearly.
"I know what you're thinking," he admitted, bitterly. "But don't. We've all been relieved of duty."
"You're not being funny, Sergeant," the elder Hibiki was beginning to radiate a murderous aura, hazy with the threat of imminent violence. "Jokes should be funny, and I'm not laughing."
"No," Ryouga replied, his voice weary and strained. She could almost see him shaking his head in her mind's eyes, in that way he so often did. "But with all due respect, sir, you are aware that half of the ship's systems are being routed through Cy at the moment, right? If you destroy him, we'll all be dead within an hour."
Raven's eyes nearly snapped open at that, but she kept them carefully closed. Yes, she remembered Cyborg mentioning, several times over the past few days, just how many systems he was being forced to take control of as Trespasser continued making wild modifications to the EDC.
"Besides," the younger Ryouga added, "He's only doing what you would do in his place. He's following his orders perfectly… because he doesn't have any choice. And you need to think that over really carefully, because we all know what he'll be forced to do if a compromised or hostile force tries to take possession of the ship, right?"
Instantly, a hush fell across the room.
"Icarus," the Elder Ryouga breathed.
"That is correct," Cyborg supplied. The sound of heavy metal footprints sounded out across the deck plates, and it was not accompanied by any kind of detonation, so it quickly became obvious that Cyborg was on the move once more, uniquely safe from any and all attack. "UNETCO regulations concerning initiation of the Icarus protocol are not open to interpretation. If a hostile force attempts to seize control of the ship, I will have no choice but to initiate a judicious self-destruct."
Breaths were sucked in across the room, and more than a few shocked gasps were uttered. In her mind's eye, auras began to manifest as people drew closer. Even as weak as she was, she was entranced by the varying, sweeping colors which represented her friends and comrades. It also disheartened her, that so many of them looked so very weak, Ryouga, her Ryouga, one of the weakest of all.
"You shouldn't even have access to those systems! You only have them at all by contravening orders and usurping security permissions!"
"I have also submitted verification of my own conduct in my pending security reports, and am prepared to defend my actions in that regard. Furthermore," Cyborg added, with no trace of irony, "I was only able to gain access to these systems due to clear negligence among the command staff."
"Oh, that's a great way to shift blame!" Ryouga sneered. "I only did it because I could get away with it?! That's how you defend yourself?"
"Look! Guys!" the young Hibiki spoke up, pleading. "I know that everyone is furious! Hell, I am too! The last thing on my mind now is some god damned pissing contest to see who gets to steer the broken ship… not when… when-"
Raven could feel his eyes on her, could hear the pain creeping into his voice.
"But this is Cyborg we're talking about here! He might be in some kind of crazy robot mode, but it's still him! If he wanted…"
"Yeah, we should just trust him," the same voice, angrier, snapped back. "Because while we're out of that dimension, we should put our stock in the one person who consciously chose to lose his mind. After he damn near killed Ryu on that Thanagarian ship! After he willingly sided with Trespasser!" And here, the voice grew darker. "After what he did to Nabiki? Hell, what he's doing right now?"
"Actually, we were kinda the ones that ordered him to lose his mind... remember?" Ranma chimed in. "Since we both suspected Trespasser was messing with our heads?" It was obvious that his input was not appreciated, judging by the angry grunt from the no longer acting Major.
"In that case, Cyborg. Why don't you switch back to normal?"
"And we're supposed to just trust him like this?"
"Yeah, we are," Ryouga stated, matter-of-factly. "We're going to trust him the same way that you're going to trust Ukyou, despite her trying to kill everyone a minute ago. No matter how crazy they might act, we know our friends, and we know that, no matter what, they'll always come back to us in the end."
The dark Titan felt heat building up behind her cheeks, and could sense tears threatening to spill from her eyes. It had been a gentle mercy of him to mention Ukyou's name, but she knew whose name had truly been in his mind when he had made his comparison. The name of the friend and comrade who had betrayed them on Azarath. All of them.
"Consider the alternative." This time, it was Ryu that spoke. Despite the gravity of the situation, his voice held a note of levity in it. "It's not like we can blow the guy up, anyway, so we might as well go with it, right? Hell, if I'm relieved of duty, can I fall flat on my face and go to sleep? I really kind of want to."
Ranma chuckled at that, but didn't say whether he agreed or not.
"This is...! This is...!" Ryouga's voice grew calm. Not defeated, but resigned. The building anger Raven had felt ebbed away - it didn't disappear, but it receded. "This is ridiculous... but you know what? You want command, Cyborg? You go ahead. Knock yourself out playing Captain."
"Your continued insistence of accusing a non-emotional being of possessing 'desires' is only reinforcing perceptions of your unstable mental state," Cyborg replied, not even glancing back over his shoulder. "As has been previously stated, given the current situation, I have no choice but to assume command. Protocol must be followed."
Raven saw the officer, relieved of command, flex and curl the fingers of his right hand. Then, mercifully, they relaxed. The burning blanket of anger that had cocooned around the Hibiki's shoulders dissipated, leaving only a few lingering traces of depression, like green flurries melting away into water on contact.
"So, we're all relieved of duty. Then, the rest of you," the acting major quickly added, with no small degree of sarcasm. "If you please and only if you want, I... we should make a count of heads and finish triage on the wounded. It'll tide us over until Cyborg here decides to unilaterally blow us to atoms."
"Current mission priority is to return to Earth," Cyborg's voice corrected him. "Detonation of the ship is contrary to stated mission parameters."
"Heh, so that's what it sounds like when a computer tells a joke?" Ranma muttered in a low voice, possibly not wanting to upset the acting major further.
"As stated," the monotone Titan explained. "I will perform a full system diagnostic. Pending those results, I will then attempt to send a distress signal, if communication is possible. Once those steps are completed, I will then attempt repairs as necessary."
Raven heard another low growl, though less intense this time, followed by the sound of someone picking something up. "You do that. Ranma. I've got Nabiki. You may as well start rounding up the wounded. We need to determine what, if any, provisions survived the fighting."
A pause. "Yeah. Heaven help us if the recyclers are down. Or the heat sink."
"Navigation systems are the most critically impaired," Cyborg's voice interrupted. "As I have stated, I will see to ship's repairs."
"Not like we were gettin' anything done on our own there anyway," the pigtailed one reasoned, and a door swished open. "Yer welcome to hotwire things if ya can, Squaddie-commander-and-crew. Rae, we'll see ya again in a bit. Oh hey, former-sergeant Kumon, you coming?"
"If one of you drags me along," Ryu replied, not sounding like he should be on his feet. Not that any of them were in fit and fighting form anymore. Raven nearly smiled at that; it wasn't too often that these Nerima types actually admitted weakness. Still, she couldn't help but turn her thoughts back to her teammate, Cyborg. She had heard of an 'army of one' before, but she wasn't sure she had heard of a 'spaceship crew of one' before. It was, honestly, just a bit ridiculous.
On the other hand, though, the situation, such as it was, had been diffused. It was just such a tremendous relief that everything had been settled without devolving into violence. The whole affair had been emotionally exhausting…
Not to mention physically…
And her eyes were already closed, anyway…
Within a matter of moments, consciousness fled from her once again.
Ryouga watched with eyes both weary and wary, as the Major finally left the command center, Ranma and Ryu trailing after him. His gaze lingered on the door for several long seconds, the younger martial artist not quite trusting the acting Major to notcome bursting back in a second later, plasma rifle blazing away. Something about how the situation had unfolded had chilled him to his soul.
"Does something trouble you, Ryouga?" Starfire whispered into his ear. Still holding the bulk of his weight, and even pressing a heavy compress into the bleeding hole in his shoulder, the Tamaranian gazed down into his eyes, a world of compassion visible in her own green hued eyes.
Not sure whether to nod, or shake his head, he did neither, and simply sighed. "It was just… hard… seeing the Lieutenant act like that. I swear that, if I hadn't said anything, he was actually going to kill Cyborg." His neutral glance fell into a frown. It was a shallow frown, to be sure, though. He had no doubt that at any other time he would be filled to bursting with emotion, but he was still feeling so damn empty. Despite that, though, it said something, that he would still feel this much then.
"And over what?" he spat, "Over who gets to give orders?"
Starfire's gaze slipped down, but she said nothing.
His own gazed fell to the floor, his body growing more weary by the moment. "It's like he's addicted to his authority."
"It is hard to say what the dimensional corruption may have done to him," Starfire replied in a neutral tone. "I do not think you need to worry about the acting Major. As always, he will handle things his own way."
He shook his head. "The only problem is, we aren't in that dimension anymore." A shuddering intake of breath. "Besides… it's not him that I'm worried about. It's me."
"What do you mean?" Starfire asked, unsure. "I do not believe I understand."
"Star… me and him… we're pretty much the same guy. If that's how he starts acting after being in command for a few months… then who's to say that I won't end up exactly the same?" He sneered at the thought, the thought of him barking and snapping at his dearest friends to cow them into submission. After all, just how else could he command a team? He wasn't inspiring or talented, like Robin. He wasn't even a shameless ladies man like Ranma, able to twist the girls under his command around his finger. What else did he have besides fear and intimidation to lead with? The other-him should have been happy to be relieved of the burden of command.
"If that's what it takes to be a leader… then I want nothing to do with it."
A hoarse chortle from not terribly far away drew his attention. Shifting his gaze back towards the engine room, he spotted Jinx, still present and slumped against the wall, resting silently on the floor. It hurt him, nearly physically, to look at the slight sorceress. Her face was swollen and puffy, her broken nose hidden beneath a bunched handful of gauze. Even more jarring, was the blackened remnants of ash and soot in her savagely curtailed hair. At the moment, Jinx's head was pressed back against indestructible metal, crushing her ravaged hair half flat.
Once she had his attention, she gestured to him, lifting her hand and pointing with a single finger.
"I may just hold you to that… Sarge…"
Rolling her eyes, Starfire gave him a gentle jostle. "You need not fear on that score. You are not at all like your double in that regard."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Well," Starfire began to explain, grin creeping onto her lips. "You are far too much the shiftless layabout to ever become so zealous in your duties. Why, I have never met a leader who strived so hard to pass on that mantle to another."
"Oh, ha ha. Remind me to order Jinx to laugh at that joke when I'm in charge again."
"Done and done, sir!" Jinx barked, firing off a mock salute. "An order from Sergeant Shiftless-Layabout is like an order from the President himself!"
Shaking his head, the ghost of amusement passing over his heart, he began to shuffle about. Even as he did, his leg – the one that Ukyou had lanced with her emerald energy, pinning him to the floor - failed him, forcing Starfire to increase her grip to hold him upright. Oddly, it wasn't even the physical weakness that assailed him now (though, by God was he hurting), but rather, the full gravity of reality settling in with grim finality.
There was something he had been putting off, had been forcedto ignore in favor of restoring sanity to the crew before ultimately fatal mistakes could be made in blind anger. Even what little he had managed had required all of his will, a strong veneer thinner and more delicate than the shell of an egg. But without imminent doom looming over them, that thin shell crumbled away, laying bare what few fragments of his emptied heart remained.
His eyes sought her out instinctively, and he started to lean Starfire in the proper direction.
Raven… lying as still as death in the middle of the floor. The young woman had been artfully arranged, and her face even cleaned, but he knew the truth. He wondered if he was the only one that knew? Considering how everyone was acting, so concerned over petty issues of ego and pride, it seemed unlikely.
Did anyone else know that Raven's heart had stopped beating, a seeming eternity ago? How could they know? Would they have said anything if they did? Ranma seemed to be focusing all of his attention on the ship, and Hibiki seemed to only have eyes for Nabiki, despite the fact she was basically unharmed from the fighting. How much attention does it take to dab someone's face a few times before moving on? Or worse, did they know? Did they know that Raven had died, but hadn't even cared enough to tell anyone else? Didn't her friends deserve to know?
"Oh, you wish to see Raven?" Starfire inquired, guessing his intent fairly easily.
Nodding shallowly, he allowed the Tamaranian to all but carry him across the room and set him down before the dark Titan. Reaching out, he touched a pair of fingers gently to Raven's wrist, hoping that, just maybe, he had imagined it all. Perhaps it had just been a trick of his memory that had snapped him awake, that had set him to fighting again?
His shoulders hitched and he nearly crumpled as he confirmed his darkest fear. Starfire stared at him oddly, not yet understanding the truth.
"S-Starfire," he struggled to say her name. He then glanced over his shoulder. "Jinx… There's – there's something you both need to know."
"Ugh, if it's about how damn perky Raven's boobs are, don't bother, I already know."
"What!? She's lying on her back and they're just – they're just there! I can't not notice them!"
"Damnit, Jinx! Raven is dead!"
The room was instantly cast into silence. Well, near silence, as the sound of Cyborg steadily working away, and the sound of their Apokaliptian prisoner shifting up to watch them more fully were nearly deafening at the moment.
"I… believe you are mistaken, friend Ryouga," Starfire began tentatively. "I do believe that I saw Raven looking at us when we came in."
Rolling her eyes, Jinx leaned back against the wall. "Umm, yeah. I'm pretty sure I saw her breathing just a minute ago."
Picking up Raven's hand… it was still so warm… he pressed it to his cheek, crushing his eyes closed out of fear of the tears that threatened to spill out. It was just as he'd predicted it. Raven had destroyed Trespasser - apparently down to his last atom - but what did that matter when the alien bastard had destroyed her heart?
The sound of Reava's hacking slowly morphed into snickering laughter, eliciting startled gasps from both Starfire and Jinx. It seemed that the reality of the situation was finally settling in for them as well. Opening his eyes again, he absently reached down and brushed an errant strand of hair from Raven's perfect face. Looking to his side, he nodded to Starfire.
The Tamaranian had such a queer expression on her face; he couldn't decipher it at all, despite his familiarity with her. It might have been an alien thing; as well as he knew her, there were still customs of her world he knew nothing about. He decided not to press her.
"Do… you think we should move her?" he asked. "Or-or cover her or something?"
Starfire started at his question, her gaze shifting back and forth from Raven to himself several times, before she finally shook her head frantically. Instead, she rose to her feet and took a step back. "I – no, no. I believe that it is only right that you should be granted the time to say… um… to speak last words to Raven?"
She turned to Jinx, behind them. "Do you not agree, Jinx?"
Unfortunately, the slender sorceress was unable to answer. Her face buried completely in her hands, Jinx's shoulders were hitching uncontrollably, the sound of aborted sobs spilling from between her fingers. Ryouga stared uncertainly. That was… good… he supposed. Honestly, as much as he loved the girl, he hadn't really expected her to get quite thatemotional over Raven's passing, or at least to not put on such a public display about it.
Still, he did appreciate the sentiment, though it felt a bit selfish to steal a moment like this, when Starfire and Cyborg were the ones that had known Raven for the longest. Leaning forward, he gently ran his hand down the fallen angel's cheek… still so warm. Was it possible that she had been clinging to life… only to pass while they argued over trivial concerns?
"I'm so sorry, Raven," he whispered, just for her. "I let you down, in… in so many ways. There was so much that I wanted to say, but never had the courage to…"
So much wasted time… so many lost opportunities. Why hadn't he tried to take control of his life, rather than just let is spiral out of control as it had? Content to blame others for his problems and to hide behind comforting lies, rather than do what he should have from the start? Why was it that only now, when he could barely even feel any emotions at all, that he was finally able to see just how foolishly he had been acting?
"Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost… lamenting o'er lost days…"
"Are you in earnest?" A whispered voice, not his own, replied, "Seize this very minute."
Ryouga's eyes snapped open, a shock running through his entire body. The sensation of a hand squeezing his own nearly broke his spirit, but it was the voice that truly finished him. Looking up with trembling eyes, not even trusting himself to hold her hand more tightly, he found Raven's eyes… open and staring back at him, soft and inviting with warmth and mirth.
"What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
Ryouga's mouth fell open in shock, even as Raven's sweet lips twisted into an impish smile. "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ryouga? Really?" she inquired cheekily. "I mean, yes, those first lines are a bit negative, but on the whole, that passage is actually quite inspiring."
"I- I- I-" With his usual alacrity for the spoken word, it was no surprise when words failed him. It did not help when, behind his back, the sound of scarcely contained giggling started to emanate. Spinning around to glare, he could hardly even think what to do. The sight of both Jinx and Starfire, both covering their mouths, even as their shoulders shook- Wait just a second! Jinx hadn't been crying before, she'd been laughing!
"J-just why the heck are you two laughing?"
Managing to gain control of herself first – not a fair race, as Jinx only collapsed further into her fit of laughter with Ryouga's fiery annoyance – Starfire quickly waved her hand through the air to dull his ire.
"I apologize, friend Ryouga. It is just… that while you were lamenting her death… Raven happened to open her eyes." The Tamaranian twiddled her fingers. "I believe she had been merely sleeping, and that you startled her awake when you shouted at Jinx."
"Heh, serves ya right for bein' a jerk," the aforementioned Jinx cackled.
"And why didn't you say anything?" he asked, rightfully confused, conflicting emotions of joy and anger managing to overcome his emotional malaise.
Starfire shrugged sheepishly. "Raven quickly signaled for us to… um… 'zip it', I believe the term is. She then feigned to sleep while you were not paying attention."
Spinning around, he pinned Raven with an accusing gaze. "Wh – but why would you do that?"
Shrugging helplessly, Raven offered up a tiny smirk. "I did warn you… that I would get back at you for the Amazon village. If you recall?"
Ryouga paused, stunned into silence.
"Heh…" Only for silence to quickly give way to full blown laughter in a matter of moments. Only for that laughter to quickly dissolve into a wicked cough and nearly cause the martial artist to black out. Shaking his head weakly, he stared at Raven's smiling face in wonder.
"You know, I think you really are a demon. Talk about disproportionate revenge."
Smiling lips quickly pursed into a full lipped pout, and she gently patted the side of his face with an anemic slap. "Now thatis not funny."
The sound of laughter from all around him only increased, with Jinx collapsing to her side. "P-please stop! Ow, my throat – Oh, my ribs – Ah, my kidney! I think I'm dying…"
"How fucking sickening," one voice dissented. "All of you. What a pathetic display."
Rolling his eyes, Ryouga turned his eyes to one of the other laughing females present. Not up to glaring, he simply raised an eyebrow towards Reava. "And I suppose the reason that you were laughing it up was because you knew the entire time?"
The Female Fury, pale as ever, sneered mockingly at them. "The sight of your suffering at the thought of that one's death was the first bit of real amusement I've had in Darkseid-knows how many centuries. Weeping and moaning and gnashing your teeth like that..." She huffed and her upper lip curled, as if smelling something foul.
"Yeah, yeah, story of my life. Are you sure you aren't related to Ranma? My suffering seems to be a hobby of his, too." Sighing weakly, unable to get worked up at the evil alien's evil amusements, he turned back to Raven, something still confusing him. "But… but what about your heart? I mean, right now, you don't have a pulse. And I… I felt it earlier… I felt that your heart was stopped."
He trailed off uncertainly, gently wrapping his other hand around Raven's delicate fingers. True, he was curious, but there was something else he wanted to say, needed to say, before his courage fled again. Leaning forward, he interrupted her before she could answer his question. Lowering his voice, hoping for a more private discussion, he whispered into her ear.
"I… I heard you call out to me," he said, voice low. "You saved my life, Raven, pulled me back from the brink when I was fighting Ukyou."
Lifting her free hand, she gently wrapped it around the back of his neck and pulled him closer. Shaking her head slightly, she smiled, just for him.
"No, you're wrong," she whispered in return, baffling him. "It was you that saved me. I heard your voice. It reached me, even in the depths of my astral battle with Trespasser. You – you gave me my reason to keep fighting, even when I knew that we were beaten."
A twinge of embarrassment filled him, as he felt a tear roll down his cheek. "I don't know what to say... I - I guess that makes us even." He offered up a shy grin. "Again."
She nodded weakly. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Raven then drew her hand forward from his neck, only to brush it along his cheek. A pained look blossomed on her face, mirroring the sharp sting her touch elicited when it touched the deep gash that Ukyou's deadly light had cut into his cheek. Her hand lowered to his shoulder and then to his collarbone, where a matching slash could be seen, a flash of white within crusted red revealing just how deeply he had been cut and how his body had already closed off the wound and began to scab it over. Hissing at the sight, Raven dipped her head forward, pressing her forehead to his.
"Oh, Ryouga… why do you always have to go so far?" It didn't take her long to notice his right index finger, either, sitting on an odd angle from the rest of his healthy digits. The price of his hubris, pure and simple, that wound. "I hate to see you hurt like this. I wish you could be more careful."
Grinning through the pain, he shrugged. "Actually, this was me being careful… Besides, you should see the other guy." More seriously, he touched his fingers to her pale wrist again. "Still warm. I should have known something was strange. But – but you still don't have a pulse! I know you don't have a pulse. Not that I'm complaining, but, well, why are you still alive?"
"Here," she said. "Look."
Regretfully pulling her hand from his, the dark Titan rolled up her sleeve, revealing a… Ryouga didn't even know what it was, except that it looked kind of like a mix between a circuit board and a golden chocolate bar. That, and the tendrils worming into her flesh instantly reminded him of something elseentirely. Recoiling, he instantly reached forward to start removing it, when-
When Raven's soft hand intercepted his own calloused one, stopping him cold. "You can't remove it, Ryouga. I – I think that it is all that is keeping me alive…"
This time, it was not laughter that filled the room, but gasps of shock. Instantly, Starfire was at their side once more, and Jinx was actually beginning to crawl over as well.
"Wait! What?" the sorceress asked, sounding honestly concerned. "You mean Ryouga wasn't just wrong about the whole 'no heartbeat' thing?"
"What do you mean 'it is keeping you alive'?" Starfire asked, now studying the alien device with rapt attention. It did not take a genius to note that the lights on the device were extremely dull and blinking about very slowly. It was not a heartening sign.
Sighing, Raven looked down at the device herself, touching it errantly with the tips of her fingers. "It's a Mother Box. Reava's Mother Box, actually."
Instantly, recognition shone in the Tamaranian's eyes. "A mother box? Ah, yes! I have heard of this device! It is an incredibly advanced technology originating on… on Apokolips. It makes sense that Reava would possess one." Her mouth suddenly shaped into a tiny 'o' of understanding. "Then that must be how she survived all of these years, and resisted the corruption which consumed the rest of the Thanagarian ship!"
Everyone turned to stare at Reava, but the Fury simply glared at them before turning away with an indignant huff. Despite being vocally disgusted by the sentimentality of those around her, she had yet to either leave or do more than keep standing. One of her arms leaned heavily against the wall for support. It seemed the Fury was intent to spend as much energy on being repulsed by her captors as she was at keeping her dignity by not falling back to the floor.
"That's it exactly," Raven confirmed for the others, since the Fury refused to reply. "And now it's doing the same for me. I just don't know what will happen when its power finally runs out. Trespasser damaged my heart, somehow, and-"
"Raven's current medical status: Ascending aorta – 87% restoration, Thoracic aorta – 91% restoration, Venea cavae – 95% restoration, Aortic annulus, 89% restoration." Spinning around in his chair, Cyborg spent a moment to look their way. Gesturing to Raven, he continued his explanation. "While the Mother Box has not fully regenerated the damage, Raven is capable of surviving unassisted... pending the resuscitation of her heart."
Ryouga took in all of that information, and drew the most logical conclusion he was capable of at the moment. "Wait a second. That means that you knew that Raven was alive too, and you didn't tell me?"
Cyborg spun back around, going back to work on the computer system. "You did not inquire as to her medical status. I recommend initiation of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, followed by defibrillation. There is a defibrillator located in the medical kit stored next to the control panel."
"Man, forget Hibiki, as of now I'm first in line to scrap you when we get back home, Cyborg," Ryouga grumbled, only half meaning the threat. Why was it that no one felt like telling him anything these days? Sighing wearily, he nodded to Starfire. "Can you get the heart thingy, Star?"
The Tamaranian nodded, still smiling pleasantly. "Of course, Ryouga. It is most heartening to hear that our friend is not in danger."
A loud groan settled across the room.
Grumbling, Raven turned to Reava. "So is that why my chest feels like there is a blender running inside it? I would have thought that a people as advanced as yours could make the healing process painless."
Reava snorted in disdain.
"Painless?!" she scoffed, and Raven wasn't sure if she was shocked by the suggestion or just struck dumb by it. "Painless, she says? All that infernal power, all that hellfire in your veins… and you still think and act and feel like any other pathetic mortal!"
She took a moment to stand tall, chin up, as she explained, "Of course we could make the regeneration process painless! If this were a Mother Box of New Genesis design, it would coddle you like a mewling infant. However, this mother box is from Apokalips, and in his wisdom, Lord Darkseid has decreed that such weaknesses will not be tolerated, much less encouraged! Suffering is a form of medicine, too."
"Of course," Raven groused. She then turned her attention back to Ryouga. Arching an eyebrow, she stared at him pointedly. "And, actually, I'm not quite up for the idea of being electrocuted. I don't suppose there is another option for restarting my heart?"
It took him a second to catch on to her meaning. Almost by instinct, he lifted his hand over her chest, only to freeze in place.
"Heh heh heh, just what are ya planning there, Hibiki? Gonna try a little heart massageto get her going?" Jinx's voice was impossibly amused, but Ryouga refused to turn around to glare at her.
Instead, he shook his head. "I... don't think that would work, Raven. I'm not sure I could match your ki closely enough to restart your heart without hurting you in the process." His hand awkwardly over her chest, fingers half curled, as he noted another... sizeable... obstruction to the proposed operation. Glancing over his shoulder, he gave a wicked smirk. "Besides, it would be more difficult for me to actually reach the chakra points on you, than it would be on someone like, oh, say... Jinx?"
Ryouga didn't even register the thrown, armored boot that bounced off the back of his head.
On the other hand, Raven took a few seconds to catch on, her eyes shifting down to where his hand was hovering mere inches over her ...chest... Instantly, a light blush settled on her cheeks, but her gaze matched his and didn't waver.
"I'm not stopping you," she whispered, her voice low enough so that only he could hear her, something for which he was quite grateful. Of course, he knew it had to be because the alternative was being electrocuted... but the way she said the words set his own face to burning in turn.
For a moment, he couldn't do anything but stutter, trying to find any response at all. She was teasing him, as impossible as it seemed... it almost sounded like she was flirtingwith him. Surely it had to say something about just what kind of insane people they were, to be flirting while right on the doorstep of death, but that was just their lives, he supposed. And maybe, just maybe, it was time for him to finally be the one to make a move?
Smiling timidly, he slid his arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her up from the floor, bringing her that much closer. The dark Titan was obviously caught off guard by the sudden move, her eyes going slightly wide. Shaking his head, he chuckled lightly.
"Actually, I think there might be another way to get your heart going." Another chuckle. "Besides, now that I think of it, we aren't completely even yet. After all, there is one thingthat you gave to me in Azarath that I haven't paid you back for."
Instantly, confusion, guilt and fear bloomed on the pale Titan's face. He could feel the muscles in her body tense, could sense her intent to begin pushing him away. "Wha-"
"This," he replied, his smile only widening. And then he leaned in, pressing his lips to hers as tenderly as he could. Eyes widened again, the shock of the far more pleasant variety this time, but all too soon, they slid closed completely as Raven lost herself in the intimacy. Lips parted and she joined him in deepening the kiss, her arms tightening around his neck.
His attention consumed completely, he did not even notice the reactions of the two women behind him. Jinx's eyes shot wide open and she clasped her hands to her chest. An excited squeal actually broke the silence, though the sorceress tried to muffle it. Starfire, for her part, smiled widely... only for the smile to fade a moment later, an odd light reflecting in her eyes. Without a word, the Tamaranian glided from the room so silently that not a soul noticed.
Finally, though, after a blissful eternity which passed in the briefest of moments, he pulled back, breathless. Raven pressed a hand to her chest, drawing in breath greedily as well. Her eyes grew wide once more, and she actually let out a small laugh.
"I... wow... I-I think that actually worked! I can feel my heart beating."
Behind them, Jinx let out a low whistle. "That must have been some kind of kiss...? Wow, I think I nearly cheered right there."
His cheeks burning hotly now, Ryouga bore with the flush of embarrassment over having an audience for such an intimate moment, but managed to soldier on. Chuckling weakly, he pulled Raven closer to his chest. "I'll be honest, I didn't think that would actually work..."
"Lord Darkseid deliver me from this torment!"
Instantly, everyone turned to stare at the irate Fury. Throwing her hands into the air, the Apokaliptian warrior made a retching sound. "I have witnessed horrors that would blacken the souls of gods, I have committed atrocities that would make demons weep... but this is the first time that I have truly felt ill to my stomach. And I have eaten the dead, so know that I have a strong stomach."
Gesturing sharply to Raven, she sneered. "Don't be so stupidly sentimental. Of course it was the Mother Boxthat restored her heart to beating. It was just waiting until it was safe to do so."
"Pfft, whatever!" Jinx barked back, grinning wryly. "That there was some storybook awesomeness right there. I am so sketching that when we get home!"
"Jinx, pleasedo not draw that," Ryouga pleaded, trying not to smile, despite the ridiculousness of the situation. "Also, can you take Reava back to the hold? I'm in no condition to do anything if she were to go hostile at the moment."
Both the sorceress and the alien rolled their eyes, seeing through his ruse in an instant. Shrugging, Jinx pushed herself to her feet with no small amount of effort, then nodded. "Fine, fine. We get ya; we'll give you two a little privacy. I've seen all the juicy stuff anyway." Looking over her shoulder, she muttered, "C'mon Star, let's- Huh? Starfire?"
Looking around, Jinx shrugged helplessly. "Huh, that's weird. Guess she already left. Anyway, come on, alien lady. Let's clear out."
Rising to her feet, the Fury turned up her nose. "Gladly! Anything to be away from this sickening scene. Besides, there is no point in killing any of you yet. At least not until the robot here repairs the ship."
Without another word, both ladies left the room, Jinx clasping her hand tightly around Reava's elbow as they met, to at least give the impression of keeping her 'under control'. The sorceress could not, however, stop herself from firing one last teasing glance over her shoulder before they finally exited the room and the door closed behind them.
Raven, her eyes still lowered and cheeks still burning, let out a quiet sigh of relief. Smiling, he pressed his forehead to hers, enjoying the sensation of warmth and of her silken skin. Not pulling away, Raven pulled her arms more tightly around his neck.
"I... this is... nice," Raven admitted. Her smile faltered for a moment. "But was it you, or was it what I did to you?"
Ryouga started... only to shrug. "Just... just for now, let's not worry about that, okay?"
Bringing her hand forward to cup his cheek, she nodded, her brow rubbing against his. "Alright. Just this once."
Silence reigned for a comfortable moment, only to be broken by a weak cough from Ryouga. Concern filling her eyes, Raven pressed her hand more forcefully to his cheek. "We know that I'm alright, Ryouga... but how are you feeling?"
"I'm fine – fine," he replied quickly. A moment later, his vision going blurry, he let out a weak chuckle. "No, I'm just kidding you. It feels like I'm dying."
Nodding, Raven rose up to a sitting position, only to shift their positions, forcing him to lay back into her lap. Not strong enough to resist, not that he would if he was, he smiled as she gently brushed the overly long hair from his face. When was the last time he'd gotten a haircut? He'd purposefully let it continue to grow since he'd gotten here, trying to maintain as different an appearance from his close cut doppelganger as possible, for many reasons... but it was starting to get a bit silly, now that he thought about it.
Resting her hand on his chest, a blue glow encompassing it, he felt the pain begin to flow out of him. Instantly, his hand rose up and he tried to push it away. "Raven, you can't, not when you're hurt-"
She shook her head, holding her hand in place. "The Mother Box isn't dead yet. It isn't just a machine. It's alive in its own way. As long as it has power left, it will sustain me... and as long as I have strength, I will sustain you. Now... please rest. It's my turn to be strong for you."
"Why does," he replied, his voice growing slurred with exhaustion, "...it always seem to be your turn?"
"I'm just lucky like that, I suppose."
It had, Ryouga reflected in an oddly amused manner, been a good day to die. But it was quickly turning into a better day to live.
And, for the first time in what felt like weeks, it seemed like he might survive to see it.
It was a good thought to have as he let himself drift into sweet, dreamless sleep.
The sharp, unpleasant tang of ammonia snapped Konatsu out of his nightmare.
The ninja turned soldier's head throbbed unmercifully and his hand shot up and around behind his ear, even before he could see. There was something thick there - gauze, he realized - tangled up within his hair. He felt the symptoms and realized he must have suffered some sort of wound. His throat burned and he had difficulty breathing. The world was watery and indistinct, but he saw a humanoid shape nearby. Muted words struggled to be processed by his ears, reverberating like sounds from a distant, distorted radio.
It was during this slow process of acclimation that memory filled in the void, attempting to reason where he was and how he had come to be there. The kunoichi couldn't remember much of the last few days, but the previous handful of hours was a stark contrast, tinted and tainted as it was by the high of battle and the surge of adrenalin. He remembered being tormented by... Aiuchi... by the man he had killed. The first life he had ever taken. His sisters had hired him out to investigate Aiuchi. To gather evidence to blackmail him. Then... then he had killed Nii, and…
'He's dead...'Konatsu told himself.
Those memories... of the bad times before meeting Ukyou-sama...
He had wanted to put them behind him. He wanted to forget the things he had done as a kunoichi. He hated what he had been forced to do. He hated what he had chosen to do. It was his fault. He had killed Nii surely as Aiuchi had. It was his hesitation, his dutiful diligence in gathering blackmail material instead of saving an innocent life... he hesitated, and she died, and then in a rage, he took a man's life. His sisters and his step-mother had been furious at the waste. Konatsu hated it. He hated what he had done. It wasn't him. Everything about who he had been before meeting Ukyou-sama filled him with regret.
But he wasn't that person anymore.
No phantoms of the past returned to haunt him; to admonish him; to mock him. Instead, his mind dredged up memories of fighting Shampoo, of turning on his friends, of giving into his selfishness and fear and frustration and anger. He didn't need ghosts of the past to lash out at him. His own actions were as damning now as they had been when he was young and still a virtual slave to his step-sisters.
Hands cupped his eyes, veiling him in darkness. Not even caring who else could see, Konatsu cried. It was not the movie perfect tears or dignified waterfall down the cheeks that gave grief and shame a veneer of nobility. He sobbed into his hands, his breathing still rough and difficult. His head felt clear, freed, released from a prison of fear and anger... but that clarity made it crushingly clear that he had acted terribly and done terrible things to those he had learned to love and respect. People who he hoped had learned to respect him.
"Shampoo," he said, and pulled his hands away to help prop himself up off the floor. "Shampoo?"
As bad as he felt, he had to see her. Not just to apologize, but because he knew he had poisoned her. Stabbed her. Hurt her badly. He had to know she wasn't dead. The hint of that thought made him want to vomit; only the lack of anything solid in him kept his dignity there in the pit of his stomach.
His eyes adjusted and he saw the rest of the hold.
All around him, he saw the injured. Ukyou was unconscious on the floor, breathing but pale and shivering in addition to some seemingly minor wounds. Konatsu felt an involuntary clench in his chest at the sight of her: despite Ukyou's relationship with Ryu, and despite her desire that they just be friends, Konatsu could not help the feelings he had for the okonomiyaki chef. Others had helped, but she was the one who had truly saved him from a life of misery and abuse at the hands of his step-family. It was that same love for her that he had clung to in his own madness, turning it into blind obsession and devotion... at the expense of everything and everyone else.
Shampoo lay next to her arch rival, enemy, and friend. She was far worse off than Ukyou appeared to be. Her right hand was wrapped tightly, from the cocooned fingers past the wrist, to prevent further bleeding now that she had slipped into unconsciousness. Konatsu remembered vividly the feel of his sword cutting through skin and flesh and bone, and back out the other side. Even with a martial artist's most advanced healing, Shampoo would bear a crude slash in the center of her hand for the rest of her life.
Because of him.
She had already been tended to. One of the squadmembers with the most medical training, Konatsu quickly noticed the most troubling sign of Shampoo's condition. Someone had set up an IV feed out of an ATRISK medkit, and the labeling gave a hint as to the situation, but then, he could already guess at the problem. Weakened by the fighting, the poison he had used - a crude version of his preferred paralysis toxin - could be potentially lethal. If Shampoo had compounded that by taking others drugs, like Stims, to keep fighting...
Ranma and Ryouga, the acting Major, were standing between the ninja and the two girls, talking quietly. The former tapped the arm of the latter and pointed.
"Konatsu?" Juliet's squad leader asked, as the two faced him. Ryouga extended a hand to help him onto his feet. "You alright?"
Konatsu stood, lowered his eyes, and tried to compose himself.
"No sir... I am not alright, but... but I am willing and able to contribute, Saotome-taichou." He raised his chin and stood at attention. "My deepest apologies for my behavior. I..."
"We were all pretty fucked up back there," Ranma cut him off, and patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. "Don't go tripping yourself up over it."
"But, sir, I..." He glanced over at Shampoo and Ukyou. "I can't... It's my fault that..."
"Konatsu," Ryouga said, mirroring Ranma's response. "It's over."
"H-hai!" He nodded, trying to convince himself it was that easy. Maybe... for a little while... it could be.
"How is everyone? Is..." He didn't mention the Oan, instead skipping to: "Sirs. If you are both in here, who is piloting the ship? Is it Miss Raven?"
"No one is piloting the ship, because the Nav as burned as one of Akane's fried eggs."
"Really, Saotome, you're joking about that, even now?"
"What can I say? I like to joke around." He shrugged with a small smile. "Though, man, I'd even eat Akane's cooking if we got home."
"If there's no functional Navigation Interface, then...?" Konatsu trailed off at the question.
"We're drifting," Ryouga answered, crossing his arms over his chest. "Cyborg should be trying to fix the basic external sensors. Or to tie them back into the non-nav interfaces. Honestly, he's the only one on the ship that actually knows the full extent of the damage."
"I see," Konatsu said, and stood at attention again. "Sir. Should I... what are your orders for me, sir?"
Ranma sniffed in amusement at something. Konatsu stole a glance at his lieutenant, not understanding.
"You should know," Ryouga explained with a snort of his own. "That we've been supposedly relieved of duty."
"You?" Konatsu turned to Ranma again. "Sir, then, you are…?"
"I've also been conveniently relieved," Ranma interrupted, scratching the nape of his neck. "Everyone but Cyborg, apparently. So the calculator is running the ship now." He shrugged in seeming indifference. "What's left of it anyway."
"Can... can he do that?" Konatsu asked, his expression growing worried. "Isn't he still... still in thatstate of mind?"
"It isn't worth fighting over right now." Ryouga sighed, looking over at the pair of wounded girls from Juliet. "Keeping everyone stable is the most important thing right now."
He frowned, deeply, burning the sight of Ukyou and Shampoo into his eyes and mind.
"I screwed the pooch on this mission," he admitted, a glowing ember of anger momentarily darkening his features. "This one... and Azarath both." He crushed his eyes shut and shook his head sadly. "I screwed up. Made bad decisions. Got careless. People almost died. The only thing I have left is to put all I have into getting everyone home alive. That's the only thing that will salvage this disaster."
"This was all my responsibility," he said, looking around the hold at the wounded and exhausted members of India, Yankee and Juliet. "Mine. And I screwed it up."
"Sir," Konatsu said, getting his attention. "Hibiki-taichou. Please. Let me do something to help."
"You sure you're okay?" Ranma asked, giving Konatsu a hard, evaluating look. "Honestly, man? You okay?"
"I would dearly like to get my mind off of what I did, and how I acted," the legendary male kunoichi admitted. "Would I rather have something to do than to sit and think? Yes. Yes, sir. I would."
Ranma nodded. "Alright."
He pointed over to where Starfire was sitting, next to a badly wounded Kuno. The swordsman was on his back, supported by a partly rolled up futon, eyes closed and resting. Starfire had a once-white cloth in her hands, now stained with bits of dried green and red. She didn't look too hot herself; most of her wounds looked superficial, but the sight of a thick compress tied to her side, stained a deep green color, as well as several other green tinted bandages taped to cheek, leg and hands gave reason to believe that she was more injured than she was letting on. Next to her, Konatsu knew that India's "famous" kendoist could take a beating and keep on ticking, but already his face was almost comically swollen up. It looked like a squad of enraged Tendo sisters had worked him over... and not in the way Kuno would have preferred.
"We need to touch base with Star in a minute anyway," Ranma explained. "Check Kuno's condition, then help Ryu with Ukyou and Shampoo. While you're at it, you probably noticed you're having trouble breathing?"
Konatsu nodded. "Yes, sir. I remember... a green mist...?"
"Some sorta technique Ukyou used," Ranma replied. "The medkit says it messed up your throat and lungs. Some of you guys were vomiting up earlier; me and P-chan here took care of that, cleaned things up and put everyone on anti-inflammatories to deal with the irritation. The other thing is an anti-asphyxiant. The kit put 'em into gas form..."
Ranma held out a small inhaler.
"One full breath every half hour," the Saotome heir continued, as Konatsu examined the little white plastic capsule. "If ya forget when was the last time ya did it, give it a whiff just to be sure. Last thing we need is more folks coughing up blood." He leaned in, smiling. "I'm your commanding officer, not your housemaid."
"Yes, sir," Konatsu agreed, palming the inhaler. "Um.. who else...?"
"You and Ryu should be physically fine, aside from the damage to your lungs, throat, nose..." Ryouga cut himself off. "Well. Ryu's still sick, but you're both better off than most. We haven't been able to get Ukyou up, and she's showing signs of nausea and involuntary muscle contraction. The ATRISK couldn't make heads or tails of it. And then there was..." He bit his lower lip, looking distressed. "One other problem. Maybe it isn't a problem. We'll find out when she wakes up."
"Shampoo," Ranma picked up where the lost boy left off. "She isn't in a good spot either. We'd have her in the medical tube... except the damn thing's damaged. Probably because of all the fighting."
He ran a hand through his hair with a groan.
"She's been beat up pretty bad. Blood loss and the tendon strikes to her left arm were the worst of the obvious stuff. The medkit picked up the poison and a bucket-load 'a stims. She's crashing hard, but there's nothin' we can do for her as long as we're stuck here. We've got her on an absorbent and stim-suppressor, but hell, I dunno if it's even working at this point." Ranma's lip curled in an uncharacteristic display of frustration. "And naturally- of course - the only assisted-breathing device we have is the damn tube, and we can't even get it open much less program it properly."
He scowled and changed the subject, forcing away his bad mood for the sake of those around him.
"Jinx is ambulatory," he continued, and glanced over at where the pink haired girl stood watch over a sick-looking Reava. "Which is a minor miracle, since she was going hand-to-hand with Starfire for who knows how long. Nothing broken, well, 'cept for her nose, but we set that already. She's watching our little alien guest from hell."
"Miss Reava?" Konatsu sounded surprised, but not so surprised he failed to add a polite surname to their captive.
"We're not sure what's wrong with her," Ryouga explained, arms still tightly crossed. The cracks on his wounded arm were still visible, and as a muscle twitched, one of them leaked a teardrop of crimson. The Major wiped it away with his thumb.
"It's probably something to do with the change in dimensions," Ranma speculated. "Or maybe being off her life support... or 'mother box' or whatever. Mostly dizziness, nausea, faintness, disorientation. A nasty headache, too, but she checks out fine." Ranma couldn't resist adding a slant to it: "Actually, it sounds kind of like the mother of all hangovers."
"We've got Raven under observation." Ryouga filled in the rest. "Her case is a bit unique, so we checked her first. She should be fine as long as that box does what it's supposed to do. Nabiki is..." His lips came together tightly, and Konatsu saw teeth as his commanding officer grimaced. "Nabiki is fine. Just bruised. We're letting her rest for a while."
The next topic caused him to sigh. "Other-me is... well, he's tough, I'll give him that. We got the lacerations and puncture wounds patched up as much as possible, though he used up the last of our liquid stitches. We've elevated the leg he was stabbed through, but we can't do the same for the injury in his shoulder. Other than that, he's on a basic IV, no detox, but we put in a sedative. No serious internal damage that I... that we can't heal through. Fact is, he's better built to bounce back than most. We moved him and Raven to the far side of the hold for now." The Major then let out a silent snort, though it wasn't a negative sound. "Actually, despite it all, he'll probably be up before a few of the others, considering Raven has refused to stop treating him herself. Which is why we're giving him the sleepers."
There was only one left, minus Cyborg.
"And Mousse is already up; I've got him checking the ship's internal damage."
"What about you two?" Konatsu asked; he could see that the pair of officers were at the very least worn thin by their experiences in the Nav. There was no mention of Trespasser. It seemed likely the alien was either dead or gone. Regardless of which, he was no longer a concern. Ryouga, meanwhile, clearly had the injuries from before to deal with, and Ranma had been plugged into the Nav far longer over the last week or more than was recommended, even for dedicated XCOM pilots.
"Don't worry about us," Ranma replied, smirking confidently. "Come on. Let's check on Kuno."
Konatsu smiled a little, bolstered by his superior officer's assurance. "Yes, sir!"
As the three got closer, Konatsu began to piece together what had happened to India squad's resident swordsman (and self-proclaimed ladies' man). The injuries on a body were like a roadmap for a martial artist, especially one who had made a study of the human body. One could tell the angle of the strikes, the penetration of the blow through muscle and into bone, the force and the technique... a true master could even feel the lingering intent of the attacker in the imprint of their blow. Kuno was no stranger to being beaten to the edge of consciousness, but even by Nerima's standards, Starfire had done a number on him, and she had been enraged when she did so.
Konatsu found himself being glad he couldn't fully remember it, if he had seen it at all.
"How is he?" Ranma asked as they approached, cocky grin in place, assuring all who knew him that the Saotome heir had some dumb joke that he couldn't resist sharing. "Since you haven't been glomped yet, I guess he's still asleep?"
"Tasteless as always," Ryouga grumbled, asking more seriously. "How are the meds working out? Has his cough died down?" He frowned, not at Starfire, but at her injuries and Kuno's. "I wish we had something tailored for you, too, Star. You sure you aren't having any aftereffects?"
She shook her head. "None that I can feel, no, and his injuries are far more grievous than my own..."
Dropping her gaze, she touched her fingertips to the swordsman's chest, and even in his comatose state, the gentle touch elicited a wince. The Tamaranian quickly retracted her hand, clutching it to her chest.
"The rest of his injuries are superficial in comparison... but his broken rib and the damage to his chest. I - I fear that if he is not handled with the utmost care, that it could pierce his lung... or his heart..."
"I hate to admit it, but no one bounces back like Kuno here," Ranma assured her.
Konatsu was not entirely convinced. "Saotome-taichou, this sounds much worse than a fracture. If Kuno-senpai's rib is actually separated..."
"We already x-rayed it," Ryouga confirmed, kneeling down next to his team mate. "It was pushed in as it broke and fragmented. He'll need surgery to wire it back in place so it heals properly."
"And if we cannot get back to a base in time?" Konatsu asked, worried. "Sir?"
"Then we make do with what we have. As long as it isn't immediately life threatening, we'll be waiting." He reached out to clasp the ninja on the shoulder. "Konatsu. You have more medical training and background than anyone else here. If we need to do that, if it comes to that, we'll have you."
"Star," Ranma said, more seriously. "I know you probably don't want to talk about it, but Ryouga and I would like to check in with you, too."
"We all said and did things that we regret," Ryouga agreed, seeing her wince. Konatsu shrunk into his shoulders at his own guilt. "But that doesn't make what happened suddenly go away. Do you want to talk about it?"
The Tamaranian considered the acting Major's words. Lifting a hand tentatively, she responded, "I... I would rather not, at this time. The people that I hurt the most-" Starfire's gaze slid down to the swordsman, then across the room to glance at Jinx. The perceptive kunoichi noticed that the sorceress actually caught the alien girl's anxious look... only to look away pointedly, absently rubbing her bruised throat.
Letting out a forlorn sigh, the Tamaranian dropped her gaze to the floor, shaking her head sadly. "The people who I hurt the most will not hear my words yet, and I wish to apologize for my actions to them first."
Konatsu could tell both officers wanted to press for more. Even as hazy as the last couple days had become for the male kunoichi, he knew how vocal and unabashed Starfire had become about certain things. It was the tip of the iceberg, the first few hints of the anger and frustration that Kuno had faced, and suffered for, just hours ago.
In Ranma or Ryouga's shoes, Konatsu, too, would want to see if the roots of those feelings had died when they left the last dimension, or if they remained, ready to grow and bear poisonous fruit sometime in the future. Looking at Starfire and literally feeling her tumult of emotions, none of them could find it in them to push her to talk before she was comfortable.
"I understand," Ryouga told her, standing back up. "There is one other thing that I... that we wanted to ask you. We already asked Jinx and she didn't know." He reached up to rub his arm anxiously. "It has to do with Ukyou. Have you ever seen any of your Green Lanterns back home without their ring on? Do you know if there are any side effects to taking it off?"
Konatsu looked up at the two officers. "Is something wrong with Miss Ukyou?"
Starfire shook her head sadly. "I have never actually met a Green Lantern who was not wearing their ring..." She paused, obviously conflicted on how she should answer the question. Finally, though, the alien woman nodded to herself, finding some new resolve. "I... did speak with Trespasser once, away from the ears of others. We spoke of many things, however, he did... eventually... make the promise of a ring of my own, to protect my homeworld once we returned to our own dimension..."
"He said he'd make you a Green Lantern like Ukyou?" Ranma asked, frowning. "What did he say exactly?"
"The details are... unimportant," she muttered in a low voice. "Suffice it to say, though, that he mentioned no ill effects in relation to the ring. And Cyborg has stated, on numerous occasions, that there are no known ramifications of a Lantern losing their ring-" A pause, as the Tamaranian shuddered, "Unless... they were to lose it while travelling the depths of space."
Ranma and Ryouga exhaled at that, worry hidden behind their composed expressions.
"Take care of Kuno, okay?" Ranma asked, giving Starfire and Konatsu a small smile. He then nudged Ryouga. "Let's go."
As the two turned to leave, whispering amongst themselves, Konatsu sighed. If the Nav couldn't be fixed... if they were left adrift in space... He stole a quick look at Starfire. At least, maybe, she could survive. Before then, all they could do was wait and dress their wounds. It darkly reminded Konatsu of riding to and from a mission on a Skyranger or Avenger. All that could be done had been done. It was in the hands of another man, or, for the religious, another power.
"Let me have a look at the rib," he said, opening a nearby medkit and pulling up the scans it had taken.
He tried not to think about how unlikely a rescue was in the depths of space.
The slow, laborious inhalation of breath filled her chest, spreading apart her ribs. In time with the autonomic function, pain bloomed, both real and echoed, reaching a crescendo as her lungs reached their capacity.
Pain flowed out of her, as if being carried away by her exhalation. It was almost like a small moment of paradise, the pain subsiding to a comforting numbness… only for the cycle to begin anew. The pain surging and retreating in unending waves, as cyclical and inevitable as the tides.
The secret - Raven had learned both from her mentors in Azarath, and through hard earned personal experience - was that one should not fight pain. One had to embrace the pain, work through it. With her mind already locked onto water based analogies, it was more akin to riding a wave, as opposed to swimming against it. The pain reached the same heights, but simply accepting it was far less taxing.
Despite the simplicity of the concept, it was not something so easily accomplished.
In fact, the only other person she knew that had any form of similar training was… Robin and she honestly had no idea where he could have learned such a meditative technique. At the moment, she was simply thankful for the talent. Her physical pain was only the tip of the iceberg, after all. Being able to focus through such discomfort was incredibly important, as only now, with a moment to herself finally, did she recall that the closest thing she had had to rest over the past several days, was when she had fallen unconscious after pulling her friends free of the alien space hulk.
Exhaustion didn't even begin to describe her condition, and the migraine slamming against the insides of her sinuses was likely enough to bring Darkseid himself to his stony knees.
A silent, pained moan drew her from her rueful reverie. Her aimless gaze lowered, focusing once more on the shaggy mop of raven hair pressed up against her stomach. Ryouga's head was resting on her lap; it was all she could do to elevate his shoulder, several stacked boxes doing the same for his skewered leg. Now that the martial artist was free from his armor, she could easily see all of the damage that Ukyou had inflicted on their dear commanding officer.
A weary sigh originated from the darkest Titan. Even though it tore at her to see him in such condition, at least she knew that he was safe here, in her arms. Unfortunately, that now left her with more time to consider just how bleak their overall situation was.
There were an infinite number of things which were lurking beneath the surface at the moment. Ryouga wasn't the only injured member of the crew, and as resilient as he was, he wasn't even the most critical case they had. Of course, that was not at all a comforting thought, as she could intimately feel all of his injuries as she painstakingly drew them into herself. Shampoo was the worst of all, but there was nothing Raven could do for the twice poisoned Amazon. As such, she pushed the thought from her mind, unable to act on it.
Cyborg's strange behavior was another point of extreme tension. She had no choice but to trust in him - her heart would allow for nothing else - which only made it that much harder to watch as the members of India and Juliet whispered of his treachery behind their backs in taking control of the ship. Even after all they had endured together, and not just through the hell of that dimensional abyss, or the torment of her native Azerath, but the months of teamwork and camaraderie they had gone through since the Titans had first entered their dimension…
Which brought her to the worst of her fears. Just where were they now? Did anyone know? Was there any way to find out? She knew that they were adrift, and that navigation and communication were down, but that was it. The only thing that they knew for certain was that they hadn't died in the dimensional shift. While that was no minor miracle, in and of itself, where had they ended up? Had they actually made it back?
Had their plan, their mad, desperate plan, worked?
Though it was an odious habit, she found herself biting down on the tip of her thumb; almost nibbling at the skin and nail. It wasn't something she normally did, something she picked up from Terra, of all people, but it helped with the frustration and confusion which afflicted her – no, not just her, it afflicted all of them.
Even now, the two senior officers milled around the Hold, moving from one group of injured people to another, no doubt trying to assess the situation. Was everyone alive? Would everyone remain so for the foreseeable future? Did it even matter? If they were stranded a billion miles in the middle of nowhere, and without anyway to move or communicate, just how long would they last? A week? A day? Would the air scrubbers fail them in the next ten minutes? Even with water and air, how long could they drift, aimless and hopeless in the dark?
She was almost thankful when she noticed Saotome and Hibiki finally turn their attention her way. Any distraction from the spiraling bleakness of her current thoughts was a blessing. Sparing a furtive glance to the Hibiki in her arms, she took a moment to compose herself and prepare for the inevitable questions, whatever it was that the CO's were asking everyone else.
Within a moment, the Major and Lieutenant were standing above her, studying her with concerned stares. Taking a brief moment to brush one of the long bangs from her Ryouga's eyes – even with over a week of poor grooming, the Major's hair was so much shorter than the Sergeant's – she looked up to meet their gazes.
"So, how is P-Chan's little brother holding up, Raven?" asked Ranma, teasing grin on his lips.
The elder Hibiki shot his rival an annoyed grunt, never having liked that eternally stale joke.
"S-shut up… Saotome…" An opinion which, apparently, the junior Hibiki shared. Raven's brow rose in interest at Ryouga's pained muttering. She hadn't expected him to be awake so soon, not with all of the drugs they had-
'Wait a moment.' Raven shook her head, amusement and disbelief stopping her mid thought.
Ryouga was still completely unconscious.
"Well, it appears that even asleep, he is still well enough to tell you off," Raven explained with a tiny grin.
The Major gave a tiny, approving nod. "If he was too weak to yell at Ranma, then I would be worried about him."
"You and me both," Ranma added cheekily. A moment later, his expression grew more serious. "But seriously, Rae, how are you two doing? Your boy there took a pretty epic beating, but you were definitely the winner of 'the most instantly fatal injury' award for the mission."
Ryouga nodded once more, his expression more grim now as well. "I know that machine on your arm is helping you, but Trespasser nearly destroyed your heart. Are you certain that it's safe for you to use your powers so soon? He isn't in critical condition, after all-" The Major gestured to his young doppleganger, "-so maybe you should focus on making certain that you're fully healed before you have to remove that… thing."
Raven looked down to the Mother Box which stood out so keenly from the pale flesh of her upper arm. With each passing moment, the flickering lights slowed and dimmed, struggling to stay functional, and even the metal itself seemed to be gradually losing luster. She was starting to suspect that it was more than just a dying battery at work. It seemed possible that the alien device was destined to suffer the same fate as the Oan it had helped to bring down, just more slowly. Cyborg had already proven that certain, more unique elements could not survive shifting from one dimension to another, so perhaps, cut off from its home dimension, the Apokaliptian Mother Box was dying as well?
"I appreciate your concern," she sighed, actually meaning her words, "but I'm confident that we'll both be fine. I doubt the Mother Box will last much longer, so I'd like to get as much benefit from it as possible."
"Good to the last drop," Ranma quipped. "But yeah, makes sense to me. Just let us know if that thing goes evil at the last minute and starts trying to eat your arm."
For an instant, the Dark Titan blanched at the thought, before firing a dark scowl the Navigator's way. "Do not joke about that."
"Enough with the attempts at comedy, Saotome. We have more important things to worry about than you amusing yourself." Shooting Raven a supportive nod, Ryouga turned her way once more. "For instance, Raven, now that we're out of danger, I was hoping that you could fill me in on what happened?"
Raven replied with a crooked smirk. "I'm afraid that you're going to have to be more specific. So very much has happened lately."
A roll of the eyes. "You know what I mean." He looked around surreptitiously for a moment, before dropping to a knee before her and lowering his voice. "Why aren't we all dead right now? The last thing I remember was Trespasser beating all of us… even you. For all of our fighting, we weren't able to stop that bastard… so why aren't we scattered across a hundred dimensions? Hell, he was ranting about flying the entire damn ship right down God's throat. It did not sound like he was planning on taking us home."
"Ah, yes, that," Raven finally complied. Now that she thought about it, the Major had been in the dark on pretty much everything, considering the amount of influence that Trespasser had held over him nearly from the beginning.
"Well, Nabiki and myself, over the past few missions, found ourselves growing more and more certain that Trespasser was not working towards our best interests," she explained a touch patronizingly. "And as such, we formed a clandestine plan to protect ourselves from any potential treachery."
A slight frown graced her C.O's face, but what was more telling was a guilty twitch she recognized from his counterpart. He knew where he had failed in that part of the story. "You were certain we were going to be betrayed, but you didn't approach me with this information?"
She rolled her eyes. "And risk being discovered? With as much contact as you had with the Oan?" Raven shook her head ruefully. "It was a tremendous risk just keeping things between Nabiki and myself, and even then we had to take extreme measures."
Ranma scratched his head at that. "Wait a minute…wasn't Nabiki the one that knocked me and Ryo out in the end? How the heck was she part of your plot when she was in with Big Blue even deeper than Cyborg was?"
They both ignored the dark glower that passed over the Major's face at the insinuation, though it was far more factual than anyone cared to recall.
"That was a major concern of ours, that Nabiki might be eventually co-opted by Trespasser," she admitted coolly, "Considering the amount of time that she spent with the Oan, that she had to spend with him, it seemed inevitable… which is why I suppressed her memories of all of our interactions, thus making her forget that we had conspired at all."
For just a moment, both officers stared at her uncertainly. If anything, Hibiki's glower only grew darker.
"Raven, you intentionally meddled with Nabiki's mind? I would think that after Azerath-"
She cut him off with a sharp glare. "I did it at her insistence," she countered. "She knew she was going to be compromised, and she knew she couldn't trust herself not to undermine her own plans. The only sensible thing to do was to forget she had made plans in the first place. I know you're worried about her, but it was very minor work, and in the end, I suspected that Trespasser would see though my conditioning in an instant. I have no doubt that Trespasser discovered everything that I plotted with Nabiki the moment he turned her to his side: that he saw everything she remembered seeing and hearing."
"Wha? Then how-?" Ranma started, obviously confused.
"Everything I plotted with Nabiki," she reiterated, "And everything she saw and heard, but not everything she inferred. I was not so proud as to imagine that an Oan would not be able to see through my juvenile attempts at memory alteration. Which is why, to be sure, she shared all of her plan with me, and I only shared half of my plan with her." The Dark Titan could not help but allow a self-satisfied grin to form on her lips.
"Trespasser's power was immense," she explained further, "And it was only matched by his arrogance and his disdain for us. The level of subterfuge that Nabiki and myself demonstrated working together was likely the extent he thought us capable of, and when he uncovered it, he was no doubt quite satisfied that he had uncovered our entire plot."
The pigtailed Lieutenant adopted her smirk, nodding lightly to himself. "Plots in plots? It's not too often that Nabiki gets taken for a ride. I sure hope that I'm there when you explain how you played her like that."
"Ranma…" Ryouga growled in a low tone, but didn't follow further.
"Played her? My deceiving her was the whole point of what we did," Raven said, a hand carefully brushing the tips of her fingers over the unconscious Hibiki's hair. "Think of it as there being three Nibikis. The first one was the one that I planned with, the second was the one that knew the previous her had planned something with me and planned to counter that, and a third one who remembered she was working with me and countered what the second one did."
"We both knew that as soon as Nabiki stopped working with me, she would begin to work against me. Even with her memories hidden, I couldn't risk letting her know too much, in case Trespasser found something useful to use against us and acted on his own, but at the same time, we both knew Nabiki could only learn what we needed to know by working with him."
"Argh!" Ranma scratched his head. "Remind me never to play Go with either of you!"
"Why? You'd just cheat faster than they can see."
Unconsciously, Raven ran her hand through the shaggy hair of the man in her lap. The hair was oily and stringy from days and weeks of neglect, but she still relished the sensation of human contact. It was a reminder that she was still alive and that they were still together, even if only for the momentary present.
"The sad truth was there wasn't anyone in the crew that I could trust at the end," Raven said, shaking her head. "I had no way of predicting who would be turned, and who wouldn't."
She shot a furtive glance across the hold to where her Tamaranian teammate was tending to India Squad's bloody and battered Blue Thunder. Starfire had her legs tucked under her and Raven could see where the proud warrior girl she had come to call her close friend had streaks of tears on her cheeks. Blood had been washed off of her hands and partly scrubbed off of her armor, but not her memory, or her conscience.
Lowering her voice, Raven leaned forward slightly. "I - I still can't believe that he convinced Starfire to side against us… And I am still too shocked to fully come to terms with the fact that Trespasser not only acquired, but actually used the – the Anti-Life Equation against Ryouga and Jinx. It… it had to have come from the Heresiarch."
Raven shook her head in disbelief on that fact, her own listless hair falling to block her sight.
'The first lie, the lie that kills.'
That was what she had been told by the Dead God, Heresiarch. At the time, she had had no idea what it meant, but after seeing what it had done to the minds of her two teammates…? She could only thank Azar that only those two had been subjected to it, and that Ryouga hadn't instantly vaporized the entire ship when it had been used on him. That level of raw despair…
"The what?" Ranma asked incredulously. "Are you telling me that Baby Bro and the Hellion in High Heels got taken out by a math problem?"
"I can't explain it in terms that you'd understand," Raven replied a bit frostily. Which was true enough as she didn't understand it at all herself - Raven wasn't even sure she wanted to be able to understand it. All she knew for certain was that a certain omnipotent galactic evil had nearly conquered Earth several times in search of the very thing that they had stumbled across nearly by accident. It made her think of Reava, and why she had been sent with the Thanagarian expedition in the first place. We found it. The lie that kills.
"Suffice it to say that it is not something that belongs in the hands of anyone, mortal or otherwise," Raven said with conviction. Let it be forgotten. Please. Let this one, horrible thing be forgotten, forever. "The knowledge of it died with Trespasser, for which we should all be thankful."
She glanced downwards for just a fraction of a second.
After all, it was mostly true.
"Raven." The sudden statement drew her back to the moment. Ryouga, the man who had spoken her name, looked at her with concern. "Are you certain that they'll both be alright? Whatever this… equation did, it didn't do any permanent damage, did it?"
"No." She shook her head, glad that it was only a minor deception. "They'll both be fine with time."
"Well, I suppose that's a relief," Ranma commented skeptically. "I mean… a math equation…? Yeah, I can only imagine the trauma they suffered. I still have quadratic equations burned into my mind from studying for placement exams with Akane." Giving a quick roll of his eyes, the pigtailed fighter bulled on. "Anyway, what happened with the rest of your plan? You know: the part you kept from Nabiki?"
"Ah, yes." Where had she been again? "Since I couldn't trust anyone on the crew, I was forced to turn to the one person on the ship that absolutely no one trusted. The one person no one would ever expect to go to for help."
Hibiki's eyes widened a fraction of an inch. "Reava. That's why she was in the Control Room."
She nodded. "No one considered Reava a threat, and no one even imagined her as a possible ally. As such, not even Nabiki was prepared when both Reava and myself appeared in the Control Room after Shampoo's fortuitous distraction. If I had arrived alone, Nabiki might have proven a serious obstacle."
"So," Ranma began to summarize, "You and Reava were plotting behind Nabiki's back, and Nabiki and you were plotting behind Trespasser's back? And part of your plot was for Trespasser to discover you were plotting with Nabiki? Then for Nabiki to double-cross herself? And you did all of this while keeping the rest of the crew in the dark so we didn't screw up your plans?"
"That does sound about right," she agreed lightly. "And, actually, I believe that you know the rest of the plan, don't you Ranma?"
"Huh? Why would Ranma know any of your plan?" Hibiki asked, his curiosity plain to see.
At that, Ranma grew hesitant, laughing nervously. "Heh, well, it's a bit of a story there…"
Another pause, this time the elder Hibiki's confusion growing. "How do you know any of their plan at all? Raven hasn't actually explained any of it yet, just who she's been working with and why."
Raven gave a weak laugh. Nodding in the pigtailed fighter's direction, she decided to go for broke. "Ranma knows the plan, because he was the one that actually allowed it to succeed in the end." An impish smirk, "And, in fact, I think he actually has a clearer understanding of what happened in those last moments than even I do. If anyone can explain how we survived… it's him."
Ryouga turned, leveling an expectant stare his rival's direction. "Care to explain, Saotome? You seem strangely tight lipped for some reason."
"What? I was putting it in my report, I swear," the Lieutenant replied hastily. "Besides, does it really matter? We lived, right, what else do we need to know?"
"Alright, now I know that something is up." Lifting a fist threatening, he waved the curled fingers under Ranma's nose. "What happened?"
"Hey, it's not like I even really understand what-"
"Alright, alright, fine," the Saotome heir finally relented, waving his hands through the air placatingly. "It went down pretty much like this-"
'No, seriously, body, breathe in!'
Ranma began to feel the telltale signs of inevitable death closing in around him, not unlike a pack of cats, silently stalking their prey. Childhood memories of flashing, slit eyes, of tiny, jagged claws sent a shudder running through his entire body. The smell of blood in the present echoed with those dark recollections, only enhancing the morbid horror of his situation.
And yet, somewhere at the back of his mind, he knew that it wasn't, strictly speaking, real. His vision wasn't really beginning to blur. Blood wasn't really pooling on the ground around his feet. He wasn't really experiencing levels of pain that he would only wish upon a certain withered up pervert – rest Happosai's demented soul. His real body was perfectly fine… somewhere out there, not bleeding and dying, even as he struggled vainly to maintain his concentration until the very last second possible.
Unfortunately, that knowledge did him no good at the moment. Even if the pencil thin lances of green force currently impaled through his body and holding him upright weren't real, they sure as hell felt real, damn it! He gnashed his teeth till he felt the might crack, clasping his hands in front of him, his arms shaking with effort. The Saotome heir had only one thing on his mind, here, in these last seconds of his life.
"Ranma Saotome doesn't lose."
Even if he was dying, he wasn't going to lose, too. That would just be too pathetic! Besides, ol' P-chan was still alive. There was no way in all the universes' myriad hells that a Saotome would die before a Hibiki. Ranma fully intended to be a withered, shrunken, ancient old man… if only to stay alive one more minute than his so called rival. Ranma let his arms fall to his sides, the tension easing out of his body.
'Ryouga's still alive. And Raven, too.'
Blue eyes opened, and Ranma began to reach up to his shoulder with his right hand. He could barely see where the pencil-thin energy lance there disappeared into the flesh of the junction between collar and shoulder bone. Shaking, his fingers closed around the spear that was impaling him, from neck to hip. It was warm, like blood, and he could feel his heartbeat vibrate through it.
Ranma let his confidence permeate his body, and his world became a repetition: 'I ain't gonna lose. I ain't gonna lose. I ain't gonna die.'
Meanwhile, he could see, Raven fought on.
Or, rather, it seemed her fight was coming to an end as well. The woman, cloaked in purest white robes, was floating in the air, her arms stretched out painfully to her sides. Held aloft by Trespasser's terrible mental power, the young Psion was horribly injured, her hands burned down to little more than bone.
But something was odd. Though he was too far to hear… or perhaps just wasn't being included in that mental exchange, Trespasser was floating close, intimately close to Raven, whispering something harshly at her face. It was what was beyond those two, that was the strangest yet. It was almost as if the world itself was shifting, reforming into something new, a scene wholly alien to the pigtailed martial artist.
He saw, though a slowly clearing haze, as the landscape that Raven and Trespasser had battled over changed, reflecting with what Ranma could only believe to be memories like dark deflections in a mirror. He saw what had to be a laboratory, and a dozen muscular, tall, blue skinned humanoids. Violet robes hung from their sculpted shoulders to flow and pool around their feet, and as a hand raised up to partly obstruct the view, Ranma realized that these memories belonged to Trespasser. He realized that this was what his people had looked like, once.
Trespasser's memory of the event continued, the view bobbing like a camera in a chase film, to gaze out at endless rows of tiny specks assembled in some vast plain below. They were so thick, the color and look of the ground beneath them couldn't even be seen. A rainstorm could have broken out overhead, and not a drop would have touched the soil.
Trespasser, their Trespasser, spun towards the recollection, upset to have it dredged up. Manhunters. Ranma had no idea what a Manhunter was, had never heard it used in such a way, or what the possible connotation in this case could be… and yet he instinctively felt fear and revulsion at the sight of those behemoth metal men, millions upon billions strong.
Ranma felt something else in the lance that pinned him in place, like an insect on display. It wasn't his heartbeat. The energy was Trespasser's. And Trespasser's focus and attention were slipping.
The imagery of Oa, carpeted by an army of metallic enforcers faded away, like so much mist, only for another memory to fill the sky. Bubbling away from the Oan and escaping any of his attempts to contain it Ranma beheld a sky full of orbs, large enough to be planets had this mindscape been a world. Strange shapes moved within the orbs - within the prisons - and each one glowed with a distinct, otherworldly light. Orange, red, blue and purple…
Ranma saw him whirling at each of the giant orbs, shaking his head. The shapes defied nearly all attempts at explanation. An immense creature that appeared to be formed of living, orange light and shaped into the shape of a monstrous serpent which stretched on seemingly forever. Without even understanding why, Ranma could feel a deep… yearning in his soul to possess the being, as impossible as that seemed.
Another sphere contained blue light so bright it was nearly blinding. Magnificent wings, reaching from one end of infinity to the other beat with deceptive gentleness for a creature of such magnitude, and just looking upon it nearly cause the martial artist's heart fill to bursting.
And on and on: Red, Violet, Indigo, each entity as impossible and evocative as the next, each as large as creation itself, yet somehow contained… Ranma felt himself becoming lost in the sight. He was far away, with Raven, but Ranma could just barely see the subtle motion of the Guardian as he studied the vast beasts with fearful intensity.
Trespasser stepped back, his head tilting towards a great green sphere and its counterpart in a thousand hues of yellow. Ranma could not know why, but those two resonated more strongly with the Oan than any other. Just looking at the latter, he could feel terror well up inside him that made a pit full of cats seem childish in comparison, while conversely the large, fishlike being of green gave off a sensation of strength beyond anything he had ever felt before.
The lance began to shift, twisting where once it had been ramrod straight. The sensation of having it move within Ranma's body, pushing into his left lung, was not a pleasant one. But the pain was irrelevant. Trespasser was losing control, plagued by his own memories, escaping in a torrent he couldn't prevent. The Oan was clearly trying - trying not to think of these things, trying not to reveal them, trying not to have his secrets spill out like blood from a wound - and he was clearly failing.
'Raven…' Ranma could see she was in a bad way. And Ryouga was, too. 'I have… to do something…!'
"You're right. I do have to do something."
Ranma's eyes snapped wide, flitting back to his own immediate vicinity and away from the Oan's recollective spectacle. The voice he had heard… had been too damn familiar. And the reason for that became apparent as he spotted the speaker of the words an instant later.
It was himself! Sort of. It was definitely him, but in addition to wearing his old red shirt, he was wearing an oddly familiar black robe, hood pulled back to reveal his cockily grinning face.
"Of course, when I say 'I' have to do something, I mean that 'you' have to do something."
"I… was just thinking that," Ranma agreed, a little jealous of his non-impaled counterpart. It looked awfully nice not having a green energy beam jammed lengthways through your torso. Lucky jerk.
Reaching out, the other Ranma casually brushed the lance of energy with the flat of his palm, causing it to burst apart into flecks of emerald dust. An instant later, his unseasonably appareled doppleganger wrapped an arm under his shoulder to prevent him from collapsing.
"Well, time to quit thinkin' and start doin', Handsome." Black Robe Ranma gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. "Raven has the Oan good and distracted now, but who can guess how long that will last."
"I really, really hate to admit it, but I'm pretty tapped out," Ranma admitted, having trouble even breathing. His pants were soaked, not with piss, but with blood. He reminded himself, for the nth time, that it wasn't real. If only that could make it go away, too.
"You're from Raven's head, ain't ya?" he guessed, glancing at the other Ranma. Ranma-R.
A quick nod, as his other self started dragging him across the mindscape, and away from the cosmic spanning memories that hung across the rest of their shared world.
"I'll just go with yes, since we bothknow that you don't know enough about this mental mumbo jumbo stuff yet for me to explain it properly," Ranma-R replied, a bit condescendingly. "And also, lucky for you, you ain't got anything too taxing to do. Nabiki and Rae just need you to do one thing before we all go to that dimensional rift in the sky."
"Nabiki...? What does...?" Ranma shook his head, dispelling those doubts. "What do I need to do?"
His double gave a small chuckle. "Oh, don't worry 'bout Biki. The girls've got everything all sorted out."
As the distracting mists of Oan memory began to thin around them, the pair of Saotomes finally moving far enough from the ongoing battle, the genuine article finally saw where he was being led. Ahead lay the phantom Navigation Terminal which Trespasser had set up to trick Ryouga and himself into giving up their security codes. The entire station looked... frayed around the edges, wavering, but still solid enough to interact with.
"Nabiki, she managed to put one over on Big Blue back there." Ranma-R nodded over his shoulder again. "After Raven snapped her out of it, Nabiki managed to input a new vector into the Nav, the 'correct' vector...we hope. Only there's one problem..."
Ranma understood. "Altering a set course, you can't do it from outside." He spared the other him a long look. "For just a second… I wondered if this was a trick, but… that bastard wouldn't bother. He's already basically won. So, if we ain't got nothin' to lose…!"
He pushed off Ranma-R and strode towards the Nav, bloody hand outstretched.
As he did, for just a moment, he saw a face. 'Akane… are you waitin' for me? You stupid tomboy. I guess I better hurry up, or you'll flatten me with a table or somethin'.'
"Look, Ranma, I know the prospect of goin' back to Akane's cooking might be pretty darn terrifying, but I think you really need to approve that Vector change already so that we can all go home now."
"Yeah." Ranma focused, bringing up the base psionic key that was effectively the map of his own brainwaves: his thoughts and hopes and dreams. "But, we'll still need the ship to jump..."
"That we do," Ranma-R agreed, "And there's only one thing stopping the ship from jumping right now."
A serious expression settled on the doppleganger's face, seeming out of place for some reason. His twin's gaze then slid across the wide open plain of white and dreams.
To settle on the struggling form of Ryouga.
Other-Ranma's eyes narrowed as he regarded the downed fighter. "You have to let him go, Ranma. You have to stop helping him fight."
Without even thinking of it, Ranma looked up. Still sprawled across the sky above the Nav, endless strings of green letters stretched across the horizon, only partially obscured by the memories in the distance. Even so, he could still see that only a single digit remained unlocked, Ryouga's last iota of willpower preventing Tresspasser from stealing the security code completely and initiating the jump. With every last fiber of the lost boy's stupid stubborn self, even in the face of death, he was fighting to hold onto that secret.
Ranma's gaze then dropped back to Ryouga, speared and pinned to the ground. He feel it as much as he could see it: there was so much blood, so much suffering. The Lost Boy's entire existence must have been suffering at that moment, as Trespasser had all but forgotten about Ranma to focus his entire interrogation on the stupid stubborn bastard. And the only thing likely preventing Ryouga from breaking, from failing that one last step, was Ranma's own mental attack, still actively running at the back of his mind, viciously assaulting his comrade with everything he had left…
It was, perhaps, one of the easiest things the martial artist had ever done.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Ranma Saotome stopped fighting.
An instant later, to the distant side, a pained howl - half roar and half sob - signaled the end of a bitter struggle, of a mind finally caving in to unceasing mental torture. Above them, the final sequence of glowing green numbers locked in place, as inevitable as death and every bit as final.
The final piece in the EDC Command key locked overhead with a warbling chime.
EDC PERMISSIONS CONFIRMED
Hibiki, Ryouga. (Maj)
SECPsiREAD.1 - CLEAR
SECPsiREAD.2 - CLEAR
SECPsiREAD.3 - CLEAR
SECPsiREAD.4 - CLEAR
Extended Dimensional Contact Device - ACCESSED
AWAITING Commanding Officer Clearance
AWAITING Navigation Officer Clearance
MD: XEDC : to545208349 (227) [active]
ALL Connections ACTIVE
The Sky became a sea of black and green and teal: a mimic of the navigation interface. A view of the outside, warped and too-wide, stretched as it displayed the twisted dimension outside. Other video feeds from inside the ship superimposed over that, presenting a constant stream of incoming data. Most prominent of all was a display indicating the warm-up and initiation sequence for Pathfinder's modified EDC.
Ranma and his black clad double stared in awe as they could feel the ship itself begin to shudder to life. To his side, Ranma-R shuffled a step closer to him, dropping a hand on his shoulder.
From the base of the device's charge sequence, capacitors - once separated - locked together with a musical chime. A dozen of them then led, through a weave of connections, up to the next level, radiating away and around a central Core. Convergers and Exchange Units with numerical designations colored orange as the cascade continued. Paired accelerators awakened, spinning up. Windows popped up with warnings, but the system continued on.
"Y'know, there's just one thing I need to do before this potentially screws up and kills us all," Ranma-R muttered silently.
"What's that," Ranma replied absently, not really paying attention.
A maddeningly short countdown appeared.
"At last. The time has come," Trespasser's voice rang out across the entire mental plain, his hands raised up to the digital sky. "I will drive this ship down God's Throat! I will cut the strings of conditionality that bind the multiverse! I will restore Natural Order! I will Find Truth by MAKING TRUTH!"
With a cheery ping, the computer complied.
EDC TRANSIT WINDOW - ENGAGED
Without warning, Ranma-R spun the original Saotome around and crushed their lips together with frantic intensity. Too shocked to react, Ranma could only do one thing in that split second.
And with a scream and a sound like broken glass, Pathfinder shattered the walls between dimensions, cracking open the veil of the universe itself.
It was actually impressive, Raven mused, just how well the Major was able to hold a straight face. Ranma wore an emotionless mask, staring straight ahead as he finished his detailed explanation of exactly what it was that had transpired to lead them to where they now were.
"You know, Ranma," Ryouga began slowly. Raven didn't need her powers of empathy to see the telltale signs of a grin tugging at the corners of their CO's lips. "I can only say one thing."
She could see the pigtailed lieutenant tense up visibly.
"I have absolutely no doubt that you have been waiting to do that your entire life!"
It was all Raven could do to hold in a bark of laughter that would probably drop her patient to the floor.
"Argh, dammit! It wasn't my fault!" Ranma barked back. "And there's no damn way that I'm puttin' that in my report! It doesn't have any bearing on how we won!"
Ryouga actually chuckled at that. It was a small chuckle, but it was good to see him show a trace of humor considering what they've all been through. "Well… I don't know, Ranma. You know protocol…"
"Oh, come on, Ryouga, do not make me write that out." Ranma quickly fired a desperate glare both of their ways. "And both of you two gotta promise me you won't put it in your reports either!"
Both smiling wanly, Raven and Ryouga shared a quick glance. Holding their stare just long enough to set Ranma to shuffling nervously, the pair of them finally relented.
"Fair enough, Saotome. In deference to you, and I hate to admit this, saving all of our lives, and that it isn't strictly speaking, important, I think we can forgo it."
Raven nodded her agreement. "I promise I won't mention it. Not that I think anyone would be overly surprised by you doing something like that with yours-"
"Enough of that!" Ranma barked irately. Dropping an arm on his comrade's arm, Ranma started pulling the Elder Hibiki away. "Come on, Bacon Butt, let's check on everyone else. We got all we need here."
Suppressing a small chuckle, the Major nodded, allowing himself to be dragged away.
"Now if it had been girl-me…"
"Ranma. Please don't go there."
Shaking her head, Raven absently brushed her knuckles down her Ryouga's cheek, enjoying the sensation. Despite the humor of the situation, though, her brow crinkled in frustration.
Yet another appearance by the black clad emotional Fragment, and this one she wasn't even aware of. She had not had time to actually contemplate this new figure in her mind, especially since his first appearance was just random, in a fevered dream months ago, but now she was starting to wonder.
"Still… it is a shame that I promised not to put that in the report. I could only imagine the Commander's face when she read it."
The feeling of a hand reaching up to grab her own brought a smile to her lips.
"It certainly is a shame," Ryouga the younger echoed in a pained voice, "… a shame that I didn't make that promise."
Raven's wan smile grew into a full blown grin.
"Ukyou. What the hell did you do to yourself?"
Ryu coughed, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. He grimaced at the sight of his hand shivering, but he tried not to think about it. He knew his own condition. Whatever infection he had picked up on the Kuk hadn't magically dissipated during their change in dimension. It made a measure of sense: none of the Nth metal artifacts they had in storage had disappeared. If the infection was because of particulate, degenerate Nth metal in his body; it wouldn't just go away.
He shrugged against the blanket over his shoulders, letting out a slow, ragged breath. His body felt cold, despite running a high fever. Most martial artists didn't get sick easily, especially once they learned to affect and partly regulate their own physiology using ki. Resilience was part of the package deal. As such, it had been a long time since Ryu last recalled having to endure such a pathetic and humiliating failure on the part of his immune system. The saving grace of it all was that, at least, he wasn't showing signs of ending up like all those Thanagarian monstrosities back on the ship.
He was careful to remain close to Ukyou, but not too close.
The okonomiyaki chef was still unconscious, though she moved and sometimes thrashed in seeming pain. The uniform that the ring had given her had come apart after the transit, splitting and tearing in some places, melting in others. Removing it had been like removing a fibrous mixture of cloth and body paint. She was covered up now, and also resting under a white blanket.
Ryu felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched before looking back, abashed.
"Hey," he groaned.
"Hey." Mousse crouched close by, carefully reaching out to brush two fingers against Ukyou's neck. He then felt her forehead.
The two squad mates were silent for a short while.
"We did this to her, you know," Ryu finally said, hanging his head in shame. "We all but forced her to use that ring. We released that blue psychopath."
Mousse didn't respond right away.
Slowly, he reached up to adjust his glasses.
"Ryu. She wanted the ring." The male Amazon sighed at the glare the Kumon heir shot his way. "Maybe she wasn't thinking straight. But she came back from that ship... different. I don't know how differently things could have turned out."
"I've never seen Shampoo this close to dying," Mousse cut him off, but not angrily. "Never. You think it isn't driving me a little crazy, too, inside? But there's enough blame that we should all just give up keeping count."
Ryu nodded haltingly, forced to agree, even though it was hard to reconcile how he felt with what he knew.
"You were up front?" he asked instead. "Any new information from the CIC?"
Mousse shook his head, his eyes hidden behind his glasses. "Nothing. Well, nothing that Cyborg deigned to tell me about, anyway. As far as I can tell, we're still just... drifting."
Ryu gave a frustrated huff. True, he had joked about it earlier, but the way that the cybernetic Yankee was acting now… had been acting for nearly a week now? Could they really trust him? Was he really on their side? The way he had dismissed everyone of active duty, leaving only himself as "fit" to run things was a disgustingly obvious and hypocritical play for control of the ship. Ryu was surprised the two officers had ostensibly gone along with it.
"I know, I don't like it any more than you do," the half blind weapon master responded uneasily.
"Heh, speak for yourselves!" The sudden, amused comment drew the gaze of both males to the newcomer. Sashaying out of the artifact room (not nearly the most secure room on the ship anymore), Jinx rolled her wrist lazily. Even as sick as he was feeling, Ryu had a hard time not staring, as the female Yankee had finally doffed her armor (why she had been in the artifact room), and was now wearing a pair of fatigue trousers and the black t-shirt she'd been wearing beneath her armor.
'Wearing' being subjective, as the t-shirt was tied into a knot beneath her breasts, exposing her vividly bruised midriff, and she couldn't even be bothered to do up the zipper, or button on her pants showing off a hint of black undergarments.
"I, for one," Jinx continued with a wry grin, "Welcome our new cybernetic overlords."
The Yamasenken master managed a weak chuckle at that. It sobered quickly, though. "How can you trust him like that? A power play at a time like this? What's his angle?"
"Angle? What angle?" Jinx asked. "Would you listen to yourself? You think this is Cyborg's way of 'stealing' command? Like it would last five seconds past us getting back home? You think he's not smart enough, even in this condition, to realize that?"
At his side, a frown creased Mousse's face. "He's as... and he was... as unfit as he says we are. Funny he didn't take himself off the roster, isn't it?"
"Look, you two," Jinx replied with an exasperated sigh. "I know logic is a pretty foreign concept to you guys, but I've seen guys like this before. Calc-heads. Robot types. They don't lie; couldn't even if they wanted to. Frankly, I feel more confident knowing Brobot is in charge than anyone else. At least I know he isn't gonna have a hissy fit over 'Biki getting' a split lip over there."
The sorceress nodded across the hold to where the Tendo in question was laid down next to the wall.
"That's not fair, Jinx," Ryu countered. "The problem is that the act of dismissing a senior officer falls on a junior officer and only a junior officer. This is why half the combat teams have both a LT and a Sergeant, and even a team led by a Sergeant has a senior squaddie. It doesn't matter how logical he thinks he's being. You ask me, I'd bet his programming or whatever is still screwy from our stop at the dimensional bus stop back there."
"He can declare us off-duty as much as he wants," Mousse chimed in, his body relaxed but his tone of voice dark with hidden inflection. "I know who I take my orders from."
Jinx shook her head. "Man, but you guys are dense. I mean, sure, it's great to know that you're still ready to condemn us Yankees the second we step outta line." She waved her hand dismissively. "But whatever, you guys keep being paranoid over the one guy that's actually doing something to get us home, rather than just sitting on his ass and whining about not being in charge."
Ryu snorted, but let the verbal challenge go. Not that anyone knew what the hell Cyborg was actually doing, since he didn't consider himself answerable to anyone anymore and no one else had access to the ship's electronic diagnostics. Things hadn't turned into "2001" HAL levels of robotic mischief, not yet, so maybe a lack of communication was the most they could hope for. Then again, Jinx also hadn't almost been killed the last time Cyborg used his 'calculator mode' to actually try and off someone.
"Yeah. You know, it starts with the lengthy silences, and then you start hearing 'I can't do that Dave' and everything goes downhill."
Jinx spared him a long, long look. "Just don't start pulling any circuit boards out, 'Dave.' I really don't want to hear Cyborg start singing… what was that again?"
"Daisy Bell," Cyborg's voice answered over the ship's intercom. "Alternative: Bicycle Built for Two. Composed by Harry Dacre in 1892."
Ryu coughed again, covering his mouth with his hand. "Uh huh. The all seeing eye is on us. Well, there's nothing to do about it now, anyway. We can only wait."
"Pretty much," Jinx agreed and placed a hand casually on her hip. Her pink eyes did take a second to scan the ceiling, unable to find anything but smooth alien alloy. "Admittedly, it does feel a bit odd when it isn't Nabiki spying on us 24/7, but Hell, as long as we ain't dead, I'm counting all this as a win…" She looked around uncertainly. "Um, speaking of which… does anyone know whether or not we're going to, y'know, survive past the next ten minutes?"
Ryu looked over to Mousse, finally agreeing with the slight sorceress.
"Yeah," he said. "Weren't you running a manual check on the environmentals?"
"We have power, even though that last jump took most of what we had left," the Amazon reminded him, pointing up at an illumination stamp in the alien alloy ceiling. "Which means we have air and water. Backups are all still good to go. The essential systems are all hardened. But...with how we've been rationing our MREs and IMPs, I'd guess we've got a week before... well." He turned away. "I'd guess suicide pills. Starvation isn't pleasant."
"Speak for yourself!" Jinx snarked, rightly amused and clapping the Amazon on the shoulder. "I just happen to have a delicious recipe for Peking Duck."
Ryu couldn't help but chuckle as Mousse let out a pained groan at the witch's pointed expression. Only to glance over in confusion as it was followed by a moment later by an agonized groan.
"Must you damned humans speak of food?"
The three of them glance over as one, to where Reava, the Fury he had 'rescued' from the Thanagarian ship, was hunched over, dry heaving. The alien had recently returned from the ship's lone bathroom where the Apokaliptian warrior had obviously just finished emptying her stomach. Ryu wasn't sure what sort of bug the Fury had in her. She hadn't gotten it from him, at least.
"Yes, yes we must," Jinx confirmed, sticking out her tongue. She pointed a thumb at Mousse. "Look at this guy, would ya?" she directed the question at Reava. "He looks tender, doesn't he? Juicy, even? Lip-smacking good? Couldn't you just gobble him up?"
Her only response was a pained moan into a vomit bag.
"Hey, what about me?" Ryu muttered, feeling a bit left out. "Mousse may be some good duck, but I think I'm some grade-A beef cake over here." He let out a mirthless chuckle. "Though, I suppose, the idea of eating the guy with tainted Nth metal floating around in his body probably isn't all that appealing, now is it?"
Rolling her eyes, Jinx leaned forward and pressed her palm to his forehead. He felt an odd 'pulse' of… something… flow over, and through his body. A second later, the hand pulled back from his head, only for Jinx to drop herself back, right into Mousse's lap. Waving her hand dismissively, the sorceress gave a dainty snort.
"Geez, ya big baby. The Nth metal is already starting to go inert. Without any ties back to its 'source', it's gonna revert back to… well… whatever kind of metal it is when it's not super charged with evil Chaos God juice." Jinx tilted her head to the side. "Hmm… granted, that might be why you look like you're actually getting worse."
"Say what now?" Ryu asked, actually interested in just how Jinx knew what she was talking about. Ignoring the look of acute discomfort on the Weapon Master's face, Jinx leaned back, wrapping an arm around his neck absently.
"Pfft. I might not rub it in everyone's face all the time, like certain other girl's do-"
Jinx shot a pointed glare to the other other side of the hold, where Raven was currently resting beside the young acting Sergeant. Still resting her hand on the young man's chest, the dark Titan did happen to notice Jinx's glare, or perhaps had heard her not so subtle accusation, and looked away, giving a loud sniff of annoyance.
Grinning wickedly, Jinx turned her attention back to Ryu. "But I've studied more than my fair share of magic as well back home. It doesn't take too much to feel that the metal is losing its power pretty quick."
"As for the other thing," she continued, worming her way further back into Mousse's chest, obviously getting comfortable, "One of the lesser known abilities of Nth metal, is that it actually has a lot of beneficial physical effects. It's part of the reason that Thannys are so much stronger than humans. Makes them tougher, too, even low level regeneration I've heard. Hell, it probably explains why all the killer corpses over there weren't just piles of dust after all these thousands of years… well, you know, except for the whole 'tainted by a mad god' part, anyway. Up sides and down sides and all that."
Reava, after wiping her chin with the back of her hand, nodded in agreement. Her voice slurred, she confirmed Jinx's words.
"Nth metal," she spat. "Is the only thing of actual interest in regards to the Thanagarians. The metal given to them by... by their former god... possesses nearly limitless potential, but is a resource wasted upon their pitiful, barbaric, simple-minded race! It is why we..." She bit her lower lip, minding her words. "Regardless. Without the biogenic field it produces, it is reverting to simple elemental iron. Still a poison I expect, but not one that will consume your body and soul."
Coughing weakly, Ryu nodded, the explanation making sense. "I guess that makes se-"
"It is a fitting punishment for a wretch such as yourself," the Fury cut him off with a sneer. "Watching you suffer is only a small recompense for all I have been subjected to of late. You were right to deceive me, I do not begrudge you that, but you should suffer because you are as sentimental and weak as all the rest here!"
"Heh, gotta love the snark," Jinx quipped and snorted under the bandage that covered half her face. She sucked in some blood, making a rather unlady-like noise.
"And you're chipper as usual," Mousse commented dryly, cracking a smile. "But, really… do you have to sit here?" Mousse pointed to his lap… pointedly.
Jinx shrugged, making no move to move. "What? All the handsome seats were either too injured, or already taken, so I'm just making the best of a bad situation." She then jerked a thumb in Ryu's direction. "Besides, this guy has barely even said two words to me since I showed up in your dimension. I don't think I got enough in the boob department to rate his attention over there."
"Hey!" Ryu objected strenuously. "I thought I already made clear my tolerance, hell, my appreciation! For breasts both large and small?"
"Well, her breasts are embarrassingly nonexistent," Reava chimed in, enjoying any chance to lash out in any small way she could. It didn't help that Reava was, like most of her kind, vexingly well-endowed in that department. "It's a wonder that she can pass for a female at all."
The young sorceress held up a threatening fist. "Oh, you are just lustin for a bustin over there, Fury! How'd you like it if I anoint you into the busted nose club?"
"I think our little prisoner looks pretty miserable as-is, Jinx," Ryu quickly stated, pre-empting any possible violence.
"Yeah, yeah. Anyway," Jinx started again and quite clearly in the direction of her human seat, "What do you think the odds are of any of us still having a job after all of this is said and done?"
"Don't know," Mousse replied, shifting under the former villainess to more comfortably cross his legs. "If you consider what happened to us as mind control, or the result of a panic attack, troops aren't held responsible for what they do when under external influence."
"Yeah," Ryu chimed in, with a darker side of the story. "But at the same time, a psychologically damaged trooper won't be sent back into the field. We've all heard what happens to squaddies who get controlled and shoot up their squad, or mow down civvies. Early retirement. Not psionically sound. Transfer to 'low intensity ops.'"
Jinx looked from one to the other and frowned, thinking it over for herself.
"Hopefully things will work out," Mousse concluded.
"Yeah right." Ryu held out his hand. "Haven't you heard the saying? You can hold hope in one hand, and wipe your ass with the o-"
Ryu's colorful prose was cut short, not by an interruption, but by himself. He had been speaking to Jinx and Mousse, but the wary Yamasenken master had been keeping an eye on Reava as well. There was always the possibility that the Fury was faking her current bout of nausea and misery. Seeing her bolt up and look out one of the transparent viewports outside caught his immediate attention. Slowly, Mousse and Jinx caught on as well, glancing over at the seemingly alert Apokaliptian.
"What is it?" Jinx asked, flipping out of Mousse's lap. "Do you see something?"
The Female Fury frowned and backed away from the port. "Perhaps..."
"Keep an eye on her," Jinx said, having been much more mindful of her task regarding Reava than she appeared. With Mousse and Ryu getting onto their feet, she turned her attention fully to the transparent alien alloy and the view outside. Pink eyes darted, searching for a literal needle in a haystack: a light amongst the stars that didn't belong.
Space, one could say with certainty, was both vast and empty.
Even with windows open at every viewport, and a half dozen eyes occasionally peering into the void with cautious, tired optimism, there was little to actually make out in detail. Pathfinder was also tilting end over end, slowing spinning with bleeding momentum from its ordeal of a transit event, meaning even the most basic orientation was difficult to discern. The only object with any sort of permanence was the glare of a hot, bright sun in the Precambrian distance.
Then, suddenly, another light appeared.
Pulling up alongside the stranded, broken ship, it very nearly winked out of nowhere, going from a speed faster than eye could follow to a matching, languid drift. A ripple over the surface dimmed, allowing enough unfiltered light through to reveal details. The new arrival was saucer shaped, thickening in the middle both above and below. The skin of it glittered silver over gray, like a metallic mirage contrasted against a desert of sparkling midnight.
Silence gripped the remaining crew of Pathfinder as the ship moved closer. It had no windows, yet as it moved, slowly circling the damaged vessel, it tilted and rotated enough to reveal... finally... that painted in bold letters on the side were the numbers zero-zero-eleven. Etched just above the number eleven was a stylized X over a representation of the moon, together with a dark spear-like triangle flanked by a pair of wings. Pausing, the Firestorm tilted to the left and then to the right in a friendly wing-wiggle before buzzing away in a flash of light.
Immediately, everyone capable of moving (save a preoccupied Raven) was on their feet and crowding the transparent viewport. Excited gasps and eager chatter filled the air with a joyous buzz as everyone jockeyed for a better view.
"She's friendly. She's friendly! That's Zulu 11 from Horizon Base!" Ranma was the first to speak, leaning bodily forward against another wall in the hold, his forehead just next to the transparent view port. "That's one of Luna Base's Firestorms! We're back. We're actually back."
"We need to signal back." Ryouga said, crossing the hold. "Konatsu. IR Beacon."
"Sir!" The ninja was quick to find one of the kit boxes Mousse had organized after the fight, snapping it open with a quick kick. A second later, and one of the pathfinding/marking signal lights flew across the hold to land in Ryouga's hand. The hardy little device was typically used to signal air support or to mark a location for pickup, exfil, or as friendly in-close. Finding one of the windows with the Firestorm, Ryouga pressed it up to the transparent pane the moment he finished programming the light sequence.
IR LEDs pulsed, confirming Pathfinder's security code, followed by an SOS.
The Firestorm, Zulu-011, rotated slightly, but didn't otherwise respond. The beacon repeated the set of codes three times... the given 'all clear' response that a pilot would normally send over the comm... and the XCOM craft finally gave another wing-waggle by means of confirmation. Pathfinder. Friendlies on board. Wounded on board. SOS. This wasn't just a similar dimension. Even the security code had been confirmed. This was their dimension: this was home.
They were back.
"That's it," he said, breathless, the relief flooding into him.
Close by, Ranma turned to lean against the viewport, running a hand through his hair. "Codes confirmed! We're back!"
"Security confirmation was not necessary to determine our status," Cyborg's emotionless voice interrupted as he entered the hold. Standing in the doorway, studying them all impassively, he held his right arm before him, his gaze flitting back and forth between his companions and its small screen. "Dimensional resonance scans have already determined that we have returned to our point of origin."
"Furthermore," he added, putting away his arm's display. "I have confirmed Zulu Eleven's command protocols via the public display registry. The fifty two character vehicle manufacture billet is a far more accurate means of identification than visual analysis and exchange of statistically probable code-words."
There was a brief pause as the rest of the crew tried to follow what all that meant.
"So we're back," Ranma quipped. "You could've just said so, man."
Impassively, Cyborg replied in what could easily be considered a dead-pan, "That is what I just did."
At that, the moment of confusion dispersed and a wave of elation swept over the crew. Ryu nearly collapsed, utterly grateful for that spectacular news. Konatsu clasped his hands together and pressed them to his forehead in silent thanks. Jinx laughed in relief and Reava glared at the floor, pondering her next move even as she tried to keep from being violently sick. Even so, though, for most of the crew, that heady feeling of joy quickly faded into dawning comprehension and, for some, apprehension.
"So we didn't even have to do anything?" Exchanging a look with Ryouga, Ranma pushed of the wall, a question on his mind. "I guess we lucked out. ...For once."
"The perceived phenomenon of luck had nothing to do with the current state of events," Cyborg corrected the Saotome heir with all the passion of a desktop printer spitting out spreadsheets. "While hyperwave and encrypted communications were rendered inoperative, I was able to salvage this ship's emergency distress beacon and basic communications relay, patching it into the secondary mirror synchronized black box."
"So... you knew where we are?" Jinx asked, posing it as a question, but one whose answer she knew. "You had the comms up this whole time?!"
"I was able to calculate our position based on observational data," Cyborg replied. "Our current location is approximately four point four million kilometers from Earth. I have only had the basic comm functional for thirty seven minutes."
Starting to rub her temples, obviously feeling a pulsing beginning to pound in her head, the increasingly irate Sorceress grumbled. "Thirty seven minutes… and you're only telling us now that we were home all along!? What the hell CyButt?"
"You did not ask."
A strangled scream was Jinx's reply. "That's it! I'm with Ryu and Duck Boy, time to melt you down into-!"
Pathfinder lurched abruptly, cutting the slight sorceress off mid death threat. The Firestorm descended on their position, initiating a ship mating maneuver. There was a small tug as the other ship's gravity bubble merged and expanded, linking the two craft. It was actually something people could feel, as the gravity onboard reasserted itself, abruptly returning lost pounds and forcing feet firmly down onto the floor. A crackle sounded across the ship's comm.
"Zulu Eleven to Pathfinder All," a male voice spoke up, as the Firestorm finished assuming command control over the scout's damaged systems. "Welcome home, Pathfinder. I've got you locked and good to go, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. ETA for Luna-AE14 is about four hours. Jordan out."
The first thing Jinx heard as she emerged, slick and wet and naked from her maturation tube, was the comforting embrace of voices and thoughts not her own, teeming within the confines of her virgin mind. Her memory up to that point was terrifying, crystal clear and yet... alien. Alone.
She had been alone, in her own mind. Recalling it filled her with disgust. Not even having taken her first breath, Jinx understood that what had come before was the life - the stolen memories - of the previous Jinx. The original one, spawned like raw meat from a bloody human womb. What a hollow and purposeless life. Wasted.
Wasted, but reclaimed.
Jinx reached up to her face, tearing away the gestation membrane that clung to her skin and that oozed through her hair. Fleshy sacks obscured her vision. Nails bit into them just above the eyebrows, and the placental mass tore away from punctures around her cheeks. Her throat retched, expelling a viscous tasteless slime and, along with it, a threaded tube that had ran down into her stomach. Seizing it with one hand, she pulled the last of it out after what had to be half her body length of sinewy coil. Through rapidly resolving vision, she could see dozens of long, flexible cilia twisting and squirming at the end of the tube, as if trying to crawl back inside her.
She threw it to the floor, took a wobbly step, and felt the only partly-organic umbilical disengage from her midsection. Other fibers unwound from around her legs to retract back into the gestation tube behind her. The light was still blinding - far too bright - for her sensitive eyes. Rather than stumble blindly, she stood and waited. Hands came.
They were not human hands.
The alien touch soothed her just as the voices in her head did. Before all else, before words could be spoken, before thoughts exchanged, there was one demand. One order. One imperative she was happy, ecstatic even, to comply with.
She did. Without reservation, hesitation or fear. It felt... wonderful to submit.
She was accepted, embraced, empowered by her submission. Her body felt more responsive, her mind more powerful. Thoughts crystallized. The voices made sense. She could not yet speak-think, she could not yet contribute, but she could hear whispers of the consensus and the debate. It framed and defined her world far more than the paltry perceptions of her eyes. It was within the Mind that existence was truly found, not within a lockbox of flesh and bone.
Jinx opened her eyes as alien hands wiped away the last of the clinging membrane. A chemical bath followed quickly, the harsh sting testing the sensitivity of her new and improved skin. Pores opened and closed, hairs twitched and stood on end, and nerve endings fired. Jinx knew her body worked. It was not that she felt fine. She could perceive the chemical processes themselves. A mind-within-her-mind told her that everything was functioning as it was engineered to.
Eyes open, Jinx looked down at herself... and then to her left.
Another her was also standing in front of a tube, being cleaned off and inspected by a Hierarchy drone: a Sectoid Medic. That Jinx was, like her, naked and immature. This was their first phasing; having emerged in the life-state humans identified as late childhood. She was no taller than the Sectoid examining her. Not yet.
Beyond the Jinx to Jinx's left, another stood, also being tended to. To her left was a forth, and then a fifth, and then a sixth. Six pairs of pink eyes examined their sisters and themselves. Jinx wanted to hear their thoughts, but none of them had earned the right to project yet. To 'speak.' Jinx opened her mouth to experiment with vocalization but her voice was hoarse and weak and strained.
The Sectoids finished with them and walked away, their thin arms and legs carrying them with minimalist movement and efficient strides. Jinx took in the room around her. All was uniform and gray, except for low purple lighting that extended into ultraviolet. The floor beneath her bare feet was metal, a gray alloy that puckered to become permeable before closing up into a seamless, faintly checkered expanse.
There were two more present, two more minds to add to the endless chorus within her. One of them looked human, with long red hair and green eyes, the rest of her body covered with bulky robes. The color and design of the robes not only provoked a reaction of curiosity but an instant rush of respect and deference within Jinx's engineered brain. It was an Ethereal's Habit. At that, Jinx knew, instinctively, the woman was a Trenchard, not unlike herself. The person's 'voice' was quiet, though, her thoughts barely audible.
There was something else about the Trenchard, too… something… familiar, even beyond the sharing of memories and mutual identity.
But whatever it was, it was drowned out by the mere presence of the other. Standing nearly a foot higher than the Trenchard researcher, the Ethereal, the Commander, her FOCUS, granted her honor beyond all belief, just by being present for her 'birth'. She could feel the inconceivable weight of its mind pressing down on her, even though she knew that she barely even rated a fraction of its current attention.
YOUR WORK IS DONE HERE, THE OTHER WILL TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
Jinx heard the thoughts like an echo, directed not at her, but still filling the room. The Ethereal she knew to be the Commander was speaking to the Trenchard.
RETURN TO YOUR PRIMARY RESEARCH
Without an instant of hesitation, the near physical representation of the Mind spun about and glided from the room without even a wasted thought. It did not even pause to see the look of pure gratification which spread upon the red headed Trenchard's face at the command she had just been given.
It still puzzled Jinx, this other Trenchard. She knew her as her CREATOR, but there was something else that could not be explained at this juncture. Something... from before... She had no time to consider it as her CREATOR turned to sneer at the gathered lot of them.
"You heard him, didn't you? You're no longer my problem," Creator said, sneering. "The pig farmer will deal with you now."
And with that, she left as well, though actually using her feet for locomotion, as opposed to floating through the door. For several long minutes, all was silent in the room. The only motion was that of the Medics continuing to clean the mess of their joint 'births', the only sounds were their shallow breaths.
Then, once again, the door slid open, melting into the walls.
From it, emerged another being, this one also cloaked in metallic orange. A pair of deep red eyes beneath the titian hood burned like faint stars. Jinx knew, as her enhanced vision pierced the darkness of the hood, that those eyes were similar to but not like her own. The sleeves of the robe rose up and a pair of five fingered hands swept back the hood, revealing a human face. One of the red eyes became brown, with a black pupil. The other remained a solid, burning, bloody crimson.
One of the hands then wiped away a strand of pink hair, tucking it behind her ear in a practiced fashion to nestle among the more numerous strands of brown. The Jinxes straightened immediately. They had never seen this creature before. A version of her was in the original's memories, but this one provoked another response: obedience. MOTHER.
The thought hit the six engineered hybrid humans like a train; like a physical blow. Unlike the Ethereal's thoughts, which had been directed almost solely to the Trenchard researcher, this was a direct command, and it was meant for them alone. One of them coughed, a mixture of blood and incubation fluid staining her chin and bare chest. Jinx felt mildly concussed. She knew her brain was tuned to be receptive to the thoughts of the gestalt. Acquiescence to the submit command preceded a jolt of pleasure.
YOU ARE THE SEVENTH GENERATION OF THE BEING KNOWN AS JINX. THIS ONE HAS OVERSEEN YOUR CREATION. YOU WILL SERVE.
The thoughts were overpowering, but measured. Comforting. MOTHER.
YOU HAVE BEEN CREATED TO INFILTRATE AND TO DESTROY. THIS WILL REQUIRE USE OF VOCAL EXPRESSIONS. REPEAT THE NAME I ASSIGN YOU.
"Tamiko," the one on the far left spoke first.
"Hideko," the one in the middle said, struggling a bit with her voice, barely managing more than a murmur.
"Akemi!" A third yelled.
"Kayo," a fourth said, wiping the blood from her chin.
"Naoko," Jinx repeated the thought-name as best she could, reproducing it using her memories of the base language. Japanese. There was no doubt about it.
This Trenchard was...
"Akari," the robed woman stated, blinking, but only with her one brown eye. The other remained red and menacing. "You are my children. You may address me as Mother. As I raise you over the coming cycles, it is likely that all but one of you will die. The others, unworthy of further iteration, shall be recycled."
Naoko nodded, accepting this as the truth. There was no sense of fear, only acceptance that it was as she had been told. If she proved to be the most viable, than it was her fate and her privilege to serve. If not, then it would be for the greater good of the gestalt that she did not remain to weaken the collective or impair the utility of her genetic line.
One way, or the other, she would serve as the Mind commanded.
"Come. We have much work to do." And with that, Akari turned away from them, floating through the door once more. It was both invitation and command.
As one, Naoko and her sisters followed Mother.