3: TIGER


Power.

All encompassing, suffusing raw power was what Orimura Ichika felt himself being drowned in as the Byakushiki awakened.

The burst of light that flooded the room. The armor that was emerging from thin air, folding out and locking in around torso and his head. The pain seared across his chest dulling, freeing his mind.

He could feel his senses expanding outward, beyond his own eyes and ears. The Hyper Sensor reached all about the room, and his consciousness was receiving a river of carefully accumulated and controlled data.

Were it seen on the screen, a person would only catch an unreadable stream of numbers and letters, a metric ton of compiled data that couldn't be read in any other way, or by anything other than another computer. But here inside the Byakushiki, on some intrinsic level Ichika was feeling all this data and it was making sense to him. The enhanced senses were only a symptom of this effect. He saw the ambient temperature of the melting metal doors of the elevator in front of him, as he heard the raw numbers tell him air fluctuations and wind speed. The touch of his feet was detecting the traction value of the truck underneath him.

There was just so much, and the teenager could hold it all in his consciousness in tandem with the machine's circuitry.

Is this what it feels like to use an Infinite Stratos? Is this what all the pilots get to feel? This is...amazing.

[Uh, Ichika? I know this experience makes any first time pilot all warm and tingly, but there's this robot about to punch you.]

The Moment ended with that announcement echoing inside his head. Ichika remembered Travis White, and then the reason he was in an IS to begin with. The light display of the new pilot's coronation died out, leaving him crouching in his great machine while a Gargoyle stood above him, "fist" raised to slam down on his dead.

Ichika felt his breath stop even while reached out, and saw the blue claw of the Byakushiki's hand catch the blow effortlessly. The teenager grunted with effort to restrain the arm he had caught, while the Gargoyle continued to single mindedly press down, trying to push the Infinite Stratos back down. Neither refused to give way.

Several seconds of this stalemate eventually caused the Gargoyle to twist its posture, and Ichika saw the other arm of the SS come down to bear on it, the end of the stumpy limb glowing and preparing to fire.

[Ichika!]

"I know!" The boy shouted to himself as much as to the IS, as a thought surged to the forefront of his consciousness.

MOVE.

By command, the man and machine moved as one off the truck and towards the Gargoyle's chest. Ichika's free arm batted the aim of robot's weapon out of his way, before he threw his shoulder into its steel chest. The pilot felt the flight systems behind his back activate, and with his yell, started pushing the Gargoyle back at near top speed. The SS fired wildly past Ichika's shoulder all the while, cutting the cabin of the truck in half while it traveled all of a few feet into the melted opening where the elevator doors once were. Scraping through the cooled edges of the hole, the Gargoyle was thrown into the empty elevator shaft, the lift somewhere else above them, while Ichika was right behind with one hand still on its arm and the Byakushiki's shoulder plating leaving an ever deepening depression on its chest.

The moment the pair slammed into the gritty back wall of the elevator shaft, they ascended, still struggling. The Byakushiki ground the already battered SS against the concrete and steel grating, leaving a trail of sparks and horrid screeching.

"I won't let any of you attack this building anymore!" Ichika shouted, glaring at the red sensors lining the Gargoyle's head. The machine didn't have any vocal response, but the arm that was over the teenager's shoulder began to fire again, inaccurate rounds wildly planting explosion after flaming explosion into the walls of the elevator shaft around them. It was perhaps some stupid attempt by the machine to keep attacking its aggressor. All it did was cover the two in blinding light and crunching metal.

Eventually one blast caught Ichika off guard. Even with his senses as sharpened as they were, all he could hear was the cry of his voice and feeling himself somehow tumbling through air until he met cold ground. As he pushed himself to his feet, he realized the last explosion ejected them through another pair of doors and sent them rolling onto an upper floor of the convention center. At the far end of the hall, against the glass exterior wall, the silhouette of the Gargoyle jerked to its feet, groaning with damaged machinery. It raised its beam weapon encrusted arms with the same tired motion as ever.

"I'm getting tired…" Ichika muttered to himself.

Move.

The boy flew off the ground, racing towards the Gargoyle with one fist pulled back.

"…of having to look at you!"

The Gargoyle opened fire, two thick red beams reaching out to try and strike the pilot as he crossed the few meters between them. Whether it was luck or instinct, the Byakushiki had pulled dangerously close to the floor, letting the shots pass overhead of Ichika's body, merely scoring glancing shots on the shield of the IS that didn't impact on anything vital.

Despite the ferocity of the laser weaponry, for Ichika within his machine, his body couldn't feel any heat bleed through the transparent protection that conformed to his shape. His consciousness, however, registered being told by the sensors all over his IS that something of several thousand degrees had passed over the top of his head, and he felt himself accept that fact, in a sort of "by the way" manner. It was strange feeling such things.

But it kept his mind clear on the target that was now in right in front of him. Still accelerating, Ichika roared and brought his blue armored fist forward, slamming it directly into the center of the already crumpled chest armor. The steel gave way and Ichika's fist impaled the Gargoyle as the rest of him slammed the robot into the thick glass wall, sending white cracks across the surface. In the same instant, the final abuse of the SS caused some internal functions to ignite something. The two were consumed in a final explosion as the Gargoyle detonated, throwing smoke and loose furniture everywhere, and shattering the glass of near the entire side of the building from the shockwave.

From the smoke, Ichika burst free, shedding a few fragments of carbonized Gargoyle that stuck to his armor.

[Ha, ha! You totally kicked its ass, cowboy. Man, it feels good to stretch out a power system again.]

Now that he was out of immediate danger, Ichika subtly jerked in surprise when he heard the diagnostic connection in his mind talk aloud again.

"Travis? I can hear you?"

[Yeah, looks it.] The Electronic Consciousness' "voice" echoed, [You can just think back, though. I can catch focused surface thoughts.]

"I'll keep that in mind."

[So whaddya think, Ichika? How's the IS?]

"It's… well…"

The teenager looked at himself as he continued to glide upward through the air. He was covered in gray armor with blue accents. Touching his head for a second, he could feel a metal circlet, no doubt what the Byakushiki used to generate the Hyper Sensor for the pilot. A glance behind him saw a pair of small gray pod-like wings above his back. All in all, it was impressive in the eyes of a first time pilot, but when it came to Orimura Ichika, who had been up to his eyeballs in IS designs for years…

"…It's not very white for a 'White Expression', is it? And it's kind of… plain looking. Don't IS have larger machinery?"

[Oh sure, complain now, huh? And you were like 'I'M INTERFACED! I AM THE ONE!' five minutes ago. Such a human male thing, 'Why are my gravity units smaller than the ones being used by a girl? I feel insecure!']

Ichika blushed with embarrassment, though he wasn't sure why. "I'm just saying! 'Beggars can't be choosers', still."

[…I'm not sure if you just apologized or insulted me right there. Eh. By the way, partner, you're rather natural at flying for a first time pilot. And, you know, the handicap of not being a hot chick.]

The boy looked around at the black sky, under which the stars were beginning to faintly emerge, freed from the glare of light pollution. He realized that he was in fact, aloft under his own power, and it was really actual wind in his face.

Holy crap, I am flying.

"Wow. Should it be this easy? I thought flight was directed by imaging a pyramidal shape… I mean, that's what I read, but I'm not even thinking about this…"

[Well, whatever you're not thinking, keep not thinking it. I don't want to waste any processes on being your personal chauffeur.]

Ichika was a little confused at the statement and the intellectual in him had to ask, "Why would you? Shouldn't the COOS handle process priority delegation?"

[Coos? The hell's a coos?]

"Combat Oriented Operating System?"

Travis was oddly silent on that.

"You know, the basic software that's installed in every Core? The thing that regulates an IS' systems?" Byakushiki's pilot couldn't help but sarcastically quip to the voice sharing his head.

[Uh, I never saw that in here. Then again, with the amount of space I take up in this Core…]

"Are you telling me I'm going flying all this without any automatic diagnostics or HUD!?"

[Partner, relax. The ride's still got HUD and diagnostic programs, even if there's no coos-thing running them. It's not like you're going to be riding without a dashboard. Besides, you got something better than any OS. You got me!]

"You're going to make me crash and I'm not even going to know why."

[You have serious trust issues, buddy.]

Ichika snorted before turning his attention back to the ground, trying to find any sign of where his friend was. Given the amount of debris and chaos that had been thrown about, though, it was difficult to tell what anything was.

[Hold on a sec. I'm collecting the local IFFs. I'll put them on.]

True to Travis' promise, a HUD, green lines and all, then materialized in Ichika's vision. He saw multiple boxes superimposed on objects, tagged with "AM-9 Gargoyle". Further back, in the center of a car park, there were two machines fighting, quickly boxed and tagged as IS units. One had just thrown the other off and was boosting backwards to gain breathing room. The black one was summarily written off as "Unknown", but the other…

[Ix-88: SHENLONG]

Ichika's eyes widened, "That's Rin!"

[Ah, the objective.]

The two figures raised their weapons, preparing to fight again.

"Rin! Wait! I'm helping!" Ichika shouted as hard as he could, trying to interrupt the impending battle. It worked, given both girls down below turned their gaze up at the boy as he descended. He could clearly see the face of his friend, inside her Chinese IS.

She had a moment of shock, before it quickly solidified in the greatest deadpan expression Ichika had ever seen her give.

"What the hell."

The sudden comment threw off Ichika's landing. It ended up being more accurate to say he stopped his fall with the ground, which cracked around the steel of the IS. After stumbling to control his crash landing, he turned to Rin, perturbed.

"What's that supposed to mean, 'what the hell'? I'm here to help!"

"Ichika, what are you doing…" The Chinese girl began, before amending, "…What are you doing in an IS?"

"I just am, alright? I don't think now's a good time for an interview…!" Ichika said, twisting his head towards the situation at hand. Both of them turned back towards the terrorist Camilla. While her blades were out, she was seemingly frozen, her mouth frozen in a sign of shock.

"That's the… You… what are you doing in that IS?" Camilla growled.

[I'm picking up constant data chatter on black chick's ride. She must be the one controlling those SS around here.] Travis' voice pointed out helpfully.

"Got it." Ichika responded under his breath.

Across the car park, the Hana-B's pilot started pacing over to them threateningly, "Get out of that IS…!"

Ichika and Rin took a few defensive steps backwards, matching. It didn't take much for Ichika to put two and two together that they really wanted the Byakushiki.

"Rin, how's your shields?" He quickly whispered sideways to his friend.

"Bad. Nine percent."

"Neither of us can take her down, then…"

"Then what?"

"She wants me. I'm going to try and lead her away from here. Try and get away and help the people inside the building escape."

The resistance to the idea was immediate on both sides.

"Are you crazy, Ichika! ?" Rin turned, spluttering.

[Are you out of your goddamn mind! ?]

"Don't try and be a hero now, you can't take them all yourself!"

[Do I need to point out this ride hasn't shifted yet? Are you seriously planning on taking this kuroi bitch with your bare hands while the 'shiki's still in kiddie mode?]

The boy waved off the complaints, "There's no time to argue-!"

There really wasn't.

"DID YOU HEAR ME? GET OUT OF THAT STRATOS RIGHT NOW!"

The violent snarl coming their way was the final warning they got before Rin and Ichika turned and reacted just in time. A quick boost from the sides of their IS was enough to send them leaping away from the Uchigane Hana-B which had dived down at them, all swords swinging with enough force to carve a massive gouge in the concrete where they were.

As the Shenlong slid away, Rin saw her friend's gray metal form take to the air, "Ichika!"

"Go! I'll distract them!" His voice shouted back before the Byakushiki flung itself towards Yokohama's darkened cityscape.

[Fly, monkey, fly!] The voice echoed in the pilot's head.

"Where do you think you're going! ?" Camilla shouted at Ichika's retreating figure, before bringing her arm to her mouth, speaking into the armor, "Every asset! Converge on me, right now! The HVT has been sighted and is mobile! Neutralize on sight!"

The terrorist in her IS leapt into the air after the escaping boy, while every Gargoyle in the area perked up from the relayed orders. As one, they wheeled out, giving chase along the ground. With the Byakushiki up and about, neither Huang Lingyin nor the convention center was worth even a further second of consideration.

"Damn it…" Rin cursed to herself, watching. But she couldn't help any more, not with the condition of her shields. The only thing she could do was find some reinforcements that would be fresher than her. With that, she raced back towards the Yokohama Pacifico.


[I gotta say, Ichika, the objective's a cute little spitfire. I'd give her 4638 points.]

Ichika was not going to have this conversation. He remained steadfastly silent while the numbers for wind speed registered through the shields of the IS and into his ears. (4638 points out of how many, though?)

[Alright, I see, she's off limits. Fine, but why are we going into the city? Gargoyles aren't aquatic; we coulda waited it out in the middle of the bay.]

"I can wait out an SS, but not an IS. If I waited over the water, she would have taken me down by herself." Ichika replied this time, "We need to buy time, hide in the cityscape."

The Byakushiki's flight path weaved deeper into the darkness of the powerless regions of Yokohama's urban environment, marked by towering glass obelisks that would have been financial and business centers, and the black pathways that soared and intersected through the air: highways that might have led to Yokohama's various entertainment venues.

[All the same, I hope you have an explanation for how you're going to fend them all off in kiddie mode.]

"I...uh...I thought I could keep them chasing me." Ichika answered lamely. His plan was painfully narrow and single-stepped, in retrospect, "I took down a Gargoyle easily enough."

[Not in an unshifted ride you're not-incoming eight 'o clock high!]

The boy twisted his IS to the side in time to see Camilla already caught up to him, wielding her cutlery shop fervently. She was closing in fast.

"Ah! Drop! Drop!"

The gravity control systems on the Byakushiki cut out, making him fall out of the air like a stone. The sudden change in vector let him narrowly miss Camilla's swing from all her blades, which instead tore a long hole into the side of an office block, sending glass everywhere.

Ichika's bared his teeth as he somersaulted in his fall, bringing his feet to point towards the ground below. The flight systems reactivated just in time to slow him down and send him skating mere inches off the ground, dancing around the cars parked in the streets.

There was no respite now, as on an overhead bridge, several Gargoyles suddenly wheeled into view, their arms pointed over the railing and suddenly Ichika's drive forward was complicated by explosions about him.

Ichika might have shouted or swore something under his breath, but at the moment, the only thing that was on his mind was breaking through the blockade. There was no time to turn tail.

As he flew in towards the underside of the bridge, another Gargoyle rolled into view on street level, it's arms spread out. Ichika was moving too quick to alter his straight path.

"Oh crap-"

The Byakushiki collided into the Gargoyle, sending the two past under the bridge and spinning across the other half of the street as the Sub Stratos wrapped its block-like arms around the gray-tinted IS in a crushing bear hug, refusing to let go.

"Damn it! Get off!" Ichika swore, as he wriggled in the vice-like hold. The robot fought to remain upright, the ball wheels of its feet screeching on the pavement to fight the IS' inertia. As they twisted in their impromptu tango, the Byakushiki's pilot found himself looking towards the bridge; the other SS had moved to the other side of it, their guns aimed at the pair. They seemed more than willing to fire on their own if it meant catching the HVT in the crossfire.

Ichika turned and glared at his captor before he struggled harder to free himself. He kicked his legs back and fired every thruster system he could think of, trying to force the Gargoyle off balance. The boosters on his back finally granted him a reprieve when they opened up, sending Ichika forward and the SS screeching onto its back as the two crashed onto the pavement. The Gargoyle's arms swung apart on the landing, and Ichika wasted no time, kicking off the robot's chest and back into the air scant seconds before red beams spat onto it and turned the Gargoyle into a flaming wreck, the explosion shaking the air.

The Byakushiki raced away, chased by errant beams for several more meters, near misses here and there glancing off the IS' defenses.

"Travis, how much shielding is left on this thing?" Ichika asked, a little frazzled. Then the numbers came up, and he added confusion to his anxiety.

[EMITTER EFFICIENCY: 53%]

"Wait a minute..."

When did he lose almost half of his shields?

[Ichika, I know this isn't a good time to bring this up… but the Byakushiki… well… has a few issues, so to speak.]

"You're telling me now! ?"

[I didn't have time! Newbies usually at least acclimate first before they let themselves be chased by a wall of fucking lasers.]

Ichika danced around another pair of shots, and the Hyper Sensor informed his vision that the Gargoyles were in pursuit along the streets, firing when they could.

"Well, what issues!"

[Basically, your ride only has 60% working shields, maximum. Lots of complicated reasons.]

"Are you telling me I'm flying with only half the shielding of any other IS!?"

[Look, I'm sorry your first IS isn't Ideon and Gurren Lagann's fucking love child. You'll just have to deal with it.]

Ichika took them high enough for Camilla to swoop in from behind in her Uchigane Hana-B. Her angered snarl was what alerted him, while he turned around fast enough to dodge one slash after another. He was more than ready to keep dodging, until he was caught off guard by the terrorist pivoting onto her side, and delivering a savage overhead kick. Ichika managed to bring this arms up in time to absorb the brunt of the impact against his head, but the blow was enough to send him tumbling back down to street level. Even when he flipped back to land on his feet, almost by an automatic reaction, he already had to dodge another salvo of beam weapons from the approaching Gargoyles. Ichika cursed and pushed the Byakushiki away from them at all due speed, dodging awkwardly where he could as he skated down the dark streets.

That girl's saving her energy and keeping me grounded so I fight all the SS first. Damn it, I can't even outrun a 2nd Generation Uchigane in this IS' current settings!

"How much longer is it going to take to Shift!?"

[Goddamn it, stop complaining! You're not making it exactly easy for me to register your biometrics! Your heart rate's throwing me off, your brain wave patterns keep spiking, and all the adrenaline you got in you makes charting your biochemistry-]

"How long!?" Ichika asked again, irritated.

[The system's ETAing five more minutes!]

The Byakushiki took a hard left, that had the ride lean practically into the street as its feet left sparks in its trail, and a clawed hand tore up the asphalt as it gripped it in the midst of the turn. Several more beams from behind slammed into the front of a department store, followed by a blossom of flame, smoke, and glass.

"We'll be dead in five minutes! Do you have any weapon available to me at all? Anything!"

It only took an instant for the HUD to spit out a schematic in the corner of his vision, along with some words.

[EQUIPMENT: REIRAKU_BYAKUYA]

The pilot didn't take a second longer to force his mind to imagine the shape of the weapon. He felt electric signals run down to his right hand, through the nerves and through the circuits, the tingling slowly becoming interpreted as the feeling of something being pressed into his palm.

When you feel the sensation of pressure on the inside of your hand, grip firmly and withdraw the equipment from the IS' subspace.

Ichika recited the steps to himself, and pulled on the invisible handle. By command, the simulated touch solidified as the blue claws pulled a weapon out of the Byakushiki's pocket dimension. The grip materialized, and in a momentary flash of digital light, a solid blade followed. It was a solid gray, curving weapon that vaguely imitated the shape of Japan's historical katana, albeit sized for an IS, and with peculiar etchings and machined parts. A graceful curve marred by nonsensical gaps, hinges, slots and slides, and many other "high tech parts". This was the Reiraku Byakuya.

As it was, Ichika was never big on artistry, and was only glad he had something to work with beyond his bare hands, even if it was a sword.

A sword against an enemy IS that had about a bazillion of its own by itself, and a near dozen Gargoyles with a pair of projectile weapons each. Eh.

The teenager, sadly, was not a professional pilot, given how he let himself get distracted for several precious seconds by this tangent. This was why he didn't see the Gargoyle burst from a narrow alley to his right, until too late. Much less its arm outstretched only a scant meter or two away from Ichika's head.

Quite simply, the Gargoyle clothes-lined the pilot rather savagely, with only the shields around Ichika's head keeping the bones of it or his neck from breaking, though the clanging noise that followed was both indescribably loud and painful, nonetheless.

At the speed he was moving, the blow sent Ichika inelegantly spinning through the air, his feet pitching over his head and back again for several revolutions before the Byakushiki crashed onto to the ground.

The pilot didn't have mercy of being allowed a moment to clear his spinning vision and nausea when he felt the stumpy limbs of the Sub Stratos clamp down on his sides, hoisting him up from the ground. It was merely a prelude to the machine hurling him into the side of a department store close by, planting Ichika into pulverized cement by several inches. In the corner of his vision, he could see the HUD warn that his already meager shields had dropped to an even 50%.

In front of him, with only a distance of a few feet, the Gargoyle had raised both its arms to fire at Ichika point blank. The boy, by instinct raised the Reiraku Byakuya in front of him, imagining the sword would defend him. Even then, the logical parts of his mind were railing at this stupidity.

What the hell's the point of a sword if they're just going to shoot me?

The Gargoyle fired on Ichika and his sword. But rather than slam into the gray IS, the red beam ran into the air in front of the heavy steel blade, which flickered with an effect that looked like if one bumped a television screen, with a rainbow of grain and a rippling effect as the shot broke apart on the Reiraku's projection.

Ichika blinked at the second of reprieve he had. He didn't get another to register his surprise at the turn of events as the Gargoyle merely fired again, and forced his back into the wall of the building, digging himself in to "absorb" another shot as it broke up on the sword again and again. Finally the robot resorted to firing a constant beam, as if to force its way through the unexpected defense.

This time, the flickering responded to the red stream by outright reflecting the blast away, like a ray of sunlight bouncing off a mirror into the street a few meters away. Albeit in this case, this ray of red was half guided by Ichika's struggling to keep his sword upright against the force of the blast. As the Reiraku Byakuya shivered, its reflected beam wildly burned across the pavement, up through the air, and finally landed squarely on the head of the Gargoyle it was firing from. The robot stumbled back as its sensor systems disintegrated, leaving behind a smoking hole, eventually tripping and crashing onto its back, and remaining immobile.

As Ichika dislodged himself, he could hear Travis' electronic humming in acknowledgment.

[Ah, I was wondering what that was. That's a pretty slick piece of equipment there.]

"What was that?"

[The Reiraku has an energy-dissipating property to it. That sword's basically a shield, huh. Seems like the guys who were developing this IS at least tried to make up for the shitty shields on this thing.]

"A what property? I got the idea with the beam, but..."

[It'll take apart all energy. Beams, obviously. Good chance it'll make bullets feel like they're throwing grapes at your shield. I don't know about railguns, though, with that amount of kinetic energy. Oh, and left side incoming, buddy.]

Ichika swerved the Byakushiki in time to feel a projectile snaked past and crash into his side, bringing his reading of his shield down several more digits. He grunted at the jarring and saw the Gargoyles behind him approach.

[Alright, that was my fault. Keep that sword in front of you, the field only emits a few feet around the blade.]

"I'll keep that in mind!" The pilot sarcastically ground out as he held the sword out in a ready stance, letting the shots break on the Reiraku with ease. As the SS approached, Ichika, quite tired of being on the run, felt one clear thought run through his mind.

I'm taking this fight to them, now.

Face to face with his pursuers, a quick command ordered the Byakushiki to boost forwards hurtling back towards the Gargoyles. The machines fired on the gray Infinite Stratos, unable to determine until too late that their attacks were now no threat to their opponent. By the time they figured it was a good time to change tactics, Ichika had already closed the distance on them.

As their arms were already raised, the Gargoyle in the front pulled back one arm and shot it back out in a fierce jab. Ichika jerked his head to the side, feeling the readouts of velocity narrowly pass him. In the same movement, the pilot was stepping forward and bringing the large metal blade down on the Gargoyle, half crushing, half cleaving through the upper torso of the robot where it got trapped in the shredded metal.

Ichika grimaced, intuitively disliking the sensation of the stroke. The Reiraku Byakuya felt..."blunt", somehow. In another analogy, however sharp it was, it still felt like he was crudely beating the SS to death with more of a scabbard than a sword...

The Gargoyles behind backed away several feet from the IS and its chopping block, gaining the distance needed to lay down their single minded wall of fire. Ichika gasped and managed to wrench his blade free as the scrapped robot in front of him began to glow yellow red and bubble over until it exploded in his face. The concussion slammed into his shields, throwing him back while the feet of the Byakushiki screeched across the pavement, fighting to keep balance. As the IS slid to a halt, Ichika glared at the machines, feeling the ambient heat that warmed his face through the shielding.

[Oi, stop wasting time with the small fry. You've got a bitch's clock to clean!]

Ichika turned to look upward, following the prompting from the HUD. In the skies above, a reticule locked in on an unidentified IFF, belonging to a shape that was near invisible, more black adding to the black night sky.

That IS pilot...I'm not going to let her hang back so casually...!

After all, he had a sword in hand, now.

Ignoring the Gargoyles now, the Byakushiki lifted off once again, straight into the air. Ichika flung himself headlong at the dark shape of Camilla's Uchigane Hana-B. Unperturbed, the observing terrorist waited for him to approach. At the last minute, Ichika was roaring out as he slashed at the girl, but she was already pulling to the side, and swinging around behind the Byakushiki as he charged past.

Ichika's eyes boggled for a second at his complete miss while he tried bringing his machine around to face Camilla. He made it only half way before the Hana-B slammed into him, swords scrapping along the shielding on his stomach and back as the black clad pilot pushed him through the air. The two pilots wrestled as they tried to control their flight path around the cityscape, locked together in a deadly embrace as they were.

As the two twirled about, Ichika could see the remote control arms on Camilla's Infinite Stratos swing outwards, swords raised to slash down atop him. Responding quickly, the boy shoved the terrorist away, throwing himself out of the spinning dance while he raised the Reiraku Byakuya above his head, the flat of the sword screeching as Camilla's katana slid across its surface.

With a yell of effort, Ichika threw the offending katana off, sending Camilla reeling back unsteadily, while the PIC systems on the Hana-B pushed back to keep her upright. Seeing the opportunity, Ichika flew forward, sword held low. The terrorist felt a flash of panic within her. Leaned back as she was, Camilla ordered the flanges on the front of the Uchigane's skirt to swing out, manipulator arms hidden underneath lashing out with their own swords.

The Byakushiki narrowly twisted out of the way and to the side, dodging the stabbing blade. With a cry from the pilot, it became a gray blur that dragged the Reiraku across the side of the Hana-B's armored skirt.

Camilla's mouth, visible from under her concealing Hyper Sensor, broke into an angered snarl as she saw the readings on her IS' shield begin to drop through the 90th percentage. She had actually been struck by some...first timer...this...boy.

"You impudent little...!"

Ichika heard the strangled curse behind him, and his Hyper Sensor picked up a half dozen flashes of silver headed for his back. This time, there was no chance to turn around, and Ichika was slammed with the full force of the terrorist's retaliation. Sensors screamed damage reports and impact force readings into his mind as he fell out of the air towards a colored glass roof that was raised at an angle above a sleek, sinuously curving building. In the next instant, Ichika could feel the shields flare up to protect him as he slammed through the tinted glass, throwing shards everywhere, and then snapping apart the white steel supporting rods underneath, and the mess as a whole crashed to the ground. While glass and steel pounded the wood paneled floor, and the IS totally crushed it under the force of its landing, where it continued to slide, tearing up more flooring, and breaking apart helpless lawn chairs and parasols until the whole machine tumbled over an edge with a splash.

Ichika emerged from the murky water, soaked to the bone, while his IS was shamelessly waterproof. The metal taste of chlorine in his mouth and nostrils as he sputtered out water made it fairly obvious where he was, while he looked around surveying the wreckage he had left behind. The fight had just landed him on top of a fancy hotel, complete with an outdoor swimming pool, bar, the works. He supposed there would have been fancy LED lighting decorating the place, but there was only emergency lighting casting the empty pool area in the usual ugly yellow light.

The Byakushiki currently was wading in the deep end of the swimming pool. Given the height of the machine, though, the lukewarm water only reached up to the pilot's mechanical shins as he stood his IS back up.

"Shield Check..." Ichika coughed, while swearing under his breath about the water he was in.

[EMITTER EFFICENCY: 21%. Yeah, wow. The bitch has a hell of a slap. Can you not hit like that again, partner?] Travis' "voice" interjected right after the automated report.

"Swords, the great stressor." Travis' partner muttered.

[On the other hand, 21 is three sevens. Ready for some good news?]

"Good News" suddenly brought hope to Ichika, as he remembered what he had been gambling on for some agonizingly long minutes as the key to his survival tonight.

"You don't mean-"

The HUD interrupted him again, confirming.

[BIOMETRICS REGISTERED. SWITCH "ICHIKA.O" USER STATUS "PROVISIONARY" TO "PERMITTED"? Y/N.]

"Finally!"

[Think 'Yes'! Think Yes right now, damnit! Yes! YES-Oh Crap, NO! Nine 'o' Clock!]

Ichika twisted to his left at Travis' cry, and saw the Uchigane Hana-B diving under the roof of the hotel and charging straight towards him, Camilla's visible mouth stretched in a single, unamused line showing nothing but determination to take him down. For that vital moment, the one word Ichika should have been thinking of was pushed out by the sudden need to defend himself again. By instinct, the fresh pilot braced his feet in the water, raised his sword, both hands on the grip, and pointed it straight at the oncoming terrorist in a defensive posture. Camilla had been expecting this, and in the same moment she was about to run into the Reiraku Byakuka, the front two manipulator arms snapped open, pincer hands stretching out before her, and precisely grabbing onto the wrists of Ichika's outstretched blue claws. As she pushed on, the arms pushed to the sides. The teenage boy watched in horror as his sword and his arms were wrenched in opposite directions, exposing his chest to the pair of heavy metal feet that Camilla raised up to slam into it.

Ichika saw his world wobble in excruciating pain as he was hurled off his feet and down into the side of the pool, throwing up water everywhere, while his shoulder blades crushed the expensive porcelain tiled edge. The blow in any other case would have pulverized any man's spine, but Ichika had the extraordinary good-bad luck to merely be in an IS, meaning the shields saved his life, while he gasped, winded. Likewise, the IS had saved his chest from being caved in, but had been also busy dulling the pain of the wounds on his chest he had earlier received. They had been incensed by the brutal flying kick, nerves flashing a reminder across Ichika's chest that he would have preferred not to be receiving now.

The boy sucked in air as much as he could, trying to keep breathing normally as he felt Travis' presence trying to command the Byakushiki's routines to moderate the sense of pain. Distracted as he was, Ichika couldn't react in time to the arms mounted on the Hana-B's skirt extending into the water and wrapping its pincers around the gray IS' ankles.

Before he knew it, Ichika watched as his four mechanized limbs were spread apart, and his body slowly hauled upward until he was suspended, dripping, above the water by the four thin arms belonging to the deep black IS that hovered over the pool's surface, the girl inside frowning from under her visor, arms folded. Ichika struggled for a moment, trying to test the strength of the artificial hands holding him, and found them unmoving.

He felt very helpless.

"I want to know why you're still resisting." Camilla growled.

Ichika was almost beside himself with disbelief, as he shouted back, "Are you kidding? You're trying to kill me!"

"I don't want to, but you're the one flying around in that IS. I just want is the Byakushiki."

[What are you waiting around for!? You have to think 'Yes' for the Shift to occur!]

Camilla kept talking, keeping Ichika's attention on her, "You took the IS away from the convention center to protect the Chinese pilot and the others, right? Then you've already done more than you needed to. Why are you still flying around?"

"It's called self defense", Ichika retorted, glaring.

"Self defense against what? Everything you've done since is a result of stubbornness possessiveness over this machine. Or are you fighting simply because you enjoy this power?"

"I'm not doing this because I like it!"

[Please don't tell me you're actually listening to her.]

An indignant part of the boy was insisting he wasn't.

"Then get out of the Byakushiki and give it to me. Are you an IS pilot? Is this your IS? Who are you protecting this IS for? You had ample opportunity to abandon it once you took it away from the civilians. But here you are, making things more complicated for yourself because you insist on continuing to fight for no reason, forcing me to stay here. Did you consider that your continued resistance is threatening this city?"

"I..." Ichika found himself trying to find an answer. The situation had been out of his control all night, merely his reacting to external circumstances. Find an IS, get nearly killed, get in to survive, protect Rin and the others, run from the terrorist, distract the Gargoyles...and then...well...

Now that he had time to pause, Ichika hadn't thought about where he was going with all of this.

[You don't have to! She's just fucking with you! Come on! Accept the Shift command!]

"The Infinite Stratos is terrible, isn't it?" He thought he heard Camilla sigh, "I hate using them myself. The moment you step into one, you become flooded with power you don't deserve. Because you have the ability to accomplish anything, you act like all your actions are automatically justified. I don't know how you're piloting this machine, but that's no reason for a civilian to get involved here, trying to be some 'lone hero'. Just because you're lucky doesn't mean you or your actions are in any way more special. I'm giving you a chance to stop this nonsense for both of us. You have my word: exit the IS, I'll leave with it, and that will be that. You've done enough."

"Otherwise...what?"

"Otherwise," The black clad girl clarified, "I'll have to take you with me, and some of my associatesknow ways to extract you from the machine. I don't want to make this anymore complicated than it is already. Don't be a fool, Orimura Ichika. There's nothing to gain by being obstinate."

"It seems I keep meeting people who already know who I am..." Ichika mumbled under his breath.

"Everybody knows who the Orimuras are." Came the clipped reply, "Now, tell me: will you relent and spare both of us further, needless trouble, or do you still have it in your head that you're actually accomplishing something?"

Ichika was maddeningly silent. He let his head loll forward, as if he had been overwhelmed.

[...Cowboy...c'mon...]

"'Everybody knows who the Orimuras are', huh..." Came the murmur, before the boy's head lunged up again, glaring furiously at his captor. His limbs starting pulling against their bonds. "Then you already know my answer! You're the one who attacked the building and Rin in the first place, thinking to steal the Byakushiki and now you think you can just ask nicely for it! ? If you know who the Orimuras are, then you know the last thing I'll do is roll over for a terrorist! I won't let you threaten me, my friends, or even this IS!"

Camilla's lips shriveled, angrily baring teeth.

"So, that's how you're going to be, then? A fool who always rushes headlong into things he doesn't even comprehend...!" She spat, one free hand reached for her waist and she pulled a katana free from subspace to jam into Ichika's restrained body.

Orimura Ichika looked straight at her, through her beaked helmet.

"Yes."

Yes.

[COMMAND ACCEPTED. SHIFTING ACCESS.]

Just as Camilla moved to strike down the pilot, the Byakushiki's frame burst into a furious white light, forcing her to reel back and cover her face for a second. In the same moment her guard came done, she felt her manipulators' grip on Ichika being wrenched free, and a closed fist slamming into her ribs. The terrorist choked back the air that was trying to escape her lungs while she was flung to the opposite end of the pool, water kicking up as the feet of the Uchigane Hana-B skittered across the surface. As she stopped, she looked at the Infinite Stratos before her and realized what she just witnessed.

"You idiot! You have no idea how many enemies you've just made!"

The Byakushiki had traded the dull gray sheen for a lustrous white, as if only now it had come alive. Gold accents joined the brighter blue highlights. The armor had expanded from its minimal coverage, covering Ichika's torso completely in layers of smooth steel. The arms and legs had bulked out. The stumpy pods that had been floating to either side behind his back had turned into two machine wings that were nearly as tall as the Byakushiki was, which tapered into blunted points like giant blades. The Hyper Sensor had changed from the circlet that had wrapped around the boy's head to a set of coverings that were securely attached to the sides of his head, over his ears, and extended onwards in both directions direction, running down the line of his jaws like some brace, and past his head as sharp antennae-like ears.

The Byakushiki was finally unleashed. Its pilot within stared flatly at Camilla.

"That's fine. It'll save me the trouble of counting."

The terrorist responded with a cry of anger and charged back across the pool, all the arms on the Uchigane Hana-B swinging out and brandishing all the swords she could carry. Ichika responded likewise, throwing himself at his opponent, his arm on the Reiraku Byakuya pulled back in anticipation of attacking.

In the next moment they were about to strike each other, neither caught what happened. For Camilla, though, who was facing Ichika, she caught a glimpse of the wings on the back of the Byakushiki opening up, and the sword in his hands beginning to split...

The moment came and left in a white flash, leaving the Byakushiki halting on the other end of the pool, and Camilla careening off to the side and crashing into the outdoor bar, tripping over the smashed counter.

Ichika blinked, as his brain finally caught up with the fact he had already attacked, signaled by the noise of his wings whining to a halt and closing. He spun around to see the terrorist's crash site.

"What just..."

[You just laid hands on that motherfucker! Kick ass!]

He looked down at the sword in his hands. The grip of the Reiraku Byakuya was still there, but the blade has transformed, split in two and telescopically collapsed towards the front and back. Instead, emitting from the two prongs was a thin blade that seemed to be made of white and blue light, straight and wispy where the Reiraku's original blade was curving heavy metal.

"This is a...sword?" It was bright, sure, but it wasn't exactly much to look at, considering the cutlery shop he had been menaced with this past night.

In response, the HUD showed a new list in his vision.

[EQUIPMENT: YUKIHIRA_TYPE2]

[EQUIPMENT: IGNITION_BOOSTER]

[EQUIPMENT: %#&%u $. ALERT: REGISTRY ERROR.]

"Yukihira?" Ichika's eyes widened in recognition as he looked at the sword again, "That's what my sister...how are there two different...?"

[Look, I don't know what you're mumbling about, but holy crap we have a beam saber. That's hardcore.]

There was a sound of shuffling metal, and Ichika's musings (and Travis' helpful commentary) were cut short as he turned to look at the collapsed bar. Camilla emerged, shoving aside a pillar and some fragmented remains of a raised ceiling before getting back to her feet. She was about to say something until she noticed the condition of the katana in her right hand. Her blade, too had been transformed into the grip, the guard, and about a few inches of edge before it terminated in melted steel, the rest of it having disappeared when the Yukihira had cut straight through. With a growing horror, she turned to look at the manipulators on the same side and found that Ichika's same stroke had unevenly pruned them, the closest missing everything up to the elbow, same as the one mounted on the Hana-B's skirt, the next bereft of its pincer hand, and the one in the very back mostly untouched, save for missing half of the sword it was still carrying.

Camilla stared at the red hot rims of her shorn IS limbs, then at Ichika, holding his unassumingly narrow sword.

She kicked off the ground, sending the Uchigane Hana-B into the air, away from Ichika.

[Hey! She's getting away!] Travis shouted in Ichika's mind. He could almost imagine its virtual avatar punching an indignant finger at the escaping black figure.

"She's getting away from me, though. Doesn't that mean I've beaten her?"

[What the f...the fuck are you talking about? "Beat"? She's a professional! Does she look like she gives up from a cut like that? She's just backing away to work out a new strategy to get around the Yukihira! You have to capitalize!]

"Are you sure?"

[This isn't an honor duel, partner! She's still got the remote control to a bunch of SS out there, remember?]

That little detail sent Ichika after the escaping Uchigane.

As the Byakushiki raced around the high rises of Yokohama again, chasing after the IFF signal Ichika kept in his sight. He could feel the IS accelerating faster than ever, no longer restricting him with "provisionary" standards. In a matter of seconds, and another corner, he could see Camilla's back as she rushed to clear the inner city and make her way to the dark highways at the outskirts of the area. Given how the buildings were thinning out around them, she wasn't too far from escaping to open air, either.

"HEY!" Ichika shouted as hard as he could at the distant escaping figure. She tilted her head slightly, in a sign that she had seen him through her hyper sensor, and straightened out her posture, forcing as much speed as she could out of the Hana-B. His eyes narrowed, boring intensity into the terrorist.

I have to get to her, now.

Ichika didn't realize the sort of response this thought had until he saw behind him. The wings of the Byakushiki opened up again, their solid shapes splitting into so many segments. From in between the newly exposed gaps and grooves, thruster nozzles poked out, already beginning to heat up with a growing high pitched noise.

Years of TV and film allowed the knowledgeable pilot to recognize the noise as the quintessential "go fast" cue, and remember the name pop culture had attached to the noise making prop.

"Wait, this IS has afterburners!?"

[Ignition Booster. Whee.]

The tips of the Byakushiki's wings exploded into a trail of blue flame, and the IS was off, rocketing towards the black IS. As the shields kept the wind from tearing off his face, a part of him wondered how much of it was responsible for keeping his tongue in his mouth, or beyond that, his head outside his ribcage at all.

Camilla heard air exploding behind her. The HUD screamed at her that something like a missile was coming straight for her, though she didn't need to guess what it was. Unable to outrun Orimura, she swore loudly and spun her IS around to fly backwards, trying to muster the remaining limbs to shield her in time as she held her one katana with both hands.

Ichika was giving a war cry befitting an amateur as he fell upon her in an instant, slashing out at Camilla. This time, he saw the blade of the Yukihira broadening and lengthening, stretching several more vital feet until he tore off several more arms off the Hana-B right before the Ignition Booster pushed him past his opponent. Right towards the glass side of an office complex.

"Agh-! Turnturnturnturnturn-!"

The Booster didn't do anything in time to prevent Ichika from haplessly punching through another glass wall, sending shards every which way as he went belly sliding across cheap rug flooring, yelling and screaming the whole way as he crashed through rows of desks, sending plywood, lamps, phones, and computers every which way. Several more surviving desks were shoved about, slamming one into another in an outward wave as Ichika managed to embarrassingly claw the Byakushiki into a halt with his free hand. He could hear Travis' slightly apologetic voice as he stood up in the corporate crater he left.

[Sorry, cowboy, but these are boosters, not verniers. You're not gonna turn on a dime while they're on.]

"There's always a catch." Ichika groaned, more out of the pain of the humiliation than anything. Without any current need, the Ignition Booster in the wings retracted the segmented wings back together. Ichika looked at the Yukihira, curious at how much larger the beam had become. Like the Byakushiki's wings, with no dire intent feeding it, the sword dimmed and narrowed back to its somewhat meager shape. As it did, the boy realized that the Emitter Efficiency gauge started rising from the 15% to 19%, power feeding from the saber back into the Infinite Stratos.

"Huh."

The Yukihira's blade can increase, but its proportional to an amount of shield it takes to bulk up. It's an absolutely offensive weapon.

[I have logs of the 'shiki's shield condition. Even having the Yukihira active as is takes more power. I think we're good here, but try to keep that in mind if you want to go swinging the beam saber nilly willy.]

"Alright, noted." Ichika answered, before taking one last look at his diminished shield readings.

Going all out might be my only option left, though. I won't last like this. I have to make this last attack count, finish this once and for all.

The teenager gave one final deep breath, steeling himself before flying out of the shattered hole. Back into the air, Ichika quickly scanned the distance, and reacquired Camilla, once again in the distance, still racing for the freeway.

With Byakushiki and the Uchigane Hana-B perfectly lined up on a trajectory, the Ignition Booster opened up one more time, sending the white IS charging right for its badly battered enemy. Ichika lowered himself till he flew above the dark raised overpass, skimming raised road signs and the few odd assorted vehicles that dotted the four lane road that had still been driving at this time of night. Their headlights showed them precariously moving forward, trying to maneuver on the blackened roads.

"Crap, there's people here! They're gonna get caught up!" Ichika realized.

Have to get her now, before her Gargoyles show up and turn this place into a shooting range. Crap, why did there have to people here...

Up ahead, he could see Camilla hovering above the freeway. The mechanical limbs above each of her shoulders now flopped uselessly, lacking any way to hold Hana-B's swords or even fold away properly. All that was left was the one blade in her hands, held traditionally, her feet spread out in the air in a stable stance. She was facing the oncoming Byakushiki missile head on, no longer running.

Ichika could almost believe she had a sense of honor in her, until he remembered the Gargoyles she was doubtlessly doing everything in her power to wait for.

Tightening the Yukihira's grip in his left hand for the ensuing power thrust, Ichika charged in, roaring.

"It's over!"

Camilla didn't bother justifying that response, because it was.

The last few meters of road between the two machines bubbled, asphalt transforming into a searing red and yellow pool before scarlet beams burst upwards, slamming into the Byakushiki's unguarded underside.

Ichika's eyes widened in shock in the small eternity after the attack as he realized he had been fooled the entire time. The same eternity helpfully reminded him that the particle weapons had robbed his IS of the last of his available shields.

[EMITTER EFFICIENCY: 0%. USER THREATENED. REROUTING NONVITAL POWER TO AUXILLERY EMITTER. SOS TRANSPONDER ACTIVE.]

The Byakushiki's joints froze up as its pilot felt the presence of a second shield bubble up over his frame. Which was both a good and a bad thing, considering he was about to make this third sliding crash of the night. Ichika felt his chest take the impact as he limply dove past Camilla, and into the pavement, while he sent a generous amount of sparks behind him.

As he came to a halt, Ichika craned his neck up from his paralyzed position and could see headlights in the distance swerving to the side and halting a distance from him. Between them, he could see the red rims of Gargoyle sensors grow more distinct, while the noise of their ball wheels grew.

"Ugh."

[Yeah. This is why Absolute Defense was never a good idea.]

A black chrome hand reached under one of the shoulders of the frozen Byakushiki and pulled up, flipping Ichika onto his back. There, he could see Camilla looming over him, mouth in a firm line as ever, sword in one hand. All around, he could see Gargoyles approach from either end. For the number that he and Rin must have destroyed, it seemed there were still close to a dozen left, all closing in a circle from around the raised freeway road.

"This stupid thing..." Camilla spat as she reached down for the Yukihira in the boy's hand, now nothing more than a pair of prongs on a handle.

"No!" Ichika shouted, struggling as he could within the confines of his locked down IS. The armor that had instilled such new confidence in him during the Shift now as a straight jacket keeping him from barely wiggling his chest as Camilla wrenched the sword from his hand. Taking one nasty look at it, she threw it over her shoulder.

Ichika could only glare now at the leader of the Gargoyles around him, while she put a pair of fingers to the side of her helmet.

"Boomerang 5-8, this is Camilla, requesting pick up on current location. Do you copy?"

"Camilla, this is Boomerang 5-8, good copy. Location fixed. Pick up will be on site in five mikes."

"Five mikes, copy. Camilla, over and out." Camilla dropped her communication to look back down on Ichika, almost sneering, if she wasn't sounding so angered.

"Do you get it now, Orimura? You had no chance to "win" this. I gave you the chance to walk away, but now your locked in. They're going to cut you out of the Byakushiki."

Ichika tried to keep calm amidst the threat. Travis talked all the while.

[Alright, shit's no good right now, but we still have one more card to play. I can deactivate the Absolute Defense, and we can move normally again. Catch is that you'll be flying with NO SHIELDS at all. Physics WILL kill you. First opportunity we get, we FLY the fuck away as fast as we can...]

"You have no one left to blame but yourself, now-"

Camilla was interrupted with a resounding metal 'clang', when one of the Gargoyles in the back gained a massive pothole where its head was, followed by its torso erupting into a ball of fire. Camilla backed away, shocked, before bringing her sword up, looking around furiously for a second or two around the freeway for the source of the attack. Her Hyper Sensor quickly picked up the origin of the attack, and located an IFF high above.

Camilla looked up, and fought to keep her jaw from dropping.

Ichika, who was on his back, and already looking up, did the next best thing and gasped at the glowing figure.

Descending from the sky was a sleek figure, fully concealed in silver armor, up to the head, which the captive pilot realized he recognized. With the blunt legs closed together, and a clawed hand on its hip, it conveyed a sense of almost arrogant confidence. Its ease was reinforced by the impressive units that were attached to a large mechanical unit on its back. Seemingly made of a disarray of interwoven trails of light that managed to order itself into a pair brilliantly glowing wings that carried the immaculate figure as though it were divine.

"Yo, Ichika! I think now's a good time for the Silver Ranger's debut, huh?" A woman's voice called out from within the newly-arrived Infinite Stratos.

"Fairs...!"

Ichika couldn't do much than speak in shock. Camilla merely kept a firm gaze up.

"The Silver Gospel."

Natasha Fairs, hovering in the sky above, chided, "So you're the one causing all the trouble here. Just to bother a gentleman like Ichika! I think I'll have to lay you out!"

Camilla was already darting one hand to a glowing holographic control panel on her arm. Instantly every remaining Gargoyle was pointing their arms upward, spitting frenzied particle fire up at the silver IS. Natasha almost pirouetted around the volley, glowing wings swinging around her as she dodged about the shots. In momentary lull between shots, Ichika's rescuer angled her Silver Gospel downwards at the force below.

"You've got a long way to go if you think a few SS is considered "firepower" compared to me-!"

Natasha made her point as she threw her arms out. In response, the heavy wings to either side split apart, turning from two thick appendages to a spreading, multi-sectioned array of glowing, wing-like images. In moments, the segments began spitting out glowing darts, spiraling and whizzing through the air.

Camilla had a moment to scream before the she and the Gargoyles around her were impaled by Natasha's rain of technological arrows with precision work, each SS rattling as they were staked multiple times, without even one silver blade touching the ground around them.

Ichika's world rattled as the Gargoyles around him exploded in concert, Camilla herself disappearing in the flames that surrounded her.

Amidst the raging pyres, the armored Silver Gospel dropped to the battered freeway, her array of wings wrapping into two again.

"Ichika, are you alright! ? Answer if you can hear me!"

"I'm right here-"

In the plumes of smoke above where Ichika lay, he saw one billowing pillar explode as Camilla burst up into the sky, panting, Uchigane battered more than ever.

"This is ridiculous...!"

The terrorist didn't spare any more time to say anything else, before racing up into the night sky.

"Fairs! She's getting away!"

"Ah, she's not as important." Natasha waved the escape off as she walked over. Her helmet disassembled as she approached, revealing her face and letting her blonde hair spill out and letting her breathe again. "I'm here to make sure you're safe."

Ichika wished he could give a pointed stare to Travis. He seemed to have gotten the message, regardless.

[Hey, what she does and what I'd do are totally different. If I were in her shoes, I'd have been prepared to scour the earth for that bitch. If she were in Indochina, I'd be right there, hiding in a bowl of rice, ready to pop a cap in her ass. Oh, and OVERRIDE POWER REROUTE. OVERRIDE SOS TRANSPONDER.]

The teenager finally relief as the joints in his IS came loose again.

"Lingyin wasn't lying. You...you're actually using an IS", Natasha said, in equal parts surprise and amazement as she watched Ichika rise to his feet.

"Rin told you?"

"It's how I found you. Lingyin told me what direction you headed out in as soon as I found her-"

"NATASHAAA!"

Natasha shrugged cheekily at a familiar voice, "Speaking of which..."

Ichika watched the Shenlong blitz out of the Yokohama cityscape to land near the other two machines, Huang Lingyin almost red with fury.

"What sort of teammate are you!? What part of a rescue includes leaving me behind!?"

Natasha had to good nature to look appalled, "I didn't leave you behind! I was employing a staggered assault formation!"

"'Staggered assault' my ass! You totally ditched me! I was supposed to save Ichika!" Rin complained, pointing a finger at the older American.

"Of course. You, your Shenlong, and the percentage of shields I could count on one hand." Natasha smirked.

"I'll kill you!"

"Rin, please!" Ichika was amazed how he didn't get a headache until now, "Are you alright? What about the convention center? Is everyone alright?"

"I-I'm alright!" The Chinese girl uncharacteristically squeaked at Ichika's questioning, before regaining her composure, "I mean, we're all fine. You basically made every SS chase you when you left. Everybody managed to get out! We're all good!"

Ichika sighed in relief. Natasha nodded.

"I don't know how you did it, but you did great, Ichika."

"That's...good to know."

Amidst the burning fire, Ichika was somehow still alive and safe, and that was enough. After all the crazed fighting and chasing, he wasn't sure what else he needed.

[Hey, good news, buddy. I just got the results of your biometric readings. I count a Y-Chromosome. So congrats, you really are a guy inside an IS. Unless you're an XY Female, but that gets into really complicated territory I haven't researched yet...]

"...Travis...one day I'm going to figure out how to kill you." Ichika grumbled under his breath.

[Ha ha! You're a riot, cowboy. You're a lot more fun than my last pilot.]

Last pilot?

The Byakushiki's pilot would have asked, were it not for a combination of sudden exhaustion, and something burning in his veins finally flushing out, leaving a dreaded growing sensation in his guts. Ichika took a deep breath, before speaking to the two girls rather candidly.

"Well, this was a horrible night. I think I'll puke my guts out now, and pass out."

Natasha laughed. "The first fight's always the hardest, yeah?"

Rin visibly recoiled. "Ew! Well don't do it in front of us! Get behind a car or something before you do that!"

"...Right", was all Ichika could say, before he forced himself to stagger away.


A/N: Sorry guys. It's been crazy for a while, plus writing this chapter wasn't easy. Let's see if chapter 4 can be done on better time.

I thought hard about some designs of the setting. Obviously I couldn't drop a whole paragraph in a middle of a fight scene about technology, so I'll drop the concept about shields here.

The original novels, of course, tabulates shields as points. That's useful for a combat sport setting, no doubt. There, there's enough admin and umpires to define shield strength as what may be an arbitrary number. It's not so useful when you're in a combat situation and you need something easier to read in an instant. In this AU, emitters are built into the outer layer of an IS. Think of them as the equivalent of electrical fuses. Normally they're passively engaged to save power, but when a life threatening object invades an IS' personal space, say, a bullet, or the floor suddenly rearing up to attack you, the emitter system will momentarily "flare" intensely to repel this object, and will use more energy as required, depending on the strength of the invading object. Hence, "efficiency". Every time the emitter is forced to make a demand, whether by intensity or consistency, the emitters will start burning out, starting from a 100% efficiency ("I will certainly stop this") to 0% ("I'm sorry Dave..."). Of course, due to IS wizardry, I assume these emitters will magically restore themselves while in Stand By via some science that only Tabane would no doubt understand.

The Byakushiki is unique in this case, due to it only having 60% efficiency at any given time. The issue is because of the Yukihira that's been installed onto it. Being an advanced prototype weapon, it has excessive power demands, meaning the IS has been tuned to route power meant for the shields into the Yukihira just to keep it going. So it's not a matter of the strength of the physical emitters so much as the power its receiving is below optimal.

I bet the techies who were in charge of the 'shiki was like, "Oh, this IS isn't intended for combat anyways, taking a little bit of power from the shielding won't be a big deal". Ha ha.

Anyways, thinking of Yo's review. Actual criticism. Very surprising I'd get one, but that only shows a failing on my part. An author's ego on this website is like overripe fruit: larger than necessary and easily bruised. Anyways, Yo's points are valid, I suppose. I wish I could provide some promise, some justification, some excuse that the story may be better than so far, but plot is plot. I can only apologize for the narrative not meeting your expectations. I doubt my projected narrative will ever leave "easy-mode" as you say, so don't force yourself to keep reading and waiting to like something you won't.

I'll also have to give note to the sheer amount of post update support I've received, for a story that dropped off the front page. That's kinda surprising, but also what kept me going. Can't stop a story when so many people actually want to see more. Thank you.