Ukyo stared at the light before her, her lifeless body unable to do anything else. She felt a profound numbness, a pronounced lack of feeling so intense it was in itself a deeply disturbing sensation. Fighting off the ever growing urge to close her eyes, she focused on the faint memories in her mind, their elusive images remaining just beyond her grasp.
She could see her sword - Seriatim. It was hers and hers alone, and yet she could not reach out to grasp it. There was a wall of ice between them, an unbreakable barrier that froze her body with its touch. It glowed fiercely with a bright white light and called helplessly out to her, beckoned her toward it; however, she could not move.
Its screams became more frantic, more desperate. A powerful longing grew within her, an unbearable compulsion to be with the sword. She turned her head away, unable to bear it any longer. Slowly, the sword's glow faded from her sight, but not her mind.
What's going on?
Distorted images of the world around her flashed past her eyes and she stared - thoughtless, motionless, breathless, recognising none of the places as they whirled past her eyes in a blur. Faster and faster they passed by, a vague sense of nausea prickling at the edge of her consciousness. She tried to ignore it, utterly incapable of doing anything else about it.
Where am I?
Her eyes slammed shut of their own volition, her mind reeling as it tried to cope with the sudden onset of dizziness. Was she falling? She didn't know. She tried to move, to breathe, to open her eyes once more, but she could not. All of her senses had abandoned her, leaving her utterly alone in the shadow.
She frantically tried to figure out what was going on, why she could not move, but the more she tried the less she could remember. The darkness enveloped not only her body but her mind. As it closed in upon her, a sudden, chilling question gripped her:
Who am I?
The question faded into the nothingness, echoes tumbling into the void. A strong, euphoric calm washed over her, her feelings of helplessness turning into a sense of liberation; freedom from sight, from sound, from all sense of the world around her. She wondered, for a moment, if she were dead.
Just then a bright flash of light filled the void around her, a dazzling explosion of white that threatened to overload her senses. She saw, or perhaps imagined, the face of a girl within that light, a smiling girl with shimmering blue hair, whose eyes shone with a strong, fierce presence.
You ... I know you ... you're ....
The light of recollection burst forth from her mind, a stunning epiphany, and for just a moment - a single heartbeat, a gasp of surprise - her mind awoke and ... she remembered.
Ukyo awoke with a start, jumping upwards to a sitting position - or, at least, trying to. The firm restraints holding her to the table prevented her from doing anything other than almost snapping her wrists.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," came Ryoga's voice, his face appearing out of nowhere. "Calm down, you're okay."
"What ... where?" Ukyo asked, bewildered. She looked up at Ryoga, willing her eyes to focus. He looked down at her, smiling, although his eyes carried a hint of concern.
"You're in the recovery ward. You're fine, although you gave me a real scare," Ryoga said quietly, and she felt his hand squeeze hers. "You reacted badly to the anaesthetic. It was pretty close there for a while."
She glanced around the room - it was a sterile-looking laboratory, bathed in fluorescent white light. They were alone, the remaining beds in the room remaining unused.
Slowly lowering her body to the bed beneath her, she took several deep breaths and tried to gather herself. She concentrated, and managed to will her fingers to return Ryoga's gesture. He smiled, obviously noticing her efforts.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, throat dry. She forced herself to swallow, and grimaced at the burning sensation at the back of her throat. It felt as though her mouth had been scrubbed clean with a wire brush.
"No need to apologise," he replied, laughing a little. The relief in his voice was obvious to Ukyo, even in her groggy state. "Are you feeling okay? Any dizziness or nausea?"
"I'm okay," she replied, lightly shaking her head. She narrowed her eyes, trying to filter out the incessant flickering of that damnable light. "Just feeling a little weak."
"That's to be expected. You'll be on your feet in no time," Ryoga assured. He glanced over his shoulder, then leaned closer and whispered, "I'm glad to see you again."
She smiled weakly despite a sharp, nagging pain that ran up and down her back. She was glad to see him too. A flood of memories washed over her; the conversation with Ryoga, the procedure to implant the secondary stage of Seraph Wing, the powerful anaesthetic ... the dreams.
"I had a dream," she croaked, causing Ryoga's eyebrow to rise.
"What kind of dream?"
"I can't remember," she replied, sullen. The dream had faded from her mind the moment she awoke, leaving behind only glimpses of what it had held. She tried to concentrate, to recall what had occupied her mind only moments before, but could not piece the puzzle together. She sighed. "All I remember is a sword ... my sword. What happened to my sword?"
"Your sword?" Ryoga asked, his voice a whisper as he leaned even closer. He glanced over his shoulder again, and only returned his attention to her after he was satisfied they were alone. "I -knew- they weren't telling me everything. They said you were unarmed when they found you; they didn't tell me anything about a sword."
"I had a sword ... before," Ukyo replied in a whisper, Ryoga's unease awakening her own nervousness. She glanced about the room as well, wondering just what he had been looking for. "It was called Seriatim."
"Seriatim?" Ryoga replied, a puzzled tone to his voice. He scratched his cheek in a moment of thoughtful consideration. "I've heard that name somewhere before."
"I have to get it back."
"Why?" Ryoga asked, glancing about once more. "What's so important about it?"
"I ... I don't know," Ukyo admitted, deflating with a sigh. "I can't remember. I just know that I have to have it. Please, Ryoga."
"Alpha Team brought you aboard, anything they carried with you would have been stowed in a military lockup. I don't have access to any of the secured sections of the sub," Ryoga replied, with a shake of his head.
Ukyo fixed him with a plaintive glance, and he quickly wilted.
"I'll see what I can do," he offered diplomatically. "For you."
"Thank you," Ukyo said gratefully. "It means a lot to me."
A hiss filled the room as a nearby door slid open and Ryoga shot back up into a standing position, his conspiratorial whispering replaced with a clearly audible declaration:
"Well, you seem to be doing fine. It's important that you try to get some sleep, give your body a chance to recover. I'll check on you in a few hours."
She nodded in response, reading the meaning in his eyes: play along. She cleared her throat and replied with a simple, "Thank you."
Colonel Hunter stepped through the open door and turned to them both, fixing her with a critical gaze. He spoke, clearly addressing Ryoga although his eyes did not leave her.
"Is she ready to be moved?"
"Not yet," Ryoga replied with a shake of his head. "Her nervous system will need time to readjust to the new implants. If you try to move her now you will cause irreparable damage."
"How long?" Hunter asked, finally shifting his gaze to Ryoga.
"A few hours. Yoiko will be coming by in an hour or so to brief her on the implants we've installed, but other than that I'd like to keep her isolated. It will speed the recovery process."
"She needs to begin Wing training as soon as possible, Ryoga. These delays are unacceptable."
"I understand, however, she won't be able to do any kind of training if her spinal column ruptures."
Hunter narrowed his eyes, a glimmer of irritation briefly showing through. It was quickly banished, replaced by a calm expression. "Very well. I want an update at oh-seven-hundred."
"Of course," Ryoga replied with a nod. He waited until Hunter had left, and the door had locked into place, then turned to Ukyo. "I'll be back. Keep very still, or they might get funny ideas about throwing you back into training."
Yoiko Hibiki massaged her temples gently as she stared at the contents of her workstation's screen. The diagrams and figures were beginning to blur together. A migraine prowled at the fringes of her mind, a predator ready to pounce any minute. She sighed and glanced at her watch. She'd been on duty for twelve hours, and with the sudden rush in the Seraph Wing project she did not know when she would get a chance to sleep.
Her task for the day was to review data from the implant procedure that had taken place the previous day. There was a seemingly-endless pile of the stuff that refused to grow any smaller no matter how hard she worked. Most of it was tedious, matching the projected values perfectly. Every now and then she would notice a small spike, which was dutifully recorded and catalogued. It was a horrifically boring job, but it had to be done and she was the one to do it.
A strong craving for coffee struck her, and for a moment she sat smacking her lips as she weighed up her options. On one hand, a cup of coffee would do wonders for her mood and her work throughput. On the other hand, she knew that there would be a crowd of tedious lab staff clustered around the coffee machine; there always was. An annoying group of small-minded lab assistants, machinists and engineers who liked nothing better than to stand around and talk about the events of their unimportant days in minute detail.
Gods, they'd put me to sleep before I got anywhere near the caffeine, she thought gloomily. It's not worth it.
She liked talking about her own work, she admitted guiltily to herself, but listening to those boring co-workers of hers talk about their work was, in her opinion, the earthly equivalent of purgatory. At least her work was interesting.
Well, it's usually interesting. She glanced at her monitor and wished for an interesting assignment, something to break the tedium.
"Yeah?" she asked, lifting her head. Her brother stood on the opposite side of her desk, an uneasy expression on his face. She regarded him for a moment. He had become increasingly listless and preoccupied over the past few weeks. Certainly, the Seraph Wing project could be directly blamed for his change in demeanour.
The project was all-consuming for him; it was not a job, it was a mission. She was the first to admit it was an exciting project. She had enjoyed every moment of it. Everything, from the initial design meeting to her first conversation with Ukyo, had been enjoyable. Where she tried to enjoy herself, Ryoga tended to stress his way through the day. Still, he looked even more stressed than he usually did.
"Whoa, Ryoga, you look as tired as I feel," she said, eyeing his ragged clothes and weary face. She smiled sweetly and tilted her head in the direction of the coffee machine. "Maybe you should get a drink. Hey, you could get me one too."
"Not now," he said with a shake of his head. He glanced behind himself, then stepped around to her side of the desk. "I need to ask a favour."
"What?" she asked, sitting up in surprise. Ryoga was definitely acting out of character now; something was up. "What is it?"
"I want you to hack into the military subnet and get some information for me."
"You want me to WHAT?" she squeaked, colour draining from her face.
"Shh!" Ryoga hissed, glancing around as he slapped a hand over her mouth. "Keep your voice down!"
Yoiko's workstation was, thankfully, situated in a relatively isolated corner of the laboratory. She was a jack-of-all-trades, assisting the system administrator as well as her big brother. This meant a multitude of perks; a relatively private location where her activities could not easily be observed by the average user was one example.
"Why on Earth would you want to do that? They military net has nothing to do with us!" Yoiko said as Ryoga removed his hand, her voice lowered. A pair of researchers walked by, guiding a trio of assistants as they carried a heavy piece of equipment, a jumble of cables and metal sheets, toward the far side of the lab.
Ryoga waited until they were gone before speaking. "I need to find out what Alpha brought aboard with Ukyo. I don't have the necessary clearance, but I know you can get in without being detected."
"I could get in trouble," Yoiko insisted, glancing over Ryoga's shoulders at a nearby scientist. The man peered at her for what felt like too long before returning to his work. She let out a sigh of relief; it seemed Ryoga's nervousness was contagious.
"I know you can get in anonymously. It's me that'll get into trouble, not you," Ryoga insisted. "Do it from someone else's workstation if you have to. Just make sure it's done, and leave the consequences to me."
"I dunno, Ryoga," Yoiko said with a sigh. The laboratory was packed with research staff and their assistants; this was hardly the place to be having such a conversation. "It wouldn't be right."
"The military thinks it can keep me out of the loop just because I'm not in a uniform anymore. I just want to know what's going on, is all. They're not telling us everything. I have a feeling there's a lot more to this than it seems."
"You expect me to believe that?" Yoiko asked with a shake of her head. "I know you too well for that line to work on me. What did Ukyo say to convince you to break the rules like this?"
"There's something about this ... Seriatim. I know I've heard the name before. It has to mean something."
"Come on, Yoiko, I know you can do it. You're the only one I can trust."
"Of course I can do it, I'm just not sure if it's a good idea," Yoiko countered. She lowered her voice further. "I mean, the security around those logs is going to be pretty intense."
"If anyone can get past it, you can. It's not such a big deal. I just want to look, that's all. I'll be back soon to check up on it, okay?"
She sighed, defeated. "Fine. You owe me one," she called after her brother as he left. Shaking her head, she muttered to herself, "Hell, you owe me about ten for this."
"You're the best, Yoiko," Ryoga enthused, flashing her a grin as he spun on his heels and started toward the door. He called over his shoulder, "Thanks!"
"Be careful what you wish for, Yoiko," she said to herself as she started tapping at her keyboard.
Colonel Jonathan Hunter leaned back in his chair, resting his chin upon the back of one hand as he considered the situation. He always enjoyed returning to his office; it was his sanctuary, a calm haven away from the constant struggle of commanding soldiers. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the quiet, trying to ignore the voice in his mind that reminded him such solitude never lasted for very long aboard a submarine.
A buzzing noise filled his office; repetitive and insistent, drilling into his eardrums. He sighed, and opened his eyes again.
Leaning forward, he tapped the flashing button upon his desk. The communication channel opened with a familiar chirp, but the display screen stayed uncharacteristically blank. He stared for a moment at it before noticing the small flashing words in the lower left corner of the screen.
Audio only. Great; it's the boss.
"Give me an update, Colonel," came the voice of his employer, gravelly and deep. It belonged to a man he did not know, a member of the council he had never met - employer anonymity was one of the conditions of his contract. Hunter's inherent distrust continually nagged him about such an arrangement, but he had been instructed by his superiors in the military that this man was to be looked after, and he was not one to disobey orders.
"Everything is proceeding smoothly," he said, leaning back in his chair once again. "We are on schedule."
"And the Wing?"
"The second phase has been successfully implanted. The subject is resting now; she will begin Wing combat training tomorrow morning."
"Good. No complications, I presume?"
"None," Hunter replied. One half of him objected to this continual babysitting; he was a man of his own means, he did not need this stranger peering over his shoulder. The other half reminded him that his current employer was far less of an irritant than some of his COs had been. "We are currently enroute to Okinawa as planned."
"No, you're not."
"I beg your pardon?" Hunter asked, taken by surprise.
"There has been a change of plans. The Captain has been instructed to divert the Leviathan Spring to Hokkaido."
"Why wasn't I informed of this?" Hunter asked, unable to completely conceal his anger at being left out of the loop.
"Irrelevant. You are being informed now. Once you arrive, you will receive further instructions. Have the Wing ready."
"Understood," Hunter replied, irritated. He knew better than to argue.
There was another chirp, and the channel was closed. Hunter scowled and stroked his chin, pondering this development. He was being well compensated for this babysitting mission, but his employer's annoying nature made him wonder if he was being compensated well enough.
"So, what have you got?" Ryoga asked, his face startling Yoiko as it popped into view over her monitor.
"Don't sneak up on me like that," she groused. He disarmed her with a smile, and she beckoned him over. "C'mere, look at this."
Ryoga walked around behind her and leaned in over her shoulder, peering at the contents of her screen. She awaited his reaction and was suitably rewarded when he gave a low whistle, obviously impressed.
"Sundry personal items transported aboard the Leviathan Spring include clothing, three small pouches containing gunpowder, two throwing knives and one sword," Yoiko read from the screen, pointing at each item as she listed it. "All were stored in secure locker A47."
"Damn it," Ryoga breathed. "I don't have security access to those lockers. If it were in a 'B' locker, or a 'C' locker, maybe - but they're not going to let me near an 'A' without a good reason."
"You'd never get anywhere without me," Yoiko commented, with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. She held up a piece of paper, which Ryoga took and began to read.
"It turns out that you need to do some DNA analysis on Ukyo's personal belongings, as we believe there may be blood from another source on them," Yoiko said with a devious smile upon her face. "That work order will get you into that locker without a problem. Came straight from the Colonel himself, so you won't get asked any tricky questions. Oh, yeah - the code for locker A47 is 3392. Don't forget it."
"This is impressive," Ryoga said, admiring Yoiko's handiwork. "I'd never guess it was fake if I didn't know better. You've really done your homework here. Nicely done."
"What else did you expect?" Yoiko said, flashing a smile. "I do quality work - that's why they hired me."
Ryoga wiped sweat from his palms onto his lab coat as he waited for the sentry to finish reading the work order. Yamaguchi was the sentry's name, according to his name tag, anyway. Ryoga could not recall seeing the man before, but then soldiers came and soldiers went aboard the Spring, it did not surprise him to see ones he didn't recognise.
How long can it take to read that? Does he suspect something? Gods, maybe this was a bad idea after all. He has to suspect something. Come on already, say something!
He fidgeted as the large, heavy-set soldier pored over the work order. It was a simple, one-page document; it was worrying in the extreme that it was taking so long to be accepted. Either the guard was stupid, or suspicious. Ryoga hoped with all his heart for the former.
The perpetually puzzled look upon Yamaguchi's face gave him hope. It was obvious that the duty of guarding a room tasked this man; the unexpected arrival of a visitor was clearly too much for him.
"I think I'd better call and confirm this order," Yamaguchi said at length, obviously struggling with its content.
"I think we both know that isn't necessary," Ryoga replied, playing it cool.
Since the incident that cost him the use of his leg, Colonel Hunter had taken Ryoga under his metaphorical wing. Discharged from military service, he was given what was seen by the remaining troops as an easy posting in the research department.
This had the side-effect of casting him forever in the role of Colonel's lackey with the majority of the soldiers. It was an unfair and unfounded assumption on the part of the troops, one he loathed; but on this occasion, he hoped to take advantage of it.
"I guess not," Yamaguchi conceded. It had taken him a long time to decide to call for clarification; Ryoga's objection had obviously sent him into a tailspin. "You're pretty friendly with the Colonel after all."
"Wasting his time with this is just going to get him pissed off at you," Ryoga said in agreement, with a very convincing nod of his head. "You probably don't want to get the CO mad at you, y'know?"
"Yeah ... yeah. You're right. Okay, you can go in," Yamaguchi said at last, returning the paper to Ryoga. "Just don't make a mess."
"Don't worry. Nobody'll even know I was there," Ryoga replied with a smile.
Secure Block A was an unexpectedly large room, imbued with a surprisingly dank and musty atmosphere despite the fluorescent lights overhead and the gaping ventilation ducts that lined the floor. The incessant drone of air circulation fans was far louder than at any other place Ryoga had been - perhaps due to the lack of other noises to distract him from it.
Row upon row of sleek metal squares lined the walls of the room, each identified with a small number that was engraved into the metal above a small keypad. It was a similar layout to Secure Block B and C, although neither of those rooms had keypads upon the lockers. This room, Block A, was obviously intended for the most sensitive of information.
Why would clothes and a sword warrant such security?
There was a small railing along the floor in front of the lockers, and at each corner of the room a ladder stood, mounted upon the rail. Gripping the ladder, Ryoga marched to locker A17 and peered upwards. The first digit referred to the row, the second the column. He gave silent thanks that he only had to climb three rows; climbing a ladder with only one fully operational leg was no mean feat.
A swift kick locked the ladder's feet into place, preventing it from sliding side to side during his ascent. He leaned his cane against locker A17 and, after only a moment's hesitation, hoisted himself up onto the ladder.
It was a slow, arduous climb - the combination of an unstable leg and sweaty palms almost proving his downfall on several occasions - but after a relatively short time he managed to clamber up to the fourth row. It was a testament to his upper body strength that he was able to climb a ladder at all; his shattered leg left him with only his arms to pull himself upwards, relegating his remaining leg to a supporting role.
He took a moment to catch his breath as he looked at locker A47, an innocuous and unremarkable locker that for all intents and purposes was identical to every other locker in the room. They all held their secrets, he knew, but it was 47's turn to reveal its treasures to him.
Each digit he entered resulted in a pleasant beep from the keypad, its software apparently satisfied with his input. There was a loud clunk as the locking mechanism disengaged and a quiet hiss as the hydraulic mechanism slowly slid the locker open for him.
The metal door was one side of a long, rectangular drawer, the interior the same metallic silver as the exterior, save for 'A47' marked in military green paint on the rear side. With a 'thunk', the drawer locked into the open position. He let out a sigh of relief and silently thanked Yoiko for providing him the correct code.
Hooking his foot around the ladder to hold himself steady, he leaned over the drawer and peered down at its contents. The interior seemed cavernous and its contents meagre; a set of clothes lay neatly folded in the rear, with the two throwing knives - sharp and polished to reflect the fluorescent lights with an impressive shine - placed atop them.
Three brown pouches lay in front of the clothes, seemingly made from a thick canvas. Each was tied off at the top with a thin string, a length of which protruded a short distance - a simple fuse. A primitive grenade, he realised, admiring Ukyo's resourcefulness. Perhaps this girl really was cut out to be a soldier after all ....
Casting such thoughts aside, he reached across and grasped the sword that lay against the far wall of the drawer. He knew very little about swords, having only ever held one in his life, and that only for a brief moment, but even with his lack of experience he was instantly aware of just how -light- this sword was. He lofted the weapon, still contained in its scabbard, and peered closely at it. The weight was barely discernible; it was as light as a feather.
"Strange," he commented to himself, looking up and down the length of the scabbard. Its upper half was covered in an ornate spiral design, intricate detail carved into the casing, but the lower half was bare and featureless. The handle felt warm in his hand, its presence alone filling him with a vague nervousness.
There was ... something unusual about the sword. It grew warmer the tighter he gripped it, as if it were urging him on. A compelling curiosity filled him - why was this sword hidden from scrutiny? Why had none of the analysis staff been told of its existence? Why was he violating a dozen regulations and ignoring security protocol to get a look at it? He might have done such a thing a few years ago, before the incident, but in his recent life he had calmed, become more conservative. Why, then, was he going to such lengths for her? Was it to satisfy her curiosity or his own?
Both, he decided. It was a safe answer, and one that allowed him to push the question aside. Slowly, cradling the sword with all the care one might a newborn baby, he tugged it slightly from its scabbard.
A furious white light burst free from within the scabbard, a tremendous pulse that seemed to rock the room itself with sheer force. A horrified, wailing scream filled the air, a piercing cry that sent Ryoga reeling. He swayed wildly back and forth on the ladder, every instinct commanding him to escape from the painful light and sound; but the light was so bright he could not see his hands to sheath the weapon.
The ladder toppled forward, its once-sturdy metal crumpling under the sheer weight of the sonic onslaught. Ryoga cried out as his support gave way, his body tumbling to the floor below. Fortune was on his side; the sword fell from his grasp and landed handle-first, the impact driving it home and sealing away the horrors within. He fell hard to the ground, the impact driving the air from his lungs.
The sword balanced perfectly upon its end for what seemed like an age before finally tipping over and clattering harmlessly to the floor below.
His ears rung from the noise, his eyes watered from the sheer intensity of the light, and his mind swam in a nauseating dizziness. He lay completely still, breathing raggedly, forcing air into his lungs. Slowly his senses returned to him, and he tried to explain to himself what he had just seen. Try as he might, though, he could only conjure up two words.
Yoiko tapped idly at her keyboard and let out a sigh. The screen saver had come on again. It had been almost forty minutes since Ryoga had left. The task he'd set her was simple and she had accomplished it easily, but there was a nagging thought that lingered in the back of her mind, clawing at the edge of her consciousness. Guilt, perhaps, or worry.
She knew the systems onboard the Spring very well, but there were classified areas she knew nothing about. One of those areas - the inventory and access logs for Secure Block A - was no longer a mystery to her. She had broken in with ease, and taken a copy of the file. It had only taken a few seconds, and the precautions she had taken meant the transaction was untraceable.
She was an expert; she knew it, she believed it, and yet she still wondered if she had made a mistake, if she had left behind some clue, some oversight that would cost her, perhaps her whole career. She had long erased the file, but she couldn't shake the feeling that a flag had been raised somewhere, that someone knew what she had done.
Her phone rang, startling her. She clasped her hand to her chest and swallowed, a sense of dread flooding into her body. Part of her expected the voice at the other end to be that of security, enquiring as to the reason her terminal had accessed a restricted area. Her imagination leapt to action, filling her mind with images of burly security guards surrounding her cubicle, pointing high-calibre weaponry at her.
A shaky hand gripped the phone receiver and slowly, cautiously, lifted it to her ear.
"Hibiki," she said, as formally as possible given the shaking of her voice.
"Yoiko, it's me."
Ryoga, she thought, a wave of relief crashing over her whole body. She slumped back into her chair and let out a long sigh, raising her other hand to her forehead as she closed her eyes. Relief was quickly followed by irritation.
"You scared me to death," she hissed. "What took so long?"
"Listen to me very carefully, Yoiko. That sword is no ordinary sword."
"What happened?" she asked, her curiosity rising. He sounded really disturbed; frightened, even. "What is it?"
"I ... I don't know. It's big. Gods, it's big. Yoiko, I ... I saw ...."
"Calm down," she said, as soothingly as she could manage given her own frayed nerves. She could hear his strained breath. "Ryoga, you have to calm down."
"You don't understand," he replied, pulling himself together. "I had to get it out of there. I couldn't just leave it where it was. I've got it with me now."
"What?!" Yoiko yelped, jolting to an upright position. The phone channel was encrypted - they all were aboard the sub - but she suddenly felt as though every eye in the laboratory was upon her, that everyone in the sub had heard; that by merely hearing the words her brother spoke she had somehow already committed the crime.
"I don't have time to explain, Yoiko. There's something about this sword - I can't leave it locked away in that drawer. I have to find out more about it. I need you to access the inventory of A47 and remove the sword from the list. If it stays in the inventory, they're going to notice it's missing."
"You have got to be kidding. You have GOT to be kidding," Yoiko stammered, unable to piece together a coherent counterargument. Entering to look was one thing - but modifying military logs? That was grounds for ... she did not even want to imagine the punishment for such a crime. "You TOOK it?"
"I'm not kidding. You'll have to modify the deposit logs for that drawer too."
"Even if I do, they're still going to notice sooner or later."
"I know, Yoiko, I know. I had no choice. I just need some time to think."
"The Colonel told me to head to the recovery ward to bring the final phase online. He wants me to introduce Ukyo to the personality. He's going to find out if I stay here to mess with logs."
"What? Why?" he asked, surprised. "She's supposed to activate the personality herself. Why are you doing it manually? It could undermine the whole process if she doesn't discover it herself!"
"I don't know," Yoiko replied, resting her forehead in one hand. She let out a breath, pleased to have jolted her brother back to some semblance of normalcy. "They've put the process on the fast track, and I don't know why. I've just been told to do it, so that's what I'm going to do. I was worried you wouldn't call before I left."
"Damn it," Ryoga replied, frustration evident in his voice. "That could lead to complications. I guess we have no choice but to proceed as instructed. Be careful, okay?"
"You're not coming?"
"I can't. Not with ... not with this thing. This is more important than Seraph Wing, Yoiko. Can you handle things on your own for a while?"
She felt a nervous sweat upon her brow; her whole face felt drenched, she was sure someone would notice any moment. "I guess, Ryoga."
"See what you can do to cover my tracks for a few minutes, then head to the ward. I told Ukyo I'd be back soon. Tell her I'm going to be a couple of hours. You can do a more comprehensive delete when you get back. As long as you can throw up some kind of cover, I should be okay."
"What are you planning to do?"
"I ... I can't explain. The personality should keep you both busy for a while. I'll come to the recovery ward in an hour or two. I'll explain it to you then."
"Okay, I gue--" she began, but stopped as the phone line went dead. She lowered the receiver back into its cradle with fingers that had long since gone white and numb.
More important than Seraph Wing? Nothing was more important than Seraph Wing - not to him. It had been the singular focal point of his life for two years. What on Earth could be more important?
What the hell is going on, Ryoga?
Ukyo sighed and stared up at the ceiling above her bed. The EKG monitor near her bed bleeped with irritating regularity, each sound drilling into her head, worsening her headache. She had been lying absolutely still for - she didn't even know how long. There was an alarm clock on the table near her bed, but she couldn't turn her head to look at it.
Where are you, Ryoga?
He had been gone for what felt like an age. She knew beyond the faintest glimmer of a doubt that he would do what he had said, that he would return with her Seriatim. She trusted him implicitly, instinctively. He was a good person. He would do what he said he would. It was just a matter of time. Always a matter of time.
Many times over the course of her stay she had considered making an escape. The soldiers, while well-trained and well-armed, were nowhere near her level of skill, speed or strength. The gap was so large she had taken to deliberately making mistakes, purposefully holding herself back during training exercises so as not to reveal too much about herself.
Compared to her, they were slow, clumsy, and weak. They all were. She was beginning to understand why nearly everyone aboard regarded her with such apprehension. Fortunately, there were those who did not treat her with suspicion.
Her thoughts returned to Ryoga. It was because of him that she had stayed. He was ... a friend. He trusted her and she trusted him. It was a strange feeling, a subtle warmth that infused her thoughts of him. She had never had a friend before. At some base level she wanted to please him, to do what he asked, simply to remain his friend.
Am I really so simple?
She sighed. She had stayed aboard the submarine, she had allowed them to implant any number of electronic implants into her body. She had allowed them to experiment upon her, to study her, to poke and prod and observe her. Because of him. For him.
I suppose I am.
If she were to escape from this endless experimentation, would he come with her? Of course not - the very thought was ludicrous. While she knew she could survive a swim to the surface, he most certainly could not. Even if they did make it, where would they go?
No. He promised her that he would take care of her, and that they would lead her to Ranma. That was all that mattered. She trusted him - she would stay.
There was a hiss and a thunk; then the patter of footsteps upon the metal floor of the ward. Ukyo narrowed her eyes and listened. The footsteps were light, quiet. Too small to be Ryoga. No, that was ....
"How did you know?" came Yoiko's voice, full of surprise.
"I just knew," Ukyo replied, a smile quirking her face. Her instincts had served her well on the hunt. Identifying Yoiko by her footsteps was child's play.
She appeared in Ukyo's view, a curious expression on her face. "I've been told to brief you on the new components we've added to the Seraph Wing."
"Oh?" Ukyo asked, rolling her eyes downward to glance at the girl. She watched as Yoiko placed a small, metallic briefcase upon her recovery bed. The girl was nervous, it seemed. Ukyo wondered for a moment what had unnerved the girl so.
"Yeah. I, uh," Yoiko paused and glanced behind her before continuing in a hushed tone, "I spoke to Ryoga too. He said he would be a couple of hours."
Ukyo nodded, but said nothing. "So, what have you added?"
Yoiko blinked, a look of irritation flashing across her features as she realised her unasked question would go unanswered. "Well, we've implanted the external Frame, which extends and amplifies the energy field emitted by the internal Core."
"What does that mean?" Ukyo asked evenly. She knew Yoiko enjoyed her technical jargon, but for now wanted her answers in layman's terms.
"You already saw the shield effect of the Wing, right?" Yoiko asked. Ukyo nodded, and the girl continued. "By itself, the Core can only project a weak field around you, and only about five millimetres away from your skin. The Frame is an amplifier, which boosts the effectiveness of the shield as well as allowing you a measure of control over it."
"It stopped a bullet, and you call that weak?" Ukyo asked, incredulous.
"The primary energy shield could stop a bullet, sure. It could probably stop a dozen or so before it overloaded. Once you run that shield through the Frame, though, you could hold back the gods themselves," Yoiko said with a proud smile. "Here, look at this."
Ukyo nodded and let Yoiko take hold of her left arm. The arm was turned slightly, bringing the elbow and outer edge into view. A thin black line, a plastic seam, ran the length of her arm, only to disappear into her wrist, its end marked by a small circular plug that extruded slightly from her skin.
"What the hell is that?" Ukyo asked, suddenly disturbed by the fact she had not even noticed the plug's presence. She should have felt it.
"That is a Frame fibre. It carries the signal from the Core, amplifies and projects it outwards to create the shield. The segment connects to other fibres along your other arm, legs, torso, neck, and the back of your head. It was quite a job to get THAT one put in without having to shave off half of your hair, let me tell you."
Ukyo raised her right hand toward the thin seam, and with a brief glance to Yoiko for approval, gingerly placed the tips of her fingers upon it. It was smooth, cool, feeling very much like metal. She bent her arm, and the seam bent easily with it.
"It continues into your hand, but the fibres there are subdermal. They have to be, they're thinner in order to be more precise. Far too thin to be hanging around on your skin. Especially given how much punching you grunts tend to do."
Ukyo clenched her fist and released it, regarding her hand with apprehension. She could feel no difference at all in her fingers as she wriggled them back and forth. If Yoiko had not told her of the fibre's presence, she would most likely never have known.
"What about the plug?" she asked as her right hand brushed against it. She lingered there for a moment, fingers lightly touching the smooth metal.
"That's a control port," Yoiko replied, her tone growing increasingly happy at Ukyo's continued interest in her handiwork. "The Wing is controlled by a neural interface, but there is a control pad that attaches to your arm just in case. You never know, y'know?"
"A ... neural interface?" Ukyo asked, bewildered.
"Yeah. You think, it acts. It's designed to respond to your own thought patterns, so if you start to think about protecting yourself then it will respond in kind. I can't tell you exactly how to control it, because you know better than I do. It's a personal thing."
"So I just ... will the shield into existence?"
"Exactly. It sounds weird, I know, but it'll be second nature before you know it. It's designed to be. You'll always have the control pad handy, just in case, so you don't have anything to worry about."
"So where is this control pad?" Ukyo asked, fingering the port apprehensively. She did not like this gadget protruding from within her.
"I've got it right here," Yoiko said. She unlocked and opened the briefcase she had been carrying and from within it extracted what appeared to be a black metal bracer. With a gentle tap the bracer opened. "Here, give me your arm."
Ukyo nodded somewhat apprehensively and, after a moment's hesitation, raised her left arm toward the small girl. The bracer was closed around her wrist, where it locked into place with a cheerful chirping sound. Ukyo clenched her fist and felt the smooth, cool metal against her skin.
On the topmost side of the bracer was a small transparent panel, illuminated with a number of graphs, information and displays, glowing a variety of pastel greens and oranges.
"Just one more thing to do," Yoiko said as she reached over and tapped a small, virtual button upon the display.
Ukyo sat up with a start, eyes jolting wide as the voice snuck into her mind, seeming to come from just behind her ears. She whirled around as best she could to see who was talking to her; however, there was nobody there. Slowly she turned to face Yoiko, who had a wide smile upon her face.
"I guess the personality has introduced itself," Yoiko said with a hint of amusement. "Go on, say hello."
Greetings, Ukyo, repeated the voice, quiet, but firm. It was a male voice, a voice that seemed somehow familiar. I am Seraph Wing.
"H ... hello?" Ukyo spoke uncertainly, her face betraying her utter confusion.
It is an honour to meet you, My Lady, Seraph Wing said, its voice somehow conveying the essence of a deep bow. I have been anticipating this moment for some time.
"Who ... what are you?" Ukyo asked, unsure of where to look. It was distinctly unnerving to speak to a disembodied voice.
You do not need to speak for your words to be clear, Seraph Wing replied. Push your words toward me with your mind and I will hear them.
What are you? Ukyo asked again, focussing the words as well she could. It was not quite thinking per se; it was a subtly different process, a supersensory to-and-fro of energy between herself and Seraph Wing that she could perceive even though she did not know how she did so.
I am one of many facets of the Core. I am a twelfth-generation AI construct, operating from a neural subprocessor implanted at the base of your spine. My function is to provide diagnostic information, tactical updates, and any other form of assistance or advice I can render. I am Seraph Wing, and I am at your service.
I ... I don't understand.
How best can I put it? Think of me as a guide.
Allow me to demonstrate, My Lady.
Ukyo's eyes widened as a flood of information filled her mind. Suddenly she became aware that the distance between herself and Yoiko was exactly 1.72 metres, that the ambient temperature was 21.3 degrees Celsius, that one of the fluorescent tubes overhead had developed a malfunction that caused a near-imperceptible flicker of dimness, forty times a second.
The information was not presented to her in any quantifiable sense; she simply knew these things, as if she had always known them. Closing her eyes, she let the information wash over her.
There was a guard patrolling the corridor outside the ward. His body temperature was slightly higher than his average, his muscles moved somewhat stiffly, his breath was ever-so-slightly laboured. He was clearly coming down with the flu, even if he did not know it himself just yet.
There was a small security camera watching the guard, rotating through twenty-five degrees every ten seconds, oscillating back and forth to cover the corridor. The camera's tiny actuator clicked quietly, sending a small electric motor into action; it whirred quietly as it slowly panned the camera through its angle of rotation, before slowing to a halt. The noises were quiet, but to Ukyo they were crystal clear.
Yoiko's breath was quickening, her heart was beating faster; Ukyo could perceive all of it. The girl was excited to see what would come of Seraph Wing's activation, the physiological signs were a glowing neon light that illuminated her mental state quite clearly.
Enough, enough, Ukyo called, and the tsunami of information was reduced to barely a trickle. I get the picture. That was ... amazing.
Thank you, My Lady.
"So what do you think of him?" Yoiko asked as Ukyo opened her eyes.
Ukyo let out a deep breath. The sudden onslaught of information was like nothing she had ever experienced before. It was as though a second set of eyes had been opened to her, an acute sense of the world around her that could describe in the most minute detail everything around her. It was nothing short of mindboggling.
"I think ... wow."
Ryoga stared at the door. He had been standing motionless for almost a minute, head laden with thoughts. The sword was still in its scabbard, clutched closely to his side, concealed within his lab coat. To the casual observer, it simply appeared as if his hand were in his pocket. The weapon was suffused with warmth, a pleasant tingle of heat in his hand that made him wonder just what he was about to return to Ukyo.
He had, over the past two hours, run a dozen tests on the sword. Each had been met with failure. He could only scan the scabbard; his memories of Storage Block A prevented him from trying to extract the blade from its shelter again. He could not even determine what the blade was made of, let alone what made it glow as it did. The puzzle was intensely troubling to him. As a scientist it disturbed him immensely to abandon such a mystery without solving it. As a human being, he wanted to be rid of the sword as soon as possible.
He had wrestled with his conscience ever since finding the blade. How could he steal such a thing from a secure lock-up and hand it over to Ukyo without at least some knowledge of what it was? It was no ordinary blade, no ordinary weapon. How could he arm her with such a thing? Without the slightest inkling of its purpose?
He had truly stepped into the lion's den. Even with Yoiko's help, they would discover his theft sooner or later. There was bound to be security camera footage; Yoiko would be able to delete it, but like the inventory such tampering would eventually be noticed. All he could do was to hope that, with Yoiko's assistance, he could stay one step ahead of them.
His resolve wavered; he could take the sword back, restore the logs, tell Ukyo that he couldn't find the sword, and everything would be as it was. Or perhaps he could take the sword to the laboratory and run further tests on it; try to achieve something useful to offset the risk he was taking, rather than just giving it to her.
Leaning more heavily upon his cane, he let out a sigh. His mind screamed at him to take the sword and examine it, study it, try to uncover its true meaning and purpose. His instincts compelled him to return the sword to its resting place and put it out of his mind. Despite all that, he knew he had to keep his promise. He had made the choice long ago; he knew he was simply trying to rationalise that decision.
He wanted to give the sword to her, and any reason would do. The sword was hers. Morally, returning it to its owner was the right thing to do. That was rationalisation enough. He had discovered as much about it as he could on his own; he needed Ukyo's help to solve the mystery of the weapon. That was motivation enough.
Steeling his jaw, he stepped forward, and the door hissed open.
Ukyo sat up as the door opened, and watched Ryoga step in, a surprised look upon his face. He moved swiftly into the room, letting the door close behind him before speaking.
"What are you doing sitting up? I told you to be still! What if it had been the Colonel coming to check on you?"
"I knew it was you," Ukyo replied.
"I knew you were standing there. I could tell you were feeling either nervous or guilty, because you were sweating so much. Your posture and the extra weight you're putting on your cane told me your leg is acting up today. Hell, I recognised the smell of your breath, and knew you had tuna for dinner," Ukyo said with a crooked, slightly uncomfortable smile. "This is scary stuff, Ryoga."
I do not intend to frighten you, My Lady.
"You're conversing with the personality already?" Ryoga asked, shooting Yoiko an impressed glance. "You've been able to talk back to him? For how long?"
I know. This is just ... new to me, Seraph Wing.
"Two hours, thirteen minutes, and .... twenty-five seconds, apparently," Ukyo replied. "You said you'd be two hours. You're late."
"She took to him like a duck to water," Yoiko said as Ryoga looked to her in bewilderment. "It surprised me too."
"This ... this is amazing," Ryoga stammered in astonishment. He staggered toward Ukyo's bed and propped himself up against it. "I thought it would take weeks, not hours, for you to learn how to speak to him."
"Be careful," Ukyo admonished as Ryoga bumped her bed. "You're going to drop it if you're not careful."
"Drop what?" Yoiko asked.
"The sword he's trying to hide under his coat," Ukyo explained. She glanced at the weapon, which Seraph Wing automatically examined. It reported the weapon's length as ninety-six centimetres from end to end, its weight at a mere fifty grams. A sense of confusion trickled through her brain. It was not her own, and so she turned to Seraph Wing for an explanation.
I apologise, Seraph Wing said. I am unable to ascertain the composition of the weapon. Its molecular structure is unknown. It is far too light to be a metal, of that I am certain.
I remember now. I ... think I know what it's made of. Gods, I think he's seen it too.
"Ryoga," she said quietly, giving the startled-looking boy a smile. She reached out and took one of his hands. "Thank you for getting my sword. I appreciate the risk you took."
"How did you know I--" Ryoga began, trailing off as Ukyo tapped the side of her head with a fingertip. He chuckled sheepishly and shook his head. "Of course."
"So," Yoiko said with a not-so-subtle hint of impatience, "what's the deal with this sword?"
"I wish I knew," Ryoga said, finally withdrawing the weapon from the shelter of his lab coat. "This thing scares the hell out of me. I've run a dozen different tests on it and I don't know anything more than when I started."
Ukyo reached out for the weapon, and after a moment's hesitation, Ryoga handed it to her. She clasped his hand and nodded gratefully. Finally, it was in her hands again. A sense of relief washed over her, an inexplicable feeling of satisfaction.
"What can you tell me about it?" Ryoga asked, intense curiosity written across his face. His eyes followed the sword as she raised it.
"Not a lot," she admitted, gripping the weapon tightly. "I just ... I just know that it belongs to me. I remember it being mine."
"So this is what the big fuss was about?" Yoiko asked incredulously. "That sword?"
"There's more to it than you think," Ryoga replied, giving Ukyo a knowing glance.
"Seriatim," she whispered, drawing the scabbard to her chest.
Seriatim. An unusual name. Why did you name it so?
I didn't name it. What does the name mean?
The word is derived from Latin speech. It means, quite literally, 'one after another'. If you did not name it, My Lady, who did?
I ... I don't know.
"One after another," she said, running her hand along the scabbard's length. She glanced up at Ryoga, who had an expectant look upon his face. She knew merely by looking at him that he had been expecting something dramatic to happen the moment he handed the sword to her; that somehow all of his questions would be answered. She gave him a wan smile, unable to offer any comfort.
She could not answer their questions. Nor could she answer her own.
"Ukyo, I think it's for the best that you don't take it out of its scabbard until we understand it better," Ryoga said at length, obviously realising his questions would not be answered. "The military guys don't know you have it either, so keep it hidden."
"Okay," she said with a nod. He was right; it was for the best to keep it hidden and sealed.
"I'm going to study it, if you don't mind. I'll be asking you some questions over the next few days. I want to find out exactly what it's made of."
"Of course, anything you want," Ukyo replied with a nod.
"Can I see it?" Yoiko asked.
"No," Ryoga replied before Ukyo could. "It's not coming out again."
"It's probably for the best," Ukyo said, sharing a glance with Ryoga. She recognised the look in his eyes. She had seen it many times before. She had no intention of inflicting that upon Yoiko.
Colonel Hunter frowned as he pored over the stacks of paper strewn across his expansive desk. Ship's operations reports, intelligence reports, duty rosters and training programs were scattered left, right and centre, tossed aside as he continued his search.
He eventually reached the bottom of the pile, its final document a faded maintenance log detailing a routine service job on the aft power generation unit undertaken over two months prior.
"Damn it," he muttered. Not a single reference to the course change. No details, no briefings, no discussions or meetings. An order to divert the sub that did not involve him could only have come from the Council, but he could find no records regarding it. A clandestine decision. Presumably, he was only informed because of the Wing.
There was no facility located in Hokkaido. No real reason to visit there. Particularly when such a visit interrupted the scheduled offloading of the Council from the vessel. The course change, the sudden acceleration of the Seraph Wing integration, the change in training regime for Alpha and Bravo; it all pointed to a singular conclusion. He wanted to deny it, but he knew it was true.
"They've found her. Gods, they're taking Seraph Wing straight to Ranma."
He leaned back in his chair, the soft leather seeming unusually rough and uncomfortable. He was by no means a religious man, but even in his rational, logical mind he could not hold back a sense of inevitable, impending doom. A cold sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
He would soon find out if the Wing was all that the Phoenix had promised it would be. He hoped with all of his heart that it was. Ranma had to be stopped. An elder dragon spirit unleashed upon the world was not something he dared to contemplate.