The Leviathan Spring was in chaos. The screams of alarm klaxons echoed uselessly through the hallways. Red alert signs flashed intermittently, casting crimson light down upon the broken bodies that littered the vessel. Humans and Hidari alike lay dead upon the floors.
The situation had deteriorated in a matter of minutes. Bloodthirsty packs of Hidari roamed freely, slaughtering the huddled, hidden pockets of humanity as they found them. There was still resistance, although its force was dwindling. The beat of gunfire punctuated the endless moaning of the clones, but it was rapidly diminishing.
Damaged equipment lay strewn around the various labs. A number of electrical fires burned in various parts of the sub. With the scattered remains of the crew utterly unable to fight them and a vast majority of the Spring's automated systems down they continued to burn, consuming precious oxygen, belching toxic smoke.
The crew were still fighting, but soon, they would all be dead.
The JNV-1001's original specifications included two small docking bays for small submersible craft. The bays, while not envisaged as overly useful to the Phoenix organisation, were considered potentially useful enough to retain during their modifications to the original design. Accordingly, the submarine was equipped with a complement of four small submersible vehicles.
However, the bays had never been used. The submersibles remained secured on their loading cranes, the docking facilities remained unmanned. The whole area was isolated - connected to the rest of the sub by only a single elevator - and beside the occasional security patrol, the entire docking area remained untouched.
As with any external access point, security was an issue. Physical isolation was not by itself sufficient. The docks were outfitted with a range of security sensors, from cameras - standard and infrared - to motion sensors, metal detectors, and a bevy of other security measures.
However, like many of the Leviathan Spring's core systems, the security subsystem had taken severe damage during the attack. Network lines and power conduits had been damaged or severed completely. Many of the sensors and cameras did not work - others simply spewed garbled data.
A few, however, remained operational. One such device was a surveillance camera mounted above one of the two submersible docking bays.
A small, black vessel rose from the depths, silently parting the water's surface as it emerged into the dock. The camera's motion tracking software latched onto the movement and smoothly swiveled the camera, automatically adjusting its focus to pull the newly-arrived vessel into sharp relief.
Elsewhere in the Spring, an intrusion alert bleeped insistently upon a security console in the main security control centre.
A hiss filled the air as a small hatch slid smoothly open. Other, smaller sounds followed it. The rustling of clothing, the squeak of boots upon a moist metal floor. The camera dutifully recorded, sending multiple copies of the video feed to several redundant backup sites scattered throughout the vessel.
Suddenly, the camera's feed was cut off as a bullet smashed into the lens, piercing the casing and ripping through the delicate electronics inside.
The signal loss triggered another alarm in the security control centre. The security monitor hissed with static. Unfortunately, the security officer who lay slumped over the console in a pool of his own blood could not respond to the alarm. The Hidari who stood behind him with a blood-soaked smile upon its face did not notice it, and would not have understood its meaning even if it had.
With the camera removed, six invisible soldiers melted into view around the perimeter of the bay. The barely-audible hum of their active camouflage suits quickly died away as they powered down.
"Bay one secure. Team one is in position," said one of the soldiers, holding one hand to his ear. "Ghosts commencing infiltration."
Ryoga, back pressed tightly against a chilled metal wall, leaned to one side and peered around the corner. A long, narrow hall lay before him. If he remembered the layout of the sub correctly, this passageway ran virtually all the way to the helicopter launch bay.
Thick metal pipes ran along the ceiling. One was ruptured, belching steam into the corridor and obscuring his view. From what he could see, however, the corridor seemed to be empty. If they were quiet, and careful, they might just make it to the bay unseen.
That was the best plan he could think of, at any rate.
He turned back to his sister, noticing for the first time the solid death-grip she had upon his hand. Her skin was pale, and she was shaking like a leaf.
She ignored him, instead staring silently at the floor nearby. Ryoga looked past her to see what she was looking at. When he realised what it was, he quickly wished he hadn't.
A female guard lay nearby, covered in blood. Two dull eyes stared ahead, sealed forever in an expression of horror. The poor girl's throat had been torn out. Her uniform covered most of her other injuries, but judging by the sheer quantity of blood, they must have been extensive.
Gods, she doesn't look that much older than Yoiko, he thought, filled with disgust. Memories of his own murdered teammates threatened to emerge from the darker recesses of his mind. He closed his eyes and looked away. No. This isn't the time to be thinking of them.
"That ... that's Haruka," Yoiko whispered, her voice breaking. "We used to play cards when our shifts lined up. She'd just started dating one of the guys in Engineering. She ... she wouldn't tell me his name ...."
"Yoiko, listen to me," Ryoga said, but his words had no effect. He shook her by the shoulder. "Yoiko!"
"W-what?" she asked, finally turning her moistened eyes toward him.
"I need you to stay focused. Can you do that for me?"
"I'll try," she replied, nodding weakly.
"I don't know what's going on, but I'm going to get you out of here. You're going to be fine," he said, offering an encouraging smile. "If we get to the launch bay, we might be able to get a chopper out of here."
"But you don't know how to fly a chopper," Yoiko pointed out.
Ryoga's smile cracked. His sister, ever the pragmatist. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
He glanced once more at the body of Haruka. She had a pistol holstered at her hip. Releasing his sister's hand, he stepped over to her body. Lowering himself almost to the floor - careful not to touch his knee to the puddle of blood that surrounded the body - he reached toward the weapon.
"What are you doing?!" Yoiko squeaked, her voice filled with disgust. "Don't do that!"
"I have to, sis," Ryoga replied. Distasteful as it was, another gun could mean the difference between life and death for both of them. As he looked more closely at the weapon, he shook his head in dismay. The holster was not even unclipped - the poor girl had never even had a chance to defend herself. He glanced at her face once more. She had been a pretty girl, that much was obvious even beneath the blood that had dried upon her skin.
What a waste.
"Forgive me, Haruka," he whispered as he unclipped her holster and withdrew the weapon. He checked a small pouch on her belt and found a full magazine inside. After pocketing the magazine, he reached for her face and gently pulled down her eyelids. "But I need these to protect my sister."
He stood and turned away, quickly ejecting the magazine from her gun to inspect it - partially to check how many rounds were contained within, partially to avoid meeting his sister's horrified gaze. The magazine, thankfully, was full. With a full magazine in his pocket and nine rounds remaining in his own gun, he made a mental note: thirty-three rounds remaining.
He slid the magazine back into the gun. It had been a long time since he served in Bravo Team, but his instincts remained sharp, and they told him that exactly how much ammunition he had was one of the most important pieces of information available to him.
Pocketing Haruka's pistol, he once again reached for his sister's hand and tugged her toward the main corridor.
"Come on. Let's go."
"So," said Ukyo. "You're Ranma's new apprentice."
There was a vicious storm raging that night. Lightning flashed in the heavens, illuminating the rooftop - and the two figures standing upon it - in stark white light. The thunderous rumble shook the building, sending tiles tumbling over the edge of the roof to the mud far below.
The girl, short and youthful in appearance, turned to face Ukyo. The lightning faded away, although not before a glimmer of reflected light from the sword in the girl's hand caught Ukyo's eye. Despite the sword, and the black hooded robe the girl wore, it was obvious that she was little more than a teenager.
"I'm nobody's apprentice," countered the girl. "I'm the Black Tiger of Tokyo, and you're interfering with my evening's business."
"I already know who you are," Ukyo replied, lowering her own blade and adopting a neutral stance. "Nabiki Tendo."
"Hmm, is that so?" Nabiki replied, unfazed. She snorted, a vague sound of amusement, and pulled down her hood to reveal her face. A sardonic smile played across her lips. "Intriguing. You've done your research. However, I'm afraid I'm at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don't know who you are."
"Kuonji. Ukyo Kuonji."
"Ukyo Kuonji. You put up quite a chase. I'm impressed you managed to keep up with me," Nabiki said, emphasising the name. She smiled, redirecting the rivulets of rain running down her face, and bowed slightly. "There are few who can. Tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Tell me where Ranma is."
"What makes you think I know or care where Ranma is?" Nabiki asked flatly. "I'm just here for the Eye. Ranma has nothing to do with it."
"I've been watching you. Since you met, you have been inseparable. And now, suddenly, she is gone. I have no argument with you, Nabiki. I just want to know where she is."
"Don't you have anything better to do with your time?" Nabiki responded, her voice dripping disdain. "Sorry to disappoint, but I don't have time to deal with the likes of you. That jewel isn't going to steal itself. If you want to find Ranma, you're going to have to do it yourself."
"If you tell me what I want to know, I'll let you go," Ukyo said, raising her sword once more. "I don't want to hurt you, and I don't care about whatever it is you're trying to steal, but I won't let you hide Ranma from me."
"Let me go?" Nabiki huffed, incredulous. "You'd have to catch me first. And if the all the locks in Tokyo and the Emperor's finest can't, I honestly don't think you have much of a chance. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ukyo Kuonji, but don't expect it to happen again."
There was a glimmer of movement, a swath of brown hair, a streak of blue. Lightning burst across the sky once more; then the white light was gone and so was the thief, leaving only blackness and the relentless pitter-patter of raindrops. Ukyo stood alone in the rain, her pupils expanding as the darkness closed in to swallow Nabiki whole.
The guards would certainly have heard them and would soon come running. No doubt, a figure standing on the roof in the middle of the night would be met with many arrows and few questions. Frustrated and drenched from head to toe, she sheathed her sword and turned away.
Aboard the Leviathan Spring, Ukyo shook her head violently back and forth, dislodging the half-formed memory from her mind. They were coming more frequently now, each more vivid than the last. Some were little more than still images, or whispered words. But some were sharp, clear, filled with sounds, smells and sensations.
Ukyo could almost see the lithe cat-burglar's face, almost remember her voice. She could feel the cold raindrops running down her face, the electric charge of the stormy air. The memories felt so real, and yet so alien to her. They were old memories; very old. Whose were they? Her own? Why didn't she recognise them?
The memories had begun to return to her with Ranma's touch. Those icy hands upon her skin had awoken something within her. She did not know what it was, nor did she understand the memories she was reliving. All she knew was that something was moving inside her mind, churning up long-dormant memories in its wake.
Corridor after corridor of the Leviathan Spring passed underfoot as she sprinted through the vessel, dodging twisted water pipes, shattered bulkheads and broken bodies without conscious thought. A rhythmic thumping filled her ears - whether the sound of her boots upon the floor or the thrum of her own heart, she did not know.
Some of the memories were familiar to her. Others were not. All of them, however, shared a single common element. That element, she knew, was the key. Somehow, it was the key.
What is it, Seraph Wing?
I have been trying to contact you for two minutes, thirty-six seconds. Why did you not respond?
I ... I didn't hear you, Ukyo replied, her mental voice laden with worry as she realised that was the truth.
My Lady? We share a neural link, it is not possible for--
It doesn't matter, she interrupted dismissively. What did you want?
Two things. Firstly, I wished to present my tactical report. Secondly, I wished to enquire as to your destination. I assume from your location that you are heading to your quarters, but I do not understand why.
The shrill sounds of alarms rang in her ears, threatening to drown out her own thoughts. She looked around, suddenly realising that she had stopped running. Just as Seraph Wing had said, she was outside the barracks.
I want to get my sword, she replied, glancing around before heading inside.
Your sword? May I ask why, My Lady?
I ... don't know why, but it's important for me to get it, she replied. The entire barracks area was drenched in blood, silent bodies scattered across the floor, illuminated only by the crimson glow of emergency lighting. Gods, this place is a war zone. What the hell is going on?
That brings me to my tactical report. Electronic systems are being disrupted throughout the vessel. I am unable to access the core network, nor establish any meaningful communications links. I have no information about the life forms you encountered in the launch bay, other than the obvious: they are not human, and they are hostile.
I figured that much. Those things moved like ... like animals. Can you locate anyone else? she asked, pushing open the door to her own quarters. She entered, relieved to find the room free of dead soldiers. How about Ryoga, or Yoiko?
The composition of the walls severely limits my scanning range, My Lady. I am able to link into a few security systems throughout the vessel, but the majority of them are offline. Even taking these sensors and cameras into account, there are no active human life signs in my sensorium. However, Ranma has a much stronger signature. I am able to track her general location. She has left the helicopter bay.
She's heading for Akane, Ukyo observed, kneeling at her footlocker. She opened it and fumbled inside. I've gotta stop her. I can't let them meet again.
I must remind you that this vessel has already sustained significant structural damage, the Frame is not entirely stable, and the entire vessel is populated by hostile life forms. Under these circumstances, I would recommend that you evacuate immediately.
No. I'm not just going to run away from this! she said. Her fingers found Seriatim's scabbard and closed around it. She pulled the weapon free and stood, letting the footlocker fall closed. I brought Ranma aboard, and I'm going to finish her.
My Lady, this is an unacceptable risk. You must evacuate the vessel.
And just ... abandon everyone else? There must be some survivors on this sub, and someone has to help them, she replied angrily. And Ryoga has to be aboard somewhere, she added to herself.
You must understand, My Lady. There are dozens of enemies on every conceivable path between yourself and Ranma. The Frame's biokinetic plating is barely functioning. The system is not stable. I would recommend, given the damage to the facilities aboard the Leviathan Spring, returning to the primary Seraph Initiative facility in Tokyo for a full system-wide repair. Pursuing Ranma at this point is, to be blunt, foolhardy.
Maybe you're right, she replied, sliding the sword's scabbard in between her belt and her hip. She drew her pistols from holsters at her hips and turned toward the door. But you're not changing my mind. I'm going to stop Ranma from killing everyone aboard this sub. You're going to help me.
My duty is to protect you, My Lady. The welfare of others is of secondary importance to your own survival.
No, it isn't, Ukyo replied. Not any more, Seraph Wing.
The main corridor of the Delta Seven-Five laboratory linked the primary research facilities to the main elevator, which in turn provided access to the nonrestricted areas of the sub. Unlike most of the Seven-Five lab areas, the elevator lobby had been equipped with hidden Hidari cryotubes.
The entire lobby area was a wreck. Ragged scars covered the walls, shredded metal hanging from enormous gashes. The floor was awash with blood, the mangled pipes that once ran along the ceiling spewed forth steam and sparks.
The entire hall was filled with broken, silent bodies. Laboratory workers, researchers, and soldiers alike were strewn around the room. Akane-Ryujin stood silent, stilled, awed by the carnage.
"My Gods," Akane whispered as she collapsed to her knees in the midst of the dead, unable to command the strength needed to stand. The cold void of death surrounded her, the void clawing painfully at her mind, its presence boring relentlessly into her skull.
She clasped her hands to her temples and gritted her teeth, trying helplessly to drive away the intense anguish that was churning inside her. The aching emptiness of the dead refused to be ignored. The bodies were cold, silent and still, and yet they called to her mind, their wails of agony an overwhelming din.
A woman's face, lifeless and half-submerged in blood, caught her eye. She stared at it in horror, a chilling feeling of recognition sinking into her stomach.
"I know you," she whispered, gingerly reaching out toward the face. "Your name was Mary."
Mary. Twenty-four years old, a junior research assistant. Her birthday had passed only three weeks before. She had been given a pair of earrings by her fiance; opal stones set in gold that glimmered so beautifully in the moonlight. He had smiled in that way she loved so much, the small, spontaneous and slightly-crooked smile that he could never quite manage to perform on request. They kissed, the sweet hint of whiskey on his breath. She'd been drinking champagne and the world spun as he dipped her, but he held her tight.
Her jugular vein had been severed by a flying shard of metal in the initial Hidari attack. Blood had sprayed wildly from her body, taking heat, sensation, consciousness and pain with it. Mary had not suffered for very long.
Akane's fingertips hovered near Mary's blood-stained cheek, almost but not quite touching. She let out a long, slow, shaky breath and drew her hand back, cradling it to her own chest.
She had never met this girl. And yet ... she knew her.
The man laying atop Mary was named Yasuhito. Fifty-two years old. He loved life at sea; the achingly beautiful sunsets that danced over the sea, the salty taste of the ocean air, the endless, soothing rocking of the water's surface. He could have spent an eternity on the ocean, if not for the photo of his two-year-old granddaughter that he kept on his desk. It had been a present from his son, complete with an ornate wooden frame. He wanted to go home, to spend time with her, to be a grandfather.
He had, unfortunately, not died as quickly as Mary. The same shard of metal that had ended Mary's life had glanced off her neck and embedded itself into his chest, piercing his lung. With medical attention, he might have survived. But no help had come.
Akane recoiled in horror, throwing herself backwards, scrambling with both hands and feet across a blood soaked floor, anything to escape the macabre sight before her.
The palm of her hand glanced across the dead fingers of a soldier as she scrabbled across the floor. The contact jolted her. A torrent of images burst violently into her mind, a flood of memories that swept uncontrollably across her consciousness.
She could see his infant son cradled in his arms, feel the warm breath of his wife on his cheek as they made love, hear the laughter of his best friend and the gentle, soothing words of his mother as they were whispered into his tiny ear. A lifetime of memories offered up to her without reservation, a lifetime of emotion experienced in an instant.
She screamed and jolted as if electrocuted, her body's survival instincts forcing her muscles to wrench it away. She flew through the air and landed face-first in a puddle of blood in the middle of the hall, thankfully away from the corpses.
"Why do I feel their pain," she whimpered to herself, lifting herself upon her elbows, gulping down air as her face surfaced from the blood. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she clasped her hands to her head, her body shaking with sobs. "It hurts ... it hurts!"
Their memories are their lives. We are bound to their lives, and thus we are bound to their memories, replied the voice inside her mind that was Ryujin.
"I don't want to watch them die!" Akane cried, clutching her temples. Her words echoed through the hallway but she did not hear her own voice, drowned out as it was by the imagined cries of the dead. "Make it stop. Please make it stop."
Akane felt herself rising to her feet. Her legs moved, her vision swayed. She felt the rhythm of the floor hitting the soles of her feet, saw the corridor moving past in the opposite direction. Her body moved of its own accord, hopping over the bodies. She was, somehow, running toward the elevator door.
We only witness the beginning of death. It is painful but it is brief. The duty of overseeing their eternal suffering falls upon another. Take comfort in that.
The thick steel door loomed ahead, like everything else in the room - silent and motionless. Her breath caught in her throat. The door was not going to open. Panic rose within her, her throat tightening as her arms flailed uselessly. She could not stop her run, nor even slow it. A scream escaped her throat as she held up her hands in a desperate, futile attempt to brace for the impact.
The impact did not come. Her eyes widened as her arms transformed, flesh becoming liquid. Where once she had skin, only translucent water remained. She did not even have time to gasp before she plowed into the immovable metal. Her body burst out from the other side of the door, phasing effortlessly through it. Free of the obstacle, her body resolidified, just in time to crash into the elevator's handrail. She staggered back from the impact and collapsed backwards onto the elevator platform.
She gasped for breath, winded, her stomach complaining at the movement. Her body ached, and her head was swimming - but at least the voices had stopped. There was silence in her ears now, blessed, sweet silence.
What just happened, she thought to herself. How did I ...?
She coughed and rolled over, clutching her stomach. Something caught her eye then; something that made her sit bolt upright despite the pain. A Hidari clone sat in the corner of the elevator platform facing her, both hands clutching at the handrail behind it. It stared at her with wide eyes, glancing between her and the elevator door. Its body trembled as it opened its mouth.
"Please don't kill me."
Ukyo came to a stop beside a pile of three dead Hidari laying haphazardly atop one another. A multitude of bullet wounds marked their backs, although blood had long since stopped flowing. From the way they were positioned, she surmised they had not been moved since they had been shot. She glanced in both directions along the corridor, trying to see if the shooter's remains were nearby, but there were no other bodies in the vicinity.
Whoever did this made a clean getaway, she thought to herself. She shook her head, recalling the many mutilated soldiers she had seen. Lucky bastards. I wonder if they're still alive.
My Lady, there is something disturbing here.
What is it?
My analysis of the bullet wounds suggests these creatures were killed by .45 ACP rounds. That calibre is not standard-issue among the Leviathan Spring's personnel.
What are you saying? That an outside group did this?
Unless some of the crew are armed with non-standard munitions, it is a distinct possibility, My Lady.
Well, if it was, I guess they did me a favour, Ukyo replied, scratching her chin. She nudged one of the bodies with the edge of one of her combat boots, rolling it over onto its back. Ranma's face, vacant and pallid, stared up at her. She grimaced and lowered herself to one knee alongside the corpse.
It's strange, she thought as she used the barrel of one of her pistols to turn the creature's head. What is this thing?
I see Ranma's face, but ... I don't feel anything, she replied. I should feel angry, I should feel hatred, I should feel something, but I don't feel a thing. Shouldn't I feel something?
I do not understand, My Lady.
I want to feel something. If I can't, what does that mean? Ukyo wondered. She leaned closer and looked into the creature's empty eyes. Does that mean this creature isn't Ranma? Or does it mean I'm no longer who I once was?
You are Ukyo Kuonji, My Lady--
I know that. But what does that mean? Ever since she touched me, I ... I've felt different. Strange. I don't understand what it is. I feel like I don't understand anything anymore. Why am I doing this? I used to know, but ...
Have you forgotten my purpose, My Lady? You are to destroy Ranma.
I ... I know, she said. I will kill her for what she's done to the soldiers, to the Spring. I'll stop her from hurting Ryoga. I just wish ... I wish I could remember why ....
She sighed and rose to her feet. It doesn't matter.
My Lady, I have an important situational update.
What is it? she asked, looking away from the corpse.
The Leviathan Spring's situation is dire. Sensors are reporting fires in the secondary and tertiary Pillar laboratories. Halon systems are operational in the tertiary lab, but the extinguishers in the secondary lab are malfunctioning. The fire is spreading. The air filtration systems are offline, as are many of the automated doors and elevators. Power supplies are fluctuating throughout the vessel. Eighty-six percent of onboard security surveillance systems are inoperative.
How the hell did all that damage happen so quickly? she wondered. Have you located any survivors?
Not yet, My Lady. There are very few cameras still operational, which severely restricts my observational capabilities. However, I did manage to establish a link with a surveillance camera near the primary Pillar laboratory. I believe the footage I received is of tactical importance.
Stand by, My Lady. I will show you.
Dizziness swept over her, forcing her to lean against a wall for balance as Seraph Wing co-opted her senses. Her perception of the world around her disappeared, leaving her a disembodied observer in a black void. Static filled her eyes and ears, before resolving itself into the slightly grainy, low-quality images and sounds recorded by the camera.
Her mind reeled, trying to cope with the sudden change. It was a surreal experience to view a hallway from such a bizarre angle. She felt a vague sense of dizziness, her eyes struggling to adapt to a much narrower field of view than they were accustomed to. The hallway itself was empty. Save for the flickering of one of the fluorescent light tubes that illuminated the corridor, she could easily have believed that she was looking at a still photograph.
Tiny wisps of black smoke crept onto the edge of the picture. Had the rest of the picture not been so perfectly still, she might not even have noticed them. Thin, dark tendrils grew thicker and longer, stretching out across the floor of the corridor. They joined together, swirling into a single black mass.
What is that? she asked. Seraph Wing did not respond. A moment later, she was given her answer.
The picture before her eyes began to flicker and distort as the smoke spread across the floor; it did not rise and expand like a gas but instead stuck to the floor like a thick, viscous fluid. A figure stepped into the frame, wreathed in the blackness. The shadows obscured its features completely, save for its two malevolently burning eyes.
Two arms protruded from the smoke, arms that appeared human but ended in curled, burning claws that belched forth more of the thick smoke. Long, fiery strands burned atop its head in the place of hair, streaming down its back to the floor.
The glowing orbs of its eyes turned slowly to stare directly at the camera; directly at Ukyo. The picture before her eyes began to flicker and distort as the camera itself began to melt from the sheer heat of the creature's presence. The picture flickered violently for just a moment and then - nothing but static. Ukyo jumped back as the video was snatched away from her eyes, leaving her own vision once more in its place.
My Gods, Ranma, what have you become?
I feel this is an appropriate moment to remind you of my recommendation to retreat for repairs, My Lady.
Noted, she replied, gritting her teeth. Now tell me where that camera was.
Akane-Ryujin pulled herself to her knees, the stinging pain in her ribs forgotten. The Hidari watching her tensed as she moved, pulling itself further back in response. It stared at her with wide, watering eyes, wincing each time she moved even a single muscle.
"Are you a ghost?" it asked in a tiny voice that echoed upwards into the darkened elevator shaft. "Are you going to kill me?"
She sat back on her legs, bewildered by this timid creature. This was the first Hidari she had ever seen that had not shown any malice or anger. This clone, unlike the others, did not leap for her with its teeth bared like a wild beast. Instead it cowered in a corner as if she were the animal.
"Kill you?" she replied, unable to hide her surprise. Why was it not attacking her?
The Hidari nodded. "The others want to kill me. I escaped, and they want to kill me. I just want to get out."
"Others?" she asked. "What others?"
"The others ... like me. The other tube-children."
"Is that what you call yourself?"
"They have a word, but I don't know it," the Hidari replied. It shuffled a little further away from her, pressing itself back against the handrail. The movement jarred its left shoulder and it winced, clutching its right hand over its upper arm.
"You're hurt," Akane observed, watching its hand tighten upon its arm. Her instincts cried out for her to tend to the wound of a living creature - and yet this was a Hidari, an empty shell of a creature with no heart, no soul. Even so, she could feel life flowing within it; she wanted to help it.
Why do I feel this way, she wondered. It wasn't like this with the others.
"One of the others cut me," the clone replied. "I ... I tried to fight, but Six-Three was too strong. I thought he was going to kill me, but then ... then I was falling, and the next thing I can remember is being here. I just wanted to get out of the tube, but ...."
"Let me help you. I won't hurt you," Akane said in a soothing voice. She stood and walked toward the clone, who watched her warily, but tolerated the movement. Kneeling down before it, she looked over at its arm. "Move your hand, please."
The Hidari looked her up and down with its wide blue eyes, chewing its lower lip for a moment before complying with her instruction.
"This doesn't look too serious," she observed, wary of its jumpiness and careful not to touch the clone lest she frighten it too much. "I can help you, if you'll let me."
"O-okay," it replied after a time. As it closed its eyes, it implored, "Please don't hurt me."
Reaching out, she placed her hand above the clone's bare upper arm. The Hidari twitched, but nothing more. The wound was small - less than a hand's width across - but it had bled a lot. Placing her palm over the wound, but not quite touching, she willed Ryujin to mend the damaged flesh.
A gentle warmth grew inside the palm of her hand and spread outwards, penetrating the clone's skin. She could feel the wound closing, the torn flesh repairing itself under her guidance. A small smile spread across her lips. For the Lady of Life, helping a living creature was the very essence of purpose.
Except, she realised, this was not a living creature. This was a Hidari. Why, then, did he feel like a human? She could see the spark of life burning bright within him, the will to live and survive that was absent from the artificial Hidari. Just what, exactly, was this creature?
She turned her gaze to his face; her smile grew as she watched his mouth become a tiny 'o'. The memories of Ranma healing her shoulder when they had first met were still fresh in her mind, as were the memories of how good it had felt when she had done so. This clone, it seemed, was experiencing the same pleasure she once had.
It was a surreal experience. The clone had Ranma's face - albeit a little younger-looking than the original, and obviously, male instead of female. There was a small black smudge on his right cheek, and his deep-black hair hung unkempt over his forehead. She pulled away her hand and he opened his eyes; Ranma's piercing blue eyes, staring at her in wonder.
"Better?" she asked, tearing her gaze away from those eyes to look down at the metal grille that covered the elevator platform. Behind her, noticed neither by her or the Hidari, a small cloud of white feathers melted out of her robe and floated gently to the floor.
"Yes," the Hidari replied, visibly more relaxed. He twisted his lips in the beginnings of a smile. "I, ah ... thank you."
"You're ... different," she said at length, looking up at him once again. "You're not like the others, are you?"
"I ... don't know," he replied. "I only met one other. I am not like him."
"Six-Three, right?" she asked.
"Unit two-six-six-three of batch two-five-three, thirty-seventh generation, third revision."
"I ... see," she replied, bewildered. "So you call him Six-Three for short?"
"That is what he called himself when he said he attacked me," the Hidari said. He gestured to the barcode tattooed on his chest. "I am designated Unit three-six-five-nine of batch two-four-eight, thirty-seventh generation, third revision."
"So that would make you ... Five-Nine?" Akane asked, eyeing the tattoo.
"That is what the others would call me," he replied, glancing away from her. "I do not want their name."
"Okay," Akane replied thoughtfully. "How about just Nine?"
"I ... like that," Nine replied, once again almost smiling. "Thank you."
"My name is Akane," she said, offering her hand. Nine looked at it for a moment before extending his own. She took it, and shook it. "I'm pleased to meet you, Nine."
"I'm pleased to meet you, too ... Akane," Nine said, watching the handshake closely. He ran his fingers along the palm of her hand and remarked, "So you really aren't a ghost."
"No, not a ghost," Akane replied with a small laugh. She released Nine's hand and sat back upon her legs. He gave her a confused look; after running through the door as she had, she did not blame him. The realisation that her eyes were glowing registered dully in the back of her mind. "But I guess I understand why you could think so."
"What are you?"
She let out a sigh; she should have seen that question coming. Folding her arms, she tilted her head back and looked up into the empty elevator shaft. It was a simple question, a reasonable question - and yet, it was not one she could answer. She could feel Ryujin inside her, and yet she was still Akane - what did that make her?
"I'm ... a friend," she said at last. She did not need to glimpse at Nine to see the questions forming on his lips. Before they could be asked, however, the painful creak of twisting metal echoed up through the shaft from below. An alarm rang in the distance, its plaintive call warbling on and off erratically. "You said you wanted to escape, right?"
Ukyo? Can you hear me, Ukyo? Please come in, Ukyo.
There's too much interference, said Yoiko. Electronic systems are glitching all over the sub. That's got to be making a mess out of anything we're trying to transmit.
That doesn't mean I'm going to just give up, Ryoga replied. He scowled as he edged forward, peering through the seemingly everpresent steam that clouded the corridor. She has to be out there somewhere.
Why don't we go to the control room? If I had access to the surveillance systems, I could probably find her that way.
The control room is at the other end of the sub, Ryoga said with a shake of his head. I'm not going to risk taking you all that way when we're so close to the launch hangar.
You don't have to worry so much about me, Yoiko responded tartly. It never ceased to amaze him how his sister could manage to sound annoyed through a medium that conveyed no emotion whatsoever. We should go and find her.
You're my sister, I'm not going to leave you alone with those monsters around, he replied firmly. Tightening his grip upon his pistol, he stepped forward into the mist. I'm gonna get you out of here. Ukyo can ... can look after herself.
Okay, that's it! I've had enough, Yoiko replied angrily. That's a load of crap and you know it. You haven't stopped calling out for her this whole time. We can't just leave without her.
"I'm trying to protect you!" Ryoga yelled out loud, whirling upon her. He grabbed her shoulders tightly, his face glowing red in the light of alarm lights. "Don't you understand? They'll kill you if they find you!"
"I want to help her," Yoiko replied firmly, looking her brother straight in the eye. "I don't want her to die because you're protecting me."
"Damn it, Yoiko--"
"I'm your sister, Ryoga. I know you. I see the way you look at her, and I'm not going to be the reason you leave her behind. Let's go and find her - together, okay?"
"W-what?" Ryoga stammered, recoiling from her.
"I'm not stupid, Ryoga. It's obvious. Now stop standing there blushing like an idiot and come on. I want to find her too, y'know. I've lost friends today and I'm not going to lose another one."
Akane watched the grey walls of the elevator shaft roll by at a painstakingly slow rate. The shaft seemed to stretch up into infinity above. She jabbed her finger again and again against the 'up' button on the elevator's control panel. The elevator was moving, albeit slowly, and emitting a worrying grinding noise as it slowly ascended the shaft. She was unsure whether the elevator was malfunctioning or if it was intended to move so slowly.
Come on, she thought. We're vulnerable here.
Her heart thrummed against her chest; she realised that this sense of frustration was the first taste of anger she had experienced since she had awoken. In a way, the sharp emotion was refreshing - as if she had woken from a foggy dream. It was oddly comforting to know that Ryujin's all-encompassing serenity had not completely deracinated her own nature.
Sighing, she drew her robe around herself and looked over at Nine, seeking distraction. "Do you know why the others were trying to kill you? They don't fight with each other, so why you?"
Her words echoed into silence but Nine did not respond. She stepped closer, wondering if perhaps he had not heard her, and was about to speak again when he finally answered.
"When I was sleeping I could hear the others talking, sometimes. They never talked to me, but they talked about me," he said, leaning against the platform's handrail and staring off into the blackness below. "They said that because of me there would be no more of us. They all hated me. I told them I'd done nothing wrong, but they didn't believe me. That's why I had to get out."
"No more?" Akane wondered. No more Hidari? But why? Why would they stop? Unless ...
"You're it, aren't you?" she asked as realisation struck.
"You're the perfect copy," she continued, remembering Happosai's words of so long ago. "The goal of the Hidari project is to create a perfect copy of Ranma. Why would they stop, unless they'd made that copy?"
"What?" Nine asked, a puzzled look on his face as he turned away from the platform edge. "What's Ranma?"
"Ranma's a person. A person who looks just like you. But if you're a perfect copy, why are you a boy?"
"What are you talking about? I ... don't understand."
"Neither do I," Akane admitted with a sigh. She frowned and turned away from him, sinking deep into her own thoughts. "I don't understand any of this."
With a shake of his head, Nine gave up any attempt to understand what Akane was saying and returned to the handrail. Silence once more descended upon them, save for the monotonous sound of the elevator's ascent.
Akane paced back to the control panel, a deep frown creasing her face. Happosai had said the Hidari were created as weapons. If Nine was the ultimate goal of that project, would that not make him the ultimate weapon? He certainly did not seem to even resemble a weapon. But if he wasn't a weapon, then what was he? Phoenix would not create such a thing without a purpose.
"Akane, look," called Nine from the other side of the platform. She turned and saw he was pointing at a pipe that that ran along the elevator shaft. As she walked closer to him, she saw that a recess had been cut into the platform to allow for the pipe, but it had been knocked out of alignment somehow. As the platform rose it scraped noisily against the pipe.
"So that's what that sound was," she observed as she drew alongside Nine, her other concerns temporarily forgotten. She peered closely at the offending object. "That's a water pipe."
"Water? How do you know?" queried Nine.
"I just know," she replied a little too hastily. She felt a quiet surge of guilt, but there was no time for explanations. Ryujin's eyes showed her the faint glow of warm water streaming upwards through the pipe at a fast pace. "If I move this pipe, maybe it'll speed things up a bit."
"I wonder why nothing else is damaged," Nine commented, peering over the edge of the platform. The pipe was thick, and of sturdy construction. Whatever had knocked it out of alignment must have been a significant blast. "How can we move it?"
Akane smiled and closed her eyes. "Leave that to me."
Holding out her hands, she closed her eyes and envisaged the brightly-glowing stream of water before her. She could feel the heat, the gentle flow of energy that permeated it. With a wordless whisper, she reached out toward the pipe and implored the water to hear her call.
Reaching out with her mind, she took gentle hold of the water itself and guided it to the right, compelling it to push with all of its weight to shift the pipe. Obediently, the water obeyed her will and began to push against the steel that contained it. The pressure grew greater and greater; with a loud creak, the pipe itself began to move.
The platform jolted as the pipe was pushed clear, its slow juddering motion becoming swift and smooth. Akane smiled and tenderly held the water for just a moment.
Opening her eyes at last, she found Nine standing beside the pipe, staring at it in absolute wonder. His eyes darted to her, then back to the pipe, then returned to her once again.
"How did you--"
"It's ... a gift," she offered. She smiled, somewhat awkwardly, and turned away from his wide eyes. "It's hard to explain."
"You walk through walls, you move things without touching them," Nine said, his voice quiet. There was a lengthy pause. "I'm ... glad you're on my side."
Akane could not help but chuckle at the statement, despite her own misgivings. Was she on his side? She did not know. She certainly did not bear him any ill will, but that was certainly not the same thing as being 'on his side'. Truth be told, she didn't know what to think of him. He seemed nice enough. Friendly, once he realised she wasn't going to kill him.
She could feel his gaze upon her back. He was watching her closely. Every movement, no matter how well hidden by her robes, was being tracked. He certainly didn't trust her yet - particularly after her little stunt. She could not blame him for that mistrust. A part of her did not know why she had not freed him from his body the moment she saw him.
Ryujin's will - and to an extent her own - had driven her to free the Hidari clones without hesitation. And yet, this one was different. She felt no compulsion to free this one. Ryujin was oddly silent, and that was somewhat disconcerting. The fact that she had grown so dependant on Ryujin's presence in such a short time was equally worrying. How much of her consciousness was her own? Was she even the same person she had once been?
She looked down at the floor. Will Ranma even recognise me?
A droplet of rain fell to the floor of the platform in front of her. It was joined by another, and another, and another. Dozens quickly became hundreds; hundreds became thousands. The sudden downpour was warm as it touched her, soaking her hair and wetting her face. Although her body remained dry within its robe, the warmth permeated the fabric to touch her skin. She smiled, closing her eyes as she let the water wash over her.
It feels good to touch the rain again, she thought. The soothing liquid reinforced her suddenly-flagging spirits and brought cheer to her heart. However, a sudden realisation struck her, forcing her eyes open.
She turned to Nine, who was soaked through-and-through. The Hidari shrugged and pointed upwards.
"Looks like you burst the pipe when you moved it," he said with a bemused smile on his face. "At least it's not cold, I guess."
Ryoga held his body against the wall of the corridor, holding one arm out behind him to keep his sister up against the wall as well. A small, repetitive thumping sound had caught his attention - it sounded like an air conditioning unit cycling on and off, but in the current situation he wasn't going to take anything for granted.
We just came down this corridor, complained Yoiko. It's empty.
Not necessarily. It was empty, but someone might have heard our little shouting match, he replied. He was still slightly annoyed at her; both for defying him, and for being annoyingly right as usual. Of course he wanted to find Ukyo, but he didn't want to risk his sister while doing so.
Too late for worries like that, he thought to himself. Just gotta hope this turns out for the best.
Keep calling out for her, he instructed. We might get lucky and find her before we get to the control room.
Sure, she replied, and began calling out with her mind for Ukyo.
He peered into the darkened distance, but his search was frustrated by the abundant steam that continued to belch forth from many broken pipes. He thought back to his days in Bravo Team, and wished for just a moment that he had his old uniform - although with so much hot steam flying around, he had his doubts as to how useful the IR goggles would be.
Keeping his sidearm raised, he pulled Yoiko along as he slowly advanced down the hot, humid tunnel. Somehow, it seemed much hotter travelling away from the launch bay than it did when they were moving toward it. Thick beads of sweat rolled down his forehead to drip onto his cheeks, and his clothes grew increasingly heavy with moisture.
B174, remarked Yoiko, indicating a small door as they passed it. We're about a quarter of the way to the control room, I think.
Damn it, this is taking too long, he complained. I don't know how much time we have before things get completely out of hand here.
They're already pretty out of hand, she observed.
You're right. Come on, he said, taking her hand. We're going to have to speed things up.
Yoiko did not have time to speak before Ryoga yanked her forwards, pulling her from a cautious creep into a more brisk walk. He kept his eyes and pistol forward, ever vigilant - she tried her best to watch their rear as she was tugged along.
Without warning, the very floor beneath them shook - a deep, reverberating rattle that ran along the length of the corridor, shaking the walls. A fluorescent light that hung overhead - one of the few that were still functioning - fell from its bracket and smashed into the ground in front of Ryoga, plunging them into darkness as it shattered into countless pieces.
Ryoga swore, stopping abruptly upon the broken glass. Yoiko plowed into his back, nudging him forwards with her momentum. He crouched in front of her and stared ahead. What the hell was that?
She pulled away from him and turned, broken glass crunching beneath her shoes as she looked in both directions down the corridor. As far as she could see, nothing had changed; steam still filled the air, lit red by the everpresent alarm lighting.
A loud crash made her jump - before she could even turn, the explosive sound of gunfire ripped through the air, blasting into her ears and leaving a deafening ring in its wake. A dull, muted thud registered in her ears and when she turned, she caught sight of a dead Hidari clone sprawled across the floor in front of her kneeling brother.
They found us, Ryoga said, his mental voice calm and clear even as Yoiko heard his heavy, laboured breathing. Shit.
Without even thinking, Yoiko rushed to her brother and snatched Haruka's pistol. She closed her untrained hands around the grip and raised it, shakily pointing it down the corridor over Ryoga's shoulder.
Give that back, Yoiko, you're not-- Ryoga began, his words cut off by another loud crash. Two Hidari spilled into the corridor through the gaping hole they had just created and charged at them. Ryoga opened fire upon one, piercing its chest with two well-placed bullets.
Yoiko stared at the remaining Hidari, paralysed with fear as it rushed toward her, its bright blue eyes burning with primal hatred. She was unable to look away from those eyes, and the haunting emptiness that lingered within them.
The thunderclap of gunfire again filled the air. Yoiko stared in horrified amazement at the Hidari standing before her. The bullet had burst through its forehead and ripped open the back of its skull, but still it stood before her, its face and chest soaked in blood that poured the entry wound. The clone hung there, standing motionless for what seemed an eternity, staring at her with vacuous eyes, before finally toppling silently backwards onto the two others already laying there.
If you're going to use that gun, take the safety off, Ryoga instructed as he stood without looking back at her.
Nodding dumbly, she fumbled with numb fingers to disengage the safety. While squinting to find it, she noticed a shadow moving in the corner of her eye, and whirled to face it. High-pitched screaming once more filled the air.
Ryoga! They're behind us too!
Ukyo lowered herself to one knee, peering curiously at a small black shape upon the ground. It seemed oddly out of place - sufficiently so to catch her eye as she rushed through the myriad corridors of the Leviathan Spring. Removing the glove from one hand, she reached down toward it.
"What's this," she muttered as her fingers closed around it, drawing it into her palm. She brought it up to her face - a small, black feather. It was silky smooth, and warm to the touch. She tossed it in her palm, flipping it over from one side to the other. It was heavier than a feather should be; it did not hang in the air but fell straight back into her hand.
I am not able to identify the composition of the feather, My Lady. I am also unsure how such a thing would come to be aboard the Leviathan Spring. There are no animals aboard the vessel.
This is no animal feather, she replied, curling the feather lightly between her fingers. She ran the tip of one finger along its length. This came from Ranma.
What makes you so sure, My Lady?
I don't know how I know, she replied, chewing her lip thoughtfully. I just know.
Pocketing the feather, she slipped her glove back on and stepped forward, looking back and forth across the floor. It was only a few steps before another feather caught her eye. Look. There's another. Seraph Wing, help me find these.
As you wish, My Lady.
She knelt and reached out with her spatial sense, searching the floor for tens of metres in front of her. Several feathers jumped out at her senses, giving away their positions down to the nanometre.
Got you, Ranma. I've found your trail, she exclaimed, clenching her fists in satisfaction. She stood and began to jog forward along the trail of feathers she had found. Seraph Wing, trace these feathers. Show me the way.
As you wish, My Lady.
She rounded a corner, picking up speed as the trail of feathers was lit before her, a glowing path for her to follow. Her jog quickly became a run. Deftly hopping over the lifeless bodies, mangled power conduits and twisted pipes she careened through corridor after corridor, spurred on by the knowledge that she was catching up to her prey.
She came to a malfunctioning door that was stuck half-open, a trail of sparks lighting the air near its control panel. She sped up, expanding her biokinetic plating as she drew closer. She collided heavily with the door, which was shoved away from her with explosive force by the charged shield and sent flying only to skid to a stop further down the corridor.
With the obstacle removed, she finally caught sight of her prey; a malevolent black cloud hovered in the distance, a dark void that moved through the erratic lighting of the overhead fluorescents. She charged forward without hesitation or fear.
Here I come, Ranma!
Suddenly, a loud static hiss filled her ears, throwing her off-balance. Her foot caught the edge of a shattered pipe, sending her tumbling forward to the ground. Her biokinetic plating hummed, a tingling golden glow running along its length as it caught her, holding her suspended a centimetre above the floor.
She looked up in dismay to see the black cloud disappear around a corner. Snarling, determined not to lose her prey, she pulled herself to her feet, trying to ignore the raging static that flooded in her ears. She charged forward again, skidding to a stop at the T-intersection that had swallowed Ranma moments before.
...everywhere! Ukyo! I need you--
The sound of Ryoga's voice caught her completely off guard. Her eyes flew wide open as she spun to the source of the sound, turning to face the direction from which she had come moments before.
Ryoga? What is it? she called, holding one hand to her ear as she stepped toward the smashed door. Cold dread flooded her mind. Can you hear me? What happened? Ryoga? Ryoga!
My Lady, you are heading in the wrong direction, objected Seraph Wing as she backtracked along the corridor to the next intersection. Ranma is moving away from us.
Damn it, forget Ranma! she snarled. Ryoga is around here somewhere and he needs my help. Find him, Seraph Wing!
Ryoga? He is not part of--
Shut up! Just shut the hell up and FIND HIM!