"... nominal, temperature rising to normal range, vital signs stabilising. Everything looks good."
Ukyo let out a quiet groan as muffled voices swept into her mind, washing away a blank void that she had not known existed until it was gone. A sharp, surging pain coursed through her mind, bringing with it the realisation that her body was numb, unmoving. She tried to force her eyes open, but to no avail.
"Diagnostics of alpha and beta stages are green," came another voice, female, unlike the first. "We have a clean initialisation."
The words left little impression upon her, seeming little more than muffled nonsense to her addled mind. Where was she? What was going on?
"Okay, crack the case - let's see how this goes."
"Yes, Sir. Stand by for decompression; breaking the seal in five."
The words faded into silence, leaving only the thrum of machinery, but as the seconds passed a quiet hissing noise became apparent. A loud clunk shook Ukyo slightly, and the hissing quickly became a loud roar as hot air rushed in around her from all sides. Although she could not feel her body, she was intensely aware of the heat, panic rising within her as she tried to move away from it.
Before she could manage even to flinch, however, the wave of heat was subdued. The loud wooshing sound disappeared, leaving behind only the quiet hissing. She managed somehow to swallow, and felt her ears pop.
A loud clunk resounded through the room from overhead, leaving Ukyo straining to tilt her head backwards toward the source of the noise. Her heart pounded powerfully against her chest, the staccato beat filling her ears.
"Report," came the first voice, much clearer this time. Ukyo found herself able to focus upon the sound, to discern the words that were spoken. The voice was deep but gentle, the words spoken wearily but anxiously.
"We have a perfect break," the female answered, her words punctuated by intermittent beeping. "Everything went smoothly. She's semi-conscious. The interface diagnostic will take a few moments to complete, but everything looks good so far."
"Impressive," came the male voice, much louder. Ukyo felt a faint warmth upon her face, which she could only assume was the breath of the speaker. "You really -do- heal quickly. If only we were all as capable."
A silent moment followed, the warmth of the man's breath upon her cheek ensuring she could feel his eyes boring into her, even if she could not see them. Who the hell was this person? What was he doing?
Again, she tried to open her eyes, willed her body to move, respond in any way, but was met with failure at every turn. If she had been able to cry out in frustration, confusion, she would have, but she was unable to do anything but lie there, limp and helpless.
A sharp pain jolted through her right side and she felt her body lurch of its own accord. The first shock of pain was joined by another, and another, and soon it became a sharp, prickling patch of sensation along her leg.
"Try to relax," came the man's voice. "This won't take long."
Ukyo wanted to call out in pain, to tell this guy in no uncertain terms where he could stick his instructions, but she was powerless to do anything but submit to their prodding. She felt her facial muscles tighten, twisting her face in a grimace. It was involuntary, but summed up her thoughts very accurately indeed.
"Diagnostic complete. It took longer than I thought, but the first batch of tests is complete. We can reseal the hatch."
"Good," the man replied, the proximity of his mouth to Ukyo's face sending tingles down her spine. Her body shivered reflexively, despite her attempts to stop it. At least the pain had stopped.
"Sir, her heart rate's beginning to rise to dangerous levels. We're nearing maximum tolerance levels - we need to put her back under."
"I know, I know," the man replied, annoyance in the words. A silent moment passed before he spoke again, and with his words Ukyo felt the warmth of his hand pressing against hers. "Welcome back, Miss Kuonji. It's an honour to meet you at last."
"Okay, close it up," the man instructed, his sigh disappearing into the sudden whirr and hiss of hydraulic machinery. There was a solid thunk, and then, nothing.
She had tried, in the beginning, to speak; several attempts were made, but her mouth refused to obey, her body steadfastly denying her mind's desperate pleas. After a time she abandoned her attempts to speak, and instead focused on listening, feeling, and sensing.
Many similar "tests" occurred; to Ukyo it seemed that the moment one test ended, the next would begin, but she eventually came to realise that she was sleeping - or unconscious - for some amount of time between each one. Every time, the voices and sounds were different, the tests were new, the temperature was varied. As the tests continued, she noticed that sensation was gradually returning to her body.
Sometimes the doors opened and her skin prickled with goosebumps, others, she could feel the droplets of sweat dripping agonizingly slowly down her face, her hands unable to wipe them away. She was in a constant state of disorientation, the ever changing conditions instilling within her a perpetual state of panic, of utter confusion.
Her mind was endlessly probing, searching for clues, seeking a pattern, a means to escape her confinement, anything. The only constant was one particular voice - the male voice from her first "test". Whenever the air cleared and the hissing faded into silence, that voice was there, without fail.
It was strange, the voice of this stranger somehow gave her comfort, a handhold upon reality. When she heard this man speak, she knew that she was still in the real world, that she had not gone completely insane, that despite the amorphous, bewildering nature of her existence, there was at least one constant.
Always there, always calm, always kind; comforting her, assuring her everything would be all right, reminding her that it would all be over soon. Were it not for that voice she would have assumed she was being tortured - but with his presence, she somehow knew that she was not in danger.
It was not much, but it was something to cling to. What else could she do?
It was the fifty-seventh test, by Ukyo's reckoning, when things changed in a drastic way. Where there had once been a cacophony of sounds and sensations masked by darkness, now, there was light.
It was not an overwhelming light; more of a grey glow at the centre of her vision, a luminescent sphere that nevertheless held her rapt attention. It may well have been a muted grey, but to Ukyo the effect was just as profound as if it were the brilliant light of the sun.
She could see. She could SEE.
During the time she had spent encased in blackness, she had many times questioned her sanity, even her very existence. It was hard to convince oneself that one is still alive when one's existence is without sight, movement, or speech. Now, though, with this thin ray of light, hope returned to her. Perhaps there was to be an end to this ordeal after all.
Her excitement grew with each subsequent test - she had taken to thinking of them as training exercises, each one pushing her body a little bit further - as she forced a little more from her eyes every time. What began as a small grey shape slowly expanded, grew in size and luminosity, until it dominated her vision and her imagination.
What was the source of this light? Was it some vision from beyond? Thoughts of the light saturated her mind, displacing the familiar voice that had previously held her concentration. She had found something new to cling to, something far more exciting. She knew, if things continued as they had been, that eventually she would be able to discern exactly what it was she was looking at.
By the seventy-ninth test, with the bright white light shining down upon her, she became aware of a new sensation - butterflies in her stomach. The test dragged on, and on, seemingly for an eternity. She waited, patiently, for the whirr and hiss that would signify the end of the test, and perhaps offer the solution to the mystery.
To a starving man, even the tiniest morsel of dried-up, stale bread tastes like the sweetest fruit, filling and satisfying, merely because it is not nothing. As test eighty began and Ukyo's eyes finally opened, she felt much the same.
The source of light was revealed to her as a surgical lamp, three bright lights overhead that bathed her in a sterile white light. It hurt her eyes to gaze up at the bright bulbs but she could not stop herself from staring at them. They were beautiful, because they were real.
They were the first thing she had seen in -- she didn't even know how long it had been. None of that mattered now. All that she cared about was the fact that she could, at last, see again. She studied every curve of the light fixture, unable to turn her head away, unwilling to close her eyes or even blink, lest the gift disappear from whence it had come.
The surrounding area faded away into darkness by comparison, and it was several moments before the blurry edges of movement caught the borders of her peripheral vision. She was not sure, but it looked like several people were moving back and forth around her. Why, she was not sure - she had been so absorbed in the light that she had not been paying any attention to the words being spoken around her.
A silhouette moved across her line of sight, a slightly odd shape that, as her eyes adjusted, resolved into the shape of a female face, with strands of blonde hair dangling down from it. The contraction of Ukyo's pupils must have been noticed by the woman, as a smile spread across her face.
"Can you see me?"
Ukyo blinked, involuntarily, and forced her head to nod, ever so slightly, but enough for the woman to notice. A look of elation passed across the blonde woman's face.
"Looks like we've got a positive result," the woman called, glancing away for a moment. "Pupil dilation and contraction, apparent facial recognition. Everything looks perfect."
"Excellent," came the familiar voice, the voice Ukyo had put aside and almost forgotten in her excitement. Evidently, he had not forgotten her. He spoke from nearby, his voice quiet. "Ukyo, we're ready to move to the next phase. Get some rest, and we'll see you soon."
This time, the sleep was different. Longer. Perhaps, Ukyo reasoned, that was because she had consciousness to compare it to. Now that she had seen the light, she could perceive the absence of it.
When she awoke, the differences continued. The hissing, whirring, and clicking was the same as always - produced, it turned out, by a heavy metal door that swung open, depressurising the chamber that held her. It felt strange to finally see that which she had imagined so many times before, to compare the reality to her imagination.
She was no longer lying down, she realised, but standing straight upwards, held back against what was once the table she lay upon by restraints around her waist, neck, ankles and wrists. If she had the strength she would have protested her bonds, but in her current condition they were all that kept her from collapsing to the floor in a heap.
She peered into the cloud of steam that filled the air as the door opened, her eyes moving back and forth, hoping to discern shapes amongst the mist. Her head sagged to one side, however, making it difficult to see what was going on before her.
"Welcome, Ukyo Kuonji."
Ukyo twitched at the mention of her name, by a new voice, one she had never heard before. She tried to turn her head, forcing her eyes to turn as far as they would allow, to catch a glimpse of the person addressing her.
"I'm sure you have many questions," the man continued. Ukyo finally managed to raise her head enough to bring him into view; he was a tall man, blonde, muscular, seemingly enormous in his military uniform. Ukyo narrowed her eyes, trying to make out the details of his face.
"My staff will be here to answer them for you during your stay," the man said, gesturing with one arm and then the other to the multitude of people, clothed in identical white laboratory coats, to either side of him. He smiled, the leathery skin of his face creasing as he did. She noticed a multitude of scars on the man's face, a slight tremor in his posture, and wondered exactly who this man was. If she had been capable of speech, she would have voiced her questions, but she was limited to silent observation.
"My name is Hunter - Colonel Jonathan Hunter, military attache to the Phoenix Industrial Laboratory for Advanced Research, or PILAR. The 'Pillar' is your new home, for the time being."
Ukyo listened to the Colonel's words, the sharp sense of hearing she had developed over the course of her lifetime working to her favour as she tried to gauge his tone and inflection. He spoke gruffly, abruptly; he was a man who was used to being listened to without interruption. He barely looked away from her, and certainly didn't look to the scientists to either side of himself - clearly he considered them unworthy of his attention, at least relative to her.
A low, constant humming filled the air; it sounded like some sort of engine, Ukyo reasoned. Perhaps an electrical generator? But what kind of laboratory would need to generate its own power?
An isolated lab, perhaps, one cut off from the main power grid. Why isolate a lab? To keep people from finding out what goes on inside, she thought to herself. That thought sparked an intense pang of anxiety within her. Just what kind of 'advanced research' needed such isolation?
A glance around the room brought with it questions rather than answers - Pillar? What kind of place was this Pillar? A secret research laboratory, evidently, the name as well as the abundance of computers and scientific equipment making that fact obvious.
The walls and floors gleamed, their metallic surfaces absolutely spotless. There were no windows that she could see, and only one exit - a large archway, sealed with a metallic door. It looked easily large enough to accommodate a vehicle - although she was not sure why a laboratory would need one. Perhaps for the transportation of materials? If there was vehicular activity in and out of the lab, there was a potential escape route. These people had, apparently, not harmed her - yet, at least - but she did not want to be caught without a plan for escape if the situation called for it.
The Colonel's words continued, by and large ignored by Ukyo as she tried to take in as much detail as she could. There were ventilation grates in the ceiling, but that was high, far out of her reach. Not viable as an escape route, so, quickly dismissed. That left only the door.
Her scan completed, she turned her attention back to the Colonel. His speech was not finished - Ukyo listened, wondering for a moment if she had missed anything important, but the puffing of his chest and the repeated mentions of 'proud tradition' left her with the impression that the speech was more for his benefit than hers.
Her attention quickly wandered away from the Colonel; her newfound powers of sight were still far too new and novel to waste staring at one person. She inspected the men and women standing to either side of the Colonel - they all stood stiffly at attention, although judging by the slight shuffling of feet and slumping of shoulders, this was not a regular activity for them.
They did not look as she had imagined they might - not one of them resembled the stereotypical 'mad scientist' - rather, they all seemed to be respectable people, clean-shaven men and tidy women. They looked more like doctors than anything else.
No, she noticed, not all. There were younger faces amongst the line, and one in particular caught her attention.
He stood shorter than the rest, obviously younger than the others, who all appeared to be middle-aged or older. There were many wrinkles upon the faces of the scientists, but his face was youthful - he looked little more than a teenager. His eyes were striking, brown irises staring intently at her. The man - the boy - smiled at her, his eyes smiling as well from beneath a mop of black hair.
That was him, she realised. That was the voice that had kept her company in the darkness. She stared at his smile and felt that same sense of relief fill her - somehow, she knew he would not hurt her. His was a kind smile, one that put her at ease. She wished, for a moment, that she was able to smile back.
"You will have a short orientation period with the staff of this facility, then I will return to brief you on the current situation," the Colonel spoke after a long pause, the shift from long silence to speech snapping Ukyo out of her reverie. "Welcome aboard."
She turned to look at the Colonel as he gave her a nod and turned away, walking briskly away along the line of scientists, who all stood perfectly still as he passed. Watching him leave, she narrowed her eyes, one of his words hanging in her ears.
The scientists drifted toward her as the door sealed behind the Colonel, each as uncertain as the next, looking at her with what seemed to be extreme trepidation.
It's not like I can hurt them, Ukyo thought to herself. What are they so afraid of?
The boy, however, did not seem afraid. He moved toward her, slowly, hobbling along on a cane - he must have had it held behind himself earlier, Ukyo realised - slowly but surely making his way toward her. One by one the other scientists noticed and backed off, each shuffling off to a computer console or other darkened recess of the lab.
Apparently, the boy wanted some time alone with her, and didn't need to ask the others.
She watched his step carefully; he leaned heavily on the cane, his right leg appearing stiff and reluctant to move. He did not walk gingerly upon it, however, which suggested to her that it was not causing him pain. She wondered for a moment how he sustained whatever injury it was that prevented him from walking, but her ponderance was pushed aside as the boy spoke.
She looked at him and tried to speak, but her body refused to obey, and so her response was little more than a mumbled utterance of acknowledgement. The boy glanced to either side of himself, then reached over and pressed a panel off to one side of Ukyo, outside of her field of view. The console beeped, and before she knew it, a transparent cube of glass slid down from the ceiling to encase the area around her and the boy.
"A protective measure," the boy explained, noticing her bewildered look. "Designed to protect us from you if something were to go wrong, but I knew that would never be necessary. So, we might as well use it to get a little privacy."
A tingle ran down her spine as she became suddenly aware of the boy's proximity, and her body's lack of response. If he were to touch her, there was nothing she could do to stop him. She was completely at his mercy.
He seemed to understand her concern, however, and quickly stepped back, an apologetic look upon his face. "Here, things will be easier if you can talk."
He quickly pressed another button upon the same console, and with another beep, Ukyo felt sensation return to her face. It was strange, a tingly sensation that trickled down her face almost, but not quite, painfully. She worked her jaw, trying to regain control over her muscles.
The boy watched her closely, seemingly quite interested in her efforts. He bore an expression of curiosity, his eyes intently focused upon her attempts to speak.
"Who are you? Where am I?" Ukyo managed at length, forming the words as best she could. She had a thousand other questions to ask, most of them containing accusations of kidnapping, but she wanted to gather as much information about her surroundings as she could before she started irritating her captors. "Why am I being held here?"
"You're in the Pillar. Weren't you listening?"
"Not ... not really," Ukyo replied, forcing her head upwards to match the boy's inquisitive gaze. "I was distracted."
"Well, don't worry about it," the boy replied with a smile. "The Colonel does ramble on a bit. You're doing pretty well to stay awake this long, all things considered. Hell, he nearly put me to sleep."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Sorry, it's just that I'm ... quite excited to see you," the boy explained, glancing away for a moment. "You're in the Pillar's tertiary laboratory, which takes up a little under a sixth of the space aboard this vessel. The other two labs are larger than this one, but all of the exciting stuff goes on right here."
"Vessel?" Ukyo asked. At least now she knew she what 'aboard' meant.
"Yes," the boy said with a nod. "You're aboard the Leviathan Spring, a top-secret research vessel submerged about ten kilometres off the west coast of Japan."
"We're in a submarine?" Ukyo asked, incredulous. It was hard to believe, but it did explain the need for the lab to generate its own power. Her mind raced through the situation, reasoning that if the lab needed power generating facilities, it was staying underwater too long to rely on onboard power reserves.
That made the prospect of escape difficult; a submarine would not be an easy prison to leave. However, a submarine would still need to return to the surface, even if it was an infrequent occurrence - unless it was capable of generating its own oxygen, food, water and power on a self-sustaining basis, and she found that extremely unlikely. Possible, but unlikely.
"That's right. Kind of bizarre, huh?" he commented, looking around the lab. "It took me a while to get used to it, but now I call it home."
"And just who are you?" Ukyo asked, eyeing him carefully. He seemed harmless enough, the twinge of excitement in his voice suggesting that he was enjoying the moment. She wondered just why he was being so friendly.
"The name's Hibiki," the boy replied, returning his attention to her. He patted his chest as he spoke. "Ryoga Hibiki. I've been assigned as your tech."
"You already seem to know who I am. What's a tech?"
"Technical support. It's a long story," Ryoga replied. A moment of silence passed before he noticed her worried expression and added, "Don't worry, I'll explain everything later.
"For now," he continued, the smile returning to his face, "just try to put up with all of the red tape the Colonel has lined up for you. Once that's over and done with, we can get to the fun stuff."
"Fun stuff?" Ukyo asked, in as even a tone as she could manage. She didn't want to give away her true feelings, but she thought it would have been obvious that fun was the -last- thing on her mind. Clearly, this Ryoga enjoyed his work.
"Wait and see," Ryoga replied, his voice tilted in an enigmatic curl. Leaning in toward her, he whispered conspiratorially, "I think you're going to like it."
The next few hours revealed to Ukyo exactly what Ryoga had meant by "red tape". With her face once again numbed she was introduced to the entire staff of the laboratory - as well as a seemingly endless procession of anonymous military personnel - one after the other, as they moved past her.
Introduced was the incorrect word for it, she thought, four hours into her tour. A more appropriate word would have been "exhibited". With her body limp and motionless, sealed behind a wall of glass, her only means of expression was her eyes. She was held up for display, a silent attraction for a parade of tourists eager to catch a glimpse of her.
The question of why they were so interested in her occupied her mind for most of the time. She wasn't moving, or doing anything remotely interesting; she was fully clothed, and presumably looked like little more than a living rag doll. She truly failed to understand the attraction.
One group in particular caught her attention, however; the Colonel brought with him a group of military officials, lined them up, and gave them what appeared to be a presentation. She was no expert on the military hierarchy but could tell from the Colonel's body language that they were, without a doubt, his superiors. He moved stiffly, and she noticed a thin sheen of sweat forming on his forehead - clearly, these men made him nervous.
He stood in front of her, his back to her, for an extended period. She could see his jaw moving as he talked, but could not hear him through the glass of the door that was sealed closed in front of her. After a while, he raised one arm and used it to point at various parts of her body, punctuating each gesture with a short monologue.
She occupied herself for a time with attempting to fathom just what the Colonel was saying, but quickly dismissed her thoughts as mere conjecture. She was no lipreading expert, and she couldn't make out any words from the mumbled sound that made it through the glass.
The assembled officers looked her up and down at great length, some nodding every now and then as the Colonel delivered his speech. It seemed that she was passing whatever test she was being put through; the men looked pleased, and as the speech drew to a close, they applauded.
The question of what would have happened to her if they had not been satisfied briefly crossed her mind as she watched the men leave, but she quickly decided it was best not to dwell upon it.
"I imagine you're feeling like a fish out of water," the Colonel said, his voice echoing through the vastness of the Pillar's tertiary lab. The room was darkened and unmanned, leaving Ukyo held under the bright spotlight of the surgical lamp, the Colonel marauding in the shadows. His voice was sharp, carrying with it a predatory edge that left Ukyo extremely nervous.
"That's one way of putting it," she replied. Sensation had returned to her face shortly after the last of the staff left earlier, and she had regained almost full control over her muscles in the time since then. It had not helped her any; she was still restrained quite securely.
"This must all be very confusing. I apologise; that's the nature of these things. We have all tried to make your stay as comfortable as possible under the circumstances."
"You were in quite a mess when we found you. It's taken us nearly six months to repair the damage."
"Six -months-?" Ukyo asked, boggling. How could it have been six months? A more important question followed: six months since what? She could remember nothing. "What kind of damage?"
"See for yourself," the Colonel replied. At his word, the wall on the far side of the lab burst into light, drowning the entire lab in its glow as an image was projected upon it at a massive scale.
Ukyo's eyes widened in shock, the blood draining from her face, a nauseous feeling gathering in her stomach as she stared in horror at the picture. It was of herself, or her body at least, propped up against a tree. Bright red blood covered her skin and clothes, but it was the centre of the image that burned itself into her eyes.
Her head was missing; in its place was nothing more than a bloody stump.
She forced her eyes shut, fighting back the convulsions in her stomach that threatened to overwhelm her. Gods, she thought, what a sickening sight.
"What the hell happened to me?" she demanded, when at last she was able to speak. "What did you do?"
"Your body possesses an extraordinary regenerative capability. All we had to do was assist it along the way; your body regrew nearly everything on its own. All of the nerve connections, blood vessels, bone, on its own. It really was quite extraordinary to watch--"
"I mean, how the HELL did I end up like that?!"
"Oh, I see," the Colonel said, his tone casual. "We didn't cut off your head, if that's what you're wondering. That was done by another - we helped you to repair yourself."
"You don't ... recover from having your head cut off!" Ukyo cried, not daring to open her eyes. "I was dead!"
"Evidently, -you- recovered just fine. If I understood just how you managed to do so, I would be a wealthy man. As it is, the DNA samples we collected from you are going to fuel medical research for the next thirty years, if not more."
"This isn't natural," Ukyo murmured, a tremble crawling down her spine. Such an image, such a suggestion were enough to drive her to despair. How could one return from the dead? One could not. The immediate assumption she made was that the photo had been manipulated, and that was the assumption she decided to work with - it was the only conclusion she could draw that did not make her want to scream.
"We're getting caught up in the details," the Colonel commented with a dismissive wave of his hand. "There are people here who can explain the technicalities to whatever level of detail you desire. That's not why I'm here - I'm here to offer a proposal to you."
"Turn off that damned picture," Ukyo insisted, opening her eyes again only after the Colonel complied. She breathed deeply, trying to wash away the image that hung in her mind, as vibrant and bright as the actual picture itself. Whoever doctored that photo did an amazing job.
"I believe we have a lot to offer each other, Ukyo. I propose we work as a team."
"I don't need your help. What do I have to gain from you?" she asked. Tugging at her restraints, she added, "Other than my freedom?"
"That's a good question. Before I can answer it, I have to give you a little history lesson," the Colonel replied. He stepped into the circle of light and looked up at Ukyo. "The Phoenix organisation is very old. Hundreds of years old. It's divided up into several subdivisions - military, research and development, exploration and archaeology, and so on. It's a large and diverse organisation, but from its moment of creation it has always been centred on one goal and one goal alone."
"Phoenix was established to protect humanity from an extremely dangerous threat. One you should be quite familiar with, in fact: dragonkin."
"Dragonkin?" Ukyo asked. She mouthed the word again, and again; it felt strangely familiar as it rolled across her tongue, bringing with it a vague uncomfortable sensation that she couldn't quite place. She knew that word.
"Our organisation does not get involved in wars, international conflicts, or politics. We operate at a level above such concerns. Our charter states that we are to respond to the specific threat dragons pose to the future of humanity. It is a threat we have been unable to contain - all of our efforts have been met with failure.
"It is no secret within the ranks that attempting to take down a dragon means almost certain death. In fact, of all those who have fought the dragons, only one - one! - has ever survived. Can you imagine how the troops feel? Morale is on the floor, and our numbers grow thinner every day. We are on the verge of breaking down; that cannot be allowed to happen."
"That's a terrible shame, but what does any of this have to do with me?"
"Our organisation has been observing you for a very long time. You have dedicated your entire life to the completion of a single task, and yet for all your efforts you've been met with nothing but failure. That said, even in failure you show an astounding potential."
Ukyo sank into silence, her attention captured by the Colonel's words. She felt a strange sense of familiarity, a profound truth in his observation, even though she could remember nothing before the laboratory.
"You may not recall it, but your heart knows of what I speak. Think - remember."
She moved to speak but hesitated, a faint feeling of recognition sparking within her mind. Somehow, she knew what he was speaking about, but could not quite place it. Closing her eyes, she forced her mind to delve into the depths of her memory, seeking out any moment to latch on to, anything to grasp amongst the emptiness.
She found what she was after, not in a moment, image, sound or smell, but in a colour. Red. She remembered red. It was as she tried to fathom the meaning of the colour that the floodgates of memory burst open.
Her body jolting, she cried out in surprise as a flash of memory surged into her mind, a blinding, screaming moment of revelation; her mind was filled with flashes of red, the hot touch of a blade, the twisting agony of her own death.
She saw it all. The memories of a lifetime burst forward into her mind, all of them focused around a single, ever-present individual. Ranma. Ranma Saotome. The source of all her misery. The root of all her rage and hate.
"Rrrrrrranma," she growled, her mind welling with a rage so intense that it pushed all other emotions aside. So consuming, so integral, now that she could recall it she failed to comprehend how she could ever have forgotten it.
"I can help you kill her," the Colonel whispered, his face almost close enough to touch hers. "She is the key to it all. If she dies the dragons die with her. It is what you want, isn't it?"
"Tell me your proposal," Ukyo muttered. Opening her eyes, she looked expectantly to the Colonel.
"You are not strong enough, fast enough, or smart enough to destroy Ranma. You can try, but you will fail. However, if you agree to join Alpha Team, become part of the organisation, I can give you a gift that will help you realise your full potential. You can succeed where all others have failed."
The Colonel said nothing; he casually reached down and began unbuttoning the jacket of his uniform, his eyes locked upon hers as the garment slowly opened. Reaching within, he pulled out a pistol.
"This pistol fires twelve millimetre ammunition. It's enough to blow a person's head apart. It makes a mess, but it's very effective. It has served me well over the course of my career. It might seem strange, but I even named it. I call it Jericho."
"That's your gift?" Ukyo replied in disbelief, a sneer on her face.
"No, it's not," the Colonel replied. A calm look upon his face, he raised the pistol, aimed it at Ukyo's forehead, and squeezed the trigger.
"Is it done?"
Hunter glanced over his shoulder as he buttoned up his jacket and nodded once, the speed of his walk not decreasing. His footsteps were joined by another set, moving in time with his own.
"I must stress to you the importance of this mission. We can't afford any mistakes."
"I understand," Hunter replied. "I am well aware of this mission's importance, Sir."
"Good. I'm trusting you with this one, Jon. Don't damage that trust. This mission is being watched -very- closely."
"You have my word. Everything will proceed as planned."
"I take it we shall be getting underway shortly?"
"The Captain knows what he's supposed to be doing. Once we offload the Council, it won't take us long to reach Okinawa."
"Excellent. I expect to be kept informed."
"I can't believe he did that!"
"He had his reasons."
"Reasons or not, we spent years researching this! Years of our life, and he just--"
"Yoiko, he had his reasons. Leave it at that."
"But, Ryoga, what if--"
"The what ifs don't matter. What's done is done."
"Would someone mind telling me what the HELL just happened?" Ukyo demanded, her voice drowning out the arguing pair. They glanced at each other for a moment, then turned in tandem to face her.
One of the fluorescent lights overhead ticked on and off erratically, its continual buzz echoing through the room. The immense lab was empty save for the three of them, but even so, when Ryoga spoke, he did so quietly. Ukyo strained to listen to his voice, wondering if such a muted voice had developed out of habit in a boy used to speaking of secret things.
"It's known as the Seraph Initiative," Ryoga replied, moving toward her. His face looked sullen, his eyes weary. Reaching up, he brushed his hair from his forehead; it hung aside for a moment before flopping back into place. He did not bother repeating the attempt. "It was begun many years ago, and its goal was to develop a more effective form of protective armour for troops in the field."
"Armour has always concentrated upon shielding the body externally," Yoiko interjected. She was a small girl, with blonde streaks dyed into her black hair, that she continually fidgeted with as she spoke excitedly. She seemed enthusiastic to go into detail. "Nobody ever thought of bolstering the body's natural defences rather than just surrounding them in armour. Nobody except us, that is."
Ukyo glanced at the girl, taking in the important details in a few short seconds. She was young, seemingly younger than Ryoga, and judging by the way she stood closely to him they were either related, or romantically attached. She had an impish face, her childish features belying her intelligence. Her eyes shone with youthful curiosity as Ukyo looked at them; Ukyo wondered for a moment what kind of military would recruit mere children. This girl looked no older than thirteen, perhaps fourteen.
"We found that the body is perfectly capable of defending itself," Ryoga continued, firing an irritated glare at Yoiko as he wrested control of the conversation away from her, much to her apparent annoyance. "All that it needs is the right stimulation. The end result of the research was the Seraph Wing."
"Seraph Wing?" Ukyo asked, her confusion growing by the second. All she wanted was a simple explanation.
"It's a three-tiered application," Yoiko explained, jumping into the conversation before Ryoga could respond. "The Wing expands the body, the mind, and the interface between those two and the world around them."
Ukyo looked back and forth between the pair, a bewildered look on her face. The duo looked back at her expectantly, waiting on her response. The looks on their faces when she finally spoke suggested that she did not give the response they were hoping for.
"What does that mean?"
"Essentially," began Ryoga, "the Wing allows--"
"We nailed the armour part easy," Yoiko interrupted, her excitement getting the better of her. "That wasn't the hard part. The Wing amplifies the energy your body creates to power the biokinetic plating that surrounds you."
"It's a kind of shield," Ryoga offered, anticipating Ukyo's next question. Stepping over to a nearby table, he grasped the flattened bullet fired by the Colonel. "When the bullet hit the biokinetic plate, it was instantly stopped in its tracks."
"End result, one squashed bullet and not a scratch on you," Yoiko observed as Ryoga held up the bullet, an enormous grin on her face. "I can't believe it worked so well!"
"I would have preferred a less dramatic demonstration," Ryoga said as he returned the bullet to the table. "But the Colonel made his point well enough."
"So this is what he meant by a gift," Ukyo supposed.
"We aren't finished yet," Yoiko said. She smiled, apparently enjoying herself immensely.
"What do you mean?" Ukyo asked, feeling a little bewildered. The anger she had felt toward the Colonel had dissipated, replaced by an intense curiosity. She could see how this Wing could be immensely useful in hunting down Ranma.
"The Wing creates a feedback loop," Ryoga said, at Yoiko's prompting. "At first we thought it was going to be a problem, but we realised that we could actually use it to our advantage."
"-I- realised it," Yoiko insisted. "The excess energy can be reapplied to the body, straight back into the central nervous system. It can be used anywhere, any nerve in your body, even the brainstem and the brain itself."
"And what does -that- mean?" Ukyo asked, her voice betraying the growing irritation she felt at being so utterly eclipsed by the conversation.
"Essentially, the muscles in your body, as well as your brain, can use that excess energy. Muscles can apply more power, move more quickly. In the case of the brain, it can increase neural capacity and activity."
"It makes you faster, stronger, and smarter," Ryoga clarified. "Not forever, your body's energy reserves will run out after a while, and you'll need to recharge them. But while it lasts, it can make a real difference."
"This all sounds like one hell of a gift," Ukyo observed dryly. "What's the catch?"
"No catch. We needed your regenerative ability," Ryoga said with a shrug. "The installation is a rather ... intrusive procedure. Your body was capable of surviving it - you're the only one able to support the Wing."
"So, you needed a trigger for your new gun," Ukyo said, eyeing Ryoga carefully. If what he said was true, this placed her in a very strong bargaining position. What good was a weapon if there was no way to use it? "You've already ... installed it, then?"
"Sure. Half of it, anyway," Yoiko said with a shrug. "We'll install the external amplifiers after the first batch of tests."
"The Colonel is very anxious to see the Wing in action," Ryoga added. "I know you're probably angry at not being consulted about this ...."
"Not at all," Ukyo replied, a smile crossing her face. The military loves using its weapons, she reasoned, so they would be very keen to appease her. She could use that to her advantage. Suddenly, her situation seemed much more positive than it had only a few minutes before.
"Great! The hardware's pretty much useless without the wetware," Yoiko commented cheerily.
"You are such a geek," Ryoga said, giving Yoiko an exasperated glare. "Look, go wait outside for a while, would you? I want to talk to her alone."
"Now, Yoiko," Ryoga insisted. He stared at her, his tone melting her resistance. Her shoulders slumping, Yoiko turned and trudged toward the exit.
"She gets excited too easily," Ryoga observed, watching her leave. He turned back to Ukyo and gave a wan smile. "I'm sorry about that."
"Don't apologise for your sister," Ukyo said. "She's just a child."
"How did you know she was my sister?"
"The way she looks at you, you have to be siblings or lovers. The way she argues with you, you can only be siblings."
"Heh. Seems the Wing is improving your powers of observation already."
"So which am I, a prisoner, or a lab rat?" Ukyo asked, fixing Ryoga with a piercing glare. She was quite finished with idle conversation, it was time to get some answers. Ryoga returned her stare and let out a sigh. Clearly, he understood what she wanted to discuss.
"Both, I guess," he replied, surprising her with his honesty. "You have to understand, the Pillar is only a small part of this boat. The Leviathan Spring is a military vessel, and it's the military that's in charge. If they want to keep you here, there isn't much you or I can do."
"I see," Ukyo replied, thoughtfully.
"That said, I really think you should give it a chance. Nearly everyone on this vessel has lost friends, family, or someone they cared about to the dragon. She must be stopped, and I know that is exactly what you want to do. What do you have to lose?"
"Nothing," Ukyo replied. "But that's not the question here."
"What is, then?"
"The question is, what do you have to gain? It's a little strange that I would be given this thing with no strings attached."
"If you were in our situation, you'd understand," Ryoga replied. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke again. "I used to serve in Bravo Team. I was a recon officer, but I was just a rookie; I didn't know what the hell I was doing. We were all so determined to find Ranma that we didn't even stop to think about what would happen when we did."
"You were a soldier?" Ukyo asked, surprised. She glanced down at Ryoga's cane, a gesture that Ryoga did not miss.
"That's right. I had barely got my feet wet. Three years of training, a few training missions, but it was my first real deployment. We were sent to a remote forest - hell, I didn't even know exactly where it was. All I knew was we were there to find Ranma. We found her, all right. Thirteen men, men I'd spent three years training with, all died right in front of me. I saw ... I saw her ..."
"Saw her what?" Ukyo asked, watching closely as Ryoga fumbled for words.
"She ripped them apart," Ryoga spoke softly, staring at the floor. "She went through them as if they weren't even there. Those guys were the toughest bastards I'd ever met in my life and she threw them around like rag dolls. I was so far away, all I could do was listen to the screaming. By the time I got there, it was too late.
"She barely had to move. She just tapped me and - bang - I was on the ground. I didn't know it then, but she'd pretty much destroyed my leg. Bone, muscle, nerves, everything, it was just shattered. She could have killed me, but she didn't. I think she just wanted me to suffer."
"So that's why you ..." Ukyo said, glancing down at the cane once more.
"Use this?" Ryoga asked, briefly holding up his cane. He nodded. "Yeah. The medics managed to save the leg, but it's pretty much useless now. I was going to leave, just go home, but Colonel Hunter offered me a chance to work in the Pillar. I thought maybe I could get Ranma back for what she did, even if only by making the weapon that kills her."
"Exactly," he replied, nodding. "You know what the funny thing is? I'm the only person who ever encountered Ranma and lived to talk about it. When word got around, people started talking about me. There's the guy that survived it, they'd say. Sure, he got his ass kicked and now he can barely walk, but he -survived-. The people here treat me like some kind of hero, but all I did was watch my friends die."
"That was you ...." Ukyo realised, memories of her conversation with the Colonel returning to her. He had mentioned a sole survivor, but this boy? He was the only one able to survive? "How many has she killed?"
"Hundreds ... thousands. There's a huge wall at our headquarters, engraved with the name of every single soldier who has died at her hands. It's enormous; it hurts just to look at it and imagine all of those people dying the same way my friends did. Can you imagine what it's like? The only victory we can hope for is survival. What kind of hope is that?"
"Gods ..." Ukyo muttered, staring down at the boy before her. So completely had her mother's death occupied her mind, she had not even stopped to think about the many others that Ranma had killed.
"We need a real hero," Ryoga implored, opening his eyes at last. He fixed Ukyo with his stare, the desperation obvious in his face. "If we don't stop her, she'll kill us all. I don't want my sister to die - you're the only one who can save her, Ukyo."
"You really care about her, don't you," Ukyo said softly, her thoughts returning to her mother. She knew what it was like to be unable to defend your family.
"She means everything to me. I'd do anything for her, but I can't stop Ranma for her," Ryoga replied, sadness in his voice. "You have to do this. Let us help you beat her. If you don't want to do it to help us, do it for yourself."
"All right," Ukyo said. "I'll do it - I'll join. I'll help you, Ryoga."
She would have her vengeance, not just for her mother, but for them all. Ranma would pay for what she had done.
"Let's get you suited up!"
"Okay," Ukyo replied, forcing a smile to appease Yoiko. The truth of the matter was, she was feeling dizzy, almost to the point of nausea. Her body was not yet reacquainted with the concept of standing on its own feet. Her leg muscles ached with every movement and staying upright was an ordeal, but Yoiko would accept nothing less than unbridled enthusiasm.
Ryoga was Ukyo's tech - that meant providing aid and support in everything she did. Yoiko somehow thought that made her a tech's assistant, and she seemed to take great pleasure in that role. Ryoga had left, ostensibly to speak with the Colonel, but she suspected he left because she was about to change her clothes.
Nevertheless, Ukyo wished he was present - if only to control his sister's excitement.
"What do I wear?" Ukyo asked.
"This!" Yoiko replied, pulling aside a white sheet to reveal a uniform. She swept her hand over the garment, making little inquisitive sounds as she tried to judge Ukyo's reaction.
Ukyo, for her part, looked closely at the uniform. It was entirely black, with gleaming leather combat boots, khaki pants, a loose jacket that was opened - revealing a white undershirt beneath - a belt, a bandolier, and thick leather gloves.
It was a change from what she was used to, that was for sure. She noticed a small flag embroidered to the top of the jacket's left arm - it was not the Japanese flag as she might have expected, rather, it was a white and red insignia depicting a phoenix.
Small details such as a plethora of pouches upon the jacket and pants held her attention for a time. She wondered for a moment what all of the pouches were used for, but imagined their purpose would be explained soon enough.
"Black. Lots of black," she said at length, flashing Yoiko a smile. "I like it."
Ukyo watched Ryoga with interest, paying attention to all of the little adjustments he made as he inspected her uniform. He spent a great deal of time ensuring small details were correct - the belt was fastened securely, the jacket properly zipped, and a seemingly endless array of ammunition magazines, grenades, and other equipment slotted into the various pouches about her person. A pistol was strapped to one thigh, a knife to the other. It seemed that every available space on her uniform was taken up by some piece of equipment.
At least now she knew what the pouches were for.
"No, no," Ryoga said, reaching forward to adjust the submachine gun she held in front of herself. "Keep it pointed downwards. Don't put your finger on the trigger, either. Rest it across the trigger guard."
"I don't see how a gun is going to help me," Ukyo observed, letting him guide her hands.
"You never know when one might come in useful for you," Ryoga replied. "Besides, for now, looking like any other member of Alpha Team is the most important thing. If Ranma doesn't know who you are, she won't expect your attack. If we can get you close to her, you'll have the Wing -and- the element of surprise. It's our best shot at taking the dragon down."
Ukyo nodded thoughtfully; she hadn't thought of that. A mirror on the far wall allowed her to inspect herself, and the difference was remarkable. With her hair tied back in a neat ponytail - tucked into the back of her jacket - and her sword concealed inside her uniform, she did not look much like the Ukyo Kuonji of old at all.
"Almost perfect," Ryoga observed. Ukyo jumped a little, realizing she had been staring. "There's just a few more things you're going to need."
"Firstly, this," Ryoga said, holding up a black balaclava. He gestured for her to bow her head and, as she did, pulled it over her ears and down across her face. He tugged it back and forth for a moment, aligning it, then stood aside to let Ukyo look in the mirror.
"This thing is way too hot," she spoke, watching the movement of her chin through the material of the balaclava. There was a hole for her eyes, but the rest of her face was entirely covered.
"It's just going to get hotter," Ryoga replied, holding up a helmet. "Alpha members cover up every part of their body, so you're going to have to as well."
Sighing, Ukyo bowed her head again and allowed Ryoga to lower the helmet onto her head. It was heavy, forcing her head down with its bulk. She'd had no idea that wearing the uniform would be this uncomfortable - she probably wouldn't have accepted if she'd known. It seemed more than a little over the top for a disguise.
The kevlar vest covering her torso felt much heavier and bulkier than it had appeared. She had some concerns about her mobility while wearing it, but Ryoga had insisted for authenticity's sake. She could feel herself sweating already, and she hadn't even started moving yet. Suddenly, she regretted agreeing to any of this. As Ryoga fussed over the helmet's alignment on her head, she silently vowed to burn the uniform the moment Ranma was dead.
"And finally, these," Ryoga replied, holding up a pair of goggles. He gestured again for Ukyo to lower her head, and slipped the goggles over her forehead as she did. "Multipurpose goggles. Thermal vision, night vision, twenty-four times optical zoom. Standard issue to teams Alpha and Bravo. They'll hide your eyes, too."
Ukyo felt the extra weight upon her head immediately - these were not lightweight goggles. They were large and bulky, with a thick strap holding them tight against her helmet. However, unlike most of the accessories she was adorned with, the goggles actually sounded useful.
"Here, let me pull them on for you," Ryoga said, reaching up to lower the goggles down over her eyes.
The lenses were large, but did not obscure her vision at all. If anything, she found it easier to see through them. The equipment attached to the goggles obscured most of the upper half of her face, and her own visage - bug-eyed, two deep green orbs and a swath of black material covering her face - was an intimidating sight. She would not recognise herself as Ukyo Kuonji, that much was for certain.
"Perfect," Ryoga said with a smile, as he stepped back from her. "If I didn't know any better, I'd swear you were already in Alpha Team."
"Good work, Hibiki."
"Thank you, Colonel. She fits the uniform well," Ryoga commented. He watched her carefully through the two-way mirror, noting to himself the stiff nature of her movements. "It's going to be a little while before she gets used to moving again. She's been locked down for six months, after all."
"We don't have a lot of time, Ryoga," Hunter replied. "I know I can trust you to push this along as quickly as possible."
"I understand," Ryoga replied. He watched Ukyo closely as she peered into the mirror, inspecting herself without realising she was staring directly at him. She continually fidgeted with her uniform, pulling her jacket straight, adjusting her goggles, straightening her helmet. "She still looks nervous."
"Wouldn't you be?" Hunter replied, watching her just as intently. "This is the first real contact she's had with anyone in a long time. She'd rather be out killing the dragon. It's all she knows."
"She doesn't look like a killer," Ryoga commented, a contemplative sigh escaping him. "I feel bad for pushing her into this. She's a prisoner here."
"They never look like killers," Hunter replied. "Believe me, she'll be getting what she wants when she destroys the dragon. We're not forcing her into anything. Hell, we're helping her just as much as she's helping us. It's a win-win situation."
"I hope you're right, Sir," Ryoga said. "Just putting her in that uniform made me feel guilty. She's too ... nice to be a soldier."
"She doesn't need to be a soldier, Boy," Hunter said, reaching over to pat Ryoga on the shoulder. "She just needs to act like one. Training starts tomorrow at oh-five-hundred. Make sure she's there."