Yes, another spontaneous Muse With Quill session on the talker. Yes, Dei, I think MwQ likes you. Yes, this is what came out of it. Yes, this is the sequel to 'This Hour Was Only 22 Minutes', only it happens at around the same time. No, I don't think it came out as well as the other, but since I wrote it, who am I to judge? :)
And no, none of these characters belong to me, just the manner in which I inflict my imagination upon them. -----------------------------------------------------------------------
"Dammit! Where the hell *is* he?"
"I don't know," Jun replies with equal frustration. "He should have checked in long before now." Her fingers tap at keys behind my back as I turn and pace yet again towards the front of the bridge. "I still can't get a lock on his signal."
Out of the corner of my eye, I see earphone cords trailing up inside Jinpei's helmet from a Walkman in his lap. He's still scanning the area idly, looking as bored as he was half an hour out of Crescent Coral. I want to tell him to shut the damned thing off, but it won't help to yell now.
I pace back and forth again, sick of seeing trees and cliffs in the viewscreen; the Phoenix is just waiting for the right time to move. Unfortunately, I have no idea when that is and won't know until Joe reports back.
I mutter to myself and decide to sit down, although my feet still want to pace. Looking worried is not going to help the team's morale.
Behind me, I hear Jun ask, "Are you sure?" and Jinpei reply, "I'm positive, Oneechan." There's a moment's silence, then she says, "Oh my god, you're right." The worry in her tone makes me turn in my chair to look at them. The worry I see reflected in their eyes unsettles me.
She answers the question I look at her. "Apparently the interference we encountered upon entering this area is more widespread than we thought."
Jinpei beats her to the rest of it. "I put new batteries in my Walkman before we left. It's not working as well anymore, and I just turned it on. I managed to pick up some of the local deejays talking about the problems in the city, and it's not just radio transmissions -- it's cell phones, cars, TVs, digital watches; it's anything that runs on some kind of electric current." He pauses and listens to the static in his ear, then says, "Someone just reported that people with artificial hearts are dropping in the street -- "
Jun interrupts him. "This isn't something local to the so-called underwater drilling in the area; this is at least the entire city and its immediate vicinity! No wonder our tracking systems aren't picking up anything!"
I swear, fogging up my visor for a moment. "Punch it, Ryu," I tell him. "We need to get into the city and find Joe immediately!"
In response, his hands fly over the controls, sending the Phoenix leaping skyward. Cliffs and breaking surf pass by in a blur as he takes us in a sharp banking curve around the city's island expansion, then the viewscreen turns into a swirling mass of dark blues and white as ocean fog greets us.
I'm about to turn in my chair and tell Jun to see if she can boost the scanners, when something very large and horrendously fast slashes up at us from the fog obscuring the sea, shredding mist violently in its wake. Ryu's startled exclamation is in tandem with his reaction: the Phoenix jerks to the right just in time for the thing to miss us. Almost too late -- the backwash of its passing rattles the ship.
We've barely recovered and had time to yell "What the hell was that?" at each other before it drives at us again, this time from behind, and only the proximity alarm tells Ryu which way to shove the stick. A flash of muted green and many segments as it rips past the right of the viewscreen reveal it to be a long, sinuous mecha of some kind. It's even closer than it was on its last pass, if the violent shaking of the Phoenix is any indication.
I curse virulently, fogging up my helmet again. What a time for Joe to be away! He could have blasted this thing out of the sky already without needing the tracking system. I grab onto my chair as the mecha suddenly slashes through the fog, coming dead-on at us, and Ryu barrel-rolls the Phoenix out of the way with a scant instant to spare. It's getting closer and closer all the time, and we can't outrun it if we can't see where we're going.
I make a decision. "Get us underwater! At least we'll be able to see it better down there, and don't stop heading for the city! Jun, get Joe's last known location and punch it in!"
"But if the mecha follows us there -- " she begins to protest.
"We can't do anybody any good if we're spread out in a million pieces all over the ocean," I interrupt, bracing myself as the mecha tears past us again. I see it level off its rush, parallel to the ocean, as the Phoenix dives into the navy-tinged waters.
Sea foam and water make a mess of the viewscreen for a moment, then clear up only to show us a befanged and multiple-clawed monstrosity roaring towards us with nightmarish ease through the water. My peripheral vision shows me Ryu pulling on the stick and hitting the maneuvering thruster controls at the same time, pushing us out of the way just in time. Violently-displaced water shoves us a few extra metres to the right, the backwash actually strong enough to make a few control panels spark temporarily.
"We're coming up on the mainland," Jun reports. Her voice is a little shaky, and I can't blame her.
"How close?" I ask.
"Fourteen klicks," she tells me.
I make another decision. "Take us further down, Ryu," I say. He looks at me like I'm crazy. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing," I insist.
I think I hear Ryu mutter, "Yeah, but you're not the one who actually has to *do* it," but I can't be sure as it's lost in the revving of the engines as he slams the thrusters and pushes on the stick. The mecha shreds the water just overhead, missing us by a lot more this time; whoever's driving that thing didn't expect our movement, and the time it'll take him or her to recover and come after us will buy us a few more seconds of precious time.
"How far down?" Ryu asks.
I peer at the viewscreen. "Right down to the bottom."
He gives me another wide-eyed stare. "Are you nuts?"
"No, I'm not nuts," I snap. "Just do it!"
Jun's voice mingles with Jinpei's as they report proximity numbers. "Coming up on the ocean floor -- " "The mecha's coming in -- " "Ten klicks, nine, eight -- " "Contact with mecha in five, four, three -- "
"Straight up, Ryu! Now!" I shout.
"Hang on!" Ryu pushes the flight stick hard and pounds the afterburners.
My head is slammed back into my chair as the ship suddenly goes vertical and the gees try making me an Eagle pancake. I grit my teeth against the pressure, trying not to echo Jun's and Jinpei's cries.
Breathing is almost impossible. God, this hurts -- how far down did we go, anyway? I gasp and find I can't draw in another breath. My eyes are jammed shut and I can feel the pressure squeezing tears out.
Abruptly, the Phoenix clears the water, exploding out of the waves in a blaze of surf and sunlight. The pressure on my chest eases immediately, Ryu levelling the ship off and releasing the afterburners.
I suck air in heavy gasps, blinking away the tears of pain as my body reassumes its natural shape. "Everybody okay?" I manage.
Jinpei's coughing. "S-sure, Aniki," he replies.
Ryu's wheezing. "I hope we never have to do that again," he says hoarsely.
I reach over and pat his arm. "Me too. Good job, Ryu, good job." I twist in my chair and see Jun climbing back into her own. "You all right, Jun?"
She's breathing shallowly; bruised ribs, I think. "Give me a second and I will be," she pants. The Swan glances at her console, then back at me. "No sign of the mecha."
I manage to turn my sigh of relief into another gasp for air. "Any sign of Joe?"
Buildings loom in the viewscreen. "We're coming up on his last known position, Aniki," says Jinpei. "No lock on his signal yet."
I peer at a patch of green in the midst of grays. "That looks like a park. Is it big enough to set us down in?"
Ryu's squinting. "I think so -- "
"Hold it!" cries Jun. "I found his car!"
"Two blocks east of the park," she says after a second's pause.
"Is he in it?"
Another pause. "No."
I'm about to say something when Jinpei gives a shrill shout. "I got him! Four klicks northeast!"
Jun taps a few keys. "Confirmed," she says excitedly. "He's moving fast -- looks like he's being chased."
"Jinpei, take your buggy out and see if you can find him," I order. "If he's on the run, he may need help. Jun, go with him and triangulate Joe's position."
The words are barely out of my mouth; Jun and Jinpei are already on their way off the bridge. I can only hope their eagerness to find Joe doesn't make them do anything stupid.
I look at the team member next to me. "Ryu, we have a car to pick up."
"He'll kill you for driving it, you know."
The screen shows the Condor Machine to be directly below us. I get up out of my chair, rubbing my sore chest behind my wings, and head for the lift. "He can try."
Cool air envelops me as I leap down from the Phoenix to Joe's car. It's parked in front of a dimly-lit alley; a tug on the door handle opens the door with ease. Apparently he'd seen something and forgot to lock the car up when he went to investigate. It's when I settle myself into the driver's seat that I see the keys are still in the ignition. My blood runs cold -- Joe *never* forgets his keys. Something must have been drastically wrong.
I take another look at the alley and realize that what I'd initially taken for regular weather wear-and-tear on the buildings are actually bullet holes and frag grenade explosion patterns. I clench my jaw and start up the car. He was in trouble, all right.
I slam on the accelerator and drive the car near the park; there's just enough space there for the Phoenix to maneuver, and my first attempt at lining up the car with the ship is a near miss.
Ryu's voice crackles through my communicator. "And you do this with a plane how?"
I can't keep the embarrassed grin off my face. "Yeah, yeah," I reply, and bring the car around for another try. My second attempt is picture-perfect.
Docking complete, Ryu gently puts the Phoenix down in the park with a swirl of leaves and grass. "Now what?" The expression on his face says he fully expects to be told to stay behind again.
I have the slight pleasure of watching that expression turn into shock at my next words. "Unbuckle yourself. You're coming with me. We need to find Joe as quickly as possible in case the mecha comes back."
He's at the lift before I am. I have to bite my lip to keep from grinning at his eagerness; I settle instead for contacting the Swan. "Jun, any sign of Joe?"
Her reply comes to me faintly as Ryu and I leap to the ground. "Moving in an irregular pattern, heading west-southwest -- " The rest of her transmission cuts out in a burst of static. I curse quietly as we begin running for where Joe seems to be going; Galactor knows we're here.
I dash through newspaper-littered streets, glancing up every so often to see if I can catch a glimpse of Jinpei's buggy. Ryu follows closely behind, covering my back. I try to ignore the crumpled bodies of elderly folk along the way, doing my best not to see their mottled purple skin, bulging eyes or gaping mouths.
Rage builds as I run. I promise each corpse I pass that Katze will pay for their deaths.
We pause at a street corner three blocks away from the park. "Jun! Jinpei! Report!" Static answers me on the communicator.
Ryu suddenly points. "Up there!" I look up in time to see Jinpei's buggy vanish behind an apartment complex about five blocks away.
I hear gunfire and shouting as we approach the spot. Definitely sounds like Joe's around here. I turn the corner in time to see Jun throw something, then a violent explosion of red spraying out from an alleyway, then Joe himself land awkwardly in a steaming mess of what used to be a Blackbird.
A surge of worry pinches my chest as I see the blood caked liberally on his Birdstyle, but I can't tell how much of it is his. His skin is deathly pale beneath the visor where it isn't streaked with blood. I reach his side with Ryu half a second behind me, and almost slip in the growing puddle of blood and shredded pieces of intestine.
Above my head, Jinpei's buggy shines a bright light down the alley, pinpointing the swarm of Galactor footsoldiers following Joe. Jun flings bomb after bomb at them, the resulting explosions nearly blinding me, and I silently thank her for using her shaped charges instead of wholesale pineapples.
I reach down and pull Joe's left arm over my shoulders while Ryu takes his right, and drag the red-splashed Condor away from the blasts. The sight of half of Joe's helmet missing worries me more than I care to admit. "You all right?" I ask him, yelling to make myself audible over the Swan's handiwork.
Even through the visor, I can tell Joe's eyes aren't focusing. He tries to answer me, but coughs up blood instead, dotting the inside of his helmet. Oh god, he's hurt worse than I thought.
I look at Ryu. "We need to get him back -- " I begin saying, when a large shape abruptly obscures the sunlight. An instant later, plasma bolts make a firesplash out of the street, and we're only saved by a delivery van that happens to be between us and the blasting just then.
"There's no time!" Ryu shouts at me. I'm forced to agree, and we run like mad for the Phoenix with Joe dangling limply between us. I hope he's only unconscious. A quick glance behind me reveals Jun hanging from a precarious grasp on the treads of Jinpei's buggy as the Swallow guns the vehicle's engines.
Mecha fire tears up concrete a scant handful of feet away as though it were styrofoam. I find myself praying that we reach the Phoenix in time, then hope we don't find the Phoenix itself smeared all over the park. If they saw where we landed it, we're sunk.
Jun lands near my elbow and I see the Swallow's buggy ascending rapidly, then flying in wobbly circles near the mecha's head segment. I praise Jinpei's forethought as the length of the mecha suddenly loops and twists in an attempt to follow the buggy. Its array of weaponry turns the air into a display of multicolored death rather than the ground, and I'm at once thankful for the reprieve and terrified for Jinpei.
My breath rattles in my throat as we run. We can't have come that far, can we? Dammit, Joe, wake up already.
The buildings part like a curtain to reveal the Phoenix sitting unharmed in the park. I breathe another sigh of relief as we scramble aboard, Joe's limp feet trailing smears of blood wherever they drag. I can only hope it's the Blackbird's and not an open wound we haven't seen.
Ryu dashes for the helm the second we reach the bridge, leaving me and Jun to settle Joe as carefully as possible in his chair. I reach my seat in time to grab onto the headrest as the engines roar to life and the Phoenix takes swiftly to the air.
The ship rotates as it rises, and I see Jinpei's buggy on the viewscreen heading for us in a mad dash. I stare as I see he's somehow managed to get the mecha to tie itself in a knot around one of the skyscrapers, and stifle a laugh at the sight. Classic Jinpei humor.
The urge to laugh turns into the impulse to shout, "Jinpei! Hurry!" as I see the struggling mecha suddenly constrict, tearing the skyscraper in half, then uncoil itself and shred concrete dust clouds as it simultaneously orients, tracks the docking buggy and leap toward us in a horrifying rush of throttle.
Behind me, I hear Joe moan something indistinctly and Jun respond with something reassuring. He's coughing again. I force myself to keep looking at the screen so I don't see if he's spitting up blood.
The mecha's approaching fast; an idle part of my mind calculates that it has an approximate top speed of somewhere around 700 klicks per hour. At the same time, my mouth's saying, "Evasive maneuvers," but I don't recall making a conscious decision to do that. I keep seeing bodies in streets and Joe dripping blood all over the place.
A proximity alarm wails shrilly, jolting me out of my daze, and Ryu jams the stick left just in time for the mecha to go screaming past us rather than through us. "Shit, that was close," I can't help saying. I turn to look behind me, trying not to see the blood pooling beneath Joe's chair. "Jun, can you get a lock on that thing?"
The mecha's coming around for another pass. I can't help but note yet again how fast it is; jade green all over, down to the rudder spikes on each segment, and each spike with a handful of guns sprouting from it. The oversized fangs on the head segment and claws along the body suggest it can do as much damage up close as it can from afar. I shudder to think what would happen if it were to get ahold of the Phoenix.
Jun's reply is strained. "Negative, Ken; it's moving too fast and they're jamming the tracking system."
Another proximity alarm goes off. Ryu abruptly cuts the engines and sends the Phoenix in a vertical drop. My stomach leaps into my throat at both the sudden fall and the sight of the mecha swarming just overhead; if we'd kept going forward or maneuvered in any direction other than down, the mecha's talons would have shredded the bridge on its last pass.
Something beeps behind me. "Jinpei!" I yell, trying to keep the rising panic out of my voice. "What's our status?"
His reply is not reassuring. "The last fight depleted most of our fuel, Aniki! We need to get out of here before we end up falling out of the air!"
The sweat inside my helmet runs down my face. Oh god. Almost out of fuel, no way to outrun this thing and no apparent way to shoot it down.
The Phoenix is suddenly surrounded by gleaming green segments. Ryu swears and punches the thrusters, nearly cracking the stick against the console as the mecha's guns light up all at once. Concussion blasts rattle the ship violently. I get dizzy as the ship spins hard, barely avoiding the brilliant purple-red gout of plasma that blinds me as it tears across the screen.
Another near-miss of concussive fire pounds the air right next to the Phoenix's engines, almost flipping the ship in a forward spin. The console jams into my ribs painfully despite my attempts to hold onto it. A little voice in my head suggests that we're not going to make it. Part of me agrees with it even as I shout, "Get us clear of this thing!" and despair to hear the panic in my tone.
The mecha howls past one more time, and this time Ryu can't quite get us out of the way. One of the outstretched talons clips the Phoenix's wing, knocking the ship into a stomach-churning spin that throws me hard against the armrest of my chair. Pain blossoms in my side as a couple of ribs crack under the impact.
Peripheral vision shows Ryu managing to hit the thruster controls to counter the direction of the spin. I'm slammed against the other armrest, groaning as I bruise more ribs and my stomach protests the abrupt reversal.
The waterline-cityscape view stops flashing by. An extreme close-up of the mecha's yawning mouth replaces it.
I swear aloud, as does Ryu. Behind me, Jun and Jinpei make similar noises of terror. We're dead. There's no way we can avoid this thing now. None at all. Not even a chance to go to Hinotori mode.
A burst of white flame emanates from the depths of the mecha's throat, bathing the Phoenix. I shut my eyes against the brilliance and grip the chair tightly as the impact pounds the ship, nearly rattling me out of my seat. I wait for death, already imagining the heat, cold air and shrieking pain filling my body in its final seconds of life.
A moment passes. Two. Three. I open my eyes to see why I'm not dead yet -- or if I am and I just didn't feel it the way I thought I would -- and see the gleaming, sun-kissed ocean waves touching the distant skyline. I blink and see pieces of the mecha littering the pristine waters for several klicks around us. Holy shit. The mecha's destroyed. We're not dead.
Ryu's just raising his head from the console, looking as dazed as I probably do. "What happened?" I ask him. I turn, wincing as my ribs protest at the motion, and see Jun and Jinpei picking themselves off the floor.
The floor. Joe's on the floor. He's not moving.
I'm out of my chair and at his side before I even think about getting up, the rest of the team almost as quick as I. There's blood all over the firing controls; my eyes pick out the shape of a smeared handprint. He'd fired the Bird Missiles and destroyed the mecha. The idea stuns me. How the hell did he do it?
Jinpei moans. "God, look at all the blood..." I take that as my cue to get the emergency kit from the back of the bridge.
"He'll be okay. Joe's tough. He's been hurt worse," Jun tells him, trying to sound reassuring. She doesn't succeed very well, but I mentally applaud her for trying. I probably wouldn't sound all that confident, either.
I bend close to Joe's face and try to see if he's awake. The shot I want to give him will keep him alive a little longer, but he needs to be conscious for it; otherwise, it'll put him into a coma. "Joe! Joe, can you hear me?"
His eyelids flutter for a moment, then he manages an indistinct noise of assent in reply.
Relief engulfs me so strongly it leaves me weak-kneed. "Do you know where you are?" I ask him.
Joe's eyes roll about for a moment, then fix on me. His words are slurred, but welcome to my ears. "On the floor."
Ryu gets up. "Sounds like Joe. He'll be fine," he says as he returns to the helm. I hear the familiar beeps of compliance from the computer as Ryu lays in a course for Crescent Coral, then hits the afterburners to hasten our journey. The jamming's gone; the mecha was probably the source.
Jinpei's begging Joe to hang on. Jun grabs the Condor's left hand and murmurs something to him as I prep the needle. I blink away the sudden blurring in my eyes when Joe mumbles something back and manages to kiss her hand. My voice is rough as I insert the needle into Joe's trapezius muscle and squeeze out the contents. "You're not going to die, Joe. Not yet. You're not allowed."
His eyes focus on me. "Ken?"
I lean forward, trying to hear what he has to say. "What?"
He must have seen the worry in my eyes, because the next thing he does is cuss me out for two minutes straight. I smile weakly at his way of telling me not to worry. Nearby, I hear Ryu reporting the situation to Nambu-hakase and our mentor's promise of a trauma team upon docking.
Joe cusses me out right up until Nambu-hakase arrives with the trauma team. The three of us carefully help lift Joe onto a stretcher, then accompany the medical staff as they wheel him with admirable haste towards emergency surgery.
"How is he?" asks Nambu-hakase worriedly. "Is he going to be all right?"
I'm about to tell him when I look down and see a familiar gleam in Joe's eyes. "Uh, Hakase -- " is the most I can warn him before Joe turns his head and throws up on Nambu's pants.
The stretcher continues on without me as Nambu-hakase cuts loose with a string of expletives I wasn't aware he knew. I'm too busy leaning against the wall and laughing to follow the med team further. I laugh until my helmet's fogged up beyond seeing, until my ribs protest, until the tears come, until I'm breathless, until I need to sit down because my legs won't hold me anymore.
Hakase stamps his feet, still swearing and trying to shake off the worst of the mess. I smile at the operation room doors with its bright white 'SURGERY IN PROGRESS' sign lighting the hallway. "Fuck you too, Joe," I whisper fondly.
I lean my head back against the wall and look at the ceiling through my foggy helmet. The mecha was destroyed. My brother's going to be all right. And Katze will pay.
Oh yes, Katze will pay.