My heart pounds. My legs ache. My ears ring. My vision is obscured by the sweat running into my eyes -- but there's no time to wipe it away.
I still can't believe I'm out of feather shuriken. It's a good thing that they're not actually part of my cape, otherwise I'd look like a badly-plucked chicken.
Shouts sound behind me. They're catching up. I jump, twist and roll over crates, mounds of molding trash and the occasional decomposing body. Gunfire strikes the wall next to my head; chips of rain-grayed stone tear into my jaw beneath the visor.
It stings. It pisses me off some more, too. Not that I need to be more pissed off than I already am -- the winding maze of alleys has gotten me turned around, and it's just a matter of time before they figure out which way I'm heading and move to cut me off.
I swear explosively as a concussion grenade detonates a few metres behind me, knocking me off my feet and face-first into a puddle of stinking liquids. Instantly I'm up again and moving, but the impact has taken its toll; the cracked ribs are on fire and making it difficult to breathe.
I spit to remove the taste of the puddle from my mouth, and wonder where in fuck's sakes I left the car.
A beam of light from a vehicle passing overhead sends me diving into a pile of old newspapers, Twinkie wrappers and foul-smelling old clothes for the four seconds it takes for the searchlight to move on. It could be them, it could be Jinpei -- there's no sense in taking chances now.
I roll out of the pile and curse again as bullets rake the walls and muddy concrete around me. I hear a wet thump as one of them scores, but can't tell where it's hit; the adrenaline level is just too high for me to feel it. Another tuck and roll, a quick turn around a narrow corner. There's light ahead of me -- an open street at last. Whether it'll be good for me or not depends on what's waiting.
More shouts. Shit, they're closer than I thought -- less than ten feet away, if the echoes aren't fooling me.
I run. I swear. I gasp through my raw throat.
The exit to the street is coming up fast. I feel at my belt for my last pen-sized explosive -- anything to slow them down just a little longer -- then realize my right arm's numb and that's blood, not alley piss, squishing in my glove.
I grab at it with my left hand and risk a brief glance behind me, just long enough to sight and let fly. The explosive strikes the last corner, then erupts into a brilliant flash of light and heat that bathes my heels in false sunshine. The screams and angry curses that ensue are encouraging.
The searchlight passes overhead once more, but this time I don't stop to hide. God, I hope it's Jinpei.
Just a few feet more...just a few feet more...
My lungs are burning. I can't tell if it's from the strain of running or from the sulphur in my bomb.
A figure suddenly drops down from the searchlight's vicinity and obscures the end of the alley in a picture-perfect landing, silhouetted black against the bright street and indistinct in the alley's dim lighting. I make out the shape of a helmet, the faint line of a visor and a cape resembling my own. I smile through my bloody jaw as I recognize the figure to be Ken's.
He waits for me, waits until I'm a bare twelve feet from either freedom or death. That's when I realize that the cape and helmet he's wearing aren't actually shadowed white. They're black.
It's the last thought in my head as the Blackbird throws a spray of marble-sized explosives at my feet. The miniature explosives gleam a dull silver as they fly through the air. The alley's too narrow to dodge them, and going back suddenly becomes a very bad idea; the whine and shriek of gunfire echo close by.
So I do the only thing one of the Kagaku Ninjatai can do. I go up.
The explosion the small bombs generate boost my jump a little higher than I intended and pushes me slightly to one side, which becomes a boon when the Blackbird produces a pistol in reaction to my movement and fires several shots. The sounds the bullets make as they rip the air next to my ear give away the identity of his ammunition. Cop-killers.
My left foot touches the wall. Boot sole scrapes against wet stone. Shoves and hurls me forward. The Blackbird tracks me, still tapping the trigger. I can see his smile beneath the dark-tinted visor. Another few instants and he's got me, and he knows it. *I* know it; I have nowhere to go and nowhere else to hide, and I won't reach him before one of his bullets turns my chest into a gaping hole of bloodied, torn flesh.
One of the bullets clips the side of my helmet and tears part of it away; I can tell by the cold air suddenly whistling in my ear. Another rips a hole through my cape between cracked ribs and numb arm.
I bite my lip as I fall towards him. The next one's sighted on my forehead. The laser sight on the Blackbird's pistol lets me know that just as he pulls the trigger.
Abruptly the Blackbird clutches his throat, the bullet with my name on it splashing into the wall next to me instead of into my skull, then his guts erupt forward in a red mist. I end up landing in a pile of torn organs and steaming blood.
It's a moment before I can focus again and look at the remains. I see something wrapped around the staring Blackbird's neck. Jinpei's bolas. The remains of a detonator cap identify the messy handiwork as Jun's.
A white rustle and the Swan is there, hurling more explosives down the alley and engendering more screaming from the pursuing troops. Jinpei moves his buggy back into a higher position and spotlights them for his sister to see.
I'm seized by the almost irresistible urge to kiss Jun's exposed thigh near my face. It's interrupted by Ken's and Ryu's hands as they pull me out of Blackbird goo, draping my arms over their shoulders and bodily dragging me away from the carnage.
Ken shouts to make himself heard over the blasting. "You all right?"
Dizziness washes over me in a large wave and makes me very glad they're holding me up. My attempt to speak is momentarily aborted as I cough up blood.
Ken looks worried. "We need to get him back -- "
He's interrupted by a rain of fire as it dances down from the sky and turns the street into a construction worker's nightmare. "There's no time!" shouts Ryu, nearly deafening me worse than the blasts, since he's right by my exposed ear.
The cityscape and its destruction thereof swims by in a haze of blurry gray, black and white flashes. Wind whistles through my helmet, then we're aboard the Phoenix and launching upwards in a swirl of leaves, grass and dust.
How did I get in my chair? It's getting harder to see straight. A spike of anxiety pinches my chest, and I try to stop them. "J-Jun...Jin..." is all I can manage through another fit of bloody coughing.
A white blur, then a small hand upon my undamaged shoulder. "It's okay, Joe. We're right here," says Jun from somewhere over my head. Her touch is relaxing. It makes me want to go to sleep.
Awareness is jarred as the Phoenix yaws left sharply. "Shit, that was close," I hear Ken saying. I squint and, with some effort, make out an iridescent green mass on the viewscreen. A mecha. Of course.
Ken's visor glints as he turns in his chair. "Jun, can you get a lock on that thing?"
A moment's silence, then teeth gritting, then a palm pounding an unadorned part of the console. "Negative, Ken," is her tight reply. "It's moving too fast and they're jamming the tracking system."
The Phoenix suddenly drops thirty feet straight down. My stomach protests and tries to squeeze out of my mouth. Swallowing hurts. My ears ring with the effort to keep from spewing all over the bridge.
"Jinpei! What's our status?"
"The last fight depleted most of our fuel, Aniki," pipes the Swallow. "We need to get out of here before we end up falling out of the air!"
The little boy's frantic. No, he's more than that -- he's scared shitless. My surroundings swim into focus for a moment, enough for me to see the tears welling in his eyes and the beads of sweat rolling down Ken's face.
Several thumps rattle the Phoenix. Instrumentation around me blossoms cherry red. Ryu shoves the stick so hard the ship nearly spins 360 degrees to avoid the mecha's fire. Almost too late; a tongue of reddish-purple flame blazes by the viewscreen.
I try to stand up. Fail. Try again. Ribs scream. Knees turn to jelly. Shrapnel-shredded calf burns through my boot.
Another impact, this time from the stern, throws me forward and out of my chair. My left hand barely grabs the console in time to keep my teeth from cracking against it.
I squint through sweat-filled eyes at the display. Ken's voice echoes in my ear. For the first time, I hear desperation.
Something strikes the Phoenix's wing, spinning the ship around and adding to my own vertigo. Ryu smacks the thruster controls to counter it. When the ship stops, the viewscreen's filled with the sight of the mecha's gaping mouth. God, it's ugly. Or at least it looks ugly; I can't really tell anymore.
Ken and Ryu swear. Jun screams. Jinpei squalls.
Consciousness slips, then reasserts itself. My numb hand leaves bloody smears on the console as it slaps wetly across the Bird Missile firing controls. One. Two. Three. Four. I lose track of how many times I push the button, since I can't feel it under my fingers.
An incandescent flash turns the viewscreen white. Shockwaves buffet the Phoenix mercilessly, dumping me off the console and onto the floor. I hear my left shoulder pop as I hit the metal of the bridge, but strangely enough there's no pain. None at all.
Vision grays out for a period of time I can't determine. It can't have been long, because when I open my eyes again it's to see the rest of the team hovering over me.
Jinpei's moaning. "God, look at all the blood..."
Jun's trying to reassure him. "He'll be okay. Joe's tough. He's been hurt worse." She doesn't sound so sure herself, though.
Ken's leaning close to me. "Joe! Joe, can you hear me?"
"Nngh," I manage.
"Do you know where you are?" Ken asks.
I blink at him, surprised that he would ask me such a stupid question. It takes most of my waning strength to form the answer. "On the floor."
Ryu grunts and gets up, moving in the direction of the helm. "Sounds like Joe. He'll be fine." The vibration of the deck beneath me increases, telling me that he's activated the afterburners.
Jinpei clutches my belt. "Hang in there, Aniki," he begs me. It sounds like he's about to cry. I want to tell him not to cry, but my mouth won't work anymore.
Jun's hand slips into my left and squeezes it fiercely. Her strength surprises me, as it always does. "Try to stay awake, Joe. Come on. Talk to us." Her voice is so gentle, so soothing.
I manage to bring her hand to my face long enough to put a blood-flecked kiss on the white glove. "Sure. 'M gonna try."
Her hand squeezes mine again as Ken administers a shot of something into my trapezius muscle. It stings briefly. "You're not going to die, Joe. Not yet. You're not allowed." His voice is ragged. I don't know why and it's too hard to make out his face.
I feel the Phoenix dip slightly in altitude, a familiar sensation indicating we're on final approach. Whatever's in the needle Ken gave me works damned fast. I can almost see him again. "Ken?" I whisper.
He leans close, close enough for me to make out the concern he's trying to hide. "What?"
The waters close over the Phoenix and bathe the bridge a soft blue. I manage to grin at him a little. God, does he look stupid when he's pretending not to be worried. "Fuck you."
Ken blinks. A chuckle wins free of my abused throat. "Path'tic," I mumble. "Y'look const'pated." A pause, a breath. "Asshole."
Jun's hand closes tightly on mine. Something splashes on my visor. She's crying. I want to tell her not to, but then Nambu's there -- I'd recognize that cheap cologne anywhere -- and a number of chattering medical personnel, and I'm being raised off the floor and onto a stretcher.
Nambu's by my head as I'm whisked through a blur of lighted hallways. "How is he?" he asks. "Is he going to be all right?"
God, all this sappiness makes me want to puke. My stomach then decides that it doesn't like the shot Ken gave me and that puking is a very good idea. So I turn my head and throw up all over Nambu's shoes.
The last thing I hear before the techs begin emergency surgery is Nambu swearing. It puts a little smile on my face that the head surgeon remarks upon bemusedly as he cuts away the shreds of my Birdstyle.
The echo of Jun's voice accompanies me into oblivion. "You'll be okay, Joe."
Thanks, Junie. I know I will.