Chapter 4 – Session 1: Boarding, Not Bored
“Ugh, what you got in here, kid?” the bus driver asked, barely able to hoist Ichiro’s luggage out from the belly of the bus.
Ichiro shrugged, whipping her scarf around her neck despite the heat. “Clothes, couple of books, a few tools, sewing supplies, my ceramic cooking knives…”
“Crikey, planning to get dropped off on some desert island?” he joked.
“I like to keep busy,” Ichiro said defensively as she hefted the handle and began pulling the heavy case behind her. “Thanks for the ride, sir.”
“Have a good one, kid!”
The Sol Suna hovered far above the Skydock Terminal of Darwin International Airport. Vaguely whale-shaped, the skyliner was three hundred meters long with about thirteen decks, not counting sub-levels and maintenance access. That the massive vehicle hovered above the ground at all was a testament to modern technology and engineering. Ichiro couldn’t help but gawk at the beautiful, sleek, organic contours of the massive vessel.
Trundling into customs, the security guard had to help Ichiro hoist her luggage onto the conveyor belt for scanning before checking her boarding pass, ticket and destination. Relieved to step through the scanners without anything beeping at her, she walked through the duty free stores in search of the luggage check and boarding area. Signs were few and far between and she couldn’t see any sign of her mother. It wasn’t until she finally made it out onto the open-air boarding platform that her phone beeped.
“Hey, Dad,” she greeted in Japanese, tucking the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could talk on the move while hauling her suitcase.
“Ichiro, did you get to the terminal ok?” he asked in English.
Not sure what was going on, Ichiro switched to English as well. “Yes Dad, bus trip was fine. I’ve found the boarding deck but I can’t see Mum yet. Or the luggage check. The signs around here are really confusing and the last time I saw a crowd this big I was on the other side of the counter.”
“Erm, yes, unfortunately I just got a call from your mother saying she’s been called away on urgent business again. I’m afraid you’ll be on your own for the trip back to Japan.”
Ichiro felt his spirits sink. “Oh.”
“It’ll be ok, she promised to meet us here,” he said, trying to be reassuring. “And I’m sure you can figure out boarding on your own. Do you have enough money for the trip? Things to read?”
“Yes, Dad, I’ve got enough money. I brought some books and stuff, everything will be fine. It’s just… A lot of people, I guess. I’m not that great with crowds.”
“You’ll be fine. Send me a message once you’re on board.”
“Sure,” Ichiro sighed. “Take care, Dad, I’ll see you there.”
Hanging up, she concentrated on tried to make her way to the closest ramp, deliberately not thinking about her mother’s broken promise. When she got to the ramp, a steady line of people was walking down from the ship and into the terminal, with a crewman nodding and smiling to each of them at the top of the ramp onboard. Dithering, Ichiro wasn’t sure whether to try to call his attention and ask what to do or simply walk up the ramp like she knew what she was doing. Her tickets certainly said that she needed to book her bags into the luggage check and there weren’t any signs around. She was starting to regret even bringing her scarf, it couldn’t fit in her bag so she’d just worn it forgetting that this wasn’t a country you could get away with scarves in summer.
Stopping a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who looked like an American tourist, Ichiro bowed in greeting. “Excuse me, sir, do you know where luggage check is?” He looked down at Ichiro and shrugged. “Sorry, kid, I think it’s over there somewhere,” he said, pointing vaguely, “you should be able to follow the signs.”
“Oh, thanks,” Ichiro said, looking to where the man had pointed but unable to make out anything. Dithering, she got out her phone again and tried checking the airport app to find the right terminal but the website was as much of a maze as the airport itself.
“Hello there,” a woman who’d just gotten off the ship greeted her, walking up to Ichiro. “Are you ok?”
Ichiro blushed, shrinking in on herself a bit. This woman was a bit more practically dressed for the hot weather, showing off a number of tattoos. “Um, I’m just trying to find the luggage check and boarding ramp, ma’am,” she said, waving her ticket.
“Hmm,” she said, nodding as she considered the problem. Turning, she yelled up to the crewman at the top of the ramp. “Hey! Anyone up there know where the luggage check is?”
When she didn’t get any immediate attention, Ichiro raised her hand to wave. “Excuse me, sir? I’m looking to board and I’m a little lost, do you know where I should go?”
The crewman finally took notice. “Oh! Uh, one sec, I’ll ask for you,” he called back before taking out his radio to talk to someone. He was sweating a little when he leant back over the railing to call down. “Sorry for the inconvenience, sir! If you follow the terminal hallway around to the other side of the ship, you’ll find luggage check and the boarding ramp. Welcome to the Sol Suna!”
“Thank you, sir!” I called out, bowing slightly out of habit. Turning to the woman, I bowed slightly to her. “Thank you also, ma’am. I better go board. Hopefully I’ll see you on the ship.”
She smiled slightly before waving me off. “No problem, see you later.”
It was a long walk but once she knew where to go, she found the luggage check with ease. The stewardess was all smiles as she scanned Ichiro’s ticket, attached an RFID tag to the handle of her luggage and turned it over to a loading robot for processing. “Don’t worry, once your luggage is processed, a porter robot will take it to your room. If you’d like to tour the ship and get your bearings, it should be in your room by the time you’re done.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Ichiro said, bowing politely before wandering up the boarding ramp.
It was impossible for an engineer not to approach the Sol Suna without a sense of respect and wonder. It simply became more impressive the closer Ichiro came. Upon setting foot aboard, she pulled out her phone to text her father a simple ‘Hi, I’m aboard, you can stop worrying now’ before connecting to the ship’s wi-fi and downloading the passenger’s app. A few seconds later, Ichiro had her earphones on and began her first tour of the ship, guided by the app.
Flopping into bed, Ichiro threw her scarf across the room and let herself sink into the soft mattress. The room was small, though all of the rooms seemed to be in the cramped confines, but still had a mini-fridge, wall-screen TV, bathroom and basic necessities. Her luggage sat in the corner with a nicely printed welcome card resting on top of it. There wasn’t any way she could face unpacking right now, so she just left it there and let herself drift into a tired half-sleep.
She was roused by a bleep on her phone. Finally opening her eyes again, she noticed it had gotten dark outside. Fishing her phone out of her pocket, she checked her messages. Attention, passengers of the Sol Suna, the message read, due to an emergency situation, we are recalling all passengers. Please return to the ship to embark as quickly as possible, we are casting off as soon as possible. Thank you for your co-operation.
Ichiro frowned and sat up. There weren’t any alarms or sounds of movement outside, so she opened her door and peeked out. There were a few people moving around outside but nobody running or panicking. Stepping out, she closed and locked the door behind her and began to wander, sending a quick text to her father to let him know they were leaving early for some reason. Finding a corridor that stretched along the windowed outer hull, she peered off to the south, trying to pick out Vollstahl on the horizon. It was remarkably, distressingly, easy.
There were flashes of light coming from Vollstahl, undoubtedly explosions rocking the town. Streaks of light arcing into the sky like tracer bullets. It was strangely eerie for Ichiro to watch without hearing or feeling the booming impacts, after all she knew those buildings, had walked down those streets. Any other year she would have still been there. Her eyes slowly got wider and wider as the situation sunk in.
Looking at her phone, she put her earphones in her ears and quickly dialled Minaba’s number. “Come on, come on! Pick up!” she shouted, quietly praying for an answer. Several people stared at her as they walked past but she ignored them. Looking down, she could see passengers walking quickly towards the disembarkation ramp, it looked like they’d moved the boarding ramp there and were checking people through as quickly as possible.
She breathed a momentary sigh of relief as someone picked up the phone. “Hi! This is Minaba’s phone,” the pre-recorded messages informed jovially, “I’m sorry I’m not at this phone right now, please hold a moment while I check the next phone.”
Ichiro cursed internally. Hope spiked once again as the ring tone bleeped, only to be dashed. “Sorry, I’m not here either, checking the next phone!” Another bleep. “Well, I’m not here either! Darn! Checking the next phone!”
“Damn it, Minaba! Just pick up the phone and tell me…” She trailed off when someone picked up. “Finally! Minaba what the hell is going on over there? Did you guys launch the…”
“Hi! You’ve reached the second layer of Minaba’s phone ring! Congratulations!”
“What? Wait, is this another phone message?”
“Unfortunately, I’m not currently at this phone either right now but keep on hoping! Transferring you to the next phone…”
“No, no, don’t forward me to the next phone! Damn it…” Ichiro was about to continue swearing when she remembered. “Oh, right, Minaba’s suck in the hospital right now,” she said to herself, feeling like a complete idiot as she hung up. Looking around, she saw a girl with a video camera who abruptly turned away but she was distracted when her smartphone’s screen began to flicker and when she looked back the girl was gone.
That was when the PA system chimed a comforting melody. “Everyone, please calmly return to your cabins,” a woman’s voice came over the speakers. “Some of you may have heard that there is an ongoing terrorist attack in the city to the south. Do not be concerned, we are well away from the activity and we are now launching and moving away from it.”
The Captain’s soothing tones just made Ichiro more nervous. The sudden lurch of the ship as it went underway almost made her stumble as she grabbed the railing for balance. Nothing was fine, a skyliner like this isn’t made for sharp turns and they were taking the long way around, pushing the engines as hard as they could. Nervous, Ichiro started gnawing her lower lip, checking the schematics for the Sol Suna she’d downloaded to her phone while on the tour. Her phone was flickering more and more and she felt the hair on her arms crackle from the static in the air.
The vague sense of unease suddenly solidified into horror. Pressing her cheek against the glass, she tried to get a good look down the bow of the ship to see if she could make out anything. It was hard to see and there didn’t appear to be anything ahead but instinct compelled her to only one explanation for the interference in the electronics and the crackle of static as well as the sudden urgency of departure. There was some kind of electric anomaly up ahead, even if it were invisible to the eye and she ship’s instruments, and it was getting stronger which meant they were headed right for it.
Jogging down the halls towards a maintenance hatch, a mad plan was forming in Ichiro’s head. The halls were empty now, most of the passengers obeying the orders of the voice on the speaker. Part of her was screaming that he should let the crew handle it but the flickering of her smartphone was still getting worse. Finally finding a hatch, she took out the multitool she kept in her pocket and began unscrewing the cover. She barely got one screw off before a big hand grabbed her shoulder. She looked up to find the guy in the Hawaiian shirt glaring down at her. “Hey, kid, what do you think you’re doing?”
Ichiro was at a loss for words for a moment before panic set in and before she knew it the truth was tumbling out of her mouth. “The static interference is from some sort of electrical field and we’re heading right for it! If we pass through it, the ship’s instruments could be fried! If I can get to the anterior dorsal fin, I can turn the ship and maybe avoid the epicentre!”
He blinked at her stupidly. “Wait, what?”
They both stumbled as the entire ship shook. Ichiro grabbed the edge of the hatch for balance but the man kept his hold on her. Feeling the hair on the back of her neck standing up, she stared down the hallway a moment before a flash of green lightning rocketed down the hallway, seemingly bouncing between the walls for a split second before slamming into her chest. Launched off her feet, barely sensate, her vision was clouded by a bright orange flash that lingered as an afterimage burnt into her retina. Striking the man in the Hawaiian shirt, she bowled him over, the smell of charred cotton and ozone ushering her into unconsciousness.
Noise. An incoherent babble of many voices talking at once. People stomping around, moving quickly. The occasional clatter of equipment or the distinct tearing noise of sticky tape. As awareness returned, she tried to gather the confused mess of conflicting memories scrambled around in her head. Her whole body ached, but even though it hurt the pain was at least something to focus on. A lifeline to draw her back into the world. She vaguely remembered a flash of amber light bright enough to wipe everything else away, the still image of green lightning burned into her memory. The smell of burning and the jolting of being carried somewhere at speed.
Opening her eyes, she found herself lying on a hospital bed in the corner of a busy room with a warm blanket over her. A doctor was arguing vehemently with a set of rich patients who were demanding that their bumps and bruises be treated immediately. The harried doctor kept trying to explain the concept of triage to them as he was treating a poor crewman with a broken arm. There were even more patients waiting behind them. The girl with the camera was documenting the whole thing, occasionally narrating commentary into the microphone but she couldn’t hear what she was saying over the hubbub. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was nearby but hadn’t noticed that she’d opened her eyes yet, watching the doctor at work and waiting to see if he needed to intervene. She didn’t need the sign on the wall to tell her she was in the infirmary, the antiseptic hospital smell pervaded everything.
Moving a little, trying to decide if she should call attention to herself, she stopped dead. Nothing felt right. The blanket felt heavier than it should, though she could have put that alone down to weakness from injury. One of her shoes was missing, but when she tried to shift her foot it felt like her shoe was several sizes too large. It was easier to pull her foot right out than try to keep it on. Also, her clothes felt loose, like she was swimming in them. The way her hips felt bigger than they should also didn’t help, not to mention the strange sensation of weight at her chest.
It’s a dream, she thought, screwing her eyes shut and not daring to hope. Wake up, idiot! This is just a dream! She told herself. Pinching herself, she winced, feeling her tails twitch and her ears flatten back against her head. Wait, tails? Ears? What the hell?
Slowly sitting up, she looked down at herself and stared, stunned. Her clothes were, indeed, far too large for her now but the swell of her breasts was obvious through her shirt. Her hands looked smaller and the room looked bigger. Her arms were closer together, like her whole torso had shrunk. Her two bushy tails, each curling around so that she could hug them, left no doubt in her mind. She was a kitsune now, and a girl.
A flash of memory hit her like a punch to the temple. Standing inside a circle, amber lightning crackling through it. Akiko crying out for help inside her brain. A smiling yellow-haired kitsune teenager speaking in soft, reassuring, tones. “I’m going to put both of you to sleep. You’ll be someone else for a while and you won’t remember any of this but when you wake up, you and Akiko will be together,” she said in the memory. “D-d-does tha…” The image froze for a moment before coming back to life, her tone changing from reassuring to stern and commanding. “Listen to me. I am Yakyou, your godmother. I crafted this memory when I sealed you in case of an event where the seal was broken prematurely. I apologize for the necessity, it’s inevitable now that I cannot spare you this pain. Your name is Amaya, I was forced to seal you and your sister, Akiko, away. You should be able to hear her voice in your head soon. Do not be afraid, wherever you are I will find you, though I cannot guarantee my help. I believe in you both. Survive.”
It was done in a moment, the memory of a message shoved into her brain all at once. Amaya? Akiko? My name is… My name is Ichiro, isn’t it? Why doesn’t that name feel right?
Because you’re not Ichiro, a second, languid, voice answered. She sounded like she was waking up from a deep slumber.
Amaya’s heart began to race. It was surreal, exciting and frightening all at once. What happened? How had it happened? What’s going on? Her thoughts raced and the world began to spin. The entitled passengers began shouting, demanding attention with high-pitched whines that grated against her fox-like ears. It was all too much, she wanted to scream at them to shut up. She needed to get away!
Slipping quietly off the bed, Amaya landed on her feet next to a maintenance hatch in the corner of the room. She didn’t need tools to pry this one off, it came away easily. She heard the guy in the Hawaiian shirt shout for her to stop as he leapt over the bed to grab her but she was inside the tunnel and crawling away far too fast for him to catch her in time. Once she was around a corner, she knew there was no way for him to follow, he was way too big to fit his shoulders through.
Awesome, Sis! Akiko congratulated her. We probably want to keep moving, I bet he’s looking up the schematics to try to fish us out of here as we speak.
Sis? Amaya said as she kept moving down the tunnel. Akiko, you’re back? We’re back? WE’RE BACK!
Missed you too, Akiko purred fondly, giving her sister a mental hug.
They could hear the chime of the PA reverberate through the walls of the tunnel. Amaya assumed that one of the walls must run close to a hallway. “Attention, this is Captain Fry speaking. All crew are to report to the nearest engineer to assist in making the modifications to the hull. Any and all resources you or the passengers have that may aid in making the hull air tight are hereby requisitioned by my order. This is top priority!”
“What the fuck?” Amaya said aloud. “Why the fuck do we need to be air tight?”
Maybe we sank? Akiko suggested. Crashed into the ocean?
No, if we were underwater we’d just be dead, Amaya mused as she continued moving. We’d hear the water pressure crushing the superstructure and there’d be visible signs of leaking. A skyliner’s pretty air tight to protect the passengers from pressure differential at high altitude but it’s not perfect. Also, they’d be directing passengers to evacuate to the life rafts and such, not scrambling to reinforce the hull. This is weird.
I’m just glad we’re not that idiot Ichiro anymore. Ok, so where are we going? I assume you’re not just moving because I said so.
No, they need supplies and I can help. We can help. We’ve been working on uprights and robots for nearly ten years, right? A skyliner’s got to be simpler than that.
If you say so. Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention.
It took some searching but it wasn’t long before they found an exit to an empty room with a bunch of machinery. Amaya quickly identified the pumps, filters and syringes full of binary epoxy resin. “Awesome!” Amaya exclaimed, jumping and clapping her hands. “This is everything we could possibly need to reinforce the hull!” As the excitement passed, however, she had to lean against the wall, feeling a little dizzy.
Are you ok, sis? Amaya asked, sounding concerned. Are you sure you’re up to this?
Doesn’t particularly matter, does it? I can’t stop now; the engineers need these supplies to reinforce the hull. If they need to make the ship air tight, then it needs to happen before we’re all dead. Godmother told us to survive, and I’m going to survive, damnit!
Pushing the dizziness away, Amaya got to work shutting down the pumps, disassembling the control circuits for portability and packing everything into a handy orange workman’s bag that she could push through the tunnels. They were back underway in a few minutes, with Amaya’s smartphone schematics to help guide them to engineering. She wasn’t expecting the guy in the Hawaiian shirt to suddenly burst through the hatch ahead of her but she slipped through his grasp with a startled squeak, grabbing the bag and scrambling away.
“Stop!” he barked. “You don’t understand! We need those components!”
“We need ‘em more, mate!” Amaya called out over her shoulder before disappearing around another corner. She could hear him swearing in the distance.
He’s persistent, Akiko commented, and he found us way too easy. Someone’s helping him, there’ll probably be an ambush wherever you’re going.
It’s ok, engineering’s just up ahead. Once the engineers have these components, the ship will be safe and they’ll be thanking me.
Shoving open the hatch to engineering, Amaya pushed the bag through before crawling out to discover the stunned looks of three engineers. They seemed to be searching the nearby supply crates and storage rooms for the parts they needed. “Hey, what the hell are you doing down here?” the guy in charge demanded, walking over to her. “This is a restricted area! Passengers aren’t…”
He stopped the moment Amaya unzipped the bag and shoved it into his arms. “Here, everything you need to seal the ship plus modify the pressure controls for the double hull.”
A quick sift through the contents of the bag impressed him. “You’re… She’s right, this is everything we need. Where the hell did you get all this?”
Amaya grinned and shrugged. “I disassembled some non-essential systems. Once I heard the announcement, I figured this was top priority.”
“Thanks,” he said curtly before he started handing things out to his subordinates and barking orders. It wasn’t long before they were running in all different directions to disseminate the parts to where they were needed.
The guy in the Hawaiian shirt walked into the room with a large guy in a security uniform who seemed vaguely familiar. Amaya greeted them with a wave and a broad, smug, grin. “Hey, boys! I got the parts to your friends, I’m sure they’re getting this ship all nice and air tight as we speak!”
The guy in the security uniform paused before her, frowning down at her. He was black, obviously ex-military and distinctly unimpressed. The badge on his chest read ‘Capt. Rudyard Holt’. “Do you know where you got those parts?” he asked in a deep, vaguely British, accent.
“Like I told the engineers, I disassembled some non-essential systems,” Amaya admitted, confused.
“Those non-essential systems were the machines that operate the ship’s climate control systems. No climate controls, no air conditioning. No air conditioning, no CO2 scrubbers. We’ve got much bigger problems losing those than it just getting too hot in here.”
Amaya stared, stunned. “What? No! I-I know what I’m doing! I’m an engineer, I wouldn’t do that, I’d know… I was helping…” Her hands began to shake and she was getting dizzy again. She couldn’t help but sniffle as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Rudyard sighed. “I’ve diverted engineers to fix climate control. They should have all the spare parts they need, it’ll just take time but I don’t know what I should do with you yet. For now, I’m not letting you out of either my sight or Detective Reynolds here. Consider yourself in custody.”
OH HELL NO! Akiko’s voice shouted in Amaya’s mind. Out of the way, Amaya, it’s MY turn!
Amaya felt Akiko’s will shoulder her aside. She didn’t mind, all she wanted to do was crawl away and stew in her own uselessness. Their body shivered as it became even more slender, hair rippling as it shifted from black with ice-blue tips on her ears and tails to white with bright scarlet tips. When it was done, Akiko grinned. “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!” she declared, diving for the maintenance hatch.
“Oh no you don’t!” Holt growled, leaping to grab her. His hands closed around her two tails while she was still halfway through and he heaved her out, dangling her in the air.
Akiko screamed and kicked furiously. “EEEEEEEE! Pervert! Hentai! Hentai!”
Focusing, Akiko looked over Holt’s shoulder and glared at a point in the wall. The image came together easily in her head, the metal suddenly ripping with an audible screech as the pressure ruptured the hull. Beyond the hole was a spinning void full of stars as the air in the room was sucked out into space. Then it happened, or rather appeared to happen, just as she imagined. It was a rough and imperfect image, as rushed as Akiko was. It felt as if the air was being sucked away but nothing moved. Despite the spinning stars, there was no feeling of movement to disorient the viewers who weren’t in on the trick.
Still, Reynolds backed away, startled and someone outside the door screamed a high-pitched wail of alarm. “HULL BREACH! WE’RE ALL DEAD! Uh, wait, isn’t that an interior wall?”
One of Akiko’s kicks finally managed to hit Holt’s arm just behind the elbow while he was momentarily distracted. It didn’t hurt but the blow was in just the right place to numb his arm, letting her slip through his fingers as he cursed. “Ha-ha! Outta my way!” Akiko giggled as she scampered between Reynold’s legs and skipped lightly through the door, nearly running over the girl who was waiting just outside the door with her camera.
“You’ll never take me alive!” she called out, grinning wickedly as a million diabolical plans raced through her mind.