The gunship was much faster than the tiny air barges, he found out, as he kicked in the afterburners. It took exactly two seconds before Ballog attempted to hail him on the com system, but he paid that flashing light on the console no mind. He busied himself with taking every nonessential system offline-radar, defense, life support, etc.-and putting every last bit of energy into the antigrav units and thrusters. He only put as much into the antigrav as was needed to maintain a parallel course with Ballog; the rest, nearly eighty percent of it, he gave to the thrusters and cranked up the afterburners as high as they allowed.
After three minutes, he had shortened the gap between him and Ballog by roughly three-fourths. He tilted the gunship's nose slightly upward, angling it so that he would pass directly above Ballog's landing strip, where he planned to leap off.
There was a terrific crash, and the entire bridged rocked back and forth for a moment. Hiryu looked up from the instruments. Ballog was attacking him with its energy cannons (as he'd expected), but they were having trouble locking onto the gunship due to its speed (as he'd hoped). He ran outside to the deck. The wind shear lifted him off the deck and threatened to sweep him out into the atmosphere, but he immediately lashed out with his hook and caught the bay doors. It kept him glued to the side of the ship, but it hardly prevented him from moving. He was drawn completely around the side of the ship, his hook cutting a wide swath in the gunship's exterior skin.
As he rounded the gunship's underside, he noticed that he was almost above Ballog's airstrip. He struck out with his cypher at the underside a few meters in front of him, and as the wind carried him along, his hook struck the gap it had made and dislodged. He dropped downwards about twenty meters or so, struck the airstrip heavily, and rolled to its edge, where a guard rail prevented him from rolling over the side. He got to his feet.
Several energy cannons immediately targeted him, and began firing. He shot to the side, then ran in erratic, weaving patterns towards the nearest of them. He sliced off its barrel, then stabbed it through and leaped to the next, ducking below its shot and slicing it apart from the ship at its base. It toppled over, and he ran past it and up a short flight of stairs. A massive railgun was mounted there, and as the one manning it spotted him, he slid underneath its barrel. The railgun fired nearly harmlessly into the air as Hiryu made the barrel half the size it used to be.
The railgun's projectile struck the gunship, which, being pilotless, had not stuck to its plotted course and had begun to wander aimlessly about the sky...at full throttle. The projectile struck its side and slammed through its internal structures, exiting through the uppermost deck. Hiryu plunged his hook into the floor beneath him. A massive explosion ensued, and the shockwave lifted him off the deck, as it also did to the severed half of the railgun's barrel. Hiryu returned to Ballog's deck shortly, but the barrel flew off and struck two more floating barges before plummeting to the ground several kilometers below.
Hiryu sprang up, ran over to a sealed blast door and stabbed through its control panel. He pivoted to the opposite side of the doorframe as the door's wiring shorted out. It blew off its hinges, flying over the small staircase and landing on the deck below with a loud thud. He entered the bowels of the ship slowly, allowing his eyes to become adjusted to the dark while he scanned the interior for guards. A short distance in, the floor dropped away and he saw a platform/chain/pulley system similar to the one he had encountered in the mountain. He crouched down by the edge of the floor and lowered himself over, using his hook to cling to the floor as it undercut and became the ceiling. As a platform passed beneath him, he silently dropped to it and flattened himself against its surface. In this way, he escaped the guards' attention and was able to ride it all the way to the bottom deck. He rolled off as his platform began to make its ascent back upwards, and landed on the bottom deck only to be greeted by the business end of a soldier's grenade launcher.
"You move, you're dead," the soldier stated flatly.
Hiryu slashed through the launcher's barrel laterally, then sheared the man in two. He leaped over the soldier's remains and sprinted onward, slide-tackling another guard and cross-kicking him into a gap in the floor. The guard tumbled downwards onto an open platform attached to Ballog's exterior and lay flat to avoid the wind shear. Several more guards heard the raucous battle sounds and rushed to their comrade's aid, firing as they ran. Hiryu dropped from their view onto the same platform as the guard, gripping it with his hook as he parted the man's cranium from ear to ear with his cypher. He looked up, scanning Ballog's underside, and saw several more of these platforms, which appeared to be docking stations for the floating barges, as some of the platforms were occupied with them.
Multiple bullets whizzed around him like so many gnats, some striking the platform he clung to, others striking his torso and ricocheting off his mail shirt. The other soldiers had located him and were now attempting to repay him for the loss of their comrade. He quickly clambered along the platform, reached its edge, focused all his strength into his legs, and propelled himself upward. He just...about...reached...Ballog's...underside. He felt the atmospheric tendrils taking hold of him, whipping around his body and gripping him like several malicious octopi. He reached out with his hook as they began to pull him away, and snagged the underside by its tip. The wind shear pulled him away for a bit, but his hook bit more deeply into the metal as a direct result, and his outward motion halted. He drew himself flat against Ballog's underbelly, and inched along it until he came to another platform. This one was more of a refuse ejection site, as it had no place for a barge to land and was very narrow.
He wriggled through it and came out nearly fifty meters from where the other platform had been. As he emerged from the refuse ejector, he looked back over his shoulder and saw the soldiers still crowded around the gap he had dropped through. He shook his head, and, spying another pulley/platform arrangement, he leaped upwards and onto one. It lifted him towards the ceiling, passing over surplus ammunition and beneath radar-targeting laser cannons. As he passed beneath the ceiling, he clung to it, leaving the platform to go on its pre-programmed way. He began to carve a hole in it, and the motion attracted the attention of the laser cannons, which began firing at him before he was finished. He avoided the blasts by maneuvering along the length and breadth of the ceiling, swinging like a hi-tech version of Tarzan beneath it. Several of the blasts struck pelted the area around him, and some hit the spot he had been carving, causing it to cave in. He quickly made for the hole and hauled himself up through it, rolling away as several laser blasts shot through after him.
As he rolled away from the hole, the wall nearest him began to move in his direction, forcing him to move to his left. A frog-bot raced towards him and chomped at him with its large, bladed jaws. He leaped to the side and stabbed one of its hydraulics. It exploded, and one of the frog-bot's legs fell onto the floor. It toppled over. Hiryu spotted its control pack, swiped through it, and jumped back. The robot convulsed in a lightning storm of sparks and electricity, lying there as the wall pushed it along.
Hiryu backed away from the advancing wall, unsure of what to do or how to stop it. He retreated slowly, feeling behind him with his left hand as he did so. It brushed against another wall, and he set his jaw. He looked up, searching for a skylight in the ceiling. No such luck. The advancing wall however, had slowed down, and began joining up with a much larger portion. He heard a rumbling noise, and looked up again. The ceiling was retracting.
He jumped upwards as high as he could, caught the near wall with his hook, and began scaling it as swiftly as was physically possible. As he climbed, it began to move shufflingly towards the other wall, which had finished joining up with the larger portion and had resumed its advancing towards him. The room was collapsing on him slowly. As he climbed, Hiryu found himself slowly wishing he'd taken the time to learn the hassou jump Shiroi had developed.
He looked up. The top was still fifteen meters above him, which left him about negative three seconds to reach it, at the rate he was currently ascending. The walls were about four meters apart now, and he began to feel a slight claustrophobia.
They say that the best way to learn is to act upon what you've been told. Hiryu recalled how Shiroi had described his technique, reviewing the brief description and mentally planning how best to execute it with his current skill set. He pulled himself up into a ball, planting his feet as closely to where his hook gripped the wall as possible, then snapped his body out to its full length, whipping his hook-arm back over his head as he cartwheeled in space twenty-two meters above the floor. He slammed into the other wall, caught it, and looked down. He was five meters above the spot where he had launched the technique. It wasn't quite what Shiroi had described, but it had worked.
Three meters apart.
He drew his body up into position for another leap, and repeated the maneuver. His hook slipped on the wall this time, however, and he fell several dozen decimeters before it bit in and prevented him from plummeting to his death.
He curled up once more and pushed off, rocketing skyward and gripping the wall just below floor level. He reached up with his free hand and grasped the corner, clutching it as he freed his hook. He pulled himself up as violently as possible, thrusting his torso up out of the collapsing chamber and rotating his hook-arm so that it came down on the floor and plunged into it a half meter beyond the edge.
He yanked at his hook, hauling himself completely up and over the edge as the walls met and smashed into each other with a jarring, clanging noise. He rolled over onto his back and lay there breathing for a moment. He opened his eyes. Blue. He saw the sky, with all its fleecy clouds and its golden yellow sun. He had survived only to end up on Ballog's exterior once more. He exhaled slowly, attempting to calm his racing heart. He'd never come that close to actually dying before.
A rumbling noise followed by a loud clashing and the hiss of hydraulics caused him to leap to his feet and pivot one hundred eighty degrees. A robot modeled after an African elephant had just been deposited on deck by one of the floating barges, and had already locked onto him. It fired four missiles out of tubes protruding from its back, and accelerated towards him with unexpected rapidity. Hiryu cartwheeled to the left, but the bot caught him in his right knee as it passed and knocked him flat onto his back. He flipped himself back into a standing position and immediately sidestepped to avoid one of its tusks, which was attached to a chain and had been extended at him much like a hookshot. He sliced it off with Falchion, then darted at the bot and slashed through its forward sensor array. No longer able to automatically track him, it had to maintain visual contact with him in order to attack. He performed a back hand-spring as it attacked with its other tusk, leaping just beyond the limit of its chain.
The corner of his eye caught something moving erratically, and he snapped his head around. The missiles were nearly on top of him. He jumped back a couple of strides, and swiped at the incoming projectiles as though they were merely the hardwood balls he had trained with, slicing lengthwise through each one in turn. The bot charged at him, and he cartwheel-jumped over it, stabbing it from above and puncturing its power supply. As soon as he touched the deck, he hit full stride and ran to its edge, where he lay flat as the elephant-bot perished in a terrific eruption of flame, smoke, and debris. He stood up.
When the blaze and smoke had died down, he saw that the explosion had opened up a hole in the flooring and he ducked through it. A long, downward-sloping passageway led him to a sealed, watertight door of thick metal with a wheel on its exterior. He twisted the wheel counter-clockwise, unbarring the door, and pulled it open. Three shots rang out. The bullets struck him in the chest, ricocheting off of his mail shirt and knocking him backwards into the wall behind him. He dropped to one knee and raced at the soldier who fired them, bisecting him from crotch to scalp with a vertical slash that flung blood upwards onto the ceiling like so many polka dots. He walked on past the soldier's body, leaving the entryway as it opened up into an interior chamber. Two laser turrets were mounted on the ceiling, he noticed, as he flattened himself against a wall. He also noticed that the floor had thousands of coin-sized holes punched in it, and out of each of the holes extended a pole with a spinning drill bit mounted on its tip, exactly like those that had attempted to skewer him in Kazakh.
"What kind of paranoid madman builds traps in his own battleship?"
The poles extended and retracted by section in a slow rhythm. Hiryu watched them for a moment, then plunged into the area without reserve. The turrets targeted him, but he darted full stride through the section, weaving around the poles, side-stepping them as they extended, and dodging the turrets' blasts as though they were frozen in midair.
The floor sloped upwards slightly and the ceiling dipped down as he ran through a narrow passageway on the opposite side of the chamber. Halfway through the passageway, the gravity unexpectedly reversed, and he plummeted up to the ceiling, crashing into it with a loud thwack. He sat up...or down, as it were, and rubbed the back of his head. He stood and looked up, and there was the floor above him.
"So, this Meio can control gravity, too..."
He walked along the ceiling as it widened out into another chamber identical to the one he'd just left and bumped into a laser turret. He severed the cables that connected its firing mechanism to its power pack and kept walking. At least this time he didn't have to make his way through a field of psychotic drill bits. He destroyed another laser turret and entered another hallway that had multiple tubes protruding from its walls, ceiling, and floor. Floating mines began to emerge from these tubes, and the gravity also reversed again. He dashed along the floor, out-running the mine tubes and slamming full-on into yet another gravity reversal. He encountered one last turret at the base of a wall, skewered it with Falchion, and began to scale the wall. He crawled upward, through a gap in the floor, and entered an enormous round chamber that had a simply massive metal orb floating in the midst of it. This orb-which was gold in color and had pockmarks of various sizes on its surface-orbited the chamber's center point and had spherical energy arrays orbiting it. Hiryu hazarded a guess that this was Ballog's main antigrav drive; if he destroyed it, Ballog would come crashing back down to earth, depriving Meio of one more very important weapon.
Hiryu continued scaling the wall until he reached the floor above him, where gravity reversed once more and he was able to stand upright. At this point, the sphere floated by him, catching him in its own gravity field and sending him orbiting around itself. He gyrated in midair, slashing at the energy arrays as they veered towards him; he devoted equal time to the core itself, thrusting Falchion into it and letting his orbit's velocity carve deep grooves in its surface. As he skimmed past, minor explosions trailed behind his blade as it took out the exterior circuitry. The orb began to smoke slightly.
After three trips around it, it hurled him against one of the exterior walls of the chamber. He blacked out for a moment from the force of the blow, but when he came to, he was lying on the chamber's floor. He sat up and shook his head as the gravity core floated by him and caught him up in its powerful field once more. This orbit was much closer to the orb's surface than the previous one had been, and he plunged his cypher into it up to the lateral handle. The gravity field dragged him around its side, underneath, and almost all the way back up, when the core suddenly glowed bright red and the field disappeared. He dropped four meters to the floor below, saw that a section of the floor had slid aside, and made for the gap. As he reached it, the gravity core above him exploded, and the walls and floor nearest it did so as well. The flames quickly spread along the metallic floor due to a translucent blue fluid that was flowing out of gaps in the heavily damaged gravity core.
He dropped through the gap and landed on a narrow catwalk. He ran along this until it ended five meters later, when he sprang into the air, caught hold of Ballog's underside above him, and continued his escape from the gravity core's chamber by crawling along it. Ahead and to his right about twelve meters was Ballog's back end, where he saw several propellor barges taking off. He made for it, with explosions chasing him the entire way. One went off directly beside him, flash-burning the flesh of his left arm; he gritted his teeth, forced his way through the pain, and made his way to the platform at the battleship's tail.
He clung to a girder beneath the platform, listening for a bit. The explosions were busy in a different section of the ship at the moment, but they would soon catch up. In the meantime, he paid attention to a conversation taking place above him:
"...but I thought the captain was supposed to go down with his ship!" a voice rang out.
"Would you care to try to prevent my escaping on this barge, ensign?" another voice, with an educated French accent asked. "You would only be wasting your effort...and your life."
"Fascist!" "Coward!" "Asshole!" a whole chorus of voices rang out.
Hiryu vaulted up over the side of the platform and threw himself at the small band of soldiers who were crowded around the barge. He leaped into the air, landing a flying kick across two soldiers' jaws, while stabbing outwards with his cypher and skewering another. He decapitated a fourth, spun, and with the back-hand of the same stroke he cleaved a fifth's skull from his left temple to just below his right ear. He then turned to the barge, which wasn't there anymore.
Upon seeing the turmoil caused by Hiryu's entrance, the one with the French voice had taken his barge into the air. Hiryu sprinted to the edge of the platform, vaulted through space, and caught hold of the underside of the barge with his hook. He clambered up over the edge as the captain cracked a whip at him. The tip struck his burned left arm on its deltoid, sending a searing wave of pain coursing through Hiryu's veins.
He glared at the one with the whip through sweat-laden strands of hair, pure rage exuding from his bloodshot eyes, his expression reflecting that of a vengeful, wrathful demon...or worse.
"Mon dieu," the captain muttered. He was dressed from head to toe in royal purple clothes styled like those of the eighteenth century; he had a pegleg, an eyepatch, and a tricorn with a feather; and he altogether looked like a pirate from Europe's Romantic era.
Hiryu's fury was hotter than ten thousand suns. He directed the full blaze of it at Ballog's captain, striking out at him faster and harder than he had ever done to any living person. The captain could hardly scramble out of the way of Hiryu's blade quickly enough, finally stumbling against the tiny barge's instrument panel and falling flat on his rotund rump.
He remembered the whip in his right hand and cracked it at Hiryu once more, who blocked it with his left arm, allowed it to wrap around his wrist, and violently twisted it out of the captain's grasp.
"You have no idea how wrong of a move you just made," Hiryu stated icily.
"Who are you?" the captain replied. "How is it possible that you can bring about the destruction of my grand ship?"
"Finally!" Hiryu retorted. "Someone who doesn't know who I am!"
A long pause ensued.
"I am Captain Beard," the other said at last. "but my formal title is 'Admiral of the Grandmaster's Flying Fleet.'"
Hiryu laughed aloud, then turned it into a snarl.
"I don't care what your name is," he snapped. "I only want to know who this 'Grandmaster Meio' person is, and how he has so much power."
"The powers of the military and science are in his hands," Captain Beard replied. "He is a being of nearly limitless power from another galaxy, destined to control our world."
"Don't feed me that line of bourgeois dictator propaganda," Hiryu said. "because I don't buy it. Meio's going to die, and his death will be by my hand. As will YOURS!"
As he said this last sentence, he thrust Falchion into Captain Beard's heart, then kicked him over the barge's side. He turned to the instrument panel.
Every light was either red or yellow.
"Iie!" he shouted.
He tore a small door off of the panel and looked inside. What he saw was less encouraging than the panel itself. When Captain Beard fell on the panel, he had damaged several circuit boards; in particular, one that controlled the flow of coolant to the electromagnet that powered the main propeller.
He looked at the panel, the altimeter said he was at one point five kilometers and dropping.
"At least that still works."
He looked over the side. Rainforest. He spotted the Amazon river and suddenly realized that in the time he had been on Ballog, they had flown from Eurasia to South America.
"That ship could move!"
He looked back at the altimeter. One kilometer.
He pulled every wire and tube he recognized out of the circuitry and began jamming them together at random. The main propeller kicked into high gear. He pulled the two wires apart that he was holding and it stopped again. An idea struck him.
Five hundred meters.
He sat stock-still, watching the gauge like a hawk.
Two hundred fifty.
He touched the wires back together. The propeller turned back on, quickly spinning up to its maximum velocity. He had only a few moments before the electromagnet overheated and the prop blew. He hoped it would be enough. The propeller's spinning rapidly decreased his descent speed. By the time he crashed through the treetops, he had slowed from one hundred seventy-six kilometers per hour to fifty-two. He waited until the propeller completely broke down before he leaped. The speedometer read thirty-five. He leaped off of the barge as it emerged from the forest ceiling and plummeted towards the Amazon river below, streamlining his fall so that he entered the water as smoothly as possible. As he plunged beneath its surface, he remembered that the Amazon river was the only place in the world where piranhas lived. He immediately channeled his running energy into swimming, and popped up from beneath the surface almost instantly. He swam only slightly slower than running full stride, and headed directly for shore. He dragged himself onto the beach just far enough so that the piranhas could not reach him, and collapsed onto the sand. He fell asleep instantly.