A/N: I don't own Bleach. Alas. Sequel to "Project Tatterdemalion". And tag.0 made a map! vathara.
Gulping down the last of her coffee amongst the rest of the hastily-grabbed medical personnel on the shuttle, Dr. Retsu Unohana eyed the nondescript government agent stalking down the aisle. "Mr. Smith." As if that were really his name. "There's no settlement this far from Satoyama Spaceport on the whole planet."
The agent gave her one more in a series of bland looks. "Everything will be explained when we get there, Doctor. Which-" He listened to the almost-subliminal hum of the shuttle engines. "Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen. We're landing."
"Landing where?" Retsu murmured under her breath. "To treat what?" Not that she expected asking to get her answers, any more than it had the last five times. So far as she could tell, they'd all been shoved on board with little more than a quick check of security clearances, a request to volunteer for a medical emergency, and enough gear to treat a brigade of Quincys. Assuming any branch of the government had that many; they weren't supposed to be that common. Certainly not on a first-settlement planet like Satoyama.
"From the supplies we've been shipped with, I'd almost say we're dealing with a disaster." Administrative specialist Nanao Ise leaned back in the seat next to her. "Medical packs, prefab barracks, at least three grief counselors in with the medics…."
And the fact that we're both here, Retsu added silently. She didn't know Nanao well, but they'd shared coffee and small talk in the wake of a tsunami on Oceanus. She mended bodies; Ise kept supplies and people moving so survivors could mend the rest.
Still. Something didn't seem right. Retsu shook her head. "Why would a natural disaster need security clearances?"
Light glinted off Nanao's antique glasses. "Who said it was a natural disaster?"
What else could it be? Retsu almost said, as the shuttle door opened, letting in a green waft of plants that didn't grow anywhere on the West Continent. But stopped herself. She'd seen the aftermath of Confederacy pirate raids, and "unaffiliated fanatic groups" from the Satrapy.
Still. Even if it had been an "incident", there shouldn't be this level of security.
Boots thundered up the ramp; grim-faced, tired security personnel with Army insignia, whose unit - no, units, there were at least two - Retsu didn't recognize. "I'm Captain Gary Rollefson," the more genteel-looking uniformed blond stated. His smile was probably meant to be friendly, but only looked exhausted. "This area is under the command of General Yamamoto-Genryuusai. As you might guess, he's my boss. Right now we have a… refugee situation. I'd tell you what happened, but frankly, until you see the videos, I don't think you'd believe it. Those, you'll see inside. For reasons which will become obvious, they were far too classified to even transmit to this shuttle." He rubbed his eyes, no longer bothering to hide their shadows. "For now, just know that your patients have been through hell… and that we have about six hundred survivors, out of a facility that was originally staffed with almost a thousand."
One in three? Retsu's eyes widened. Over thirty percent fatalities? What happened?
"And if your patients talk about monsters…." The captain's gaze swept them all, dead serious. "Believe them."
"Monsters?" Retsu murmured, lost in the sudden babble. Ise was silent, thinking hard.
And the rougher-looking soldier with a shorter crewcut and different unit patch was heading her direction. "Dr. Retsu Unohana?"
"Yes-" Her eyes darted toward his subtler insignia. "Sergeant?"
"Petrillo," he nodded. "Need you to come with me, Doctor."
"Sergeant!" Captain Rollefson said sharply. "Dr. Unohana. You're heading into a high-risk situation, you have every right to refuse-"
"Going back on the general's word?" The sergeant shook his head. "Bad idea. Sir."
"She needs to know-"
"The doc needs to know," Petrillo interrupted, "that we've got hurt people who need her help." He met her gaze, dark eyes serious. "Ma'am. Right now we've got a female patient - nurse, actually - with extensive lacerations, whose only help right now is one scared-white paramedic, a couple of volunteers who've never done first aid before, and a doc whose specialty is mice. And outside of aspirin, nothing we've got for painkillers is working." He raised a thick brow at her. "Think you'd agree with me that shoving aspirin down the throat of somebody who's already bleeding is a bad idea."
No, really? "Lacerations?" Retsu asked briskly, already seizing her gear.
"She was chewed on."
Silence rippled out from them. Nanao swallowed hard. "By what?" the administrative specialist dared.
"We called 'em Hollows," Petrillo said grimly. "The captain here'll get you briefed." He turned back to Retsu. "Dr. Unohana?"
"Cargo," she said briefly, already heading that way. "If standard anesthetics aren't enough, I suppose it makes sense someone thought it would be reasonable to try an old - but viable - one like ether, no matter how explosive it can be under the wrong circumstances-"
"Explosive?" Rollefson squeaked.
"It's perfectly safe," Retsu smiled at him. "Standard transport procedure, packed in honeycomb mini-cells with reinforced membranes. But yes, diethyl ether can be explosive in large quantities, mixed with oxygen."
"Urahara, you son of a bitch," Petrillo said with admiration, as Rollefson made choked noises of protest. "By all means, Doc. Let's go get your knockout gas."
"And why," Retsu asked in an undertone, as Petrillo hoisted the paired cylinders and an odd, roughly meter-long trunk with little obvious effort, "would any of my patients want to blow something up?"
The sergeant held up a finger for silence as they walked out of the shuttle, waiting until they were out of even the most paranoid earshot. "Call it preventive medicine."
Retsu stopped in her tracks. "Sergeant. I'm a doctor. I will help these people. But I would appreciate the truth."
Sighing, he ran fingers through his crewcut. "You're going to meet the people who ended up taking on the monsters hand-to-hand. They really, really don't want to do that again. If setting up a couple booby-traps will help them sleep - hell, I'd give 'em grenades if the general would clear it."
Ominous. And not everything. "And?"
Petrillo winced, and jerked his head back toward the bulk of the refugee camp, where solid prefab barracks and kitchens were going up like clockwork. "Some of those guys have already tried to kill them."
"What?" Retsu stared at him, unwilling to believe her ears. "Why?"
"'Cause if you don't know what you're walking into, they look a little… scary."
"And you're not telling me what I'm walking into," Retsu said levelly. "Why?"
"Because the only thing that scares them more than the monsters, is thinking they might not be sane," Petrillo said bluntly. "They want an outside eye. They want to live, damn it - but they want to be sure the bastard who tried to kill them really was a bastard, and not somebody getting an attack of good sense."
Retsu gave him the same look she'd level on a nervous intern. "Do you think they're sane?"
"I think they need a chance to yell and scream and hit things. I'm sure as hell going to. Just as soon as my guys wake up, and we can get off duty and get blind, stinking drunk for the guys who didn't make it. But before any of them are going to stop vibrating long enough to try that? They need proof." Stiff-shouldered, he stalked off again.
Out of sight of the rest of the camp, Retsu noted, following the sergeant up the path newly-beaten into the ferns. She glanced up at the moss-decked trees they were walking under; spider-webs and gray-green threads of epiphytes and odd, strange flowers that probably hosted the singing amphibians that had just fallen silent. Looks like just foot traffic through here… how did they bring out any structures, you wouldn't want to hover a shuttle so close to these trees-
Tents were green domes on the side of the hill, huddled near a large, cavernous shelter whose darker green mottling almost matched the mist forest below it. There was the silver dome of a satellite dish, the quiet hum of a free-standing fusion generator, and a mid-sized brown awning that had been divided with opaque hanging netting to make an outdoor shower.
Military pack-in style, Retsu thought, recognizing at least some of the items from light reading on Special Forces units. They didn't bring a shuttle in here because they didn't have to.
But - the sergeant had said most of them had no first aid training. Meaning they couldn't be Special Forces. Why would civilians be using equipment meant for a long-range military reconnaissance patrol?
"These… Hollows," Retsu said, a few steps behind Petrillo as he traded nods with a younger, black-haired soldier whose nametag read Shiba. "If they're so afraid, you'd think they'd want to be behind walls…."
Shiba snorted. "Inch-thick steel didn't stop those things."
"Damn straight," Petrillo smiled wryly, jerking a thumb back toward the main camp. "If everybody else wants to stay in a lunchbox, that's their problem."
Retsu tried not to flinch at the image that brought to mind. Monsters? How? From where? The planet had been surveyed before anyone settled here, for goodness' sake; anything larger than a hummingbird should have been found by now. "Some might call that a bit harsh."
"Dr. Retsu Unohana," Shiba said neutrally. "General practitioner with a known specialization in post-disaster trauma care. Classified specialization in Quincy medicine. You've never been specifically tapped for infectious outbreaks, but you're familiar with them in the context of disasters, and you wound up in the end of the Recluse Catarrh. You've published some well-received articles on the psychology of plagues - from historical speculation on pre-space bubonic plague and Ebola to Strickland's and the Catarrh itself."
Which had been strongly rumored to be an escaped terrorist bio-weapon, killing nearly a million people on the fractious planet of Galapagos 2.0 before updated Panimmunity techniques and stellar investigative work had brought the new plague - and its possible fanatic creators - to a dead halt. Retsu held her hands still on the grip of her kit, unwilling to let the icy spike of unease show.
"Maybe if we'd had you with us, we would have known Colonel Hughes was going to crack the way he did," Shiba went on. "Wouldn't have saved our team. But maybe Sarge and I wouldn't be standing here wondering if we're going to have to shoot some poor panicky idiots who get it into their heads that Hughes made a good start, and they ought to finish it."
"Kaien," Petrillo said warningly.
The younger man looked down. "Sorry, Sarge."
"Lot of info," his commander observed, tacitly accepting the apology.
"Isshin put Kisuke on it. He was starting to look a little green. And they've already got enough hands holding Isane down."
"Doesn't think the general will keep them updated?" Petrillo said dryly.
Kaien looked at him askance. "Would you?"
"You said, tried to kill them!" Retsu finally managed.
Petrillo's smile turned even more sardonic. "Figured you'd put patients before autopsies."
Well, of course, but- "Is there a contagious pathogen in there, Sergeant?"
"No," he and Kaien said at once.
"There's a prototype vaccine, but all the viral samples were burned," Kaien added grimly.
"That's going to make new cases difficult to treat," Retsu objected.
"Doc. Trust us. Nobody was going to risk taking a sample of Madsen's Hollow out of that hell," Petrillo said darkly. "And you can't treat cases of it."
Argue later, Retsu told herself. "Where's my patient?"
Measuring her with his gaze, Petrillo jerked his head toward the main shelter.
Squaring her shoulders, Retsu hefted her kit. "If they're as nervous as you imply, you'd better announce me."
"Already done." Kaien waved to shadows that vanished among the tents. "Major Kyouraku and Quincy Ishida will let them know."
"By communicator?" Retsu frowned.
"Something like that."
Next exam I do on you, Kaien, you get the cold probes, Retsu promised herself. Narrowed her eyes, and headed for the entryway.
Lights overhead, also standard hardened pack-in gear. A translucent panel walled off part of the shelter to her left, shadows of cots pushed together in twos and threes still visible… well, anyone might be frightened to sleep alone after a disaster. Most of the rest of the shelter to her right was partitioned off with more opaque fabric; likely where the Kisuke Kaien had mentioned was busily hacking classified files. There was a portable sink and cook-stove, source of an almost homey smell of mac and cheese, hotdogs, and instant lemonade that was currently warring with a tang of disinfectant. And seated on a stool just out of sight of the entrance-
Her kit fell from nerveless fingers, and Retsu was distantly glad everything was packed to be almost unbreakable.
Not happening. This is… not happening….
A blonde woman wearing gloves whispered something encouraging to her patient, and stepped out of the knot toward Retsu. "Dr. Unohana? I'm Dr. Masaki Shiba. Biologist," she added with a warm smile, "so I really hope you can help us out."
Retsu blinked. Tried to clear her throat. Blinked again. "What… how…?"
Golden brows drew down, concerned; Masaki nodded in sudden comprehension. "It's a long story, and we'll fill you in as soon as we patch Isane up."
Isane. Patient. Right. She would not faint, Retsu told herself firmly. She'd walked through the aftermath of earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis, and there weren't even any body parts lying around right now. "You're Isane?"
"Nurse Isane Kotetsu," the silver-haired woman in the midst of a half-dozen people said, politeness somewhat strained by pain.
Masaki smiled ruefully. "And this is my husband, Dr. Isshin Shiba. Geneticist."
"Hi," grinned the black-haired man hanging onto Isane's upper right tentacle.
Tentacles. Except for Masaki, they all have… they're all in scrubs. Focus on that. "Shiba. You look like Kaien." Except for the tentacles. Furry tentacles. She didn't know whether to faint or giggle. Or scream.
"I should," Isshin shrugged, setting too many muscles wriggling. "He's my cousin."
"How did that happen?" Retsu managed.
He winked at her. "Well, my mother said that when an aunt and uncle love each other very much-"
"Isshin!" Masaki exclaimed with fond exasperation.
A purple tentacle smacked him on the back of the head for emphasis. "Yoruichi Shihouin, field ecologist," the tentacle's dark-skinned owner introduced herself, hanging onto Isane's lower right tentacle. "The quiet young man across from me is our paramedic, Hanatarou Yamada-"
"Hi," a pale brunet whispered, dropping Retsu's gaze almost as soon as he met it, staring at his hands as he knelt to hold down Isane's lower left tentacle.
"-Over there is our data analyst, Juushirou Ukitake-"
A white-haired head nodded, but the bulk of Juushirou's attention was obviously focused on how to shift his grip on silver-furred muscle without it springing free.
"-The youngster scowling in the corner is Toushirou Hitsugaya-"
Elf, was Retsu's first stunned thought, glancing at the puff of white hair, the large emerald eyes made even more intensely green by ice-blue, somewhat oversized scrubs. He scowled harder, and jerked his gaze back to the battered graphic novel in his hands, squeezing farther into the loose fabric of the corner, snow-furred tentacles wrapped protectively around him.
Fetal position. He's not mad, he's scared.
He's just a kid….
"-Major Kyouraku and Ishida are out on watch. Captain Tsukabishi, one of our physicists, is looking after the Sergeant's two strikers in their chrysalides-"
"Chrysalides," Retsu echoed faintly. "Of course."
"-And Kisuke's buried in the Internet trying to ward off surprises," Yoruichi finished, apparently determined to steam-roll over any impeding hysterics. She raised her voice. "Get out here and be polite. The doctor brought you flammables."
"Now, how could I resist an offer like that?" A blond stepped out from behind the opaque panel, grinning shamelessly. "Kisuke Urahara. Nice to meet you."
Think. Think, Retsu told herself. "The other physicist?"
"Materials scientist, to be specific. And physicist. And biologist. Among other things."
Wonderful. A bona fide genius. With a smile so confident it made her want to slap him silly. There was no way a smile like that belonged on someone smart enough that ordinary life was probably hell until he got to college-
It's an act.
Shocked out of her panic, Retsu closed her eyes. Plague psychology. Forget what they look like. Forget that this is impossible. Who are they?
Frightened. Angry. Glad, but bewildered to even be alive, and worried they wouldn't stay that way….
A farm wife wakes in a house of the Plague's dead, wondering why God's wrath hasn't taken her too. A little girl gets up from what felt like a bad flu, while around her adults hemorrhage to death from Ebola. A detective two years short of retirement almost breaks my hand, trying not to weep, cursing any god out there that something as simple as the chlorinated water up his nose from a daily swim could have saved the rest of his squad.
Their world had died around them, and they'd somehow failed to die with it. And even with all the Republic's science and technology and education… deep down, humans weren't very rational creatures.
"Head down, Doc." Petrillo put a steadying hand on her shoulder. "Slow breaths. You know the drill."
Right. Hyperventilation lowered the level of carbon dioxide in the blood, increasing the risk of passing out. Which seemed horribly tempting.
Enough self-indulgence. Retsu straightened her shoulders. "I'm sorry. This is just…." What could she say? "More than I expected."
"I think we find your reaction oddly reassuring." Having finally secured the grip he wanted, Juushirou gave her a shy smile. "If something hadn't tried to eat me, I'd probably be hiding in a closet."
"Good point," Yoruichi chuckled. "We did end up rather busy, didn't we?"
Which could only have been a good thing, considering the circumstances, Retsu knew. Being able to do something about an imminent peril was one of the best antidepressants out there.
Of course, once you had time to think afterwards… well, then things could get sticky.
"Take that ether tank, but leave mine alone, Kisuke," Retsu said briskly, heading for the sink to scrub up. "Tell me where you're hurt, Isane."
"Just - where Yoruichi's holding me, mostly…."
One of the tentacles. Of course. The day kept getting better.
"And some fairly deep claw-marks on her back," Masaki said matter-of-factly, helping Retsu don her gloves. "We were able to clean those, and they seem to be healing. But the tentacles are almost as much nerves as muscle, so…."
Like trying to treat something… well, almost like a very big tongue. No wonder Isane wanted to be unconscious. "Toushirou-"
Definitely trying to be mad so he won't be scared, Retsu thought wryly. They seem to be tolerating it… is it just that they think he's suffered more than they have, because he's a child?
Then again, where were his parents?
"I'd like it if you could help us handle the ether," Retsu went on, deliberately ignoring his tone. "It's mostly automatic once we have the respirations set, but I like to have another pair of eyes in case something goes wrong. And I'd appreciate it if Masaki had her hands free to help me."
He glanced past her - toward Juushirou? - then carefully put his comic down, and uncurled from the corner.
"Just breathe normally, and try to relax," Retsu advised, fitting the mask over Isane's face. "Let me count. Twenty, nineteen…."
It took all the way to two, but Isane finally slumped. "Nobody move!" Isshin snapped. "I've got a theory-"
Silvery tentacles suddenly writhed, desperate to escape. "Easy," Isshin gritted out, clinging. "Easy! You know us, you know we're trying to help. Relax. We're here. Nobody's going to hurt you."
A few more breaths, and furred muscle finally went limp.
"The hell was that?" Petrillo swore, shaken.
"There's a lot of nerves in the tentacles," Isshin said bluntly.
Masaki's eyes widened. "Enough to make a secondary neural center?"
"They've got a mind of their own?" Yoruichi's brow went up. "That would explain a few things… and here I thought Kisuke was just finding excuses to goose me."
After a split-second of shock, the blond winked. "I need an excuse?"
"You mean, it's not just louder survival instincts," Juushirou said uneasily.
"Yes and no," Isshin shrugged. "I honestly think Shunsui was right about that. I'm just not sure they're all human."
"Stop that," Masaki said firmly, ready to hand out supplies from Retsu's kit. "You're all human until proven otherwise."
Isshin grinned at her, all black hair and puppy-dog eyes. "Does that mean I get snuggles?"
"Get a room!" came the mass groan.
For biologists, you know more about human psychology than you let on, Retsu thought, hiding a grin. Braced herself, and approached her patient.
"My god," she breathed, finally able to see the extent of the damage. From diamond-shaped, flattened tip to the cylindrical cross-section blending into Isane's lower back about an inch right of her spine, the tentacle had had near half its skin and probably a quarter of its muscle torn away. The bare flesh still oozed serum, though most of the bleeding seemed to have stopped. It was all too easy to imagine the massive fangs and grinding molars that had to have done this kind of damage. "A Hollow did this?"
"We think its saliva was slowing down the healing," Yoruichi stated. "Irrigating and cleaning it seemed to help."
"Must have stung like the very devil, though," Retsu murmured. Which explained the massive dogpile. "Let me do another wash, now that she's still. You did very well, all of you."
"Thank Hanatarou," Masaki said warmly. "He walked us through it."
"I-it was nothing…."
"He gets seen next," Yoruichi said firmly. "Don't even think about arguing. I don't care if it was just a graze. You were shot."
Hughes? Retsu wanted to ask. But that could wait. "All right, I need to suture this…." She hesitated, nonplussed. "These muscles-"
"It's a muscular hydrostat," Yoruichi informed her. "Very like a tongue. Or a squid tentacle. There are two sets of muscles, crisscrossing. One set goes lengthwise, the other forms bands as diameters." Her voice turned wry. "We did think about asking for a veterinarian."
"I can see what's involved, now," Retsu reassured her, considering the problem. "I need to suture in stages."
From there it was a relatively simple, if tedious, matter of aligning the remaining muscles layer by layer, stitching each in turn with bio-absorbing filaments. Finally the skin was back in place, and the still-raw wound remaining wrapped first in artificial skin, then a coil of pressure bandages.
Satisfied, the doctor stepped back and straightened, willing away an incipient backache. "Everyone hold on again. I'm going to switch off the ether."
A few seconds - far too fast, from what Retsu knew of ether - and Isane was blinking blearily at them. "Is that it?"
"Don't move it more than you have to," Retsu informed her. "We should really rig up some kind of sling-"
"That, I can handle," Kisuke said, relieved.
"Hold up a minute," Petrillo said, dragging his trunk forward. "I brought presents."
Even considering all the things Retsu had half-expected a Special Forces sergeant to bring through security, the contents still surprised her. "Swords?" When I get you alone, Sergeant, we're going to have words about providing sharp instruments to people who may be suicidal.
"We don't need those," Kisuke said uneasily.
"No?" Petrillo eyed Juushirou, who was looking at sheathed steel with definite longing.
"It… probably isn't a good idea," the white-haired man said reluctantly. "We might be… tempted to experiment."
"In case none of you noticed, the rest of camp is pretty far that way." Petrillo jerked a thumb back toward the landing area. "I've seen Quincys work. Pretty sure nothing you set off can reach that far."
Quincys? Retsu listened intently. They're Quincys?
No, or they'd have said so; the psychokinetic specialists had a few odd medical requirements. But… was Petrillo implying they could manipulate psychokinetic energy? If so - primitive as they might seem in the interstellar age, those swords would be very effective.
"Sure you don't want one?" Petrillo went on. "Even for Toushirou?"
Who was staring at lethal steel like a kid outside a candy store. Only hungrier. Retsu looked over them all, suddenly uneasy.
That's not a suicidal look. I'm not sure what it is, but it's not suicidal.
"No," Isshin said levelly, with a glance at Kisuke's paling face. "The rest of you can do what you want. Kisuke and I are going after this bastard the way we know how. Scientifically."
"He's not really asking for your sake, Isshin."
Retsu started at the unexpected voice - and started again, seeing the others' lack of reaction. How did they know he was there?
"Major Shunsui Kyouraku, Doctor." The brunet gave her an old-fashioned bow, hand on his swords. Brown-furred tentacles were wrapped around his waist, just above the hilts. "And may I say that you are a ray of sunshine on this dark and dreary day-"
"This isn't the cafeteria, and she's probably not looking for a date," Juushirou said, amused. "And I'm not looking for one, either!" he added hastily.
"Aww." Shunsui dropped her a wink. "Don't take it personally, ma'am, he's just shy-"
"Major," the sergeant said dryly. "Sensors up?"
"And running," Shunsui nodded, suddenly all business. "I've tried pulsing to knock 'em out. So far, they're holding up to specs. We should still post watches, but two people can handle it now." He looked over the assembled survivors. "I know everyone's got really bad memories. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to be able to protect yourselves. And Sergeant Petrillo isn't even asking for that. He's asking, because Yumichika Ayasegawa and Ikkaku Madarame - two of the guys who walked into that nightmare to help us - are out cold on cots right now. Helpless."
Hanatarou went white. Yoruichi gripped his shoulder, kneading knotted muscles.
"The general won't give us stunners," Shunsui went on, more quietly. "I asked. After Yoruichi's little shuttle grab-"
"What?" Retsu burst out.
"They were going to leave us there," Yoruichi said levelly. "Everyone visibly affected by the vaccine."
A vaccine. Did this. And - leave them? No wonder these people were paranoid. "So there are non-visible effects?"
"We'll get to that," Shunsui promised. "Point is, all our surviving security guys and the new security knows that, unless we're incapacitated or they can saturate the area with bullets, they're not going to hit us. And I can guarantee you, the thought of people with that kind of force multiplier armed with anything is making poor Rollefson curl up in a corner and whimper."
"He knows about the ether," Retsu felt obligated to mention.
"Good. Maybe it'll keep him civil." Shunsui's grin had a wry edge. "We got these past the general, officially, by having the sergeant claim them as personal effects, exercise equipment."
"The exercise being iaido?" Juushirou murmured.
"Don't knock it," Shunsui shrugged. "Unofficially, Yama-jii probably knows exactly what we've got. But as long as we don't have any distance weapons - don't even start, Kisuke, we've got no idea what our range is, so he doesn't know, officially, that we do - as long as we make it clear that all we want to do is protect ourselves, then we should be good." He swept them with another look. "If everything goes right, we won't need them. But weird as it sounds, the best way not to need them is to make sure people know we have them. To make sure they think human, not monster. If they're thinking about pointy sharp things, they're not thinking about the Thing Under the Bed with claws, tentacles, and whatever else their nightmares dream up."
"Claws?" Retsu put in, dreading the answer.
"Yes, ma'am," Shunsui said matter-of-factly. "I take it you haven't had time to do a general exam yet?"
"She just got done with me," Isane said shyly.
"Okay. We'll keep this quick, I know Hanatarou's up next." Turning an empty hand palm-up, he clenched his fingertips.
Claws slid out, white as bone.
"And that," Isshin said dryly, "is why Masaki was wearing the sterile gloves. We can't keep from going through them. At least, not yet."
"They're sharp," Kisuke warned, as Retsu reached out dazedly for a better look. "And they have variable hardness. The tips can cut through steel; the anchoring point, though, is only about bone-hard. So they're actually practical to use, without tearing your fingers to shreds. Very effective design."
Which was the sort of tone she'd heard from a beginning pathologist confronted with a spectacularly ugly cause of death. Shortly before he'd lost his lunch. "I see," Retsu said briskly, turning Shunsui's hand around to see exactly how the claws retracted under his nails. Stomped, again, on any impulse to panic, and considered their situation in light of this new - unsettling - information. "The major's right. People may not like the idea of your being armed with oversized kitchen knives-"
Juushirou made a strangled noise.
"-But they'd much rather think about that than being clawed to death. Humans have a very visceral reaction to the thought of being preyed upon." Retsu gave them her own long look. "Remember, the goal is for no one to get hurt. If they're afraid of you and think you're unarmed… well, that's not a good situation." She met Shunsui's gaze. "Is there one for me?"
He blinked. "Ah…."
"I'm your doctor, Major. I'm staying here." It's the best way to keep everyone safe. The kind of plague-hysteria that led to mobs with torches probably wouldn't stand a chance of taking hold here; not with a sane man in charge and enough security to clamp down on incipient troublemakers. But if anything like that should even think about getting started - the best way to head it off was to have someone indisputably human in authority here.
And on a more personal note… the way Captain Rollefson had tried to steamroller her away from patients who needed her raised all her hackles.
These people have been betrayed enough.
"Welcome aboard, Doc," Shunsui stated, after an odd silence of glances. "Okay, 'Shirou, give me a hand. I know it's been a while since you did formal kendo, but you're the best second opinion I've got right now…."
That quickly, her patients separated; Juushirou and an eager Toushirou joining Shunsui, another crowd around Isane, and Yoruichi dragging over chairs and another collapsible partition to create makeshift privacy for Retsu and her next patient. "Do you want me to stay?" the purple-haired woman asked Hanatarou.
"I-I'll be alright," the young paramedic stuttered. Dared a glance at Retsu. "You're… just looking at the graze, right?"
Say yes, Yoruichi's serious gaze told her.
"For now," Retsu nodded. "But given the extent of what's happened, I'd like to do a full exam on someone."
"Me, then," Yoruichi said easily. "Or Juushirou, later. He needs a good look-over, anyway."
"Why?" Retsu asked, already laying out her kit in the light of the sterile field projector atop a small folding table.
"Up until four days ago, he had Strickland's." With a wink, Yoruichi left her gaping.
"It's true," Hanatarou nodded shyly. "He was on full oxygen support. With a red medic alert."
As in, might keel over any day, not your fault if he doesn't resuscitate. The same man who now looked perfectly healthy. Except for the tentacles. Retsu shook her head, trying to jar loose bewilderment. Vaccines didn't do this. "So you were hit? All right, if you could just open your top…."
"Don't touch anything!" Yoruichi yanked the curtain open again, breathing fast. "I forgot. I forgot to tell you. We're venomous."
"We, ah… don't exactly know how toxic, yet," Yoruichi said gamely. "Based on other evidence, though, we have to assume it's potentially lethal…."
"And this just slipped your mind?" Retsu demanded, not caring if the whole shelter rang with her voice. "Claws, tentacles, venom - have any of you heard of overkill?"
"Told you," Kisuke's voice floated across the room, oddly cheerful.
"Yeah," Isshin sighed. "Have to say, it's looking more and more plausible."
"What is?" Retsu asked at a more normal volume, looking at Yoruichi.
"It's a theory," the ecologist said evasively. "We need to gather more evidence."
She knew that tone. Researchers who'd looked at their data and reached a conclusion they really didn't like. Better to let them have time to come to terms with it. For now. "Let me guess. Fangs?"
"No, thank goodness," Yoruichi chuckled. One of her tentacles lifted, turned over, unrolled the diamond-shaped, flattened tip-
Retsu let out a low whistle at the bristling, bone-white barbs spread across a hand-span of flesh. Almost fangs, at that.
"Venom glands at the bases, all the way up to here." Yoruichi pointed to the bare skin where the barbs ended. "Those are under the skin. On top of the skin, all the way down here-" she sketched a path along the furless line of the tentacle's underside, "-there appear to be nematocysts, as well. We're not sure what's in them, yet. They don't seem to go off just from skin contact, but…." A fluid shrug.
"I stand corrected," Retsu said dryly. "This is beyond overkill." Claws. Tentacles. Nematocysts. Human DNA didn't do this.
What in space happened here?
Patient. Focus on the patient. "Is there anything else? Anything at all?"
For a moment, Yoruichi looked uncertain. Braced herself, and stepped close enough to whisper in Retsu's ear. "Toushirou's parents are dead. It was… very ugly. Ask Shunsui. Or Juushirou. Not him."
Which answered one question, and raised a host of others. What did people who'd gone through this consider very ugly? "Thank you."
Giving her a wry smile, Yoruichi stepped out and closed the curtain.
After that, cleaning Hanatarou's graze was almost anticlimactic. Even if it did look far too healed. "You say this happened less than twelve hours ago?"
"I - think so." Hanatarou wouldn't look up. "We… kind of lost track of time…."
"That happens, once your adrenaline gets going," Retsu nodded, finishing up. "Hughes shot you?"
It wasn't quite a whimper, but the welling tears made it even worse. "I-" He scrubbed his eyes. "We didn't do anything to him!"
"It's all right," Retsu said gently. "To wonder why you're alive, and they're not. I know it sounds stupid, but - sometimes, things just happen. And it's not your fault, and it's not theirs. The universe is full of chance. All we can do is our best with what we're given."
He swallowed, and retied his top. "You're very kind, Doctor."
Not convinced. That was all right. They had time.
Escorting him to the curtain, Retsu poked her head out. "Next?"
Next wasn't Juushirou, but a scowling Toushirou, clinging to his new short sword and not admitting to anything worse than a few scrapes. Which even seemed to be true; again, like Hanatarou's wound, healed as if they'd happened days ago. Then Isshin-
"So. Kaien holding up okay?"
"We really need to find him a physics problem to work on. Beyond rerunning the calculations on how we blew the shelter door down…."
"Ah, a lovely lady putting her hands all over me. How lucky can I- ow!"
-Masaki, shedding a few long strands of blonde-
"I don't think they need to be as worried about the nematocysts as they think. We all slept together on the shuttle and nothing happened… yes, I said slept. We didn't do anything else, though if you could help me prove to Isshin it's okay if we do…."
"Ma'am," was pretty much the giant physicist's only comment. And, on her cleaning various scrapes and gashes, "Isane and I were in the same fight."
-Quincy Ryuuken Ishida, who, oddly like Masaki, seemed to be losing black hair in favor of fine white-
"I'm still composing my report."
-And finally, Isshin and Shunsui dragged in her last patient for the day. "Relax," Shunsui smiled at the white-haired data analyst. "Everything's going to be fine."
"You don't know that," Juushirou muttered.
"'Shirou…." Shunsui stepped close, almost forehead to forehead with his friend, and-
Retsu stumbled back, as brown strands rose and interwove with snowy white.
Isshin caught her before she hit the curtain. "It's not hair," the geneticist said bluntly. "Like the fur isn't really fur. It's all electromagnetically sensitive tendrils."
Retsu drew in a sharp breath. "Ryuuken and Masaki-"
"Took longer to start losing their hair than we did," Isshin said matter-of-factly. "So far, though, that seems to be the only effect from a successful vaccination."
"Anyone tell the general yet?" Shunsui murmured, as Juushirou finally relaxed.
Isshin smirked. "I sent him a memo."
"I like you." Shunsui grinned, tendrils unweaving from white as he stepped back. "Okay now?"
"Just a little scared," Juushirou admitted. "Of hoping too much."
Having now had time to review his records, Retsu could understand why. Six months. Or less. Strickland's just didn't go into remission. Not in its terminal stage. "Biopsy sample first. Let me find your brachial hearts…." She moved her scanner over each side of his ribcage, silently marveling at the new organs revealed. Just like the others affected, the original heart was still present, if in surprisingly good shape. But its pulse was slower, not as forceful. It didn't have to be; attached to the major vessels running through each lung was a smaller, new heart, providing the pressure to the lungs the main heart normally had to give the whole body.
Three hearts. Alien as it was, she couldn't help but be struck by the pure elegance of the design. "Hold still. You'll feel a little pinch-"
The tentacles flinched, but never came near her. Sample in hand, Retsu slotted it into her analyzer and let it run. Turning back to her patient, she traced where records said thick scars should be. "You know, except for Masaki and Ryuuken, I haven't found scars on any of you."
"Chrysalis," Isshin said briefly. "There was a lot of… tissue reconstruction. Even after we stomped on the genes for tissue lysis."
Retsu didn't take her eyes off Juushirou. "You made this vaccine?"
"Me, Masaki, Kisuke; Ryuuken ended up helping near the end of it. Given we had about ten days before everything went to hell, I really can't complain. At least it worked."
Now she did glare at him. "You used an untested vaccine?"
"They tested everything they could in the time we had," Shunsui objected. "It was that, or let the general nuke us all."
Juushirou shuddered. "Madsen's Hollow spread all over the planet, god…."
"It showed up first as spores," Isshin told her. "We weren't able to get it back into spores in the time we had, but if it was able to pull that trick again-" he grimaced.
Retsu swallowed dryly. Attempted nuclear sterilization. Even in the height of the Catarrh, she'd never heard anyone seriously suggest that option.
The analyzer chimed, and she put her instruments down to read the results. Reread them, slowly.
"Doctor?" Juushirou said anxiously.
Retsu beckoned Isshin over. "You're more familiar with modified biochemistry. Would you mind checking my results?"
"Not at all…." Isshin checked over the display, dark brows bouncing up. "'Shirou, you lucky dog!"
"So that's good?" Shunsui ventured.
"Technically speaking, you still have Strickland's," Retsu told her patient levelly. "In that it's defined by antibody response to your own lung tissue, and you still have antibodies to human lung tissue. But the lung tissue you currently have has a different genetic profile than your records, and it shows no trace of inflammation, tissue destruction, or indeed any proteins that the destructive antibodies could latch onto." She spread empty hands. "I think you're going to live."
Shunsui steadied his friend as Juushirou swayed. "So," the major teased, "what are you planning to do with the rest of your life?"
"I… don't know."
Retsu smiled, heartened. That at least was a familiar reaction, if one she'd encountered all too rarely. It was hard to go from accepting imminent death back to the realm of the living. "Would you let me do a full exam? Now that I've seen all of you, I should have a better idea of what's-" normal was not the word to use here, no, "-not out of the ordinary."
From the trio of looks she got, that phrase hadn't gone over much better. But Juushirou braced himself. "All right."
"So, we should-" Isshin started.
"Stay," Juushirou asked. "Please?"
"Okay," Shunsui agreed. "But you get to convince Snowball the scary doctor's not eating you."
"I heard that!" came Toushirou's growl.
"Not polite to eavesdrop, kid," Shunsui grinned. "Relax. This won't take long."
"Who says I'm not relaxed?"
"We can feel you vibrating from in here," Isshin stated. "Heck, Ryuuken can probably feel it."
"Ryuuken can go-" The rest was, fortunately, muffled.
"Thanks, love," Isshin smiled.
"Just don't dawdle," Masaki called back through the screen. "If you want to show Dr. Unohana the videos I think you do, we want to do it before dinner."
Almost as one, the three men swallowed dryly. "Did I mention you have a very smart wife, Dr. Shiba?" Shunsui said wryly.
"Videos of infected people?" Retsu asked neutrally. "No one's mentioned what sort of facility you were in. Or how the infection initially manifested, beyond spores." Monsters. And a vaccine that- There was a picture forming here, and she didn't like it. At all. Impossible. Nobody could… infections don't….
"Yes," Isshin said flatly. "Videos of… infected mammals. And other events. As to how it got in-" his fists clenched, claws pricking skin. "Project Tatterdemalion had a level 4 containment lab. Because of what we were doing. And it still got out."
"We've got ideas on how," Shunsui put in, a little more calm. "They'll make more sense when you see the recordings from the physics lab."
"The fight Isane and Tessai were in?" Retsu guessed.
"Them, us, Ryuuken, the sergeant and his men…." Shunsui winced. "He lost good people. Soon as the general says we can have some downtime, I'm buying him a round. Or ten."
"As your doctor, I can't say I approve," Retsu said candidly. "As someone who's been in more than one disaster, though - you're adults. But given the minor fact that you are venomous, make sure someone's sober enough to keep you away from innocent bystanders."
He saluted. "Yes, ma'am."
Yes, ma'am, and he'd make sure it happened, if he had to stay sober himself. Retsu smiled, turning back to her exam. Shunsui might flirt and tease, but underneath the charm, he was reliable as a quasar. "Let me know if anything I do is uncomfortable, Juushirou." Carefully, she touched a gloved finger to the base of his upper right tentacle.
"Tickles a little," Juushirou admitted, trying not to shiver. "It's all right."
Muscular arrangement looks almost normal on the surface, but it's definitely been altered, Retsu noted, pressing her scanner against the tentacle base for better readings. The usual fan of muscle across the shoulders wove right into the new spiderweb of muscles rooting the upper tentacles below the shoulder blades, merging and mingling with them to protect the nerves leading into the spinal cord. About a hand's width down, the second pair of tentacles was equally well rooted into the lower back, in a way that- Retsu frowned. "Have you noticed any lower back pain?"
"No," Juushirou admitted. "That's odd?"
Several pounds of muscle where it shouldn't be, and it didn't hurt? Didn't even seem to throw them off stride? Yes. Very odd. "Humans are a bipedal modification on a quadripedal body form," Retsu stated. "Unless someone went crazy enough to do major genetic engineering, we're stuck with back muscles that still expect gravity to be about ninety degrees off." She traced the fine network on her scanner. "These modified muscles seem to know which way gravity works. It's not perfect, but it explains how you can maintain an upright posture."
"Wonder what it took its cue from to pull that off?" Isshin muttered.
Retsu measured around the base of each tentacle, noticing how the white tendril-fur made dusty trails that intersected as a barely visible X across the spine. "Doesn't seem to be much difference between the upper and lower pairs. Each are about two inches thick, and-" She measured, twice. "Nearly six feet long, including the tip. Almost as long as you're tall. That seems to be consistent with all of you, except Toushirou. His are several inches short."
"Kid's twelve," Shunsui pointed out. "They'll catch up."
Retsu eyed him.
"What? What'd I say?"
"Nothing," Retsu shrugged, deliberately nonchalant. "I'm just used to people being a bit less resilient in the face of disaster."
Silence, punctuated by shared, resigned glances. Juushirou sighed. "Did you know your electromagnetic aura shifts when you lie?"
It's not hair. Retsu blinked, speechless. They can sense deception?
"Doc. We know our heads have been messed with," Shunsui said matter-of-factly. "We should be panicking. We're not. We should be catatonic. We're not. There's no way in space we should be reacting like any of this is within a solar system of normal." His shoulders fell. "But we are. Toushirou's our - kid. Everyone here is family."
What were you going to say instead of kid? Retsu wondered. "Don't underestimate yourselves; humans are fairly adaptable. But you're right. Such a lack of reaction isn't normal. Though the fact that you all know it's not normal is a good sign."
Another telling silence. Retsu narrowed her eyes. "I don't like being talked about behind my back, gentlemen."
A pair of blushes, and Shunsui grinned. "Lovely and smart."
Retsu's jaw dropped. "You- but-" Pulses. He said he pulsed at the sensors. "You can communicate? Electromagnetically?" She blinked. "That's why you're using striker gear. You need the EM-hardening!"
Shunsui gave her a thumbs-up. "Got it in one."
"We can sense Ryuuken all the way out on patrol," Juushirou added. "He and Masaki can't sense us very well yet, and definitely not very far, but they can sense us."
"They don't have that many tendrils yet," Isshin pointed out. "Could be that when they all grow in, their range will get better. Or it could be you need the full set of tentacles for reliable sensing. No way to know yet."
"You sure that's all that's growing in?" Shunsui asked, uneasy.
Isshin nodded. "I may not be in her league as a doc, but genetics, I know. Except for bits in the scalp and brain, and some weirdness in the immune system, Ryuuken and Masaki don't have the kinds of proteins and RNAs active that we do." He grimaced. "That's probably how the first mouse tests slipped by us. The Hollow virus only seems to latch onto about twenty percent of the population, and when you grab twenty random mice-" He shrugged. "One in a hundred chance of not getting a vulnerable mouse. And, obviously…." He spread an empty hand. "Damn it, I told Yamamoto we needed more time!"
"But there wasn't any more time," Juushirou reminded him. "We're alive. We weren't eaten. We didn't-" He shuddered. "God, I can still see Cournoyer's face."
"One of Sarge's strikers," Shunsui filled in for Retsu, distinctly pale. "I think the lab recordings caught most of what happened."
Retsu arched a brow. "You don't have to watch it with me."
"Somebody's got to walk you through what happened," was his grim reply. "And hold your hair back."
As in, when she threw up. Not if. Retsu swallowed hard. "It's that bad?"
Another triad of exchanged glances. "However bad you think it is," Isshin said tersely, "it's worse."
Letting the splash of water run down her face, Nanao Ise gripped the sink, grimly determined not to vomit. Again.
Whoever put bacon on the breakfast menu needs to die.
The recordings they'd seen had been simple audiovisuals, no olfactory component. But you didn't need scent-surround to imagine the stench of bodies burning, as Hollows were crisped alive.
Nothing ought to die like that.
An impractical reaction; she knew that. A contagion of this magnitude had to be contained. Whatever it took. That the active vector of the contagion was still a living, intelligent creature, was distinctly secondary.
Still. Burning alive… she shuddered.
Letting out a long breath, Nanao wiped her face and glasses. Settled lenses back on her face to keep the world at bay once more. Nodded at the mirror, and exited the bathroom.
She was, after all, a professional.
Which was why almost getting run over by a screaming security guard as she stepped into the sunlight barely made her narrow her eyes. Not professional, at all-
Um, common sense pointed out, what's he running away from?
Nanao stood still, eyes flicking about for any sign of armed threats, blatant Hollows, or the rippling in the air that might indicate a camouflaged monster. Nothing. And not a trace of the scent the strikers had reported on encountering the infectees-
A kid's voice, determined and no little frustrated. Nanao pounced on the moving pink fluff without thinking twice.
Felt something furry stroke along her cupped palms, and broke into a cold sweat, fighting not to throw it as hard as she could. "What the-"
Beady black eyes stared back at her, whiskers twitching, as the mouse explored the cage of her hands. The pink, tentacled mouse.
One of Dr. Shiba's lab specimens. Oh, joy.
If the briefing was wrong, and it really was infectious, she was going to kill somebody.
"Um. Not good. Just… don't startle it, okay?"
Nanao jerked her gaze up, where a snowy-haired youngster crouched on top of the washroom trailer… and why did he have a sword slung across his back?
More to the point, how had he gotten up there in the first place?
Wait. Scrubs. White hair. Those weren't furry belts around his waist, but-
Green eyes flinched as she paled, but he swallowed, and straightened his shoulders. "They're really pretty tame. Just hang on."
He dropped off the roof, and she didn't have time to yelp-
-Landed, agile as a leopard. Like he'd just stepped off a curb. Warily walked over to her, holding open a clear impact-plastic carrying cage.
Gingerly, Nanao rearranged her fingers so the mouse's only way out was into the trap. It squeaked at her again, disappointed, then wriggled inside.
Quick fingers slammed the door shut, then not only latched it, but plastered the latch down with duct tape. "Why-" Nanao started, and cut herself off, thinking. "The tentacles. They can squeeze out the ventilation holes?"
"And lift the latch," he admitted reluctantly. "Yeah."
Nanao let out a breath. "You're Toushirou Hitsugaya, aren't you?"
He took a step back. "How did you know?"
"General Yamamoto told us about the - affected survivors." Though he didn't tell us you could do… what I just saw. What else hasn't he told us? Nerving herself, she held out a hand. "I'm Nanao Ise."
Hesitantly, like he didn't dare believe it, Toushirou reached back-
More security. This time, not screaming. Nanao frowned, seeing the situation poised to plummet downhill. "Is something wrong, gentlemen?"
"Ma'am." One of the higher-ranked noncoms beckoned to her. No guns were drawn, yet; but from the twitchy hands, it was just a matter of time. "If you could just step away…."
"I didn't do anything!" Toushirou protested.
"That's rude, Sergeant. I was just helping Toushirou catch Dr. Shiba's mouse." Nanao looked back at the youngster. Who'd gone still, in a way she'd never seen in a child. So very, very still. "Are there any more loose?"
Minutely, Toushirou shook his head, never shifting his focus from the man in the lead. "This is the last one."
A cat facing a pack of dogs, Nanao realized. No… more like a lion. A housecat would be hissing, making itself look bigger, anything to warn off the impending threat. Toushirou… was still.
And security was murmuring tensely into communicators. Not good.
"So you're planning to take it back?" Nanao made herself smile slightly. "I suspect you'll be using a lot of duct tape."
Almost enough. She saw his gaze flick toward her, wanting to relax, to believe everything would be okay-
"There you are!" A relaxed, jovial voice; its owner landed beside her as lightly as Toushirou had, scooping up youngster and cage in one smooth grab. "Caught our Houdini, did you?" He grinned at her. "And you found a lovely lady to assist! Just what every magic act needs."
…He is so dead. "I didn't know you had masochistic tendencies, Major Kyouraku," Nanao said evenly.
Good clueless look. She'd rate it a seven, at least. But not enough to fool her. "Because obviously, you're asking for pain."
"Eep?" He backed up a step, but gave her a game smile, while Toushirou eyed them both as if the adults had gone crazy. "You wouldn't hurt a guy and his innocent mouse, would you?"
And that quickly, the tension singing in the air fell apart.
Well, mostly, Nanao amended silently, surreptitiously watching soldiers shuffle back a little. Nobody was exactly relaxed, here. But any man with a kid and a mouse who was backing off from an obviously unarmed woman couldn't be that much of a threat.
You did that on purpose, Nanao realized, nudging her glasses up. I think I want to know more about you, Major. You're much smarter than you look.
"You agreed to keep your people in their own camp, Major."
Nanano had an instant to glimpse an irritated general, before she reflexively caught clear plastic heading for the ground. Because Major Kyouraku suddenly had his hands full.
"Let me go. Let me go! They're dead, they're all dead, and it's his fault-!"
Toushirou was clawing the air, snow-white writhing against brown as the major had to resort to more than just arms to hold him. "Easy," Kyouraku said firmly, never giving ground. "Easy, Toushirou, calm down…."
"He killed my parents!"
"He brought the damn meteor in! It's his base, nothing gets in without his say - let me go!"
Nanao shivered suddenly, and tried not to let her jaw drop as white suddenly drifted through the air around them. Is that snow?
"No," Kyouraku said bluntly. "I'm not going to let you. He didn't know, Toushirou. Nobody could have known. You've been listening to Kisuke and Isshin, right? They had to figure it out the hard way, because this virus isn't like anything anybody has ever seen before." He stroked white tendrils, holding the struggling kid close. "I know you're mad. Hell, I'm ticked. But you're not going to do this. Shhh…."
Toushirou's fingers curled, bone-white claws starkly visible; then, finally, went limp. A breeze blew in, lifting the chill. "…I want to go home."
"I know," Kyouraku said quietly. "I know." Touched the side of an elfin face, so green eyes fixed on him. "Cover your ears for a few minutes, okay?"
Toushirou blinked, but did, standing still when the major put him down. Even when Kyouraku's face went suddenly serious, gray eyes grave.
Carefully, Nanao moved to put herself between the youngster and security. A good administrative assistant paid as much attention to power struggles as logistics… and this looked like it was about to get ugly.
And I don't think the general sees it coming.
Which had all kinds of unpleasant implications for the people depending on his leadership. Being able to administer a research base - or a town, or a planet - wasn't the same as being able to deal with a disaster. She knew that, from way too much experience.
I need to talk to Retsu. Soon.
"If you can't control your people better-" Yamamoto began.
"With all due respect, sir, you can circular-file that right now," Kyouraku said grimly, voice low. "You didn't wake up to see what was left of your mother eaten by a Hollow. A Hollow that tries to grab you, and change you - and when that doesn't work, it tries to eat you. When it knows you're its son."
Clutching Toushirou's shoulder, Nanao swallowed bile.
"Toushirou's got every damn right to be pissed as hell at somebody. And last time I checked, sir, having those stars on your shoulders means the buck stops with you." The major held the general's gaze a tense second longer, then glanced at twitchy soldiers. "We'll keep an eye on him. But to be honest, General? I think you're worried about the wrong survivor. Dr. Urahara's just started to figure out how mad he is… and once PSWAT finds out what happened to Ryuuken, they're going to want the project's heads on a platter."
Yamamoto's eyes narrowed, but he obviously reined in his temper. "And just what did happen to Quincy Ishida, Major?"
Brown brows bounced up. "You didn't read Dr. Shiba's memo?"
Yamamoto's gesture included the whole camp. "We've been busy."
"Better get unbusy," Kyouraku said grimly. "If people start figuring it out on their own - and they will, soon - you're going to have a riot on your hands."
"Why?" Nanao spoke up. "What's wrong?"
Kyouraku regarded her openly. "What'd they tell you about Madsen's Hollow?"
"A previously-unknown transformative retrovirus, carried in the saliva of an infected mammal prior to transformation and-" Nanao hesitated "-in glands in the tentacles afterward. It only fully affects about twenty percent of its victims to date. The rest die, very messily, from what is effectively metastatic cancer. It's… theorized… that the Hollows can identify who to target, and prefer to kill and eat the others." Which seemed very odd for a disease. But what about this situation was normal?
"Right, as far as it goes," Kyouraku nodded. Looked over the gathered crowd of uniforms, plus a few stray civilians daring to satisfy their curiosity. "Here's what you don't know, partly because our docs are still figuring it out. Dr. Unohana's helping. Good news? The vaccine does work. Nobody who's been dosed is infectious, and nobody who's been dosed can catch the virus. Even Ayasegawa, the striker who got hit by a Hollow - we pumped him full of it, and he's going to be fine. Shinigami like us, but fine."
"And the bad news?" Nanao said dryly. Tentacles, and you consider that fine? Then again, compared to turning into something that ate people… well.
"It's not really a vaccine."
"Explain," Yamamoto ordered.
"Isshin sent you the details-" The major held up a hand before Yamamoto could snarl. "Let me break it down the way Urahara and the Shibas did for me. Typical vaccine, you get a weakened virus so your body can make antibodies, latch onto the real thing, and mess it up good. This thing? Moves too damn fast. By the time you could make antibodies, you're already eating people."
Nanao shivered. "Then how does it work?" For it did, it had to, or- Focus. Breathe.
"The Hollow virus is fast, but it's picky," Kyouraku told her. "It needs specific sites in your DNA to hook in and do its dirty work. If it gets into everything? You get a Hollow. If it just gets a few? Messy, ugly death. The only way to stop it is to block everything in the DNA it could ever latch into. Then, the little virus-DNA-munching things in your cells can actually grab it and do their thing."
From the frowns on those listening, Nanao knew they didn't get it. She wished she didn't. Unfortunately, genetic surgery was one of the things post-disaster reconstruction might entail, depending on the disaster, and she understood all too well. "You're talking about genetically engineering those sites out of the genome."
"Not out," Kyouraku stated. "Stuff them full of something harmless, instead. Mostly harmless," he amended, voice wry. "The docs were trying for a regular vaccine - a weakened virus. Well, they got one."
Nanao took a few more seconds to think that through, and felt her eyes widen. "Everyone who's vaccinated has this viral DNA."
"That we do," Kyouraku said grimly. Looked back at the general. "Long story short? Masaki and Quincy Ishida are losing their hair. What's growing out…." He lifted a hand, and brown strands moved against the wind, curling around his fingers. "Dr. Unohana's pretty sure that's the only effect, but she's got to check every survivor's DNA. Which is going to take time, even with everybody who can helping her scan the samples. Personally, compared to ending up a Hollow, I've got no complaints. But you've got a whole bunch of people here who think they got away normal. Odds are, they didn't."
Including the general himself, Nanao realized, as those close enough to hear started an uneasy muttering. Oh, this is not going to be good.
"Orders or no orders, sir, I'd stick around to help out - but I kind of think it'd be counterproductive." Kyouraku shrugged. "I'd say you've got a mess on your hands, sir."
Now he gets it, Nanao thought wryly, as Yamamoto stiffened, and tapped his communicator. "Captain Rollefson," the general said grimly, "we have a situation. I need to speak with you directly." Hearing a surprised, "Yes, sir," he tapped it off again, and looked up at Kyouraku. "Major. Get your people out of here, and keep them out."
"Yes, sir." Kyouraku hesitated, just a breath longer. "Sir… I'm sorry."
A gust of wind, and they were gone.
Nanao let herself breathe, gripping panic hard before it could gain any firmer hold. "General," she said, deliberately pitching her voice to carry over the growing hubbub of nervous whispers. "I presume Sergeant Petrillo is handling their security precautions?" Which, hopefully, the least rational part of the crowd would hear as, someone known and human would be protecting them from the shinigami.
When it's really the other way around, she thought wryly. They're fast, yes - but our security is armed with modern weapons. And there's only, what, nine of them? Eleven, if those two strikers survive. To over six hundred of the rest of us. Can't anyone count?
"Yes, he is, Ms. Ise," Yamamoto agreed. "I have full confidence in the sergeant's ability to contain the situation."
Good. People were looking less wild-eyed now, if not exactly calm.
It'll have to do, Nanao thought soberly. But once the general announces the situation to everyone, and it has time to sink in….
Oh yes. This was going to be one of her worst assignments yet. Bet on it.
Sedatives, medical personnel, and counselors standing by, Nanao made notes. And set up a secure area and guards for suicide watch. This is going to be one hell of a night.
"Are you sure you're all right, Nanao?"
Easing into the strikers' partitioned area with a datapad and a fresh cup of soda, Juushirou watched Retsu frown at the EM-hardened communicator. "Things are under control here," the doctor went on, "I could leave for a few hours-"
"Don't go," Juushirou spoke up. And tried to ignore the way her aura shivered with sudden adrenaline. "You weren't in the first panic at the project, Dr. Unohana," the analyst went on, keeping himself calm. "If it's anything like that - I don't think another doctor will help."
"He's right," Nanao said gravely. "This isn't a normal outbreak hysteria. This is - I don't know what to call it. I'm going to be inside the general's security. If you wanted to get involved, you probably wouldn't be, and I do not advise that. From the way people are acting, we're either going to have a lynch mob or a swarm of suicides. Possibly both."
"Suicides?" Retsu bit her lip. "Then I have to help-"
"Please." Setting the datapad down, Juushirou dared to lay a hand on her shoulder. "Don't go. Think of Toushirou. He's lost too many people already."
"I am thinking of him," Retsu said honestly. "But someone has to think about the other children."
"Retsu." Nanao's wince was audible. "There aren't any others."
"Our security requirements were hard on people with children," Juushirou told the pale doctor. "The Hitsugayas were one of only a few families on the base. When the Hollows hit-" He shook his head. "Anyone who couldn't run, didn't make it to the shelter. And from what we saw, if you were outside, and you weren't protected by a chrysalis…."
"We already have a few surviving parents sedated," Nanao confirmed. "Bad enough they couldn't save their children, but to know they're carrying a piece of the monsters that killed them… we're going to lose them, I can feel it. Risking your life won't change that, Retsu. Please. Don't."
"I see," Retsu nodded sadly. "Stay safe, Nanao."
"Have I ever done anything less?" The communicator winked off.
Juushirou picked his 'pad back up as the doctor took a few more readings on the chrysalides; readings she'd already taken hours ago, if he was recalling correctly. He offered the cup. "Ginger ale?"
"Thank you." Cup in hand, Retsu paused before drinking. "But you're all drinking caffeinated colas…."
"You wandered through when we were starting to set up, remember?" Juushirou smiled. "We could tell you didn't want any." Just like I can feel you're nervous now.
She is brave, something not-quite-self purred in his head, feeling Retsu control her fear. Should be pack.
She's not, and she won't be, Juushirou told himself firmly. Get over it. "Is something wrong with Ayasegawa? Or Ikkaku?"
"No… I suppose I'm just annoyed that I don't have enough information to determine what I should worry about," Retsu admitted, looking over the chrysalides. "According to you, it takes about three days. But from what I can scan of the progression, I'd estimate they won't break out for at least another day."
"We didn't all wake up at once." Kisuke's voice floated through the makeshift doorway. "Isshin beat me up by hours. Sometimes I hate morning people." Walking in, the genius leveled his own measuring look at golden hardness. "Don't forget Ayasegawa had to deal with an active Hollow infection. Breaking that down would take extra time."
"That doesn't explain Ikkaku," Retsu pointed out.
"Adrenaline?" Juushirou suggested. "From what we saw with Ayasegawa, that speeds up the virus. Given the circumstances, we were all, um, stressed, when the vaccine hit us-"
"Scared out of our minds," Kisuke said in an aside to Retsu. "Those of us who weren't within inches of being eaten, were thinking of exactly what could go wrong with an untested vaccine." A wry smirk. "How little did we know."
"So, adrenaline," Juushirou nodded. "And Ikkaku," he tried not to hesitate, "ended up injected later, after we already knew we were going to make it out."
"Hmm." Retsu shook her head as Kisuke turned on the motion detectors around the chrysalides, but willingly put her scanner down and followed them into the common area. Tessai and Petrillo were out on watch, but everyone else was here; along with snacks, soda, piles of makeshift cushions, and a monitor set up to play whatever oddity Isshin had dragged up for a movie.
"Need more data?" Kisuke sounded casual, if you couldn't sense the tension prickling around him.
"I hope we won't have any more," Retsu said honestly. "No, it's… this virus bothers me."
"Really." Kisuke looked altogether too smug. "Why, whatever might that be?"
Juushirou sighed. :Hit him?: he asked Yoruichi.
Amusement. :Maybe later.:
:He'd deserve it,: came a mingled chorus from most of the rest.
:Who, me?: Kisuke protested.
"You know what's bothering me." Retsu eyed them all, not in the least fooled by innocent expressions. "You have a theory."
"Yeah, we do," Isshin admitted. "We just hope we're wrong."
"We'll tell you," Masaki assured her. "But at the moment, you're the only second opinion we have. So…."
"If you've reached the same conclusion," Ryuuken finished grimly, "then we'll know how bad it really is."
Retsu frowned. Eyed them all again. And nodded. "It's too perfect."
Kisuke smirked, as three small piles of credits were shoved his direction. "Thank you, thank you..."
"Never bet against Kisuke," Isshin snickered at a grumbling Ryuuken.
"I think we got that," Shunsui admitted ruefully.
"The Hollows are overkill," Retsu went on, as the blond collected his winnings. "Literally. There's no natural predator this lethal. Camouflage, the arsenal of natural weaponry… the virus' infect to kill ratio? I looked over some of Yoruichi's sources. One to five is exactly what you get in nature for an ectothermic, energy-conserving predator to relatively large prey. How would a virus that's never infected Earth-native mammals before do that? If it is a virus; it's acting more like a fern, where the vegetative and reproductive stages look entirely different. Which, again, simply doesn't fit. Especially when you consider that there is nothing else recorded on this planet even remotely like this." She shook her head in disbelief. "It's too bizarre. Too perfect. As if it were…."
"Designed?" Kisuke said levelly.
"But that's impossible," Retsu protested. "No human technology could have created this."
Silence. Juushirou sensed her aura shift with disbelief, amazement, dawning horror….
Blindly, Retsu found a cushion and sat down. "Were there any bottles in with those swords?"
"Unfortunately, no," Shunsui shrugged.
The doctor nodded numbly. "Not human technology."
"Kind of makes you want to find a deep hole and pull it in after you, doesn't it?" Kaien said wryly. "Or blow up somebody else's hole. If you could just figure out who and where."
"We have no evidence for any more plausible theory," Kisuke said heavily. "Believe me, we've looked."
"But that means…."
"The Hollows aren't the real bad guys," Toushirou said bitterly, dropping onto a cushion beside Juushirou. He knuckled a white brow in frustration, off hand clenched. "God damn it, why?"
"Language," Juushirou reproved gently, gathering the youngster close. "I don't know. None of us knows."
"Not quite true," Yoruichi said thoughtfully. "Alien psychology would, of course, be alien. But every creature's psychology is shaped by its physiology, and its instincts. And every living being we know of has one baseline response, when it meets another species. Can I eat it, or will it eat me?"
"In short?" Kisuke summed up. "Yes, we believe it was deliberate. Yes, we believe it was hostile. And the best course of action we can currently come up with is, keep this quiet and study the hell out of it."
"I understand the study part," Hanatarou ventured, carefully not brushing against Isane's bandaged tentacle as he sat down. "But - shouldn't people know?"
"Are you that eager to die?" Ryuuken said bitterly.
Wide-eyed, Hanatarou huddled into Isane's comforting arm.
"I'm guessing tact isn't a high priority at PSWAT," Isshin said, eyes narrowed.
"As if you have room to talk-"
"Enough, both of you," Masaki said firmly. And sighed. "I hate to say it, but I think he's right. He is a Quincy. And PSWAT keeps some of the best historical records of what happened when they first became known to the general public."
"Riots in the streets were just the beginning," Ryuuken said darkly. "There are reasons we tend not to advertise who we are, even today. And we look human."
:Misery. Anger. Frustration.:
Juushirou winced at the overlapping pulses of other-projections, and deliberately focused on the sense of Toushirou, close enough to touch. :Cub. Ours. Pack is together. Pack is alive.:
Shunsui's pulses joined his, Yoruichi's a bare breath behind as she realized what they were projecting. The others were almost as quick to follow; Isane and Hanatarou relieved, Isshin and Kisuke more reluctant. Even Masaki and Ryuuken echoed that affirmation, like a whisper on the wind.
"Isshin?" Kaien raised an eyebrow. "Am I missing something?"
"Eh, not much," Isshin shrugged. "Life sucks, people are idiots, we're glad to be alive anyway." He gave them all a thumbs-up. "So, who's up for a movie?"