Process of Elimination - Chapter Seven
Disclaimer: The primary colors in this story are from Takahashi, Viz (Ranma 1/2) and Pioneer (Tenchi Muyo!).
Additional tinting provided by: Kitty Films, and Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon), TV Tokyo and Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina), Takada Yuuzou, and A. (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku). The easel is mine. That's all.
"I remember the Battle of Shanghai just fine. It was just after the first time I ever met that 'Ranma' guy, and he made some of the hard-asses in Mishima look tame. Boy was an animal, I tell you; he didn't stop at nothing to kill a reaver. In fact- What? Relevance? Oh, nothing, your, uh, honorable exalted eminence, uh, Sir, just thought I'd mention that. You see, there was this bee near the accelerator..." [Message truncated].
-Paul Durant - Hearing with Galaxy Police, case number TER2-656278 for a traffic violation.
Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Tenchi watched through the viewports of the Throne, staring at a gas giant orbiting a yellow dwarf star. Something near Earth's own, if a bit harsher according to what he had been told. "So," he said softly, turning very slightly towards Ayeka, but not taking his eyes off the planet, "what's going on here, exactly?"
"Ah, Tenchi-sama," Ayeka responded carefully, cautious of approaching Tenchi too carefully until the ... situation ... involving her, Ryouko, and Tenchi was ironed out - the last thing the Emperor of Jurai needed was more problems. "Ginraii has explained that they plan on making a change to this system. The most useful moons of the lot is that one." She gestured to a console, though the moon itself was lost in the starry blackness of the space around the giant.
Tenchi nodded slowly. "What's wrong with the moon?"
"Spin-lock," Ryouko muttered, sulking as she was on the cushions to one side of Tenchi, carefully maintaining the delicate triangular balance between herself, him, and Ayeka. "The moon orbits, but one side always faces the planet. Just like the moon on Earth."
Running a hand through his hair, Tenchi said, "Well, that might not be too bad, I guess ... what else is wrong with it?"
Ayeka did not hide the small smile that formed as she noted Tenchi's quick grasp of things. In time, he would doubtlessly become a fine emperor. Ryouko droned on as if bored, "The giant, Cyaga, has an unstable magnetic field. It shifts constantly, and when it does, magnetic storms ravage the moons, impairing their ability to deflect the sun's radiation."
"Oh. Is there anything that can be done about it?" Tenchi asked, squinting his eyes in vain to see the as-of-yet-unnamed moon.
"Yes, Tenchi-sama," Ayeka informed him after Ryouko shrugged indifferently, "but a field generator would only go so far..."
Tenchi grimaced. "So what are they doing about it? We have a lot of things that we need to do, after all - looking at a pretty planet might not be the best thing to do with our time."
Ayeka nodded. It was indeed a pretty planet, vapors swirling in a pleasant greenish-blue pattern. Almost like a ball of water. But it wasn't water - it was a great many gasses, the majority of them toxic.
A knock came at the door before Ayeka could answer. Frowning, but quickly masking the expression, she gestured it open.
Bowing politely as he entered, clad in his robes of state and attended by his ever-present guardians, Genoh strode into the room. "Masaki-sama," he greeted as bowed politely again to Ayeka. "Amatera-sama," he said again, bowing to Tenchi.
Ayeka bit back a yell of anger at the comment. The man likely meant well. "Laruma-san," she informed him, "Tenchi-sama is a Masaki, as well."
Genoh glanced at her for a moment, and then turned his attention to Tenchi. "Of course. My apologies, Masaki-sama."
Tenchi waved a hand dismissively. "Just call me Tenchi," he said, relaxed. "When it's not a formal situation, like now, it's really fine."
The Laruma blinked, apparently taken off-guard. He covered by clapping his hands once, summoning his aide. The aide in question was a boy, younger than Genoh, but with similar features. His own guardians were absent, and he bore a heavy ledger, quill poised to scribe. "Yes?" he asked hesitantly.
Genoh gestured to the boy, explaining, "My younger brother, Laruma Karau. He is aspiring to be the new clan historian, so I wished for him to be here for the occasion."
"What occasion?" Tenchi asked, frowning.
"Why, the naming of the new planet, of course. 'Cyaga-2' is a name that's somewhat lacking, you must admit."
Tenchi frowned dourly, crossing his arms over his chest. "Genoh," he said frankly, "I have a lot to do - my people are still almost all trapped on our planet, and I need to spend every moment I can fighting in the only way that I have right now to get them back. Please, what's this all about?"
Genoh colored slightly and gestured towards the planet once more. "Ah ... right. Sorry, then. We're asking you for your aid in the endeavor, to open a Gate via the Throne. We've assembled something many years ago in the Masagari system, and need help to transport them here."
"Assembled what?" Tenchi asked guardedly, uncrossing his arms to let them drop to his sides.
"A pair of monopoles, each of them a grand sixty thousand kilometers in length."
Tenchi raised an eyebrow, though Ayeka guessed that there would be no way for Tenchi to know what a monopole was. Ryouko looked at Genoh curiously, her attention caught for the moment. "So," the new emperor drawled, "what do you plan to do with them?"
Staring blankly, Genoh was only able to blink for a long moment. "Oh," he said, catching himself and looking at the planet again. "We intend to sink the poles into the giant, using them to force its magnetic fields to a stable standard. They'll anchor against Cyaga's sun's own magnetic fields, thus shielding the moon's magnetosphere over the course of some years - and incidentally supplying any local colonies enough power and fuel to easily become self sufficient within a few decades at most."
Tenchi sighed, turning away from Genoh, to look at the screen again. "Years is a long time," he grumbled.
"But the magnetic fields would be adjusted almost instantly," Ryouko pointed out. "The tidal forces would take forever to sort themselves out from within the planet's own atmospheres, but if you're overriding the magnetic fields with your own, the change is nearly instantaneous."
"Exactly right," Genoh agreed, nodding quickly. "We'll have to adjust the moon's magnetosphere ourselves, to perfect it, but we can easily adjust Cyaga-2's rotation to be stable, and mimic the rotational periods of your own 'Earth', and then some terraforming to further perfect the planet's ecosystems... The point is, save that it's orbiting a gas giant, and then that star." Genoh paused to gesture to the nameless sun. "It should mimic the conditions of your own planet closely, since the gravity is one point ... ah ... zero five times your own planet's, even if the moon is somewhat larger itself." He paused again, considering, then nodded. "We're creating this world and system, once we move the monopoles into place, as a refuge and haven for the Amatera we're indebted to. We ask that you, as evidence suggests that you carry some Amatera blood, name this moon for your people."
Tenchi stared at the planet for a long, silent moment, contemplating, and considering his answer before he spoke. "Terra Two," he said at length. "It's not home, but if you're willing to try to make it closer, I won't complain."
Screen after screen of information scrolled by, most of it far faster than any of the men in the small conference room could read. As the reams of information came to a sudden halt, the redheaded scientist pointed to a specific chart with a short stick, explaining calmly, "The decoy will not be activated until we reach Shanghai - three days from now - and remove as many innocents to safety as possible. Satellite imagery suggests that the city is deserted, and because of that, intact. I'm not yet sure where the Chinese government moved the populous, but with the city essentially at our disposal, I should be able to create - within a day or so of arrival - a Gate with enough range to take everyone to, say, Australia. Then we can activate the decoy, taking a much smaller and faster moving force to the Joketsuzoku controlled territory, which is ... here." She gestured to the Bayankhala mountain range.
Norris shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "So we're going to have to abandon our fleet, aren't we?" he asked.
Washuu nodded, staring at the screen. "I'm afraid so. It's simply not feasible for me to try and devise a way to move the entire fleet ashore. I could do it, but we lack the lab I'd need to do it quickly, and I'm going to be busy enough creating a Gateway to Australia."
To Norris's left, Patterson spoke up, "Couldn't we just use your 'Gate' to head immediately to the 'Joketsuzoku' territory?"
The scientist blinked, considering, then answered, "Well, it's possible, yes, but I wanted to leave the Gate set to Australia, so that we could send any refugees we found to it, allowing them to evacuate. And taking the beacon through the Gate would hinder its effectiveness."
"Isn't there a risk that the reavers could use it, too?" Norris added, eyeing the map skeptically.
"Yes, it's entirely possible, but for that, I can simply add a sign and a button - the reavers won't know how to activate the Gate, even if it's just a simple button-press. So refugees can activate the Gate safely and we can send people to it without worry. But the beacon should distract them from that being an issue." Washuu nodded to herself, rubbing absently at the bracelet on her right wrist.
The bracelet that allowed her to speak with Ranma, Norris remembered. "That seems more reasonable than trying to have everyone walk," he allowed. "I'm not exactly keen on abandoning the fleet, but if what you say is true, they won't last long anyway."
Cologne shrugged, speaking up from where she had remained so far, mostly in silence, "Weapons are tools, and when their time comes to an end, you must set them aside."
Norris nodded. "I understand that," he said, "but I've a sworn duty. I'll follow you, and I'll lay odds most of my men will as well. Any who don't can be sent to Australia with the duty of policing the people." He paused, eyeing the charts. "We have three days before we reach land, and I understand that you've created a distiller - I've had it set on a smaller fishing boat, and we're using it to make water drops throughout the fleet, supplementing our own contributions." The man raked a hand through his hair, shaking his head and setting his military cap on the table before him. "I must say, you have our most profound gratitude - this is an ill conceived mission, and we'd likely not make it without your help."
"Don't be so sure we'll make it anyway," Washuu muttered dourly. "We still have to fight the reavers, and I haven't yet come up with anything we can do to make your ordinance any more effective against them."
Patterson frowned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "What about some kind of higher velocity HEAP round?" he asked.
Washuu hedged for a moment, unsure, then explained slowly, "I don't know if I can change what you have enough to be a significant threat to the reavers ... it would take an immeasurably dense shell to pierce their carapace, and conventional explosives would do minimal damage, at best."
"Well," Norris offered thoughtfully, "we have three Phalanx CIWS onboard the ship-"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Norris," Washuu said respectfully, "I'm not familiar with that."
"Oh, ah, Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems. They're twenty-millimeter cannons about the ship - they can fire nearly five thousand rounds per minute, and use APDS - sorry, Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot, Depleted Uranium sub-caliber rounds. I suppose the forward-looking infrared and auto-tracking systems would be useless to you, but surely something that powerful would be able to stop a reaver."
The scientist seemed confused for the merest moment, then shrugged, summoning the transparent console she consulted with when in doubt. "How much force do they impact with?" she asked. "What's the approximate surface area of a round?"
"I'm not sure," Patterson picked up, when Norris was unable to answer, "but they can punch through triple strength battleship plating. That's enough to stop a reaver, isn't it?"
"I doubt it," Washuu said dryly. "A bigger gun isn't the answer, and if it is, then they'll just develop thicker hides because of it - you'd need baby black holes as projectiles to accomplish what you want, and I'm not even willing to consider development in those areas. What can stop them at the moment is radiation, and intense cold. Unless I miss my guess, those are two forces that the reavers are unable to counter."
Norris waved a hand dismissively, confidently stating, "We have nuclear strike capabilities. Nukes will stop reavers, won't they?"
Washuu frowned doubtfully. "I really don't like that idea very much. They're a dangerous and primitive weapons, at best..." She trailed off, smiling brightly. "The lasers. We can have Ranma bring them down - we don't have the position, but if I can recode them manually... I can reassemble the nuclear weapons you have to power them!"
Norris and Patterson exchanged a glance. "You think that you can create some kind of laser gun for us to use? We're Navy, not Army ... but if you think it can stop a reaver, I'm game," Norris declared, not giving Patterson a chance to object. "As I've said before, you're our best chance of getting through this alive."
"I don't know if that will work as you've envisioned it, but I can try, right?" Washuu smiled, glancing at Cologne before tapping her bracelet. "Ranma?" she said quietly. "If you've got a moment, can you please lend me a hand with something?"
A tingling surge in her senses, and the soft sensation of displaced air rushing across her met the request, as Ranma teleported to her side, casting about warily and rubbing the gem in his wrist. "Yeah?" he asked. "What do you need?" Ran-oh-ki rested uneasily atop his head, making a soft noise as he tried to nap.
Washuu blinked, glancing briefly at Cologne again before turning back to Ranma. "Ranma, do you remember the satellites that were used to slow the reavers down?"
"'Course I remember," Ranma grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. "It was only yesterday. What about them?"
Washuu took a deep, slow breath. "Ranma, I'd like you to go get them and bring them back intact."
Ranma scratched the back of his head, frowning. "I dunno," he said warily. "They're pretty high up, and from what I hear, space is a pretty big place. Will the rat help me find them?" His partner growled at the comment, but made no further move to respond.
She nodded thoughtfully, eyeing Ranma up and down again. "Yes, your partner should be able to spot them easily - you can keep in touch with me through your gem, if you have any questions."
The boy blinked at her, frowning. "How?" he asked. "I can live without air just fine, but I think I still need it to talk, don't I?"
Washuu smiled, then shook her head, explaining, "You'll see when you get there ... it should be completely safe, and I think Yosho wanted to talk to you when you came back. Something about training."
"Oh?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow. "Okay, then, I guess I'll go get the satellites for you. Where do you want me to put them?"
"In the lab that Norris-san has set aside for me, where Ran-oh-ki ate the remnants of the two jet fighters, if they fit. Otherwise, the deck is fine."
Ranma nodded easily, floating into the air a short distance, but pausing to look at Cologne. "Go on, Son," she said, making a shoeing motion with one hand as he waited. "Hurry back, and if you impress Yosho, maybe I'll teach you a new trick."
With no sound at all, Ranma vanished. Norris shook his head, wondering. "What kind of power does that boy possess?" he asked sternly, eyeing Washuu. "And is it dangerous to us?"
The scientist bristled, but Cologne spoke before she could. "Only as dangerous as a single man in charge of an entire fleet is," she remarked casually.
Norris held his tongue, considering that.
Ranma teleported above the clouds over the fleet, eyeing the coast of Japan in the distance, and the shining blue expanses of ocean surrounding the ships below. One hand rose to cautiously pluck Ran-oh-ki from atop his head, tucking the creature in the crook of his arm. "Okay," he said shakily. "Let's see just how far we can jump, eh, rat?"
Ran-oh-ki made a quiet mewling noise, as Ranma pointed at the moon, faintly visible off the horizon. "I'm going to go as far in that direction as I can," he declared resolutely.
The familiar sense of displacement surged through him, more powerful this time than it had once been, and when it left him, he found himself with a mouthful of incredibly dusty and dry grit. "Bleah!" he spat, pushing himself off the sandy gray surface to float a short distance away from it.
"Where the hell is this?" he grunted, as Ran-oh-ki burrowed out from a particularly lumpy mound of dirt, bright eyes staring about in confusion. "Okay," Ranma allowed, as Ran-oh-ki leapt into his arms after shaking and loosing the dust in his fur. "I messed that one up. Where do you think we are?"
The pair of them peered about the landscape. Broken gray stone and largely featureless dusty plain surrounded him, lending Ranma an eerie sense of deja vu. Ran-oh-ki mewled angrily, clawing his way up to Ranma's shoulder to glare about and hiss at nothing in particular.
Ranma shivered, knowing what his partner was thinking without needing to test the link. "Yeah," he said, "this place is dead, isn't it?"
Ran-oh-ki nodded without looking at Ranma. On a sudden impulse, Ranma slowly looked up.
And beheld, shining directly above him, more beautiful than any sight he had seen before, the Earth, momentarily at peace, and gloriously pristine in its beauty.
He felt, more than sensed through the link, Ran-oh-ki's hackles lower, as his partner gazed at the sight in the same admiration. The line of shadow from the Earth - daylight passing into darkness - was the sunset, far east of Japan.
Washuu's voice sounded, as Ranma belatedly jerked his attention away from the sight. "Yeah, Washuu?" he asked, voice slightly thickened at the sight of his home, for the first time seen from outside.
"Ranma? Are you okay? Where are you?"
"Uh," Ranma hesitantly admitted, "I wanted to test out how far I could teleport..."
"And?" Washuu asked patiently.
"I shot for the moon," he mumbled.
For a long moment, Washuu was entirely silent, but when she spoke again, there was a telltale trace of amusement in her tone. "Oh, well, you have a bit more range than I expected you to have given your current level of maturity, but be careful not to go too far. Your partner should be able to tell you where you are in relation to Earth instantly."
Ran-oh-ki made a quiet, guilty noise, as the blue gem in his forehead winked, and Ranma's mind was flooded with information about the planet and the moon beneath him. "Oh," he said, dizzied from the rush of knowledge. "I see where I am, now ... I could teleport anywhere, like this," he mused.
"The satellites?" Washuu reminded him gently.
"Oh, uh, hey, I can sense them, this'll be easy." With that, he again traveled without moving, halting some distance between Earth and the moon. The seas were spread below him, to his right, and to his left, the bulk of Asia. Japan was little more than a large block of land, easily dwarfed by the titanic landmass to the west. He shook his head sadly and turned his attention to the three satellites in tight formation only a short distance beneath him.
Sleek, black, and lined with tiny winking lights and solar panels, the satellites looked to be compact, sturdy affairs that spoke of danger from their very designs. Each had a decently sized dish for receiving signal from below, and then a much more sinister and tightly compact cylinder that was rimmed in small spiky needles. The tubes spoke of danger and death; Ranma knew instinctively that they were the weapons he was looking for. Ran-oh-ki had informed him of the locations of other things in the space above the Earth - weather satellites and the like, he assumed - and things that his partner had named.
Whatever they had named themselves. "'Mishima-00 AVGR'," he mused, wondering how Ran-oh-ki had known to name it. Indeed, when he looked closely, there was a small plaque on the side of the satellite bearing the name, branding, and contact information. "'For service, contact Paul Durant'," he mumbled, tracing the brass lettering gently with his fingertips. "Huh. I wonder how much these things weigh," he pondered, sizing up the satellite again.
Easily five meters across, and another ten in height, it wasn't small by any stretch. Shaped like a smooth ovoid, save for the breaks where the barrel of the laser and the small dish sat, and smaller ports that he couldn't identify, he guessed they would weigh quite a bit. He idly wished he could remember learning about outer space from school, but banished the wishful thoughts after a moment - anything he would have learned would likely turn to be irrelevant, as he was evidently able to surround himself with a small pocket of atmosphere.
"First time for everything," he mused, gripping it as well as he could near the base. Teleporting back to the ship left him more drained than he had initially expected, and the mass of steel and black ceramic in his hands grew heavy.
Only by straining and staggering backwards a half step across the deck was he able to maintain his hold, grunting. "Hey, Washuu," he wheezed, "where do you want me to put..." He trailed off, as the weight suddenly reversed, leaving the satellite to float a few inches above the deck.
Blinking, he stepped back staring upwards. Ran-oh-ki sat comfortably atop the structure, peering down at Ranma with a somehow smug-seeming expression. Washuu spoke from behind him, "Oh, well, I was thinking a few more meters to your left, but that'll do, Ranma." He spun to watch the woman, eyeing the satellite closely and attended by a good number of official looking men in uniform. Behind her were the rows of refugees in their tents, a few of them staring with jaws agape at the boy that had appeared, ten meter steel ovoid in tow on the deck.
He tried to ignore them - enough time for worrying about that later. "Uh, okay, so the rat can keep it from falling. What about the other two?"
Washuu smirked, tossing a small disk to the deck beneath the satellite. The disk spun on edge directly beneath the satellite, each face marked with the scientist's signature brilliant red crab symbol. A slow glow suffused the satellite from below as Ran-oh-ki hopped to the deck, bouncing from it and up to Ranma's shoulder. The satellite remained suspended, revolving very slowly.
Ranma blinked, frowning. "What do you need this for, anyway?" he asked.
The red-haired woman clicked her tongue at him, already tapping away at her computer terminal. "Something that might give us a very slightly better chance, Ranma," she murmured. "I might be able to fashion some weapons for Norris and his men."
"That sounds good," Ranma agreed, nodding. "I'll get the others."
In short order, pausing with each visit to orbit to admire the Earth, Ranma had aligned the three satellites in a neat row, though he was worried at the high number of red lights from unit 02. Washuu frowned at it, confirming Ranma's suspicions that the lights were a bad sign. "Drat," she grumbled, looking at some of the indecipherable streams of data on her computer screen.
"What's wrong?" Ranma asked, moments before Norris could do the same.
Washuu waved a hand dismissively, as Ran-oh-ki inquisitively leapt from Ranma's shoulder to nuzzle her ankle. She smiled at the creature for a moment, then returned to frowning at the display. "Well," she said, eyes flickering about the screen as she considered, "it should be something I can repair. It just tells me that these weapons are much more delicate than I'd like them to be."
Ranma frowned thoughtfully, staring at the constructs, while his partner began sniffing curiously at the first of the undamaged pair. Nuku bounced out of the mass of refugee tents, distracting Ranma, trailed by a small crowd of giggling children.
He watched her until she crossed the distance between the two, catching her easily as she launched into a hug that would have toppled him, were he not braced for it. "Ranma-papa-san!" she caroled happily. "Are you feeling better now? Nuku-Nuku doesn't like when papa-san is unhappy." She frowned, peering closely into his eyes, searching for some sign of unhappiness.
Smiling softly, Ranma ruffled her hair. "Nah, I'm fine, Atsuko. Who're the kids?" he asked, as she released the hug, and turned to look at the children. For their part, the children had paused in a small cluster - five of them, he noted - to stare at Ranma with something akin to awe.
"Oh!" Nuku squealed happily, pointing to them. "These are Nuku-Nuku's new friends, they were playing tag with Nuku-Nuku!" She paused, suddenly worried, and looked at Ranma with concern. "Can Nuku-Nuku play with them, Ranma-papa-san?"
Off-balance from the pleading gaze the girl shot to him, Ranma nodded swiftly. "Of course. Why couldn't you?"
"Thank you, papa-san!" Nuku chirped, not answering his question, and bounding back to the tents, followed by four of the giggling children.
The last remained, and Ranma became aware that Norris and his men, and Washuu, had fallen silent, studying the interaction. Nervous and confused about being the center of attention, Ranma glanced at them for a bare moment, turning his attention to the one child remaining. A slightly dirty little boy - though Ranma wondered where he had found dirt so far at sea - probably no more than six years old, with sandy blond hair. "Are you a monster?" he asked suddenly in infantile English, though Ranma only understood through the translator.
"Yeah," he said after a long moment, noting the silence from Norris's group and Washuu. "I am."
"But," the child declared knowingly, "you fought the bad monsters, so you must be a good monster!"
Ranma scratched behind his ear nervously, managing a weak smile. "I like to think so," he said softly.
"Yes," the child said, nodding again, "you're the good guy, 'cause you stop the bad monsters. I want to be like you when I grow up!" With that, the child spun and darted back towards the tents, disappearing long before Ranma could collect his wits and regain his composure.
Washuu smiled at the departing child, then again at Ranma as he stood dumbstruck at the child's words. Perhaps, just perhaps, the scientist thought, the child's words would help in a capacity that her own had failed.
Turning her attention back to Norris, she explained, "I have to rework these so that they will be small enough to be carried by hand and ensure that they don't have any disastrous side-effects towards your own men."
Norris nodded quickly in agreement. "I don't need a weapon that kills us as easily as the enemy."
"Oh, it's no less dangerous," Washuu said, shaking her head. "Make sure you trust who you assign whatever weapons I make from these. Oh, and I'll need access to your nuclear weapons so that I can build power-supplies."
The American men stared at her flatly for a long moment, before Norris grudgingly allowed, "I'm not thrilled at the prospect, but not trusting you won't benefit any of us."
Washuu's smile returned as she stared at the three monolithic constructs on the deck before her. "Okay, first, I'm going to need to add a few things to the lab you gave me..."
Norris groaned quietly.
Yosho awaited Ranma's approach, hands clasped calmly behind him. Ranma glanced at the man, raising an eyebrow curiously.
"Hello, Ranma," Yosho said genially, producing a pair of bokken. "I'd like, if you're willing, to train you a little more in the art of the blade."
Ranma stared at the bokken, silent for a moment. "I learned kendo," he said slowly. "Pops had me learn a few basics from some people he knew in Japan when I was a kid."
Yosho nodded approval, handing one of the bokken to Ranma. "That's good, it should help a bit in learning what I want to teach you. What style of kendo did you learn, if I might ask?"
Swinging the bokken experimentally, Ranma easily replied, "I learned the Hyoho Niten Ichi, and Yagyu Shinkage schools."
"Yagyu Shinkage, you say?" Yosho asked quietly.
Ranma nodded. "Pops knew someone who was out and down on his luck, and still taught the Edo variant, and he was willing to teach me in exchange for Pop's help rebuilding his dojo."
"I'm impressed," Yosho admitted.
Grinning toothily, Ranma shrugged, waving the bokken experimentally. "Yeah, well, Pops said-" He broke off suddenly, silent, for a quiet moment, then shook away the emotion and resumed, "He said that I should know how to use weapons - all of them, at least a little bit - and if I knew them better, I'd be able to fight against them better without weapons."
Yosho nodded judiciously, slipping into the basic stance of the Masaki style. "Very well, Ranma. What I'm going to teach you is a secret traditionally only passed through the sons of the Masaki family."
Ranma perked up, interest in his eyes. "It's a secret school?" he asked, intrigued.
"Yes," Yosho said, measuring his words carefully. "I have taught what I wish to show you to only one person in my years, and that was my grandson, Tenchi. Obviously, I'll need to wait until I can be sure no one else can see us before I teach you any of the deeper secrets, but I can show you some of the basics right now."
The warrior had no need to tell Ranma how much the offer to teach the secret art meant insofar as trust. The boy seemed to grasp it instantly, and raised his eyebrows in curiosity. "How old are you?" he asked curiously.
Yosho grinned unabashedly. "Old enough to have met the founders of both the schools of kendo you know, Ranma. Now, prepare yourself!"
With that, Ranma slipped into a defensive stance, somewhere between the two schools he had learned, and barely managed to deflect Yosho's initial strike, failing completely to block the next four strikes as they battered him to the ground.
"Not bad," Yosho said, offering a hand to Ranma as he lay on the deck, shocked and dazed.
"Whoa," Ranma said, climbing to his feet quickly with Yosho's assistance. "That was fast..."
Yosho smirked, but hid the expression quickly behind a mask of patience. "I've got a lot more experience, Ranma. It'll take you some time to reach my level. Now, your level of control is impressive enough that I'll spare you the more basic drills. Watch my feet; I want you to copy this stance..."
Ami watched Ranma train. The boy, despite his odd ears, sharply pointed teeth, and nearly glowing eyes, possessed a certain savage beauty, and an even more savage grace.
The deck's uneasy quiet was broken by the repeated collisions of the practice blades as he and Yosho sparred, though in Ami's eyes, it was more Yosho beating on Ranma with a stick. Every so often Ranma would rise from being beaten to the ground and nod thoughtfully, suggesting that he, at least, found the training educational.
It was not her preferred method of learning, but she had to admit that she was impressed with his dedication. At her side, Rei watched as well, her eyes unfocused enough to tell Ami that any anger Rei bore for Ranma grabbing her in the prior night's battle was entirely forgiven.
She lowered herself to sit on the deck of the ship, and a moment later, Rei joined her. "Wow," the black-haired girl commented, watching Ranma and Yosho flow through stances side-by side, between sparring matches. It was a slow, incredibly slow process to watch, but Ranma was actually learning to deflect more and more of Yosho's attacks. Though, in Ami's estimation, it would take ages at Ranma's rate to actually score a hit on the man.
"Hmm?" Ami noised guardedly. The situation between the Senshi was somewhat tense at the moment, though none faulted Makoto beyond making a simple mistake.
Rei shook her head, absently brushing back a stray strand of black hair as she continued to watch the men square off. "I'm impressed," she admitted after a moment. "Look at how fast they are... How carefully they move. I thought..." she trailed off, shaking her head. "I thought he was a monster the first time we saw him - that he was trying to kidnap Hotaru..." She sighed suddenly, cocking her head to look at Ami directly. "But after ... what we were told, I do feel sorry for him."
Ami pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I do not know that he would like to hear that," she opined. "He's very strong, you must admit, to have weathered what he has. The story that Hibiki-san and his friend have told us... I suspect that there's more that either they don't know, or refuse to speak of. They never did explain why Ranma-san acted so strangely in the battle against the reavers." Or why he had no family name, but Ami remembered the night of the battle and Ranma's angry comments along those lines well enough not to ask. Likely, the other Senshi who had witnessed would know to hold their tongues in that regard, as well.
Squinting, Rei turned to study Ranma again. "I suppose so," she said after a moment. "He is pretty strong to still be fighting after all that."
The two fell silent, simply watching, until Minako drifted to sit with them, watching Ranma studiously. "Wow," the blonde said, without preamble, "he'd make a great Senshi, if he were a girl."
Rei snickered softly, glancing towards the newcomer briefly, before turning back to watch Ranma train. "A new senshi? I don't think he'd like hearing that nearly as much," she whispered.
Minako pouted, saying, "I think I got that one right, even if I sometimes get all the small things wrong."
Ami shook her head, smiling softly herself as Ranma and Yosho broke apart. Neither seemed exhausted, but an air of slight fatigue still hung over them.
Yosho smiled broadly and nodded his approval, speaking something too quietly for the girls to hear, and Ranma shrugged, following the older man away from their training area on the rear of the ship. The same place that Ranma had battled Ryu, as Ami remembered vividly.
The crater from Ryu's impact was a short distance behind the girls, directly in the path of Ranma and Yosho as they strode forward. Yosho paused within a few paces of the girls, who hurriedly rose to their feet. As they stood, Yosho nodded at them dubiously, asking, "What brings you here?"
"Ah, Yosho-san," Ami said quickly, before Minako had a chance to answer. "We've come to apologize to Ranma-san."
Ranma blinked, and Yosho frowned very slightly. "What for?" Ranma asked guardedly.
Ami bowed her head apologetically, explaining, "Makoto-chan overreacted, and she shouldn't have ... done what she did. I'm very sorry that she lost her temper."
Ranma looked away, his expression colored angrily. "Not her fault. She saw someone she cared about getting beaten up by a monster," he grumbled. "I'd probably do the same thing."
"Um," Minako interrupted, before Ranma could walk away, "I don't think you're a monster." Ranma blinked at her, and she smiled in return, winking as she added, "If you are, you're one of the cutest monsters I've ever seen!"
Ranma stared, unsure of how to take that, while Rei added her own words. "I admit, I was a little angry that you thought that we needed to be protected ... but I know that you're doing your best to stop the ... reavers? I know that you're fighting them, and I'm sorry that this happened, too."
Collecting his wits, Ranma shook his head, edging slightly away, while Yosho simply watched the exchange carefully. "It's not your fault," the boy said simply. "I guess, no hard feelings." With that, he strode away, followed shortly by Yosho.
Rei frowned, looking after the pair as they wandered off, and mused aloud, "Is he sure? I still don't think he's happy with us."
"Well," Minako spoke philosophically, "they say that time heals all words."
Ami sighed, shaking her head. "That's close enough, I suppose."
Michiru sat on one edge of a bed in the infirmary, just across the room from Makoto and Ryu, Haruka pacing slowly before them. Hotaru sat on the bed with Michiru, watching the both of them tiredly.
Haruka came to an abrupt halt, turning to look at her green-tressed companion. "What do you suppose we should do?" she mused. "We need to apologize to this 'Ranma', right? I suppose it didn't help very much when we overreacted a bit to Hotaru being alone with him."
Nodding slowly, Michiru ran a hand through Hotaru's hair, carefully smoothing a mussed strand back into place. "Yes," she said faintly, sounding distracted and distant. "We probably didn't help matters, but what can we do to sort things back out?"
Hotaru smiled softly, cocking her head to one side and glancing at Makoto surreptitiously. "I have an idea," she said quietly. "Can I try talking to him?"
Michiru frowned dubiously, but looked to Haruka for guidance. For her part, Haruka was uncomfortable with the idea. She didn't trust any boys around Hotaru in general, and non-human demon-boys that were apparently strong enough to withstand Senshi attacks were worse. Never mind the oddity of his apparently confused gender.
"I don't know," Haruka said slowly. "I suppose if we go with you..."
Hotaru pouted fiercely, sniffling. "You don't trust me?"
Haruka and Michiru winced in tandem. The girl was not given to tantrums or begging, generally, but she had a wicked finesse for having her way when she truly wanted it. Deciding to save herself some modicum of trouble, Haruka offered a compromise. "Okay, Hotaru-chan, just ... be careful, and don't talk to him alone."
"That's okay," Hotaru assured them, "I'll talk to him with his daughter!"
Michiru's face turned pale. "Ranma has a daughter?"
Surprisingly, it was Makoto who answered, just then sitting on her cot and starring at her feet dejectedly. "I think so. She calls him 'Ranma-papa-san' ... but then, Hotaru calls you 'papa-san', doesn't she?"
Hotaru beamed a smile at Makoto and nodded confirmation.
"I think we should investigate further," Haruka opined. "I know, I know ... we have to apologize to him, we have to work with him ... but... I'm sorry, I've never met him beyond that one glimpse, and what little I've heard about him."
Jumping down from the bed carefully, Hotaru shrugged. "Mako-chan?" she asked. "Can you help me with something?"
Haruka would dearly have loved to listen closer, but was distracted by Setsuna. The woman had an oddly pale expression as she strode through the door and beckoned both Haruka and Michiru to follow her.
Michiru shrugged, attending swiftly as Setsuna marched down the hall a short distance and stopped abruptly, turning to regard the two others frankly. "What's wrong?" Haruka asked.
Setsuna waved a hand, furtively glancing around to make sure that they were - for the moment - unobserved. "Okay," she said in a low tone, "I thought I'd left well enough alone, but irreparable damage might have been done to the time stream, given recent events."
Both Michiru and Haruka nodded, understanding easily Setsuna's meaning. "However," the woman continued, "when I used the Time Gate to see what damage was done to Crystal Tokyo..." She paused, heaving a shuddering breath. "I don't understand it, entirely, but the road is both cleared and more tenuous."
"What?" Haruka asked, not quite following. "How can it be both?"
Setsuna shook her head, obviously frustrated. "As far as I can tell," she grumbled in annoyance, "the recent events are putting us on course for what should happen next, even though our route is becoming more dangerous."
Michiru nodded thoughtfully. "So this is supposed to have happened?"
Nodding unhappily, Setsuna explained, "What Yosho told us might actually be true. I don't know how ... and I don't want to believe it, but impossibly enough, it seems true. Somehow, these 'Juraians' that he spoke of are part of the destiny that will eventually lead us to Crystal Tokyo."
"And the Great Ice," Michiru noted.
"We don't know that for certain - it might not happen," Setsuna countered, warding the mention off with a wave of her hand. "Now, if you remember, I was looking for an answer to what damage was done in the past with our friend, the rogue time-traveler."
Haruka shook her head. "No, I don't remember," she muttered, unhappy at Setsuna's easy dismissal of the possible Silence.
Setsuna blinked, then quickly explained the story to the pair. "After that, I returned here, but seeing... Seeing Usagi change, I decided to see if I could consult with my future self on current events."
"And?" Michiru prompted, growing impatient.
"I've found the damage," Setsuna sighed, exasperated, "but there's no way I can remove it. Unfortunately, the damage is now integral towards preserving Crystal Tokyo."
"What is the 'damage', anyway?" Haruka asked, exchanging a worried glance with Michiru.
Setsuna produced a worn, ancient scroll. "I took this from a building in Tokyo that was destroyed yesterday," she explained, unfurling it and pointing to the very first listing.
"It's a family register," Haruka noted dutifully.
"Yes," Setsuna sighed, shaking her head, "and the first name on the register is Higurashi Kagome, who married an Inu-Yasha, in ... fifteen hundred thirty-two."
"Uh-huh," Michiru commented disinterestedly.
Haruka nodded her agreement to Michiru's impatience. "What are you trying to tell us, Setsuna?" she asked.
Setsuna rolled her eyes, pointing further down the list. "As you can see here," she said, "a descendant, Higurashi Kaneda married one ... Saotome Hikaru."
Both Haruka and Michiru exchanged a glance, turning back to look at Setsuna and asking in tandem, "And?"
Furling the scroll back carefully, Setsuna chastised, "Don't you remember who 'Kagome' and 'Inu-Yasha' were? The amateur time-traveler?"
"Oh," Michiru said, frowning thoughtfully. "But what does that change?"
"Two things," Setsuna grumbled in irritation. "Firstly, Inu-Yasha was the amateur time-traveler's pet half-demon. That means that her bloodline likely contains the blood of demons."
Haruka paused, considering, and frowned darkly. "Saotome ... okay, well, do we know any Saotome? And what risks does that pose upon us, anyway?"
"I don't know entirely," Setsuna admitted. "Five hundred years would do an awful lot to dilute the bloodline to the point of ... well, probably negligibility."
"Of course," Michiru said disinterestedly. "I'm still not seeing the point of all this, though."
"Well, Kagome charged her descendants - all of them - to become as skilled and proficient as possible in all forms of the martial arts, specifically to be strong enough to fight the reavers. While the reason was apparently forgotten, the duty was not. It's a reasonable assumption that if we can find another 'Saotome' - the last name recorded on this scroll is a Saotome Genma - we'll have an ally that can see us through this mess without having to rely on ... Ranma. According to my future self, at least, our success depends on allying with whoever it is that this scroll should lead us to."
"Oh," Haruka mumbled, considering. It was true that having a human ally would be a tremendous advantage over the dubious aid of the entirely unknown Ranma... "Okay, well, how do we find him? Or her?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Setsuna admitted. "A lot of my resources are tapped out, but I'll see what I can dig up. In the meantime, you two can see what you can find out."
Michiru and Haruka nodded, slowly formulating a plan.
Nuku eyed the two girls before her warily. One of them she thought she could trust - she smelled nice and looked friendly. The other one... The other one had hurt her Ranma, and she didn't trust that one very much at all...
But it would be mean to ignore both of them, simply because she didn't trust the one - and the first smelled too honest to be mean to. "Okay," she said at length, curious. "What do you want to do for Ranma-papa-san?"
The brown-haired girl rubbed at her eyebrows, frowning thoughtfully. "Well," she began, glancing around, "I think I need ... need to apologize to Ranma-san for what I did. And right now, we think this is the best way to make that apology."
Nuku nodded slowly, allowing, "Okay. But Nuku-Nuku gets to help!"
"Anyway," Ranma grumbled, "I am feeling a bit hungry ... where do you think we can find some food around here?"
"Well," Yosho mused, "there's probably some kind of cafeteria or mess hall for the soldiers here, but..." The man trailed off, blinking with Ranma at the sight that awaited them next.
Nuku, Hotaru, and Makoto stood in a neat row, each carrying a large, carefully wrapped bento. Makoto looked guilty, unable to meet his eyes, while Hotaru and Nuku simply grinned with a childish, gleeful innocence. "Um," Ranma drawled, "this is new ... what's going on here?"
Makoto spoke first, taking a hesitant step closer. "I... I wanted to apologize, and ... I know it's not much, but I..." She trailed off, swallowing nervously. Taking a deep breath, she blurted out, "I'm really sorry I lost my temper and made you this to apologize and I didn't even make Ryu anything so please take it!" With that, she held the box forward, bowing her head.
Ranma blinked, stunned, while Hotaru chimed in, "I made you lunch too, Ranma-san, Mako-chan taught me!"
"Nuku-Nuku made Ranma-papa-san something to eat, too!" Nuku exclaimed happily.
"Uh..." Ranma managed, stalling for a moment, as Cologne arrived, followed by Mousse - who was carrying a large 'Nekohanten' delivery box. Ryouga trailed behind shortly, offering Ranma a wry grin.
The old woman eyed the three girls with their proffered lunches and smirked widely. "I see my idea wasn't so original after all," she commented.
"You're telling me," a new voice added from behind Ranma. "I thought I was the only one who would be thoughtful enough!" The boy turned around, seeing Washuu carrying a covered tray of her own. She offered him a sardonic grin, explaining, "Can't blame a girl for trying!"
Ranma looked around slowly, noting the younger girls growing nervousness as they waited for him to make some kind of choice, and the three other girls from earlier approaching curiously. A choice, where he was expected to pick just one.
"Okay," he said slowly, considering his options very carefully. "Give me a second..." Coming to a swift decision, he stepped forward, taking the bento from Makoto and asking, "Why don't we all share what's here? I bet there's more than enough to go around."
Yosho smirked, slapping Ranma on the shoulder companionably, and was the first to take a seat, followed shortly by Nuku, and then Cologne and Ryouga. Mousse bowed low to Ranma, careful not to drop the container, and sat at the old woman's side, while Washuu took a seat at Ranma's own side.
Ranma sank to the ground slowly, shaking his head in thought. "I wasn't expecting this," he said ruefully.
"Kindness is never to be expected, and always to be accepted," Yosho commented, as Ryouga produced a number of paper cups, and a large jug of water.
"Exactly!" Minako answered from her seat near Ami and Rei. "It rains when you're poor!"
Ranma snorted, uncovering the first bentos and asking loudly, "Is anyone here familiar with the technique ... 'gourmet de foie gras'?"
At the unanimous headshakes, he grinned, whirling his chopsticks in the air expertly. "This should be interesting," he commented, flexing slightly and setting to work. Less than three seconds later, everyone had a surprising mouthful of the contents of the bento. Ranma swallowed his own portion and grinned.
"That's pretty good." For a moment, he nearly forgot that the girl who had made the meal for him had only an hour or so prior shot a bolt of lightning at him, but when the memory returned, he dismissed it. She hadn't meant it, as she said, and he'd taken proportionately worse from Ryouga, or even Mousse on occasion.
"Hmm," Washuu mumbled, sipping at her water after she recovered from the surprise. "This brings an entirely new meaning to 'feeding your guests.' Tell me, Ranma, are all your meals like this?"
Ryouga answered while Ranma expertly served out the next round, his movements too fast for the others to see. "Nah, I've seen him muprh-" Ryouga snickered, pausing to chew and swallow, then continued, "I've seen him before. Usually his meals degenerate into challenge matches."
"One of them leading to a chase deep in China," Ranma remembered aloud.
"Er..." Ryouga began nervously. "I, uh... I don't think I can really hold that against you anymore," he confessed.
"Aside from which," Cologne noted, "the Spring of Drown Man should cure you when we reach the Joketsuzoku territory."
Ryouga brightened instantly. "Really?"
"Of course!" Cologne said, rolling her eyes. "Turning into a little pig in cold water would be something of a ... hindrance ... in battle with a reaver, wouldn't it?"
Glancing at the girls, who were blinking and watching with completely undisguised interest, Ryouga blushed, coughing, "Well, yeah, that's true..."
After the majority of the food had been eaten - the watermelons being used to tease Ran-oh-ki - everyone sat together, content for the moment. Ranma had been surprised at the nearly overwhelming generosity of his allies, and ... friends, he hoped. He was uncertain how to feel towards the 'senshi', but they were more honest, now, and that helped.
He supposed that it was impossibly to really fault them, given what they'd suffered through and how much everything had changed. Working with them had gone from a distant possibility to a very likely one, though he wasn't sure what harm they could do to reavers yet. The little one - despite her parent's probable opinion - had managed to destroy one, which impressed him. He'd had enough trouble killing them on his own ... a little help wouldn't be completely amiss.
Haruka stared after Setsuna as the woman marched briskly away. "Okay," she said evenly. "I don't have the slightest clue where we begin."
Michiru glanced about to make sure they were unobserved, and drew the Deep Aqua Mirror from a pocket. "We can ask this," she suggested, turning her attention to it. Haruka nodded, peering at the mirror curiously.
Focusing on the scroll and Setsuna's words, Michiru formed her question carefully, asking the mirror for guidance and help. Slowly, revealed from the swirling in the center of the mirror, an image came to light. A blue point of brightness, blazing against the darkness. The blue slowly shifted to green, and the darkness seemed to stiffen, swirling tendrils of a black morass shot through with white and blue, then shattering to fall away before the mists obscured the vision once more.
Haruka frowned, glancing to Michiru and then back to the mirror. "That doesn't tell us much," she grumbled. "Can you ask it something else?"
Michiru nodded, concentrating. What would help them? What could protect them from the threat they were facing?
Again the mists parted, this time showing a scene right out of a fantasy manga. A sword, ancient and rusted, its age-pitted surface chipped and worn, thrust point first into the ground, leaning against a sapling. Beneath the sapling, a faint hint of green, and behind the tree, more, giving the distinct impression of an ancient forest, though Michiru couldn't explain why it felt ancient. Merely that it did.
A necklace of small stones hung from the hilt of the sword, swinging softly in an invisible breeze, and a large, lustrous pearl-like gem hung at the lowermost segment of the pendant. The image shimmered, and the gem vanished, leaving only the sword. Again, not knowing how she knew it, Michiru sensed that the gem was not nearly as important as the blade.
A soft, incredibly faint - nearly ethereal - voice began, singing a gentle lullaby too faintly for her to make out, but too persistent for her to ignore. The image wavered once, then shifted to the point of blue light again before it faded away.
"A sword?" Haruka asked, puzzled. "A really beat-up and ancient sword?"
"Haruka..." Michiru began slowly, discomfited by the singing and strange feelings, "I don't... I'm not sure what that was, but it felt important to me. Very important."
Nodding doubtfully, the blonde scrubbed a hand through her hair. "I suppose," she said at length. "Is that the best clue we're going to get? It's not much to go on."
"Maybe not, but I don't think we'll get better," Michiru countered. "What else can we do?"
"Well, if Tokyo were still around, we could search through legal channels..."
"I think if that can be done, Setsuna will do it."
"That's true," Haruka admitted. "We can trust her to manage that. What should we do, then?"
Michiru sighed, remembering the small ball of light vividly. "I suppose keep an eye out for little blue gems, and ancient rusty swords."
"Well, it's a start, I suppose..." Haruka grumbled.
After the meal had been completed, samples from all dishes having been served to everyone, Ranma slipped away. Not that it was hard for him, even if he was the center of attention. Teleportation and the ability to phase through things raised his stealth from their already considerable levels into a whole new world of potential.
He had used his speed - fast enough that none other than probably Cologne and Yosho would have been able to see it, and maybe Mousse and Ryouga if they were looking for it - to gather what he had wanted, wrap it, and sneak away. Ran-oh-ki's silence had been bought for a mere watermelon rind, leaving the creature to nap contentedly on Washuu's lap. Washuu herself had been caught up in a conversation with Cologne about the Amazons, and Nuku was chatting with Hotaru quietly.
Floating along the ceiling, wary of guards, Ranma slipped past the man with short blond hair - Hotaru's father, if his memory served - leaving himself a mental note to acquire something more subtle to walk around in. Once past the man, however, he slipped into the room he was looking for.
At least, he guessed it was the room he was looking for, by the proximity of Hotaru's apparent father. Once inside, he dropped to the floor and glanced about furtively. A short blonde girl rested on a hospital bed to his left, a man sitting in a chair at her side and apparently asleep. To his right, behind a hospital curtain, was another bed, this one holding Ryu as he stared at the ceiling.
When Ranma entered the room, Ryu's head snapped around and he glared at Ranma, then looked resolutely away, crossing his right arm - his left was handcuffed to the bed rail - over his chest. "What do you want?" he growled after a moment.
Ranma hesitated, then stepped past the curtain and levitated a short distance, sitting in the air. "This is for you," he said, lobbing a small wrapped package towards Ryu. One-handed and caught off-guard, Ryu still managed to catch it, staring at the small cloth-wrapped box in confusion. "It's yours," Ranma added. "Your, uh, girlfriend made most of it, some of it's from my daughter and a couple other people." He stared at Ryu, as Ryu's gaze dropped to the wrapped bento.
"Oh," he managed, after a moment, struggling to a sitting position. The handcuff slid along the rail, giving him enough room to sit, bento resting in his lap.
"So," Ranma asked conversationally, "how long are you going to be here?"
Ryu grunted, opening his meal and sampling a few bites. "She got better," he stated, lowering the chopsticks left in the box to regard Ranma levelly. "Until they figure out what to do with me. Seems like the guy in charge of this boat doesn't like me much and said that he'd have me up on charges if I were an American citizen. Or something like that. The translator was having a hard time keeping up."
Looking away from Ranma, Ryu sampled another portion of his meal, absently brushing a stray grain of rice from his lips. Ranma stared at his hands, gloved as they were. He hadn't touched anything with his bare hands since ... since... He frowned, thinking. It had only been yesterday that he was wearing normal clothes, not in the black skintight clothing he was clad in. "You know," he remarked absently, "I was asking about how soon you'd be okay."
Choking, Ryu, dropped his chopsticks and thumped his chest, wincing when he aggravated the cracked rib. "I've had worse," he answered honestly. "I'll be fine in a day or two. Hell, I would have won the fight..." He trailed off, watching Ranma and frowning dourly. "I'll be okay," he concluded lamely. "Why did you bring me something to eat, anyway?"
Ranma shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted. "I guess it's just that I don't need more enemies right now; I have enough already."
"I'm not going to be your friend because you gave me food," Ryu warned, taking another bite. "Aside from which, this was from Makoto, not you."
"She made it for me to apologize," Ranma countered. "But that's not important. And I don't know you too well - if you don't want to be a friend, that's your problem. You know what is my problem, though?"
Ryu merely grunted curiously, fishing for a pickle near the bottom of the bento and eyeing Ranma skeptically.
"I think that I'd rather have you as an ally anyway."
"Easy," Ryu said, setting the bento down. "Give me the scrolls, and I'll do it."
Ranma answered nearly instantly, "Not a chance. They're my father's gift to me, regardless of family. It's personal, and I won the duel. You're not getting the scroll."
"Then, no deal," Ryu grumbled, returning to his meal again.
"What if I teach you what I learn from them?" Ranma asked cautiously.
Ryu froze, chopsticks midway to his mouth. "What?" he asked, not able to believe what he had heard.
"You'll never get the scrolls, but I'll teach you what I learn from them if you agree to fight with us."
Ryu stared at Ranma, hard, and blinked, shaking his head. "You're an idiot," he stated firmly. "That's all there is to it."
Ranma's eyes narrowed dangerously, but he held his temper in check. "What do you mean?"
"Look, if you think I'm just going to sit here and let all this happen without doing something, then you're wrong. I don't care about the scrolls as much as learning the Umisenken. That's what's important to me. I gotta get the scroll, then I'll have both halves of the school, and - according to the man who gave the scrolls to my father - I'll be able to build a dojo. I think in his own words it was, 'these are arts for life' ... or something like that."
Nodding, Ranma remained where he was, silently studying Ryu.
"I'll help," Ryu said after a moment of tense silence. "I can make my own copy of the Umisenken and the Yamasenken."
Ranma nodded again, lowering to the ground and extending a hand to Ryu. The other boy stared at him, considering, then grinned, and shook Ranma's hand. "I'm glad to have you fighting at my side," Ranma said. "Even if I don't like you much."
Ryu snorted, dropping Ranma's hand and quickly polishing off his lunch. "That's real nice," he mumbled around a mouthful of rice. Swallowing, he added, "I'm getting what I want, so no problems from me. But see if you can get them to take the handcuff off - I could break it, but I think that'd just make them mad."
Nodding in understanding, Ranma turned away, phasing through the curtain and nearly colliding with an eavesdropper. He blinked in surprise, then scowled at the blonde girl with the outlandishly odd hair. She waved her hands in a sudden apologetic flurry and mouthed several words without managing to utter a single one. Finally calming herself somewhat, she grabbed Ranma's wrist and tugged, trying to lead him as she trotted into the corridor.
Frowning darkly, Ranma allowed himself to be led, sparing a glance for the peacefully sleeping man in the chair near the bed that the blonde had occupied. Once in the corridor, he raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms over his chest when she released his wrist. "Well?" he asked, not giving her a chance to speak.
"I'm sorry! I just smelled something good, like what Makoto-chan cooked, and I thought that maybe there might be some extra, and so I came over to ask if there was anything no one else wanted, and then I heard you talking and I listened because I was sad that you two didn't get along and..." She paused, gasping for breath, and resumed a heartbeat later. "And I thought that it was so great that you two are starting to make up because it's sad to have to watch people not be friends!"
Ranma stared at the girl blankly for a long moment as she recovered her breath. "Uh. There's some food up on the deck," he said at length, before levitating and teleporting away.
Usagi pouted as the boy disappeared, but quickly dismissed the incident, shaking her head. Waking Mamoru gently, she notified him, "Ranma-san said there was some food on the deck, and you haven't eaten for almost a whole day - let's go get something to eat."
Nodding, the man rose and stretched deeply. "Okay," he mumbled sleepily. "I feel much better today."
She smiled winsomely, and happily accepted the offered arm as the man dutifully retraced the route that Ami had originally led them on to see Makoto. "Ranma-san seems to be nice," Usagi said after a moment. "He's really thoughtful."
The Throne maintained its position above Cyaga, Genoh's personal ship nearby. While Genoh and Karau were gone for the moment, Tenchi frowned, glancing at Ayeka and then back to the screen. "So," he remarked thoughtfully, "I know who the Amatera are - you told me that last night - but who are the Laruma?"
Ayeka pursed her lips thoughtfully, glancing towards the door that Genoh and his younger brother had retreated through. "It is... It will explain why Laruma-san's words were so rude, I suppose..." she said softly. "Tenchi-sama, think of the Laruma as ... ah ... what is that word..."
"Burakumin," Ryouko said, smirking at Ayeka's discomfiture. "Pariahs. The caste too low in society to be accepted anywhere. That's why the Juraian nobles were so angry with the Amatera for giving the Laruma their ships. Juraian law says something about how only nobles can have ships, and the Laruma were not nobles, but they had ships anyway-"
"That's quite enough, Ryouko," Ayeka hissed. "I think I'm quite capable of explaining my own people's history to Tenchi-sama."
"Humph," Ryouko snorted. "Your own? Isn't he one of you? Far too elitist. See, as I was saying, Tenchi-"
"Ryouko!" Ayeka cried out. "That's enough!"
"No," Tenchi said, overriding the both of them. "I want to hear this all out. Ayeka, sometimes what you tell me is really useful, but if I'm going to be an emperor for Jurai, then I think it would be best for me to be hearing both sides of any story. Don't you?"
Ayeka bit her tongue, humbled by Tenchi's words, and nodded silently.
Ryouko spared the other woman a glance, then resumed, "Anyway, the nobility was angry because the Laruma had ships but weren't nobles, so they decided the best way to deal with it was either to kill all of their trees, or kill all of them."
Tenchi's eyes widened, and he glanced to Ayeka, whose face was drawn and pale. She nodded weak confirmation a moment later, then looking away in shame. Tenchi quickly turned back to Ryouko, who continued without further prompting, "So there was a little war there, though most of the Juraian history probably skirts around the issue... The Laruma lost almost all of their ships in the battles, until Tsunami stepped in on their behalf and pretty much told all the other Juraians to knock it off, and that they couldn't kill the Laruma anymore.
"So the Juraian council had to make Tsunami happy, and she was pretty mad about the whole thing, so they said that the Laruma would be a house of nobles, just like them, and then having ships would be okay for them. Except that it wasn't, because the nobles only pretended that they called the Laruma equals; none of them really respected the Laruma."
Tenchi looked to Ayeka for confirmation, and all that she could say in defense was, "Well ... they are Laruma."
The boy hung his head and sighed in exasperation. He harbored some faint hope that the Masaki clan was better than the other stuck-up, pretentious and otherwise ... elitist, Ryouko had said. The Juraians were all far too elitist. He had hoped that his own clan would, at the least, be better than that, but evidently it wasn't, if even Ayeka were to be acting as she was.
"Anyway," Ryouko said, judging Tenchi to be ready to hear more, "the Laruma got mad about life still sucking on Jurai, but now they had enough power to make a difference, so they went ahead and left to some of the closer territories. Then they started branching out into trade, and to spite the Juraian nobles, helping out people that the nobles refused to help. That's why the fleet that went to Earth was composed almost entirely of Ginraii ships."
"I see," Tenchi said after a moment, straightening. "And the other half was the Home Fleet. So, they're merchants, too?"
"They have to make money somehow," Ryouko said with a shrug. "Unlike all of the other nobles, they can't extort taxes from the common citizenry."
"Now you take that back, Ryouko!" Ayeka erupted, fuming. "We are nobles, we are not thieves, and your allegation-"
Tenchi silenced Ayeka by raising a hand to forestall her. "How's that work?" he asked guardedly of Ryouko. "No one's explained how the government gets money around here, but whenever I ask one of the other advisors, they just say, 'donations'. Misaki and Funaho are too busy, or I'd ask them, but I need answers if you expect me to be an emperor."
Ayeka threw her hands into the air and sank to a seat, glowering at Ryouko. The cyan-haired woman affected to be unaware of the glare she was receiving. "Well, I only know from listening into conversations in the bars I used to be allowed to visit." She shot Ayeka a cool, level look, which Ayeka returned smugly. "Before I was told that I shouldn't, because it would make you look bad, Tenchi." The woman turned her attention back to him, smiling and winking. "What I heard was that only the nobles own any of the territory in the area, and that everyone else has to pay substantial taxes on the land, which is how the nobles get their money - taxing people. Then all of that money goes to the clan's private holdings, and they buy whatever they want with it."
"I see," Tenchi mumbled, furrowing his brows and deep in thought. "That's really inefficient," he commented. "What about the Council? Where does their money come from?"
"Donations," Ryouko repeated, smirking. "More donations mean you have a greater pull within the council, which assures that the greediest and most selfish stay on the top."
Tenchi shook his head. "So the Council is a respected and honored facet of the government, but is effectively just run by the highest bidder? And they're equal in power to the emperor of Jurai. I don't normally like to say things like this, but that's really stupid."
Ayeka flushed, at a loss for words.
Ryouko lounged in one of the chairs, glancing at Ayeka for a moment, then back to Tenchi. "I don't think much of it myself, but you're the boss here, Tenchi. If anyone can make changes, it's going to be you, and there is the standard of Juraian law..."
"Yes!" Ayeka proclaimed, raising her head triumphantly. "Juraian law is fair and just!"
"Even if the nobles who uphold that law aren't," Ryouko noted.
"Well, I can see now that there are going to need to be a few changes," Tenchi murmured.
A knock sounded at the door, and a moment later Genoh and his younger brother reentered. Genoh nodded his head at Tenchi, bowing as he entered, and his younger brother hastily mimicked the gesture a moment later. "Masaki-sama?" he asked. "If you are ready, we can transport the monopoles from the Masagari system and get to work."
Genoh fidgeted nervously when Tenchi merely stared at the man for a long, silent minute. "Right," the boy managed, shaking himself from his distraction and fishing the Tenchi-ken from his robes. "I assume that there's another tree at the other end of this Gate?"
The Laruma nodded quickly, assuring, "Yes, Masaki-sama, my own ship - Vidarr - was in communication with the crew earlier today. The tree there is named Gaeron-oh. Will that suffice?"
"I hope so," Tenchi muttered. Within a few minutes, Tenchi was able to utilize the Throne's aid, and the tree of the Throne spoke with Gaeron-oh, establishing the link and waiting Tenchi's say-so to activate the Gate.
"Okay," he said, slightly dizzied from the attempt, when he was wholly unused to communicating with the trees in such a matter. "I think it's ready." He did have to wonder where Tsunami was, but she hadn't been seen since she had left the Court suddenly, some time ago.
"By all means, Masaki-sama," Genoh prompted, gesturing to the planet.
Tenchi grunted quietly, his grip on the Tenchi-ken tightening as the gems flared and the dark rift in space formed alongside the Throne, ready crews already preparing to guide the massive structures that Genoh had spoken of through and into Cyaga's system.
The first monopole emerged from the portal almost instantly, ringed by much smaller ships to guide and pull it. According to the Throne's relayed message, it was rushing along at a steady fifty kilometers per second. Tenchi's grip wavered, as the monopole grew larger around, requiring more power from both him, and the Throne.
But that was only the first of the poles. Though Tenchi allowed the portal to waver, Ayeka and Ryouko both moving to steady him as he tried to regain the spent energy. The other pole had already started its own journey, so there was no chance to call off the project and allow him to catch his breath. Genoh and Karau seemed completely unaware of the stresses on Tenchi, both staring at the pole as it emerged from the portal.
Tenchi tightened his grip on the Tenchi-ken, flashing each of the women a warm smile as the gems on the Tenchi-ken flared brightly blue, somehow replenishing his own diminished reservoirs of energy. Mere moments later, a smaller, more startling flow of energy rushed into him as Ryouko's own gem flared bright, the red matching the glow of the Tenchi-ken's blue.
Confidence restored, he began expanding the portal again as the second pole began to widen, still progressing at the same fifty meters per second. Eventually, the first of the larger ships came through, nearly riding the surface of the pole to make sure there was enough clearance from the edge of the portal, and Tenchi obligingly widened it again, nearly a full twenty kilometers more than the thousand of the pole ... and then it was over.
Gaeron-oh sent a message notifying the Throne that the Masagari system was evacuated of all of the workers, and the portal could be shut. Tenchi gratefully closed the portal, relaxing. "Okay," he said, dizzy and feeling drained - more so than when he had used the Light Hawk Wings to counter a black hole. "What's next?"
Genoh watched the system monitors eagerly, only glancing at Tenchi, though both Ayeka and Ryouko stared at him worriedly, only drawing a short distance away. "Nothing more, Masaki-sama," the man said, his younger brother busy scribing down some occurrence or another on his ledger. "Our ships should be able to manage the operation from this point." He turned to regard Tenchi levelly, then broke into a broad grin. "Thank you again, Masaki-sama. I doubt that we would have been able to move the poles into position without your aid. If there is anything I can offer you to express our gratitude, simply name it."
Shaking his head to clear it, Tenchi gestured to the seats ringing the room's one table. "Actually," he said, taking a seat himself, "there might be something you can help me with, Genoh. And call me Tenchi, please."
Taken aback, Genoh carefully took the seat opposite from Tenchi, Karau nervously taking the seat to Genoh's right. Ayeka seated herself in the chair to Tenchi's left, while Ryouko straightened up very slightly in the seat to his right. "Yes, er ... Tenchi? What can I do for you?"
"Genoh," Tenchi began, rubbing at his temples after setting the Tenchi-ken on the table before him, "I've been learning a little bit more about Juraian politics over the last few days, and I learned a lot more today... I suppose it's all old news to you, but tell me - has there ever been a Laruma on the Council?"
Karau blinked twice and turned to stare at Genoh in confusion. Genoh shot his younger brother a glance, and the boy snapped his ledger shut audibly, placing his stylus on the table and tucking the ledger into his robes. Ledger stowed, Genoh turned his attention back to Tenchi. "No, Masaki-sama, no Laruma has ever been permitted to serve in the council. Are you asking because you wish to mock me, or do you truly not know?" The man seemed genuinely confused.
Tenchi shook his head quickly. "I'm not making fun of you," he assured the man. "I'm learning most of this as I go along - I guess it's probably pretty hard to manage being the head of Ginraii, and you probably have a lot of work, but try, just for a minute, to see being the emperor of Jurai without really knowing how the whole system works.
"I'll be honest with you, because this is all terribly confusing to me, and it's really easy for me to make a mistake that makes a lot of people unhappy, and it's beginning to look a lot like even if I do the right thing, I'm still going to make a lot of people unhappy."
"Just make the ones you don't like unhappy," Ryouko joked.
Ayeka colored angrily, but Tenchi merely smiled softly. "That's about what I plan to do," he said quietly. "Tell me, Genoh, how hard would it be, with my help, to get a Laruma on the Council? I need to make some changes, and the Council is almost guaranteed to oppose me no matter what I attempt to do, unless I can get some support from within."
Changing from coloring angrily and only just barely keeping her tongue in check, Ayeka stared at Tenchi in disbelief, while Ryouko eyed him with something much closer to awe. "Well," Genoh said after a moment, he and his brother nervously glancing between the three, "that would be... The Laruma have enough money to attempt to bid into the Council, but we'd never win the elections to a seat."
"Why not?" Tenchi asked, frowning.
"Because our blood is considered too ignoble," Genoh answered blandly. "We own no land on Jurai, so we can't bid as landowners."
Furrowing his brows thoughtfully, Tenchi asked, "What do you own?"
"Ginraii, which is not negotiable, and..." Genoh trailed off, licking his lips nervously. "And our trade routes. Where the nobles tax the people living on their lands, we tax everyone who uses our ships for trade."
"So you need land on Jurai to be considered for the Council," Tenchi stated flatly. "Fine. Ayeka, I'm the emperor, right? How much land do I own?"
Ayeka's eyes rolled up into her head as she slumped out of her seat and collapsed onto the floor.
"Wait," Genoh managed, looking unnerved. "You're offering us, the Laruma, the emperor's land? Tenchi, what you suggest would... Are you sure you wish to do this? I have no desire to remain an outcast, but this... This could go a great way towards destroying the caste system of Jurai."
"Good," Tenchi said, smiling grimly. "Then let's get to work."
Remaining on the floor, Ayeka moaned softly.
Raising a pale, ancient porcelain teacup to her lips and sipping softly, Funaho allowed herself to smile. "I think I rather like that boy," she commented, one eye on the monitor spying on Tenchi's meeting. She glanced briefly at Misaki, who frowned doubtfully.
"I agree that change needs to be made," the woman said, rubbing at her brow worriedly, "but aren't you the slightest bit worried that your great-grandson is getting in over his head?"
Funaho shrugged, sipping at her tea again and then adding, "We will see, I suppose. I think that he will do better than you give him credit. He is attempting to do this without the aid of Tsunami, when he could simply ask her to change all as he sees fit. That, more than anything else, should be respected."
The other woman's eyes dimmed, and she fumbled for her own teacup, frowning once more. "Yes ... and what of Tsunami, and more importantly, my daughter?"
Funaho set her teacup down, turning to regard Misaki levelly. "Don't worry overly much for Sasami. Tsunami is more than capable of taking care of her." She hid a small smirk behind her wrist, adding, "And don't frown so, you know you haven't the face for it."
Misaki giggled, unable to keep from smiling, and shook her head. "Azusa is going to be furious, isn't he?" she asked.
"I imagine so," Funaho commented archly, as she watched Ayeka faint through the screen before her.
Tenchi helped Ayeka to her feet, sitting the young woman on a smaller and lower padded chair before returning to the table and regarding Genoh again. "Ryouko," he said, glancing at the woman, "please take care of her."
Ryouko pouted, but drifted from her seat and did as he bade her, leaving Tenchi alone at the table with the Laruma. "Ah," Genoh said, collecting his wits somewhat. "If you insist ... since your ... fiancee?" he paused, and Tenchi managed a slight nod, watching both of the women from the corner of his eyes. They elected to not react, and he relaxed as Genoh continued, "Um... At any rate, my understanding of such is that the emperor is awarded certain lands, such as the First - the great tree that contains the palace, and all the land beneath it - and ... there are other properties as well. Gardens, sundry smaller palaces, the land where the Council rests, the royal vineyards..."
"That sounds promising," Tenchi noted when Genoh trailed off. "I want to give you a property that allows you to at least make some money to use towards the Council. The gardens are probably useless, but tell me about the vineyards?"
"The, um, royal vineyards. There are four of them, probably about seventy kilometers square each. One for something much like your grapes, one for barley, and two for rice."
"Okay," Tenchi said agreeably, "so, if I were to give you the vineyards, could you work with that? Would it be enough for you to get a foothold into the Council, and - hopefully - give me an ally?"
"Er... Yes, I would think so, since the vineyards make wines that the common populous and even most nobles are not normally able to get... I imagine that could make enough money to offset any expenses we incur on our own..." He shook his head as his younger brother tugged at his sleeve questioningly.
Tenchi raised an eyebrow, and motioned for the boy to speak.
At Genoh's nod, Karau haltingly said, "Assuming that anyone's willing to buy wine from the Laruma."
The emperor frowned darkly and muttered, "I'll do what I can, but I can't begin to imagine where I'd begin dealing with that."
Genoh shook his head, mumbling, "With... With your help, Tenchi, we may be able to resolve some of those problems on our own."
Ryouko warned, "You know, that's going to look a lot like a bribe, Tenchi. Well, it is a bribe, really, but you should probably try and be sneakier about it."
Tenchi frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. "Okay," he said, evenly. "What would you suggest?"
"Sell the land," Ayeka managed. "In exchange for a percentage of whatever profits the Laruma generate on their trade routes."
Genoh nodded quickly, saying, "That is most certainly agreeable."
Tenchi grinned hopefully and shrugged. "I know this is about as far as you get from a proper political agreement, but it all boils down to this; if you're willing to help me out, I'll do what I can to help you out in exchange. Sound fair?"
Genoh nearly fell out of his chair laughing. "Fair? Fair?" he asked, his voice bordering on hysteria. "For over sixty generations of my family, we are treated as outcasts and scum, and when we resign ourselves to this fate, someone who can make a difference chooses to do so-" He cut himself off abruptly, schooling his expression and rising to his feet. "Tenchi, who is both Amatera and Masaki, I, Laruma Genoh pledge my unswerving loyalty to you in exchange for seeing a Laruma on the Council before my dying day. Grant us that one thing, and all Laruma will be proud to call you an ally, and more than that, a friend."
Tenchi rose slowly and nodded at Genoh's deep bow - echoed by Karau's. When Genoh straightened from the bow, he added pleasantly, "And the Laruma never forget their friends."
"See?" Funaho asked mildly over her tea. "He's just made himself his first ally!"
Misaki had one hand pressed to her stomach, steadying herself nervously. "Funaho, Azusa will be beyond furious! First his son hands over the seat of Emperor after less than a full minute of bearing the title, and then Tenchi gives the royal vineyards over to ... the Laruma?"
"Change is not without cost," Funaho noted happily. "Drink some tea, it should help settle your stomach." Funaho changed the subject abruptly, asking, "Misaki, tell me ... do you know what the Amatera mean to the Laruma?"
Misaki nodded unhappily.
"That's the highest and most honorable title they can call someone by - comparing them to the Amatera that allowed them to escape in the first place. With them as an ally he can go far."
"If he's careful," Misaki warned. "As Ayeka sadly demonstrates, most of my family will not react well to these plans."
Unobserved by the participants within the ship, but tended carefully by the Ginraii workers in the vacuum beyond the Throne, the two massive monopoles continued at their awesome speeds. Carefully adjusted by the smaller ships, they slowly shifted in alignment and heading until the proper insertion vectors were reached, and then they were sunk, deliberately, into the swirling gas of Cyaga.
The constructs protruded nearly ten thousand miles above the surface of the gas giant, leaving it to look like a child's top, as all of the Ginraii ships in the sector convened in a convoy, half of them immediately heading off towards parts unknown, the other half towards Terra Two.
Pleasantly full, but still desiring to know more about Ranma, Ami loitered with the others who had attended the impromptu feast. She frowned, suddenly realizing that the boy in question was missing. The redheaded scientist who had named herself Washuu excused herself shortly, calling Ranma's daughter away with her to tend to her own projects.
She couldn't quite muster the courage to ask Washuu about Ranma directly, though a slow plan to ask about her computer formed, and perhaps from there, more about the boy himself. Usagi, doting on Mamoru, emerged shortly from the bowels of the ship and made a beeline towards the leftovers. Makoto excused herself to look after Ryu, and Minako elected to follow.
Ami wandered a short distance away from Usagi and Mamoru, while Ranma's grandmother and the girl made light conversation. Hotaru watched, attentively silent, and Yosho sat midway between Cologne and the remainder of the crowd, apparently meditating. Rei took only a moment to follow Ami, sitting nearby and asking, "So, why are you sitting here?"
The girl smiled at her friend, answering Rei, "Just thinking, really."
"About Ranma, right?"
Ami blushed very faintly. "Ah, yes," she confessed.
"Oh!" Rei exclaimed. "You like him?"
"I..." Ami trailed off, struggling. "Not like that, Rei-chan. I'm just very curious. It strikes me that there is much more to the story than Hibiki-san has told us, and I'm curious about it."
"Ah," Rei said, calming somewhat. "Well, I'm not certain, but I'd guess that you could just ask him."
"True," Ami noted, "and I feel it would be unwise to try and go behind his back and find out..."
He found what he was looking for - almost - when he stumbled across Ryouga and Mousse. A pair of unlikely friends if there ever was, but necessity was the mother of invention. Or something like that. He dimly remembered his father spouting something like that off - the man knew far too many parables for his own good - at some point in the past.
"Hey," he said, causing both of them to spin in surprise and stare at him.
"Ranma?" Mousse asked, one again clad in his robes, instead of the borrowed tee-shirt and jeans from Norris. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Ranma shrugged, glancing momentarily towards the shore, visible in the distance as the fleet continued along. "Yeah," he said. "There is, actually. I had some clothes that I borrowed from Washuu's friend, but... Uh, well, they got left in the truck we drove into Tokyo on, and my own stuff is ... well, if a reaver hasn't eaten it, it's probably with the girls."
Ryouga winced initially, then masked it with a snicker. "No clothes, Ranma?"
"Yeah," Ranma deadpanned. "Unless I want to go around like this all the time, and I don't, because people look at me real funny when I'm a girl." To emphasize the point, he shifted forms again, posing for a heartbeat with her wrist upon her forehead, like some distraught maiden from the cover of a cheap manga.
Ryouga choked, eyes bulging, then looked away, while Mousse simply laughed. "I think I have a little sympathy for you, Ranma," Mousse said after calming, wiping at his eyes with the sleeves of his robe. "What are you looking for, exactly?"
"Uh... A shirt? Maybe some pants? Something like what I used to wear, I guess." Ranma shrugged uncomfortably.
"Hmm," Ryouga mused, having calmed himself, "I think my clothes will fit you, if you want to borrow a shirt and pants."
Mousse grinned, shaking his head. "I have a few spare robes, but I think my pants would be a little small for you. Err, generally."
Ranma rolled her eyes, saying, "I'll take whatever you don't need, until I can find some place to get new clothes."
In short order, Ranma was wearing a spare pair of Ryouga's pants and one of Mousse's robes. She eyed herself dubiously, then shifted forms, finding that the garments accommodated him easily in either form. "That should do it," he mused. "Thanks, guys, I owe you one."
Ryouga hastily shook his head. "No, Ranma, I think we owe you one." Mousse nodded gravely, the brief mirth already having faded.
Shrugging uncomfortably, Ranma dismissed them, muttering, "It's nothing, really. Let's not worry about it."
A long, awkward silence followed as the three boys struggled for something to speak of. "So," Ryouga managed after the silence had become almost too much to bear, "how are you doing, Ranma?"
Grimacing, Ranma scratched behind one ear, then shrugged. "Okay, I guess," he allowed. "Mostly I'm just kinda confused. And tired." He furrowed his brow in thought, staring at the deck. "You know, I don't think I've had hardly an entire ten minutes to myself since this all started."
Ryouga grinned, scratching his head at the lower edge of his bandana and nodding. "I think I know what you mean, Ranma. Things have been really busy ever since..." The boy coughed, trailing off and looking away. "Hey," he said after a moment, "you never really told us about how you met Hakubi-san." He glanced back at Ranma, curiosity evident in his gaze. "How did you meet her, anyway?"
Ranma shrugged offhandedly, sinking to the deck to sit, joined by Mousse and Ryouga a half-second later. "It's not that great of a story, really, but the first thing I can remember..."
Washuu hummed softly to herself, tapping away at her console. Long cables connected her computer to the second of the positronic laser satellites, searching for reparable damage, while a few smaller cables connected to Nuku's ear-like sensors. For her part, the girl watched the senshi talk quietly where the remnants of the earlier lunch still sat.
Yosho loitered about casually, appearing relaxed, but Washuu suspected that the man still didn't entirely trust the girls. Herself, Washuu was at a loss for how easily Ranma could forgive what had been done to him, but then, he had gotten along with Ryouko after her apology - which, knowing the woman, was clumsy at best - and even forgiven the scientist herself for what she had done to him. Turning him into something else, something not entirely human, and completely without his permission.
She absently tapped a key on the keyboard, using Nuku's built-in access codes to read the libraries of data and targeting information on the satellites. More information on them lay within Nuku's own data storage, along with a fragmented copy of the control program.
Further analysis revealed that the control program was once part of something greater - possibly a primitive artificial intelligence, but whatever it was, it was lost at that point. Still, the rudimentary control and access functions would be enough to get through all of the satellite's security. Another key press captured the first and second units into the small spinning disks that were supporting them, folding and compressing the space to fit within a device the size of a hockey-puck.
Ignoring that for the moment, she downloaded all of the relevant information and studied it briefly. "My!" she commented, drawing Yosho's attention, and garnering a curious glance from Nuku.
"What happened, mama-san?"
Washuu glanced at Nuku, then scowled. "Drat. I spent all that time brushing your hair, and... Ah, well, I was just checking the logs on the satellites, to see how many reavers they neutralized. Of the reavers attacking Tokyo before the laser's automated systems shut it down due to overheating..." She frowned, wondering what would require being replaced to offset the heat damage - and to prevent it from happening in any kind of handheld weapon she created. "At any rate, the computers report that the lasers have destroyed an additional six reavers."
Nuku brightened instantly, and Yosho nodded, looking pleased. "That's good, right?" Nuku asked. "Should Nuku-Nuku tell Ranma-papa-san?"
Washuu laughed, shaking her head and carefully disconnected the cabling from Nuku's ear-sensors. "Don't worry about it too much. Just leave him alone, for now. You can tell him when he comes back."
Nuku pouted, grumbling loudly, "Where is papa-san? Nuku-Nuku is bored."
Yosho coughed politely, interjecting, "Probably taking care of something important, Nuku. He'll come back."
Had Nuku still been tethered loosely to Washuu's computer, she might have noticed, but as it was, she scurried off to play with her friends rather than stay. Yosho and Washuu were too distracted by her to observe, and thus, Ran-oh-ki was left alone with the satellites.
His first stop was one of the hockey-puck sized disks, though he was faintly aware of the fact that it was linked to folded space, and because of that, likely to contain even more minerals and - hopefully - tasty metal than most of the things he had found to eat. Sniffing delicately, he seized the first of the disks in his teeth, tossed it upwards into the air, and lunged after it, swallowing it whole with only a small modicum of difficulty.
It wasn't until he had swallowed the second that he began to question the wisdom of his actions. An inarticulate scream of rage and one swift kick later he was tumbling off the ship, sure that it had been unwise of him to eat the disks.
Ranma teleported without thought, catching his partner in midair. He blinked, wondering at his actions, and floated up to the upper level of the ship, shocked to see Washuu yelling and screaming obscenities, stomping on the deck angrily.
And two of the satellites were missing.
Frowning, Ranma teleported to Washuu's side, causing the woman to jump in surprise. "Ack! Don't do that!" she protested. Noticing Ran-oh-ki, the woman glowered, shaking her fist threateningly and losing her surprised demeanor. Ranma could feel Ran-oh-ki's fear through the connection with his partner, until the creature hurled itself from his hands and sank through the deck of the ship.
"Don't come back here, you stupid, stupid, mangy, flea-bitten, ugly, useless, stupid rat!" Washuu screamed at the deck that Ran-oh-ki had passed through, then stalking over to stomp on the spot angrily.
"Um," Ranma said, unnerved by the scientist's fury. "I'll... I'll just go and wait over there. And Ran-oh-ki may not be a very bright rat, but he's not mangy."
"Of course not," Washuu grumbled, seething as she finally gave up stomping on the deck. "He's just stupid!"
"Right... What did he do?" Ranma asked, already guessing.
"He ate the satellites!" Washuu nearly screamed. "He ate one of the best weapons at our disposal! Now I can't use them to build more weapons, I have to build them from scratch! Do you have any idea how long it takes to build a positronic laser from scratch with the technology that I have available here? I don't think I can! That stupid rat..." she trailed off, composing herself somewhat.
"At any rate, I've got a lot more work ahead of me now. Ranma, it's not your fault; it's your partner's fault. And he'd better stay out of my way for a good long while, if he wants to keep on living!"
The boy merely stared at the redhead, stunned. "Oh," he said quietly. "Well, if there's anything I can do to help, just ask."
Washuu laughed humorlessly, shaking her head. "Can you find me a cryogenic research facility to get me the gasses I'll need for the laser? The mirrors and glass I'll need for the lenses? The... Oh, don't bother, Ranma. Thank you for asking, but you don't need to bother. Just ... keep your partner out of trouble."
With that, she marched to her computer and began typing, swearing under her breath at some calculation or another.
Ranma frowned, shaking his head. "You messed up this time, partner," he whispered softly, knowing Ran-oh-ki could still sense his thoughts. "I'm not mad, but unless you think you can fix this, we're going to be in a whole world of trouble."
Yosho nodded very subtle agreement, watching Washuu out of the corner of his eyes. "Hey," Ranma announced more loudly. "I'm going to go out for a bit. Washuu said I should relax."
The older man nodded once more, still watching Washuu covertly. "Be careful," he replied absently.
Ranma grinned. "I will," he said softly, teleporting away.
Norris walked sedately down the central access corridor of the ship that had once been his own. The Louisiana. The ship was probably as neatly run by Patterson as it had been when he ran it himself, but Norris felt the need to take a short break and escape from the problems plaguing him of late.
Patterson held a checklist in one hand and a pen in the other, prepared to jot down notes if Norris felt the need to comment.
Norris preferred silence for the moment, enjoying the relatively peaceful aspects of a well-run and battle-ready ship at sea. The men they passed nodded politely, completely at ease, which was odd considering their situation.
They progressed all the way to the final section of the ship - one seldom entered by either of them. The nuclear engine control room. "I'll admit," Patterson said, "I haven't run an inspection on the engine since command was handed to me just yesterday, but I trust that conditions have not changed significantly."
So saying, the pair of men entered the command room, and both froze stock-still.
"Captain?" Norris asked primly.
"Yes, Commodore?" Patterson responded, staring fixedly at the room.
"When does 'not changed significantly' cover chroming the entire engine room?"
"I do not know, Commodore."
"And replacing all of the controls with stylized welded-chain wheels?"
"I do not know, Commodore."
"And the fox-tail hanging from the nuclear warning sign?"
"I do not know, Commodore."
"And, why the hell is a giant silver 'Type-R' emblazoned on the core?"
Distracting both of the men, the only occupant of the room paused, suddenly noticing them. The technician furrowed his brow and said, "I happen to like Type-R modifications. They're better than what was here, if you ask me."
Norris sighed, hanging his head. "Oh. You. Never mind, Patterson. This explains everything."
Durant placed his hands on his hips, scowling at the other men. "Who said you guys could come in here, anyway?"
Coughing, Patterson growled, "I would like to know what you think you're doing to military property!"
Puzzled, the trespasser examined the room critically. "It's called 'ricing out the engine'. Why?"
Norris restrained a scream - barely. "What did you do?" he asked tersely.
"Oh, not much. I figured that it'd get more power if I fixed-up the engine, so I set a turbo-charger to completely remove the cooling rods when you want a little more power. That should give you a good boost," he stated confidently.
"Won't that make the engine go into meltdown?" Patterson asked frantically.
"Well, yeah, but if you want a fast, powerful ride, you gotta take a few risks."
"I remember this far too well to be happy," Norris muttered. "Come with us, we're tossing you into the brig."
Durant opened his mouth to comment, then blinked, looking downward in surprise. Norris followed his gaze worriedly, as did Patterson. Sulking in a nearly forgotten corner behind the men was one of the oddest creatures they had ever seen, something of a cross between a rabbit and a cat. It regarded them sullenly from where it was crouched.
Patterson moved towards the creature quickly, frowning with distaste, but before he could reach it, there was a shimmering in the air before him, and a boy dressed in loose pants and a long white shirt with flowing sleeves appeared from the shimmer. The boy spared the men a glance, picking up the creature before turning to regard the men again. "Hey, Norris-san. What's up?" he asked.
Norris hung his head, sighing. "Okay, so, you're Ranma's brother, right? What are you doing here?"
The boy winced and shifted to a shorter and more curved version of himself. With red hair. Norris stared, his ability to be shocked worn out for the time being, while Patterson leaned against the wall heavily, startled. Durant raised an eyebrow as the girl said, "I'm not Ranma's brother, I am Ranma."
"That's kinda cool, but freaky at the same time," Durant noted. "Ranma, eh? I think I heard someone mention you once. Girl a little taller than you, but she had the same exact voice. Your sister?"
"My daughter," Ranma returned. "She never mentioned you, though."
"Durant," the man said, extending one hand to her. "Paul Durant," he added when she accepted it dubiously.
"Okay, Ranma, if you don't mind I'm afraid that I need to take Mr. Durant here to the brig for trespassing on government property-"
Ranma's eyes widened, and she grinned, haphazardly placing the small creature she had collected on her shoulder and completely ignoring Norris. "Paul Durant? You work for Mishima and make satellites, right? Some kind of posirific lather or something?"
Durant nodded, shrugging uneasily. "Well, yeah," he said, "though I'm beginning to think that last paycheck isn't going to be comin' through, what with Tokyo being a smoking pile of rubble, now ... why do you ask?"
"I have a broken satellite," Ranma said, "and there's a girl who I need to get some stuff for."
"Girl? Satellite? Nothing says love like violence. What do you need?"
"Okay, uh ... she said she needed some kind of gas for the laser that was hard to find, or something, and then lots of mirrors and lenses for something else."
Durant scratched his chin thoughtfully, then crossed his arms over his chest. "Well," he ruminated, "there's a couple of ways to go with that. If it's a positronic laser, you have a few options. First off, to make things easy, you'll want to use a noble gas. Okay. Neon's not going to cut it for you. Generally, argon-suspension works pretty well, but it's argon, and you can probably do without it. Xenon is good, since they use that for most ruby lasers, but ain't really all that, even though the idiots back home in the U.S. think that it's the way to go..." he trailed off, thoughtfully.
After a moment, the silence only punctuated by the engine's quiet hum, he added, "Personally, I'd say you're best off with radon, but that's not as much fun to work with. If you could get it, I'd say the answer you really want is krypton. Krypton's the good stuff, though it's kinda rare. What are you building the lasers for, anyway?"
"To kill reavers," Ranma said instantly.
At that, Norris and Patterson both relaxed their grim expressions, now curious.
"Oh, well, yeah, krypton would be the good stuff, but the thing's gonna be massive, since you're gonna want liquid nitrogen to cool the gas, and then it's going to take a wicked drain on the batteries. What size are you looking for in these things, anyway?"
"Something someone his size," Ranma jerked a thumb at Norris, "could carry around, but I think you want to talk to Washuu about that. Um, look, let me take you to the broken satellite so you can fix it and you can talk to her. While that's going on, where can I get some krypton gas?"
Durant frowned, rubbing his chin. "Well," he said slowly, "I know they set up something in Antarctica to harvest it, based on some stupid theory about the ozone layer's reduction making more of it. Which is bull. I bet they were using it to hide something. Anyway, there's a Mishima automated refinery in Antarctica, somewhere, but I'm not sure where. If you can find that ... well, who knows how much is there? That's where it'd be, though."
Ranma grinned, and Norris cocked his head to one side, curious. "What about the lenses and mirrors?" Patterson asked.
Grunting, Durant waved a hand. "Any decent microscope factory should have a bunch of good optics. Now, I'm talking professional, high-quality microscopes, not those cheap ones that we got in Miss Anderson's class - damn things break way too easy if you ask me - but the good stuff. Hell, there's about a billion manufacturers for them in Taiwan, more in China, and that's all good glass and mirrors."
Ranma's grin widened. "Excellent." She spun to face Norris, still floating just above the deck. "Norris-san, I'm sorry about breaking your boat. So's Ryu. I made a deal with him, though, and he promised to help us fight the reavers. Can you let him go?"
The man seemed about to protest, but sighed, slumping. "Why the hell not?" he asked bitterly. "I already gave Washuu access to nuclear weapons."
"You're giving out nukes?" Durant asked excitedly. "Can I get some?"
"No!" Norris snapped. "Get out of here!"
Ranma obligingly seized the man and vanished into thin air, taking Durant and the strange creature with him.
Patterson eyed his clipboard cautiously. "Um, how would you term this inspection, Commodore?" the man asked nervously.
Norris hung his head further. "Acceptable," he decided. "The best it could have been, considering who was involved."
Washuu glanced to one side as Ranma appeared - briefly - then disappeared, dropping someone off on the deck. The scientist eyed the man who was left there, looking a little out of place in his stained lab-coat, Mishima tag still hanging from the collar. Nuku bounded out from the tents and paused at Washuu's side, glancing at the man. "Was Ranma-papa-san here?" she asked, turning to look at the redheaded scientist again.
Nodding, Washuu regarded the man in the lab-coat as he strode confidently towards the satellite. "Excuse me," she called out. "Who are you? Can I help you?"
"Name's Paul Durant," he said absently, studying the solid red lights on the satellite. "Got word that you had a broken satellite you needed to have fixed. Anything I can help with?"
"Not likely," Washuu drawled. "Unless you can fix them from being eaten?"
"Induce vomiting," Durant answered quickly, glancing at Washuu, and then at Nuku. "Oh, hey, kid. Ran into your dad. Mom. Whatever. Does he know you're running around with strange blond Americans?"
Nuku blinked and pointed at Washuu. "Washuu is mama-san. Ranma is papa-san," she clarified. "Papa-san asked Terry to take care of Nuku-Nuku."
"Well, that explains a bit. So you're Washuu, eh? Nice kid. Your husband's a little weird, but okay in my book."
"He's not my husband," Washuu noted, arching an eyebrow higher at the man.
"Oh, hey, I'm a ninety's kinda guy, so that's cool, that's cool," Durant said, raising both hands in a placating gesture. "What's wrong with the laser?"
Washuu cleared her throat, while Nuku watched, befuddled. "The laser," Washuu explained primly, "seems to have overheated, and as a result, some of the diagnostic circuitry is damaged. Why?"
Durant snorted, pulling a crowbar out of his lab-coat pocket. A large cloth, tied like a bandage, was wrapped around the middle of the iron rod, which he expertly swung back, and slammed into the side of the satellite. It whirred for a moment, then the lights all winked off, one-by-one. "Funny," he noted. "Never done that before."
Washuu's jaw dropped, as she stared at the man. "Did you just break the last satellite, before I could even fix it?" she asked quietly, voice quavering with the promise of violence barely held in check.
"Nah," Durant said, whacking it again with the crowbar. "It was already broken." As he pocketed the crowbar and turned away, the telltales lit up again, flashing red, then turning solid green, one at a time. "Just gotta know how to work it," he finished, shrugging.
Recovering from her shock somewhat, Washuu said, "Thank you very much. Now never do that again."
"What do you suppose that small creature that Hakubi-san kicked means to Ranma-san?" Ami wondered, frowning.
"Didn't Hotaru say that Ranma called it his partner?" Rei asked.
Ami nodded. "It must be important to him, since he caught it so quickly."
Rei shrugged, furrowing her brow in thought. "How does he do that so easily?" she grumbled. "He just disappears and reappears somewhere else."
"We must ask him when he has a moment," Ami resolved. "I simply hope he doesn't think we're prying or disrespectful."
The other girl nodded in silent agreement. Her own curiosity, just as much as Ami's, needed to be assuaged. All that remained was to actually corner the boy and ask...
"Washuu-mama-san! Washuu-mama-san! I can't wake up Ranma-papa-san!" Nuku frantically yelled, jumping up and down in agitation.
The scientist turned away from her terminal, caught off guard. "What? Ranma?" she asked. "What are you-" The scientist stopped asking questions as the core of Nuku's warning reached her.
When her senses returned to her, she was standing before the door to the room that Norris had lent her - for Ranma. Not pausing to rethink, though out of breath, she dashed into the room, leaping to the bed to check on Ranma worriedly. The boy-turned-girl was lying atop the bed, seemingly asleep. A quick survey of her vital signs showed that all was more-or-less in order, though Washuu had to wonder what Ranma had done to exhaust herself so thoroughly so early in the day.
Sighing in relief and pushing aside the odd encounter with Durant - and subsequent discussions on phase dispersion variance - she considered the small redhead on the bed, head resting in her lap. Ranma seemed to occupy her thoughts more often and more fully than anything else, of late.
What was it about the boy that attracted her so? No, she thought. Not attracted, except as scientific curiosity. He was far, far too young to attract her interest in any other sense. But what was it that drew her attention, more so than his 'ki', whatever that was... There was simply something about him, even if she couldn't pin it down.
Ranma mumbled something softly in her sleep and rolled over, resting her head comfortably in Washuu's lap. Sighing, Washuu lay one hand on Ranma's head gently, looking about the room. Ran-oh-ki was wisely nowhere to be seen. Ranma had found someone to help Washuu with the weaponry, for which she was grateful, but she was still more than a little upset about the loss of useful components. With Durant's help, she had been able to hash out a rough design for a rifle-sized armament, but Durant's suggestions used too many optics - the satellite only had enough lenses and mirrors for one of the suggested design to be built.
Ranma made a contented noise, still asleep, and Washuu absently ran a hand through the girl's red hair. Spiked and fiery, but soft to the touch. Washuu couldn't help but smile at that, and glanced around the room, noting some things had been added. A trio of large crates labeled from some factory in China, another from Taiwan, and several large steel gas canisters.
All of them marked 'krypton', and 'property of Mishima Heavy Industries - to be handled by professionals only'.
Washuu felt her jaw drop with disbelief. "Is that what you were doing?" she asked, voice faint with wonder. She gently tucked Ranma back into the bed and scurried to the topmost of the crates, opening it carefully. Still in their factory issue-condition, wrapped in airtight plastic bags, packed in foam, were a variety of tiny, polished mirrors and lenses.
Ranma made a small noise, still sleeping, and Nuku waited apprehensively near the door. "What's wrong?" she asked, voice laden with worry.
"Nothing," she said quickly, already trying to calculate how much weaponry could be built with the supplies on hand. "He's just very tired."
"Is there anything Nuku-Nuku can do?" she asked.
"Probably... Well, you could take a nap with him, so he won't be alone when he wakes up," she suggested.
The girl bounced happily to the bed, and promptly curled up next to Ranma, like an over-sized kitten. Still asleep, Ranma threw one arm across the other girl, and the scientist was hard-pressed to resist another smile at the sight.
Ryu rubbed his wrist as the American soldier took the handcuffs off him, allowing him to move freely. The old woman - Ranma's grandmother - spoke with the soldier in English, and Ryu was only able to follow a handful of the words before she gestured for him to follow her. "Come," she instructed him tersely.
"So," Ryu said, dropping his hands to his side. "Where's Ranma?"
"Taking a nap," Cologne informed him wryly. "He wanted to get something to make up for a mistake that his partner made, and ended up wearing himself out in the process."
Ryu shrugged, hopping out of the bed. "Great," he said. "What now?"
"You're free to go," Cologne said. "Norris explained that Ranma asked for you to be released, with the proviso that you fight alongside us."
"Yeah," Ryu grunted. "He gets me the Umisenken, I fight with him. What now?"
"Nothing," Cologne assured him. "Until Ranma's done resting, at any rate."
The boy sighed, rolling his eyes. "So what am I supposed to do now?"
"I think there are a number of girls who wanted words with you," Cologne said lightly, walking down the corridor.
"What girls?" Ryu asked. Only moments later he spied Makoto, approaching swiftly and flanked by the majority of the girls she was traveling with. "This sucks," he added, annoyed to note that the old woman was already gone.
The end product of Washuu and Durant's efforts was a large yet sleek and lightweight rifle-like weapon. Norris held one carefully, frowning at the stylized silver-and-red crab symbol on the butt of the gun. Durant's work, doubtless.
"So," he asked, hefting the weapon easily and experimentally sighting the coast of Japan, still slipping past in the distance. "How much power do these things pack, and what kind of damage do they do?"
"Oh, that's easy," Durant replied blithely, before Washuu could answer. "See, a positronic laser isn't quite a laser, as much as a stream of ionization, jacketed in radiation. The microwave radiation is merely incidental."
"That doesn't sound remotely safe," Norris grumbled. "How will it affect my men, if they use it?"
"Should fry them instantly," Durant noted. "Not a toy. Why the hell do you think I put the damn things in automated satellites?"
"Ahem," Washuu interjected, shooting Durant a scathing glance. "I've reduced the radioactive backlash to minimal levels, Mr. Norris. It will be safe for your men to handle, but not to be struck with. The point of impact for the weapon will also contain a certain level of radiation. It should be non-lethal, if the beam isn't active, and the half-life is only seconds, so within minutes the worst of it should be cleared."
"Okay," Norris said, trusting the female scientist. "I'm guessing they haven't been tested?"
"No," Durant said, shrugging. "No good batteries for them, yet."
"So, it's useless?" Norris said, his fingers reflexively tightening on the trigger.
The deafening crack and explosion of light as a blast of energy sprang from the barrel of the weapon answered him better than either Durant or Washuu could, and he watched, blinking away the afterimage. A line of power had been traced through the air, slicing easily through the conning tower of one of the nearby ships, thankfully deserted. A mass of sheared and glowing red metal remained above the cut, while the shore in the distance echoed another explosion as the beam forced a reaction with something on the coast.
"I wouldn't say that," Washuu said wryly, rubbing at her ears and wincing. "I think your men might want to wear sunglasses, though.
"Uh," Norris managed, staring at the rifle in belated shock. "I thought you said there were no good batteries for it yet?"
"No," Durant said, "there aren't. There's only enough juice in there for one shot."
Norris frowned dubiously. "Anything else I should know?"
"Yes," Durant said emphatically. "Do not cross the beams."
"Why not?" Norris asked worriedly.
"Trust me, it will be bad," Durant said sternly.
The man grimaced, attempting to stare the tech down. "Define 'bad', Mr. Durant."
"It's hard to explain, but try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and finding yourself confined forever in another dimension."
After a long moment of silence, Norris asserted, "You're just making that up, aren't you?"
"Maybe," Durant answered evasively. "Maybe the beams will just refract if they collide, maybe you'll annihilate all of reality. Only one way to find out."
Washuu glanced at the technician, frowning, then turned her attention back to Norris. "About those nuclear devices, Mr. Norris? Once I have those, I can make as many fission batteries as you provide me components for."
"Oh, right." Norris frowned, eyeing Washuu. "It's going to take a bit for me to get the warheads from the boomers to the deck, since there's a whole fleet around us. Ah ... each boomer carries twenty-four Trident II D-5 SLBMs. They're a bit ... um ... largish. And I don't think that the general people," he motioned towards the tents, "will really like watching you operate on something that dangerous. If we could get it into the hangars, below decks..." The man trailed off with an apologetic shrug.
"Bah," Durant grunted. "People just don't have any chutzpah anymore. I swear. In my daddy's day, nobody said nothing when the garage blew up two, three, maybe even four times a week." He shook his head, sighing. "Now they get all fussy just 'cause you want to play around with a nuke. What is their problem, anyway?"
Washuu ignored the tech, telling Norris, "Okay, I think I can manage things. I'll just need room in the hangar."
"How the hell are you going to move SLBMs from the boomer to the hangar without alerting anyone?" Norris asked, frowning.
Washuu merely grinned, and Norris quickly answered his own question, "Never mind. Here, take the rifle back, and for the love of god, don't blow us all up." Pushing the rifle into Durant's hands as the man pontificated on the glories of high explosives, Norris scurried away.
Cologne was awaiting Ranma after she woke, scrubbing a tired hand through her hair - which steadfastly refused to assume any form other than perfectly spiked back. After waiting for Ranma to drink a glass of water, she announced, "Yosho said that he was very impressed with your skill, Ranma."
Ranma grunted, nodding. "I tried," she mumbled. "He's pretty damned fast, though."
"Indeed," the woman mumbled, frowning. "How are you feeling, Ranma?"
"Tired," Ranma said glancing at the old woman, then back to Nuku, sleeping soundly on the bed. "But I've been worse. Can we get to work? I don't know how much time we've got left."
Cologne nodded slowly, backing out of the room. Ranma straightened the folds and creases on her makeshift outfit before following. "If you're certain," the woman answered, frowning.
Ranma shrugged, pacing out onto the deck of the ship, and cringing at the night sky. "Man," she grumbled. "I slept too long."
"I think the training might actually be better at night," Cologne responded. "If you're sure you're interested, that is..."
"Anything to help. Terry told me that, actually. I shouldn't reject anything that'll help me win the war."
"Is that so?" Cologne asked, raising an eyebrow. "Pity that those monsters probably don't have pressure points."
Ranma blinked at the woman, but said nothing.
"Ah, never mind about that. I've read through the scrolls your father left you... The training is going to be tricky, at best, but I trust you have a sharp mind. Are you ready?"
"Once we find Ryu," the redhead answered.
Cologne sighed, turning about and trundling across the deck. "Very well," she muttered. "He's waiting for us. Washuu had a favor to ask of you, when I explained some of the training to her."
"Eh?" Ranma noised, scratching her head curiously. "What kind of favor?"
The two boys stared at the slowly rolling deck beneath their feet.
The training was, in theory, simple, according to what Cologne had lain down for them. And the first task to sharpen those skills, of course.
The hatches were clearly defined beneath their feet, quite wide, and making the pair wonder at the size of whatever lay within.
Which was, of course, the problem.
"I thought maybe you had an idea."
"Uh ... first, we need to get through that hatch."
The hatch again. Solid steel, and who knew how thick it was, either?
"I'm seeing a problem here."
Scratching behind an ear nervously, one of the boys shuffled his feet, leaning down to peer more closely at the barrier.
"How are we going to carry the thing, once we get it back, anyway? Yeah, I can jump from ship to ship pretty easily..."
"...but carrying whatever we get is just going to be insane?"
A minor rumble through the ship left both of them to carefully readjust their footing until it passed, and the submarine resumed its normal course.
"Yeah. I'm drawing a blank on this one."
Another moment of silence, broken only by the not-so-gentle lapping of the waves against the hull.
"Well, when all else fails, cheat."
"Sounds like a plan. You smash this damn thing open, I'll grab whatever's inside, and we'll teleport. Deal?"
"Deal. When we get back, let's have the old woman start us off with something a little less dangerous than stealing from the U.S. Navy."
"Where do you suppose Ryu-chan and Ranma are?" Makoto asked, muffling a yawn tiredly.
A blaring klaxon filled the late evening silence, as one of the submarines' lights came on, red and glaring. Men dashed about the deck of the surfaced craft, yelling indistinctly into the night, though a freighter alongside the Kitty Hawk hid one half of the craft from sight.
"I'm sure they're fine," Cologne said, emerging from the darkness to smile pleasantly at the assembled senshi.
The girls, and the one man with them - Haruka's deception might have slipped past Ranma and the others, but Cologne could see it easily enough - all stared towards the alarms for a long moment, and then turned their attention to the old woman. "What are they doing?" the blonde girl with the pair of long ponytails asked.
"Training," Cologne said flatly. "Now, if you'll forgive me, I'm going to have to speak with Norris about the small matter of some missing ... things."
The girls all blinked in unison, before Rei summed it up by saying, "I think I'm happier not knowing."
"I want to know what Ranma-san's doing," Hotaru grumped. "He's my boyfriend, after all."
Dead silence greeted that statement for a long moment, until Minako managed, "Does he know?"
Washuu looked up, blinking, as a massive volume of air was displaced from the hangar, leaving Ranma vainly attempting to hold up the SLBM that she had asked him to retrieve. Ryu hopped down from the missile and threw his own strength to the task, but at nearly seven feet across and another forty in length, it was too bulky for him to manage.
That Ranma's strength appeared to be up to the task - save for the intricacies of balancing it - was impressive, Washuu noted even as she tossed out another of the disks she had brought from her old lab for such occasions.
Finding the weight relieved, Ranma and Ryu slumped to the floor, groaning tiredly amid the planes. Washuu cocked her head as alarms blared throughout the ship. "Hmm," she mused. "I take it that things didn't go as well as you had hoped?"
"Not really," Ryu gasped. "The hatch was pretty damn thick. I think I almost broke my hand on it."
"And the missile was really heavy," Ranma panted. "I had to pick it up before I could teleport, and then get it turned sideways so it'd fit here."
Washuu winced. "I guess it was a bit much to ask for your first attempt. sI think I have something that can help you, since we're going to run out of room to work here, shortly," she mumbled, riffling through her pocket, and producing another small handful of disks. Approaching Ranma, she pressed them into his hands, explaining, "Hit the green button, then drop them beneath the missiles. That should make it much easier."
"Joy," Ryu muttered, still nursing his sore hand.
Glancing to one side as she heard a flurry of frantic footsteps, she grinned. "You should get out of here while I explain what happened to Norris-san."
Heaving a groan, Ranma grabbed Ryu, and vanished again.
"Okay," Setsuna mumbled, more for her own benefit than for either Haruka or Michiru. "Okay. So, all of my leads were essentially useless. Paper trails dry up when there's no longer buildings standing to house those papers."
Haruka shrugged, noting, "Well, it's about the best we could expect, really. I take it you didn't find anything?"
"Just the register," the other woman answered.
"Well," Michiru said softly, "we got a clue, but I'm not sure how much it helps..."
"What did you find?" Setsuna asked, eyes widening with interest immediately.
Haltingly and uncertain, the women managed to relay the images revealed to them earlier.
"That doesn't help very much," Setsuna said. "I can't imagine what any of that means. Colors? I suppose we could assume that the darkness is the reavers, but everything else? A rusty sword?"
Haruka frowned, her lips compressing into a tight and narrow line. "Well," she mumbled, "it is all we have to go on, at the moment."
Setsuna bowed her head, sighing. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I'm under a lot of stress. I'll keep an eye open for anything that brings those clues to mind ... and any other clues that might present themselves."
With that, they disbanded for the evening, searching out a place to rest and plan for the next few days.
"Ah ... Hakubi-sensei?"
The scientist glanced over her shoulder at the diminutive blue-haired girl, who seemed to shrink into herself even more under her gaze. "Yes?" she asked, stepping away from her latest project, and wiping her hands on a rag.
The girl seemed distracted, likely by the fact that Washuu had previously been up to her elbows in a nuclear missile. Everyday item or or not, she knew what the device was. Likely there wouldn't be more than a small handful of people on the entire planet that didn't.
Seeing the girl's discomfiture and needing to rest her hands for a moment anyway, Washuu set the washcloth on the table before her, already covered in cast-off fittings and unneeded parts. The casings for her fission batteries lay to one side, simply awaiting the required components. Nuku sat on the edge of the table, kicking her feet idly and waiting for Ranma to return. "You can call me Washuu," she said, trying to calm the girl. "Actually, I'd prefer it if you called me Washuu-chan. What do you need?"
"Um..." If possible, the girl seemed to draw even further into herself. "It's about ... ah, Ranma-san."
"Oh-HO!" Washuu snickered, guessing the girl's reason for coming. "I see I've really outdone myself, making Ranma, hmm?"
"P-p-pardon, Washuu-sensei?" the girl stammered, blushing furiously.
"Ah. Not sure how to tell him you like him, hmm?" The scientist attempted to dismiss the nagging, annoying doubt, but it refused to fade. What was it? "Well," she mused, crossing her arms beneath her chest. "I don't know... I would think that you should probably wait a bit, if you want to tell him anything." The nagging doubt faded. Of course, she told herself. That kind of pressure would just distract Ranma, especially now. Much better to put it off until things had calmed down.
"That's not it, Washuu-sensei!" the girl blurted suddenly. "I wanted to talk to you about Ranma-san because I'm curious." She was silent for a moment, staring at the deck beneath her feet and fidgeting. "Aside from which, Hotaru-chan has said that he's her ... ah ... boyfriend."
The redhead blinked. "Who's Hotaru?"
The girl looked behind her, into the dimly lit passage and called softly, "Hotaru-chan, aren't you going to come in?"
Hesitantly, a shorter girl, somewhat pale, entered and stood immediately next to the blue-haired girl. Hotaru pouted and said, "I wanted to talk to Ranma-san..."
Washuu sighed, shaking her head and summoning her computer terminal. "He's a little busy at the moment," she notified the girls. "What did you want to talk to him about?" Frowning, she eyed the blue-haired girl. "And what did you say your name was, anyway?"
"Ah... I'm sorry, Washuu-sensei. I am Mizuno Ami, and this is my friend, Tomoe Hotaru," she said by way of introduction, seemingly ashamed that she had forgotten. "If ... you don't mind, we wanted to ask Ranma about his past, and what his story was. It seems that when Hibiki-san and Mousse-san told us ... there were things that they didn't tell us, either."
Washuu quirked an eyebrow. In all likelihood, Ami knew more about Ranma through his old friends than she did herself. She couldn't quite pin down why, but something about that bothered her. "Ah," she said. "And you want me to tell you the rest of the story?"
"No!" Ami blurted out, shaking her head and waving her hands worriedly. "That would be very disrespectful of Ranma-san, to ask behind his back! We ... wanted to ask him himself, if he was willing to speak to us about it."
"Oh, well ... that makes sense enough. I'm afraid you'll have to wait until he comes back from his training to ask, though." Washuu shook her head, tapping a few keys and calculating the most efficient way she could proceed with her work.
"Well ... since he is not here at the moment," Ami said, apparently still struggling for words, "do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
"Not really," Washuu said, despite the fact that she would rather have been left alone. "What did you want to know about?"
"Your computer, Washuu-sensei ... where did you get it?"
"I made it myself, when I was at the Academy," Washuu answered, frowning. Actually, that wasn't completely true - the entire system had been replaced, a piece at a time, as she had thought of new ways to improve it. The essence of the answer was true, however, since that was where the genesis of the computer had come from ... wasn't it? She couldn't remember back quite far enough to identify what she had used before.
"Which Academy?" Ami asked, still curious.
"One very far away," Washuu answered. "You may have guessed this already, but I'm not from around here."
"Oh? Are you a Juraian, like Masaki-san?"
"Something like that. Why do you want to know?"
Ami produced a small laptop from one pocket, showing it to Washuu and explaining, "I wanted to know if it was similar at all to mine. I don't ... ah, I don't know quite where this was created, and the database containing that information was damaged, so I was curious to know if you perhaps knew something more?"
"Oh?" Washuu asked, curious. The small computer would doubtlessly be completely unremarkable compared to her own, but it was still interesting. "Well, it's just Terran tech," she said. "I'll see what I can find out."
In a moment, she had connected the devices through a cable and was rapidly scanning Ami's smaller computer. "Hmm," she mused, surprised at the veritable mountains of data that lay within. "This is interesting."
"What's that, Washuu-sensei?"
Washuu glanced at the smaller girl, absently activating a subroutine to mirror everything on Ami's laptop and attempt to repair the aforementioned damaged databases. "That's quite a powerful machine you have there. Where did you find it?"
"It's ... ah ... left over from the Silver Millennium."
"That would explain it," Washuu noted. "I'll see if I can repair some of the damage, and I probably have a few of the same databases you do. It looks like almost the entire Juraian Cultural Library is stored there, along with other things..."
"Really?" the girl asked, curious. Washuu nodded, glancing for a moment at Hotaru, who was sitting on the floor near Nuku, bored. "I'd never gotten a chance to entirely read through all of the information there, and much of it didn't make any sense to me."
"Well, I can explain a bit to you..." She gestured the girl closer, pointing to her own terminal's screen. "See, this is the last entry in your mirror of the cultural library, which is dated the year before Amatera Omiki left Jurai. Now, of the existing sub-libraries you have..."
Leaning against the side of the conning tower, arms folded behind his head, Mousse asked, "Where do you suppose that Ranma is?"
Ryouga snorted, shaking his head. "Training, I bet. Not happy with his skill yet. Probably won't be until he can beat Ryu with one hand and not using his powers," he answered.
Sitting across from them in a meditative position, Yosho said nothing.
"Yosho-san?" Ryouga asked, looking at the stars more than the man.
"What do you suppose will happen to us?"
Opening his eyes and looking up at the skies above, Yosho answered, "That, I do not know. I would like to think that we manage to defeat the reavers and reclaim our home, but ... it may not happen."
"What do you mean?" Mousse asked, confused. "There's only so many of them, and ... who knows how many of them are dead, now. Aren't we slowly winning? Once we get to the Joketsuzoku territories, we should have enough power to completely turn the tide."
"There are forces, boy ... forces that we cannot even begin to understand at play here. More than just being men battling monsters, there's the ever present background of," he paused to spit, "politics. Even before that, however, these monsters adapt, and learn. If anything, they'll only grow more dangerous, the more we kill."
"You're saying we don't have a chance, and we should give up?" Ryouga asked quietly.
"No, but our fates do not rest entirely within our own hands. We will still need help from people with more power than ourselves..."
Tenchi relaxed, finally able to rest. Genoh and Karau had left, after Karau had drafted a contract for Genoh and Tenchi to sign.
More out of thought to her than any distrust of the Laruma, Tenchi had Ayeka read it before he signed it. Visibly shaken by the entire concept, the distraught princess managed to state that the contract had no loopholes for Tenchi to worry about, and at that, he had signed it.
That done, the Laruma had excitedly excused themselves, and Genoh followed the Throne in Vidarr until reaching the edge of Juraian space. Tenchi wasn't certain where the man had gone from there, but was more focused on dealing with things when he returned to the Court. "Ryouko?" he asked, suddenly.
The woman raised an eyebrow, lounged as she was in one of the nearer chairs. "Yes, Tenchi?"
"About those bars you were going to..."
The woman's expression wilted visibly. "What?" she asked, voice tinged with worry.
"I think you should probably keep going. That information is invaluable. Just ... be very careful about it."
"Tenchi!" Ayeka yelped. "What... I thought I was to be the new Inspector General of Information, and she the commander of the Royal Bodyguard!"
"That's right," Tenchi answered, grinning. "So they'd probably never expect a woman, after a hard day of work protecting the Emperor, to really be fishing for information."
Ayeka blinked, surprised at the concept. Ryouko raised both eyebrows, clearly impressed.
"Aside from which," Tenchi added, "if they do know why you're there, it'll still give us a good impression of what the average people in these bars think of the country."
"Empire," Ayeka corrected absently. "That is ... remarkably thoughtful, Tenchi-sama. I knew you would make a capable Emperor ... but... Well, I trust you, Tenchi-sama."
"I doubt I can do it alone. It's only thanks to you that I've managed this far," Tenchi said quietly, causing both women to blush faintly.
In the silence of a large canvas shelter, under the watchful eyes of Chiba Mamoru, six of the senshi slept. Again duffels and backpacks became makeshift pillows, while borrowed blankets from the Navy men protected them from the worst of the cold. Ami and Hotaru were looking for 'Ranma-san', who he had not himself met, though he'd heard a good deal of. Setsuna was off doing whatever it was that Setsuna did.
He thought it best not to ponder that and instead watched over the girls.
And presently, became drowsy, and thus, was too deep asleep to wake Rei when her dream began.
Her first impression was of her clothing, dressed as she was once more in her shrine-garb. However, in the place where the Sacred Flame burned, there was nothing. No altar.
A sick realization reached her, as she became aware of where she stood.
It was the temple as she had always tended it, save that it was empty. The walls, gone. Merely bare stone floors, razed clean of any other furnishings. The wooden floors, where they remained were rotting, collapsing under their own weight.
She swallowed a small ball of fear, looking to where the Sacred Flame traditionally burned again. The fire would have long since been extinguished, either by... But she stopped that train of thought. Regardless of the cause, she had failed to maintain it, as was her duty. Certainly, her grandfather would have taken an ember and tended it until he had a chance to rekindle the Flame, but it was her duty in the last days to maintain it.
And there, ethereal and unreal, wavering in the air as though atop an invisible altar, the Flame still burned.
Seductively, hypnotically, it wavered, beckoning her closer, seeming ready to draw her in. Nearly against her own will, she shuffled an awkward step closer to the Flame, and it began to unfold, expanding and encompassing to completely surround her.
With a sudden and lurching sensation, the Flame was within her - a part of her - and suffused every particle of her being.
Not a Flame, she saw, finally understanding the truth of the matter. A focus. A window to something greater than herself. And even if she had failed to keep the fire burning, the Flame, that vital spark within herself or the other senshi could never be extinguished.
With that realization, the visions came.
Shanghai. She knew it without knowing how, feeling as though a great presence were guiding her.
The city streets were deserted, at the moment, but that moment passed, and life - motion burst into being. Behind her; she whirled.
Half a dozen of the American soldiers, carrying guns and looking in all directions worriedly. Behind them, Ranma, wounded and clutching his shoulder. He mumbled something, and the band followed, rushing down the street, around a corner and out of her sight.
Cries and explosions echoed, flashes of light and raw, deadly power radiated from the site. Rei felt herself struggling, even in dream, to help, but found herself restrained. A hand on her shoulder, and a presence so familiar - so achingly, woefully familiar.
Swallowing, she turned to behold the figure behind her. As radiant and noble as the day she had died - and that memory resounded through her so strongly she would have fallen to her knees, were she not caught into a gentle hug - was Serenity, her face sorrowful.
"Not yet," she whispered to Rei. "Not yet, child."
Rei nodded wordlessly, eyes wide and still brimming with tears. Was it the death of the men, fighting for the noblest of all causes? Or merely the presence of Serenity herself? She couldn't know, then, and Serenity gave her no more time to ponder.
"Child, watch, and know this. It is difficult for my warnings to reach you, from here."
The senshi nodded, and they were borne away in a gust of wind and a wash of white, cleansing power. She beheld beneath her, the city, falling slowly to the reaver attacks. They could be pushed back, and even be killed, but the human defenders were simply not adequate enough to counter the rush of the enemy.
In a matter of hours, she knew, the battle was lost. "How?" she managed. "How can we stop it?"
"The answer is plainer than you think," Serenity answered softly. "Merely trust, and allow all of yourselves to know in your hearts who to follow. But even if that obstacle can be overcome, there is yet worse." And with that, the scene changed once more.
The bottom of a wide valley, the mountains and nearby features foreign to Rei. In the center of the basin, morbid and stalwart stood three figures, though only two were known to her. Firstly, Hotaru, as Sailor Saturn, Glaive held upwards with grim purpose. Secondly, Ranma, dressed in odd, loose fitting red robes of unfamiliar make over his traditional black suit.
But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there stood a winged man, trailing fire from the tips of his wings and more from his hands. Set more grimly and with firmer resolve than even Hotaru or the resolute Ranma, he glanced at Rei and managed a half-smile.
Turning away from her, he turned his attention to the other two. "It is agreed," he said, voice deep and resounding, seeming ready to fill the valley with its echoes. "There is no other path."
Hotaru nodded weakly, but unhappily.
Retrieving a small staff from the ground at his side, the man held it aloft, revealing it to be a scythe-like weapon, the blade at an awkward angle from the staff and shaped like a crescent moon. A sense of great purpose filled the area, and then all faded away again as Serenity guided Rei away. The same view, from nearly so high up as to be invisible.
At the edges of the basin, a creeping blackness encroached, rushing across the lip of the ridges, and then down, towards the trio below. Rei tried to scream a warning to them, to tell them what was happening, but her voice failed her and she watched with horror as the lowlands exploded with ice, cold so deep that the air of the valley was liquefied, and then frozen solid. It began with a green flash, which swiftly suffused blue and shot out to consume from where the three figures had stood.
And on the cold rushed, killing the blackness and turning the entire world into a massive, glittering ball of ice.
And then, all was silent.
She woke up, sitting bolt upright and drenched in sweat. She shivered, the image of a cold, dead Earth haunting her. The other girls about her remained asleep, but a nagging thought of the dream bit at her attention.
Firstly, she needed to ask the others about the dream. Because if they did not do as Serenity suggested ... they would all fail.
And lastly, but perhaps more importantly ... according to that dream, Hotaru, Ranma, and the fiery man who she did not know ... would die creating the Great Ice.
Usagi failed to wake when shaken, but Rei was too rattled to wait. Giving up on that, she rose on unsteady feet - she needed to find someone to talk to about the dream right away, and a feeling she couldn't pinpoint suggested Hotaru should be there.