Prelude – Oritsu



She stood motionless at the top of the cliff, letting the stiff, ash- laden wind blow her short mop of hair back from her face. A weak groan caught her attention, and she looked down at the huddled figure shaking at her feet. A pleased sneer twisted on her face and she nudged the mangled creature with one of her boots. Another groan, louder and more pained this time, leaked from the blood-ringed hole of its mouth. She chuckled under her breath and, turning her attention away from the thing at her feet, looked down at the mountain of corpses piled high on the ruined buildings below.

The inhabitants of her section of the planet had fallen like flies; she hadn't even broken a sweat. Next time she would have to request a larger and more difficult area to clear from Missions. Her dark eyes narrowed to keep the dust and ash from them as a sharp gust of wind tore at her small frame. There was a muffled boom below her as a piece of masonry shifted and fell to the ground. "This just gets easier and easier every time I do it," she thought and smirked as she watched the dust settle.

Her smile faltered as clawed, bony fingers closed around her ankle. Eyes flashing in surprise and anger, her glance shot down to her feet. The creature, shuddering with fear and the effort of moving, held one shaky, grimy smeared hand at her. Light flickered weakly in the palm as ki gathered and swirled inside the curled fingers. The light intensified as it was released, the creature aiming at the angry face of the warrior standing above it.

There was a loud crash and burst of light as a small hillside in the distance exploded. Rocks fell in a rain around them, but were deflected by the force of her own energy, which encased her body and the body of the shocked creature on the ground before her. Fire began to rage from the ruins of the destroyed hill, sending flickering shadows onto her face. Slowly she lowered the hand she had used to repel the ki blast. Her eyes narrowed and she smirked down at the inhabitant cowering below her. It shrunk under her gaze and began to quake in fear, weak mewling noises coming from its throat.

Slowly she swung her free foot out behind her; her grin widened. Her leg was a mere flicker as it soared down through the air. Her boot connected squarely with the trembling creature's middle, easily crushing its spine. The twisted, broken body flew out from the end of the steep precipice, spinning slowly in the ash-clouded air as it fell. It flopped bonelessly onto the mountain of smoldering carcasses far below and began to roll down the foul heap, picking up speed as it went. Small chunks of blackened flesh and a fine spray of blood flew out in all directions. A large jagged chunk of masonry caught the spinning carcass with a sickening squelch, nearly ripping it in two. Rocking slightly backwards, the corpse came to rest face-upwards. Blood, drying into a blackened crust in the warm air wafting from nearby fires, obscured most of the creature's visage, but its eyes, wide with terror and pain, were plainly visible to her as she stood staring out over the edge of the cliff.

The small, armor-clad figure smirked and grunted in satisfaction as she watched the remains of her last victim begin to burn alongside its fellow creatures far below her. The edge of the craggy precipice was smeared with thick clots of blood and flesh and her lower lip curled in disgust as she noticed a large smear of blood marring the pristine surface of one small white boot. Furiously, she rubbed the dirty material against a dried-up patch of scrubby vegetation. Still scowling, she tapped the toe of the boot against the cracked surface of the cliff to free it of any clinging bits of undergrowth. She might as well throw it away now, contaminated as it was with the blood of these weak, pathetic things. Her scowl deepened and she levitated a few feet above the peak of the cliff to free her clothes from further contamination.

Head held high, she proudly surveyed her handiwork: the blackened shells of once tall and imposing buildings billowing thick clouds of ashes and black smoke into the air; the rock-strewn, broken terrain stretching for miles in every direction; and the stench of burning hair and flesh rising from the mountain of charred bodies far below her. Distant explosions—the work of her fellow crewmembers—rumbled away to her left, the occasional ki blast briefly lighting up the angry red sky above.

She slowly shook her head from side to side and chuckled under her breath as she watched the bright flashes of light shooting through the clouds in the distance. She had finished ahead of schedule yet again. She pressed the small rectangular button on the side of the small device affixed to her left ear with one delicate finger. The scouter gave a series of quiet bleeps and pings and suddenly blazed into life, the flashing yellow shapes and numbers projecting on the dark green lens. The scrolling figures danced on an eye of such a deep blue color that in the ruddy, flickering light of the fires below it looked as black as pitch. A crackle of static issued from the earpiece and she spoke quietly, lowering the pitch of her voice out of habit.

"Reporting status of section zero-zero-one dash two-four-seven."

"Are you in over your head out there?" the brisk nasal voice of the radio technician interjected curtly.

Her eyebrows rose slowly in surprise. The tech had to be new, otherwise he would have known better than to ask her such a silly question as that. She closed and opened her eyes slowly, trying not to laugh at his ignorance.

"No," she said flippantly.

The tech sighed in mild annoyance. "Then what exactly is your problem, um …," there was a rapid clicking of keys in the background, "uh…Meigi?"

That proved it: he was new, not to mention extremely fortunate. Had he been one of the regulars and playing a joke (or rather playing stupid) on her, she would have personally gone and straightened him out when she returned. The corner of her mouth crooked up in a small smile. This guy obviously didn't know who she was and so she decided to excuse him his mistake. This time anyway. Next time he wouldn't be so lucky. Just to make sure though, she would show him right now that she was nobody to be dealt lightly with.

"There is no problem," she replied insolently.

Another, louder sigh issued from the earpiece of her scouter. She could just imagine him sitting hunched over the radio consol in the main ship, massaging his aching forehead, and wanting to reach across the miles of empty space and thick oppressing atmosphere between them and throttle her to death. She stifled another laugh and unconsciously scratched beneath her armor at the thick cloth wrapped around her budding chest. The technician's voice, full of barely concealed anger, spoke slowly and forcefully into her left ear.

"Why did you radio in if you didn't need help and if you haven't completed your job yet?"

Her smile deepened and she remained silent, drawing out the time and further annoying the radio tech.

"Hel-lo? Meigi?" he said slowly, and she could tell that he was very near to outright rage. The silence, broken only by an occasional burst of static, dragged on. The tech called to her again, but she stayed silent. Through the sporadic crackles of static she heard him move to terminate the connection. She broke the silence, speaking clearly and emotionlessly as if no time had passed at all.

"Status of section zero-zero…," she paused as the tech gave an exasperated groan and then continued, "…-one dash two-four-seven is clear. Repeat: section zero-zero-one dash two-four-seven has been cleared."

The technician gave a harsh bark of laughter. "Impossible. There's absolutely no way you could have cleared that section in the amount of time that has passed since you landed there."

She chuckled softly and shook her head slowly from side to side. "I take it you don't believe me then?"

"Believe you?" More laughter squawked from the earpiece of her scouter. "Are you for real?" In the background, his chair protested loudly as he rocked backwards and howled. "Oh, I get it, you're playing a joke on me, right, Meigi?" he said, sniffling back tears of laughter. "You're good…no, no you're great! I wish all of the warriors could be as amusing as you; it would make my job a lot more interesting."

She bit her tongue and took a slow, deep breath to calm herself. His high nasal voice was beginning to grate on her nerves and she was beginning to reconsider her decision not to harm him when she returned to the ship. There was a muffled boom from below her as a large hulk of blackened stone toppled and fell over. Her sharp blue eyes instantly turned to the source of the sound. Thick clouds of gray ash, disturbed by the fallen chunk of stone, swirled upward and were borne away by the wind. Nearly oblivious to the harsh brays of laughter sounding in her ear, she watched the ashes spin and twirl slowly in the hot air.

"The section is clear, as reported," she spoke impassively, her voice soft and dangerous.

The tech didn't seem to pick up on the hint of menace in her voice. "You're really funny, you know that?"

Dark blue eyes narrowed menacingly and her small, delicately shaped mouth twisted up in a cruel sneer, displaying a set of even, perfectly white teeth. Yes, he would find out just how funny she really was if he kept up like this. When she got back she would make sure of that. She would be so funny that he just might die laughing. His discordant laugh barked into her ear, and her eyes slowly turned in the direction of the noise as if she expected to see the irritating, weakling little radio technician standing next to her.

"So," he whispered conspiratorially to her, all laughter put aside for a moment, "what really happened out there? Did you go to your target, knock over a few buildings, find that the natives were a little too rough and rowdy for you, and then took off?" He chuckled under his breath. "You figured that you would let someone else take the heat for you? Come on, 'fess up, you can trust me."

"Tell me something," she said slowly and pleasantly, "when was the last time you were out on the battlefield?"

"Wha…what are you talking about?" he said, voice faltering and losing a hint of its former arrogance. The metal joints of his chair squeaked again as he sat upright, and she could just pick up the nervous rustle of papers (this week's mission report?) in the background.

"Oh come on, you can tell me. 'Fess up," she said sneeringly, lowering her voice to the barest whisper.

"Well I…I don't," he stammered, "…I'm not a warrior, I…I work here, in the main ship. Actually, I just started yest—"

"Save it." The tech gave a fearful whimper as she cut him off. She smiled at the pathetic sound and continued, "So you have no fighting experience whatsoever?"

"Unh-uh," he finally managed to blurt out after a short pause.

"Hmmm." She closed her eyes and listened to the rapid sounds of air rushing in and out of his mouth; if she had concentrated, she believed she could even have heard his heart pounding in his chest.

"Let me think about this for a second. You say you're not a warrior, but you seem to know a lot about planet clearing. In fact, you seem to know more about planet clearing than most of the warriors I know, myself included."

"Well I—"

"That's pretty impressive. Not many people can be hundreds of miles away from the site of the battle and still know exactly at what time it should be finished."

"Well they told me that you guys wouldn't start reporting in for another few hours or so unless you needed help or something," he whined. There was a noticeable waver in his voice.

"So you just assumed when I called in that it was impossible that I could have finished clearing my section of the planet." He began to speak in his defense but she cut him off again.

"I'll give you this, you have a lot of balls for daring to challenge one of us." A large, wind-tossed flake of ash became caught in her long bangs and she idly reached up and plucked it from her hair. The ash crumbled to a fine gray dust between her small, strong fingers. "However, anyone who knows or knows of me could tell you that I'm nobody to be toyed with, except if you have a death wish, that is," she purred. Besides the crackle of static and the sound of the tech's labored breathing, the line was silent. "Hello?"

There was a sudden squeal of metal and a loud thump as he fell out of his chair. She laughed, her voice low and musical, as she listened to him scramble back into his seat. "Oh, I'm…shit!" His chair gave another pained sound of protest and there was the sound of rustling papers as he bent to pick up the current week's worth of mission reports that he had knocked off of the tilted top of the console in his struggle to climb back into his chair.

"Yes, yes, that's exactly what you're in, my friend," she thought with glee. She forced herself to stop laughing. When she spoke, her voice was hard and sharp. "What was that?"

The radio technician gave a startled cry and began to stammer an apology, dropping the large stack of reports in his haste. "I...I didn't…I mean I…I'm…I'm sorry," he finally managed to spit out.

"Sorry…?"

"Uh…Sir! I'm sorry, sir!" His voice cracked in terror and she could tell that he was on the verge of tears.

She refrained from making any sound for a moment, enjoying the sounds of his discomfort. There was a pregnant pause as the tech anxiously waited for her response. Her voice softened, but didn't lose its dangerous edge. "That's better. Much better."

He gave a relieved sob, and there was a muffled squeak as he slumped back in his seat. "Th-tha…thank you. I won't…I mean this will never happen again, sir!"

She smirked and replied calmly, "For your sake I hope it doesn't." The tech gulped and moaned in assent.

She moved to break the connection and stopped. "Oh," the tech caught his breath as she spoke, "and make sure that my report is filed. Just in case you missed anything during our little chat, the section is clear."

"Yes, right! Section zero-zero-one dash two-five-seven. I'm—"

"Four-seven."

"Wh…what?" the tech stammered.

She heaved an irritated sigh. "Section zero-zero-one," she said slowly and forcefully, "dash two-four-seven."

"Oh, yes, yes! I'm so sorry. Yes, it's section zero-zero-one dash two- four-seven." He carefully enunciated each number of the sequence, desperately seeking her approval. There was a distant clicking of keys as he punched the numbers into the computer.

"And just in case you forgot," she added in an exasperated tone, "the section is clear. You got that? Clear."

"Yes, the section is clear. Got it! Everything has been taken care of, you can head on back to the ship anytime, sir" he said, his voice a mixture of relief and fear. Relief that the conversation had ended, but fear about what might happen to him when she returned.

"Ummm," she mumbled and switched off the receiver. She gave an exasperated sigh and shook her head violently from side to side. A wispy cloud of dreary gray ash rose from her hair and was borne away by the wind, which had begun to blow much more fiercely now that the twin suns had begun to set. There was a bright flash of light in the distance and a muffled boom that shook the ground below her. She stared fixedly at the expanding mushroom cloud. A series of yellow numbers popped up on the lens of her scouter. She easily and automatically assigned the numbers—a ki reading—to one of her fellow warriors.

She slowly scanned the land on her left, marking the positions of her crewmates in her head as the familiar ki readings scrolled across the dark green lens of her scouter. She grinned as the number she had been searching for flashed in front of her left eye and she carefully noted the direction of the reading. A bright yellow aura enveloped her diminutive frame and she shot into the air, the force of her take-off driving a thick spider web of cracks deep into the side of the cliff. The fissures widened and zigzagged down the sides of the jagged rock face and the cliff shuddered as if in pain. Finally succumbing to the forces that worked against it, the rock face crumbled and fell over onto the remains of the large city, entombing the smoldering heap of carcasses below.

* * *

Several miles away, the air cracked like a whip as she broke the sound barrier. Traces of clouds, their lower linings tinted a bloody red color by the two gigantic suns sinking below the horizon, swirled and parted before her. The smoking remains of several villages passed beneath her and she slowed slightly, keen ears peeled for the sounds of battle.

A brilliant ball of white ki suddenly flared up to her right, mushrooming up into the sky and out across the crack-riddled, desolate land. The corners of her mouth turned up in a faint grin and she darted towards the epicenter of the blast. Piercing screams and the thick hollow thuds of falling rocks and buildings grew louder as she neared a large town up ahead. Bright flashes of light issued from a tiny black speck darting back and forth below her and she abruptly stopped in midair, her aura briefly flickering brightly around her and then disappearing. She dropped like a stone to the stony, reddish-gray ground below, the three lower panels of her armor that protected her hips, groin, and lower belly flying upwards as she fell. She landed lightly on the balls of her feet on an outcropping of smooth white stone, the remains of a large, overturned building. The long lean muscles of her thighs and calves rippled beneath the jet-black material of her bodysuit as she crouched. She rocked forward onto her toes, rested her elbows on her splayed thighs, and calmly watched the chaos unfold before her.

A tall building, framed in a corona of fire and brilliant blue-white light, teetered and fell into a deep, smoking crater that had been carved into the earth by a previous blast. A small group of people, the inhabitants of this planet, ran out of the smoke and past the wreckage of the building in her direction, dodging large jagged chunks of stone that had been thrown in all directions by the explosion. One of the creatures turned around and threw two large balls of ki into the swirling clouds of ash and smoke that shrouded the skeletal hulk of the building.

A deep, feral yell rose from the smoking ruins and a giant of a man, outfitted in armor very similar to her own, shot out of the thick gray smoke. Thick red blood coursed down the left side of his face from a deep, jagged cut that stretched from the deep cleft of his large chin to the crest of one roughly hewn cheekbone. His thick brown hair, bound tightly into a long braid, was crusted over with dried blood. She smiled smugly as he shot past her towards the creature that had thrown the blast, taking no notice of her presence.

She had known Amond for most of her life. Fate had thrown them together six or seven years ago, when she had been purchased by a small group of space pirates. She had had a different life and a different name then. She had been untrained and so much weaker, virtually powerless. Her speed and strength had been nothing then compared to what they were now. She chuckled at the memory. She had been little more than a wide-eyed toddler then, a mere slave who had been sent from owner to owner since the day of her birth. Her fierce and violent nature and her unbreakable pride were most often the cause of her return to the open slave market. Even at her tender age it was plainly obvious that she wasn't fit for anything but fighting, and she figured that that was what Amond had seen in her when he saw her in the marketplace that day, her arms held rigidly above her head and her ankles planted firmly to the block below by thick chains.

His crewmates were completely against purchasing such a tiny, frail little thing, pointing out to Amond that she was too young and small to make a decent whore and too proud and obstinate to be anything but a nuisance to them. Amond had just looked her over—taking in the proud set of her head and shoulders, her sharp and intelligent eyes, and the strong cords of muscle lining her bare arms and legs—, motioned for his crewmates to be quiet, and waved the seller over. The giant man bargained heatedly with the tall, wiry rat of a merchant for some time before agreeing on a final price. A smug, superior look on his face, the merchant had collected his payment from Amond and moved to unlock the thick metal chains twined around her manacled wrists and ankles.

Amond's crewmates protested fiercely to his rash decision. She could remember as clear as day the words and insults spitting out of their mouths, insults both to her and Amond. Even though Amond dwarfed the other men in both stature and strength, they could easily have defeated him if they attacked all at once. When she saw one of the pirates swing at Amond with one hard-lined fist and the rest circled menacingly around him, she realized that both she and the large man towering before her were in danger. Amond had easily blocked the blow and tried to explain. This had proved to be unnecessary.

The merchant was careless; it all came down to that. Still gloating over the fantastic profit he had made, he had unfastened and unwrapped the chain holding her arms and then moved to free her ankles. Had he been thinking less about the money he had made and more about the task at hand, he would have remembered to pull her cuffed wrists to the ground as he bent to remove the chains from her ankles. She was not about to let this unexpected chance to escape get away. Her tightly clasped hands were a blur as they plummeted down onto the merchant's skull with a sharp crack.

The arguing pirates quieted immediately as they watched the merchant slump and fall to the ground with a dull thump. She hadn't killed him, just knocked him unconsciousness; she hadn't been strong enough then to do any serious, long-lasting damage, though she would have killed him had she been able to. The pirates were speechless, in a state of shock, their arms and hands frozen in the air in gnarled fists and accusing fingers. Realizing that this was her only chance to escape she had quickly removed the manacles from her ankles and wrists with the key dangling from the unconscious merchant's limp hand and darted from the platform.

Amond caught her before her bare feet even touched the ground. He held her at arm's length, keeping her thrashing arms and legs away from his body, and, ignoring her enraged screams, stared at her with mild amusement. He caught her flailing legs with his other hand and quickly pulled them up into the grip of the hand holding her arms. Amond had then swung her over one broad shoulder like a sack of potatoes and knelt down to retrieve his money from the lifeless body of the merchant. He took her back to the small, battered ship owned and occupied by himself and his fellow pirates, taking no notice of her indignant cries. His crewmates had followed numbly behind him, amazed that an inexperienced five-year-old could move so fast and with so much force.

She had proved herself that day. She hadn't needed to for Amond because he had had a pretty good idea of what she was capable of the moment he had set eyes on her. Still the pure speed and ruthlessness she had shown surprised even him. He had started her training immediately.

Initially she had been antagonistic to his instruction, crossing her arms over her narrow chest and sticking her chin in the air haughtily; however, after a few sharp blows from his giant hands she soon began to respond to his commands with counterattacks of her own. The following weeks had passed very quickly and under Amond's patient tutelage her power and speed had drastically increased. When she had mastered physical combat he taught her how to utilize her ki. She was an apt pupil, learning to fly and attack with ki almost immediately, and was soon creating her own ki attacks.

Training became her sole source of enjoyment. Amond encouraged her fury and she didn't hold back any from him. She spent most of her time in the training chambers, sparring with Amond and more often training by herself. The other pirates, slightly unsettled by her rapid improvement and uncanny speed, left her alone for the most part, choosing to spend their time far away from the battered training chambers and her tiny living quarters.

Her first mission with Amond and the rest of the crew had been a disaster. When she thought about it now, the job hadn't been all that difficult. The target: a vast mine on a small, out-of-the-way planet. The objective: to plunder as much of the valuable minerals and metals from the mines as possible. To do that effectively the people that worked the mine had to be removed. The inhabitants, powerful and burly from working the mines all their lives, proved somewhat of challenge, but nothing that she and the others couldn't have handled. It was the mine itself that had been the cause of their downfall. The mine was a veritable labyrinth of tunnels, shafts, and deep chasms stretching endlessly beneath the planet's surface. Since the mineworkers had no eyes, and hence no use for light, she, Amond, and the rest of the pirates had been forced to work in complete darkness, relying only on their scouters and their senses of sound and touch to detect the presence of any hostile entities. The mineworkers, being intimately familiar with the maze of tunnels in the mine, easily gained the upper hand, using guerilla tactics to pick the pirates off one by one. She and the others had had to rely on direct physical combat to dispatch of the mineworkers since the concussion of a ki blast could bring the whole mine crashing down around them.

She had stayed close to Amond to the whole time, on his orders and much to her displeasure; she had felt that she was plenty strong enough to take care of anyone or anything that came her way. She realized now that had Amond allowed her to go on her own she probably would not have survived. After several hours of hard battle in the pitch-black tunnels with no indication of relief and no sign that the other members of the crew were still alive, Amond decided to give up the mission. Grabbing her around the waist, he had pulled her forcibly back the way they had come. It was several more hours and many a battle before she and Amond were able to find a small shaft leading to the surface.

To be truthful (she smiled ruefully), it had been Amond who had found the way out of the mines that day. She had sustained countless wounds—many serious, as she would find upon waking up in one of the regeneration tanks on the ship—from their battle back to the surface and passed out against one of the cavern walls. Amond, having noticed the sudden drop in her ki reading on his scouter, fought his way over to her, found and slung her limp body over his shoulder, and then picked his way out of the mine.

She went in and out of consciousness for the next few days. She remembered waking up in the pod and being very surprised to find herself cradled in Amond's massive arms and attached to the pod's emergency life-support system. Disoriented, she had begun to claw weakly at the oxygen mask clamped over her mouth. Amond murmured her name, his voice wavering like water in her ears, and gently pushed her hands away from the mask. She passed out again shortly after, but not before seeing the concerned look on Amond's normally stern face before she did.

Amond allowed her to leave the regeneration tank a few weeks later, halfheartedly admonishing her for her impatient pounding on the glass. Still naked and dripping with the tank's pale green fluid, she noticed for the first time that the other tanks in the room were empty and looked as if they had never been used at all. Seeing her gaze shift to the tanks, Amond had sighed heavily and explained to her that the others had never returned to the ship. They were the only ones that had survived.

The next few years they spent as mercenaries, moving from ship to ship and job to job. She had been reluctant to relinquish her training and so remained with Amond. In actuality, the real reason that she had decided to stay with him—though she would never, ever admit it to him or anyone else—was because after their ordeal in the mines she couldn't bear to be separated from the one person whom she deeply respected, and most importantly, trusted. Amond had realized this early on in their career as mercenaries and turned down any job that would split them apart. It had been difficult getting any jobs at first. Most buyers were unenthusiastic about purchasing the services of a tiny, extremely young female mercenary, but Amond was quick to point out her power level and her skills, always assuring that she could do anything that any other mercenary could do.

She didn't prove him false. In fact, she almost always outdid the buyer's—and sometimes even Amond's—expectations of her. Amond grew to respect his fiery young student and was anxious to see just how powerful she could become. Within a year of the mine incident she had far outstripped him in speed and agility, which was not surprising for a female (and a petite one at that), and in another three years had managed to almost equal him in power. And she still wasn't fully grown yet. Now it was obvious to both of them—not to mention nearly everyone else they came in contact with—that she was by far the better warrior. She was becoming a well-known name in the mercenary business and was being sought after by the likes of even Frieza himself, though she firmly refused every offer made to her by his underlings, not caring to ever work for someone infinitely more powerful than herself. She had in fact been the one to land their current job. Amond had ceased to become the main attraction. It was now she who was the shooting star, she who was setting the pace for all the others, and she who waited up for him to finish his assignment, as she was doing now.

"Idiot, letting creatures this weak carve him up like that," she thought with wry amusement. She calmly watched as Amond closed the distance between himself and the emaciated creature that had thrown the blast. The creature screamed in terror and turned to run, its bloodied fingers clawing into the soil for traction. Amond suddenly phased out of view. He reappeared in front of it, blocking its path. The being gave a startled shriek and tried to scuttle away in the opposite direction. Amond easily caught the frightened thing with one massive, thick-fingered hand and lifted it from the ground by the scaly scruff of its neck. Moving with a speed surprising in a man so large, he spun the miserable creature around in the air and adroitly caught it so that its face was firmly cupped in his hand. The being's large, wide-set eyes, nearly covered by Amond's middle finger, widened in fear and it gave a low, desperate moan that was muffled by the giant's palm.

"You little…," Amond mumbled in a deep, rumbling voice and tightened his grip on the creature's face. He began to slowly focus his ki in the hand holding the being, and it screamed in terror as it felt the heat emanating from its captor's hand begin to grow. The thick, reddish-colored skin beneath Amond's outstretched fingers began to blister and sizzle. The creature screamed in agony as the skin on its face began to melt and run like wax. From her perch on the overturned piece of rock, her smirk deepened as she watched the creature squirm and wriggle in anguish in her comrade's clutch. Amond bared his large square teeth in anger and tightened his grip. There was a sickening crack as his fingers punched into the creature's skull. The murky eyeballs bulged and popped, spilling a thick, blackish ooze onto what was left of the ruined face. Amond watched his victim's feet twitch once more and then snapped his fingers closed, completely demolishing the creature's head. The rest of its body, hanging by a few sinews, swung from his clenched fist for a moment and then collapsed in a heap on the ground. His face a mask of rage and disgust, the giant man shook the scraps of tissue and shards of bloody bone from his hand. Growling, Amond shot off after the rest of the creatures, not noticing that his crewmate was watching his every move with great interest from the smooth chunk of wall sticking up from the ground on his right.

When he had flown out of sight behind her, roaring various threats and obscenities at the fleeing creatures, she turned her attention to her growling stomach. The neck of her dark, wide-shouldered armor stretched easily in her hands as she pulled it away from her body. She reached inside and removed a small bulging pouch. She slowly undid the small clasp holding and pulled out a small, greasy bar of food, which she began to slowly gnaw on, her large dark eyes focused on a distant point in front of her. Her armor chafed uncomfortably against her budding chest and she absentmindedly pulled at the thick elastic material with her free hand.

It wouldn't be long now before she would need new armor, female armor, and then the little secret she had guarded for the past two years would be out, and all because of the two lumps of fat growing on her chest. She ran one small hand through her short, extremely thick mass of hair—hair as red as the blood that had flown freely from the deep gouge stretching across the coarse, tanned flesh of Amond's face as he had passed—and gently pulled out the tangles and knots that had formed during her flight.

She had tried desperately to hide the emerging signs of womanhood. She bound her breasts tightly to her chest with the thick, white—not to mention, extremely itchy—material used for makeshift bandages on a daily basis. The triple-paneled armor that had once served to conceal her bulge- less crotch and growing breasts was now also used to hide her slowly spreading hips. Sighing, she reached up inside her armor and scratched futilely at the bandages coiled firmly around her chest. She had been foolish to think that she would be able to stay the boy she had posed as for the past two years. Meigi—her male alias—would soon cease to exist when her slim, boyish frame blossomed into the soft curves of the young woman she would become.

It had been Amond's idea when they took their current job that she pose as a male. Unlike the other jobs they had undertaken in the past, this one involved a much longer contract. As part of the agreement, she and Amond had settled on working with the hundreds of other mercenaries—most of which were male—that lived on the ship. It was this more than anything else that prompted Amond to make such a suggestion to her. She had scoffed at the idea at first, protesting that she could defeat any of the other crewmembers who dared to lay a finger on her without her permission. When Amond countered by asking her how effectively she could fight off a large group of horny warriors, she had quieted immediately. So she had hacked off her waist-long mane of hair, camouflaged her developing body, and chosen a new name for herself.

It had been difficult at first; she couldn't deny that. Every now and then during the first few months she slipped, forgetting to lower her voice or to wear the most concealing type of armor. Her incredible performance on the battlefield earned her a private, permanent lodging on the ship, complete with shower and bath, which saved her from the inevitable questions as to why she didn't bathe in the common shower with the rest of the crew. There were a few more complicated issues, such as when she was offered a few women from the spoils of a battle, but she had managed to deal with these difficulties as they came. She chuckled and shook her head in amusement. Amond still wouldn't let her live that one down.

Overall she enjoyed her little ruse and enjoyed holding the prestigious title: "One of the Guys." She had her own plans for her future, plans that Amond didn't even know existed, and the support of many warriors would highly benefit those plans. If her little secret got out though, she couldn't be certain that her newfound comrades would still be there to back her up if she needed them.

Amond's scream of rage, distorted by the thick clouds of smoke and ash hovering in the air, sounded in the distance. The twisted skeleton of the building lying in ruin behind her suddenly vaporized in a flash of blinding white light and the fierce heat of the explosion radiated outwards from the smoking crater, enveloping her small body. Lost in the mire of her thoughts, she made no move to escape the searing wave of heat tearing at her except to absentmindedly tuck the long bangs that framed her face behind her ears. The battle continued on behind her, but she neither heard nor saw any of it.

"There has to be a way," she thought, her brow furrowing in concentration, "there just has to! I've been able to hide it for this long, why can't I do it for a little longer?" She paused, eyes wandering to the side. There were three years left on her contract, assuming she wasn't asked to become a permanent member of the crew, which she wouldn't be opposed to doing, but could she spend the rest of her life as Meigi? Did she really want to spend the rest of her life as Meigi? She sighed and began to rub at the skin between her eyes. The answer to both was no. Though she hated to admit it even to herself, she knew she couldn't keep up the ruse more than a few years, much less the rest of her life. Her body would be fully developed in another five years or so and the task of hiding it as she was doing now would be next to impossible.

The pile of rubble behind her suddenly shifted and a blood-streaked arm and hand poked through the hole opened by the displaced stones. It waved slowly back and forth in the air as if in greeting to her. Another hand joined it and the creature laboriously pulled itself from the ruin, panting loudly in exhaustion and pain. Noticing the mercenary sitting motionlessly in front of it, the being tensed for a moment, eyes wide with fear. The being, hearing her sigh and seeing her hand move to her forehead, relaxed, growled under its breath, and slowly crept up behind her. It clapped its webbed, bulbous hands in front of its chest and exerted what remaining ki it still possessed. The ball of energy that formed between his hands as they slowly pulled apart glowed a brilliant gold color. The creature, now standing directly behind her, lifted its hands slowly above its head, being careful not to make the slightest sound.

Her hand shot out and caught it by the shelf of the jaw, startling the creature. Its arms flew up and backwards in shock, releasing the ball of ki that swirled and glowed between the creature's hands. It flew several yards and burst in the shell of a gutted building, causing the remaining three walls to cave in. A fierce wave of heat washed over the two figures, one motionless, the other wriggling desperately in the other's grip.

The being gave a surprised grunt as her fingers closed firmly and painfully around its chin and began to try and scramble away from her. From its position behind and slightly to the side of her it could see the blank look on her face and the creature wondered whether she was even aware of what she was doing. She stared vacantly into the smoky, crumbling landscape, her brow furrowed in thought. Her grip suddenly tightened, drawing a moan of pain from the creature trapped in her grasp. She quickly and forcefully straightened her wrist, letting her fingers punch through the soft tissue beneath its chin and into its mouth. The creature gave a loud, guttural scream of pain. Warm, viscous blood filled its mouth, strangling its shrieks. The blood streamed from the gaping wound in his jaw and ran slowly down her arm, immediately soaking the thick red arm warmers that covered her fingerless gauntlets, staining the material a dark maroon. Still caught in her own thoughts, she absentmindedly jerked her bloodied hand towards her. There was a liquid ripping sound of tendons and muscles and skin tearing asunder and a loud, grating pop as the creature's heavy jawbone ripped clean off of its face. Eyes wide with numb shock, the being tottered and raised it hands to its ruined face. A gurgling moan, punctuated by a thick spray of blood, escaped its throat and it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Thick, warm blood streamed down her upraised arm, tickling the small hairs on her skin and shaking her from her milling thoughts. She glanced over at her gore-streaked limb and calmly studied the bodiless jawbone clutched tightly in her hand. Making a sound of disgust she dropped the heavy chunk of bone and stripped off her dripping arm warmer, letting it drop to the ground next to the mutilated corpse. The gauntlet soon joined the arm warmer. Shaking her arm furiously to free it of any clinging bits of blood or tissue, she let her mind drift back into her thoughts.

"I have two options. One: I could give up the disguise and let everyone know who and what I really am. Or two: I could keep up the disguise at least until my contract is over and then get rid of it." Her brow furrowed as she thought of the possible implications of each decision. If she made the first choice, she would be leaving herself wide open to a whole slew of outcomes, most—gang rape and the loss of her lofty position in the mercenary business, for example—extremely unpleasant. Then again, if she acted wisely, there was a good chance that she could either avoid or prevent these things from ever happening. If she took the second choice, she would be left with trying to find a way to keep her identity a secret for the next three years.

She still hadn't found a solution to this problem. It was possible for her to stay in the same disguise, but the odds were that her armor, which grew more and more snug and uncomfortable every day, would eventually begin to hinder her movements and cost her her fighting edge. She also had to gamble that she would never be injured so seriously that she would need to be put in a regeneration tank. "Yeah, that would be just fantastic. What would you say to them when they started to strip you: 'Leave my clothes on, guys, I'm really shy?' " She rolled her eyes at the absurdity of the words and sighed in exasperation. "That's assuming that you're even still conscious," she thought, and began to massage her temples, her fingers pressing so hard that they left vivid red marks on the pale skin.

Taking this option also meant that she would have to give up this job after her contract had ended, which was something she wasn't really looking forward to doing. She was part of a crew of pirates that were second best only to Frieza and his minions, and she was steadily working her way up to the top of the ranks. If she took a permanent position on this ship, the Fukumaden, she had a chance to increase her power and strength to a point where she could defeat the current commander and take his place. The Fukumaden was one of, if not the most technologically advanced ship in the universe, and many of the most powerful pirates comprised its crew. The whole universe could be in the palm of her hand if she was in command. Anything would be possible for her.

She looked up at the horizon, below which the blood-red edge of the first sun had just sunk. Did this mean she had her answer? She rested her chin on her steepled fingers. What she was thinking of doing could cost her her pride, maybe even her life; however, it seemed that revealing her identity to the rest of the crew was truly the best choice to make. "There are a lot of risks involved, but hey," she thought to herself, her face brightening a little and regaining its former arrogant expression, "what kind of space pirate would I be if I didn't take any risks?" She nodded determinedly, eyes narrowing slightly as the wind picked up and swirled ash in her face.

Even if things didn't work out the way she wanted them to, she knew that there would always be other ships, other opportunities to pursue. She inhaled deeply; stifling the urge to cough as rough dust scraped at the back of her throat. She didn't want to stay in disguise any longer. She didn't want to live this lie anymore. Someone as strong and powerful as she shouldn't have to live in concealment; it just wasn't logical. She wanted to wear armor that was comfortable and conformed to her changing body. She wanted to stop hacking her hair off and let it grow to a length she desired. She wanted to be able to speak with her normal voice; her throat always ached after always keeping it at such a low pitch. She wanted to act the way she wanted to act and be who she wanted to be. She didn't want to be known as Meigi anymore. She wanted, no needed, her own name. Needed to be called--

"Oritsu! How long have you been lazing around here?" She made no move to turn as he spoke, his deep, gravely voice resonating in her chest. The ground vibrated slightly beneath her as Amond approached, and she tensed the muscles in her legs and feet to steady herself. She continued to look pensively out into the distance at the last sun sinking below the horizon, pretending not to hear him. He stopped slightly behind and to the right of her, the left side of his face thrown into darkness by her elongated shadow.

"Finished your mission already?" Her eyes flicked in his direction, but she remained silent. Growling, Amond swung his massive fist at her head. Her body flickered out of view for a moment and his fist passed through thin, ash-ridden air. The corner of his mouth twisting up into a pleased smirk, he snorted and slowly unclenched his fingers.

"Figures. They always give you the easiest section to clear."

Still staring coolly off into the distance, she blinked and replied, "You're exactly right. It's always easy for me." The last blood-red ray of the second sun glinted off her teeth as she smiled smugly.

Amond chuckled amusedly, his voice a deep rumble in his chest. "Yeah, this assignment wasn't exactly the most difficult that we've been given. The inhabitants were nothing more than puny insects."

"From the looks of your face, I would say they had some bite. Either that," she smirked, her eyes gleaming with mirth as they darted back in his direction, "or you're getting slow." Amond's smile faltered, and his fingers went to the large gash stretching across the left side of his face, gently touching the jagged, blood-crusted edges. The laceration stretched taut as his face twisted into a rictus of anger. The outcropping of rock shattered into thousands of tiny pieces as he brought his boot crashing down on its base. Laughing, she shot off her demolished seat and flipped twice in midair, landing lightly on her feet a few feet away from him. Shrouded in darkness now that both suns had set, they stared fixedly at each other, Amond growling deep in his chest and clenching his teeth in anger, she narrowing her eyes in silent laughter and tossing her head, her short hair flying out around her.

"It ruins your good looks. What will all the women say when they see you, Amond?" The muscles on the giant's jaw clenched tightly, tearing open his wound again. Fresh blood, shining black in the dim light that remained, poured from the gash and streamed sluggishly down his face. He stared at her intently for a moment, eyes narrowed to tiny slits. His lips thinned and then suddenly spread wide in a great smile. Relaxing and lowering his stance, Amond threw back his head and laughed, his massive shoulders shaking with each bray that escaped his throat. She remained in fighting stance, but her smirk deepened at his outburst. She soon joined in his laughter, her voice a high, musical counterpart to his.

Still shaking with amusement, Amond cleared his throat and stretched, his fingers reaching high into the air. "You may be a pain in the ass, Oritsu," he said, grinning faintly at her, "but I would stand to lose a lot of money if I beat you to a pulp right now."

She returned his grin, reluctantly relaxing her stance, and replied, "It's good that you know who the bread-winner is in this outfit." She lowered her head slightly, staring at him with large, feral eyes. "No need to worry, though, a snowball has a better chance in hell than you do of defeating me."

"Cocky brat." Pulling up the lower edge of his armor with one large hand, Amond grabbed the red shirt beneath and ripped of a large scrap of fabric, which he used to wipe the blood from his face and neck. He then crouched down on his left leg, stretching out the right. His extended boot nudged the detached jawbone and he stared at it with mild amusement. His eyes darted around, looking for its owner, and found the mangled body lying nearby, halfway covered by a large hunk of rock that he had displaced when he had gone after Oritsu.

She caught him looking at her handiwork and grinned self-importantly. "You owe me, Amond; that one was in your sector." He looked up at her, a half- astonished, half-annoyed look on his face. She continued: "That brings your total up to (what?) eighteen now? Tsk, tsk. They'll be paying me your salary pretty soon. And guess what then, they'll—"

"I would have gotten all of them had you not interfered," he snapped. She paused and scowled at him for his interruption. He ignored her reaction and went on, "You're well aware that you could have gone back to the ship at any time after completing your mission. Meddle with the assignments of the other guys if you want, but stay away from mine." A low growl rumbled in her throat, and her fists clenched at her sides.

He smiled and said, "You're good, Oritsu, I'll give you that." She relaxed slightly, her eyes narrowing in confusion. "You're incredibly fast and powerful for your age and sex," she raised her chin haughtily and smirked, "but you still have got a lot to learn."

Her smile faltered as he finished his statement and she turned on him angrily. She paused, mouth open wide to spew a stream of angry words at him. Slowly, she closed her mouth and shut her eyes. She inhaled deeply, letting the sharp air, much cooler now that night had fallen, clear her mind. She had to keep in control. She was letting him get under her skin, something he had been doing to control her ever since she was child.

Her head lowered in thought briefly. After a minute or two, she looked back up at him, the anger in her eyes replaced by a calm, determined look. Her fingers went to her waist, sliding beneath the lower edge of her armor. It slid over her head easily, the bottom edge ruffling up the hair on the back of her head and sending a few red spikes into her eyes. Clad in only the lower half of her body suit and in the thick layer of bandages wrapped around her chest, she tossed the protective covering onto the ground in front of him. Her spreading hips and enlarging breasts were painfully obvious now that she had removed the thick armor, and Amond glanced around quickly, making sure none of their other crewmates were within sight. He didn't dare to switch on his scouter and getting accurate readings of their locations; the risk was too great that some nosy radio technician or another crewmember would hear him calling her by her true name.

Shocked by her impulsive actions, he stared at her, an incomprehensible look on his face. "Just exactly what are you doing, Oritsu?" he said slowly, speaking to her in the tone he used when she would act up during training.

"You're right," she replied calmly and quietly, ignoring his question, "I still have a lot of training left and I can't very well let this uncomfortable armor hinder my progress."

Amond sighed, massaging the bridge of his nose with two thick, calloused fingers. "Stop this right now. You know very well what could happen if someone saw you like this. Here," he bent and picked up the discarded body armor, extending it out towards her, "put this back on."

"Like I said before," she replied curtly, turning her head away from the proffered armor, "I have no interest whatsoever in wearing that sort of armor ever again."

Throwing his hands up in disgust, Amond dropped the protective covering. It settled in a pile of red dust and was soon covered in a light rain of ash. "You're being absolutely ridiculous, you know that?" She flashed him a sickeningly sweet smile and he reached out to grab her by the arms and shake her into her senses. Artfully dodging his grasping hands, she laughed scornfully at him. He snarled in frustration. "Damn it, Meigi!" he shouted, using her pseudonym just in case any of the other pirates were in ear-range. On a wind like this, sound could carry for miles.

Her laughter chimed sweetly in his ear as she darted away from him again. "Ah, ah, ah!" she scolded teasingly. "Meigi is dead, didn't you hear? I killed him!" Peals of laughter reverberated off of the rocks and chunks of fallen masonry scattered around them. Amond gathered and threw a small ball of ki at her, hoping to stun her long enough so that he could grab her. She phased out of view and reappeared several feet to the right, the ball of ki landing harmlessly in a pile of rubble several feet behind her. Thick flakes of ashes and a fine spray of dust, disturbed by the explosion, blew past her, ruffling her hair, and flew into his face. Momentarily blinded, Amond rubbed at his eyes.

Still laughing, Oritsu used the opportunity to shoot up into the air and out of sight, tossing another cloud of dust in his face. Blinking back tears, Amond yelled at her in frustration. Finally managing to clear the grit from his eyes, he glanced around him, but she had already flown out of his range of vision. His fingers went to the small button on the side of his scouter. The machine gave a quiet bleep as it started up and numbers began to flash across the red lens. He slowly turned in a circle, pausing as her ki signature appeared on the screen. A distance accompanied the reading, and he sighed in frustration. She was too far away for him to catch up with her now.

"Besides," he thought grimly, his mouth twisting into a bitter smile, "even if I was fast enough to catch her, I wouldn't be able to stop her." He let his left eye focus back onto the numbers on the scouter, the distance reading rapidly growing larger as she flew farther away from him. Her ki reading, larger by far than all of the other crewmembers, glared a brilliant yellow, and his lips thinned in a faint smile. "The brat was right; I'm not capable of overpowering her anymore."

"Dammit!" he muttered to himself. There was nothing he could do to stop her. As with her training and missions, she applied herself wholeheartedly to a task, not letting anything get in the way. If she cared about what he stood to lose if she revealed herself, she didn't let it show. She would have her way, regardless of the cost. She would reach the ship first, someone would see her (rather she would let someone see her), and then everything would be lost. Or so he wanted to think. Amond took a deep breath and stared off into the darkness.

As annoying and troublesome as she could be sometimes, there was just something about Oritsu, an aura of confidence, pride, and great power both physical and mental that told him, and anyone else who set eyes on her for that matter, she would never fail in any endeavor she undertook. She would pull this off, and probably end up in a better position for her efforts. It wouldn't be easy, for her as well as for him (he expected a rather cold reception from the rest of the crew when he returned), but she would survive, fighting her way through the opposition if necessary.

Oritsu could do everything he couldn't, and with great gusto and panache. It gave him a sense of pride knowing that he had been the one to find and train her, but it also irritated him to no end because he knew that she hadn't acquired this amazing vitality and strength of will from him. It had been there all along; all he had done was taught her how to fight.

He peeled his eyes away from the dark horizon and stared at the discarded armor lying in a heap on the ground. From what he could see in the dim light, the armor was free of any cracks and scrapes; if not for the dust covering it, he would have said it had never been used. He shook his head in annoyance as he stared at it, his fists clenching and unclenching slowly at his sides.

She had every reason to be cocky. A twelve-year-old girl with a battle power as great as hers was an amazing, damn near uncanny, thing. She would go far, Amond had known that from the start, and he would be right behind her all the way to reap whatever benefits came to him as a result. "Better to be at the right hand of the devil than in his (or rather her) path," he thought with a smile. The wind whipped around him, and a few strands of dark brown hair fell loose from his tight braid and fluttered against the sides of his face.

"Well," he said aloud to himself, "no use staying here any longer." He rose slowly into the air, the ruined town below falling into deep shadow. "Besides, you wouldn't want to miss the show, would you, Amond?" He grinned at the thought and with a burst of energy, flew off into the night in the direction of his pod.

* * *

The sides of the pod were smooth and cool beneath her hands, and she leaned forward until her forehead touched the dull, gray surface. "What am I doing?" she thought, a small sigh escaping her lips. Now that she had left Amond, the consequences of her intended plan of action were beginning to weigh heavily on her. More than anything, she had wanted his support.

Oritsu shivered slightly as the wind blew over her bare shoulder blades. She was actually beginning to miss her armor; the bandages, although very thick, were also very porous, letting the cold, biting wind seep into the material and onto her skin.

She slowly pushed herself away from the side of the pod, leaving streaks in the fine gray-white coating of ash and dust coating its surface, and climbed inside. The door lowered with a hum, the internal lights blinking on after it had sealed itself. She let herself relax and fall back against the seat, the soft padding cradling and comforting her. Sleep pressed in on her, but she fought back at it, wanting to resolve her thoughts and emotions.

That she would continue on her current course of action was a given. Now that her armor was gone, there was no way she could cover herself. She brought her right fist crashing down hard on one of the armrests. "Meigi is dead and there is no way of bringing the dead back to life, so erase any regrets from your mind and do what you set out to do!" she commanded herself, her expression hardening in resolve. Her mind flicked back to the way Amond had looked at her when she had refused to take back her armor. An angry growl escaped her throat and she gripped the armrest tightly, the metal frame beneath giving a protesting squeal and bending beneath her hand.

"Who cares what Amond thinks anyway?! Idiot! How dare someone so weak say things like that to me!" She ripped the scouter from her ear and threw it forcibly against the sealed door of the pod. It's lens shattering into a million tiny green shards, the scouter crashed against the panel and clattered to the floor in several pieces, a small puff of smoke curling upwards from the ruined circuit boards. She brought her foot down on the remains of the machine, the glass grounding and crunching beneath her boot. A light began blinking on the console in front of her, and she glanced up at it menacingly. A small blinking message flashed onto the screen: Initiate take-off sequence, please. She reached for the keyboard, leaning forward as she did so (the pods were designed for much larger occupants), and entered the departure codes, her fingers moving rapidly over the softly glowing keys. Thank you, the screen displayed. Push launch button for take- off.

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time," she grumbled at the screen. She brought her fist down on the large round button to the right of the keyboard. The pod shook around her, and the engines hummed to life. With a whoosh, the pod shot up into the air. The force of the take-off throwing her back into her seat, Oritsu shut her eyes and concentrated on the g- force pushing her down into the soft padded seat. Through the window on the pod's door the red sky faded, turning to blue and then black as the pod shot through the atmosphere and into space. The pressure on her body lessened as she left the large red planet behind and she opened her eyes slowly. Letting her mind drift back into her thoughts, she stared, eyes unfocused, at the stars whipping past her.

She would still have gone through with this if Amond had agreed to support her decision or not. She didn't need his support; she could do this on her own. She wasn't afraid of what the other members of the crew or, for that matter, the commander said or did. Her incredible power level was bested only by the commander's, and then not by much. She was an asset to the crew, and she knew intuitively that they would not be eager to get rid of her.

The corner of her mouth twisted up into a self-satisfied smirk and she inhaled deeply. She'd felt so much lighter since she had decided to give up her disguise. It was if a great weight (Meigi's dead body perhaps?) had been lifted from her shoulders. She frowned suddenly and her hands moved to her left side and began to scratch furiously at the bandages. "Too bad I didn't bring an extra shirt with me," she thought remorsefully as worked at the itch. The thought of just simply taking the bandages off and returning to the ship half-naked crossed her mind, but she dispelled the idea immediately. She wanted them to notice that she was female, but she didn't want to be blatantly obvious in showing it. Also, her topless body might draw more than curious stares from the male crewmates, and that was definitely what she wanted to avoid.

The screen and the keyboard began to blink in unison, and a query—Do you want to initiate cryo-sleep?—flashed across the display. She leaned forward and activated the pod's cryo sleep program. The air around her grew noticeably cooler and she shivered slightly. There was a small pinprick of pain followed by a warm rush of fluid in the base of her spine as a small needle popped out of the chair's cushion and injected a combination of chemicals that would maintain her sleep for the duration of her trip. Warmth flooded her body and her eyelids fluttered sleepily.

"I guess this it," she thought. "Next time I wake up I'll be in the ship's pod bay and causing quite a stir among the crew." She smiled to herself and flexed her tingling fingers and toes one last time before surrendering to the chemicals flowing in her veins. She glanced at the screen, noting the estimated time of arrival. "127 hours, 52 minutes, huh? Plenty of time for a good…," she yawned, "sleep." A splash of bright colors swirled in front of her eyes, blending endlessly, and her eyes slowly slid shut. Her mouth grew slack and her breathing steady, her chest slowly rising and falling beneath the bandages covering her bulging chest. On the monitor the seconds, minutes, and hours till her big début as Oritsu to the crew of the Fukumaden ticked past quickly.