Ranma sat perched upon a small boulder, plucking daisy after daisy from the grassy verge that ran alongside the stream. She idly tore the petals from the flower she held, as she had from a dozen before it, barely paying any attention to what she was doing. The frozen petal fell from her fingers, falling heavily to the ground and shattering like glass, its shards joining a growing pile at the base of the boulder.
"We're wasting time," she commented sourly, crushing the stamen. "We'd be there by now if you didn't insist on wasting time every day. What are you doing, anyway?"
Akane ignored Ranma's question, but the frown upon her face deepened with every flower the redhead tore from the ground. She did not respond, however, choosing to remain still and silent, crouched over the softly flowing waters of the stream.
Ranma sighed irritably and crumpled yet another daisy in her hands. Akane was growing increasingly recalcitrant, a trait which had begun to wear thin Ranma's patience. In the half-year since her awakening under Happosai's guidance, it seemed that Akane had become acutely aware of her innate abilities. Despite Ranma's nearly nine-hundred years of experience in the area, the Tendo girl seemed increasingly unwilling to accept any sort of advice or instruction.
The evergrowing confidence her student displayed worried her, not least because the six months Akane had spent experiencing the life of a dragon had remained oddly uninterrupted by the Hunters. Surviving in the real world - on the run from real enemies - was an essential skill that Ranma had learned only through painful experience. Akane could not hope to comprehend it, no matter how much the dragonling might have believed she could.
Akane's face was obscured by her hair, the once-black strands having adopted a striking blue pattern as they had grown. Akane's hair had grown long since her awakening, and now extended down slightly below her shoulders. She usually kept it fastened in a loose ponytail, but insisted upon letting it dangle loose every morning as she performed her ritual. It was yet another of her habits that Ranma did not understand.
A vague outline of Akane's face was visible through the hair, and for a time Ranma watched her lips move, trying to discern exactly what she was saying. As she had many times before, Ranma eventually abandoned her efforts and returned her attention to their surroundings.
The lack of enemy attacks had allowed her to lower her guard ever so slightly, and she chastised herself for doing so. She knew better than to hope the attacks would stop; a respite, even a six-month respite, was nothing to celebrate. It was a curiosity, that was for sure, but not something that should be taken for granted. She pondered the possibilities, the reasons and the explanations for the lack of attacks each night as she watched Akane sleep, but she had been unable to come up with any concrete answers.
This fact troubled her greatly. She was used to having some sort of idea, however vague, of what the Hunters were planning. A pause of this duration was unprecedented. By her reckoning, Ukyo would not bother either of them again for twenty years - perhaps longer - but the Hunters were long overdue. The only possibility she could think of was that the enemy knew something she did not; this did nothing to ease her concerns.
It was such worries that had led her to, two months prior, begin searching the Phoenix installations she knew of for information. Over the years she had managed to glean information regarding the locations of several Phoenix facilities. She did not know much about them - most of her time was spent avoiding the Hunters, not trying to find them - but it was a start.
Together, she and Akane had infiltrated three such installations - two server facilities and a data processing centre. Their visits had gone well - covertly enter at night, recover whatever information was available, and leave before anyone noticed they were there. It had worked well so far, but had not produced any worthwhile results. Phoenix was, apparently, a very large organisation, and stored a vast amount of data. Little of it was of any use to her.
Still, perseverance was the key. Their next target was a research facility hidden in the middle of Osaka. She did not like entering such a densely populated area, but such risks had to be taken. The research facility was nearby - if they weren't running behind schedule, they would have already been in and out.
"How much longer are you going to sit there?" Ranma asked, her thoughts leading her back to her irritation. Again, she was ignored. She grated her teeth; this was starting to get very annoying.
Akane slowly lowered her hands to the surface of the water and waved her fingers back and forth as she swept them along with the current, mimicking the motions of the tiny waves. The water curled with her fingers, thin tendrils of liquid curling over her skin as she stroked the surface. Their movement was not sinister; more than anything else, it seemed as though the water was reciprocating her embrace.
It was a habit that Ranma had witnessed on many occasions. She had long since given up on trying to understand it, but took comfort in the fact that it was usually performed near the end of Akane's daily ritual, so at least the pair would be on their way again soon.
In a way, she supposed, it meant that Akane was receptive to her draconic heritage. Certainly, Ryujin's affinity for water was shining through; six months ago Akane was frightened to go near water, now, she embraced it every morning. Acceptance of the dragon was an important step, and it was good that Akane was so willing to accept her true nature.
If only I could do something about her damned impudence, Ranma thought with a sigh.
"I like your taste in clothes, but I really don't see how this get-up is a good disguise," Akane said, walking behind Ranma down a busy street. She fidgeted irritably with the outfit she had been forced to wear.
The platform boots were clunky and unwieldy beneath feet that were used to being bare, the tight skirt and blouse both revealing and chilly compared to her gi. The boots had taken some getting used to, and even after walking quite some distance in them she still found herself wobbling with each step, unused to the extra height they afforded her.
"You blend in well," Ranma replied, glancing up at the now much taller Akane. She pulled her cloak, which now resembled an ordinary black trench coat, tightly around herself. "You look quite the local girl."
"I guess so. I've never really visited anywhere in Kansai before," Akane commented, letting her attention turn to the city around them. Cars jostled for position as they crawled endlessly down the road, which was adorned on both sides by an endless parade of pedestrians. "This place is so full of people. It's wonderful. Reminds me of home."
"Crowded with people, cars, and pollution. I don't see what's so great about it," Ranma replied, walking slowly down the centre of the pavement. The crowds of oncoming people parted to either side of her as she walked, her eyes shifting warily back and forth amongst them as they passed.
"All those people," Akane said, her voice rising with her enthusiasm. She smiled as a group of boys made their way past her, her eyes lingering upon their faces. Each of the boys returned her smile with wondrous looks in their eyes, one of them managing a wave, which was returned by Akane. "It's teeming with life. It feels alive here."
"You say that as if it's a good thing," Ranma replied, her eyes watching every face as it passed her by, checking each for any sign of recognition, of panic or alarm. She spared a glance behind herself, frowned, and snatched Akane's hand mid-wave. "These humans just get in the way."
"They look scared of you," Akane observed, glancing over Ranma's shoulder. The multitude of faces carried worried glances, the expressions of people who felt intimidated. Each person was the same; they would glance at Ranma and quickly shuffle aside to let the girl past. Ranma seemed to cut a swath through the crowds, parting the sea of people long enough to pass through. Glancing behind herself, Akane noticed the gap closed behind them as the people on either side of the pair came together once more.
"That's because they are," Ranma said, her voice low. She turned and whispered, "They may not know it in their minds but in their hearts they know what I am. Humans fear death - it's just their instinct. Even so, they all come to me in the end."
Akane opened her mouth to reply but was distracted by the feeling of a hand brushing across the swell of her hip as it passed her by. Her head whirled to the left as she felt the warmth of the hand soak into her skin; ordinarily she would have felt angry at some pervert trying to grab her, but the wonderful heat came as such a surprise she could do little but stare after the man as he disappeared into the throng.
Ever since she had entered the city she had felt an everpresent warmth upon the air, a distinct sense that the area was brimming with life - but it paled into comparison with the intensity of the feeling a simple touch from a person had created in her. She lowered her hand and pressed it gently to her hip, holding it to the fabric of her skirt as she savoured the lingering warmth of the contact.
What on Earth was that?
"Akane, come on. We're nearly there."
Her thought pattern broken, she turned to Ranma, who had stopped and was waiting for her, a nonplussed expression on her face. If something had happened, apparently Ranma had not noticed it. With a final, thoughtful glance behind her, she resumed walking.
"Yeah," Ranma replied with a nod. The building was unobtrusive; a small, three-storey building block that blended in with every other building along the street. It did not stand out in any way - and that was the way it was designed.
"You're telling me it's in a dentist's office?" Akane asked, a skeptical tone to her voice. She craned her head, peering over the stacked-up boxes that concealed her from the street. From the alleyway in which they had sought refuge, she could see little of the building's interior.
"No, there is no dentist and there is no office. From what I could tell the last time I was here, the building is basically empty inside. It's just an entrance."
"Okay, so, let's go," Akane suggested, taking a step toward the building. She stopped in her tracks as Ranma grabbed her by the hair and tugged her backwards. "Ow!"
"Not so fast," Ranma chided. "Don't be so eager. We're going to stay here and wait for a while."
"For what? That lab isn't going to infiltrate itself, you know," Akane countered sarcastically, straightening her hair.
"Two things," Ranma said with a sigh. She was beginning to become tired of Akane's constant challenges to her decisions. "Firstly, it'll be easier to get inside unnoticed if we wait until nightfall. Secondly, it'll give me a chance to see if anyone is watching the building from the outside."
"It doesn't look so dangerous to me," Akane said, rolling her eyes. "You're way too paranoid about this whole thing."
"I have reason to be," Ranma replied irritably. "This is a research lab. That's higher on the tree than some backup server facility in the middle of nowhere. Chances are, this place is being watched very carefully, and we do not want to be seen."
"Oh, fine," Akane replied. She slumped against the alley wall and slid downwards into a sitting position, her knees tucked up against her chest. "Okay, we'll wait for nightfall."
"Thank you," Ranma said sarcastically, sending a caustic glance Akane's way. Why did she accept such disrespect from Akane? Kayoko would never have tolerated it from her. The student should respect the master. That was the very first lesson she had learned. Akane was just being childish.
The conversation lapsed into silence as Ranma surveyed the building, watching carefully every person who passed by. There were no signs she could see that anyone was watching from the street, and she could not see any faces behind the windows of the other buildings along the street. At first glance, things looked good for a covert entry.
"What?" Ranma replied, not moving. An old man with a collection of grocery bags stopped outside the building, placing them upon the ground. He glanced left and right as he stood for a moment, seemingly catching his breath, before lifting the bags and continuing on his way. Ranma eyed him suspiciously, examining his facial expression. He seemed innocuous enough, but she could never be sure ...
"I was looking for Ukyo."
"Huh?" Ranma asked, her train of thought derailed by the mention of that name. "You were what?"
"You asked what I was doing this morning. I was looking for Ukyo."
"Why?" Ranma inquired, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the prickling sensation that ran across the back of her neck. The subject of Ukyo Kuonji was one that she had been careful to avoid ever since the incident.
She had first mentioned her fight with Ukyo, and the result of that fight, nearly a month after the fact. Akane had seemed strangely calm and accepting of it as she was told, but after that conversation the young girl lapsed into a silence that lasted for nearly two weeks. Ranma worried, of course, unsure of what to say or do. The resulting decision was always "nothing", leaving silence between them for fourteen days and thirteen nights.
When Akane finally spoke again, she talked of the beautiful sunset of that day, all traces of her curiosity regarding Ukyo seemingly banished from her mind. Ranma had wondered about it, but did not desire to discuss the matter further, knowing it would only complicate things. She felt better for having told her young charge the truth, and things seemed to be back to normal.
Things were not back to normal, however; Akane began to shrink into herself, the conversations they had once shared becoming more and more scarce, the smiles that had once illuminated her face became rarer and rarer until they seemed to disappear entirely. She began her ritual, kneeling each morning over a body of water, whether it be a river, a pond, or even a muddy puddle in the middle of a field. These moments, when she was alone with the water, were the times in which she still smiled.
"I wanted to apologise to her," Akane explained, pressing her thumbs against each other as she sat in the murky alleyway. She glanced up at Ranma, a wistful expression on her face. "I wanted to let her know I'm sorry she's dead."
"It doesn't matter," Ranma replied with a snort. "She's better off dead than alive. Death is a kindness to a girl like her."
"It does matter, Ranma," Akane countered, a sharp edge coming to her voice. It was not an angry tone, more of an expression of frustration. "She's dead. I'm going to find her, and I'm going to apologise."
"If it makes you feel any better," Ranma conceded with a sigh. She did not approve of the idea, but in her experience she had learned that Akane was not one to back down on such things. On some issues she just had to compromise.
"Ever since Happosai showed me," Akane continued, using her own euphemism for the awakening, "I've heard voices. Not loud voices, just ... they're like someone whispering to me. I thought I was going crazy, but eventually I figured out that they were coming from the water. I tried ignoring them for a while, but it just didn't work. Eventually, I thought - what if I talk back? What happens then?"
Ranma said nothing, but moved away from the alley's end toward the Tendo girl, a curious look upon her face. It was clear to her that Akane had not been forthcoming at all when it came to her experiences. She wondered for a moment just what Akane knew.
"I still don't understand what they're saying," Akane continued. "It's as if they're all trying to speak at once. I know they can understand me - when I ask them to do something for me, they listen."
"The water listens?"
"The people inside the water," Akane said, a small smile passing briefly across her face. "I guess it sounds stupid, but I can hear them, and I know they can hear me. I think they're glad to see me."
Ranma peered at Akane curiously, sitting down on the opposite side of the alleyway. Pulling her feet in under herself, she looked across at Akane. "You know more than I thought you did. Water holds the essence of the living until it can find a body to live within. Once the body dies, the life force returns to the waters to be born again."
Akane nodded and tilted her head downwards, staring into her own lap. The faint edges of a smile were visible, and Ranma knew that what she was saying made sense to her companion.
"So you want to find Ukyo beneath the surface and speak to her?"
"Yeah," Akane replied, her cheeks flushing. "I know you think it's stupid. I don't expect you to understand why. You wear death like that cloak - I know Ukyo is just another corpse to you."
"You're right, I don't understand. I'm not going to stop you, but I don't think you'll have any luck."
"If you spill a drop of water into the ocean, you can't ever get that drop back again. It becomes part of the whole, it loses its individuality and is no longer a drop of water, but a part of the ocean."
"She was a person, she was more than just a drop of water!" Akane insisted.
"Was she?" Ranma asked, fixing her student with a piercing stare.
Akane sighed and rubbed her feet back and forth along the rough gravel that lined the alley. "I thought ... I thought maybe I could find my mother, too."
"Your mother isn't in the water. She died the death of a dragon."
"What does that mean?" Akane asked, curling her toes - out of dread or morbid anticipation, Ranma could not tell.
"Dragons aren't borne of the waters, so they do not return to them. When she died, her essence passed to you. There's no need to search for her - she's already a part of you. Just as my father is a part of me."
"Then why can't I feel her? Why isn't she there?" Akane asked, desperation in her voice. "Why won't she talk to me?"
"She is there, believe me," Ranma replied, offering a comforting smile. "Perhaps she'll make herself known when she's ready."
"Does your father ...?"
"Sometimes," Ranma replied, leaning back against the alley wall. She glanced upwards, at the azure sky that peeked through the gaps between buildings. A wry smile crept across her features. "Usually just to remind me that I'm being lazy, or that I did something wrong, or that I've forgotten one of his lessons. I haven't heard from him for a while, but I know he's there, watching over me."
"He must love you, to watch over you for eight hundred years," Akane observed.
"I guess," Ranma replied with a shrug. "I don't know. Maybe he's got no choice. Why would he love the Lord of Death?"
With a roll of her eyes and a shake of her head, Akane let silence fall into the gap between them. Ranma watched her closely as she rested against the wall, eyes tracking every tiny movement, from the rise and fall of her chest to the occasional twitch of her fingers.
"What are you looking at?" Akane asked after a time, shifting uncomfortably as she spoke.
"You," Ranma replied bluntly. "Is it a problem?"
"No, I guess," Akane replied, turning herself away slightly. "It's just kinda weird. I'm not used to people looking at me like that."
"It's my duty to watch you. I would have thought you'd be used to it by now."
"That's not what I mean and you know it," Akane grumbled, folding her knees tightly up against her chest.
"No, I don't know," Ranma admitted with a shrug.
"Oh, nevermind," Akane said with a sigh. Lowering her chin to her knees, she glanced up toward the sky, sighing once more as she noticed it was still a bright shade of blue. "This lab better have something useful inside."
"Keep quiet," Ranma instructed, an arm across Akane's chest to hold her back against the wall. She glanced left and right, her eyes seeking out any sort of movement. The streets were illuminated by a multitude of sodium lights, each with its own distinctive flicker that combined together to light the street with a dull glow.
Occasionally a car would speed by, the noise of its engine echoing through the quiet that covered the neighbourhood. This was a market area, and not many people lived nearby, so the night provided just the sort of environment suited to an infiltration.
Keeping Akane beside her, Ranma edged her way along the wall toward the door, taking great care to remain hidden amongst the shadows. She would much rather have left Akane outside, but the Tendo girl had seemingly infinite curiosity and refused to be left out of anything that might relate to her. Even if that were not the case, the thought of leaving Akane alone at night on a city street was not one to be taken seriously.
"Fingerprint access," Ranma whispered to Akane as she inspected the front door's locking mechanism. A small, elegant black pad protruded from the door frame in place of a traditional lock. "Rather elaborate for a dentist. You'd think they'd be more discreet."
"Don't you think going in through the front door is a bit dangerous?" Akane asked, peering over Ranma's shoulder at the door in question. "I mean, won't they be expecting that?"
"Would you expect your enemy to come marching in through your front door? Or would you expect them to try something sneaky?"
"Sneaky, I guess," Akane admitted with a shrug.
"Exactly," Ranma replied. "They expect their building to be entered from the rear, or through a window. So we do the opposite of what they expect."
"You've done this before, haven't you," Akane inquired, her curious gaze going unnoticed in the dark. Ranma's tone was one of enjoyment and mischief, a curious sound that Akane had never really heard before.
"Believe it or not, one of your ancestors was a master thief. She could empty your pockets and be long gone before you could blink. There wasn't a lock built that could keep her out for long. I learned a lot from her," Ranma replied as she silently withdrew Garyoutensei from the depths of her cloak. She turned and smiled at the puzzled expression that crossed Akane's face. "I'll tell you all about her some other time."
"Please do," Akane replied, watching closely as Ranma pressed the tip of Garyoutensei to the small gap between door and door frame and began sliding it downwards. A thief? In her family? She'd always assumed that she came from a long line of martial artists. How could she be descended from a thief?
"The thing about locks," Ranma explained in a hushed voice, interrupting Akane's thoughts, "is that no matter how strong or secure, there's always a weak point."
Akane nodded absentmindedly, not really taking in the meaning of the words, but not wanting to appear inattentive. She focused herself on what Ranma was doing - the tip of Garyoutensei slid slowly down through the gap, hissing as it made contact with the metal cylinders that held the door closed.
"All you have to do is find it and you're in," Ranma finished, a satisfied smile on her face as the metal, solid though it may have been, quickly gave way to the intense heat Garyoutensei brought to bear upon it. "The trick is knowing how to find the weak point quickly."
"Just like that," Akane commented, the ambivalence in her voice obvious even to herself. Was she supposed to be impressed by such a dishonourable act?
"Just like that," Ranma agreed, sheathing her sword once more. She held the door closed with one hand and turned to Akane. "From here on in, we have to be very quiet. Just stay near to me, and don't do anything unless I do it first. Okay?"
"Okay," Akane said, nodding her assent, all the while trying to ignore the moisture that was developing in the palms of her hands. For just a moment she wondered why nervousness had only reared its ugly head at that instant, but quickly pushed that thought to one side as Ranma silently opened the door.
Akane crept quietly after Ranma through the interior of the building, which looked for all intents and purposes exactly as she imagined a dentist's office should. A large waiting area dominated the room, the perimeter lined with a series of chairs, each side allocated a small glass table with what appeared to be magazines stacked atop each one.
She could not make out the exact magazines in the darkness, nor did she have the inclination to do so; Ranma's example was a demanding one to follow.
She crept as quietly as she could, but compared to Ranma's effortless glide across the floor, her own steps seemed awkward and clumsy. She wondered why she hadn't thought to take off the large, clunky boots she had been given. Ranma moved slowly - a blessing for Akane, who would have struggled to keep up a faster pace and still be quiet - as she examined the room, carefully scanning every area for cameras, or other types of sensors, before each step.
They inched their way around the room, slowly but deliberately making their way toward a small door behind what appeared to be a receptionist's desk. It was the only door besides the entrance, leaving them few options.
As they drew near the door, Ranma held up one hand in a "stop" gesture, something Akane was only too happy to do. Lowering herself to one knee, she glanced back and forth as Ranma worked at the door.
More details presented themselves to her as her eyes adjusted to the gloomy office; what had been little more than a black, fuzzy shape revealed itself to be a teddy bear of some sort, placed carefully on one of the chairs in the waiting area. A passing curiosity tugged at her mind, leading her to wonder if the teddy bear belonged to the dentist, or if a child distracted by the unpleasantries of waiting for a dental appointment had left a treasured companion behind.
It has been a very long time since she had been to a dentist, or a doctor, or school, or any kind of place a girl her age might have normally gone. It was nice, in a way, to see a small part - even a part she dreaded - of the life she had left behind.
She jumped, startled, as she felt a tug on her blouse. Turning, she saw that Ranma was gesturing for her to follow once again. Glancing one final time at the teddy bear, she followed Ranma through the door. Somehow, she could feel the bear's small plastic eyes watching her as she left it behind.
Ranma stepped carefully into what appeared to be a large, empty warehouse. The carpet of the office had given way to cold, sterile concrete, revealing the true appearance behind the facade. The room was largely empty, other than a large hatch in the centre of the floor. Other than the front office, it seemed the entire building was little more than a hollow shell.
She stepped toward the hatch, slowly but deliberately, the noise of Akane's footfalls reassuring her that the Tendo girl was safely in tow. She made a mental note to spend some time teaching Akane the finer points of moving silently.
The hatch was solid metal, crafted out of what appeared to be iron. It was large, easily large enough to fit a vehicle through. There were no security cameras around, which suggested the lab was of little importance, but from what she knew of the Phoenix, if something was sealed away behind a barrier this imposing, it would be of considerable importance.
The hatch looked far too thick for her to pierce with Garyoutensei - she stepped over the surface slowly, carefully looking for any sort of crack or weak point that she could exploit, but could see only solid, unyielding metal. That left only one option. She chewed her lip for a time, weighing up the pros and cons; on one hand it would get them into the facility, but on the other hand it would tell the Hunters exactly where they were.
"Akane," she whispered to the other girl, beckoning her. "Come here."
"What is it?" Akane whispered cautiously, peering around her as she spoke.
"If I open this door, the Hunters are going to know exactly where we are, and they are going to come after us. We can go ahead anyway, or we can turn around and leave right now. It's up to you."
Akane glanced back at Ranma with a puzzled look on her face; Ranma knew exactly what was going through the young girl's mind as she looked down at the hatch. Beneath it could be all the answers to her questions, or perhaps nothing of any use. Either way, the Hunters would be hot on their trail.
"I will protect you," Ranma added, sensing the Tendo's hesitation, "but I can make no guarantees."
The safest option would be to run, hide. However, they couldn't do that forever. Sooner or later, they had to start fighting back.
"Let's do it," Akane whispered, her tone firm. "We'll never know if we don't try."
"Very well, if you're sure. After I open this door we have to move quickly, we need to be long gone by the time any security arrives," Ranma said. So much for the silent approach, she thought. It was time to make some noise.
She stepped quietly to the opposite side of the hatch and knelt by the small black pad that protruded from the hatch's frame. Her hand emerged from the depths of her cloak and with a swift movement, she pressed her index finger against the cool black plastic.
A loud hiss filled the air, and the hatch slowly slid aside to reveal a ramp descending into the blackness below. One by one, rows of fluorescent lights burst into life, each illuminating a small part of the passageway.
"Access granted," intoned a smooth female voice as the hatch locked into its open position. "Please remember your laboratory clothing - contamination will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Have a nice day."
"Sir, I've found an anomalous Hidari access in the logs for facility 719."
"What do you mean, anomalous?"
"It was recorded after the lab was sealed for the night, sir."
"What's the entry timestamp?"
"Oh-thirty-seven, sir. Entered through the main hatch."
"You're right - that lab should be sealed until oh-six-hundred. What credentials were supplied?"
"Hang on, sir, I'll just-- this can't be right. According to the logs, there aren't any. It has to be a system malfunction. I'll check the backup logs."
"No credentials? That's no malfunction."
"Contact the Council on the emergency channel, tell them Prime has entered facility 719 and request immediate instructions."
"How on Earth did you unlock that door?" Akane demanded, no longer bothering to keep quiet as she moved quickly to keep pace with Ranma.
"Most doors are coded to allow Hidari access. Since they are duplicates of me, we share a few characteristics. Things like blood type, DNA," Ranma explained, holding up her finger as she finished, "and fingerprints."
"That seems like a pretty big flaw in the system!" Akane blustered, genuinely thunderstruck.
"They'll know something is up," Ranma explained. "We're not exactly identical, but I'm certainly close enough to fool these scanners for now."
They drew near a door, sleek metal with glass panels - it slid open as Ranma pressed her finger to the control pad, and closed itself with a solid thunk behind them as they stepped through.
"So the very person this whole system is designed to keep out can just ... waltz on in?" Akane asked, shaking her head in disbelief. "Technology is wonderful."
"They've never had to worry about keeping me out before. Normally, they try their hardest to get me in to a facility like this. They've been trying to catch me and bring me in for a very long time - they'd never expect me to be stupid enough to come barging into one of these places."
The lighting system caught up to the pair, multitudes of light fixtures spaced around the laboratory bursting into bright luminance, covering the entire area in a bright, surgical light. The room was circular, its perimeter lined with rows of filing cabinets. Two concentric rings of computers ran around the middle of the room, enclosing the central feature of the laboratory - four glass tubes that ran from floor to ceiling, each filled with water.
Akane stared at the tubes, her mouth open - for they held more than water. Inside each one was a Hidari clone suspended in the liquid, seemingly unconscious, each connected to a complicated tangle of tubing, the lower halves of their faces obscured behind black oxygen masks.
"Ranma, look!" she exclaimed, nudging Ranma nervously. She had only ever encountered one Hidari beforehand, and she had no desire to repeat the experience. She took a step back and glanced toward the door.
"Don't panic," Ranma replied, grabbing Akane's shoulder. "They're not dangerous - they're still being grown."
"Grown?" Akane asked, grimacing as she suppressed an involuntary shudder.
"Yeah. They grow 'em in these tubes, then brand 'em," Ranma replied, pointing to the small barcode that was tattooed down the centre of the nearest Hidari's chest. "Each one has a code that identifies when it was made, and where. These guys have been given their codes, so they aren't far from being finished, but they won't be bothering us tonight."
"That's hideous," Akane said with a shiver, a feeling of genuine nausea gripping her for a moment. The very thought of being cloned chilled her to the core. The thought of meeting another being with her face, her body, was one she could not bear to think about. "How can you be so calm about this?"
"You get used to it," Ranma replied with a shrug. "Sure, the first time I ran into one of them I nearly had a heart attack. It's pretty surreal to talk to yourself, and fight yourself, but after a dozen or so times, even that becomes routine."
"Gods," Akane whispered, staring at the hollow, lifeless eyes of the clones. They stared back, the empty stares of their pale blue irises seeming menacing even in their torpor. It was truly bizarre to see such malevolence in eyes that were Ranma's; eyes that had only ever looked at her with compassion and concern. She shuddered again, wondering how Ranma could possibly cope with seeing those eyes.
"Come on," Ranma urged, tugging Akane along with her. "You can't stare all day. We're in a hurry, remember?"
"Right, right," Akane replied, tearing her eyes from the clones. Even when she looked away, she could feel their stares upon her, their eyes following her, haunting her, as she moved through the lab. Even if they did not have to leave, she did not want to stay in this place. Just as she could feel the warmth of life in the city above, she could feel the vacant, hollow emptiness that emanated from the centre of the room.
"Do you know how to work these things?" Ranma asked, gesturing to the first row of computers.
"What? No... not really," Akane replied, forcing herself to concentrate. She'd used them a little in school, but she hardly considered herself an expert.
"Me either," Ranma replied, stroking her chin. She turned to the lab's outer wall and inspected the nearest filing cabinet. "We'll just have to see what they've got on paper."
Releasing Akane, she threw a swift punch at the cabinet, cracking the case and causing the drawer to slide out, rattling loudly as it scraped along the bent metal frame. "Fortunately, I know how these things work."
Akane stared as Ranma rifled through the stacks of paper held inside the drawer, baffled at the speed with which the redhead's fingers moved - they were little more than a blur darting through the papers. She knew Ranma was fast, but she had never seen anything that fast before.
"Don't just stand there," Ranma chastised, not looking up from her task. "Get searching."
"Okay," Akane replied, moving to the nearest cabinet. She punched it just as Ranma had done and pulled out the top drawer. Reaching inside, she held up the first folder, looked at it for a moment, and turned to Ranma. "What am I looking for?"
"I don't know," Ranma admitted with a shrug, flipping through folder after folder. "Anything that looks like it might be related to us."
"That could be anything," Akane observed as she flicked through the contents of the first folder. Her eyes widened as she realised what the folder contained. "'Effects of chemical nerve agent 329-B on human subjects'? This is ..."
"It's irrelevant," Ranma replied dismissively. "Toss it and keep looking."
"Irrelevant?" Akane asked, taken aback. "How can you not care about this? They're testing this stuff on people and you don't care?!"
"It doesn't matter," Ranma replied, an edge of irritation in her voice. "We don't have time to look through everything. Toss it and find something useful."
"This is horrible," Akane said, dropping the folder in disgust. What kind of organisation was this Phoenix? Cloning, weapons research, chemical weapons testing? What monstrous entity would dabble in such things?
Thumbing quickly to the next folder, she lifted it and began reading, eager to put the first out of her mind.
Ranma frowned as she smashed open yet another filing cabinet. Their search had so far been fruitless, and they had spent far longer in the lab than she had anticipated. She was determined to find something, anything, to make the trip worthwhile.
Weapons research reports, experimental analyses, even financial reports, she tore through one after another after another, growing increasingly angry at the documents' complete lack of relevance. There had to be something good amongst all this junk.
Wait a minute, she thought as she lifted a small brown folder. This looks interesting. 'Dragon/Human Hybrid Interaction Analysis'.
Opening the folder, she flicked through the pages, skimming over each one. The report seemed to detail the effects of integrating a dragon with a human - the effects of which she knew well enough herself, without having to read a report. What captured her interest was the final page.
A series of names was listed on the page, each matched to a percentage figure, which was identified as "measured compatibility".
"Hitomi, Asumi, Ai, Nabiki, Kaori, Ichiko, Eiko," she read, running her finger slowly down the list. She fell into silence after a time, reading each name to herself, until she drew to the final name on the list. "And ... Kayoko."
"What's this?" Akane asked, her attention piqued by Ranma's voice. "What's that folder?"
"It's your family history," Ranma replied, still reading. "Hitomi, your mother. Asumi, her mother. This list goes all the way back to Kayoko. I had no idea they'd been following the entire line ..."
"Mother?" Akane asked, peering over Ranma's shoulder. She examined the page, her curiosity running rampant. This was the first solid information she had ever found regarding her mother. "What do these percentages mean?"
"I don't know," admitted Ranma. They seemed to follow a pattern, with Hitomi being rated at 99.3%, Asumi at 92.0%, Ai at 84.6%, and so on, decreasing with each name until Kamiko, the child of Kayoko's sister, who was rated at a mere 0.4%. The only strange figure was that beside Kayoko's name - she was rated at 100.0%. "It's some sort of compatibility rating, but compatibility with what, I don't know."
"Does it say anything else?"
"'Measured compatibility indices show a clear upward trend, but further analysis is required at the MPC before any concrete conclusions can be drawn from the data. Post-mortem cellular decay necessitates the location of a live sample for experimentation,'" Ranma read from a small paragraph at the foot of the page. "'Only living tissue will provide a truly accurate measurement.'"
"I ... don't like the sound of that," Akane said, bristling. "That's all there is? It doesn't explain any of that at all?"
"Yeah," Ranma replied. "The rest just talks about the effects of being part-dragon, and I'm sure you're familiar with those already."
"Let me see," Akane insisted, tugging at the folder. "I want to see."
"Later," Ranma replied firmly, closing the folder. "While we're in here we keep looking for more documents. We can read them later."
"No buts, Akane. This isn't the time."
"All right," Akane replied with a sigh, her face thoughtful. She would look at the report for herself later on. Its existence in the lab fuelled her hopes that she would find more information related to herself or her mother. The more information she could find, the better.
"Get moving," Ranma insisted, nudging Akane toward the remaining cabinets. "We've got to get out of here soon."
"Come on, Akane," Ranma insisted, stepping over toward the Tendo girl, who was still bent over one of the cabinets, her head buried in the drawer.
"Okay, okay," Akane replied, her voice muffled by the wads of paper surrounding her head. "I'm nearly done."
"We have to get moving. We've been here far too long."
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Akane replied, digging deeper into the drawer. She knew there was something hidden at the bottom of the drawer. There had to be; she had found nothing else. She couldn't leave without finding it.
A loud 'whump' sound ceased her searches, however; the room was suddenly plunged into darkness as the electricity cut out, the incessant whirring of the computers disappearing into an eerie silence. Standing, she withdrew her head from the drawer and looked around, unsure what to make of the situation.
"What the hell--" Ranma began, her words cut off as a loud alarm sounded, making both herself and Akane jump. The loud klaxon wail filled the air as a series of red lights began to flash around the circumference of the room. Before either of them could move, a solid iron barrier slid into place over the exit.
"Oh, no," Ranma said, her voice carrying the weight of impending doom. "Oh ... no."
"We're trapped!" Akane exclaimed, rushing over in the dim red light to the metal seal that blocked the door. She banged her fists on it but to no avail, it was solid, impenetrable. "What do we do now?"
A loud gurgling sound filled the air, making its presence known even over the din of the klaxons. Ranma and Akane turned simultaneously to the centre of the room, where the glass tubes were slowly emptying of water. Akane swallowed, terror gripping her heart as she realised what was to come.
A series of loud pops and hisses rang through the room as the multitudes of pipes and tubes connected to the four Hidari snapped loose, the tangled webs of plastic falling away in mere moments. Freed from their restraints, the four Hidari straightened, each turning to face Akane, their movements perfectly synchronised.
"Stay behind me, Akane," Ranma instructed, stepping in front of the girl. Garyoutensei appeared in her hand, illuminating the room with its pale white glow. "I'll keep you safe."
Slowly, the glass tubes began to raise, opening a gap at their bases that widened as the tubes slid away into the ceiling. Steam billowed out from beneath the glass, filling the room with moisture as the seal between the tubes and the floor was broken.
One by one, the Hidari blinked, their pupils shrinking as they focused their eyes upon Akane. As one they stepped down to the floor, each staring dispassionately at its target. Akane swallowed, fighting off a sudden feeling of revulsion.
The Hidari carried a palpable sense of a void, of emptiness and darkness within them. She had not sensed it before but it screamed at her now, threatening to overwhelm her with its sheer strength and potency. They radiated fear, terror that clawed at her with a chilling touch. Now she could see these creatures for what they truly were.
"You'll never get her, you bastards," Ranma growled, raising her blade. The air around it crackled with energy as she brought the sword forward, its white light pushing back the ethereal gloom the Hidari carried with them. Akane felt her hand drawn slowly toward Shoryoutensei, moving almost of its own will to fulfil a yearning need to raise her sword alongside Ranma's.
She could not let Ranma fight this battle alone. Not again. Not against these ... things. Slowly, her fingers closed around the handle and pulled it from its scabbard. For the first time, Akane Tendo prepared to join the fight for her life.