The blaring noise of the alarms had faded into silence, but a loud, distracting ringing sound persisted in Akane's ears. Four identical stares bored into her skull, each carrying such intensity that she had to fight the almost-overwhelming instinct to back away, to run and hide.
She glanced to Ranma, who was trying to say something to her, but could not make out the words. She did not need to - the look upon Ranma's face spoke volumes.
Stay behind me, Akane. Please, let me protect you.
The stare triggered a sudden, alarming thought in her mind that made her recoil. How could the Lord of Death and the Lady of Life be companions?
The clones moved, their motion instantly snatching her attention. Akane felt her throat tighten, the encroaching terror that emanated from these creatures closing around her neck with its vicelike grip. Within the darkness Ranma stood fast, her bright blue eyes locked firmly upon Akane.
Why would Ryukyu, Ryujin's nemesis, strive to protect her?
The Hidari stepped forward together and still Ranma held firm, her eyes fixed upon Akane's, shielding her ward from the stares of the clones.
Why were Ranma's eyes filled with such utter, pleading -desperation-?
Such thoughts were violently shoved from Akane's mind as she noticed the glimmer of light reflecting off metal from the corners of her vision. The clones advanced from their tubes, each brandishing an identical sword. They moved with terrifying precision, their motions perfectly synchronised.
Ranma turned, raising her sword as she faced the Hidari. They attacked as one, forcing her back, but she countered with blinding speed, her blade whirling furiously, a hurricane blasting aside the weapons of her foes.
Akane continued to stare, unable to move, but she no longer stared at Ranma. She could feel the essence of humanity in the Hidari but they were in every other sense artificial - they moved, attacked as one autonomous unit. They were imbued with life in what suddenly seemed to her the most sickening way possible - they were little more than empty shells filled with the energy of existence, compelled to obey some will that was not their own.
Their very presence repulsed her, the sight of them flooding her mind with images of their creation, the tearing of life from the waters to fuel their unnatural existence. Everything about them, from the empty looks upon their faces to the the barcodes tattooed across their chests combined to fill her with disgust.
These creatures were not meant to live. They could not be allowed to live.
It was not only disgust that swept through her - they were pitiful, even in their cold, calculated malice. She could feel the life force within them, begging to be released from the prison that constrained them within their freshly-manufactured Hidari bodies.
She watched, entranced, as Ranma ducked an attack, the four swords of the Hidari intersecting at perfect ninety-degree angles where Ranma's head had been mere moments before.
They were knocked aside by Ranma's counterattack, the girl's blows striking with explosive force at the enemies surrounding her. All four went flying to land on their backs; one landed near Akane, its eyes latching onto her the moment it hit the ground.
She felt sweat pooling in the palm of her hand, loosening her grip upon Shoryoutensei, and tightened her fingers around the handle to compensate. She knew, in her heart, that as the Blue Dragon it was her responsibility - no, her duty - to free them. Ranma had many times warned her that as the Lady of Life she could not ever kill, but she knew that somehow she had to destroy these abominations.
She could delay and pretend no longer. She had to face up to the fact that she would have to fight one day. It was clear to her that that day had arrived. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her sword, hoping that her instinct would show her what to do.
Ranma watched the movements of the Hidari closely as they stood, trying to keep herself close to her ward. It proved difficult with four opponents to contend with - three of the clones moved to circle her, while the fourth seemed intent on facing Akane.
No you don't, you little bastard, Ranma thought with a snarl, circling around Akane, trying to keep the predators at bay. The air hummed with her sword's angry glow, the pale silver hue of the blade having given way to a bright white light that surrounded the weapon.
The clone in front slashed at her - she easily knocked the blade aside but felt its tip rake across the back of her hand, leaving behind a crimson trail. She winced, unable to ignore the stinging pain. An animalistic snarl burst through her lips as she slashed at her enemy, her own blood splattering across its chest as her blade glanced off its shoulder.
The Hidari reflexively grabbed his shoulder; Ranma smirked, swapping her sword to her left hand to hold back another blade that was hurtling toward her neck. She glanced to her left at her new opponent, at the same time flinging her bloodied fist at the face of the third Hidari, a broken nose its reward for coming too close to her exposed right side.
She felt a familiar excitement rushing through her veins, a hunger so intense that she could not ignore it. The bloodlust she had carried for eight hundred years could never be sated, but the demons could be driven back with an appropriate sacrifice. It was a high price to pay - but there was no shortage of Hidari currency.
A quick twist of her wrist sent the sword to her left flying out of harm's way; a quick slash across the stomach of its owner sent the clone sprawling backwards, opening some room to move.
The instincts that compelled her, that gave her the speed and the skill to win, were too hard for her to ignore. With thoughts of Akane shrinking inside her mind, she adopted a low stance, lean muscles coiled like springs - waiting for the moment to begin the slaughter. She presented the remaining Hidari a predatory smile and stepped back, raising her blood-soaked hand to beckon them closer.
These were the latest models, she thought, with the newest upgrades, the most advanced combat algorithms. They would not stand a chance. The might of machinery could not hope to compete. She was the essence of Death itself; how could they possibly compare to her?
Akane stepped forward to meet her opponent even as she heard Ranma cry out in fury. A glimmer of red caught her peripheral vision, the wide arc of Ranma's ponytail as the girl threw herself, twisting to gain more momentum in her sword-arm's movements, at her opponents. Akane watched, for the merest of moments, before turning her attention to the raven-haired clone of Ranma that stood facing her.
The boy stared impassively at her, utterly unconcerned as to the plight of his comrades. Of course, Akane knew, it could feel no emotions at all. That is what Ranma had said. Memories of Ranma's words lapped at the edge of her mind, reminding her of her last encounter with the Hidari.
That boy, the boy Ranma had burned in a hidden cave so many months ago, that boy who was now little more than a pile of ash, had smiled at her. A kind smile, a genuine smile. It was not the work of a mindless automaton - it was the smile of the human beneath, a brief outburst of humanity, a momentary escape of the soul within.
She steeled herself, the face of that boy in her mind, and raised her sword.
The Hidari, who had been standing motionless as she approached, launched into motion with a speed and ferocity that caught her off guard. Swings came from the left, the right, high and low, an alarming variety of attacks in little more than a second. She blocked them all, but it was not as easy as she had hoped. Each swipe was clean, concise, efficient; it seemed her opponent was testing her defences, calculating her weaknesses.
As quickly as the strikes had began, they ceased. She circled with the Hidari, each moving in time with the other, their movements a dance for two. Her mind reeled with the possibilities, her every thought intent on ending the fight without killing her opponent, without destroying it as Ranma had done so long ago. But how?
She snapped to attention as the clone lunged at her; her instincts pulled her body from the path of its sword and drove her fist into its face, sending it sprawling across the ground. The creature did not stay down for long; it stood once more and faced her, a look of confusion upon its face as it rubbed at its injured jaw.
Apparently, she realised, she had surprised it. She glanced at her hand, at the grazed skin on her knuckles. She had surprised herself as well. Obviously, being the Lady of Life did not prevent her from injuring others. She felt a momentary comfort, a realisation that she was not totally defenceless.
She could not kill this creature - but she would stop it. There had to be a way. There had to be.
Ranma swirled her body in a tight circle, her blade landing a vicious blow as she swung with brutal force at the nearest clone. The strike was blocked, her blade skittering along the edge of its rival, but she felt the tip sink into the flesh of the clone's forearm. The sizzle of burning flesh met her ears, the stench filled her nose.
She listened to the cry of pain as it escaped the creature's mouth, pushing her sword past the arm as it recoiled, licking her lips as she stared into its eyes. Tears of pain streamed from those eyes to join the blood streaming from the creature's crushed nose.
As she had expected, these were the newest models. They were strong. They were fast. But, as always, she was stronger and she was faster. The last Hidari she faced had almost won, but now that her strength had returned, they stood no chance.
A ravenous smile crept across her face as she stared at the face of her opponent. She knew - as it knew - that it was no longer the hunter, but the prey. She could feel the grip of fear as it took the creature's mind and filled it to bursting point. It was so thick she could almost touch it, taste it.
The one aspect of life these creatures understood, their sole insight into the nature of existence, was fear. They knew fear; they understood it, they could create it, and they could feel it.
The facade of calm evaporated as the clone realised that it could never defeat her. Her eyes locked with the creature's, and in an instant an intent was declared and an acceptance received. She would consume it, and there was nothing it could do to stop her.
A laugh burst through her lips to fill the air as she knocked aside the blade of her opponent and slashed her sword across its throat. A thick jet of blood spurted from the wound, its heat splashing her in the face as she watched the creature fall, the flesh of its neck beginning to burn.
It looked up at her, eyes wide in agony as it gasped for air, its choked breaths little more than a gurgling sound. Its sword clattered to the ground as it reached in desperation for its throat, instinctively clutching the wound in a futile effort to survive.
Spinning her sword, Ranma brought the tip to bear upon the creature's chest and with a cry of satisfaction lowered herself to one knee, driving the blade through its heart. A short scream touched the air, then nothing, as the body was incinerated. A cloud of ash spread across the floor, propelled by the the creature's last gasp.
Ranma stood slowly, letting her cloak fall from her shoulders as she did. Turning, she leveled her gaze at the two nearby Hidari. They glanced at each other, then raised their swords together to hold back the onslaught.
She smiled, enjoying the warmth of blood dripping down her face. There would be no mercy for the clones of Ranma Saotome.
Akane brushed aside a head-high slash from her opponent's blade, the sound of the weapon slicing through the air alarmingly loud in her ear. She was getting tired; this had gone on far too long. She could not keep up this defence forever.
Come on, Akane, think.
A choked scream filled the air and with it came a sharp, stabbing sensation in her ribs; gasping for air, she clutched one hand to her chest, shakily keeping Shoryoutensei aloft with the other. The blade shook with the impact of her opponent's weapon and she tightened her grip, shaky fingers struggling to keep her sword steady.
What the HELL was that, she thought, gasping for breath as her heart pounded against her hand. Risking a glance toward Ranma, her eyes widened as she watched the redhead slowly stand within a small cloud of ash. Even as she felt her blade shake again, Akane could not take her eyes from the white mist that rose from the ashes, a glowing white vapour that quickly faded into nothingness.
She could feel the loss inside her; one of the souls had been destroyed, burned, forever removed from the world.
No ... Ranma, what have you done?
A sharp pain skewered her left arm, wrenching her attention back to her own battle. She could feel the sting of a wound stretching across her upper arm, just as she could perceive the warmth of her own blood upon her skin. She gritted her teeth, angry at herself for becoming distracted - angry at Ranma for providing the distraction.
The Hidari swept his sword at her legs as she recoiled from his first strike, but she was too quick for him, jumping over his attack and retaliating by driving her knee up into his chin, sending him staggering backwards. She stepped forward with him, pressing the advantage, and knocked his blade from his hands.
She moved without conscious thought, years of martial instinct calling from within her to guide her actions. She spun, presenting her back to him as she did, and with one swift movement brought her sword down and backwards, thrusting its tip up behind herself to skewer the chest of her opponent.
The resistance of his ribcage as the sword pushed against it was a sensation Akane had never felt before, the sickening feel of flesh and bone and sinew fighting to repel the invader as she forced it through him. She shuddered as the creature screeched in agony, then fell silent.
The screams of her opponent echoed in her mind, snapping her back to the harsh reality she had momentarily left. She stared at the droplets of Hidari blood pooling at her feet, the realisation of what she had done filling her with absolute, uncontrollable dread.
She could feel the blood draining from her head as the sound drained from her ears, a cold rush of horror building within her as her skin turned white.
She had killed him.
The silence seemed to stretch forever, even the sounds of Ranma's furious battle fading into nothing. All she could hear was the ragged breath of her opponent upon her neck, all she could feel was the beating of his heart as it reverberated along the blade of her weapon.
With time even those stopped, leaving her utterly alone. Perhaps, she realised, she had contravened some sacred decree; perhaps the Lady of Life had undone her very purpose in the universe, perhaps it would all come crumbling down around her. Perhaps this silence was the beginning of the end.
She had killed him.
It was at that moment that something happened, something she had not in her wildest imaginings dreamed of.
The Hidari laughed. A choked gasp of relief as the clone's artificial body ruptured and its flesh turned to water. The water burst free, shattering the body, and with an enormous outpouring of liquid the Hidari was gone, leaving nothing behind.
Slowly, Akane turned and looked down at the puddle of water. The white glow was faint but unmistakable, and within the water a small patch of moss had already begun to grow. Her sword felt warm in her hand and as she raised it to her face, she began to understand what she had done.
Ranma kicked out at the chest of one of the clones, sending it flying backwards, the satisfying crack of its ribs dancing in her ears as she spun herself around to bring Garyoutensei to bear upon the other. It tried, ineffectively, to parry her strikes, but she easily knocked the feeble defences aside. She had enjoyed beating them with her hands and feet, but it was time for her sword to finish the job.
"You're mine," she whispered, smiling wickedly at the clone. Her hand shot out and grabbed its sword-arm, gripping it tightly, her fingers closing in around the bone. With a gleam in her eyes, she raised Garyoutensei and brought it down, its sharpened edge slicing through the wrist.
The severed hand fell, lifeless fingers still clutching at the handle of its sword, to land with a thud upon the floor below. Ranma released the clone's arm and pulled the it to her, pressing its chest against hers, and brought her face so close that the tip of her nose ran along its cheek as she spoke.
"You're about to die. Does that frighten you?"
The Hidari did not respond, save for its agonised whimpering as it struggled to comprehend the loss of its hand. Its body trembled in her arms, skin growing white as its lifeblood streamed from its arm, and the many other slashes decorating its skin.
"I love to kill your kind," Ranma whispered in a conspiratorial tone, the blood upon her face smearing across the cheek of her victim as she ran her lips along its jaw. Smiling, she nibbled at its chin, staring directly up into its eyes even as she pressed the edge of her sword to the creature's neck. "Making you suffer is one of my few pleasures."
Pulling the clone closer, she held her body to his, coiling one leg around its hip. She said nothing for a moment, listening to the erratic beating of its heart. It struggled, weakly, to escape her grip, but her touch held it in thrall, leaving it unable to resist as she laid a kiss upon its lips.
"It's been fun," she said, smiling malevolently. With speed so swift the clone could not even see her movements, she shoved it backwards, the tangle of their legs sending it sprawling to the ground. It looked up at her, utterly disoriented. It could do nothing as Ranma slashed at its neck, her blade removing its head with one swift, clean blow. "But it's time for you to go."
She stared, the smile on her face illuminated by the light smoldering in her eyes, as she watched the body begin to burn.
Akane's eyes glistened as she watched the water seep into the very metal of the floor, the patch of moss spreading and growing larger as the shimmering whiteness disappeared.
She had done it. She had freed him, and now, she could hear the voice of the soul she had rescued calling out to her, its voice tiny but perfectly clear. Lowering herself to one knee, she lowered her hand to the fuzzy green growth and gently brushed it against her skin. A smile touched her face as she listened to the sound, her voice wavering as she offered the only response she could think of.
Ryujin had shown her the way. From within the empty, hollow shell of the Hidari she had freed the soul, and life had endured through it all. It was no longer human, but it was alive - it was a living creature that continued as part of the living world, no longer bound by the chains of the Hidari.
The lingering doubts that had dogged her washed themselves from her mind, leaving her filled with a resolute vision. She was Ryujin, Lady of Life and Mother of Creation. She could free them all. -She- could do it. She -had- to do it.
For the first time in her life she felt herself filled with a sense of purpose. Raising her sword, she stared into the watery depths of the blade, and nodded to herself. It was time to accept her nature.
Finally, she was beginning to understand.
The stabbing pain, the same she had felt moments before, returned to her in a sharp, sudden explosion inside her chest. She gasped, frantically clutching at her chest as she fell forward, catching herself with the other hand. Tears streamed from her eyes as he throbbing pain filled her body, leaving her panting for breath.
Looking up from the moss, her vision blurred with the tears of pain, she saw the orange flicker of flames licking at Ranma's feet, the body of one of the Hidari burning fiercely.
"No!" she cried, her voice burdened with anguish. She was too late; Ranma had killed again. Gritting her teeth, Akane willed her body to get to its feet. There was still one clone left. If she moved quickly, she could save him.
"It's just you and me," Ranma said, her voice little more than a growl, as she advanced on the single - weren't there four? - remaining Hidari. It scuttled away from her, struggling to reclaim its feet after the staggering blow it had taken to the chest. It left a trail of blood upon the floor as it struggled to get away from her. "You're pathetic. Get up."
She lowered the tip of her sword to point at the creature, a tingle of excitement rippling through her as she stared down at its battered form. It had, as all the clones had, taken a beating during the fight, and could barely keep itself off the floor. Her skin prickled with goosebumps as the anticipation filled her, a delicious heat spread within as she contemplated the many ways for this creation to die.
"How should I make you mine?" she wondered aloud, enjoying the tiny tremors that wracked its body as it stared up at her. It still carried its sword, but she had long since broken its will. Even if it remembered how to use the weapon, it would not have the strength to pose a danger.
She sneered as she looked down at its broken form. Its arm appeared to be fractured, one of its ankles twisted at a bizarre angle, and blood poured profusely from its mouth and nose. It coughed, another gout of red liquid bubbling from between its lips as it stared up at her. A burning anger churned within her, compelling her to plunge the sword right between those shining blue eyes, those eyes that were hers but not hers, to take from it the life it had stolen from her.
The voice - female, fearful, familiar - shook her from her fantasy, causing her to turn her head toward it. It came from a girl who stood nearby, a tiny thing with impish features who carried a blade made of water and spoke with the voice of a dragon - she knew that voice, she knew that blade, she could remember ...
"Stop it!" Akane cried, her voice filled with desperation. Ranma stepped back, stunned by the power lurking behind the words. Akane marched toward her, speaking again. "Don't kill him!"
"It'll ... kill you if I don't," Ranma replied, hesitantly, her sword still pointed directly at the clone's chest. The redhead frowned, her eyes darting back and forth as she struggled within herself to hold back the blade.
"Just wait, Ranma. I want to-- Ranma! Wait!"
Ranma's eyes snapped to Akane, centuries of instinct commanding her to jump to attention. A sharp vibration rocked her arm, accompanied by a loud hissing sound in the air. She glanced away from Akane long enough to see her sword straining to cut the Hidari's neck, the watery edge of Akane's sword shaking as it tried to hold Garyoutensei back.
"I didn't ... I don't ...." Ranma stammered, staring at the thin line of steam rising from the junction of the two blades.
"Please, Ranma, stop," Akane pleaded, pushing with all her strength to hold Garyoutensei at bay. "Give me a chance."
Ranma nodded, hesitantly, her arm slowly pulling back as she fought down the urge to lunge at the Hidari. Every fibre of her being screamed at her to pull Akane out of the way and end this creature's miserable existence, and it was all she could do to stand still.
"Thank you," Akane said, a smile passing quickly over her lips. She stood for a moment, her hand lingering on Ranma's arm, before turning to face the single remaining clone. She stepped close to him, lowering herself to one knee in front of him.
"Akane, no," Ranma warned. "What the hell are you doing?"
Akane held a hand up to silence her companion, then lowered it to the Hidari's shoulder. The creature's eyes widened, its body twitching to pull away from her. Its breath was shaky, and Akane could feel the rhythmic spasm of its body with every heartbeat. Even as he stared up at her, she could see its fingers trying to tighten around the handle of its sword.
"Don't be afraid," she said, her words soft, as she ran her hand slowly to his chest. His fingers fell loose once more, his eyes half-closed, the pupils dull with the pain that wracked his body. His hand fell limply to the floor, his will to fight utterly defeated.
Akane smiled sadly down at the boy. Ranma had really beaten hell out of him - out of all of them. She could not blame Ranma, it was what she had spent her life doing. It was her nature. Ranma was just doing what she thought was right - protecting her ward.
Despite her own rationalising, it pained her to see such suffering, even in the eyes of a creature bred to kill her. Slowly, she brought Shoryoutensei forward and held the tip of it to the creature's chest - not quite touching, suspended a tiny distance away from its skin.
"It won't hurt," she reassured him, finally able to look a Hidari in the eyes with no fear. His eyes narrowed, unspoken questions hiding behind them, wondering why someone who seemed to be helping him would hold a sword to his chest.
Akane sighed sorrowfully, closing her eyes. This creature simply did what he was compelled to do. He didn't know why it was attacking her, he didn't know what she was, he didn't understand the implications of his actions. He was just a puppet, doing as he was told. He did not hate Akane, nor did he hate Ranma. She wondered, for a moment, if he even understood what hate was. After his fight with Ranma, she supposed he must have learned.
The tip of her sword touched him - he flailed for but a moment, his body's instincts making a last, desperate attempt to survive. It passed, however, as the watery blade pressed further into his skin, sliding in between his ribs. Akane pushed quickly, mercifully quickly, piercing his heart with a smooth motion.
"Go free, go home," Akane whispered as the blade's tip touched the solid floor below. His eyes widened, as perhaps his questions were answered, and then he was gone.
"We've lost the interceptors."
"What? All four?"
"Biofunction scanners report that their hearts are no longer beating."
"Damn it. What's the ETA for reinforcements?"
"The nearest unit has already changed course, but they're four hours away."
"There's nothing nearer?"
"I'm searching, but none of our interceptors-- wait. I'm getting a perimeter alert - she's trying to breach the emergency doors."
"Of course she is. The seals won't contain her for four hours - damn it. We'll be lucky if they hold for one. Keep those interceptors on course; advise them that she will probably be mobile by the time they arrive on-site."
"Aha! The Leviathan Spring is within range - should I inform the CO?"
"No - we're keeping the military out of this for now."
"Are you certain? With a chopper insertion they could have a strike team on-site in twenty minutes."
"If we inform Hunter, he'll activate the Wing. That's not an option yet. It's not ready for combat duty. Do -not- inform him of the situation. We don't want him making any hasty moves. Let our interceptors tail her for now."
"As you wish."
"In the meantime, I want a full security log dump on my desk in fifteen minutes. Everything. I want to know -exactly- what happened down there."
Ranma fell to one knee, her eyes wide as she lowered her blood-stained hand to the small patch of moss that was growing larger by the second. A loud, rhythmic clanging sound filled her ears but was ignored as she pressed her fingertips to the greenery.
It was warm, soft to the touch. The clanging continued, ever louder, but she paid it no need as she ran the palm of her hand across the plant. Its tiny strands drifted ticklishly across her skin, the fuzzy growth still wet from the rapidly-disappearing puddle of water that had spawned it.
The noise pounded at her mind but still she refused to hear it, focused entirely upon this mysterious green growth. Moss? Growing on a metal floor? In the middle of a sterile laboratory?
It was soft, it was warm; it was alive. It was not supposed to be there. Ranma stood, suddenly aware of the deafening sound that was drilling into her ears, and spun towards Akane.
"What did you do?" she called, loud enough to be heard over the din.
Akane's strikes against the door grew harder, her watery blade slicing deep into the metal. Each blow diminished the door, a tiny amount of water dribbling to the floor each time she withdrew the blade. For all her efforts, she had barely damaged the door at all.
"What the HELL did you do?" Ranma demanded more insistently, moving away from the moss and toward her student. Again she was ignored; this time she grabbed Akane's sword arm and held it back.
"I don't know," Akane replied, not bothering to struggle against Ranma's grip. She glanced back at Ranma for a moment, a plaintive look in her eyes, obviously struggling not to cry. A look of - Ranma was unsure whether it was fear or anger - passed over Akane's features as she examined Ranma's face, but the girl said nothing.
Ranma released her arm, letting Akane resume her attacks upon the door, and brought her fingers to her own face. The familiar texture of dried blood met her fingertips as she touched her cheek; she sighed, suddenly understanding the look Akane had given her.
Ranma turned to the moss once more, knowing Akane would give no answers. She had seen it with her own eyes; Ryujin, the dragon mother of all creation, had stabbed a living creature to death. It was something she had never imagined she would see - something she did not know was even possible.
Akane had killed the Hidari. Two of them, judging by the similar patch of moss upon the floor at the other end of the laboratory. Ryujin, a killer? It could not be, there had to be some sort of trickery at work, some attempt to deceive her - these damn Hidari were slippery, perhaps--
"I understood when I did it," Akane said, drawing Ranma out of her fitful concentration. "I knew exactly what I was doing, it was all perfectly clear. Now that it's over, I can't remember what the hell I was thinking.
"It's like one of those dreams," she continued, her sword coming to a rest with its blade buried in the door. "A strong, vivid dream, but the moment you wake up you forget it. You can -almost- remember it, but it just stays ever so slightly out of reach. You know?"
Ranma nodded sympathetically as Akane glanced at her. In truth, she did not know what Akane was talking about - she could not remember the last time she had slept, let alone dreamed; however, it was not the time or the place for such thoughts.
"I don't think we'd be here anymore if you had done the wrong thing," Ranma offered, her voice thoughtful as she regarded the moss once more. "Ryujin isn't -allowed- to kill. I don't know what you did, but you didn't kill it."
"I think I did the right thing," Akane said, nodding even though she sounded utterly unconvinced. She sighed and turned back to the door, tears brimming in her eyes as she raised her sword once more. "At least, I ... I hope I did."
"We got what we came for," Ranma said, patting the small folder through her cloak. "Let's get out of here before reinforcements arrive. We can talk about this later."
"Believe me, you don't have to tell me twice to leave this place."
"The perimeter has been breached. The main blast door has been compromised, and Prime is fleeing the facility."
"Already? How far away are the nearest interceptors?"
"Just under two hours now. They're moving faster than I anticipated."
"They're still not moving fast enough. Track her as long as you can, and notify all other teams in the areas surrounding her location. Keep me updated as to their progress."
"As you wish."
Ukyo sat quietly at the cafeteria table, trying her best to concentrate on the meal before her. It seemed to her that it was meant to be bacon and scrambled eggs. She supposed at one point it might have been, but what had happened to it since then eluded her and, quite frankly, she did not care to find out. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
She poked at the slightly off-brown mush that she assumed were the eggs and let out a sigh. She had never really eaten a lot in her travels, but she had been instructed to blend in as well as she could, so here she was, trying to digest food that could be considered edible only in the broadest possible sense.
Six other members of the Alpha squad sat around the table with her, each devouring their meals with gusto, talking amongst themselves between mouthfuls of food. Obviously, the local cuisine was an acquired taste. She glanced at them momentarily, her curiosity getting the better of her.
There were a few Japanese around, but for the most part, the inhabitants of the vessel were foreigners. That fact struck her as slightly unusual; she had wondered on the odd occasion why that was the case, but her desire to maintain a low profile overrode any urge to ask unnecessary questions.
For her entire life she had been alone in a world of strangers; she wanted to treat the current situation no differently. The only problem was, these strangers had names.
There was Ryoga, of course, and his sister Yoiko. She had almost grown used to being around those two, if for no other reason than they had introduced her to her current situation. They seemed nice enough, and while she instinctively felt wary of everyone she met, Ryoga seemed like a person she could depend on. His devotion to her was unwavering, and perhaps a little unsettling.
There was also Hunter - the Colonel she had met four weeks ago and barely seen since - as well as Michael Shilton, his aide. Shilton was on the research staff, and from what she could tell seemed more concerned about her welfare and progress than her functions in the Alpha Team.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Sergeant Akusawa, the drill sergeant for Alpha Team. Akusawa seemed to care little for her welfare, regularly insisting the team exercise until well past the point of exhaustion. He was a fearsome man, enormous in stature, with a body shaped like a bullet and an attitude to match. The members of the Alpha and Bravo squads were all hardened soldiers, and so the sergeants had to be tougher than the squad members to keep them in line.
Alpha Team was divided into two units of seven, and the six others sitting around the table with her were her unit, what Akusawa would repeatedly insist she should consider her family. To her, they were little more than annoyances. She didn't -want- to be curious about them, but she could not help herself.
Angela, or 'Angel' as she was known, was the unit's medic; she seemed kind, always concerned about her teammates. She had a pleasant demeanour when talking with the others, her face usually carrying a smile. She did not seem to get angry at all, which was a counterpoint to the aggressive nature of most of the other team members.
The same could not be said for Brian the 'Baker', the team's demolitions expert. He was a large, grizzled man, a perpetual scowl darkening his face. When he spoke his words escaped his mouth with awkwardness and difficulty, each syllable given a messy, protracted birth.
A small Chinese girl by the name of Ling sat alongside the Baker, her tiny frame dwarfed by his enormity. She was 'Link', the team's communication and intelligence expert. For an expert in communications, Ukyo had seen little actual communication from her. The girl sat in silence for the most part, watching the goings on of her fellow teammates without saying a word.
As little as she knew about Angel, Baker and Link, the remaining three were even more of a mystery. 'Scar', 'Hammer' and 'Anvil' were their nicknames; she did not know their real names. They were the direct assault specialists of the team.
Hammer and Anvil were twins, and they seemed to move with uncanny synchronisation. When they spoke, more often than not one would start a sentence only to have the other complete it. As she thought about them, she realised she had never seen the two of them apart. The strange nature of their cooperation made her intensely curious, which only made her lack of knowledge about the pair all the more frustrating.
Scar was the team leader, his nickname apparently derived from the large scar that streaked diagonally across his face. He was young - they were all young, now that she thought about it, rather young indeed for soldiers - and Japanese, but other than that, Ukyo knew nothing.
"So what did you do?" Scar asked, his voice pulling Ukyo away from her thoughts.
"What do you think I did? I did what he told me to do," Baker replied.
"He didn't tell you to break his nose," Angel observed, pointing with a slimy strip of bacon suspended from her fork.
"Hey, he told me to hit him," Baker said, raising his hands defensively. "I just do what I'm ordered."
"You're an idiot, Baker. Sarge is going to bust your ass," Scar said, shaking his head as he laughed. "He doesn't like you busting up his instructors."
"The way I see it," Baker said, his voice adopting an unusually philosophical tone, "I can either fight for real in training, or I can get my ass handed to me by the dragon 'cause I don't know how to fight."
"But you've been through the same combat drills hundreds of times before," Angel argued. "You ain't learning anything by breaking noses. You're just pissing off the brass."
Ukyo returned her attention to her food, not desiring to be caught up in the conversation. However, much to her dismay, she was not fast enough to escape notice.
"I figure if I don't give it everything I've got, what's the point?" Baker said with a shrug. "What do you think, Wing?"
Ukyo shuddered at the name. It was something of a foregone conclusion that she would be named Wing by the others. She had been paraded in front of them, exhibited as the vehicle for the Seraph Wing. It was inevitable that she would be remembered for that above all else. She sighed, having long given up trying to convince anyone to call her Ukyo, or - even better - to not talk to her at all.
"None of my business," she said, attempting to appear focused on the lumpy brown mush that was rapidly adhering to her fork. She grimaced, wrinkling her nose as the odour of the substance wafted upwards.
"What would you have done?" Baker asked, with irritating tenacity.
Ukyo sighed and glanced up at the six of them, each looking expectantly at her. It was obvious they wouldn't be satisfied until she gave them an actual answer. She placed her fork down on her plate, at least glad to be rid of the foul-smelling substance it held, and pondered her reply.
"I wouldn't have fought him," she said, after a few moments' thought.
"Why not?" Angel asked, seemingly surprised by Ukyo's answer.
"My fight is with Ranma, not some instructor. I only fight those I mean to kill," Ukyo continued, considering each word carefully. She was slightly unsure of herself, but as the words rolled off her tongue she found a comfortable familiarity with their meaning. Her fight was with Ranma. She would kill Ranma. She did not want to fight anyone -but- Ranma.
"You -can't- tell me you've only ever fought one person," Scar said, incredulous.
"Only Ranma," Ukyo replied. She knew these soldiers expected her to be some sort of super-soldier, that they had been told by their superiors she was the answer to their problems. The looks on their faces as she spoke varied, some looked disappointed, others disbelieving. She shrugged in response to their questioning gazes. It didn't matter what they thought of her.
"That's ... strange," Link observed, the first time in nearly a week Ukyo had heard her talk. It was short, but to the point, and seemed to sum up the overall feeling of the group. Ukyo sighed and returned to her food, irritated at being the centre of attention. She knew she was strange; that did not mean she wanted to linger upon it.
"I'll kill Ranma, and that will be the end of it," she said, her voice carrying a note of finality. She glanced at the others for a moment, waiting for a challenge, but none came. She had won, and silence was her reward.
She returned to her food and began to eat in earnest, the foul taste of the food preferable to the flavour of conversation. The silence of the others lasted only a few moments before their conversation sparked up again, and before long the discussion had turned to the merits of alcohol.
Ukyo tuned their words out and concentrated on her food. It was strange; she had not thought of Ranma for some time now - her new training regimen had made sure of that - but when she lay in her cot at night, staring at the ceiling while the others slept, she sometimes pictured Ranma in her mind. Always, every time, she saw two others alongside her nemesis, two figures whose identities she could not quite discern ....
Ukyo snapped back to reality as she heard the sudden shuffling of feet all around her. Looking up from her empty plate, she noticed the other members of her team were standing at attention. The bulky form of Sergeant Akusawa caught her eye and she immediately jumped to her feet alongside the others, hoping the Sergeant would not notice her tardiness.
"At ease," Sergeant Akusawa instructed. He gestured toward Ukyo. "You, come with me. The rest of you, sit down and shut up. You've got another round of CQB training in fifteen minutes, ladies! I suggest you cut the chatter and get eating."
Ukyo stepped away from the table and toward the Sergeant. He nodded to her as she drew near, then turned back to the remaining soldiers.
"And Baker - my office. Now. Wing, you're with me."
Akusawa turned and began a brisk pace toward the cafeteria exit, and Ukyo kept pace behind him, keenly aware of the eyes of the other soldiers burning into her as she marched away to her fate. Her mind dreamed up a dozen different reasons why she was in trouble, and just as many sadistic punishments that would be inflicted upon her.
At least I'm not the only one in hot water, she thought.
She stared at the back of Asukawa's neck as she followed him. It was lean, firm with muscles from a lifetime of hardship. He was a tough man, a strong man; a soldier. She drew an imaginary line across his neck, just below his shaved hair, around which her hands would close as she throttled the life out of her tormentor.
Asukawa had put her through hell for the past few weeks, all in the name of "training". Her instincts alone told her she could easily snap his neck like a dry reed, but what then? Half of the sub was filled with soldiers; she could probably kill them all if she was shrewd, but even if she did - and then somehow managed to escape to the surface and make it back to land - she would be no closer to Ranma. At least these people seemed to know what they were doing, and their goals were compatible with hers.
No, she decided, loosening her fists, she would not crush Asukawa's throat. She would kill Ranma, and that would be all.
One of the sub's crew stood guarding the door; he shifted aside to let the pair pass. Ukyo did not miss the look in his eyes - it was something of a cross between the wide-eyed gaze of curiosity and the shifty-eyed glance of suspicion. It was the look nearly every single person aboard gave her; she had even seen it in Asukawa's eyes once or twice, quickly covered by a veneer of authority.
These people were afraid of her. Perhaps, she pondered, rightly so.
She glanced aside at the sound of the familiar voice, the use of her real name managing to bring a smile to her face. Ryoga rushed toward her, wearing his everpresent white coat, an effervescent grin lighting his features.
"Hibiki here will escort you to the tertiary laboratory, Wing," Asukawa instructed.
Ukyo glanced back and forth. Where were the guards? Ever since she had arrived on board the Leviathan Spring, there had been large men with guns to guard her. An ineffective measure - she could easily kill them - but one notable by its absence. She thought upon it for a moment, until noticing Ryoga once more.
"Hello, Ryoga," she said, smiling at him. He smiled in return, and waved a clipboard animatedly.
"We're ready to install the external amplifier!" he beamed, taking her hand and leading her down the corridor, away from Asukawa. "The final testing phase went without a hitch, and we're ready to go live."
"External amplifier?" she asked, still glancing back and forth. No guards to be seen. Nobody following them. All she could see were the everpresent security cameras, whirring quietly as they rocked back and forth upon their mountings.
"Yeah, remember? The Wing is in two parts; the internal core attached to your spinal column, and the external amplifier, which adheres to your skin. The Wing won't perform properly without both. Now that we've completed the testing, we can finally upgrade you to active status."
"Sounds good," Ukyo replied, her lack of attention becoming obvious to her companion.
"Where are all the guards?" she asked, turning her attention to him. "Normally there's a couple of guys with big guns ready to take me down if I try anything."
"Obviously, they don't think you're going to hurt me," Ryoga replied with a smile. His eyebrow twitched slightly, but noticeably. "You're not, are you?"
"Of course not," Ukyo replied with an exasperated smile. She laughed it off, but did not let her eyes linger too long on her companion. There had to be a reason for the change.
"You're really going to like the work we've done," Ryoga enthused, his excitement strongly reminiscent of his younger sister. "I wouldn't want to be Ranma right now."
"I wouldn't ever want to be Ranma."
"How long is this going to take?"
"It's a pretty involved procedure," Ryoga commented, strapping Ukyo down to a table. She lay face-down, able to peer at the floor through a face-sized hole provided for her.
"It's gonna take us all night," Yoiko said, before her brother could reply. "We've got to attach interface nodes along your the backs of your arms, your legs, and your back, then connect them together into a network."
"These are the nodes," Ryoga said, holding a small black cylinder under the table. It was about the size of a bullet, and seemingly made of metal. "Each one of these connects to nerve endings in your body, which allows the control signal to propagate to them using your own nervous system as a medium."
"What does that mean?" Ukyo asked, trying and failing to follow the node as Ryoga snatched it out of her sight.
"It means you're going to have this stuck to your skin," Yoiko said, holding a thin strip of what appeared to be black rubber for Ukyo to see. "You'll have a strip along the back of each arm, one along each leg, and one up your spine. Other than that, you won't notice a thing."
"But what is this going to do?"
"Wait and see," Yoiko said, in a sing-song voice. Ukyo frowned, imagining the delighted smile that was no doubt dancing across the young girl's face.
"You're going to like it," Ryoga assured. A quiet hissing sound filled the air, and Ukyo felt herself growing lightheaded. "Relax; this will be over in no time."
"Easy for you to--" Ukyo began, unconsciousness taking her before she could finish her sentence. Her body slumped, her eyes closing as her body shut down. She quickly became still, relaxed, the only movement in her body the rapid flicking oscillation of her eyes as she began to dream ....