Mule, the pilot of the largest of Alpha Team's transport helicopters, glanced down at the fuel gauge before him. It glowed with a faint green light, and showed that while the fuel situation was not yet critical, it was dangerously close to being so. The helicopter, seemingly wary of its own precarious situation, juddered for a moment before settling down.
Come on, baby, he thought, don't give up on me now. We're not home yet.
"Any sign of the Spring yet?" Fox's voice asked, loud in his ear.
"Not yet. We can't stay up here much longer. If we turn back now, we might be able to make it back to land. Or close to it. I'll probably have to autorotate the landing, but that's better than dropping into the ocean."
"You know as well as I do we can't just ditch a black chopper on Hokkaido. This is all we've got. Keep looking."
"Sir," Mule acknowledged, his voice tight. The chopper had taken damage during the storm. Radio, GPS, the redundant communication systems - they were all down. He was effectively flying blind, a solitary presence above an endless expanse of black water.
It was the stuff of nightmares. One by one the gauges and instruments had winked out of sight, plunging him into total darkness in a matter of moments. The flight controls themselves felt strange, different, as though it was another hand guiding them and not his own. He squeezed the cyclic control more tightly, reassuring himself that it was not going to disappear.
He was being stupid, he knew. He had trained for such an eventuality, but to have it actually happen was another thing entirely. Low on fuel, powerplants struggling, no instrumentation - it all spelled disaster in bright, glowing neon letters. All he had to go on was his compass and an extrapolated guess on the location of the Leviathan Spring he had calculated from its last reported location, heading and speed - information that was hopelessly out of date.
His burden was made heavier by the cargo they were carrying. Two other Alphas - grunts from the Red fireteam - had come aboard, bringing with them a wounded girl. He'd advised Fox against picking them up. Their chopper had already taken damage, and just as he had predicted, the problems had only worsened since then. It was reckless and irresponsible to undertake a medical evacuation in such a situation, but they had done so anyway.
All well and good for Fox, playing the gallant hero, but it was upon Mule's shoulders that the responsibility of bringing them safely to the Spring lay. It was an encumbrance that he could have done without. The fact that the extra weight they were carrying may well mean they would run out of fuel before finding the Spring was an irony that was not lost upon him.
"How is our guest doing?" he asked, seeking a distraction from the more depressing machinations of his imagination.
"She's making an amazing recovery," replied Harper, Blue's medic. "I've never seen anything like this. If this keeps up, I'd say she doesn't have anything to worry about."
Perfect. Just perfect. He'd stuck his neck out, and those of his passengers, and for what? It sounded like the girl was in no danger anyway. Other than the danger of crashing violently into the water below, a danger that grew more dire every passing moment.
"Glad to hear some good news," Mule replied, with no small measure of sarcasm. So much for a distraction.
The lambent moonlight, endlessly dancing over the ocean swell, was all he had to see by. He gave silent thanks that at least the thick, billowing clouds had vanished with the storm, leaving a clear night. If those suffocating clouds had lingered on, he would have been in no end of trouble. Their departure allowed him a vague hint as to his altitude, a vital aid to his task.
A tiny sparkle of light caught his peripheral vision - a green speck that floated upon the water's surface in the distance, near the horizon. His heart leapt at the sight, but his mind kept his enthusiasm firmly in check. The light was not necessary the landing strip.
"I can see a light. Could be the landing pad."
"You sure?" Fox asked
He had seen such things before. Algae churned up by seagoing vessels sometimes fluoresced at night, producing a green glow. That could indicate the location of the Leviathan Spring - but it could just as easily be the trail of another vessel.
"No," he said. "Might be landing lights, might be something else. Don't get your hopes up too high now."
A thin, pulsing strip of green landing lights illuminated the landing pad. The vessel itself was a ghostly outline and nothing more, a small portion of its hull barely visible protruding from the black waters. It was an eerie sight, an enormous metallic beast lurking beneath the surface. Eerie or not, Mule was delighted to see it.
"It's looking good, Chief," Mule called over the radio, unable to contain his relief. That was a close one. Too close. "We hit the jackpot."
"Roger that," Fox replied. "Our guest isn't entirely out of the woods just yet, so get us down there fast."
"You got it," Mule replied, lowering the collective slightly as the helicopter came into line over the landing pad. Looking down at the landing pad below, he again cursed the communication malfunction. He wanted a medical team out on the pad with a stretcher, but he had no way to ask for one.
Something else caught his eye - the landing pad was different. This was not the pad he had taken off from. Indeed, he did not recognise this pad at all. Must be the stern pad, he thought. I wonder why they lit this one up for us.
Such thoughts were relegated to the back of his mind as he concentrated on keeping the chopper steady as it descended. One of the chopper's skids touched down heavily on the pad, the sudden change in attitude sending the chopper into a slight drift. Mule compensated and held the craft steady before finally lowering it completely to the ground. Not the best of landings, but reasonable under the circumstances.
"Any landing you can walk away from ...." he muttered to himself.
The landing pad began its descent before the helicopter's doors could even open, filling the hangar below with the sibilant sound of hydraulic pistons contracting. The outer doors began the slow process of closing above them, the light of the moon waning as the gap between them grew narrower.
Fox hopped out first, signaling the others to follow him out onto the pad. Harper was the last of his team, followed by the two members of Red who had accompanied them, the two teammates carrying the wounded girl between them. Harper shouted instructions regarding the proper procedure for carrying a wounded patient without a stretcher, but the two soldiers seemed to ignore them, to the medic's growing annoyance.
Fox stepped away from the chopper, closely followed by Brute, the team's demolitions specialist. The hangar's interior lights were off, leaving the small group with only the glow of the landing lights to see by as the hangar bay doors closed above them, enveloping them in darkness. Fox exchanged a puzzled glance with Brute and activated his radio.
"Phoenix, this is Alpha, Blue fireteam," he spoke into his helmet microphone as he slung his submachine gun over his shoulder. "Is anyone receiving me?"
He waited for a reply, but a static hiss was the only response. A prickling sensation ran down his spine. Something was not right about this. The look on Brute's face suggested Fox was not alone in his feeling. Brute was an enormous, hulking man - to see such uncertainty in his face was in and of itself a source of intense discomfort.
"Repeat, this is Alpha, Blue fireteam, requesting acknowledgement. Please respond. Come in, Phoenix."
"I don't like this, Chief," said Brute.
"You're not the only one," Fox replied. The ground juddered, a loud clunk surrounding them as the platform settled into its resting bay on the floor of the hangar. "Listen up, guys. Switch to NV, let's fan out and see if we can't get the lights turned on. Maybe then we can figure out what's going on around here."
"That won't be necessary."
"What?" Fox asked, turning to the source of the voice. Hammer looked back at him, smiling, but it was Anvil who spoke.
"Your assistance is greatly appreciated," Hammer said, hoisting the wounded girl up over his shoulders, "but your services are no longer required."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Brute growled. "We just hauled your sorry asses out of that forest. You should be thanking us!"
"Our primary transport was far too slow given the nature of Ryujin's injuries," Anvil replied. "Even with her regenerative abilities, we needed to get her to a secure facility quickly. Your helicopter's arrival was most timely. For that, you have our thanks."
"Unfortunately, knowing what you now know, you have become a liability," added Hammer, his smile coloured green by the glow of the lights. The two walked forward together, disappearing into the darkness that surrounded the chopper. "We have been forced to take steps to limit that liability."
"Phoenix thanks you for your service. That service is now at an end."
"NV! Now!" Fox cried, activating his own goggles. The bright glare of the landing lights stung his eyes, but beyond it he could see a writhing, shifting black mass. The two soldiers from Red fireteam pushed their way through the wall of black and disappeared.
From within the shifting mass, faces emerged. Dozens upon dozens of identical faces. Ranma's face, repeated over and over again.
"What the HELL are those things?" Harper gasped.
"Oh ... shit," Fox managed to splutter, vaguely aware of his hand reaching for his gun, even though he knew it would do no good. "They're everywhere! Open fire!"
No order was given to the Hidari clones. The army of Ranmas simply moved as one, a perfectly orchestrated whole, a wall of flesh and sharpened steel that slammed into the soldiers with unrelenting force. It was over before a single bullet could be fired.
Ukyo, wake up.
Please, don't do this to me. I know you can hear me.
Just open your eyes. I need you to open your eyes.
Ukyo groaned, a strong sensation of nausea rushing in to fill the void that had captivated her. She retched, coughing violently, and the sensation of nausea was joined by the taste of blood on her tongue. A dull ache permeated her torso, and yet she welcomed the feelings of pain, because they were better than the nothingness that had held her captive for so long.
Ukyo? Can you hear me?
I can hear you, she replied, thankful that her mental voice was functioning. She had the distinct feeling that her real voice would not have fared so well. I'm glad to hear your voice, Ryoga.
Ukyo! Gods, I'm glad you're okay. I've been trying to get into contact with you for hours!
Calm down, I'm okay, she replied, and tried to open her eyes. A brilliant flash of light scorched her vision, a brightness so profound that it sent her mind reeling. She quickly clamped her eyes closed again. Opening them would have to wait. At least, I think I'm okay. My head feels like it's been split in two. What happened?
Are you sure you're okay? You've been out for nearly three hours, Ryoga replied, his voice laden with concern.
I'm fine, Ukyo insisted, despite the throbbing ache that coursed through her whole body. Really, I'm fine. Just calm down. I need you to relax and tell me what happened.
There was a moment's silence as Ryoga collected himself as best he could.
Something happened to Seraph Wing - a crash of some kind. We've got no idea what caused it. Yoiko nearly went crazy trying to track down the problem.
That's not what I meant, Ukyo replied. What happened with the mission? What happened with Ranma? I heard gunfire.
After you collapsed, all hell broke loose. Ranma ripped seven shades of hell out of the helicopters, then disappeared into the forest. I don't know what happened to the chopper on the ground, and to be honest - after seeing what she did to the chopper that made it back - I don't want to know.
Damn it, Ukyo fumed. She tried to move, but found she could not. I just knew it wouldn't be so easy to take her down. Are the others okay?
Yeah. Scar wanted to drop in and extract you, but the chopper was so damaged that it had to pull back. They're all in the medical ward being checked out, but they're already formulating a rescue operation. The brass is nervous because Ranma is still in the vicinity, but Scar wants to come and get you out of there.
That's good, Ukyo replied hopefully. It was good to know that she had not been abandoned. Why aren't I dead? Where's Ranma?
We think she's nearby, but we can't pin down her position exactly. It's very important that we get you out of there before she decides to come back. Can you move? Put some distance between the two of you?
Not likely, Ukyo replied, struggling. Again, she was unable to move. I think I'm tied to something.
Tied to something?
Yeah. Give me a minute.
Ukyo forced her eyes open once more. Again, the burning light seared her mind, its bright luminance making her eyes water. She held her eyes open, struggling not to squint or close them, and slowly the intensity of the light faded. Scorching white light gave way to a more muted yellow glow that she recognised as sunlight.
She glanced around, wincing at the stabbing pain that coursed up and down her neck with every motion of her head. She was in a clearing, caked in mud, surrounded by shards of broken glass. She was sitting, and apparently tied to a tree. The ground around her was torn up, presumably from heavy gunfire.
It's a tree, she said, looking up at the sturdy trunk that rose overhead. I don't know what I'm tied with, but it feels like metal. There's glass everywhere. This place looks like a war zone.
A shape in her peripheral vision caught her eye. She twisted a little and squeezed her way around the tree to get a proper view of it. She gasped - the hulking, wrangled shape was the twisted shell of the transport helicopter. Little remained beyond a mangled wreck of jagged metal and smashed glass.
She could see the enormous tears in what remained of the door, and smell the fuel dripping from the ruptured tank. Inside, or rather among, the wreck lay the mangled remains of the pilot, his body skewered by a bloodied metal pole. The chopper was tipped on its side, its one remaining rotor blade rocking slightly back and forth.
Oh, Gods, she gasped. I see what you meant about the helicopters. That poor bastard never had a chance.
You've got to find a way out of those restraints, Ryoga said, an urgent tone to his voice. Ranma could come back any minute. If you can get away unnoticed, our situation will start to look a lot better.
I'll see what I can do, she replied, jiggling her arms against her restraints. They rattled, a dull metallic sound. Chains, perhaps? She cursed the lack of her spatial sense - it felt as though she had a thick towel wrapped around her head, obscuring her senses. A bizarre combination of blindness, numbness, and deafness. Any chance of getting Seraph Wing back online?
Believe me, I'm doing everything I can. The Core is online, and is transmitting the basics. Life signs, that sort of thing. It's just a matter of bringing the AI back online and reinitialising the Frame.
Sounds like a piece of cake. You do that, I'll see if I can stand up.
I'll let you know the moment I'm finished. Don't worry, Ukyo. I'll get you out of this somehow.
Thanks, she replied, realising after she spoke how irritated she had sounded. She ceased her struggles for a moment, composed herself, and tried to convey some of the gratitude she genuinely felt for his company. I mean that, Ryoga. Thank you.
I understand, came the reply. Just hang in there.
The world was green and grey, held in stark relief by a flickering, fluorescent glow. A constant thrumming drone underpinned the light's staccato rhythm, rumbling through the ons and offs, through the bright and the dark. The air smelled strongly - a harsh, chemical odour that assaulted the nose with its sterile cleanliness.
Akane blinked several times, dry eyes complaining painfully. The white light streaked across her vision, its brightness fanning a slow-burning fire behind her eyes. Squinting, she turned her head away and tried not to look into the light.
A soft feather pillow pressed against her cheek as she turned, its gentle texture seeming out of place in the cold, metallic room. Glancing downwards, she saw thick sheets and a blanket covering her body, felt the softness of the mattress below her. She felt strange - a small, niggling doubt lingered in the back of her mind, prodding her consciousness occasionally with the feeling that something was different.
Her mind felt groggy, as though she had woken from a sleep much too soon. Her muscles complained with each movement, seemingly reluctant to exert themselves, content to remain still. A vague nausea swam in her stomach, just noticeable enough to be distinctly unpleasant. She tried to sit up. A sharp, stabbing pain burst through her hip, eliciting a gasp of surprise. Clutching her leg, she fell back to the bed, and the pain subsided to a dull throb.
"Please, don't move. You're still injured."
"Who said that?" she asked, looking around the room as well as she could without moving. The light in the room was concentrated on her bed, leaving the far corners of the room darkened. "Who's there?"
"Don't be alarmed," said the voice. "You're in no danger. We're here to help."
"Show yourself!" Akane demanded, staring into the darkness from where the voice had come.
"As you wish."
Two figures stepped forward into the light, both dressed in military fatigues. Akane looked back and forth between the two, eyes widening as she realised they were almost identical. Both were tall, rugged, with piercing blue eyes and a crop of short black hair. One bore a long scar across his forehead and the other did not. That was the only real difference she could determine.
Both bore an undeniable resemblance to Ranma.
She swallowed, a cold ball of fear sinking slowly into her stomach, and pulled herself away from the pair despite her hip's protests. "Who are you?"
Whenever one moved, the other moved identically. It was an unnatural, uncanny synchronisation. She had seen that kind of synchronisation before, and the memory only made her more nervous. She wondered for a moment where her sword had gone.
"I am Hammer, and this is Anvil," spoke the one with the scar. He smiled. "We are part of Delta Seven-Five, the special-services covert infiltration team created by the Phoenix organisation. We were sent to oversee the assault team that engaged Ryukyu. I am glad to see you are recovering."
Suppressing a shudder at the sound of his voice, she tried not to look directly into either of their eyes. Within those eyes lurked the same emptiness, the same void that she had seen in the laboratory at Osaka. Even without looking at them, she could feel the nothingness touching the edge of her consciousness.
She wanted to run from them, to find her sword and defend herself, but she could not get up. Several moments passed, an awkward stillness hanging in the air as she tried to distance herself from them.
"You're Hidari, aren't you?" she asked after a time. "Why didn't you kill me?"
"Our mission was not to kill you," replied Hammer. "And yes, we are Hidari of a sort. Proto-Hidari, early prototypes created from the same genetic base."
"What was your mission?" Akane asked, curiosity suddenly overtaking her fear. If they had wanted to harm her, they would have done so already. The realisation made her feel better, although not by much. She had stopped trembling, at least, which was itself a great relief.
"To extract you from the Hokkaido and bring you here."
"Why? Where is 'here'?"
"You are aboard the Leviathan Spring, a Phoenix-owned submarine submerged off the coast of Japan," Anvil added. "You were brought here from Hokkaido by helicopter approximately ninety minutes ago, in order to keep you away from Ryukyu."
"Wh ... what?" Akane stammered, overwhelmed. Dizzying numbness descended over her head. "Submarine?"
"Please accept our apologies. We understand this is a strange situation, but it was felt that a submarine offered the best protection from Ryukyu. We have gone to great lengths to keep your location a secret from those who do not need to know it. You should be safe here."
Akane shuttled her eyes back and forth between the two, utterly confused. These were the hunters that were after her, and yet they were treating her wounds. Why weren't they attacking her? Wasn't that what she had been running from?
"Why did you kidnap me?" she asked, unable to think of a more pertinent question.
"Kidnap?" Hammer asked. He glanced over to Anvil, who looked surprised. He smiled, and let out a chuckle. "We didn't kidnap you. We were sent in to rescue you."
Akane stared at him, stunned. "Rescue me? What are you talking about?"
"You were lucky we found you when we did. We estimate, given Ryukyu's current state, that within two weeks you would have been dead. Perhaps less."
"I don't understand," Akane said, looking back and forth between the two doppelgangers. "What are you saying?"
Anvil's eyebrows rose in surprise as he looked to Hammer. "She doesn't know?"
"Ranma is naturally drawn to you because you are her polar opposite," Hammer explained. "She probably doesn't even understand why she does it, but in each generation she seeks out and kills Ryujin's host."
"It's a pattern we have observed many times," Anvil continued. "It seems that close proximity to Ryujin's host awakens Ryukyu's natural instincts within her. From what we can gather, once those instincts become dominant, she has no idea of what she is doing until long after Ryujin's host is dead."
"Her degeneration is unusually slow this time. That is the only thing that allowed us enough time to find you and get you out of there. Traditionally, Ryujin's host is dead within a very short period after coming into contact with Ranma."
"You're lying," Akane countered, folding her arms. She put on a brave face, trying to ignore the sudden chill that ran through her veins. "I don't believe you. Ranma was protecting me. I want to go back to her!"
"Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant," Hammer replied. "Ranma was not protecting you. You may believe she was, perhaps even she believes she was, but she was not. The simple fact is, sooner or later Ranma is going to snap. Once she does, she will seek you out and she will kill you. It is simply Ryukyu's nature to seek out and destroy its opposite."
"And that is where we come in," Anvil said. "As you are, you don't stand a chance against her. We are going to help you."
Yoiko tapped at her keyboard, activating a multitude of surveillance probe modules she had stealthily installed throughout the network during her time aboard the Leviathan Spring. Nothing overt, just a bit of passive observation. Data streams, voice traffic, she could silently route it all to her PC and nobody would be any the wiser. This was far more her style of hacking than the inventory record intrusion job that had been foisted on her by her brother.
She had done all she could to assist in the repair and reinitialisation of Seraph Wing - the software side of things was functioning perfectly. The problem was hardware-based, and that was Ryoga's side of things. With her usefulness in that arena exhausted, she had turned to intelligence gathering.
Ryoga's direct link with Seraph Wing had alerted them to the system's failure during the mission, and the subsequent mission abort. They were the support team for the Seraph Wing system, and yet they had not been told about the failure. That annoyed her immensely. She did not know why they were being kept in the dark about the failure, but she did not plan on staying there if she could help it.
Something had gone wrong during the mission. Seraph Wing should not have failed, and its failure certainly should not have knocked Ukyo out. There was something fishy going on - she could feel it. There was a reason why the military was being so quiet about the mission's outcome, and she intended to find it.
The military's weakness was its unwavering reliance on technology. Digital communication channels were commonplace, satellite feeds and wireless networks were the norm aboard the Leviathan Spring. They were all encrypted, of course, but she had the ability and the tenacity to get around such problems. If she could find out exactly what had gone on during the mission, she might be able to give Ryoga some useful information that he could pass directly to Ukyo via their link. That was how she justified her use of the probes to herself, anyway. She was reasonably confident that a military tribunal would not see it that way.
Picking up her favourite coffee mug, she took a sip of the strong black liquid inside and glanced around the laboratory. Work was proceeding as normal. None of the others even knew the mission had gone ahead. Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the task at hand. A multitude of audio and data streams were being recorded directly to her hard drive, and with the headphones she was wearing she could switch between the audio streams at will, listening in with ease on the various conversations being communicated back and forth across the sub. Almost everyone in the lab who used a computer wore headphones on some occasions to listen to music while they worked, so she was confident her task would not draw undue attention. That was just the way she liked it.
This is getting me nowhere, Ukyo growled as she struggled helplessly against her bonds. She could feel the warmth of her blood oozing over her hands, the result of endless friction against the rough bark of the tree, but she no longer cared.
She had been struggling for what felt like hours, although she had no idea how long it had really been. She was used to - thanks to Seraph Wing's chronometer - knowing the exact time, but with the AI offline she could do little but guess. She growled in frustration as she rattled her chains, feeling utterly helpless.
I think I've fixed the problem, Ryoga said, his voice breaking the tension.
Yeah. Hold on, I'm going to try reinitialising the system. This might not work.
Ceasing her struggles, she leaned back against the tree trunk and waited. A low hum filled her ears, a twinge of anticipation squeezed her stomach, and she held her breath.
Suddenly, a violent jolt of electricity surged through her body, forcing a scream from her mouth as her body writhed, muscles contorting as a high-voltage current burned through her body and into the ground below. As quickly as it had come it was gone again, leaving her slumped against the tree.
Oh, Gods, I'm sorry!
Ukyo groaned and raised her head, which fell backwards and bumped against the tree trunk. She coughed, a painful burning sensation filling her lungs, and let out a slow, shaky breath. Through her stinging, watering eyes she saw what appeared to be tiny wisps of steam wafting from her mouth.
Are you okay? Ryoga asked frantically. I screwed up, the Frame overloaded. Gods, I'm sorry!
Don't worry about it, she managed to say. I'm fine. Just ... please, don't do that again. It really, really hurts.
I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm so sorry--
Ryoga, she interrupted, putting as much firmness into her mental voice as she could manage. I forgive you. Stop apologising. I need you to concentrate.
Okay ... okay, Ryoga replied, obviously flustered.
What was the problem? she prodded.
The Frame overloaded, there must be some internal damage in the fibres, or perhaps in the control subsystems, or maybe -- there's a thousand different components that could have caused it.
What can you do to fix it?
There's nothing I can do about it, not without access to the physical structure of the Frame. There's only so much I can do from here.
Okay, so what can you do?-/P>
I guess ... I guess I could reinitialise the Core and the AI without bringing the Frame online. That way, the AI could repair the Frame itself.
Sounds good to me. I knew you could come up with something.
It'll take me a while to decouple the Frame from the Core remotely. Hang in there.
Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere.
Hammer stood with his back to Akane, looking up at the ceiling, apparently deep in concentration. After a long pause, he spoke.
"The Hidari were originally designed as an anti-Ryukyu weapon. It was believed that the most effective weapon to combat Ranma would be Ranma herself. A DNA sample obtained in the fifties presented that opportunity, and the Hidari were the result of that research."
"However, the project has been met with nothing but failure," Anvil continued. "Despite continual improvements to each generation, the clones have never been able to match Ranma in conventional combat. They are almost perfect copies of Ranma, but not quite perfect enough."
"It is ironic that the clones are bred for a single purpose, and that purpose is one they can never achieve," Hammer observed with a slow nod of his head. He gave a wry smile. "Their failure has been so absolute that they have begun to revere Ranma as an undefeatable enemy."
"They have created their own mythology surrounding her. Some call her 'Waterskin' because of the liquid properties of the cloak she wears. Others call her 'Shafan', the demon who tried to burn the skies. They have a dozen different names for her. It's all nonsense, of course. They treat her almost as a religious figure, the leader of that which they stand against."
Hammer sat at the edge of Akane's bed, his weight tilting the mattress slightly, causing Akane to slide slightly toward him. He smiled at her, but kept his distance.
"Despite their failings, they still serve a purpose as loyal, dependable troops. We have used them many times against Ranma, and to try and make contact with you. One almost succeeded, but was killed."
Akane nodded slowly, memories of a lone Hidari fighting Ranma in a cave long ago returning to her mind. That was the first Hidari she had ever seen - the first of many. Ranma had fought and killed many since then, but the first indelibly marked her memory.
That clone had called Ranma "Waterskin", just as Anvil had said. And just as Anvil had said, that Hidari had tried to take her away from Ranma. There had been no threat, no attack. Just five words: "I want to help you."
"A Hidari tried to kill me in Osaka," she said, fixing Hammer with a challenging gaze. "It certainly weren't trying to help me."
"The incident at facility 719 was regrettable," Hammer replied, unfazed. "Those Hidari had been germinated only hours before. They did not have developed personalities. They would have attacked anything that came near them."
Akane slumped back against her pillow and let out a long, slow sigh. The words of the pair did coincide with her own experience, but she refused to believe what they said so easily. That said, the fact that they had not killed her the moment they found her - as Ranma had said they would - swayed the argument in their favour.
Even so, she was not about to abandon everything Ranma had told her, showed her, over the past few months. These Hidari gave off an unnatural, sickly aura that hung over them, a stench of artificiality. They were abominations, and she could feel the presence of Ryujin inside her, urging her away from them. Such an innate distrust was hard to ignore.
She closed her eyes and silently wished that Ranma was with her. No matter what the two proto-Hidari were saying, she desired Ranma's presence above all else. Her need clawed at her mind, an urge that could not be ignored.
Was this the compulsion Hammer had spoken of? Was it nothing more than her genetic makeup that compelled her to seek out Ryukyu?
She did not desire Ryukyu's company. It was not the dragon that compelled her thoughts, there was no uncontrollable instinct. The plaintive cries inside her mind, the longing and desire, they were her own. She did not want Ryukyu. She wanted - needed - to be with Ranma. Ranma.
"We have been watching you for quite some time now, Akane. You are the most advanced Ryujin we have yet encountered. Your compatibility with the Ryujin phenotype is almost one hundred percent. This is why we believe you have the best chance of stopping Ryukyu."
"Compatibility?" Akane asked, drawn from her reverie. The word brought to mind the laboratory results Ranma had found in Osaka. "What do you mean, compatibility?"
"The human body is not naturally designed to play host to an entity such as Ryujin. Each generation of your family has grown more and more compatible with the Ryujin phenotype. Essentially, it is accelerated evolution. Even so, it has taken nearly nine hundred years for your family's genetic structure to adapt to provide a suitable host. You must understand, though, that in terms of evolution, this is little more than the blink of an eye."
"Evolution ..." Akane mumbled, wide-eyed. "Gods, that's what it meant."
"That said," interrupted Anvil, "your own advancement is not yet complete. Your body is not yet fully evolved. We can't take the risk of waiting for your development to finish. For this reason, we wish to accelerate your development, and support it with a defensive system that will be implanted within your body."
"A defensive system? What kind of system?" Akane asked, clutching the blanket tightly to herself. She did not like the sound of the word 'implant'. "You're not implanting anything into me!"
"Please, allow us the opportunity to explain. Our technical expert will be here shortly to provide the details. Put simply, it will allow you to stand up to Ranma on even terms when she comes for you."
"'When'? I thought you said I was safe here."
"Ranma will come for you, it is inevitable. We can only delay her, we cannot stop her. That task falls to you."
Akane lowered her head to the pillow and looked up at the light overhead. She felt Hammer's weight leave the bed, but did not move. She knew they were lying to her, trying to trick her for a reason and purpose she did not understand. A feeling of smallness overcame her, a realisation that she was but a small part of a very large world.
"Get some rest. We'll call for the technical specialist. He will be here shortly to answer your questions."
She heard the words, but did not respond. The voice was Hammer's, or perhaps Anvil's. It was impossible to tell their voices apart. The very existence of those two hollowed-out shells, filled to overflowing with life energy stolen from the water, repelled her. The very idea of believing what they had said to her was almost laughable.
And yet, she found herself wondering. Some of what they had said sounded plausible. Part of her mind wondered if the two Hidari were telling the truth, and what it meant if they were. She shook her head, disbelieving. She had spent so long with Ranma, day in and day out, every waking moment. Ranma had become her life, the redheaded girl had become closer to her than anyone else. She simply could not imagine Ranma turning on her. The look on Ranma's face when their eyes met ... they were true friends. More than friends. Companions, partners.
And yet, she had seen Ranma's brutal barbarism directed against many Hidari in those months of friendship. Always Hidari. It was true that Ranma harboured a distinct disdain for humans, but it was always Hidari that were the object of her anger. But then, she could understand Ranma's dislike for the artificial constructs. She felt it herself, in the very core of her being.
She sighed and clutched one hand with the other, imagining it to be Ranma's. Her thoughts were running in circles, without a start nor an end. Despite what the Hidari had said, she still wanted Ranma to come and find her. Even if all they had said was true, she still wanted to be with Ranma. Death in Ranma's arms was preferable to this uncertainty and loneliness.
Yoiko leaned back in her chair and spun a ball-point pen back and forth between the fingers of one hand, letting out a sigh as she looked back and forth over the mounting pile of data she had amassed. There was nothing really of use; a deployment analysis report, briefing details for the rescue operation, but nothing that offered any insights into what had happened on the ground.
There was very little traffic regarding Seraph Wing's operation, which was information in and of itself. As part of the support team she had read the operations reports in great depth from the moment of the system's initial activation - they had always been extremely verbose and detailed. The details about this deployment, however, were minimal to say the least.
Tapping her pen's tip against her mouth, she stared off into the distance as she pondered just what the lack of information meant. Obviously, a lack of analysis meant the mission was being kept quiet for one reason or another. But why? What purpose would concealing Seraph Wing's failure serve?
Sitting back in her chair, she looked up at the ceiling and tried to think the situation through thoroughly. It had been a long shift, however, and she found herself struggling to think clearly. A stinging pain flared up behind her right eye and she squinted it closed, frowning.
Great, a headache. Just what I need.
She scolded herself for not wearing her reading glasses. It ended in a headache, every single time. No matter how many times it happened, she never learned. Pulling open her desk drawer, she pulled out a bottle of aspirin pills and her glasses. Swallowing two pills with a swig of cold coffee, she put on her glasses and resumed reading the list of items her probes had retrieved.
The list was relatively short. There really was a dearth of anything useful. She had retrieved every piece of data recorded by the Red fireteam and yet she had found absolutely nothing of value--
She sat up with a start, her headache forgotten. She had been so preoccupied with Red fireteam that she had not even noticed the lack of reports for Blue fireteam. While Red's documentation was sparse, Blue's was totally absent. There wasn't even a log entry for their return.
What the hell is going on here?
Perhaps, she reasoned, Blue's radio communications might offer some hint of what happened during the mission. It was a long shot, but it was the best she could think of.
It was a moment's work to bring up her copy of the archived radio communication from the mission. Compared to the deep probes required to retrieve what little post-mission data there was, it was child's play. A few deft keystrokes later and she was listening to an audio recording of the radio chatter from the Blue fireteam's helicopter.
Greetings, My Lady.
Aha! Got it!
Hello, Seraph Wing, Ukyo said, a note of relief in her mental voice. She smiled to herself. Thank you, Ryoga. I knew you could do it.
I was not properly shut down, My Lady. Commencing internal diagnostic.
Do it quickly, Seraph Wing. I need to get out of here.
I shall do my best, My Lady.
Ukyo leaned back against the tree and let the supreme clarity of her spatial sense wash over her. It was seven forty-two in the morning, the ambient temperature was 11 degrees Celsius, she was securely fastened to a tree that was three-point-four-one metres high, and she had three fractured ribs.
The news was entirely bad, but she couldn't have been happier to hear it.
It's working, Ryoga, she said, elated. I can sense things again.
Be careful, Ryoga replied. The system isn't exactly stable at the moment. The Frame is dead and unless Seraph Wing can fix it, it's going to stay that way for the time being. That means pretty much no biokinetic plating, very restricted feedback supplements for your muscles, and the range of your spatial sense is severely limited.
It's better than nothing, she replied, cautiously optimistic. Thank you.
Don't forget, you need to get out of there as soon as you can. Get to somewhere we can pick you up with one of the choppers. Once you're back aboard the Spring, we can repair the Wing properly.
Agreed, she replied with a nod. She wanted to find Ranma, but she was not stupid enough to think she could put up any kind of fight in her current condition. Without the protection of her biokinetic plating, she became acutely aware of the fact that she was without Seriatim. In the rush to deploy, she had been unable to grab it from her quarters.
The diagnostic is complete, My Lady. Several components of the Core are damaged but none critically so. System operation is within nominal parameters. The Frame is the most damaged component - I have prioritised repair operations accordingly.
You can fix it?
Yes, My Lady. I estimate time to repair the Frame module at approximately three hours, thirty-two minutes, sixteen seconds. Mark.-/P>
Ask it why it shut down, Ukyo.
Okay, she replied. Why did you shut down, Seraph Wing?
I received an encrypted medium-range burst transmission containing an emergency shutdown command. Authentication procedures verified its validity, and I was thus compelled to shut down the Core's main operations. I apologise, but I had no choice.
Unknown, My Lady. I can not pinpoint its origin.
A burst transmission? Ryoga asked, surprised. That doesn't make any sense. We're the only ones who know the access schema.
What does that mean?
It means either someone hacked into the system, or the transmission was sent from the Leviathan Spring.
From the sub? Who would do that? Ukyo asked, alarm rising.
It doesn't make any sense. A medium-range transmission wouldn't reach you from the Spring ... damn it, you don't have time to worry about this now. Concentrate on getting out of there. The military doesn't know about our link, so you'll have to get into contact with them yourself somehow. I'm going to see if I can dig up anything here.
"Colonel Hunter, we have a task for you."
"What is it?"
"We have another Seraph Wing candidate. Bring your technical specialist down to the lab. We will require his assistance."
"Another candidate? How? Ukyo was the only suitable--"
"No questions, Colonel. Escort your technical specialist to the lab immediately. I have transferred the information you'll require for his briefing."
"All right, but I need something in return."
"What do you require?"
"I need to send out a search team. Mule's chopper disappearing isn't something I can just pretend not to notice. Pretty soon, people are going to notice they haven't come back. If I don't send out a search and rescue, the troops will get suspicious."
"Very well. Conduct your search. I would advise you to keep your troops under control, Colonel. We've seen what happens when you don't."
"Yes ... yes. I understand."
Ryoga's frown deepened as he read the Seraph Wing system log for the fifth time. It simply did not make any sense. The system was operating perfectly right up until the moment of shutdown. There was no reason for the system to simply go offline as it had.
What worried him most was the manner of shutdown - it was the emergency system termination, intended to be used in the case of critical system failure. No safety measures were taken - the system simply powered down, without terminating any biofeedback loops or nervous system connections. It was a matter of luck that the Frame was not operating at full capacity at the time of shutdown, or Ukyo's entire nervous system could have been incinerated.
The emergency system termination command was encoded with the highest level of security available. It was never intended to be triggered remotely. The system was designed to activate the procedure at the brink of meltdown, when all other options had been exhausted. The very idea of it being triggered remotely, and so easily, chilled him to the core. How had such a security breach taken place?
There was no record of the burst transmission Seraph Wing claimed took place. Admittedly, that was because he hadn't explicitly enabled a logging process for such transmissions, as he had not been expecting any. He had since activated a detailed log process specifically for burst transmissions.
He picked up a ball-point pen and began twirling it between his fingers, unsure of how to proceed. Without physical access to Seraph Wing, he could not obtain any useful information from the hardware. The system logs were detailed, but not detailed enough. He sighed, feeling suddenly helpless. Ukyo was relying on him, and he was failing to deliver.
There were few possibilities he could think of. Either the system failed, or it was tampered with. Both seemed unlikely - the system was both well-designed and secure. Despite that, however, one of the two possibilities had come to pass. Which one, however, he did not know for sure.
He rubbed his temples, trying to put out of his mind the everpresent worry that Ukyo was on her own with Ranma nearby, and failing completely. He knew it would do no good to worry, but he could not stop himself. There had to be something he could do.
Reaching past his workstation, he picked up his phone receiver and dialled Yoiko's extension.
"Hibiki," came her voice as the phone was answered.
"Yoiko, it's me. I need your help with something."
"Good timing, I was just about to call you."
"Why?" he asked, curiosity piqued. Perhaps she had been more successful in her efforts than he. "Find anything useful?"
"You might say that, yeah," Yoiko replied, sounding perturbed. "I've been tracking the satellite communications. It turns out that Ukyo wasn't the only one left behind after the mission."
"What do you mean?"
"A couple of choppers are missing. One was lost when Ranma attacked it, but the other was Mule's, and - get this - he wasn't anywhere near the fighting. According to the radio logs, the closest he got was to pick up a few passengers."
"Who?" Ryoga asked, genuinely interested.
"Two members of Scar's team. According to Scar's log, Hammer and Anvil didn't return with them, so it must have been them. The interesting bit is their other passenger - a female gunshot victim left behind by Ranma."
Ryoga ducked his head behind his monitor as a pair of research assistants walked past his desk. His was a relatively isolated area of the laboratory. Few came near his station, and those who did usually did not stay for long. Even so, he was not totally alone. When he was sure the uninvited visitors were gone, he raised his head once more.
"A female?" he asked, his voice lowered.
"Yeah. I really had to dig deep to get the communication logs out. I don't really have any physical details, but I do have one very interesting tidbit of info. According to Harper's medical log, the girl was regenerating herself. Apparently, her wound pretty much healed itself."
"Regenerating herself?" Ryoga stammered, taken aback. "That means she's either ... Gods, no wonder they are keeping it quiet!"
"I know. Ryoga, there's more going on here than we know. They've always said there were only two beings that could regenerate themselves - Ranma and Ukyo. If they were lying about that, what else are they lying about?"
"Let's not jump to conclusions. They might not have known either," Ryoga replied, trying his best to stay calm and rational. "Where did the chopper land?"
"It didn't. The chopper's last transmission indicates they were heading out over the ocean. After that, nothing. There's no log entry for their landing, and there's no way they'd have enough fuel to stay in the air this long."
"So they either landed somewhere else, or they crashed."
"There's a lot of radio traffic flying around now talking about a search and rescue operation for the chopper, so I'm guessing they crashed."
Ryoga chewed his pen thoughtfully, trying to come to grips with what he had heard. If what Yoiko had found was true, it meant there was either more than one dragon, or more than one of Ukyo's kind. What he didn't quite understand was why the military would go to such great lengths to keep that information secret.
"What do you think?" Yoiko asked.
"I'm not sure what to make of it," Ryoga replied honestly. "Keep digging, see what you can find. There's too much going on for this to all be a coincidence."
"It doesn't make any sense, and it still doesn't tell us what caused Seraph Wing to fail," Yoiko pointed out.
"Actually, that's why I was calling. Apparently, it was a burst transmission containing the emergency shutdown sequence."
"What? That's impossible!"
"That's what I thought, too," Ryoga replied. "I managed to get the AI back online, and that's what it's reporting. From what I can gather from the hardware's diagnostics, it would seem that's what happened. I want you to look into it, see what happened. Someone had to send that transmission, and I want to know who it was."
"Okay, you got it," Yoiko replied. "I'll get to the bottom of it. If it happened, I'll let you know who sent it."
"Thanks, sis. I owe you another one."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll add it to the collection. Listen, I'd better--"
Ryoga's attention was caught by movement in his peripheral vision. When he looked, he saw Colonel Hunter, flanked by a pair of lieutenants, heading directly for him. The look on Hunter's face and the brisk pace of his stride suggested he was not in any mood for light conversation.
"I gotta go," Ryoga said, interrupting Yoiko. "The Colonel's coming. Keep searching, Ukyo is counting on us. I'll call back as soon as I can."
He placed the receiver back in its cradle and switched his computer to a relatively benign-looking application moments before the Colonel arrived at his desk. Pretending to be surprised, he looked up at Hunter.
"You are to come with me," Hunter said, not bothering with the formalities.
"Now?" Ryoga asked, somewhat taken aback. Perhaps, he realised, the Colonel was on to him, and this was his escort to the brig. He swallowed, and hoped he was not sweating as much as he thought he was.
The Colonel's speedy pace had not slowed at all, and Ryoga found himself struggling to keep up. His cane clattered noisily with each hurried step, shaking back and forth each time he put his weight upon it as he sped along as best he could. The lieutenants did an admirable job of maintaining their position behind him, matching his somewhat erratic pace perfectly.
He had been marched along for several minutes, down corridors he did not recognise. The rumble of the engine room and the power generation facilities grew louder with each step, indicating they were moving aft, but beyond that he knew nothing.
They came to an enormous door, two guards standing at rigid attention to either side. The Colonel saluted them as they approached, and the two guards returned the gesture.
The Colonel stopped as they reached the door and Ryoga stopped behind him, his aching knee grateful for the rest. He reached down and rubbed it gingerly, tender flesh complaining at the contact. His knee had been bothering him lately, and the unexpected walk had not done it any good. Glancing up from his knee, he watched the two guards remove small cards from their shirt pockets and simultaneously slide them through two card readers on either side of the door. A speaker above the door chirped a series of beeps, and with a hiss the door slid open.
"Come with me, Ryoga."
He nodded and stepped after the Colonel, noticing only after the door began to close behind him that the lieutenants were not following. He had never even seen this door before, let alone where it led.
His footfalls were loud, metallic, the floor below feeling very much like metal grating. The room was dark, leaving him with little idea of just what he was standing upon. When the floor juddered violently and began to slowly descend he nearly fell, only to be stopped by the Colonel's hand upon his shoulder.
"Careful, you don't want to fall."
"No, Sir," he replied automatically, silently grateful for the help. The way his footsteps echoed, it seemed that the shaft they were descending through was long indeed. He had always know the Leviathan Spring was large, but it was only in that moment that he began to appreciate its sheer -enormity-.
"Several hours ago a strike mission was launched against Ranma Saotome by members of Alpha Team. Officially, the mission was a failure. However, the story being told is not entirely accurate."
"Sir?" Ryoga asked, feigning ignorance. He knew a lot more about the operation than he was supposed to. Even knowing of its existence was more than he was supposed to know.
"While the mission was a failure in that Ranma herself was not killed, the team was able to salvage the operation and take custody of another individual."
"Another individual, Sir?" he asked, no longer needing to pretend to be surprised.
"Yes. This individual has displayed remarkable regenerative capabilities very similar to those exhibited by Ukyo Kuonji. That is why you have been called upon."
The elevator juddered to a halt, and another set of doors opened before them, revealing a well-lit corridor beyond. Unlike the uniformly grey corridors he was used to, these corridors were predominantly black.
"You want me to install another Seraph Wing?" Ryoga asked, taken aback as realisation dawned. "But the hardware was tailored specifically to Ukyo!"
"The new subject shows every indication of being compatible with the system. Modifications will have to be made to the hardware design, but you are capable of making those changes."
"I ... I suppose, I mean, I'd never really considered ...."
"The decision has already been made."
Hunter led Ryoga from the elevator shaft and down the corridor, resuming punishing pace he had established. Ryoga looked along the corridor as they proceeded, glancing to and fro at every intersection they passed. They took several turns, their path becoming increasingly convoluted and mazelike. The corridors themselves were bare, with no real distinguishing features. He tried to pay attention to where he was being led, but knew he could easily get lost in such a place.
There were two important differences that did leap to his attention, however: no security cameras, and no military personnel. The corridors were mostly empty, but the few people he did see were not dressed in military uniform.
"What is this place?"
"This is the Delta laboratory. Its existence is classified at the highest level. Officially, this entire area is designated as 'storage section 9'. That is all most people will ever know. This is the laboratory that developed the Seraph Wing AI construct, among other things."
Ryoga reeled at that revelation. He had always imagined the Seraph Wing AI being developed in some far-off laboratory, not aboard the very vessel it was being used upon.
"Obviously," Hunter continued, "You are not to divulge anything you see, hear or learn in this laboratory. The penalties for doing so are severe, to say the least. You have only been permitted to enter this area because of your specialist knowledge, and because I personally vouched for your reliability and integrity. I would recommend for your own safety you do not abuse my trust."
"Understood, Sir," Ryoga acknowledged, trying his hardest not to imagine those penalties. He fell silent as they continued along the corridor, his imagination defying his wishes.
"Here we are," Hunter said, gesturing toward a plain black door. "This is the containment facility. The subject is alone and unarmed, so you have nothing to worry about on that front. Make your initial assessment, and return to me when you are finished."
"You're not ... coming with me?" Ryoga asked, alarm bells ringing loudly in his mind.
"No. It's important that you gain her trust, if this procedure is to be successful. Barging in with a military escort on your first meeting is hardly likely to help in that regard. Don't worry, though, she has just been sedated and is quite docile."
"I don't know if I should--"
"Relax. There's nothing to be afraid of. She's just a person, she's not going to hurt you. She's more afraid of this than you are. You'll be fine. Just go in there, conduct your analysis, and try to reassure her. Don't ask too many questions, though. We don't want her to feel like she's being interrogated."
Ryoga stared at the Colonel for several moments, unsure of what to do. Some tiny part of him hoped the Colonel would smile, that it would all be a big joke, and that he wasn't being sent in to deal with whatever lay in that room by himself. There was no change in Hunter's expression. Ryoga let out a defeated sigh.
"If you're sure, Sir," he replied, his firm voice belying his nervousness. He took a step toward the door, and it slid open to welcome him. He was entirely convinced, despite his own curiosity, that there were many people vastly more qualified to handle this situation than him. A question came to mind. Pausing, he looked over his shoulder at the Colonel. It seemed almost ludicrous to ask, but it was as good a place to start as any.
"What's her name?"
"Tendo. Akane Tendo."
Analysis of the tree is complete, My Lady. The trunk shows no signs of rot or other structural weakness.
That's just great, Ukyo said with a frustrated sigh. So how am I supposed to get out of this?
The most likely method of escape is to break the chain holding you. Once the Frame module is online, you will be easily able to do so.
Ukyo scowled. It had been only two hours, three minutes and thirteen seconds since the repairs had started. Waiting another hour for the Frame to come online was far too long. I need something faster than that. See if you can find a weak link in the chain, or something. Anything.
As you wish, My Lady. Commencing analysis.
She glanced around once more, uncomfortably aware of her own helplessness. Even if there had been a pair of bolt cutters right in front of her, with her hands so securely held there was no way to use them. It was all she could do to shuffle back and forth slightly against the tree. So tight were the bonds that even breathing was difficult.
Analysis complete. There are no structural flaws in the chain sufficient to weaken its integrity.
"Damn it!" she yelled, infuriated. She struggled wildly against her chains, yanking as hard as she could against them. Her arms and wrists scraped and scratched against the rough tree bark, cutting another dozen scratches across her skin. With a cry of frustration she gave up and slumped once more against the tree.
This is getting me nowhere! she said, panting. Where the hell is that search and rescue team?
I do not detect any air traffic in the vicinity, Seraph Wing replied. Although my range is severely limited.
That was a rhetorical question, she replied. She wanted to rub her forehead to ease the painful headache that was building in her head, but the bonds that held her denied her even that relief. I swear, when I get out of this I'm going to beat the living hell out of Ranma Saotome, Frame or not.
I would advise against that course of action, My Lady. Without the Frame you will not survive.
Damn it, I was-- oh, just forget it!
As you wish, My Lady.
A loud cracking sound rumbled over the mountainside, sending a flock of birds retreating from the trees into the sky. A long, slow creaking sound followed, and finally a thunderous crash. Ukyo watched the birds scatter skywards.
What the hell was that?
Unknown, My Lady. It would seem that something has felled a tree.
Another crash followed, and another, and another. Birds filled the sky, retreating from the disturbance. Ukyo watched the multitudes fly overhead at great speed. The sky cleared a few moments later, leaving a noticeable silence.
I'm detecting movement in the treetops, My Lady. I believe it may be--
"Ranma!" Ukyo yelled, jolting to attention as the cloaked figure landed silently before her with catlike grace. Ranma slowly rose to her feet, the puddle of black liquid at her feet drawing into her cloak as she stood. They were both still for a moment, simply staring at each other.
The moment passed, and Ranma moved - in the blink of an eye, she was upon Ukyo. Ranma's hand closed around her throat, frozen fingers robbing her body of feeling as they tightened their grip. Ukyo flailed hopelessly against the tree, unable to do anything more than gurgle as Ranma's grip cut off the blood supply to her head.
She felt herself being lifted, her back scraping against the tree as Ranma raised her easily with one hand. Faint creaking and snapping sounds registered in her ears as the thick chains holding her gave way. She tried to move her newly-freed arms and legs, but her body was rapidly succumbing to unconsciousness and her limbs refused to obey.
Ranma's face drew near and bitterly cold breath washed over Ukyo's face, robbing it of what little feeling remained. The abysmal chill penetrated her entire body, leaving her no doubt of its cause: Ranma was quite literally squeezing the life from her, leaving behind only cold, empty nothingness.
She looked into Ranma's eyes as they watched her dying, the white-hot fire of apocalyptic fury burning bright behind the frozen blue orbs and their minatory stare. The world began to spin, the sun's light fading as she felt the grip of unconsciousness closing upon her mind.
Just as the world faded to black she felt the grip on her throat relent and a torrent of air flooded into her lungs - a physiological slap in the face that brought her from her torpor. She coughed, choked, forced her watering eyes open. Ranma still stood before her, still staring at her, still holding her body aloft.
Ranma spoke, three words escaping her mouth in a feral, guttural growl.
"Where is she?"