Ryoga hobbled across the hard metal floor of the Pillar's tertiary laboratory, acutely aware of how inaccurately he was reproducing the limping walk that had until a few minutes ago been second nature to him. His cheeks burned red as he slowly made his way toward his desk, hoping beyond hope that the prickling sensation running up and down his spine was fuelled by his own paranoia and not the curious stares of the other staff.
He wanted to toss aside the now-useless walking cane that had been his constant companion ever since his fateful encounter with Ranma. He wanted to break the damn thing over his knee and burn it. He wanted to jump up and down, to run to his desk, to do all of the things he was not able to do. But no, he was stuck pretending to limp.
Pretending badly, he thought. Gods, I bet they're all staring at me.
After several moments of agonising nervousness, he sank into the safe haven that was his cubicle. Shielded from prying eyes, he sat at his desk and leaned his cane against it. Finally, he was able to stop worrying about pretending - for a while, at least.
After a quick glance around to ensure he wasn't being watched - something that was becoming a habit, a damning testament to the increasingly clandestine nature of his operations - he picked up his phone receiver and dialled Yoiko's extension.
"Hibiki," came his sister's voice.
"Yoiko, it's me," he replied, hoping that his voice was steadier than his pounding heart. Its insistent rhythm had not slowed at all since he had woke. He was entirely sure that the back of his lab coat was drenched in sweat, a conviction that only added to his nervousness.
"Ryoga?" she asked. "What's wrong? You sound freaked out. What did the Colonel have to say?"
"Come to my desk," he said, glancing around once more, and hung up. The paranoia that had dogged him all the way back from the Delta Seven-Five labs would not subside or relent. It certainly would not allow him to discuss matters over the phone.
Before the receiver was back in its cradle, his other hand was already dipping into his top drawer to retrieve the neural interface units he had hidden beneath a nondescript pile of paper. To the casual observer they appeared to be little more than earpieces, and their skin-tone colouration made them difficult to see from a distance. They were deceptively simple in appearance.
Seven in all, the units were small enough that all seven fit easily into the palm of his hand. Really, he only needed one unit. However, always the cautious individual, he had opted to create several, just in case. It was a habit he had developed long ago.
He tipped them all, save one, onto his desk. The remaining unit he placed into his left ear. There was a brief, itching sensation as the unit latched onto the edges of his ear canal, but he had come to expect that. A moment later, the irritating feeling that his ear was blocked disappeared and his hearing returned to normal as the unit's auditory compensators kicked in, emitting a single beep to signal that the transmitter was ready.
He would have preferred not to remove the unit at all, but - as inconspicuous as it was - the Colonel was a very observant man, and Ryoga was not one to take unnecessary risks.
Ukyo? he thought. The unit automatically latched onto the neural signal and established a communications lock with the remote receiver. Ukyo? Can you hear me?
Ukyo watched the ocean roll past, the sun's light a thick reflective band of yellow amidst the endless turquoise swell. Since they had left the island, the view outside had changed very little. Similarly, little had changed inside the chopper. She wanted to speak to her teammates, and yet she could not think of the words to say. Not a word had passed inside the helicopter for several minutes.
My Lady, I have completed my final diagnostics of the Frame components. The system is fully repaired, and the initialisation module is fully charged.
Good, Ukyo replied, distracted by her thoughts.
I would, however, recommend against activating the plating at this point. It would be tactically unwise to do so in such an unpredictable environment.
Agreed, Ukyo replied. I'll let you know when to activate it.
As you wish, My Lady.
The Frame's reactivation was good news, of course. She could not stop herself from wondering, however, what use biokinetic plating would be against the kind of damage Ranma had inflicted. The Frame could protect her body, but it could not shield her mind. She chewed her lip, trying not to think too much about it.
She could not afford to think only of herself - she was not the only one in danger. Soldiers, even the most highly trained, were still only human. No matter how rigorous their training, eventually a highly tense situation will begin to take its toll.
She looked away from the ocean to gaze on the faces of her compatriots. All were showing the strain, the mental and physical exhaustion. None of them had slept the previous night, she realised, which only made things worse. Their eyes still carried that grim determination and resolution but had taken on a softer edge, the hardness concealed beneath a veil of stress and sleep deprivation.
She gave them a tired smile, which was the best she could manage. That they trusted her enough to allow Ranma aboard the chopper, to rest their very lives in her hands, was an immense weight upon her shoulders. She did not require sleep as they did, but nevertheless she felt just as drained as they.
It pained her to dwell on such things, but that pain was infinitely preferable to the boiling disgust that churned within her stomach at the very thought of what Ranma had done to her. That horrifying cold, the humiliating submission, the terrifying numbness - all were stinging reminders of Ranma's attack, and yet all paled in comparison to the blow she had dealt herself.
She could not forget that part of her had surrendered. Part of her had given in, offered itself completely to Ranma. The very notion chilled her to the core, but she could not ignore it. That part of her lived on, still desiring to give itself to Ranma, to lay back and accept Ranma as her master. Keeping that tiny voice quiet was a constant struggle; its endless chanting was growing increasingly hard to ignore.
Give yourself to her. You want her. You belong to her.
No!, she thought, furious. She wrenched open her eyes, not even realising that she had closed them. Her hands were tightly clutching her knees, and her four teammates were staring at her. Sniffing, she realised that tears were running down her cheeks.
Biting back her tears she gave the others a reassuring nod, trying to convince them she was all right. It was pointless, she knew. The looks of uncertainty in their eyes were as plain as day. They were all in trouble, and they knew it. She cursed herself for allowing her mind to return to that dismal moment. It would help no-one for her to dwell upon it.
Ukyo? Can you hear me?
Ryoga? she asked, startled. A hot flash of embarrassment burned her cheeks. She continued, feeling very much as though she had been caught doing something she should not have been. Is that you?
Yeah. I'm glad to hear your voice, Ryoga replied. I was worried about you. There's something I need to tell you.
It's good to hear from you too, she replied. Truthfully, she felt an intense guilt that had burst open inside her like an over ripened fruit the moment she heard his voice. The thought that he was concerned about her while she was submitting to Ranma's lustful advances bit as deeply into her as any sword strike ever could.
Where are you?
I'm ... in a chopper, coming back to the Spring.
What? How? Ryoga asked, taken aback. The search team found you?
Yoiko peeked into his cubicle, a half-formed question upon her lips. He held up his hand to silence his sister as Ukyo answered.
Yeah, they did, came the reply, hesitantly followed by, and, uh, Ranma is aboard too.
She is? Ryoga asked, the perplexed expression on his face drawing an inquisitive stare from his sister. He gestured to the communication units on his desk. Realisation illuminated Yoiko's face and she quickly placed one of the units inside her ear, seating herself on the other side of his desk. Have you told the Colonel?
Yeah. I called him about twenty minutes ago. He said he'd prepare the launch bay for our arrival.
How did you restrain her? Ryoga asked. Did you get the Frame back online?
Uh, she's not exactly restrained, came Ukyo's response. There was a pregnant pause. She's holding me hostage. She's got a sword to my neck as we speak.
WHAT? Yoiko exclaimed through their shared communication channel, the sheer volume of her mental voice making Ryoga jump in surprise. He shot her a stern glare, hoping that Ukyo did not react similarly in her situation.
Yoiko? Ukyo asked. How did you--
Never mind that, Ryoga interrupted. What do you mean, Ranma is holding you hostage? Why? Are you okay?
She hasn't hurt me. I'm fine, Ukyo replied, with a distinct lack of conviction. She's looking for a girl named Akane. I told her the girl was aboard the Spring. I figured leading her back to the Spring was the best way to contain her. I'll reactivate the Frame once we're there and take her down.
She wasn't supposed to arrive conscious, never mind armed! Yoiko interjected, her interruption quickly stifled by a withering glare from her brother.
Gods, she's coming for the other one, Ryoga observed, his own thoughts unintentionally spilling into the communications channel.
The other one?
That's what I was going to tell you. A girl named Akane Tendo was brought aboard a couple of hours ago.
You mean she's ... actually there? Ukyo stammered, taken aback. She had used Akane's location as a bluff; to find out she was actually aboard the sub was a shock.
She quickly decided against a change of plans. To divert the chopper now would be dangerous. It would rouse Ranma's suspicion, and that was one thing she did not want to do. No; it was best to stick to the current plan. They would travel to the Spring and contain her there. Whether or not Akane was aboard was irrelevant.
Yeah, and that's not all, Ryoga continued. She's a dragon, just like Ranma. I've been ordered to install Seraph Wing.
A moment of stunned silence filled the communication band.
There's another dragon? Yoiko asked, awestruck.
Apparently so, her brother replied. I saw her with my own eyes. Gods, those eyes ....
Somehow, the thought of another dragon did not fill her with dread, as she expected it to. The prospect was not that surprising. The more she mulled it over, the more it made sense to her. She had never assumed there was only one dragon. In fact, the more she thought about it ....
Tendo. Where have I heard that name before?
Why the hell would they install Seraph Wing into a dragon? Yoiko wondered, putting Ukyo's next question into words. It's supposed to stop a dragon, not help one!
This is wrong. Something is very, very wrong, Ukyo said, feeling the blood drain from her face. She swallowed, the movement of her muscles grazing her skin against the edge of Ranma's sword as an unsettling notion sprung to life in her mind. There were only two possibilities that explained why Seraph Wing would be implanted into a dragon.
Either Phoenix doesn't intend to kill the dragons, Ryoga conjectured, apparently having followed the same line of reasoning, or Seraph Wing was created for some purpose other than self-defence.
Seraph Wing, what is your mission? Ukyo asked after a moment's thought, projecting her voice to Ryoga and Yoiko as well.
My Lady? Seraph Wing replied, its voice echoing through Ukyo's mind to be rebroadcast toward the Hibikis.
I want to know what your purpose is. What exactly were you designed to do?
To protect you, My Lady.
I consist of a multitude of subsystems. The Core and Frame work in tandem to produce the biokinetic plating that protects you in combat. The Frame also provides resonant biofeedback to enhance your perception, accelerate your cognitive processing and reflexes, and multiply your strength. The field it projects is used to gather data for a variety of sensors, which I can interpret to provide tactical information and advice.
The Core, in addition to generating the impenetrable plating, has a neural interface that allows us to communicate, as well as providing access to your communications array. The array allows for easy radio communication. The Core also houses the self-repair subsystem, which is capable of repairing damaged components as well as complementing your own innate regenerative capability.
Is that it?
Yes, My Lady.
Are you sure?
Yes, My Lady.
That doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, Ryoga said, sounding perplexed. It doesn't tell us why they would want to equip a dragon with the Wing.
No, no, she has a point, Yoiko interrupted. I see what she's saying.
What? Ryoga asked.
Seraph Wing gave a complete list of its components, Yoiko replied. Except it wasn't complete. There's a secondary communication subsystem, the one we're using to communicate right now. Seraph Wing doesn't know it exists. If we can add components without Seraph Wing knowing about them ...
... then others could do the same, Ryoga finished. Gods, you're absolutely right.
But why? Ukyo wondered.
We've both been over the schematics a thousand times, Yoiko said. There's nothing in there that we don't know about.
It could be hidden. Embedded inside a processor, who knows. We have to assume that there is something else built into the Core that we don't know about. Hell, perhaps Seraph Wing knows and just isn't telling us.
Who would do that? Ukyo asked. And how? Surely you would notice if someone changed your design?
I didn't design the Core. I did a lot of the neural interface work, and designed a lot of the subsystems, but the Core itself isn't my work.
Who, then? Yoiko?
No way, I just wrote software. The Core was designed by Dr. Ichigawa at the main Tokyo lab.
He's the main researcher behind the Seraph Initiative. He's the one who came up with the idea for the Seraph Wing system in the first place, Ryoga explained.
If anyone would know what the Wing was designed for, it would be him, Yoiko added. Dr. Ichigawa is a genius. He's probably got the whole design memorised.
Dr. Ichigawa ... I think I've heard that name before, Ukyo noted. I wonder if he has--
Ukyo turned her head, distracted mid-sentence by a bright white light on the horizon. Narrowing her eyes, she peered more closely at it.
Deep within the bowels of the Leviathan Spring, in a small room at the end of a darkened corridor inside what was officially known as 'Storage Section Nine', a delicate medical procedure was underway. The apparatus for this procedure was deceptively simple; little more than a small bag of clear fluid being fed intravenously into the arm of Akane Tendo.
To the casual observer - if there was ever such a thing in the Delta laboratory - it would be mistaken for a simple saline drip, or perhaps a sedative. However, the bag contained the culmination of tens of thousands of man-hours of research and development. It was no mere liquid; it was a concentrated mixture of specially engineered nutrients and stimulants designed for a single, very specific purpose.
It was a carefully-measured dosage, computed to the finest precision to have a predictable effect in a predictable timespan. The exact composition and concentration of the mixture had been calculated and re-calculated over the course of almost ten years to the most accurate degree possible. Every step in its production had been meticulously supervised, with absolutely no expense spared. It was a revolution of modern technology, a triumph of design and engineering.
As the liquid oozed into Akane's veins, her heart began to beat faster and faster, circulating the mixture throughout her entire body. However, it was not her body that consumed the nutrients. Just as the analysts and researchers had anticipated, the symbiotic lifeform within her body - what the Hidari in their religious dogma referred to as Ryujin - hungrily devoured the supply.
A team of analysts carefully monitored the progress of the experiment from a secured facility in Tokyo. Just as they had predicted, Ryujin took what was given and consumed it, growing stronger and larger with every passing moment. And, as predicted, for a little over two hours the essence of Ryujin spread, joining with Akane in a manner utterly unique to the Dragonkin. Her body spasmed, straining against the thick straps that bound her to the bed.
Something happened then that the analysts did not predict. Ryujin's growth patterns began to accelerate, far exceeding their expectations. For the first few moments this was reason for optimism, but as the seconds ticked by, such optimism was quickly replaced with panic. The growth was exponential, far outstripping even the most reckless of estimates. Growth that was supposed to have taken months occurred in mere seconds.
Akane's struggles grew more violent. Her unconscious body, not yet completely adapted to the presence of Ryujin, instinctively fought the unnaturally-induced invasion.
They had terms for what was occurring - chain reaction, resonant cascade, equilibrium violation - but nothing else. They were the nightmare scenarios, the worst-case eventualities that spelt "utter disaster". Documented only for the sake of completeness, such scenarios were never supposed to actually happen. The probability was infinitesimal.
Akane's heart stopped. Her body fell, lifeless, to the bed.
In Tokyo, klaxons wailed. Automated emergency systems brought themselves online and hastily issued the abort command. One by one the failsafes clicked into place. However, it was much too late. The reaction had been set into motion. The event horizon had been crossed. There was no turning back. Panic turned to sheer disbelief - this could not be happening.
But happen it did.
The JNV-1001 had originally been commissioned as a purely military vessel. It was, in its initial phase, designed as a superior interdiction vessel, armed with a heavy payload and tasked with defending the Home Islands. It was part of an entire armada of submarines, envisaged as a major part of Japan's self defence during times of instability.
However, disarmament treaties were signed, peaceful accords were reached, and the Japanese government had no choice but to abandon its submarine weapon platform development program as a show of good faith. Behind closed doors, however, the construction of the JNV-1001 continued. A deal was brokered by the Phoenix Industrial corporation, a quiet purchase of one submarine that relieved the government of a small portion of the loss it had taken in half-developing the vessel, and granted the Phoenix a viable base to develop a truly useful mobile facility.
The vessel's design was radically altered; heavy weapons platforms were stripped bare and replaced with research and development facilities, staff and crew quarters, barracks and air base, with hydroponic facilities to support the population. The revamped vessel still carried a sizable array of armaments, but was also capable of airborne troop deployment, as well as housing an almost self-sufficient microsociety of researchers and technicians. At its completion, the vessel was finally given a name: the Leviathan Spring.
As part of the Phoenix design phase, the vessel's structure was altered to include a vast array of small, nondescript compartments. Ostensibly, according to the design specifications, these areas were power conduits, ventilation shafts, storage cabinets, and a variety of other miscellaneous structures. No-one was ever assigned cleaning duties in these areas; if anyone had ever investigated, they would have found them sealed and impenetrable.
Housed inside each of the compartments were cryogenic tubes containing Hidari clones designed for rapid deployment throughout the sub in emergency situations. Their presence was a closely-guarded secret, only known by the Captain, Colonel Hunter, and a few select Delta Lab personnel. Most had been stored, undisturbed, for over two years. There were hundreds in all, a sleeping army to be called upon in times of need.
A vicious storm raged all around, violent winds turning and churning the air, carrying heavy raindrops in a miniature tornado all around. Thunder rumbled through the sky, hot lightning burning the air. The wind blustered, the rainfall intensified, the sky itself sank into deepest black. The howling cries of the wind grew, joined by the cacophonous percussion of a thousand watery bullets ripping into the ground below. The sound grew louder and louder, threatening to shake the world itself to pieces as it reached a fever pitch, and then--
The world around her was gone. The warm, white pool with its cloak of fog had been ripped away, leaving her suspended in an endless expanse of white nothingness. She began to fall, to tumble end over end through the emptiness. A gaping black chasm opened far below, its crooked edges yawning wide to swallow her whole.
She understood now, what it all meant. The knowledge had been unlocked in her mind, a fateful understanding of her own demise. She was falling from the realm of Earth, tumbling toward the Otherworld, the well of dead souls that existed alongside her world.
It was coming for her. She was dying. She fought. Struggled. Tried to slow her fall. Something, anything to stop her descent into the abyss. Cold air screamed past her as she plummeted toward the chasm. Faster. Faster. She tried to breathe. Faster. Raging wind attacked her lungs. Faster.
A burst of light from below. Bright white light. She closed her eyes, blinded by the glare. The light caught her, surrounded her with its diffuse glow. Her descent slowed, the lashing wind subsided. She caught her breath and opened her eyes. Shadows and mist hung below. She glanced over her shoulder. The radiant white light burned above.
She jolted at the voice. It surrounded her, filled her senses from all directions. She whirled in place, trying to locate the source but to no avail.
Who are you, she called to the void. Her mouth did not move and yet the sound of her voice echoed through the nothingness. Why did you save me?
You should not ask what you already know.
Akane's eyes widened. You're ... Ryujin, aren't you?
No, my Akane, came the reply. -We- are Ryujin.
For just a moment there was an equilibrium, a harmonic moment of perfect peace. The two beings existed alongside each other. However, such perfection could not last.
Ryujin's explosive growth quite literally clove Akane's consciousness in two. Her mind, her heart, her very soul were taken, consumed by the unstoppable expansion. The spreading sphere of Ryujin's consciousness reached critical mass and detonated, wrenching the Dragonkin Ryujin back to life for the first time in almost a millennium.
The explosive end was inevitable. The aftershock of the detonation rang out through the realms, ripples of the Lady of Life's emergent consciousness resonating throughout the shockwave.
Invisible and silent to most, the wave passed unnoticed to all but those most sensitive to it. To those few individuals, it appeared as an apocalyptic wave of fire that surged through the realms at blazing speed. It ripped effortlessly through sky, sun, earth and sea. Undeniable. Unstoppable.
Hammer and Anvil, walking the corridors of the Delta laboratory - the corridors of ground zero - were knocked off their feet by the force of the shockwave. Their bodies were slammed into the wall with force enough to buckle the metal.
The cataclysmic blast shot through the Leviathan Spring, ripping the Hidari out of their slumber. Confusion and panic reverberated through the shared strands of their collective consciousness, an echo that gained strength with each Hidari mind that awoke.
Aboard the helicopter Ranma and Ukyo were thrown backwards into the seat behind them, slamming their eyes shut in unison to hold back the searing white light as it blasted through them, the helicopter, the sky around it and the ocean below.
Deep inside Storage Section Nine - only a short distance from Akane - was a cloning laboratory filled with an immature batch of the latest Hidari generation. They writhed within their tubes, minds that had not been completely developed struggling to understand what was happening. Their fear was primal, a base terror and panic that spread like wildfire through the Hidari consciousness.
As the young Hidari slammed their fists into the tubes containing them, the older Hidari, spurred on by the intense emotions emanating from their younger brethren, began to do the same. Driven by instinct, not intellect, they sought only one thing: to get out. To be free.
The brilliant flash burned into Ukyo's retinas, the thin flesh of her eyelids utterly unable to stop it. Even as she was blinded, her mind was filled with images, recalled memories that had lain dormant for centuries. A thousand snapshots from a millennia of life burst free to be remembered again, a tidal wave of sights, sounds and emotions that shot through her mind, a searing blast of revelation.
In a frenzy she tried to hold onto them as they flashed past, but within a moment they were gone once more, leaving a only smouldering ember of recollection in their wake.
She reeled in shock, dazed and dizzied by the impact. Stars danced across her vision as the white light faded from her eyes. She gasped for breath, feeling as though she had been punched in the stomach.
Gods, she exclaimed, her mental voice heaving. I remember ... now I remember ... Ryujin ....
"Akane," came Ranma's voice, barely a whisper over Ukyo's shoulder. "Akane ...."
We have to turn this chopper around right now! Ukyo cried as realisation struck. We can't bring them together!
You cannot, My Lady, Ranma will-
Ryoga! Ukyo called out, ignoring Seraph Wing. The AI was right, as always. If she turned the chopper around, Ranma would bring it down and kill everyone aboard. Ryoga, can you hear me?
What is it, Ukyo?
You have to get the hell off the Spring! Now!
Just do it! Don't ask any questions. Don't talk to anyone. Just get the hell off that sub right now!
In the midst of the chaos, one mind dissented. A single, young Hidari clone - unlike his brothers - did not panic or struggle. He did not scream or screech or wail. He simply let out a long, slow sigh of relief. Unit 3659 of batch 248, thirty-seventh generation, third revision, opened his eyes and waited for his cryogenic tube to open.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Ryoga grunted as he yanked a shelf out of the cupboard under his desk. Papers went flying everywhere, scattering themselves across the floor. Scowling at the mess, he dug further into the pile of documents, tossing them to the floor in clumps. "Where is it?"
"Where's what?" Yoiko asked in a hushed whisper. She looked around, grimacing with each loud rustling sound her brother made. Several of the other researchers were looking in their direction, curious as to the noise.
"I keep a loaded gun in here for emergencies," Ryoga replied, head half-buried in the cupboard. A set of manilla folders came flying out to scatter their contents across his desk. Moments later, he emerged holding a small wooden box, a victorious expression on his face. "Aha! I knew I'd put it in here."
"Are you nuts?" Yoiko asked in a hushed whisper, utterly incredulous. "What do you think you're going to do, shoot your way out? We can't just leave! We're on a submarine, for crying out loud!"
"You heard her," Ryoga replied, unclasping the latch and opening the box. A nine-millimetre gun lay embedded in red felt, immaculately clean. He removed the gun from its resting place and tightened his grip upon it, admiring it.
"I heard a vague warning, but I don't see how that leads to this!" Yoiko exclaimed, gesturing to the weapon. "You've gotta be crazy. If you get caught with that, you're going to be in a world of trouble."
"You don't know Ukyo like I do. She sounded scared," Ryoga said, rising from his desk. He stood and shucked his lab coat. "We observed her for months before we brought her aboard. If there is one thing I learned from that surveillance, it's that when she gets scared, there is invariably a very good reason for it."
"Yeah, but--" Yoiko began. She stopped as Ryoga strode across his cubicle to hang his coat upon a hook mounted on the far wall. "Hey, what happened to your leg?"
"I'll tell you later," Ryoga replied, tucking his gun into the back of his trousers. He moved toward her and took her hand. "Come on. We're going to get out of here."
"Fine," Yoiko said with a sigh. "I think this is crazy, but I'll go. Where are we going?"
"I don't know yet."
Several day shift crew members were sitting in the Leviathan Spring's tertiary mess eating breakfast when a brisk chill washed into the room. Some ignored it and focused on their food, some commented about the sudden cold to their neighbours, others looked around for the source of the frigid draught. However, in the hustle and bustle it was quickly forgotten as the crew members settled back into their morning routine.
A small, ceiling mounted temperature sensor in the Leviathan Spring's tertiary mess registered an abnormally low temperature. Automated response systems activated several wall-mounted cameras and signaled an alert to the surveillance crew, warning them of the anomaly. The warning was noted, and quickly disregarded by the maintenance staff as unimportant.
Several moments later a quiet creaking noise came from one of the walls, but it was drowned out by the sounds of a typical breakfast. After a time the creaking stopped, only to be replaced by a dull, rhythmic thudding sound. This louder sound was noticed by a few of the crew in the vicinity, several of them turning to look at the wall, some nudging their neighbours and pointing. Hushed questions were passed back and forth along the tables.
It was three minutes to the second after the temperature drop that the first Hidari clone burst from its containment cavity, crashing effortlessly through the wall, twisting and tearing the steel itself. Free of its bonds, it turned to the mass of humans before it and smiled a feral smile.
Akane's eyes snapped open. The room was illuminated a faint blue, a vague circle of light on the ceiling projecting a soft glow down toward the floor. Beyond that gentle glimmer the room was unlit. Save for the occasional sound of dripping water and the rhythmic electrical hum of a lightbulb overhead shorting out, the room was silent.
She was alone, in a strange place, with no idea how she had arrived there. Part of her felt as though she should feel afraid, but all she could feel was a quiet, warm calm. Somehow, the situation was not as threatening as her mind told her it should be. Despite her mind's reservations she found herself smiling, a strong sense of happiness bubbling up from within her.
She glanced around the room, blinking as the blue light followed her gaze. The ceiling, she saw, was covered in a thin sheen of water that was slowly dripping to the floor. The walls were similarly soaked. Slowly, she sat up. The sheets covering her fell away from her naked body, cool air sending a shiver down her spine as it touched her chest.
A thin wisp of smoke rose and she glanced down to its source - her stomach. Where the sheets had fallen away, she could see a small kanji burned into her skin, just above her navel. The thin trail of smoke rose for only a few moments before dissipating into nothing.
"Ten," she whispered, reading the upside-down kanji. An image flashed through her mind; that same kanji tattooed upon Ranma's stomach, so very long ago. She swallowed, realising that had been no tattoo; it was a mark, a mark she now shared.
Ranma. She had to find Ranma, had to talk to her. Had to find out what was going on. Trying to move her arms, she quickly discovered they were strapped to the bed. A frown briefly crossed her face but was quickly pushed aside. She tugged gently at her bonds, but they would not give. Unable to move, she had no choice but to tug harder and harder, wriggling her arms back and forth to try and loosen the strap.
However, despite her struggles, she was only met with failure. The straps held firmly, refusing to release her. She looked around, searching for anything she could use to loosen the straps, but the only thing nearby was an empty intravenous drip that was connected to her arm.
"What's this?" she wondered aloud, staring at the needle stuck into her arm. Without thinking, she reached over with her right hand to remove the needle. Her arm met slight resistance from the strap, then pushed through. Only as her hand removed the needle did she realise what had just happened.
Her right wrist was translucent, and glowing a faint blue beneath her gaze. Her hand appeared normal, as did her elbow; small ripples passed along what was once her forearm for a moment, before her flesh resolidified. Stunned, she looked over at the strap that had until a moment ago held her arm securely. It was lying upon the mattress, still fastened, and drenched in water.
She stared at the strap for a long time.
"This is stupid," Yoiko groused. "I'm not sure what you're planning to do. I mean, at sea our options are pretty limited. There's only the air launch bay, and that's assuming we're actually surfaced right now. Even if we are, it's a hell of a swim to the shore."
"There has to be a way," Ryoga replied, sounding determined. He led her toward the main laboratory exit. Fortunately for them, there was no guard posted. That, at least, made their lives easier. He did wonder for a moment why there was no guard posted, but decided he had more important things to worry about.
"Well, there's always the submersible bay, but last I checked we weren't carrying a submersible. Let me check, though. Maybe I've got a scuba tank in my pocket."
"Look, I really don't need any sarcasm right now, okay?"
Yoiko rolled her eyes and allowed herself to be tugged along by her brother. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. One of the other researchers was heading toward them. "Hey, hey. Heads up, Ryoga."
"Ryoga!" called the man, waving toward them as he drew nearer.
"Oh, damn it," Ryoga hissed as he stopped, turning to look at the man. "It's Iwamura. We don't have time for this."
"Hey, Ryoga!" called Iwamura. "Can I have a word?"
"I'm a little busy right now, Heiichi," Ryoga replied, giving him a courteous smile. "Could it wait, please?"
"I was just hoping to go over some of these Seraph Wing diagnostics I've been studying," Iwamura replied, returning the smile and nodding to Yoiko as well. "I'm hoping to refine the biokinetic plating's harmonics. You know how it is, always room for improvement."
"Sure do," Ryoga replied with a forced laugh, playing along. "I'd love to, but we've got an ... important meeting to go to right now. How about later today?"
"You sure? It'll only take a minute," Iwamura said.
"Yeah, uh, this meeting is pretty urgent. You know how it is," Ryoga replied, hoping his increasing irritation was not showing. "Later today."
"Sure thing, if that's how it is," Iwamura replied, arching an eyebrow. Obviously, he was a little put out. "I'll drop by your desk this afternoon, if you're not too busy."
"See you then," Ryoga replied. He turned away and, with a sharp pull on Yoiko's hand, resumed his brisk walk towards the exit.
"Nicely done," Yoiko commented sourly. "Very smooth."
"Give me a break," Ryoga snapped. "I'm not very good with people."
Ryoga scowled and Yoiko fell silent as she felt his grip on her hand tighten to an almost uncomfortable level. Best not to antagonise him too much, she decided.
"Hey, Ryoga!" called Iwamura. "What happened to your cane?"
Ryoga froze. In their rush, he had completely forgotten it; he had also forgotten that he was supposed to be feigning a limp. He turned awkwardly in place and gave Iwamura a dumbfounded stare, his efforts to formulate an excuse utterly unsuccessful.
"I, uh ..."
A loud crash filled the air, making all three of them jump. Ryoga looked past Iwamura, who turned to see what the noise was. A high-pitched scream rang out.
"What is THAT?" Iwamura asked. The scream was cut short, and a deathly silence filled the lab.
Ryoga reached for his gun, tugging Yoiko with his other hand. "Get behind me."
Suddenly, the wall near Iwamura detonated. Shards of metal flew everywhere, several striking him in the leg. He cried out in pain and fell to the ground, clutching at his wounded limb. Blood spurted from his body, his howls of agony echoing through the cavernous laboratory.
"Heiichi!" Ryoga yelled. His eyes widened as a black shape darted out of the newly-created hole. It was a person. No, he realised, not just any person.
Ranma dived toward Iwamura, a flurry of fists and fanglike teeth. Iwamura's feeble attempts to resist were easily crushed. Ranma fell upon him and slashed wildly at his body, howling and biting like a wild animal.
Ryoga didn't have time to think. His body reacted. He shoved Yoiko back, away from the danger, raised his gun, pulled back the slide. He couldn't aim; no time. He squeezed the trigger. Bang. His arm shook with the recoil. He fired again. Bang.
Ranma screamed in pain and toppled from Iwamura's body. It was too late for Heiichi. Ryoga could tell the moment he saw the blood-drenched body. No-one could survive that attack.
How did Ranma get here, he asked himself as his brain finally caught up with the rest of his senses. It's not possible. She's on the chopper.
He stared at the bloody mess through the stream of smoke rising from the barrel of his gun. A dizzying realisation struck him - that was not Ranma. The person he had just shot, while identical to Ranma in almost every way, was male.
"What the hell ...." he whispered.
He took a step forward, keeping his gun firmly trained upon the fallen body. Another crash filled his ears. Another scream. He looked up and saw cubicle walls falling like dominoes, heard the panicked yells of his fellow researchers.
"Yoiko," he called over his shoulder, gingerly stepping backwards. "We have to get out of here."
Another Ranma burst through the hole by Iwamura. This one ignored his bloodied remains and turned instead toward Ryoga.
Ryoga quickly turned his gun upon it and pulled the trigger. Bang. A splatter of blood burst from the Ranma's forehead. It screeched in agony and tumbled backwards, arms flailing all the way.
Ryoga spun on his heel and grabbed Yoiko's arm, pulling his dazed sister to her feet.
Colonel Hunter closely examined the layout diagram of the launch bay, looking for any weak points in the perimeter he had set up. He cursed to himself, wishing for more time. Time, however, was one luxury he did not have - Ukyo had reported in several minutes ago, and according to that communication, the helicopter was already a couple of minutes overdue.
There were several loading gantries near the bay's ceiling, and all had been allocated snipers to cover the bay floor. The mezzanine observation deck had also been hastily fortified, and a loose ring of soldiers had been stationed around the perimeter of the bay floor. That, he hoped, would provide adequate cover.
The soldiers could not take down Ryukyu, he knew. They were a psychological tactic more than anything else. Ukyo was the only real hope any of them had. If she failed, he had no backup. It disturbed him greatly to not have a contingency plan in place, but he simply had no alternatives to fall back upon.
Once Ukyo took the dragon down - IF Ukyo took the dragon down - they could then transfer it to a secure holding facility. They had special containment rooms set aside for just such a purpose, sealed with the same kinetic shielding that was the basis of Seraph Wing's biokinetic plating. Even Ryukyu would not be able to escape from such a cell. Getting her there would be the problem.
The hiss and clunk of his office door closing was the first indication he had that he was not alone. His concentration broken, he frowned as he looked toward the door. Frustration quickly gave way to puzzlement as he saw just who had interrupted his ruminations. "What the hell are you two doing up here? The crew thinks you're missing on the helicopter!"
"Never mind that. Have a seat, Colonel," said Anvil.
"There's been a change of plan," added Hammer.
Ukyo watched the sleek black shape of the Leviathan Spring grow ever larger, her sense of trepidation likewise increasing. The flash had illuminated parts of her mind that had long been shrouded in darkness. She did not remember many specifics, but she remembered enough: to allow Ryukyu and Ryujin to reunite was to invite disaster.
"Once this chopper lands, we're getting off," she said, giving the other members of her team a hard stare. "This is between me and Ranma. I want the rest of you back in the air and the hell away from the Spring."
Scar opened his mouth to object, but Ukyo silenced him with a tiny shake of her head. This was not the time for a military hierarchy. Please. No arguments.
Akane stumbled as she lowered herself from the bed, her movements sloshing the ankle-deep water around. Leaning against a wall to steady herself, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths to try and clear the fog clouding her mind. It had taken a great deal of effort to stand, and it took an even greater effort to remain standing. Her body wanted to fall over and sleep. It was only through conscious effort on her part that it did not.
After several deep breaths, she convinced herself that she would not topple face-first to the floor. Slowly, she removed her hand from the wall and opened her eyes. Too late she realised her overconfidence. The dizziness returned with a vengeance - she stumbled forward into the darkness and fell heavily to her knees, warm water splashing all around. Planting one hand to steady herself, she managed to halt her fall.
Her sudden proximity to the water revealed to her things that had until moments before been hidden by the room's pervasive darkness. Swallowing hard, she looked down at her own reflection. She was completely naked, her skin was as white and smooth as porcelain, and her hair was entirely blue. Her eyes glowed a radiant blue, appearing as if a liquid. Where once she had irises and pupils, now only the luminescent water remained. She peered into her own eyes, seeing within them an endless, limitless depth. She shivered, suddenly afraid.
As if in response to the chill that touched her body, a thin sheen of water rose from the floor to embrace her, snaking up her legs, over her hips and torso. In a mere moment it had encased her arms and, before she even had time to panic, stopped its advance at her neck. As she watched, the water solidified into a flowing, silken white robe. It billowed around her, bringing with it a soothing warmth.
With the warmth came calm, stillness and peace. The haze of dizziness lifted from her. The fear slipped away. Slowly, Akane-Ryujin rose to her feet.
"The new Seraph Wing installation has been cancelled. As you can see, Colonel, we have more pressing matters to attend to. The Hidari are quite out of control - skirmishes are breaking out throughout the vessel. The entire submarine is in chaos." "My God," Hunter muttered, watching in horror as Anvil flicked between the video feeds of several surveillance cameras. 'Skirmish' was not the word; 'slaughter' seemed more accurate. Hidari were rampaging through the vessel, killing everything they came across. A few of the crew - mainly those on guard duty - managed to put up something of a fight with their sidearms, but that was little more than token resistance. "We have to do something!"
"A countermeasure is already being implemented, Colonel," Hammer replied. His grip tightened upon the Colonel's shoulder, holding him firmly in his thick leather chair. "We have a team of Ghosts standing by to resolve this situation."
"What are you talking about?"
"Ryujin has awoken much faster than expected. I'm sad to say this has caught us unprepared. However, it is not beyond control. Unfortunately, the awakening has had an unavoidable side-effect: the Hidari are reacting to Ryujin's sudden presence, as you can plainly see. Your crew are no match for them. However, our Ghosts will be able to clean up the mess."
"You call that a side-effect?!" Hunter blustered. "Those things are killing my men!"
"Yes, yes," Hammer said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "The Hidari are very sensitive to the Great Balance. Ryujin's sudden growth spurt has thrown them into disarray. It is quite understandable that their behaviour has become erratic."
"'Erratic'?!" Hunter bellowed. He leapt out of his seat, but was quickly shoved back down by Hammer. "You brought that dragon aboard! You started this! You have to stop it!"
"It will be stopped in time," Hammer replied. "For now, though, it must continue. The Hidari are not the only ones affected by the disruption in the Balance. Ryukyu has felt it as well, and no doubt is heading this way as we speak. The Hidari will prove useful once he arrives."
"A helicopter has entered the launch bay," Anvil observed from his position near the monitor.
"Ah! Quicker than I had expected," Hammer said with a nod of his head. "Ryukyu has come to find Ryujin. I had hoped to install Seraph Wing within Ryujin before he arrived, but with her growth spurt that will not be necessary."
"You're ... you're not going to stop Ranma?"
"What? Of course not," Hammer replied with a chuckle. "How would I do that? We cannot stop Ryukyu. We never could. All of the technology in the world will not help us against him."
"But ... Ukyo was ...."
"She is nothing," Hammer spat. "Ukyo never had a chance of stopping Ryukyu. She was a diversion, nothing more."
"You bastards! You used us!" Hunter cried, his body shaking in anger. "What are you going to do?"
The proto-Hidari smiled. "It's quite simple. We are going to let Ryujin destroy Ryukyu for us."
Ukyo watched in silence as the helicopter rose slowly upwards, the blustering wind of its rotors fading as it climbed into the sky beyond the launch bay doors.
Go, she thought. Get the hell away from here.
She did not need to look around to know there were a dozen snipers with rifles trained upon both her and Ranma. She could feel their anxious, sweating presence even without Seraph Wing's help. A tense silence filled the hangar, and she wondered for a moment why they had not begun firing.
"Akane," Ranma whispered. "Akane ...."
Ranma's grip upon her tightened, and she felt herself being forced forward. She took an awkward step; the guns of the soldiers moved with her, tracking the pair's every movement. They were waiting for the order to fire, she assumed.
Shall I activate the Frame, My Lady?
A loud creaking sound echoed through the hangar, coming from the far wall. Ukyo stared, and saw several of the soldiers turn to look at the wall. Her eyes widened.
Wait. I can feel ... I can feel ... something coming ....
Akane-Ryujin watched in amazement as the mechanical door hissed open at her approach. Peering closely at the doorframe into which the thick metal door had vanished, Akane reached out with her hand to touch the smooth metallic surface. Ryujin's innate curiosity guided her movements, eyes and a mind that had not experienced the world in nine hundred years demanding an explanation for such mechanical magic.
The part of her that was still Akane smiled in bemused fascination, offering up a simple explanation behind the technology used to sense her presence and open the door. Such internal dialogue was second nature to her, despite her lack of experience. The moment Ryujin had awoken, she had realised her dual nature. Communicating with her other half was the obvious next step, and had followed on in a mere matter of seconds.
In the few minutes she had spent in the room with Ryujin, they had already developed a strong bond. She was a part of Ryujin as much as Ryujin was a part of her. It felt good to be joined to such a creature, despite Ryujin's many idiosyncrasies. She felt an overpowering sense of calm and happiness radiating from the creature she now shared her body with.
With Ryujin's curiosity regarding the door at last satisfied her hand returned to her side, to be once more enshrined within the silken white threads of her robe. She stepped through the doorway and into the corridor; her robe glided smoothly behind her, leaving a streaked trail of water across the floor.
The corridor was empty and featureless; long black walls and polished black floors that stretched off into the distance. Unmarked doors, like the one she had passed through, lined both walls of the corridor. Small metal pipes ran along the ceiling, bright fluorescent lights between them drowning the corridor in sterile white light.
She tried, as best she could, to explain the concept of artificial lighting to Ryujin, to stave off the impulsive curiosity that was washing through her mind. However, try as she might to provide answers, she could not keep up with the barrage of wordless questions. She laughed, out of what once might have been frustration but was now mild amusement.
The sound of running footsteps echoed down the corridor; apparently, someone had heard her laughter. The flow of emotion from Ryujin stopped in a heartbeat, draining away to leave cold, uninhibited reason behind. She could feel, somewhere deep inside, the presence of the individual - no, there was more than one - running toward her.
Abomination. Hidari, coming for her.
"You must understand, this is a very delicate situation," Hammer said, leaning on Hunter's desk as he watched the security camera display on the monitor. "Handling Ryukyu and Ryujin requires the utmost care."
"The symbiotes must be fully developed for them to become vulnerable. If they have not reached full maturity, they will simply move to a new host when the current host is killed," Anvil added.
"It has taken almost nine hundred years, but finally the process is nearing completion. Now that Ryujin has emerged, all that remains is for Ryukyu to awaken and then we can proceed."
"I ... don't understand," Hunter murmured, transfixed by the display on the monitor.
"As I said, it is a delicate situation," Hammer explained. "Ryukyu and Ryujin are poised at opposite ends of the Great Balance. If one dies and the other does not, the Balance itself will crumble. They must both die together, or the Earth realm itself may be destroyed."
"Now that Ryujin has awoken, the Balance must be restored. Concordantly, Ryukyu will awaken - it is the Balance's way of healing itself," Anvil added.
"Once they both fully emerge, they will be both strong enough to kill each other and yet vulnerable enough to be killed. Each must kill the other. This is the only way to maintain the Balance after they are dead," Hammer continued.
"But ... but why involve us?" Hunter asked, watching the monitor with growing repulsion. "You could have done this without us. Why did you have to bring us into this?"
"Believe me, we'd really rather not have involved you," Hammer replied. "Unfortunately, humans have an annoying habit of becoming involved whether or not their presence is requested or required. This way, we could at least ensure you did not interfere with anything important."
"Interfered?!" Hunter fumed.
"Even now, your soldiers are preparing to fire upon Ryukyu. They will all die, but Ryukyu will not be stopped. Interference, Colonel."
The creaking stopped, and an uneasy moment passed. A few soldiers looked back and forth between themselves, wondering just what to make of the sudden silence. Ukyo swallowed hard. Mental alerts flared, Seraph Wing helpfully informing her of her skyrocketing heart rate.
A gunshot rang out, her peripheral vision registering a muzzle flash high above the hangar floor. The world slowed, her perception accelerating as Seraph Wing's sensors locked on to the projectile and calculated its velocity and trajectory. The course of the bullet was plotted precisely in her mind, marked down to the nanometre as it hurtled toward her.
The AI warned her of the bullet's impending impact, its alert registering as little more than a panicked surge of adrenaline that rushed through her body. The bullet, she realised, was poorly aimed; it was going to hit her.
The impenetrable field of her biokinetic plating crackled into life around her. The bullet thudded uselessly against the field, flattening as it was repelled. An eclectic hiss filled the air as the plating expanded, its presence pushing Ranma backwards. Ukyo let out a deep breath, finally free of Ranma's frozen grip. Less than half a second had passed since the gunshot.
The flattened bullet clattered to the ground, the sound echoing into the distant corners of the hangar. She stared at the crumpled lump of metal for a moment, unsure of how to react.
That decision was taken from her moments later when a hail of gunfire exploded across the hangar. Hundreds of trajectories scorched across her senses, a swarm of fiery trails ripping through the air behind her. Ukyo spun around to watch the bullets scream through toward Ranma. One by one they thudded into her, falling into her cloak like stones into a pond. Ripples spread across the fabric, concentric circles washing through.
Ranma did not move. Ukyo's thoughts turned to the pistols strapped to her hips. No; they would do her no good here.
A moment later the bullets burst from Ranma's back, one by one embedding themselves into the wall and floor behind her as their trajectories carried them to the inevitable end of their journey.
Silence once more filled the hangar, a tense moment as the collected soldiers waited and hoped for their enemy to fall. But, she did not fall. She did not die. She could not die. Slowly, Ranma raised her sword as her cloak dripped from her body to pool on the floor at her feet.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Hammer pondered as the three watched the events unfolding on the monitor. Ranma stood motionless on the screen, unfazed by the volley of gunfire. "They don't have a chance. Not even ten thousand bullets will stop him. A true immortal, in all his terrible glory."
"My God, what a monstrosity," Hunter murmured, his throat hoarse as he stared in startled horror. He had been coordinating the search for Ranma for over three years, and yet to actually bear witness to the awful truth of Ranma's nature - to see it with his own eyes - frightened him immensely. How could he have ever hoped to stop her?
"You don't know the half of it," Hammer replied, a distinct note of amusement in his voice. "Once Ryukyu awakens, then you will understand what his power truly is."
"Look," called Anvil. "The walls!"
"Ah, at last, it begins," Hammer said. "Watch very closely, Colonel."
It happened in just over eight seconds.
In the first second, dozens of storage compartments dotted around the circumference of the hangar were blasted open. Almost a hundred newly-awoken Hidari clones burst from their containment tubes and crashed through the walls, flooding the launch bay en masse.
The snipers perched upon the loading gantries did not have a chance. Many were skewered by shards of flying metal, and those that were not could not even blink before Hidari were upon them.
It took another three seconds for their bodies to tip from the gantries and begin the fall to the launch bay floor, where a similar slaughter was already taking place. Mindless Hidari swept through the ranks, ripping the hapless soldiers to shreds.
Two more seconds passed. One soldier with a particularly itchy trigger finger jumped in surprise at the intrusion and managed to unload a volley of gunfire into the frenzied crowd, killing three Hidari and two of his fellow soldiers before he too was taken by the mob.
By the seventh second, the majority of the soldiers were dead, leaving only a crowd of blood-drenched Hidari standing among the corpses. The falling bodies of several snipers impacted upon the metal floor, others falling upon the broken bodies of their comrades.
The eighth second passed, and Seraph Wing completed its tactical analysis of the situation. Eighty-nine unidentified assailants remained. All were unarmed; but nevertheless they had torn to pieces a contingent of forty heavily armed soldiers in eight seconds. Activating its emergency response mode, Seraph Wing flooded Ukyo's body with stimulants and adrenaline.
Ukyo, for her part, stared in slack-jawed amazement. Ranmas. Eighty-nine new Ranmas. What ... the ... HELL are those things?
Akane tilted her head slightly, watching the two Hidari clones charge toward her. Their movements were slow, easy to track - or perhaps her own movements were swift; she could not tell. She could see more than their mere physical forms. Ryujin's eyes showed her the dark void burning within them, a gaping hole where their souls belonged.
A shiver ran along her spine as the pair approached her at what must have seemed to them a breakneck speed. Their very presence was unnatural, a glaring, gaping vacuum in the world that she abhorred. Her lip curled, not in disgust, but in pity. She could feel the pain of these mindless creatures even as they dived toward her, fists and nails and snarling mouths, driven by an uncontrollable bloodlust - little more than wild animals.
Her arms raised. She struggled for only a moment before relenting and allowing Ryujin to guide her hands. The cloud of emotion that had descended over her mind was swept away, leaving behind a complete calm and clarity of vision. She would help these creatures to escape their bodies and return to the waters from whence they had been ripped.
The Hidari flew through the air toward her, drawing ever closer, and she held out open palms toward them. In the moment before they impacted, she smiled. A small cloud of feathers shimmering in purest white burst into existence behind her and began to drift toward the floor.
Ukyo grabbed the pistols holstered at her hips and drew them, pointing one at Ranma, the other at the mass of duplicates. The copies seemed to be ignoring her, as did Ranma; instead, their attentions were focused solely upon each other. Ranma stared firmly at the copies, and the copies stared back.
She squeezed the grips of her pistols, expecting the many Ranmas to turn on her at any moment. However, the only movement in the hangar was the dripping of blood and the jackhammer rhythm of her heart.
I recommend a tactical retreat, My Lady. You cannot win this fight.
Thick beads of sweat trickled down her face as she stared at the scene before her. Moments ago, she was facing a single Ranma. Now she was facing ninety, and everyone else in the hangar was dead.
She took a step backwards and holstered her pistols. I agree.
Ranma looked longingly at the distant hangar door that separated her from Akane. Between her and the door lay dozens of Hidari clones; little more than a small obstacle for Garyoutensei. And yet, despite her confidence, a turbulent whirlwind of emotion raged inside her - anger fought with compassion, the need to protect Akane was pitted against her unending desire for revenge.
"... akane-akane-akane-akane-akane-akane-akane ..." she chanted to herself, closing her eyes as she tried to keep her focus. She could feel the anger welling inside her, the compulsion to spill the blood of her doppelgangers.
Squeezing her eyes tightly closed, she tried to concentrate upon her goal. She knew that now, with Akane in danger, was no time to seek revenge or retribution. To surrender to such selfish desires was to condemn Akane to whatever torture the Phoenix had prepared for her. That was unacceptable. She would save Akane. She would save Akane.
She ... would ... save ... Akane.
Something happened then that she did not expect. Garyoutensei, her faithful companion for nine hundred years, suddenly abandoned her. The sword's blade evaporated, evanescing in moments to leave behind a useless hilt. The hilt dropped from numb fingers and clattered helplessly to the ground.
Ranma stared at it for a moment, as did the Hidari. The moment passed, and the collected Hidari leapt for her as one.
"Your time has come, Ryukyu," Hammer said quietly, addressing the screen. "You don't need the tooth any more. Show yourself, don't be afraid."
Ranma snarled as her fist connected with the bloodied face of a Hidari; such was the force behind the punch that his neck snapped, sending a lifeless body tumbling backwards to the ground. Another Hidari grabbed her shoulder - that was the last action his hand would ever take, as Ranma's brutal punch to his armpit ripped the limb from its socket, destroying the nerve connections and leaving a limp, useless limb behind.
The clone did not have long to ponder his misfortune, as Ranma whirled in place and smashed her elbow into his nose, thrusting the bone upwards into his brain. He too slumped lifelessly to the floor, to join the growing pile of his brethren.
A flurry of punches and kicks screamed toward her but she flowed between them like water, deflecting many of the blows and absorbing the others. Each attack was met with a brutal counterattack, and in mere seconds the number of dead Hidari upon the floor tripled.
The anger grew inside Ranma, a fury that would not, could not be quenched. These bastard creations were keeping her from Akane, and for that they would pay dearly.
The next attack was a punch directed at her face. She snatched the fist in midair and crushed it with her own hand, the crunching sound of shattering bones filling her ears. Her burning eyes stared into those of her attacker and she threw a sharp punch at his chest.
Her fist, however, did not impact against the clone's ribcage. Instead it passed through the flesh; the Hidari burst into flames, screaming obscenely as the messy clump of life energy that would in a human being be called a soul was penetrated by Ranma's hand.
Ranma's eyes widened in surprise. As quickly as the flames had appeared, they vanished, sucked back into the body of the Hidari. The body of her opponent exploded, a flood of hot water splashing her and the surrounding Hidari. The attacks of her enemies stopped, as they joined her in staring at the watery remains.
Slowly, Ranma uncurled her drenched fist and stared at her palm. A small puddle of water remained in her hand, but it quickly soaked into her skin. There was no steam, no charred remains. She could feel its energy flowing into her hand, spreading along her arm. The Hidari was gone, but not destroyed.
"At last, Ryukyu sees his true purpose once more," Hammer commented, flashing Hunter a victorious smile.
Hunter watched, aghast, as the collected Hidari resumed their attack. This time, however, it was different. They did not punch or kick, they simply threw themselves at her en masse. One by one, they were struck down as the first had been, each bursting like a water balloon at Ranma's touch.
"They're ... they're just killing themselves," he stammered. "Why? I don't understand!"
"Such is their purpose. Each one Ryukyu consumes will only make him stronger."
"My God," Hunter whispered, eyes widening in a sudden realisation. "That's what this is about. They're not fighting her. They're feeding her!"
Ranma thrust both fists into two Hidari, no longer closing her eyes as the burst of water washed over her. She could feel their life energy escaping their bodies to be snatched into her hands and taken. It was a glorious feeling, an empowering and invigorating flow of energy, a delicious feast to be consumed.
Her eyes burned bright red, coursing with the energy that filled and fuelled her. Her hair grew redder, redder and redder still until, at last, it burst into flame. Her cherry-red locks disappeared, consumed within a burning swath of fire atop her head.
"Akane," she called, feeling the undeniable strength growing inside her. They could not hope to stop her now. Nothing could hold her back. She would find Akane, and there was nothing they could do about it.
"It's ironic, really," observed Hammer. "He has resisted nine hundred years of pain and suffering, endured every torture imaginable, but in the end, all it took to unlock the power of death inside him was a single emotion. The mighty, unstoppable Ryukyu will be undone by an emotion he does not even understand."
"An ... emotion?" Hunter asked, barely able to tear his eyes from the screen.
Hammer watched Ranma dispatch the last of the Hidari, a smile spreading across his face. Leaning over Hunter's desk, he brought his head close to the Colonel's ear and whispered:
"Love, Colonel. Love."
The water sloshed around her feet, stained pink by the blood of forty soldiers. She looked down and saw her own face illuminated by the crimson glow of her eyes, the burning threads of her hair. Her bloodstained teeth glimmered dangerously in the bright light of the hangar.
She knew now she was unstoppable. Not even the gods themselves could keep her from her goal. Clenching her fists, Ranma-Ryukyu let out a howling, heaving scream.