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A Ranma fan fiction story
by Josh Temple

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.


Chapter 2: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology…


"No one here is exactly what he appears to be."
—Babylon 5, Season 5 Intro.

 

Ranma woke up. Getting out of the bed, he noticed the eerie silence. Walking to the window, he looked out. Tree after tree stretched out until they blocked further view. After dressing, Ranma went down the stairs. He looked out a front window just in time to see Jack's jeep speed down the driveway.

"Sorry 'bout that. There was an accident on the I-80 a few miles east of Table Rock; a jackknifed trailer. Jack was called in to help set up the detour," Sarah said with slight worry. She was wearing the same blue vest she had on yesterday. Under it, she had on a green scooped-neck dress. Her hair was unbound and hung freely.

Ranma looked at his sister, still amazed that she was almost an exact duplicate of his girl side.

"You know, bro, if you weren't family or didn't have a body like this too…."

The martial artist pulled back. "I guess I was staring," he muttered.

"If you want, I could give you some of my clothes. I'm sure they'll fit."

Ranma backed off, confused.

"Lighten up, man," Sarah said, grinning. "Come on, we've got breakfast."

Ranma then followed his sister into the kitchen. Dan was sitting at the table, drinking a large cup of coffee. He looked worn out, but strangely enthused. "Jack left pretty late."

"Um, but… It's morning. Right?" Ranma said. Sleep had helped, but he still had a little jet lag.

"Crap!" Dan said, jumping up to his feet. "At least I'm done."

"You finished? I was wondering how long it takes to rebuild a V-10," Sarah said.

Dan grinned.

Sarah's eyes widened. "Good God… No! You didn't…!"

"What did he do?" Ranma asked Sarah.

"I'll show you," Dan said, rushing off to the den.

Sarah shrugged, and they both followed Dan to the garage. The hood was open on the Beast, and the garage door was up. Tubes ran from the exhaust pipes and out the door. "Come on in, and don't step on the hoses. After that first test, I realized that I had to add some type of extended regulator. A normal muffler and cat-back won't handle this baby," Dan said, pointing to the inside of the engine compartment.

"No, no, no," Sarah softly chanted.

Ranma looked at the engine. It was some type of heavy cylinder that had several leads and conduits running from it. "What is it?"

"A helicopter crashed last winter during a snowstorm. It went up for salvage. Dan bought the engine. Dad let him keep it. Sure, Dan's a genius mechanic, but come on. It's a damn chopper engine. You told us that you were just reconditioning the old engine," Sarah said.

Dan shrugged and walked over to the driver's side door. Using the step-up, Dan slid into the cockpit. He fished out a key from his pocket and slid it into the ignition. Dan pushed down on the accelerator and checked to make sure the vehicle was in neutral. He then turned the key one notch. The truck started a deep humming, almost grinding, as the turbines wound up to full speed. Dan then turned it to the next notch, sending the air fuel mix into the ignition chamber. The engine then burst into a full roar and the vibrations lessened. Dan then eased up on the gas, letting the engine idle. Dan jumped out of his seat.

"So what do you think?" Dan asked. "I believe I solved the exhaust problem. The system is holding up. Notice how at the running RPM the stabilizers worked fine, but during start up or shut down they don't hold it all. Still haven't got it all, but—" Dan continued rambling on about the engine.

"How did you fit this thing in the engine compartment?" Sarah interrupted.

"I extended the front a foot," Dan said, shutting down the Beast.

Sarah examined the truck. Come to think of it, the Beast was longer. "And you just finished now?"

"I finished the engine itself a week ago. The exhaust system took until about an hour ago," Dan said. "I was just getting some coffee and a bite."

"Come on, bro," Sarah said, "We can have breakfast while Dan over there cleans up."


In the kitchen, Ranma ate his cereal in silence. "I can't believe it," Sarah said. "He did it. Dan did it. He put a fucking turboprop turbine in a truck. What the hell is he going to fuel it with? Diesel, I guess?" Ranma was surprised, but ever since Nerima, he had been slightly deadened to weirdness. Well, not since the arrival, but since Genma's death.

They finished the food and walked over to the living room. Sarah got her pack. "We can stop off and get you one after school. Then we can stop at the place where Mom met Dad."

Ranma followed Sarah back to the garage. Dan had cleaned up all the hoses and put away most of his tools. He had the truck started, and Ranma could have felt the deep resonant vibrations from inside the den. Dan was in the driver's seat, and had the window down. "Come on in the back," he said.

The truck was a four-door, so Ranma went around to the passenger side to get in. The interior was plain but comfortable. Once inside, Sarah clipped on her seatbelt. "Better do yours too," she said to Ranma. Ranma complied, afraid of what Dan was about to do.

With a mad grin, Dan shifted into drive. The truck slowly rolled out of the bay. Ranma relaxed. Dan used garage remote to close the door… then he hit it.

The Beast shot down the driveway. Diving down a dirt road at over fifty, the truck hit every pothole and rock. Dan's suspension held true as the truck seemed to glide over the obstructions. Dan came to the end of the driveway and onto paved road. "Oh yeah. Four-wheel drive. It's the only way to fly."

Once on asphalt, Dan opened it up. Driving with disturbing skill and control, Dan wrenched the truck around curves and floored it through the straightaways. Ranma swore that when the Beast crested a hill, it would go airborne.

The truck slammed to ground, slowed. Then Dan swerved it into a spin and when it had twisted ninety degrees, Dan floored it again to get through the intersection.

Ranma had resorted to closing his eyes, but that just made it worse. Now it felt like they were doing barrel rolls. Thankful for the seatbelt, Ranma felt like he was being pulled apart. Then it stopped. The only sound was the nearly subsonic rumbling of the turbine.

"First time in a car?" Sarah said, grinning.

"This is not a car," Ranma replied, feeling sick.

"Got that right," Dan said. "Hear that baby purr?"

Ranma looked out the window — or tried to. They were heavily tinted. The truck had stopped in front of a large house. Dan revved the engine, sounding very much like a lifting helicopter. A big helicopter. Ranma thought he saw motion in the yard, but it was hard to tell. Then the front passenger door opened. A tall blonde entered the truck. Her hair was pulled to the back of her head with a large hair clip. She was wearing a tight blouse and skirt that nicely showed off her body.

"You could use your horn like a normal person," she said, putting her pack on the floor between her legs.

"Would a normal person put a helicopter engine in his truck? Oh, and you were right. The problem with the exhaust was in volume, not temperature," Dan said.

"Told ya. You must be Ranma, Sarah's long-lost brother," she said, turning back.

"And you are?" Ranma asked.

"Allison Terson, Dan's girlfriend," the blonde said with her arm outstretched.

Ranma shook the extended hand.

"Allison may be a bit mad, but otherwise she's family," Sarah said.

"Oh, I'm the crazy one? Not the gun nut, or helicopter boy?" Allison stated.

"Hey!" Dan and Sarah said simultaneously.

"Kidding. Open this bad boy up," Allison said enthusiastically.

Dan dropped it into drive and was off. This time, Ranma kept his eyes open. Trees streaked past with such velocity that Ranma was unable to identify them. At least when they reached Lockridge proper, Dan cut back to driving somewhat sanely.

He pulled into the parking lot to a smallish high school. The building itself looked rather new and well maintained. Dan put the truck in park and turned off the ignition. The turbine slowed and stopped. Everyone had opened their door when Ranma cried out, "Damn it!"

Ranma was now in her female form, soaking wet.

"You weren't lying, were you?" Allison said to Dan.

"Hey, why'd you have to tell?" Ranma asked.

"She would have found out sooner or later," Dan said.

"What happened?" Sarah asked getting her pack.

"Car drove past and hit a puddle," Ranma said.

"Weird," Allison said.

Ranma perked up at this. Was someone finally going to be shocked or freaked out by this curse?

"You're twins," Allison said, pointing at both Ranma and Sarah.

Dan walked up, wearing a large black trench coat over the jeans, shirt, and boots he had on yesterday. "Well, they are sisters. Allison, want to help me check to see if the drive damaged anything?"

"Sure. We've got some time before class," Allison said, following Dan to the back gate of the Beast, where he had gotten out a flashlight and a multimeter.

"Come on, Ranma. They should have hot water in the bathroom," Sarah said.

Ranma followed her up the steps of the school. "Wait. What about that 'mind' thing you told me about?"

"Too draining."

"But what if someone sees us?"

"We're a half an hour early, hardly anyone's here, and the bathroom is just on the other side of the entrance."

"Fine," Ranma said, and entered the school.

The main entrance to the school was a large two-story foyer, with three hallways branching out of it and two sets of stairs going to the second floor. The second floor had a region that ran around the foyer a floor below. This was the student lounge, and the entrance was visible from it. Even if either Ranma or Sarah had looked up, they would not have seen a girl with short black hair sitting in a chair near the guardrail and using a laptop. The lights were off in the lounge, and she sat in shadows.

The girl, however, was looking down. "What the…?" she thought. "Sarah O'Neil has a twin sister?" It was hard to tell at this angle. So she took out her camera. It had a zoom lens. "Yes, they're almost identical," she thought to herself. She then hooked up her I/O sphere to the laptop and did a scan. "Interesting." Sarah had a filled template, no surprises there, but this other one had the potential, and something else: code that the interpreter wouldn't recognize. "Oh well, I wanted to try out the effective range of this thing," she thought.

The girl loaded a template. She found it while hacking an old classmate's computer. A bit sloppily done, but it seemed the creator had never intended to use it. Sarah had been working on her template for years, and the writer of this one had to have known it. So the template in question was only an idle fantasy. Nevertheless, when the girl found it, she made a copy. She made her own modifications, but again, never intended to be able to use it.

The template was designed for Sarah's body alone, and she already had a template; but now, this other girl… She was close enough to Sarah for the template to work. The girl transferred the template to the I/O sphere and locked onto Sarah's twin. The girl waited for Ranma to go into the bathroom — "Odd. Why'd she go in the men's room? Oh well." — then told the sphere to imprint the template.


Ranma was in the bathroom, about to turn the faucet on, when her body was engulfed in a pink light. Ranma started to lift off the ground, the light getting brighter, blinding her. A tingling started on her skin, and then grew deeper, seeming to go through her.

Then it was done. Ranma was standing again. She looked at her reflection in mute horror. Her hair had become unbound, then styled into a feathered, wavy body with pink, glittery highlights. Part was pulled back with a pink bow in a loose, high ponytail, while the rest flowed freely. A golden tiara set with pink gems rested on the crown of her head.

Ranma trembled, then looked further down. Her face was extensively made up. It worked to maximize her femininity, but what really unsettled her was the eye shadow and lipstick. The eye shadow was a very glittery almost-neon pink, and the lipstick was a nauseating coral pink.

Her ears had been pierced, and long sparkling earrings dangled from the lobes. Her neck was surrounded by a white choker. Ranma froze when she saw what she was wearing. It was a fuku. Not the normal school type, but the magic girl type. A tiny skirt and a tight, body-hugging leotard, with pink bows and ribbons that kept her decent while still giving plenty of cleavage. It was white with pink trim, and rather sparkly. She shuddered again when she realized that she was wearing panties, undoubtedly pink.

She looked down to see long, shapely, smooth legs running from pink high heeled boots to the ridiculously short skirt. She had seen her body in feminine, sexy outfits before, but nothing like this. She put her hand to her face to see if this was real when she noticed her arm. It had a slender, feminine metal bracer on it, engraved in fine pink lines. Her fingernails were long, shaped, and covered in sparkly pink polish.

She then looked behind to see two small angel wings sprouting from her back. The fuku was low-backed so as not to interfere with the wings. They twitched when she touched them. She could feel through them. They moved slightly. The wings were a part of her body.

Ranma did what anyone else would do in a situation similar to this: she fainted.


Sarah waited next to the door for a minute and when Ranma failed to exit went in. "Damn," Sarah said when she found Ranma passed out on the floor dressed like some cosplay reject

"Wake up," Sarah said to the pseudo magic girl.

Ranma opened her eyes, looked at her state of dress, and promptly fainted again.

"Fine, be that way," Sarah said as she left the room.


Dan was lying under the Beast checking the exhaust system when Allison kicked him lightly. "What?" Dan asked sliding out from beneath the undercarriage.

Allison pointed to Sarah who said, "Dan, we have a problem."

Dan and Allison went inside the school behind Sarah. Arriving inside the bathroom, Dan halted at what he saw. Allison stood next to him silent. He turned to his cousin, "Please don't tell me that Ranma was just imprinted."

"I haven't done a scan, but it appears that way."

"Just great," Dan muttered. "Suggestions?"

"The standing circle," Sarah said, looking at her near-twin.

Allison nodded.

"Okay, let's get him to the Beast."

"Her," Allison corrected.

"Whatever," Sarah said.


The lady in shadows watched as her new toy was carried out of the bathroom and out the building. She had an inkling as to where they would take their charge. She would watch the circle and wait.


Ranma opened her eyes, then she looked at herself. She was wearing her customary Chinese style clothes and she wasn't feeling any wings or other weird stuff. Her ears didn't have earnings, nor were they pierced. "It was only a dream," she said.

"Not quite," Dan said. He was sitting on the ground a few feet away, working at a laptop. The computer was connected to a small metal sphere.

Ranma stood up. They were all in a small clearing. Tall trees arched overhead, closing in on the sky and giving the effect of a cathedral or shrine. Ranma then noticed the stones. Running the circumference of the clearing were thirteen large boulders. Looking like natural formations at first glance, the stones changed to seemingly artificial and placed. "What is this place?" Ranma asked. "What happened to me?"

"This is a nexus, a well, a stream, and a forge," Dan said, typing.

"But what happened?"

"What kind of magic do you see?"

"Huh?"

" 'Magic' is what we do not understand. It is a matter of perspective," Dan said, still typing.

"This valley has always attracted those of potential," Sarah said. "Saints, madmen, seers, sorcerers, the unique, the great, and the small. People like our mother."

"Is this place what brought Mom here?"

"Yes," Sarah said, then continued, "One person who came here was a sorcerer, fed up with the old ways. The magic he studied required the precise recitation of thousands of lines of script. It was time consuming, and difficult to write new spells and edit old ones; then came computers. He embraced the emerging technology. Here was a device capable of storing mass quantities of information, and executing directions with a precision and speed unheard of."

Ranma blinked. Where was she going with this?

"But he still had to recite his spells, and type in his observations. So he created this," Sarah said pointing to the sphere.

"What is it?"

"An I/O sphere. It can scan ambient surroundings, and execute spells."

Slight comprehension dawned on Ranma, "So what happened to me was—"

"A program being imprinted onto your body."

"Great, another curse?" Ranma said.

"See for yourself," Dan said turning the computer around.

Ranma looked at the screen. Strange code scrolled along one side of the screen. It was similar to the code Sarah was using when she worked on the computers yesterday, but something about it was different. The other side had assorted images. An earring, a bracer, a heeled boot, a tiara, and a few other items, but the largest image held them all. It was a rendering of herself or Sarah, at this resolution it was impossible to tell. The image was wearing the exact outfit Ranma had changed into in the bathroom. "What the…?" Ranma said. "Is this the program that wizard made?"

"Sort of," Sarah said. "This is a more visual version of the program, but it still has the same core as the original."

"So what happened to me?"

"That's what we're trying to find out. Someone went to a lot of trouble writing this. Did you see anyone in the bathroom, or an I/O sphere?"

"No. Why?"

"This is bad," Dan said. "You see, an I/O sphere has a limited range, like a few feet. But what you're saying indicates a long-range sphere."

"A sphere could have been hidden in the room," Allison suggested.

"But why there? There aren't too many spheres rolling around, and that still doesn't explain why someone made a Sarah-based template that would never have been imprinted if Ranma had never shown up."

"Imprint? What are you talking about?" Ranma asked.

Sarah inhaled, then began to speak, "Magic has three parts: a base energy required to power operations, a set of rules or procedures to organize and direct the base energy, and a vessel to facilitate the changes. With Calash, only certain people have the potential to be a vessel. Take your Jusenkyou curse. The spring is the power. The curse itself is the code. You are the vessel. The result is a curse that can change your sex. Now with me, the circle is the power. My template is the code. And I'm the vessel." Sarah closed her eyes, and an orange light enveloped her.

When it dimmed, Sarah was wearing a tight fitting suit of power armor. Her hair was pulled back and had orange highlights. She also held a huge futuristic rifle.

Dan stood up, his coat trailing behind him, and with a fluid motion produced an Uzi in each hand. He was also wearing several bandoleers filled with clips of ammo and had about a dozen guns strapped into various holsters. His eyes were glowing red.

Ranma twitched then felt a tingling. "Not again," Ranma thought before the pink light engulfed her. "Damn, damn, damn. Fuck!" the now fuku-clad girl chanted.

"So you know how to swear in English," Sarah commented, using her gun's strap to rest it on her back.

Dan started snickering.

"What are you laughing at?" Ranma asked.

"Sorry. You don't see a cast member of Sailor Moon spewing a stream of expletives all that often," Dan said, holstering the two guns he held.

"You see, Ranma? A template is a particularly large bit of code that can augment a person's form extensively, giving them powers and abilities. Because of their size and complexity, a template usually takes months of solid coding and has to be specially made for its user," Sarah said.

"But wait, couldn't this have been designed for you? After all, we're nearly identical," Ranma said.

"No, I already have a template."

Ranma had a bad felling as to where this was going.

"You see, technically a template can't be deleted, although once installed, it can be edited almost in its entirety."

"So you could just cut it out. Overwrite the existing program," Ranma stated.

"It's not that simple," Dan said looking at the laptop. "There are some variables that can be edited right off the bat, but the rest of the code needs a decryption key to be changed. As it is right now, your template is essentially read-only. That's why this couldn't have been meant for Sarah. Her template is locked too, and only she has the key."

"Could you hack into it and find my key?"

"None of us could. Perhaps someone really good might get in. But if we could get the edit code to your template, then we could strip it down to the base and rewrite the entire thing."

"Wait, what about you and Allison, do you two have templates?"

Dan pointed to the guns.

"So? I knew a guy that could do stuff like that."

Dan took out a knife, pulled up his left sleeve, and jabbed the point in. He then drew it forward until it reached his wrist. Only a small amount of blood oozed out of the huge gash. "Get closer. I'm only going to show this once." Ranma complied, walking in to get a better view of the self-mutilation. Dan then spread out the skin on either side of the cut, revealing metal strands intermixed with muscles.

"You're a…" Ranma tried to say, but didn't know the English translation.

"Cyborg," Dan offered.

"Yes, only a real gearhead would tweak his own body," Allison said.

Dan grinned and pulled the wound closed, where it promptly began to heal.

"And you turn into…?" Ranma inquired.

A sliver fluid seemed to pour out of Allison's skin. It covered her skin and clothing, then lost definition and turned transparent, clear. She had turned invisible. "Quicksilver," Allison's disembodied voice said. "A synthetic compound that can bend light. I have a gland that produces this chemical." The space next to Dan distorted, forming a vaguely human semi-sliver shape. The quicksilver then flaked off and fell to the ground, leaving Allison visible again.

"Okay," Ranma said. At least this explained why they weren't surprised by the curse. "So I can't change the template without that code?"

Sarah switched back to her default form and looked at the screen. "Not entirely. Dan said you could change minimal things, like colors and other simple modifications."

Ranma looked down. "So I'm stuck with this unless we get the key."

"Yes, but unlike your curse, the user has near-total activation control of a template."

"So I'm stuck with this damn thing, but I don't have to use it?"

"True," Dan said tentatively, while reverting.

"Why does this crap happen to me?" groaned Ranma.

"Most can be attributed to your father," Sarah said. "He was the one who got you cursed, and it was his death that made it unstable. All making you shine like a beacon to anyone with a sphere. Your template does have advantages; you're faster, stronger, have sharper senses, quicker healing rates, and other advancements."

"All of which I already had," Ranma said.

"Yes, yes; you're the world's greatest martial artist, but this essentially triples your abilities," Dan said, looking over Sarah's shoulder and watching the code.

"And those are functional," Sarah said, pointing to Ranma's wings.

Ranma looked at the small wings skeptically.

Sarah read some of the code. "They expand in size when in use."

Ranma looked at her sister questioningly. "Oh well, might as well try it," she thought. Ranma leapt up into the air. She planned on only going up about ten feet, but was surprised when she shot up nearly the full height of the trees in the clearing. Ranma found herself sixty feet up, then she started to fall.

The wings reacted. They grew out until they were six feet from wingtip to wingtip. They spread out and supported her body. Going on instincts provided by the template, Ranma managed to get a controlled flight.

The three Americans watched the girl glide around. "She learns fast," Allison said as Ranma pulled her wings back and went into a steep dive, then spread them out to go back up.

"Apparently rapid adaptation is the centerpiece to Ranma's training," Sarah said, while Ranma did a barrel roll.

"Who ever designed this didn't think it through," Dan said when Ranma's skirt flipped up during a maneuver.

"Very true," Allison said.

They continued to watch the pink girl glide around for a couple more minutes. "You know, we do have school," Sarah said.

"Do you really want to go?" Dan asked.

"Nah."

Finally, Ranma descended to the ground. Her feet touched the grass and slipped. She toppled, falling flat on her face. No longer needed, her wings shrank back to their original size.

"You're right," Sarah told Dan. "I mean, high heels? This was obviously never designed to be used."

"What?" Ranma asked, getting black up.

"Look, not a hair out of place," Allison said.

"Yeah, this template has a consistency function. It can't be removed, damaged, or stained. Within reason."

"If this thing was never intended to be used, then why did I get hit by it?" Ranma asked.

"Think about this: you spend about a year making this program that's never going to be used, and then you see this girl that fits the template exactly. A girl that has the potential, and has yet to be imprinted," Dan proposed.

"But why did they even make it in the first place?" Sarah asked.

"Someone might have a crush on you," Allison said.

"Right. So he spends a few months writing a program," Sarah said. "Wait. Ranma, how long have you been cursed?"

"About a year and a half," Ranma said.

"That's enough time," Dan stated.

"But who here knew about Ranma and the curse that long ago?" Allison asked.

Sarah shrugged.

"What's going on?" Ranma asked.

"We don't know," Dan said.

"You were saying that you could do some minor modifications without a key," Ranma said, grabbing part of the fuku.

"To a limited extent," Sarah said. "Just colors and such."

"Can you fix it so—?"

"It's not as garishly pink or girly?" Sarah completed. "I'll try, but remember, this is a magic girl template." Sarah then typed a few things in and sent a command to the sphere. Pink light once again engulfed Ranma, but it then shifted to red. It died down, and Ranma found herself still dressed, but there were a few changes. The fuku's trim, the boots, the bows, the ribbons, and her nails were now all a deep red.

"I essentially changed everything that was pink to red. Except your hair. The highlights are part of the restricted code. Sorry," Sarah pulled out a hand mirror and gave it to Ranma. "I managed to cut the makeup down, but I couldn't get rid of it all. As for all the glitter and crap, I got it out of your nails, off your face, removed from your clothes, and most of what was in your hair. There was nothing I could to about the jewelry, though. It's restricted too."

Ranma looked at her face. It was better, but she still had traces of makeup on, still had the earrings, and that damned tiara now had red jewels instead of pink. Her hair looked essentially the same, but with a red bow holding back the partial ponytail, and it was only a little bit sparkly.

"How is it? I think I can get rid of the wings, too," Sarah suggested.

"No, those are the only upside to this mess; and thanks, this is better at least," Ranma said, handing back the mirror. "Now, how do I change back?"

"Just concentrate on it a little bit," Dan said, looking around. He then made a slight hand motion and Allison disappeared.

Ranma tried to concentrate, when the air was punctuated by an explosion. "Heads up," Sarah yelled, already in her template. Dan, also shifted, had moved in to catch the now visible Allison, who had been thrown into the air by something. Ranma leapt up, twisted in midair, and came down behind Sarah, who had shouldered her gun and started firing into the woods.

"I'll take Allison and the equipment back to the truck while you two get that bastard," Dan shouted over the fire.

"What just happened?" Ranma asked, her wings still at full size from the jump.

"Dan thought we were being watched, so he sent Allison out to investigate, and that happened," Sarah said pointing to Allison's semi-conscious state. "So we're going in."

Sarah went over to the nearest stone and crouched behind it. "I think those bracers are amps."

"What?" Ranma asked.

"Amplifiers. They take residual energy and step up the power. So you can do chi blasts and other fun stuff."

Ranma let it pass that she already had that ability. "But what about—"

Sarah cut him off. "Dan and Allison will be fine. Let's go in." Sarah then moved behind a tree.

Ranma followed her, and crouched behind the next tree over. "What're we dealing with?"

"Most likely the same person that imprinted you."

The forest had gone silent. Sarah held her gun ready. Ranma knew the procedure for forest pursuit. They both watched, and then Ranma saw something. It was slight movement about a thousand feet away. Ranma pointed it out.

Sarah motioned forward and then did a countdown. When only her pointer finger was left they rushed forward, keeping low.

Ranma felt something coming; it was fast and dangerous. She jumped of to the left, Sarah to the right, just before a large ball of energy impacted.

Ranma then used her wings to glide back to the right. She looked over to see Sarah executing a similar maneuver with her armor's jumpjets. Sarah was firing at the source of the blast. Ranma concentrated and tried out the amps. The etchings on the bracers began to glow red, followed by a thick red beam pouring out of each fist.

The beams hit the hillock cutting through trees, rocks and blasting into the ground. They caused massive destruction, obliterating whatever they touched. Sarah pulled back and landed. She had her rifle down, and was waving Ranma off. She flew over to her sister and landed, this time not falling down.

"What? Why aren't we going in?" Ranma asked.

"Because whoever attacked us is gone," Sarah said, walking to the blast crater.

Ranma looked down at the bracers.

"Come over here," Sarah told Ranma.

Ranma looked into the hole, and saw only charred rock, and bits of metal.

"See. We were chasing a decoy."

"Some decoy," Ranma said looking around the forest.

"Some blast," Sarah said. "I mean, this thing's five feet deep."

"Aren't you worried about them coming at us now?"

"Not really. If someone else was here, they'd have attacked by now."

"Oh. So what exactly was that decoy?"

"A remote-operated observer armed with a particle cannon. Quite a feat; only a handful of people in town know how to make one." Sarah changed the subject. "So if you have that kind of power with an amp, you must have ungodly skill."

"That's what I was trying to say. I'm the world's—" Ranma's speech was cut by Sarah's laughing. "What?"

"Oh, nothing. It's just the image of you swooping in to defend love and justice."

Ranma glared at her.

"You really need to lighten up, Sis," Sarah said. She then activated her jumpjets and flew back to the standing ring.

"Hey," Ranma shouted, using her wings to fly after Sarah.


Back in the ring, Dan was standing guard. Allison was in the Beast, resting and checking up on some code. Luckily, she was only grazed. Dan saw the twins fly back in. Sarah landed heavily on her boots when the jets cut, while Ranma's landing was more delicate, so as not to fall down on those damned heels.

"What was it?" Dan asked, tracking the edge of the circle.

"Watcher. Decoy drone," Sarah replied.

"Okay. Back in the truck," Dan said.

Once everyone was inside the tuck, Dan reverted back to normal form and initiated pre-start. After the turbine acquired full velocity, Dan pulled away from the circle. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw the twins. "Um, can you change back? Seeing you two next to each other is kinda unsettling."

Allison turned and looked back. "It is like seeing opposite ends of the spectrum."

Ranma, uncomfortable sitting with those wings, even retracted, was happy to comply. She concentrated; the red light came, and she was back to normal. She turned to see Sarah back in her green dress and vest. "Wait," Ranma thought. "Did I just call my girl form normal?" Aloud she asked, "How will the curse interact with my template or whatever you called that thing?"

Allison spoke up, "While I was waiting, I found this strange bit of code. It's magical in nature, but our compiler can't recognize it. I fairly sure it's your curse, but it's partially corrupted. I think I found the activation trigger. It's the worst off, and I can't fix it."

"Why?" Ranma asked. As usual, more bad news.

"Each style of magic is a completely different language. I only know Calash, the one supported by the I/O sphere."

"Can it be removed?"

"Yes, but your template needs a female body to work. So technically, you're now a girl that has a curse that turns you into a guy."

"What?!" Ranma exclaimed. Definitely bad news.

"You can still go back and forth. I think. It's just that if the curse were removed, you'd be a stuck as girl. Your female body is now your default form. Don't worry; I made a copy of the curse as it is now, so if it ever degrades beyond functionally, I can just load the old one in as an update."

"Um, where are we going?" Sarah asked.

"The cemetery," Dan said, while driving at his normal speed, which was going as fast as skill and mechanics could allow, and considering the Beast had a refurbished helicopter engine and Dan was one of best drivers in the time zone, fast was an amazingly inadequate descriptor.

"Wait… My curse was spring of drowned girl. If I really turned into a girl, it wouldn't work," Ranma said morbidly.

"Not really. The curse itself is just a switching mechanism. It has to do both, go from guy to girl, and from girl to guy. The only thing gender-specific is the installation. That's why only a guy could get your curse," Allison explained.

"Does Jack know about templates?" Ranma asked.

"Oh, he knows everything," Sarah said. "After all, he grew up here."

"But wasn't that before computers?"

"Yeah, he was here during the founding of Calash, but remember, the circle had been here since the beginning. So this place has always been weird."

"So the local law just ignores all this stuff?"

"Law enforcement exists solely to keep the peace. If the wrong people on the outside knew about this place, it would turn into a media circus. So unless someone really screws up, Jack and his deputies won't intervene," Dan said.

"But he's so busy," Ranma said.

"Keeping the outsiders in the dark, presenting a semi-normal facade."

"But he let me come here."

"Well, you are from Nerima," Sarah said.

"True," Ranma said.

"We're here," Dan said, turning off the engine.

"Couldn't the two programs interact badly?" Sarah asked, getting out of the truck.

"No, the template takes precedence," Allison said, also out of the Beast. "The curse is disabled when the template is in use."

"What if Ranma's in guy form, and shifts to template?" Dan asked, smoothing his coat after exiting the truck.

That created a rather disturbing mental image for Ranma.

"Well, the template is designed to work with Ranma's girl body and that body alone, so the curse would have to activate first for the template to work," Allison said.

Dan and Allison then walked off, leaving Ranma alone with Sarah. "Where're they going?" Ranma asked.

"The graves of his parents," Sarah said.

Ranma looked back to see Dan standing in front of two stones, his coat billowing behind him in the light wind. His eyes were covered with dark sunglasses. He and Allison had their arms wrapped around each other's waists. Ranma turned to see Sarah standing in front of another stone. Ranma walked up to her. He knew what the inscription would say: Nodoka O'Neil.

"Sorry 'bout this," Sarah said.

"What?" Ranma asked.

"I mean, all this. Your dad, our mom, your curse, the template, having you stuck out in the middle of nowhere…"

"None of it's your fault."

"No, I guess not, but look at all the crap that happened to you, and you haven't even been here a full day yet."

"It's nowhere near as bad as the first day in Nerima. I didn't get any fiancées this time."

"Was it really that bad over there?"

"Ever hear the phrase 'Alone in a crowd'?"

Sarah nodded.

"That's what it was like. Everyone wanted to kill me, marry me, or use and exploit me. I was just a trophy to them. It was day after day of the same…"

Sarah maintained silence as Ranma spoke.

"…but the worst part was that I egged it on. I wanted the attention. It fed my overblown ego. I was a loudmouthed jerk. It took the death of my father for me to see that. Granted, he was a complete bastard, but still, someone had to die first."

Sarah turned to see Allison and Dan walking back to the truck. "Come on," she said to Ranma.


"Now where are we going?" Sarah asked.

"To get whoever did this to Ranma," Dan said, driving around a blind curve at seventy.

"Didn't you say the template was locked in?" Ranma asked, with faint hope.

"Yes, but we can still get the key code, and then we could change it to something less—"

"Girly," Sarah completed.

"Disturbing," Allison offered.

Ranma found that appealing, that if he could get full access to the template, all that magic girl crap could be edited out. "Any suspects?" she inquired.

"Remember how I said this place attracts people with potential?" Sarah said.

"Yeah."

"If this place attracts new people, then how can it stay a small town?"

Ranma shrugged.

"Lockridge has a rather low birth rate, about 1.2 children per family, but the influx of new people keeps the population essentially stable. Think about it; Dan's an only child, Allison too, and Dad had only one sister."

"How does this help us find out who did this?"

"I was getting to that. The point is that nearly everyone in Lockridge has some magical abilities. I don't mean the actual writing of the code; anyone can do that, but those that have the potential to be a vessel, people that can actually execute spells. But fewer people have the skill to write templates, and even fewer can make remote observers and other golem based entities." Sarah turned to Allison. "Find any signatures in the template?"

"I think so. Does anyone know the handle 'germ_forge'?" Allison asked

"I do. Sean Reno used it a while back," Dan said.

"That would do it," Sarah confirmed. "Sean's got the skills."

Dan nodded and changed course driving back to town. "Okay, Sean graduated last year. He works for an engineering firm two towns over. He still lives here in town. So here's the plan; we go to his apartment, wait for him to come back, then—" Dan's directions were cut when a red Honda drove past him going the other way. "Or we could just ram his car off the road," Dan said while flipping the Beast around in a quick snap.

"New plan: everyone switch. Sarah, you EPS the car. Allison, you disable him, and Ranma, provide cover," Dan said, accelerating after the Honda.

The red car, seeing what was chasing it, sped up, trying to get away.

"Take him out now. I don't want to risk him changing," Dan ordered.

Sarah shifted and lowered her window. Aiming her all-purpose-gun-from-the-future at the car, she fired. The electron pulse saturation hit the car, temporarily disabling its electronics. Unable to fire its sparkplugs, the small car rolled to a stop.

"Hurry before it wears off," Dan said, hitting the brakes.

Ranma, about to jump out of the truck, heard Sarah shout, "What the hell are you doing? Shift. If this goes hot, you'll need every little bit." Ranma complied, changing forms and gliding low towards the car.

"What the hell?" Sean said, looking in the rearview mirror. First that thing starts tailgating him, then an extra from MechWarrior kills his car, and then some type of angel flies out looking pissed enough to kill. Sean opened his door and stepped out. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the front passenger door to the black truck open and close.

Sean fell over twitching, after being hit with a taser to the back. Allison then appeared in a shower of quicksilver behind him.

"Good work," Dan said, walking to the body, already in his own template.


Sean's brain dragged its way back to conciseness. "That's the last time I mix tequila and vodka," he said, opening his eyes. He was met with two angry redheads staring him down. The one in the power armor had her gun pointed at his neck, while the angel girl had a glowing fist over his head. Sean rolled his head back, smacking the pavement. "Damn it, that hurt."

He looked beyond the twin girls to see someone who had probably seen The Matrix one too many times, standing next to a normal-looking blonde.

"I suggest you don't move, shift, or do anything else," Dan said.

"Um, what's going on?" Sean said, still thinking he had a bad hangover.

"Recognize this," Dan said, pointing to Ranma.

Sean looked at the girl, his head clearing up. "Um she's in a template. Looks anime-based."

"That you imprinted on her this morning. We want the edit password," Sarah said, still pointing the weapon at him.

"Um, no, I didn't, and I don't have that."

"Then where were you?" Dan inquired, skeptically.

"At work. I was driving home. You can call my boss."

"No need," Dan said pondering. "But you never answered. Have you seen this template?"

"No, man. Why?"

The blonde spoke up, "Why, then, was your sig' in the template, germ_forge?"

"Um, was the sig' Germ_forge.34h9?"

"No, it was h12."

Still lying on the ground, Sean said, "I get it. You see, the h12 files weren't mine. I just had them archived on my system for a friend."

"Who?" Dan asked.

"Spore."

"What?" Ranma said.

"No. You see, Spore was his handle. I never knew his real name."

"Then who imprinted?" Dan asked.

"Either Spore or the hacker."

"Hacker?"

"Yeah, a few months ago someone got into my system. The bitch was good. She got all of my H archives."

"How do you know it was a girl?" Dan inquired.

"I have my ways," Sean said.

"Let him go," Allison said.

"What?" Ranma said.

"He's telling the truth."

"So he's just a courier," Dan pondered. "Yup, let him go."

Sarah backed off. Ranma tried to, but wobbled and almost fell. Damn heels. Sean got up and dusted himself off.

"Could you give us all the info you've got on that hacker and Spore?" Sarah asked.

"Okay, I'll just get it from my laptop," Sean said before realization kicked in. "Crap! My files!" Sean said running to his laptop. He took the computer out of the case and turned it on, or attempted to do so. Sarah's EPS blast had thoroughly scrambled the hard drives; at least it wasn't an EMP that would have done permanent damage to all the electronics in a half-mile radius. Sean was slightly depressed. "Oh well, at least all my critical stuff is backed up at home. Can I e-mail those files to you?"

"Wait," Ranma said. "You don't mind that we ran car off the road, shocked you, and interrogated you at gunpoint… but you're really bummed that your computer's broken?"

"Point being?" Sean said putting his computer back in its case. "Can I go now?"

"Sure, why not?" Allison said.

Sean got into his car, and turned the ignition. Sarah walked away. "Um you're sure the car will still work right?" Dan asked. "I mean, it fried his computer. You told me EPS had no side effects. You said it would only affect a small area, and just temporarily disable."

Sarah looked into the distance.

"Please respond," Dan stated.

The sound of a Honda turning over and driving away was followed by Sarah's response, "Yeah, pretty sure."

Dan put his hand on his forehead and groaned.

"Wait. I'm the one in a skirt, but you're the one stressed out?" Ranma said.

"It's just that we're back at square one," Dan said reverting back to normal. "We don't know who did this to you, or why, and we still don't have a key."

Ranma, realizing that the operation was over, reverted as well. Sarah, also back in her normal form, walked up to her, "Why'd you fly during the intercept?" she asked.

"Those dammed heels don't allow for any speed," Ranma said walking to the truck.

"I think that's their point," Sarah said going back to the truck.

Dan got in the truck and started the turbines. "And now where are we going?" Sarah asked.

"Your house, then back to mine," Dan said.

"What?" Allison said.

"Your parents are good people, and they trust Jack. They'll let you stay with us for a while."

"Why?"

"Someone tried to kill you today. We need to stay together, all of us."

"Um, wasn't I the one imprinted?" Ranma asked.

"Yes, but if we're separated, it'll be easier to get us. Divide and conquer."

"Do you really think whoever did that to Ranma wants to kill us?" Sarah asked.

"You fought that golem," Dan said. "But the biggest problem is that we don't know anything. We have no idea who did this or why."


After stopping at the Allison's house and having a brief argument as to where Allison would sleep — she normally used the room Ranma currently occupied — they arrived back at the O'Neil residence.


"Why do I have to stay in your room again?" Ranma asked Sarah. They were both up at the range. After arriving home, Ranma was relieved to find that she still could change back with water, although any attempts to change at will simply activated her template.

"It would be inappropriate for Allison to stay in Dan's room," Sarah said at the hawk block.

"Um, can't she turn invisible?"

"Yes, I realize the futility of it," Sarah said, letting the hatchet go. It embedded itself in the wood.

"So I can practice up here?" he asked looking around. This was the only flat grassy area on the property. It would be good for some basic stuff, and there was a lot of varied terrain behind and to the sides.

Sarah walked up to the block and pulled out her hatchet and the knife she had thrown earlier, "Yeah, just be sure to check the flag and then look to make sure no one's up here, and if they are, never cross the line," she said pointing to the firing line.

"Sean sent those records awfully fast."

"Well, yeah. He doesn't want us to hurt him. Not that they were very helpful. All we know now is that Spore's most likely from Germany and that that hacker was really good. Good enough to change the original template passcodes. Now as to why some German guy would know Calash, let alone make a template off of our body, is still unknown. Although that location could be a fake. But now we have to find two people if we want to get the codes."

"So we know less than before we got to Sean."

"Well, at least things will be interesting for a while," Sarah said, tossing her knife.

"Yeah. My glass is half full," Ranma said sarcastically.

"That's the spirit."

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Before any "Invisible Man" fans bug me about it, yes, I know all about quicksilver madness. Allison just hasn't used the gland enough to warrant a shot of counteragent yet. In future chapters she will.

EPS (electron pulse saturation) is a fictional weapon taken from "The Precept" by Jack Moody. It acts similarly to an EMP burst, except it's much more localized.

Chapter 3
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