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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 5: Beta Patches and Upgrades


"Why don't you eliminate the entire Narn homeworld while you're at it?"
-- Babylon 5, Season 5 Intro.

 

Ranma snapped back to consciousness. It was like a switch was flipped, and suddenly her mind was up and running… Which on a certain level was entirely accurate. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel wings, and was therefore still in template. Opening her eyes, she saw that she was lying on a couch in the den of the O'Neil place. A quick glance at her clothing made it apparent that some other minor changes had happened to her template; the new choker was especially aggravating. She turned to see someone sitting in a recliner near the couch. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Hey, Ranma," Gosunkugi said in English. "We've got some things we need to talk about." He then looked at the I/O sphere connected to the laptop resting on the end table next to his chair. Strangely, he only looked at the screen and didn't touch anything.

From the kitchen, a girl's voice Ranma didn't recognize said in a slight Boston accent, "Hey, he's up."

Ranma noticed something odd, Gos didn't appear to be denting the cushions of his chair, and it was as if he was just barely floating. Shrugging, she shifted out of template and into that dreadful uniform Allison had tricked her into.

"Shut up," Ranma replied after Gos raised an eyebrow.

"Now, what did I tell you about acting perverted?" the same voice form the kitchen said.

"What is going on?" Ranma asked evenly. "Why are you here?"

"Think about it," the pale boy responded.

Then it hit her. Spore, the Japanese account, the modeling of the template. "You! You did this!" Ranma growled.

"Hey, all I did was write the damn thing; someone else stole it and installed it."

Ranma paused. "Yes, but, how? Why?" she stammered. "I mean, you're Gosunkugi."

He chuckled, "Yes, I'm supposed to be some hopelessly inept, Akane obsessed, wannabe mage."

"And you're not."

"Not anymore. I was given a gift, something that changed my life."

"Like getting an I/O sphere from that drunk is so great," the voice from the kitchen said.

"If wasn't for that 'drunk', you wouldn't even exist," Gos responded.

"I am not a drunk," another voice from in the kitchen said.

"Is that Reno?" Ranma asked.

"Yeah, he's helping Allison and Sarah fix Dan's arm."

"So who's that other girl?" Ranma asked, finally sitting up.

"Erika Berkley," the girl said, walking in. She was wearing a black leotard, black boots, and a chainmail skirt. Her deep blue hair went freely down to her shoulder blades.

"I told her to wear something a little inconspicuous, but no," Gos said, then sighed. "At least she looks hot."

"My little perv," Erika smiled.

Ranma was busy trying to absorb the information. Gosunkugi was real wizard, had built that damned temp, and was having a semi-normal conversation with a girl.

"Come on, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it," Erika stated, "Ever wonder why Gos was always so pale?"

"Not really," Ranma said, looking over at him. Something was definitely off about him.

"It's because I spent every free moment wandering around databases, servers, and just about every system I could hack. That's why I got the I/O sphere in the first place. I cleared up a little tax problem for Germ Forge -- Reno -- a year ago, and he gave one to me in return."

"Wait, if you knew Calash all this time, then how come you didn't do anything? If you could make templates and stuff, then how come you were only a minimal player in the Nerima madness?"

"Because while anyone can write the code and do the basic I/O functions, only a select few can install or remove magical apps. I was not one of them until recently."

Noticing Ranma's lack of response, Erika sighed and asked, "And how did you get that ability?"

"Well, I couldn't have done it without your help."

"Why, what did she do?" Ranma yawned.

Gos smiled, just before disappearing.

Ranma turned to Erika. "What the hell just happened?"

Erika just smiled, and shifted--

--into and exact duplicate of Gos, down to the jeans and the white t-shirt with the words L33T M3 written on it. "Erika did modify the curse a bit."

Ranma looked down then back up. "What just happened?" she asked.

"That me over there was just a projection," Gos said, pointing to the chair.

"And Erika's what?"

"Yeah… About that. See, there're two people in here," Gos said pointing to himself.

"Huh?"

"Um, yeah," Gos said, looking over to the side. "Looks like, and I'll have to tell that damn story all over again." Gos paused, then after a couple of seconds rolled his eyes, "Well, yes, story-time could have waited till she woke up, but I thought and explanation as to why we were waiting at their front door was necessary."

"What?"

"Not you. I was talking to Erika."

"The girl that was just here."

Gos nodded.

"So she's a voice in your head."

"Not exactly. Look lets go outside, and I'll explain everything."

"Why there?"

"Because," Gos said, leveling his voice, "some of the information you'll want to dispense at your own discretion."

"Nerima?"

"Some of it."

"Okay, just let me change out of this godawful thing," Ranma said, before walking into the living room and running up the stairs.

Gos tuned to see Sarah leaning in the doorway between the den and the kitchen.

"I'll be watching," she said, her eyes narrowing.

"As you should," was Gos' reply.

Ranma came down shortly, male, and wearing black pants and red shirt. "Let's go," he said to the apparently competent mage.

"Communist," Sarah coughed.

"Hey!"

"No, no, no," Gos interjected while shutting down his laptop, "The red shirt means he dies first."

"Oh god, you're a trekkie," Sarah groaned.

"A little. What sci-fi do you watch?"

"Babylon, mostly."

"Ah, B5. Now that's a good show."

"Um, Gos? Weren't we going for a walk?" Ranma interrupted. "You two can talk about the Evil Empire later."

"Hey, don't be bringing Star Wars into this," Gos stated.

"No, he's talking about the Soviets."

"I give up," Ranma groaned, pushing past them into the kitchen. Inside he saw Reno, Allison and Dan at the table. Dan was in his template, his severed arm flush with the stump. Two laptops were running, both hooked up to I/O spheres with Allison operating both. Sean had a set of jeweler's magnifiers over his eyes and was manipulating small instruments in the small gulf between cuts.

Sean stopped his manipulations, "Next connection."

"Wait, let's see if this one works," Allison said.

"Right."

"On my mark, test it," Dan said, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth in case the system shorted.

"Queuing muscular supplement, sub-conduit 489," Allison read off one of her screens.

"Hit it." The newly-connected cybernetics activated, entering their test mode to see if the new parts had been configured correctly. The minute signals bounced around with increasing complexity; and if there had been and error, it would have caused noticeable damage, for Dan's template, unlike Ranma's, could not enter a 'safe' mode and debug/repair itself.

"Clear," Allison said, to Dan's relief.

"What's going on?" Ranma asked.

"Remember when I got hit with the blade during the fight?"

"Oh yeah," Ranma recalled. That's why he was asleep in that thing. Ranma vaguely recalled being hit by and explosion at the end of the fight. "I thought you could heal injuries like the terminator."

"Well, a deep cut and a full amputation are different things, and in addition there was much more damage to my endoskeleton and various other components than I originally thought." Then turning to Allison. "Next?"

The blonde scrolled through the arm-assembly schematics. "The core structure had been rebuilt along with three of the five conduits. After that, it's just minor musculature and skin repairs. Those your template can heal on its own."

"There's two more of these dammed things." Sean groaned, switching his tools. "Dan, you've got to put in better wetware."

"Yes, I'm aware of that. But recoding my entire architecture will take too long, and I need an operational template as soon as possible."

"True," Sean allowed.

"Let's go," Gos said, a laptop satchel slung at his side.

"Where's Sarah?" Ranma asked, looking into the empty den.

"Oh, around," Gos replied.


They exited the house using the back door, walking up the worn path to the range. Gos looked at the level green field, and then turned to the wedge of sky visible above the clearing. "Looks like rain."

"Yup," Ranma replied.

"Been a mild fall?"

"So far, but that means that winter will hit even harder."

"Well, we are in the mountains. What? A mile above sea level?" He inhaled. "Air's thinner up here. That been affecting your flying?"

"No. Look, can we get past the small talk?"

"Right. Which first, Erika or your temp?"

"They're interconnected, aren't they?"

"Yup. I guess I'll go further back, then. Most of my life was spent in shame, afraid of other people. You know, that standard withdrawn loner crap. Coupled with Japan's reverence for conformity, my only outlet became computers. Eventually, I fell in with certain groups and found out that I possessed L33T SKILLZ." Gos said pronouncing the word L33T in a way that was distinct from the second syllable of elite. "I specialized in getting into government systems. That's how I fixed Forge's tax problem. Shortly after that, I got a package from New Zealand -- my first I/O sphere.

"But as you know, I failed to have the potential. That didn't stop me from learning Calash, coding some templates, and taking scans of local phenomenon. I had a couple templates, each fitted to various locals. But I got bored with them before they were finished."

"Why'd you make them? I mean, if they got out…" Ranma trailed.

"Yes, it could have been quite bad. That's why I transferred them off my machine, just in case."

"And then Forge's archives got hacked, and she got all your early templates."

"Yes, but yours was the only one close to completion. The rest were just outlines; skeletal codings and such. After my falling out with Calash, I wandered around the net looking for something interesting, and I found it in artificial intelligence."

"Erika?" Ranma asked.

"Not quite yet. You see, I had broken into the top research facilities in the field: universities, corporations, both civil and military contractors, and government projects. It was relatively easy -- well, compared to the IRS -- because the complexity in any half-decent AI necessitated a lot of external networking. Once I was in, I looked around, taking pieces from dozens of teams and connecting them… and then it happened."

"It couldn't have been that simple."

"You'd be amazed at what cutting edge technology can do; it is almost on par with Calash and other magics. And when you combine them…."

"So what is Erika?"

"A living, sentient person just like you or me; also my girlfriend."

Ranma stepped back a little, trying to wrap his brain around the previous statement. "So you were so desperate for companionship that you broke dozens of laws and made an unparalleled scientific breakthrough… Just to get a girl that would like you."

"Yup. Sounds pretty damn sad," Gos agreed.

"And how did you move her from all those computers to inside your head? Especially since you couldn't even use Calash."

"It all started when Forge told me about being attacked by four people, one of them a winged Japanese redhead wearing a fuku. That put all the pieces into place. Where you'd gone to. How I could actually use Calash. What I should do with my life. How I could help Erika. It was all there."

"In one simple message," Ranma said skeptically.

"Yes. You see, it had to be you, because that was a template I made for your girl side, and once I got out of Forge where he lived, I knew where you had gone. Lockridge made a lot of sense.

"Now, how I actually got access to Calash… that was entirely Erika's work. By reverse engineering the I/O sphere, she discovered the requirements necessary for potential: why some can use Calash, while others can't. With this information, she then altered a copy of the Calash interpreter, broadening the user requirements.

"It made it so that I could just barely use this version of Calash. It was very slow and inefficient, but my foot was in the door. Erika then loaded an app into me that simulated some of the properties of potential. This made the connection a bit better, like tying a coat hanger to an old TV antenna. She was then able to refine the user requirements, again making the connection better. Think of a microphone; you can place it in the middle of the room and hear a little bit from everyone, or put it in front of a single person and hear everything he's saying. If you know where he is, you can get closer to him.

"Likewise, as she refined the requirements, she was able to cut out more and more of the background noise, while expanding my ability to connect to the sphere. With each cycle of upgrades, my abilities got better, until I had essentially the same skills as you or Sarah."

"Could others get potential this way?" Ranma asked, catching only the gist of it: Erika made it so that Gos could use Calash.

"No, unless they had someone like Erika doing it for them. Hell, even if someone had copies of my adapter programs, they couldn't do it. The code itself is useless; it's the process that's important. Even the procedure of expansion and refinement is different for everyone. Having potential is essentially the ability to connect to an I/O sphere. If you don't have potential, you can't connect, and the possible reasons for this are numerous and complicated. That's why only certain people have the right combination of characteristics that allow the connection."

"So how'd I get my potential?" Ranma asked, again getting some of what Gos had said.

"Erika thinks it's hereditary -- look at Lockridge. So, probably from your mother. Sarah's an example. Wait, but her father also has it…. And then there's the matter of why you mother even had potential in the first place…. Well, she did end up here, but that brings up another point…."

Ranma glazed over as Gos began to ramble. Before, Ranma had tried to listen to what the pale boy was saying: it might have made sense. But Ranma knew what Gos was saying was just dull, and not Gos talking over his head. "Yes, that's nice and all, but could you get back to you little story about Erika?" Ranma said, interrupting Gos' amazingly dry monologue about genealogy and migration patterns.

"Oh! Right, sure. After I got potential, I was able to load a vessel that Erika had constructed in Calash that could contain her. After she transferred herself into me, all that was left was to curse myself to give her a body."

"But how'd you even get cursed water?"

"Oh, I didn't need the water. Remember back when I scanned you? That's when I got a copy of the curse. I then transferred it to myself, after Erika had modified the install commands to allow for my girl form to be fitted to her specifications."

"I thought Jusenkyou was a different class of magic from Calash?"

"It is," Gos said, switching his bag to the other shoulder. "But she didn't have to decode the curse. She just encapsulated the Jusenkyou code in Calash to upgrade it."

"To get the changing at will, and separate clothing for each form," Ranma observed.

"Yes. Both are rather easy. When a template loads, your clothing changes, right, so all you have to do is each time the curse triggers… It saves the current state and loads the previous one. It also works for other things. You've seen how my hair is much shorter than Erika's. And the control switching was a simple program that overrides the trigger response."

Ranma nodded slightly, then spoke, "Two questions: Are you separate people? And why'd you do this…? Let someone else in your body?"

"First, yes, we are two separate individuals. We just happened to be rooming, so to speak. And as for why, consider loneliness. Back in Nerima I was alone, as I'd gather you were too. Think of what I created. Erika is the only one of her kind, and as she grew, she realized what she'd been denied, and what she could never experience.

"I had to help her. It would have been immeasurably cruel to leave her confined to servers. True, she is a vast web of linked programs, but she has a soul. Now at least some of the time she has a body. And the time I spend just seeing from cameras and hearing from microphones, existing as a projection, can help me understand her."

"And Akane?"

Gos narrowed his eyes. "A simple crush. A pathetic, sad, and powerful crush. She messed us both up," he recalled bitterly. "But that part of my life is over. I've escaped Nerima, much like you."

"How'd you manage that? Aren't your parents still alive?"

"Ah, but they're dead to me. They read the acceptance letters. They practically pushed me onto the plane."

"Dead? Letters?"

"My parents were yuppies. Self-centered brats. I swear they had me because some magazine said it was the latest fad. They had some decency; I mean, they did keep me around, but they had no compunctions about sending me to some academy in Seattle, provided that I had a full scholarship, of course."

"How'd you manage that?"

"Same way I made Erika a US citizen. I hacked into their records."

"What if they call?"

"They won't, and even if they did, it's covered," Gos assured. "I have friends in that city. Granted, I wouldn't recognize them if I met them on the street, but that's how it goes."

Raman absorbed the facts. Gosunkugi was a mage, had a girlfriend, and had friends loyal to him. "You've changed."

"No, I was always the same, but I was afraid to show it… to know it." Gos sighed. "And now we move past what I have told your family -- the one here, your real one -- and into what is for you alone."

"What?"

"The true nature of your template, and the movements in Nerima."

"Nerima first."

"Right. Nabiki has organized the others. Until they find you, they will work together."

"Who's they?"

"The Amazons, the Kunos, Nabiki, Akane."

"I'm surprised Akane's with them. I thought she'd be glad to be rid of me."

"She's spoiled. Just like the others, she won't leave you alone, but she will deny it," Gos said, his voice gaining an edge. He then regained his composure. "Two are missing. Ukyou and Ryoga. Shortly after you finished Cologne's language lessons -- an admirable ploy -- Ukyou closed her shop and moved away. Ukyou told the others that when her father heard of Genma's demise and your disappearance, he annulled both the engagement and the vendetta, and recalled his child. Whether or not this is just a ruse and she is striking out on her own--"

Ranma cut him off. "She is not coming for me. She is the only one there who I told where I went. If she was after me, she would already be here."

"It's a big risk."

"I trust her. I had to tell someone where I was going."

"It is not a question of trust but of desperation. What if the others think that Ukyou knows something? The Amazons have ways of making people talk, and they will not relent."

Ranma recalled being chased across China, and the mind-bending properties of a certain haircare product.

"Ryoga as always wanders, and may show up at inopportune times. But I have prepared a diversion. Nabiki knows I am in Seattle, and if she were to search online newspaper archives, she would find a handful of articles and blurbs. Rumors have also been constructed. They will arrive in the city, and spend their time chasing shadows."

"And if this ploy fails, and they find Lockridge?" Ranma asked.

"Then we will be more than prepared for their arrival," Gos said, his eyes narrowing.

"Easy for you to say. They're after me."

"Yes, but Nabiki reigns the hounds, and I angered her greatly when I left. For I know where you are, am beyond her power, and threatened her money."

"Oh," Ranma responded.

"Do not worry, for I have many eyes and see many things. Even now my associates track their movements." Gos chuckled. "Ah, the power of technology."

"Right now, you're back to being the pale creepy guy."

Gos laughed. "Good. And now to your template."

"What about it?" Ranma asked, knowing that the answers would be unpleasant.

"I never finished your template. It had to have been completed by the person that stole it." Gos paused, then muttered to himself, or more likely Erika, "Are you absolutely sure? Yes, I know you scanned, but…. All right, yes. But you know what that means. Fine." He looked at Ranma. "During the last fight, you activated some magical artifacts, right?"

"Yeah, the damn compact and glasses. Well, I guess you put those things in to complete the magical girl look, right?"

"Nope. I never got far enough to put accessories in."

"So the hacker put them in."

"I hope so."

"What does that mean?"

"Your costume also changed."

"Yeah. That stupid choker was gouging into my neck."

"What did you expect? You had an egg-sized chunk of glass in your throat. Erika, recall those images," Gos said holding his hands out flat. Appearing on each was a small projection of Ranma's template. "The one on the left I got from Sarah, after she changed the colors, the day you were imprinted. The other is from just before you woke up. Notice any differences?" he said, pointing to the two miniature winged girls.

"Roses," he observed flatly.

"Yup. It seems to have become your motif, in rose jewelry, rose accents, and other things of that sort. It fits the Rose Glasses and the Rose Hand Mirror."

"And you weren't behind this either."

"Nope. I'm hoping that that was just a triggered effect, to be set off when you activated the artifacts. The alternative isn't good for any of us," Gos said, dismissing the holograms.

"Why?"

"First of all, it means that our hacker managed to get into Erika's personal files recently. This is not outside the realm of possibilities; after all, she did manage to defeat the security at Forge's German site and alter the template's original passcodes. But more important is what she could have gotten."

"How do you know she was even there?"

"I have my ways."

"Damn it! Why to you people always say that?"

"Now that… is a--"

"Don't," Ranma interrupted.

"Fine. Well, anyway, if she stole what I think she did and put it in your template sometime before that fight, then it's a miracle you're still alive."

"It just keeps getting better," Ranma groaned.

"For the last month, Erika's been fiddling with Organic Technology."

"And that's?"

"Here's the concept: say you're in a fight, and you need something. It can be anything; weapons, systems, parts, upgrades, additions. The template itself will do that for you. It will help you automatically, responding to problems immediately."

"But isn't a template really hard to program?"

"Yes, it is. That's the problem. There are too may variables. It takes a person hours, sometimes days, to upgrade a template. Look at Dan. He's got two other people working on him for an hour, and he just got an arm chopped off."

"Wait… So you're saying that my template upgraded itself, making those artifacts and adding in the roses," Ranma said skeptically.

"And some new bracer attacks," Gos added. "But let me finish. Since it takes a thinking mind to code a template, Erika reasoned that all she had to do is put an AI in the template. So she copied some of her protocols and tailored them to the task of template upgrading."

"So it's like a little programmer in your head."

"Exactly. Well, it's not quite conscious, but it is a very powerful program. The problem comes in with speed. Even the L33Test coders make mistakes. And since organic tech had the code written on the spot, there's a lot of typos. And in Calash, bugs have hideous effects."

"Why aren't the errors fixed before it's installed?"

"How do you know there's a problem unless something wrong happens? If there isn't time for a trial run?"

"Walked into that one. So why am I lucky to be alive?"

"I've been talking in theoretical terms as to how organic tech should work. Even under the most ideal circumstances, there'd be some problems. Hell, Erika had only run a few tests before it was stolen. Who knew what it'd do in a live subject? That you just passed out for a while is really good." Gos then paused.

Ranma sighed. "You're going to make me ask another question. Why can't you just keep your little monologue running on your own?"

"It means that the AI was able to repair all of the bugs, while keeping the errors from spreading. The problems could have cascaded out of control, putting you in a coma or killing you. The good news is that this probably won't happen again. As time passes, the AI in the organic code will grow and get better. It will learn as time passes, expanding its compliment of methods and procedures."

"Probably?" Ranma said.

"That is, even if you have the damned thing." Gos pointed. "I need your help to run a few more tests."

"Right." Ranma sighed. "This hacker's a real big problem."

"Oh yeah, she's our next priority," Gos said, glad that they were done with that subject, especially since Ranma never asked exactly how the Organic Tech got the required information off of its user, or the self-upgrading abilities of the AI itself.

"Is that it?"

"That's it"

"Why didn't you want the others to hear about organic tech or Nerima?" Ranma asked, walking back to the path.

"I wanted you to make the choice to tell them yourself. I'm not sure about the organic yet, and it might worry them. It's a lot like artificial intelligence -- legendary, very hard -- but unlike it, potentially dangerous.

"And Nerima… I want to avoid a confrontation between the old crew and the new crew. In Nerima, fighting is something that you can always recover from. It has no consequence. But here it does; you've seen the weapons they carry. If it came down to a fight, especially for you, they would use lethal force. It'd be like the scene in that Indiana Jones movie. You know, where against that swordfighter, Indy simply shot him."

Ranma's mind was filled with jumbled images of what could happen. One group of violent loons versus another group, slightly saner but much more lethal. The first group would be desperate, unstable, and had a history of jumping to wild conclusions; the other would protect themselves using whatever means necessary. The presence of someone bearing a close resemblance to his girl side would not help things along.

"Sarah," Ranma finally said.

"Yes. Unless you know where to look, you two are identical. And don't forget the language barrier."

"I can see why you sent them to Seattle. I agree they must never meet, but I'll have to tell Sarah and the rest what's going on. So they'll be prepared."

"As you wish; but if cornered, they will defend themselves," Gos paused, then added, "and you."

"I know," Ranma said, his mouth dry.

"And the organic tech?"

"Sure. Why not," Ranma said, beginning to walk down the path, turning to see if Gos was following him. "What are you looking at?" he asked, following the pale hacker's gaze. He was looking at a darkened shape in a second floor window. There was also a slight glint from what looked to be a very small piece of circular glass. "Is that Sarah? She was watching us?"

"Yes," Gos replied. "I believe that she was watching to see if I would attack you."

Ranma looked blankly.

"It makes sense. Things have been dangerous lately. Only this morning, you were attacked by a mech. As I've said before, your friends here would kill for you."

"You didn't mind?"

"Unlike others, Sarah knows that some things can never be taken back. She would not act blindly. So no, I don't mind. Erika was a bit miffed, but that's understandable," Gos replied, then appended, "Besides, someone is always watching."

Ranma considered the riddle. There were other reasons for having this discussion outside.


"Boss?" the deputy asked, knocking on the door to the Sheriff's office.

"Come in, Ted," Jack replied, looming up from his desk.

Deputy Ted Johansen, a tall, thin man, walked into the office. The only distinguishing aspect of his face was a moustache and goatee he'd grown. "You comin' to the Wolf for a bite?"

Jack looked at his watch. "Sure," he said, getting up. Putting his coat on, he followed the younger deputy out to the front door. They passed the front desk where the other deputy was playing a text based RPG at his desktop. "Damn grue," he muttered.

"Still playing that game, Bill?" Johansen asked.

The other deputy, Bill Warwick, said, "Yup. Nothing much else to do."

"That's' good news in our line of work," Johansen joked. "Sheriff and I are going to get some lunch. Want us to bring somethin' back?"

"Sure, the usual," Warwick replied.

The two police officers left the station, and walked down the street to the Wolfe's Head Bar and Grill, one of the few businesses in the small town. On the main street, it was a few buildings down from the police station. It was a multistory building faced in wood planking, with apartments on the second and third floors. When they entered, Johansen sat down at the bar counter and ordered his and the other deputy's food. Jack simply said, "The usual."

"Sheriff O'Neil? There you are," said a voice from one of the booths.

Jack looked to see Judy Miller, the high school's vice principle. Looking at the glasses on her table, it was apparent that she'd had more than a few.

"I took the rest of day off," she said defensively. "The teachers can be flakes, so why can't I? Anyway, you'd have quit early if you'd had my day."

Jack raised an eyebrow.

"It's those damn daughters of yours. Always horsing around. Although the other one's new. Stupid kids, screwin' with the records…. Is it too hard for them to be normal?" the drunken administrator whined.

"What happened?" Jack asked, speaking for the first time.

"Oh, nothing, just some fight that tore up the back field and filled it with hunks of metal. I come out to see what's going on, and what happens? Your girls, that Arzish boy, and his girl run off."

Carrying drinks and three boxes, Johansen walked up next to the sheriff and said, "Miller's been hitting the sauce again."

"She does this often?" O'Neil asked.

"Every couple months, something strange rubs her the wrong way. She's good at her job. That's the problem. She cares enough to try and run a tight ship, and well, around these parts, especially with the youngsters, that's raring for trouble." The deputy then turned to the bartender. "Make sure someone drives her home."

"Always do," was the response.

Jack then pulled out his cell phone. He had a few calls to make.


Sarah and Allison were in the kitchen, cleaning up the equipment used to fix Dan's arm. Sean had run out of the house shortly after finishing the repair, remembering that while his boss had allowed him to come in late today -- so he could pick Gos and Erika up at the airport in Casper -- he was due in at noon. Dan, not having slept recently, decided to go to his room to take a nap, leaving Ranma with Erika and Gos in the next room. They were examining code from Ranma's template when the ringing of a phone interrupted them.

"That yours?" Ranma asked in female form, having just reverted out of template.

Holo-Gos looked at Erika, who shook her head. "Nope," he replied.

"It's mine," Sarah shouted from the kitchen.

"Answer it," Ranma said, annoyed at the insensate ringing.

"Fine." Sarah walked into the room and picked it up, answering it. "Oh! Hi, dad. Well, yeah, that did happen. No, we're all fine. Well, Dan got a little hurt, but he's better now. Yes, I know. Again, we are all okay. All right. Bye." Sarah clicked the phone off. "That's odd."

"What? Jack's bound to find out about the fight."

"Yeah, but this soon? Eh, doesn't matter," she said, about to put the phone down.

Gos was looking at the device. "Wait. Isn't that a remote control?"

"Used to be," Sarah remarked.

"Oh. Can I see it?"

"Sure," she said, tossing it as Gos' head… where it passed through and would have hit the floor, if Erika hadn't caught it.

"I'm the projection now," Gos exclaimed. "Is it that hard to see?"

"Actually, it is," Sarah replied. "Maybe you should have a nice 'H' on your forehead."

"No."

"She has a point," Erika said. "I mean, we do use light bees."

She noticed Ranma's puzzlement. "Sorry. That's from an old British sci-fi comedy. A light bee is a small device that projects my image and allows me to see, hear, and talk."

"Makes sense."

"Interesting," Gos observed, looking at the modified remote Erika was holding up to his face.

"Eh, I was bored," Sarah commented.

"No, there's good work in this," he said, looking at the phone. "The antenna assembly is especially clever."

"Can we get back to the template?" Ranma said.

Erika put the remote next to her laptop. "Okay, fine. I can't break the passcodes."

"What?" Ranma stammered. "But you're some type of super-computer. Why can't you do it? It was done before."

"As much as I admire the high regard you have for my skills, I'm not omnipotent. Our little hacker broke into an incomplete template, a much easier thing to do than a finished one. In addition, she put in some pretty heavy encryption."

"Just great."

"Don't worry. I took some readings to figure out how the algorithms work. And if anyone's gonna break it, I will. Um… eventually," she reluctantly amended.

"All right, so next we have those new artifacts. I'm afraid you gonna have to go into template again."

Ranma sighed, and shifted.

After the flash died down, Erika looked at fuku and said, "You're such a perv."

"Hey, the hacker could have shortened the skirt or made her cleavage visible," Gos said indignantly.

"Yes, but we know the hacker was a girl," Erika replied.

"Again, how do you people know that?" the winged pseudo-magical girl asked.

"So what if she was a girl?" Allison stated, ignoring Ranma's question.

"Yes, we all know that wouldn't be a problem for you," Sarah commented. She then looked around realizing that Erika and Gos didn't know Allison, and that her brother, or sister, was a little clueless.

"Yes, why don't you tell us why that's not a problem for me." Allison smiled.

Sarah grumbled and went back into the kitchen. Allison then leaned on the wall off to the side.

"All right Ranma, summon those things," Erika said, watching the incoming feed from her I/O sphere.

"Rose Compact, activate. Rose Glasses, activate," Ranma muttered, hoping that this time someone would be able to help her.

"Interesting. See how the recall command works?" Erika said.

"Where the hell is that data stored, then?" Gos said.

"It seems to be in the priority section. Damn." Then turning to Ranma: "Can I see those things?"

"Sure," Ranma said, taking off the rose sunglasses. The sensor overlay they gave off was a bit disorientating, especially when she looked at Gos. The projection was very good, possessing an immense poly count, and to the unaided human eye indistinguishable from a real person. But whatever sensors served her template could see through the projection and made Gos semi-transparent. She could even see the little robot flying inside his head.

"Wow. The hacker does nice work," Erika commented, fiddling with the glasses.

"Or you did," Gos said.

"I'm not sure this is the work of organic tech," she said, opening the compact. "Hello there," she said, fiddling with some of the buttons on the lower section, while gazing at the mirror. "It's like a palm," she observed.

"Can you find any temp controls?" Gos asked, looking at the little computer-slash-makeup compact.

Holding it like a Gameboy, Erika scrolled through the options and windows. "No, just the general colors and stuff."

"Can you make it less intense?" Ranma asked, stretching. Stupid wings. No, can't be comfortable in a chair, she thought.

"Nope. Surprisingly, it's at the least garish setting," Erika said.

Ranma shuddered, remembering that the template originally made everything pink and glittery. She shuddered again at the prospect that it could even get worse than that. Compared to what it started out as, the roses weren't that bad. God, that's depressing, she remarked internally.

"Find anything else useful?" Gos asked.

"Not really. I'm archiving the data nonetheless. It might come in handy later," Erika said, looking up from the compact. She sighed. "You know, Ranma, you really should cross your legs."

"Well, you are sitting right in front of her," Gos pointed out

"Hey," Erika said.

"Are you done yet? I want out of this thing," Ranma said, trying not to freak out. That little smile Allison had was especially disturbing.

"Sure. Why not?" Gos said.

Ranma closed her eyes and reverted back to her default form. The compact and glasses disappeared as well. "That's better. I really should blame you for all this," she said to the hologram.

"Perhaps. At least I can help make your curse easier to live with."

"So I can change at will?"

"Yeah, and it'll fix your clothes so you won't end up wearing a dress as a guy."

Allison knew all about the upgrades to the curse, and the opportunity they presented. "Hey, Erika, can I have a copy of the curse?" Allison asked, pulling a zip disk out of her purse.

"Okay, why not?" she said, putting the offered disk into the drive.

After the disk ejected, Allison grabbed the disk and ran out of the room and up the stairs.

"I think that was a very bad idea," Ranma observed.

"The curse is easy enough to remove. What's the worst she could do?"


"Why must you constantly fail?" Rebecca asked, her irritation almost slipping out.

"Huh?' Ryoga responded. They were sitting across from each other at a table on the back porch of Rebecca's place. He was wary at first, but as they talked he realized that she was a kindred spirit. She'd heard of Ranma and knew what kind of threat he posed. She confirmed his suspicions, provided support for his theories. It only took a little coaxing and he told everything, while she listened silently, occasionally making a note on her laptop. Being a world traveler, the language problem was minimized. His accent was a strange mix of Canadian and Japanese.

But this question grated on him. It seemed out of place, as if someone else was asking it. Somewhere in his mind a little flag of warning popped up, but it was quickly forgotten.

"I apologize if my question was worded poorly," she said again in that pleasant and understanding voice. "It's just that you seem to be just as good as this Ranma, perhaps even better, but he always beats you. From all the fights you've told me, you haven't really ever won. I'd like to know why."

"I see. Once I know how he keeps beating me, I can counter and I'll win."

"Exactly," she smiled, careful to let him reach his own conclusions.

"I already know what's wrong. I turn into a pig, and get lost easily. Ranma knows this and uses it to beat me."

That, and you're a naïve, trusting fool with bipolar disorder, who'll spill his guts quicker than a drunken Irishman in a confessional, Rebecca thought to herself. If Rebecca had possessed any empathy, she would have taken pity on his rather pathetic loneliness and obsession.

Ryoga was thinking. According to Rebecca, Ranma had fled to Wyoming in order to find the colony of mages who lived in the area, trying to find a cure for his curse and undoubtedly looking for ways to gain power.

The lost boy was determined to bring the fiend to justice. Ranma wasn't just a jerk, a simple enemy, a bane to Ryoga's existence; he was also a murderer. Ranma had killed his father when there was nothing left to learn from him, and ran off. The coroner had said it was a stroke, but Ryoga knew that there were pressure points that could simulate that form of death. And Ranma's actions proved that it wasn't a natural death. Who flees the country but a guilty man?

It all made sense, all the pieces fit--

--if you were to make the right assumptions. And this, beyond any curse or handicap, was Ryoga's failing. It was the same blindness that the others in Nerima shared: forcing evidence to fit your irrational delusions. A shortcoming that Rebecca conveniently and consciously glossed over.

"But if I become free of those curses, then I will surely win."

"You would stand a much better chance," Rebecca allowed.

"But how will I be rid of them?" Ryoga asked. Knowing that he had a problem didn't solve it.

"Remember that colony of mages?" Rebecca offered.

"You're one of them."

"Yes, and I will help you. With my assistance, you will overcome your problems," Rebecca promised.

"But why will you help me?"

"If what you say is true, then you are the closest match to Ranma. You are the only person with a hope of defeating him," Rebecca said, not really answering his question and technically not lying.

"So you want him beaten too? But I can't just take you're help as a charity. I'll have to repay you."

"Oh, you don't need to do that," Rebecca replied. Damn. The fish was jumping right into the boat.

"I insist. There has to be some way I can help."

"If I think of something, I'll tell you."

"All right. It's a deal."

"Good," Rebecca said, leveling her gaze at him. "There is much that needs to be done."

Some will sell their souls for just about anything. If Ryoga had been a more careful, he wouldn't have used his as a bargaining chip for a chance at revenge.

While even Rebecca herself had yet to grasp the full implications of her actions. Things were building up. Her hold on Ryoga was fragile. All he needed do was talk to anyone else to learn the truth, and her intricate web would fall apart. Even a glimpse of what was on her screen could have soured the deal. On it was a feed from one of her watchers: cloaked robots used for surveillance, among other things.

It was monitoring the O'Neil place, and happened to record a conversation between subject 1 and Spore, that arrogant self-proclaimed hacker god. Rebecca knew that Spore was aware of her presence. His eyes kept going back to where the watcher was. The meant that Spore wanted Rebecca to have this information. It was a way of saying that he knew about the organic tech.

But there was something else. Yes. Spore was talking about the situation in Japan. He specifically mentioned that Ryoga was missing. Could he know that the lost boy was here? Could he have been the one who sent him?

No, that was too paranoid. It was simple coincidence that she got subject one, so why couldn't subject two fall into her lap as well?

She had to act fast if this were to work.


Ranma was sitting on the floor, munching on a bag of pretzels. Unfortunately, Ranma still needed water to change and had gotten the bag while in the kitchen. When he returned to the den, he'd found out that Gos and Erika were in what used to be the dining room with Sarah. They were fiddling with the bank of servers in the room. Well, Erika and Sarah were working; Gos was watching and making comments.

Ranma's technical knowledge had grown since he'd moved here, from virtually nothing to the basics of usage, but the others were still light years ahead of him. It was similar to the difference in ability between Ranma and a non-martial artist.

"So when is Reno coming back?" Sarah asked, hitting a hard drive with large pipe wrench.

"Around three," Gos said.

"You shouldn't abuse components like that," Erika observed.

"It's not my fault the case rusted to the bracket," Sarah grumbled, still smacking the now-warped drive. "Allison was the one that used this tower as a doorstop."

"That's odd. But still," Gos said, imagining a tower case wedged in front of a door.

"It was during a thunder storm."

"Oh-kay," Gos said.

"There's something wrong with that girl," Erika noted, putting the cover back on one of the other computers in the server room.

"You have no idea," Sarah said, finally managing to pry the drive off. "So, what does Reno do?" she then asked.

"He's the IT guy for a geological engineering and survey team," Gos said.

"Oh? Why?"

"I don't know why he works," Gos noted. "I think it's a way to keep the IRS off his back."

"Wait, wouldn't he be working to, you know, make money?" Ranma said.

Gos chuckled. "Come on, Ranma. You think that any of us couldn't just get money if we wanted to? I can break into the Internal Revenue Service or the Federal Reserve undetected. Do you honestly think a bank would be that much of a problem?"

"Or if you prefer a less illegal approach, insider trading is nice. It's amazing what you'll find on 'secure' corporate servers," Sarah said.

"So you get money illegally," Ranma said.

"Well, yeah," admitted Gos. "But come on, you break the law whenever you hack. I mean, you've had your share of property damage and trespassing."

"Yes, but nothing I ever did was a felony."

"What about that time you ruptured a gas main?"

"That wasn't my fault."

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

"You don't want to know," Erika simply said.

"Isn't it hypocritical for you to accuse your hacker of stealing from you when you've stolen programs, information, and money?" Ranma stated angrily.

"Chill, Ran-Man," a girl's voice said, coming from the living room.

Ranma turned around. There was only one person that used that nickname. From the living room came a girl in between Allison and Sarah in height, probably a hair taller than Erika, with loose brown hair that came down to her neck and red eyes. She was wearing an oversized shirt that came to mid-thigh, showing off a very nice body.

"Dear God," Sarah said.

"Allison turned you into a girl? Why?" Ranma said.

"The curse is not a toy," Gos said.

"Hey, I didn't do it. Blame her," Dan said.

"You are uninstalling it, right?" Sarah asked.

"Probably not," the neo-girl said.

"What!" Ranma exclaimed. "Okay, I still have it because without it I'd be a girl 24-7. Gos has is because of Erika. But you don't need it."

"Oh, come on. Especially with that upgrade package of Gos'--"

"Hey! I wrote that," Erika interrupted.

"--Sorry, but the point is that now it's not a curse. You can change at will and have none of the expected complications," Dan said. He then changed back, returning to his normal height, hair length, reddish-brown eye tint, clothes and gender. "Erika, you are a genius," he said.

"Yeah? So?" Erika said. Of course she was smarter than these meat-bags. Oh. Can't think that way; you're a meat bag too now, sometimes, she reminded herself.

"Wait… You like being a girl?" Ranma said skeptically. "Shouldn't you be pissed at this latest prank of Allison's?"

"Nope."

"In the name of buddy Christ, NO," Sarah said, figuring it out.

"It's not like that," Dan said.

"Yes it is. Allison turned you into a girl for the sex!" Sarah exclaimed.

"That would explain why he's okay with it," Gos observed.

Erika glared at him.

"Sorry. But you know…." the pale boy trailed off.

"How could you two do anything? I mean, you've only got one body between you…. Ah, I see," Dan said.

"Well, no, it's not like that," Gos said nervously.

"Quiet, you," Erika said.

"Why must our friends be this way?" Sarah groaned to Ranma

"You're asking me?" Ranma laughed, and then added, "I didn't know Allison swung that way."

"Look, she may have done some experimenting before we met, but--"

"Dan, she dated that Langley girl for four months," Sarah said flatly.

"Okay, fine then. She's bi. So what? This way I can be closer to her."

"Well, that makes sense," Gos said.

"Well, that's because your girlfriend is in your head," Sarah stated coolly.

"Our head."

"Whatever."

"Look, Sarah, you've known that Allison and I have been active for some time now. So what that we've decided to mix it up now?"

"I suppose you're right, but it's like I can't know any guys who aren't girls too."

Gos, Ranma, and Dan looked at each other. Until Dan finally admitted, "Huh. That is odd."

"So, Dan, any… problems with your curse? You know, with water or anything else?" Ranma asked.

"Nope," Dan said after switching to his girl form.

"So once again I get screwed. Oh, the upgrade works for you and holo-boy, but not for me."

"It's not that bad. All that failed to load completely were the triggers. You've still got the clothing separation," Gos said.

"So what's the problem?" Dan asked, pulling her hair out of her face, the only thing about what Allison did that irked her.

"It's a funny thing. Instead of replacing the old triggers, the new ones simply merged with them in Boolean gates," Erika said.

Dan blinked. "I really need some coffee," she said, walking out of the room. The room fell silent until she returned with the pot and a straw.

"You do know that's been on all day," Sarah said.

"So?" Dan said, drinking the partially congealed beverage.

"As I was saying, the upgrade didn't quite work in Ranma. I think it's because of his template, but I'm not sure. Anyway, the result is that will or water will do it."

"Hey, Ran-Man, didn't that old nut who taught you English say something about mental control of the curse?"

"Yes, Cologne said that Jusenkyou curses are affected by mental states. A focused mind can control it, blah, blah, blah," Ranma said.

"And then you got imprinted, and that went to hell," Sarah said next.

"Oh crap," Erika muttered.

"That could explain a few things," Gos said. "You should have told us about this before we installed the upgraded curse."

"So what happened now?" Ranma asked cynically.

"Essentially a huge resource conflict. First there's the curse's original programs, then there's the effect your will and ego have had on it. Add in a template that we can't edit, and finally mix in an upgrade package that'll try to override everything else…."

"Ouch, that sucks," Dan said, draining the pot of the last of the liquid. She then started using the straw to scoop out the resin left on the bottom.

"So all these things are bidding for the same patch of code," Ranma said.

"Yeah. It's a hierarchical nightmare," Gos said. "Well, at least all that's being wonky is the triggers. Hell, the damn thing might even stabilize."

"So how's it work now?" Dan asked.

"Well, to go girl, all I need to do is think it, but cold water will do it too, and to go back I have to use hot water and will it to happen."

"That's not any worse that before. Cold'll still turn you into a girl, and yah still need hot to get back."

"Yeah, but it's almost as if the curse wants me to be girl."

"Ranma, how many times have you been splashed at a really bad time?" Gos said.

"Point taken." Ranma then turned to Dan. "So what's Allison up to?"

The caffeine-addicted master mechanic burnout smirked.

"Do you really want to know?" Sarah interrupted before Dan could speak.


Ned parked the fire-engine-red truck in front of Rebecca's house. The stenciling on the doors of the large turbo diesel pickup illustrated that while it was Ned's vehicle, the ownership was not in his name. On each of the doors was a large and stylized WIC with the words Winston Industrial Container under them.

As family businesses go, Winston Industrial Container was one of the largest. Headquartered in Cheyenne, a city in the eastern part of Wyoming near the Colorado border, it was the main supplier of construction and freight containers in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana, and had considerable footholds in parts of Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho, and South Dakota. If one were to look, chances were that they would find one of their dumpsters at any construction site in the Northern Rockies.

Winston Industrial Container did more than lease industrial and construction dumpsters. They had also spread into recycling, taking the scrap metal and other debris that their clients filled their containers with. They sorted the scrap and sold what they could, a surprisingly high percentage, and the rest was trucked, using their fleet of heavy haulers to vast storage depots, until a profitable use was found for them.

Being connected to such a business was the only reason that Ned had even considered working with Golems. He needed a considerable supply of metals, ceramics, and other compounds to carry out his experiments. Having reached an understanding with his great uncle Bob, a former resident of Lockridge and founder of Winston Industrial Container, Ned was able to acquire all the scrap he needed, and use company funds to purchase the necessary fabrication machinery.

Building Golems, whether they were mechs, aerotech, or any other form of Calash enhanced robotics, was expensive and time-consuming. That was why Rebecca's Guymelef disturbed him so.

Despite having access to considerable resources, there were still some parts Ned couldn't get though the company. Certain polymers and alloys that were traditionally not used in building construction, for example. Somehow Rebecca was able to acquire these materials. Ned didn't know how she did it, and until recently didn't care.

That was how they reached their agreement. Rebecca would give Ned the parts he sorely lacked, and in return he would give her schematics and an occasional bot.

Ned was growing very concerned about Rebecca. He didn't have all the information, but ever since Sarah O'Neil's twin sister came back from Japan, Rebecca had been rather erratic. Well, that wasn't true; ever since that fiasco with the Terson girl she'd been more distant. Hell, it probably went as far back as when Rebecca's parents died.

But now… God, attacking the school with a mech that she supposedly built in one night -- Ned remembered that Voltron comment. He knew she was insanely good, almost god-like, but at hacking into systems, not building Golems. Ned doubted that even he could do it in one night. He could do it in two; after all, it was a relatively small mech.

Ned was here to cancel their deal. Granted, it was a little like closing the barn door after the cows got out, but he wanted to get some distance between himself and Rebecca. A storm was brewing.

After turning the truck around, he got out and started walking toward the front door, dressed in his now standard May Payne gear. He'd gotten the idea off of that Arzish fellow: dress exactly the same as your template so no one will know if you're active, unless they happened to be scanning you.

Once at the door, he opened it without knocking. That he'd gotten this far was evidence that Rebecca knew fully of his presence. He'd consulted her during one of her security upgrades and knew just how intense they were.

Stepping into the house, Ned was reminded of the game he based his template on. As usual, the foyer was almost empty except for some hideous metal sculpture that looked like it was fished out of one of his family's dumpsters.

He turned left into what probably was a dining room. All that was in this one was a hideous lamp in the shape of a fish sitting on the floor, giving off a feeble light. The house was silent… He could almost hear background music. From the foyer, one could only go into the dining room -- Ned had tried, all the other doors were locked -- and from that room there was one door that lead to the rest of the house.

Ned walked up to it, his hand going to the knob. Part of him was ready to jump through the opening, guns firing. He turned it, and was rewarded with another darkened room about the same size as the last. "God. What's she left this time?" Ned groaned, walking up to the objects in the center of the room. Under the dim light of yet another fish lamp, he found four DVDs surrounding one book. Ned was familiar with all the titles: The Matrix, eXistenZ, Fight Club, Dark City, and Desperation.

"Now what does this mean?" he asked, mostly to himself. Every time he came here, Rebecca would leave little presents on one of these rooms and then ask him questions about them. At first Ned was baffled, as it seemed unusual for someone so collected and cool as Rebecca to be playing these games, but after a few visits he realized that to her these were experiments, like running a rat through a maze or paying a college student twenty bucks to fill out a survey on binge drinking or drug abuse. And in that light, the game made perfect sense.

He looked at the next door, across the room from the last one. It was the last of the three puzzle rooms. Ned waited, pondering what the first two meant. The first one was completely empty; early on Rebecca had explained that the fish lamps didn't count and would always be there. The next had those movies and that book. Could it be the perception of reality? Each of the movies dealt with the question of what was real. But what about the book? It was in the center. That was just a story about a demon in Nevada that could possess people…. With that thought, the fragments clicked.

In The Matrix, Neo went from being Tomas Anderson to "the one". In eXistenZ, a game programmer and a technician fleeing from terrorist ended up being the ones who killed the "real" game programmers. In Fight Club, the main character learned the truth about Tyler Durden. In Dark City, a simple man discovered that his memories and past were manufactured.

Yes. All five dealt with the Vorlon's favorite question: Who are you?

Now, was the first room or the last one the answer? Ned thought as he opened the next door.

"Hello, Winston," Rebecca said when the door was open.

Ned stepped back. Every other time, Rebecca had waited behind the final door that was off to the left and went into the kitchen.

"Sorry, but I have a friend who just got in from Canada staying tonight that needs the room."

"Right," Ned said as he followed her to the kitchen. Regardless, he examined the room closely, noting that there was a glowing fish lamp between a rather large backpack and a bedroll.

Sitting down at the kitchen table, Rebecca asked her question, "So what do you want for your next shipment?"

Taking the seat next to her, Ned looked at the girl evenly. He had to tread carefully now. "I'm thinking of pulling out."

"Really? Are you aware of the repercussions?" she asked with a face that a diplomat, or a card shark, would admire.

"No," he replied honestly with a poker face of his own. "But neither are you. The law of unintended consequences applies to us all."

"I see. Might I ask why you wish to withdraw?"

Ned was prepared. "I believe that neither of us needs this agreement anymore. As recent events have shown, we are both quite capable on our own."

"I know such things to be true on my end, and that you have secured a supply of the parts you so desperately lack. Given your experience in the salvage industry, I have no doubts that you can make this supply last, but it is still a finite one."

Ned ignored the insult. She was angry and afraid. But oddly, not angry that her mech had been defeated, but that it had fallen into his hands. Why? It was not because he had got a supply of parts. Ned could have used other sources; Rebecca was just the easiest. Then why? Perhaps it was what he could learn from the remains. Yes, there was the fear. She was afraid that he would figure out how she did it.

He prepared his response. "Ah, but you see, I have other contacts that I can use to cover my loss. However, you lack the tools to machine what I offer to the equation."

"Recent events prove contrary to your last statement."

"Indeed they do. Remember that I also provide design schematics which you would no longer have access to." Knowing full well Rebecca's abilities, Ned kept all his "working" files on a computer that had never been networked to anything and was stored in a secure location.

"I can deal without them," she said a little too sharply

"Good, we are in agreement then."

"It would seem that way."

"I will be leaving then," Ned said, getting up. She'd taken this better than he'd hoped.

"You aware that without this agreement, you will have lost all the intangible benefits that came along with it," Rebecca said, still maintaining her cool. Damn this righteous prick! She could manage without his designs, but it would have been easier if he'd have stayed on.

"That's the problem with intangibles; you never know when you've got them," Ned said, allowing a slight smirk.

"It is your loss," she said, letting a little of her rage slip out. The insolence. God, how she wanted to kill him right now.

"So where is this friend of yours?" Ned asked, changing the subject.

"Out," she replied curtly, lying to him for the first time.

Ned looked at his watch, "I must be going too. It was a pleasure doing business with you." He then turned and walked out of the house the same way he'd came.

Rebecca watched him depart, frozen between sending her watchers to eliminate him and doing nothing. In the end, she let him drive off unhindered. If the watchers failed, then she'd have someone as skilled and relentless as Max Payne with a dash of mecha thrown in. It was too great a risk. And besides, if she killed him she would never figure out why he canceled the deal.

That was what irked her most of all: not what she lost with the cancellation of the deal, but the reasons that it had happened. She was supposed to be able to predict him, to lead him, to control him. That was why she set up all those stupid riddles.

The law of unintended consequences. Why was she afraid of that?


As Ned drove back to the compound, he made a note to increase security at home and the shop. He also pondered the three rooms. Rebecca made it seem that the third room was not a part of the test, but there was the fish. An empty room, a room that asked who and what you are, and a room that has the possessions of a Canadian and Rebecca.

Ned knew that Rebecca winged it, and had never been condusive to planning or long-term strategy. But things were building up: unintended consequences, chaotic complexity, and the butterfly effect. Despite having only fragments Ned was able to see that the foundations had already been laid, and that Rebecca was set on her path. That no one knew where this path would lead, even Rebecca, was beyond horrifying, beyond dangerous. Ned remembered that those movies and books had another link. In each of them the world as we know it is fundamentally changed.

Ned was sure that he had made the right choice.

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Thanks to my pre-readers: Wrayloflin, Jerry, Jakub The Jak, Joe Fenton.

Chapter 6
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