A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Josh Temple
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
Chapter 6: Release Dates
The Winston compound was to the west of Lockridge. It was positioned on the end of Teakettle Ridge, a jutting finger of land that crept out of the mountains that surrounded the area. Instead of gently sloping into the valley, Teakettle ended abruptly with a plateau bordered by a crescent of cliffs. The Winston compound was on this plateau.
One of the first structures built in the area, the compound was originally Fort Teakettle. Over the course of over two hundred years, it had been a trading post, a small mountain hamlet, a military base, a monastery, a logging site, and most recently the corporate retreat for Winston Industrial Container. It was an expedition from Fort Teakettle that had discovered the standing circle and founded Lockridge.
Robert Winston, owner of WIC, may have moved the main offices to Cheyenne when the corporation went big, but his heart was still in the region. Maintaining the compound was the responsibility of the Winstons that stayed behind — a full time job, considering the compound consisted of about a dozen buildings, each having been modified or added onto over time. Perched on the abrupt end of the ridge, the collection of stone structures looked almost like a castle.
Out of its field, Winston Industrial Container is overlooked and dismissed. However, in the field of demolitions, salvage, and refuse container leasing, it is considered innovative and groundbreaking. Its size alone was amazing, for it controlled almost all of the Northern half of the Rockies, and was still growing. WIC had few competitors that could even come close to matching it. The downside was that WIC was very much a niche company, limited to its region and field. Granted, it was very successful, but Robert wanted more, which was why he gave his grandnephew an open door to company resources. He was too old to be proficient in Calash himself, but he fully understood the power it represented. In time, Winston Industrial Container would branch out into a very new field.
Ned's apartment was in the second floor of the South building. Consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen nook, it was a bit smallish, but it was his. There was another apartment on the floor belonging to his younger sister, Julie. Their father had died when they were both young, an accident involving a dumpster that was improperly tied down, and until recently they had lived in the main house — a building in the center of the compound — with their mother. She then got transferred to HQ in Cheyenne. Neither of her children wanted to leave Lockridge, and with the promise that their relatives would watch them, they were allowed to move into the South building, normally reserved for vacationing WIC executives and clients the corporation was entertaining.
The compound also had an auditorium, several conference rooms, a small theater, a bar and restaurant, a little grocer's store, several suites and overnight rooms, a physical plant with backup generators, a large garage and repair shop, a motor pool with snow ploughs and other company vehicles, and a helipad for those who wished to be flown in. Fairly isolated and self-contained, it was the perfect place for a vacationing executive wanting to get away, or anyone else. In the right circles, WIC was notorious for taking prospective clients on expansive hunting or fishing trips.
The compound was also useful for business conferences and industry summits. The compound was Robert Winston's ace in the hole. One didn't expect a trash hauling company — even a very big one catering only to demolition, construction, and industry — to have something like this. But WIC was unique.
Ned was on the couch, lazily watching television. He had spent the last week doing nothing but beefing up security. It wasn't hard to convince his cousin Dave, head of the compound's small but highly competent security force, to approve of the changes. Dave Albert (his mother was the sister of Ned's father) was the type of person who'd wear a tinfoil hat if it wasn't for the dress code required of WIC security. As to why they even needed an internal security force
There was a knock on the door. Ned groaned as he got up. It was probably Dave, undoubtedly griping about how animals kept setting off the new perimeter net. God damn it, he thought while walking towards the door. "Yes, it's my fault that he had to send a team out just because a deer got a little too close to the cliff. He could just check out the alerts using the cameras, but no, they might have been compromised. Paranoid loon."
Ned looked though the fisheye before opening the door. Granted, the chances of someone getting inside were low, and the chances of getting in undetected were next to nil. Ned had designed and built most of Rebecca's precious watchers. He was the master of Golem-tech, and the compound was his domain. It couldn't hold off the military, but anything else wouldn't stand a chance, for Security Chief Albert had carefully chosen his men, and all of them had the best templates WIC personnel could code and more importantly, were well-trained, good men, loyal to the family.
Like the rest of Winston Industrial Container, Albert had no idea why they needed such security. His team made sense, as they were near Lockridge, and headquarters needed some protection, but the rest? At least his were the only teams that had templates. He didn't complain, however; overkill security was a good thing to him.
Seeing who was at the other side of the door, Ned opened it without hesitation.
"About time you got the door, son," the man at the door said. Robert Winston was a portly fellow who could switch from "good old boy" to "ruthless businessman" instantly. Ned always thought his great uncle bore a strong likeness to an older version of "News Radio's" Jimmy James.
Ned looked to see Dave in his red and gray jumpsuit standing next to the President of Winston Industrial Container. "Guess I didn't hear your chopper come in."
Stepping inside, Robert said, "Really? Well, someone knew I was coming. You wouldn't have anything to do with my chopper's approach being challenged, would you?"
"Sir, the orders are to investigate every approach toward compound grounds," Security Chief Albert responded, still outside of the apartment.
"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to the bonehead that decided it was a good idea to turn this place into a fortress. We're trying to keep a low profile. Wouldn't our visitors find it suspicious that a company in our field would have such extravagant security?"
"But the secure net is concealed; most of the staff doesn't even know its here, let alone the handful of visitors we get," Ned said in his defense.
"What about the entry checkpoints you've undoubtedly set up?"
"They're as unobtrusive as possible. Look, the point of these new features isn't so much to keep anything out, but to give us an early warning."
Ned simply looked at the open door.
"Dave, please wait outside," Bob sighed.
"Need to know." Bob said as he closed the door.
"This should prevent anyone form listening in," Ned said fiddling with what appeared to be a home security keypad.
"If you insist on the cone of silence," Robert Winston said while thinking, Oh boy, this should be good.
Ned explained Rebecca's recent actions, and the cancellation of the deal.
An experienced businessman, Bob managed to keep his face neutral. He had known of the deal with that girl, and had approved of it. If his company had started buying those materials, it would look rather suspicious. But if this girl was upsetting the balance in Lockridge, that could cause his corporation problems. WIC needed to be somewhat low profile before he made his move. Bob didn't really care about mechs; they were just icing on the cake, a way to get in the government's good graces. No, the real money would come from all the little things Ned had to have invented just to make a mech work.
After the appropriate delay, Bob spoke. "I came here today to speak before the town fathers. Despite the fact that WIC is entirely mundane — except for some of the staff and facilities here — they believe that this company could be a danger to town security. I cannot have you or anyone else involved in a feud Especially if giant robots were to be involved."
"But Rebecca's unstable. She might attack."
"Then yes, you could defend yourself or the compound, but please try to keep the situation contained."
Ned looked at the older man. He knew why they paid for his workshop and the parts. "Right." Then changing the subject: "So how's business?"
"Good. There's a bridge demolition in St. Anthony that we're covering."
"Ah, so we got into Idaho," Ned said, contemplating the steel coming his way.
"There was also a rail crash up North in Thermopolis, some pretty rude stuff."
Ned nodded. WIC also leased containers for hazardous materials transport, although with HAZMAT, WIC just shipped it. They didn't dispose of it.
"And there's the standard construction and industry work."
"Right. Well, it's good to see things are on track."
"Yes. Well, I must be leaving." Opening the door, Bob looked back. "Remember, be careful."
Ned watched him walk down the hall to the stairs with Dave following him.
"What was that about?" Julie said from her door at the far end of the hall.
"Just visiting," was the succinct reply.
"You doing anything today?"
"Nah, taking the day off."
"But you skipped all week."
"I was doing other things."
"Fine. Anyway I was wondering if you were up for a death match?"
"Mech Warrior custom version?"
"What else?" she responded rhetorically.
"Why do you want to play that? Name one time I didn't wipe the floor with you."
Ranma was in the den, working at a laptop. He was currently running notepad, MS Developer Studio, a Calash interpreter, and some other miscellaneous compilers. He also had some books next to him entitled: COBOL and You: Partners in Freedom, Someone's in the Kitchen with C++, and Assembly: The Wave of the Future. Ranma rubbed his forehead, at the disturbed, almost hallucinatory text. He had no idea where Sarah dug up these tomes.
Ranma readied his compiler, knowing that this time it would work. He loaded the file, compiled it, and
got the blue screen of death. Before he could read the warning, the screen flashed red, black, and then a sickly green that slowly faded to black.
"In God's name, why won't you work?" the pigtailed boy said in an eerily calm voice.
The computer in front of him remained blank.
Maintaining his composure, Ranma calmly hit the restart button.
The notebook-shaped device remained inert.
"Damn your insolence! You will pay!" the martial artist and neophyte programmer exclaimed. After closing and flipping over the object, Ranma punched its underside lightly. After righting it, he hit the button again.
Ranma's eye twitched, his mind succumbing to what programmers refer to as "code rage": a burning anger that develops when a computer, despite all logic, simply refused to cooperate. Normally it happens when a program refuses to work, but it can extend to other aspects of computing. Images danced in Ranma's mind of tossing the computer into a chipper-shredder, dousing the plastic and metal shards in kerosene, and then feeding the burnt and melted ashes to a pack of rabid wolverines. His hand shaking, he pushed the button one more time.
He felt the minute resistance build up as he compressed the spring behind the button. After it clicked softly, Ranma withdrew his extended digit.
The box was unresponsive.
Ranma gripped the closed laptop on either side. Yes, all he had to do was flex it just right, and snap — all his problems would be over.
"No, that's not right," he thought, looking at the black plastic case. Then, in that very quiet voice, "If I do that, the program wins. And that's exactly what they want me to do." Ranma put the device down opposite his books, stood up, and walked into the kitchen.
"Hey, Sarah? My comp locked up when I tried to compile something, and now it won't restart," Ranma said, entering the room.
"Have you tried hitting it?" she asked, sitting at the table.
"How about a good swift kick?" Sarah suggested.
"Might work," Ranma commented.
"Ran-Man has a box?" the semi-conscious thing across the table mumbled.
"Yeah, I gave him my old laptop."
"I see," Dan said, still slumped on the table.
Turning to her brother: "There's still the problem as to why it crapped out in the first place."
"One of those books warned something like this might happen. I think it was the cookbook," Ranma proposed.
"Wait," Dan said, the lag in his brain diminishing. "You're programming? Sarah, are you sure that's a good idea?"
The half-Irish redhead ignored her cousin and thought for a moment. "What project were you on when this happened?"
"That intercept-and-infiltrate one."
Dan raised his eyebrows at Sarah.
"But isn't that a bit ambitious?"
"The project just before it worked fine."
"The A-type encryption bypass?" Sarah asked
"My god you're not a L4M3R," Dan stated, somehow managing to correctly pronounce the "word".
"Come on, Ranma. You're writing programs. Now granted, that's a ways from being L33T, but you've climbed up the ladder pretty quick."
"What the basic principles for programming are, are the same with every language; the syntax is just different. Once you understand the style of a language, you can figure out how to get it to do what you want."
"Yeah, that's about how it works," Sarah admitted. "But how did you figure that out?"
"I am a martial artist," Ranma stated, as if to answer the question.
Sarah and Dan looked at each other in awkward silence.
Dan was the first to speak. "Let's see, in order to hack, you must be able to improvise, plan your strategy, posses stealth, be fully aware of your environment, have a vast library of programs and apps, and the wisdom to know which to use and when." Dan paused. "I can see the parallels, but I didn't think that those skills would be transferable."
"The one thing Genma gave me was my training. The cost, however, was ."
"Remember, bro, if the panda bastard didn't do what he did, I wouldn't exist." Sarah's face turned grim. "I will never condone what he did, and I'm glad he's dead, but his actions had consequences far beyond his knowledge."
"A butterfly flaps its wings and all that," Dan said as he got up and walked toward the coffee machine. He filled his cup. "So what? Did your training focus on adaptability?"
"Essentially. Anything could be interpreted as a martial art."
"Martial Arts Coding?" Sarah said skeptically.
"No more ludicrous than martial arts tea ceremony or any other number of insane esoteric schools out there."
"It's not that odd. Remember the L33T Master?" Dan pointed out.
"A wise man of great S[<1LLZ," Dan said, again managing to verbalize the "L33T".
"It's just a comic," Sarah responded.
"Largo is real."
"No 'Largo' is the pen name of the old writer for the comic, who just happens to be based on one of the main characters."
"So you agree the L33t Master is real."
"That's not what I said!"
Ranma watched the argument escalate. He shook his head and walked back to the couch. Picking up his laptop, he held it just above his right foot. Releasing his grip, he dropkicked it. There was the resounding crack of plastic breaking as the computer flew in a short arc. It hit the backrest of the sofa near its apex and landed near the edge of the seat cushion. Ranma then poked the machine.
It responded with a gentle chime and the whirring sound of a hard drive spinning up.
Ranma smiled as the machine started up. So, that's all I needed to do, Ranma thought, sitting down the machine in front of him. Now, why'd this thing die on me? he thought, opening his source code.
Ranma was working on what he thought was the problem, gently muttering to himself. "Yes, I think this protocol was corrupting my buffer or Bios or some-such thing. No, this loop needs to end at I equals J+N, not when it's greater than. Damn, why the hell is this function calling that?" Ranma looked up, hearing someone else walking in the room. "Allison, don't," he said, addressing the invisible girl that was probably in the room.
"Damn you and your spider-sense, Peter Parker," the disembodied voice replied.
"That's nice and all, but I'm trying to do work here," Ranma said, his training allowing him to get a general idea of where her voice was.
Ranma did not see the water coming. She then jumped up off the couch, twisting around to face where the water had come from. "What'd you do that for? Look, you got the couch all wet, and you almost soaked my box," Ranma said, looking at her computer. "Stay," she then said to the girl that might be in the room.
Sarah was looking over at Dan, who was again sprawled out on the table. She turned to see her sister enter the room. "I see Allison's bored."
"Yup," Ranma said, distastefully putting her hand under the faucet.
"Eh, don't worry about it. She got me too," Dan said, lifting his head up.
"Really," Ranma said, turning off the tap. "But water doesn't affect you."
"Remember that little trick of hers? You know, the one that put you both in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms?"
"I've gotta see this," Sarah said.
"Fine," Dan said getting up. "If you really want to find out," he said before shifting.
"I see you're going for the punk look," Sarah observed.
Dan shrugged. Her hair had been pulled back into a very short ponytail, except for two sets of bangs that hung on either side of her face and were dyed a deep violet. Her makeup was of the same color scheme and complemented her now red eyes. Allison had put her in a tight top and short skirt, both black with gray accenting. Dan was also wearing platform boots and fishnets. She was still wearing a black trench coat, except this one was cut to the smaller frame of her girl form.
"At least you can pull it off," Sarah commented, appraising the girl. Then pulling at the few tendrils of loose hair: "Well, she hasn't pierced your ears yet. Although I wouldn't worry about it; after all, Erika's pierced. Ah, but Allison did do your nails," Sarah said, holding up Dan's hand.
Dan rolled her eyes. "Yes. Laugh all you want."
"Come on, Dianna, I've had to deal with her pranks for months, and now the shoe's on the other foot."
"So, are you still going to keep the curse?" Ranma said, finally speaking up.
"Of course, why not?" the punk girl replied.
"But she put you in a skirt," Ranma said.
"So? I don't really care about what I'm wearing. In fact, I kind of like it."
Ranma simply shuddered.
"Whatever," Sarah said dismissively. She then turned to an empty spot behind her. "Allison, don't get any smart ideas."
"How'd you know?"
Sarah mumbled something inaudible and most likely rather rude.
"What're you? Jealous?" the disembodied voice next to Sarah said. "You're boobs are still bigger than hers."
Dan looked down at her chest.
"I'm just a little shaken up at how well Dan's adapting," Sarah said, pointing to her cousin.
"What? Would you prefer if I freaked out?" Dan asked.
Sarah sighed. "Okay, let me put it this way. Ranma, how long did it take you to get used to your curse?"
"You're kidding me, right?" Ranma responded dryly.
"First of all, Ranma's curse was forced upon him, in addition to other circumstances that exacerbated things considerably. Now, in my case, the curse was—"
Sarah cut her off. "Yes, we all know what was done with you."
After that statement, the conversation died, and an awkward pause fell upon the room.
"Um, Allison," Dan said, breaking the silence. "Shouldn't you stop being invisible? You know, so you don't go insane."
"Yeah, yeah," Allison said, the quicksilver covering her body dissipating, rendering her visible. "What the " she said, looking out the window. "No, couldn't be," she muttered, silver liquid appearing on her skin.
"How's big red?" the gothic-dressed girl asked.
Stopping the flow, Allison looked down at her Ouroboros tattoo; it was entirely red except for the last two bars. "Oh, crap."
"Yes, we can't have you going into quicksilver madness," Sarah commented.
"This happened before?" Ranma asked.
Sarah nodded slightly.
"Just let me do my eyes," Allison pleaded.
"I thought I saw something outside, something that I can't see now."
"Like the cape-wearing mech last week?"
"I only got a glimpse, but it was definitely smaller."
"Fuck," Dan said to herself. "Allison, scope out what's going on. Just get a quick glance."
Allison looked out the window into the back yard. Her eyes turned silver and disappeared.
Ranma gazed into the empty sockets, disturbed.
"BFG! Now!" the eyeless girl shouted.
In a dim flash, Dan shifted into her male form, and then into template, since the template was designed for Dan's male body much like Ranma's was designed for his girl side. In one motion he drew, racked, and tossed a rather large firearm from his ubiquitous coat.
With equal fluidity, Allison caught the weapon, aimed, and fired. Out of the rectangular hole in the barrel appeared a deceitfully dim beam, progressing much too fast for the human eye to discern.
The window appeared to shatter into a collection of coarse fragments, simultaneous with the explosion of something in the back yard.
"Go! Clear it!" Dan shouted, pulling out two large handguns, both with similar rectangular apertures at the ends.
Reluctantly, Ranma shifted into template. She turned to see Sarah in her powersuit, motioning forward. The pseudo-magic girl nodded and pointed at the window.
Ned sat in the cockpit of his mech, waiting for the dropship to reach release attitude. His eyes shifted between the monitors. He checked that his headset was secured properly, that the mike was lined up, plugged in, and that the cord was tucked up and out of the way.
He then adjusted his controls making sure he could reach all the critical buttons easily. Ned saw the dropship's bay doors opening in front of him. His mech tensed up, and when it could clear the gate, jumped.
The ninety-ton machine plummeted towards the earth like the rock it was until the jumpjets kicked in. The pillars of flame reduced the descent so that the mech could land safely. Ned pulled up out of a kneeling position, flipping out his gauss rifle.
What the hell's she in this time? thought Ned as he moved his heavily modified Highlander IIC forward. "More importantly, where are we?" he muttered, scanning the surroundings.
"Oh God, no," Ned muttered as he crested a largish hill. Glittering below him was a large city of narrow spires.
"Tokyo 3," he said, sounding out the syllables. A smirk grew on his face. "About time Julie came up with a challenging scenario."
Rebecca saw her watcher explode. Part of her was surprised that it'd taken that long of them to figure it out; another part was angered at the loss of data. She had other watchers in the area she could use. Her pointer hovered over the icon. One click and
Wait. No. What would that accomplish? What could that accomplish? If they were dead, then she'd have lost all the progress she'd made with Subject One. And that was even if her watchers managed to do the job.
Rebecca inhaled, and raised her finger off the mouse button. She had to maintain her cool, no matter now much the antics of the Terson girl annoyed her. She hit the recall order, pulling back her remaining forces. Those watchers seemed to be out of the opposition's sensor range.
She closed her notebook. Again, the damage was contained and within acceptable limits. It was about time to go talk to the Hibiki boy again. What would she say today?
How about that while she couldn't remove the curse without further study, she might be able to replace it with one that was more convenient?
Ranma scanned the forest, her glasses only picking up background static. "I'm reading blank."
"Same here," Sarah said, her visor extended, standing opposite Ranma
"Yeah, but Ranma's the one that can see the things," Dan said, kneeling next to the burnt remains of the bot that was in the yard, centered in a triangle formed by the redheads and the house.
"I could tell that there was something there, I just couldn't lock onto it."
"I can see 'em too," Allison said, standing next to Dan, still holding the BFG.
"Yes, but you were down to one green click."
"Hey, I got my counteragent."
"Better safe than sorry," Dan muttered, lifting up a piece of twisted, burnt, and barely recognizable metal. "Well, at least we know these new guns work."
"Bah, you just ripped off mine," Sarah said.
Ranma had phased out the conversation, instead using her compact to manipulate the sensor feed. Suddenly an ident-chevron appeared on the overlay. It was faint, flickering in and out of lock-on, but it was there.
Extending her wings, she leapt up and forward, trying to keep the signal.
"Where's she going?" Allison asked.
"I told you wee needed radios or some type of com system," Sarah said, powering her jumpjets.
"Don't get too far," Dan warned.
"I think I can outrun someone with wings," Sarah said before jetting off.
"Fuck. How the hell did I lose it?" the fuku-clad girl said, landing in a clearing formed by a largish rock outcropping. After being tracked a couple of miles, the echo simply vanished. "Great. It's invisible and stealthy." She paused and looked around at the circle of trees surrounding the jutting boulders. "Damn, it's barren out here," Ranma remarked. She turned to watch another echo approach, this time from the direction of the house.
"It looks like Age of Empires finally got something right," Sarah remarked, landing on one of the large gray stones. "And where'd you go off to?"
"I was tracking one of those bots."
"Should have told us."
"I told him we needed communicators," Sarah repeated.
"This is stupid," the angel girl remarked.
"Look, all we've done is react to this hacker bitch. Granted, except for my damn template, and Dan's arm, we've been successful, but we need to take the initiative!"
"Oh, I agree," Sarah remarked, scanning the treeline. "But we can't attack if we don't know who's doing this."
Ranma glanced at her sister, "Yeah, but it's just so damn frustrating. I mean, even here I'm still not in control of my life."
"You're still better off than when you were in Nerima."
Ranma looked down at the tight, bow-infested seifuku, the little skirt, and the heeled boots she was wearing. "God, that's pathetic," she observed dryly.
"That which does not kill us—"
"—postpones the inevitable," Ranma completed jokingly.
"I was going to say, makes us stranger. But yours has a certain charm."
"Fine. Let's go back," Ranma said, spreading her wings.
Switching to dual joysticks, Ned waited for his next respawn. According to the mini-map, this would put him just outside the southern suburbs of the city. His thumbs rested just on the firing buttons. The gamer focused his eyes through the central monitor, allowing the images displayed on the other two to blend in.
Monitoring his reduced rate of descent, Ned waited until he had locked onto his target. Then he depressed his triggers, firing particle plasma charge rounds into his target.
"Fuck!" Julie screamed as her Eva's umbilical was cut. Spinning around, she brought up her rifle, a weapon longer than Ned's mech was tall. "I will not be defeated by something shorter than me!" she screamed into her headset, unleashing high-energy particulate death.
Ned didn't flinch at the approaching beam; instead, he calmly tapped a button next to his weapons selector, cutting his main jumpjets while simultaneously pulling back on the right stick.
Julie's attention was divided by the depleting power counter on her display and the black mech managing to drop below her beam. "You're not supposed to dodge that!"
Ned ignored the ranting coming from his headset, and leaned forward, hitting the ground in a roll. Switching to SRM pods, he started to fire.
Julie lowered her weapon in a "spray and pray" fashion and watched as the opposing mech dodge, while racks of missiles shot out of the machine's arms. Julie's Eva was pushed back by the repeating waves of super-dense air colliding with the shield-like AT field. Continuing to watch the dwindling second counter, the brown-haired girl tried to reacquire the smaller mech.
Glancing at her tactical field, she decided to plug in. She ran her Eva the couple blocks to the next umbilical jack. While vaulting over a building, she turned to see a crouching black figure, one arm outstretched and steadied by the other. A forearm-mounted pulse cannon was powered up.
With only reserve energy left, Julie's Eva was unable to generate the protective field. His first shot broke her gun in half, the second and third were aimed at the neck. She managed to evade the brunt of the blast, but at the expense of a clean landing.
The forty-meter-tall red-and-yellow semi-organic machine tumbled through a handful of buildings. Partially covered in twisted metal and rubble, the Eva managed to stop near the umbilical station.
With only a few seconds left, Julie hit the corresponding hotkey, and managed to establish a connection. Now with a regular power supply, the Eva jumped up and pulled a set of handgun-style weapons out of a nearby supply building.
Julie leveled the guns at the black mech, firing. Ned responded by twisting down and leaping forward, his own pulse cannons blazing. The Evangelion responded by leaning back and trying to fire into the dodging mech.
The black mech landed in a roll, swiveled up and launched another volley of SRMs. Once again connected to an entire power grid, the Eva completely blocked the high explosives.
Ned glared at the approaching bio-machine. He waited for the Eva to pause to reload, and then Ned rushed. He went airborne to dodge the incoming shot, while simultaneously using the pulse cannons. His first set took out the weapons Julie was carrying, the resulting shrapnel doing superficial to moderate damage to the machine's arms.
Jumpjets altered the mech's path just enough so that on the downward arc, Ned was able to roll over and have a clear shot at the umbilical jack.
"No, you don't," Julie said, AT field flaring around her as the black mech took its shot.
Ned fired with his left arm, just in time to see it collide harmlessly with the clear yellow barrier. Calmly he aimed the cannon on his right arm to a spot where the Eva's power cable rested on the street.
"Damn you," Julie said as her AT field collapsed. She was reaching behind her back to pull out the useless adapter when a blast hit that exact spot. She heard the majority of the immense power jack fall to the ground, but her sensors indicated that the probe from the jack was still in. "You're going to fucking pay for that!" she screamed into her headset.
"Chatty bitch should get on IRC if she wants to talk," Ned muttered mostly to himself, switching to his Gauss rifles.
Julie charged despite the energy balls being launched at her from the black mech's railguns. With that damn shard of plug stuck in the receptacle, a new jack couldn't be inserted meaning that what was left on the timer was all she had left. Pulling out a pair of progressive-knives, she prepared to get in close.
Ned allowed a slight grin, changed to pulse cannons, and concentrated his fire. Just before the Eva got within striking distance with its trans-vibration blades, a section of its chest armor failed. In the proud tradition of pointless game gore, an amazing amount of reddish fluid spurted out of the broken armor, drenching the gutted buildings and pouring into the shattered streets.
As the spray died down, Julie looked to see the smaller mech covered in what passed for the Eva's blood, still firing, but now it was within reach. Rushing high-low with a blade from either side, she made her move.
Reacting instantly, Ned fired his jumpjets and twisted to avoid the blades, while aiming for the broken section of armor with his pulse cannon. Julie watched the smaller machine try to squirm away and it almost would have made it if not for one thing.
When Ned twisted out from between the progressive knives, he'd extended his arm to get a clear shot at the point where he'd burned through the Eva's armor. Ned gritted his teeth as the blade easily cut through his arm at the elbow.
In and attempt to gain some space, Ned cut his jumpjets while switching to the last rack of SRM missiles. He fired.
Julie was consumed with three thoughts: the imminently depleted power reserves, the point-blank shockwaves consuming her, and plunging her knife into Dan's torso. On the ground, Ned aimed his remaining pulse cannon at the Eva's left eye. He grinned slightly as he depressed an as yet unused button on his joystick.
Normally, Mechs generated a lot of excess heat. This was understandable when you had a walking fusion reactor. Having to shut down your mech during battle to prevent it from overheating and exploding was an experience any mech commander was familiar with. Naturally, Ned's mech had been extensively modified and had a way to compensate.
One of the modifications was placement of a large power cell that siphoned and stored most of the excess power, diminishing the need to dump coolant or shut down the reactor. In reality, such a system would be difficult at best to install, but in the simulation it was quite do-able. The button he depressed opened flow to that power source, one that had been steadily growing.
A pulsating beam of green death poured out of the pulse cannon into the Eva's eye and straight out the back of its head. Fighting against the force-feedback in his controller, Ned started to drag the beam across the Eva's head.
Julie's mind was empty save for the knives. Ignoring the alarms and concentrating solely on the job, she lurched forward. There was no time left.
Ned's face became strained. Despite losing its power source, compromised armor in its chest, various other damages, and having a horizontal slit cut into its forehead, the Eva continued on. Ned had his own problems as well; out of missiles and missing an arm, his remaining pulse cannon was being fried by the surge of power, and there was another giant robot trying to gut him like a trout.
Julie jabbed in, nicking the side of Ned's torso. The black mech only slid to the side slightly, trying to control the steadily decaying pulse cannon. Leaning over the smaller machine, Julie lifted her knife and started to drive it into Ned's chest, slicing though layer after layer of armor until she hit his core.
The battle stopped.
The pulse cannon flickered out. The timer ran down to zero. The black mech stopped squirming. The Eva froze.
Ned unclenched his hands, and pulled them from the joysticks. His eyes flicked between the three screens. Inhaling deeply, he pulled himself out of the zone.
Julie kept her hands at the keyboard and stared at her flat screen. It was currently displaying aerial spin over the two mechs. In a semi-transparent frame in front of the scene appeared the battle stats. The brown haired girl bonked her head on the desk and groaned.
Getting up, Ned glanced back at his computer. He shook is head. Not bad. The fight could have been more interesting, but not bad.
Using a pair of servo-manipulators, Dan started to peel back the case on one of the watcher's legs. Each manipulator was a small robotic arm with a slew of attachments: grasping claws, reciprocating blades, circular saw blades, a Dremel attachment, an attachment for a small blowtorch, or whatever else could be fitted to the device.
"That's the last of it," Ranma said, standing behind the burnout hacker.
Dan paused the manipulator's progress and turned around. Ranma had wheeled in another pile of scrap parts from the blast site. "Still a girl?" Dan asked.
Ranma looked down at herself and shrugged. "Haven't really had the chance to change."
"Whatever," Dan mumbled as he helped the redhead unload the burnt scrap into the pile in the center of the garage bay.
"Except for some odds and ends that Allison and Sarah are scrounging, this should be the last of it," Ranma said.
Maneuvering the manipulators, Dan started to pry open the casing of the device. "What the ?" Dan said.
"Find something?" Ranma asked, hoping to get a lead, anything on the bitch that was toying with them.
"Perhaps," Dan said, pulling out an array of circuit boards from the device. He then pulled a magnifying light over the electronic guts of the device. "That's not right."
"See for yourself," Dan said, sliding over.
"Okay," the redhead said, stepping over to workbench. She then looked into the magnifier.
"No, not really. Just a bunch of boards and stuff."
"Come on, you can see more than that," he remarked, slightly amused.
Using one of the manipulators, Ranma moved one of the boards around. Nothing but some chipsets, power supply, actuator control What the . She stopped the rotation and pulled the magnifier in to get a better look.
"So you see it. Good."
"There's no serial number. That's odd," The redhead ventured. She noticed that one was never stamped into it.
"Companies are supposed to put one on them. Do you know what this means?"
"Black market, not that surprising. I mean, whoever doing this has been lobbing fuckin' mechs at us."
"Exactly. You can't pick these things up at the hardware store, and the some of the components and materials themselves are more than a little bit exotic."
"Well, this just gets better and better," Ranma mused. "Well, at least we've got something. Maybe we can figure out where the boards were made or something."
"I don't know. I mean, Ned said that he hasn't found anything from the blast site at school."
"Right," Ranma pondered. "Dan, how well do you know Ned?"
"I knew of him for a couple of years. Lockridge is a small place, after all," Dan said, sliding back over to the manipulators. After a barely perceptible pause, he continued, "Never really got to know him all that well. I dunno. He just hung with different crowd. We never really talked much, 'specially after the Langley incident."
Ranma nodded. She didn't know all the details, but supposedly the Langley girl was the last person Allison dated before Dan, and there was some unpleasantness attached to it. "Do you think he's ?" Ranma ventured.
"No," Dan stated evenly. "Our hacker's a girl. That much we know."
Ranma just looked at Dan, eyebrow raised.
"All right, really bad example, but still ."
"You know what amazes me? So many people have asserted the gender of this person. You, Sarah, Allison, Gos, Erika, that Sean guy they hang with, Ned — Hell, I think even Jack talked about her once. And not once did any of you give basis for this! I'm not even questioning the validity of it anymore. What is going on here?"
"Now that—" Dan began.
The red head sighed in resignation.
"—would be telling," he finished. "If you give me a little salute and say 'Be seeing you', I will blast you."
Dan dropped his right hand to his side, breaking the ring formed by touching the tip of his thumb to his index finger. He sighed. "Okay. Ned's just like Gos, or hell, even you. Our little hacker bitch appears to have two really L33T skills. She can get into essentially any system, and then adapt whatever she steals."
"So she can just piggyback off the works of others."
"Had to happen eventually," Dan said despondently.
Julie sat in the lobby of the South building, near the currently-cold hearth. The room was similar to the entrance room of a resort or hotel. She glanced back at the woman behind the registration desk and gave a slight wave.
Sally Winston returned the gesture, and resumed her work on the inventory budget at the cleverly concealed computer embedded in the counter. It was a slow day, with only two guests staying in the compound.
Julie turned back to her laptop. She was making notes on the replay of the matches to see what areas needed improvement. Later, she would work on the environment data for the mod and the design to her Eva.
"You should rewrite the dependency codes for the AT field," a familiar voice said from behind her.
Julie rolled her eyes. "Yes, Ned. How am I supposed to have it read my soul?"
Flopping down in a chair opposite her, and at the other side of the fireplace, Ned spoke, "You could use a little Calash and have a direct link, but look, that's not the point. The real problem is that damn reliance on external power."
"I tried to keep it as close to canon as possible."
"So you were wearing a plug suit and in a LCL-filled tube?"
Julie held her forehead. "No, Ned. I mean, have it be able to fight like it did in the Anime."
"It was an interesting challenge. You almost beat me."
"I was in an Eva; you were in a Mech."
Ned leaned back, smiling slightly.
"I should have mopped the floor with you."
"As long as you learned something."
Julie paused, trying to decide whether it was more appropriate to sigh or to glare at Ned.
Ned turned to see WIC security chief Albert approach.
"Hey, Dave," Julie said, still indecisive as what to do with Ned.
"Julie," he nodded, then turning to his other cousin, "Ned, we've completed the sweep on your truck."
"It was clean."
"Really? Are you absolutely sure of this?"
"Yes. After the first sweep indicated negative, we went deeper into it."
"Ah, that was the delay."
"Sir, you did emphasize the need to be absolutely sure of this."
"I know. Very good, Dave. How's the new system doing?"
"Very good. The ident program is running well within parameters."
"Good," said Ned.
"If you'll excuse me?"
"Fine," Ned responded lazily.
Once the Security officer had left the room, Julie spoke up, "It's not nice to humor Dave's delusions."
"Who said he was deluded?" Ned replied bluntly.
"What are you up to?"
Ned allowed a slight smile.
"Oh god," Julie sighed.
Gos looked over the scans of the watcher parts. He then closed the laptop. "Interesting, but why'd you come here to tell me? You could have sent me the information without leaving the house. Why leave a place when you know it hasn't been secured?"
"Exactly," Dan said, as if that answered the question.
Gos paused, trying to understand the inanity.
Erika, who was sitting — or more accurately, being projected — next to Gos, turned to Ranma. "Is he always like this?"
Ranma turned to his half-cousin, who was at the moment staring at his own hand. "Yeah. I think it's from dating Allison."
Erika considered this. "Yeah, she did turn him into a girl."
"Hey, that was a mutual decision," Dan objected.
"Nope. I'm thinking she cursed you while you were sleeping," Ranma suggested.
Dan shrugged at this.
"Okay, so why are you here? And this time, please just answer the question," Gos asked, slightly annoyed.
"Well, aside from having the girls—"
Erika raised an eyebrow.
"Fine", Dan said, "aside from having Allison and Sarah get some lunch and giving you guys a heads-up, we left because the house wasn't secure."
"Oh? So why don't you secure it?"
Dan smiled slightly. "Tell me. What kind of security does Reno have set up?"
Gos looked at Erika, then at the wall of the apartment he was crashing in. "Well, Forge is a bit paranoid, so he's got a pretty good amount of security set up."
Ranma looked around the room; it was furnished in Late Bachelor Dive; a Coors mirror on the wall across from a neon Red Dog sign. They were sitting in an old restaurant booth with a giant wire spool serving as a table. There was still a great deal of thick green wire wrapped around it that seemed to connect into a conduit taped down to the floor.
As Ranma's as eyes tracked this oddity, things started to fall into place. An exposed wire here, an odd reflection in a mirror there, a neon sign that was buzzing just a bit too strangely, and dozens of other things that in and of themselves meant nothing. It was like the original background to Sarah's old — no, his — laptop.
At first it appeared to be a meaningless field of static, and the harder you looked at it, the more random it became; but if your eyes unfocused just right, an image would form, one with more shape and depth that should be allowed by a flat screen. It was something where seeing it first time was the hardest, but after that it became automatic.
It clicked in Ranma's brain. His relatively new knowledge of electronics mixed with his honed skills of observation to from a map of the security system Reno had installed. It was incomplete and only of this room, but Ranma could fill in some the gaps.
While this was happening, Erika shot a questioning glance at Dan, as if to say: Has he been doing this a lot? She then pointed slightly at the laptop: And he's been using one of these, too?
Dan nodded slightly, then nodded again.
Erika then looked at Gos. Her facial expression marked by surprise, skepticism, and disbelief.
Gos simply shrugged. Ranma was adaptable if anything.
The nonverbal conversation and Ranma's security analysis were interrupted by the opening of a bench that was built into the far wall. So that's what those two cameras were pointed at? Ranma thought, looking at the portal that now connected to the floor below.
"Any old drunk could live above a bar, but it takes a special kind to have his own trapdoor," the chainmail-wearing hologram said.
"Erika," Gos started, "Reno lives over Wolfe's Head, one of the only restaurants in town, and so what if it has a bar?"
Ranma looked at the open bench and then at the cleverly concealed cameras positioned above it, and asked, "Where is Sean?"
"Sleeping," Gos replied, and was met with a glare from Erika. "What? He was up working all night."
Erika's response was cut off by a knock at the apartment's front door. Gos' eyes darted between the closed door and the open bench. "It's okay." Sean shouted from inside his room, breaking the tension. "It's just Sarah and Allison."
"I thought he was asleep?" Erika asked.
"As did I," Gos responded, while he got up to go to the door.
"Eddy from the grill told us to come up here for our orders," Sarah stated as Gos opened the door.
"Damn. Someone's been watching a little too much Drew Cary," Allison said after a quick scan of the room, her gaze resting on the trapdoor bench.
"You think Sean fancies himself as the dumb one or the weird one?" Sarah replied.
"Dumb." "Weird," Erika and Gos said simultaneously and respectively.
"Please tell me we don't act like that," Dan asked of Allison.
"Trust me, you two are worse," Sarah stated as she walked to the open trapdoor. "Okay, Eddy, we're up here. Can we have our food now?"
"Why'd you think he wanted to send it up here?" Allison asked.
"They must have seen us go upstairs and assumed that you'd be coming up with us," Dan said.
"Sounds about right," Sarah said, grabbing the boxes that were being tossed up from the trapdoor.
"I still say that thing is a dangerous indulgence," Erika stated.
"Hey, it's perfectly safe," Reno shouted, still in his room. Then opening the door, he poked his head out. "That door's monitored with full coverage by the sensor grid, and besides, no one would launch an attack in Lockridge, especially in one of the only bars here."
"And why is that?" Dan asked evenly.
"That would incur the wrath of the town fathers. They wouldn't stand for anything that would draw undue attention."
Dan leveled his gaze at Reno. "Obviously, Gos has failed to inform you to the specifics as to what is happening. A mech attacked on school grounds. The Sheriff's daughter's life was endangered several times. His house has apparently been under surveillance for a long time. Don't you think a powerful rogue mage warrants concern? After all, didn't she hack your system as well?"
"Only if her actions would compromise town security. As I see it, this conflict is entirely internal."
"Okay, who are these town fathers?" Ranma asked.
"A bunch of Calash wizards that run the town government. You know, mayor, treasurer selectman, that sort of stuff."
"Ah," Ranma replied.
"Well, we should be going," Sarah said, closing the trapdoor and picking up the takeout boxes.
"You know, Dan, you never did tell us why you left the house after that 'bot incident," Gos said while Sarah and Allison made their way to the door.
"You should have figured that one out," Dan said as he stepped out of the apartment and started walking down the hall, after the blonde and the redhead.
Ranma just shrugged as he left, pulling the door closed behind him.
"Damn," Gos muttered.
"I cannot believe you," Erika stated.
"It's simple: Dan and the others left the house as bait. They probably set up some sensors in the house to see just how far the hacker has infiltrated."
"What I don't get is why Ranma's so calm about that template of his. During the last couple days, we've gotten more evidence point to Ranma having organic tech. And still he's calm about it."
"First, I kinda downplayed the risks entailed by organic tech, saying that since he survived that first fight, he's essentially out of the woods. And more importantly, Ranma's been at risk all his life. You know: 'a martial artist's life is fraught with peril' and all that."
"Yeah, but that whole thing with surviving the first fight is just a theory of yours. We don't have enough information to tell what's going to happen."
"My point exactly. We don't know, so why give him undue stress with our speculations?"
"But you lied to him."
"No. I never did any such thing."
"Then you shaded the truth. Only told him select things. Like what you said about that AI the she is carrying around inside of her."
"That was the complete truth; that AI was never designed to be conscious."
"Organic Tech," Erika simply stated.
"More speculation. But I see your point," Gos allowed.
"At least Ranma approves of the Seattle operation."
"At least we have that," Gos agreed.
It was a total of twelve feet from the back door of Wolf's Head to where the beast was parked. In the time it took for the four teens to walk to the heavily-modified truck, the slight overcast to the sky darkened and the rainfall began.
"Oh shit," Ranma said after her curse triggered — or reverted back to default, if one were to be technical about it. She was dressed in just a tee-shirt and boxers.
"Looks like somebody forgot to get dressed in their girl form," Allison remarked.
Ranma shook her head.
"You want us to go back in? I'm sure they've got some hot water," Dan said while unlocking his truck.
Ranma glanced at Sarah and Allison loading the boxes in the now unlocked vehicle. "Nah. I'll just change when we get home."
"You sure?" Dan inquired, already in the driver's seat.
"Yeah, it's no big deal," Ranma said, climbing into the back seat.
"Okay," Dan said as he ran the ignition sequence and put the truck in gear.
Allison, riding shotgun, exchanged glances with Sarah, who spoke up, "You're rather wet and wearing next to nothing. How is this not a big deal? Hell, we could have easily gotten some hot water."
"It's just you guys, and my guy clothes got pretty wet before I changed, so I'd just change back anyway," Ranma said, flicking the water off her forehead.
Allison caught the glint of silver on the underdressed redhead's finger. "When'd you get that ring?"
"What ring?" Ranma said, before her arm was grabbed by Sarah.
"Oh my god," Sarah muttered, examining the ring. Set in the silver band was polished white bone, and scrimshawed on it a was a single rose. The stem and thorns were inked in a dark, almost black, green, and the petals themselves were inked in blood-red. Possessing amazing detail and craftsmanship, it was hard to believe that the ring was a magical construct, let alone one that could very well be the product of organic tech.
"Where the hell did that come from?" Ranma stated with genuine surprise.
"Your template," Sarah said simply.
"But I'm not in that damned thing."
"Leakage? Poor activation control?" Dan suggested as he pulled onto Main Street.
"I don't think so," Sarah said. "Sis, exactly how did you get that compact and glasses?"
"Well, I was kinda thinking that it would be helpful to be able to see that mech and then that a hands-free display would really be useful," Ranma said, letting the whole "sis" thing slide.
"And now you're in a situation where you'd need clothing ." Allison trailed off.
"Yeah but there's some problems with that," Dan said. "Before, new devices were created when you were in template, and now what? Is your temp reassigning accessories while it isn't even active?"
"Not necessarily," Sarah said. "Remember that ring appeared after the glasses and the compact."
"When I was passed out."
"So these extra accessories are what? Expansion slots?"
"Why not?" Sarah said. "So, sis, you willing to try it out?"
Ranma looked at the ring. "You know what this damn thing could do to me?"
"Hey, it can't be worse than your temp," Sarah said.
"And if it is, you can always go into it," Allison helpfully suggested.
"At least I have options," Ranma deadpanned before activating the ring.
"Well, that fits with the theme you've got going," Dan remarked at Ranma's new clothing.
A flash of red light similar to Ranma's activation sequence, but more muted, had replaced her underclothes. Ranma was now wearing a pair of white low-heeled sandals with rose clasps, a rose-print skirt, a smallish white top with rose accents, and a pair of rose clips pulled her hair back into two ponytails. She was also outfitted with the expected makeup and jewelry, including that little silver ring.
"It's not any worse than Allison's fashion sense," Sarah remarked.
"Hey!" the blonde said. "Come on, Dan, do I have no fashion sense?" she said, pointing at her own body.
"You must keep in mind that you are talking to your boyfriend," Dan said.
"No, I'm talking to my girlfriend," Allison said coolly.
"Ah," Dan said, then noticing the expression on the blonde's face shifted. "Um, yes, yes you do," Dan stated while adjusting her legs slightly, so as to control the pedals better.
"You two know, you don't have the makings of a healthy relationship, right?"
"Come on Sarah, they've got about the most stable one I've ever seen," Ranma said.
Sarah raised her eyebrow.
"Right. Bad example." The ponytailed redhead looked at the ring, then at her skirt. "I wonder if I can get something better? Or at least control it more?" she said, activating the ring again.
Seeing another red flash, Dan looked in her rearview mirror. "Heh, you were better off with that last one," she remarked before noticing the heavy machinery around the school. "Hey, isn't that Ned?" she said, pointing to the figure standing under a black umbrella, off to the side next to a red pickup.
"I think it is," Allison said as they were about to drive past the school.
Ned stood alone in the rain, watching as the work crew dismantled the remains of the guymelef. Upon arrival, the first thing the WIC team did was record the location of every shard of metal, working with the precision of forensic scientists. The material was then sorted. The pieces that showed some promise of functionality were separated from the mere scrap. Everything was then prepared for loading into the heavy haulers stationed at the perimeter of the site. A full security detail had closed off the area, much to the irritation of Judy Miller and the amusement of the remainder of the faculty.
Winston could not help but smile. The hardest part of this operation was not diverting a salvage group here, nor was it providing foremen trained in the necessary procedures, or even the weather, which refused to cooperate. No, the difficulty came in persuading Dave to send a detachment to the site.
Ned was well aware as to why he had such ease in putting together this project. It was a part of where Robert Winston was planning to take his company, his vision for the future. That sat just fine with Ned.
The mage-slash-machinist-slash-mech pilot smiled. Things promised to be so interesting for the next few years. Too many years had been spent in hiding, so much potential had been wasted. The town fathers were blind to the true power of Calash, what could be done. What should be done. What would be done. Ned's smile stiffened into a little grin.
The ringing of his cell phone broke his observation. After glancing at the Caller ID display, he flipped the device open. "Yes Rebecca?"
"Your ingenuity never ceased to amaze me," the girl's voice said in a deceptively pleasant manner.
"As with your encryption algorithms, your signal bouncing protocols are rather robust, but rather distinctive as well. What is it you want?"
"Enjoying your gift?"
That got her attention.
Noticing the silence, Ned continued, "Perhaps reciprocity is in order then?"
"Perhaps some has already occurred," she stated, while thinking, No, he can't be working with the pale boy. Can he?
"That is a possibility."
Rebecca looked at her tactical display. "Are you fully aware of what that entails?" she said, zooming in on him via a watcher. Pressing a key made a targeting crosshair appear over his chest.
Ned calmly turned to face the watcher. "You should be mindful of matters of magnitude. Do you really want to escalate?"
Rebecca was more impressed than angered. Ned had managed to detect a cloaked watcher three hundred yards out, at the treeline, without any obvious augmentation. "Perhaps I was rash."
Ned paused at this. Rebecca showing willful restraint? "Explain," he said into the phone.
"You are a student of history, are you not?"
"I propose a deal."
"I just opted out of our last agreement."
"This is more of a nonaggression pact."
"I see. What are the details do you propose?"
"We shall each have sovereignty over our own possessions and territory."
"I see. And contestable acquisitions?"
"I believe that our past dealings prove that we can negotiate amicably."
"Yes. Any concessions needed to reach this deal?"
"I must say this new proposal of yours is interesting. Although the reasons necessitating such an agreement are beyond me."
"You've got company," Rebecca said in response.
Ned turned to see a familiar black truck turn into the school's front lot. "Well, then, we shall conclude this after I talk with them."
Rebecca hung up at that.
Ned closed his phone and looked at it with interest. What was the deal with that history comment? Rebecca knew full well what periods of history he was interested in: World War Two and the Cold War. Why would she mention that? The only deals during that war that fit were the nonaggression pact signed by Hitler and Stalin. Or perhaps the treaty Chamberlain had with Hitler, where he bought a few months of peace by giving the fascists Czechoslovakia.
No, Rebecca would never place herself as the loser of that war, no matter how appropriate it was. Was she alluding to the Alliance formed by Russia and what would later be the NATO powers? But Soviets failed as well.
What is her game? Ned asked himself as the black truck pulled up.
"So why'd we stop here?" Allison asked, as the beast parked near the red pickup.
"Ned may have information we could use," Dan replied.
"Um, Dan? Ned doesn't know about the curses," Sarah suggested.
"Ah, yes," Dan said, thankful for the tinted glass, which from the outside would obscure her shape. "Is that better?" he said after shifting.
"Okay," Dan said, lowering his window. "Hey, Ned, I've got something for you."
"Yes?" Winston said, walking up to the still idling truck. The rain pounded on his black umbrella.
"We had a little incident today," Dan said, followed by a brief synopsis what happened with the watcher.
"Do you have any of the wreckage with you?"
"Sorry, just this," Dan said passing a disk with the photos he'd taken.
"I'll look at it," Ned said as he pocketed the zip.
"Seemed to have a similar cloaking field as that mech," Dan said, noticing the little "WIC" engraved in the handle of Ned's umbrella.
"Really?" Ned said, looking into the truck. There was Allison in the front, behind Dan was Sarah, and diagonally was that other redhead, Sarah's sister. The girl with that angel template, the one whose arrival coincided with when Rebecca started to become erratic.
The girl seemed to be a little too formally attired, in a pink dress with rose trim and lace, heels and stockings, a fair amount of jewelry, each containing at least one rose. Save for a few locks of hair coming down from over her temples and framing an amazing face, her hair was pulled up into a tight bun.
Ned almost froze at the gaze the girl leveled at him. Her eyes, a compellingly deep shade of blue, locked onto him, calculating, estimating, tracking. It only lasted for a faction of a second, but Ned could almost feel the power that the redhead commanded. It was a gaze that was deeply familiar to him, but Ned was unable to locate where he had seen it.
"My God, and she isn't even in template yet," Ned thought in awe mixed with more than a little fear, was then replaced with clinical and professional interest. "What's your plan now? I mean, your current residence has been compromised," he said, turning to Dan but still tracking the girl in the corner of his eye, noting that she was doing the same.
"Isn't that always the case?" Dan responded.
"Very true," Ned said, looking at the salvage crew. Good, they are about halfway done.
"And as for our plan Well, we'll do a full sweep to see how much has been compromised."
"But what about a sensor net? Security systems?"
"We'll have to do a complete rebuild."
'That'll take time," Ned mused, considering the situation. Rebecca was obviously concerned about this girl. Why else would she deviate from her usual stable, if amoral, plans? Unless Rebecca was not panicking at all, and this is still all a part of her plans. Either way, the situation will reach critical mass very soon, Ned thought, looking at the girl. It was then that he figured out where he had seen those eyes before.
They were bombardier's eyes. It was the same precise, controlled, almost godlike yet understandably reserved and subdued look of those about to release their ordnance. The same eyes looking at him now could easily have been looking down a Norton bombsite over Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Kobe, or any other city about to be reduced to rubble. The same eyes as those buried in anonymous bunkers dotting America's vast empty reaches, watching tactical monitors waiting for that one call to begin Armageddon.
People that when required of them, could unleash horrific power.
Ned opened his mouth, knowing full well the path he had to take, despite the risks involved. "I've been working on developing countermeasures to this cloaking system," he said, pointing to the guymelef wreckage. "I'll have to look at the data you've given me, but it should be easy to incorporate it to detect these probes that have been wandering around."
"And what are you offering?" Dan asked.
"Basic exchange. You've given me the schematics and pics of another of our little hacker's minions; the least I can do is give you designs on how to build and effective sensor net."
"Well, let's see; you did help me net that mech over there."
"But it was attacking us, you're the one who warned us about it and came to help."
"Well, I can't send you the sensor plans. Experience has shown that all of our message traffic can be intercepted."
"So I will have to drive back home, and bring the sensor plans back to your place."
"What about the modifications?"
"Those remains are still there. I can do the upgrades during installation."
"Tell you what, Ned, just give us the modified schematics and we'll call it even."
Ned looked at the black truck. Despite the heavy rain and that the engine was only idling, he could feel the turbines. "Sure. I think you guys can handle it."
"Be seeing you," Ned said, before walking back to his pickup.
"And you," Dan replied raising his window, and putting the beast into gear.
Once inside the cab, Ned closed the door and watched the black truck race into the distance. When it was out of sight, he pulled two objects out of his pocket. One was the disk Dan had given him, the other was the cell phone that Rebecca had called him on.
He considered them both. Sighing, he pocketed the disk and opened the phone. Ned would give them the plans, but first he had a call to make and a deal to negotiate.
"You think he'll play ball?" Dan asked as they drove home.
"He's hiding something," Ranma said.
"He definitely knows more than he lets on," Sarah agreed.
"Remember, this is Lockridge. That's par for here," Allison added.
"True, but he was examining Ranma pretty intently. Think he knows?"
"What?" Ranma curiously.
Ranma just shook her head.
"What do you think Ned's part is in all this?" Allison asked.
"We know he isn't our little hacker, but aside from that ." Dan muttered.
"So what is WIC?" Ranma asked. She'd seen the logo, consisting of italic double-lined letters, on Ned's stuff and that work crew.
"Winston Industrial Container," Dan said, before going into a brief summary of the organization.
"I didn't know Ned had enough sway to divert a work crew like that. Or does he have his own subordinates?" Sarah said.
"Why do you think I suggested that we should make that deal with him?" Dan said as he drove. "Even if he's not our enemy, he's got enough influence to alter the whole situation."
Rebecca closed her cell phone. A small grin formed on her face as she looked out onto the valley that rolled out below her. She then walked from the porch railing to the door that lead into the kitchen.
"Who was that?" Ryoga asked, sitting at the kitchen table. In front of him were two compasses, one magnetic, one gyroscopic, two cups of water, and an I/O sphere hooked up to a palm-pilot.
"I just convinced a powerful wizard to not give Ranma sanctuary."
"Oh. I see."
"Let me see how you're doing," Rebecca said, picking up the palm and looking at the reams of painstakingly gathered, important looking, and ultimately useless data. The girl nodded at the display, "I think you're about ready for a field test."
Ryoga nodded at this.
"So what do you think?" Sarah asked as she got ready for bed.
"It seems to work," Ranma replied.
"Took long enough to put in."
"At least that that Winston guy wasn't here too long."
"You don't like him very much."
Ranma paused, then spoke. "Yeah. There's something off with him. He has this strange distance. It's as if everything was a game to him. Remember during that mech fight? Kinda like he thinks that he can hit restart if he screws up."
"To him it may very well still be a game."
"And in the car when he was appraising us?"
"What are you saying?"
"Look, he might not be the one who imprinted me, but who knows what he's up to?"
Sarah turned from her dresser to look at her sibling. "It's obvious that he's plotting something. But it's got more to do with his little company than with us."
"Then why did he help us build that sensor net?"
"Remember what dad said when he got home?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, he was in a meeting with the mayor, a local business man, and a few others, talking about town security."
"You don't think that was about WIC?"
"We know that Ned's been compromised by the same hacker that's be plaguing us."
"Unless Ned sold her those designs."
"I don't think Ned would work with someone like that. He wants WIC to keep a low profile. Associating with our hacker bitch would surely bring the town fathers down on him."
"So the enemy of my enemy is my friend?"
"In this case? Yes."
"Look, it's late. We're both tired from lashing those damn sensor pods to God knows how many trees. Lets just drop this subject till tomorrow," Sarah said, fatigue edging her voice.
"Your ring's gone," Sarah pointed out.
"Yeah. Happened just after I changed," Ranma said, looking at his hand.
"At least that's something."
"Yeah. Now, you're sure you don't mind me sleeping as a guy? It's just that I've been a girl almost all day and I was only able to change back a few minutes ago, what with it still raining when we were setting up the sensors and all, and then when—"
"Again, I don't mind," Sarah said, cutting him off. "It was your idea to sleep as a girl in the first place."
"No need," Sarah said, climbing into her bed, where she started to drift off almost instantly.
Ranma shrugged, then turned off the lights and climbed into the top bunk. It took a couple minutes for him to nod off.
Once asleep, the martial artist shifted into girl form, followed by a slight reddish glow emanating from the now female body.
"Oh no," Gos said.
"What?" Erika asked, turning away from the TV.
The hologram simply waved his hand at the laptop screen. Erika started reading the message, still amused by the novelty of being on this side of the monitor. Her whimsy ended when she got to the body of the message. After pausing to digest the information, she made a series of comments similar yet more vivid and in-depth than the one Gos made.
"Did you send your reply?" she asked after regaining her composure.
"Not yet. I just got the message. Looks like we're going to have to bring Ranma in for some recordings."
"Are you sure of this?"
"We have to convince them that they're on the right trail, and I will not let those lunatics get in the same State as Ranma."
"And if they discover our subterfuge?"
"That's why we have contingency plans. I just hope we'll never have to resort to them."
"Well then, let's get to work," Erika said, sliding the computer over to herself.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Thanks to my pre-readers, Wrayloflin, Jerry, Jakub, The Jak, and Black Dragon.
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