Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Eighth Part - Staffs, Wands and Sagussans ( Chapter 17 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

"The planet where I was first activated."
The man sitting in the control centre of the probe gazed out a view port on the glimmering orb lying off his larboard beam. Tapping controls on the console, he waited for information files to be called up. He glanced at the holographic readout before returning his attention to the archipelago coming into view. "Sub-planetary political unit, indigenous name: Dai-Nihon. Terran worldwide communicative language 'English' reference name: Japan. Population: Approximately 125,000,000 sentient beings." He tapped a button. "Unit Two, begin carbon-protein humanoid DNA scan. Locate all sentient beings and/or physical evidence of all sentient beings possessing DNA compatibility to Nagussan organic sentient, designate 'Kaeru ryi'Kouhae-Raikue.'"
"Working," the probe's on-board sensor control robot replied. A minute later, it spoke, "Scan complete. Evidence of one exact carbon-protein DNA/RNA duplicate of organic sentient, designate 'Kaeru ryi'Kouhae-Raikue,' located." A quick pause, barely noticeable even by Kaeru, and then it added, "Additional information. Scan indicates twelve additional sentient beings, female, possessing same patrilineal parentage as organic sentient Kaeru ryi'Kouhae-Raikue, though possessing different matrilineal parentage than subject sentient. Indicating primary locations of DNA fragment scans on display. Scan does not indicate any of the target sentient beings are currently on Earth."
Kaeru glanced at the map. Target icons flashed. One was on the mainland of Japan's largest island, within the limits of its most populous habitation and political control centre, Tokyo. The other was on an island bearing 230 degrees from Tokyo's city centre, Oomure-jima. Gazing on small graphs being projected on the screen, Kaeru also noted that the scan of Oomure-jima had a significantly greater and fresher amount of DNA fragments in comparison to Tokyo, indicative that his relatives currently resided on the island.
"Unit One, engage visual cloak. Commence atmospheric approach to Oomure-jima. Scan for best possible landing site to ensure minimal disruption."
"Compliance," the ship's on-board navigation robot replied.
The probe faded out in a torrent of bent light beams.
* * *
"She just cloaked?"
Otako gazed on her monitoring screen, grimly nodding. "Affirmative, Mister President. Whatever type of cloak that ship possesses, it's more advanced than anything the factory's sensors have ever encountered. I can't even scan for an ion trail or any gravimetric disturbance."
Oogi blinked as he absorbs that information. "But that's impossible! Even if they've been gone for over ten thousand years, the Sagussans ARE the technological leaders in the galaxy! You MUST be able to detect that ship, Otako! Do a diagnostic on the scanners!"
"Already done, sir," Otako declared as she waved to her screen, and then she sat back in her chair. "The only possibility I could surmise from this is that this alien ship is actually NOT from this galaxy."
The bodiless president of Phentax Two paused before a nod twitched his chin. "Yes, that could be possible . . . " His voice trailed before he gazed on Otako. "From where did this ship come from? Directly from the Barrier?"
The Avalonian replica of the late leader of the Church of Lum's Hegane Sect shook her head. "No, Mister President. She came from a stable wormhole beyond the fringes of Hustari space that connects our quadrant with the quadrant directly opposite ours beyond the galactic core. And the factory's databanks have no up-to-date information on any races lying in that direction, sir. You DID instruct us not to contact the Gatherer and request an exploratory update." She gave him a reminding look on saying that.
Oogi stiffened for a moment. "Yes, I did." He nodded. "And I expect total silence between this factory and the Voyager, Otako!"
"Of course, Mister President."
"Keep an eye out for that ship or any signs of its crew."
"Yes, Mister President. Oh, if you wish to know, final programming has commenced on the units tasked to Operation: Hashish."
* * *
"What sort of ship, Lou?"
"Couldn't tell from this distance, but according to the master databank on all the known races in the galaxy, she might be Nagussan," Louise, the blonde, blue-eyed, Seishin-born demolitions officer in Pathfinder Troop Six's Section Two, reported as she looked up from the controls connected to the sensory suite on the Kiboo'cha's pilotage. "Small probe-class ship, probably a scout from a larger vessel in their Defence Force."
Taking that in, Asukanoevan sat back in the command chair. The crimson-haired, blue-eyed Oni-born chief petty officer in charge of Section Two -- in her previous life, she was, in fact, Lum's paternal great-grand-aunt -- reached up to rub the bridge of her nose as she considered what her subordinate just told her. "A Nagussan ship all the way here over Earth?" she muttered.
"Where was it going when it cloaked, Lou?" Megan, the crimson-haired, green-eyed Pirpirsiw'r section sniper, wondered.
"It was over China when it started descent, Meg. Heading towards Japan."
The members of Section Two took that in, and then they started to exchange confused looks. Asuka wasn't so confused. As she was the only person currently on the Kiboo'cha's bridge who had been on Sagussa before Ataru's visit, she knew of the series of events that had led RSS Hasei'cha to visit Earth the day an apparent malfunction of the Central Warp Chamber on Triton (a gift from the Gatherer a thousand years before, a gift which had saved Oyuki's people from extinction thanks to the long occupation of Neptune by the hordes of the Seifukusu Dominion) nearly transported a young Oni girl to a city named Sendai. Running the possible scenario in her mind for a moment, Asuka then nodded as she tapped an intercom switch. "Asuka to Nene."
"Go, Asuka," the Troop coxswain replied.
"Is Linna eating you out right now?" Asuka teasingly asked.
The junior members of Section Two snickered at Asuka's blunt question. Nene and Linna had been lovers for years, though -- to the surprise of many on Sagussa -- they had not become bond-mates. "No, she's asleep right now," Nene replied, clearly not bothered by Asuka's blunt question. "What's up?"
"Can you find a way to put a virus into the factory's sensory to ensure it can't detect a Rover?" Asuka then asked.
"Easily enough. Why?"
Asuka smirked. "It appears that the Daimon'cha's brother has returned home from Nagussa, Nene. That's why."
The members of Section Two stared in dumbfounded shock at their chief. "Is that a fact," Nene trilled.
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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"Susan Aglukark?! Who's she, Ataru-kun?"
"An Inuit singer Yotsuba-chan discovered a few years ago," Ataru replied. Then, noting the confused looks on the faces of the women in the master's cabin aboard the Windrider, he added, "Canadian northern Ainu; what they used to call 'Eskimos' back when political correctness wasn't an issue in that country. For most of her life, she lived in what they call Nunavut these days."
Shinobu and Kumiko exchanged a look. "Eastern part of the old Northwest Territories," the latter noted.
Nabiki took that in, and then she slipped the CD out of its cover. Putting that into the player by the bed where Momoe was currently resting, she hit PLAY. As the massed drum beat of the preamble to One Turn Deserves Another began to play, the middle Tendou daughter began to nod approvingly. "Might want to order a copy of this when I get the chance," she noted as she gazed on the CD cover before she set it aside. Looking then on her friend from Tomobiki, Nabiki asked, "How're you doing, Momoe-chan?"
"My ears are ringing from having that bullet whiz past me," Momoe moaned as her eyes locked on her former classmate and current host, he busying himself with several packets of herbs Haruka had provided him to create a tea for her.
"I apologize for that, Marubeya-san." His eyes flicked in her direction. "But at that moment, Rose was lowering her pistol at your head. The ship was self-destructing. A fool could've seen what the real options would've been at that moment and time." A deep breath. "She decided that her loyalty to Elle mattered more than her survival. I've encountered more fanatics like that over the last couple of months than I'd have cared to meet in my lifetime. There's only one way to deal with people like that."
The Tomobiki High seniors stared at their former classmate, the shock they clearly felt at his words and actions over the last several hours chilling them like nothing else Ataru had done in the last two years could. The very CONCEPT of Ataru being serious about ANYTHING at all was something that had always frightened most of his female classmates, even Shinobu at times. But the events of the last couple of months -- the bombing of Tomobiki High by Ibrahim Alhamzi, the deaths of the Bodyguards and the others, the revelations of Ataru's activities concerning the Noukiites and their war against Uru, plus what just happened aboard the Rose Emperor -- went beyond just "serious." WAY beyond "serious." "Doesn't this bother you?!" Kumiko then asked.
"What?" Ataru asked as he stared at her, and then he sighed. "Rose, you mean. Hai, it does bother me, Gekasawa-san . . . "
"Ataru, PLEASE! Will you stop doing that?!"
He looked at Shinobu. "Doing what?"
"Calling us by our family names!" she snapped, her eyes glistening with frightened tears. "It's bad enough that you were made to see three billion people die, that you found out that your grandmother was murdered by Lum's father, that your parents betrayed you like they did, but PLEASE . . .!"
Hands reached out for her. Shinobu sobbed as she flung her arms around Ataru, burying her face into his neck. Staring at them, Nabiki, Momoe and Kumiko could only smile understandingly. Like Nabiki's sister concerning Saotome Ranma, Momoe knew, Miyake Shinobu had always been quite mercurial when it came to her friendship and brief relationship with Moroboshi Ataru. Even after they had broken up in the wake of Lum's and Mendou Shuutarou's entrance into their lives, Shinobu always did her best to ensure Ataru behaved himself, even during times when his lechery hadn't directly involved her. Yet, there had been times when Shinobu had been the only friend Ataru truthfully had in Tomobiki. And like Akane concerning Ranma, Nabiki pretty much understood that the changes that had overcome Ataru over the last couple of months were SO great, nothing -- NOTHING AT ALL! -- Shinobu could do would change her former boyfriend back to what he had been like before Lum's departure.
"Shinobu . . . "
Shinobu sniffed before she wearily looked up at Ataru. "Ataru . . . "
He closed his eyes. "Go live your life. Stay as far away from me as you can. I'm too dangerous for any of you to know right now."
Hearing that, she shook her head. "NO! No . . .! Please . . .!"
Ataru shuddered as her grip tightened. He took a breath, remembering something he had noticed about his ex-girlfriend and one of her new classmates when they had been brought aboard the Windrider. "What about Minako-san?"
Shinobu blinked, pulling away to gaze into his eyes. "What?"
"Don't you know that she's very attracted to you?" he calmly asked.
Shinobu acked, her eyes going VERY wide. Momoe and Kumiko exchanged a shocked look. A thoughtful look crossed Nabiki's face for a moment. "I . . .!" Shinobu sputtered before her throat locked up, she stepping back from him. "I . . .! M-m-Minako-chan . . .?! M-m-ME?!"
"Why not?" he asked as he turned back to finish preparing the tea for Momoe. "She is part-Avalonian, remember? If you didn't know this, they're all functionally bisexual. And from what I know of their parent society, it's considered normal for Avalonian women to seek out another woman to psionically bond with before they'd seek a man to serve as the father of their children." All that knowledge had been given to him by Negako shortly after Miree and her daughters, plus Kawamura Himiko and Serizawa Mikiko, had beamed into the lives of Ataru and his sisters. "Minako-san can try all she wants, but she can't fight off thousands of years of genetic programming passed onto her through the factory from its creators. Neither can Tomomi-san and Kyooko-san."
"Ataru-kun, what are you talking about now?!" Kumiko demanded. "Are you saying that Minako-san's part-alien?!"
"Hai, she is," Shinobu spoke up, the shock she currently felt at Ataru's words shaking her from head to toe. "Minako-chan . . . "
Ataru held up a finger. "But DON'T say anything about that to anyone, Gekasawa-san," he warned as he turned to stare her in the eye. "There's someone in orbit right over Tomobiki as we speak who has control of a VERY large ship that can create bioroids like Minako-san's mother just like that." He snapped his fingers several times. "And they can be programmed to do anything that bastard could desire. I mean ANYTHING, Gekasawa-san! Minako-san and her friends have already got enough problems on their heads being what they are. They don't need anything else heaped on their heads. Ne?"
Kumiko blinked confusedly, her mind still trying to absorb the series of bombshells Ataru had just dropped on her head. Momoe, who knew more about the Avalonians thanks to her encounter with Kitahara Yukimi and her friends the previous Sunday, could only breathe out. "No, they don't," Shinobu then spoke up, reaching up to scratch the back of her head. "But still . . . "
"I have to confess, Shinobu-san, Minako-san does have exceptionally good taste in potential bond-mates," Nabiki then noted.
Shinobu acked, her whole body turning red in embarrassment. Momoe blinked, her head snapping around as she peered at Nabiki. While she hadn't learned everything she would have wanted to know about the middle Tendou daughter, she did know that Nabiki's sexual tastes were normal for a girl her age. "What the heck made you say that, Nabiki?" she asked.
"Isn't it obvious?" Nabiki breathed out. "I'm an Avalonian now, Momoe."
"WHAT?!" Momoe and Shinobu shrilled in sync.
Nabiki sighed. "Several key points, Apprentice," she said as she held up a warning finger. Hearing her call her that, Momoe braced herself to give Nabiki her undivided attention. "My father." Nabiki held up a fist, she raising a finger to mark a point. "The Nanniichuan casket sent for the wedding. Ranma-chan being turned into a girl in body AND soul thanks to Jusenkyou. Ranma-chan also being bonded to Ataru-kun here since LONG before Lum OR Akane . . . " -- a flash of pain appeared in her eyes on her mentioning her sister -- " . . . came into their lives. Joining the schools. Result . . . " Her voice faded as she sent out a psionic transmission to a nearby cabin.
Everyone blinked confusedly for a moment, and then they perked as a knock was heard at the door. "Enter!" Ataru called out.
The door opened, revealing Tendou Shinshi. "What's up, Nabiki?"
Momoe and Kumiko's jaws hit the deck in shock. Shinobu, who knew nothing of Tendou Nabiki beyond the usual spiel of rumours that had flowed from Nerima since the day Saotome Ranma and her father moved into town, blinked in confusion. "Ladies, meet my twin brother -- and Yotsuba-chan's current boyfriend, I should add . . . " Nabiki amended as she gazed amusedly at Ataru. "Tendou Shinshi. Shinshi, you know everyone here, don't you?"
"That I do," Shinshi declared. "Nice to see you alive and safe, minna."
Stunned silence followed.
* * *
"Brace up, Young Mistress!" Firesky Owleye declared as two orderlies picked up the stretcher bearing the comatose Elle and carried her away to the medical station of the Windrider Dreams. "What you did was the proper thing. No court in the galaxy would convict you of what you just did."
Ranma took that in before she felt Seiko's supportive embrace tighten. Ataru's past and present girlfriends, along with Sakiko, Ryuunosuke, Seiko's friends and Shogai Dakejinzou, plus several of Ataru's sisters, were standing in the quarterdeck beside the hatchway connecting the Windrider Dreams to the Windrider. The Goddess of Luck was docked at the hatchway on the other side of the battlecruiser's superstructure from the solar-sail barque.
"I lost control," Ranma muttered. "I should know better."
"Onee-sama, you were defending your relationship with Onii-sama," Sakuya then spoke up. "After what that bitch did to all of us, what she got is what she deserved! Right, girls?" she asked the other sisters standing beside her.
They empathically nodded. "What'll happen now, Firesky?" Nassur asked.
"We've contacted the Ellsian government, Nassur," the senior Inquisitor, a grey-eyed, silver-haired man with a thick moustache and chin beard, replied. "We've warned them that as long as their government continues to support their queen's . . . oh, shall we say, more eccentric actions . . .?" Everyone save Ranma laughed. "She will remain our prisoner. And, if the good and true magistrates at the High Court of Star Chamber on Jiyuu so decide, she will be put on trial for multiple accounts of kidnapping, forced confinement, attempted murder, not to mention instigating an overt intrusion on the sovereignty of Earth. Which, I add, will soon fall under a more restrictive interpretation of the Non-Interference Edict than we've applied to them to date."
"Will the Noukiites help you on that regard, Your Grace?" Oyuki asked.
"They will. We've even received a very positive note of support from the Dowe'on Tribunal on Ipraedos concerning Earth." Firesky then held up his hand to forestall any verbal objection from the Neptunian princess. "Fear not about that, Your Highness. I was told that Crown Prince Schwartzkoff himself will persuade his father and the Asan'on Home Council to go along with it, plus make an open guarantee of your home planet's continued sovereignty as an independent planet state. He even mentioned the possibility that the Ipraedies Empire might be willing to help your kingdom engage in a more thorough clean-up of Neptune than what you've done to date with the Federation's support."
Oyuki's eyes widened as she took in that message, and then her eyes turned in on herself as she considered what the Inquisitor had just told her. Benten quickly noted this, a chill warping through her as the implications of a Neptune-Ipraedos alliance, guaranteed by Zephyrus and a Noukiios free from the Federation, could mean for the cluster. As the daughter of Commander Shigaten Hotei, one of the senior members of the Fukunokami Union's ruling body, Benten knew what the break-up of the Galactic Federation could mean. Before she could say anything, though, Seiko walked up to place a supportive hand on her friend's shoulder. As Oyuki gazed on her, the Oni-turned-Nendo-kata/Terran said, "Your first duty's to your own people, Oyuki-chan. Don't forget that."
The crown princess and heir to the Throne of Koori blinked before she breathed out, "I know that, Lu- . . .!" She caught herself, and then she said, "Seiko-chan." Her eyes then focused on Firesky. "Your Grace, Emperor Schwartz has made it quite clear that he would desire nothing more than to see me married to his son. What's to stop him from pressing those ends if the Kingdom and the Empire do become economic allies?"
The Inquisitor made a dismissive wave. "Pay no mind about that, Your Highness. Prince Schwartzkoff is quite aware of your relationship with Ryooki Koosei." He didn't notice the perked looks on the sisters' face on his mentioning that name. "The Crown Prince is in love with a delightful local girl, Gella -- who, according to the Central Registry of Ipraedos, might be an actual relative of the late final Emperor of the First Dynasty -- and he wishes to marry her as soon as he can make his father see the light. And, I should note that the Emperor might soon face the Imperial Corps of Executioners for what he did on Cademus all those years ago. After all, with the direct 'threat' to the Empire's continued independence -- the Federation led by an anti-Ipraedies Uru, not to mince words -- about to vanish, the people of Ipraedos might become more inclined to accept increased trade and social relations with its neighbours." He then gave the Neptunian princess a knowing look. "If Neptune and Ipraedos worked in concert towards that end, the reward to the Federation as a whole might be tremendous. Perhaps all the way to having the Empire itself become a member of the Federation."
A thoughtful look crossed Oyuki's face on hearing that. "Where did Yotsuba hear that name before . . .?" Yotsuba then wondered.
Chikage smirked. "He was Ani-kun's neighbour when he lived in Tomobiki."
The would-be detective blinked before her eyes went wide. "Oh, Yotsuba's stupid!" she moaned, bopping the side of her head. "Yotsuba learned that when she went to Tomobiki during the Pseudo-War! Yotsuba no baka! Baka! Baka!"
The other sisters laughed. Sakuya then turned to gaze on Oyuki. "I've seen pictures of him when he was attending Kitatookyou High School along with Sakurambou Sakura," the elder sister noted, an eyebrow arching. "He's quite the hottie! I assume he's still pretty good-looking."
"That, Sakuya-chan, I can guarantee," Dakejinzou noted.
"Really?" Haruka mused as she drew out her gunsen to fan herself. "Well, one must applaud Oyuki-sama's exceptionally good taste."
Oyuki's pale skin instantly became the shade of ripe tomatoes as the martial artist's words sank in. Seiko and Sakiko exchanged a knowing look and snicker, and then the latter stared at the Neptunian. "By the way, Oyuki-chan, would you like to adopt Ten-chan when you and Koosei finally tie the knot?"
The princess gazed on her transformed former middle school classmate. "Whatever do you mean, Ra- . . .! Er, Sakiko-chan?"
"When he re-registered with the Men in Black after he came to Earth, he took the name 'Ryooki Tennosuke,'" Sakiko explained.
"That's a nice name," Ryuunosuke noted.
Oyuki blinked before a content look crossed her face. Having wandered deep space since the Ipraedies had kidnapped him from Earth a decade before, Ryooki Koosei had briefly served as Redet Jariten's personal babysitter before Lum's cousin travelled to Earth. "I see," the princess then said, she nodding. "Well, when I see Koosei-kun next, I'll tell him that."
"If he doesn't melt into mush when he gets close to you," Benten noted.
Seiko, Sakiko, Nassur and Dakejinzou laughed. "What's this?" Sakuya asked. "Are we dealing with another case of love-madness here?"
"You mean like Doc Toofuu with Chikage?" Ranma wondered.
"By the sounds of it," Haruka mused.
Oyuki flustered. "Well, indeed . . . "
More laughter. Oyuki then turned her attention back to Firesky. Sensing what the princess might presently want to know, he gave her a reassuring smile. "Your Highness, concerning what I've said before about your people's future course -- not to mention your own desires -- you have the full and ironclad guarantee of the Six Churches," he firmly declared.
Oyuki nodded. When it came to situations like that, whenever a person of bishop rank or higher -- especially if they were members of an important state organ like the Holy Inquisition -- spoke words like that, they WERE speaking on behalf of the WHOLE of the Holy Republic! The future of the Kingdom of Neptune-Triton was secure. Taking a deep breath, she then said, "On behalf of my kingdom and my people, I thank you very much for those kind words, Your Grace. And on behalf of my kingdom and my people, I state now on my parents' behalf that whatever future course of action the Holy Republic of Zephyrus takes concerning the United Nations of Earth -- as long as my kingdom and my people are not threatened by it -- will not be opposed from our quarter."
"As long as you respect the wishes of the people of Earth, that will be accepted by us as well," Firesky declared, nodding.
"Your Grace?"
Everyone turned as a junior engineer came up, the younger man bowing respectfully to the Inquisitor. "What is it?" Firesky asked.
"Your Grace, the courier set aside for the Young Master Ataru's former classmates' return to Earth is ready to depart."
"I see, then."
Sakuya sighed. "We better chase the rest of those people off the ship."
* * *
"Mie-san is a Sagussan?"
"Is that the name of my people?"
"Uhn!" Hinako replied with a nod. She and Seikou Mie were seated in the former's cabin. The Staff of Gihan, its focusing crystal barely lit with the eternal fire that gave the Haijo-ju prototype its power, was tucked into the sheets at the head of Hinako's bed. The pistol Tomo had stuck into Haruka's hakama trousers when the Sagussan internal security officer had boarded the Rose Emperor was in the Kyushu native's hand, it having been disarmed and unloaded. "Hina met some of Mie-san's people when she went to the bioroid factory to get Akane-san's new body for her. They're really, really, really nice! And they really, really, really love Onii-tama!" She frowned as her eyes fell on the Staff. "Hina only wishes that Bou-san didn't have to sleep because of Elle's ship going boom like that. If Hina could, Hina'd take Mie-san to meet Lufy-san, Priss-san, Ayumu-chan, Tomo-chan and their friends."
Mie smiled. Reborn as Daishi'cha #337 of the Grand Design of the Fifth Republic of Sagussa nine thousand years before, the woman known these days to her friends as "Seikou Mie" had been living on Earth for over a decade. Having crash-landed off the shores of Tsushima in her starship for reasons she hadn't come to understand to this very day -- she suffered from near-total amnesia as a result of the crash -- Mie had been later adopted by an elderly couple from Yame who had lost their first-born daughter (also named Mie) the previous year. Since that time, Mie, whose slowed aging process guaranteed that she still looked like a teenager even after eleven years on Earth, had lived a quiet life in the mountainous backwoods of Kyushu. A quiet life that ended two months before when she had seen Moroboshi Ataru on NHK shortly after the Second Tag Race began. "I'd like to see them again. If only to understand why I came to be on Earth when I did. And why is it that I know your brother. As far as I can recall, I've never, even ONCE, been close to him until the day his daughters beamed down at the school and he and you showed up." She breathed out before adding, "If only Tomo had stayed behind . . . "
"Well, according to Sylia-san, all the people on Sagussa aren't really sure what might happen if they met up with Onii-tama again and all those baka-bakas who'd want to hurt Onii-tama find out," Hinako added, she gazing in sympathy at Mie. "It really, really, really hurts them, too."
"Well, maybe it's a good thing that they met you first, Hinako-chan."
The youngest sister perked. "Really?!"
"Hai . . . "
A knock echoed from the doorway. "Hai!" Hinako called out.
The door opened, revealing Kaho. "Hinako-chan . . .? Ah, Mie-sempai, there you are! Kaho heard from Sakuya-chan that it's time for you to go home!" the cheerleader announced as she leaned past the doorway.
"Mie-san won't go back to Earth just yet, Kaho-chan," Hinako declared. "She's gonna stay with us when we go get Tsue-san!"
Kaho blinked. "Really?! Aren't your parents worried about you, Sempai?"
Mie giggled. "Don't worry about that, Kaho-chan. My parents trust me a lot more than most parents would trust their children."
Kaho took that in, and then she tittered. "Sempai's lucky!"
"Eh? What is it, Hinako-chan?"
Hinako made a shushing motion. "Kaho-chan, you can't tell anyone about Mie-san staying with us! It's a secret!"
Kaho blinked confusedly before she nodded. "Oh, okay!"
* * *
"This is bland," Momoe admitted before sipping the rest of her tea.
"It's supposed to be," Ataru said as a finger probed several of her shiatsu points. Momoe was sitting up in the bed. Shinobu, Kumiko, Nabiki and Shinshi relaxed by the door as Ataru continued to work. "Momoe, I'm not going to lie to you. You WILL have some pretty doozy nightmares about what happened on the Emperor. Rose is going to scream at you from the grave, demanding to know why an 'insignificant nobody' like Marubeya Momoe survived while a 'noble warrior' like her was shot dead. Or something stupid like that. Let it happen, but don't let it overwhelm you. Believe me, I wish it could have gone down better than it did, but it didn't happen. If necessary, go visit Onee-chan. Nabiki knows where she lives. She knows what to do in cases like that. If it becomes necessary, she can go all the way to blocking out those memories until you acquire the emotional strength to deal with them. Fair enough?"
Momoe took that in, and then she nodded. "If that's your idea of an apology to me for the times you got fresh with me, it's one I can accept with open arms, Ataru." She took a deep breath. "And in that regard, I should apologize to you for the times I helped force you to stay with Lum just so all of us could fawn over Mendou-san." She bowed her head as she said that. "After hearing about Sakuya-san being the head of your family now that your grandmother's dead -- with her having full power and control over whom you'd end up marrying -- I strongly have to wonder what might have happened had your sisters decided to drop into your life a lot sooner than they actually did."
"Talk to Onee-chan about that," Ataru advised. "She can explain more."
Momoe smirked. "I just might."
"Just remember a few things when it comes to Negako-san, Momoe-chan," Nabiki warned with a raised finger. "She despises titles like you wouldn't believe. To her, the whole and unvarnished truth is ALL that matters. Lies, half-truths, even tact, are not relevant. Above all else . . . "
Ataru, Nabiki and Shinshi, in sync: "DON'T CALL HER 'SENSEI!'"
Hearing that, Shinobu nearly fell over laughing. Kumiko rolled her eyes. "I'll try to remember that!" Momoe stated. Then, setting her teacup aside, she slipped out from under the covers. Positioning herself beside Ataru, she reached over to draw her arms around him, planting a warm kiss on his lips. The door to the master's cabin then opened, revealing Sakuya, Chikage and Haruka. The elder sisters stopped on seeing one of their brother's minor pains-in-the-butt giving him such a kiss, and then they exchanged surprised looks. Momoe then pulled away from Ataru, her hand reaching up to rub his beard. "It's a nice touch," she admitted before standing, moving to leave.
"Get a good night's rest when you get back home, Momoe," Ataru advised as he gave her a concerned look. "If you feel it's necessary, take tomorrow off from school. I'm sure your parents and the teachers at school'll understand."
"Hai," she replied. Then, standing at attention, she gave him a bow.
The others watched her as she turned and left, and then Kumiko sighed. "Well, we better head off, too, Shinobu-chan."
"You go ahead," Shinobu told her.
"Right," Kumiko replied before she gave Ataru a bow, and then she left.
Right after that, Ranma walked into the room. "Hey, Nabiki!"
Nabiki perked. "What's up?"
"What're we gonna do with Kunou?"
The Tendou siblings and Ataru blinked. "He's alive?!" Nabiki demanded. "I thought he got blown up when the ship was destroyed!"
"No such luck. According to Bishop Owleye, Kunou saved a whole slew of the Ellsians when their warp drive went bonkers. In fact, the Ellsian captain wants to take ol' Bokken-boy back to her planet and keep him there."
Ataru hummed. "Yes, I can see why she'd want that. There is something of a dearth of eligible young men on Elle these days."
"Ataru, how could you even SUGGEST such a thing?!" Shinobu demanded.
"Shinobu-san, please don't tell me that you've never heard of Kunou."
Shinobu blinked as she considered Nabiki's words, and then her forehead furrowed. "He's the kendou team captain at your school, right?" she asked, gazing on Nabiki. After she nodded, Shinobu added, "A real arrogant creep who loved to lord it over everyone because his father's the principal, right?"
"Yep," Nabiki said. "Compared to Kunou, Mendou is something of a saint."
A wary look crossed Shinobu's face. "Really . . .?"
Ryuunosuke's voice boomed through the main hallway connecting the cabins aft of the pilotage. "Hey, Shinobu, c'mon! Get the lead out!" the tomboy screamed from the gangway. "We're waitin' for you! You comin' or what?!"
"Hai!" Shinobu called before she turned to leave. "See you guys later!"
She stopped, turning to stare at Ataru. "Hai?"
"Remember what I told you about Minako-san."
She considered that, and then she sighed. "I'll think about it, Ataru."
She headed out. "What was that about?" Ranma asked.
"Long story," Ataru replied, walking over to embrace her. "You okay?"
Ranma blinked before a shudder rocked her. "I'm not sure."
The others gazed sympathetically at her.
* * *
"Himiko-san, Mikiko-san, daijoubu desu no?"
The two Terran-turned-Avalonians jerked on hearing Shirayuki's question, and then they turned to stare absently at her. Both of them were seated in the Windrider's main galley, located one deck below the pilotage. "You say something, Shirayuki-san?" Himiko asked.
The chef was quick to see the tears brimming in their eyes. "What's wrong?!" Shirayuki gasped as she placed her tea tray aside, and then she moved to gently grasp the former swim team captain's hand. "Why are you crying?!"
"Oh, it's nothing much," Mikiko admitted. "Just us recovering from having our illusions shattered, that's all."
Shirayuki blinked. "'Illusions?'"
"A-ri-ri? What's wrong with Himiko-chan and Mikiko-chan?!"
"That's what Hime's trying to find out, Hinako-chan . . .! Eh?! Mie-san, what are you doing here?!" the chef asked on recognizing the person who had accompanied Hinako to the galley. "Aren't you going back to Earth?"
"I'm sticking around, Shirayuki-san," Mie admitted as she and Hinako took seats at the table being used by Himiko and Mikiko. "There's something that I need to find out and I need to stay close to your brother so I can find it."
Shirayuki blinked. "You're not going to try to hurt Nii-sama, are you?"
"I'll hopefully avoid it," Mie promised her.
Hearing that, the chef grinned. "Desu no!"
She headed to the kitchen. By then, both Himiko and Mikiko were staring intently at the amnesiac Sagussan, their Avalonian psionic powers telling them much about the other woman. "You're like us in a way," the former then noted. "But you're different. Not really sure how . . . "
"I wish I could answer the questions I'm sure that you both want to ask me, but I can't answer them now," Mie admitted.
"And you think Ataru-kun can help you find that out?" Mikiko asked.
"Pretty much so. You weren't involved in the rescue, right?"
"We were waitin' to help in case things got screwed up," Himiko said.
"Well, while things were going crazy on Elle's ship, someone whom (I think) came from whatever planet I hail from came to help with the rescue," Mie explained. "She took off just after that Rose creep took the Magic Carpet Ride to Eternity thanks to Ataru-kun and his pistol. I didn't get any chance to ask her any questions 'cause right afterward, Hinako-chan brought us here."
The other girls nodded. "Ah!"
"I see you've decided to join us for the remainder of the voyage."
Everyone turned as Chikage stepped into the galley, followed by Sakuya and Haruka. "Oh, hi, guys!" Himiko hailed.
"Himiko-san, what's wrong?!" Haruka demanded as she walked over to sit beside the swimmer, a hand reaching over to grasp the latter's as the martial artist tried to provide some sort of comfort. "Were you hurt on seeing your old schoolmates so soon?" she gently asked.
Himiko shuddered as she felt Haruka's concern flood her nervous system with a type of delicious warmth she had NEVER felt before, even when she was just a Terran instead of an Avalonian physically disguised as one. Blinking several times as she found herself gazing on the raven-haired, blue-eyed beauty beside her, Himiko took a breath. "It wasn't that, Haruka-san. It was . . . "
"Don't tell us," Sakuya cut in. "Let us guess. Mendou, right?"
* * *
Eyes locked on Mendou Shuutarou. "Mendou-san, are you all right?" one of the girls in Shinobu's class asked concernedly.
The scion of Japan's richest family sniffed before he took the chance to look around the passenger cabin of the small courier ship that would soon take Elle's former hostages back to Earth. "Someone must be talking about me."
Instantly, several handkerchiefs were handed to him. He smiled his thanks to the girls who were being so kind to him.
* * *
Eyes locked on Sakuya. "How'd you guess, Sakuya-san?" Mikiko asked.
"Couldn't help but notice how much he freaked out when Onii-sama apologized to him for what he did around Mendou's sister."
"It was more than that."
People stared at Himiko. "What do you mean, Himiko-chan?" Hinako asked.
The swimmer closed her eyes for a moment, shifting herself a bit to lean against Haruka. The latter raised her arm to wrap around Himiko. "Mendou hated the fact that Ataru-kun apologized to him," the former hissed.
"I couldn't believe I actually sensed that from him!" Mikiko added as Sakuya sat beside her. As Haruka had done to Himiko, Sakuya reached over to gently grasp the other Terran-turned-Avalonian's hand. That contact also began to do interesting things to Mikiko's mind and body. Squeezing her eyes shut, she then added in a near-sob, "Now I wish I'd stayed dead . . . "
"Mikiko-chan, don't say such awful things!" Hinako whined.
"Take it easy, Hinako-chan," Mie soothed. "They just became Avalonians, remember? Adjusting to what they've got to live with now's going to hurt them real bad at times. Let them vent themselves out. They need it."
Himiko and Mikiko gave her thankful smiles. Sakuya and Haruka moved to embrace them. "Do not think of it as hate when it comes to Shuutarou's feelings for Ani-kun, girls," Chikage spoke up. "It's fear that drives him."
"'Fear?'" the former Tomobiki High sophomores chorused in sync.
"Hai, fear. After all, as long as Ani-kun continued to behave like a sex-crazed moron, Shuutarou could act as he pleased," Chikage elaborated. "After all, as long as Shuutarou behaved as one expected of him, people could focus their anger, outrage and revulsion at Ani-kun without reservation or question. Once Ani-kun changed, however . . . "
"The game was up," Mie finished for the sorceress.
"Could it potentially cause problems for Anigimi-sama?" Haruka asked.
"Not really, especially given the planned wedding on Saturday. Once he's married to Mizunokooji Asuka, Shuutarou'll be too busy with her to worry too much about Ani-kun, much less his social standing with the girls at Tomobiki High School. THAT is . . . " The sorceress raised a warning finger, a mirthless smile crossing her face. "IF Shuutarou, of course, survives the wedding night and the honeymoon," she finished with a knowing wink.
Hearing that, those who knew of Asuka's superhuman strength began to snicker. "What's that about?" Mie asked.
"Long story," Sakuya said.
* * *
"Um, Marie-sama?"
Marie looked up to see Jonna staring at her. As the eldest sister currently in the Windrider's pilotage, she had been given the right to sit in the central chair. Reiko and Kaneko were back at their stations prepping the barque for the voyage that would take them to locate the Genesis Wand of Parah. Orin and Miree were in Aria's cabin, keeping an eye on the young Parisian as she slept, still recovering from her injuries on the Rose Emperor.
"What is it, Jonna-san?"
"Did you know that there's another Avalonian aboard the ship right now?"
Marie blinked. "What do you mean? Where is this person?"
Jonna pointed aft. "In Chikage-sama's cabin, Marie-sama."
The replica-bioroids once made for Nassur by the Niphentaxians, they at their side stations and helping the Noukiite twins prepare the Windrider for deep space flight, turned as one to gaze on Marie and Jonna. "That's funny," Damasu -- living now under the name "Arashi Mika" -- spoke up as she turned her eyes aft. "I just started to sense her. Why didn't I sense her before?"
"She's waking up, I think," Nomade Shinobi said. "Who is that, anyway?"
"Let's go find out," Fujikaze Nobuko proposed.
With that, the four replica-bioroids moved to step off the pilotage. Marie stood up to follow. "Mamoru-chan, can you call Aniue-sama and tell him what we found?" she told her sister, who had been half-asleep at her chair.
"Right!" the tomboy chimed back.
The five women walked off the pilotage, heading to the door leading to Chikage's cabin. Kanki Yukiko shifted herself to shield Marie's body with her own as the latter moved to press her hand against the security lock panel located beside the doorway. As Mienai, the Tritonian/Avalonian had often used her ice-generating powers to form a quick shield against incoming fire, thus allowing Hensou, Kamen and Damasu to shoot around that to get at their targets. Marie tried not to moan at Yukiko's show of over-protectiveness. It was sweet, but given that Chikage probably had something to do with this, truthfully unnecessary. "Yukiko-chan, please don't do that . . . "
The silver-haired woman looked over her shoulder to give Marie a smile and a wink. Marie pressed her hand against the palm reader fitted in the panel. The door unlocked. Holding up a hand to keep Marie back -- thus earning her an annoyed stare from Ataru's sister in return -- Mika then opened the door to peek inside. One look was enough to make her drool. "Very nice."
Yukiko, Nobuko and Shinobi looked in. "Agreed," Lum's replica cooed.
"What?" Marie demanded as she pushed Yukiko aside to see for herself.
One look was enough.
* * *
The shout echoed throughout the ship, including the galley one deck below. "Uh-oh!" Hinako said as she and Chikage's heads turned to the ladder ascending up-deck. "Hina thinks we forgot about Akane-san . . . "
The sorceress sighed as the faint thump! of a body hitting the deck echoed through the air. "Wonderful," she muttered.
"What's this all about, girls?"
Chikage and Hinako turned to gaze on Sakuya and Haruka.
* * *
"Lad, do you not get tired of listening to your own voice all the time?"
Kunou Tatewaki, who had recovered minutes before from the stun-bolt shot a crewmember on the Windrider Dreams delivered to him at the order of the battlecruiser's captain, spun around to see Firesky Owleye staring intently at him. Standing to both sides of the elder Inquisitor were an amused Tendou Nabiki and a neutral-faced Sunhair Windrider. "Tendou Nabiki!" the kendou-ka said as he surged toward the holding cell's door . . .
He not realizing a force field was there! "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!" Kunou howled as thousands of volts of electricity surged through his system. Then, mercifully, he collapsed unconscious to the deck.
Nabiki shook her head. "Kunou-chan, you just don't learn, do you?" she muttered before gazing on her blonde, blue-eyed host. "So what's the plan with him, Windy-chan?" she asked, her eyebrow arching. "I can tell you flat out that Ataru-kun, Ranma-chan and the sisters are NOT going to let this idiot anywhere close to their ship anytime soon. If EVER!"
Windy -- the nickname had been bestowed on Sunhair Windrider by Moroboshi Ataru years earlier when the daughter of the magistrate-bishop of Magairu first met the grandson of Earth's only Zephyrite Righteous Gentile -- grinned. "Well, technically, when we rescued him, he was in the custody of the Royal Ellsian Navy. Granted, he had been taken from Earth unknowingly, but how in the name of the Fates are we to know if he hadn't been charged with anything under Ellsian law? Since we're not at war with the Ellsian Kingdom -- though that might change if those hotheads in Baran decide to support their queen against common sense -- we'll send him off with Captain du Kohln and her crew."
"Unless you believe it proper to return him to Earth," Firesky added.
Nabiki considered that for a moment before she shook his head. "No. Some civil rights lawyer might say it isn't right to allow him to be whisked to another planet when the chance existed to bring him back home to Earth. But all of us in Nerima are getting sick and tired of his idiocy, especially when it comes to my sister Akane and Ranma-chan." She closed her eyes for a moment, and then she breathed out, "I have to take some responsibility for this. To help support my family doojou, I goaded this idiot's fantasies concerning Akane-chan and Ranma-chan almost to the point where he could've gone all the way to raping them had he ever got the chance . . . "
"You are repentant, child," Firesky sagely advised. "Repentance in your heart is the first step to atonement. It is a good thing."
"So what can we do now, Your Grace?" Windy asked.
"Could there be objections from the lad's family?" Firesky wondered.
Nabiki shook her head. "Nope. Kodachi, his sister, is fully on our side now. His mother's been dead for years. And his dad's gone off on a sabbatical to Hawai'i." A light smile then crossed her face. "Besides, look at it this way: All we're REALLY doing is hooking Kunou-chan up with a very bright, intelligent, MATURE woman who is more than ready to walk down the aisle with him. All we have to do to guarantee that is prevent him from thinking anymore about Akane-chan and Ranma-chan. And that's a good thing if you ask me. Given Ranma-chan's relationship with Ataru-kun, if Kunou-chan pressed matters with them, it could have lead to a blood feud. And given how busy Ataru-kun's been over the last while, that's gonna be one feud Kunou-chan will lose! Badly!"
"We are agreed, then," Firesky concluded. "In the meantime, ladies, I'll leave you two to attend to your business."
Nabiki and Windy bowed respectfully before they headed off. The elder Inquisitor waited until he was alone with the dazed kendou-ka before he reached over to deactivate the force field holding Kunou at bay. Firesky Owleye had cleared the brig level of any other crewmembers long before Windy and Nabiki had come to look in on the latter's classmate. "You can come in now, Ladies."
A transporter beam sparkled to life, revealing three women dressed in Sagussan jumpsuits. The leader of the group was dressed in a civilian uniform, coloured in the black-and-gold denoting a member of the Republic's central government. The three wreath-of-laurels denoting minister's rank adorned her arms. "Hello again," she hailed, her voice tinged with a Celtic-like lilt.
Firesky smiled as he waved the visitors into the cell.
* * *
"Is this everyone?"
Shinobu quickly took a look around the courier's passenger cabin to see who was seated there. Quickly noting that Izumo Sakiko had elected to come back to Earth with them instead of staying with Ataru and his family as they went off to wherever they were planning to go, she then turned back to the deck technician standing at the gangplank. "Just a second and I'll find out."
He nodded. She then moved to take a head-count. Pausing after she finished, she then blinked. Someone was missing. Who . . .?
"Something wrong, Shinobu?" Sakiko asked.
"We're missing someone," Shinobu said.
The Seishin-turned-Nendo-kata blinked as she took that in, and then she turned to make a head-count using her telepathy. Closing her eyes to prevent the others from seeing them glow, she got to work. Seconds later, they opened. "Mie-san's not here," she then announced before she tilted her head in the general direction of the docked Windrider. Mie-san, it's Izumo Sakiko, she called out telepathically, again closing her eyes to hide their glow. We're about to head out. Aren't you coming with us?
Afraid not, Sakiko-san, the amnesiac Sagussan replied. I've got to stick around your 'Darling' for a bit. Go on ahead.
Okay! Sakiko replied before she relaxed her powers, turning to the technician. "We're all here."
"What about Mie-san?" Shinobu asked.
"She's staying with Darling and the sisters."
"Oh . . . "
Before Shinobu could say anything else, Mendou bolted up. "WHAT?! Mie-san is being forced to stay behind by Moroboshi . . .?!"
Gasps filled the cabin as everyone turned to see the scion of Japan's richest family having been driven into the deck thanks to Sawada Minako's elbow. "Minako-san, why did you do that to Mendou-san?!" one girl wailed.
The rose-haired Avalonian sighed as she glared at Mendou. "You know, I'm beginning to appreciate the idea of him actually NOT being part of the class!" she snarled before turning to stare at the technician. "Yo, let's get this damned show on the road! We got classes tomorrow!"
The technician shook his head. "I see all the rumours about Tomobiki aren't only just true, they're understated," he muttered.
Shinobu blinked confusedly. "What rumours?"
"That everyone who lives there would gladly blame Young Master Ataru for EVERYTHING odd that happens in that place."
Ataru's former girlfriend jolted. Was THAT the way outsiders looked on people like her?! "Gomen nasai," she apologized.
"It's alright," he assured her before stepping off the gangplank.
The hatchway was sealed. The courier's engines turned over. Everyone relaxed as they gazed out the view ports to watch the launch. The courier began to taxi towards the main doors of its host ship's hangar. Within a moment, it was free of the Windrider Dreams, moving to do a beauty pass of the battlecruiser before angling towards Earth. Seeing the Windrider and the Goddess of Luck docked alongside the superstructure of the Zephyrite ship, Shinobu took a breath. She then sensed a hand gently grasp hers. Turning, her eyes widened on seeing Minako seated beside her, a concerned look on her face. Shinobu blinked as she wondered what to say to her classmate, given the fact that they were in a crowd of thirty people, most of whom knew her quite well.
Sensing that, Minako smirked as she rose, beckoning Shinobu with a nod to follow. As the courier finished its beauty pass, the two teens walked through an aft doorway to find themselves in a small lounge complete with a bar and stools. It even gave potential visitors an even better view of surrounding space; it was located at the aft end of the courier's small superstructure. "Saw this when I came aboard," Minako noted as she took a seat by the bar, turning herself to stare aft at the receding image of the Windrider Dreams. "The adrenaline's starting to wear off in most of the guys from what happened on Elle's ship. They'll probably sleep all the way back to Earth."
Shinobu sat beside her. "You know how long it'll take us to get back?"
"Couple hours according to the pilot of this thing," Minako replied. She then closed her eyes. "You know now, don't you?"
Ataru's former girlfriend perked on hearing that statement, and then she felt her cheeks redden slightly. "Hai."
Silence fell as the two considered what to say next. Finally, Minako clicked her tongue. "I never thought it would happen to me."
Shinobu blinked. "What?"
"The urge to get a bond-mate." Here, Minako paused as she marshalled her thoughts, and then she continued, "One of my friends from down south, Ishida Nagisa, bonded with a buddy of hers, Sakakibara Chiharu, a year ago. They told me what it was like when 'the urge' . . . " -- she made finger-quotes -- "Hit them. It was like a freakin' tsunami came outta nowhere to swamp their minds with all sorts of crazy thoughts. Friends, family, school . . .! It just didn't matter anymore. All that mattered to Nagisa-chan and Chiharu-chan were each other. You couldn't pry them apart no matter how hard you tried."
"And you've felt that for me?"
Minako stared at her before she nodded. "Hai."
Shinobu found herself gazing at the deck. "When we met on Monday?"
The brown-haired girl took a deep breath as she absorbed what her companion had just admitted. She then gazed on Minako. "I need to think about it, Minako-chan," she then said. "I really need to think about it. Okay?"
Minako nodded. "Sure."
The background noise of the courier's engines suddenly dropped before a high whine heralded its entrance into hyperspace. Cries of shock and cheers echoed from the cabin forward as Minako and Shinobu watched the surrounding stars melt into a shower of lights. As they turned their attention aft, Minako's hand drifted over to gently grasp Shinobu's. The latter tensed for a second, and then she relaxed herself as she felt Minako's chestnut eyes fall on her. They stared at each other for a moment, and then Minako stood, nodding to the row of sofas lining the aft end and both sides of the lounge. Shinobu rose, walking over with her classmate to a sofa poised in a way that would allow them to gaze aft. Sitting down, they relaxed, Shinobu leaning her head on Minako's shoulder as they watched the stars fly past.
Unseen by either, Sakiko was staring at them from the lounge's entrance. She was quick to note that no one else, not even Yoshino Tomomi or Ikusawa Kyooko -- they were seated together in the aft-most row of chairs in the cabin, holding each other's hands as they leaned their heads together -- was considering coming back to the lounge and watch the stars pass from there. Gazing at Minako's friends, Sakiko didn't need to use her own telepathy to sense that the two Avalonians were currently engaged in things non-psi species couldn't begin to contemplate. Grinning as she gently closed the door to give Minako and Shinobu privacy, she headed up to sit with Ryuunosuke.
* * *
"Benten, I'm not that person anymore . . .!"
"Dammit, Lum! Don't say that!" the Fukunokami shrilled. She was confronting Seiko in the lounge aboard the Goddess of Luck, just aft of the frigate's bridge. Nassur and Dakejinzou were currently there preparing the ship for the short flight back to Uru so that the former could reclaim his own starship, the Renegade, and return to Home Base. Oyuki had taken the Warp Chamber to Triton to report on things concerning Earth to her parents, King Fuyu and Queen Samui. Benten would get a ride with Dakejinzou to Uru, and then take her air bike back to Fukunokami. "Look, you already explained this whole damned 'crossing over' thing to me! That don't matter! Please . . . "
Seiko surged up to forcefully grasp her friend's shoulders, shaking Benten to force the latter to look into her eyes. "Benten, stop this!" she snapped. "Things haven't really changed! Will you quit acting like the whole Cosmic Chain of Life's going to end . . .!"
"Then come live with me, for Bensaiten's sake!" Benten pleaded.
Seiko blinked as she stared on her friend's face. "I can't do that."
"Why the fuck not?!" Benten roared. "Is it Moroboshi?! You ain't got a chance with him! You can't have kids unless you have 'em with another girl, remember?! Why the hell're you stayin' on Earth?! They're gonna slam the doors closed on all of us anyway! If you stay there, you're STUCK there! Do you really want that?! C'mon, Lum . . .!"
That one word made Benten stop. "Eh . . .?"
"My name is Seiko. Izumo Seiko. Lum is dead."
Silence fell as Benten stared wide-eyed at her transformed friend. Friend . . .? Shuddering as the finality of Seiko's words slammed into her heart like a meteorite, Benten sobbed as she spun away from the Nendo-kata, racing out of the lounge. Seiko watched her go, squeezing her eyes shut as the Fukunokami teen slammed the door leading to one of the guest bedrooms closed behind her. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Seiko then whispered, "Gomen nasai, Benten. I didn't want it to be this way . . . "
"She just needs time to let what happened to you sink in."
Seiko turned to see Nassur staring concernedly at her. "Hai, Nassur-chan, I know." She crossed her arms as she turned to stare out a view port into the space around the Goddess of Luck and the Windrider Dreams. "They teach us in the Great School that one must have patience above all else to allow the Unity to property foster. But with people like Benten . . . "
A wry chuckle escaped her. "Yes, she can be pretty stone-headed," the Vosian mused as he moved to stand beside her.
"Nassur, why didn't you tell us about Hensou and the others?"
He perked as Seiko's dark gaze fixed on him, and then he breathed out, closing his eyes. The Nendo-kata was quick to sense the surge of guilt her friend felt concerning the replica-bioroids who had rescued Ten and brought him to Earth. "I'm really sorry about that, Seiko-chan," he apologized. "I thought it was a good idea at the time. Business took me once to Phentax Two when I met one of those Avalonians. Of course, I couldn't sense her brainwave patterns and she didn't even come close to looking like a Yehisrite. And . . . " A disgusted look then crossed his face. "Seeing her 'owner' play with her like she was some expensive love doll, I could only come to one conclusion."
"Android," the Vosian confirmed with a nod. "So, since this was just after the bio-bombing of Lecashuto, I came to realize I had to do something to keep you and Benten safe just in case the worst happened. The Mikado would've kidnapped you in an instant if he got the chance, especially after Oogi murdered all those people." A pause. "And since Oyuki and Ran were your best friends from middle school, it wouldn't be much of a leap of logic for someone to consider going after them just to get to me. So, after I convinced your father, Benten's father and King Fuyu to go along with it, I went to Oogi and had them built. Of course, I never thought to question their origins . . . "
"And the Niphentaxians would've done everything to ensure you'd never learn the truth about them," Seiko finished.
"Hai. How are they, anyway?"
Seiko smiled. "Adjusting to life on Earth, not to mention trying to deal with a massive crush they ALL have on Darling!"
Nassur smirked. "And after all the times he dreamt of a harem . . . "
"It only happened AFTER he got over that!" Seiko finished.
Snickers filled the Goddess' lounge for a moment, and then Nassur sighed. "You don't seem to be too jealous of Ranma-san."
Seiko blinked before she shook her head. "More envious than jealous, Nassur-chan. After all, someone bonded Darling and Ranma-san together when they were very young. I REALLY would like to learn who that was. Then again, what could I really do to change that? If any of us tried to break the bond between them, we'd end up killing them. Or worse, allow Darling's Cyborg-self and Ranma-san's 'Neko' persona to take over. And given that from what I've sensed from them both, the Cyborg and Neko-Ranma really don't like many of the people their other-selves have had to deal with in the past . . . " A shudder raced through her as the potential result of THAT scenario came to her.
"Right," he drawled before his eyes glowed. "It's Karen-san."
Seiko turned as the hatchway connecting the Goddess of Luck and the Windrider Dreams opened, revealing the pianist in question. "Hello?! Seiko-san . . .? Ah, there you are!" She grinned on seeing the Nendo-kata. "Gomen nasai, Seiko-san, but we're almost ready to head out to get the Genesis Wand for Aria-chan. Onii-chan was wondering if you were going to come with us."
"I'll be right there," Seiko promised before she leaned over to kiss Nassur's cheek. "You be careful now, Nassur-chan."
"I'll be fine," he promised. "Watch yourselves out there, Karen-san."
Karen grinned. "Hai!"
* * *
Watching from the privacy of her guest cabin's window, Benten blinked back her tears as she saw Karen and Seiko race out of the Goddess, heading to a corridor that would lead them to the gangway for the Windrider. Sniffing, the Fukunokami teen squeezed her eyes shut as she turned away. "Good-bye, Lum . . . " she whispered before her strength let go and she dropped.
Strong arms supported her as Benten wept, crying into Nassur's tunic.
* * *
Seiko stopped, her eyes turning to stare once more at the Goddess of Luck. Karen took several steps before she herself stopped, turning around to gaze questioningly at the Nendo-kata. "Seiko-san, is there something wrong?"
Seiko jolted, and then she sighed before smiling. "It's alright."
Karen gazed curiously at her before she nodded.
* * *
"Hello? Negako-san? Are you here?"
"Enter, Kasumi."
Kasumi smiled pleasantly as she stepped through the old shrine's front door. Quickly focusing her attention on the people seated around the table in the living room, her smile broadened a fraction. "Hello, Sensei, Panda-san," she hailed Negako's present guests with a polite bow.
"Hello, Kasumi," Toofuu returned her greetings with a smile. Beside him, the panda raised a sign that echoed his employer's words.
Kasumi sat down. "Any news from your brother, Negako-san?"
"Ataru should be contacting us concerning the status of the operation against Elle soon," Negako said as Toofuu picked up the teakettle to pour a cup for his student. "If they were successful -- as I suspect they should have been given Hinako's possession of the Staff of Gihan -- Ataru will no doubt make arrangements with the Zephyrites to see his former classmates transported to Earth within the next several hours. Certainly before midnight tonight."
"I hope so . . .! Thank you, Sensei."
Kasumi beamed as she was handed a cup. The front doors opened again, revealing Inu Chigaiko. Following her was Tendou Kimiko. "Tadaima!"
"Okaeri ne!" Kasumi called back before she blushed as she turned back to her host. "I'm sorry, Negako-san . . . "
The ninjutsu grandmaster shook her head. "Pay it no mind, Kasumi."
Toofuu was quick to sense the annoyed look on Kimiko's face. "Are you alright, Kimiko-san?" he asked as the first Avalonian replica of Tendou Akane sat to the right of her adopted older sister. Chigaiko took her seat beside Negako. "What's wrong? Did something happen today?"
Kimiko sighed, and then she nodded thanks as a cup of tea was handed to her. "It appears that some of the boys who once chased Akane-sama seem hell-bent on the idea of pressing their challenge against me," she flatly declared.
Kasumi perked. "Oh, my! Are you serious, Kimiko-chan?!"
"Unfortunately," Kimiko confirmed with a nod before she sipped her tea before she continued, "I was with Hikaru-kun at a bistro when several of Akane-sama's would-be suitors spotted us. They came up to haze Hikaru-kun about his interest in me. I was forced to defend him."
"You didn't hurt them too much, did you?" Toofuu asked.
"No. Ninomiya-sensei intervened before matters got out of hand."
"That might not stop them," Kasumi warned.
"Agreed, it will not," Negako warned. "Further, with Pauline's departure for Hawai'i, some of the students at Fuurinkan might decide the time has come to remove all remnants of Pauline's influence on the student body." The ninjutsu grandmaster ignored the snickers from Kasumi and Chigaiko on hearing the principal's given name as she continued, "Hinako represents the most profound 'threat' Pauline has unleashed 'against' the student body at Fuurinkan over the previous year. To remove her once and for all . . . "
"Her powers should be able to protect her," Toofuu mused.
"Toofuu, you should know well that no defence is perfect."
The chiropractor paused as he considered Negako's point. "Agreed."
"Do so."
A faint buzzing noise echoed from the direction of the grandmaster's bedroom. "I got it!" a young boy's voice called out.
"Who's that?" Chigaiko demanded.
"Jariten," Negako replied before she called out, "Is it Ataru?!"
Toofuu, Kasumi and Kimiko quickly noted Chigaiko's twitching eyebrow. "It's Sakuya-oneechan, Negako-oneechan!" Ten called back.
"Bring the phone here!" Negako ordered.
A moment later, a young boy of five walked into the living room, an alien-looking portable communicator unit in hand. Seeing the transformed Ten, Chigaiko blinked in shock. The Nerima natives were also taken aback by the changes in Ten's appearance; Lum's cousin was as well known among the general public, especially in the districts and towns on Tomobiki's borders, as Lum herself. "Here ya go!" he said as the communicator was handed over.
Negako pressed controls to allow the speakers to transmit Sakuya's voice openly. "Hello, Sakuya. Toofuu, Kasumi, Kimiko and Chigaiko are with me right now. I trust the rescue went off without problems."
"Hai, everything went a-okay!" Sakuya replied. "Miyake-san and everyone else got sent back to Earth on a Zephyrite courier ship a half-hour ago. They should be back in Tomobiki in a couple hours at the most."
Cheers whooped. "Are your sisters alright, Sakuya-san?" Kasumi asked.
"Aria-chan chipped one of her arm bones when the warp drive on Elle's ship went bonkers after Onii-sama started the rescue. A Zephyrite medic looked it over and patched it up for her. She's asleep in her cabin right now."
"Guenevere-san won't like hearing that," Toofuu ruefully muttered before he spoke up, "Sakuya-chan, when will you come back?!"
"Not just yet, Sensei," Sakuya replied. "We have to go off and find a friend for Hinako-chan's friend first."
Toofuu's, Kasumi's and Kimiko's eyes widened on hearing that. "Are Nabiki-chan or Shinshi-chan around?" Kasumi asked.
"Right here, Onee-chan," Nabiki's voice echoed from the speakers. "Shinshi's with Yotsuba-chan now in her cabin. We're okay."
"What about that boor Kunou, Onee-sama?" Kimiko asked.
"Being held prisoner," Nabiki said. "He won't be coming back to Earth."
Surprise crossed everyone's faces. "What happened?" Negako asked.
Nabiki quickly explained the situation between Kunou and the young women from Elle. Hearing that, the Nerima natives laughed. "Well, he should be happy," Toofuu mused. "But what's to stop him from trying to come back to Earth to harass Ranma-chan? If he wins over senior officers in the Ellsian Navy, he could easily borrow a ship . . . "
"Inspector Owleye promised us that'll be taken care of," Nabiki cut in. "He strikes me as being a man of his word."
"Nabiki-chan, this IS Kunou Tatewaki we're speaking of," Kasumi warned.
"True," the middle Tendou daughter conceded. "But Kunou-chan's never had to deal with aliens before. Besides, if the Noukiites succeed in setting up their neutral zone, it'll encompass Earth. The Ellsians would need permission to send a ship our way from now on. Kunou-chan's trapped, Onee-chan."
"Let's hope his father doesn't raise an objection about it," Toofuu said.
"Pauline would not care either which way about Tatewaki," Negako stated.
"What about Ranma-chan, Nabiki-chan?" Kasumi asked.
A deep sigh. "Ranma's 'catty' side got loose again, Onee-chan. Elle got caught in the line of fire."
Toofuu and Kasumi blanched. "She didn't . . .!" the chiropractor gasped.
"Elle's in a coma," Nabiki assured them. "She's being cared for by the Zephyrites as we speak." A pause. "And as long as she remains the Zephyrites' prisoner, not to mince words, that'll be another incentive for the Ellsians to behave themselves when it comes to us."
"Thus keeping Kunou away," Chigaiko finished.
"Right," Nabiki drawled.
"What about Ataru-kun?" Chigaiko asked.
"He's okay. Ditto with everyone else." A sigh. "Except Marie-chan."
Toofuu, Kasumi and Chigaiko, in sync: "Marie-chan?!"
"I assume Marie has learned of what the Staff of Gihan did," Negako said.
Nabiki ruefully laughed. "Figures YOU sensed what happened, Negako-san!"
"What are you talking about?!" Kasumi asked.
Nabiki and Sakuya joined together to explain.
The response?
"Oh, MY!"
Did you expect anything else, dear readers?
* * *
"Oooh . . . "
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty's awake!"
Marie's eyes fluttered as she found herself staring at what she quickly realized was the deckhead of her private cabin aboard the Windrider. The very fluffy feeling of a thick mattress pressing against her back confirmed her suspicions. A second later, Hinako popped into her arc of vision, concern etched on her face. "Are you okay, Marie-chan?!"
"Hinako-chan . . . " Marie whispered. "I just had the strangest dream."
Chikage stepped up to stand beside Hinako. "About Akane, I would assume," the sorceress mused with a knowing smile.
"Yes," the bespectacled teen said before she froze. "It wasn't a dream?"
Chikage nodded behind her. Marie's head slowly turned right, making her stare at one corner of the cabin. Her eyes widened even more on seeing Tendou Akane seated there, her legs tucked into her body with her arms wrapped around them, a flutter of nonsensical words escaping the bioroid's lips. Kneeling beside her was Fujikaze Nobuko, who was keeping a supportive hand on the other Avalonian's shoulder. Standing behind Benten's replica were the other replica-bioroids, concerned looks on their faces. Staring at the double of the youngest Tendou, Marie blinked as her mind churned through the previous twenty-four hours' events, and then she slowly rose, swinging her legs around so she could sit up. "This isn't . . .? Our Akane, is it?" she hesitantly asked.
"No. The Staff make a soul-copy of Akane before she went to be with her mother," Chikage declared. "We obtained the body for her this morning, just before Elle decided to stick her nose into our lives."
Marie took that in with a slow nod. "I see . . . "
Nobuko stared at her. "'Bout time you came back to the land of the living," she said before turning to Akane. "Hey, Akane-chan! Look!" She pointed at Marie. "Marie-chan's awake. See? You didn't hurt her at all."
Akane's lips stopped fluttering as elements of her mind quickly absorbed her sister Avalonian's words, and then her eyes slowly shifted left to lock on Marie's face. The latter remained still as the former gazed on her, and then Akane's eyes dropped as she started to mutter again. "What's wrong with her, Chikage-chan?" Hinako asked as she stared at the sorceress.
Chikage sighed. "It appears Akane's spirit is still having problems adjusting to her new body." She then stared at the replica-bioroids. "Do any of you have any suggestions concerning how we should proceed with Akane?"
They exchanged looks, and then Nomade Shinobi sighed. "Well, the one thing I'd recommend is intimate therapy, Chikage-chan."
"That does work," Arashi Mika said with a nod.
Marie's eyes widened. "Excuse me?!" she uttered, her voice an embarrassed squeak. "You mean to say I should . . .?"
The replica-bioroids nodded, they passing the Terran sympathetic looks. "Nani? Nani?" Hinako asked as she looked at each of the people in the room in succession. "What're you talking about? What's 'intimate therapy?'"
"Silly adult stuff," Chikage answered.
Hinako blinked before she huffed, "Oh, that!" She turned to leave. "Hina'd rather play with Kuma-san!" she muttered under her breath.
"In four years' time, you'll be singing a different tune."
"Hina doesn't think so."
She walked out. Once the door closed behind the youngest sister, Marie turned to Nobuko. "You cannot be serious!" she declared, surprising herself with the steadiness of her voice. "You actually think it best to . . .?!"
"Put Akane-chan in bed, rip her clothes off and screw her silly."
The Fukunokami/Avalonian then laughed as she waved her host down. "Bensaiten's Grave, Marie-chan, I was templated off a girl whom, as Sakuya-chan so eloquently put it earlier, is nothing better than a 'trash-mouth.' Now, I'm pretty much my own girl now -- that's thanks to Hinako-chan and the Staff when she made me look like a Terran after we met up with Darling and the others -- but I can't deny Benten's influence on me whatsoever."
"Well, I wish you would practice. Especially if you might decide to come to the Island and live with us," Marie insisted, crossing her arms as she gave Nobuko a stern glare. "Believe me, you would NOT wish to know how Guenevere-san would react if you spoke like that within hearing range of Aria-chan. Even Aniue-sama knows when to be careful in that sort of situation."
"Really stiffed-lipped one, huh?" Nobuko smirked, and then she looked at Kanki Yukiko. "Sounds like your type, Mienai."
"She must be," Oyuki's replica mused before she tittered. "And she IS from France! They are said to be great lovers, after all!"
Chikage howled. Marie rolled her eyes, a moan escaping the latter.
* * *
Moaning, a bleary-eyed Guenevere Rochelles looked up from her tea. "Who could be speaking about me?" the maid from Lyon asked.
* * *
"Marie-chan, are you saying you're not beautiful?"
Marie blinked before she focused on Shinobi. Seeing the knowing smile cross the disguised Oni/Avalonian's face, Marie then sighed. "Shinobi-san, that is not the point! I'm not a lesbian and I'm certainly not bisexual! Yes, my first lover was a woman . . .!"
Her voice caught in her throat as her hand flew to her mouth, her eyes as wide as saucers. "And who was the lucky girl?" Mika asked.
"Kimino Kunie. A former resident of the convalescent home Marie spent time in after her step-father died," Chikage answered.
Instant-blush time! "CHIKAGE-CHAN!"
"Marie-chan, that's enough!" the sorceress sternly said. "This is no time to argue about sexual ethics. A life is in potential danger here. A life whose creation, I'm afraid to say, was influenced by your actions last night."
Silence. Marie stared wide-eyed at her sister, her face paling as Chikage's words struck home deep in her own heart. Her eyes then shifted right to gaze once more on Akane, who had remained in place, looking nowhere in particular, her lips fluttering. Shivering, Marie hugged herself as tears threatened to pour down her cheeks. "I didn't kill her . . . " she hissed.
Chikage shook her head, placing her hands on her hips. "No, you did not. What happened to the original Akane, in some ways, doesn't matter. But when it comes to the original Akane's sexual and emotional immaturity, they now matched up to an Avalonian body, it DOES matter greatly."
Marie looked at Chikage. "'Sexual and emotional immaturity?!'"
"You should remember what Ane-kun told us about Akane's temper-tantrums."
The bespectacled teen took that in before she breathed out, "True . . . "
Chikage straightened herself. "Perhaps a demonstration is called for. Nobuko, sit beside Marie-chan, please."
"'Kay," Benten's replica replied as she moved to sit on the bed.
A knock was then heard at the door. Yukiko answered it to reveal Yotsuba. "Hey, minna!" the would-be detective hailed as she walked inside, and then she drew out her spyglass so she could give Akane a close look. "Hmmm. A-chama's still out of it, huh?" she asked.
"Yes. We're persuading Marie-chan to change that," Chikage said.
"Checky!" Yotsuba acknowledged, she closing her eyes. "Shi-chama . . .?"
Marie stared at her English-born sister for a moment as Yotsuba's caramel eyes seemed to loose their lucidity, and then the latter breathed out, "Checky . . . " She then gazed on Mika. "Da-chama," she said with a smile as she opened her arms for a hug from the red-haired Avalonian.
Mika grinned as she walked over to embrace the other girl. Marie's eyes nearly popped through her glasses as they shared a tender kiss, and then the bespectacled teen looked down to see Yotsuba's hands reach behind the bioroid to un-tuck her blouse from her skirt. A soft moan escaped Ran's replica as Yotsuba's hand gently stroked the small of the former's back. Their kisses remained soft and tender as Mika held Yotsuba close to her.
Watching this, Marie was spellbound. That was soon broken when a hand touched hers. Jolting, she then looked down to see that Nobuko had reached down to gently stroke her fingertips over Marie's middle finger. The urge to snap her hand away from the bioroid's touch burned through Marie. She then blinked as Nobuko's hand pulled away from her. A glance to her face revealed a look of concern being sent her way. Realizing that Benten's replica had sensed her initial hesitation, Marie then sighed. "Gomen nasai, Nobuko-san . . . "
She reached over to press Nobuko's hand against hers. Sensing Marie's willingness to allow this even in the face of what Chikage was ultimately proposing should happen between her and Akane -- no doubt, the bespectacled teen had been inspired in her own way to follow in Yotsuba's example -- Nobuko then smiled as her fingertips continued to brush over Marie's skin. It's okay, her voice then echoed in Marie's mind. You're a hell of a lot braver than most people'd think when they'd meet up with you, Marie-chan.
Marie blinked as her mind absorbed that comment, and then she gazed once more on Yotsuba and Mika. The two weren't kissing at that time, they simply electing to hold each other, allowing their foreheads to rub against the other's. "Um, Yotsuba-chan . . .?"
"Hmmm?" the would-be detective trilled. "What is it, Marie-chan?"
"Do you . . . um, do that now with Shinshi-kun?"
"Yotsuba does a LOT more than this with Shi-chama, Marie-chan."
Marie took that in, and then she drew back her hand from Nobuko. "Marie-chan . . .?" Benten's replica whispered concernedly.
"It need not go that far if you don't wish it to, Marie-chan."
Marie hesitantly looked at Chikage. "But . . . "
"Marie-chan, they are telepaths and empaths," the sorceress said. "To them, it is the mind and the spirit that matters. The body is a shell. Simple window-dressing. It is the primary factor that rules their relationships with each other and outsiders. Even if they look as they do now, none of them can deny what even a simple brush of the fingers over another's skin can do to them." A pause. "It makes them happy. It gives them pleasure. And their ancestors on Sagussa went and built a society that acknowledged that and welcomed it as an integral part of their lives. Social values eventually come to influence genetic development over the many generations. The Sagussans passed that on to the Avalonians when the bioroid factory was first built. No Avalonian alive today can deny that fact. Nobuko can't. Shinobi can't. Yukiko can't. Mika can't. Shinshi can't. Miree and her children can't." Her finger then indicated the fifth Avalonian in the room. "Neither can Akane."
Marie blinked before her eyes swung to gaze on Akane. "Then why . . .?"
"Because her spirit was copied from that of a woman who, we no longer can deny, readily strove to deny almost every positive thought that comes from the onslaught of puberty ever since the day Kunou decided to start treating her as an object," Chikage answered. "Add to that the fact that her family failed to make Akane realize that those feelings, in and of themselves, were not 'perverted.' Add also to that her relationship with Ane-kun, how Ane-kun's own sexual immaturity came to clash so badly with Akane's. And now, Akane's clone is in a body that will not allow her to hide herself from those feelings." A pause. "Put simply, she needs the chance to experience a truly positive emotional relationship. And you are the best person to give that to her."
Marie's cheeks warmed as Chikage's words sank in. "She needs a boy!"
"No. That would be the worst thing to happen to Akane right now, Marie-chan. The only people we know who, I believe, could possibly succeed in making Akane comfortable about herself in the presence of a man are Ani-kun and Toofuu-kun. Ani-kun is trying to resolve his own feelings on a whole host of matters, so he couldn't possibly be of benefit to Akane. And, unfortunately, the good doctor's ethics and morals would not allow him to overcome the considerable age difference between him and Akane. So . . . "
"What about one of the other Avalonians aboard, Chikage-chan?"
"It can't be any of us," Nobuko answered.
"Why not?"
Benten's replica pointed to the side of her head. "Thanks to the bio-transmitters in our heads that linked us to our templates so we could act like them in public, Marie-chan. Ya see, before this, we were bond-mated to each other. Hensou to me, Damasu to Mienai. When Lum 'died' after the Noukiites blew Onishuto to hell, her spirit got fired through Hensou's mind, then it bounced around in our collective skulls for a bit before it exited through Damasu's head into Ran's subconscious mind. And when that happened . . . "
"Our bonds were shattered," Yukiko finished. "It's a miracle none of us died. Fortunately, the life-support units we were in were able to affect the necessary repairs to our mental synapses." A rueful smile crossed her face as she added, "Still, it took us almost a week to recover enough mentally so we could break out of our holding area on Io."
"If we hadn't, it would've been too late for Ten-chan," Shinobi added.
Marie gazed on each of the replica-bioroids before her eyes fell on Nobuko. "You still love her, don't you?" she asked.
"I'll always love her," she asserted. "Just as much as Benten loves Lum. And when I feel I'm ready for it, I'll bond with her again. Just as much as Damasu and Mienai'll bond with each other. So, in the end . . . "
"None of us are really in any shape to help Akane out of this mess by that route," Yukiko finished for Nobuko.
"What about the others?" Marie demanded.
"Shinshi is disqualified for obvious reasons," Chikage said. "Miree is too old psychologically. Jonna and Orin are concentrating, as per Ani-kun's request, their attentions on Hinako-chan and Aria-chan, though they do understand not to step too far concerning our sisters. As for Himiko and Mikiko, they're recovering from discovering some rather ugly things about Mendou Shuutarou, things they would have preferred NOT to discover. And, by the looks of things, they might decide to try to go after Haruka-chan and Sakuya-chan."
"I don't think Haruka-chan and Sakuya-chan'll accept that!"
"True, but things might change."
Silence fell as Marie took the chance to consider what she just heard. Her eyes focused once more on Akane, who had finally fallen silent, though her eyes still remained glazed and unfocused. "She needs your strength, Marie-chan," Chikage said as she placed an assuring hand on her sister's shoulder.
Marie started, and then her cheeks flamed. "I'm not strong . . . "
"Yes, you are," the sorceress firmly asserted. "You've just blinded yourself to that strength because of the pain you still feel at what happened to your stepfather. Don't let it blind you anymore, Marie-chan. It can come back and hurt you badly when you least expect it. And given what happened to you last night . . . " Her voice trailed off as she took a deep breath. "In her own way, Akane is as strong as you are, Marie-chan. But like you, she needs the chance to look past the blinds her template's experiences have forced on her. You can give her that chance. And as you help her, she helps you. And that will make ALL our lives a lot easier in the long run."
"It definitely won't be checky if Shi-chama lost his sister again."
Marie's eyes focused on Yotsuba. The latter had pulled away from Mika, though they kept an arm wrapped around each other's waist. Seeing the look on her sister's face, Marie then sighed as she looked once more on Akane. A shudder raced through her as she remembered the previous night's events at Hikarigaoka. Calming herself with a breath, the bespectacled teen then stood.
Walking over, she knelt beside Akane. Raising her hand, she paused, letting it hover over the bioroid's shoulder. Finally, she reached around and under Akane's armpit to tuck her fingers there, Marie's other hand grasping Akane's right arm. The bioroid jolted on feeling that touch through her shirt, though she did not resist as Marie boosted her up. Slowly, calling on the many times she helped younger patients at the convalescent home get around when they didn't have enough physical strength to move themselves, she walked Akane over to the bed. Nobuko got out of the way as Marie sat Akane on the mattress, she then moving to sit beside the newborn bioroid. "Just hold her hands at the start, Marie-chan," Chikage instructed. "Let her get used to your touch."
"Don't worry if you don't wanna do anything more," Nobuko added. "She'll sense it if you don't like something."
Marie gazed on Benten's double, she nodding. The others quickly filed out of the cabin, Chikage closing the door behind them. Marie watched them go, and then she gazed into Akane's eyes. They were focused on her, the growing strength in that stare speaking volumes about what Marie's simple touch was doing to the bioroid's mind and soul. Feeling her cheeks start to heat, Marie fought down the urge to pull her hands away from Akane's as Yotsuba's warning echoed once more in her mind. Indeed, it simply wouldn't do at all if Kasumi, Nabiki and Shinshi had to endure losing their sister a SECOND time after the Staff of Gihan had gone to the trouble to ensure that something of Tendou Akane remained in this life for her siblings to cling to. And, unfortunately, given Ranma's own bond with Marie's brother -- that added to a whole host of other factors whose influence on the original Akane had finally come to a head the previous night -- Akane didn't even have the luxury to fall on her template's only true loving relationship to help put her own life back in order.
"Ranma . . . "
Marie blinked as Akane's eyes turned away from her to gaze around the room. "Do you want to see Aneue-sama, Akane?"
Akane remained silent for a moment before her eyes drooped. "I shouldn't . . . " she whispered. "I doubt Ranma'll be happy to see me after what I . . . " She stuttered before sighing. "After what the other me did last night."
"I know what it's like to loose your mother, Akane."
Akane turned to gaze on her host. "You've lost your step-dad, too."
Marie nodded. "I miss them both. But I'm sure that wherever in Heaven they are now, Papa and Mama would want me to go on. Oh, yes, Akane-chan, I've wanted many times to go be with them. More times than I'd care to count. And maybe . . . " She paused to take a breath before she focused once more on Akane. "If I found myself in a situation like the other you was in last night, I'd be tempted to let it all go, too. But I can't. If I did that, my sisters would be hurt. Aniue-sama would be hurt. Aneue-sama . . . " -- by this, Akane realized that Marie was speaking of Negako, not Ranma -- " . . . would be hurt, too. And I can't do that to them, Akane. I really can't."
Akane considered that for a moment before her lips quirked into a smile. "I guess I can't do that either. Especially not now."
Silence fell as they gazed on each other. Akane's eyes then closed as she found herself drifting closer to Marie. The latter remained frozen in place as the former's lips brushed against hers. At the same time, Akane guided Marie's arms around the former's neck as they drew themselves closer. Their kiss deepened as their heads twisted around into the classic French kiss position. Before they could sense what they were doing, their lips parted to allow their tongues to tap the other. Akane's hands began to roam over Marie's back as they found themselves sinking into the mattress. Once their heads were resting against the fabric of the bedcovers, their lips slowly pulled apart as they found themselves gazing intently at the other. They remained still for a moment, and then embarrassed giggles escaped them. Finally, Akane reached up to gently touch Marie's cheek. "You're so beautiful, Marie-chan . . . "
Marie felt her cheeks heat. "What do we do now, Akane-chan?"
She considered that, and then she shrugged. "Whatever we want, I guess."
* * *
"It's about damned time . . . "
"Are they alright, Nabiki-chan?"
Nabiki sighed. She was relaxing in Rinrin's seat on the Windrider's pilotage, the link connecting the solar-sail barque to Negako's communicator unit directly tied into the intercom unit located on the panel before her. "I think so, Onee-chan. At least Marie-chan seems a little more open to the idea of being closer to Akane-chan." A frown turned her lips. "And if what I sensed about Marie-chan is true . . . "
"It will do them both well," Negako cut in from Nerima.
"At least you got something of your sister back," Inu Chigaiko added. "You'd probably want a lot more -- hell, ANYONE'D want a lot more in cases like this! -- but sometimes, Fate can throw you all sorts of curve balls."
"True." Nabiki took a breath. "Pity I didn't find out about what the Staff did before everyone headed to Earth. I could've caught a ride back to Nerima. If we're bringing this Akane 'back' into the fold . . . "
"Yes, that is true, isn't it?" Kasumi acknowledged.
Nabiki looked over to see Seiko gazing curiously at her. "What is it?"
"If you want, you can ask Shogai-san to give you a ride to Earth."
"Would she be allowed? She's from Benten's home planet, right . . .?"
"She doesn't have to land in Nerima if she doesn't have to," Seiko noted. "She could transport you down right from orbit and no one in Nerima or Tomobiki would be any the wiser. If you want, I can ask her to give you a ride."
"If it wouldn't be any trouble," Kasumi noted.
Nabiki nodded. "Okay, it's a plan, then. I'll see you guys in a while."
"All right, then," Kasumi called back.
The link was cut. Nabiki stood. "If you'll all excuse me, minna . . . "
"Don't worry about it, Nabiki," Sakuya spoke up from the central chair. "We'll be back before you guys know it."
"Right. Be careful, huh?"
With that, the middle Tendou daughter stepped off the pilotage, she heading for the gangway to board the Windrider Dreams. Stepping aboard the Zephyrite battlecruiser, she then paused, turning back to gaze on the solar-sail barque through a nearby view port. Fortunately for her, the porthole opening into Marie's cabin was within her line of sight. Akane's head then came into view, the replica of Nabiki's late sister gazing directly at her. See you soon, sis, Nabiki telepathically called out.
Akane nodded. Nabiki then turned, quickly finding the hallway that would connect her to the other side of the battlecruiser's superstructure, where the Goddess of Luck was docked. She then smirked on seeing Ranma and Ataru standing by the gangway leading to the Fukunokami-built frigate, they chatting with Nassur and Shogai Dakejinzou. Smirking on seeing Ranma demonstrate some kata to the expat Vosian, Nabiki then decided to give in to her curiosity and focused her empathic senses on the two bounty hunters.
Dakejinzou was hard to read -- no doubt, that was because of how alien she seemed in comparison to her former partner, much less the other humanoids Nabiki had encountered since she first met Moroboshi Ataru. From what she could sense, though, the elfin-eared woman was the epitome of serenity. It was as if she had come to accept whatever pains and tribulations Life tossed at her as simple obstacles to be overcome. No doubt, she could probably teach senior Buddhist clerics some things about internal peace and harmony.
Nassur was pretty much the same way, yet Nabiki was quick to sense a cloud of sorrow looming over his heart. An extra push with her empathic powers quickly garnished an image for Nabiki's mind to see, that of a lovely woman that seemed to be a blonde, Vosian Oyuki. His wife? Nabiki mused as Ataru glanced her way before he walked over to stand beside her. Yes, a tragic loss, quite recent. Amazing how many people I know who've lost their spouses. Still, Nassur seemed willing to press on. Good for him.
"Found out about Akane, I see," Ataru whispered as he stopped beside her.
"Had no choice," Nabiki admitted.
"Did you tell your sister?"
"Hai. If we're going to welcome her 'back,' so to speak, into the family, I've got to get back to Nerima and make arrangements. You think your friend there can give me a lift to Earth while you're out in the vast unknown?"
Dakejinzou's ear twitched as her cat-slit eyes focused on Nabiki. "You need a ride to Earth, Tendou-san?" she asked.
"You heard me?!"
The hunter pointed to her elongated lobes. "As you might notice, my ears are built for it," she declared with a wink.
Nabiki laughed. "I can use the ride!"
Dakejinzou nodded before she stared at Nassur. "You mind?"
The Vosian nodded his permission. Nabiki grinned as she nodded before heading over to step aboard the Goddess. She then paused as she was about to walk past Ranma. They gazed on each other, a question crossing Nabiki's face. Ranma blinked before she breathed out, "I need some time, Nabiki-chan. It ain't her fault by any sense of the imagination. But I . . . " She then shrugged, pointing at her own heart as she gave her a knowing look.
Nabiki nodded. "No problem."
She kissed Ranma's cheek before heading through the gangway to the Goddess. With that, Nassur and Dakejinzou parted from Ataru and Ranma. The latter pair then turned to head back to the Windrider. "We better get a move-on if we're going to get to that wormhole the Staff told us about so we can get to this Dyson sphere and find the Genesis Wand," Ataru mused.
"Will we be able to get back to Earth by tomorrow?" Ranma asked.
"It should be no problem . . .! WHOA!" Ataru cried out as he stopped himself before he ran over a familiar figure in a hakama.
"Kunou!" Ranma snapped on seeing the kendou-ka.
Kunou turned to gaze on them, and then his eyes glazed over for a second before they cleared up. "I beg your pardon, good sir, fair madam, but you should be more careful running around these hallways," he declared before turning to stare on the Inquisitor -- it was Inquisitor-Archdeacon Sunwind Skyrain, Ataru realized, the man who had accompanied Highridge Malefire to Earth to escort Lum, Ran and Jariten out of Tomobiki -- behind him. "Now, good sir, where exactly could the most fair Anna du Kolhn be at this time?"
Skyrain beckoned him down the hallway. "This way, Young Master."
Kunou and the Inquisitor headed off, the former not bothering to look at Ranma as he went. Ranma and Ataru watched him go, remaining rooted in place as they vanished around the corner, and then they exchanged looks. "What the hell happened to him . . .?" the former hissed.
"Don't ask," the latter asserted. "Remember when you told me about Souun and Genma not wanting to speak Happoosai's name?"
Ranma paused, and then she nodded. "Right. Let's get outta here."
They ran off for the waiting Windrider.
* * *
Minutes later, the Windrider and the Goddess of Luck unlocked themselves from the Windrider Dreams. Both smaller ships soared away from the Zephyrite battlecruiser, the solar-sail barque deploying her mainsails as she angled her prow in the general direction of Karasutengu space. Some distance beyond that was a wormhole that, according to the Staff of Gihan as it had explained to everyone through Hinako prior to the final encounter with Elle, would take the Windrider into an unexplored quadrant of the galaxy.
Waiting there, parsecs beyond the wormhole's exit, was a Dyson sphere constructed by parties unknown millions of years ago. Inside that was a crystal palace where, a century before, the Genesis Wand of Parah had been deposited almost two millennia after it had been found by the Vosian unification leader Lecasur -- among Vosians, the Genesis Wand was known as "the Sceptre of Lecasur" -- and used by every president of the Confederation until a military leader known as the Mikado seized power in a coup d'état.
The Genesis Wand, according to what the Staff had said, was relatively intact, its link to the Te'a still quite strong. All it seemed to require was a new controlling mechanism, which could be fabricated, and then Aria would get the chance to become the first true controller of Parah's Haijo-ju prototype for the first time in fourteen thousand years.
"How's your arm, Aria-chan?" Mamoru asked.
A Zephyrite medical technician had tended to the young Parisian's arm after Ataru's former classmates had been escorted off the Windrider. It was still currently in a sling. "It still hurts, Mamoru-chan," she admitted before yawning. She had woken up when the sounds of the barque unlocking from the Windrider Dreams had echoed through her cabin.
"Aria-sama, do you want to go back to bed?" Orin asked. "It'll be several hours before you'd be needed to deal with Tsue-san."
Aria blinked, and then she yawned again. "Aria is tired . . . "
"All right, then," Orin asserted as she reached down to pick Aria up.
Aria wrapped her good arm around the older woman's neck as Orin carried her off the pilotage. "Nee-ya is so nice to Aria . . . "
"You get some sleep, Aria-chan," Hinako called out.
"Hai . . . "
The doors closed behind her. "Darling, all systems show green. Gallants and staysails ready to deploy," Shinobi declared.
He tapped a control on his chair. "Sail control, this is the pilotage."
"Hai! Everything's okay down here, Aniki!" a familiar voice chimed back.
"What are you doing there, Rinrin-chan?"
Laughter responded from forward. "What do you think?!"
Snickers and guffaws echoed over the pilotage. "Set course for the wormhole, Reiko-chan," Ataru declared. "Warp speed!"
"Hai, Papa!"
* * *
"There she goes."
Dakejinzou, Nassur and Nabiki watched as the Windrider's smaller sails deployed before the barque disappeared in a flash of energy. To the middle Tendou daughter, who was familiar with Star Trek, it was like watching the Enterprise-D, the Defiant or the Voyager leap into hyperspace; the Windrider seemed to stretch like an elastic band before it disappeared. "You should've told me it was the Planet of Shadows they're going to," Nassur noted. "I could've helped them find this Genesis Wand."
The older hunter sat back in her chair. "I didn't realize that this habitation they were heading for was the Planet of Shadows until I had a chance to think about it," she admitted before her eyebrow arched. "Why? Are you worried they might find the Sceptre of Lecasur by accident?"
Nassur took a deep breath before he sat in the co-pilot's chair. "Dake-chan, I've heard some rumours from Vos . . . "
"So have I. His Stupidity-ness is contemplating sending a team out to get the Sceptre as a way of 'legitimizing' his rule over what's left of his petty empire." Hearing that name for the Mikado, Nassur smirked. Dakejinzou NEVER addressed the dictator by his nom de guerre and few people knew his birth name. "Matter of fact, I've heard of who might be leading that trip."
"Mujanba and Varena."
Nassur's eyes widened. The Special Hunter Corps' elite operatives, Mujanba and Varena were natives of the Confederation's "witches' planet," Colony Nine. They were also the only members of the Hunter Corps who hadn't been "recruited" in the normal way, as Nassur and so many others could readily attest to: Kidnapped after birth, then subjected to a fourteen year-long training regimen in camps that would make the Gulag of Iosef Vissarionnovich Stalin's Soviet Union look like the vacation resort town of Sochi in comparison. While he had never faced either Mujanba or Varena in battle, Nassur respected their reputations and their desire to serve the Mikado; both joined the Hunter Corps shortly after radical rebel groups had destroyed their homes early in the Confederation's three-decade old civil war. "Have they already left?" he asked. "If the Mikado wants the Sceptre . . . "
"I'm not sure," Dakejinzou replied as she looked at her console. "Ship, set course for Earth. Engage warp when ready."
"Understood," the on-board computer replied.
The Goddess of Luck swung its prow around as it angled itself on a direct vector for Earth. As the ship's engines began to power up to accelerate the frigate into warp, Dakejinzou took a deep breath. "From what I did learn of what His Buffoonish-ness' plan was all about, he originally came up with the idea of targeting you, Lum and some of Lum's friends from Earth to force you to go on the trip to the Planet of Shadows. Turns out, in fact, he managed to locate a clone of Cinba -- her name was Junba -- whom he had brainwashed into hating you enough so that she could've served as overseer of such a trip. Fortunately, Junba was dealt with sometime ago."
Nassur's jaw dropped. "Someone made a clone of my wife?!"
"Yes, they did," Dakejinzou replied. "No one knows who, by the way."
"And this Junba . . .?"
He frowned. "I see . . . " He considered that before he breathed out, "Why didn't the Mikado elect to find someone else -- say Mujanba or Varena or perhaps Grisur -- to take charge of a trip involving Lum-chan and I . . .?"
"The whole thing between Noukiios and Uru started up at that time," Dakejinzou answered as the Goddess' engines roared to full power, sending the small frigate into hyperspace. "Just after it started, several of the older Lost Stars were sent to Lecashuto to deliver a strong 'message' to His Idiot-ness. That was the fight where Junba and a few others in the Corps were killed. The message was two-fold: His Moron-ness keeps his nose out of Noukiios' business or else when Noukiios got finished with Uru, she AND Zephyrus would openly support the rebels with materiel AND troops if it was deemed necessary to bring the civil war to a speedy conclusion."
Nassur blinked. "And the second message?"
"That you, in light of your service to the various smaller powers in the galaxy, especially Gomiana, were now under the Dominion's protection. And that any act against you or those you cared for would be seen as an act of war by His Stupidity-ness against Noukiios."
Silence fell as the expat Vosian hunter took that in. "I see . . . "
"I didn't realize you were so popular," Nabiki then spoke up.
Both hunters gazed on her. "Are you always this quiet?" Nassur asked.
"It's my trade in life, Nassur-san," Nabiki replied with a titter. "Granted, with the way things are going concerning Earth's relations with its galactic neighbours, it might not matter. But to me, not knowing about certain things that might come to bite us in our collective butts has always sat wrong. And if Ataru-kun, Ranma-chan and the sisters are about to run headlong into this monster's troops if they go to this Planet of Shadows place, I'm damn hell concerned. Ataru-kun just came out of a war and Ranma-chan just had her whole life turned inside out and upside-down thanks to her fool father and everything else she's run into. So yes, Nassur-san, I WOULD like to know a lot more about what's going on here. My friends are potentially flying into harm's way."
"Understandable." Nassur nodded approvingly. "I wouldn't really worry about it, though. Seiko-chan's there to help out. Ataru-san's experience with the Dominion will help out, too. And they also have the Cyborg and this 'cat' version of Ranma-san to call upon if things got really out of hand. Not to mention that Staff-thing young Hinako-san currently has in her possession."
"And the Sagussans."
Nassur and Nabiki blinked; Dakejinzou had barely whispered those words. "Excuse me, Shogai-san?" Nabiki asked.
The hunter stared at her guests. "Tendou-san, before I explain, tell me this: Do you consider yourself a friend of Moroboshi Ataru, yes or no?"
"I'd like to be his friend," Nabiki answered. "And I do care a lot for his girlfriend. If it affects Ranma-chan, it concerns me. And if it might end up reflecting on everyone Ataru-kun and Ranma-chan knows, better to nip it in the bud. Agreed?" Her eyebrow arched as she gazed on her host.
"Agreed," Dakejinzou acknowledged before she stared at Nassur. "You know I've kept one thing from you since we decided to work together, Nassur-chan."
"The Maidens of the Eternal Voyager . . . " His voice then trailed off as his eyes went wide. "Ataru-san?" he gasped.
Dakejinzou nodded. "It's time for you to learn about a planet named Sagussa, a war worse than even Varanko's darkest nightmares, a plan to restore a dead world to life that's been ongoing for the last ten millennia . . . " She paused before her eyes fell on a picture posted on the T-frame dividing the view ports of her bridge. "And how Moroboshi Ataru relates to all that."
A wry chuckle escaped Nassur. "I see."
* * *
Outside the closed door connecting the frigate's bridge and lounge, a wide-eyed Benten stood there. Despite the fact that Nassur could have detected the Fukunokami's presence with his tracking powers -- had he already sensed her? -- she hadn't made her presence known to the people on the bridge. And she had overhead almost everything they had said.
Moroboshi . . .?! she mentally railed as she turned to stagger to her guest room. He's the Chosen One of the Eternal Voyager . . .?!
Ye gods, the Universe couldn't be THAT cruel!
Could it?
* * *
"So they're on their way."
"Are you having someone trail them, Lady?"
Noa blinked as her mind absorbed Firesky Owleye's words, and then she shook her head. "You need not call me that, you know."
"You are who you are," the Inquisitor insisted. They and the other Sagussans who had accompanied Noa aboard the Windrider Dreams from the cloaked Hasei'cha -- the warpsloop was currently several hundred kilometres away from the Zephyrite formation, off the battlecruiser's port beam -- were standing in a private reflective lounge high in the superstructure, one normally set aside for senior clerics. They had just watched the Windrider and the Goddess of Luck warp out. "You are simply who you are."
Noa tittered in amusement as she shared a knowing look with Catty, and then she ran a hand through her shaggy chestnut-brown hair. Born originally as Aruka Noa, one of the legendary Maidens of Aruka who had helped Uru liberate itself from the hordes of the Seifukusu Dominion nine centuries before, the woman who had been later designated Daishi'cha #19282 was seen by everyone on Sagussa these days as the Elder Mother of the Fifth Republic. While she didn't have any true political power to exercise in the day-to-day affairs of the Republic, her moral influence on the other Daishi'cha could not, for a moment, be discounted. After all, it had been Noa, eleven years before, who had convinced a young boy from Earth named Moroboshi Ataru to come visit their planet. And, in the space of two months, had done more to advance the cause of the Grand Design to levels its creators couldn't have hoped to envision.
"And sometimes, I wonder what I've ever done to truly earn that level of respect," she admitted. "I'm not a living goddess as many on Uru might look on me these days if they ever met me. I'm not a devil like some of your Scripturalists might see me as. I'm a normal mortal woman with my own dreams and desires, my own hopes and ambitions." Noa took a deep breath. "There's no need to send someone after Ataru-sama and his family. With his experience and the Staff of Gihan on his side, retrieving the Genesis Wand of Parah should be simplicity itself. What we should have to worry ourselves about now is the Avalon bioroid factory and Oogi's continued control over it."
"Nene's still doing a detailed diagnostic of the factory's sub-systems," the third Sagussan, a raven-haired, blue-eyed double of Seikou Mie, currently dressed in the dark blue-red-and-light green of a defence force medical officer -- Catty was likewise dressed -- declared.
"We best get an update," Noa mused. "In the meantime, we'll . . . "
A communicator sounded off. "Hotaru here," the third Sagussan declared as she tapped her wrist-bracelet. "What is it, Eluza?"
"Problem," the Hasei'cha's shipmistress declared over the comm-link.
"What is it, Eluza?" Noa asked.
"It's Makoto."
Silence fell over the lounge as the Sagussans exchanged shocked looks. "Oh, Lyna, no!" Catty moaned for them all.
* * *
"Makoto, what in Lyna's name are you doing?! That warp's open . . .!"
Makoto grunted as her finger flicked off the communications link connecting her Gladiator to the Hasei'cha. Then, with a slight nudge of the control stick, she sent the Boeing 747-sized mechamorphic fighter -- like its mothership, Makoto's mount was equipped with a cloaking device to mask its presence from Zephyrite sensory -- in the direction of the point where the Windrider had disappeared into hyperspace. This manoeuvre, if she succeeded, would allow her to ride the crest of warp energies the barque was using to carry it on its trip to the Planet of Shadows. If she succeeded, that is; no pilot in the Sagussan Navy would try a crazy stunt like THIS even in the direst of circumstances. But to Makoto, things had gone past THAT point long ago.
"Mie . . .!"
Keeping her eyes locked on the heads-up display before her, the brown-haired, green-eyed Pirpirsiw'r tilted her stick a little bit more to the left, aligning the Gladiator's nose right at the centre of the warp hole. It was fading right before her eyes; if she didn't get into that bend in hyperspace, her chance at reuniting with her beloved would be lost and she'd catch all sorts of crap from Eluza and Noa as a result. Losing her commission -- Makoto was a flightmistress, the fleet fighter arm's version of a watchmistress, in rank -- and most likely her career was the LEAST her superiors would do to her. If her Gladiator was wrecked and if Makoto survived its destruction, Patty, the Hasei'cha's Terran-born chief engineer, would personally tan her a new hide.
But still . . .
Mie . . .
Makoto, stop! Noa's voice boomed in the flightmistress' mind. You don't have to do this now! Come back . . .!
"NO!" Makoto screamed as she forced the Elder Mother out of her mind, her finger flicking off the cloak as she slammed her foot into the accelerator. "I've waited eleven years, Noa! She's out there! AND I WON'T WAIT ANYMORE!"
As the Gladiator wavered into existence, it setting off all sorts of sensory alarms in the Zephyrite fleet behind it, the fighter's nose caught the rolling end of the warp wave from the Windrider.
In a flash, it disappeared into hyperspace.
* * *
"Lyna's Soul, she actually pulled it off!" Eluza exclaimed.
"If she survives that, she's the luckiest idiot in the universe!" Shildy, the Hasei'cha's first officer, exclaimed.
"If she survives that, she'll wish she hadn't!" Patty snarled from her station on the bridge's port side.
"Can she survive?" Rumy, the ship's young science chief, asked.
Eyes locked on the raven-haired, brown-eyed Patty. The Hasei'cha's chief engineer's brow furrowed as she considered what could happen to a non-shielded Gladiator caught in the warp wake of a Noukiite solar-sail craft moving at transwarp speeds, and then she shook her head. "There's nowhere close to enough anti-radiation shielding on that crate to protect her from the Windrider. If they don't spot her right away . . . "
A grim silence fell over the bridge as Patty's shipmates considered that. "Could we hope Mie would remember enough to rescue her if Ataru-sama or any of his sisters spot Makoto?" Spea, the ship's combat officer, asked.
Eluza grimaced as she considered that. Seikou Mie's obvious amnesia where it concerned her life on Sagussa had been one of the factors that blocked the Hasei'cha's crew from retrieving their missing shipmate when Noa -- ironically doing what Mie herself had suggested before Ataru had been sent back to Earth eleven years before -- learned of her true fate just before the First Tag Race changed everything for the whole local cluster. "I'm not taking that chance," she then declared. "Amy, pursuit course!"
"Aye-aye!" Amy, the Hasei'cha's coxswain, said as she tapped controls.
"Noa, Catty, Hotaru, get ready!" Eluza said. "We're beaming you aboard!"
"Understood," the Ashi'cha replied.
* * *
"Good luck, Ladies," Firesky Owleye bade his guests with a nod.
Noa stared at the Inquisitor, and then she gripped his hand. "I am -- and will always be -- Lyna, your sister," she declared in the classical tongue of Tere'na, from which modern Sagussan and Zephyrite had evolved from, before stepping back from him to stand beside Catty and Hotaru.
In a flare of transporter beams, the Sagussans were whisked off. Firesky watched them go, and then he perked as a knock echoed from the door. "Enter!"
The door opened, revealing Sunhair Windrider. "Your Grace, we . . . "
"I know, child," Firesky cut her off with a stern wave of his hand. "Pass the message to the other captains. I will brief them about this matter as soon as we've repatriated the Ellsians. Until then, they are NOT to speak of this, especially in communiqués back home."
Windy took that in, and then she whispered, "The Holy Birth Mot- . . .?"
The Inquisitor shushed her. Windy tensed for a moment before she nodded.
* * *
Mamoru looked up from the video game she had been playing at her console to see a confused look on Kaneko's face. "What is it, Kaneko-chan?" the tomboy asked, walking down to stand beside her niece's station. "Something wrong?"
Kaneko blinked as she stared at her readouts, and then she glanced up at her aunt. "I'm not sure. But aft sensors seem to have picked up something that came into warp behind us. I'm trying to figure out what it is . . . "
Mamoru took that in before she started to tense. "Is it dangerous?"
"I can't say."
* * *
"Here you go! Your first meal as an Avalonian! Bon appétit!"
Akane sighed as she stared at the bowl of Hakata-style ramen with rice cakes that Shirayuki just laid out before her. The newborn Avalonian's stomach had started to growl the instant the Windrider had entered warp. It didn't take her or Marie long to find the galley and get something to eat. Along with the ramen, Shirayuki had prepared a Caesar salad, a glass of orange juice and some cut pieces of toast with butter. "Is this a normal type of breakfast for her, Marie-chan?" the youngest Tendou then asked.
"Pretty much so," Marie affirmed before she lifted her cup of tea.
"Okay! But I'm DEFINITELY learning how to cook for you, Marie-chan!"
The crowd around Akane and Marie exchanged looks. "Akane, I don't think Shirayuki-chan's gonna like the idea of letting YOU loose into HER kitchen!" Shinshi warned, his arm wrapped lovingly around Yotsuba's shoulders.
Laughter filled the galley as Akane's cheeks went red. "It's okay, Shinshi-san," Karen said. "If anyone can teach her how to cook, Shirayuki-chan can. She's learned from some of the best chefs you could imagine."
"Hai desu no!" Shirayuki then asserted as she clapped her hands. "Hime's Special Cooking School is always open for new students!"
Akane stared at the chef before she bowed. "Arigatou, Shirayuki-sensei!"
Shirayuki shuddered. "Oooh! Hime LIKES being called 'Sensei!'"
More laughter filled the room before a voice called out, "Hey, Ataru!"
Everyone looked to see Ranma scamper down the ladder from the deck above. "What is it, Ranma?" Ataru asked.
Ranma pointed aft. "There's someone following us!"
"SAY WHAT?!" Ataru exclaimed.
Ranma beckoned him to follow. "C'mon and see!"
The two scampered up the ladder, and then ran aft to Ataru's cabin. They were soon followed by everyone else. Once there, Ataru knelt by his nightstand to draw out a pair of macro-binoculars from a storage shelf, and then he poised himself by the large windows to take a look at the storm of warped stars flowing past the Windrider. Putting the binoculars to his eyes, he focused his attention at the point of bright light that marked the end of the warp stream being produced by the solar-sail barque. "Ah . . . " he uttered on seeing a dark object that could only be some sort of spaceship, though it was barely visible in the surrounding bright light. "Who the hell is that . . .?"
"Anegimi-sama, you were able to sense a ship following us?" Haruka asked.
"Actually, Haruka-chan, I was the one who sensed someone back there."
Eyes focused on Izumo Seiko. The raven-haired Nendo-kata was standing to Ataru's right. "Who is it, Sei-chan?" Ataru asked.
Seiko shook her head as her eyes glowed. "I can't really tell from here, Darling; warp space tends to muck up our telepathic powers, especially at a distance. But from what I can tell, she desperately wants to get aboard the ship. I can't say why, though . . . "
"Um, Ataru-kun . . .?"
Ataru turned to see Mie standing beside him. Her hand was out. "Oh!"
He handed the binoculars to her. She put them to her eyes. Hinako had joined the crowd in Ataru's cabin by that time. Making her way to Mie's side, the youngest sister took a look out. "Sure are a lotta stars . . . " she mused before she glanced up to see the binoculars. "A-ri-ri? Can Hina look through the binoculars, Mie-san?" she asked as she held her hand out.
Silence answered her as Mie's hands lowered the binoculars away from eyes that were presently as wide as saucers, a mixed look of disbelief and shocked recognition crossing her face. Seiko was the first to sense the amnesiac Sagussan's mood. "Seikou-san . . . " she asked.
Mie's mouth fluttered for a second before a whispered "Aoaiuiui'io . . .!" escaped her, the binoculars dropping from numb hands.
Ranma snatched them before they hit the deck. "Hey, you okay . . .?"
The response surprised them. "Where's the transporter on this ship?"
Ataru blinked in confusion. "What . . .?"
Mie spun on him, the horror and panic on her face freezing everyone else in place. "THE TRANSPORTER!" she screamed loud enough to rattle all the windows of Ataru's cabin as she leapt over to grab him by the collars of his top. "YOU'VE GOT ONE ON THIS JUNKHEAP, DON'T YOU?! WHERE IS IT?!"
"This way, Mie!"
Gasps filled the room as Chikage grabbed Mie, and then they both vanished in the flutter of the sorceress' cape. Silence fell before people began to exchange shocked looks. "What was THAT about?!" Sakuya demanded.
"Ah! Hina understands now!"
Before anyone could ask her, Hinako ran out of the cabin.
* * *
"Can you pick up Makoto's Gladiator?!" Eluza demanded.
The Hasei'cha was a light minute behind the Windrider. "I'm trying, Eluza!" Spea answered as her hands flew over the controls at her console.
"Try harder!"
* * *
The transporter room on the Windrider was located on the same deck as the galley, it right below Ataru's cabin. Chikage and Mie phased back into existence, the latter lunging over to the control panel. Hands that remembered much more what the conscious mind currently could not flew over the buttons as Mie powered up the system and activated the life-sensor tracker that would allow the transporter the chance to lock in on the mortal life presently in dire danger aft of the solar-sail barque. As footsteps heralded the arrival of many of the crowd from Ataru's cabin, Mie then tapped the intercom switch. "Reiko-chan, it's Seikou Mie! Get ready to break this ship out of warp!"
"Eh?!" the young Noukiite called back. "What are you talking . . .?"
"Reiko, don't argue about it! Do it!" Chikage barked.
"Ah . . .! H-hai, Auntie Chikage!"
Mie blinked before relief crossed her face as transporter lock was made. "Okay! Reiko-chan, in five seconds, mark!"
She tapped a button to energize the system on saying that.
* * *
"Mie . . . I'm sorry . . . "
Danger alarms were ringing loudly in Makoto's ears as waves of intensive pain, the type of agony that could only come from hard exposure to hyperspace radiation, burned through her flight suit. The Gladiator's structural integrity field was rapidly failing; once it was gone, the tidal forces in the warp stream would rip the fighter to shreds. As her hand tried to steady the fighter's control stick, she squeezed close her good right eye; the left one had started to bleed profusely not seconds before. "Mie-vayae . . .!" she moaned as she braced herself for what was about to come. "I love you . . . "
Just as structural integrity failed, a transporter beam seized her.
* * *
The crowd at the doorway leading to the transporter room gasped as a column of vertical light heralded the arrival of a tall, slender woman dressed from neck to toe in a dark blue bodysuit complete with crimson gloves and boots, a flight helmet covering her head. As the transporter beam faded, the Windrider shuddered as it slipped out of hyperspace. The newcomer then collapsed to the deck, a shower of blood escaping her nostrils and mouth as her head bounced off the hard surface. "AOAIUIUI'IO!" Mie screamed out.
* * *
"Eluza, the Windrider just came out of warp!" Rumy called out.
"De-warp us, now!" Eluza barked.
"Hai!" Amy replied as she pressed controls.
* * *
The Windrider coasted along as her gallants and staysails were furled in. On the bridge, Reiko and Kaneko manipulated controls to break the ship further. "What do you suppose is going on, Onee-chan?" Kaneko wondered.
"I dunno . . . huh?!"
Reiko perked as something seemed to warp out of hyperspace dead ahead of the Windrider. A ship roughly three times the length of the solar-sail barque, it was shaped like three railroad boxcars (sans wheels) set in an inverted-V formation. Thick support pillars connected the lower hulls to the main hull. The upper hull came complete with warp and impulse drive, plus a small superstructure. Locked on the underside of the lower hulls were two Gladiators, doubles for the craft that had followed the Windrider into warp thousands of parsecs away. Painted an overall tan-brown shade, the ship bore a golden phoenix-like sigil on the upper hull close to the main pilotage.
A sigil that was all too familiar to the Noukiite twins.
"The Maidens . . . " Reiko and Kaneko gasped together.
* * *
"Onii-sama, is she okay?!"
Ataru grunted as he, Ranma, Chikage and Mie carried the bleeding newcomer from the transporter room to the Windrider's cockpit, the ship's sickbay. "I really don't think so, Sakuya!" he replied as they carried her inside. "On the diagnostic bed!" he ordered his companions.
"Hai!" the others chimed as they boosted her onto the examination table.
Once she was in place, Ataru began to flip controls to activate the life-support systems built into the bed. While his ship's android crew was well programmed to deal with most of the normal operational demands a vessel like the Windrider imposed, none were programmed for medical duties. Given that he had just received the solar-sail barque from the Noukiite government not two weeks before -- and that, until Kaneko had revealed the Windrider's presence over Earth when Elle had kidnapped everyone earlier in the day, he had not thought about it -- Ataru had not taken any time to figure out what medical requirements he would need for his ship. "Okay, doing a life-scan now . . . "
"Her ki's almost gone," Ranma warned.
"I hear you, Ranma. Chikage?"
"Mie, hold her hand," the sorceress ordered. "Let her touch you."
"Right." Mie grasped the other woman's hand. "Aoaiuiui'io . . . "
"You know her?" Ataru wondered.
"I can't fully remember," the amnesiac Sagussan replied.
A cough. "It's . . . " Another cough. "Okay . . . "
"Aoaiuiui'io!" Mie cried as she gazed worriedly into the newcomer's eyes.
A light smile. "It's Makoto now, Mie-vayae . . . "
Another cough escaped the Pirpirsiw'r. Mie sighed, and then she asked, "You're using anime characters for names?!"
"Can't you tell who I look like?" Makoto asked before she coughed again.
"Makoto, please be quiet," Chikage ordained. "Save your strength."
"Aye, ma'am . . . " The pilot then closed her good eye.
Chikage then looked up and forward. "If there are doctors and nurses on your ship, send them over now!" she clearly called out.
The onlookers at the doorway exchanged confused looks. Who was Chikage yelling at? A second later, their answer came with the ring of transporter beams, they heralding the arrival of the Hasei'cha's whole medical team. Along with Catty and Hotaru came Pony, a lavender-haired, blue-eyed, dusky-skinned woman with tapered ears; Ataru recognized her as Tookonokooen, a native of a planet located in the centre of the triangle formed by Vos, Yehisril and Ipraedos. All three had field medical bags with them. Without hesitation, they moved to either side of the diagnostic bed as Pony drew out a tricorder to do an initial scan. Ataru and Ranma got out of her way.
After her initial scan, Pony then sighed as she showed the tricorder results to Catty and Hotaru. "Makoto, much that I do understand why you wanted to be with Mie so badly, but could you have chosen to do something less stupid than flying a Gladiator into the warp-trail of Ataru-sama's ship?" the doctor wondered as she leaned over the pilot's head to gaze into Makoto's good eye.
Makoto ruefully chuckled as Catty drew out a hypodermic to inject into her neck. "You'd do the same for Eluza, Pony."
Another spasm of coughs. "Less talk, more work, ladies," Chikage warned.
Catty stared at her. "Are you a doctor, Chikage-sama?"
"Chikage's many things, Sensei," Ataru spoke up from behind Pony.
The onlookers were quick to notice the slight blush crossing the lavender-haired, Tritonian-born doctor's face as she turned back to dealing with Makoto. By then, Hinako had rejoined the others, leaning past the doorway. The still-dark Staff of Gihan was in her hand. The youngest sister was quick to recognize one of the newcomers. "Ah, Catty-san!" she called out.
Catty flashed Hinako a friendly smile before turning back to her patient. "Please don't interrupt us, Hinako-sama."
Hinako blinked as the doctor's words sank in, and then her eyes turned to the woman on the diagnostic bed. She gasped on seeing the severity of Makoto's wounds, and then she found Mie's hands on her shoulders. "Don't interrupt, Hinako-chan," Mie advised as she guided the youngest of the sisters away. "Catty doesn't like to be interrupted when she's dealing with a patient."
"A-ri-ri?! Catty-san's a doctor, Mie-san?"
"Hai. As is Pony. And . . . " Mie then closed her eyes. "What in Buddha's name took you so long, Imooto-chan?"
Hotaru's hands fell on her sister's shoulders. "We weren't going to take you away from your family, Onee-chan."
The onlookers blinked. "Mie-san, who are these people?" Karen asked.
"I'd like to know the answer to that, too," Ataru added. "Still . . . "
"Please, Ataru-sama, don't force your memories," Catty advised. "As soon as we're done with this de'ne, Pony and I'll look at you."
"You've met Anigimi-sama?!" Haruka demanded.
"Eleven years ago," Mie responded, a hand reaching up to grasp Hotaru's.
The sisters exchanged shocked looks. "That was the time Nii-sama disappeared from his house!" Shirayuki then declared.
Sakuya spun on the visiting Sagussans. "You mean to say that . . .?! Onii-sama went to your PLANET back then?!"
"At the invitation of our Elder Mother, of course," Hotaru confirmed.
"You, of course, realize that was kidnapping," Shinshi then noted.
Rueful chuckles escaped the Sagussans as they recalled that time. "Back then, we were so naive when it came to emotions and everything beyond pure logic, it wouldn't have mattered to us what other people thought," Hotaru explained before she gazed on Ataru. "Your brother changed that."
The sisters turned to gaze on Ataru. "Onii-chama . . .?" Kaho whispered.
Ranma turned to look into his eyes. "Hey, Ataru, you okay?"
Ataru's gaze had turned inward as he went over Hotaru's explanation about an event that had come to influence his life in so many ways since an encounter he had with a pretty girl in a rose garden. "I'm not sure, Ranma . . . "
"It'll be alright," Pony said. "Like Catty said . . . uh-oh!"
"Wonderful!" Catty hissed as she noted what was wrong on her tricorder.
Mie tensed. "What?!"
In answer, a stream of racking coughs escaped Makoto. "Her immune system's breaking down!" Catty warned.
"On it!" Pony said. "Prepping for suspension!"
She tapped controls on the diagnostic bed. Makoto's body was then shrouded from head-to-toe in a blue field. The onlookers watched as Makoto froze. "Suspension field active and nominal," Pony declared before she looked on her co-worker. "This won't help her for long, Catty."
"I know!" Catty declared.
"Do you have something that can help her?" Chikage asked.
The doctors exchanged a rueful look. "Not on the Hasei'cha," Catty answered. "The regeneration unit we'd normally use in instances like this could help. But we don't have the mental shields that can protect her spirit when her body is placed inside the matrix. The nearest place to get them is on Sagussa. But we don't DARE move Makoto from this place until we can guarantee her safety. And thanks to all the radiation that bombarded her when she followed you into warp, we can't perform tre'cha . . . "
"What's tre'cha?!" Ranma wondered.
"It means 'the passing-on,'" Catty replied. "When a Sagussan -- or Avalonian . . . " -- her eyes fell on Shinshi to emphasize her point -- " . . . senses when death is near, she will mind-link with her bond-mate, a child-mate or a very trusted friend to bestow her mei'na, her living spirit, onto so that her knowledge and memories are passed on to a future generation. Mie did that with Hotaru just before she came to Earth as a safety precaution." She indicated Mie. "But if we can't link into Makoto's mind . . . "
"Makoto-san'll go to the Very, Very Bright Place."
Eyes locked on Hinako. "Yes. Her spirit will be lost to the Te'a," Catty finished with a tired nod.
Stunned silence fell over the scene as everyone else took in that awful news. Marie then began to sniff. "She'll die . . .?"
Pony nodded. "Hai."
"Then . . .?" Marie's hand shakily rose to point at the unmoving Makoto. "Wh-why did sh-she come h-here . . .? Wh-why . . .?"
"Because of me, Marie-chan."
Eyes locked on Mie. "Mie-san . . .?" Akane whispered.
Mie gave them a weary smile. "Makoto's my lover, Akane-san. We've been separated for eleven years."
Hearing that, Marie shuddered as the hoarse finality of Mie's words sank in. "She . . .! She came to be . . . w-with . . . "
Her eyes rolled into her head as she sank toward the deck. "MARIE-CHAN!" the other sisters and Akane screamed out.
Chikage grabbed Marie, and then she teleported away. "Her cabin!" Ataru barked as he waved the others out of the cockpit.
Everyone scampered out of the cockpit. The Sagussans remained in place as they watched their Daimon'cha and his family race out to look in on their sibling. Catty then sighed before she gazed on Hotaru. "Go look in on her."
Hotaru indicated Mie. "But what about Onee-chan . . .?"
"Don't worry about me."
The three medical officers stared at their amnesiac shipmate. "Worry about Makoto and Marie-chan first," Mie insisted.
Catty gazed on her, and then she nodded. "You have your orders, Hotaru."
Mie's sister braced herself to attention. "Hai!"
Grabbing her field medical bag, she raced out of the cockpit.
* * *
"Fascinating . . . "
The sun was setting in the western sky, the bright orange orb slipping behind Fuji-san. Sitting in the dining room of the rotunda at Welcome House, Kaeru finished tapping information into his personal data-computer. An opaque, three-dimensional image of an expanded rotunda floated a foot in the air over the data-computer. As the image shifted to project the subsystems needed to keep this habitation liveable for his siblings, the engineer nodded. "Sufficient given the technological levels this planet possesses."
Landing his cloaked ship on the back lawn, straddling the large swimming pool, Kaeru had spent the last two local sub-day temporal units called "hours" exploring his siblings' habitation to better understand what sort of sentient beings they were. That had resulted in the collecting of quite baffling data, especially from their life-journals; "diaries" as they were called here. Still, the overall picture forged from that collected data informed the Nagussan that his relatives were decent sentient beings, worthy of close emotional association. Certainly not of the sexual nature, Kaeru noted after reading his twin's diary. That was seen as improper here on Earth.
During his explorations, Kaeru noted that his siblings' habitation was in the midst of structural modifications meant to create an increase in terms of overall living space. Rooms belonging to Ataru and his new life mate Saotome Ranma, Hinako and Aria were slated for expansion. A new habitation for Ataru and Ranma's adopted offspring, Reiko and Kaneko, was being installed on the rotunda's second level over the entrance. Shirayuki's and Yotsuba's rooms on the third level were being converted into multi-room apartments to house friends of the family, including Yotsuba's new life mate, Tendou Shinshi. The spare room on the third floor, beside Rinrin's, was being expanded for friends of the family, including a private loft for a woman named Miree. Yet, to the Nagussan's surprise, the rooms assigned to Karen, Sakuya, Kaho, Haruka, Chikage, Marie, Mamoru and Rinrin were not scheduled for expansion.
Concluding that all his relatives deserved expanded spaces, Kaeru immediately launched a plan to grant them such. After all, Nagussans believed that, in spite of the logic that governed their lives, an appropriately positive show of emotional support was required when walking on strange shores. It was such a show of emotion -- in the form of a seduction planned by his mother on her life mate -- that led to Kouhae and Raikue stumbling on the dying Moroboshi Kaeru fifteen Terran-standard solar revolutions ago.
Fortunately for his siblings, Kaeru had the means to express such.
A finger tapped a button on the data-computer. "Units Five, Six, Seven and Eight. Report to me in the dining hall at once," he ordered.
Four semi-humanoid construction/maintenance robots floated in. Equipped with multiple manipulator arms, an anti-gravity air-floatation system, micro-thruster units for manoeuvrability and a very advanced central processor "brain" to carry out complex tasks, this model of robot was most often used to help Nagussan engineers maintain their starship's vital systems. Kaeru had specially built these four units to assist him and his shipmate Naromo aboard their home starship, the star cruiser Ganshiki.
"Unit Five, reporting as ordered, Master Kaeru."
"Unit Six, reporting as ordered, Master Kaeru."
"Unit Seven, reporting as ordered, Master Kaeru."
"Unit Eight, reporting as ordered, Master Kaeru."
"Engage habitation modification programs," Kaeru ordered as he indicated the data-computer. "Download all information about this habitation from the data-computer. Then commence the modifications I've indicated to this habitation. Remember to adhere to Terran technological levels save for what I have indicated. Proceed at once."
"Compliance," the con/maint-bots replied as one as they went to work.
Kaeru watched them go, and then he sighed. "Now for that special model android Rinrin is presently constructing," he mused.
* * *
"Hello, Shanpú, Mùsi. Thank you for bringing dinner for us."
"This one is more than happy to do so for you, clan-sister," Shampoo replied with a friendly smile as she pulled out plates from her delivery box. Mousse did the same from the box he had hidden in his sleeve. Seated around the table, expectantly waiting for their dinner, were the current residents of the old shrine the Moroboshi family owned, plus their temporary guest.
"Negako-oneechan, are these some of Ranma-san's friends?" Ten then asked.
"Yes, they are."
"Who is he?" Shampoo asked.
"Currently, he lives under the name 'Ryooki Tennosuke,'" Negako answered.
"He's actually Lum's cousin Jariten," Chigaiko added.
The two teens from the Nekohanten stopped as their eyes focused on Ten. "Then where's his horn?" Shampoo demanded.
"After last week's events, Shampoo-sama, what do you think Ten-chan should've been made to look like when he acquired his body?" Kimiko asked with an amused titter before she reached over to ruffle her hand through Ten's hair.
Shampoo and Mousse peered intently at Ten. "Ah, I get it now! Ten's like Nabiki, Shinshi and yourself, Kimiko-san!" the latter concluded with a snap of his fingers. He gazed on Negako. "If he's alive, is Lum . . .?"
"Yes, she is. I will say no further about that." She then paused for a moment before her eyes focused on the Nujiézú warriors. "Tell me, Shanpú: You are aware now of what has happened to Ranma because of Zhòuquán-xiang?"
Shampoo nodded. "Hai. Hibaa-chan told this one about that."
"Do you look forward to becoming Ranma's blood-sister when Kelun and her fellow elders grant you that right?"
A determined nod. "Hai! This one thinks she knows what Ranma will do."
"Very well, then. Mùsi, what are your feelings about this matter?"
Shampoo gazed on her would-be suitor. Mousse closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. "Much that it would make me very happy if Ranma used the Blood-Sibling Law to elect me as her successor as Shan's husband, I can guess what her decision toward that end will be in the long term. In fact, it would surprise me if Ranma chose any other path other than fully freeing Shan of any martial obligations whatsoever, granting Shan the freedom Ranma herself was long denied by her idiot father." He then gazed on Shampoo. "I will always love you, Shan. No power on this planet will change that fact. But the choice as to whom you'll marry in the end must be yours. It MUST be yours!"
"Well said," Kimiko declared with an approving nod.
"I see," Negako then spoke up. "Mùsi, you are aware of the wish of Kelun and the others to forge a marriage alliance between your tribe and my family. If you were given the opportunity, would you help forge such an alliance?"
Mousse blinked. "You would want me to marry one of Ataru's sisters?!"
Negako shook her head. "Not exactly. But the one I have in mind has been fully adopted into our family, thus would qualify as a candidate under these circumstances. And if you would not desire her, she possesses a younger sister who might be more agreeable to you. If you, Shanpú and Kelun would return tonight at nine o'clock, you will get a chance to meet them."
Silence fell as the weapons-master considered the ninjutsu grandmaster's words. He stared at Negako. "If the Elder goes along with that -- and if they are as suitable as you say, Negako-san -- I'll be happy to consider it."
"What would you desire this one to tell Hibaa-chan?" Shampoo asked.
A serene look crossed Negako's face. "Tell her a name, Shanpú." A pause. "'Naho.' She will understand then."
Shampoo and Mousse exchanged a look before they nodded.
* * *
"Mom!" Shinobu cried as Kimiki raced over to scoop her into a protective hug. "S-s-sorry I'm l-late," she burbled, sniffing back tears as her mother nearly smothered her. "You wouldn't b-BELIEVE what happened at school today!"
Kimiki wearily laughed as she pulled away from her daughter, she giving Shinobu a look-over to ensure all was well. She glanced over to see Ryuunosuke chatting warmly with Sawada Minako and Izumo Sakiko. "Ryuu-chan!" she called out with a wave to get the other women's attention.
Ryuunosuke waved as she took Sakiko's hand in her own and walked over to join her guardian and her best friend. "Hi, Aunt Kimiki!" she called out as she warmly embraced Shinobu's mother. "We're all here, safe and sound!"
She linked hands anew with Sakiko. "So I see." Kimiki looked around the front lawn of Tomobiki High, it crowded with relieved parents greeting their children, all of whom had been beamed from the Zephyrite courier moments before. "Where're Ataru-kun and his sisters?! Are they okay?"
"Darling and his sisters had to go somewhere for a while, Mrs. Miyake," Sakiko explained. "They should be back on Earth by tomorrow."
Shinobu perked. "Sakiko-chan, do you know where they went?"
The Seishin-turned-Nendo-kata nodded. "Yes, I do know where they're going, Shinobu-chan. But I won't tell you."
"Why?!" Kimiki and Shinobu demanded at once.
"Put simply, it's none of your business," Sakiko replied with a shake of her head, a sympathetic smile crossing her face. "If Darling wanted you to know what he was doing, he would've told you, Shinobu-chan. Ne?"
Silence fell as the Miyakes gazed on her. Kimiki's eyes then widened as she realized something. "Wait! You call him 'Darling' . . .!" Her voice then suddenly stopped as it hit her, and then she covered her mouth. "Lum . . .?!"
"No, this is Ran." Ryuunosuke then held up a finger. "Sorry. *Part* of Sakiko-chan used to be Ran. It's a long story."
Kimiki gazed on the tomboy, and then at Shinobu. Seeing the accepting look on her daughter's face, she crossed her arms. "Why didn't you tell me about this, Shinobu?" she asked. "You know people would want to know . . .!"
"That's why I didn't." Shinobu returned her look with an apologetic smile. "Sakiko and Seiko . . . " Her voice dipped low as she glanced around. Fortunately for them, the parents were too busy chatting with their children to overhear anything from the Miyakes, Ryuunosuke or Sakiko. "Well, after what they were put through by the Noukiites, they didn't deserve any more grief from anyone here, especially after what happened last week."
Kimiki took that in. "I think I need this further explained . . . "
Marubeya Momoe ran up. Shinobu was quick to notice the concerned look on the other girl's face. "What is it, Momoe-chan?"
"Have you seen Mie-san anywhere?" Momoe wondered.
"Oh, she stayed behind," Sakiko reported.
Momoe spun on her. "Why?!"
"There was something she wanted to talk to Darling about."
Momoe's eyebrow arched. "What about?!"
"That's between Mie-chan and Darling." Sakiko wagged a warning finger as she slipped an arm around Ryuunosuke's. "I'm sure if Mie-chan wanted to tell you, she'd do it. C'mon, Ryuu-chan, let's get you and Shinobu-chan home so you all can get some sleep! It's been a long day for you all!"
"Hai!" Ryuunosuke smirked as they headed off.
The Miyakes and Momoe watched them go. The latter then gazed on her classmate. "Do you know what this is about, Shinobu-chan?"
"Iie," Shinobu replied, and then she shrugged. "Then again, it's their way, remember? Violating other people's privacy behind their back IS a bad thing to do, you know. Anyhow, I'm going home." She gave Momoe a concerned look. "You make sure you get some sleep, Momoe-chan, okay?"
Momoe blinked, and then she nodded. "Hai!"
Shinobu waved as she guided her mother off the property. Momoe watched them go with a sigh. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it?"
* * *
Catty gazed concernedly over her shoulder. "Are you alright, Mie?"
Mie moaned as she rubbed her nose. "Someone's talking about me."
"You could tell that from just a sneeze?" Pony asked.
Mie stared at the two doctors before a smirk crossed her face.
Damn, they really hadn't changed at all.
* * *
"Oooh . . . "
"Marie-chan, are you alright?"
Marie's eyes fluttered open as she once again found herself staring at the deckhead of her cabin. This time, it was Akane whose face was the first thing she saw after her vision cleared. "Akane-chan, what happened . . .?" Marie moaned as she reached for her forehead. "That girl . . . "
A black-haired version of Seikou Mie then leaned over her, she holding what appeared to be a scanner. After passing it over Marie, the newcomer smiled. "It's alright, Marie-sama," she assured her. "No one dies on Catty's or Pony's watch, even a stone-headed, love-crazed de'ne like Makoto. Now, let's just make sure you're alright, and then we'll decide what to do next."
She drew out a hypodermic to inject a stimulant into Marie. Watching this from the doorway of the bespectacled teen's cabin, the others exchanged looks. "I must confess, Hotaru-san is a most diligent doctor," Haruka mused.
Hotaru grinned. "I'm only a nurse, Haruka-sama." She reached up to tap the rank insignia on her shoulders, they indicating the three square tabs of a Sagussan Navy chief petty officer. "Catty and Pony are the doctors."
"Is there some reason you're addressing us so formally, Hotaru-san?" Karen then asked, her eyebrow arching in confusion.
She looked nonplussed. "You're Ataru-sama's sisters, that's why."
"It's okay, Karen-chan!" Hinako declared. "They all do that to Onii-tama because they really, really, really love him."
"EH?!" the other sisters shrieked in chorus.
"Whattayamean they all love Ataru?!" Ranma demanded. "What for?!"
Hinako blinked. "Uh . . .!" She then giggled as she bopped the side of her head. "Hina's not really sure about that, Onee-tama!"
Shirayuki gazed on the nurse. "Hotaru-san?"
Hotaru looked up, she giving the other sisters a sympathetic look. "It would take me a VERY long time for me to explain everything about our relationship to Ataru-sama to your satisfaction, Shirayuki-sama. Gomen nasai. But I believe you'd all agree that Marie-sama's needs come first."
Marie found herself blushing. "I wish we had nurses like you at the convalescent home when I was there," she whispered.
Hotaru took that in, and then she found her own cheeks reddening. "Arigatou, Marie-sama." She then giggled. "Lucky for you that we've all had about a decade or so to practice on our bedside manner. If this was sometime during the year after Ataru-sama first visited us, you'd probably want to kill me because I'd be heaping that 'doctors are divine' morality all over you."
The sisters took that in, and then they found themselves gazing at Ataru. He, standing by the door leading into Marie's bathroom, had remained silent throughout the conversation, his eyes fixed on the nurse as she continued her work on his sister. Noting that, Ranma walked over to gaze concernedly into his eyes. "Hey, Ataru, you okay?" she gently asked.
"Hmm? What is it?"
"Would you do me a real great favour?"
"What's that?"
"Pinch me."
Ranma blinked, and then she reached over. Ataru yelped as her fingers squeezed the flesh of his buttocks, and then he focused once more on the young woman administering to Marie. Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Not a dream?"
A sympathetic smile crossed Chikage's face. "It's not a dream, Ani-kun." A pause, and then she added, "Say 'hello' to your harem."
Ataru blinked several times, and then the strength in his legs went. "Excuse me, please . . .!" he moaned before he passed out.
Ranma caught him before he bounced his head off a bulkhead. The others gazed concernedly at him. "Ani-chama sure didn't check that, did he?" Yotsuba noted with a rueful chuckle as she gazed knowingly at Shinshi.
"He certainly didn't," he acknowledged that with a nod.
"Onii-chan," Karen whispered.
* * *
An hour later, most of the people who had ridden out on the Windrider gathered together in the pilotage. Ataru, Ranma and Seiko, along with Reiko and Kaneko, were in the former's cabin, he still unconscious from the shocking words Chikage had dropped on him in Marie's cabin. Marie and Akane were together in the former's cabin. Aria was still asleep in her own cabin. "So you met these girls on the bioroid factory when you went to get Akane's new body," Sakuya recapped after Hinako had explained about events earlier in the day. "And you even met the girl who bonded Onii-sama and Onee-sama together. Hinako-chan, why didn't you think to tell us about this?"
"Because Sylia-san told Hina not to," Hinako replied, trying not to pout. "Sylia-san, Lufy-san and the others were really, really, really afraid that if baka-bakas like that Oogi found out about Onii-tama and the Sagussans, Onii-tama would be really, really, really hurt!"
"Was that when they learned of us, Hinako-chan?" Chikage asked.
"They've been keepin' an eye on Darling all this time?" Nobuko mused.
The youngest sister considered that for a moment. "Hina thinks so."
The sisters stared at the replica-bioroids, they quick to notice the nods and understanding looks. "What do you think?" Haruka asked.
"It's quite simple, Haruka-chan," Shinobi breathed out. "Darling's the Chosen One of the Eternal Voyager."
A chorus of uncomprehending looks responded. "The who?!"
"What does that mean, Shinobi-san?" Karen wondered.
The Oni/Avalonian sighed. "For as long as recorded history has existed in our part of the galaxy, this very large starship has wandered about, obtaining the bodies of young, recently slain, human and humanoid women . . . "
"They're zombies?!" Mamoru exclaimed.
"Mamoru-chan, do any of them look like zombies to you?" Chikage wondered.
The tomboy considered that before she flustered. "Well . . . "
"No one is exactly sure WHY this ship has done that, but people have drawn some surprisingly similar conclusions about its mission since reports on it began," Miree spoke up. "The Eternal Voyager was an agent of a society that possessed almost-magical levels of scientific and medical technology, far beyond Vosian or even Zephyrite levels. If the bodies of the women the Voyager obtained -- the 'Maidens' as we call them -- couldn't be restored to life, cloning could then be used. Plus, there was the odd fact that the Voyager seemed NOT interested in obtaining recently slain human or humanoid young MEN to be husbands for the Maidens. That eventually led many people to conclude that after the last of the Maidens was obtained, a special man would be chosen to be the leader of them all. That theoretical person eventually came to be addressed as the 'Chosen One.'" The Hollywoodite high priestess then sighed before she added, "For the last fifty years, people across the galaxy have wagered quite a lot on who that man might be."
Karen stammered. "And this Chosen One is Onii-chan?! OUR Onii-chan?!"
"Most likely, Karen-chan," Yukiko replied.
"That certainly explains where Darling's harem dreams came from," Mika then mused. "If Darling met the Maidens before Negako-san got fired into his mind and his memories got wrecked, maybe all his girl-chasing was . . . "
"Anigimi-sama's subconscious attempt at locating them," Haruka finished.
"Poor Nii-sama," Shirayuki said, sniffing back tears. "All the time he was made to act like an idiot . . . "
"That's beside the point, Shirayuki-chan," Chikage cut in. "What we have to accept about this situation now, minna, is this: These Sagussans clearly care for Ani-kun in ways that even we could not equal. We have to accept the fact that they will have a place in Ani-kun's life."
"What about Onee-sama, Chikage?!" Sakuya demanded.
The sorceress smirked. "Sakuya-chan, didn't you hear what Hinako-chan said? It was one of Mie's people who bonded Ani-kun and Ane-kun. In fact, I suspect it was that encounter that led the Sagussans to seek Ani-kun out."
"That is more correct than you could believe, Chikage-chan."
Eyes turned to the doorway, where a certain chestnut-haired, blue-eyed woman in a black-and-gold jumpsuit currently stood. Seeing her, Shinobi and Mika's eyes went totally wide on their recognizing Uru's most famous hero of legend. "Noa-sama . . .!" they gasped in unison, the urge to drop to their knees and prostrate themselves before this woman nearly overcoming them.
"From Izumi Noa from Patlabor?!" Rinrin wondered.
Noa tittered. "Close!" she responded. "Actually, in my first life, I was known simply as 'Noa.' After I died, I later came to be addressed as 'Aruka Noa.'" She pointed at Ran's replica. "As Damasu there can tell you, members of Ran's family claim my sister Honey and myself, along with our kinsman Syl, as members of their overall clan."
Hinako perked. "Ah! You mean Sylia-san, right?!"
Hotaru walked up. "Minna-sama, may I present to you the Elder Mother of All Sagussa, Daishi'cha #19282, Noa," she introduced her countrywoman with a wave. "Ashi'cha, the Daimon'cha's sisters and friends."
"Welcome aboard, Noa-sama," Haruka greeted the newcomer with a deep bow.
Noa clasped her hands together in a splayed-finger prayer as she bowed in turned. "I bid you all peace, logic and harmony."
"'Peace, LOGIC and harmony?!'" Rinrin parroted the Sagussan greeting.
Noa straightened herself, giving her hosts a dazzling smile. "As I'm sure you might have heard by now, when we first encountered your brother, we were no better emotionally than the androids that help man this ship. Ataru . . . " -- her smile turned wistful as the memories of that time replayed in her mind -- " . . . helped change that very much. Almost TOO much in some places. Which has, much to our regret, necessitated our return to his life. Believe me when I say this, girls: If we had learned of all of you much earlier, we would've worked to make this encounter far less overwhelming as it must seem." A pause, and then Noa tearfully added, "Our love for Ataru is as great, in our own way, as your own. Please, I beg you, don't look at us as enemies."
The sisters exchanged looks, and then Sakuya sighed. "You guys are all head-over-heels for Onii-sama, aren't you?"
"That could be said," Noa replied.
Laughter responded. Catty and Eluza stepped in. "Ah, Catty-san!" Hinako called as she waved to the doctor.
"They even got an Eluza?!" Rinrin asked, her jaw dropping in shock on seeing the Hasei'cha's shipmistress.
"We do," Noa replied. "Eluza even has a twin sister named 'Fortin.'"
Rinrin's jaw dropped. "From Rhea Gall Force?"
"The same."
Some of the sisters laughed. "Well, I suspect that even names like that are better than you using those numbers stitched into the sleeves of your suits," Chikage noted as she indicated the line of dot-and-slash glyphs on the upper arms of the uniforms the four Sagussans currently wore. "I assume that when Mie initially called Makoto 'Aoaiuiui'io,' she was using the registry number that was stitched on the right breast on her flight suit."
Noa gave the sorceress a look as Yotsuba zipped up to give Eluza's sleeves an inspection with her spyglass. "It seems that even if Sakuya-chan is older than you, Chikage-chan, you're the real 'elder mother' of your family."
Chikage grinned. "I prefer to keep my own skills under wraps, Noa-chan."
"That's what I have to do, too," Noa confirmed with a wink before she stared at her bond-mate. "Let's hear it, love."
Catty took a deep breath. "Makoto has five hours minimum. Maximum six."
Stunned silence fell over the bridge. "Until when?" Yotsuba asked.
The doctor closed her eyes. "Until she dies, Yotsuba-sama."
The sisters blanched. "Can't you save her?!" Sakuya wondered.
"Not without destroying her spirit along the way," Catty responded.
"Tre'cha?!" Eluza asked.
Catty shook her head. "We can't do it, Eluza. I dare not consider moving her body out of the suspension field unless we can guarantee the safety of Makoto's soul while in transit. And if we can't guarantee that, hoping to regenerate her aboard the Hasei'cha . . . "
"Is too big of a risk to take," the shipmistress finished for her.
Seeing the sad looks on the Sagussans' faces, Kaho started to cry. "Can't you do anything to save her, Catty-sensei . . .?"
Catty stared at the cheerleader before she shook her head. "There is one possibility," someone then spoke up.
Eyes locked on Chikage. "I was HOPING you'd say that!" Sakuya exhaled.
"What do you have in mind?" Noa asked.
The sorceress smirked as she pointed to Hinako. "Think of what we were going to obtain when you decided to visit us, Noa-chan."
Eyes locked on the youngest of the sisters -- and the device in her hand. "Tsue-san?!" Hinako then asked.
"Exactly," Chikage responded with a smirk.
Noa stared at Catty. The latter was nodding, a spark of hope flashing in her golden eyes. With that, the Elder Mother took a deep breath before she gazed at Eluza. "Shipmistress, I do believe we better burn anti-protons to get to the Planet of Shadows as quickly as possible."
"Agreed," Eluza said before she tapped her bracelet. "Shildy?!"
"What is it, Eluza?" the Hasei'cha's first officer called back.
"Send Patty and Rabby over here, plus yourself," Eluza ordered. "You'll be taking nominal control of the Windrider for the trip to the Planet of Shadows. As soon as you're over here, we're heading out right away. We're on a strict time limit here, Shildy, so let's shag it!"
"Right away!"
"If you don't mind, Eluza . . . "
Heads turned as Seikou Mie stepped into the pilotage, dressed in her old duty jumpsuit. "Mie-san . . . " Sakuya whispered.
"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaai!" Hinako gushed. "Mie-san remembers everything!"
Eluza and Mie gazed on each other, and then the latter raised her hand to give the former a smart salute. "Daishi'cha #337, Pilot Chief Petty Officer Seikou Mie, reporting for duty, Shipmistress," Mie then declared.
Eluza returned her salute. "You've been AWOL for eleven years, Chief."
Sensing her concern, Mie smirked. "My sister took care of that."
Eluza blinked before she smiled. "Your place is at your lover's side, Mie. In case we don't make it."
Mie took that in before she nodded. "Hai."
She turned to leave. "One more thing, Chief," Eluza then spoke up.
Mie looked over her shoulder. "Ma'am?"
Eluza gave her a look. "Don't ever do that again, Mie. Please?"
"I promise, Eluza," Mie vowed before she headed to the cockpit.
"Ano, Noa-san . . .?"
Noa gazed on Karen. "What is it, Karen-chan?"
"Are you the one who bonded Onii-chan and Onee-chan?"
The Elder Mother blinked, and then she grinned as a flash heralded the arrival of people from a certain OTHER special mission warpsloop. "Actually, no, Karen-chan, I'm not the one." She pointed at Lufy. "She did."
"Ah!" Hinako whooped as she waved the Staff. "Lufy-san! Ayumu-chan!"
"Konban wa, Hinako-chan!" Ayumu hailed with a wave of her own hand as she walked up to Hinako. "Are you guys alright?!"
"Hai, we're okay!" Hinako then frowned. "Except for Makoto-san."
The master chief petty officer of the Sagussan Navy smiled even more. "Don't worry, Hinako-chan! We'll save her . . .!" Her voice was then cut off as a yawn stole all her oxygen. "Oooh! We'll save her after I get some sleep first!" she added tiredly, covering her mouth.
Snickering, Hinako reached over to pull Ayumu with her off the pilotage. "Hai, hai! You can sleep in Hina's bed, Ayumu-chan!"
"Really?! Thanks!"
They left the pilotage. The others exchanged looks. "They even got girls from Azumanga Daioh, too?" Mamoru asked.
Rinrin then asked, "Do you call her 'Os- . . .?!'"
A hand slapped the teen inventor's mouth closed. "Rinrin-sama, a word of advice!" Catty hissed. "If you don't want to have every porthole on this ship blown into space by Ayumu screaming her heart out, don't call her that!"
Rinrin blinked for several seconds, and then she nodded. "Right . . ."
Eluza sighed as she stared at Noa. "Don't tell me, let me guess: Sylia pulled one of her UNODIR messages again?"
"She did!"
People turned as a certain rose-haired, Ellsian-born, Pathfinder-trained master chief petty officer stepped onto the pilotage. "Someone clearly has gotta be a Sonoda Ken'ichi fan on their planet," Yotsuba mused on seeing Nene.
"Got that right," Shinshi added with an appreciative nod.
"What are you guys doing here?" Eluza demanded.
"What do you think?" Nene retorted. "We're gonna sit aside and let you guys have first crack at Ataru-sama? Get real!"
"Nene . . .!" Noa hissed.
Pathfinder Troop Six's coxswain then snapped her fingers. "Oh, by the way! Sylia asked me to pass you a message, Eluza."
"Oh? What's that?"
"'Last one to the Planet of Shadows has no sex with the Daimon'cha!'"
Eluza jolted. "SAY WHAT?!"
Laughter echoed from the front of the pilotage. "Lufy!" Noa moaned.
The Kiboo'cha's shipmistress placed herself in the chair set aside for Reiko. "What Sylia really means is that they're heading to this place right away and we'd better get the lead out if we don't want to miss out on the action!" She stared at the other people in the room. "Hey, whoever of you guys're helping flying this thing, get to your stations! We're heading out!"
"Ah . . .! Um, r-right!" Shinobi stuttered as the replica-bioroids, Miree and her daughters moved to other places on the pilotage.
As the Windrider unfurled her sails for a run to the Planet of Shadows, the sisters shifted down to stand around Lufy. "Ano . . .? Lufy-san?" Karen then asked. "Are you the one who . . . well, bonded Onii-chan and Onee-chan?"
Lufy stopped before turning to gaze apologetically on Ataru's relatives. "I am." She then bowed her eyes. "And there's not a . . . "
She awked as most of the sisters let out a cheer, the younger ones leaping over to swamp the blonde Pirpirsiw'r with warm hugs. Watching this from nearby, Noa smirked as she exchanged a knowing look with Eluza.
* * *
To be continued . . .