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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Josh Temple

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

Chapter 7: Weapon of Choice

"Who are you?"
— Babylon 5, Season 5 Intro.


Ranma walked down the stairs, muttering to himself. "Stupid Ned," he said while walking into the den. Dan was already in the room, lounging on one side the couch, his eyes occasionally drifting onto the glowing box.

"Hey, Dan. You ready for school?" Ranma asked, flopping into the other end of the sectional.

Dan nodded. Then rolling over, he looked at Ranma with a ponderous expression.

"Dude, you should just go to sleep at night," Ranma stated, looking at his nearly inert cousin.

"In the abyss of sleep, dreams are all we have, that is their terrible power," Dan mumbled semi-coherently.

"Right," Ranma simply said. It was far too early to deal with Dan's special grade of insanity. "Anyway, you think this new perimeter's going to be okay? We spent half the night putting it in."

Dan appeared to be in deep thought, as if he were weighing the pros and cons of several interconnected issues.

"And what about our hacker? We've got a list, but who knows if she's on it?"

Dan nodded, still in deep thought.


"Answer me this, Ranma. We aren't technically related, are we?"

"Um… what?" the martial artist asked. Where the hell did that come from?

"Think about it. I'm Sarah's cousin from her father's side, and you're her half-brother from her mother's side."

"Point being?"

"Think about it," Dan said, reaching out to the coffee table.

"What do you—" Ranma said just before Dan tossed the contents of his mug at him. For once, it was not coffee but cold tap water, and thus the curse triggered. The Rose Ring appeared and shifted the girl's clothing, putting her in a green sundress cinched with a rose-patterned dark red belt and light green sandals. Her nails were painted in the same green, her face was made up in a collection of greens, and finally her vibrant red hair was unbound to flow freely. "Damn it, Dan! What the hell?" she demanded.

"I was thinking that as long as we aren't related, we could… you know…."

"What the fuck is wrong with you!" Ranma shouted, suddenly very self conscious as to how she was dressed. "We're both guys!"

"Not anymore," Dan said after shifting into her girl-form and a tight black mini-dress.

Ranma found herself stuck to the couch as the amorous red-eyed girl slid over to her. "What about Allison?" the redhead asked indignantly, as the other girl got even closer.

"It was my idea," the blonde girl said from behind her.

Ranma screamed as the two girls pounced on her.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Ranma asked just after she stopped screaming. She was sitting up in her upper bunk. "Damn! Of all the dreams I'd have to remember," she muttered, climbing down. "Stupid ring," she mumbled, looking at her negligee. When she went to sleep, she wasn't wearing a negligee; but then again, when she went to sleep she was a guy. Resembling a slip, it was comfortable, a lacy pink accented in roses, and showed off her figure nicely. All of which, except for the first, really annoyed her. Mindful of tapping the ring again, she went to her dresser to find some normal clothes.

Putting on a pair slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, she left the room looking for her housemates. The upstairs hallway was silent, but she could hear the soft babble of a distant television. Shrugging, she went down the stairs. Following the source of the sound brought her to the den, where she came to a disturbingly familiar situation.

"How're things going, princess?" Dan asked as he slothfully watched television.

Ranma, who had woken from a rather disturbed dream involving Dan, said: "I am not a princess," rather loudly and forcibly.

"Mail says otherwise," Dan replied, turning his attention back to the television.

"What?" the redhead asked puzzled.

"It's on the kitchen table. No return address, though," he added almost as an afterthought.

"And you just brought it in the house?"

"Chill, Ran-Man, we scanned it. It's clean," Dan said.

"What is it?"

"Some little thing. Go and see."

Ranma shook her head and got up, leaving the room. Anything to get away from Dan. Once at the kitchen table, Ranma looked at the box skeptically. Scattered around it was a collection of junk mail, bills and letters. The white package was about seven inches long by two inches deep and wide. All that was on it was postage and the name: Princess Angel Rose.

Sighing despondently, she tore the ribbon sealing the box and pulled the lid off. Nestled in a bed of foam was a wand. About six inches long, it was a vibrant green shaft ending in a pure white rosebud set in a gold base. When she reached out to touch the wand, her ring started to glow. Curious, Ranma noticed that the closer she brought the ring to the wand, the brighter it became.

Fearful of the repercussions, Ranma pulled back her hand. "Just fucking great," Ranma muttered as she considered what to do. That compact might have the sensors to tell here what the wand was, but Ranma did not want to enter template. Looking at the Rose Ring, she got an idea. Holding her hand open she said the activation phrase, "Rose Compact Activate!" She could feel a bit of power surge within her as the device formed in her hand.

Gah! Why does it always have to be so… girlish, she thought, flipping open the pink, jeweled makeup case. Ranma pointed it at the object in the box. Ranma looked at the display the Rose Compact gave off. "White Rose Wand: used for healing and repairing."

Ranma raised her eyes at this. That doesn't sound too bad. It wasn't very surprising; healing was a mainstay of those princess trinkets. Ranma looked back down at the compact. Even more crap, but at least it might be somewhat useful crap.

With her other hand, she picked up the wand. Ranma could feel the power flowing through it. Energy was coming from somewhere inside her and being focused into the wand. Turning the delicate ivory rosebud to her face, she could feel it building and waiting only to be released, and then Ranma slipped. She was blinded by a flash of pinkish-white light.

The White Rose Wand was by no means intelligent, although confusion would be an adequate description of its current state. The Princess had activated the wand when it was pointed at herself. Now, if she were injured there would be no issue. The wand would go about trying to heal her.

However, the Princess was in perfect condition, aside from some minimal brain damage inflicted when she was a rather young age, but that seemed to be healed and compensated for, although she was not dressed as one would expect. So why was it activated? The Princess was fine but horridly dressed, and had activated the Rose Compact and the Rose Ring. The Princess could have dressed herself properly using the Ring, but did not. The wand, finding no other injuries, took it upon itself to "fix" its broken Princess.

Ranma, fearing whatever what was about to happen, tried to stop the Wand but could not. She felt her clothes morph and blossom out, becoming layered and puffed, until they turned into an ornate ball gown. It was light amethyst and white, with rose accents and small sequins sewn into it. The short and puffy-sleeved dress had bouquets of roses in the center of light green ribbons that pulled up the folds of the skirts and rested on her shoulders. The dress' back opened up to allow for her little angel wings to form into place. Her shoes were then turned into delicate pink pumps.

Her nails became manicured and polished pink, with just a hint of glitter. A choker formed around her neck, this one patterned in vines and roses, with a sunflame diamond in the center; a clear diamond with an orange starburst in the center. A purse then formed onto place. It was circular and purple with sequins. It had a gold clasp with a purple rose etched on it, and a green strap. A pair of jade and ruby bracelets then appeared.

A small rose pin formed onto her lapel. Three pairs of earrings fell into place. The lowest were hanging jeweled roses, the middle was golden hoops, and the highest were silver studs. Makeup formed into place, including but not limited to pink lipstick, blush, eyeliner, green eye shadow, trimmed eyebrows, and elongated eyelashes. A subtle rose perfume then cascaded around her.

Then her hair started to move. It was unbraided, then teased, feathered, and finally was pulled up. Most of her hair was piled on top of her head where it was sculpted into gentle flips off to one side and to the back. The rest of her unbound hair consisted of two sections behind either temple. In a twisted act of irony these were turned into two braids that fell in front of her ears down to her chest. Her hair was then enriched with pink highlights and glittering sparkles.

A simple golden tiara formed. Unlike the Senshi style which goes on the forehead, hers went on top of her head, nestled in her frozen hair. Its centerpiece was a mosaic construed from hundreds of precious stones; naturally, the pattern of a rose. The Rose Ring only changed slightly by simply gaining a few diamonds around the setting. The compact, on the other hand, had transformed completely. In its place was a circular mirror with a silver frame with a crossed handle coming out of the bottom of it. Rose and vine patterns were carved into the entirety of the pristine metal. It was into this crystal clear surface that the redhead saw what she had become.

"What the hells was that about?" Dan asked, coming into the kitchen after hearing a string of expletives that would make a one-eyed carpenter proud. Then he saw the girl. "What the fuck did you do?" he asked, really starting to question the girl's sanity.

"I didn't do nothing. The stupid wand in that damn package of yours turned me into this!" Ranma screamed, still holding the mirror.

"What about that package?" Dan asked, concerned by the angry, intensely-dressed girl.

"Yes, it had this in it," she said gesturing with her ring-less hand, only to find that the wand had disappeared.

"Um, right," Dan said. She's definitely disturbed. "The reason we took the box inside was because it was empty," he said warily. "We thought it was supposed to mess with your head," he did not add. Perhaps there was something in the box — some signal that activated hidden code in Ranma's template. If she lost it, Dan knew roughly what his chances were, template or no template.

"You're wrong! There was something in that box. And there it is!" she cried, pointing above and to the left of her head where the wand was hovering.

The White Rose Wand was again, if not confused, then an approximation of it. This was not how a Princess was supposed to react, especially after being restored to her proper attire. Obviously there was still something wrong with her. Perhaps she needed a nudge in the right direction.

"I don't see anything," Dan said, looking right at where the wand was.

"What are you? Blind? How can you miss something hanging right in front of you? Are you stupid, or just—" And then the wand kicked in. Her voice softened, becoming sweet, refined, and feminine. "I kindly suggest that you look again. Hopefully this time you shall see the artifact that I spoke of," she said finishing with a smile. What the hell? She thought, feeling the unintended words smoothly roll out of her mouth, which for some reason was beaming demurely. This has to be that fucking wand's doing.

"Are you okay?" Dan asked.

Looking at her cousin, shock on her face. I've got to try to tell him what happened, she thought. Formulating the sentence in her mind she tried to say it, but as just before she was about to produce the words they changed, shifting as she said them.

"No. Some sort of maladjusted device has transformed me and is forcing me to talk in a quite unacceptable manner," the ball gown-wearing beauty said, fighting through her feminine and formal speech. "I apologize for the inappropriate situation my wand has created, but it must be remedied," the sparkling, winged redhead said cheerily and softly… despite her best efforts.

Dan raised an eyebrow. Something was definitely wrong here.

Meanwhile, the White Rose Wand was increasing its not-exactly-worry. Despite its efforts, the Princess was not acclimating. In fact, the more the wand helped her, the more she seemed to resist. Something more drastic had to be done. The wand suspected the Princess was this way because of that old brain injury; unfortunately, it was not authorized to alter her mind, so the wand prepared to do the next best thing.

The bejeweled young woman almost smiled on her own. As long as she could explain what had happened to Dan so she could get fixed, things might start looking up. "You, kind sir, must help me by finding and removing this phantom wand," she managed to say before the wand powered up again.

With the first action taken by the wand, a terrible femininity was laid over her body. Speaking her mind, she tried to fight it, but soon found the wand forcing her to speak though a girly, delicate, and regal haze. She could not tell what it had done this time, but it felt proper, it felt right, and she was terrified of it.

Seeing that horrid device above her, she tried to give it the finger, as one last message of defiance. However instead of having all but one of her manicured fingers rolled back into a fist, she found her manicured hand opening her purse. Her other arm then gently deposited her mirror inside. As she closed the clasp, she beckoned towards an unnerved Dan. Wanting to tell him not to freak out, and that the wand was doing all this, she tried to speak.

"I apologize, Guardian Arzish. I appear to have been confused as of late. Perhaps a rest is in order," she said, the horror at her own words and actions in contrast to the womanly grace she radiated.

"Guardian? Ranma, what's going on?"

"Have you forgotten, my dear Arzish? You are one of the Guardians assigned to protect me, the Princess Angel Rose," she asked, concern evident on her flawless face.

Dan was about to shift into template when he felt a soft, dainty hand grasp his. He found himself gently pulled over to her and into a kneeling position. Looking up into her eyes, he watched as her lips touched the back of his hand. The elegantly-feminine creature then spoke, "Noble Guardian, you have sacrificed so much, and believe me, it will not go unrewarded. Now stand with pride," she said kissing his other hand.

Dan stood back up. Ranma had definitely flipped, but at least she was not violent, for now at least. Dan, knowing his delicate position, chose his words carefully. "Um, yes, my princess. Please forgive me."

Her face brightened. "Always, Arzish, always. Oh, silly me! I just put this away." She laughed as she opened her purse. Her delicate hand then slid the item out. She checked in the Rose Mirror and seemed satisfied with her happy overly-beautiful face. After returning it to her purse, she turned to Dan. "Well, I am in need of escort," she said, offering her arm.

"Where to?" he asked the serene-looking young woman.

"I'm sorry, dear, but you should be properly attired as well," she said, not wanting to do what she was about to do, but having no choice.

"Sorry. If you'll let me to go to my room," Dan said, hoping to get some distance. Then he might be able call the others, maybe organize something.

"No need," Princess Angel Rose said, opening her purse to take out the White Rose Wand. Satisfied that Princess was in a correct state of mind, the wand compiled with its mistress. Mentally cringing but outwardly smiling, she watched as glowing energy from her ring and wand consumed Dan.

After being shifted into girl-form, her hair grew even longer, reaching mid-back. Her purple dyed bangs had also lengthened and pulled back, braided by deep red ribbons into the rest of her rich chestnut hair in a complex and beautiful structure of flowing hair and tight braids. Then her clothing changed. Fuku, bodysuit, high-heeled boots, ribbons, and white gloves all formed. Her skirt was a deep purple. Her ribbons were the same dark red as her eyes, which were being highlighted by eyeshadow and liner, long lashes, and thin, arched eyebrows. Soft blush formed on her face, contrasting with her deep violet lipstick.

Jewelry then started to coalesce. Spherical hanging earrings came into place, glowing like red suns. The gems in her silver tiara were brilliant faceted gems twinkling like a chevron-shaped constellation. Her choker was black with an amethyst heart-shaped gem in the center, surrounded by diamonds in a starburst pattern. Finally, brightly shining particles — stardust, for lack of a better name — rained down onto her, sticking on her clothes and hair sparkling brightly where they landed, completing the girl.

After she had been put in her girl-form, her clothes had been replaced by this magical girl gear and she was in template. Somehow, someway, this Princess had hacked into Dan's template, modifying it so that it would work in this form, and adding the appropriate costume changes. She was still a cyborg, but she was also a beautifully coiffed cyborg.

"However, something is amiss," the princess pondered, looking over the newly-transformed girl.

Dan was too shocked to make an intelligible response, and simply continued trying to organize her thoughts.

"That would be the missing element," Princess Angel Rose said, powering up her wand again. The newly-changed girl felt the back of her fuku open up, followed by the growth of wings. Similar in size and shape to the Princess' flight wings, these almost reached the floor, giving her a wingspan close to her total height. Violet, save for the tips which were a deep crimson, her wings were sprinkled in the same glowing motes that covered her clothing, hair, jewelry, and makeup.

"There. Now, do you not feel better?" the Princess inquired happily, her inner shame completely contained.

"You made me a Senshi?" the purple-highlighted brunette said, getting the sensations from her new anatomy. Gods, these things are real. They're a part of me. They've even been integrated into my wetware, she thought in mute awe and horror.

"Yes, it would be inappropriate to call you a Guardian now," she said, looking over the transformed girl. "I know," Princess Angel Rose exclaimed gleefully, "In battle, I am called Sailor Rose Angel; you shall be Sailor Nova Angel."

"Um… Right, Princess. Thank you," the newly-christened Sailor Nova Angel said, aware that she was treading a very thin line. First Ranma transforms herself into this thing, and then she starts modifying others, all the time ranting about wands, guardians, and other nonsense. "So where shall we go?" Sailor Nova Angel asked, wondering if she would need to find her keys.

Princess Angel Rose considered this. "I believe I shall meet my sister. How do you think she will receive me?"

Sailor Nova Angel thought about Sarah and Allison, up at the range practicing with handguns. "It will be interesting," she allowed, running a gloved hand over her hair and twitching her wings. Oh yeah, very interesting.

The princess brightened. "I do believe you are quite right. Well, lead on," she said, tugging at Nova's arm

Sailor Nova Angel nodded and started to take her through the kitchen. Unlike Ranma — or the girl that seemed to have replaced Ranma — she had very little experience in heels and walked rather unsteadily. She looked back to see the beautiful girl enjoying herself. By the time Sailor Nova Angel had reached the back door, she was reasonably sure she would not fall flat on her face.

Raising her hand to her face, she said, "My dear Nova, you are out of sorts." She then stepped through the door and onto the deck.

Before taking her off the porch and up the path, Sailor Nova Angel spoke up, "Won't you be cold, Princess? Surely your gown will get caught on the way up."

She giggled, the sound like chiming bells. "You do fuss over me. For is not your dress so much shorter than mine?" she joked as they walked the path up to the range. "See," she said, deftly walking on the uneven ground despite her heels and managing to avoid snags in her extensive dress. Satisfied with her restoration work, Princess Angel Rose vanished into the White Rose Wand, to await when she was needed again.

"Damn Allison, she had to take the one downstairs," Sarah grumbled as she closed the bathroom door. She was walking down the upstairs hallway when she heard the sounds of sheetrock breaking and mindless screaming. Shifting into template, she ran to room where the sounds originated. Easily kicking the door open, the power suit-wearing girl scanned the bedroom.

There was Ranma sitting up in her bed, removing her fist from the ceiling. Her eyes were focused intently on something far away as she gibbered to herself. Sarah looked briefly at her HUD, but the display only showed the energy signals being given off by other redhead. "What happened?"

Ranma looked down at the girl, a puzzled expression on her face. "You're in template?"

"Yeah," Sarah said, adjusting the grip on her gun.

"Okay, good then," Ranma said, eyeing the holes in the ceiling.

"Was this just a nightmare?" Sarah inquired.


"The cats?"

"Um, I don't quite remember," Ranma said after a slight hesitation.

"What's going on?" Dan's voice asked over Sarah's headset.

"Looks like bad dreams," Sarah replied into the microphone.

"Scan?" Dan asked.

"Couldn't hurt," Sarah replied.

"You got a comm system working," Ranma observed.

"Yeah. We're still testing it, though. Although I don't know if your template will take the code."

"I'm sure it'll absorb it just fine," Ranma said, sighing.

Sarah heard her cousin's voice come in on the encrypted channel. "Well, Dan says the perimeter is secure. That's good."

"But it was just a dream."

"Okay then," Sarah said before dropping out of template. "Look, bro, once Allison gets out of the bathroom, I suggest you take a long hot shower," Sara said, noting Ranma's sleep problems.

Ranma picked up the spoon. After balancing it on his right index finger, he watched the flatware rock back and forth. The oscillations increased until the cutlery slipped off his finger. His eyes tracked the descending object, and when it fell the correct height, he closed his middle finger to his left thumb. Now holding the spoon at the base where the handle met the scoop, he pondered it. Half asleep, he looked into the distorted reflection.

Sarah looked up from her notebook to see Ranma holding his utensil in front to his face. His eyes had that faraway yet cognitive look. The only thing Sarah could equate it to were those 3-D pictures, the ones where your eyes had to be unfocused just right in order to see the shapes emerge from the static.

The redhead looked at the others at the table. Her cousin was more zonked out than her brother, being asleep next to his customary mug of coffee. Allison was humming a little song to herself while cutting her toast into small cubes. Sarah put her pencil down next to the unfinished physics problem and resumed eating her cereal.

There is an almost gleeful sense of resignation that happens when one realizes that no matter how hard one tries, no matter the effort, the assignment cannot and will not be completed. It's the sick freedom and comfort that only comes when you accept failure. It is a sensation cherished by generations of slackers.

And this was why Sarah asked her question in an offhand and cheery voice, despite the early hour.

"Huh?" Ranma asked while still looking at the spoon.

"I said: Are you worried about the problem set that's due today?" Sarah repeated, some of the cheer gone from her voice.

"Problem set?" Ranma asked, putting his spoon down.

"You're almost as bad as Dan."

"The marmosets are burning though the hull. We have to get to the freezer before the sparkplugs thaw," Dan mumbled, still asleep and in the calm, ordered voice of someone reading VCR directions.

"That's nice," Sarah stated as she took her relative's lunacy in stride. Then, to Ranma: "So what's the problem? Still thinking about that dream?"
"Um… nothing, nope," Ranma said. Looking between the now inaudibly babbling Dan, and Allison, who appeared to be building a standing circle out of bouillon cube-sized chunks of toast, he continued, "Just tired, I guess."

"Well, we've still got ninety minutes 'til school," she said, after looking at the clock on the microwave.

"Yeah, but I couldn't get back to sleep," Ranma said, digging his spoon to the bottom of his still-dry cereal and leaving it buried.

"See, it's normal," Allison responded, now carefully forking the cubes into her mouth.

Sarah glanced at Dan, who was now quietly listing the virtues of sandpaper. "Yeah, I really shouldn't be worried about him."

"Oh, he'll be fine in a half hour or so."

"Yeah, that's what's unsettling."

Allison shrugged, and then changed the subject. "So, have you checked the new sensor net again?"

"Yup, it seems to be up," Sarah stated with a slight edge, the glee of her slacking now entirely gone.

"What?" Allison asked, catching the redhead's tone.

"She's probably just concerned that Ned gave us the system just so that he can watch us," Ranma said in a bored tone, while looking into his spoon, now filled with cereal and milk.

"Yeah, but why don't you care? I mean, you were hostile to him during the night's setup," Allison asked

"Just a bit angry that he was checking out my girl form when we were in the truck," Ranma replied a little too evenly.

Sarah caught the odd tone and paused, thinking over his statement.

"Well, you can't blame Winston for it. You were in a rather interesting dress, and all he did was scope you out. Perfectly normal," Allison countered, forking up the last of her toast.

"I shouldn't be having this conversation. I'm a guy," Ranma grumbled; only slightly perturbed, Sarah noticed.

"Ned doesn't know that," Allison said, getting up.

"I guess he's never seen me as a guy, has he?" Ranma asked his sister.

Sarah looked up from the textbook she was vacillating over. "Nope. I don't think so." Then, after a sigh: "I guess I could get back to work. If I do a few more problems, then I might not fail."

"What's this I'm hearing?" Allison asked after washing her dishes. "Since when did you start caring about that stuff?"

"I'm not a degenerate like the rest of you," Sarah stated.

"Slacker you are a," Dan muttered, finally saying something halfway coherent.

"Looks like he's waking up. Darn. I was sure that after last night, he'd sleep till noon."

"We weren't up that late putting in the sensor net," Sarah defended… before realization dawned. "Oh God," she then stated with slight disgust.

"I don't even want to know," Ranma said, focusing on eating his breakfast.

"What?" Allison asked. "We're two healthy, consenting—"

Sarah cut her off. "That's not it."

"Oh, is it the 'bi' thing?"


"Then what?"

"That you used his body just so that you could drive today," Sarah said.

"Well, that was a fringe benefit," Allison admitted, "But that wasn't the only reason."

"How do they get grain to glow in the dark?" Ranma noted.

"Come on, Ran-Man, Allison's talked about sex before," Dan said, sitting up and sipping his coffee.

"What the…? When'd you get up?" Sarah noted with surprise.

Dan shrugged.

"So I'm not driving today?" Allison asked.

"Nope," Dan said, calmly taking another sip of the now-tepid beverage. "But I do appreciate last night."

Sarah suddenly got up and dropped her dish in the sink.

"Where're you going?" Allison asked, leaning on the counter.

Sarah picked up her notes and textbook. "I'm going to try and finish the problem set."

"Why?" Dan asked, finally draining his mug.

Sarah paused at the entryway to the kitchen. "To rid myself of some guilt," she replied honestly, going into the den.

"Okay then," Dan said, saluting her with his mug and walking over to the coffee machine.

"I should get going too," Allison said, leaving the room.

"So," Dan said, getting back to his seat.

"Yup," Ranma said, resuming his meal.

Dan took a long pull from his refilled cup. "Ah, congealing."

Ranma looked at the mug. It was a simple ceramic mug, glazed dark blue. On the surface was an intricate inverted grey "V", a gate chevron, and inside that were the letters SGC. "You get that from the show's website?"

"Something like that," Dan said, taking another sip.

"I know you're trying to bait me into asking about how you got that mug."

Dan simply shrugged.

"Sometimes I wonder how much that blonde has warped you," Ranma said, just before he mentally connected the dots.

Dan watched as the other teen's face darkened slightly.

"So. You've had sex as a girl?" Ranma asked, a bit more than slightly unnerved.

"Well, it was with Allison, so technically…." Dan paused, considering the technicalities of the issue. "Sure. I guess I did."

"But why?"

"What? Both forms have their pros and cons," Dan stated in a voice that would normally be used to decide between two brands of shaving cream: the Gillette cream goes on smoother while the Pro-Edge shaves closer.

Ranma blinked, and then slowly, deliberately rammed his head into the table.

"To tell you the truth, I had a similar reaction at first, but you get used to it," Dan said before taking another sip of coffee.

Opening the back door, Ranma looked up the mountain. For Wyoming, it was a smallish hill, but that's for Wyoming. "Damn," he muttered, noticing the flag fluttering at the top of the pole. The observation was punctuated by a rifle shot cracking down the slope.

"Amazing," Ranma thought as he walked up the path, relatively at ease to the gunfire. No danger sense, no sounds of commotion, just someone practicing before school. Something that he was planning to do.

Reaching the leveled ground of the range, Ranma turned to see Allison lying on the ground. Cradled by her shoulder and arms was a powerful-looking rifle. Running along the top of it was a largish scope. Ranma watched as the blonde lined her sight up through the scope, gently swiveled the gun into position, curled her index finger so that it was just over the trigger, calculated for wind and bullet drop, confirmed her target, flipped off the safety, then holding her breath and stabilizing the weapon perfectly, she applied a gentle consistent pressure to that flange of metal.

As it released its projectile, the gun bucked up slightly. The girl brought it back down, and then worked the bolt. After twisting the lever attached to the side of the bolt, she pulled it back, releasing the spent brass. She then slammed the bolt back home, the mechanism picking up another cartridge from the magazine, ramming it up the feeder ramp and into the breach. Twisting the bolt back again secured the chamber, seated the bullet and cycled the action.

The blonde repeated her sighting process and fired another round.

Ranma would never understand weapons users, especially those who preferred firearms. He could give the devices an extremely begrudging respect. Granted, there was something to the smooth cold precision to them, the sense of power, and ultimately, responsibility; but still. They seemed a cheap, cowardly way out. A shortcut to gain power and range. Something that was very far from the Art.

When he told Sarah that, the girl cocked her head to the side and laughed slightly. She agreed completely. For her, Dan, and the others, fighting had no spiritual side, no grace, and no beauty. It was ugly, dirty, hateful work.

When you pulled that trigger on someone, it would do significant damage. A skilled person could prevent lethal shots, but even a wound to the extremities would shatter bone, tear muscle, destroy flesh. There was no way around it. The shot you fired could not be pulled back and the consequences must be accepted.

This formed a vastly different approach to combat than Ranma was used to. In Nerima, a fight could break out, and while there would be massive property damage and people would get hurt, they'd be fine in a few days. There was no permanence to it. As maddening as the fights were, they were mostly harmless. The Art centered on using just enough power as the situation warranted.

Here, things were a bit different. Ranma remembered when Ned sniped that mech, fully intent on killing the pilot. He didn't know that it was remotely operated and accepted the very likely possibility that he would end a life. But that was the mentality here; you did what was necessary to survive combat, and if that meant killing the enemy, then oh well. They shouldn't have attacked you in the first place.

Only the hacker bitch's unwillingness to show herself or employ human lackeys prevented someone from being killed.

He then remembered something that Sarah had told him. "'God may have created man, but Samuel Colt made him equal'. Maybe that's why people don't like guns. It makes a level playing field. That's the problem with equalizers; many are not satisfied with being 'equal'." Sarah had gone on, but that was the only part that had stuck in his mind. The rest of what his sister said boiled down into that venerable quote from Ben Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility."

And what if guns allowed the irresponsible to get power quickly and easily? Should the responsible and law-abiding be punished because of the deeds of others? Should the rights of all be restricted due to the actions of criminals and incompetents, and if so, how much?

Ranma had no idea as to the answers of these questions, but he had seen the argument from the other side. He knew people who had given the majority of their life to, or spent the majority of their life at, arts, and for what? To make a mockery of the Art. To use their skills to steal, cheat, and bully. Years of skill and technique squandered on petty rivalries.

Honor seemed to be less dependent on the weapon than on the individual; it relied more on how one fought and for what one fought than the weapon used.

Allison had fired her last round. She dropped the empty clip into her hand, and looked over her shoulder to see the standing teen. "Hey, Ran-Man. I'm about done now."

Ranma raised his eyebrow. "I thought only Dan called me that."

Allison shrugged as she got up and went downrange to retrieve her targets.

"Nice," Ranma remarked when she got back.

"Not really. Some of my shots strayed out of the X-ring," Allison remarked, pointing to the few ragged holes that were not quite entirely inside the innermost circle.

Ranma looked at the embankment where Allison had taken her targets from, at the far end of the range — easily over two hundred yards. Skill and control are not the exclusive domains of martial arts. A gun is just that, a tool. A rather powerful tool, one that could kill, but so could anything else, really. And like any tool, especially those that are weapons as well, firearms require a certain amount of skill, respect, responsibility, and even reverence to be used to their full potential.

Ranma glanced at the complex, yet elegantly simple machine. It wasn't something that he would truly understand or love, and truth be told, still loathed. But from the perspective of one professional to another, he could respect the people who used them, if not the devices themselves.

"All yours," Allison said. She disassembled her gun and placed the parts into their carrying case. She then handed him a small handheld computer. On its screen was the incoming feed from the sensor net. The display was clear of echoes. Allison knelt down to retrieve her brass, pocketing the spent casings — undoubtedly saving them so they could be used again to make new rounds.

"Right," Ranma said, eyeing the now open range. It was amazing how a few words could turn a no man's land into a simple field. He watched the blonde pick up her gun case and walk down the path back to the house.

Ranma looked at the small palm-pilot. Using the touchpad, he set it so that it would set off an alarm if the sensor net detected something… out of place. He pocketed the computer, still wary of trusting such a mechanism.

Falling into a familiar stance, Ranma allowed his body to execute a set of moves, before falling into another block of commands.

Balance, control, technique.

Ranma's mind cleared, concentrating only on the flawless performance of muscle and bone, body and mind. Like an MP3 ripper thumbing through his playlists, or a book collector walking his stacks, or a winetaster sampling his finest vintages, Ranma scrolled though his own collection, reacquainting himself with old moves and past fights. Then using these past elements as a baseline, he expanded out, recombining, innovating, creating.

Optimization, improvisation, planning.

After a minute or so, an errant thought entered his mind. I really shouldn't have lied to Sarah at breakfast. Ranma allowed this thought to roll in his mind while he queued up another kata.

I didn't lie to her, he added.

Yes, I did, Ranma thought next in his curious little monologue.

Nope. I did have problems sleeping.

And it had nothing to do with the fact that I was sleeping as a girl?

But I was a guy when I went to bed.

Yup. Really should have told them about that.

Nah, it's just the curse.

And what about the negligee?

It's just that damn ring I now have in my girl-form.

And nothing about the dreams.

What dreams? Ranma thought, but there he hit a dead end. The martial artist knew that he dreamed, but rarely could he remember them in the morning. It was only those few that unnerved him that stuck into his mind, like that one about Kuno, or the one with the pit filled with glowing, hungry eyes.

The reminder of the neko-ken almost made him pause, but Ranma was in mid-flip. It wasn't until he made the landing that he stopped. Ranma pushed those thoughts aside, or tried to. Even when it was locked away in a far-off corner of his mind, the "training" still left its taint, a sickly-sweet trail of madness. It was another part of the legacy of Genma.

Still standing, Ranma tried to concentrate on something else. It was common knowledge that purposely trying not to think of something was one of the surest ways of getting it stuck in your mind, so Ranma tried to think about other things.

Anything to keep his mind off the dark and the yellow eyes. No, stop that. Think of something else, anything else.

Cereal. Yes, that would do the trick. Nice crunchy cereal. Wholesome grains supersaturated with sugars, dyes, and luminescent filaments. "Damned dead idiot," Ranma muttered, mentally cataloging his breakfast: Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, special glow-in-the-dark version, milk, two percent, pulpy orange juice — well not that pulpy, a little but not too much…

That was it: nice, dry, dull, mind-filling nonsense. What else, Ranma thought when his forced interest began to wane. Hey, I used a bowl too, a glass and a spoon. Spoons, they're funny things, Ranma silently monologued while visualizing the mirrored flatware.

Huh, why'd I take note of that? I mean yeah, spoons are shiny. So what? his train of thought continued.

The spoon does nothing save distort reflections.

Great. I'm getting weird again. Oh well, beats the alternative.

Then again, all reflections are distortions of reality.

Yes, very nice. Good to have a distracting train of thought.

That's why the spoon was so disturbing; it was a reminder of earlier in the morning.

What? I woke up and went to the bathroom, and then… Oh crap.

Oh crap, indeed.

I was girl. Didn't go to sleep as one, and I didn't notice that I was one.

That wasn't what set me off.

What then? Ranma asked, only to be met with mental silence.

At least that got my mind off of those things, Ranma thought, resuming losing himself in the Art.

Allison stood at the back door to the house, holding the field glasses that she kept in her gun case. She pulled them out after seeing some movement from the range. Considering the small glen of trees that sat between the house and the terraced land, that she even noticed Ranma was noteworthy. It was just a glimpse; something she caught out of the corner of her eye.

She had turned, having some idea of what to expect, but still awed and more than a little jealous.

Perhaps awe is a bit weak, Allison thought as she watched the martial artist. Amazed may be more appropriate, Allison appended. He's more powerful than most templates right now. No, it's not quite power. More like skill and control. Allison could have dwelt on the sheer wonderment of these feats, but that was less interesting than how Ranma became this way, and how being like this affected him.

Here was someone with dedication, someone who'd spent their whole life working to obtain one goal. Well, Ranma was not that singleminded, but he was close. Her eyes, while being rather sharp, could not quite range the distance. She had then opened her gun case to get out the small pair of binoculars kept there.

Putting them to her eyes, she had watched him, observing the blurred movements; this was someone with complete, perhaps obsessive, dedication. If he chose to, Ranma could, within a matter of days, match and surpass weapons skills that she had spent years on.

Allison added pity to the mix of emotions, something that she rarely felt, for this focus came with a price. Ranma's life seemed to be a string of other people's mistakes, as if he was the receptacle the universe used to dump the remainder of its chaos. Even here, where Ranma had a reasonably stable home life and family that he could count on, he was plagued by outside circumstances.

He was different, alien, special, and unique. Even in a place like Lockridge, he was something else. If Ranma ever embraced that cursed template of his, what she could do would be terrible and beautiful.

Allison knew that her jealousy was normal. To not be moved by that teen's symphony of flesh would be a dangerous denial of reality. The blonde knew she had her own things that made her unique; the quicksilver gland, her mechanical and computer skills, Dan. But more important was Allison's drive to not be petty. She knew what that kind of insecurity did to people.

Watching Ranma, she noticed something sad about the scene. He was practicing in a blank field. It looked artificial, imposed, like watching a bear in a cage. Allison knew that Ranma normally practiced somewhere out in the vast forested hills that extended around the house, but now, with the sensor net and the knowledge that they were being watched, Ranma was restricted.

No one told him that he had to practice there today, just like no one told him he had to sleep as a girl while in his sister's room. To Allison, these seemed to be the result of him being Japanese. A sense of obligation or burden to politeness; nothing too large, no formalities in his speech (but that could be due to the issue of language) no overt politeness, just little things. Allison believed that Sarah said it best: Man, Nerima sure did a mind-job on you.

Or perhaps Ranma felt guilty that people he'd known for less than a month were willing to fight for him, and that his presence had gotten them hurt. Allison knew that to be false; their hacker bitch had been messing with their files for some time now. Ranma may have been a catalyst to these events, but that hardly placed him at fault. As for helping him, that's what you do for family. Ranma was her boyfriend's cousin, and that was that.

Then something odd happened. Ranma stopped. Allison watched him stand there, his mouth closed, his face guarded, but still the blonde had the nagging sensation that he was in a conversation, or maybe having a little internal monologue. She had seen people space out like this before, but not Ranma. Well, this could be a normal part of his training regimen, Allison thought, refocusing her binoculars.

"And what are you doing?" Sarah asked through the ajar doorway.

"Just watching Ranma," Allison said, slightly startled at the redhead's sudden appearance. "I thought you were studying," the blonde stated, letting the binoculars rest on the strap that she had fed around her neck

"I gave up," Sarah said, coming out onto the back porch.

"Good for you."

Sarah made a grab for the binoculars, the blonde choking as she was pulled in close. "If I didn't already know you were like this, I'd be unsettled," Sarah said, looking at her sibling.

Allison wrenched the magnifying device out of the other girl's hands. 'What? It's not like I'm related to him."

"Her," Sarah said, raising an eyebrow.

"Huh," Allison said. Sure enough, the pigtailed teen had resumed practicing, this time possessing red hair. The blonde then focused in on Ranma. "Well, at least she's got the sense to wear a bra now."

"I will not have you corrupt my entire family," Sarah remarked, mostly joking. "And besides, you know that Ranma's like that because of that stupid ring."

"You know as much as she does what it's like with those things," Allison remarked, ignoring one redhead and intently watching the other.

"I'm not going to let you draw me into an argument about breasts."

"Aw. Why not? They are very fun."

Sarah looked at the maddeningly jovial expression on the other girl's face. Her eye twitched slightly. "No. No. Not going to. Just walk away, O'Neil," Sarah muttered, retreating back into the house.

Allison smirked. Sometimes it was so easy.

Dan was working in the garage. The hood to the beast was open. A collection of cables of various sizes ran from the guts of the machine into a laptop balanced over the coolant reservoir. Sitting on the nicely warm manifold was the pot of coffee from breakfast.

Whistling a little tune that would have made Jhonen Vasquez shudder and H.P. Lovecraft crave the sweet release of opium — that is until, Cthulhu's big buddy realized that he should really stop pining after Poe — Dan fiddled with his machines. After all, just because a deranged cyborg was happily working on a vehicle made to look like Chevy had a factory on Z'Ha'Dum — or at least hired out certain associates to consult the design — was no reason to be concerned. The squirming black paint, the refurbished helicopter engine, the various upgrades… these were eccentric, but mostly harmless.

However, the device that bore a strong resemblance to a piece of artillery was another matter. It sat in the bay next to the truck and looked to be a cross between a heavy machine gun and small cannon. Indeed, the two parallel barrels and the elevated frame seemed to confirm this assessment.

Idle thoughts passed through Dan's mind as he worked between the truck, computer, largish weapon, and the various tool chests. "I like pants. Doom! What this thing needs is a decent fire-control computer. Ohio will pay for its impudence. No, we need more power in the drive train. Doom? My boobs itch. Okay, this bolt isn't metric or US customary. What the hell? We don't have breasts. Use a vise-grip. Sometimes we do. Someone entered the room. Be quiet about those damn pants, what we need is a fish magnet. Those don't exist. So, it's just Ran-Man. Need Caffeine. Allison may be trying to kill me. So? She's hot. I still say we should put in wire guidance. Mmmm, manifold brewed. She's looking at us funny. There is no us. So you say."

At first Ranma was amused when she entered the workshop. She watched the older teen, sans his ubiquitous trench coat, scuttled around the room, quietly muttering to himself. It was after Dan looked up and said something about fish or magnets and then returned to work that Ranma grew concerned.

After shouting his name a few times, Ranma finally got Dan to look up. The response was pleasantly coherent.

"Oh sorry, I just kinda zoned out," Dan said before he noticed exactly what Ranma was wearing. It was bit unusual, but not much.

"No problem," Ranma said, knowing all to well what that was like. "It was bad enough when Earthforce adapted Shadow Tech, but at least they used it in spaceships," Ranma observed, looking at the truck.

"Ah, so you've watched some B5 after all," Dan said, amused.

"A little," Ranma admitted.

"So what can I do for you?" Dan said, cleaning his hands with Permatex Fast Orange fine pumice handcleaner. "We don't have to leave for ten minutes or so."

"Well, things haven't exactly been going well lately," Ranma said.

"Ran-Man, it's me, Dan. You can trust me," he said, making his eyes glow slightly.

"Um, right. Have you had any strange things happening with your curse?"

"Well, there was this one time after Allison has just put her—"

"Stop," Ranma sternly said. "Anything else?"

"Well, in a few weeks there may be some natural degradation."


"Unlike your curse, mine's a copy, and since Calash really can't decode the curse, it's not perfect. That, and non-Calash magic's always been fluky here."

"Oh, so it's falling apart?" Ranma said, not at all relieved on that prospect. Without the curse, she could not turn back into a guy, though this did help explain some of the problems with her curse.

"Yeah, but I can just reinstall it."

"Ah, well, that's good," Ranma said, knowing that the same could be done for her. "So aside from that, you've got nothing weird with you?"

"Nope," Dan said, gathering and putting away his tools. "What's going on? You still upset that I'm using the curse like this?"

"Well, a little bit. It's just that for a while, my curse and the template's been acting off."

"Ah. That ring? Don't worry; sometimes templates have leakage into the host's mundane form. Allison's still got the quicksilver gland in her head, and I have a couple of things. Undoubtedly, you've got access to some of your stuff. It makes sense. Often times magical girls can use certain powers untransformed."

"I am not a magical girl," Ranma said, despite the little rose ring and the matching theme in her wardrobe.

"Yes, you are," Dan replied gleefully. "But hey, so are Sarah and Allison."

Ranma looked at Dan, sighing. "Are you gonna listen to what I'm saying?"

"Um, okay," Dan said, just a little distracted.

"You know how I was a bit out of it at breakfast?"

"Nope," Dan replied cheerfully.

"Oh yeah. Well, that's not the point; I was out practicing later, and, as you can see, changed."

Dan cleared the engine compartment of foreign parts and was about to close the hood. "So? Seems reasonable enough to train in both forms," Dan said, trying not to notice the little shorts and tight rose-print tee that the redhead was wearing. He wasn't doing too badly; she did look like his cousin. Well, maybe not identical, but rather close. That helped a lot, and in Dan's defense, Ranma was a rather stretchy girl.

"That's not it," Ranma said, ignoring Dan. Damn, I should have changed back before I came to talk to him, she thought, before entertaining the thought of telling Allison what Dan was doing. On the one hand, she might punish Dan, but on the other hand, the neurotic blonde might be into it. Ranma remembered seeing Allison try to hide those binoculars and shuddered.

In the end, she decided not to, recalling exactly how Allison punished her boyfriend. Back in Nerima, there were girls after him and there were people after his girl side, but there weren't any girls after his girl side… Well, there was that one time. "Dan! Look up here," Ranma said, snapping her fingers.

"Sorry," Dan replied sheepishly. "Hell of a time to forget my sunglasses," he muttered under his breath.

Ranma let the remark slide and continued. "The problem is that I didn't know I'd changed until I was done."

"So? That's happened to me," Dan said nonchalantly as he closed the hood.

Ranma paused, glaring at the darkly dressed teen.

"Oh yeah, you don't want to hear any of those stories."

"Why do I even try talking to you?" Ranma said, rubbing her temples. Then noticing Dan's slight amusement. she continued, "Anyway the problem is that it doesn't feel like a problem. I mean, I unconsciously turn into a girl, and don't notice it until my top gets tangled in my bra, and the worst part is that it doesn't feel wrong or twisted."

"Well. it did feel tang—" Dan started.

"No, no puns," Ranma said, cutting him off, realizing what she'd just said.

"Okay then," Dan said, before responding to the topic at hand. "So you're getting used to the curse?"

"No! That's the problem. It should be driving me crazy, but it isn't!"

"Yes, it is," Dan said flatly.

"No, the fact that I'm not going crazy from all this crap with curse and template is making me nuts."

"Stop analyzing this shit. Okay?" Dan said calmly. "See this?" he said, holding up his left arm. Midway between the wrist and elbow of the limb was a long, thin scar that encircled the arm in an oblique slant.

"Didn't that happen in your template?"

"Yes, but remember your temp isn't some separate entity. It is a part of you," Dan stated, picking up his coat.

"Point being?"

"Just that," Dan said, slipping the black trench on. With his black boots, pants, and shirt, all that was missing were those dark sunglasses.

"So you're saying that since the template's a part of me, the weird shit it pulls wouldn't make me feel all unsettled," Ranma said skeptically

"Um, sure. Why not?" Dan stated, taking a pull at the coffee pot.

"But that's the exact sort of thing that should freak me out!" Ranma exclaimed.

"So you're freaking out at not freaking out. Same result."

"No, this thing's…" Ranma said, holding up her ring, "…pulling all this shit with me, and you say it's going to feel normal to me."

"Yeah, that's about it."

"If it wasn't already happening to me…." Ranma trailed off, not wanting to complete the thought.

"I know," Dan admitted, understanding the implication. "But at least you're not going around like a ditzy magical girl."

"Yet," Ranma glumly appended.

Dan shrugged noncommittally.

"I'm real glad we had this little talk," Ranma said sarcastically before leaving the garage.

"Me too," Dan said solemnly once Ranma had left.

"Now, why are we going to school today?" Ranma asked from the back seat.

"Well, we do have a problem set due in physics class," Sarah said.

"Huh? I thought we were in chemistry class?"

"We've got both this semester."

"That explains why my notes don't make any sense," Ranma said with some slight relief.

"You still take notes?" Allison remarked from her customary front seat.

"Why do I even try?" Sarah stated.

"Hey, Ran-Man, you've got mail," Dan remarked as he flipped through the contents of their mailbox.

Allison's face darkened. "Never, ever, say that phrase again." The blonde held out her hand to Dan, the quicksilver beginning to drip off the nails.

"Um… okay," Dan said, chastising himself for the slip-up. Allison had no problem with incantations or sacrifices to mad gods, but make one comment about a certain company…. "I was just saying that Ran-Man's got some mail."

"What?" Ranma asked, concern on his face. For some reason the prospect of getting mail disturbed him greatly.

"Well, that's great. Is it some statement of challenge, or whatever the hell those knuckleheads in Nerima do?" Sarah inquired.

"It could be from our hacker bitch. She seems like the type to get the kick out of taunting us through snail-mail," Allison suggested.

"Oh, it's worse than that," Dan remarked, handing over the letter.

Ranma skimmed the symbols on the envelope, with growing relief, "So what? It's just a credit card application."

"Don't you see?" Allison said, turning to face Ranma her eyes enclosed in silver.

"It knows you are here. It knows your name," she said in a charged voice.

Ranma raised an eyebrow at the blonde's theatrics before tearing the junk mail in half.

"Oh, very nice," Sarah said clapping her hands. "But Lita was a redhead, wasn't she? Oh, and her eyes turned black."

"Actually," Allison said, dissipating the quicksilver. "It was Ivanova who said that one."

"Oh. Sorry, then."

"This does raise the question of how this company found me," Ranma said.

"Not really. Hell, my cousin once got one of those addressed to his dog," Allison remarked.

"Hmm. Was that the one with the glass eye, or the one in the asylum?" Dan asked, returning to the pile of mail.

"No, it was Bill."

"Ah, he writes for 'Soldier of Fortune', doesn't he?"

"That's the one."

"Huh? I didn't expect them to get this out that fast," Dan said.

"Oh, your card came?" Allison asked.

"Yup," Dan said, handing over the solid-looking envelope.

Allison tore into the envelope, withdrawing a small laminated card. "Man, there's no such thing as a good driver's license photo," the blonde remarked at the little photo.

"My bangs didn't even line up evenly," Dan noted while looking at the ID card.

"Bangs?" Ranma asked, looking at Dan's hair. It was buzzed short and flat, to fit with the rest of his "deranged in black" look. The only time Dan's even had bangs was… and then Ranma figured it out. "You got a fake diver's license for your girl-form? Why?"

"Oh, it's quite real," Dan said, taking the envelope and card from Allison's hands and handing it over to Ranma.

The quasi-legal alien looked at the letter. It was addressed to: Dianna Arzish / 137 Wyrm Rd / Lockridge, WY 82336, and had the return address of Sweetwater County Clerk's Office / 80 West Flaming Gorge Way /P.O. Box 730 / Green River, WY 82935. The card that came with it looked like a legitimate Wyoming state driver's license, or at least it matched the other one that Dan currently carried, and the picture was of a certain red-eyed girl.

"Erika told us how to do it," Allison said, fiddling with the truck's radio.

"Well that makes sense. She had to create an identity for herself somehow."

"And Gos does like to infiltrate government systems."

"Yup. Once you know where the holes are in the system, it's fairly easy to put in what you need."

"And then you got them to send you a replacement license," Sarah said.

"Yup. I just mailed them some laminated paper fragments and said the original caught fire," Dan smirked, pleased with himself.

"It does help that the paper pushers over in Green River aren't too anal," Allison added, still messing with the radio's buttons.

"Still, why'd you do this?" Ranma asked.

"What?" Dan asked, putting the documentation in one of his coat's pockets.

"Okay, let me try it a bit more direct. Why did you make a false identity for your girl-form?"

"You can never have too many aliases," he said, while putting the rest of the mail in the console between the front seats. Dan then put the vehicle in gear, pulling away from the mailbox and turning out of the driveway.

"That almost answered my question."

"Glad to be of help." Then, turning to Allison: "What are you doing? It's just the radio. If you want to mess with something, the guidance systems are right next to it."

"I'm just setting the presets so I won't miss my show," Allison said.

"Ah, talk radio, the easy way for fanatics to spread their word," Dan said.

"He's not a religious nut," Allison said.

"He likened Starfox to Jesus,"

"Actually, it was Nintendo."

"I do not think the cube is the product of divine intervention."

"Oh, but you do believe that the X-Box was conjured from the depths of Hell."

"Well, it is just common sense," Dan replied.

"Do I want to know?" Ranma asked.

"Honestly? No," Sarah answered, slightly exasperated.

"It doesn't seem that bad," Ranma said, looking at the couple in the front two seats.

"Okay, fine then. Allison listens to this radio show, called "Saved Games with Father Ward". It's okay, but she really likes it. Dan, however, can't stand it."

"Oh," Ranma said, mulling over the fact. "So Allison likes Christian-themed gaming advice?" Ranma said only with slight skepticism. Gamers as a whole seemed to be rather eccentric.

"That's about right."

"Why wouldn't Dan like that? He's all reverent about l33tness," Ranma said, that word feeling especially odd on his tongue.

"That's the problem. Dan thinks that a Christian gaming philosophy is too aloof and rigid, while Allison professes that a l33t philosophy is indulgent and hedonistic."

"They disagree on gaming theology?" Ranma asked, confused that there was such a thing.

"Well, only on some of the finer points of interoperation. They both think that gaming is a very spiritual experience."

"This is insane," Ranma declared, looking out the window. "These are just games we're talking about."

Sarah's face darkened a bit. "You're technically right. The game itself is nothing. It is only until a person uses it as a conduit that it achieves purpose."

"Oh-kay," Ranma backpedaled, "I was just surprised that Allison would dislike anything indulgent."

Sarah smiled, despite herself. "You're fairly good at side-stepping issues, aren't you?"

"Come on, Ranma. You don't think I'm just some perverted sociopath who does whatever she damn well pleases?" Allison asked, switching conversations.

"It's just that you're not into l33t. I thought all you gamers were into that stuff."

Allison laughed. It was a strangely unpleasant sound. "Yes, I should accept the debased speech used by a pack of inept fools, punks, and losers."

"The great fault of l33t is that it possesses many false prophets and unworthy adherents, but those who are true to the path shall triumph."

"Then why don't you believe?" Allison asked.

"Just listen to your show, okay?" Dan said, concentrating on his driving.

Ranma looked curiously at Sarah, who simply shook her head.

"This is why we came to school today," Dan said, pointing to the screen.

Ranma looked at the spreadsheet. It contained a list of names, aliases, physical features, skill levels, short bios, and other information. A significant fraction of the largish cells were blank. The first row was especially sparse. All it contained was a rather unflattering alias, a gender, a list of hacked systems and stolen files, and an estimate on skill level.

"This is all we have on her?" Ranma asked.

"Well, she somehow managed to get within range to imprint you that day," Dan said, adding that data.

"And now you compare her data to the list you've made," Ranma supposed.

"Yup," Dan agreed, pulling up another list. "These are the Lockridge girls who could have pulled it off."

"Berkley, Carter, Langley, Norfolk, O'Neil, Stevens, and Terson," Ranma read off the screen. "O'Neil? Terson?" Ranma asked.

Allison looked at Sarah. "Well, we are fairly good."

"I'm surprised your name didn't come up, Dianna," Sarah said.

"Good point," Dan said, expanding the criteria to both genders. The list now read: Arzish, Berkley, Carter, Dorsey, Langley, Morris, Norfolk, O'Neil, Smith, Stevens, Terson, and Winston.

"So this is it?" Ranma said, glancing over the rather small list.

"Yes. These are the people capable enough in Calash and able to get into very secure systems," Dan said. "Lockridge is a small town."

"Well, cut out you three; and I guess Erika can be removed," Ranma said, looking over the list.

"Done," Dan said. The names were now Carter, Dorsey, Langley, Morris, Norfolk, Smith, Stevens, and Winston.

"So, you trust us. Interesting," Allison said in a calm, amused voice.

"Don't make a bad situation worse," Sarah stated.

"What? One of us could easily be doing it," Allison said while grinning ever so slightly.

"So, Ranma. What about Spooky and his holographic girl?" Dan asked.

"He admitted to making the template, and he moved here. He has lived in fear his whole life. I don't think he would do something like this, or be stupid enough to come here. If Gos was behind this, he'd be in Prague or Brazil, someplace far away."

"He made that template, Ranma. It was obviously a form of revenge. Gos was probably too scared to ever use it, but the intent was there."

"Okay, so who's first?"

"Abigail Carter," Dan read.

"Stick in the mud," Allison remarked.

"Yeah, I'd have to agree," Sarah said.

"Who's she?" Ranma asked.

"Hmm," Allison mused as she walked over to the Student Lounges' railing. "Ah, there she is," the blonde said, pointing to glass fronting on the school.


"Front yard, to the right of the sidewalk, under the second tree."

Ranma followed the directions to see a long-haired brunette reading in the shade of a smallish maple.

"Any guesses on what she's reading?" Allison asked, rummaging in her bag.

"It'd say it's a second edition of the Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy," Dan said, squinting slightly behind his dark shades.

"Five book version, or four?" Sarah asked.

"We'll see," Allison said, finally pulling out her binoculars. "Wait," she said, about to look into the field glasses. She slowly turned around, studying her boyfriend's face. "Ah ha!" the blonde announced when she saw the slight reddish glow from behind Dan's sunglasses.

"You think she's behind this?" Ranma asked, looking at Sarah, who was shaking her head.

"Well, I was friends with Abby during grade school. She's a nice enough girl. A bit dry, but okay."

"That's an understatement. She's as dull as a bag of doorknobs," Allison said, watching the girl under the tree. "You know what she does with her Calash potential?"

"What?" Ranma asked, hoping that Allison's statements won't be too off the wall.

"Miniatures. She makes tiny little models of things."

"She is rather good. You know the kind of detail and patience needed to do that," Sarah said.

"That, and her database skills are the reason she's in here," Dan added, rechecking his spreadsheet.


"Yeah, she's eerie," Sarah stated, leaning on the lounge's railing. "Put her in front of a linked list, array, or what-have-you, and she'll make it dance."

"Gee, I wonder why," Allison deadpanned, looking over the redhead's shoulder.

"It's that exact kind of concentration that we're looking for," Dan said.

"You think she's our hacker?" Ranma asked, looking at the girl. She seemed so normal and calm. He looked back at his friends and sighed. At first glance, they looked normal too. Ranma thought on that matter for a minute. No, that wasn't exactly true. That first meeting with Dan was rather unsettling, Sarah had been practicing with her shotgun, and Allison had appeared out of nowhere. No, as always, normality was a rare commodity in Ranma's life.

"She could be," Dan said. "Sarah, you've known her. Could she be behind it?"

Sarah looked back at the girl. "Well, she probably has the abilities to do it, provided that she's spent the last few years studying how to hack like that; but as we've said, she has that kind of patience."

"Rating?" Allison asked.


"Really that high?" Dan said, puzzlement edging his voice.

"Sure. She's a possible."

"You guys have a ranking system?" Ranma said, observing the insanity.

"Yes. It's actually quite simple. You see, it's based on the probability of a statement being true combined with a risk factor. Numbers are obviously assigned in increasing gradients."

"So you just rate from one to ten, or something like that."

"It's cooler the way I say it."

"I'm sure it is. So what are we going to do about her?"

"I'll talk to Abby later today," Sarah said.

"Right, like she'll just break down and confess," Allison remarked. "Our hacker's too clever for that."

"I'm counting on that. If Abby is the hacker bitch and I call her out, what do you think she's going to do? No, I'm going to ask her if she's had any of her archives broken into lately."

"She may be paranoid enough to try and dispatch you right then and there," Dan said.

"At least then we'll know who we're up against."

"I'm not so sure," Dan said, filling in Abby's profile. "We will talk about this later. Hmm. Dorsey, Fred."

"Didn't his family live next door to yours?" Allison observed.

"Yes, back when Mom was alive and we lived in my father's house."

"You know him well?" Ranma asked.

"We lived a couple miles apart, but yeah, we were pals."

"What happened?"

"After the accident, I moved in with the O'Neil's and we drifted apart. It happens."

"Why's he on the list?"

"He specializes in template upgrades."


"There are a lot of people who can make a template, but it just won't turn out very good. For a nominal fee, he helps them."

"I thought you guys don't need money, what with all your illegal back-dealings."

"Oh, he doesn't get paid in money. He barters for favors and such."

"If these people couldn't make a decent template…."

Dan cut him off. "Just because they can't program a temp doesn't mean they don't have other talents. I remember this one time Fred re-built the servo system for some Iron Man fan out in Boise and got design prints to some DOD satellite tech."

"So you think he could have integrated the template Gos designed with the Organic tech that Erika developed?"

"Absolutely," Dan said from his machine.

"Rating?" Allison asked.

"Four-four," Dan proposed.

"I'd have to agree with that," Sarah said, reading the spreadsheet.

"You want to handle him like Abby?" Allison asked.

"I can do that," Dan remarked with reserve, his face neutral. He remained silent while typing in the updated profile.

"So, who's next?" Sarah asked.

"Langley," Dan read, staring at the screen. "Rebecca Langley."

Sarah turned to the blonde with a slight grin. "I guess this is your field."

Allison glared at the redhead before glancing over at Dan, who was now reading the log on Rebecca.

"Are we talking about the same girl that Allison dated before Dan?"

"Yes," Dan said. "Why don't you tell Ran-Man about her? I mean, you did know her the best of all of us," he said rather calmly.

Allison inhaled sharply before starting. "Rebecca's a nice enough girl. It's just that she distances herself from others. She has a hard time getting close to people. She did lose both her parents."

"Allison, you're one of the only people I know that still has both of her parents," Sarah stated flatly.

Ranma looked over at his sister. Even though her father was still alive, Jack was never around. It was almost as if he was in the military and out on assignment, and in their increasingly unnerving acceptance, Dan and Sarah simply took his absence in stride. It did make sense that the elder O'Neil be missing like that. Granted, policing a place like Lockridge seemed to be an immense task, but considering the recent attacks were centered on his own family, one would assume that the sheriff would take a more active role. Whenever Ranma made inquires into this, whether it was with Jack himself or one of the other members of the O'Neil household, he received a mix of blank stares and thin explanations relating to separation of powers and jurisdiction.

Ranma sighed. Jack was working on something, but people seemed to either keep it a secret or simply not tell them. As he thought this over, the others continued their discussion about the Langley girl. From their discussion, it became apparent that this girl, much like Allison, had a strange sense of humor, although she preferred to simply observe the antics of others. The blonde maintained that while Langley had the skills to pull something like this off, she would not care to put in the effort to do it.

"Just talk to her about it," Dan said, making some notes on the spreadsheet.

"Okay, but I don't think that she's behind this," Allison maintained.

"If you think your bias will get in the way—" Sarah started to suggest before she was cut off.

"No, if she is the hacker bitch, I will be the first to know," Allison vowed.

"Good. Moving on," Dan said. "Bradford Morris."

"How the hell did that prick end up in there?" Allison exclaimed.

"Say what you will about him, he is a good mod at templates."

"Like that Fred guy?" Ranma said.

"Pretty much," Sarah agreed.

"I wouldn't say that much," a new voice added.

Ranma turned to see one of his classmates standing in front of their table. It was the unremarkable brunette that was nonplused by his curse. He thought her name started with a J and ended with a vowel.

"Hey, Julie," Sarah said cautiously. "Sorry, we're just having a conversation."

"It's fine. You guys just watch it around Brad. He can be a real pain."

"Okay," Sarah said, then turning to her brother. "Ranma, this is Julie Winston."

"We've met," Ranma said.

"Yes, it was about a week ago, wasn't it? You were the one with that gender virus," Julie recalled.

"Yeah, that's me," Ranma sighed.

"Where's Ned?" Dan asked. "He didn't come to school today."

"After he came back from your place last night, he went straight to his room and then down to his workshop. I remember because when he moved some equipment out of his room, it woke me up. I opened the door to see him carting some crates to the elevator."

"And this was after he helped us last night?" Sarah asked.

"Yeah. So this morning I stopped off to see if he was ready to go to school. He normally drives me, but he said he was skipping, that he had a lot of work to do."

"So how'd you get here?" Allison asked, still watching the outside of the school.

"I carpooled with Reggie and the other security people. Their shift change was close enough."

"So they're still cleaning up," Allison noted. From the lounge's windows, she could not see the WIC worksite. The fight with the guymelef had taken place in the fields immediately behind the school.

"Yes. Ned wants to get all the information he can from that wreck."

"So what is he up to now?" Dan asked.

"I have no idea," Julie said. "The only people he's allowing in his workshops are Dave, our Security Chief, and the head of the Teakettle facility."


"Not really. Sometimes he gets an idea and locks himself in his workshop for a few days. The extra security doesn't even really mean much. Ned's always been a bit paranoid. Unlike some people, he doesn't let it get to him."

"You still having problems with Brad?" Sarah observed.

"Don't say that jackass' name," Julie hissed, her eyes darting around the lounge and the foyer below.

"I don't see why you don't have Ned and some of his associates rough him up," Dan observed.

"We've tried. It doesn't work," Julie said. "Crap, there he is," she said, looking at the stairs leading up to the lounge.

Ranma looked over to see this Brad person. A bit shorter than Dan, he had blond hair parted on the right and gray eyes. His clothing seemed a bit more expensive than what most of the students wore, but was still fairly practical. His stride was quite confident, as his eyes scanned the lounge, gauging his fellow students.

"Hey, Julie," Brad said, once he reached the top of the stairs.

"Go away," Julie said, looking past him.

"Come on, you don't really mean that," he replied, his smile showing a surprising amount of teeth.

"The girl told you to leave. I suggest you do so," Dan said, closing his laptop.

"Really, tin man? You care to take this outside?" Brad said, his smile distinctly predatory.

"I'd drop you before you could bend your first spoon."

"Try me."

"What the hell is going on? Who's this Brad guy" Ranma quietly asked his sister.

"Meet Bradford Morris, candidate number four. He's a basic preppie jerk. Sadly though, he's rather competent with Calash. His template allows him to move metal with his mind."

"Great, and since Dan's a cyborg—"

"Yeah, the prick waves that over Dan's head."

"What did you call me?" Brad said.

"You didn't hear me, Bradford? I called you a prick."

Brad's eyes narrowed.

"Oh? You don't like that, you egotistical fuck?"

Brad simply stared at the redhead.

"What's the matter Bradford?" Sarah said, staring him down.

Brad stepped forward.

"If you mess with my sister, you mess with me," Ranma stated, standing up.

"How wonderfully clichéd," Allison interrupted. "But yes, if you try to touch any of us, we'll drop you like a sack of dirt."

"Eloquent as always, my Terson, but right now my feud is with this newbie," Brad said, looking Ranma over. "Tell me, do you even have a template? Or are you waiting for sis to make you one?"

Ranma looked at Brad, paused for a second, then began to snicker. Oh yes, he had a template, not that he wanted the damn thing.

"What the hell are you laughing at?"

Ranma looked over at the jerk. None of the others seemed to be taking him that seriously. "You wouldn't understand it," Ranma said simply.

"Oh, so you think I'm slow," Brad replied, narrowing his eyes.

Sarah had stepped back and was watching impassively. She knew that Brad was testing the waters, trying to back her brother into a corner to see how he reacted.

"Well, I don't know you, but you do seem to be bothering Julie."

"So now you're telling me what to do?" Brad asked, his fingers twitching slightly.

"Shut up, Bradford," Dan said, his gaze leveled at the other teen. "Back off from Ranma. He isn't a part of this."

"You're gonna let them fight your battles for you?" Brad said, turning to Ranma. "I guess you're not man enough to take care of yourself."

"Coming from a stalker, those words are pretty damn hollow," Allison observed.

"Come on, Ranma, are you going to hide behind these slackers and degenerates?"

"Is this a challenge?" Ranma asked, trying to see where this was going.

Brad paused for a split second as he shifted gears. Why not? He would be able to get a good bearing on this newbie. "Yes it is, if you're up to it."

Ranma's response was automatic. "I accept."

"Good. In ten minutes, out back," Brad said, recalling the status of those fields.

"Until when?"

"Yield or knockout," Brad said, before turning and walking down the hall.

"So what template does Brad have?" Ranma asked, watching Sarah shake her head while Dan slapped his hand to his forehead.

"So this goober just has powers over metal. Bending spoons, making stuff fly and such," Ranma said as they walked out into the field. His relatives had spent the time briefing him on Brad's template and method of fighting. "I can see why you guys are reluctant to fight him."

"Hey! He might, might, be able to stop a bullet. But not a whole group of them," Sarah said, putting her hand to her side.

"Although having metal bones won't help," Allison said, chuckling.

Dan sighed, then looked at Ranma. "Remember, he's limited by how much he can alter the kinetic energy of an object, and he can only influence something if it's metal. According to Julie, it's because of how metallic bonds have a 'sea of electrons' or some such nonsense."

"Right. The faster it moves, the harder it would be for him to deflect," Ranma proposed.

"We think he can control around about a half a dozen items simultaneously," Allison said.

"And you don't want to go into template?" Dan asked.

"No," Ranma said flatly.

"Oh, that's just what you want," Allison said to her boyfriend. "A little angel bouncing around in a skimpy skirt."

"Actually, I think that's what you want," Sarah mumbled.

"I don't know why you guys are so worried about this bully," Ranma said.

"He tries to be a bully. Bradford's just an arrogant asshole. He can't really do anything against us without us killing him, but neither can we punish him for being a prick," Dan shrugged.

"Then why'd he want to fight me?" Ranma asked.

"You're the new kid. You insulted him by dismissal. And you forced him into it," the blonde said.

"Well, that's normal. Most of my fights are due to piddling crap like this," Ranma said.

"Like the time someone swore revenge on you because of a pastry?" the redhead observed.

"It was several flavored pieces of bread, Sarah," Ranma said as if that made some difference.

"Well, if it isn't the Clue Crew? Are you going to drive around solving mysteries in your van?" Brad said while smirking.

"Clue Crew? The Fuck? Isn't that from Jeopardy?" Sarah asked.

"Silence, insolent wench!" Brad said.

"Bradford, what the hell's going on? This is lame, even for you," Dan said.

Brad ignored the comment and looked at Ranma. "You'd better keep your friends out of this."

"Don't worry," Ranma said, narrowing his eyes.

"Then let's begin," Brad said as he activated his template. Ranma watched as Brad's clothing changed to a black jumpsuit with a dark brown harness. Clipped onto the harness were numerous gleaming pieces of metal, ranging from long pointed stakes clipped to shoulder straps to a number of shot-filled pouches clipped to his waist belt.

The air around Brad took on a strange shimmer. He smiled as a pair of steel stakes slipped out of their clips and floated in front of him. Ranma watched as the stakes rotated to face him. Then as if propelled by invisible engines, the two sharpened lengths of metal charged at him.

Ranma dodged low and to the left only to see them adjust their trajectory. Keeping on the move, Ranma watched the projectiles grow nearer. He also watched Brad's expression. The teen tried to keep his face neutral, but each time he maneuvered the projectiles his face took on a slight strain that seemed to increase with the distance they got from him.

Maneuvering forward, Ranma watched as the stakes closed in. Waiting until they were a foot from his head, he then grabbed the two stakes. Twisting them away from his head, the lengths of metal felt slightly warm and rather prickly. The two lengths squirmed in his hands like angry weasels as Ranma tried to hold them back. Glancing over at his opponent, Ranma saw that Brad's face was strained but amused.

The two stakes in Ranma's hands became lifeless, turning back into inert metal. Acting on instinct and training, Ranma tossed the two stakes into the ground while ducking down and forward. He felt another shard of metal fly past him. Ranma looked up to see it slow down as it was about to reverse direction.

The martial artist cupped his hands, and without bothering to shout the name of his attack, shot out a small ki bolt. The blast of ki launched and intersected with the projectile as it approached Ranma. It hit the bit of metal without any visible effect in the first half second.

So the punk finally decided to activate his template, Brad thought as the strange blast was released. Instinctively, he increased his mental hold on the weapon to stabilize it when the blast impacted with it. This proved to be a mistake. A piercing pain flashed into Brad's mind. Gritting his teeth, he severed his hold on the stake, instantly silencing the pain.

Brad had only felt a sensation like this once before; when he had first been testing out his template, Brad had foolishly flown a fork right into an electrical socket. The same bonding properties that lent metal to his brand of Calash-enabled telekinetic control allowed for the metal to absorb and carry various types of energy, be it thermal, electric, or magnetic. Unfortunately, the connection Brad had to his weapons was not one-way. He could maneuver metal through his will, but his will was also bound by the metal it was in.

Ranma knew none of this. All he knew was that blasting one of Brad's weapons caused him pain and forced him to let go of the weapon he controlled. Ranma charged forward. Brad responded by flinging a series of metal stakes at Ranma. Dodging them, Ranma was surprised when they did not correct their course, instead falling down to the ground. Closing in on Brad, Ranma released a pair of ki blasts aimed at the center of the teen's chest.

Brad concentrated on the metal strips in his harness, and jumped back while opening one of the pouches on his waist. Ranma looked to see Brad make an impossible dodge. His body seeming to defy gravity. Then Ranma noticed how the teen's body seemed to be held up by the harness.

Ranma closed in, crossing in front of Brad. Only a few yards away he fired another Mokou Takabisha at the gel-haired teen. Brad tossed the handful of shot. He clenched his teeth; at this range he had only one chance, and it was going to hurt. A lot. Using his full abilities, Brad maneuvered the small metallic spheres into a rough cup shape and blocked the blast.

The ki collided with the collection of telekinetically-controlled projectiles. The reaction was spectacular. In a flash of mostly infrared light, Ranma's energy hit Brad's. Brad headache grew into new and amazing proportions with the reaction. The spheres exploded outward.

The metal was traveling slow enough that Ranma was able to dodge or deflect the vast majority of the ones that came towards him. The worst was one that hit just above his right wrist. But right now he was able to fight, although his right hand might be stiffer.

Brad was in a different shape. His head felt like it contained a small smelting plant, and his body nearly avoided serious injury. One of the balls would have taken his left eye, had he not deflected it to cut his ear instead.

"Oh, fuck this," Brad said as he pulled himself up. With one hand he held his forehead in the other he pulled out a stake. His headache was already subsiding. He was scowling in barely-controlled rage.

Ranma readied himself. His opponent was weakened. A few more good hits and Brad should go down, provided that he did not get hit by a metal spike before that happened. Wincing slightly at the pain in his wrist, Ranma charged at Brad while readying another ki blast.

Brad then dropped the stake and put his hands at his sides. He smirked slightly; there was another reason he chose this place.

The salvage team from Winston Industrial Container was still processing the remains of the mech. It was then that they noticed some of the shards of broken mech armor starting to move.

Brad saw Ranma move in and pulled himself back while flinging a chunk of armor the size of a refrigerator door in between him and Ranma.

The martial artist vaulted over the slab of metal while firing a shot at Brad, who was now far enough away to dodge using his harness. As Ranma landed, he saw three other, slightly smaller, slabs of metal move in towards him.

Brad was trying to box him in. Ranma ran over to the opening between the two pieces to his left. Naturally, Brad rotated the slabs so that one faced Ranma and moved them in, hoping to contain the martial artist.

Brad frowned slightly as Ranma jumped onto the large chunk of metal and used it to springboard up to his position. Brad's face returned to its focused state as he flung a few dozen ball bearings at Ranma. Normally, it was more than he could control, but the identical dimensions and similar vectors simplified things.

The martial artist charged his hands with a small bit of ki and deflected the balls as they came at him. The ki was small, but it provided enough feedback to force Brad to pull out.

As Ranma reached the apex of his leap, he lobbed a ki blast at Brad who flung an armor slab in between himself and the bolt of energy. Brad removed his control just before it hit. The slab fell a few inches but managed to block the blow before falling to the ground.

At the same time, Brad launched another plate of metal at his opponent. Ranma grabbed onto it and used it to propel himself towards Brad, who launched a pair of stakes. Ranma blocked Brad's attack and fired a ki blast, this time aiming at Brad's harness.

The energy impacted and created a very strong feedback. The telekinetic did not have time to make a choice. He felt a lance of pain travel through his brain while his harness seemed to burn on his body.

Reflexively, he shut off all his powers. The floating metallic debris crashed to the ground, as did Brad.

As Ranma made his landing, he watched Brad rekindle his powers just enough to retard his fall. Unlike Ranma, Brad's left foot hit the ground badly, causing him to fall to the side.

Ranma approached quickly, but cautiously. His opponent did not seem to be terribly hurt and might have a few more tricks.

Brad pulled himself up. Grinding his teeth, he pulled out a quartet of stakes and held two in each hand. As he watched at Ranma close in, he made his decision.

"Ah, fuck it," Brad said as he dropped the stakes. "I yield," Brad said after sitting down on the grass.

"What?" Ranma demanded as he watched his opponent. "You can still fight."

"Maybe," Brad remarked as he dropped out of template. "I quit."

"Fine." Ranma said, very annoyed. "I accept," he said while thinking, You damn pansy.

"Good for you."

Ranma looked down at Brad, anger welling up within him. "If you were just going to quit, why the hell did you challenge me in the first place?"

"I thought I could beat you. How was I to know some newbie had developed a mental feedback whatever-the-hell-that-was," Brad said simply.

"You insufferable ass!"

"Yeah, I get that a lot," Brad admitted.

"Okay then," Ranma said as he walked back to Sarah and the others.

"Well, that was pointless," Dan observed.

"Want to go back to class?" Allison asked.

"You gonna be okay, Bradford?" Sarah asked. She did not really care, but would feel somewhat guilty if he died.

"I'm fine. You did good, kid. I'd like to see what you're capable of with a real template," Brad said, as he sat on the ground.

"Whatever," Ranma said as he followed his friends back to class.

"Do you really need me to go into template?" Ranma asked. When they got back home from school, they found a message from Gos on the answering machine. It was a short drive to Reno's apartment, where Gos and Erika were staying. Dan had driven him over while Allison and Sarah had stayed home. Sarah's father, Jack, was home, and she wanted to talk to the sheriff about something. Allison wanted to take a nap.

"Yes," the pathetic teen who had to build a girlfriend replied. "I want a scan of the most recent version of the template. I should have scanned you when you were here yesterday."

"Fine," Ranma sighed. He first shifted into girl-form. She then tried to activate her template. Instead, she found herself being redirected slightly. She found herself bringing her hands over her heart. Then as she tapped her Rose Ring she heard herself whisper, "Angelic Rose," then shout, "Make-Up!"

She shuddered as a glowing red whirlwind engulfed her. It then shifted in color becoming a sparking pink. Everything she was wearing was torn apart and turned into small pink roses and white feathers. The roses formed into pink high heeled boots and her glittery pink trimmed and pink bowed fuku. The feathers formed into her full-sized white angel wings and her delicate silver bracers, engraved in pink vines and roses.

The pink light then came down onto her head and hands, still clasped over her chest. It infused itself in her hair and skin. It unbound her hair, which was then styled into a feathered wavy body with pink, glittery highlights. Part was pulled back with a pink bow in a loose, high ponytail, while the rest flowed freely. The glittery light then placed highly feminine pink and glittery makeup.

It then created her jewelry. Her earrings, dangling gold roses, seemed to grow from simple pierced studs. A golden, pink-jeweled tiara then formed into place. Finally, her choker, with its egg-shaped piece of glass containing a perfectly frozen rose, appeared around her neck.

Ranma blinked, her eyelids feeling the weight of her very faded, very glittery pink eyeshadow. She looked at her delicate looking hands with their manicured, sparkling pink nails. Four words then came out of her coral-pink lips. "What the fucking hell?"

Dan smirked.

"That was a transformation sequence," Gos said, blinking.

"Gee, you think?" Ranma replied harshly as her wings folded back.

"What happened?" Erika said as she entered the living room from the guest bedroom.

"Fucking template!" Ranma muttered as she looked at her miniskirt.

"Looks like its back to glitter and pink," Dan observed.

"Why?" Ranma asked.

"Maybe the organic tech decided that you need to be more magical girly," Dan suggested.

"Not likely," Gos said as he set up his I/O sphere and began to take readings. "Adding an activation phrase and a transformation sequence has no benefit. No. I'd guess that our hacker bitch did this to torment you."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Erika stated.

"Whoever she is, she will pay," Ranma stated as she balled her fists, her manicured nails digging into her palms.

Dan snickered. He found the image of such a femininely-dressed girl vowing vengeance amusing.

"Watch it," Ranma said, her eyes glowing a slight pink.

Rebecca smiled when she heard the phone ring. It was almost a quarter of eight. "Impeccable timing. A very good sign," she noted to herself, picking the phone up on the third ring.

"You did as requested," she observed as if stating an obvious truth. Oh yes, space is mostly empty and rather big.

She smiled at the response.

"Nope. How did things go?" Rebecca asked, getting the reason she sent the caller out.

"Come back as soon as you can. We're entering the next phase," she then added, her tone gaining a slight edge.

"Well, strong words. That's not what you first thought of me, and I have never lied to you. You don't get lost. You no longer turn into a pig. And you will have your revenge against Ranma," she replied, maintaining her slight smile.

Rebecca laughed at the caller's next statement. "Free will was never part of the bargain. Besides, you chose to enter my house. You chose to listen to me. You chose to stay. You gave no objection to the treatments nor the operations. You're what you are because of yourself, never forget that."

What came out of the speaker made her grin deepen. "Looks like the slowest horse crossed the finish line after all. See you soon."

"We shall see about that," Rebecca replied to the caller's final statement before hanging up the phone.

Ranma opened her eyes to see a pink sky. She blinked with puzzlement as she saw a bright pink cloud move slowly over a darker pink background. Groaning, she pulled the rose-tinted sunglasses off of her face. Leaning up, she found herself on a reclining piece of outdoor furniture. She then noticed that she was wearing a two-piece bathing suit. It was almost a bikini, and it was white with pink roses. She sighed as she looked at the Rose Ring still on her finger. Her hair simply fell behind her shoulders. Her curse forced her to use female swimwear. It was something she did not like, but had to accept.

Further investigation revealed that she was in front of an in-ground pool and not alone. To her left, she could see Allison in a silver bikini, and to her right was Sarah in an orange one-piece with red trim. Next to the blonde, a female Dan was asleep. She was wearing a dark violet bikini of the same style as her girlfriend's. Ranma shook her head at this.

"Look who's up," Erika said. Ranma turned her head to see her standing behind her chair.

"Where are we?" Ranma asked, standing up. She squinted her eyes, annoyed at the particularly bright sunlight, but unwilling to put those sunglasses back on.

"We decided to take a break. So we drove over to Allison's parent's house," Sarah said, leaning up.

"Yeah. We got a pool last year," Allison said, her eyes closed.

"Oh yeah," Ranma said, remembering it. She had planned on swimming and had used the ring to create a swimsuit. None of Allison's would fit her and Sarah had only brought one. However, she decided to take a nap. Walking over to the edge, she looked at the water. Crystal blue, it looked extremely inviting. Kneeling down, she placed her glasses on the edge and prepared herself to jump in.

She smiled slightly as she went airborne. She barely had time to register shock as the water changed color. She cringed as she hit the glittering pink liquid. She tried swimming to the surface, but was soon disoriented by the swirling, sparkling fluid. Soon she found herself floating with no sense of orientation. The only thing she could see was the radiant semi-clear pink. She had no bearings at all. There was no up, no down, no ground, no walls, just her and the pinkness.

It itched her skin and irritated her eyes. She was out of air. Her body, starved for oxygen, rebelled. Her mouth opened and she inhaled the liquid. She gagged at the taste. It was minty, sweet, and syrupy. It also seemed to writhe slightly. Her lungs had filled with the stuff, but she had yet to drown.

She took another breath, wincing as the pink juice flowed into her sinuses. It was somehow oxygenated. She remembered there was a movie where deep-sea divers used a liquid to breathe with. The itching on her skin suddenly increased. The liquid began to glow becoming an iridescent pink. It felt like the liquid was oozing through her pores. She felt her swimsuit dissolve away.

With a distant pain, it began to consume the girl, replacing her with itself. She looked down to see her skin pulsating and screamed. The pink then rushed down her throat. Reflexively, she swallowed, consuming it as it consumed her.

Unable to control herself, she continued drinking the vile soup, even as it rushed into her orifices absorbing her. She saw that her hair had turned glittery and pink and had grown. To what length she could not tell, for it seemed to merge with the liquid that surrounded her. She shuddered as great glowing pink wings formed. The feathers seemed to simultaneously pour from her body and form out of the liquid. Her skin was now the same glowing, sparkling color.

She gave a moment's thought to what was under that skin. Would she have pink blood? Organs that were recognizable? Anything organic at all? Or would it just be a sloshing mass of pink contained by a pink bag? She closed her eyes, shedding a single tear of a material indistinguishable to from that of the liquid sounding her. Her eyes had just changed, and she knew what was next.

The woman gave one last wrenching gulp. After swallowing the liquid, her pink lips gave a contented smile. Her eyes then fluttered open. Sparkling, swirling pink corneas looked out into the abyss.

Ranma flipped up, nearly hitting her head on the ceiling. Breathing deeply, and quite relieved that it was just air, she looked at her hands. It was too dark to be sure. Blinking hard, she pulled her pigtail so that she could look at it. In the dim light it looked dark enough. She then jumped down to the floor. She shook her head while she walked out of the room and to the bathroom. She could have turned on the lights in her room and looked into Sarah's mirror, but that might have woken her sister up.

In the bathroom, she forced her eyes to stay open as she turned on the lights. She was rewarded with the familiar image of a blue-eyed redhead. She gave a sigh of relief as she looked over her reflection. She did not like her girl form, but would rather it not be turned into that pink — thing.

Staring at herself, she tried to remember the dream. She got fragments. This was more than she normally could remember. Usually she was left with the mental equivalent of a horrid taste on her mouth, a decidedly unpleasant mental taint.

She heard someone enter the hallway. Ranma then saw her sister's reflection in the mirror as Sarah entered the small room. "Bad dream?" Sarah asked, trying to mask the concern in her voice. They were getting more frequent, and even Ranma was willing to admit that there might be a problem.

Ranma nodded slowly as she looked at her sister. The two redheads were close in appearance, although it was obvious that Sarah had Irish blood in her. Sarah's hair was a tinge lighter than Ranma's almost scarlet hair. Sarah was also a bit taller, although it was hard to tell now because Ranma was leaning on the sink and Sarah was leaning on the doorframe.

Despite being a nearly year older than Sarah, Ranma's face was that of an Asian girl; it looked younger than Sarah's, which was a bit more mature-looking. Despite being more muscularly-developed than Sarah, Ranma's frame still seemed smaller somehow. Ranma shook her head. No, they were the same like that. She was just being paranoid.

"You okay?" Sarah asked.

"I can't take this damn template much longer," Ranma admitted as she checked over her body for changes again. Everything still looked the same.

"Don't worry; we have some suspects now. We'll find that bitch. Hell, Gos is working on your template too. He said that he has some interesting findings."

"Maybe," Ranma admitted as she continued to look at her reflection. Eventually she pulled away from the mirror and followed her sister back to their room.

Gos looked at his laptop with a mix of fear and self-loathing. Now, that brought him back. It was not enough that he made that template. No, he had to keep it around. Pride, sick pride. He was jealous of Ranma, and in his darkened den he had a way to live his dreams of revenge. It would be easy to hit Ranma where it hurt.

He thought he had left that all behind. He had a girlfriend now. He'd escaped Nerima. He was making reparations. But the past refused to stay where it should. He had found it while going over the scans he had of Ranma's template.

There was only a slim chance of it happening, and without the Organic Tech it would have been impossible, but now the door was open. Gos had hoped it would not happen, but was that even really an option?

Looking over, he could see Erika watching her movie. It was the first time she had watched it in human form, and Gos could see her eyes misting. It really was a sad story. Driven slowly but surely insane by conflicting orders and directives, the character was someone that Erika could empathize with. Gos smiled just a little bit as he observed his girlfriend watch HAL 9000's journey into madness.

He was alone with his discovery. After the bonding with Erika, this was another thing that he thought was behind him. While Erika could easily see what was on his screen, she could not see what he was really working on. The laptop he was working on was no more tangible than he was. It was simply a construct he used instead of the direct machine interface he now possessed. That is, if one could call a being like Erika a mere machine.

The irony was amazing. Gos had stolen the life's work of the leading researchers in AI to create Erika, and then someone else had stolen Erika's Organic Tech research and his temp codes to make Ranma's template, and now….

Now Gos had no idea what was going to happen. There were too many factors. He could see the changes beginning in Ranma, and in theory he should be able to derive where they would lead. Gos might not get the exact details right, but he should have a fairly good idea of the order and the shape of the events.

Unfortunately, the developments in Ranma's template seemed to be too erratic to predict. No, this did not look good. Gos scrolled his notes, hoping to find an error in his train of thought. Strange data headings stuck out as he reread his rants, diagrams, hypothesis and sketches.

"Subconscious Linkage, ANX 1.34 subclass 12, see figs 5a, 34, 23" headed a section diagramming and specifying Ranma's accoutrements. Most of the data seemed to be attached to the workings of that compact of hers. Gos was worriedly trying to figure out how that device managed to be created. It seemed to prove the versatility of Organic Tech, but there were still questions as to the stability of the system.

"Punctuated Allocation Shift, 17 instances in 2 trials, inconclusive" fronted a section containing two three-dimensional graphical plots, followed by a paragraph of dense text. The pale hologram sighed at this; there was simply not enough data to work with.

Gos gave a twisted smile at the "Cascading Failure in Modification Algorithms Probability: Minimal," title heading. At least he could confidently tell Ranma that his template almost definitely would not kill him. The numbers showed that a critical error in those sections will not result in termination of the host form. Gos would have preferred to have more information, but at least in this case the calculations seemed straightforward enough. That should be reasonably good news.

The next section was not. Entitled "Security Countermeasures of Template R Alpha Unlicensed Modification Set," it described the various systems Ranma's template had to thwart unauthorized access. Gos did have to give the hacker bitch credit; she seemed to be as good in creating security systems as she was in disabling them.

The following sections Gos was not so sure of. It was not because he doubted the veracity of his paper. The re-read he gave the document seemed to confirm its accuracy. The question came in what these conclusions meant. Gos wondered if Ranma and his friends really needed to know this information.

Named "Projected Trends in the Development of G Section," it appeared harmless enough. That was until one realized that, the data this section used was known only by two people, Gos and the hacker bitch. Gos knew that she was watching her little test subject. She would be tracking the changes same as him.

The section ended with a log, starting with Day Zero. Most of the entries were blank and the rest simply contained a strange shorthand referring to earlier passages of the section. The last entry was simply labeled "Projected to Emerge", followed by two very similar images.

Gos sighed as he read those last paragraphs. Oh, that template certainly won't kill the host body. Whether or not the host would still be Ranma in the strictest definition of the word was the question. The Improvement Modules were simply doing their job. They were optimizing systems. Finding ways to make the best template-host synchronization.

Gos sighed again, although he did not currently have any lungs. It was his fault. The mad dreams of revenge, humiliation, and power. When the truth came out, would he get the blame, the shame? He had been forgiven for the template, but that was before the others saw the changes. Much like fertilizer, the Organic Tech was needed for the seeds to sprout and grow, but the seeds were of his design. The hacker bitch was simply the gardener.

With despondent clarity, Gos copied the document, encrypted it, and set to work at editing the original, giving one last look at the log before he deleted it. After all, there was a chance that the Organic Tech would interfere and change things, deviate from the projected path. Even to Gos, it was a weak excuse.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Now, I'm not up to speed on Wyoming law, but in the county I live in, Motor Vehicle does send replacement licenses through the mail. When you change your residency, you give them your old out-of-state license, and they print out a temporary one, then a few weeks later they mail you the permanent one. Yeah, it's goony, but that's how they do it. Now, I know some counties, and even whole states, do not do this, in that you have to go to their offices to pick up your permanent, but those are usually in the more populated areas. Sweetwater County, Wyoming, is rather sparsely populated, even by Wyoming standards.

Also thanks to my pre-readers Joe Fenton, Jerry Starfire, Black Dragon, Wray, and Jakub. These guys have been an immense help in getting this chapter out.

Chapter 8
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