[FFML] [Fanfic][Ranma / X-COM] The Road to Cydonia Chapter 30

Justin Wagner jbraveboy at gmail.com
Wed Feb 25 08:56:00 PST 2009


As always, Previous chapters of TRTC can be found on FFN
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2314624/1/The_Road_to_Cydonia

or on my site (which also hosts a UFOpedia and Character Info)
http://www.wagnergrp.com/JBW_Website/Fanfiction/TRTC.htm


-----

For six years, mankind has waged a Secret War against an enemy from
Beyond the Stars. Despite a surge of activity in the Far East theatre,
and fierce battles waged to unseat the Sirius Conspiracy and avenge the
loss of the Joketsuzoku village, UNETCO and the two new squads have
prevailed time and time again. With the threat of Cologne and other
second generation Trenchards (alien human hybrids) looming ahead, the
high command readies for a strike at one of the planet's last remaining
alien bases. For India and Juliet squads, confrontation with these
corrupted master martial artists is inevitable. Finally, the last great
push to drive the entrenched alien presence off-Earth has begun. Only
with that done, can XCOM bring the fight to the stars.

-----

"Clear!" Akane barked, hugging the wall and sweeping the room with her
rifle. A sea of tinted green lay before her, highlighting the near pitch
darkness of the room. So many alien species saw perfectly in low light
conditions that they rarely bothered illuminating most parts of their
bases. Akane was still not entirely comfortable relying on the night
vision equipment built into her personal armor, but it was better than
stumbling around in the dark.

Squaddie Lohse took her flank and advanced, plasma rifle shouldered and
ready. Golf Squad, like most of the four man units, had split up into
partnered teams. It was the smallest operational unit XCOM used, since
soldiers were never sent off solo. Two squaddies would be better
prepared not only to support the other in a firefight, but also to
counter any alien psionic attacks. An automatic warning would alert the
other soldier present if one came under mental attack.

Lohse held up her hand and motioned for Akane to follow and cover the
arc to her left. While all armored personnel had access to the secure
communications network, many still used the silent hand communication
they had gotten so used to in their special forces careers. Akane had
picked up those cues, too, training with Golf Squad. She moved swiftly
and silently, stepping over the burned corpse of a Sectoid.

The alien had a cauterized hole where most of its head had been.

Akane's motion sensor beeped.

"Incoming," she warned, "Two contacts. Eleven o'clock."

"Take cover," Lohse replied. The older woman hunched down against the
wall, giving her a clear line of sight at the room's only door, and
began to back up. They were in an open and mostly exposed area, but part
of the wall stuck out at a slight angle. Two inactive displays were
built into it. One was stained with pastel green and blue alien blood.
Akane crouched down using the wall for cover.

A moment later, a grenade rolled into the room and exploded.

Alien grenades were extremely powerful, and even from behind cover,
Akane nearly found herself bowled over by the blast. For comparison,
she'd heard of a single alien grenade leveling a two story house and
flipping a main battle tank into its back like a turtle. Overpressure
waves washed over her armored form, and she fired into the breach. The
laser cut through the air, burning and ionizing a hole in the still
writhing inferno.

Behind and to her right, Lohse also opened fire.

A loud squeal of pain identified the target before it came into view.
Squeezing through the doorway was a hideous creature covered with fur: a
Reaper. It was about the size of a large brown bear, perhaps two to two
and a half meters long. There were no forepaws; instead, it has two
large and powerful legs ending with clawed, three toed feet. Patchwork
alien armor covered much of its pig-like body, and two glowing red eyes
crowned its disgusting face. A mouth lined with rows of teeth roared in
pain and anger.

Reapers were just animals. The Floaters used them as terror weapons, and
in that respect they were fairly formidable. No civilian in the world
possessed a weapon that could really do more than piss it off. Aside
from the armor covering different vital areas, Reapers had highly
redundant nervous and cardiovascular systems, with two hearts and two
brains. Not that they were even very intelligent animals: those two
brains gave them the intelligence of a house cat. A huge, vicious,
hungry house cat.

Akane pitched two AN M14 TH3 incendiary grenades.

Another blast of plasma hit the creature, this time only partly
deflected by its exotic alien alloy armor. Its thick hide was tough, but
still vaporized and burned anywhere near a plasma impact. The problem
was doing enough damage to kill it before it frenzied. The Reaper
squealed and started forward, prodded into combat by its cybernetic
implants and the aliens behind it. Then the grenades went off, bathing
the Reaper and the area in front of it in fire and molten iron hot
enough to burn through steel.

The beast immediately came alight, its thick furry frame catching like a
roman candle. Burning particles melted through layers of leathery skin
and into thickly corded muscles and nerves. The Reaper slammed into the
wall once as it turned around, panic filling its primitive brains and
overriding the control the aliens normally had on it. Akane motioned for
Lohse to follow her in, and she started forward through the breech and
the flame.

They found a pair of Floaters on the other side of doorway. One was
shooting at the berserk Reaper, and the other had the misfortune of
peeking around the corner just as Akane barreled into it. It tumbled,
trying to regain its balance, face twisting in hate and surprise. This
close, Akane fell back on her martial arts training: introducing the
creature to the butt end of her rifle and roundhouse kicking its weapon
out of its hands. The moment she got some distance between them, she
burned its head off with her laser rifle.

Akane turned and saw the other Floater on the floor. Squaddie Lohse's
plasma rifle had blown the creature's upper torso apart, leaving little
more than the metallic lower body and the bulbous hoversection that took
the place of the legs. A couple meters away, the dead Reaper still
twitched. Walking around and a little closer, Akane could see a Sectoid
in its jaws, still clutching what looked like an alien stun bomb
launcher. It had probably intended to inundate the room she had just
been in while the Reaper pinned them down.

"You ok?" Akane asked, checking the room for any hidden hostiles.

"A little shaken up, but fine. You?"

"Pretty much the same," she admitted. If not for her personal armor,
that alien grenade would have killed her three or four times over. Akane
couldn't imagine how XCOM soldiers had fought and won against the aliens
in the early days, back when they didn't have anything except
conventional weapons and armor.

"Clear," Lohse said, but then amended it. "Look at this."

Akane carefully moved over to where the older woman stood, near one of
the walls of the large room. It looked like some kind of alien
laboratory. Many of the walls were lined with stasis tubes and alien
incubators. A set of harvesting equipment sat, unused, near a far wall,
along with a trio of alien operating tables.

Akane Tendo knew the kind of work the aliens did here.

It was a processing lab for abductees. Abductor class ships didn't
handle all of the alien workload; they mostly juggled field research and
short term experimentation with checking up on repeat abductees. When
some poor bastard disappeared for weeks or even months at a time, they
were taken to places like this in alien bases around the world. Here,
the aliens could monitor and make adjustments to their tests under more
controlled conditions.

She'd been briefed on this before the mission, and knew just what to
expect in such a place. Given the presence of Sectoids, the most common
finds were so called "deep abductees." These were missing persons,
almost always female, who were used for assorted breeding and fertility
experiments. After that, the mostly likely finds were clones or alien-
human hybrids. The latter two weren't that bad, but Akane had been
dreading finding anything like the first.

She passed by two empty chambers, but saw someone in the third: a
humanoid shape, cloudy and somewhat indistinct in the murky fluid bath.
The fourth chamber was clearer, and she saw one of them. The woman's
midsection was clearly bloated and her eyes were open, following Akane
as she walked by. In that moment, the youngest Tendo daughter wanted
nothing more than to let the woman out and then go and kill every alien
she could find.

But that wasn't procedure.

It also wasn't humane. Many abductees couldn't survive outside of stasis
chambers; either they had been in them for too long (a report had once
mentioned a woman being in stasis for five years), or the various
implants or modifications made to their bodies were unstable. Some could
be killed by the embryos growing inside them. UNETCO scientists would
have to study each individual case to determine the appropriate
treatment and response. Field ops were thus under orders not to
intervene lest they do more harm than good. Akane knew this.

Still, that knowledge did little to abate the growing anger inside her.

"How many people are in here...?" she asked, seeing Lohse standing in
front of one tube in particular.

"Looks like twenty or so," she older woman replied. "One of 'em is Dr.
Hatledal. The others... well, I guess we'll let the labcoats sort 'em
out."

Squaddie Lohse sounded only a little disturbed by the scene. Maybe it
was because she had been serving in UNETCO long enough to become
desensitized to the aliens' vile proclivities. Maybe she was just better
at internalizing her feelings. It was hard to tell. Akane liked to think
she had a closer relationship with Janis Lohse than her two male
teammates, but they sort of became different people when the helmets
came on for real and the enemy was in their sights.

Akane came up to where Lohse stood and checked the stasis chamber. No
sooner had she gotten there when surprise pushed aside the disgust and
anger that had so flooded her mindset. In the chamber, a pair of
familiar eyes met her own and a small, wrinkled hand desperately touched
the transparent wall.

"My God! That's...!"

-----

The Road to Cydonia

Chapter XXX Death Under the Mountain

-----

Written by: Capn Chryssalid jbraveboy at gmail.com

-----

Cologne's fingers flexed, tendrils of black tearing free from warm pink
flesh. In the palm of her hand, the solid wooden staff pulsed with
telekinetic energy, snuffing out the probing vines. Slapping the weapon
aside, the beautiful woman's face contorted into a sneer, as if the
sight and smell of something truly vile assaulted her senses. In way,
that was very much the case.

"You..." she hissed, cocking her head.

"That's right," a voice, older but similar in tone, replied. "Me."

A withered, shrunken old woman stood before the statuesque Amazon,
tapping one end of her cane to the ground at her feet. Long white hair
that nearly reached the floor drifted lazily in an unseen breeze. A
green outfit with yellow symbols, slightly burned but still functional,
hung on the ancient woman's thin frame.

"Who let you out?" Cologne asked, before tapping into the Mind. It has
helpfully stored and returned the memories of those aliens killed
outside the lab. "Two people I don't know?" She shook her head.
"Wonderful. I told them it was a mistake keeping you in storage."

"I think they had doubts about the cheap copy they made," Ku Lon
replied, giving her youthful duplicate a look normally reserved for
over-ripe trash left on the curb.

The younger Cologne chuckled darkly in response.

"Cheap copy? Me?" She asked, amber eyes twinkling. "This coming from a
withered old hag long since past her prime?"

"Better to die with dignity than become a pawn to ruinous powers."

"That has to be a joke!" Cologne pointed at her ancient counterpart.
"Where do you think I came from? You agreed to become me! Youth and
power and purpose! You agreed to all of it! All of me! Now, now, don't
be bitter just because the youth part didn't turn out like you
expected."

Elder Ku Lon tapped her staff again, and a cold wind picked up around
her.

"You are an abomination."

"And you're jealous of that abomination," Trenchard Cologne groused, an
identical wind rising around her and blowing her rich, dark hair about
her shoulders. "But that's fine. This is fine. I don't think words will
settle our differences, so..."

Elder Ku Lon's battle aura snapped around her, a vicious telekinetic
sheath that literally bent reality to her whim. Frozen patches of ground
cracked and shattered, flinging bits of debris into the air. Beneath it,
the floor warped and shuddered as the alternating weight and power of
her ki sent a spiderweb of cracks out in every direction. She tapped her
cane a third time, and the tip of it left a crater in the ground.

Cradling his arm, Ryouga could only gasp at the display of power taking
place in front of him. If his ki senses were accurate, then the old
mummy was putting out enough energy to equal a perfect shishi hokoudan,
but instead of it leaving her emotionally exhausted, she was cycling the
excess ki back into her body. The resulting battle aura could only be
described as prismatic and almost solid: neither woman seemed to rely on
any one emotion as a crutch at all.

Ranma, however, had seen something like this before. It was just like
Happosai's greatest battle aura - the one that had nearly immobilized
him when the old man mixed it with killing intent. Ku Lon's battle aura
was perfectly balanced, expressing anger and outrage and confidence and
depression all at once. It put his and Ryouga's to shame. They both
wasted more than half their emotional energy, but here the old ghoul was
using almost a hundred percent of her mental reserves. You could
probably bounce a rock off her aura, it was so thick.

"Your existence is my responsibility," the older woman admitted. "It is
only fitting that I be your end."

"Oh?" The younger her grew serious at the display, but didn't sound all
too worried. "But can that weak body of yours really live up to those
words? Well... I'll show you, old hag, just how pitiful and obsolete you
are before me!"

Ranma blinked, and the two women nearly vanished in a blur of speed. He
could feel the creeper vine slowly worming through his right leg,
devouring both flesh and ki, but despite the terror it had filled him
with just moments ago, he couldn't draw his eyes from this fight.
Indeed, he intended to observe every detail as if his life depended on
it.

Because sometime soon, it probably would.

-----

Konatsu's body slumped as the mind holding it up left. The legendary
kunoichi tottered for a second before falling against a strong arm. For
a second, it was all that kept the young man from falling face first to
the floor. The former Doctor Tofu's glancing pressure point attacks had
overwhelmed him for a moment, flooding his mind with pure fear. It
wasn't even fear directed at anything in particular, just a pure
animalistic instinct-like panic.

"Keep it together man," a voice chided. "I don't want have to hold you
up all day, you know."

"Ryu...?" Konatsu looked up at the India Squad member. "You saved me?"

Ryu Kumon's helmeted visage nodded from where he stood, next to the
still dazed ninja. Konatsu could see the wound in his chest where
Ukyou's battle spatula had hit him. The blow had been a complete
surprise, accounting for just why it had been so bad. Even the most
powerful martial artist needed some physical and mental preparation to
withstand trauma on that level.

As it was, Ukyou's attack had slipped perfectly under the upper torso
plate and into the exposed composite body glove. A long trail of blood
had run down much of his lower body, but the suit's internal sealing
mechanisms and the use of a medikit seem to have stopped the loss of
blood. It was impossible to tell just how badly Ryu was hurt, but he was
up and active, and that would have to be enough.

Konatsu also noted the other fighter's Mark IV Psi-Amp, affixed onto his
right arm. He could still feel Ryu's lingering presence in his mind, and
quickly deduced what had happened. Seeing the kunoichi at Tofu's feet,
Ryu must have used his amp to take control of Konatsu's higher brain
functions, bypassing Tofu's pressure point attack. It was quick
thinking.

"Buy me a beer and we'll call it even," Ryu said, probably still sensing
some of Konatsu's own thoughts through the recently severed psionic
link.

"R-right," Konatsu managed to say, still shaking slightly. What a
horrible technique the Doctor had used... a physical attack would have
been preferable.

The object of the shinobi's ire stood alone, watching something off to
the right. Konatsu blinked, not quite sure he could trust what he was
seeing. One of the alien ships parked in the base garage was tilting and
moving. But it wasn't the graceful sort of flight that characterized a
rising UFO's gravity drive. It was almost as if someone was lifting the
ship up from one side...

And then that UFO fell to the floor height-wise, so it resembled nothing
more than a giant wheel. A moment later, it took off, rolling
haphazardly towards the Doctor's position. Tofu neatly sidestepped it,
only a small measure of haste visible in his moment. The rolling UFO
went by him and crashed into the wall with a great crash before falling
to the ground and rolling around on its sides like a massive coin.

"Oye Oye...! You're a quick little guy!" A loud voice called out, and a
man in personal armor stepped into view. It was quite large: a little
over six feet tall, and his voice was deep but with a youthful
inflection. The newcomer's posture, bearing, and the unmistakable tint
in his aura left no doubt that he was a powerful martial artist... and
that he wanted everyone around him to be aware of that fact. Orange
tiger stripe markings slashed the shoulder guards of his armor with
color.

He also carried what looked like at least three large weapons on his
back.

Three large vehicle-class weapons and enough gear that it had to weight
more than half a ton.

"A Musk..." Tofu grumbled, straightening out his Ethereal's robes. "How
annoying."

"Name's Lime."

What little introduction that was. Lime reached behind him with one arm
and came back with what could only be a minigun. A long chain of rounds
draped casually from the side, and some sort of arm assembly swung in
place to lock it around the man's forearm. Lime handled the thirty pound
weapon like it was water pistol, took rough aim, and indiscriminately
opened fire.

The barrels spun and bullets began to fly.

The Gatling gun gave a long, loud growl, gobbling up links of 5.56x45mm
NATO caliber ammunition at a rate of over thirty a second. A pound of
ammunition fed into the weapon every second, spraying the area in front
of it with an almost inescapable rain of fire. Lime swept the gun as
Tofu moved, a barely visible streak of titian orange, trying to either
keep ahead of the weapon's aim or shoot off in some random, unexpected
direction. Almost impossibly for such a large weapon, Lime swung his arm
and his aim from side to side as he pivoted left and right, the Gatling
gun itself almost a blur.

Tofu stumbled.

For just a second, he hung in midair, hit by surprise from the recoil of
just a few of those hundreds of bullets. With so many, so much,
happening at once it was impossible to judge the trajectories or the
intent of them all. It was how a martial artist could dodge a bullet:
one had to read the intention and move out of the line of fire. But
nearly everything nearby was made of alien alloys. The 5.56mm bullets
would hit the floor, the ceiling, the walls and nearby ships and bounce
off in intention-less and unpredictable ways.

Tofu's stumble, all half a second of it, cost him.

A dozen direct hits plowed into the doctor, who fell back, soaking up
another twelve even before he hit the ground. Then he vanished in a
flash. Lime pulled back his firing arm and jumped, narrowly avoiding the
speedy doctor. Flipping gracefully through the air, Lime alighted atop a
piece of alien equipment sticking out of the floor. There was no room on
it for another person, and he pointed the still spinning barrels of the
Gatling gun at a robe clad form standing where he had just been a moment
before.

"I don't appreciate being shot, young man," Tofu said, holding up his
arms. Flattened bullets fell from the alien fabric, unable to penetrate
it. Had a normal human taken those blows, then the bullets would have
still imparted enough kinetic energy to break bones and tenderize flesh.
Against someone with Doctor Tofu's hybridized alien-human physiology the
effect was... rather less.

Lime began to laugh.

"I guess I'll put the pea shooter away then," the Musk spoke up,
sounding almost happy. Detaching the Gatling gun from his right arm, he
let it fall to the floor with an audible clang. Tofu took off faster
than most human eyes could follow, trying to close the distance.

Lime's right hand gripped one of his big guns.

-----

"Huh? What's this?"

Koichi Ayabe had been running after his opponent but it now seemed like
that opponent had turned around in the middle of an empty room. It
looked like Mousse wanted to fight again. It may have looked like that,
but it smelled like a trap.

Ayabe paused at the doorway.

It gave him a second to catch his breath, too. Running around like that
was for kids and teenagers, not middle aged office workers. Not that it
was tiring... just annoying. Like chasing after the dog that one time it
got in the front yard. His senses spread out, scanning the room.

"All those land mines..." he said aloud so the boy could hear him. "You
placed them awfully quickly. How'd you do that?"

Hidden landmines again, about 10 real and 20 duds; he'd have to disable
them all to be sure. There also seemed to be a lot of barbed wire strewn
around the room, some of it in plain sight and some hidden. A few coils
were even set into hidden panels taped to the wall and ceiling. It was
pretty elaborate considering the boy couldn't have had more than a few
minutes to get it all set up.

"Hmm...." Ayabe still paused, thinking but not entering.

"Not coming inside?" Mousse taunted, drawing a plasma carbine from his
voluminous robes. That wasn't good.

"I see no reason to," the older man replied, intending to turn and
leave. While Cologne and the others had wanted them to finish off these
talented young men and women, Ayabe wasn't in a huge rush. The whole
thing seemed wasteful. These kids were good. He only wished he'd had
talented friends like them when he was their age. Regardless, he wasn't
in some kind of hurry that would necessitate jumping into an obviously
booby tapped room like that. Nor was he particularly inclined to trade
long range attacks with someone packing a plasma rifle (not if he could
help it).

It was then that his seventh and sixth senses flared a warning.

Jumping away from the danger, he saw the walls behind him disappear in
fire. He hadn't sensed anything substantial from them, but now he could
guess with some accuracy that they had been trapped, too. With plastic
explosive. Mousse had waited for him to pass the hidden bombs so they
would drive him into the trapped room.

Ayabe landed on his feet, using precise bursts of electromagnetic energy
to blow away and disable two of the concealed land mines. This boy...
was very impressive. But kind of annoying, too. Fighting in here would
be much more difficult, even with the advantage of his powered up Hotaru
(Firefly) battle aura. Besides, he could still leave the way he came...

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw someone new standing in the way,
wearing the same XCOM personal armor all these people wore. He was
shorter and smaller than Mousse, with the hilt of a sword in his right
hand. The rest of the weapon was clipped to his back. There was
something unusual about how he used his battle aura, too.

"And you are...?"

"Mint," the newcomer answered. He sounded like a teenager. He was also
almost indescribably fast. Ayabe leaned back, his heightened senses
alerting him to the attack, but his eyes unable to completely follow it.
It was hard to believe, but this boy was faster than even Cologne. A
small cut on Ayabe's left cheek dribbled blood.

Mint stood at the other end of the room, having crossed it in the blink
of an eye.

"That was my way of saying hello," he added, flourishing his curved
dadao sword. It was large enough that most people would need two hands
to swing it effectively; Mint brandished it one-handed with the speed
and accuracy of a whip. Ayabe reached up and touched the cut on his
face, surprised and impressed by the speed and accuracy of the strike.

The older man sighed.

"I suppose I'll have to kill two of you now instead of just one..."

-----

"You're making us look bad, Saffron." Saffron knew that tone of voice.

"Lord Saffron!" And he recognized that one, too.

The Phoenix King turned, slowly, towards the voices. Flames lapped up
from the stump that had once been his right arm. It would take only
moments to regenerate, and he didn't spare it much thought. His ability
to recover, nearly instantly and from almost any wound, was a natural
aspect of who and what he was. It was purely an automatic reflex and
required no thought on his part.

Saffron saw the two of them standing side by side.

He recognized Kiima first. The beautiful winged phoenix woman had been
his caretaker for his last two and a half incarnations, and he vaguely
remembered her as a child from a third Saffron iteration. She stood
before him now, not in her ceremonial garb as Captain of his Royal
Guard, but in some ridiculous foreign attire. It was an ungraceful and
ugly outfit with large pockets all on the front and simple belts and
buckles here and there. The color was mottled, like on a moth, and
altogether undignified. That westerners and the current crop of Chinese
rulers wore such a thing to war was all the more damning.

Then again, it was probably for the best that Kiima left her traditional
accoutrements back at Jusendo. She had already disgraced them by
allowing herself to be beaten by foreigners, not once, but multiple
times. First Ranma and his ilk had made a mockery of her touted elite
guardsmen and then the aliens had massacred them without difficulty.
Twice Kiima had allowed him to be killed. He would have her head for it
now that she was no longer of any use.

The second figure wore the typical armored raiment of the enemy.

It was similar to the swordsman's, but personalized with some familiar
ornamentation. The shoulders, upper arms, forearms and knees were
adorned with what looked like dark golden scales. It was impossible to
see a face through the matte colored helmet, but glowing brightly
through the armor; Saffron could see as well as feel a bright white
battle aura, burning cold and emotionless like a block of dry ice. In
this man's hands, Saffron saw something that gave him pause: the holy
Gekkaja. The crescent headed staff was the sister to his own mighty
Kinjakan, and just as fearsome.

"Herb," Saffron hissed the name. "That's you, isn't it?"

The armored man nodded. "It is."

Saffron muttered a curse under his breath.

Around Jyusenkyou, the two great powers are the Dragon and the Phoenix.
The Joketsuzoku, mere humans, nestled between them relied on numbers and
trade to survive. The Musk were isolationist, but occasionally had need
of strong women wives to carry on their bloodlines. It was a poorly kept
secret in many circles: that some powerful Amazons would bear a male
heir for a Musk warrior and return to the village, the tryst paid for in
full and promptly forgotten.

The Phoenix people, too, needed the Amazons. They needed to trade for
goods, and preferred to use the warrior women as regional brokers and
intermediaries. Like the deals with the Musk, the arrangement fed into
the coffers of the Amazon Elders, cementing their power and authority in
the region. The three powers thus lived in uneasy but relative harmony.

Herb.

This was only the second time Saffron remembered meeting Herb, but he
still had the same impression from him. It was not positive. He had only
been a child at the time, and Herb had towered over him, radiating cold
disdain. They were both ruthless and powerful men, but Herb's chilly and
haughty disposition rankled the hot blooded Phoenix King. Saffron well
remembered those dark red eyes bearing down on him: analytical,
arrogant, and totally devoid of fear.

It was that lack of fear, that lack of respect, that Saffron just
couldn't forgive.

"We'd suspected you were working with those people," Saffron began,
meaning UNETCO. "Have you no pride, cousin?"

"There is no pride in hiding under your mountain and letting the world
grow stronger while you and yours go to rot. Then as now, the difference
between us... cousin," Herb said the word like a curse. "Is that I
control my destiny."

'You control your destiny?' Saffron repeated the words in his mind,
feeling anger rise up inside. He could see those eyes looming behind
Herb even now, looking down at the Phoenix King. How he hated, hated,
hated those cold reptilian eyes, fearless and inhuman. How he hated that
tiny flare of insecurity he felt in the presence of this man!

Herb felt his hate, and beckoned him forward.

Saffron's flesh split open, spilling out molten blood. Fire engulfed him
like a halo. He had been holding back, using only as much of his finite
power as he felt necessary, but now it bubbled out to the surface in
response to his rage. His white feathered wings caught fire, and his
hand clenched the shaft of his staff, the Kinjakan, with white knuckles.
The entire room became am oven. There would be no more games.

Not with this opponent.

-----

"You will not be the next Herb, Saffron."

Baleful, sanguine eyes glared down at him across hundreds of years. How
many centuries had it been? The memories grew hazy and indistinct the
further back he tried to remember, but that memory, of those reptilian
eyes the shade of copper... that memory would not disappear into
history's black depths. Lifetimes ago, he had been judged by Father and
found wanting.

Weak.

"Your body and your chi are weak. You are unworthy of the name."

Father had beaten him within an inch of death and left him on the shores
of the river of the damned. His brother watched: cold red eyes set
against a curtain of darkness. The First Herb had two sons, but only one
would inherit his name and the right to rule the Musk Dynasty. His
brother, the brute, the fiend, had been chosen. He, the scholar, had
been left to die.

The wounds had healed slowly. He remembered indistinct faces, battling
with infection and fear. Hatred and spite had kept him alive. Years
passed as he searched for a way to get his revenge. He had neither the
inclination nor attitude to benefit from the brutal physical training
his Father advocated. Saffron found a different way.

A better way.

He plumbed the secrets of the cursed springs, researching and gathering
knowledge. He wandered the ancient world, learning and gathering
followers. In time, he returned to the cursed springs and, after many
failures, finally created the forgotten Spring of Drowned Phoenix. From
that spring emerged the great mythical beast itself, which was then
beaten, tamed, and made to sire the first True Saffron. Whether by
chance or design, the son was born imbued with the memories and
personality of the father.

Deathless! Invincible! Immortal!

Saffron!

-----

'More! More More More!' Saffron's power was like a gas main. He could
either use it, a little bit at a time, drawing things out for years. Or
he could burn like the sun for a very short time. At this moment, he no
longer cared what the long term inconvenience would be. He would not let
those eyes look down on him as they had so many years ago, so many
centuries ago!

'More! MORE!'

Herb thought him a pawn of destiny? No. No! When he and his father and
his father's fathers rotted in the ground, worms and beetles hollowing
out their eyes, he, Saffron, would sit on his burning throne and laugh.
He had made his own destiny a thousand years ago, and he would survive.
On Earth for a millennia and in space for an eternity. Herb thought him
a pawn? He would bathe in the light of distant stars and laugh at the
pathetic dead that littered the world once known as Earth.

He was Saffron, the deathless, the immortal!

Power coursed and congealed in his hands, enough to light up a city.

He would burn this bastard and everyone else in one move!

He...

He felt something cold in the pit of his stomach.

Looking down, Saffron saw the bladed crescent head of the Gekkaja buried
in his abdomen. It was cold. Horribly, unbearably cold. Cracks of ice
spread out from the impalement, numbing flesh and extinguishing fire. He
tried to move his arms, but they were pinned to the wall by glowing
blades of energy.

'What...? How...?'

The Phoenix King blinked, confused, and saw movement in front of him.
His hands and wrists were wracked by pain and pinned over his head,
bones breaking as they twisted. It was hard to grasp what had happened.

"Slow."

That voice.

"You're too slow. You never did train your body."

Herb stood in front of the Phoenix King. His right hand held the
Gekkaja, burying it in Saffron's stomach. His other hand held Saffron's
wrists, impaling them on a blade of pure ki, literally stapling his
wrists to the wall. Pinned like a butterfly, Saffron tried to tear his
hands free, but couldn't. They were bound too strong, and the bones in
his arms were broken and out of alignment. He couldn't regenerate them
unless he could line them back up. The Kinjakan hit the floor, no longer
held by limp fingers.

Herb stepped back, helmeted visor expressionless and unsympathetic. A
few stray flames clung to his armor, but the Musk Prince extinguished
them with a wave of his hand.

"What?" Saffron coughed fire. "What did you...?"

"You could easily overpower me if given the chance," Herb remarked. "So
I decided not to give you that chance. You're used to fighting in an
open area, where you can fly and rain down attacks with impunity. You
should have fled when you saw me, ready to fight you here with the
Gekkaja. Instead you stayed. And now you've lost."

It hurt.

He couldn't heal... and...

It hurt!

Looking down, Saffron saw a spiderweb of cracks expanding across his
lower body. The cold - it hurt so much, he could barely stand it. Fueled
by the pain, he struggled, desperately trying to pull his hands or arms
free. They couldn't move, and even his wings were useless in this
position. He tried to concentrate heat in his body around where the
strange energy blades impaled his arms and wrists.

"Don't bother," Herb said, observing him. "There is no material
component to melt. They are constructs of pure ki. While I normally
produce blades with this technique, I know full well that there is no
point in cutting you. So... these nails will bind you while the ice
consumes your body."

"I won't... I won't be beaten like this!" Saffron shook his head,
struggling. "I am Saffron! I will destroy you! Landling! I... I..."

Herb cocked his head. "You...?"

Saffron's eyes darted down to the growing pain in his lower body. The
Gekkaja's freezing effect had expanded even further, down almost to his
knees. The core of his body was fighting it, but Herb knew all too well
how to use the weapon. Without the Kinjakan to boost his own power, it
would... it would...

"Kiima," he called out to her, eyes darting left and right. "Kiima?"

He found her standing next to that landling swordsman. She was looking
away from her one time King, trying not to see him.

"Kiima!" he cried again. "Help me! Help me! I'll take you with me!"

Saffron saw her stiffen.

Yes: years of indoctrination and conditioning could do wonders!

"Help me!" he pleaded. The ice was halfway to his neck. "Kiima! I'll
make you my Queen! We'll travel the stars together! I need you! Please!"

Herb stood and listened, unmoving. Kiima rose up behind him, holding
Kuno up by his shoulders. With one last look, the woman turned and
started in the opposite direction. The wounded swordsman did turn to
look over his shoulder, perhaps in morbid fascination. Saffron watched
her go, alternating between indignation and rage.

"No." He could feel the ice at his neck. "NO! NO! Traitor! Bitch! I'll
be back! I'll be back and next time...!" He shook his head madly; flame
belching from his eyes and mouth. "Next time I'll burn you all to
cinders! I'll turn everything you know to ash! I am fire and death! All
your deaths! Wait and see! Wait and..."

And then the cold seized his lower and upper jaw, freezing his mouth in
a statue-like roar: teeth bared and muscles drawn. Golden eyes glared at
Herb, never breaking contact; not even blinking as the growing frost
inched up and took them. In seconds it was over, and what was left of
Saffron, the immortal Phoenix of Jusendo, remained still and silent,
crucified and speared a half dozen times against the wall, frozen in an
effigy of impotent hate.

The instant Saffron's fire extinguished, the entire room became
enveloped in a thick layer of frost. Herb let go of the very end of the
Gekkaja, bits of ice trailing from his gloved fingers along with tiny
sparks of ki. Turning towards Kiima and Kuno, his boots made soft
crunching sounds against the frost underfoot. Imperceptibly at first, it
began to snow, flakes drifting to the floor and settling on Herb's
shoulders.

Kiima watched him with wide eyes.

Then she blinked, and snapped out of her surprise. "Saffron? Is he...?"

"I will deal with him later," Herb replied. His faceless visor turned
slightly as he looked at her and Kuno. "Can you fight, Squaddie?"

Kuno also snapped out of his shock. Such a display of power...!

"Yes, sir," he replied, noting the Lieutenant's insignia. This had to be
the leader of the martial arts squad based in Dongchuan, at the China
Branch or UNETCO. He had never seen such a personalized personal armor,
either. X-COM usually let its soldiers modify what they wore to some
degree - it wasn't uncommon for former Special Forces to wear an old
service patch somewhere, or so ink on words or little designs. Only
flags and religious symbols weren't allowed. But this man, in his armor,
seemed like a dragon in human form.

"Reinforcements will be along soon," he said to the swordsman. "Stay
here with Kiima and do not remove the Gekkaja."

Herb walked away without further comment.

Kuno sheathed his sword and watched the man go with a mix of awe and
relief. He knew about this man from Lieutenants Hibiki and Saotome and
that they were the critical backup India and Juliet needed. From the
beginning, the plan had been to separate and isolate the enemy martial
artists, and then route the reinforcements to each individual fight,
making for the most favorable match-up. It was divide and conquer,
essentially, by picking off and eliminating those enemies they knew they
could overcome. They would then gang up on and overwhelm the ones with
unknown capabilities.

Kuno knew all this.

He just hadn't expected his reinforcements to give him the chills.

"Kuno to India and Juliet," he opened up the team-comm. "Target is down.
Counterattack is underway."

-----

"...counterattack is underway."

'About damn time!'

Not that Shampoo's thoughts were quite as bitter as they probably
sounded. She was just a little eager to finally make her move. From the
start she'd hoped to wear down and overpower Ukyou, incidentally proving
her superiority over the other girl, but it just didn't seem like the
universe was quite so kind. The alternative was a bit of a long shot,
but at least now she wouldn't get bitched out for going ahead with it.

Intercepting a handful of thrown mini-spatulas with an identical number
of emei hair pins, Shampoo took off in a perpendicular direction. Those
were the last of Ukyou's unconventional ranged weapons. Just as
expected, the mind controlled girl reached down and retrieved her
holstered plasma pistol instead of taking the risk and charging a Hinode
ki attack. The plasma pistol was far deadlier than any normal throwing
star or similar weapon (even in the hands of someone strong enough to
embed that thrown weapon in a block of concrete), but it was also
inherently far more limited in application.

The two squads weren't composed of idiots.

Growing up, every one of them knew the strengths and weaknesses of
firearms, and ever since joining UNETCO, they had trained to defeat
enemies using exotic alien weapons: rifles and grenades and pistols.
Unlike a thrown weapon, there was a very narrow but well defined cone
that the weapon could discharge within. A comparison could be between a
lantern and a flashlight. That Ukyou was now using this undoubtedly
dangerous weapon was just what Shampoo had been waiting for.

The Amazon's left arm blurred, and she released one of her chui battle
maces. Normally, this sort of weapon wouldn't weigh more than ten
pounds, or about four and a half kilograms. Shampoo's topped the scales
at ten times that. Thrown at over two hundred miles per hour, the result
was a not insubstantial amount of force. Not surprisingly, Ukyou's left
wrist twisted on reflex, bringing up the wide flat of her battle spatula
to block the oncoming projectile.

The maneuver, executed without the girl even thinking, left her back
exposed.

Shampoo closed the distance between them in one rapid step. She reached
into Ukyou's guard, using the fact that the chef had only one hand on
her spatula and the other still trying to aim her sidearm. Straightening
her left arm, Shampoo's muscles strained but succeeded in overpowering
her opponent. Ukyou's left arm locked up and into an unnatural position.
At the same time, Shampoo reached in with her right arm and seized the
plasma pistol around the trigger guard. Her right foot snaked between
Ukyou's legs, and in one smooth motion, her arms snapped out and she
spun.

Ukyou's battle spatula twirled through the air.

So did Ukyou. Even in her mind controlled state, the other girl retained
enough of her martial arts skill to stop her from hitting the ground
face first. Bouncing like a ball off the flat of her left hand and onto
her feet, Ukyou stared at her opponent with wide eyes. Shampoo relished
it, even as she twirled the other girl's plasma pistol around in her
right hand. It was what she had suspected all along: inside the massive
weapon's guard, Ukyou was at her most vulnerable.

Shampoo briefly contemplated shooting one of Ukyou's legs, but just as
quickly discarded the thought. While obstacles were for killing, as the
old Joketsuzoku saying went, this particular scenario called for
subtlety. Besides, something about crippling the annoying okonomiyaki
chef had much less appeal now than it would have, say, a year ago. It
wasn't like there were any other girls her own age that were worth a
damn. Shampoo almost sighed at her sentimentality; if only Ukyou had
been born in the village of warrior women instead of Japan, maybe they
could've been best friends (or worst enemies)...

Ukyou came at her with her fists, finally bereft of any other weapon.

Any one of her blows could have killed a man three times her size.
Shampoo tucked her stolen plasma pistol away in the belt around her
waist and fielded the first half dozen strikes. Ukyou was already in
less than perfect condition after trading blows with her for several
minutes, bleeding from a badly torn lip, a gash over her left brow, and
a black and blue wound just outside her right eye. Not that Shampoo was
in much prettier condition. Neither would be winning beauty contests for
a while... unless they were judged by the loony martial arts peers they
had around them, anyway.

The two girls circled as they dueled: striking and blocking in a blur of
savage motion. Finally, Shampoo trapped the other girl's arms, flipping
her over and slamming her to the floor with a hard crunch. She then
twisted Ukyou by her arm from on her back onto her stomach. The chef
tried to counter with an elbow, but Shampoo caught it and wrapped her
own arm around Ukyou's throat while straddling the small of her back.
Ukyou hissed and sputtered for air as Shampoo's bicep cut off her wind
pipe.

"Now...!" Shampoo reached back with her right hand, fingers flexing
ominously. "Xi Fa Xiang Gao! Formula 110!"

The first four pressure points induced momentary paralysis. It was all
Shampoo needed, and it was why she had goaded Doctor Tofu into keeping
their helmets off. It was a two handed technique under normal
conditions, but Shampoo was confident in her ability to pull it off with
just her right hand. Of all the techniques she had learned from Cologne,
the "Certain Kill Pressure Point Strikes" were among the most powerful.

Brutally effective against weaker warriors or those with inferior battle
auras (frankly, this was some 98 percent of all Amazons), these
techniques could be executed without one using vast amounts of
externalized ki. All the variations of it left little or no physical
harm, but instead manipulated the human brain. She could even use a form
of "remote control acupuncture" that was one of the village secrets.
Obviously, compared to what Doctor Tofu could do, and had done, it was
pretty trivial, but Shampoo was still proud of being able to master it.
Formula 110, however, was special: selective memory manipulation.

Shampoo felt her mind touch Ukyou's.

The experience was altogether different than when she had used the
technique on Akane, two years ago. There was no primary mind running the
body. Instead, Tofu's technique had what could only be called a sort of
net, wrapped around the mind. This had to be the special paralytic
meditation technique he had used on her. From there, she could sense an
external force issuing strong compulsions that the enslaved mind had no
choice but to execute. It was an amazing technique to be sure.

How to beat it, then?

"Ah!" Ukyou gasped, falling forward onto her hands. "W-what...?"
Haltingly, she reached up to her scalp. "My head..."

"Still feel like killing me?" Shampoo asked, getting off Ukyou's back
and standing over the Japanese girl.

"Only a little," Ukyou said, sucking up and spitting out wad of blood.
"How'd you do that?"

Shampoo smirked, glad not only that her little trick had worked, but
that she got to lord it over her rival, too. "You have heard of hypnotic
suggestion, yes? What I used could be called hypnotic repression. Just
like how suggestion can make someone believe they are hurt when they
aren't, repression can make someone forget their pain. I made you forget
that your body had been put into a meditative state."

Ukyou stared at her, finding the explanation somewhat lacking.

"Not that I'd expect a stupid okonomiyaki chef like you to understand,"
Shampoo added with an aristocratic twinkle in her eye.

She paused a second, thinking it over for a bit, before holding out her
hand.

Ukyou took her hand, and Shampoo helped pull the other girl up onto her
feet.

"Thanks, sugar."

"No problem."

Both women turned to look at the tumult off on the other end of the
base's UFO garage. The boys were really tearing it up over there. Two
building sized spaceships were upended and lying on their sides, while
explosions, vacuum blades and tracer fire lit up the darkness. Shampoo
tossed the plasma pistol she'd swiped earlier to her partner and cracked
her neck left and right. Ukyou quickly checked the weapon and bend over,
picking up the detached weighted end of her battle spatula. With a yank,
the main body of the weapon flew threw the air and into her left hand.

"Shall we?" she chef asked.

Shampoo's smirk grew. "Let's."

-----

YOU ARE BEING OUTMANEUVERED

We can handle it.

I AM NOT CONVINCED OF THAT

Watch. Saffron and Rouge weren't real examples of Mastery. They were
just children with powers. Watch us!

VERY WELL SHOW ME

-----

Ke Lun could feel the strain in her body as she fought.

Her arms burned in pain with every blow she delivered, and her bones
threatened to buckle with every block and counter. Her ki saturated
muscles, weary from over a hundred years of use, and weakened by atrophy
in that vile alien stasis chamber, produced a chorus of agony that
reverberated throughout her being. It wasn't just that she was too old
for this; her body would simply burn out if she kept pushing it to such
peak levels of output.

"Ha HA HA!" Her youthful counterpart seemed to be enjoying herself.

Ke Lun blocked one of the beautiful woman's strikes with her cane,
redirecting the force in a circular path through her body and back into
her opponent. It was one of her favorite tricks, and the key to her hand
to hand fighting style. It made her almost unbeatable in close quarters.
The Trenchard double of her directed the force back, and the two warrior
women spun, trading blows even as they dissipated the forces delivered
into each other or into the ground.

Craters split the earth around their feet.

"Come on! Old Hag!"

Cologne's hair brushed by Ke Lun's face, opening a deep cut and erupted
in crimson. The matriarch leapt, twirling like a top before splitting
into a half dozen identical forms. She was already pushing her body's
top speed, which meant that the Splitting Cat Hairs technique would be
at its most effective. Her younger self just smiled, dancing around the
first twenty blows from the multitude of afterimages. In less than a
second, she was at a matching speed, at which point she used the exact
same technique.

All fourteen Ke Lun images vanished as twice that number of Colognes
appeared around them. Both of them new that the technique was only a
distraction. Spinning her staff around her body, Ke Lun unleashed a
dozen waves of battle aura. At the same time, her mouth opened
unleashing a torrent of blinding blue flame. She barely had time to
bring her wooden staff around to cover her back, where it blocked
Cologne's flat palmed strike with only a millisecond to spare.

"Those old eyes must be failing you," the alien human hybrid noted. "You
weren't even close."

Cologne's fingers began to glow a faint violet and the middle and ring
fingers began to cut into Ke Lun's staff. It was that technique. The
younger version of the Amazon matriarch grinned wildly, amber eyes
alight with triumph and savage glee. Finally she swiped her hands,
shattering the bottom half of the staff and sending Ke Lun spiraling out
of control and into the wet, muddy floor. Ke Lun spat blood but managed
to get what was left of the staff up in time to block a descending axe
kick. A ripple of force shot along the ground as the old woman directed
the inertia into the ground at her bare feet.

"HYO!" Ke Lun willed the moisture below her to solidify, and it
instantly did so: rising as it turned to ice. A great sheet of it, five
meters wide, rose up out of the muck and flowed over her body. For all
of a second, it hit Cologne, and very nearly repeated what she had done
to Ryouga just a couple minutes ago.

But then the ice sheet turned to water, and Cologne fell through it. Her
hands blurred as she unleashed pulse after pulse of battle aura. Unlike
Ranma or Ryouga's ki attacks, hers were nearly colorless but no less
potent. Ke Lun spun and twirled, blocking as many as she could while
trying to get out of the area of effect. Shockwaves blew geysers of dead
plant matter, mud and water into the air all around her. Those that
connected jarred her old body to the core.

'I... I can't keep this up...!'

She didn't even notice one of the exposed roots strike, like a snake,
and coil around her left leg. Cursing silently, Ke Lun spared all of a
half second to shatter it with the broken end of her staff. It was
plenty of time. A wave of battle aura and killing intent slammed into
her, lifting her off her feet and sending her skidding along the floor
like a pebble skimming the surface of a pond.

"You're insulting me," Cologne mocked her older self. "Fighting at such
a pitiful level!"

Ke Lun pushed herself up from the mud and scowled at her younger self.
The likeness was still frightening. Ke Lun knew how she looked: she was
a shrunken, wrinkled old woman. It was no surprise the disrespectful
young kids around her called her 'old mummy' and 'withered monkey.' She
took it in relative stride, having been an old woman for a long, long
time.

It was understandably unsettling to see her old self: tall, regal,
beautiful and powerful, standing just a few feet away, with that
disgusted expression on her face. Ke Lun had been as proud of her looks
as any haughty young Joketsuzoku, back in the day. Amazon training
tended to leave women looking less than the female ideal, but a
warrior's practicality meant that most Amazons accepted this as the
price paid for power. When a girl could survive all those trails
unscarred, it was a sign of true fortune, of true genius, and of true
greatness. The strongest men loved - demanded - beautiful women,
everyone knew this, and those most comely and powerful Amazons were all
expected to ensnare and break in strong outsider men for the good of the
village.

A hundred years ago, she had been a goddess.

Now she looked like a monster.

"I can hear your body straining to match me..." Cologne flipped her long
dark hair and held out her hand, fingers curled like claws. "The sound
of old bones moving makes me sick! He kept you alive as an emergency
backup, but what use are you now? You're nothing! Become one with the
earth, and DIE!"

A circle of spiny thorns and coiling, roiling vines exploded around Ke
Lun. The planets were alien to her sensibilities, and did not respond
well to her ki. This other Cologne, however, had a masterful
synchronization with the unearthly life forms. They bent and twisted and
split at her whim, fed by her ki and her telekinetic control of organic
and insentient life.

'Move!' Ke Lun willed her body to reach its limits. "Move! You have to
move!'

The tightening coil of plants formed a dark cone around her. Pushing her
leg muscles to their maximum tolerances, nearly to the point of tearing,
Ke Lun shot out of the top of the trap just moments before it would have
closed ensnaring her within. The ball of plant matter snapped together
into a small ball and sunk back into the mud. Just a heartbeat slower,
and that would have been it...

She saw her young self sneering in annoyance.

Ke Lun pointed her staff and focused her battle aura into it. It was not
just a piece of wood. She always had it with her, and it was as much a
part of her body as her weary legs and arms. The staff, infused with her
ki and bonded to her blood, glowed with an inner fury. In the span of a
second, it elongated, stretching and tapering to a spear-like point. It
crossed a distance of sixty feet in an instant, slashing into the ground
and beyond.

Cologne snarled; a long cut on her left arm filled in with black vines.

"That damn Ruyi Jingu Bang knockoff..." The young woman's eyes finally
narrowed in something approaching consternation. "It's a fitting weapon
for an old monkey."

Ku Lon shrunk the staff back to its regular size before expanding it
again. It had been years since she used the full power of her staff, and
the old woman could feel it greedily sucking up her battle aura. It was
the product of a decade of research and experimentation: a weapon to
supplant her weakening body and expand her skill set. It was probably
the one advantage she had over this young alien-human hybrid. It took
more than a year to grow the staff, and another year to get it to fully
bond with its master.

While not as indestructible or heavy as the legendary Nyoi-bo wielded by
Sun Wukong, it was a versatile and powerful instrument. The staff was
still gradually repairing itself from the damage before, and Ku Lon knew
to be wary of her double's own use of that technique. Cologne could
break the staff if given the chance. Ku Lon vowed not make it easy on
her: expanding and contracting the staff at high speed, she moved her
arms at Amaguriken speeds, stabbing and slashing and spinning.

Cologne skipped back, cuts along her arms and legs sprouting vines. For
the first time, she was starting to sweat.

"You...!" She reached up, feeling the deep cut in her left cheek;
marring her beautiful face. Murder flared up behind her eyes, and a
great gust of wind blew ripples in the mud around her feet.

"I've had enough playing around." Drops of water began to coalesce in
the air around her, collecting and growing into small round orbs. Ku Lon
recognized it immediately. She knew that move: it was the most powerful
of all the elemental water techniques assimilated by the Joketsuzoku
Amazons, only usable by those with an equal mastery over the Metal
element.

She had invented it, after all.

'Damnit! I have hurry!' She aligned her staff and expanded it, hoping to
get in a hit before it was fully formed. She had always required a few
seconds to assemble enough water and properly compress it. No sooner had
she acted, however, than Ku Lon regretted making such an obvious and
straightforward attack. This young version of herself was stronger than
she had been. She should have used some sort of cover: a wood wall or a
shark fist, anything to distract what was coming.

But it was too late.

Kaitei Kikori (Deep Sea Wood Cutter)

A brilliant blue line intersected Ku Lon's staff, drilling into the tip
and scattering it into shredded pulp. Her free-forming staff could
pierce inches of solid steel without effort, but against the oncoming
pressurized stream of water and abrasive metal particles it was of
little use. The thin blue line annihilated the tip of the expanding
staff before cutting more and more into the weapon, nearly slicing it in
two.

Ku Lon turned her head and dove to the side, forsaking any sense of
dignity in a hasty scramble to avoid the cutting beam that swung
overhead. The beam dwindled and vanished, only to be replaced by
another. Ku Lon hastily ran her hand along the ground, and set off a
wave of breaking points deep in the ground, sending blocks of stone
upwards, breaking the surface of the floor like giant multi-ton walls.
It took mere moments for two deep blue decapitating beams to converge,
like scissors, slicing up the great blocks of earth.

Ku Lon cringed as one of the beams neatly cut a few inches off of her
long white hair. The Kaitei Kikori technique, if it landed, would cut so
fast that she wouldn't even feel it. It was essentially impossible to
block. There was no known material that could hold up against it for
more than a few moments, and at velocities many times the speed of
sound, it was nearly impossible to dodge once 'found' by the beam.

Conversely, it required tremendous amounts of ki to compress and project
the streams of water, much less form and collect the tiny crystalline
abrasives it used. And even then, the ki saturated water needed a third
step to be completely effective. The water molecules needed to be held
together in a coherent jet over long distances by telekinetically
forming a web of molecular columns. It was the most powerful and
difficult technique anyone in the village had ever developed using that
element.

And since it was her own technique, she'd never come up with a counter
to it.

"Hey, old ghoul!"

Both Amazon women turned their heads as the brash and disrespectful cry.

"Who are you calling old ghoul?!" They chorused, glared at each other,
and then focused their ire on Ranma. The fool was standing uneasily but
radiating confident, if erratic and uncontrolled, ki. Raising one hand,
the pigtailed martial artist slowly unfurled his middle finger.

"I'm amazed you can stand, Ranma..." Cologne hissed, aquamarine orbs
slowly circling her upper body. "But there's nothing you can do against
me."

Khu Lon was inclined to agree. What was her son in law thinking?

'Granny! Get down!'

Khu Lon had heard quite a few voices in her head since that long night
at the Nekohanten, but this was the first time it was one she
recognized. Planting her battle staff in the ground, she swept out her
hands, blowing away twin waves of dirt and mud, producing a trench. A
second later, the world disappeared in a flash of white. A wave of force
slammed into her body, and Khu Lon's beaten body hit the ground, numb
beyond response.

-----

In the adjacent Garage they could feel the tremor, and all three
fighters paused to glance at the source. Only a short corridor separated
the vast complex of alien gardens from the Garage. Since Shampoo had
entered from the upper floor's western exit there had been little to no
activity. Now, a deep rumbling followed the tremor, and a blast of air
and debris cascaded from the open doorway.

Tofu would have blinked, had he eyes.

'Cologne?' he thought, reaching out to her via the Mind.

For the first time ever, there was no response.

His body tensed, and he wondered if that feeling that shot down his
spine: was it concern, or apprehension? It was open to interpretation
whether the youthful Amazon was the strongest of their little group.
Certainly, she had handled Ayabe well when they kidnapped him, though he
had been somewhat gimped by being unable to unlock his Hotaru. Her
expertise in many areas was superhuman, even for them. This was
different than what had happened to those guinea pigs Saffron or Rouge.
If she had been taken out, then it was something... bothersome. And
troubling.

They didn't need this trouble; maybe it was best to fall back and
regroup?

-----

The alien garden burned.

Twisted wreckage and rubble littered the devastated remains of the once
carefully maintained biosphere. Burns marked the walls and even solid
structures of alien alloy were twisted and savaged. Chunks of earth
rained down from the ceiling above; clumps of damp soil mixed with
bedrock from the base foundations. Streams of water dribbled from
blasted and ruptured irrigation ducts, running in rivulets down piled
debris and pooling into growing puddles. Small fires burned, and the air
thickened with black smoke.

A four ton boulder shifted, and an armored form emerged from beneath it.

Ryouga knew he'd seen better days. His personal armor was nearly
unsalvageable. Pieces were flaking off, and his torso and helmet had
been partly caved in. It was designed to absorb projectile and plasma
fire, not extreme pressure. His own body, hardier than the armor in that
respect, was what had allowed him to survive. Tearing off a dented and
painfully bent piece on his upper arm, Ryouga winced. He could handle
concussive force better than almost anyone, but even he felt like he'd
had a face to face talk with a speeding train.

Worse than any of that, he could feel Cologne's blood vine in his right
arm, barely held in check. Ranma had figured out that the only way to
slow the vine down was to not direct any ki into the area around it. It
meant going against the natural impulse the body had to try and push out
or expunge the parasitic infection. Ryouga trusted Ranma's judgment (at
least when it came to martial arts), and quickly mimicked what the
pigtailed one had described. The result had slowed the vine, and
lessened the pain somewhat, but it hadn't stopped it. It was almost to
his shoulder now, and if it got any further, even amputation wouldn't
stop it.

"Ranma?" Ryouga tried to get him on the comm.. "Nabiki, what's Ranma's
status?"

"He's alive," India Squad's controller replied, sounding a little
worried. "Rachael says his comm. is probably damaged. She thinks he's
buried somewhere."

"At least his idiot plan worked..." Ryouga stumbled, but caught himself.

They hadn't been expecting Cologne - the old Cologne they knew - to show
up. Akane had apparently found her somewhere, and Ranma had sent a
request up the chain of Command to let her go. Coming at a surprise to
none, the old ghoul had raced down to fight her other self. It had given
the two Lieutenants the time needed to finish setting up their trap.



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