The Return

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Sunshine Temple

 

Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma. So here's the disclaimer

 

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC.

 

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C is appreciated.

 

Book 3:  Raising Trouble

Chapter 8:  Questionable Motives

Formerly:  Redesign and Relaxation Part 1i

 


            Eve carefully inspected each of the tools that were laid out in a neat double row. Some were delicate blades of various curves and angles. There were long pliers and hooked shears. Others were far blunter. There was a small double-headed hammer. One end bore a spike; the other a rounded ball peen.


            Next came the medical kit. She paid special attention to the bandages, coagulating powders, and other methods of stopping blood flow. The case also contained chemicals that would numb, irritate, or inflame flesh. Most were disinfectants that would help clean wounds as they worked. She made sure the cameras and recorders were functioning.


            Finally, she checked the latest improvements to her kit. The rock salt and capsaicin oil had been replaced with sea salt and a variety of aromatic pungent spices. Feeling her sister's arrival, Eve closed her briefcase and looked up. "Are you ready?"


            Entering the impromptu control room, Ranma shrugged. Like the rest of the building, the room was unfinished and was more a concrete box than anything else. However, it had electricity, doors, and drains; it suited the Company's needs.


            "Really?"


            "Sure." Ranma stepped over to the display and looked at the bank of monitors. She smiled at a slight brunette who operated the computers and gave nods to the other technicians.


             Most of the displays showed a bound nude man from various angles. The room was bare save for a single chair surrounded by a faintly glowing circle further surrounded by several agents who stood to one side of the room with their weapons trained on him. In the center of the squad Nariko stood with her sword drawn.


            Stepping deeper into the room, the redhead gave Lieutenant Tendo a gentle tap on the shoulder. Kasumi looked up and nodded. The rest of her team was armored up and waiting in the room.   Dirac had double-checked the circle and was monitoring the Scanners.


            "No concerns?" Eve raised an eyebrow.


            "Sis, I've seen you work before, and I've done worse things."


            Kasumi looked up from the work station. "That's debatable, but I hardly think we're the ones you want moral advice from."


            The corners of Eve's lips rose. "Yes all true, but this is the first time you'll be helping, Dear Sister."


            "It's Murdock; I've got no qualms about working him over."


            "Oh, if only it were that easy." Eve chuckled.


            "Yes, yes." Ranma looked over the room.

            "Inflicting pain is easy, using it to extract information is challenging." Eve stood. "Just remember the rules."


            "Don't answer his questions. Don't let him negotiate. Keep him talking."


            "The last one's what the whole point. Secrets go one way. Every time the... client talks that's another chance for him to give something away."


            "So, torture's just a way to keep him talking?"


            Eve's grin grew. "Why yes. It's basic operant conditioning, specifically, the removal of adverse stimulus. Communication is rewarded with a reduction in pain, reinforcing cooperation. The goal is to get them to keep talking.."


            "Sure sounds like fancy talk for hit 'em 'till he squeals." Ranma smiled showing her fangs.

 

            "Oh no," Eve looked around noting her comrades' discomfort. "There's a delicate balance. Do too little and they'll think they can keep secrets, they'll think they can win." The blonde demon's eyes narrowed. "That defeats the whole point. Pain is used to break them of that hope.


            "On the other hand," Eve tapped her chin. "Do too much and they'll say anything to make you stop. This isn't entirely worthless. Most people have poor imaginations, especially in situations like this. Such lies, will have some truth to them. Even cover stories have some value."


            "Right, I know this one." Ranma nodded. "People have poor memories, especially under pressure. If the story is too complete, too consistent then they're recalling a cover story they've got memorized."


            "Exactly." Eve's face lit up. "This is why we record, why we repeat our questions, why it's a team effort." She gestured to the various agents working in the room.


            "On that note, recording is online," the brunette technician said. "Let's check your earphones."


            "Thanks Maya," Eve tapped her earpiece. "Check."


            "Testing, testing," Maya's voice said in Eve's ear.


            Eve gave a thumbs up, and Maya Iverson repeated the test with Ranma.


            "I'm setting up a periodic chime so you'll know if it cuts out," Maya said.


            Eve nodded. "Ready?"


            "Yeah." Ranma adjusted her earpiece.


            "Good." Eve opened the door and led the redhead into the warehouse proper. "If he breaks his bonds or starts casting, kill him. If the teleport jammers go down activate yours and do exactly what I say."


            "Right no hesitation." Ranma nodded. "And the inhibitor circle?"


            "You tell me."


            Ranma stopped at the door. "Only one should cross it at a time. It's attuned to hinder rune magic, but would weaken us too."


            "Like a wet blanket," Eve said.


            "How dangerous is he?" Ranma asked. "How much does it limit him? We don't even really know what he can do."


            Eve frowned. "It will take the edge a Prime of his ability, or what we think his ability is, but don't let your guard down." She knocked on the door and waited. Agent Patterson opened the door and stepped back.


            Nariko nodded without turning away from the prisoner. "Mother."


            Ranma exhaled. Intended to be auxiliary storage for the warehouse the room was separate from the rest of the building. Inside there was a greasy pressure, which was exacerbated by the six bodies that were already within. Three slim metal boxes that resembled the jammers the brood carried were placed at equidistant points on the circle.


            Looking at the manacled and shackled man, Ranma chuckled.


            "Watch him." Eve knelt down and checked each box, making sure the small vial of blood contained in each had not dried.


            Murdock moaned and tried to lift his head.


            "We're still good." Eve stood and placed her case on the table and appraised the bound man.


            "Nari-chan, Wilde, Patterson: go take a break. Get something to drink," Ranma said.


            Nariko sheathed her ScarletBane and left the room.


            "Don't want her to see this?" Eve raised an eyebrow.


            "Nah, just wanted to add some defensive depth. This room's crowded as it is." She nodded to the two remaining agents.


            Eve nodded.


            Looking between the succubae, a greasy smile crossed Murdock's face. He looked down at the glowing circle. He inhaled and seemed to appreciate the scent of bunt blood.

 

            "Using a Silver Millennium ward? Did you get the Senshi's help or is this just more of their magic you're stealing?"


            Pacing, Eve appraised the man like a woodworker inspecting a well-seasoned, virgin blank. Never looking away from him, Eve kept moving. "I will ask questions. You will answer them. Do you understand?"


            Ranma also maintained vigil over the nude man.


            Murdock turned to the redhead. "Very funny, kiddo. You caught me; you melted my car."


            Slipping open the case, a tiny smile drew across Eve's face; she removed a long, eight inch thick steel knitting needle. A blue fire flared from her finger.


            Following Ranma's gaze Murdock raised an eyebrow and looked down. "Really? Been a long time then? You're the one that removed-"


            Stepping into the circle, Eve jabbed the needle into Murdock's left forearm. Pulling against his bonds, the mage screamed and the red hot spike was quickly pulled out, still trailing smoke. "You will answer." Eve inspected the needle and discarded it in a special box in her case. "Do you understand?"


            Glaring at his cauterized arm, Murdock nodded.


            "Good. Your choice is a simple one." Eve picked up a device that resembled a corkscrew, except instead of a spiraling end it simply bent ninety degrees and ended in a small blade. "You will answer. How much you will endure is up to you."


            Murdock's gaze lowered for a brief moment.


            Smirking at the mage, Ranma ran a finger along the edge of Eve's tool-case. "Come on Murdock, everyone knows what WIC interrogators do: you'll spill your guts, no one will be surprised. They might be a bit mad, but you've had people mad at you before." Ranma's smile widened, showing her teeth. "Besides, spilling your guts metaphorically is much better than literally."


            "Hah, you really are new at this," Murdock laughed.


            "We'll start simple." Eve nodded. "Under whose orders are you attempting to control Miss Tsukino?"


            Twisting his head around, Murdock grinned. "You'll have to have to ask Red to threaten me again."


            Eve whipped the bent blade across his back. It opened a long, shallow cut. With her free hand she twisted his head around and pushed it as far forward as the restraint around his neck would allow. The man gave a pained gasp as the air was forced out of his chest.


            Yelping, he watched Eve sink the bladed tool into the puncture wound formed by the needle. Grasping the top, she twisted and began to slowly, unevenly cut the flesh between muscle and skin. Like a sword-smith honing a blade she listened to the pitch and intensity of his screams and adjusted the speed and depth of the tool.


            After a few rotations she removed the bladed device and let a few chunks fall to the floor. She stepped back exiting the circle. "Now, who ordered you to go after Usagi?" she calmly asked.


            Murdock wheezed. "This won't work. I won't betray them."


            "Why?" Eve poured alcohol on the blade. "What betrayal are you speaking of?"


            Murdock snorted. "You wouldn't understand."


            "You're a mercenary, what client is worth this hassle?" Crossing the circle, Eve pressed the blade's tip against his fresh arm. Without piercing the surface, she ran the tip down the length.


            Murdock recoiled.


            "Who's worth this?" Eve flicked the blade over and sliced off a crescent of flesh.


            Listening to the wizard's cries, Ranma stepped over to make sure her sister was not between herself and their client.


            "I think you'll need to hit him again. Smug bastard's too stubborn to try to play ball."


            "Perhaps," Eve dug around with the bent blade.. "Rune mages know healing magic, fortunately it takes some time. Which is useful, you have no idea how much of a challenge it is to have a client without cumulative wounds. On the other hand, it's like working with a fresh page every hour."


            Gasping, Murdock let out a little laugh. "You can't save Usagi from herself, what makes you think you can stop them?"


            "You've been burned. The Rune Order abandoned you. Your new bosses have abandoned you. Why protect either group?"


            Murdock's pained laughter grew. "Either?"


            As the penny dropped, the blonde's poker-face was immaculate. "Frustrating." Eve stood up and returned to the table.


            Still keeping her eyes on him, Ranma stepped back so that her sister, who was intently, merrily cleaning her tools, slipped into the edge of her vision.  


            The blonde selected what looked like a pair of long needle-nosed pliers and a long metal rod. This one had a small section of a wood rasp welded to one end. She stepped forward, her lips forming in a lazy smile.


            Murdock looked at the tools and shook his arms.


            Eve stood over him for a moment. Evidently satisfied, she put the tools down and took an antiseptic aerosol and sprayed the can on his wounds. A coagulant was applied next, reducing the blood flow to a pair of trickles.


            "Tell me mage." She said, replacing the medical equipment. "Why does the Rune Order want to control Miss Tsukino?"

 

***************

 


            Fuming, the armored queen strode down the hallway. On either side, Makoto and Rei followed, both bearing worried expressions. Meiou hung towards the back with a small frown.


            "Where is he?" the queen demanded to the demon's back, her deep voice resonant.


            Half grinning, Ranma slowly turned away from Nariko. To meet the giant queen's eyes she had to look up by more than a foot. "Well, you figured it out. Bravo."


            Nariko coughed and gave a quick nod.


            Ranma's eyes quickly darted to Meiou before returning to the queen's silver gaze. "Still wearing a little blonde?"


            The queen's silver mask shifted into something like a glare.


            Ranma shrugged. "You're too late."


            "Where is he?" the queen repeated, her hand hovering over the hilt of the Crystal Wink Sword.


            "My my... does the Duchess Dreadnaught really want that?" Ranma slipped up and  a finger down the scabbard. "To execute him maybe?"


            Solid blue eyes narrowed.


            "Alas, you're too late: the cleaners already took care of the warehouse." Ranma shrugged.


            Golden lips shifted into a hard frown.


            Her hands going to her waist, Nariko gave a demure smile.


            Still smiling, Ranma's eyes shrugged. "It's been a long night."


            The queen glared. "I don't know which is worse, the thought that you'd be in cahoots with him or that you'd simply torture him if you weren't. Did you have a nice chat and let him go on his merry way? Or did you cut pieces out of him until he talked?" the queen asked.


            The redhead blinked and looked to the green-haired girl. "She doesn't know about the car?"


            Meiou looked down.


            "Well, someone's got some spirit then." Ranma looked to Rei and Makoto. "What do you two think?"


            Rei looked at Makoto and frowned.


            "You're not the only one that's getting sick of things. All these secrets, all these lectures, and you constantly looking down your nose at me." The golden queen's eyes flared. "Do you know what he did to me?


            "Peace," Ranma calmly stated. "Yes, I know. He killed your lover, your mate. Someone very important to you." Her eyes darted between Makoto and Meiou. "He... ruined my life too, not as bad as what he did to you, but it damaged me."

 

            Nariko stepped closer to her mother.


            The brood mother sighed and put an arm around her daughter. "Usa- Serenity, you know I've met with Murdock in the past; you know I've used him as an information source; you know what my sister does; you know that I made her my sister fully aware of what he was and what she would become."


            Lacking a retort, the queen held her glare, an easy prospect given her metallic features.


            "You know all these things, or at least you'd know them if you'd use your intelligence assets." Ranma gave another glance to Kiri. "Or even if you used your... armor," the redhead's gaze ran along the bulky armored skirting.


            "You're just another manipulator? One more player peddling deals and secrets. Murdock betrayed you, and you were using him, did he stop being useful today? Maybe your so-very-efficient sister mapped out the ideal time to dispose of him," the queen's voice grew flatter and more distant.


            Ranma chuckled. "You're perceptive when you're angry. Good."


            "I didn't expect this. I know you, or I thought I did," the queen's deep contralto cracked. "I didn't think you'd be like... Puu. So cold, so calculating. I thought you'd be... more."


            "Less," Kiri corrected. "You... I thought we'd have a maladroit macho martial artist or at least a scared Serenity-submitting succubus. Instead we have..."


            "The sum of yours and Murdock's betrayals." Ranma drew back her lips. "Serenity-san, are you quite sure it's wise to use one of your key advisors as an example of my moral decay?"


            The queen's glare broke when she looked back to Meiou.


            "Though compared to your other intelligence advisor... Well, at least Akumi is overt in her treachery." Ranma flashed another grin to Kiri.


            "Ami was corrupted because Naru was transformed by Murdock," the queen hissed. "Now, do you see why I'm so angry?"


            "He's not a pleasant man." Ranma nodded. "He has left a trail of broken people in his wake. Behind that greasy smile is a man who doesn't care who he hurts."


            "You should have told me you had him, you should have told me what you learned. I need to know this."


            "No. You're my client, not my boss. You hired me to protect you from the Russians and kill you if you were to fall. The methods I use are mine You want a servant, well that's what your Senshi are for."


            Ruby tiara gem flashing, the queen's lips narrowed and her stance shifted slightly.


            "Oh?" Nariko asked tilting her head slightly while Ranma snorted.


            "Funny way to treat your client, then," the Queen growled.


            "You hired me for my combat skills, not my manners." Ranma paused.

 

            "But perhaps I was wrong." The redhead then bowed. "I'm sorry for my rudeness."

           

            Rei blinked. The gesture was... straightforward, but it was sincere.  The demon was proud but... not too proud.

 

            "That was rude of me. Yes we hurt him, yes we got information out of him. Right now... please be satisfied with that."


            "What did he tell you?"


            "Look, there's more to this than just breaking fingers." Ranma rubbed her forehead.

 

            Rei looked closer and saw a weariness to the demon.  Even her hair hung a bit limper than normal.

           

 

            "Information has to be run down, and data has to be organized and verified. He is a known liar. Eve is heading that angle."


            "Will you tell us later then?"


            Ranma nodded. "When we can confirm. It's... troubling."


            Looking into the oddly... tired purple eyes, the queen hesitated. "Look, Murdock knows things. And I know you hates him. You wouldn't let him go unless it was made worth you while," she said, slightly bitter.


            The redhead gave a nod of agreement.


            "Just tell us.  If it doesn't pan out... well we don't have to do anything right away. Right?"


            Kiri stepped in and put her hand on the queen's gauntlet.  The green-haired girl's hand looked tiny on the massive golden armor. "If it was really that important they'd tell us. It's not like they want us dead." She  smiled. "Unless you decide to keep pissing off Ranma."


            The immense queen, spun around to face the diminutive girl. "This was your idea."


            "Yes. I was wrong."


            "Wrong?" the gold queen raised an eyebrow. "Nice of you to admit that. Are you going to admit to all the other things you've screwed up?"


            Kiri shrugged.


            "It's nearing breakfast time in the mess. I'd suggest you get a good meal in, if you'll be doing training today," Ranma said suppressing a yawn.  "I...  I might get a quick nap in,  or maybe power though on coffee."

 

***************


            "Well, this could just work," Mistress Mercury drawled as she circled Virgo.


            The purple-haired Senshi looked down at her arms, but not her hands or forearms. Those were covered by her white gloves. Instead she concentrated  her upper arms.  The part that showed skin, the purple hue of her skin.


            "How do you feel?" Mercury leaned over and checked the silver crown nestled on Virgo's glossy, purple forehead.


            The former Amazon closed her fingers. "Cold," she said, her voice distant but almost musical. "Strong."


            Mercury nodded while Orion made a few notes. She then ran her hand through Virgo's hair, which was now the same shade, and gloss as the rest of her body. "I told you, you were weak. Your flesh was weak, but... I can make you strong."


            "Yes." Virgo felt the crown deeply rooted into what was once her skull tingle. She exhaled and then stopped. There was no point, not anymore.


            "Do you have any regrets?" Mercury motioned to Orion.


            The auburn haired girl studied the violet figure. Her skin had the wrong texture and transparency to pass as human, but it did have the flexibility and details at least. Her eyes were even more alien. Embedded in a crystal sphere, for smooth rotation, purple sapphires seemed to hover within each socket. The shimmering facets of the brilliant-cut gems gave her eyes an unearthly slightly insectile quality.


            Virgo turned and stared at Mercury.


            "Good, spirit. I was wondering if something had been lost in the conversion."


            Virgo's confusion was cut-off by a forward thrust from Orion's double-bladed staff. Virgo screamed in pain, grabbed her swords, and stopped. Clumps of moist-looking, sand-like material oozed from the wound.


            Blinking, Orion twisted, then withdrew her blade. The flow increased for a second, before slowing, and eventually stopping. The front of her uniform was torn up, and it and her skirt were covered in debris and fluids of various shades of purple. To her amazement, the wound itself started to... knit back together.


            Picking her tablet back up, Orion noted that the process was more akin to the spread of crystals and that the wound itself resembled a... fluid geode that was rapidly filling-in.


            "Hmm, less resistance than I expected, and less reaction time." Mercury looked to Virgo.


            "She surprised me." Holstering a sword, Virgo ran a gloved hand over her stomach and felt her belly-button reform.


            "Yes, you started to trust her." Mercury absently shrugged.


            Virgo narrowed her sparkling eyes.


            Blue lips twisted into a smirk as Mercury tapped the seam where Virgo's flesh met the metal of the silver tiara. "Too late for any regrets, any lack of trust now, far too late."


            Mercury held Virgo's chin and stared into her faceted eyes. "In fact... I'm sure you have none, am I right, my creation?"


            High gloss, almost mirror-like, dark purple lips curled into an eager smile.


            Mercury licked her lips. "Yes... compared to you, Venus was primitive, prototype, but you can see what even she has done."


            Virgo's eyes went to the two phones across the room. Sitting on twin end tables, one was glossy gold while the other was a plastic and sickly green.


            "She has made our queen strong again; she has given our queen her control, she has given of herself to give our queen the weapons and armor to win the upcoming war." Mercury caressed the pliant crystalline flesh. "We should all strive to become better, and we will improve ourselves. You, my Amazonian friend are the first of a new kind of Sailor Senshi. One optimized to serve our restored queen."


            Virgo bowed her head.


            "Soon, you will be ready. Soon, we will all be ready." Mercury's smirk was cut off by a shrill ringing. All three turned their heads to the noise.


            "Is that?" Orion asked.


            "I don't think so..." Mercury turned to look at the phones to see which phone was ringing. It was the green one.


            Orion started to smile, but halted after the second ring.


            "I thought you got your mother to stop calling you?" Mercury asked.


            Orion flushed. "We normally talk over email..." Dr. Nadine Fraiser of North York General Hospital's radiology department was formerly, but unknowingly, Mayumi Osaka of Osa-P Jewelers. She was under the impression that her daughter Orion, formerly Janet, formerly Naru, was at boarding school.


            "At least she's buying your story. Of course doctors being far too busy to parent makes for easy cover stories," Mercury remarked. Her own medical doctor mother was similarly conned.


            "But mother, doesn't know that line." Orion crossed the room and picked up a lacquered platter that sat atop a small end table. A long cord unspooled behind her as she carried the platter to her mistress.


            Mercury eyed the sickly green, phone. A gloved hand hesitated before grasping the dust-covered plastic. "Yes?" she demanded, and for a moment she could swear she heard DarkStar's smooth, throaty voice, instead...


            "I'm sorry, was I interrupting? Maybe you finally broke down that Amazon and were having a little orgy, or were you feeling maudlin and decided to waste some perfectly good Merlot," Murdock drawled.


            "I was working," Mercury snapped, feeling her stomach go cold, emergency contact aside, the situation felt wrong.


            "Oh good, more playing soldier. I suppose if you're amusing enough someone might let you live," the mage humorlessly mocked.


            Mercury shivered. This was not Murdock's style. "What's wrong?"


            "Did you know that Captain Jarvis has a whole set of little tools? Made them herself, that's craftsmanship, of course it's a family business."


            "She tortured you?" Mercury gasped.


            "Oh, you make it so dramatic." There was a wet burbling in the background. "The whole point of informational interrogation is the application of psychological stress in order to facilitate information extraction."


            "And physical trauma can help generate psychological stress?"


            Murdock chuckled. "Yes, but it's quite difficult, this is an art. For example, the Captain has these tiny hooked blades. They're so sharp that you almost don't feel them go in. It's a hot pain but quick, then she twists them around. Very... distracting." His voice grew distant. "The room had a drain and everything. She was right, it got so much more... civil, towards the end."


            Mercury swallowed. "Did you call for a reason?"


            "You just don't get it, you stupid boffin. We screwed up. This woman I'm talking about, Ranma turned her into her sister, knowing what she could do, knowing what she was. Ranma was there when that blonde worked me over, she helped. She knows."


            Eyes locking onto Virgo, Mercury froze.


            "I'm sure she knows about your plans." Murdock scoffed.


            Silent, Mercury eyed the gold phone. She gave a tiny, silent smile. Murdock could only betray what he knew.


            The mage continued. "But I'm talking about the big stuff."


            "You told her?" Mercury asked.


            "Hell yes! I was worked over by an empath with years of experience in information extraction and intelligence. Have you ever tried lying to a demon?"


            Mercury's memory went back to various meetings in posh bars. "Yes." She looked at Virgo with a little frown.


            Murdock laughed. "We've been played. Played by those serving a puppet queen."


            "You're the one that spilled your guts." Mercury looked at where she had spilled Virgo's "guts" and thought. Perhaps past successes could be repeated.


            "She already knew! She knew who I was working for; what I was doing; what Setsuna's been doing."


            Mercury smirked. "She's a demon, what did you expect? Diabolical plots and scheming are part of it."


            Murdock's unhinged titter returned. "No, no, no. Demons are simple creatures. Dangerous, but basic in what they want and how they'll get it. No, DarkStar learned this from humans."

            "You created her."


            "Yes, paranoia of people like me drove her to become what she is."


            "DarkStar."


            Murdock scoffed. "The old DarkStar put her trust in Serenity and tried to mediate things. She got killed for it. No, Ranma's making sure history won't repeat."


            "What do you mean?"


            Murdock chuckled. "You're a smart girl; you can figure it out."


            "She hasn't killed me."  Mercury said, sure her voice sounded even and confident.


            "That's because you're useful to her, a threat to the queen but not to her. Handy, safe pressure she can exploit." Murdock chuckled.


            Mercury smirked a bit at Virgo and Orion. "Again, why are you calling? Why risk this secure system?"


            "It's over. Forget your little plans, the schemes we worked up. Crawl back and beg Serenity for forgiveness. DarkStar might just let you live, let you serve your queen."


            "What about you?"


            "Well, I squealed on several groups of very scary people to another group of scary people, and that isn't even counting the disappointment many of these scary people had in me before this. First, I'm going to find a quiet place and have a very large drink and then...  well what do you think I'm going to do?" Murdock mocked before breaking the connection.


            "Run, hide, and whimper. Like a little girl." Mercury's glare at the dead phone softened. "Not a bad idea," she admitted, grinning slightly.  Some distance could be beneficial, and she did know of a place.


            Still holding the platter and the phone, Orion tilted her head. "So, how bad is it?"


            "Our illustrious mage got picked up by DarkStar and her Spooks. He spilled and is now running."


            "And he called to tell you this, better than letting us twist in the wind." Orion then collected the phone's receiver and returned the platter back to the end table, spooling in the cable. "Good thing he doesn't know about this place." She left the question unasked.


            Going back to her experiment, Mercury slowly turned to face the auburn-haired girl. "Really? How well did you obscure the landline? How certain are you that he couldn't trace it? Bah," she waved her hand. "It's pointless. I know where we'll go next."


            "What problem?" Virgo stated as she ran a hand over her healed midsection. "Annoying man leaves. That's good."


            Mercury rubbed her forehead. "That part's good, but-" she looked into Virgo's cut-gem eyes. "But he bugged-out after he told DarkStar everything. That hurts my plans."


            Purple lips formed into a smirk.


            Mercury shook her head. "It hurts your plans too." She exhaled. "Unless.... You want your revenge, yes?"


            After a moment's wary gaze, Virgo nodded.


            Looking at the gold phone, Mercury smirked. "Well, perhaps it's time to look at a contingency plan."

 

***************

 


            Ranma leaned back as the conference room was locked. Sitting next to her, Eve looked up from a pattern scanner. "Jammers are up. We're secure, Sirs."


            Commander Stillwater cleared his throat. "I've been led to believe that this interview with the mage Murdock was fruitful?"


            Captain Eve Jarvis nodded. "Sir, it's more supporting evidence to our suspicions."


            "We knew his goal was the control of Miss Tsukino." Colonel Jacob Edwards leaned back in his chair. "That's why he killed Mamoru Chiba, sabotaged Miss Saotome's 'awakening', and abducted and converted Naru Osaka."


            "Yes Sir, his aim was to gain control of one of Miss Tsukino's confidants, and thought them her."


            "Which is why that damned armor business is so worrying," Stillwater stated. "Jacob?"


            Colonel Jacob Edwards nodded. "What else, Captain?"


            "In addition to confirming those judgments," Eve smiled. "Murdock revealed his 'client', who is in actuality his employer: The Rune Order."


            Jacob nodded. "We had our suspicions, but..."


            "You didn't think his own order would be brazen enough to actually hire him? To do this themselves?" Ranma asked.


            "Being a rogue agent, given the apparent animosity between him and the rest of the Order, was a useful cover." Jacob said.


            "Captain, no offense, but are you certain you genuinely dug that information out of an operative like him, in the time you had?" Stillwater arched an eyebrow.


            "What the Commander means is that you only had a couple hours to interview him."


            "It didn't take much to get him to spill." Ranma laughed. "That allowed us to offer the deal."

 

            "It could be him misdirecting us. Maybe he hates the Order and is using that to protect his true masters, but I feel he revealed this information in a genuine slip up." Eve considered. "His pride was wounded afterwards."


            "Still." Stillwater nodded. "He's betraying his masters either way."


            "Why not? He's betrayed everyone else." Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "And his bosses are gonna hang him out to dry anyway. They think he's a clueless failure."


            "And since, publicly, he's persona non-grata and worse in the eyes of the Rune Order, one would expect them to assist in his disposal, or at least not begrudge whoever kills him," Stillwater looked to the collection of papers on the table. "Why does the Rune Order want Miss Tsukino? The expected reason?"


            "Sounds like it; she's got a lot of power," Ranma said leaning back in the couch.

 

            "The question is what kind of power," Eve corrected. "I fear they may want her for the same reason we have an interest in Pattern Silvers.  Or related."

 

            Stillwater tapped his chin in thought.


            "The Rune Order isn't alone. The Path of the Will thought she was an eldritch horror destined to destroy the world," Jacob said, referring to a relatively small cult which took several hostages in a toy store. They sacrificed a mother and her child on a giant crescent moon in the hope of summoning Serenity.


            It worked.

 

            Then they were all killed; their leader, Master Kronecker's skull was crushed by Usagi's white gloves.


            "Don't tell me they were behind the Path of the Will?" Stillwater asked.


            "Murdock doesn't know, but he did say that the Rune Order had plenty of books like the one the Path used," Eve stated.


            "Yes, the Order is supposed to keep dangerous texts out of the wrong hands," Jacob frowned. "What other pies does the Order keep their fingers in?"


            "Probably the Youma attack on Furinkan. Though Murdock may have done that himself," Eve frowned. "I didn't press him too closely on that, there were... bigger fish."


            Stillwater waved his hand


            "However, Murdock's pretty sure the Rune Order's behind the Assembly of Man," Eve stated.


            "Really? Those God-botherers don't seem to have the patience to deal with magi." Stillwater stroked his goatee.


            "It does explain why they wasted most of their troops trying to stop me," Ranma smirked. "Someone was pushing them."


            "It wasn't revenge on the acolytes that you took?" Jacob asked.


            "Hell of a coincidence, two of my childhood friends join the Assembly? Sure, they wanted revenge on me, but I wasn't even a demon when they joined, and their loss sure makes for a convenient excuse."


            "The common officers and troops have their casus belli," Stillwater shook his head. "Does the Assembly really have a Hollis situation?"


            "Hollis... a high placed mole?" Ranma asked after pondering the context.


            "The highest," Jacob nodded. "Sir Roger Hollis, Director General of MI5 and Soviet mole. Place a traitor that high and you've got nearly the whole organization."


            "It's possible. We don't know much about the Assembly Council. Maybe it's High Father Corvine or maybe it's the whole bloody council," Jacob frowned.


            Stillwater smirked coldly. "If I were the Rune Order, I'd go the latter way. Just in case any up-and-coming Bishop that tries to do the right thing and reveal the High Father's treachery to the Council."


            "We haven't heard much of them?"


            "We don't hear much about the Council, period, and that was before WIC started hunting down the Assembly." Jacob sighed. "I'm willing to consider that the Assembly is the Rune Order's cat's paw. But why? Why waste their forces trying to kill Miss Saotome here."


            "Control," Eve explained.


            "I got away from Murdock. Murdock got away from the Order, but I was getting closer to WIC and to Usagi." Ranma shook her head. "They saw me as the biggest threat."

 

" If I under Murdock's sway and  made Usagi a demon or some type of thrall, then they'd have won." The redhead spread her fingers.  "But if I wasn't under their control and I got to Usagi, then even with their other cat's-paws, they'd have little hope of controlling her. Where we," the demoness smiled, "would have her eating out of our hands."


            "And now the Rune order has only a bare fraction of the forces they expected. Alternative forces..." Stillwater sighed before taking a sip of water.


            "The Russians?" Jacob asked.


            "Murdock didn't hire them, but he has managed to keep some surveillance," Eve stated.


            "This was before they hired a cultist who could sniff out his bugs." Ranma added.


            "Murdock has admitted to being cut off from his superiors. I doubt they'd tell him if they changed tack."


            "Simply killing Usagi does cover cases of corruption and conversion, but... they went through a lot, a lot of trouble to set up a scheme to control her. Are things that bad for the Order?" Ranma asked.


            "As you said, they invested a lot of work, a lot of time. If their timetable is as pressed as ours then they could be looking at a wall. Their prime operative failed and rendered unreliable. They've lost hundreds of ground troops. For all that their target has drifted even further out of reach." Jacob explained.


            "Why not kill her?" Eve rhetorically asked.


            "That is our backup plan." Stillwater stated.


            "But it doesn't have to be the Order. Usagi has plenty of enemies."

 

            "True, and the Order could see such assassins as fortune's smile" Jacob tapped the table. "I suppose that's strong evidence they want her dead."


            "If we presume the Order is behind Murdock," Stillwater stressed. "But yes, if they still had hope for converting Miss Tsukino they'd try to stop the Russians."


           "And given their initial ignorance of magical means, a cabal of mages should have been able to hurt them," Jacob said.

 

            "Unless they're assuming Miss Tsukino will, ultimately, survive the Numbers.  They don't seem to care about the other Pattern Silvers," Eve added.


            Ranma leaned back. "Okay... the people behind this, they want Usagi dead or they're willing to take the risk of it. That's something, but still we don't know who hired the Numbers."


            "Most of Miss Tsukino's enemies are dead," Stillwater stated.


            Eve smirked. "That doesn't mean much, Sir."


            "Back from the dead? Or simply not really dead?" Stillwater raised an eyebrow. "The new Tokyo branch has been running down as much as they can. No real leads though."


            Eve shook her head. "Nothing that supernatural. Simply a deadman contract."


            "Ah," Jacob nodded. "That'd require someone with foresight, money, and a conception of mortality."


            Ranma looked down from the ceiling. "So, it's insurance then?"


            Nodding, Eve warmly smiled.


            "Right. One of Usagi's enemies realizes that these Sailors could actually kill her. So... she nips out and makes a deal 'If I die please hire some assassins to kill these girls' ? Why are the Numbers attacking now then?"


            "The traditional method involves drawing up a contract with a willing law office. Oblique terminology and sealed envelopes are used to maintain discretion. Periodically, someone contacts the lawyer. This keeps the contract from going out," Jacob explained.


            "And if she dies, then no more calls, and eventually the hit goes out." Ranma shook her head. "Revenge from the grave. Cute."


            "Insurance does bring peace of mind." The corners of Jacob's lips went up infinitesimally.


            "That doesn't help... us. It still could be the Order. It could be an old enemy that survived. Maybe they hired the Numbers now because they think Usagi's more vulnerable here than in Tokyo. What with the Senshi split and all."


            "Or it's taken them this long to raise the necessary funds to hire the Russians," Eve added.


            "Right." Ranma nodded. "But it could be someone Usagi killed, and after however many years their revenge is finally starting."


            "Or it could be some other group. Maybe this is a Path of the Will situation." Eve tapped the table. "But instead of having goons with guns they've got a bunch of money and underworld contacts."


            Jacob scribbled a few notes. "Well, we've got a bit more information. We'll have our branches rattle the bushes."


            "We can see if the Papal Expeditionary has dug anything else up," Stillwater said.


            "I suppose it's not good to concentrate on who'd actually know how to hire the Numbers." Ranma suggested.


            "We've been working that angle, but... there's plenty of middlemen. Likely the ones that commissioned the hit didn't even know they were getting the Russians. Not specifically at least."


            Ranma shook her head. "What an impersonal way to kill someone."


            Eve blinked. "Really? You've never questioned missile strikes or my daughter's work."


            "Distant isn't the same as impersonal. I know Morgan. I trust our missile crews. But having someone you've never met and can't vouch for..." Ranma waved her hand. "Not a reliable way to kill someone."

 
            Jacob smiled inwardly at Ranma using the word "our". "So, Murdock didn't find out who hired the Russians. What has he found out?"


            "They've hired their own mercenaries," Eve said.


            "This cultist for one," Jacob frowned.


            "There is the other group. They hired the Thracian Union, a Bulgarian group. Deeply against Glasnost and other reforms, the Union styled themselves as a paramilitary reincarnation of the Fatherland Front, one that would bring the organization back to its World War Two roots by focusing on action and anti-corruption and national unity."


            "Clearly they failed, and were left out in the cold." Stillwater allowed a tiny smirk.  "We have another hard-line group that felt betrayed by the corruption and eventual fall of their communist leaders?"


            Eve nodded.


            "Thracian... hrm. The communists do have a secret love for nationalism, especially when it comes to appearing cultured and historically educated," Jacob chuckled.


            "Sir." Eve's head gave a curt bow. "From our database, it seems the Union spent the nineties doing odd jobs in the Balkans and other hot spots. Also the collapse and cutbacks of the Bulgarian military gave them a surplus of equipment and a source of men."


            "And with continued work, and given the other liquidating East Bloc nations, they've managed to keep themselves supplied," Jacob frowned. "And given what the Numbers had been through, they'd be kindred spirits, or at least they'd have spent some time in the same circles."


            "Manpower, equipment, professionalism? What are we looking at here?"


            "They haven't moved into the city yet. So far it's just been a few representatives of the Union. Apparently, Murdock didn't know much of their strength." Eve explained. "But our sources give a total force of about company sized. Maybe four or five platoons. They've got the expected East Bloc arms and in the past have used heavy machine guns, RPG, demolitions, and anything they could bribe out of an armory."


            "Vehicles?"


            "Nothing above armored cars and trucks. They're mostly light infantry and cleaners. They don't have a history of going head to head against regular military."


            Stillwater frowned. "I didn't think the Russians were being paid this well. Quite a commitment. Unless...  they're willing to take a loss and complete their target out of a sense of pride and revenge for their fallen comrades."


           "They could be putting everything they have, spending all their reserves, all to make sure she's dead." Ranma nodded. "I can understand that motivation."


            "This assumes they've hired the whole Union," Eve stated.


            Ranma gave a quizzical look at Eve while the two senior officers exchanged blank looks.


            "It is a possibility, Sirs. The Numbers may simply have hired a few specialized teams. Perhaps some sharpshooters or missile crews or even a couple mortar teams."


            "Broad range of what they could have hired. Professionalism?"


            "At last check, their officer and NCO equivalents are all veterans." Eve looked down at her notes. "At least forty percent of their regulars are also surpluses from the communist fall. It started out with more, but over the years many walked away from the Union. Those that have been hired on accept being a mercenary outfit, and their skills seem to be acceptable for the work."


            "We'll need to analyze their past operations," Jacob looked to Stillwater.


            "I'll tell General Anderson. It's clear that the Numbers want to have more bodies, unlike the remote turrets they've used before, they want a force with more flexibly and more mass. Potentially, this is a lot of men and material they're moving in."


           "With enough time and distribution they can get it in pretty quietly. A few hotels, a few storage places for anything big, and renting a bunch of cheap apartments is popular," Eve noted.


            "Right. What about this cultist?" Jacob asked reading the report before sliding it to Stillwater.


            Eve sighed. "The Numbers aren't just augmenting their manpower. They're getting some NH and magical expertise. The guy they've hired..."


            "He's got Murdock tweaked. He's the whole reason Murdock came to me in the first place," Ranma said.


            "Did Murdock say which God?" Stillwater asked his eyes glancing over to Jacob.


            "No Sir, he was quite adamant against it. He gave a pretty solid hint but he was most unwilling to say a name. He even refused to use a Love-coda colloquial name. Securing the guards and transcripts became... difficult at that point."


            "Well that's ominous," Jacob frowned. "Great Old One?"


            Eve shook her head and stood up. "Higher."


            Ranma noticed Stillwater tap the tabletop a couple times.


            "And this person is giving advice to mercenaries possessing equipment capable of dimensional collapse? Even the Silvers aren't that insane." Jacob watched as Captain Jarvis rechecked the jammers and locks.


            Nodding, Eve sat back down. "If it's any help Sirs. He gave some hints, fairly oblique but... it's not Black Goat, the Blind Ape, the Witch, or the Sultan. Also given his apprehension, it's likely a deity in the Love-coda."


            "Lovely," Jacob said, eliminating candidates from his mental checklist.


            Meanwhile, Stillwater mutely stared, especially at the corners of the room.


            "We did have our suspicions, Sir." Jacob reminded.


            "Yes, yes. The nature of the incursion, the prophetic hints, and the various scanner readings..." Stillwater sighed.


            "Murdock was also real paranoid about being watched," Ranma added. "And this is a man that figured out how to block Meiou."


            "There is a degree of familiarity," Eve added. "Especially in providing intelligence on magical elements."


            "Work that connection." Stillwater soured. "Sometimes, I really regret the Company's past work."


            "Howard Philip's writings have permeated society and provide fair warning." Eve looked down. "Or at least can act as an early warning tripwire. Someone's more likely to spot the symptoms if they're spelled out."


            "Yes, but they also increase access and provide a... gateway to anyone with enough interest. In many ways he got a bit too close. The Love-coda is not that far off. Named-by-reference is still Named." Stillwater looked to the blonde demon. "What else did Murdock have on this cultist?"


            Ranma blinked. "Other than worshiping a mutli-angled horror from beyond?"


            "His description has given us a likely target," Eve pulled a photograph out. Grainy, black and white, at an oblique angle, and cropped, it showed a brutish man in a garish suit walking down a tarmac.


            "Not just 'technical' advisor?" Jacob ventured.


            "Right, Sir. He's been linked to a handful of killings. Mostly in Europe but recently in South-East Asia. Nothing substantive, but he's been around for a while, at least two decades."


            Hearing the conversation, Stillwater mulled over the situation.


            "Methods?"


            "Firearms. Close-in." Eve stated.


            "Really." Jacob frowned. "Unusual choice."


            "Obviously, we only know some of his missions. Reports are... confused."


            "Glamour and mental fogging is possible," Stillwater studied the photograph. "I really don't like this coat. Are there any color photographs? Or something with higher resolution?"


            "Non-Euclidian-weave?" Jacob chuckled.


            "A man wears an ugly suit for a reason," Stillwater stated.


            "I'd recommend preemption when confronted. If he's serving who I think he is, hesitation would be lethal."


            Stillwater nodded. "Signs point to him having a dangerous level of knowledge."


            "Agreed, Sirs. For the suit, it's possible he likes it," Eve frowned. "However, he's made an effort to avoid Company, Directorate, and Vatican attention. He only came up in our unconfirmed database."


            "And now he's advising these Russians against us. We need more information on this fellow. What's the nome de guerre?"


            "Mal de Veste," Eve smirked.


            "Of course," Stillwater paused. "Right. Given who he worships this could be... interesting."


            "You assume he's got the-"


            Stillwater cut off Jacob. "I don't assume anything. Especially when it concerns the Threshold. You know what it can take to earn this being's favor. And here and now we have this man... with these Russians."


            Jacob sighed. "At least we managed to warn the Russians."


            "But you said it yourself. 'This person is giving advice to mercenaries possessing equipment capable of dimensional collapse.' "


            Ranma shrugged. "You knew this was going to happen. All sorts are crawling out of the woodwork." The redhead looked at the grainy photograph. "Besides, there's a use for him. As far as we know, he hasn't seen the Silvers, has he?"


            Stillwater nodded. "It would confirm some of our suspicions."


            "Though we do have to address Miss Tsukino's... armor use," Eve said.


            "Major Saotome has a mitigation strategy," Jacob said.


            "Right, now if the Order isn't behind the Russians. They've got to be regrouping. They've invested too much in getting Miss Tsukino to abandon it," Stillwater stated.


            "Now that we have a lead that points to the Order being behind this, we can apply more force on investigating them. See if they've hired anyone."


            "What about Akumi?" Ranma asked. "Her drunken ramblings are cutting awfully close to home. How much has she figured out? She's got her own plans and is going to strike Usagi. It's a matter of time."


            "Miss Mizuno can be your responsibility if you wish." Stillwater leveled his gaze at the redhead.. "If you think she can be used to stabilize Miss Tsukino then that is advisable, if she's a lost cause then it may be best to cut her off before further trouble."


            "She thinks Usagi's being corrupted by otherworldly forces; she thinks compared to that I'm the safe influence on her little queen." Ranma looked down at the photo of de Veste. "Her paranoia can cause some real trouble."


            "Paranoia is like drink, a little is healthy but too much and it starts to blur your thinking," Eve noted.


            "What does Murdock know about Miss Mizuno's activities?" Jacob asked.


            "Any day she was going to bring him over to show her latest development. The constant delays annoyed him, especially since he, supposedly, did not know the location of her current lair."


            "Miss Aino's new armor?" Jacob asked.


            "Timing doesn't fit, Sir."


            "Minako and Usagi came up with their armor a couple days ago, and Akumi's still dawdling."


            "Though this is hardly welcome news," Stillwater frowned.


            "It gives us time to work our angle though," Jacob interjected. "The armor does give us options."


            Stillwater reluctantly nodded.


            Ranma chuckled. "Yeah, but it also means our pretend dominatrix is working on something else. Something we don't know."


            "Does Murdock have any inkling on what this new project is?"


            "After some encouragement he gave a few of his theories. Given the literature Miss Mizuno's collected he believes she's digging into power channeling and other support systems Pattern Silvers use. He thinks that Miss Aino was a prototype. However, the delays show that the new... designs are not without considerable upgrades," Eve explained.


            Jacob nodded. "Right, more transhuman claptrap."


            "This bears some similarity to the... upgrades that Miss Tsukino and Miss Aino gave their comrades," Stillwater noted.


            "Akumi's goal is to prove that her Senshi are stronger and that she is worthy of being Usagi's right hand. From there she can influence Usagi and show her what is required to be a strong queen."


            "Thus bringing the Miss Tsukino under her sway and transitively under the Order's control."


            "Which is what is so worrying about the Tsukino-Aino fusion. Any residual control in Aino would bring Tsukino under Miss Mizuno's heel and thus Murdock's." Jacob turned to Eve. "I trust you explained the situation to him?"


            The blonde nodded. "He believes we let him go in order to secure Miss Mizuno, and that we will protect him from the Order once his work is complete, or at least he was convincing enough to that effect."


            "We could have just killed him," Ranma grumbled.


            "And destroy such a useful tool? You are the one that brokered the deal with him."


            "I guess the mere fact that he's alive proves he squealed. That's gotta get the Order tweaked." Ranma grinned, showing her fangs. "If they're sloppy they'll send a hit team."


            "Proving to him that they're hanging him out to dry."


            "Good. He expects people to have backstabbing and Byzantine plans. Let him see what he wants."


            "It was nice to finally get someone to accept one of my Faustian deals."


            Eve put an arm around her sister's shoulder. "It's okay. Give the Russians more time... and more casualties. Your offer will be more appealing them, and that's not even counting Tsukino."


            Ranma nodded.


            "As for your offer to Miss Mizuno, you did come on a bit strong, and if she actually knew you, she'd realize that you don't lightly offer to turn someone."


            "She didn't object for that reason," Ranma muttered as she leaned onto her sister.


            "Right, so we have the possibility of the Rune Order being behind much of this, from Murdock to the Assembly of Man, some new paths on who hired the Russians, the Russian assassins hiring Bulgarian mercenaries and a... cultist, and Miss Mizuno is planning some new transhuman upgrade," Jacob listed.


            "Is that all?" Stillwater asked with mock levity.


            Holding a snuggling sister, Eve paused. "Sir, we suspected much of this. The only thing truly new to us is the cyborgs' outsourcing. Which is why Murdock approached us in the first place, something he has not done in quite some time."


            "You guys knew this goober had a head full of secrets. Don't get all sour just because I finally handed him over."


            "There was one looming blank-spot in his testimony," Eve stated.


            "No direct mention of Miss Tsukino," Stillwater completed.


            "Either he gave up on her, still holds hope on Miss Mizuno, or he managed to conceal a new plan from me." For a fraction of a second Eve chewed her lip. "I didn't have full.. freedom or time to work him over."


            Jacob turned and caught Stillwater's slight nod. "Understood. We did not expect full disclosure, and this is more than we expected. We'll need to be careful with this information, especially since it's from a very questionable source."


            "Limited distribution will follow verification. The Russian outsourcing is the most urgent, but the Rune Order is the most long term, and needs the most support. A plausible sounding unknown is more damaging than an outright lie." Stillwater stressed. "Perhaps we should take advantage of this meeting to discuss... countermeasures."


            "Usagi is getting more pushy, and I think stir-crazy," Ranma frowned.


            "You wanted her to be more assertive," Eve smirked.


            "True, and she's running a tighter ship with her girls."


            Stillwater raised an eyebrow.


            "I've been thinking on what she's been lacking, what she needs. Why she's been such a jerk," Ranma offered.


            "Run it by me when you get something solid." Stillwater nodded.


             "Our response to events like the Tsukino-Aino fusion can be tightened up," Jacob smoothly stated. "And the supplemental systems could use some testing."


            "They're happily giving us the access." Ranma grinned. "Still, mother would like that. She's learning a lot, and that Dirac kid's got some interesting ideas."


            Eve matched her sister's expression. "And Morgan has been itching for more practice."

 

***************

 


            "Did you have a good drive?" Mal de Veste asked without looking up from his menu.


            "Must you dress this way?" Zhivkov sighed as he slid into the booth opposite the garish-suited man.


            Mal shrugged.


            The Bulgarian looked out the window; the burnt-out husk was out of sight but he knew it was there. The route in had passed several other demolished and burned out buildings. Work crews were still repairing the damage from the battle. "You want me to see destruction? This is nothing."


            "Yes, yes." Mal shifted into German.  "The Balkans, very scary place."


            Zhivkov chuckled and let a bored waitress hand him a menu. "Not first time this happen in the West either," the officer said in the same language as he read over a list of mediocre sandwiches and pancakes. "Very busy girls. You know this."


            "This wasn't them. At least not entirely," de Veste smiled. "Besides, that's not important part..."


            "The important part is that they lost."

 

            "And that the enemy they fight is so... free. Most times the West..." Mal shrugged. "They do not do this. Not this open."


            Zhivkov frowned.


            "You are a loyal man, this brings problems."


            The head of the Thracian Union looked up at the approaching waitress.


            The young woman looked between the suddenly-silent suited men. They seemed to study her, the garish and brutish man staring at her eyes, the more... European man at her hands. Both then glanced at their menus and immediately placed full orders, instead of getting drinks first and then ordering meals.


            After she left, Mal shook his head.. "I, I can leave whenever it gets bad. Business will sour, but I manage," he said returning to his somewhat stilted German. "You however, you have responsibilities."


            Zhivkov laughed. "You don't trust them?"


            "I trust that they'll pay if we all live. Communists are funny like that; they, of all people, respect the power of currency." Mal tapped his ring against the tabletop.


            "Ah, you're looking for insurance?" Zhivkov concealed most of his annoyance.


            Mal finally lifted his eyes up. "Dear Comrade no. I have my insurance." He reached into his suit coat and pulled out a large envelope.


            Zhivkov clicked his tongue at the photograph. It was a glossy black and white of a diminutive girl with somewhat dark skin and medium to light hair. Despite capturing her at an angle the girl's eyes seemed to bore into the cameraman. Putting the photograph down, he unconsciously made sure to flip it over.


            Chuckling at the other man's actions, Mal nodded. "We are both men of the world. We both know the security that leverage can bring us."


            Zhivkov shook his head slowly. "You admit..."


            "I admit to planning what you plan. Galina needs us, as long as we are discrete, as long as she does not betray us..."


            "But her?" Zhivkov tapped the table. "Why? She's a target."


            "Yes, unlike what you plan to do, mine is a target." Mal grinned wolfishly as he turned the photograph back over. "Quite the impression she gives."


            Zhivkov stared at the piercing, almost disappointed eyes.


            "They say that taking a photograph captures the soul."


            The Bulgarian coughed and looked back up.


            "Total rubbish." Mal laughed. "For purely optic recording to capture that information, would require an abnormal intensity affecting the visible spectrum, though if it were to happen..." He leaned forward, the pattern on his suit seeming to shift. "It would be quite the thing wouldn't it?"


            Zhivkov turned away from the image. "I must admit to being... over my head."


            "With enough force, they die just like anything else. That's the way of flesh."


            "Our employers or their targets? Ah, both."


            Mal smirked, teeth gleaming. "Everything dies. There is only one eternal being."


            The mercenary communist sighed. "So, are we working a deal?"


            "Deal implies exchange and compromise. I prefer to think of it as an understanding."


            "Non-interference on... insurance policies? And our employer?"


            "If we need the insurance, then I hardly think her concerns are that relevant."


            Zhivkov frowned.


            "But as I said, you're at a disadvantage. You're a loyal man. You have responsibilities. Perhaps her concerns are relevant." Mal went silent and leaned back as the waitress returned with their meals. "But at least you don't have to worry about me," he said digging into his hash browns and bacon.


            Zhivkov sipped the coffee "Small favor."


            "Do you think insurance will be required?"


            Staring at Mal, Zhivkov pondered. "Our own reconnaissance has confirmed much, but there is even more that is unknown. If the information about the enemy she has given us is not exaggerated... there will be much blood."


            "Theirs?" Mal smirked.


            "That is the hope, but if these... monsters get close." Zhivkov took another sip.


            "You will have support. Our employer and her comrades. yes?"


            "I've seen her comrades in battle. I am.... apprehensive at the idea of getting between them and creatures that have forced them to acquire reinforcements."


            Mal snickered and continued eating his meal.


            "Clearly, I don't intend to have my men stuck between them."


            Nodding Mal chewed for a bit. "Men plan, god laughs."

 

***************

 


            "Are you ready?" Nodoka looked over her clipboard at the armored figure.


            The queen looked to Kiri who gave a big smile and discretely remove a cable that connected the queen's head-piece to a small laptop and array of crystals.


            Kiri picked up the crystals and slipped them in small leather case.


            "So, what have you two been doing?"


            "Improvements," Eve tersely replied. "Mitigating some of the most severe deficiencies of the armor."


            The queen set her jaw. "I thought you didn't like it."


            Eve gave a sympathetic nod. "We don't, but if you agree to our improvements and follow our commands. Well, we can see how it goes."


            "Really?"


            "You being encased in protective armor has appeal. As long as it doesn't make you a sitting duck."


            "There is much from Silver Empire that Minako didn't know about when she made the first version." Kiri said.


            "What did you do?" the gold queen asked.


            Kiri blushed slightly.


            Nodoka cleared her throat and Dirac took that as the signal to start the various scanning recorders. The officer continued. "The change in armor design was akin to the difference between a battleship and a battlecruiser. Battleships and battlecruisers possessed similar firepower, but a battlecruiser used a slimmer hull and less armor to gain speed and maneuverability. We'll do this with you. You won't be a hulking nine foot monstrosity, but you'll be able to move."


            The armored queen nodded. "Fine." The familiar, constant pressure and encasement... changed. Her body felt like it was floating in complete numb, dark, silence.


            A warm embrace and a gentle massage heralded the changes. "You'll love this,, my Queen," Minako's voice cooed directly to Serenity as sensation returned to Serenity's limbs and her eyesight and hearing returned.


            "Feels nice... very... light." Serenity replied via the same connection. She looked down at the scientist and noticed that her body was indeed... smaller.


            "See, only seven feet tall, and at least half a foot of that is 'hair'." Nodoka smirked. "As I said, similar to a battlecruiser you have a slimmer profile."


            The queen nodded. The thinner armor actually gave a curve of stomach and hips, instead of being a single multi-inch thick mass. Improved composite layering and magical strengthening allowed for a reduction in the thickness of her bodice and slimming of her pauldrons, which were now short enough that she could actually look over her shoulder.


            In contrast her facial armor had thickened, making a smoother more masklike visage. The blue lenses over her eyes had also grown and were strengthened by the strongest layering on the armor. The sculpted mass of hair that served as an integrated helmet looked mostly unchanged. There were more gems on her crown. Her display and Minako quietly informed her that these were the probes for a suite of new sensors and transmitters. Several magical and mundane scanners that could fit in the space of her hair-bun without compromising the armor were added in.


            Her forearms still bore heavy gauntlets. She flexed her sword arm  and found her fingers had a bit more dexterity.


            Her right hand  pulled out the wand. This time the crystal prongs sticking out of it could flex and served as another set of claws, just as sharp as their metallic cousins. Both magical taps flowed into the wand structure and to a series of bands built deep under the armor. Each gently hummed and quietly absorbed spare energy.

 
            She looked down and saw the same ring anchor around her waist and from that a series of interlocking plates that made up her skirting. Like the rest of her armor the ring was a bit thinner and formed more shapely, while the bell shaped skirt flowed closer to her legs, occasionally revealing an actual contour.


            Major Saotome chuckled. "Yes, you're less wide. Now you can go through doors. Also, you're half the weight you were before. This mitigates a lot of ground-pressure problems, things like walking in mud or up stairs. We've also put in four 'float systems'. " Nodoka pointed to a quartet of round bulges on the armor, two on the front above the stomach and another pair below the waist in the back. "Embedding them further cut into your armor, but they'll place you at a human mass, less if you want to."

 

            Nodoka went through more readings. "Though even this is probably too heavy and slow.  Save for specific cases of frontal assault."


            The queen nodded, while not visible she could feel the devices emplaced behind the generous armor housings on her buttocks and chest, which also explained the size of those generous structures despite the lighter armor


            "Silver tech, so it should integrate fine," Dirac added, as he made sure his equipment was still recording. Gravity resistant magic was quite difficult to get stable, if they could reproduce it.


            "One of the Russians uses a similar technology to enable her to float while phasing through matter."


            "Even without the floats your weight's low enough that you don't need those massive clogs you had before, but... you should probably dial your mass down given the footwear you do have."


            Feeling the couple inch incline her gold-composite wedge heel boots had, the queen nodded and powered up her float system. She felt a slight tingling centered around the generators and the pressure on her armor lessened, easing the load on her systems. She did feel her hips spread apart a bit, giving her feet a wider more stable base.


            Circling the queen, Kiri nodded. "This could do it."


            "Field testing will be required, but mitigating the weight and maneuvering problems should really help," Nodoka appraised.  "Though perhaps her regular armor plus a heavy shield would be better,  it would allow you to regain Miss Aino  as an independent entity."


            The queen's silver lips shifted into a smile. "Thank you," she nodded to Major Saotome. "I'm sorry we've been such a burden."


            Nodoka frowned. "You should apologize to my daughter. She's the one committing so much of her time to this."


            The queen lowered her head. "Yes... yes I should." She tilted her head. "Good idea."


            Kiri ran a finger along the queen's armored skirting. "So, any viability?"


            Major Saotome shrugged. "Honestly? You're still down one Senshi with this scheme. I'm not sure the extra firepower and armor makes up for that loss. You'll also need to train them to use the armor, a lot.  And this all ignores the problem that she's still quite slow and despite the armor she's vulnerable."


            "Immersive training?"


            The queen blinked.


            Nodoka raised an eyebrow, and mentally made sure to emphasize this in the contact report. "I'd consider the psychological factors first."


            "Yes." Kiri smiled slightly. "That could be a problem."

 

End Chapter

 

Terms: Boffin; British slang for scientist, engineer, or other technical person has connotations of egghead and absent-minded-professor.  Nome de guerre; French, an alias used in war.

 

Revision Notes:   And we get further into the story with both the Numbers and the brood and the Senshi /and/ the renegade Senshi plotting.  One of the big changes in this revision is smoothing out the whole "Minako armor" plot and Ranma's, outright hostile attitude towards Usagi.  Again, in retrospect the readers who thought she was being overly aggressive and mean to her.. were right.