The Return

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Josh 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 as always is wanted.

 

Chapter 22 Restoration and Regret Part 2

 


            "Fascinating," Section Chief Ono peered into the chest cavity. Even given Sergeant Graham's... incisions the subject's... chassis proved rather difficult to open up. "I can see where the organs were, but there's extensive support struts too. Titanium you think?"


            Dressed in a surgical smock identical to Ono's, Nodoka nodded. "Strong, light, not prone to biological rejection." Using a pair of pliers she picked up another piece from her more diminished and already sectioned subject. "I think I found something."


            Ono stepped over to the other table, careful to give the two other agents in the room space. In battle-dress, they held rifles at the ready. The pathologist had conducted enough autopsies where the subject was still a bit... lively to appreciate their presence. In a similar precaution, a pattern scanner and a sensitive radio receiver were also active in one corner. Before entering the facility the bodies had been checked with a Pattern Scanner and inspected by a scent dog for more mundane booby traps.


            Leaning over the lighted magnifier, Ono blinked. It looked like some kind of hydraulic control but part of the sleeve was cracked exposing some writing. "Cyrillic?"


            "Makes sense, this... hardware." Nodoka shook her head. "A lot of it is what you would expect transmitters, chipsets, structural pieces, actuators, but other parts...." She picked up the wand to a narrow-range scanner and waved it over a couple pieces of meat and blood smeared metal.


            "Pattern V... no... maybe some S too. Very weak That doesn't make sense, not given Morgan's report." Nodoka chewed her lip. "The canine team has cleared the cadavers?"


            "Right as the bodies entered the base. They didn't like them much, but no explosives, other than the remnants from the sergeant's weapon," Ono agreed. "But yes there's no rapid decay of organics." He sniffed and noticed that he was smelling the normal cordite, burnt meat, and such cocktail. "Pattern V's also don't have urea or feces. These cyborgs actually have digestive tracts."


            "They do have musculature and skin, those parts do need nourishment."


            Ono nodded and started probing the a multi-meter again. He wanted to make sure this thing was dead.


            Nodoka frowned at the electrical reader. "Do we know what their power source is?" she asked as she poked a bit further into the chest cavity.


            "It could be magical, or some sort of battery or engine. We don't know what their fuel could be."


            "But the power requirements are far too large for anything normal." Nodoka's frown deepened as her probing pulled back a structural member and revealed an orange-sized sphere nestled in the chest cavity. Several cables connected to it. Motioning to the guards, Nodoka reached behind her and pulled up another piece of equipment. "Did they do a radiological study?" she asked moving the Geiger counter's probe over the sphere.


            "Yes, it came out clean," Dr Ono said leaning in to see Nodoka's readings. "Good shielding?"


            "Maybe," Nodoka said as she walked to the fragments that made up the other specimen. "A nuclear battery... well I didn't think it would give enough power or get this small, but I didn't think cyborgs were feasible either." The scientist poked around the debris until she found a similar sphere. It was battered and misshapen and in one location a piece of shrapnel had sliced through the surface revealing a layer of some kind of blue mesh.


            At the point of rupture the radiation reading was higher. "There must be more layers in it, maybe some lead after this blue stuff."


            "Are the levels dangerous?" Ono asked.

            "No, but we should use a lead shielded box for both of these," Nodoka motioned to one of her assistants who went past a gaurd and had him help her move a container to the specimen table. Foam sections were removed, and using a set of pincers, the damaged sphere was lowered inside.


            "I'll remove this one," Ono stated as he started photographing and logging the wiring on the undamaged sphere. Nodoka came over and started helping him disconnect the orb. Most of the connections were modular and came out easily.


            "Compact, it has to be advanced," Nodoka noted. "There's not much of a Pattern on it though."


            Ono nodded and started to lever the sphere out of place with some difficulty. "Damn thing, it weights enough to have some real heavy metals in it."


            Once the sphere was added to the other side of the box and the container was sealed Ono looked at it critically. "There has to be something wrong with those things. If they are a power system there has to be a reason they weren't used in other things. They're going to need watching. We don't know if they're shut down or idle or what."


            "Expense likely. They're stable enough to be in a combat cyborg, so they have to be hardy. Maybe they are used in other roles. Nuclear batteries are used in space probes, and some isolated facilities. They aren't this small, though."


            Ono went back to the body. "Yes, but that might not even be the power system. Though it does connect to this distribution network and right into this processor."


            "Did you find anything that could work as an interface?" Nodoka went over to the more complete body and moved that table's magnifier over sections of the ruined bits of metal and bone that made up the cadaver's skull. She looked back at the locked case. There were plenty of new things to learn from these specimens.


            After discarding the potentially contaminated leads, Tofu put the electrical reader down on a tray and walked over to the shattered head, using a long surgical pick he pointed to some bits of jelled brain and electronics. "There's a few areas here, but... it's crude. This technology. It shouldn't work."


            Nodoka nodded. "You can't just put computer chips in a person's brain and expect them to work."


            "I don't know what this is," Dr. Ono sighed. "That pattern's got something to do with this. Maybe whoever built this found a shortcut."


            "Ghost in the machine. Sir?" Agent Gabriel Smith suggested as he shifted his gun slightly. To his left Sophie Addison's eyes went down to the scanner output.


            Ono blinked. "Perhaps. Pattern V's are essentially flesh-borne golems reanimated by their former spirits."


            "Was that how they got around the technology limitation?" Nodoka asked.


            "You're right, this stuff... technically it's advanced, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it in a Russian sub."


            "Not many people would have access to this kind of technology and this... magical skill. The smattering of obsolete equipment worries me though. While there are a few computers in here that appear newer than the rest, and some other things that I –think- are computers, there's also some old electronics too." Nodoka's eyes went to the metal plating that made up the walls, ceiling, and floor of the room. "We can't leave until these things are dissected and tagged."


            Ono nodded and resumed his work. "The obsolescence shows either a lack of a need for a total retrofit or a lack of a capability to do it."


            "The Pattern aspect also gives production questions. All the hardware can be purchased or machined, but how hard is it to... bind a ghost," Nodoka smiled at Gabriel.


            "I can probably get a date from the age of the stuff in the brain here. I doubt they would have repeated that surgery." Tofu said as he used a scalpel and a set of miniature wire-cutters. Once the specimen was loose he pulled it out using a hemostat and put it into a reinforced Plexiglas specimen case. There was still a lot of work to be done, but at least they had a place to start from.

 

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

 


            Morrison stepped into the commissary with a slight smile. She walked up to the table where Morgan was sitting. Another agent, was across from Morgan. Morrison calmly held her hand out for the large German Shepard that was sitting next to her sister. The dog gave her a sniff and then went back to looking at the meal Morgan had in front of her.


            "Good, Duke's gotten used to you," George Clymer, the dog's handler, remarked.


            "Well, the rest of the brood's gotten them used to succubae right, Sarge?" Morrison asked.


            "They still don't like strange demons, humans either," Sergeant Clymer remarked.


            "What's wrong, Sis? Mom wants us to go to sleep soon," Morrison happily said.


            "Oh, it's that late?" Morgan said feeding a piece from her beef stew to Duke, despite George's cough. "That would be pretty nice."


            Morrison held the bridge of her nose. "We have a problem."


            "What? Because I'm having a nice meal with a K-9 unit?" Morgan's eyes flashed a slightly brighter shade of blue.


            "It's more that you're trying to be ambivalent about being with Mother. You felt her earlier tonight. You know what she's like."


            Morgan glared. "I'm not allowed that much?"


            "No, you're not." Morrison sighed. "We're not."


            "It's not like I was hiding, I'm not delusional," Morgan said petting the large dog. "I just saw them eating here. Duke was brought in special from the B base you know. Good boy, you made sure those girls I killed wouldn't explode or hide freaky monsters."


            "You shouldn't be having problems with killing," Morrison stated.


            "No, I shouldn't, and you're jealous."


            "Of course, I've smelled the kills. I saw mother hugging you first. You..." Morrison sighed and sat down on the opposite side or Morgan. "It was the feeding wasn't it."


            The diminutive sharpshooter simply looked her sister in the eye. "I was sloppy. It won't happen again."


            "Sloppy? About the feeding or the wounding?"


            "I need to file a report with my CO." George coughed as he stood up. Having three older sisters he knew when it was best to leave and go outside for a walk. "Duke, stay."


            Morgan watched the man leave. "Do you know much about the canine units?" she asked her sister.


            "Used as sentries, trackers, and for security. It's their noses." Morrison said reaching over to let the dog smell her again. She had an idea where this was going.


            "It's fascinating really. We raise them and they think we're part of their pack. The Company has been breeding dogs for at least a hundred years."


            "What? And we're the next in line?"


            Morgan chuckled. "Why not? We're a pack based species too. What do you think of Andrea, now that you two can go clothes shopping together?"


            "You're not one to get morose about becoming a 'dog of the military'. We signed away that part of us long before the D Program."


            "Yes, no one leaves the Company. Even those agents that are... discharged. They really just go to work for some useful company and moonlight on occasion." Morrison put her hand on Morgan's shoulder. "So what's bugging you? Is it the urge to feed? Did it..."


            "No... I mean I was hungry, I'm not gonna deny that, but I don't think it made me sloppy. She just got in a shot, trying to take her alive..." Morgan shook her head.


            "Mother made that decision. You did the best you could," Morrison assured pulling her arm around the smaller woman.


            "It's not just that, there's the future," Morgan said scratching behind Duke's ears.


            Morrison's eyes went to the dog. "What? A Company breeding program for succubae? Isn't that a bit... superfluous?"


            "Convenient isn't it? The D program brings in plenty of already trained agents, and our... nature ensures that there will be pregnancies." Morgan leaned into the hug and smiled a bit.


            "Red? Well... once she gets Miss Tsukino. Yeah, I can see it." Morrison nodded.


            "There's also mother," Morgan smirked.


            "Sure, eventually she might go. So what's wrong? Worried that the higher ups aren't doing this out of the goodness of their hearts?"


            "Pragmatically, it makes perfect sense. Keep good relations with Aunty Ranma and retain agents that would otherwise be lost. Makes up for the expense of the program. Of course..."


            "Yes?"


            Morgan patted Duke, and gave the silent dog, a bit from her stew, which he gingerly ate from her fingers. "Well, Mother's an officer, and she asked to be turned. We're the first. It's up to us to show how viable the program really is."


            "Getting performance anxiety? You did kill a pair of Russian super soldier cyborgs by yourself."


            "You're wrong, not by myself. That other sniper died because she tried to go alone. My trap worked because I knew when to call for help." Morgan paused. "Russian? Really?"


            "Yup, heard it from Grandma when I was telling her about my weapon's performance. Didn't even fire the bulky thing. But yeah, there was Cyrillic on a few of the components, some of which were pretty old."


            "Anything definite? Or just labels on some parts?"


            "I know. It doesn't prove Russians, but not many people would use Soviet era electronics, unless they had too."


            "And a pair of cyborgs were sent after Miss Tsukino."


            "She does have a way of getting enemies. Dangerous ones too. This one almost got you." Morrison hugged a bit tighter.


            "She was a very focused enemy," Morgan snuggled a bit closer. "There's going to be more of them."


            "Oh? Could have been a two woman hit team."


            Morgan shook her head. "Nah."


            "Why's that?"


            "Scalability. If someone can build one or two of these cybernetic women then a few more would not be that much more difficult. The design exists and one knows how to install the parts," Morgan explained.


            "If that's true then how come there's not legions of them?"


            "That's a good question. Maybe it's the same reason that the Schutzstaffel and Fallschirmjager were not able to field battalions using Project A."


            "Someone destroyed the factory where they were being built?"


            Morgan shrugged. "Maybe they were too expensive for only an incremental improvement. That's the problem any super-weapon has. They all sound amazing on paper, but often prove unreliable or too expensive for their capabilities. Mecha sound cool, but they'll break all the time, get stuck in mud, and cost a fortune."


            "While a normal vehicle can do the same job and not be a huge target." Morgan pause. "So what about us?"


            Morrison shrugged. "We're not super weapons... soldiers... whatever."


            "We have powers beyond humans."


            "So does he," Morrison said as she scratched Duke's chin. "We're just another species. It's not like we have to be specially made; it just takes an adult succubus."


            "So that's it? We're cheap?" Morgan snickered.


            "Why not? What's the main failing all super weapons have?"


            "Cost?"


            "Yup, that plagues all research projects, especially the ambitious ones." Morrison leaned in. "The money saved can be used to make better equipment. Like that gun of yours."


            "It's really just arming and training succubae isn't it?"


            "Yes, and you're a succubus." Morrison leveled her gaze at Morgan. "You know about the killing part, but you're gonna want to feed too." The green-haired succubus smiled. "And of course there's the sex."


            "I think I can handle lesbian demon sex," Morgan stretched her shoulders.


            "It might not be lesbian," Morrison teased.


            "Oh well," Morgan shrugged.


            Morrison blinked. "Huh... so what, the only problem was the kill? Succubae are up close and personal. Would it be hard to be so far away?"


            Raising her hand and flipping it over her wrist, Morgan gave a noncommittal grunt.


            Morrison sighed. "You should probably talk with Mom about this. This could get bad."


            "I was okay, until I got close. That's when the smell..."


            "Being wounded didn't help either."


            Morgan gave her sister a long stare as exasperation changed to befuddlement before mellowing into apathy. "Yes, food was on my mind."


            "We're still young. We've got to grow more."


            "Have any other tautological bits of advice?" Morgan dryly asked. "At least Mother's given me some space."


            "You loved it when she hugged you," Morrison reminded, embracing the smaller demon herself.


            Pausing to enjoy the contact, Morgan smiled. She felt a slight purr form and let it fade away. "It's not like resisting does anything."


            "I wouldn't go that bleak, but you were right. We don't need to make this complicated. The job's the same; we've just got to keep at it." Morrison said.


            Morgan gave a slight sigh. Feeding had healed her body and being with mother healed the rest of her but it was still... demonic. "And what about you? Have you decided what to do with your family. Your human one?"


            The taller demoness frowned. "I dunno. What are you going to do? You still keep in contact with them?"


            "Just my cousin. Pa died when his rig fell into the sea, and mom turned all the money the petroleum company gave her into Scotch. She's still in Glasgow, in a potter's field by now. Brother left the rest of us and married some girl. They moved South. Both died in the London Troubles." Morgan stopped and stared at her gun.


            Morrison raised her eyebrows. Until now she had no idea why her sister had joined the Company, instead of the SAS or a more... overtly Protestant organization, but that may have given her some clue. "Morgan?"


            "I still write my cousin sometimes. She's a nice enough girl. Does welding up in Glasgow."


            "Your handwriting the same?"


            Morgan shrugged. "Close enough."


            "Unfortunately, my family's a bit more suspicious."


            "Yes, the skin pallor and alto voice would raise questions, but... ain't that the point? They're Marines; they already know you're up to something."


            "Yes, leathernecks are perceptive like that," Morrison said dryly.


            "Eventually you're going to tell me why you did that."


            Morrison blinked.


            "Come on, you've mentioned your family's military history, and you up and decide to do mercenary work. It don't add up. One of these days your going to tell us why you joined WIC," the sharpshooter teased.


            "That information has been thoroughly documented by Recruiting and Training Section," Morrison said a bit briskly.


            "Yes, and the Colonel and Commander know. Heck, I'm sure Mother's had full access to our files since day one, but... that wouldn't be fun."


            "And I was curious as to what made you pick the Company."


            "Well, now we've got a bit of a trade to work out." Morgan turned and looked at the commissary's entrance and watched as another demoness walked in. Red eyes narrowed, she walked up to the table and wordlessly sat down.


            She was only an inch taller than Morrison but she seemed to loom over them as her presence dominated the room. Nariko cleared her throat "So, is everything okay?"


            "Is it that obvious?" Morrison blushed.


            "Well, it's making your mother a bit worried. Poor woman, she's been fidgeting all during her meeting. Mother's been trying to help her."


            "She's too professional." Morgan stated.


            Nariko laughed. "No, Mother told Aunt Eve not to go. She had to keep her from clawing at the walls."


            "What? Why?" Morgan asked.


            "It's some parenting thing? Independence?" Morrison asked


            Nariko nodded. "Independence is important. She's learning that you two are going to feel bad, are going to get sad and that she shouldn't come in and make everything better."


            "What if it got serious? What if we started to... spiral apart?"


            "She'd tear her way out of the office and run over here, but you two are growing up. Fighting is only part of it." Nariko smiled and pulled a treat out of her pocket and gave it to Duke, who broke his eyes away from the stew bowl long enough to crunch it down.


            "Emotional development?" Morgan asked.


            "That's close enough," Nariko shrugged. "It's important for you to bond and grow up, and for Aunty Eve to help."


            "Sometimes by not helping?" Morrison asked.


            "So, why are you here then?" Morgan inquired.


            "Well, there's a dog," Nariko smiled as she leaned over to scratch behind Duke's ears.


            "That's what brought her over here too." Morgan pointed to her sister. "Sure there wasn't a concern for us? No massive burst of empathy?"


            Nariko smiled. "That's a silly question."


            Morgan smirked. "The answers are never complicated are they?"


            "Why make things more trouble than they need to be?" Nariko agreed. "Your lives are complicated enough."


            "Being succubus secret agents?"


            Nariko grinned and put her hands on the two sisters'. "Don't worry you guys are doing great."


            Morrison blushed, her nostrils sniffed in a familiar scent. "Mother!" she said standing up as the blonde entered into the room, and somehow, despite her dress and heels, managed to sprint to her daughters. Smiling, more with her eyes than her slightly upturned lips, Eve embraced both of her spawn and held them to her chest.


            "Sorry for that, the meeting went a bit longer. Morgan's kills gave us quite a bit to talk about," Eve said hugging her daughters a bit tighter.


            After entering the commissary after the Captain, George Clymer raised an eyebrow. "Wow, still shocking to see Jarvis... human," he quietly noted, before looking at Nariko. "Emotional."


            "What else did the Captain have?" Nariko said patting Duke on the head. The dog's attention was split between Nariko and George.


            "Well, have a good night. I know Duke's going to be grouchy in the morning," George said before telling the German Shepard to come to his side.


            "A nice early run should straighten him out, Sergeant," Eve said as she walked past the canine-handler.


            "Yes, Ma'am."


            Eve nodded, and turned to her girls. "Come on, we need to get to sleep too."

 

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

 


            Genma took a drink, draining his sake glass. "I just don't know what to do. It's been such a long friendship. We've known each other for over twenty years, and I can't believe it's... I mean I'm trying to be better." He slowly refilled his glass. "I really am."


            Ranma frowned. It had come to this, even her father was asking her for relationship advice. It was not how she had expected to spend her weekend. Though it was nice to take the occasional break from training. "Sometimes people just grow apart. Have you talked about it?"


            Genma snorted and glanced over at his... former wife. The divorce papers had been a disappointment, not a shock. They had been apart for over ten years. "What do you think?"


            Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "I'm amazed that you're actually being sensible about all this."


            "Exactly! I eventually accepted it. Why couldn't Soun?" Genma tapped his forehead with his index finger. "He's supposed to be the sensitive and deep one."


            Nodoka chuckled. "In this case I think being maudlin and emotional was a detriment. Succubae are simple creatures, much like oafish martial artists, though with less greed and a bit more impulse control."


            Genma turned to face her. "Left-handed compliments? Are you feeling okay?


            The officer shrugged and went back to her notes. "Well, I have realized that you have a valuable contribution towards the effort."


            Taking a sip, Genma thought over her statement. "The training's not that much. It keeps the Master off my back, and gives me something to do. It's also nice to interact with my grandkids."


            "Is spending time with Soun getting that difficult?" Ranma asked.


            "It's depressing. He keeps acting as if..." He waved his hand off. "And I thought The Drake had it bad when his wife died, but at least he faced her death."


            "You're not comparing that man's interests in negotiable affection to Soun's inadequacies?" Nodoka asked.


            "Why not? The Drake's certainly been the best father these girls have had." Genma laughed.


            "You have gotten better, Pops."


            "Which brings us to his problem." Nodoka turned to her former husband. "You're going to have to accept that you're the better man. It is good that you want to help Soun."


            "The Drake's taken him out today, maybe another voice will help him," Ranma offered as she took a sip from her own mug.


            Genma shrugged.


            "Doubtful, but worth a shot," Nodoka admitted. "Soun can still see his little girls. Not like what we and the Drake had to deal with."


            "Is the gender change that important?" Ranma asked.


            "Well it keeps us from confusing you with when you were human," Nodoka explained.


            "The curse screwed that up for me. I could still see you as you were," Genma added.


            Ranma downed her mug and paused as she refilled it. "Yeah, same thing happened to me. So what do we do?"


            Genma shrugged. "I dunno, that's why I'm asking for your help."


            "Well, we can't do anything to make the situation much worse," Nodoka frowned. If things did get much worse,  Soun would have to be put into more... restrictive protective custody.


            "Well... can we have Soun actually spend some time with his three daughters. That should clear things up right quick. I can ask Akane and Nabiki what they think of it, they're in the dojo with the old Master right now," Ranma offered.


            Kasumi stepped into the kitchen gave a little smile. "Worth a try, but you're underestimating just how deep of a hole my father's hiding in."


            "It's really that bad?" Ranma asked.


            Kasumi smirked. "There's an obvious solution, just bite Father and get it over with."


            "That would make him face up to current events, or have a mental breakdown," Nodoka evaluated.


            "Well... it would be a more controlled breakdown," Genma allowed.


            "Shouldn't you all be more disturbed by this idea?" Ranma turned to Kasumi. "And you, you don't want to be turned but you're suggesting that I make your father my daughter?"


            "We're not being serious. Oh, you got some mail," she offhandedly said as she put a folded piece of paper in front of Ranma on the kitchen table.


            "Not only do you guys go through my mail, but you won't even let me have the original," the redhead grumbled as she picked up the photocopy.


            "This was a special case, we wanted to check it for fingerprints."


            Ranma blinked at the letterhead. "Is this thing for real?


            "Yup, the head of the Vatican Expeditionary Force and intelligence branch wants to meet with you."


            Ranma turned to her father. "Hey! What did you sell me for this time?"


            "That hurts Girl, like I would be foolish enough to make a deal like that." Genma stated with a bit of a laugh. "


            The redhead raised an eyebrow.


            "Well, we've never been to Italy. Besides you don't need to con a church, helping poor travelers is what they're supposed to do."


            "True."


            "Maybe it's your mother-" Genma caught himself. "Maybe she has an idea."


            "Our daughter is a demon. I think that's enough."


            "Doesn't say anything about me being queen," Ranma said, skimming the letter. "Just condolences for those Assembly morons and an offer of some information to help things about... Soviet cybernetic assassins."


            "The Vatican is in Europe and communism was a big threat to them."


            "They were atheists right?"


            "Very much," Kasumi nodded. "Any morality and beliefs that did not come from the State were seen as a threat to their power."


            "So... this information is an apology? All, because the Assembly was a bunch of aggressive losers."


            "Well Catholics do get angry when Protestants do stupid things in the name of Christianity." Kasumi held back the second part of the statement to the effect that such idiocy was the Catholic's domain.


            "What's this about?"


            "The Protestants are a breakaway faction that rejected the corruption of the Catholic church and formed their own organizations." Kasumi explained.


            "That's what I don't get, from what I've seen the Assembly plays priest dress-up as a way to look... legitimate."


            "Yes, Ukyou and Misako are not exactly brimming with theological knowledge or even a basic understanding of scripture."


            "Yes, you know more Christian teachings than they do," Ranma smirked with a little wink.


            Kasumi raised an eyebrow. "You thought it was cute."


            "Well it is nice to see that you do wear some jewelry, and I was a bit surprised when it didn't burn my hand."


            Nodoka paused then turned to Ranma. "I wonder if any one bothered to tell you we're Shinto. At least you were when you left." She glared at Genma.


            "I made sure to go to temples on important occasions."


            "When you wanted something, and don't try to claim it was spiritual guidance."


            "The body still needs more sustenance than prayer alone."


            "Yeah, Shinto," Ranma chewed her lip. "It's kind of hard to be very religious, you know, when you actually are a supernatural being."


            "Oh? The succubae have pretty familiar elements, being a slave race led to a promised land by a messiah figure. Add in some ancestor worship and you've got a pretty solid belief system."


            "Coming from someone that ritualistically consumes the flesh and blood of their man-god."


            Kasumi blinked. "That sounds like something succubae would do too."


            Ranma rubbed her forehead. "Great, maybe this Bishop O'Malley just wants to convert me."


            "If you do go over to their side, make sure you at least get some really good soup out of the deal." Kasumi laughed.


            "Huh?"


            Kasumi sighed. "During one of the Irish famines the Catholics would only give food to peasants that converted, hence the term 'Soup Catholic'."


            "Huh, obscure history reference," Ranma shrugged.


            "Don't they teach you anything in school?"


            "Well, we do miss a lot of days. Fighting cyborgs and monsters and cultists and what not."


            "And are you really touting the educational qualities of an institution run by Drake Kuno? I do recall you never graduated from there, Lieutenant." Nodoka stated while doing her paperwork.


            "He does fund and staff his little hobby fairly adequately, Ma'am," Kasumi allowed.


            "Careful a compliment may spill out," Ranma laughed. "So, this letter legit?"


            "Fingerprints match. We've been talking with the Papal Nuncio in Ottawa and confirmed it with the Holy See itself."


            "Nuncio their diplomat?" Ranma guessed.


            "Yes, over in the embassy in Rockcliffe Manor House."


            "Okay, let's see how that goes," Ranma shrugged.


            "Just like that?"


            "Well, the guys says he has information on these assassins, and we're all supposed to be allies."


            Kasumi nodded. "I'll tell them to set up the meeting."

 

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

 


            "So how was your weekend been?" Naoko asked Ranma and her spawn as they sat down at the lunch table.


            Ranma tilted her head. "Well, Ukyou made dinner last night. Was really good."


            "Oh? Sounds like a wild time," Sam teased.


            "This is a bit public to get into the juicy bits," Akane smirked.


            "I dunno, everyone knows about the wild sex," Misako added as she pulled out her leather lunch bag and started unpacking her meal.


            "How's things going with Usagi?" Sam asked.


            Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Well... we helped her get a friend back."


            Sam gave Naoko a glance. "That's good," the short-haired blonde stated


            "Now you're not fishing for dirt, are you?" Nabiki asked as she opened the Tupperware container. "Hmm... is this mine? It smells like pork."


            "Oh, that's mine!" Misako said leaning over to snatch it.


            "No, we're just your friends."


            "Yeah, we don't really care about the greater intrigue. I mean, as long as you're doing the right thing what do the details matter?" Sam asked.


            Ranma blushed. "Wow, that's a lot of trust you're putting into us."


            "We know you. You don't care about power, you're all doing this because you have to."


            Nariko paused. "We do what we must because we can," she said quoting the inscription on Morgan's gun.


            "So you don't see any sinister motives on our part?" Ukyou skeptically asked. "I mean, have you met Misako?"


            "Aww... thanks," Misako blushed.


            "Misako? She's fine, it's not like she's spouting Love and Justice nonsense," Naoko remarked.


            "You guys aren't serious?" Ranma blinked. "I mean..."


            Sam sighed. "You did tell us, and it's not hard to figure out."


            "We've got secret identities too," Nariko reminded.


            "That's different." Sam said.


            "Yeah I can't imagine you guys dancing about shooting sparkles and glitter," Naoko added.


            Nabiki gave a little smirk.


            "So what's the deal with Love and Justice being nonsense?" Ranma asked.


            "Oh they're fine, but you have to wonder about a person that makes it a point to say she's for that stuff. Isn't she already fighting monsters?" Sam asked.


            Naoko chuckled. "Yeah, it's like a guy that constantly says he doesn't care what girls think about him. Obviously, he does."


            "Otherwise he'd just shut up about it?" Akane asked.


            "He might not want to look like a painfully awkward geek," Misako shrugged as she forked a bit of pork.


            Ukyou sighed and went for the low hanging fruit. "Well that sounds about as successful as a girl putting on a few pounds of makeup so she won't look ugly."


            Misako shrugged. "I didn't say it was a smart idea."


            Ranma turned back to her blonde friend. "So what are you saying?"


            Sam looked to Naoko who nodded. "Sunny... don't get stupid. We know how you get around her and..."


            Ranma's eyes narrowed, and she felt the slightest hint of a blush struggling to form.


            Looking at the nearly luminescent violet orbs, Sam coughed. "We know her too, and it's all... black and white to her. She's not from the same world as the rest of us. My God... it's like she never got above the age where every girl wants to be a pretty princess."


            Misako snickered.


            Sam sighed. "Okay, you told us that, but there's a reason we believed you. Usagi's a total 'little princess'. She thinks the world will fall at her feet."


            Naoko nodded. "And from what you've told us, she can make it happen."


            "Usagi wouldn't," Ranma stated.


            "And if she tries? How would she make the world better?"


            The redhead tiled her head. "What are you saying?"


            "Just keep your eyes open."


            Sam turned to the other demons. "And if she does get stars in her eyes, you girls better be there to pick up the slack. Can we count on you to be paranoid and suspicious bastards?"


            "Don't forget ruthless and cynical," Naoko added.


            Akane and Nabiki gave each other sidelong smirks, meanwhile Misako simply cackled maniacally. Ukyou raised a single eyebrow.


            Nariko turned her head and looked at her mother's two human friends. "Don't worry. She's sacrificed everything for us; we have to do our best to help her."


            "And the best thing about having to kill Usagi, is chances are she'd pay us to do it."


            "Misa-chan...." Ranma hissed.


            "No, Sunny," the green-eyed girl gave a toothy grin at using their public code word for Mother. "If our little princess fucks up that big, I'd say it counts under the terms of that deal."


            "Even if it didn't... could you live with yourself for letting her do... something horrible, just because you want to find out how complete her dye job is?" Sam asked.


            Misako chuckled.


            "She's a natural blonde," Ranma stated without much thought as she opened a cracker packet and put a bit of cheese on one.


            "Oh? When did you check?" Naoko teased.


            "During gym, silly," Ranma said before eating some.


            "My, my, Sunny's got wandering eyes." Sam shook her head.


            "We are trying to warn her," Naoko added.


            "It is kind of hard for us to not look," Ukyou coughed.


            Sam blinked. "Oh yeah... the lesbian thing. The locker room must be like one big meat market for you guys."


            Misako bent over laughing.


            "Are you trying to make her explode?" Ukyou asked as she put an arm around Misako and helped her calm down.


            "If I find any other double entendres, I'll let you know," Sam smirked.


            "So what's with this? I can take care of myself." Ranma reminded. "You girls kind of know what I've done."


            "Yes, very strong, very family minded, and good fighter, but you're still vulnerable." Sam looked down at her lunch.


            Ranma chewed her lip. "My desire for a mate?"


            "Yah," Sam stated.


            "Ask your sister for help?" Naoko suggested.


            "She is more level-headed," Ranma agreed.


            "Yes, very supportive, loving, and scary woman," Sam laughed.


            "Speak of the devil," Naoko muttered as she pointed to the far door to the cafeteria. She saw that it was quite superfluous. Ranma's nostrils flared before Naoko got her arm up. At least the redhead's obvious... interest did not seem to be clouding her eyes... much.


            "Least she's got them guarding her," Ukyou noted, looking at the trio of girls around Usagi.


            "Minako's looking alert," Nariko noted as the quartet moved towards them.


            Usagi looked at the silent octet of darkly dressed schoolgirls and blinked. "Sorry... were we interrupting something?"


            Misako lifted her head up. "Oh, we're just plotting to kill you."


            Minako stepped in front of Usagi who just blinked in confusion.


            Ukyou tightened her grip on Misako. "Do you have any tact? Any at all?"


            "It'd be nice to assume that's just a morbid joke." Rei's glare went from the demons to the princess foolish enough to hire them.


            "Do we wanna know what brought this up?" Makoto asked.


            "Don't worry, it's a joke. It's not like we're having a tactical planning session," Nabiki assured.


            Usagi sighed and stepped over so Minako wasn't in her way. "So, Setsuna told me that you've got some more information?" Her eyes darted to Sam and Naoko.


            "Yes, fine we can have a private chat about that." Ranma rolled her eyes and stood up. Her hand reached out and grabbed her packet of crackers.


            Minako made a facile cough. "Do you mind?"


            "No, you can come too." Usagi smiled. "Makoto, Rei, we won't be long."


            "So how have you been doing? Getting used to being... human again?" Ranma asked Minako as they left the lunchroom.


            "It's been taking some effort," Minako sighed. "I forgot my lunch today."


            "Eating?" Ranma said offering her crackers.


            Minako frowned and waved them away. "It's taking some adjusting."


            "Don't worry, you've been doing great," Usagi said giving her a quick hug. She knew from what Setsuna had said that Minako needed a lot of support. "So what do you know?


            Ranma glanced at Minako before turning back to the princess. "The Vatican contacted me. They said they've got some info on your cybernetic assassins."


            "Catholics? Why?" Usagi asked.


            "They're in Europe and those girls had Russian parts in them, and I guess they've got a big spy network."


            "They haven't given you the info yet? Planning a meeting?" Minako asked as they walked down the hallway.


            "Yeah, plan to meet at some museum in a couple days. I doubt they'd do anything too stupid, but... " she shrugged and ate a cracker.


            Usagi frowned pensively and looked at the redhead.


            "Cracker?" Ranma offered.


            Usagi reached out and bit into one. "Eww... what's in this? Meat?"


            "Chicken broth actually." Ranma chuckled.


            Minako's eyes widened. "If I didn't know better..."


            "I'm going to eat it. It's... just odd," Usagi said taking another bite of the cracker.


            "We're Japanese," Ranma sighed. "How's this strange to you?"


            "It just surprised me," Usagi said finishing the cracker and taking another from Ranma. "What is this? Some type of demon recipe?"


            "Uh no... just from the store. Called Chicken in a Biscuit or something."


            "Oh."


            "You're disappointed? What that it's not freshly baked using the blood of a kill? And you ate it anyway? What's wrong with you?"


            "It was free food."


            "What if it was some guy off the street?" Minako asked.


            "I'm sure he had it coming. This is Sunny we're talking about." Usagi shrugged.


            Ranma raised an eyebrow.


            "Back to the Vatican, they have information?" Minako asked.


            "They're setting up a little meeting, so things will get... unpleasant if they were lying." Ranma shrugged.


            "Because it would be a trap?" Usagi asked.


            "Pretty much, and the Vatican doesn't need a war with the Company."


            "The Assembly thought differently," Minako pointed out.


            "Yes."


            Usagi tilted her head. "So, these are good guys?"


            "Sure," Ranma stated, apathetically. "The Assembly was small-time. I've killed most of their troops. The Vatican wouldn't lie, least like this."


            Minako nodded. "Europe is a sensitive area, especially with the non-human situation, and its past history."


            Usagi blinked.


            "Sailor V. London. Remember?" Minako asked.


            "Oh yeah." Usagi turned to Ranma.


            "I'll tell you what they said after the meeting. We know what their bodies are like, but it would be nice to know more of their numbers, tactics, and why they're trying to kill you."


            Usagi's narrowed her eyes. "I want to come too. This is my life we're talking about, and I should be involved."


            Ranma tilted her head slightly. "Whatever, it shouldn't be a big deal."


            "Oh." Usagi paused. "So what's the catch?


            "None, it's okay if you want to meet with this Bishop. It does send a message."


            "Really?"


            "Sure," Ranma said in that same bored tone. Her eyes then twinkled darkly. "Oh, have you ever flown in a helicopter?"

 

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

 


            Clenching her teeth at the vibration, Usagi tugged at the harness over her chest and closed her eyes. It got the jarring out of her vision but the lack of reference made the slight but constant altitude buffeting feel worse. "Ick," she said opening her eyes. "How can you stand this?" she loudly said into the headset that had been provided to her.


            On the opposite side of the helicopter Ranma and Eve exchanged a smirk while Commander Stillwater merely raised an eyebrow slightly. "You did insist on coming with us Miss Tsukino, and it is over a four hour trip by car," he casually stated.


            Usagi frowned and turned to Ranma. "How can you handle it?"


            "I fly every day," Ranma shrugged. "Least we've got a nice view. Not many clouds. You can almost see the States from up here."


            "You're exaggerating," Eve noted with amusement as Usagi turned her head and tried to look at the southern horizon. She adjusted her legs so they crossed at the thigh instead of the ankle, not that it made much of a difference given her dress style.


            Usagi's stomach lurched and she twisted right back around and looking at the bulkhead across from her.


            "You're doing good," Ranma offered.


            Usagi nodded and fixated on Eve's clothes, instead of a pair of gun belts she had a large blue leather purse with a silver chain slung over a shoulder and a blue choker with a silver broach with the Company logo and flanked by what she presumed were rank insignia.


            "Like the new uniform?" Eve teased letting her horns become briefly visible. She looked at her daughter, felt the connection but there was still... She could only feel one, and a small frown formed on her face before vanishing.


            "It's informal much like the suits," Stillwater pointed to his own grey pinstripe suit with its black tie and silver WIC lapel pin. "It gives a bit more elegance than the skimpy skirts of the normal dress uniforms." Stillwater shook his head. "Not sure what the brass were thinking about that.


            "You can just do that?" Usagi asked.


            "I am the base commander."


            "We told you this was a bit formal," Ranma smirked as she smoothed her purple silk dress. Its collar was a bit higher than her normal taste, but Nariko had bought it for her.


            Usagi coughed and looked down at the white leather dress and heels she was wearing. "This isn't that bad is it?"
             


            "Oh no it's very lovely," Eve assured as she adjusted the strap to Usagi's dress so it stayed on the shoulder while Ranma untied it in back.


            "The problem is that you don't have it tight enough," Ranma said as she relaced the back and gave a tug. "It's all sagging." She then tied it off, and pulled back.

 

            The blonde teenager blinked, not sure if she was just insulted.


            "Yes, much better," Eve agreed, smirking as Usagi gasped for air. "It's a lovely start, Dear. I'm sure you'll fill out grand when you're a little bit older."


            Usagi coughed and went a bit green.


            Ranma leaned over and whispered to Eve in demonic. "Jealousy or airsickness?"


            Eve smiled and noticed Usagi hold her stomach. "Both."


            "Well, it's not like we told the pilots to roll the 'chopper," Morrison remarked.


            Eve's frown came back again.


            "You're doing fine," Ranma whispered to Eve in demonic. At least the language lessons were paying off. Though they only had a phonetic guide for pronunciation, they could understand each other...


            "Don't worry Mom, Morgan's having a good time practicing on base. She's getting really attached to her gun." Morrison's good-humored jealousy was plainly present.


            "Something wrong?" Usagi asked.


            "Eve just misses her daughter; she hasn't spent much time away from her. I still feel pretty sad to leave mine back at the base. You understand, I'd hope," Ranma ended tersely.


            Thinking about Usa, Usagi smiled a bit. "At least she's having a good time with Hotaru and the others."


            "It's not a long flight, we'll be there in no time," Nariko reassured patting Usagi's thigh.


            "And then you can talk to this Spook Priest about these Soviet cyborgs trying to kill you," Ranma said and gave a bit of a chuckle. "Sorry, but that sounds just... silly."


            "Maternal Magical Girl Demon Queen," Eve gently reminded.


            "Torturing spawn of a demon, a Nazi paratrooper and an Ace of Aces," Ranma replied.


            "And be careful," Stillwater advised. "This man is the head of the longest running intelligence agency on the planet. He's going to use this chance to see what you're like. He also knows Latin; so no Demonic. He can probably figure out what you're saying."


            "I figured it was more than to tell us about this new enemy," Usagi stated.


            "He could be chummy, or he could be confrontational. Maybe he'll belittle you or try to confuse you. I can guarantee that he fully intends to make this meeting a beneficial exchange on his part."


            "Just talking with me is worth giving up information on a group of assassins?"


            "It's what I would do," Stillwater adjusted the knot to his tie absently.


            "It also helps their relations with you guys too," Usagi noted. "And... you guys have... dissected two of these cyborgs. So... it's not that much new stuff."


            "Maybe, he doesn't know anything about you." Stillwater stopped fussing with his tie. "Unless Miss Hino's school was keeping tabs on their gifted students. Given their Sisters of Purity, a miko with spiritual powers would interest the Church. Of course that doesn't include the basic research even a novice spook would do on your history, especially recent."


            Usagi nodded. "Yeah, that came up at lunch. TA is a Catholic school. So... maybe they do know about us, but he may not reveal that during this meeting, or maybe he'd say the school did know about us."


            Stillwater gave a noncommittal gesture.


            "But if he said they had been spying on us back in Japan, he could be lying, and using that to make us think he knows more or using it to get me paranoid or slip up and reveal something."


            "Isn't it a delightful game?" Eve smirked.


            Usagi groaned. "And what about you? I mean you're bringing four demons to talk to a priest."


            "The letter was addressed to me and used my Company Freelancer title," Ranma noted.


            "Oh? Don't they know you're a Sailor Senshi and a Queen?" Usagi sighed. "Or are they keeping that secret. Stupid spies."


            "It's okay." Nariko patted Usagi's knee.


            "So they know about Ranma and probably her kids, but what about Eve and the agent succubae? What are you bringing them to show off?"


            Stillwater stroked his goatee. "Would that really be appropriate?"


            "So you're giving them something to think about too? Aren't they your allies?"


            "They haven't balked at our employment practices in the past."


            "And we don't question their use of the Sisters of Purity," Eve added.


            Usagi hesitated an obvious question on her tongue. She thought over that name. "So nuns. Some kind of magic? Are they spies? Or is it more in a fight. I guess with a name like that they'd work on demonic possession. Maybe powers like me." Usagi groaned and felt her brain flip and see the world in a more... complicated way. "Or the name is a ruse and they're really warrior nuns with guns or axes or something."


            Ranma shrugged.


            "How can you be so calm?"


            "They fight so people in our business learn about what they do."


            "No, not that. I mean all the lies and secrets. Everything can be taken a different way and how can you trust anyone?"


            "Well you try to use your best judgment and work from what you do know," Ranma looked at Usagi. "You may want some help on the first part."


            "That was Ami's job. How do you do it? Ami fears you. She'd fight us all the time, but she'd help you. It wasn't until you started helping us that we actually beat her in a fight, and she only escaped because I didn't let you help in the actual fight," Usagi rubbed the corners of her eyes.


            "Genius is overrated?" Ranma ventured.


            "You can't beat someone at chess when they're playing poker," Eve stated


            "She knew what would happen if she messed with Mother."


            "The key to all this is simplicity. That's it: just simple, robust plans, with lots of backups. Shit happens, more complexity just means more stuff will go wrong," Stillwater explained.


            "That's it? Ami knew what would happen to her. That is simple," Usagi said.


            Ranma coughed. "You still have Setsuna."


            "Yes. A mysterious and aloof plotter is now suddenly my best chum. She's at my side all the time and has even started training us." Usagi tried looking out at the water in the distance.


            "Your pet suddenly isn't being useful, is it?" Ranma offered.


            "Luna? Yeah, that would scare me." Usagi laughed. "Poor thing, she's trying to keep up with all this, but it's overwhelming her."


            "Oh," Ranma dryly stated.


            The blonde's eyes turned to the floor and she chewed her cheek. Eventually her thoughts turned to the idea that on the other side of that flooring were thousands of feet of empty air, and came to something more disturbing. "So, what if we get shot at?" Usagi asked with her gaze still on the to the floor. It did not seem very thick to her, nor were the walls.


            Stillwater put his elbows on his thighs, interlaced his fingers and rested his chin down on them. "We're hoping for that actually."


            "What?"


            "The base commander, Sailor Moon, and DarkStar. Pretty juicy target," Morrison stated.


            "You're using me... and yourself as bait!"


            One of Stillwater's thumbs scratched his goatee. "Yes."


            "That's insane!"


            "Why?" the commander impassively asked, the gold band on his ring finger reflecting the sunlight.


            Usagi blinked. The man seemed to be perfectly at ease, but she would occasionally see bits where his eyes would focus on her, gauging her, evaluating her. "It's just so risky."


            "It is?" Ranma blinked. "We're already targets, we might as well take advantage of that and make a nice trap."


            "But what if they shoot us out of the sky?"


            "Won't be the first time," Nariko stated.


            A slight frown formed on Stillwater's face. "I'd prefer that not happen. It's an expensive requisition."


            "A joke?" Usagi asked.


            "We at Willard International Consulting do not have a sense of humor that we're aware of."


            "Well put, Sir." Eve added.


            Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Really? I was pretty sure you were smirking at the footage of that Assembly base we wiped out."


            "Taking pleasure in a job well done is one thing." Stillwater paused. "I'll admit there was some schadenfreude."


            Usagi blinked in confusion.

 

            "It's German: means taking pleasure at the misfortune of others," Eve smirked.

 

            "Wasn't that when Sunny killed a lot of people by herself?" Usagi asked.


            "Oh no, the artillery crews killed half. It was a wonderful way to say hello." Ranma chuckled. "Humans are very interesting, aren't they Usagi?"


            "I'm human." Usagi blushed.


            "Of course you are," Nariko happily agreed.


            Not hearing even a hint of sarcasm, the blonde studied the demon's face: no smirk, no malice. "Well if we're bait, and the helicopter gets hit.. what'll happen? Guess you guys can fly out but the rest of us... what, would we be carried?"


            "Count the number of demons on board," Ranma smirked.


            After finding that the number of humans equaled the number of demons, Usagi blinked. "Insane."


            "It's worked before," Nariko shrugged.


            "I still think this Bishop is being a bit cute, Sir," Eve stated.


            "By scheduling the meeting today?" Stillwater gave a slight shrug. "He's showing he knows about our activities with the government, without being too blatant or crass."


            "Huh? Government" Usagi blinked.


            "Yes, the one that contracted our services," Stillwater stated.


            "This a normal meeting? Or are they going to chew you out for the whole rocket thing?" Ranma asked.


            "It was within the terms of our contract."


            "Your contract with the Canadian government covers blowing up a mountain full of cultists?" Usagi skeptically asked.


            "Asks the woman that contracted me with some... odd requirements," Ranma smirked.


            "She is trying her best," Nariko stated.


            "Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required," Eve stated.


            "So that's how you'll spin this? I mean all these demons. How would they take it?"


            "Churchill, right?" Stillwater turned to Eve. "Interesting man. Another quotation seems appropriate. 'If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.' "


            "I prefer what he would say if the Sea Lion had come off and my ancestors had invaded. 'The hour has come; kill the Hun.' "


            "That doesn't answer my question," Usagi grumbled.


            "Oh, it does," Ranma smirked.


            "That humans can be worse than demons? Yeah, I have fought more humans than anything else here," Usagi sighed. "I just wish I knew why they hated me so much."


            Stillwater and Eve exchanged a smirk. "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life," Eve quoted.


            Usagi glared. "Yes, I know that. I've saved the world before. Stupid rock, making it so no one remembers."


            "We don't get much accolades either, but then you know it best. ' If you are going through hell, keep going.' " Eve added.


            "That's why I'm here." Usagi paused. "That was another quotation wasn't it? What's with you and this guy?"


            "He was England's Prime Minister when the rest of Europe had fallen. The enemy looked nigh invincible and at the time the United States had not entered the war." Stillwater explained.


            Eve nodded. "And he was saying things like this. 'Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.' "


            Usagi stared. Part of her wished she had heard these words before, to know that someone else had seen such dire circumstances and had still moved forward.


            "Do you know what WIC does? How long we've done it?" Stillwater asked. "We don't have your powers. 'We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire... Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job."


            "I get it." Usagi lowered her head. "That's how you'll play it to the government? That this was all part of this long war? That you just had to fight them?"


            Stillwater nodded. "Things are that important. If you'll permit me another quotation. 'You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.' "


            "You're not the only one trying to save the world," Eve said.


            Usagi turned to Ranma "And what do you think?"


            "It's a bit more easy to swallow than babbling about Love and Justice. There's no need to gussy it up. We fight because we have to. These cyborgs are just more goons the enemy is throwing at us."


            "The enemy? Who?"


            "Does it matter?"


            "I don't know," Usagi sighed. "It is odd. I mean you're German right?" she asked Eve.


            "You're Japanese. Are we defined by what our ancestors did?"


            "That's an odd question coming from you, Captain." Stillwater raised an eyebrow.


            "I never thought I was defined by it," Eve stated.


            "Just weighed down by it?" Ranma asked.


            Eve smiled a bit. "Not as much as I used to be."


            Usagi noticed the demons suddenly tense up and start looking at the windows and reaching for their weapons. She turned and saw the sky shift, and her stomach go into a lurch.


            "We're on descent," Lieutenant Hilbert said from the cockpit. "Coordinates cleared with ground crew."


            "Landing site looks good," Lindemann the copilot said as the helicopter dropped down.


            Usagi looked out and frowned. To the side was a lumpy field. Momentarily distracted from her stomach, the increasingly closer view revealed that it was not a lumpy field, but instead... a field planted on top of a building. Her confusion was cut off as the craft throttled up to retard its descent and jolted as it landed on the parking lot.


            She blinked and watched as the others unbuckled and got up. Pulled up by Nariko, the blonde was ushered out of the helicopter and blinked at the collection of soldiers outside the vehicle.


            "I told you we had plans in place," Ranma teased as she walked out and started chatting with a group of agents waiting by an armored personnel carrier.


            "But that's a... limo?" Usagi blinked and looked at the black stretch car and the group of men in dark suits with automatic weapons near it.


            "That's for me." Stillwater frowned and put on a pair of shades. As he walked towards the black car a pair of men detached from the group. Both were appropriately bland and thin with nearly matching hair in the 'easy to manage but professional' style. Even their dark suits were similarly cut, one had a silver WIC pin on his lapel, the other had a Canadian flag on his.


            "Has this meeting been moved up?" Stillwater asked eyeing the black car.


            "Not as far as I know, Sir." The Company man coughed.


            "We merely wanted to give a bit more of a... official veneer to things," the Canadian said as he held his suit coat from being whipped around by the slowing rotor blades.


            "I suppose this is a bit much for you," Stillwater said eyeing the military vehicles in the lot. At the edge of the roped off area, the expected crowd had gathered and some of the more... personable agents and some of the local security had started giving a bit of a tour-guide spiel.


            "We've had military occupation of our capital before," the Canadian said stiffly as he watched the group of women move away from the helicopter.


            "Yes, October '70? Nasty bit there, Gagnon."


            "Yes, it was," the spook said tersely.


             "So Andre," Stillwater smiled. At least this man had a decent pseudonym. "Your boss at CSIS felt that the black limousine was appropriate?"


            "You felt that a helicopter in a museum parking lot was fitting. I suppose we're all allowed our clichés. Your Captain Dewey kept me informed," Andre said motioning to the suited agent standing between him and Stillwater.


            "Good," Stillwater said.


            "If anything our presence should help give the proper impression with the people you're currently meeting with. Your friends from Rockcliffe Park are still going to be fashionably late, but I'm sure they've seen this little entrance."


            "It may take them some time to leave their embassy," Captain Dewy commented.


            "Especially if they have to wax up their diplomatic vehicles," Andre remarked dryly. "Shame they don't have any of the Pope's tank divisions for an honor guard."


            "And your men will just wait out here until it's over."


            Andre shrugged. "It's a nice day."


            "And if it gets cloudy some of you may wander in and browse the exhibits."


            The Security Intelligence Service agent pointed to two of the men by the long black car. "Well John's a real art lover, Lopez is a real history buff, and Franz really likes the soup they have in the café out by the patio." Andre gave a little chuckle.


            "Well I'll have to tell the girls about that. They're always looking for new dishes to taste."


            Across the cordoned area Usagi was watching the exchange. "So, the limo's for Stillwater and his meeting. That makes the guys in black and that one guy talking with him... secret agents? For the government not you guys," the blonde clarified.


            "Yeah, that's about right," Eve noted.


            "And the guy at Stillwater's side? Some other Company guy? He doesn't quite seem... government."


            "That's Captain Dewey."


            "Huh... I've heard of him before."


            "You should have," Ranma smirked. "He's the one that soaked you on our contract."


            "Contract, so.. lawyer?" Usagi turned to look at the bland, thin man again. "That didn't seem very fair you know."


            "You did have Setsuna's help," Nariko reminded.


            "It's how you make things nice and legal," Ranma laughed.


            "Or legal enough." Eve glanced at her watch.


            "We're still a bit early, Mother," Morrison remarked.


            Eve nodded.


            "Should we wait for the Commander?" Morrison asked.


            Staring at the building, Usagi tuned out the conversation. The fields of grass growing on top of the museum was only part of the strangeness. The walls and windows of it were very stark and angular, especially the one spiked almost... prow-like thing in the front of it.


            "Ugly building ain't it?" Ranma asked after walking up to Usagi's side and prodding her forward.


            "I think it kind of  pretty." Usagi blinked and went with the group as they walked closer to the building. It's a museum, right?"


            "The pre-mission briefing did mention a war museum; it should be interesting," Nariko said in an innocent voice.


            Trying to see the smirk she swore was there, Usagi nodded and was led into the lobby. Her eyes widened at the collection of vehicles and weapons. Hung from the ceiling were several planes and a few tanks were parked in the entrance and outside. A slight contrast with the modern war machines idling out in the parking lot. Twisting her neck about, she was on a second floor overlooking a large internal space before, being nudged in the ribs.


            "You're acting like a tourist," Ranma whispered to her.


            "It's... a bit much," Usagi sighed. "I mean look at all this stuff!" she said waving to a 1:10 scale model of a U-boat.


            "Lots of neat stuff, shows what people can make, but you're not here to sightsee. We've got a meeting, one you insisted on being present for," Ranma reminded as they walked down a hallway towards the art gallery.


            "Huh, so Stillwater is with us too," Usagi noted looking behind her.


            "We've really got to work on her situational awareness," Eve sighed to Ranma.


            "Oh yeah," Ranma's eyes went over a few aerial images of bomber formations and black flak clouds. Her attention then went to the other people browsing the room as they passed through. She had yet to smell anything abnormal, but humans had attacked Usagi before. "Isn't Setsuna training you?" Ranma politely asked. Her daughters had already bugged their training site.


            "Yeah, she says I'm getting better." Usagi turned to see an oil painting from the perspective of an aircraft carrier's deck. Frozen in time, it looked like hundreds of planes were diving towards the ship, some were being destroyed by anti-aircraft guns and others were being taken out by other planes.


            Eve stopped and looked at the painting. "Good taste," she said leaning in with a critical eye. "Pacific. Ahh it's from the Hornet."


            "The meeting should be in the next room over," Morrison said as she folded the map and adjusted the large bag at her shoulder.


            "Check it out," Ranma nodded to Nariko and Morrison. The two young succubae eased into the room, Morrison with her hand going into her bag and Nariko clenching a long cloth-wrapped bundle.


            Ranma, Stillwater (who had pulled out a small Pattern Scanner), and Eve waited while the next room was given a brief sweep. The agents that had preceded them had already swept the room for explosives and other threats and the Pattern Scanners on their vehicles had not been tripped. "I've found it!" Nariko shouted the code phrase for all-clear.


            "Wow, you're not going to miss it," Morrison added.


            Following the group Usagi stepped into the next room. Embarrassment over lack of awareness vanished when she saw it. Transfixed she walked forward, closer and closer to the painting. This had to be it.


            It was the ocean. Rough seas consisting of waves of various sizes piled onto each other until it was one vast churning mass. Above, the sky was a collection of bruise-colored clouds and darker wisps and other riotous structures of vapor that mirrored the liquid below. The painting's scale added to the vastness.
           


            Dominating one wall the painting seemed to loom over the occupants. Several meters in height it was still much wider and seemed to wrap around the viewer in a panoramic view of a raging, churning world.


            Usagi found herself following the waves, and was shocked to find a dark ship. Almost the same grays and blues as the seas it was easy to miss at first. Sails ripping, it had several masts and the detailing on the decks and rigging showed a remarkable effort on a vessel that looked like it would be swallowed by the enormity of the seas around it.


            Looking at the sides she noticed something that could almost be hints of red color. She blinked; the ship was firing its guns. Following the line of fire, she spotted another ship, this one with more minute splashes of color. Its guns were firing but the decks were also on fire and several small boats swarmed around it.


            After a bit she recognized that they were not rescue boats, but armed craft: boarding parties. Her gaze drifted off and she found another ship, this one listing heavily to one side and being swamped by a following wave. The artist had felt the need to detail all the crew being washed off even as they tried to fire their guns or make it to boats and escape.


            The blonde twisted her head and found her eyes resting on another part of ocean. This one appeared clear until she realized the bits of wreckage and floating bodies. Further inspection revealed sharks preying on the swimming survivors, and even a few tentacles bursting out of the water. A bit away a larger ship's crew was divided between firing at a pair of darting vessels and various... things creeping up the sides of the hull.


            She closed her eyes and when she opened them found her view had shifted to another spot, this one with a group of immense ships firing on each other. Some were still hidden in fog, but they all looked too close and too heavily damaged to survive the battle.


            Usagi tilted her head and saw more ships and more battles. It was all a jumbled mess, and looked to be just as many ships were being destroyed by the waves as by the cannons as by things rising from the deep. She stepped back, her stomach lurching more angrily than before. Her heel wobbled and she managed to steady herself


            "Pretty intense," Ranma almost reverently said. "You can almost smell it."


            "Most people say Kaster's 'Wilander Earl of Worcester at the Battle of Mammon Plain' is his superior work," Stillwater remarked.


            "The one in the British Imperial War Museum?" Eve asked. "That one has better detail, and takes fewer artistic liberties.


            "Oh?" Usagi asked, her eyes scanning over the maelstrom.


            "Yeah, things like having shields on the wrong side of the soldiers on the opposite side. Gives better symmetry. Here, Kaster put in far too many ships. There's never been a battle like this, especially ships from all these time periods, Cogs, Man-of-Wars, Junks, Ship-of-the-Line, and so on."


            "I doubt there was an Admiral Walsall or a Battle of Belphegor, Sir," Morrison noted.


            "Indeed,
here, he's just giving the impression of the battle," Stillwater noted, looking at his watch.


            "Lets the viewer fill in all the details," Usagi said with a shiver.


            "I guess if this Vatican guy wanted to make a point, this painting would do it."


            "Cheerful," Usagi dryly remarked. She twisted to see the demons change their stance and start to move their hands to their weapons.


            "Wonderful," a boisterous voice said as a man in dark clothes walked into the room. He was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. Wearing black slacks and buttoned-down shirt; the notch in his shirt collar and white insert seemed to be the only concession to his station.


            At least clothing-wise, a large silver cross hung from a leather cord at sternum level. Usagi blinked, it looked upside down. She then noticed a pair of silver cufflinks and frowned. At least compared to his necklace they were subtle. Behind the priest was an old nun in a habit and eyepatch to one side, and a tight lipped man with short brown hair that had to be from some sort of military unit or the other.


            The priest almost walked past Usagi and stared at the painting. "Photos don't do it justice, even prints can't get the raw presence of it." He turned to Usagi and chuckled. "I didn't think you were going to come too, Princess, but this does involve you," he added almost absently.


            Still grinning he turned back to the painting and sighed happily. "I've seen much of Kaster's work. One of his earlier pieces is in a library off to the side of the Basilica, and of course there's the one in London but this..."


            "Fascinating," Stillwater politely stated. "It's good to see you Bishop." Technically O'Malley was early, though it was a near thing.


            "Agreed Commander," the bishop smiled. "So you must be Miss Saotome, a pleasure." He said with a slight bow.


            Ranma raised an eyebrow "O'Malley?"


            The bishop nodded. "First, let me formally apologize for the actions of the Assembly of Man. We've already forwarded what information we have on AOM members trying to seek refuge in Catholic Churches." The Irishman's tone darkened. "Even by protestant standards those men are scum."


            "Thank you," Ranma warmly replied, while internally wondering why the Vatican would have such hostility towards the Assembly. She supposed it could be some political thing. Her attention went to the elderly nun; the scent was hauntingly familiar to that of a Pattern Silver but it lacked the smooth refinement. The power was contained but it was raw and rough, hardly the smoothed and faceted constructs that lay within the Silvers.


            The demoness smiled slightly and almost laughed when the old woman returned the expression. The Sisters of Purity seemed to be quite... interesting.


            "Why is your cross on wrong?" Usagi asked.


            "We are the sinister and secret part of the Church," O'Malley smirked.


            Eve raised an eyebrow.


            "Bishop..." the nun hissed.


            O'Malley sighed. "Yes, Mother Temperance. It's the Cross of Saint Peter. He was the first Pope, and we're the Papal Expeditionary."


            "So all those rock bands trying to be Satanic are just... morons?" Ranma laughed.


            "You're a demon, should it surprise you that they got the basic symbols wrong too?"


            "Fair enough," Ranma crossed her hands over her chest. "So what do you know about these cybernetic assassins?"

            "Much," O'Malley smiled that broad moon-faced grin again. "But I'll start with what we don't know. We don't know who assigned the hit, why, or even who the target is."


            "It's clearly Usagi."


            "Well yes, the girl of magic with such interesting rumors around her." he turned to the blonde teen. "If you really do have the Holy Grail we'd be most interested in that. It is our Lord's favorite cup."


            Usagi's eyes widened and she looked away, back at the painting.


            "Is this a time for joking?" Ranma asked.


            "It was." Still looking at Usagi, O'Malley frowned. "So what about the rumors about the future?"


            "That's not your business," Usagi stated.


            "No, but it could explain why someone sunk a lot of money into killing you," O'Malley chuckled. "This of course, assumes you're the target."


            "So what do you know?" Stillwater asked.


            "We know who these assassins are, who built them, what their purpose was, and why they're freelancing now."


            "That was the gist of your letter," Stillwater agreed.


            "They are Russian. Their bodies would tell you that much. To understand why is to realize what the Soviet Ideology was like. Firstly, despite the evidence to the contrary, they're atheists," O'Malley looked among the demons and smiled. "Now don't get me wrong, as religions go, it's very succinct. No missed mass to feel guilty about either. If they'd just ended it there they wouldn't have had such a mess."


            O'Malley sighed and spun one of the small cross cufflinks using the opposite hand. "Now Communists... poor bastards. They gave up religion only to make it all over again. Their leaders promised a 'Glorious Future' a 'Worker's Paradise' if only the people were faithful and obedient. They put all their power in their leaders who ruled like god-kings, what they said was truth, events that they approved of were history.


            "Here's the problem: there's no God to blame when things go wrong, and they tried to put heaven on earth. Classic rookie mistake. I mean, God's very accommodating, you let him do all the heavy lifting. If your religion is wrong, no one will find out until after they're dead."


            "That's very cynical," Morrison noted.


            "Well, that's how the Communists saw Religion, as an opiate. Something to keep the masses down. That's why they copied our methods, to help control their own populace. But there was a problem... the very equalizing, romantic appeal of their Ideology... is what made it impossible to work." O'Malley laughed.


            "Huh?" Usagi asked. "Pretend I don't know much history."


            "Communism presumes that people will purely work for the good of society. That they will submit to the state in all things: the redistribution of capital and resources to their very opinions and ideas. It's a design where everything is done for the people. Eventually, they believe that people will be so nice that there won't even need to be a government. People will just do it because it's right."


            Usagi smiled a little. "That sounds nice. Very fair."


            O'Malley sighed and reached into his black coat and pulled out a small flask. "So you're one of those?"


            "People being fair and working for the good is good," Usagi glared.


            After taking a small swig, O'Malley laughed. "You know what people are like. How would you make them behave? The communists did it by controlling every aspect of a person's life, treating them as a resource, a cog in the machine, something that needed constant guidance and correction."


            "I think she'd wave a magic wand and wish it all better," Ranma darkly noted.


            "I see," O'Malley shook his head. "Well, the Communists didn't have magic... not like that at least, but even they had to admit the truth about humans."


            "And that is?" Usagi glared.


            "We are a mean, greedy, selfish, and deeply flawed species. There's a reason Original Sin has traction. People aren't always noble and don't work for the best. If that were true, the world wouldn't need people like me."


            "Soldiers? Spooks?" Usagi asked.


            "Priests." O'Malley corrected. "God has the ability to make people perfect, though He doesn't do that until it's too late, but the Soviets didn't have God. What they did have, was the New Soviet Man project."


            "They were planning to make people better?" Eve smirked. "The Fascists had a similar program."


            "Naturally, International and National Socialism have a lot in common."


            "Making people better is bad? How cynical are you people? I mean isn't that what you want? You're supposed to be a priest. That's what I'd do-" Usagi froze and closed her mouth.


            O'Malley looked over Usagi critically while the room went silent. The blonde teen looked around and saw people tensing and their hands begin to move.


            The bishop began to laugh. "Oh my no... sorry. Messiah? No thanks, already got one." He looked at his flask and took a sniff. "Have you tried the Jews? They still need one."


            "A joke?"


            Stillwater cleared his throat. "Miss Tsukino, his God thinks it's a miracle to use divine powers to furnish refreshment and booze for a beer-blast, metaphorically. He actually used wine."


            "And our vision of heaven is a wake where the publican doesn't kick you out because it's sunrise," O'Malley smiled.


            "And your tab is always on the house," the stiff military-man said finally speaking.


            "Quite correct Oberstleutnant von Silenen," O'Malley sighed. "As I was saying, they wanted to make people better. More... in-tune with the system. This is why they were so big on education.


            "They felt that they could mold the New Soviet Man and Woman by indoctrination. They had some results, but there was still that pesky humanity."


            "People are still people," Ranma nodded.


            "Indeed. Even the Anglicans didn't say that man could perfect himself." O'Malley, pocketed his flask. "The Garden of Eden says it all really. God gives us everything we could ever ask for and then adds a bright big Button marked 'Don't'."


            The bishop turned to the painting. "But I guess I can see why some people wish to make us the kind of species that wouldn't press the button."


            "So the Soviets tried a more active method?" Ranma ventured.


            O'Malley smiled. "Quite right. Research like that needs a lot of resources; the Red Army got involved. They loved the idea of more reliable and obedient soldiers."


            "The cyborgs?" Usagi guessed.


            "The scope of the project had... expanded a bit." O'Malley felt it was a good time to fidget with his cufflinks again. "Perhaps a drink, that is some food would be in order. The café downstairs comes highly recommended."


            "I did hear they have a good soup," Stillwater allowed. Outside would allow them to have a bit more control over the situation, and reduce the potential for surveillance. Though the government could have bugged the whole building and exterior. As they left the room, he motioned for Eve to make the required call... discretely


            "So, the Soviets, in trying to make people into better, more obedient subjects, made these advanced cyborgs?" Usagi asked as they exited the gallery section.


            "It was really the union of two ideas. Sooner or later everyone tries to make super soldiers. Though some people are more sensible about it. They don't put all their eggs in one basket." He turned and grinned slightly at Stillwater.


             "And the Soviets were very paranoid. The idea of giving such advanced and integrated powers to a single person... scared them. They wanted to be certain the Combat Cyborgs were reliable. It's bad enough when the occasional pilot lands in Japan or a NATO country, or heaven forbid a submarine's officers mutiny and defect. Losing one of these soldiers was too much to contemplate"


            "And once the system was proven... they would start turning more people. Start with the soldiers, and then go into the general population," Eve's eyebrows raised as they went down the stairs. "Ambitious."


            "Naturally," O'Malley chuckled as the group crossed an exhibit on biplanes and cut towards an exit. "These were men that thought boldly and dreamed big. It was not enough to want to rule the world. they wanted to change humanity to make it into their world. One is almost compelled to admire the sheer audacity."


            "So how did it fail?" Ranma asked. "If their plan worked out, they'd still be around."


            "And have started on their quest to change humanity for the... better," O'Malley nodded.


            "They were really trying to help people?" Usagi asked. She was trying to catch up with the conversation and with the faster walking group as they exited the building using a set of side doors.


            "Ostensibly. Their whole brochure was a world without greed, hate, class strife or poverty. Where everyone would work for the good of the people and no one would want. Of course you can't just make a wish and have it all better," he tapped his flask but thought better. "Not everyone will want to submit to your utopian schemes, and then what do you do?"


            "Liquidating unbelievers is always an option," Eve stated as the group walked up to a patio that was next to a café off to one side of the museum.


            "It's always so... messy," O'Malley sighed as he sat down.


            Usagi hesitated looking around her. All the other tables were empty and she could see some people in dark suits out in the parking lot and idly chatting with men in more... aggressive armor and weapons in the grass outside the museum.


            "Short of closing the museum, the security here is as tight as it will be," O'Malley said noticing Usagi's unease.


            The teenage blonde pouted as she sat down. "How do you know so much about these cyborgs?"

 
            "How?" O'Malley laughed as he leaned forward. "You want to know how we know so much about these Soviet Assassins? We helped them! Considerably!"


            "What?" Usagi's shock bled into confusion when she saw Stillwater and Eve looking on with blank faces while Ranma was cleaning under one of her fingernails. At a nearby table Nariko, Morrison, and O'Malley's entourage watched with what looked to Usagi as mild interest.


            "You also wanted to know how the program failed?"


            "Funding," Stillwater stated from behind his folded hands.


            "That's the short answer," O'Malley allowed. "Super weapon projects are always plagued by that fault. You sink untold resources, manpower, and money into a project and it creates what: a few hardly-guided missiles, a giant tank that can't cross bridges and breaks down easily, or a handful of super powered soldiers that were found to still be mortal."


            "The knowledge gained from these programs is often far more useful than the immediate results," Stillwater reminded.


            "Yes, to the benefit of the victors, who can pick over the remains of an enemy willing to indulge in such flights of fancy." O'Malley pulled out his flask. "But we drift. Money was only part of why the program was canceled. If the Politburo still had their original... faith in the program they would have been willing to cut funding to their nuclear arms first.


            "No, the program failed because they became worried. A program this size had many researchers. Most had worked on ways to make minds more pliable to indoctrination and ways to get soldiers to last longer in the field before fatigue and stress kicked in. They had more esoteric information, too."


            "There were rumors that the Soviet had captured documentation about Project A." Stillwater stated.


            "Yes, the Red Army captured a group of German scientists trying to escape to Yugoslavia. Two of them were researchers on Project A. We don't know how much they gave up before they died, but we do know their information was not particularly helpful, at first. It wasn't until many years later that they got a researcher brilliant enough to use the data." O'Malley took a sip from his flask.


            "The Soviets did not want an army of ghouls?" Ranma asked. "Sensible."


            "A blunt force that depends on raw quantity to overcome the enemy? They already had that, and with more intelligence and control."


            "What's all this?" Usagi asked.
             


            "The Nazis tried to make an NH army in WW2," Stillwater explained. "The Allies stopped them before they got any real results."


            "And the Soviets then got a mess of the research, but didn't know how to use it in their own super soldier program. Until, some big brain figured it out and made these cyborgs?"


            O'Malley smirked and put away his flask. "Perceptive. Yes, the 'big brain' was a doctor called Scaglietti. He was the one who figured out how to integrate cybernetic components with human flesh. As you already know, some of those components are rather... crude. Project A's necromantic research included the ways to bind and modify flesh."


            "Giving a shortcut," Eve noted. "They couldn't make real cyborgs using their level of technology, but they could use magic to link it all up?"


            O'Malley nodded. "This was the first stumble in the Scaglietti's part of the program. Only some people could accept the 'treatment'. This greatly limited the number of people that could accept the modifications. Reducing an already small pool of politically optimal candidates."


            "So expensive and unscalable." Stillwater noted.


            "The situation degraded further. Other scientists were unable to reproduce Scaglietti's results. The Politburo thought that Scaglietti was hiding something and started to get –more- paranoid."


            "But it's magic, it might not have been able to work for anyone else," Usagi said.


            "Either way, Scaglietti's masters were getting increasingly impatient with the gap between the scientist's rhetoric and his results. A fanatical communist, Scaglietti was obsessed with the perfection of humanity, especially when it went hand in hand with proving his own brilliance.."


            "He must have felt that that result was just within his grasp," Eve noted. "That he just needed a bit more time to perfect them, and then he would be able to show them all."


            "Yes, the Politburo then began to worry about him succeeding. Ignoring their expense the Numbers were quite formidable."


            Stillwater made the deductive leap. "He numbered them. Only the successful subjects?"


            "Of course."


            "How many?"


            "Twelve. Out of God knows how many victims only a dozen survived and were still 'useful'. All were female, which was highly suspicious. One died in training. That was when serious questions started to be openly asked. Scaglietti promised perfection. Though I suppose that they could be killed came as a relief."


            Ranma smirked. "So the Soviets themselves stopped the program. They didn't want to pay a man to make invincible totally obedient soldiers. They were afraid that they'd be the first ones he send them after."


            "Yes, they were more concerned about their own power than allowing the unfettered expansion and perfection of Scientific Communism," O'Malley shook his head "Scaglietti was not pleased. He felt that the Politburo was corrupt and that they were standing in the way and cutting off his funding because he was not ethnically Russian. He also believed that the program was being sabotaged by the KGB, which was livid that such a program was still under military control. I'm sure both contributed."


            "So what happened?" Usagi asked.


            "Regrettably anti-climactic. During a visit to Moscow, he was accused of being counter-revolutionary and planning to stage a coup. He was arrested and summarily executed. This gave a small window for the Politburo to organize a response."


            "They thought the Numbers were unreliable?"


            "Our agent had an oversight position in the program. His conscience compelled him to provide us with information; it also compelled him to try to get the program shut down. Unwittingly he contributed to the order to have them executed.


            "The man had assumed that the project would have been quietly dismantled and the Numbers would be turned over to their various Spetsnaz units. Instead the Red Army was going to come in with tanks, artillery, and air support. Once the mess was cleaned up the program could be restarted, with someone more frugal and... reliable."


            "So that's how you came to save them?" Usagi asked. "You're the reason they're free and trying to kill me."


            "You mentioned restarting the program. Did they?" Eve asked.


            O'Malley pulled out his flask and took a sip. "When we rescued them, we made sure there was no research material left at the base."


            "But you said others were trying to repeat Scaglietti's experiments," Eve reminded.


            "Yes, I did. They all failed. It seems that Scaglietti had kept some part of the process a secret, his own little edge."


            "Still..."


            O'Malley sighed. "Yes, someone could have figured out what the missing part was. Or maybe they figured out a new process, one superior to Scaglietti's. We don't know. Even if the Soviets were to throw even more funding at this project... it still had to have failed."


            "Why?" Usagi asked.


            "Same reason Scaglietti's had to have," Ranma stated. "The Soviets failed. They didn't have an army of super soldiers to hold their empire together."


            "They didn't fall because of military weakness, it was economic," Eve corrected.


            "Fine, there's still not an army of cybernetic soldiers loose. That many couldn't be covered up."


            O'Malley nodded. "I'd bet money that the Soviets kept dabbling in cybernetics, but... not on this scale, and they didn't get any-" he hesitated for the briefest bit of a second, "-spectacular results."


            "You don't think they're building a secret army and just waiting for the right time to strike?" Eve asked.


            "Frankly, I'd think that time has come and gone."


            Usagi sighed. "You're still going in circles," she grumbled narrowing her eyes. "This isn't about an imaginary maybe group of cyborgs. You still saved the group that is after me."


            "They were going to kill eleven teenage girls whose only sin was to have been indoctrinated into that belief system. They were the few who had survived hellish experimentation. What would you have us do?"


            "You saved them, but then what happened? Why are they after me?"


            O'Malley sighed. "For the money."


            "So they're just assassins for hire? There's no reason for it?"


            "I'm sure the person that paid them had a very good reason for it," Ranma noted.


            "But why are they like this?"


            "Do you know what it's like to lose faith?" O'Malley asked. "These girls thought they were the chosen. They believed they would lead a new era in human history. Then they find out their that creator is a traitor, that they're too expensive, that troops have been sent to kill them all, and that their rescuer is the Church."


            "Impressive," Stillwater said.


            "We tried to help them. We at least kept them from killing themselves, or running back to Russia. Then they'd kill themselves and a large part of Moscow would be destroyed. Eventually, the shock wore off and they left our care."


            "You didn't keep them?" Usagi asked


            "We were their liberators not a new set of warders. They were not particularly violent. They had only been trained in combat, they had not been used in battle yet."


            "You believed they wanted to lead normal lives," Eve noted.


            "And they did... for a time. We lost track of them and rumors started floating up about a group of 'hit men' that could take out even the most protected targets. Standard line really. They were the best, never failed, and were quite expensive."


            "Why did they do it?"


            "It costs quite a lot of money to keep their bodies in combat condition. I think they were doing it to prove that they could. To show the USSR just what a resource they had thrown away. They had the thrill of the hunt. The Soviets would still try to track them. We were looking for them. INTERPOL and NATO were also interested in those that could get in and kill such... secure people."


            "And then the Iron Curtain fell," Eve said with a little chuckle.


            "That's when things got... worse. They had outlived the empire that had built them, outlived their creator. Their only purpose was to continue their path, and find a mission that wasn't... boring," O'Malley said the last with a wide grin.


            Usagi blinked. "That's it?"


            "Pardon? I thought I talked for quite a while."


            "Yes, there's a lot of background, but it really sounds like I'm being hunted by a group of powerful, well-trained super-cyborgs because they think it'll be a challenge!"


            "I'm sure you could always disappoint them on that count," O'Malley offered.


            "It's just..." Usagi shook her head. "How good are they?"


            "No one's ever been able to get a firm lead on them. They are quite good at infiltration and have some impressive firepower. I've got a file on what we have been able to learn about their abilities, which should compliment what you've learned from the two casualties."


            "You sound impressed. Has anyone else killed one?" Stillwater asked.


            "There was the one back during their training. There were rumors that one was killed when a West German munitions dump they were sabotaging prematurely exploded. Another may have died after being wounded on a mission in Gibraltar.


            "Nothing firmer?" Eve asked.


            "The only way we know is to find a likely target that's gone dead or missing and start snooping around. Most of their missions don't require their full compliment, or we never figure out how many of them were actually involved."


            "Their tactics sound like hit and run. What is their capability for sustained combat?" Stillwater asked.


            "It looks like they start with extensive observation, but they're not above taking a shot if the opportunity presents itself, as in Miss Tsukino's example. Once they figure out the weaknesses they will come in hard and fast."


            "They'd then try to make the kill and leave right away," Eve evaluated.


            "Yes, they don't have the –heh- numbers to fight a prolonged battle. Unfortunately they're very good at getting out." O'Malley sighed. "This is what they were built for."


            "Their armor protects against small arms and their electronic warfare gives a decided edge. Suitable for that mission," Eve evaluated.


            "And they still weren't good enough? What did these high up Soviets want?" Usagi asked.


            "Perfection," O'Malley stated.


            "They also wanted a lot more of them, and a lot cheaper," Ranma added.


            "What about non-humans? Do they have any experience in that field?" Stillwater asked.


            "We don't have any records to that effect," O'Malley shrugged. "As I said, we've only been able to track their 'hits' by interviewing the survivors and investigating the destruction. That only happens when they have a... flashy mission; someone high profile dies in an.. interesting way. The quiet ones, we may never hear about."


            "Especially if their target doesn't officially exist," Ranma shook her head.


            Usagi narrowed her eyes. "Who hired them?"


            "That we don't know." O'Malley paused. "We've had a bit more success at tracking their financial side. It's what you would expect. They use lawyers in various... accommodating... countries as couriers. They seem to just pass papers between various parties. These set up the terms, target and payment. However, we don't know how the initial contact is made."


            The redhead blinked. "What, they have an agent?"


            "Perhaps. They have some way of leveraging their reputation into further contracts."


            Stillwater frowned. "One supposes that a person requiring an assassin of their skills knows people. Informal contacts could get the right questions asked. I'd bet these Numbers then put out their own feelers, after verifying the interested party."


            "So you don't know why someone's spending a lot of money to get me killed?" Usagi asked.


            "We are working on it. However a list of your enemies with the resources available to pay such a fee would be useful."


            Ranma snickered.


            "Yes, I've had a lot of enemies, but they're all gone."


            "None of them survived? Not even a few adjuncts or other flunkies?" Eve asked.


            Usagi tapped her chin as images of destruction and death flew across her mind. "I don't... think so. Anyone alive was really just possessed. Everyone else seems to have been turned to dust. There was the time... time reset and there was that future timeline that collapsed."


            For a brief moment O'Malley's expression went from the jovial Irish priest to something precise and measured. He noted that the WIC officers had even less reaction to the blonde's outburst. His face melting back into a warm smile, O'Malley looked between Miss Tsukino and Miss Saotome. Of the two he rather preferred the demon. She seemed to have a firmer... grip on things. Not that he doubted the veracity of the blonde teen's babble, that would have been far more comforting.


            "There is Murdock," Usagi added. "But I don't think he wants me dead."


            "Unless, he's confident that you won't lose."


            "Or maybe they're not trying to kill me, maybe they're going to kidnap and brainwash me."


            "They shot at you with a giant beam weapon," Ranma gently reminded.


            "I've got hit with worse," Usagi shrugged. "Murdock could have given up trying to corrupt me, and figured that killing me was the next best thing."


            Blinking, Ranma thought for a moment. "That's actually a pretty good point."


            "Yay," Usagi deadpanned.


            "This Murdock is the cause of some trouble for you?" O'Malley asked.


            "Yeah, he's caused –" Usagi closed her mouth and looked at the warmly smiling Catholic. "Wow, you are good."


            "It's just letting other people talk, and listening." O'Malley eyed down at his watch.


            "Especially to what's not said," Eve added.


            "So what is known?" Usagi frowned. "We know how many of them there are... sorta. We know what they're like inside. We know how they fight, and a little bit of their powers. That's if we can trust what you're telling us."


            "That seems about right," O'Malley said as he motioned to Oberstleutnant von Silenen. The Swiss Guard smoothly lifted his briefcase and in one motioned unlocked it and withdrew a large, bound folder. O'Malley noticed the raised eyebrows. "It's not all paper. Some of is microfiche," he added with a smile.


            "Microfiche?" Usagi asked.


            "Miniaturized images on translucent film. It's a much denser way to store data, and more stable than magnetic tape," O'Malley shrugged. In some areas the Vatican was quite slow to adopt new technology.


            "Oh. That's it then? They're loose and you've given us a good luck and God bless?"


            O'Malley stood up. "It sounds trite, but we had no choice. Destroying them, when we had the chance, would have made us no better than the Soviets. However, if you want more help from us, you only have to ask," he stated, idly adjusting his cross.


            Ranma chuckled. "You up for it, Usagi?"


            Ignoring the demon's suspiciously vague question, Usagi turned to the so... carefully disarming-looking man. "Uh... no thanks. I mean. We've already got it handled." She looked over to Eve and Stillwater who had opened up the file and were already reading over the paperwork.


            "Understandable," O'Malley said as von Silenen closed the briefcase. "We haven't exactly inspired Miss Tsukino's confidence in our abilities have we Oberstleutnant?"


            Von Silenen tapped his chin. "I would be inclined to agree with you, Sir."


            "It seems that the redhead has enough spirit in her," Mother Temperance cackled.


            Ranma eyed the older woman. "Huh, I guess being a battle nun loosens you up."


            "You have to have a sense of humor in a job like this, Dear."


            O'Malley's grin became more of a smirk. "Yes, see how well-behaved and civil we are even to mercenaries and hell-spawn. We understand that we are all God's children."

            "And what, children fight each other?" Usagi asked.


            "And, we know that family pulls together in the tough times." O'Malley gave a slight nod. "But there's more to that. Something that people seem to forget."


            "And that is?"


            Temperance smiled, it was the same bittersweet smile that Usagi had seen Ranma so often sport. "Children grow, and are forced to mature. Forced to lead their own lives, and fight their own battles."


            "Perhaps it's best to ponder the theological implications of that," O'Malley advised.


            "Well..." Usagi paused and wondered what that meant.


            "It's just part of growing up," Ranma said as she got up.


            "I guess." Usagi turned to O'Malley. "Thank you for your help," she said with a little bow.


            Back inside the museum, a man and a woman sat in the café enjoying their coffee. "It looks like the meeting's wrapping up," the woman quietly said to her companion. The other tables were starting to fill, and some of the other patrons had noticed the group out on the closed patio. Some were even rude enough to stare, reflecting what the woman gauged as a severe lack of culture and breeding.


            "Why, so it is," the man muttered as he folded to a new page in the paper. The fawning, smug editorials, the blatant, inept lies of the articles were quite familiar to him. It had none of the fear-inspired craft of his homeland's productions nor the rigorously state-approved themes. He'd seen vastly better but it was a remarkable study on the prisons people would build for themselves.


            "You're not concerned?" the woman asked, pushing a lock of chestnut hair behind her ear. She did not like wearing the wig, but sacrifices had to be made.


            "Why? Our Dear Comrade Doctor is... history." The man said the last word with care as if savoring it.


            "Still, it will be fascinating to watch his legacy perform."


            Mulling over her words, the man flipped to a new page. Legacy was quite appropriate. "No doubt."


            "It is useful and fitting. Failed systems we can learn from. However, if they succeed..."


            He knew what she meant; buoyed by victory, they would be eager for another mission. The man lowered his paper and locked his blue eyes onto hers. "Flattery is appreciated, but I did not hire them. That is what worries me. Fate can be generous, but not this generous."


            She bowed her head briefly. "Understood," she said as she picked up the mug. Her eyes caught one of the... guards walking out beyond the patio. The whole spectacle was a crude display of power, but she had to admire the lack of fear in expressing it. At least some were still able to be comfortable with the idea of power, even if their ideologies were reprehensible lies.


            "Do you?" the man returned to his paper, and its soothing banality.

 

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

 


            "So we go back?" Usagi asked eyeing the helicopter.


            "Nope. Stillwater's got another meeting," Ranma shrugged as the older agent went to the Security Intelligence Service men. Captain Dewey had rejoined the commander and followed the man into the black limo.


            "What do we do now?" Usagi almost whined


            "I thought this would happen. So, I did some research on the city and found a... fun place," Eve smirked.


            "Oh?" Ranma asked and leaned in while Eve whispered into her ear. The redhead's eyes widened. "Really? I've heard about places like... that. What if... that could get very expensive."


            "Don't worry, I'll pay," Eve laughed.


            "Well, we're going to have to get changed for it."


            "Where?" Usagi asked.


            "Somewhere where this just won't work." Ranma pointed to her skirt.


            "It would be impossible to get on or off wearing something this long and stay decent." Eve nodded. "And even if you could, it'd get too torn and stained."


            "It'd just get in the way."


            "So, where are we going?" Usagi asked as they went to a waiting transport.


            "Someplace fun," Morrison said as she leaned back on the wall of the armored van.


            "You don't have to come," Nariko stated as she fussed with her blade's scabbard. "There's some agents guarding the helicopter.


            "Yeah..." Usagi noticed Eve's and Ranma's clothes beginning to ripple and shift. Their clothes eventually formed into what Usagi thought of as succubus-casual: leather pants, sturdy boots, and leather jackets. The blouses each wore were the same color and material as the dresses they had on before.


            "So how far is the place?" Ranma asked while adjusting her jacket.


            "It's only seven kilometers, mostly due east," Eve replied.


            "We're going east?"


            "South-east," Ranma corrected.


            Usagi blinked. "How can you tell?"


            "We started out north, right, left, right, soft left," Morrison explained.


            "There's also a compass on the dashboard," Nariko happily pointed out.


            Usagi sighed. "So you're going to keep this a secret?"


            "You'll find out soon enough." Ranma looked out the heavily tinted windows at the small river while they crossed a bridge.


            "I called ahead they should have everything ready, but.." Eve paused. "You haven't really done this before. I mean there were some, but this is much more intense."


            "Isn't it like riding a bike?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. She smiled as Usagi tried to follow the vehicle's direction as it spun around on a cloverleaf interchange and then crossed another bridge


            "Somewhat." Eve chuckled, as they pulled off the highway.


            "Where are we now?" Usagi asked looking out at the collection of warehouses with their streams of tractor trailers.


            "Remember to use your.. mature identification," Eve reminded as the van drove down the industrial road.


            Ranma opened up her purse. "The one that has me as thirty-four?"


            "You're not that old."


            The redhead rubbed her forehead. "No, but most people wouldn't understand how someone my age could have daughters their age. What do you do with your daughter?"


            "I just say she's my cousin."


            "Not bad really," Ranma nodded, she then started brushing her hair, which almost seemed... eager at the contact. "It is a bit of a pain. My ID originally had me as 30, that was a little bit easier to pull off."


            "But then someone pointed out mother would have had to have been 13 when she had me," Nariko said.


            Eve coughed. "We did get your records straightened out."


            "Yes, a seventeen year old being pregnant is much less scandalous. That she would then have four more within three years is... not" Morrison remarked.


            "Funny," Ranma remarked as she got her hair pulled back into a more... mature set of teased tresses. She adjusted her neck with a slight pop and smirked.


            "You look the same," Usagi frowned.


            "But she's got old eyes," Morrison offered.


            "I... guess," Usagi shrugged. The truth was, she had a hard enough time remembering that Ranma was the same age as she was. That still didn't mean she thought Ranma was in her mid-thirties.


            "We're here," Eve said as the van stopped. She then opened the door.


            Usagi looked out and the first thing that she noticed was the two other vehicles that had followed her. That the escort was not unexpected struck her as surreal. She then saw where they had arrived.


            Suddenly, it all made sense.


            "Nice," Ranma said as she ran a hand over the chrome and leather of one of the motorcycles.


            Usagi read the sign on the shop. "Ottawa Harley Davidson? This is why you changed clothes?" She walked across the parking lot and looked at the motor-bikes. There was something very appealing about them. Primal.


            "You can't ride a bike with a skirt on," Nariko remarked.


            The door to the shop opened and a large bear-shaped man exited. His dark brown hair and thick beard concealing a broad strong jawed face helped enforce the ursine resemblance.


            Usagi was not surprised to see that he was wearing as much leather as Ranma and Eve were.


            "So you're the biker Mom?" the man asked in a raspy voice as he lit a thin ill-smelling cigar. The man looked the redhead over, and then eyed the other vehicles. He recognized the type, and he saw that the women before him were carrying. It was only mildly surprising. The woman with the red eyes seemed especially... alert. Despite their mainstream popularity, motorcycles were still a part of the real counterculture. His gaze went back to the tall-blonde woman. "You must be Eve; we talked on the phone yesterday."


            "Yes and you're Michael 'call me Bob' Hodgson," Eve said shaking his hand with a smile that didn't reach her eyes.


            Hodgson smirked at her grip. "So have any of you ridden a motorcycle before?"


            Morrison and Eve nodded.


            "Bob? Why do they call you that?" Usagi asked.


            Eve frowned slightly.


            The large man chuckled. "My pa gave the name 'Mike Hodgson' a bit of tarnishing if you catch my drift."


            Usagi blinked.


            Ranma rose up from looking at one of the motorcycles. "So Bob, I've never ridden a bike, what do you recommend?"


            Pulling out his cigar, Hodgson stroked his beard and then put it back in. "Well, I've got a few ideas. It depends on how you ride."

 

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

 


            After entering the conference room, Stillwater handed his briefcase to Captain Dewey who sat down at the large circular oak table and opened the leather case. Looking to the left to make sure the door to the low-lighted room had been closed and locked, he finally sat down at the remaining open spot.


            Taking the other six places at the table was a mix figures that any Canadian would recognize and some that only a real policy wonk would know. "Governor, Prime Minister, Ministers, Director, and Colonel," he said nodding to each of the officials. "What can I do for you?" he asked putting his elbows on the table, and leaning forward with his pointer fingers together and just in front of his lips.


            "We're glad you were able to fit this meeting into your busy itinerary for today," the Governor General smiled coldly, not showing her teeth.


            "This meeting has been scheduled for some time," Stillwater allowed, a bit comforted that the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service managed to keep tabs on the diplomats in the city.


            The Minister of National Defense gave a sidewise glance to the Prime Minister who gave a curt nod. National Defense motioned to the one man at the table in military dress.


            "We've received your proposal to provide training for a group from Joint Task Force Two," the Commander of Canadian Special Forces Command a Colonel with a large face, thinning hair sitting to the left of Stillwater stated.


            "Yes?"


            "It's the location you wish to do the training. I don't see a logistical a problem with it," The Colonel's eyes flicked over to the right at the officials. "However, there is some worry about the potential fallout, if what happened there became publicly known."


            Stillwater taped his lips. "An organized and well equipped group planning to attack multiple targets inside Toronto was neutralized. We felt training Canadian military personnel there would nicely mesh with the cover story."


            "Do you realize the public outcry?" The Minister of Public Safety glared at Stillwater. "We don't want another Somalia Affair."


            The corner of Stillwater's lip rose slightly. "The Somalia Affair? Yes, special operations troopers torturing a young man. Shameful. How is that relevant?"


            "Well... your methods..."


            "Were fully documented and signed off by you and your predecessors," Stillwater reminded, motioning to Dewey who produced a large file from the briefcase. "You agreed that secrecy and victory were your priorities. You know what you hired us for."


            "The backlash-"


            The Governor General of Canada cut the Minister of Public safety off. "What of the backlash?" She smirked. "Which do you think the public will care more about? That some mercenaries tortured a few demons? Or the knowledge that demons actually exist? That is the panic that we have to deal with, and why the Crown has consented to this contract. The queen is rather fond of this country, and would rather it not fall."


            "Thank you, Willard International Consulting expresses its desire to continue working with the Crown and the Dominion of Canada," Stillwater said with a slight nod. Publicly, the position of Governor General had become largely that of a figurehead. Appointed at Her Majesty's pleasure, those in the position swore their loyalty to the Crown and were the representative of the Canadian Monarch. As a Commonwealth nation, Canada shares the same Monarchy as the United Kingdom, with the Governor General as the queen's representative in Canada.


            Legally the position has extensive powers, but much like in the United Kingdom the royal powers are rather limited in execution, providing a symbolic chief executive. However, the position does have the power to act as the Crown's final check to express its interests.


            "Now see here...." the Minister of Public Safety Started.


            "He is correct. In the Crown's opinion this is still the Dominion of Canada." The Governor General held up her hand. "Everyone here knows the special... caveats to the1982 Canada Act. It was not just Quebec that had issues with constitutional sovereignty. You got your independence from British Parliament, and we got certain... assurances."


            The Prime Minister sighed. "I doubt the United Kingdom would assert its claim to the 'Dominion' just because of demons."


            "Why not? That fits the kind of threat the Crown had in mind in '82."


            "There is no need to extort cooperation," the Minister of Public Safety grumbled.


            "No, but apparently there is the need to remind you where your responsibilities lie," the Governor General stated. She turned to Stillwater. "That does not mean that we will rubberstamp anything the Company does. It seems to us that the problems with the Assembly of Man are outside of the scope of what you were hired to do."


            The Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service cleared his throat. "Highly illegal arms aside, they appeared to have studiously avoided civilian casualties. In fact they even had a tenuous peace with your organization."


            "Until you started hiring demons," the Prime Minister said. "Which lead to this great.. distraction."


            "What would you have us do? Hand over the demons?" Stillwater chuckled. "What of the fallout from that? Do you seriously suggest sending minorities to be killed by religious bigots? That is quite shortsighted and does not raise confidence in your allies view of your own abilities."


            "Who are you to talk? You'll work with demons and torture people to get information." Minister of Public Safety demanded. The information on what exactly WIC did was frustratingly scant; they seemed to feel only the most cursory accountability to any proper oversight.


            "And who at this meeting purchased my services? Who at this table just suggested appeasing the enemy, just because they haven't attacked us much. There's realpolitik and then there's cowardice. When possible, the Company attempts coexistence. Not all NH's are unthinking monsters. Many are allies that have just as much at stake as the rest of us."


            "How very enlightened," the Governor General pretended to look down at her notes. "And profitable too I'm sure."


            "They are registered. They work and pay their taxes. Yes, their species is a state secret, but they're still people. Or are they? That's the whole issue here isn't it?"


            "You did not need to recruit them," the Prime Minister said. "The risks..."


            "Yes, working with non-humans always has risk, but as the Governor General stated the benefits outweigh the risk."


            "I can see how a group of trained demons is enticing from a military standpoint," the Minister of National Defense Stated. "But what about control?"


            Behind his interlaced hands Stillwater smiled slightly. "That is not a concern."


            "And working with the demons has allowed you to get closer to these... magical girls," the Intelligence Director said.


            "Your distaste is justified, they are unprofessional, untrained children playing at an adult's game. The demons are quite simple creatures; we know what they'll do. However, teenage girls with phenomenal magical powers..." Stillwater suppressed another smirk. The succubae were also teenage girls with magical powers, but more importantly he had a fair idea what Miss Tsukino was up to, not that the men at this table needed to know that.


            The Prime Minister looked at the man quietly sitting across from him. Britain's pressure was sitting to his left wearing a conservative pantsuit. At least the United States, for once, was showing more subtle, if cynical, diplomacy. They simply expressed confidence in the Canadian government's commitment to a long tradition of martial skill, strength in the face of adversity, and close trade relations with their ally to the South.


            "And your other meeting today?" the governor general mildly asked.


            "The Holy See had information about the cybernetic assassins contracted to kill the leader of those magical girls," Stillwater stated. "They were the ones that helped that group escape a Soviet lab when their program was being shut down. They decided to save those young girls."


            The Intelligence Director sighed. It was outlandish and insane, but he knew that totalitarian states loved their outlandish and insane superweapons, especially when competing with the superweapons the West was building. "And I'm sure the Vatican was doing this for purely humanitarian reasons."


            "Perhaps, but saving some 'innocents' while hurting the most powerful group of atheists the world has ever seen, how could the Church resist?" Stillwater smiled slightly. "Needless to say they destroyed the facilities and as many of the records as they could. After that, the assassins rejecting the Church's employment offer was a minor inconvenience."


            "Still, this would not be the first time someone has tried to kill this Tsukino girl. There was that hostage crisis in that toy store a couple months back," the prime minister noted. "What kind of enemies does she have?"


            "This is a young woman with powers beyond understanding, who is heir to an ancient civilization, the debris, remnants, and enemies of which still linger," Stillwater stated.


            "Events from that far in the past? It all sounds like some horrible fantasy."


            Stillwater nodded. "Yes it does, but... the truth is that civilizations are grown from the ashes of previous ones, that our world had been ravaged by monsters in the past, and it is up to us to prevent it from happening again."


            "We are aware of the importance of all of this," the Prime Minister said tersely.


            "That is why we are making sure there is proper oversight," National Defense added.


            "What if..." the Intelligence Director paused, but caught himself. If any bit of this meeting became public, he would be dammed anyway. "What if this Tsukino girl were to become dangerous? She's the heir to that... kingdom I believe you've called it. What if she tries to bring it back?"


            "There are contingencies in place," Stillwater replied.


            "Quick and unflinching. Your organization's reputation for pragmatic paranoia is justified," the Governor General noted. She smirked a bit, her countrymen tried to hide it, but they all seemed... relieved at the Company man's statement. Being able to pay someone else to get their hands dirty had its conveniences.


            "There's also some concern about this... D Program I believe your memo called it," the Minister of National Defense stated eyeing Stillwater.


            "Are you suggesting that we take a more belligerent stance with NH's?" Stillwater asked.


            "No, it makes sense to only go after those that are a... danger. There's even a form of symmetry in recruiting amenable nonhumans, but the D program. It's odd."


            "Is it?" Public Safety snorted. "These are Americans we're dealing with. Sure they claim to be 'International', but even their agents from other countries... act a certain... way. Is that part of the training?"


            Stillwater leaned his head down a bit. "We will fight. We will win. If you'd want to call that a trait solely of the United States, then it shows a deep ignorance of your own country's history and courage."


            "Enough," the Governor General said holding her hand up. "This is a pointless argument. Though I must confess, who else would think of saving the human race from eldritch monstrosities for money?"


            "Johan Willard was driven by revenge, Ma'am."


            "But you can't buy bullets with vengeance."


            Giving a slight nod, Stillwater allowed himself to smile.


            "And you let your own men become demons," the Governor General smirked. "Well I suppose we should count our blessings that your plans are so... mild. Normally your Yankee-ingenuity creates things even more outlandish than secret agent demons or Soviet cybernetic assassins."


            "It's an issue of trust," Stillwater stated.


            "Trust?" the Prime Minister asked.


            "It is the most valuable commodity we have."


            "It keeps your men loyal, your allies allied, your suppliers producing, and your clients paying you. All to enable you to kill the enemy. What a curious combination of morality and marketing," the Governor General noted.


            Stillwater gave another slight nod.


            "Now, before we were detoured... I believe the Colonel was trying to discuss the training of Joint Task Force 2."


            "Indeed, from our evaluations the unit has the bearing and skills to handle the training. Their experience with black operations should help them with their transitioning."


            "Agreed," the special forces Colonel stated. "Once you accept a hidden world of secrets and violence, merely adding monsters is trivial."


            "Yes, that's why Air Force pilots handle alien contact so well," Stillwater said.


            "Aliens?" National Defense asked.


            "Prehuman civilizations have dotted earth's history. Even that empire of Miss Tuskino's ancestor was interplanetary. We know nonhumans often come from other planes of existence. Yes, aliens are everywhere."


            "Is this relevant?" National Defense asked.


            "It's part of dealing with NH beings. They are alien."


            "I presume that the JTF 2 training will involve interaction with demons in your employ then?" the Governor General asked.


            Stillwater leaned back a hair, his smile almost visible behind his interlaced hands. "That is a fair presumption." Miss Saotome's reaction when he asked if she would agree to train Canadian special forces was amusing, but the succubus was a teacher at heart.


            "And the long term? Won't training our forces eliminate your job?" National Defense asked.


            "Assuming you no longer needed us to deal with the discretionary issues, we still provide training and supply services."


            "Yes, there aren't many others manufacturing the equipment you sell," National Defense knew full well the pricing the Company had on its technology. The stuff that was not overpriced worried him the most. He could at least understand a defense contractor price-gouging.


            "The proposed plan is to start with two platoons and have them trained to handle NH incidents. People with combat experience are strongly preferred, but the normal standards of JTF 2 should help ease the training."


            "That's a significant fraction of our forces," National Defense blinked.


            "The skills they learn are applicable to counter terrorism and hostage rescue," Stillwater stated.


            The Minister of National Defense nodded to the Special Forces Commander.


            "Right, we'll draft up a list, and make the transfer," the colonel agreed. "I can think of some men that would be suited to for this."


            "I've got one caution. Training existing special forces personnel requires the least training and has the highest success rate, but even among those in the black world, non humans are sometimes a bit too much."


            "What about the Emergency Response Teams?" Public Safety asked.


            "While they are useful in a containment and law-enforcement role, they could be ill-suited for most heavier operations. It was felt that concentrating on JTF 2 first would be better."


            "So you see this as a law-enforcement problem?" Public Safety, skeptically asked. "Aren't we dealing with man-eating monsters here?"


            "Not all of them are belligerent, many just want to move here and live out their lives," the Governor General gently reminded.


            "That... is frustrating. It'd be easier if they were all the enemy," Public Safety sighed; he had enough problems with terrorists hiding out in immigrant populations. Add in supernatural powers... "What if this becomes public?" he eventually asked.


            "What exactly?"


            "The whole deal. Demons, monsters. You've had to have done studies on what happens if the public were to know?"


            A frown flickered past, Stillwater's face. "That is a weighted question. There would be considerable... fracture. There will be those that want ethical treatment for the NH's in their midst, those that would want total extermination, those that would utterly refuse to acknowledge the existence of NH's, those that are apathetic; they don't care what happens, as long as they are safe, and finally the fans. Some people would gladly serve anyone, add in supernatural charisma," Stillwater frowned.


            National Defense blinked. "People would still refuse to believe in NH's?"


            "People are quite stubborn in their ways. Especially, if they never personally see an NH. It'd be all some special effect to them," Stillwater said.


            "Your Company's media campaign has ensured that the public at large while being informed of NH's still regards them as... a special effect," the Governor General said.


            "But how much of each group?" the Prime Minister asked.


            Stillwater gave an exaggerated shrug. "How would the secret get out? The violence there would determine the outrage of the populace."


            "Most of these groups have conflicting goals," the Prime Minister looked down at the table.


            "That's just the humans. The NH's would split along similar lines, but add in those that would try to take over, both by subtle and overt means."


            "And thus the secret stays put and we continue to ride the tiger," the Governor General sighed.


            "Humanity is adaptable."


            "Enough to compensate if we fail?"


            "Humanity constantly fails. We are fragile and weak. Our advantage is that we learn."


            "I mean failure of a greater magnitude," the Governor General tersely clarified.


            Stillwater looked over his intermeshed fingers. "That is the hope. If we do fail, at the very least we can ensure that theirs is a phyrric victory."


            "Spite, a very human emotion." the Governor General smiled thinly.


            "Madam General. Willard International Consulting was founded on revenge," Stillwater reminded.


            "Is that enough?" the Prime Minister looked up. "Are these preparations enough? You've been bringing in these demons... what do you think?" His lip quivered. "Things have been here before. They will be back again. Who are we to stop them?"


            "Who are we?" Stillwater smiled. "We are not the first to live here. We are not the most powerful. We have barely scratched the surface of this world, but it is ours." Stillwater emphasized each word. "Gentlemen, our backs are to the sea. There is no where to run. There never has been."

 

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

 


            Nodoka looked up from her work. The sound of light snoring drew her attention and she was unsurprised to find Morgan and Ukyou side-by-side napping on the lab's couch.


            She smiled thinly at the sight. The door opening to the lab halted her musing, and broke the succubae's nap. The two girls opened their eyes and alertly watched as Major Saotome's two assistants wheeled in a pair of crates. Right on time...


            "You were right, Ma'am. It looks like Gladys released them," Ayanami stated as she opened one of the crates. Nestled in voids in the stiff foam were half a dozen weapons that superficially resembled bulkier Fabrique Nationale P90s, with their compact bull-pup configuration and horizontal magazines.


            "I'm a bit surprised the testing went as smoothly as it did." Nodoka noted as she went to her computer and checked the records. The release from WIC Munitions was still there.


            "The fixed the problems with the bullet feed?" Aida asked as he opened the other box and started comparing the boxes of ammunition, magazines, spare parts, and other accessories with the bill of materials. He frowned as he started moving the ammunition; in large numbers the weight increase started to really add up. A full magazine would have to weigh around seven and a half kilograms. "I mean with the top magazine the bullets have to rotate ninety degrees before going into the chamber."


            "Yes." Nodoka smirked as she pulled out one of the guns, and a small card that was in the bottom of the crate. It was one thing to design a weapon four times the weight of a P90; it was another to hold it. As always, the work was impressive; Nodoka worked the action and after making sure it worked smoothly slipped a bore scope down the barrel. Using the magnified camera in the small probe, she saw that the barrel, while clean, had seen some use. "I'm afraid to ask how many hours Gladys' team billed for this," she said, too pleased at seeing her design physically executed to even pretend to be annoyed.


            "Oh my, these are nice," Ukyou said as she took one of the guns out of Ayanami's hands. "Very sturdy," she said trying to flex the metal frame. The twenty-four pounds or eleven kilograms gave the weapon some heft but did not seem heavy to her. It felt like twice the weight of one of her handguns. Though this weapon was empty and forty of those 17mm shells had to get heavy.


            Nodoka absently nodded as she disassembled the weapon at her workbench, comparing the parts to the diagrams on her computer. She pulled out a set of calipers and started making a few notes on the dimensions, especially around the pieces that formed the action.


            "One of the requirements was 'If it goes empty, it's gotta bash a guys' head in and still work when I shove more ammo in it.' " Aida quoted as he inspected the over-size bullet boxes. He smiled as he looked over the various types. The ballistics had been very fun to work out on them, but he was going to pay for it when it came time to load the magazines and cart them around.


            "Misako helped on this?" Ukyou sighed.


            "She is a born infantry-trooper," Morgan noted as she handed one of the guns to Ayanami who was still frowning, and took another for herself.


            "Making it robust was helpful given the gas pressure of the 17 by 65 mm WIC custom, and weight isn't as much of an issue. The concern is their ergonomics. How do they fit?" Nodoka asked her granddaughters.


            "They're good," Ukyou chuckled a bit. The weapon was built strong and obviously on the heavy side, but it was designed for... smaller hands. "Misako's going to be angry she chose to hang out with Akane and Nabiki," she snickered.


            "It'll work," Morgan stated. She preferred her rifle but she had to admit this was an attractive little gun. "How's it perform?" she asked shifting her grip and holding the machined metal weapon to her face. The surface had been treated with antireflective coating which also gave a firmer grip.


            "Passable on bench tests, but Gladys didn't have anyone that could use it standing up," Nodoka said, looking up from the carefully spread parts before her.


            Morgan chuckled. "And they came when Mom and sis are out," she said, her voice getting more distant.


            "Aww... you miss them," Ukyou wrapped an arm around the short sharp shooter.


            Morgan gave the blonde a puzzled look. "Of course."


            Ukyou smirked. "You don't think Gladys rushed this do you?" she asked looking down at the gun in her hands. She liked her Standard Succubus Pistols, but it was nice to have some tailored options and flexibility for what she could carry.


            "Are you saying Head Machinist Coulton would force her workers into over time to push a weapon into production, just because we're fighting some type of Soviet Cyborg?" Nodoka asked.


            "Her husband did die fighting the communists in Korea," Ayanami reminded.


            "That does explain the note she put in the package. 'Hope this helps you girls stick it to the Reds,' " Nodoka read.


            "I killed the first two," Morgan grumbled.


            "That's why she thanks you on the other side," Nodoka said handing over the card.


            "Aww... she's a sweet lady," Morgan said as she pocketed the card.


            "What did it say?"

            The diminutive succubus smiled. "Morgan: That was a triumph. I've made a note here: Huge success. Gladys."


            "Heh, does that make you feel better?" Ukyou said after thanking Aida and taking a magazine he had just loaded. Sliding it on the top of the gun she nodded as it clicked into place. Making sure to keep the weapon pointed away, she tested the balance. Still good, the heavier weight was especially noticeable when she shouldered it.


            "Full mag adds another sixty percent to the weight" Nodoka chuckled as she reassembled the gun on her bench.


            "Seven and a half kilograms?" Ayanami blinked after doing the math in her head.


            "It is a pretty large bullet," Morgan said with a bare hint of a smirk.


            "But yours is still bigger," Ukyou teased as she lowered the bullpup... gun.


            Morgan nodded. "Grandma, why do you call this a Heavy Submachine Gun? Isn't that...nonsensical."


            "A submachine gun does traditionally refer to a smaller weapon using a pistol cartridge. I suppose a carbine is closer but those are normally shortened assault rifles with the same caliber but with lower muzzle velocity."


            "This has a lower velocity," Morgan offered.


            Nodoka took the fully reassembled gun and put it back into its crate. "Relatively, it's still an anomaly. 17mm by 65 mm is a custom round. Traditionally, a carbine does have more penetrating power than a submachine gun. The WM 17S is designed for close quarters combat. So if you want to call it a heavy submachine gun or a –well- also heavy carbine. Either works."


            "So you just picked a generic name?"


            Nodoka shrugged. "I guess you could call it a machine carbine."


            "Like a Sten gun?" Morgan shook her head. That was a cheap 9mm submachine gun used by the British in WW2 and Korea. Its official name was "Carbine, Machine, Sten" which came from the confusing early WW2 British habit of calling submachine guns "machine carbines". The Sten was almost a textbook example of a submachine gun. She sighed. "Fine, the term's murky enough."


            Ayanami cleared her throat. "Technically, the P90 is a Personal Defense Weapon, which has a form factor similar to a submachine gun but has a round with more penetration, power and accuracy."


            "Further blurring the line between SMG and carbine," Nodoka smiled at the line of guns. "Personally I thought that a defense weapon didn't give you girls enough credit."


            "So you just picked a name for a small rifled gun?"


            "Submachine guns do have a history of more unconventional form factors."


            "I'm sure we'll come up with a cute nickname for them," Ukyou noted.


            "No convenient acronym though," Morgan noted.


            "Still their size and configuration lends itself to an affectionate name. They're very compact and pretty cute."

 
            Morgan blinked. "Cute?"


            "You practically cuddle with your rifle,"


            "That's different." the sharpshooter pouted. "Well..." She sighed and sat on one of the desks. "Fine, it's not."


            "You don't need to be embarrassed. It's perfectly normal. Just be glad you're just finding weapons adorable," Ukyou comforted with a hint of a smirk.


            "Reassuring, given Misako and 'Sasha'," Morgan grumped.


            "There are worse fashions." Ukyou paused. "Like... Akane, and... Nabiki." The blonde succubus looked at the diminutive demon. "Actually, you could pull off Nabiki's look. Maybe not pastels but definitely that style."


            "Really?" Morgan dryly asked.


            "Your hair is too dark, it would clash with light colors," Nodoka explained. She looked at the gun snuggled in its crate, then to its twins in her granddaughters hands. "Take a full load of magazines and crate up the rest."


            "Training Ma'am?" Morgan asked as she pulled on her web-vest and started slipping on some magazines.


            "I want to see how easy these are to store and retrieve," Nodoka noted as she adjusted Morgan's gear, to the redhead's embarrassment. "And how do they fit on your belts?"


            "Uh... dangling." Ukyou had slipped on the crossed belts that held her handguns and their magazines. "They're a bit long.


            "Your mother has been dawdling on getting you proper armor," Nodoka sighed.


            Ukyou frowned. "Yes they're stupid, but our uniforms do have superior protection. We've tested that."


            "It's a bikini top with ribbons and a miniskirt." Morgan slowly stated. "Your bellybutton shows."


            Ukyou sighed. "Yes, magic doesn't have to make sense."


            "I can still make it better. Without sacrificing mobility."


            "Better armor would be nice," Morgan noted.


            Nodoka frowned. "Yes, we don't need to stand by and count on magic. If we can make the uniforms better, we will. Now load up, and bring the rest of the guns."


            "To test them all?" Ayanami asked.


            "That, and Misako, Akane, and Nabiki have been neglecting their training too."


            "They've been spending the whole afternoon training at the B facility." Ukyou adjusted the magazines to her belt. "Maybe a vest with some armor would be better. I can't sit with this."


            "Ayanami, closet to the left. On the red hanger." Nodoka smiled and patted Ukyou on the head. "We can test how well it goes with your Senshi uniform. As for the other girls? They don't spend enough time on the other weapons. Misako won't always have Sasha."


            Ukyou looked at the gun in her hands and allowed an evil little smile to form. "You know, Nariko and Mother hardly ever practice their gunnery. Even less than Nabiki does."


            "Yes, we'll need to tell them that," Nodoka said as Ayanami handed a light set of armor. She then helped her assistant fit it to the blonde demon."How's that feel?"


            "Good," Ukyou admitted. It was similar to the succubus armor that Eve and her spawn wore but even more flexible.


            "Of course, we don't have enough of these guns, but we'll make do," Nodoka patted the crate and motioned for Ayanami to help her take it out. She then turned to Morgan who was helping Kensuke put more supplies in a rucksack. "And how is your close quarters training going?"


            "Good," Morgan coughed. Her last battle had thoroughly illustrated that her body was more than a collection of vastly improved senses, fantastic fine muscle control, and phenomenal mobility.


            "Excellent, there's no reason to not push the maximum advantage," Nodoka noted as they left her lab.

 

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

 


            Mercury's blue-tinted lips curled into a broad smile as she pushed out the chair opposite her at the small oak table. "You came alone, and no jamming," she idly noted holding up a glass of wine.


            "That was part of the deal," the redhead looked at the coifed young woman before her eyes went to the offered chair. She delicately sniffed the air and looked around the crowded bar. All she could detect was Mercury and her Pattern.


            "I suppose you could have your spawn and agents hidden, likewise you could easily start up a jammer," Mercury allowed before finishing the last of her drink.


            "Nice place," Ranma said turning her head a bit; she could sense almost a... damned field of magic within the fallen Senshi. "No wonder you said dress fancy," she said carefully watching Mercury's expression.


            "It doesn't have the intimate ambiance of your bar, but I like it here. Unlike most bars it's quiet," Mercury said looking about the bar and making a slight motion with her raised glass. "You wouldn't expect a few dozen people to keep their voices down."


            "It also has a nice patio out front," Ranma allowed watching a waiter walk up with a bottle.


            "And a wonderful little garden in the back." She turned to the server "Very nice lighting back there, Jerald."


            "Thank you Miss," The server nodded.


            "Please leave the bottle, Jerald," Mercury said with a slight wave.


            "Fancy place," Ranma noted as the man left.


            Mercury laughed. "Not really, mostly yuppies, but they at least have the sense to keep up the ambiance."


            "Yes, fancy dress. Though not as nice as a dark satin evening gown with long black gloves," Ranma's eyed appraised the clingy garment.


            "I guess the tiara would have been too much, Orion was right." Mercury shook her head, causing her dangling earrings to flutter a bit; her hair held up back in a sculpted bun with fixative stayed perfectly frozen. "You look good, but how can't you? And a nicely tailored leather bodice fits any occasion, and the pants have a certain aggressive beauty to them."


            Mercury took a sip and looked up to still see Ranma standing above her. Her eyes went to the open chair and her blue lips smirked. "I hope you're not worried about booby traps. The chair is perfectly safe." She lifted the glass to her nose after a slight swirl. "However, I have set a highly endothermic spell on a deadman trigger. Well... it'll go off if you try to incapacitate or bind or even hurt me."


            "That wasn't in your message," Ranma casually noted, her eyes looking at the bar across from her. "So is the Scotch any good here?" she asked as her senses folded out. The damned energy she felt made sense,  Mercury had cast a containing spell and...  then cast another spell which was halted by the first spell.  If the barrier spell were to fail...


            "You do know what endothermic means?"


            Ranma leaned in. "I touch you and that'll set off a spell that'll freeze everything in this room. I didn't think you'd be willing to kill a bunch of random people," she whispered evenly.


            Without looking away from the flickering violet eyes inches away from hers, Mercury reached for her glass. "I didn't say I did. I intend to get through the night without killing anyone." She took a small sip. "However, we'll see how much of a monster you really are. Now please, have a seat. I do recall Jerald mentioned that they have a nice single malt from Islay."


            "So you're finally putting that brain to good use," Ranma chuckled as she sat down. "You didn't trust my word? I said I wasn't going to give you to Usagi." Ranma gave a mock pout and then waved down a server different from Jerald and ordered a drink.


            "There's so many ways you could have defeated me without breaking your word," Mercury stated. "And thank you. I realized what I had to do when I realized just what you thought of me."


            Mistress Mercury had expected a lot of reactions from Ranma: something confident and securely, but subtlety, arrogant seemed appropriate enough, maybe a pithy phrase like "Oh really?" or "And that would be?", or even just a raised eye brow. The Mistress did not expect the demoness to bend over, literally holding her sides and start to laugh in a maniacal... no, manic manner.


            Other patrons began to stare at the laughing redhead, who continued until a server holding a small glass and an unopened bottle approached the table and cleared her throat.


            Ranma rapidly pulled herself up fanning her hair around her head. "Sorry, but my friend said something very... funny," she said after failing to find any more suitable word, while the server unsealed the top, poured her a drink and discreetly left the bottle


            Mercury sighed. "I really shouldn't be surprised."


            "You're the one that figured out what I think about you."


            Idly waving her free hand, Mercury nodded. "Yes, you think I'm a poser, a joke. Someone that tries to be strong, to be 'evil' but just can't get it, but right now that works for me. If I were a real danger you'd risk the lives of all these people. I might be bluffing, you might get me before the spell goes off, you might have just killed me before the meeting with one of your lovely snipers. If you thought I was a real threat, you'd have treated me like one."


            "You're right. This is good," Ranma said taking a small sip. She always made sure to watch her intake, especially tonight.


            "I suppose it's enough that I'm alive," Mercury sighed.


            "It's best to take what pleasures you can get out of life." Ranma put her glass down. "So what was so important that you just had to talk with me?"


            "To the point."


            "No, that would be if I stood you up and ambushed you on your way out of here. So please, don't waste the slack I'm giving you," Ranma stated sniffing her drink.


            Mercury kept herself from glaring; the succubus' eyes were closed as she enjoyed the aroma of her beverage, but that was obviously a test, or a statement of how little Ranma was concerned about her, or was the redhead just innocently enjoying her drink, which in and of itself showed how low of a threat she was in the demon's eyes. Mercury stopped that line of thinking.


            That would only drive her spiraling further and further, and she had enough circular thoughts. "It's about Setsuna. I'm worried about her."


            "Concern for your main rival to Usagi's ear? Or jealousy?"


            Mercury closed her eyes and inhaled. She had to tell someone; someone not a minion; someone who could do something. "I think she's a monster."


            "And?" Ranma plainly asked.


            "No, I mean how does she smell to you? Is she human now? What about back in DarkStar's time? What did she feel like then?"


            Ranma lifted up the cut glass and twisted it slightly, causing light to reflect and scatter off the cut faces. Mercury silently stared as amber colored light played off of Ranma's pale features. The murmuring from the other patrons seemed to grow louder and Mercury found herself concentrating on all the conditions she had placed on the Spell. The idea was straightforward enough, the question was if she had thought of enough contingencies.


            "I suppose... I suppose it's a question of age," Ranma slowly lowered her glass to the polished table. "Setsuna's been around a long time. Maybe as long as my grandmother. In that case, is my nose really worth anything?"


            "Yes, BlackSky was from that time too." Mercury's shoulders lowered. She had studied the records from that era. They had no clues about Pluto. "I thought so. I was hoping that you'd have something more... solid. I'd actually prefer it if her mask had slipped... just a bit." She looked into her glass. "I don't suppose you ever saw anything like that did you?"


            "No, most was when Murdock was messing with her, when she would start to drink," Ranma said pointedly.


            Mercury rubbed the bridge of her nose.


            "At least you've managed to upset her. Like that stunt you pulled when they broke into your lair," Ranma charitably offered.


            "That's no good. That just means she knows I know! Or at least that I'm getting close."


            Ranma's gaze returned to the wine bottle with a raised eyebrow.


            "Don't patronize me, I'm not being paranoid. We live in a world full of baroque intrigue and dreadfully strange things."


            "It wasn't your ramblings I was noting."


            Mercury sighed and pushed her glass next to her bottle. "I know it sounds insane. Setsuna has been Serenity's right hand from the beginning. If there's something wrong with her then..."


            "It's a good thing your loyalties and ethics have been corrupted into serving the queen's daughter then."


            Mercury tried to parse that statement. "You're saying that if I was serving Queen Serenity I wouldn't dare question Setsuna?"


            "You know the relationship those two had." Ranma took another sip.


            "Yes, the Queen's right hand." Mercury refilled her glass. "That's what has me twisting in knots. If it's all true then... Setsuna... she's been planning this for a very long time."


            "Why not blame her for the Fall?" Ranma's sarcasm fell when she saw Mercury's expression. "You're not seriously thinking?"


            "That she worked with Beryl?" Mercury gave a bitter laugh. "If I'm right she could have been the one to introduce Beryl to Metalia, but I doubt that. Such an activity would have been too risky. All she had to do was let the Beryl's movement fester and the opportunity would present itself, and how could such treason fester right under Serenity's nose? "


            Ranma gave Mercury a long gaze. When the blue-haired girl was about to speak the redhead raised her hand to stop her. Finally, after thinking it over a few times Ranma spoke. "Are you suggesting that Setsuna let her Queen's empire be destroyed so she could get Usagi in the present, what... without Serenity around?"


            "Her powers make the Fall an... unusual occurrence."


            "Just because you know a storm is coming, doesn't mean you can stop it."


            Mercury brightened slightly. "I didn't expect fatalism from someone like you."


            "There's a difference between fatalism and pragmatism. From what I know of Serenity, she would have planned for the Fall. Contingencies would have been in place. That's why we're both sitting at this table now."


            "And who would she entrust with an important, no, the most important task?"


            Ranma shook her head. "You really have it bad for Setsuna. You jealous of her too?"


            Mercury looked down at her wine. "She stole my plan."


            Ranma glared. "Last week, I met the head of the oldest active Intelligence Agency in the world, met with the heads of this government, and here I am listening to a teenage girl whine about someone stealing her 'secret evil plans'."


            "We can't all have the patronage of elite organizations."


            Ranma smiled slightly. She had not accompanied Stillwater to that second meeting, Mercury was either playing along, or, more likely, ignorant of Ranma's exact activities. "Anyway... your plan centered around inventing a fake enemy to push the Senshi into accepting your training; which you would then use to slowly turn to your way of thinking." The redhead chuckled. "You're right. Setsuna did steal your idea."


            "And I'm the fake villain," Mercury sighed.


            "To be fair, you were the one that started wearing the evil costume."


            Mercury simply raised an eyebrow.


            "Fine, but you have a point. Their priorities are screwed up. At least this group of Soviet assassins should get them in gear." Ranma stated.


            "Usagi does collect enemies. Huh, so you're saying I'm a distraction?"


            Ranma shook her head and emptied her glass. "No, regaining lost team members should be a priority. It consolidates strength, reduces confusion, and shows your girls that you care about what happens to them. Usagi screwed up by not training enough, and then having the short-sighted pride to not accept more of my help."


            "Yes, it could have ended that night." Mercury's hand clamped down on the edge of the table.


            "And now this Setsuna stuff... there's no way you'd turn yourself in is there? Not even to pretend?"


            "Aside from Usagi proving harder to fool... no. I can't get close to Setsuna."


            "So what is it that you think is wrong with her, other than being a devious plotter. Isn't that part of being the guardian to those time gate things?"


            "The Space-Time Door is a prop." Mercury chuckled. "That's the truth. It's a big, ornate, impressive... prop. It was built for Serenity's egg-heads to have something to study. It gave off all the right readings, but that's all it was. An artifact to justify the power Serenity had acquired.


            "It's really quite brilliant. The Door was the highest of Secrets, Second only to Serenity's Crystal. This kept the researchers studying the doors from talking with anyone not on the project. Information was controlled, collaboration was contained, their results were guided to the proper conclusion."


            "That Serenity had found or invented some magical artifact that gave her time powers?"


            "And her mages had affirmed that it was safe, accurate, and secure. The rabble ate it as a source of pride and reassurance in their Queen's power."


            "And Serenity's military gains a decisive intelligence edge. No wonder Unification seemed inevitable." Ranma gave a slight nod and allowed herself a second, small, drink.


            "You see my problem?"


            Ranma shrugged. "Not really."


            Mercury narrowed her eyes. "I just told you the greatest secret in the Silver Millennium. The Door is a lie."


            "So? Serenity and Setsuna kept how it really worked a secret. Seems like a good idea."


            Mercury stared. This... this person had outplayed her at ever turn, and yet... "Don't you see? If the Door wasn't the source of the power..."


            Ranma nodded. "That's pretty clever. People wouldn't question a giant magic key if you used it as a weapon and guarded a giant magical door. It makes sense, Serenity didn't have a magical throne, she had her crystal."


            Mercury's hand reached out for her glass. She hesitated and looked at Ranma. It could be that simple. It would have made the research facility on the moon an even better fake. They were studying a powerful artifact, it just was not the one they thought it was.


            "What's wrong now?"


            "Do you have any idea how hard this is for me?"


            Ranma looked over her glass and gave a slight frown.


            Bristling at the demoness, Mercury composed herself. "I know what you want, I know what your goal is."


            Ranma's frown instantly shifted into a playful grin.


            "I told you; I figured out what you thought of me. I also figured out what you wanted. All the things a brood mother could want, what were you missing?"


            Ranma tilted her head a fraction of an inch to the side.


            "Being coy now? Setsuna's not the only one taking advantage of mean-old Mistress Mercury. The princess is looking for someone strong, confident, but also loving and just."


            "And yet... you're having this meeting warning me about Setsuna. So what's so bad about Puu that you'd rather me get my talons into your princess?"


            Mercury folded her hands in front of her on the table. "I know what you'll do to Usagi. Setsuna... it doesn't add up. She doesn't need to be this... "


            "Over intricate plots? Stupid schemes and destinies?" Ranma shrugged. "Seems like a problem you girls have."


            "The key..." Mercury laughed. "Oh yes, why not? Setsuna is the key! And Guardian of the Gate. Past, present, future, all are one in the Gate. She knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. She knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread." Her morbid grin died when she saw Ranma's thoughtful expression.


            "What? I'm finally no longer a joke?" Mercury glared.


            "Akumi, do you actually know why we're here? Why all of us are up here, instead of some other city?"


            Mercury looked down. "Yes, things are getting... thin. Setsuna knew it, Orion knew it, I... figured it out, but Usagi wouldn't see. That's why I had to do this! The Senshi wouldn't handle it. Usagi would try to use her crystal... and we'd all die mad and screaming, at best. She got complacent. Every other campaign ended with the same magic rock."


            "You can't expect the same tools and moves to keep working." Ranma frowned.


            "Oh? I thought you were this perfect warrior?"


            "No, I'm good. We're good because we keep training. We keep learning new things, and improving. My mother was real harsh last week when I got back," Ranma said, remembering how she almost cried at her mother's dressing down. It had been just the two of them, but she managed to just whimper a bit with her head in her mother's lap.


            Mercury raised an eyebrow "Really? What did she have to criticize you about?"


            Ranma shrugged. She could tell Mercury part of the story "I got complacent. I assumed that our magical armor was 'good enough'."


            "That's what I was trying to do."


            "No, you were trying to make better Senshi. My mother is trying to better equip us. Big difference."


            "It's still better than the Princess' plans." Mercury sighed. "I know what I've done, I know what I've become. I had to do this because no one else would. They were too shocked, complacent and reactionary; weepy drippy little girls," she spat the last few words out. "I'm not as good as you, but at least I'm trying."


            "I thought you're this way because you were seduced by a brainy lesbian honey pot?" Ranma remarked taking a sip of her Scotch. "But now you realize that the one person you had thought would understand... the one that knew what it took to be a real queen..."


            "And it looks like Setsuna understands too well."


            "It's possible we're on the same side, that she's just making Usagi into a proper queen... but... not if my theory is right. Setsuna's been at this for a long time... longer than your grandmother."

 
            Ranma motioned for Mercury to continue.


            "It's too much... this would have had to have started before Serenity had a daughter, before you, before Unification, before there was even a proper Empire. This is a plan that shows a patience and a level of detail that would be impossible... too many things would change. Too much could go wrong."


            Ranma suppressed rolling her eyes. She almost took pity on the girl, and decided to push a bit more. "Unless you happened to be an immortal guardian of some type of Space-Time thing."


            "Sarcasm aside, you're right."


            "So why tell me? Do you really expect me to help you?" Ranma flexed her fingers.


            "I expect your self interest to take what I have to say into consideration."


            Ranma looked the other woman over as she formulated her statement.. "Oh? Well you presume to know not just what I think of you, but also what I want, no... need." She slowly leaned in her teeth revealed in a wide grin. "Why don't you just give up to me? Have you considered that scenario?"


            Eyes twinkling, Ranma leaned back and sipped her Scotch. "You have the mind, you have the will, just imagine what you could become with my help. Imagine what the Princess could become with our help. Together, we could undercut any influence of Setsuna's..."


            Mercury knew enough to keep eye contact. "And what would this... offer cost me?"


            "Everything."


            "How generous," Mercury glared.


            "How badly do you want to save Usagi? How much do you fear Setsuna? It's easy to wear dark clothes, turn evil, transform your teammates into puppets, but trusting, submitting to someone else. That's hard. Is your pride worth it?"


            "You assume that you can stop Setsuna and that your... demonic interest will save the Princess," Mercury stated, hoping that Ranma's offer did not have the... potential it seemed to at first glance.


            Still showing her teeth, Ranma idly rolled her glass in her hand. "From what you've said, who else could stop Setsuna? You don't have much confidence in your own ability, or else you wouldn't be buying me surprisingly acceptable Scotch. No at the very least, you called me here as insurance. You said it yourself, you'd rather I get Usagi, than Setsuna. So why not help it along?" she asked her voice nearly coming out in a purr.


            Once again Mercury checked the status of the Spell.


            "You want a strong Princess. One that will adapt to this new war. We can make her adapt. You know what she thinks of me."


            "And you get exactly what you want. Even have a prodigal 'daughter' to bring back to Usagi. You even have a ready excuse for why I'd be a demon, and of course I'd fullly corroborate your story." Mercury scoffed. "There are certain advantages to your species. You'd then use this assassin threat to bring Usagi in even closer, but with me and the others 'back in' her only threats would be external. There wouldn't be a rush; you could take your time, slowly bending her to your way of thinking."


            "Going to accuse me of stealing your ideas too?" Ranma chuckled.


            "No, that fits your own plans. Not going to mention that I could still have Orion, or that I could be even closer to her than I am now?"


            "Why would I mention the obvious?"


            "Do you actually expect me to agree with this?" Mercury wanted to ask if Ranma was being serious or of this was a test, but the firstly it was counterproductive, and secondly... she was not sure which answer would be worse.


            Ranma sighed. "Again, it's all a question of how badly you want to protect Usagi. You were able to turn Minako into something inhuman, would you be willing to do the same for yourself?"


            Mercury looked down. "Are these Combat Cyborgs... are they really that much of a threat?"


            Ranma shrugged. "They're military trained and have spent years as professional assassins. Someone spent a lot of money to hire them. Morgan killed two but..." She lifted her hand up.


            "Yes, your sniper," Mercury frowned. "Usagi hasn't moved. It's been a week since that meeting, what has she done?"


            "Usagi and Setsuna... they're trying. It's a pretty good defense they have setup, but-" Ranma sighed. "- I offered to have them stay on base, or have some of us help guard them."


            "She's stubborn," Mercury chuckled. "Though at least someone finally shocked her out of complacently."


            "Everytime I ride over there, Setsuna's the one taking charge." Ranma paused. "Huh, you might be onto something. I don't see her asleep, much. She's been the big push there."


            "Of course, it's what I would have done," Mercury frowned. A crisis was the best time to slip in your own agenda; people were looking for solutions, for action, and it was the perfect time to bypass the normal means.


            "No wonder you two dislike each other," Ranma laughed.

 
            "So this is the real deal? These cyborgs are not pushovers like the Assembly or Alexia?"


            "Even those two were a bit above your class." Ranma chuckled. She raised a hand to stop Mercury's protests. "Alexia... even she knew about indirect attack, monster that she was."


            "Turning all those people?"


            "Not exactly," Ranma frowned. "Swears work differently for demons. Alexia's a Submaternissima."


            "Meaning?"


            "Worst, sub-mother." Ranma said. "Like calling you, subhuman. Wait. it's an adjective. I used it wrong." Ranma frowned. Demonic was proving to be easier than English. Unlike English, it had rules and followed them, but it was yet another language to learn.


            "Here's how it's used. Submaternissima Alexia exposuit Filias," Ranma hissed.


            Mercury blinked.


            "The very worst sub-mother Alexia let her daughters die out in the Wilderness because she was not willing to care for them," Ranma explained with venom.


            "That's a compact verb," Mercury noted.


            "It's where exposure comes from," Ranma explained. "According to the language book, the Romans had a slightly different meaning, but it's still a way to get rid of unwanted children. For succubae it's sending their spawn into battle as cannon fodder, for the Romans it was leaving the kid outside somewhere to –well- die from exposure."


            "That's horrid," Mercury flatly stated.


            "To the Romans it wasn't necessarily a bad thing –cruel bastards-, but a brood mother has such power over her spawn that broodlings are only undesirable if the mother screwed up.


            "So, Alexia would stunt her spawn's development to keep them easier to control, and then she'd send them out to be slaughtered. She literally is the worse insult our kind can come up with," Ranma shivered.


            "Is this common?" Mercury was intrigued that some things could still disturb the demon.


            "No self respecting brood mother would do it. Some of the less reputable Houses do it, but... it's ghastly. It's a kind of mental violation that's... it's like turning your own children into ghouls. Alexia was impatient. She could have groomed her spawn and let them grow. Then she would have had a skilled, loving army."


            Mercury raised an eyebrow. Ranma's own family expansion was left unsaid.


            Ranma took a sip. "And the Assembly? They had pretty good intelligence gathering and could use it to setup a rather good ambush.


            "What they couldn't do was finish the job. They had me blown apart, should have had their 'elite' sweep in and finish me off. Instead, they got greedy, figured they could give WIC a black eye too. Gave me time to reform."


            "You beat them at every turn."


            "My spawn, the Company, and myself beat them," Ranma stressed. "And that's because we train to win. That's what happens when you stop focusing on being a 'magical girl' and you start focusing on killing the enemy."


            "That's what I was trying to tell them," Mercury hissed.


            "We'll see. A good fight will test Usagi and you."


            "Like that cult in the toy store?" Once again, Mercury reached out for her glass.


            Ranma nodded.


            "We never did figure out exactly how those losers got that book, how they figured out the Princess was up here." Mercury took a pull from her glass and studied the crimson fluid. "I'm guessing you don't know who hired these cyborgs either."


            "Going to blame Setsuna?"


            "She'd blame Murdock."


            "And how is he doing?"


            "Absent," Mercury smirked. "I don't think his bosses like him very much either."


            "So, he is working for someone?" Ranma raised an eyebrow.


            "Someone that's his own boss wouldn't be so afraid of failure."


            "So, he's failed?"


            Mercury curled her gloved-fingers and looked at the silken fist. "Let's be honest, I know I'm just a backup plan." She frowned. "No I'm the booby-prize of a backup plan, and that plan went to hell when Minako figured out my charade. So what does Murdock have left?"


            "A jilted demoness with a growing brood and an... unconventional team of evil Pattern Silvers?" Ranma allowed.


            "Being generous?"


            "Well, you don't cackle insanely, but you do have an ice skirt..."


            "Lovely," Mercury frowned "So, there's plenty of threats to Usagi."


            "Yourself included," Ranma reminded.


            Mercury gave a dismissive hand-wave. "I'm not a critical one. I'm just an emotional threat to her."


            "Now, now," Ranma reached out to pat Mercury's hand. Chuckling, she slowly withdrew her hand. The barrier had only trembled at bit."Emotional damage is the best way to deal with her. Physical damage just gets her mad."


            Her hand twitching nervously, Mercury pulled it off the table. "You're giving me villain advice?"


            "You kept your nerve." Ranma lifted her glass and paused to enjoy the aroma. Without taking a sip, she put it down and stared at Mercury. "First thing, don't think of yourself as a villain."


            "I am trying to save her," Mercury glared.


            "Big deal," Ranma shrugged. "You're still treating it as a game. One where you play the dark Mistress and where Usagi plays the goody-goody princess. You know how that ends."


            "You're all in leather, like some kind of biker babe."


            Ranma raised an eyebrow. "There's a reason motorcyclists like boots and leather."


            Mercury sighed. "So it's okay for you to have fun costumes but not me?"


            "Huh? I didn't mention clothes. Wear whatever you want. It's how you see yourself that counts. People that think they're evil are either pathetic posers or pathetic posers with some power. No one who's really nasty thinks 'I'm being evil right now'. Monsters are just monsters."


            "In other words: be evil but don't gloat about it?"


            The redhead gave a warm smile. "Just be yourself."


            Mercury repressed a sigh and reached for her glass. "Any other words of wisdom?"


            "Don't act like a magical girl, even an evil magical girl."


            "And the price for this advice?"


            "If you're less of a mess, then you'll be less of a problem to me." Ranma shrugged. "You won't be driven to do something... rash."


            "This Setsuna thing's driven me to seek out your help."


            "As long as you don't do anything stupid," Ranma eyed the coifed evening-dress clad girl. "Or 'evil'. Nothing that would make you cackle maniacally."


            "What's wrong with that? You did it when you first sat down." Mercury glared.


            "We're starting with baby steps here. A small satisfied smile on a job well done is a good start."


            "I suppose a modicum of dignity is more fitting my style," Mercury allowed.


            "That's the idea. Don't pigeon-hole yourself. So you dress darkly and were turned into a lesbian and perform unethical experiments on your teammates, that doesn't mean the rest of you has to be a joke."


            "Glad, you have that much confidence in me."


            "What have you done? You beat the Senshi a couple times, they beat you once, you turned Minako, and you helped me fight the Assembly."


            "I'm getting to the bottom of Setsuna's secrets."


            "Sounds like a paranoid mess."


            Mercury raised an eyebrow.


            "Fine, that doesn't mean it's not true. This is Setsuna, but do you think you have a chance against her?"


            "You know... you're a real jerk," Mercury stated.


            "That's what I like about you," Ranma chuckled.


            "I'm perceptive?"


            "You're not family, you're not Company, you're not a friend, you're not even a diplomat or some other bigwig." Ranma smiled. "I don't have to be nice or polite to you. It's very refreshing."


            Mercury sighed. "Well, you are one of the few people I deal with that's not a servant or a lover."


            "Or a golden golem thing," Ranma smirked as she stood up. "You know how to contact me.


            "You're just leaving?"


            Ranma picked up the bottle of Scotch and studied the label. "Unless you've got something important to say." She leaned over the table. "Sure you're not interested in my offer?"


            Pulling back and standing up, Mercury maintained her composure. "As... elegant as your proposal is. I must decline it." She smiled thinly at the bottle the demon held. "Keep the Scotch."


            "Thanks. So, gonna gamble big then," Ranma shook her head and started to walk out of the bar. "Well, you're betting I'll stop Setsuna if you can't." The redhead smiled thinly when she smelled Mercury following her out.


            Once out in the rich night air, Ranma turned around and watched Mercury stand by the doorway. The succubus could just barely hear the engine of a small UAV. A few other patrons walked in and out of the bar some making their way to the tables put out front. "Getting cocky. I could have one of my girls watching you."


            "You could have taken me out in the bar," Mercury shrugged. "There's still enough people around. Just remember what I warned out about, please."


             "I will," Ranma promised, as she made a note to follow up the Company's future investigation and surveillance of the bar. She then turned and walked to her waiting ride.


            Despite herself Mercury laughed. The redhead was right. Dressed as she did, she looked completely natural walking up to a large violet, black and chrome motorcycle. She stuffed the bottle in a saddlebag and smoothed her hair back before putting on a full-face black helmet.


            Slipping on a pair of gloves, Ranma turned and chuckled to herself. Seemingly unaware, Mercury was a few strides closer to her. Ranma flipped up her visor. "It's a VRSC Night Rod, Harley Davidson."


            Mercury rubbed her chin. "It fits you," she said trying not to let on that she could not tell the difference between a Harley and Honda.


            "That's what Bob said, I thought it was a bit big... at first." Ranma said as she ran a hand down one of the handlebars.


            "Why'd you get it?"


            Ranma swung a leg over the bike. "My sister got it for me," she said as she eased into the saddle and turned the ignition. The engine turned over and she nearly purred to match the motor's rumbling. Flipping her visor down, she gave a wave to Mercury before darting into traffic.


            Mercury watched the bike race away and sighed. One had to take one's allies as they came.


           

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

 


            "The demon's back," Shest noted as she recorded the time and approach route.


            "So it's every other day," Arisha noted looking over the shorter woman's shoulder.


            "Not a standard time. The other mercenaries keep a pretty good rotation of coverage," Shest shrugged. "But it's not protective. We could easily get in."


            "Of course," Arisha chuckled walking over to an end table and inspected a box of chocolates Sem had indulged in. "But how easily could we get out?"


            "Is that why Galina's been holding us back?"


            "There are safer places to put our little Zaika. Clearly, she knows who we are."


            "They wanted us to know." Shest frowned. The Papists were fair warriors, but even more clever spies. To her, that was more repellant than their antiquated... theology. There was more than a bit of State Security hiding behind the broad smiles of the priests that had taken them, those years ago.


            Arisha sliced open a confection and frowned, nougat. "They assumed we would be watching the Papal Nuncio; so they turned the meeting into a statement."


            Wearing a robe Vosem had stepped out of the suite's shower, "They know what we are. They even have our bodies, and this is their slothful reaction?" The short-haired cyborg grumbled, as she walked to her suitcase.


            "You spent the day at the airport. Did you see any increased activity?" Arisha blandly asked.


            "No, but what does that matter?" Vosem grumbled as she slipped out of the robe and slipped onto a bodysuit. "There are crates, there are men. You don't need to read my report. Just a calculator."


            "Oh?"


            "If I were them, I'd always ship a full load, even with boxes full of sand."


            "And when more capacity is required, they can bring it in without changing the volume," Arisha noted as she tried another chocolate. "You do know why the crates are likely to be pointless right?"


            Vosem gave a measured look. "They have vehicles. Transports and helicopters come and go. Much could be moved in those. Their base needs provisions. There are plenty of ways to hide something. You can ask Galina when she gets back with the others. I'm sure she'll have a nice list of vehicles and crates too."


            She straightened out her grey and red garment. "Of course much can be said about their troops. A female soldier could be human, or something else."


            Arisha nodded. "They are a species designed for infiltration."


            "They are also confident. Both the demons and their mercenary masters. So, they could take things the easy way."


            "But so far they have not?"


            Shest frowned. "So, why have they sat on their hands?"


            "You assume that since you don't see it, that they're not moving against us?" Vosem harshly asked. "They wiped out a team without a sweat. Before they were told what we were. Svetlana and Ivanova underestimated them."

 
            "You see a greater challenge?"


            Vosem chuckled. "We know how the Company works. WIC is in the 'business' of fighting the unknown, of killing monsters. They seem to be rather good at it."


            Arisha savored the candy. "Are you saying you were spotted, then?"


            "If I was, they were clever enough to not let on." Vosem paused. "If so, I had to have escaped their tail."


            "Because we're happily chatting and enjoying Sem's generosity?" Arisha handed the box over to Vosem.


            "Yes, there's no reason for them to let us live. We're a threat to their little Princess."


            "If they wanted Zaika dead, we would be out of luck." Shest nodded.


            "Then why are they doing such a shoddy job of protecting her?" Arisha icily asked.


            "It's either better protection than we think or the Princess is grossly overconfident," Vosem sated chewing on a caramel.


            Shest considered Arisha's words earlier. "Or it's a trap."


            Arisha smirked. "Relations do seem...strained between these magical girls and the Company. They seem more than willing to use WIC's resources when they need some backup or a nice place to shower but..."


            "Like the Soviet?" Vosem whimsically asked. "Oh yes, all members were equal, after all class was what counted not nationality, but there were the more important nations."


            "That's what happens when the Politburo is staffed with counter-revolutionary hacks more concerned with race and personal power than the true strides of humanity." Arisha frowned and slowly closed her mouth. "History aside, are these girls deluded? The older one, Meiou seems to be quite the realist."


            "Not enough to force them to try to get us or even adopt a decent defensive position," Shest noted. "It's like they're obligingly waiting for us to make the first move."


            "Their internal rift could be a factor."


            "The rogue girl has maintained a low profile. Since the night when we attacked after the girls attacked her, she has done nothing. You would think we would be the bigger threat, at least after the meeting with the priest," Shest said.


            "So, what have they been doing this last week?"


            "Training, planning, building their defenses, and... going to school," Arisha sighed. "It's mocking how unserious this seems."


            "And yet WIC poses enough of a risk to keep us from sweeping them away?" Vosem asked as she pulled out another chocolate.


            Shest got up. "They're not treating us as a joke. They know exactly what we are." She reached out and snatched an orange crème. "They're using the situation. They know we can get to Zaika, but that..."


            "That's a fitting trap. As long as they're more concerned about killing us than saving the Princess," Vosem noted.


            "Perhaps they don't think she needs saving?" Arisha chuckled.


            "Letting her die? That depends on what value she has to them," Shest asked.


            "Or they don't think we'll kill her," Vosem smirked. "They know more about the Princess than we do."


            "In the past, she has proven rather... resilient," Shest allowed.


            "Against whom?" Arisha put the box of chocolates down. "You've seen how she is. She's led around by Meiou. She refuses help. She's stubborn, overconfident, and naive."


            "It's like she expects the universe to accommodate her," Vosem snidly said.


            Arisha critically looked over the other woman. "Then our course is clear. We are the best suited to show little Zaika what the universe is... unkind to foolish dreams."

 

End Chapter 22

 

 

Author's Notes:

 

I'd like to thank my pre-readers. They read through my most egregious mistakes so you don't have to. DGC, J St C Patrick, Terra, Pale Wolf, Wray, Kevin Hammel, Ikarus, Jerry Starfire, and Mike Koos.

 

An extra thanks goes to J St C Patrick. Go onto the fanart page of the Fukufics site and you'll find an opening sequence for The Return that he made. It's really something else.

 

Thanks to Stratagemini for the "Demonic" names for the various features and terms. His advice and his extensive knowledge of Latin was an integral part of doing this, especially in finding real Latin words and adapting them to the definitions, tenses, and other terms to make up the Demonic variant.

 

Numerically Designated Magical Combat Cyborgs designed and built by Doctor Scaglietti is from Nanoha StrikerS owned by Keizō Kusakawa and Seven Arcs. The individual characters are different from the StikerS ones, being they're bitter Russians living as mercenaries and not prototypes being used by a man fighting the Time-Space Administration Bureau