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As Faye lay on her bed, passively watching the ceiling, The Bebop cycled through its regular mechanical actions.  It was as if nothing at all had changed, and as if everything had changed, all at once.  The same old sounds, the same old setting, but somehow it all seemed quiet and surreal compared to the days before.

She didn’t want to sleep.

The past was the past, and that was the way that was best.  For heaven’s sake, if there was a heaven, she had better things to do with her life than sit sulking over what she had lost during a dream.

But every night, without fail, that dream came back to her.  Places and people she had lost and regained; faces she had loved once, and now felt detached from.  Life in the present, her current needs and relationships, wasn’t that enough?

It was, she decided, and reached for a cigarette.  Spike had never let his past go, or perhaps it had never let him go; the end result was the same.  He became another memory, weighing down the walls of

The Bebop

and haunting the crew in memories.

The ship was empty.  Faye stepped cautiously down the echoing corridors, sliding softly onto the couch.  Why was she so scared?  Who could she disturb if she made enough noise to shake the foundations of Mars itself?  If Jet was woken up, he’d just go tinker with the (name Hammerhead?) or water his bonsai.  There was no-one else to disturb, and even if there was, she wouldn’t have cared.  She never had in the past, after all.  She lay back, and reached out with a toe for the videoscreen, and her leg arched out over the empty bench.  Sighing, she sat up, leant over, and retrieved it from a drawer in the bench.  It must’ve been put away after everything that had happened.  It wasn’t as if they’d wanted to use it or anything.  She settled back down, and flicked through the channels.  Brainless, empty garbage.

She shook her head, and turned it off again.  It was all pointless.

 

Jet walked into the room in the morning to find Faye lying on the couch.  She was frowning, and shifting in a restless manner.

“…no…”

Jet leant over her, and rested a hand on her shoulder.

Hey, Faye…”

She kept fidgeting, and appeared more agitated.  He gently shook her, and when she still didn’t wake, he shook her harder.

What the HELL do you think you’re DOING?!”

She glared at Jet, and he backed off, hands raised in surrender.

Don’t blame me, you were the one with the nightmare.”

She seemed to calm down, and the tension drained from her body as she slumped back down.  To Jet, she looked exhausted and strangely sad.

I’ve just been having rough dreams lately.  Sorry.”

Sorry?”

Jet shook his head.  The reason he’d searched out Faye was to discuss other matters.  They’d drifted in space for a while now, and while he’d rather not have to return to Mars so soon, without any information they’d have to head over there.  No other way to find a bounty to hunt.  When he mentioned it to her, she closed her eyes for a long moment.

 

When Faye opened her eyes, she found that she could not say exactly what feelings were stirring inside her heart, but also that the same confusion and distress was apparent in Jet’s own eyes.

I suppose we have to eat sometime.  Let’s go.”

 

***

 

Ranma sat on the roof of one of the less refined buildings of Earth, if there was anything that resembled “refined” on that junkyard of a planet.  She sighed, and rested her head in her hands.  Memories were plaguing her, which was quite unusual.  As far back as she could recall, she hadn’t had many memories.  That strange doctor had revived her, and her oldest memory was that of the sensation of cold water sliding off of her body, and the bright lights that lit the room.  She had woken from, they told her, a very long sleep.  All data lost except for her name; Ranma Saotome.  She had sat in the hospital for months, coming to terms with herself and her body.  That had been the hardest part, admittedly.  She had ventured to take a calming shower on her first night in her hospital room, only to discover a terrible secret.

When she was touched by hot, sometimes even just warm water, she became a man.  She had screamed at first, and crumpled into a small ball.  Was this all due to the freezing process?  Had the doctor changed her DNA for some perverted reason?

If she hadn’t calmed down and washed her face with cold water, she might have never regained her sense of self.  The change was triggered again, and she found herself in her normal form.

What the hell had happened to her?  Who the hell had she been?

After a few long months had passed, a young girl had come to the hospital, carrying her pet cat.

Great gods, that cat.  When it entered the room, it had exclaimed in a loud voice, and ran straight for her.  Ranma began to shiver and twitch, and she screamed for the girl to take the cat away.  She didn’t, though.  She just smiled, and tilted her head to get a better view of the horrific creature.

Is this her, Luna?”

Then, Ranma had blacked out.  When she woke again, she was far from the hospital.  A room that was covered in pink and shiny things, full of lacy pillows and feminine effects, and a small door that bore no semblance to the rest of it all.  As she moved to investigate, the door hissed open and the girl entered.  She had long blonde hair, tied up in two small buns that trailed much longer hair to the ground.  Her blue eyes glared accusingly at Ranma.

You might be one of the Senshi, but I don’t recall you from our past lives, and you attacked Luna!  What sort of person are you?”

I don’t know, really… do you?”

 

Thank whatever gods still existed that she’d gotten away from them, and their stupid cat.  The reincarnations of what once were royalty, reduced to parading in dark alleyways with lycra costumes and verbose catch-phrases.  But now she was stranded on Earth and had no official identity.  No money, no food, no job.  She was only about seventeen, and she had nowhere to go.  That pack of ditsy love-and-peace whackos had dragged her from Mars, center of the commercial galaxy, to Earth.  Home of their idealised self-centric universe.  Tsukino Usagi, the blonde princess of the lot, had broken down in tears.  Apparently, the health of the Earth was in direct relation to that of her beloved.  Ramna had been a bit skeptical about it all.  After all, if she really was the moon princess, then why was she still around?  Even just a few weeks had educated Ranma about the hyperspace gates, and the tragedy that surrounded their first activation.  By all rights, that girl should be in an iron lung.  Of course, it was always possible that her erratic and selfish behaviour, and utterly dull wits were all due to the catastrophe.  Ranma had seen stranger things in her know existence than that, after all.

She lay down on the roof, and looked up at the sky.  At least one thing in this world seemed relatively familiar.  When she had been sitting up, all the rubble and detritus around her had overwhelmed her.  It stretched in a grey, ragged line to the blue ocean in one direction, and the flat red deserts in the other.  In her left hand rested a headest; a connection to all the computers in the universe.  At the moment, it was a dull grey lump of plastic that was indistinguishable from the Ranma’s surroundings, and would easily be lost among them if it was dropped.  But once Ranma turned it on and started browsing the net, it would open up behind the lenses into an infinitely huge horizon.  She’d bought it for an exorbitant price when she’d still been with the Senshi, and had been practicing with it; she was hoping to find some hint of herself among the endless data that spewed forth from humanity.

There really was nothing better to do on Earth, anyway.  Just read the electronic words the rest of the universe fed you, and avoid the meteor showers.  Not much else to do with the day, really.

Ranma watched the blue luminescence float behind iconic avatars for businesses, personal data, television stations and countless other things.  She ducked and weaved through them with her visual interface, until she reached the search engine she had grown accustomed to using.  She typed, in lowercase romanised letters, ranma saotome, and sat back.  It took a few seconds for it to respond with the same words every day; subject not found.  Please check that your entry was spelt correctly.

But this time, a soft chirrup from the speaker announced that something had been found.  A page from someone’s personal site, with an image of her, and a paragraph that had Ranma immediately interested.

 

We, the Sailor Senshi, have placed a bounty on this individual.  For details on how to redeem the reward, please contact the Mars Police.  For information on our organisation or our members, please return to the homepage and select what you need from our menu.  Thank you for visiting us!

 

The idiots!”  She exclaimed, and removed her headset. 

A large, wide grin with flaming orange-red hair assaulted her, and proclaimed with delight, “Found!  Cowgirl Ed and Cow-woof-woof Ein have success!”

A light brown corgi barked, and jumped onto Ranma’s lap. Ranma shuddered with shock, and leant away from the face.

What?  Get offa me!”

Okay!” Ed amiably agreed, and slid off of Ranma’s chest.

Sitting up, Ranma assessed the situation.  Who else would be looking for her now?

Are you a bounty hunter?”

The girl, if it was a girl, tilted her head and looked quizzically at Ranma.

Ed is Ed.  Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky the 4th!  But you can call me Ed.  Ein is a cow-woof-woof, right Ein?”

The dog, Ein, barked in agreement.

Riight… so what are you doing here?”

Ed sat and thought for a minute, scratching her head.

Papa was chasing rocks, and I was busy crashing planes, so I got left behind.  Ein and Ed want to be Cowboys again, but we can’t.  Ed’s a cowgirl, and Ein’s…”

A cow-woof-woof?”

Exactly!  We just have to find Faye-Faye and Spike-Spike, and The Bebop, then we’ll be cow-everyones!”

She paused, and looked at Ranma again. Who are you?”

I’m… Ranma Saotome…”

Ed grinned, and held out her hand.

You can be a cowgirl, too!”

Uh, okay… what does a cowgirl do, exactly?”

Bounty Hunter!”

Ranma frowned. You do Bounty Hunters?”

No, are Bounty Hunters, silly.”

Ranma let go of her hand, and backed off a little.

I’d rather not, really…”

Ed grabbed her hand again. No, you would.  Ed knows you have a Bounty of your own.  But Ed doesn’t care, because Cowgirl Ed and Cow-woof-woof Ein can get a lot more for other people.  You’re only worth half as much as Tomato.”

She held up a computer she had had strapped to her back, and placed it on top of her head.  It had the word “tomato” written in red along one side.

Yep, you’re better of being a cow-girl!”

*** 

Faye rolled the door open, and stepped inside the main room.  It was empty, as usual.  Even so, she sat down on the couch and sighed.

That was completely pointless.  I spent more money on fuel than the payout was.”

She was answered by silence.  What was the point in talking, anyway?

The pneumatic hiss of the door from the cockpit opening made her look up.  Jet was standing in the doorway, rubbing his neck.

What did you get from him?”

She hung her head and put a small pile of notes onto the table. This is your share, before expenses.”

Jet leant forward, peering at the small amount of money. And… after expenses?”

She sat back in the chair and forced a laugh. You owe me 100.”

What?!”

She smiled at his outrage, and crossed her legs elegantly. Well, if I’d had good enough information, or you’d even dropped me off close to where you thought the guy’d be, I’d have more than a quarter of a tank left.  It’s just enough money to refuel the Redtail enough for next time.”

Jet fell silent, and sat down on the smaller seat. Oh.”

Yeah.”

They both sat there, hearts heavy with thought.  They had barely pulled through some months when there had been four to share the workload.  The Hammerhead was not suited to fast chases, but only one ship out there resulted in, ultimately, failure.  Or success that cost more than it was worth.  What they really needed was some more crewmembers, but that wasn’t going to happen soon.

We need cash.” Faye said, more to break the silence than anything else.

Wait!”  Jet held up his hand, and looked her in the eyes.  “Do you still have that BETA VCR Spike and I got?  It’d be worth heaps at the right place!”

She wrung her hands together, and shook her head.  Even if she could never go home, even if she had to move on, to lose those images from her past would be too much.

Sorry,” he said, reading the emotions on her face, “But I’ve got another idea.”

She pushed her hair back behind her ears, and looked up at him. What now?”

Well, it’s pretty messy, but I know a place we could get some stuff worth just as much.”

Faye smiled, and clapped her hands. Now, that’s more like it.”

 

***

 

Ed lay on her back, Ein on her lap.  Ranma sat a few metres behind her, holding a satellite dish above her head.  At least, the red-head reflected, Ed had promised to feed her after another hour.  But it didn’t take that long; within a few seconds of logging on, Ed smiled widely and kicked her legs with pleasure.

Bebop!  They came, they came!  Welcome back!”

 

***

 

They passed the Gate easily enough, though their pockets and hearts felt the fees as almost a tangible thing, rather than the electronic numbers they truly were.

They landed in the water, spraying warm foam onto the nearby rubble as their hull cooled down from entry.  Earth was, as usual, silent compared to other planets.  No other ships were in the area, and there were no human forms on the horizon.

Jet checked the rope he was packing a second time, and grunted with morose satisfaction.  He’d never thought that he’d have to traipse through that dank, waterlogged, rusting scrapheap again, but that old electronics museum was full of antique electronics; easy money compared to the luck they’d had with bounty-hunting recently.

Faye groaned, and kicked her own pack with disgust. When you said we’d be going underground, I didn’t think you meant it literally.  What the hell is this?  How can this be ‘easy money’?”

Well, if you’d stop making your ship such a financial liability to The Bebop, I’d be perfectly happy to hunt another bounty.  However, I have something better to do with my time than patch your garbage up.  And this way, we get money while your machine is safely locked up.  We’re taking the Hammerhead, to carry all the stuff.”

Yeah?  Well, I’m going for a walk.”  She pouted, and kicked the bag another time for emphasis.

As the door slid shut behind her, Jet swore under his breath. Women.”

* * * 

Faye left The Bebop and sat on the edge of the rubble, kicking her legs in the water.  Her boots rested beside her, and her hands were clasped in her lap.

What had been her childhood home was halfway around the world, a bare patch of brown earth with the occasional pile of stones that bore witness to what was once a wall or doorway.  She could never go back there, she realised.  It would be too hard to face the memories, especially in light of her dreams.  Each one ended in the shuttle she had taken, except that all of the passengers were her family and friends.  She would see the gravity fail, and their cups float into the air; she saw their smiles and heard their laughter.  It was incredible, to experience such a thing as riding in a space shuttle.  But then the glass cracked, and her head was full of the screams of her loved ones.  She saw the window crack, making the Earth appear to be broken in half, and as the other passengers choked and gagged in the vacuum behind her, their blood floated around the morbid omen in the window.

She felt herself growing short of breath, and then she felt a cold hand on her shoulder.  Clammy, wet, and cold.  Stiff and lifeless.  She turned, eyes widened in fear, to be confronted with the worm-eaten face of Spike Speigel.

Screaming, she woke; panting for breath and losing her identity for a few moments.  Where was she?  Was she still in the hospital?

No, she was always back on The Bebop.  And every time she tried to banish the dream from her mind, it came back full force.

She shivered as she unwillingly recalled the feel of that cold, dead hand on her shoulder, and then jumped in shock as she heard a voice.

Faye-Faye!”

 

***

 

Ed held tight to Ranma’s hand as she dragged her through the rubble.  What had happened to her meal?  Why were they running so goddamn fast?  In the distance, the blue expanse of ocean was growing larger, taking up all of the horizon as they moved towards it.  A large brown ship slid into the water, clumsy from its size, but smooth and elegant with its movements.  Someone very accomplished was its pilot.  Warm water was pushed up into the air by its hull, and light, lukewarm droplets fell onto Ranma’s face and arms as she followed Ed.  Luckily, they had cooled enough by the time they touched her, and she didn’t change.  The huge ship settled next to the shore of rubble, then sat for a long time in silence.  As they came within sight of the actual shoreline, Ranma could see a young woman sitting on the shore, with her legs in the water.  A sad look of regret was on her face, but that disappeared into shock as Ed shouted out, Faye-Faye!”

 

***

 

Faye looked up to see Ed running, with one hand holding her computer on her head; the other grasped the wrist of another, older girl.  The older girl was carrying a frazzled looking Ein under her free arm.

Ed?  Ed!”

The girls met Faye in front of The Bebop, as she was pulling her boots back on.

What are you doing here?”

Papa ran away again.  Ed wants to be Cowgirl!  This is Ranma!”

The girl behind Ed shifted uncomfortably, and smiled. Hi…”

Faye frowned.  The girl was suspiciously familiar, somehow. Hi, I’m Faye Valentine.  Are you a friend of Ed’s?”

Ranma scratched the ground nervously with one foot. You could say that…”

We are COWGIRLS!  Bang!  Eh-heh!”

Ed ran, scrambling up the side of the Bebop.  Faye turned to Ranma, and rested a hand on her shoulder. So, where are you from, exactly?”

Ranma wanted to speak, but something stole her voice from her.  She followed Faye towards the access ladder that Ed had ignored, and tried to figure out what to say.  Truth was best, wasn’t it?  After all, if there was a best way to leave the Senshi behind, fading into another group would make her stand out a lot less than she would on her own.  And for that, they needed to trust her; yes, truth was best.

I, er… I was… defrosted.”

Faye stopped near the top of the ladder, shaking slightly.

You mean, cryogenically frozen?” She recovered herself, and continued climbing.  “Was it Dr. Baccus?”

Ranma then paused, and looked at Faye with disbelief. Were you?”

The older woman nodded, and turned to give Ranma a hand up, smiling. Welcome to the Bebop.

 

* * *

Jet!”

Jet looked up from packing to see a young, red-headed girl cannonball towards him from the catwalk above.

Oomph!”  He grunted, as Ed landed on his chest.  “Ed?  Is that you, Ed?”

The prodigal returns!”  She exclaimed, and wrapped her arms around his neck, rubbing her cheek against his.  Unconsciously, Jet began to blush.

The door slid shut, and multiple feet echoed on the metal-mesh catwalk.  Looking up again, Jet saw Faye’s legs, some stranger’s legs, and another old friend. Ein!”

Ein barked, and ran down the stairs towards Jet.  Faye followed with Ranma in a slower fashion, unable to keep herself from smiling.

This is Ranma, Ed’s new friend.”  She said, waving at the girl.  “Ranma, Jet owns the Bebop, and prefers the company of plants to that of humans.”

Ed jumped off of Jet, and ran off to plug Tomato in, so Jet stood and offered Ranma his hand to shake. Hi.  Nice to meet you.  I’m Jet Black.”

Jet turned to Faye, and lowered his voice. So, what happened to… ‘Papa’?”

She shrugged.  “Went chasing more flying rocks, I expect.  Anyway, at least someone who can operate a computer is here now.”

Hey, I’m just as talented as Ed.  I just haven’t spent years online honing my skill.”

Faye rolled her eyes, and walked off to her room. Sure, but she’s still better than you.  Are you coming, Ranma?”

 

Faye’s room was small, and Ranma noticed a TV and VCR at the end of her bed.

It’s good to see that someone still has a TV.  I still have trouble figuring out the new system.  What sort of shows do you get on this one?”

Faye sighed, and sat down on her bed, motioning for Ranma to do the same. Sit down.  I just have a question for you, first.”

Sure.  What?”

Faye took a deep breath, and looked Ranma in the eyes. When you woke up, could you remember anything?”

Er… no.”

Faye’s face relaxed somewhat.  She leant over, and turned the TV on, then pressed “play” on the tape player.  A light blue sky filled the screen, and with shaky camerawork it showed views of a beachside town, then of a young girl with her friends.  Faye took a deep breath, then spoke.

I didn’t, either.  I spent years trying to regain my past; to find somewhere I could return to.  And when I found it, when I saw this tape and when I finally went home to Earth, I realised the one truth.  Everything from my past, my regained memories, had disappeared sometime during the fifty years I’d spent asleep.  My home is a flat piece of dirt.  Everyone I know is dead, or… or dying.”

She waited until Ranma was facing her, and then she held the girl’s shoulders in both her hands, firmly. The past will bring you nothing.  Whoever you are now, whatever you do, nothing from then can bring you anything but pain.  Trust me, trust someone who knows.  Spare yourself the pain.”

 

Ranma stared at her, shocked, and Faye fell back onto her bed.  Why had she said that?  True, the girl was in a similar situation, but it felt… alien.  As if the scared girl from her dreams was permeating her waking mind.

Never mind that,” she said, and stood up.  “Let’s go and see what our plans are now.”

 

* * *

Faye relaxed in the bath that night, breathing in the warm steam.  Out in the living areas, she knew, Jet would be cooking whatever stored food he could find; Ed would be hacking something or someone halfway across the galaxy, and Ein would be licking her toes.  Ranma?  Faye supposed that Ranma would find something for herself to do.  After all, she’d been keeping herself amused with Ed for weeks apparently.

It was nice to relax.  With all the noises and voices in the ship, it was easy to lose her mind.  It was easy enough to not listen to herself.

And what better place to ignore oneself, to drift meaninglessly, than in a warm bath with a cigarette?

She rested her head back against the rim of the tub, and stretched her legs out over the edge.  This… this was the life.

Ahem.”

She jumped, and inadvertently splashed hot bathwater over whoever had entered the room.

Faye looked over the edge of the bath cautiously, and saw a young man of perhaps seventeen, with his black hair in a long plait down his back.  He had frozen in her gaze.

Oh.  Well, in that case…

 

* * *

Jet looked up from his cooking as he heard a scream, and then loud thumping noises.  Into the room ran a young man with dark hair, being chased by a towel-clutching and furious Faye.

Wait, please!  Faye, I can explain!”

The boy ducked a punch Faye had thrown at him, and turned towards Jet with appeal in his eyes.

I… kitchen!  Yes!”

And the boy ran past Jet, elbowing his way into the kitchen.

Hey, you!  Just what do you think you’re…”

The boy had reached the sink, and had shoved his arm beneath the tap as the cold water began to run.  The boy seemed to melt or fade perhaps, and instead there stood Ranma.  She blushed, and bowed her head a little.

Sorry, I… I have something I have to tell you.”

 

They all sat on the chairs, except for Ed, who sat on Faye’s lap.

Well?”  Faye demanded, glaring crossly at anyone who met her eyes.

I…” Ranma began, then shook her head.  “When I woke up, I reacted similarly.  When I took my first shower, I realized that something was wrong… I had turned into a man.  When I got out of the hospital, I met a Feng Shui master called Meifa, and she said that the powers of yin and yang were unbalanced within me.”

Faye and Jet stared at her still, while Ein sniffed her foot.  Ranma shifted uncomfortably on her seat.

Er, well… I didn’t mean to be this way…”

Faye smiled at Jet in a conspiratorial way.

Well, you’re cute, for all it’s worth.  And we’ve just determined how you can be a functional member of our crew!”

What?”  Jet scratched his head, and looked at Ranma.

She has an instant disguise!”

Jet grunted, and nodded. Well, we’re off to Mars, in any case.  There’s quite a price on some young arsonist over there.”

Faye frowned.  “But what about all those antiques?”

Jet shrugged, and walked towards the cockpit.

According to Francois over there, Papa recorded a rockfall at that exact same location a few months ago.  It’s all gone.”

Faye sunk to the floor again.  All those millions of Woolongs that had been hers for the taking, all gone.

 

***

 

Usagi sat, dejected, with Luna in what had once been a train station on Earth, but was now a bustling marketplace.  The impoverished and unemployed jostled tourists and stall-owners alike, and the entire place stank of fetid humanity.  When they had fought another of those all-encompassing “final” battles against darkness and demons, they’d felt that despite all fears they would once again triumph.  After all, Neo-Tokyo and eternal happiness had been just one more evil plot away. 

But everything had gone wrong, and although they were not destroyed, most of the Senshi had fallen into deep sleep, or at least so Luna said.  All that Usagi knew was that she had woken up half a century ago in a changing world, to find Earth destroyed and her role in its destiny severely altered.

Where was everyone?  Where was Pluto?  She had warned them about jeopardising their future with rash acts, but had they really made such a great mistake?

They must have.  No, she must have.  Everyone was gone, after all.  After Ranma had run off, the rest had given up.  What was the point in sticking together, after all?  There were no more Yamiko, and each of them had changed so much from their debilitating pasts that going it alone was preferable to hanging on for scraps on Earth.

But she couldn’t bring herself to leave.  This was Earth, and if Mamoru was anywhere, he was bound to be there.

She didn’t want to think about what it might mean if he wasn’t.  Could the explosion of the first gate really have damaged the Earth so much that he could have been… hurt?

But she had to stop thinking about these things.  She had decided the day before that enough was enough, and although she couldn’t get off of the Earth, she could at least try to find out as much information as she could.

Luna had asked her, at the time, if she thought she’d be able to keep at it for more than a day without breaking down in tears or throwing a tantrum.  But Usagi was determined to do this.  She wasn’t the whiny high-school-girl she had once been, after all; she had changed as much as her surroundings.  The first thing she had done that morning was brush her hair back, not up, and tie it in a ponytail.  It was time to move on, to forget the past and work towards what could become her future.

 

***

 

After the trip to Mars, while Ed researched their next target and Faye slept, Jet took Ranma aside to his bonsai room.  Ranma sat nervously on the bench beside Jet.

You said you’d met Meifa?”

Ranma started.  Meifa?  Oh, yeah.  The Feng Shui girl.

Yeah, I was on Mars with… some others.  This girl jumped down from above a bus-stop, and grabbed my wrist.  She muttered something quickly, and pulled me across the road and into a shop.  Then she looked at me, pulled out this board of hers, and told me that in my current state of being, I was an unbalanced anomaly.  That she wanted to try and help me.  Then, the others caught up with us and when I turned back to say “goodbye”, she’d already left.”

Jet nodded thoughtfully. That sounds like her.”

You know her?”

I was her father’s friend a long time ago.  How was she?  Healthy?”

Ranma laughed softly, regretting being so tense before.  They’d accepted her for what she was, hadn’t they?

Yeah, she was really energetic and enthusiastic.”

Jet smiled, and nodded.

Just like when I last saw her.  That’s good to hear.  So, where did you say she was last?”

 

Ed floated through the net, collecting data as she went.  Their target was a girl who was unnamed, and wanted for arson in the central Mars shopping district.  Strangely enough, Ed encountered another person who was looking for the girl.  Jet’s ISSP friend had given them a tip; the bounty wasn’t due out for two days yet.

Suspicious!  Malicious!  Delicious!”

Ed found the other user logged in as “bun-bun”, and they were looking for a few very specific people.  All women, in fact.  Rei (Mars’ name?) was the dark-haired arsonist that Ed was after; she had had ties to a special group… Ed blinked as she saw the name.  Senshi.  So, it was the person who was after Ranma.   Ed stretched her arms and set to work.  Whoever this person was, they deserved investigation.

 

She was a girl, Ed found out.  Or, at least, her machine had lots of pink involved in its themes.  And there was a lot of information.  Diary entries; hundreds of pop songs and magazine files; databases, and that was what Ed was concerned with.  She copied the files to Tomato, and logged out of bun-bun’s computer, but not before leaving a small grinning icon in the folder she had copied.

 

She opened the first clump of files, which were named after the planets of the solar system.  She opened them in order of proximity to the sun, beginning with “Mercury”.  Inside she found a personal profile that included blood type, date of birth, hobbies, photographs, and a special section that included “date of awakening”, “manifestation” and “location”.

Mercury was Ami Mizuno.  Her favourite colour was blue, and she liked schoolwork.  She also liked, apparently, drowning her opponents with attacks that were water-centric.

The rest followed in similar form; names that matched planets, and manifestations of powers related to mythology.  Ed knew all about myths; Ed had hacked the Titans game when she was a real little kid, and had ended up with a lump of background information and character dialogues.  Ed knew what Ed was looking at, here.

So “Mercury” was Mizuno Ami;”Venus” Minako Aino; “Earth” Ranma Saotome; “Moon” Usagi Tsukino; “Mars” Rei (name), the arsonist from Mars; “Jupiter” Makoto; “Saturn” Hotaru; “Uranus” Haruka; “Neptune” Michiru; “Pluto” Setsuna.

Ed left the files of names and went in search of different files.  Ed chose the most different in size and name; “Optimal Tokyo 001”.

It was odd; a file that detailed a chronology of events that followed the past near exactly up to a certain point.  A slight deviation in trivial matters changed, over decades, into a great deviation.  It was as if this future had taken off tangentially from reality, or perhaps the other way around.  Ed opened six more similar files, all with names like “Optimal” or “Potential” or “Hazardous” in the titles.  Each one was another timeline for reality, each with Usagi, moon, as the central character.

Ed returned to Moon’s profile.  The girl was blonde, and had two small buns on top of her head, long hair trailing down from them.  Presumably, this was bun-bun.

So, she was the moon.  What about Pluto, the person and planet from which the files seemed to have originated?

As far as Ed was aware, Pluto was one of the gods of the underworld.  What exactly that signified, Ed had no idea.

 

***

 

Ranma lay on her bed, tossing.  She couldn’t sleep.  She knew, from Ed, that there used to be another member of the Bebop’s crew.  Spike had gone off and never returned; he had left a spare bed.

Ranma felt uneasy using the room, but Jet had insisted.  And Faye?  Faye had stepped onto Mars to visit a casino.  She hadn’t come back, and when Ranma had asked Jet, he’d just chuckled.

Oh, she’ll be back, when she’s made a fortune, lost it, and doubled her initial debt.  Just give it a few more days.”

So Ranma lay on a dead man’s bed, and looked up at his bare roof.  Things were slow, but apparently when Ed came up with information, they would be very busy for a very short period of time.

Ranma was, strangely enough, anticipating a potential chase or fight with excitement.  All those staged battles against thugs and drunkards had irritated her with the Senshi, but for some reason being with these people was… fun.

Ranma rolled onto her side, and rubbed her eyes.  She was tired, it was just that sleep refused to come.

 

The rain fell softly on the roof of the dojo, and a young girl with short black hair readied herself to crush the bricks in front of her.  With a loud shout, she brought her hand down towards the bricks…

And found that it was interrupted by a foot.  A foot that belonged, in fact, to the leg of a young woman who was also in the dojo.

Ranma!  Can’t you go play on the roof?  I’m trying to train here!”

Ranma sneezed, and shook her head.

I’ve got a cold.  And, anyway, training as a girl always ruins my aim.  I can’t really help needing to be in here now, can I?  And it is. after all, it is a large training hall.”

Akane frowned, and stood her ground.

I was here first!  And in any case, since when have you wanted to use MY training hall?”

Ranma kicked the bricks, but was careful not to break them.

Since it was raining.  Technically, it’s as much mine as yours anyway… darling.”

Akane blushed, and stalked off to the other end of the training hall, and Ranma made her way to the kettle she had set down near the door.  As she poured it over herself, Akane turned around again.

What makes you think I’d let Dad make me marry you?”

Ranma looked at her, in the eyes, and then slumped against the wall.  This was never going to work.

Akane huffed, and turned her back on him again to begin a training kata.  Slowly she calmed and let herself fall into the rhythm.  Ranma stood and joined her after a while, and when they reached the end of the pattern, he showed her the more complicated steps he had shown her the week before.  She fell into step and made no noise when he moved behind her, to watch her movement.  She made no objection when he softly corrected her position.

When he reached in front of her to lift her arm a little, she stopped moving.  Ranma could feel his heart beating faster every second.  She didn’t move away, she didn’t hit him…

Akane…”

Her breathing came softly, quickly.  Was she feeling the same way he was?

Akane, I… I like you.”

She turned to stone in his arms, and turned around.  Slowly, she stepped back, and when the slap hit his face the speed of that movement took him completely by surprise.  She turned and ran out of the dojo, into the rain that had begun to fall harder and harder.

Wait…”

 

“…Akane!”

Ranma woke, shuddering, and found a hollow sadness inside her heart.  It had sunken in deep, and she bent over in two to try and contain the pain.

Hiding her face in her hands, she felt her tears trail down her arms and into her sleeves.  The hollowness and aching felt as if it resonated with every vein and artery in her body; choking her with physical pain.  Curling in on herself, tensing muscles and trying to fight the agony, she lay in the darkness.

 

When the sensation faded, Ranma lay still for a while.  Who was that face?  That foggy, familiar girl whose name and identity evaded her?  Had they been friends?  Sisters?  Lovers?

Ranma laughed.  Women were much prettier than men, but she didn’t feel like a lesbian.  But Ranma knew that this girl was, somehow, a person from her past; a person whose body had long since dissolved into the earth.  Another wave of darkness and depression threatened to overcome her again, so she resolutely left her bed and padded into the main room.

 

Ed was sitting in the corner, frowning at the data on her display.  Ranma walked over and sat down beside her, then began to scratch Ein absently.

Is it going well?”

Ed started, and then turned to Ranma, pouting.

Ed has too much to do.  What does the Earth mean?  Are you Gaia?”

Ranma frowned herself, then peered at what tomato’s screen displayed.

Oh, Luna’s records.  I’m “Earth” for no real reason.  There used to be this guy, before me, but they never mentioned him much.  I’m really just filling in for someone else, because I had the right sort of magical aura or something.”

Ranma didn’t want to ask Ed where or how she’d gotten the files; the one time she had asked Ed for something like that, the conversation had been near incomprehensible.  Ranma sat back, and sighed.  She was so very tired, but sleep was not an option, as her previous attempt had shown.  It was still dark outside, and Jet wouldn’t be up for hours.

Ed opened Rei’s file, and then dragged up another window with the description of their bounty target.

Burnination!” Ed proclaimed, and Ranma stared at the screen.  She was right; the arsonist was Rei.

I… I know where she’ll be.  Is there any way to record something like temple access?”

Ed wriggled her fingers, and bent over her keyboard.

I know, I know.  Security Cameras or bust!”

Ranma scratched her back and stretched, as Ed hunted down the Shinto-istic temples that had security cameras installed.  She called up the files from the last few days, and set them to run fast.  Five windows of ridiculously hurried prayers and obsequiousness fluttered on the screen, until Ranma noticed a more familiar flicker of hair.

Wait, there.  Third from the right.”

Ed skipped back, and they watched Rei move slowly into the main temple room.  She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but the way that she carried herself made her stand out from the rest of the crowds; she was not mumbling prayers or shuffling like the rest of the crowd, but moving carefully as if she felt a great spiritual emotion.

She bowed, clapped her hands, and the image froze.

Ed clapped, bowed solemnly towards tomato’s screen, and saved the image to her hard drive.

 

***

 

Faye stumbled back to the Bebop in the early hours of the morning, to find Ranma and Ed lying on the floor.  Ed was asleep, one raised leg twitching in the air, but Ranma was just lying on the ground, staring at the roof.

I’m home.” She grated the words out of a gravel-lined throat, and dropped her battered shopping bag.

Ranma sat up and looked blearily at her.

You look as bad as I feel, right now.” Faye laughed.  She moved over and rested a cool hand on Ranma’s forehead.  It was warm, and clammy against her palm.

But I guess you must feel worse…”

 

By the time she had helped Ranma into her bed, Jet and Ed had woken up, and were exclaiming over what was being displayed on Ed’s computer’s screen.  Faye guessed that they’d found their arsonist, but Ranma was more worrying than that.  As Faye held a cool wet cloth to Ranma’s forehead, the girl tensed in her sleep.  She shifted about, and murmured to herself in her fevered sleep.

“…no… Akane…”

 

Ranma stood, unhappily, over what had once been a church.  Why hadn’t he seen it all coming?  Even with Shampoo distracted and Ukyou out of town, with Ryouga MIA and Kuno on a training camp…

What had possessed them to assume that everything would go alright?  Even secrets and constant fear of discovery was better than this.  Akane was sitting dejectedly on the remains of a pew, holding a blanket around herself to conceal her tattered dress.

And over by the street, half-shadowed by the darkness of night, was Kodachi Tatewaki.  Her dark form was twisted, dark shadows beneath her eyes betraying the demon that possessed her.  Dark power crackled like inverse electricity around her fingers, and she stepped towards Ranma.

She had attacked Akane, but now all of her attention was focused on Ranma.

Pathetic little girl,” the demon snarled through Kodachi’s mouth.  “So easy to manipulate.  You should be proud for inspiring such mindless devotion to one goal; for blinding her to my powerful presence…”

Ranma had circled around the monster during her speech, and was slowly leading her away from Akane and the Tendou sisters…

Now, I…”

I am Sailor Moon!”

A blonde girl ran past Ranma, knocking him to the side.  She was followed by four other girls, all wearing similar outfits.

Now, Usagi!”  One of them had shouted, and the blonde had nodded.

She raised her arm, spun around, and together all five shouted words that were too loud for Ranma to hear.  A bright light razed the scene, crackling with electric energy, burning with fire, and permeating the ground as if it was a liquid.  Then, an all-too familiar scream sounded from behind the monster and the light, and Ranma reached out in vain.

AKANE!”

The world felt very heavy on his heart, and Ranma felt himself falling backwards.  One of the girls ran towards him, and he heard her footsteps as if through cottonwool.

I… Oh, god.  Usagi, I… we… what have we done?”

 

Ranma woke slowly, feeling exhausted.  All she could recall was that familiar sense of desolation, and a sort of lethargic warmth.  She was exhausted, and she felt as if she wanted to slip back into that foggy and tired oblivion.  Darkness, and the complete absence of dreams.

Then she saw Faye, who was sitting across the room and smoking, eyebrows furrowed with concern.  What had happened?

Ranma could remember having a bad dream, then sitting up with Ed, discovering that Rei had been their next bounty…

And then, there had been another dream.  And that girl again, that sadness again.

Ranma sighed, and lay still; she was still feeling incredibly drained.

 

Faye looked up as she heard a faint exhalation, and saw that Ranma was awake, but lying in bed.  Without speaking, Faye knew.  Dreams that she could never recall, and a heavy feeling inside her heart.

She pulled her chair beside the bed, and laid her free hand on the girl’s arm.

No matter who or what they were to you, they’re gone now.  But I’m here, Ranma, and so’re… Well, they’re out chasing that girl at the moment, but we’re here for you.”

Ranma sat up groggily, and let Faye’s words fill her head.  She is gone.  They are all gone, now.

Anyway, I have a proposition for you, Gorgio.  Since the boys are away, it’s the perfect opportunity for us girls to make a little profit.”

Ranma blinked the sleep from her eyes, and smiled warily at Faye.

Isn’t Ed a girl?”

Faye shrugged, and began to walk from the room.

Are you coming or not, cowboy?

 

Faye pushed Ranma in front of the viewscreen and waited for a response.  There was a bounty out on another girl.  She was tall, dark, and cold in the picture.  She was the same woman that Ed had felt consternation towards the night before.

Faye winked at Ranma.

Can you guess where we’re going?”

Pluto.” Ranma said, looking at the picture.  It was one of the Senshi she had never met before; one who might give her a straight answer about Usagi’s plans for the universe.

Not, of course, that Ranma cared about that anymore.  But she was still allowed to be curious, wasn’t she?

Faye watched Ranma carefully for a moment, then reached over and turned the computer off.

Let’s go.”

 

Usagi stood on Venus, watching the sand blow in the soft breeze.  Even with the rumours she’d heard about blindness, she’d had to risk it.

And there was Minako, standing near the centre of the garden.  Usagi moved away from the side of the dome, and waved to her.

Minako-chan!”

Ah!  Usagi-chan!”

They met with enthusiasm, but it was tempered.  Usagi could remember when they had been younger, and had rushed, squealing, to greet each other.  But the darkness that had fallen upon them as their reality slid away from their destinies had muted their voices as well as their powers; there was always the fear that they would not be helping, but harming, when they fought.  Killing innocents…

It was that insecurity about their powers more than their weakening that had called that final battle.  The demons had vanished, but so had so much more.  It had been a hollow triumph; a tie, really.  In Usagi’s mind, they had lost that battle.

She pulled back from Minako’s arms and smiled softly.

I met Ami yesterday, and apparently she’s been researching hyperspace.  All that time since she left us, since you left us, she’s been studying to try and find out what happened to Mamoru.”

Minako’s smile faltered, and she took Usagi’s hand.

Usagi, I always fight for the lover, the strong heart that beats inside of you.  But Mamoru is missing, probably dead.”

Usagi smiled, and winked.

Probably, but possibly not.  Let’s get some coffee.”

 

Minako smiled over her coffee cup at Usagi.  She had tied her hair back in a soft braid, and was sitting calmly opposite her.  When she spoke, however, some of her old exuberance and energy shone through.

You see, Ami found out that there was this crash or something in hyperspace once, involving the mafia; it was all hushed up.  But this one man survived for a few days.  He was found, and they opened the gateway with a stone that could channel the energy.”

Minako spilt some coffee on the table as her hands shook with shock.

And if Mamoru was there at the time of the gate implosion…”

Usagi grinned.

Then he could still be there!  We just have to find a way to get to him!”

They clasped hands, and nearly jumped with shared joy.  Then Minako fell sober again.

How long has Mamoru been in there?”

If he was imprisoned then, he’d have been in there for many decades.”

Minako frowned.

And did this other man survive?”

Usagi hung her head, reality sinking in.

No.  They couldn’t even get him out of there.”

What happened?”

Usagi shook her head, and sobbed softly.

It didn’t say.  Ami can’t find out how it all ended…”

 

***

 

 

Ed sat, swinging Ed’s legs on a fountain outside the temple and eating the chocolate that Jet had bought for her.  Jet had gone in there to find Mars.  Ed watched Ein run around chasing birds, and waved at them occasionally.  Then, a girl that Ed remembered sat down beside Ed.  She had grown taller, and was wearing a similar dress to the one she’d worn the last time they’d met.

She smiled at Ed, and said;

Water.”

Then trailed her hand in the fountain.

I gave it up, you know, after Father died.  But when I fell over in the street a month ago I saw another sunstone, just lying in the gutter.  The movements, the sunlight, the shape of the shop’s sign that I saw from where I lay…  everything that’s been happening since then has convinced me that I’m supposed to help with whatever is going on around here.”

Ed looked at her, confused.  This was the love-child that was visiting before, wasn’t she?  Ed finished her chocolate, and threw the wrapper in the air, watching it flutter towards the ground with rapt eyes.  The girl beside her also watched the wrapper, but with a determination that confused Ed.

Nearby, Ein growled softly, and ran behind a nearby cement lantern chasing a bird.  Then a young girl with long, dark hair came running out of the temple.

Pervert!” She screamed.

Jet, following, was restrained by the crowd around him.

Hey, what’s the idea, picking on a nice girl like that?”

Ed!  Catch her!”

Ed looked up, and saw their target running towards her.  She shouted out in surprise, as the girl met her eyes.  Her line of sight was interrupted when the bird that Ein had been chasing flew from the side.  She turned, and saw Ein growling in her direction, and backed away with rushed steps.

As she stepped unwittingly onto the discarded chocolate wrapper, her other ankle caught on the edge of the fountain, and she fell neatly between Ed and Meifa into the water.

You can’t!” She exclaimed, and raised her hand.

Burning Mandala!”

But her fingertips sizzled; the ki of the water was too strong for her fire to ignite.

 

***

 

 

Rei sat with a blanket around her shoulders, sneezing intermittently.  They had caught her because of the bounty the cops had put on her head, but for some reason the young girl was arguing against turning her in.

She peered at them in the next room, discussing her fate.

The girl with two brown plaits was holding up a dark, lumpy black rock, and was shouting with energy.

Look!  This is the key!  I know that this will open another hyperspace pocket.  And I know that this is important.  This girl is the key!  Her personal life ki is incredibly potent, and the board led me to the temple!”

The tall, bulky man grunted, and clasped his hand over her shoulder.

Even if that’s true, we still have to wait until Faye and Ranma get back.”

Rei leant further in.  Ranma?  So this is where Ranma had run off to.

The girl with brown pigtails walked into the room, sulking.

Look, Meifa, I…”

The man sighed, and walked off down the hallway.

I’ll be in the cargo, making some small repairs.  Call me if you need to talk.”

She ignored him, and sat down beside Rei.

Hi, I’m Meifa.  Um…” She lifted her board, and examined it.

I know this sounds insane, but do you know anyone who has been lost in hyperspace recently?”

 

***

 

Ranma sipped tea thoughtfully, and helped herself to a biscuit.

So, you knew me before I went into the deep freeze…”

Yes.”  The woman took Ranma’s hands in her own, and took a deep breath.

I’m not sure if you should hear this from me, but… when we first met, it was immediately before then.  Haruka and Michiru, who you saw on your way in, they paid for the process.  It was the least we could do.”

Ranma felt an uneasiness creep up on her.

What… why was that necessary?”

We chased the demons, even as they sought out the weak and darkened corners of human hearts and dreams.”  She began.

When we found the young girl, it was already too late.  They had overtaken her, and much faster than any of the others before; she had welcomed the bitterness and the dark power, and the force of her emotions helped even more.  We could only trail her, unable to draw close, until she had reached the church and reduced it to rubble…”

Ranma felt nausea and began to sweat…

 

A block of marble fell from above, and Ranma grabbed Akane.  They barely made it to safety, and guests began to run screaming through the main doors.  He held her close to his chest, and turned to run to safety.  As he turned, and she turned with him, a dark burst of energy shot through the doors and caught her in the chest.

Akane fell limp in his arms, and Ranma shouted her name, but to no avail.  Akane would not wake up.  He lifted her in both his arms, and ran for the door.

As he reached where Nabiki and Kasumi stood, shocked and gasping, the entire building began to crumble.

Was that an earthquake?”

I.. Akane?  Is she alright?”

I don’t know…”

Ranma lowered her body to the ground, into Kasumi’s waiting arms.

I’ll see what caused this, and get help.”

He looked towards where the dark burst of energy had originated; there stood Kodachi.  She was grinning maniacally, and staring at Ranma.

You are mine, Saotome!  How DARE that little rat take you from me!  I’ll destroy her, and then take you back, as is my right…”

She gasped, and fell to the ground, hands clasped to her throat.

No… I… you said that you wouldn’t… Ranma, help!”

She choked on her words, and fell to the ground.  After a few spasms, her body fell still, and then raised itself on two stiff arms.

Humans are so EASY to trick; so gullible.”

 

Ranma felt the burning tea on his hand as he regained consciousness, and held a hand to his mouth.  He felt that he would be ill.  Usagi’s attack had destroyed everything with a high concentration of dark energy in the area, including…

Including Akane, whose unconscious body had been drenched with it.

They killed her.  They killed her, and when I was patched enough to serve their needs, they dressed me up and sent me off to do their work.”

He glared at Setsuna, and shook his head angrily.

I thought I was a girl because of them.  I lost everything, and went through hell all over again, just so that their pretty pretty princess could be all happy and smiles.”

Setsuna stood, and slammed down her cup.

There is more, and since I have had the grace to serve you, since Haruka and Michiru thought that Usagi’s decision was wrong, and that we owed you a great debt, please.  Listen.”

Ranma wiped his hand on a napkin, and sat back sullenly.

Talk, then.”

I have guarded the timeline of everything for all time.”

Everything?”

She ignored him, and continued.

Usagi was destined to become the queen, ruler of a peaceful Earth with her lover, Mamoru.  However, I had never seen the battle that you and your love were victim to.  When it happened, although I was not there, I felt the repercussions immediately.  By killing an innocent, the Senshi’s powers and confidence were inhibited, and they began to stumble down the path to an unpredictable future.  The battle that was fated to save the Earth and establish Usagi’s queendom… although they defeated the source of the demons, the Senshi were injured in more ways than one.  Their united worldwide state could not be achieved, and neither could peace.  Although immortal now, the Senshi could be nothing more than the mundane.”

Ranma laughed bitterly, and tilted his chair to rest only on the two back legs.

So, her pinkness didn’t get a pretty ending.”

Setsuna scowled at him.

No, and neither did half a million others, who died in a similar way to that of your fiancée.”

Ranma fell backwards, and recovered solemnly.  Setsuna continued, her cold voice extending icy fear into Ranma’s gut.

And if humanity is not protected by the peace that Usagi’s rule can bring, this style of events will recur.  It is the nature of human spite and bitterness, and pain.  If there is no spiritual protection, a demon will manifest somehow…”

Ranma wiped his eyes, and looked down at his feet.

So, how can I stop this, then?  Is there a way?”

Setsuna weighed him up, and he shifted under her scrutiny.

I’m doing it for Akane,” he explained.  “It’s all I can do for her, even if it’s too late.”

 

Faye sighed, and sank down against the side of the wall.  Ranma had been in there for hours.  When the woman had agreed to come without a fuss, it had seemed perfect.  But her condition had been that Ranma would talk to her, and have a cup of tea.  Alone.  They’d better come out soon, or she’d have half a mind to…

The large doors to the expensive manor-style house opened with a heavy groan, and the bounty stepped outside with a young man.  Looking closely, Faye could tell that Ranma was in her male form, though why she couldn’t quite understand.

Or had the woman wanted more than a little chat when she’d found out?

Faye!  Hurry up!” Ranma called out, and Faye walked over to see what was happening.

 

***

 

Meifa looked proudly at the lineup.  She’d employed Ed and Rei perfectly to the task of locating the others that should be involved.  And when she used universal feng shui, piloting a ship hadn’t been too difficult.  It was nice that Jet had decided to go along with it, but it hadn’t been necessary for him to take over the ship’s controls.  She had been having fun.

But she was still proud of herself.  She’d found, with help, all of the Senshi.  They all had similarly strong personal ki, and she just knew that they’d be needed for what was coming.  It had been half an hour since Ranma’s call in, and they all knew what they had to do.

It was up to Meifa to convince them to do it.

Now, when the Redtail fires at the sunstone, and it explodes, the shockwaves of released energy will tear open a doorway to the pocket of hyperspace.”

The Senshi nodded, and Ami gently pushed Ed away from her leg.

Uh, is… Ed… house-trained?”

Meifa slowly shook her head.  Luckily, Ed wandered off on her own, and they returned to the business at hand.

When the gateway opened for my father last year, it wasn’t big enough to travel through, and it only lasted a few seconds before the entire pocket collapsed.  This will happed again, unless we have a way to maximize the effect of the sunstone’s stored power.”

Rei stood up, and tried to stare Meifa down.

Usagi’s soul is connected to the crystal.  I will not allow you to risk her life.”

But what if Mamo-chan is in there?”  Usagi protested.

Their voices all began to argue back and forth, their words losing all meaning in the cacophonous din.  They were interrupted by the airlock cycling open, and Ranma stepped through.

Are you still arguing about this?” he asked, eyes cold.  “I don’t have to be here, and after all you’ve done, I think you should just shut up and follow someone else’s bright idea.”

But there’s no sense in this!  Usagi could die!” Rei shouted, glaring at him.

He looked back at her, and she faltered at his cold stare.

Akane did die, so let’s try things my way this time.”

He took a deep breath, and backed away.

Meifa… you deal with them.  I’m going to go and get ready.”

The girl nodded, and turned to the Senshi.

 

***

 

Ranma doused himself with hot water, just to be safe, and changed into the second-hand spacesuit that Jet had given him.  Faye… he wanted to say goodbye to her before he left, but she’d vanished as soon as they’d got back to the Bebop.  He sighed, and picked up the red helmet.  Apparently, this had been Spike, their former crewmate’s property.  Just like the bedroom, he’d inherited it.

Perhaps Faye was upset that he was a man.  She seemed to have issues with them, really.

Anyway, there was nothing he could do but follow through with his plan for now.  He stood, and walked slowly down the corridors.  How bleeding tall had that Spike guy been?

As he reached the airlock he was going to leave through, he saw Faye standing in his way.  As he approached the door, she grabbed his arm.  Her eyes were panicked, her whole body tense with unspoken emotion.

Don’t you tell me that you’re ‘going to see if you’re really alive’, or that you’ve been ‘watching a dream you can never wake from’!  Life is life, and the past is in the past!”

Ranma frowned, and held her hand in his own.

Faye, I… Thank you for everything, really.  I thought I was a girl, too, and you were uh… ahem… a sister figure…” He blushed awkwardly, and scratched his head.

The truth is, I remembered my past.  And it doesn’t mean anything here and now, but to the person I am… the person I was… Akane was everything.  That’s why I’m going now.  To settle with the past, so I can move on.”

Faye scowled, and let go of him, leaning back against the wall.

Men, you’re insane.  You all jump at the chance of dying for a woman.”

Before Ranma could answer, she walked off, and he sighed.  Girls were still impossible to deal with.

Jet?” He called over the radio in his helmet, “I’m ready to go out, on your signal.”

 

***

 

Jet checked on Faye as she strapped herself and Usagi into the Redtail, and then on Meifa as she stood, hand holding the sunrock carefully above the bowl of the toilet.

Faye lifted off, and took the Redtail and Usagi to a safe distance.  Jet moved over towards the point that the anomaly was focused on, and gave Meifa her signal.

She dropped the sunrock into the toilet and pushed the flush, and the rock fell out through the pipes of the Bebop.

Ranma then received his signal, and released the magnetic lock on the suit’s soles.  He kicked off with as much power as he could, and began slowly floating towards the black speck of a sunstone.

The Bebop sped up, to safe distance on the other side of the anomaly.  As she reached a safe distance, Faye shot at the sunstone.

In the Redtail, the magical crystal that contained the focus of Usagi’s energy, wedged in place to focus the laser’s power, shone and trembled in its place.  Usagi gasped out loud, and dug her fingernails into the seat.

Don’t wriggle like that, or you’ll ruin my aim!” Faye shouted, but she’d already hit true.

 

In front of Ranma, a large white light shone against the background of hyperspace, and then a void was opened in the side of the tunnel.  He made it through the huge, wide window, and squinted into the darkness ahead.

 

***

 

The stability of decades had been insulted and interrupted in an instant; the old metal hull groaned and shuddered.  As Ranma finally reached the airlock, which had burst open, the opening back into hyperspace had shrunk to a pinpoint of light in the distance. He entered slowly, and again deactivated his magnetic soles.  He let himself rise halfway to the ceiling, and then pushed off from the wall, only to ram into the other side of the corridor.  Swearing, he pushed himself to the ground and tried again.  A soft push off, and he was floating down the corridor.

The ship was unlike any that Ranma had seen before; it was old and less efficient than the ones made recently, but it was obviously made of expensive materials.  He eventually found the cockpit in the silent, resonant darkness, and found himself in a huge room filled with metal flotsam.  Over in a chair, there was a skeletal body strapped in, wearing what looked to be a crash helmet.

A small light caught Ranma’s eye, and he slowly pushed his way over to the computer panel.  It was an incredibly old style of display.  Not with computer access, but lights beside each status, one that would light up green, and the other red.  All were blank, empty, except for one.

Stasis Chambers”

 

Ranma followed the markings on the walls, painstakingly finding his way to the stasis chambers.  Unless they were in those chambers, nobody else would have been able to survive the vacuum.  As he floated down the long, shadowed corridors, he fell into a numb revision of recent events.

Setsuna had told him about Mamoru Chiba, and his relationship with Usagi.  Of what they had been promised as an inevitable future; eternal bliss.  And even though Ranma still felt angry at her; still could not forgive her for what she had done to Akane, he felt that she would have wanted him to do this.

To save a man that a girl loved.

And Setsuna had also explained it to him that if Mamoru was to return, then when the demons did return, Usagi would have more power to fight them; that she had grown inestimably weaker since he had disappeared.  That if Ranma was involved, it would help save her.

Ranma didn’t care much for Usagi, but he did care for the universe.  He cared… he cared for Faye and Ed, and Ein and Jet.  And if something like that demon he’d seen could possibly threaten them.

Ranma felt a soft bump on his forehead, and realised that he’d reached the right door.

He tugged at it in futility for a moment, then gave in and pulled the small capsule that Jet had given him out of a sealed pocket.  It had one blue bulb, and one orange bulb, and if what Jet had said was correct, when he twisted the middle of the capsule they would mix.

He twisted it, and threw it at the door, backing off and shielding his eyes.

 

The blast pushed him further back down the corridor, and by the time Ranma got back there were small melted chunks of metal drifting through the space near the doorway.  He made his way through, and then came to witness a small room, with four silently glowing stasis beds.  Inside them, four unconscious bodies floated in the same viscous liquid that Ranma had felt drain from his body as he had first regained consciousness.  He moved to the first, and pulled himself down on top of it.  Inside there lay a young woman, pale and beautiful.  But there, there.  In the veins, the veins were blue.  During Ranma’s stay at the hospital, when he’d thought himself a girl, some of the unsuccessful resuscitations had resulted in a similar sight; the preservation liquid had frozen the veins, and if she was warmed again, the girl was sure to die.

He shuddered, and moved on.

The next contained a corpse; there was no question of it.  The young man had only barely made it in before it closed.  Probably an emergency closure due to the depressurization.  In any case, his arm hadn’t made it in, and there was a deep reddish brown tinge to the bottom of the capsule.

The third was empty.

In the fourth, despite all chances of catastrophe, there lay a young Japanese man.  His eyes were shut as if he were in a dream, and a faint smile was frozen onto his lips.

Ranma realized that if anyone was his quarry, this man must be it.  But the plan wouldn’t work; Ranma couldn’t tug the capsule back to the Bebop, and if he took the man out of the stasis chamber, he’d die as they entered the Bebop’s warm airlock…

Ranma paused for a moment as the idea came to him, and then he acted as fast as he could.  Reaching again into the sealed pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of water.  Then, he took a deep breath and removed the helmet.

As the water touched his forehead, activating the curse, she was already pulling out her talisman.

Earth power, Make up!”

 

Ranma choked, once, and then recovered.  Whatever protected the other Senshi in the vacuum of space was also protecting Ranma. She shucked the spacesuit, and brought her fist down heavily onto the keypad of the man’s capsule.

The lid cracked open, and she shoved the suit into the capsule, first filling it with the gel-like liquid, then easing his legs into the suit.  As it had been made for a taller and older man, his thin boylike limbs slid easily in.  And if all else failed, he would have a reasonable padding of coolant.

Making sure that it was as full as could be, Ranma hooked the helmet onto the man’s face, and checked that it was airtight.

She wrapped her arms around his middle, and pulled him around until he was suspended awkwardly beneath her.  She braced her legs again against the wall, and pushed.

 

***

 

Usagi and Faye saw Ranma enter the hole, and then disappear from sight.  The Bebop sent out no more radio signals, and the silence affected them more than any noise could have.

Faye watched the interruption in hyperspace boil and crackle with abused energy, and over the minutes she also saw how it was slowly and steadily knitting together again.  The girl was still exhausted from the blast, and she was holding the crystal close to her chest as if it would somehow make everything right again.

At least he had Julia.” She muttered, unable to control her anger.

What?”  the girl asked, opening her eyes for the first time since Ranma had vanished into the beyond.

The last man I knew who went off and died.  At least he did it for a woman who was still alive.  There’s nothing out there for him to look for; no need to fight for someone else.”

Usagi was silent, and watched the darkness beyond the rift.

Mamo-chan…”

 

Meifa watched nervously from the Bebop, from the cockpit.  The other girls had all made a fuss, so they’d channeled the image through to the computer terminal in the main room.  Meifa was glad to be with Jet in the cockpit, because she would probably have set the others off again with her worry.

It had been almost ten minutes, which was a long time compared to the brief few minutes she had had with her father.  Or perhaps the crystal was far more powerful than she had anticipated.  Either way, she wished that something would happen.  Inactivity was almost physically painful, and every second stretched out like a thousand moments, each focused on the pinpoint of darkness beyond the rift in hyperspace.

 

***

Ranma, still holding the man around the waist, braced herself to kick off from the inert vessel.  In the distance, the hole back to hyperspace and the Bebop looked smaller than ever.  But it was supposed to, she reassured herself.

They took what seemed like hours to reach the opening, and it was nearly closed by the time they came close.  Ranma realised that they would not make it through in time, and she glared at it.

There was not enough time to think, but she had to accomplish the mission.  She’d never lost anything before, not in a fight, not in any way, and she’d be damned if she gave in after all that effort.

She carefully turned the man’s body around in her arms, until he was facing towards the rift.  Then, she angled herself in what she hoped was a good manner, and pulled her legs inwards.  Desperately with every iota of power she could muster, she kicked out and sent the man’s limp body floating even faster towards the rift.

And sending herself speeding in the opposite direction.  But she saw it, as she floated helplessly away from the Bebop.  She saw his dark form in the oversized spacesuit, silhouetted against the light that the mouth of the ever-closing hole had.  Then he was inside it, between the burning sides.

Then he was through, and hopefully safe.

But Ranma knew what would follow; Meifa had told her what had happened before.

The pocket would destabilise, and collapse, crushing everything within.

Ranma smiled wryly, and let go of her powers.  Her Senshi costume dissolved, and she floated in the ice of space alone.

She couldn’t breathe; the veins all over her body were aching and stretching out from her muscles in an effort to pull oxygen from somewhere.

Her muscles spasmed, and she felt a cold hand press down on her lungs.

Closing her eyes, she felt blinding light everywhere behind them; the world was all one big white source of pain…

 

And then the pain faded, and it was warm.  There was a smiling face leaning down above her, and a soft hand caressing her face.

Ranma reached out, and embraced her.  Closing her eyes again, she wrapped herself in warmth and let herself drift off into a marvelous sleep.

 

***

 

They had lost hope until they saw the red suit, floating slowly in the wake of the implosion of the pocket.  It had been too far away to see before then.

Faye shouted out first, eyes widened with disbelief.  Had he come back?

She fired up the Redtail, and quickly retrieved the unconscious body.  As she saw the unfamiliar face, Faye crumpled into her chair, and she felt an inexplicable surge of bitterness as Usagi shouted out, joyfully.

Mamoru!”

 

***

 

Jet sighed, and faced Faye.

Look, you wouldn’t have had me kill the poor guy, just because you have a problem with his girlfriend, would you?”

She sulked, and walked away without answering.  They’d rushed the girls and their gushing leader to a hospital on Mars, and left them to resuscitate him.  No money.  Not even a thank-you.  Just a smile and a wave goodbye.

He shook his head, and turned to Ed.  “Where to next, then?”

Faye swore under her breath, and left the room.  She didn’t want to begrudge the girl her boyfriend’s life.  If Faye had ever found a decent man, she’d have done anything to keep him alive.  But it seemed wrong, that everything had happened so fast.  For a moment, she had seen in Ranma that recklessness that Spike had had, but with a difference…

He, no.  She rubbed between her eyes and shook her head.  She’s always end up seeing Ranma in her mind as a woman.  She had had stubbornness, and had lost a love, but she’d still had this ineffable sense of being alive.  Of being, in a way, larger than life.  She lay down in her bed, and for the first time since Spike had left, she felt the warm darkness of sleep reach up with welcoming arms.