Strangers in a Strange Land
Chapter 2
By Chris Olsen

All the characters in this story are the creation of Akahori Satoru, Kotobuki Tsukasa, and Rumiko Takahashi

Strangers in a Strange Land
Chapter 2

    Later, back at their meeting place, Akane entered the room at a run, and sighed in relief to find Nabiki and Ranma already there. "I'm sorry Nabiki, I know you said not to do anything to give away our plans, but...." Akane took a second look at her fiancé. "Ranma! What are you wearing?"

    Ranma shrugged. "I borrowed Yusaku's shirt. I didn't want to wear that kimono again. Too restrictive, if we got into a fight."

    Akane glanced down at the long expanse of leg Ranma was showing off, but decided not to complain. At least Ranma borrowed his shirt, and not just his pants. < I swear, that boy just has no sense of feminine modesty.> Akane's memories flashed back to all the times Ranma had forgotten to wear a shirt, much less a bra, after getting changed into a girl. < He nearly gave dad a heart attack a few times....>

    Nabiki cleared her throat. "Alright, what did you do, Akane? Ranma here decided to knock out Yusaku."

    Ranma frowned. "Hey, I was out of options! He kept on telling me I wasn't functioning right, and he'd have to reprogram me, every time I tried to ask him stuff. All he was interested in was getting me in bed!"

    Nabiki sighed. "Did you really have to knock him cold?"

    Ranma glared angrily at her. "It was that or sleep with him! Anyway, I figured I could tie him up and interrogate him." She shrugged sheepishly. "Only I kinda hit him too hard. He's still out cold for all I know, so I grabbed his shirt and got here just now."

    Akane shook her head. "There wasn't anything else you could do. Anyway, it doesn't matter. We should get out of here right away."

    Nabiki sighed, muttering under her breath. "She could have just done it...." She sighed again and spoke up. "Never mind. What did you do, Akane?"

    Akane chewed nervously on her lip. "Well I kind of... broke their master computer."

    Nabiki looked incredulous. "You what?"

    Akane hurried on. "Well, Kasumi said that household marionettes have a radio that's only a radio, but combat models have a remote control device. So I asked her which one I was and she didn't know. SO I asked her where the device was and she said it was in the master computer. So. I asked Kasumi where the master computer was and.."

    Nabiki rolled her eyes. "And you smashed it, eh?"

    Akane shrugged sheepishly. "Well. yes. Anyway, I think we're combat models. I smashed the computer really easily. I'm pretty sure I'm a lot stronger than Kasumi.."

    Nabiki sighed. "Oh well, so much for subtlety. With you and Ranma, we're going to have to run for it alright. I hope they don't have a backup for that computer."

    Ranma looked worried. "Do you think they can... control us?"

    Nabiki shrugged. "I have no idea. Maybe not with their computer smashed. Anyway, I figured you two might do something like this, so I've come up with a plan." She brought out a sheaf of papers she had tucked into her obi. "I've got a map of the city we're in, and a couple of recent newspapers. I had a hunch, and I looked up everything I could find on Lorelei." Nabiki held out a newspaper. Its front page had a large shot of a beautiful, willowy, lean woman with long, light reddish blond hair. "According to this article, Lorelei is some kind of... Martin Luther King for Marionettes. Pretty controversial actually. Apparently she helped to create the marionette technology, or at least part of it, three hundred years ago. She apparently has been speaking for 'Marionette rights'. It hasn't gone over really well, as you might have guessed, but since she's the only living female on the planet, she carries a bit of weight. "I figure, if anyone can help us, it's her."

     Akane looked hopeful. "If she helped create the marionettes, maybe she could take out our remote control circuits. if we have them."

    Nabiki nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. Now, we've really got to go. I'm surprised no one's started looking for us already."

    Akane grinned. "Well, actually, speaking of that, I think we might have an easier time with getting away then you would think. Kasumi told me that Yusaku and Godai have around a dozen or so combat marionettes for security. A couple of them ran into the room when I started trashing the computer, but I managed to break it before they reached me and they collapsed. I don't think any of them will be able to come after us for awhile."

    Nabiki nodded with a relieved look. "Good! Still, we'd better get out of here before the local police or whatever show up."

    Ranma nodded in return, back in familiar territory. Tactics, she could handle. "Alright, I'll lead. Akane, you take up the rear. Which way once we get out, Nabiki?"

    Nabiki shrugged. "I'll tell you once we get outside. I'll need to get my bearings."

    Ranma nodded again in understanding. "OK, lets go." The petite red head moved quickly out of the room, followed by Nabiki and Akane. They found the front door in moments and exited at a run, steadily increasing speed as Ranma realized that Nabiki was easily keeping pace without effort. In fact, Ranma noticed all three of were running almost without effort. For her, that wasn't so unusual, being used to heavy exertion as a highly skilled martial artist, but normally she would expect to feel a least a hint of fatigue. < Must be these robot bodies.> Ranma mused. < I wonder if we ever get tired?>

    As they passed through the front gate, Nabiki stopped looking around and opened her map. "Alright. I need a landmark to get my bearings. The Imperial palace is supposed to be the tallest building in the city.."

    Ranma pointed to the top of a nearby three-story building. "Let's get a better view."

    Nabiki frowned. "How am I going to get up there? I'm not an absurdly skilled martial artist like you two."

    Ranma looked at her encouragingly. "I'd bet you are as strong as Akane and me now, Nabiki. Come on, we'll help you." The red head turned to Akane. "You feeling up to some roof hopping?"

    Akane nodded. "I'm easily twice as strong as before, if not more. No problem." She and Ranma got on either side of Nabiki and took a hold of an arm at the shoulder.

    "OK, Nabiki." Ranma said confidently. "Bend your knees, and get ready. We'll jump on three. One, two, three!" Nabiki grit her teeth, bent her knees, and jumped as hard as she could. Despite Ranma's assurance, she was startled to find herself flying over the lip of the roof. They ended up landing near the peak of the roof's slanted surface almost effortlessly.

    Nabiki whistled. "Oh. Oh wow. I could get used to this."

    The three girls looked around at the city in wonder. It looked like something from their history books, the buildings and roads reminding them all strongly of the Japanese Feudal period. The slanted, tiled roofs, the finely cobblestoned roads were just slightly too perfect to be from the past.

    Ranma finally broke Nabiki out of her astonished reverie. "Hey, Nabiki-san, why does this place look like it's five hundred years in the past, instead of the future?"

    Nabiki shook her head. "Who knows. I suppose they simply wanted to do it this way. It is pretty though, isn't it?"

    Akane nodded, smiling. "I like it. Although they didn't have skyscrapers in the feudal period...." She pointed to some tall buildings off in the distance, around eight to ten stories in height, although otherwise matching the shorter building around them.

    "Well," Nabiki looked thoughtful. "I have seen some pretty big buildings that existed back a few hundred. no make that over a thousand years ago, now. They're not too out of place."

    Ranma spoke up. "Nabiki, I have another question." She pointed out across the city. "Is that the Imperial palace?"

    Nabiki turned to look and followed Ranma's arm. "Hmm, yes. I'm pretty sure it is."

    Ranma nodded. "OK, so, where can we find this Lorelei?"

    Nabiki shrugged, and pointed. "Actually... at the Imperial palace. Convenient, isn't it?"

    Akane raised an eyebrow. "Something makes me think this isn't going to be as easy as walking up to the front gate and asking to see her."

    Nabiki shrugged again. "I'd have to say you're probably right."

    "Nothin to do but try, right?" The red headed former boy grinned. "Come on, let's go!"

    The three girls moved slowly at first. Roof hopping was a new experience for Nabiki, and she was cautious in the beginning, taking one leap at a time. Despite her new speed and strength, Nabiki had no desire to slip and fall at the height they were at. Akane and especially Ranma had no trouble, regardless of their increased strength, but for Nabiki, the change was much greater. Judging the distances properly and landing correctly were skills she had never acquired. Several times Nabiki nearly did fall from the rooftops, saved only by Ranma's quick reflexes. By the time they finally reached the outskirts of the imperial palace, however, she was finally starting to get the hang of it.

    They came to a halt on a rooftop just across a large open area in front of the palace's outer wall. The wall was around twenty feet in height. No obstacle to them, but impressive enough. The palace itself lay forty to fifty yards from the wall. It had several smaller buildings arranged around it in a regular, evenly spaced, though pleasant looking pattern. The palace itself towered over three hundred feet in height.

    Ranma glanced at Nabiki. "OK, we're here. Now what?" How do we find this woman, Lorelei?"

    Nabiki pursed her lips. "Well, the article only said she was staying here, not exactly where she was in the palace grounds. So we'll just have to look for her."

    Akane gestured down at the large gates off to their right that led into the grounds. "I know what I said before, but why don't we just go up to the main gate, and ask to see her?"

    Nabiki shook her head. "I don't think so. From everything we've learned so far, I get the impression that rogue marionettes wouldn't be welcomed at the palace. I mean, everyone thinks of marionettes as machines here, robots. The thought of robots as strong as we are, with free will, uncontrolled.. That is going to scare people."

    Ranma frowned. "Hey, it's not like we're going to hurt anybody. A martial artist doesn't attack the weak."

    Nabiki looked dubious. "Sure, WE know that, to them, however, you're not a martial artist, but an uncontrolled marionette. We've got to figure out how to do this without creating more problems than we solve."

    Akane sat down, frowning. "OK, Nabiki. What do you think we should do?"


    Yusaku woke gradually, acutely aware of his aching jaw and the lump on the back of his head. He realized suddenly that he was lying on his bed, while someone pounded loudly at his door.

    "Yusaku? Yusaku are you in there? Are you alright?" Godai's worried voice came through clearly and the young man groaned to himself.

    Yusaku rose slowly to answer his door. "Yes. yes! I'm here."

    The door burst open and Godai came in. "Yusaku, something terrible has happened! Our new prototypes have run off. They destroyed the main computer and ran off!"

    Yusaku rubbed his jaw, then felt the lump on the back of his head. "She hit me?" He frowned angrily. "She hit me!"

    Godai looked concerned. "Have you heard what I have been saying? The new marionettes have run off, and destroyed the main computer!"

    Yusaku glared at him. "I heard you, old man! The red head, Ranma, hit me! Without warning, she struck me! I'm lucky to be alive!"

    Godai nodded. "Yes, it's as bad as I feared. I believe I miscalculated the power of their maiden circuits. According to the reports, a maiden circuit should have made them intensely loyal to us, but I saw no sign of it. Instead they were emotional and uncontrollable. There must have been some degradation of their memory storage devices over the centuries. They are not at all as Tatewaki Kuno described in his memoirs."

    Yusaku sniffed angrily to himself and glared at his father. "Godai, I told you. We should have programmed restraints into them!"

    Godai shook his head. "That would have changed their memories. I wanted them as realistic as possible.."

    Yusaku laughed bitterly. "Well, if this was what "real women" are like, I want no part of them! Why haven't you sent the house sentries after them?"

    Godai glared back at Yusaku. "I told you, the main computer was destroyed! I've started up the backup, but it's not up to running the full sentry program. Either it can run half the sentries at full efficiency, or all of them at fifty percent. Either way, I don't want to try recapturing the prototypes until the whole group is fully active."

    Yusaku blinked. "We have over a dozen fully operative "Cherry Blossom" T sentries, and you hesitate? As you said, the prototypes have not had any external programs put in. The Cherry Blossoms are programmed with the finest combat software. Despite the quality of the prototypes hardware, those three marionettes should be no match for twice their number of combat marionettes."

    Godai shook his head. "I have done more research into their histories than you, Yusaku. Tatewaki Kuno reported that Akane Tendo was dan ranked in Kendo, Jujitsu, and was a master of her family's school of Indiscriminate Grappling. While records of the red haired girl are spotty at best, Tatewaki reported that she was even more skilled than Akane. The only records of a "Ranma", who was recorded as a male, say that he, or she, was the recognized grand master of the Indiscriminate Grappling style, and ranked very high in almost a dozen different schools of martial arts outside his, or her, own school. While Nabiki Tendo was not noted for her martial skills, she WAS renowned for her intellect, and she did live at her father's dojo for most of her young adult life."

    Yusaku frowned. "The bodies you constructed, were those of "Sabers" correct? The top of the line combat models?"

    Godai nodded soberly. "Correct. I felt the benefits of having loyal, intelligent consorts, able to serve as bodyguards against nearly any threat, outweighed any possible risk."

    Yusaku groaned. "Well, it looks like you've made one too many errors, old man. How are we going to get them back?"

    Godai gazed at the younger man calmly. "I have already taken steps. Did you notice, during dinner, the Akane marionette's interest in Lorelei? I believe they may seek her out. I have notified the Imperial palace of a trio of rogue marionettes, with faulty maiden circuits. The castle's guards should be more than capable of handling them."


    Nabiki hesitated, looking down at the front gates. "We could claim to have a message for Lorelei, from our "masters", and see if they'll let us give it in person.."

    Ranma and Akane started at a sudden faint noise. They stood and looked in the direction it came from. Two tall women stood threateningly facing them from the edge of the rooftop. The woman on the left had long, white purple hair in a long ponytail, and wore a red kimono. Her companion had dark green bluish hair, and wore a green kimono with a black obi. Both woman were tall, taller than any of the girls, fierce and noble looking. The woman on the left carried a long "bisento" spear, and her companion had the long hilts of swords peeking over both her shoulders. Ranma went into a subtle defensive stance immediately, and she sensed Akane doing the same.

    The woman in red spoke commandingly. "Identify yourselves! What is your purpose here?"

    Ranma stepped forward, partially shielding her own companions with her body. "I am Ranma Saotome, and we're here to see Lorelei."

    The tall bisento wielder pointed her spear in their direction and spoke again. "Lorelei is expecting no visitors. Surrender yourselves now."

    Ranma frowned. "Surrender? Why? What have we done?"

    The white and purple haired marionette answered promptly. "You have destroyed property and endangered the populace. You must surrender to us now."

    Nabiki grimaced, speaking quietly. "Damn, Godai must have called ahead."

    Akane looked worried. "What are we going to do?"

    Ranma kept his eyes on the two marionettes across the roof. "We gotta get out of here, now, before they call in backup or somethin." She whispered fiercely to the two Tendo sisters.

    Once again, the red clad marionettes spoke. "Remain where you are. You will be taken into custody and returned to your owners. Do not resist."

    Ranma snorted. "To heck with that. Akane, get Nabiki outta here. I'll stall these two and follow ya." Akane nodded quickly, and before Nabiki could protest, she scooped her older sister up and leaped from the rooftop, bounding toward the horizon in long, parabolic arcs. The two tall, weapon-carrying marionettes moved to intercept, but Ranma got in their way. Her delicate looking hands beckoned to them almost welcomingly. A cocky smile appeared on Ranma's face. "Uh, uh, uh." Ranma shook her head. "I'm your dancing partner tonight."

    The two amazon like warriors didn't hesitate, charging to the attack. Ranma leapt over a low sweep from the bisento, while the marionette in green drew both of her swords from their sheaths at once. Ranma was surprised when the two blades crackled with highly visible energy, but didn't let herself become distracted. The short red head was too busy dodging her amazonian opponents ever increasing offensive to waste time in speculation.

    < I've got to stay away from those swords.> Was the only coherent thought Ranma could manage as her body took over, evading like a butterfly before a hurricane. As time passed, Ranma became aware that Akane was getting out of sight, and knew it was time to act.

    The few initial seconds of combat had given Ranma a good idea of her opponents' abilities. They followed classic patterns of attack for their weapons, practically without flaw. This left their defenses strong, but in every pattern, there was a weakness. In the palace guards' case, Ranma realized the weakness was in the pattern itself. The sentries' attacks seemed varied at first, but to a large degree, they followed the same form. All she had to do, she realized, was to anticipate the next moves they would make ahead of time, and exploit them.

    Dodging a downward swipe by the bisento, Ranma spun to the left, putting the spear wielder in the way of the woman with two swords. Before they could reorient themselves so that they both could attack again, Ranma had found her opening. Moving in, even as the tall, red-clothed woman brought her bisento up in a high sweep, Ranma slid between her legs before the marionette could reverse her swing. Ranma kicked out at both of her legs simultaneously, and brought the tall woman down, falling toward her companion. Before the marionette in green could get out of the way, Ranma pushed up with her hands, planting both feet in the stomach of the falling amazon, and launching her toward her companion with every muscle in her body. Unable to get clear, the green-haired marionette was carried along with her white-haired ally as Ranma's thrust knocked them both off the rooftop.

    Even before they started to fall, Ranma had flipped to her feet and was sprinting in the direction Akane had gone. Ranma left the rooftop with a powerful leap, arcing forward in a shallow parabola, reaching the next roof in a moment, then leaping onward with increasing speed. By the time the two palace sentries had recovered from their fall and regained the rooftops, Ranma was out of sight. After carefully surveying the nearby area, they glanced at each other, then took off toward the palace to report.


    Half a mile away, Ranma had slowed down her breakneck pace and was scanning the rooftops and streets around her as she bounded along low to the surface of the roofs. Ranma heard something whistling through the air at her and spun, breaking the flying piece of roofing tile into pieces with a downward block. She tracked along the flight path of the hurled object and spotted Akane and Nabiki in a nearby alleyway. With a grin, Ranma leapt down to join them.

    Akane moved forward with a worried look, and started checking Ranma for damage. "What happened? Are you alright?"

    Ranma shrugged nonchalantly. "Nothin I couldn't handle." She frowned slightly. "And don't mother me, I ain't hurt."

    Akane stepped back, looking annoyed. "Not that you'd admit it if you were, you stubborn jerk."

    Ranma snorted. "Like I'd want you to help? You're so clumsy, you're more likely to pull one of my arms off then to fix anything."

    Akane's brow knitted in anger and she was about to reply heatedly when Nabiki interrupted. "I hate to break up your lover's quarrel, but this isn't really the time or place."

    Ranma and Akane both turned to face her. "We're not.! Why would I.?"

    Nabiki grinned. "I've heard that before too. You're not fooling anyone, you know." Ranma and Akane both hesitated uncertainly and Nabiki continued. "I know you two too well. You don't have to fight the engagement anymore, you know. Daddy and Mr. Saotome are long gone, and we're on another planet! You don't have to pretend anymore."

    Akane and Ranma blinked, then spoke as one again. "Hey I'm not.! What do you mean, pretending.?" They stopped, glanced at each other, and blushed in embarrassment, then spoke up a third time as one. "No really! Why would you.?"

    The former fiancees' stopped yet again and Nabiki laughed. "Oh yes, I can tell how much you don't care. You two even protest like you're joined at the hip!" Ranma and Akane looked ready to protest again, but Nabiki cut them off. "Never mind, just... calm down, OK? No one's going to make you guys get married. We've got other problems now, and no time to deal with your usual bickering." The two younger girls nodded finally, a bit shame-faced, and Nabiki took a breath. "OK, now that that's settled, what do we do next?"


    The two palace sentries made their way into the inner palace, then down into the laboratories beneath it, where Lorelei was working. The willowy scientist was hunched over a computer when they found her running simulations on the reconstruction of a broken maiden circuit. Tiger, one of the six active saber marionettes known to exist, had been damaged a few weeks before Lorelei had been rescued from her hibernation on board the colony ship. Most of the damage was readily repairable, but the damage to her maiden circuit was not. The maiden circuit contained all the emotional data collected by the marionette in her lifetime. To simply replace the damaged circuit would be to eliminate all that data, all the emotions and feeling she had experienced.

    Lorelei couldn't do that to Tiger. Although they had never met, Lorelei knew that Tiger was an individual with great potential and a history of experiences that was vital to who she was. To simply get rid of all that would be like killing her. As it was, however, Tiger was barely alive. The damage to her maiden circuit left her lost in the past, remembering events from decades before, but nothing from the present. Tiger was unable to interact normally with the world around her, as she equated everything with those past experiences, unable somehow to tell the difference.

    Lorelei had been trying for weeks to reconstruct the lost data, and repair the circuit without losing anything more, but so far she had not gotten very far. When the two main palace sentries came into her lab, Lorelei almost welcomed her distraction. "Tamasaburo, Baiko, what's happened? Why are you here?"

    Baiko, the marionette with blue/green hair and a green and black kimono, spoke. "We have encountered a group of saber marionettes outside the palace. We received a report of three escaped marionettes with faulty maiden circuits. Their owners informed the palace guard that they might be headed this way."

    Lorelei interrupted. "Maiden circuits? These marionettes had maiden circuits? I wasn't aware that any existed, outside of those that were created. to rescue me. Who created them?"

    Baiko shook her head. "We were not informed. The head of the house of Kuno, Godai, informed the guard of three rogue marionettes, claiming that they had destroyed his master computer and some other property, and they were dangerously unstable."

    Lorelei nodded. "I see. He said that their maiden circuits were faulty? Perhaps they were an older model of the device." She looked interested. "You said you encountered them?"

    Baiko nodded in affirmation. "We encountered three marionettes fitting the description we were given, on a rooftop overlooking the palace wall. Apparently, they were discussing how to enter the compound. They seemed to wish to find you."

    "They did?" Lorelei questioned. "Why? Did they say why they wanted to see me?"

    Baiko shook her head. "Just that they were here to visit you."

    Lorelei raised an eyebrow. "What happened? Where are they now?"

    Baiko shook her head again. "Unfortunately, they escaped. We were knocked from the roof and lost sight of them for 9.4 seconds, during which time they got out of sight."

    Tamasaburo nodded at Tiger. "I would estimate them to be on a threat level equivalent to Faust's sabers. Normal methods will not be sufficient to capture them."

    Lorelei blinked. "I see. Perhaps we should request Otaru's help." The two sentries stood silently, waiting for a command, and Lorelei cleared her throat. "Please ask Otaru and company to come by. Tell them I will need their help yet again." The two tall marionettes bowed once then retreated, leaving Lorelei to her thoughts. < Otaru.> She pictured the brash and impulsive young man in her mind's eye and sighed. < Brash and impulsive he may be.> Lorelei admitted to herself. < But there is no finer man in all of Japoness.>

    Lorelei smiled sadly at the memories that called up, memories of Otaru, and of another. < Faust spent all of his life trying to save me. The rest of that life, and the lives of his next ten clones. Why? Why did he drive himself so hard?> Lorelei sighed and started toward the stairs. It really wasn't difficult to understand Faust's obsession. He had been very much in love with her. Lorelei shook her head sadly. < He was so much in love that he would do anything to save me, even go to war.> As she walked up the stairs toward the main section of the palace, Lorelei fought back a wave of guilt. < It was my fault. It was all my fault.> Intellectually, Lorelei knew that in reality, she had no control over Faust's actions. She had gone into suspended animation to begin her long wait for rescue long before any of the events that would lead to the war came about.

    Lorelei herself had been still sleeping in hibernation when it had happened, but she still blamed herself for their deaths. < Ieyasu died because of me. He and his chancellor died to save me. twice.> The sole human female currently living on the planet let a tear run down her face as she came to the top of the stairs. Lorelei tried to distract herself from thoughts of remorse. < I've been down in the lab for hours. I completely forgot to eat.> Her stomach growled as she turned to go toward the kitchen. As Lorelei entered the palace kitchen, she recalled the chain of events that had led to her revival.

    At first, Lorelei had thrown herself into cloning a new generation of women from her genes, using the sophisticated technology beneath the Imperial palace of Japoness to create a large diverse female population. That task had finally gone beyond any need for her help. The clones were maturing nicely, and in less than a year, just under a hundred baby girls would go to the best families on the planet. It wasn't very many, compared to the full population of men, but it was a secure start. The cost, however, for Lorelei's rescue had been great. Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry had sacrificed themselves in order to save her.

    Otaru had gone into a severe depression at the loss of his beloved family. Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry had been like his children, his siblings, and his girlfriends all at once. He would have rather died than not see them again. Otaru's friends, especially Hanagata Mitsuru, an aristocratic young man who believed he was Otaru's destined love, tried to cheer him up, but to no avail. Lorelei as well had tried to comfort Otaru, feeling primarily responsible for the pain he was going through. Lorelei had no more success in cheering Otaru up than anyone else, but she had succeeded in doing one thing, falling in love with him.

    Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry had been designed to emulate the three aspects of Lorelei's personality. Specifically, they were living embodiments of her innocence, her charity, and her desires as a woman. The three marionettes had done more than that. Each of them had grown a fully realized personality, the whole becoming much more than the sum of its parts. They had matured from being Otaru's loyal servants, into simply loving him with all of their artificial hearts. They could gladly sacrifice themselves in order that he and his world live. They could do this not because they were programmed to, but because they loved him.

    As the three aspects of her personality had fallen in love with him, Lorelei found it easy to do the same. Otaru, however, was in too much grief to accept a substitute, and Lorelei hadn't tried to become one, respecting the young man's need for time. She could understand what he was going through, perhaps, better than he himself could. Months had passed, and Otaru started to come back to life, when miraculously, Lime, Cherry, and Bloodberry returned!

    The colony ship had suffered too much damage in the battle to free Lorelei, and had finally broken down entirely. Otaru's three marionettes had found an escape pod and managed to get back to the planet intact. The reunion had been joyous but it forced Lorelei to give up any thoughts of a relationship between Otaru and herself. She had thrown herself back into her work, which was, in fact, nearly complete.

    With her most important work complete, and with all the guilt over the suffering that had been caused, indirectly or not, by her failures, Lorelei had fallen into a suicidal depression. Thankfully, Otaru and his marionettes had realized something was wrong before Lorelei could 'accidentally' kill herself. During that darkest of nights in Lorelei's life, Otaru had convinced her that the world still needed her, that she still had much to live for.

    Lorelei found herself in front of her bathroom mirror and blinked at the sight she found there. < Oh my! I look dreadful! And Otaru and company will be here soon.> She hesitated, sighing. < But why should I bother to clean up? I'm not trying to impress him anymore.> Lorelei forced herself to smile. < He's happy now, and I should be glad for him. I am glad for him, it's just....>

    Lorelei stared into the mirror for several long moments, taking in her bloodshot eyes and tear stained cheeks. < I really should clean up, unless I want Otaru to worry about me without reason.> She smiled wryly as she picked up a washcloth and started to fill the sink. < I won't be competing with Lime and the others after all. I couldn't do that, after all they did for me, for everyone.> Lorelei smiled with genuine fondness as she thought of the three marionettes. She really did like them tremendously. Despite their original design, they had turned out to be much more than simply aspects of her. They were living, breathing people, as worthy of respect and life as any human, at least in her eyes.

    After cleaning herself up a bit, Lorelei went to her closet to find something to change into. She passed over the dresses and more feminine apparel that she had tended to wear before the three marionettes' return, and selected a checkered work shirt and a pair of jeans that she tended to wear around her rooms and for gardening. Lorelei finished dressing and checked her appearance in the mirror. Sufficiently healthy looking but not too provocative. Lorelei seriously doubted that Otaru could be drawn from his family by her 'feminine charms' but it wouldn't be right to test that theory. She smiled and nodded in satisfaction, then headed down to wait for her guest in the palace's entranceway.

    A thought struck her as Lorelei started walking. < Perhaps these new marionettes with maiden circuits will provide me with a new perspective on Tiger's problem.>


    Down in their alleyway, Ranma, Akane and Nabiki had come up and rejected half a dozen plans for sneaking into the palace. The one problem they couldn't see a way around was getting past the two sentries that had stopped them before. While Akane and Nabiki leaned against the alley wall, Ranma paced agitatedly. "Arrgh! This shouldn't be so difficult! We just have to get them out of the palace, and sneak past them."

    Akane glanced at Ranma, then past the red head, her eyes going wide. "Um. Ranma?"

    Ranma continued pacing. "That's it. We just gotta set up a distraction or something."

    "Ranma.." Akane cleared her throat, looking smug.

    "What is it?" Ranma looked around at her ex-fiancee in mild irritation. "Can't you see I'm trying to think?"

    Akane nodded. "Uh huh. You were just saying we should get them out of the palace?"

    Ranma nodded back. "Right. So?"

    Akane pointed toward the rooftops a hundred feet away. "Well they are. They just ran by up on the rooftops, heading that way." She pointed away from the palace.

    Ranma blinked. "Are you sure?"

    Akane looked slightly annoyed. "Positive, the same two. Something tells me there aren't another two exactly like them."

    Nabiki had a thoughtful look on her face. "It's likely you're correct, but we can't be sure."

    Waving her hand in dismissal, Ranma disagreed. "No, no, it had to be them! They're probably out looking for us. Now is our chance to get into the palace!"

    Akane nodded. "Right, we'd better hurry, so we can get out of there before they return." As one, both Akane and Ranma hesitated and glanced at Nabiki.

    "There will probably be more guards.." Ranma began.

    "It's not safe, Nabiki.." Akane broke in.

    Nabiki shrugged. "Get going. I'll wait for you two here. Derring do was never my style anyway."

    Akane smiled gratefully. "Don't worry big sister. We'll be back as soon as possible.

    Ranma jerked her head toward the street. "Come on, Akane. Time's a wastin.."

    "Coming!" Akane shot over her shoulder then turned to go. Ranma led the way, leaping out of the alleyway to a nearby rooftop with Akane following just behind. They were out of sight in moments.

    Nabiki sighed to herself. "Be careful."

End of Chapter 2