Chapter 2 is finally out! It took me longer than I thought to finish but I'm glad it's done.

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Chapter 1: How it all began...

And so begins another story.

A story of sacrifice and loss. Of endings and new beginnings. Of death and rebirth.

This is the story of a girl who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and in return, saved us all.

But to understand this story, you need a little history.

It all started on June 6, 1955, a quiet day by all standards. In post-war Japan, the recovering nation was rocked by a sudden political upheaval. A new faction of neo-progressive activists rose up against the government, blaming the old guard for the trials the people faced during and after the war. Rapidly gaining support from the people, in less than a year the neo-pro faction overthrew the former government and installed a new emperor on the throne. This emperor, Keiichi Morisato the First, instituted sweeping changes in the nation and the policies governing it, among many other things, immigration in or out of the nation was revoked and work visa's canceled. Soon afterwards the whole of Japan fell silent. Internationally, trade and commerce continued as normal, but politically and socially Japan became a complete non-participant. Japans' ambassadors all over the world quietly retreated to their embassies and no longer engaged their foreign counterparts, while the U.N. representatives announced that Japan would now be neutral and un-involved in all foreign affairs, and from then on they kept themselves out of the way. Never commenting or contributing to any international affairs, only quietly observing.

As years passed, Japan maintained its semi-isolated state of un-aligned neutrality while the world changed around them. Further political and military events felt across the world were simply observed without any input. American military forces in Japan were allowed to maintain their presence, but politely encouraged not to leave base. Even during the tense standoff between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union, things nearly reached a breaking point when a prototype Russian submarine went rogue during the cold war. The sub captain announced his intention to defect, and then made a break for the American east coast, only for the untested submarine to suffer a core meltdown just off the coast of Greenland. The underwater nuclear explosion observed by the evacuated crew, rescued by an American navy ship, left no recoverable salvage behind. Through all of this, Japan simply observed.

At some point in the early 1970's, intelligence agencies across the world started noticing a disturbing trend in Japan. While externally Japan seemed quiet, internally was a whole other story. While their navy never increased in size, agents would observe that the ships where constantly being upgraded. Fighter planes were seen to be being improved nearly every year. The few agents who managed to infiltrate inland discovered all kinds of technologies in industrial, commercial, and civilian sectors advancing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.

Time and time again, agents tried to find out how these technologies were being made or even where they came from, but every time they were caught and turned away. Small stolen samples revealed little of their origins and scientists were stumped by how advanced the tech was.

While the overall global attitude towards Japan remained as confused suspicion, eventually the nations of the world left them alone. Even with their advanced technology, Japan never once made any aggressive moves to any other nation on any level, steadfastly maintaining their stance of silent neutrality. Without justifiable cause, the leaders of the world had no reason to support any form of more aggressive investigation and so, decided to merely keep one eye on Japan for the foreseeable future.

In 1977 the reigning emperor, Keiichi the Second, issued a new decree. Starting in the beginning of the new school year, all students from ages 15 and up would be required to take a test each year known as the "National Standardized Qualification Exams". These exams would evaluate where the students strengths and weaknesses were and would shape their education and lives in the years to come.

Also in the same year, a new policy called the "National Census Qualification" was instated. In order to increase the population, young people age 18 and over could apply for a special "State Sponsored Parenting License", which would provide certain benefits, mainly monetary, for raising a family. The more children you had, the more benefits you could receive. While obtaining a license was not required to get married and start a family on your own, it certainly helped. Individuals of 15 and over could also provide genetic samples, or apply to become a surrogate parent, at government sponsored facilities for lesser benefits, for those who had difficulties having children of their own or wished to adopt.

It was early in the reign of Keiichi the Third that things would change. On a quiet summer day in the year 1997, in a rural district of Tokyo, a 15 year old girl was struggling over an important decision that would affect her entire life. It was this young girl, in the prime of her life, who would change the world. This was the girl who would save us all.

This is her story.

In a quiet house near the outskirts of the Nerima district, a young girl sat at her desk. She was a little tall for being fifteen with a body most girls her age would kill for. With blazing red hair and eyes often described as chips of sapphire, she was undeniably attractive in an exotic way. While definitely not one of the smartest, most of the boys at her school would place her in the top ten hottest girls in school.

Ranko Saotome stared at a piece of paper. It was a half-finished application on simple legal paper. One question on the sheet stared up at her like a great predator, her trembling hand holding a pen over the empty check box next to it.

A single question had kept her pinned in fear and uncertainty for what felt hours. The sound of her own heartbeat thundered in her ears like a taiko drum. Just one question…

Are you applying to become a surrogate parent? Please mark Yes or No.

The pen in her hand slowly drifted to within a hairs breadth from the page before she abruptly threw the writing instrument across the room and dropped her head onto the desk with an explosive sigh. She mumbled under her breath.

"Why is this so hard to figure out? It's not like we don't need the money…"

She leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Ever since she had moved in with her uncle and cousins, life hadn't exactly been easy. Trying to care for her and her three cousins put a lot of stress on her uncle Soun, so much that when he broke his knee a few years ago, he nearly had a nervous breakdown. As it was, his injuries made it difficult to work in the dojo anymore. She and her youngest cousin, Akane, had tried to help run the dojo, but not many people were willing to take lessons to two junior high girls. The few students they could get to stay were often only hobbyists or perverts. Her middle cousin, Nabiki, managed the family finances. Over time she had developed a hard, ice-queen personality with a strong mercenary attitude. She may put up this hard-core 'take no prisoners' façade, but Ranko knew that she loved her family with all her heart. The eldest, Kasumi, was the rock of their house. When everyone else started losing hope, she stood her ground and weathered the storm. She was the light of the family, always smiling no matter how hard it got. Ranko envied her strength of character.

Come to think of it, maybe she should talk to Kasumi. When she was fifteen, Kasumi had applied as a surrogate herself. Since then she had carried two children and was eight months along with a third. Yes, Kasumi would be perfect to talk to.

Ranko got up and headed downstairs. From the smells, Kasumi was in the kitchen. Getting a nod from Nabiki who was watching TV as she passed, she walked into the kitchen. The object of her search was humming a gentle tune while her tasks sent her dancing all over the kitchen. Ranko was mesmerized watching her cousin move with grace worthy of a professional dancer, her large stomach seeming to only add to her beauty. Ranko grinned.

"Gee, Kasumi. If you ever get tired of us, you could make it big on the dance floor."

Kasumi spun around and her smile lit up the whole room. "Ran-chan! It's nice to see you out of your room for once today!" Ranko blushed under her teasing gaze. "Did you need me for something?"

"Well…" She dropped her head and shuffled a bit. "…It's about…well…you know…your…baby…"

Kasumi put a hand on her round belly. "Oh? She's doing well today, I felt her kicking a few minutes ago. What did you need to know?"

Ranko's mouth opened and closed a few times before she pulled herself together. "I…a few days ago at school I…I got a…well…an application…"

"Oh…" Kasumi's eyes widened, "…OH…" She stopped and pulled Ranko over to a seat in the kitchen. "You got one of the parenting license applications, didn't you?" Ranko nodded, "You're asking me about turning it in?" Another glum nod and Kasumi put her arm around her smaller cousin. "Well…how do you feel about it?"

Ranko bit her lip. "I…I don't know. I know it's normal for kids my age to apply, and all my friends are doing it. Hell, Yuka is into the second trimester on her first one and is already planning her second when she recovers. And I know we need the money…" she trailed off, wrapping her arm around herself.

Kasumi hugged her. "Ranko, becoming a surrogate is a big decision. When I applied, we didn't have many options. But, Ran-chan…" she pulled her closer, "…Just because your friends are doing it, doesn't mean you should. Not everyone is cut out for being a parent so early, even if fifteen is the legal age."

"But…what if it could help? I know we've been barely scraping by, I've seen the numbers! It's not like a girl my age has a lot of options. It's that, hoping to find a decent part time job, or the red-light district…" Ranko shivered. "I know being a red-light girl is perfectly legal and there are tons of laws to keep them safe and keep the sleaze-bags away, but…I don't think I could take getting stared at like a piece of meat all day. And the back rooms…" she shivered again. "No, being a surrogate is the safest way for me to help, and it won't interfere with my school. I'll just have to drop some electives…"

Kasumi sighed. "Ranko…did you know that Nabiki has been working weekends at the Velvet Moon?"

Ranko looked up in shock. "Nabs? But..that's a…why would she…"

"What? Didn't think I would strip naked and shake my ass in front of a bunch of drooling guys?"

Ranko and Kasumi turned to see Nabiki standing in the kitchen doorway. With her hand resting on her cocked hip and wearing short-shorts and a small tank top over her toned frame, she practically oozed sex appeal. "I have no problems doing whatever I felt I had to do to keep us in the black, cousin Red. I started stripping a year ago and I've never looked back. Besides…" she grinned, "Senior girls get to pick their clients, and most of the time the sex isn't half bad."


"What? It's true."

Kasumi shook her head. "Look, Ranko. If this is about the money, you don't need to worry about it. With Akane being the heir to the dojo, father is planning on having her become a full time instructor. He's already starting to set up self-defense classes for women. Nabiki is working nights and paying her way into business school, and once this little one is on her way to her new family…" she rubbed her belly, "…Ono-kun agreed to marry me."

Ranko's jaw dropped and Nabiki raised a delicate eyebrow. "Tofu the Spaz? When did that happen?"

Kasumi smiled. "I finally wore him down last month. We've cared for each other ever since we were children and he finally admitted that he loved me. I'll be moving into his place, and helping at the clinic, but we agreed that our home is his home. Father has already signed the paperwork for adopting him into the family; our marriage will just make it final." She turned to Ranko.

"You see? With Akane's new classes, Nabiki's work and school, and my marriage…money won't be as big an issue for us anymore. Out of all of us, you have the best chance of living your dream."

The doorbell ring interrupted them and Nabiki left to answer it. Ranko sighed, "but…I don't know what my dream is…"

Kasumi smiled and patted her back. "Don't worry, Ran-chan. You'll find your path."

"Hey, Red? You haven't been in any trouble lately, have you?"

Ranko looked up in confusion. "Nabs? What are you talking about?"

Nabiki jerked her head back at the door. "Well, there are some government types here to see you."

Ranko furrowed her brow in confusion. "Look, Mister…?"

"Masaki, Tenchi Masaki. And it's actually Doctor." The brown eyed man sat down his tea cup.

"Right. Dr. Masaki, could you please explain this…project? And how I was even picked for this?"

Tenchi sighed. "Look, I really do want to explain this to you, but I can't until you sign these confidentiality waivers." He placed the mentioned documents on the table between them. "Legally, all I can tell you is that your score on the NSQ exam showed exactly something we have been looking for."

Ranko frowned and picked up the papers. "May I?"

"Of course."

She looked over the documents carefully, and then handed them to Nabiki, who stopped eyeing the female military cop escorting Dr. Misaki and read over the papers. Eventually, her eyebrows raised in interest. "Other than the penalties, this is pretty much a standard government non-disclosure agreement." Nabiki looked over at Tenchi. "What kind of project punishes breach of contract with charges of treason and life in prison?"

"The absolute top secret kind, Miss Tendo."

Nabiki shook her head and looked back at Ranko. "Well, I can't see anything wrong with these, and if these guys are serious about how classified their little project is, waivers like this are pretty much standard."

Ranko leaned back a little in thought and looked at Kasumi, who hesitated then gave a tiny nod. Ranko sighed, then responded. "Do you need all three of us to sign?"

"Oh, sorry. Yes, if you wish for them to know about this, all of you will need to sign. Otherwise, they will have to leave."

Ranko took the offered pen and sign where he indicated, then handed it to her cousins who copied her actions. Taking back the pen and papers, Tenchi cleared his throat. "So, where to begin…um, how much do you know about the NSQ exam?"

"Well…They are given every year in school starting at freshman year. They determine how well you do in school and how far you can go. And people who do better end up with better jobs. Other than that, not much."

"Hmm…well, that is roughly what they do, but that's not the entire story." Tenchi settled into what his wife often called his 'lecture mode'. "You see, the National Standardized Qualification Exam is actually designed to judge a person on many more levels than just that. Using the data from the exam, you can determine an individual's likes, dislikes, personality traits, skills, weaknesses, motivations, and even subconscious characteristics. This allows the educational board to determine where and how each student is most likely to fit into our current society and their future education reflects this."

Nabiki frowned. "Seems like a lot of faith put into a single test."

Tenchi nodded. "You are correct, but how many other tests have you seen that allows three days to answer just over one thousand questions?"

She shrugged. "You have a point."

"Now, I will admit, placing a student's future into the metaphorical hands of a single test taken once a year for, at most, seven or eight years is quite a daunting thought, but so far in the twenty years the exam has been in use, it has been proven to work and our nation has benefited from it."

"So what does this have to do with me, Dr. Masaki? Why am I so important?" Ranko asked.

He looked at her. "Yes, sorry. I do tend to ramble a bit. Well, in the NSQ exam, there is actually a special evaluation section, a hidden test as it were, that was designed almost thirty-five years ago. It is different from the rest of the exam in that it does not determine what you know or even how well you can learn." He paused for a breath, "It determines how you learned what you already know. In other words, how your brain takes in and possesses information. This particular data is exactly what we are looking for."

"And the regular exam has nothing to do with this?"

"Little to none, but yes. I can't give you exact details, but…" Tenchi adjusted his glasses, "Your score in the hidden test, Miss Saotome, was the highest we've seen in more than twenty years."

Ranko rocked back. "That's…I can't be the only one, right?"

"Oh, not at all. There are four other individuals in your age group across the nation with similar scores, but yours blows all of them away. Each of them will also be approached for the project, but I wanted to speak to you first."

"You keep mentioning this project. What is it?"

Tenchi opened his mouth, but then closed it. "Actually, even with the signed waivers, I can't tell you much about that." He held up his hand to forestall any arguments. "What I can tell you is this. The project is heavily involved in computer control systems. Specifically, a direct mind-to-machine interface."

The three girl's eyes widened. "…you're talking about thought controlled machines…with a direct physical link? Gods above…" Ranko sagged in shock. "…the military applications alone would…"

Tenchi nodded sagely. "Now you see the severity the situation, and the need for extreme precautions."

They sat in silence as that information settled in. After a while, Ranko cleared her throat. "Dr. Masaki? If I accepted your offer…what would be in it for me?" Kasumi glanced at her in shock.

He gave a small lop-sided smile. "I'm assuming that's without the typical 'helping the nation for the betterment of mankind' party line?" Sitting beside him, his guard snorted with undisguised humor.

"…yes, please."

"Well, to start with, I am authorized to offer financial compensation for your time. Over the span of a five year contract, I can offer a minimum of this amount." He slid a signed check over to her and she read it, her face turning bone white when she saw the amount listed. Nabiki looked over her shoulder and her jaw dropped. "That's…a lot of zeroes…"

"Oh yes, I'm sorry. That amount is for a monthly settlement." All three girls looked faint. "In addition, I can arrange for other considerations if you wish. My boss insisted that you feel as comfortable as possible." He kept his face straight. Director Hakubi was not one for 'touchy-feely' things and his comment about her would probably annoy her if she found out.

Kasumi spoke up for the first time. "Is there any danger involved?"

"Well, I can't exactly say nothing at all, accidents do happen in life. I can say that in the history of this project, there has been only one accident, and that was very early on before the project became official, twenty years ago. Since then, nothing at all."

Silence descended again as Ranko was lost in her own thoughts. Each of her cousins put an arm around her in support.

"Dr. Masaki…could I have some time to think about this?"

Tenchi paused, his gaze softened, and then spoke gently. "…Yes. I understand this is a lot to take in." he handed the papers over to the officer sitting next to him, who placed them into a briefcase attached to her wrist with three heavy-duty handcuffs. He took a small card from his pocket and offered it to Ranko. "This is my personal number. I will be visiting my wife for the next two days. After that, I will have to move on." He cleared his throat. "If I don't hear from you after 48 hours, I will consider your answer to be 'No', and the matter will be closed."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "That's it? Nothing else?"

Tenchi nodded. "Exactly. If Miss Saotome declines, her invitation to the project will be revoked, none of you will speak of what happened here, and we will leave you alone. Nothing more, nothing less." He turned back to Ranko. "You can call me at any time, day or night."

"…thank you." Ranko replied. Tenchi and his escort stood up to leave, and he turned to Kasumi. "Thank you for the tea. I dare say it was just as good as my wife's, and she is a world-class chef."

Kasumi blinked. "Your wife is Tsunami Masaki? The five time national master-chef champion?"

Tenchi gave a wide smile. "Indeed she is, and I thank the gods for the day she entered my life. If your food is as good as your tea, you could certainly give my Tsunami a stiff challenge in the next tournament."

Kasumi blushed at the compliment and Tenchi bowed. "Thank you all for your hospitality. I will wait for your call."

"Wait, Dr. Masaki?" He paused, turning to Ranko.

"What you mentioned before…about that mind-machine system…" She fidgeted, "…do you think that something like that could…help my mom?"

"…I don't know for sure. But, if the project succeeds, I think it would."

With that, the two of them left, leaving the girls alone.

Nabiki looked at the other two and spoke. "Well…now what?"

"Daddy!" Tenchi smiled as he closed the front door and two supersonic missiles slammed into him.

"My little princesses! How are you doing today? Are you behaving for your mother?"

Ayeka, his eldest with short dark hair popped her head up. "Daddy! I'm not little anymore! I'm seven, a big girl now!"

"You're absolutely right, my apologies your highness." He nodded sagely, and turned to his younger daughter. "And what about you, Sasami-chan?" she mumbled into his leg. "What? I can't hear you."

She looked up through her long blue bangs and spoke. "I'm five, and I'm not a pwincess anymowe."

"Oh? Then what are you?"

"I'm a magic giwl! The wawior of love of justice, Pwetty Sammy!"

That's amazing! Don't worry, I won't tell anyone your true identity."

"That's enough girls." The girls giggled and scampered off and he turned to see his wife Tsunami cradling their eight-month old son, Ryouichi, on her hip. "So, if they're a princess and a magical girl, what does that make me?"

"Nothing less than a goddess, my love." He snaked his hand around her waist and pulled her into a deep passionate kiss. The twin cries of 'Eww!' from down the hall pulled them apart with matching smiles.

"Dinner will be ready in an hour, ok?"

"Sure." He set his coat aside and gave Ryouichi a kiss, "Actually, I met a young woman today who made tea as good as yours."

Tsunami raised her eyebrow, "Oh really? And who is this amazing girl?"

"Kasumi Tendo. She's the cousin of a potential recruit I visited today."

"Hmm, I've never met her before. I'll have to keep an eye out for her. Wouldn't want to lose my title to a stranger!"

Later that night, with diner over and the kids put to bed, Tenchi sat at his desk looking at a file. A whisper of silk drew his attention.

"Can't sleep, Tenchi-kun?"

He looked up at his wife. Tsunami had her knee length blue hair down, her mature curves and the moonlight back-lighting her sheer nightgown gave her the appearance of a moon goddess. He smiled and shook his head.

"Sorry, love. I'll come to bed soon."

Her warm body pressed against him and she kissed his head. "What's wrong?"

He sighed. "I can't stop thinking of that girl. You know? The recruit I mentioned before?" He held up her file. "This poor girl has had a really hard life. When she was seven, she, her mom and her aunt were involved in a car crash with a drunk driver. The aunt died, mother ended up in a coma where she still is, and the girl walked away without a scratch. When she was ten, her uncle reported her missing and she was found a few days later in an unlicensed brothel. Her so called 'father' had sold her to pay for booze. She wasn't harmed, but…" he shook his head. "She's been staying with her uncle and cousins ever since, but it's been tough on them. Uncle broke his knee two years back and still has a hard time keeping a job. Oldest cousin is on her third surrogate, that's Kasumi by the way. Middle cousin is working at a red-light club. Youngest cousin is applying for a full-time martial-arts instructor's license at just 15."

Tsunami hugged him. "Sounds like you got a little attached." Tenchi shrugged.

"Can you blame me? You know I'm allowed to offer monetary compensation if she signs the contract? I told them it was the minimum I could give them, but honestly?" He sighed, "I offered the maximum I could get away with."

He cleaned up and put away the papers. "I just can't understand how even in our society, there are people like her who can slip through the cracks. I thought all the great advancements our country has made put us at an advantage. Girls like her and her cousins deserve better."

"It just goes to show what a wonderful and caring man you are," Tsunami laid her head on his chest, "..and why I love you so much."

"…really? How much?"

She lifted her head and her pink eyes sparkled with mischief. "Come to bed, Tenchi-koi, and I'll show you."

Ranko lay on her bed, lost in thought. What she had learned that day was overwhelming. The things that Dr. Masaki had told her, what he had implied…the fear and confusion felt suffocating; it was like standing at the edge of a bottomless chasm.

She reached into her t-shirt and grasped a thin golden chain. Pulling it out, she gently opened the small locket on the end. Ranko gazed at the picture hidden inside, a single tear slipping down her cheek.

"Mom…what should I do?"

Holding the locket to her chest, Ranko curled into a ball and drifted into a troubled sleep.

The next morning, Ranko sat at the table holding a cooling cup of tea, red-rimmed eyes staring mindlessly at the wall. A bleary-eyed Nabiki sat next to her, working on her third cup of black coffee, while Kasumi quietly worked on a morning meal. The front door slamming announced the arrival of Ranko's last cousin.

"Morning everyone!" Akane called cheerfully, coming in from her morning run. When no answer came, she stopped in her tracks. "Um…guys? What's up?"

"Good morning, Akane-chan." Kasumi replied softly, Nabiki grunted into her coffee and lightly nudged Ranko with an elbow. She blinked and looked up. "Huh?"

Akane crossed her arms over her chest. "Geez, did somebody die? What's wrong with you guys?"

Kasumi answered, "Sorry, Akane, we can't talk about it."

As Akane opened to mouth to reply, a 'tap-thump' sound on the stairs heralded their father, Ranko's uncle. Soun Tendo entered the kitchen, supporting his weight with a cane and took in the scene. "Is something wrong?"

"Dad! Everyone's acting weird and they won't tell me about it." Akane frowned, and he looked at each of the girls in turn. "Well?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, Father." Kasumi said, "Ranko had some visitors yesterday, but we really can't talk about it."

"Government types. Classified projects. Non-disclosure papers. Top secret shit." Nabiki grumbled into her now forth cup.

Soun blinked. "…I see." He sat down and picked up the newspaper on the table. Akane stared at him.

"That's it? Nothing else? No questions at all?"

He set down the paper and turned to his youngest daughter. "I don't believe I should ask any more questions because, if your sisters are right, doing so could very likely get us all in trouble." Akane closed her mouth and sat down, and he continued. "I know it's confusing, but I have dealt with similar situations before. If you are given classified information, the best choice you can make is keep it to yourself."

He turned back to the others. "So, what is on the agenda for today?"

"…it's Mother's anniversary today." Kasumi's soft words cut through the room like a knife and everybody froze.

"…I can't believe I forgot about that…" Akane slumped in her seat. Soun folded the paper and carefully stood up.

"Well, it seems our day is planned already. Everybody get dressed, we're going to visit Kimiko."

The sky seemed to reflect the mood as Tendo family entered the local cemetery. Rows of polished marble walls lined the tranquil place, hundreds of engraved bronze plaques embedded in each of them. Dressed in dark formal cloths, and they made their way toward their destination, a single plaque near the middle of the property. On it was a simple inscription.

Tendo Kimiko

Loving Wife

Caring Mother

Loyal Sister

Soun and the girls left flowers and offerings at the base of the wall, quietly praying and supporting each other. After some time, the others started back while Ranko stayed behind. She knelt down and traced the name. "Kimiko-obasan…I'm sorry." Wiping tears away, she stood up and followed her cousins. When they reached the street, she stopped. "Hey guys? I'll meet you back home later."

Soun and Kasumi looked over at her and he nodded. "Go on, we'll see you later. Stay safe."

Ranko nodded and turned down the sidewalk, headed for the bus stop.

The soft chatter of people working greeted Ranko as she entered the hospital with an armful of bright flowers. Walking through the lobby, she headed towards the elevator before a woman at the desk stopped her.

"May I help you, miss?"

"I'm just headed upstairs."

"I'm sorry, but you can't go up there without…"

"Miss Saotome, is that you?" An older lady called out. Walking over, she waved Ranko on. "It's alright, Miyuki, she's allowed." She turned to the younger girl. "Everything has been alright, she's in the same room as before." Ranko gave a polite bow and walked away. The older woman sat at the desk and sighed.

"Poor girl. Breaks my heart every time."

Miyuki blinked in confusion. "Chiyuki-san? What do you mean?"

Chiyuki looked at her. "Oh, right. You started last week, didn't you?" She shook her head. "That was Miss Saotome. That dear girl has been visiting once a month for years and she's only fifteen. Miss Saotome and her mother and aunt were in a car wreck when she was seven. Her aunt died on the operating table and her mother has been here in a coma ever since."

Chiyuki wiped a tear from her eye. "Gods, eight long years and the little miss hasn't missed a single visit once. I've been a nurse for more than thirty years, and I have never seen a more faithful and devoted child."

It was the smell. Ranko could sense it wafting through the ventilation, but when the doors opened it hit her like a brick wall. Bleach and antiseptic. Nothing overpowering, barely detectable really, but for her it was the smell of death. Gods above…she hated this place.

Walking past the nurse on station, Ranko wandered through the halls until she reached a particular door. Room 702. Taking a deep breath, she managed to put on a weak smile before opening the door.

"Hi, mom. I'm back."

Entering the room, Ranko moved to the side table and replaced the vase of wilting flowers with the fresh ones she had brought. She pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed. After gently taking her mothers hand into her own, mindful of the various wires and tubes, she quietly observed her appearance.

Even after becoming a full-time mother at 16 and spending years asleep in a coma, Nodoka Saotome was still an attractive and beautiful woman. Her long dark-red hair pooled around her head and her closed eyelids concealed deep blue eyes that Ranko had often thought of as like pieces of the ocean. The modest hospital gown she wore and the bed sheets covered her mature feminine body and her exposed skin was pale from lack of sunlight. Comparing the two of them, Ranko's looks were a younger, near perfect copy of the woman sleeping in front of her.

"It's been a long month, and I have a lot to tell you..."

Over the next hour, Ranko softly talked to her mother and shared with her everything that had happened over the past month. Pouring out her fears and concerns, her gentle voice filled the empty room.

A knock at the door interrupted her. Looking up, Ranko saw an older female doctor smiling at her through the glass. She stood up and opened the door for her. "Doctor Tanaka, it's nice to see you."

"Thank you, Miss Saotome. It's good to see you again. How have you been?"

"As well as can be expected, I guess." Ranko shrugged, then looked over at her mother. "How has she been doing, Doctor?"

The older women sighed. "I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I'm afraid it's no news again. There has been no change in her condition since your last visit. Her vitals are stable and we've been keeping her nutrients up. Other than the expected muscular atrophy, nothing has changed since her arrival here."

Ranko's face fell and the doctor placed a supportive hand on ther shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ranko, bit I've done everything I can. Unless something changes, or we send her to a better hospital, I'm afraid that she stay the way she is."

Hikaru Tanaka watched the young girl gaze at the sleeping figure of her mother, as a conflict of some kind flashed through her blue eyes. Eventually, her features hardened and the, young woman turned and faced her.

"Thank you for everything, Doctor Tanaka. I'll be going now."

With a polite bow, Ranko quietly left the room after placing a soft kiss on her mother's forehead. Hikaru sighed and looked at her patient.

"I wish you could see how much your daughter cares for you. I've never a child grow up quite like her." She looked out at the empty doorway and shivered. "She is growing into an amazing woman...and somehow, a small part of that frightens me."

At his home, Tenchi was playing a game with his daughters when the ring of a phone interrupted them. Extracting himself from the pile they had made on top of him, he quickly walked to his office and picked up the smart phone from his desk. Inwardly he mused over the little electronic device.

Only a mere five decades ago, such technology would have seemed like science fiction or even magic. Now, the ability for audio and visual communication over vast distances could easily fit into the palm of his hand. What stood out about the device compared to similar one being developed across the world was several things; Advanced computing power similar to larger desktop units, Miniaturization in that the unit was barely a few inches in size, and mass production with prices so cheap everyone and their dog could afford one...that, and the fact that Japan had been producing cell phones like his for almost thirty years, decades before anyone else in the world.

Shaking himself from his fleeting thoughts, he tapped the connect key. "Hello?"

"...Doctor Misaki?"

"Miss Saotome, thank you for calling me. I take it you are accepting the offer?"

"...Can we talk? I need to ask you some things."

"Of course. Is there somewhere in particular you would prefer?"

"Do you know about Musashi Park?"

"I believe so. Would you like me to meet you there?"

"Yes, please."

"Alright, I'll be there in half-an-hour. Is that acceptable?"

"Yes. Thank you, Doctor. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Miss Saotome."

Tapping the disconnect key, he sighed with a small frown. "I hope she's alright."

"Is something the matter?

He looked over at his wife in the doorway. "No, just Miss Saotome calling me. She sounded..." he rolled the thought around in his head. "...tense, I guess. I have to go meet her at Musashi Park. Are you familiar with that place?"

Tsunami thought for a moment, then her eyes lit up. "Oh yes! I've been there before. It's located on the outskirts of the Nerima district. My grandfather took me to see the shrine built there to honor the crew of the Musashi from the war. He told me his brother served on the battleship. It's not a very big park, but there is a lovely lake."

After parking his car, Tenchi walked up the steps into the park. Beautiful flowering trees scattered all over stood over patches of well groomed flowers. A meandering gravel path lead through the park to a small hill where a traditional shrine stood. To the right of the path, at the edge of the glittering lake was a small stone dock with several benches, and to the left lay a grassy field with a modern playground and picnic tables.

Spotting a flash of red, he walked over to the playground. Dressed in the same dark clothes she wore to the grave-site, Ranko sat in one of the gently swaying swings, staring unseeing into the distance. Making no sound, Tenchi stood quietly beside the swings, observing her.

"It was here."

He blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"This was were it all changed. Eight years ago, today." Her gaze remained fixed on the horizon. "Mom and Aunt Kimiko took me here to see the shrine before playing in the park. I'd been here before cause Mom said that grandpa had served on the ship. He was wounded in the attacks and lost his memory, but was rescued from the water when the ship sunk. His head and face were all scarred up so nobody could figure out exactly who he was anymore. He took Mom here after the war to honor his shipmates, even though he couldn't remember them. So after I was born, Mom would bring me here."

Ranko pulled one of her legs to her chest and looked at the ground, her bangs shadowing her face. "I remember we had a picnic lunch here after leaving the shrine, and I got to play on the playground. I remember when we needed to leave, I wanted to stay longer and play. I remember holding onto this swing and refusing to let go while throwing a fit like a little brat. I remember kicking Aunt Kimiko in the stomach while I was being carried to the car. I remember throwing a tantrum while we were driving home. And most of all, I remember the sound of screeching tires and crumpling steel."

"But do you know what I can't remember?" She looked up at Tenchi and her empty, hollow eyes chilled him to the bone. "I can't remember a word that was spoken that day. Not one single word. When I remember that day, it's like I'm watching an old silent film."

Ranko turned back and looked at the play-set. "Everyone tries to tell me that it's okay. That the accident wasn't my fault. But I know they're wrong. It was my fault. It was entirely my fault." He could see the knuckles of her hand turning white with the pressure of her grip on the chains holding the swing seat. "If I hadn't been such a bratty little bitch. If I had behaved. If I had been a good girl..."

Her slim shoulders trembled and Tenchi could see tears on her cheeks, glistening in the waning light. "You never said anything before, but I know my grades are shit. I'm not smart, I never was. I've never scored above the bottom ten in my class. I struggle every day, trying to improve myself, to get better, but it's not enough. It's never enough. Nothing I do can change what happened, or fix the mistakes I've made. I've been a burden on my family for years and I know, if that secret test hadn't pointed me out, the only way I would end up was either a tired old whore or dead in an alley."

She stood up and faced him, locking her eyes with his. "Until yesterday, I was getting very close to willingly selling my body and soul to the red lights, or Hell. So if you and your boss are the ones buying, I need to know how far or how low I have to go."

Tenchi winced. "Nothing of an...explicit nature will ever be expected of you. If any member of the project attempted something like that, the Director would probably shoot them herself. In the stomach." He sighed, scratching at his neck. "Director Hakubi is very particular about the health of any participants. You and the others, if they accept as well, will be living in a secure facility and would be on a regulated diet with regular exercise periods. When not in testing, your free time is yours to do what you want, as long as your health is maintained and you do not go anywhere unattended.

Ranko nodded slowly. "And the tests themselves?"

"Interactive computer simulations. All of which are designed solely to test and study how the human brain interacts with external electronic systems. Nothing more."

The silence between them seemed to grow heavier as her gaze tried to find any hint of untruth or deception. Finally, she spoke up.

"If I accept this, there are some things I need in return."

"What do you want?"

"First, I want everything I would be getting paid to go to my cousins in the Tendo family. The most I would ever accept for myself would be 10% and not a yen more."

"Done." He nodded without hesitation.

"Second, I want my mother moved to the best hospital in the country and given the best medical help possible."

He thought for a moment, then nodded. "I don't see a problem with it, and I'm sure the Director would agree."

"Third..." She chewed on her lip in hesitation. "...I want to be able to continue visiting my mother in the hospital and my aunt's grave once a month, every month, until my contract is up. Since you say this project is classified, I will be willing to sign any non-disclosure forms or submit to any security precautions you see fit."

Tenchi hesitated for a few moments, then slowly nodded. "I'm not sure about that one, but I believe that the Director would allow it, if everything is explained first. I don't see anything wrong with it, but the final say is up to the Director."

Ranko sighed. "I guess that's the best I can get. Where and when do I sign?"

"I can give you four more days to make your goodbyes to your family and friends, then bring them afterwards. With the non-disclosure forms you already signed, you are held under legal oath not to share any classified information with anybody without permission. Once you sign the release papers, you will be formally inducted into the project and forbidden from communicating without permission in any way to anyone on the outside."

She nodded. "I can understand that and I accept. I will see you again in four days. Thank you for your time, Doctor Misaki. "

Striding past him, she walked toward the exit of the park, then stopped and turned back.


"Yes, Miss Saotome?"

"You lied about the money, didn't you? About it being the minimum amount?"


Her blue eyes pierced through him, studying him carefully. After a few moments, she bowed deeply to him.

"Thank you for your concern, even if I do not deserve it."

With that, the red-haired young woman quietly walked away, leaving the park.

Quietly closing the door and slipping off his shoes, Tenchi walked into his office and collapsed into the chair. Leaning back, he covered his eyes with his arm.


He looked up, seeing his wife in the doorway. "Sorry, love. I didn't mean to worry you."

She entered to room, concern visible on her face. "Why are you back that beer? You've been drinking?"

He winced, knowing that she would be angry. "I'm sorry, Tsunami. I know I said I'd never go back, but..."

"How could you? After we got married, you swore you'd never drink again. You promised me! Why now of all-"

"I needed it." He interrupted, sagging into the chair. "Gods above, I needed it."

"...Tenchi? What's wrong?"

He put his head in his hands, "That girl..."

"That Saotome girl? The one who called earlier?"

He nodded. "...She's broken."

His wife paled. "Tenchi...what do you mean? What are you saying?"

"I could see it all. In her eyes." a shudder racked his body, "I have never seen a case of survivors guilt so strong other than in war veterans. She looked at me, and all I could see was an empty shell." Tsunami gently paced her hand on his shoulder and he held it to him. "She blames herself for what happened to her mother and aunt. Every day for eight years, she's held on to her guilt and self loathing, letting it build up until now..."

He pulled Tsunami close, holding her against him, and she could feel him shaking. "I almost threw up when she asked me 'how far or low she had to go'. That kind of mindset has no place with a fifteen-year old. I have a bad feeling that her file is not as accurate as we thought. For a girl so young to be so damaged..."

They stayed there in silence for a short time, then Tsunami pulled away. "...If I was in your shoes, I probably would have needed a drink too. I'll forgive you for this time, but please promise me you'll try not to let it happen again...and that you'll find some help for that girl."

He chuckled weakly. "I'll pay for it myself. Would you mind looking into her family? If Miss Saotome is as bad off as I found out, there might be other things hidden as well."

She smiled. "Of course, Tenchi-kun. Now, let's get to bed. You're need to sleep off the hangover you're going to have in the morning."

"What, no hangover remedy?"


"You wicked, wicked woman. Why I married such a heart-less seductress, I will never know."

She giggled. "It might have had something to do with that part about seduction."

...And done. Let me know what you think. The next chapter will be dealing with the next four days of Ranko's life before she joins the project officially. But what secrets does this mysterious project hold? And what does it really do?

Flamers will be ignored and/or blocked.