The Return

A Ranma - Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Josh Temple

 

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

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

 

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

http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Temporary Backup Site.

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

 

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com

 

C&C as always is wanted.

 

Chapter 24 Reequipped and Repulsed Part 2


            The remnants of protective wards tickling her extended senses, Ranma glowered. The damage was pretty severe – fires and collapsed walls, including one section where it looked like the building had been cleaved by a giant axe. She could feel several life forms, a handful of pattern Silvers and some others but even with the extra help all she had was a... smeared and fuzzy picture of who was alive. It looked like the enemy could do more than jam radios.


            What was clear were a few objects with stronger electromagnetic fields that were placed around the building. They did not match the signal of any consumer good, though there were similar to some of the military hardware she trained against, nor were they on  Setsuna's map. Gliding along, near the edge of her sensory range, she frowned. It looked like subtle was out. She made a motion to Nariko who was flying at her wing and the two split up.


            Buffeted by high winds and a smattering of rain, Ranma folded in her wings, and rapidly plummeted towards the earth. The gutted cinderblock and glass structure grew rapidly in her field of view. It was isolated and had wide expanses ideal for defense, this cut both ways. Several of the electronic objects to her sides seemed to move. Since stealth was not an option, she decided on something that better suited her straight-forward nature.

 
             Prepositioned above the building, black and violet orbs suddenly raced towards the earth. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw the feed from four of the DarkStar Bursts as each slammed into a different turret gun.


            A pair of the auto-guns that had escaped targeting began taking out some of the Bursts. Three orbs homed in on them and the guns fell silent. While this was happening a quartet of orbs dropped into the gash across the building and raced towards a pair of warm bodies.


            At the same time, Ranma continued her descent. When she was a hundred feet up and pushing her wings at max decent velocity, the cloak of shadows that concealed her seemed to ripple and boil as brilliant violet flames consumed it to announce her presence. Twin beams of light shot up from the building, attracting orbs to their source. After they hit her flaming aura's hottest point, the leading edge, which was several inches below where she was, the beam wobbled  and blinked out when Ranma felt the burst explode. A moment later, the violet streak slammed into the ground.

 

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

 


            Kasumi pulled herself up and looked around the vehicle's interior. Her headset gave a distressing hiss, but more worryingly, they were upside-down and had wounded. She retrieved her weapon and righted herself, slipped on her night vision goggles, and looked out into the darkness. "Status?" she asked Gabriel who seemed to be in fair shape.


            "Bruce's gone." Similarly equipped, Gabriel  peered out of the windshield, looking past areas of spider-webbed glass, blood and the remnants of Bruce Trenton's jaws and teeth.


            Kasumi briefly surveyed the scene. Trenton had been driving and took the brunt of it, next to him was Sophie Addison. Steven Deschain was over her and putting on clotting bandages and other first aid with a blank look; ironically Bruce was their medic. Lt. Tendo noted the chain Sophie's dogtags hung on; it was her decision, but time might take even that away from her.


            "She's the worst off..." Gabriel said.


            "Right, we'll go to that building, get in and hole up." Kasumi said pointing to a small factory close to where the vehicle had crashed. "Fritz and Steve take Sophie; the rest of us will cover."


            Holding back her cries, Sophie was moved and her side door was manhandled open and Kasumi and Gabriel eased out with their weapons raised. It was ten meters to that door, and she doubted that the dark night would give much concealment, even if you added the rain.


            Still, it was better than waiting to be killed in the vehicle. When they got to Agent Fritz Lang and the others, the two sprinted to the door which Gabriel broke down.


            Kasumi turned around and faced back at the smoldering vehicle while Gabriel cleared what looked like a lobby. She frowned as Lang and Deschain crossed the distance to meet her. The enemy did not care to inflict further damage, for now.


            After Sophie was put down on the relative comfort of the carpeted floor, Gabriel eased back over to Kasumi as she scanned the buildings that overlooked their damaged vehicle. "Honey pot?" he whispered.


            She gave a curt nod. "I'd say so. The scanners aren't picking anything up, it looks like we're being jammed, and they didn't finish us off."


            "They'll attack when backup shows up." Gabriel gestured with his off hand to the roof of a warehouse across the street and then to some of the trucks in a large depot next to it. "And behind the depot is that water tower; pretty good place to put a sniper. There's also the building we're in, and that's just if they'll attack close to this spot." As he spoke raindrops started to splash to the ground.


            "Fritz, stay with Sophie and watch our backs." The enemy needed them alive, at least until any backup units were attacked, becoming the next round of bait.


            There was the rumbling purr as a pair of armored vehicles in WIC gray raced down the street. Above that was came the whumping noise of helicopter blades. The vehicles started to slow down as they approached the flipped APC, and long silvery streaks flew towards them and exploded. The front of one was lightly damaged and the other hit the brakes hard and swerved.


            Kasumi spotted the flashes originating from the warehouse above them and fired a few bursts from the rifle barrel of her HOG, while Gabriel supported with the 20mm grenade barrel. The helicopter's door guns added their fire to the barrage.


            The turrets on the two armored personnel carriers opened up with 40mm grenades being marched over the roof, but soon enough there was a sequence of loud explosions and one of the gunners slumped over and was pulled inside.


            "That's on our side," Gabriel hissed as he flashed a light at one of the vehicles, before being pulled back from the doorway by Kasumi.


            One vehicle pulled to the same side as them and backed up to a small cinderblock wall. The ramp went down and a squad of agents rushed out. There was the familiar steady buzz of a mini-gun and a couple of the men went down but managed to be pulled back to the apparent safety just in the lee-side of the wall.

 

            The helicopter's hull sparked as one of the mini-guns raised its aim. The flying machine twisted and dropped in altitude, its own guns returning fire until it dropped behind a building. From there, it pulled back and seemed to get out of range of the surprising ground weapons.


            The enemy guns stopped. A couple of seconds later, Kasumi felt her tension slightly ease.


            The more damaged of the two APC's pulled forward, turned and then went straight back into the lobby door, which shattered when the door to the vehicle slammed down. Kasumi gave a slight of sigh relief. It was small consequence that the other agents were pointing guns at her. "The interior's secure, as it stands," Kasumi stated as Akane and Nabiki came out  of the vehicle and gave her a reassuring smile before splitting up and checking the adjacent rooms.


            "Casualties?" Captain Jarvis asked as she quickly stepped off the ramp, followed by the rest of the agents in the vehicle, save for a couple who, despite the obvious target it would be, were using it as a makeshift pillbox for just a bit longer.


            "Addison's bad. Trenton's dead," Kasumi looked past to see that Speirs, the vehicle's original gunner was missing a portion of his skull just under the front of his helmet.


            Eve nodded. "Akane, Smith, Lang, link up with what's left of Blue team. Get casualties back here first. Then you'll form our Southern flank," she said as she walked over to Sophie. Eve knew who had signed on to the D program and could sense the life fading.


            Kasumi frowned. They seemed trapped and the Black Hawk sounded like it was pulling back. It probably had been damaged. All in all, things did not bode well. It looked like the trap would only grow, ensnaring more agents.. However, her men were still firing, and it sounded like there was still some life left in Blue Team.


            Kneeling over Sophie, Eve turned to Kasumi. "I'm sorry but your ex-girlfriend couldn't make it Lieutenant, she's stuck with her eldest."


            Shouldering her gun, Kasumi allowed herself a smile as she eased forward. So, that was that. It was nice to see the brass' priorities. Out of the corner of her eye she caught an explosion of napalm as Akane cleared an alleyway.

 

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


            As soon as the first turrets went offline, Galina modulated the jamming signal to alert the Diversionary Team. They had to finish the job. The pain at her side reminded her that these enemies, while outclassed, were not powerless. Right after that, Dve'nadtsat called. It was redundant. Galina could still see and hear the small explosions, reminding her of mortars. She ran to help; she had not seen WIC use that weapon, which meant-


            Her thoughts were interrupted by the thunderous crump that the Russian likened to the sound a tank makes when it falls off a bridge. Following that was a bright violet flame front shooting down the hallway. Galina leapt to the side and heat wave quickly washed past her. She ran into what was once a living room, judging by the shattered furniture. Much of the ceiling, and the opposite wall and the room behind it were taken out when Sem took out Zaika's guardian.


            That damage was overshadowed by the absent roof, blown back walls and... crater in the floor. Rain pouring in from above fought with the violet tinged flames that smoldered throughout the room. The crater looked as if the concrete had been punched by the fist of an avenging god. Sem had caused similar devastation a couple rooms over during their initial assault.


            "Liza, what happened?" Galina asked Lizaveta Dve'nadtsat  over their linkage as she edged into the room.


            From the other side of the impromptu... courtyard, Dve'nadtsat gave a tight shake of her head. "Don't know, saw the incoming and shot it, then the whole room blew," she said wincing ever so slightly. The damage had cut through her abdomen, but the relevant damage to her chassis was minor.


            Galina looked over the crater; it was empty. To her left a pair of purple beams shot out and sliced diagonally along Dve'nadtsat's side. She turned, raising her weapon and fired at a dark grey and violet figure as it closed the distance. Lizaveta dove into the figure, but the demon sidestepped and the beams burned through the armor on her side before the two collided.


            Running to intercept, Galina saw the figure launching a black orb at her while she lunged towards Dve'nadtsat's side. Galina twisted in midair, the sphere responded, and was then pierced by a glowing blade that flicked out from Galina's wrist.


            The intruder had knocked Dve'nadtsat to the ground and after a quick rake of her claws leapt back when Galina rushed her with her blades outstretched. "Ranma, eh?" Galina asked noting the red hair mostly concealed under the demon's helmet.


            Eyes going to the slash in the cyborg's side, the demon merely smiled and dodged as Galina thrust forward. The dark-haired Russian dropped down to avoid Ranma's gaze and jabbed a blade to block a set of purple claws.


            Jumping back, Galina launched a volley of energy blades as she smirked slightly. The demon dodged most of them, but a couple went past and hit; two on the chest and one in the neck. The chest impacts seemed blunted, but the demon's neck sliced open, satisfactorily.


            However, Galina's pleasure was more at Dve'nadtsat 's actions. She had gotten to her feet and shot a pair of beams right at Ranma. Blood gushing out and soaking the armor on her left side, the twin attacks hit Ranma as she raised her hand and a tight column of violet and white flames shot out. Running roughly parallel to Dve'nadtsat 's attack, the two inch wide cylinder of fire hit at the bridge of her nose. Violet flames grew and danced around the demon's form.


            Burning skin, the flames failed to penetrate the armor built into her skull; her eyes were another matter. Raising her hands to protect her face, Lizaveta screamed and dropped to the floor.

 
            The bleeding from her neck abating, Ranma jumped back to avoid another barrage of blades from Galina. The demon managed to keep her hand roughly on target and burned off the vast majority of Dve'nadtsat's face, exposing gleaming metal and warped components.


            In a blink, Galina had closed the distance and rammed two blades right into the holes Dve'nadtsat, who was still alive if screaming incoherently over their communications channel, had burned through Ranma's chest armor. Similar to mechanical expanding broad-head arrows, four glowing razor-sharp edges scissored out of the knives. Just as fast, Galina twisted her wrists to maximize the damage, withdrew the blades, and used them to block the demon's claws.


            Hot, oddly-colored blood and entrails spilled out, much of it getting onto Galina who had to step back when Ranma's tail shot out at the Russian's knee, but the cyborg dodged, causing the tail cut through a massive chuck of the cyborg's thigh. Galina was thankful that her pain receptors were off. Launching another volley, this time from the blades that ran down the length of her legs, Galina roll-jumped to the side to avoid a set of eyebeams and as she came up barely dodged a black sphere that was launched right from the demon. The orb sped past Galina and vanished into the darkness of the hallway.


            Just before taking another rush, Galina took note of the sticky visceral substance that covered them both and for the first time the demon's face showed an expression.


            A satisfied little smile.


            As Ranma's arms came up Galina raised her arms spreading the energy blades that ran down the length of them like feathers and used them to block the.... beam of napalm. Galina had faced flamethrowers before, and found them to be troublesome weapons. Their capacity was a weaknesses, which did not seem present here.


            A pair of thin purple eye-beams drilled into the wound in her thigh, causing her to jump up and spread the blades that went down her legs. Going to a crouch, the demon kept adjusting her flames to try to bypass Galina's knives.


            The cyborg landed on Ranma, toppling her to the floor, and tried to pierce the squirming redhead with her knives. She had cut her several times when something slammed into her back and embedded shards into her skin and framework, which then exploded. The missing DarkStar Burst had arrived.


            Warnings flashing on her heads up display, Galina stabbed forward, embedding a set of blades into the demon's left shoulder and then jumped back to avoid the claws and tail. Rotating in midair she landed in a crouch. With a flick and twist of her forearm, she launched a salvo of blades at the rising redhead. Bleeding heavily from her back, Galina barely noticed as the blood poured down the waist of her bodysuit and splattered onto the floor.


            Ranma noted that Galina's expression mirrored her own.

 

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


            Desyat blinked as the feed from another turret pod cut out in a group of explosions. Each rounded pod consisted of an actuated turret and sensors. She could only get a few seconds of use before they were destroyed, but that sufficed. The helicopter's continued presence was... vexing. It kept her from going out into the open, and in order to keep it from providing actual support she had to allocate a few pods, which caused them to get picked off quicker than otherwise.


            Rain spattering down her back, she charged another few blades and fired them off into the distance. Running to a new position, she received footage from a currently unused pod. The metal shards flew onto an armored hull and exploded.


            Giving a slight sigh, Desyat watched their response and dived down as explosions landed where she had been. She had to give these mercenaries credit; they managed to keep their heads about them and were making steady progress, nibbling at the positions she had prepared with Vosem.


            "How's your mission?" she asked Vosem over their connection. Their jamming made it untenable over this range, but there were other ways of talking with Galina.


            "Swimmingly," Vosem tersely transmitted back, looking down into darkness with her enhanced vision. "I really think you'd love these girls, Des. They like explosives too."


            "How many?"


            "A few squads of agents, two to four demons."


            Desyat gave a slight nod and activated another pod. After firing a burst at a vehicle she pulled the turret up and swiveled the barrel around. She spotted a bit of movement in the distance before losing the signal. The sharp crack she heard later confirmed the weapon, and the reason that helicopter was still in the air. "Adding in their sniper, that means we've tied up a third to a half of the brood." Desyat paused as she and Vosem felt the jamming in the distance spike a couple times.


            Vosem sighed. Galina still needed their diversion. "Lovely," She transmitted back as she stepped back to reload her 23 mm shotgun. It was based on the KS-23 "carbine", a roughly four gauge weapon with a variety of rounds available. There were several buckshot rounds for it with fair penetration with a drawback of a ten meter range limit. Instead of a pump, her  weapon had a semi-automatic that allowed for a higher rate of fire and used a magazine instead of a tube.

 

            Vosem reloaded and pulled around a corner. The first shot was a Star flashbang, followed by a tear gas grenade. She had hoped the large flash would ruin their night vision; it was certainly hell for human troops using light enhancement. However, neither slowed down the demons much.


            The five round burst of shot cartridges that followed did. The taller of the two demons went down, with a regrettable shortage of blood. An inky, shadowlike appendage did arc out from the fallen demon and hit the wall Vosem was hiding behind.


            Shattered brick shot across the cyborg, some of the pieces embedding into her flesh and frame. Her partner responded by releasing a spray of tiny shards, some of which cut through the corner of the alleyway and exploded. Vosem dropped a pair of grenades and ran. She went up to an adjacent building and ran through a series of alleys and corridors.


            "Vosem?" Desyat asked.


            "Got them distracted and pissed off," Vosem noted as she switched to Barricade rounds. Each consisted of a single steel projectile which exchanged damage spread for much greater penetration.


            "We can't leave, not yet," Desyat transmitted, answering the unstated question.


            "No, but I'm linking up with you. These clever mercs are trying a pincer," Vosem transmitted.


            Desyat was prepared to launch another wave of explosives when she felt a taut chill in her gut. One group of mercenaries kept advancing towards those trapped in the warehouse to link up with them.

 
            Launching the blades she watched their progress as they arced up and hit the upright base supports to a water tank. Two explosions sliced through each support. Vertical beams bucking, the tank collapsed and fell across the road. It left a small area to one side that a vehicle could barely pass. She had expected a total roadway blockage, but a choke point was good psychological warfare, too. Perhaps the mercenaries actually had some courage; they certainly had thrown enough men at this "rescue" mission.


            Yes,  perhaps, they've decided to go after us. She thought with a cynical chill. It's not like they really care about Zaika. She backed down into the warren of trucks and vehicles that made up the depot.


            Dropping to the ground, she caught up with Vosem. Desyat frowned at the rips in her jumpsuit. Meanwhile Vosem just gave a labored glare. "Take out a few more vehicles?"


            Desyat nodded with a frown. One group was about to enter an area that still had some functional turrets. Despite the intelligence their turrets offered the mercenaries were frustratingly difficult to count. She knew that a couple squads had linked up to the trapped team.  The rest were flowing about,  nibbling at the turrets and generally being harassing. She guessed there was a platoon's worth of men out there, not counting however many demons were about.

 

            Cycling though the feeds, Desyat followed her partner. The two silently ran forward down the length of parked container trailers. Suddenly the alleyway they were in burst into a series of familiar explosions. The two dived down and scrambled under a trailer and into the next row.


            Desyat looked up, and saw a grinning demon in the distance. Dread welled into the cyborg as the specter aimed her oversized weapon. Firing her shotgun, Vosem jumped up and bounced off one trailer wall and made it to the top of another in a crouch. As the explosions hit, Desyat darted back and launched a single blade which hit near the demon's feet.


            Desyat doubled back and then jumped around as gunfire opened up from behind and to the side of her. She looked over and saw a pair of demons going up another alleyway in the depot. They both carried the large bullpup guns. Vosem was hit in the hip and went down in a roll and darted one passageway over.


            Above them, Desyat did not see any body from the grenadier succubus, but the demon's firing had stopped. Knowing the demons expected it, but not quite willing to let her partner go alone, she maneuvered back to Vosem. Apprehension swirling about that succubus, Desyat charged a large block of steel and threw it at the two demons. As the improvised weapon flew, she turned to pick up Vosem who had already gotten her bearings, despite the bleeding wound in her hip.


            "Go!" Desyat transmitted to Vosem while pushing her forward. Giving a quick look back, Desyat knocked her partner closer to the wall, and activated another turret. Anything to get that sniper's attention.


            "Chto za huy'nya!" Vosem actually shouted when a sickly green cloud flowed up from the sides and behind them. It did not burn, but there was a slight tingle.


            "We'll be okay, go!" Desyat transmitted. Their bodies had been built with immunity to all but the most caustic chemical agents. But you don't know that's what this is, a timorous part of her mind cautioned.


            Gasping, Vosem stumbled on the wet pavement and fell into a trailer wall.


            "Hurry!" Desyat pulled her back up and with her other hand pressed it on the side of the trailer. The charge spread out a couple meters across the thin metal wall. Desyat kept at Vosem's back but could feel them both slowing down. When the time was right, she pushed Vosem down and triggered the charged metal.


            The explosion blasted out and the air momentarily cleared, at least, of green miasma. The rain seemed to help keep it down as well. Strength returning, Vosem and Desyat gained speed and jumped to the next row. Just as they landed, the grenadier succubus made herself known.


            Broadly placed explosions hit in a wide area. At least they don't know exactly where we are. Desyat thought to herself.


            "You go east, I'll go west," Vosem sent as she fired down one of the alleyways, before darting down another corridor at an oblique angle.


            "Meet up at Rally Three then," Desyat replied, as the 40 mm grenades joined the rain in falling towards the ground in a random but uniform distribution. She responded in kind. Firing at a high arc, she shot out two dozen slim fully-charged blades.


            Vosem paused and listened. She then crept around the corner of a cargo container and fired. Two of the 23mm wide steel projectiles hit a succubus in the chest and ruptured her armor plating. A feeling of elation hit her as she moved in with another burst.


            The reassurance died when that demoness got up and made eye contact. For a brief moment the cyborg's finger hesitated. The demon pulled the trigger. 17mm bullets provided motivation and significant damage. Vosem returned fire but was pushed back, having been hit. Her frame was warped, parts of her torso were cratered, spilling blood and other fluids.


            "Desyat! I need support here," Vosem silently cried, pulling back. She turned, shot, and then ducked around a corner. Then the green miasma started to curl around her feet.


            From her position, Desyat ran towards her but was cutoff when grenades once again fell in front of her, and then the cyborg saw... her. Flicking out a blade, she stared at the grenadier girl's grinning form; coiling around her feet was a thick green cloud. The cyborg then heard two 17mm guns fire off in steady bursts before abruptly cutting off.


            Launching the blades, Desyat held out some hope. Vosem was a strong girl. That hope died when Vosem started to broadcast panicked screams for help and pathetic mewling that seemed to go on for too long.


            Her friend's incoherent begging scratching her mind, Desyat fired a sweep of blades at the succubus and slipped to the side. It was clear getting close to these girls in any way was suicidal.


            At least Vosem... stopped. She thought with a shudder as she darted out of the depot and into a neighboring warehouse. The demons could be hurt, just not up close. She reassured herself that pulling back was the only sensible option for now.


            You're scared because they found you. If you can see it you can hit it, if they can hit you they can disembowel you and eat you
, a mental voice straining her composure insisted.


            Controlling the shaking, Desyat pulsed her jamming signal three times, the emergency signal to discontinue the mission. There was no reply. Come on... they can't have run into much trouble. They had the Senshi broken and there couldn't have been more than two demons sent there.


            A cynical chuckling welled up within her. She had yet to see the redheaded demon, their leader. Apparently WIC was quite happy to send her and only her. Desyat tried to assure herself that the rest of the team could handle just one demon, but the rest of her mind responded with simple dark laughter.


            Back on the move she tried to contact any remaining turrets, but the pickings were slim. At least that helicopter sounded like it had left, perhaps it finally succumbed to damage. She knew Shest would not fail in her mission, and Galina was sensible. She would not lose her head.


            Her ears picked up the slight sounds of movement. She left a few charges and jumped to the other end of the narrow warehouse. Breaking down a door, she raced across a side street and came under fire from a six wheeled armored vehicle. Its brakes screamed as it slowed and turned through the intersection. The grenade launcher on the top turret made an all too familiar noise. Triggering the explosives behind her, she flicked a full brace of charged blades at the driver's viewing slit.


            The first knives penetrated the armored glass with small blasts, allowing blades with a heavier charge free access. Explosions, including one that turned the insides of the vehicle into a torn, mangled pyre, knocked her down. Slowly, too slowly her internal voice insisted, Desyat got back up and resumed her sprint.


            Gunfire erupted behind her. Inertia almost knocking her offset, the heavy rounds broke several components. Damaged in the shoulders and around the lower back, Desyat ran to the next building, a small factory. From the recon, she knew there would be lots of small steel parts she could charge up. At the moment, it looked like the demons were more focused on the burning personnel carrier. At least the rainfall would keep the fires from spreading. She doubted anyone would have survived that, but she could respect their concern.


            Unwilling to spend the time to catch her breath, she set a few more charges and broke through to a small office park that shared a back fence with the factory. She could hear that her pursuers had resumed their work.


            Once in the offices, she used the remaining turrets, specifically placed in case of retreat to this location, to check out the rest of the building. Finally slowing down, she felt some relief form within her. She had gotten to the rally point, and had tied up at least two thirds of the brood and most of the human mercenary personnel.


            Allowing a warm chuckle as she checked out the empty office she eventually made her way to the stairs. It was not her fault the others were having trouble. Standing on the first step she paused.... she felt... safe. Even... euphoric.


            "Shit." Desyat checked the feed from the last remaining turret cameras and saw the WIC units positioning themselves a distance from the building.


            Fighting the disturbingly pressing sense of safety, Desyat made her way down the stairs, setting more charges as she went. She could still make the mercenaries pay a steep price. Her determination was cut off by a series of explosions.


            From its somewhat awkward position, the turret pod showed grenade and rocket launchers opening up onto the building. The footage was redundant. She heard and felt the building being hit herself. Giving a brief curse she had the turret open fire. At least she managed to hit enough people to distract the grenadier succubus. Albeit just enough to get her to destroy the final turret.


            Running down the steps to the basement she heard her own charges being prematurely set off by the mercenary's explosives. The sounds of falling walls and floors followed her, somewhat damping the unnatural feeling of safety. Once in the basement she went to the South wall and threw the knives, which exploded demolishing it.. Genuine relief filled her;  Shest's reconnaissance was correct.


            She ran into the storm water conduit with a backwards glance. At the very least the impending collapse kept anyone from following her... immediately.  She was sure the demons could  brute force their way through, the mercenaries could use some explosives to open up the storm drains, or even crowbar open some manholes, but that would take time, delaying them. She slipped into the water and slipped downstream as quietly as she could manage. She just hoped she had bought the others enough time.

 

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

 


            Lightning crackled from her fingers as Jupiter sharply exhaled. There was another report and she dove behind the corner as a set of green spheres shot towards her only to be incinerated by Mars.


            "Cutting it close," Jupiter gasped, then loosed another electrical barrage.


            Mars simply raised an eyebrow. "Moon! Is the garage safe?" she shouted without turning her head. Safety was a laughable concept; they had a "safe" room. It was one of the first places that had been hit. Still, it was good that her attention had to be focused on battle, she did not think she could stand to look at the blonde, not now.


            "Uh... no," Moon said as she raked the bright white beam from her wand across the expanse of the warehouse that their building butted into. A shadowy figure danced between the support beams which were starting to char. At least their new broaches kept anything unpleasant from coming through the walls... now. They had not been activated during the start of the battle; everyone thought the building's defenses would buy them enough time.


            "There's more?" Mars sighed while pushing herself to provide more covering fire for Jupiter. She then heard a few small explosions which she initially dismissed, until a couple of seconds later when a loud crump shook the building.


            "The hell was that?" Jupiter demanded. Peering out past the corner for a split second, her bloodshot eyes widened before she pulled back, "Hey, some of them are leaving!"


            Jupiter leaned a bit closer to the black-haired girl. "Rei, go with Usagi... I'll..."


            "No." Mars' eyes hardened and she jumped forward, filling the entire hallway with fire.


            "What's happening?" Moon asked, the shadowy figure had vanished, but she had frozen at the edge of the room. Even to her it looked of a trap.


            "Something's got them distracted, there's just two left," Jupiter said. She blinked, seeing another, finer arc of lightning shoot into the room. The brunette saw a demon wearing a surprisingly sensible looking hybrid of modern battle armor and a Sailor Senshi uniform run into the room. In one hand was a red-tinted katana and in the other was a large handgun.


            Summoning the last shreds of power Jupiter fired. In an all too familiar and disheartening move the bodysuit-clad cyborg effortlessly dodged her attack.


            But not the lightning bolt that erupted from Nariko's sword. Firing her SSP at the other cyborg, the succubus rushed the assassin she had just electrocuted.


            Sem's body spasmed and the spheres of energy she was about to launch vanished. She turned and raised a twitching arm to block the onrushing demon. Her limbs were armored and strengthened. It should have blocked the blade, capturing it and allowing her to step into the demon's defenses. Instead, the blade sliced right through her arm and the jerking, weakened cyborg ended up stepping into the blade's path.


            Drawing two glowing swords Arisha shot forward, but it was too late. The demon swept the blade through Sem's body a few inches above the cyborg's hips. Stunned and still shaking, Sem fell into two bleeding, sparking pieces.


            Nariko, briefly, eyed the body with a slight frown. It looked like this one had her power core positioned lower than the ones that her cousin had killed. Still, she had at least separated the power system from the control system.


            Firing her gun, Nariko tried to slow down the other cyborg, but despite her shots hitting the neck and head, the damage seemed to be superficial. In the last couple seconds the distance shortened to where Nariko aimed at the assassin's left eye.


            Arisha jerked her head and winced as the bullet flattened just on the orbital and scrapped down her temple, leaving a big gash and slightly reducing the effectiveness of that eye. She noted the empty slide configuration of the demon's shockingly-effective handgun but her attention was on the crackling electricity swirling furiously on the red-eyed girl's sword.


            Arisha brought up one of her energized blades to block the oncoming bolt and immediately, overload warnings flashed on her heads-up display. More distressingly, the blade began to lose cohesion, the semi-liquid metal starting to ooze.. She then jabbed her other blade into the ground, stretching it through the concrete and a meter into the dirt below, the two blades flickered and started to dissipate but it held.  Her weapons requiring a lot of power to change their shape, they and her body were built to channel and distribute the load.


            Briefly glancing at Sem's stunned, but still alive, upper half, Arisha allowed a small measure of relief. As she slashed with one of her swords, the energy blade grew in length, forcing the demon to dodge out of its way. Arisha's blade now blocked Nariko's line of attack away from Sem.


            Ejecting the spent magazine, Nariko pulled her sword away from Arisha's extended blade and flipped her gun upside down. She then used her tail to slice open a magazine pouch, and pushed the firearm up to "help" the magazine fall in.  Flipping the gun down she slammed the end against her thigh to seat the magazine in the gun. While depressing the slide release, she aimed the weapon at the cyborg. Nariko looked over and forced herself to keep from frowning, somehow the casualty had vanished - both halves. There was still plenty of blood and various mechanical fluids, just no body.


            Arisha gave a slight smile of relief, at least Shest was able to get Sem out. Arisha retracted her left blade to intercept the lightening attack, while keeping her right blade as the ground.


            As the lightning hit, Nariko opened fire, this time aiming at the hilt of Arisha's right-hand sword - the one that had ended up embedded through the flooring. The bullets hit and caused some surface damage. More importantly was the momentum they imparted; Arisha's hand was jarred and flexed open, disconnecting the grounding sword from the energy conduit in her palm. Arisha screamed as Nariko's electrical attack was forced to find a different route to ground.


            Firing at Aisha's head while keeping the Lightning Devastation active, Nariko closed in and was surprised when Arisha shot up, still holding one of her swords in her right hand. Thankful that her equipment warranted extra electronic shielding, Arisha stabbed diagonally cutting through the front of that irksome handgun and knocked aside that katana before slashing it up towards the demon's neck.


            Nariko pushed back with her feet and arched her back. As she fell, she twisted her head and fired her eyebeams up into Arisha's chin. The cyborg winced and jerked her right arm back down to the prone succubus who had raised her sword arm. Instead of blocking, Nariko stabbed forward with her left hand. Neither choosing to defend, the two arms passed each other. Nariko stabbing into Arisha's right elbow; Arisha's blade into Nariko's lung.


            Arisha had a brief smirk as she drove the blade in deeper, but it died when Nariko's lightning shot up the katana. Arisha extended her blade through the demon and managed to ground the blast, but then the demon gave the barest ghost of a smile and flicked her blade down, rotated it, and then flicked it back up, severing Arisha's right arm at the elbow. The cyborg screamed and jumped back.


            Nariko used her katana to cut in half the unpowered sword pinning her. Some liquid metal dripped out of the cut ends as she pulled herself off the blade. The blood pouring out of the pierced armor slowed as the wound began to heal.


            Arisha had grabbed her other blade with her left hand and advanced. Suddenly, she was engulfed in flames. Bodysuit charring, she turned around and her blade shot forward in length into the hallway that the Senshi had retreated to. The flames immediately cut out.


            It was then that two sets of lightning hit Arisha. Twitching and groaning, the cyborg fell the ground and saw the demon's blade descending towards her... just as a pair of arms came up, gripped around her waist and pulled her though the floor.


             Glaring, red beams burst out from Nariko's eyes as she sliced at the body, the electrically-charged blade and crimson beams having no more effect on the cyborg than the floor did. Soon, the body had vanished, leaving only spots of blood and lubricant, and a carted and cut floor. "So that's what happened to the other one," Nariko muttered, looking up at the battered trio of Senshi that stepped out of the far hallway. "You're late. Mother arrived over two minutes ago."


            "What? We're late? Aren't you here to rescue us?" Moon asked.


            Nariko blinked. "I'm here to help you fight the enemy."


            Favoring a fresh wound on her side, Mars bristled. "I'm so sorry that we pulled back. You tried to slice open a nuclear reactor! Were you trying to get us killed?" she shouted.


            Nariko seemed to ignore the complaint as she looked around the room, taking care to watch the floors, ceiling and walls. "They're combat cyborgs. Their power systems were built to withstand combat," she eventually said,  not making eye contact with Mars.


            "How did you know what would happen?"


            "I asked Grandmother what would happen if I sliced through one of their power cores. She then examined the captured cores and the notes the Vatican gave us," Nariko explained as she continued to  check the room and the hallways that connected to it. "Didn't you think up ways to kill them and what would happen if they got damaged?"


            Mars glared.


            "There's three of you, and I've taken out two cyborgs. Given at least one on the diversion and at least one with mother there's at most three left. and at the least, there's the one that can go ghost through floors."


            "We've got magic that can block that," Mars said, staring at the floor where the... wounded had been pulled under. The devices seemed to work, but she was starting to question their range.


            "That's good. Don't turn them off," Nariko concentrated on her senses. She could smell Mother and some more Pattern Silvers, now that the interference was gone. Also, the whole building did stink of blood.


           

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

 


            Cursing Setsuna's wards, Mistress Mercury stepped into the building. The shattered wall provided easy ingress. Orion and Virgo followed. The room.... was destroyed. Broken studs, smashed furniture, burned electronics, and shattered glass were scattered about. The walls were scorched, torn, and broken. The ceiling, where it was present, slumped ominously. Almost as an afterthought, rain poured into the room, adding to the damage.


            Dread blooming within her, Mercury pushed forward. In one hallway, dark shadows moved in the flickering firelight. The fallen Senshi froze when two violet orbs appeared. A grim figure coalesced out of the darkness.


            A torn Kevlar skirt was hanging onto the figure's hips. Many of the pleated armor segments were warped, their ceramic components shattered, exposing bent metal layers, and several more were simply missing. The vest had two large irregular holes exposing strangely gleaming flesh. She wore no helmet and her face and hair were streaked with gore.


            The wings seemed to be fairly intact, though Mercury wondered if there was enough membrane to be able to fly. Her arms and legs were covered in slashes and gashes and blood still oozed from many of the cuts. To Mercury it looked like the demon's armor was held together by clotted blood. The biggest incongruity was the fresh bandage wrapped around a couple inches of the demon's tail.

 

            Despite it all the figure's pace was steady and controlled.  Her eyes narrowed slightly at Mercury, who stared and began to step back, until her heel punctured something soft, something squelchy and she stumbled and fell. On her ass, Mercury looked to see what her foot had spiked. It was an arm. Most of the white glove and the skin under it had been burned off but the dark, tanned skin was still obvious.


            Ranma stopped walking and laughed as she idly fingered one of her obsidian earrings. They had been quite useful, though it was a bit worrying that she needed all of the reserve stored within them.


            Using the other foot, Mercury pushed the arm off her heel. "That doesn't mean that they got her. It's only an arm."


            The demon shrugged and held out her hand.


            Mercury grabbed the blood-smeared, grimy appendage and was pulled roughly to her feet. "I mean, you can..."


            Ranma raised an eyebrow and looked at the two Senshi behind Mercury.


            "I know... Setsuna actually managed to ward this place pretty well. I didn't know something was wrong until the news started reporting all those explosions a few blocks away from here. I mean..." Mercury trailed off when she noticed interest flicker into Ranma's expression.


            "Explosions?"


            "Yes... the news was reporting... they didn't know. Some military thing and a bunch of buildings blowing up. Whole area's cordoned off. I figured someone might be attacking the Princess too. Guess I was right."


            Ranma cocked her head. "I didn't hear too much." It was too far to make out individual members of her family, other than Nariko, but she could feel a general sense of glee tempered by frustration and loss.


            "I don't know, they didn't seem to have any idea. All their footage was really grainy, but there was a lot of impressive sounding blasts and gunfire, and some of the larger explosions lit up in the distance." Mercury shivered. "I guess that's why no one's here yet. This is just a burning building."


            Ranma frowned and pushed past Mercury.


            "It's over, right? So, what should I do?" she asked the demon's back.


            "Stay out of the way."


            "That's it?" Mercury glared. "You just want me to leave?"


            "I didn't say that." Ranma growled, slowly turning around. "These are professionals. If they come back, help, otherwise don't get in the way."


            Staring at the mangled succubus Mercury gave a slight nod. "Yeah... they even forced you to use that gun."


            Ranma raised an eyebrow.


            "You're missing a magazine from your vest," Mercury stated, still trying to wonder just what kind of person DarkStar had faced.


            The demoness smiled, this time her eyes joining in the mirth. "Emptied it into her crotch,  she didn't feel any pain, but it fouled the joints there.  Why she had to have her friend pull her out."


            "Oh."


            "Mistress, would the Princess even want to see us?" Orion quietly asked.


            "True... she could be... rash."


            "Nah, antagonize her." Ranma's grin grew. "Maybe all she needs is just another push. That's what you want, right?"


            Mercury opened her mouth. "I... see your point."


            Ranma shrugged. "It's your choice."


            "We'll wait outside, keep an eye in case they come back," Mercury looked at Ranma again. "If that happens, we'll make sure you hear it."


            The redhead nodded. "And I'll make sure the Senshi don't blindly stumble into you." She grinned thinly. "Oh by the way,  one of them can phase right through the floors.  I'd be careful if I were you."


           

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

 


            Climbing up a short ladder, Desyat pulled herself out of the flowing water. Walking down the access corridor, she would occasionally stop and simply listen. The building had collapsed behind her and running, often swimming through entirely flooded tunnels, should have broken up her scent...


            But paranoia still ate at her. Better feeling that way, if I felt safe then I'd be... influenced by them, she thought. While, her emotions seemed... normal, she was still...


            Desyat shook her head, flicking water from her short hair. She went down a long corridor, through a watertight doorway, and then up a flight of stairs. Her bodysuit had already wicked away the moisture and was almost dry. She stopped at a small alcove and reached behind a large electrical box  withdrawing a duffle bag.


            Pulling out some clothes, she frowned briefly. There were two sets. She slipped her harness off, its once massive collection of blades quite depleted. After taking a few minutes to dry herself off with a towel, she pulled a pair of jeans and a sweater over her bodysuit. Some slightly oversized boots covered up her bodysuit's footwear. Finally she pulled out a mirror and a medical kit out and tried to make her face as presentable as possible.


            Staring at her eyes, she frowned. The redheaded demon was definitely not present. In all probability, the demon had sortied straight to Tsukino's position, likely bringing another spawn in the process. Apprehension and curiosity gnawed at her.


            She shook her head again and shouldered the duffle bag. In time, she would know what happened. There was nothing more she could do now. Despite everything, Vosem and I succeeded, she reassured herself as she walked through the corridors. If Galina and the others couldn't do the job against just two demons... She sighed. Whatever happened, happened. Arriving at an access door, she popped the lock and walked down a small hallway to find herself in a nearly empty subway station.


            It was 12:30 and the trains should still be running. Closing the door behind her, Desyat looked at a digital display above the platform for confirmation. The two other people in the station hardly noticed her; one was busy listening to music, the other was reading and having a snack. In an almost picturesque tableau a punk with a bright blue Mohawk and a guitar case stood a few yards away from a tired businessman in a rumpled suit. Briefcase open over his knees, he was sitting on a bench and slowly eating cookies from a plastic bag.


            Allowing a small smile she walked a bit closer and sat down on another bench. It would be a wait, but it beat having to risk taking a cab. Though if the things lasted long enough that the subways closed... that's well over three hours of fighting... them.


            She looked around the station. Her attention mostly focused on the stairway to the surface, the access doors, and the tunnel itself. At least the station was clean, better than most in Europe. It lacked the artist grandeur of the Metro stations of her home city, though. Eventually, a subway train arrived, but she sighed. It was going the wrong way. The businessman and the punk went onto the west-bound train, and a few minutes after they left another train arrived from the opposite direction. She pulled her bag and got on.


            She eased into a seat and stared at the map. She was on the eastern end of the Bloor-Danforth line and only had a couple stops to go. At least the trains are pretty clean, she idly thought while looking around. She was the only occupant of this car. There was a lone old woman in the car ahead of her who seemed half asleep.


            Eventually, the subway train slowed to a halt at her stop. Emerging into the night air, her ears were hit by the rich mix of sirens and alarms. Fat drops of water fell around her, she would get wet, but after her swim this was almost refreshing. She looked down to the South-east with a slight smile. At least they've got that mess to clean up, she thought, walking down the empty street.


            She took her time getting to the safe house, attempting to make sure she had not been followed. Really? They can mess with my mind. Can I really be sure? She shrugged and entered the apartment building.


            Once the apartment door was locked behind her, she slumped down onto a couch. Her diagnostics indicated the most vital repairs.  Pulling out a case and a thick towel and plastic sheet, she gathered the parts.  Then she spread the sheet and towel on the floor, sat down, and with familiar skill opened up her body and began replacing components. 

 

            It did not take long. There were more repairs, but they were not critical. After she cleaned up, she sat down on the couch. Staring at the wall, she checked the time on her internal clock. Part of her told her that she should move again, but it was glossed over. Eventually when the time was right, she would have to call in.

 

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

 


            Sophie slowly opened her eyes. "It happened," she whispered. The connection she felt... Morrison was next to her, holding the new demoness. They were both on a couch in Jarvis' office. "Mommy?"


            Morrison pouted slightly. "She's in a meeting. She stayed with you as long as she could, but... there's still things that need to be done."


            "Yes..." Sophie looked down.


            "You can feel her," Morrison smiled.


            "Not just her... I didn't think it would be this... connected," Sophie looked down. Her body figure seemed about the same, except the complete lack of melanin in her skin.


            "They tried to explain it, but..." Morrison shrugged.


            After licking her teeth, the new demon reached up and found the expected pair of horns. "Wow..." she nearly purred after running a finger over the inside edge of one. Her tail twitched in response too.


            Morrison giggled. "Least you didn't play with anything else."


            "I already had breasts," Sophie pouted. "So it's just me? How bad... I mean.. no one else? What about Fred?"


            Morrison shook her head. "And Blue Team didn't work with Aunty as much as the other teams. Ramirez was the only D member and he died instantly. The rest... there were only two other D program members among the casualties. They hit hard."


            "Damn... what about the rest? Sounds like mostly, dead or minor injuries then?"


            "Yeah, only a handful of people in the middle, and they aren't D program." Morrison gave a slight nod. "And Speirs was the gunner on Mother's vehicle, he died."


            "So how bad was it? What happened to Blue Team?"


            "The enemy had remote-activated mini-guns. Whipple and Stockton are in surgery now."


            Feeling the regret surrounding Morrison, Sophie nodded. She could guess what happened to the other four members of the "heavy support" team. Morrison hesitated, and Sophie could feel her sister's apprehension eventually give way.

 

            "It kept air support down too, not that they didn't try. The Black Hawk pretty much died on the way back. Hilbert and Lindemann had to put her down in someone's front yard."

 

            "Are they okay?"


            "They were lucky. Patterson got shot in the arm, but he'll be okay. The area's secured, and they're still repairing it. The whole thing's not very subtle." Morrison's quick laugh left a frown. "Bad luck, too. Orange team managed to spook one of them. Got off a few shots. Armor on the APC didn't do anything. Maybe we should upgrade to LAV's; at least we'd have more firepower."


            "Anyone get out?"


            Her face blank, Morrison shook her head.


            Sophie felt the anger radiating off of her. "What's wrong?"


            "Orange Team shouldn't have been in there. They would have stood a better chance on the move. Would have had more guns at least..." Morrison sighed. "Gold team lost Sherman, but they were outside of the vehicle. The others could regroup.."


            "How'd he die?"


            "One of the cyborgs had this heavy shotgun. Armor doesn't cover our faces."


            Sophie nodded. Headshots with a shotgun would be possible for an enhanced super soldier... Like... us, Sophie added in realization. She then looked into Morrison's green eyes. "You got a kill."


            Morrison smirked. "Ukyou helped flank, and Misako kept the other one away. It was good too; the bitch shot me." The demoness pointed to the hole in her chest armor.

 

            "How bad?"

           

            Morrison thought back to feeling her flesh knit itself together. "The armor kept it from penetrating much, body took care of the rest."


            "Least we got one. Good job," Sophie leaned back with a tiny smile. "How'd she taste?"


            Morrison raised an eyebrow before blushing. "It's...."


            "I'm new at this, but I've seen the brood- I've seen us fight before."


            "It felt good, real good. I can see why Red and Mom are so... into it." Morrison idly licked her teeth.


            Sophie gave her a quick hug. "And the other one?" she felt Morrison's mood shift. "She got away then."


            "Looks like the report was correct. She can make metal explosive, and can launch these charges with some real range and accuracy. She retreated to this building. Booby-trapped."


            "So, Misako and the others simply blew it up," Sophie guessed.


            "Safest way. We're betting she got out alive. She could have had an escape tunnel prepared, or made one. We swept the storm sewers and other tunnels. Found some debris and collapsed bits. So unless we find a body..."


            Sophie nodded. "Uh... how's the Lieutenant doing?" she quietly asked.


            "She's still out there. Organizing cleanup and containment," Morrison said. "Akane and Nabiki are still with her. Sis is with them, too."


            "That's good... "


            "The transfer was hard on me too," Morrison hugged her sister. "With Sherman gone, the old Gold team's..." Morrison shrugged. It was down to just Andrea.


            Sophie shifted. At least she was still alive, though Lt. Tendo would need yet another replacement for her team. "We'll need some replacements."


            Morrison nodded. "Blue and Orange will need all new agents. Even if Whipple and Stockton can recover quickly they'd just be moved to bulk up the others. Red, Gold and Green all lost people."


            "There's not much of us left." Sophie blinked. "Green's already been restocked. Gold was already reorganized after Lieutenant Richards was court-martialed and Platt was transferred out."


            "Yeah, and Red Team's changed too. The Assembly Ambush hit us hard too."


            Sophie studied her sister's face... and scent. "That's what... Mommy- Mom's meeting's about?"


            "Just like last time. Everyone's been called up, and I'm sure the standby teams will be put on full time Operations rotations."


            "Will Topeka send anymore Operations people?" Sophie asked, referring to the North American Operations Centre in Kansas.


            Morrison shrugged. "It'd be handy, but even experienced Operations people will take time to get used to... us. Agents already here may be a better fit." While everyone was trained for combat operations, most did not have it as their sole duty.


            "I guess it depends on what Topeka can spare more of. Support staff or Operations." Sophie flipped her tail about. "What about... Aunty and Nariko?"


            Morrison chuckled. "It was two to five."


            Sophie narrowed her eyes. "And look at the trouble two cyborgs gave us."


            "Nariko was right about her power. She did more damage than Red did."


            "Oh?" Sophie's eyes widened slightly.


            "Yeah, Red only took out one, another fought her to a standstill. Where Nariko heavily damaged two of them."


            "And the fifth?" Sophie asked.


            "Evacuated the other four by phasing through the floors," Eve said, stepping into the room.


            Sophie slipped out of Morrison's arms and ran to the tall blonde. Smiling, Eve hugged her. "It's okay. It's okay."


            The newborn demoness made a slight mewling noise before beginning to purr.


            "I'm sorry, I couldn't spend the whole night with you."


            "How bad is it?"


            Eve frowned, "Morrison told you about the casualties?"


            Sophie nodded.


            "There's other problems too. Public Relations is handling the media fallout," Eve said as she ran her hand through Sophie's glossy-black hair.


            "I doubt all that gunfire can be covered up. So, terrorists?" Morrison asked.


            Eve eased herself and her youngest to the couch. "That's the plan. JTF2 is being used to help with the cover story. They're a bit miffed they missed out on the fighting."


            "Not like they got there in time," Morrison noted.


            Eve smiled and positioned herself between her daughters. "That's what Stillwater is telling them, and they were called in as soon as things started up."


            Leaning on her mother, Sophie felt an almost... warm flow from the older demon to her. "So if the battle had lasted longer they would have been brought in?"


            "Training helps, but eventually you're going to be tossed into the deep end." Eve looked over to Sophie. "What's wrong?'


            "You're upset," Sophie pouted.


            "Yes, your aunt's stuck babysitting Miss Tsukino. And while it was the cyborgs that caused all this damage, Tsukino was the one who refused our help and created opportunity for this outcome."


            "Worried, too..." Sophie stated quietly, leaning her head on Eve's chest.


            "Ranma's been pretty badly mauled, and it's been a long time since she's come out of a fight without feeding. She's... quite... stressed," Eve cautiously stated.


            "Oh dear," Morrison said.


            Eve smiled faintly. "On the plus side, Sis being... impolite to her would solve a lot of problems."


           

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

 


            After refilling her glass, Ranma put the pitcher down. Twisting her head around, a few loud clicks and cracks came from her neck. She had stripped out of her vest and skirting and both of the soaked armored sections were slumped onto the seat next to hers. The redhead raised her glass and drank most of the milk inside in one long pull.


            "I'm... sorry." Usagi said from under the blanket draped over her shoulders.


            "You should be," Ranma nodded before going back to her sandwich.


            "How can you eat at a-" Rei stopped and looked at the quizzical demon. "Right..."


            "The rest of you should eat something too."


            Rei looked behind her to the blanket that was covering the... body in the corner. It was rather sad that Usagi insisted they bring the body here. At least the Princess let them take Meiou... away. "I'm not hungry."


            Ranma shrugged and went back to her sandwich.


            Makoto looked between Usagi and Rei and then at the sandwich. It was a baguette stuffed with pickled vegetables like carrots and daikon, onions, sliced peppers, chicken and ham. "It... does look good. What is it?"


            "Banh mi," Ranma said taking one of the half baguettes off her plate and handing it to Makoto. "Vietnamese and French dish. Nice flavor. Quick to make and filling too."


            Makoto bit into it. "Nice, crunchy," she said enjoying the various textures. Then the peppers kicked in.


            "The cooks had some extra peppers from chili night," Ranma said pushing a second freshly-filled glass over.


            "Real good and not too spicy," Makoto said accepting the drink. She doubted that Ranma was drinking milk because she had a weaker tolerance for spicy food.


            "Are we just going to talk about cooking?" Rei asked.


            "Better than other topics." Ranma started into another sandwich.


            Rei looked to Usagi who was staring at the table while she petted the cat that was lying in her lap. "She promised me they'd be back. She... showed me," Usagi mumbled without looking up.


            "Setsuna and Minako?" Ranma asked as Usagi moved Luna to her shoulder, got up, and walked across the commissary. "They can regen?"


            Instead of responding, Usagi summoned her rod.


            "Ah," Ranma noted while motioning to the other agents in the room to pull back from the... body.


            "This isn't good," Rei frowned. "At least Luna's just gone limp."


            "She was close, to the other... cat?" Ranma was not fond of them, but even she was depressed by the pathetic sight of a white cat crushed by cinderblocks.


            Makoto nodded.


            Eating, Ranma watched as the blonde cast her spell. "Have you called the ones back in Japan?"


            "Not yet," Rei said, casting a cold glance towards Usagi.


            With Luna limply lying over her shoulder, Usagi slowly walked back to the table. "I think it's helping," she said, sitting down.


            Rei forced herself to give a charitable smile. "Are you sure?"


            Usagi's eyes glared and then turned to Rei. "Setsuna would not lie to me!" she declared, her voice focused and hard.


            Makoto put down her banh mi. "She knew; she knew how much trouble these cyborgs could be. She knew you wouldn't order anyone to stay and fight... unless."


            "So, she volunteered Minako too?" Rei angrily asked. It would be nicer if she could move the blame to Setsuna. It was easy to see the Princess as being misled, instead of calculating. Sailor Senshi were supposed to die for their Princess, but not like this, she thought.


            "Shame she didn't trick you into working with us," Ranma shrugged.


            "You think that would have made things better?" Rei asked.


            The demon raised an eyebrow.


            "Fine, you did save us, but that wouldn't have changed the other fight. Wasn't that a diversion? They did it to tie up your forces."


            "Rei..." Usagi started.


            Ranma raised her hand. "No, she's right. They would have attacked us anyway."


            Makoto cleared her throat. "But maybe we wouldn't have been hit as hard. How long do you think we would have lasted? Mina and Puu bought us some time, but it was running out."


            "How bad was it?" Usagi pulled Luna off her shoulder and put the sleeping cat in her lap. "How... bad was it for you?"


            Ranma took a sip. "They were prepared. We got one of them, but lost two teams and more."


            "I'm sorry," Usagi repeated.


            Silence fell in the room. Ranma and Makoto continued to eat while everyone sat in silence. After several long minutes the doors suddenly burst open. The redhead had gotten up and the smile she had on her face was warm and happy.


            "Hi Aunty!" Sophie said as she hugged Ranma. Behind her Eve and Morrison stepped into the room and briefly saluted the agents on guard.


            "So are we in a race?" Ranma asked with a bittersweet grin while Eve gave a slight smile in return.


            Usagi looked up. "So, you're.... new."


            Sophie looked at the blonde teenager for a couple seconds, eventually she nodded.


            Rei shook her head. "This is just great, you guys gain people while we lose-"


            Glowering, Usagi slowly drew her hand back and stared down at the girl she had knocked out of her chair. "Don't."


            "Mother had the right idea." Sophie glared at Rei.


            Rei looked up at Usagi's stern face. "But..."


            "No." Usagi picked Luna up and put the cat on the table. "You know why she's a demon, and if you keep this attitude, I'll get you before they do." She stood up.


            Breaking eye contact, Rei's eyes went to the floor.


            "I don't want to lose any, more people tonight." Usagi stated as she walked over to the gurney where Minako lay. She pulled off the sheet and stared at the still form. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, and there was a large furrow carved through her side. The rest of her body – face, arms, and legs – was covered in multiple cuts.. It looked like dozens of razor blades had been launched at her. The melted and refrozen golden armor from her seifuku was splattered over the giant wound and was as still as the rest of her. One of her eyes was open and stared lifelessly. Frowning, Usagi picked up the sword that lay half hidden by Minako's bloody hair. Holding the blade, the princess stared at Minako. "Wake up," Usagi ordered as the blade began to glow.


            "Uh... Usagi..." Makoto started. She looked over to the demons that were intently watching and... smelling the proceedings.


            There was a golden flash and Minako's body began to twitch. The short armored gloves made clanking noises as they opened and closed, and her high heeled boots, leg guards, and metal skirting rattled. Then the body went still.


            Usagi frowned and the glowing increased. She then placed the sword in Venus' hand, which closed over it. The closed eye flipped open and began to turn red.


            Using a free arm the metal-armored Senshi rose to a sitting position. Her eyes, now entirely a glowing crimson, looked straight to Usagi. There was a grinding snapping noise as the... body adjusted her neck and it popped back into place. Golden and crimson fluid leaked out of her various wounds.


            "What did you do to her?" Rei cried, still on the floor.


            Usagi sighed and reached a hand out and ran it over Minako's cold cheek. "Ami did this. She's the one that... changed Mina."


            Makoto swallowed trying to keep her stomach under control. "You're not- I mean yeah... Ami tried to control Minako with that armor, but are you going to turn her corpse into some kind of ghoulish robot?"


            More gold poured out from her wounds, beginning to form a thin coating. Venus turned and, while keeping an utterly blank expression, swept her feet off the gurney and onto the floor. "It is still me." Minako's voice said in a monotone, while her mouth remained still and closed, but the jewel on her chest pulsed brightly.


            "What?"


            "Her voice box must have been damaged when her neck was crushed," Eve observed. "We were right. She's not human anymore."


            Usagi looked down. "Mina told me.... Puu convinced her. I was hoping...."


            "I'm sorry I couldn't restart without you doing that," Venus flatly stated, her eyes still glowing red.


            "So you're not dead?" Rei finally climbed back into her chair.


            "Why not? Her head's still intact." Ranma shrugged as she handed a few banh mi to her sister and nieces.


            "But... why did it take Usagi all those times to get her... back?" Makoto asked.


            "It's like starting a bike on a cold day. You just keep at it until the engine turns over and starts up."


            Minako's eyes briefly flashed on and off. "Yes. Fair explanation."


            "Are you... okay?" Usagi asked.


            "Repairs are proceeding." Venus said through the gem while the wound in her side slowly decreased. The golden coating over her arms began to flake-off revealing fresh, healed skin.


            "Oh God, is this what Ami wanted when she said she would upgrade us?" Rei asked.


            Venus gingerly opened her mouth and after testing her jaw and voice began to speak. "Yes, Mistress Mercury was experimenting in the ways our Senshi magic could... modify our bodies."


            "That's... creepy."


            "But you're okay now." Usagi said hugging the stiff girl. "Right?"


            Venus turned to Usagi, the red glow in her eyes fading. "I seem to be."


            "You were dead." Makoto noted. "No breathing, no heart, no movement."


            "As Ranma said, my brain was fine; my body, however, was not." Her eyes blue again, if a hair brighter than before, she looked around the room. Two were missing, Setsuna's absence was not surprising. "Artemis?"


            Usagi inhaled. "I'm sorry."


            Venus frowned and after a moment sighed.


            "If there's..."


            "There's nothing to do." Venus said looking at Luna's sleeping form, and then turned to Usagi. "I take it Setsuna is no longer... intact?"


            The princess nodded.


            "You were there; she was blown apart," Rei quietly noted.


            "I was taken out before she was," Venus crisply replied as she stood up. "You're the one that saved the Princess," she noted standing in front of Ranma.


            Ranma had let Eve take back Sophie. "Nariko too."


            A frown flicked across Venus' face. "So her sword was more use than mine."


            Ranma looked down at the long steel and gold broadsword. "Too slow, right?"


            Venus nodded. "The one with the two swords that could grow in length. Then the fast one with all the knives."


            Ranma smiled faintly.


            Venus tilted her head slightly. "I see, you failed to kill her as well."


            The demoness chuckled. "You did manage to wound her. More than the others can say."


            Rei opened her mouth, but then looked to see Usagi's frowning face.


            Venus paused to recall the name. "Galina A'deen. What of the others?"


            "Four heavily damaged, but were all evacuated by the fifth," Eve stated. "Of the diversion: one was killed, the other escaped when the building she was in exploded."


            "Impressive." Venus looked back to Usagi. "You underestimated them."


            "There was a plan," Usagi stated.


            "But with Setsuna-" Venus stopped. "I see." She turned to the door as it opened and watched Nariko walk in. A small frown crossed the Senshi's face as she looked at the blade on the demon's right hip.


            Nariko handed a slim folder to her mother, who opened it. "Is this right?" Ranma asked after reading the contents.


            The eldest daughter gave a curt nod. "Kasumi reports things appear under control."


            "Fine," Ranma handed the file to Eve and went back to the table and picked up the platter of sandwiches, offering one to Nariko.


            "This isn't right," Eve frowned. "These two firemen shouldn't be on this list."


            "Still civilians," Ranma shrugged.


            Usagi blinked.


            "They were doing their duty," Eve stated.


            Ranma nodded. "Then tell the brass. I'm sure Jacob would change it."


            "What are you talking about?"


            "Don't worry, it's not your problem," Nariko assured, warmly smiling, with one hand on Usagi's shoulder and the other just above her right hip. Noting Venus step closer, Nariko's smile grew.


            "What happened?" Usagi asked.


            "You would have figured it out, and better to hear it from us than from the media's lies," Eve handed the file over to Usagi. "It's amazing what they'll come up with on their own. PR really just needs to give them a nudge"


            Having opened the folder, Usagi ignored the blonde demon. She saw lines of mostly neatly typed names. Several were just descriptions, disturbingly vague ones at that, some did not even give heights. Under each name or description, was information about the person's... condition. "What is this?" she asked, her body growing cold.


            "You know," Nariko confidently said.


            "No..." Usagi's hands trembled.


            "They did fire that big beam right through our building. Who knows where it went afterwards," Venus said frowning at the preliminary report. "That many fires? Wouldn't the rain..."


            "There were a lot of explosions," Nariko noted.


            "But.... this many? It was night."


            "There's security, people cleaning offices, night shifts, and anyone on the road," Eve explained.


            "If the firemen had to do some stuff that cost them two men... what kind of nightmare was it out there?" Makoto asked.


            Ranma sighed. "These are combat cyborgs. What did you expect them to do?"


            "There's no police or paramedics on this list." Venus said after reading the list over Usagi's shoulder. "Did you lose anymore men? In the rescue?"


            "The Fifth is quite hardy. Thankfully they were fine," Eve stated. It was also good for Misako to help with the search and rescue. Initial reports were promising, but her weapon did do a lot of damage.


            "That's why you're upset?" Usagi asked Ranma. "You wanted to be out there helping people? Instead of in here..."


            "Yes, out there or in here helping our wounded," Nariko completed. "I was doing that with Ukyou," she stated, her voice almost sounding irritated.


            "I'm sorry," Usagi repeated.


            Nariko studied the blonde for a moment. "Yes," she smiled. "At least you're sincere. I'm sure that helps."


            Looking at the demon's seemingly friendly face, Usagi frowned. "What do you want from me? I had a plan."


            "You... did?" Rei asked


            "So, what was it?" Ranma asked.


            Usagi coughed. "Setsuna was going to track them... I mean Ami knows how to block their powers, but they don't know... right?"


            "That is true," Ranma allowed.


            "We thought we could drive them off. Then, when they retreated, she would use her powers to track them." Usagi looked down.

 

            "That was a plan?" Nariko rubbed her chin. "Green. Even my eldest sister has more experience than that."

 

            "Oh, Kodachi graduated? Did she make Operations? Where did she get stationed?" Eve asked after decoding her niece's subtext.

 

            Nariko nodded. "She's in Boston.  Mostly been doing support and containment work." The demon's voice was slightly apprehensive.

 

            "It's okay. She can handle it," Ranma reassured Nariko.

 

            "Yes, she is an agent," Nariko noted.

 

            Makoto empathized with the demon's worry. Tonight was illustrative of the risks. "So you relied on Setsuna for everything?" she sighed. "You did that with Ami too. How well did that work out?"


            "And when things got bad, you ordered Setsuna to stay and fight?" Rei tersely asked.


            Usagi chewed her lip. "It wasn't... Even if she did... die; she said she could come back; she showed me."


            Rei raised an eyebrow. "What did she show you?"

 

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

 


            It was a drab room that was much longer than it was wide. This combined with the banks of angled containers that dominated the middle of the room to make the ceiling feel lower than it really was. The reinforced metal tracking for an overhead crane did not help in this regard. A thick collection of cabling ran from the back of each tube to a socket in the floor.


            Low lights running down the walls met the ceiling and illuminated the chamber, a constant even hum filling it with noise. Occasionally, a light would shift on top of one of the few containers that was not empty. Fans would periodically kick in and cycle and filter the air, keeping it from going stale. Beyond the large, essentially tubular containers were sets of lockers and kiosks that held rudimentary bathing and toiletry equipment. Bunks and other storage butted up to these walls; that equipment was sealed, unused.


            At either end of the long room was a heavy-set door that was large enough to comfortably accommodate two of the containers. To allow for an airtight seal, the crane track hinged to the side just before this door. When the doors opened, the tracking would swing into place.


            The sequence of noises, flashes, and pumping air was regular. There was no indication of age. The room seemed to simply exist. One moment fell into the next without altering character.


            This changed. A pleasant, but still jarring, chime came from one of the containers as the lights along its crystal display lit up. The container chimed again and the lights systematically went from red to green. When the final light turned over the clear cover that dominated the front half of the container's length split down the middle and hissed open.


            Within the tube a nude figure stirred. Red eyes stared up at the blank grey ceiling. With a sigh the female form pulled herself out. She shivered when her bare feet touched the cold floor. Once outside, she closed the tube's door and looked at its clear reflective surface. She chided herself for not keeping the stock...  ripe, but this body would be suitable enough; there was work to be done. She flicked her wrist and a large red orb appeared in her hand.


            A metal frame consisting of a smaller heart stacked on top of a larger heart which itself contained the red orb appeared. From the tip of that heart a long metal rod shot out, gaining detail and embellishments as it grew. Then the female, still nude, vanished in an iridescent flash.


            The room returned to its regular cycle. The only sign of the change was one more empty tube. In the chamber below this one there were larger changes, specifically in the vast data crystals that linked to the tubes, but even those changes were not immediately apparent, just more patterns in row upon row of crystals.

 

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

 


            "Lizaveta and Sem are stabilized," Arisha stated as she entered the common room of their suite. A police scanner was on in the corner, blaring out emergency dispatches.  Arisha's internal pickups had been damaged.  There was also equipment to track the encrypted  military and mercenary frequencies.


            Galina looked up from the surgery on her knee and thigh. She had already stabilized the damage to her crotch and back. It was a quick fix.  Her combat ability was... reduced.  It was a novel experience.  She had plenty of practice on both regular and emergency maintenance, but this was...

 

            Arisha frowned as she waited for a response.  Her superior's entire lower back had been gouged, torn apart, and turned into a bloody mess.   When Galina had stripped out of her bodysuit the clotting it provided was removed and a mess of blood, metal, cabling, and lubricant  poured out. Only Scarlatti's brilliance had kept the wound from being immediately fatal, and only the collection of bypass relays and a large adhesive patch kept it from being mortal. It was still easier to repair than the wounds Dve'nadtsat or Sem had received.

 

            "How long until they're operational?" Galina asked in an expectant voice with a tiny grin.


            Arisha frowned and picked at her arm. Around the point of reattachment, the flesh was discolored and irritated; she wondered if that demon coated her blade with something. "Shest reconnected Sem's power and control systems. She still needs some structural connections and some muscular and skin joining. Give it a few days on the outside."


            Galina became fractionally more pleased. "And Dve'nadtsat?"


            "You saw what that tvar did." Arisha spat.


            Putting down the bloody forceps, Galina leaned forward. "Yes, dear Arisha, and how much non-cosmetic damage does she have?"


            "She can see now, but we're running low on spares." Arisha frowned. Those were one of the few precious parts they could neither purchase nor build themselves.


            "We've also lost most of our remote guns," Galina calmly observed.


            " Vosem and Desyat's next check in window is coming."


            "They performed quite well," Galina smiled.


            "Yes, imagine if we faced more of those things."


            Galina returned to repairing her thigh. "Their results are worrying. It was... fortunate that they received as much attention as they did."


            "So, the mercenaries care less about Zaika than we suspected."

 

            "You were concerned that the mercenaries might have simply fired artillery at Zaika's house when we attacked, or maybe that they put a few 2000lb bombs in the foundation or maybe even some 1500kg ones.  It's not like they'd have trouble buying either."

 

            "There is precedent for that."


            "I wouldn't be sure about that. The forces they sent to stop us were sufficient."


            Arisha suppressed a sigh and scratched her arm. Galina's apparent contentment was... worrisome.


            "So, Lizaveta will be operational soon?"


            "For battle, sure. It'll take longer to get her face in an... acceptable state. There's still a lot of reconstruction." Arisha's frown deepened.


            "Noted."


            After waiting a few seconds, Arisha coughed. "I think we need to do something for Shest."


            "I agree." Galina finished her work and began sealing up the wound in her thigh. "Her performance was exemplary. Though we'll need to be careful. Next time they'll be sure to finish us off."


            "If they can attack any faster than they were..." Arisha recalled the demon's sword cutting through her, just as Shest pulled her through the floor. "I don't like this."


            Galina's eyebrow raised. "We accepted this out of a desire to be challenged. Perhaps victory over the blonde with the sword and Zaika's advisor made you complacent."


            "You were the one wounded by that sword," Arisha reminded.


            Galina's contemplative smile returned. "Yes, she had potential, but lacked the training or even the will to really press the advantage."


            "I thought she was just slow," Arisha replied. "But once organized, Zaika's remaining bodyguards also managed to hold us off."


            "Yes, their firepower is impressive. Especially that brunette, rather like the red-eyed demon you faced."


            "Not quite. The Kino girl was trying to protect Zaika. That tvar wanted to kill and eat me." Arisha chuckled.


            Galina's smile remained but her eyes turned cold. "It was a mistake to send out Svetlana and Ivanova like that."


            Arisha knew Galina was looking at the time. "Vosem and Desyat have the turrets, orders to retreat, and prepared routes."


            "You were listening to the police radio. You heard the explosions. WIC sent two demons against us so they could send the rest against those two."


            "Diving headfirst into a trap? What, did they intend to use brute force and blast through the diversion?"


            Galina laughed. "We merely tried to kill a schoolgirl. Desyat and Vosem went up against trained military personnel. It is an issue of priorities."


            "I suppose it's refreshing to have an enemy that doesn't even pretend to be the 'good guys'."


            "Yes, our 'client' has that honor," Galina wryly noted.


            "At least we made those arrangements ahead of time," Arisha noted.


            "It cuts into our margins but after tonight-" Galina was cutoff by a phone ringing. She picked up the pre-paid cell phone that was specifically purchased for tonight and would be destroyed before sunrise. "Yes?"


            "It's me," Desyat said from her own purpose-selected phone. "Did you... get your exam results?"


            Galina frowned. Her subordinate's tone was disquieting. "Not well. C-Minus," she explained.


            "I see." In the safe house across town, Desyat chewed her lip. The C meant serious casualties but at least no deaths. The minus was obvious, Zaika was still alive.


            Galina felt tension increase. "And how was the concert?"


            Desyat closed her eyes. "Vosem met some guy; she'll be spending the night at his place. I was hit on... a couple of the guys were cute."


            "What's wrong, Nina? Did anyone try to... touch you?" Galina asked, feigning scandalous caution on the question.


            Desyat laughed. "You could say that. Damn tvar raped my mind."


            Galina paused, the breach in protocol secondary in her mind "What?"


            "Didn't know they could do that?" Desyat's laugh was resigned. "To make you schelkat ebalom," she spat under her breath.


            Controlling herself, to keep from tightening her grip on the phone, Galina pondered Desyat's punishment. "Careless, you say?"


            Watching, Arisha sighed. Their numbers were slowly being whittled away.


            "They can mess with our minds," Desyat slowly said, carefully enunciating each word. "That's how Vosem... she couldn't shoot straight."


            "Nina... now is not the time to complain. You were just supposed to delay them, not get bogged down in a full engagement."


            "Chto za huy'nya," Desyat swore. "I'm not here to bitch. I'm here to warn you! You don't know what you're dealing with here."


            "Oh?" Galina's mind went back to a specific slightly smiling redhead


            "We didn't get bogged down. They were the ones hunting us! They knew it was a trap, they knew we were setting up an ambush." Desyat paused to calm herself. "How sure are you that you weren't followed?"


            "We followed the procedures and-"


            "They're demons. We don't know what they can do."


            "There were some.. problems on our end," Galina admitted. The human magical girls had some type of short-range jammer that kept Shest from really going on offense. Galina frowned. "Arisha, get Shest."


            Arisha nodded.


            "How serious of a threat is this?" Galina asked returning to the phone.


            "How long have you been there?" Desyat asked, but continued on. "If it's been more than a few minutes... then you've got something worse on your hands."


            "They'd be watching us to gather intelligence." Galina swore at herself for blurting the statement out.


            "And you've got to ask why they'd do that?"


            Instead of responding, Galina turned to Shest who had just entered the room. "Can you do a sweep of the suite again? Just to be safe."


            Shest nodded and started adjusting her scanners. "It's.... " she frowned.


            Galina's eyebrows widened slightly.


            More puzzlement than shock on her face, Shest's form shifted ever so slightly and she activated her Deep Diver. With her body's state... questionable, her inter-dimensional senses unfolded. "There's no jammers..." Her eyes unfocused and she seemed to stare far off into the distance.


            Her mouth opened slackly. "Chyort voz'mi!" she screamed clutching her head. "The walls. Oh God the walls! The threshold opens!"


            Summoning her blades, Galina dropped the phone and ran to Shest. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of an iridescent shimmer. The walls started to twist and things began to pour into existence. The closest Galina could come to explaining it was a time-lapse video she once saw of mushrooms growing. The fungi would swell and expand with an... unnatural fluidity.


            But at least those were things that grew from the ground. Now... things began to twist and form. It was different from Shest's phasing; she merely slid through matter. Things, the only appropriate word in Galina's mind, with vaguely spherical conglomerations possessing a rippling textured surface simply grew from nothingness.


            A blade shot out and punctured one of the... malignant growths. Much like a pool of oil floating on water, it burst apart and shimmered strongly. And like an oil slick, iridescent reflections danced over the surface.


            Screaming and clawing at her temples, Shest triggered the pulse sequence she had added to her Deep Diver system. Galina felt her insides churn and vibrate, her systems erupt in a massive communications fault, and finally her eyes overload. Suddenly feeling very heavy, she slumped to the floor.

 

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

 


            Adjusting her shoulders, Ranma stepped into the hallway, behind her a group of agents took up position around the elevator bank. Her nose picking up the scent, the demoness crossed the corridor in a sprint.


            The figure at the other end dropped her phone and flipped her arms in a defensive posture, but they were knocked aside. Ranma then swept the girl's legs and pushed forward. The green-haired female slammed into the ground. Supporting herself with one arm, Ranma leaned over her. The other arm was pointed over the prone figure's face, claws extended to within millimeters.


            "What the hell are you?" the redhead demanded, staring right into her captive's red eyes. Ranma's tail hovered over the red-eyed girl's sternum; its filaments extended as well.


            "Setsuna Meiou," she made sure to keep her head on the floor.


            "She's dead, and she don't look fourteen," Ranma told the shorter girl.


            Shivering slightly, the girl winced at the headache blooming in her mind. "You can smell me, and who else would actually call up WIC and announce they're wandering the basement hallways of the Toronto Trust Tower. We're only a few floors above the base here. Who else could I be?"


            Ranma smiled. "You'd be surprised what those cyborgs can do."


            "Believe me, I know," the girl sighed. "I know where they are."


            "Oh? So Usagi's plan actually worked?" Ranma's voice was lightly sarcastic but her eyes were hard.


            "So, what'll satisfy you? I smell like Setsuna; what else do you need?" she asked, hearing the elevator door open.


            Ranma sprang up, rolling off the girl, who started to lift her head. She turned and saw a blank-faced blonde step out of the elevator. She pointed her arm and a burst of white light shot down the corridor enveloping the girl's chest and head.


            After the beam gutted out, the figure stood up. The jeans and blouse she had been wearing were gone, replaced by a Sailor Seifuku of familiar coloration.


            "What was the point of that?" Sailor Pluto asked. "I doubt a purification spell would do anything to a combat cyborg."


            "There's more enemies than just cyborgs," Ranma reminded.


            "How'd you know I wasn't one of those?"


            "You could have tricked my nose and the scanners, but those girls are heavy."


            The newly diminutive Senshi narrowed her eyes. "That's why you tackled me."


            "I'm so sorry," Usagi cried as she ran over to Pluto and hugged her. "I didn't... I mean you showed me the..."


            "So where are they?" Ranma demanded.


            Pluto gave the address of a hotel across the city. "Suite rooms 807 and 809. I've only seen the five that attacked us."


            "Right." Ranma said repeating the information into her headset. "Let's go," she said, nearly pushing Pluto and Usagi back to the elevator.


            "You seem accepting," Pluto noted.


            "Usagi explained it; your link to the Time Gates and some kind of clone bank. Point is, you found them," Ranma calmly explained. She could accept a device that allowed someone to follow a person, but it was interesting that the system was autonomous enough to run while the operator fought, died and... transferred into a new body.


            "Yes, that's-" Pluto stopped at the elevator doors. "Shit. They see me."


            "They're onto the surveillance. Watch your ass," Ranma barked into her headset.


            "How can they...." Usagi blinked as the doors closed and the crowded elevator began to move. "That ghost girl? She could move through stuff"


            Pluto gave a weak smile; at least Usagi was getting a bit sharper. "I'll buy you some time," she assured.


            "What?" Ranma asked.


            "How long until your troops-" Pluto stopped with a loud cry and crumpled bonelessly to the elevator floor.


            A series of alarms hit Ranma's headset. "Inter-Dim spike," Maya Iverson's voice calmly said. As that happened, a vast almost electric tingling went through Ranma, concentrating on her horns.


            "What happened?" Usagi held Pluto's unconscious form.


            "Some kind of attack; they sensed Setsuna," Ranma said both to Usagi and into her headset. Her voice was strained and had a hint of fear to it; her horns were still tingling, not a good sign. "Kas, how far out are you?" she asked as they left the elevator bank and made it to the motor pool.


            "Minute out, we're driving in now," Lieutenant Tendo replied.


            "Watch your ass, they know we're coming," Ranma said as she walked over to a waiting vehicle.


            "What about me?" Usagi said, holding her Senshi up. Though a medic was working on the girl and checking her for damage. Usagi saw one of the succubus agents waiting in the motor pool.


            Pulling a new armored vest and skirt over her bodysuit, Ranma turned to look at the blonde. "Ain't a smart idea for you to come."


            "But..."


            Ranma turned to her niece. "Morrison, take Miss Tsukino and Setsuna to Doc Covington. I'm sure Eve knows but tell her to keep an eye on them."


            Usagi glared. "I'm not some-"


            Stopping her climb into the armored vehicle, Ranma turned to the blonde. "Yes, you are. This was a real bad gamble you made, and it's a miracle things weren't worse. You go out again and you'll be begging them to kill you."


            Usagi glared.


            Ranma's stern expression softened a hair. "Puu needs you, Mina too. She just lost a long time friend. Think about your girls, first." With a small frown at Usagi, the redhead slipped inside, and the large vehicle drove off.

 

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

 


            Desyat lowered the phone and stared at it for a moment. Terrified screams still ringing in her ear, she flipped it over and pulled the battery out. Her eyes went to the table, looking past the disassembled electronics.


            They'll make it out. They've planned for this. She sharply inhaled. Really? They planned to have things come through the walls?


           
Desyat clenched her fingers closed and listened. The building seemed quiet enough, and she did not detect... She shook her head. Of course we planned on that. Shest can go through walls.


            Frowning, she got up and walked across the room. It sounded like... The walls. Oh God the walls! The threshold opens... like surveillance. Of course there could have been an attack, in that case...


            They had some serious casualties, and it's not like you're out there to distract any of those demons. Two demons were enough to hurt them and scuttle the mission. What could thrice that do?


            Desyat tried to keep herself from responding. She could tell her mind was just going in circles. I managed to survive, she thought walking to the kitchen and pulling out a glass.


            Yes, but that's because I could run, and they were busy with Vosem, she reminded herself. After filling the glass with water she sat back down on the couch. After a few minutes, condensation started to form on the glass and drip down onto her fingers.


            "I can't just sit here." Desyat blinked, almost shocked at her voice. What then? Run to the hotel? That'll be helpful. They've either already left or are being killed.


            She moved the glass to the table in front of her. I guess the best I could hope for then would be to kill a bunch of mercenaries before dying. She frowned. It was a silly idea. Rushing in now would be a waste. If she really wanted to do some damage, she would have to plan her vengeance.


            Looking at the table, her gaze drifted between the still-full glass of water and the disassembled phone. Suddenly, she bolted to her feet, slipped on a coat, and grabbed her duffle bag and another, smaller case. Shouldering the cases, she went to the door and waited for a split second.


            After sensing that the hallway was clear, she went out into the corridor and started walking down the stairs. Once outside, she began walking down the sidewalk. She consoled herself that at least this time she remembered to slip on a raincoat. Why did it take so long for me to move? she asked herself as she crossed the street.


            Hearing police, fire and ambulance sirens, she sighed and continued walking. After going down another block, she slipped into a motel complex and climbed up the stairs to the second floor. She carefully passed a man in a long coat shambling down past her. Fishing out a room key, she let herself into the dingy room, locked the door, and flopped onto the bed.


            Well, now what? She frowned, looking up at the darkened ceiling. Eventually, she would have to see what happened. If this is it... then I've got to make some choices.


            She closed her eyes. If she were alone, what then? What else was there for her?


            I guess I could stay in the business, alone; I'll just avoid those protected by demons. She paused and started laughing.


            Once you figure out what a joke everything is, laughing is the only thing that makes sense.


           
Desyat stopped laughing. "Our betrayal by the Politburo, the demons, their mouths full of my comrade's guts... these are part of the joke?" she whispered to herself.


            Never said it was a good joke; just playing along with the gag... she thought grimly.


            Returning to distantly staring she waited. When her clock hit the right time she reached into the smaller of her two cases and pulled out another cellular phone and  after putting in the battery turned it on.


            After a couple minutes the phone rang. She looked at the number, it was one of Arisha's. "Why, hello Nina," an amused male voice greeted.


            Eyes widening, Desyat muted the microphone.


            "Sorry about the caller ID.  Sometimes electronics get their wires crossed. Something wrong?" the caller teased. "Well, you can't be too shocked; anyone can call, provided they have the number."


            Desyat made sure she was recording the audio feed  and the radio emissions and turned the microphone back on. "You realized the mistake you've made," she said, getting to her feet.


            The man laughed. "No, I'm pretty sure this is Nina Desyat."


            After a moment of silence he sighed. "Do you need more time to reason out who this could be? Obviously, this isn't the Company's style. They're nowhere near this playful. We both know they'd have already shot out the window."


            Desyat stepped away from the curtained window and out of direct sight of it.


            "Probably would have used a few rockets, maybe a grenade gun, or just sent in the demons," he continued. "We're beyond worrying about civilian casualties anyway."


            "So, who do you work for? Desyat asked, her impatience getting the better of her.


            "What a funny question." He laughed, gratuitously. "You of all people should understand that question. I will give you something. Go to the window."


            Desyat inched to the front of the room and instead of going to the window, checked the cameras she had installed outside covering the room.  Both were suddenly out. She then took out a mirror and angled it so she could see through the door's fisheye lens. The walkway in front of the motel rooms was clear, as was the parking lot, except for the part directly below her which was obscured by the walkway. Across the street, a man wearing a fedora and a long coat, illuminated by a street lamp, started waving to her. He held a phone to his ear, the metal of his tie clasp reflecting the pale glow of the street lamps.


            "You..." Desyat swore, her mind recalling the businessman in the subway and the man leaving the motel.


            The man chuckled. "I'm a bit surprised, actually. You got here a bit quicker than I had expected. Oh well, we all make mistakes. After all, to err is to be... human."


            Desyat flicked out one of her blades. He was out in the open and in easy range. "What kind of fool do you take me for?" she demanded.


            "Let's play a little game. Pretend that I know exactly which room you're in, and you know I got here before you did. Now let's pretend I got into the rooms on either side of you, behind you, and just to be thorough, the one right below you. We can even further our imaginations by pondering the roof's potential."


            Desyat's grip on her blade tightened.


            "Now, can we pretend that you won't do anything rash?" he smoothly asked.


            "What do you want?"


            "Ah, down to brass tacks. Well, you are a businesswoman so it's not shocking. I'll be blunt. Your mission to take out Miss Tsukino is... congruent with some of my own plans."


            Desyat eyed the door wondering how powerful the explosives the man had claimed to have planted were. It was possible that she could leap out of the motel before they went off and only get minor damage. It was also possible that he had thought of that and either aimed or simply enlarged the charges. Similarly, he could be watching to make sure she did not go out through the back of the room.


            "However, after tonight.... I'm disappointed." He leaned on a light pole. "The Company keeps its contracts based on its reputation. You know what happened the last time someone ambushed and killed their men? Tonight. you did even more damage. What do you think they'll do to you? What do you think they're doing to the rest of your team?"


            "What do you know?" Desyat coldly asked.


            "You're not going to ask how I know this?" Shock oozed into his voice. "Fine, I'll make it simple: you plan ahead and that's good. You even plan for what happens if things screw up, that's even better. You've got all these contingencies. That makes you very effective, provided they stay secret."


            "You've been watching us?"


            "Finally, I've got a dialogue instead of a monologue. Yes, I think tonight's... events have shown a certain weakness to... well magic, and very high caliber ammunition."

 
            "And you're offering your services?" Desyat looked to her equipment. They had been cleaned for bugs... technological ones. She supposed someone could... enchant an object, or maybe use a creature. Something that could lurk in the distance, invisible. Like what attacked the others in the hotel? she thought to herself, running a hand down her thigh. With a growing horror, she wondered if he had tampered with their replacement parts.  That would put the bug inside of her.


            "I think I've proved my skills. I was able to track you here." Once again his laughter came over the lines. "Want me to give the Company a call? I'm sure they'd love a list of all of your safe houses."


            "So, they're alive?"


            "Ah... thanks for reminding me. Maybe it is just you. It'd certainly be rude of me to simply kill you. DarkStar would be most cross."


            "And yet, you haven't done anything."


            "Not to you, my Dear," he said, and Desyat could hear the greasy smile cross his face. "You girls really are marvels. Scaglietti was a brilliant artist; shame, he was a lousy politician."


            Desyat fingered a blade, and went back to the fisheye via the mirror.


            "Too soon? I'm sorry. It's just the irony..." He coughed slightly. "Anyway, you're really lost at this. Yes, you're very good at blowing things up and causing havoc, but for what?"


            Desyat watched him fumble in his coat and pull out a pack of cigarettes. The lit ember dangling off his face made a tempting target.


            "The problem... the problem of it all..." He took a drag on the cigarette. "... is that magical girls simply don't make sense. I don't just mean the magic. I've got magic; you've got magic. Hells bells, magic makes perfect sense, that's how it works. But..."


            "Magical girls don't make sense," Desyat supplied, morbidly curious.


            "Yes," he sighed. "They're what happens when you couple mindless idealism with the power to enforce it. You think the machinations of the cynical are dangerous? Wait until you face the brute wrath of the naive."


            "Oh?"


            "Yes, she'll vacillate between self doubt and fear, until she makes up her mind. Then she'll come after you with more force than you can comprehend. Her history speaks for itself."


            "She sounds dangerous. Is that why you're offering your 'help'?" Desyat asked with a sarcastic undercurrent.


            "She has many enemies. One of which is paying you quite the sum." The man laughed. "Though, I wonder if that was money wisely spent."


            Desyat frowned.


            "Just look at the results. You're all that's left, and to be blunt...." He idly waved his cigarette.


            "Get to your point."


            "Fine." He sighed. "The supreme irony is that despite everything you're quite... How to say this? You're like a chess player, brilliant, fast, innovative, and able to predict the moves your opposition should make. Your record is impressive."


            "But?"


            "Not everyone plays chess."


            Desyat's fingers twitched.


            "So the question you need to ask yourself is, 'What now?' Where do you go from here?" He dropped the half-burnt cigarette and stepped on it with his foot.


            "Don't worry." he assured, as he pulled out the pack and a lighter. "I'm sure you'll come up with something. You're nothing if not adaptable."


            "And that includes your services?"


            "I do know more about what you're facing. Think about what I'm offering." The man briefly looked at a watch before pulling out another cigarette. "Be seeing you." He joined his index finger to his thumb and raised the circle to his eye and then tipped it forward in a salute. He then stepped off the sidewalk and walked to a large muscle-car and drove off.


            Desyat pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. After a few seconds she disconnected it. Moving back to the bed she sat down and stared at the wall. Shortly after that, she got up and started digging through her equipment, looking for... something.


            A minute into her examination, the phone rang. "What?" she angrily asked.


            "Why didn't you answer?" Galina demanded.


            "Thank goodness. You got out okay?" Desyat asked with relief.


            "Why didn't you pick up the phone?"


            "We have a major problem." Desyat sighed.


            "Really, now?" Galina dryly remarked.


            "Someone else called. Someone who's had us under surveillance, using magic somehow."


            Galina hesitated. "Like what Shest and us saw?"


            "I don't know what you saw," Desyat noted. "But after you saw that, weren't you attacked by the Company?"


            "Yes... they came... but we had  been gone by a few minutes."


            "Then that wasn't this.. guy's doing. He's not with WIC. He knew where I was. If the Company had this information... we'd be dead." Desyat looked at the collection of machinery and parts she had spread out on the floor.


            Galina looked around the safe house she and the others were in. "What did he want?"


            "He made it sound like he merely wanted to sell us something, but he didn't do too good of a job of that."


            Galina rubbed her forehead and looked at Dve'nadtsat who was lying on a couch crying a bit. It had been difficult to move her, but it was required. She was worth far more than the parts they had to leave behind. "That's a... troubling addition."


            "I believe that was his intent."


            "Lovely."


            "Are you certain that you weren't followed?" Desyat asked.


            "Shest's pulse seemed to work. There hasn't been anything... crawling. As for the mercenaries, they would have attacked already."


            "That gives us some time," Desyat allowed. "I've been going through my equipment, and I haven't found anything, but..."


            "We'll need to check everything."


            "And move to new locations. I mean all new. Every safe house, every route, every cache." Desyat rubbed her forehead. "I'm betting he's still watching us... somehow. We can't say anything until..."


            "Until we figure out how to counter him," Galina frowned. Part of her wanted to believe that Desyat had... cracked. As disturbing as that concept was, it would be less disturbing than the idea that there was someone else. Someone who had been watching them for weeks and could easily burn them all. The worst part was that was still less disturbing than whatever Shest had managed to... frighten off.

 

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

 


            Ranma stepped into the room and eyed the green-haired girl. "So, what did they do?"


            Pluto looked to Usagi for a moment. "It... hurt."


            Keeping a carefully neutral expression, the demon watched the girl as she walked forward.


            Usagi noticed the redhead's face change to one of pity.


            Pulling a chair, Ranma sat down across the bed from Usagi. "That was a real big pulse they shot off. I mean, I felt it too."


            Pluto nodded. "It... overloaded... the Time-Space Door." She winced as a flash of pain streaked across her mind. "That's not really the right term, but it's close enough." She turned to Usagi and gave a weak smile. "I'm sorry."


            "It's okay," Usagi assured giving the physically younger girl a hug.


            "Been a while?" Ranma sympathetically asked.


            Pluto blinked.


            "You died and got knocked out by some dimensional feedback," Ranma explained, worry entered her voice at the last part.


            Pluto looked worn. "No, a few years ago I... sacrificed myself." She looked to Usagi. "It was the helicopter, against the Black Moon, I saved Michiru and Haruka."


            "So. You knew your body double system still worked." Ranma noted that Pluto seemed much more disturbed about the "overload" than having her body blown apart. Before entering she had talked with Doctor Covington, and was not surprised to find that the officer had not found any physical damage.


            "Yeah." Pluto turned to Ranma. "They got away, didn't they?"


            Ranma nodded. "They must've left right after... zapping you. When we got there the place was already burning."
           
            Usagi's face paled. "They didn't... they burned a whole hotel down?"


            "Not really." Ranma arched her eyebrow. "They were simply covering their tracks. If they wanted to burn the hotel down or set a trap, they would have used different incendiary charges or spread around more gas."


            "They destroyed their records and equipment?" Pluto asked.


            "The rooms are being sifted through now; we'll find something," Ranma shrugged.


            "What's the point of that?"


            "Well, it'd be nice to know what equipment they had to destroy. We know what parts they use and can guess at how difficult they are to make."


            "I don't think you can count on them stopping just because they've run out of spare batteries," Usagi noted.


            Ranma gave a chuckle. "So, how is Mina doing?" she asked, more seriously.


            "Back in the commissary with Luna," Usagi frowned. "I'm worried."


            "Give her time," Pluto said, quietly. "She's still getting used to it; what she is now."


            "Ami's sick."


            The redhead noted that Usagi's tone was plain, conversational. There was only a hint of anger in her voice; mostly, it was a statement of fact. "Still, you should be there for her. Make sure she knows you still see her as a friend and not some thing."


            Usagi's eyes went to Pluto. "Yeah."


            "Artemis was a close friend of hers. That's going to be tough," Ranma reminded


            "But he died in such a stupid way," Usagi muttered, unnerved by the demon's steady gaze. "How can we tell her that?"


            "That happens. Battle's ugly and people can die for stupid, random reasons." Ranma shrugged.


            "That doesn't help."


            "That's reality."


            "So what? I should just accept that bad things will happen?" Usagi glared.


            "Of course not!" Ranma's eyes flashed. "If you wanted to do that, you could just curl up and wait for the Russians to kill you. Life isn't fair. Bad people do bad things. The whole point is to do what you can. You should know that."


            "Aren't you the one cautioning Usagi from too much idealism?" Pluto asked.


            "There's idealism, and then there's hope. One keeps you wishing about how the world should be, and the other keeps you fighting, because you realize that there's no alternative."


            "There's wishing you could make people 'better' and the world 'fair', and then there's just trying to kill the bastards that want to kill you. You know why I fight. Why I put my own children on the line. It's just that simple."


            "Yes, why we're here." Usagi chewed her lip. "You're worried about me?"


            "Sure, but there's more than that." Ranma frowned. "That pulse the cyborgs set off... it's going to cause problems."


            Inhaling sharply, Pluto's eyes widened.


            "Why? Didn't they just overload the Gates? That sounds like Murdock's blocking trick."


            "Shielding is a bit different than overloading." Ranma gave a charitable smile. "Look, you know why we're here... in Canada... that is. What effect do you think a giant dimensional pulse will have? You think it'll help things?" Ranma archly asked.


            Usagi looked down. "Well... I don't really know why I'm here."


            Ranma glared at Pluto. "You didn't tell her?"


            "I didn't know... at first." Pluto choked a bit. "And by the time I figured it out..."


            "You decided to keep it to yourself?" The demon shook her head.


            "Wait... what?" Usagi balled her fists. "You knew! You figured out what was going on and didn't tell me? Will you tell me?" she asked Ranma.


            The redhead rubbed her forehead. "First off, many things are... cyclic in nature. There's a certain rhythm to events. About a hundred and twenty years ago loggers observed what they thought was a strange version of the northern lights."


            "Forty years after that, a mysterious explosion leveled several hundred acres of Montana forest. Roughly another forty years passed and the Company lost about two hundred men in a single operation."


            "Which brings us to the present?" Usagi guessed. "So what is it? Aside from getting worse every time."


            Ranma chuckled. "You of all people should know there's never just one threat, but yes, this is why WIC was needed to prepare and setup base here."


            "The stars are right," Setsuna whispered.


            Usagi nearly glared at the diminutive girl. "This doesn't say what's happening."


            "It's nothing you haven't dealt with before," Ranma noted. "I guess that's why Puu kept quiet about it. Inter-dimensional invasions are your thing after all."


            "That's it?" Usagi blinked. "All this mystery for some repeat of the Dark Kingdom attack?"


            Ranma adjusted her gloves. "I don't know about that. There's no energy gathering or gloating figures in silly costumes, Mercury excluded. No, what we've got here is another dimension that's pressing against ours."


            "Yes, and every forty years, the pressure...." Pluto swallowed.


            Usagi recalled Ranma's bit of history. "So if it keeps getting worse... the barrier's getting thinner?"


            Ranma nodded.


            "So, what is it? What's trying to get through?"


            The demoness chuckled. "Well, technically, that's a theological question."


            "Huh?"


            "Which would be worse? An invasion from a place that could be described as Hell or one that could be described as Heaven?" Pluto quietly asked.


            "Well... aren't the angels..." Usagi looked to Ranma and her horns. "So, who are the good guys?"


            "I sincerely doubt it's the creatures writhing against a dimensional barrier eagerly anticipating for the stars to allow ingress." Pluto deadpanned.


            "Just to be clear, this isn't like BlackSky's and Vephar's invasion. Demons are more... human than what we're dealing with."


            "This is more like what Tomoe dredged up," Pluto clarified. "Not in exact nature, mind you, but in that the barriers between dimensions had to be... adjusted to let Pharaoh 90 in. Beryl and Metalia were similar too," she added, her voice bitter and offended.


            "How do you know this?" Usagi turned to Ranma.


            The demon blinked. "I just asked Jacob and Stillwater."


            "And they told you?" Pluto's voice was disbelieving.


            "Lying would just bring more trouble for them than the truth would."


            "Really?"


            "My relationship with them is built on trust. It'd be very... disappointing if they were foolish enough to lie to me about the very thing we've been preparing for."


            "So what are you and WIC doing about all this then?" Usagi asked.


            "What are we doing about this?" Ranma's tone broke into one of sharp insult. "What do you think we've been doing? The D program, the Fifth NH Task Force, special weapons development, inter-dimensional research. Do you really think we started training Canadian special forces in NH combat just because a few cyborgs are trying to kill you?"


            "But, there was the Assembly and those vampires and that cult. Plus Murdock," Usagi found herself leaning away from the redhead..


            "We've been doing this before they popped up; we've been doing this before those cultists took those hostages. This is not about you." Ranma arched an eyebrow. "That's enough to get WIC to run roughshod over an entire government?" She raised her arms and waved them. "Do you think all this is necessary for that?"


            "But, those are all related to what's going on..."


            "Of course, that's because they're symptoms. Non-humans and other sensitives can feel what's going on, and they're being attracted to this." Ranma leaned forward. "Now the Company's got some specialists looking at exactly what the cyborgs did... but what do you think? Given what's already happening to the dimensional barriers, what do you think a big pulse will do? What will it do to those that are... sensitive to such things?"


            "It was strong enough to disrupt my... connection, and hurt me." Pluto shivered.


            Ranma nodded. "The question is how much damage it does."


            "Well... the barrier is still up, right?"


            "Well, there's no tentacles creeping out of shadows, people aren't erupting into unthinking wails of madness, and of course the sky hasn't opened up with a rain of spores." The demon tilted her head. "Of course we're in an underground facility protected from such things."


            Usagi cast a fearful glance at the ceiling.


            "No, alarms would be going off in that case," Ranma assured.


            "So... how much time is left?"


            "That's the question isn't it," Ranma chuckled. "There's a window.... but the cyborgs may have sped things up." She turned to Pluto. "Especially if they keep using that pulse thing."


            Usagi looked at the grinning demon. "So you don't know, then."


            "It's a real pain. The old books are rather... interpretive, and despite all the talk about the stars-" Ranma glanced over at Pluto. "-things are apparently... fuzzy on that front too. Things don't seem like they're getting unglued, so we've got some time... maybe."


            "So you're just getting ready, preparing for the worst?"


            "That or I'm deliberately restricting just what information I'm giving you." Ranma's grin spread until it showed her teeth. "This could be my little way of keeping you in the dark, leaking just the right amount of information. All to keep leading you by the nose."


            "You wouldn't... I mean we're..."


            "We're what?" Ranma tilted her head. "Good people are dead because of your little stunt. You wanted to prove you were a big girl, you rejected my help. How did that work out for you?"


            "Ranma, I..."


            "You can hardly blame Usagi for the deaths of the agents. The cyborgs would have attacked them even if we had been working together."


            "Maybe so," Ranma stated as the shadows below her chair darkened. "But Artemis might have lived, maybe you wouldn't be in that fresh new body. Maybe we could have had a better defense and have killed more than one of those mechanical things. We could have been on a Company base, not ambushed in transit."


            "I tried...."


            "No, you stood back and let others do it for you," Ranma glared before looking to Pluto. "I can see why Usagi still thinks this is the same game, but you? Are you really that deluded? Then again, this was your idea."


            "This isn't our first time at this." Pluto's eyes hardened. "What experience do you have with invasions of inter-dimensional monsters?"


            Ranma laughed. "I've been on both sides of that, Puu. I remember what it was like in the old days."


            "Yes, but we've established that this is different. We're not dealing with cute demons," Pluto smirked. "I've been fighting the invaders, the real invaders since long, long before you were born, that including the little Terran prince used to make DarkStar. I remember the old, old days as you would put it."


            "So, how could you of all people have gotten so soft? Why are you afraid of a guy like Murdock?" Ranma glanced down at her watch. "I mean, sure he's a good spook, but why would you care that he can run good surveillance and flip a few Senshi?"


            "You don't understand the risk he poses. He's the reason you're sitting there. He's the reason WIC has that shiny new unit they can show off. He's been trying to get Usagi."


            "Odd, I thought I was here because you paid me a lot of money. So, you've had people corrupted before, right?" Ranma asked.


            "And people have been after me before, remember Prince Diamond?" Usagi reminded.


            "This is different." Setsuna glared.


            Ranma nodded. "So, he's an actual threat, then."


            "So, Murdock wants me... is he involved with this... invasion?" Usagi asked.


            "Maybe, maybe not. He could just be taking advantage of the situation. He knows you'd be here. He killed Mamoru and set me up to replace him."


            "So, why does Murdock want me? Who is he working for?"


            Ranma shrugged.


            "I liked things better when I had to face just one evil person and her flunkies and minions," Usagi pouted.


            "Carl Sagan said: It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring," Pluto stated.


            "Great, now you're quoting things at me too," Usagi sighed.


            "Well, does that count with things beyond human understanding and sanity?" Ranma smirked.


            "Maybe not for everyone," Pluto admitted.


            Ranma chuckled, and turned back to Usagi. "So, what now?"


            "Huh?"


            "Where do you go from here?" Ranma repeated. "Your house was burnt down."


            "Oh," Usagi chewed her lip. "Well, is it too late to ask for your help?"


            "You're already in this base being protected," Ranma gently reminded.


            "Yes, but I don't know if I can stay on base forever. There has to be more of a plan than that," Usagi sighed.


            "Yes, yes there does."


            Looking at the demon's quizzical gaze, Usagi coughed.


            "So, what's your idea?"


            "We are paying you," Pluto told Ranma.


            "Yes, and what do you want me to do? We've got a lot of options. Especially, when they find out they didn't kill Puu and Minako."


            Usagi laughed. "Why should we let them learn that?"


            Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Sure, Puu looks different, but they're gonna figure Mina's alive in the next fight.."


            "Maybe not." Usagi rubbed her chin. "Maybe she won't be Venus."


            Pluto's eyes widened. "You're thinking of doing... that, again?"


            "It's worked before."


            "We'll have to get Minako's approval." Pluto knew Minako would immediately volunteer for it.


            "What are you talking about?" Ranma asked.


            "Minako pretends to be the Princess, and draws attention away from the real Princess," Pluto explained. "It was used against the Dark Kingdom."


            "So a body double?" Ranma asked. "I guess that makes some sense now. Mina is harder to hurt than you."


            "I don't know... I mean, it makes her a target." Usagi sighed.


            "There's also what you'll be doing while she pretends to be you," Ranma reminded. "And she's gotta pretend to be you all the time. Not just in fights. The Russians are smarter than that."


            "There's also what I'll be covered as," Pluto noted.


            "Oh?' Usagi asked.


            "We can't have the cyborgs realize that we're harder to kill than they think," Pluto cautioned.


            "They know your face. Can you girls change that?" Ranma asked.


            Usagi chuckled. "We've got disguise pens."


            "Ah, magic then." Ranma said as she wondered exactly what senses a disguise like that would fool, not to mention all the habits and gestures that were unique to each person "So, what will you disguise as?"


            The blonde shrugged.


            "Assuming Minako's for this idea, you could always go as the Princess' mother," Setsuna suggested.


            Ranma gave a sharp laugh. "I don't think Usagi can play a convincing Serenity."


            "Unlike you, these Soviet Assassins don't know Queen Serenity. Any information they have on her would be second hand."


            "So what... you and the 'Queen' will be reinforcements? Sent in because the Princess couldn't handle things?"


            "Lies work best when you dress them up with the truth," Usagi bitterly stated. "Do you think this would work?"


            "Right now it's just dress up. You need more to make it an actual plan. At least... at least you're starting to think of what do to," Ranma allowed as she stood up. "I've got a meeting to get to."


            "The cleanup?" Pluto asked.


            Ranma gave a curt nod. "I suggest you get back with Minako, Doc Covington can give you some painkillers, but she thinks you're fine." She turned and exited the room. Once the door closed behind her she exhaled sharply.


            "Andrea, Gabe. When they leave escort them back to the commissary. If they try anything... odd alert us," Ranma instructed to the two agents in the corridor.


            "Sure thing, Red," Gabe drawled. He did not like babysitting the princess, but he had volunteered to go back on duty and this was where he was stuck.


            "Morrison wants to go shopping with you," Ranma smirked at Andrea.


            "Oh? Clothes I suppose," Andrea Lytle drawled.


            "Maybe, it would be nice to have her socialize a bit. Later then." Ranma walked down the hallway. Shortly, she came to the door of a particular office and let herself in.


            Jacob looked up from his desk, and Eve lifted Sophie and shifted to open a spot on the couch.


            "What're your thoughts?" Ranma asked after closing the door. Obviously, they had been listening in on the medical room.


            "Your methods could use some more refinement," Eve noted.


            Picking up a glass of water, Jacob made a thoughtful noise. "I'm not sure about that, Captain. If Miss Saotome were too polished, then Meiou's suspicions may rise."


            "So, where's Stillwater?" Ranma asked, sitting down on the couch.


            "Mending fences. The government got a few of their feathers ruffled tonight."


            "It's not our fault JTF2 missed all the action," Ranma sighed.


            "For the best, their training has just started," Eve noted.

 

            "The Combat Cyborgs: capability?" Jacob asked.

           

            "It's about what we thought it was," Eve stated. "They're very organized and professional. Their skill has grown since the Vatican's evaluation."

 

            "They're weak against Nariko's ability and sufficient damage can disable them," Ranma stated.

 

            "The problem seems to lie in being able to damage them," Jacob noted. "They favor fire and maneuver. Their armor is a secondary defense; they concentrate more on avoiding being hit in the first place."

 

            "Their speed and agility is impressive." Ranma stretched her neck. "In close quarters Galina A'deen is... dangerous."

 

            "Indeed." Jacob refilled his glass with water. "Their use of remote guns was unexpected. We've got enough of them to study and be ready to jam them."

 

            "They are weak at unconventional tactics. In addition to Nariko and Ranma's attacks, Ukyou and Misako's abilities were quite effective."

 

            Jacob nodded. "Ranma, it would seem that your idea caught them off guard. Ideas?"

 

            "They were... hesitant when I broke in." Ranma rubbed her chin. "I'd guess they were expecting a military assault and the time that would take, not some demon smashing her way in before they can do anything. We got in before they could react."

 

            "Their experience is with fighting conventional militaries. They assumed that the 5th would fight pretty much like they do."

 

            "Unfortunately, they received a full lesson on NH combat; they're fast learners," Jacob frowned.

 

            "Assigning one to medical evacuation shows they value their people," Eve noted. "This was expected, given their time together and the inability to get replacements."

 

            Ranma frowned. "They know they're outnumbered. We should have expected them to do something to balance that factor out."

           

            Jacob looked at a far wall. "It was a mistake to assume they'd continue stay with their own capabilities. This seems to be a more serious mission to them than the others."

 

            "Their sniper did use an automated gun against Morgan," Eve noted.  "So, automated turrets. They'll find other ways to augment their limited manpower."

 

            Jacob nodded. "I'll have our people start shaking the bushes. We'll see if they've started looking for help."

 

            "Watch the NH community, too." Ranma stated. "They're not the type to stay ignorant. They'll try to figure out what we can do."

 

            "What about this pulse they're using?  That's has the potential to go very bad for us all," Jacob stated.

 

            "I'd guess they're doing it out of ignorance.  They're certainly not suicidal," Ranma said.

 

            "We need to talk to them. If we're right and they want to learn, then they'll could be convinced," Eve suggested. "They might not believe us, but telling them is better than doing nothing."

 

            "Maybe we can work with that." Jacob looked into his glass. "There is an... asymmetry here.  They've put everything on the line for this mission: pride, vengeance, their very purpose. All they've ever had was each other, and we're taking that away from them. And for us? It's all a distraction, one that weakens us."

 

            "And what are their options? What's their end plan? They have to still think they can complete the mission and successfully hide. They can't think they can destroy the whole Company." Ranma took a sip of water.

 

            Eve rubbed her chin. "They're not suicidal."

           

            The redhead tilted her head. "What do they think we'll do when they attack again and it escalates further? Or they kill Usagi? It looks like we really want to keep her alive. What if things get to a point where they can't run? Why wouldn't they decide to fight to the end and do as much damage as possible?"

 

            "You don't corner someone unless you're prepared to do what it takes to destroy them," Jacob made a couple notes. "We'll try to get a meeting with them. It could give us a chance to learn more about their personalities and what they're willing to do. At the very least we'll warn them about that pulse device of theirs. That technology is more dangerous than any damage they can do to Usagi or this command."

 

            "Understood, Sir," Eve replied crisply.

 

            "Right." Ranma gave a slight nod.

 

            "And how did you do in combat?" Jacob asked Ranma.

 

            "Personally?  The armor worked great. It soaked up a lot of damage. Still, their attacks can cut it.  I don't know if more weight's worth the mobility hit."  Ranma looked down at her glass. "It's how I was able to hold my own against her. The SSP was handy too. The look on her face..."

 

            "A'deen had to be evacuated from that fight.  You walked away," Eve assured giving Ranma's hand a squeeze.

 

            "Yes, I didn't pursue her," Ranma's eyes flashed. "Morrison, Ukyou, and Morgan showed what's gotta be done to take them out. Area effects are good, especially ones that are new to them."

 

            "According to Agent Morrison's statements,  the one she killed was significantly hampered by Misako's draining and Ukyou's mental effects."

 

            "Sustained trauma?" Eve asked.

 

            Ranma nodded. "Anything else they'll shrug off and then run. That's what makes the new guns so useful. They've got the punch." The demon paused. "And A'deen...  I've talked with Nariko and the others. She's their trump.  Next time nothing cute with her."

 

            Jacob idly rubbed the scar on the back of his palm. "Where is our equipment lacking?"

 

            "Jammers." Ranma said without any hesitation. "This Shest can cause some real damage. The only reason the Silvers didn't have their throats slit one by one was because they had personal teleportation jammers."

 

            "That was a surprising development," Jacob flexed is hands. "Miniaturization of our jamming technology has been a constant goal."

 

            "Then I suggest we procure some of the Silver's equipment," Eve stated

 

            "It's limited," Ranma shrugged. "Their jammers have a range of only a couple meters.  It's enough to keep someone from grabbing you or stabbing you in the back,  but then she could appear just out of range and toss a satchel charge."

 

            "What would be nice is having extra jammers you can attach to someone," Eve noted.  "Block her phasing and you get an opening to kill her. With enough of them, we can stick them on walls, ceilings, throw them like rice at a wedding.  Really give that girl a bad day. "

 

            "Good idea," Jacob noted. "How come Shest didn't use satchel charges?"

 

            "Sir, according to the Silvers, she did. The wards Setsuna had setup prevented her  from getting too close to do anything easy,  like pop in a canister of nerve gas or a fuel-air bomb, but Shest managed to breach their defenses. That's how the initial assault went off. After that the Silvers formed a defensive position but kept being hammered. Shest only shifted to medi-vac after Ranma and Nariko arrived." Eve explained.


            "So, what about Usagi?"


            "Do you think she's worth salvaging?" Jacob asked.


            "Liquidating her would be the simplest move," Eve offered.


            "Such a plan would have to succeed. Betrayal from an unscrupulous corporation and Fallen Senshi would fit her narrative far too well," Jacob cautioned.


            "There is no need for action on our part," the blonde demon reminded.


            "Yes, all I'd have to do was make some demands Usagi would never accept. Then when she refuses we, regrettably of course, kick her out. Without us, the Russians will kill her." Ranma chuckled. "It wouldn't even violate the contract we signed with her."


            "That contract was to support her, when permitted, and assassinate her if she were to... fall," Eve agreed. "Yes, she knows we've been plotting on the best way to kill her, at her behest."


            Jacob leaned back. "So tell me, is she worth it, or is it better to pacify the Russians?"


            "Her powers would be useful. You want Pattern Silvers, she's the top one. Maybe she'll be motivated." Ranma gave the sleeping broodling a bit of a hug. "As for the Cyborgs, killing Usagi would be their big win. What they do after that depends on how much revenge they want."


            "I'm surprised it took Miss Tsukino so long to just ask what this is all about," Eve chuckled as she adjusted her daughter.


            Ranma shook her head. "She didn't even ask Puu."


            "Lack of interest? Did she just assume this time would be like the others? Or does she simply not trust anyone?  I recall she didn't ask you until tonight. Interesting." Jacob took a sip from his glass. "Can you work her?"


            "I don't know," Ranma frowned. "She's stubborn, but over all the wrong things."


            "Isn't that how it goes?" Jacob smirked. "Still, it is useful for you to.... mentor her."


            "Help her develop a persona for this Serenity she'll be pretending to be." Eve nodded.


            "It could help, but... look at all she's gone through. I wouldn't expect great improvements," Ranma reached out to the coffee table and poured herself a glass of water. It was far too close to sunrise to have the Scotch she actually wanted.


            Jacob put his own glass down. "Anything to make her less of a danger."


            "She's a sentimentalist, use the civilian deaths, use the cat's death. Make her realize that failure comes with a cost, that she can't just wish it all better," Eve stated.


            Ranma took a sip and frowned at the cut-glass. "That's the problem, she still thinks she can."


            "Even after that cult started killing hostages in the toy store?" Jacob asked. "She couldn't bring them back."


            Ranma looked over at Eve. "Denial is powerful," she sighed.


            The blonde nodded. "That's the problem: how do you get someone who has the power to wish it all better to realize that it's best if she didn't let her delusions put her into such situations in the first place."


            "What's her mental state then? How close is she to the edge?" Jacob asked. He noticed the Captain display an almost human sense of worry as she paused in recollection.


            "Past history indicates rash action following harm of her closest friends. We'll know more once the shock from tonight wears off, but I would rate her mental state as... fragile."


            "That's an understatement," Ranma dryly remarked as she took a sip. "That's the problem. She's waiting, she's stewing. If something like this happened to any of us, we'd do something. Hell, it did! We lost more people than the princess did."


            Jacob noted the use of the word "we".


            Ranma continued. "The point is, we're doing something. Tracking down leads, as we prepare for a response. What we're not doing is sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves."


            "She wanted to come; she wanted to help you," Eve reminded.


            "And she would have gotten in the way," Ranma said, her harsh tone almost waking up Sophie.


            "That's why you told her to go back and comfort Minako," Jacob stated.


            "Yeah, give her something to do, and have her help her team."


            Sophie opened her eyes and slid between her aunt and mother on the couch. "Colonel Edwards," she saluted Jacob, sheepishly.


            "Specialist Addison," Jacob replied returning the salute. "How much did you hear?"


            "Problems with Tsukino," she leaned onto her mother. "You're worried she might crack. Well... hasn't she already? Her file speaks for itself."


            "That seems to be what she does when the going gets tough, Sir." Eve agreed.


            Jacob put his glass down. "I want our contingency plans updated and our surveillance on her maintained." He turned to Ranma. "Make sure she stays on base or in a safe house. We can't afford to let her go off on her own."


            "At this point I think Moon would ask Auntie Red for any help before going it alone, Sir," Sophie sleepily said. "That's part of why she likes Red. They both lead teams; they're both queens."


            "True, that crush you two have works both ways," Eve noted.

 
            "Good, we can use that," Jacob leaned back. "Miss Tsukino's been alone for too long."

 

End Chapter 24

 

Key to the Russian obscenities:

"Chto za huy'nya!" What the fuck!

"Tvar"  A) Creature  B) Vile, loathsome, foul person.  Both meanings fit here.

"schelkat' ebalom."  To be careless

"Chyort voz'mi!" Oh, shit! / Oh, damn!

 

I'd like to thank my pre-readers. They read through my most egregious mistakes so you don't have to. DGC, J St C Patrick, Terra, Pale Wolf, Wray, Kevin Hammel, Ikarus, Jerry Starfire, Mike Koos, and Nadrek. Special thanks to Nadrek, who has joined my preading team, for being a great help in cleaning up the combat scenes.