The Return

A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.

By Sunshine 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 32 Reserve and Release Part 2

 

 

           
The redheaded demoness rode in a Canadian Army Griffon helicopter. As she listed in on her radio, her grip on the hang-strap above her tightened. "Oh, that sneaky spook!" Ranma shouted, feeling a chill in her stomach.

           
Major Sifton of JTF2 watched her lips. The engine noise from the helicopter garbled most of her words. Normally, the headset she wore would transmit straight to his earpiece but she was currently on a different channel.

           
"Which one?" Eve asked with an arched eyebrow.

           
"Both of them, Sis!" Ranma replied to Eve. "Keep an eye on Puu."

           
Sifton leaned forward and tapped her shoulder, in the cramped confines of the Griffon it was not a far move. "Say again!" he yelled while tapping his ear.

           
"Of course she knows more than the Princess," Ranma rolled her eyes. She then caught Sifton's gaze and paused. "Gotta go." She switched channels on her headset.

           
"Our paranoid friend in the black suit may be right," Ranma said over the local JTF2 network.

           
The helicopter banked as it followed the Rideau Canal. Sifton felt his stomach fall out. "Beachhead? Confirmation?"

           
Ranma nodded. "Someone on the eldritch side contacted one of our assets. It seems even the local creepy-crawlies are against this little invasion."

           
"Shit." A second later Sifton's thoughts reorganized. "Intel?"

           
The demon nodded again. "It's a summoning. "

           
"Wait. I'm putting us on the general channel." Sifton switched over to where the whole team could hear. "This is the Major. We've got a Beachhead. Repeat Beachhead. Miss Saotome has additional info."

           
"Cutting it a bit close, Sir," a voice said from one of the other helicopters.

           
Ranma's eyes went out at the houses that passed below them. They were about to hit the city proper. "Yeah, I'll cut to the chase. These two clowns broke into your facility, rang the dinner bell, broke your jammer, and now you've got the many-angled ones tumbling in looking for god-knows-what."

           
Silence stretched over the channel.

           
The spike in controlled anger hit the succubus in a heavy wave. The strong undercurrent of bloody minded vengeance warmed her heart

           
"They're 'porting in somehow. Priority is sealing the door." Sifton's mind flashed to the list of Options Gagnon had prepared for this exact scenario.

           
"Scanner results? Corporal Green report," he then asked after keying into the channel his Scanner crew used.

           
"Sir, we've got a smear," Lily Green said. "It hasn't resolved but.... it's shining like a beacon."

           
"We're too far out. Pattern won't get clearer until we close in. That is if it's something we know." Ranma admitted. "But that don't matter you've already got to have troops fighting these things."

           
"Sir, Ma'am," Lieutenant La Tour's voice cut in. "We've got contact reports on floors six, ten, and the basement. Something's fighting our men in at least three distinct locations. We're trying to contact the officer in charge of the quarantine for a situation report."

           
"Right, we'll make contact with the forces and bring in our heavy weapons. La Tour contact the museum crew I need them crossing the canal now." Sifton looked to Ranma. The dull red gem at the center of her Kevlar-sheathed chest bow bounced with the helicopter's rough flight.

           
The succubus nodded.

           
"We've got three jamming units. Delta and Gamma will protect our ground station ones. Miss Saotome's got the mobile model. Alpha and Beta will go with her and slam the door shut."

           
"I can also dump more power into mine, boost the range but not for long," Ranma added. Her ears tingled as the gleaming black gems of her capacitor earrings throbbed.

           
"Sir!" La Tour said. "I've got a Lieutenant Borgne on the line."

           
"Lieutenant?" Sifton's eyes widened.     
He had expected at least a fellow Major, and that was presuming that one of the generals in the building had not decided to command from the front.

           
Ranma got his glance and shrugged.

           
"Put him on." The radio channel chirped. "This is Major Sifton Joint Task Force Two. What's the situation Borgne?"

           
"Bad," a man with a Quebecois accent smoothly replied. "We've managed to scrounge up extra ammo and find men but not fast enough."

           
"Right, we're ten out. Headed straight to your location. Can you hold?"

           
Borgne chuckled. "Bypassing second line, eh? Yes, we shall endure."

           
"Where's your CO?"

           
"Captain got his face burned off... Sir," Borgne said with faux joviality. "Siboire de crisse, those two freaks were bad enough but then... hosti de tabanaque de calisse those fucking squids with incendiaries started tumbling through the walls."

           
The officer's voice grew distant as his attention diverted. "Ostie! Fankie secure that door!"

           
Borgne's attention returned. "Sorry Sir, but we've got a fucking alien invasion on our hands." He chuckled.

           
A tiny smile touched her lips; Ranma flexed her hands. "What're you up against? You said squids? Incendiaries?"

           
"Yes. Like white phosphorus grenades but mixed with some armor piercing rounds. Clusters of missiles too. There's also rumors of something... amorphous in the basement,"

           
"How fast? How big? How many?" She asked looking up. To the north smoke billowed out of the National Defense Headquarter building. She could see little fires sparking in some of the broken windows.

           
"Quick."

           
"As bad as the cyborg?"
           
"The what?"

           
Ranma frowned for a second. Then shrugged. Secretly was out the window for now. Borgne was already in it up to his neck. "The team that broke in. It was a super-powered cyborg and a cultist assassin."

           
Borgne started to snort but then made a thoughtful noise.

           
"Alien Invasion, LT," Sifton reminded. "Are the squids as fast as the cyborg?" the Albertan officer asked.

           
"No. We can kill them. As for how big... I've seen Them up to the size of dogs. When the Captain went to the Sixth Floor to find General Fochs, he reported a big red one the size of a 'fridge. Only got two men back from that."

           
"No more recon, you hold until we get there," Sifton ordered.

           
This time Borgne's Gallic snort was able to fully execute. "Yes, Sir. Good idea Sir. As for how many? A platoon or three... maybe. Hard to tell, they're just probing us. They've definitely got a reserve force. No breakout attempt yet. Size is bad. One patrol said they saw something fill a whole hallway, black goo or something. Barely got out."

           
Ranma leaned to the side and got a better look at the target. A chill ran through her. The column of smoke had broken up into several distinct plumes. The streets adjacent to the Pearkes building were empty. The Laurier Avenue bridge to the south and the Mackenzie King Bridge to the north had been closed off by a cordon of military trucks. Nicholas Street to the building's east was similarly blocked off.

           
The west side of the building butted against the Rideau canal. Ranma could make out the machine gun positions that had been put on the far side and spotted the police boats sitting beyond the bridges.

           
A block or two beyond the military positions, every intersection glittered with the flashing lights of police roadblocks. In between, the roads were largely empty save for the few cars that had been left when the perimeter went up. However the roads were still busy with military traffic.

           
Ranma spotted City Hall. Just across the canal and a bit to the south. It was within the police cordon. Several helicopters were taking off and landing at the green parkland adjacent to the complex.

           
The demoness concentrated, her horns tingled. There was a gnawing anxiety that was like the weak spot in that swampy field, but magnified and throbbing. They had broken through here.

           
The city hummed with life, with nervous apprehension. However, inside the quarantine zone fear and panic was welling up.

           
Sifton looked to Ranma. "Miss Saotome?" In addition to a thousand yard-stare, he felt that she looked eager, hungry.

           
The demoness nodded. "It is a Beachhead Scenario. We didn't expect them to take such a high profile location but they've hit your command structure. Dunno how many they got, depends on how many evac'd at the start and if the Squids are hunting anyone with stars on their shoulders." Ranma closed her eyes. She could feel the wavering, wobbling pull of the rift. A soft spot had torn loose in the world, and it preyed on her mind.

           
"Right now command structure is gutted since we can't get in touch with any of 'em," Sifton said.

           
"Have we gotten anyone else inside?" Sifton repeated. "The good LT could use some more support."

           
"Plenty. People can still call out." La Tour said, somewhat cross. "But Borgne's the biggest group with anything more than their sidearms," she added.

           
Borgne noted the strange woman's use of the phrase "your command," she definitely had a foreign accent. Korean or Japanese if he had to guess. Though this was JTF2. "Sir... Ma'am I'm just relieved someone sounds like they know what's going on."

           
"Do we know what Pattern this is?" Ranma asked.

           
"Yes Ma'am. Well sort of," Corporal Lilly Green responded. "Our Wasserfall scanner's jumping up and down. We're getting a big smear of low level readings and several higher spikes. But it keeps fuzzing out. Worse, it can't decide between Pattern O and Pattern... K. What the hell's a Pattern K?"

           
"I don't know..." Ranma exhaled. "I didn't think that one was assigned."

           
Sifton noted the trepedation in cross the demon's face. "Well Pattern O are squid monsters aren't they?"

           
Regaining her composure, the demoness nodded. "Yes. I don't think the Company's seen a live one. Mostly from archaeological digs, preserved corpses."

           
"Looks like you folks will get get plenty more to study," Sifton stated.

           
"Patterns? You lot know what these things are?"

           
"Oh no Lieutenant, you know far more about this enemy than us," Rama assured.

           
"That is not comforting."

           
"We're bringing bigger guns," Sifton added.

           
"Ah there's that welcome West Canadian spirit." Borgne's mock amusement suddenly stopped. "Some more advice. Don't let Them take you. Whatever happens don't let Them take you"

 

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

 

           
Just north of the National Defence building was the Ottawa convention center. The facility had four floors of spacious offices, meeting halls, ballrooms, banquet halls, and theater space. It also had a two story underground parking facility.

           
Pulling Mal behind her, Shest slipped through a concrete wall and stopped in front of a parked car. She exhaled. Passing beneath the street had taken some time. Fortunately Mackenzie King Bridge was elevated when it ran between the convention center and the National Defence building. That gave her several "air pockets" where she could stop and get her bearings.

           
Mal looked around the low-ceilinged cavernous room. Other than a few scattered vehicles, they were alone. He looked up at a pillar. A sign declared: Level B, Lot 4.

           
Shest straightened her shoulders. She checked to ensue she still had the core. "Come on," she said after glancing at Mal.

           
The brutish man cocked his head. He could feel the pull to the South. There was the pull of the growing hole. There was also... She had arrived. Mal frowned. "Yes, it's definitely time to get out of here."

           
After holstering his gun, Mal shrugged his shoulders. The two ran down a row of parking spaces and around a corner. A white panel van sat the third spot from the end in Lot 3. Signs on either side proclaimed it to be part of Tawil Sisters Cleaning Service.

           
Fishing out a set of keys, Mal unlocked the back door. Shest followed and closed it behind her. Once again, she checked the haversack containing the jammer core before pulling sweater over her armored bodysuit. She pulled on a pair of sweatpants and without looking back at Mal climbed to the front seat.

           
The haversack went down on the floor between the driver's seat and the passenger seat. She sat down and turned on the ignition. The van's engine turned over, and she put it into gear.

           
Mal de Veste climbed up to the front when the van came to the parking garage's exit. Giving a vague smile, he had slipped off his coat and tie and pulled a baggy green boiler-suit on over his shirt and pants. His sun glasses came off and he blinked at the dark tunnel. He slipped on a black ballcap. The security gate to the garage's exit was still open. Though a red and white bar was lowered across the exit lane, as expected.

           
Shest glanced over. Mal had brought his briefcase and was stuffing it into a canvas duffle bag that was loaded with various supplies. It already contained his suit coat, tie, and the rifle he stole. He then concealed his gun amid the junk in the open glove box. She drove up to the pay-station and slipped her ticket and put a few dollar coins into the slot.

           
The white and red bar went up; Mal nodded. Before the mission, they had made sure that the pay-station was automated. He leaned out and looked both ways; the road in front of them was part of an underground tunnel that ran for most of the block.

           
 There was some traffic on Daly Avenue, but he could see police cars on the intersection with Colonel By drive to the east and Nicholas Street to the west.

           
Shest swore. "We should have gone to the Beta."

           
Mal shrugged. "Okay, let's do that." Leaving the van, he grabbed his gun and duffle bag. He went to the back and opened the doors.

           
Exiting the van herself, the cyborg raised an eyebrow. "What about the vehicle?" she asked as Mall rooted around in his duffle bag.

           
"Scuttle it," Mal said as he tossed her an explosive charge.

           
Shest eyed the white vehicle. Left there it would block the exit. On fire it would make for an obvious distraction. It would also mark their egress point. She swore, popped the hood, set the timer on the charge, and placed it.

           
Mal had already crossed the street and stood in the shadows of the tunnel. "This way."

           
"Into the roadblock?" Shest asked, as she walked down the tunnel.

           
"Before that," he pointed to an door lane to the right side just before the tunnel ended. A painted sign said: "Deliveries Only. Restricted Access. Westin Ottawa."

           
Shest nodded, a hotel gave them options. She looked ahead, there were not just police cars at the intersection. A couple military vehicles had also advanced to the point.

           
Mal shrugged. "If they stop us go with the cover story, if-"

           
"If they don't buy it go to plan B." Shest sighed. They would not be able to stop her, but it would delay things.

           
Shest got them through the door and they went down the back corridors of the hotel. After heading north for a hundred meters, they reached a flight of stairs. There on the second level they found a bridge that arched over the east-west Rideau Street that connected the hotel with the Freiman Mall.

           
A small crowd had gathered on the bridge. Most of them faced the west where they watched military vehicles close down the various streets crossing the canal. Mal spared a glance as the two briskly walked across. Both heard the fleet of helicopters that were flying above them.

           
"They're really throwing their all into this," Shest said.

           
Looking off to the West Mal noted a road that had been cleared of traffic. Seeing what was traveling down the road, he gave her a bemused smile.

           
Shest eyed him but held her tongue. They entered the mall. It was pandemonium as confused shoppers and staff rushed about. Store guards talked with police. The PA system cut in and announced that the mall was being closed and for everyone to leave out the north George Street exits.

           
"Quarantines are a lovely thing." Mal smiled as they used a fire escape to cut ahead of the crowd and use a side door.

           
Stopping to wait for an opening in the traffic, they crossed the road and found a side lot for the Ottawa School of Art.

           
A small black sedan had signs for Umr Courier Services on either door. Shest unlocked the car and got in. Silently, she turned the ignition and waited for Mal to stow his gun between the center console and his seat. He looked back and up at the smoke rising from the National Defence building. The fraying, draining pull from the building had increased.

           
Mal's eyes went to the glove compartment. "Not going to call?"

           
"We're still in the city. Job's not done."

           
He made a thoughtful noise. "Hell of a job."

           
The cyborg snorted, put the car in gear, and started driving east. Once they hit King Edward Avenue she went took it north and crossed the Ottawa River, leaving the city.

 

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

 

           
Lieutenant Borgne tilted his head when he heard the helicopters. Long-limbed with sharp features, the Quebecois officer had a thin dark moustache, a hawkish nose and deep chestnut eyes. The helicopters were much closer and in larger numbers than the last few batches of "reinforcements". Puffing on his cigarette, he nodded to Corporal Peck and Private Simone, the two soldiers then crossed the lobby using various pillars as bits of cover. Furniture had been broken and scattered. Spent casings sparkled on the tile and bunched up bits of carpeting.

           
He allowed a slight smile and inhaled some acrid smoke. It was all hardly within regulations, but there was not much time. And he supposed that some allowances could be made for the Apocalypse.

           
 The officer stepped around a bend and noted the area where the wounded had been staged. It had been ten minutes since the last ambulance run. Fortunately, they had dropped off supplies for the medics he had dragooned.

           
Turning back to the elevator bank, Borgne went to a crouch. Here the bulk of his men had taken positions. All the elevators but one had been wedged open with chairs that had been dragged in. The remaining elevator was held by a squad and had been sent up to retrieve the odd group of stragglers that had missed the initial evacuation. However, its use had all but stopped off after the Captain's failed attempt to retrieve General Fochs.

           
Beyond the elevators, a barricade had been thrown up. It was made from tables, concrete planters, stone and metal facing from the walls and the pillars. Notably, there was nothing flammable in the pile.

           
The burn marks on the walls and the one chair still aflame were explanation enough. And yet, his men were not behind the barricade, not directly. The splashes and splatters of dried blood around the barricade showed the reasoning behind that. Instead the men were further back and used the wall itself as cover.

           
Past the elevators, opposite the barricade, was a set of double doors that had been wedged open. On the other side was a set of stairs. Smoke still welled up from the steps and most of Borgne's men kept their rifles trained on the stairs leading to the basement. The remainder watched the ceiling, floors, and walls.

           
A cloying, squirming pressure gripped his chest. "Attention!" he briskly ordered. It was different than the prickly dread that came hand in hand with an attack of Them. If anything it was more like the soothing warmth that came from his cigarettes.

           
"Sir, JTF2's here!" Peck shouted as he and Simone ran across the lobby.

           
Borgne backed away from the barricade. He turned and stood. The cigarette bobbed at his lips. That western Major was correct. Their guns were bigger. They were definitely larger than the 5.56mm rifles his men were using.

           
They looked like refurbished C2A1s that had underslung grenade launchers added. The troopers were loaded down with boxy 7.62×51mm magazines and pouches full of 40mm grenades. There was also a couple teams with belt-fed C9 machine guns.

           
Their shoulder patches gave a twinge of familiarity: elongated red arrowheads consisted of CANADA running vertically topped with JTF2. However, what caused Borgne's cigarette to fall almost fall from his lips were the other heavy weapons. The rocket tubes slung over a couple JTF2 soldier's were one thing. The Carl Gustav recoilless rifle was another.

           
The weapon fired an 84 mm by 246 mm shell, nearly three and a half inches in diameter. Borgne noticed the loader/ammunition carrier of the group. The man was doubtlessly weighted down with the massive 3 kg shells. There was even another Gallic-looking fellow who had the bulging satchels of a demolitions man.

           
It was overkill. Borgne smiled. "Lovely, lovely! Finally someone took my calls seriously."

           
"Naturalment, I'm Lieutenant La Tour. Major Sifton gives his regards," a smooth, feminine voice replied. "MacDowell, have your team reinforce the barricade," Lieutenant La Tour ordered. "We'll keep the quarantine here before we move in with Saotome."

           
La Tour frowned at the cigarette dangling on Borgne's lips. He sighed, pinched the end off, and stuffed it into the vest pouch next to the pack with the rest.

           
He smiled and gave a Gallic shrug to La Tour and her companion. So Apocalypse or no, it was still a no-smoking zone, Borgne thought to himself. "Ah. Canada."         
"Ma'am." Sergeant Billy MacDowell nodded. "Jones, Bishop get the Carl into position. Rich! Get up here with your sack-of-boom. I want options in case we need to blast through these bastards."

           
Corporal Richard Bonhomme nodded and duck-walked over to MacDowell. He had already taken out a folded section of blueprints and was frowning over it.

           
"Tahnee get that MG up. Mind the back blast Jones!" MacDowel added in a shout.

           
Borgne studied the woman who stood next to La Tour. Her uniform was as different shade of grey-green and had a skirt-like ring of pleated armor that hung below her vest and chest rig. There was also a big stiff bow of some kind on her chest centered with a dull red gem; a matching bow stuck out behind her.

           
The two women stood in contrast. One had rich mocha skin while the other had an unnaturally pale pallor. La Tour's straight glossy black hair was cut into a very short bob while the other woman had a wild, wavy crimson mane. Bright brown eyes were opposed to deep, deep violet ones. La Tour had a rifle, a side arm, a combat knife, and several grenades. The other woman... simply had a massive bright steel handgun.

           
Borgne's smile grew and he extended his hand.

           
"It was getting quite bad here," he said, noticing that some of his men were pulling back, having been relieved by the JTF2 troops. "We almost felt alone. Out at the pointy-end."

           
Both women looked at it and the warm pressure spiked against his chest.

           
La Tour's hand darted out taking Borgne's hand before the redhead could. "Never. We're bringing everything we can into this." Her eyes narrowed slightly as she glanced at her diminutive companion.

           
"And who might you be? Miss Saotome I presume?" Borgne asked. She was probably the Asian woman he had heard on the radio. Though her features were not quite right. The bone-china white complexion was only part of it. Her jaw line was a bit too sharp and her eyes were a bit off. He kept looking away, looking to La Tour.

           
"Why yes," Ranma smiled. She stepped to the side and looked to the barricade.. "Your men have held well."

           
The corners of Borgne's lips curled with amusement. Despite her diminutive size the redhead had a rich contralto voice. He idly wondered if she sung. La Tour's own higher register would be rather complementary, if the two were to do a duet.

           
Ranma sniffed the air and glanced at La Tour. "You should detail a team to watch the wounded. Just in case."

           
La Tour glared at the redhead for half a second. The redhead briefly glanced at her then back to Borgne and the other soldiers. La Tour exhaled and nodded. "Good idea. I'll make the assignment."

           
Borgne raised an eyebrow. "Uh, right. I'm just glad we've got some real firepower here."

           
Ranma tilted her head. "Full power to the jammer but... I don't know." Her earrings flashed and sparkled. She was reluctant to push it much further. Her shoulders slumped. Her stomach shuddered and a headache fluttered in and out of existence. Being this close to the "rift" was starting to get to her.

           
 "Yeah, they're fighting it; they're still active. I need to get closer. Hell, we might have to smash their counter-jamming equipment." The redhead's lips separated flashing shiny, pointed teeth.

           
"Quarantine protocols," La Tour stiffly said. "Right, it couldn't be that easy to close the door, but now they know we're here."

           
Pointing back to the elevators with his rifle, Borgne raised an eyebrow. "Look at the ichor, they already know we're here."

           
Ranma stepped back forward and resumed her observing. She could see some charred and burst tentacles. They reminded her of overcooked sausages wrapped in blackened tinfoil. Her eyes scanned quickly but hungrily. That warm pressure flowed over Borgne again.

           
Borgne noted that despite the heavy armor and boots she was light on her feet and walked with a nimble bounce. "And what's your role here?"

           
"Moi?" the redhead leaned forward. A slim hand with long, long fingers darted forward and snaked a cigarette out of Borgne's pocket. She held it up. Flames sparked on the tip and the cigarette caught aflame.

           
"I'm just a contractor." The cigarette tumbled between her fingers and she offered the filter end just in front of the officer's lips. She smiled warmly. "Good work Lieutenant."

           
 La Tour observed the exchange, and shrugged. She tapped her radio. "Sir, we've met Borgne. He's holding. Saotome is active. No Sir... I mean her jammer is active. Yes, it's being opposed."

           
Borgne's men stopped. Corporal Peck blinked. Getting backup from special forces troops was expected, but the short redhead was something different.

           
"If it's opposed, that probably means they know we're here," Ranma said into her headset as her horns popped out. She flexed her neck. "Ah, much better." Her eyes unfocused for a second as she looked down at, through, the floor between the elevators.

           
La Tour swore.

           
Borgne stared. Aliens, cyborgs, contractors, demons... sure why not. He turned back to the barricade. "Break's over men. Peck! Get you ass in gear. Simone put some distance between you and the gent with the rocket tube. Frankie snag some grenades from these nice men if you will."

           
Ranma's eyes refocused and her hands flexed. A lazy smile crossed her lips. With her horns out everything was much clearer. She could feel the enemy, or at least sense a churning mass. It was centered around the sucking tear that dominated the sub basement. They were on the move.

           
"Yeah. They noticed." The redhead chuckled as her tail snaked into existence. The fins unfurled. "Someone kept a reserve force," she added in a sing-song voice.

           
Sergeant MacDowell's eyes narrowed. "Load Jones with anti-personnel zero-range, keep a HEDP on ready! Everyone mind the back-blast!"

           
Ranma's tail stopped swaying back and forth and she took a step to the side.

           
La Tour raised an eyebrow.

           
"It's a 84mm with over 3 kilos of explosives. I can respect that," Ranma's tone was sober though her mouth was split into a broad eager smile.

           
For a moment La Tour wished that she had not swapped with Lieutenant Hanna Hill. Though knowing her luck, if she had, then that barren soft spot out in the woods would have been the invasion site.

           
 "Sir, expect incoming. Yes, Sir, good luck."

           
Ranma rolled her shoulders and her wings unfurled. Great purple on the outside, red on the inside membranes grew out from special slits in the back of her uniform and armored back-plate.

           
"So, our military hires demons; I did not know that," Borgne observed. "I suppose I should have expected it."

           
"Not directly, I'm a sub-contractor. The Canadians hired the-"

           
"Contact!" Corporal Peck shouted. Followed a split second later by MacDowell. Writhing, matte black tentacles appeared at the stairwell at the far side of the room. Pods of a glossy white-grey material were clutched at the ends of several of the tentacles.

           
 Both Canadian units opened fire.

           
Several of the tentacle-creature's barrel-shaped bodies were perforated. The larger bullets of the JTF2 members sliced right through the tentacles while the smaller rounds the other troops were using required a cluster of shots.

           
Steam-like clouds came up and an angry hiss came from the creatures. The rest opened fire. Arcing blue-white comets raced out of their guns and slammed into the barricade and some of the troops. The incendiary material began to splash about.

           
"Grenades!" La Tour ordered, as Borgne's medics darted forward. The under-slung barrels of the JTF2 guns thumped.

           
As that happened the creatures towards the rear launched the larger pods they carried. Sparkling clusters of rockets snaked out, lobed over to the Canadians, and exploded in a blindingly bright shower of burning shrapnel.

           
Amid the explosions there was a tearing sound as the floors were ripped out of the elevators. More creatures swarmed up out of them. They writhed out and right in front of the Canadian's field of fire. Which had been drawn away from the stairwell at the end of the elevator bank.

           
Ranma's eyes widened. "Stairs!" she shouted her voice cutting through the chaos.

           
The doors leading to the stairwell had been propped open, providing a choke point while adding some visibility (and giving the enemy a bit of concealment).

           
Tentacles thicker than a fire hose grabbed the door and ripped it off. A bulky rounded body the size of a refrigerator levered its way out of the stairs. A mass of smaller barrel-shaped creatures boiled out below it carpeting the far side of the room in the blue with matte-black trim of their armored environmental suits. The larger creature had thicker armor than its smaller cousins. Its armor was also matte-black and bronze-red as instead of matte-black and dark blue.

           
"Hit the big one first, I'll finish it off!" Ranma ordered as purple beams burst from her eyes and raked across the attacking mass. Her head and heart pounded.

           
JTF2's machine gun crew added to the kill-box the riflemen and grenadiers were trying to keep contained. Then the giant creature heaved itself up and the thick-barreled weapons it clutched opened up. A brilliant blue bloom burst across the room.

           
"Back!" Borgne ordered his men as the barricade was blasted apart.

           
"Gustav!" MacDowell shouted.

           
Jon Jones had already stepped around the corner and the instant he planted his foot pulled the trigger. There was a hollow metallic twang. The blast shot out the back end of the tube and down the corridor while the shell shot out in a white blur.

           
The concussion echoed across the barricade and the projectile slammed into the lead creature. The Gustav was designed for long range anti-armor, anti-fortification and anti-personnel roles. The high explosive anti personnel round barely went over the 20 meter minimum arming-distance before it detonated, overwhelming the massive creature in a conflagration.

           
The concussion shredded the smaller squid-like creatures ripping them apart in a mass of tentacles and pulped bodies. Steaming ichor splattered against broken walls and dented elevator doors.

           
Jones stepped back and Bishop was already on him, holding a new shell the size of his forearm. He lifted up the weapon's back end, pulled out the spent shell which hit the floor with a clang, and rammed the fresh shell in.

           
Gas hissed out of cracks in the great creature's armor. Many of its tentacles had been ripped off and the front part of its protective suit had been dented in. Still, it levered itself up and pointed one of its great blue-silver guns at the Canadians.

           
"Active! Active!" Ranma swore as she fired off a DarkStar Burst. The purple-wreathed obsidian orb shot towards the creature. "Engaging!" the demon shouted as wings snapped back and she jumped over the barricade.

           
The orb swerved in midair and slammed into the creature's gun. Tentacles writhing, it twisted to get a better view when the demon bounded straight at it. The thick appendages shot forward to crush her.

           
Claws went out and sliced through the armored limbs. Yellow fluid seeped out and tingled where it hit against her fingers. She then landed on its back. Her boots braced against the pebbled-armor while her claws sunk through and began to tear. Filaments extended out of her tail and the appendage stabbed right through the armor. More gas vented as she breached the armor.

           
A fusillade erupted from down the room as the Canadians retook their position. The support machine gun opened up spitting tracers across the sides of the creature below the demon. Every fourth round in the belt was a tracer and they shot across the room in a laser-like beam which raked further back on the creature's body and started cutting at its tentacles.

           
The creature bucked but she managed to tear a long strip of armor away before being tossed off. Mid-air, she twisted, flared her wings, and shot another DarkStar Burst out of her hand. The orb kinked and arced and popped right into the exposed bit where the armor had been torn away.

           
Ranma landed in a mash of broken squid-like bodies as the orb detonated. The explosion was muffled by the creature's bulk but it flopped down to the ground with its tentacles flailing about.

           
More seams appeared in the armor and more creatures tried to scramble out. These were smaller and had rubbery blue-green bodies and tentacles. However once exposed to the air they started to thrash as they made high-pitched screeches.

           
The demoness had bounded back and their screeches grew more intense as they tried to pull away from her. Ranma blinked and with a flick of her claws sliced through one of the dying creatures. Thick yellowish fluids came out and began to boil and fume in the alien atmosphere.

           
Eyes flaring, the redhead growled flicked the gunk off her claws. She sliced into the alien and flicked a piece into her mouth. She grimaced and spit the rubbery flesh out with a hiss.

           
 Angry, she drew her SSP and the monstrous handgun barked as she blew the remaining three apart. The room stank of burned gunpowder, smoldering plastic, and an ammonia and mint-like smell rising from the alien bodies.

           
It was then that Ranma realized that she could hear gunfire in the distance. It was muffled and had to come from somewhere several stories and many rooms away, but it was definitely the heavier caliber guns that JTF2 had brought.

           
Sergeant MacDowell and Lieutenant Borgne approached the redhead while the medics went to work on the wounded and the uninjured troops moved forward and dispatched the few creatures that still stirred.

           
"Your coming really got them riled up," Borgne dryly noted. He glanced between the ichor splattered demoness and the prim La Tour who had stood back and was on the radio.

           
A few explosions detonated several stories above them. The redhead smiled. "I think they felt us coming." She tapped the gem at the center of her chest rig.

           
"What, the critters felt someone futzing with their gateway and decided to put a stop to it."

           
"They sent something after us they normally reserve for killing Generals."

           
Borgne returned from ordering his men to drop some donated grenades down the opened elevator shafts. "I don't know if this bastard was sent specifically to kill General Fochs but... the timing is pretty bad."

           
MacDowell nodded. He went over to Jones and Bishop to talk to the about using some of the short-fuse shells before getting got onto his headset and relaying Borgne's message up to Sifton.

           
"Jammer, eh?" Borgne nodded at the wide Kevlar ribbons on Ranma's chest armor. "Little something to keep the squids from coming in?" he asked taking a drag on his cigarette

           
"I'd say it's classified but..." Ranma shrugged her wings and kicked one of the creatures. It bounced off her foot with a rubbery squelch.

           
The gunfire above them increased. Ranma tilted her head, she could just make out the sound of breaking windows. It was immediately followed by the burping, tearing noise of helicopter door guns opening up.

           
"You guys really brought everything."

           
Ranma stared at the Gallic officer. Her gaze flicked between horror and hungry anticipation. "No... not yet."

           
Borgne's cigarette slipped from his lips.

           
"Saotome here. Moving the timetable up. All teams keep pressure on the basement levels," Ranma radioed before she turned to the JTF2 troopers. "MacDowell! I'm going down. Get your men in gear! And shadow me on this level."

           
MacDowell looked at Bonhomme's map; he then looked at the demolition man's satchel. The plan formed. He smiled. "Call the Beta team! I want their gadget to come in, right behind Bonhomme." He turned to the demolitions specialist. "Richard, scrounge whatever you can, but I want you to make me a doorknocker; be creative."

           
Poker-faced, Bonhomme saluted and ran off. He then immediately started pilfering ammunition and grenades.

           
Ranma nodded. Jammers were designed to work on multiple dimensions; they were hardly limited to a mere two.

 

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

 

           
Sitting in its office, the Comptroller's tentacles stilled. Weak light from the sky-spanning buttresses and sallow silvery fields streamed through the partially-opaque shades. Sensor cluster gaped at the projection before the Comptroller. The feed was shaky and distorted, but a Scout Surveyor had managed to reach a window.

           
The Head Surveyor respectfully bobbed next to its larger superior.

           
"Tell it to aim up," the Comptroller ordered with a quick tendril flick.

           
"Of course," Head Surveyor completed transmitting a link to the Aperture Overseer. The Head normally hated such micromanagement but this...

           
Some time passed and the Scout flittered forward and lifted its camera pod. The view shifted from showing slab-like constructs full of curiously narrow windows. It fumbled and the camera panned wildly showing the rest of the scout team, including its Level 3 escorts. A dismembered alien quickly flashed past the screen.

           
But the Surveyor's and Comptroller's attention was on the sky. Bright light streamed from a sky that seemed aflame. High in the center was a great burning ball.

           
It was something that the Comptroller only had second-hand memories of. Something in the dead past of the Astronomers' Lore.

           
"They have a main sequence star," Head Surveyor's said, tendrils hushed.

           
"It seems Echo-382 is pre-Cataclysm."

           
The Comptroller's intensity grew. If the Herald were to place his Heir somewhere safe...           
"The Holder of Souls?"

           
The Surveyor paused to wipe its tendrils. It then moved them clearly and precisely. A lifetime had been spend preparing for this. "Comptroller, as Head of the Pathfinder Survey it is confirmed. My Pathfinders have breached the veils and broadcasted the Herald's call. We found Her. The Holder of Souls, the Coverer of the Sky, She's here," the surveyor formally stated gesturing to the display.

           
"The reply was weak," the Comptroller stated. "We've been fooled before," it added, though its words were laced with longing.

           
"Not like this." The Surveyor was amused. "As you say: it is not blasphemy to be skeptical. The Herald blessed us with minds; minds it expects us to use."

           
"The reply was... weak, but it was exact. It was like the Holder was unable to reply..."

           
"Trapped? Imprisoned?"

           
"I cannot say. We are beyond the precipice. Something alerted us; something wore down the barriers on their side of the wall.. So the Holder must have allies; maybe even worshipers."

           
The great barrel-shaped tentacle creature examined some recognizance reports. "I wish we could see the horizon... see outside their city," the Comptroller absently waved at some of the other buildings the Scout camera had captured. "We need more information. We're going into this world blind."

           
The Head Surveyor gave an amused respiration. "It is not so easy. My teams..."

           
The Comptroller waved in acknowledgement. "The locals?"

           
The Surveyor's gesture was noncommittal. "Strange. Tenacious. Bilateral symmetry, independently motile. Cryptography and Chemistry are doing a workup. We'll have plenty of samples... if they stay preserved. But..."

           
The Comptroller turned away from the alien sky with its florid nuclear furnace. "But?"    

           
"One is different." The Head Surveyor's tendrils flailed for a moment. "It is particularly tenacious. Moreso than the baseline locals. It also bears the stink of the Enemy... and the Holder."

           
"Capture it." The Comptroller said, annoyed.

           
"Of course, but... alive?"

           
The Comptroller paused, then moved its tendrils in negation. "This is just basic reconnaissance. A permanent collection outpost will come later. Preserve if you can, but I'll take a corpse for examination if that's all we'll get."

           
"Understood," the Head Surveyor replied. "Shall I deploy the Servitors?"

           
The Comptroller pondered once more. Their lineage was getting harder and harder to bud fresh growths. "Only the younger of the three. I want the rest in reserve."

           
The Surveyor bowed its tendrils. "It is an honor to serve the Herald."

           
"The honor is mine," the Comptroller patted its subordinate. "Your tenacity will be rewarded."

           
Neither particularly cared when a buzzing construct crossed the sky and engaged the Scout Team. They carried themselves well, but were ultimately destroyed. There was plenty more in reserve. Besides the risks were minimal. Before crossing the Threshold it was standard practice to get one's data copied.

           
No one ever died on a survey mission. Not permanently anyway.

 

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

 

           
The succubus dropped down the stairwell. Her boots lightly hit the concrete. Sickly gray smoke oozed before her. Lifting her arm to signal the troops behind her, the redhead slipped past the landing and into a short corridor that ran deeper into the basement. There was a gentle pull to the north, which made the floor feel like it tilted down. Horns quivered with a tingling itch that seemed to run right down her spine and churn her stomach.

           
The basement was dank. Water and other fluids had spilled and splattered onto the floor. The lights flickered and many were simply out. Smoke also drifted and sank near the floor in lumpy drifts.

           
Her nostrils flared at the deep tang of blood and the spicier scents of various viscera. She went down the empty corridor following the scent. It was decidedly human, there was only a slight undercurrent of the mint-like smell the aliens gave off.

           
Glancing over to the open door, Ranma knelt down. Idly, she summoned a couple DarkStar bursts and sent them down the junction where the corridor crossed with two other hallways.

           
She could see streaks of blood along the floor. Overlaying the gore was the whisk pattern the alien's tentacles made on the floor. Ranma slipped into the room. It had been a storage and shipping room but it had been repurposed.

           
Plastic sheeting had been pulled out onto the center of the floor. To one side was a small pile of rounded containers. They looked like they were made out of the same material as the squid's armored suits, but without any blue sections. It was all stiff matte-black material. On the other were three piles.

           
One was a haphazard stack of various computers, binders, books, data drives, and other electronic odds and ends. The middle was a neat pile of little matte black balls. The final was a stack of corpses. It was a mix of civilian and military personnel. Some were in a bloody pile on one end of the plastic sheeting while others had been propped up against the wall.

           
The latter group were especially ghoulish. Most had had their skulls sawed off at the top and their eyes were removed. Some had their lips peeled back and their tongues cut out. Others had everything inside their skulls scooped out, and the skin on their faces and hands flayed off.

           
"Fuck, those're the worst Jack-O-Lanterns I've ever seen," MacDowell swore as he strode into the room. His eyes went to the plastic sheeting itself and the... processing that had been going on there. A laptop had been meticulously disassembled, so had a young clerk. Her skull had been cut open and a neat incision went down from her sternum to her hips.

           
MacDowell's rifle jittered slightly in his hands. He knew... he knew shit like this could happen. He knew it was not something that only happened "over there". Still... this was military HQ. If the ultimate rear echelon was not safe then the shit had truly hit the fan.

           
He glanced back, his squad was in position at the corridor and the hallway. The demon was still crouched down over by the line of corpses.

           
Corporal Cordell Giddings looked in the room. Face ashen, he forced a grin. "Making a bag lunch?" he asked.

           
Ranma whipped her head back to face the tall soldier and the grizzled non-com.

           
"I somehow doubt that Cord," MacDowell said. His dark walnut eyes briefly met her glance before looking into the empty eyes of an navy lieutenant. "That what they're doing here? Bagging up some snacks to send back... back wherever it is they came from?"

           
The demon forced a laugh. "And you think they like to eat computers?"

           
"They're squid-fucking-aliens."

           
Ranma stood up. "No, I'm thinking this is an intel op."

           
MacDowell looked at the first pile and kicked over a bound photocopier manual. "Yes quite the trove they've found. Can they even read this shit?"

           
The demon shrugged. "They're squid-fucking-aliens. Maybe they're real good at languages, maybe they'll take this stuff back home and decode it later. Maybe there's a reason they like taking human brains."

           
"They're eating them?"

           
Ranma snorted. "Taste lousy."

           
"Maybe they don't have the same tastes as you?"

           
The redhead nodded, and knelt over the clerk. "True, the squids taste like shit to us..." Inspecting the cuts that had been done to the young soldiers, the demon frowned

           
MacDowell noted her casual use of the word "us".

           
"Yup, this ain't surgical or culinary cutting. They're just poking around for whatever's... interesting?" The redhead picked up the clerk's head. And peered into the skull cavity. "Save for this. Delicate work in here. Guess they figured that much." She eyed the pile of matte-black containers the squids had left. "Wonder how they preserve the brains... or maybe they didn't think they needed to..."

           
MacDowell stared. "You're telling me we don't just have an alien invasion, but we've got a brain-eating alien invasion."

           
Ranma lowered the body back to the floor. She wiped her gloved hands against a clear spot on the plastic sheeting. "You're really fixated on the eating part? Look Sarge, next time I'll be sure to save the brains of something tasty for you."

           
MacDowell laughed at her earnest expression, until he saw her sincerity. "Fine maybe not eating, but absorbing, preserving, maybe they're just tossing them into jars. Shit. This is an intel mess."

           
Standing up, Ranma's brow quirked. "Yes, the whole invasion thing. And anyway, it's a lot easier to get data out of that stuff-" Ranma pointed to the pile of binders and computer equipment. "than out of a bunch of brains."

           
"Now who's making assumptions," MacDowell grumbled.

           
"Right, right." Ranma's headset then clicked over. "Red here."

           
"This is Sifton. Contact? Cultist or Commie?" the head of JTF2's black Devil's unit demanded.

           
The demoness looked down at the bodies. A frown flickered across features. "Negative."

           
Major Sifton swore. "Same up here." There was the sound of a helicopter engine thrumming in the background. It was followed by the burp of a door-mounted machine gun. "Fuckit Winston, Tahnee. Lead with the damn tracers!" Sifton ordered the door gunner.

           
He returned to the comm. channel. "No one else has seen 'em yet, they either got out before the quarantine fell or they went to ground."

           
Ranma looked up and met MacDowell's eyes. He nodded and pointed out of the room and down the hallway. She summoned a DarkStar burst. The obsidian orb flared and bobbed out of the room streaking violet flames. She exhaled and summoned another orb.

           
"Status?" Sifton ordered.

           
"We found a chop shop. Squidies cutting stuff up to send back home: computers, papers... people," Ranma's voice wavered slightly. There was more pressure from the rift down here and she had to force that headache down. Guiding her DarkStar bursts towards it did not help either.

           
"I see." A wave of distortion shrieked over the channel. "Leave it for cleanup, unless..." Sifton's voice was weary. "No one's... no one's getting back up?"

           
Concentrating on where her orbs were going, Ranma sniffed the air. "No, sir."

           
"If they do burn 'em," Sifton's voice hardened. There was a hiss of a rocket being launched of one of the helicopter's racks.

           
A few seconds later Ranma felt the explosion. It was above her and maybe fifty meters to the North "I've narrowed down the gate location, its between Site E and Site H. Repeat sites Echo Hotel. Echo Hotel. Is Beta team-"

           
"Getting into position, Red." Sifton cut off her question. "We're done screwing around."

           
Ranma's lips curled up. "Good," she purred as she mentally controlled the DarkStar burst. The orb bobbled down the hallway and then....

           
Her pupils dilated. The orb detonated. "Contact! Contact North!"

           
A few armored troops from the hallway lunged into the room and took position. "What's going on?" a shorter troop lugging a heavy recoilless rifle asked.

           
"Evil brain eating aliens; standard fun stuff, Winston," Private Tahnee laughed.

           
"We were looking for their gateway right?"

           
Swearing, MacDowell knelt down and switched to his squad channel. "How many?"     

           
Ranma's lips peeled back, flashing her bright fangs. "Uh... all of 'em?" she asked as her horns erupted into a pricking tingle that made her eyes water slightly.

           
There was a whistling sound in the air as a barrage of incendiary rounds began to pelt down the hallway.

           
"Jones you better have that beast ready with short fuses this time!" MacDowell demanded.

           
Corporal Jon Jones nodded he nodded to his loader, Corporal Bishop "Check my back-blast will you."

           
Bishop pulled a face but looked out the door. "Oh no Jon... looks like you don't have to worry about anyone... behind you at least."

           
The bright phosphorus rounds the squids favored began to the door frame and go against the stairwell where the rest of MacDowell's squad was. Their machine gun and rifles opened up.

           
Eyes slightly glowing, Ranma blinked. She flexed her hands. A fresh pair of DarkStar Bursts appeared in her hands. Purple light began to pool around her eyes. Purple and red flames raced over her body. She stood up and bent down next to Jones.

           
The soldier inched aside, automatically drawing the large artillery tube away from the demon's combustible aura.

           
Fighting down a wave of nausea, Ranma didn't seem to notice. "I'll go out, draw fire and shoot my load. You'll get an opening. Use it."

           
Jon Jones nodded. Standing in front of a Carl Gustav was almost as stupid as standing behind one, but this was the scary demon lady.

           
He blinked and the demon was gone. She had lunged out into the hallway. Burning phosphorus rounds splashed against her aura. White flames fought against violet. Her hands whipped out and the twin obsidian spheres launched.

           
They raced down the hallway towards the Squids. The aliens had taken position at the end of the hallway and were using a pallet load of filing cabinets and other office equipment as makeshift cover, though they seemed more keen on firing from behind the corner of the wall.

           
The demon's spheres simply flew over the barricade and around the corner and blew up in a meaty splat. The incendiary fire increased as smoke began to choke off the hallway and the walls started to smolder. That's when the dribbling purple light around the demon's eyes flashed over and a pair of thick purple beams shot out.

           
They lanced straight through the barricade and cut squid, armor, and concrete with ease. However the fire only slackened slightly. More alien reinforcements were boiling down from the side hallways.

           
A missile cluster launched from one of the larger creatures and the demon dropped down her burning aura taking the brunt of the hit.

           
Running on auto-pilot, Jones took the opportunity and stepped forward. Ignoring the incendiary rounds, one of which hit and began to burn through his vest, the solider planted his foot, aimed his recoilless rifle, and pulled the trigger.

           
The Carl Gustav fired with a loud prang. The 88mm shell launched down the corridor and tumbled through the mass of squids. It crossed at least three ranks of the alien soldiers before the shell tripped

           
Ranma had thought the detonation in the elevator lobby had been bad. From her position on the ground this was far, far worse. The pressure hit her like a giant foot stomping on her back and pushed all the air out of her lungs.

           
Wheezing she rose up and a vicious smile crossed her face. As bad as it was for her, it was far worse for the enemy.

           
The elevator lobby had been different. It was spacious compared to this cramped corridor stuffed full of squids. Bodies crumpled against the massive concussive wave. Bits of alien splattered about, some splashing against her face.

           
Broken black, red, and blue-sheathed forms pressed against the floor and the walls. The shattered cases of white-grey gleaming metal-ceramic weapons pods dotted the floor. Ichor dripped from the calling, and an overpowering black and blue flecked wave of greasy mint wafted down the hallway.

           
Gasping, Ranma pulled herself up to her knees. Her stomach growled but when she looked at the mass of meat around her it turned. She licked her lips and gagged. It was strange, being in a fight without any... food.

           
One JTF2 fireteam ran past her and secured the opposite end of the hallway while the other hovered near her. Private Sherrise Tahnee had already gone down and dropped her machine gun on its bipod.

           
"Go on," Ranma waved as she stood up. Her earrings tingled as power trickled from the magical capacitors. Her hands flexed and she dumped more energy into her jammer. Her stomach also growled.

           
Her horns buzzed, she could still feel the twisting pull of the alien rift. "Shit." She exhaled and flicked one of her jammer's antennae.

           
"We still locked out?" MacDowell asked as they advanced to the next position. Soon they were up to their ankles in battered barrel-like bodies, tentacles and torn blue and black environmental suits.

           
Ranma nodded. The tingle pulsed down the length of the inner arc of her horns. Part of her wanted to extend both pairs of horns but the wave of nausea from the greasy prickling sensation held her back..

           
"Well we'll just have to take out their countermeasures." MacDowell looked down the hall. The slithering, brushing noise increased. "Adams! Get another belt for that gun!" he ordered the loader of one of the C9 machine gun teams.

           
The redhead flicked her hands and a trio of DarkStar bursts flew off. She hoped MacDowell was right. She hoped that these squids had some powerful counter-jamming gear setup. She hoped they were stabilizing their gateway.

           
The alternative was far worse. An inter-dim jammer forced a degree of dimensional stability. It was like nailing a plywood sheet over a hole in the floor. However, sometimes the floor was too rotted for the nails to hold and sometimes... the hole was too big.

           
She pushed as hard as she dared. Not only was there a rapid diminishing returns on signal strength versus energy drain, but the jammer rig, a kludge of WIC tech and Pattern Silver magic, could burn out if it was redlined for too long.

           
Ranma's concerns were cut short when one of her DarkStar bursts was hit by a wave of incendiary bolts. The demon growled and directed the remaining two to a white-grey missile pod being carried by one of the larger squids.

           
"Contact!" Ranma cried. Her horns buzzed again. It was hard getting a feel for the squids, but when enough were packed together their scent became easy enough to pick up.

           
As she launched another brace of obsidian orbs, Ranma's radio clicked on. "Bonhomme here with Beta team."

           
"Status," MacDowell barked out as his two heavy machine gunners opened fire.

           
"In position. Light off in four," Bonhomme stated. There was a rattle of small arms fire in the background, though nothing at the level of what was happening in the basement.

           
"We're clearing back!" MacDowell ordered his men. "Grenades!"

           
The eight forward members of MacDowell's team, minus the two machine gunners, switched to the under slung grenades on their rifles. A clutch of 40mm grenades lobbed out followed by the minty smell of battered squids. The incendiary fire paused, but not before several of the Canadians were hit.

           
Jones and Bishop flashed an irritated look, but firing a Carl Gustav was not a wise move when your men were behind the recoilless gun. Instead they grabbed one of the wounded. Jones taking the trooper while Bishop covered.

           
MacDowell knelt down and helped a limping trooper. There was a burning tear through his leg and his rifle's foregrip was melted and its barrel was slightly bent. "Come on Pete... you can let go," MacDowell gently said to get the trooper's hands, one of which was bleeding though the glove, to release the rifle.

           
The FAL fell out of the trooper's hands and hung from the strap attaching it to his harness. Eyes a bit glassy Specialist Pete Verger's hand went to the pistol strapped to his thigh.

           
Still withdrawing, MacDowell's attention went straight to the battle. He was down another man, but the remainder were pulling back in good order. However in front of them...

           
"Red, what the fuck are you doing!"

           
While the other troopers had been pulling back, out of the danger radius, Ranma had advanced. Flames cascaded down her hair, sparked off the tips of her horns and billowed down her arms.

           
The bare concrete floor and walls had started to char and the paint had begun to curl and peel adding a large burnt zone to the stippled burns and gouges from the squid's weapons' fire.

           
 One of the larger missile-bearing squids had surmounted the mass of fallen comrades. It was supported by a fresh squad of the smaller squids. The redhead flashed into motion. Incendiary rounds blasted against her flaming aura.

           
As the missiles launched her arms shot up and a fountain of red flames stabbed out. The beam wobbled and even dribbled bits of flames. It hit the larger squid, knocked it down, and then the flames leaped off its armor splashing around in a burning mess.

           
There was a piercing shriek as half the Squids cooked in their own suits which then ruptured spewing out hot gas.

           
The demon raced forward and MacDowell swore again. The flames around her began to sputter and flicker out. Her long red hair hung limply on her back and she gave a labored gasp. At the same moment she leapt in and kicked a dying squid to the side while slashing through another with her claws. It was brutal, economical work. They flailed at her, one of the squids managing to land on her back where it was eviscerated by her tail and had two of its tentacles bitten off.

           
The alien was flung to the side where it hit the wall like a garbage bag full of wet newspaper. Sniffing the air, she made a displeased expression and spat to the ground. She glanced back and saw MacDowell's carefully neutral expression and the remainder of the JTF2 troops. She turned and started running back to their position.

           
And then the wall right to her left blew apart. Concrete block showered her as a hole large enough to drive a golf cart was suddenly blasted into existence. One of the larger chunks slammed into her face, first hitting her cheek then bashing her forehead as it tumbled through the air. She wobbled; her boots slipping on the slick debris strewn floor.

           
An avalanche of Squids boiled out of the opening. A quartet of the smaller incendiary and blade-bearing invaders were immediately upon her, tackling her to the ground, while a pair of the lumbering missile carriers were right behind her.

           
"You cheating bastards!" Ranma growled as she thrashed. Already two of the squids on her had been killed. One was gutted by her tail while the other made the mistake of wandering under her eyes. She was less angry at the trap and more the Squids had sprung theirs first.

           
Ranma flicked her hands over and sliced through the two squids that were trying to pin her arms down. Blades flailed and slashed against her sleeve's Kevlar weave but one managed to stab through. Using a wing, she pushed herself into a tumbling roll and slid under one of the heavy missile squids.

           
Her claws sprung out and she sliced through a sensor cluster while her tail battered along the creature's barrel-like body. Writhing mono-filaments scoured the armor and with flickering sparks and the scream of tortured metal, tore several steaming holes in the alien's environmental suit.

           
Clearing the screeching being, she popped into a crouch and punched another squid with an open palm strike. Five claws sunk into the alien's "head" and it violently shuddered firing off incendiary rounds as she wrenched it to the side.

           
Rising up, she kicked one squid, knocking it over. Drawing her pistol she gave a quick pirouette, and fired a sweep at the lunging creatures. Over half a dozen 500 S&W rounds were fired, and each hit a grasping, grappling squid at the base of the cluster of sensor organ tendrils at the front of their bodies.

           
Finishing the elegant spin, she popped out the spent magazine, rammed a fresh one in, and stomped on the squid she had originally kicked. Vomiting blue and black fluid one of the "head"-shot squids rose up.

           
A blast of incendiary rounds burst out and slammed into her skirt. Kevlar began to smolder and some ceramic plates rattled. Gasping, she shot another team of squids, while she kicked the interloper.

           
However, its tentacles sprung out, and wrapped around her right leg. Securely gripping Ranma, the creature began to cut through her boot at the ankle. Screaming, Ranma arced her leg up and slammed it into the missile rack of the dying refrigerator-sized squid to her left. Red and black armor crumpled.

           
The remaining missiles in the rack detonated. The blast flashed, shrapnel shot out, and Ranma was blinded. One shard of metal crossed next to her right eye while a smaller piece lodged right into her left. She felt a wrenching pain as the squid was torn from her leg and her body was once again knocked to the side.

           
Her horns throbbed as she momentarily focused on her other senses. She could smell the old-mint and sulfur of the enemy; she could feel their buzzing, pressing wills. Her second pair of horns had slid out and proudly curled ram-like on the sides of her head.

           
Gunfire was all around her. It sounded like the Canadians were holding their position. There was a burst of heavy machine gun fire and she felt a group of squids about to flank her get torn apart.

           
There were plenty more; they mobbed her. Tail, wings, and claws lashed out. She concentrated less on killing them and more on disabling and diverting. She blinked and like a nightmarish tear, a long sliver of metal popped free. Her eyesight just returning, she tossed another squid and tried to rise to her feet.

           
The demon screamed in pain, and nearly stumbled. She glanced down; she saw that it was not just a squid that had been blown off of her leg. Leaning on her good foot, she narrowed her eyes and a pair of purple beams shot out. Squids fell before her in a wide twitching arc. Her head swam.

           
Another blast of incendiaries hit her in the vest which tore open exposing her composite plate armor. Kevlar began to burn through and the skin on one of her hands began to blacken. The burning material oozed down, and a couple ceramic plates on her skirt broke loose and tumbled onto the squishy floor.

           
Her stomach screamed in protest; her earrings throbbed. Ranma gutted a pair of squids to her left, tried to reform her missing foot, and then turned to shoot the swarm leaping from her right. In the center of that mass was one of the lumbering refrigerator-sized creatures.

           
She turned too slow. The gun fired; the bullet was heavy and, for a handgun, very powerful, very fast. However, it was still slower than the 7.62 NATO rounds the Canadians had for their rifles. Instead of slicing through the micro-weave of the squid's armored environmental suit, the bullet deformed, slowed, and then pierced through the suit. It still left a tumbling wound track but only wounded the creature instead of blowing through its organs.

           
The manic, pained alien wrapped its tentacles around her arm. The creature found the tear on her sleeve, slipped a bladed appendage in, and ripped down the length of her forearm.

           
Its companions then fell upon her. Claws and beams shot out while her tail thrashed and her remaining boot stomped. Aflame, and chewed apart she still managed to scythe through the squids.

           
Then the lumbering giant flopped down onto her. There was a sickening crunch and the demon screamed. Her chest was pounded by pressure worse than a Gustav going off next to her in a confined hallway. Ribs snapped; armored plates buckled; organs mashed.
           
Howling, Ranma's eyes flared. A twin gouts of flame shot from her flayed arms. The heavy creature squirmed as alien plate and woven armor boiled and burned through. Its thrashing grew when the Canadians shifted their fire.

           
Tracers splashed against the creature's hide as a machinegun tore into it. There was another sproing-like thud of the recoilless gun going off followed by a flat explosion. The demon gave a wet, mushy scream as the weight doubled on her chest then suddenly relented.

           
Vision blurred she found herself being dragged away as familiar and human scents filled her nose. A pair of soldiers had taken her harness and dragged her away while the rest of MacDowell's men gave cover fire.

           
A medic rushed over to her and froze for a moment. The pale woman's ribcage was crushed, her entrails spilling out; she should not be alive, let along attempting some rude joke of breathing. Gasping, the demon held up a hand before rolling over and vomiting a gout of black smeared blood with pulpy pink chunks.

           
The ropey fluid splattered onto the concrete with an iridescent purple sheen. The demon's breath caught as her chest creaked, popped and rose a bit higher with each pained labored breath. She tossed off a shattered canteen and munched on a mashed ration-bar. As she was dragged off she eyed the medic's kit.

           
"You've got any blood... or plasma?" the demon wheezed hoping her nose was wrong.  Silver dripped down her limbs and oozed out of her broken torso.

           
"Upstairs at the station..." the medic hesitated watching the blood swirl around the demon's mangled limbs. The woman's er foot was slowly forming back and tight skin was knitting on her arms.

           
"Light Off. Light Off," Bonhomme declared in a loud steady voice that distant and distorted in Ranma's headset. A part of her was surprised that her comms had survived in any shape. She blinked at the familiar tingling of an active Jammer field.. It seemed that had survived as well.

           
Above them Bonhomme spared a glance at his emplacement and grinned. Concrete could be a pain to work with... that is unless you cheated. Concrete was heavy, it took a lot of momentum to move; it was prone to fracture, which also absorbed energy.

           
But... it was not solid. Not in buildings anyway. Holes had to be cut for electrical conduits, for water pipes, for ventilation. The latter were especially handy since they were already pockets of air.

           
 "Fire in the Hole," Bonhomme shouted with something akin to glee. The squids had holed up in a power vault. A room full of generators. Generators that needed plenty of air and had to vent a lot of exhaust. Sure the vents were small and secured from infiltration, but they were not that small.

           
There was an explosion.

           
It was not particularly loud. Especially not when it was a couple dozen meters away and separated by several concrete walls. However, it did come with a cracking, earthquake like vibration as a couple tones of poured concrete flooring broke loose and fell.

           
The squids had concentrated their forces where the walls of reality were thinnest. Protected on all sides by several heavy squads with missile-support the former power vault was also guarded by stabilization drives that had been pulled through the rift.

           
And Corporal Richard Bonhomme had blasted a rough meter and a half wide hole in the roof right above them. An exhaust vent had been cut into and stuffed with explosives. The remnants of which hung listlessly from the ceiling cables.

           
Before the smoke could clear, elements of Beta team rushed forward and, standing at the crumbling edge fired tube-launched rockets right through the hole. They were then followed by a squad launching their 40mm grenades.

           
Behind them, Bonhomme ran up lugging a bulging, jangling duffle bag that he had tied his half empty demolitions satchel onto. Corporal Green was helping him carry the massive bag. The demolitions man bore a serene if manic grin. Green, for her part, was a bit worried.

           
His comrades were already withdrawing from the smoking hole. They seemed more afraid of him than the incendiary fire coming up towards them.

           
The duffle bag was full of loose hand grenades, rifle grenades, a belt of machine gun ammunition, some shaped charges, a couple Carl Gustav rounds that he'd gotten from Bishop, a pair of warheads stripped out of helicopter rocket reloads he had stolen, and whatever else he had managed to stuff inside.

           
Compared to that, his satchel was simply a bunch of blocks of plastic explosives with a remote detonator. However, it had been tied to the duffle bag using det cord. With a heave he tossed the explosive kludge over the lip of the hole, spun on his heel and started running back. Pulling the detonator out of his harness, the soldier sniggered.

           
Near the doorway that gave some cover he tripped on a bit of greasy concrete. Green and one of the jammer technicians from Beta team picked him up. Bonhomme hardly noticed as he turned back towards the crater. "Fire in the hole!"

           
He took out a remote, flicked back the molly-guard, and pressed the detonator.

           
The satchel detonated. As it blew, a concussive flame-front knocked apart the various explosive odds and ends that had been stuffed into the duffle bag. Some immediately detonated, while others, like the helicopter rockets, took a bit longer to cook off.

           
Sounds of rippled explosions and squalling shrieks came from the hole. The detonations destroyed stabilization equipment, containers, and Squids alike. Greasy smoke smelling of charred mint rose in a meandering plume.

           
Beta team cycled the power on the bulky jammer that had been wheeled in and called in the other units. There was a deep vibration that rose in pitch like an electric motor under a heavy torque-load. The demolitions specialist could almost feel his teeth shake.

           
Suddenly a metallic twang echoed up from the hole and the vibrations dampened down. As he was lifted up by Green, Bonhomme no longer felt like his fillings were about to come loose.

           
"Did we get it?" Green asked as she looked towards the hole.

           
Bonhomme shrugged. "A bit above my pay grade." He tapped his headset.

           
Seeing the destruction, Warrant Officer Francis Young turned and nodded to Sergeant Olsen Brummet. The Sergeant and a few corporals under him made for the stairs. The enemy was bound to be angry, and the troops down below would probably appreciate some reinforcement.

           
"This is Bonhomme, package has been delivered, but has not been signed. Repeat. Delivered. Not signed."

 

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

 

           
In the sublevel, the remaining squids... hesitated. The incendiary strikes had trickled off and they backed away from the intruders. The remnant hovered over the broken, battered bodies of their comrades. Many were pulped with blood leaking out of holes in their suits.

           
Others had sections torn away exposing blue-green skin to the toxic, alien atmosphere. They tried to drag their wounded back, but still left plenty of matte black, blue and red armor and gleaming white weapons pods.

           
Confused communications bounced between them. The gateway had been closed. The insidious presence of this world pressed even harder upon them. They were trapped.

           
Armored vest torn apart, ribs shattered arms stripped, hand and foot mangled, the demon pulled herself up. A couple empty IV packets fell down. Exhaling she coughed up thick bubbles; her lungs were ripped up and the rest of her organs were not much better.

           
The queasy buzzing in her head had been replaced by a different vibration, one that flickered about her horns. Despite the bleeding from her scalp, her head had cleared. Without the interference, she could feel her family stronger than before. Other connections popped up as well.

           
 Ranma gasped, inhaled, and then lazily smiled.

           
Wobbling, she rose up on one foot. Seeing the Squids flick their "heads" back towards the gateway, her grin turned feral. "Yeah! That's how WE do a diversion yah boneless bastards!"

           
She exhaled, coughed, then whispered "Earth Power Make-Up!"

           
Her hair began to flare about as violet flames sprung up and her aura rekindled. Silver began to bleed into the purple flames and a four pointed silver star flared on her forehead.

           
Liquid silver light began to pour out from her skin as shadows billowed out from her hair and wings. Darkness eagerly bounded across the floor, pouring over the dead and dying Squids.

           
Silver coated her Kevlar bodysuit and began to infiltrate the weave, repairing and filling in. The coating reached her limbs and her body shuddered as her healing flared. There was a shortage of raw materials but the magic could make do with what it had.

           
Retreating, gravid shadows left the stripped, mint-smelling barrel-shaped bodies of the invaders in their wake. Dark, violet tinged shadows swirled around gleaming silver.

           
Giving a toothy smirk, the succubus straightened her right leg. Billowing hair pulled back, split to either side and began to braid and wind around her rear-most pair of horns.  Her body flowed and reduced in height and size, the excess flesh being greedily consumed by her burning muscles and organs.

           
A long, slightly stiff, navy blue skirt extruded out of the shadows. Made out of a dense, strong weave the matte-blue material ran down to above her ankles. There dark, almost bronze, red shin guards had formed. Gold crescent moons shined on the guards.

           
 Polished, almost pearlescent white, a bodice-like armored vest molded around her torso. Thicker than her composite amour, it had the ceramic insets built-in instead of separate plates.

           
More of the blue armored material formed a protective collar and tiered shoulder pieces. Beneath the blue cloth armor pauldrons, her gleaming, almost wet-looking, chest armor went up to her neck where it buckled in place. The heavy clasp at the neck bore a four pointed amethyst star over the Willard International Consulting logo in silver set in an obsidian backing.

           
Sleek, smooth green-trimmed gauntlets made of white armor matching her sculpted chest-piece went from her elbows to the tips of elongated, pointed fingers. Sparkling purple flames flared down the lengths of the long, claw-like digits.

           
All together this made her face and ears the only exposed skin on her entire body. Even her thick silver woven under-armor was only visible between her gloves and tiered pauldrons and on the bits of her legs not covered by her skirting or her crimson leg guards.

           
 Flashing bright silver fangs, she stomped down a gleaming silver hoof echoing across the concrete floor. Thickly swaddled in ribbons of crimson armor, her lengthened tail lazily looped behind her. Having grown at least longer than she was tall, it ended in an array of bow-like fins, all extruding razor-sharp filaments.

           
A gleaming heart-shaped ruby adorned the tip of her tail, centering the nest of armor and cutting threads. Its twin formed the center of a little bronze bow pinned above her left breast. A deep green v-shaped belt wrapped around her waist. Secured in a glossy blue-green, and mint-smelling, thick leather holster was her SSP.

           
The giant handgun had been polished to a gleaming silver and its grips were a pearly white similar to her bodice. The rest of her equipment and ammo had been moved to various pouches along the belt.

           
 The one exception was her jammer rig. The dull-red oval stone formed the center of a diadem-like gold tiara on her forehead. Her little curving forward horns had been integrated into the crown and had been gilt.

           
 Woven silver and violet braided cables branched from the tiara and to a pair of pointed hair buns that alternated between braids of white-gold and ruby red tresses.

           
The cables wrapped around the horns and then both were covered by the buns. Little green bows summited the horn-buns. A pair of ponytails tumbled out nearly reaching the floor and brushed against her skit and hooves. A matching pair of green bows tied off the ends of the ponytails.

           
 The jammer antennae had been woven down the braided length of the long white gold and ruby ponytails, making them easily triple the length of the chest-mounted antennae. And her horns throbbed, now being able to directly feed the jammer channels, instead of the earlier remote transmission of demonic energy.

           
Cheeks hollow, her face looked as it if had been dusted silver, especially the elongated points of her ears and the contrastingly glossy metallic-plum lips. Her sharp, almost bony chin also gave a stark division against the unaccented curves of her bodice armor and the rounded flare around her billowing pleated skirting.

           
"Move up!" MacDowell ordered as JTF2 troopers began to filter past the succubus. "Get that Tahnee MG in place! Adams eyes up front!"

           
A trooper paused and looked up and down the length of Ranma's form. As if in a light breeze, her ponytails swayed. He could feel the buzzing pressure coming from them. It felt like standing next to a vehicle-mounded jamming station. Bemused, she nimbly, almost daintily stepped aside.

           
Sherrise Tahnee looked back at the tiny silver succubus. She shook her head and focused on checking her rifle's ammunition linkage. Let the higher ups deal with the crazy magic demons.

           
Sergeant MacDowell slapped Adams on the back. "Yeah she's got hooves, don't act like you haven't seen those before. "

           
Ranma watched the tall soldier pass before turning back to MacDowell. He could have sworn he saw her tongue dart out for a split second. She stayed to one side to let the rest of his men pass. Her smile quirked at the appreciative if... confused looks she got.

           
It was then that Sergeant Olsen Brummet had caught up with the rearguard. He blinked and went to MacDowell. Corporal Lily Green and several other troops were at his heel.

           
Lily peeled off to the side and found Corporal Giddings. "Cord what the hell's going on?"

           
Cordell Giddings exhaled. "The more she fights, the more she burns out, the more she..." he shrugged. "You grab any smokes from that dapper Lieutenant topside?"

           
Lily patted him on the shoulder and watched the other troops try to make it past the demoness and into position.

           
Eyes down, one trooper, Winston, almost tripped over her long looping tail. Cheeks flushing a pinkish silver, she pulled the thick appendage over so it hugged the wall. However, the end of the tail still curled off to one side and hung in midair like an alert cobra.

           
For his part, MacDowell stared. It was not the armor, or even the demonic extras. He had seen enough magical girl silliness, and he had seen her with hooves and extra horns before. But forcing himself to look into her slitted violet eyes, he had never seen her this... hungry.

           
"Such polite boys," she said after Jones and Bishop passed. She ran a long finger over the shaft of their Carl Gustav recoilless.

           
"Secure the next position! These bastards may be on the run, but they're gonna regroup and they'll be pissed! Now Olsen brought some more of his boys and girls, which means that the brass think things are going to get even worse!" MacDowell ordered.

           
He then leaned in towards the demoness. Standing on hooves, at the tips of what had been feet, her height had increased and her head was now just a bit below his. "Red, I know today's been... you wanna go back and watch the wounded?" It had not been quite the meat-grinder he had feared, but there were more than enough burns and KIAs.

           
Uncertainly flickered across the demon's eyes for a split second.

           
"Are you contained?" he asked, after discretely making sure his headset was live. If the mercenary's pet slipped a gear, then the least he could do was ensure the officers listening to the command channel knew about it.

           
The flames went out on the fingers on her left hand. She reached up and cupped his chin. Wriggling her hips she straightened her knees and ankles to eke out a few more centimeters of height. Silver flashed across her sharp face as she licked her lips.

           
"My dear Sergeant, I am quite contained. That's why we're having this lovely chat instead of something even more... lovely." She gave him a quick kiss on the lips, and this time MacDowell was certain that her tongue had darted out.

           
"But your concern is most appreciated," she said spinning on one hoof and marching up to the next position.

           
Stunned, MacDowell watched her for a couple paces and wondered if she was deliberately swaying her gait or if that was just how her new legs worked. He radioed a quick status and caught up to her.

           
She glanced back and smirked. "Status? I heard the package has been delivered but-"

           
"Not signed," MacDowell completed. Bonhomme's bomb had destroyed the counter-jammers but there was no confirmation that the gateway was down. "What about your..." MacDowell gestured to her tiara with its dull-red jammer gem.

           
"I'm not getting any pushback. It could be due to the upgrades on my gear."

           
MacDowell eyed the swishing long armed clothe skirt and the waving two-tone meter and a half long ponytails "Upgrades. Right."

           
"I'm thinking we need to see if the package has been signed."

           
Signaling to his men, MacDowell nodded. His team was still at half strength.

           
Ranma tapped the little bow above her left breast. The heart-shaped center gem glowed and a tiny bone-white ruby-tipped headset flashed over one pointed silvery ear. "Sifton? Major?"

           
MacDowell kept his face neutral. At least she had a headset. Voices coming out of that little bit of magical girl frill it would be a bit much.

           
"Good work Red, William." Sifton's voice drawled.

           
"Sir, " Sergeant Billy MacDowell replied.

           
"The few bastards topside are freaking out. I think they know they're cornered. I'm sending in everything we've got."

           
Ranma's slitted pupils widened. "Everything?"

           
There was hesitation in Sifton's voice. "Everything... I've got. I don't think we'll need the good Agent Gagnon's help today."

           
MacDowell had caught up and was even with the demon. He wondered what Gagnon and those other spooks had cooked up. What they had that the Major, who had let a demon loose, was reluctant to use.

           
Ranma exhaled. She did not know exactly what were the Options that Agent Gagnon had offered Major Sifton, but she knew that they were on the more extreme end.
"And the Fifth NH?" she asked, amused that a brood of mercenary demons were one of the more mundane "options" at hand.

           
"Fifteen out," Sifton grumbled. "There was a delay, something about teleportation risks being too much and them going back into the air." Five hundred kilometers was a frustrating distance. It took a couple hours for helicopters to make that distance, half that for a jet plane.

           
Even the fastest transport jets would still take a half hour to make that time, and while those mercenaries did have such high speed business jets; one was not at their Toronto base at the time.

           
Ranma grinned, she missed her daughters. They should be here. She touched on her connection with her brood, her family, and it was getting stronger. They were coming. "Good, they can help keep a lid on things. We'll push on through down here."

           
"And we'll catch whatever tries to run out," the Major agreed. "Sifton, Out."

           
"Red, Out." The tip of a long clawed finger tapped the heart gem above her left breast. Her tail trailing behind her like a crimson kite, the clopped forward. Her dress slowly swished reflecting its armored weight.

           
MacDowell also signed off and switched back to his team's channel.

           
"Shall we?" Ranma turned to the Sergeant. "You and your men have had a bad enough day, let's finish this." The bowed and finned tip of her tail drifted forward and brushed past MacDowell's hip and thigh before settling just below the demon's waiting hand.

           
The sergeant's mind sharpened. He had casualties, at least three KIAs. A good third of his team. She knew it too. It was then that he saw what her... flirting really was. MacDowell looked the demoness in the eye. "I'm not sure you're fully contained... Ma'am. You're leaking a bit."

           
"I know," Ranma exhaled. Something other than playful hunger entered her eyes. Her embarrassment and fear were pushed aside.

           
 Her stomach growled. It was a deep, churning, needy noise. The demoness looked away from MacDowell and down towards the Front. Swallowing, the purple star on her forehead flashed and the silver dusting on her face increased.

           
Now her pointed ears were fully silver and it looked like she used a metallic foundation on her cheeks. This made the silver under-armor visible on her upper arms and lower legs look less like armor and more like a gleaming, stiffer type of skin.

           
Sporadic gunfire had resumed head of them, but there was none of the tell-tale crackle of the enemy's incendiary weapons.

           
Meter-long white and purple claws idly scratched the tail-head. A blissful smile grew contrasting with her gaunt, taunt cheeks. "Now that we've got a second wind let's show our guests a proper greeting," she purred before darting forward, past MacDowell and towards the forward lines.

           
MacDowell almost whistled. She was more agile than he had expected. Her lopping, almost cantering, gait continued. Despite her legs never going fully "straight" she rapidly put distance between them. Her long skirting was no encumbrance to what must be powerful legs.

           
 He wondered if it was because of how her ankles were higher up due to her hooves, or if it was because she had to walk on "tip toes". He was pretty sure the Major would know. He had grown up around horses and other hoofed animals.

           
Many paces ahead, the demoness slowed, turned back, and gave the Sergeant a grinning wink and a beckoning claw.

 

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

 

           
 Less than a hundred kilometers south of Ottawa was the town of Brockville. There the cyborg and the assassin swapped cars. While Mal picked up a rental car he had reserved under an assumed name, Shest drove to a self-storage facility and parked it next to some boats, cars, and other vehicles being stored for long term.

           
In less than half an hour, a black two-door compact car was driving down the 401. Mal was behind the wheel and had the radio on.

           
Shest gave the frenetic French language news broadcast a cursory listen.

           
"Are you going to call?" Mal asked. His tone was gentle, almost jovial, but Shest was well-aware of the hidden barb.

           
"Giving me orders now?"

           
The large man turned slightly. Even divested of his ugly suit, Mal still looked the brute. "Heaven forbid." He gave a mocking smile.

           
Shest glared. She knew he no more believed in heaven than she did.

           
His attention returned to the road. "But maybe you should consider my advice. I did warn you against firing that Pulse."

           
"I didn't have a choice!" Shest's eyes flashed. She did not relish the idea of having to spend at least five more hours on the road with this man.

           
"Perhaps." Eying the road, Mal let his shoulders drop. "At least we achieved our primary goal."

           
Shest glared at the man. She reached to the bags between her feet and checked that the jammer core was still present. She then went to one of the bags that had been stashed in their previous car and pulled out a pre-paid cell phone still in its plastic packaging.

           
She slit the clamshell packaging apart, pulled out the phone, and inserted the battery. Once it booted she popped open a cover on the side and ran a cable from the data jack to a plug just above her wrist.

           
She engaged her communications system, dialed a long number that routed through several phone switches, and connected. Only after she received the proper handshake and password did she open the one digital time pad Arisha had given her during the mission briefing.

           
It was nothing more than a long text file full of random strings of numbers that were demarcated into little time blocks. There was a brief check as she made sure her internal clock was synchronized with her caller's.

           
Each block was then used in sequence to encode the voice data before being transmitted. As long as no one else had a copy of the file, and they did not repeat any of the time blocks, it made for an unbreakable code.

           
However, its presence as an encoded message was somewhat obvious, which made it less than desirable from a statistical signals analysis standpoint.

           
There was a hiss on the line almost as if someone was breathing.

           
Shest wondered who would answer. Arisha and Desyat were busy working with their Bulgarian mercenaries today, but they might pick up if they were on break. The thought of talking to the former filled Shest with dread.

           
Ideally, she was hoping that Sem would answer. The other girl hated using the one time pads and would make the conversation as brief as possible. Shest would not have minded Dve'nadtsat either, though she would have felt a bit guilty at interrupting her research.

           
"Combat Cyborg Klara Shest what were you thinking?" Galina A'deen's voice transmitted.

           
"There were complications. I completed the mission." Shest replied back. Her heart sank. She would have preferred dealing with Arisha. While their group's second in command was more vehement and... political she was also more understanding of failure.

           
"Complications you say?" Galina's transmission sounded like it should be accompanied with a snort. "I should scoop out your brains and strip you down for parts. Dve'nadtsat could always use a spare set of eyes for example."

           
Shest closed her eyes. "If that is the best use for me."

           
Mal took his eyes from the road. He saw her distress and gave a tiny chuckle.

           
"Like you would bow down and let me slice open your skull." Galina paused. "Maybe you would. You acquired the core?"

           
"I completed the mission."

           
"No you disobeyed orders, deploying a proscribed weapons system, and thus caused an international incident."

           
Shest could imagine Galina's grim, mocking smile, and see the taller cyborg give a thin laugh.

           
"An incident that we were ill prepared to exploit."

           
Shest exhaled. That was the true tragedy. Yes, she and Mal de Veste had unleashed alien horrors into a capital city, but they had done so without coordination. With a bit of planning the others could have made quite the mess as the Company tried to deploy their demonic and magical girl assets.

           
The pixie-haired cyborg frowned. The opportunity would have been sudden, yes, but there was still fighting going on in Ottawa there should have been time for the rest of the cyborgs to mount an attack. Maybe the Bulgarians would have been ill-positioned but there was a chance...

           
"Was Zaika moved?" If Tsukino had been sequestered somewhere then an attack would be futile. Ensuring that they could prevent such an egress was the whole point of Shest and Mal's mission.

           
"She is now, you might have crossed her."

           
Shest frowned. The Company was moving her to Ottawa? Of course they were, the mercenary's primary goal was, apparently, forestalling some kind of inter-dimensional invasion. Keeping Zaika, Tsukino, alive was key to that.

           
"I made a honey-pot," Shest muttered as she transmitted.

           
"Yes, if only I had known you were going to draw her towards a strange city..." Galina paused.

           
Scenarios played across Shest's mind. There were significant Canadian forces present, but if the Thracian Union was pre-positioned and had their heavy weapons ready...

           
"The opportunity had passed us by. Our sources indicate that the Red Demon was already deployed. In fact, you just missed her."

           
Shest's heart stopped. Galina's anger was still present, but there was wistfulness in her words as well. Wistfulness and jealousy. She knew her superior had unfinished business with the demon DarkStar. But she assumed that such... indulgences were contained.

           
"I did? That would have been troubling." Having helped install it, Shest knew all about the intelligence network they had emplaced around Toronto. How live was their confirmation that Tsukino had left the city? How heavy was her guard? Could a handful of cyborgs had attacked her on the runway?

           
Galina's comment about Shest and Mall passing her indicated that Tsukino had not simply been teleported into Ottawa. Shest's thoughts were interred by Galina's reply.

           
"Yes, I would have been out a jammer core and a valuable, if incompetent, asset."

           
The cyborg glanced over to the brutish man driving the car. There was a question she wanted to ask; one she was afraid to ask; one that would, no doubt, make de Veste laugh.

           
But it was a question that had begun to eat at Shest: Was Galina letting their mission drag, letting more of their number die, all in the hope of getting a second chance to fight DarkStar?

 

End Chapter 32

 

 

Author's Notes:

 

 I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Pale Wolf, Kevin Hammel, and Crimson Vixen.