Subject: [PMFFML] [FFML-R] [Fanfic][R1/2][Fusion] Battletech: The Saotome Gambit Part 29 [1 of 2]
From: Jamie and Bridget Wilde
Date: 3/4/2001, 9:04 AM

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                      The Ruins of Ryuugenzawa City
                            14:22 Local Time

     Pansuto Tarou's Hunchback stomped out onto the cracked pavement of 
the ruined colony town's main drag. He passed several deep pools of water, 
taking care to note their tactical use in case they ended up having to 
fight in this area. He did not know that they were craters formed by 
orbital bombardment at the time of the town's destruction, nor would he 
have cared. The Orochi network was preoccupied with the Commonwealth 
landing zones, as the regular flashes of light and dull booms of thunder 
on the horizon confirmed. 
     As he thought warm thoughts of the Commonwealth's annihilation, 
the sight of a Locust tromping past his Hunchback drew him up short. 
The pilot of the light 'mech had apparently missed seeing him as it 
rounded the corner of a ruined building. From the battlemech's distinct 
loping gait, and the fact that a Cameron Star was crudely painted on 
its hull, he decided that it could belong to only one person.
     "HAPPOUSAI!!!" he roared at the Locust, and fired his monstrous 
Tomodzuru Type 20 autocannon. The depleted uranium dart punched a 
neat hole through one of the SRM launcher pods projecting from the 
tub-like hull, and the force of the impact blasted it into glowing 
shards of hot metal.
     The Locust staggered with the hit, but did not fall over. It turned 
to face him as Kodachi and the rest of the lance moved to join him.
     "Well, I'll be!" Happousai replied over the commo. "Fancy meeting 
you here, eh, Monster Boy?"
     The use of Ryouga's hated sobriquet for him made his blood boil 
even hotter than before.
     "I'm here to kill you, Happousai!" he shouted back.
     The Locust darted off into the ruins. "Take a number and stand in 
line, loser!" Happousai cackled.
     Kodachi's Marauder fired a twin blast of PPC bolts at the fleeing 
Locust. The bolts burst apart a low wall just short of their target. Tarou 
stomped off in pursuit as she drew up alongside him.
     "Is this the man you were talking about earlier, lover?" she inquired 
sweetly of him.
     "The same," Tarou grunted. 
     "Would you mind if I tagged along?" she asked, eying him with an 
expression of faint amusement. 
     "Be my guest," Tarou replied tersely. "But remember that the final 
attack must come from me!"

           J. Austin Wilde and Fission Park Press proudly present:

                            PART TWENTY-NINE

                           by J. Austin Wilde
                     Super Critical Reactor Axe Man,
                           Fission Park Press

            The characters and situations of Ranma 1/2 are the 
               creation and property of Rumiko Takahashi and 
              Shogakukan/KITTY/Viz Video. Battletech and its 
             related materials are the property of FASA, inc.
               No infringement of copyright is intended nor 
              should be inferred by this work of fanfiction.

                              Chapter One

                         The DropShip _Palomino_
                          Ian Cameron Starport
                            14:15 Local Time

     Grand Duke Soun Tendo checked his cooling vest connections with the 
ease borne of long practice. Though it had been many years since the last 
time he had mounted up, he found that the old ways had come back to him as 
if it had only been yesterday. The sight of the Star League Warhammer and 
Victor standing tall under the camouflage netting that draped both the 
battlemechs and the DropShip filled him with a sense of exhilaration that 
he felt he did not deserve under the dire circumstances facing them.
     He watched as his eldest daughter Kasumi received a few last moment 
bits of advice from the tech who had prepped the Victor for action. Soun 
was glad at least to be accompanying her into battle. The helplessness he 
had felt during her ordeal on the moon of Oni had weighed heavily on him 
during the campaign, and even in the month of abrupt exile he had 
experienced at the hands of his middle daughter.
     He did not know what to do about Nabiki. If they managed to evade the 
Furinkan Combine and the Orochi network, then her reign as Regent over the 
Confederation would be ended. After that, he was unsure. He knew that many 
of his advisors would recommend that she be executed for treason, but could 
he order the death of his own flesh and blood? More than that, she was the 
child of his beloved late wife. Killing her did nothing to stop the Furinkan 
Combine, and in the end, would it make any difference?
     These were questions which preyed upon his mind as he climbed up the 
boarding ladder to the Warhammer's cockpit. Kasumi cast him a brief wave 
before buttoning up her hatch, which he returned in an attempt to convey 
a sense of jauntiness to the affair which bound them into a desperate 
battle. The _Tautog_ was about to commit itself to battle to prevent the 
Orochi satellite which pounded the planet from targeting the starport, and 
if were crippled or destroyed in the process, then only Captains Hauptmann 
and Ninomiya could hope to get them out of the system.
     "What are your orders, Father?" Kasumi asked him over the tac-net.
     "We'll wait here until your sister returns to rearm," he replied. 
Akane's message to the _Palomino_ stating her intention to do just that 
had come minutes prior to the shuttle's arrival at the starport. "Until 
then," he added. "We'll protect the DropShip from attack."

     Kasumi Tendo studied the cockpit controls of the Star League Victor 
to familiarize herself with their layout. The Star League Defense Force had 
mandated a set of standards for control systems to minimize the costs of 
training mechwarriors on different models of battlemech, and so it was just 
a matter of learning that the heat sink status board was to the left and over 
her head on the Victor, and not to the right and level with the control yokes 
as on her Atlas. The status board itself was nearly identical in layout and 
     The weapon systems on the Victor were similar to her Atlas, lacking 
only the LRM launcher, and downgrading the SRM launcher to a quad rack. 
The massive Pontiac 100 autocannon that was the Victor's primary armament 
took up the entire right arm, something she was not used to with her old 
mech, which retained two fully articulated hands. Her Victor could also 
jump, being one of the few assault class 'mechs to be outfitted with jump 
     While the capabilities of the 'mech would force her to alter her 
fighting style, she did approve of how neat and orderly the Victor's 
cockpit was. Most Inner Sphere 'mechs were untidy tangles of patchwork 
repair and modification, making them nightmares for technicians to service. 
It was a most agreeable battlemech, she decided.
     Her father's order to wait she found a little harder to accept. She 
wanted to see Akane again. It had been hard having her baby sister away 
for so long, and with Nabiki's betrayal, she needed to have as much of 
the family together and united under a common purpose as possible. She 
also wanted to ask her sister how she was getting along with Ranma, but 
knew that any answers were best left until things were quiet again. As 
far as she was concerned, Ranma and his parents were already part of the 
family, and she wanted him to be reunited with his mother after so many 
years apart. 
     The sounds of battle rolled in the distance. None of this was 
possible until after the fighting stopped, and there seemed to be no 
way to end the fighting without running from Ryuugenzawa, the prize that 
had given her so much hope over the last half year. Was it right to flee 
from the planet after so much sacrifice and hardship? What did all of 
the people who died on Oni give their lives for, if only to see the 
Confederation routed from the Ryuugenzawa System, and Tatewaki Kuno made 
the final victor?
     She was troubled by the answers she gave to herself, for they only 
generated more questions. It was so complicated, and all she really wanted 
to do was go home, find a sensible and hardworking young man, and raise a 
family with him. No matter what she wanted or deserved, Duty's clarion 
call would not release her to follow her dreams, and all she could look 
forward to in the next few hours was more carnage. 

                           *       *       *

                             Test Area 4-A
                            14:20 Local Time

     Ranma Saotome studied her enemies closely through the heavy brush and 
thick foliage provided by the local trees. The Musk Dynasty had been in 
disarray since the Orochi network had commenced a haphazard bombardment of 
their landing zones, but now it seemed as if they were starting to pull 
themselves together. It made her wonder if there wasn't someone important 
close by that was rallying them, someone that needed taking out.
     Akane's urgent voice on her transmitter remote squawked out over 
the white noise of rain falling gently in the trees. Ranma had the volume 
turned down low to avoid giving away her position while she observed the 
Musk forces, but felt uncomfortable ignoring her. From the sound of Akane's 
voice, she was probably getting worried about a lack of response, but it 
couldn't be helped. Ranma's Scout instincts were strong, and Scouts did 
not give away their position with pointless radio transmissions to reassure 
their worried fiancees.
     The absence of Ryouga was bad enough news, she supposed. She had 
heard Akane and the others calling for the lost boy on several occasions, 
all without success. Had the dope gotten lost again? It took all of her 
willpower not to leave her position and go looking for him, because if 
she could take out the guy who was in charge of the Musk Dynasty landing 
force, she might be able to keep them off balance for the rest of the 
battle - or at least as long as it took to fix the DropShip and get the 
hell off this mudball.
     A white Crusader strode into view, bearing several marks that 
indicated that its pilot ranked high on the Musk Dynasty food chain. 
Ranma tensed for a moment, feeling a twisting in her gut that this must 
be the one. The Crusader halted before a pair of mobile MASH vans and a 
coolant truck, the cockpit hatch opening as it stopped.
     She pulled out her magnigoggles and took a closer look. A young man 
with thick glasses perched atop a fall of long blue-black hair pulled 
himself out of the hatch as lackeys below him on the ground snapped 
salutes. Ranma shook her head ruefully. They should have known better 
than to salute in the field.
     The man apparently did, for he berated them for their foolishness. 
Ranma did not understand Chinese, but she knew when someone was getting 
their ass chewed, no matter what language was being used. There was no 
doubt now that this was the guy to whack.
     She didn't like to think of it as assassination as she slid down 
the wet grassy slope to the open cockpit of her concealed Super Phoenix 
Hawk LAM. Assassins worked their trade in peacetime, against political 
figures. This was war, and her target was an enemy military officer.
     It would be her first time at it, though. Her Pop had usually 
handled the job in the few instances when it had come up, with herself 
acting as a spotter and escort. She felt a little uneasy about killing 
someone with a battlemech's heavy pulselaser. It felt wrong, even 
     She swallowed hard and edged the LAM over the ridge. The long 
rifle-like heavy pulselaser projected from the underbrush. A gun-camera 
mounted over the focusing optics fed the targeting computer, and 
projected an image of the scene beyond in a window on her HUD. Centered 
in the reticle was the man in indigo robes and the long dark hair. He 
looked vaguely familiar to Ranma, and it took several moments to realize 
that this was the man who had arrested them on Capra, and who had been 
present in the jail with Shampoo.
     Mousse. The man whose baby Shampoo was going to have.
     Now she felt really uneasy about killing him like this. Killing an 
enemy was a regrettable if oftentimes necessary fact of war, but all her 
enemies had been so impersonal before now. Squeezing the firing stud on 
Mousse would not only end the man's life, but orphan his unborn child at 
the same time.
     Ranma's finger eased off the trigger. She took a deep breath and 
then let it out slowly. She couldn't do it. Not like this.
     Maybe she'd better go look for Ryouga instead.

                           *       *       *

     Mechwarrior Colonel Mousse started in surprise as a white and silver 
Phoenix Hawk LAM blasted out of the treeline a scant hundred meters from 
his position. He dropped through his cockpit hatch without a second thought, 
ready to fight the intruder, when he realized that it was leaving the area 
at high speed. He bit back a curse and watched the LAM transform to Fighter 
Mode, knowing now that he had more than just the Black Rose to deal with. 
The Cameron Star of the SLDF had adorned that fighter, which meant that 
there was probably a force of indigenous mechwarriors protecting the planet 
- probably the same ones who directed the Orochi network, the ones whose 
signals his men were still trying to pinpoint. Any survivors from the 
_Dragonfly_ were probably helping them in their work, though he was tempted 
to write that thought off as wishful thinking on his part. His hope that 
Shampoo might yet live was clouding his judgement.
     They had to be close by, as the Orochi seemed to be preoccupied with 
his troops and not with the Black Rose's forces in the east. What few 
Direction Finder fixes his SIGINT people had been able to establish 
supported that theory, but the lance of Dragons he had sent out to 
investigate had failed to find anything more than an ambush that left 
all but one 'mech destroyed.
     General Herb's DropShip would be landing shortly, he thought to 
himself. He can handle the rest of the regiment. It's time I investigated 
these signals personally. Again, he questioned his real motivation for 
wanting to search, and found only Shampoo in his innermost thoughts.
     "<Captain Lime,>" he called over the tac-net.
     The beefy, somewhat obdurate face of Lime appeared on the display.
     "<Yes, my lord Colonel?>" It was obvious from his tone that he was 
still bitter about Mousse's rapid advancement in the ranks of the Musk, 
and especially because he was not a hybrid like so many others in the 
     "<Send General Herb my regards, and inform him that I have gone to 
investigate the signals we discussed in an earlier transmission. All units 
have regrouped by company, and are proceeding to their ordered objectives 
without contact.>"
     Mint appeared next to Lime on the display. "<What are you up to, lord 
Colonel?>" he asked in a threatening tone.
     "<I follow my orders,>" Mousse replied curtly. "<General Herb has 
instructed me to find and capture the source of those signals, and that 
is what I shall do. Now follow your *own* orders!>"
     Mint saluted grudgingly, and disappeared from the display. Lime 
followed without a word.

                           *       *       *

                The forest surrounding Ian Cameron Starport,
                4 kilometers east of the DropShip _Palomino_
                            14:30 Local Time

     The former Federated Shiratori general opened her eyes. Akane Tendo 
and Doctor Tofu were kneeling at her side in the mud. The rain had slowed 
to a gentle sprinkle around her, though she was soaking wet.
     "I'm all right," she managed. Looking up, she could see the three 
battlemechs of Akane, Doctor Tofu, and Genma Saotome standing over her.
     "What happened?" Akane asked her, her voice filled with emotion. "Are 
you sure you're okay?"
     Concern from her rival was not what she was expecting, but it was 
welcome. She brushed away wet chestnut bangs of hair from her eyes and 
tried to stand. The cold and damp made her joints stiff and sore, and she 
did so only with a little help from Doctor Tofu.
     "Got in a little scrape with the Black Rose regiment," she said in 
a quiet voice. She gestured to the Griffin which lay over the top of her 
Hatchetman. "This one here fell on top of me after I took out his partner."
     Tofu followed the line of toppled trees to see the steaming wreckage 
of a Wolverine. 
     "You destroyed both of them by yourself?"
     "Plus a Phoenix Hawk about two hundred meters that way," she replied, 
pointing. "I think the last 'mech in the enemy lance left me for dead."
     Akane put a steadying hand on her shoulder. "You don't look so good," 
she observed.
     "I'm fine, honey," Ukyou replied, shrugging off the suggestion that 
she wasn't fit for combat. Her pride would not allow it. "I think I got a 
little shaken up in the fall, and I know I'm a little tired, but I can hack 
it. I just need some help pulling this Combine wreck off my Hachetman."
     Genma's Orion, privy to the conversation with his directional mics, 
leaned forward to oblige. The heavy 'mech nudged the fallen Griffin over 
with its foot. The sight of the battle-spatula bisecting the bubble cockpit 
canopy and the blood that was splattered everywhere inside from the bisected 
pilot must have been a grim reminder to the elder Saotome of the hazards of 
operating a Griffin.
     "Remind me not to get on your bad side, Ukyou," Akane joked weakly at 
the grisly sight.
     Ukyou preferred not to be reminded of it herself. "Did you get ahold 
of Ranchan or Ryouga?"
     "No," Akane replied, her expression dimming. "There hasn't been any 
word from either of them. I hope nothing has happened."
     Genma clicked on his external speakers. "I don't want to be rude, but 
your father is waiting for us at the DropShip, Akane. We should get back 
and rearm before the next attack comes."
     "We'll be right along, Mister Saotome," Akane replied. 

                              Chapter Two

                             NCWS _Tautog_
                    In orbit above planet Ryuugenzawa
                            14:32 Local Time

     "Conn, Sensory; Contact Echo Two-Nine bearing zero-four-five, plus 
eight-eight. Range: four-zero thousand kilometers."

     Olivera sipped from his coffee, which had grown cold since the last 
time he had it filled. 
     "Very well, Sensory," he replied in a clipped voice. He had other 
concerns. The primary Orochi unit would keep for just a little longer, 
he was certain. Unit Three, on the other hand, was shifting its orbit 
slightly to remain in position over the starport area, and there were 
ominous indications from the control bunker on the surface that it had 
changed its targeting priorities.
     "Mark bearing and range to Echo Two-Five," he ordered.
     "Contact Echo Two-Five bears zero-zero-three minus zero-four," 
Sensory replied. "Range to target: two thousand meters."
     The Orochi satellite loomed before them, a baleful white oval on 
the main display. The image was without magnification. Olivera wasn't 
sure he wanted a closer look at it just yet.
     "How much closer, Tommy?" he asked his XO.
     The man lifted his head from the Fire Control station. "We need to 
be within five hundred meters to even have a shot at this with a torpedo."
     "Damn," Olivera cursed. "That's too close."

     "Conn, Sensory; Contact Echo Three-Zero now bearing zero-four-nine, 
plus eight-nine. Range: one hundred-thousand kilometers."

     Olivera's eyes swept over the holotank as the first of Prince Kuno's 
fleet entered the fray. They were going to take on the primary Orochi 
satellite, which given the circumstances, they were better suited for. 
He wouldn't mind if they destroyed the damned thing - so long as they 
were destroyed along with it.
     He wasn't going to bet either way. Arrayed against Prince Kuno's 
battleship and other escorts was the primary Orochi satellite and four 
of its lesser units. No matter which side won, the survivors would be 
hurting. The Confederation was counting on that to escape, but what if 
their enemies succeeded in destroying each other?
     It was a heady prospect, because Hauptmann wasn't the only one who 
wanted to see the Confederation profit from the Ryuugenzawa System. If 
the Grand Duke and his people on the surface were the last ones standing, 
then they would win the planet by default. Nabiki and her faction of 
spineless traitors couldn't hope to remain in power when His Grace 
returned in triumph to Nerima with the secrets of Ryuugenzawa in his 
possession, and if Kuno and his fleet were destroyed, there would be 
little to threaten their country as they rebuilt with the recovered 

     "Conn, Sensory; Echo Two-Five has fired upon the planet! The 
starport appears to be the impact point!"

     Sensory's announcement shocked him out of his speculation. "Has 
the _Palomino_ been hit?" he demanded.
     "No, Captain," a commo tech replied. "They are continuing to 
transmit to Lady Akane."
     "Then what was that thing shooting at?"
     "Unknown at this time," Sensory declared.
     He clenched his teeth. "Dammit... Tommy, we need to take a shot now, 
before that thing refines its aim."
     "A torp shot doesn't have much of a chance, even at two klicks, 
skipper," the XO declared.
     Olivera came to a decision, one that might cost them. "Chief of 
the Watch, raise the laser turrets. Fire Control, prepare to fire Guns 
One and Two."
     An electric tension filled the Bridge with these orders. Everyone 
understood that the Captain intended to take on the Orochi point blank 
in a slugfest they couldn't possibly win. Knowing this, they still 
followed their orders.
     "Chief of the Watch, aye."
     "Fire Control, aye."
     Olivera strapped himself to his chair. "Helm, stand by to execute 
full evasive maneuvers. Fire Control, prepare to fire at targets 
selected by Commander Thompson."
     The XO let out a deep exhale. "Pretty ballsy of you, skipper."
     Olivera set his coffee bottle in a mesh bag at his seat.
     "I'm getting tired of all this sneakin' and peekin'. If we don't make 
it through this, the Duke will still have the _Coronet_ to get him home."
     "Turrets One and Two are locked into position," the Chief of the 
Watch declared. "Stealth integrity compromised."
     "Targets acquired. Fire Control standing by."
     "Conn, Sensory; Contact Echo Two-Five has illuminated us with active 
search radar in T and X bands, gun-directing radar, and ultraviolet band 
     Olivera snapped his visor into place. "Let 'em have it, Fire Control."

     The _Tautog's_ two Naval Laser turrets spat out thready streams of 
light at the Orochi satellite. The beams struck the oblate saucer-shaped 
battlestation at top and bottom center, blasting what they hoped was its 
weak spots. 

     "Sensory, what's going on over there?" Olivera asked.
     "No effect, Captain," the Supervisor announced grimly. "All radar 
and commo systems seem to be online."
     "Well then, keep shooting, for Christ's sake!"
     The whine of the turrets firing above and below them echoed through 
the Bridge.

     The Orochi reacted to the presence of the corvette's attack as if it 
could feel the damage. Sensor arrays under fire trained upon the hostile 
ship, and with them tracked the fearsome guns in its arsenal.

     The _Tautog_ shook as a bolt of particle beam fire ripped along the 
port side hull.
     "Helm, negative three-zero degrees pitch, All Ahead Flank!" Olivera 
     "'F' Deck portside reports heavy damage," the Damage Control Assistant 
declared over the roar of shearing metal. "Engineering reports damage to 
Number Two Main Engine induction dampers. Maximum drive output reduced to 
four gravities of acceleration."
     "Very well, DCA," Olivera grunted. It was better than he had feared. 
They were still breathing.
     The ship began to accelerate, building up to punishing amounts of 
artificial gravity as the Orochi continued to shoot at them. A second beam 
creased their dorsal hull, ripping a swath through their heavy stealth-
lined superstructure.
     "Fire Tubes One through Six!" Olivera ordered over the noise of the 
engines and the strain of four gees. With any luck, the Orochi would waste 
some of its firepower on the Barracudas, and spare his ship some grief.
     The six Barracuda torpedoes launched with loud *thuds* in rapid 
succession from the electromagnetic catapult tubes aft and below the 
Bridge. Olivera watched the weapons on the telescope monitor as they 
raced on full burn towards the orbital battlestation. To his amazement, 
all six weapons hit the thing broadside, exploding deep into armor and 
blackening an entire side of the hull.
     The Helmsman commenced his one minute throttle-back on the engines 
to take some strain off the crew, and gave Olivera a chance to review the 
situation. "What's happening?" he asked Sensory.
     "I think we got at least one of the nodes, Captain!" the Supervisor 
     The Orochi continued to shoot at them, but now the beams were 
scattered and useless. 
     "We must have hit the ventral node hard enough to knock it out," the 
XO added. "The Orochi is firing its attitude thrusters to bring the dorsal 
node to bear on us so that it can track."
     Olivera turned to his Astrogator as the Orochi maneuvered. Beams 
splayed across the void between them as guns on the dorsal side of the 
saucer came to bear. One ripped across their bow, vaporizing a section 
of stealth-lined superstructure in a cloud of plasma.
     "Keep us out of that thing's entire dorsal hemisphere!" he shouted, 
knowing that to do so, they had to come even closer to the thing. "Fire 
Control, what is the status of reloading tubes one through six?"
     "Tubes One, Three, and Five are ready in all respects. Tubes Two, 
Four, and Six are pending. Port Torpedo Room reports manual reloads will 
take four minutes at the soonest."
     Olivera understood. "Fire Control, Vertical Salvo: Tubes One, Three, 
and Five. Fire Two, Four, and Six just as soon as they're ready," he 
ordered. "How about the Gun Turrets?"
     The corvette bucked as a laser beam stitched across its dorsal armor 
belt, sending displays crashing to static for a moment with the shock.
     "Gun Turret One is knocked out," Fire Control responded when the 
systems cam back online. "That last hit got it. Gun Turret Two is still 
     "Good enough. Helm, put on one-hundred eighty degrees left roll." As 
the corvette rolled, it would put its functional turret to bear on the 
     "Helm, aye."
     Olivera looked at his XO. "We might live through this yet."

                           *       *       *

                         Ian Cameron Starport
                           14:36 Local Time

     From the twisted wreckage of the quonset hut that Happousai had 
destroyed came a flicker of movement. A few pieces of rubble fell away 
from a secton of half-melted trusswork to reveal a small black pig, 
soaked with the rain and smeared with mud from crawling through the 
remains of the building. Its tiny grunts of pain and exertion went 
unheard over the patter of the storm.
     Ryouga had expected to die as the quonset hut collapsed on him, 
but as the building fell apart over his head, a splash of rainwater 
had turned him into his hated Jusenkyo body. That lucky accident had 
spared him as the rubble fell down, the surviving trusses piling up 
to form small pockets of safety that a man could never have used. It 
had taken all of his effort to free himself from his tomb of debris, 
but now as he tasted the clean air and felt the wind on his face, he 
let out a squeal of defiance at the man who had tried to kill him.
     He could see the low hill of camouflage netting that marked the 
_Palomino_ in the distance. It was much too far for a pig to travel, 
and especially so when that pig had no direction sense. He turned in 
a circle to see if Happousai had left his BattleMaster intact, and 
rejoiced when he saw it kneeling on one knee close by.
     He skittered across the wet, cracked tarmac towards his 
battlemech, where he would find a flask of hot water that would turn 
him back into a human. Then he would hunt Happousai down and kill 
the freak.
     The BattleMaster waited for him as he scrambled up the rain-
slicked arm to the torso, and from there, scrabbled into the cockpit. 
The 'mech was still online as he fumbled with his hooves to work the 
flask's flip-top lid open.
     Hot water spilled from the flask over his head, affecting his 
transformation. As he donned his neurohelmet and strapped himself 
into his ejector seat, he realized that he was naked. His shorts and 
cooling vest were still trapped under the rubble.
     With a blush, he realized that he would have to continue the battle 
in this condition. There wasn't time to rush back to the DropShip for a 
change of clothes, and he couldn't bear the thought of Akari accidentally 
seeing him in the buff.
     As the BattleMaster stood upright, he surveyed the area, looking for 
the footprints Happousai's Locust might have left behind. It was possible 
that his nemesis had fled to the south. He resolved to find out, but first 
there were a few things he needed to take care of.
     The BattleMaster stomped over to the ruins of the hut, then began 
pulling the debris off and casting it aside. The strongbox that held the 
Library Core had looked pretty solid, and there was a chance that in its 
armored pit it could have survived. Happousai must have thought so when 
he chose to bring down the building.
     He would recover the strongbox so that no matter what happened later, 
Happousai would not get his hands on it. It belonged to Akane, and to the 
Confederation he had sworn to serve, not to a greedy, murderous little 
monster like Happousai. He would see to that.
     He found it right in the center of the pile. With excessive care, he 
picked it up between two fingers and brought it up to the cockpit. He 
opened the armored canopy enough to stay out of the rain, and lifted the 
heavy box from his battlemech's grasp. Once the box was securely strapped 
into the rear seat, he sealed the canopy.
     The Treasure of Ryuugenzawa was his now. All he had to do was deliver 
it to the _Palomino._ Then he could go hunt down Happousai.

                           *       *       *

                      The Ruins of Ryuugenzawa City
                            14:40 Local Time

     "Come on out, Happousai," Pansuto Tarou's voice grated over the tac-net. 
"Stop running like the spineless old weakling you are, and face me."
     Happousai ignored the man's pathetic attempt to draw him out. Such a 
tactic might have worked on a knucklehead like Ranma or Ryouga, but he was 
smarter than that.
     His battlemech was crouched in the burned out shell of a school building, 
and he watched as more Black Rose 'mechs than he cared to see stomped past 
him out on the street. How Tarou had stumbled into Kodachi Kuno's camp and 
won her over, he did not know, but it seemed clear that Tarou had taken the 
secret of the Ryuugenzawa System's location with him when he parted ways 
with the _Dragonfly._ He had to admire the man's underhandedness, if nothing 
     His best bet was to wait out Tarou and let the battle progress. Kodachi 
would grow weary of the cat-and-mouse game soon, and wander off with her 
troops to go destroy something - like the _Palomino_ - and that would leave 
Tarou on his own. He knew he could take the chump, even in a damaged Locust.
As for the _Palomino,_ well, they should be finishing up the repairs about 
now. He didn't think they were in all that much danger.

     Kodachi gave a bored sigh. "Really, lover, if he intended to fight 
you, he would have done it by now. Let's go find Akane Tendo. Perhaps that 
will be the impetus to draw him out."
     Tarou snorted in reply. "The old goat could care less about Akane 
Tendo. It's his own skin he's worried about."
     Kodachi's Black Marauder put up its derringer-like forearms in a 
shrug. "Then what do you propose to do?" Her voice was edged with a touch 
of irritation.
     Tarou pointed to a cluster of buildings. "Smoke him out." He fired 
his arm-mounted medium lasers at one of the structures, pumping energy 
into it until the ruined husk collapsed in on itself. "He's hiding 
somewhere in this abandoned town. If we knock down every standing 
structure left, he'll have to come out."
     Kodachi pursed her lips in thought. "Very well, my lover. I shall 
indulge you. I'll send one battalion on ahead, and order the rest of my 
troops to begin razing the city." She arched an eyebrow at him, and her 
perfect white teeth nibbled playfully upon the haft of her riding crop. 
"Of course, it shall cost you later this evening."

                           *       *       *

                         The DropShip _Palomino_
                            14:45 Local Time

     Akane studied the steaming crater less than five hundred meters from 
the DropShip as she and her battered lance of battlemechs stomped out of 
the treeline. The shot had come from one of the Orochi satellites in 
low orbit, the one that had been pounding on the Musk Dynasty forces. She 
was glad the shot had fallen well short of the _Palomino,_ and wondered 
when the next one would come.
     A Warhammer and a Victor stood with weapons ready as they approached, 
and her heart began to swell with emotion. The two 'mechs had to be piloted 
by her father and eldest sister. 
     "Dad?" she called out over the tac-net. "Kasumi?"
     The face of Grand Duke Tendo appeared on her tac-net. He was wearing a 
neurohelmet, the first time she had seen him in one for ten years. "I'm here, 
Daughter. Your sister Kasumi is also here with me."
     She didn't know where she should begin, so Akane started with the 
questions closest to her heart.
     "Dad, you don't know how happy I am to see you and Kasumi, but why did 
you come, and what is this about Nabiki taking over the Confederation?"
     Soun cleared his throat to speak, for Nabiki's betrayal continued to 
sting. "To be brief, your sister Nabiki and some of the nobles relieved my 
of my authority," he replied, his voice thick with emotions he had suppressed 
ever since the coup. "Your sister and I were taken hostage, and were then 
rescued by loyalists. We've come here to return you to Nerima. Nabiki's reign 
as Regent is only temporary; as soon as you come home, she has to step down."
     Akane's eyes began to glisten with angry tears. Nabiki had gone too 
far. The surrender summit was bad enough, but to overthrow her own family 
and lock them up as prisoners? She had to escape from Ryuugenzawa and put 
things right!
     "As soon as the DropShip is ready, we'll lift off," she declared. Her 
battlemech came to a halt just outside the camouflage netting, where a 
handful of Akari's techs were waiting with ammunition to reload them. She 
popped her hatch and scrambled down the boarding ladder. Genma, Ukyou, and 
Doctor Tofu did the same, and were followed by Grand Duke Tendo and Kasumi.
     They met in the middle of the 'mech formation. Akane threw her arms 
around her father and squeezed him tightly, hugging him in a way she hadn't 
since she was a child. 
     "I missed you, Dad," she cried softly. "It's been hard without you and 
Kasumi around."
     "It was even harder for me," he replied. Kasumi was the quiet strength 
of the family, and Nabiki had been the wise voice of reason, but it was his 
youngest daughter who embodied the very spirit of the Tendos. He could see 
how much she had grown up in the last six months, and silently thanked 
Saotome for insisting that she accompany them on the expedition. Genma 
locked hands with him, as if sensing his thoughts.
     "It's good to see you, Tendo," Genma said to him.
     "You've done it, Saotome," he replied. "If it ever appeared that I 
doubted your ability to succeed, let me dispel those doubts now."

     Ukyou Kuonji watched the reunion in silence. She should have felt a 
little miserable at the sight of it since she was an outsider and seemingly 
all alone, but instead she felt a sense of pride and satisfaction. Akane 
and the others had shown in the past several days that she was more than 
simply useful baggage to them. She had become part of their team. When 
Akane and Doctor Tofu had come looking for her, it was because they cared 
about her.
     Yes, she was still hurting from losing Ranchan, but by her concern, 
Akane had made it clear that she was a friend in spite of their rivalry. 
Could she turn that aside out of petty jealousy? The answer was a very 
obvious no. Akane and the others counted on her, depended on her with 
their lives, and that was a relationship born out of trust and respect 
that could not be broken. 
    The Grand Duke and his family were part of that bond of trust that 
had formed, and so whatever the consequences of her birth, she now 
considered herself one of them, a member of the Nerima Confederation, 
all fighting the Combine and the Musk Dynasty together. She wasn't going 
to stand for the likes of Kodachi and Tatewaki Kuno tearing them apart, 
and there was no way in hell some lousy machine menace like the Orochi 
was going to, either.
     Akane released her grip on her father, and presented Ukyou to him 
as she came to that decision. 
     "Dad, this is Ukyou Kuonji, a friend of Ranma's." It was a bit of 
diplomacy on Akane's part to describe the relationship between them in 
that way, but she understood and accepted the reasons for it. "She's been 
a tremendous help in getting us the location of Ryuugenzawa."
     The Grand Duke offered his hand. "A pleasure," he replied. "Although 
I'm sorry that we had to meet under such difficult circumstances."
     She took his hand, unsure of whether she should kiss his ring or just 
shake hands. She decided to shake, and he seemed satisfied with that. His 
forthright nature appealed to her, and she decided that serving the man 
as a mechwarrior was the right choice to make.

     Doctor Tofu Ono wrung his hands anxiously as he stepped up to speak 
to Kasumi. She was an angel standing there in her cooling vest, clutching 
her neurohelmet under her arm. She was the reason he had become a 
mechwarrior in the 1st Nerima Guards while a career in medicine was 
calling to him, and when she had stepped aside to let Akane take over 
the regiment, he had lost his reason to fight. 
     He was so much in love with her that he could not think straight, 
and even now, as he opened his trembling lips to speak to her, he could 
not think of a single intelligent thing to say. He was lost in her eyes, 
the faint sound of her breathing, and in her smile, so warm that it could 
melt glaciers away. He had promised Akane that he would tell Kasumi how he 
felt about her, and now here he was, unable to speak.
     "Why hello, Doctor Tofu!" Kasumi said to him. Her voice was sweeter 
to him in that moment than anything he had ever heard before.
     "Uh, hel-hello, Kasumi. Whatever brings y-you here, to, er, ah, this 
     He felt as foolish as he sounded, and Akane's eyes caught him as 
he looked away from Kasumi in shame. She gave him a silent nod of 
     He looked back to Kasumi, who seemed to sense that something wasn't 
quite right with the situation, but seemed unsure of what it was.
     "W-Would you mind if I, er, s-spoke with you alone for a moment, 
Kasumi?" he managed, his voice a little higher than he would have 
     Kasumi responded gamely. "Of course, Doctor." She led him over to 
her Victor, where she opened the conversation with a thankfully safe 
topic. "This certainly is a lovely planet," she remarked as the rain 
came down in light sprinkles around them. "It reminds a little of home."
     Tofu decided to run with it, and somehow work in what he had to 
say. "Y-Yeah, I've been thinking that too. If you throw out the rain and 
add a few thousand people, it's almost like the place we went together 
for the Spring Festival."
     Kasumi smiled. "Ah, I remember that. I had such a good time there 
with you."
     Encouraged by this, he plunged on. Or at least he tried to. "Th-There's 
something I've been meaning to tell you, Kasumi... Something I meant to say 
before I left Nerima on the expedition."
     She gave him a puzzled look. 
     "What is it, Doctor?" she asked him. 
     He started to say it, and his jaw seized up. He was a master of the 
martial arts, of acupressure and other biomanipulation techniques, and yet 
here he was, completely unable to control his own body. 
     Kasumi gave him a worried look. "Is there something wrong, Doctor 
Tofu? Are you injured?"
     "--heart--" he managed to blurt out.
     Her eyes lit up in alarm. "You have a heart condition?" she gasped.
     "S-Sort of," he croaked, fighting to say the words instead of 
babbling out the gibberish his tongue wanted to spill.
     "What's wrong?" she asked him, coming to his side and putting her 
hands on his shoulders. "Is there anything I can do?" She was about to cry 
for help when he answered her.
     "My h-heart..." he said to her, his glasses fogged and his voice 
unsteady and weak.
     "Yes, I know," she gasped. "You have a heart condition and..."
     "Th-That's not it," he replied, his hands trembling as he set them on 
her waist. She stiffened with surprise at his touch. "Kasumi, I... I... 
My heart belongs t-to..." He grimaced as the words would not come. "What I 
feel for you is..."
     "Doctor Tofu?" she cried in a whisper, her hands falling from his 
shoulders to touch the hands that rested upon her waist.
     "I can't..." he said in defeat. "I just can't say it... I'm a fool 
for even trying."
     "What are you trying to say, Doctor?" she asked, drawing even closer 
to him. "I don't understand what you're trying to tell me."
     "I'm sorry, Kasumi," he said in hoarse whisper. "You deserve better 
than a fool like me." ...Who was I kidding, anyway...?
     He let go of her and turned away. Akane couldn't see them from where 
she stood, and so he could pretend to her for a little longer that he had 
done what he had set out to do. 
     Kasumi, however, caught his hand in hers as he started to go.
     "Doctor Tofu, whatever it is that you're trying to tell me, I'll 
listen," she said so quietly over the gentle patter of the rain that for 
a moment he only imagined that he heard her. "If it will take time for 
you to be able tell me, I'll wait." He turned back to see her glowing 
smile and felt his knees grow weak. "I'm very patient, you see."
     His glasses fogged once again.
     "Ka-Kasumi..." His voice came out cracked and strained.
     She brought his hand up to her breast. "You're a kind and gentle man, 
Doctor Tofu, and even if you don't believe it right now, I think you're 
very brave and strong," she told him. "Between you and Ranma, I couldn't 
have trusted Akane's care to any better people."
     He was speechless as she cupped his hand in hers.
     "If you would like to take me to another festival on Nerima," she said 
to him with a gentle smile. "I would be happy to join you."

                             Chapter Three

                    Near the ruins of Ryuugenzawa City
                            14:45 Local Time

     Yuka caught the glitter of refracted laser light in the distance as 
she and Sayuri swept at treetop level over the forest to the southwest of 
the starport. The Black Rose fighters had grouped into two formations, one 
attacking the Musk Dynasty positions in fits and spurts, and the other 
keeping jealous watch over their own landing zones. Neither location made 
for a good place for two small Confederation fighters to go, and that made 
the selection of targets slim for them.
     "Did you see that, Sayuri?" she called to her wingmate.
     "It looks a little far south to be ours," Sayuri replied.
     Yuka gained some altitude to get a better look. "I don't know..." she 
muttered. "With Ryouga getting lost, he could be just about anywhere by 
     "Do you want to take a look?"
     "It couldn't hurt."
     The two fighters accelerated, each pilot mindful of their low fuel 
reserves. They wouldn't have time for more than a few passes before they 
would have to consider returning to the DropShip to refuel.
     They made a swift pass at low altitude. Through the gaps in the trees 
they saw a Black Rose Shadow Hawk fall to its knees with a huge smoking 
hole through its armored chest, and the flash of Ryouga's BattleMaster 
stalking off deeper into the woods.
     "We found our lost boy," Sayuri remarked as they pulled up for a steep 
banking turn that would take them back towards Ryouga.
     "Yeah, but where's he going?" Yuka asked. 
     Concentrated fire from a Rifleman engaged them before Sayuri could 
respond; green lines of autocannon tracers stitching across the sky to 
slam into her Sparrowhawk. The light fighter was thick-skinned, and so 
she weathered the barrage long enough to dive for the deck as Yuka put her 
nose to bear on the offending air-defense 'mech.
     "Black Rose Rifleman," Yuka grunted.
     "Yeah, I saw him," Sayuri returned curtly. "Thanks for the heads up."
     Yuka triggered her Corsair's lasers at the Rifleman, and lit up the 
woods around the 'mech in clouds of steam and golden flashes of vaporized 
armor. The Rifleman's Garret radar and tracking array allowed the Black Rose 
pilot to aim on instruments, and returned fire with both heavy lasers.
     She caught the beams full on in the fuselage as she made a break turn 
to evade, and shuddered as damage lights came on. Her previous dance with 
an 80-ton Slayer had left her armor weak in spots, and now she was hurting.
     "I'm hit," she said tersely. 
     "How bad?" Sayuri wanted to know. She made a strafing run on the 
Rifleman just to keep it occupied, then punched her HEPLAR drive to 
maximum to avoid the counterattack. 
     "Bad." Yuka's tone was at once cool and grave.
     Sayuri craned her neck around to see Yuka's Corsair limping away. The 
50-ton fighter trailed a line of black smoke, which was an unusual and 
ominous sign for a fusion-driven craft.
     "Can you make it back to the ship?" she asked.
     "I don't know," Yuka replied. "I've got a fire that the suppression 
system can't get a handle on. If it reaches the fuel cells, I'll explode."
     "Dump your fuel," Sayuri advised. "Coast back to the ship on reactor 
waste heat with your turbojets."
     "That's a nice idea, except that my emergency dump valves are showing 
up as offline on the damage control board. I think the signal links between 
them and my control system are severed - or burnt."
     Sayuri tried to think of what her friend could do, and saw two Black 
Rose fighters moving in from the west. They were probably returning from 
attacks on the Musk Dynasty forces on the other side of the starport, and 
had been vectored in by the Rifleman to hunt down enemy fighters. The 
course they took would put them on a direct intercept.
     "We've got more problems," she said to Yuka. "Two Black Rose fighters 
at seven o'clock high."
     "I don't think I can take them," Yuka returned. 
     "Then it's up to me," Sayuri returned. "Head for the _Palomino,_ and 
if things get bad - eject."
     Sayuri pulled her Sparrowhawk into a steep climb for altitude. It 
would help her enemies spot her, but she needed the room and the energy 
that altitude provided if she was going to fight them. She had already 
resigned herself to the fact that they had spotted them by their 
intercept course.
     The two enemy fighters were Shilones, medium fighters with long 
slightly-swept wings that gave them the nickname of 'Boomerang.' She 
could only hope that they had depleted their Shigunga LRM launchers 
fighting the Musk Dynasty, as her small Sparrowhawk had no long range 
weapons of its own, just two medium and two light lasers that she would 
have to get well into dogfighting range to use.
     One of the Shilones moved towards her, while the other dropped its 
nose and banked to intercept Yuka. Sayuri knew that she had to employ 
the only advantage the Sparrowhawk had over the larger fighters, and 
that was agility. Her pressure suit inflated against her stomach and 
thighs as she expended precious reaction mass to accelerate through 
the sound barrier while rolling and turning to bear on the fighter 
threatening her friend.
     She let go with a stream of laser fire at extreme range, the 
rippling bursts of light crazing the enemy fighter and lighting it up 
in a blizzard of glowing, golden motes. The Black Rose Shilone snap-
rolled to minimize its exposure, taking the pressure off of Yuka for 
another few seconds. The second Shilone wallowed through a steeply 
sinking turn that bled off airspeed and put it firmly on her tail.
     Beams of laser fire from the enemy fighter behind her burned 
the air around her Sparrowhawk as she jinked for all she was worth. 
Her foe was a persistant one, matching her maneuver for maneuver with 
his larger craft, and she knew that she had to do something crazy if 
she was going to shake him.
     The only problem with something crazy, she reflected as the beams 
crisscrossed around her cockpit canopy dome, was that she needed fuel 
to pull it off. The reaction mass cells were practically empty, and 
when they finally ran dry, she would lose her maximum rated thrust 
capabilities. Her rear-warning radar screamed in her headset as she 
calculated her reserves; the Shilone on her back had loosed a volley 
of long range missiles at her, and her time had run out.
     "Sayuri! Missiles in your six!" Yuka cried over the tac-net.
     Her mouth went dry as she squeezed the booster studs on her 
throttle and fired the HEPLAR drive. The Sparrowhawk leaped in protest 
as she pulled up into a steep climb, and continued accelerating as the 
fighter bled off its reaction mass into the plasma drive. As she peaked 
at the top of her short loop, Sayuri rolled out upright, then slalomed 
left and down into the path of the oncoming missiles for the beginning 
of her desperate Cuban-Eight maneuver.
     The first part of her gambit paid off. The missiles, denied the 
chance to make direct contact with her after her violent aerobatic 
maneuver, exploded around the Sparrowhawk as their crude proximity fuzes 
detonated them. Shrapnel rang off her armor as she plummeted through the 
fiery clouds of dying weapons, the shock waves buffeting her and making 
her clench her controls with a deathgrip.
     The roar of the Shilone passing overhead was the signal she needed 
to finish her Cuban-Eight, and she climbed once more. Her drives 
spluttered as the last grams of propellant were expended, and she was 
forced to surrender the energy she had gained in her dive to complete 
the climb. The Shilone had lost contact with her in the fireballs, and 
in presuming her dead, turned to continue the pursuit of Yuka's wounded 
     Sayuri completed the final loop of the Cuban-Eight, and dove back 
down on the Shilone's tail. She was out of fuel, running only on her 
fusion heated turbojets now, and she knew that she had to end the fight 
quickly if she and Yuka were to survive. Her lasers charged up for a 
full volley at close range as the Shilone pilot realized his mistake 
and tried to evade.
     She let him have all four lasers at once, the beams streaming into 
the enemy fighter's thruster ports in a cascading series of explosions 
that climaxed in a devastating fireball of molten metal and fusion 
plasma. Blinded by the intensity of the blast and nearly stunned by the 
shockwave, Sayuri began to juke away from the dying Shilone, and was 
thrown against her seat straps as the nose of her fighter struck 
something solid. Pain flooded through her body as alarm sirens wailed 
in her headset.
     When the spots before her eyes cleared, she was in a tumbling 
free-fall, the Sparrowhawk's nose lasers crumpled and bent. What was 
infinitely worse than the damage done to the fighter was the long, 
jagged piece of the Shilone's wing that was impaled through her canopy, 
and in turn, through her chest. Blood was everywhere in the cockpit; 
splashed with abandon over her instruments, spattered across the canopy, 
and fouling the HUD projectors that gave her flight control data. Her 
mind in a detached state of horror that went beyond panic, she realized 
that she could not move her left arm, and that it was agony to breathe.
     Outside the starred canopy, the sky rolled sickeningly, and was 
frequently succeeded by the verdant ground cover of the forest. She 
was falling to her death, unable to eject because doing so would rip 
her apart as long as she was impaled. The sound of Yuka's voice 
screaming her name over the crackling commo was distant in her ears, 
and her failing consciousness struggled drunkenly to comprehend why 
her friend of so many years sounded so heartsick.
     Her head lolled against her ejector seat as she watched the 
blood swirl in free-fall around her. The buzzing in her ears grew 
louder, and she felt herself draining away into the parachute bag 
that made up her seat cushion. From out of the corner of her tear-
streaked eye, she saw a light flashing on one of her panels, and 
heard the sharp hiss of her AutoMedic injecting drugs into her 
veins. It was futile effort, she managed to think over the swimming 
dizzyness that enveloped her. Once I crash, there won't be anything 
left to save.
     There was a sickening crunch of metal, then silence.

     Yuka looked on at her HUD in disbelief as the Black Rose Shilone 
that she had been desperately fighting off with her rear-mounted light 
lasers suddenly exploded into a billion glowing fragments. She knew 
that she hadn't hit it that hard. Her question was answered a moment 
later in a flash of silver and white, and the sonic boom of the Super 
Phoenix Hawk LAM's passing bucked her in her failing fighter.
     It was already shedding velocity as it shot past behind her, 
the engines howling and twin cones of plasma in blue-on-blue shock 
diamonds raging against the leaden sky. She watched as it rolled wing 
over wing into Airmech Mode, then unfolded further into Battlemech 
Mode, its arms spreading wide as it flew at the falling Sparrowhawk. 
Ranma caught the crippled light fighter, tucking the damaged cockpit 
under the Phoenix Hawk's arm as the LAM slid the last twenty meters 
to the ground feet first, and with the turbojets flaring out full 
braking thrust.
     Yuka brought her nose around in a careful turn, noting how sluggish 
and unresponsive the controls were becoming as gouts of mud and foilage 
spurted up from the ground where the LAM touched down. Trees snapped and 
fell, then a cloud of steam roiled up from the forest where the LAM came 
to rest. Farther south from Ranma's position, a thunderclap and the bright 
flash of a PPC blast indicated that Ryouga had found another target.
     "Saotome?" she called out over the tac-net. An alarm tone sounded as 
she spoke, indicating that the fire had spread to her port side turbojet 
     The was no answer for several moments, and she called to him again. 
The fire was spreading, and her engines began to make an low droning buzz 
as coolant systems were overwhlemed by the heat.
     "Yeah...?" she replied finally.
     Yuka reduced her altitude as she passed over the LAM. It was sprawled 
out in a ruin of fallen trees and covered in mud. The wrecked Sparrowhawk 
was still cradled in its arms. Her own fighter was failing, and it took 
most of her attention to stay on course.
     "Is Sayuri...?"
     "I don't know," Ranma returned. "I'm gonna go find out."
     "I'll be there in a second," she told him. Her Corsair was done for, 
and her friend needed her. She put the fighter that had served her so well 
into level flight, quenched the fusion reactor, and pulled hard on the 
ejection lever.
     The force of ejecting knocked the wind out of her, and she gasped 
against the cold wet air as her faithful fighter struggled on in level 
flight below her for a few hundred more meters before pitching over into 
a dive and crashing into the forest half a kilometer from where Ranma had 
touched down. Her parachute opened fully as the fighter hit, and she began 
a slow fall to the ground. 

     Ranma retracted the roof hatch of her Battlemech Mode cockpit and 
pulled herself through the opening. The mech's head was tilted forward 
against the muddy torso, and she used it to climb down to the battered 
hulk of the Sparrowhawk still clutched in its arms. Steam wafted up from 
the hull as the drizzle evaporated on the hot metal near the engines, and 
she found herself hoping that the fusion reactor had shut down safely. 
Dying of radiation sickness was not high on her list of ways to go.
     The sight of the burned wing section projecting through the 
polycarbonate - and the blood streaks on the canopy - did not make her 
feel any more comfortable. Was Sayuri already dead? The sound of Yuka's 
fighter crashing in the distance made her start out of surprise as she 
fumbled with the canopy release controls. She looked up momentarily to 
see her one-time nemesis floating towards the ground, steering her 
parachute to put her down as close as possible to the Phoenix Hawk.
     Releasing the canopy was going to be tricky with the wing section 
stuck through it, she realized as she turned her attention back to Sayuri. 
She could see the pilot slumped back in her ejector seat, and the horrible 
wound she had sustained, and did not know if she was just wasting her time 
by doing this. In the complicated process of catching the fighter in midair, 
she had been too preoccupied to notice what had happened to the girl.
     The grunt of Yuka touching down close by was followed by the rustling 
of the parachute canopy collapsing. She turned to see the girl running 
towards the wreck with her parachute trailing by its harness behind her.
     "Is she dead...?" Yuka asked her with panting gasps. "Please tell 
me she isn't."
     Ranma looked back to the cockpit. "I can't tell," she replied dully. 
"But it doesn't look good."
     She tried moving the canopy forward in its track to let the wing 
section pass through the hole it made, and managed to get it halfway open 
before damage to the track itself prevented her from moving it any farther. 
It was open just enough to reach inside and check for a pulse.
     Yuka looked on as Ranma leaned into the cockpit. Sayuri's face was 
pale, and her pressure suit was sticky with blood. It had soaked through 
the cloth outer liner to form a large stain on her chest around the jagged 
piece of metal that Ranma could already see was a through and through 
injury just above her left breast. The wing section projected through her 
back well into the ejector seat itself.
     She gently turned the pressure suit helmet the half-twist necessary 
to unseat it from the neck ring seal, and pulled it off to let Sayuri's 
sweat-matted light brown hair spill onto her shoulders. She discarded 
the helmet with a grunt, and slipped a hand down to her throat. 
     "I think I feel a pulse," she said to Yuka. "It's weak and slow."
     "Check the eyes," Yuka returned hopefully, shrugging out of her 
parachute harness.
     Ranma lifted one of Sayuri's eyelids. The pupil shrank mercifully 
in the sudden influx of light. 
     "She's unconscious," Ranma declared. A brief examination of the 
pressure suit's surviving instrumentation confirmed her suspicions. 
"It looks like her AutoMedic did its job."
     Yuka pulled the transmitter remote from Ranma's belt. "Come in, 
_Palomino,_" she called out. "This is Red Eagle Deuce. Request urgent 
medical support at map reference Mike-Four-Four by Oscar-Five-Eight."
     "Copy that, Red Eagle Deuce," Petty Officer Howard replied over 
the remote. "Be advised of friendly units moving towards your position 
from the northwest."
     Ranma took the remote from Yuka as the ground shook with the 
footfalls of approaching battlemechs.
     "This is Red Eagle Lead; You said the northwest, right?" she 
asked Tad.
     "Yes, ma'am... er, sir," Tad replied. 
     Ranma checked the sky for the hazy glow of Ryuugenzawa's sun to 
confirm her bearings. The sound of the approaching 'mechs was from the 
     "We've got company," she declared to Yuka. She clicked the microphone 
button on her remote. "_Palomino,_ Red Eagle Lead; that medevac needs to 
bring cutting tools and lots of Type-B whole blood. Red Eagle Trey is in 
bad shape, and you need to hurry, over."
     "Copy that, Red Eagle Lead," Tad replied. "Cutting tools and Type-B 
whole blood."
     Ranma handed the remote to Yuka. "See if you can patch this through 
what's left of Sayuri's console. If those are Black Rose 'mechs out there 
heading our way, I gotta go draw them off."
     Yuka took the radio remote from her, her eyes trembling with emotion. 
Without a word, she reached over and kissed Ranma fleetingly on the lips. 
Ranma drew back in surprise from Yuka's kiss, blushing furiously.
     "Wh-What was that for?" she asked.
     Yuka looked away, almost as embarrassed by what she had done as Ranma.
     "I know that you wouldn't have done it for me," she began. "But I 
can't tell you in words how grateful I am for what you did for Sayuri. 
She's my best friend..." Her eyes closed. "And she would be dead right now 
if you hadn't done what you did."
     Ranma wiped away the sudden sweat that misted her brow. "Y-You're 
welcome, I guess," she managed. She started for her Phoenix Hawk LAM, 
then turned back to face Yuka. "I'm not sure you'll believe me, Yuka, but 
I probably would have done the same for you."
     Yuka offered her a dubious smile. "Probably?"
     Ranma shrugged and gave her a crooked grin. "If I didn't give myself 
time to think about it, anyway," she conceded.
     The moment was shattered as a Black Rose Cicada leaped through a gap 
in the trees fifty meters away. The medium 'mech successor to the Star 
League Locust continued on, oblivious to what was passing between the two 
rival pilots on the ground.
     "Get going," Yuka told her.
     Ranma was already jumping up to the top of the Phoenix Hawk's torso. 
She gave Yuka a brief wave before dropping through the hatch and locking 
the sensor head into position. The LAM came to life a moment later, 
carefully lifting the Sparrowhawk off its lap and settling it onto the 
churned ground. 
     Sayuri gasped in pain from the depths of unconsciousness at the 
shifting of the metal wing section that pierced her, and Yuka prayed 
that she wouldn't begin to bleed heavily from it. The Phoenix Hawk 
picked the fallen trees off its metal body, set them down away from the 
Sparrowhawk, then stood up into a crouch. The heavy pulse laser was 
trained warily in the direction the Cicada had come from as the 
vibrations of more battlemechs shook the ground. 
     Yuka watched with fascination as the mud covered battlemech crept 
closer to the sound of the approaching Black Rose forces. As a second 
Cicada sprang from the woods on the trail of the first, Ranma exploded 
out of her crouch, checking the 40 ton reconnaissance 'mech, and sending 
it sprawling into a stand of trees with a thunderous crash. The heavy 
pulselaser cracked like a cannon shot in the cold, humid air, the beam 
etching a fading afterimage on her vision as it put the Black Rose 'mech 
down for the count.
     A flurry of tracer fire lit up the air as more Black Rose 'mechs 
opened fire on Ranma. Yuka watched as the LAM boosted on its leg jets, 
catapulting skyward as light autocannon shells spanged off its armor, then 
transformed to Airmech Mode to lead the enemy away from the crash site. 
The Black Rose troops took the bait, and the stomping sound began to 
recede into the east.
     Yuka turned back to her friend, whose labored breathing and pale 
skin spoke of her proximity to death. She took Sayuri's hand in hers 
and gave it a squeeze to let her know that if she was going to die, she 
wasn't going to die alone.